For three weeks in a row, starting in the Press’ March 19 issue and running through our April 2 issue, I published the first three installments of my “Fifteen Albums” series, in which I was (and am) writing about the 15 albums that most shaped my life, one album per week. Then, in a column published April 9, I veered away from the series to tackle another subject, and in my April 16 column, I did so again, but I assured you, Dear Reader, that I would return to this daunting and taxing serial “next week, two more weeks, max, I promise.”
That was, of course, a month ago, so I must apologize, Gentle Reader, for breaking that promise. I simply grew distracted with other, more pressing concerns. Did you care? I don’t imagine you did! I imagine you read, and lived your life, and listened to your own records, and patiently waited for the return of this series, which comes to you…now.
But it was not only because I was distracted that I stepped away from “Fifteen Albums.” No, I did so because I didn’t know where to steer this thing in Week Four. So many great albums, so difficult to commit to such a small number of them. At least for me. Because I have to sit down and seriously ask myself, what do these choices say about me? Me now, me then, the me who these albums shaped over the time that I have lived with them? Seems like I’m making this too complicated, doesn’t it? I’m overthinking the process? Eh, maybe I am. But…well, but nothing. I can’t make excuses. Just understand that as I move forward, these choices only get harder, and I am left with more regrets, more questions about myself, my music.
4. Morbid Angel – Blessed Are the Sick (original release date: May 2, 1991)
The first album in my “Fifteen Albums” series—and therefore, I think, the most influential, insofar as it is the Prime Mover—was Iron Maiden’s Somewhere in Time. The instant I discovered Iron Maiden was the instant music became an essential element of my identity. There is no more misunderstood genre, I don’t think, than heavy metal. For all the bad publicity it receives and brings upon itself, the genre provides for young people a gateway into music that cannot be found almost anywhere else.
Of course, when one gets seriously into heavy metal, the natural impulse is to follow the music to its heaviest and darkest extremes, and when I was 16, there was nothing more extreme than death metal. And in being so extreme, death metal was also rather obscure: Mainstream audiences don’t drift to such unrelenting, disturbing sounds as those found in most death metal—guttural growling and screaming; blistering, squealing guitars; hyper-paced blast-beat drums—nor its images, including lyrics about…well, death, pain, torture, agony, blasphemy, horror, and so on. Much of it is terribly silly, yes; yet for a 16-year-old, it is very gratifying and awing. And perhaps most importantly, because the enthusiast must go to such lengths to find and come to grips with the music, it encourages a certain passion, a certain patience, that most casual listeners will never understand.
To that end, in the spring of 1991, when we were juniors in high school, a close friend of mine did a semester abroad in Sweden—not because he had an abiding interest in Swedish culture at large, or because his studies had somehow led him to Scandinavia, but because Gothenburg, Sweden was a fertile ground for new death metal at the time, and there was no other way we could get our hands on all that music. (This was before the Internet, of course, which really speaks to just how important the Internet has been in helping to grow the distribution and appreciation of music.)
Anyway, he returned loaded with bundles of great stuff—T-shirts and magazines and CDs and demo tapes of unsigned bands—but by far the most important thing he brought back was a copy of Morbid Angel’s sophomore album, Blessed Are the Sick, brand new at the time, but eagerly awaited by us, as the band’s 1989 debut was a favorite among our small, friendless clique, and something of a minor classic. (As it happens, Morbid Angel is an American band from Florida whose music at the time was released through a British label, Earache Records, so Sweden may have been an unnecessary excursion in this particular regard, but let’s not dwell on that, shall we?) Where so much death metal was brutal and bludgeoning, Blessed was somehow elegant, layered and vast. It was also magnificently heavy and fast and terrifying, but it instantly seemed like a major progression for the entire genre—and certainly, for us as listeners, it felt as though we were witnessing a significant moment in musical history.
That it was merely a footnote for most of the world was of little concern—as it should have been. For the truly intense, devoted fan, the greatest musical leaps are not necessarily the ones recognized by critics and historians, but the ones that occur inside headphones and bedrooms and basements and cars. When you have traveled to these extremes, the rest of the world hardly seems to exist; here it is just you and the music, and once you have reached this point, I do not believe you can find your way back, nor would you even try.