S-Tier Songs, Vol. 15

This is another edition of S-Tier songs. For the premise behind this exercise and the list of prior inductees, click here.

Today I visit a song from 2000. Not a hotbed year of music, at least what I and many others who read this listen to. But this band and this song would rise up from the muck and gain widespread notice, becoming a hit single in the mire of post-Woodstock ’99 fatigue and a beacon for the way for alt-metal to go forward. It only helps that the song involves highly charged personal affairs and features the lead singer of alt-metal’s biggest band.

A Perfect Circle – Judith

To begin with, a Cliffnotes version of the formation of A Perfect Circle – guitarist Billy Howerdel had been a guitar tech with Nine Inch Nails and Tool, among others. The latter band is very important, as Tool singer Maynard James Keenan would offer Billy a place to crash in L.A. After Maynard heard Billy’s demos, Maynard offered to sing on them.

Billy Howerdel wanted singer Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins to sing on it originally, but was rebuffed and Maynard sang on the demos. The pair assembled a band and got a record deal, signing with a group apart from Tool’s label so that the band would be taken seriously as its own entity.

Well, no problem there.

A Perfect Circle would hit well on the early millennium, with the debut album Mer De Noms debuing on Billboard at number 4 and hitting platinum before year’s end. The band hit on the charts and also toured extensively, initially opening for Nine Inch Nails in the summer of 2000 – a show I caught and detailed here.

It was fairly quick success for APC, and it wasn’t entirely because the singer of Tool was involved. There was a rich, deep song composition to the band and that was evident on the lead single, which is the song we’re discussing today.

Judith hits with a monster riff that isn’t something that could be easily replicated by a band, rock or metal, that I know of. It’s not “complex” in the vein of Dream Theater or Yngwie, but it’s something not of our usual world and gets set apart. This song, for all its lyrical complexities, is a banger. This throws down and slams, and goes very mainstream in a weird 2000’s world where we’re still trying to define the new rules.

And then there is the lyrical content. This is a highly charged, personal song for Maynard James Keenan. The song bears the name of his mother, Judith Marie Keenan. It is directly influenced by her, but not in a way that would be considered a fitting tribute by many (don’t worry, that’s to come)

Judith Marie Keenan suffered a stroke when Maynard was roughly 11, and would live in a debilitated state until her death in 2003. Her devotion to the church through her life and the backbiting talk of members of her church would inspire Maynard’s lyrics for this song.

And the song is not, in any terms, kind to the Christian institution. While “shock rock” had been played out by 2000 and “shock rapper” Eminem was rising to superstardom at this time, it was a different scene to have such a blasphemous song so blunt and upfront on record. Lyrics like “fuck your god” weren’t reserved for much of rock, beyond a bit Nine Inch Nails used on a secondary track on The Downward Spiral in 1994. But A Perfect Circle would slot right in to a very weird early 2000’s MTV and radio scene and score a big hit that charted well in the US and abroad.

But the song is far more personal than just a rant at religious institutions. Judith was struck down by a stroke, left to linger for 10,000 days in a paralyzed state. The song bearing her name takes aim at the gods she deifies, who Maynard holds responsible for her state. The song is really a question, why are you venerating this deity that left you in this position for damn near 30 years?

The combination of complex riffing and instrumentation, as well as the massively charged personal lyrics, mark this song as a dark highlight of the year 2000. It would be a herald for more to come from the band, as 3 Libras would also chart well and The Hollow would be one of the best songs anyone has heard from whatever scene, ever. APC’s second album would bring The Outsider, another banger and very strong performing track.

But Judith was the lead that brought us to the dance, and its mix of uncategorized banging and personally-fueled lyrics were what put the band on the map in the first place, and also separated the work from Maynard’s main gig in Tool. It was a messed up hit single to have, but it worked in the time and place. It gave fuel to a fire no one really saw coming, that was a mesh of an unheralded talent and a known singer that had something else to say.

Why is this an S-Tier song?

The combined simple, headbanging qualities of the track along with its more complex underpinnings make this a worthwhile endeavor on its own. Combine it with some very, very personal lyrics that transcend the typical fare of rock and metal hit-making, and you have a song that sticks out like sore thumb among the rest of what the hell ever we were doing in 2000.

And, as shitty as it is that it resulted in the death of Judith Marie, we get a spiritual sequel to this song next week. Maynard logged time at his day job to pay homage to his since-departed mother a few years later. He doesn’t like talking about it (understandable), but I’m not going to let that masterpiece of a song go.

Album Of The Week – June 13, 2022

This week it’s time look at a much-anticipated album that marked a reunion. It wasn’t to be just a reunion album though, it would kickstart a new chapter for the band that now marks their longest era and has continued to this day.

Iron Maiden – Brave New World

Released May 29, 2000 via EMI

My Favorite Tracks – Blood Brothers, Dream Of Mirrors, Ghost Of The Navigator

Brave New World was released to the world with a lot of suspense and anticipation. What were Iron Maiden going to sound like in the new millennium? The group had ruled the 1980’s with their epic take on heavy metal, yet the 90’s saw the band founder as times and members changed.

Maiden were an afterthought by 1998, when former singer Bruce Dickinson released an acclaimed masterpiece with The Chemical Wedding. (My post on that album here). The album saw Dickinson working with former Maiden guitarist Adrian Smith and the consensus was that the two ex-members outdid Steve Harris and the remaining group.

In 1999 the two entities decided to reconvene and start a new chapter for the once-legendary Maiden. Dickinson’s replacement Blaze Bayley would exit, but rather than jettison Adrian’s replacement guitarist Janick Gers, the group made the decision to function as a three-guitar outfit. The group toured a “hey we’re back!”/greatest hits set and then got to work on was going to be a highly judged reunion album. Nostalgia tours are fine and honestly probably the best way to reintroduce one’s self, but could Iron Maiden be a relevant force in the 2000’s?

The answer would be yes, as we’ll see in the 10 tracks with a run time of 67 minutes.

The Wicker Man

Iron Maiden have a solid history of hot opening tracks and The Wicker Man would add to that. The song is a simple one with an identifiable riff and with the world’s easiest chorus to sing along to, a stated goal of the tune. The title is borrowed from the 1973 British film but the song’s words do not tell that tale, instead presenting a hodgepodge that keeps the song moving.

Ghost Of The Navigator

This song heads back to the high seas, a place the band previously explored on their beloved epic Rime Of The Ancient Mariner. The lyrics use a difficult sea voyage as a metaphor for life and death. The music is bright and melodic while also moving and hitting hard – after several years of sounding dark and dour, the signature Iron Maiden sound is back.

Brave New World

The title track is vintage Maiden – galloping riffs and bass lines, guitars all over, and a one-line chorus that repeats many, many times. That repetition is a sticking point for some listeners but it never really bothered me.

Blood Brothers

A song written by Steve Harris after the death of his father. The song highlights the hardships of mortality and the “great beyond” after life. Blood Brothers was a much-discussed track when the album released and has been featured in Maiden’s live set several times in the years since. The chorus has been a rallying cry for Maiden fans in the reunion era.

The Mercenary

We’re on to one of a handful of songs from the band’s prior era that was used for this album. It’s a pretty simple affair about a soldier of fortune. While not being one of the album’s standout moments, the song still gets the job done well and is far above “filler” status.

Dream Of Mirrors

Another track conceived during the Virtual XI sessions. The song is a long epic, running over nine minutes and providing the first hint that reunion-era Maiden were unconcerned with song length. The song depicts the confusion and non-linear form of dreams and how harrowing they can be. The band knocked their first reunion epic out of the park and provided a template for many more to come.

The Fallen Angel

An uptempo number about good and evil, this song is one of the least-heralded among the fanbase from Brave New World but still isn’t lacking for quality. It’s nice to hear the band let loose a bit after keeping things mid-pace (save The Mercenary).

The Nomad

Off into another nine-minute monster and this time we’re in the desert on high adventure. Steve Harris stated the song was inspired by the epic film Lawrence Of Arabia. The Nomad does not suffer for its length – the atmosphere invoked by the music and each guitarist getting a solo keeps things moving along just fine.

Out Of The Silent Planet

We’re getting to the close with the penultimate track and also the album’s second single. The song was based on an old sci-fi film called Forbidden Planet, about aliens who tore their own planet up and are now targeting us. Although the song was released as a single, it was rarely played live during the touring cycle for the album. While the song gets mixed reactions I personally have no issue with it.

The Thin Line Between Love And Hate

We close with another lengthy track at over eight minutes. It’s your usual song about the choices between good and evil and the ultimate consequences of those choices. You know, typical pop fare. The song doesn’t break any new ground or anything but is still a nice way to close out this epic return to form record.

Brave New World marked a huge milestone in the career of Iron Maiden. The album charted well across Europe and was beloved by a long-suffering fanbase that thought the group’s best moments were 20 years behind them. Tours for the new album saw half or more of the record being aired out live, Maiden were not content to go out as a pure legacy act. The line between playing classics and new material would be an issue several years later but that is another story unrelated to this album.

This album was very, very important in so many ways. It brought the band back into the spotlight, it rejuvenated the fanbase and it succeeded as a recording without leaning on past glories. Maiden were able to record songs they wanted to on their own terms, they didn’t try to revisit the past or move in some experimental direction.

And most importantly – it was just the beginning. The “reunion” era of Iron Maiden is now in its 23rd year, with the group having cut six albums and are heading out on tour yet again. Their reputation and legacy have only grown in the past two decades and they are rightfully heralded as one of heavy metal’s most significant acts. While opinions on their reunion albums differ, there is no arguing with the success they have had in this period.

Tales From The Stage – Nine Inch Nails

Gonna turn back the clock to the year 2000 and talk about a much-anticipated show I took in. The gig was Nine Inch Nails with A Perfect Circle opening and it took place at the end of May in St. Louis. It was a gig with some marquee names and – well, something of a crowd, anyway.

No massive build-up for this one, it was pretty simple – NIN booked the gig, we got tickets and went. The show was at what was then called the Riverport Amphitheater outside St. Louis. If that name sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because it was the scene of the infamous Guns N’ Roses riot in 1991. (As opposed to the 1992 riot in Montreal, which was indoors). We had pretty decent seats that were under the awning, which extended a bit past the stage. The bill was simple – APC first, then NIN. No other openers or anything that I recall, and online archives seem to back me up.

A Perfect Circle were just getting started in 2000. Their debut Mer De Noms had just released a few days prior to the show, while the lead single Judith was getting a lot of play on the airwaves. The band was formed by Tool mainman Maynard James Keenan and his friend, guitar tech wizard Billy Howerdel. The album and touring cycle would prove immensely successful for the group and defined the band on their own terms as opposed to being Maynard’s side project.

APC would air a 40 minute set out in their opening slot. Given the compact nature of their songs this gave them time to play all but one song from Mer De Noms. Maynard opted to sing the gig front and center as opposed to his usual antics he gets up to in Tool, though I don’t recall any stage banter from him. The band played well and ran through the album, though not in album order. Future singles The Hollow and 3 Libras saw time and they wrapped their set up with the hit Judith.

One of the few clips I could find as opposed to full shows. This show is from a date after the NIN tour but still in 2000.

During their set a bit of rain fell from the sky. Our seats were a bit under the amphitheater roof but still close enough to the edge to get wet. It wasn’t a downpour or anything and it only lasted a moment but I did take a mental note to get seats closer if I wanted to avoid being caught in anything. The weather wouldn’t be a factor at future gigs there (rain-wise, anyway).

After the stage changeover it was time for the main event. Nine Inch Nails were touring the US on their 1999 double album The Fragile. While the album was lengthy it had gone over pretty well with the fanbase so the tour served as a showcase of that album as opposed to being a hits set with just a few newer tunes sprinkled in. The 19-song set would feature 3 tracks from the debut Pretty Hate Machine, 3 from the seminal Broken EP, 4 from the magnum opus The Downward Spiral and the remaining 9 all from The Fragile.

Trent and company made their way through their romp without much fuss. Much like Maynard and APC, there was not a ton of inbetween-song banter to be had from Trent Reznor. He did comment “fuck you pigs” at one point, without elaborating on who exactly he was referencing. He might have belched out another thing or two but it was pretty much get one song done and get on with another. Of course, one doesn’t go to a show that Trent Reznor and Maynard James Keenan are fronting for stage banter. Sammy Hagar was around a few months later, if memory serves.

One of The Fragile’s best songs with bad video but great audio from the same tour

I will say one thing – the crowd was very much not about energy that night. I mean, I suppose we can consider Nine Inch Nails a more ponderous experience than a straight up rock n’ roll band, but there just wasn’t a lot of life in the crowd. I thought it was a bit lame but honestly it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the set. It would mark the start of generally lame Missouri concert crowds I would notice in the future, though (with some exceptions).

There was a bit of energy in the crowd at one point – in the aisle not far from our seats, a few people got into a fight at one point. I have no clue what they were into fisticuffs about since I was, like, listening to Nine Inch Nails, but they had it out over something. The fight didn’t last long – security came out and absolutely messed these two up. One of the combatants got thrown straight into the concrete. Remember, this is the very place that Axl Rose tore to the ground nine years earlier and the birth of pre-9/11 big concert security. The fight got broken up in far more brutal fashion than the fight itself went.

Undaunted by action they probably didn’t see, Nine Inch Nails pressed on with their visit through The Fragile and other works. They played a handful of other hits, stuff like Sin, Wish, Gave Up and Terrible Lie were all welcome inclusions. They wrapped up the set proper with obvious hits Closer and Head Like A Hole, before coming back for an encore that featured a few Fragile tunes as well as the finale Hurt. We were still a few years away from Johnny Cash working his magic with that song.

I was a bit stumped that they did not include The Fragile single We’re In This Together Now, but it was not to be found that night. And while it wasn’t a breaker for me, I would’ve loved to hear Last and Burn, though I think the former wasn’t played much live until several years on from this show.

Overall the concert was a good experience. It does mark my first and, to date, only time seeing either band. I would like to see them again, especially Nine Inch Nails, but we will see what time and circumstances have on hand. Both bands did great in the house that Axl Rose tried to unbuild.

One other note – at one time I had the Nine Inch Nails performance on burned CDs. This was back in the wilderness days of eBay and they let people get away with selling bootlegs. I didn’t pay much for it, less than $10. It was a cool memento to have but sadly I lost the discs before the age of digital ripping really caught on and I don’t have access to the set anymore.

Sin, from an earlier stop on the same tour

Album Of The Week – April 11, 2022

Thrash metal was in a bad way during the 1990’s. The twin killings of grunge and Metallica’s style shift left the thrash movement clawing for any shred of relevance through the decade. Many bands broke up, went on hiatus or explored various other musical styles with varying results, none of which were commercially viable. Extreme metal ruled the underground and by the end of the decade it was black metal that captured imaginations – even thrash-centric scenes like death metal had a lull through the end of the century.

Leave it to Sweden to fix things. Not only was the pioneering Gothenburg Sound responsible for giving new life to thrash metal, but another Swedish group would enter the new millennium and release a melodic death/thrash offering that served as a signpost for the coming revival of many forms of metal.

The Crown – Deathrace King

Released May 3, 2000 via Metal Blade Records

My Favorite Tracks – Rebel Angel, I Won’t Follow, Death Explosion

Deathrace King is not an album with ebbs and flows or peaks and valleys. It is an intense, fast-paced assault through all of its 50 minutes. It’s a collection of songs that lives up to the album’s title and puts thrash front and center at a time when thrash was a discarded relic of the past.

Death Explosion

A very fitting title for the opener. This is an absolute barn burner that sets the tone for what the album is all about. The music flies at a breakneck tempo that couples perfectly with singer Johan Lindstrand’s hoarse growl of “It’s a death explosion.” The end of the song offers a reprieve from the headbanging with a slower passage that lets everyone catch their breath before the rest of the album flies off the track.

Executioner: Slayer Of The Light

It’s all out from start to finish here as the band goes on a neck-snapping attack and Lindstrand offers up a smorgasbord of Satan and death references. I could lament never having seen The Crown live but with stuff like this I’m not sure I would have survived the pit.

Back From The Grave

Another high octane thrasher that actually gets a bit philosophical in the chorus. I recall first hearing this song and wondering why I was pondering existential questions on a thrash song but the Swedish get pretty deep sometimes. It’s hard to read a philosophy textbook while headbanging but here we are.

Devil Gate Ride

A song kept on the album’s theme of racing that also features a special guest – Tomas Lindberg of At The Gates, which in 2000 was a defunct band. Lindberg’s guest turn would serve as foreshadowing – two years later, Tomas was in The Crown as their new singer.

This song hits all the right notes and perfectly illustrates the deathrace in full glory. It’s not a race to avoid Hell – this car is heading straight into it at full speed.

Vengeance

The tempo chills just a hair on this but the brutality is still present. The theme of revenge is well-worn in metal and it’s not served cold here – this dish is red hot.

Rebel Angel

The Crown go 666% fast on their ode to the Devil. Good old meat and potatoes, devil horn’s-raising heavy metal is back.

I Won’t Follow

Another whiplash-inducing tune that is cut from the “I stand alone and against society” cloth. It is the rebellion and individuality that stand’s at metal’s epicenter. It’s not a path for the faint of heart or ear.

Blitzkrieg Witchcraft

Now we’re just throwing words together and thrashing along to the end of the world. It features the old traditional thrash gang chorus and adds a bit of fun to the apocalyptic mix.

Dead Man’s Song

The band slows it down for the one and only time on the album. It’s as much of a ballad as can be possible in extreme metal I suppose. This dirge laments the ultimate inevitability in life and provides a nice soundtrack for it.

Total Satan

We’re back on the track and racing at full pace to the finish. There is another guest on this song – Mika Luttinen from Impaled Nazarene joins in on the fun here. And this guest would not later join the band.

Total Satan is a thrash banger that sounds exactly like the title implies. No curveballs here.

Killing Star

The album closes with an 8-minute opus. It opens with a nearly 2-minute intro and then launches into the same thrash attack everyone has come to expect at this point. The song combines all of the album’s themes into a potent mish-mash of Satanic war-fueled orgy.

Deathrace King opened the new millennium with something that had been rare for the years prior – a heavy-hitting thrash record, informed with the masterful touch of Swedish melodic death. After several years in the wilderness, thrash and death were set to return in the 2000’s in a big way and The Crown led the charge.

The Crown would go on a winding path after Deathrace King – Johan Lindstrand would depart the group and the aforementioned Tomas Lindberg would briefly serve as his replacement. A few lineup changes and one hiatus later, the band were back at it through the 2010’s, eventually rejoined by Lindstrand.

However it all played out, Deathrace King serves as The Crown’s magnum opus and a monolith of an album that cut against the grain of the styles at the time. The album’s reputation has only grown in time as people have traced back to hear hidden gems they may have missed in metal’s lull of the late 90’s. The Crown’s deathrace ended after 49 minutes but heavy metal’s is still going 22 years after the fact.