Reckless Abandon: Houston, Horna, and Antifa

I had hoped that Roy Khan leaving Kamelot would be the most disappointing thing I’d ever have to write about, but here we are. For as nakedly political as I can get on Twitter (as those of you who follow me there can attest), I have always attempted to keep this blog mostly focused on music —- because other sites traffic in rumor and gossip enough, and there are too many excellent releases coming out to be wasting time with anything else. Recently however, its been hard to avoid the MetalSucks spawned stories, seemingly one after another, of a black metal band about to tour the US that has NSBM ties past or present and the subsequent outcry surrounding this, usually manifesting itself in calling for shows to be cancelled. Watain, Taake, Disma, Marduk, Incantation, Inquisition, Graveland, Uada… I’m sure I’m missing others, these stories have seemingly run into each other within the past couple years. The latest is Finland’s Horna, whose currently ongoing US tour is running headlong into an internet spread, Antifa-fueled protest where locals are being encouraged to call the venues, the surrounding businesses, and local media to get a particular show shut down.

Horna April 3rd @ The White Swan flyer

I don’t listen to Horna, and had only vaguely heard of them before this controversy. But this story has hit close to home because I’m a Houstonian, and one of the stops on Horna’s US tour, April 3rd to be exact, is scheduled at a local Houston venue called The White Swan. There are a number of local Houston metal bands on the bill as support acts, including Spectral Manifest who have been around the scene here for quite a long time, whose drummer, one Cryptos Grimm is someone I personally know. In fact, he’s a friend of the MSRcast podcast I co-host with Cary the Metal Geek, primarily because he once sat in the co-host seat I now sit in. When a local media outlet called the Houston Press picked up on the Horna story from other outlets like Metalsucks, their writer Jef Rouner wrote up a piece in which he referred to Cryptos Grimm as a member of the alt-right, a description that was simply untrue. There was no minor amount of outrage that broke out on social media, where people in the Houston metal scene came to Cryptos’ defense, because not only was it kinda laughable that Cryptos of all people would be described as “alt-right”, it was a dangerously slanderous statement to just throw out there. It feels absolutely stupid and silly to have to do this, but it might help for context’s sake to know that Cary is Jewish (during Hanukkah there are menorahs all around the MSRcast studios), and that I’m of Indian descent, or as the term goes thesedays, a PoC (person of color). That’s the first time that I’ve ever had to mention my race or ancestry in relation to being a metal fan, ever. Because in multi-cultural Houston, its simply not an issue, no one cares. But I’m going to set aside Horna and black metal and everything else for a minute and just focus on this one topic —- that a guy was publicly slandered by a relatively popular (people can debate that point) local Houston publication and labeled something that he’s simply not.

The name Cryptos Grimm can easily be linked to his real name via a Google search, in fact I’m sure he’d be fine with me writing it here even though I’m not going to do that now (we’ve certainly referred to him on the podcast by it, in fact we just played a cut from Spectral’s newest EP on our last episode). I’ve known Cryptos personally since the year 2000, when I met him at a meeting for the MSRcast’s pre-podcast incarnation as the Mainstream Resistance Zine, which he along with a few others helped Cary put together. Back in those days he was also responsible for getting a local Borders Books and Music to stock a respectable metal section, and when he moved over to work at a local music store chain called Soundwaves, he oversaw the city’s best metal section at his particular location. I’d go down there after every paycheck Friday and sometimes in between to buy anything and everything. He’d recommend stuff to me and let me preview unknown albums on the store’s audio equipment so I wouldn’t blow money on something I didn’t like. I got into so many bands from that metal section, Therion, The Crown, Emperor, just too many to remember, and when Blind Guardian released A Night At The Opera, he held one of the few copies they’d received behind the counter for me. I’d go to local metal shows and sure enough every now and then I’d see Cryptos across the venue, lugging gear somewhere or talking with someone —- to say he’s been a fixture in the local metal scene here is to state the obvious. When I was running around with the Brimwylf guys, helping them load in gear and man their merch table at shows, I got to see Cryptos’ band Spectral Manifest play many times, they shared bills together all over Houston and even in San Antonio. The point here isn’t just that I know the guy personally, its that I and many others have known him for a long time now.

Spectral Manifest’s The Nether EP

The writer of this story, Rouner, wrote off-handedly of his interaction with Cryptos that [he was] “one of the many local metal musicians I’ve ended up blocking from social media for his alt-right views”, but one scour of Cryptos’ social media feed would show the exact opposite. From what I gathered, they’ve probably had some disagreements in various comments sections on Facebook and Rouner blocked him in the past. When the Horna story popped up, Rouner took Cryptos’ public advocacy that the show should go on as planned as the sole evidence he needed to slander him as “alt-right”. He didn’t take the time to interview Cryptos, or ask around to other members of the local metal scene for their views on Cryptos and Spectral Manifest, for reasons I can’t even guess at. Too lazy? Too much work? Or is it more likely that in 2019, in our state of polarized discourse, if you don’t agree 100% with someone’s views, you’re automatically their sworn enemy and represent everything they’re fighting against? A few days after the original story was published, the Houston Press issued a retraction and published an updated version of the story with a note of error and apology attached, “An earlier version of this story contained some erroneous information about Cryptos Grimm, the drummer for Spectral Manifest which was opening for Horna. Grimm voted for Barack Obama twice and was a Bernie Sanders supporter. The Houston Press and the author of this story retract the previous information and apologize for the error”. The publication should get credit for the clarification even though it came as a result of being sent messages pointing out the slander, but Rouner did not apologize to Cryptos personally, and likely never will. Because of course.

I don’t think its a coincidence that this Horna story, just like all the stories surrounding the bands I listed above was something that started on one of the coasts, be it the San Francisco / Oakland Bay Area or Brooklyn. If the protests weren’t manifesting at those cities, certainly the publications that were flagging them are based out of there (MetalSucks, Noisey, Brooklyn Vegan, etc). Antifa is a big deal on the coasts, its membership is larger in those areas, so much so that there’s rival factions (the now infamous “Proud Boys” among them) who seek to spark a counter movement against what they perceive as SJW virtue signaling. The problem is these two groups clashing have resulted in violent altercations, predominantly in the two biggest hotbeds of Antifa-related activity… you guessed it, the Bay Area and Brooklyn. As a Houston based metal fan who’s been going to shows for nearly two decades now, these kind of clashes and conflicts are entirely alien to me. I’ve been to punk shows here, countless metal shows, and I’ve never seen a neo-Nazi presence manifest itself, never felt threatened due to the color of my skin even at shows by bands who’ve ultimately been singled out by MetalSucks for whatever reason such as Watain and Mayhem. The same goes for shows in San Antonio —- I saw Immortal’s last Texas appearance with Abbath there in a packed club full of a mostly Hispanic audience, and in Austin, I found myself standing right next to Watain’s Erik Danielsson while watching Tribulation open, and he shook my hand and clapped me on the back. When I walk into a show at any Houston venue, whether with friends or alone as is sometimes the case, I don’t fear for my safety and wonder if its okay that I’m there. The metal crowds here are a mix of races, ethnicities, gender/sexual orientations, and varying shades of skin color; you’re more likely to get people staring at what band is on your t-shirt than your actual face. And it doesn’t matter what bands are playing that night, the same rules apply for any, regardless of whether its the most brutal death or black metal, or the sweet syrupy sounds of Sonata Arctica.

I guess I’m in a position of ignorance in asking the question, “Is it really that different everywhere else?”. Because that just isn’t the reality that I experience. I know that Houston is perhaps the most multi-cultural city in the United States, or at least in contention to be named as such. I’m not naive enough to suggest that there aren’t pockets of racists in Houston or its surrounding areas, but I am telling you that its damn difficult to be an out and proud racist here and start conflicts in the open that revolve around someone’s race, because you’re vastly outnumbered if you do so. That brings me to another aspect of Houston and its metal community —- its diversity. I’m a bit of a people watcher at shows, so I guess I notice more than others might that at death and black metal shows in particular, a good percentage of the audience comes from the Hispanic and Latino communities, but there are also African American metalheads here, and Asian-American fans in the crowd too (not just me!). Off the top of my head I remember a gay couple at a recent show who didn’t feel intimidated into hiding their sexuality, and they were right to feel safe because no one paid them any particular attention. Its striking that some of the bands that MetalSucks has rallied against through their stories have already played Houston, at gigs I personally attended, and there were zero incidents of any kind. Well, I guess it would have been striking… had that not been the case for damn near every show that happens here.

The White Swan interior
The White Swan… its smaller than it looks here

I don’t hate Antifa. I feel strongly that someone has to stand up to neo-Nazi rallies and white supremacists like the one in Charlottesville and I think its good that Antifa have taken a stand, but I don’t like their coastal chapters inserting themselves into our local Houston music scene where they have no context on how things here really are. They are trying to work through a small local chapter of Antifa whom I’ve only now just discovered exists, but the evidence of the coastal chapters’ fingerprints are all over the Horna in Houston situation. There are Antifa Twitter feeds dedicated to channeling information about future campaigns and protests into the hands of potential local volunteers and who encourage the doxxing of venue owners, promoters, and other local businesses. And they wouldn’t like this ugly truth, but as someone who’s been to metal shows on weeknights here in town, the reality is that had MetalSucks never put the spotlight on this Horna tour, the band’s aforementioned Wednesday night Houston show would’ve probably come and gone with minimal attendance. How can I be so sure? Because it was scheduled at The White Swan for starters, your apartment might be bigger than that venue. My bedroom closet is certainly bigger than its bathroom. Its in a part of Houston a lot of folks don’t want to drive to, with extremely sketchy neighborhood parking (hope you don’t get towed or broken into), and for gods sake, it was a Wednesday night. Houston’s a big, nay vast city that inspires some internal convincing to get in your car and drive across. I’m sorry to pierce whatever Hollywood inspired vision Antifa had in their minds for these shows, that there’d be dudes with swastika patches and iron cross tattoos walking around pounding on the predominantly African-American population in the neighborhood the venue is located in. This grand fantasy where a tiny metal show would blossom into an alt-right festival of racist hatred. That only Antifa could show up and match them fist for fist in some Green Day American Idiot inspired punk street opera. No… just no. Horna would have lugged their gear on that tiny corner stage, played their set to a very small, likely racially diverse audience who would have some beers from that ice chest (there’s no bar there), maybe someone would’ve even BBQ-ed on the grill in the back, and then everyone would’ve gone home, and Horna would have packed up and left town.

But since the MetalSucks article went viral and stirred up Antifa, and the word went out on social media, the possibilities for what could happen at this show are dangerously up in the air. A spotlight has been shown on this event now that continues even after its original location at The White Swan has been cancelled. The show will now take place at a secret location, most likely a house somewhere and attendees will be tipped off a few hours before the show, I’d guess most likely through private channels at first and then publicly on social media. But word will get out, and apparently if the back and forth threats I’m seeing online are to be believed, Antifa or maybe just Antifa sympathizers will be seeking the location of this show with the intent to shut it down. And the folks who are going to the show are responding with their own threats, goading them to show up and “see what happens”. And there we go. What would’ve been a largely ignored event, that would’ve come and gone like the neighborhood ice cream truck is now being highlighted as a place to come for a fight. And I’m looking at Facebook comment threads right now where local metal fans who didn’t plan on going to this gig in the first place are now specifically making plans to show up to see what happens or worse, get involved in something. This would be comically ridiculous if it weren’t a little scary, with the kind of vitriolic discussion surrounding an upcoming gig that I have never seen in all my time going to shows in this city. And hopefully maybe nothing bad will happen, the band will play (to a slightly larger crowd, congrats Antifa), and online chest thumping will be left at that. Lets hope so.

Horna Promo Shot

I don’t know whats more troubling to me: The possibility that violence could occur at a Houston metal show over something started by people who don’t even live in Houston or the surrounding areas. Or that someone I know could be tarred as a member of the alt-right when he’s far from it by someone who lives in the same city but couldn’t give a damn about the consequences of his actions. What is happening to everyone? Why can’t we just talk about these issues within the metal scene, particularly when we all have the platforms to do so? Why can’t MetalSucks use its very popular platform to contextualize a debate about this issue, maybe even invite these bands to come on their podcast and talk about things? Why just the instant doxx-ready articles with pointed social media references to Antifa social media? Here’s a question, since its already happened to someone I know: Does everyone who attends the Horna show in Houston instantly get labelled as neo-Nazi sympathizers? Who gets to decide that? Will photographs be taken of them and uploaded online for Facebook’s facial recognition software to tag them with? Will those photos and names go viral afterwards for the concert goers’ friends and families and employers to see and simply assume the worst about them? Aren’t there bigger problems that Antifa can be dealing with or planning on protesting? Why can’t they channel their efforts on community service and a few peaceful, non-confrontational awareness efforts to build trust in local communities? We’ve got a situation going on in the country now where right-wing media and the President himself label Antifa as agitators and violence prone troublemakers, and I don’t see Antifa themselves doing anything to change that image. Shouldn’t they?

Most metal fans are by default anti-facist (yes, I’m making that statement and stand behind it), but Antifa does little to endear themselves to metal fans and possibly engage them as participants or recruits when they’re shutting down metal shows. The economics of European bands touring the United States already keeps so many of our favorite artists away from the very realistic possibility that a US tour turns out to be a financial black hole for them. Look, I don’t care a whit about Horna, but I do care about other metal bands from Finland, three of whom I’m seeing this week (Children of Bodom / Swallow the Sun / Wolfheart). If promoters decide that the risk of taking on bands from Scandinavian countries in general is too risky because they wouldn’t want to get shut down by some Antifa activity they can’t see coming, they might decide to not take a risk on any band from that region. That’s not fair to those bands, but more importantly that’s not fair to American metal fans. Before you say I’m being ridiculous, consider the plight of folk-metal band Tyr well over a decade ago, when neo-Nazi’s began using their music for their own propaganda videos and it got the band banned across Germany and parts of Europe. They had zero neo-Nazi affiliations themselves, but the taint on them nearly ruined their career and took years of a concerted media campaign to erase entirely. But in the social media era of 2019, anything goes. I wouldn’t be surprised if one day Antifa turned its sights on a band like Sabaton, whose history nerd meets power metal storytelling pulls in one of the most widely diverse crowds I’ve ever seen. They have songs about World War II, and yes that includes referencing the military forces of Nazi Germany, certainly not songs of pro-Nazi sentiment, but an accusation could be made and that association could do serious damage to one of the most cheerful metal bands to ever prance on a stage. Can you honestly say its not a possibility?

MetalSucks Presents Taake, tour poster

I don’t know if its possible right now to discuss Antifa with a critical eye and not be labeled as a neo-Nazi sympathizer. Metal twitter in all its grossness doesn’t have an eye towards subtlety and nuance in its various discussions, which is why I’m choosing to publish my thoughts here. Yes I’m defending a guy who’s going to drum for a band that’s opening for Horna on Wednesday night. Cryptos is more aggressive about it than I am, but I think we’re on the same spectrum of thinking in that shutting down concerts isn’t a productive way to fight against facism and neo-Nazi beliefs. Talk about it? Sure. Debate it intelligently online in a civilized manner? Yes absolutely. But to doxx local venue owners and create an atmosphere where violence could break out is the antithesis of what the local Houston metal scene has been about. When I was a teenager and was reading about black metal for the first time, the name Burzum would pop up a lot as being crucial to the subgenre’s history. So when I finally saw a copy of Filosofem in the record store, I bought it. For a long time Varg Vikernes’ exploits were more of a wild crazy story to me, and when I first started this blog I even reviewed his initial post-prison releases. But as time passed and Varg became more outspoken about his views in documentaries and his YouTube channel, I became more thoughtful about how maybe I shouldn’t cover his music at all and made the decision to stop. I learned more about his beliefs and made a personal choice to stop supporting him in any way, even with mere words. Presumably MetalSucks undertook a similar process seeing as they once supported Horna, or even Taake for that matter. Though it seems like they went in the opposite direction, and in doing so have shined an even greater spotlight on these issues, even potentially galvanizing them into polarizing conflicts. For years and years, NSBM was just something that scraped by an existence in the darkened corners of extreme undergrounds as Exhumed’s Matt Harvey pointed out in his 2017 Decibel op-ed, it wasn’t a growing movement. So why are we risking breathing new life into it by exposing it to a wider alt-right / Proud Boys audience who didn’t know about its very existence until now?

Lords of Chaos: The Metal Pigeon Review

Jack Kilmer, Jonathan Barnwell, Rory Culkin and Anthony De La Torre appear in Lords of Chaos by Jonas Åkerlund, an official selection of the Midnight program at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.  All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.


I honestly thought about skipping the theatrical release of Lords of Chaos, but when it arrived here on Friday, February 15th at the Alamo Drafthouse for its opening night showing, I figured what the hell. After all in December of 2009 I went to see Until The Light Takes Us at another Alamo Drafthouse, and there’s something about pecan porters and Belgian white ales and black metal films that just goes so well together. I had bought and read the book of course, way back when it first hit American bookstore shelves in the late 90’s and I poured over every page, only later to find out through various sources that a lot of the book was in dispute by those who were its subjects. Mostly Varg, but I recall reading a lot of criticism from the Mayhem camp, as well side figures like Ihsahn, Samoth, and Satyr who seemed to be outside the “inner circle” but close enough to know what was likely true and outright fabrication. As a result, I held a lot of prejudices against the book for quite some time (and to be honest still do), particularly in the overblown sensationalist aspect of propping up satanism as the central theme. I think it was a decade ago plus when we first started hearing that it would be turned into a film, and my primary thought beyond “that will never get made” was that the only way it could be any good is if it departed from the book in a meaningful way and attempted a more honest portrayal.

Cue Jonas Akerlund, probably the only director who was meant to handle a project like this, not only for his very brief stint in Bathory, but for the connection he’s maintained to metal in general even throughout his years directing videos for pop stars. Before the film started, well before the coming attractions, various music videos and strange film shorts by Akerlund were being played on the big screen, including his gritty video for Metallica’s “Turn The Page” and his glossier clip for Lady Gaga’s “John Wayne”. I wondered if they’d show his clip for Satyricon’s “Fuel For Hatred” considering its the only black metal band he’s done one for but no such luck. The Metallica clip was a good reminder of Akerlund’s tendencies though, a stark, unpolished bit of filmmaking through a humanist perspective. Its the struggle of a mom’s transient lifestyle living out of hotel rooms while working at a strip club during the evenings and hooking long after her daughter has gone to sleep. This aggressively hyper-realist perspective also informed his video for The Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up”, where similarly the very ordinariness of the setting is a character in itself. In Lords of Chaos, there’s a moment when a domineering Varg barks at a young woman to disrobe, and its an uncomfortable, tension filled moment that is anything but sexy. She has a noticeable cyst that Akerlund makes sure viewers see, and the brightly lit room is quiet but for the sounds of a belt buckle hitting the floor after Varg growls “Are you deaf?” as he and Euronymous sit and watch.

This story is filled with ugliness and violence, and filmed without restraint in displaying that to the viewer. There’s the eerily distant manner in which we’re shown Dead’s suicide, without any emotional maneuvering via music, just a stark series of shots that show him sitting on the floor of his room slicing his wrists, forearms, and neck, stumbling to a desk to write a bloody suicide note as he’s gushing all over the place, and finally to his mattress where he sits against the wall, pulls the barrel of a gun to his head and fires without pause. Euronymous finding his body is a similarly disquieting sequence, the kind of reaction that seems rational and entirely illogical at once —- and when we come back to this later in the film, its surprisingly heartbreaking. Akerlund doesn’t glorify violence in the film, in fact his depiction of it is so upsetting that you’re wishing certain scenes didn’t linger as long as they did. When Faust is shown stabbing Magne Andreassen in Lillehammer Park, we seemingly see all 37 strikes he reportedly delivered, and its gruesome and terrible to take in. Worse yet is the final confrontation between Varg and Euronymous, a scene that is far more upsetting than I expected it to be, made worse not only for the sheer bloodiness, but for the senselessness of the whole thing. Akerlund’s style adds grit and grounding to all these depictions —- there are no action shots, nothing is remotely stylized, instead we get a single cam feel of someone simply recording actual violence happening mere feet from the lens. Its utterly disturbing.

All my reservations about the choice of cast and the decision to have them speak in English without any Norwegian accents in their speech were dispelled in the film’s first twenty minutes, when Rory Culkin’s surprisingly fantastic portrayal of Euronymous does the unlikely trick of charming the audience. I’m being serious. You can’t help but like Euronymous in this film, and I suspect that’s on purpose for the audience to forge some emotional connection onto a central character for plot purposes, but at the same time, you get the feeling that Øystein Aarseth hid a relatively decent person beneath the thick layers of angst, disaffection, and petulant jealousy. Akerlund splices in seemingly minor details to illustrate the point: Øystein’s affection for his little sister when she’s helping him color his hair black; his apparent love for a local kebab place he frequents so much that he knows the owner by name; laying on the couch next to his dad when his mother calls dinner (“spaghetti bolognese!”); the humorous exchange with a Norwegian postman he respectfully addresses; his relationship with girlfriend Ann-Marit (played by Sky Ferreira) where he allows for insecurity and vulnerability; and of course a handful of scattered moments where he attempts to deescalate the fallout resulting from his own provocations. Culkin nails playing both Øystein and Euronymous, his performance filled with subtlety in depicting what makes this young man essentially two personalities that sometimes merge, but in the films more emotionally resonant moments, repel away from one another in mutual disgust.

The casting turned out to be one of the film’s strongest aspects, with authentic feeling supporting turns from all the members of the inner circle, particularly Emory Cohen as Varg. I admit to feeling a moment of hesitation when he first appeared on screen, a dorky metalhead in a jean jacket with a Scorpions patch (man the Scorps got dragged through the mud in this movie) who gets the cold shoulder by an unimpressed Euronymous. But I quickly remembered that the earliest photos of Vikernes himself are pretty much exactly that, Akerlund did his homework here. Cohen’s presence gradually ebbs from uncertain and insecure to disturbingly confident, certain, and possessed. Vikernes will not be happy with his portrayal, but in reading interviews with Akerlund, most of the depictions came from knowledge gleaned from a variety of sources (in other words, not just the book), with the director citing Vikernes’ own statements as part of their source material. Vikernes has turned into an idiosyncratic narcissist in his later years as a YouTube celebrity, spreading his hate and racist diatribes for any impressionable goon to lionize, but he’s also been very specific about his perception of events and the way things went down, and to his chagrin, the film takes him at his word. There was no way for a guy like Vikernes to be portrayed as a hero, even when he’s telling Euronymous in the middle of a church they’re about to burn about what pagan sites stood at that spot before the Christians came. Remember this film screened at Cannes and Sundance, scores of non-metal audiences have seen this film who know nothing about black metal or its history or relevance —- they could probably see his point during that particular moment, he’s getting retribution in some way, but even that can’t redeem him from coming across as a maniacal sociopath.

This is ultimately a story about a group of young men and teenagers in a pre-internet world who become so involved with their own uniquely defined subculture that they began to get in over their heads in their attempts to stage rebellion against the traditional Christian Norwegian society they’ve grown up in. Within that framework, its a deeper story about the bonds of friendship and the forces that cause them to wither and tear apart. Akerlund juxtaposes Øystein’s strange but comradely kinship with Per Ohlin (Dead) versus his slowly decaying alliance with Varg, the former featuring some of the film’s best laughs (there are a few) while the latter crackles with a barely restrained tension. Euronymous cuts as mysterious and ambiguous a character onscreen as he seems to in black metal history where multiple accounts differ as to just who he was as Øystein. Watching the film, his likability was a strange thing for me to admit at first, because I could easily see why so many considered him egotistical, jealous and manipulative. In that respect he’s a mirror image of who Varg becomes, and two of those personalities could not co-exist in one clique. Despite that, there were hints at redemption for him —- subtle things that suggest he cares for his friends, worries over their well-being (even if that means at the expense of others), he even seems to know when its time to distance himself from everything altogether. I didn’t anticipate feeling a tinge of sadness at the end, but I did.

Now that Lords of Chaos is out in theaters, and those who hoped it would never be made have to live with its nagging presence, I hope most metal fans put aside their reservations and give it a shot. Its not a perfect film, there’s some awfully corny dialogue at times, the music is severely neglected, and some people might be put off by its schizophrenic shifts in tone. Yet despite those things, I think it should be stressed that the more people check this out and support it the more likely it is that we can have future metal related films, be they documentaries or biopics like this. All the criticism the recent Bohemian Rhapsody biopic received for being selective with the truth seems deserved, but they can’t level quite the same thing at Lords of Chaos. The former is a band approved vanity project aimed squarely at propagating their own magnificence with an audience that’s likely sympathetic at worst and die-hard fans at best. Akerlund’s film is an entirely different beast however, non-metal audiences don’t learn about why black metal is unique, how or why its different from death metal, they barely even get to hear what Mayhem sounds like —- instead they get a deeply disturbing, saddening tale that offers no answers in the way of virtue or morality. For us as metal fans who’ve known this story for seemingly ever now, we get a visualization of a slice of history we weren’t privy to ourselves. Let me be clear —- none of these guys were heroes or martyrs and don’t deserve to be treated as such, but its our history, we’re responsible for documenting it properly and processing it. Akerlund never stopped being a metal fan, and to the extent that Lords of Chaos is a fellow metalhead’s interpretation of this grim story, we should support it with the same enthusiasm we muster for new music or live shows, regardless of its Hollywood fingerprints.

Its Report Card Time: New Sabaton, Kreator, Sonata Arctica and more!

 

Here at The Metal Pigeon I’ll review new albums that I personally take an interest in, and if you’ve read any of them you’ll notice that I don’t favor utilizing a numerical point system to determine its worth. I guess I worry that I’ll be tempted to ease up on the damage I dish out through a number to a band that I traditionally like — if say their new album is mediocre. By forcing myself to stick to a written explanation of an album’s merits and demerits, I can at least keep myself honest. But it struck me that I had a ton of new albums that I had just finished listening through at the same time that most school terms are ending for the summer – and inspiration struck! Its report card time, and The Metal Pigeon is out to see who has and hasn’t made the grade!

 

 

Sabaton – Carolus Rex:

This is without exaggeration Sabaton’s best work, topping their former pinnacle in 2008’s The Art of War through an excellently framed concept, tremendously inspired songwriting, a greater emphasis on guitarwork (no longer taking a backseat to the keyboards), and a fully realized orchestral and choir arrangement that gives these songs about great Swedish kings and battles the sound of the regal, the austere, and of course, the fury, futility, and glory of battle. Obtaining Peter Tatgren’s services for the production of the entire album (not just the mixing as before) seems to have resulted in a work that is very much woven together, a collection of songs that are bound by a shared sonic palette. Sabaton’s traditionally metallic, somewhat mechanized style is merged with symphonic power metal-esque arrangements that are normally found on albums by Kamelot or Rhapsody of Fire.  Songs like “Killing Ground” and “Poltava” are classic galloping Sabaton, with smart songwriting, clever twists and of course, great riffing and guitar melodies.  “The Carolean’s Prayer” is a far more ambitious attempt at an epic than these guys have ever tried before, and they pull it off incredibly well – with a mid-song shift in direction that mixes in to supreme dramatic effect choral vocals sung in Swedish (taken of course from the alternate Swedish version of this album).

 

Speaking of the Swedish language version, while I have no reason to doubt the opinion of the Angry Metal Guy who being a Swede has excellent insight when comparing the two versions of this album, I must say, for my tastes the English lyrics on offer here are some of Sabaton’s finest. Take for example the very metal and adrenaline raising chorus of “Carolus Rex”, which is from the perspective of the young King Charles XII, in which he declares “I was chosen by heaven! Say my name when you pray – to the skies! See Carolus rise!” In one fell swoop singer/primary songwriter Joakim Brodén manages to convey to us listeners just how goddamned crazy old Charles really was (I recommend doing a little history reading online, seriously the guy was a nutter), yet at the same time, bold, brash, confident, and brilliant enough to lead Sweden to superpower status. Yes I know I’m geek about lyrics, but bravado is such an overdone and often ineffective lyrical slant within metal that when you hear it being tackled in a new and fresh way that is backed up and framed by history – its damn riveting, hair raising stuff!

 

In a recent interview with The Gauntlet, Brodén admitted that the Swedish version of the album was filled with far more subtlety and nuance than the English version, and that even narrative perspectives had to be changed in translation for certain songs (see the previously linked Angry Metal Guy’s review for a far more detailed explanation). That being the case however, well us non-Swedes can only enjoy what we can hear, and while the Swedish version is a nice bonus, its only just that, and I’m here to tell you that the English version of this album delivers a gripping, and powerful narrative of the rise and fall of the Stormaktstiden. Sabaton’s tight musicianship, sharp, smart songwriting courtesy of uniquely baritone voiced singer/primary songwriter Joakim Brodén are the obvious keys to their success, their quiet strength has been Brodén’s superior abilities as a lyricist who understands the nuances of language and displays a mastery of diction and storytelling to achieve pulse raising emotional impacts.

 

 

Sonata Arctica – Stones Grow Her Name:

It could have worse, far, far worse for Sonata Arctica. If I had written this article say a scant few weeks ago I would’ve graded this as an F. Such is the sheer bizarreness of some of the material on display here, its nagging presence threatening to drown the whole album in an ocean of negative sentiment and resentment. But thanks to the passage of time and some stout-hearted listening sessions, the cream of the album rose to the top and I found some reasons to have hope for this band, in addition to dishing out a barely passing grade. To be honest, I’m not sure what’s happened to these guys over the past few years, for although I’ve been checking out each new release I haven’t kept up with any interviews or the reasons for their seemingly numerous multitude of lineup changes. I guess the latter doesn’t matter much if Tony Kakko is still the primary songwriter, but one has to wonder when listening to some of this album’s most dire moments if he’s lost his focus. The bands first three albums up through about half of their fourth (Reckoning Night) were back to back classics, with nary a filler track in sight and despite the presence of ever cringe worthy spoken dialogue (seriously, they need to stop with that stuff). Their successive albums each would have a few truly excellent gems amidst a bed of mediocre filler, and I think for my part, and I’m sure many other fellow longtime admirers, we were inclined to give the band a pass simply because of what they had proved to be capable of in the past. The Metallica syndrome then. I won’t spend time here discussing the terrible stuff on offer here, there’s plenty of it as well as a few mediocre filler tracks as well, but I’ll gladly point out the gems worth seeking out on ITunes or some other legit download service, they are songs worth paying for. Namely, “Only the Broken Hearts (Make You Beautiful)” and lead off single “I Have a Right” both shimmer with classic Kakko melodies and thoughtful, always unabashed lyrics.  Grab them and load them up alongside the rest of their classics.

 

 

Kreator – Phantom Antichrist:

In what is a solid contender for the album of the year spot, Kreator have done something with Phantom Antichrist that seems to elude many a veteran band — that is, to find a way back to the authenticity of your original sound and spirit by focusing on the strengths of your classic sound while folding in fresh new ideas that not only complement but enhance that sound. The past few records have been respectable, but not remarkable, but in retrospect you can regard them as building blocks away from their misguided batch of records in mid to late nineties. This album makes such a profound impact that you’re hard pressed not to view the past few Kreator records as tests and trial runs for the supreme masterwork delivered here. These are not just solid songs, they are heart-stoppingly great at their best and adrenaline inducing the rest of the time. Here songwriter and vocalist Mille Petrozza aims to infuse  a healthy dose of Gothenburg-esque melodicism into Kreator’s thrash metal attack and build the songs around this newfound element to jawdropping effect. The melodies aren’t run of the mill Gothenburg-isms either, but fresh and inspired in their own right, and they only serve to enhance the impact of Kreator’s trademark brutality by emphasizing memorability and catchiness. Those seeking a repeat of Pleasure to Kill will not get what they want, but an open mind will allow those expectations to be brushed away upon the hearing the grin inducing chorus of the album opener and title track. There are too many highlights here to adequately list: the blistering “Death to the World”, the quiet to loud explosion found within “Your Heaven, My Hell”, and of course the classic sounding title track just to name the obvious highlights. Someone get copies of this to everyone in the “Big Four”.

 

 

Dragonforce – The Power Within:

If you’re a fan of these guys, full time or part time, then I have some good and relieving news for you. They’re gonna be fine with the new guy. More than fine really. Yes, this is the same meticulously produced, shimmering, hyper-actively fast, guitar melody driven “extreme power metal” that they have won a reputation for and it would have been folly to think that an element as relatively decentralized as the vocals would beggar changes to that formula. Except that, in a promising way, they’ve managed to introduce some new elements into their typical formula, and those are best seen in the singles “Cry Thunder”, and “Seasons”. Its amusing that something as simple as slowing down the tempo a bit and focusing more on allowing good riffs space to breath could inject such a freshness to the typical Dragonforce sound. “Cry Thunder” builds from rock steady riffage to a swelling bridge, whereupon new vocalist Marc Hudson finally breaks free of the guitars in an uplifting chorus. On “Seasons” he takes center stage and the guitars work around his key lead vocal, which yes I know doesn’t exactly sound revolutionary, but for these guys its certainly different. It works, in part due to a catchy as hell chorus, but also in large part to the fact that the slower tempo-ed breathable verse structures with guitars in a supporting role really enhance the rock n’ roll feel going on (read: less clinical sounding). The fact that they throw in an acoustic version of this song as a bonus track and it actually sounds just as great stripped down is proof that if these guys continue in this less maniacal direction, their songwriting is bound to benefit. There’s nothing wrong with their fast style, its just that flurries of notes compacted together at unmeasurable BPMs was all they were doing for awhile. I’m enjoying this album in a casual way, its good summer music, and while it doesn’t touch the audacious brilliance of their 2002 classic Sonic Firestorm, its a good start in what I hope will be a further investigated new direction.

 

 

Grand Magus – The Hunt:

Hell yeah! Was my reaction upon first hearing the title track of this album played on a favorite metal radio show. Long have I been exposed to Grand Magus and time and time again it just didn’t sink in for me, but this song made me seek this record out in its entirety. And like a hammer slamming a nail through cheap balsa wood, Grand Magus has finally lodged itself in my mind as the awesome musical entity I’ve long suspected they are. I’m successfully enjoying their previous release lately as well, proceeding to work my way backwards through their discography. Every single song on this record is compelling, addictive, and plain rockin’ — in that excellent-for-driving around under the blazing Texas sun whilst nodding, headbanging, and hitting air cymbals way. I’m sure the following statements will raise the eyebrows of any who are already familiar with these guys, but the most apt comparison I can make for this three piece Swedish group is that they’re like a dirtier, grittier, doomier, more rock n’roll infused Falconer. The comparison to their fellow Swedes is not only relegated to the music, for vocalist Janne “JB” Christoffersson is similar in approach to Falconer’s Mathias Blad — they both sing in a mid-range delivery with a few exceptions, they both favor a far more restrained approach (no wild Kiske-esque screams to be found here), and generally speaking they have a similar timbre to their voice and accent. I’m firmly calling this a good thing by the way, so if you’re one of those unfortunate folks who can’t enjoy Mathias Blad led Falconer, don’t let the comparison turn you off. Christoffersson’s vocals are sandpaper smooth, and his timing, phrasing, and lyrics are a perfect complement to Grand Magus’ unique mix of power metal musicality and doom metal informed pacing. It seems on this new record they’ve taken an extra step away from their doom metal influences and have embraced the sounds of traditional American hard rock a bit more — an approach that recalls to mind the best of Dio’s mid 80’s solo work. Oh yeah, the album also has some of the most badassed cover art seen in awhile. This album has already been on heavy rotation, and I’m positive I’ll be listening to it all summer long. Gotta love it when a band finally clicks for you, and the records that do it are usually pretty special. The Hunt definitely is.

 

 

Burzum – Umskiptar:

This is depressing. After two ferocious, forward looking, and downright inspired post-prison albums (Belus and Fallen), Varg commits the inexcusable sin of simply boring us to sleep. Seriously, I fucking fell asleep listening to this. And many rounds of periodic repeat listens haven’t changed my mind, on the contrary, I’ve begun to dread those moments where I decide: “okay time to man up and give it another shot”. Forget it, I’m done. Things were promising in the early going — I had first heard what most folks had heard with the leak of the album’s first track proper, “Jóln (Deities)”, to YouTube and figured that we’d be in for something akin to Fallen part two. It suffices to say that the song serves as the albums only highlight (barely). The rest is an unsorted mess of murky, formless, meandering sonic textures and plodding guitars. Any riffs are few and far between, and to make matters worse, the latter third of the album is a delightful soup of spoken word and atmospherics. Appetizing for sure! There’s a cool moment at the very start of “Alfadanz” with an eerie tinkling piano and a guitar riff that mimics it, but sadly the track proceeds to limp along shortly afterwards, almost stubbornly refusing any injections of energy or excitement. Its all a damn shame too because he was riding on a stream of creative momentum and stretching the boundaries of what was possible for Burzum in a musical context. He overreaches here, and we all suffer for it.

 

The Metal Pigeon’s Most Anticipated of 2012

Even though February is almost over, I’ve only just recently felt as if I’ve closed my book on metal in 2011. I suppose its always the way with me, it takes me a good bit of time to process all the year end lists on websites, blogs and magazines. I’ve spent most of the past few weeks playing catchup on stuff I missed, and haven’t give much attention to whats on the horizon. Really quickly, here’s some random thoughts on my five most anticipated metal releases/events of 2012:

 

Therion – TBA: I honestly didn’t expect this to be announced so soon after their last release, given that Therion do like to take their time with new albums, but perhaps something was urging Christofer Johnsson to shorten the wait time for the follow up – some internal nagging that was telling him what many Therion fans already knew, that 2010’s Sitra Ahra didn’t live up to expectations. The expectations were, at least from this fan’s point of view, that there would be an appropriately epic and breathtaking series of songs to conclude what had become a quadrilogy (with Sirius B, Lemuria, and Gothic Kabbalah). They were hitting home runs with those prior three albums, without exaggeration I consider all three to be some of the most wonderfully unique music I’ve ever listened to, in all genres, ever. So all my gross salivating over Sitra Ahra leading up to its release date quickly ran dry when I listened to the album for the first time.

 

One of the hallmarks of Therion has always been their ability to temper their extravagant, bombastic symphonic and progressive tendencies with restraint and elegance. Here it seemed, however, that Johnsson had lost his handle on whatever internal mechanism he’d always had that allowed him to say “Eh, thats overdoing it”, or “That sounds garish, even for us”. Guest vocalists delivered jarringly bad or ill fitting vocal takes that ruined potentially great songs, arrangements that in the past would be tempered by space or silence were instead overloaded to ruin. Not all was bad, the title track, “Unguentum Sabbati”, and the truly excellent “Kali Yuga III” were three songs that made me long for what could have been. So why have so much anticipation for this upcoming album from a band that just released an average at best album? The hope anyway, is that with the new album representing a clean slate, lineup wise as well as conceptually, Johnsson will feel comfortable in re-simplifying his approach and veering away from the apparent need to outdo each previous album’s bombast. Also, as fanboy-ish as it sounds, I don’t believe Therion can put out an average record twice in a row – they’re just that great overall.  The previous time they released an “average” record, they followed it up with a masterpiece in Theli. History repeats itself?

 

Burzum – Umskiptar: You have to hand it to Varg, he delivered the goods upon his release from incarceration with Belus and Fallen, both excellent albums. I was far more impressed with the latter and its strikingly unique approach on certain tracks. Who says Norwegian black metal is stale and uninspired? They must have not heard “Jeg Faller”, or “Valen”. The development of his signature sound was pushed to unexpected new directions, and Varg found out that he wasn’t adverse to vocal melodies either (!). My first listen to Fallen took me by complete surprise, it was like hearing the classic Burzum sound yet unlike it at the same time. A complete surprise in many respects. And this is why the recently announced Umskiptar is so high on my list of the most anticipated albums to be released this year (the jawdropping cover art doesn’t hurt either). In fact, the only thing that will top my surprise at hearing Fallen for the first time will be if Umskiptar doesn’t make my top ten of 2012.

 

 

 

Wintersun – Time: I know what you’re thinking, what makes me think that this will be the year that extreme metal’s own Chinese Democracy will finally be released? Call it a hunch, but enough time has passed already for Jari Mäenpää to get his technical situation sorted (I won’t go into the stupid details for those who don’t know them, only will pause to wonder why his record label, Nuclear Blast, won’t pony up a small check to pay for his hardware upgrade to finally help them get this damn thing released and recoup the budget?!). The reality at this point is that its a very fair question to ask if anyone will really care once it is released. Invariably it will be met with its fair share of criticism, the kind due any album that overstays its time in the oven and can’t meet the nigh insurmountable expectations its created. Its similarities to Axl Rose’s long delayed grandiose commercial bomb are eerily similar, an insanely multi-tracked production overseen by a perfectionist nutter, rumored problems with both the studios and equipment, and even Monty Python-esque train wreck humor in the form of noisy construction next door. I look forward to finally hearing the thing however, and I think 2012 is finally the year we’ll have the opportunity, if only for the fact that by May it will be six full years since production first began, and I don’t see Nuclear Blast willing to wait any longer than that. Admittedly, I’m far more interested in hearing Time simply because it has taken so long to complete, than I am because I’m some die hard Wintersun fan (how can you be a die hard fan of a band with just one album released in ’04?) If there actually are many others out there who are similarly curious, then perhaps both Wintersun and Nuclear Blast will find that it was worth all the time and trouble.

 

Iron Maiden’s “Maiden England” World Tour: On Saturday, August 18th, I will attend Iron Maiden’s final stop of the North American leg of their newly announced “Maiden England” world tour, a show which promises to echo its VHS namesake’s classic setlist as well as other songs from that era. In essence this is a sequel to the “Somewhere Back in Time” world tour of 2008, just advancing up the timeline of the band’s golden 80s era a bit. Well, I couldn’t be more thrilled. This is in fact my favorite band of all time, the kind of favorite band that underlines and anchors so many things I love about metal as a whole. Having another chance to see them before their soon impending retirement is not something that I take lightly — I’m very well aware that this could be the last time I get to see the mighty Maiden, and the fact that Houston gets the final tour date is all the more sweeter. When I first heard the news, it buoyed me for the rest of the workday and beyond, I felt giddy and wanted the show to be that night. I actually hadn’t listened to Maiden in a good many months but that day I went home and watched a few Maiden DVDs and had flashes of the rush I experienced upon seeing them live for the very first time. This is a purely self-centered addition to this list, but I think deep down, I’m anticipating this show more than any actual albums this year.

 

Darkthrone – TBA: I loved Circle the Wagons and quite frankly, can’t understand the animosity some fans feel towards the past few Darkthrone releases. Is it really all that far removed from the band’s 90’s pure black metal output? It still sounds like Darkthrone to me, albeit a bit more experimental in some areas (see “Circle the Wagons”, “These Treasures Will Never Befall You”) — and much to the chagrin of those who dislike the newer stuff, Fenriz has mentioned offhandedly that the newer material will echo the aforementioned songs. I view it as a welcome stylistic shift, I love those songs, as well as the rest of that record. I’ve checked my I-Tunes count play and see that its my most listened to album in their discography, even over Transilvanian Hunger. Haters be damned, I love new Darkthrone and hope they keep on the track of making the purists mad. I don’t always feel that way about a lot of bands but in this case, the songwriting seems to keep getting better as a result. Full speed ahead Gylve.

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