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.
Funny, the memories that choose to embed themselves in your lives.
A family shopping trip in the late summer of 1989, before the school year started. Back then, if I was lucky enough to pass through the doors of a Buzzard’s Nest, no fuckin’ way did I leave empty-handed. Lawn mowing money securely in the store’s register, I nestled into the back seat and prepared myself for the hour and a half ride home. I don’t remember what else I bought that day, but I very clearly remember taking a big pull of fresh tape smell before popping Badlands self-titled debut into the ol’ bright yellow Sony Sports walkman.
I was a weird kid. My formative years were enveloped by Duran Duran, The Police, Queen, The Go Gos, U2, and whatever was on the the only two radio stations in Southeastern Ohio at the time (Power 105 and 95 XTQ, if I remember correctly). My older sister provided the Hair Metal bridge that I hit at a hot sprint before Thrash and Death metal consumed all my listening attention. I skipped the near mandatory puberty experience of Classic Rock, at least as far as an immersive identity, going straight to growing my hair out and trying my best to look like a dirtbag.
Therefore, Badlands’ pedigree was lost on me, other than Jake E. Lee’s tenure in Ozzy. Nor was I clued in to how liberally the Zeppelin-isms were slathered on. However, from the moment the opening tape hiss hit, I was hooked. It’s as good a fusion of Classic Rock histrionics and modern (for the time) guitar shredding as the era produced, and I still to this day own it on multiple formats. Sure, the lyrics are also as cheesily cliched as the era produced, but it is an album that transports me back to a time before life got so complicated with every single play that it gets.
Which is pretty fucked up, considering how complicated that album has become.
Separating the art from the artist has been a conversation for some time now. Rock dudes have been disgusting forever. Viewing the golden age of the 60s and 70s (and 80s and fuck it, the 90s and 00s as well) through the lens of today, it’s mind-boggling how dark it gets even on the surface, let alone diving into Jimmy Page kidnapping a teenager. The horrid patriarchal system favoring rock stars and money is long, long, long overdue for a deep dismantling. We’re far from where we should be in regards to listening, but the current wave of accountability is at least a start in an industry that has turned a blind eye while keeping the machine rolling.
It is, however, a tough conversation to have. Not necessarily in regards to where you yourself draw the line, but certainly in the subjective nature of what a scene will not only tolerate, but what a small percentage will actually have the gall to defend. It was incredibly easy to weather the storm during the pre-internet decades, where accusations were immediately filed away as rumors and conjecture or worse, the ‘just how it was’ defense. But we live in the digital age, a time where you can screen shot the receipts down to the second, a rare instance where the internet has a silver lining.
In our little metal corner of the world, I’m of course referencing Scott Kelly and Neurosis. Kelly’s habitual cycle of abuse towards his wife and children has been swiftly condemned, and even without his admission his guilt is well documented. The band strongly distanced themselves some time ago, condemning his actions and immediately booting him. Neurosis are a much beloved pillar of the scene, a DIY behemoth of underground music, whose influence has been massively felt, far and wide. In the miserably subjective conversation, the difficulty isn’t in condemning abhorrent behavior, but in how much one member being an absolute piece of shit should affect a band’s legacy.
I bring up Badlands both because it has been my own personal barometer and because the band has come up several times in the last few weeks. I never gave much thought to the catalog being out of print. Plenty of albums get shelved, for a variety of reasons. It is pretty strange that they haven’t popped up on streaming, however, so a few years ago I turned to the internet and wouldn’t you know it, I shouldn’t have done that.
I won’t go into the details here, Google at your own risk, but suffice to say, Ray Gillen is a colossal piece of shit. It didn’t involve anyone else in the band, they had no knowledge, and it was after the albums, but his colossal piece of shit-ness is an unavoidable thought every time I feel like throwing that album on now. In the case of Neurosis, I’m a firm Eye Of Every Storm man, late enough in their discography that I will probably wonder if Kelly was already an abusive bag of assholes by that point when I reach for it. How much should one person’s behavior affect our enjoyment of a group’s art?
People can change, evolve past their abusive ways and sincerely repent. Anyone with a brain that read Kelly’s post owning up/apologizing can clearly see he has neither evolved nor sincerely repented, but people can do it. Gillen will never get a chance, his lifestyle cashing him out early. The chorus of ‘snowflakes’ and ‘woke-ness is killing metal’ only reinforce how subjective this discussion can be, and how dismally bleak the lack of compassion for victims has become. I’m firmly of the opinion that the music industry reckoning hasn’t gone far enough in listening to the voices of those abused and calling out those with the power. If that makes me a ‘snowflake’, so be it. Until we make sure there are consequences, nothing is going to change. I’m sure Win Butler will have some atoning to do, but I seriously doubt it will hurt Arcade Fire’s bottom line. Fuck that guy.
I’ve been looking forward to the new Sumerlands‘s album for months, and seeing Badlands name-dropped in the pre-release hype sheet did nothing to dampen that excitement, I’ll be honest. It will be very interesting to see how this generation, one that is far more enlightened than I was at their age, deals with Badlands as they dig into why they can’t find it on streaming services. It’s a ripping album, truly some of my favorite Jake E. Lee and Eric Singer performances, and I’m excited for young metalheads to get to experience hearing it for the first time. How one man’s abhorrent behavior colors that experience is purely subjective, however.
So anyway, being of absolutely no use in helping solve moral and ethical dilemmas, let’s talk about this ripping new Sumerlands. Part of young Andrew’s problem with breaking into Classic Rock was getting duped out of hard earned mowing money based on the awesomely fantastical artwork. Sometimes it was Cirith Ungol. Other times it was some mid-period Uriah Heap turd. Dreamkiller (Relapse) is exactly what I wanted from all of those covers. Arthur Rizk should be familiar to all, producing everyone from Power Trip to Soulfly, so it shouldn’t be shocking that his attention to sonic detail is in full bloom here. It’s honestly a bit shocking at how cohesively reigned in everything is, considering how stacked this band is. Rizk is joined by Brad Raub of Eternal Champion, Justin DeTore of Innumerable Forms and Dream Unending, and of personal interest to yours truly, Brendan Radigan of Magic Circle. All of these dudes can shred, so the warm caress of “Heavens Above” and “Night Ride”, both songs that would be right at home nestled on some late night 70s AOR AM radio station between ELO and Blue Oyster Cult deep cuts, is a fantastic display of restraint. Rizk’s sonic palette is such that these songs all take a few listens to reveal their overall magic, mostly due to so many cool fucking parts. Solos? Holy shit does this record have them. Lush keyboards? Beds of them, somehow never overpoweringly so. Power metal lyrics that hint at cliches but are actually good? You know it. Once these parts become familiar, the songs themselves start kicking your ass. I’m an unabashed Radigan fan, and he is in fine company here. “The Saviour’s Lie” is Dio-era Sabbath perfection. Perfection, I tell you. The only thing that sucks about this album is its length. At thirty five minutes, I want more more more. Absolutely worth salivating for the last couple months, this album slays.
Speaking of totally stacked bands featuring Justin DeTore produced by Arthur Rizk, the Innumerable Forms album also delivers on all levels of me hyping it up in my mind. With Chris Ulsh of Mammoth Grinder and Power Trip, Jensen Ward from Iron Lung and Conner Donnegan from Genocide Pact on board, there was a slim to none chance that Philosophical Collapse (Profound Lore) would suck. Still, my expectations are exceeded at how well the melodic doom elements punch me right in the chest, in the Peaceville sense of the genre. The band does an excellent job of blending these melodic bits with full on Death assaults by never allowing the parts to overstay. At just over thirty eight minutes, there is an economy here that leaves me perfectly content. Rizk brings clarity, exemplified in the slower guitar harmonies, with the vocals cavernously guttural but mixed at the absolute perfect level for the style (take note, every Death Metal band!). The last smotheringly repetitive minute and a half of “Sleeping In Light” is the perfect comedown. This shit very slowly rips.
I keep waiting for the current wave of Death Metal to crest. There’s only so much room in the genre for killer records, right? Guess we’ll have to wait for the genre to get stale, because Texas isn’t fucking around. Maggot Stomp are not only gracious enough to provide us with Tribal Gaze’s new album, but also a re-release of their previous demo. Y’know, for us idiots that may have missed out. The Nine Choirs refines the HM-2 worship of Godless Voyage. Both are punchy, smotheringly propulsive Death with very well placed mid-tempo grooves, and a few surprises. Those four notes about a minute and forty five into “Until The Saviour Returns” hit pretty fucking hard. At just under a combined hour, This shit stomps.
Phobophilic also missed the memo, because Enveloping Absurdity (Prosthetic Records) is some grade A guttural, churning, tremolo-picked badassery. Nothing reinventing the wheel here, just thirty eight minutes of all killer, no filler Death. The mellow creepiness of “Individuation” is a nice mid-pummel breather before kicking in to the highlight stomping of “The Illusion O Self”. This shit smokes.
Escuela Grind has always been one of those bands that I turn to when I need to bludgeon the day out of my mind, so I’ve been pretty excited for Memory Theater (MNRK Heavy) since it was announced. Their records have always been enjoyable, in the sense that power-violence or grind or whatever you want to call it can be enjoyable (very, motherfuckers), but Memory Theater feels like the band has hit the next level, with plenty of dynamic pop in both tempo and rage giving the proceedings depth. Kurt Ballou’s production provides a thickness that gives these songs the most heft thus far in their catalog. It’s hard to pick favorites, the pre-release link just repeats and I let it, but “All Is Forgiven” is a strong contender, as is “Cliffhanger”. By far my favorite Escuela Grind record, and a cathartic high point of the year. This shit power-rips.
In metal-adjacent catharsis, Punitive Damage rip through thirteen hardcore ragers in sixteen minutes on This Is The Blackout (Atomic Action!). With nine of those tracks clocking in around a minute or less, this is my kind of shit. Get in, viscerally call bullshit on the system’s failings, and get out. Jerkova’s lyrics come from a very personal place, as the daughter of immigrants, giving the album both a unique perspective and a very relatable human connection to talk shit on the failings of society. Unrelenting, just shy of power-violence goodness. I WON’T FORGET YOU’RE THE ENEMY!
I catch some shit from a few audiophile friends for my current practice of buying new metal on cassette. Fuck those dudes, though, because I can’t imagine a more fitting way to experience Faster Than The Fucking Devil (Wise Blood Records), Wise Blood’s new four (!!!!) band split. I’d have been stoked out of my mind to walk out of a Buzzard’s Nest with this gem in my hand circa 89. Wraith is the most straight up Thrash sounding of the lot. Black Knife is a crustier, early 80s first wave affair. Graveripper splits the difference by adding speed to the crusty, almost bordering on blackened thrash. And Unholy Night is no less evil, but more akin to throw a kegger on your grave. All four of them are a blast. The modern Thrash revival got rapidly bloated with bands that missed the point as they attempted to ride the trend. Nary a trend in sight here. This shit authentically rips.
Hive’s Spiritual Poverty (Translation Loss) is an addictive D-Beat crusty Hardcore ripper that pairs well with speeding on the highway. Didn’t know what to think of City of Caterpillar dropping a follow up twenty years after a debut I never heard, and honestly, several listens into Mystic Sisters (Relapse) I still don’t have a handle on it. Knotty, very mature screamo-y post-core? Dunno, but it’s a very interesting record I intend to spend more time with, for sure. JIRM‘s The Tunnel, The Well, Holy Bedlam (Ripple) is wildly unpredictable Swedish progressive space emo doom psych with saxophone, and I’m kinda into it. Just got my beautiful copy of Mournful Congregation‘s The June Frost (20 Buck Spin) reissue, so throw a couple of their albums into the mix. I have. There’s a new Sigh (Peaceville) record. It’s fucking bonkers. I’m pretty picky when it comes to my Finnish Pagan Folk Black Metal needs. Most of it veers off the rails into woodland polka parody. Not so with Vermilia‘s Ruska. While it teeters on the edge of too sing-songy for my liking, it never tips too far, perfectly coinciding with the changing weather. Solid Fall jams. Aethenar from Midnight doing full blown, and I mean full blown, Motorhead worship and calling it Whitespade? Gimme.