(Not So) Obscure Metal Roundup 8: Before They Were Famous Edition

Welcome to the glorious return of Obscure Metal Roundup! It’s been almost a year since the last installment, as I realized I was running out of bands to cover – the amount of bands that Spotify recommends because you listen to gobs of Midnight and Hellripper is, after all, finite, and some of them suck a little too much for me to bother with. The main problem is that there’s a whole lot of replacement-level speed metal bands out there these days who seem to be of the impression that you can have a kickass record without any audible bass. Were I any sort of responsible journalist, perhaps I would have summoned the industry and tenacity to write up these lesser hesher outfits, but really, the methods I have for asking “Where the fuck is the bass!?” are also, sadly, finite in their variety.

As a way of circumventing both of these issues, today’s Roundup is going to be a bit different. Instead of tackling works of legitimately under-the-radar bands, I’m going to take a look at three debut albums from three heavy metal institutions. Metal bands have a long and prestigious history of releasing earth-scorching, epochal debut albums; none of these three albums count as that. Instead, all three display bands that, for whatever reason, hadn’t quite put it together just yet, and I’ll be pointing out what’s missing from their sound in each instance.

Slayer – Show No Mercy (Released 1983)

I’m unwilling to go so far as to say that if you don’t like Slayer, you don’t like metal in general, but…actually, that’s exactly what I’m saying. Unfortunate political opinions aside (if you’re like me, you sort of learn to let these slide when it comes to metal bands to some extent, although I haven’t listened to Megadeth without feeling weird about it in some time. My point is a lot of these older bands skew conservative, which sucks, but it is what it is. Not sure if that’s because the 80s were particularly good to them or what), Slayer are one of the absolute finest outfits in the genre’s history. And yet, while their debut isn’t forgotten to history, it’s not spoken of in the same hushed tones as certain other debuts from prominent thrash guys.

Show No Mercy is an odd duck with odd production. There’s a very 80’s sheen to the sound of it, particularly in the drums, which have the whole gated reverb thing going on. I know it was the style at the time, but I always find gated drums a baffling choice for metal, especially if the band is attempting any sort of real speed. They’re just so damn clunky and inorganic; don’t get me wrong, gated reverb proved to be a great decision for a variety of other styles and contexts. But metal? Not so much.

Then again, Show No Mercy rarely achieves the full-on thrash tempos that would soon become the band’s trademark. For the vast majority of the album, Slayer sounds like a lot more like their influences than, y’know, fuckin’ Slayerrrrrrrr (read in exaggerated death growl voice, natch), and those influences are the same cabal of the usual NWOBHM suspects that influenced just about everyone else who started a metal band back in those days. Most of the tracks here are a couple clicks of the metronome dial short of full-on thrash. Again, the production might have something to do with that, as the guitar articulation is a bit blurry and doesn’t really pop, but there’s a lot of double kicker underneath before that became standard, so that’s cool. Their trademark atonal shredding style of solo is fully present.

And yet, despite displaying a nascent sense of identity, Show No Mercy kicks a lot of ass. Opening track Evil Has No Boundaries is charmingly amateurish while still displaying a desire to push genre boundaries. The Final Command also revs the tempos up to thrilling degrees. Die By the Sword simply kicks ass, even though it’s one of the most traditional-leaning tracks. I know I spilled a lot of ink up there dragging the production, but make no mistake, this is still very much the sort of weird production choices that work despite themselves, of the sort that can only be achieved by a band that doesn’t quite know what they’re doing.

Anyway, Slayer didn’t spend much time at all operating in this mode. The very next year they dropped the Haunting the Chapel EP, and the very first seconds of Chemical Warfare announce the arrival of Slayer as we know and love them today.

Standout Tracks: Evil Has No Boundaries, Die By the Sword, Metal Storm/Face the Slayer

Opeth – Orchid (Released 1995)

By direct contrast, a lot of Orchid resembles the Opeth of their triumphant period, which remains a staggering achievement. For an entire decade, this band could do absolutely no wrong, whatsoever, and Mikael and Friends gifted us with a dizzying collection of towering classics. I admire their relatively recent shift towards Yes-style prog, too, although I must confess that’s not always my thing. My point here is that we all associate Opeth with fearlessness, and the seamless blending of musical styles.

This level of daring is already fully present on Orchid; heavy bits and calm, classical guitar passages fit together flawlessly. The songs are long, multi-tiered, and ambitious. The vocals go from screamy growly death stuff to serene and clean and back, like it’s no big deal (Remember when we all thought they must have two different singers? No? That was just me, and I’m kind of dumb and don’t do my research? Oh, OK then.). Most impressively, the band had already mastered their command of gloomy atmospherics; without checking the lyrics or anything (again, not something I tend to care much about), it’s unclear if these songs are about demons and shit, or just about having seasonal affective disorder, or about suffering from seasonal affective disorder while also having to deal with like, demons and shit.

With all of that said, now’s the time to talk about twin leads, yet again. During Opeth’s Imperial phase (for lack of a better term), the most cathartic riffs were, uh…riffs – big, massive, chunky riffs that sound like they crawled out of a swamp and bludgeon you to death with mighty force and leave you drowned in sound and all that stuff. On Orchid, though, all of the tension is released in the form of twin lead sections, in the most traditional sense of the term.

Listen, twin leads are cool and all, but it doesn’t always work in this context. When you’re listening to an Opeth song and you get the part where you’re normally gonna get your eardrums smushed up against a brick wall, and instead you get a bunch of melodic noodling instead, it can be a bit underwhelming. Most of the time, it works for what it is, I guess, but this is the one sense in which Opeth hadn’t quite put it all together on their debut. Their second album, Morningrise, is also in this twin lead-based style before My Arms, Your Hearse kicked off the band’s glory years with aplomb.

Standout Tracks: In the Mist She Was Standing, Forest of October

Electric Wizard – Electric Wizard (Released 1994)

If the goal of this column is to do provide a Compare and Contrast analysis of each band as they started out and the band as they came to be known, just what the fuck am I meant to do with Electric Wizard’s self-titled debut?

Consider the constituent elements of the album in question. This is all a whole bunch slow, sludgy, boogie-woogie riffs with clean vocals and occultish lyrical themes. It’s decidedly, self-consciously old school; while it’s all competent and fun enough in a vacuum, there’s also not much going on that helps the album stand out in any real way. In reviving this column, I made a promise to myself that I would do my level best avoid musical analysis by way of direct comparison (“This band sounds like this other band”), but I am sort of at a loss for how to describe the sound of this album without invoking Black Sabbath (although I could just name drop Saint Vitus instead and boost my cred or whatever, I guess). I probably could if I set my mind to it, but once again, here’s a band that started out sounding more like the bands they looked up to than themselves.

The comparison is unavoidable, because they’re using all of the same tricks in all of the same ways, without even really bothering to re-contextualize any of it, save for the production. Even the calmer passages use the same wobbly bass sounds and soft wah pedaling. Again, I must reiterate that this album is perfectly serviceable traditional sludge. Part of the problem is that the better tracks are stacked towards the end; by the time Devil’s Bride kicked in about halfway through, I was fully on board, although that was the first point I was truly impressed.

Anyway, this is all a confounding mode of analysis because in some ways, Electric Wizard has returned to the more traditional mode. Under normal circumstances, this would be when I talk about how they took the existing logic of doom and sludge to new heights, and to unimaginable success. But the band’s most recent album, 2017’s Wizard Bloody Wizard (again, how am I supposed to keep Sabbath’s name out of my mouth when discussing these beautiful potheads if they’re gonna do shit like that), is a return to the same kind of direct, menacing blues metal seen on this debut, and there seems to have been a gradual backing off from the singular intensity of Dopethrone. Point is, Electric Wizard was looking back this whole time, and appear to have come full circle.

Standout Tracks: Devil’s Bride, Black Butterfly

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