Milestones on a personal journey through rock and metal: Part 4

This is the concluding part of a 4-post series of recollections and reflections about the albums that triggered my interest and in most cases, love for a specific sub-genre of hard rock or heavy metal. The inspiration to write these was the untimely death of beloved rock drummer Neil Peart of the prog rock band Rush earlier this month. These posts are effectively a chronological walk down memory lane.

In Part 1, I talked about how Def Leppard’s Hysteria started it all off for me in 1987 by introducing me to what I referred to as ‘modern’ or ‘contemporary’ hard rock, but was effectively the beginning of ‘hair’ metal. I also covered Jethro Tull’s Aqualung and Black Sabbath’s Paranoid albums.

In Part 2, I moved on to 1988 and Motley Crue’s Girls, Girls, Girls album introducing me to ‘hair’ metal as it was beginning to explode across the world. Thereafter, I got into the ‘real deal’, with Metallica’s seminal thrash metal album …And Justice For All; seminal because they realized (as Black Sabbath had more than a decade earlier) that slowing down the pace could actually make the music heavier. And finally there was Rush’s Power Windows which opened up progressive rock for me.

In Part 3, listening to Iron Maiden’s Powerslave opened up their back catalog and exposure to bands that formed the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM). By now I had reached the start of the 90’s and the grunge/alt rock wave, which for me was defined by Pearl Jam’s Ten. And finally I started delving into the world of guitar virtuosos via Steve Vai’s Passion and Warfare.

I pick up the story now many years later in the mid-2000s, and I myself am amazed as I write this that for a period of 10 years I didn’t discover or explore any new sub-genres of rock or metal. Part of this is because I sat out the entire grunge/alternative rock wave through the latter half of the 90s and partly it was because I was so caught up with work that I didn’t have the time or the energy to do much else. All this changed when I moved to Vietnam in late 2006 and found myself with a lot more quality time at the end of the day. And literally in the space of a few weeks of arrival, I was browsing local music stores and picking up new CDs to listen to. Many of these were outside of the metal genre so I won’t list them here, but there were two albums that I listened to that opened up a whole new discography for me which remains a big part of my listening repertoire to this day.

Dream Theater’s Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence, released January 2002

2006, introduction to progressive metal via Dream Theater’s 2002 album, Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence: I was well aware of Dream Theater since the early 90s as a group that was similar to Rush in terms of musicianship and overall sound. I had listened to a few songs from their 1994 album Awake while visiting a friend’s house but wasn’t really able to pay attention in the middle of all our chatter and never revisited the group…it didn’t help that Dream Theater albums were not stocked by any Indian record stores that I visited. This double-disc concept album filled with themes about mental health however, was a revelation! As had been the case with Metallica and Rush, I felt like the ground was shifting beneath my feet. I just played this album again and again over the next few days and weeks. Every track is perfection in terms of lyrics, James LaBrie’s vocals, the musicianship and production values. Clearly what had evolved since the early albums like Awake was the melodic structure…many of these were songs would sound good even if they were performed unplugged. Particularly About to Crash and Solitary Shell on Disc 2 ranks alongside Metallica’s Fade to Black from their Ride the Lightning album as my favourite ‘anguish’ songs. A few weeks later, I found a copy of their preceding release from 1999, also a concept album called Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory and was blown away all over again. This album narrates the story of a man who has been put into a hypnotic trance to unlock what he believes are memories from a past life. The songs piece together his recollections and effectively unravel a murder mystery. Amazing concept, but more importantly, the songs are genuinely great standalone rock tracks. It was a ‘dream’ come true for me to see them live in concert in 2017 as part of their world tour to commemorate the 25th anniversary of their album Images and Words. I guess I’ll have to wait till 2024 for a Scenes from a Memory 25th anniversary tour!

These two albums also led me to reflect on three other amazing concept albums – Rush’s 2112 Queensryche’s Operation: Mindcrime and Extreme’s 1992 album III Sides to Every Story. Dream Theater also led me to look for other prog metal bands and now with the full power of Google Search available to me, I was able to read about and listen to bands like Symphony X, Opeth and Fates Warning as well as the supergroups featuring various members of Dream Theater – Transatlantic, Liquid Tension Experiment and Office of Strategic Influence. As with the virtuoso guitarists, my issue with some of these groups is that while the music could be appreciated for its intricacy and complexity, it didn’t really come together in the form of enjoyable songs. But all the albums from the three supergroups featuring Dream Theater members contain some really good songs.

Coheed and Cambria’s Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV, Volume Two: No World for Tomorrow released October 2007

In late 2007, while browsing metacritic.com and looking for new hard rock/heavy metal albums, I saw favourable reviews of a band I had never heard of – Coheed and Cambria, specifically their new release Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV, Volume Two: No World for Tomorrow, which apparently was the sequel to their 2005 album Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV, Volume One: From Fear Through the Eyes of Madness. I’m a sucker for album titles like these and the fact that they were concept albums. I found a music video for a song called The Suffering on YouTube (still a relatively new concept at that time) and I loved the sound. It took me a while but by 2009 I had accessed their entire back catalogue and had fallen in love all over again. The group was like a metal version of Rush and the scope of their albums if anything, were even more ambitious than that of Dream Theater’s. In fact, 8 of the 9 albums they have released since they began in 2002, are concept albums and together, they form a single epic narrative that is tied to a series of sci-fi/space opera graphic novels that are written and published by brand frontman Claudio Sanchez through his own publishing company Evil Ink Comics. The lyrics are sometimes disturbingly violent, but the music and vocal package is astonishing in terms of how it triggers something primal in the brain. I don’t necessarily have a favourite album, but there are typically 4-5 songs from each album that I could easily play at any time on a playlist and because I approach their music that way, I have to admit that I can’t necessarily remember which song is from which album, in the way that I can for Rush or Metallica. I did a real fanboy thing in 2010, attending a C&C concert in Kuala Lumpur on a Sunday night, then flying to Singapore the next day and attending a Slash concert in Singapore where C&C were the supporting act.

Mastodon’s Blood Mountain released September 2006

2007, introduction to sludge metal via Mastodon’s 2006 album, Blood Mountain: Every year, I read through the Grammy nominees for Best Hard Rock and Best Metal looking for new bands or albums that I can listen to. In the 2007 nominations I came across a new name, Mastodon nominated for the song Colony of Birchmen. Checking back on Metacritic, I saw that the album this track came from, Blood Mountain, had a very high score of 82. It took me a while, but eventually I was able to get hold of the album, and this introduced me to a new sound, that of sludge metal. The underlying musical structure of these songs was very close to that of classic hard rock/thrash metal, but it was delivered with the vocal growl and fast-paced drumming of doom metal and the distorted guitar sound from grunge. Sludge metal as a genre has evolved to encompass a wide range of styles, but Mastodon sits on the progressive metal side of the spectrum, with most albums revolving around a specific theme or concept, which is what makes their music appealing to me. I soon got hold of their preceding album Leviathan, a concept album loosely based on the Moby Dick story, which also had some great songs like Blood and Thunder and the epic 13 minute track Hearts Alive. I have kept track of this band ever since and their music just keep getting more sophisticated as they explore variations in style and composition. Every album has stand out tracks – Oblivion from 2009’s Crack the Skye, the delightful Octopus Has no Friends and poignant Creature Lives from 2011’s The Hunter, the title track from 2014’s Once More ‘Round the Sun. I haven’t really spent enough time listening to their last album, Emperor of Sand from 2017.

I’ve found a couple of other sludge metal that consistently produces a similar quality of work. One is Baroness, whose music also sits at the progressive end of sludge metal. Baroness has interestingly named their albums Red Album, Blue Record, Yellow & Green, Purple and Gold & Grey. All the albums feature amazing cover art created by lead vocalist John Dyer Baizley. My favourite songs are Shock Me from Purple and the epic Rays on Pinion from Red Album. The other band is Kylesa, but I’ve only listened to one of their albums, Ultraviolet (2013). I hadn’t realized it until I wrote this post, but all three of these sludge metal groups are based in Georgia, USA (one in Savannah and one in Atlanta).

And so, I come to conclusion of this series of posts, which started off with me making the leap from pop to classic/contemporary hard rock in the late 80s and has me more than 30 years later listening to a very wide range of rock and metal from the 60s to the 2010s. While this genre no longer enjoys the kind of mainstream popularity it did in the early 70s and again in the mid- to late 80s, it’s cool that all the sub-genres are alive and well, constantly evolving and still producing songs that showcase incredible musical compositions, outstanding technical prowess and stimulating songwriting. Some of the fun and thrill of discovering bands and hunting down their albums has disappeared in this era of instant access and portable music. Perhaps because of that I am less focused when I sit down to listen to a new album, because it was so easy to get hold off and I have a feeling that I can always listen to it at any time. Perhaps if I listen to new music as attentively as I used to, I will continue to discover other albums that will create the kind of seismic shifts that Rush, Metallica, Iron Maiden, Dream Theater and Coheed & Cambria did for me in the past.

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