January 29, 2016

The Lemmy Kilmister Music Awards 2015 - The Best and Worst In Heavy Music

Remembering Lemmy Kilmister (1945-2015)

Unlike a lot of my favorite bands, I can't really put my finger on when I've heard about Motörhead for the firs time. Unlike most of my favorite bands - Pantera, Metallica, Guns N' Roses, Slayer, etc. - I found out about them long after me and my brothers would watch metal videos on MTV. As I was growing up and developing my own musical taste, Motörhead were one of those bands that I always heard of but never could seem to get my hands on any of their music. I remember reading one of my brother's issues of Guitar Magazine - the 1995 Heaviest Riffs of all Times Issue - and seeing Stay Clean on the list. Honestly, that whole list sorta mystifies me, and I could probably think up 50 heavier Motörhead riffs just off the top of my head, but it did solidify Motörhead in my head as one of those bands I just had to listen to.

My first success at that I must attribute to VH1's Friday Rock Show, hosted by Tommy Vance, who sadly died about a decade ago. The Israeli weekend is on Friday-Saturday, so not being the world's most popular young adolescent, I was free to watch as Tommy threw out some of the best music I've heard to this day. That was where I first heard Motörhead, though I'm not quite sure if the song I heard first was Ace of Spades or Eat the Rich. Either way, Ace of Spades stuck in my head, so I knew I had to go out and get that album.

And... it sucked. Save for the stellar title track, it is some of the weakest, most boring music I've ever heard. It's only lucky that I heard enough other Motörhead songs by then that the album didn't turn me off from the band, because I've loved literally every other Motörhead song I've ever listened to.

There's a lot to say about Lemmy. The way he inspired so many people, his humility, his lifestyle, his attitude to religion, his attitude to women (although staying true to the man's honesty, he could still be a pig sometimes), his sympathy with the Black struggle, to the point of supporting the 1992 L.A. Riots, a brave position voiced by few in heavy music, and many other fascinating things. Lemmy was a fascinating guy, and any interview or eulogy with him is filled with evidence to that effect. But I'll leave you to read about all of that on your own, because sadly, I never met the guy. Actually, I never even had the chance to catch Motörhead live. All I can say is that Lemmy, along with his bandmates, made some of my favorite music, music that still cheers me up and gets me banging my head to this day - quite literally, as you will soon see.

His name was Lemmy, and he played rock n' roll.

The Worst Heavy Music of 2015

Slayer - Repentless

Slayer is one of those bands that doesn't need to reinvent itself on every album to be good. Reign In Blood isn't all that different from South of Heaven, which in turn, isn't all that different from Seasons In the Abyss. So what? More of the same isn't a bad thing when the thing you do is so damn good. But then Slayer went and experimented on some albums, and that was fine - none of them was as great as the old ones, but they were all at the very least decent. Repentless feels like a misguided attempt to return to the band's roots, and it plays out the way it sounds - a tired, uninspired effort by a good band that really doesn't have its heart into it. 

What's saddest about the whole thing is how Repentless is clearly a song about how decayed and empty metal has become in recent years. Then the chorus sounds like Every Metal Song Chorus Ever, and you're wondering if the band is being cynical or is just making a very long-winded point. Either way, it doesn't make for good music.

Iron Maiden - The Book of Souls

We've all been there: you tell someone that you listen to metal, and without them having ever listened to a single metal song, they will ask: "what, like Iron Maiden?" It doesn't always bode well for a band to have become representative of a genre for people who are completely ignorant about it, but Maiden have certainly earned their status as metal's foremost representatives. Dickinson-era Iron Maiden has produced some of the finest metal albums to date, with masterpieces such as Somewhere In Time and Seventh Son of a Seventh Son belonging in every metal lover's library. 

Sadly, since 2000's excellent Brave New World, Maiden have not been delivering. Subsequent albums felt phoned in, not terrible but not interesting in any way. At the very least, they still had one of the most gifted vocalists in music history. Even when the songs themselves were lackluster, Bruce Dickinson never failed to deliver. 

Until now.

It's one thing to be bored by an album made by one of your favorite albums. But when I first heard the Speed of Light's chorus, something inside me died. I mean, come on, Ozzy did better vocals on fucking Ultimate Sin! And what's worse is knowing that there's no way that no one in either the band or the production crew failed to notice this. They just didn't care. Hell, they figured, we're Iron Maiden - there's no way this thing won't make money. And you know what? They were right. Commercially successful crap is still crap, though, and as much as it pains me to say this, this is probably the worst Iron Maiden album to date - probably even worse than the Blaze Bailey stuff. And that's saying a lot.

Children of Bodom - I Worship Chaos

"End of times, just kill the quietude
Hear my cries, and start the countdown
Bury my crimes, somewhere deep within
It's not that complicated
Simply I just worship chaos"

Need I say more?

Monolord - Vaenir

Someone once said that essentially all metal is sped-up Black Sabbath. Well, Vaenir decided to break the mold by doing... sped-down Black Sabbath. And if that sounds great, just wait for those really long, boring intros! Also, who the hell mixed those vocals? Are you kidding me? Did you record your album in a bath while on painkillers? This album is like the soundtrack to watching paint dry. It's too boring to stay awake while listening to, and too dissonant to use to fall asleep, leading me to believe that Vaenir might be the gateway to a new state of consciousness beyond the veil of reality. Sadly, my scientific curiosity in this regard is completely overpowered by my need to never listen to a single second of this abomination ever again.

Worst of the Year: Bell Witch - Four Phantoms / Vile Creature - A Steady Descent Into the Soul

It may seem like a cop out to have two different albums as worst of the year, but these albums are just two representatives of a much wider phenomenon: bands whose entire shtick consists of a single, dissonant chord being screamed over by some Scandinavian black metal reject. Stand in awe of our vocalist's ability to keep gurgling the same note again and again! Be amazed as, 20 minutes into the album, we... change chords! Feel incredibly smart as you tell people you actually enjoy listening to this crap!

Being a metalhead, I always hate when people say that metal is "just noise". People come off so ignorant and out of touch when they generalize that way about any musical genre. But this - I'm sorry, this is just noise. It's not avant-garde. It's not innovative. It's not sophisticated. It's just some sound checks being passed off as pieces of music. 

I guess my point is: where are your fucking choruses?

Now, onto more pleasant topics.

The Best Heavy Music of 2015

Of course, to be fair to all the fine musicians out there, I have to exclude this handsome guy. (Don't worry, though - I released the next song on the first week of 2016, so you have an entire year to catch up!) Otherwise, these are the best heavy albums of 2015:

Operation: Mindrime - The Key

I remember being quite horrified at 2013's Frequency Unknown, but damn if Geoff Tate hasn't made a damn fine album this time around. Unlike the original Queensrÿche, which is desperate to convince us of its legitimacy by having Todd La Torre do his (honestly pretty good) Geoff Tate impression and spew forced references to classic tracks, The Key feels like a logical evolution of Queensrÿche's material, retaining the basic spirit of the music while having a very different approach to performances and composition. Tate's vocals are much more controlled, unlike the flashy style he employed back in Queensrÿche's heyday, and while one may argue this is due to age, it certainly fits in very well.

I've never been a fan of Tate's Luddite, counter-revolutionary narratives, but lyrically, The Key is at the very least an interesting album. If nothing else, Tate pretending to talk to someone on the phone is highly entertaining in that Metal Gear Solid post-credits scene way. Given the improvement over Frequency Unknown, I'm very excited to see what Operation: Mindcrime puts out next.

Huntress - Static

Huntress get a lot of hate from metalheads, and I have no idea why. This is some of the purest, most well-written and produced classic heavy metal we've gotten in a long time, even if you factor in actual classic heavy metal bands that are still around. Some people claim that the band uses the hyper-sexualized image of vocalist Jill Janus to get attention, but that's really no different than what a lot of beloved 80s bands like Mötley Crüe and Guns N' Roses did, and I can't for the life of me think of a single difference between those bands and Huntress that would cause people to employ some sort of double standard.

Be that as it may, Static does have its weaknesses. Lyrics are never genius, but I feel like Lost in fading summer / I’ve become such a bummer will find its place in the annals of Terrible Writing History, along with some other gems that are best left unmentioned. I'd love to say that it's meant to go along with the horror campiness the band was clearly aiming for, given the song's video, but even if you buy that explanation, it's just not done all that well. 

Either way, the lyrics mostly complement the stellar composition and performance quite well, and there's no beating a bunch of really talented people doing something they're passionate about really well. Even if Static doesn't have anything groundbreaking on it, it's choke full of adrenaline and potential, making Huntress another band that I'm sure to follow in the next few years.

Motörhead - Bad Magic

Cynics will say this album is only here because Lemmy passed away so recently, but frankly, the cynics can go fuck themselves. Motörhead have this reputation of being kinda like AC/DC in that they keep making the same great album over and over again, but I don't feel that's true at all. There's a lot of character to each album, with Rock 'n' Roll being very different from Ace of Spades (thankfully), and Overkill very different from both. There's a formula at work, but never at the extent that you can't tell which song is from which album.

Bad Magic is yet another great variation on the Motörhead formula, with a slightly bluesier and heavier feel to it. The two opening tracks are the biggest killers on the album, but it remains strong throughout up until that Sympathy For the Devil cover, which is one of those covers that does nothing new with the song and could have been safely left off the album - it's really weird to hear Lemmy so laid back, and it kinda ruins the momentum built by the slow, brutal When the Sky Comes Looking For You, which also has a pretty cool video that you should check out. That's a small flaw to look over, though, considering how great the 12 tracks that come before it are.

"Maybe you'll fly, maybe you'll die". Words to live by. RIP Lemmy!

Marilyn Manson - The Pale Emperor

Wow, didn't see that one coming! When I saw that Marilyn Manson put out a new album this year, I was itching to tear it to pieces, but damn if this isn't some of the finest music I've heard in a long time. Deep Six is a real killer opening, heavy and brutal, with a stellar vocal performance by Manson, but the more laid back tracks like The Mephistopheles Of Los Angeles really steal the show, and Manson's vocals fit oddly well into the folky-bluesy feel that's going on around them. 

I've often found his music to be pompous, over-produced and cynical, nevermind my disdain for his highly reactionary social views. But if he keeps this trend going, Marilyn Manson is in serious danger of becoming a respectable musician. I certainly plan to go through his discography and try to find the point where his music became less like The Dope Show and more like Deep Six, though I dread what I might find after listening to This is the New Shit. Brrrrrr.

Amorphis - Under the Red Cloud

Amorphis are one those bands that I listened to a bit when I first got into heavy music, didn't really care for what I heard, and proceeded to ignore for a good decade and a half. And then in comes this behemoth. It's melodic death at its finest, acing the seemingly impossible task of being both heavy and extremely catchy at the same time - I dare you to listen to Return of the King without getting that flute part stuck in your head for weeks. In fact, it's the only song I can think of that has ever made me feel like dancing, other than, of course, Look at My Horse

I really don't feel like I need to say much more - the album is fucking awesome, and it'll punch your face while whispering sweet lullabies in your ear at the same time. Even if you're not a huge death metal fan, definitely give this one a shot.

Best of the Year: Ghost - Meliora

I found Ghost's first two albums to be honestly very dull. It came off like the sort of band that really depended on its stage presence to get any attention at all. Imagine my surprise when Meliora kicked the ass of everything else I've heard this year. The band gets compared to Mercyful Fate a lot, but I really don't hear it - I think that's just due to people confusing the band's image with its music. In practice, Meliora is the best Black Sabbath album ever made, rendering the departure of the modern-day, Bill Ward-lacking, lazy cash-in version of the band very easy to stomach.

As with Marilyn Manson, Ghost is surprisingly at its strongest when it's doing more quiet and acoustic-focused songs like He Is. It's a testament to the band's strong composition that a song with very little distortion feels so heavy and imposing. Other highlights include the crushing From the Pinnacle to the Pit and the haunting Cirice, but the entire album is pure gold. I've been listening to it non-stop every since finding out about it, and I expect it to be a staple of my playlist for years to come.

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