This coming Tuesday, the city of New Orleans will be subsumed under the boozy cloud of Mardi Gras. Those still recovering from the Saints’ feel-good Super Bowl win have just two more days to prepare themselves for a second helping of revelry and mayhem. Judging from the profusion of Saints-themed merchandise on their website, the members of Big Easy-based stoner metal supergroup Down are most likely part of this beleaguered, hangover-nursing group.

I became aware of the prevailing trends in Down swag while researching their forthcoming effort, a live CD/DVD (due 3/23) called Diary of a Mad Band (not to be confused with the Jodeci release of the same name). An incendiary live outfit, Down combines the sludgy heaviness endemic to their below-sea-level hometown with the limber, improvisatory tendencies gleaned from their southern rock influences. The 100 hours of live footage included are sure to be rife with amplified goodness, and at least 300 shots of drummer Jimmy Bower looking exactly like Animal on the Muppets.

Despite Down’s yeoman efforts, the live album is a curious commodity in today’s heavy music circles, more of a record label investiture than a labor of love. The well-known difficulties and risks involved in producing such recordings are well known, and bands tend to hew closely to a live-DVD format that features them recreating recorded material as closely as possible.

The profusion of these by-the-book cash-grabs is worrying, but counterbalanced by the small number of live releases in recent years that capture the urgency and creativity of a heavy band firing on all cylinders. Though by no means comprehensive, or in any particular order, the list below attempts to give credit to three bands whose live discs have done themselves and their fans justice.

Dark Tranquillity
Where Death is Most Alive (Century Media Records, 2009)

U.S. tour promoters have never really known what to do with Dark Tranquillity, whose keyboard-tinged, science fiction take on melodic death metal is admittedly hard to complement. As veterans of the once-vibrant Gothenburg, Sweden metal scene, the band deserves credit for sticking to a successful formula, while eluding the nu metal tendencies and clean singing that have afflicted their former brethren. An upcoming stateside run with metalcore superheroes Killswitch Engage will likely raise their profile, but Dark Tranquillity is at their best when they’re playing to a receptive, familiar audience. Where Death is Most Alive captures a lengthy, career-spanning set for the benefit of die-hard Milanese fans, who sing along with the words and melodies with commendably full throat.

[audio:] Dark Tranquility – “The Treason Wall”

ClutchFull Fathom Five (Weathermaker Music, 2008)

Though calling them a metal band is becoming more and more a stretch, the performative powers of Clutch cannot be denied. Well-known for never playing the same set list twice, the Germantown, MD band have improvisatory chops to burn and an extensive back catalog to comb through and re-imagine. The singing of vocalist Neal Fallon has improved immeasurably throughout the years, to match the band’s evolving sound; modern versions of aged classics are likely to provide a few pleasant surprises. The addition of a dedicated harmonica player and keyboardist during the recording of the album also works wonders.

[audio:] Clutch – “Texan Book of the Dead”

BloodbathThe Wacken Carnage (Peaceville Records, 2008)

Live albums can be indispensable when it comes to bands that hardly ever play live, which is the case with cult Scandinavian death metal conglomerate Bloodbath . Featuring Mikael Akelfeldt of wildly popular prog-metal outfitOpeth, the band combines the best of European and American death to produce a hybrid that is as potent as its public appearances are rare. The Wacken Open Air festival is known to metalheads as a headbanger’s Mecca, hosting thousands of beer-swilling, leather-clad maniacs each summer on a swath of German lawn, and the event has the kind of unholy allure necessary to get the members of Bloodbath on stage together. Luckily for their fans, Peaceville Records was wise enough to roll tape during their 2005 appearance.

Feel free to chime in in the comments with any quality, recent metal live albums I may have overlooked (not that my readers tend to need an invitation). I’m sure there are a couple, or even many.

Shredification is a monthly expedition into the world of heavy music led by San Francisco Bay Guardian and Bay Bridged writer Ben Richardson. Combining album reviews, news, and general commentary, it uses the power of forgotten heathen rituals to surreptitiously devour your soul. Ben can be reached at