Luckily, modern metal is teeming with geniuses. Here is a far-from-exhaustive list that comes to mind without even trying:
Flo Mounier of Cryptopsy is a drummer nonpareil. Trey Azagthoth of Morbid Angel is the personification of death metal guitar pyrotechnics. Alex Webster and the three guitar players that have played in Cannibal Corpse compose the ultimate in brutal riffage. David Blomqvist, the lead guitarist presumably responsible for those eruptions of brilliant classical melody on Dismember’s albums– a goddamn prodigy. Vogg from Decapitated. Allen West from Obituary is the most underrated metal riffmaster of all time, laying grooves down for miles like a death metal J.Yuenger. J. Yuenger, in turn, is like the Dimebag Darrel of industrial sleaze rock. Brilliant. Varg Vikernes of Burzum, the Nirvana of Black Metal– while not the most politically correct fellow around, probably at least borderline genius at crafting riffs and atmospheres that move you to a cold and surreal ancient world. Morten Veland, founder of both Tristania and Sirenia, is the ideal symphonic/gothic metal song-writer. Now on the other hand, no way am I giving a genius award to Tuomas Holopainen of Nightwish. Fine, the earlier material is pretty high-level, but not the wince-inducing spoken word and theatrical excess of the current Floor-era. While I can grudgingly give murderers a pass if I have to, there is a limit to how cheesy something can be and still get the genius tag.
Don’t forget Ritchie Blackmore, who as Blackmore’s Night released All Our Yesterdays this year (sometimes I wonder if it wouldn’t be wiser to listen to that for our ren faire folk, and listen to Pantera for our metal).
Hallelujah, the halls of the musically mighty are walked by the self-effacing Blake Meahl. I was just listening to Kill ‘Em All at work the other day, and while I don’t usually listen to Huntress at work, I then listened to one of their songs. I challenge you, metalhead people: listen to any song off Kill ‘Em All, or the whole thing, then listen to “Sorrow” by Huntress, and tell me Huntress isn’t great. That is not even an exaggeration. After blasting through a Huntress album you really can only go to a band of Metallica or Pantera’s caliber . While they’ve worked with a couple guitarists, Blake Meahl is a constant on lead guitar– and every song on every Huntress album resounds with a jouissance that cannot be attributed solely to the musical nous of Jill Janus.
Sepultura’s ever-inventive Andreas Kisser comes to mind as a top-shelf riff chef. I would argue that Chris Storey, the shredder from All Shall Perish’s classic line-up, is genius-level, not to mention whoever is responsible for the riffs on The Price of Existence and Awaken the Dreamers. Alia O’Brien, flutist, organist, and vocalist for Blood Ceremony, is off the charts.
My wife used to think Mustaine was hot. Now Mustaine looks like Donald Trump, literally:
While it pains me to say it, given his recent music and public persona, I will grudgingly concede that Dave Mustaine is or was a song-writing mastermind and guitar virtuoso. Then, there is some uncanny concentration of pure metal luster in Metallica, Avenged Sevenfold and Slipknot that consistently produces jaw-dropping songs.
Speaking of, if you listen to the drums on Avenged Sevenfold’s cover of “Walk” off Live in the LBC / Diamonds in the Rough, you will see that the Rev really knew what he was doing. He nails it, and even adds something new and brilliant to the song, which is like adding something new to God.
Of course, some geniuses are not for everyone. I’m still trying to figure out what the fervor is about Mike Portnoy (but then again I’ve been saving Dream Theater for my old age– you can only get into so many new bands in a year, right?). My main exposure to him so far is via A7X’s Nightmare, and I don’t think there is a single moment on that album where I sit up and go, “whoa, check out those drums!” Instead, Portnoy is the definition of a workmanlike session musician on that album. The kid on Hail to the King, on the other hand (Arin Ilejay) stood out as starkly brilliant in comparison– it saddens me to hear he is out of the picture already.
We all recognize the voices that speak directly to our souls, and that recognition is usually immediate. There are a lot of vocalists who are geniuses, but not all are geniuses in the traditional musical sense. Phil Bozeman reminds me of a stunted, genetically-compromised attack dog cloned from Phil Anselmo, and I mean that as a compliment. Oli Sykes used to be genuinely frightening, before he went emo. David Vincent and John Tardy? Devil and Demon respectively. Is George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher or Lord Worm a better exemplar of the brutal death style?! Or for that matter, how about Lord Worm’s successor, Matt McGachy? Can grunting noises be considered an expression of creative genius? (I’ll give that a provisional “yes”.) Clearly the list of clever and forceful extreme metal vocalists goes on and on; the aforementioned are only some of my personal favorites.
R.I.P. Mitch Lucker.
My nominee for musical genius of the current decade
When you move to the realm of traditional metal and hard rock, truly great vocalists are always a rarity. Genre conventions (and subsidies for “raw creativity” and intimidation factor) fly off into the wind, and in their place a high bar is raised for pure spirit and physical vocal chords. A handful of the classic bands are still operating (e.g. the obligatory giants; Metallica, Megadeth, Maiden, Priest). I guess Down is still relevant. Maybe. Corey Taylor has completely sold out with Stone Sour, but is still an imposing force in Slipknot. Other than C. Taylor, M. Shadows and possibly P. Emeritus, there is only one true genius-level vocalist who rose to prominence in the current century– and that’s Jill Janus of Huntress. Not only is Jill Janus a compelling singer with a powerful voice, but she is a musical genius in the traditional sense. To find a singer who delivers so many indelible, original hooks with such intensity, one must go straight to the classics.
Hard rock’s late 60s/70s voices like Robert Plant, Jim Morrison, Grace Slick, John Fogerty and Janis Joplin, and 90s voices like Maynard James Keenan, Layne Staley, Kurt Cobain, Glenn Danzig, Billy Corgan and Tori Amos, achieved their place in the rock pantheon by virtue of pleasing vocal timbre, melody, pathos, and a fathomless worldly and spiritual wisdom. They are outside the realm of metal (arguably, Ozzy belongs in this group as much as among the metal gods, infra).
To find the kind of pure puissance and adrenalized energy prized by traditional metal, you have to go to the thrash titans (Hetfield, Mustaine) or to Rob Halford, Dio, Bon Scott, Lemmy, Axl Rose, Pepper Keenan, and Manowar’s Eric Adams. Jill Janus belongs in the ranks of the Metal Gods, the only singer of the decade to earn that accolade in my book. For metal or rock to receive a boon like this is a phenomenal blessing! The militant mobilization of this blog is in part a reaction to the fact that Huntress is not on the cover of Rolling Stone yet.
Janus gets my vote for most relevant metal genius of the decade so far. The most viable competition would be Papa Emeritus (not that you only get one great new singer in a decade– these two bands compliment each other).
One night I was a little stoned and heard Papa Emeritus’s voice on “From the Pinnacle to the Pit”. I immediately saw it as something sinister, and reminiscent of my favorite singer ever, Layne Staley. But unlike, say, that humdrum chart-topping band that named itself after an AIC song (in addition to borrowing AIC’s logo and then additional inspiration from Mad Season), there was nothing derivative here, just a genuine voice that at moments echoed another genuine voice (come to think of it, that’s how I feel about William DuVall. I think Cantrell did a good job finding a voice sufficiently similar but at the same time different from Layne’s– different faces of one much bigger soul).
Ghost has achieved fairly widespread popularity, by which is demonstrated that no reason exists to believe the world isn’t ready for Huntress (or for that matter Blood Ceremony). Don’t fight the genius the way I fought grindcore’s shining star. If you give Huntress’ new album Static a fair shot, you will agree. And if I can learn to worship Scott Hull, you can surely learn to worship Jill Janus.