Like you, the devout and steadfast metal fan, we at Last Rites take very seriously and personally our relationships with the bands we love. Invested heavily with emotion in the musical manifestations of our very identities, we rise and fall with their respective successes and failures, and these frequently come as a function of a band’s ability to handle transition. We chew our fingertips to nubs with the news that a favorite act is undergoing some transformation of sound or theme or players, knowing that with the peeling of cellophane from that flawless new jewel-case will come some momentous revelation. Or not. And from therein grows the great dissonance of yet-unanswered expectation. The anticipation is often intense and when the reveal has been made, we hang our heads in shame or raise our fists in shared triumphant rejuvenation.
In that moment, we’ve made a strong statement of allegiance, as the transition album is emblematic of that famous dividing of devotees from which some bands rise to new heights while others plummet to depths from whence they never emerge. Indeed the new boundaries laid down encompass us or they shunt us to the periphery. Are we to be empowered freemen dancing in the dawn of a new age? Or embittered diaspora longing for a promised land merely suggested, never realized? Because Heavy Metal is serious business and the redefinition of a sound carries the weight of existential rebirth.
In this first of three installments of “Metalmorphoses,” the Last Rites staffers offer up our favorite examples of bands that met transition with exceeding poise and the albums with which we were graced as a result.
SATYRICON – REBEL EXTRAVAGANZA
The open question: How does Satyricon, one of the leading lights of Norway’s fecund second wave of black metal (if often neglected in favor of Darkthrone, Emperor, Mayhem, Immortal, and Enslaved), and creator of some of the most stirringly atmospheric black metal triumphs of all time (in The Shadowthrone and Nemesis Divina), wind up playing shiny authoritarian arena rock with rounded-off black/punk edges?
The hinge, friends, is the magnificently corrosive (and massively underappreciated) Rebel Extravaganza. You see, toward the end of the millennium, mainman Satyr’s record label Moonfog had begun moving away from the straight second-wave attack of earlier releases from Darkthrone, Gehenna, and Satyricon, instead developing a reputation (not unlike Nocturnal Art Productions, though less with the fruity keys) for the burgeoning and gleaming black futurism of Dødheimsgard and Thorns. On Rebel Extravaganza, Satyricon dirties up that image with a gleefully filthy black ‘n roll malevolence that presages future (and, sadly, lesser) Moonfog acquisitions Khold and Disiplin. Satyr’s caustic vocals are pushed to the fore, the production is loud and full and warm rather than the typical cold distance of black metal’s ‘classic’ 90s aesthetes, and Frost’s pitter-pattery punishment churns like the relentless roiling of a factory blast furnace.
“Filthgrinder” and “Havoc Vulture” preview Satyricon’s later penchant for ultra-catchy black/rock singles such as “Fuel for Hatred,” “K.I.N.G.,” and “Black Crow on a Tombstone,” while remaining a fair bit more unhinged and therefore less formulaic than any of that which follows. “Havoc Vulture” in particular is a creative triumph, with spooky organ stabs backing the chorus and, yes, fucking heavy metal tambourine, so deal with it. Rebel Extravaganza teems with aggressive and occasionally industrial-tinged black ‘n roll anthems which never quite lapse into the more self-evident (some might say dumbed-down) grooves of later efforts. Whatever you may think of the three albums that have followed this, it’s undeniable that Rebel Extravaganza shook off the medieval, shadowy divinity of the 90s and opened its harsh, sickly maw wide for the welcomed ruin of a new millennium. Rebels indeed. [DAN OBSTKRIEG]
BATHORY – BLOOD FIRE DEATH
Over his long and productive career Bathory’s mastermind Quorthon explored many musical avenues, but he is best known for his foundational black metal albums Bathory, The Return… and Under the Sign of the Black Mark, and for singlehandedly spawning the Viking metal genre with the landmark album Hammerheart and its successor Twilight of the Gods. The changeover from Satan to Odin, however, did not occur overnight. In the midst of this transition lies an album that fits squarely into neither the black metal nor Viking metal box, but nonetheless remains one of the finest albums in the Bathory catalog. That album is Blood Fire Death.
Blood Fire Death is sometimes lumped into Bathory’s Viking period. Though I believe this to be a misclassification, it is not without basis. The Peter Nicolai Arbo painting “Åsgardsreien” which adorns the albums cover depicts a scene from Norse Mythology, and the albums intro is entitled “Oden’s Ride over Nordland”. Furthermore, Blood Fire Death is bookended by two epic length songs, “A Fine Day to Die” and the closing title track, which contain lyrics that are, if not explicitly Viking in nature, in much the same spirit as Bathory’s later Viking themed work. The intervening tracks, however, bear more musical resemblance to thrash metal than either black or Viking metal. Lyrically, the tracks “The Golden Walls of Heaven” and “Dies Irae” still cling to the band’s Satanic past, while “Holocaust”, and “Pace Till Death” deal with the more worldly topics of nuclear annihilation and speed addiction, respectively.
What Blood Fire Death might lack in thematic unity, it more than makes up for in quality.
The latter half of the eighties saw Quorthon’s compositional ability growing by leaps and bounds, and Blood Fire Death contains some of the most powerful metal Bathory ever made. [JEREMY MORSE]
QUEENSRYCHE – EMPIRE
Coming off the resounding artistic success of Operation: Mindcrime, for 1990’s Empire, Queensrÿche pared back their heady conceptualism and earlier Euro-metal tendencies in favor of a more streamlined approach. In doing so, they achieved a level of sales and success that they hadn’t seen before (and haven’t seen since) – Empire spawned six singles, over half its eleven tracks, including the massive MTV hit “Silent Lucidity.” And while (or perhaps because) it’s the ‘Rÿche’s most famous hour, it’s a turning point in the band’s history because it’s also the point at which they effectively stopped being a metal band. Though elements of the band’s earlier progressive metal leanings still break through sporadically, Empire is forever (and rightfully) defined by (and often disparaged for) its commercial hard rock aspirations.
Though removed from the Priest / Maiden-isms of The Warning, Empire was nevertheless a good record, one that found huge success alongside far less interesting huge successes from far less interesting hugely successful bands of the time. From the slightly corny inspirational anthem “Best I Can” through to the brilliant closer “Anybody Listening?,” Empire stumbles only twice, in the toss-off rocker “Resistance” (which is the closest the album comes to the band’s prior metallic base) and in the forgettable “One And Only.” Empire marked a transition not only stylistically, but unfortunately, it also began a qualitative shift, too. Post-Empire, Queensrÿche struggled to maintain their balance, making half a good record in Promised Land and maybe a quarter of one in the lackluster Hear In The Now Frontier before losing guitarist and chief songwriter Chris DeGarmo (twice) and subsequently bottoming out completely, finding a new low by chasing their highest high with 2006’s abominable Operation: Mindcrime 2. [ANDREW EDMUNDS]
PANTERA – COWBOYS FROM HELL
One of the worst kept secrets in heavy metal is that the mighty Pantera – best known as pot-smoking, trash-talking, foul-mouthed Texas hellraisers – was once the lowest form of life within the genre: a glam-metal band. For many though it stops there, using that mere fact and some admittedly embarrassing old promo photos to ridicule and discredit them as nothing more than a bunch of failed hair-farmers who jumped on the thrash metal bandwagon as it was gaining momentum in the late 80s. However, if one listens to the albums released during this time, they will discover a very clear evolutionary process that culminated in their breakthrough album, 1990’s Cowboys From Hell.
Their debut album Metal Magic was fairly typical – and laughable – glam of the day, with original vocalist Terrence Lee possessing a more melodic, lightweight voice than his eventual successor. Projects In The Jungle and I Am The Night were both heavier than their predecessors, although still firmly rooted in glam. When Phil Anselmo entered the fold for Power Metal, he brought a more aggressive vocal style to band’s increasingly heavier style, now approximately 50% glam, 50% thrash.
In short time, the band would scrap the melodies, the hairspray, and the spandex in taking their first step towards immortality with Cowboys From Hell. The opening notes of the title track are relatively simple, yet they say so much about Pantera’s refocused direction. You just know that you’re about to hear something new and exciting – and at that moment the main riff kicks you in the face and proves you right. Any lingering doubts are then swept away, fittingly, by the thundering “Primal Concrete Sledge.” The album continues on, and although some traces of the past remain, it clearly shows a band refocused and reborn. “The Art of Shredding”? Forget about it.
Although those first four (now disavowed) albums laid the groundwork for what Pantera would become, it was on Cowboys From Hell that they truly discovered themselves. Yet it was only the beginning. The intensity and “power groove” (as it came to be known) introduced here would not be perfected until the follow up Vulgar Display of Power, where all traces of the past were shed and only this new Pantera remained. The band somehow managed to get even heavier on subsequent albums, but the core sound introduced on Cowboys From Hell remained intact. [DAVE PIRTLE]