CC Issue 26 / Music

From the Depths: Great Expectations

It’s a little sad that we can’t listen to music like we did as kids – when you liked a band so much you’d listen to their new album over and over and over again until you had finally brain-washed yourself into believing the album was great, no matter how foreign it had first sounded. Nowadays, in this digital age, music is cheap – free, even. If an album doesn’t appease upon first listen – hell, if even the first track stutters – we shelve the album (and condemn that iTunes column to 1 or 2 listens).

With new albums appearing from Baroness and Nachtmystium, two bands I thoroughly love, it was hard to keep my expectations in check, especially after the fantastic records already released this year from High on Fire and Pallbearer. Feeling once more like a fifteen year old fanatic, I put on Baroness’ double album The Yellow Record and The Green Record and Nachtmystium’s Silencing Machine with excitement, trepidation, and no small amount of surprise.

The last album from Baroness, The Blue Records, made a huge splash in 2010 with both metal heads and indie kids a like. The standout track, “A Horse Called Golgotha”, summed up Baroness perfectly – dueling guitars and a pummeling rhythm section fused into a demonic, galloping stead of Southern sludge metal. Progressive enough to deserve the label, but also quite accessible for a metal album, The Blue Record felt like the future of heavy music and brought to my mind the possibility of returning to scenes circa the 1980’s with hundreds of thousands watching extreme bands like Metallica, Iron Maiden and Slayer. Needless to say, hopes were high for Baroness’ new double album – The Yellow Record and The Green Record.

The first of two, The Yellow Album, opens up typically enough for Baroness with some classic undistorted Southern riff-age. When the rest of the band finally kick in on the second track something feels amiss. The beat kicks on and the gain is turned up as expected, but there’s something missing about the song beyond John Baizley’s melodic vocals. A few more tracks into the album and it seems as though a fire has been extinguished. Something languors about Baroness. This uneasiness only grows when putting on The Green Record – the slower, calmer “night album” to The Yellow Record’s “day album” – wait, is this even a fucking metal album?

Looking at reviews online you’ll find a whole host of comparisons, but not what you’d expect. I saw everything from Jimmy Eat World to Kiss and Foo Fighters – bizarre comparisons for a band that tours with Mastodon, Metallica and Meshuggah. Yet during my own early listens it was hard not to think of late-90’s Midwestern indie bands – Pedro the Lion (the verse on “Cocainium” would fit snuggly on Winners Never Quit or Control), Unwed Sailor (the instrumental opening track on The Green Record sounding very much like “Copper Islands”).

Reading a few more interviews and listening to the album a dozen more times and I realized Baizley and company are trying their damnedest to free themselves from the expectations and constraints of a music genre that’s as rigid as they come. The age old difficulty for any independent act, whether its punk, 90’s emo, indie rock, or metal – how can you continue progressing in a creative manner without stagnating in the confines of a genre label without “selling out”?

The other important aspect in any album is the lyrics. While not a concept album per se, Baizley has mentioned a vibe or feeling Baroness wanted to convey – that sinking (and bowl re-leaving) feeling of dread just before something terrible occurs. Another constant motif is that of the sea and traveling, an Odyssean struggle of leaving and trying to return home. The band themselves have physically moved in recent years – from Lexington, VA to Savannah, GA and now in various locations including Philadelphia, PA – but through their music and lyrics it is evident they have also moved as humans. This revelation certainly took some time to digest, but it’s nice to be able to give a band enough time to understand a new direction they take. Hopefully existing Baroness fans have the patience, but this more melodic and accessible sound will certainly earn a legion of new fans.

Nachtmystium are a band in contempt of everyone and everything – for old fans and new fans and enemies alike. When a friend asked me what I expected of their new album, whether it would sound more like the first or second volume of Black Meddle, I immediately replied, “Neither.” This is a group that has always done things their own way. Forsaking any limitations or restrictions both musically (their incredible metamorphosis from black metal purists to Joy Division, Pink Floyd and Killing Joke-fletched psychedelica) as well as psychological (their reputed drug use would probably make Keith Richards blush).

Silencing Machine sees the Chicago natives putting aside their experimentation and returning to a more straight forward black metal album. For old fans and purists the opening tracks will sound like sonic gold – ugly, dark, lo-fi guitars, breakneck drumming and anti-religious lyrics. Yes, this would sound at home on any Darkthrone album. The middle section of the album slightly slows down the proceedings with “And I Control You” and “The Lepers of Destitution”. But at this slower, rocking pace Nachtmystium are in their finest form – the combined salvo of “Borrowed Hope and Broken Dreams” and “I Wait in Hell” is pure metal venom.

When people reacted against the keyboards and saxophones on Black Meddle Pt. 2: Addicts, frontman Blake Judd spewed out an angry reply by proclaiming how “hard” they lived their lives (a.k.a. how many drugs they did). Now that the band members are getting older and doing adult things like getting married and having kids, the drug abuse seems to be less of an issue (although the topic still crops up in a number of their lyrics, just as one can never be an ex-addict but always a recovering addict). Instead Judd and his band members are using their music as a retort against their critics. Its not often that a band can return to a more basic, stripped down sound and retain their full effect.

Upon closer listens you can still hear a number of subtle surprises – keyboards linger in the background on a number of songs and the finale, “These Rooms In Which We Weep”, even ends with some sort of metallophone. These relative experimentations, however, do not dominate the songs and it’s no surprise to find out the man-behind-the-curtains of the Black Meddle albums, producer Chris Black didn’t look after the recording of Silencing Machine. His absence, while strongly felt, has made way for a leaner and more infuriated beast of an album.

Both of these latest offerings from Baroness and Nachtmystium confounded me at first – The Blue Record and Black Meddle Pt. 2: Addicts reign amongst the best metal albums of this generation. Yet given time, something we seem to have so little of in our technologically advanced lives, I’ve come to greatly appreciate both The Yellow Record and The Green Record as well as Silencing Machine.

True art is a constant evolution and revolution, a changing that never rests on its laurels, and both Baroness and Nachtmystium have managed this, albeit in different manners. Music highlights this progressive aspect of art more explicitly than most other artforms, and at this moment extreme metal is at the forefront of playing with and challenging our expectations (something pop music hasn’t done since The Beatles). As such Baroness and Nachtmystium have offered up both a valuable lesson and a valuable listen.

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