SEPULTURA, Beneath the Remains (1989, Roadrunner)
When this album was released, it sat on record store shelves looking utterly innovative. The cover design may not seem so interesting nowadays, but back then it didn’t look like the rest. No big gaudy metal logo, the vertically-written album title with that curious red bar added arty nuance. The off-center picture surrounded by all that black lent a stark quality to the cover, and the skull itself was so surrealisticly adorned that the whole thing just looked remarkably different than your average death or thrash metal album cover of the era. The Michael Whelan skull is a beaut, its downcast gaze nearly falling off the edge of the album cover, carrying on its head roses, a wombat (I suppose), a graveyard, miscellaneous medallions, and a hole in its head that seeps wispy trails of smoke. This skull has a lot on its mind. Seriously, folks, this is one of the finest skull covers in the Skullection, at least as serious, non-humourous skull covers go.
After Sepultura’s deliciously crude early recordings and the transitional raw thrash of Schizophrenia, these Brazilians emerged as masters of the death/thrash craft with Beneath the Remains. Incredibly tight, frantic, semi-technical, dark and overflowing with top-notch riffs, there isn’t a finer example of the early merger of death and thrash metal than this. While it’s not perfect (“Sarcastic Existence” and “Lobotomy” don’t resonate with memorable highlights like the rest), it’s way better than most albums by most bands. Everything Schizophrenia attempted to reach and only got halfway toward is successfully achieved here. Sepultura had honed their sound into something with more definition and power than the band they had been prior to this. Beneath the Remains rightfully deserves its place as a classic. If songs such as the title track, “Inner Self,” “Mass Hypnosis” and “Slaves of Pain” aren’t immediately familiar, your metal diet is lacking in an essential, life-giving nutrient. There’s no need to review this masterpiece further. You either love it or you’re living a life of deprivation.
— Friar Wagner
KITTIE, I’ve Failed You (2011, E1 Music)
Aesthetically this has a goth rock sort of feel, what with the roses (which are starting to dry up) and the feathers (which I’m assuming are not attached to the bird anymore, and also starting to dry up). And the skull, which is also something once living now dead. It’s a fairly well put together image, if on the generic/predictable side of skull covers. And that’s an interesting parallel to what this band is doing, musically.
I’ve successfully avoided listening to the music of Kittie since their inception. They’re one of those late ’90s bands that started out playing nu metal and then realized how crappy nu metal is and have since branched out to find their own style. It can be done, and sometimes a former nu metal band turns into a fantastic one; a couple post-nu units — Dredg and Deftones — count among the the greatest bands of recent times (the former having the good sense to drop the “nu” as early as their demo stage). Can Kittie do it? They claim influence from Pantera, Testament, Carcass, At the Gates, Acid Bath, Van Halen and Metallica, and you can hear all of that in I’ve Failed You. The album isn’t as horrible as I expected. The worst of it sounds like Sonic Syndicate fronted by Arch Enemy’s Angel Gossow, and that’s pretty awful. But there’s more variety than that would suggest. It’s like a survey of all popular heavy music since the grunge era: the Alice In Chains-esque “What Have I Done,” latter-day In Flames vibes with “We Are the Lamb,” and Trivium-esqe guitar work on “Empires (Part 2).” It’s performed well, showing them to be a highly competent group of gals, but there’s also a lack of authenticity, like they’re too-deliberately trying to please everyone, coming off with a passionless factory assembly line sort of feel. Some of it, like “Come Undone,” couldn’t be more generic in its psuedo-Gothenburg-isms, and I wouldn’t want to be caught dead listening to the emo-junk of “Never Come Home.” It’s not all bad, and I’m almost embarrassed to admit that, but when something like “Ugly” gets past its first few horrible minutes to lay out a seriously brooding atmosphere and some excellent guitar work, I have to get over myself and offer credit where it’s due. Overall, though, it panders way too much to the extreme metal mainstream — as such a thing exists — for me to feel much attachment to. And it’s not compelling me to return once I’ve done my duty of reviewing it for Big Dumb Skulls. But I will give Kittie a smidgen more credit than I might have about 90 minutes ago.
— Friar Wagner
DEFTONES, Deftones (2003, Maverick)
Patriotic colors here, probably not intentional though. Red and blue roses flank each side of the skullface, his head slightly upward with an attitude that says “I don’t care about no stupid flowers, I am a bad ass skull!” No doubt he was pretty upset when the holder of this image folded it up nice and square and stuck it into the pocket that eventually produced the wear-lines you see on this image. Man, this skull is ready to fucking rock, and it’s surrounded by flowers and treated like a damn breakup note passed in 7th grade homeroom class? Skull says, “Bullshit, man…this is such bullshit.”
Are Deftones metal or not? Does it matter? The only reason it matters here at Big Dumb Skulls is because the Council requires that all entries be metal bands. And the Deftones are metal, they’re just other things too. I’m a huge fan, and the Council approved, so we’ll go with it. There are two main Deftones eras, to my ears: there’s the first two
albums, which skirts a nu-metal line without ever totally falling into it (they were more
often called “alternative metal” back then) and then the game-changing White Pony
and everything that came after. This is the band’s fourth album, self-titled for no good reason, and although it’s got some amazing moments, it’s the least-awesome album from Deftones Era 2. Coincidence that it’s got a skull on the cover? The only reason this album pales in any way to those around it is that a handful of songs, while very good as they’re rolling, don’t stick (such as “Battle-Axe” and “Bloody Cape”). But Deftones greatness is heard in the weirdly twisted “Hexagram,” and more viciousness (especially the seething vocals) in “When Girls Telephone Boys,” and the sumptuous atmospheric layers of “Moana” and “Deathblow.” It’s impossible not to feel moved by the somatic drift of “Anniversary of an Uninteresting Event.” And an all-time career highlight comes in the emotive “Minerva” while the weird experimentalism of “Lucky You” finds the band moving into new areas. Yeah, Deftones are way better than any nu metal band you care to name. The production is totally spot-on — colorful, thick, vibrant, earthy. It’s Terry Date, who has helmed some great records in and outside the metal realm. I just started liking this album even more with this listen, so go ahead, surprise yourself. I did when I first heard White Pony, and I will never call them a nu metal band again.
— Friar Wagner