Washington City Paper

Dec. 26, 2003 –
Jan. 8, 2004



Arts in Review 2003

Songs of Praise

Heavy Thoughts Tonight

One more reason Newt Gingrich is right about the war: Back in May, Newsweek reported that the U.S. Army was torturing Iraqi prisoners to the tune of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” apparently confusing the midtempo cut from 1991’s multiplatinum Metallica for some kind of musical extremism. “These people haven’t heard heavy metal before,” Sgt. Mark Hadsell told the mag. “They can’t take it.”


Right. Not only can they take it, they can dish it out: According to the March 10, 2003, issue of Der Spiegel, an Iraqi army officer’s son nicknamed Bloodmaster formed a state-tolerated metal band after hearing pirated Metallica tracks. Truly, this is something the White House has to get a grip on.

So do the suits in the music industry. Yet despite another year of declining CD sales and downloading as usual, metal dominated the summer stadium circuit, nü-metal acts Evanescence, Linkin Park, and Korn all shifted massive units, and hair-metal fetishists the Darkness parked at No. 1 in Blighty. Even Metallica’s middling St. Anger managed to go platinum.

Still, with the notable exception of Cradle of Filth’s hooky, indulgent, and often excellent Damnation and a Day—the first black-metal album to be released on a major in the United States, as well as the first to enter the Billboard 200—my favorite arguments for metal as art came, as usual, from the indies. If Bloodmaster ever gets that free-market economy we’ve been promising him, I’m sure he’ll agree.

The year’s best, in alphabetical order by artist:

When Fire Rains Down From the Sky, Mankind Will Reap as It Has Sown, Anaal Nathrakh. I was listening to the Smiths when Slayer’s Reign in Blood came out in 1986. But hearing that watershed back then must have felt something like listening to this one now. Beyond-fierce, beyond-dense black metal from two accountant-looking guys who always seem to be pushing at the edge of musical possibility.

Below the Lights, Enslaved. Both Spin and Mojo ran prog primers this year, so perhaps the time is ripe for a Viking metal act with an analog-synth fetish and at least one King Crimson tattoo. Lots of sketchy headbangers like progressive rock, but this Norwegian foursome is singular because it’s more Eno than ELP—more about atmosphere than just trottin’ out the chops.

The Sky’s Run Into the Sea, Growing. Growing didn’t invent drum-free hard-core throb (see: Earth). But the all-but-instrumental Olympia trio is definitely the genre’s most meditative and melodic bunch. What that will mean to the heshers is anyone’s guess—although any band that quotes “Norwegian Wood” probably couldn’t care less.

Things Viral, Khanate. The Linda Blair vocals turned me off at first. But get past those and you’ll discover a New York quartet that makes the Melvins sound like speed metal. Nearly ambient experimentalism that’s still scary as hell.

Plague Soundscapes, the Locust. The Locust guys keep insisting that they’re not metal. They’re just snobs: Plague Soundscapes is every bit as speedy, spastic, and double-bass-dense as any other grindcore record, retrofuturist synths notwithstanding.

Retaliate, Misery Index. Locals Agoraphobic Nosebleed and Darkest Hour both turned in good-to-very-good records this year, but I listened to Baltimore’s Misery Index more than either. Perhaps it was because the trio introduced true punk sensibility to guttural American death metal: no wanky solos, no Neanderthal lyrics—just straight-ahead riffcentric grinding.

Australasia, Pelican. The EP from February was more metallic, but the full-length from November revealed more depth: The all-instrumental Australasia reveals the Chicago quartet can be as heavy as Opeth, as reductive as Neu!, and as folky as any Thrill Jockey act with acoustic guitars.

Two Rooms (Full of Insects), Earl Shilton. Sick of being ex–Bolt Thrower man Alex Thomas, the Brit drummer rechristened himself after a Leicestershire village and recorded the entirety of this ever-shifting, mostly instrumental gem of revisionist thrash all by himself. Sans Thomas’ indecipherable growl, Two Rooms would be perfect for occasional headbangers: Without the genre trappings, this is nothing but one killer riff after another.

White 1, Sunn O))). This was a great year for Stephen O’Malley. In addition to playing guitar in Khanate, he also checked in as half of the minimalist-drone duo Sunn O))), a band that’s every bit as glacial and a lot easier on the ears. It didn’t hurt that Julian Cope showed up to get all meta, either: “Play your gloom ax, Stephen O’Malley/Sub-bass ringing the sides of the valley.”

Liberation, 1349. These corpse-painted Norwegians may be traditionalists at heart (they cover black-metal pioneers Mayhem), but there’s something inadvertently avant about the way the quintet’s debut buzzes and hums from the speakers. Though 1349’s concepts are all shock ’n’ awe (favorite song title: “I Breathe Spears”), the music is heft-free and peaceful in a weird way: tweeter-testing sheets of raspy vocals, tremolo-picked melodies, and trebly blast beats.

—Brent Burton

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