Heavy metal is a temple erected in worship of riffs, which are repetitive melodic or rhythmic figures played on guitar. The greatest bands wield them like mystic incantations: songs like Metallica’s “Orion” and Dark Angel’s “Black Prophecies” have such deep, complex, and interesting guitar work that I hope they’ll never end when I listen to them. But it’s possible to overemphasize the riff, and some fans have an almost fascistic relationship with the guitar’s fretboard, with the “trueness” of metal subgenres increasing linearly with how many riffs they have. Dark Angel’s final album famously came with a sticker advertising 246 riffs, like an ad for a cable TV package, and some “cult” bands (Vio-Lence comes to mind) are like laboratory exercises in having riffs and nothing else, with vocals, songwriting, production, and so on being left deliberately casual.
But the riff religion has lukewarm worshippers as well as zealots and fanatics. It also has exploiters (I don’t mean that in a bad sense), and flower metal/melodic power metal bands like Sonata Artica are among them. They’re nominally heavy metal, but they simply don’t care about riffs at all, and metal ideals of “trueness” mean nothing to them. I guess you can’t have a temple – musical or literal – without attracting merchants and moneylenders.
Flower metal first emerged in the early 1990s. Right from the start it didn’t fit in – it was centered around a couple of trailblazing bands (most famously Finland’s Stratovarius and Italy’s Rhapsody) rather than a “scene” as such, and took inspiration more from Yngwie Malmsteen, Ritchie Blackmore, and Johann Sebastian Bach than from Black Sabbath. It achieved a degree of commercial popularity (flower metal is extremely catchy, almost comically so) but it was never respectable, either inside or outside the metal genre. After all, it had no riffs.
Sonata Arctica’s Ecliptica is an album I would have mocked 10 years ago, called “Disney metal”, or whatever. Now, I can appreciate what it’s doing. It’s not perfect, but it’s exemplary. If someone’s not sure what melodic power metal sounds like, show them this. It’s very intense, very catchy, not particularly heavy, and is unembarrassed and exuberant about what it is: a wintry storm of consonance and melody.
Fast songs like “Blank File”, “The 8th Commandment”, and “Picturing the Past” are like being in the path of a VTOL jet’s booster engines – they’re just a nonstop blur of notes, propelled by Tommy Portimo’s 16th note double bass drumming (this had already become a flower metal cliche). “Blank File” is probably the best; Tony Kakko would later regret pitching the key that high: he had tremendous trouble hitting those notes live.
“Kingdom for a Heart” and “My Land” are catchy uptempo rockers, anchored by Tony Kakko’s emotional (sometimes histrionic) vocals and loud/soft dynamics. “My Land” has a great moment where a staccato guitar riff cleaves through in the verse, proving that although Sonata Arctica were heresiarchs, they weren’t above occasionally genuflecting to the riff god. Deeper in the album we get “Full Moon”, which has a degree of lyrical storytelling about lycanthropy. This would cement the wolf as Sonata Arctica’s mascot, as much as the pumpkin is Helloween’s and the dragon is Rhapsody’s.
There’s a couple of ballads, which are overripe and hard to listen to. The band was still learning. They barely had any business playing heavy metal to begin with – their earliest demos (under the name Tricky Beans) reveal a kind of new wave sounding pop band. But their singer, Tony Kakko, discovered Stratovarius, and became briefly obsessed: Ecliptica is a forty seven minute Stratovarius tribute album that actually upstages the band he’s paying tribute to. Stratovarius is fast and virtuostic, but stiff and dead. I like some of their songs, but a lot of it just comes off as slabs of glittering plastic. Sonata Arctica has more life and color.
The album tapers off a little at the end, with “Unopened” and “Mary Lou” sounding like rearrangements of “Kingdom for a Heart”, and “Destruction Preventer” doesn’t have the songwriting to carry it to seven plus minutes. It’s as awkward and unengaging as its title. Nice scream, though.
At least 75% of the album is good to great, which – then and now – is an amazing batting average for melodic power metal. It’s an exhausting style to listen to, and an equally exhausting one to play. Many power metal bands eventually burn out or change styles: Edguy became a glam metal band, Nightwish pushed increasingly into film score and folk music, and Helloween became a dollar-store version of the Beatles for a couple of years. But Sonata Arctica changed styles further (and worse) than most, delving into prog rock, glam, ambient, and even quasi metalcore at points. I don’t like them at all now, and for me Ecliptica is one of the saddest things in music: an early peak.
I enjoy electric guitars. But it’s time to face the facts: they suck. They are literally among the worst things to ever exist: ranking alongside the Hindenburg, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Sandakan death marches.
Ask ten audio engineers to vote for the worst instrument to mix, and you’ll get eleven votes for “electric guitar”, because one of them put on a fake mustache and voted twice. They are nightmarishly difficult to work with in the mixing room. Their range of frequencies swamp the mix, and they handle post-processing terribly. Other instruments have lows, mids, and highs. Electric guitars have blurf, mud, and fizz. They never, ever sound right. To fit them in a mix, usually every other instrument gets gutted and castrated.
Imagine a finished mix as a parking lot, with every instrument neatly parked in place. Electric guitars are like a Lamborghini Murcielago screeching in, swiping paint off a car, dinging another car in reverse gear, and illegally double-parking across two spots.
So why do people put up with this terrible instrument? Well, think back to the parking lot metaphor. If you saw a Lambo doing that (and its driver going unpunished) you’d think “that car belongs to the boss. Or the boss’s son. Or someone too important to fire.” This is the case for electric guitars. They’re valuable. They cannot, absolutely cannot, be fired.
Guitars are simply the most emotionally expressive instrument in the Western canon, aside from the human voice itself. The range of musical colors you can paint and moods you can evoke with them is staggering. Add guitars to a song and it instantly becomes a little more human. Remove guitars and it will instantly sound a little more dead. Add electric amplification, and guitars gain a dark Nietzschean transcendence, surpassing humanity and achieving superhumanity, speaking with a voice of metal and lightning and fire.
If guitars are tools for self-expression, Jimi Hendrix was the master toolsmith. He did things nobody had done before, things nobody had imagined possible. He bridged worlds, electrifying connections between black and white, technology and psychedelia, politics and personality, cult appeal and mainstream success.
Hendrix rewrote the book of rock, inspiring nearly everything kids would consider cool for the next forty years and counting (even modern EDM, with its grinding, distorted rhythms and pitch-bent synth lines, owes a distant debt to Hendrix.)
Much of what made him great is collected in Are You Experienced, which was cut between 1966 and 1967 in London. The US and UK editions contain different tracklistings, but all capture a band near the peak of its power, and a one-of-a-kind frontman.
Hendrix’s playing has the grungy, grotty, familiar quality of a heavily-used toothbrush, and although his licks and rhythms are derived from blues, he reshapes them into something new. “Purple Haze” is powered by a syncopated E7#9, a tonally ambiguous chord which was previously mostly heard in bebop. But “Purple Haze” is not bebop. Syncopated and driven hard against Mitch Mitchell’s drums, it sounds so hot and energizing that it smokes. When the world hears this chord, they hear Hendrix.
Songs such as “Red House” are a bit more formal, hewing to a twelve-bar blues vamp. “Hey Joe” fuses lyrical storytelling with an apocalyptic intensity that builds as the track progresses. It’s like having a train bearing down on you. Hendrix was doing the loud-quiet dynamic of grunge literally decades before grunge existed..
Hendrix’s singing is usually cited as a weak point. But limited though his vocal ability might be, I can’t imagine anyone else inhabiting these songs. Hendrix had an ability to conquer and annex the music of others. But nobody could ever do the same for him very successfully. At his best, even describing him as a musician seems wrong: he’s Zeus throwing lightning. Even his lesser cuts are unmistakably his.
Aside, from his obvious talent, Hendrix is hard to puzzle out. He was a black musician, but he wasn’t exactly a “brother”. He first learned music from Elvis Presley, loved Strauss and Wagner, had little interest in soul and R&B (which he played for money), was rejected in America and broke big in the UK, and his lyrics were partly inspired by the science fiction paperbacks he liked to read. Gather up his interests and you might assume he was a white nerd from Liverpool.
And he was a showman. This is maybe his clearest debt to the blues. Charlie Patton played slide guitar with a switchblade while holding the guitar on his lap. But Hendrix upped the ante by involving his own body, literally playing guitar with his teeth.
Which is not to portray Hendrix’s playing as masturbatory narcissism. He had politics – his electric (and electrifying) rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner”, played at the height of the Vietnam war, is still like a slap in the face. And the cover of Electric Ladyland is shocking in ways that are hard to decode in 2021, depicting a seraglio’s worth of naked women, both black and white. This in an era where interracial relationships sometimes got separated by a rope and a tree.
He is a founding figure of popular music, in that huge swathes of modern music simply don’t decipher correctly without him. Guitarists – even wavering and bad ones – are offering you a window into their self. Jimi Hendrix did more than just give you a window – he focused his essence out onto the world like a laser beam, heating it up until it burned. The fire has not yet died.
This song and a case of amoebic dysentery made me throw up. “Ignition (Remix)” is disgusting, foul, and amoral. The fact that people – even now – are listening to this repellently evil track makes me regret the discovery of ears. I’d rather hear the “ignition” of an Auschwitz death camp oven.
What’s the problem with “Ignition (Remix)” you might ask? Do you even want to go there?
Well, I’m not going to tiptoe around the issue. I’ll give it to you straight. We can’t avoid the elephant in the room.
It’s the lyrics:
So baby gimme that toot toot
Lemme give you that beep beep
Runnin’ her hands through my ‘fro
Bouncin’ on twenny-fo’s
While they sayin’ on the radio
R Kelly says “runnin’ her hands through my fro'”. Impossible. He doesn’t have a ‘fro. He has never had a ‘fro. His hair is styled in cornrow braids.
In the song’s music video he actually strokes his un’fro’d hair as he says the line. Like a true sociopath, R Kelly flaunts his crimes in front of your eyes. The director should have ended the shoot (and his life), demonically possessed the raw footage in the Arriflex, and started a career as one of those ghosts that kills you seven days after you watch the tape.
“Runnin’ her hands through my ‘fro?” She may as well have been running her hands through R Kelly’s sense of moral decency, because he possesses neither.
The worst part? It’s unnecessary. He could have said “Runnin’ her hands through my rows”. It would have scanned perfectly, and slant-rhymed with “twenny-fo’s” and “radio”. This sort of revolting deception should end careers. After reading R Kelly’s Wikipedia page, it seems he committed shameful acts after this song’s release, too.