Being a snobby music fan, I love music recommendations even when inevitably don’t love it as much as the recommender. Here are my thoughts on music people have recommended to me recently; please send me more recommendations!
In response to my Bathory review, Alex M. suggested Finnish Viking metal band Ensiferum. Their debut album appeared in 2001, a full 13 years after Bathory’s Blood Fire Death. Their sound doesn’t explore new territory, but it is cleaner and more listenable than Bathory.
Though the Ensiferum discography is fairly consistent it quality, there were a few albums I didn’t like. Dragonheads (2006) was too ambitious, and is not quite polished. They used synthesized wind instruments, the singing is out of tune, the songs change tone all the time, the volumes aren’t balanced in a way to make the hard groves work. I thought their latest album, One Man Army (2015), which alternates between some lame country-western style and rage songs, was boring.
However, the albums where Ensiferum embraces the camp and fun of pretending to be vikings with electric guitars are really fun. I normally don’t like covers, but their cover of Battery has usurped the original in my brain. It’s amusing to hear such traditional pop melodies mixed with power metal - the melody of Vanderum reminds me of the chorus of Doesn’t Really Matter by Janet Jackson, but so far no one agrees with me:
I’m definitely going to see this band live the next time they’re in SoCal.
Thomas E. recommended a one-EP heavy metal band out of Ottawa called Loxley. Thomas bought their 1991 EP “Better Late than Never” off one of his coworkers, who was related to someone in the band. It pains me to say, because I want to support Canadian music, it’s not good. It’s not inventive for the time, and it sounds like it was recorded in a cathedral. If any members of Loxley are reading this, though I didn’t like this EP, Thomas clearly loved it and listened to the EP many times over the years, enough to recommend it in 2016.
I probably should have known about guitar prodigy Steve Vai prior to Ben C.’s recommendation, but 80s and 90s solo acts are a big gap in my musical awareness. Although I was initially dismissive of Vai, I’m glad I revisited his discography.
My favourite album in Vai’s discography is Fire Garden (1996), though its greatness is due to pulling in the best ideas of other contemporary bands. Aching Hunger uses the synthetic music sampling Yes introduced in the 80s. Brother is a dramatic ballad that could have come from Toto. The oddest cut is an accidental cover of One Night in Bangkok from the ABBA/Tim Rice musical Chess. According to the internet, David Lee Roth asked Vai to transcribe the guitar solo intro, which he didn’t end up using until a decade later when he dug it out, forgot that he hadn’t composed the solo, and turned it into a full song. The resulting song is honestly better than the original because it isn’t immediately followed by campy sing-talking about liking chess more than sex.
Although Vai’s instrumentals are fantastic, there’s a lot of garbage in his discography. Vai’s managers need to lock the sound samples out of his mixing computer. Vai is a fan of letting animals (like on Bad Horsie), children (like on Ya Yo Gek), and people with bad vocal fry (like on Kill the Guy) onto his tracks. On his interludes, he either regresses to the maturity level of a ten year old, or espouses an un-metal philosophy of positive thinking. He preaches being happy and nice all the time, then makes fun of Britney Spears while playing live. I guess negativity is only bad when it’s not directed at you? His singing is passable, but at its worst is like the singing of the B52’s Fred Schneider without any of the charm.
Steve Vai is one of these talented guys with a career since the early 80s who appears in all sorts of interesting places. He played with Zappa, collaborated with Ozzy, and has appeared most recently on the new M83 album Junk. Listening to his discography is like a talented, curated tour of rock guitar of the 80s and 90s, and I hope he continues to pop up in unusual places well into the future.