Saturday, January 17, 2009

Licensed to Critique: The Fine Art of Ample Destruction

Though I should,at some point,type out a lengthy and in depth review for this pinnacle of U.S. power metal, I'll stick with my original plan for now..that being a study of the original 1984 Ironworks/Azra cover art(and cover art only). I have never been too interested in Jag Panzer's other works though the 1983 EP is a pretty solid effort. You could say it's a taste of things to come. Their resurgence never piqued my interest but I'm glad to see them writing,recording and performing. On this particularly freezing January day I'm shut tight in my bedroom looking at an 844 x 588 jpeg of the original vinyl cover art. It's a photograph and unfortunately it wasn't taken by me. No, I'm not a heavy metal LP collector though I almost always wish I could be. I've not the funds to splurge on private pressings and original NWOBHM 7"'s. I do buy vinyl but nothing that comes close to the price tag of an "Ample Destruction" original. I'm more of a "just picked up Control & Resistance or Death Or Glory" music listener. Nothing too hard to get your hands on..easy to find for around $30.00. I also like buying new/current metal vinyl releases but current metal bands that floor me in amazement are few and far between. So anyways, I'm looking at this photograph and as usual I'm a bit irked by how blurry it is but I remind myself that this is the biggest jpeg I've ever found and there isn't any wallpaper sized version to study from either. A smaller,but clearer picture of the cover is open on a tab in Firefox..I'll be inspecting this one a bit,alternating between the two. I'm not going to spend time on the pic disc version with the tank photograph on it because there isn't much to it.
When "Ample Destruction" was bootlegged throughout the 80's and reissued in 1990, this incredible cover art was never re-used. The 1985 Banzai Records bootleg presented buyers with an ugly uninspired cover,a multi-armed robot emitting weird fluids in a vague mountainous valley(?) It's very hard to understand exactly what this fucking is and I cannot find a hi-quality jpeg anywhere. It probably goes without saying that this LP/cassette art was thrown together in a rush in order to get the album out on the street. Barricade Records put out their bootleg version in 1989 and opted for a less forgettable,though equally random,cover. We've got three or four hookers in front of a bar or diner..liquor on the table,the woman standing up has a tit sticking out of her leather trench coat, and she looks rather vexed. Maybe it's the fact that she's on the cover of a crummy bootleg and there is what looks like a lighting storm approaching in the distance. Who knows..maybe she's mad at somebody for laughing at her cheap looking butterfly necklace? A biker is making his/or her way into the scene from the right and there's a digital clock in the background (up above the police hat worn by a lustful Latino vixen). Nothing about this transmits the fury of "Generally Hostile"..the burning energy of "Licensed to Kill." It completely fails at registering any type of bond with the music on the album. Maybe if you were about 13 when you sat down and took a good gander at this cover art you'd find yourself "Harder Than Steel" but that's about the only link I can find here. It's at least executed with good technique. I wonder if the art was lifted from something else?

As the year 1990 rolls around, Metalcore Records officially reissues the album and what do they do with the cover art? Why they add a THIRD horrible and embarrassing cover to the collection of course! The most lazily drawn pile of bodies is the first thing that I notice(man..these look awful!). I don't think there would be much of an argument over the quality of this drawing. It's not as if all other heavy metal cover art coming out at the time was lacking in skill. Certainly a better artist could have been acquired. The bodies of all these bald headed male corpses are bloodstained and sitting in a heap upon a rock or queer shadow of some sort. It looks like it could be a puddle..but it's a black puddle so that gives us a clue that it's not a puddle of their blood. Atop this miserably drawn mess sits a thin but muscular elf,brooding,staring at his blade,..dripping with fresh man blood. He's got a terrible hairdo but I am not going to pick on him for his individual style..rather he just looks a bit awkward overall..sitting there. In white Times New Roman font,"Ample Destruction" hovers near the bottom of the cover. The general hues are a pink/red..kind of warm and not at all striking or eye catching. This could be the worst cover in my opinion. The "but it's just a crummy bootleg!" reply is no excuse this time around. We've traveled through realms of terrible art and just now come to the end of the list. The very last alternate cover reissue is a Metal Blade reissue from 1991. Twelve shields,bearing relatively simple designs,sit 4 to a row on a grayish background. The band name above,the title below..really a bit of a fresh air compared to the last few covers. I can't say that I like it.If you were to look at it quickly it easily looks like some type of car ad. Again, this is not the least bit worthy of a package in which to house such an electrifying collection of perfectly laid out metal songs. The only upper might be how royal and dignified the cover appears..kind of falls into line with "The Reign Of The Tyrants" or the power metal ballad,"The Crucifix."

So let's get back to that original album art work now that we've covered all of the alternate reissue covers. Most likely your eyes will at first be drawn to the head of the apocalyptic riders as she's front and center. Her jet black steed seems to be aware that he's posing for your viewing pleasure as he's turned to the side and looks to be flying upwards. At this angle you can get an almost full body view of the rider..a horned,scantily clad cross between a gypsy and a geisha. Unlike her three cohorts, her face bears an expression of rage or maybe she's reveling in feeling evil? Her scimitar sword in one hand,the other looking as if it's about to cast a spell or hurl a fireball. Being a woman on an 80's metal album cover, it's no surprise that she's top heavy(ample distractions?), but she's a far cry from the big breasted temptresses and helpless slave women that adorn many records. She's got a belt of baby sized skulls which probably rattle against one another as she rides through the skies on her demonic horse. I've never once looked at this album art and felt as if she's NOT the leader of the seems obvious that she is. Behind her to the left there is a far less cool robotic knight type of character. His head/face have always bothered me a bit,looks kind of crooked. His horse appears to be fairly normal compared to the woman's and there isn't much in the way of detail going on with him..kind of a hellish automaton or something. Thankfully there's a skeleton rider galloping behind him through the air, and now that I think of it you can almost imagine both of these horses galloping in time to the drums in "Symphony Of Terror." Then again,the reaper's horse looks quite sickly and bony..kind of like a skeleton himself but while retaining the form of a full horse? Maybe it's safer to say that this particular horse just floats along,a assembly of bones and hunks of flesh animated by way of sorcery. The skeleton rider looks tremendously bad ass, with a horny helmet and scythe in hand. Obviously we can draw some parallels to the fabled four horsemen of the apocalypse here but there are a lot of inconsistencies. This menacing reaper is obviously 'death' and all the way to the right of the cover is a man on a black horse holding a balance who is undoubtedly modeled after the third horseman,famine. There is nothing particularly awesome about this character..he is holding a balance after all(and wearing a stovepipe hat) but I think he adds variety to the group..looking somewhat like a regular human being. As I noted before, there are a good amount of inconsistencies when comparing this gang to the four horsemen. Mostly on behalf of the lady who isn't riding a white horse,doesn't have a bow in sight,nor a quiver of arrows and she's certainly not wearing a crown. I guess the robotic black knight could be the rider of "war" upon his red horse waving a sword? Calling his horse red might be a bit of a stretch. It's safe to say that the artist knew about the four horsemen and used it as inspiration but they didn't seem to sacrifice the overall presentation for historical accuracy. I'm sure that you who have heard "Ample Destruction" can agree that this is the most befitting cover out of all that I've reviewed. Everything about it as a whole perfectly illustrates the music on the album. The passionate fury,the glory,the praise of battle and bravado..I could go on and on here. And look at the terrain and the sky! Doesn't look anything but American to these a scorching hot desert now becoming slightly chilly as the sun sets. There are some shapes around that could be ruins or craggy buttes..Utah,Arizona,Mojave desert? Who knows really? An artists name(too small for me to be able to read of course)sits in the bottom right hand corner. It begins with an "A" but I've never been able to get any farther than that. All the colors of the sunset,the creamsicle oranges,baby blues and smoky grays, they compliment the dark riders and the mesa over which they fly but even better do these warm sunset colors compliment the border of the cover. A black border with red lettering, almost always a good color combination. The band name isn't too fancy but neither is it treated without any looks very classic. In what I'd call a "Terminator font" on the bottom of the album is "Ample Destruction." What a fucking clear but wonderfully worded album title. These guys really knew what they were doing here.

One can only wonder why Jag Panzer don't uphold the glory of the olden days. Try as you might you will most likely NEVER come across any old pictures of the band, definitely not by way of their website or Myspace. There is nary a quality scan of this album art and I think they oughta get on it as this is surely something to be proud of. Maybe something to type on another time. As it stands today, this album art is among my top ten favorite metal album covers of all fact.......

*original art ONLY thus cancelling out (favorite)Burzum and Cirith Ungol covers
1.Iron Maiden-Powerslave:Derek Riggs
2.Judas Priest-Screaming For Vengeance:Doug Johnson
3.Fates Warning-Awaken The Guardian:Third Image
4.Jag Panzer-Ample Destruction:????
5.Emperor-In the Nightside Eclipse:"Necrolord"Kristian Wåhlin
6.Saint Vitus-Mournful Cries:Lionel Baker
7.Ved Buens Ende-Written In Waters(original):Lise Myhre
8.Black Hole-Land Of Mystery:????
9.Black Sabbath-self titled:Marcus Keef
10.Voivod-Killing Technology:Michel "Away" Langevin


Friday, January 2, 2009

Physical and Mental Landscapes

Herein lies a short review that seemed to take me forever to complete. A review of Skepticism's monolithic "Stormcrowfleet." I am mostly satisfied with it though I was hoping to return to the state forest and think it all through before wrapping it up. Due to nearly every other day being wet(rain or snow)I haven't gotten over there. I've also been feeling like hammered shit lately thanks to catching some bastard form of a cold from my recently departed friends(not departed as in 'dead' but departed as in 'moved overseas'). Today is the first day since Monday that I haven't awakened dizzy with a headache but my throat seems to be worse. Time to get some more Airborne placebo medicine and/or hit the bottles. Since I felt a bit quicker in mind it seemed like a good idea to finish this review. I seem to get a once a month inspiration fever in which I have a dozen ideas for this blog. I run with one and inspiration turns to procrastination and you know the rest. Anyways, without further bullshit.....

Red Stream,1995
Line-up :
Matti - Vocals
Jani Kekarainen - Guitar
Eero Pöyry - Keys
Lasse Pelkonen - Drums

I sauntered on down the dirt road and looked for the first small path on the left. The cold was taking it's toll on my ungloved hands and my nose was running. Choice weather for a walk in an undamaged and vastly unexplored forest...well if you're me, which you aren't. The dubbed cassette copy of "Stormcrowfleet" fit unsurprisingly well with the stark, naked trees,crumpled leaves and blue sky. Yeah, blue requirements for a gloomy storm front moving in(though that would have worked well too). Skepticism play what those labeling-happy types might call "atmospheric funeral doom." Funeral doom seems to be mainly about mourning, loss, death, and despair, all set to slow pounding drums and drawn out sequences of simple riffs. Death metal type growls usually dominate the mic though some singers add variety with clean vocals. Female vocals are rather commonplace. All of this sound rather boring? Well yeah, after hearing many of the "amazing classics" that the sub-genre has to offer..I arrived at that exact conclusion. However there are exceptions. Bands that have sought to make music before making a name for themselves in whatever their choice of sub-genre might be.

Two summers ago I was killing time, on the prowl for a job in sweltering Austin,Texas. I spent a lot of time surfing the net at a little bistro, just crawling with the exact type of 20 somethings that you might imagine. While browsing the web for jobs I maintained a strict headphones at all times policy..sat off in this one corner. I quickly found that Skepticism's debut album tended to calm me down, decrease the rage and anger that I had towards the present situation and all the while inspiring my imagination to beautiful landscapes, oaken sheds far off in the woods, mist filled chasms, snowcapped mountains, a crisp winter sunset overlooking a clearing, humming fields of cicadas on a windy summer night. I'd begin to wait until getting back to my friend's apartment and listen to the album alone in the coolness of the unlit livingroom. With the cavernous vocals very muffled due to the production, the low end growl transmitted no clear words into my mind. This allowed for me to very easily focus all my attention on the whole. Painfully slow melodies, the structures of the songs and the simplistic time keeping aspect of the drumming. Deep guitars rumble alongside bass guitar and organ, all very bass drenched and earthy sounding. What uptempo melodies there are either come about by way of organ/keyboard, weaving their way over slowly drawn out chord progressions or by guitar, usually a faster moving part layered beneath the heavy plodding of the other instruments. You'll tend to notice little variations on the main theme overlaid for variation and helpful in heightening the atmosphere. Paying careful attention to the drumming performance I've come to realize how the slow marching pounding of the toms, with expressive but minimal cymbal work, sounds very shamanistic and primitive. Instead of utilizing all of the space in between snare or cymbal hits with fills, the drummer keeps it simple and channels all his force into every building pound or crash. A protracted march through rugged terrain. It's not difficult to sit back and relax, allowing the music to work as extremely heavy oil paints, manifesting nature oriented imagery on the canvas of your mind. I never found "Stormcrowfleet" to be depressing or full of melancholy and's uplifting. It seems as if Skepticism took a good deal of their inspiration from soundtrack music and ambient..there aren't any real metal-by-the-numbers moments to be found on this record. The spirit of metal is alive and well but in a very raw and simplistic form, maybe yet to be mined out of a mountainside. If you are looking for traces of death metal or doom metal(in it's pure state) won't have any real luck in finding it here.
Now I have to bring up another band credited for birthing the sub-genre of funeral doom, Thergothon. I think of Thergothon and Skepticism as being brothers. Both Finnish, both active/around at the same time, both playing a crushingly heavy and ambling style of highly atmospheric metal. I can't help but feel that both bands were trying to create the most ancient, rustic and mysterious sounding slo-motion metal record. Thergothon's "Stream From the Heavens" isn't half as magical as Skepticism's debut but it trudges along at the same pace, sad but triumphant hymn-like songs with growling vocals, inspiring evocative imagery in the mind of the listener. Thergothon tended to base their lyrics around Lovecraftian mythos and were perhaps a bit more sinister in terms of their riff writing, these ears it sounds a bit closer to extreme metal than Skepticism. The production on their full-length turns me off as it's a lot of distorted highs, crispy fried keyboard and unfortunately weak sounding drums. I roped them into the review because I believe that they were also trying to kind of go beyond metal..rather than speeding it up to a blistering pace, they slowed it down..waaaaaaay down. But more importantly, both albums can be listened to much like ambient music. It's not merely slowed down death or black metal a la Goatlord or Argentum..but striving to be something more. While Thergothon reach for the cold mysteries of the cosmos, Skepticism crawl beneath the earth and trudge above it. This earthy quality charmed me from the get go, it's warm and comfortable, somehow familiar. I sometimes wonder what my reaction would have been to this album back when it first came out. I was very young at the time and knew little to nothing of guitar-based music. Yet, I feel as if younger me would have latched onto this. My overactive imagination, love for the outdoors, the autumn and fantasy worlds would have worked well with this dreamy metal. Perhaps because I predominantely listened to soundtracks and classical music back then and as I already stated, this sounds very soundtrack inspired in a way.

Lyrically Skepticism only solidify my views on their music. Rather than petty prose based around broken hearts or self loathing we get these;

On the cold bridge of grey stones
Stood the old man in his grey robe
Opening his oak barrels
Pouring them to the river


The forest is around me
In silence the pines stand tall
With the wind they whisper their tales
As their wisdom is everdarkgreen

Very simplistic and almost haiku-like when you read them.

When I started this review I was writing about walking in the forest and I want to get back to that. I believe I was listening to "The Everdarkgreen" when I ascended out of the woods and came upon a vast clearing of low cut brush and some short dead trees. A twisted, frost encrusted club(well I quickly imagined it to be a club)was lying in my path and naturally I picked it up and swung it around like a weapon. I walked onward with it in my hand and let my mind do some quick plotting..if I was a type of scout, no wait, a type of goblin scout, roaming the borderlands of goblin territory.The music added such mystery to the long unexplored path and I walked slowly enjoying every step, enjoying every sidestep or hop over a mud puddle, not scurrying around while repeatedly checking my cellphone for the time. "Stormcrowfleet" works as great calming, meditative music. Maybe like a metallic Steve Roach. A breeze through the pines and a powerful gust of wind from off of the cold ocean. Skepticism creates a world within your imagination or turns the real world surrounding you into some far off planet or buried and forgotten kingdom. Most thought out heavy metal in general, or the heavy metal that I hold in highest regard, does this exact same thing. It's in the creation of an out of this world setting by way of guitar tone, melody, vocals, production, instrumentation(conjuring)..the manipulation of setting by wisely wielded and genuine power. Power to reshape and remake or to wholly remove the listener from reality. This is why I personally prefer Mercyful Fate over Venom, Voivod over Anthrax, Sacramentum over Marduk and Demilich over Death. That's a topic for another time('magick metal':).