Welcome back to our “Best of” column! This isn’t the first time we’ve celebrated twenty year milestones, but this installment is a bit more meaningful for all of us here at Heavy Blog. This list comes a week after we passed 20,000 likes on Facebook, a testament to how much we’ve grown as a blog over the last several years. We’ve also built a diverse group of writers in this timespan, each of whom brings their own unique tastes to the range of coverage we’ve fostered through our weekly variety of posts. The selections below clearly demonstrate this diversity; the only common thread for most of these albums is that they’re all twenty years old. From Viking-themed melodeath to radio-friendly hard rock, everyone should be able to find at least one album that brings back some fond memories. And feel free to sound off in the comments with any albums we missed!
Amon Amarth – Once Sent from the Golden Hall
Amon Amarth is “that melodeath band who thinks they’re Vikings”. They’ve branded themselves so thoroughly as arena-filling, world-touring modern-day metal Vikings that they often descend into self-parody. In all the fuss, it’s easy to forget that Amon Amarth’s early discography kicks ass. Amon Amarth’s debut, Once Sent from the Golden Hall, gallops firmly on the “death” side of “melodic death metal”, balancing brutality and melody on a fine ax-point for 45 victorious minutes.
Certainly, the Viking theme still reigns. What makes Once Sent from the Golden Hall exceptional is its absolute intensity and commitment. There’s nothing in metal quite so wondrous as Johan Hegg roaring his hate over the pound of drums like eight hooves, while deep-throated tremolo riffs strike and bludgeon blow by blow. It’s a bit ironic, but Amon Amarth was never so believable as modern day metal Vikings as they were in their early career. The raw, lo-fi production combined with Hegg’s preternatural vocal talent produces an untamed sound, wild and fierce, and terrifyingly authentic. This, more than their present sound, echoes the brutality of Viking warfare (or at least the fantasy of warfare) in a powerful sonic sword.
Once Sent from the Golden Hall, like any Amon Amarth album, sticks to what it does well. Mid-paced melodic monsters like “Victorious March” beat a steady headbanging thrum, while barnburners like “The Dragon’s Flight Across the Waves” bust out squealing solos and Johan Hegg bellowing “Attack! Attack! Row like the wind to attack!” at you, which is really quite invigorating.
If all you’ve ever heard of Amon Amarth is post-2008, do yourself a favor and discover an awesome album from the masters of mid-paced melodeath.
Blind Guardian – Nightfall in Middle-Earth
Come on. How can you not pick this album? It’s only the best power metal album ever released. In the twilight of the 90’s, when power metal had already passed its heyday and things seemed stale and pointless, Blind Guardian was gearing up to write their best album ever. The result is Nightfall in Middle-Earth, an album which compounded on their previous approach to power metal, driven by their earlier fascination with thrash but melded with the heavy metal influences they have since come to exemplify.
This album, as a result, has it all. It has furiously thrashy riffs, like the opening to “The Curse of Fëanor”, huge-ass choruses of epic proportions, like the unforgettable “Mirror Mirror”, and more melancholic tracks like “Noldor (Dead Winter Reigns). As such, it’s an incredibly well-balanced album, alleviating much of the boredom that can often infect power metal albums. It keeps you on your toes, hitting with a varied palette of emotional textures, much like The Silmarillion from which it draws its concepts.
Nightfall in Middle-Earth also presents the high point of Hansi Kürsch’s claim to fame; his vocals really came into their own on this release, shedding the, admittedly, rare instances of frailty they sometimes exhibited on previous releases. Here, they are fully rounded and incredibly powerful, whether crooning or screeching. Backed by all-powerful compositions, riffs, leads, solos and drums, Kürsch and gang were able to fashion a release that will transcend the test of time. Nightfall is still an evocative, intriguing and rich album, holding something for all fans of power metal. Day shall come again!
Cannibal Corpse – Gallery of Suicide
What a storied and consistent career. Never giving way to death metal in its purest forms. Cannibal Corpse has been the breadwinning band of death metal for decades. Never starlings or innovators past the bay area sound they embody, but rather a never-wavering onslaught of a nigh-unstoppable tour-album-tour-album cycle.
So much as that may not have been the case in 1998, having only adopted their most iconic line up with “Corpsegrinder” and Pat O’Brien entering the fray only within the past two years, Gallery of Suicide was a pivotal point in their career. With Vile being a child of divorce from the band’s logo, former vocalist Chris Barnes and the last to feature longtime producer Scott Burns, it was time to bring something special to the table.
Looking back on their career it’s easy to mark classic albums like Eaten Back to Life or pinpoint subtleties like the vicious chainsaw-esque production on Vile. The tech-death leanings of The Wretched Spawn or ‘the next marketable level’ of headbangers like Kill. Each album becoming a cornerstone of their discography. With no right answers in sight, Cannibal Corpse has never had a definitive magnum opus in the context of their career. But a strong case could be made for Gallery of Suicide. It’s the band at their hungriest. Gallery of Suicide is a wolf among sheep. Looking to fill each track with riffs and leadwork that the band hasn’t seen since. Paul Mazurkiewicz laying out some of the most relaxed drum work along with some of his most integral. Where each track has a tangible characteristic that separates it from the rest of the album, culminating in variation that hasn’t been seen on a Cannibal Corpse album since. Yet still doesn’t lack in the tempo and ferocity of their past and future output. ‘Sentenced to Burn’ being a precursor to the headbanging “Death Walking Terror” on Kill. The never-ending riffs on “From Skin to Liquid”. The subtle Nu-Metal stylings of “Every Bone Broken”. The call and answer nature of “Chambers of Blood”. The dissonant and brooding title track. It plays like a Cannibal Corpse Greatest Hits with no track attempting to recapture any former glory or rehashing any “Hammer Smashed Face” classic.
Remarkably, Gallery of Suicide still suffers from ‘death metal fatigue’ chalking it up to just another Cannibal Corpse album. But hindsight is 20/20 and here, a reinvigorated Cannibal Corpse has delivered us a hidden gem among their discography. We’re hoping that hearing the Corpse like this isn’t a relic of its time. But until then, throw up the horns and bang your head to one of the most ambitious albums of this ageless band.
Converge – When Forever Comes Crashing
Now rightfully considered genre-defining titans and metalcore progenitors, 20 years ago Converge were virtually unknown to the global music community. 3 years later they were to release their landmark record, Jane Doe, and reshape the landscape of hardcore- and math-themed metal, but in 1998 they delivered When Forever Comes Crashing, their third studio album, to fairly minimal acclaim.
Looking back now, it is easy to see how the disjointed assortment of sounds showcased on their earliest releases was gaining the clarity and direction that would characterize later records. One factor that obscured the significance of this album was the abysmal recording quality of its original release. The mix was so muddy, treble-heavy and abrasive that it was a painful listening experience for even the most die-hard fans. Fortunately, the album was re-released in 2005 with fresh mixing and mastering by Mr. Kurt Ballou himself, so it can now be enjoyed without wanting to tear your ears off.
As on records to follow, When Forever Comes Crashing is characterized by frantic barrages of jarring atonal riffs, brazen tempo changes and erratic time signatures that possess the music with a deranged, psychotic quality. These are accompanied by pummelling, unpredictable breakdowns which range from the frenzied “My Unsaid Everything” to the funereal pace of “The Lowest Common Denominator”. Meanwhile, Jacob Bannon’s piercing, rabid shrieks dip in and out of comprehension amidst the clamor, as if gasping for air in the overwhelming tide of noise. As always, Bannon’s caustic, incomprehensible screech belies the beautiful lyrical poeticism which underpins the cacophony.
This record didn’t change the game in the way that Jane Doe did, but When Forever Comes Crashing represented the culmination and cementation of the sound Converge had already been crafting for the better part of a decade and paved the way for their future ground-breaking releases. Their relative anonymity at the time and the appalling sound quality of the original mix mean this album has largely been overlooked, but I would urge Converge fans new and old to revisit it with open ears.
Death – The Sound of Perseverance
An outsider to the metal world can be quite easily put off just by the names of some bands and to name a band Death may not be very creative. Yet in doing so, the band’s mastermind Chuck Schuldiner has in a way assumed the role of a pioneer; taking death metal to new realms as the band’s sound changed throughout its lifetime. Death released seven full-lengths before Schuldiner passed away in December of 2001 and the last album was 1998’s aptly named The Sound of Perseverance. Though it can be argued that it’s not the band’s magnum opus, what cannot be argued against however is how defiantly it has persevered as one of death metal’s most remarkable albums for twenty years and counting.
The Sound of Perseverance was quite a shift from its predecessor Symbolic as Schuldiner once again changed the band’s entire line up. The album took a much more progressive direction in terms of songwriting as the majority of its tracks feature swift and dynamic transitions that seem to come out of nowhere and keep the listener engaged. Opening track “Scavenger of Human Sorrow” sets the standard with its pulsating bass lines and top-notch riffing. “Flesh and the Power It Holds” is probably the strongest track overall and it comes in the middle of the album as a peaking point while “Voice of The Soul” is the softer, more emotive piece that showcases an expressive side of Schuldiner and it has undoubtedly inspired so many people to pick up a guitar and start to find their own voices.
“Spirit Crusher” features some of the album’s best riffs and is elevated even further by Schuldiner’s vocal performance as he repeats the words spirit crusher over and over. Interestingly, the album ends with a cover of Judas Priest’s iconic anthem “Painkiller” which is executed to perfection; maintaining the song’s original character yet still giving it the Death treatment. This record eventually became Chuck Schuldiner’s swansong as Death’s architect and it definitely lives up to its name. He perpetually surrounded himself by musicians of the highest class and managed to take his brainchild band from the gore-themed days of the late 80s to a technical and progressive form of death metal that became one of the 21st century’s major highlights of the metal world. One can only imagine what he would have done, but for now, we can only appreciate his work, for which he shall always be remembered.
Fear Factory – Obsolete
Industrial and death metal don’t usually combine, but Fear Factory did it flawlessly. Obsolete was able to cash in on the industrial metal explosion and helped bring a more mainstream and palatable version of death metal to the masses. Eventually being certified gold, Obsolete may hold the title for best selling death metal record of all time.
To me, this record is the late 90s. The ever-rare popular theme album, it’s a story of man’s fight against a machine government. The main character, Edgecrusher, attempts to lead a human revolt over Securitron 2000 and the Smasher/Devourer robots. He breaks out of prison, goes underground, emerges to a human riot against Securitron, and runs away. He finds a statue of Jesus Christ and vows to continue the fight, only to be caught and contemplate his life in prison. Machine/internet overlords were all the rage then. It’s only natural that this album exploded.
That’s not to take away the merits of Obsolete. The band can be completely brutal. The low tuned guitars covered in crunchy distortion can blow your mind. These riffs are jackhammers, just hitting you over and over again. “Shock” is the perfect example of death metal riffs combined with industrial production. Your brain will be abused in a very delightful way, and this album is full of those moments.
What sticks out the most are the synths. Synthesizers don’t usually make it into death metal lineups which makes the album so unique and interesting. It was about this time that industrial started working its way into a lot of underground music and also growing in certain scenes of its own. Lots of bands started coming out with electronic influences. Nu metal was embracing DJs and electronic instruments of all kinds. They eventually became a bit gimmicky for the scene in general, mainly being the territory of nu-metal bands like Linkin Park or more symphonic bands like Cradle of Filth or Children of Bodom. Fear Factory is the exception that proves the rule. Extreme metal can work in a way that seamlessly interweaves synthesizers in a way that subtly contributes to the sound and accentuates it.
Godsmack – Godsmack
Many may scoff at the inclusion of Godsmack but they were vital to the metal scene of the late 90s. For a few years, the band was metal for the mainstream. No frills, no bells, no whistles; it was pure rock fury. The record bucked many trends of 90s mainstream rock and metal acts. While many bands were adopting modern technology and new methods, Godsmack eschewed hip-hop influences and DJs. They didn’t adopt synths and electronic tendencies like industrial acts did. They did incorporate modern metal methods like drop D guitar tuning and shouting vocals but they used them to support a more traditional heavy metal sound. While the band was often branded with the nu-metal label, it would be more accurate to call them new wave heavy metal.
A lot of this album just screams “1990s.” Look at the model on the cover. That late 90s short haircut, clearly with a lot of product; the super skinny eyebrows; multiple facial piercings; top it all off with the tribal sun symbol and you’ve got yourself 90s metal. It’s the most minor part of the album, but I just love the identifiable late 90s-ness of it.
The music is a reflection of the band. There was a swagger and brashness to Tony Rombola’s guitar work. The fuzzy distorted guitars hit like a brick. It’s a wall of sound slamming down on you. At the same time, there was a groove to it. Take the song “Keep Away”. It starts off with the lightly effected guitar chords that lead into a driving drop D chord progression. The bass helps guide the progression and also gives it a solid ground to build off of. You hear it best during the guitar solo. The bass continues the groove while Rombola goes to town on his wah pedal while wailing on blazing fast blues-style solo work. There’s an unexpected soulfulness to it that makes the whole song and album hard to ignore.
And like any mainstream metal act, Godsmack had to have some kind of ballad. “Voodoo” serves in that slot. It’s hard to call the track a ballad but it’s definitely the departure song from the rest of the album. The imagery of the song along with the minimalist nature of the entire track complete the record with a haunting feeling that wasn’t quelled until 2000’s Awake.
Gorguts – Obscura
1998 was a fantastic year for death metal. Perusing this list should give you plenty of indication as to why. While releases from genre greats like Incantation and Morbid Angel were certainly welcome and have been hailed as classics within each band’s discography, none of the other death metal records listed here had the impact of Gorguts’ Obscura. The band’s third full-length record, Obscura, would redefine the band’s career and reshape the death metal landscape for decades to come. It is a landmark of metal and one of the best albums on this list in any genre.
Picking up where their stellar 1993 release The Erosion of Sanity left off, and taking a few cue cards from tech death titans Demilich’s seminal achievement Nespithe, Gorguts unleashed fresh hell on an unready and unsuspecting world. From the first notes of the titular track, Obscura is a swirling whirlwind of sounds and textures that have been imitated by countless death metal bands since its release. Every aspect of the band that has made them so special is present in full force. Luc Lemay and Steeve Hurdle’s dual guitar attack (accentuated by Steve Cloutier’s remarkable bass work) is absolutely relentless and highly obtuse, while Patrick Robert’s legendary work behind the kit adds an additional element of sonic mayhem to the proceedings. The performances here are maddeningly complex, which can make the music, on the whole, a bit difficult to grasp at points. Thankfully, Robert’s drumming provides a discernable through line which helps ground the music in a rhythm that is far from conventional, yet maintains a militant semblance of order.
The band’s typically slippery songwriting is on full display throughout Obscura as well. Jumping from the jagged insanity of the album’s opening tracks to the heavy groove of “Nostalgia” to the mid-tempo doom-laden crush of “Clouded”, the band incorporates a great many styles into their death metal stew on Obscura. The record is chock full of unique instrumental choices as well, like the completely left field incorporation of viola in “Earthly Love” or the otherworldly moans and screams of “Carnal State, The”. Combining all of the above elements, Obscura is as highly unpredictable as it is entertaining. But that’s one of the principal beauties of this record. While a manic and sometimes bat-shit display of death metal prowess, the album never drifts off course, providing an unusual yet highly cohesive listening experience. It’s the complete package of technical death metal supremacy and one that few (if any) have surpassed.
The vestiges of Obscura’s influence can be seen clearly in the work of Gigan, Ulcerate, Wormed, and a ridiculous amount of other bands. While Gorguts certainly has stiff competition in the tech death department, few can match their skill in technical craft and execution. Obscura is an album for the ages, and to this day stands as one of the best technical death metal albums ever recorded.
Incantation – Diabolical Conquest
There are few death metal bands, or honestly within metal as a whole, that have as unimpeachable a discography as Incantation. From the first rumblings of their death-doom aesthetic in Onward to Golgotha to the late-career mania that was their fantastic 2017 release Profane Nexus, solid to fantastic records populate the band’s career from start to finish. Incantation is also one of the few bands that survived the death metal doldrums that were the early-to-mid aughts, where the subgenre, on the whole, saw a steep decline in quality releases and public interest. Few have had as enormous an influence on the subgenre (as evidenced by the revival old school death metal tropes and the cavernous “Incantation-core” of bands like Father Befouled, Blood Incantation, and Ascended Dead), and even fewer have been able to match the sheer intensity of Incantation’s fantastic catalog. Despite this continued success, the band’s creative peak could very well be slated in 1998, when Diabolical Conquest shook the metal world as a defining statement death metal mastery. Not only was it potentially the best release of the band’s already stellar career, but one of the greatest death metal albums ever released.
Diabolical Conquest is Incantation as you know and love them best, with just a tad more aggression and a tad more heft. Containing (as is custom with Incantation) an almost completely different line-up than the band’s previous three records, Diabolical Conquest features the talents of The Chasm’s Daniel Corchado and who would eventually become Incantation’s primary recording drummer Kyle Severn, with band founder John McEntee holding down principal songwriting and guitar duties. With all these now legendary line-up changes, one could rightly assume some sonic inconsistency or rapid stylistic swings for a band, especially when this change happens repeatedly through a band’s first few records. But Incantation is not your typical metal band. Diabolical Conquest is not only consistent with the band’s established sound, which is a testament to the consistent songwriting aesthetic of McEntee, but also expands its overall sonic palette with an unrelenting ferocity that highlights just how mean and nasty Incantation’s sound can be.
The above is made very clear during album opener “Impending Diabolical Conquest”, which recalls the stirring intensity of Mortal Throne of Nazarene in its unrelenting blasts and soul-shredding guitar work. But what sets Diabolical Conquest apart from its predecessors is its overwhelming ambition, found most obviously in the sixteen-minute “Unto Infinite Twilight/Majesty of Infernal Damnation”, which doubled the longest track the band had written up to that point and is among the most epic and ambitious songs of the band’s career. Outside of the flat-out gnarly sonic beating to be found in tracks like “Disciples of Blasphemous Reprisal” and “Shadows of the Ancient Empire”, McEntee’s dedication to pushing the limits of his songwriting ability is more evident on Diabolical Conquest than in any of the bands previous records and, quite frankly, those that came after. It’s a singularly magnificent achievement.
Death metal has been defined as a metal subgenre in many significant ways by Incantation, but there is perhaps a no greater example of the band’s power to pulverize and captivate in equal measure than Diabolical Conquest. It’s a nearly perfect example of what the band does best, with enough ambition and technical mastery to elevate Incantation’s already established sound into new strata of all-time greatness. As close to perfect as this type of death metal gets.
Korn – Follow the Leader
Is it still a controversial opinion to hold Korn in high regard as an important band in the history and development of hard rock and metal? Regardless of how you feel about the band, their body of work was highly influential (for better or worse) and helped spawn an entire musical movement. Their fast-growing trajectory and growing popularity throughout the 90’s culminated in their breakthrough third album Follow the Leader, which finally Korn the household name they are today.
You can likely thank the groundbreaking Todd McFarlane-directed music video “Freak on a Leash,” which was an absolute smash on MTV and won approximately all the awards and accolades. The album itself beyond “Freak on a Leash” was also relatively well received, spawning longtime Korn hits with tracks like “It’s On” and “Got the Life.” The album also bridged low-tuned guitars with hip-hop, with collaborations with Ice Cube (yes, this actually happened) and Tre Hardson of The Pharcyde in addition to a satirical rap battle with Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst. It’s hard to imagine, but this just wasn’t happening much prior to Follow the Leader, and it certainly popularized it.
In hindsight, it might seem like the album is imbalanced and a bit messy, and as a whole, rap rock and angsty nu-metal did not age well, but at the time, Follow the Leader was a hit that spawned some incredible metal tracks and prepared the mainstream world for a new genre of heavy music to follow. For reference, Slipknot and Linkin Park had yet to release debut albums when Follow the Leader came out, and the world was just getting to know System of a Down (as you’ll read later) and Limp Bizkit (who debuted in 1997). Can we just appreciate this record for what it is and stop pretending like this wasn’t the hottest shit around in middle school?
Marilyn Manson – Mechanical Animals
Has there ever been a more jarring artistic about-face than the transition Marilyn Manson pulled off in 1998? Having spent the past decade converting scary kids around the country to his brand of shopping mall Satanism, Manson approached the end of the millennium at a crossroads. Even at that point, the shock-rock schtick was beginning to feel tired and, after sufficiently scaring the suburban moms of America, the self-appointed antichrist superstar needed a change. And, boy, change he did. Maybe the only thing more impressive than the mere ambition of Manson’s mid-career total aesthetic reinvention was that it was completely successful. Thus, no matter your opinion of 1990’s Marilyn Manson and certainly regardless of whatever feelings you may have of the band in present date, the fact remains that in 1998 Marilyn Manson released their greatest record: a gloriously strange, sonically audacious debauched ode to hedonism, Mechanical Animals.
I mean, seriously, what is this record? Listening to it in 2018, Mechanical Animals still feels weird and exhilarating (and a little voyeuristic). And, unlike some of my Heavy Blog officemates, I’m old enough to remember listening to this thing when it was released. Unsurprisingly, it was polarizing. Such as massive wholesale artistic departure is bound to divide a fanbase, especially when the U-turn is so complete as to render the artist almost literally unrecognizable. But, behind the gender-neutral alien cover art is a surprisingly emotional album, full of equal parts self-loathing and open-hearted romantic longing.
Largely leaving behind the ghouls, goblins, and worm boys of previous albums, Mechanical Animals is, thematically, the most personal album Manson has ever delivered. Absolutely saturated in sex, drugs, and self-destruction, the record feels at times like a document of a personal breakdown happening in real time. And, it turns out, it likely is. In the years since it’s release, Manson has been fairly forthcoming about the toxic atmosphere of drug use, failing relationships, and general disillusionment with fame that existed in the album’s creation and, apparently, long after. It’s not difficult to hear the too-true-honesty in Manson’s desire to “outrace the speed of pain” or the despair in needing a pill to feel “anything at all,” even within the context of a manic, days-long drug binge. It’s that exact paradox that highlights the nearly bipolar duality of the album: Manson is caught in a toxic cycle of self-destruction and self-loathing that both celebrates the id-gratifying orgy of drugs, sex, fame, greed, and carnal pleasure even as it recognizes how hollow the entire pursuit will leave him in the proverbial morning.
And I haven’t even mentioned the album’s sound yet. Truly, Manson’s reinvention was a complete one, thematically but also, especially, sonically. Mechanical Animals is a major shift away from the industrial-tinged hard rock and metal of Antichrist Superstar and Portrait of an American Family to a full embrace of glam rock, electronic new wave, and heartfelt torch song ballads. It’s a genuinely diverse track list, from amazingly blown-out, wall of sound Bowie worship (“Mechanical Animals”), to restless, angular synth-led bangers (“Posthuman,” “User Friendly”), to the album’s centerpiece, the joyously irreverent disco confessional “I Don’t Like the Drugs (But the Drugs Like Me). Mechanical Animals is Manson as we had never heard him and likely will never hear him again: genuinely experimenting with his band’s sound, willingly reaching way outside of his comfort zone into genres and sounds that couldn’t have been more uncool at the time, and grasping for the highest peaks of the sacred and profane. We may never get this Manson again, but at least we’ll always have Mechanical Animals to remind us how genuinely experimental, emotionally raw, and artistically fearless he and his band once were.
Meshuggah – Chaosphere
Over two decades into their career, it stands that Meshuggah’s impact on the continued evolution of modern metal simply cannot be overstated. Even with the innumerable innovations, the Swedish five-man wrecking crew has brought us across all phases of their career, however, Chaosphere stands out from the pack for its absolute perfection of the thrash formula that characterized the band’s 90s releases. Where 1995’s Destroy Erase Improve introduced the atonal, mind-bogglingly rhythmic style that continues to underpin Meshuggah’s sound even today, Chaosphere is less an experiment and more a straight-up doubling down on everything that made DEI so impactful.
It’s near impossible to point to any weak point across the album: Tomas Haake’s rapid-fire off-time drumming forms the centerpiece of the band’s sound, as it so often does, but every other element of Chaosphere is locked in with razor-sharp precision, with the furious low-tuned riffage as well as virtuosic fusion-inspired solos equally meticulous in their composition and hypnotic in their execution. But the real magic of the album lies between the lines, with Meshuggah finding some silent thread amongst all the chaos that subtly envelops the listener; drawing them straight to the heart of a sound that is simply too large for the medium that contains it. A sound with a very clearly defined center of gravity. And by the time “Elastic” comes in, the listener suddenly finds that they are well past the event horizon, and by God will Meshuggah stop at nothing to pull them in all the way.
Monster Magnet – Powertrip
Some bands are meant to sound large, and Monster Magnet sound larger than fucking life on Powertrip. Having established themselves as substantial figures in the stoner rock underground, the band brought their sound to the mainstream with their fourth record, but they did so completely on their terms, and their confrontational approach certainly paid off. Powertrip was named “Album of the Year” by both Kerrang! and Metal Hammer magazine (and #4 by Terrorizer), back when these sort of things used to matter, and it remains the benchmark for this sort of high-octane space rock twenty years after its release.
On one hand, Powertrip is an incredibly excessive and superficial record. However, it’s also a deceptively personal release as well. For all its universal rock’n’roll posturing, this is a record that could have only come from the mind of one Dave Wyndorf, and listening to it is like being dragged through his mind on a galactic expedition that involves hanging out with Marvel’s Moduk, quitting your job, packing it in and retiring to a nice drug farm at corner of the galaxy where you can drive your tractor around and contemplate crop circles in peace. Dave Wyndorf is the motherfucking Space Lord, and the record’s cover – featuring the band backed by a wall of flame, with Wyndorf throwing up a set of glowing metal horns – tells you pretty much all you need to know about its contents.
(PSA: This album is best experienced at obnoxiously high volumes, and it is heavily recommended that you turn the volume up as loud as possible before pressing play on the stream below)
Morbid Angel – Formulas Fatal to the Flesh
It’s the late 1990s. Morbid Angel has released five records, three of which will become undisputed classics in the subgenre to be revered and endlessly emulated for decades. However, the band was also coming off its first truly controversial and (up to this point) maligned release, Domination. To complicate matters further, iconic frontman David Vincent had left the band, leaving the future sonic direction and existence of Morbid Angel in flux. Replacing Vincent with Steve Tucker on vocals/bass ushered in a new era in Morbid Angel’s history, with the band writing and releasing Formulas Fatal to the Flesh as the first record featuring this new lineup in 1998, and serving as the first of two fantastic responses to a career low (2017’s Kingdoms Disdained being the second example in their discography). Not only is Formulas Fatal to the Flesh a massive improvement on their previous record, it is one of the best albums in the band’s entire catalog and a worthy addition to the Morbid Angel legacy.
While the album is most well known as the kick-off to the Tucker Era, Formulas Fatal to the Flesh is and always will be songwriter and guitarist Trey Azagoth’s baby. This is Azagoth unleashed, and the results are nothing short of spectacular. Careening through extensive riff passages with fellow songwriter Pete Sandoval providing a stirring accompaniment on drums, Formulas Fatal to the Flesh is an absolute assault on the senses. Album opener “Heaving Earth” (which shares an eerie similarity in its opening passage to Kingdoms Disdained’s “Piles of Little Arms”) establishes the emphasis of the songwriting on the band’s stellar guitar work, moving through several fantastic riffs that propel the track through nearly four utterly ferocious minutes of death metal glory. Sandoval’s drums rage in the undercurrent of the mix, crushing all who dare to look below the guitar-stained surface. Tucker’s vocal performance picks up directly where Vincent left off, providing a smoky, growling menace to each track in which he is featured. “Prayer of Hatred” displays the synchronicity of Azagoth and Sandoval’s playing style, as the two duet and duel with their instruments in a manner that is as pristine and consistent as you will find in death metal with this level of ferocity. Additionally, the nearly ten-minute epic “Invocation to a Continual One” displayed Azagoth’s writing chops with an ambition not before seen in the band’s discography, allowing the band to explore sonic avenues previously untouched.
As displayed by “Invocation”, this album offers much more than the standard four-minute song riff fest provided by earlier records (but, to be honest, if it were only that it would still be a fantastic release). Interspersed among these guitar-centric behemoths, bizarre instrumental segues “Disturbance in the Great Slumber”, “Hymn to a Gas Giant”, and instrumental trilogy “Ascent Through the Spheres”, “Hymnos Rituales De Guerra”, and “Trooper” build on some of the more experimental elements of Blessed Are the Sick by adding ethereal, fantastical, and in some facets even prog-driven passages that expand the sonic palette of the album in completely unexpected and exciting ways. While some may find these interludes to be a nuisance, they nevertheless highlighted a sonic expansion and evolution for the band, heralding future forays into experimental both successful and most decidedly not. But this in part is what makes this record so special. An established and influential legend dipping its toes into the murky waters of experimentation is a risky business, and Morbid Angel’s willingness to tinker with their established sound would serve as a benchmark for future death metal bands finding their way out of the hellhole that became early aughts death.
Say what you will about Tucker, the bands late-career output, or whether or not Morbid Angel peaked at Covenant, Formulas Fatal to the Flesh is an ambitious, mesmerizing, and utterly fantastic addition to a career filled with all-time highlights that both refined and expanded what the band was capable of producing. Whether Morbid Angel can again reach these dizzying heights is up for debate, but we can celebrate the fact that this album exists and deserves far more recognition than it has been given.
Nasum – Inhale/Exhale
Nasum is a truly legendary grindcore band, blazing a trail in the genre and making a name for themselves to stand the test of time with their unique blend of melody and brutality, and Inhale/Exhale is where it all started. Clocking in at an astonishing thirty-eight tracks and forty-five minutes of blisteringly intense grind, Inhale/Exhale is a tour-de-force of the best the genre has to offer. The late Mieszko Talarczyk is in his prime here, performing vocals, guitar and bass, and the songwriting and instrumental prowess on display is a testament to what a huge loss to the genre his tragic death in late 2004 was.
Inhale/Exhale is absolutely unrelenting, and can be a tough listen if you try to digest it as a whole, as forty-five minutes is a long runtime for a grindcore album. However, the quality of the songwriting combined with the short runtime of individual songs means that the music changes up enough to somewhat make up for the overall length of the album. None of this detracts from the quality of the music or Inhale/Exhale’s status as a genre classic, though. Everything Nasum were so loved for is here, though some elements are not as developed as they would become on later releases, this being a debut after all. But Inhale/Exhale sounds mature, vicious and confident, like the best albums of the genre before and after do. If you like grind or extreme metal and haven’t listened to this band, what are you doing?
Refused – The Shape of Punk to Come
Perhaps no other album in the history of recorded music – heavy or otherwise – has had such an audacious title as Refused‘s The Shape of Punk to Come*. Yet, equally, no album has ever been so prophetic. While such a proclamation may have been easier to stomach coming from a more established act, at the time of its release the Swedish quintet were essentially nobodies. Although the band enjoys certified cult status in the modern era, it’s important to remember that in the lead-up to this album’s release, they really didn’t have anything to base that claim on, other than a handful of solid though fairly stock-standard hardcore releases.
It’s become a well-worn legend at this point that the record was poorly received upon release and its supporting tour dismally attended to the point that the band broke up soon after. Yet it’s a tale worth retelling for the simple fact that the modern alternative music landscape would be entirely unrecognisable without it. Sure, bands like Glassjaw, Botch and even The Dillinger Escape Plan had been floating around the hardcore underground, hitting upon similar elements in the years leading up to its release. However, none of these bands had quite managed to combine the pieces into a single passage, and each would wait until the year after the release of Refused’s landmark third full-length to properly stake their claim to the experimental hardcore throne. What’s more, The Shape of Punk to Come is far more accessible and catchy than this kind of music has any right to be and few (if any) albums have come even close to combining this level of songcraft with this level of experimentation in the years since its landmark release – during which period each and every band of their ilk have worn its influence proudly on their sleeves.
*Editor’s Note: The Shape of Punk to Come is named after Ornette Coleman‘s The Shape of Jazz to Come (1959).
System of a Down – System of a Down
While not the album System is known for, 1998 was their debut year. System of a Down was widely praised as a debut album for a band with quirky songwriting and a clear artistic vision. System of a Down is one of the major bands of the nu-metal wave though they were distinctly different from their peers. While many of the contemporaries fully embraced hip-hop influences by including DJs or rapping their lyrics, System of a Down chose to play with rhythms and syncopation to show their modernity. Serj Tankian used his voice as a fourth instrument to compliment the off-kilter nature of the musicians around him. Sometimes he was singing, sometimes he was screaming. He squeaks and squawks. He can create the shrillest lines or whisper absolutely flooring poetry. Oftentimes, he’s doing all of these in the same song, usually in consecutive lines or even within the same stanza.
But that’s not to ignore what the rest of the band is doing in the background. Daron Malakian could equally match Serj’s vocals. Malakian is a surprisingly talented guitarist. Just because he isn’t noodling away with lightning fast solos does not mean he hasn’t mastered his instrument. Much like the vocals, System’s guitars often turned on a dime. Unlike most of 90s nu-metal bands, Malakian was using his entire guitar. He could create pummeling low register power chords with the best of them, but he could also travel up the neck of his guitar to create little lines of his own. And don’t forget about Shavo Odadjian or John Dolmayan on bass and drums. If you didn’t have this rhythm section in this band, then you wouldn’t have System of a Down. Malakian and Tankian would have nothing holding them together.
“Sugar” is not only the biggest hit on the record, but it’s also the best example of what this band can be. Tankian is showing off the wide range of his vocals, going from quiet whispers to guttural shouts connected by lines jangly singing. Malakian’s guitar work starts off with that chugging heavily distorted power chord progression then quickly works its way up to the staccato lines of the verse followed by the outro of sharp and brutal down tuned barre chords. All the while, Dolmayan is matching the overall tone of each section of the song with jazzy hi-hats or splashing cymbals and slamming toms while Odadjian holds it all together with a driving bass. This may not be their most famous record but it sets the standard for the rest of their career.
Devin Townsend – Infinity
I normally write everything for the blog in the third person, even when given liberty to use first, like with these articles. I also try to dial up the craft aspect and use flowery language, but this one is different for me because Devin Townsend’s Infinity is my favorite album of all time. So, this is coming from a very raw and emotional place.
For those unaware, Infinity was to play the role of “parent” to Devin’s prior solo release Ocean Machine: Biomech (the good child), and Strapping Young Lad’s City (the bad child), both released in 1997. Considering the density of all three albums, that’s a lot of work in a short period of time and partially resulted in a visit to the psychiatric ward where Devin was diagnosed as bipolar. The climax of all of this misfortune is the most glorious moment in music history, in my opinion. I am eternally grateful for his suffering, and if I’m to be honest the comfort of his current life results in less passionate music. But I get it.
This was the Goldilocks era of Townsend’s career in the eyes of most fans, and to make all the hoopla even more enticing, each album was represented by three colors: Blue for Ocean Machine, red for City, and white for Infinity, because that’s what you get when you mash all the primary colors together. And it makes total sense, because the scope and sonics of the album sound like a wacky distorted heaven. I have been listening to this album regularly for twenty years, and have never grown tired of it. Ever. I feel I still have not penetrated every layer of its beauty. It is overwhelming in all the best ways. When I first heard Ocean Machine I thought, “Holy shit. THIS is the sound I’ve had in my head for years. This guy did it. All of these melodies are familiar but I’m hearing them for the first time!!” Infinity took that sound and injected musical steroids. Devin’s goal was to have everything on 11 all the time because this is how he felt at the time, and goddamn, that’s exactly how I felt. I was this shy, passive person until I got to know someone. I had tons of love, passion, and energy in my heart, especially for music, and that feeling was exuded perfectly at the end of opening track “Truth,” when the explosion hits and chimes of white light are plastered through every invisible wavelength in the air.
Thematically the album is not near as cohesive as its predecessor. Ocean Machine may be the most complete album I’ve ever heard. ‘Bad Devil’ and ‘Ants’ are very different from the rest of the pack. ‘Truth’, ‘Soul Driven’ and ‘Dynamics’ are the tracks that really hold it all together for me. ‘Soul Driven’ is my favorite piece of music ever written. I hesitate to call it a song because it’s more like a movement. It harnesses the white light at the end of ‘Truth’ and stretches it over an entire “song”. The words “don’t give in, have patience” that close out the track have brought me through more difficult times than I can count. ‘Dynamics’ is possibly the heaviest song I’ve ever heard, even to this day. It is the musical equivalent of that classic Maxell commercial, except the force just gets stronger and stronger as you grip your chair with white knuckles. The sonic booms of ‘War’, the exponential aural intensity of the meditative ‘Unity’, the circus aura of ‘Colonial Boy’…It’s all an incredibly brave musical statement made at a time when heavy music was as simple and primitive as can be.
There are so many more words I can say but this is not an editorial (maybe I should write one on this album?). I do want to highlight the production scope at play here. Infinity is an enigma. Even Devin feels that some aspects of the creation of this album were out of his hands; that some other force was guiding him (he claims he doesn’t feel like he wrote ‘Truth’, implying some other force did). He looks back on this period with disdain for the sonics, which is a shame. As a musician and producer, I get it. But he took risks with this album. He bounced tracks repeatedly, sometimes having 80 vocals going at once. The scope is unmatched. There is no other album that sounds like Infinity. It’s one of the few albums I’ve felt like I can crawl inside of. If you’ve not heard it, please, grab a good pair of headphones, lock the door, and disappear for 46 minutes. You will come back a changed person.