Hello, hello and welcome to the eighth (!!!) part in our ongoing series of Heavy Blog Is Heavy’s “Best Of” selections where we explore a genre of music and each of our dedicated authors picks a favorite album to share a personal experience with. As has become the norm for now, we break away from genre limitations once again to explore a different group of albums. This time, we explore a tricky feat to pull off: an excellent debut album.
Often times, debut albums fall into two categories: either they are not mature enough and leave a sense of disappointment after they’re done or they are amazingly well performed, forever setting the bar high for whatever band released them. Many a debut album spelled the birth and death of a band, as all future releases would always be compared to that original, majestic iteration. That being said, there are plenty debut albums who have launched successful careers, laying the first stone in the path of a band’s career. Which is which on the list below? That is for each of you to say. Let’s get started!
Black Sabbath – Black Sabbath
In January of 1970, appropriately on Friday 13th, a hitherto unknown group of musicians released a debut album that shook the world, inspiring millions for years to come. With vocalist Ozzy Osbourne and bassist Geezer Butler drawing inspiration for its dark lyrics from horror writers H.P. Lovecraft and Dennis Wheatley, and guitarist Tony Iommi latching on to Butler’s love for Gustav Holst’s ‘Mars’ to develop the riffs, in hindsight, it almost seems inevitable that it caused such a storm. The press reaction that followed only served to stir the pot – “We strongly advise those of a nervous disposition NOT, repeat NOT, to listen alone” screamed one. Staring at the washed-out cover art of gravestones, a watermill and a white-faced, cloaked woman staring back is fair warning enough.
Of course, within lies the harrowing. Rain. Thunder. A church bell. That dark tritone that constitutes the standout riff – the diminished fifth… the augmented fourth… diabolus in musica… the Devil’s Interval. Something infinitely bleak, menacing, unholy lurks within. Sinking deeper you’ll discover talk of a “figure in black”, “Lucifer”, “eyes of fire” and magical wizards walking our streets. The multi-part, multi-toned majesties of ‘Sleeping Village’ and the stop/start riff-reprising ‘Warning’ instantly teach us to expect the unexpected where the Sabbath is concerned. “Heavy metal”, yells Ozzy amidst the riotous rumble of ‘N.I.B.’ and lo, a genre is born. Has there ever been a finer debut?
Recommended Track: Black Sabbath
TesseracT – One
Back in 2011, djent was in full swing. Already cemented as a sub-genre by earlier acts, it was now time to show exactly what the sound was capable of. One of the best examples of that ability is TesseracT’s One. Containing enough heavy, progressive riffing to please any djent fan but also tempered with an insane amount of emotional depth and intelligence, it remains one of the best albums the genre has produced to date. The secret lies somewhere between the machinations of band guitarist/producer Acle Kahney’s musical vision and singer Daniel Tompkins’ unbelievable ability. Together, backed by the rest of the talent-seeped band, they create a vision that’s both alluring and harsh, violent where it needs to be and touching where it should. The chosen track, ‘Deception’, showcases this range with its catchy and rhythem based beginning coupled with the soaring heights of Tompkins’ impressive range. It is without a doubt one of the most impressive entries of a band to its own field, creating a sound that would quickly come to be recognized with the TesseracT name. And all with a debut album.
Recommend Track: Deception
Trivium – Ember to Inferno
Sure there are 17-year old kids in the world who can play blistering guitar leads. There are even 17-year olds with the compositional and lyric writing skills to create a masterpiece. But who at that age has their shit together to put out one of the best records of this Century? Matt Heafy, that’s who. If all you know about Trivium is Ascendency or The Crusade or even Shogun, you really must take a moment and go back to listen to Ember to Inferno. People have a lot of stereotypes about this band, that they’re metalcore, that they’re Metallica clones but if you take an honest listen to Ember to Inferno (a fire metaphor that Heafy would use to great effect later on), most of those myths go away. There’s no “core” at all in this record. Forget Metallica, the early incarnation of this band is almost an homage to Megadeth with dueling lead guitars and intelligent, political lyrics. At the heart of what makes this record so great is “Fugue” which combines heartfelt lyrics, harsh and clean vocals played off each other to exquisite effect, and a lead guitar sequence that is intricate, beautiful, and brutal. So forget whatever you think you know about Trivium and put on Ember to Inferno. In my judgment you will enjoy some of the best pure metal ever made.
Recommended Track: Fugue
Jaga Jazzist – A Livingroom Hush
Modern jazz is a strange thing. It has the double burden of an incredibly rich and complicated musical history combined with a longstanding reputation as an inaccessible and perpetually niche artform. There isn’t really any one or two or even a dozen directions that contemporary jazz in the 2000/2010s is going in largely because there’s nothing really holding anyone to any expectations of genre any longer. The stakes are far too low at this point for anyone other than the few remaining genuine “jazz” critics to give a damn about what any act or group of acts mean about the “state of jazz.”
There was a brief shining moment back around the turn of the 21st Century though when critics and fans alike saw something resembling the lightest trace of a path forward. Nu-Jazz (which is indeed as vomit-inducing a term as it sounds) was used to describe acts that employed outside musical influences in a jazz-like framework (which, to be fair, has been going on for literally over half a century) such as funk, lounge, and in particular edm. There are few albums that represent the height of this zeitgeist as well as Norway’s Jaga Jazzist’s “debut” 2001 full-length, A Livingroom Hush (technically they released one album prior to this in 1996, but it was a very limited release, most of the group were still in their teens at the time, and for all intents and purposes they were a far different group). More than anything the band has done since, Livingroom runs the gamut of musical influences and styles, from the acid-washed frenetic chaos of opening track ‘Animal Chin,’ to the smoother Tortoise-like grooves of ‘Airborne,’ to the down-tempo electro-funk of ‘Low Battery,’ and the sweeping orchestral lounge of ‘Lithuania.’ And in spite of all the genre-hopping, it all holds together magnificently well because, one, they’re bound together by a similar sense of progressive musicality, and two, because they’re all exceedingly infectious and fun. Livingroom is also notable in that it was the height of collaboration between Jaga’s key frontman Lars Horntveth and the indomitable (and fellow woodwind player) Jørgen Munkeby (who also contributed to their followup album The Stix but left shortly after to focus on Shining full-time).
If “Nu-Jazz” became a thing longtime jazz fans suddenly became fascinated by, it was because it brought both accessibility, and more importantly, fun, to a swath of music long-maligned as a chore to listen to beyond background music without sacrificing the same sense of exploration and focus on technicality that’s always defined the genre. A Livingroom Hush certainly fits that criteria, and it’s easily one of the best debuts that I know of, even if, remarkably, the band has gone on to do bigger and even better things since.
Recommended Track: ‘Animal Chin’
Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures
There are a number of reasons why the suicide of Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis is a tragedy, but for anyone that has listened to Unknown Pleasures, it is by no means a surprise. Depression permeates every aspect of the album, from the band’s brooding atmospheres to Curtis’ pained manifestos to the bleak minimalism of the artwork. And while Closer may be the band’s more emotionally varied album, it is impossible to deny that Unknown Pleasures offers the more essential structural portrait of Joy Division’s pioneering post-punk style. Gothic, bleak and involuntarily encompassing, Unknown Pleasures is the soundtrack for a recluse who wants nothing more than to empty as many packs of cigarettes and bottles of wine as possible while sprawled on their bed amid an autumnal tempest.
Recommended Track: “Disorder”
Cynic – Focus
Does Focus really need much description anymore? The story is pretty much common knowledge at this point as heavy music goes. Young, talented musicians put together an album that molds metal with eerie jazz fusion; album completely befuddles metal scene, resulting in some rather unpleasant experiences for the band; band breaks up very soon after; about a decade later, the album slowly begins to get the recognition it deserves; band reforms to great success. It’s easy to not see much in Focus past its historical role, with its tumultuous beginnings and Cynic’s eventual triumphant return; however, actually listening to the album today serves as a stark reminder of just how much modern metal owes to the innovative concepts Paul Masvidal and company explored on their monumental debut. Masvidal’s shimmering vocals over the colossal chorus of ‘Sentiment’ pull the listener into a whole other world entirely, and his free-flowing solos throughout the album paint incredible sonic landscapes over the rest of the band’s synchronized wizardry. Even though the two decades since the album’s 1993 release have provided ample time for other bands to catch up to Cynic’s jazz fusion inspired sound, Focus still remains very near to the top of the game in its futuristic, alien quality. Not even the stunning and rightfully acclaimed follow-up, Traced in Air, completely lives up to the innovative, alien brand of jazz Cynic’s debut album espouses, and it’s arguably unlikely we’ll see another album that truly ever will.
Recommended Track: Sentiment
Uneven Structure – Februus
Spencer “Sponge” Snitil
Never has one album completely floored me upon first listen the way Februus did. From the first piece of ambience to the final fading soundscapes, I was enthralled, my ears perked and my eyes wide. The album was filled with beautiful ambient parts, heavy riffs with tons of groove, and some of the best lyrics I’ve ever read. My mouth agape, I could not believe that one band could make a perfect album on their first try, yet Uneven Structure did so, and with ease. Their next record has a lot to live up to, but even if it doesn’t exceed or meet expectations, we’ll always have this gem, a cornerstone of the progressive metal movement.
Recommended Track: Frost
SikTh – The Trees Are Dead & Dried Out Wait For Something Wild
Not many bands can be referred to as, “ahead of their time.” SikTh is one of these bands. Back in 2003 SikTh released their debut album, “The Trees are Dead and Dried Out & Wait for Something Wild.” Instead of following music trends of the early 2000s, SikTh crafted a chaotic, dissonant, and unique progressive sound that was well ahead of the oncoming storm of SikTh-inspired djent bands. I did not start on this album and actually preferred Death of a Dead Day for quite sometime. However, this album is extremely cohesive and wasn’t like anything else during the time. I love the mix between chaos and serenity that come from the fast-paced, primal vocal lines and dissonant guitar and the wide-open, melodic clean sections. The Trees Are Dead and Dried Out & Wait for Something Wild will always be an album that I can fall back and listen to and never get bored.
Recommended Track: Skies of The Millenium Night
Mastodon – Remission
Mastodon exploded onto the scene in 2002 with their crushing debut Remission, but the majority of the songs on the album had been written long before recording. Perhaps that helps the album thematically and compositionally, as it’s certainly one of the strongest packages of songs put out in the last fifteen years. Regardless, it set the tone for what is certainly one of the greatest success stories in heavy music. Mastodon have gone from local proggy sludge act playing dives in Atlanta to one of the biggest bands on the planet, and it all started here. Elements that still define their music found their genesis here, and every songs sounds inspired and unique. Remission is a fantastic debut album that avoids the pitfalls of sounding amateurish and overeager, instead sounding like a release from a veteran act with a concise and defined vision. Twelve years on, Remission stands the test of time and sounds as fresh and crushing as it did when it dropped. Having been treated to a lavish box set and remaster by label Relapse, new listeners have the pleasure of hearing the album the way the band intended. Truly a debut for the ages.
Recommended Track: March of the Fire Ants
Protest the Hero – Kezia
Nearly a decade after its release, Protest The Hero’s debut full length, Kezia, continues to blow my mind for one reason in particular: I am perpetually astounded that this album was written and performed by five teenaged boys. A situationist requiem describing the execution of a woman named Kezia, this album addresses complex issues of sexism, religion, and social responsibility, and cleverly serves as a metaphor for, as vocalist Rody Walker phrases it, “ the gradual downfall of society.” The lyrics, crafted by former bassist Arif Mirabdolbaghi, are nothing short of poetic, and are emoted in Walker’s calculated delivery, ranging from raucous growls to soft, mellifluous cleans. Of course, this album is impressive for far more than just its mature content matter. Musically-speaking, Kezia is fifty-two minutes of frenetic, if not face-melting, technicality, punctuated with melodious acoustic interludes. Simply put, Kezia was, at the time of its release, and remains to this day, a testimony to the impressive musicianship and writing capabilities of Protest The Hero that set them apart from their fellows.
Recommended Track: Turn Soonest To The Sea
Slipknot – Slipknot
Dan “Dánñ” Wieten!
I thought about trying to be edgy and find something super obscure, but I’ve been in a super hype Slipknot mood so fuck it. I first heard their debut on the way to Ozzfest ‘99, having just been released a few days prior. I stared at the cover for most of the trip to Detroit, reading lyrics and trying to decipher what the hell I was in for. As I stood on the grassy knoll at DTE Energy Center watching these guys stroll onstage, I would have never guessed they would turn my life and the metal world upside down. I thought it was a joke, until the very last repetition of the now classic line “The whole thing, I think it’s sick” ended and all of my senses were beaten into submission. These dudes were nothing short of genius, combining the perfect level of theater, art, and punishingly heavy music.
Most people were chomping at the bit to write them off as a flash in the pan with no musical merit, but those hooks were undeniable. The frenetic and pulsing energy of songs like ‘(sic)’, ‘Eyeless’, ‘Surfacing’ and ‘Eeyore’ blew my mind with their near death metal leanings. I thought it was heavier than death metal really. I’d grown up in the 90s with bands like Cannibal Corpse, Morbid Angel, and Suffocation, but there was an honest, simple, and visceral delivery to Slipknot’s songs that was just missing with the aforementioned bands. Slipknot threw out the thesaurus, necronomicon, and sci-fi books and flat out SWORE at you, making sure you knew just how pissed they were. It was human stuff, and kids all over the world lapped it up like parched desert dwellers. It was something I sorely needed in my life at that point, even at 22 years old, and I’ll be indebted to them forever for it.
Recommended Track: Wait and Bleed (for the sake of melody + aggression)
Well, it’s the end of another one of these. I have to say we have a great time doing these and are looking forward to doing many more. Please don’t forget to sound off in the comments below with ideas of your own for our lists. We go back to these sections and check those suggestions before making a new list. As always, thank you dear readers and see you next time!