The historical significance of 1999 will be remembered for a long time now. It was a cultural moment that far exceeded any other “decade closer” in the 20th century. Events like Y2K or The Matrix seemed to bring to fever pitch the technological explosion, and the subsequent mark it left on culture, which so defined the ’90s. The future seemed cutting-edge, post-modern, somewhat bleak, intensely commercialized, but also very promising. There was even a hint of hope on the air, a sense of coming triumph in the millennium, a chiliastic atmosphere of someone on the horizon. We were pre-9/11, pre-Bush administration; Manchester United had won the treble; dot-com was going full speed and didn’t show any signs of stopping; tensions were high and the pace was accelerating but with it, news of wonder was abound.
Music experienced a similar moment, which was reflected in both metal and elsewhere. The year saw the releases of some absolute classics of the genre and beyond (seriously, we had a hard time narrowing this list down). The technological stamp of the ’90s – computed, cold, and powerful – is all over these releases (Calculating Infinity; Vaya; Projector), and so is the sense of wonder at the coming days and what potential they might hold (Pale Folklore; Scenes From a Memory). But so is the sense of dissent and dissatisfaction with the rising tide of neo-liberalism and the world it was building on the foundations of the tech boom (Issues; Slipknot; The Battle for Los Angeles). The music of 1999 is just as pregnant with meaning and portent as the year itself, filled to the brim with emotions, outlooks, and passion.
Beyond the year itself and its meaning, a lot of these releases are timeless classics which forever changed their respective genres. Doing away with some of the analysis and narrative above, chance probably also played a big part in all of these fantastic and monumental albums being released at roughly the same time. Thus, the albums below can still be enjoyed today, devoid of the chronological intersections that might add a layer of cumbersome meaning on top of the music itself. Put simply, these albums are excellent with and without their year of release; choose for yourself how you wish to consume them. Enjoy!
Agalloch – Pale Folklore
The cusp of the new millennium was chock full of landmark metal releases, all of which either defined or reset the direction of their respective subgenres. It’s difficult to establish that point in a list like this without including one of the most important releases in American black metal. While not quite as acclaimed as The Mantle (2002), Ashes Against the Grain (2006), or Marrow of the Spirit (2010), Agalloch’s full-length debut was an essential early statement from this budding American scene; a movement aimed at differentiating itself from black metal’s early waves.
What’s perhaps most interesting about the legacy of Pale Folklore is the fact it predates American black metal classics now held in higher regard, such as Weakling’s Dead as Dreams (2000) and Wolves in the Throne Room’s Diadem of 12 Stars (2006). In fairness, it’s impossible to know which seminal bands evolved independently and which took cues from one another.
Further still, Agalloch’s sound had several qualities distinct from the American brand of atmospheric black metal. None of the songs on Pale Folklore reach the consistent, driving tempo so common in the majority of black metal subgenres. The lack of blasts and speed coincided with a de-emphasis on roaring buzzsaw tremeloes so many black metal bands use as a foundational songwriting tool.
Instead, Agalloch’s approach was defined by the use of black metal’s essence in an entirely fresh, dynamic take on the genre. Simultaneously, the band incorporated heavy influences from genres adjacent to black metal or previously used more sparingly by other groups. Elements of doom, field recordings, folk, and post-rock are rampant on Pale Folklore and only became more pronounced on the band’s subsequent releases.
It’s this synthesis of styles and a keen focus on nature and melody that ultimately proved pivotal to the development of American bands’ approach to black metal. On any given track, Agalloch effortlessly weave ethereal arpeggios with acoustic guitar passages and soaring melodic black metal atmospheres, all in a way that feels cohesive and emotive. Agalloch have been described as the “Opeth of black metal,” an apt description that alludes to the band’s ability to be described as a black metal band while defying many of the genre’s traditional stylistic mandates.
To me, that’s always been the beauty of Agalloch’s music. I scoured over every essential album list I could find when I first decided to embrace black metal, and the search led me to obvious launching points from artists like Bathory, Darkthrone, Emperor, and Mayhem. Subsequent finds like WITTR seemed to be a logical evolution from the foundation laid by the genre’s pioneers, while other groups like Deafheaven felt like they were doing something else entirely.
Yet, with Agalloch, I could never quite figure out where they fit into the overarching narrative of black metal. They seemed so close yet so far away from the other bands I loved from the genre. Now, I recognize that they’re one of those rare bands that successfully stand alone within their specific genre niche while also influencing how the style progresses into the future.
Without question, the prevalence of folk and melodic rock in black metal can be traced back to multiple sources, both from America and outside its borders. But from my vantage point, it’s hard to argue Agalloch doesn’t deserve the lion’s share of credit for how their music affected the genre’s growth over the last couple of decades. Without Pale Folklore as a launching point, that legacy may have never come to pass.
…And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead – Madonna
Source Tags and Codes will forever stand as one of a handful of records that changed the trajectory of my tastes in music when I was in college, but it’s arguable that 1999’s Madonna is the band’s most “Trail of Dead” album, so to speak. The violent and beautiful collision of lush, regal melodies and unhinged, devastating chaos is what this band built their early reputation on.
I remember hearing people talk about their live shows like they would talk about some mysterious force of nature creeping through the forests just outside of town on moonless nights, a combination of hushed tones and excited wonder. This was previous to the internet as we know it now, when word of mouth was still the primary source of information for many people. I recall hearing stories about how no one in the band really knew how to play their instruments, but instead just thrashed away until something either sounded great or the cacophony became overwhelming; about members switching instruments on a song-to-song basis, drumsticks ending up stuck in ceiling tiles and guitars lying hopelessly broken on stage by the end of shows. I’m sure there was a good deal of hyperbole floating around, but when you hear Madonna it provides the tales with a whole lot more believability.
Hearing the crashing waves of guitars threatening to pull you under during the bridge section of “Blight Takes All” then give way to the aching tenderness of “Claire de Lune” provides the record with both a pleasing unpredictability and an impressive sense of balance. The hypnotic mid-tempo bounce of “Mistakes and Regrets” and “Mark David Chapman” show glimpses of the legit pop sensibilities that would inform their universally-acclaimed followup.
But if you want to boil down the essence of Madonna, and really the whole aesthetic that gave the band their power during the early days, you need only look to “Totally Natural” and “A Perfect Teenhood.” Both songs feature fierce punk energy that’s dangerously close to spiraling completely out of control, but they’re held together by sharp hooks that seem counterintuitive in relation to the madness surrounding them, but ultimately lift them to heights that few bands of the era could match. The bridge section of “Totally Natural” provides an epic earworm of a vocal refrain that seethes and bubbles up to the surface before returning to the explosiveness that characterizes the rest of the track.
“A Perfect Teenhood” may be the ultimate Trail of Dead track, a blistering exercise in breathless fury that climaxes with the repeated, impassioned cry of “fuck you” and an apocalyptic firestorm of ringing chords and enveloping noise that confidently beckons anyone who’s ever felt disempowered or held down to release their angst with impunity. …And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead may have perfected their songcraft on the next record, but Madonna stands as the purest reflection of their original mission statement.
At the Drive-In – Vaya
Just prior to their explosion and subsequent implosion with the release of the seminal post-hardcore record Relationship of Command, At The Drive-In offered up this splendid EP that serves as a meeting point for many of their musical threads. There are hints of the (slightly) sunnier vibe of their earlier material on the bouncy “Ursa Minor,” the fiery snarl that was building up leading into Relationship on album highlight “Heliotrope,” and even a precursor to what would eventually become The Mars Volta on the memorable album-opener “Rascuache.”
A friend of mine recently made the analogy that Relationship of Command is like Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd and De-Loused in the Comatorium is like the Dark Side of Moon that followed in the wake. I think it’s a very intriguing analogy, but while I hold Relationship as an indisputable classic, the comparison works much better with Vaya. Just as an example, you can clearly see the blueprint for the slightly off-kilter, math-y bridge section of “Concertina” (from the Tremulant EP) functioning in the same spot on “Rascuache.” That in turn informed a similar, but even wilder version of the idea during the middle section of De-Loused closer “Take the Veil Cerpin Taxt.”
I love At The Drive-In, but I also try to be reasonable in my evaluation of their early material. There are moments scattered around that just stunning (“Ticklish,” “Give It A Name,” “Alpha Centauri”), but there are also plenty of times when they’re pretty uneven and still finding their way. Vaya is where they finally locked in and you could plainly see their potential for brilliance. There are also these contained moments where the record speaks for itself, songs with composition and tone that is entirely Vaya with no residue from their other work, past or future. The dark, pulsing mid-tempo of “Metronome Arthritis” transitioning into a stabbing guitar riff enhanced by Bixler-Zavala’s haunting vocal melody and Rodriguez-Lopez’s wandering, swirling lead work, and most memorably the heart-wrenching balladry of “198d,” provide clear standouts on an EP that is chock full of highlights.
Dark Tranquillity – Projector
Largely overshadowed by their famous ‘95 release The Gallery and then later material such as Damage Done and Fiction, I’m comfortable going on record saying the 1999 album Projector is Dark Tranquillity’s most underrated album. While in more recent years the band has dipped into experimenting more heavily with electronic elements, this album was their first true experiment into an evolved melodeath sound and stands out as maybe the “oddball” of their discography. Perhaps tired of just sounding like another version of In Flames, vocalist Mikael Stanne pulled the at the time likely controversial move of employing a heavy dose of clean vocals for the first time in their music.
This change in vocals also provided room for a stark change in overall sound, with a lot more contrast in their sound in the form of significant lighter moments, such as the piano-heavy all-clean-vocal ballad “Auctioned.” This song would be very out of place on The Gallery but in context of the album it fits perfectly. I can imagine there was healthy backlash from certain fans about this abrupt change, but in retrospect, it was an important stepping stone in the evolution of their sound as we would continue to see Stanne’s singing on later albums. There’s certainly an abundance of classic DT riffage, solos and typical melodeath fanfare on here (the relentless “The Sun Fired Blanks” especially), but Stanne’s almost Depeche Mode like singing voice gives Projector this weird, dark, almost gothic feel that you don’t often hear in this genre even to this day.
The highlights of this album for me, however, are when they’re able to fuse these two polarizing sounds into one fluent song, such as “UnDo Control” which remains among my favourite DT songs to date. This track features some classic heavy riffs, a great chorus with more Stanne singing, some very melancholic and melodic bridges, but most notably perfectly fitting guest female vocals that bring back that gothic/doom vibe I mentioned before. This was in a sense the perfect storm of what I love most about Dark Tranquillity and a big part of why this album still stands out in their hefty discography to this day.
The Dillinger Escape Plan – Calculating Infinity
The Dillinger Escape Plan were arguably one of the most important bands in metal and hardcore in the past 30 years, and their debut full-length album Calculating Infinity is a genre-defining classic. Their chaotic and stuttering style of hardcore, combined with cues from jazz and avant-garde, contributed to the creation of the mathcore scene that took off in the 2000s. Many bands have made short-lived careers attempting to emulate the energy and atmosphere of Calculating Infinity to mixed results, missing the point that the record was trying to make in the first place in eschewing convention in order to create something electrifying.
It’s hard to overstate how important Calculating Infinity is, because it practically insists upon itself in a way that miraculously avoids pretension due to its messy hardcore aesthetic. With the three-piece of classics like “Sugar Coated Sour”, “43% Burnt”, and “Jim Fear,” Dillinger opens their debut with a gripping immediacy that is now iconic. Early on in Calculating Infinity, the band boards to doors shut and burns the barn down. What follows is an array of explosive and jarringly technical mathcore anthems, Holdsworth-style jazz fusion, industrial soundscapes, and Mr. Bungle levels of strange grandiosity.
Looking at other records on this list, it’s obvious that many of them, despite being clear classics, have aged considerably in the last twenty years and certainly seem of-the-era. Calculating Infinity somehow defies age, and is perhaps even more timeless than Dillinger’s work to follow. The mind-bending works of Calculating Infinity are challenging as a listener for the uninitiated, but the payoff is immensely cathartic and rewarding for decades to come.
Dream Theater – Scenes From a Memory
OK look, I’m not going to write about goddamn Scenes From a Goddamn Memory alright? What is there to say that hasn’t been said before? This is one of the most consensually acclaimed metal albums out there, colloquially credited as the album which launched Dream Theater’s mid-era career into the heights it would later take for granted. It’s a damn fine album and it’s aged pretty damn well as well. More than that, it’s so seminal and momentous that even the hate and the derision it receives is well-known and way too masticated, to the extent that there’s really no point in me writing about this album from either perspective.
Instead, I want to write about “Home”, the eighth track on the album. It’s also the longest one on it. Finally, it’s also one of the most underrated Dream Theater tracks out there. When you talk about Scenes, conversation invariably drifts towards “Finally Free”, or “The Dance of Eternity” or “Strange Deja Vu”. Don’t get me wrong; those are all excellent and foundational tracks. But, I come before you humbly today, to posit that “Home” is the best track on the album. It simply displays Dream Theater in their most cohesive as a unit and utilizes all the different strengths of the band. More than anything, it just has an irresistible energy and groove to it, making it feel far less lengthy than it really is.
At the center of that charm lies the duo of Portnoy and Petrucci. No matter how much contaminated water has flown under the bridge, there is absolutely no denying that, at their height, these two were impossibly good. The main riff of the track works so well with Portnoy’s drumming, creating the groove that keeps the track moving. The solos, both Petrucci’s and Jordan Rudess’s, are expertly accompanied by the drums, working with the bass to make sure things stay solid and moving. Elsewhere, the amount of moving fills that Portnoy executes at just the right time simply elevate the rest of the band’s work, making this one of their moving and effective tracks.
So yes, the backing vocals are jarring. The “Indian” sample is tacky and unnecessary. But when the chorus returns after the solos, accompanied by little touches on the main theme from Petrucci and those massive kick drums, there’s just no resisting it. Oh yeah and the rest of this album still kicks fucking ass, did you really think I wouldn’t mention that in earnest? God damn, this album slaps, just go back and listen to it. It’s really as good as I remember it, when I first heard it a few years after it was released.
I Mother Earth – Blue Green Orange
One of the truly underrated bands of their era, I Mother Earth was going through a transition period leading into their third album, but in reality they were always a band on the move creatively, never putting forth the same sound on consecutive records. They debuted in 1993 with the funk/metal/prog rock record Dig, which is, more than 25 years later, still an absolutely stunning piece of work. In 1996 they put forth the more commercially-savvy masterpiece Scenery and Fish, and in 2003 they released their last full album The Quicksilver Meat Dream, a post-metal-leaning beast that is as reflective of bands like Tool and Deftones as Scenery is of Santana and Rush. Blue Green Orange features the debut of their second vocalist and an intriguing middle ground between the pop sensibilities of Scenery and the aggressiveness of Quicksilver.
One of the hallmarks of I Mother Earth from the beginning was the confident skillfulness of the instrumentation, apparent in the hyperactive grooves and shredding guitars on Dig and the expansive-yet-precise jam passages on Scenery and Fish (particularly the stunning finale “Earth, Sky and C”), but Blue Green Orange sees them re-emerge as more mature, patient musicians. The intrigue is in the details; the minor variations in the drumming chorus-to-chorus on the single “Gargantua,” the slow transition from guitar to piano during the stunning melody that concludes “Autumn on Drugs,” and the additional looping and percussion flourishes that shade a number of the tracks.
There are also the requisite big moments: the bass-and-drum propelled instrumental section in the middle of “Summertime in the Void,” the massive chorus of “Infinity Machine,” or the muscular propulsion of “Love Your Starfish.” But Blue Green Orange is ultimately notable for being the album where a group of virtuosic performers mellowed out some, deconstructed their style and rebuilt it into something more measured and methodical, without compromising their progressive nature.
In Flames – Colony
It’s hard to think, now, that In Flames were once one of the most respected and innovative names in extreme metal. Even as a staunch A Sense of Purpose defender, I don’t think anyone’s going to argue that any of the albums the band have released over the last decade are among their best. But there was a time…
Conversely, when trying to pick the best In Flames out of their first decade-and-a-half’s worth of output, one is spoilt for choice. Camps are usually split between earlier, formative melodeath offerings, like The Jester Race (1996) and Whoracle (1997), and those hard-hitting albums that represent the band at their commercial peak, such as Clayman (2000) and Come Clarity (2006). For me, however, the choice has always been clear: you can’t go wrong with an In Flames album that starts with “C”, and 1999’s Colony seamlessly splits the difference between the Swedes’ severe beginnings and their more refined mid-period.
Released at a time when In Flames were making the transition from underground darlings to mainstream titans, Colony perfectly blends extreme metal aggression and instrumentation with more refined melodic songwriting. Every track on Colony is equal parts blistering and instantaneous. Songs like “Scorn” and “Embody the Invisible” come roaring out of the traps, while “Ordinary Story” and the title track delivered death metal compositions you could hum along to. Not since Carcass first proved that melody and death metal could be combined on Heartwork (1993) (and arguably perfected the genre in the process) had an album so superiorly balanced melodic death metal’s essential elements and, for all my love of Soilwork and Dark Tranquility, I don’t think anyone’s done as good a job since either. Perhaps the closest contender comes from Arch Enemy’s Burning Bridges (1999), which was released the same year, and surely deserves an honourable mention, but which nevertheless comes in second-place in the 1999 melodic death metal sweepstakes.
What is truly impressive about Colony, beyond its flawless song-writing, is Jesper Strömblad and Björn Gelotte’s guitar playing. Each and every song on the album is led by their soaring, classic heavy metal-inspired harmonies. Pick any song you like from Colony’s twelve offerings and you will be blown away by Strömblad and Gelotte’s dexterity, and it’s no mistake that the best of the many great songs In Flames have put their name to over the years, “Zombie Inc.” is one in which the two guitarists essentially never stop playing lead and which culminates in one of the most awesome melodic heavy metal guitar solos of all time. To go up against the Amott brothers and come out on top is no small feat and, say what you will about the riffs on At the Gates’ Slaughter of the Soul (1994), we have Colony to thank for the reintroduction of traditional metal-style harmonies and leads in the then-immanent metalcore/NWOAMH era.
In Flames’ stock has supremely plummeted in 2019 (remember when we all got excited over this maybe signaling a return to form?), but just because they are a shadow of their former selves doesn’t erase everything they achieved in the past – hell, isn’t that what all the fuss is about in the first place? Regardless of their recent output, In Flames are still arguably the best melodic death metal band to ever practice the form, and Colony remains a contender for the greatest melodic death metal album of all time. Don’t let it be forgotten.
Korn – Issues
Coming off the back of one of the most successful heavy metal releases of all time, Korn turned up the actual bass controls on Fieldy’s amp and let Jonathan David embrace his love of new-wave on Issues, the band’s heaviest release to date and one that sold THREE MILLION FUCKING COPIES IN A MONTH. While it didn’t quite hit the heights of ‘98s Follow The Leader, can you imagine any metal band selling this many units in such a short period of time now, twenty years later? No, you fucking can’t. It’s completely unimaginable. Korn did it two years in a row and without any features from the world’s biggest rappers on this second attempt at world domination.
You might hate this band now, you might have always hated this band, but if you owned a television that had MTV on it then you saw the music videos from this record and you saw them a bunch. Maybe three of the band’s most instantly recognisable tracks, “Falling Away From Me”, “Make Me Bad”, and “Somebody Someone” all turned up the dark grooving throb of the Bakersfield band, with “Make Me Bad” following thematically and sonically on from “Freak on a Leash”, without all the Todd MacFarlane child’s play. “Make Me Bad” might as well have been a second version of Follow The Leaders’ “Got The Life” but with a little more menace and a much more extravagant vocal performance from Davis; the verses and chorus’ are still some of my favourite of the band’s two decades on with Davis fully embracing his whispery weirdness on both. What about that giant, slowed down riff at the end of “Somebody Someone”? Your favourite doom band wishes it sounded that huge.
The in between tracks and fillers on Issues might not be as memorable as the singles but a sequel to the band’s infamous “Daddy” and the pure Faith No More moments on “Let’s Get This Party Started” remain as gritty and pleasing as they did the first time I heard them, long before grind, sludge, or death metal ever seemed appealing. “4U” with it’s Depeche Mode sleaze and the diss-track magic of “Wish You Could Be Me” really stamped the band’s name all over the last era of dirty nu-metal. Hybrid Theory was less than a year away from taking the world by storm with its suitably tame delivery, and Issues might just be the last really heavy nu-metal record that came out. Untouchables tried too hard, and since then the band have struggled to deliver anything as fun and/or dark as this.
Metallica – S&M
Live albums are such a fickle thing. It’s hard to say that they’re truly original works of art sometimes since it always seems like it’s really just a recording of a band playing a variety of their songs with a crowd. Obviously, it’s fun to go to shows and see live music, but you can rarely capture that feeling of wonder on a recording. While Metallica had put out several live records by 1999, nothing quite touched the unique air of S&M. To this very day, I will argue that it’s one of the greatest live albums ever produced.
What has always struck me about this record is the idea of accompanying Metallica’s raucous tone with an orchestra. The clash of ideas here is really what brings the whole thing together. It gives every song a new direction and feeling. “The Call of Ktulu” has this new ominous tone to it, bringing forth the images of the elder god rising up to lay waste. “The Thing That Should Not Be” has an equally new creepy vibe to it and makes it seem more like a horror movie theme. Every song just has a new vibe to it that makes it seem like a fresh release. After being together for nearly 20 years, Metallica really needed this kind of record to revitalize their career after taking a few hits to their reputation with Load and ReLoad.
S&M is the rare live album that feels essential to an artist’s discography. There aren’t a lot of live albums out there that you can say that about. It really is a reworking of much of Metallica’s career up to that point, and it’s amazing to me that an orchestra can accompany a style of music known for its speed, heaviness, and general chaotic nature. Only a few bands have ever even had this kind of accompaniment, but Metallica’s presentation outdoes them all. I’m looking forward to their 20th-anniversary concert and hearing some more recent songs and maybe even something from Kill ‘Em All. For now, I’m more than happy to have this.
Neurosis – Times of Grace
Neurosis is one of the stalwart godfathers of modern harsh music. It’s not adequate to call their sound iconic or label the band as simply “influential”. Chances are that whatever bands you listen to probably listened to this group that has harnessed a kind of power unheard of, that is, until they came along. Theirs is a music informed as much by nature and evolutionary forces as it is by the first “crushing riffs” Black Sabbath committed to vinyl so many decades ago.
Therein lies the rub with Neurosis. You will never get very far in discussing the band’s art or influence on all that has come after it without a discussion about nature. Twenty years ago this band seemed to find itself in the eye of its own storm when it unleashed Times of Grace on an unwitting public. Their previous album, Through Silver in Blood, was a maelstrom of chaos. All unwieldy feedback, careening riffs, tortured howls, and a focused fury that the band truly revelled in for the first time in their career, the preceding album did not leave much wiggle room. That is, unless they decided to take one step back to survey that carnage and chart a new course through the sonic wastelands of their creation.
In taking that step back, the roots of the heavy music family tree that Times of Grace would yield were firmly planted. By incorporating quieter, if not calmer, passages the rage and destruction were tempered by something more meditative. At the time of its release the album confounded some with the integration of sounds that almost felt more malevolent than the loudest, most discordant note they could strike. Certainly they weren’t the first band to change their dynamic between loud and quiet. Instead, they chose to take it in directions others simply hadn’t and ushered in a new strain of heavy music.
Those new directions would ferment over time as new artists cropped up with their own interpretations of the form. There were hardly any notable direct imitations because there was no point in trying but there have been bands who learned the lessons and have created something else. From Baroness to Pelican to Sunn O))) and beyond there is hardly a corner of the heavy music world that has been left untouched by the legacy of this band and, particularly, this album. Part of that is because it taught an object lesson in tension and release, dread and adulation. The album, rightfully, expands the band’s sound with creative instrumentation and largely excels from a production that elevates the natural state of the music by simply not getting in the way. In that respect, it is one of Steve Albini’s masterpieces.
The natural inclination when discussing an album of this renown is to highlight specific tracks and dissect the ways in which it works but that is antithetical to the moment that Neurosis captures on Times of Grace. It is so antithetical, in fact, that it is encouraged to listen to it alongside – at the same time – Tribes of Neurot’s Grace for a fuller picture of this extended meditation. I could talk about the immenseness of “The Doorway” or “End of the Harvest” but it would be a disservice to all involved. “The Last You’ll Know” could be dissected until it falls apart underneath an avalanche of analysis for its various twists and turns but even that misses the point. This album is a band capturing a vibe, a meditation, a moment in time of the grace that only they could create.
Rage Against the Machine – The Battle of Los Angeles
Rage Against the Machine is an interesting case. As time has gone on, my reasons for liking them have consistently evolved. Back in the ‘90s I was all about the self-titled debut because of all the guitar shredding, then in my late twenties/early thirties I shifted to Evil Empire because of its undying dedication to groove. When The Battle of Los Angeles first came out I recall not really caring about it that much, and that attitude carried through most of the years up until this point. It’s only in the past year or so that I began re-investigating it, and I have a hard time wrapping my head around what my problem was as a teenager. The first half of the record is unimpeachable, with the breathless barrage of “Testify,” “Guerilla Radio,” “Calm Like A Bomb,” “Sleep Now In The Fire” and “Born of a Broken Man.” The second half is slightly uneven, which leads me to stick with Evil Empire as my favorite of their records, but when Los Angeles hits, it hits harder than anything the band ever produced.
Simply put, the grooves are thicc and the riffs slap the hardest. As the band’s career progressed they moved away from the treble-heavy, guitar-centric production of their early work and really embraced the low end, giving Tim Commerford and Brad Wilk more and more of a central voice in the sound, with Morello focusing more on sonic manipulation, dropping in here and there to provide well-timed, explosive outbursts. The main progression in “Born of a Broken Man” is the stuff guitarists’ dreams are made of, the kind of riff that elicits the coveted stinkface every single time it shows up. The intense energy present on the singles begs the question of how the hell this band decided to break up not long after the album’s release.
There aren’t many bands that split at the top of their game; one that comes to mind from this time period would be Fugazi, who’s 2001 album The Argument is my personal favorite, but also their final release. Apparently the members of RATM had fairly consistent fractures in their relationships for years prior to Los Angeles, so clearly the time had come to move on. You’d never be able to recognize the issues though, as The Battle of Los Angeles is an incredibly tight, intense and focused record that has only grown better with age.
Slipknot – Slipknot
It would be remiss of us to neglect Slipknot’s self-titled debut, firstly because it marked the beginning of the band’s meteoric rise to stardom and secondly because it had a hugely formative impact on many of our staff’s musical tastes. Think back to 1999, when the heaviest music the mainstream had ever heard was somewhere between Pantera’s aggression and KoRn’s darkness. Don’t get me wrong, both bands have released some great music and can be crushing at times, but they didn’t prepare people for what they were about to hear. The Iowan nine-piece burst out of the gates with the explosive “(sic)”, guitars bulldozing listeners and rendering them helpless against venomous vocals and a percussive assault that could scarcely be believed. Aggression was an understatement. This was fury. This was hatred. This was destruction incarnate.
(For some perhaps un)Fortunately the record didn’t let up from there, going straight for the jugular with “Eyeless”, “Surfacing”, “Spit it Out” and more. The standard nu-metal formula was there: chunky and fairly straightforward, groovy riffs; alternation between clean and harsh vocals; electronic and hip-hop elements; introspective lyrics etc. But listeners got a whole lot more than they bargained for, with atonal riffs, pulverising rhythms, a maniacal vocal performance and extremity the likes of which many had never seen. It was raw and unfiltered, and Slipknot hit the world like a hurricane. The record went platinum across the English-speaking world, whilst the band’s live performances became the stuff of legend. So rabid did their following become that nobody dared offer them a support slot for fear of being upstaged, forcing the band to headline tours off of a single record and fast-tracking their rise.
Yet, what is often under-stated when reflecting upon this landmark record is its more experimental efforts. The likes of “Prosthetics” and “Scissors” were rare for the time, incredibly unsettling, and still hold up today. This was a band pushing the envelope in every facet they could imagine: heaviness, sound, live performances, imagery and experimentation. Rarely has a band hit a home run on all fronts with a debut, and there is a reason it’s still celebrated as a landmark record not just for the band or for that year, but for metal as a whole.
Testament – The Gathering
Pete disputed my characterisation of Testament’s the gathering as a modern (thrash) metal classic in our recent mailbag post, and I’d like to take this opportunity to defend my position.
Although the 1990s are largely seen as a dark time for thrash metal (an assessment I myself might dispute), the twenty-first century has largely seen a resurgence in the genre. Between the “rethrash” movement and the (underappreciated) influence of thrash metal upon the modern metalcore and NWOAHM movement(s), there’s arguably more outstanding thrash metal being made now than at any other point in history, outside of 1986. The output of the “Big 4” remains hit-and-miss – rarely rivalling their classic output. However, the thrash resurgence has been largely led by those supposedly “B-tier” thrash bands, such as Exodus, Kreator, even Destruction, who have been busy not so quietly putting out some of the best material of their already-esteemed careers. Testament have always been at the forefront of this resurgence, and it all started with The Gathering.
Its successor, The Formation of Damnation (2008) gets a lot of credit for kicking off the resurgence, but both Evile and Municipal Waste were already on the scene by then and it came in the wake of Machine Head’s The Blackening (2007), not to mention Through the Ashes of Empires (2003), which really blew the gates open for thrash metal in the new millennium. The Gathering, however, came at a time when thrash metal was arguably at its weakest – the metal world was still four years away from St Anger (2003) at this point and it had been a long time since they’d had an indisputable thrash classic on their hands (even accepting (somehow) disputable entries like Burn My Eyes (1994) and Far Beyond Driven (1994)). Having said that, Testament easily have the best ‘90s track record of any classic thrash metal band. 1992’s The Ritual is a personal favourite of mine, and if Low (1994) and Demonic (1997) represent the band’s nadir, then they’re not doing too poorly at all; even Souls of Black (1990) has its defenders.
The Gathering, however, takes things to a whole other level. Testament are essentially a supergroup on this release: consisting of Chuck Billy, i.e. the best thrash vocalist in the business; thrash drummer-supreme Dave Lobardo (Slayer), delivering one of the best performances of his career outside of Reign in Blood and Seasons in the Abyss (1990); fretless bass maestro Steve Di Giorgio (Sadus, Death); founding guitarist and primary songwriter Eric Peterson; and ex-Obituary and Death guitarist James Peterson, who replaces long-time lead guitarist Alex Skolnick, whose absence constitutes the only mark that can be held against The Gathering. Unsurprisingly the induction of esteemed death metal muscians into Tesament’s line-up pushed the band’s sound in a heavier, more extreme direction, and they were all the better for it.
A lot of The Gathering’s songs have become staples of Testament’s set lists in the new millennium (far more than those from The Formation of Damnation I might add). On the many occasions I’ve seen the band in that time they’ve always constituted highlights, and the contrast between the tracks from The Gathering and Testament’s classic material is utterly palpable. The album is tuned down compared to their classic albums (D-standard I think?) and that single step down makes a hell of a difference. As much as I love and revere The New Order (1988), Tracks like “D.N.R.”, “Down For Life” and “Riding the Snake” simply blow them away in the live environment; and that’s only scratching the surface of what The Gathering has to offer.
The Gathering is the heaviest and most musically accomplished album of Testament’s career. It came at a time when most classic thrash bands were chasing mainstream success by watering down their sound or flirting with the alternative metal styles that were popular during the period. Testament and The Gathering, however, proved that thrash bands could prosper once more by (not so) simply going harder and faster. Thus far it has informed the rest of their career, as well as setting the standard for what was to come from the thrash metal resurgence. To date, however, it hardly been equalled by any of its successors – and even then only by bands called Machine Head.