Words by Andrew Lampela
Andrew Lampela was an employee and eventual co-owner of the 40-year old institution, Haffa’s Records in Athens, Ohio, just outside of the dark woods from which Skeletonwitch emerged. Over his years there he has played in a number of bands ranging from rock to noise to metal and has taken his lifelong knowledge of music into contributing to a number of publications.
In late July, the twelve mile chunk of State Route 550 between Amesville and Athens is a picturesque curve-laden stretch of road, surrounded by a lush green canopy obstinately oblivious to the blazing death orb above and quietly marred by occasional patches of brown and tan where the grass said ‘fuck this, summertime is bullshit’. My memory is mostly shit these days, but the thousands of times I’ve been to and from my hometown on that stretch is indelibly scorched deep enough that decades of hazy life decisions haven’t distorted a single blade. I could take that road without going below sixty before they widened the turns. Having just gotten my license months before, however, I distinctly remember white-knuckling it on the last Tuesday of July, 1991, for what I can only speculate might have been one of my first solo drives. How did I manage to snag the car? An honest, convincingly responsible argument? Some mopey teenage bullshit about the end of life itself, laid on sharp and angry? I’d like to think the former, but I’m sure I was a dick.
While events leading up to a fifteen minute solo drive to my sister’s house are a bit loose, the culmination of purpose is crystal clear. You see, Amesville had five to six TV channels back then, depending on the weather, and was a black hole as far as radio, unless you were into spooky voices on the AM side. Since there was no possible way I was going to miss the televised premiere of “Enter Sandman” I begged and pleaded and, shockingly, got the car.
1990 was a ripping year for the other bands populating the Big 4. While Anthrax’s Persistence Of Time was only about half good, Megadeth and Slayer were in peak form, both Rust and Seasons being defining career milestones. Overkill was on a creative roll and Nuclear Assault were coming off one of my favorite metal albums ever. Even in the throes of blind teenage loyalty, however, I knew that bands weren’t untouchable. Queensryche put out the pedestrian shit sandwich that is Empire, and even the unassailable Voivod were setting me up for a big life lesson with Angel Rat, an album I hated with the passion of a million suns back then. Turns out, I was being a dick.
But this was Metallica, a band that I had not only invested much of my scant money and endless teenage time into, but my very identity. Hyperbole abounds, but I absolutely wouldn’t be the person I am without, at bare minimum, Ride The Lightning and …And Justice For All. Needless to say, I was FUCKING PRIMED for this new song. I distinctly remember the intro, the black and white cathode strobe, the massive drum sound, the intense supernova of confusion, the seemingly eternal drive home, and the miserably dreadful two week wait until the album dropped. I don’t wish it upon them, but kids today are really missing out on experiencing the teenage anxiety rollercoaster of being in the cultural void of Southeastern Ohio and having no way to verify the pre-release feeling that your VERY FAVORITE BAND IN THE WHOLE WORLD was about to intimately introduce you to the sensation of having your expectations rochambeau-d into eternity.
I’m older now, I get it. Change is inevitable, and much needed. Unless you are Weezer. Then it is bad. I can still get down to “Sad But True” because that is just a massive, well-written song, and “Unforgiven” was great until there were three of them, but even today there is an explicit demarcation regarding my fan-dom, and it is July 30th, 1991. Kudos to the band for finally letting people hear Newstead and forging their own path, but holy shit does that album have some stupid lyrics, and for a band that wanted to torch all things hair metal, they sure did lean the fuck in with “Nothing Else Matters”, a song that spins me into inexplicable rage to this day. Fuck that song. I see now that Metallica reached a point where they had the power to do whatever the fuck they wanted, and went for it. The record sounded huge and confident and like something I should be into. “Of Wolf And Man” is just…look, metal lyrics have been dumb forever, and no problems here. I know every stupid ass word on the first three Def Leppard albums. Hearing the guy that closed his previous album out with the viciously expressive “Dyers Eve” howl, like a literal ‘wolf’ howl, in the middle of a song about being a rich nomadic tuff dude was an immensely deflating dick punch.
Sure, my teenage identity took a major beating, but only personally. Everyone was suddenly a Metallica fan, and well, that’s really the beginning of the end for shit when you’re a teenager. I can’t fault Metallica for taking things a different direction. Thrash was getting predictable, and pretty stupid, while Alice In Chains and Soundgarden were prepping the world for a major shift in geography. Fugazi and Tar and Superchunk began monopolizing my mixtapes, and as a young man trying to scrape enough fucks together to get out of high school, I just pretended that Metallica didn’t put The Black Album out.
Metallica is also doing whatever the fuck they want by releasing huge deluxe versions of their albums. Historically, the ‘Riff Tapes’ demos haven’t done much for me, and The Black Album demos hold true to that pattern. If demo evolution is your thing, you can follow the entire timeline, from riff to studio rough cut. The live stuff is pretty cool. Lars can still play the old stuff, the HELL YEAHZ aren’t as prominent as they would become, and there are a bounty of shows to choose from.
You already know where you stand on this album. It’s a ubiquitous staple of the sales charts, and these songs are inescapable parts of the heavy collective psyche now. I revisit it much like high school, noticing every five years or so that a profound yet ultimately meaningless amount of time was spent in my youth trying to wrap my head around that age old question “wait, what?” The band ushered in a much needed change of perspective, but also ushered in the half-speed commercial aspirations of a million bands. You can’t shit-talk the messenger until St. Anger, because whoo boy, and good for Metallica for becoming so monstrously famous. Someone had to do it.
As for The Blacklist cover album… man, I tried. Weezer is inanely pedestrian. Ghost sucks. I don’t know that I’ve ever knowingly heard Cage The Elephant before, but they also suck very, very much, and jesus christ, what happened to My Morning Jacket? Oof. Anyway, there are too many faithful versions, and the ones that do veer off script suffer because convincing me that such an iconic song like “Sad But True” can sound any other way is one of life’s little impossibilities. It’s not all bad. The OFF! and Diet Cig covers are both pretty top notch, and Kamasi Washington next levels shit like he is wont to do. Cool idea for an album. So not my thing.
Metallica was such a dominant force in my youth, I missed out on lots of great stuff like Iron Maiden until I was well into college. Too much melody flirted with classic rock in my little world, and I was being a dick. There is a huge amount of Maiden to explore, depending on your mood. The Di’Anno stuff fucking rips, the poofy-shirt Dickenson albums also fucking rip, the prog-synth stuff rips up until No Prayer, and you know what? The last twenty years or so kinda rip too. I enjoyed The Book Of Souls way more than I thought possible. A bit bloated, but a solid go at being Modern Maiden. So it’s a little perplexing to sit through Senjutsu (Sanctuary Records) this many times and have no retention an hour and twenty minutes later. It all seems fine enough while it’s playing, but damned if I could tell you much other than “The Parchment” is pretty bad ass. These songs tend towards the mid-paced prog side, and there is fantastic instrumental interplay throughout, but at nearly an hour and a half, I’ve spent an abnormal amount of time just trying to figure out where the fuck I am in the track list. This is mostly on me, because these guys obviously hear something I don’t in Kevin Shirley’s work. I’d be hard-pressed to convince anyone that this murk is the work of three guitarists. Still, dudes could tour on Powerslave for the rest of existence and I don’t know that anyone, myself included, would bitch very much. Deserved kudos for pushing their songwriting well into retirement age, and kicking much ass while doing so.
Another album I’m going to have to live with for a time before I ‘get’ it belongs to Carcass. Torn Arteries (Nuclear Blast) doesn’t have the benefit of being a smoothly shredding surprise like 2013’s Surgical Steel, and hey, that’s okay, not every record has to explode my brain. Carcass have always infused their songs with enough in-on-it humor that this shit rips. New Carcass is good Carcass, because it’s Carcass. It’s also pretty slick and mid-tempo-ed, so occasionally I insult them by zoning out. Heartwork melted my soul when it came out, and unequivocally rules as one of the greatest metal records of all time. OF ALL TIME! I hated the singles from Torn Arteries as they dropped, and they are better in the context here, but I need more spins on this. It is absolutely the Carcass standards I hold them to and not the band, as every listen allows me to sink deeper into Daniel Wilding’s drum work on an album that is head-less shoulders above the pack. Blah blah Carcass rules and my standards are being a dick.
Okay, fuck this AARP shit, lets talk about the good stuff. Goddamn this Succumb record (The Flenser) is good. It’s like crust D-beat Death Metal if you need a vaguely accurate sign post, and I don’t have much more to give you. The whole experience is so crushingly exquisite that all I have is ‘go listen to it’ advice. The lyrics are awesome, the riffs are fucking incredible, the production is spot on rough-but-clear… man, I could say a bunch of shit about XXI, but none of it does justice. This is hands down a favorite this year. Wildly essential. I know it’s crazy to listen to a stranger on the internet, but go buy this now.
In the metal adjacent world, Brian Cook just dropped a solo album under Torment & Glory. Cook should need no introduction, as his time in Botch, Sumac, These Arms Are Snakes, and Russian Circles speak volumes for his bonafides. We Left A Note With An Apology (Sargent House) lands firmly in the atmospheric singer songwriter camp, but I’ll follow a talent like Cook anywhere he wants to take me, and again, I have enough faith that anyone reading this far into my ramblings will find much to like here.
I’ve been off my grindcore game for a while now, but I’ve been crushing this Escuela Grind (Armageddon Label) record, mostly because it is awesome. It’s all too easy to space out while Qrixkuor (Dark Descent) is playing, if you find labyrinthian bonkers death metal a comfort zone. Shit is real good. I’ve also been zoning out to Mannveira (Dark Descent), an album that really pushes me through the ol’ black metal and yoga routine after work, which is honestly prime time. You gotta pay attention when Portrait’s (Metal Blade) name keeps popping up, and I get it. Still waiting for the vocals to really click, but I definitely get it. Rise To The Sky follow up one of my favorite early summer neighborhood walk doom albums with one of my current favorite late summer neighborhood walk doom albums. I don’t think it will blow any minds, but this Vaelmyst album is fun as shit, if you enjoy thrashy Celtic Frost-ian death metal, and I do.