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Ben Ratliff on metal, mostly

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Ben Ratliff on metal, mostly

From a live review of Scissorfight, Pelican, the Austerity Program, and Harkonen: A remarkable thing about American youth culture is that it moves with equal determination in two ways, into and away from plain sight. Whenever a viable new sound or rhythm comes along, it's packaged for mass consumption. That is what happened to punk and hip-hop. Both began by using stolen or damaged instruments, which were run off of boosted electrical current, then grew to majestic levels of expense and craft, aimed at millions of teenage consumers.

But a respectably large number of musicians start with the same stuff and rarefy it, turning it into a more obscure form. Why does this happen, especially in America? Perhaps it's the civilizing influence of college, instructing students that there is a difference between an acceptable pleasure and a guilty pleasure. It teaches them further that if they still want to indulge their guilty pleasures after graduating, they had better do so through either high seriousness or camp. Both routes lead to rarefication.

Black Sabbath, the indisputable point A of heavy metal, is one of the major root elements in youth culture. Along one American trajectory, Sabbath turned into Metallica and Limp Bizkit, who sell millions of records. Along another, it turned into Scissorfight, Pelican, the Austerity Program and Harkonen….

The Rolling Stones: Keith Richards is the formula for the Rolling Stones as well as its claim to spontaneity. The best moments of the Stones' show at Madison Square Garden on Thursday were introduced by his riffs, which appeared suddenly, bright and cutting and emphasizing the weak beats of a rhythm. They sliced through the music's laggardly atmosphere. ["Can't You Hear Me Knocking"] pointed out the difference between the two guitarists, Ron Wood and Mr. Richards. Mr. Wood re-enacted the iconic solos recorded by Mick Taylor, his predecessor in the band; when casually improvising, he was a totally banal musician. Mr. Richards barely soloed, but when he did, each phrase had a spindly power and was based in rhythmic ideas.

Mary J. Blige: Critics regularly knock melisma as a damaging virus in black music. What they're usually reacting against, I hope, isn't the device itself, but the bloodlessness with which so many singers use it.

Shelby Lynne: "I Am Shelby Lynne" in 2000 abandoned any pretense of country music and seemed like a release of startlingly good ideas; "Love, Shelby" followed, an emboldened attempt to be the kind of high-budget act who performs the national anthem at ballparks.

DMX: His priorities are elsewhere: he has fallen in love with religion and out of love with the record industry. He has also created a line of clothes for dogs.

High on Fire: Mr. Pike has found a way to adrenalize weariness. Unhealthy looking, charismatic, he's got conviction. He appears not to be kidding with his dungeons-and-dragons lyrics, and with his long stretches of the same guitar chord welded onto irregular rhythm cycles, which, finally, sprout complex, chorded turnaround sections or, more rarely, frenetic solos high on the neck. It's all quite narrow, quite hypnotic. But it is not studied, and it's not dry.

Ozzy Osbourne: Really, he's an actor, and he lets his voice create an image. (Give Mr. Osbourne credit for inventing that reedy wit's-end howl, which had no precedent when it was first heard at the beginning of the 70's.)

The Dillinger Escape Plan: Hearing that band is like watching a rugby game: it's all high-impact scrimmaging, fractured and tightly composed, with rhythms pounded in uneven numbers as two guitarists alternated between torrential arpeggiation and slashing chords.

System of a Down: The songs strike a weird balance between that same ambient, echoey sound that Adema has claimed—it is the new-metal signifier for Deep Thoughts—and jagged compositions, punctuated by stop-time sequences, comically fast bursts, Asiatic scales. If every big new rock band has an old rock band inside, maybe System of a Down contains Queen...

Morbid Angel: Mr. Azagthoth, death metal's most revered guitarist, provides character. His harmonized riffs swept gracefully up and down the neck; they swung. His solos take the Eddie Van Halen technique of finger tapping to a new level of forbidding virtuosity, soloing in clashing keys, as he spreads his fingers as wide as possible. Like a Paganini, he's more concerned with blowing his own mind than yours.

Hellacopters: The band makes you think twice about the value of the new in rock-and-roll, about the usefulness of the rhetoric of innovation that surrounds every move of a high-profile rock artist. Just about every second of its performance was traceable to a source (high on the list were the Stooges, the MC5 and Kiss, though the jolting tautness felt more like Little Richard)…. But the group was making refinements, not lazily flashing references. For an hour, the Hellacopters played the heavy-gauge stuff that more ambitious rock bands save only for the climaxes of their best songs, and there was an odd thrill in hearing rock that was about as self-reflective as a lamppost but completely transcended bar-band boredom.

Lamb of God: "We're going to do this old-school thing now," said Randy Blythe, the singer from Lamb of God, during its set. "It's called the Wall of Death." The moshers split into two sides, creating a ravine down the center of the floor, and at his signal—"One, two, three, four!"—converged, whipping arms and legs and torsos around in a sort of graceful, peaceful imitation of violence.

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