1000 Flavors of Heavy: Standing on Ceremony
If there even has been an example of not judging a book by its cover, Blood Ceremony is it. When their self-titled debut LP showed up in my mailbox back in 2008, I didn’t exactly look forward to listening: bad cover art, generic name rendered in a sloppy font, uninspiring doom-metal song titles for a band fronted by a female lead singer – who, on top of everything else, played the flute. But I was won over on first listen: Blood Ceremony was a throwback in the best possible sense of the word, an exercise in creepy ritual horror that invoked Hammer horror films, woozy psychotic organs and Sabbath-derived doom riffs. Their second album, the just-released Living with the Ancients, is even better, thanks to a substantial improvement on the two elements that most worried me in the first place: Alia O’Brien’s vocals and flute-playing. Her voice turned out not to be the deal-breaker I thought it would be on the first record, but now she’s really learned to control it; her swooping and searing gothic-styled voice shows a mastery of the material that now matches her organ-playing as a mood-setter. And the flute, an instrument that only once in a blue moon adds anything to a rock song, is used cleverly and effectively, and O’Brien has the good sense to know when to leave it out. “Night of Augury” conjures up the best of their first album, all dire omens and creeping death, but the band shows surprising development on tracks like “Coven Tree”, which features terrific songwriting structure and a vocal performance that’s best described as a fascinating collision between soul and early blues-based metal. A refreshing change of pace from the bearded-stoner club that modern doom has become, Living with the Ancients is an acid-soaked slice of the feminine darkness that underlies so much mysticism. For that alone it’s worth picking up, but it’s also the work of a band that’s sharpening its musical approach every passing year. Taking scraps from every decade’s approach to slow-and-low mind-altering metal, Blood Ceremony has added their own unique elements and come up with something special.
BONUS: If I live to be a hundred — he certainly won’t — I’ll never understand how Rich Hoak does it. He already sorely strains his body with the spastic lunacy he engages in as the drummer for Brutal Truth, and now his gory grindcore outfit Total Fucking Destruction, which started out as a side project, is now up to its fourth full-length with Haters. And that’s after in an uncountable number of EPs, singles, comp contributions, and other appearances; it’s a wonder his arms haven’t fallen off by now. But hail Satan they haven’t; TFD is one of the most enjoyable bands to emerge from the bleary muddle of grind, and they’ve always had a unique sound that hasn’t deteriorated one bit. The line between punk and metal, once made stark by its exclusionary fans, has become much less clear-cut of late, which has been a good thing for metal (Darkthrone being Exhibit A). But TFD has always leaned heavily on hardcore, and it seems like Hoak has been indulging his love of snappy, Robo-style rhythms more than usual on Haters. The one-two mid-album punch of “Tony Hung Himself” and “Lovegrinder” is a hyper-speed punk blowout that will have listeners throwing elbows all over their living rooms, but there’s still plenty of room for sheer lightning-force grind craziness with microsecond madness like “Murdernumber” and the heartbeat-length “Greenbleeder”. It’s not typical grind, for which we should be profoundly grateful; may Hoak’s tendons hold up another decade.
DOUBLE BONUS: Repping the brainier side of the impossibly rich Chicagoland metal scene, Born of Osiris has been refining its curious brand of progressive brutality since 2007. I haven’t been completely sold on them in the past; their earlier work had some spectacular moments and a fascinating way of incorporating swirling, almost psychedelic keyboard attacks into a highly competent tech-death framework, but it was also wildly inconsistent — the world of a band that wasn’t quite sure what it wanted to be. That identity crisis appears to have faded with the release of The Discovery, by far their strongest album, and the one that marks a burst of self-confidence they’ve been needing for a while. Songs like the heavily grooved “Two Worlds of Design” and “Recreate” aren’t so much a radical departure from their past pattern of intricate, proggy riffs, brutal drums, and mind-bending keyboards as they are a statement that they’ve finally gotten it right, and they approach the variant tones and moods of the album not with the insecurity of experimentation, but the powerful certainty of a band that’s found its sweet spot. This won’t appeal to everyone; Born of Osiris isn’t going to extremes of brutality, and Ronnie Canizaro’s vocals — or, rather, his unwillingness to follow predictable metal-singer patterns with his vocals — might turn some fans off. But if you’re looking for an outfit that takes proggy TDM in interesting new directions without losing sight of its intrinsic appeal, now’s the time to get on board with the band.
TRIPLE KITTY BONUS: At this point. Finland’s Children of Bodom are genuine superstars, which, in effect, makes them critic-proof. When you’re at a level of success that Alexi Laiho and his gang of idiots have achieved – even in the relativistic terms of heavy metal – there are two ways you can go: you can bristle under your success, get defensive about everything you do, and make a bunch of artsy and completely joyless-sounding albums, or you can just accept that you’re a big fancypants rock icon, and start hanging around with professional skaters and having fun. Happily for the world, Children of Bodom have chosen the latter path. After taking a brief break in which they turned into the world’s most successful death metal cover bands, they’ve returned with the hilariously titled Relentless Reckless Forever, which…well, look, I’m not going to lie to you folks. Nobody needs to own this album. If you know Children of Bodom, you know what they do, and you know that they do it pretty well, and if you like what they do, you’ll probably love this thing to death. If you don’t, you won’t. But they’re clearly having the time of their lives, and as absurd as it sounds, Laiho’s guitar skills get wilder ever year, and if you can’t enjoy hearing him go absolutely bugshit on a thrashed-out solo flip-out like “Roundtrip to Hell and Back” once in a while, you probably don’t really like metal that much anyway.