For My Birthday, I Want…PAIN!!
Metal Madness With System of a Down and Slipknot

I can’t remember being a year old.

In fact, my earliest childhood memories come from my fifth year or so, sneaking next door at night just to drive my parents crazy. I did nothing remarkable in my first year, my parents assure me, nothing that they felt necessary to notify the newspapers or the authorities over. I started walking, I said my first word (“cracker,” believe it or not), and otherwise I just made a lot of noise at odd hours, signifying nothing. It was a completely unremarkable first year.

I mention this because my baby, this weekly outlet for my artistic, musical and personal concerns, is as of this column one year old. Like a proud father, I’ve watched it grow into itself over the past 12 months, at a much faster rate than I did. (Some would say I still haven’t grown into myself, while others might cruelly point out that I really haven’t stopped growing since high school…) And sure, like any infant, this column fell on its face as often as it ambled forward, but to its credit, it kept getting up and coming back week after week. You’d be surprised how little I had to do with that.

Anyway, I wanted to thank everyone who’s been there since the beginning, everyone who witnessed Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. start walking and say its first few words. And while it sure did make a lot of noise at odd hours, often signifying nothing, I’d have to say that this first year has been anything but unremarkable.

So, thank you.


Now, then.

Some of you have noticed that the majority of records reviewed here are of the soft, intimate variety, and have in fact inferred from that the unreasonable conclusion that your faithful author is a bit of a wussy-boy. That he likes to prance around in fields of flowers, wearing a skirt and picking daisies to give to his mom. That, in short, you all could kick his ass. Twice.

Does this artsy-fartsy, left-leaning, bleeding heart peacenik listen to nothing but soul-affirming pussy music, you ask? Does he not ever feel the need to bloody his own nose, so to speak, with the guitar-laden screams of the tortured and the righteously pissed? Does he honestly consider Ani DiFranco “confrontational”? Does this preening pile of pathetic passivity, who even had nice things to say about Sting’s new live album, not ever throw himself bodily into a kinetic expression of rage, fueled by the incessant crushing tones of real, honest-to-Christ heavy shit music? Does his amp not go to eleven? Does he not ever, if you’ll pardon the phrase, tear the motherfucking roof off the joint, metaphorically speaking?

Listen up, you ungrateful sacks of shit. You’re talking to the guy who, in 1991, thought the best album ever made was Megadeth’s Rust In Peace. You’re talking to the guy who knew who Pantera was before the world did. You’re talking to the guy who covered John “Nuclear Assault” Connelly’s “L.H.A.” with his high school band. And, you’re talking to the guy who’d like to point out that if you’re actually talking to me, I can’t hear you.

Real, seriously heavy shit metal has been on the wane for some time, sadly, and has been eclipsed by this “nu-metal” thing, whatever that is. Metallica’s all about sales figures, Megadeth hasn’t made a decent record since ‘91, and even though Slayer soldier on, their schtick has turned tired and repetitive. The best metal band in the world, in this nancy-boy’s humble opinion, is Brazil’s Sepultura, who took grinding, downtuned speed metal and infused it with tribal elements to make a new hybrid. Real, crushing metal appears to be a thing of the past.

While the two-guitars-bass-drum-growl lineup has faded somewhat, there are new practitioners of heavy music that know what they’re doing, and proudly wave their fuck-all flags. Two of them had new albums this year, and in between swooning over estrogen-laden folkies, your milquetoast hippie of a columnist managed to hear ‘em both. Metal, like all musical trends, must adapt to survive changing tastes and technologies, but these new breeds testify loud (repeat: LOUD) and clear that the form is long from dead.

When stacked next to the endless, faceless assembly line of nu-metal acts that have crawled out of the post-grunge sludge since Korn, Armenia’s System of a Down are, comparatively, insane. Never content to ride a groove into the ground, System’s nimble foursome dance the fandango all over their tunes. Vocalist Serj Tankian, especially, swoops from carnival barker to hell demon in a heartbeat. The phrase “from a whisper to a scream” has been used to describe every vocalist that’s ever aped Kurt Cobain’s dynamic sense, but how many of them actually whisper, and then milliseconds later, scream? Tankian’s range and fearless vocal command is one of the primary draws of this band.

Thankfully, it’s far from the only one. System of a Down writes quick, complicated mind games that pose as songs, and they all bleed into one another, even more so on their exponentially better sophomore release, Toxicity, than on their debut. Seriously, don’t even cue up the manic, blistering opener, “Prison Song,” unless you want to commit to all 45 minutes of this constantly surprising record.

System have increased their political content here as well. Toxicity is almost an old-school punk record lyrically. Observe the aforementioned “Prison Song,” a rail against minimum sentences and prison overcrowding. Interspersed with sobering statistics (“The percentage of Americans in the prison system has doubled since 1985”), the song finds Tankian turning the line “They’re trying to build a prison” into a shouted singalong. Metal has always borrowed its social consciousness from punk, even though that consciousness often gets lost in a mire of medieval imagery and satanic verse.

In some ways, System of a Down’s sprightly genre-jumping works against them from a metal standpoint. Really crushing metal has always had a single-mindedness about it that defies diversity. System’s mentally exhausting acrobatics are admirable, but in a completely different way, the physical exhaustion you get from Slipknot is just as admirable. If ever there were an album that’s not for the faint of heart, it’s their sophomore slab Iowa.

Slipknot’s a nine-member ensemble that attacks high-speed rage-core with stubborn fury. Their sound deserves the tag “extreme.” Everything is set to maximum, and no dynamic range is allowed. Scream, pummel, assault, then breathe for four seconds before screaming, assaulting and pummeling some more. Slipknot goes to the added extreme of practically punishing the listener for purchasing their record. Most extreme metal records (Slayer’s, for example) have the good sense to be no more than 40 minutes, out of sensitivity to the human pain threshold.

Not so the 68-minute Iowa, which never relents. Halfway through, you’ll feel like George Foreman came to your house and beat the shit out of you. By the time you hit the 15-minute title track, an exercise in extended monotone, your tolerance level will have been severely tested. Iowa is positively punishing, there’s no other word for it.

The lyrics never lift the veil of gloom and rage, either. What can you say about a song (“Disasterpiece”) that begins with the line, “I want to slit your throat and fuck the wound”? The album is 68 minutes of bile, spite and violence, the sort of thing that in a pre-September 11 world played like harmless venting. Who knows how such an uncompromising pile of venom will affect those with already frayed sensibilities? It’s probably a moot point, because those folks won’t buy Iowa, and they sure won’t hear this shit on the radio. Still, it begs the question of how harmless this lyrical style really is.

Slipknot is a prodigiously talented band, able to stop on a moment’s notice and play with counter-rhythms like a single organism. Their roster includes a pair of percussionists to add to their already propulsive nature, and a turntablist who confines himself to slashing bursts of noise. The sound, as you may imagine, is huge, almost monolithic, and all geared to cause sheer physical pain. Only masochists will enjoy this record, but musicians of all stripes will likely find themselves sitting in stunned admiration, both of the band’s musical prowess and its single-minded vision.

Say what you will about my gentler musical leanings, I made it through Iowa three times. So there. I will brook no further besmirchment of my masculinity, for as I have just proven, I am the original fucking metal god.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go listen to the new Jewel record while dancing in a moonlit meadow.

See you in line Tuesday morning.