Death metal requires from its artists more than finding two parts in harmony that complement each other. It requires the creation of a visual experience, or a topographic one, through the interaction between riffs themselves. It helps to remove harmony from this equation and to use melody, harmony and other techniques selectively to highlight certain functions of the riff, like techniques used in language when writing a novel. This restores the ideas or sensations behind music to their rightful place, and puts the charms of music in their rightful place of servitude to the experience — sensation producing mentation — of music itself. (more…)
Former extreme shoegaze/indie band Wolves in the Throne Room released a lengthy track from their upcoming album Celestite Mirror. This time they follow the path of cosmic synth bands like Tangerine Dream, Neptune Tower and Jääportit. The new Wolves in the Throne Room uses of the flexible and grand sound of synthesizers to write sci-fi symphony that invokes a celestial world above our head.
Unlike Tangerine Dream and Neptune Tower, Wolves in the Throne Room demonstrate a clearer melodic pattern. Through the method of successive repetition and progress like a serial of logical thoughts, the music maintains the organizational strength of metal music while adding melodic development and an expansion of mood beyond the intense surging power of guitars. As a result, Celestite Mirror advances the heritage established by Tangerine Dream and Neptune Tower.
Whether Celestite Mirror emerges as a strong fusion of metal and cosmic ambient or not, it merits our anticipation. Metal possesses a will to catch up with classical music and always has, which is what the core fans of this genre expect and hope for too. The new Wolves in the Throne Room might fulfill the vision we dreamed of all these years.
Heavy metal is a strange case, then. The music sprouted originally from working-class kids in economically ravaged, deindustrialized places like Birmingham, England. Even today, it seems to be most popular among disadvantaged, alienated, working-class kids.
But take a look at the map below, which I wrote about two years ago, and have been thinking again about over the past couple of months. It tracks the number of heavy metal bands per 100,000 residents using data from the Encyclopaedia Metallum. The genre holds less sway in the ravaged postindustrial places of its birth, but remains insanely popular in Scandinavian countries known for their relative wealth, robust social safety nets, and incredibly high quality of life.
This should surprise no one. Heavy metal is not a reaction to external physical challenges like poverty, but a reaction to cultural decay. It exclusively arises in industrial societies, as did punk, because our problem is not that we do not have options but that we — in the view of these artists — picked the wrong options. Heavy metal is music of internal criticism of a society that believes it has lost sight of life itself in the midst of its own opinions, economics and other proxies.
Heavy metal inherited all of this through a modern form because of its desire to escape the cognitive dissonance reaction to modern life. In part, this impulse comes from the metalhead who realizes that he or she is basically powerless, except in a future time when predictions about the negative nature of modern society will come true. Of course, in the now, parents brush that aside and go shopping, stockpiling retirement funds so they can carelessly wish their children a good life before disappearing into managed care facilities with 24-hour cable movie channels. A more fundamental part of this dissident realism is creative. People who see most of society going into denial because they cannot handle their low social status, the dire future of human overpopulation and industrialization, and the negative motivations hiding beneath social pretense, aka “cognitive dissonance,” will often mourn most for the opportunities lost when people value putting their heads in the sand more than finding beauty in life. It is the convergence of these ideas that creates the violent and masculine but sensitive, Romantic side to metal: it is a genre of finding beauty in darkness, order in chaos, wisdom in horror, and restoring humanity to a path of sanity — by paying attention to the “heavy” things in life that, because they are socially denied, are left out of the discussion but continue to shape it through most people’s desire to avoid mentioning them.
This same principle underlies classic European and Greco-Roman art and music, the idea of an aggressive and warlike but wise and sensitive motivation that is both religious and scientific, peaceful and belligerent, because it understands a principle of order to the universe and asserts it because it is beautiful in that it is a “meta-good,” or the harmonious result of darkness and light in conflict. For this reason, it is not moral in the sense of judging as good or evil, and neither fits into the hippie “peace, love and hedonism” approach nor the conservative, market- bound ignorance-is-bliss smoke and mirrors of mainstream music and bourgeois art. Unlike any other musical principle, the one thing that unites the varied borrowings from baroque, rock, jazz, blues, folk, country, classical and electronic music that form heavy metal is this Romantic principle of doing what is right not in a moral sense to the individual, but in a sense of the larger questions of human adaptation to the universe, the conceptual root of “heavy” in metal and what throughout history has been called by a simple syllable: “vir,” the root of virtue in a sense older than a modern moral interpretation as chastity. Vir is doing what is right by the order of the universe discerned by asking the “heavy” questions, and speaks to an abstract structure of right as opposed to an aesthetic one, where the individual picks the non- threatening as an option to the threatening.
The point behind heavy metal is to discover the life that is denied. That is the “heavy,” or that which acknowledges existential doubts and fears instead of burying them behind socially popular ideas. This is why heavy metal is such outsider music: it sees most people as delusional because they deny the mechanics of life itself because those mechanics are dark, so it embraces the darkness to show us the wisdom found within.
Dutch death metallers Sinister return in 2014 with The Post-Apocalyptic Servant. Sinister is a band most notable for the classic death metal offering Cross the Styx which wielded basic yet effective death metal. The quality of their releases waned since that time and after their ’98 effort Aggressive Measures, the flame became an ember (as is the common fate of early death metal bands).
Twenty one years after their debut, Sinister progresses their decline with this album. The riffs — while intense and biting — lack context, making the songs bland and disingenuous. This is an album of “moments”: no song on this album is good in its entirety, but certain details stand out. This isn’t the musical journey that death metal is supposed to convey; this is an exhibit of a handful of decent riffs spread out over the course of an underwhelming ten track album. Even their cover of “Fall From Grace” is lackluster and forced. It’s also an album that gets progressively worse as it plays through, like a runner sinking in quicksand.
The production is just as unsatisfying as the album itself. Completely synthetic and somewhat reminiscent of modern tech-death bands with the only trace of atmosphere emanating from the leitmotif at the beginning and end of the album. Everything else sounds like it was put together in a factory with some spare parts laying around. The result is an album that does not hold up. Memorable riffs without structures that could give them the life they need create a vicious, but not captivating, attempt at a comeback.
Defining metal has never been easy in part because as time has gone on, all techniques have migrated to just about all genres. For this reason, describing it by loud guitars, screaming vocals and pounding drums reveals very little. Instead, we have to inspect what holds metal together and makes these elements so powerful: its spirit.
Unlike the various popular music genres, metal is not focused on the experience of the individual, but the negation of it. This is metal’s nihilism: it destroys the idea of any thing having absolute authority or inherent meaning. Instead, meaning is where it is found, but it must fit within the whole vision of the world, which boots out most of the self-focused material.
As Black Sabbath created the rudiments of the genre, they referred to the dark soundtracks to horror films. In these, there is a fascination with final states. They look toward death, destruction and a mythological-historical view to determine how any human activity fares. This flew in the face of the flower power music of the late 1960s, and brought a dose of dark realism to the debate. But it also brought a sense of epic adventure, swords ‘n’ sorcery type material, inherited from its pursuit of meaning that cannot be negated.
What emerges from that proto-metal and all (honest) metal since is a focus on triumph and dark love. There is a world of nothingness, swirling horror and eternal emptiness, and then there are those who make something of this. They find triumph in overcoming their limitations to connect to the viewpoint of the mythological-historical, like metal’s two largest influences, H.P. Lovecraft and J.R.R. Tolkien. There is a search for that which overcomes our individual situations in life and unites us, a quest for survival itself.
As part of this, metal embraces a dark love. When a pilot flies a military jet high above his homeland, he feels this dark love. At any minute, a single twitch of the stick could bring about unthinkable disaster, death and destruction. And yet those forces must be corralled and used toward positive ends, much as how metal makes beauty out of the loud distorted sounds of guitars and tortured screams of its vocalists. The love is dark because it is not universal nor is it certain; instead, it rests in the ability to do something great in times of degradation.
Dark love is what a hunter feels as he cuts down some prey and not others. It is what a farmer feels as he prunes his trees, or what a king experiences as he leads his forces into battle. It is what great thinkers know, as they look at history and attempt to steer a path between the disasters of the past toward a future force of promise. It is a love that reaches beyond method to goals, and shows individuals how to rise above fear and reach toward something ineffable, with the promise of triumph.
Where metal fails is when it becomes focused on the individual. Songs of protest, or songs of individual karmic drama, do not reflect dark love but a desire for certainty and absolutes. Metal negates these. Instead, it shows us a world of uncertainty and ambiguity where nothing can last, except that which is eternal and larger than the individual. It is this “largeness” that we often fear as humans because it makes us insignificant.
Although most live in fear of these truths, metal harnesses them. It casts aside the devices we have invented to help obscure our fears, and looks into the abyss, hoping to sculpt with nothingness a great work that instead reveals an inner light. This light is not absolute, but derived from the interplay of nothingness and eternity. It is cosmic, mythological, epic and mystical. It is the adventure of life itself.
In the mid-late 80s death metal was still a vital force in which the standards of the genre were established. The new genre differentiated itself from speed metal several years before, but techniques common to both genres still overlapped without seeming artificial as they would when re-introduced later to make death metal more audience-friendly. This period gave rise to many bands which command universal respect today, but there were also a number of smaller projects which nevertheless imparted the same artistic drive and skill.
Recently reissued Incubus self-titled EP Incubus takes a short three-track voyage through the hinterlands of death metal’s darker yet constructive twisting of prior genre forms. Taking the work of Slayer, Hellhammer/Celtic Frost, and other proto-death metal bands, and moving it into more extreme directions, this is the same trajectory from which Morbid Angel spawned an entire lineage within the genre.
Adept at tempo shifts, in addition to a layering of guitar tones ranging from the subterranean to the celestial, in only three tracks Incubus wrangles a distinctive creation with the trademark frenetic energy of death metal and the more hookish speed metal. Artistically coherent in a way that is rarely if ever seen today, this reminder of genuine purpose married to cultivated skill is very much worth hearing again, or particularly for the first time. Incubus will be released on June 16th via Vic Records.
The movement that some are calling “neoambient” — a fusion of dark ambient, Conan soundtracks, and neofolk — generally arose out of the metal community. The classics of the genre converge on Lord Wind (Graveland), Burzum and Black Aria (Glenn Danzig). In addition, metal bands contributed to related forms of epic ambient, like Beherit (Electric Doom Synthesis) and Neptune Towers (Darkthrone). Newer entrants like Winglord and Hammemit explore different paths along similar directions.
But how do we trace the influences and evolution of this genre? Glenn Danzig (Misfits, Samhain, Danzig) launched a partial revolution in 1992 with his Conan-inspired Black Aria. Several years later, Burzum followed this with Daudi Baldrs and Hlidskjalf, both of which used Dead Can Dance-themed ancient world music to frame the epic nature of its compositions, giving it a feel not just of Conan-styled epic conflict, but of a cultural basis.
There’s another influence lurking just a few years before Danzig — affirmed by Rob Darken as an influence on his music in Lord Wind — which was the music of Clannad as used in the BBC series Robin of Sherwood:
Much of what attracts newcomers to the heavy metal world is the ferocity of mythology in metal. The unsafe world of endless possibilities that this music projects can be especially attractive to the daring and inquisitive soul. That it further bonds itself to a mysticism of heroes and giants fighting for existential domination of reality itself gives it a gravitas and yet engaging playfulness. And like the dark thrill of a glory ride into Armageddon the sole ’87 demo from Quebecois speed metallers Yog Sothots is a feral litany of war.
Much like the Canadian war metal that would come later, (and to a lesser extent, the hammering simplicity of Von) Yog Sothots deliver a crushing blast of speed metal that is more aligned with the extreme metal that was at the time developing, rather than the tamer likes of earlier bands which had found mainstream acceptance just that year. These songs explode in a fury of whirling carnage that builds intensity like a town tormented by a mighty and growing thunderstorm. The primal nature of this demo combined with the organic and low-fi production makes this a savage though somewhat predictable journey.
The only drawback here is that many of these songs seem to struggle with developing an identity of their own, and tend to grow stale upon repeated listens (the same curse that struck Sodom’s debut). Caught between the developing speed metal tendencies of non-mainstream metal contemporary to its origins and the more focused yet rule-less rage of black and death metal, this Canadian band opted for a compromise. Yog Sothots was swallowed by time, and honestly, better acts. Still, this is a worthy effort and deserving of praise. Though this demo is far from perfect, it captures the true spirit of metal: a headlong dive into the abyss, spawned by the curiosity of what might be found.
When the guitarist Marty Friedman auditioned for Megadeth, singer Dave Mustaine loved his playing but told his manager to get Friedman to change his name because Jews were ‘not metal’
Can Jews ‘be metal’?
Certainly, crude stereotypes of the Jewish male – weak, bookish, awkward, hypochondriac – and crude stereotypes of the metal male – sexually promiscuous, loud and tough – seem to be in conflict. Yet not only do these stereotypes hide the considerable diversity amongst both Jews and metallers (to say nothing of their gendered nature), there is a significant history of Jewish involvement in metal culture.
Jews have featured prominently in significant numbers of prominent metal bands, including Kiss, Anthrax, Biohazard, Death and Guns N Roses. Moreover, in at least some cases, the Jewish backgrounds of metal musicians has impacted on their careers, as in the networks of communal and family support that Anvil drew on during their long commercial decline. Further, there have also been metal bands that have drawn on Jewish sources and themes, including Israeli acts such as Orphaned Land and Salem and a number of more obscure artists in the US.
Yet whilst there has been a more than nominal Jewish involvement in metal, the significance and impact of this involvement is much less clear. What might looking at metal through a Jewish lens and Jewishness through a metal lens bring to light? A sustained consideration of the relationship between Jews and metal will illuminate this hidden history while at the same time raising wider issues in the nature of Jewish and metal identity and culture.
We invite contributions from academics, critics, writers musicians and others, for a volume dedicated to explore the connection between metal and Jews from a number of different perspectives. We welcome both non-fiction and fiction.
Themes can include:
The history of the Jewish presence in metal.
The use of Jewish themes in metal
Israeli metal scenes
The relationship between Satanism, anti-Semitism and Judaism as explored in metal
Anti-semitism within metal scenes
Reading/hearing metal through a Jewish lens – is a Jewish metal criticism possible?
Jewish community attitudes to metal
Please submit abstracts of 200-250 words (by September 30 2014), and inquiries to:
Shamma Boyarin email@example.com
Keith Kahn-Harris firstname.lastname@example.org
The anthemic, direct energy form of death metal is one of the most recognizable strains of the many sub-groupings within the genre. Possibly the most popular type of death metal, it bridges the gap from heavy and speed metal to more developed and darker forms of metal. For most listeners, this zone stretches from Judas Priest Painkiller to Morbid Angel Covenant with many stops in between.
On Sacrilegious Fornication, Italian death metal band Horrid go back to this method of composition (along with ubiquitous Sunlight Studious production) in an attempt to root their latest album in traditional, tried & true death metal creation. Taking inspiration from bands such as (early) Death, Massacra, and Entombed, the well-crafted balance between melody and ferocity that each band embodied is preserved.
By keeping relatively straightforward time, rhythms are simple enough to understand at first listen, freeing the mind to appreciate the whole of the composition without being thrown off by faux-complexity. While simple, riffs are not low-minded, as the phrasal nature of them trancends verse-chorus limitations and provides the framework for vocals and drums to fit in on either side of the melee, merging into technological barrages that wind their way through a journey of war and death.
Some critics may wish to dismiss bands such as Horrid for being just another “Entombed clone” among dozens. While it’s true that there isn’t much to laud here as being “unique,” what instead can be appreciated is the quality of the music, its careful arrangement, and the enjoyment of listening to an album that respects the higher forms of death metal and wishes to preserve them into the present generation.