Pull Up a Chair for Ningen Isu

Sometimes I envy my wife. She gets into a band and then is content to listen only to that band for months. How much cheaper it would be for me to do the same rather than becoming interested in whole subgenres or periods in rock history. Nah, just get into a band, buy their ten or twenty albums, and just sit back and enjoy day after day.

Well, it does happen from time to time, sort off. There was a time I listened only to Rush for six months and mostly to Yes for three months. There was the time I was into Devin Townsend and even this year I was really into Styx (that ship hasn’t exactly sailed yet either – it’s just in harbour right now).

And then there is Ningen Isu.

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By October, I always like to think of what albums will be my final purchases of the year. Of course there are always a few that get through later on in November or even December. But basically, I plan on winding down because during the winter holiday period I don’t have very much time to listen to music as I don’t commute to and from work. I decided this October, while making my Japanese band video, to pick up a few extra albums by Japanese bands. Ningen Isu had already found its way into my collection with four albums, but those four impressed me so much that I decided to get four more before the year end. Then I ordered four more. Within a few weeks, I had 19 of their 21 studio albums, plus three compilation albums I bought because there were songs that were not on the regular albums. I could have saved a bundle by just purchasing downloads from iTunes or even signing up for their streaming service. But I have to have the physical copies. That’s just how I am.

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There are several things I love about this band. The first and most obvious is of course that I love their music. Shinji Wajima (guitars, vocals) and Ken’ichi Suzuki (bass, vocals) cover a lot of my favourite styles, including stoner metal, doom metal, stoner rock, progressive rock, heavy prog, heavy psych, hard rock, and more. They are heavily influenced by the early period of heavy metal in the late sixties and early seventies, but also show a strong connection with early eighties heavy metal and even go thrash or speed metal at times. Wajima is a riff master, often said to be the Japanese Tony Iommi, and can pull off one ripping solo after another, each one tailored to suit the song perfectly. Suzuki lays down some pretty mean bass lines too, and the combination of Wajima’s guitar and Suzuki’s bass has been likened to the Alex Lifeson / Geddy Lee teamwork in Rush. After 30 years plus and 21 full length albums, these two are each one part of a three-piece metal music machine.

The third part is of course the drummer. They’ve had four in the band over the three decades. Noriyoshi Kamidate was the original drummer from 1987 to 1992. Iwao Tsuchiya played on two albums in 1995 and 1996. Masahiro Goto played as a stand-in drummer on their 1993 album, “Rashomon”, and then joined the band as the official drummer from 1997 to 2003. Finally, in 2004 they acquired Nobu Nakajima, who has remained the drummer since then. As a side note, both Goto and Nakajima have added some lead vocal work as well.

Lyrically, their songs are inspired by the literary works of Ranpo Edogawa, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, and H.P. Lovecraft, as well as a fair bit of Buddhist themes (Wajima studied Buddhism in university) including lots of songs about Jigoku (Hell). Oh, and space songs. Lots of those too! The vocal style of Wajima and Suzuki is atypical of Japanese rock and metal bands. Their vocal style is very close to traditional Japanese theater and song. This gives their music a unique twist: while it’s impeccable in its likeness to western hard rock and heavy metal, the traditional Japanese vocals make it distinct in both the world of heavy rock music and Japanese rock music. Additionally, their choice of stage dress is with Wajima in traditional Japanese men’s wear and Suzuki in the robes of a Buddhist monk.

As for the band’s history, I have only just begun trying to read through their 30th anniversary publication which includes dialogue between Wajima and Suzuki giving a play by play recount of the making of each of the band’s 21 albums. From Wikipedia, I have learned that the band formed with Wajima and Suzuki in 1987 when soon after Kamidate became the essential third member. Actually, Wajima and Suzuki knew each other from high school and regularly visited a music saloon. It was there that they introduced to each other a song they had each written. Wajima’s was “Tetsugoshi Mokushi-roku (Apocalypse of the Iron Grill)”, and Suzuki offered a track called “Demon” (which, I wonder, could possibly be the song “Oni” from the “Shura Bayashi” album in 2003). After graduation from university, the two met up and first joined a hard rock outfit called Shiné Shiné Dan before setting off to form Ningen Isu. The name comes from the title of a short story by Ranpo Edogawa.

The book is chock full of information you won’t find on the English Wikipedia page or on the band’s English page of their web site. What I learned most recently was that the atmosphere in the band after the third album, “Ougon no Yoake (The Golden Dawn)” was not very good. Still poor, the band shared rooms when they travelled, and the album sales were declining with each new release. Ningen Isu had done very well as an indies band and had been the darlings of the TV show “Ikasu!! Band no Tengoku (Cool!! Band Heaven)”. But each new release sold less than the previous. Kamidate, who was older than the other two, was not pleased with the way things were going and parted ways with Wajima and Suzuki. Suzuki participated in a glam rock festival dressed as Gene Simmons, if I got that bit right, and met Masahiro Goto there. Suzuki asked him to do an album with the band and Goto obliged.

They first contacted Tony Iommi to produce it, but with compliments on their music, he had to decline because of his own busy schedule. They next asked Gene Simmons who agreed to do the job if they’d pay him 2 million yen (about $20,000). Ningen Isu declined on account of not having that much money. Though a track from the album was used by the Aomori Tourism Bureau and a non-album instrumental was used for a Honda bike commercial, the fourth album “Rashomon” didn’t sell much either. Their label, Meldac, released a compilation album of songs from their first four albums with the Meldac lable – “Ningen Shikkaku”, “Sakura-no-Mori-no-Mankai-no-Shita”, “Ougon no Yoake”, and “Rashomon” – and after that, Ningen Isu’s contract with Meldac expired.

Ningen Isu’s musical trajectory over the 30 years can be briefly described here. They began as a retro-sound, early seventies heavy rock band but rather swiftly became a terrific heavy prog rock band by their third album, “Ougon no Yoake”. The later half of the 90’s was spent exploring more variety, dipping into hard rock, heavy psych, and heavy prog, with traces of Japanese folk. From 2000 to 2008, Ningen Isu’s sound went more towards the modern day, heavy alternative band, but there was always room for some metal parts as well. Then they gradually became heavier until 2010. The last five albums, they have been at their heaviest yet and sound like a proper heavy metal band.

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I’ll hopefully have something of interest to add for every album, and that might just be a post for a future date. I’m thinking maybe to write a short bit for each album and select perhaps three songs that stand out for me and explain why they do. For now, I have made two videos for Music Is A Journey about Ningen Isu, one general video about the band’s history and albums and another about their compilation albums. I’m also responsible for getting the discography up on MetalMusicArchives, which I am still working on.

Emperor and Deafheaven

It’s rare that I get to see a concert because I usually work evenings. But luck had it that Emperor was performing with Deafheaven in Tokyo on a prefectural holiday in Saitama. It was still an official workday I was told, but I could take a paid day off and that’s exactly  what I did!

The venue was Tsutaya-O East in Shibuya. It’s wide but not so deep. Perhaps long enough to play basketball but not wide enough if you consider the raised step at the back. I was glad for that because it meant I could get close enough to take photos with my phone.

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I knew of Deafheaven but I had never heard their music until my coworker and also my concert companion let me hear a little off his phone one day at lunch. It sounded intriguing; like a combination of post rock and black gaze. Rolling Stone put their album “Sunbather” at #94 on their list of top 100 metal albums of all time. I didn’t expect how good the band would be live.

Vocalist George Clarke was a real showman. The way he glared out at the audience, moved around the stage, and made dramatic gestures with his hands made him an entertaining figure. Also active was bass player Chris Johnson, who moved about behind guitarist Shiv Mehran, throwing his head back, smiling, and generally looked like he was having a good time. The lights were pretty cool too. I was constantly taking out my phone and snapping photos of the band.

George Clarke of Deafheaven in action at Tsutaya-O East in Tokyo. Click on any picture to enlarge it.

Kerry McCoy (guitars) and Shiv Mehra (guitars) and Chris Johnson (bass) of Deafheaven, live in Tokyo. Click on any image to enlarge it.

The music was terrific and easy to get into. By the fourth song, the band was going through a long and beautiful instrumental passage, and as the music built up you could feel the energy of this ride. Bass player Chris Johnson seemed really into it, and he and guitarist Shiv Mehra appeared to be totally riding the music. The whole band was in the groove! It was a pretty awesome moment to behold.

When George Clarke announced that the next song would be the final song of the evening, the audience let out a collective groan of disappointment. I heard later from my companion that one young women was gushing over Deafheaven’s performance. Like us, she had come to see Emperor but was blown away by Deafheaven.

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Emperor hit the stage a short bit after Deafheaven, and as the headliner the fans were thrilled. I’d say at least half the people there were wearing Emperor T-shirts. My friend and I each grabbed one for ourselves from the merch tables.

Emperor’s performance was less active. In fact, except for Ihshan walking around, most of the members remained in their spots. Only guitarist Samoth would step forward between songs, stand at the front of the stage and glare down at us, then raise his fists overhead, to which the audience responded by throwing the horns and cheering.

But even though Emperor were not as active on stage, I was impressed with the music. I have Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk and In the Nightside Eclipse but I guess I never listened closely enough to catch all the changes in riffs and in the music overall. I will certainly listen to both albums more carefully in the very near future.

Once again, I had a blast going to a live show. Unfortunately, no band members came out to chat with us this time, but that was alright. It was still great fun!

I decided to check out Deafheaven’s Sunbather album. It was available on Amazon Japan through the market place for ¥1,162. Two days later, I decided to order it, but the price had doubled. Suddenly, it looked as though it was going to become a rare item. Discogs had only one mint copy listed for under $15 US, and Amazon dot com only had new copies for over $44. I first gave up and ordered Ordinary Corrupt Human Love instead, but then finally conceded and ordered the more expensive Sunbather.

Now I must begin work on the next Music Is A Journey episode (#22) which will be about the top 25 black metal albums of all time as per my research on the Internet.

What Has Been and What Is to Come

The last few months have been a bit trying. Music Is A Journey, both this blog and the YouTube channel, has been held back more than anticipated.

I began the year attempting to increase my video output. Last year I had so many ideas I wanted to present in my videos but I ended up spending the first twelve episodes introducing new music. Not a bad thing, just there was much more I wanted to say. So I began 2019 by recording many videos, tackling topics I had scribbled down in early 2018. The problem was the time it took to edit and create the final video. I had been using a Lenovo ThinkPad laptop computer, which I bought before I ever had the idea to make videos. As such, the computer I bought was basically for Microsoft Office apps, surfing the Net, and other basic computer functions. Video making and even photo editing were not recommended (photos looked terrible on that display!).

But early on in the year, my father was hospitalized and I rushed back to Canada to see him. Then it seemed his health was improving, and so I returned to Canada once more in order to have a proper visit with him and my mother at their home. Most unfortunately, a couple of weeks after I left, his condition began to deteriorate once more and ultimately, he passed away.

July was, as always, a very busy month. My second job requires me to judge an English reading contest every July and November, and that keeps me very busy for about 18 days because I still have my regular job and of course my family. I also went away for a week to Ishikawa Prefecture for an episode of the NHK World program, Journeys in Japan.

By August, the heat was rising here in Saitama and my work room does not have an air conditioner. I was trying very hard to finish a video about musician and producer, Chris Gestrin, but the computer kept struggling as the video got longer. At last, it crashed and even after attempting to reset it there was nothing to be done but send it in for a repair estimation. The estimation came out to nearly the same price and I had paid for it. So, instead I bought a used Mac Mini and only just got that all set up and running this past weekend. One of my first projects was to finish off that video about Chris!

I actually have had a few blog topic ideas, but due to the heat and the absence of computer access recently, I have left all my blogs largely inactive except to post about my appearance on that TV program.

But now that I am back in business, I am looking toward the next few videos to make and two of them will be more introductions to new music. I’m very excited about featuring the first two albums in Steve Bonino Project’s Stargazer trilogy. The episode will include the latest releases by Kinetic Element and Marco Ragni, a suitable mix I reckoned because guitarist Peter Matuchniak plays on three of those albums. I’m also excited about featuring new music from The Inner Road, Joost Maglev, Seven Steps to the Green Door, and KariBow, all of whom have been featured in previous episodes. Also, I am anticipating the release of new music from Rosenkreutz, Murky Red, Band of Rain and even Grandval. Other bands I have featured before are working on new music, and I will dedicate an entire episode to Babal once they have wrapped up their Circle of Confusion of Tongues trilogy.

As for the blog, I hope to get around to writing about some of the topics that have passed through my head. Not long ago, I was reading a lot about Styx and there sure are some interesting thoughts there. For now, here are some recent video posts on Music Is A Journey.

The music of Densabi and photographs of Japanese mountains

A notice about the Lenovo crash and a brief introduction to the Sakiyama Tumuli of Gyoda City, Saitama.

A “Side Trips” episode about Virgin Steele

A dozen Vancouver bands (the video was recorded in Vancouver)

Obscura in Tokyo

It’s been a few years since the last time I went to a concert. I never went all that much anyway. Ticket prices are always expensive, and you don’t see much of the bands in the big stadiums. When I saw Yes perform in a theatre in Tokyo back in 2014, at least the venue was cozy, and I could clearly see Steve Howe on my side of the stage and had a pretty good view of the late Chris Squire on the opposite side. I could make out their facial expressions.

Last Sunday, I managed to get down to Tokyo to catch Obscura, a tech death band from Germany whose music I have recently taken an interest in. Their recent release, Diluvium, is their fifth and I believe it’s their second with the current line-up. Opening acts were Mason, a thrash metal band from Australia, and Jinjer, a metalcore band from the Ukraine, neither of which I knew about more than my friend having shown me a couple of short video clips.

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Mason

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Jinjer

The venue was Cyclone, which was situated deep under the backstreets of Shibuya. I was a bit late arriving after having spent some time working out the directions to the venue by the actual streets. By the time I found the place and got in, Mason were already on stage and cranking it out. Though I didn’t know their music, I was immediately hooked by their powerful and to-the-gut, classic thrash metal. When vocalist Jimmy Benson announced the band’s name, I decided that I had to get a CD.

Later at the merch table, I had the fortune of chatting with Benson, as well as lead guitarist Grant Burns and drummer Nonda Tsatsoulis. Missing was bassist Steve Montalto. They were really cool guys to talk to and granted me a photo with them. What a great shot!

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I’m not so much into metalcore, but if Jinjer captured my attention it was via vocalist Tatiana Shmailyuk. It’s something else to see a cute woman smile and wink on stage while covered in tattoos and roaring out in death bellows. I’d listen to their music more just for her! Unfortunately, I didn’t see any of the band around after their set.

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Tatiana Shmailyuk of Jinjer

At last, the headliner act Obscura came on stage. I was eager to see them play because I wondered how they would perform their style of technical death metal live. Of course they played fantastically. With each song shifting from speedy and technicality to slower melody parts, guitarist Rafael Trujillo’s fingers were frequently tapping all over the fretboard. Six-string, fretless bass player Linus Klausenitzer frequently stepped forward to scrutinize the audience and then smiled or stopped to throw some fretless bass break at us. Band leader and vocals/guitar Steffen Kummerer roared and bellowed and took a few shared lead melodies with Trujillo. A mosh circle started by Mason and which had cropped up during some Jinjer songs was encouraged by Kummerer when the song called for it.

I had always been apprehensive about mosh pits, but in the small venue there were only a dedicated few who regularly charged around and slammed shoulders. I stood right at the edge and occasionally had to catch a flying body or slam a shoulder to send a staggering body back into the fray. It was really great fun, and I attribute that partially to the congeniality of the audience, whom I determined to be regulars to metal shows and who were all fairly familiar with one another. After the show, I felt there was a certain camaraderie or inclusion among the attendees.

I was very pleased and thrilled to be able to speak with Klausenitzer and Trujillo after the show, and later on we got to have photos taken with the whole band, including drummer Sebastian Lanser.

I had an awesome time and feel totally inspired to go to more shows. Tickets to Emperor in November are already on my hit list. But one thing I was especially pleased about was the possibility of getting photos of the band on stage and from rather close up. I was constantly attracted by the lighting and colours and pulling my phone out for a shot. These are only iPhone shots but I am really pleased with them! Some of them are cropped and filtered on Instagram under my samyaku account.

Japan’s Killer Queen

My wife has come down with a fever. Queen fever. With an acute case of affliction for Freddie.

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The movie “Bohemian Rhapsody” opened in Japan on November 2nd, and I expressed interest in seeing it in part because I had finally welcomed the music of Queen into my life only the year prior. The first Queen song I ever heard knowing that it was a Queen song was “Radio Gaga”. This was 1984 and the year of new releases by Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Scorpions, Accept, Metallica, Dio, and many other heavy metal bands. This was music to be excited about. “Radio Gaga”? Nothing more than soft eighties pop fluff to my ears. Over the years I heard plenty of Queen classics like “We Are the Champions”, “Rock You”, “Don’t Stop Me Now”, “Somebody to Love”, “You’re My Best Friend”, “Body Language”, “Killer Queen” and of course “Bohemian Rhapsody”, but except for the occasional rock out guitar moment, Queen were to me nothing more than a stadium rock, pomp rock, pop band.

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My perception began to change when I heard their name mentioned from time to time in prog rock circles, but it was hearing that “Stone Cold Crazy” from 1974’s “Sheer Heart Attack” was a kind of proto-thrash song that I decided it was finally time to bring home Queen. One album purchased in 2017, and then in early 2018 I heard about “It’s Late” mentioned as a hard rock song when I was checking out hard rock from 1977. “News of the World” became the second Queen album to sit on my shelf. By the time the movie was announced, I had “Queen II” in my Amazon shopping cart and I clicked the order button for than one too. Now, five albums sit on my shelf with three more on order, one already a few days overdue.

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My wife has always liked Queen since her college days but recently she can’t get enough. She’s on YouTube every day watching videos; she has ordered a photo book of Freddie Mercury pics and three DVDs; she’s a follower of Brain May and Roger Taylor on Twitter and Instagram; and she talks of almost nothing but Queen and Freddie. As I type, she is watching the movie for the fourth time, this time in IMAX, with her sister. The first three times, we watched the movie together. I really enjoy it as well. Yes, I am aware of all the factual discrepancies, but as a movie telling the story of a rock band, it covers a lot of the clichés in a way that Spinal Tap did. I especially love the actors and their performance, so I am not really concerned about “Rock You” being shown as created in 1980 instead of 1976, or when Freddie actually found out about his condition, or if the band really broke up or not. If anything, I have learned more about the band by learning about what was different in the movie from reality.

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Queen fever has returned to Japan too thanks to the movie. On a TV program this morning, it was explained with a bar graph how movie goers had been flocking to the theatres with ever increasing numbers, ticket sales increasing more than tenfold by the fourth week when compared to the first. Many were repeat viewers but the number of new viewers was almost half of the fourth week figure. Young women especially have been turning out, often after being taken along by their mothers. Several young ladies commented on how “heart-warming” and “easy to catch” the melodies were.

The movie soundtrack has been selling very well, but most surprising is the live DVD of Queen performing in Montreal in 1981 with their Live Aid performance included. The DVD sold a modest 200 copies between September and October, but after the release of the movie, sales increased 277 times! The publisher is currently out of stock and manufacturing more.

The media in Japan is also hot for Queen. “BURRN” magazine has a special feature on Queen as do at least three or four other music magazines published this month or due for publication next month. The national broadcasting network, NHK, interviewed Brain May and Roger Taylor a few days ago and recently reran a 2002 program called “The Bohemian Rhapsody Murder”, and the other day, a program called “Songs” featured four celebrities giving their comments about Queen’s songs.

What makes Queen so popular in Japan? One woman in her sixties offered her remarks. Back in 1974, the big rock bands were Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple. Guys loved the music and talked endlessly about the gear – guitars, amps, etc. Few women felt inclined to follow the conversation. But Queen brought fashion, presentation, flamboyancy, and an appeal that women could be excited about. As such, Queen’s following in Japan quickly swelled as word spread among female fans. In particular, Roger Taylor was a female favourite pin-up boy. One man on the program even stated that Queen was something you liked in secret. Men had to be manly and like tough guys. Queen appealed to the feminine side and thus was a little embarrassing for some guys. One TV director I know recently posted on Facebook that he was alright with the long-haired, flying fashions of mid-seventies Queen, but was shocked to see the “hard gay” image Freddie sported in 1979.

Another commentator said Queen’s anthemic melodies very catchy and certain lines in the lyrics easily stand out. Perhaps the 1976 song, “Teo Toriatte”, a song with the chorus sung in Japanese, also is a reason why Queen have connected so well with Japan.

I know a couple of men around my age who love Queen’s hits, and a high school student of mine really got into Queen earlier this year, well before the movie was advertised.

Strangely enough, many of Queen’s classics that I did not care for in the past have become recent favourites of mine. I can listen to some songs again and again and not feel the need for a break. “Radio Gaga” is now actually a good song to my ears, though I still find “Body Language” and most of the songs on “Hot Space” a career misstep.

I am surprised, however, to heard just how heavy the band could be in the early seventies, or at least through their first five albums. Though I am still waiting for the debut to show up in my mailbox, “Queen II”, “Sheer Heart Attack”, and “A Night at the Opera” pack some wallopers, while “A Day at the Races” only just dropped into my mailbox yesterday. Some songs that are a joy to my early heavy metal appreciation lobes are “Father to Son”, “Ogre Battle”, and parts of “White Queen (as it began)” and “The March of the Black Queen”, and I think I may add “The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke” as well, and that’s just “Queen II”. From “Sheer Heart Attack” there’s Brian May’s guitar work in “Brighton Rock”, “Stone Cold Crazy”, “Flick of the Wrist”, and “Now I’m Here”. “A Night at the Opera” has “The Prophet’s Song” and of course the rock out head banging section in “Bohemian Rhapsody”. But other songs also delight, such as “Bring Back that Leroy Brown” and “39” among others. I am still familiarizing myself with all the music. I am especially looking forward to “Queen” as metal music journalist Martin Popoff holds this album in very high regard.

queen-bandI’m a bit hesitant to order any of the later albums like “It’s a Kind of Magic”. It seems each of the later albums has a rock number but also has a lot of eighties pop which is really a distaste for me. Some songs still have that Queen power to them, but others are very light-weight in that eighties kind of way. Especially Roger Taylor seems worst hit as his drumming is restricted to stale eighties 4/4 beats. At least Brain May still gets a guitar solo.

 

As for Queen fever in Japan, several movie theatres have special large screen screenings with high volume music and the audience is encouraged to stand up for the Live Aid scene. Some people requested this and the theatres responded. The movie is still going strong with some women claiming to have watched it 25 times already.

Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple still have a place here, but Queen might just be the rock band for Japan.

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Five Canadian Metal Albums and One Strange Story

I love finding out about Canadian talent that I have never heard before. It doesn’t matter if it’s metal or prog or sometimes something else, I’m always thrilled to hear home-grown talent, even though I don’t live at “home” anymore.

Recently I heard about three such bands and managed to acquire an album from each. Then there was an old favourite whose classic album I never had, I finally bought. And then there was a band I had never considered, who never actually were a band but a band with an interesting and peculiar story.

First, I was watching a YouTube video, a compilation of old school trash metal bands with many obscure bands or bands that I just hadn’t heard before. The creator of this video had kindly added in what country the bands were from and I was thrilled to see that three of them were Canucks! (I also got to know of Artillery from Denmark, and Exumer and Protector from Germany.) Here’s what I got!

Aggression – The Full Treatment, 1987

Formed in Montreal in 1984 under the name Asylum, The band changed their name a year later and in 1986, recorded their first album, which would not be released until 2005. After some line-up changes, they recorded a second album, The Full Treatment, which was released in 1987. The album is fast and furious thrash metal with a fair bit of hardcore punk in the mix but also a sharp sense of musicality with quick rhythm and tempo changes. This is a brutal album because the recording job makes them sound like an-overloaded fright train careening down a Rocky Mountain railway and barely staying on track. But beneath the auditory assault, I hear finely-honed skill, at least in so far as a brutal thrash metal band can be concerned.

Disciples of Power – Power Trap, 1989

Disciples of Power were formed in that hotbed of metal music, Medicine Hat, Alberta. ??? Yeah, I know. I am surprised too. But hey, I can’t say I know what the metal scene was like in Medicine Hat so I’m actually thrilled to hear of a band from there. Power Trap was their first full-length album after three demos recorded in 1988. For a debut, Power Trap shows a mature thrash band that displays song-writing capabilities that I compare not by style but by ability to the space between Metallica’s Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets. They are listed as thrash/tech death on Encyclopedia Metallum. The band has released four other full-lengths since then, the latest being in 2002.

Obliveon – Carnivore Mothermouth, 1999

Formed in Montreal in 1987 as Oblivion, they changed their name to Obliveon in 1989. Between 1989 and 1999, Obliveon released four full-lengths and a number of demos. Their debut, From This Day Forward, has been given a fair bit of praise on Encyclopedia Metallum and one reviewer interestingly writes of competitive rivalry between Obliveon and Disciples of Power. By Carnivore Mothermouth I feel their futuristic theme and the sound of the music is not far off from Fear Factory, keeping in mind that the only Fear factory album I ever had was Remanufacture.

Razor – Violent Restitution, 1988

Razor’s fifth album and the last with their vocalist Stace “Sheepdog” McLaren. I had their second and third albums, Evil Invaders and Malicious Intent, on cassette in the eighties and finally bought Evil Invaders on CD a couple of years back. I kept Violent Restitution in mind until I started to see it show up on favourite thrash metal album lists. I bought it and I was not disappointed. The sound is better than Evil Invaders and still has the raw Razor rip and shred feel to the music. “Taste the Floor” includes a chainsaw and it fits in just perfectly with razor’s sound.

Piledriver – Stay Ugly, 1986

I remember seeing both Metal Inquisition and Stay Ugly in the eighties Canadian metal mag, Metallion. At the time, I was really getting the feeling that too many bands of lesser talent were getting signed and releasing albums, and based on the cover art and the song titles, I reckoned that Piledriver were a band best left alone. I forgot about the band until a couple of weeks ago when someone in a video or on the Net somewhere mentioned Piledriver and that the band was from Canada. I have been collecting a number of the old eighties metal bands from the Great White North, but did I want to try to get a hold of Piledriver? A quick listen to Metal Inquisition on YouTube made me sure that I was right to avoid the band. Curiosity, however, got the better of me and I went back to listen again. It wasn’t so bad.

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Metal Inquisition is not so easy to get a hold of but Stay Ugly was ready for order for a normal price, and so I placed my order just a few days ago. It hasn’t reached me yet but in the meantime, I found some interesting information behind the Piledriver albums.

Piledriver was never a real band. As the story goes, as told by vocalist Gord Kirchin,  Piledriver was created by a suggestion from Cobra Records. The fellow Gord refers to as “Record Weasel” said that if they made a metal album with a crazy cover and songs to match, they could easily expect to sell 20,000 copies. Gord claims to have received $250 in payment for his services as the vocalist. The album Metal Inquisition was released in 1984.

Two years later, David DeFeis of Virgin Steele was told by his manager that he owed the manager money and if he’d write material for three projects, he’d be forgiven his debt.  DeFeis and Steele guitarist Eddie Pursino worked on material for three albums, one of them becoming the second Piledriver album and another one was Convict. Gord Kirchin sang on both of these. Convict didn’t go far but apparently the Piledriver albums garnered an underground following, all unbeknownst to Gord! He did try to turn Piledriver into a real band but then changed the name to Dogs With Jobs and “de-piled” the material he had prepared for a third album.

Several years later, Gord Kirchin got himself a computer and connected to the Internet to discover that the two Piledriver albums had actually sold quite well. Yet he and others involved never saw a cent after their initial work was paid for. In 2004, Gord tried to put together a new lineup for a new, Exalted Piledriver (the name was modified since there were already other bands out there using the Piledriver name). He currently heads the band and they have at least one new album out. David DeFeis has given his blessing to Gord to use the material he and his guitarist wrote for the Stay Ugly album.

about Piledriver

interview with Gord Kirchin

interview with David DeFeis

This story about Piledriver led me to the YouTube channel of Nasty Metal Productions, where the young gentleman who hosts the channel enlightened me about the so-called “metalploitation” phenomenon of the 1980’s. There were at least two companies, Cobra Records and Metal Enterprises, who released dozens of albums recorded in the same vein as the original Piledriver albums. In some cases, real musicians would be called in to write something to help pay off a debt while in other cases, bands and musicians who were not yet (and not necessarily likely to be) professional were given studio time to knock off an album or two. The band would then, in most cases, cease to exist.

The purpose of this was to sell metal albums to eager youth who wanted their next new metal band fix. The quality was often sub-par at best and ludicrous at worst, apparently. Corroseum has taken an interest in the releases from Metal Enterprises. While most of these albums and bands have faded into obscurity, Piledriver seems to have remained an important legend. This actually reminds me of the Crown Records label I wrote about in the post about The Firebirds / The 31 Flavors, a late sixties band who were in a similar situation, recording an album of questionable material for a label that only wanted to sell sub-par music to unsuspecting youth.

The Birth of Death

MORTA-SKULD-Dying-Remains-CD

Honestly, death metal was one reason why I lost interest in heavy metal. I was there when it was all coming together, as the ingredients were being mixed, the concoction stirred. However, I missed the final crucial years, and by the time the potion had been decanted, I came in to look and wondered what had happened to my beloved heavy metal music. Where were the new Rob Halfords, Bruce Dickenson’s, and Ronnie James Dios? Had singing gone out of fashion?

I came in to the metal scene just after the New Wave of British Heavy Metal had washed ashore and heavy metal became a household word. Then, just as Quiet Riot, Def Leppard, and Motley Crue were making metal the underdog chart champion of the world in 1983, thrash metal suddenly crashed onto the scene. With it came more extreme metal bands like Celtic Frost, Bathory, and Possessed. I was into each of these bands, but by 1987 I became more interested in the roots of heavy metal, and by 1989 when I came back to contemporary releases via Christian heavy metal, I found myself a little nonplussed by the deep guttural vocal styles of bands like Vengeance Rising and Seventh Angel (wish I had never sold off that one now!). Bands I had liked, such as Metallica, Megadeth, and Slayer, were changing their sound and it didn’t appeal to me either. I lost touch with the developments in my favourite music genre and what I heard—Fear Factory, Marilyn Manson, One Minute Silence—was good but not what metal was to me. And whenever I heard these bands with incomprehensible, rumbling, roaring, growling vocals, I likened them to demons vomiting after a night of heavy drinking and spicy Mexican food.

It took a long way round for me to return to heavy metal and discover just how many subgenres it had fractionated into. My interest in progressive rock took me to progressive metal which brought me to Devin Townsend and then to Opeth. Finally, early in 2017, I came to appreciate the death metal growl and became curious about other bands. Then the history buff in me took over and I plunged into old school death metal.

Heavy Metal: Progressing to the Extreme

creem metal deadIn the late seventies, heavy metal had lost its identity. The depressed and nihilistic lyrics about war, political corruption, psychopathic mental illnesses, substance abuse, the doom of the earth and the human race, and sometimes just plain old lyrics about Satan winning thanks to our sinful ways, had gone out of fashion for the most part by around 1972, and a more fun type of energetic guitar music about rock and roll, women, relationships, and a few hard times in life became the new hard guitar music. Traces of doom and gloom still surfaced in the odd band or album, but aside from metal kings Black Sabbath, the rest was mostly underground.

When punk rock came to force in the late seventies, heavy metal was said to have lost its relevance and become redundant. What critics hadn’t bet on was that young metal musicians would learn from punk’s aggressive attitude and DIY approach and create a new brand of metal for a new generation. With the help of Judas Priest’s reinvention of the metal sound, some inspiration from progressive rock, and Motorhead’s bombastic raw and speedy style, heavy metal became faster, fuller, and demanded new levels of skill.

The NWoBHM delivered various styles of metal, and it was the faster, punk-influenced concoction that spurred the American thrash scene, while some of the darker-themed bands encouraged new directions in extreme metal in Europe.

venom

Venom

Venom were the most influential of the lot, playing fast and aggressive music that was a natural extension of Motorhead but also using Satanic lyrical themes and imagery. The music was, for the most part, still rather fun though. Switzerland’s Hellhammer and Sweden’s Bathory would do more to develop the darker and vocally deeper side of metal. Influenced by the punk band Discharge, Hellhammer went in search of a new sound for metal. With the addition of Martin Ain on vocals and a change in sound, the band became Celtic Frost, which would go on to influence a number of future death metal bands. Bathory’s sound would in turn set a template for the later black metal movement.

Back in the U.S.A., thrash was the pimply-faced, beer-swilling rival and challenger to L.A.’s hairspray and spandex glam metal scene. But while many bands sang about violence and war, one band took things more extreme. Slayer burst onto the scene with the Satanic themes but went further with lyrics of horror and homicide. Their album Hell Awaits became an inspiration to many young European bands. The next step came with Possessed’s Seven Churches. This album made metal not only faster, but more frightening with Jeff Becerra’s deep, roaring vocal style. Indeed, Possessed’s song entitled “Death Metal” would lend its name to this budding new extension of extreme metal.

Things Get Brutal

pleasure to killWith one album under their collective belt, Germany’s Kreator were looking to take things to the next level. They approached their new producer, Harris Johns, with copies of Hell Awaits and Seven Churches and said that this was the kind of album they wanted to make. The producer responded with, “Oh, I think we can do better than that”. Kreator’s second album, Pleasure to Kill featured fast, tight, and sometimes complex playing with snarling, teeth-gnashing, gruff vocals. Another German band, Sodom, took to thrash metal with a similar vocal approach. It seemed that while Americans preferred shouted vocals, Europeans were more into menacing and brutal vocals.

SLAUGHTER-Strappado-LP-BLACK-ORIGINAL-MIXMeanwhile over in Canada, Toronto’s Slaughter were joined by a musician from Florida. Chuck Schuldiner of Mantas played with the band for six months before returning south (couldn’t stand the winter?). By the time Slaughter recorded Strappado, their first full-length album in 1986, their sound had become full-on brutal bombast with deep, grumbling guitars and dual vocals that sounded like shouted, angry barks and barbaric growls.

scream bloody goreChuck Schuldiner’s band, Death, released their debut album, Scream Bloody Gore, in 1987, and this is often considered as the birth of the death metal subgenre (was it because of the screams at the start of the album?). Other Floridian bands soon followed. For many fans, death metal was born in Florida, and yet it a way, the Floridian extreme metal scene was like a response to the Californian extreme metal scene. Thrash elements were still largely present and bands typically headed west for performances, mingling with the Californ-I-A bands. But Florida’s scene was to feature two important differences: the music was splitting into either more technical styles as with Atheist and Cynic, or slowing to a bone-crunching grind as with Obituary. But as death metal rapidly caught on and spread northward, brutal and technical music became the favoured approach as with New York’s Immolation and Quebec’s Gorguts.

Don’t Forget the Brits!

necroticismAll the while extreme metal was developing and evolving in the U.S., the British had their own scene going on. Across the Atlantic, hard core punk was branching into metal—the opposite of what had happened in the States—and a new subgenre called grindcore became the British answer to thrash. It didn’t take long though before British bands also took to brutalizing things up a bit. Carcass and Napalm Death fully embraced the deep, guttural vocal style, and after the release of a couple of solid grindcore albums, their styles took on a death metal sound. Close behind were Paradise Lost and My Dying Bride, whose vocals went even deeper but whose music was typically slower and more ominous, leading the way for the death/doom offshoot. Perhaps Britain’s first death-from-debut band was Bolt Thrower, who adopted war as its signature theme and released its debut, In Battle There Is No Law, in 1988. It’s important to note that Bolt Thrower’s foundations were built upon Discharge, Crass, and Slayer, once again bringing the British roots of hardcore punk and grindcore and the Slayer influence into the picture.

Mad as a Corpse Cannibalized on an Altar

altars of madnessOne of the most important albums in death metal would come in 1989 from Floridian band, Morbid Angel. Their debut album, Altars of Madness, set the bar for death metal by taking fast, technical, and brutal metal to a new level. If the mantra for death metal bands had been “faster, heavier, more brutal, more technical” then Morbid Angel carved it in bone. In fact, when looking at lists of top old school death metal and even death metal albums in general, Altars of Madness is more often than not at the top of the list. But as the Floridian scene rapidly evolved, New York’s brought forth one of the most famous bands in death metal with Cannibal Corpse, a band who took human corpse mutilation to the extreme of every horror film and novel, and whose album cover art represents some of the most imaginative, macabre, and grotesque ever to sit in a record store. Junior high school boys everywhere were thrilled!

vintage-cannibal-corpse

Cannibal Corpse with Chris Barnes

Oh, Those Ghoulish Swedish

left hand pathEuropeans can’t leave a good metal scene alone, and it was time for Sweden to rise from the grave to the occasion. Emerging also in the late eighties were the bands Carnage, Morbid, and Nihilist, who then fragmented into Entombed, Dismember, and Unleashed. The fourth of the Swedish Big Four was Grave. These bands lowered the tuning of their guitars and made good use of the Boss HM-2 distortion pedal. The Swedish take on death metal proved there was more than one way to explore and develop this new subgenre. In fact, a good point was made in the Banger TV episode about early death metal—that early death metal musicians looked at what they could do to define the death metal sound and the results were fairly diverse.

The brachiating of death metal—sometimes toward fast and technical, sometimes toward slow and massively heavy—continued until around 1992/93 when new avenues were opened up: the so-called melo-death or melodic death metal, death-and-roll, progressive death metal, and even more extremes of technical and brutal death metal. Death/doom had a short-lived period that for some bands led to gothic metal, such as with My Dying Bride, Paradise Lost, and Finland’s Amorphis. Perhaps 1993 is a good year to draw a line ending the old school death metal growth period. Production of death metal albums improved as the nineties advanced, and the old guard were often playing new styles or in some cases had disappeared.

I’ve compiled a list of frequently-cited old school death metal albums. I consulted several lists on the Internet: some private lists on RateYourMusic and also lists by LoudWire, MetalStorm, and Metal Music Archives. I’ve also checked lists of top old school death metal albums on YouTube. Here are thirty of the most often-mentioned albums released between 1985 and 1993. They are not in any exact ranking order; however, albums near the bottom of the list were more frequently mentioned than albums near the top. The album most consistently included on old school death metal lists was Altars of Madness.

Napalm Death – Harmony Corruption
Cynic – Focus
Immolation – Dawn of Possession
Incantation – Onward to Golgotha
Demilich – Nespithe
Death – Leprosy
Malevolent Creation – The Ten Commandments
Pestilence – Testimony of the Ancients
Pestilence – Consuming Impulse
Autopsy – Severed Survival
Death – Human
Demigod – The Slumber of Sullen Eyes
Deicide – Deicide
Obituary – Cause of Death
Death – Individual Thought Patterns
Unleashed – Where No Life Dwells
Autopsy – Mental Funeral
Terrorizer – Downfall
Death – Scream Bloody Gore
Atheist – Unquestionable Presence
Obituary – Slowly We Rot
Bolt Thrower – Realm of Chaos
Carcass – Necroticism Descanting the Insalubrious
Suffocation – Effigy of the Forgotten
Possessed – Seven Churches
Morbid Angel – Covenant
Carcass – Heartwork
Dismember – Like an Ever Flowing Stream
Entombed – Left Hand Path
Morbid Angel – Altars of Madness

Videos about death metal

Banger TV Early Death Metal

A Basterdized History of Death Metal

Death Metal versus Black Metal

Death Metal Doc