Monday, December 29, 2014

Ten of the best metal albums of all time - Part V: Winter - Into Darkness

Even in a review series about some of the very best metal albums of all time, a series which is obviously to be loaded with superlatives in every review, there's bound to be one album which stands out the most. And it doesn't matter into how many parts I decided to divide this series - I picked tenrather arbitrarily - but if it were only five, or up to fifty, this one album would always stand out above all others. This album is, of course, Winter's Into Darkness, the pinnacle, the crown jewel in the history of all forms of heavy metal, for all times to come.

"Words cannot describe..." is a phrase that is not only strangely overused in reviews of such amazing works of art, but also contradictory to the purpose of a review itself, since using words to describe is exactly what one attempts at doing in this endeavour. It is however the first phrase to pop into my mind when beginning to try to wrap my mind around how to get the mind-blowing quality of this album across to the reader. I feel like an astronomer who tries to describe the universe in a few drab technical terms, when in reality it takes a lifetime of internalising all its aspects to realise just how amazing and impressive is in its entirety. Into Darkness, likewise, is something I can only sketch out in a few well-intentioned but never sufficient phrases without ever scratching the surface of its grandness, and no potential listener reading this review will grasp the magnitude of what was put on record here by a few general descriptions of the elements that make up the album's sound.

It is no coincidence that I chose an analogy to describing the universe when beginning to delve into an attempted characterisation of this album, because as the universe is unimaginably big in spacial dimensions, Into Darkness is the same in audial ones. There is a gravity to every note played on this album that evokes images of solar system-sized giants pounding down on planets with star-sized hammers. It feels like the perfect embodiment of the sheer heaviness bands have been going for ever since Black Sabbath played the very first notes of their eponymous song, and that only Winter have reached in this magnitude, and one that can never be surpassed. The amazing production of course does a great job of accomplishing this, with its thick and massive guitar tone and the accompanying strong and heavy presence of the bass. But the major credit lies, as always, with the songwriting, as no producer or engineer has ever created a masterpiece in music, only songwriters have.

How to make heavy metal in all its diversity of subgenres as heavy as possible has been a quest from the start, with a myriad of approaches to achieve this feat, but no band ever succeeded to an extent as Winter did right here, and no one ever will again. The ingredients are fairly simple. Due credit has to be given to obvious influences such as Celtic Frost (in the more uptempo parts) or Amebix (when things slow down), but what Winter achieve here is primarily the result of their own, simple, straight-forward, but utterly effective songwriting choices. Every chord is played with just the right amount of power behind it, and sustained for just the right length, arranged into riffs in which every chord feels to up the ante and increase the heaviness of its preceeding chord. The sheer massiveness of these riffs is almost surpassed by how dark an atmosphere they create, something that only adds to their gravity. It once again brings back the analogy to the universe, and objects that are so massive that not even light can escape them.

Not to be outdone by the riffs, the rhythm section acts with the same remorseless dedication to flattening the listener into residue the size of atoms or smaller. The pounding, warlike drumming in particular is a showcase exercise in brutal efficiency. The analogies in my mind vary between a hammer and an anvil, and the chains of a tank, but either of them at a cosmic size. Sparse keyboards help add keep the density intact at any and all times, leaving the listener no reprieve from the suffocating darkness and gravity of the audial maelstrom created. And above all tower the vocals.

What John Alman delivers here is a performance unrivaled in the entirety of the heavy metal genre. Appearing as standard Celtic Frost-inspired barks on the surface, only lowered by about an octave, they reveal an unimaginable depth of emotional power after repeated listens. And trust me, once your mind properly processes this album, there will be many, many repeated listens. Alman's performance creates a variety of mental images, from a war commander of an army of some form of gigantic, horrid creatures ready to conquer the universe and plunge all civilisations across its span into perpetual darkness, to a mad preacher of some ancient cosmic religion shouting sermons of an impending doom for all that lives in the entirety of space and time. The feeling they create is absolutely huge and suffocating, and leave no doubt that the end of all is nigh, and nothing can be done to prevent it.

The conclusion brings me back to the initial phrase of words being unable to describe, and while I may have done my best for my words to accomplish anything nearing a worthy description, I must live with the realisation that it is simply not possible to put into words what only many repeated listens of the album can achieve. If there ever was any album that needed to be heard, and needed to be heard as often and intensively as possible, it is Winter's Into Darkness. This is the essential metal classic that requires a spot in every self-respecting heavy metal connoisseur's collection. Were I forced to pick a best album of the entire genre at gunpoint, I would name this as my first choice without hesitation.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Ten of the best metal albums of all time - Part IV: Demilich - Nespithe

You know, in that alternate universe in which time runs backwards, this album would be the world's most derided as having stolen every single idea bands had after 1993. You can think of whatever band in the world in the late 1990s or 2000s having a really great idea, and Demilich will have said "Hah, we'll take your idea and do it in 1993!" Basically, this album is the culmination of all cool ideas in metal from all the years after this album was released, but Demilich did them before they became cool ideas in metal as a whole.

The problem is that from a neutral viewpoint, amazing quality aside, it isn't very easy to sell this album to those not familiar with it. That is because describing the surface elements doesn't leave a very appealing mix in theory. For example, I will certainly never win an award for being the world's biggest fan of technical death metal, so if you came to me praising this amazing technical death metal album you think I should hear, I'd probably ignore you. Moreover, there certainly is no love lost between myself and death metal that infuses a strong sense of melody, so if you praised the great melodies on this album, hell would freeze over before you got me even remotely interested. Then to top things off you may begin to talk to about vocals that sound like a cross between belching and frog vocalisations, and you can be sure to have given me a mental image of an album I will certainly never give the time of day.

It is a bit of an odd thing that I not only checked this album out, but actually gave it enough listens to fully grasp the genius behind it, because I am usually impervious to the fierce word of mouth propaganda that led to my doing so in the end. The right amount of praise, with the right amount of thought put behind it, by the right people, usually not enough for me to budge, but! Combined with the level of intelligence and creativity seen in the songtitles, it was enough for an interest to be piqued. And just as tenacious as the concerns voiced in the second paragraph were prior to my subsequent indulgence, as swiftly they were washed away by the sheer quality of this album's writing and performance.

Nothing could be a greater mistake than avoiding what is being presented on this record based on what its surface elements look like on paper. It is not simply a question of the album being greater than the sum of its parts. That is an expression more adequately used for something the parts of which would have some appeal of themselves and being put together to something of high quality. In the case of the album I am reviewing, it would not only be an understatement, but the entire approach of that type of thinking would be fallacious. Because simply put, it's not a matter of a couple of good riffs strung up into something great. It's far more radical than that. The parts on this album, and that's the beauty of it, are actually anything but good or appealing by themselves. Take any riff, any melody, any bass line, any drum part, any frog belch, by itself it's actually quite awful. What Demilich does is to interweave these awful parts into a radiant piece of art. It's dumbfounding, but that's the power of amazing songwriting.

Both the sheer level of thought behind these arrangements and the keen instinct for their perfect interwoven combinations leave the listener astonished, almost in disbelief over how something so bizarre and unsettling can be made into something so grand. Every note seems to flow into the next as if written in cosmic stone at the beginning of time and discovered by still primitive humans via some bizarre scientific contraption. Every hit on the drumkit alike, and every utterance of vocalisation, it all fits together like a pre-historic puzzle to be solved once humankind has hit the right level of evolution. It all creates a certain aesthetic flow that can only be compared to the beauty of the workings of the universe themselves. It's a work of genius, no less can be said about it.

I realise that it will never be within my writing abilities to properly convey the majesty of this album's songwriting and performance, and that to many it will continue to be a candidate for dismissal based on it supposedly being just anothter faux-"strange" technical death metal album with too much of an emphasis on melody and vocals that to many can't possibly be taken seriously either by the person who performed them or the confused listener wondering what it was they were meant to accomplished. I don't think any of my ramblings in this review will make any difference to those reluctant about giving this album enough listens to fully immerse themselves in it and discover its genius. The fact that this is one of the best recordings in the whole of metal, and possibly music itself, remains.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Stray thoughts from last week - A mental health nightmare

This was a horrifying week. As you could read in my previous post "Retox", I had an outpatient psychiatric nursing service visit me once a week for a few years. Well, about a year ago, there was a problem between the social welfare office which pays for the service, and the service itself, about, as always with the social welfare office, "documents not being handed in completely".

First of all I had no money for all of November for that same reason. Bureaucrat assholes. Second, the social welfare office and the nursing service came to an agreement that the payments would continue, but work would only continue on the social welfare office's terms. And in their infinite wisdom they decided that work should no longer be done by nurses, who in Germany have no college education generally, but by social workers, who studied social work at university. Now I had a very good relationship with my nurse (hi, Harold! (not his real name)), but they decided it wasn't good enough. So a social worker was sent instead.

This week I kicked out the social worker. She kept whining my lovely dog would bite, because my dog barks at strangers. I told her again and again that in over five years my dog has never bitten a human being once, not even another dog. Nothing. No biting. She said it was too dangerous for her to have a barking dog that could bite any second (fuck you, asshole) around, and wanted me to dump it off at my parents' place every time she comes. I told her no. She told me, well, no other worker for the service will ever want to be in that extreme biting danger, either, since my dog has apparently bitten more than half the population of Germany. I told her to fuck off and closed the door. Emailed the service about a replacement who has more than two brain cells in her skull, no response.

So that's it? They cancel a vital service to me because a paranoid lunatic raves about my dog biting, when my dog has never bitten anyone? That's a fucked-up way to treat a human being in need. But I hated her anyway. She kept talking to me in baby language, like I was too stupid to understand a single word she said. I can't handle that. Either treat me as a smart human being with an illness, if I talked to you like a smart human being, which I always did, or get the fuck out, or I'll talk to you like someone from a trash talk show because you deserve it.

No idea what to do now, but that's what you get for life as a mentally ill person in Germany. I have committed no crime, I am certainly not retarded, and yet I am treated as both. Because I have a few panic attacks occasionally but otherwise am like every other normal human being. Going to tear this country apart with my bare teeth one day.

Alcoholism: A love story - Part IV: End of the line - Part II: Retox

With detox done in 2009 as detailed in my previous post, I entered a - by my standards - pretty long period of sobriety, initially with the intention of keeping it that way for the rest of my life. Mind you, alcoholism has a relapse rate of around 95%, but at the time I was confident I was done with the subject because I felt I had enough for a lifetime.

What happened after detox was a long period of attempting to heal. Trying to get my life in order again. Get out of depression and anxiety and panic attacks, start a job, maybe some day a family, anything. I must say that at the time were a number of things. There were my parents who one month after detox showed at my front door with a tiny black puppy and told me they think having a dog would help. It really did, and I love my dog more than anything. Another thing that helped at first was an outpatient psychiatric nursing service that visited me once a week and helped me try to learn doing normal things in my life again.

I went to an inpatient psych ward for two months in 2011, which didn't help one bit, but I met two of my friends there. Went to a day clininc in 2012, which at first helped a lot, but turned out to make me miserable because they left me with nothing to continue my progress with afterwards. I met a very nice girl there I briefly dated, and that's sort of how it started.

She liked to drink alcohol. She never asked me to drink with her or anything and respected my wishes, but at the same time it really got me thinking that I'd really like to be able to drink with people again on rare occasions. So I did an experiment, bought two cans of pre-mixed Jack Daniels and coke, and two bottles of beer, had them for a nice evening just to see what happens. Got a nice buzz, but what I was really curious about was whether or not the next day I would yearn for more, and I didn't. Not the next week, either. They told me since childhood that as a sober alcoholic, you drink one drop and you're all back in full on addiction. That didn't seem so likely anymore. And I talked to doctors about it, and they also told me I could drink normally if I didn't overdo it, and that the whole "one drop and you're back"-thing is nonsense.

So every now and then I would be drinking. About once a month at first. Then occasionally I did more than once. It took about a year of that to realise that there are still times I could go completely out of control and drink heavily for days. That's when the whole thing started to scare me. I will right into a clinic, the schizophrenia ward I have written so much about. But they didn't want to talk about alcohol, to them I was schizophrenic and nothing else.

After the schizophrenia it continued as before. Sometimes once a month, sometimes every week, all normal. Until a few months ago when things began to completely spiral out of my control. That was when the worst thing I ever did happened. I went to a bar with friends in a neighbouring city, planning to go home the same night. But I fell asleep in the bar bathroom, woke up there the next day, and continued drinking. The reason this was the worst thing I have ever done was because all the while my dog, which I love more than anything, was still at home without food and more importantly without walks. I have felt so rotten ever since, and I cannot live with it.

I still continued drinking, for about two months, but that's gonna end for the time being. My dog is just fine in case you wondered it got hurt. But I'm not fine about it.  I can't continue hurting someone I love, and I will try everything in my power to do differently from now on.

Ten of the best metal albums of all time - Part III: Slayer - South of Heaven

Slayer is one of those bands that is simply great enough to be included in any line-up of greatest bands, yet make it incredibly difficult to pinpoint an album that stands out the most. Sure, the general consensus is that everything from Seasons in the Abyss onward can be washed down the sewers with no one shedding a tear. But that still leaves you with a total of four classic album among which you have to pick out which one is the Slayer album, the one that ascends above the other, the one that soars into the highest heavens of lowest hellishness.

Since you already know my pick from looking a few lines further above, let me give you a quick rundown why the first three did not make the final cut. Show no Mercy certainly has riff after riff (and no mercy) to show for itself, but I must say that, simply put, it is just too upbeat for me. Too "moshing metal maniac" and too "throw the horns and drink the beer(s)". It's fun, yeah, when you're a teenager and just discovered trading recommendations with strangers at concerts where everyone's in leather and spikes, in between the merch stands. That's the kind of album it is, the kind of atmosphere it has to me. A metal party album with not much more behind it. Hell Awaits certainly is evil, and dark, and sinister, and I understand why it is so many people's favourite. But to me it is the polar opposite to Show no Mercy. The first one has all the riffs and none the atmosphere, the second one all the atmosphere but none the riffs. Either of course is an exaggeration, but it gets across my general feeling about the album. Finally, Reign in Blood goes too far on its gimmick to be the fastest thing ever, and aside from select songs has relatively little in the field of memorable riffs or memorable atmosphere. Sure, it's fun to blast and hate the world when you're in the mood, but honestly, because of that one-dimensional character it is my personal least listened to among the classic four.

South of Heaven, in turn, has everything. Everything I ever wanted from a Slayer record, this album has it. Every single note on it seems to be crafted to perfection. The album reeks of riffs, but never seems upbeat. And the album reeks of evil atmosphere, but never lets you down on intensity. Neither is the anger of its predecessor lost on it.

Slayer, here, simply know how to create perfect Slayer songs. It's like they looked at the first three albums and said "okay, we did riffy, we did dark, we did fast, now let's do Slayer." Because if "Slayer" was an adjective, it would describe the entire album. The songs are so incredibly well crafted, taking a good number of different bits for each song and just lining them up as a cohesive and ultimately decimating whole. They do it with such a way that if, for example, a song starts with an evil bit, and it segues to an aggressive one, the evil never fades away. Rather than part-after-part that you'd find on most thrash albums, everything flows into each other perfectly, everything becomes an integral part of a whole. And the whole is ultimate Slayer. The fictional adjective. And the noun.

And it's not like they just did bits and pieces of their previous works into some kind of mosaic of the past. The amazing thing is how the whole thing sounds completely refreshing simply by how much it transcends earlier outings. Here, they create an atmosphere that has never been there before, with a large set of riffs that showed a whole new side of them, and that probably no one expected.

This band's first four album should however be enjoyed as a whole, as each single one is essential. But if you are looking for utimate Slayer, this is your go-to record.

Ten of the best metal albums of all time - Part II: Mayhem - Deathcrush

In an ideal world, no list of best metal records of all time should go without a prominent mention of Mayhem's debut mini-album, because its overwhelming quality is not a subjective impression but an objective fact. A record of this magnitude hadn't happened in its field until the point it was released, and it certainly was never reached in quality and impact, neither by the band itself nor the thousands that followed. Like an alignment of all eight planets in the solar system in one straight line, this record is one of the rarest of occurances where just the right elements were combined by just the right people in just the right way at just the right time. If perfection in black metal had a name, Deathcrush would be it.

There is something uniquely feral about this mini-album, as if the musicians involved had been set out into the wild at early childhood with a set of musical instruments, and this record was the result of their channelling the lifeforce of the rugged Norwegian landscapes and the essence of the hardships endured trying to survive in such an unforgiving environment on next to nothing with only their primal instincts and an iron will to endure as tools at their disposal. This record typifies the strength of character necessary to survive in the Norwegian outback far away from civilisation far more than any release made by a Norwegian band in the 1990s or later, because it is so much more primitive in nature, and much more in tune with just how inhospitable Norway is away from human settlements.

And they really couldn't have picked a better introduction for the savagery they would unleash. "Silvester Anfang", as many of you know, is a piece by experimental/noise music pioneer and former Tangerine Dream member Conrad Schnitzler, who was contacted by the band for an introduction, and submitted this piece as his unique interpretation of the type of music they play on this mini-album. The result not only emphasises the feral nature of the music as a whole, but gives it a character far darker than the imagery I painted in my previous paragraph, as if this is not the work of human children set out in the deep forests for the entirety of their lifetime, but orcs from a fantasy realm such as Tolkien's, or, far more accurately, Morlocks from H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, living in the bowels of the Earth as the most brutal of savages, feasting on the flesh of their fair counterparts that once were their fellow human beings.

The thought of feral Norwegians recording a mini-album with no human contact prior, with the savagery of Morlocks, it gives me the chills, and so does the music found on this release. There is no other drummer in metal who's drumming I can describe as "tribal" as Manheim's, like the pounding in a death ritual of some rainforest tribe on Borneo. There's a certain marginally off-beat quality to it that makes it sound more like a group of individuals playing one part of the kit each rather than one person playing the kit alone. This tribal feeling is amplified by the heavy use of the toms, as well as the quality of the drum recording which has a strong feel of being done in a dense forest in the middle of nowhere. This really sets the tone for the feeling I described in earlier paragraphs, and it perhaps one of the defining characteristics of this record.

It is perhaps most fitting that the bass sounds like a form of war drum itself, having a quality more pounding and percussive than you would expect from a string instrument. Rather than a backing provider of melody as you'd find on any regular metal album around the same time in history, it punches the rhythms through your eardrums as if the instrument of a great orc army aiming to pound fear into the hearts of their enemies on the eve of battle.

The guitars themselves provide all the melody, and they are likely the element of the music most in tune with the analogy of feral children left deep in the forest with only a musical instrument and nothing other but their wits to survive. They grind at you like both the anguish felt by being abandoned and not knowing whether or not you'd survive each new day, and the triumph of having overcome this challenge. They are more than mere metal riffs, they are raw expressions of that raw, feral anger felt by such an abandoned child, and the strength of character it has built through mastering this most hostile of environments. In such a way, they are the most true metal riffs ever written, the most honest, the most brutal, the most unforgiving, and the most triumphant.

Vocally we are treated to shrieks and howls which round off the whole experience. Almost like an afterthought, they integrate smoothly into the inhuman inferno unleashed by the instruments they are backing. Like celebrations of the glory of the ritual performed at the hands of these inhuman creatures. It is the combination of all these elements into one grand performance that really matters. Something that transcends anything civilised, anything with the classic understanding of trained musicians in a disciplined environment. This is how music today may sound if all higher culture had never came to exist, and merely the technology for musical instruments had advanced.  Music that forgets the last thousands of years of musical development and instead celebrates a ritual of the utmost primitive, and thereby utmost primal.

Of the vague top ten in this review series, this is easily a contender for the top spot. One of the brightest (or darkest) beacons of what metal music is capable.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Alcoholism: A love story - Part IV: End of the line - Part I: Detox

Back in summer 2009 when my drinking habit was so extreme and the physical dependency so bad that each day was constant suffering, I reached this point at which I decided life like that was no longer worth living. So I committed suicide. Well, actually I didn't, I'm still here, but I did the next best thing: Decided it was time for a change.

Getting into a detox clinic is actually easy as pie. You go to a doctor, say you need to go to detox, get a referral to a hospital, then call there, talk about what you need for a few minutes, then call every day before 10am or so to ask if a bed is available. I did that for about a week, then the nurse at the phone told me to pack my stuff and come over. It's actually kind of amazing that I remember the daily phonecalls, as I don't remember getting the referral or packing my stuff, but I know I did those two things. Life was extremely weird for my memory back then, something either stuck or it didn't. But I digress. I sort of packed stuff and asked my mother if she would kindly drive me there, though not before I had a good number of morning drinks, because I was scared and needed to calm myself. She agreed, and off I went.

I know somehow I ended up in the hospital and some talking to the nurses was done, of which I remember nothing. I do remember I was tested with 0.25% blood alcohol, which seems accurate for my mornings. Had I arrived in the evening the number might have been a tad more over the top. I know I somehow got into the room I would sleep in for the coming two weeks and my stuff ended up there, too, but again memory of that escapes me. After that, things began to clear up a lot though...

...and I don't mean that in a good way. For alcohol, you can quit cold turkey, but there is a risk of death because withdrawal simply overwhelms your body. So it is generally recommended to use a mix of drugs to help keep your body somewhat settled so that you can quit without the risk of death. This mix of drugs does not actually make the withdrawal any less excruciating (despite the generous amount of sedatives), but it keeps you alive, and at the time I sort of thought that was a good thing. The big problem is that these drugs also interact with alcohol, so they are not supposed to be given above a blood alcohol level of 0.08%. And THAT was the really hard part. Because as you know, I suffer from heavy panic attacks already, that's why I did the drinking in the first place, and alcohol withdrawal strongly amplifies the panic attacks, which is why I wanted to quit drinking. But the time span in between the 0.25% I came in with and the 0.08% I needed was one of the worst times of my life, because I literally thought I was dying the whole time. I couldn't breathe worth shit, and I couldn't feel my heartbeat, my head experienced the strangest sensations and numerous parts of my body went numb at irregular intervals. Add some serious chills to that and you just know this is what you feel when your life comes to a slow and horrifying end.

When the time came for me to get the mix of drugs, which felt like eternity and left me feeling like a wreck, it was quite a liberating experience, because while the sedatives didn't do all that much, the mere fact that something was given to me had a very calming effect for me at the time. I still had bad panic attacks after that, but the most horrifying part was over, I felt like I was being taken care of and not left to die. That kind of describes the rest of the day after the excruciating first hours: A lot of  panic attacks, but a somewhat calming feeling of being in a hospital and being taken care of.

The next few days were more of the same but in different intervals. The panic attacks were no longer as frequent as to completely prevent me from going outside for a smoke and talking to other patients regularly, which made things a lot easier, and while my drugs were gradually reduced I got the feeling of my body settling down into a state that could be managed. The only big issue was that the doctor at the ward clearly didn't know what he was doing as he prescribed me 10mg of fluoxetine (Prozac) for my panic attacks, which I know now is the most ridiculously low dosage of one of the most ridiculously ineffecient antidepressants.

The remainder of that week got a little better every day, still with panic attacks, but no longer those extreme ones you get from alcohol withdrawal but the "standard" ones I as a person with panic disorder just have. Then after a week we had one of those days you just don't want to experience in detox, with a suffocating 37C with high humidity. That's really bad timing, nature! Unfortunately for me that ended up in my having an epileptic seizure. You know, it's not uncommon for people in booze detox to experience seizures, but when I first talked to the doctor when I got into the clinic he said it was prevented in 99% of all cases. So yeah, I'm officially a one-percenter (just had to do that reference). For me, it was really no big deal, I don't remember it, you never do. But it meant staying another week, and it sure as hell frightened my mother who was visiting when I had the seizure. They did a lot of tests on my brain anyway, and I am told that I am not epileptic and that I will probably never again have a seizure, and to this point I never did, so all is well.

Really, overall it was mostly a boring experience, so for all of you who are reading this and currently drinking heavily, but too scared of detox I can say it really isn't all that bad. The big catch really is the first day, and you just know a day like that feels like eternity. But if you would rather kill yourself slowly than make it through one horrible day, that's kind of a backwards logic. I think dying from liver failure might be a tad more awful than one day of a continuous and horrifying panic attack, besides the fact that the latter is indeed horrifying, it is over the next day and you're alive. I wouldn't want to repeat the experience, but it certainly was a thousand times better a decision than the alternative.