Death Metal Underground

Sadistic Metal Reviews 11-21-08

November 21, 2008 –
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Deeds of Flesh – Of What’s to Come

While I may not like listening to the outcome 100% of the time, especially given the strikingly moronic introduction, I really like what Deeds of Flesh are doing here. Instead of becoming a generic mix like others, they are mixing technical death metal with progressive metal, coming up with something that sounds like Suffocation, Cynic and Necrophagist thrown into a blender. However, the unique Deeds of Flesh flavor asserts itself as the sinew that ties together these influences — the use of fast scales and melodic playing of the same patterns at different intervals to effect implications of key change is pure Necrophagist, and the abrupt transitions between riffs that only make sense when the next transition occurs is straight out of the “Pierced from Within” playbook, the joy at experimentation with odd rhythms leading through convoluted tempo changes and bizarre chording is Cynic-derived, but the playfulness with which Deeds of Flesh are willing to interrupt a pattern and connect a fast technical riff with inverted chording and then drop into a rushing power chord feast which is pure sensory gratification is purely their own. The quick drops to hummingbird fast transitional riffs which made Path of the Weakening such a metal delight are here as well, as are elaborations on ideas from the past two albums. It’s possible we hear later Gorguts or Neuraxis winking from the sidelines as well. People — myself include — will experience aesthetic revulsion at this because in its panopoly of techniques it includes some cheap shots, although not as many as the overplayed and bombastically bloviatory new Cynic, so each time we hear a rhythmic seizure before continuation on the offbeat, we yawn and think that we are hearing the auditory equivalent of trotting out a villain who kills puppies at an opera. Yet in a time of painfully slick and cancerously insincere indie/metal/punk hybrids that have the hipness of a carny, the glibness of a presidential candidate and the soul of a toaster, this honest and well-planned effort from Deeds of Flesh is worth paying attention to — it may be one of the few intelligent directions metal has been taken in the last decade.

Mouth of the Architect – Quietly

More of this combination shoegaze, emo/punk, and doom/drone metal that they try to pass off as post-metal or post-rock, when really if we’re honest we’ll admit it descends from Fugazi, its genre is indie metalcore, and it’s all roughly the same because it aims for the same general goals. Is this really that different than what Jawbreaker was doing fifteen years ago? A lot like Callisto or Godflesh, it is very much rock music tricked out in the techniques of metal, albeit with greater competence than either genre is accustomed to. Songs develop like indie rock: it seems quirky at first until you realize it’s a thesis-antithesis deviation away from a second chorus that’s going to finish out the whole thing. Chord progressions: emo. Vocals: emo metalcore hybrid. Mood: indie. Lasting impact: none; it’s very much like the rest in this genre despite being more musically adept, and brings nothing new in form or content to the table, even if it does “post-metal” better than others.

Verminous – Impious Sacrilege

A fusion of later Merciless and early Seance, this is high-octane blasting drums and quick phrasal riffs alternating with Suffocation style abrupt staccato bursts. The problem is that these songs go nowhere but into their own cycles which, in order to be self-evident, are based on well-known patterns and so extremely repetitive both in listener experience and in motivic redundancy within each song. I would really like to like this. It could be compared to early Grave in its “go for it” attitude, but achieves nothing much memorable because its songs are so linear.

These Arms Are Snakes – The Swallower and Dove

Post-rock with prog-rock jazz-influenced drumming, this CD uses plenty of dissonant and jangly melodies over which pop pours like warm asphalt, but doesn’t fill the cracks in these spacious tunes. Punk riffs plentiful add to the mix, which has a metal-influenced sensibility of The Epic but as filtered through the garage bands of the 1970s who liked blistering the ear and then pouring vinegar syrup into it as a means of hooking the listener. For those who like post-rock and post-metal, this supple fusion purrs.

Volkmar – Blessed Sin

Combining Gothic post-punk/industrial like Sisters of Mercy with a mainstream version of underground metal, Volkmar create simple but ear-catching music that sounds like Gehenna and Wolfsheim colliding in the midst of their associated influences. You can hear Emperor at the edges of their technique, but there’s a lifetime of riffology here with influences as wide as Ministry and Deicide, although all are softened into music designed to flow rather than abruptly disturb. Riffs are basic and tend to hold space rather than redefine it, metal-style, with phrase shape changes but these riffs nonetheless serve the organ-style keyboards and half-chanted, half-sung vocals quite well. It’s not my thing, but it’s what anyone who thinks Marilyn Manson, White Zombie or the new Misfits are cool should be listening to.

Krallice – Krallice

Someone disguised an emo album — listen to the chord shapes and progressions used — as an underground tr00 kvlt black metal album, which is sort of like mixing safe sex and nuclear war. The result is a droning, mincing work that rips a bunch of black metal riffs from the Impaled Nazarene and Niden Div 187 school of budget riffs and puts them into a saccharine melodic morass like Weakling. As a result, individual riffs sound OK, but when you try to listen to the whole thing, you’re left with a sense of it being inappropriate. The crustcore howled-into-the-wind vocals sound out of place as well. But most damningly, there’s zero dynamic change. This will be forgotten in less than a year.

Lions – No Generation

The Beastie Boys “Ill Communication” gets resurrected: rock, industrial and hip-hop beats meld under blues rock riffs played with the rhythm of metal riffs, either the Motorhead “galloping Harley” rhythm or Black Sabbath formal march pace, while a vocalist intones his words with the alternate whine of alternative rock and deft syllabic tuck of underground hip-hop. They know how to write a good harmony and put together remarkably effective songs. Like the Beastie Boys, I can see Lions — with their panopoly of pop culture metaphors mixed into a language of their own — giving the current generation a font of opinion work with which to pepper both their complaints to parents and politically serious college admissions essays.

Withering – Festum Melancholia

This CD sounds like a hybrid between Amorphis “Tales from the Thousand Lakes” and Sentenced “Amok,” complete with the failing of both, which is an inability to let the voice of their music fly free from its heavy metal origins. The big cheesy heavy metal riffs are in here, as are some expertly executed death metal and black metal parts. The problem is that the idea of throwing a bunch of stuff together and somehow making the hybrid distinctive doesn’t work, as metalcore teaches us. Their strength is the bittersweet melodies that tie this whole thing together, which with more focus paid on finding a direction, could really be a great strength. Watch this band in the future, but perhaps bypass this release.

Gortuary – Manic Thoughts of Perverse Mutilation

This band reminds me of Psychomancer, who were sort of around a few years ago, but without the ability to grasp the core of what they’re expressing in a song and bring it to light. All instrumentation is capable, songwriting technique is good, but songs don’t come together and end up being a chaotic riff salad of contradictory impulses. That they do this in old school death metal aesthetic is at first memorable, until you realize that this CD lacks what made the old school great: the ability to bring a dark, brooding, powerful vision of life alive and make it exciting. Spare us.

Green Carnation – Journey to the End of the Night

Add some indie into your doom metal, throw in female vocals that would make Celtic Frost proud, and then update its heavy metal/hard rock riffery with some recent additions from prog-metal, and you have Green Carnation. This CD maintains an interesting mood, but it’s all the texture of the vocals and the pacing, because as art it doesn’t hold up as more than an interesting variation on a known archetype. One of the more adept bands at the songwriting game, Green Carnation are content to use minimal riffing that nonetheless exerts some demands in keeping track of its wandering harmonic focal point and its somewhat abstruse rhythms. It’s like a version of Skepticism that got bred early in the game with later Enslaved or Borknagar, but the real problem is that it is insipid. Melodic progressions trail off in a direction they never resolve; rhythms and song structures build, then fade away; no point is ever made. Neat ideas, good execution, bad (or no) direction.

Dark Angel – We Have Arrived

Unfortunately for this, I heard it after Destruction, which put it well in its place. So you wanna be in what imbeciles called “thrash” but really was speed metal updated after Slayer, where bands like Rigor Mortis, Destruction, Kreator, Pestilence and Devastation go? Really — this is moron music when it’s done wrong, because it likes to have choruses match the dominant rhythm of their most frequent phrase — and here it’s done wrong. Recycled Slayer patterns, a little technical leaps, influences from Sodom and Metallica, but basically it goes nowhere. Very catchy, which becomes annoying when the vapidity sinks in. My advice: people will tell you about this forgotten gem from the past. Bury it. It doesn’t suck but it’s like a bicycle for fishes — unnecessary.

Past Lives – Strange Symmetry

Dramatic, poised like the wit of a writer of letters to an antiquated editor, this music is rock in the style of later Beatles with diverse influences uptucked and emulsified by its strong sense of its own direction. Songs follow a melody that develops, with quirks, into a conventional pop cycle but gives space to the vocalist whose voice bends, creels, dives and twists like metal in fire. Shot through all of this is a facile study of riffs across all genres prevalent in the last twenty years, with the guitarist enjoying to play “in the shadows,” casting some of his more developed offerings into the offbeats, out of focus, as a means of steeping this album in subtlety.

Sakrefix – In Shadow’s Embrace

It’s like In Flames reincarnated. Heavy metal riffs, updated into speed metal, are played in melodic songs that want to be a harder version of Cradle of Filth, maybe throw in some later At the Gates, but at its heart the same plodding stuff that made heavy metal unbearable in the late 1970s is here. Sure, there’s a lot of death metal technique, and these guys are reasonably educated musicians so a few nifty harmonies emerge in transitions, but because they don’t actually write songs these are stranded amidst unassociated, disorganized data that confuses any meaning with chronological prevalence. Check your brain at the door.

Watain – Sworn to the Dark

A friend whose opinion I respect describes these guys as carrying on the spirit of classic Mayhem. Yet what made Mayhem great wasn’t the consistency, but the variations, and Watain is all about setting up a comfortable pattern of melody diverging into rhythm violence, and then pulling out again. None of the mystery of Mayhem is here, but all of the technique; do we want to define great music solely by technique, or what it expresses? Watain are masters of the melodic aggressive black metal sound but go nowhere else. They also like arpeggios and other forms of linear variation that when overused make the music sound like warning tones from factory machinery. Should this be avoided? More than that: a pogrom should be formed against it, as all things which imitate form and not some unifying principle — idea, content, spirit, vision — should be burned to hell because they’re stupid, deconstructive, granular, dysfunctional crap like McCheeseburgers and robot solicitations over the phone. Everything that made the underground weak so it could be replaced with metalcore is present in this album. Too bad, since the first Watain CD is good and even has spirit. Burn this ruin that does not yet appear ruined.

Bloodbath – The Fathomless Misery

If old school death metal (to you) means (objectively, in a subjective sense) that Pantera riffs should bounce right into fast melodic riffs under which an unrelenting snare doubletimes the pace of ranting vocals, and you like that mixed — metalcore style — in a salad of musical “scenes” borrowing different influences and so, when put together, revealing nothing but the underlying indecision common to all melanges, then by all means go buy this fucking thing. But to my mind this is a clothes dryer into which someone has pitched the best moments of the ten top bands in every metal genre, and hit the mix button, coming back later to string it together with rhythm. Like grunge and nu-metal bands, it is obsessed with “difference” through contrast, so in place of dynamics we get the fast melodic riff then the bouncing rhythm riff, or really fast then really slow, or death metal riffs and then some bouncy hard rock/punk combination that sounds like the soundtrack to an aerobics video for Slipknot fans who got too fat to fit into their parole hearings. This CD reminds me of At the Gates “Slaughter of the Soul” and Hail of Bullets “Of Frost in War,” and is equally insincere and directionless.

Katharsis – 666

When things die, those who want the authenticity they conveyed find a way to convincingly imitate them the way computers can imitate speech. You’ll read a paragraph, and it reads “just like” normal writing, until you realize that the sentences don’t relate to each other in meaning, only in appearance of language. While some might argue our record reviews are the same way (and we do generate them with Perl scripts), this CD ends up being a giant disappointment as your heart lifts at the thought of something Darkthroney and good but your deeper brain keeps reminding you that this is random fragments stitched together without any sense of direction. It’s like a yard sale of true black metal bits, and whatever you can afford you put in a box and drop it on top of a constant, fast drumbeat. Then, when you wake up from the nap you did not intend to take, you can ask yourself what it meant. Avoid!

Hollenthon – Opus Magnum

This music is some of the cheesiest and slickest stuff I’ve heard this year. It tries to blend soundtrack melodrama with identifiable metal riffs, and so we end up with Trans-Siberian Orchestra, the “300″ edition. Death metal vocals over industrial rhythms with guitars shadowed exactly by keyboards, varying between heavy metal and rock riffs, and the darker underground metal — but by the nature of how it is constructed it cannot leave behind the syncopated expectation nor use a tremolo strum, making a sound that could have just stepped off the pages of a Hollywood blockbuster about superheroes with dark but really flamingly obvious secrets from their childhood. Like so many things that turn out to be shit, this is well executed, but its lack of having of a soul dooms it to being utterly comical and redundant.

The Giraffes – Prime Motivator

Technically, I suppose, this is “surf metal,” but it’s more accurate to describe it as groove-oriented hard rock with an underpinning of punk and Motorhead-style metal rhythm. At that point, resemblance to metal is over: the riffs are Led Zeppelin, the basslines are Sex Pistols, and the vocals are somewhere between Alice in Chains and Barenaked Ladies. This is probably one of the ultimate bar bands for those who want something loud and storming but without the complex emotions or violence of heavy metal. Some compare it to Fu Manchu, and I think that’s roughly close, but really it reminds me more of a lounge act taking on Led Zeppelin or later Danzig and making it super-catchy, yet giving it the dark undertones of alternative rock and nu-metal so it has some meat on the bones. If you are a metal person, avoid this release. If you’re looking for new directions in hard rock, it’s worth exploring.

Classical Music for Metal Fans

November 16, 2008 –

Underground metal — the more artistic and less crowd-pandering arm of the heavy metal genre — headed downwards in quality simultaneously heading upward in quantity, starting in about 1994. As the old bands got sick of their day jobs and sold out in failing bids to become “professional” musicians like crowd-pandering heavy metal, and the new bands started imitating the effects of older metal without knowing the causes, underground death metal and black metal fans began casting out for something new.

Our choices are bleak. We can try jazz, but it’s not only pompous, repetitive and random, but also the exact contrary spirit to what metal espouses: a charging ahead and saying YES to life by accepting the intolerant and violent aspects of nature as necessary for its beauty. Jazz is socialization music. So is rock, pop, etc. What’s left? We could listen to neofolk, but after about three albums it becomes clear that neofolk is a sham, namely bad rock music that sells because it is controversial and played acoustically sometimes like folk music. Then there’s electronica, which has a few acts but is mostly more party music. Popular music does not offer another genre with the power and sincerity of metal, so instead you get “soul” which means blind compassion and encourages, rather than discourages, submission to conformity.

There is an option but unfortunately for modern listeners, it does not conform to the production values of rock, so you can’t throw it on and have it aggressively grab your head the way loud-mastered, constant syncopated drumming and “soulful” human wailing will. It requires you to clear your desk, empty your mind and listen with your whole attention, and as a result it’s less convenient than the junk they’ll sell you at the record store. It’s not as cheap to produce or promote either, which is why that record store is there — listening to classical is not just bucking a trend, it’s bucking an industry based around trends, and the same industry that afflicts metal and turns good bands into crowd-pandering drek.

For the metalhead looking to get into classical music there is almost no recognition of this effect. The classical fans have no idea how to communicate with metalheads (and generally don’t understand or like metal, conflating Guns and Roses with Demilich, Atheist and Gorguts in the most oblivious way possible) and the classical industry has been sidelined for so long that it has no idea how to explain the beauty of classical or give modern listeners a chance. It operates like a cult, assuming that those who are in the cult belong there and everyone else is crazy — not a horrible assumption, you’ll find after six months of listening to classical, given the wide gulf of quality and brainpower between classical and mainstream music.

To address this problem, we list here some good introductory pieces and recordings for metalheads. Unlike popular music, classical music is written by a composer, shaped by a conductor and performed by an orchestra — and that does not even take into account different recording times, technologies and locations. So there’s another four layers on top of the mind-numbingly-simple “Band Name – Album Name” that we’re accustomed to, thanks to metal’s heritage in rock. These pieces are here because they capture the spirit of metal — a Romanticist transcendental idealism — in a way that eases you into the transition.

  1. Brahms, Johannes – The Four Symphonies

    Pure Romanticism, which is the most beautiful classical genre but also its most easily misled into human emotional confusion. Flowing, diving, surging passages which storm through tyrannical opposition to reach some of the most Zen states ever put to music.

    Four Symphonies by Herbert von Karajan/Berliner Philharmonik Orchestra

  2. Respighi, Ottorino – Pines, Birds, Fountains of Rome

    Italian music is normally inconsequential. This has an ancient feeling, a sense of weight that can only be borne out in an urge to reconquest the present with the past.

    Pines, Birds, Fountains of Rome by Louis Lane/Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

  3. Schubert, Franz – Symphonies 8 & 9

    A sense of power emerging from darkness, and a clarity coming from looking into the halls of eternity, as translated by the facile hand of a composer who wrote many great pieces before dying young.

    Symphonies 8 & 9 by Herbert von Karajan/Berliner Philharmonik Orchestra

  4. Saint-Saens, Camille – Symphony 3

    Like DeBussy, but with a much wider range, this modernist Romantic rediscovers all that is worth living in the most warlike and bleak of circumstances.

    Symphony No. 3 by Eugene Ormandy/Philadelphia Orchestra

  5. Bruckner, Anton – Symphony 4

    Writing symphonic music in the spirit of Wagner, Bruckner makes colossal caverns of sound which evolve to a sense of great spiritual contemplation, the first “heaviness” on record.

    Romantic Symphony by Herbert von Karajan/Berliner Philharmonik Orchestra

  6. Berwald, Franz – Symphony 2

    The passion of Romantic poetry breathes through this light and airy work which turns stormy when it, through a ring composition of motives, seizes a clear statement of theme from its underlying tempest of beauty.

    Symphony No. 2 by David Montgomery/Jena Philharmonic

  7. Paganini, Niccolo – 24 Caprices

    Perhaps the original Hessian, this long-haired virtuoso wore white face paint, had a rumored deal with the devil, and made short often violent pieces that made people question their lives and their churches.

    24 Caprices by James Ehnes

  8. Anner Bylsma and Lambert Orkis – Sonatas by Brahms and Schumann

    We list these by performer because this informal and sprightly interpretation is all their own. Played on period instruments, it captures the beauty and humor of these shorter pieces with the casual knowledge of old friends.

    Brahms: Sonatas for Piano and Cello; Schumann: 5 Stücke im Volkston

Some conductors do an excellent job of certain styles, and so get picked more than others. Herbert von Karajan, in particular, is the original master of the Faustian style of conducting Northern European classical music. Certain performers like Orkis and Bylsma are also preferred for their ability to interpret certain ideas that — like genres have ideas in common and as a result, sounds in common — composers explored as part of their collective membership in certain time periods or recurring ideas, like the Faustian, the Romantic and the reverent/sublime outlook, all of which are shared between metal and classical.

These similarities in composition explain why metal and classical have a lot in common — and this is why the correct interpretors are needed. Rock is harmonic-rhythmic, metal is phrasal-narrative. When making rock music, you pick a rhythm, and then use a standard song form or variation to fit it into a scale, which in turn determines harmony. Rock riffs are not as active or as shaped as metal riffs, because generally they are variations within a scale whose goal is to return to the chord being played; they are based around open chords and lead rhythm playing of the scale. Metal is phrasal, meaning that its riffs take the form of phrases made of power chords, and narrative, which means that metal song structure is determined by content of each song more than by a standard form — that’s the infamous “riff salad” rock musicians bemoan in metal.

Classical music also uses narrative composition. While imbeciles will focus on its fixed forms — sonata, fugue, aria — the more important idea here is that the song follows the poetic content being expressed. This mirrors the epic poetry of ancient European and Indian civilizations, where it was understood that each adventure had stages of ritual, much like we have stages in acceptance of death or change. As a result, there was a need for an overture, a reconsideration, some changes and a recapitulation and synthesis of themes, and these got formalized in the song structures that today imbeciles regard as iron laws. The narrative style however is the common thread in classical music from its beginning to the present.

In rock music, you write to fit the scale to the rhythm, and then melody is added to accentuate that. This is easier work because all of the real variables are defined by the form. Similarly, in jazz, the form is fixed and within it the player riffs off harmony and rhythm, and inserts fragments of melody to that end — this is why most jazz artists make thousands of recordings of a song, and only one or two are considered “the real deal” by collectors: without the artist making it happen, cerebrally, the pieces fit together by random convenience. Classical works by the opposite principle, which is creating or adapting a general form to the poetic needs of a piece — expressing the change in both listener and “actor” within the story or feeling being related — and then designing a combination of rhythm, melody, theme, motif and form to express it well.

Metal is similar, although less schooled in this regard, because it seeks to express a similar worldview — underlying philosophical assumptions about life — to that of classical. Metal is reverent for the sublime; it sees the power and the horror of nature as necessary for its perpetuation, and is like nature intolerant of the oblivious and unrealistic because they create a parasitic slowdown of the exciting experiences in life. It derives much of its thematic development from the pace of horror movies, in which a few “awakened” people realize that they face a supernatural — or invisible pattern underlying all reality — foe against which technology and their oblivious, unrealistic social partners are useless. Finally, metal like classical expresses the Faustian spirit, or a sense of struggling for the rare and inconvenient beauty life offers, and fighting back those who submit to static obedience or dogma; this sense of purity through struggle is called vir, or the virtuous warlike acts of ancient man. These themes repeat throughout classical music, like metal, and while there are exceptions, it’s more than a coincidence that the best among metal and classical use these themes repeatedly.

If you find yourself enjoying the above, we recommend you move on to other classical music that expresses these ideas, and bypass the trendier “new music” and quirky classical that your friends, in an attempt to impress you with how knowledgeable or non-normal they are, will tell you are important. Our attitude is different: build outward from the greats and later get into the novelties like “new music” or Eric Satie, Charles Ives or John Cage, if you decide at that point that you want to explore postmodernism, which is deconstruction of all that metal and classical music desire. In any case, we hope you enjoy the music and can turn on some friends to this treasure of musical beauty that hides in plain sight amongst us.

Stressful Music Prevents Clogged Arteries

November 12, 2008 –
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Listening to a cheerful favourite tune has a beneficial effect on blood vessels, widening them and protecting them against heart disease, researchers found.

Stressful or disturbing music, on the other hand, narrows the arteries and may be bad for the heart.

Most participants in the American study found John Denver-style country music the most uplifting, while “heavy metal” rock made them anxious.

Joyful music was thought to trigger the release of endorphins, brain chemicals linked to emotion that are known to induce feelings of well-being.

The Telegraph

We don’t know what “heavy metal rock music” this study used, but my guess is they picked something loud and pointless like Slipknot.

On the other hand, music that shows power and beauty in darkness, like death metal and black metal, is both dark and uplifting.

It keeps the arteries from clogging by both widening and contracting them, if the study above is to be believed.

How metal makes its way in the world

November 10, 2008 –
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AC/DC’s new album, “Black Ice,” has not only has topped the charts in more than two dozen countries, but also debuts atop the latest U.S. album chart with sales of more than 780,000 copies.

AP

We knew they were doing well, but check this out:

Gradually, and without getting much media attention, AC/DC has become the most popular currently active rock band in the country, to judge by albums sold. Since 1991, when Nielsen SoundScan started tracking music sales, this Australian band has sold 26.4 million albums, second only to the Beatles, and more than the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin. Over the past five years, as CD sales have cratered, AC/DC albums have sold just as well as or better than ever; the band sold more than 1.3 million CDs in the United States last year, even though it hasn’t put out any new music since 2000.

{ snip }

“They have a purist approach,” said Steve Barnett, the chairman of Columbia Records, a division of Sony Music Entertainment. (He also managed the band from 1982 to 1994.) “Their instinct was always to do the right thing for fans, think long term and not be influenced by financial rewards.”

{ snip }

AC/DC’s insistence on selling albums has almost certainly helped keep its sales from declining. And although many music executives believe that not selling tracks online leads fans to download music illegally, AC/DC’s music is downloaded from file-sharing sites less than that of Led Zeppelin, which does sell music digitally, according to BigChampagne, a company that monitors peer-to-peer services.

NYT

Metal has always defined itself by doing what it believes is right, not following the crowd. Unlike teeny angstbopper music, it does not define itself solely by not being part of the crowd, but by doing what it believes is eternally right.

Like good Romantic poets (Blake, Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth), metal worships the ancient, the powerful and the definitive. It hates the cushy, the Crowd, and the kind of mental illusion designed to make life safe ‘n’ comfy at the expense of its intensity and meaning.

AC/DC, despite being a watered-down version of this, have continued to dominate by showing the world that a strong spirit that says YES to life instead of whining about how unfair, inequitable, painful, fatal, etc. life can be, in the long run, is what the people who keep our civilizations running want.

Sadistic Metal Reviews 11-07-08

November 7, 2008 –

AC/DC – Black Ice: This has to be my pick of this batch. It lacks any pretense toward being anything but what it is, which is high octane rock music with a diverse set of influences on its lead guitar and total mastery of rhythm and songwriting. Each of these songs rolls off the mind as if buttered, lingering just long enough, composed to fit pentatonic scales but not in a brainless way. Melodies are mostly of the guitar nature because of the ashen-voice monotone in which they are mostly sung. The throbbing bass drives them, drumming keeps a pocket moving, and the rhythm riffs are inventive and topped by guitar that is more like a singing voice than fireworks, although it’s technically advanced. There’s a bit too much of three chord and turnaround songwriting formula for this to really endure in any meaningful sense, but for a band to be in the world this long and still so consistently listenable is impressive. No song will fully insult your intelligence although each will put it on hold, especially if you try to listen to the drunken babble that is the lyrics. AC/DC has gotten more Led Zeppelin over the years, with a few lifts here and there, and continues to incorporate a gnarly blues influence that reminds me of Eric Clapton working with punchier rhythms. Still, hard work shows in how well these pieces fit together like finely planed wood, and how each song keeps its mood with power and lacks any fat and confusion. There are not as many truly distinctive moments as there were on say, Back in Black, but none of these songs fade into the woodwork entirely either. Even if we pre-postmodern metalheads may not dig the motivations, one has to respect the craft at work here.

Disfear – Live the Storm: Motorhead with a D-beat and metalcore choruses and breakdowns, aspiring to the kind of melodic songwriting that made both Led Zeppelin and U2 household favorites. Unfortunately, the technique used reduce this to blurring noise interrupted by hookish choruses. Gone is the energetic punk of the past and now this band is falling into the worst habit of any act, which is to try to pander to your audience and so to incorporate enough of what has worked for others to drown out whatever might work for you. Vocals are underutilized, because this vocalist is clearly capable of some range and melody, but he’s afraid to open up and be sensitive in a meaningful way so we get the omnidirectional, pointless, nullifying Pantera-style rage. Musically this is derivative; artistically it is as hollow as corporate advertising. “Soul Scars” is a masterpiece. “Live the Storm” is a pretentious wannabe. Avoid.

Kataklysm – Prevail: this is pure chant cadence, repetition ad nauseam, with some death metal/hardcore hybrid riffs. Composition is stronger than most metalcore, but it’s also much simpler, which allows them to work out a couple really good riff patterns in interaction and then have the rest be something so repetitive it would even make Phil Anselmo nod off. It reminds me of Deicide’s “Once Upon the Cross” but even more sing-song, in a riot chorus kind of way. It’s not bad but I couldn’t listen to this. It’s like hearing someone each day come home from work and tell you exactly what went wrong, every single detail. First the copier was busted. Then I had to get paper from upstairs. Then I took a dump and it hurt. There were no sandwiches at lunch. It’s like a complaint anthem that pounds your head until you basically submit to apathy with a smile. same creepy mix of melodic and heavy chugging that alternates like linkin park between acoustic and distorted; really fucking basic.

Cynic – Traced in Air: When death metal was born, people said that death metal was incompetent musicianship and crass subject matter. The second generation of death metal, led by Pestilence and Atheist, tried to disprove that with technical music that incorporated the influences of progressive rock, jazz and classical. Since that time, progressive metal has become a big hit with people who want to think they’re musically educated. Most of it leans toward the jazz side, because this requires less of an ability to plan into the future and make a unique structure; you add a jam session to metal, which is easy and fun, so musicians love it and fans have something to be pompous about. “Traced in Air” plays into the worst of this tendency. Cynic has genericized themselves by pandering to an audience they know drools more over technicality than songwriting, and so have taken their technique from focus, mixed it up with generic jazz-prog-death, and have overplayed every single aspect of it so the CD is literally dripping with “prog moments” — but like a stew, the more stuff you toss in, the less distinctive the flavor is. We now have generic jazz prog-metal, complete with cliches. Drums are ridiculously overplayed; subtlety is dead, but you’ll spot that technique even if you’re dumb as a lichen. These musicians seem less interested in writing metal than in playing jazz under the guise of metal. You can hear the conversation now: “They went nuts over the last album, and now the market is finally huge! Let’s make it big with this next album, just make it jazzier and stuff it full of hot licks and drum fills.” I think people will listen to this for six weeks, then six months later be unsure when they stopped listening to it and why, yet not want to pick it up again. What a disappointment.

Speirling – The Piper: This reminds me of Ulver crossed with Satyricon with huge elements of a bombastic heavy metal doom metal hybrid like The Obsessed. Broad superstructure riffs crash into each other, recharging from their difference in conflict, and then drain to the ocean through a nice linear atmospheric riff. Repeat x 7. If you got into metal music so that you could find a way to dress up rock music as something rebellious, like a Priest in tranny French maid prostitute outfits, then this is great. Otherwise, why bother.

Apollyon Sun – Sub: Tom G. Warrior of Celtic Frost does Nine Inch Nails with an EBM/Industrial record that lets vocals guide its developments, which is a shame when contrasted to the power of industrial without a vocal lead, like Beherit’s Electric Doom Synthesis or Scorn’s “Evanescence.” As Warrior prepares to move past Celtic Frost and its triumphant return with Monotheist, his past work — this CD came out in 2000 — shows us much of where he might move. It’s much more rock, gothic and sleaze than Celtic Frost, more sardonic in melody, and the faster riff style is more triumphant and powerful. Above all else, it is catchy and follows modified pop and techno song structures, which means it’s both easy to remember and has a few surprises here and there. The vinegar vocals are less than listenable but not as terrible as much of Nine Inch Nails.

The Funeral Pyre – Wounds: Someone tries to resurrect classic At the Gates, but mixes in a little too much The Haunted. Melodic riffs reconnoiter after driving pure rhythm, a lot like Slaughter Lord, and the melodic riffs have more in common with “Slaughter of the Soul” or Niden Div 187 than early At the Gates. This gets a solid alright, especially for the periodic later Gorgoroth technique, but the melodies are too basic to really go anywhere. Lyrics sound like Dead Infection crossed with Neurosis, with DRI in the wings. It’s salady enough to be modern death/black, a/k/a metalcore. like The Abyss hybridized with Slaughter of the Soul, like Watain but better, still a lot of the indie/metalcore influence which makes it kind of simplistic.

Bilskirnir – Hyperborea: This is a very clever EP. Hybridize the Infernum style Iron Maiden/Graveland mix with the more Burzumy black metal clones, and you have something that sounds OK and bounces a long a lot like indie rock, not particularly distinguished unless the image, words or scene-significance gives you a reason to like it. If this is your first black metal, you will dig it, especially since it is very heavy metal. But over time, you will wonder why you bother.

Demonizer – Triumphator: So class, what’s black/death? Answer: when we run out of ideas, make speed metal and dress it up as black/death hybrid. I don’t see the point. Just make your Slayer/Metal Church tribute band and tell everyone you play fast because you love meth. This is like a simpler version of Sweden’s Merciless or Triumphator, with fast chromatic riffs leading into melodic chorus riffs. It’s pretty well done, actually, but in a style that makes even retarded kids bored after a few minutes. Clap your flippers and bob your heads.

Scott Kelly – The Wake: This Neurosis member also wants to make an acoustic album, and makes an intriguing one — is this a reference to Finnegans Wake, or just a wake? Because it sounds like one. Droning acoustic songs are blocky like hardcore, without much change or dynamic, but they plod on until they ingratiate themselves and have a primitive sincerity to them. The sensation is like the stunned moment after an impact when you’re not sure if your bones hurt or if the air around you is doing the hurting, and you just feel it. It will be interesting to see where he develops this style.

Devourment – 1.3.8: It’s hard not to like this at first because it is so relentlessly hookish in the weird way death metal bands lure you in with a cadence, and then make expectation of its fulfillment an ongoing necessary event in order to make sense of the otherwise overwhelming barrage of noise. Devourment switch between slow and chugging riffs and blasting mayhem religiously, downshifting with “breakdowns,” or deconstruction of a tempo by using internal attributes of a drum pattern to play off one another and slow it down, and upshifting with leaps in tempo that build up like a walk up stairs carrying a heavy automatic weapon. Much of it resembles the work of Suffocation, Malevolent Creation, Deicide, Deeds of Flesh and others who have worked within the percussive model of death metal, which inherits the palm-muted technique of speed metal and adds density of complexity. Here complexity and variation are necessary for this music to have staying power; its production is awful and tinny, and its songwriting is very similar between songs, which creates an onslaught of monolithic sound that few listeners will distinguish over time. Varying the technique and types of tempo changes would greatly improve this otherwise engaging, satisfyingly destructive band.

Agent Orange – Living in Darkness: Dug this out of the classics closet and have to say I like it. It’s melodic vocal punk like the Descendents, lots of bouncy stop-rhythms to guitar riffs and wandering, emo-style vocals that manage enough melody to keep themselves going. Would I listen to this stuff over Kraftwerk? No, but like the Descendents, the Minutemen, etc. it’s a part of the heritage of this music, and it’s a billion times better than punk now.

Diapsiquir – Virus S.T.N.: Say, what if Deathspell Omega were a lot simpler and incorporated the collage-of-garbage sound approach that WAR used? And maybe if they used lots of bouncy riffs and harmonized vocals? This sounds like a metal dog that has been kicked in the ribs singing how beautiful its death would be. Every clique and novelty possible has been employed to keep you from seeing that this band and this album slap themselves with limp wrists, gurgle and poo themselves.

Gridlink – Amber Gray: Containing ex-Discordance Axis personnel, this band aims to continue the fast-fingered assault of riffs that fit together like Tetris pieces and create a whole that, while like hardcore and grindcore is predictable in song structure, delivers the thrills with raw speed and dynamic phrase change like sigils flashing by in a mirror. Luckily this band has the wisdom to keep its work simple and to focus on what it does well, which is blasting slightly melodic versions of classic riffs. What I like about it is that it recalls the power violence and crossover music of the past which wanted to saturate us in insane energy as a motivic force, and with this CD, it works. Clocking in at 11 minutes it is nonetheless a full-length, albeit one that passes before you can recognize it. This CD has much more spirit than other CDs and while it claims to be grindcore, that’s grindcore like later Napalm Death with lots of metal influences in the formation of riffs and very punk song structures, except more jagged in this case which makes it tastier.

Shape of Despair – Shades Of…: Let’s make a Burzum clone but shape it into a doom band a lot like Skepticism, except even more entrenched in the vestiges of heavy metal? We’ll add a twist: play a rhythm lead, very simple, on a keyboard over the strobing riffs sound it sounds like a movie soundtrack to the proles. Fully competent, this band goes nowhere that Paradise Lost didn’t, and not only is less catchy, but depends on boring you into a stupor with Burzum-cum-Pelican drone technique that leaves most of us hoping to flatulate in harmony for variation. The most annoying parts are the rock rhythm, based on expectation like jazz or funk, so very bouncy and reliant upon us to care whether the returning rhythm catches the outgoing one. In fact, there are many good techniques throughout, but it’s basically verse-chorus music — with the simpleminded catchiness of a lullabye — that occasionally goes into extended overtime.

Equilibrium – Sagas: This album is simultaneously one of the better things I’ve heard this year, and one of the most completely ludicrous things I’ve heard. It vamps like a polka, bouncing with keyboards and guitars hitting together just before the beat, giving it a carnival atmosphere. Plenty of quality guitar work and overactive but competent keyboards, and songs with nice but very rock-ish two part melodic development, and hoarse death metal style vocals come together in a stew of confusion that has however very tasty bits. For strict songwriting assessment, this band is on par with later Iron Maiden and makes good songs. Aesthetically… if anyone heard me listening to this, I’d die of shame.

Soulfly – Conquer: This CD is Spinoza Ray Prozak musical hell. Every terrible idea in metal, recycled into a smoothly-written but directionless series of songs, has been offered up here in very loud production with a very angrily clueless vocalist. This is worse than shit. Feces at least decomposes in silence. Soulfly offer up generic Meshuggah/Pantera angry bounce-riffing, where any single impact is doubled so you expect its syncopated response, and the band hopes the catchy vocal ranting and bounce will lead you to care what happens next. It is battering, not heavy. It is a mile wide and an inch deep, with production that clearly cost a ton of money. I thought the whole idea of being revolutionaries was to be DIY and have the truth on your side. This album is propaganda for (a) Cavalera’s politics and (b) a vapid distillation of speed metal, death metal and punk hardcore into the most generic form of pointless angry music you can imagine. I use this CD to drive rats out of the attic but only the smarter rats leave.

Fullmoon – United Aryan Evil: While I generally detest neo-Nazi bands on principle, just like I refuse to listen to boilerplate leftist propaganda like The Dead Kennedys, looking for good metal these days means you run into bands who interpret the Romanticist Nationalism inherent to all good black metal as a narrow political ideal. It’s not much different than how punk bands translate being against mechanistic society into braindead liberalism. It’s hard to hate this band, but equally hard to listen again. They make paint-by-the-numbers melodic droning NSBM, and then interrupt it with slower melodic transitions, but the repetition waxes painful and the technique is a clearly lifted hybrid of Darkthrone, Graveland and Burzum. It reminds me of music for children, except that this tries to sound as deliberately blown out as possible, which with the tools available at this point is an obvious contrivance like Ulver’s “Nattens Madrigal.” When your best riffs sound like Burzum classics with one or two notes changed, something else must be done.

When To Stop Listening

November 2, 2008 –
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If the motive is to pander, not find adventure, the music will be worthless

If you’re faced with a problem, you fix it through the scientific method. You come up with a number of possible solutions, test them against reality, pick the ones that succeed — looping through a few times to refine them so they’re accurate — and use those. You throw away the ones that did not work.

Our universe is mathematically stable because it has something (reality) to test solutions against, and because it allows the discarding of bad solutions. This avoids a state of entropy, or a condition where every solution possible has about the same effectiveness. Entropy afflicts everything we do through a type of organizational decay, but when it becomes the state of a situation, all motion and change ceases. Heat death, or the lack of motion to energy and hence its dissipation, occurs.

This information logic to our world underlies natural selection just as much as it describes how our brains work. Imagine multiple ideas; pick the ones that converge; throw out the rest. In the case of heavy metal music, we strengthen the genre when we as fans pick only the best bands and albums. We weaken it when we tolerate mediocre metal, because then being mediocre is just about as important as being good, so people stop trying to be good — heat death.

While heat death is comforting because it enables us to avoid challenging ourselves, and to feel like we’re heroes and geniuses for recording any metal music, it means that we no longer have great metal music — the kind that makes you sit up, pay attention, and rediscover life through a worship of power, saying a kind of cosmic yes (in the James Joyce sense) to accepting life as constant conflict for a few rare, beautiful possible outcomes.

For those who still have red blood coursing through their veins and so aren’t so afraid of failure that they’re unwilling to try, it’s imperative to pick good metal music. This means not making the categorical mistake of buying an album just because the band that made it was good once, or because that band is trendy, has some novel implementation like flutes and tubas, or because you know the people in the band and you want to make them happy. It’s important to know when to stop listening and throw out the bad ideas.

What makes music bad?

Bad music is all the same. Most bands record music that is competent but fails to articulate anything that makes us sit up and take notice, because they’re either repeating the past or suggesting something unrealistic, which means we cannot feel that sense of the music being vital to our lives because we have to live in reality. At least 99% of music falls into this category, but perhaps more, because out of tens of thousands of metal bands, only a few hundred stand the test of time.

In that mindset, we can see that what makes “bad metal” is not that it’s unmusical, or stupid, except in a few cases. In most cases, it is simply unremarkable because it hasn’t challenged itself to find meaning in life and sing about it. This is why almost all reviews of albums that are destined to fail go like this:

This CD recombines past methods that worked, without knowledge of the reasons why they worked. Quirky as a result, it is a unique collage of instruments and techniques. Yet it is without direction because it imitates the effects of the past without knowing the causes, like someone looking into the genre from outside. Therefore, it’s not bad, but not great, and so we’ll forget it soon because time is valuable and this CD is not going to make us feel a sense of connection to life through power.

In other words, the CD is bringing us to a state of entropy. It isn’t bad, it isn’t good, which means by default that it’s not good. You will see this review format on many metal sites. It usually looks like this:

I don’t normally like ultra-brutal death metal, but this CD combines ultra-brutal death metal with hardcore vocals and black metal riffs. I have never before heard a flute used to make brutal riffs come slamming home. Guitar solos are like fire in the veins of a poisoned dragon. Although it’s really brutal, parts of this CD are riff salad where they get confused about whether they are black metal or death metal. But the end result isn’t bad, even if it won’t make my top ten for this year. If you really like brutal death metal with flutes, get this CD.

That’s a review done by a fan, a zine, or another band. What does it look like when we combine the art of making people think they should buy something — marketing — with this review type?

Brutal death metal fans have waited too long for a real masterpiece, but [ name redacted ] is going to change all that. With pummeling brutal riffs, you might think this band were closed-minded, but they have a full-time flute player who brings a progressive, liberal touch to the old and musty genre of brutal death metal. This groundbreaking act goes where no metal band has gone before! Don’t expect mercy from these powerful slamming riffs. This CD is brutal and it’ll tear your fuckin head off!

In the above, you will see something all smart marketers do. They find an audience for something, and then try to convince them that a product is better than others. If you can’t sell it on “better,” you sell it on novelty. It’s unique. It does something others don’t do. What you really want to do is avoid mentioning whether or not this is important. For example, who cares if a band uses a flute if their music is just as boring as if they did not?

What is pandering?

Most people will recognize, after hearing enough music, that while good music is made to be bought, it isn’t designed so that it will make the most money by offering the least challenging listen. If you’re not listening to radio pop, it’s because you got tired of melodic hooks and three-minute songs using verse-chorus structures. The riffs in such songs may be good, but since they achieve a state and cycle in it, but don’t really change, it’s hard to call them art — or claim they’ll inspire our lives. They’re like pretty wallpaper or television shows: background noise to make life pleasant, not give it meaning.

What separates good music from bad music is what separates scientific information from marketing: marketing is designed to appeal to a need that’s already there, and exploit it as a way of making money. Where good music/art is designed to make life more meaningful by showing us a new vision of it, marketing is designed to affirm our current vision of life so we can fit a product into it. Marketing panders. Art doesn’t.

Pandering – We use the panda image to suggest that music panders, and so has not only suspect motivations but minimal joy in listening. You may think this is sorta neat for a couple weeks, but then you’ll forget it. In the meantime, the band and others like them will start making more of this crap, so that instead of getting albums you can listen to for years, you’ll get lots of new albums you have to buy that won’t really satisfy you.

Selling Out – When a band goes from having made quality music to a state of extreme pandering, we realize that a psychological change has occurred in the artists. Instead of trying to make good music so that they can make money, they bypass the middle step and make music that makes money not because it’s good, but because it panders. We use the tombstone image to suggest that this band has left the reservation and headed for pop territory, so we’re not going to bother reviewing any of their other stuff until this changes.

Why so judgmental? — you are trained to ask. Why not just write about the music as it is? The answer is that mediocre music far outnumbers good music, and we are interested in preserving the good, and so instead of leaving you wondering about why we stopped reviewing a band, we’re just going to point out that they have changed motivation and results. It’s no different from reviewing every metal album ever made, and writing the generic review above 99% of the time and not telling you that there’s something all bad albums have in common.

You’re also trained to ask: Who made you the judge? Who are you to decide? — these questions are illogical. In a relative universe, we all decide, and our value is decided by the decisions we make, although it takes someone who has a clue to see that. Who made you the judge to decide we’re not the judge? Who are you to decide who is to decide? These questions make light of how ridiculous those common questions are.

If you want to know why a band’s CD or performance is referred to this page, it is because the above is the best that can be said about it, and we do not wish to be ironic or condescending to you, our reader. We are here to praise the art in the genre and its best incarnations, and we treat you and the artists with greater respect by having such reverence for the art.

What Makes Good Metal?

Metal is Romantic art, much as the novel Frankenstein or the opera Parsifal are: discovery of transcendent meaning in life by embracing its struggle and suffering as means to a higher end, an idea beyond material satisfaction or fear. To those who see the greatness of this idea, it is a worldview and a life-philosophy, and metal is one of its voices.

When we say metal expresses this idea, we are speaking only secondarily of imagery and lyrics (which mainstream academics prefer to study because they’re easy). We speak of the music and the spirit it evokes. Much like songs can convey sadness, fear, anger or hope, like the leitmotifs of Wagner different impulses are encoded in metal music that together suggest a Romantic worldview.

As art, heavy metal music is unique among popular genres for this viewpoint. What makes sonic art “metal” is its expression of this spirit more than any dogma or musical conceits; after all, other bands have appropriated metal riffs for years but without grasping this idea, much like innumerable Hollywood soundtracks have borrowed from Wagner without capturing his ideal.

When a metal band ceases to make Romantic art and becomes another voice for the easy, non-transcendent answers of life — material comfort, self-satiation, revengeful morality or simply self-obsession — it is no longer metal, but an imitation of metal, much like advertising jingles often “sound like” a genre without having its artistry or ideas.