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Tour Guides From Hell: The Absence Vocalist Jamie Stewart’s Top Ten Non-Metal Albums to Listen to While on a Death Metal Tour

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Photo by Alex Morgan
Photo by Alex Morgan

Welcome back to “Tour Guides from Hell,” in which musicians from across the metalsphere tell us about life on tour — their favorite places to visit, things to do, etc. This edition has been penned by The Absence vocalist Jamie Stewart; catch The Absence on tour right now!

The open road. A lot of it ends up talking to us out there, sometimes at length. And then again, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it just shuts the fuck up and forces you into inevitable listening situations — surrounded by a handful of people, all of whom are equally as bored as you are, unable to escape the grips of insanity. This eventually leads us all to a place uncommonly known as SPACE MAAAAADNEEEEESS! I am of course talking about being stuck in the moving sardine can know as the “tour van”; a self-inflicted fate for sure. At times it can be truly amazing, but sometimes it ends up being boring as hell and annoying. Luckily, we have things like conversation and imagination as well as books, tablets, space phones, and iPods to entertain us through the hundredth hour of rural anywhere.

I play in a metal band. Now I can’t speak for every person in every band out there, but there has to be a point at which I cleanse my mental death metal pallet after not only playing the same songs every night, but hearing the same type of music night after night after night.

Here are some of my favorite non-metal, non-punk, non-hardcore albums that I enjoy listening to, and some back stories on how I came to love these records:

1. Set and Setting, Equanimity

These guys kill me they’re so good; great people, and a great band who know how to throw down an instrumental jam. Their first full-length album, Equanimity, showcases their unique and memorable style: dual drumming and a tight rhythm section that lay the groundwork for a giant, lush wall of beautiful post-anything and everything. Sometimes pummeling and raw, sometimes delicate and majestic, all the while fucking awesome. Some could consider these fellows metal, but I feel like they end up transcending the genre, ending up as something much much more than loud-quiet-loud; it’s Set and Setting.

2. Ulver, Kveldssanger

These mother fuckers right here… in the olden days, these guys started off as a black metal band (and a good one, too). Their second album, Kveldssanger, traded the distorted guitars, blast beats, and shrill high-pitched vocals normally found in black metal for classical guitars, ambient string arrangements, and male choir vocals sung in all Norwegian (their native dialect). This album is the exact polar opposite of their previous album, and it is a beautiful thing; it has been a favorite of mine for years now, and it never ever gets old.

3. Opeth, Damnation

By now, everyone knows who the hell Opeth are. Throughout this band’s career, they have managed to incorporate many styles of metal as well as traditional rock and progressive influences, and on top of that, they’ve consistently remaining a death metal band. Simply put: they are massive. But in 2003, they decided to take it a step further than they ever had before — to make an entire album of mellow, progressive rock songs à la Pink Floyd and Genesis, devoid of all death metal brutality. No screaming, no crushing guitars, no double bass paired with minimal distortion, David Gilmore-esq guitar playing, and all smooth, clean vocals. To me, it’s one of their heaviest albums, and certainly my favorite.

4. The Smiths (Any Album)

This one takes me all the way back to my days in high school. At that time, hardcore punk and death metal were the only things flooding my eardrums, and I eventually reached a point where I needed something else. Something equally as intense and brutal, but something else nonetheless. I had been singing in bands for a little while, and as a vocalist, you tend to pay attention to the vocals first. But I also pay a lot of attention to the lyrics. The various ideals and emotions that are to be found, to me, can make or break the music, given the type of band or artist.

Once I heard Morrissey’s haunting voice over Johnny Marr’s beautiful guitar work, I was hooked to death. Not only did they write insanely catchy and poignant pop songs, but Morrissey’s unapologetic and brutally honest lyrics were exactly what I needed at a time when lyrics about zombies, serial killers, Satan, and tools of various trades seemed to grow tiresome. No one has come close to creating the kind of music this band did, with their tight rhythm section, one-of-a-kind guitar work, and, well, Morrissey.

5. Sunny Day Real Estate, Diary/How It Feels to Be Something On

Sunny Day Real Estate were instrumental in not only propelling a new budding type of music, but in molding their own style out of it: super melodic guitars and powerful rhythms with Jeremy Enigk’s high pitched, almost nasally vocals and distant, metaphorical lyrics cascading overhead. To me, it was heavy without being heavy. Poppy and personal, with some great songwriting and just enough crunch to back it all up.

I first heard Sunny Day in my junior year of high school. By then, they had already broken up and left behind a two album legacy. (Altthough the second album, LP2 — often known as “The Pink Album” — showcases a band dissatisfied with each other. It’s a distant release, and you can tell.) But a couple of years later, after a slew of rumors, we got a brand new Sunny Day record. 1998 brought us How It Feels to Be Something On. Top to bottom, this is a perfect record. A natural progression from their debut, and what LP2 should have been. I got to see these guys live on this tour, and I have to tell you, WOW. One of the best shows I have ever seen, right up there with Iron Maiden in a stadium and Converge in a record store. They were just as powerful live as they were on wax — if not more so.

6. Wu-Tang Clan, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)

Hip-Hop was the first style of music that I found completely on my own. Growing up in upstate New York, hip-hop was unavoidable, so my ever-expanding thirst for all brands of music welcomed it with an open mind and open arms.

The Wu-Tang Clan had nine separate emcees, each with his own unique styles and flavors, and believe me, they dominated (still do, in fact). It was 1993. I was fourteen, skateboarding my ass off, fully vested in hip-hop, and just starting to cut my teeth on punk and the darker side of metal. These guys stormed the gates and Cobained my brains right out of the back of my skull. Given the less-than-polished sound I was used to hearing from the punk and metal records I was starting to amass, the Rza’s raw production style alone was enough to spin my head all the way around; this is exactly what I wanted from a new hip-hop collective. The nine emcees and the way their different personas intertwined throughout the various modes and moods set forth in the music was the breath of “fresh” air that hip-hop, as well as myself, needed. Raw, wonderfully crafted, and intelligent — this record still gives me goosebumps.

7. Quicksand, Manic Compression

This is a band that, despite their heaviness, really have a pop sensibility. They took the power of hardcore music and injected it with the spirit of bands like The Smiths and Fugazi to craft something truly unique: post-hardcore. Something a little different, a little older, and a little wiser, yet no less visceral. The gravelly vocals, brooding, melodic guitars, thick bass lines, and sharp, in the pocket drumming make this band truly memorable, and on Manic Compression, their second album, they really showcased their abilities beyond the pigeon holes of their previous hardcore efforts. Simply put, one of the greatest bands ever.

8.  Radiohead, OK Computer

By the time the late nineties hit, I was altogether done with mainstream music. With a few exceptions, at that time there wasn’t much of a difference between the things you found floating around on the major airwaves and the things you found floating around in a public shitter. But Raidohead were an anomaly of sorts: a band you that could find on the radio, who charted, but who still ended up being a really good, legit band who weren’t afraid to write complex songs that could challenge their listeners. A.K.A. a band with a backbone connected to an open mind.

Their third album, OK Computer, found the band hitting their stride and crafting some amazing examples of “pop/alternative” rock. Perfect production and tasteful songwriting rich with melody, the album also features the use of electronics as well as some ambient textures and unorthodox structures. The band nailed it to the cross on this one.  There is an aura projected from this album that makes it stand out of, not only from other 90s music, but from other music altogether. Radiohead continue to push the envelope to this day.

9. R&B/Soul Music

There are far too many artists in soul/R&B to be able to narrow it down to just one artist or group.

People like Marvin Gaye, Bill Withers, Etta James, Al Green, James Brown, The Jacksons, and Aretha Franklin, all the way up to people like John Legend, R. Kelly, Alicia Keys, Frank Ocean, and Gary Clark Jr. have given us miles upon miles of tape soaked in pure, unbridled emotion; this is some of the most authentic music that will ever exist, and there is a lot of heart and (ahem) soul to be heard listening to these old albums. The stories they tell aren’t too far off from some of the hardships that many people in bands face — being broke, getting ripped off by labels and promoters, all the while losing personal connections due to the sacrifice of being in a band that is constantly writing and rehearsing while trying to be on the road for weeks to months at a time. It’s some of the most honest, heartfelt music that exists.

10. Podcasts, Audio Books, Spoken Word, Stand Up, etc.

When all is said and done, I really do love music. All types. But sometimes I’m good with no music at all. If I can’t have pure silence (who really gets that on tour?) ,then I turn to the power of the human voice — spoken word albums, podcasts, audio books, and stand-up comedy albums will all take your mind elsewhere without having to blast your already-worn eardrums with even more music. Sometimes your drummer is blasting Japanese pop music, sometimes your band mates and crew are screaming up a storm, or sometimes you just need a break from the sonic torment of being surrounded by multiple people with opinions and ideas unafraid in their ability to voice and exercise them. Henry Rollins and Jello Biafra are a couple of guys I admire in the spoken word department. Food is the New Rock is probably my favorite podcast right now — it features a chef and a DJ speaking with either a person involved in music or food, but talking about food with the musicians and music with the culinary artists. Stephen King and Game of Thrones are a staple in the audio book department, but listening to any book I’ve read already is pretty cool, especially if it is the author reading it. Stand-up… I mean where to start: Louis CK, Dave Chappelle, Daniel Tosh, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Kyle Kinane, Brian Poshen, Eddie Griffin, and about a million more. Everybody needs a good laugh every now and then to clear a mind bombarded by broken vans, stupid arguments, shitty shows, non-payment, stolen equipment, rock star attitudes, pizza AGAIN, increasing gas prices and every other thing you can head-butt while being out there on tour.

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