Best Of: Live Albums

There’s nothing quite like a metal show. The palpitating thrum of bass, explosive blasts of percussion, the crackling sea of people united by music — it’s beautiful, life-affirming, and brutal. Although live recordings will inevitably fail to stack up to the real thing, they allow us to experience singular moments of musical ecstasy and inspired virtuosity over and over again. The best live albums elevate songs from their studio version into something unique and breathtaking — a gift to the audience assembled. It’s easy to diminish the value of live albums as peripheral additions to an artist’s catalogue, or cheap attempts to reproduce the irreplicable. But we think it’s high time that live albums receive a little more attention.

For your listening pleasure, we’ve curated a dozen brilliant live albums running the gamut from John Zorn to Behemoth. So put your pit kit on, buckle down, and get ready to wish you were there.

Behemoth – At The Arena Ov Aion: Live/Evangelia Heretika

The key aspect of a live performance is to take music recorded in a studio and elevate it to a new level. The live performance must be more than the existing version, not less. Behemoth are known for their intense live performances with props, costumes and pyrotechnics, but without the music itself living up to that standard, it would be a waste. Given the technical and aggressive nature of the Polish legends’ sound, one would expect restrained and pared back interpretations of classics like “Decade of Therion” or “Slaves Shall Serve”, but instead the band take it to the next level.

What we see here is definitive versions of many of the band’s classic songs. Given that a majority of their discography was recorded when the band didn’t have the best of means, the vocals or instruments don’t shine as brightly as the pristine sound here. The lineup is also at its final form, with Nergal’s vocals being augmented by Seth and Orion, adding a trade-off dynamic that wasn’t present on the albums. Nergal himself adds many embellishments to his singing, both in the way of audience call-outs and yelling sections that were originally growled on the albums to create a more energetic aura. Of course, Inferno’s drumming is impeccable, with many of the songs being played as fast as if not faster than their already-blazing album counterparts.

That the band is simply a four-piece with minimal synthesized embellishments really helps them with their live show, as everything they do on the albums is something they can replicate live. They go even further, with creating a new version of “From The Pagan Vastlands” from their 1995 debut Sventevith (Storming Near the Baltic). This rendition hearkens back to the original while being retrofitted with the band’s new style. The set list is excellent, containing all of the band’s best songs at the time, and even some deep cuts. Having a well-produced, consistent-sounding version of the band’s shining moments almost makes this a mix between a best-of album and a rerecorded version of their discography. This album exemplifies what a death metal live show should be.

-Noyan

Between The Buried And Me – Colors_Live

Between the Buried and Me changed the progressive metal landscape when they released their magnum opus Colors in 2007. It was a career and genre defining record that is considered by some to be not only the best record of 2007, but one of the best of the decade. The band toured the album extensively and performed it in its entirely on a nightly basis for the better part of a year before recording a sold out show at Rocketown in Nashville, TN for CD/DVD release, Colors_Live.

One might wonder why anyone would regularly listen to and celebrate a live recreation of an album they already own a copy of, but Colors_Live stands as a statement of the band’s dedication to their craft as virtuosos in their ability to flawlessly perform a 70+ minute piece of conceptual, gapless music that spans various genres in a single sitting. Colors_Live is nearly indistinguishable from its studio counterpart, which is an amazing feat considering how dense the material is.

We’ve covered extensively the marriage of metal, technical prowess, and suffering as art. Colors_Live is a prime example of this complexity. As much as Colors is a triumphant piece of art, the physical toll of its performance can be seen on video; by the time “White Walls” reaches its final moments, sweat can be seen dripping off Paul Waggoner’s guitar as he powers through demanding sweeps and solos, frontman Tommy Roger’s voice breaks, and drummer Blake Richardson can just barely hide his exhaustion.

Granted, we’re talking about albums and not videos here, and we can’t necessarily hear much of their pain when examining the accompanying CD, but in a paradoxical way, Colors_Live is great because it doesn’t feel like a chore. The band doesn’t miss a beat, and they sound phenomenal. All the while, the listener is invested in the performance and in awe of the band’s dedication to their craft. Fitting, because album closer “White Walls” is a statement on the importance of art and remaining devoted and passionate to your craft. As Tommy screams, “this is all we have when we die / We will be remembered for this,” we know and understand that this is absolutely the case for Between the Buried and Me. Colors_Live was the fulfillment of a promise, and is a classic in live metal albums.

-Jimmy Rowe

Converge – Thousands of Miles Between Us

There’s a reason Converge’s legacy is tied so closely to their reputation as a killer live band. Hell, it’s the reason we’ve all had the exchange the first time we discuss the band with someone. It goes a little something like this:

“You like Converge?”
“Yeah.”
“…have you seen them live?”

Unfortunately, having never seen the band myself, I’ve always had to play the vicarious spectator listening to someone’s fantastic recollection of what always seems to be hardcore myth. Thousands of Miles Between Us doesn’t necessarily right my wrong, but it gets as damn close as possible. Recorded (and filmed, the Blu-Ray footage is expertly edited adds a whole ‘nother layer of awesome to this, but I’ll stick to the sounds here) at the Union Transfer in Philadelphia in support of their 2012 release All We Love We Leave Behind, the show feels like they’re playing in their backyard. More importantly, it sounds like a hardcore band putting it all out there for an intimate show.

There’s no buildup or swell of crowd noise to open the record. They cut to the chase with opener (you guessed it) “Concubine” and somehow ramp things up with more intensity and speed than featured on the albums. Ben Koller sounds like his kit is progressively turning into a pile of sawdust and drum hardware, but Kurt Ballou (guitar) and Nate Newton (bass) manage to match his razing pace and up the ante with a chaotic swirl of ear-shredding distortion. The discography-spanning set takes on a more impassioned and potent life here – breakdowns hit harder, riffs brim with more tension, and vocals scrape with a harsher and sharper edge.

It’s not until about halfway through the set on the intro of “Worms Will Feed” do we really get a sense that this is happening in a large venue and not some dive club. It works perfectly. Frontman Jacob Bannon has the casual banter of a basement show, calling out familiar faces in the crowd between songs and during tunings, frequently thanking everyone for their support. The crowd fills when given an opportunity (which thankfully isn’t too much), lending a sense of messy but magnificent reality with coarse and sometimes missed lyrics. Thousands of Miles Between Us is everything I thought the band could be, satisfyingly curbing much of the regret I have from years of missing out.

-Jordan Jerabek

Dream Theater – Once in a LIVEtime

I have already mentioned on the blog that my favorite Dream Theater album is Falling into Infinity and that Dream Theater, especially the early albums, are one of my all time favorite bands. Therefore, picking this album was a no-brainer for me; it was released in support of the above mentioned album and features Dream Theater right before the early phase of their career ended, before Scenes From a Memory saw release.

The album showcases everything I love about that time for Dream Theater: it has hits like “Take the Time” and “Just Let Me Breathe” but also more obscure classics like “Voices” or “Scarred”. It also has “Lines in the Sand”, one of the best tracks on Falling Into Infinity. And that’s just the first CD! The second features my all time favorite Dream Theater song, “Trail of Tears” in an amazingly touching rendition as well as tear-jerker “Hollow Years”.

This album came along in a formative time for me, when I was branching away from Dream Theater and deeper into metal. However, it always reminded me of why I loved them and kept me true to my sources. It still does that; I relistened to it for this post and it still has the magic and verve of early Dream Theater frozen for this exceptional, live recording. For that, it is one of my musical treasures.

-Eden Kupermintz

Iron Maiden – Live After Death

Iron Maiden has had two career peaks. One of them is going on now on the live circuit: they are one of the biggest ambassadors for global metal, filling stadiums with revelers to hear both new songs and cuts from their legendary and influential catalog.

The other peak occurred in the mid 80s, when they released the epic Powerslave album, followed it up with the massive World Slavery Tour and documented that tour on Live After Death. The double live LP highlighted a number of Powerslave tracks. Live kicked off with Winston Churchill’s iconic “we will never surrender” speech before slamming into “Aces High.” This intro has become practically ingrained in the song, and doubtlessly many listeners expect “Aces High” to crank up when viewing WWII documentaries.

But Live After Death offered more than live Powerslave. It also highlighted the band’s back catalog for those who weren’t familiar and provided a neat summation of some of the strongest tracks for those that were. “Revelations” crackled live, and the home stretch of the Powerslave set (which took up the first three sides) with “Number Of The Beast” and “Hallowed Be Thy Name” was undeniable. Live also featured a recording of vocalist Bruce Dickinson singing “Iron Maiden,” the band’s signature tune, which was originally featured on their debut with then-vocalist Paul Di’anno.

And, perhaps most epically, Live After Death cemented Dickinson’s between-song banter as an intrinsic part of the live Maiden experience. “Scream for me, Long Beach!” is as much a part of the album as the songs themselves. Live After Death is one for the ages, capturing the blueprint of what would become Maiden’s set going forward.

-Mike McMahan

Jaga Jazzist – Live With Britten Sinfonia

When you drill down to the nitty-gritty, what are the things that make for not just a very good live album, but an excellent one? Sure, the performances need to be tight, the energy has to be great, the sound quality and mixing top notch. But beyond that, at least in my opinion, what separates the very best live albums from the rest is being able to hear something you would never be able to get by simply listening to the studio albums alone. Jazz in general makes for excellent live experiences and albums because of this. In the case of Jaga Jazzist’s album Live with Britten Sinfonia though, you get all of the above and more taken to the highest level.

The already large and dense ensemble performed a couple of concerts with the UK-based chamber orchestra Britten Sinfonia in 2012, providing an almost endless range of sonic possibilities for Lars Horntveth and co. to play around with. While many bands would have essentially taken their existing music and simply have the orchestra play over existing parts, Horntveth took full advantage of everything at his disposal, from producing intricate new arrangements, composing entire new sections, and, in the case of “Prungen,” debuting brand new as-of-yet unrecorded material.

After listening to “One-Armed Bandit” get the full Wagner-ian treatment of brass, woodwind, and string fanfares it could only hint at with the core group, it’s difficult listening to the original version without feeling like it’s missing something critical. “Bananfleur Overalt” transforms its intro into a majestic piece befitting the soundtrack of Lawrence of Arabia. And though the album definitely favors their most recent release at the time – One-Armed Bandit – there are still several deep cuts from their back catalog that really shine through. The skittery “Kitty Wu” off of the very heavily electronic and sometimes stiff The Stix is made into a living, breathing organic thing. “For All You Happy People” off of What We Must is an unexpected inclusion, but its quietly understated nature is somehow only enhanced by the richness and warmth produced by Britten Sinfonia. And of course the already epic “Oslo Skyline” gets turned up to 11.

If you’ve never had the privilege of seeing this group perform live, this is the best way to understand why you need to. As always, the core group are razor sharp, with Martin Horntveth’s drumming simultaneously wild and in a pocket so deep you can see China. The solos, which are used sparingly in their studio material, are all predictably excellent. Sure, it’s a bit long and jammy at times – this is still jazz, after all – and there are a couple of tracks that don’t use Britten Sinfonia as well as others – “Toccata” is played surprisingly straight and true to the original version – but if you’re a fan of Jaga’s music and progressive/genre-defying music in general, Live With Britten Sinfonia is the gold-standard for live music.

-Nick Cusworth

John Zorn – The Hermetic Organ

Free improvisation, in its own wacky sense, is privy to pitfalls just like any other type of music—although the root of this music is made up on the spot, it can sometimes feel like it’s lacking in new ideas or concepts. Similar lineups can exponentially increase this feeling—obviously a piano trio can sound different depending on the musicians at the helm, but at the end of the day they’re all beginning on the same aural ground.

However, The Hermetic Organ doesn’t so much invert and reject my prior claims as blast them out of the sky like an expert skeetshooter takes down a clay pigeon. John Zorn, who normally improvises on alto sax, instead spends this entire live album’s duration improvising on an organ in front of an audience that included the likes of Lou Reed. And this isn’t just a Hammond B3 Zorn’s on—we’re talking about a real church organ: the Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ at St. Paul’s Chapel at Columbia University: a big honking metal monstrosity.

Of course, though, we’re still talking about Zorn, and there are a few key traits and themes that can still be heard, albeit interpreted in different ways. Zorn’s occult tendencies shine impressively on The Hermetic Organ; aside the album cover (which features the seal of Gamigin, one of the Goetic demons found in the Lesser Key of Solomon), Zorn’s playing utilizes the organ to its capacity, with huge, thunderous drones and tiny little plucks of notes being played underneath that at once hearken to the central idea of the occult: secrecy and mystery, elder knowledge kept in the darkness. This is a foreboding album, but not one whose umbra will be obvious. It makes for a listen that is unlike anything else you’ll hear out of this archaic instrument.

-Jimmy Mullett

Leprous – Live at the Rockefeller Hall

Considering the technicality and vocal acrobatics that dominate Leprous’ sound, it’s enough of a marvel that the Norwegian band are able to replicate their music live in the first place. But Live at the Rockefeller Hall is already less of a traditional ‘live document’ and more a record that often goes well beyond Leprous’ studio work, infusing even the most minimal and sombre of their tracks with a new energy.

This is, of course, partially caused by the fact that former drummer Tobias Ørnes Andersen makes a return for the show. Sure, Leprous’ music already had an off-kilter percussive edge to it – particularly so on latest album The Congregation, which is filled to the brim with staccato riffs, and which forms the bulk of the setlist here – but having a more dense rhythm section lends a harshness and immediacy to what is already very emotionally charged music.

As always, for all the instrumental wizardry going on, keyboardist and vocalist extraordinaire Einar Solberg remains the centrepiece of the show. Leading the procession with his soaring voice for an impressive hour and forty minutes (save for when he defers to the legendary Ihsahn on “Contaminate Me”, which almost completely eclipses its original version) Solberg is on top form, often surpassing his performances on the band’s studio albums with ease.

Perhaps the only criticism that can be levied against Live at the Rockefeller Hall is that the setlist is geared a tad too heavily towards The Congregation, in that only five tracks out of the album’s fourteen are not from that album. But on its own terms, the album is an instant classic – and easily one of the most immaculate live prog albums released in recent memory.

-Ahmed Hasan

Metallica – Live Shit: Binge & Purge

Metallica is one of the biggest metal bands of all time, which we know today because of all the hard work they put in throughout the eighties and nineties. Sometimes it’s just easier to make the statement about how huge they are and not back it up with anything other than the simple fact that they’re Metallica, but if you ever need to put some muscle behind the claim, refer the person you’re engaging with to the band’s 1993 album, Live Shit: Binge & Purge. Not only are you hearing a live album from right in the midst of them becoming so huge and touring their commercial breakout self-titled album, but you’re also hearing Metallica playing one of their favorite places, Mexico City. The 3 disc set has multiple songs from every Metallica album released up until that point, so you’re getting a comprehensive history up until the time where they exploded in popularity on top of getting an excellent and exuberant performance from the band.

The cherry on top is how expressive the performance is. Not only does the music shine on this recording, but so do the band members individually, Lars with his drum fills, Kirk with his improvised solos, Jason with his backup vocals and crowd-working duties and James standing out the most due to his various “fucks” “fuck you’s” “motherfuckers” etc., replacing other words in songs and his various changes in notes for certain vocal parts and his dialogue with the audience. This isn’t a live album where the band just plays the shit and leaves, it’s a live album where you can smell the beer on James’ breath as he banters and jokes with the eager crowd, participate with them as he directs you on what to sing or do during a song and most importantly, it’s a live album that feels, and in turn makes you feel, very much alive. The representation of the band’s live presence is so strong that I’ve had the box set for years and never watched the DVDs of the performances, because I never had to. The music on record speaks loudly and crudely for itself and sets the standard for what a great live album should strive to achieve.

-Ryan Castrati

Nightwish – Showtime, Storytime

It’s impossible to separate the spectacle of Showtime, Storytime from its context. In 2012, Nightwish embarked on an ambitious world tour with Annette Olzon — who had still not escaped the towering shadow of ex-vocalist extraordinaire Tarja Turunen — and concluded the tour minus Olzon’s contributions. Olzon’s unexpected and dramatic departure threatened the tour as well as the future of the band. But the band must’ve night-wished upon a star quite sincerely, because in stepped their savior in the figure of the Flying Dutchwoman herself, Floor Jansen. Jansen’s extraordinarily powerful and operatic soprano fit Nightwish’s sound like a Finn in a sauna – almost as if Nightwish songs were written for just such a voice!

All of which brings me to the live album in question. Unused to the massive crowds Nightwish draw, Jansen’s capabilities were tested on the biggest stage at Wacken Open Air 2013. What followed was a flawless full-band performance crowned by the unstoppable talent of Floor Jansen. Listen to her effortless vocal power on the gorgeous ballad “Ever Dream”. It’s hard not to be – forgive my pun – floored by the pathos of the song’s closing minute as Floor pours every moment of unrequited love and lonely hope into the performance of her art. And remember — at this point, Floor was still only a live member of Nightwish.

The most legendary moment of the album, however, is on one of Nightwish’s best compositions, “Ghost Love Score”. The song is as epic as it is vocally demanding. Using the background of choral singers, flighty synths, and bombastic brass as her canvass, Floor paints her masterpiece on the song’s moving finale. This could arguably be called Tarja Turunen’s trademark song — but it became irrevocably Floor’s from the moment she screamed “Time to never hold our love!” and concluded the performance with possibly the most impressive note I’ve ever heard as the vast Wacken crowd roars their adulation. Nightwish had found their singer, and a few months later, it was confirmed. The Flying Dutchwoman was here to stay.

-Andrew Hatch

Ornette Coleman – Sound Grammar

Ornette Coleman had nothing to prove when he and his new quartet stepped on stage for an eventually Pulitzer Prize-winning set. Yet, the eminent saxophonist spared no detail in crafting Sound Grammar, an incredible embodiment of his unparalleled career and continued prowess for all manners of jazz composition. For starters, Coleman enlisted a truly incredible quartet, featuring his son Denardo Coleman on drums and a dual-bassist team of Greg Cohen (of Masada fame) and Tony Falanga. As if this wasn’t already an intriguing and esteemed lineup, Coleman pours the entirety of himself and his emotive, bluesy style into not only his signature alto sax, but also his violin and trumpet. The result – a free jazz tour de force marked by the quartet’s seamless cohesion and Coleman’s singular musical genius.

A true blend of retrospection and progression, Sound Grammar features classic cuts, new renditions and live-only tracks. Highlights include a reworking of “Turnabout” from Tomorrow Is the Question! (“Turnaround”) and the title-track from Song X, Coleman’s collaborative record with jazz guitarist Pat Metheny. Every track on the album is integral to its success, though, and what makes their execution so interesting is the updated arrangements from their original performances. “Waiting for You” – originally “House of Stained Glass” from Colors: Live from Leipzig – is a reworking from a live show with Coleman and pianist Joachim Kühn, and renditions of “Picolo Pesos” from Sound Museum: Three Women (“Matador”), “Sleep Talk” from Of Human Feelings (“Sleep Talking”) and “If I Only Knew as Much About You” from Tone Dialing (“Once Only”) find a way to condense the boldness of larger ensembles and succeed amid the absence of guitars, vocals, keyboards and additional percussion.

Coleman and crew achieve this so effortlessly due to a keen sense of musical comradery and each member of the quartet being at the top of their game. The free-wheeling style Coleman is know for is in full swing on Sound Grammar, whether he’s bleating on sax or using his untutored hands to translate his style into stellar trumpet and violin performances.  Denardo knows exactly when to keep time and when to unleash a measured drum fill, and though the two-bass setup is unusual, Cohen and Falanga prove why the oddity can be a true rhythmic treat. Their interplay makes from some of the most interesting live jazz bass laid to tape, with a flurry of bowing and plucking moving back and forth between the two while the other provides further depth with a backbone bass line.

We’ll never know if Coleman intended for Sound Grammar to be his swansong. But whether or not he did, it’s hard to imagine a more fitting capstone for a discography already overflowing with landmark albums. Though this may be a bit too much on the traditional side of Coleman’s sound for fans who swear by Free Jazz, his fearless spirit is still an ever-present force on the album and pushes the entire quartet to capture the true genius of one of jazz’s greatest visionaries.

-Scott Murphy

Rush – A Show Of Hands

Considering this live document of Rush at their synth-heaviest heights opens with the affable Three Stooges theme you can see how 13 year old me loved this album. Listening back to it now it still feels fresh and unique. It is, however, a little sad to 39 year old me that the issues the band bring up in songs like “The Big Money”, “Subdivisions”, “Distant Early Warning”, “Red Sector A”, and even “Manhattan Project” with its look back at how nuclear proliferation began are as relevant now as they were at the time of writing.

For me the most moving song in the set is “Mission”. There’s always been something about the solemnity and earnestness of this particular song, especially the intro, that stops me in my tracks even though it is definitely, like everything else in these proceedings, dated by its era. Paired with later songs, “Closer to the Heart” and “Time Stand Still”, and sappy me is happy as can be.

Geddy Lee’s bass lines are a thing of beauty and Neil Peart is….well, Neil Peart. His highlight piece “The Rhythm Method” is insanity or at least it was when this appeared in the mid-80s. It may have since been eclipsed by other drummers’ efforts but it’s hard not to marvel at it still today. As paradoxical as it might sound, Alex Lifeson’s role here as the decoration and glue proves remarkable and unique.

Does the album sound “dated”? Sure. Does it still sound like three dudes impeccably re-creating their studio albums live? Abso-fricking-lutely. From the band’s own website: “It was during this era that Jim Burgess of Saved By Technology convinced Geddy that the complexities of a Rush studio recording could be recreated live.” And did they ever.

-Bill Fetty

Strapping Young Lad – No Sleep Till Bedtime: Live in Australia

Despite Devin Townsend’s forthright admittance to overdubs, Strapping Young Lad’s one and only live album perfectly embodies what it was like to see the band in what many consider their prime era. A quick YouTube search will yield a few bootleg videos featuring the same setlist during their 1997 jaunt across the US with Testament and Stuck Mojo, which fell right around the same time as this show in Melbourne. The vibe is instantly infectious, with the isolated choirs from the end of “In the Rainy Season” pumping through the PA amidst yells and cheers from the crowd. This of course leads into the eponymous combo of “Velvet kevorkian”/”All Hail the New Flesh”, followed by a mishmash of tracks from 1997’s City and ‘S.Y.L.’ and the aforementioned “In the Rainy Season” from 1995’s Heavy As A Really Heavy Thing. The stage banter is classic Devin, and set the stage for his comedic mad scientist persona for years to come. The production is stellar as well; like a less distorted, cleaner City, which means some of the edge is gone but not enough to hinder the experience. Gene Hoglan considers his performance on the album one of the worst of his career, and though there are some hiccups, it’s not overbearing and keeps the live feel against the obvious guitar and vocal overdubs.

Probably the best parts about the album are the debut of “Far Beyond Metal” (which was recorded properly for 2006’s The New Black), and the two bonus tracks, “Centipede” and “Japan”. “Far Beyond Metal” boasts a hilarious intro by Devin, describing what it’s like to grow up as a metal fan. “Centipede” is an outtake from City, and is pure, uplifting, industrial metal magic. “Japan” is an older tune, done around the time of Ocean Machine, with a very similar vibe. No Sleep Till Bedtime is crucial listening for any Devin Townsend/Strapping Young Lad fan.

-Dan “Dan” Wieten

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