Ten Years #15: Alestorm

Decade of last.fm scrobbling countdown:
15. Alestorm (1,437 plays)
Top track (73 plays): Barrett’s Privateers, from Back Through Time (2011)
Featured track: Keelhauled, from Black Sails at Midnight (2009)

I tried to start a zombie metal band once, but when I asked some friends to give me a hand they all ran away… Erm, where was I going with this?

Oh yes, for your Halloween evening amusement: Pirate Metal!

I’ve actually listened to this band so much since picking up Captain Morgan’s Revenge in 2008 that they managed to climb all the way to 15th place in my decade-spanning last.fm charts. Alestorm might be the most delightful thing to ever happen to folk metal, pending a Nekrogoblikon follow-up as sweet as Stench (2011). Alestorm support their gimmick with a brilliant knack for catchy composition and a lyrics sheet guaranteed to entertain. Happy Halloween!

My friends, I stand before you
To tell a truth most dire
There lurks a traitor in our midst
Who hath invoked the captain’s ire

He don’t deserve no mercy
We ought to shoot him with a gun
But I am not an evil man
So first let’s have a little fun

We’ll tie that scoundrel to a rope
And throw him overboard
Drag him underneath the ship
A terrifying deadly trip

Keelhaul that filthy landlubber
Send him down to the depths below
Make that bastard walk the plank
With a bottle of rum and a yo ho ho

I will not say what he has done
His sins are far too grave to tell
It’s not my place to judge a man
But for them he will burn in hell

The sharks will dine upon his flesh
And Davy Jones will have his soul
Take his money and his hat
He won’t need them where he’s gonna go

But first lets tie him to a rope
And throw him overboard
Drag him underneath the ship
A terrifying deadly trip.

Keelhaul that filthy landlubber
Send him down to the depths below
Make that bastard walk the plank
With a bottle of rum and a yo ho ho

Ten Years #16: Falkenbach

Decade of last.fm scrobbling countdown:
16. Falkenbach (1,418 plays)
Top track (84 plays): Heathenpride, from En Their Medh Riki Fara (1996)
Featured track: Tanfana, from Tiurida (2011)

Happy Halloween! As you may have guessed, October 31st is our favorite day of the year here at Shattered Lens. I thought I’d celebrate with two entries in my Top 50 series that both happen to be particularly appropriate for the occasion. The first, coming in at 16th place with 1,418 listens over the past ten years, is the solo brainchild of Vratyas Vakyas: Falkenbach. A band I find some excuse to mention almost every October, Falkenbach have about as much of a right as Bathory or Enslaved to claim the invention of viking metal. While Vakyas certainly lacks the widespread influence attributable to Quorthon–only nine copies were supposedly ever made of the 1989 Havamal demo–he seems to have been a part of the movement from its very founding. Recording originally in Iceland and later settling down in Germany, Vakyas has dedicated his career as a musician to persistently refining a unique sound inseparable from the notion of viking metal.

“Viking metal” is a term I use sparingly. It marks, in my opinion, the transition of fringe metal bands away from reactionary Satanism and towards a more refined, pagan appreciation for pre-Christian European tradition. This process took the majority of the 1990s to fully realize, and many of the bands that most commonly receive a “viking” tag–Bathory, Enslaved, Falkenbach, Burzum–originated firmly within the spectrum of black metal. (The term “pagan metal” emerged in much the same manner further east, as Ukrainian and Russian black metal bands found similar cause to divorce Satanism.) Modern use of “viking metal” refers to little more than a lyrical theme, the transition to a folk aesthetic in black metal circles and beyond being at this point complete. “Pagan metal” seems to be the tag for any folkish band that still lies on the fringe, usually through heavy doses of black metal, provided they didn’t get dumped off in the “viking” bin first.

It would make a great deal of sense to me to lump the likes of Enslaved and Bathory into the “pagan” category where applicable, along with more recent acts like Moonsorrow, and abandon “viking metal” altogether. But if it is to persist, I find no band more appropriate for the title than Falkenbach. Much like Summoning, Falkenbach’s sound developed into an independent entity with no clear counterparts. From Ok Nefna Tysvar Ty (2003) onward, Vakyas’s sound has stood distinctly apart. The looping electronic woodwinds, acoustic guitar, mid-tempo beat, and chugging electric guitar in the sample track I’ve provided are all fundamental to the sound visible within the earliest available Falkenbach recordings and fully realized by 2003. But where Summoning has always defied classification, Falkenbach’s close ties to the onset of the viking metal movement seem to grant the term weight. It would be a bit silly to suggest that Falkenbach’s uniqueness is somehow more significant than the countless other innovative, folk-inspired metal bands of the 90s and 2000s, but his timing in history and lack of parallels, be they copycats or coincidental, has earned Vakyas a distinction beyond his impeccable song writing and sincere reverence for the old gods. Falkenbach is, for me at least, the closest thing to viking metal as a style of music that you will ever find.

Ten Years #18: Sigur Rós

Decade of last.fm scrobbling countdown:
18. Sigur Rós (1,358 plays)
Top track (84 plays): Ný Batterí, from Ágætis Byrjun (1999)
Featured track: Hún Jörð, from Von (1997)

I made the claim in my last entry that indie rock was the defining musical style of the past decade. If that came across as a bit of a slap in the face to post-rock, rest assured that I listen to far more of the latter than the former. I don’t feel, however, that post-rock is the sort of style or movement that can be limited to its era of origin. Sure, Mono-esque local bands were fairly abundant in the mid-2000s, but the acts that really rose to stardom under the moniker varied wildly in both sound and artistic attitude. I first heard mention of post-rock in 1999 or 2000 in dual reference to f#a#oo by Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Ágætis Byrjun by Sigur Rós. Flood by Boris, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever by Explosions in the Sky, Oceanic by Isis, and One Step More and You Die by Mono successively joined the ranks to form a label I found easy to ascribe and virtually impossible to define. Post-rock was and remains a manner of abandoning traditional song structure, sound, lyric, and aesthetic, while retaining standard instrumentation. It can be applied to musicians who predate the term, it can function as a prefix to virtually every established musical genre, and no single property need be present to make it complete. No two bands that have really forged successful careers employing it sound much alike; Sigur Rós’s sound is certainly unique among the ranks.

That being said, I want to talk about this particular feature song and its uniqueness in their discography. Most people who know anything about music have heard a little Sigur Rós by now, and they’ve probably heard the newer material. Von remains an obscurity that was seldom mentioned when Ágætis Byrjun was in its prime of popularity, let alone today. Make no mistake; Ágætis Byrjun blew my mind when I first heard it, and if my last.fm charts had begun two or three years sooner I suspect it would have a thousand more plays to its credit. But my favorite song in the world at the time was “Hún Jörð”. Forget what you know about this band, because you’ll find no peaceful resolution in these seven minutes. Beginning with a static sound that seems to simulate rain, “Hún Jörð” introduces a brief, looping melody so acutely fragile that the listener is instantly drawn to a peak, emotionally wrenched by a vision of something beautiful tottering on the brink of collapse. You want to reach out and hold the melody tight–pull it in–keep it safe–but as the song progresses, that glimmering light tips into the plunge. As the maniacal laughter mocks your helplessness and Jónsi literally screams at the top of his lungs, the song culminates with one of the most gut-wrenching experiences of loss that music is capable of conjuring.

Suffice to say, this is not standard Sigur Rós fare. I used to think the song had been inspired by “Climbing Up the Walls”, but Von was actually fully recorded well before Radiohead released Ok Computer. The vision seems to have been unique to the band, and I did not hear anything approaching it again until the advent of post-black metal a decade later. I don’t know what compelled a band so inclined towards the soft and beautiful to take this child and smash it on the rocks, but by 2013 Von is so thoroughly forgotten that I think most Sigur Rós fans will be in for a shocking surprise.

Ten Years #19: The Shins

Decade of last.fm scrobbling countdown:
19. The Shins (1,344 plays)
Top track (75 plays): Pink Bullets, from Chutes Too Narrow (2003)
Featured track: Gone For Good, from Chutes Too Narrow

When I leave my heavy metal tunnel vision behind and consider what properly ought to be regarded as the most significant musical movement of the first decade of this century, the answer ultimately resolves to indie rock. What that means is, of course, no clear-cut, formulaic sound, any more than grunge or classic rock constitute a style. Indie rock was a particular attitude towards music–a love affair between earth and sky that saw bands fundamentally rooted to rationality float among the clouds. It is unfortunate that my last.fm charts for that era could not make room for the likes of Built to Spill, Ted Leo & the Pharmacists, and The Fiery Furnaces, but those bands that did grind their way into my top 50 represent, I think, one of the finest eras music has to offer. I wouldn’t call The Shins my favorite indie rock band–I’ll reserve that title for an entry a little nearer the top–but I do think they orbit closer the core of what indie rock stood for than any band before or since them.

James Mercer’s genius rests foremost in his lyrics. From the opening lines of Oh, Inverted World on, his ability to paint the simple, mundane concerns of life in lush metaphor–“I think I’ll go home and mull this over, before I cram it down my throat. At long last it’s crashed; its colossal mass has broken up into bits in my moat.”–has defined the indie attitude. It’s permeated with a smug wit, perpetually aware of the trite contrivances of standardized rock that it revels in. Mercer knows his lyrics are extravagant, overreaching their subject matter, and the sort of tongue-in-cheek arrogance of it all is what makes the music so delightful. You can fall in love with it and laugh at the same time.

I chose “Gone For Good” to represent The Shins in this post even though it’s stylistically a bit out of character, because I think it perfectly captures what I love about this band. The lyrics are deliciously pretentious, paired with a comically simple tune that nevertheless successfully pleads for the same pretty appeal as Mercer’s more creative melodies. And now, in an era permeated with the same lack of awareness that tortured the 1980s, it’s a relieving reminder that every dark cloud over the landscape of creative expression is followed by a bit of wit and sunlight.

Untie me, I’ve said no vows.
The train is getting way too loud.
I’ve got to leave here my girl, and get on with my lonely life.
Just leave the ring on the rail for the wheels to nullify.

Until this turn in my head,
I let you stay, and you paid no rent.
I spent twelve long months on the lam.
That’s enough sitting on the fence for the fear of breaking dams.

It took me all of a year,
to put the poison pill to your ear.
But now I stand on honest ground, on honest ground.
You want to fight for this love, but honey you cannot wrestle a dove.
Baby it’s clear.

You want to jump and dance,
But you sat on your hands and lost your only chance.
Go back to your home town, get your feet on the ground, and stop floating around.
I found a fatal flaw in the logic of love and went out of my head.
You love a sinking stone that will never elope,
So get used to the lonesome, girl you must atone some.
Don’t leave me no phone number there.

Ten Years #20: Equilibrium

Decade of last.fm scrobbling countdown:
20. Equilibrium (1,323 plays)
Top track (104 plays): Prolog Auf Erden, from Sagas (2008)

At the end of 2008, I made the peculiar decision to rank Sagas only 6th on my albums of the year list. I knew at the time that it would long outlive the albums that trumped it–The Tallest Man on Earth’s Shallow Grave, Boris’s Smile, Waylander’s Honour Amongst Chaos to name a few–but I suppose I was prioritizing some sort of artsy aesthetic over direct appeal. That was silly. Sagas is the most badass, epic 80 minutes of sound you will ever hear, and it deserves all the glory. Since I don’t know German, I can’t really judge how the lyrics hold up against comparable masterpieces like Blind Guardian’s Nightfall in Middle-Earth and Turisas’s The Varangian Way, but musically it pretty much perfects every epic/symphonic trend in the world of folk metal. What you hear on the opening track, “Prolog Auf Erden”, is a pretty accurate summary of the full album; it’s an explosive, relentless drive through one of the most imaginative worlds metal has ever conjured.

I can’t say I am terribly experienced in Equilibrium’s broader discography. Turis Fratyr (2005) did not grab me quite so immediately, and at the time I was too caught up in enjoying Sagas to really engage it. Rekreatur (2010) had its merits, but I could never fully get over the change in vocalists from Helge Stang to Robert Dahn. Never a band to rush out the new releases, their fourth studio album is not expected until some time in 2014.

Ten Years #21: Emperor

Decade of last.fm scrobbling countdown:
21. Emperor (1,301 plays)
Top track (119 plays): I Am the Black Wizards, from In the Nightside Eclipse (1994)

I don’t know that I would call Emperor the most influential band in black metal, but Ihsahn and Samoth’s brainchild definitely ranks among the top 5. Without ever abandoning the sinister, aggressive atmospherics, nor dropping the tremolo guitar, blast beats and double bass, or shrill, shrieking vocals standard for the style, Emperor managed to infuse black metal with a level of technical expertise and creative song structure that appealed to listeners far beyond the isolated genre. Their progressive rock and classical flares drew in a broad fan base that never had the time for Bathory’s viking tendencies or Darkthrone and Mayhem’s bm in the raw. They were certainly one of the first black metal bands that caught my eye, at a time when their contemporaries just sounded like noise to me. It’s no wonder that at this point they’ve ascended to 21st on my decade-spanning last.fm chart.

Talent and attention did not necessarily go hand in hand in early 90s black metal. Mayhem’s music left a lot to be desired, and Burzum’s discography bears some major flops. Emperor are more the exception than the norm in that they achieved a fairly professional level of quality while actively participating in Euronymous’ circle of murder and arson. Part of that, I suspect, stems from Ihsahn’s ability to keep his hands clean in the midst of it. Ihsahn managed to say out of trouble–or at least not get caught–while Samoth, Faust, and Tchort were all doing time. Persistent similarities from In the Nightside Eclipse all the way to Ihsahn’s most recent solo works suggest that he might have done the lion’s share of the song-writing all along. (Their final album, Prometheus, was composed by him exclusively.) Whoever wrote it, the refreshing originality of Emperor’s discography has had significant consequences. They didn’t set the standard for what black metal in the 90s ought to sound like, though plenty of bands copied them. Rather, they set the standard for how the genre might progress. Emperor took a very formulaic split-off from thrash and demonstrated time and again that it could be one of the most diverse, open-ended genres of music on the market.

Ten Years #22: Стары Ольса

Decade of last.fm scrobbling countdown:
22. Стары Ольса (Stary Olsa, 1,257 plays)
Top track (111 plays): Танцы (Dances), from Келіх кола (Loving Cup, 2000)
Featured track: Дрыгула, from Дрыгула (2009)

I don’t know of too many bands from Belarus, but the one I’m most familiar with is amazing. It’s a bit fitting that Stary Olsa should be my first entry in this on-going series to appear within the fall season, because I actually featured both “Dances” and “Drygula” this time last year. Of course it has nothing to do with horror, but it’s firmly rooted in the traditions from which our Halloween has derived–those of a misty past dominated by perceptions and beliefs not yet subsumed by European Christian standards. I don’t know whether the songs Stary Olsa play are themselves of ancient origin, but their instrumentation certainly is, and the songs they have crafted, whether traditional or original, are convincingly and memorably medieval. You’ll hear none of that western adherence to formula here; playing slightly out of tune or hitting a wrong note is a positive property of the music I like best. It comes to life with an earthiness that strives not for order and rationality, but for a taste of those unpredictable, wild-eyed expressions that highlight the more authentic human experiences of joy and sorrow. A lot of the best folk music abandons modern society’s notions of how these feelings ought to be expressed in exchange for a more direct connection. Stary Olsa certainly aren’t unique in this regard, but they do it better than most any other ensemble I’ve heard.

Ten Years #23: The Tossers

Decade of last.fm scrobbling countdown:
23. The Tossers (1,222 plays)
Top track (57 plays): The Crock of Gold, from The Valley of the Shadow of Death (2005)

My introduction to Irish punk was about as random as they come. I had “Come On Eileen” by Dexys Midnight Runners stuck in my head, and I could not for the life of me remember what it was called or who wrote it. I made a forum post asking “who wrote that song that goes too-ra-loo-rai-a?”, and someone–much to my persistent bewilderment today–responded with “Aye Sir” by The Tossers. It was through this cluttered back door that I first came to discover legends like The Pogues, The Dubliners, Dropkick Murphys, and Flogging Molly, and I owe a world of thanks to that forgotten forum poster for it.

A lot of my love for The Tossers is definitely nostalgia, because they introduced me to a world of music that has influenced my life tremendously ever since. But more significantly, I love The Tossers because they manifest an earthy side of Irish folk that bigger and brighter rock stars can never, by consequence of their fame, present quite so intimately. The drunken camaraderie, the sense of belonging, the singing and the dancing, all of the glory that one of the most persistently vibrant folk traditions in the world can bring–you certainly feel them all at a Dropkick concert, but with The Tossers it comes before an audience of a few hundred, most of whom know the songs by heart. They’re probably the best punk-minded Irish folk band drifting around America to have never made it big, and their live show is a blast every time.

Ten Years #24: Radiohead

Decade of last.fm scrobbling countdown:
24. Radiohead (1,176 plays)
Top track (35 plays): Knives Out, from Amnesiac (2001)

It should come as no surprise that Radiohead made it onto my decade top 50 chart somewhere. The dominant album on that list might be a little less common: Amnesiac (2001) took the title with a modest margin over Hail to the Thief (2003) and OK Computer (1997). This is no accident–no single weekend of Winamp stuck on repeat. Since pretty much the week it was released, Amnesiac has been my favorite Radiohead album.

It would be a bit silly to argue that Amnesiac is their best. Just as Radiohead are too unique to really be compared to any other band, pretty much every album they’ve released since The Bends (1995) has resided in a world of its own. OK Computer certainly offers the broadest appeal, and Kid A (2000) seems to get the most praise from the more eclectic, aesthetically minded fans, but it’s the consistent vibe of Amnesiac that grabs me most. From start to finish, it glides on a sea of glass beneath an inebriated night sky. While the individual tracks are stellar at every turn, the sum of its parts come nowhere near the whole, and I can rarely bring myself to listen to them out of their intended order. There’s some calming chill that sets across the whole 45 minutes, and a spirit of motion that I did not experience again until “Bloom” (The King of Limbs, 2011).

That being said, of course OK Computer and Hail to the Thief are unrivaled masterpieces, of course In Rainbows (2007) and The King of Limbs are worlds above the average for a band late in their career, and of course The Bends redefined the limits of rock in its day. The only album in their discography that you might justifiably find some fault with is Pablo Honey (1993), and that’s only when you measure it by the standard Radiohead set and maintained for the two decades to follow. In the most general sense, weighing all factors evenly, they might rightly be regarded as the greatest band to ever exist. That’s not lofty praise; it’s an opinion that a good many experienced music critics are prepared to agree with. But to the question of how Radiohead became my 24th most listened to band of the past 10 years, and not say, my 50th, I point without hesitation to Amnesiac.