I am grateful that writing critiques of the music people recommend to me has not discouraged new recommendations. I enjoy listening to everything once, so please continue to send me stuff! Here are my thoughts on the recommendations I’ve listened to recently.
I introduced John to stoner/sludge metal band High on Fire, he returned the favor by digging through frontman Matt Pike’s discography and introducing me to Sleep. Sleep’s sound is on the rougher and distorted side of sludge metal, sounding more like Sourvein’s latest than High on Fire. It makes sense, since Sleep was active a decade before its predecessor, but it is interesting that Pike went for a faster and less distorted sound with High on Fire, whereas other stoner metal bands have progressed to slower and more distorted sounds. Perhaps the popularity of bands like Baroness and High on Fire have led to a newfound appreciation to 90’s stoner metal.
The first two albums, Volume 1 and Holy Mountain have some good tracks, including my favourite, the gut punching and hypnotic Dragonaut, however, the real masterpiece of their discography is Dopesmoker, a churning bible-themed epic about the genre’s favourite substance. The track is occasionally repetitive, but there are frequent fantastic guitar licks that keep the track/album interesting for over an hour.
Several months ago Jeff sent me a link to the latest singles off of Swedish death metal now progressive rock band Katatonia’s latest album, The Fall of Hearts. Though I wasn’t enamoured with the tracks, I decided to listen to the rest of their discography.
Their early 90s death metal albums, Dance of December Souls and Brave Murder Day, are listenable, but they’re not as interesting as more contemporary bands in the same genre, who utilize a greater range of tempos and chords progressions. I would describe these albums as chamber music played in a death metal style.
In the late 90s their style changed dramatically to more gothic, melancholy sounds with clean pop-like vocals. Renske’s voice was not quite suited to this style on their first release after the change, Discouraged Ones, but his voice improved with time. The live versions of the songs off of Discouraged Ones on last year’s Sanctitude are a great improvement. The consistency of style and quality was cemented on their follow up Last Fair Deal Gone Down.
Viva Emptiness has several songs that annoy me - Omerta has an interesting style but no instrumental break or progression, the lyrics on Criminals make no sense and do not fit the intensity of the bass line. As the theme of the album is depression, perhaps these faults are intentional - a sufferer of depression is unlikely to feel a large spectrum of emotions, and when they do it is unlikely to make sense in context. Intentional or not, it doesn’t make for a pleasant listening experience.
On their most recent albums, The Great Cold Distance, Night is the New Day, and Dead End Kings, Katatonia are the Alicia Keys of prog-metal: pleasant to listen to, but the singing is weak and the songs never go anywhere. Chelsea Wolfe is an example of this slow, moody metal-flavoured singing of this style that I find very captivating. By contrast, this sounds like some Nu-Metal band took an ambien.
The Moody Blues
After confessing my love of 70s prog metal to my dad, he confessed that he’d been teased in his early 20s for liking The Moody Blues. I had listened to The Magnificent Moodies during my teenage Beatles-led British 60s pop music phase, so it hadn’t occured to me that they were proggy. But their psychadelic, symphonic rock Days of Future Passed is sometimes considered the first prog album.
Their albums of the late 60s/early 70s combine the classical symphonic and movie soundtrack sounds that ELP and Yes were adapting with the soft harmonic singing over strings of folk acts like Simon and Garfunkel. Though the composition and technique on these albums are great, the lyrics aren’t. Some of their songs remind me of Eve of Destruction - the heaviness of the subject matter was assumed to carry the song.
The highlight of their discography are the three albums released with former keyboardist Patrick Moraz, Long Distance Voyager, The Present and The Other Side of Life. These albums have, unsurprisingly, the great piano composition and emotional range reminiscent of a Yes album.
However, after Moraz left, the quality fell steeply off as they chased modern synthpop styles in order to relive their early 80s success. It’s more obviously synthetic and unpolished than the worst things Asia put out in the 90s. Like Asia they also put out unlistenable Christmas songs. At least Asia had enough sense not to bother with techno.
My recommendation - everything between ‘68 and ‘86 is great, the rest is unlistenable.