Death Metal Underground

Jazz, Jazz-metal and the future of a hybrid

April 21, 2007 –
Comments Off

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.

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

April 13, 2007 –
Comments Off

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

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

April 9, 2007 –
Comments Off

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