Tuesday, October 30, 2012

13 Days of Halloween, 13 Wicked Albums: End of Days

Deathspell Omega
Si Monumentum Requires, Circumspice (2004)
When I was a Christian, there were certain records and certain bands that seemed "possessed" to me, as if the sacred or profane were speaking through the musicians. Of course, I no longer believe in the supernatural, but I do think there are some artists who may occasionally tap into human experience and emotions in ways that surpass most other creative endeavors. Many of the albums I've discussed do not actually approve of the gimmicks they sell. Nick Cave does not encourage murder, Slayer doesn't really worship Satan, and Black Sabbath probably don't endorse the occult. Deathspell Omega is an entirely different matter.

Despite their somewhat comical name, the band is very serious about its music. So serious, in fact, that its members have chosen to remain anonymous in the hopes of putting the focus on the music rather than the musicians. What is known about them, and what is widely confessed in their lyrics and imagery, is that they are Satanists. No, not like Slayer; not even like Anton LaVey and other so-called satanists who are basically atheists under another name. The members of Deathspell Omega are theistic Satanists, meaning that they do believe in a "being" called Satan. But this is not the same Satan envisioned in Protestant Christianity, and it may not even be accurate to call it a "being." From what I've gathered out of lyrics and interviews, the Satanism of Deathspell Omega is an interesting blend of gnostic, hermetic, Abrahamic, Qabalistic, and various occult beliefs. They regard Yahweh/Jesus as the demiurge - a misguided, or harmful, and deluded being that created this universe - while Satan is seen as the figurehead among 11 deities that are all manifestations of the true god, who rules the realm of Chaos, into which our universe will some day be subsumed.

Si Monumentum Requires, Circumspice is Latin that translates to: "If you seek His monument, look around you." Latin is used several times throughout the album, not only in song titles, but in lyrics as well. The first track is one of three prayers that serve as introductions and interludes. These prayers are predominantly instrumental, though a couple feature ominous chanting. "First Prayer" is accompanied by a picture in the CD insert of a horrendously emaciated man, arms outstretched, as the invocation is delivered:

Lungs filled with embers and regurgitating boiling blood
I say Praise the Lord, praise, O servants of the Lord...
We will sing a new song to thee, O God:
A psaltery of thirteen Stations,
May scoria bury Eden and blind the light of hope...

With the first actual song, "Sola Fide," (faith alone) we enter into the morbid chasm of a new breed of black metal. Here, minimalism is no concern, and so the music walks a fairly progressive line for the genre, while the production is a slightly murky one that manages both to suit the darkly abrasive style of music and to be clear enough to be audible and enjoyable. The compositions feature blistering blast-beats as well as mid-tempo hooks, dissonant doom rhythms, and slow, demented sounding melodies. Ambient effects and even choral arrangements are worked in at a few points too, as Deathspell Omega defies genre expectations in pursuit of their message.

Speaking of that, if you're interested to try and decipher the message of Si Monumentum, be sure to have a philosophy dictionary and a theology textbook ready. Many of the lyrics will appear confusing and obscure to those who aren't familiar with the beliefs I mention above, but if one thing is certain, it would be that the album is dead sincere in its blasphemy and its praise of evil. "Blessed is he that taketh rewarde to slea the soule of innocent bloude," the third prayer says. "Blessed is he that murders Christ in himself and in his fellow men."

A review of this brevity can't do justice to this record. It flirts with insanity, depravity, and every dark, disgusting, and depressing thing. Undoubtedly, Si Monumentum is best experienced as a whole; if you listen to it, make sure you hear it in its entirety the first time. This is the first installment of the band's trilogy relating to god, Satan, and man's relationship with the two. The follow-up, Fas, descends rapidly into chaotic madness unlike anything most of us have heard, and the final part of the trilogy, Paracletus, reaches a staggering resolution between the two previous works.

For their intelligent lyrics, unique and unholy music, and uncompromising devotion to their art, I have to consider Deathspell Omega among my top three favorite bands. If there is one record ripe for any wicked occasion, for me it's Si Monumentum. The darkness of it may be a bit much for some, but those who are open to an unforgiving musical experience crafted in the furthest void of Chaos might find a lot to enjoy here.

Monday, October 29, 2012

13 Days of Halloween, 13 Wicked Albums: Day 12

Robert Johnson
King of the Delta Blues Singers (1961)
You've probably heard the story of the aspiring musician who, desperate to become a legend, sold his soul to the devil in exchange for unnatural talent. This long perpetuated rumor goes back most famously to Robert Johnson, a guitarist and singer who recorded between the years of 1936 and 1938. According to the tale, from a young age Johnson had a strong desire to become an accomplished blues musician. One night as he was traveling, he met a large black man at the cross roads of Highway 61 and U.S. 49 in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Yet this man was no mere mortal, but was actually Lucifer himself in human form. Robert made a deal with the devil to master the guitar in exchange for his soul. The man took the instrument from him, tuned it, played on it, and returned it to him, before (presumably) vanishing into the shadows, disappearing in a cloud of smoke, or descending below the road in a burst of flames.

There has been much speculation to how this legend originated, but Mr. Johnson certainly didn't make any effort to stem the tide of rumors. His song "Cross Road Blues" gives a nod to the story, as does "Me and the Devil Blues." His unsolved death at the age of 27 may have played a role in fomenting suspicion, not to mention that he allegedly had a habit of practicing in a graveyard to find quiet. In fact, very little is known of Johnson's life in general. Accounts differ on the year of his birth, his gravesite remains unknown, and the only documentation relating to him seems to be two recording sessions in Texas in '36 and '37, as well as a death certificate found thirty years later in 1968. Additionally, take a look at the photo in the video below. It's one of two known photographs of Johnson... and what is that up and to the right of his guitar... is that a face? The man from the cross roads, showing his approval?

Why has this made it onto a list of wicked albums? Though you probably wouldn't get the impression from most artists in the genre today, the blues was once considered the devil's music. Before the antics of Elvis Presley, before the lyrics of Led Zeppelin, the sad and depressing moan of the blues not only pushed the boundaries musically, but it caught the attention of women too. To capture the fancy of the ladies through skillful playing suggested you were too skilled, that you must have been granted some special power others didn't have. And whose job description includes stirring up lust in the hearts of young girls? On King of the Delta Blues Singers, Robert Johnson sings primarily about two things: women and the devil. If you have a hard time believing there's wickedness in blues, take some of the lyrics from "Me and the Devil Blues" as an example.

Early this mornin'
When you knocked upon my door
And I said, "Hello, Satan,
I believe it's time to go."

Me and the Devil
Was walkin' side by side
And I'm goin' to beat my woman
Till I get satisfied

You may bury my body
Down by the highway side
So my old evil spirit
Can catch a Greyhound bus and ride

Granted, this may not be wickedness on par with Darkthrone or King Diamond, but I'd say walking alongside Satan, beating your woman, and being buried near the site where you supposedly made your pact with the Prince of Darkness qualifies as being pretty wicked. Other tracks like "Hellhound On My Trail," "32-20 Blues," and "If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day" deal with similar themes. The guitar work is a little sad sounding, but is made increasingly dreary by the dated quality of the audio and the worn-out feel of the guitar itself. The hardships of the Depression can definitely be heard, and along with the chains of racial oppression and the difficulties of life in general, Johnson delivers harrowing guitar melodies accompanied by a chillingly beautiful yet sorrowful voice. To call his performances "ghostly" in this digital age might be an understatement.

The reasons I find this album enjoyable and haunting are almost the same reasons I find Darkthrone and many other black metal bands enjoyable and haunting. They use a deceptively simple production to achieve a vast atmosphere that captures the imagination. The music is minimalist, though full of sadness, pain, anger, and darkness. The lyrics speak from the heart, even when that heart expresses itself in blasphemous and unconventional ways regarded as ugly or forbidden by many. King of the Delta Blues is likely not the blues you're used to, much as modern black metal is a phantom of what it used to be - now sanitized, commercialized, and adapted for a different audience. The beauty of these kinds of records is that they're brutally honest in laying bare all they've got, almost like a deathbed confession. In Johnson's case, some of these tracks actually were recorded shortly before his death. If you can handle a different kind of darkness, this album - which has influenced so many since its release - could make for quite a surreal Halloween.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

13 Days of Halloween, 13 Wicked Albums: Day 11

A Blaze in the Northern Sky (1992)
If I were less concerned with being fair and providing some variety, I could easily fill this list of thirteen evil albums with nothing but black metal releases. What could possibly be more wicked than a whole genre founded around the Dark One himself? The early black metal recordings have rawness, aggression, and dissonance to them that feels utterly primal and profane. Though the first hints of it emerged in the 1980s with the English band Venom and the Danish band Mercyful Fate, the genre really took off in Norway in the 1990s with outfits like Mayhem, Burzum, Emperor, Immortal, and Darkthrone. The last of these, Darkthrone, became a legend in their own right for consecutively putting out three of the most highly-regarded contributions to the black metal scene.

A Blaze in the Northern Sky represents a turning point in the band's career, as well as a melding of old and new music. Prior to this album, Darkthrone actually played death metal for their debut, Soulside Journey. For their sophomore effort, they decided to throw the label a curve ball that came in the form of a wall of fuzzy distorted guitars, roughly mixed and overpowering drums, and hoarse, distant screams - not to mention songwriting far more minimalistic than anything off the debut. Even so, the material does constitute somewhat of a 'bridge' between the old death metal style of the band and their newer style, which would be refined into a purer form for the two follow-up albums, Under a Funeral Moon and Transilvanian Hunger. Many of the riffs are heavy death metal chords 'translated' to the new style. According to Fenriz, the band's drummer, this decision was not received well by the label, but A Blaze has turned out to be one of the iconic releases in black metal.

One reason why I love this album as much as I do is because it took a lot of inspiration from Bathory and Celtic Frost, but used it in such a way to create something darker, bleaker, more intense, and more evil. Bathory and Celtic Frost were two of the godfathers of the black and death metal genres, each with very distinct styles and infectious melodies. A Blaze is like the unholy offspring of these bands. It opens with a deep, ominous ambient soundscape, where single tom hits on the drums echo every few seconds, before more eerie noises and sinister chanting begin, and a tortured voice leads up to the sudden explosion of a pounding black metal pulse, as if some wretched monstrosity was summoned up from the pit of Hell. The intro, aided by the cover, provides the mental picture of a cult of robed figures chanting infernal words in a circle around an altar in the middle of the woods, as the wind and some unseen malignant forces hum softly at first, before building up to a frightening bellow.

Dramatic? You bet your ass, and that's part of what makes it so great. In fact, the entire record sounds like the band took some battery-powered equipment out to a clearing in the forest and musically unleashed the demons in the dark of night. The reverb and lo-fi production give it that sound of a tortured soul crying out from somewhere deep in the darkness. And as one might expect, the lyrics are all about the occult and Satan, indicated by such tracks as "In the Shadow of the Horns" and "The Pagan Winter." Darkthrone lives up to their name, producing albums that consistently sound cold, dark, and abrasive. While their black metal style is arguably perfected on the two follow-ups to this record, A Blaze in the Northern Sky establishes a gritty, malevolent atmosphere that they don't quite succeed as much in capturing, I feel.

13 Days of Halloween, 13 Wicked Albums: Day 10

Epicus Doomicus Metallicus (1986)
When we're talking about metal, everything goes back to Black Sabbath. Power metal, thrash metal, death metal, black metal - whatever the subgenre, it owes its existence to the heavy, dark, and occasionally aggressive style basically pioneered by Ozzy, Tony, Geezer, and Bill. Yet if there is one genre that has really taken the most influence from the Sabbath sound, it would have to be doom metal. Doom rests on slow, often ominous riffs characteristic of such Sabbath songs as "Electric Funeral," "Into the Void," and, of course, "Black Sabbath."

After Ozzy and company paved the way, bands like Pentagram and Witchfinder General carried on the genre, but doom would not be refined much until Candlemass' 1986 debut. The album title, Epicus Doomicus Metallicus, gave the name to the new subgenre of epic doom metal. This is a take on the dark and heavy formula that revolves around long songs, operatic and choral vocals, and bears a fair amount of inspiration from classical music. The bluesy, rock 'n' roll side to some of the early doom bands, particularly Sabbath, is more or less absent from Epicus, where the atmosphere is purely one of sorrow, mystique, and evil. The opening line of the first track, "Solitude," says it all: I'm sitting here alone in darkness, waiting to be free...

From this debut, Candlemass created an impressively unique and powerful style for themselves, much as Sabbath did with their own debut back in 1970. Bassist Leif Edling is the mastermind to a lot of the band's music, but Mats Ekstrom re-imagines drumming in the doom genre by incorporating double bass kicks (very scarcely used before then), and guitarist Mats Bjorkman lays down some amazing guitar harmonies and crushing riffs. Interestingly, though, some of the other unique aspects of the album seem to have come about more out of luck. The vocalist on the record, Johan Langquist, is a classically trained singer who was hired for the session and did not return for subsequent Candlemass albums. On Epicus, he delivers haunting baritone vocals in an operatic style that became a major component of the epic doom genre. Guest guitarist Klas Bergwall also contributes leads that have a bit of a classical touch to them, further adding to the somber, antiquated feel of the music.

Lyrically, the debut deals almost entirely with fantasy and mythology, particularly the supernatural and occult. Wizards and sorcerers, fortune-tellers and demons, Epicus tells story after story in dramatic fashion, which certainly makes for great Halloween material. One could argue whether or not that qualifies it for being wicked, but once you listen to the indescribably epic and sinister "Demons Gate," you'll find that it alone earns this album a place of recognition. You won't find any odes to Satan on Candlemass' debut, yet you will find music that embraces darkness and doom in a different way. Candlemass is another one of my favorite bands, and Epicus is a masterpiece, in my opinion, so give it a try if you're looking for the mystical, elegant, and elaborate kind of wickedness while celebrating All Hallow's Eve.

Friday, October 26, 2012

13 Days of Halloween, 13 Wicked Albums: Day 9

Black Metal (1982)
Do you believe in god?
He's chained up like a dog
And every hour he screams,
"Satan rules supreme!"

Before there was Slayer, Possessed, Mayhem, or any of the other 'devil-worshiping' bands that forged their own infernal genres, there was Venom. In 1981 they burst onto the scene with Welcome to Hell, an album full of raucous music with the most blasphemous, Satanic lyrics the world had yet to see. The follow-up record, Black Metal, amped up the darkness and irreverence and has become a classic in extreme metal, inspiring countless musicians since its release, and even being inducted into Robert Dimery's list of 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.

I would have to classify Black Metal as one of those albums that's so shamelessly bad that it's good. The songs are raw and simplistic, the musicianship is sloppy, and the lyrics are so ridiculously over-the-top with the Satanism gimmick that it almost comes across as a parody of itself. Mantas uses his guitar more as a weapon than an instrument as he fires off noisy and imprecise riffs through a murky, reverb-coated tone. Cronos belts out the vocals with an unmistakable, acidic, and gravelly voice, while hammering away on his distorted bass as if it's another guitar. Abaddon haphazardly assaults his drums like he's trying to bash in the skull of an angel. Furthermore, despite the album name, Venom plays music that's more like speed metal or NWOBHM (New Wave of British Heavy Metal). With the typical lo-fi production of black metal, plus the blistering aggression of the songs, flaws are easily overlooked. But imagine a slightly out of tune, occasionally off time rendition of Judas Priest, cranked up in speed and featuring a vocalist who doesn't really sing as much as he yells... and then you'll begin to get the picture.

If Venom had taken themselves seriously, this album probably would have been little more than a laughable footnote in history. What makes this work is the fact that the band is clearly quite aware of how they sound, and it seems to have been their intention all along to do something shocking, controversial, and downright ugly in so many senses of the word. How else would the devil's music sound, anyway? The strength of Black Metal is its confidently defiant attitude. The energy and atmosphere don't make it easy to ignore the flaws, but actually make you appreciate the flaws. The unrestrained intensity of the music practically guarantees that flubs will be part of the process. Those who say chaos is beautiful do not mean that it's orderly or perfect. Rather, to borrow the common phrase, it's only perfect in its imperfection.

The songs on Black Metal are infectious, great for headbanging, and absurdly fun. The best known track is the fantastically catchy "Countess Bathory," written about the Hungarian noblewoman who was rumored to have tortured and murdered young girls, bathing in their blood to preserve her beauty (the 'bloody countess' has been the subject of many metal songs and albums over the years). "Buried Alive" is like a lumbering zombie, quietly awakening at first, breaking out of the grave, and plodding along into the next song, "Raise the Dead," which is an upbeat ode to necromancy. As one might expect, "Sacrifice" details a story of virgin sacrifice to the dark lord, and "Don't Burn the Witch" is about... well, sparing witches from persecution. By far the oddest track is "Teacher's Pet" - a nice and vulgar little fantasy that makes Van Halen's "Hot for Teacher" seem like gospel music.

I must confess: Venom is one of my favorite bands and Black Metal is one of my favorite albums. I can't pretend to be unbiased, and perhaps my background has influenced my strange love for defiantly blasphemous things, but since this is a list of the most wicked horror-themed albums, I think the bias is no impediment. Black Metal will get your blood pumping, your head banging, your hand raising the horns, and your Christian friends and family will be screaming and convulsing on the floor as the mighty power of His Satanic Majesty overcomes them. Well, ok, maybe not that last bit, but if you're looking for evil and darkness for Halloween, you can't go wrong with this classic metal album.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

13 Days of Halloween, 13 Wicked Albums: Day 8

Seven Churches (1985)
Would you believe that before joining Primus, guitarist Larry Lalonde played in a death metal band? Well, not just any death metal band, but the death metal band that practically started the genre. Although today their music may sound more akin to thrash, Possessed are widely regarded as the innovators of death metal for a few reasons, not the least of which is the fact that their debut album concludes with the aptly titled track "Death Metal." There is still some argument over whether Possessed or Death actually made the first death metal record, but for me the answer is clear. Many of the gods of the genre, from Morbid Angel and Cannibal Corpse to Deicide and even Death, have hailed Possessed as a major influence.

This review is not about debating the genre of the band, however, and were we to concede that it is thrash, it's still very different from most of the other thrash albums of the 80s. Larry Lalonde and Mike Torrao create a chaotic churning maelstrom of madness with their guitars while Mike Sus pounds away relentlessly on his kit and Jeff Becerra roars into the microphone with a ferocity more demonic than Tom Araya at his prime. The raw production also plays a role in the unique feel of the album, particularly how everything is soaked in reverb, sounding like malignant spirits crying out from beyond the grave.

Seven Churches begins with the haunting theme from The Exorcist, right before appropriately launching into an unyielding onslaught of audio terror. The first time I heard the opening track, it almost felt painful to my ears. Possessed couldn't have picked a better name, playing very dissonant, tremulous, and noisy riffs through that reverb-overkill production job in a manner that grates on your nerves and confuses your mind. Unlike much of modern death metal, Possessed also doesn't stay on the lower end of the strings, but freely moves about from pummeling chord attacks to screeching strangulation of the higher notes, like some sort of apparition gliding frightfully through the night air.

Lyrically, the band was clearly competing with Venom and Slayer to write the most evil Satanic songs they could come up with. Practically every track dishes out the devil and hell, not in a very creative way, but like blunt force trauma to the head. Lines such as "Pounding death from my hands / Spreading Satan through the lands" and "God is slaughtered, drink his blood" are characteristic of Seven Churches. Here you get the best of both worlds: shameless blasphemy and Satanic pride. Combined with the equally irreverent music, what you will hear on this record is wicked indeed (as if the inverted cross and demon tail on the cover don't give it away). By no means would I recommend this for everyone, but if you're curious about the origins of death metal, or you're willing to try something a bit crazy, you may just someday find yourself congregating at the Seven Churches.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

13 Days of Halloween, 13 Wicked Albums: Day 7

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Murder Ballads (1996)
On the last review, I noted that I have a personal preference for the "malevolently supernatural" in the horror genre. It may seem strange then that among this list of wicked albums I have Murder Ballads, a record that doesn't deal in the occult, the Satanic, or anything of the sort, but rather revolves exclusively around the all-too-human act of murder. The cover art brings to mind Stephen King's Misery, which toys with the balance between our fear of isolation and our fear of other people, and this is also a recurring theme throughout the album. We are social animals, some of us desperate to avoid loneliness, and others who manipulate this desire to destructive ends. In Murder Ballads, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds give us a reflection of the inhumanity in humanity.

For me, a great amount of the appeal to this album comes from its interplay of dark and light, yin and yang. There are tracks like "Song of Joy" and "The Kindness of Strangers," which inundate the listener with a somber and sorrowful mood. Then there are tracks like "The Curse of Millhaven" and "O'Malley's Bar" that turn up the tempo to a fun, playful beat. Lyrically, there are songs that tip-toe through subtle implications designed to let the imagination wander, such as "Lovely Creature." On the other hand, there are songs that are unapologetic in their dark and direct storytelling, like the already mentioned (and ironically named) "Song of Joy." Stylistically, the killings come in a wide variety, from blues and rock 'n' roll to slow dance ballads and jazzy country. Nick Cave has quite a range to his voice, but usually sticks with a deep and smooth baritone. Often times it's the bizarre combination of vibrant music with dismal lyrics and vocals that makes for the creepiest experiences on the album.

To touch briefly on the stories told in the songs, they take a variety of forms too. "Where the Wild Roses Grow" - probably the best known track off the album - tells the tale of a man who seduces and murders a woman, leaving her among the roses. "Henry Lee" is about a woman who kills a man out of jealousy and/or because he spurns her advances. "Song of Joy" presents the murder of a man's family as told through a recounting of the details to a bartender (it may be implied that the father was the murderer). "O'Malley's Bar" is a 14-minute description of how a disgruntled townsperson goes on a killing spree in a bar. Thus, rather than continually heaping depression upon the listener, Nick Cave and co. at least try to keep things entertaining by throwing in variations on their central theme.

Murder Ballads does conclude on a more positive note, too, with a cover of Bob Dylan's "Death is Not the End." I can't recommend this album for everyone, especially not for those who might be bothered by some fairly graphic murder stories, but it is one wicked record that may appeal to horror fans who prefer less heavy and aggressive genres, as well as those who like to vary things up from time to time or are generally open to diverse styles of music. The overall atmosphere is beautiful and yet brooding, like storm clouds brewing over a blood red sunset. An integral part to a lot of horror is that ray of light that allows for the slimmest glimmer of hope. The darkness may be strong, but the winter will pass, as it always does, and the harvest time will come again.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

13 Days of Halloween, 13 Wicked Albums: Day 6

Hell Awaits (1985)
Like Black Sabbath, Slayer is a band that probably needs no introduction. Well known for their style of speedy thrash metal, wild chromatic guitar solos, the tortured yell of vocalist Tom Araya, and their over-the-top Satanic and anti-religious lyrics, Slayer cemented themselves as one of the preeminent bands of the genre with 1986's Reign in Blood. However, for me personally, Hell Awaits has to take the cake not just as their wickedest record, but arguably their best effort overall too. But before any rabid Slayer fans want to throw down with me in the pit, allow me to explain.

There's no arguing that the first five or six releases (including the spectacular Haunting the Chapel EP) are some of the finest thrash albums, as well as the best moments of Slayer's catalog. In my opinion, though, what sets apart Hell Awaits from Reign in Blood is the raw ferocity in the production, songs, and even the lyrics, to an extent. The album begins with feedback, the slow beating of drums, and a backwards message that says "join us." If that isn't a creepy enough intro, the march-like progression of the opening riff will draw you a nice picture of thousands of souls filing one by one into the dark depths below. Following the titletrack, we have other standout songs of uncanny evil, such as "Kill Again," "At Dawn They Sleep," and the vile and disturbing "Necrophiliac."

Slayer's early material is marked by a fascination with the occult and the shock value Satanism gimmick, and this already started to fade by Reign in Blood, where we see tracks focused more around death, insanity, and religious mockery. It's good for bands to mature and not fall into the same tired old monotony as so many others (I'm looking at you, Deicide), but when I want to get the Halloween spirit, I go for the malevolently supernatural. It may seem strange, being that I'm an atheist, yet when you look at the success of otherworldly horror stories/films against the purely naturalistic ones... it doesn't take a genius to know that horror can't all be based in verifiable reality, or else it loses its appeal, becomes predictable, and so forth. I also happen to like some mythos and mystery with my horror.

Hell Awaits feels like something channeled from the bowels of Lucifer's domain: it's rough, uncompromising, aggressive, sadistic, and sinister. It's the dark descent into Hades after Show No Mercy, and prior to the ascent into fame and glory that is Reign in Blood. The guitar work on the album is moderately progressive for Slayer, with loads of riffs, hooks, and moments of creativity that shine through in some of the longest songs in their repertoire. Alongside South of Heaven, this is one of the more innovative points in their career, making for music that isn't just fast and chaotic, but can be cryptic and enchanting at the same time. After the brief 37 minutes of Hell, you won't want to leave.

Monday, October 22, 2012

13 Days of Halloween, 13 Wicked Albums: Day 5

Iced Earth
Horror Show (2001)
No other album says Halloween to me like Horror Show by the heavy metal band Iced Earth. Many artists have adapted popular tales of terror to musical form, especially when it comes to the famous Universal Studios monsters. In my opinion, though, few have had the success Iced Earth displays on this album. Not only does it cover the gamut from Dracula and Frankenstein to the Omen trilogy and the Phantom of the Opera, but the songs are packed with an impressive mix of brutality, suspense, epic-ness, and evil that one would expect from such a collection.

For those who may be unaware of Iced Earth, you might say that their style is a slightly modernized take on Iron Maiden and Metallica. There is the thrashy, aggressive side of Metallica that makes it into many of their songs (such as "Jekyll & Hyde" and "Dracula" on this record), but also the melodic and climactic power of Maiden that often comes out in longer tracks (i.e. "Damien" and "The Phantom Opera Ghost"). Memorable Maiden-like guitar harmonies are also a staple of Iced Earth's music. The vocalist, Matt Barlow, is versatile enough to change from a gruff yell to an operatic wail and even a Halford-esque, high-pitched scream. The track "Dracula" is a shining example of how he pulls it all off in a beautiful yet demonic-sounding way.

I get the strong impression that Horror Show was a labor of love for guitarist Jon Schaffer, and possibly for the other members too. Iced Earth evolved out of Shaffer's earlier band Purgatory, which had put out three demos, among which was one actually titled "Horror Show." This 1986 demo included songs about Dracula, Jack the Ripper, and Jason Vorhees, and although there's probably no real resemblance to the later release under the same name, it's cool to note that Schaffer has had such a long-lasting interest in the horror classics - an interest which definitely comes out to much acclaim on Iced Earth's Horror Show

The lyrics especially are fantastic, not the silly or generic kind some bands have written on characters like Jack or Count Dracula, but the kind that seethe with mythology, darkness, and mystery. A number of tracks take lines and choruses straight from the old movies. "Damien" incorporates the little poem from the first Omen film, as well as Sam Neil's blood-curdling soliloquy in the third film:

Nazarene, what can you offer?
Since the hour you vomited forth from the gaping womb of a woman
You have done nothing but drown men's soaring desires
In a delusion of sick sanctimonious morality
I was conceived of a jackal
Your pain on the cross was but a splinter compared to the agony of my father
I will drive deeper the thorns into your rancid carcass
You profaner of Isis
Cursed Nazarene
I will avenge thy torment

If that isn't wicked, then nothing is! However, my personal favorite on the album may have to be "The Phantom Opera Ghost," where guest vocalist Yunhui Percifield sings in the role of Christine alongside Barlow's phantom. The two create a chilling contrast of beauty and beast, victim and madman, and the addition of an ethereal organ keyboard effect and some powerful transitions between electric and acoustic help to make this an outstanding finish to an incredible album. I could go on and on about this record, touching on the phenomenal drumming of Richard Christy, the bass lines by renowned bassist Steve DiGiorgio, or the awesome artwork on the CD insert, but I'll save that for you to discover yourself. Horror Show is one wicked album I would recommend to any fan of rock and metal. You won't see much else on this list that comes from the 21st century, and perhaps that's because this is just that good.


Sunday, October 21, 2012

13 Days of Halloween, 13 Wicked Albums: Day 4

III: November-Coming-Fire (1986)
Two years ago I had the pleasure of seeing Danzig live on the day before Halloween, along with some other great bands like Marduk, Toxic Holocaust, and Possessed. It was easily one of the most unforgettable concert experiences I've had. However, choosing a favorite album out of Glenn Danzig's career for a list like this is not so easy a task. He's best known for being the frontman of the Misfits, the legendary punk band of the early 80s that established the "horror punk" subgenre. After leaving the Misfits, he started up Samhain, which integrated more elements of rock and gothic music. By 1987 Samhain evolved into a new band simply called Danzig, dropping most of the punk influence for a bluesy rock and metal style inspired by Black Sabbath.

I would have to say that Danzig is my favorite project in Glenn's career, although I enjoy the others too. But for this list, the album has to be something sinister, lyrically and musically. The Misfits took a good deal of their material from cult sci-fi and horror films of the 50s and 60s, and yet their music has an upbeat, almost happy thrust to it, like a lot of the early punk bands. Danzig, on the other hand, probably has some of the darkest songwriting, and some of the evilest lyrics, but occasionally we're thrown a love ballad or one of several songs about gettin' down and dirty. Samhain is kind of a cross between the styles of the Misfits and Danzig, with lyrics that border more on the occult than the fun, horror movie influence of his earlier work. The name Samhain comes from the ancient Celtic New Year celebration that served as part of the origin of Halloween.

So why pick III: November-Coming-Fire? This record has an ominous touch to it that many of Danzig's other records don't have, I would argue. It may be the goth elements, such as the reverb-drenched production, the chorus-laden guitars, and the eerie ambient keyboard effects. Add to that the Presley meets Jim Morrison style of Danzig's singing and you get music that winds up sounding not just wicked, but oddly creepy and tense too. "To Walk the Night" and "Halloween II" bring this out the most, and then there are also hard-hitting guitar-driven tunes like "Mother of Mercy" and "Let the Day Begin." Unfortunately, though, the album ends with the bluntly sexual lyrics of "Human Pony Girl," which is definitely the record's low point. Otherwise, III has a great haunting atmosphere that is fairly unique and seems to have vanished all too quickly from Danzig's music.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

13 Days of Halloween, 13 Wicked Albums: Day 3

De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas (1994)
When it comes to evil music, the black metal genre is impossible to ignore. Though today it has been heavily commercialized and reduced to just another gimmick for many bands, it caused a firestorm of controversy in the early '90s, not only for the overtly blasphemous and Satanic lyrics, but for its association with several church burnings, a few murders, and cases of suicide. Mayhem, one of the Norwegian innovators of the genre, is perhaps as well known for their music as they are for the dark and tragic events surrounding their history.

De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas is the first full-length by the band, coming years after their 1987 debut EP, Deathcrush. The album title is Latin that is meant to translate to "Lord Satan's Secret Rites," although the phrase is reportedly somewhat ambiguous. Writing for the record actually began shortly after 1987, but the final release had to be delayed for multiple reasons. In 1991, Mayhem's original vocalist, Dead, slit his wrists and throat and shot himself in the head with a shotgun. Euronymous, the band's guitarist, found the body and took several photographs (one that made it onto an infamous live bootleg) before fashioning necklaces out of bits of the skull, which he gave to other musicians in the black metal scene. This act provoked the departure of Necrobutcher, the band's original bassist, who was replaced by Varg Vikernes, from the one-man band Burzum. Two years later, Vikernes - previously convicted of three church burnings in Norway - murdered Euronymous, allegedly over musical differences. The drummer, Hellhammer, and Necrobutcher worked to finish up the rest of De Mysteriis in tribute to their friend, releasing it at last in 1994.

The story of these events (and similar cases in the early black metal scene) is related more in-depth in the book Lords of Chaos, suffice it to say that it has become a notorious legend in the history of 'the devil's music.' Were that not enough to qualify this as a heinously wicked album, the music itself stands quite well on its own too. From the frantic tremolo-picked, blast-drumming frenzy of "Funeral Fog" to the simple headbanging groove of "Pagan Fears" and the slow icy crawl of "Freezing Moon," the songwriting on this album is infectious and evil-sounding indeed. It may be worth listening to just to hear the mad precision and technique behind Hellhammer's drumming, often held up as some of the best in the genre. I can't be sure if Euronymous either captured the spirit of Norwegian black metal guitar playing or if he actually did his part to establish it, but whatever the reality is, his work on De Mysteriis is certainly noteworthy as well.

Most of the lyrics are written by the former vocalist, Dead, and Euronymous, but are performed by Attila Csihar on the record. They deal with death, darkness, the occult, and, of course, Satanism. One of the biggest complaints listeners make against De Mysteriis is Attila's vocals. To be honest, they get on my nerves at times too, but I don't feel that it's the end of the world. Sometimes he can do a good growl or a great scream... other times he sounds more like Gollum. He does bring something unique to the album, though, even if it's not for everyone. On a side note, there are live versions of several of these songs that feature Dead on vocals, such as those on the Live in Leipzig release, recorded in 1990.

De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas is often cited as one of the most influential black metal albums of all time, and whether you love it or despise it, there's really no doubting its impact. Among the black metal genre, Mayhem covers are practically as commonplace as Bob Dylan covers are among the rock genre. Some people like their horror to be more about the story and build up than the really dark and disturbing stuff. But some of us can't get the same enjoyment out of the mundane, and some of us like variety too. This is one album I can't recommend for everyone, but if you're intrigued by what you've read here, then give it a try. I'm not much of a fan of Mayhem's other material, yet I regularly bust out De Mysteriis when October rolls around.

Friday, October 19, 2012

13 Days of Halloween, 13 Wicked Albums: Day 2

Black Sabbath

Black Sabbath (1970)

Black Sabbath is a band that needs no introduction, and no list of the best evil-sounding albums would be complete without them. The name comes from a 1960s Italian horror film starring Boris Karloff, which has become a classic in its own right. In their time, Black Sabbath was considered one of the darkest rock bands around, due to their lyrics and musical style that sparked rumors of Satanic influence. Today they have inspired countless new artists, spanning genres from rock and metal to punk and industrial. They might rightfully be called the godfathers of all dark, heavy, and aggressive music.

I wrestled with deciding which of their albums to include on this list, eventually settling on the debut for a number of reasons. Firstly, their namesake song, "Black Sabbath" is not only one of the most diabolical and memorable tunes ever written, but it's a hell of a way to begin a record. The sounds of thunder, rain, and the tolling of a distant bell bring us into a calm yet dreary atmosphere, just to be shattered seconds later by the sudden explosive detonation of the first chord, as if a portal to the underworld were violently forced open. Then we hear the other notes that follow, forming an interval known as a tritone. The dissonant and sinister sound of a tritone provoked religious composers and church officials to forbid its use for centuries, branding it the diabolus in musica, or "the devil in music." On top of this, Black Sabbath's signature song features lyrics inspired by an experience had by bassist Geezer Butler, who, after reading a book on the occult before going to sleep, awoke to see a figure in black standing at the foot of his bed.

From the very first song, Black Sabbath dives into darkness, and it keeps pushing deeper with tracks like "Behind the Wall of Sleep" and "N.I.B." The former is inspired by horror author H.P. Lovecraft's story Beyond the Wall of Sleep, and the latter is a tale of evil promises made from the perspective of none other than Satan himself. On the other hand, there are more light-hearted tracks such as "Evil Woman" and "The Wizard," yet the general feel of the album remains one of tension, murkiness, and occasionally malevolence. Aside from the opening song, the record probably won't send many chills down your spine, though it may give you the experience of surreal unease... in a good way!

Black Sabbath blends blues, rock, folk, and acoustic in this album along with some relatively twisted and bizarre lyrics for an interesting and enjoyable result. The second reason I chose this over the band's other releases is because the mood is fairly consistent. There's no overtly pro-religious pandering like there is with "After Forever" on the otherwise outstanding Master of Reality, there's no ridiculously silly tracks like "Fairies Wear Boots" on the equally outstanding Paranoid, and although I do love their other Ozzy-era albums like Vol. 4, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, and Sabotage, I think the earlier material is stronger - and perhaps darker - on the whole.

As a third reason for preferring Black Sabbath, there is the creepy artwork too. Paranoid's cover art is downright goofy, and the other albums have rather unimaginative designs, with the awesomely demonic Sabbath Bloody Sabbath being the one exception. Moreover, the debut's sleeve art originally had an inverted cross with a track listing, line-up info, and a pretty dismal poem inside it. While the poem is still on later pressings, the upside down cross is no longer there, which was allegedly the idea of the record company that the band eventually pulled from future releases.

Initially panned by critics, Black Sabbath's debut album has since become a classic. Undoubtedly, the atmosphere surrounding this record - from the lyrics to the music to the symbolism in the artwork - played a not insignificant role in its success. The wickedness of this album may pale in comparison to some of the music put out these days, but Black Sabbath is like one of those old horror film classics that, despite having dated special effects and all, succeeds at capturing the imagination far more than most modern attempts. 42 years later, this record is still haunting the minds of new generations of fans.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

13 Days of Halloween, 13 Wicked Albums: Day 1

Every October I break out some of my favorite horror-themed albums to get myself in the mood for Halloween. This year I've decided to do a list of thirteen of these albums over the course of thirteen days leading up to All Hallow's Eve. What constitutes a horror-themed record? For me, it's basically an album with music and lyrics that are dark and sinister. The lyrics revolve around anything from demons and Satanism to zombies, vampires, serial killers, and so forth. The music is almost always in a minor key or a key that sounds mysterious or eerie. Generally speaking, the record has to have a wicked feeling overall. That means no Green Day, no Justin Bieber, and no albums by other artists that would better be described as horri-ble rather than horror-themed. In terms of genre, however, this list is non-discriminatory, although most of it will probably be rock or metal, being that those genres are the ones I'm most familiar with, and they are arguably more dark and sinister than, say, polka or indie pop.

With that said, on to the first wicked album of the first day in the 13 days of Halloween!

King Diamond

Abigail (1987)

I'm not sure there's a better album to start this kind of list with. Released ten days before Halloween in 1987, Abigail is a spine-tingling tale of horror set to some quite macabre metal music. King Diamond is the eponymous solo project of the frontman from the Danish heavy metal band Mercyful Fate. King has quite possibly one of the most haunting falsettos in music history, like a cross between the creepy disembodied voice of a deceased child and the bone-chilling shriek of a banshee. While many musicians of today make use of falsetto in a soulful or feminine style of sorts, King's sounds downright evil and probably unlike anything you've heard before. As you might imagine, this suits the story and atmosphere of Abigail exceptionally well.

The album opens with a funeral speech informing us of the burial of Abigail la Fey, stillborn on the 7th of July, 1777, and nailed to her coffin with seven silver spikes. Years later, in 1845, a descendant of the family, Jonathan la Fey, comes to visit the mansion with his pregnant wife Miriam, and over the course of the record we are told of ghostly apparitions, supernatural signs, demonic possession, and murder. Like every good horror story, this one is chock full of occult symbolism, not just in the number 7, but in the family name as well, which is an obvious reference to Anton LaVey, infamous founder of the Church of Satan. Conceptually, Abigail has practically everything one could ask for from a gripping tale of terror, as the lyrics even work to build suspense. Take the second track, "Arrival," for example, telling of Jonathan and Miriam's journey to the mansion:

Through the summer rain of 1845
The coach had finally arrived.
To the valley where the crossroads meet below,
And where all darkness seems to grow.
People blame it on the hill....
The hill where no one dares to go....
The mansion...where no one dares to go.
The coach had stopped, and from the window you could see
Seven horsemen in the night.

I should note that the storyline and lyrics of the album are all written by King Diamond, which is an impressive feat to say the least. Admittedly, I'm a sucker for concept albums, but Abigail goes above and beyond any other horror-based concept albums I've heard. You can easily tell that King is a big fan of the genre and knows it well indeed.

Musically, the album is heavy metal in the vein of Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Mercyful Fate, and other similar bands of the 80s. Lead/rhythm guitarist Andy LaRocque carved out quite a reputation for his work in King Diamond, seen in the infectious riffs of tracks like "A Mansion in Darkness" and the titletrack, as well as screaming neoclassical-influenced solos such as those on "The Family Ghost" and "Black Horsemen." While King Diamond's first solo effort, Fatal Portrait, is a good album in its own right, Abigail is arguably one of the best records of his entire career, thanks in part to the incredible songwriting that mixes hard rocking intensity with moments of twisted frightfulness and slow, creeping suspense. For a lot of metal fans - hell, for a lot of music fans - this is nothing short of a horror masterpiece that remains unrivaled after more than 20 years.

If there is one criticism I would direct at the album, it would have to be some of the "monster" voices, a few of which sound pretty goofy nowadays. It's nothing that will really detract from the overall feel or experience, but they are likely to elicit some laughs. I actually heard Abigail for the first time when I made an impulse buy at a store right before my family took the annual road trip to Kansas for Christmas. Listening to it in the dark of night on a long drive through open countryside is something that I'll never forget, since it made for a pretty chilling Christmas (pun intended). This is one album I will highly recommend to everyone willing to give it a chance. King's vocals may take a bit of getting used to for certain people, but if Abigail doesn't immediately catch your appreciation, she will grow on you... or is it in you?