Off Topic: A Practical Guide to Traditional Wet Shaving

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Traditional shaving has been making a strong comeback in the past several years. Given the size of the market (think of ALL the men in the world), this put many companies on high alert. The result is there are quite a few products out there if you look for safety razors, shaving soaps or some sort of a kit. Here I’m going to share what I’ve learned over the past several months of traditional shaving.

If you’ve ever thought about switching to traditional shaving and tried doing some research, you must have asked yourself the following questions: what stuff do I absolutely need and what should my budget be? should I get a kit or should I get the items separately? where should I buy from? which are the reputable companies? I’m hoping to answer all of those questions here. I’m not going to get into much detail on the actual technique because there are already some very good references, which I will mention as I go.

First of all, why even consider traditional shaving? I mean, shaving with the cartridge or a disposable razor and canned foam or gel works just fine doesn’t it? Well it turns out that for some people it does not. If you look at men nowadays, you will see many of them walking around with noticeable stubble (I’m not talking about people with actual beards or men doing a no shave November type thing). Now, a single-day ‘shade’ might be a nice touch for a casual event, but a 3- or 4-day beard in a professional setting is a bit off-putting. Something is wrong with the modern shaving world and the evidence is right in front of our eyes. You might say that people have very busy lifestyles and just can’t find time for shaving. However, men still groom themselves: they put cologne on, they ‘do their hair’, they pick out their outfits, etc. At any rate, shaving can be done at any point in the day, not just in the morning when you might be fighting for the bathroom with your room mates or a significant other. Shaving is a matter of choice, not time constraints.

So why do men avoid shaving? A lot of people quote irritation when shaving with modern gear and high cost of replacement cartridges. I can definitely agree with that – the cost of something like Mach 3 replacement cartridges is ridiculous. I can’t say I’ve gotten a lot of irritation (razor burn of bumps) from cartridge razors, but this was probably because I used to shave very infrequently – every 4-5 days. By the time I put the multi-blade razor to my face it already felt like hell from the itching and me constantly scratching my chin and neck. So it was only going to feel better after the shave. When I tried to shave more frequently, say every 2 days, I definitely noticed some burning – it’s hard to tell whether that was the result of the shaving foam or the razor burn. Whatever the cause, it would be fair to say that I didn’t look my best on most days at work.

Truth be told, shaving with canned foam and a cartridge razor is plain boring, it’s a chore! So if you’re looking to spice things up, traditional shaving might be the way to go. Many men, myself included, also find that shaving with a safety razor and good quality soap or creme dramatically reduces the skin irritation and allows us to shave more regularly. Finally, and this depends on the products you’re currently using, barring the initial investment, traditional shaving is often cheaper in the long run than the modern shaving gear.

You will need a few pieces of equipment to get started:

  1. Double edge safety razor
  2. Blades
  3. Shaving soap or cream
  4. Brush
  5. Aftershave
  6. Stand (Optional!)

First of all, a few words on where to get this stuff. The usual suspects, Amazon and eBay, might not be the best choices here, although you can search both for good deals on bulk blades – more on that later. Specialty traditional shaving online stores are the way to go if you want to get good deals and save on shipping costs. Admittedly, there are more choices in the US than Canada, but do not despair fellow Canucks. In my opinion, Men’s Essentials and Italian Barber are the places to shop if you live in Canada. There are other stores, but the 2 above seem to have the best selection of products and best prices. Men’s Essentials will ship within Canada for free on orders over $50 and Italian Barber will do the same on order over $60, but in USD. There are a lot of reasons why you should place your first order with Italian Barber, despite having a higher free shipping threshold. The main reason is their in-house brand, Razorock, which can be your single solution for all traditional shaving needs.

Razor: this is probably the most important piece of equipment for a beginner. You don’t want to break a bank, yet you want to get something good (so you don’t have to go and get another one!). You also do not want to get an overly aggressive razor at first.

One of the most popular choices is Merkur 34C – it’s not cheap and will likely set you back around $60, but you will not regret having it! It’s fairly efficient at cutting down the stubble, but you will not feel the blade on your face as you might with some other razors.

Dorco Prime Starter Set is not a bad choice either. The razor is so-so, but it certainly isn’t bad and it comes with Dorco Prime Platinum blades that work really well with this particular razor. It also comes with a travel case that will fit other razors. At $25 USD or cheaper, if you can get a discount, and very reasonable shipping rates, this is a pretty good deal.

You might also want to shop around the above 2 websites to see if there are any other razors you might like. Italian Barber, for example, has a decent selection of budget Razorock razors. You will notice though, that razors in particular can get very expensive – a Wolfman razor (head + handle) goes for 300 USD and it’s always out of stock. Traditional shaving hobbyists are a bit crazy.

Blades:  this is the most crucial piece of the puzzle for a good shave. Contrary to the advice many people give, I would not recommend getting a variety pack. There are a few reasons: first of all, the variety pack will have all sorts of blades, from relatively dull to very sharp. You will have no way of knowing where a particular blade lands on sharpness scale without doing more research. Dull blades might sound like a safe choice for a beginner, but the tugging and pulling they produce will cause irritation. Some of the least aggressive blades, such as Derby, Treet or Big Ben will only work well in aggressive razors, especially ones with slanted heads. Very sharp blades are unforgiving of bad technique, so you will want to stay away from the likes of Feather, Kai or even Astra. This leads to the second point: your goal in the beginning is to develop good shaving technique and the best way to do that is to use the same razor and blade combination repeatedly until you get consistently good shaves. A good shave is, obviously, one that is close and irritation free.

My recommendation would be to get a 25 or 50-pack of middle of the road blades (in terms of sharpness). The likes of Voskhod, Personna Lab Blue, Dorco Platinum, Gillette 7 O’clock Super Stainless are all fairly smooth blades that will give you close and comfortable shaves once you learn how to handle the razor properly. If you are looking for more options, check out the Nick Shaves YouTube channel. He did a great blade review series that would be worth checking out for any new traditional shaver. He goes into a lot of detail explaining the shaving and lathering techniques in his videos. One thing to be aware of is he blooms his shaving soaps, which is not something I think is necessary nor would I recommend it. You can check out this video from the Traditional Shaving Evangelist (TSE) explaining the possible issues with the process.

You might also want to by a razor blade bank for a few bucks so you can dispose of the blades safely.

Shaving soap or cream: there are a few things you will want from your soap: you want it to lather easily, you want the lather to be protective, slick and feel comfortable on your face, i.e. no burning. You would also want to have a good post-shave, which means your face should not feel dry or itchy after the shave. The last one is tricky because it also depends on the aftershave product(s) you choose to put on.

Your best bet is to go for so-called artisanal soaps. The reason is when you’re putting something in such close contact with your skin, you really want as little as possible of the preservative and other ingredients that could cause irritation. Below is a non-exclusive list of soap maker brands that you should feel safe buying from. The average price is about $15-20 per 4 oz tub (yes, most of the soaps come in plastic tubs and you don’t have to get a ridiculously overpriced shaving mug).

  • Barrister and Mann – a bit pricey, but a very good performer, check out the Latha line
  • Catie’s Bubbles – amazing scents, nice slick lather, the post shave might vary by scent
  • Razorock – cheap! the XX scent is gorgeous, these soaps lather like champs.
  • Soap Commander – haven’t tried this personally, but it’s very well reviewed
  • Stirling – not available on on ME or IB, but very affordable, so might be worth it even if you end up paying for shipping. Available on Maggard Razors.
  • Mike’s Natural Soaps- same as Stirling
  • Many others!

The one non-artisanal product you should get is Taylor of Old Bond Street (TOBS) Sandalwood shaving cream. It’s a classic product that is almost a rite of passage for any traditional shaver. It performs really well and smells great too.

Brush:  I’ve only used synthetic brushes so far that is my preference because they are very low maintenance and no animals are killed in the making process. Razorock Plissoft is an absolute champion of synthetic brushes and you will only pay $15 or less.

Nick Shaves swears by boar brushes – there is a lot of room for personal preference in traditional shaving. The notable brands there are Omega and Semouge, but I don’t remember the specific models.

One thing to note is no matter how good the soap or creme you use, it will be very difficult to lather with a poor brush. Same as with razors, choose your shaving brush wisely or you will have to spend more money and buy again.

Aftershave:  this is an area where I don’t have much experience. I’ve used Adidas and Gillette aftershave splash products for years and they worked fine. My preference is definitely with alcohol based products because I like to disinfect the freshly shaved skin to avoid any sort of infection. I’m currently using the Old Spice Original aftershave with sandalwood scent. I also started using the Nivea for Men Post Shave Balm, I find that it helps keeping the skin moisturized, especially in the Winter.

There are a lot of other products I would like to try including witch hazels, tonics, etc., but at this point I’m content with what I have and do not intend to buy more until I run out.

Stand:  this is obviously completely optional, but if you have the money, I’d recommend buying a razor and brush stand. It will save a bit of precious bathroom counter space and will improve the aesthetics of your setup.

West Coast Shaving website has really nice chrome plated stands, but they do not provide free shipping to Canada. You might find something that catches your eye on Amazon or at a local store, but you don’t have to break the bank for this.

Stuff you will not need:  as I mentioned at the beginning of the post, there are a lot of traditional shaving supplies on the market and sometimes it’s hard to know what you actually need. Here are things that you might choose to purchase later, but should not spend money on as a beginner.

  • Shaving mug/bowl – this is by far the biggest offender. Pay $30 for what? If you end up buying a puck of soap by itself, use one of your old coffee mugs and save the money.
  • Pre-shave oil – shouldn’t need this if you are using a quality soap with a lot of slickness, but you be the judge.
  • Alum block – Nick Shaves swears by it, but I haven’t found a use for it.
  • Styptic pencil – same as above.
  • Expensive stuff – self-explanatory

The next question is how much should you expect to spend on all of this. Let’s start with a bare bone budget that only includes the essential products. If you’re not sure whether you want to start traditional shaving, this will give you an idea of the minimum you will need to spend, but still get quality stuff. All the prices are taken from the Italian Barber website, rounded up to the nearest $5.

  1. Razor – RazoRock Heavy Duty looks a lot like Merkur 34C, not sure how it feels, but the reviews are good. There are other options for a similar price. $25
  2. Blades – a 100 pack of (very safe) Voskhod blades will last you for 1-2 years. $15
  3. Shaving soap or cream – Razorock XX (or similar) $10 on sale
  4. Brush – Razorock Plissoft $15
  5. Aftershave – you can go for Thayers Witch Hazel or an aftershave Splash from Clubman Pinaud or Razorock. You could also get a Razorock soap + splash combo. $15

Total: $80 of which $40 is an upfront investment that you will not have to spend again for a while and the rest is recurring $40/year cost of shaving (the aftershave and the soap might not last for an entire year, but the blades will likely last for longer, so it’s hard to tell what the exact annual cost is).

If you’re fairly certain that you would like to start traditional shaving and can afford to put in a bit more money, here is what you could get:

  1. Razor – Merkur 34C, you will not regret it. $60
  2. Blades – a 100 pack of (very safe) Voskhod blades will last you for 1-2 years. $15
  3. Shaving soap or cream – Razorock XX (or similar) $10 on sale + Catie’s Bubbles Le Piment De La Vie $20 + TOBS Sandalwood Cream $20.
  4. Brush – Razorock Plissoft $15
  5. Aftershave – you can go for Thayers Witch Hazel or an aftershave Splash from Pinauld or Razorock. You could also get a Razorock soap + splash combo. $15
  6. Post shave balm – couldn’t find anything cheap on IB, but you could pick this up from Shoppers Drug Mart of The Body Shop for about $10.
  7. Razor and brush stand – try Amazon or West Coast Shaving, shouldn’t be spending more than $25 including shipping.

Total: $190 of which $100 is upfront investment and the rest is recurring cost. You shouldn’t be spending $50 on shaving soaps every year, but with the addition of post shave balm the ongoing cost goes up to $50/year.

I don’t know how much you’re currently spending on gear, so you’ll have to do your own math to see if it’s worth it for you. This doesn’t factor it an improved experience that traditional shaving brings. If you go from shaving every 3 or 4 days to shaving at least every other day, you will look and feel better. Did I mention that the traditional shaving process is a lot of fun?

AOTW: Entombed – Left Hand Path (1990)

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For years I’ve listened to Death Metal and was invariably disappointed. No matter which band, the music always sounded dry and uninspired. The main problem was that most of the albums I’ve picked up were from late 90s or early 2000s when Death Metal has, for all intents and purposes, fizzled out as a genre. So I had often turned to the derivative genres such as Metalcore and Deathcore instead, until those too have become nothing more than filthy puddles of garbage water in the late 2000s.

After doing a bit of research, I’ve discovered that Death Metal was not always so hopeless. In particular, the albums recorded at the Sunlight Studios in Stockholm during the late 80s and early 90s received a lot of praise. Left Hand Path is one of the most well known of those records. It features that signature buzzsaw guitar tone that the early Swedish Death Metal bands became so famous for. The sound and production on Left Hand Path are just perfect. The guitars, the drums, the bass and the vocals all sound great and are well mixed.

The album opens with Left Hand Path that starts off with a scream (of what sounds like a falling man), followed by low-tuned guitars and a quick solo. This sequence in itself was enough to convince me that this album would be worth my time.

I am my own God
Master slave and I will be beyond the grave
No one will take my soul away
I carry my own will and make my day

The track proceeds at a fast pace for three and a half minutes or so until it slows down to what appears to be the end, but not so fast! Out of nowhere the Phantasm theme comes out, which the band worked really well into their song. I’m not sure how the band came up with this idea, but it sure made for a unique song.

Drowned is another fast track that has some really good riffs and the solos towards the end makes the track quite memorable. Revel in Flesh is played at a slower pace and it doesn’t seem to possess the intensity of the typical Death Metal. The band almost sounds sloppy when playing at this speed, lacking the precision of execution, but that’s a false impression. You really have to hear it to understand it. The song wraps up with another great solo – that’s one thing that modern Death Metal bands rarely get right.

When Life Has Ceased is also a mid-paced track, it doesn’t feature any great riffs, but what it does is it allows the buzzsaw guitars to shine. The listener can fully immerse in that low, thick, rippling guitar sound. At this point it wasn’t really a surprise that there was yet another great solo waiting at the end.

Supposed to Rot is a short and very fast track that opens with an amazing riff – maybe the best on the entire album. But Life Goes On is another track where the band fully capitalizes on the guitar sound they’ve achieved by incorporating open string riffs and allowing the guitars to ‘ring through’.

Dead – Deceased, but life goes on
I will be the one who won
Continue to seek and you will see
That life is your worst enemy

Bitter Loss is not a bad track, but it’s not memorable save for the eerie solo at the end. Morbid Devourment falls into the ‘neither here not there’ category as well – it has some decent moments, but at 5:25 it’s probably 2 or 3 minutes too long. It seems the band started to run out of creativity towards the end of their debut album. Abnormally Deceased doesn’t have much to offer either.

The album finishes with The Truth Beyond, where the band seems to have mustered up whatever was left of their song writing capacity and finished the album strongly. At least this give the listener an incentive to finish the record without stopping a few songs short.

People put to death in the name of God
And blood run red in an eternal flood
The word has been spread – Through out the centuries
Millions of corpses lying in the cemeteries

This albums appears to be one of two halves – the band started out very strongly, but lost their creative inspiration towards the end. That seems to be how the band’s entire career has unfolded as well: after putting out a strong debut, they never really got it right thereafter.

I couldn’t say this album is perfect, because there definitely seems to be some filler on here. It actually took me a really long time to write this review because I kept re-playing the album, trying to figure out each track’s identity, but some of them just don’t have one. Nevertheless, Left Hand Path was an important album for me because it made me seek out older records from the likes of Death, Morbid Angel, Cannibal Corpse, Suffocation, Dismember, Obituary and appreciate Death Metal for what it was, not for what it is now.

AOTW: Bathory – Bathory (1984)

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Bathory released their self-titled debut album in October of 1984. As far as the first wave of Black Metal is concerned, Bathory were a bit late in the game. Slayer’s Show No Mercy, Sodom’s In the Sign of Evil and Hellhammer’s Satanic Rites all came before Bathory. Nevertheless, the 3 albums released by Bathory in mid 80s were likely the most influential in Black Metal. Getting progressively faster and more extreme, Bathory, The Return… and Under The Sign of the Black Mark created a crucial liaison between the essential first wave bands such as Venom and Helhammer and the second wave pioneers: Mayhem and Darkthrone. There were others, of course, but the legacy that Bathory left cannot be underestimated by any Black Metal fan or artist.

Named after the noble Hungarian serial killer, Bathory is a brain child of Quorthon, the band’s front man. On their debut album, Bathory combined influences from Motorhead, Venom, Hellhammer and Slayer, but also added their own elements. Quorthon’s high-pitched, screechy vocals, for example, were quite unusual at the time of the release. The production is also quite odd: there is an unconventionally large bass presence and the drums were recorded with an absolutely terrible sound. Luckily, the guitars are the highest in the mix and are allowed to shine through the otherwise grimy production. In some sense, this odd sound complements the music and it doesn’t take long for the ears to adjust and enjoy the tunes.

The album begins with Storm of Damnation intro track where the whistling winds and the ringing bell are supposed to serve as a build up and create an eerie atmosphere, but, at over 3 minutes long, it certainly overstays its welcome.

Hades begins with a great riff that keeps repeating through most of the song. Normally this would get boring quickly, but I dare say it’s hard to get enough of this particular series of guitar notes. The music is played at a very fast tempo, likely on par with any other band in the scene at the time.

Forgotten damned domains
where curse and hate collide
Where the cold and darkness meet
and the truth have turned to lie

Reaper is another high-speed aural assault, also centered around a brilliant riff. The band takes a quick breather with a slower track, Necromansy. Next up is Sacrifice, one of 2 songs that got the band a record deal in the first place. Played at a fast pace, this track also features a great solo, of which there aren’t many on this album – a noteworthy similarity with Venom’s Welcome to Hell.

Tie the angel to the altar
Sacrifice to Lord of hell
Let the warm blood torrent, baby
While the moonlight sets the night on spell 

In Conspiracy With Satan takes things up a notch in terms of speed and the lyrics. The pace here is comparable with Slayer’s Hell Awaits, to be released a year later. The haunting, twisted guitars make it fell like you are actually about to make a pact with the devil.

I have turned my back on Christ
to hell I have sacrificed
I have made love to the Pagan Queen
the gates of hell I have seen

Armageddon continues in the same vein as the previous tracks. The album is very even from the point of view of the quality of material: it’s very difficult to spot high and low points. Raise the Dead is a great mid-paced track, which creates a nice cushion before the final piece, War. A brief Outro wraps up the album.

The record is only about 27 minutes long, with just a few of the tracks going over the 3-minute mark. Typically in Metal genre, this would not leave enough time to fully develop the musical ideas, but Bathory managed to do it. None of the tracks feel unfinished in any way. Barring the obnoxiously long intro, this album is perfect. This is one of the most essential Metal albums of all time.

AOTW: Ghost – Meliora (2015)

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Some time in the Spring of 2016 I fell in love with Ghost, a Heavy Metal band from Sweden. The first song I’ve ever heard from them was Cirice from their 2015 album Meliora. This is the same song that got Ghost their Grammy award for Best Metal Performance.

The album begins with Spirit, a spooky song that would be a perfect soundtrack for some sort of a Halloween special. Next comes From the Pinnacle to the Pit, a riff driven sonic assault, one of the best songs on the album. Ghost have chosen to move away from the openly Satanic lyrics used on previous records in favour of subtler messages.

You are cast out from the heavens to the ground
Blackened feathers falling down
You will wear your independence like a crown

Cirice opens with a slow guitar intro and moves on to an epic Heavy Metal riff. If you are not banging you head to this, you better press the stop button and give the album to somebody more deserving. This song also features a great solo, something that was a bit uncommon for Ghost until this album. Every song on Meliora has at least one geat riff, the guitar musicianship has improved substantially since Infestissumam.

After Spöksonat, a brief interlude, He Is starts with yet another great riff, probably the the best Ghost have ever written. The lyrics easily match the music in its beauty.

We’re standing here by the abyss
And the world is in flames
Two star-crossed lovers reaching out
To the beast with many names

The band has set the bar quite high with the opening tracks and unfortunately the second half of the album doesn’t quite live up to that standard. Mummy Dust and Majesty are not bad songs, by they are not particularly good either.

Devil Church is another short interlude track, followed by Absolution – a great song with an upbeat chorus and featuring another couple of great riffs.

As a child, with your mind on the horizon
Over corpses, to the prize you kept your eyes on

The album ends with Deus In Absentia, another track that is neither here nor there, although one has to appreciate the choir signing at the end.

There are two ways to look at this album: on the one hand it really lacks consistency and it’s quite hard to evaluate it when you’ve got 3 super hits and another couple of good songs, but the rest don’t leave much of an impression. One might even go as far as to argue that it would’ve been better to release the best songs as an EP and ditch the rest.

On the other hand, it’s important to recognize that the band accomplished something new on this album: they’ve returned to a more traditional sound and made it a point to incorporate more guitar solos into the songs. There was another, more subtle, change – most songs on Opus Eponymous and Infestissumam are driven either by the vocals or the keyboards and guitars are given a supporting role (relatively speaking). On Meliora, however, the focus is much more on the guitar riffs and each song has some great ideas, even if they are not always fully developed. Ghost also chose a different lyrical approach, whether that was the band’s decision or driven by the record label.

With Meliora‘s release Ghost became huge and this might be the best introduction to the band for someone previously unfamiliar. The band promised a new album in late 2017, but they’ve also done a lot of touring over the past few years and are planning to do more. It’s hard to see how the band will have enough time to sit down in the studio to record new material, never mind actually writing new songs and rehearsing. This is the path they chose when they’ve signed with a majour record label, we can only wait and see.

As things stand, we have 3 excellent albums and consistently amazing live performances from Ghost. The band has become popular to such extent that even Christians are listening to it. Indeed, a few months ago I ran into a YouTube video where a pastor was praising Meliora. He argued that Ghost’s image and lyrics were only and act. However, during the same argument he referred to Varg Vikerness as a Satan worshipper. It must take nothing less than Orwellian doublethink to keep this straight in his head.

At any rate, if you’ve never heard of Ghost, give this album a listen. Chances are you will find something you will like here.