28 Metal Records That Changed My Life: 2 of 4
8. Tool — Lateralus
It’s as easy to mock Tool as it is to be defensive of them; the absurdity of severe Tool fans, while obvious, is motivated by sincerity, that this music really does touch people very deeply. Critical evaluation is tilting, not that critics were ever too divided on Tool being an excellent band, and this record is slowly climbing in Best Of All Time lists across the board. Which I can understand. This is one of the most important records of my life, as silly as it sounds.
Ride The Lightning will always be unsurpassed in certain ways for me, but this is perhaps the closest. The music was immersive in a way that only Pink Floyd or the more grandiose moments of Led Zeppelin seemed to approach. One of the things I value most in art, not just in music in specific, is a sense of sensory overload, be it by vastness or a mutedness that requires intense focus. I have to return to the word “immersive”; it is the same thing that motivates listening to music at ear-thrashing volumes, or seeing a live show, or wearing headphones, or listening to a record alone in the dark laying still on your bed. The magic and power of art comes from two places, the ability of the art to overwhelm and erase elements of our psyche that existed prior to the art-experience and our own willingness to surrender to this process, not unlike the surrender to God in church.
It helped, certainly, that Tool managed to have radio and MTV presence. As I said in the first part of this series, I lived in a semi-rural area where record stores tended to err towards the easily-sold. Combine this with the fact that I was 13 when this came out and had limited internet access in the years before widely-available broadband internet, and my ability to find new and exciting metal was extremely limited. The release of Lateralus brought not only the music videos for “Schism” and “Parabol/Parabola” to my TV, but also their back catalog of videos for songs like “Stinkfist” and “Sober”, offering a glimpse into a musical space I didn’t know existed prior. Tool wound up being my gateway to explicitly seeking out prog, another field which demands its own list of 28 records; likewise, sales of Tool records combined with their openness of their more esoteric influences lead to a proliferation in CD stores across my town of albums by bands like King Crimson and Swans and Yes, groups that likewise would radically alter my life.
Lateralus was the album that pressed me to take practicing drumming more seriously; it is the record that pushed me finally and fully away from attempts to get into things like pop-punk or radio hard rock, which rarely if ever spoke to me; it is a record that, on investigating it with the limited internet access I had, turned me on to a number of books and authors and fields of study and reference that I didn’t know even existed prior. Tool was a gateway band, not just of music but of books and thoughts, and a band that, to my great surprise, my entire family bonded over, including my mother and father. It was at a Tool concert that I finally discovered and fell in love with Isis, a band that will appear on this list. I could go on and on.
The biggest thought: Before I heard Tool, I didn’t know music like this could even exist, and after it became all I wanted to hear and all I wanted to make.
It’s easy to make fun of Tool and their fans. But the overbearing hyperbole comes from the fact that they really are deeply meaningful, and Lateralus really is one of the greatest rock/metal/prog records of all time.
Plus the ending still really freaks me the fuck out.
9. Ihsahn — Eremita
Ihsahn, rightfully, is recognized as one of the greatest composers of metal, largely for his work in Emperor, a band who will be appearing later on in this list as well. His solo work is a little more divisive; some see it as a descent into the elements that make the latter Emperor albums seem weaker to those ears than the earlier ones (as well as a general descent into the occasional cheese which fucks up metal sometimes, one of the risks of pursuing both intensity and sincerity in simultaneity), while others see it as an extension and necessary development. (Both parties seem thankfully to be bonded over the greatness of Leprous, the band that often provides instrumental backing for him these days.)
It may seem that the direction I’m going to go with this micro-essay is toward Nietzsche; after all, he’s not only a prime noted figure for inspiration for Ihsahn in general and this record in specific, as well as being depicted on the cover, but he’s also one of my favorite writers and a major influence on me even still. But this would be to misunderstand my interest as being pure personality-based and not idea- or concept-based, reducing the aspects of his work that I find so moving as because it’s Nietzsche and not because the idea itself is resonant in me.
The reason this album became so meaningful to me ties partly to its title, Eremita. It’s Latin for “hermit”; the term deals with isolation in part, yes, and its contemporary connotations lie closest to those elements, but it initially contained reference to hidden wisdom, the wisdom of oracles derived from caves and rivers and forests, hidden places where people rarely enter or rarely dwell, and the necessity of turning to those places, a habit only the hermit contains. It is a rambling concatenated thought because the hermetic mind is one freed from the constraints of the interrelation to other humans, an interrelation which conditions thought to be legible to others; when devoid of the Other with which to account to, the mind effloresces out in mad Dionysian scattering paths, effulgent and wild, closer to the knotting of roots or winding of streamlets or the inscrutable scrawl of vines and moss.
I was alone, and have at times in my life been alone. I’m strange in a way that is differentiable from… creepy, or weirdness, or hipsterism, or pretension. Those elements occur at time; I must be honest with myself about this. But I also have to focus on how my strangeness is sincere, and arises from me in relation to myself and my desires for myself; it’s read as strange not because it is an insincere affect put on by me to make myself appear better or different from what I am, but because its a presentation of real aspects of myself, real things I value, real things I think. And this drives people away sometimes. It hurts, but I try not to become angry with others over it; this is the inevitable cost of pursuing the Self, that it will come into conflict with others, and I must respect their right to walk away if it doesn’t suit them.
Ihsahn stretches across Eremita an emotional arc that covers the aspects of this type of life, and places into the dramatic arc of metal the contours of this experience. It strikes a perhaps melodramatic scene to those outside of it, but that technically is what art is; if it were to be stripped of melodrama, it would be the real lived experience and not an affect art-object derived from it or meant to evoke it outside of itself. Eremita became a solace in difficult times, and like most of the great metal I have learned to love, a sign that there are people like me out there, people who envision and dream in similar contours and shapes. Music like this becomes an object of solidarity across time and space. I’m a cishet white man in America, so I’m cloaked deeply with privilege by external identifiers, and I acknowledge that; my interiority, however, is a rare sort, and places me personally on the outs with a lot of people, and so to have something which offers solidarity toward those inner identifiers without cheaply and immortally invoking a solidarity of “whiteness” or “maleness”, etc, that very bad art and people sometimes do is refreshing and emotionally necessary.
(Too much metal seeks to succor that sense of outsiderness that can strike many for many reasons, but does so precisely by invoking whiteness or maleness or straightness, and leads both the band and listener down a road to explicit racism and misogyny and trans/homophobia, etc. Ihsahn, like all great metal, does not; metal is ultimately the music of the defense of the marginalized, be it personal or systemic marginalizations, and so to resort to racism or misogyny or queerphobias precisely undermines the why of metal by striking at those most viciously and brutally assaulted in their marginalizations.)
A few lines from the album that resonate:
“The shame feeds the anger feeds the shame feeds the anger feeds…”
“She spoke to me as if hope were real and peace were something I could feel.”
“From the window one could see the long dark road stretch back for miles; a path of peril, sleepless black, now breathing slow, alone, not free.”
Ihsahn always had a lyrical knack, focusing more on narrative than some of his other peers in black metal and beyond; it is a trait he shared with Garm, another of the great lyricists and vocalists of second wave black metal, and another artist who has (along with his band Ulver) moved into other domains in following their muse. Eremita seems to tell the tale of a hermit retreating to a cabin after a murder to bury the body of the person they murdered and to process the guilt, shame, and anger of their deed; the nature of who or what is murdered and buried is left ambiguous, potentially the previous Self, or another, or perhaps something more abstract. But it is the fixation on burial, isolation, reconciliation, and the quest (and question) of peace that moves me. It has become a referent when I return to these topics in self-reflection, an album I put on as a sort of guided meditation. Its fruits for me in these spaces is undeniable; in a tenuous place I once stood, it stood with me, and in my bipolar fits of self-destructive mania and depression it saved me, and in doing changed my life, and made itself deserving of enumeration here.
10. Dream Theater — Scenes From A Memory
The purpose of this list is not to impress you, nor necessarily to move you, but to tell the truth about myself, and in honesty reflect the value of things that have been valuable to me in my life, regardless of how they may seem to others.
So it’s time to talk about Dream Theater.
The first I had heard this record was in an FYE in the mall where I grew up. They were relatively modern for the time, having devices at regular intervals along the rows of CDs with headphones and touchscreens and barcode scanners where you could listen to any of the CDs in the store with a simple wave of the case under the red light of the scanner (when it chose to work, of course; notoriously fickle machines). I’d mentioned on a forum I was a member of as a teen that I loved bands like Tool and Opeth and Mr. Bungle, and was looking for more weird, extended, virtuosic, “outside” type music. There were a number of suggestions, most of which I followed, but the most relevant right now is one that the moderator himself put forward: Dream Theater.
Picking this record up at FYE was a bit of a fluke. I didn’t know the acclaim that it had, even from the moderator of the forum; I remembered the name and the cover caught my eye. I remember the music appealing to me a great deal, scratching every itch I had, but absolutely abhorring the vocals. I was getting into much, much more extreme stuff and felt that, in a lot of ways, vocals like that were a bit of a step back for me, so I put the record down and moved on to other things. I think I bought a Morbid Angel and a Motorhead record that day (or used the knife I kept in my jacket to crack open the plastic case and slip the CD into my oversized pants pockets, as was the vogue at the time given FYE’s absolutely fucking ridiculous prices).
It was later, after I’d gotten more fully into prog, that I returned to this record under that guise. I was a teen and just discovering this entire wing of music and had become quite enamored with concept records (a fascination I still hold, though one that doesn’t overwhelm my other senses of judgment quite so much anymore). I recalled the experience in FYE and was startled to find that not only this band but this specific album was so wildly acclaimed within not just the prog metal world but also the overall world of prog entire; a bit of negative synchronicity in a way, something that’s become a bit of a mainstay in my life.
The effects of this album were less tied to its nature as a metal record (though that certainly helped my digestion of it) and more as a thoroughly composed and compelling piece of near-continuous music. I remember acquiring and watching later a live DVD the band released where they played the entirety of this album and spending hours upon hours with it alone in my girlfriend’s brother’s bedroom, tapping away with sticks on a practice pad to the work of Mike Portnoy while my girlfriend was off at work in a Giant Eagle. I became obsessive, learning every stroke of the stick, every note on the guitar, every unison run, every bass break, every wild unfurling Rudess flourish on the keyboard, and even every note of the vocals, which I had grown to love. I wanted for a long time to become a musician, and this record was a large part of what pushed me to move beyond learning classic rock and grunge songs on the drums, to bite my teeth into something a bit more challenging.
None of which sounds particularly life-changing at first blush.
It was because I was so focused and so enamored with the thought that this record was played so often by me in so many circumstances: a relationship of mine which lasted four years and stretched from the middle of high school to my junior year in college was scored by this album, in cars and airport terminals and bedrooms and hiking trails and dorms; the moment I finally ascended past my brother in musical skill, when for so many years he was considered the unparalleled musical savant not only of my family but of my community, when I played “Dance of Eternity” all the way through and he could not, proving at least an aspect of superiority I held over my (at the time) abuser; and, as ridiculous as it may seem outside the experience, the story about alcoholism, the weight of sin, fraught desire, jealousy, attempts and complications toward both forgiveness and atonement, and the way that the sins of the past stretch forward in long, distended, inscrutable tendrils toward untenable and impossible futures moved me.
This album, for a long time, was ever-present and ever-pressing for me. I cannot deny this.
11. Cynic — Focus
I enjoy, really, the way the writing of this has wavered, some records stretching longer than others, some digressions flowering out to fill gaps and cover ground that to other writers would (perhaps rightly) seem unnecessary. Call it a quirk of writing, a penchant for maximalism or a desire to hear my own voice chattering or a deeper interest in the way ideas knit and nod and resonate and reference than in the explicit and discrete bare thoughts themselves. (Likewise: redundancy in different words colors in different shades, mixes to something just off-center, and off-centeredness is as good as that Totalizing Center of the uninterupted Eidolon erupting full from the page.)
Cynic was discovered by me as I pursued the rabbit of early 90s technical and progressive death metal, a space which seemed to at last unite two spaces which had grown to equal sized loves in me. It was the mid-2000s and all of these bands were gone and had not yet returned from the dead as they are now. I had heard on metal forums of the rarity and superlative quality of these records, and felt angry that I might not be able to hear them. (I was between P2P and torrenting services at the time due to… let’s call it “intervention” on the part of my parents.)
And then the reissues happened. Like, just barely after my interest in these bands was sparked. It was serendipitous. And, due to good distribution deals, they were available at Best Buy (a store which, as my high school years moved on, developed an exponentially better and more complete music section).
While Atheist spoke to me most of these bands in a sense of their feral nature and pure Dionysian compositional style, and Death proved themselves with their run from Human to Symbolic to be perhaps the greatest extreme metal band in all of history, Cynic spoke to my spiritual side in a way that I found deeply compelling and necessary at the time. I’ve been an atheist for a long time now, and was an atheist when I first read this, but I was not always so; as I said in the first part of this and in other essays, I began my life as a Christian, and the intensity of that faith only increased as time went on and I grappled with death and grief. Being shaken from Christianity likewise was not enough to stop my faithfulness to God, and so I began reading the Talmud, the Quran, the Dhammapada, the Bhagavad Gita. I lost my faith in Jehovah, or at least my faith that He was just and worthy of worship, but I did not wish to remove my eyes from the Lord. It was painful in my heart when I was forced at last to acknowledge that I no longer believed God to be real, and that we were alone, and that all of my relatives and loved ones I’d lost were dead and that I too would one day die as all else.
But something remained: even through what, years later, would morph into my strident and obnoxious (and, thankfully, short-lived) New Atheism. There was a hunger for God, and for the spirit, and the Self-chaos/World-chaos of the spiritual realm, that persisted even in this spiritual darkness. It helped when, years later, I acknowledged that the mercy of there being no God in the real, that atheism was technically correct, was that it allowed a plurality of Gods in mad flourishing, opened up the world for a mad suffusion of spirits where before there number was limited by the supposed “reality” of any particular faith system. Godlessness was the purest and most perfect path to God; by declaring Him irreal, it rendered Him nowhere and thus everywhere, omnipresent by perfect and perpetual lack of presence.
(This, too, was aided by my ever-bouyant occult practice, one that spun out of the death throes of my faith in God as I experimented with ever wider rituals with my brother, finding not God in their doing but some Other power, something compelling and self-igniting, some tremendous inner/outer fire that I had not known outside of those moments.)
Art had replaced God for me, music and poetry and novels and films conjuring in me the intensity and strange tremendous ethereal power that the Lord once had. This was why they needed to overwhelm my senses, to overwrite me, to use volume and power and focus and technique to press into me things that had not been there before and could not have arisen without them. This was why I focused so often on sound and not words, because lyrics so often were about earthly things and sound always seemed, always, even in pop, to be outside of the earth but to have emerged from the earth, to be sign that we could pick up and go to some other place and without drugs. (I was more or less straight edge then, as I am again now.) The power of art and meditation created a kind of indescribable inner force which, I learned by paying attention to the conduit of the spirit within me, rose up from within my breast as opposed to shining down from some holy Other source; it was a self-revelation, a guided meditation through the stimulus of art. It is this process that I would later define as “magick” and would come to find defined as “magick” by others in a way that did not contradict my ever-growing atheism and from which I would derive a sort of inner power as time moved on.
Cynic evoked this in the indescribable angelic image of their album cover, the way it implored me to focus (trite, yes, but titles are deliberate and meant to condition the experience); their jazz-fusion and prog-indebted guitar work was fluid and sincere, not meant to evoke those styles but meant to give breath and joy and a sense of dancing to death metal (because, after all, most heavy metal is body music). I would listen with half-lidded eyes, laid on the couch in the small room I’d colonized in my parents’ home for my books and computer and albums, and I would meditate, and I would dream, and through death metal I would find peace and a sense of divine light. This was a meaningful beacon to me.
And then one day they returned from the aether, summoned by growing love of their now-considered classic album (how it was spurned upon its birth).
12. Mastodon — Leviathan
I recall sitting in the first floor of my grandparents’ home, the great house Wyoming, nestled deep in Spartanburg, SC, across the street from a Disney distribution site that now has been deserted by the company. It was a large property purchased by my grandmother and grandfather after decades of dutiful work in the salt mines of Capitalist Labor, and it was the fortress in which they resided, lived, farmed, and raised their untamed brood to dozens of spiraling grandchildren, greatgrandchildren, and more, much as our great mother Gertrude had before from her similar stead with my uncle Charles deep in Atlanta. It was a distinctly southern type of thing, to descend fast and furious into that kind of Faulknerian self-mythology of the family, and in that intoxicating air it was easier to make sense of some things: how someone could sell their soul to something like that racist imperialism of the Confederacy, the way distant capitalist oppression mutates over time into a lower-class savage rage toward any that even seem like they might threaten the already deeply embattled slight position on the foothills of Capital (feral and dangerous), the way legacy and family occluded the self to the degree that one’s life was lived not in service to the world but in service to the family and one’s value was determined not by their gifts to the world but by the tenebrous nature of their unholy brood.
I was in their home alone, at least in the sense that I was the last left awake and in the living room where most of the communal time was spent. My grandmother and grandfather were sleeping in their room, and my mother in the traditional guest room. My father was absent, back home in Virginia; he spent the last rough decade of his life in declining health, his long battle with alcoholism slowly taking the use of his legs and his mind before, near the end, giving them back with a furious grace that seemed purely providential, utterly without medical reason; until that same grace dislodged a large blood clot that had spent years building in his leg, which stopped his heart one night in the hospital. He lay at home in the small bed we bought for him that lay in our own living room, a bed among couches and chairs, pointed directly at the TV, meant to give him as much stimulus as possible in his unshifting position.
It hurt me to watch him suffer, as one would expect. He was not the best father, and to describe him as having gaps in his fathering would be the most diplomatic and least descriptive way to convey it. His alcoholism placed a stress and strain and slight violence upon my mother and my brother, and I being the youngest received their ire and displaced wrath most directly in the traditional downhill flow of these things. Tops and bottoms sometimes bear witness to a brutal symmetry of punishment and pain, and so I felt a greater communion with my father than with the other two figures of my family. He struck me as… not Christlike, not nearly so innocent or full of grace, but something similar, a font of blood that spilled over the rim of the cup and dribbled down its edges, across the table to drip onto the floor. His demons were clear to me: his own abuse in his parents’ home in the American South of the 1950s and 60s, the violence and horror he’d witnessed and contributed to in Vietnam, his PTSD and the culture of silence and shame when he came home, the lack of medical assistance to veterans of that war, and the substance issues he developed in the wake of these. It did not absolve him; not nearly, not at all. But it made it legible. The translation and mutation of pain over time, that wretched inheritance, was obvious to me.
(My brother was elsewhere at this time, on the beginning stages of his road of reformation, off with his first wife in Texas. It mutated him from a leftist to a conservative, which is strange for me, but the fruits of that road have also delivered a brother back to me and made me amenable and willing to be a brother in return, and so this is ultimately a small cost.)
I sat with these angsts and quiet torments when I turned on the TV. I had stayed up because Heandbanger’s Ball came on at midnight. Downloading music was slow and a poor guarantor of quality, so something like a multi-hour block of the heavy shit was much appreciated and extremely helpful at getting a taste of bands you might not otherwise had heard (you know, in case you forgot what life before YouTube was like).
On the screen roared Mastodon.
There was so much acclaim about them, even then. I wrote them off, being a teen as I was, and wanting what I thought was more ambitious, underground, or otherwise trve metal. This obsession of mine was bizarre in ways, given my deep adoration for very cheesy European power metal I still had at the time. But sometimes, fate intervenes to save us from ourselves.
These emotional associations were compounded a year later, a time when I owned the album myself. My father was in the hospital, dying; he was bleeding, and bleeding bad, and the doctors couldn’t find out why or stop it in time. They told us to prepare ourselves to say goodbye to him. This news shook my mother, bad, and left my brother adrift in rage. Which means that I was to drive the family to and from the hospital, being, without reason, the most collected of us. And I don’t drive, not then and not now, without having music.
And so, of course, Leviathan became the score of my father’s temporary dying.
The associations swam in me: me, the swimmer, the hunter, the sailor; my father, sick and wounded on the Pequod; God, the Great Killer, my whale. Again: melodramatic, yes, but not only metal but also art in general are melodramatic, and symbol is melodramatic, and it is by faith that these are motivated and made powerful. I don’t recall how this particular story ends. My father’s bleed was discovered on an incidental scan, found to be a nick to an artery from a surgeon’s blade, and was cauterized and fixed. He came home, recovered, rested. My family’s anxious electricity dissipated into the air slowly over time. And I hovered evilly within the spaces of Leviathan, grief breaking my psyche like a hammer, leaving my spirit to fall calamitously into the story of a failed attempt to kill a primordial whale god.
Beyond even this, Leviathan reached into me as an artist: it was what encouraged me to finally pick up and read Moby-Dick (metal often inspires me to read the books that inspired them; Tool is not the only band that expands itself inward and outward with a suggested reading list); it was what taught me the power of rabidity and feralness in drumming, forever altering my approach to the instrument (I developed a 30-minute drum solo/practice regimen around the main drum part of “I Am Ahab”); it fractured my poetry and prose, taught me of crooked and ugly half-lines, unfinished thoughts, snarl and strange.
13. Mastodon — Blood Mountain
It seems fitting to follow one Mastodon record with another; I know the typical modus operandi for such lists is to only include one record per band, but in the interest of honesty I must include another Mastodon record, and it would feel deceitful of me to displace this entry to another part just to obscure that Mastodon appears twice.
By the time this record was being prepped for release, my relationship with my parents was deeply strained. At the time, my father’s health was on the rebound, and in this space his drinking had picked up again; this made me angry, hurt, confused, when his drinking had cost him so much of his health and had taxed our family so much, only to see him return to it the moment he could. Likewise my mother seemed to grow more and more distant, collapsing into long cycles of work and rest; I understood this impulse, tired beyond tired as she was by this point of all the perennial strife, but still it left me in my mid- to late-teens emotionally stranded. My brother was gone entirely, off to another state, and rarely in contact. So: I was alone.
It helped that my girlfriend at the time had helped put me on the path of self-analysis, freed from the constant household strife of my brother against my father with my mother as intermediary that had driven so much of the previous ten years of home events. The more I told her about my childhood, the more she told me certain things were not okay, certain treatments were not normal, and that I was justified in being hurt and confused and in disrepair. I had never thought in these terms before; the recognition that perhaps it was not all my fault and that perhaps I did not deserve it made me more angry than anything else, at least then, and I felt a great need to allow myself to simply feel those feelings, to allow myself at last to shed the sense of guilt and shame and fault and embrace at last the catharsis of righteous rage. At least for a bit.
The room I had requisitioned had, by this point, developed a busted air vent, rendering it cold in the winter and hot as holy fuck in the summer. Virginia is an odd state, weatherwise; the Appalachians on the west and the Atlantic on the east creates a weather corridor where the heat of the south and the cold of the north rush through us, giving us strong tastes of both. It was summer as the record was being prepared to be released, and so the room was hotter than hot. I spent most of my spare time then, as now, listening to records and reading, staying abreast of new releases in both fields, and so I found the link to the full album stream on their MySpace a week before the record was to drop. I lay back on the loveseat I had in the room, eyes fixed to the ceiling in the swelter of the room, maxed out the volume on my speakers, and hit play.
Something strange happens to the brain in that much heat. The walls of the room were a dark green, painted that way by my brother before he left, giving the room the sense of a cave, especially when conjoined with the soft yellow of the lights from the lamps about. Tiredness sapped me; I didn’t sleep much then, and drank far less coffee, and so fatigue was a constant companion. Between the swelter and the strangeness of the color of the room, perpetual in closed shades through both day and night, and my own fatigue upon that couch, I swear I began to see creatures shift and sway across the strangeness of the walls. My bipolar contributes to this, and was much more active in hallucinations when I was younger than now, though the fatigue and half-sleep certainly contributed.
The thing that elevated this record over Leviathan for me was its psychedelic flourishes garnered from prog, which seemed to summon strange elemental beings into my room to stalk my psyche through the forests and caverns of my inner self. They induced the half-dream visions of the over-tired and the manic. It was that pure symbolic Jungian/Campbellian psychological passage, pseudo-psychedelic but achieved without the intermediary of drugs. Technically, the neurochemical mechanics are not terribly different, but there is a different kind of internal flavor of knowing you brought yourself to that psychological precipice through discipline and conditioning rather than a quick intoxicant.
Mythology has always been meaningful to me, even as a boy. It spoke in the thunder and brimstone of religion, sang in the voice of the spirit and not the mind; I became an atheist over time, and materiality became increasingly important to certain aspects of my thought and life, but that inner space of psyche and spirit still was conditioned to speak in the language of myth and religion. The power of psychedelia in general, and of metal as well, is its ability to speak sincerely in this manner. Where more traditionally “literary” folk or indie rock or whatever may see such approaches as gauche and cheesy, psyche and metal (and prog, come to think of it) approach these spaces with sincerity and reverence. It is the fault of the traditionally “literary” to see these spaces as in competition as opposed to spaces within a totality; the greatest of the greats, like Kate Bush or Bat for Lashes, see past this false dichotomy and indulge fully in both.
Leviathan deserves its praise as a better album, and a more influential album. But the occultic image of the Blood Mountain, the hideous psychedelic sun, the messianic wounding of the three-headed spirit of the mountain (wolf, elk, bear), the tattooed human body, the quest to the summit to claim the skull and ascend through a borealis crack in the skye (a theme that would recur)… The way the album roared and slithered and galloped and swam in a manner Leviathan, in its grit and thrash, did not… The way the lyrics shifted to the imagistic, the totemic…
This album was an icon of totemic wisdom to me. It still is. It is an avalanche of blood and fire, stones and eagles, colored ice and proto-human artifacts. Hideous unbearable sacred wisdom. Leviathan pushed me outward; Blood Mountain pushed me inward. I discovered a space and propensity within myself through it and strengthened that space, fashioned it into a temple of the wild within my breast. The native mysticism of heavy metal came roaring through Blood Mountain in a way that seized me. It’s the record that proved Mastodon were not simply excellent, but were the 21st century Metallica, the highest praise that can be offered a metal band. It’s still my favorite of theirs.
14. Opeth — Blackwater Park
The forum I arrived at in my youth had not been pursued for music; instead, it was directed to me by a friend who, like so many of us on the cusp of teenhood, found the site while looking for a combination of pornography and anarchistic rambunctious chaos-fun to have. A link to a PDF of the Anarchist’s Cookbook, ever a staple of childhood of certain stripes, got us through many bored summers in semi-rural Virginia, making bombs that could never work and old phreaking kits that were outmoded years before we’d ever made them.
While we did not arrive at that unnamed forum’s wild shores upon our boards in search of music, it eventually became a tool for such things. The vogue at the time was for forums not to be specifically bound to single topics but to have a surfeit of subforums, a style which lives on in redistributed form now, and a forum that led to the early polyphany of self-educational toolsets of early web adopters. There was a music forum, and me and my friends were fans of music, and so eventually it was to those peaks on the island we ventured.
There were a number of names drifting about: Mr. Bungle; Frank Zappa; Blackstar; Sage Francis; The Smiths; Depeche Mode. Names not uncommon to those who pursue music beyond the boundaries of the radio or MTV, really, and bands that serve as apt primers for the wilder fringes of sound, from jazz to prog to rap to funk to rock to electronic music, on and on. Me and my friends liked this, quite a bit actually, but we still craved heavier things, darker things. We were only 10 and 11 at the time, perhaps 12, but the intrigue of heavy metal had, as I told before, been placed in us, offered itself up as a secret grotto, and thankfully the people of this forum were metalheads as much as they were into anything else.
It was 2000. We had just entered the sixth grade. And Opeth was building to the release of an as-yet-unnamed new album. The metalheads of the forum were abuzz of this band, whom my fellow 10- and 11-year old friends had not ever heard of. But there were song titles floated: “Benighted”, “Demon of the Fall”, “Black Rose Immortal”, “The Twilight Is My Robe”, “Serenity Painted Death”. So, we downloaded, one by one, and we dug in.
To say Opeth changed my life in that mere brush would be a vast understatement. Opeth seemed, at last, to be a perfect fusion of all the widening music I found myself drawn to as an adolescent emerging soon into teendom. It contained folk as gentle and as melancholy as I’d ever heard married with Floydian sense of space and ambiance, a slurred and bluesy and loose approach to those moments in rock that seemed to be largely abandoned by radio rock of my childhood. Likewise, it contained the heavier components that had so enamored me, but reconfigured to appear like the haunted visages of the horror stories and writers I had begun to be drawn to, when I first picked up a collection of Edgar Allan Poe or Emily Dickinson, a kind of ethereal, spectral, and tortured component that spoke to me in those early years when the confusion and abuse had just begun. It was emotionally legible to me, and I committed myself to making myself comfortable with the vocals, which nearly jarred me out of the ability to enjoy the music at first, because they seemed to perfectly to conform to the intended emotional image of the text rather than being merely a method of conveying lyrics, an approach to singing I admired from the jazz and soul I’d grown up thanks to my father.
And then, in 2001, Opeth released their new album, Blackwater Park.
I’d never heard a full Opeth album before. The constraints of downloading peer-to-peer were ones of audio quality and availability, and Opeth had not yet broken in a manner that would permanently guarantee high-quality copies of their work as they have now. So it was the bigger songs of the fanbase that me and my friends had assembled and memorized and used to scare our less-death metal-savvy peers. The process of listening to them in full was a novel experience, and I treated it as seriously as bringing home a new treasured book or film. (I was, in turns, overly serious and overly jestful, than as now, forever unchanging in certain ways such as these.)
The sonics of Opeth were but a palette to the emotional and imagistic space. I felt, holding that CD in my hands, like I was in the mire with them, haunted by the obscure shadows of the members as depicted on the booklet, traipsing through some diseased European (or, perhaps, South Carolinian/Georgian) swamp, bearing witness to the dilapidated manors of previous centuries, the sickness and occulted brutalities hidden within families, the myth and darkness that swam around the fringes of the social mask of the glory and virtue of these places and these people. I had begun to learn about the strangeness and evil contained within my family, conveyed through myth and story, never to be told to outsiders, on threat of (whatever it is that families use to threaten the children to keep these stories away from prying eyes), and so Opeth’s sonics struck me much the way that gothic horror films and novels, in dealing with these similar spaces and themes, also had.
It reminded me of when I first heard “Eleanor Rigby” on the radio at the age of 6 and asked my father who it was playing and why no one else sounded like that, the first moment I can recall of thinking that music could be more than just songs you like but could be art in that mythic and primordial way. Only this was something new. Something no one else I knew had. This was mine. Something for me and my friends only.
The impulse of hipsterism of a sense of ownership is one I think we all know as legible, even at its most obnoxious; it is not a rejection of a world of sharing to reclaim a world of the individual, but instead a rejection of a world of feeling things taken from you or devalued or stretched out of shape. This can lead to the proto-fascist thought of “preservation”, of valuing the abstracted monolithic Object/Identity more than those that might use or engage with it, but it does not have to. Because it arises from something simpler: a sense of the Self, sparkling and radiant and new, the thing which moves through your body and into the world, and a thing which we do not always have maps (let alone accurate ones) for. Opeth was a compass and a starting point of my inner map. Their music understood in a way that only art or God can understand, the way beyond words, of replication, like the way someone responds to a story of yours with a parallel event from their own lives and you realize they understand the inside of what you are talking about even if they never witnessed or experienced the outside, the exact event itself.
Opeth made me feel certain enough that those things were there and brave enough to pursue them. If other bands were my first blush with the extreme, Opeth was the first door I walked down. If other bands were my first blush with the progressive, Opeth was the first I knew to apply that word to in order to describe the vast, cinematic, abstract scope of their work. They were my first of so many things, my lens, my map, my compass, and creators of unparalleled work beyond even this. They immediately became my favorite band then, which they remain even now. They were the first band I bought every release of, another habit I continue. They marked, personally, musically, psychologically, the beginning of so many roads for me that I cannot withhold them from this list. For me, Ride the Lightning was a promise; Blackwater Park was the delivery of that promise.