overground scene

A Dio retrospective

Ronnie James Dio‘s self-titled band was one of my first loves in my first few months discovering the metal genre. Initially, I dedicated myself to Iron Maiden, and I distinctly remember refusing to listen to anything else for a good three-four months. One day, my friend Nikos came round my house carrying a CD version of Dio‘s Holy Diver (1983). He asked me to put it on and I refused, explaining that I only listen to Maiden and that he should piss off. He ignored me and put it on anyway. Being confronted with the sonic attack of Vivian Campbell’s high-octane riffing, as encapsulated in the first seconds of “Stand up and shout“, was absolutely shocking. Surely, it could only go down from there, but as Dio’s voice kicked in I felt a form of elation and wonder that I have often reminisced over the years, but, sadly, never experienced again.

I have often felt that the “metal community’s” posthumous praise for Dio was somewhat hypocritical, but this is my impression. In the mid-1990s I distinctly remember nobody giving a shit about Dio, especially his post-Sacred Heart (1985) career. If I remember correctly, Dream Evil (1987) had being voted by Greek Metal Hammer readers as one of the worst metal albums of all time (the list also included Divine Intervention, by Slayer). Myself, always feeling out of step with many of the opinions heard in the Greek metal press, I always loved Dio, and could not believe how someone could not love Dream Evil. In this post, I will attempt the futile task of ranking Dio’s 10 studio albums from my favourite to the least favourite one, and share some of my memories of the albums and meanings they carry for me.

1. Dream evil (1987)

For all the 25 years that I’ve been listening to Dio I have considered Dream Evil his crowning achievement. The way it starts already hints at the magic that is about to follow. The opening song “Night people” and the opening lyric – after Craig Goldy’s masterful tension-containing halting – ‘Do you like the dark, do you like the way it moves, do you come alive when neon kills the sun?’, sends chills down my spine every single time. These first few moments already signify that the brilliance of this album is the result of an amazing chemistry between Goldy and Dio. The verse vocal melody of “Sunset superman” is one of the best melodies in the history of humanity, hands down. “All the fools sailed away” is one of those epic masterpieces that are written once in a band’s career. Goldy’s solos are astounding (one of my favourite instances is near the end of “Naked in the rain“, right after the lyric ‘blow all the dreams away’). I still can’t get used to the beginning of “Overlove“.  And what can be said about the choruses on this album? The only mediocre moment in this absolute masterpiece of an album is the cheesy sentiment of “When a woman cries” (although musically it’s awesome). I feel that Dio’s heart was at the right place when he wrote the song, the intention was to condemn violence against women. But the effect the lyrics of this song have are, at the end of the day, to essentialise women by contributing to the misconception that women and men are essentially different, instead of condemning the logic of aggression as a matter of principle. This album was the object of much attention when we were kids. Looking at the logo upside-down will reveal the word DEVIL. Our high school books and notebooks were full of drawings of this logo. The album cover still gives me the creeps.

2. Strange highways (1993)

Reminiscing about Dio makes me reflect on what music listening used to be like in the 1990s. Surprise, mystery, and discovery were very different back then. In 1995 none of us had internet access, and even if we did, information there would have been very limited. Strange highways was an album that we didn’t know it existed, despite my friend Nikos and I being huge Dio fans. The reason was that none of our friends knew about it, and we hadn’t come across it in any of our local record stores. One day, Nikos invited me around to his place, and instead of buzzing me into the building he came downstairs and let me in. In his hands he was holding this obscure Dio CD I had never seen before with an awesome cover. Turns out his older brother, with whom he was sharing his room, had just bought it. I remember sitting on the stairs, mesmerised, staring at the cover. I remember commenting on how old Dio looked on the band photo. Strange Highways pretty quickly eclipsed other more classic Dio albums that I loved at the time. It wasn’t necessarily the more aggressive sound, courtesy of Tracy G’s noisy and dissonant playing and Dio’s harsher vocals, that appealed to me. The compositions are mind-blowing, and, more than anything, the vocal melodies are mesmerising. The introduction is one of the most memorable in Dio’s career, and the riff borrowed from King Crimson’s “21st century schizoid man” is still devastating. The range of this album’s music is impressive, as it varies from super heavy monoliths like “Strange highways” and “Pain“, to fast ragers like “Here’s to you“, from stomping mid-tempo attacks like “Jesus, Mary and the holy ghost” to a grunge-y ballad like “Give her the gun”.  One of my favourite cuts is the upbeat “Evilution“, a tune attacking the corporate side of popular music, thematically akin to Kreator’s “Love us or hate us”. The album closes with “Bring down the rain”, another heavy tune carrying one of the most beautiful bridges and choruses ever. An absolutely fulfilling masterpiece.

3. Holy diver (1983)

This was my introduction to Dio. The day I first listened to it my friend lent me the CD. I was alone at home, both my parents were away, and I felt I needed to share my excitement with someone, so I took the lift to the fourth floor, where a friend of mine lived. He wasn’t there but his dad opened the door, so I told him I wanted him to listen to this guy’s voice. Indeed, he sat down and listened to a couple of songs with me and he found Dio’s voice crystalline, but that wasn’t exactly the reaction I had in mind. As I said in my introduction, listening to Dio’s voice was shocking for me, impossible to describe. I remember that one of the very first metal songs I ever listened to was “Holy diver” maybe a year earlier. It is, unquestionably, a monument in heavy metal culture. Enough said.  “Caught in the middle” quickly became one of the most favourite cuts on the album. On the song “Invisible” there’s the lyric ‘in the palace of the virgin, lies the chalice of the soul’. Back then I did not know what ‘chalice’ meant, and the word was not included in my dictionary, so I asked my English teacher. Not knowing herself what it meant, but not admitting, she had to wing it and told me that it meant ‘beauty’. Anyway, there are so many memories attached onto this album, and every song (apart from one, the song “Gypsy” never felt like it belonged in this album, and I almost never listen to it) is an instant classic. Campbell’s frantic playing is breathtaking, his solos are one better than the other, his riffing and his use of pick-squeals are beautiful, instantly recognisable and definitive of Dio’s most enduring legacy. The final masterpiece of the album, “Shame on the night“, is a little gem in the vein of Black Sabbath.

4. The last in line (1984)

The first time I ever saw the cover of Last in line was at a local record store in my hometown in Piraeus, Greece. Once again, my friend Nikos and I were wandering around town when we came across this tiny record store in which you couldn’t fit more than five people at the same time. We started browsing the records labelled Rock, or something like that, when we suddenly came across the classic Dio logo on the faded and warped jacket of Last in line (I presume it must have been exposed to direct sunlight for quite some time). Immediately, Nikos turned around to the store owner and asked him how much it cost. The record owner looked at us with contempt and said, “it’s not for sale”. I eventually listened to the album for the first time when I got it as a Christmas present in December 1995. My dad took me to a now defunct department store in Piraeus (I think it was Lambropoulos) to choose a Christmas present and I chose Savatage’s Dead winter dead and Dio’s Last in line. Everyone’s playing is stellar on this album. “I speed at night” is probably Dio’s most frantic song ever. “Egypt” and “The last in line” are both classic heavy metal epics, and include some of Campbell’s most impressive guitar work. The same goes for “One night in the city“, probably my favourite song on the album (note the “Straight through the heart” reference near the end). Last in line could easily take the place of Holy diver in my list, as there is not one single mediocre moment in it.

5. Sacred heart (1985)

Listening to Sacred Heart always made me feel melancholic. It kinda feels like the end of something, and indeed it was the end of Campbell’s involvement with Dio. The keyboards are a bit too prominent, the character a bit more hard rock, but there is no question about the quality of the songwriting. The homonymous song is one of Dio’s absolute masterpieces, “Hungry for heaven” has an awesome tempo and breathtaking vocal melodies during the verse and bridge, “Like the beat of a heart” is a groovy hard-rocker (part of what I call the groovy heart trilogy, alongside “Eat your heart out” and “Straight through the heart”), “Rock ‘n’ roll children”, an instant rock hymn, “Just another day” has one of the most brilliant guitar breaks in the band’s career, etc. One of the things I don’t like about this album is the live audience samples heard throughout “King of rock ‘n’ roll“, an otherwise magnificent song. I thought that was a shit way to start an album. At first I thought it was a live version of the song which also pissed me off. How can you have a live version of a song there’s no studio version of? Overall, this is an awesome album that I love, just but slightly less than the above four albums.

6. Angry machines (1998)

Angry machines is the first Dio album I got the moment it was released. It feels like a century ago. I had been pestering the owner of a local record store every day to keep an eye out for the new Dio album. Eventually, it was released and when I bought the CD he also gave me a huge Angry machines poster which I had for many years on my bedroom wall. Initially, the album did not impress me, although songs like “Don’t tell the kids“, “Hunter of the heart” and “This is your life” became instant favourites. Eventually, I started appreciating the rest of the songs. Nowadays, I consider “Dying in America” one of my favourite on the album, that could have easily been on Strange highways. A very powerful album, with awesome moments of anger and frustration in a way that only Dio can deliver. It is, also, another experimental album, with even more alternative rock hints here and there. That was the last album, in my opinion, with which Dio re-invented himself.

7. Master of the moon (2004)

Dio’s final album is my seventh favourite by him. I didn’t like it initially. I still think that production-wise it could have been so much better. The orchestrations are also, in my opinion, poor. Certain parts are too lazy, others too crazy (what’s the deal with the keyboards on the otherwise great “The eyes”?). However, in my opinion, this was the first album in many years with really good classic heavy metal songs and no fillers. Every single song is good, and some are amazing. “One more for the road” is a classic Dio song that could have been found on Dream Evil or Lock up the wolves, “Master of the moon” also has a Lock up the wolves quality to it and such a memorable chorus, “Death by love” is an extremely catchy hard rock tune, as is the AC/DC-inspired intro of “The end of the world”, “The man who would be king” is a beautiful epic tale in the classic Dio tradition. I absolutely love “Living the lie” and “I am”, and the closing track, “In dreams“, is another favourite on the album, reminiscent of Dio’s work with Black Sabbath (the main riff could have been written by Iommi), and has a beautiful post-chorus section.

8. Lock up the wolves (1990)

Lock up the wolves was probably the first Dio album which didn’t fully fascinate me. Just looking at the band picture on the lyric sheet made me feel sad, as there was nobody else left from the original band. I also thought that Dio’s voice was strangely produced. For sure, hearing the awesome riff on the opener “Wild one” was great, but the more bluesy songs like “Evil on Queen street”, “Twisted” and even “Between two hearts” took a while to grow on me. Moreover, the nostalgic, self-referential lyrics of “My eyes” made me feel like Dio was grasping at straws. The homonymous song was something quite new for Dio, ultra-heavy, slow, almost eliciting a horrifying atmosphere, and I did like a lot. That song, in conjunction with the scary cover, still gives me the creeps. “Born on the sun“, “Why are they watching me“, and “Hey angel” are among my most loved songs on this album, and despite occupying the eighth position in this list we’re still talking about Dio, so it’s an awesome album. In high school, I used to have a huge patch of the album cover on the back of my denim jacket.

9. Magica (2000)

I was really looking forward to Magica, and Goldy’s return was the main reason. Given how much I loved Dream evil I could not wait to listen to another collaboration between him and Dio. The return to a more traditional heavy metal sound was received positively in the Greek metal press, if I remember correctly. To me it sounded a bit redundant. Similarly to Master of the moon a few years later, I thought that the orchestrations were quite empty. The various filler tracks serving the plot (it’s a concept album) annoyed me even more. I love “Lord of the last day” and “Otherworld“, and I really like “Fever dreams”, “Feed my head” and “Magica – Reprise“, but I don’t care much about the rest of the songs.

10. Killing the dragon (2002)

Killing the dragon is my least favourite Dio album. The cover is cool, and I like a few songs. The guitar-playing is great, often reminiscent of Campbell’s era, and some of the songs are, in my opinion a throwback to those times. “Better in the dark“, a great song, sounds like it could have been on Holy diver, “Push” could have been on Last in line and “Along comes a spider” on Sacred heart. “Rock ‘n’ roll” is a heavy song which makes use of that Zeppelin riff that everyone has copied from “Kashmir”, but I don’t like the chorus (a problem I have with several other songs too, including “Scream” and “Push”, that have catchy bridges but boring choruses). “Cold feet“, the last song on the album, is actually my favourite one (alongside “Better in the dark”); despite being very straightforward, it has a great hard rock groove and beautiful vocal melodies, it almost feels like it could have been on a Rainbow album. Overall, I consider it a more consistent album than Magica, more upbeat and reminiscent of the classic years of the band, but it also feels a little rehashed and without enough stand-out tracks.

Suspension of disappointment, and favourite bands

Suspension of disappointment is a term I use to describe my attitude towards new releases by bands that I love. Whilst suspension of disbelief refers to the temporary acceptance as believable of things ordinarily seen as non-credible, suspension of disappointment refers to the temporary willingness to accept that something is not as bad as it initially sounds. Whenever a band I grew up listening to releases a new album, I abstain from forming a judgement about it immediately; instead, even if I find it unexciting initially, I am willing to give it repeated listens before I decide whether it is not a worthy addition to the band’s legacy. On the contrary, I am inclined to trust my first impression of an album by bands I do not love, or I did not grow up listening to. I cannot be sure whether this is a personal attitude or a more widely adopted one.

A recent example of this attitude is when I listened to the new, come-back album by Xentrix, titled Bury the pain. Xentrix is one of the first thrash bands I ever listened to, and their first three albums have always been on steady rotation. The news of a new album excited me a lot, although the absence of Chris Astley, the band’s leader, was a bad omen. The last album the band released in 1996, titled Scourge, was indeed a disappointment, although even with that one I made a big effort to enjoy it (in the end, I only like “The hand that feeds itself” and “Never be“). Astley was missing from Scourge, and in the new album he’s been replaced by Jay Walsh. My first contact with the album happened through “Bleeding out”, the first song the label released on YouTube. My initial impression was that the band is clearly trying to revisit its earlier days. It obviously has a classic thrash sound, but it also seeks inspiration specifically from Metallica, just like back in the day; the main riff is very similar to the main riff off Metallica’s “This was just your life”; new Metallica, for a new Xentrix. The song did not impress me, although Walsh’s very good vocals – that remain loyal to Astley’s legacy – were welcome (if I didn’t know it was someone else singing, I would think it was Astley). Upon the album’s release, the time came to properly evaluate the effort. The first listen left me unsatisfied; I thought the structures were very simple, repetitive, there were no hooks, and the riffs often alluded to the lazy style popularised by Pantera. However, I suspended disappointment, and did not give up on the album, as I could feel a loose connection with it; I could hear Gasser’s distinctive drumming, I could hear some of Xentrix’s classic melodies, and, most importantly, this was a band that I loved since I was 15 years old.

After a couple of listens I eventually noticed one song, “The truth lies buried“, which effectively anchored me to the album. The next time I put the album on, I went straight for that song. Eventually, I fell in love with it, and I still think it is the best song on the album. But the more I listened, the more I started noticing catchy choruses and vocal patterns, interesting harmonies, and some riffs that reminded me of the Xentrix of old. “The red mist descends” quickly became my second favourite song (brilliant opening, vocal patterns, and chorus). I now like this album quite a lot, which is a completely different view from my original one, and the only reason this happened was by suspending disappointment. This is a privilege that other bands, bands that do not mean much to me, do not enjoy.

What happened to us? #4 Timo Tolkki and Stratovarius

In this fourth installment of the ‘What happened to us?’ series of posts I decided to address one of the most dramatic and peculiar break-ups in the history of power metal, that between Timo Tolkki, the once undisputed leader of Stratovarius, and the rest of the band. The drama, publicity, issues surrounding mental health, temporary disbanding and side-taking characterising this case make it an interesting case of band break-ups.

Stratovarius was once a band I loved, and Twilight time (1992), Dreamspace (1994) and Fourth dimension (1995) were three of the most excellent and unique-sounding metal albums of all time. Even Episode (1996), which followed the departure of Ikonen and Lassila, two great musicians whose playing was integral to the band’s sound, is a great album, full of inventive song structures and beautiful yet weirdly melancholic melodies. I still have the utmost respect for all first five albums and I consider them masterpieces of metal music. The band developed into what I thought was a caricature of their former self, starting with the release of Visions (1997), and by the late 1990s I stopped listening to them. Because of that, I followed Tolkki’s break-up with the band from a position of relative disinterest.

In April 2008 Tolkki announced the dissolution of the band, a decision he later on retracted and left the band instead, transferring all rights to his songs and the band name to Kotipelto, Michael and Johansson. It is known that the break-up was the culmination of a period of extended crisis (read here and here), evidenced in Tolkki’s hospitalisation in 2004, Michael’s session-drummer status around 2004-2005, Kotipelto’s “firing” around 2004-2005, and Kainulainen’s departure in 2005. Tolkki’s decision to ultimately abandon the band is certainly a bizarre one. The information we have to make sense of the situation comes from public statements made by the various band members. The latter provide conflicting narratives of the break-up and the wider context within which it occurred. Tolkki cites a number of factors as contributive to the demise of Stratovarius, including the lack of camaraderie and continuing hostility among some band-members, musical differences between him and Kotipelto (i.e. the former disliking the latter’s ideas) and the lack of creative passion (read here). Michael, Johansson and Kotipelto responded that Tolkki was motivated by greed (read here) and that, overall, Tolkki’s subjective interpretation of the crisis the band faced constituted a misrepresentation of the situation. All the parties involved attempted to build convincing narratives in which they come off “right”. Tolkki mobilises affect as part of his strategy, painting a picture whereby lack of passion and friendship are the problems; The rest of the band mobilises a strategy at the centre of which lies a more rational argumentation, painting a picture whereby Tolkki’s behaviour is linked to the band’s declining popularity.

My research led me to Tolkki’s autobiography, a heartbreaking memoir with relatively few references to Stratovarius and his ex-music partners, where Tolkki pours out his heart. In his autobiography he describes his struggle with bipolar disorder. In this context he describes how someone suffering from this condition will find themselves acting on impulse without realising what they do, actions which they might later regret. I don’t know if that was Tolkki’s way of saying that he regrets giving up the rights to the Stratovarius brand, but it kind of sounds like it. Tolkki was for me, and any early Stratovarius fan I presume, the undisputed leader and main creative force in the band. I even preferred his voice to Kotipelto’s; I found Tolkki’s voice powerful, sweet and with a lot of character (all epithets that in my opinion cannot be associated with Kotipelto). His early music and lyrics were beautiful, inspired and at times confessed a subtle but heartbreaking pain and sensitivity. Despite the fact that Episode (1996) is the last album I liked from them, I cannot but scoff at the notion of ‘Stratovarius without Tolkki’ in it. Stratovarius the brand might still be alive, but Stratovarius the band is dead.

Underrated masterpieces: Devastation’s Dispensible bloodshed

Every once in a while I realise that some album I love is not widely held in high regard. Most of the time I attribute this to subjective taste, but there are some albums which are so absolutely mind-blowing that I cannot get used to the idea that they have not achieved cult status. If there is one album in the history of extreme music that did not receive the recognition it deserves, that album is Devastation‘s Dispensible bloodshed (1987); an absolute masterpiece which never received proper release, except as part of collections of all of Devastation’s songs. It is worth noting that nobody has provided reviews for any of the extremely important releases by Devastation on Encyclopaedia Metallum, and on Mudrian’s comprehensive popular account of death metal Choosing death (2004) there’s hardly a mention to the album or Devastation generally (maybe this has been rectified in the more recent re-issue?).

Hand-drawn Devastation logo adorning one of my notebooks.

The Devastation I am talking about in this post is not the more popular Devastation from Texas, but the much, much, much superior Devastation from Chicago. Chicago is often considered one of the birthplaces of death metal, on account of bands like Master and Deathstrike. I have been a passionate fan of death metal music since the mid-1990s and I only got the chance to hear Devastation for the first time around 2008 when I found their MySpace page. Although Devastation never received mainstream recognition, it is a band from the US underground that used to be highly praised in underground death metal in the late 1980s, and has influenced foundational death metal bands around the world. I believe I have read Entombed‘s L. G. Petrov praising Troy Dixler (Devastation’s original singer) in a couple of occasions over the years, and naming him one of his vocal influences. Indeed, Dixler’s brutal performance in Devastation’s first demo, titled A creation of ripping death (1986), is terrifyingly devastating.

Dispensible Bloodshed’s cover

Dispensible bloodshed includes seven songs, clocking in at 26 minutes. Two out of seven songs are instrumental; the first one simply titled “Instrumental” is a brutal journey not unlike Sepultura‘s “Inquisition symphony”, in the sense that it starts with an acoustic intro and develops into a whirlwind of unrestrained brutality. The singer on this album is Duane Rasmussen, and his vocal performance is breathtaking. He might not be Troy Dixler, as Duane’s voice is more high-pitched, but he offers an astonishing aggressive performance that does justice to Dixler’s huge legacy. But no words can do justice to the songwriting on this album, as it is truly of the highest order of extreme metal. Listening to this album is not simply about experiencing a rare piece of extreme metal history; it is also about becoming aware of a significant force in the development of the death metal genre. Is there any doubt that the snare-led beating during the fifth and sixth verses of “Genetic poisoning” (and later on as well) had something to do with Cannibal Corpse‘s now classic sound? What about the intro riff and drumming of “Beyond fear“, as well as the more general riffing madness and tempo changes throughout the album? Did they not have an impact on Suffocation‘s genre-defining sound? And I would not be surprised if the second riff of the opening song “Cranial hemorrage” inspired Deicide‘s “Oblivious to evil”. Each song is a journey of absolute awesomeness, and Erv Brautigam (guitar) and Pat Buckley (drums) give the performance of a lifetime.

Dispensible bloodshed was self-released on cassette-tape. How did this masterpiece, which in my opinion was miles ahead of any other death or thrash metal band at the time, slip through the cracks? The very few accounts about the Chicago extreme metal scene I have come across seem to suggest that when Dixler was part of Sindrome he did not want the band to sign with a small independent company (read here), which might have been his attitude during his time with Devastation as well. However, by the time Dispensible bloodshed was released Dixler was out of the band. Shawn Glass (who co-founded Sindrome with Dixler) attributes the disappearance of Devastation and other extreme metal bands from Chicago to inflated egos (read here). In any case, despite the low production values this album has aged extremely well and is an undisputed cornerstone of the death metal genre that needs to be heard.

*Band photo taken from Devastation’s MySpace page

My 15 all-time favourite drum intros

In my early contact with metal as a teenager drums were of tertiary importance compared to guitar and voice. My first love was Iron Maiden, and although over the years I came to appreciate Clive Burr’s and Nicko McBrain’s skills and contribution to Maiden’s sound, my untrained teenage ear could not appreciate the nuances. My second love was Dio, and just like with Maiden what I fell in love with was the voice and the guitar-playing. I obviously enjoyed listening to Appice’s hard hits, McBrain’s speed on songs like “Deja vu“, I remember falling in love with Ulrich’s fills on “For whom the bell tolls“, or Columbus’s double-bass attack on “Black wind, fire and steel“, but I did not start really noticing the drums until I started listening to thrash, and specifically when I listened to Reign in blood by Slayer. After that, and the more my taste would gravitate towards extreme metal the more attention to the drumming I would pay. Who doesn’t like a great drum break in the middle of a song (*a future post is in order*), or an awesome drum intro?! Through memory work (so, simply by trying to remember) I came up with many awesome drum intros that have stayed with me throughout my life as a metal fan, and after subsequent filtering (as a result of which amazing songs by Hypocrisy, Judas Priest, Death, Xentrix, Ozzy and Kreator, among others, were left out) I present 15 of them here in chronological order.

1. SlayerEpidemic (1986)

Reign in blood blew my mind and continues to blow my mind no matter how many times I’ve listened to it. It’s funny how, as years go by and new trends in metal emerge, many younger people are no longer impressed by this masterpiece (which is something that I once thought impossible). “When was the last time you truly listened to Reign in blood?”, asks Gavin O’Connor. Seriously, Gavin O’Connor? Still, I would imagine for most people, it is a guilty displeasure not liking this absolute masterpiece and they wouldn’t dare admitting it (as opposed to Gavin who owns his opinion, is proud of it, and so I can make fun of him for being a poser who only listens to “Angel of death” and “Raining blood”). “Epidemic” has always been one of my favourite songs off Reign in blood, as it has a different groove to the dominant skank beat throughout the album. The drum intro has a lot to do with how much I like this song. Whenever I think of a drum intro this is honestly the first song that comes to mind. Nowadays, and after three decades of extreme metal drumming, this intro sounds quite “primitive”, but when I first heard it I would just play it over and over again, for several times before I continue with the rest of the song. Nothing compares to Dave Lombardo‘s intense and quite instinctive old school drumming massacre. The simply devastating drum sound captured on tape by Rick Rubin is not bad either.

2. King DiamondWelcome home (1988)

Mikkey Dee, now famous for being the drummer for Motörhead for almost 25 years, used to be in King Diamond. With him the King released some of his best albums (and my two personal favourite, namely Fatal portrait and Conspiracy), and I actually remember seeing or reading an interview with King Diamond where he said that Mikkey has been sorely missed (I personally think that Snowy Shaw did an awesome job as well). Indeed, the impressive drum performances in King Diamond’s early albums compared to the almost mechanical drumming in this last few albums is like comparing night and day. “Welcome home” is a masterful track off Them, and the intro is one of the most memorable and classy drum parts I can think of. Overall, this song represents the pinnacle of King Diamond’s progressive dimension. Agressor did an accurate cover of this song on their Medieval rites (1999) album, although the drum intro is neither entirely accurate nor has the feel of the original.

3. Holy TerrorNo resurrection (1988)

Holy Terror released two albums in the late 1980s, at a time when thrash was still alive and well but slowly losing ground as the first death metal albums, as well as the more extreme thrash bands of Germany, began to surface. The second album by Holy Terror is a minor thrash masterpiece and this song is a testament to that. Their peculiar style of metal that combined traditional heavy metal melodies and singing, with rougher and at times growling vocals, super fast riffs and drums, deserved more recognition in my opinion. Joe Mitchell‘s expertly executed super fast beats perfectly complement the super-fast vocal delivery. The intro to this song is an all-time favourite, and is the perfectly manic start for a perfectly manic song. I have been listening to it since my teenage years and it still does not fail to excite me. They don’t make them like this anymore.

4. Malevolent CreationCoronation of our domain (1992)

Alex Marquez gave his best performance on Malevolent Creation’s Retribution. His contribution on this album cannot be overestimated, and never before or after did Malevolent have such a colourful drum sound and playing, and orchestrations. I suspect that Scott Burns had a lot to do with fine-tuning Marquez’s playing, especially the blastbeats, as in subsequent releases his blastbeats are all over the place (I am thinking Divine Empire‘s second album where the blastbeats often seem to chase the guitar riff, but are unable to catch up with it. Still, it is an awesome album!). Anyway, this drum intro is probably the best out of all the intros in this list. This is the definition of finesse in drumming.

5. Dismember – Fleshless (1993)

This is an extremely simple fast single stroke drum roll (I think so) spread across two toms, opening one of the best songs in one of the best albums in the history of music (yes, not only death metal). One of the reasons I love it so much is because to me this intro is like saying “get ready for some non-stop relentless beating”, and indeed this is exactly what follows throughout the album. Remember, this is not a playlist with the “best” drum intros, but rather my favourite drum intros, and this is definitely one. I simply adore the drum sound on this album, and Fred Estby‘s playing is really exciting. Indecent and obscene is probably my all-time favourite death metal album, and Fred’s playing is one of the reasons.

6. GorefestPeace of paper (1993)

It’s no big surprise that all of the songs on this list come from albums characterised by great drum performances. In both False (1992) and Erase (1993) Ed Warby gives lessons in extreme metal drumming. His sound is clear, he hits hard, and his blastbeats are a force of nature. “Peace of paper” is an astonishing song off an amazing album, and it is also the song where Warby goes crazy with his snare-kick gymnastics. The drum intro is not anything special, but I love it. I think that his performance in these two albums opened up doors for him, as I recall seeing his name in many projects over the years. Gorefest did a very impressive comeback in the mid 2000s and then unfortunately folded again, and in those two comeback albums Warby also did an amazing job.

7. SlayerKilling fields (1994)

Divine intervention is a galore of outstanding drum work by Paul Bostaph. Quite honestly, when I bought this album I could not believe how someone can play like this, and to this day I consider Divine intervention a masterpiece with state-of-the-art drumming. This album is chock-full of drum highlights, and apart from this song, “Sex, murder, art” and “Serenity in murder” are personal favourites. There is no doubt that Paul knew that filling Lombardo’s shoes would be hard, mostly in terms of acceptance by the hardcore fans rather than actual performance, and did his absolute best to prove himself with this album. In my opinion, the intro of “Killing fields” is one of the heaviest and attention-grabbing moments in metal history.

8. BenedictionThe grotesque (1994)

Benediction is not a band known for its virtuoso musicianship. It is known, however, for its absolutely awesome and unique-sounding death metal.  “The grotesque” is one of Benediction’s best songs and it comes from the Grotesque/Ashen epitaph EP. This EP marked the departure of Ian Treacy, Benediction’s original drummer, whose improvement from Subconscious terror (1990) to Transcend the Rubicon (1993) was nothing short of stellar, and the short-lived collaboration with Paul Brookes (who has been very ridiculously photoshoped into the photo of the band on this release). I personally prefer Treacy, who has also provided some really cool drum parts, but nevertheless, Brookes offers a very memorable drum intro to this beast of a song.

9. UnleashedIn the name of god (1995)

“In the name of god” starts with a very simple double stroke roll, yet constitutes an extremely effective drum intro which has always stayed with me. The fact that it opens one of the catchiest songs in death metal history, composed by Fredrik, obviously adds to the importance of this drum intro, but there is no doubt that Anders Schultz‘s contribution to Unleashed’s sound is significant (also check out the awesomely placed double bass à la Slayer at the end of the song). Victory is, in my opinion, the last great album by Unleashed, and it is not a coincidence that it is also the last album with Fredrik Lindgren. He is one of the composers that is missed in the death metal genre.

10. Dying FetusJustifiable homicide (2000)

1999 was the year my friends and I found out about the then new wave of North American brutal death metal. A fiend of mine got hold of three awesome cassette-tapes; one with Deeds of flesh‘s Trading pieces (1996) and Inbreeding the anthropophagi (1998), one with Nile‘s Among the catacombs… (1998), and one with Dehumanized‘s Prophecies foretold (1998) and Dying Fetus‘s Purification through violence (1996). When Destroy the opposition came out we didn’t listen to anything else for a month. This is probably the least interesting song on the album, but what a great and memorable intro! Kevin Talley is a great drummer hailing from the American brutal death metal underground who has rightfully been recognised as one. His drumming on albums like Killing on adrenaline and Destroy the opposition are unbelievable. Unfortunately, in my opinion, the separation of Jason and Kevin from Gallagher resulted in inferior subsequent output from both Dying Fetus and Misery Index. Anyway, this whole album is a drummer’s pleasure.

11. The CrownI won’t follow (2000)

The Crown has always been a hit and miss band in my opinion. I never liked any of their albums in their entirety, just individual songs, and if I had to pick a favourite album I would choose Hell is here (1999). This song comes from Deathrace king, an album from which I worship two songs and the rest of them I listen to once every ten years or so. “I won’t follow” is one of the songs I worship, and the other is the inimitable “Back from the grave”. Janne Saarenpää‘s style is very intense and out-of-control and often reminds me of Chris Witchhunter from Sodom (I’m thinking of “Baptism of fire”). This is the definition of in-your-face extreme metal drumming of the type that inspires kids to pick up drumsticks and learn to play.

12. Deeds of FleshMaster of murder (2001)

Mike Hamilton‘s stint with Deeds of Flesh started with an album (i.e. Mark of the legion) which, for me, marked the creative downfall of the band. However, just like the drummers that preceded him, Hamilton’s drumming is amazing, and this song is a case in point. A beautiful, yet cold and lifeless, phrase composed of super fast double strokes and double bass, introduces an awesome riff. The way Hamilton switches from the hi-hat to the ride cymbal during the blastbeats, and the effect this has on the riff is also great. Later on in their career Deeds of Flesh tried to reinvent themselves and switched to super-technical death metal and, in my opinion, lost their distinctiveness that is still present in this song.

13. Pig DestroyerSnuff film at eleven (2001)

Just like Dying Fetus’s Destroy the opposition, Pig Destroyer’s Prowler in the yard was a game changer in the world of extreme metal. Brian Harvey provides super fast blastbeats, grooves, and insane drum fills.  This song is one of the most death-oriented songs on the album, and has such an awesome drum intro, representative of the musical and lyrical insanity that reigns throughout the album. What contributes to the awesomeness of this intro is that it does not lead to a fast beat but a tensely controlled slow beat. Harvey’s performance on the next album (i.e. Terrifyer) is also stellar. Having a drummer like this at one’s disposal is an amazing privilege, because it gives one absolute freedom to write anything they want, no matter how fast and complex.

14. Lock UpFeeding on the opiate (2002)

Nick Barker is one of those drummers who make extremely fast drumming seem easy. I fell in love with his drumming when Cradle of Filth‘s Dusk and her embrace came out, and I loved him even more in Lock Up, although his repertoire in the latter is much more limited. His performance with Cradle of Filth rightfully opened doors for him as over the years he has played with many prominent bands. This is actually one of the best album intros ever, and I cannot believe that I forgot to mention it in the respective post I wrote a few years ago. Overall, Hate breeds suffering is my favourite Lock Up album too. Bill Hicks’s inspiring statement, “Play from your fucking hearts!”, sampled at the beginning of the song is also genius.

15. Dark FuneralThe eternal eclipse (2016)

The final entry in this list comes from a recent album, namely Dark Funeral’s very impressive Where shadows forever reign. Dark Funeral has a history of great drummers, including the brilliant Matte Modin (who offered devastating drumming for Defleshed back in the day). In this album the drums are provided by Nils Fjellström, another master of inhuman speed in drumming (check out videos of him performing live with the band on YouTube, you won’t be disappointed). “The eternal eclipse” is my favourite song off this album, and the drum intro is perfect.

A minor mystery solved, and life goes on…

Reading the information provided in the booklets or inner sleeves of albums – on vinyl, CD or cassette-tape – has always been an important part of my – and many others’ I presume – experience of engaging with popular music. Thanks lists used to be the source of finding out about affiliated bands, friendships between bands, and bands that I should check out. At the same time reading bands’ thanks lists would often obscure, rather than clarify, things. Responsible for that would often be the use of inside jokes, such as nicknames and references to events with which I, the reader, was unfamiliar. For example, I remember reading the thanks lists of Napalm Death‘s Harmony corruption (1990) being simultaneously entertained, intrigued and confused by the constant use of the word ‘chuffed’.

One of the oldest band-related mysteries that I can remember of originated in the inner sleeve of Entombed‘s Left hand path (1990). In the thanks list the band thanks Carnage and then, in brackets, Fred (presumably Fred Estby) who was the drummer in Carnage and Dismember. The sentence “Milli Vannili-Fred! Thanks for the riff mate!” fascinated me because it provided information regarding the relationship between two of my favourite bands – Entombed and Dismember – and also because it provided ammunition to my imaginary debates with annoying staff of heavy metal magazines, among whom it was commonplace to casually refer to Dismember as a “second-rate Entombed”. Yet, this was a piece of information that begged for additional information. For more than 20 years I have wondered, “which one is the riff on Left hand path that belongs to Fred?”.

Ten years ago I bought and devoured Daniel Ekeroth‘s book Swedish death metal (2008). There were things about it that I loved, and things that I hated. (Among the latter was the author’s irritating flattery towards Nicke Andersson.) One of the things that annoyed me – at the time I thought it was unacceptable – was that he did not provide an answer to this mystery. Even though I understand that it is not really a mystery, in the sense that probably nobody cares, I still think that revealing the identity of the riff would be a great anecdote which would also provide a richer, more accurate representation of the relationship between these two important bands and songwriters of the Swedish death metal scene.

Dismember appearing at the Rockwave festival in Attica, 2005 (left), and Mylos club in Thessaloniki, 2007 (right).

Twice I had the opportunity to find out the answer to this mystery but  missed it. I have seen Dismember live twice. The first time was in the 2005 Rockwave festival in Greece. There I actually met Fred, David, and Matti who were wandering around in the merchandising area, but it was very brief and I completely forgot to ask Fred about the Left had path reference. (During that brief encounter Fred recorded my Dismember tattoo on his camera, and the footage was later on included in their Under blood red skies DVD (2009)!) Next time I saw Dismember live was in Thessaloniki a couple of years later, and it was shortly after Fred’s departure from the band (Thomas was on drums by that point), so, once again, I missed the chance to inquire. What I never considered was that perhaps someone else from the band might know the answer to my question. As it turns out Matti did, and last week this minor mystery was solved while I was browsing Matti’s Facebook page.

I have referred to social media as “intertextual enablers” in the past (read this), and this is another instance where information produced and accessed through social media fills in gaps in my popular music knowledge. Later on in the same Facebook discussion, it is revealed that the riff mentioned above which Nicke gave in return was the brilliant intro riff of “Deranged from blood” from Carnage’s Dark recollections (1990). Of course, the “Milli Vannili-Fred” bit of the reference has not been explained. It obviously refers to the late-1980s Dance duo Milli Vanilli, which consisted of two models posing as singers (without actually singing or composing on the records). Perhaps in the context of Left hand path, the term is meant to refer jokingly to Fred as a ghost writer in Entombed. Now enjoy Fred’s riff starting at 1:32 in the video below.

Take Refuge in old Rage
July 9, 2018, 4:36 pm
Filed under: Heavy metal, people | Tags: , , , , ,

Refuge is the alter-ego of Rage, a band led by one of my all-time favourite songwriters, Peavy Wagner. Alongside Peavy, Refuge consists of Manni Schmidt and Chris Efthimiadis. This configuration of musicians is the same one that offered a series of Rage albums of unparalleled beauty, including Perfect man (1988), Secrets in a weird world (1989), Reflections of a shadow (1990), Trapped (1992), and The missing link (1993). After 1993 Manni left the band and Rage went through many different configurations. By the late 1990s Chris was also out of the band. For many people, the trio of Peavy, Manni, and Chris was the absolute Rage line-up. I first heard the news of Peavy re-uniting with Chris and Manni a few years ago (May 2014) through the comments of a reader of this very blog. The trio performed songs from that bygone era of the band live, first under the Tres Hombres moniker (listen to “Shame on you“). Last month this configuration released a beautiful debut album full of the excellence one would expect from the old Rage. The first day I got the album I listened to it five-six times back to back.

Peavy has written three songs all by himself, and the rest are co-written with Manni. All the lyrics are by Peavy. Overall, the lyrical thematology and musicianship are instantly recognisable as classic Rage. Peavy’s usual questions regarding mortality (“Summer’s winter”, “We owe a life to death”, “From the ashes”), loneliness (“Man in the ivory tower”, “Bleeding from inside”), and heartbreak (“Let me go”) are all here. The album kicks off with a small masterpiece about the end of the world titled “Summer’s winter”. The brilliant “We owe a life to death”, a song clearly crafted after “Who dares” (one of the best anti-fascist songs ever written, from The missing link), deals again with Peavy’s usual obsession with death. “The man in the ivory tower” is another instant classic, flawlessly crafted song, about loneliness and regret. On “Hell freeze over”, one of my favourite songs on the album, Peavy forgets mortality and other sad topics for a bit and celebrates a life of creativity, camaraderie and perseverance. Musically, the album is on par with anything the trio did back in the day. It is an album full of Manni’s frantic guitar-playing, and trademark pick-squeals, Peavy’s infectious melodies and perfect (and catchy) choruses, and Chris’s powerful style of drumming. I cannot get used to the perfection of “Hell freeze over” (Manni’s on fire on this one). “Waterfalls” is the slowest song on the album, and is a craftily put together masterpiece that takes the listener through a beautiful musical and emotional journey. “Let me go” is a perfect example of the inventive ways Peavy incorporates unexpected chord progressions and arpeggiated chords, and their resulting unconventional melodies, in his songs (past examples include “Take me to the water” and “Spider’s web”). Although this is another small masterpiece, the “go, go, go” bit in the chorus is, in my opinion, doing the song a disservice (similar to the “sky, sky, sky” bit in “Higher than the sky” from End of all days (1996)). “Bleeding from inside” is another cool song with interesting structure and a great chorus, and although in the beginning I could not avoid comparing the verse vocal pattern to Savatage‘s “Power of the night”, I got used to it and I don’t even notice it anymore. The mind-blowing “Another kind of madness” that closes the album was originally a bonus track on The missing link, but the version here is a re-working of the demo version of the song (available in the demo collection only recently made available titled Demonizer). The Missing link version was (mostly) acoustic, whilst this version is electric; the verse and bridge melodies are kept almost intact, whilst the pre-chorus and chorus are changed. Chris’s performance on this song deserves special mention. Unfortunately, it is not included in the vinyl version of the album.

In my opinion Solitary men is not reminiscent of any of the Rage albums the trio released in the past, especially not Trapped and The missing link alongside which many rush to classify it. Solitary men is a slower album, much less frantic than the aforementioned. At least to some degree, and on account of songs like “We owe a life to death”, it is also a self-consciously self-referential throwback album, as opposed to any of the older ones. At the same time, it contains Peavy’s artful song-writing and beautiful voice, Manni’s genius guitar-playing, and Chris’s awesome drumming, and the resulting chemistry which has been without a miss the generator of musical miracles. Refuge released an instant classic, in a seemingly effortless manner, just like they used to do year after year between 1988 and 1993. Peavy has been writing music non-stop for 35 years and he still comes up with some of his best songs. I have said it before and I will say it again: someone built this man a friggin’ statue already!