Big Al’s Metal Shop

A while back, I had a chance to review the latest Machine Head disc. What struck me then and now about the album was its timeless value as a “headphones” record. You know, the kind of epic that took you to another place after a hard day, an argument with your folks/old lady/old man/landlord. Slipping on a pair of headphones took you to a faraway place — like Zeppelin’s II or Rush’s 2112 a generation ago.

In today’s overproduced world, it has been said there are fewer labels willing to take a chance on an album. It has become cliched to say that modern music is fixated on the single, the image, and the crossover marketing appeal an act can provide. And it’s largely true. The case can be made, then, that albums like Machine Head’s should be considered an aberration, but as metal continues to carve out a comfortable niche for itself in the music industry, the reverse has actually occurred. More often than not, metal artists are now releasing polished, technically superior albums that will go a long way in defining this generation’s sound. One of the consequences of this freedom is the return of the guitar. A decade ago, it was considered “cock-rock” to want to shred — so thoroughly ’80s. The early to late ’90s are rife with examples of lame, ironic “rock” with no musical value. (Remember The Presidents of the blah blah blah — yeah, where are those guys now?) This is no longer the case as far as music goes. It may seem that R&B/hip-hop is the dominant genre now, but a look at the charts shows that metal, and specifically well-produced metal, also has a place in the heart of music lovers today.

As a result, the notion of the guitar solo as antiquated has gone the way of the dodo. For proof, one only has to look at the success of the PlayStation 2 game Guitar Hero and its highly anticipated sequel. Guitarists are now stepping back into the spotlight, and those with the skills and dedication to their craft are pushing album-oriented metal back into the little skulls of current and future metal-heads.

One of the guitarists that embodies that approach is Zakk Wylde. Yes, the berserker of Ozzy Osbourne fame. Every part the consummate player, Wylde brings his dominant personality to all he works on. Wylde’s band, Black Label Society, has produced quality albums over the last decade, but on this latest they smack it out of the park. Equal parts bruiser and crooner, Shot To Hell is expertly forged metal. Well-arranged musically, Wylde layers his guitar over the bass-drum attack and his rusty vocals. Light and shade are utilized, but kept separate, thus escaping the trap most of today’s four-words-in-their-name-emo-”metal” bands fall into. Although the opener, “Concrete Jungle,” is considered the first single, it by no means encapsulates the richness of this album. Beautiful piano sequences on “New Religion” and “Sick of it All” stand tall beside the guitar that follows naturally. “Sick of it All” reminds me a little of how Axl made it work on “November Rain,” right before music got shafted in the ’90s.

And while music took a dive in that decade, metal in this country sank underground only to return with the new generation of American metal. One of the bands that has lead this charge, and whom you will be happy to know has made the cut on Guitar Hero II, is Lamb of God. Their newest, Sacrament, hit the top 10 of the Billboard charts a few weeks ago when it was released. Their second on a major label, Sacrament finds these Virginians shredding instead of leading the pit with breakdowns and anthems like their last, Ashes of The Wake. Kicking off with “Walk With Me In Hell,” Lamb of God embraces their Pantera influence. While Ashes was bluntly political, Sacrament is more of a misanthropic work lyrically. Still, this album reminds me of Trendkill-era Pantera — the first single “Redneck” especially so. As an album, Sacrament flows well, but to me isn’t as memorable as Ashes of The Wake. The guitar work is a highlight here, but the overall construction isn’t as vicious. There are songs that stand out; “Forgotten” could easily translate to a live setting, as could “More Time To Kill.” A very good album, certainly accessible to the casual rock/metal fan, but not my favorite. That title will continue to lie with Ashes.

Until the next time,