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On Top, Rye Coalition’s third full-length, is music about making music: “We’re gonna rock, we’re gonna roll/Like Led Zep we bring it home.” More specifically, though, the Jersey City quintet’s latest is music about making classic rock. The disc’s second track is titled “Stairway to the Free Bird on the Way to the Smokey Water,” and the band just put out a 7-inch called “ZZ Topless.” And even when these dudes are singing about other stuff—like sex and, well, sex—they don’t give the impression that their boner is for the chicks so much as it’s for hard-rockin’ paeans to chicks.
Straddling the line between genius and idiocy, On Top—which ain’t a reference to Rye’s standing in the biz—spills over with rockist jive: “Here she comes burnin’ down the street/Like some hot oven-baked sweet treat,” vocalist Ralph Cuseglio sings on “One Daughter Hotter Than One Thousand Suns” as his bandmates crank out some catchy Kiss-sized riffs. But this ain’t the Black Crowes, for sure: Rye Coalition’s dirty-ass rock ‘n’ roll comes courtesy of kids who cut their teeth playing hardcore. Sure, they love a distorto-blues riff as much as the next James Gang fan, but they also couple it with plenty of snot-nosed aggression. And when Cuseglio & Co. stay true to their roots and plant their tongues firmly in cheek, they create a crucial connection between the heaviest aspects of classic rock and punk.
“Born a Monkey in the Year of the Snake,” for example, is absolute dynamite, a frenzied pairing of Blue Oyster Cult-ish dual-guitar hard-blues-boogie and Jesus Lizard-esque groove ‘n’ swagger that gets the mix of old and new, jokey and serious just right. “Heart of Gold, Jacket of Leather” is similarly winning: Making more like Minor Threat than Mountain, the band hauls ass through the changes while Cuseglio pops Out of Sight into his VCR: “Hot buns they’re coppin’ a handshake/J.Lo’s ass gonna make the chair break!” And the surly meta-rock of “Stop Eating While I’m Smoking,” a tribute to the sanctity of good tunes, joins a John Bonham-heavy beat with serpentine Slintlike hooks that morph into sweet ’70s harmonies. Cuseglio, meanwhile, puts as much distance as possible between Rye and its humor-free punk-rock contemporaries: “There are kids that only talk about what is hip, who’s cool/They scream and shout/The things I wish you knew are all over.”
That said, Rye’s efforts to revivify the past sometimes veer a bit closer to plagiarism than homage. Driven by metallic train-kept-a-rollin’ six-stringin’, “Hot Strikes” is really just a poor man’s version of Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll.” “Let me get back, jump in the sack/Been a long time now I got the knack,” Cuseglio sings, displaying how a good joke can go horribly wrong by turning into exactly the same thing it’s making fun of. “Freshly Frankness” is more of the same; an almost note-for-note rip of Zep’s “Since I’ve Been Loving You,” the song all but collapses under the weight of AOR pummel, amounting to not much more than a sonic and lyrical montage of blues cliches: “It’s been five years and 27 days/Since that big ol’ devil put me away,” Cuseglio moans. “Lord, they got me workin’ on a chain gang/Doin’ time the old-fashion’ way.”
But doin’ things the old-fashion’ way and making fun of it at the same time is a difficult row to hoe. The great irony of the disc is that when Rye steers more toward the authentic than the affected, its music veers perilously close to novelty—which is really no fun at all. Fortunately, though, On Top’s successes are more numerous than its missteps. And smartass rock that truly shreds is serious business indeed.
Like Rye, Norwegian trio Immortal is too ridiculous to buy into completely—yet too damn rockin’ to ignore. And like On Top, Sons of Northern Darkness, Immortal’s seventh full-length, is a concept album of sorts. But the 11-year black-metal vets are too busy kickin’ ass to talk about it. They’re more concerned with cold and ice. The dudes in Immortal love ice.
So it makes sense that the hottest rock action on Sons of Northern Darkness is the most frost-obsessed. The disc’s epic “In My Kingdom Cold,” besides painting a wintry dystopia, is also a perfect example of the chronically corpse-painted band’s relatively new sound shift. After original guitarist Demonaz switched to lyric-writing duties in the late ’90s due to “arm injuries” (read: playing way too friggin’ fast), bassist-vocalist Abbath took over on ax and slowed things down a bit, alienating legions of speed-freak Norwegian headbangers. Whereas the Immortal of yore churned out a poorly produced blur of tremolo-picked guitars, smeary bass, and breakneck blast beats, the new-model metal army is much more rawk. On Sons of Northern Darkness, the sound is clear, the riffs are huge, and the rhythms gallop like arctic demons returning from battle.
Even though “In My Kingdom Cold” kicks off with some typically blizzardlike black metal, it’s not long before Immortal settles into a thrashy groove. Chugging chords and midtempo hammering underscore Demonaz’s freezer-burned Lovecraftian lyrics: “In my kingdom cold/At the mountains of madness/Unending grimness/These mountains which I heart.” Shitty English aside, it’s pretty fuckin’ compelling. And it only gets better. As Abbath sings, “Rising with the shadows/A world truly made for me,” his voice contorts into a damn good imitation of Tuvan throat singing, sustaining over some truly slow ‘n’ sludgy Melvinsesque grind. Halfway through, he commands the rhythm section to mirror the part: “And here we go again.” It’s about the most beautiful picture of a vast, icy wasteland since Caspar David Friedrich’s The Wreck of the Hope.
“Antarctica,” which follows, sustains the subzero sublimity. Beginning with hollow keyboards and cheesy frigid-wind sound effects, the song almost instantly bursts into some choice early-Metallica stomp, all tough-guy riffs and double-kick-heavy pounding. The only thing holding this back from crossover-potential accessibility is Abbath’s gurgling-into-a-box-fan vox: “The shadow of Antarctica spreads/With its masses of permafrost,” he intones, making James Hetfield sound Sinatra-smooth by comparison. But fuck accessibility: Hearing the Freon-gargling Abbath so utterly savor the three syllables of “perrr-maaa-frost” is so good it hurts.
It doesn’t get better than that, but, as they say, it’s all good. Actually, it’s all great. The churning “One by One” revisits the glory days of black metal: “Aeons ago the legends tell we rode onward/Led astray by the northern chaos gods.” The punkish title track speeds along at hardcore velocity as Abbath duly shreds the fug out of his vocal chords: “Riding through the black fires of endless time/The icy dawn lifts with a horizon like nordens on fire.” And the disc-closing seafaring dirge “Beyond the North Waves” rocks like Fairport Convention running through three stories of Marshall stacks. “Breathing in winds,” Abbath rasps, “from the cold sea call the shores of the North.”
Sure, these Scans are goofy as all get-out, but what good nonhyphenated metal isn’t? Nerd-boy fantasies included, Sons of Northern Darkness is a thoroughly solid and satisfying slab of heavy rock. Blessed are ye, oh lovers of the ice. CP