Retrospect: None so Negative

I found this eulogy to Peter Steele on my old desktop and wanted to share it with the masses.

None So Negative: A Eulogy for a Heavy Metal Icon

I was only 12 years old when I first heard Type O Negative on a local radio station in Baltimore County. The station, 98 Rock, would air a top 6 countdown of the most requested songs for that day. Every evening for about a month, the song Christian Woman was played over and over, and although it never made the number 1 most requested song (at the time I believe there was a terrible Aerosmith song from the Get a Grip album that was dominating charts) it was always the 2nd or 3rd most requested song that day. It was catching on to a demographic that included me.

Every evening for about a month I listened to this song and it completely blew me away. There was absolutely nothing I could think of that sounded like it. When I was 12 the most exposure I had to music was whatever I saw on MTV or heard on the radio. The two big heavy metal albums at that time were The Black Album by Metallica and Countdown to Extinction by Megadeth. Those two groups, at the primes of their popularities, stole the most airplay on broadcasts. Yet to me, the heaviest, grungiest, Metallica song was weak in comparison to how downtrodden and low-pitched Christian Woman was.

The song clocks in at nearly 9 minutes, which is an average for Type O Negative, a band whose longest songs peak at the 13-minute range. The radio version of the song is cut to about 4 minutes; there are three parts to the song, and the latter two were removed for radio play. The lyrics of the song (which I didn’t realize at age 12 because I was a completely sheltered virgin) are about a woman who fantasizes about having sex with Jesus Christ (A cross upon her bedroom wall, from grace she will fall/an image burning in her mind and between her thighs). Looking back now, it boggles the mind how it got airplay without being heavily censored. But, kudos to 98 Rock for playing that song as much as they did, because if it weren’t for them I most likely would have discovered the band much later in my life, and they wouldn’t have had the impact that they did when I was just beginning my adolescence.

But the song itself: it’s absolutely beautiful. It opens with a very soft keyboard line played in a chorus setting. Peter Steele’s vocals join this with as much care to the delicate nature of the song’s intro, and the sacrilegious nature of the song is offset by its almost choir-like handling. It all feels like you’re praying in church, but then the distortion kicks in and the entire band comes in with a lullaby-like roar: a paradox from a band full of paradoxes. The synth nestles comfortably behind the domineering, thick, palm-muted strumming of the guitars and bass, and the drums keep an incredibly slow, yet calculated beat in common time to keep everything anchored as slowly and soul-crushing as possible. The most commanding presence in the song, of course, is Peter’s, whose vocals dip down to terribly low bass octaves. I remember hearing him drone the words “Corpus Christi” like a Gregorian monk and thinking, “does he use any voice modulators?” The song is absolutely entrancing, and twenty years later I can listen to either the radio version or the complete epic and enjoy it as much as I did when I was a kid.

After the song’s hype initially died down, the requests for airplay diminished, and the band dropped off my radar. It wasn’t until age 14 that I had rediscovered them.

I was raised in a Roman Catholic family and community, and attended private school for many years of my life. When I was in 8th grade I received the sacrament of confirmation (which I never understood its importance; from what I know and gather, it’s a big celebration over getting an extra middle name, or something). I received several gifts from my family from the deal, and one of them was a gift card to a local music store. With that gift card, given to me for completing a Christian sacrament, I committed heresy and bought my original copy of Type O’s most well-known album, Bloody Kisses.

I still own my original copy of Bloody Kisses, and even though it’s been played and scratched to hell, it still plays perfectly in my CD player without skipping once.

I played that album to hell growing up. It’s what I consider to be a perfect recording. There is nothing boring on it. Every song is unique and fascinating to me. To make a rough comparison, I regard Bloody Kisses and their latter album, October Rust, as the Revolver and Sgt Pepper of the heavy metal catalogue. They are flawless albums that are structured so intricately they feel like an experience, rather than a collection of popular songs strewn about with B-sides.

When I was 14 everyone in my class was listening to Nirvana, and because I was one of the only metalheads at my school, I was somewhat alienated for it. Type O, along with Sepultura, Life of Agony, and Pantera, were the first heavy metal bands I listened to and grew up with.

The cover of Bloody Kisses, strangely enough, was one of my first exposures to human sexuality. The front cover, in a palette of dark green colors, is a close-up of two beautiful women making out. It was my first discovery of lesbianism.

For years of my life I was absolutely obsessed with the group, and my obsession stretched throughout my adolescence and into my college years. I owned all of the group’s albums and listened to them religiously. And by religiously, I mean daily. I would usually fall asleep most nights listening to a Type O Negative album while I was playing a video game, or surfing the internet for girls to meet in my area (I admit to being one of those guys who used chat rooms and dating sites for a few years of my life). They were a band that was always there in my life; I always had a song of theirs stuck in my head, or lyrics that I quoted when speaking with other people.

My obsession with the group was surreal, even to me. Much like the towering, gothic-like band members, I would wear black tank-tops (or wifebeaters, whichever you’d call them) and grew my hair out very long and died it black (No. 1). As a tribute to my fanaticism, I even have the band’s logo tattooed on my arm: a black circle with a minus/negative symbol in the middle, colored in with the band’s signature dark-green tint. People who knew me would tell me that I looked like a midget version of the group’s mammoth frontman. And at 5’8” and 125 pounds, I was undeniably dwarfed.

I played in several bands during my early 20’s. Most of my metalhead friends and bandmates shared my passion for the group, and they were a direct influence to our own music.

One hot Summer day my friend and I were hanging out in his upstairs bedroom. We spent the entirety of that day watching a bunch of heavy metal music videos that we had taped from MTV or VH1. We also watched my friend’s VHS copy of After Dark, which was a collection of Type O’s music videos and live performances, and clips of the group doing downright silly things. By the time the VHS tape was over, both my friend and I looked at each other and came to the consensus that these guys were the types of dudes we aspired to be, and that one day we wanted to be on the stages they performed, playing the same type of music they did. And although the two of us went our own separate ways in life, we played several shows in several bands, although neither one of us came even close to the level of stardom our idols achieved.

Now we’re all older. My hair’s cut short and back to its original color: dark brown. It will begin to grey roughly a decade from now. My tattoo of the band’s logo is etched into my arm for the rest of my life, and will never separate from me. And very soon, finances willing, I will have to tattoo these words above the O-Negative symbol: “None so Negative: 1962-2010.”

Part of the difficulties of growing older is that as you age, so do the heroes you grew up with. Some die before others. Yesterday I received news on my Facebook account that Peter Steele died of a heart attack at age 48. His death hits home the same way Dimebag Darrell’s untimely death did, in that one of my idols growing up had passed away young.

At first I thought his death was another practical joke. On April Fool’s Day in 2005, Steele had posted his doctored tombstone on his band’s website, which threw many fans off. He’s always been very tongue-in-cheek about the subject of death, as well as his own, and when I read that he died I had only hoped that this was another one of his notorious pranks. Sadly, today is April 16th, today isn’t April Fool’s, and Peter Steele really is dead.

Peter Steele was larger than life in both a figurative and literal sense. At 6’7”, his frame was huge and muscular from his days of working out in Ferrigno’s Gym in his hometown of Brooklyn, NY. His chiseled physique, his chiseled jaw, and sunken cheeks made his appearance almost cartoon-like. The man’s stature was physically imposing, and for someone who was built to look virtually invincible, it was psychologically juxtaposing that his only enemy, most times, was his own depression. This depression was the subject of nearly every Type O Negative song ever written.

Yet despite his menacing looks, both Peter and his band were regarded as some of the nicest and most down-to-earth people in the heavy metal community. Many years ago I had met an employee at Guitar Center who told me that every time the band did a show in Baltimore, they would take him out to dinner and would modestly chat about like everyday guys. He invited me out with him to one of these dinners the next time Type O had made it to town, and told me to get in touch with him the next time they were doing a nearby show. Sadly, I never had the courage to go back to Guitar Center to talk with the dude about meeting the band and one of my lifetime heroes, and now it’s too late to ever get an opportunity to meet him. I regret not doing this.

Peter Steele was a guy that my friends and I aspired to be. He was tall, muscular, attractive, and had women falling on top of him by the armful. One of my close friends laughably compared him to the character Gaston from the Disney film, Beauty and the Beast.

I spent most of yesterday evening talking to people on Facebook and over the phone who were, and still are, rabid Type O fans like I am. We shared our experiences growing up with the band, and many of them were similar to one another. We may have discovered new groups that came and went capriciously, but Type O had never fallen off our radars, and those of us who listened to the group followed them like complete fanatics.

I had only seen the band perform live once in my life. I was 19 and it was during the time their album World Coming Down had came out. They had done a show at the Recher Theatre in Towson, MD, on Valentine’s Day, which was an awesome coincidence, given the gothic, romantic undertones to their music. It was a ruthless winter that year, and I remember going into the venue wearing this ridiculously huge (but warm) dark green overcoat. It was an absolutely awesome experience to see them play live, but one that was haunting. At the time Steele was battling through alcoholism and several deaths in his immediate family, which was the topic of several songs on the World Coming Down album. During the band’s set he had looked like he’d been through a war. I knew a few people who worked as his crew during that show and they told me he had a nervous breakdown after the performance. I can only imagine.

While Peter will always be remembered by many as a womanizer and a stud (many of my female friends owned a copy of the Playgirl issue he posed for, and no, I’ve never looked at it), most of us remember him as being an overlooked genius.  He was a hell of a vocalist and a bassist. The man was a pupil of rock music, and by listening to one of the albums he’s recorded it’s very obvious. There are countless nuances and references to the Beatles and Black Sabbath in virtually every Type O Negative song. The intricate care that both he and his band had taken with every song is on the same level that those two aforementioned groups had taken into consideration when they recorded their opuses. His sense of humor is uncanny, as well. To this day, Type O Negative is the only band in memory who’s recorded a live album that really isn’t live, but performed to a fake audience who mocks and jeers them. Much like the Beatles and Black Sabbath before them, they’ve been a group to march to the beat of their own drum, yet they’ve recorded countless melodic classics that have made their music accessible to a large demographic of metalheads and non-metalheads alike. And in a genre that had alienated listeners with extremities most commoners were unwilling to brave, their presence as an anchor to the heavy metal world was critical.

I suppose this is a very scatterbrained eulogy but I can’t exactly formulate how I feel right now after hearing that he really is dead. People make football players and politicians their personal heroes. I had my heavy metal music, and to me Peter Steele was the John Lennon of what I idolized.

It seems almost fitting to a guy who’s made a career out of singing about his own death that he would die in his middle ages of heart failure. In all honesty, I’m not sure if I can say Steele had personal demons that severely affected his lifestyle, and it really isn’t my place to make that decision. Yet, I do know that he suffered from depression (the anger turned within) and it must have affected his morale to continue living at some point. All I know is that with his passing, the likeliness of another Type O Negative tour, or a studio recording, is decimated. And a genius in the heavy metal community has passed.

Rest in peace, idol.

–April 16th, 2010

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Review: Autopsy – Macabre Eternal

Album: Autopsy –Macabre Eternal

Release Date: 5/31/2011

Label: Peaceville Records

What a fun band. I mean that with utmost sincerity. It’s good to see Bay-Area based Autopsy back together because death metal is sorely lacking their presence. It’s been a long 16 years since Shitfun came out in 1995, and since then members of the death metal group had sought other musical endeavors, Abscess being the most noteworthy. If you’ve never listened to this group and you like death metal, you MUST listen to Autopsy’s earlier releases. Most people consider the Severed Survival/Mental Funeral collaboration to be their best work, but my pick goes to Acts of the Unspeakable. Someday I’ll write an archive review of that particular album and I will most likely give it a perfect rating.

There is not one band that can even closely emulate Autopsy’s sound. This is a band of a million riffs. Listening to their earlier work you’ll be amazed at how many different licks and solos form each song. Nothing sounds alike. Their reuniting album, Macabre Eternal, is no different.

Most comeback albums sound different and it’s so evident it distracts the listener. Not the case here. Macabre Eternal fares extremely well in Autopsy’s prolific discography. If you were to play this immediately following an album from the 90’s, you wouldn’t notice the lapse in time. It’s definitely a nostalgia piece, however, but if you’re a fan of this group, you won’t mind.

Going back to the millions of riffs this band comes up with, it’s crazy. There’s nothing boring about this album at all. It’s not anywhere as fast as modern day death, although when Autopsy first released Severed Survival, it was arguably the fastest and heaviest recording at the time. The guitar tone isn’t too thick but it sounds right, because it belongs to this group. And the solos shred. Chris Reifert, drummer and lead vocalist (and the original drummer of Death), has one of the most unique voices in the genre, similar to John Tardy’s (Obituary) but never as outlandish. Misinterpreting his lyrics is very funny; when my friend and I first listened to “Deliver Me From Sanity,” we both swore Reifert was growling the line “the dirty skin around my balls.”

Check this out. Macabre Eternal is the best comeback album to come from this decade so far, closely followed by Atheist’s Jupiter. Morbid Angel, take note, this is what you should have done.

Best track: Sadistic Gratification (this track is over 11 minutes long and a chock full of licks).

Star Rating:

 

8 out of 10 stars 

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Archive: Vital Remains – Dechristianize

Album: Vital Remains – Dechristianize

Release date: 4/22/2003

Label: Olympic Records

 

Dechristianize is one of the evilest things ever written; a relentless force of anti-religious hatred, aimed with laser-like accuracy towards the heavens with vehemence and revolt. It’s as angry as anything I’ve ever damned well listened to.

For death metal, this is as epic as it gets. If you’ve listened to Vital Remains in the past you know of their proclivity to Wagnerian song lengths, and each song on Dechristianize is given a grandiose treatment, with some tracks stretching over the 10-minute mark. Don’t let the timings fool you; each song flies through at blasting, blistering speed.

Glen Benton (Deicide, none other) is guest lead vocalist for this album. He barks neo-satanic doctrines as he does with anything he does, but in Vital Remains there seems to be a better home than the last few mediocre Deicide recordings. He has some of the most underrated pipes in the genre and this album proves it; his presence is pivotal for the group, and it’s evident in the energy that each song carries with it. The band consists of two other members; original guitarist Tony Lazaro and Dave Suzuki, who plays guitar, bass, and drums for the recording.

The guitar tone and vocal mixing is perfect for this album; the drums, however, are paper-thin, particularly the double-bass kick. If the drums were just a tad louder this could very well be the most well-recorded death metal album of all-time. The meat and potatoes of this group are its songwriting and its ability to invoke unbridled, hatred-filled headbanging from the listener. This drumming quibble is minor.

The major complaint that keeps this from being a perfect album is that despite its speed, its length becomes more evident in later tracks, and then it crawls. For how it begins and the energy it carries while it lasts, you won’t find a better death metal album than Dechristianize, and this is a mandatory release, one that deserves the accolades and hype. Burn your crosses.

Best track: Dechristianize

Star Rating:

9 out of 10 stars

Review: Animals as Leaders – Animals as Leaders

Album: Animals as Leaders – Animals as Leaders

Release date: 4/28/2009

Label: Prosthetic Records

Animals as Leaders is a relief. It is assurance that somewhere out there, though a small population, aspiring youths genuinely care about the spirit of music and the ability to play an instrument, and to continue learning and evolving. In a world gone mad with ennui and Rock Band, we need this. I know that I’m cheating a bit because this is a 2009 album categorized in recent reviews, but you really need to give this band, and this album, attention.

Lead guitarist/songwriter Toban Abasi commands his ensemble through an album chock full of progressive metal, ala Dream Theater and Symphony X. For some reason, this album sounds more calculated than anything the aforementioned groups have released. The heavier tracks are strongly derivative of Meshuggah with their insane polyrhythmic beats and downtuned guitars. Animals as Leaders shreds but most often chooses to breeze. The result is more acoustic than synthetic, although my personal preference leans towards the heavier tracks on the CD, such as CAFO and Thoroughly at Home. BTW, no vox on anything here.

Don’t get me wrong; although this is a very progressive recording it has more spirit than most. One can drift easily in between the previously listed barrages and get lost floating down a lulling current. The lighter tracks are VERY reminiscent of Cynic, and are singed with jazz fusion influence. This can be a detracting quality of the record for the more intense listener. I enjoy this sound and spirit, but the heavier tracks tease you and you end up wanting more volume.

Animals as Leaders is an album played by Freshmen turning Seniors. Even if you’re not keen on progressive, just listen to this damned thing anyways; you’re not going to find too many youths playing music like this for long.

Best track: CAFO

Star Rating:

9 out of 10 stars

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Retro Review: Cannibal Corpse – Eaten Back to Life

Album: Cannibal Corpse – Eaten Back to Life

Release Date: 8/17/1990

Label: Metal Blade Records

Back when death metal didn’t care, two decades ago, there existed the origins of Cannibal Corpse, undeniably the most recognizable death metal band in history. They’re so recognizable they even landed a gig playing in a scene from the film Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (cute little fact: Jim Carrey is a death metal fanatic). Chris Barnes’ vocals are so definitive of the genre that if someone who doesn’t listen to metal listens to any death metal band, they’ll say “that guy sounds like Cannibal Corpse.” They truly are the AC/DC of death metal: nothing fancy, always loud, always direct.

Death metal has evolved so much in two decades. It is still a taboo subject for non-listeners and a frustration for those living rurally, with pastures over venues. Metal still has a strong energy about it, and there will always be new bands revitalizing and creating new subgenres. Death metal still exists and disco and new wave do not. Death metal will always be around, most likely underground. I’m digressing, am I not?

Bands nowadays play their metal meticulously and mathematical. Cannibal Corpse is as far away from this theory as possible. The result of Eaten Back to Life, their first album, from its disgusting cover to its musical components, is an absolute mess. And it’s so damned fun to listen to.

The energy for this album is off the hook. Every song blasts away like a prepubescent orgasm, each measure of music being rushed to the next with a sort of kinetic haste. The drumming is abysmal, one of the most poorly-drummed albums ever recorded. Guitar solos are kind of okay. I can’t hear any bass. I don’t think anyone in the band minds any of this.

Before killing his voice through repeated touring (and pot), Chris Barnes had an awesome voice, and it’s at its best here. Think Barney Greenaway (Napalm Death) with a cold. Trust me, it sounds great. And the production (by some guy, Scott Burns is it?) makes this whole thing sounds better than it has any right to be. And because of that, you’re listening to a loud, fast death metal recording with a blatant disregard for your grandmum’s well-being.  

Great fuckin’ album. Pardon my French.

Favorite track: Mangled

Star Rating:

8 out of 10 stars

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Review: Atheist – Jupiter

Album: Atheist – Jupiter

Release Date: 11/9/2010

Label: Season of Mist

Both this review and my next will be covering major comeback albums by highly influential bands in the death metal genre. It has taken both groups over 15 years to release new studio recordings. Only in heavy metal will you find such lengthy lapses. Atheist is a group that has deserved accolades for quite some time but always seems to get it late. Perhaps it was appropriate that Jupiter was released in late 2010, and my review is untimely, having been written nearly a year later.

Atheist’s debut album, Piece of Time, was recorded in 1988, yet sounds much younger. This overlooked and aptly-named piece of time was a remarkable innovation; it merged death metal and jazz fusion seamlessly. The Florida-based group was a direct influence on other local and better-known acts: Death, Sadus, and Cynic being the primary beneficiaries. Those groups colonized an already charted territory; Atheist was its pioneer.

Jupiter is the comeback album fans of progressive death hoped for in Cynic’s Traced in Air, which came up short and quietly. There is nothing acoustic here, and no time for contemplation; the opening measures of “Second to Sun” redefine Atheist’s affinity for whiplash-inducing rhythmic changes. There’s no time to make sense of it all, and by the time you attempt it, you’re thrown into another head-scratching transition. This album has no regard for your neck.

This is a very approachable album in a genre that alienates itself from accessibility. The drumming and guitar riffs are very complex and the remaining components of the genre (particularly the awkward, nasally vocals…what is it with prog death bands having weak vocalists?) are there; they are just blended into digestible puree. Although this is not the heftiest album the genre holds, it is not quick to compromise its sound, and Jupiter is loud enough to reaffirm its solidarity in death metal.

How does Jupiter compare to Piece of Time or Unquestionable Presence? Very well; not once does it sound aging or retroactive. In an evolving metal scene that eschews convention and embraces nonconformity, Jupiter sounds as though it belongs with a younger generation of musicians and listeners. Longtime fans of Atheist will be rejuvenated to hear their group hasn’t converted into a false metal religion. The wee lads and lassies will use Jupiter as a gateway album to discover some of the old relics of the prog death genre. This is a great comeback album. Give Atheist the attention they’ve always deserved.

Best track: When the Beast

Star Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

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Archive Review: SOD – Speak English or Die

Album: Stormtroopers of Death – Speak English or Die

Release Date: 1985

Label: Megaforce

When is it not funny? The waters of this question are tested with Speak English or Die, a celebrated thrash record that is a collaboration of members from Nuclear Assault, Anthrax, and um, Billy Milano. It’s universally adored by thrashers, not only for its groove, but because it was so xenophobic, so politically incorrect, so Reagan years.

It’s fast, it’s heavy, it’s thick, it’s loud, it will annoy your parents, it will annoy some of your friends. Thrash is one of the most obnoxious genres of music to ever exist. It was anthem-like to teenagers from the 80’s, alongside punk music, which ironically many bands use as a crossover between genres (D.R.I. being the most obvious example). Speak English or Die is all the aforementioned and then some.

The lyrics to this album don’t offend me. I’m pretty good at tolerating music and personas, with few rare exceptions. Lead vocalist Billy Milano is one of the most irritating people I’ve ever listened to sing or talk, or scream or whatever he does on this album that is as talentless as AxCx. Originally a bassist for a lesser known band called the Psychos, Milano walks into this album with his best foot backward. He bellows and complains and does silly voices and a terrible impersonation of women. None of it is funny.

Milano is an outspoken and loud personality, so much that it detracts from the rest of the album, which is pretty damned fine thrash. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s definitely a headbanger. Most of the tracks on this album kick a lot of tail. They’re short but just the right length to mosh. Some songs are stupidly short, however, such as the Ode to Hendrix and the Diamonds and Rust covers. All in all, there’s enough here to make a normal-length album to thrash in short spurts, maybe sporadically, but never constantly.

Just when you want to crank it to 11, however, Milano has cranked it to 12, and that’s just way too loud. And if you think he’s annoying here, wait until you hear M.O.D.

Best track: March of the S.O.D. (fantastic instrumental!)

Star Rating: 6 out of 10 stars

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