Let’s take a moment to consider albums that are universally detested. They hold an enduring fascination entirely distinct from the music itself. When well established bands publicly shit the bed, everyone has an angle to offer on what went wrong. Some albums surpass ‘badness’ as a critical metric altogether, and become studies on the nature of failure.
Take Metallica, the biggest metal band in the world, with unlimited resources at their disposal to write the come back album to end all come backs. Yet they somehow ended up producing one of the worst albums in metal history in ‘St. Anger’. Regardless of whether Metallica had lost it long before 2003, this wasn’t just a dull album of metallic dad rock, or a lacklustre ‘return to roots’ affair. ‘St. Anger’ is so fascinatingly bad, almost painfully abrasive to listen to, that it has become something of a touchstone of how low culture had sunk by the early 2000s.
I listened to it again recently. The experience is akin to watching the Star Wars prequels; another seminal artefact of early 2000s malaise. The album is undeniably terrible. But the discourse on why this is has now come full circle. From the first visceral reactions upon its release, to laboured and detailed autopsies of what exactly went wrong further down the line, to hot takes offered ten years after the fact, attempting to reclaim it as a work of hidden genius that we were all too shallow to recognise at the time. By this point in the cycle, when critique graduates into measured retrospect, when desperate voices are trying to make a case for ‘St. Anger’ being a subversive piece of avant-garde theatre (opinions usually held as a replacement for having a personality), the self-referential ecosystem that has built up around the album is far more interesting than the music itself.
It’s akin to watching documentary footage of a whale carcass as it decays over time. Different forms of life come and go at different stages of decomposition, brandishing their ‘takes’, microbes set up a permanent home of irony drenched fandom within the rot, until eventually it sinks to the seabed beneath time’s passage, only to be revisited and repurposed as Dadaist artistry by all the putrid life of the deep.
But let’s be right about this, aside from *that* snare sound, some embarrassing lyrics, and flat song writing, there are worse albums out there. The reaction was rather the culmination of a perfect storm. The feeling that it was deserved, that many had been proven right about Metallica, they really were nothing more than overgrown teenage hacks, and here at last was undeniable proof; especially after the release of the film Some Kind of Monster which documented the…erm, we’ll call it creative process. This was the real Metallica exposed now for all to see. ‘Ride the Lightning’ had been a fluke, leaving nothing but a hollow skeleton of clichés and histrionics behind.
Morbid Angel’s motivation for releasing ‘Illud Divinum Insanus’ was arguably more callous however. Having trailed off in 2003 with the flat death metal of ‘Heretic’, the return of David Vincent into the fold in the mid-2000s, the ‘getting the band back together’ energy that followed them on tour at this time, all this created a buzz around the prospect of new a new record. 2011 was also the roaring heyday for death metal comeback albums, with Autopsy, Asphyx, and Atheist all making (or attempting) a return to form around this time.
The fact that Morbid Angel hastily slit the throat of this buzz with a knock-of Rob Zombie album in ‘Illud Divinum Insanus’ seems all the more bizarre. Not only did it embody the worst facets of what happens when a true-blue death metal band makes a cash grab, but the very trends they were chasing were woefully out of date. This last point is made all the lamentable given that Trey Azagthoth and David Vincent were both in their late forties at the time, making music for teenage spooky kids over a decade too late.
If Morbid Angel had released IDI in 1999 it would have been reviled, but maybe a little more understood. Maybe label pressure drove them to it. Maybe the big bucks that Marilyn Manson and Rob Zombie were raking in were a little too tempting for Trey and the gang. Cynical, shallow, but a clear motivation regardless. But it wasn’t released in 1999, it came out in 2011 when such excesses were inexplicable.
After some valiant attempts to play the songs live, Vincent departed from the band once again. This led to the re-recruitment of Steve Tucker, who was untarnished by the IDI brush, and the release of the safe but competent ‘Kingdoms Disdained’ to steady the ship. All this speaks of an artist keen to deny the whole episode ever happened. But it did happen, the bizarre, garish blot in history, that lacks even the desperate champions bravely dying on the ‘St. Anger’ hill. No one is trying to salvage some honest motives from Morbid Angel’s wreckage.
‘Cold Lake’ is perhaps an album of similar infamy. The key difference being that its fiercest critic is perhaps Tom G. Warrior himself. The reason for ‘Cold Lake’ existing is simple enough. Celtic Frost, an underground band with experimental tendencies gains a respectable following, then either through label pressure or a moment of greed jumps on a popular style – this being 1988 the weapon of choice was glam metal – and spectacularly fails at achieving either a shred of artistic credibility or commercial success. In the biz they call this selling out. Warrior has since disowned the album. Whether his public pronouncements on ‘Cold Lake’ are sincere or a desperate attempt to save face with the fans is really by-the-by.
What intrigues more is that, much like ‘St. Anger’, ‘Cold Lake’ is far from the worst album in the world. It’s flat and dull but largely inoffensive hard rock, mired by one incredibly abrasive feature: Warriors inexpiable vocal performance. His voice was always the weakest aspect of the Celtic Frost setup. But here they are placed front and centre, shed of the gruff, distorted veneer and keen to make the most of their nasally, off key moment in the spotlight.
But if ‘St Anger’ was an undignified tantrum, ‘Cold Lake’ was like witnessing a friend go through a severe mental breakdown. Tom G. Warrior, a shy, reclusive, poetic type, steering early extreme metal towards new avenues of artistic expression and romantic darkness, subtle, mysterious, respected; in short, the last person to spearhead the embarrassing carnival of hair spray and faux 80s flamboyance that was ‘Cold Lake’.
Many, including Warrior himself, want to close the chapter on this hiccup. Yes, it happened, it was bad, please stop inviting it round for dinner. But with each new generation of fans comes a new reason to exhume the corpse and wheel it down to the morgue for another autopsy. Along with the predictable attempts to salvage it as a work of avant-garde genius are those desperately asking: ‘how the hell did it happen?’
Regardless of whether you want to see these albums buried deep in the ground or displayed in museums, everyone agrees on their anomalous qualities in the context of the respective artists’ careers. They are outlying pieces of data. This singles them out from other just plain bad albums.
Take Carcass’s ‘Swansong’ for instance. A flat, annoying death ‘n’ roll album by any measure. But there is a pronounced intentionality behind the music. Carcass’s creative direction was already hinting at obnoxious rock tendencies on ‘Heartwork’ after all. But placed in the wider context of death metal in the mid-90s it was far from anomalous, Entombed had already released ‘Wolverine Blues’ by 1993. It makes for a less fascinating subject of study as a result.
But more importantly, ‘Swansong’ doesn’t display the same otherworldly campness of ‘Cold Lake’. Or the tragically out of touch cocktail of late 90s industrial and death metal that is ‘Illud Divinum Insanus’. Or the spectacularly public demonstration of the “manchild” that is ‘St. Anger’. For these reasons, try as they might, these artists – and the metal community at large – will never be able to truly let go of these albums.
If we simply look at bad albums as a roadmap for what not to do we missed the point. That’s like opening a beginner’s guide to cooking with a chapter on the dangers of consuming battery acid. It shouldn’t need saying. The lesson of these albums goes far deeper than a simple warning sign.
By the time these albums came out, all these artists had reached a stage in their career where they could no longer claim full ownership of their music. Nor could they claim complete jurisdiction on its future trajectory. For better or worse, fan expectation eventually becomes part of the creative process.
This can spark a visceral reaction from the musician. A need to actively wall off their dedicated fanbase from participation. Sometimes this manifests as a dramatic shift in creative direction, other times as an undignified facsimile of commercially viable forms of music. By contrast, look at Voivod. They technically “sold out” on ‘Angel Rat’. But because the music itself was blandly inoffensive with shadows of former glory still visible, it remains less interesting both musically and as a culturally artefact.
It’s not the fact that these artists were chasing bucks, it’s the fact that they were doing it so blatantly, so poorly, and so crassly that to some fans it really was like witnessing a good friend have a total mental breakdown, becoming a completely different person. They had not just produced bad music, they had tainted all of the good music they had made in the past and lost total control their meaning as an artistic entity. They had walled off their original fanbase from the creative process and failed to gain any new ones, and all they had to show for it was a piece of surrealist theatre; fodder for wanky bloggers looking for an edge.
I would never for one second recommend listening to these or any other albums of a similar repute. But in setting aside these commercial discussion points, there is a kernel of pathos at the heart of the matter. If art is a meditation on the human condition, then catastrophic failure is an important and deeply compelling aspect of this. Artists expose their humanity to us through these irredeemable misfires. We cannot forgive the music as a thing in itself, but we can learn from these moments of naked vulnerability. Learn not just about our relationship to the minds responsible for them, but also about the nature of failure and redemption at large.