Death Metal Underground

Khand – The Fires of Celestial Ardour released on tape

January 31, 2014 –

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The crossover between metal and keyboard music is vast and well-documented to the point that the well-dressed death metal site simply ignores instrumentation and picks the keyboard bands that sound as evil and nihilistic as death metal. Whether that’s works by Neptune Towers, Beherit, Jaaportit, Goatcraft, Burzum or Danzig, evil metal has crossed over to occult keyboards.

Another entry into this world is Khand, made by lifelong metalhead and now synthesizer jockey Arillius. Describing his music as “cosmic ambient,” which overlaps with black ambient and dark ambient and neoclassical, Arillius started Khand back in 1998. Influenced by medieval, space and fantasy themes, Khand’s demo “Interstellar Dominions” was released in 2006 and immediately attracted an unusual but dedicated audience. Seven years later, Khand released The Fires of Celestial Ardour which is now available on tape for those who wish to order it.

The Fires of Celestial Ardour shows Khand having refined its style and narrowed its focus, which enables the band to train its resources on a certain type of deep space exploration sound. For those who want to experiment, the album is available as a free download from hi.arc.tow records.

When Bassnectar was a metalhead

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Metal is not a job and will never pay the bills. Hence many metal musicians move on to other careers. Sometimes this includes other forms of music. Such is the case of Lorin Ashton, a/k/a Bassnectar, who previously was in a black/doom metal band called Pale Existence.

Correctly intuiting that metal would not pay the bills, and being from the already-undernoticed San Jose scene which got obscured by the greater prominence of nearby San Francisco, Ashton migrated from underground metal to playing multiple DJ sets a day in an effort to develop his hybrid style.

The result was Bassnectar, a merging of afterhours club music and sonic torment which showed its heavy metal origins. While Ashton retains his long hair and metal/punk tshirts collection, this lengthy history of involvement in underground metal is probably lost on his audience.

Pale Existence also featured Steve Cefala of doom/black metal band Dawning. Most fans don’t know of this underground history, so we present a comparison of Lorin Ashton a/k/a Bassnectar in both the old days as Pale Existence and in his newest form:

Massacre announces Back From Beyond release on April 1, 2014

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Crushing Tampa, FL football death metal band Massacre announce today their release of Back From Beyond, a new full-length album for 2014.

The album will be released on March 24th in Europe and on April 1st in North America via Century Media Records. Returning to the roots of their early 90s trademark sound, Back From Beyond was recorded and mixed by Tim Vazquez of CGM Studios, Florida, and features original MASSACRE members Rick Rozz (guitars; ex-MANTAS/DEATH) and Terry Butler (bass; OBITUARY, ex-DEATH/SIX FEET UNDER), as well as Ed Webb (vocals; ex-DIABOLIC/EULOGY) and Mike Mazzonetto (drums; ex-PAIN PRINCIPLE). The cover artwork was created by Toshihiro Egawa (CRYPTOPSY, KRISIUN, DEVOURMENT, etc.).

Formed in the wake of the breakup of an early Death lineup, Massacre quickly distinguished themselves by approaching old school death metal with creative basic riffs but, instead of relying on the percussive chugging or blasting techniques common to Tampa bands, Massacre used a constant tremolo strum and a big burly warm and fuzzy wave of distortion. The result created an otherworldly album that at the time sounded like nothing else, although it has been widely cloned since.

Back From Beyond has a lot of promise, with a caveat. The lineup is good and the clarity about the mission is good. However, self-referential statements by bands usually make for disasters, and while 2012′s Condemned to the Shadows showed much of their older promise but with more of a heavy metal/hard rock flavor. Hopefully the full-length will head in a more OSDM direction.

Line-up

  • Ed Webb – vocals
  • Rick Rozz – guitars
  • Terry Butler – bass
  • Mikey Mazzonetto – drums

Tracklist

  1. As We Wait To Die
  2. Ascension Of The Deceased
  3. Hunter’s Blood
  4. Darkness Fell
  5. False Revelation
  6. Succumb To Rapture
  7. Remnants Of Hatred
  8. Shield Of The Son
  9. The Evil Within
  10. Sands Of Time
  11. Beast Of Vengeance
  12. Back From Beyond
  13. Honor The Fallen

Happy 50th birthday, Jeff Hanneman

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Today, Jeff Hanneman would have been fifty years old. The man who helped invent the sound that underlies all of underground death metal did not, as the people around him in the LA suburbs tend to do, waste his life away in repetition. Instead, he forged his own path and we celebrate him for it and the results of it.

Way back in 1983, as now, the holy grail of alienated music was the fusion of any two of its genres: metal, punk and industrial. Specifically there was great interest in using its guitar-based genres to create a new sound. Many people attempted to fuse metal and punk, and many credible sounds came out of it. One path was speed metal, which Metallica unleashed with Kill ‘Em All. Another was thrash, which DRI cut loose with Dirty Rotten LP. But still another was the foundation of death metal and black metal which was introduced by Slayer and refined the following year by Bathory, Hellhammer and Sodom.

Slayer took two things from punk and injected them into the prog-influenced songs structures of NWOBHM: they borrowed the constant tremolo strum, used by punk for drone, and the open drum patterns that allowed guitar to take the lead. Now a new style of music emerged. Rhythm guitar became the lead instrument, rapid-firing changing riffs at the audience while drums framed but did not lead the development. Riffs did not have to perfectly fit the drums which kept going in the background as a kind of timekeeper but not, as in most bands, a way of signaling the guitar to change. Further, riffs became phrasal, building on the longer chord progressions of Black Sabbath to become fully small melodies, developing in response to on another like classical motifs.

Music teachers, who were raised in the rock/jazz idea that drums lead and riffs should emphasize harmonic and a static melodic role, with the primary melodic role and lead instrument (and thus impetus for song “development”) being the voice, found Slayer to be unmusical. The record industry was appalled at this creation that unleashed the demonic side of life in such clarity; they make their money from selling happy illusions, not grim realities translated into elaborately conceived mythologies.

And yet it is this mythological tendency, dating back to “War Pigs,” that saves metal from self-consuming and burning out like hardcore punk. It is not literal; it is imaginative. It turns our focus from ourselves to the nature of power, history, nature and other forces larger than the individual, and then lets us imagine the greatness of participation in those. Where punk turned reality into a protest weapon and source of alienation, metal has turned it into a source of individual desire to do something epic with our lives. Slayer gave that mythological tendency a new voice, not just by singing about demons, vampires and The Holocaust, but by translating the sound of raw power into something you could throw on your bedroom hi-fi and be transported to a different world.

For this reason, Slayer captured the imagination of a generation and continues to enthrall us today. The early albums, which are completely written in horror movie mythology, incite in us a desire to see the hidden possibly occult underpinnings of a society gone insane. The Reign in Blood and afterwards material shows us a more punk-like grasp of all that terrifies us and sends us searching for reasons why, and if not why, how to use such things as war, murder and sadism in some constructive way. Slayer is not protest music; it acknowledges the horror, but doesn’t want to band us together into a drum circle to “stop” these horrors. It recognizes they are eternal. Instead, like the religion it loathed, Slayer drives us to find a way to accept these things as part of life itself, and look for a philosophy that shows us a reason to survive despite all these horrors.

Jeff Hanneman’s influence pervades the Slayer story. He wrote many of the band’s most epic and enduring songs, contributed the mythological outlook, and invented the musical changes described above. While he may be slighted by the Grammy’s, or ignored by a world of people seeking Shakira tunes instead of imaginative but realist metal, to those who can understand his trip — already a naturally elite group — Hanneman’s work is not just a source of wisdom, but of inspiration. In a world asleep, he stayed awake. In a world of imitation, he took his own path. Where most just wanted to participate for reward, he took on life at its most basic level and triumphed. For that reason, we’ll always celebrate his life and work.


Chaos rampant,
An age of distrust.
Confrontations.
Impulsive sabbath.

On and on, south of heaven

Demilich – 20th Adversary of Emptiness

January 30, 2014 –

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When too many utterly mindless and pandering bands pile up in the review queue, even life seems washed out and hopeless. At that point, even death metal has lost its power and mystique. When that happens, I throw on Demilich Nespithe and my faith in the genre is restored. This album presents such a creative and yet meaningful interpretation of death metal that it restores faith in a lot more than the genre.

The 20th Adversary of Emptiness reproduces a restored Nespithe complete with original art, adds two songs from the 2006 return of Demilich, and then compiles the demos of this formative band. Svart Records prints these on vinyl and CD formats, with the vinyl option as a box set and the CD for more everyday listening (that way you can have a copy in the car, too). Naturally this adds three areas for study.

The original album remains as powerful as it was back in the 1990s. If any remastering has occurred, it has been slight because the originally subterranean and organic sound has been preserved. There is not much to say about this classic that wasn’t said in the original 1993 review, but for a short introduction, it is a death metal album that uses lead riffing and complex riff-rhythm interaction and development to create an entirely otherworldly sound. Into this it drops doubt, loneliness, and a sense of restoration through imagination. It is from the oldest school of artistry and a work of intensely fine-tuned thinking and musicianship.

Much will be made of the newer tracks. I see these as an attempt to take the classic Demilich sound into the more technical and streamlined death metal of the early 2000s. In fact, two these songs — “of Vanishing” and “of Emptiness” — were written in the early 1990s, while “Faces Right Below the Skin of the Earth” was the only one penned in 2006. The three tracks hold true to the Demilich format but give it more aggression and death metal thrills. “Faces Right Below the Skin of the Earth” starts with a rhythm tear that resembles something Covenant-era Morbid Angel and first album At the Gates might envision if they collaborated, but then drops into a cyclic riff that follows the old Demilich pattern. In developing that riff, the band put it into the more rhythmically challenging format that contemporary metal listeners might desire, but then begin their trademark cyclic polyrhythm while mutating the riff toward a larger pattern. Eventually this becomes the concluding theme and the song drives hard to a conclusion. “of Vanishing” uses a Morbid Angel trope, namely “Immortal Rites,” but gives it the more complex rhythmic and melodic vision of Demilich. This then filters through a full stop and drum roll into Demilich-styled cyclic melodic riffing before returning to theme. Interesting guitar solo on this one. “of Emptiness” uses a throttling melodic riff more like the stuff that Necrovore used to apply, and builds into the most conventional song in this three-track set. It slides into an almost Black Sabbath-styled doomy charging riff and alternates it with lead-picked riffs used to change tempo and add depth, but then returns to its aggressive attack. This track uses a lot of stops and starts and loses some momentum. On the whole, these three tracks show an interesting attempt to modernize Demilich and make it more aggressive, but also show why the band probably did not want to continue going in that direction. Sometimes the past is too distinct to be resurrected as anything but itself, and not everyone may want to do that two decades later.

On to the demos… these are fascinating because they show how deliberate the final Demilich sound really is. These songs are familiar but each has different changes. In particular, different styles of lead guitar were tried as well as attempts to make the riffs fit more into the rhythm styles favored by different subgenres of death metal. The closer demos get to Nespithe chronologically the more they exhibit an intense technicality and unique style, but as one goes back in time they are closer to standard death metal with some unique innovations woven in. As time passes, the weaving becomes more intense and the new style takes over the raw elements. It is fascinating to watch these songs develop and the demo pressing here is entirely worth the price of this album (or even box set). They do not bore and there is always something new to be heard in each of these classic demo tracks.

20th Adversary of Emptiness offers something to just about anyone. If this is your first Demilich experience, stick to the first disk (Nespithe) for a glimpse into classic death metal when it wasn’t afraid to be weird. For dyed-in-the-wool Demilich fans and hardcores, there’s hours of interest to be found in tracking back these older demo pieces and seeing where they go. Both groups will enjoy the three 2006-era tracks which show a more violent and streamlined Demilich. Ultimately, this whole package lives up to its strange title because it is an adversary of emptiness.

This music evokes loneliness and a hollow, achingly empty universe without inherent point, and shows the creation of a mythos within that void that could keep us focused on survival and improvement even through a long and depleting arctic circle winter. Seeing these rare tracks ride again is rewarding as is seeing Nespithe get the credit that it has always deserved but almost missed as people chased death metal trends back in the day. The booklet, featuring both classic art and pictures, comes with a length interview with guitarist Antti Boman and his commentary on each song with lyrics. This is rare and wonderful also. Just make sure you avoid reading the introduction, which is written by some idiot and makes no sense.

A quick introduction to the Puerto Rican black metal scene

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Godless

The main influences on Godless’ music are obviously Celtic Frost/Hellhammer and Mayhem. While the former’s style dominates most of the tracks, the rhythmically suspended rigid blast beat/wrist-break strumming plague of Mayhem alongside Attila’s signature vocals infiltrate forcefully. Godless resurrect one of the most powerful black metal sounds in history, even though lacking self identity.

Humanist

Largely based on the mid-tempo rhythms, black’n’roller Humanist’s music resembles hard rock more than black metal: it emphasizes body-shaking cadences and ear-pleasing riffs and pentatonic rock tropes. The northern metal moments of these songs are promising but not profound. On the other hand, phrases are somewhat disrupted during the expanding parts. However, given some drastic tempo changes, this band can maintain an overall mood of aggression.

“Humanist (San Juan 3/16/2013)”

Sepulchral

Sepulchral take the approach of Absu’s occult metal to a more straight-forward edge, mixing the war-godish attitude of trendy blacken death metal bands like Behemoth, the result is full of violence and energy. The abruptly erupting snarl drum patterns of this music are tasty, but the highly militarized chorus-shouting song structures may cause boredom if being listened consistently.

“Sepulchral (San Juan 2/16/2013)”

Argyle

Argyle make music in the veins of random retro speed metal and modern black metal mixed in a percussive attack. All the typical elements of these genres are presented here, and the harmonics of modern black metal definitely add an aura of darkness that the early speed/black metal bands don’t possess. While nothing is new and out of the box in Argyle’s compositions, it seems this band combines different aesthetic parts together for the sake of a universal form of “metal,” both to be heavy and to engage the audience in headbanging.

“Argyle (San Juan 7/13/2013)”

Antiviral (2012)

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Antiviral (2012)
Directed by Brandon Cronenberg
108 minutes

Death metal and horror films go hand in hand. Screaming victims, howling chainsaws, death and destruction, subjugation and helplessness, existential angst and nihilistic outcomes. But what about death metal and a film that crosses horror, suspense, sci-fi and disturbingly investigative psychological tension?

Brandon Cronenberg, the son of edge-of-insanity filmmaker David Cronenberg, directed Antiviral which hit the screens in 2012. Following in the family tradition, he peels back the layers of justification and shows us a metaphor for our psychology in this odd and disturbing modern time. Unlike his Dad, Brandon offers more of a sense of personality horror; this is abundantly character-driven in addition to being concept-driven.

In this tense film, which seems to be set in an alternative present, celebrity culture has reached a peak mania. People are so besotted with the celebrity experience that there is a lucrative trade in infections that have their origin in celebrities. A specialized industry contracts with celebs for their diseases, harvests those diseases and then reproduces them so that ordinary people can infect themselves and share an experience with the stars of the big screen.

The biggest of these stars is Hannah Geist, a starlet of comparable stature among the fawning life-dropout masses as Jennifer Lawrence back in our reality. She is worshiped by the herd and represents top-notch product for those who wish to sell diseases. Cronenberg emphasizes this with shots of people who act like slow-motion zombies, lost in an orgiastic reverie of union with celebrities, the focal point of social interest in the culture.

Brandon offers more contrast-based filmmaking than his father. Where the elder Cronenberg relishes the organic, the younger relishes the symbolic and the disturbingly out of place. He films in a kind of breathless patience that is moving full speed ahead to notice everything, which requires a manic (Adderall-like) focus on stillness and the smallest of events. He shows characters confronting their own limitations and fears, and as a result, has characters who do more than act out an experience. They grow, even if in dubious ways.

Much like the fiction of William Gibson, Antiviral is heavily metaphorical and reveals some unsettling truths about our rather mundane world through an exotic one. In doing so, Cronenberg creates an atmosphere of the surreal and disturbing that infiltrates all thoughts of comfort and stability and upends them with a view of the dark rotten core of own celebrity-crazed culture.

“Metal and Marginalisation: Gender, Race, Class and Other Implications for Hard Rock and Metal Symposium” opens registration

January 29, 2014 –

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On April 11th, in York, UK, a new conference will attempt to tackle the heady subject of “Metal and Marginalisation: Gender, Race, Class and Other Implications for Hard Rock and Metal.” Sponsored by the Centre for Women’s Studies at the University of York, the conference aims to explore these traditional academic concepts in the context of the newer forms of metal.

The conference — see its web site — aims to explore how metal is inherently self-marginalizing, and then how it applies those lessons to traditionally marginalized groups and what it all means. Primarily hosted by Caroline Lucas, Rosemary Lucy Hill and Gabrielle Riches, the conference is open to submissions from academics and community members alike.

The topic of marginalization and its supposition that metal is inherently self-marginalizing fits with comments made by Matt Harvey of Exhumed recently:

Metal is all about tearing down sacred cows – religion, politics — tear it all down. You don’t want to get into hero worship.

Harvey’s point was that metal is constantly renewing itself through bloodshed. There is no tradition, no sacred cow, no holy ground because metal is destruction and the instant any such thing is established it will be destroyed to prevent it from becoming a controller. Metal stays free by being memoryless, valueless, knowledgeless and accommunicative — in short a perfectly nihilistic genre.

The conference aims to explore how “metal’s reliance on concepts of otherness often unites it aesthetically and ideologically” and “how the ideal of individualism plays out in symbolic practices that differentiate and mark the limits of community.” They might consider how a form of lawless power might also negate the individual while they also ponder these other ideas:

  • What does it mean to exist on the edges of what is already exterior?
  • What does it mean to hold a minority identity in the space of metal?
  • Does the narrative of metal’s inclusivity have a basis in lived experience? Or are such groups tolerated rather than included?
  • How does the language used in metal’s discourses (e.g. genre terms) construct frameworks that include or exclude?
  • Encounters with racism at metal events
  • How does metal contribute to or confront frameworks of racialisation?
  • The use of sexism, racism and/or homophobia as shock tactic
  • How does extremity promote cultures of inclusivity or marginalisation?
  • Structural hegemonic whiteness, maleness and heterosexuality
  • Can the struggles at the margins be attributed more positively to understanding metal as an agonistic site, with contestation at its core?
  • Discourses of metal vs. the mainstream: a positive identification of marginalisation, the importance of alterity and the passion with which individual’s seek to position metal as alternative to the mainstream.
  • Being ‘trve’, belonging and the exchange of cultural/symbolic capital in metal scenes.
  • Metal as marginal – recent developments in policy: The Sophie Lancaster Foundation and the legal fight to protect alterity.

These are pretty standard academic concepts and have been since the late 1980s, which leads us to our only word of caution, which is that metal is best understood when we don’t project other templates upon it. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, some academics projected the rock music or punk templates on metal; these never quite made sense. We’re hoping the Metal & Marginalization conference will avoid that mistake and discover new things within metal to explore.

If you want to get onboard, contact the three organizers listed above and reserve your place.

An At the Gates career retrospective

January 28, 2014 –

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Since the days of being a small child I have been fascinated by how things fall apart. At an early age I could recognize decay, but knew it was separate from the tendency of human efforts to disintegrate once they grew past their initial effort.

A simple example was our veterinarian. He started out with a group of other animal doctors. Then people realized this one guy does great work. He struck out for himself. Soon he had too much work to do. He expanded, hiring more people and getting a new building. Soon he was no longer doing great work and he was more expensive. It took people a decade to find out. Most of them were still telling each other the accepted truth that he was doing great work.

At the Gates have announced their reformation as part of the 2013-inspired wave that saw Gorguts and Carcass return. Unlike the 2009-wave of returning bands, like Asphyx and Beherit, this retro-underground-revival has featured classic bands “modernizing” their sound. It also generally exhibits bands who had already cast aside their metal roots for musical reasons. Where the previous wave was more a sense of bands returning to pick up where they left off, the new wave seems to be about bands participating in the new metal scene and trying to siphon off some of that interest, newsworthiness and cash flow.

At the Gates started from the ashes of Grotesque back in 1990. They quickly released an EP, Gardens of Grief, followed by an LP, The Red in the Sky is Ours. These two works constitute the important artistic output from At the Gates because they were so radical in death metal. First, they incorporated melody as a structural device, where previously it had been used as a technique and worn to death. Next, they showed song development that surpassed what most bands were doing. Finally, their use of single-note picked riffs and spacious drumming produced a greater range of dynamics for death metal. Between At the Gates and other Swedish death metal acts that used melody such as Therion and Carnage, the roots of black metal were laid.

After that, things got confused. With Fear I Kiss the Burning Darkness followed in 1993 but lacked the clarity of the early work, showing a band in conflict over whether it wanted to follow its initial style, or get more power chords and catchy choruses in there. This led to the departure of original member Alf Svensson and regrouping with guitarist Martin Larsson, formerly of House of Usher. At this point, the band reformulated their sound to be more like regular death metal and yet also more like accepted rock music, including displaying the technical chops expected in that field. Now, like countrymen Dissection, At the Gates sounded like a death metal wrapper around a regular rock band, and a good one at that. Interest soared. The band released Slaughter of the Soul to grand acclaim despite the album having more in common with the speed metal of the mid-1980s than the death metal of the 1990s.

After their most popular album ever, the band fragmented when the Björler brothers moved on to form The Haunted. Most metalheads recognize that moment as the ground zero for melodic metalcore, which combined the 1980s speed metal approach to songwriting with the late hardcore tendency to value random riffs stacked together in carnival sideshow music style. However, for a new neurotic generation, this distraction-oriented music was a perfect soundtrack, and The Haunted became a success in its own right. At the Gates put out a few retrospectives and occasionally re-united but basically was dead.

In 2014, it’s hard to imagine the band not making Slaughter of the Soul II. It was their greatest success and introduced themes of self-pity, such as suicide, which are always popular with the youth of narcissistic parents who essentially feel doomed from puberty onward despite living in relative luxury. Slaughter of the Soul was a clear precursor to The Haunted which took the frenetic randomness of bands like Discordance Axis and Human Remains and made it into a new style that, by using the sweet sounds of Iron Maiden-styled harmony, found mass appeal.

At the Gates made the following statement:

We know you are all curious about the new material, and to make a simple explanation of where we are at musically, we would describe it as a perfect mix between early AT THE GATES & ‘Slaughter of the Soul’-era AT THE GATES, trying to maintain the legacy and the history

This leaves us wondering what they consider “early” At the Gates since presumably that’s everything before Slaughter of the Soul, and they did not specifically mention the first EP or LP by name.

Metallica brings metal and classical closer together

January 27, 2014 –

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For their performance at the Grammy awards, Metallica paired up with Chinese pianist Lang Lang for a performance of their dramatic protest song “One” originally from …And Justice for All.

According to VH1, the bond was formed in just 45 minutes of practice time the day before the performance. As you can see below, the result was smoothly integrated despite this lack of extensive practice.

Metal and classical share a defining trait in that both use narrative composition, or knitting together riffs to develop a theme over the course of a piece. This is in contrast to pop music, which is essentially binary, formed of a verse-chorus pair and a “contrast” via a bridge or turnaround. Thus Metallica’s knotwork of riffs and Lang Lang’s melodic development through structured composition are entirely compatible.

The question remains whether metal will adopt this outlook as anything other than a surface aesthetic. If it does, expect metal songs to get more densely riffy and longer with contorted structures like progressive rock, which derived its song structuring principles from classical as well.