Gardenian — Two Feet Stand (1997)

Gardenian’s Two Feet Stand from 1997 is probably the first album I’ve done in this series, barring albums from the “Gothenburg Three” (At the Gates, Dark Tranquillity, In Flames) that is really easy to offer up as a clean answer to the question “What is Melodic Death Metal?” that we’ve asked persistently throughout. It is an album whose notability is somewhat similar to that of an Eternal Nightmare by Vio-lence in showing how solidly the identity of its sound had already been constructed. And much like Eternal Nightmare, while it may not be an “essential” release in its genre, while it is not an album one must hear to understand the scene from which it emerged, your heavy metal life is maybe a bit worse off without it as well.

The thrash comparison continues to feel apt to me. We’ve officially reached the point in the history of the Gothenburg sound where bands are beginning to emerge that sound influenced by the originators, and that largely fit within the mold cast by those bands. IF and DT are busy at work recording their third albums while younger bands are emerging with exciting if less-significant contributions to the genre canon, each claiming their own small portion of the scene by focusing on their relatively minor aesthetic differences from each other. Sacrilege was the Weird On Purpose band, all scenes have one. (And need one.) Arch Enemy kept things loose, grimy, and fun. Real crowd pleasers that Arch Enemy. (I’ll be here all week.) Gardenian is maybe the least unique group covered so far (that’s mostly the fault of production, which we’ll get into), but they’re distinctive on this record if for no other reason than foreshadowing metalcore.

We’ll return to that point. For now, something must be addressed: production-wise, this album sure sounds a hell of a lot like Lost in The Beauty You Slay. And both of these records’ production sounds a hell of a lot like what In Flames ultimately ended up sounding like on Whoracle. Fredrik Nordstrom is two things: maybe the greatest heavy metal producer to ever live (ranking him outside of the top 10 would be absolutely ludicrous), and also the guy you can blame for the sound of extreme metal records becoming more and more homogeneous over the next twenty years. See here’s the thing: all three of the albums I’ve mentioned sound fucking phenomenal, huge walls of sound with still distinct layers of instrumentation that sound heavy as hell and are also super clear without also sounding processed and overproduced, even if that arguably is what they are. I made a comparison to Morrisound before, but one thing that’s definitely true about Morrisound recordings is that all of them sound different and are memorable as a result. In Nordstrom’s quest to make sure everything he recorded sounded just as good as everything else he recorded, he ultimately ends up flattening the sounds of these groups a bit, even though Sacrilege, In Flames, Gardenian, Nightrage, and others are all genuinely different groups. All of this is ultimately to say that, if you want to know how this album sounds, just read what I said about the production of Lost in The Beauty You Slay.

Lyrically I don’t think there’s anything particularly clever or quotable on Two Feet Stand, but they are an aesthetic difference from other groups that is noteworthy. To this point, melodic death metal has delighted in the classically “epic” imagery of heavy metal. Gardenian brings things back to earth somewhat. At the Gates liked somewhat abstracted imagery, Arch Enemy just really digs the typical angels/demons/apocalypse stuff, and In Flames and Dark Tranquillity both used modified presentations of that classical imagery to create metaphors and imply subtext. By contrast, songwriter/lyricist/vocalist/guitarist Jim Kjell just kinda tells you how he’s feeling. It’s a lot more grounded “Two Feet Stand” is a breakup song where the protagonist is left standing alone to make his own “two feet stand.” “Flipside of Reality” depicts strained relationships with family and friends over recurring personal issues. “The Downfall” is a mean-spirited diatribe towards somebody, for some reason. (I didn’t say it was all good.) “Awake of Abuse” is quite literally about a troubled domestic situation and the writer trying to think their way out of it. Etc.

This is certainly reflective of how the lyrical perspective would shift when this sound made it to American shores, with metaphorical imagery being replaced by a more direct, punk-influenced perspective. And also like future US bands playing their own hardcore-influenced take on this style, the band employs some chord voicings that would become ubiquitous among US metalcore groups, and introduces, basically for the first time on an MDM record, a cleanly-sung chorus, most prominently on “Flipside of Reality,” making this maybe the earliest example of the infamous “good-cop, bad-cop” approach that (regardless of its obvious merits) has become so detested for its continual regurgitation by band after band. (That would be largely in thanks to how often disingenuous it feels.)

Said chord voicings I’m referring to is mostly one chord voicing, that’d be your sus2 voicings, usually used to voice the VI or the VII chord. These voicings are comprised of stacked fifths that, particularly in dropped-C tuning, are very easy to play and sound very modern, making them fairly common across multiple metal subgenres, mostly MDM, metalcore, and prog. (By “prog” I mean Dream Theater uses a ton of these.) Take this example from “Flipside of Reality.”

The chorus riff. Rhythms may be a bit off.

That example also shows another common trick, which is pairing an Ab sus2 voicing (Ab, Eb, Bb) with a regular G minor voicing (G, D, Bb) and keeping the high note common between them. I’ve done this, you, fellow guitarists, have done this, and if we’re lucky enough to still be playing heavy metal in ten or twenty years, the next generation will be doing it too. These chord shapes recur in “Awake of Abuse” as well.

“The Downfall” also features a very future-forseeing metalcore breakdown riff using the “half-whole” diminished scale (a scale built by stacking a half-step, then a whole-step, then a half, etc) which is an incredibly common shape in hardcore and metalcore especially.

Tempo is approximated.

For as much as I complained about Fred Nordstrom making different bands sound too similar, there is ultimately a reason he did that, and it’s because the approach he was refining worked so well for virtually all of his clients, and that’s especially obvious on the gorgeous instrumental “Netherworld,” when a classical guitar opening gives way into this rich, massive, beautiful G-minor riff that just feels good to hear the way it was recorded. (For what it’s worth, “Netherworld” is also the reason I think the album is recorded in Dropped-C and not C-standard based on what open strings I think I’m hearing, as well as the aforementioned sus2 voicings which are very doable in standard, but much easier in the dropped variation.) “Netherworld” also brings into focus the delightfully different lead guitar style of future IF guitarist Niclas Englin, who brings a looser, nastier, almost Mustaine-esque type of feel to the proceedings in comparison to, say, future bandmate Bjorn Gelotte’s lead playing on Jester Race which is very composed, restraint, and maybe even a bit stiff.

Let’s Talk About Homogeneity . . . Again. (Hah.)

I’m certainly thankful for the change in pace “Netherworld” bring because when “Do Me Now” comes on we’re back to the same tempo and key once again. At some point I’m just going to have a copypasta that I put in these reviews to talk about how repetitive some metal albums can be, but it should suffice to say that track 2, 3, 4, and 6 on this album are all in the same key and at basically the same tempo, and I’d say “Do Me Now” is exactly the point when it becomes both apparent and annoying. How similar are these songs? So similar that they’re even almost the same length.

Mathematically, the difference between the longest and shortest of the highlighted tracks? 7%

In a way, that’s not even fair to the songs themselves as individual pieces, but that’s also the nature of album sequencing, something metal bands seem to have only gotten worse at over time. If you write a bunch of stuff that sounds similar, it’s only going to cause me to create something like a hierarchy in my head, even if I don’t want to.

Since this is at least the third review where I’ve brought this up, I should at least offer a counter-example. Easily the best would be Megadeth’s Rust in Peace, uncontroversially one of the greatest metal albums of all time. You can’t really compare any of the tracks on that record because there’s basically no comparison to be made. There is certainly a similarity of approach insofar as Dave Mustaine isn’t suddenly going to start writing Kerry King or James Hetfield riffs. (And thank the infinite for that.) Each of the tracks is distinctly within his style, but in large part because almost every song is in a different key and tempo the record achieves a level of variety that keeps it fresh throughout. It is, quite frankly, not something that you need to even try very hard to achieve, as the tuning of the guitar in particular enforces different approaches to different tonal centers, and different tempos change what is technically achievable by human hands. I think it’s not at all surprising that a key aspect of many of the most revered metal albums in every subgenre and from every era is variety.

By contrast, consistently writing in the same key, and especially then also writing in the same tempo, inevitably gives rise to riffs and songs that are fundamentally similar to each other, something I already noted when describing the sus2 chord voicings earlier in the record. It certainly doesn’t help that the primary verse riffs in “Flipside of Reality” and “Do Me Now” are themselves shockingly similar. (I’m not going to bother transcribing them, but you’ll be able to hear it yourself.) To bring this back around, this inevitably causes the comparisons that make tracks seem better or worse than each other even if they are not.

Ok, I’m Good Now.

Thankfully, the back third of the record after “Do Me Now” has exactly the variety I was thirsting for. “Murder” brings an accelerated chugging pace that’s really appreciate and an appreciated, if somewhat herky-jerk modulation from Cm to Em. That nicely sets up “Freedom” which is entirely in Em and brings a lot of hardcore energy in its verses and a nice breakdown that comes up once in the middle and then to bring things home at the end, and “Mindless Domination” somewhat brings things full circle by returning to the relentless thrash pace of the opening title track, with some rhythmic fuckery and one more slippery, nasty lead by Niclas Englin before everything gets wrapped up.

Instrumentals seemed to be really hot in the Gothenburg scene, and I’m glad they were. If I’m being honest, “Netherwold” had the best riff on the entire album, but “The Silent Fall” is genuinely gentle and beautiful, totally unlike anything else on the album, and is a really lovely way to close the album.

For people interested in history, Two Feet Stand is an interesting record to hear largely because of the way it ended up foreshadowing how Swedish MDM would become US melodic metalcore. Much like the last time it took me forever to write one of these reviews though, the curiosity of it doesn’t really carry it to being a great record that you must hear. When we create canons in any medium of art, an undeniable privilege is granted to works and artists who were particularly well promoted in their time, and are thus still remembered and discussed widely today. As a critic, I try to do my best to give the fair time of day to a band like Gardenian and an album like Two Feet Stand and consider its merits relative to other works in ways that go beyond the hype surrounding it, with the objective being to ultimately give it a seat at the table that it was not otherwise gifted. Unfortunately, repeat listens of this record, while enjoyable, never really gave me the impression that there was something monumentally meaningful to say about it. It’s a good album. Plenty of good metal albums come out every year, and unfortunately sometimes it is their fate to be ultimately forgotten.

Thankfully there is good news on the horizon. A bonus track on some versions of this album is the song “Ecstasy of Life,” which I decided to take a quick listen to. It’s excellent, almost definitely better than anything on this record. Even better, it wasn’t a throwaway bonus track, but it’s actually an album track from Gardenian’s next studio album, 1999’s Soulburner. So we’ve got that to look forward to!

Conclusion: For fans of the Gothenburg sound, metalcore, and the Studio Fredman production style, this record can be a fun little discovery. I began on a comparison to thrash metal, and that is where I will end. As a teenager, I really loved discovering every above-average thrash metal album from the 80’s just because I really enjoyed the style, but after a year or two of being crazed by the sound, I did ultimately come to realize that maybe I didn’t need to force-feed Vio-lence’s Eternal Nightmare or Heathen’s Victims of Deception to all of my friends. This is a record on about that level. Fun, memorable, distinct, not great, not historic, and not an album that has been Unduly Forgotten By History in comparison to the true classics, largely due to the repetitive nature of much of the material on display.

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