Every once in a while, I like to remind you all that I used to be a teenage metalhead.
I know it’s hard to imagine now, but once I had the whole package: long hair, denim jacket, attitude, everything. I was your typical depressed and angry teen, and metal was an outlet. It’s not an unfamiliar song, I grant you, but I sang it with gusto. And for a while there, I would rarely listen to anything else. I’m fond of saying that at one point in my life, I would have fought anyone who suggested that Megadeth’s Rust in Peace was not the best album ever made.
I’ve cut my hair, and my outfits now largely consist of button-down shirts and sweaters, but I’ve carried my love of metal with me for the rest of my life. If I’m looking for something to engage both the technical, analytical parts of my brain and my need to prance around a room screaming at the top of my lungs, I just can’t do any better. Each year I buy a dozen or more new metal records, and as the art form has branched out and evolved, so have my tastes.
I can trace this all back to a single album, a 67-minute gateway drug that has influenced my life more than most other music combined. That album is Metallica’s …And Justice for All, the first metal album I truly fell for. I remember borrowing it from Jack Sabetta in eighth grade, and listening to it over and over again for days before buying my own cassette copy. I’d never heard anything like it. These songs were massive things, full of twisty corridors and lengthy, intricate passages, and the lyrics were more socially relevant than anything else I had heard at the tender age of 14.
And of course, having no experience at all with metal and how it is supposed to sound, I spent way too long thinking that the mix on …And Justice for All was just how metal was. Spoiler: it isn’t. In fact, there is no other album ever made that sounds like this one does. That boxed-in, claustrophobic, bass-deficient mix is unique, the result of Lars Ulrich’s tin ear and insistent demands. Justice was the first album to feature Jason Newsted on bass, and Lars mixed him right out. He made his own drums sound like they were recorded from a different room. He built these strange sonic walls to deaden everything, and for the entirety of this album’s running time, you’re trapped in those walls too.
It’s been 30 years since Justice came out, and still nothing else feels quite like it. The band has just released an anniversary edition, and if you think they took the opportunity to correct what to most other people would register as a sonic mistake, you’d be wrong. Justice still sounds unimaginably terrible, but in this newly remastered version, you can hear with unprecedented clarity just how unimaginably terrible it is. In the intervening years I have come to think of the mix as a feature and not a bug – it conveys the bleak despair of every one of these songs extremely well. It’s interesting to have proof that the band agrees.
But honestly, whenever I listen to Justice, I’m 14 years old again. To paraphrase Nick Hornby, I’m not sure if I was a depressed teenager because I listened to music like this, or if I listened to music like this because I was a depressed teenager. Either way, Justice is one of the bleakest albums I own. It starts with a song about how our environment is being irrevocably destroyed (in 1988!), then moves through pieces about sorrow and insanity and the lack of any real relief for suffering people. Its big hit, “One,” is about a kid who gets his arms and legs blown off in the war, and is forced to live a mute, blind, deaf existence in a limbless shell. Cheery stuff.
And I love it. I love this record, even when it’s putting me through the interminable “To Live is to Die.”Justice is the very definition of uncompromising, with songs that stretch to eight, nine and ten minutes with no variety of sound. Even now, it remains fascinating, the last gasp of prog-metal Metallica before they decided to become rock stars. Three decades later and I still can’t get enough of it. It ignited within me a love and hunger for this kind of music, one which continues to this day.
Case in point: I’m deeply digging the new Tourniquet album, Gazing at Medusa. Without Justice, I might never have heard records like Vengeance’s Human Sacrifice and Deliverance’s self-titled debut, both of which led me to their label-mate Tourniquet’s first two albums. Had I never heard Stop the Bleeding and Psychosurgery, I would have missed out on one of the most fascinating rides in my metal-loving life.
Tourniquet has been around since 1989, led by mastermind Ted Kirkpatrick. Ted is a drummer, and one of the best in the business, but he’s also a devotee of classical music, and he brings that sensibility to everything his band does. Gazing at Medusa is the tenth Tourniquet album, and the band has been through at least as many changes. They started out playing speed-thrash with Beethoven licks thrown in, and their first three albums are largely considered their best. The arrival of singer Luke Easter in 1994 heralded an era of slower, more groove-driven material, which is reductive at best – Tourniquet has never been an easy band to box in.
Easter left the band after 2012’s terrific Antiseptic Bloodbath, and with 2014’s Onward to Freedom being more of a various artists collection, Medusa is the debut of the new Tourniquet. Their new singer is Tim “Ripper” Owens, famous for taking Rob Halford’s place in Judas Priest for a few years. (If you’ve seen that movie Rock Star with Mark Wahlberg, that’s about Owens.) Whatever else you can say about him, he’s a hell of a singer, and he attacks this material the way he attacks everything.
Kirkpatrick and longtime guitarist Aaron Guerra handle the music, with early Megadeth star Chris Poland on lead guitar solos. The result is classic Tourniquet, big and thrashy and complicated, with layered guitars and tricky passages galore. “Sinister Scherzo” is everything there is to love about modern Tourniquet, including a lengthy Poland solo. “Memento Mori” does kill the momentum a little bit – it’s reminiscent of “Officium Defunctorum,” from Psychosurgery – but they kick it back into gear with the great “All Good Things Died Here,” and never slow it down again.
The lyrics are more straightforward than Tourniquet sometimes is – they tend to couch their spiritual themes in medical metaphors, but in this case they just say what’s on their minds. “The Peaceful Beauty of Brutal Justice,” for instance, begins with a family sitting in court alongside the man who killed their daughter, and Owens just flat-out asks the question: “Where is justice in this world?” The song (which is terrific) is about how the wicked will be sent into damnation, and it makes room for, of all things, a flute melody in the middle.
For eight of these nine songs, Tourniquet sounds like a cohesive unit, (ahem) ripping through a set of songs that lives up to their legacy. The ninth is the title track, and this one features a different set of musicians for some reason, including Journey drummer Deen Castronovo on vocals, and it makes for a slightly awkward conclusion. But it’s a really good song, crashing in on half a dozen killer riffs one after the other, Kirkpatrick just tearing it up. Castronovo’s voice is more Dream Theater than Ripper’s, but it works on this song, and there’s enough energy and complexity that it still feels like Tourniquet.
I’m a longtime fan and even I didn’t expect Gazing at Medusa to be as tight, polished and strong as it is. Best of all, it just rocks – it’s great for jumping around the room like a madman. I’m all for diverse sounds in my metal – I love Soulfly and Holy Fawn and Bell Witch and Deliverance’s Bowie years – but there’s something to be said for a rip-snorting record like this one that wastes no time and just pummels you. I’d have loved this at 14, and I love it now. You can also love it at their site: www.tourniquet.net.
Next week, Muse and Hanson. Beat that combination. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.