Despite being heralded as the last of “the Berlin Trilogy”, the sequence of albums Bowie while in tax exile, it sounds nothing like Low or “Heroes”. Whereas those were singular canvasses full of sound, this is just a collection of songs – some from Bowie’s top shelf, some from the bottom, and one from the wastebasket beneath it.
There’s a odd disunity within Lodger, it’s if nobody was quite sure of what they were doing. Maybe they weren’t. It’s no secret that the creative partnership of David Bowie and Brian Eno was falling apart by this point: Eno’s “compose in 17/8 while standing on your head and gargling noodles” tricks were growing irritating, and weren’t producing usable material. One stunt involved the backing band switching instruments. Another involved Eno drawing eight random chords on a blackboard and then having the band play whatever one he pointed at. Entire days were wasted in this fashion, producing nothing but countless hours of garbage. After Lodger landed on the charts with a desultory thud, Bowie chose not to work with Eno for his next release.
Which isn’t to say Lodger doesn’t have moments of greatness, which it does. But for the first time since Bowie landed in continental Europe, it has failures. Not lots of them, but they’re hard to ignore, particularly when one of them is up there with the most awful songs he ever wrote.
But let’s start with the best part: the three leading songs. “Fantastic Voyage” is a flamboyant, sashaying piece that reaches back to his Station to Station sound. Its lyrics connect mental illness and cold war paranoia. It’s a simple matter: we all have bad days (the Thin White Duke could attest to this), but national leaders have bad days, too…and they have the ability to destroy the world. This is the flaw in the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction – it relies on everyone in the world being rational and sane. What happens when nuclear weapons end up in the hands of a lunatic? The line “learning to live with someone’s depression” is darkly mocking. When the bombs start to fly, we might not need to learn.
“African Night Flight” is a paranoid freakout. It sounds a bit like a 33 RPM record of “Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?)” played at 45 RPM by mistake. Panicky, compelling stuff. “Move On” takes chords from “All of the Dudes” (a potential megahit that Bowie foolishly gave away in 1974 to nearly-forgotten glam act Mott the Hoople), and reverses them, turning a pop song into fascinating avant garde pop. As with “Heroes”, the lyrics seem laid on with a trowel, as if he’s parodying what a typical songwriter would write.
“Yassassin” is four minutes of drizzling shit. I can’t find words for much I hate it. It’s like middle school, when your teacher decides you need a dose of capital-c Culture and you get dragged off to see a kabuki show or something. Fuck off. I don’t want culture. I don’t want to broaden my horizons. Throw this song in the bin.
Side two begins with the musically average and lyrically excellent “DJ”. Bowie is at his cruelest and most sardonic here, he’s an egocentric disk jockey who thinks he’s king of the dance floor (“I got believers!” he crows). But as with Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy, we soon realise there’s something very wrong with him. DJs tend to be a bit “off”: they’re all performance, all illusion; no matter how full or how sweaty the dance floor gets, other people wrote the songs they’re playing. The crowd is grinding to Lady Gaga and Beyonce, not the guy behind the stacks, but many DJs lose sight of that. It’s a trade that attracts delusional narcissists.
“DJ” paints a picture of a man dangerously lost to fantasy, the real world slipping past his fingers like a shiny black record. He’s “(at) home, lost my job”, but that’s okay. It’s “realism”. Getting fired builds street cred, and he wouldn’t have it any other way. He says “I’ve got a girl out there, I suppose”…why are the last two words there? A repeated line in the chorus is “can’t turn around, can’t turn around”. Why can’t he turn around? Perhaps if he does, he’ll see that he doesn’t have quite so many “believers” as he thought. Perhaps he has no believers at all. Maybe it’s all an illusion, and he’s just a pathetic failure with no job and no girlfriend, spinning discs to an audience of nobody in his apartment. The song ends with the word “believers” skipping on its final two syllables. “Leave us…leave us…leave us…”
“Look Back in Anger” is a good track, inspiring Oasis and rendering them irrelevent in three minutes and eight seconds. Soon after, Lodger starts running into engine problems again. “Boys Keep Swinging” is fun and bouncy, but doesn’t stay with you. Nudge-nudge, wink-wink gaybaiting in the age of Jerry Falwell and Save Our Children doesn’t seem shocking, just hack. Then we get the ham-fisted “Repetition”, an unpleasant song about a man punching his wife around.
Album closer “Red Money” is a decent reworked track from The Idiot, although it sounded better with Iggy Pop singing it. More to the point, it’s now the second piece of old rope on a ten track LP (third, once you realise that “Boys Keep Swinging” has the same chords as “Fantastic Voyage”). Remember how Low and “Heroes” needed to make weight with covers and cast-offs? Oh, wait. They didn’t.
One can be too hard on Lodger. It’s another strong album, with lots of classic Bowie moments. But it was promoted wrong by RCA Records, and continues to be promoted wrong by fans to this day. It is not of a company with the two albums before it. The real Berlin Trilogy (according to to Bowie-ologist Chris O’Leary) is The Idiot (an Iggy Pop album hijacked at gunpoint by Bowie, and if you disagree you’re deaf), Low, and “Heroes”, with Lodger being a couple of footnotes. I agree, except “Yassassin” is a turd smear.
“Heroes” doesn’t equal the height of Low, but it’s an incredible album in its own way. Bowie created astonishing work in Berlin, and “Heroes” carved his name even deeper in the wall.
The opening track is snaky and serpentine, with Bowie spelunking down to the lower end of his range (“…gone wrong” slides to C#2, one of his deepest studio notes). “Heroes”‘ songs fall into two categories: the ones that make sense on their own, the the ones that make sense as part of “Heroes”. This is one of the former.
By contrast, track 2, “Joe the Lion”, is the latter. I can’t listen to it without the rest of the album: it sounds agitated and broken and gives the listener no relief at the end. But it does provide effective contrast for the krautrock-infused nostalgia of the next track: it’s like driving over a broken road, which changes to smooth blacktop.
The title song is the obligatory classic, which has survived overplay through massive sonic depth. There’s much to discover inside “Heroes”, between Carlos Alomar’s fill-in lines and Brian Eno’s electronic squawks. The song’s like an infinitely unfolding sheet of paper, containing yet more scribbles inside each unfurled fold. The lyrics are broad, and on the page sound faintly mocking, although no trace of this comes through on the record.
Functional harmonists describe music as a journey made of chords. When you listen to the tonic chord containing the key signature, you’re at home (in the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” this chord underlines “in the town…”). The subdominant chord is like leaving home to go on a journey (“…where I was born…”), the dominant chord is like arriving at your destination (“…lived a man…”) and then you might go home again back to the tonic (“…who sailed to sea.”).
Maybe my ear is bad, but little of “Heroes” makes sense when analysed in this fashion. There’s nothing that sounds like home, or a journey, or a destination. Notes swirl like squid ink, sometimes coagulating into chords, more often becoming pure texture. Even interesting. The album’s explorative nature is irresistable, even when it leaves the listener behind.
“V-2 Schneider” opens with air-tattered wailing, reminiscent of London during the blitz. The V-2s (German “Vergeltungswaffe”, “Retribution Weapon”) were long-range ballistic missiles, fired across the English channel at London, where they killed an average of two limeys per missile. The other side of the story was the 12,000 forced laborers who died in the production of the missiles. As with many purported Nazi superweapons, the V-2 was far more lethal to its builders than its targets. “Schneider” is “Florian Schneider-Esleben”, one of the founders of Kraftwerk: Bowie finally removed the letter c from his covert krautrock borrowings, making them overt.
“Sense of Doubt” is very dark, featuring a piano microphoned so that every note cleaves space with the power of an axe. A glittering synth line is introduced, as black as polished anthracite. I assumed this was Brian Eno’s work, but the song credits only Bowie. Much of the Berlin trilogy’s instrumental work was creating through procedural experimentation – the composer(s) drawing a card with instructions on it (“Use an unacceptable color”) and trying to attach a song to that scaffold. This isn’t unlike the process used by the Oulipo group to write books – although the Oulipists have yet to produce their Berlin Trilogy.
Traces of life stir in the shadow of this track. “Neukoln” is Bowie going “hey, remember when I used to play the saxophone?” and pairing it with yet more brutalist sonic architecture. His expressiveness seems like a plant weaving through cracked concrete.
The pattern of songs/ambience was used before in Low, which is part of why I prefer it. Even at its best, “Heroes” is retracing his own path, not forging a new one. The only difference is the final track, “The Secret Life of Arabia”, which is actually a song again. Maybe there is a journey to “Heroes”, but instead of in the chords, it’s in the songs. But there’s no sense of home when you follow those twinkling stars, just oddness and neurotic experiments. Or has home changed while you were away?
Keeping up with the Jones. After an artistically creative and personally devastating period in LA (full-cream milk, red peppers, and cocaine are a balanced diet, right?), Bowie went into hiding in Europe. Low is meant to meant to suggest “keeping a low profile”. He failed. Keeping a low profile would necessitate a bad album, and Low is simply unforgettable.
They “There’s old wave, there’s new wave, and there’s David Bowie” In a record store, they might say “there’s David Bowie, then there’s Low”. Nomimally the first of the so-caled “Berlin Trilogy” (despite parts of it being recorded in France), Low doesn’t quite sound like anything else he’s done.
Side A has songs, bending punk rock, art rock, . Bowie has seldom written better songs, and Eno’s technical wizardry makes the music seem otherwordly. This is most noticeable on “Speed of Life”, which has varispeeded delay that sounds like strobing flashes of light hitting the Hubble telescope from a distant cosmic object.
The songwriting is sparse and free. Entire songs are threaded together with simple ingredients: a single hook, or rhythm, or texture, but are all the more impactful for it. Lead single “Sound and Vision” has no words until the halfway point, and they’re just minimalistic automatism. No references to the Kabbalah or homosexuality. Just Bowie looking at blue light through his window, waiting for ideas.
“Be My Wife” surprises with familiarity. It’s a little jarring to hear a conventional verse/chorus pop song. The harmonica-driven instrumental “A New Career in a New Town” spins away the remaining grooves much as “Speed of Life” began them: in adventurous fashion. Side A is an amazing achievement for Bowie, for Eno, and for rock.
It is also Low’s worst side.
Side B deeply, profoundly beautiful. People often refer to it as “the instrumental side”, which isn’t right, as only “Art Decade” is truly wordless. But they’re brilliant, unforgettable pieces of music, and showcases just what a genius Brian Eno was.
The dominant ambient piece is “Warszawa”, evoking a city of rust and memories, ancient fumes pouring from its skin. Futuristic Minimoog lines counterpoint church bells and religious chanting in an strange language from another world. It’s six minutes long: hermetic, cthonic, and almost impenetrable upon first listen. You have to peel it back like a palimpsest, and I’m still not sure I fully get it. David Bowie used to play this live. As a set opener, no less!
“Warszawa” was written by a four year old. Well, the first three notes, anyway. David needed to attend court to square away some matters from the Los Angeles fiasco, leaving Brian Eno to try and come up with something. Tony Visconti’s four year old son wandered into the studio, discovered the piano, and plonked out three notes – an A, a B, and a C. Suddenly inspired, Brian Eno dashed to the boy’s side and completed the melody. I don’t see Visconti’s son credited in the album booklet. The tyke should sue.
The album’s remaining pieces gently come down from this crescendo. “Art Decade” is chilly and still, its melodic ideas frozen like images under glass. “Weeping Wall” has very busy instrumentation, its elements sometimes clashing and other times working in harmony. “Subterraneans” is deep, slow, and forbidding. If the album was a day, this would be the deepest watch of the night.
There’s bonus tracks, too, if you get the right version of the album. “Some Are” seems like a marriage of the two halves of the album, while “All Saints” is extremely harsh – industrial ambient rock as corrosive as drain cleaner. Neither of them would obviously fit anywhere in Low, but they should be considered part of it all the same.
Remember how people said that Judas Priest is old? Obsolete? Yesterday’s news? Irrelevent? Remember how this was thirty years ago?
Judas Priest is now so cartoonishly old that it’s difficult to know how to relate to them. They formed a year before the first Black Sabbath album, and their story encompasses every single rock cliche in the book. The young, scrappy upstarts (the first album), the creative prodigies (the next few), the complacency and artistic rot (the few after that), the inspirational rally (Screaming for Vengeance and Defenders of the Faith), the immediate collapse into self-parody (Turbo and Ram it Down), the even more inspirational comeback (Painkiller), the years in the wilderness following the loss of their singer (Jugulator and Demolition), the awkward picking up of pieces (Angel of Retribution), the self-indulgence Spinal Tappery (Nostradamus), and now we have their eighteenth album, Firepower, for which no storyline seems to apply.
The album’s firepower risks being overshadowed by the fireworks happening behind the scenes. Glen Tipton simultaneously revealed that a), he will not be touring with the band, and b), that he has Parkinsons, thus precipitating a). Additional controversy was provided by former guitarist KK Downing, who started rumors that Glen didn’t even play on the album. You know there’s a problem when your gay singer isn’t the most dramatic person in the band any more.
Firepower is hard to draw a bead on. On one hand it embraces nostalgia, mostly for the band’s Killing Machine and Painkiller sound. The title track and “Evil Never Dies” are both quite fast, and feature a downtuned approach to the angular E minor riffing that characterised Painkiller. But “No Surrender” and “Firepower” are quite consonant and radio-friendly, to the point of sounding like something from Rob Halford’s solo albums.
There’s no experimentation, and little blues (which is something I’ve always wanted Priest to revisit).
This contrast is found in the production job, which finds the band’s venerable early producer Tom Allom paired with veteran of the loudness wars Andy Sneap, who brickwalls Judas Priest relentlessly and leaves the listener little room to breathe among the overcompressed guitars. The overall package is entertaining and powerful, and even benefits a little from its fetishistic excess.
I wish it was shorter, but I also can’t pick which songs should be cut. They all have appealing moments, and good performances. Special attention must go to Halford, who sounds ridiculously good. The credits assure me the band still has a bass player, and I will take them at their word. Glen Tipton’s soloing (if it is really him) feels a little compromised. Probably the worst case is “Necromancer”, where he sounds like he’s wearing oven mitts. Ritchie Faulkner is more confident and poised, and strangely now one of the stronger points of the band.
As the final notes of “Sea of Red” fade like a bleached photograph, I’m left with a strange feeling: that this will never end. Judas Priest have always depicted fantasy in their lyrics and album covers. Perhaps the most fantastical was Stained Class, which depicted an android with a projectile embedded in its head. It’s not fantasy because of the android. It’s fantasy because it suggests Judas Priest can die.
The power of Christ Impels you! This album completely surprised me, as I’d always classed Impellitteri as one of the flock of 80s shred metal bands: long on guitar sonatas, short on songwriting ability or actual hooks. Venom proved to be one of the most powerful, focused, and concise albums of its year. The LD50 for this album is very low.
What to expect? Savagely fast and technical riffwork, which runs all up and down the neck while still remaining tight and groove-laden. Guitar solos that throw away any notion of “taste”, “musicality”, or “wearing pants” and just eviscerate the listener with almost unimaginably fast blurs of notes. Soaring vocals that bend and weave around the guitar lines. A bass and drum rhythm backdrop that crushes you hard enough to undergo atomic fusion.
With ten songs that are all around three minutes long, this is a shred metal album LARPing as a punk rock LP. There’s an immediateness and directness to the music that can’t really be compared to other shred metal. This is the anti-Yngwie. It doesn’t get right to the point – it starts at the point, from the moment the needle touches down. The songs fly by with alarming efficiency, verses and choruses and solos appearing and evaporating just at the point where they’ve got you intrigued.
Chris Impelliteri’s guitar sound is like the glass shards from a dirty window. Smooth, glassy, but also throat ripping, full of points seeking out the body’s softness. His tone is so thick and suffocating that he must have quadtracked the rhythm parts, despite the agility and tightness of all these songs.
And the tempo is very fast: the album strings so many uptempo songs together that the thirty-three minute runtime soon seems like a necessity, before the listener taps out. “Venom”, “Empire of Lies”, and “Nightmare” are progress at a gallop. “Face the Enemy” is perhaps the album’s slowest song, a Virgin Steele style uptempo rocker with a big chorus.
“Domino Theory” is a rolling thunderstorm of a track that might be my favourite from Impellitteri’s work here. “Jenovah” and “Rise” have hard-edged choruses with some surprising progressive sensibilities in their construction. The album closes with “Time Machine” and “Holding On”, which are equally ominous but perhaps more melodic. The European edition has a bonus track called “Rock Through the Night”, which is fine on its own, but takes the album to the point where there’s too much of the same and it starts to become a bore.
But Impellitteri astonished me with what they accomplished on this album. A shred metal album that you can listen to in one sitting, and still want more…wasn’t this always the endpoint for the genre?
What happened here?
Helloween’s fourth album is stupid and bad, and it’s stupid and bad in a way that bands are normally immune to. Pink Bubbles Go Ape would have made sense coming from a solo artist. All artists have THAT period, where they snort a rail of coke laced with rat droppings and make a concept album about socks disappearing inside the lint dryer. But how the fuck did five members all agree to sign off on this inanity?
To recap, Helloween were on an incredible hot streak through 1985-89. Walls of Jericho and both of the Keeper albums (notice that I make no mention of a third) wrote the book on Teutonic power metal. After touring with Exodus and Anthrax, and getting airplay on Headbanger’s Ball, they finally seemed on the verge of a big break.
Then principle songwriter Kai Hansen left the band. His final composition on a Helloween disc, “I Want Out”, was apparently less a catchy tune than a dire prognostic. Immediately, the band went into a tailspin, with drummer Ingo Swichtenberg’s schizophrenia becoming worse and vocalist Michael Kiske now harboring delusions of reinventing the band as a pop group.
Three years later, we got this, and the band’s chances at becoming a mainstream metal act ended in a fit of pure absurdity. It’s one thing to shoot yourself in the head. Helloween managed to shoot itself with one of those joke store pistols with a spring-loaded *BANG* flag.
The album is either hard rock music that isn’t very good, or comedic lyrics that aren’t very funny, and usually both at the same time. Almost none of it sounds like power metal. “Kids of the Century” makes an effort at rocking hard, before confessing partway through “yeah, I got nothin'”. “Number One” is a Weikath song from the early 80s. It’s no mystery why it never appeared on a past Helloween, but why it’s on this one is mystery aplenty. “Goin’ Home” and “Heavy Metal Hamsters” are like special-needs glam rock, if such a thing existed. I’m imagining huge teased 80s hair, hidden beneath a SPED helmet.
In a final surrealistic touch, the only songs that sound like old Helloween (“Somebody’s Crying” and “The Chance”) were penned by new guitarist Roland Grapow. Both of these songs are great, particularly the second one, which has lots of soaring guitar harmonies and a dog-whistle high note from Kiske. Grapow was a thirty year old car mechanic, drafted to fill the gap left by Hansen’s department, and “The Chance” reflects the optimism at such a stroke of luck. Unfortunately, Helloween was and is a dysfunctional band (even without Kiske), and in ten years he’d probably relate more to “I Want Out.”
“Mankind” wastes a great Queensryche atmosphere with a goofy chorus, and the final ballad “Your Turn” is saccharine gloop. It’s nearly as bad as “A Tale That Wasn’t Right”. Put this in your car’s fuel tank and your ride would never work again.
What’s the French expression? Folie à deux? A bunch of people suddenly going mad (or ape, as the case may be?) It basically put a spoke in the band’s wheel, and set off events that would leave most of Helloween’s lineup getting fired or dead. It’s a tragedy, masked as a comedy.
“Raw” is a dangerous aspiration to have as a musician. It’s supposed to mean artistic freedom, and the throwing away of artifice and pretension. All I can think of is that raw things give you salmonella.
Rob Zombie’s puzzling third album takes all the electronics and danceable aspects of his past work and replaces them with…nothing much. Bare fragments of grinding riffs and Iggy Pop vocals drive the album. Not a single track sounds like it could have been on Hellbilly Deluxe (although Hellbilly Deluxe has a song called “How To Make a Monster” that sounds like it could have been on this one) and even his vocals sound totally different. It’s was a bold move to throw out every aspect of his previous sound, and a curious one, as his previous sound was mostly working for him.
But there’s an explanation: his film career.
His directorial efforts almost deserve a documentary in their own right. Basically, 2003’s House of a Thousand Corpses had a sweetheart of a deal that he obliterated with a poorly chosen joke on a TV show (or something), and his funding disappeared with the film half shot. Rather than cancel the film, he somehow figured out how to get the rest of the footage just by shooting stuff for free around his house. Sounds like a recipe for a shit sandwich, but when he watched the final cut, he actually liked the zero-dollar shots better, and his films have essentially relied on that approach since.
I imagine he wanted to try the same approach with his music. Just throw together some stuff with a live band and see what happens. Well, something happened. I don’t think he covered himself with glory here, but it has some strong moments, particularly in the deeper cuts.
After an arty piano tribute to the Halloween theme called “Sawdust in the Blood”, “American Witch” kicks off to unimpressive results. With a plodding tempo and a chorus that sounds like it was made up on the spot, it’s just a boring song. A lot of tracks here are like that. “Ride”, “The Devil’s Rejects”, “17 Year Locust”. None of them are complete throwaways, but they just don’t have enough actual content to sustain your interest. It’s like being at a party with twenty people, but the host only bought enough snacks for ten.
Then there’s the songs that provoked revulsion among the Zombie faithful. “Foxy Foxy” is kind of cute. “Death of it All” is an all-acoustic track that I like. “The Scorpion Sleeps” sounds like a fucking beer commercial. The two best songs are “Let It All Bleed Out” and “Lords of Salem”. The former has the energy and the latter has the heavy. Either of those songs would have been a good direction to explore more fully. Rob Zombie’s never been comfortable playing all-out metal, but I wish he’d get comfortable, because the closer he gets the better he sounds.
Well, it’s an experiment, which guards it against criticism in a way. This is just a lab experiment, to be accepted if it works, and flushed if it doesn’t. I think it does a little of both.
Kerry Packer was Australia’s richest man, and he didn’t care who knew it. It was dangerous to mention your own wealth in his company. Once, at a baccarat table in Vegas, a Texas oilman bragged that he was worth sixty million. Kerry didn’t miss a beat. “Toss you for it.”
Metallica’s like that. It’s all or nothing. Once they decide on a direction, they take that direction to its full or logical conclusion. Sometimes that conclusion is “Ride the Lightning”. Sometimes it’s “Lulu.” And now we’re here, with an album that’s average, but strangely intense in its averageness, if that makes sense. Imagine pouring a mug of tapwater, that’s utterly uncompromising in its 50C-ness. The definitive mug of lukewarm water, that all mugs of lukewarm water aspire to be.
Hardwired tries to merge their 80s thrash metal sound with various hard rock influences, with somewhat good results. I was hoping for more, but it’s listenable and well put together. Greg Fiedelman’s earthy production job stops things from sounding too modern, but the album doesn’t have a sonic “center”. There’s not a single track you can point to as a summary of the album’s thesis. It jumps around in style a lot, and also in quality.
The performances shocked me. James’s voice sounds…good. No more “GIMME FUE GIMME FAI GIMME DABAJABAZA” enunciation. And he’s backing it up live, too. Lars’s drumming is basic but sounds pretty decent now that he’s mixed in a non-asinine fashion. The band probably pulls of its best rhythm tone to date, with the guitars like a scorching streak of red war paint against the dry skin of the bass and drums. Everything works, everything makes sense.
The weak performer on the album is obviously Kirk Hammett. His bad habits are now incredibly pronounced, turning songs like “Confusion” into your one stop shop for bad Jimi Hendrix imitations. Sloppily played pentatonic runs, drenched in masturbatory wah pedal noise, written with no thought, no technique, and no ability to “ride” the feel of the song. On 2008’s Death Magnetic, he didn’t stand out at all. Now, he’s actively making the band worse.
If you agree, take heart from my suspicion that he won’t be in Metallica much longer. Note that he has zero writing credits on the album, and my reading of Blabbermouth reveals a dog-ate-my-homework level excuse about losing the phone that had all his riff ideas (should have lost the phone that had his shitty guitar solos, instead). I don’t buy it. There’s kids on Youtube who can play every riff Metallica ever recorded, but Kirk Hammett needs a phone to remember his own material? His heart is obviously no longer in this band and I predict he will be the next member to leave.
But he keeps his noodling down to a few seconds per song, leaving us with Hetfield’s amazing left hand and surprisingly decent voice to carry the album, and they both do…to an extent. “Hardwired” doesn’t stand out to me as excellent material, but “Atlas, Rise!” and “Moth into Flame” are incredible, capturing everything that was good about the Black album and marrying with a greater sense of musical adventure. If the whole album had sounded like this, a renaissance would be underway.
“Now That We’re Dead” and “Confusion” sound like efforts at arena rock. I can tolerate them, if not love them. Much of the second album is skipworthy, with the big exception being “Spit Out the Bone”, which brings back the riffs and speed and evokes memories of “Damage Inc” and “Dyers Eve”.
The pace of the album is fairly staid: I could have used more speed and energy. And this is one of those single albums turned into a double disc for no reason at all: I suspect you can make a far superior version of Hardwired…to Self Destruct by deleting/rearranging some of the tracks. Nothing like having to perform emergency triage surgery on an album, but there’s enough good material here that it’s a worthwhile endeavor.
Being a Metallica fan is exhausting. Some think they should have retired in 1991. Some think they should have retired in 1988. Some think they should have retired in 1981. No matter where you stand, this might be the closest to a return to form we’ll ever get, and I know not to look a gift Horseman in the mouth. Metallica tossed for it, and I don’t know if they beat the house, but they’re still here doing what they do.
Imagine you have a friend who tells you a joke about their prolapsed rectum. You laugh. It was sort of funny, and also they’re your friend. Their eyes light up, and the next day they come back with an entire notebook full of prolapsed rectum jokes, and the expectation that you will listen to and enjoy all of them. At what point do you stop laughing? At one point do you say “look, I’m at saturation point. Enough about your stupid rectum. I liked the first one but I don’t want to hear them for infinity.”
This is how I feel about Sabaton.
It’s a mistake to think this band makes music. That would be like saying Adam Sandler makes movies. This project is just Joakim Broden, pulling a lever over and over and over, until his fucking hand falls off. It’s cynical. It’s formulaic. It’s artless. And it’s all our fault. We rewarded laughed along with the joke once, and now we get to listen to Sabaton forever.
You know what’s coming. The Last Stand is another plastic collection of charmless Nuclear Blast Metal, filled with horrible forced-catchy singalong choruses, and the band buried underneath a mountain of choirs and keyboards. If you’re wearing a Pewdiepie shirt and need a score for your next gaming marathon, go and make your day. If you have a brain in your head, you’ll hate this with every fiber of your being.
This album has some of the worst choruses I’ve ever heard – we’re talking Dream Evil shitty. Lead-off song “Sparta” has Broden singing (which is obviously a Platonic bad idea) and a stupid “HOO-HA” gang shout that gives me douche chills. Several songs like “Rorke’s Drift” and “Hill 3234” don’t even have chorus melodies, just Broden belting some lines in that staccato manner of his (nice to see Sabaton writing double-bass songs, though). “The Last Battle” is just irritating AOR gloop. Battle Beast does this better. Battle Beast does everything Sabaton does better.
The production is slick and clean. The songs are hobbled around the three minute mark. The album is short, and padded with bonus tracks nobody gives half a fuck about. The military theme is hampered by the fact that they’re running out of good battles to write about: on their next album they’ll be down to writing about the time Gene LeBell choked out Steven Seagal and made him shit his pants.
This review is dogshit, but there’s just so little to talk about. It feels like trying to analyse elevator music. Listening to The Last Stand just makes me feel sad and empty. The music’s a nonevent, but did they have to steal Tommy Johansson? Forget getting a new Reinxeed album any time soon.
The Last Stand will keep Sabaton on the festival circuit a little while longer, and all the critics listen to a few songs then copy+paste their “7/10, gives the fans what they want” review from the last album, and meanwhile, the genre keeps spinning its wheels. Power metal isn’t a magical unicorn. It’s a rotting donkey carcass with a novelty dildo glued to its head, and every day, the stench becomes harder and harder to disguise. There’s going to be a shakeup soon. This is exactly the sort of stagnation that led to the overthrow of metal by grunge rock in the 90s. Until then, enjoy the rectum jokes.
Running Wild is known as “that band with pirate-themed lyrics”, but that’s the least interesting thing about them. One of the early German power metal bands, they’re a striking case of musical taxidermy. They got their sound figured out in 1986, or dunked it in a tank of preservatives, and thirty years later they’re still playing it. No new ideas allowed!
No other band has hewn to a sound this hard or this long. Helloween went through a Beatles period. Accept went through a hair metal period. Rage has played every single metal genre under the sun. But Running Wild now has a streak of thirteen albums that, on a sonic level, all pretty much sound the same. When Otto the school bus driver complains about bands ripping off Priest, this is the one he’s talking about.
Sadly, the quality level started dropping around 1995 or so. You can only photocopy your ass cheeks so many times before the printouts get all faded and weak, and that seems to be happening to Running Wild. Depending on who you ask, 2000’s Victory is either “the last vaguely good album” or “the first legitimately bad one.”
Myself, I like it. It lacks the epic, exploratory quality of their early 90s work, but it’s has a disciplined, martial aesthetic. The songs are short, punchy, and to the point, like parade drills. Part of it is songwriting. Part of it is the ultra-mechanical production, bolstered by a drum machine (Rolf Kasparek had the chutzpah to claim that the drumming was a friend who didn’t want to be credited).
Obviously there’s enough filler for a Tempurpedic mattress. I don’t know if I needed a Beatles cover. “The Fall of Dorkas”, “Silent Killer”, “Into the Fire”…boring, boring, boring. Running Wild has a unique talent for writing songs that induce narcolepsy without actually coming off as bad, and that side of the band is on full display here.
But I don’t care, because there’s enough highlights to wake you back up again. “When Time Runs Out” has an evocative main lead melody that reminds me of “Rock Hard, Ride Free”. “Return of the Gods” could be titled “Return of the Goods”.
The album’s two greatest cuts are “Hussar”, taking us from the Spanish main to a couple hundred miles inland, and “Victory”, where Rolf Kasparek displays his penchant for snaking, pentatonic alt-picking. Running Wild has an interesting conflict at its heart: they are generic as they come and unapologetic 80s revivalists, but they have a singular sound that’s entirely their own – nobody writes riffs like Running Wild, unless they’re trying to sound like Running Wild (and usually not even then.)
Don’t let a Beatles cover and a nonexistent drummer put you off. This is unequivocally one for the “good RW” table, and it’s not seated at the foot, either.