Is the Album Really Dead? – Picking Apart the Question: Part Two

In part one, we looked at the notion that the album is dying or dead and referred to quotes by Alex Lifeson of Rush and Roger Glover of Deep Purple. We then considered several comments made on articles and blog posts from four different web sites. Now let’s look at two more posts about the death of the album.

Record Breaking; is the album format dead?The Guardian

The Cult’s Ian Astbury claims that “iTunes destroyed albums – the whole idea of the album. Nobody buys albums, it’s been proven.” Well, I am somebody and I have bought a heinous amount of albums in the last two years – in CD format. And looking at the reviews on Prog Archives and Metal Music Archives where I am a member of both, plenty of people are still buying albums.

The author says that the CD was the first blow to the album as with a simple touch one could skip over tracks instead of getting up to move the stylus of the record player. And now MP3 files have even made the CD obsolete.

“Last November, the rock writer Chuck Klosterman claimed Guns N’ Roses ‘Chinese Democracy’ would be ‘the last album that will be marketed as a collection of autonomous-but-connected songs, the last album that will be absorbed as a static manifestation of who the band supposedly is, and the last album that will matter more as a physical object than as an internet sound file. This is the end of that.” Thankfully the author disagrees and says there is still recognition for the album for the time being.

I personally love a new album because it’s like a smorgasbord of songs where I can listen through a few times and pick out my favourites and then go back again later and enjoy the whole thing once more. I don’t think listening to your favourite songs on an album over again while only spinning the whole thing from time to time invalidates the album format. For me, each album, along with its cover, is a unified whole. Even if I only like a few songs, they still belong to that statement that the band or artist was trying to make at that time.

Is the Album Dead?The Guardian

Facts and figures about album sales slumps; claims that everyone only wants singles; YouTube, Spotify, and iTunes being accused of the perpetrators; and this point: “Album sales, analysts say, are further threatened by fragmenting of genres, the poor quality of music and shopping chains carrying a limited selection of discounted releases to bring in customers.” Yes, genres are and have been fragmenting since the beginning of rock. It’s just that in the 60’s it was all called pop and the various labels came after the genres had evolved into distinctive classes with their own uniforms. Now big pop artists are competing for the interest of money-spending listeners who have their ears tuned to lesser know artists in subgenres.

Streaming is eroding album sales, they say, but to what degree is streaming contributing to music revenues? It seems the record industry is getting behind streaming. The final comment by one Bob Lefsetz puts the onus back on the listener: “You put out these albums and in almost every case, the public moves on in a matter of weeks! A few bought it, they heard it, and they’re satisfied. The rest of the public is just waiting for a hit single… they’ll tap their toes and snap their fingers and ask, ‘What else have you got?’” Or is it up to the bands and artists to keep sincerely working at their music and in that way attract real fans who can’t wait for the next album?

From the Vinyl Age to the Plastic

You could consider a lot of things about the supposed death of the album – new digital formats, a throw-away society not interested in taking time to appreciate an album, singles being the re-crowned king. In the 1970’s albums came out quickly. Bands were often releasing three albums within two years and then recording the albums in less than two weeks, which sometimes included writing the songs as well. When Black Sabbath recorded their debut, it was largely for the purpose of letting the public know what they were up to after having given up on Earth (their former band name) and begun focusing on a new heavier style of music.

I’d say that the album really came alive in the late sixties and endured well into the nineties. Look at the top ten best selling albums and see how many came before the New Millennium. But there are still plenty of great albums being released on CD, albeit for smaller audiences who appreciate that style of music. In Japan, where I live, the music industry keeps churning out singles and albums and best of albums constantly. In the western market, bands are no longer releasing albums every eight months but now every two to three years on average I would guess. Then are they really throwing on just mediocre songs to fill in the between the good ones? If a band has only a dozen songs to show for their efforts after a few years then how can one expect that the quality is lower just because the music released as a 70-minute CD and not a 40-minute vinyl album?

New Approaches to Encourage CD Sales

One interesting note is that bands and artists are not limited to a release of 10 to 12 songs. A lot of bands have been releasing new albums with new tricks to appease both the casual buyer and the die hard fan. Some bands now release a standard CD album and a double disc version that includes the album on disc one and bonus live tracks, additional studio tracks, or a DVD on disc two. Digipak packaging is like a book (like the old 78’s but smaller) and may also include a booklet with the lyrics, a message from a band member, and lots of artwork. For people who appreciate this (like me) the death of the album altogether, let alone the death of the CD, would be a very large disappointment.

Another promotion trick I heard about recently concerning the American pop group R5 is that fans can get a ticket for a meet-and-greet or autograph signing event when they buy a CD. I heard of one girl who bought five of the same CD just to get two tickets to one event and three for another. While this particular case makes the promoter look cunning and the girl rather foolish, the idea of encouraging CD sales by offering something extra is not bad.

One band that has embraced a variety of approaches is the Canadian power-pop group, Sloan. All their regular CD albums are available for download from their web site; however, their “Hit & Run” EP and “B-Sides Win” compilation of b-sides and rarities are not available on CD. This year they also released for download only an EP of 80’s punk rock covers. But they do not stop there. Sloan also recently released a 3-disc vinyl package for the 20th anniversary of their second album “Twice Removed”, which includes two extra vinyl discs of alternate versions of songs, studio outtakes, and early versions of later songs. Vinyl or digital download – your only two options for this baby. And in keeping with the vinyl theme, they have also begun a live bootleg series with a limited pressing of 500 marked copies. The most recent release, a bootleg of a concert in Japan in 2002, sold out in a week.

Loss of Faith in the CD Album?

While pop music may be suffering in CD sales and leading analysts to believe the album is dead, I’d say you just have to look outside of the pop arena. For all the bands I follow, the album released on a CD is still the format of choice, although I have noted at least two cases where the album was made available on iTunes or Amazon for download purchase first and then later released on CD. As for losing revenue due to free music sharing, most bands say that they make their money from gigging anyway. In answer to that, the live DVD is now a popular format of many artists. The important thing is keeping an interested audience and finding new ways to attract consumer spending, and doing so by producing quality music and performances.

One other note regarding single sales on iTunes, Rush released two songs on iTunes a year before the release of their latest album “Clockwork Angels” and it seems that making these songs available as well as performing them in concert helped create a greater interest in the album (it went to #2 on Billboard in the first week of release with sales of 103,000 units and stayed in the top 100 for many weeks). Conversely, Deep Purple’s label discouraged them from playing any new songs live in case it would spoil potential album sales. In the first week they only sold 4,000 albums in the U.S. but reached #1 in Germany and Austria.

So, is the album dead or dying? I don’t believe so. It will take two generations to shift the preference away from the album concept. One generation – the young people now – will have to ignore it and then the next generation will not know it if artists decide to give up on the format. But many parents and grandparents are turning their kids and grandkids on to classic albums and legendary groups and bringing them to concerts. Both Rush and Deep Purple have noted the surging numbers of new young fans. As long as artists and music fans still share a love for the album – released in whatever medium – it is not going to go away so quickly.

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Is the Album Really Dead? – Picking Apart the Question: Part One

“You know the album is dying as a format. We’re so used to it and we’re so old school in that format, but will we get more mileage by doing a few new songs at a time, or do we do another album?’

I read these words in a Billboard interview with Alex Lifeson (of Rush) just the other day. It reminded me of an interview with Roger Glover (of Deep Purple) back in 2012, I believe, where he said that some members of the band didn’t feel making a new album was worth the trouble. Albums cost more money to make than what the band receives in revenue from sales. But Glover himself felt making an album was important. It was like taking a snapshot of where the band is now. I have searched for that interview and cannot find it. But I found this quote here from an interview with Bass Player:

“CDs are just not in vogue right now, so our enthusiasm for doing one (i.e. an album), even though we all like to write songs, just wasn’t there.”

However, producer of Purple’s latest album/CD, Bob Ezrin, had this to say when he met with the band:

“You’re not going to get that big radio hit anymore – finding a catchy riff and banging out a song. Those days are gone. You’ve got to be yourselves and stretch out.”

In other words, make a great album.

From Wikipedia:

“An album is a book used for the collection and preservation of miscellaneous items such as photographs, postage stamps, newspaper clippings, visitor’s comments, etc. The word later became widely used to describe a collection of audio recordings (e.g. pieces of music) on a single gramophone record, cassette, compact disc, or via digital distribution.

…the word was extended to other recording media such as compact disc, MiniDisc, Compact audio cassette, and digital of MP3 albums, as they were introduced.

The word derives from a Classical Latin word for a blank (albus=white) tablet, later a list.”

My experience as a consumer of music has not indicated that the album – a collection of pieces of music – is about to die off any time soon. I have a very hard time keeping up with all the new artists who have emerged in the last decade and are releasing quality albums on CD. photo (1)The day after I read the Alex Lifeson remark, I cleaned up my locker at work and found several post cards that had been inserted into packages containing CDs I had ordered. The post cards were promoting recent releases on their respective record company labels. I’ve been keeping them with the intention of checking out some of these bands but quite simply I have spent too much money (again) on CDs, buying not only new releases but reissues of older classics as well as releases in CD format of albums recorded in the early 70’s but never released by a label. From my viewpoint, the album is doing just fine. So what gives? I search Google for “the album is dead” and found several interesting articles and posts on the first page of hits. Each one had a good point to mention.

The Album is Dead and That’s Finethe learned fan girl

Writer Keidra Chaney questions how many people buy albums and listen to them all the way through. Don’t most of us just find the songs we like and listen only to those tracks? A good quote points out today’s fast-paced lifestyle with short attention spans: “In an era of musical oversaturation and scarcity of time and attention maybe a 10-song format – for any popular musical artist – is overstaying its welcome.” Chaney does not fail to mention that the album format is better suited to rock artists, and it seems that a noteworthy point here is that we may be talking about the death of the pop album, while other contemporary music styles may still do very well releasing albums (e.g. progressive rock and all it’s sub-genres).

So is the single king once again? Chaney suggests a viable middle ground based on what is popular in the K-pop (Korean pop) world and that is the EP. Many artists, who must keep in the public eye constantly so as not to be forgotten as the next flavour of the month comes along, release EPs. Chaney says that people would be more willing to pay for 5 good songs than a more expensive album (i.e. Long Player of 10 songs) that has only 5 good songs and the rest mediocre. Indeed, many independent artists do just this out of necessity because the cost of making a full-length album is high. In my early days in Japan, I preferred exploring the creative indie EPs over the pop-flavoured LPs.

More Questions on “Is the Album Dead?”Alan Cross

In this piece, Cross refers to an article in The Guardian which points to a frightening drop in CD sales, where even Katy Perry can’t sell more than 300,000 copies. The article links to another piece by Stuart Dredge where it is mentioned that in Norway and Sweden, where streaming began earlier than in the United States, music sales from streamed songs and albums are going up. So while there is a marked decrease in CD sales and even digital downloads, sales generated by streaming have not been properly accounted for in the U.S. suggests Dredge. Back to Cross’ piece, “We just don’t know” are the four words that answer his initial question.

If streaming is the new black in music acquisition, then does that mean that the album is dead? Refer to the Wikipedia definition above. An album is a collection of pieces of music. If a band releases a new collection of songs for public distribution – or even private distribution as the case may be – it can still be called an album no matter the medium. And while fans of a few hit songs may only pay for the “singles” anyway, fans of the band are likely to want the whole collection.

6 Reasons Why the Album Format DiedMusic Think Tank

“I think it’s safe to say that we’re at the end of the ‘album age’, and although the format will hold on for a while, it’s clearly waning in popularity.” So begins Bobby Owsinski in his piece on the death of the album. He lists some interesting reasons:

1 and 2: Albums were a visual and informational experience with cover art, liner notes, lyrics, etc. Shopping for albums you could buy one for the cover alone, and the experience went beyond the music as you sat down and took time to study all proffered written details. CDs didn’t have the same impact, he says. Being of the cassette age of the 80’s and the CD age of the present, I can say I do enjoy CD cover art and the booklets that come with some discs.

3: The demise of record stores. Record stores were great places to learn about new music by word of mouth. I think there are lots of ways to discover new music these days such as “Customers who bought this album also bought” on iTunes and Amazon and related videos and playlists on YouTube. There are also sites dedicated to sharing information about certain genres of music. I have found out about most of my purchases in the last year by checking out music suggested to me by the above means. In Japan where I live, there are still many small CD and record shops to be found and bigger multi-floor music stores in Tokyo. Is the crisis mostly an American perspective?

4 and 5: The price and the CD. Albums used to cost $8.98 for a long time. Then in the 80’s the prices started to go up. CDs might cost near $20 for a new release (closer to $30 in Japan). CD packaging was smaller so you lost the visual and informational thrill, and impulse buying went down because 5 inch artwork at $20 a pop didn’t inspire the opening of wallets. I bought quite a few metal cassettes in the 80’s based on artwork alone and the small text that came in cassette cases prepared me for the greater joy of the larger CD inlay card. I missed out on the vinyl album era because by the time I became a music fan in the 80’s, the ghetto blaster and Walkman were the tools of music enjoyment. So for me the move from cassette to CD was an improvement.

6: Too much filler. Previously musicians were limited to 21 minutes of music (or so) per album side. The CD made it possible to release 73 minutes of music (or so) which meant more songs that would have been cut off a vinyl release could be included on a CD.  That means garbage songs are now included on the album. Instead of 40 minutes of quality music we get 55 minutes or more of mediocre music, says Owsinski. Somewhere, somebody noted that musicians tend to think all of their songs as good and don’t think of recording just filler. Deep Purple recorded 14 songs for their “Now What?!” album and would choose 12 to go on. I’m sure they didn’t think they had any “filler” songs. Regarding length of an album, one could assume Owsinski might be equating “album” with 42 minutes of music on vinyl.

Is the Album Dead?New Music Strategies

This piece makes my point very nicely: “I think we’re going to have to redefine our notion of what constitutes an album.” The author goes on to say that there is no reason why a song has to be 3 minutes long or why an album has to be two 22-minute sides or why mixes have to fit within the time limit of a CD. Where the CD format allowed for bands to compose songs over 70 minutes (which Transatlantic did), alternative digital media allow for 3-hour songs (indeed the Flaming Lips recorded a 24-hour long song that you can get if you buy a special hard drive with the song on it). The author also states that while iTunes sells mostly single songs, eMusic sells mostly albums. Then here comes the interesting point that I am surprised Rush and Deep Purple are missing when they say that the album or CD is dying:

albums

“Because albums are more than ‘here are our best 12 songs of the last 2 years’. They are usually considered as single entities, of which the songs form a part… the album is usually constructed to be greater than the sum of its parts.” It’s no secret that progressive rock and heavy metal bands often put out concept albums. Do away with the notion of the album altogether and there will be no more stories to tell in a collection of a dozen songs.

We’ll look into this more in part two.

Re-mastered and Reissued

I bought my first CD in 1989. It was “Days of Future Passed” by The Moody Blues. I figured that if I was going to buy an album with an orchestra I should get in on the high audio quality of a CD. Little did I consider that the CD edition of this album contained only the analogue to digital transfer of the music and not digitally recorded music. I was unaware that there was a difference.

jeffersonSoon after, I began seeing many old classic albums of the sixties being released on CD, or rather reissued on CD. Then came the re-mastered reissues that were much more expensive than the regular editions. I never gave it any real thought at the time. When I wanted to buy an older album on CD I just went to the store and bought whatever was on the shelf. Sometimes these reissued discs included bonus material like studio outtakes, singles that weren’t available on the original LP, and demos of songs whose final take may or may not have made it to vinyl.

In 2006, my love for Deep Purple was revitalized and I discovered their back catalogue from the seventies had been reissued with bonus tracks. I bought them all and thus began my “three-timer” purchases – albums I have bought three times: first on cassette in the 80’s, then on CD in the 90’s, and a third time on re-mastered reissue in the new millennium.

By now I have probably over 100 re-mastered albums from between the 60’s and the 80’s (no, not all of them are three-timers; some are first-timers). I have found that sometimes the reissues are worth getting for the enhanced sound quality, the extra tracks, and the booklets explaining the history of the band or the album. Other times I can’t understand the logic behind putting very low grade material on a very good album just to fill up space and give the fan boy something extra his dad didn’t have. Here are some of my thoughts on what makes a reissue interesting and what does not.

Singles and B-Sides

Deep_Purple_in_Rock_-_Anniversary_editionIt was likely Roger Glover of Deep Purple who said that an album was like a snapshot of what the band was doing at the time. I have plenty of albums that I love very much and wish that there was just a little more music out there like what was on the album. In the 60’s and 70’s, it was common practice to release a single with a b-side and not include those songs on the forthcoming album. The Jimi Hendrix Experience released three singles that were not included on the original release of “Are You Experienced” but later reissues of the CD include the singles, their b-sides, and the rest of the original album. How nice to get the complete picture of the early days of the band!

Deep Purple’s “In Rock” anniversary reissue includes the single “Black Night” as well as a lot of other very good material, and Yes’s “Yes” includes contemporary singles and b-sides. Some other bands’ reissues, however, include singles which are just edited versions of songs from the album. You get the well-known song with parts snipped out of it. Not a welcome addition.

Studio Outtakes and Previously Unreleased Material

sell outHere again we can find more music from the time of the recording of our beloved albums. There are various reasons why songs might have been shelved at the time: the album was already full, the songs didn’t match the theme or sound of the album, the songs would be kept for the next album, the songs needed more work, or someone in the band disagreed with putting it on the album. Three great albums that come packed with studio outtakes and singles are Jethro Tull’s “Aqualung – 40th Anniversary”, The Who’s “The Who Sell Out – Deluxe Edition”, and Deep Purple’s “In Rock”. The first two are double discs and the second is filled up with a variety of additional material. Uriah Heep’s reissues also include a selection of bonus material that includes previously unreleased songs.

Alternative Versions, Studio Run-Throughs, Rehearsals and Demos

YesI often find that here is where the bottom of the barrel is getting closer. Alternative versions of songs can on occasion offer something interesting and worthwhile listening to, but more often I find after one listen I conclude that I prefer the album version. Demos can have their value too, especially if a very good song was never properly recorded for release for whatever reason. But too often I find that the demos lack a decent sound quality and if the final mix is on the album anyway I don’t need to hear an inferior version of it. Yes’s “Going for the One”, “Tormato”, and “Drama” have a lot of bonus tracks, most of which are demos and studio run-throughs of songs either never released or later perfected for the album. The inferior sound quality is unpalatable with some songs having only a simple vocal track repeating the same lyric or at times just “la, la, la”. And do we need to hear studio run-throughs of the 20-minute plus songs from “Topographic Oceans”? On the other hand, the reissue of “Yes” has an early version of “Dear Father” and the single version which are better in my opinion than the album version from “Time and a Word” which includes the orchestra and has less warmth to the sound quality.

Live Songs, BBC Sessions and Others

camel-moonmadnessWhen a live track or two is added to a classic album it can be a pleasant way to fill up the CD if the live track sounds good. Camel’s “Moonmadness” offers decent enough live songs as does Gentle Giant’s “Three Friends”. Van der Graaf Generator’s “Godbluff” and “Still Life” however have such shoddy recordings that it is a pain to listen to after the first twenty seconds. Atomic Rooster and Uriah Heep include some BBC sessions on some of their reissues and the sound quality is very good, though I can’t say I bother to listen to them more than a couple of times. Other TV or radio studio sessions can at times come out as pretty awful. Episode Six (Ian Gillan and Roger Glover’s former band) have a double disc of previously unreleased material that at times is only interesting for the unique music while the sound quality is atrocious. Collectors might be glad for such additions to classic albums but I usually end up removing them from my computer’s music library.

Remixes and Updated Versions

The anniversary reissue of “Machine Head” by Deep Purple has a second disc of Roger Glover remixes. Most of these songs feature alternate guitar solos which I find a bit agitating to hear. Just when you expect the classic Ritchie Blackmore solo to begin a different (and not as good in my opinion) solo comes in. In other cases, certain sounds or parts mixed out of the original version are added back in and I find it can at times be jarring to hear when you are used to the classic version. Budgie re-recorded some of their classic songs in 2003 and they have been added to reissues of their 70’s albums. This new versions sound pretty good but again, I prefer the originals.

Different Sound Versions of the Album

nektar-tab-in-the-ocean-1972Nektar’s second album “A Tab in the Ocean” was recently reissued on Purple Pyramid Records and includes the entire 1972 original mix re-mastered, the 1976 U.S. mix of the album, and the official live bootleg of the whole album. So, I can listen to three slightly different versions of each of the songs. Do I care to? How about the Atomhenge 2013 reissue of Hawkwind’s “Warrior on the Edge of Time” that comes with three discs: the re-mastered stereo album with bonus tracks, the new stereo mixes of the whole album by Steven Wilson plus more bonus tracks, and a DVD of the album in 5.1 Surround Sound, the Steven Wilson new stereo mixes, and a 96 kHz / 24-bit transfer of the original stereo master tapes. All I really wanted was the album re-mastered and now I can listen to it five different times. Slightly more meaningful is the deluxe edition of “The Who Sell Out” which has the entire album in the original mono on one disc and in stereo on the other.

No Bonus Material

My Rush collection includes all the 1997 re-masters of their studio catalogue except for “Test for Echo” which I bought in 1996 anyway, and none of the albums comes with any bonus tracks, only the original songs and album artwork. Led Zeppelin, Genesis, Saga, and Pink Floyd all have re-mastered discs with no bonus material at all. Just the classic songs on their classic albums with a polished sound quality. I did buy the “Experience Edition” of “Wish You Were Here” for all the bonus tracks but they are mostly early works in progress of songs for the “Animals” album. One listen and I am more or less done.

Booklets

dustHow I love reissues with booklets. I enjoy reading the story behind the album or a short-lived band and interviews and comments made by band members, as well as looking at photos of the band at work. I recently bought three compilation CDs of some bands from the 70’s – Dust, Sir Lord Baltimore, and Cactus. Dust’s CD included all the tracks from both their albums and a booklet with the story of the band told by each of the three members and had photos too. Sir Lord Baltimore’s two albums were also on one disc but the running order of the songs had been changed and there was no booklet. Furthermore, the inlay card showed the cover for the first album but not the original cover for the second. Cactus’s double disc included most of their studio catalogue but had no booklet with band history either. Disappointing.

My take on reissues? Give me a booklet of at least 8 pages; give me any singles and b-sides released at the time; give me decent-sounding demos and studio outtakes; and some studio chit chat and goofing off can be good for a chuckle. What I don’t need is crappy-sounding live recordings, demos recorded with a home cassette player, and three different information transfers of the same recording.

Don’t understand the differences between reissued, remixed, and re-mastered? Check out this link here.

Black Sabbath, “Black Metal”, and the Occult in Music

Black-Sabbath-Black-Sabbath-498592On Friday, February 13th, 1970, a debut album by a British rock band was released in Britain, an album that would prove to be one of monumental significance and influence. “Black Sabbath” by the band of the same name took psychedelic rock and heavy blues and turned it into something darker and more sinister. The opening track – also called “Black Sabbath” – began with a distant church bell ringing solemnly in a thunderstorm. Then a massive tri-tone guitar riff played on distorted electric guitar and bass and accompanied by a crash of drums with each chord introduces the album and the world to what later some would call the first heavy metal album and the first doom metal album. The lyrics on side one mention Satan, Lucifer, and a wizard, and the dark figure on the album cover affirms the occult nature of the songs inside.

When the “Satanic” metal bands of the 1980’s began achieving their share of fame and initiated the so-called genre of Black Metal, there was likely not one among them who wouldn’t have cited Black Sabbath’s debut as a major inspiration. But Black Sabbath was not a satanic band. In the song “Black Sabbath”, even though the lyrics mention a “big black shape with eyes of fire” and “Satan’s coming round the bend” the protagonist of the story is clearly frightened out of his wits and cries out, “No, no! Please, God help me”. In the song “N.I.B.” – mistakenly thought to stand for “Nativity in Black” – the lyrics speak from Lucifer’s view point of Old Nick falling in love .

The dark imagery of the band’s lyrics and heavy, ominous music continued on subsequent albums; however, the sinister lyrics referred to the evils of the world (“Generals gathered in their masses / Just like witches at black masses” – War Pigs) and did not necessarily reflect any band member’s desire to be a practicing Satanist. Conversely, one can often hear Ozzy Osbourne singing hippy lyrics about a world of love and even encouraging a belief in God in the song “After Forever (including the elegy)” from their third album “Master of Reality” – “Would you be afraid of what your friends might say if you believe in God above / They should realize before they criticize that God is the only way to Love”. This song was later covered by a Christian thrash metal band, Deliverance in the early 90’. Even the giant crosses that were used as part of their stage sets were never inverted. Dark and referencing the occult at times in their lyrics and album art, the band did not involve themselves in any satanic worship practices. When deliberate satanic imagery was used in the album artwork, it was without prior consent from the band members.

venom_blackThe rise of Black Metal in the 1980’s saw bands taking the whole business of Satan more seriously. The British metal band, Venom, actually used circumscribed pentagrams, goats’ heads, and other symbols associated with Satanism in their album art and even called an album and song of theirs, “Black Metal”. A young Swedish musician, Thomas Forsberg (stage name, Quorthon) started the band, Bathory (named after a Hungarian countess who was rumoured to have been a killer of young women and bathed in their blood) and with their first four albums set the blueprint for Scandinavian black metal. In the U.S., Possessed also were one of the forerunners of the black metal movement. The movement caught on in Norway with some band members being associated with murder and church burning.

However, while many modern bands look to Black Sabbath as a mentor of dark music and songs about the occult, there were actually other bands prior to Black Sabbath who were not nearly as heavy in sound but quite serious about the occult in their lyrical content. Britain’s Iron Maiden, a short lived act that bears no relation to the world-famous heavy metal band, though not actually involved in the occult, wrote songs about sacrificial rituals and evil. Their only single was “God of Darkness” released early in 1970. Also from Britain, Black Widow released a few albums between 1969 and 1973 that also dealt with the occult. Their first two albums were “Return to the Sabbath” (1969) and “Sacrifice” (1970).

covenBut when it comes to early use of satanic imagery, America’s Coven goes unmatched. Their debut in 1969, entitled “Witchcraft Destroys Minds and Reaps Souls” includes a photo of band members giving the sign of the horns, the first time this appeared in popular culture (usually the sign’s first use is credited to the late Ronnie James Dio during his days with Black Sabbath but Coven had already done it ten years earlier). There is also an inverted cross and the band standing around a nude young woman on an altar prepared for sacrifice. Song titles include “Black Sabbath” (and a band member named Os Osbourne, too!), “Dignitaries of Hell”, and “Choke Thirst Die”, plus a song about a witch. Unlike many bands then and later on who used the occult and Satanism for entertainment only, the members of Coven were quite serious about their beliefs and were well-read in the subject. The final track on their debut album is over 13 minutes of an initiation ritual of a neophyte. The music was not really heavy and still steeped in psychedelic rock with a jazz tinge. But when it came to knowing about devil worship, these guys were as close to real deal as one could get.

After the end of bands like Coven and Black Widow in the mid-seventies, one would imagine that occult rock had gone away until the revival in the 80’s. Not so. Searching for proto-metal bands on YouTube brings up a varied selection of underground and little known heavy metal bands with dark, satanic imagery on their covers and in their lyrics. Check out the videos below to see that Venom, Bathory, Possessed, Slayer, and the many other bands that came after were nothing new but building on and expanding upon what, to various extents, had already long been established.

Zior – Entrance of the Devil, 1971

Bedemon – Nightime Killers, 1974

Seompi – Almost in a Hole, 1970

Pentagram – Be Forewarned

Wicked Lady – Psychotic Overkill, 1972

Iron Claw – Skullcrusher, 1970

Pinnacle – The Ripper, 1974

Macabre – Be Forwarned (later to become Pentagram)

Necromandus – Nightjar, 1972

Salem Mass – Witch Burning, 1971

Bulbous Creation – Satan, 1970