Heavy Issues: Which Track Taints an Otherwise Outstanding Album?

We here at Heavy Blog like to ponder the big questions: Who are we? Why are we here? Thrash ballads: yay or nay? You know, the big stuff. In order to better address such pressing matters, we bring you Heavy Issues: a now-monthly column by which we plan to get to the bottom of things. But we can’t just do it on our own, we want to know what you think as well. Read our responses below and weigh in with your own opinions in the comments.

This week’s question is: Which track taints an otherwise outstanding album?

Pete: Mastodon – “Show Yourself” (Emperor of Sand, 2017)

While Emperor of Sand might not be Mastodon’s greatest album ever, it’s undeniable that it’s still a mighty fine record. It tells a deeply emotional story through Mastodon’s signature sludgy riffs that make your head spin. Most of the tracks are genuinely interesting to hear even after multiple listens, but the second track “Show Yourself” just sticks out in ways that really throw off your concentration on the record. Here’s a perfectly good story about people dealing with cancer coming into their lives through intricately woven riffs and progressive songs, then this top 40 sounding pop rock song comes in. Huh? Wha happun?!?

That’s pretty much the problem right there. The song sounds so distinctly different from the rest of the record in a bad way. It really does sound like a pop rock song. It’s a pretty simple song with not a lot of those signature Mastodon frills to it. The riff is just a power chord progression. The drum beat is pretty straightforward without any complications to it. The lyrics still tell an interesting story but they’re presented in a way that negates the heaviness of what the band wants to talk about with the song. It just doesn’t make much sense on this record. It’s a “which of these is not like the others” sort of problem.

I’ll give Mastodon this: it’s in the right place on this record. If it was listed anywhere else on the track listing, I think it would make the record markedly worse. By the second track of any record, you haven’t really established any themes yet. The intro is a great start, but it’s just one song so it’s not a preponderance of evidence. The second track should sort of build off of the first, so that’s where you can allow for a little flub. If “Show Yourself” traded places with any other track, it would just stick out even more. This record would be demonstrably worse if it was the intro or outro track or literally anywhere else than number 2. So good on them for the right placement.

 

Scott: Morbid Angel – “Angel of Disease” (Covenant, 1993)

This was probably the hardest question Josh has posed yet, mainly because “great” albums are usually defined by a lack of mediocre tracks. I’m not sure this pick truly fits the prompt, but it immediately stuck out as a glaring low point on an otherwise indisputable classic. Every other song on Covenant is virtually flawless Golden Age death metal that makes it an easy choice for my favorite Morbid Angel album (and perhaps even my favorite offering from the genre). Even so, I find myself skipping over “Angel of Disease” pretty much every time I put on Covenant, and I truly believe it would be a stronger album with it excluded.

Regardless of your stance on “Angel of Disease,” it’s a pretty clear outlier among the band’s refined songwriting on Covenant. The track originally appeared on the band’s ’86 demo Abominations of Desolation that wasn’t officially released until a couple years before Covenant dropped. A re-recorded version appears on Covenant, a choice I’ve never seen accompanied by an explanation. It could be a situation similar to Suffocation and Breeding the Spawn (1993), where they’ve re-recorded select tracks for subsequent releases due to the album’s poor production quality.

Whatever Morbid Angel’s reasoning was, the track just doesn’t fit into the rest of the album’s tracklist. The song’s unkempt, death-thrash sound is a clear remnant from the mid-80s, which matches up poorly with the forward-thinking death metal the band was crafting at the time. But more importantly, it’s just not a great track. While not a terrible song, the performances and songwriting are pretty bland and sluggish with little inherent memorability besides its unique place on Covenant. I’d choose any early Sepultura song over this track.

But the point remains that “Angel of Disease” is sorely out of context. We’re not comparing it to other death-thrash tracks; we’re comparing it alongside some of the best death metal of the ’90s, which it simply doesn’t belong alongside in the same tracklist. I’ll always place Covenant in my top five favorite death metal albums of all-time, but that choice has nothing to do with “Angel of Disease.”

Further Considerations: Again, not really something that applies to many of my all-time favorite albums. Nonetheless, here are a couple of quick thoughts. The overt date rape themes on “Twin Hype Back” have made it tough to revisit Run the Jewels (2013) after the message sunk in. It was one of my favorite modern hip-hop albums back when it first dropped, but I haven’t listened to it pretty much at all in the last few years. Also, while I’m not a fan of Earth’s Primitive and Deadly (2014) overall, the instrumental tracks might be a bit more worth revisiting if not for the two painfully mediocre vocal guests. Not only is the singing underwhelming on both songs, Earth’s music just doesn’t mesh well with vocals in general, making for an awkward and ultimately boring listen.

Eden: Dream Theater – “The Silent Man” (Awake, 1994)

Awake is one of my all time favorite albums; even within the discography of Dream Theater it stands tall, marking one of the purest moments in the band’s history. Before the departure of Kevin Moore, before the drama surrounding Mike Portnoy, before even their most stable lineup was even formed, there was Awake (and a few other albums, yes). It represents one of the finest iterations of the meeting point between the band’s more metallic sound and their progressive rock roots, producing an album that’s dark and brooding (“6:00”, “The Mirror”) and emotively, passionately dramatic (“Lifting Shadows Off a Dream”, “Space Dye Vest”).

And then there’s “The Silent Man”. It obviously never even tries to plunge the darker vibes on the album but also fails to express any relatable or powerful emotion. To be honest, it sounds filled with angst and an off-putting sense of self-congratulation: “Wow, I’m such a loner. I’m so deep but no one understands me”. Musically it also lacks what a lot of “sweeter” tracks on the release have in plenty which is to say, anything interesting. The composition itself is good but it doesn’t go anywhere.

Take “Lifting Shadows Off a Dream” as a counter-example; the track seems to hit a lot of the same emotional chords, mental states and their conflicts with others and society, but it’s infinitely more interesting musically. It varies up time signatures, has a more complex structure and utilizes James LaBrie in several modes. By the time the main chorus returns near its end, after a darker and more progressive passage, the emotional catharsis is there; there’s payoff. With “The Silent Man”, because it’s so single track, there’s none of that there. It starts and ends at the same point. And don’t even get me started on those backing vocals.

Further considerations: there’s so many, when you think about it. “Gangland” and The Number of the Beast (1982) is the one that immediately comes to mind. That album is chock full of some of Iron Maiden’s best works but that track is so forgettable and insignificant that it just jams a wrench in the whole thing.

 

Josh: Carly Rae Jepsen – “Store” (Emotion: Side B+, 2016)

Carly Rae Jepsen‘s Emotion (2015) was somewhat of a musical revolution for me when I discovered it it a couple of years ago. It has quickly become one of my go-to feel-good records and – from what I understand – has widely become considered a cult pop classic. Jepsen’s freshly released fourth effort, Dedicated, might be more of a hit-and-miss affair (more about that in the next installment of Un-Metal Monday perhaps?), but Emotion is essentially a perfect pop record. Not every track reaches the heights of “Run Away With Me” or “I Really like You”, but the album maintains a striking level of quality that is virtually unheard of among such shamelessly mainstream/commercial efforts.

Emotion is made only the more remarkable by the addition of the Side B EP, which followed a year latter. The collection was reportedly created out of off-cuts from the Emotion sessions, but that seems almost unbelievable given the sheer quality of its content; then there’s the Side B+ version from 2017, which includes “Cut to the Feeling” (i.e. the best song). Many of these supposed “B-Sides” rival the best of what Emotion has to offer and it’s utterly perplexing how tracks like “Higher”, “Fever”, “First Time”,  or “Cry” ever ended up on the cutting room floor.

…Then there’s “Store”, which has me reaching for the skip button as fast as humanly possible and almost undoes all the goodwill the previous nineteen tracks of unbelievably good, premium modern pop music have built up in one fell swoop. The track starts off inoffensively enough – suggesting a dramatic ballad to come – and then, after about a minute, it erupts into an upbeat chorus which repeats the mantra “I’m just going to the store” seemingly ad nauseam. I guess the track is meant to sound triumphant in its irreverence, but the result is as grating as it is jarring and the whole track sounds incredibly contrived when compared to its surroundings. Thankfully Side B has one more outstanding number to offer, in the following “Roses”. Yet, while nineteen home runs from twenty tracks is a remarkable result, the Emotion suite’s single misfire leaves no doubt as to why it didn’t make the original cut.

Further Considerations: I’ll eagerly argue that Atreyu‘s A Deathgrip on Yesterday (2006) is an unsung metalcore classic. However, that perhaps unpopular (or, at least, widely unsupported) opinion comes with a huge caveat, which is that “The Theft” is an absolute abomination that should have never been committed to record. By anyone. Ever.

 

Bill: Testament – “The Legacy” (Souls of Black, 1990)

I dearly love Testament and their legacy. That said, I have always found it extremely jarring when I put on my favorite of their albums, Souls of Black, and get through the overwhelming majority it only to arrive at…. A ballad? The album, which is as much a thrash masterpiece as their previous effort, Practice What You Preach (1990), gallops along at a steady, mosh heavy pace and yet – just before the whole thing wraps up – here we are.

The music in and of itself is tastefully done and showcases the range of guitarists Alex Skolnick and Eric Peterson. It also gives Chuck Billy a chance to write something a little more earnest but sometimes thrash bands just need to be thrash bands. The track goes from meandering guitar lines to an entirely predictable semi-thrashy build-up towards the end. The kicker and potential excuse for the track appearing here is that “everybody else was doing it” at the time.

Indeed, it’s quite true that many of the band’s contemporaries at the time were issuing these somewhat ham-fisted and cringeworthy ballads between 1988 and 1995. Just to name a few there’s “Cemetery Gates” by Pantera, the title track from Overkill’s Years of Decay (1989), and Death Angel’s “A Room With a View” from their seminal album, Act III (1990). At the time, every one of these seemed perfectly reasonable and acceptable, for the most part, because at least they weren’t the glam-tinged ballads that the likes of Poison, Warrant, Bon Jovi, and a host of others were seeing pushed in popular channels.

These attempts at a softer side at least appeared somewhat beefier and more substantial in subject matter, often times taking on things like depression and feelings of isolation that spoke to many a young person back in that day, but it never stopped being jarring. All that said, Souls of Black remains one of the strongest thrash albums of the main era of popularity of the form and deserves its rich history but to this day it still baffles me when this track comes up.

 

. . .

That’s it for us, but we want to know: which song do you think taints an otherwise outstanding album? Let us know in the comments, and if you have any questions or topics you’d like the Heavy Blog crew to cover, suggest away and we may use it in a future installment!

Comments

My pen halts, though I do not. Reader, you will walk no more with me. It is time we both take up our lives.