In last month’s Black Market, while wrapping up a short commentary on Decibel Magazine’s list of the 40 best albums of 2014, I wrote: “[T]his was a very good year for metal. Every year, though, it seems like the genre expands — to the point that, today, the thing we talk about when we talk about metal is not a thing at all, but an artifact of an idea.” And now that we’re here, about to present you with our own list of the year’s best metal albums, I find myself fixated on that notion:
What are we talking about when we talk about metal?
I feel like every stoner-doom band’s frontperson has a dusty, folky Americana album somewhere in them, waiting to come out. YOB’s Mike Scheidt dropped his a couple years ago; Wino Weinrich of Saint Vitus has released two since 2010; hell, Neurosis’ house label, Neurot, has curated two Townes Van Zandt tribute albums since 2012. So I’m not surprised that Windhand’s Dorthia Cottrell is gonna make the same leap next year. But I’m still blown away by the thing. Even backed by the mountain-size Windhand, Cottrell’s voice is a thing of astonishing power, but when accompanied only by an acoustic guitar, it communicates deep sadness, wisdom, and wonder, too. You can hear shades of everyone from Lucinda Williams to Tracy Thorn to Chan Marshall in here, and like those singers, Cottrell knows how to wring the biggest moments from the smallest details, making every breath count. And they add up to something that feels, to me, like a revelation. Cottrell’s self-titled record is out in March, but today, we’ve got the first single, “Gold.” Listen.
The Wrens went seven years between their second and third albums, Secaucus and The Meadowlands — a period of time that seemed extreme at the time of The Meadowlands’ release, in September 2003. But, it turns out, that was nothing. The 10th anniversary of The Meadowlands came and went last September — we did an oral history of the album to celebrate — with only whispers of a follow-up on the horizon. Throughout this year, though, the whispers have gotten louder; earlier this month, the band announced that a new album was almost done and they had inked a deal with a label for the album’s release. Today, we get another update. In a post on the Wrens’ site, Charles Bissell describes a recent harrowing bout with sepsis — “near-death pneumonia” — which forced him to reassess; it “changed a bunch of stuff, incl. priorities that have kept me toiling away on music to the exclusion of a lot of other things.” The upshot is, the album is DONE. Here’s a bit of what he had to say:
I just saw somebody mention Smarf somewhere and it reminded me: I made this image as a goof to go along with our Too Many Hooks graphic but I couldn’t find a way to pull it off for this list’s title card (plus Michaela Schuett gave us an awesome illustration of her own). But I wanted to share it anyway.
And I still voted for the record! If everyone else had voted for it with as much enthusiasm as I did, it woulda been top 5. But truthfully I probably won’t listen to it again unless I have to write about it or something. That did sour me on the album.
Hey man, five guys voted on this thing, only one voted for Triptykon (yours truly). Did I give him EXTRA points for publicly trashing one of my favorite bands? I did not. I think he came off like an idiot. I would be pretty surprised if At The Gates (the band) had anything to do with keeping him from playing any non-tour shows. I would NOT be surprised if a booker/promoter kept Tom from playing those shows, and was enforcing terms of a contract Tom himself signed, in order to not devalue those tour dates. Do you really think Tompa Linderg sent an email to Tom G. Warrior saying, “Hey man, all five members of At The Gates have talked it over, and we have decided that you cannot play those Swss dates”? And then Tom went back to his band and said, “I’m outraged! I never wanted to do this tour in the first place! But this is a democracy after all. You guys make the call.” And then his bandmates OVERRODE his vote?
I love that you guys remember this.
Aw, thanks guys!
These are great questions! They get at what I was talking about in my intro essay. Trying to define “metal” has been an ongoing issue for years, basically since DRI and the Cro-Mags. There really are no hard lines. Are Swans metal? Shellac? If not, why not? Another commenter applied the old Potter Stewart standard above (“I don’t know how to define it but I know it when I see it”) and that’s how a lot of people approach it. To me, for something to be categorized as metal, it has to be part of a metal lineage and/or self-define as metal. Wovenhand include elements of metal but DEE comes from a folk/alt-country background and he gets to metal by way of goth, post-punk, and post-rock. He’s never (AFAIK) said Wovenhand is a metal band. The guys in his band right now played a very metal-leaning style of screamo-noise in PMFS, and Deathwish releases some records by metal-based bands (Deafheaven, YITTW) but Wovenhand seem to me more of a band that uses metal sounds (along with lots of other sounds) in order to achieve something totally singular. I think decent analogues would be Man’s Gin or Dax Riggs, except those guys came to that sound FROM metal (Cobalt, Acid Bath) and FWIW I still don’t define them as metal. But like I said up top: “I’m not calling anyone out on their definitions of metal, not saying anyone is wrong; I’m not the metal police over here. If there’s a problem, I’m part of it. It’s up to you. What do you think?”
That Wovenhand record is dope, although in the context of this comment it is sort of ironic to note that the band that played on that record also comprised half the Colorado screamo band Planes Mistaken For Stars. (NB: No shade, I fucking LOVE Planes Mistaken For Stars.) Also it was released on Jacob Bannon’s label, Deathwish. It’s not a screamo record by any means! But also not really a metal record.
I’d buy that, except for this:
Ever since the Jethro Tull debacle in 1989, the Grammys have pretty much treated Metallica as an auto-nomination. In 2000 Metallica WON A GRAMMY for their 1998 cover of Thin Lizzy’s 1972 version of the traditional Irish folk song “Whiskey In The Jar.” Metallica performed at the Grammys last year and it was one of the big things that happened that night. (Metallica were nominated for a Grammy last year too — in 2014, only six years since their last album.) We agree the Grammys recognize Metallica’s name. Right?
So here’s the fucking crazy thing: Metallica actually contributed a medley to that Dio comp. And it is legitimately the best thing Metallica have done since 1991. I’m not saying it deserves any superlative awards compared to the whole universe of metal, but the fact that TWO SONGS from that Dio tribute album were nominated and NEITHER ONE was the Metallica song is confounding. But that’s not enough! Not only was Metallica excluded, but one of the songs nominated is a cover of a Dio song BY A NOVELTY BAND.
I just … I mean, this award is utterly irrelevant to metal; it’s beneath mockery because it’s so out of touch. And somehow, this is EGREGIOUSLY wrongheaded even by Grammy standards to the extent that I feel a need to vent about it here.
“Scribes.” Billy is the best. This is a great found Morrissey lyric: “But as I like to tell my daddy, if I’d been loved right, with the gifts that I had, I might have been a classical composer, having a very quiet life and a glass of wine, and not have been in this dirty pop business.”
I gotta mention this somewhere so I’m gonna do it here. The 2015 Grammy nominees in the category of Best Metal Performance:
Anthrax – Neon Knights
Mastodon – High Road
Motorhead – Heartbreaker
Slipknot – The Negative One
Tenacious D – The Last In Line
Two of those songs are from a Dio tribute record. One of the Dio tribute songs is Tenacious D.