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The Boston Phoenix The Hard Stuff

Almost a dozen reasons to like metal again

By Chuck Eddy

JULY 20, 1998:  A few years ago, bored by grunge and late speedmetal and still lamenting the loss of pretty glam in prettier haircuts, I thought loud guitar bands had entirely run out of both options and steam -- the only stuff I was liking was sung in Spanish, which I don't even speak! But somewhere along the line, as tends to happen whenever I stop paying attention to a musical style, either the tables or my ears turned. So now in 1998, here are 11 ways that metal can be interesting (i.e., beautiful and/or danceable while tugging the heart and mind -- none of that hoky Nashville Pussy/REO Speedealer/Zeke let's-pretend-we-drive-Mack-trucks horseshtick), a decade or two past the expiration date on the genre's cereal box.

The Brain Surgeons, MALPRACTICE (Cellsum) A critic-turned-chanteuse in the lofty tradition of former Blue Öyster Cult sideperson Patti Smith, whose vocal range hers eerily resembles, Deborah Frost and her BÖC-alumnus-drummer spouse Al Bouchard find eccentric humor, slimy grooves, and Reaper-unfearing melodiousness in jaded old BÖC and Hawkwind and Minutemen obscurities about New Year's Eve and syringes and petrodollars and the difficulty of writing songs on the road. Kinda reminds me of the time Metal Mike Saunders of the Angry Samoans called me right after seeing Val Kilmer in Oliver Stone's Doors movie: "I always knew those were great songs; they just needed somebody better than Jim Morrison to sing them!"

Deep Purple, ABANDON (CMC) These geezers' dusty dusk ballad "Fingers to the Bone" out-desert-rocks anything I've heard by Kyuss. Vintage organs add gravity to the unsentimental nostalgia of "Jack Ruby" and " '69." And wise highway-star-riff economy from Steve Morse counteracts Ian Gillan's blooze-boorish lack of insight into the opposite sex. "Any Fule Kno That" is a hopped-up Zep rap with obligatorily misspelled gangsta title, but I'm still waiting for Deep Purple to cover "Blister in the Sun" by the Violent Femmes, which I never realized stole the chords from "Smoke on the Water" until my six-year-old son played the latter on the piano a few months ago.

In Flames, WHORACLE (Nuclear Blast) Despite their incendiary moniker, Spinal-Tap-worthy CD title (illustrated on the cover by a woman without eyes preaching amid architectural ruins as her appendages turn into snakes!), and a weakness for angry machine-gun-guitar/barfbag-basso-profundo hatespew, these Swedes don't appear to toe their nation's church-burning deathmetal line. Their sound is oddly tempered and sculpted, with heavenly Celtic-folk-like spirals from three (often acoustic) guitars, tapestries comparable in metal circles only to the Thin Lizzy of, say, "Whiskey in the Jar." And by album's end, their intense somberness gives way to uplifting medieval choruses over extended tribal tom-toms, thawing the Viking ice.

Love As Laughter, #1 USA (K) Led by a crony of Beck from his One Foot in the Grave daze, this trio of youngsters make the only '90s so-called "lo-fi" rock I've heard that actually rocks me. The final four cuts, left over from an earlier EP, aren't much more than drab basement-boy Sebadoodling. But the way LAL's newer stuff pits high telegraphed shouts over low-strung down-bound bwaaangs reminds me of forgotten Philly metal-wave coulda-beens the Reds, if not Sonic Youth in their forgotten '80s forward-motion "Stereo Sanctity" mode. A spurtful bash that squeezes Valkyrie rides into blue suede shoes as it alludes to "Satisfaction," "Fever," "California Dreamin'," bank robberies, phobias, and unnamed movies from 1974, this is boogie-woogie avant-garde.

The Prissteens, SCANDAL, CONTROVERSY & ROMANCE (Almo Sounds) Opening a spring tour for a re-formed ? and the Mysterians (finally potential two-hit wonders now that Smashmouth have covered the B-side of "96 Tears"!), these blonde/brunette/redhead (one each) chickadees plus male drummer got the streetlight broken hearts of primordial '60s ooze right without skimping on its streetfight broken bones. Their CD has them fucking the meanest hound in town, finger-snapping through a Wreckless Eric skinny-tie classic about searching Tahiti for love, telling their baby to beat you up but getting devastated when they catch him cheating, and wisely hiring the guy who produced Blondie's first two albums to help them pull off their unprecedented hybrid of the Sonics and the Shangri-Las.

Rocket from the Crypt, R.F.T.C. (Interscope) I've always taken these slickly dressed San Diego punks for so-what hardcore hacks, but R.F.T.C. is immersed in soul music like no hard rock in eons. The songs aren't just slopped together; their hooks and grooves are constructed, with sax, cheesy organs, percussion breaks, ooh-aah call and response, even lots of lyrics about fast dancing -- "When in Rome, you do the jerk." The Stooges ("Eye on You" = "TV Eye") and Dolls ("Lipstick") figure heavily, and though mouthman Speedo betrays a bit of an Anthony Keidis minstrel lisp when he gets heartfelt, his usual blue-eyed quiver is pure Peter Wolf -- i.e., it ain't nothin' but a frathouse party.

The Styrenes, WE CARE, SO YOU DON'T HAVE TO (Scat) Cleveland legends since 1973, the Styrenes have never given themselves so much shape before -- organ swells lend a sadness even to the speedy stuff as Mike Hudson raggedly yawps seedy yarns about walking streets with 40 ounces of Bud and wondering where his old letters to an ex are now and (in three different songs) murder with guns. They tie down an S&M anthem by the Velvet Underground; they explore the minimalism of "Three Blind Mice." And "He Was a Loser" (also about an ex, who never calls because you have no phone) is the best song ever written about the Detroit Tigers.

Therion, VOVIN (Nuclear Blast) Enigma-influenced Swedish deathmetal from Celtic Frost worshippers who're way more classical and less brutish than In Flames -- strings and pianos and outrageously lush meshes of open-voweled female high-mass choruses mixed higher (pitch-wise and volume-wise) than the deep downtrodden male ones speaking secret alphabets and learning to forget. For all I know, Therion picked up their pre-Christendom literary concepts (gargoyles, labyrinths, Sodom, Gomorrah) from some dumb computer game and discovered pagan choirs by watching Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas. But Vovin is still an hour-long madrigal symphony of hope and redemption, maybe the most gorgeous "real heavy metal" (in the Iron Maiden sense) album ever made.

U.S. Bombs, WAR BIRTH (Hellcat) Scouted by Rancid's Tim Armstrong for release on his new label, and more memorable than Rancid's ambitious but rather detached new Sandinista! parody, Life Won't Wait, this shitkicker kicks off with "That's Life," the last great Frank Sinatra cover before he died ("shot up in April, strung out in May"), and climaxes with "Her & Me," an unstoppable twang-punk ballad about a 15-year-long co-dependent relationship. In between, supported by eins-zwei-three-four countoffs, tuneful riff heft, and (especially in "Beetle Boot") an occasional expert surf bounce, skateboard champ Duane Peters spins rich crusty yarns about Lisa Marie Presley, Orange County's water supply, shopping-cart bums on Christmas Day, and military brats who wind up enlisting.

Vixen, TANGERINE (CMC) At first I thought that was a navel orange with its navel pierced on the CD cover, but I guess it's a nipple-ringed tangerine instead. Foxy drummer Roxy Petrucci's navel is visible on the back cover, though, and that alone is almost enough to make me cut this hair babe comeback's post-Alanis-AOR competence some slack. As are four cuts here: "Tangerine" (about a pill-poppin' lady grocery-shopping for little green men), "Shut Up" (death threats to a liar on TV), "Air Balloon" (Shania Twain facsimile about riding trains to the coast of Maine and losing teeth in Texas), and the untitled swing-grass-frolic instrumental hidden at track number 12.

Wallmen, ELECTRONIC HOME ENTERTAINMENT SYSTEM (Wild Pitch) Somehow this here drug-and-feedback-fed incoherence comes together more consistently than similar garbage-dumping by more famous who-gives-a-fucksters like the Pixies, the Butthole Surfers, and noted tangerine fans the Flaming Lips. Demented baby talk and punch-line-less Fugs-to-Firesign-Theatre yippie silliness curdle by in a wobbly blur over tinkled keyboards, with strangely homy little hillbilly squeaks eeking out of curt circular guitar licks that are throbbing finger-lickin' good from beginning to end. Still, I wish more songs distinguished themselves with audible vocals the way the "Sister Ray"-vamped nugget "Foam Hippie Cereal" does, with its hot sax part and lyrics that address "getting all drunk and talking about Xuxa." Or at least that's what they sound like to me.

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