Album Review – Spirit Division “Forgotten Planet” (2018)

Spirit Division

Forgotten Planet

2018, Independent

Independent releases highlight a certain dichotomy growing in the modern music industry. As recording technology and available distribution channels proliferate, it becomes easier than ever not only to release music, but also to find artists for every mood and vibe, ranging from barely listenable mash to hidden gems which stand up easily to better known genre luminaries. In a way, music made a full circle from the tape-trading heyday of the 1980s when many of us rely on word of mouth from people we know, or whose work connected with us in some way, to discover new diamonds in the rough, and to pass on our own recommendations to all who might be intrigued. Where once we relied on the slow crawl of United States Postal Service or local equivalent to deliver tapes to far-off locations, now social media and Bandcamp make it possible to be exposed to artists within minutes of getting recommendation from someone whose good taste you trust, which can then lead you down the rabbit hole. Sometimes, these rabbit holes can lead to very interesting places.

This is the spirit (no pun intended) in which I am examining Indiana’s sadly defunct Spirit Division, and their swansong release “Forgotten Planet” from the halcyon days of 2018. The band plays a loose, bluesy brand of metal which borrows as much from prime Ozzy-era Black Sabbath as it does from the stoner scene as seen through the prism of Danzig’s early releases, topped off by fuzzy distorted guitar work and lower pitched, occasionally atonal vocals which lend an in-your-face, raw quality to the proceedings. It does not require much imagination to close your eyes and envision standing few feet away from the stage next to the smoke machine with a beer in hand as the band plays on.

Needless to say, this record rocks.

The songs generally stay with tempos most commonly associated with doom metal, though there are few moments when the band speeds up (“River Rising” comes to mind). The album’s production, a cross between the raw tones of early Black Sabbath and modernized post-1990s stoner rock revival, adds to the atmosphere, occasionally contributing sinister vibes (“Seeking the Crow Witch”) or emphasizing the primal heaviness of these tunes (“The Light That Shines”). In a way, “Forgotten Planet” harkens back to the 1970s sound, while remaining cognizant of how much the genre has progressed since its beginnings, and showcasing just how heavy these songs really sound without sacrificing the looser sensibilities from the style’s inception. The psychedelic vibes are understated but present throughout by the time the mid-album standout and personal favorite “Behemoth” rolls around with its hypnotic main riff and deceptively sedate, calm-before-the-storm verses transmuting into the heavy groove of the chorus. No matter which track you go to, the songs remain consistently high quality, and form a cohesive whole – even the cover of Black Sabbath’s “Solitude” remains on point and fits the atmosphere of the record.

Bringing this write-up back to my original point, a record like “Forgotten Planet” might not have even been on my radar without recommendations of friends on the social media. Whatever one might say about the impacts of social media on our culture, it does occasionally serve a constructive purpose, and that purpose was accomplished here. “Forgotten Planet” has captured my attention more so than many releases by better known bands, and received quite a few repeated listens during my commute to and from the office, earning a well-deserved place in my playlists. If you have any bit of appreciation for doom, stoner rock, or associated genres, you owe it to yourself to check this one out.

Album Review – Satan, “Earth Infernal” (2022)

Satan

Earth Infernal

2022, Metal Blade Records

Rating: 85%

As metal roared back to the forefront of public consciousness in the new millennium, it led to a curious wave of 1980s and 1990s cult artists reuniting and attempting to capture the spotlight once again. In some cases, these reunions amounted to little more than one-off festival appearance for the faithful, while others managed to resume their recording careers with various degrees of success. Case in the point, unfortunately named UK traditional/speed metallers Satan, whose career enjoyed a resurgence of sorts with a slew of releases starting with 2011’s “Life Sentence” and continuing all the way to their newest offering, 2022’s “Earth Infernal”.

Despite the band’s name evoking much harsher imagery and sound, Satan remains true to their NWOBHM roots, keeping to a sound characterized by speedy riffing, melodic vocals, and slight flair for the dramatic. To be fully transparent, I missed the band the first time around. Surely enough, I have heard the name, and was aware of the band’s history rife with name changes and attempts to find audience appreciative of its brand of metal, however, I have not listened to Satan in any meaningful way until fairly recently. As a result, “Earth Infernal” was my first true foray into what the band has to offer, with no real reference point.

So, what do we have here? How about ten tracks that would not have been out of place in speed metal’s mid-1980s heyday, hinting just enough at power and thrash metal without crossing fully into those territories? The lyrics harken back to the glorious apogee of the era when metal was still irreverent and when songs about everyone’s favorite fallen angel were still somewhat shocking, coming through with enough conviction to let you know that this band is for real, and is having fun with it. The album’s production is on the raw side, which fits the sound well, and adds certain authenticity to it.

Satan keeps moods and tempos sufficiently varied that the songs stand out on their own. There are moments where the band can spend a bit longer getting to the meat of the song than some of their more straightforward peers, but the songs generally do not overstay their welcome, and have enough memorable parts where repeated listens reveal additional layers, melodies, or other elements. At their best, Satan brings up memories of pure unbridled energy once inherent in metal during more innocent times – it is hard not to headbang with complete abandon to the sounds of “A Sorrow Unspent” or “The Blood Ran Deep”, while “Ascendancy” at times felt like a spiritual successor to Judas Priest’s anthem “Exciter”. Brian Ross’s vocals are occasionally reminiscent of Jag Panzer’s Harry Conklin, though perhaps not as operatic, and they fit the music like a glove.

Now, there are more polished bands out there, and “Earth Infernal” is not by any means a groundbreaking album, but it is a highly enjoyable throwback to the era when denim, leather, and spikes ruled the pit, and when the shadow of Lucifer sent PRMC into paroxysms. For the retro metal fan in all of us, it is hard to do better, because unlike many modern-day artists, Satan were there in the genre’s heyday, and are still going strong. “Earth Infernal” is not going to change the world, but it is a quality album made with heart and conviction, and it shows. Good stuff.

Album review – Sunrise Drive, “Interstellar Cloud of Dust” (EP)

Sunrise Drive

Interstellar Cloud of Dust (EP)

2022, independent

Back in the halcyon days of late 1990s, Offering74 was one of the mainstays of Colorado hard rock scene, a power trio straddling the line between alternative rock and melodic metal while crafting songs that in some other parallel universe would have become massive radio hits. Over the years, I lost track of the band, and it was a pleasant surprise when I found out that not only the core members of the band are still musically active, but they have a new project, which has been releasing music since at least 2019.

On “Interstellar Cloud of Dust” EP, Sunrise Drive continues to ply its trade without missing a beat. The songs are still occupying the sweet spot where contemporary sounds mix with the elements borrowed from the golden ages of rock and alternative. “November” has a lively hard rock rhythm perfectly suited for frontwoman Dawn Cheairs to belt out the lyrics with grit and power, while the opener “The Only Thing You’ll Ever Own” is almost metallic in its approach. “Narnia” puts clean guitars to good use, at times being reminiscent of prime 1990s-era alternative rock or even more musically accomplished products of the grunge era. The vocal parts are shared between Dawn Cheairs and guitarist Gil Martin, and their voices work together to weave satisfying and catchy arrangements that are plain fun to sing along to.

My favorite thing about “Interstellar Cloud of Dust” is that you can play it to fans of genres as diverse as alternative rock, melodic metal, radio rock, or even grunge, and it will find audience among them. With this EP, Sunrise Drive establishes itself as a powerful rock act – more than a worthy successor to Offering74, and a band whose journey I will continue to follow with interest.

Bandcamp: https://sunrisedriveco.bandcamp.com/album/interstellar-cloud-of-dust

Album Review: Crafteon – “Cosmic Reawakening”

Crafteon

“Cosmic Reawakening”

Independent, 2017

Rating: 87%

Band page: https://www.facebook.com/crafteon/

Crafteon - Cosmic Reawakening cover art

It is not easy to get melodic black metal right. Go too far into the melodic territory, and you risk descending into the quasi-gothic self-parody. Go too far into the black metal aesthetic, and whatever benefits the melodic edge would have provided tend to rob the music of its immediate impact. On Crafteon’s debut release, I am pleased to report that the band gets the balance between the atmospheric nihilism of black metal and its dark melodicism just right, producing a righteous slab of metal bound to satisfy the purists and perhaps even win over a few converts from other styles of extreme music.

On “Cosmic Reawakening”, Crafteon offer up eight tracks that go through an enviable amount of dynamics, interspersing blast beats and aggressive passages with slower yet no less impactful sections to inject just enough order into the chaotic soundscape. While the guitar work is suitably atonal and unsettling, as befitting a true black metal release, the band smartly adds melodies that are, dare I say, almost catchy at times, and which provide a focal point for the dark ambience of the material. I could not help but think back to the evolution of Scandinavian black metal when it acquired a measure of melodic death metal aesthetic without sacrificing any of the blasphemous intensity, with the classic Dissection as the prime reference point.

Indeed, more than a few of Crafteon’s songs harken back to the peak Dissection style without sounding like a clone. “The Outsider” and “Dagon” are the prime examples of this tendency, both well-written, memorable, and rooted in the same nihilistic foundations which spawned the genre greats. The melodies are intelligently crafted to retain the disturbing atmosphere without the saccharine overtones, reminding the listener that “Cosmic Reawakening” is a black metal release, as uncompromising and violent as one would expect from the style. The focus is not on speed but on the feel of the music, which creates a very rewarding listening experience without sacrificing the brutality.

Lyrically, the album is rooted in the works of H.P. Lovecraft, which is a great thematic fit for the music. The vocal approach tends towards the standard (albeit well performed) extreme metal fare, but the harsh screams are occasionally accentuated by debased chanting and subtle yet effective backing vocals. This works particularly well on tracks like “The White Ship”, where the melodies veer towards more hopeful territory somewhat reminiscent of early days of Gothenburg melodic death metal, only to be brought down into the nihilistic despair evoked by the lyrical content. By following a slightly more straightforward structure and a different melodic foundation, it is bound to be either one’s favorite or one’s least favorite track on the record, but it most certainly stands out and provides a good focal point for the album.

Crafteon is at its best when the music hits the listener like the proverbial wall of barely organized chaos, tied together with strong melodies yet never abandoning the intensity. While towards the end of the record, the aggression takes somewhat of a back seat to the atmospherics, the quality remains very consistent. The end result is a highly focused, interesting release bound to appeal to the cold dark hearts of the black metal audience, and with enough potential to interest fans of other genres of extreme metal music due to the intelligent use of melodies, memorable songs, and genuine atmosphere.

On Nations in Transition, and Future We Want

Most states have one of the three foundations – they are either ethnocentric, dynastic, or imperial. An ethnocentric state is built around, and for the benefit of, one distinct ethnic group, which forms the majority of the population, and the basis of the state’s culture, language, and government (i.e.). A dynastic state is built by a specific lineage of rulers, and does not have a general identity unique to it outside of the ruling dynasty (i.e. Saudi Arabia). An imperial state is a centrally ruled entity composed of multiple subject groups and not defined solely through the ruling dynasty, though one group can be dominant (i.e. United States and Russia at the opposite ends of the spectrum, with Russia bordering on an ethnocentric model).

Much of modern-day internal social conflict in developed Western states has to do with the transition from an ethnocentric state model to an imperial state model.

Since the purpose of an ethnocentric state is to benefit the ethnic group which set it up, the transition creates an impression of disadvantaging said groups, which creates considerable backlash and “us versus them” mentality. Further, an imperial state by definition has to maintain strong centralized authority, whereas other models can be successfully implemented in more homogeneous societies. This creates an opening for authoritarian, strongman regimes while also galvanizing the opponents of such regimes, especially if the nation is used to laissez-faire government involvement.

Interestingly enough, authoritarian regimes do not have to be built around the formerly majority ethnic group. They simply have to be strong enough to maintain a degree of control over a society with multiple potential power bases, whether through building a workable alliance of minority groups (i.e. Alawite regime in Syria), or by outright intimidation and terror. In time, an authoritarian imperial regime may morph into a dynastic state, especially if no common identity exists, and a singular succession of rulers can hold on to power. Of course, it can also turn into an ethnocentric state through less savory means which typically involve exile or extermination of dissidents and members of the groups excluded from power.

This brings me to the growing pains experienced by the Western societies, and specifically by the United States. The path from an ethnocentric state to an imperial state is not a clear one, and has a very real chance of an outright disaster. Taking into account the inherent factionalism of the human species, an ethnocentric state’s ability to successfully convert to a diverse imperial paradigm hinges upon it developing a shared identity that all of its components subscribe to – in essence, expanding the definition of “us” over the course of the transition.

A great example of this in the United States context is the definition of “white” (yes, the use of the concept is deliberate, considering the socially charged climate with respect to the American concept of “race”) expanding from strictly meaning English-speaking, Anglo-Saxon Protestants from England proper to a very amorphous idea of “white” label used today, and incorporating people with extremely diverse ethnic origins, who would not have been considered under the same definition even a century ago. I see a successful transition of the United States into a true imperial model being dependent on doing away with the labels of ethnicity, religion, and race, and replacing them with an overarching concept of “citizenship” which is not connected to any of those things, but is instead based on a shared ethos.

Some might say that we are already there, but I would point out the difference between theory and practice. When all is said and done, we are a divided society on many levels. We have real problems with unequal application of the rules, though it is not as straightforward as proponents of the extremes claim, and is not always one-sided. We have a real problem with racism, though it is, again, a much more complex issue than the politically correct paradigm, and is not limited to one group. We have a real problem with only allowing one faulty narrative to dictate the development of our culture instead of taking a sober look at who we are, and who we want to be.

We have a complex history, but we do not often consider that we are not unique. Discrimination, exploitation, ethnic violence, religious suppression, tyranny – every nation with sufficiently long history experienced most or all of these things. Many nations and groups still cling on to the legacy of these events and stroke the fires of conflict with centuries-old and often imaginary justification. The longer we cling to the legacy of strife, the longer it will take for us to overcome it.

From here, an ethnocentric state in transition can become several things. It can successfully establish a new identity for all of its’ people as a unifying factor, and become a nation where ethnicity matters about as much as the hair color, religion matters as much as your favorite sports team, and sexual orientation is about as important as the color of your underwear. It can fracture into various components, which become ethnocentric states all their own – sometimes peacefully (Czechoslovakia), sometimes not (Yugoslavia). It can become an authoritarian regime unafraid to use force against the dissenters, ruling its subjects with an iron fist (Russia or Assad’s Syria). It can even become a dynastic state if the conditions are right. In the many cases, a nation can fall to civil strife to get there.

I do not want to see this. I would like to see a world where our divisions are meaningless, and where all segments of our society can operate under a shared set of common values regardless of where we came from.

The way to get there is not through further division. The way to get there is in finding an identity greater than the sum of its parts, looking forward instead of ruminating about the past, focusing on the ways in which we are alike, and being honest about all truths, politically correct and not. If we are not honest about the very real problems in all corners of our society, and are not committed to a true multi-faceted approach without claiming exceptionalism or devising ways in which the rules of conduct should apply to some (but not to all), then the future we want will not be the future we will get. I want to see the Federation, not post-1991 Yugoslavia, but the modern populist rhetoric on both sides will get us the latter, not the former.

Album review: Poseidon’s Anger, “Tales From Near and Far”

Poseidon’s Anger

“Tales From Near and Far”

Rating: 80%

Studio projects are often a mixed bag in terms of quality and consistency, though sometimes they offer creative opportunities not often available to conventional bands. While a traditional artist has to at least consider the possibility of performing the material live and maintaining a stable lineup, these constraints do not apply to studio bands and projects with their vast stables of contributors and use of arrangements or instruments that would be difficult to faithfully replicate in concert. Therefore, a band conceptualized in this manner has to thread the fine line between making the best use of myriad talents involved in the creative process, and keeping to an artistic vision that is internally consistent, cohesive, and overall greater than the sum of its parts.

As a studio-only creation, Poseidon’s Anger is surprisingly consistent in style and approach, and managed to create a very solid sophomore release with “Tales From Near and Far” despite few hiccups. The band has achieved this end through staying true to a singular core style of American power/heavy metal popularized by the likes of recent Iced Earth output or a heavier version of classic Manilla Road, with the variety provided through the use of multiple vocalists on various tracks. Occasionally, the band employs keyboards and exotic instrumental and vocal melodies, however, these are not overused, and rarely take center stage, which helps to keep them as welcome additions instead of an overpowering presence.

Most of the songs stay in the mid-paced territory, though there are both faster and slower sections throughout the record to create a sense of dynamics. Those looking for all-out speed metal should probably look elsewhere, but the majority of the material on “Tales” is well-crafted, and has an epic feel suitable to the history-themed lyrical content.

Each of the album’s nine tracks (plus a short keyboard-and-spoken-word intro) employs a different vocalist to give the songs a distinct feel. For the most part, it works very well, though there are few mismatches between the prevalent vocal style and the songs (most notably on “Son of the Dragon”, which could have benefitted from a more aggressive vocal approach, and on “Vercingetorix”, where the vocal acrobatics are sometimes overpowering the rest of the song). The use of both male and female vocalists with diverse styles was a welcome addition to the album, and while all singers are clearly coming from a power/heavy end of the metal spectrum, they are individually distinct, and add unique flavor to the songs. In particular, both “Deborah” and “Sinhagad” benefit from unusual vocal phrasings, while “Goliad”, “Dragon of the Morn”, and “The Last Cavalier” are elevated by strong performances that stay within genre confines but showcase the talent and the professionalism of the singers.

The songs are typically built around several riffs, which range from raise-your-fist classic metal of “The Last Cavalier” to more aggressive modern metal rhythms of “Sinhagad” and Iced Earth-ish tempo changes of “Vercingetorix”. The use of electronic drums (albeit with a live drummer) occasionally creates an interesting effect of giving a slight mechanical edge to certain hi-hat sounds, though it is not a distraction, and the smart use of double-kick segments on faster tracks tends to give the songs a good sense of dynamics. The guitar work, particularly the leads, is melodic and varied without being overly flashy, technical when it needs to be yet subdued when the vocals take center stage.

All in all, “Tales” sounds like a record made by a cohesive band, with a singular concept, and a tight sound. While there are areas for Poseidon’s Anger to grow on future releases (more variation in song tempos and exploring fits between vocalists and songs on certain songs being chief amongst them), the band delivers a strong and consistent album that is both entertaining in its present shape, and bodes well for its future development. Good stuff.

Get the digital release of the album at:

https://www.cdbaby.com/cd/poseidonsanger1

In Flames – “Battles” album review

In Flames

Battles (2016)

Rating: 74% (decent)

in-flames-battles-cover

We all have to grow up some time. At a certain point in our lives, we care less about late-night party scene and more about getting up for work early in the morning, less about the latest craze and more about getting our children into better schools while encouraging their first accomplishments. Our living rooms are now covered in family pictures rather than in band posters and edgy counterculture proclamations.

It only goes to reason that our musical heroes have also aged. Where the teenage version of me raged against the world along with the seminal melodic death releases such as “The Jester Race” or “Whoracle” made by the guys only a few years older than myself, the mid-30s version of me begins to recognize that In Flames of 2016 is considerably closer to middle age, and is probably dealing with many of the same existential dilemmas I have found myself in at this point in my life – parenthood, matters of personal and artistic legacy, a general change in the pace of life. The band’s last several albums hinted at this, but now, with “Battles”, In Flames had delivered the record fully immersed in the mindset of early middle age, where youthful exuberance and aggression are generally tempered by considerably more sedate and introspective emotions.

In short, “Battles” sounds like a metal album made by a group of guys pushing 40 and feeling it. For the most part, the album is mid-paced, with more emphasis placed on vocal lines and catchy melodies than on outright riffing and speed. Some of the arrangements have a very distinct pop influence, most notably on “The Truth” (which for some reason rekindled my memories of such 1990s radio-rock wonders as P.O.D.), but also surfacing throughout the record. While this produces the sound guaranteed to turn off the metal purists, the end result is surprisingly listenable, and might broaden the band’s appeal to the crowd with nostalgic feelings for the nineties.

There are several songs where In Flames attempt to harken back to their trademark twin guitar riffing (“The End”, “Us Against the World” – the latter being a definite throwback to older era as one of the fastest tracks on the album), but “Battles” is less about guitar heroics and more about the general atmosphere. Unlike 2014’s “Siren Charms” with its often directionless meandering and rushed songs, “Battles” presents a rather cohesive whole, and has a good amount of diversity within the material. Sometimes it works very well to produce an atmospheric, moody modern metal record – at other times, the experiments get in the way (for example, the electronic s in the beginning of “Save Me” are a distraction), but for the most part, nothing on “Battles” is outright offensive.

Perhaps this might be the album’s biggest critique. It feels honest, but it also is not very challenging, and seems content to tread the same waters as the last several In Flames records. Everything on “Battles” is decent to good, but not much of it is great, and some of the experiments veer dangerously into the territory where they lose the core In Flames sound of intricate dual guitar work and folk-inspired melodies in modern arrangements. In place of those melodies, the band takes an almost synthpop-inspired approach, which challenges the core of what this band is, and further alienates many of the older fans who were angered by “Reroute to Remain”.

 At its core, “Battles” is about 30% “A Sense of Purpose”, 30% “Siren Charms”, 30% nineties-era heavy rock, and 10% outright heavy pop of bands like Amaranthe. The songs are generally good, and while many represent relatively safe ideas, they feel like they represent who the members of In Flames are at this stage in their life. So, perhaps the “Battles” they are talking about are less about turning the world upside down and more about making it to the next PTO meeting or paying the bills on time, but at least it sounds like In Flames care, and this is all I can really ask of them at this stage in their career.

 

Post-election blues

This has been a contentious electoral process, and it brought out the worst in many of us. That said, it was also a learning experience, both for me personally, and for us as a nation. It produced both good, bad, and ugly outcomes while shaking our political and social alignments to the core.

The good: the process of voting for candidates maintains its integrity. I will admit that I had my doubts about the electoral process prior to the election, and was expecting to see a preordained result, however, the fact of Trump’s unlikely victory suggests that the candidates are, by large, elected through the votes of the citizens rather than by some clandestine process… unless, of course, you are the Democratic party (more on that later).

The bad: while the public trust in mainstream media was already low, this election has essentially put a nail in the coffin of the idea of truly independent press in the United States. The press coverage of the 2016 election has removed the doubt that the mainstream media is a tool of the political establishment, and will continue to provide slanted, one-sided, and oftentimes outright false coverage of the events to benefit their candidate of choice.

The ugly: oh my, where do I start? Let’s skip the obvious (the election of a political equivalent of a shock-jock to the highest office in the nation), and examine how it got to this point. The Washington political establishment has created this mess themselves by encouraging polarization of the country in naïve hope that it creates reliable voting blocs to push their candidates through the gerrymandered districts, while the core of the government policies has not significantly changed outside of social window dressing. As such, the politicians acted without any accountability, pushing through ill-advised policies and acting in their own benefit rather than benefitting the nation at large. Now, the results of this polarization and arrogance are rearing their heads.

This 2016 election season, the voting public sent a clear message to Washington – the status quo just will not do, and Washington insiders and career politicians failed to heed it. This is what powered the rise of Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side, and the rise (and the eventual victory) of Donald Trump on the Republican side of the election. The voters made it clear early in the primary season that they did not want an establishment candidate, and that they wanted a candidate who actually addresses the things that matter to them, with a degree of believability.

It did not matter that Trump’s campaign promises might turn out to be worth less than the air expelled from his lungs while speaking. It did not matter that Hillary Clinton publicly subscribed to certain policies championed by Bernie Sanders. In the end, the voters wanted to take a chance on Trump (never mind his own dealings with Washington insiders over the course of his time in the public eye), and did not believe Clinton’s sincerity (after her decades of being, well, a politician, and doing what politicians routinely do). The public wanted change. We were promised change with Obama, and got more of the same leadership by politicians, for politicians, never mind that Obama himself was in retrospect a fairly decent leader who would have easily won a third term if he was eligible. If this new fresh face did not deliver real change, the voters asked themselves, why would another career politician?

And this brings me full circle to the Democratic party’s selection process. It appears that the party’s thought process for selecting a candidate was rooted in an outdated paradigm that once a voter can be galvanized into the party, he or she will vote on the party line. They mistook the enthusiasm many people felt for Bernie Sanders with the enthusiasm for the party, and did not realize that many Sanders voters represented the same rebellion against the status quo which produced Donald Trump. These voters were not vested in the Democratic party, and could no longer be swayed by traditional fearmongering (vote for our candidate, because the other candidate is a monster). The selection process by the DNC did not help, as it created well-founded suspicions of collusion and foul play to push their preferred candidate at the expense of what the more enthusiastic voters actually wanted. The Democratic VP candidate was a nail in the coffin, a non-entity outside of Virginia, and a slap in the face to the progressive movement who did not want another establishment choice. As such, the Democratic party could not galvanize their voter base, while the Republican party managed to galvanize theirs in spite of resistance from the party elites – in fact, the very fact that the Republican party elites offered Trump lukewarm support at best probably helped his chances with the anti-establishment voters.

In short, the Democratic party used a process which produced a weak, uninspiring candidate with too many flaws, and alienated a sufficient part of its voter base to make it count come November 8th. Had the superdelegates served their intended function of picking the most eminently electable candidate (especially knowing who the opponent was going to be), we would have been talking about President-elect Sanders (or Biden, if we were to be given a more mainstream choice) today, by a landslide. Instead, backroom political maneuvering and shady underhanded deals produced perhaps the only Democratic candidate Donald Trump had a realistic chance at beating.

As a side note, I have no regrets over voting the way I did, and will not be blamed for not supporting a bad Democratic candidate to prevent an election of an unknown. It was on the Democratic party to provide the voters with a candidate acceptable to all (or at least most) of the party’s base, and the party has failed to do so. If the Democrats wanted Democratic votes, they should have put forth a better candidate instead of going for the next-(wo)man-up mentality and losing an eminently winnable election.

To continue with the ugly side of things, this election has been as contentious as any in the recent memory. Even the worst of the insults and accusations thrown at Obama paled in comparison to what transpired between Clinton and Trump. I am thoroughly disgusted that we as a nation stooped down that low, and that such childish slurs actually impacted our thinking at the polls. E-mails? Russians? Benghazi? Grab them by the…? I was really hoping that we were more mature than this, and that our voting public had a greater understanding of what did and did not matter in this election. The amounts of sheer bigotry and hatred on both sides of the electorate made me shake my head. We are supposed to be the people of one nation, though of many different creeds, ethnicities, religions, and orientations, yet we certainly did not act like it. This is another side effect of long-standing polarization of the electorate, and I can only hope that as the newer generations enter politics, we can see some healing.

In conclusion, I can only hope that we can overcome the wounds caused by decades of two-party mismanagement and bitterness. Perhaps the system of checks and balances works as it was intended to. Perhaps Donald Trump proves the old idiom that your qualities as a person do not necessarily translate into your qualities as a leader of the greatest nation in the world. Perhaps he will surprise us all and go down in history as a great president (though there is no telling which way his time in the Oval Office will go). Perhaps we even need a flawed individual like him in the office to reflect on who we are as a people, and to find a way forward as a unified nation and, hopefully, a force for good in the world after almost losing our way. All I can do is hope.

The Last Rock Stars – Why Lemmy Matters

I must confess: I have never been a huge Motorhead fan. No, it is not due to any issue I had with the band or their music; while I have always appreciated their craft and importance in the grand scheme of all things heavy metal, my gateway to the genre remained firmly with the artists from the next wave of style – Iron Maiden, Metallica, and the like. Motorhead has always existed on the periphery of my musical interests – loud, willfully rude and gleefully obnoxious, yet oddly charming for the few times I gave them a listen (though neither “Ace of Spades” nor “Bomber” replaced “Master of Puppets” or “Powerslave” in my regular rotation through the teenage years).

With that said, it is very easy to overlook the substance behind the hard-drinking, hard-living bombast making up Motorhead’s stage image. I had a chance to see the band play live some time in mid-aughts, and though Lemmy and crew had by then settled in a comfortable, blues-tinged heavy rock style that pleased the diehards, they remained a potent act on stage and in the studio, producing a number of quality releases well into the present decade, when any pretense of commercial success from releasing new music gave up the ghost in the changing industry. While “Lemmy IS God” catchphrase has become a running joke thanks to “Airheads” (the movie that epitomized many of the hard rock/heavy metal clichés of the 1980s), there is no denying that the late, beloved frontman was one of the most widely recognized faces of an era, a spokesperson for everything that was loud, proud, and rebellious about the genre.

Perhaps some of my younger readers may not find it easy to relate, but for those of us whose teenage years encompassed the 1990s, this is another sad milestone in an era of popular culture. As heavy metal gained global prominence, it did so on the strength of larger-than-life personalities who embodied certain aspects of the genre, culminating in its modern image as the music of rebellion, individuality, and nonconformity to society’s often repressive aspects. From the leather-and-chains image popularized by Judas Priest to affinity for tales of both fantasy, horror, history, or darker, more violent aspects of psyche and mythology, the genre grew into public consciousness thanks to these metal gods who quickly became household names even outside of their fan bases.

I was fortunate enough to see many of these artists perform live while still in their prime or reasonably close to it, however, nothing lasts forever. Reading the metal-related news content is often a depressing exercise in seeing these erstwhile heroes leave us, sometimes as a consequence of lives lived with a careless abandon, but more often due to advanced age and health complications that often accompany it. While Lemmy Kilmister is the latest old-school rock star to leave us, he is not the last, and it is not infeasible that in the next ten years, many of the elder statesmen of metal and hard rock will no longer be making music.

It is an end of an era, because just as the old guard’s heyday passed into the glorious history of heavy metal, the very nature of the industry and of the music scene changed.

At the tail end of 2015, it is probably safe to say that the days of the great rock stars are numbered. With the ever-falling album sales falling beneath sustenance level for even the kinds of artists that would have been considered mid-level in the past, new music becomes more often than not an exercise to get on the road and to sell collectible merchandise. The record labels that once pushed the artists and helped to get them into the hearts and minds of the public are no longer making the kind of profits they were once used to, and as a consequence, are less willing or likely to support anything but a “sure thing” with a preexisting market and as broad a mass appeal as possible. While I can spend hours giving my thoughts on the nature and the reason behind music industry changes, this is neither the time nor the place for it.

It is also safe to say that the metal scene has seen a degree of fragmentation. A big part of appeal of larger-than-life characters like Lemmy, Ozzy Osbourne, Ronny James Dio, Rob Halford, Lars Ulrich, Dave Mustaine, and the like is that love them or hate them, everyone has an opinion of them. They are instantly recognizable; they have their own personality traits and opinions that endear them to the fans or cause heated arguments; they are the subject of adoration whose music often takes personal meaning to people from wide range of backgrounds all over the world. As technology and declining conventional music sales make music easier to produce locally, and overall less profitable (so that fewer big-name artists can emerge), the number of channels where one can get their music increases.

In my opinion, this leads to existence of innumerable local scenes separated by genre, location, or even personal relationships (where a scene can form around social media such as a forum or a Facebook group, even if the participants are not in physical proximity). While this does make it easier to find like-minded musicians and fans, it also has an effect of lessening the impact of “wide appeal” artists – as the metal music becomes more complex and continues to diversify and specialize, there are far fewer artists who can elicit the same excitement from the fans of melodic hard rock as they could from the followers of the more extreme forms of metal, the prog listeners who like their music on the heavier side, or adherents of metallic hardcore. As a result, while the 1970s, 1980s, and even early 1990s brought us a number of widely known, charismatic personalities in heavy metal and associated genres, there has been a large dearth of such genre heroes since.

Do not get me wrong. I am not saying that there has been no great music in the past twenty years – far from it. What I AM, however, saying, is that we are seeing the last of the charismatic personalities that once embodied heavy metal for the public at large.

I am looking at the “elder statesmen” of metal, and am noticing a disturbing trend. While metal has no shortage of flamboyant and outspoken characters, the scene fragmentation led to many of such characters remaining big names in their respective sub-genres… and nowhere else. I do not mean to take away from the people like Jon Schaffer, Abbath, Timo Tolkki, or Tomas Lindberg (all great musicians in their own right), but none of them are at the general level of renown that can be compared to the likes of Ozzy Osbourne, Bruce Dickinson, or Ronny James Dio. In fact, the closest thing I see to a metal-associated “rock star” to emerge since 1990 or so is Phil Anselmo (ex-Pantera), and even he is pushing fifty and probably in the last third of his musical career (one can debate whether or not Trent Reznor should be included here as well; I think he deserves an honorable mention due to being in a related genre).

The one thing in common between most of the older rock stars who made metal an unforgivable showcase of glorious flamboyance is that they were firmly entrenched in their positions by mid-career, when they overcame the potential for fading away as one-hit-wonders and proved their lasting power. Looking at the newer artists, I am struggling to find any who might be in the same place in terms of popular acclaim, and who might be as universally beloved and appreciated as Lemmy or Dio are now. Yes, there are some memorable personalities, but would anyone outside of specific genres know them? Would musicians and fans of all the diverse corners of metal appreciate and revere them, now or in ten, twenty years?

And this brings me back to Lemmy, the man who seemingly embodied everything a rocker was supposed to be, both in terms of image and lifestyle. He represented one aspect of the rock’n’roll fantasy for many of us, and even those of us who were not necessarily Motorhead fans could respect his place in the genre history, the influence of his works on other artists, and the fact that Lemmy and Motorhead continued to make quality music in spite of declining commercial viability until the very end.

We live in the waning age of the rock star; while there will always be smaller-scale celebrities in various subgenres of heavy metal, the true giants of the genre are not long for this world. In the next five to ten years, more of the beloved artists will probably call it a day. Who will come to replace them? Will there be anyone to carry the torch of metal as a whole, or will the genre continue to fracture into thousands of disparate scenes and fandoms, no longer united in purpose and mutual recognition, but becoming something quite hard to define and genuinely amorphous?

And therefore, I raise a toast for Lemmy, for Dio, for Jeff Hanneman, Clive Burr, Layne Staley, and many others no longer with us. I raise a toast for the greatest age of rock and metal music, when giants of hedonistic excess and undisputed attitude walked amongst us, and gave us all a peek at the fantasy that once was heavy metal. I raise a toast to all of us who were there, who got to see the ministry of the music and who witnessed the glory that once was while it was still with us – for those of us who remember.

Album review: Dark Tranquillity “Construct” (2013)

Dark Tranquillity

”Construct” (2013)

Rating: 85%

There are very few artists with 20-plus year history who manage to maintain a consistent level of quality in their recorded output without becoming stale. As one of the innovators of the famed Gothenburg school of melodic death metal, Dark Tranquillity had seen the genre grow in popularity, transform into more radio-friendly format, and eventually give birth to music bearing little resemblance to the style’s benchmark releases of yesteryear. Through all of this, the Swedish band continued to soldier on, carried by a sequence of strong releases which married the right amounts of experimentation, aggression, and underground credibility.

 While the band’s early years were marked by changing their stylistic approach from black metal-influenced “Skydancer” to Iron Maiden-on-speed of genre classic “The Gallery” and thrash-influenced riff-fest of “The Mind’s I”, the mid-career experiments “Projector” and “Haven” were succeeded by a return to concise, heavy, and definitely aggressive style with “Damage Done” and beyond. Though Dark Tranquillity kept certain experimental touches such as sparse electronics, rare clean vocals, and smart utilization of keyboards, the band’s recorded output settled into a style which did not deviate from the same formula distilled on “Damage Done” – roughly 60% “The Mind’s I”, 30% from the heavier moments of “Haven”, and 10% derived from brilliant and underappreciated “Projector”. While not a bad formula in and of itself, it also produced a feeling of sameness in some of their more recent releases, leading to the band considerably tweaking its approach on 2013’s “Construct”.

I recall reading an interview with guitarist/founder/chief songwriter Niklas Sundin in which he stated that Dark Tranquillity had to do something different in order to find the motivation to do a new album, and “Construct” definitely lives up to the billing. It is hard to completely reinvent the wheel for melodic death metal at this stage in the genre’s maturity, but the style itself is so expansive that simple emphasis on more melodic and brooding elements altered the result enough to sound fresh. Therefore, “Construct” is not a radical departure for Dark Tranquillity and it does not change the basic ingredients; however, it alters the proportion of those ingredients just enough to create a very inspired record.

As with the several preceding records, “Construct” sounds like an amalgam of everything the band has done to date, however, this time around the melancholic existential angst and anguish takes the spotlight over outright emphasis on melodic guitar lines, speed, or catchy clean choruses of imitators and genre followers. This is not to say that “Construct” has somehow compromised Dark Tranquillity’s melodeath cred – it has its fair share of fast and aggressive tracks (“Apathetic”, “The Science of Noise”, “Endtime Hearts”), but it smartly spaces them out amongst slower-to-mid-paced songs where atmospheric songwriting takes to the fore.

When it works, the results are quite spectacular. “For Broken Words” sets the tone for the album in a way reminiscent of “Projector”-era glories, while “The Silence in Between”, “What Only You Know”, and “State of Trust” further “Projector” comparisons by combining newfound aggression with moody and melancholic parts incorporating heavy use of clean vocals and tempo changes, though it is the brooding and slow “Uniformity” that sounds the most like a “Projector” outtake. While there are a few parts with “heard-it-all-before” feeling, for the most part “Construct” is a powerful piece of work that harkens back to Dark Tranquillity’s mid-period experimentation, creating expansive sonic landscapes that feel truly inspired.

“Construct” is a welcome present for the fans like myself, who preferred the introspection of “Projector” to much of post-“Haven” stylings. Best of all, while many of the songs are naturally catchy and utilize accessible elements (occasional clean vocals, keyboard sections, and sometimes conventional song structures), it is hard to mistake it for more pop-driven In Flames or American-style metalcore derived from Gothenburg sound. This is the sound of a band still firmly rooted in the genre they helped establish, but not afraid to veer off the beaten path even when the end result remains less accessible for casual listeners looking for musical equivalent of fast food. Though not perfect by the virtue of aspiring to the band’s mid-career highs rather than pushing the envelope, “Construct” is an excellent addition to Dark Tranquillity’s back catalogue, and to the melodic death metal genre as a whole.