Last week, I started writing my monthly “Pirate Guide”—wherein I offer brief reviews of a handful of new albums—and I wound up instead penning one insanely long review of one new album. I promised, though, to return this week with more reviews, and shorter reviews, of more albums. And I suppose I have kept my promise, though I am afraid I have done so in name only. Indeed, two reviews don’t quite count as a “handful,” and these reviews are hardly “brief.” But I tried, dear Reader; this I swear. Perhaps in July I can find ways to be more economical with my words. For now, though, I am again too enthusiastic, too verbose.
The debate over what is and isn’t “punk” seems especially inane in 2010, but I can’t help feeling a degree of sympathy for those longtime fans of Against Me! who feel somewhat betrayed by the band’s abrupt plunge into the mainstream. While some bands move to a major label for better distribution or more diverse publicity opportunities, Against Me! changed their entire approach to making music after jumping from Fat Wreck Chords to Sire. (Of course, many of those same fans were deriding the band as “sell-outs” when they moved to Fat Wreck Chords from No Idea Records, so one can’t really feel too much sympathy for anybody who takes these things especially personally.) As someone who never cared about Against Me! until they moved to a major and started recording with Butch Vig, I’m in no position to pretend to be aggrieved, but I wonder how I’d react if I’d been into the band back then. I wonder this because, as it stands, I think Against Me! are making some of the smartest and catchiest rock music in the world today—worthy even of the endless Springsteen/Strummer comparisons constantly foisted upon the band—and I wonder if I’d feel the same way if my relationship with the band were any different than it is. I mean, it doesn’t matter, really; I just wonder. White Crosses is substantially more radio-friendly and immediate than its predecessor, 2007’s New Wave, which was itself an order of magnitude more accessible than anything the band had ever done in their indie days. To which I say: bravo. White Crosses is a triumph on every level, loaded with soaring, propulsive, endlessly ear-pleasing choruses, and lyrics that are equally challenging and exciting. (Word of advice: Buy the “Limited Edition” version, which contains four superb tracks not found on the standard edition.) These are the strongest melodies you’ll hear this year, and there can be derived immense pleasure in listening to Tom Gabel stuff his unusually complex lyrics (e.g., “In the depths of their humanity/ All I saw was bloodless ideology/ With freedom as their doctrine” from “I Was a Teenage Anarchist”) into blasting 4/4 verses typically suited to lighter, less tangled fare. [9/10]
In last week’s edition of this column, I spent some 1200 words praising Chicago black metal band Nachtmystium for refusing to comply with that genre’s oft-rigid standards and practices. In that same review, I pointed out—in the service of full disclosure—that I’m a huge fan of Nachtmystium. As it happens, I’m also a pretty big fan of Swedish black metal band Watain, and by chance, I received advance copies of both bands’ new albums on the same day. Not wanting to give short shrift to either, I abstained from listening to Watain’s Lawless Darkness till I had finished writing my review of Nachtmystium’s Addicts. And now that I’ve spent some time with Lawless Darkness, I feel like I have to praise Watain for doing precisely what Nachtmystium almost studiously avoided, and succeeding every bit as mightily. There is not a single moment on Lawless Darkness that does not belong to an established strain of black metal—this is almost as traditional as the genre gets in 2010—but Watain’s use of these old ingredients is inspired, and leads to some astonishing results. Beneath the corpsepaint, Watain are meticulous craftsmen: Dissect their songs and you’ll find a structural perfectionism that seems almost uniquely Swedish—these guys are like the ABBA of black metal. Only, you know, throat-rippingly violent instead of poppy and sad and sweet. The album’s mind-blowing first single, “Reaping Death,” is like a history of extreme metal built into five magnificent minutes: Listen closely and you can find echoes of—if not direct references to—Slayer, Immortal, Dissection, Mayhem, Entombed and Morbid Angel, among others. (Heck, the song’s title is a direct nod to the classic Metallica track “Creeping Death.”) And in its way, the song’s massive chorus is every bit as catchy as anything on the aforementioned Against Me! record (and maybe anything by ABBA, for that matter). I’m not sure anything else on Lawless Darkness achieves such dizzying heights, but everything else comes pretty damn close. [8/10]