May, in the tradition of the times, is the month to hit the road. And Metal Box is no exception; while we’ll still be bringing you reviews of the latest and greatest hard rock and heavy metal released in a generally slow month, The A.V. Club’s metalhead-in-residence has decided to embark on a summer-long road trip, scaring the livestock in America’s rural heartland with the horrible meatgrinder sounds emanating from the stereo of his dozen-year-old beater. He’ll also be providing recaps of live shows he sees along his transcontinental journey, and giving advice about which summer tours deserve your attention. So hop in your ’73 AMC Javelin, put the quadraphonic version of Deep Purple’s Machine Head in your 8-track player, and join Metal Box as it starts its summer tour!
THE BRIDE WORE BUZZ. Although the Big Business merger was intended to add even more bottom-heaviness to the Melvins sound, it coincided with (on (A) Senile Animal) some of the band’s most hooky songwriting. Though it was a tremendous album, it caught some heat from those who thought the Melvins expansion signaled a decline in quality, and by the time the follow-up, Nude With Boots, was released, even the band’s staunchest defenders were starting to wonder whether the change had been a good idea. With the release of its latest, The Bride Screamed Murder (Ipecac Recordings), the band seems to be wondering what to do with itself. A marked departure from the poppier songwriting of (A) Senile Animal and the uncertain water-treading of Nude With Boots, it’s a monster slab of classic Melvins insanity, of the sort we haven’t really heard from Melvins since Maggot, its first album on Ipecac. From the clamorous opening of “The Water Glass” to a profoundly disturbed cover of the Who’s “My Generation,” this is a Melvins record that isn’t fucking around: The new crew has come in line with the sludgy, irresistible ruckus that Melvins made before their arrival, and that’s a good thing. There are little hints here and there of Flipper and Butthole Surfers, but overall, this is the Melvins being themselves, and that makes it this month’s must-own album.
AWOOOO! Although I was mostly covering the film side of the festival, I was lucky that one of the few bands I caught at this year’s South By Southwest was the Rhode Island doomster quartet Howl. Its set at Full Metal Texas was purely awesome, and it mopped up the beer-sticky Emo’s floor with the rest of the bands in attendance—a pretty awesome feat considering that it was playing alongside the likes of Naam, Born Of Osiris, and Iwrestledabearonce. At the time, I hadn’t heard Howl’s debut EP, but word had leaked out from the Skeletonwitch camp that Howl held its own against one of the most devastating live acts going during its recent East Coast stint. So I had high expectations when Howl’s first full-length, Full Of Hell (Relapse), finally arrived in my inbox. And while it didn’t duplicate the sheer brain-shoving power of the group’s SXSW gig, it’s still a terrific piece of work. Heavy, bossy doom with just enough stoner-fuzz elements to build into something much more crushing, Full Of Hell features enjoyable wacko lyrics, a super-tight songwriting structure, and a solid sound that seems like it’s coming from a much more seasoned band. And if Andrea Black doesn’t instantly become your new favorite female guitarist, you aren’t paying enough attention; her unmistakable chops and Matt Pike-style riffing alone make Howl a force to be reckoned with.
NO POCKY FOR SHARON. There’s been a lot of talk around The A.V. Club lately about the revivification of Ozzfest. But at the risk of offending the sensibilities of the father of heavy metal and his force-of-nature wife, the question these days isn’t whether Ozzfest will survive. The question is why we should care. I’ve been to three Ozzfests, and they were all enjoyable to some degree; even the one-day Dallas extravaganza in 2008 had its moments, though they mostly came on the remote side-stages from bands like Witchcraft and Goatwhore. But the truth is that Ozzfest, which once fulfilled a desperately needed function in the world of live metal, isn’t as needed as it once was. Regional metal festivals are thriving (this year’s New England Metal And Hardcore Festival was one of the best yet, with a stunning lineup ranging from Mastodon and Amon Amarth to the Red Chord, Municipal Waste, and Cattle Decapitation; and Maryland Deathfest VII—coming up later this month—is a bounty of riches, including Defeatist, Jucifer, General Surgery, Gorguts, Melechech, and Krallice, to name just a few). The Summer Slaughter tour has already confirmed some excellent bands for its July kickoff, including Veil of Maya, Cephalic Carnage, and Decaptitated. And Ozzfest’s main competitor, the Mayhem Festival, doesn’t offer much for fans of the underground, but with performers like Rob Zombie, Lamb Of God, Hatebreed, Shadows Fall, In This Moment, and (shudder) Avenged Sevenfold, they risk stealing Ozzfest’s mall-metal thunder. With such a lively festival schedule, and regional scenes able to organize on an unprecedented scale, is there any reason to keep Ozzfest going other than nostalgia?
BIBLE STORIES. Speaking of live performance, a few weeks before I set out on my summer road trip, I was able to check in at Nightrocker Live in San Antonio for a gander at the “Parched In The Western World” tour of Chicago’s Bible Of The Devil. I was less than blown away by its 2008 album Freedom Metal (Cruz Del Sur), but it’s one of those bands with enough energy and conviction to make even mediocre songs sound fantastic onstage. Its set also featured a few pretty fine-sounding new songs from an as-yet-untitled new album, and best of all, samples of Three Floyds Breweries’ “Bible Of The Devil” beer. What could be better than free beer? Well, the opening act, that’s what. On this leg of the tour, BotD was supported by the mighty Slough Feg, which delivered an absolutely searing set made up of new material (much of it drawn from the underrated Ape Uprising!) and old stuff from the Lord Weird days. Bible Of The Devil is way too much fun live for me to say its opening act blew it away, but Slough Feg at least proved that it can hold its own against any metal band any night of the week. The sooner we get a new Slough Feg album, the better.
IT’S ALIVE. Well, okay, technically, Robbin Crosby is dead, but that can’t stop Ratt! Yes, the guitar-slashin’ heroes of “Round And Round” are back, and they have not only made a new record, but, well… okay, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Infestation (Roadrunner) is Ratt’s first album in almost a dozen years, and it features almost its entire original lineup, less an off-brand bass player, and plus the excellent Carlos Cavazo of Quiet Riot providing slick stand-in guitar. Now, don’t get it wrong: If you didn’t like Ratt the first time out, you aren’t going to like Infestation, either. But if part of you longs for the damaged-hair and bottle-of-Jack decadence of the glam-metal days, this actually sounds satisfyingly like classic Ratt. Infestation won’t win any awards for originality, but there’s something to be said for a band that can pick up this cleanly after years of turmoil, and if you’re in the mood to pretend it’s still 1983, this might be the album for you.
Exodus also has a new album out: Exhibit B: The Human Condition (Nuclear Blast). It’s the first album with the new lineup since the competent but pointless re-recording of Bonded By Blood, and it really lets them stretch. Lee Altus and Gary Holt turn in blazing guitar work that can easily stand next to anything in the band’s powerful (and underrated) catalogue, and on an album that stretches the thrash format to sometimes unwieldy lengths, Rob Dukes does his best to make the vocals and lyrics memorable. It isn’t perfect—it’s too long, and at times, it seems to lose the tight focus that made previous Exodus albums so riveting—but it’s a fine continuation of the veteran band, and much more than just an exercise in nostalgia. (Snazzy cover, too.)
BLACK HATS. The last time we heard from Norwegian black-metal throwback 1349 was last year’s Revelations Of The Black Flame. It was a perfectly serviceable slab of second-wave Scando black metal, but for some reason, possibly having to do with black-metal fans being a bunch of hypersensitive babies who have gigantic hissy fits any time a band tries to do something even remotely outside the genre’s narrow confines, everyone who listened to it shit themselves and demanded that the band be burned alive. Now 1349 is back with the classic black-metal-at-thrash-metal-speed style that made it famous, and it’s dropped most of the flourishes that caused everyone to go bananas last time around. It’s also brought back Celtic Frost deity Tom-Tom Gabriel Fischer-Warrior to produce, and has sent personal letters of apology to the trü-kvlt militia, promising never to do anything unexpected again. The result, Demonoir, is a fine piece of work, featuring screaming blasphemy, muted bass, and ultra-high-tuned guitars, but damned if they don’t still slip in some bizarre keyed-up solos and disturbing, creepy piano along with the mood-altering electronics that break up every track. The usual suspects still won’t be happy, but it’s nice to see that 1349 is trying to keep it real while still doing its own thing.
The trü-kvlt crowd also despises New York City, suspecting that anyone born there might be genetically cursed with an irony gene, but the Apple keeps on cranking out pretty good black-metal bands, of which The Howling Wind is the latest. Its debut album on Profound Lore, Into The Cryosphere, takes a decidedly modern approach to BM, mixing bits and pieces of drone, doom, and even latter-day crust-punk-style Darkthrone into a solid foundation of classic old-school riffing. It’s a worthwhile first effort from a band I’d like to hear more of.
NEW, BUT NOT IMPROVED. Chicago deathcore band Veil Of Maya has always suffered a bit of an identity crisis. Composed of top-notch musicians, it has the chops to be a serious genre-transcending band along the lines of Red Chord and Born Of Osiris, with whom it shares personnel. But it’s also determined to give equal time to its commercial side, as evidenced by the decision, on its new album [id] (Sumerian), to release four versions with different-colored cover art and bring in Faceless’ Michael Keene as a producer. The result is something between the devil and the deep blue sea: The best songs are tight, concise, arresting bits of hardcore death metal, but they’re broken up by pointless noodling interludes, and the more mainstream-sounding blasts are generic bits of yawncore that will likely appeal to the Hot Topic crowd and no one else.
Elsewhere, Brain Drill—whose Apocalyptic Feasting was one of 2008’s most exciting bits of technical death metal—almost broke up last year. Judging from its new album, Quantum Catastrophe (Metal Blade), the band’s survival is a bad thing. Guitarist Dylan Ruskin is the only original member of Brain Drill, and his ear-peeling solos are as impressive as ever, but new vocalist Steve Rathjen seems curiously unengaged from the whole project, and replacement rhythm players Ron Casey and Ivan Mungula simply don’t have the chops or the determination to hold everything together. The result is an incoherent mess of doodly-doo, the exact sort of thing that tech-death is often accused of being—and the very thing Brain Drill managed to avoid until now.