Audiophile Metal Albums Pt.1

This is the first part of the series that will focus on some really great recorded metal music, across the sub-genres. Massacre, Haken, Cycle of Pain a Unexpect.

Audiophile metal albums


The quality of music is often inverse proportional to its sound quality and this rule applies to heavy metal more than anywhere else. The most iconic metal albums were recorded in 80’s and their authors were then no-name bands, with no money and no credit. The albums were mixed to be issued on compact cassette and vinyl and nobody really cared about the production. It was not important to have a great sounding album, it was important to have an album. Despite the fact that the records were made in 2-3 days and often in a shabby studio round the corner, the sound can be charming in its undeproduced quality and rawness. Later on some the bands became real stars and one would expect that with more money and more studio time the better sound would arrive, but it was not the case either.

Today the boundary between professional and amateur production and recording is blurred for one can have the same equipment like pros for decent amount of money. However, as the quality of sound has vastly improved in general, the artistic quality has dropped.

In this mini-series we will try to highlight metal albums with remarkable sound. The digital version of the albums (CD, Hi-Res download) was the starting point for the assessment. Not that we don’t like vinyl which remains the best format for heavy metal due to its forgiving nature and can be bested only by reel-to-reel tape of 1st or 2nd generation. However, if you really come across a great sounding metal album then it sounds the best in digital due to natural vinyl limitations that strip a great deal of bottom and top end information. Let’s kick off with something a bit more extreme.

Massacre: From Beyond

Earache Records, MOSH027CDFDR / DR12

Massacre are – even from the most demanding audiophile view – a massacre. The album has been released as a terrific remaster (no credits listed) under Full Dynamic Range series of Earache label. The dynamics range between 11-13dB (DR meter), however the real integrated value improves this to 14-15dB. This plus the dense Scott Burns’ production makes From Beyond absolute sonic treat.

In 1991 Metallica became big with their Black Album, Ozzy Osbourne released commercially oriented No More Tears, and the new generation of rock fans was treated with Guns N´Roses, Nirvana and Red Hot Chilli Peppers. The thrash and death metal was over, at least it looked like that back then, and the release like From Beyond slipped under the radars. It is pitiful that it had not been released 1-2 years earlier as the quality of this album would have been overwrite the history of the genre.

The sound is full of energy and relentlessly brutal, with minimum correlation between the two channels which gives it a wide stereo panorama and truly embracing feeling. In 1991 mixing by ear was the norm and plug-ins were in their infancy, and the team in Florida’s Morissound studios did an excellent job. The mix is clean with every single instrument breathing, yet extremely powerful, dense and crushing. There is no fatigue coming from flattened dynamic range, songwriting is strong and the whole album is cohesive, so when it is over it leaves you wanting more. To me From Beyond is one of the 5 best sounding albums in death metal ever.


Haken: Virus

Inside Out Music, IOMCD 549 / DR7

The music of Haken is an entirely different cup of tea. Haken created a successful and eclectic mix of progressive metal, djent and melodic rock, without losing identity, though Virus is their 6th offering. The previous efforts, as good as they were, were always missing something, something that is present on Virus. The production is modern (which does not always mean positive things) and the sound compressed, yet the album’s sound is surprisingly fresh and enjoyable.

I am not fan of progressive metal (or rock) as it often puts too much stress on story and technical wizardry, rather than on strong songwriting. With the Virus the music is technically very competent (especially drumming is tight, timed and varied, so are guitar solos) and compelling at the same time. Honestly, I could do with a bit more variation on vocals that are clean and melodic throughout the album but predictable. The Deluxe set of Virus contains the whole album in instrumental version which lets you hear that it is the music that makes Virus such a mature album.

Like with all greatly recorded albums this one gets even better with the volume turned up. So despite this genre may not be my cup of tea, I will keep the album as a reference for how it sounds.


Cycle of Pain: Cycle of Pain

Metalville, MV011 / DR4

American Cycle of Pain registered only one self-titled single album in their ongoing career, but what an album! Despite disappointing measured DR value the sound is rather special, as is the music on the disc.

The enjoy the album one needs to make sure that the volume is turned up as much as you know is safe for you and your system. By pushing the PLAY button you will be welcome by a brutal bass riff that could easily be an etalon of how bass guitar in rock should be recorded. Yes, it is compressed and equalized, but it is punchy, punishing and heavy like hell, combining the melody, brutality and an audiophile sense for detail. Other instruments on the disc are forged in a similar way, drums for instance are equally fantastic. The Barber Shop Studios are not a barber shop really – this rather small studio in New Jersey did wonderful mixing job so Dave Kutch in The Mastering Palace had not a lot to do to improve it. Well, I’d like to have at least 3-4dB of extra headroom in the final result but this music was meant to be loud and it is.

Personally, I would categorize Cycle of Pain as nu-metal, but nu-metal had been leaving the scene shortly before the album was conceived so obviously this was no option for promoters. However, the music on the debut is much more than genre clichés - one can hear influences from funky, metalcore, hip hop, and good old rock’n roll AC/DC style. Such a variety serves the music very well, makes each song stand out, and prevents boredom. I would say the best songs come at the second half of the album, starting with Sepultura-style driven M, and finishing with skillfully composed Egypt. There is even a semi-ballad in between, I See Heaven, featuring beautifully panoramic sound.

For all the naysayers out there, Cycle of Pain is not a pack of beginners. Rather a kind of supergroup of the guys behind Black Label Society, Monster Magnet, Doro and similar, there are also guest appearances of Zakk Wylde (Ozzy Osbourne), Burton C. Bell (Fear Factory) or Sen Dog (Cypress Hill). It is a star line-up and great music.

P.S.: When the album is over, it actually is not. There is a hidden track, an acoustic song that easily could be a part of Thorbjørn Risager’s electric blues.


Unexpect: In A Flesh Aquarium

The End Records, TE068 / DR7

I warned that this selection of albums would be a bit more extreme. Here it comes. Canadian Unexpect are anything but traditional. Starting with the sound of the album there is not much to say. The production is crystal clear which is in this case absolutely necessary, for the music on In A Flesh Aquarium is very demanding. I bet a listener will have no time to notice any artifacts like dynamic compression because he (or she) will be too busy with processing all the information. It is not an easy ride at all.

The album kicks off with a piano and violin melody, however there is something weird in how both instruments sound. Is it a warning for what comes next? I really can’t find the words to describe the sonic maelstrom of the In A Flesh Aquarium. Try to picture yourself standing in the middle of a huge amusement park in its full throttle proceedings. Crowds of people, blinking colours, pieces of music coming from different attractions blend in a strange cacophony, dialogues of passers-by, dancers, circuses, carousels and clowns that are far from friendly. You know that there is something really bad going on. This is Unexpect. The music swirls rather unpredictably with a faint sense of structure and the carousel is going faster and faster…