Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Shihad: The Albums

Ah blog, I've neglected you of late.  I must have been too busy working or something.  Sorry about that.  Time to refocus.

And with the Shihad documentary coming out this weekend, that seems like an ideal topic starter.  Unfortunately a fair chunk of the headlines have centred around the scraps between directors and producer.  I think that's a bit of a disservice to a band who have so consistently demonstrated an ability to rise above that sort of thing, but anyway.  It makes good news, I guess.

I can vividly remember the first Shihad song I heard - it was Factory.  I heard it on bfm... no idea who it was by but I had it dubbed to cassette, as was the style of the time, and I played it a lot.  I loved the way the industrial feel of the song perfectly matched the chorus... "stuck... stuck... stuck in a factory stuck".  Not the most eloquent lyric Jon Toogood ever wrote, but it worked.

I figured out it was Shihad when I heard Bitter, maybe a year or so later, and put two and two together.  That was the song that really got me into the band.  The urgency, the way it grooved along without ever falling into any sort of standard verse-chorus-verse, that catchy main hook: "you're so bitter inside", the distinctive buzzsaw guitar tones, and above all, those huge chords in the bridge.  Fantastic song.

Since then, I've picked up pretty much every Shihad album at, or close to, release.  It's fair to say that I like their old stuff better than their new stuff, but the contribution of this band to my life, to New Zealand music, has earned them my loyalty.  Above all, though, their live shows are what commands the most respect.  I've seen this band live countless times, and they never, ever disappoint.  They've even figured out how to use festival sets effectively, which remains a mystery to many bands.  They can play a "regular" concert, and it's always great.  They can play an old album in its entirety, and throw in a couple of obscure old tracks as an encore, and it's amazing.  They can play a chronological 'greatest hits' type set, and it's brilliant.  Maybe they never figured out quite how to make that work in the US, but well, timing (or lack of) was everything there unfortunately.  But if you are a New Zealander aged between 25-40 and you have not seen this band live, you need to fix that.

So anyway, my tribute to Shihad will be in the form of a list - my favourite Shihad albums, starting from the bottom and working to the top.  Studio albums only - the live album is brilliant in its own right though, and essential.  Here goes.

#8. Beautiful Machine (2008)

I was nervous when the promo material for this album talked about every Shihad album being a dramatic departure from its predecessor - like the self-titled album was with respect to Killjoy.  I liked Killjoy a lot.  I also liked Beautiful Machine's predecessor Love is the New Hate a lot.  And unfortunately that 'dramatic departure' didn't win me over.  The album is for the most part much more catchy and accessible and "radio-friendly".  It's just that isn't the Shihad that I really love.  Aside from Rule the World and Vampires, this album just doesn't do it for me - it's just not very interesting.  Also I hate the way Tom Larkin's snare sounds on this album - it's a nasty, shallow, synthetic sound which unfortunately seemed to be really popular at the time. 

#7. Shihad (1996)
Some really good moments on this, their self-titled album AKA The Fish AlbumHome Again deservedly became one of their biggest hits, while Ghost from the Past and La La Land saw them marry the heavy crunch of their earlier material with tight songwriting.  But beyond the good moments there is certainly some filler... although melancholic closing track Boat Song almost manages to redeem these.

#6. Ignite (2010)
After hearing the first half of this album, I was convinced this was potentially on track to be one of their best.  Opening track Final Year of the Universe is an absolute revelation, a very clever marriage of industrial grind and just enough sun peeking in the corners.  Certainly one of the most unique songs the band have written and 20 years in, that isn't to be taken lightly.  And then it's followed with the hydraulically grunty and exceptionally well-constructed Lead or Follow - which tips its hat to Factory whilst adding a scorching chorus and 'that' bridge at 2:52 (which is a serious HOLY S%$T moment).  Followed by I'm A Void, In the Future and Sleepeater - this is an exceptional start to an album.  It sort of peters out a bit after that though and loses its balance - Nemesis (Dark Star) is one of the most punkish tracks they've written but feels a bit odd coming after slower, moodier numbers like Ignite and Engage.  Closing track Cold Heart is a winner, but ultimately this album falls into the 'almost great' category thanks to its meandering middle.

Of course it could have been fixed if they'd included the propulsive, snarly Beatlab (a bonus track on some versions) somewhere in the middle - bit of an unfortunate omission, that.

#5. Pacifier (2003)

Forget all the bullshit that surrounded it... this is a good album.  At this point in time, the band had demonstrated they could rock hard, and they'd also demonstrated they could write pretty catchy, accessible songs.  This album is really where they put those two elements together to good effect.  Tracks like Semi-Normal, Bullitproof, Trademark and Comfort Me hit hard but balance that with some great harmonies and sing-along choruses.  Then there are a few acoustically led tracks like Home and closing track Coming Down which provide a good (probably essential) counterpoint without stalling the album's momentum at all.  After quickly revisiting this album for the purposes of blog, I've concluded I need to listen to it more often - it's certainly unfairly overlooked.

And for the record, once again one of my favourite Shihad songs from the respective era unfortunately isn't on it - in this case the mighty Toxic Shock.

#4. The General Electric (1999)
This was the album that took Shihad from student radio favourite to huge drawcard, and for good reason - it's a good album with some great songs.  Most notably the title track, which from a songwriting perspective was easily Shihad's crowning accomplishment at that time - it's an absolute monster of a song.  From an album perspective it's really a group of quite different songs that the band have magically hung together in a way that somehow works - the punkish My Mind's Sedate, the bouncy Wait and See, the singalong of Pacifier, the slow-building Spacing, the aggressive-passive-aggressive of The Metal Song, and a personal favourite - the often overlooked mid-tempo groove of Life in Cars.  It isn't perfect but it's still pretty damn good.

#3. Churn (1993)
The album that started it all (although it was preceded by the Devolve EP).   Savage, uncompromising and occasionally beautiful.  Even in the early days it was pretty obvious that Shihad had an innate sense of melody and some great songwriting chops as well as a strong love of metal.  And yeah, this album is largely about the metal, thanks to the powerful industrial crunch of Factory and Derail, and the thrash-influenced Screwtop - all of which remain live favourites to this day.  But let's not forget about I Only Said, which bristles and broods for three minutes before the Big Metal Outro.  Or the mighty Stations for that matter.

#2. Love is the New Hate (2005)
Well, this was unexpected.  After a multi-album trend towards tighter, hookier songs, Shihad throw that particular book out in favour of a particularly metal approach.  It might be bookended by the pensive None of the Above and the wistful Guts and the Glory, but in between those two tracks Love is the New Hate is one hard, aggressive piece of work.  It almost sounds like the band has ignored ten years of their own history and produced an album that sounds more like a logical successor to Churn and Killjoy - because it sure doesn't sound like Pacifier.  On first listen, this album completely blew me away - particularly tracks like Big Future, All the Young Fascists, Day Will Come and Alive which were like nothing I'd ever heard from Shihad before.  There's a little filler, but when this album is good, it's just so very, very good.

#1. Killjoy (1995)
Ah, that old chestnut.  Band produces astoundingly good album early in their career that then becomes the yardstick by which all subsequent albums are judged.  I think Shihad have sort of escaped this to some extent by being such musical chameleons at times, but Killjoy is still their gold standard, their 5-star moment of brilliance.  I was lucky enough to hear them perform the album in its entirety last year - which really only entrenched my views, because genuinely great albums still have a knack of sounding fresh, even 15 years or more down the track.  The crunch of You Again, the adrenaline of Bitter, the stand-offishness of The Call, the call-to-arms of closing track Get Up... this is one consistently outstanding album from start to finish.  Undoubtedly a desert island disc for me.

So there you have it - my views on Shihad's recorded catalogue.  Perhaps you agree - or perhaps you don't.  Are you planning to see the documentary?

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