Sunday, September 18, 2016

Classic Review: Dan Swano - Moontower

When death metal first emerged, it was a novelty, a branch of metal that was never expected to be anything other than a carnival oddity. Against all odds, it caught on with a large portion of the public, and soon there were bands lining up all around the world trying to get a piece of the action. What started off as a breath of fresh air, a new sound that was original and unique, quickly became a breeding ground for mediocrity. All genres are subject to bands converging to a single sound, but with death metal stripping most of the humanity from their vocals, that singularity was easier to achieve than anywhere else. Before long, death metal was everywhere, and few bands were able to maintain an identity that separated them from the masses.

One of those that was able to was Edge Of Sanity, because mastermind Dan Swanӧ possessed one of the few growls that was able to stand out. He was not the indecipherable voice that would lead to the 'cookie monster' generalization, he was able to use his voice like a singer, putting both force and melody to his demonic performance. The band would run its course, and when Swanӧ took on the task of making a solo album, he showed what extreme metal can truly be.

“Moontower” is not extreme metal in the sense that traditional death metal is. Rather than overwhelming you with the sheer brutality of the music, Swanӧ uses his death metal voice as a means to subvert traditional formats, illustrating how the human element is often the only thing separating what we perceive to love from that we hate. “Moontower” was described as the imagining of what it would sound like if Rush had played death metal, and it's a fair assessment. Swanӧ does not trade in the typical chugging riffs and double bass drumming. “Moontower” is built on the foundation of progressive rock, with a more subdued guitar attack, and a pronounced focus on vintage keyboard sounds.

On songs like “Patchworks” and “Uncreation”, Swanӧ is able to do something no other death metal vocalist can, growling sturdy hooks that could anchor more traditional rock songs. Death metal vocalists are not known for being interesting writers, mostly sticking to a single tone, while growling simply rhythmic patters. Swanӧ is unlike any other, as he is able to use his voice to growl melodies that swirl and flow like any other singer, but with the fury and power of a throaty roar. He is able to bridge the gap, giving the songs an intensity a pure singer never could, but retaining the elements that can make the music connect with people who don't care for death metal.

Those two songs are the cream of the crop, but there are no weak moments on “Moontower”. From the opening seconds to the end, the album is an unholy mix of Rush and death metal, one that works far better than it had any right to. The experiment sounds absurd, but Swanӧ makes it work, because he is fusing the two sides of his personality. What may have come across as a gimmick in lesser hands works here, because Swanӧ is pouring his heart and soul into these songs. The effort shows, as “Moontower” resonates as an intensely personal journey.

What is most amazing about “Moontower” is that, despite the genius of the album, nothing else has ever sounded like it. No one has copied the formula, perhaps because no one else understands it. “Moontower” may not sound like an extreme metal album, but it is one, because it steps outside the rules of what is expected. It is wholly original, which is often the most extreme thing an artist can say.

(The only negative is that "Moontower" has been out of print for longer than I have known of its existence. Despite its status as a classic of the genre, it is nearly impossible to get a physical copy of the album. I would dearly love to have one, but the pricing on a used copy is ridiculous. How, in this age when items can be printed on demand, has "Moontower" been allowed to slip out of existence?)

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