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I believe this is the best metal album ever released. I know many people say such things lightly, and change their opinions and albums to worship within a week, or a year or two at best. I don't, but you have nothing but my word to guarantee I'm serious. So, for all you know, I might be just another whimsical fanboy in the middle of my latest craze, ready to switch to Limbkin Parxit or a black metal band called Vomit Sodomy before next saturday. I'm not, but you don't know that for sure. Right?
I can only calm you down by saying that so far, in my two decades of metal, I haven't heard another album worth 100%, or even 99%, for that matter. This has been my favourite album for over fourteen years. The Sane Asylum is in a class of its own, and has set a standard that can -and should- be approached and strived for, but so far even the best bands attempting have ended as asymptotic curves, never really having a chance to reach the level of perfection on this beautifully flawed masterpiece, no matter how much they improve.
A long time ago I promised myself to find the dozen or so best albums of the late 80's on original CDs. Having dumped my tapes and few vinyls in a move sometime in the early 90's, I was lacking a few essentials, and finally two years ago I committed myself on the remaining short list to correct the situation. Into the Pandemonium by Celtic Frost was the first and easiest to find, and Speed Metal Symphony didn't take long, either. The re-release of the Rigor Mortis S/T eased the task further, but their Freaks EP proved a bit more expensive. Finally, on the new year's eve of 2005-06, I got The Sane Asylum, as a japanese version, for a price of 85 US dollars. It was worth every dollar, and completed my list after 14 years of more or less active searching.
The price was so steep that it's highly improbable that I will ever again pay such money for a CD. A delusional shrink might find some interesting reasons for my exceptional one-album spending spree, but the real reason lies in a list of such improbable contrasts that they sound like three oxymorons. The Sane Asylum is fundamentally great because it set next to each other elements that should reject each other, and succeeds in blending them into colours that have rarely, or more likely never, been seen elsewhere.
First and foremost, there is Flawed Perfection. It's impossible not to hear the low standard of the production. Most of the album sounds hollow and echoes abound, as if it was recorded in an empty 53 ft. standard cargo container. The guitar sound is somehow cheap and minimal, the drums lack all the sounds usually associated with thrashy aggression, and the bass is mostly audible when pounded with passion. The worst part, for most people, are Biedermeyer's vocals. He doesn't sound good, or even very credible, and his voice is simply repulsing with its narrow scale and tendency to break into a coarse shout-growl in louder parts. And still, everything in the whole is perfect, almost as if it had been intentionally fine-tuned to the right level of lousiness, just to rise so very high above the sum of the components. The guitars, with their WalMart effects and humble minimalism, attack with surprisingly vicious stings every now and then, mostly just executing their complex duties with fearsome ease. The drums wander all over the background of the sound, never outright surprising, but retaining with minimal tricks the essential knowledge of their own will, refusing to settle just for providing the beat. Everything has a purpose, and despite all the flaws the sound becomes a balanced, well-oiled machine from a dark steampunk movie, puffing and labouring, but doing its job with a surprising reliability and alien aesthetics. It truly is the android of Metropolis, at the same time a monster and a temptress.
There is the element of Uncompromising Mellowness. Aggression has never been so innocent on the surface, and so merciless underneath it. The best example of it can be found in the song "Death Noise". The intro, a whole song in itself, lasts well over three minutes, and is mid-paced, progressive and, in a strange fashion, very soft. At the same time it charges up the atmosphere, painting ominous images in the mind, perversely becoming progressively softer and softer, all the while building up a tension that could burst a vein in one's head. When the almost subliminal heartbeat can finally be heard, more with the subconscious than the ears, for exactly twelve beats, the stage is set. But for what? A thrash song, nothing more, almost an anti-climax. But a perfect anti-climax, shorter than the intro, a compact payload to be delivered with pinpoint precision, a dumb warhead to devastate what the earlier stages had targeted. "Kamakazi" has a more complete and thorough combination of the two. All through the song the sound stays ominously mellow, but the feelings it awakens are nothing close to calming or soothing. Soft delivery is intertwined with a controlled, steel-eyed fury, with a deadly, dedicated determination and the delicate beauty of a cherry blossom. At no point during the album does the mellowness become a compromise, never does the band allow a real breathing space. They do what they want, uncaringly dealing out the constricting emotion that, disguised as mellow laziness, resembles a bad feeling before a certain accident. Imagine sitting behind the steering wheel of a car that inevitably slides on top of smooth black ice towards the rear of the last car to hit the mile-long pile-up on the highway. There's nothing you can do but to stare and listen while the time slows down, all senses sharpening, gripping the wheel with white knuckles, and feeling the weighty block of frozen lead on the bottom of your belly.
Third, the Invisible Brilliance! While the album may be below many other works in production and sound, the workings of the separate instruments are magnificient. They aren't in a zoo cage to be stared at by half-interested passers-by. You must take the time to seek for them, listen for Claypool's odd bass lines, hunt the strange jazzy backbeats in the drum work, actively stalk the intriguing effect sounds and the child-choir. Yes, there is a child-choir, hidden like a religious artefact of a long-lost tribe, but audible if you only know where to look for it. Just like in a complex surreal painting, there are thousands of tiny details to be discovered and enjoyed, and just using a different stereo set and toying with the equalizer can provide stunning moments of illumination. This is a Victorian house designed by an insane genius, with secret passages and Lovecraftian murals, endless intricate reliefs with stories to tell and a surrounding overgrown garden that hides much. The musicians were the geniuses, and even if we lost some of them to Primus and the others have scattered, their metallic legacy remains in the 40 minutes of The Sane Asylum. It is a beautiful tombstone, a fragment of perfection.
I lack the technical understanding and the verbal skills to describe the album well enough for you to see what makes it so special, so precious, and so worthy of your time. So go and find it, on cassette or vinyl if necessary, and let it guide you. Give it several chances, study it with patience, and let it reveal its inner workings. It is a Lemarchand's box worth working on. It may even turn out to be a one-of-kind Lament Configuration, and have such sights to show you... All you need to do is to trigger its fascinating mechanism in your mind and let yourself go. I'll see you on the other side.