The Haunted
Century Media
Thrash/Melodic Death

If they weren't already popular with the Hot Topic set, they are now. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

There is no doubt this album marks a departure for the band. With thrash-y hooks, crystal clear production and pop-rock song structures, The Haunted have crafted an accessible, radio-friendly metal record sure to alienate old fans while generating lots of interest among the uninitiated. Right now, in a dark and distant Hot Topic, a seventeen year-old boy is telling his fifteen year-old sister that Unseen is by far The Haunted's worst album, and that he was into them before they sold out. Because she's fifteen, she won't tell him that he was two when At the Gates broke up and that he should stop being such a self-righteous prick. She will, however, ridicule him mercilessly when she discovers he's torrented the album in secret.

More thoughtful fans are likely to put this album aside and hope for a return to form next time around. Some reviewers will lament the passing of metal stalwarts into pandering mediocrity, while others will call Unseen a welcome change for musicians all to happy to ride the ever diminishing death metal wave they helped create. All three views have merit, an interesting situation which points to the difficulty in ranking this album in The Haunted's catalog. Unseen is so much better than Versus I wonder if this is the musical equivalent of the New Coke/Coca Cola Classic gambit. On the other hand, their latest falls so far from The Haunted, Made Me Do It, and One Kill Wonder  you might as well compare Unseen to the output of another band entirely.

But it works. Whereas Versus was a tangle of half-thought concepts and mashed-up influences, this record is cohesive, lively and, I have to say, poppy. Rather than work through an unwieldy number of ideas, Unseen takes a single thread and follows it to its natural, albeit surprising, conclusion: by stripping away the more extreme elements of their sound, The Haunted have made an extremely good pop-metal album.

"No Ghost" and "Motionless" are the catchiest of the bunch, the latter rocking a strong 90s post-hardcore vibe. "The Skull", "All End Well" and "Done" have a dark melodic feel which would appeal to Katatonia fans. But the real backbone of the album comes from a deep understanding of what makes thrash and melodic death metal work. Almost all the death elements have been removed, and the general aim seems to get the listener to the hook as soon as possible. This isn't so much about crafting a new sound, but choosing to follow a single path through their influences. An example of addition by subtraction.

There are a couple of things that don't quite hit. "Never Better" really should have been to open the record. The heaviest track on the album, it aims to set a tone the album can't support. Dolving still stumbles through lyrics a times, ("ashes to ashes" on "Catch 22", "I lay me down to sleep..." on "Disappear"), but they don't ring as hollow here as they do on Versus, maybe because they have less to live up to, extremity wise.

Unfortunately, this is a good album marred by previous success. The band's history is immanent, and I'm not sure there's any value to considering Unseen in a vacuum anyway. So I have to grade it down a bit. Make no mistake, I like this record quite a bit. It's fun. But I think popular consensus will identify it as a turning point for the band. The old Haunted are dead, long live The Haunted.



The Haunted
Century Media
Thrash/Melodic Death

Swedish metal darlings fight themselves through 11 uneven tracks. 

If and when I knew this was out, I ignored it. But when I went to pick up a copy of Unseen I saw this in the rack and picked up both. Although listening through Versus is a pretty good primer for their latest, this is The Haunted's entry into the ever expanding category of transition albums which could have been so much better.   

To be fair, I prefer Marco Aro to Peter Dolving as far as vocalists go, and it's my opinion The Haunted were a better band altogether with Aro up front. Now, this may have more to do with the band being a more vital entity than in later years, and Aro probably benefited from Dolving's work on the self-titled debut. With the foundation set, it was maybe easier for Aro to come in and take the next step with the band. That said, I doubt very much that lines like "Mirror mirror on the wall/who's the biggest fuck up of all?/It's getting ridiculous/and we're all supposed to play along," would have passed the smell test during sessions for One Kill Wonder. Ridiculous indeed.

If the lyrics are bad, the delivery is simply strange. I'm not sure if everyone agreed beforehand to use Deliverance as a reference point, but Dolving does his best Pepper Keenan impression on a number of tracks, most obviously on "Ceremony". There are even a couple of Neurosis-y moments, including middle track "Skuld". The first time through the album, I held out hope that this track was a turning point and things would coalesce into a more coherent experience. But they didn't. In fact, I'd be hard pressed to say any three songs flow together well enough to consider the album a salvageable EP.

From album opener "Moronic Colossus," a simple, riff driven track that never really hits, to "Rivers Run" the band plays with idea after idea, but they never really pan out. Between the southern stoner/thrash thing and the melodic death metal thing and the creeping post metal thing, this album has no voice at all. "Crusher" is perhaps the single best effort, but even here the band injects a bit of d-beat energy into the mix, seemingly out of nowhere. It's also the shortest track, which I don't think is a coincidence. Most of the songs wear out their welcome after about three minutes.

The final track, "Imperial Death March," is a fitting ending for an album that never quite makes sense. This is more a collection of influences and half-formed ideas than anything else, and I can't help but think that if they just focused on one or two, they could have pulled off something pretty interesting. As it is, Versus sounds like the growing pains of a fledgling band rather than a veteran outfit on their sixth full length. What a bummer.


Notes on Metal as an Academic Subject

I’m an academic by nature and by choice. This is neither popular nor entirely comfortable to admit, but it’s the truth. To call something academic is to call it merely sufficient, an acceptable rote exercise. To be an academic, self-identified or otherwise, is to recognize a certain, indirect usefulness that your knowledge, “pertaining to areas of study that are not primarily vocational or applied,” is considered by most either a luxury or a lifestyle choice. Academics may know a lot of shit, but nobody gives a shit about what they know. Furthermore, common belief has it that all you’re really good for is passing on this questionably relevant information, inflicting your poor life choices on any and all with the misfortune to cross your path. Still, even in this period of aggressive anti-intellectualism, having some letters after your name can command an iota of respect in most circles, at least the circles you’d be comfortable sharing them in. My family, for instance, doesn’t much care about what I do, how I do it, or why. But they know I’m doing something, and so I can keep my chin up at Thanksgiving.

I say that to say this: most academics, particularly those in the humanities, are preening, self-absorbed, damaged souls with chips on their shoulder the size of Gibraltar. You can try to knock it off, but rest assured you’ll be cut down by a vicious combination of jargon and halitosis. It’s a petty, ugly and occasionally brutal world, which is to say it’s rather ordinary. What makes this particular intersection of work-a-day life and human frailty unique is its common location, the state or private college or university. The feelings of uselessness, the backbiting and bickering, the idiosyncratic tics and self-hate are exercised in an arena designed to educate and enlighten the young. Bullshit office politics, systemic inequities and personal agendas are acted out in the company of a live, paying audience. An audience which we are increasingly urged to “engage,” presumably so they’ll tell their equally federal education loan eligible friends they had a “good time” in a “cool class.” How is this done? Popular culture courses. This is how metal gets taught in school.

In the interest of full disclosure I’ll tell you that I’ve designed a college-level metal course, but haven’t had a chance to teach it. I’ve also worked to bolster popular music classes which taught metal as a unit. I don’t see anything wrong with studying metal, or any genre of music or medium of popular entertainment, for that matter. In fact, I think it’s absolutely critical. Too much is at stake politically, economically, socially, culturally and morally (I don’t mean religion) to ignore these areas. In some ways I think it’s the only work worth doing. It’s also really, really easy to fuck up. Indeed, disaster is almost inevitable.

Both the structure of higher education and the culture of academics works against metal being taken seriously or treated with respect as an academic subject. Because colleges and universities are hoping to retain students, and because programs and departments try to meet students “on their own ground” with course offerings focused on pop culture subjects, nobody really cares about these classes, with the possible exception of the instructor and some students. They are almost always electives, and they are roundly considered unserious by both faculty and administrators. I know this because I’ve taught similar courses. They only exist to generate revenue in the form of majors and minors. The more students committed to your department, the more money you get, and pop culture courses are seen as both interesting and, most importantly, easy.

If the economic imperative of higher education dictates metal and other such subjects be relegated to soft-drink status on the course menu, the people serving it are equally marginalized, though for different reasons. These types of courses are usually taught by instructors or faculty who are fans themselves. They overcome the stigma of teaching an “easy” class by force of will. This is as true of comics, movies and television as it is for metal and usually it’s a goddamn nightmare. Putting aside the likelihood of a generation gap, the problem with fans teaching courses on what they love is there is almost no scenario in which their power as instructor won’t imbue their opinions with unwarranted authority. This scenario also predetermines the line of investigation for any given student, as they will more than likely identify the appropriate subjects/bands/periods to study based on the instructor’s personal taste, offering them what they want to hear as opposed to what the student is interested in. A class that could be great quickly becomes a more formalized version of a record store pissing contest, and with the added demand of earning a good grade.

Good instructors will be careful to reign in their opinions and create space for students to express their own. This shit’s subjective, after all, and there needs to be room for discussion. Sadly, for every one great instructor (I’m lucky to know several) there are many, many more who are the worst, most myopic, opinionated assholes you’re ever likely to meet. The classroom is their octagon and so help you God there is no escape. You will submit to their understanding of what is good and what is bad, regardless of how old, indirect or non-existent their experience. You will bear responsibility for their knowledge, their personal taste and their insecurities. I wish I could say this doesn’t pass for scholarship or pedagogy, but it does and it’s a shame.

Given the current state of higher education and, the people who are attracted to it and the atmosphere it breeds, it should come as no surprise that some instructors and faculty take the limited opportunity presented by teaching a metal course as a chance to draw a bit of attention to themselves. Studying metal is a good way for some academics to make themselves appear “cool” to both colleagues and students, at least to those who care. The palpable need for recognition surrounds these folks like a halo, but they often don’t contribute very much to scholarship or civilization. They’re into metal, but they could just as easily be into food, social media or reality television. Basically, they’re looking for a subject that helps define them as on the ragged edge of some new area of study.  They have views.

I’m not saying metal can’t be treated with enthusiasm and respect, grounded in good scholarship and presented openly. It’s just that it so often isn’t. Metal is comprised of a vibrant collection of relationships, the root of which is anchored squarely in the ground most often claimed for cultural studies. There are wonderful, engaged books by authors who care deeply about the communities they’re a part of, and by others who have an unvarnished respect for the music, the musicians, and the fans. Only some of these folks are academics, and I’m not one of them. I’ve resigned myself to the fact I’ll never teach the course I designed, and I decided long ago not to write on metal academically. I love it, but it serves a very different role in my life than anything I study. The part of me that is identified by what I listen to is largely distinct from my work as far as anyone else is concerned, and I’m fine with that. Ultimately, the value I find in metal has nothing at all with what I do with it, but with what it does for me.

Only a few people have made decent careers out of studying metal, or popular music in general. For most, their passion and respect for what they’re studying transcends their work and distinguishes it from the rest of what’s out there simply by being honest. But because culture and cultural products are moving targets, a lot of academic work dealing with any type of entertainment is usually either outdated as soon as it’s published, or quickly will be. The canon of metal scholarship is distinguished less by any intrinsic value or methodological novelty than by the hype generated at the time of release. Walser’s Running with the Devil (1993), for example, is still a touchstone, despite dealing with a strand of corporate metal which hasn’t really been relevant in twenty years.

Still, metal is a vibrant area for study, due in part to the fact that, like an iceberg, there is always much more under the surface than visible above it. For every brief period of exposure or mainstream success, there are always other scenes and styles which don’t break cover. So by the time death metal or black metal were beaten to death in the popular press and academia (and it always occurs in that order), there were a whole slew of hybrid bands, hard rock bands, thrash reboots and ­­­­­________core acts to cut our horns on. This may simply illustrate style turnover, the natural evolution of adaptation and invention, but it’s hard not to think that by studying something you necessarily disrupt, damage and distort it. Think of it as a kind of cultural studies Heisenberg principle.

I don’t think this is true for people who study popular music generally, or are more interested in modes of production and distribution. Studying metal is, for me, more akin to genre studies. The largest difference between studying metal and say, romantic comedies or sitcoms, is that creative control is held almost exclusively at the bottom, in the hands of the musicians. Hybridization, genre mashing and adaptations of style are not the purview of a record company executive. Few metal acts make it that far, and when they do it can usually be attributed directly to their novelty or genre-spanning appeal. For every Mastodon there are dozens of well known, respected bands happy to spend their entire existence on an independent label.

This says nothing, however, about the complex, interdependent system of definitions which allows bands like Agalloch and Judas Priest both to be considered metal. Though marked by a decentralized system of production and distribution amongst independent labels, musicians and fans do not often view this as critical to their appreciation of a given band. Bands with major label support are not often viewed as sellouts, and there is no penalty (save within specific scenes) for liking both Slayer and Amon Amarth. In fact, you’d probably be considered a bit of an idiot if you didn’t. It may be useful, then, to consider metal in terms of genre rather than reception or subculture. Metal is an overarching category comprised of many other, inter-related and interdependent subgenres.

Genre labels help distinguish between bands and styles, but the sheer number of them makes it difficult for academics who are only superficially engaged with the community at large or a specific scene or subgenre. This makes it difficult to orient metal as a subject of study for people who aren’t interested, or people who are simply skeptical about the value of work focused on metal. And honestly, I hope it stays this way. Academia is notoriously behind the curve when it comes to popular culture subjects, and the sad fact is most folks lack the background, interest, opportunity and selflessness to do the topic justice.

With increasing attention being paid to the bottom line by administrators and students alike, this is, in the end, a very good thing. Popular culture study in the United States is only so far away from marketing, and the fewer people there are appropriating experience for profit the better. So while I lament a missed educational opportunity, I think the reality is teaching metal does more harm than good. Though hardly a war crime, sapping the life out of something so dynamic just to get asses in the seats is fucking awful.


Lars Totally Has Room in the Case for Number Seven

America's favorite music awards just got tougher. The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, in an attempt to remain current and better reflect the talent and diversity of the music industry, pared down the number of awarded categories. Conscious of the subjective nature of music evaluation, the Academy issued a press release, explaining in part,
"Every year, we diligently examine our Awards structure to develop an overall guiding vision and ensure that it remains a balanced and viable process.... After careful and extensive review and analysis of all Categories and Fields, it was objectively determined that our GRAMMY Categories be restructured to the continued competition and prestige of the highest and only peer-recognized award in music. Our Board of Trustees continues to demonstrate its dedication to keeping The Recording Academy a pertinent and responsive organization in our dynamic music community."
To better serve artists, each category will now require 40 submissions, up from 25. The increased competition will no doubt make the award that much more special to managers, executives and public relations flacks who spend millions every year in their bid to win the golden gramophone.

Artist response was overwhelmingly positive. Lars Ulrich, budding actor and drummer for American hard rock band Metallica, welcomed the change. "We're simply better than any other band out there, and I think the Academy has reflected that. We've won six Grammys for Best Metal Performance, and we can dominate the new category, Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance as well. I mean come on, they nominated Korn last year. How hard could it be." Metallica, who just wrapped up their Big 4 tour with opening acts Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax, have begun work on a new album this month. No word on whether there will be an accompanying documentary.


Archive: 4-Way Diablo

Monster Magnet
4-Way Diablo
Rock/Stoner Rock/Psych. Rock

Every so often I'll re-post a relevant review from a previous era of this project. This is one. 

If Dave Wyndorf came over to your house, one of three things could happen. First, and most likely, he would introduce you to a number of women who, despite being at your place, eating your food and drinking your liquor, would never speak to you again. If you were blocking their way to the bathroom, they would stare at you until you got out of their way. You're just not as cool as Dave, no matter how hospitable you are.

The second thing that could happen, equally possible, would be a series of unexplainable, infinitely beautiful personal experiences achieved with the aid of a number of mood altering substances. At the end of what you will come to call the most important night of your life, you will make Dave a massive breakfast and send him on his way with your eternal thanks.

The third possibility is that Dave will make it to your house only to collapse on your couch seconds after arriving. He'd sleep for 10 hours before waking, step on your cat on the way to the bathroom, use your cell phone to call your girlfriend and leave her his number, grab your last beer on his way out the door and peel out of your driveway in a lime green muscle car of doom, giving your neighbor the finger for good measure. He'd never take off his sunglasses - you'd never see his eyes. For this blessing you will count yourself lucky.

MM is Wyndorf's baby, and from the its earliest releases his personality has been sown throughout the band's catalog. Part cock-rock power-trip, part psych/space-rock odyssey and part emotional bloodletting, MM is as much a reflection on Wyndorf's personality and lifestyle as it is a rock band. He is lyricist, emotional center, and creative force. He is a frontman, through and through, as inseparable from the band he leads as your head is from your neck. Seriously. And in a landscape short on rock die-hards and long on wannabes, Wyndorf represents all that is good and righteous in the world of rock. Doubt it? He didn't even change his name. Look up Gene Simmons' real name. Better or worse than Wyndorf?

4-Way Diablo is a good, well-paced rock album that will take up more than its fair share of time in my CD player in the coming months. The stoner-rock influence is evident, but not as played up as previous efforts. The loping rhythm of the title track followed by the straight-ahead rock of "Wall of Fire" open things up, and with the exception of the final track ,("Little Bag of Gloom"), are the only songs under four minutes. "Gloom" is a simple song, backed by what sounds like a Casio organ. In between we're treated to a range of rock songs, including a cover of the Rolling Stone's "2000 Light Years from Home."

By far my favorite MM songs are the slower, mid-tempo tracks. These also tend to be the songs where the psych/stoner/space rock influences are most apparent. "Cyclone", "I'm Calling You" and the instrumental "Freeze and Pixillate" fit the bill nicely for anybody seeking a smoother rock experience with a hint of exploration. "Solid Gold" is the standout track, and like some other MM efforts, ("Third Alternative" from Dopes to Infinity and the title track from Spine of God come to mind) is also the longest. MM seems to flourish when it comes to long-form rock songs, never having to resort to the single-chord-jam-with- accompanying- 2-minute-solo to round things out. They may be long, but the songs never come off as self-indulgent.

This is a rock album, and a good one. One man's inspiration and passion is on display here, and it works. You probably won't reach any new and wonderful conclusions about yourself and why you're on the planet from listening, but so what? Give over to Dave what is rightly his and follow the glittering path to rock salvation. Purpose in service, rockers, purpose in service.


Monster Magnet
Napalm Records
Rock/Stoner Rock/Pysch. Rock 

This is their best effort since Powertrip (1998), and nobody who isn't already a fan will give a shit. This is a shame, because Wyndorf and Co. have managed to produce the unholiest of unicorns - a solid rock record. 

My love for Monster Magnet is as near to unconditional as I can manage. They're fucking fun, and they make fun albums. Lately I've noticed quite a few music writers and reviewers claiming that if you don't like [insert cheesy/dessicated glam, pop metal act] then you "hate fun." Bullshit. If all fun is is a post-ironic irony, a wink and a nod while raising the horns, you can fucking have it. When I say this album is fun, I mean I like it. You know, like it like it. 

Monster Magnet have always written good songs, and there's plenty of gold bracketing Powertrip on Dopes to Infinity (1995) and God Says No (2001). The slow rock burn of "Negasonic Teenage Warhead" and lazy swing of  "Dead Christmas" mark Dopes a rock record, while the psych. rock influence on display in God comes through loud and clear on "Kiss of the Scorpion." It's difficult to consider these albums second efforts. They'd stand out in any band's catalog. But they lack the power and authority of the band's most successful album. Mastermind, however, does not. Monster Magnet has always borne their influences proudly, no more so than here and, like Powertrip, they are seamlessly woven throughout. This is no compilation of radio-friendly hits and B-side filler. This is a fucking record. 

Mastermind  is an exercise in efficiency and form. Nearly every song opens with a lone bass line or riff before the rest of the band kicks in. There are obligatory solos and predictable bridges. The parts are common, but the effect is not. A kind of pop culture haruspex, Wyndorf butchers American history, myth and popular culture and interprets the remains. It's familiar and a little comforting. The Fantastic Four, and the Apollo program are invoked. "Perish in Fire" cribs a line from the Who, and "All Outta Nothin" calls on the Beatles.

The first four tracks are straight, mid-tempo rock. Single "Gods and Punks" anchors the introduction before the album shifts gears with the first of three anti-ballads, "The Titan who Cried like a Baby." The second, "Time Machine," is better, and helps break off mid-album sleeper tracks "Mastermind," "100 Million Miles," and "Perish in Fire." Things end strong with "All Outta Nothin." The only real lull in the whole collection is "When the Planes fall from the Sky," a good song that disrupts the flow just a little bit. Fans who spring for the limited edition get two bonus tracks for their support, "Watch me Fade" and "Fuzz Pig." Both could easily have found homes on the album proper, with the second representing the band's most dissonant work here.

Rockers should love this album. Metal heads should love this album (with the likely exception of dudes who won't shut the fuck up about how awesome Camel were). Waning, cubicle-bound heshers could rock this at their desk while surfing Craigslist for IROC parts. Play this for five year old kids and watch them proto-mosh on the carpet. Play it the car and get anywhere faster without even trying. Spin it at a party on repeat and count the hours before anyone complains, and then kick them the fuck out.   

In some ways, Monster Magnet are a victim of their own success. Powertrip was a ballsy rock album with crossover appeal, building on their already significant reputation with heavy airplay and a slot in MTV's diminishing video rotation. When following efforts failed to meet exceedingly high expectations, fans and music execs drifted away. No wonder really that the last three albums have all been released by European indies. But I can't help but think things have all worked out for the better. Powertrip rightly stood out as a singular, coherent piece. Until now. Mastermind may not be better, but it's certainly as-good-as. And that's real good.