Speed metal: the choice of royals

Prince Harry Visits Nottingham

Many of those who are involved with music have spoken praise for the 1980s speed metal explosion, which offered a form of music with both intensity and integrity. Until the great wave of commercialization, it simply refused to join the social impulse to all get along and behave like everyone else.

But a recent interview with Dominic West, who accompanied the UK’s Prince Harry to the North Pole, confirms that speed metal may have more going for it than simply being aloof to the great herding instinct. It is the music not only of Royals, but of soldiers:

The royal is addicted to the music of bands including Megadeth, Slayer, Metallica and Anthrax, according to actor Dominic West.

Dominic, 44, said it was the only music that Harry, 29, would listen to on their recent Walking With The Wounded expedition to the South Pole.

He said: “Harry has a terrible selection on his iPod. It is the sort of thing soldiers listen to. Hardcore thrash metal.”

While none of us want to be stuck in the 1980s, and retro-nostalgia is both embarrassing and makes us hate the future, perhaps it is time for metal to look back at what made speed metal so popular.

First, it did not behave. When the teacher said, “Everyone sit down,” it ran around its desk. When the teacher wanted everyone to play nice with each other, it did not. When someone said “Give peace a chance,” speed metal gave them the finger. It was disobedient, lawless, wild and uncontrolled.

Second, it had musical integrity. Please just say no to either (a) droning three-chord “trve kvlt” retro-metal and (b) droning three-chord “innovative and open-minded” post-metal. It’s musical simplisticism. No one seems against minimalism per se, but when it becomes an excuse to dumb it down, it’s time to leave the hall.

Third, it had a sense of imagination and vision — and abandoning those things crushed it. When Metallica were writing songs about Cthulhu, they were interesting; when they turned to social topics, they got less so. Similarly Slayer was awesome when writing about Satan and vampires but faded out when they started writing about serial killers and politics. (All of Anthrax’s best material is about comic books, and Megadeth is best when either full-on into drugs or full-on into Christ.)

Death metal and black metal at least initially carried on these values but over time got closer to the punk rock that had sold-out, standardized itself and caved in before them. When death metal was 300 intricate but occult nihilist riffs per song, it piqued our attention; when it became three riffs in verse-chorus form it made itself into a parody.

Perhaps our new watchword in metal should be to make music that belongs on Prince Harry’s iPod. As a cultural barometer, he provides a better sense of how metal is doing than most other sources we could consult.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kAzWw7tMQm4

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wvHsX2lSW64

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FgT9dOzsXJ4

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Headhunter D.C. – …In Unholy Mourning…

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At a time when most crosshairs were aimed at Tampa, FL or Sweden as being “death metal capitals” some of us trained our sights further afield to places like Canada and Brazil which to their credit were home to a great number of pioneering bands. Headhunter D.C. are one such band who built a fanbase in their homeland of Brazil but are generally not known outside South America.

With …In Unholy Mourning…, the band crafts the same type of music it made in the 1990s but with better production it can compete with releases from bigger labels. This is part of the ongoing process by which bands from the 1990s are finally availing themselves of more powerful aesthetics. Folks tend to forget that in the 1980s we often found ourselves thinking, “Wouldn’t it be killer to hear so-and-so with a professional production?”

…In Unholy Mourning… may be the most mature release of Headhunter D.C.’s long career, exceeding even the high standard set by the fertile Brazilian scene. Abundant excellent riffs and arrangements pervade this recording and show what we have been missing out on all these years. The second track “Dawn Of Heresy” follows the introductory non-musical piece entitled “Rotten Death Prayer” with classic Acheron-esque opening rythms that chug into the punky skank beats which made death metal the natural bastard-child of metal and punk during the pioneering era.

The album varies pace throughout, accompanied by the vocals of Sergio Baloff which are likely the best output of his career. Guttural death metal howlings spend most of their time at the low end, fluctuating to higher mid-pitched expressions indicative of reading a piece of prose; there’s no monotone drab cupped vocals to be found here and no need for a lyric sheet. Baloff keeps the natural Brazilian flair to his voice and pronunciation yet enunciates the words so they can be easily deciphered. This creates an unusual vocal clarity in a genre where instruments or some other factor normally pollutes the ability to understand the words. He has faced criticism for making his vocal delivery dynamic in this way, showing that perhaps a large part of the listenership would prefer hearing the same thing ten times on the same album.

Magnifying this idea is the inclusion of the almost PERFECT cover of Thrashmassacre’s “Into The Nightmare,” which is more of a deathrash tune saluting the 1980s pre-death metal evolution within Brazilian extreme metal and although obscure became a highlight of the album. You would not immediately think of it as a cover, as it fits well into an album which is replete with tropes of its region, including the group vocal choruses on “Hail The Metal of Death” which are a nod to the glorious times era of Brazilian metal.

Headhunter D.C. deserve praise for coming up with a rewarding end result after obviously throwing their blood, sweat and tears into this effort, especially in a time when metal is so sterile, safe, consumerist and bland. …In Unholy Mourning… is not as slick and geared toward being a product as the new releases you find in glossy magazines and on big internet sites, but instead this is honest music with a fervent message that has finally gotten the production it always deserved.

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Interview: Brian Kirkmeyer who teaches “Metal on Metal: Engineering and Globalization in Heavy Metal Music”

Brian Kirkmeyer

For some time we have delved into academia and its treatment of heavy metal. Today however we take another course, which is to look at the technology of heavy metal and its implications for both society and technology.

Aiding us in this quest is Dr. Brian Kirkmeyer, who teaches “Metal on Metal: Engineering and Globalization in Heavy Metal Music” at Miami University in Oxford, OH. He was good enough to gift us with some of this time explaining the class and his approach to the study of heavy metal.

You’re teaching an engineering class on the advances in technologies and how they have affected heavy metal music. Can you tell us what types of technologies these are? What are the “defining characteristics” of heavy metal that these have impacted?

I focus on the foundational characteristics of loudness and distortion and then expand from there. This means a lot of electronics, from signal generation via pickups and strings to amplification systems to signal modification via pedals, and mechanical design, including materials selection and manufacturing processes. I integrate these and more engineering aspects with the musical and cultural developments that have happened over the past 50 years.

How does global culture factor into this? Are you speaking of communications technologies here? For global culture, it is on a number of different levels.

“Global” for me and my university is really “non-local,” so we mean both around the world and just outside of immediate familiar surroundings. Heavy metal culture is foreign to a lot of my students, so the class is global for those students. We discuss international perceptions and usage of metal as a vehicle for socio-political commentary. We discuss the demographic aspects of metal as compared to that of larger popular musical culture. We discuss tape trading as the precursor to file sharing, and how there is a worldwide impact that affects band popularity and new band formation. It literally hits on about everything I can squeeze into the class about exploring beyond students’ comfort zones and knowledge bases.

What types of heavy metal do you study in the course?

I start with metal’s pre-history (Wagner, the blues, jazz, surf) and go forward from there. I cover about everything…if it’s in Ian Christe’s Sound of the Beast and Sam Dunn’s work, I address it. I spend the most time on the development of the various subgenres, and how certain technologies have manifested at certain points in time, and try to wrap up with more current trends and expected musical pathways. By and large, students don’t know their history of music in general (let alone metal), and so I try to build that history toward what they DO know.

I understand you’re a heavy metal listener, having recently attended a GWAR live show. What types of metal do you listen to? When did you become a metalhead?

I got into metal at age 8 due to Def Leppard’s “On Through the Night,” but didn’t really look the part until I was in eighth grade. I fit the young white male demographic, but I’ve never been blue-collar despite growing up in a union town and becoming an engineer. I mostly like NWOBHM, 70s metal, Thrash, Progressive and various Extreme subgenres, and will listen to about everything. Glam metal is even metal to me (David Lee Roth/Poison was my first show), and it’s a lot of fun. I’ve always wanted to hear more styles and bands, and expose people to more of what I like by introducing them to bands that I think fit their musical tastes. Iron Maiden is my all-time favorite band, and right now I’m into Kyng and Skeletonwitch pretty strongly.

Brian Kirkmeyer

What is, in your view, the historical importance of heavy metal, and does it signal any changes in the underlying course of human history, technological or otherwise?

Heavy metal’s technological importance is huge. If not for people wanting to make music louder, angrier, or more powerful, we would all still be playing six-string guitars and four-string basses and having relatively small amps. Because of metal, there is a ready market for 8-string guitars that engineers have had to figure out how to design and manufacture, along with all of the supported technology that goes with it (larger pickups, more robust bridges, wider necks, etc.). I also think that heavy metal has been a (not necessarily “the”) primary social voice for rebellion, and a more recent vehicle for the drive for social equality in many other countries (see Heavy Metal Islam by Mark LeVine). I’d like to think that the more that people find avenues to release stress and express their views through music, the less we will hear about people shooting up schools and movie theaters. So far, that hasn’t been the case, and so changing the course of human history is still a work in progress.

What has response been like from your students? Are they metalheads?

The students seem to love the class. I’d say that at the start of a given semester, about 20% of the students are metalheads and many of the rest of them take the class because it either sounds interesting, fulfills a math liberal education requirement, or think I’d be fun as an instructor. By the end of the semester, I’ve usually converted (at some level) about half of the non-metalheads into quasi-metalheads or better, and most of the rest have a greater appreciation for metal and its culture. The most satisfying thing, though, is that the class helps break down barriers and stereotypes that students have, and students really start thinking differently about the world around them and their interactions with it. Self-reflection is a HUGE part of the class.

Can you tell us a little bit more about yourself? How did you get involved in academia? What motivated you to be involved with engineering and computing?

Full disclosure…engineering wasn’t my first goal. I wanted to be a stand-up comic (Eddie Murphy was an idol), then an NFL quarterback, then a rock star, and THEN an engineer. I’ve always been in the gifted programs in school, but I was also always the class clown/athlete/music expert too, so I was never part of any particular cliques in school. I started college (Purdue U) with the intent of getting a job as an engineer, despite not really knowing what that meant. I liked to learn new stuff, whatever it was, and I was largely the only engineer in college who cared about liberal education. I decided to get my doctorate in engineering (U of Pennsylvania) because my BS degree job was pretty blah.

My first post-PhD job was managing a lab and working an electron microscope. Never put the class clown/lead singer/QB personality in a dark closed room by themselves… :) My mother-in-law got me to consider academia, as she pointed me to a job (my current one) where my personality was going to be core, and my technical chops were nice to have along for the ride.

I love what I do, because I recruit, advise, teach, help, and everything else that my “social me” needs to do. I’ve earned an endowment to my position because I throw myself and my passion into everything I do here. I’ve got the respect here that allows me to not only propose a heavy metal-and-engineering class, but also get it approved and part of the liberal education plan and have it accepted as an honors course. Now I get to include metal as a regular part of my job, and it’s GREAT!

Brian Kirkmeyer

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Pentagram (CL) – The Malefice

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Imagine you’ve returned to those magic years between 1985 and 1987. Thrash exploded, followed by speed metal and then the nascent proto-death/black bands are emerging. Almost everything is tinged with Metallica since they are looking like the first band of this ilk to make it out of the underground and into mainstream record stores.

Pentagram (CL) comes to us from those formative years but with two different versions of that time. The first is the second disc in the set, which re-records seven classic tracks using modern production and instrumental know-how. The second is the “first” disc in this set, which is thirteen new songs. While both derive from the fertile era of the middle 1980s, they each take different approaches, with the first disc actually showing more of what this band can do.

At their core these songs have not yet transitioned from speed metal to death metal. These are fundamentally based on the rhythmic riff, not the phrasal riff, and are oriented toward using choppy sounds not booming or columnar ones. However, this enables Pentagram (CL) to layer lead guitars over rhythm guitars, vocals over drums, and then to suspend them selectively, creating what is effectively a technique of adding textural depth to regulate intensity. What that requires is a fairly constant rhythm, thus both verse and chorus riffs and their various transitional riffs use very similar patterns. This pattern applies to both discs.

The second disc may be the more anticipated in the underground as these songs never made it out of the demo stages back in the 1980s when they were written. While we like to be production-agnostic as underground metalheads, because the nature of being “underground” is that you cadge production and promotion where you can, not where is optimal, it is often hard to hear what’s going on. These re-produced songs show a gentle hand in keeping their nature intact while playing them as they were always meant to be played, which is with some technical flair amidst the straightforward riffs and aggressive vocals. It is great to hear these songs ride again and to hear them in the context with demos from Possessed, Sepultura, Kreator, Destruction and Rigor Mortis who were at roughly the same time exploring a similar sound.

However, ultimately this reviewer found more to listen to in the first disc. It reminds me of the moments after a party where, the excitement having faded, analysis kicks in — and it’s from that, and not the frenzy of the moment, that emotion really comes. This is a retrospective of the 1980s not in terms of its surface traits but an attempt to get to its root, which is the massive sense of being in transition. These songs deliberately hover on the edge of death metal, and also on the edge of returning to the days of Venom and Motorhead, but also gesture at something else. A sense of suspended belief, the potential for anything to emerge from any moment, and an instability that calls forth primal conflict suffuses these songs. They use styling that may be from the farther side of that 1985-1987 window and apply it in a way that is not “modern” in the sense of metal now, but more fully mature, like the death metal to follow while retaining their speed metal core.

Hearing these two discs together is not the ridiculous time machine sensation of Hollywood movies but more like a re-visitation of the events that made the time so much of what it was. The first disc, showing newer songwriting, has a steadier hand. It would benefit from the tighter assembly which threw out anything too repetitive or tangential shown by the second disc, which has songs stripped down for bear as if played by a rogue guerrilla group wandering in the mountains, pursued by a vastly better equipped army. While these songs use the distorted vocals of underground metal, it is more accurate to see this band in the context of the generation before, when nothing had quite taken form and the bands wanted to make a statement underscoring the wisdom of that principle.

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Burial Hordes – Incendium

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Some modern “black metal” is superior to others; and not all of it is created by flannel-wearing, latte-drinking hipsters (just around 70%). Thankfully, there are some albums around that will not turn the listener androgynous after a single spin.

Greek black metal band Burial Hordes’ recently released album, Incendium, takes a death metal flavored approach to the modern black metal problem. Carrying on the early Incantation/Profanatica and Demoncy single-string riffing style, the band updates it to the millennium’s expectations: production is clean, ambiguous arpeggiated deviations abound, and linear tremolo-picked guitar lines rise above the churning mass below. Vocals have more in common with death metal than any other genre.

Doubtless this album will achieve some measure of success, as it adequately fulfills several niche roles: death metal riffs for “old-school” fans, whilst the newer will be entertained by experiencing a presentation that challenges them while simultaneously remaining in a place safe enough to understand.

Indeed, that last part is the most damaging criticism of this release: it does not attack the listener in the ways the aforementioned bands did; it remains heavy, but essentially pleasant music to listen to. For that reason it remains unclear how long this album (and genre) will endure, as the less dedicated fans will eventually leave to whatever new release is in the press next week, consigning each modern black metal release to a week of interest before being retired to a dark corner on the shelf.

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