Is rock ‘n’ roll assimilating metal?

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Metal interviews are like connecting violent minds to an amplifier. The musician is given a chance to speak plainly, and rewarded for saying something outlandish enough to make a headline. It’s like pouring gasoline on a fire.

Much as “in vino veritas” describes how drunk people often accidentally blurt out the truth, interviews often get the essential thoughts out of musicians. Tired, often doing multiple interviews in a day, musicians are apt to cut to the chase. Further, since they’ve been working that part of the brain that makes language, they’re often at their clearest several interviews into the process.

Thus it’s not sensible to either discount interviews, or to wholly accept them without being critical. But recent comments by Nominon drummer Per Karlsson highlight why metal interviews will always be popular — the offhanded, casual and yet direct blurting of truth:

I’d say that black and death metal pretty much go hand in hand, but that’s just my opinion. I am a bit worried though, since more or less all death/black metal of today has turned into rock ’n’ roll or something, all the new bands seems to be more into retro-rock, either that or looking/sounding like Ghost. I am ashamed of what this has turned into, it makes me sick.

Score one for the surly musician. First it makes sense to discard is the “that’s just my opinion” which is a passive-aggressive way of saying that some opinions coincide with truth where others do not. Then to analyze his main point, which is basically that rock music is assimilating metal.

For a brief historical re-cap, metal is a breakaway genre from rock, itself a breakaway genre from blues, itself a breakaway genre from folk. Rock music represents a distillation of many traditions down to the simplest transmissible commercial product. It was always a simpler option to the popular music of the time, and then at some point in the 1960s it took over not just music but popular culture. Much of this has to do with how our commercial society worships whatever seems popular at the moment.

Metal never wanted to be rock. If it had, it would have stayed in the rock camp. It also didn’t fully want to be blues. The influences on Black Sabbath were not only previous rock and heavy blues, but progressive rock and horror movie soundtracks (these inherited heavily from modernist classical, notably Wagner). With metal, rock’s rather static textural riffing evolved into the power chord phrase, which is closer to the horror movie music than what rock was doing at the time.

This upset the existing order.

Rock music saw itself as the bad boy and rebel, the counterculture upsetting civilization. Now there was a counter-culture to the counter-culture. Where the rock boys were singing about flowers, love, peace and our bright future, metal brought in the harsh discordant notes of realism: idealism is poppycock, death is ever-present, and the obliviousness of the average person (see “War Pigs”) is what brings evil into the world. Where the rock guys thought you could fight evil with love, metal counter-posited that you can only fight evil with vigilance, and eyes-wide-open awareness of life, warts and all. That shocked the rock community.

Since that time, metal has been the go-to imagery for advertising firms, movies, books and other entertainment products to symbolize “rebellion.” They also try with punk. Metal and punk are the two drop-out genres that consciously elect to be outsiders, and to avoid just doing what other rock bands doing and, by following that trend, to choose “success.” Popular music is fairly simple: find a unique version of doing what everyone else is doing so your audience both recognizes what you’re doing, and has some unique “mental handle” that causes them to single you out. It’s basic memetics.

This means that entertainment products have both a core and a surface. The core is the actual musical content; the surface is the aesthetics, the quirk, the irony, the imagery, and so forth. Metal has rebellion both in its core and its surface. However, if that metal surface could be transferred to rock, the ideal product would result. The band that came closest was Guns n’ Roses who managed rock song format with later Black Sabbath-styled riffs and bluesy leads. If someone were able to make hard rock that felt like metal, the market would roll over and beg for them.

As a result, the primary threat to metal is bands that “look like” (surface) metal but are actually the same old stuff. A number of bands are indicted under this banner, including Opeth and all nu-metal (which under the skin is “rap/rock”). Recently this process has picked up more steam in the underground. “Post-metal” — which is basically late 1980s post-hardcore, emo or indie rock — has begun to be sold as black metal. Nu-metal with late hardcore stylings has been sold as death metal. The result is fans unable to tell the difference between metal and rock.

This advertiser’s dream will backfire. The more metal gets like rock, the more it loses its outsider status. The more metal shows up in “legitimate” publications and entertainment, the less it is consciously outside of the mainstream world. Like punk, it will end up a “flavor” of rock that is used to sell certain products like motorcycles, cologne, hot dogs and chain saws. This is what Karlsson is warning us against, and it’s a good thing we heed him.

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Interview with Janne Stark, author of The Heaviest Encyclopedia of Swedish Hard Rock and Heavy Metal Ever!

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As far as books about metal go, there’s nothing more hardcore than an encyclopedic reference because by nature these attempt to include everything. Janne Stark wrote The Heaviest Encyclopedia of Swedish Hard Rock and Heavy Metal Ever! to keep track of the Swedish hard rock / heavy rock / metal scene, but we found it even harder to keep track of him.

For example, Stark is listed as participating in three dozens, including Overdrive, Overheat, Faith, M.O.B., Flash, TNT, Alyson Avenue, Sir Lord Baltimore, Thalamus, Chris Catena, Audiovision, Vii Gates, Narnia, Grand Design, Blinded Colony, Spearfish, Audiovision, Tower Of Stone, Teenage Rampage, From Behind, Planet Alliance, Balls, Constancia, Locomotive Breath, Mountain Of Power, Zello, Nicky Moore Blues Corporation. This is only a small slice of his participation in music, however, as he’s also a music journalist and author.

Stark was good enough to give us the time for a mid-length interview, which was conducted over coffee in the fashionable Swedish borough of Östermalm. Err… we wish. Stark was good enough to conduct this interview through old-fashioned 7-bit email, but we got some interesting answers.

Sweden has fewer people than the city I live in, yet produces more quality heavy rock, hard rock and metal bands. Is there something in the Swedish outlook that is responsible for this disparity?

I’ve had that question a lot of times. I think it has to do with several different things. Music has always been important in Sweden, folk music, singing in choirs etc. ABBA came along in the seventies showing Swedish musicians it was actually possible to break through on a big scale outside of our borders. We also have a really good (and cheap/free) tradition of music schools and the ability to learn an instrument in school. We also have the possibility to start a study circle, within a band, where you can get free/cheap rehearsal space, the possibility to record and even arrange gigs. I also think Swedish bands in general are about the music and learning to play, that getting an image and just pose.

Sweden may have partially invented death metal and black metal through Bathory. Are there are other contributions on the road towards death metal that you found interesting?

Yes, Bathory were definitely the forefathers of primitive sounding early black metal in Sweden. Later on there’s of course also the Gothenburg sound and bands like In Flames, Dark Tranquillity and At The Gates, where they started mixing more melodic and traditional metal influences with the traditional death metal sound. Swedish bands have always looked to the UK or US for influences, but I think a lot of the bands have managed to put a slightly different twist on it. Take for instance progressive bands like A.C.T or Pain Of Salvation, and then you have classic heavy metal bands like Hammerfall and Wolf who have mixed the German and UK styles of metal with a Swedish twist to it.

There’s something about the way Swedish bands write music that seems to lend itself to heavy metal, and it’s broader than the legendary Swedish melodic sense. Do you get the feeling such a thing exists?

I think it’s basically that we borrow a lot of influences from outside and blend it with the quite traditional Swedish folk touch that is in our mothers milk, whether we know/like it or not. On another note, it’s also quite interesting how several Swedish hard rock/metal musicians have become very successful in writing for pop and dance acts. People like Thomas G:son (Masquerade), Peter Carlsson (Bedlam), Anders Wickström (Treat) and not least Max Martin (It’s Alive) and Johan “Shellback” Schüster (Blinded Colony) have all become highly acclaimed pop composers who have written hits for N’Sync, Britney Spears, Pink, Lady Gaga etc.

You refer to this book as “the heaviest” encyclopedia of Swedish heavy rock and metal, and it definitely is heavy in two senses, both content and the physical weight of the book. How long did it take you to compile this monster?

It’s the heaviest in many senses. It’s definitely the heaviest when it comes to its sheer weight, 3.7 kilos (8.5 lbs) and the amount of bands featured in it (3,600), but it was also the heaviest one to get out of my system, to decide when it was time to wrap it up and get it out. When the second book was released in 2002, I simply continued compiling information. Not detailed information, but more like making notes to check this band out, check this site out, I made continuous notes of special releases and such. Then, a little more than three and a half years ago I decided ­ Now it’s time. Then I started following up all the leads, compiling all info of the bands, took all the info from the first two books, updated and corrected and all the stuff I had noted about these bands. I made one document for each letter and just started all over again, from A to Z (well, actually the last letter is Ö in the Swedish alphabet). When I felt I was finished I started doing layout, but waited with the band pics etc until last as I was still adding last minute information and bands. I then had three people proof read it, an Englishman and a music nerd friend, plus my wife (also a hard rock nerd). In September 2013, I sent in the final PDF files to the publisher and it was off to the printers, and nothing more I could do. Sheer agony at that point!

What kind of research resources were available to you? Is there much printed information on rock music in Sweden, or did you have to spend most of your time interviewing people?

When I did the first book in 1996, there was no Internet and it was all phone calls, contacting bands, music clubs, record stores etc. Now the information is all over the place, the problem is to collect, find and sort out what is the CORRECT information. Anybody can write anything on sites like Wikipedia etc. and suddenly it’s the truth. It’s been as much about checking and double-checking this time around. I’ve listed the sources I’ve used in the book, but it’s anything from www.metal-archives.com, www.musikon.se and www.rockdetector.com, to Ebay, Tradera, Discogs and bands/labels sites to find all catalogue numbers, different pressings etc. There’s a couple of metal magazines and webzines here as well, plus books and websites covering local scenes, where I’ve found some additional information. I’ve also contacted a lot of people through Facebook etc. I’ve tried to get in touch with as many bands as possible.

From the looks of this massive book, you got every heavy band that Sweden has ever produced. Did you miss any? How did you find out?

I’m sure I’ve missed some, even though I do think I’ve covered 95% this time. There’s always going to be the local metal band that printed 250 copies of a single, sold it to some friends, tucked the remaining copies away in an attic and went on with life. These things pop up now and then, still! Plus some bands, especially when it comes to black metal, are intentionally secretive and only sell their limited vinyl release to “true” fans. But, that’s the beauty of it. Trying to find those hidden gems!

Swedish death metal won me over the minute I heard it. Do you normally listen to death metal? Did the sounds of Swedish death metal tempt you to go over to “the dark side”?

The thing is, when I wrote the previous books I wasn’t into death or black metal at all. But, for this book I’ve listened to ALL bands in it, and there’s a LOT of death and black metal. As a result I’ve actually come to like a lot of these bands, the more melodic stuff like Soilwork, The Haunted, Sterbhaus, In Flames and Unleashed, but also stuff like Watain I’ve come to like. My first choice of music is however still seventies influenced heavy rock/metal and bands like Spiritual Beggars, Mojobone, Grand Magus etc.

Can you tell us about your background as a writer and in music? This obviously isn’t your first project.

I got into music very early on and started playing guitar around the age of nine, made my first demo with the band TNT back in 1977, recorded my first single with the band Paradize in 1979 and formed Overdrive in 1980, with whom I’ve made a bunch of records. I also started doing some reviews for a local zine in 1982-83. My writing got more serious in 1989, when I started writing and reviewing for Backstage Magazine and since then I’ve written for a lot of magazines such as Hard Roxx, Kool Kat News, Sweden Rock Magazine, FUZZ Magazine etc. I did my first encyclopedia in 1996 and the second one in 2002. At the same time I’ve also made records with bands like Locomotive Breath, Mountain Of Power, Zello, Planet Alliance, Constancia etc. I still play in Overdrive, Constancia and Grand Design.

How did you get the confidence to tackle such a massive work? (It can’t all come from the writer’s famous “courage in a can” — coffee — itself, can it?)

Well, to be honest, it’s a combination of sincere interest for Swedish metal, being a music nerd and, yes, lots of strong, fine Swedish coffee. Besides beer and booze, it’s the only “drug” I’ve ever touched!

If you had to select five heavy and/or metal acts from Sweden to convince a newcomer that this scene is vital and worth investigating, what would they be?

As there are such a variety of styles within the Swedish scene I’d pick accordingly, so to check out the melodic death metal scene go for Soilwork, get some classic heavy metal with Grand Magus, some high class AOR with Eclipse, doom with Avatarium and progressive rock with A.C.T. To start with.

What’s next for you? Will you continue music journalism? Where do readers go to find out more about your work?

I still write and review for FUZZ, Metal Central and Metal Covenant when time allows it. I also have my own reviews blog and I’m now working on my next book entitled The History of Swedish Hard Rock and Heavy Metal, which will be as the title says, a more history-based book on the Swedish metal scene from the late 60s and until today with stories, interviews with prominent Swedish bands etc. Not sure when it will be finished, but I’m working on it. I’m currently also working on two new albums by Constancia and Grand Design for release in 2014. We’ve got lots of gigs booked for Grand Design as well as Overdrive. High Roller Records are also re-issuing the first Overdrive album on vinyl with an entire bonus LP of demos. No rest for the wicked!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y4avfZnEDyQ

Death Metal Epic I: The Inverted Katabasis by Dean Swinford


Death Metal Epic I:
The Inverted Katabasis
by Dean Swinford
Atlatl Press, 160 pages, $10

death_metal_epic_i_the_inverted_katabasis-dean_swinfordThe intersection of death metal and fiction has so far remained fairly murky. Part of this is because writing fiction about death metal is hard and has a tiny audience, where writing fiction that mimics death metal is downright impossible and will send us all scurrying back to our Lovecraft and Poe.

However, Dr. Dean Swinford has given this one a shot with his book Death Metal Epic I: The Inverted Katabasis. In occult circles, the term katabasis takes on a new meaning of a descent into hell or an occult world beneath this one. Death Metal Epic I: The Inverted Katabasis describes an early 1990s death metaller dealing with the collapse of his technical melodic Tampa death metal band, and his rebirth first through an alternate musical avenue, and next through his induction into the extreme black metal underworld.

Working in a book store after the breakup of his girlfriend and the hiatus of his death metal band after a promising but ignored first album, David Fosberg is under siege from his record label which wants him to produce the second album now. The problem is that the modern world has eaten up the souls of his bandmates, who are now pursuing “normal” activities and have zero interest in death metal. He should grow up; death metal doesn’t make money, doesn’t get girls or make you famous. Or so they say. Instead, Fosberg pursues an unusual collaboration and applies the death metal spirit to a new form of music.

Swinford’s writing resembles a cross between a toned-down David Foster Wallace and Raymond Carver. The prose is simplified, with little time spent on set and setting, and the first-person perspective in which it is written allows the lead character to state intentions and escape dense exposition. This lets Swinford regulate the speed at which the novel progresses, and he uses this to skim over most of the boring parts. In the final third of the novel some confusion emerges because enough events have occurred that every interaction has many possibilities and the author is trying to show why some must become foreclosed. David Fosberg is a naturally likeable character who resembles many who can be observed in the death metal scene: a fundamentally normal person of above-average intelligence who is bored and frustrated by society, and mired in doubt and alienation.

Death Metal Epic I: The Inverted Katabasis is structured around its eponymous descent, except that here the descent begins and then seems to be ending, setting the stage for more action before the book ends on a warlike and inspiring note. Liberal use is made of metal history, not just band names but famous historical metal sayings, tropes, common events or observations in the life of a metalhead, and other details that only a metalhead might know. These are presented in such a way that an outsider can read them and think them “quirky” perhaps but not think less of the book for it. The result is a book that reads well, moves quickly and introduces the art form of death metal through stories of its devotees.

Relying on both postmodern literary technique and a much older Gothic sense of dark storytelling, Death Metal Epic I: The Inverted Katabasis shows metalheads and death metal in a light that may be understandable outside the genre. Within the genre, it evokes familiar history and ever-present struggles, forming less of a travelogue than an introspection as Fosberg attempts to fit his mind around the difficult task of being both alienated and having a place in the world. While it might not occur to me to take a fictional narrative of death metal down off a shelf, I was glad to read this one.

Bolivian metal band mixes native instruments, modern technique

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Photo: New York Times.

One of the better developments during the past decade is that it’s now acceptable to talk about heavy metal in the mainstream press as something other than entertainment. It might even have, you know, artistic or cultural value and stuff.

A recent attempt looks at the heavy metal of Bolivia, which combines native instruments with modern underground metal technique:

The band members wore black. The lead singer screamed into his microphone and whipped his long, black hair around. The guitarists clawed at their instruments. The drummer pounded with fury. And then the panpipe player took his solo, and the fans packed into the mosh pit went into a frenzy…those songs, characterized by the use of the panpipe, known as the zampoña, and a wooden flute called a quena, have a special impact among fans.

The article makes the point that the hybrid style is more accepted among many of the people there, and that it directly references Incan cultural ideas including the ancient moral code that still lives on today in Bolivia.

Our question is: if it’s art, culture and morality there, why isn’t it art, culture and morality here?

Remember the first doom metal bonanza

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bo·nan·za, noun
2.
a source of great and sudden wealth or luck; a spectacular windfall: The play proved to be a bonanza for its lucky backers.

Does anyone remember Morgion? They had a reunion a few years ago, and it seemed to peak interest for a month and then vanish. That’s a far cry from how it was in the late 1990s when Morgion was considered the future of metal.

Morgion was atmospheric heavy metal styled doom metal, or basically Black Sabbathy stuff with a little death metal technique and a lot of keyboards. Death metal had just burnt out, and the labels needed something new to fire out the cannons. As a result, the first doom metal boom was born.

This boom died of course because the real public discovered black metal exactly five years past its point of relevance, and suddenly it was quite popular and everyone had to have a black metal band. But before that, the labels and magazines had been casting about for something to call the future. No one wants to admit the best days are behind, but for all things, the day comes when that is true.

Back to Morgion. What happened? They produced some albums, lost a band member to a tragic accident, toured a lot and were on the cover of every magazine. Following up years later on the trail Cathedral blazed, there was a brief period where melodic and atmospheric doom metal bands came out of the woodwork to inherit the spotlight. There was a great gold rush to get on the gravy train of the popular trend of the moment, as if illustrating the dangers warned of by black metal. Death metal bands slowed down and added keyboards and strings. It was an odd time, one where the indecision in the air smelled strong.

My point is this, and it’s stolen straight out of Plato: there’s two ways to approach life. The first is to figure out what the idea is that gives it meaning, and then put that into flesh. The other is to accept the flesh as the end goal, and then use ideas to justify the behavior of the flesh. The first doom metal boom was the latter. It wasn’t about expressing an idea, cultivating a soul or any of the good things music does (including bringing us face to face with our fears and making us want to win). It was about bucketloads of cash since no one had any upward ideas.

We’ve forgotten about this now, shoveled it straight into the memory hole. Think about it: there was a time when you couldn’t go anywhere in metal without hearing about Morgion. Now you never do, only a decade later. And other bands persist seemingly immortal. It seems the first (Platonic) approach leads to something greater than life itself, where the latter drags us down into the same morass that clutches pop, politics, late night TV and mass religion, and once it has us it will never let go.