I’m in a really good mood this week.
On Saturday, I got to see local band Kid, You’ll Move Mountains play for the first time. They debuted six new songs from their upcoming record, and they were all great. Drummer Nate Lanthrum, in particular, made my jaw drop more than once with his tricky, constantly shifting rhythms. (“I’m just trying not to be boring,” he said after the show.) KYMM opened for Chicago’s Gold Motel and Milwaukee’s Maritime, both of whom put on really good shows. I left smiling.
Tonight (Nov. 17), I’m seeing the Dresden Dolls play at the Vic Theatre in Chicago. Everything I’ve heard about every Dresden Dolls show has me excited for this. As a special treat, the opening act is Chicago-based punk marching band Mucca Pazza, which counts among its members Vanessa Valliere, a woman I went to high school with. Small, small world.
So yeah, things are pretty good right now, musically speaking. I’ve also been finding a lot of good recorded stuff to listen to lately, despite my earlier moaning about the end of the year doldrums. This week’s column is brought to you by the letter M, and it features music that has invaded my CD player of late and won’t give it back. I mean that in a good way.
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It’s true confessions time.
You know how we all have these phases we go through, where we passionately and completely love something others find questionable, but we don’t care? And later, when we look back, we can’t quite understand what it was about that thing that drew us to it? You know, the way some people fell head over heels for the New Kids on the Block, and hung their posters on their walls and obsessed over which one was their favorite and screamed their lungs out for them at concerts? And now they feel a little embarrassed for having done so?
For some people, that phase was teeny-bopper pop music. For me, it was Christian heavy metal.
From about 14 until about 17, I consumed all the Christian metal I could get my hands on. I don’t mean glammy metal like Stryper, although I did like some of that. I mean real, brutal, thrashing metal, with face-melting solos and drums that would give you whiplash. I mean metal that could stand up proudly next to the stuff I loved as a teenager, like Anthrax and Slayer and early Queensryche. Only, you know, about Jesus.
I suppose it isn’t much of a stretch to understand why I liked this stuff. I was a church-going lad, raised in a church-going family, and I embraced a very simple religious message early on. This music is essentially based on that message: accept Jesus or your soul will burn in Hell. It’s an uncomfortable idea for me now, and the so-called Christian music I listen to these days (Terry Taylor, the Choir, even Sufjan Stevens) offers a more complex worldview, a more complicated morality. But the metal bands of my youth matched my childlike faith with their own black-and-white preaching, and I responded.
So there was this label called Intense Records, a subsidiary of Christian music giant Frontline, and they were the first and the best at this Christian metal thing. I bought everything they put out, and they covered a pretty wide range. I have very close to the entire Intense catalog on cassette, and I loved all of these ridiculous bands. They had a huge impact on my formative years as a music fan, even though almost no one I know has any idea who they were. I’ve caught up with a couple – Deliverance, for example, is still putting out albums, and Australian metal monster Mortification keeps soldiering on.
But I figured the rest of the Intense lineup would be lost to the sands of time. I didn’t count on Intense Millennium Records, a new label that has taken on the task of remastering and re-releasing these old albums in spiffed-up new versions. It’s like someone went back in time and brought me a piece of my childhood, all gift-wrapped. And since I’m the only person I know who likes this stuff, it feels like a personal gift to me. So thanks, Intense Millennium.
The label’s first set of reissues consists of five albums by three bands, all of which I obsessed over as a kid. I remember when fellow metalhead Chris Callaway brought Human Sacrifice, the debut from Vengeance (later Vengeance Rising), in to church one Sunday. The front cover was a graphic shot of a hand nailed to a cross, the songs had titles like “Fill This Place With Blood” and “Beheaded,” and the whole thing looked really foreboding to a sheltered kid from the suburbs. That impression didn’t go away when I heard the music. It was punishing, explosive, heavy stuff, with a vocalist who sounded like he’d gargled with razor blades before stepping up to the mic.
That was my gateway drug, and soon, I was listening to everything with an Intense logo. It was a phase, one I don’t understand, but still look back on fondly. So now here I am with wonderful remastered versions of Vengeance Rising’s Human Sacrifice and Once Dead, Sacred Warrior’s Rebellion, and Bloodgood’s self-titled debut and its follow-up, Detonation. I’m finding I still know every song by heart, even though I haven’t heard some of them in nearly 20 years.
Human Sacrifice is still stunning, even 22 years after its release. It’s uncommonly brutal, and the newly remastered sound is thick and dense. It obviously wasn’t made with a lot of care – there are two glaring vocal mistakes that stayed in – but it moves with a ferocity that’s still startling. Some songs are mere seconds long, like “Salvation,” but others, like the instrumental “Ascension,” stretch to more than five minutes, winding down detours and showing off the band’s chops. And they had chops aplenty.
Once Dead, the 1989 follow-up, is simultaneously cheaper and more epic. The original cover showed the band members in cheesy zombie makeup rising from their own graves, and the production is similarly threadbare, hissy and ragged. But the songs grew more punishing, and more interesting. The eight-minute “Into the Abyss” is my favorite Vengeance song, a slow-motion jackhammer powerhouse. Roger Martinez’ voice is somehow in worse shape here than on the debut, vacillating between a growl and a whine, but it works well with the music. And there’s a hilarious cover of “Space Truckin” here too. I may not be making this record sound awesome, but it is.
Chicago’s Sacred Warrior played (and still plays) a brooding form of mid-tempo metal that takes from Queensryche and Iron Maiden. In Rey Parra they have a powerful, operatic singer, and his voice is at the forefront of the band’s 1988 debut, Rebellion. I liked subsequent Sacred Warrior albums more, but this one is very good, despite the awful ballad “He Died.” Quick burners like “Stay Away From Evil” and “Children of the Light” still crank, and the closer, “Sword of Victory,” remains the album’s best.
And then there is Seattle’s Bloodgood, named after their bass player, Michael Bloodgood. They were one of the first Christian metal bands – their self-titled debut preceded Human Sacrifice by two years, and at the time, no one could have imagined a heavier Christian album. Bloodgood is more blues-based and less thrashy than their contemporaries, although Bloodgood does contain the absolute scorcher “Black Snake.” The majority of the album’s fare is guitar-heavy rock like “Stand in the Light” and “Anguish and Pain.”
Their second record, 1987’s Detonation, turned the intensity up. It opens with “Battle of the Flesh,” a massive workout for drummer Mark Welling and singer Les Carlsen, and though it includes the slower “Alone in Suicide,” it also contains the two-part Easter drama “Crucify” and “The Messiah,” the songs for which Bloodgood is best known. “Crucify” in particular is awesomely ridiculous. Over hyperspeed drums and riffing, Carlsen plays the part of Pontius Pilate, acting out Jesus’ trial. It could be comical, but they sell it, and “The Messiah” is suitably reverent and memorable.
Of course, the lyrics on all of these records are straightforward, straight-up religious. I was okay with them as a churchgoing teen, but these days, I find some of the moral absolutes here questionable. The Vengeance albums in particular made me queasy more than once. There’s a violence to them that seems to preclude rational thought: “I want my head chopped off, you’ll see my body rot, and then I’ll reign with Christ and then you’ll fry,” for example. It’s almost like Martinez went from the Old Testament to Revelations, skipping all that “love everybody” stuff in the middle.
How do I feel listening to this stuff now, after more than 20 years? A little conflicted, but these albums are permanently etched onto my life, and there’s no reversing that process. Seeing what’s happened to Roger Martinez has been disillusioning – he’s still preaching with the same intensity, but from the opposite perspective now. He’s on Facebook, swearing up a storm and daring anyone who will listen to defend the atrocities depicted in the book of Numbers. It’s like watching a childhood friend die.
I try not to think about any of that when listening to these albums. When it comes right down to it, reflexive theology aside, Vengeance was a superb metal band, and Sacred Warrior and Bloodgood are still at it, and still very good. The lyrics don’t ring as true to me anymore, but these songs are still favorites, still important to me. I’m looking forward to hearing the rest of Intense Millennium’s reissues too – the second Sacred Warrior and third Bloodgood are on tap for January, with the third Vengeance and an album by Deliverance set for February.
The remastering, by the way, is amazing. Full and rich and lush, even in the case of Once Dead, which no longer sounds like it was recorded on a boom box. Each remaster has new artwork by James Heru, with the original cover art on the other side of the booklet. I like the new art better in nearly every case (it’s hard to beat that iconic Human Sacrifice cover), and the packaging is well-designed. The Vengeance and Bloodgood albums came with bonus discs, full of demos and bootleg-quality live tracks, and while I won’t be listening to them very often, they’re nice to have.
In all, Intense Millennium has done a bang-up job with this chapter of my childhood, and I’m excited to hear more. If you are too, check them out here.
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My friend Jeff Elbel owns a recording studio in Wheaton. He does lots of work for lots of people for very little money, and has an ear that I would kill for. He’s great at this, is what I’m saying, and if you want proof, check out the new album from Michigan band Mumble, called Happy Living. Jeff produced it over the past several years, and it sounds like the band paid a million bucks for his work.
I’d never heard Mumble before Jeff played me their stuff, but over the last week, as I’ve spun Happy Living again and again, I’ve grown to really like them. They play complex, progressive pop with a keen sense of melody, and the 13 songs on this record all go places you won’t expect. And then there’s the sound itself, dense and lush and full of surprises. There are very few moments here that sound like a band playing on a stage, but as a studio creation, Happy Living is impressive stuff. It’s rare to hear a local album that sounds this good.
The record opens slowly, with a minute-long intro segueing into the grandiose, mid-tempo “In It Now.” But when that chorus hits, you’ll know why they put it first. “Mad Drivers” is a tricky, proggy thing, with some nifty organ lines and hidden, almost inaudible percussion tricks. (It took three listens for me to really hear what the woodblocks are doing. It’s that kind of record.) I think “Claire” is the single, with its lovely acoustic guitar parts and glorious harmonies. The band thinks “I Got a Woman” is the more likely hit, and though I disagree, I can’t fault that song either. Its chorus is soaring and memorable.
“Child Giant” is also a winner, and its repetitive yet endearing chorus will get stuck in your head. (It certainly has in mine.) But my favorites on this album are in the more experimental second half. “Bloodletters’ Town Hall” is a terrific parable set to dark music, “My Fighting Weight” reminds me of Minus the Bear, and the lovely “Daffodil” is a low-key gem. Closer “Big Blue Ball” is the album’s one disappointment – it should rock more than it does, and it comes off a little flat. But overall, this is one fine pop album.
My one quibble is with leader John Hawthorne’s voice. He has a nice tone, but I wish it were a little stronger in places. The man writes all the songs, and he should get to sing them if he wants to, but some of these songs (“Big Blue Ball” especially) could have used a more forceful vocal. But it’s clear Happy Living has been a labor of love. At times this record is so full of sound, so generous and overflowing with joy, that you wonder whether it can sustain it. The fact that it does, and that it packs so many well-written, well-made songs into fewer than 50 minutes, is a testament to all involved. This is really good stuff.
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And finally, we come to a band I’ve loved for years. I just got the word that Mae is breaking up. They’re embarking on one last tour with all five original members, and probably making a live album, and then calling it quits. Those who don’t know Mae probably don’t realize it, but this is a real shame. They’re a superb band, and I’ll miss them.
But they’re going out on a high note. Over the past two years, they’ve been recording and releasing songs online, letting people download them for a small donation, and putting that money into service projects around the globe. They worked with Habitat for Humanity and DonorsChoose, donating thousands of dollars. It was an impressive thing to watch.
The music is equally impressive. Spread out over three EPs entitled (M)orning, (A)fternoon and (E)vening, Mae delivered 23 tracks that expanded their horizons while remaining as punchy and melodic as anything they’d done. The just-released (E)vening brings the project to a close gracefully – where the first two EPs were often fiery workouts, the final chapter is quieter and more reflective. It’s also, I think, my favorite of the lot.
(E)vening brings Jacob Marshall’s piano to the fore once again. That was the element I first responded to – Mae’s first two albums combined pop-punk force and melody with a nice leavening of pretty keys, and it stood out as unique. The new EP opens with a short piano piece, then segues into “Bloom,” a gentle tune with a great piano line. David Elkins’ high, even voice is in fine form again, and I can’t help thinking that this, this is the sound I’m going to miss.
Not that the rest of the EP misses the mark in any way. Both “I Just Needed You to Know” and “My Favorite Dream” are classic Mae songs, mid-tempo pop numbers with complex twists, fine playing and lovely harmonies. But the real surprise of the EP is “Seasons,” a 14-minute solo piano piece subdivided into 18 movements. It describes, in music, the passing of a year. It’s lovely. On a personal note, I like this because when I sit down to play the piano, this is what it sounds like.
The full band returns for “Sleep Well,” but the tone remains gentle and quiet. I love the chorus to this one – it sounds like Elkins and company putting the band to bed with a song. It builds and builds, finally segueing into the dramatic closer, “Good (E)vening,” strings flailing in the background while the band plays as if they’ll never have the chance again. It’s simply marvelous, a grand capstone to a career that went unheralded, but produced some terrific music. Rest in peace, goodbye, good night.
Hear Mae’s stuff and get their EP trilogy here.
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And that’s what I’ve been listening to. How about you? Next week, Kanye and Kid Cudi and Cee-Lo. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow my infrequent twitterings at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.