Stinking Lizaveta are a special band. The last three times I saw them live, they shared the stage with three rather audacious acts: Qui, Behold…the Arctopus, and gyrating college girls at a frat party — and they weren’t upstaged by any of them. Qui came close, mostly because David Yow cut off locks of his hair with a giant pair of scissors in the middle of a song and handed them out to the audience as keepsakes. But StinkLiz guitarist Yanni Papadopoulos has his own crazy hair thing going. Plus, you learn a thing or two about how not to suck live when you’ve been playing instrumental crunch-metal with the same two people for fifteen years. Especially when one of them is your electric upright bass-playing brother Alexi and the other is a lady drummer named Cheshire with a cinder block for a right foot.
There’s nothing more gratifying than hearing Stinking Lizaveta on a good night. Historically, the Philly trio hasn’t been quite so reliable on disc, where you can’t see Yanni’s dress-shirt stick to his perspiring back as he pulls off a Hendrix wah-metal solo, and you can’t feel Cheshire Agusta’s kickdrum boring into your ribcage. Their last album, Scream of the Iron Iconoclast (2007), got most of the way toward the humid perversion of the live show. The previous three didn’t.
For album number six, golden-boy metal producer Sanford Parker (another man of notable coiffure) doesn’t even try to capture Stinking Lizaveta in their element, focusing instead on the transparent production and multitracking only possible in the studio. No doubt it’s a treat to hear two of Yanni’s peacock-strut solos fight each other on “A Day Without a Murder,” where before it would preen by itself. The title track benefits from the multiple lyre-like guitars that usher it in; likewise, the mid-section to “Trouble Mountain” thickens up nicely with some stacked chord overdubs.
Something’s missing though, and it’s not just vocals. It’s grit, the dangerous quality that transformed their debut Hopelessness and Shame (1996) from a collection of heavy-riffing jams into a foreboding breath of fetid air. Keyboards and clean instrument separation do nothing to keep “When I Love You” from feeling flaccid, despite Yanni’s expressive “Maggot Brain” solo. Those perfect unison riffs in “We Will See” ought to punish. Here, they merely scold. Stinking Lizaveta do not thrive in the brightness.
It’s a shame that Sacrifice & Bliss is often hamstrung by its production, because some of these riffs really are perfect. Stinking Lizaveta intuitively understand how to maximize crunch, when to apply a little pinch squeal, where it’s appropriate to uncage Yanni and where they need to unite in full band floorstomp for the good of mankind. There are moments, like the whiz-bang finale of “Superluxation” and the climax of “The Man Needs Your Pain,” where everything converges and we witness the momentary apotheosis of heavy metal. It’s like forget-the-devil-horns-and-clap-your-hands-like-a-six-year-old-girl-that-just-got-a-new-pony good. Is an accurate rendering of the godhead that much to ask for?