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From Cream to VHÖL—the Supergroup

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It could be a recess in music sales, or maybe just something in the water, but it seems like veteran musicians can’t stop forming supergroups, this year. Soon, Season of Mist will release the debut album by Twilight of the Gods, a collection of Black Metal vets including Rune Eriksen welding together Nordland-era Bathory with Painkiller-era Judas Priest. Alan Averill of Primordial, the obvious point man of the bunch, uses their mid-paced chunk as an excuse to let his remarkable voice soar—as operatic as his main project, but not nearly as dour. Common knowledge says that supergroups suck, but if the whole Twilight of the Gods record is as strong as “Fire On The Mountain”, it might be remembered as a cult classic. Averill and company wouldn’t be the first supergroup to release a stellar record this year: a few months ago the blogosphere filled up with links to the VHÖL record—excitement leading up to and since its release slathered my Facebook feed to the point of annoyance. About now, the Palms record is hitting the same saturation point.

In between excited tweets regarding that project, a plethora of would-be supergroups have made their presences known. For example, Gary Holt, Dave Lombardo, and Nick Oliveri are forming a thrash band with a singer nobody cares about; Adam D of Killswitch Engage is trying to cook up some death metal with George Fisher of Cannibal Corpse and Shannon Lucas of The Black Dahlia Murder; and speaking of The Black Dahlia Murder, Trevor Strnad is grinding with Shane Embury. Hell, I bet a supergroup will form in the time between me finishing this article and it hitting the internet. The sheer volume of these groups seems significant.

Not to suggest that the supergroup is a new phenomenon. Established musicians have been assembling into bands for years, frequently bringing their own fanbases along for at least part of the ride—usually the very first part. As a concept, the supergroup has a rocky track record at best. Such projects seldom last—even the ones that made their marks often break-up after only a few records. As proof: the gold standard of the idea in all music is without question Cream, and that band only recorded four albums in as many years.

More frequently the results are better left forgotten. Some supergroups hit the crux of mediocrity’s ever-present bell-curve. I privately refer to this as the “Audioslave Effect.” Though that band is not expressly metal, its parental units (Soundgarden, Rage Against the Machine) both drew heavily from metal’s lineage. Chris Cornell’s firehouse voice, once a would-be successor of Dickenson and Dio, sounded like it could make any melody soar. At the same time, Rage Against the Machine had a rhythm section to match Killing Joke’s, and Tom Morello, as derivative as he was, innovated guitar solos in a way no single person since Eddie Van Halen had. Metal or not, the point is this: prior to hearing the music, there was no logical reason to suspect Audioslave of being a bad band. But their albums sound hopelessly pedestrian—unworthy of document, or close listening, even if they did manage to pack a couple great tunes on each record. The most interesting thing about Audioslave is how uninteresting it is. By comparison, Cornell’s brief stint in Temple of Dog, bred from lesser Pearl Jam stock, produced better material.

Why should the “Audioslave Effect” exist? Why do supergroups suck? The easy target is commerce.

The supergroup as a concept comes with baggage that even great musicians struggle to carry. It is a capitalist idea, frequently branded with the original sin of cash grabbing. A foolish strategy considering the vein of cynical anti-commercialism in rock music runs even deeper in punk, hardcore and metal—it’s easier to sell the general public on the idea of a supergroup (Velvet Revolver) than it is in extreme music (The Damned Things). On the other hand, metal has limited commercial appeal anyway, so perhaps there’s less incentive for metal musicians to band-up simply for the ducats.

But the idea of a supergroup isn’t dead on arrival—some such bands have created excellent and historic music. Aforementioned Cream probably made heavy metal possible, and strong strands of Cream’s DNA still last in some bastions of the genre. What made Cream great was that the band played to its members strengths, and they played well together, but the group had its own identity outside of its members (Eric Clapton was never so heavy before or since). That is the razor’s edge that great supergroups balance on.

And if that is the standard by which a supergroup will be measured, VHÖL scores pretty high marks. The musicians, veterans of the San Francisco metal scene, play well together, and most of them have played together before. Drummer Aesop Dekker played with guitarist John Cobbett in now-defunct progressive black metal group Ludicra. At the same time, Cobbett was playing with bassist Sigrid Shie in folk-power metal troupe The Hammers of Misfortune. The odd man out, Michael Scheidt from Oregon’s Yob, contributes vocals. VHÖL definitely plays to their strengths. Dekker is always a stellar drummer, and VHÖL lets him flaunt the d-beat chops that peeked through on Ludicra’s The Tenant. The rest of the music plays with the celtic melodies that Cobbett uses so well in The Hammers of Misfortune, and even some of the psychedelia in Yob. All these elements come baked in a blackened-punk crust.

Distinct personalities can be double edged swords, and VHÖL’s uniqueness may work against it. Listeners expecting a sequel to The Tenant might be disappointed—it took me several listens to let the project just be itself and not compare it to other Dekker or Cobbett projects. Unlike those groups, VHÖL shares a few similarities with the recent crop of crusty hardcore bands that Southern Lord and Kurt Ballou have been cranking out, albeit with longer songs, a less aggressive production, and Scheidt’s mix of clean and harsh singing.

On the other hand, Palms sounds precisely how one would expect, and that may be the key to that album’s likability (It’s accruing positive reviews on many websites, including this one). The band’s self-titled album puts every member of Isis that never took the spotlight behind the voice of Deftones frontman Chino Moreno. Of course, it sounds beautiful, soothing, seductive, and hardly metal at all. The project works because it plays to the members strengths, but more than that, it came about at the right time. With Isis disbanded, Palms is no competition to its predecessor. On the contrary, Palms feels very much like the album Isis was trying to make at the end of its life-cycle, when the band started singing and using Tool-esque guitar tones. Wavering Radiant was one of the weaker albums in Isis’s discography anyway, an uncomfortable cocoon that never hatched into a well-formed moth. Palms, by contrast, feels like a complete thought: Moreno’s sexual singing, the band name, and the album art all gel into a cohesive piece.

At the same time, the record is too mellow and longwinded to pose a serious threat to the Deftones, even though judging by early response it could very well be the beginning of a long and fruitful side-project. Moreno, an out-of-the-closet art rock lover, is the sort of singer who has always threatened to have a quote-unquote serious album in him, the sort of record the Deftones could not record with Reprise’s money. Lest we forget, Frank Sinatra founded that company. Palms very well might be that project that really lets Moreno loose as an artist while completely dodging the “Audioslave Effect”.

The burden of fan expectations probably curses these bands at the start, and contributes to the stereotypically short shelf life of the supergroup. I distinctly recall a teenage me gnashing teeth in frustration when the first Velvet Revolver album didn’t sound enough like Appetite for Destruction, for example. Time will tell if VHÖL or Palms will make a lasting impression; but there are some notable metallic supergroups that have made an impact on the genre as a whole.

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Fantomas

Fantomas – “The Omen (Ave Satani)”

As far as a supergroup having a distinct identity, Fantomas springs to mind first —the unit’s output stands apart from its band members repertoires, and apart from extreme music in general. Granted, almost every Mike Patton project is unique, but Fantomas only intermittently resembles the neanderthal grunge that characterizes Buzz Osborne’s work in The Melvins, and almost never sounds like Dave Lombardo’s Slayer. Without Fantomas doing oddball antics like The Director’s Cut, a record of horror movie theme songs, we might not have oddities like metal comps based around Hayao Miyazaki soundtracks.

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Shrinebuilder

Shrinebuilder – “Pyramid of the Moon”

Shrinebuilder struck when the iron was hot. Scott Kelly helped organize the project in 2008 while Neurosis fever was still stoked thanks to Given to the Rising‘s release the year before, and the then-prominence of Neur-Isis style groups. Likewise, bassist Al Cisernos had just released the Pilgrimage record with Om, and would a year later begin sporadic Sleep reunion shows. Wino himself was fresh off the highly successful St. Vitus reunion tour—The Shrinebuilder record helped secure his comeback. Consequently, the hype behind Shrinebuilder actually overshadowed the music, which was good but probably could have used a few unexpected twists.

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Disfear

Disfear – “Get it Off”

Extreme metal bands swap members and pad out side-project rosters with fellow touring musicians so often that frequently the line between a supergroup and just another band is blurred. The upshot of that fluid membership is that sometimes established bands actually become supergroups, briefly. Case in point: Disfear managed to recruit Tomas Lindberg of At the Gates and Uffe Cederlund of Entombed to record their 2008 Live the Storm record with Kurt Ballou behind the boards. The resulting record was not only Disfear’s best, but also paved the way for Ballou’s current stint as sub-genre-overlord. I doubt the metal media would be as interested in Trap Them and Black Breath were it not for Live the Storm.

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Ephel Duath

Ephel Duath – “Black Prism”

Ephel Duath’s appeal in here and now is that the project’s mastermind, Davide Tiso, has managed to enlist three musicians with more impressive resumes than his own: Karen Crisis on vocals, Steve DiGiorgio on bass and Marco Minnemann on drums. So far this particular union has only produced one excellent EP, On Death and Cosmos. Par for Ephel Duath’s course, the gem went mostly unappreciated, but when it comes to mind-bending jazz-metal, that EP felt like the evil twin to Cynic’s Carbon Based Anatomy EP, an impenetrable slab of obsidian. At a time when most shredding extreme metal is beginning to feel like easy listening, Ephel Duath remember that the challenge of decoding the music is at least half of the fun.

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Bloodbath

Bloodbath – “Mock the Cross”

Supergroups fill a niche in the music market; Bloodbath fills a void its own members created. Bloodbath exists to make the death metal albums that Opeth and Katatonia no longer will. The band not only maintains those bands’ credibility with their fans and the industry at large, but it offers them more opportunities to record and perform exclusive summer festival sets. That sort of behavior usually rouses my ire, but Bloodbath’s output is so solid I forgive it. Having a gourmet chef cook you beef stew serves as a reminder both of the chef’s overall prowess and of what makes comfort food so good in the first place.

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Hail of Bullets

Hail of Bullets – “Operation Z”

And sometimes bands fill a niche other bands leave: I doubt I will ever hear a new Bolt Thrower album, therefore there I have Hail of Bullets. These five dutch heavy-hitters play pure, chunky, old-school death metal with a World War Two theme, and while neither of their albums is as essential as, say For Victory, they pull the style off well. It doesn’t hurt that vocalist Martin Van Drunen, also of Asphyx, once toured as Bolt Thrower’s vocalist. Van Drunen’s work in Asphyx has an introspective, miserable quality absent from Hail of Bullets—for a band about war, it’s relatively upbeat by comparison.

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Stormtroopers Of Death

Stormtroopers of Death – “March of the S.O.D.”

The original crossover crew didn’t just create one of metal’s most energetic subgenres, they also kind of helped lay it to rest, or at least their hoard of clones did. Ignoring S.O.D.’s legacy, the most striking thing about the band is how different it is from Scott Ian’s work in Anthrax—the same guitarist who recorded “Indians” spent time in the studio recording some pretty deliberately misogynistic and racist music. Admittedly, it’s all in jest, but I still feel a little uneasy when listening to S.O.D.. Still, Speak English or Die maintains the anthemic sensibilities that carried much of Anthrax’s music—“March of the S.O.D.” was catchy enough to open Headbanger’s Ball, yet often heavier than the glammy pap that program peddled.

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I

I – “The Storm I Ride”

When it comes to pedigree, I may be the Tibetan Mastiff here—a second wave Norwegian black metal thoroughbred. Three out of four members are elder statesmen of that scene, namely Abbath and Armagedda of Immortal, Ice Dale of Enslaved and King ov Hell (here T.C. King) from Gorgoroth. If their sold album, 2006’s Between Two Worlds, had sounded like a typical—or even atypical—black metal project it would have been lost in the shuffle the same way last year’s God Seed project was. Instead, Between Two Worlds turned out to be a solid set of black-and-roll songs—Immortal’s answer to Shagrath’s horrible Chrome Division outfit. I’d be willing to bet that the black and roll explosion of the last two years owes some debt to Between Two Worlds—wanna bet members of Midnight and Kvelertak own copies?


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Twilight

Twilight – “The Cryptic Ascension”

Read this entry as a shortlist for the Chicago metal scene in general—the city itself is a supergroup. For the past 10 years, A distinct style—mixing black metal, sludge, psychedelic rock, post-punk and industrial music to varying degrees—has come to define the Chicago sound, or at least the most widely-blogged sector of it. The Windy City, equally prolific and incestuous, seems much like the Bay Area scene which produced VHÖL—except populated almost exclusively by musicians who have done stints in Nachtmystium. Blake Judd’s ex-sidemen have produced great music ranging from the hyper-extreme (Lord Mantis) to borderline pop (High Spirits). Nachtmystium, however, is too dominated by Judd’s creative control to be considered a true supergroup. Chicago’s VHÖL, then is Twilight. Critical reception to Twilight material, even on this website, has historically been mixed, but when the band hits its stride the results are chilling.

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Down

Down – “Losing All”

If there is a heavy metal answer to Cream, that band must be Down. Like I, Down comes from a diamond-hard lineage of essential members from an easily-recognizable genre, in this case southern sludge. Unlike that project, however, multiple members of Down take commanding creative roles in their non-Down projects—Kirk Windstein is not just in Crowbar, he IS Crowbar, and likewise Corrosion of Conformity might as well have been a separate entity when Pepper Keenan was in the band. In the same way that Cream was the only supergroup that ever managed to sand Eric Clapton down into ‘just a member of the band’, Down is the only project that has ever been able to suppress Phil Anselmo’s personality into something digestible enough to pack nuanced emotional punches, which (as opposed to Pantera’s brute-force punches) elevate Down’s music.

In the end, what makes a stellar supergroup is the same thing that makes any other band excellent—expert ability to connect with an audience. Supergroups have a head start at this task—readymade fanbases, seasoned musicians—as well as a handicap—unrealistic expectations, and a cynical stigma. Bands like VHÖL are going to ensure that the idea of the supergroup retains value for years to come, and with any luck we’re going to hear more veterans collaborate on great material. Likewise, we can only hope that the rest of 2013’s in-utero supergroups are taking notes, instead of counting on experience and reputation to carry them to term.

Joseph Schafer

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