L.D. 50 by Mudvayne and Take Me Back to Eden by Sleep Token
We're talking about metal and masks.
I bought L.D. 50 by Mudvayne on November 24, 2000. Rarely can I look up and reference the exact date of a record purchase, but this one isn’t hard for me. I was in college at Boston U., and my younger brother was at Monmouth in Jersey. My sister had graduated and moved to Philly, so we were all on the East Coast. We decided to have Thanksgiving in Philly and on Friday I found a little record store on South Street and purchased this Mudvayne record. I knew about it because I’d read a magazine blurb somewhere about how it was produced by Shawn “Clown” Crahan from Slipknot in some masked metal band nepotism. In fairness, Mudvayne didn’t don the masks as much as they painted up for their performances.
As a Clevelander, masked bands is sort of in my DNA. Mushroomhead was the biggest local band from my youth. They kind of went national without ever fully “making it” like Slipknot even though they came before Slipknot and were courted by Roadrunner Records before Slipknot existed. The whole thing is summarized in this piece. The odd thing to me is just how much I loved this kind of music even if the aspect of dressing up was so weird and kind of cheesy.
With Mudvayne, the music was insanely good from the first moment those songs hit my Discman in my sister’s apartment. After an atmospheric opening track, L.D. 50 hits you with two minutes and 42 seconds of pop-metal power. “Dig” is impossibly bouncy and heavy. The staccato lyrics are unintelligible as they bounce from one ear to the other in the mix. At least until they scream f-bombs. Those you can hear loud and clear. Even as a college kid I found this kind of rebellious and titillating in my music. When someone screams in half time “You ain’t fucking changing me” it hits something deep in your psyche. The video was so clean-looking too like it was filmed in a science lab “clean room.”
But Mudvayne wasn’t a one-hit wonder. “Internal Primates Forever” is another phenomenal song. Again, I never really knew what the lyrics were, but the song felt like head-bouncing sections of chaos linked together by tiny little lulls that built into the next section of chaotic, infectious, metal groove. The song resolves into a more consistent beat with each line being accentuated with a deep metal growl saying “Hold,” “Pull,” “Mold,” and “Lull.”
“Death Blooms” is the first time that singer Chad Gray shows you what he can really do melodically as a singer. It’s what separated Mudvayne from some of its metal counterparts, including Slipknot. Corey Taylor can sing too, of course, but to that point, he hadn’t really stretched his vocals to the melodic heights that Mudvayne seemed to be going for and hitting on L.D. 50.
“Cradle” is another phenomenal song on this record. The contrasts between the loud sections and the quieter connective tissue is what makes it great. It also doesn’t hurt that it ends in a flurry, making way for maybe my favorite song on the record, “Nothing to Gein,” a reference to serial killer Ed Gein. The beauty of the opening vocals only to make way to the gutter-like metal screech of the chorus is Mudvayne at their absolute best on L.D. 50, I think.
I loved this album so much that I listened to it at least three times on the drive back from Philly to Boston. It was a weird trip to be sure. At that time I was a smoker, but didn’t smoke around my family. They knew I was a smoker, basically, but the deniability was kind of important for me with my family. I didn’t want to acknowledge the stupid shit I was doing, and they didn’t want to tell me something so obvious as “Asshole. You shouldn’t smoke cigarettes.” So we just skipped the whole thing. I didn’t smoke around them and then the anxiety of being around them as a fraud made me feel awful. It also fueled my flight response and made me want to leave. Between that and the anxiety of Thanksgiving traffic on the east coast driving past New York City on the way back to Boston, I ended up leaving Saturday night at 11 pm to drive back through the middle of the night. If you couldn’t tell by the Mudvayne obsession, I was a weird dude. I’m probably still a weird dude.
Which brings me to 2023 when I heard Sleep Token’s album teaser ahead of the release of Take Me Back to Eden. The first song I heard was “The Summoning.” It opens with impossibly heavy guitars and drums played in a polyrhythmic style. The vocals come in, and it sounds like a weird tone of voice with a depth and tone as if Buffalo Bill from the Silence of the Lambs decided to start a melodic metal band. They hit the chorus and you hear a soaring falsetto singing “Raise me up again, take me past the edge, I want to see the other side” before hitting a metal flurry and screaming the final word of “see the other side” as the band puts on a clinic of staccato riffs and double bass drumming in sync.
“Chokehold” was also on that teaser and it turns out that leads the record. It’s one of the strongest tracks on there. It opens with some atmospheric tones before the vocals kick in with a soulful tone and somewhat strange inflection. As the song builds it gets heavier and heavier, but it largely sticks to its soulful swinging vibe even as the drums and guitars ramp up to metal levels of distortion and volume.
I looked up Sleep Token shortly thereafter and realized that not only does this band obscure their identity with masks, body paint and robes and things, the lead singer goes by the name “Vessel.” The social media feed is hysterical as “Vessel’s” persona is essentially some kind of mystical LARPing our of a fantasy novel. Is it another world or is it the middle ages? You’re never quite sure.
But the masked metal militia has connective tissue, you see.
After doing some research, it turns out that Sleep Token is the brainchild of some guy named Leo Faulkner who goes by “Vessel.” There have been some different musicians in the band at various times, but he’s the guy. Leo’s first foray seems to have been a band called Blacklit Canopy, which has two songs on Spotify. According to the Blacklit Canopy twitter bio, “Blacklit Canopy is a duo formed from the members Leo Faulkner and Gemma Mathews. We aim to create music which is as ambient, melodic and moving as possible.” The last posts on that account are from 2014. The first Sleep Token EP was released in December of 2016.
In Sleep Token, you have the most ambitious mixture of genres I’ve ever heard in metal. In one minute, you’re listening to progressive metal. In the next you’re listening to pure pop and even funky R&B. There’s definitely some ballady emo too. It’s all very cleanly produced with an almost shiny aesthetic like it was recorded in the same place the “Dig” video was shot for Mudvayne.
“Aqua Regia” is the height of the funky melodic music on the record. It only makes sense that they follow it up with one of the straight-up heaviest songs, “Vore.” You can hear the heavily distorted vocals screeching “You have become the voice in my head, only recourse we’re left after death.”
I tend toward the more epic songs like “Ascensionism” which has many different sections spanning just over seven minutes of music. Same with “Take Me Back to Eden,” which is over eight minutes long. I read somewhere that when the band first popped up on the internet they listed their influences as Swedish metal mavens, Meshuggah and falsetto genius Bon Iver. Normally stuff like that is bold stupidity because those two things couldn’t be further apart musically. However, after hearing Sleep Token, I totally hear that and get it. I’m on board.
All this said, I have a tough time thinking about bands that mask up without kind of being embarrassed about loving it as a 44-year-old man. I constantly ponder the question, “Will I continue to love heavy music as I age?” and the answer has always been “Yes.” That said, the idea of bands dressing up and painting faces and pretending to be “Vessels” is a level of role playing and LARPing that I don’t know if I can completely abide with a straight face. That said, it’s about the music and as long as the music continues to be awesome, I’ll just kind of gloss over the gimmickry.
At this point in my life with all those years going to Mushroomhead shows, being a fan of Slipknot, Mudvayne, and now Sleep Token, it kind of is in my DNA.
It’s kind of ponderous that I despise KISS, but we’ll skip that conversation for another day.