Jazz, Jazz-metal and the future of a hybrid

Our society is fascinated by outsiderness. This neurosis comes from the fact that we exist by the support of a civilization we see as going down a bad path, if we think about things at all. Our outsiders look more askance at this society than we who must maintain it, but they also do so from within it, so they are both critical of and dependent upon it. This creates a need for not a new civilization, but a new psychology of civilization, and it is mostly commonly engendered by song: poetry, jazz, prose or violence.

Jazz is “America’s music.” A hybrid of the blues and public-school training in European classical harmony, it nonetheless is not unique, because it has existed on every continent at some time in their growths. It is a universal language, the free and open jam, and appeals less to theory — despite being heavy on theory — than it does to an impulse of the soul which wants to start playing first, and then figure out how to cram the symbolism of emotions into song. Even so, when we speak of jazz we speak of the American variety.

Because jazz is extreme compared to pop music, and both in its day and today an outsider music, and because it went through a ring cycle from innocent complex pop music to nearly total psychoacoustic noise with the extremes of free jazz, we see it is parallel to heavy metal and hardcore punk. Both of those as well are falling from grace, exiling themselves from a comfortable modern existence to be extremes. Both of those totally reject society. Where jazz is cool alienation, and an attempt to find itself through degrees of emotion, metal and punk are a rejection of human emotion and a hot alienation that points to the hard, cold historical record — the abstract. Jazz is earth and metal is sky.

As metal expanded through its own cycle of growth and decay, its growth mirrored the process jazz underwent. At first, metal was just a heavier form of rock with more phrasal composition as evidenced by the long melodic riffs of Black Sabbath, but then it became a “serious” art form with speed metal, after the 70s stadium metal wrecked its credibility but good. When that “serious” social consciousness art wasn’t enough, it became crypto-symbolic art with death metal, with an extensive philosophical interpretation required to get from “only death is real” to a philosophy of abstraction to rival Plato.

When death metal got itself established after a painful birth from fragments of thrash/hardcore punk and speed metal, it found itself as an art form embracing simplicity and yet structure, shying away from mainstream consonance or even harmonic structure. Its structure came entirely from worship of the riff, or rather the way death metal bands would string together seemingly unconnected riffs that made sense as the piece culminated, like poetry unifying disparate symbolism. Death metal was unlike the harmonies of heavy metal, or the rhythmic culmination of speed metal, but it was pure structure in arrangement of complex riffs, and the distinct phrasing that made each one both evocative and complementary to others.

Because these riffs operated independently of scalar or chordal structures, death metal was compared to free jazz by the savvier elements of the music press. Much of this comparison occurred before death metal was fully defined, when the more jam-friendly elements in hardcore (Black Flag’s “The Process of Weeding Out” most notably) and more dissonant, theoretically detached elements of grindcore (Napalm Death’s opus of microsong disrhythmic chaos, “Scum”) were noticed by bored, underpaid and desperate writers looking for a story. Death metal being half-hardcore, half-heavy metal, the genre rotated to face jazz for a golden period of about five years.

The first real salvo in this battle was fired by Atheist on their first and second albums, “Piece of Time” and “Unquestionable Presence.” The increasing mixture of jazz crept outward from the rhythm section to the point where the second album embraced much of the aesthetic of jazz, especially the fusion-tinged variety that used intense dynamic variation to resemble a soundtrack, more like Al DiMeola’s “Cielo E Terra.” Atheist embraced the same jazz direction, but added to jazz what punk and hardcore had, what made them “hot” and not “cool”: that inhuman, abstract, theoretical structure that allowed them to stitch riffs together on the basis of phrasing and melody alone, leaving behind the artifacts of tonal context needed by most people to orient themselves in the composition.

If emotional is cool, abstract is hot, and it fits better with the raw anger of death metal, because rage without some idea of how it might manifest itself to soothe its source of irritation becomes impotent and self-serving. What makes jazz cool is its acqueous descent into pure organic emotion, a casting aside of all structure that lets the psyche move with total freedom, given a few rules to keep its motion consonant — like a morality of sound, it throws out conceptions of hierarchy and shared goals and lets the individual freestyle it, but imposes some rigid rules. What makes metal hot is that it throws out that coolness, and imposes an order that transcends human limitations, giving rise to speculation about the motion of empires and epic ideas in collision, like a heavenly war of symbols.

Atheist fused these two outlooks, and in doing so, unleashed a revolution in metal. First, the clones came, but since metal is hot and not cool we pay no attention to them. Next, other bands picked up on this revolution and put it to good use. The two remaining explicitly jazzy death metal albums came from the Netherlands and Florida, respectively, and further advanced the science of jazz-metal. Longstanding death metal/speed metal hybrid legends Pestilence had been growing increasingly toward a greater display of musical skill, including conventional means such as harmony, and after going halfway on their third album created a jazz/metal fusion for their fourth, “Spheres.”

Spheres split a room full of metalheads into people who hated it, and people who loved it. With guitars plugged into MIDI samplers outputting in a range of voices, and offtime tempos marching past with unpredictable variations, Spheres was difficult to grasp as a listening experience much less a piece of art, but many did enjoy it so much that fifteen years after its release, it has been re-released with new live tracks. Metalheads at the time were fascinated that one of their own, from a genre so alienated it was not listed on any mainstream music reporting or labels, could go toe-to-toe with the progressive and jazz bands of its day. Others were appalled at what they saw as an attempt to reduce what made metal unique, and make it more like the conformist music of the mainstream.

Cynic’s “Focus” came out the following year and further divided the community. It did not enwrap its guitars in synthetic sounds, but chose to do that for the vocals, creating an otherworldly but rarely forceful effect that jarred with the assertive psychology of death metal. That coupled with Buddhist-influenced positive lyrics, a tendency toward light interludes, and lush keyboards backing guitars made the album rejectable by most metalheads. Riffs resembled those of the first Atheist album, making many jazz-metal diehards wonder if it was an evolution in artform or production.

While these four albums were the most evident manifestations of the jazz aesthetic, jazz influences abounded in works from other bands. Morbid Angel, known for their otherwordly seizure of souls through intense music, showed a familiarity with jazz technique especially in percussion, but without being jazzy. Demilich created a monstrosity of lead-picked intricate riffs that resembled the most avantgarde of jazz fusion, but with the subtler rhythmic introductions of death metal. Gorguts showed more of a classical influence, but balanced with lessons from avantgarde jazz.

As the death metal experiment with jazz ended, many reflected on the similarities and impossibilities of the two genres. Jazz and metal are both outsider music; both reflect a perception of persecution by society at large, it being supposed to be ignorant of some principle, and offer up radically different solutions. Jazz, it might be said, is a nurturer; death metal, it might be said, is a reality check. While the two overlap somewhat, ultimately they don’t overlap in ideas, and this carries over to aesthetic. Death metal sounds abstract; jazz sounds emotional. Death metal builds a tension for dynamic release through structuring of phrase, where jazz develops phrase to emphasize an underlying harmonic pattern.

Much as Ornette Coleman rebelled against jazz and created free jazz, metal (through hardcore, most notably Discharge) rebelled against the structure of pop songs and created through its new freedom of abstraction a language of expression. Ultimately, its rebellion was that in a world of humans singing about individual fascinations and neurosis, it would be an expression of the structures of the whole. A pattern language of ideas and consequences, death metal is intensely structured music in the way classical is, using narrative composition to unite disparate elements in a storyline, like a poem. Jazz is more like the visual arts, showing exactly what occurs and winding details together in an anti-narrative.

Since the death metal flirtation with jazz, two paths have been taken to resolve this paradox. The first recognizes that death metal’s structure is closer to progressive rock, and incorporates jazz into progressive rock with death metal riffing, as Gordian Knot (featuring Cynic members) or grindcore-influenced acts like Dillinger Escape Plan have done. The second recognizes that jazz’s rhythm can be used to wrap heavy metal-styled riffs into the jaunty, bouncy aesthetic of jazz/funk based music, and this has exploded forth in bands from Candiria to Mordred to The Red Hot Chili Peppers. The problem with both of these approaches is that they must distill death metal to rock in order to proceed.

It may be that a fusion never happens because the genres are too different. Jazz is inherently aesthetic-heavy, because it lacks structure to differentiate its songs; metal exclusively differentiates its songs through structure, and is uniform in aesthetic. Where metal is structured music, jazz is unstructured to permit wide-open jams, but the result is that sets tend to run together and, outside of aesthetic innovations like switching instruments or making the musical elements more bizarre, it has nowhere to evolve, where metal as an inherently storytelling format still has room to expand. But by the same token, metal is pulled downward by its attachment to an audience shared with rock, who will often try to make it into something more like the mainstream even as its most intelligent creators pull in the opposite direction.

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Averse Sefira, 1349, Goatwhore and Ascension in Hollywood, California

Averse Sefira, 1349, Goatwhore and Ascension
April 13, 2007
7021 Hollywood Blvd
Los Angeles, California 90028

Confusion marked our entrance into the Knitting Factory, where it was being decided that bands would not play in the order originally listed. Making it more chaotic, they all played on the same stage, ensuring that hasty transfers of band would scatter personnel and equipment across the stage and inevitably result in some “who has the voice mike” satire. Despite this tower of live performance Babel, the bands involved bravely sallied forth with loins girded in guitar straps and gumption alone.

The first band, Ascension, played to a mixed reception. Their style would be hard to describe except that it is that fusion of death metal and black metal that underneath the skin sounds like it was assembled from old B-list speed metal bands, and so is very chorusy and bangy but not very clear. It would be hard to tell much about this band from their presentation at the event, but this did not appear to jar them as they bashed out a comprehensive set.

We were excited to see Averse Sefira play as the third band after several other local acts which presented music in varying degrees of conceptual completion. Most of these bands are good at what they do; they can play their instruments, know enough of the genre to make a competent stab at it, but the question is “what do they communicate?” It is a hurdle every new band, no matter how old or seasoned its members, must overcome, and seeing these new acts struggle to define themselves by what they would give to their audience in the form of transferred experience drove our pulses to fury in preparation for the main act.

The crowd gathered, expectantly; you could tell this mix caught the curious and the diehards alike. I have often wondered what impels the choices people make in attending shows, and why they would pick one metal band out of thousands, as if it alone differentiated itself enough to be meaningful or relevant while others became slag in the battle for mining threads of coherent mentation. Most metal bands, like most people, are working in an archetype or combination of archetypes, assembling a product which fits into their known scope of experience and little more. They qualify as metal but other than the clueless and the fans who attend a weekly show in hopes of bolstering lives of boredom, attract few hearts or minds, and not for long.

It is in this arena of meaning that Averse Sefira reign supreme as occult art… Where metal bands can narrate tales of war, AVRS the have the *soul* of a man *engaged* in an apocalyptic war. You feel the same hellish strife that perhaps the hobbits Frodo and Sam struggled with at Mordor in Tolkien’s *Return of the King*, or the epic conflict a lone hunter finds when crossing the frozen north to reach a new land. Whether or not metal “has” soul, these tales of soul-conflict are what sustain its listeners during a time when every other pressure exerted on them is an exhortation to give up and make the kind of compromise that makes products not leaders.

When Wrath and Sanguine were testing their microphones, they were demonic beasts barking as wolves do when threatening their prey. The sound guy was having trouble getting everything right, then a projection screen rolled down on Wrath’s head which infuriated him and the apprreciative listeners of AVRS. They were in the middle of their first song, but he continued to play well. This show in Hollywood may have had problems, but the occult war music of AVRS transcended this and remained powerful on those beings that understand it.

I brought my friend and battle-comrade Mateo, and he called for a song, Argument Obscura. Wrath heard, so the band played. The Carcass like an animal seized sonic space with aggression toward dominion, and Sanguine’s fingers were claw-like tentacles across the mangled fretboard of his guitar. Wrath continued his defiant performance, bass weaving with the military aerobics of his stage presence, ignoring all obstructions (see passage above about chaos onstage) while returning to the surging rhythm of the music like a descent into hand-to-hand combat. The band held a posture and backed it up with quality, complex music and a performative impact that was both metaphorical and literal: this is war for art.

The crowd, as always, hovered in uncertainty without an echoing voice of overlord to tell them what to think. Many would have been happier with an updated version of Motorhead like Goatwhore, or the mishmash of metal successes over the past thirty years that most bands try to mix into a whole with few real standouts. The Averse Sefira assault caught them by surprise because it was not just aesthetics, not just music, and not just presentation: it was a whole, a moment where art spoke a worldview through the methods of its creation and the mentation required to get there. Open mouths and a buzz of generic dialogue flickered to life after the band left the stage.

Much of the metallic occult, with Yamatu — contra (“pvre”) stereotypical Black (“fucking”) metal — brings one into an ancient world long forgotten, like Atlantis or Lemuria. Averse Sefira’s performance was no exception, although given a “so-so” when they really deserve the highest praise, but this seemed to go to 1349 who managed a tight, dynamic set but did not achieve that vector of ideas that separates the great from the competent. Their performance was reminiscent of Mayhem’s “De Mysteriis dom Sathanas” and matched it in intensity, but did not leave that otherwordly sense one has when confronted with ideas that change the way future ideation will form. It was not the trance-like cessation of reality, except in metaphor, that Averse Sefira brought to the stage.

Murmurs of a mind in pure suspension of disbelief, a state like that before birth, the steadfast concentration without effort from the conscious mind of the warrior, concealed in vigil of death, on the edge of the forest… We are falling beneath the Earth (degrading to the regions of Malkuth)… We must return to an evolutionary path. By choice, or after the hymn of death has rung (renewal by fire): pulling ourselves into a black vortex, the yawning void of war. This is what their message conveys to me. Not many else today merit praise as warriors. The concept albums of Averse Sefira are Evolan retellings of Kali Yugas past and future, and the cycle has returned to the time for that era.

– Written by G.R.M. Pixeque

Bands:
Averse Sefira
1349
Ascension

Promoters:
The Knitting Factory

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Averse Sefira, 1349, Goatwhore and Nachtmysticum in St. Paul, Minnesota

Averse Sefira, 1349, Goatwhore and Nachtmysticum
April 9, 2007
201 E. 4th Street
St. Paul, Minnesota 5510

This show is one of those memories you forget is real, and find yourself a week later thinking how it occupies a space between thought and dream and a pinch-yourself moment in the midst of chaos. Arriving late after a harrowing evening involving taking a good friend to the hospital after he ate a rack of Xanax and downed half a bottle of Absolut, I was barely inside the door before a familiar guitar tone rose up into the soundcheck. Other people were hurrying toward the stage as well, and I found myself caught up in the anticipation.

Averse Sefira took the stage a short while later, and in summary, they were more confident with better presentation than any of the four previous times I’ve seen them. They stormed the stage with the confidence of a band who knows that they’re contenders, even if not everyone in the metal world has yet noticed. In harsh tones of deliberate rage, they announced their presence between songs, but the rest of the time they skipped the periphery and played like madmen. They were there for the attack, and it delivered.

The sound was superior to any previous Averse Sefira show I have seen, although as this was their first appearance in this venue, there is no previous instance for direct comparison. Balanced and powerful, the wave of audial information radiated from the speakers and preserved every pick strum, drum hit and overdriven vocal rage as it drove them into the audience. Although the performance was more important than the sound, it helps to be able to hear exactly what’s going on, a rarity at most shows.

They’ve honed their live presence since I saw them last. Not only are they more cohesive as a phalanx on the stage, but they have grown into their sound and stripped down their motions onstage to be simultaneously efficient and impulsive. This band will manage a tempo change without an eyebrow flicker, and then at exactly the moment when it is least convenient, add a flourish of rage in a gesture or the proud indomitable stab of a guitar. The combination of better sound, and more forceful performance, clarified their music in a live setting where previously it seemed a difficulty. In general, the only bands that have it easy live are the simple ones.

The set itself was obviously polished as well, this being their third week on tour. All tracks came from the two most recent albums. “Helix in Audience” is turning into a flagship song – a great, diverse, momentum-driven track with which they bring the set to a boiling point. Other tracks include “Detonation,” a great opener, “Plagabraha,” “Battle’s Clarion,” “…Ablaze” and several others from Tetragrammatical Astygmata. After an impromptu request for “Deathymn” screamed from the shadowed angles of the crowd, the band consulted each other with their trademark silent nods, guitarist Sanguine A. Nocturne hailed the requester, and the band launched into it all guns blazing, to great effect.

Their stage presence was typical Averse Sefira, but it cannot be taken for granted. None of the ingratiating, gregarious, vapid banter and skit-like dramatics lit up the stage, but a force of concentration, expressed less in the trivial acts than the commanding performance they gave. There was none of the mixed confused emotions that plague most bands on stage, where they’re half there as a job, half as a hobby, and unsure of whether to resent the audience of grovel before them. With Averse Sefira on the stage, the shared assumption that we were all of us there to see a performance to conclusion like a ritual united us, and we did not need reminders.

At the end of the set, I staggered out into the night appreciating what I had seen, but in skimming over the society functions of the night and cutting right to a powerful musical performance, it gained an atmosphere of the unreal… like something from a time long ago, when warlike honor was more important than whether the guy from the promotions company got his free beer or not. With delivery like this, these better-funded tours will be massive for Averse Sefira, as their live show is ethereally charismatic and puts so much back into the recorded material the two can barely be separated. Based on what seems to me like a clear success, I have a feeling they’ll be back on the road again soon, and don’t want to miss it.

– Written by kontinual

Bands:
Averse Sefira

Promoters:
Station 4

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Hans Graf and the Houston Symphony Orchestra perform Shostakovich’s Suite on Sonnets of Michelangelo and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in Houston, Texas

Hans Graf / Houston Symphony Orchestra
March 4, 2007
Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana
Houston Texas 77002

As the cultureless void of “pop culture” (more accurately known as “mass culture,” appealing to the lowest common denominator) surges upon those traditions of artistic development which have sustained high-quality minds for centuries, symphonies defend themselves by appealing to what they hope are broader audiences. In doing so, they achieve a fragile balance between the known commendables and newer or more esoteric pieces, more accurately known as being the fringes of classical music that did not merit induct into its archetype: history rewards either excellence or pure mediocrity.

The Houston Symphony, being a storied classical house under assault from the “new music” deludoids as well as the pop culture drones, attempted on Saturday, March 4, to mix a known cornerstone of classical music with one of its more recent deviations, a presentation of sonnets by Michelangelo Buonarroti who is more frequently cited for his works of sculpture, as embedded in the works of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. The concert as a whole was a failure; the Beethoven was an eyelash short of as magnificent as this fallen time can offer.

Shostakovich

To dispense with the execrable Shostakovich, it is safe to say that Michelangelo’s poetry, while not incompetent, falls entirely within the boundaries of cookie-cutter Romantic poetry and is prone to the same excesses of emotional gesture and broad symbol that makes the genre easily mocked to this day. Like the music for short commercials, each piece consisted of 2-4 short themes played while verses were sung, then a conclusion in absence of direction as much as anything else.

The defining feature of classical music — a poetic continuity, a narrative and a conveyance of emotions from one state to another — is in Shostakovich supplanted by a series of slightly mixed emotions that ends when the sitcom-like drama of the bad poetry does. His phrasing is simplistic; his melodies cut from textbooks; his emotion cheap, like the perfume and loud music of a mass culture crowd rushing forward to claim the prominence of classical music without the achievement that granted it that state. Although a few of the have-nots in the crowd were delighted with this moronic affair, many members of the audience appeared to be ready for it to end early and hastened their applause to drive that trainwreck of an audial confusion from the stage.

Beethoven

Conducted by the amiable and competent Hans Graf, the orchestra launched into one of the definitive works of Western culture after returning from a short break. Beethoven’s third symphony, or Eroica, is as its nickname suggests a heroic Romantic march through melancholy themes to the triumphant in praise of heroism. Few who have active nervous systems can not notice its power, but in the hands of idiot conductors like Klemperer its rhythms are homogenized and its passion reduced by a de-emphasizing of subtlety in favor of dramatic gestures that make it a smooth blend of self-satire. Graf mostly escaped this trend which seems to delight populists, as if the humbling of a great symphony made their own positions stronger.

Graf treats classic pieces as entities that while alive might benefit from upgrade to the wisdom of a progressive time, and in that state of mind he mixes a quaint style that appeals to fans of older Mozart and Haydn with a modernist twist that propels pieces forward with increasingly off-time, theatrical pauses and rhythmic expectations. It is as if Graf is a modernist who views the quaint as one of the many voices he tries to capture, and in doing so, he often loses sight of the piece as a whole, which is where he will remain a B+ and the Furtwanglers, von Karajans, Salonens, et al. will surge forward to the higher grades.

The first movement fell under this treatment; after a strong beginning that truncated the traditional shock tactic of repetitive unison, the orchestra launched into an uptempo version that emphasized the accompaniment of the main theme and periodically slowed it in an attempt to de-emphasize its uniformity. This technique ultimate backfires, in that instead of using consistency to background repetition, it showcases the repetition by attempting to hide it. For most of this movement however Graf kept his players on track and it concluded with a strong finish.

Launched with a dramatic caesura, the second movement swung to life like the dawning of a forest day, its more melancholic themes emphasized a sliver too strongly but pulling together mid-movement for a strong conclusion and dramatic continuity. It was on the third movement that Graf deviated from the script. He allowed the horns to introduce more staccato than normally propels the triumphal theme, giving it an erratic and hesitant nature, and in several paces slowed the pace so that instruments normally complementing the theme could speak their own pieces as if taking the lead in composition. Here some heads did nod in the audience, and with a good point: this part of the piece especially benefits from being seen as the harmony of voices and not an egoistic prominence of each, as it is about the sympathetic fallacy of environment mirroring the questions of a soul in disarray after initial defeat.

In the fourth movement Graf made a strong return, although like Klemperor he often prefers dramatic pauses to introduce obvious changes in theme, and complements them with a tendency to play repeated themes slowly like a movie soundtrack and elide them with rhythmic consistency and a lack of distinction for the subtleties that prepare us for their shifting. It is probably not a failing of intellectual ability on his part, but a desire to belong to the fashion that includes modernism and postmodernism, or the idea of subjecting all things to a mechanical process and controlling them through rules of self-interest which promote egoism and other out-of-context appearance of supporting structures. It can reduce complex music to a one-dimensional machine transferring energy between otherwise equal parts.

Conclusion

On the whole, the Houston Symphony performed intensely on a technical level, and for the bulk of the symphony, played it according to a timeless artistic interpretation which understands where Beethoven made clarity of the confusion of attempting tasks perceived as far beyond the individual, even abandoning a care for personal safety: heroism. Some poor choices were made, including the dubious selection of Shostakovich’s soundtracky goop for an opener. Despite this confusion endemic to our time (Rome falling in alabaster dust, Mongols at the gates of Kiev) through the energies of these musicians the heroic power of this symphony shined above the confusion, and even the dusty gates of the machinelike city, to unite different times upon something eternal to all humanity.

Composer:
Ludwig van Beethoven

Performer:
Houston Symphony Orchestra

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Vex, Averse Sefira, Ayasoltec, Dagon, Abythos and Nodens in Austin, Texas

Vex, Averse Sefira, Ayasoltec, Dagon, Abythos and Nodens
January 27, 2007
Redrum
Austin, Texas

Extreme Texas Metal presents a number of shows adapted for the new millennial audience. As is demanded by those who own clubs, these shows address the problem of too much music and too few willing to buy by lumping together related bands into a longer show, hoping to create a sense of similarity in a genre and to help each band market itself through exposure, much as bands now market themselves with MP3s. In addition, as black metal and death metal have both ceased growth and are now in a time of middle age maintenance, set upon by tedious hybrids like metalcore (emo) and nu-metal (hip-hop), these allow the genre to circle its wagons and retain whatever of its own identity it can preserve. Unlike most promoters, Extreme Texas Metal have been mostly successful in picking acts which share aesthetic similarities enough to provide a contiguous show.

In this naturalistic view of music, the local favorites are grouped together and given a chance, after which we all see who rises and who falls. Names and faces from the past have come and gone, with some remaining, according to an order that previous generations would have seen as the will of heaven and in pagan years before that, as the judgment of nature. The show began on an interesting note with death metal band Nodens, who came from Houston to play to about thirty people. Their music resembles the mid-paced death of former years as updated with a simple form of the harmonic churning popularized by Burzum and other black metal bands, but it retains much of the punch and drop from rising drive to collapsing breakdown that makes death metal popular to this day. While it is clear that Nodens are still developing, there is promise here should they choose to develop it, although at this time the effect is somewhat underwhelming owing to a prevalence of simple patterns designed more to carry a crowd that express what the more esoteric and ambiguous portions of their music offer.

Ayasoltec

After presentations by Abythos, who emit a black metal mixture approximating the mean of Dissection and Darkthrone, and Dagon, Watain-inspired melodic black metal battery, the show took on a different aura when Ayasoltec took the stage. This band rose from the ashes of longtime Texas legends Masochism, who united a sense of Chicano identity with the insurgent desire for localization of early-1990s death metal like Cenotaph or Sepultura, creating a unique voice that never came fully together through lineup changes and the confusion of identity that plagued death metal after black metal arrived. With Ayasoltec, the musicians responsible have clearly targetted a new direction but are still feeling out how to develop it. Their desire is to evoke the second culture of the Americas, who integrated an ancient race of explorers (probably those who created also Easter Island and the cities of pre-Incan Peru) with the Amerinds who arrived later from Asia. These ancient cultures, as seen in Toltec and Olmec and Aztec, produced works of vast culture that are recently being discovered more in depth throughout the Yucatan and Central Mexico, and unlike the Catholics to follow were sun-worshippers who adored the idea of blood sacrifice as much as they relentlessly invented nurturing societies and high culture. One of the most revolutionary statements a band can make today is to bypass modern American culture as well as modern Mexican to exhalt these ancestors of amoral, occult religion and culture.

Ayasoltec balance this concept unevenly between wanting to find an outlet for their death metal riffcraft and exploring those genres which might unite a group of people behind an idea superior to anything else offered as relevant to them today. In this, their obvious guidepost is Sepultura’s work from “Arise” through “Roots,” which integrated indigenous rhythms and themes with the tumescent power of death metal. Their material as such is balanced between rhythm riffing which is often single-string playing, like a hybrid between “Roots” and early Vader, and the adroit riffcraft of Masochism, as well as new style based upon fast harmonic motion that would be called “solos” except for its rotating sequence of pattern choices that make a growing melody out of what would otherwise be a series of riffs. Like Gorguts attempted with “Obscura,” this new effort uses less conventional guitar techniques and a tendency toward abundant noise and develops songs around conventional riffing mated with exploratory work, as if bringing us out and then inside an esoteric mystery.

It is quite promising for a band to develop this much imagic and musical specificity, but this is balanced by the growing pains of fusing death metal with the more rock-oriented rhythmic format that Sepultura adopted in their later work (as did other bands; Sepultura is the most convenient example). Songs incorporate doomy riffs, the aforementioned riff cryptograms of periodistic development, and the acerbic ripping death metal in the style of Imprecation or Massacra that distinguished Masochism. The audience was fortunate to hear a good deal of this before one of Ayasoltec’s amplifiers decided it desired the hatred of the 150 people gathered there, and began intermittent failures through which the band and lead guitarist Juan Torres played with aplomb until it was obvious that catastrophic equipment failure ended the show. It was a highly professional performance and all attending channeled ire at that amplifier and hate it to this day.

Averse Sefira

After Ayasoltec, the undernoticed but unflagging Texas metal legends Averse Sefira took the stage with no fuss but much anticipation as the crowd swelled. The concept behind Averse Sefira is esoteric as that of Ayasoltec, in that they unite the stages of spiritual development between earthbound and celestial through the mysteris of Kabbalah, an ancient Sumerian science later appropriated by Judaism and Christianity in less of an amoral, blood worshipping form. Through this voice Averse Sefira channel abundant pagan nature worship and cosmology, as well as a healthy dose of modern heroic transcendental holistic idealism, using a synthesis of melodic black metal and the savage energy that early technical death metal bands like Morbid Angel and Incantation held high like a banner of war. As drummer The Carcass was playing on an unfamiliar, triggered drumkit loaned graciously by Ayasoltec personnel, it took Averse Sefira a song to reach a balance of intensity while adapting to the new rhythm format, but after this a set of songs from their past two albums seared the ears of the audience. In this, they showcased their most aggressive and imaginative attack to date, “Tetragrammatical Astygmata,” with standouts from the sleeper hit “Battle’s Clarion” that never got the distribution or production it needed to become as legendary as it is in live presentation.

The Averse Sefira attack is well-honed not only from touring practice, which the band have gotten on jaunts to South America, Quebec, and Europe, but also from a study of successful extreme metal during the past twenty years. Like the most vital years of Deicide and Morbid Angel, they are short on pauses and small talk but launch immediately into each song with a one-line introduction adapted from the style of Slayer’s Tom Araya but with more lyrical relevance and grace. Their songs use a thematic flow of melodic riffs balanced against interludes of pure rhythm in the form of “budget riffs” that assemble a few notes into direction changes or augmentations, and build a rhythmic attack as they cycle periodistically but not linearly through a developing motif. Guitarist Sanguine A. Nocturne slashes out riffs in his precise tremelo playing while growling and whispering and screaming in a range of timbres in a style that must have been influenced by Burzum, yet in live performances balances the adroit precision of this playing with a small amount of swing that kicks in a demonstrative gesture of attack and release. Noisier adaptations of past riffs are deliberate, not accidental, and contribute to both the organic feel and the edginess of this performance.

The Carcass adapted well to the new drumkit after some experimentation, and was able to shape his organic battery around the highly audible exactitude of triggered drums, producing a sound that was more militant than previous Averse Sefira shows. The third member of this cosmological wrecking party, Wrath S. Diabolus, wielded his base with what seemed to more than one observer a greater degree of comfort and familiarity, showcasing a newly flexible style that complements the improvisatory chaos of his stringed counterpart. The band played six sounds with the presence that has made them legendary, standing defiantly in front of the crowd and delivering a top-notch show, while maintaining the mystery that has made this band a favorite of underground observers since their 1996 demo (and it is only fair to note that all members were in artistic projects for nearly a decade before that). It is hard to see why this band has not been acknowledged as the successors to Absu and Necrovore as the vanguard of Texas metal, but it is in part their quiet professionalism and musical and conceptual depth that makes them alienated from much of the scene which would prefer easily digestible music. No sonorous Twinkies here.

Vex

Coming out on stage after a brief equipment shuffle, Extreme Texas Metal band of the year Vex both impressed and disappointed. When one thinks about it, bad record reviews for competent musicians all take the same form: the elements were good but did not fit together into something that made sense or communicated an intent, so becoming like quality wallpaper an interesting accessory but not the experience of transcendental rediscovery of life that truly powerful art provides. Vex has become a similar story: their style ranges from At the Gates to Gorguts, but their songs are more a collection of riffs bent around a verse-chorus structure than a coherent whole or communication. Their new vocalist adopts poses and attitudes adopted most clearly from Pantera’s Phil Anselmo, sounding as out of place as a NAMBLA member at a Klan meeting, and the discoherence of overall songcraft allows each musician to masturbate profligately without enhancing the song. Guitarist Cioran seemed to contribute the subtler and more intelligent aspects, but the rest were jamming along to a tune known only to themselves, and the result sounded like a collision between Opeth and Cannibal Corpse trying to be a lounge act. Although many praise this band now, unless they gain enough discipline to pick a direction and have each individual make the sacrifice in glory necessary to make it work, they will become more of the detritus lining the long road back from failure, at least in the eyes of those fans who make their biggest contribution as a genre winds down by picking those who history (however brief) will remember.

The show as a whole was magnificent, in that few areas are fortunate enough to have this kind of force of organization making available the choices in art that we have here in Texas, and the promoters and club are to be praised for enforcing sensibility without making decisions the fans alone can make (or hopefully, the smart fans: a proliferation of the usual Austin crowd of dilettantes, hipsters, hangers-on, poseurs and assorted parasites were present but not overdominant, but we the thinkers would rather those idiots make no decisions for us). The night is best summed up by remembering the triumphs of Ayasoltec and Averse Sefira, the good initial effort from Nodens, and the speech made by Averse Sefira’s Wrath during the final soaring of their set, in which he drew a distinction between those who feel and believe in the music as a way of life and a mapping of philosophy that shows us a values system for living heroically, and those for whom it is only fashion. Time will tell that ultimate judgment, but for now, the power and determination of these bands suggests an intense future for Texas metal.

Bands:
Vex
Averse Sefira
Ayasoltec
Nodens

Promoters:
Extreme Texas Metal
Redrum (Austin, TX)


Another take:

Fall has ended; winter has arrived, and the die-off is upon us. Those who saw metal as a fun trend are hopping onto the next one, and, resultingly, there will be fewer and fewer bands aiming towards this crowd. With this dying of the bands, however, comes room for new entities, similar to how a pack of wolves picking off the sick and weak deer creates room for more deer to exist. This show seemed to reflect aspects of this transition; the percentage of bands worth seeing was perhaps the highest of any show this author has been to.

Nodens

Nodens plays relatively brutal death metal, but with some melodic enlightenment, with two guitarists playing deft riffs in counterpoint over the requisite blasting drums. Songs do a good job at shifting moods in a logical order, implying a coherent narrative, although the overuse of certain songwriting techniques (all instruments dropping out to create a climax while bringing in a new riff) robs them of their power, and each song seemed to lack a finale, a closing statement, a destination to the journey. Nodens is worth keeping an eye on, and worth witnessing live, but in their current form, they still need work to reach the upper eschelons of the genre.

Dagon

Watain for retards.

Abythos

Seemingly attempting to combine every sub-genre of metal known to man, Abythos is probably most comparable to the more tolerable parts of the post-“Slaughter of the Soul” Gothenburg sub-genre, in that it melds mostly traditional heavy metal riffing with distorted vocals and occasional blasting sections, with a few doom sections and undistorted intros thrown in for “good” measure. The problem is that in this mish-mash of ideas, no internal logic shines through, and thus the entire thing can only be interpreted as disconnected emotions, pure sacharrine, melodrama with no drama, which quickly becomes BORING. Musicianship is good, but who cares? Only reccomended for those trying to cure extreme insomnia.

Ayasoltec

It’s impossible to win when fighting against problems with gear, but Ayasoltec handled it as well as imaginably possible. On the border between avant-technical death metal and a distinctly Mexican take on Graveland’s “Thousand Swords”, Ayasoltec thrives on serpentine, arcane lead-riff work, with amazingly organic song progression crafted from the ability to manifest small changes in a melody to profound effect over time, and in the usage of discordant “solos” (quoted not as a method of slight or insult, but simply because it’s difficult in this case to determine what should be considered as a solo, and what should be considered more of the lead riffing, so complete is their integration) that flow in and out of the lead riffing amazingly well. The band also wins favor with this author by having a bassist who is not simply a stage prop, but who, while mostly following the melody of the guitar, brings in differently accented rhythms, giving a second angle on the music. Unfortunately, the appreciation of the music was somewhat dampened by factors beyond the band’s control; the guitarist’s amp had problems, causing the guitar to frequently drop out. The band handled this admirably, though, with the two remaining members continuing to play while the guitarist sorted out the issues as quickly as he could, and managed to get right back into where the band was without faltering, until the next drop out. A few rough edges exist musically- a few of the transitions are unduly sudden for music that largely depends so much on flow and gradual change- but, for those who would like to experience art that is truly mystical, art that conjures storms and spirits from beyond this world, Ayasoltec is strongly reccomended.

Averse Sefira

Judging by the number of people on the floor, Averse Sefira was the first of the bands who played that night who attracted Hessians to Austin. Facing difficult circumstances, with drummer The Carcass playing on triggered drums, a sensation completely unfamiliar with him, the band faltered at first, but quickly pulled together, in a particularly noisy and intense set pulled entirely from the band’s most recent album, “Tetragrammatical Astygmata”. Guitar and bass combined to form a musical haze of sound, creating something akin to a more poetically evocative version of Antaeus’s “CYFAWS”, intertwining energetic physical motivations with a zest towards the transcendent ideal, bestial fury with spiritual contemplation, in a manner such that the former of those pairs exists to work towards the realization the latter. Guitarist and vocalist Sanguine Mapsama provided the central element of the assault, with fast, dissonant lines inciting the flesh towards bloodlust and throat-damaging shrieks programming the audience by example of their complete inhumanity. Master percussionist The Carcass, who is apparently too demanding for ordinary mortal drum sets, created amazingly complex yet completely mesmerising rhythms, tastefully enhancing and embellishing the guitar’s rhythms, and directing the dynamics of the pieces. And finally, Wrath Sathariel Diabolus, the bassist of the trio, anchored the band’s sound, occasionally briefly playing with no accompaniment, as a forshadowing of renewed attack, and also greatly helped the band’s stage presence, being the most visually imposing and physically active member of the band. The crowd was appreciative, if not fully understanding, of what occured before them, and all were seemingly changed by the experience. Then again, who could remain un-touched after witnessing such a potent, if obscure, art? A special word must be given to Wrath’s short speech on the meaning of metal as a genre. War is raging between those who see metal as a genre communicating the transcendental and eternal, as a lifestyle striving for meaning in a plastic world, and those who see it as trivial social entertainment, and Wrath directed that which he is named for at the latter camp, to the appreciation of a surprising number of those in attendance.

When I make this sign, it means I stand for metal as an art form, and as a way of life. It has nothing to do with your stupid metal cartoons or your Spinal Tap movies. Think about what you mean when you make this sign. If it’s something you think is fun to do on the weekends, something that you think is funny, something that makes you smile, then FUCK OFF! We’re taking it back.

– Wrath of Averse Sefira

Approximate setlist:
Plagabraha
Decapitation of Sigils
Helix in Audience
Cremation of Ideologies
Hierophant Disgorging
Mana Anima
Detonation

Vex

A stark contrast to the previous band; rather than a statement of the esoteric, Vex seemed to be an embrace of the transient, fulfilling every metal cliche along the path to entertaining many yet making no definitive statement. If you can imagine a non-musical sign of a bad crowd-pleasing metal band, it was probably present here; from the tough-guy vocalist wearing a tank-top, to said vocalist jumping into the crowd to mosh, to one guitarist’s utterly insipid way of trying to sound “cool” while asking for water. Musically, “fragmented” barely begins to describe it; blasting death-metalish sections are followed quickly by random acoustic parts, followed by traditional metal breaks and doom passages, into outright stadium rock. What is sort of tragic about this, though, is that many of the individual pieces are quite good. Guitarist Ciaran obviously has a good ear for a melodic riff, and if the band would focus on these aspects of the music, without worrying about throwing in other elements to keep people of all tastes entertained, and give each song a clear concept to work towards, an overarching vision, it would be excellent. However, this doesn’t seem to be happening, and therefore this reviewer is unable to reccomend this band to others.Compared to the previous show seen at this venue, operations have improved vastly. The club was much more “under-21 friendly” (previously, they charged more for minors), and the bathroom, while still not pleasant, was improved. The venue continued its tradition of letting people to congregate on the outside porch between bands and during bands which they had no interest in seeing, an idea appreciated by this reviewer. Also, the crowd featured fewer attention whores and seemingly fewer hipsters than the previous show this author attended (probably by virtue of it not being marketed as a Halloween party), an appreciated improvement. The show ran smoothly, and the soundman seemed to know what was going on, and found a reasonable sound for each band.

– Written by Cynical

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Metal as Mythic Imagination

The notion of a prism represents the first challenge to our early worlds of concrete time and space. A device that fragments light, and reveals a space withina solid known quantity, seems to us an expansion of dimension. As we get older, we realize the expansion of dimension occurs within ourselves as we assemble a more complex view of the universe.

Metal music as art is composed of sound and lyrics and imagery. The pure aesthetic expands as we analyze it and recognize that it is beauty found in chaos; the songwriting expands as we see that its narrative motivic composition is more poetic than the looping closed circuit cycle of rock or pop; the keyless melodic nature of it becomes in our fertile minds a sense of construction not by a “third party” of rigid harmonic theory but by the unfolding narrative. Metal music like all great art begins by appearing simple, but opens to reveal greater complexity when we look into the dimension that it creates for itself.

From this alone, we might conclude that metal is prismatic in the same way modernist classical composers and the ancient Greek plays that bonded song to poetry to theatre were. Two more elements demand our consideration: that metal represents an escape from the karmic cycle as described by numerous philosophies, and that it inspires mythic imagination in the way both Sophocles and Wagner did.

***

Most of what we see in life affirms the karmic cycle. The rock music that plays from passing cars, the lighted billboards over our roads, the conversations of our friends and neighbors: who are you going to be in love with? And marriage? Or what will you buy? Where you go? How will you build your identity using material things, including your body?

This fascination might be called aphilosophical because it is not reaching for anything more than what is in front of us, one object after another, in the process of life. This is called the karmic cycle because it deals with the functions of birth and death and sustenance and nothing else. It is not an active philosophy or an aspiration toward ideals, but a continuation of what is presented to us, a reaction to life itself.

Metal music does not oppose the karmic cycle, as it is fully hedonistic, but it views it as secondary to an idealistic quest for meaning. This quest is expressed in the sound of metal, which unites beauty and ugliness in the pursuit of a kind of power, or “heaviness,” in which the burdens of life are converted to a sense of pride in not only survival but a quest for higher things. Metal bands glorify war and the occult, death and heroism, victory and defeat, without taking on that tone of self-serving lament which protest music brings.

Fear runs wild in the veins of the world
The hate turns the skies jet black
Death is assured in future plans
Why live if there’s nothing there
Sadistic minds
Delay the death
Of twisted life
Malicious world

The crippled youth try in dismay
To sabotage the carcass Earth
All new life must perish below
Existence now is futile

Convulsions take the world in hand
Paralysis destroys
Nobody’s out there to save us
Brutal seizure now we die

Hardening of the Arteries, Slayer

Death is now the day
When the fires fall from the sky
Let us pray
When the darkness falls we will die
Endless pain
Crucifying death from above
We must pay
Day of darkness

Question our fate when day of darkness
Forces of evil now upon us
Forces of evil on display
Forces of holy brought this day

Death is now the day
When the reaper calls for the dead
We’ll be saved
In this world of desecrating minds
We must pay
Crucifying world of evil death
Let us pray

Day of darkness

Day of Darkness, Deicide

It is an introduction to basic transcendental theory in that metal does not deny the suffering and horror of life, nor our desires within it. More pointedly, it looks beyond them to the beauties and greatnesses that can be found in this vast unpure mix of good and bad that forms a “meta-good,” or the space of life itself in which our decisions can reward us — even if we are personally destroyed. Where rock music is a descent into the karmic cycle, metal points its gaze above it toward the ideals a karmic cycle can serve.

In doing so, metal introduces meaning through nihilism, or a denial of all except the immanent. It rejects morality and eschews religion, preferring a pragmatic idealism in which death may be final but there are things worse than death such as dishonoring oneself or becoming cowardly. It seeks to find meaning in the emotions of an individual that have accepted the logic of life as suffering and transcended it, or found meaning in existence to balance that suffering and make it less consequential. Metal tears away all of our illusions to show us life, and then reconstructs our belief in life by showing us the beauty and power outside of our artificial reality of morality, money and social esteem.

Among popular music genres, metal is the only one to explicitly strive for this goal, although it might be said that industrial acts like Kraftwerk or folk acts like Väsen aim for the same as exceptions to the norm. In a time when most products are tangible, and therefore require karmic fascination, and most political power is derived by tantalizing people with the reward of karmic tangibles, and all social prestige falls within the egosphere of karmic need, metal is the odd man out who has cast aside the normal trappings of life and is staring at the sky into the infinite space of his own mind and that of the universe.

***

In this idealism, or belief that thoughts and the physical world act by similar principles if they are not outright dimensions of one another, metal reawakens something that has lain dormant in humanity during its time of modernity: the mythic imagination. While our modern world deals exclusively with attempts to allay the suffering of the karmic cycle through technology, metal is geared toward finding uses for that suffering in the form of greater glories against which suffering and death become puny. In that state of mind, one has awakened not just a higher aspiration but a sense of magical possibility (miracles, dreams, a positive order beyond the visible) in which life itself is a living continuity of mind and reality.

Pascal is right in maintaining that if the same dream came to us every night we would be just as occupied with it as we are with the things that we see every day. “If a workman were sure to dream for twelve straight hours every night that he was king,” said Pascal, “I believe that he would be just as happy as a king who dreamt for twelve hours every night that he was a workman. In fact, because of the way that myth takes it for granted that miracles are always happening, the waking life of a mythically inspired people — the ancient Greeks, for instance — more closely resembles a dream than it does the waking world of a scientifically disenchanted thinker. When every tree can suddenly speak as a nymph, when a god in the shape of a bull can drag away maidens, when even the goddess Athena herself is suddenly seen in the company of Peisastratus driving through the market place of Athens with a beautiful team of horses — and this is what the honest Athenian believed — then, as in a dream, anything is possible at each moment, and all of nature swarms around man as if it were nothing but a masquerade of the gods, who were merely amusing themselves by deceiving men in all these shapes.

There are ages in which the rational man and the intuitive man stand side by side, the one in fear of intuition, the other with scorn for abstraction. The latter is just as irrational as the former is inartistic. They both desire to rule over life: the former, by knowing how to meet his principle needs by means of foresight, prudence, and regularity; the latter, by disregarding these needs and, as an “overjoyed hero,” counting as real only that life which has been disguised as illusion and beauty. Whenever, as was perhaps the case in ancient Greece, the intuitive man handles his weapons more authoritatively and victoriously than his opponent, then, under favorable circumstances, a culture can take shape and art’s mastery over life can be established. All the manifestations of such a life will be accompanied by this dissimulation, this disavowal of indigence, this glitter of metaphorical intuitions, and, in general, this immediacy of deception: neither the house, nor the gait, nor the clothes, nor the clay jugs give evidence of having been invented because of a pressing need.

— from On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense (1873) by Friedrich Nietzsche

A myth elides the tangible into a visible manifestation of invisible forces, only some of which can be explained by material science. Whether or not it is technically “correct” regarding the immediate causal relationship between impetus and result, it is a correct description of the cosmic order as the human sees it and feels it. There are balances between voids and solidities, certainties and doubt, horror and beauty. In the mythic state, a human being focuses less on a singular moment and singular end result than on the continuing relationship between many results and the tendency of mathematical organization to the universe they suggest.

The foremost thrust of mythic imagination into art in the modern era (post-Middle Ages) was the art of the Romantics, who in literature and painting and music and dance crafted a world where symbols were no longer literal but spoke of a personality of a living existence. They replaced God the judge of moral actions with Nature the god of function that rewarded the best, and in this more realistic view of life crafted a conception of the human being as looking inward for ways to complement this external greatness. They were not individualists in the modern sense, rewarding themselves with pleasures of the flesh, but they looked into the individual soul to find by intuition not only what was true but what was desired.

Some attack this view as “aestheticism,” meaning that it rewards that which seems beautiful instead of that which is functional, or, in the humanist view, moral. Humanism like materialism is aphilosophical in that it approaches the karmic cycle as an end in itself, and tries to preserve “freedom” and material comfort and survival for all individuals. Humanism does not recognize that a tragic death is beautiful, or a heroic death majestic, because its only concern is with maintaining the flesh and meat of human beings. Humanists claim mythic imagination is aestheticism because it sacrifices individuals to beauty and thus is amoral.

To this those who have made the journey from materialism and fear of death to the other side where death is not only accepted but seen as a challenge, by nature of the learning gained on this journey, admit gleefully to being laughing amoralists who are unconcerned by morality. In the aestheticist view, having a beautiful and meaningful life far surpasses living for the safety of morality and spreadsheet-style risk management; aestheticism sees the best life as the one lived intoxicated with the beauty and potential of existence, and that precludes safety labels, warning rails, and fear of dying. Death is certain, but life is not, and that uncertainty comes in the form of finding an “aesthetic” that bestows upon us meaning.

In this sense of the world, where the entirety of life is connected by a logical yet invisible system of purpose, it is possible to have vir or the “warlike” virtue of ancient peoples. The Greeks and every other civilization that rose from the mire of infighting over karmic goods and status possessed this warlike spirit, as Nietzsche noted, and metal reflects this in its “inhuman” sound and lack of personal, gender and desire-oriented language in its lyrics. It reaches beyond the karmic cycle for the cosmic order, and in doing so, transcends humanity to find what makes us most human: our search for meaning beyond the suffering that being alive entails.

A dream of another existence
You wish to die
A dream of another world
You pray for death
To release the soul one must die
To find peace inside you must get eternal

I am a mortal, but am I human?
How beautiful life is now when my time has come
A human destiny, but nothing human inside
What will be left of me when I’m dead?
There was nothing when I lived

What you found was eternal death
No one will ever miss you

Life Eternal, Mayhem

When night falls
she cloaks the world
in impenetrable darkness.
A chill rises
from the soil
and contaminates the air
suddenly…
life has new meaning.

Dunkelheit, Burzum

Tears from the eyes so cold, tears from the eyes, in the grass so green.
As I lie here, the burden is being lifted once and for all, once and for all.
Beware of the light, it may take you away, to where no evil dwells.
It will take you away, for all eternity.
Night is so beautiful (we need her as much as we need Day).

Decrepitude I, Burzum

Where modern society in a desire for safety imposes values designed for an average person onto all of us, and assumes that our material and humanist wellbeing constitutes meaning in life, Romanticism explodes from within. It is not a philosophy of cautions, but of desires for the intangible, and as so it worships risk and conquest and a lack of fear toward the karmic existence. It transcends the desire to either live karmically, or live akarmically, because it sees karmicism as a means to an end and concerns itself only with the end: the ideal.

In this, Romanticism constitutes a philosophy because it posits intangible ideals as a balance weight to the certainty of death. It seeks a sense of unfolding; the discovery of something new in a prismatic space hiding behind the mundane. In doing so, it renovates life itself by working from within and renewing the brain in its aspiration and heroic transcendence of the karmic drag, in the exact opposite principle to modernity, which is materialism/humanism as supported by technology and populist political systems.

Its philosophy rises above life, and above categories like political and religious and cultural, because it is a principle of the highest abstraction and so can be expressed through any number of outlets. Like Zen, it is a discovery of the connection between life and mind with a slap, but unlike any other formalized system, it goes further to demand that the slap of life have a meaning, and it invents this meaning and then creates aspiration within it through its mythic imagination. Despite the overwhelming solidity of most modern art in affirming the opposite, Romanticism continues to live on.

One of its voices is metal music, whether through the seize-the-night ethos of heavy metal or the “only death is real” of underground metal. It is nihilism, but it is also idealism; it is realism, but it is also religion. Perhaps this is why every time we think heavy metal is dead it rises again, as people still seek meaning in life despite the crushing gravity of need and obligation that is modern living. Heavy metal is eternal because its truth is eternal, as for any existence there will be a potential end, and thus a need to find not only a reason why but a reason for living not just to survive but to exceed.

As this emotion was true to the existence of thinking beings in the time of the Greeks, and allowed them to rise and make one of the greatest civilizations known to humankind, it is true now and inspires those who have rejected the long path through lighted signs and fleshy desires and moneyed popularity. For those who seek more, it is a doorway. Like our souls, heavy metal is a prismatic dimension unfolding beneath us and within us, and a journey we are only too glad to undertake.

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Hans Graf and the Houston Symphony Orchestra perform Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8 in Houston, Texas

Hans Graf / Houston Symphony Orchestra
January 13, 2007
615 Louisiana St
Houston, Texas 77002

Saturday brings crowds to the record stores, looking for the experience of being around music. Yet as relaxed fingernails trail down the spines of thousands of CDs in the Used rack, it might occur to us how transparent these ruses have been for the past four decades. Rock music succeeds where it panders to expectations without revealing the manipulation that so resembles parents and high school teachers. But to one iota of that is the comfortable anarchy zone of “if it feels good, do it” that makes rock millionaires.

This image lingered in the mind for the long passage through the winding freeways of downtown Houston, through the parking lot where newsprint stained thumbs are licked to separate change for a twenty, and into the dark cavernous quiet of Jones Hall to hear Hans Graf conduct Anton Bruckner. Opening the piece with a chorus singing Bruckner’s “Ave Maria” from the lobby, Graf paused briefly and then raised his wand, to which a synchronized rising of instruments announced the descent from our world of tangible objects into the abstraction of music had become. The concert began from a silence in which the echoes of human voices still faded.

Since we live in a time that has produced almost no classical music of note for several generations, we are burdened with interpretations, as if the truth passed us once and now we are bickering over the details. As if a mirror of our political and social systems, there are two extremes in the history of Bruckner performances, namely Eugene Jochum and Herbert von Karajan; others, like Carlo Maria Giulini take a more emotive and earthy approach. Jochum and von Karajan however are the yardsticks by which Bruckner performances are assessed, and if von Karajan is the stormy “Beethoven” approach, Jochum is the more “Brahms”: an organic wave of emotion that approaches Bruckner less as a logician than a channeling of an inherent spirit, a will toward a spiritual view of existence.

Into this difficult environment Graf descends with little more than an exuberant love of Bruckner on his side, but it seems enough. Of all things that could be said about this performance, it is most important to state that Graf appreciated the juncture between personality and intellectual direction that defines Bruckner. We know him as a simpleton in political matters, but a humble genius who preferred simple pleasures and intangible spiritual ecstasy to the normalcy of function. Graf captures these traits in the gestalt of his conducting, yet also adapts his technique to be fertile to this unification of ten thousand nearly inobservable details. He is the interpretation of Jochum applied to the methods of von Karajan, with the kind of technical eye for modernism that an experienced interpreter of that era such as Esa-Pekka Salonen can provide.

Graf’s interpretation of perhaps the most challenging Bruckner symphony not just to conduct but to introduce to a public, despite being very much organic, targets the logician in Bruckner as well. Graf has his orchestra play individual phrases and themes with a bouncy old-world air, as if Haydn-izing Bruckner for the sake of appealing to his ancient soul. He places these suddenly humanized phrases into the dynamic delivery of a von Karajan, but dynamism sensu Graf is more aware of how too many dissonant phrases rising into clarity before expanding into vast harmony of unison can tire an audience. He is selective and if von Karajan is a stormy genius and Jochum a religious contemplative, Graf remains a humble observer of nature. His Bruckner is looser, without the regularity of rhythm that makes it machinelike, and yet descends to earth for its spiritualism. Motives are presented less in an apocalyptic storm than a natural evolution from their simpler origins.

As noted in the program guide, Bruckner composes “prismatically,” so that there is little linear or formulaic repetition, but so that each meme is repeated as a reintroduction of theme like familiar symbols in poems. This creates a labyrinthine navigation between known points and a form of internal discussion that relates them to both similar and dissimilar themes, meaning that musicians must both play the work accurately and never lose sight of its narrative. The Houston Symphony, known for quietly performing undernoticed masterpieces when it is not distracted with more populist classical fare, performed diligently in this intermissionless marathon. A few glitches in the brass section stood out momentarily, as did an unintended dissonance in the strings, but these were minutiae compared to the whole of a not only solid but energetic and powerful performance.

Graf never flagged, perched deftly on his stand and attacking the score with an inner vitality that showed not only dedication but interest. The intensity was compelling, as was the response of an orchestra that navigated a circuitous pattern of overlapping motives with alacrity and grace. For almost eighty minutes, the audience was bathed in a hush of concentration brought on by the abject sensation of beauty and inner mental silence this piece triggers in its listeners. Whether history will record this grand performance, or even last long enough to notice, becomes academic for those who were there to be thrust into the existential colonnade which in classic Brucknerian style unified the ambient and the linear to become immersive, revealing space within itself in the best definition “prismatic” can offer, and from that point of contemplation unleashing a profound stillness and re-introduction to life as majesty and divinity.

Those who were there were changed, unless numb as cut wood, and in this transformation glimpsed a chance for a life on earth that aspires to the organization and beauty of the celestial, much as humble heavens-gazer Bruckner must once have done in creating it. As the transcendental onslaught ceased, and those who listened were drawn back into the world of rustling concert programs and strange winter clothing exuding odors of the still air of closets, it was clear this was not the same audience who had entered the concert hall with their thoughts divided like panicked insects. These were people who had been brought to the point of realization by a musical experience, and the inherited wisdom showed on their faces of calm concentration.

Outside Jones Hall the streets pulsed with a cold wind from the north as people hurried home, or to the warmed bars for a drink before braving the solitude of sleep. A few miles away the record store slept in the abrasive hum of its security lights, the titles of several generations of rock aspirants slowly relinquishing their fascination with the here and now and sensual in steady decay, bombarded by space-traveling particles from before Bruckner was born. Industrial machinery rose over the landscape, awaiting the dawn light that would begin its own process of breakdown, and the ghettoes and suburbs alike rocked with discontent, hidden in one case behind doors and polite words. But to seize that moment when the culmination of intricate virii of phrase wrapped themselves into a final peace, a state of mind both stormy and compassionate for life itself, that was to leave all of this behind — and perhaps to determine in the inner world each person carries where an impetus to change might begin.

Composer:
Anton Bruckner

Performers:
Houston Symphony

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