Why zines are coming back big time

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People say what they hope will be true and the grand visions printed about the internet back in the 90s are no exception. While most of us were hoping for Neuromancer on our home computers, more “mature” people saw the internet as an emerging market. They cynically promised as a new age where anyone could publish to the internet. It would be a new age free of domination by big media and a marketplace of ideas, they said.

Fast-forward to the time when those predictions would have come true and we see a far different reality. Information overload renders the internet mostly useless. With so many sites dumping information on the masses, the ones that succeed are the ones who get mentioned in the traditional media. Thus in metal media, the big internet sites are dependent on label money. Labels advertise, sites repeat, then that gets quoted in advertising and the audience, figuring the site must be a big deal, flocks to it.

This means that the big metal sites have exactly the same problems big media did back in the 1980s. If a band is good but not popular with a huge spectrum of people and thus high-margin profitable, it doesn’t get mentioned. We’re right back where we were before the internet, except information overload makes it even harder to find the information of real importance, which is focus on the good metal bands whether vastly popular or not.

As I observed in a review of a rising zine, the days of big internet media are giving way to the return of zines:

Many of us old school death metal fans watched the rise of zine Codex Obscurum with growing interest because it, like Glorious Times and Underground Never Dies!, represents an attempt to look back at the underground and figure out what made it as powerful as it was. Part of the answer is selectivity, which is a gentle person’s form of “elitism,” meaning that one selects quality over quantity and vigorously promotes and defends the quality. This is what zines did, what radio shows did, and what labels did, back in the day, by choosing some bands over others. The vague smell of blood in the air is the shadow of long-forgotten predation and natural selection that also shaped us as humans, which means not so much “survival of the fittest” but that all who make a meaningful contribution get kicked upstairs and everyone else is forgotten.

Most people had a problem with this. After all, it’s one lone guy screaming at the last 20 years of media consultant wisdom. But sometimes nature favors the brave (and correct) and so this idea is gaining traction. Witness this recent piece by Marc Andreesen, one of the authors of NCSA Mosaic (Mozilla Firefox’s great-grandfather) and now a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley:

On the Internet, there’s no limit to the number of outlets or voices in the news chorus. So quality can easily coexist with crap. All can thrive in their respective markets—and there’s a market for garbage, too. The good news is this: The more noise, confusion and crap, the more the need for trusted guides, respected experts and quality brands.

The vital sentence there is: The more noise, confusion and crap, the more the need for trusted guides, respected experts and quality brands.

  • The “noise, confusion and crap” applies to the broken ecosystem where blogs depend on label publicity for support and thus the only blogs that rise to the top are the ones who run the party line. The bigger internet sites are useless unless you want label propaganda. This includes Wikipedia and Metal-Archives, who insist on “verified” information which means a predisposition to believe the press releases over actuality.
  • The “trusted guides, respected experts and quality brands” describe those who make a name for themselves by knowing good from bad. Trusted guides are like reviewers at your favorite zine; respected experts are book authors, radio DJs and other people with intense knowledge of metal history; quality brands are labels that “can do no wrong,” much like Osmose Productions during the early days of black metal or Drowned Records back int he death metal days.

What this points to is a resurgence in zines and niche/specialty websites that are not sponsored by labels or media. Those represent the true promise of both the internet and the DIY publishing revolution that launched zines back in the 60s and 70s. Even more, it points to a “singularity” where the internet is recognized as not being what it was sold as, and consumers retreat except for a relatively small group of people who inhabit the net like nerds (4chan, NWN/FMP, Facebook).

After all, the internet is in trouble because time is revealing its advertising model to be bogus metrics based on warm bodies instead of actual attention by people with the ability to buy. More than half of online video ads are not seen, and A small group of people account for most of the activity on the internet which means that advertising is pitching to this group, not buyers, which is one reason why internet advertising continues to have dubious results. Users hate it and it’s easy to ignore.

One possibility is that like many industries before it, the metal industry is flush with cash and has more coming in if it just keeps shipping product regardless of quality. Thus a bubble has been created where money is going toward strategies that don’t actually work or only work with a limited or captive audience. This bubble produces a disconnect between the audience the labels and blogs see, and the larger audience of real-life (“IRL”) people who actually enjoy this music and will buy it — if someone points them to the quality stuff, not just whatever crap the labels are pushing this week.

All of this means that zines have an expanding audience before them. People want experts. Metal zines that are writing consistent reviews that sort good from bad on the basis of the music alone, and that don’t follow the underground trends that are the parallel equivalent of the big label propaganda, will be in high demand. My guess is that they will abandon most of the “underground-style” aesthetic and streamline it into something more reproducible, and focus on more issues at lower cost rather than big ornate rarities.

For metal, this means great opportunity. Metal thrives where it is highly selective. This is because it is easy to make metal, but hard to make good metal. Further, unlike “pure music” genres like jazz and fusion, metal is highly content-driven. This means that songs must imitate and explicate some phenomenon found in the world or in our minds, and thus must be more poetic than the simple jams of other bands. All of this means that we need more of those “trusted guides” in metal than are currently being offered.

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Death metal albums of which I will never tire

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Early death metal (Bathory, Slayer, Hellhammer, Sodom, Master) emerged as an aggregate of the past, comprised of speed metal (Metallica, Exodus, Nuclear Assault, Testament, Megadeth), late hardcore (Cro-Mags, Amebix, Discharge, The Exploited, GBH), classic heavy metal (Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Motorhead) and thrash (DRI, COC, Cryptic Slaughter). As a result, most death metal bands exhibited some tendencies more than others, although the founding early death metal bands tended toward the type of tremolo-powered phrase-based riffing exemplified by Slayer.

For example, Deicide on its second album Legion arguably made the album that …And Justice For All wanted to be, with lots of choppy percussive riffing forming intricate textures from which a melody emerged. Early Master sounded more like a punk band with its simple song structures and emphasis on droning, protest-like vocals. Second-wave death metal like Death and Possessed had a tendency to apply speed metal song structures and riff styles. Even advanced death metal like Pestilence often sounded like a more technical and complex version of early speed metal.

But focusing on death metal requires we look at what was unique to it. Getting past the vocals and the intensity, what distinguishes it musically is its use of that tremolo-strummed phrasal riff. This in turn forced bands to escape from riffs integrated strictly with drums, and to as a result put more riffs into the song to drive changes that previous would have been done by the drums. That in turn forced bands to make those riffs fit together, what Asphyx call “riff-gluing,” so that songs avoided the “riff salad” plague that captured later speed metal.

These bands exploded onto the world from 1983-1985, inspired in part by Discharge’s Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing which hit the ground in 1982. Slayer in particular stitched together classic heavy metal and ambient hardcore like Discharge and GBH and ended up with its particular formulation, taking the tremolo and riffs independent of drums from Discharge and matching them to the complex proggy structures of Judas Priest and Iron Maiden with Motorhead speed and aggression. This was what launched death metal free from the shadow of speed metal, which was the first metal genre to break out of underground status despite being — for the time — fast, aggressive and dark.

If you want to get to the core of death metal, these albums might help. They’re albums I keep returning to year after year because they have enough complexity and that unquantifiable quality of having purpose and being expressive, perhaps even emulating the life around them and converting it into a beast of mythological quality, which makes them interesting each time I pick them up. Without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, the players….

Slayer – Show No Mercy

While Hell Awaits has more expert composition, South of Heaven better control of mood and melody, and Reign in Blood more pure rhythmic intensity, Show No Mercy captures Slayer flush with the fervor of youth and the belief in big concepts. As a result, it is an intensity mystical album, uniting a narrative about war between good and evil with the actions of people on earth. It is not like Hell Awaits more solidly situated in a single mythology, nor like Reign in Blood and after an attempt to explore the dark side of modern existence in a literal sense. Instead, it is a flight of imagination mated to an apocalyptic vision of a society crumbling from within. As a result it is musically the most imaginative of Slayer albums, creating grand constructions of visions of worlds beyond that stimulate the fantasy dwelling within our otherwise obedient minds.

Massacra – Enjoy the Violence

Another early album in very much the style of Slayer but with intensity cranked to the ceiling, Enjoy the Violence shows a band intent on conveying intense energy through their music. To do this, they rely on not only near-constant breakneck speed but also vivid contrasts between the types of riffs that are used in a song, welding a rich narrative from riffs that initially seem simple like the scattered twisted bits of metal left after a battle. The result is closer to epic poem that punk music and blows conventional heavy metal and speed metal out of the water with the sense of unbridled aggression and lust for life that surges through its passages. In addition, it carries on the mythological tradition of Slayer but adds a Nietzschean spin whereby constant war for supremacy and domination is the only path not only to victory, but to personal integrity.

Morbid Angel – Abominations of Desolation

Most prefer the more refined versions of these songs from Altars of Madness and Blessed Are the Sick, but my ear favors these nuanced and unsystematic detail-heavy songs which feature more of a blending of textures into what sounds like a communication from another world heard underwater or through the croaking voice of a medium. Trey Azagthoth’s solos were best when he used his half-whole step leaps to make solos that sounded like the creation of gnarly sculptures, and these songs powered by Mike Browning’s drums and voice have more of an organic jauntiness to them than the later mechanistic tanks-crushing-the-shopping-mall sound of the full albums. In addition, this combination of songs strays from the later more interruption-based riffing this band would attempt and instead brings out their inner desire to rip all ahead go at all times, creating a suspension of reality like war itself.

Incantation – Onward to Golgotha

When the idea comes to mind of death metal at its essence, this album will be mentioned because it creates a sound unlike anything else. Incantation took the Slayer riff and song formula and slowed it down, doubled the complexity, and focused on alternating tempos and riff styles to create a building mood of immersive darkness. The result was not only aggressive, but melancholic and contemplative, like a warrior looking out over an abandoned bullet-pocked city. Detuned riffs collide and deconstruct one another, resulting in a sound like the inexorable flow of black water through underground caverns as civilizations collapse above. This rare group of musicians achieved a triumph here that none have been able to repeat individually, suggesting this album was born of a magic confluence of ideas more than a process (ham sandwiches on a conveyor belt).

Carnage – Dark Recollections

If you want “the Swedish sound” at its most powerful, Dark Recollections offers every component synthesized into a package that has not yet had time to become self-critical and neurotic, and thus is an unfettered expression of the thoughts of precocious adolescents translated into sound. The components of Swedish death metal are the modified d-beat, the use of melody to expand song development, a gritty electric explosion of guitar sound, and a tendency to write songs that are half searing budget riff and half horror movie sound track.

Sepultura – Morbid Visions/Bestial Devastation

The first EP in this two-EP package is the more classic death metal version and packs a solid blast of inventive riffcraft staged with theatrical precision into songs that form narratives of the topics denoted in their titles. But the riffs are instant creations of their own, shaped from raw chromaticism and whipped into fury by two levels of rhythm, both in the change of chords and the texturing of the sounding of them. The result owes quite a bit to Slayer, Bathory and Hellhammer, but also to the punk hardcore underlying those acts and a good knowledge of dark metal of the time, and yet is still its own animal. Nothing sounds like this except it, and by giving itself a unique voice, it conjures a power of revelation that endows these songs with lasting enjoyment for the listener.

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The problem of commercialism in metal

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Some will tell you that metal cannot sell out because metal is not a large financial enterprise. The question then is, “What is large?” because if a genre supports dozens of labels, has top-grossing tours, and tens of thousands of bands, it seems that someone is getting paid more than they would otherwise.

But don’t take it from us. Look at what commercialization has done to another genre:

I was so blown away by the first “Star Wars” film when I saw it in 1977, I went back two more times the same week to wallow in its space age fantasy. But here’s the thing: George Lucas’ creation, basically a blown-up Flash Gordon adventure with better special effects, has left all too many people thinking science fiction is some computer graphics-laden space opera/western filled with shootouts, territorial disputes, evil patriarchs and trusty mounts (like the Millennium Falcon).

“Star Wars” has corrupted people’s notion of a literary genre full of ideas, turning it into a Saturday afternoon serial. And that’s more than a shame — it’s an obscenity.

He has a point, and reveals a situation parallel to that of metal. Sci-fi was too hardcore and dry for most readers, but then if you add in princesses in skimpy costumes, wookies and light sabers, suddenly it’s… an action movie with soap opera aspects. The audience can tune into that, and so can all the basement greebos who will cosplay, imitate and nerd it to death.

Metal was also originally too hardcore and dense for most listeners, but then if you added in the drama of burning churches and murders, people could really get into that wacky far-out identity. Suddenly it’s hard rock with distorted vocals and Satan. The audience can tune into that, and so all the basement neckbeards emerge to record collect and/or emo it to death.

Two sides rapidly form in any debate: one side says we should have purity of essence of what is being done, and the other side thinks that this principle should be more malleable in order to support social popularity and commerce. I say stick with the purity of essence: metal was built on years of accumulated knowledge, and turning it into entertainment flushes that all down the drain.

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Interview with D.X. Ferris, author of Slayer’s Reign in Blood (33 1/3)

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The second of May makes many of us uneasy because we remember the death of Jeff Hanneman, composer and architect of the Slayer approach to mythological alienation. The world isn’t the same without him, and many of us felt like we had lost a parent, since when adults refuse to grow up and speak honestly about life, children have to turn to other sources of information. Hanneman made sense of the modern world, no matter how apocalyptic the outlook ultimately turned out to be.

We are fortunate to get a few words in with D.X. Ferris, author of the books Slayer’s Reign in Blood (33 1/3) and Slayer 66 2/3: The Jeff & Dave Years. A Metal Band Biography. Ferris has spent the last several years writing about Slayer and understands the importance of this historic act not just to metal, but to the society around us all. Read on for the inner truths of writing about Slayer on this day we commemorate Hanneman’s life.

You’ve written two books on Slayer. What’s your relationship to Slayer? When did it begin?

My life is very clearly divided into Before Slayer and Since Slayer. I tell the story in my first book: Over the years, I had edged toward metal. I thought Metallica was as hard & heavy as it got. Then I read a review of Hell Awaits, and the review talked it up like a thrash masterpiece. So bought it. The first time I played it, it started with that big three-minute slow intro. I thought I had bought a bad album based on a bad review. But then the track kicked into the thrash part, and it was the universe cracked and a new dimension opened. And almost 30 years later, here I am, talking about Slayer.

Over the ’90s, I wasn’t as into metal as I was and am, but Slayer always stayed with me. My college notebooks are filled with Slayer lyrics and pentagrams. After college, when I’d sit in meetings, I looked like I was taking notes, but half the time, I was sketching Slayer logos — that’s one of the reasons why the new paperback looks like it does.

And the older I get, the more the band means to me. I think it’s curious how people get old and forget about metal. When you’re younger, metal is great music for when you’re pissed off. But when you get older and you have to deal with questionable coworkers and pinhead middle managers, that’s when you really need angry music. Slayer is always here for you!

How did you become a writer?

Writing is my one rare ability. I have tried doing literally everything else I though I could do: being a businessman in a suit, bartending, entering a doctoral program for corporate communication. Writing just keeps dragging me back to it. I wrote for school newspapers. I used the school newspaper as an outlet for record reviews. And gradually parlayed those clips into paying gigs as a writer.

Are you a metal fan “in general,” a Slayer fan or a writer who found this topic intriguing?

I primarily identify as A Metal Guy. I love a lot of other music. In high school, I was deeply into hardcore and punk, too. But I had long hair and the metal outfit: denim and some leather. In the picture I sent, that’s my same Anthrax back-patch from high school. The last three albums I bought were Triptykon, Behemoth, and High School Musical 2. Hey, I have kids. I could have scored free promo copies, but those dudes deserve my money.

What do you think is Slayer’s cultural impact?

Great question. Early in the book, I say “This is Slayer’s world, and we’re just living in it.” Look around is: The Twilight series is a phenomenon. It’s about vampires. There are four vampire shows in primetime TV — well, three now that NBC canceled Dracula. Walking Dead is the most popular TV show with young audiences. Game of Thrones is the most popular HBO show since The Sopranos, and it is metal as hell. In fact, I write weekly Heavy Metal Reviews of it for a website called Diffuser.fm, where I evaluate how metal the episode was. Since the days of Hell Awaits, long hair, violence, the undead, and the supernatural have saturated society. And that’s just the fantasy aspect, not to mention the fact that we’ve been at war over a decade.

Can you trace all that directly to Slayer? Maybe not. But they sure were ahead of the curve.

Your first Slayer-themed book appears to be Slayer’s Reign in Blood (33 1/3). What can you tell us about this book, and how did you end up being the one to write it?

I was a fan of the series. Each book is by a different author, writing about a single classic album, from the Beach Boys to the Beastie Boys. And something about it just called me and made me think “Go write a Slayer book for it.” I would have liked to write the Beastie Boys one, but Dan LeRoy beat me to it. When I looked down the list, I saw there was no metal in the series. So I pitched Reign. I knew it was a stretch. But, one, I thought there should be some metal. Two, if you look at the people who made the record, the album is an intriguing nexus in the history of rock: It was produced by Rick Rubin, who was known strictly as a rap guy at the time. It was his first rock record. And he would go on to work with about 10% of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee groups. Engineer Andy Wallace mixed everybody, basically, from Nirvana to Guns ‘N Roses. It was released on the rap label Def Jam. So it was the perfect metal choice, because the album reaches beyond metal.

Did writing this book change how you viewed Slayer?

It did. With pretty much any group, when you really dig into the credits and start crunching numbers, you realize that your impressions of the band aren’t necessarily right. Like, there are a lot of Who fans who assume Roger Daltrey wrote the words, because he’s the singer. I thought I knew a lot about the band, but it was really interesting to see how the leadership roles changed over the years, and how the artistic division of labor changed over time. And with the splits between Dave Lombardo and the band… Well, when I started the second book, I was partial to one side of the division. And when I was done, I had switched sides.

Last year, you unveiled Slayer 66 2/3: The Jeff & Dave Years. A Metal Band Biography. This looks to be more of a historical book. How did you come up with material, and what’s in it?

It’s a combination of new research, material that was breaking news at the time, and great stuff that wouldn’t fit in the first book: They wanted 25,000 words, I wrote 67,000, and they took 42,000. The new book is 110,000 words, with 59 chapters, 33 photos, 3 indexes (2 in the paperback), and 400 footnotes. Its full title is Slayer 66 & 2/3: The Jeff & Dave Years, A Metal Band Biography. From Birth to Reborn, Including Slaytanic Profiles, a New History of the Thrash Kings’ Early Days, Reign in Blood Tours, a European Invasion, the Palladium Riot, the Seat Cushion Chaos Concert, the Whole Diabolical Discography, Newly Unearthed Details From Dave Lombardo’s Turbulent History With the Band, Artwork and Some Photos You’ve Probably Never Seen Before, Jeff Hanneman’s Hard Times, the Big Four’s Big Year, Lombardo’s Final Exit, the Top 11 Hanneman Tributes, the Mosh Memorial Service, Untold Stories, Updates, Relevant Digressions, and More Scenes From the Abyss.

What prompted you to write a second book on Slayer?

Lombardo left the band for the third, and finally final, time in February 2013. Well, he didn’t exactly leave. But he was gone. It was a fresh shock in the metal world. And it should have been. But Slayer fans who knew history knew he had left twice before. So I decided I would write a short e-book about his trouble with the band: He was never in step with the rest of them. The first time he quit was during the Reign in Blood tour. And their relationship never recovered.

I figured it would be a 12,000-word e-book. I wanted to have it out by the end of April. All spring long, I kept getting sick. If I wasn’t sick, one of my kids was. I just couldn’t get the book done. April ended, the book wasn’t out, and I was pissed. Furious. May 1, I was fuckin’ pissed. May 2, I was even more furious. Then the evening of May 2, word breaks that Jeff Hanneman died. And there I was, with a Slayer book halfway written. So for the rest of the year, as the story unfolded, it grew from a little project to a full-on rock biography. One thing after another stopped me from getting it done, and every time, the delays helped, until at the very end, famous metal photographer and musician Harald O found some amazing photos that he had totally forgotten about. And that’s where the cover came from.

What’s an interesting Slayer fact most people don’t know?

Man… They just split with Rick Rubin after almost 30 years. And they were his only client from the 1980s. I don’t know how many younger metal fans realize how influential Dave Lombardo was for all metal percussion. He gets respect in the metal world, but rock fans don’t realize he’s one of the all-time great drummers. When Lars Ulrich was sick and Lombardo played two songs with Metallica, Ulrich was actually nervous. He said something like, “You try sitting in a hospital bed while Dave Lombardo is playing with your band.”

Writing the second book, though, the biggest thing I learned was how little Slayer has toured over the years. I mean, they’re a regular presence on the touring world. But the South of Heaven tour was something like, if I remember right, 60 shows. They took a lot of time off.

Do you write on other things besides Slayer? If so, what and where do we find them? If anonymously, can you tell us why?

I transitioned from music writing to news journalism a few years back, and I won some awards for journalism. But lately, I mostly teach college. I write some popular-culture stuff for Diffuser and The AV Club. And I’m working on a couple non-fiction projects I can’t talk about yet; one is a collaboration, so it’s not mine to talk about. I write a terrible webcomic called Suburban Metal Dad that’s not as autobiographical as you’d think, for a website called Popdose.

Have you visited the “International Day of Slayer” website? What did you think of that?

International Day of Slayer organizers Dag Hansen and Jim Tate are great! Hansen is among the people I interviewed for the book. I just heard on the radio that today is actually the International Day of Prayer, which was the original inspiration for International Day of Slayer. Last year, I thought it was really something when Kerry King took time to acknowledge Slayer Day and talk about Jeff’s absence. As I discuss in the book, I think it’s about as emotional as we’ve ever seen him in public.

What do you think Slayer’s lasting influence on metal has been?

Like I said, Lombardo practically invented modern metal drumming. They’ve been the standard-bearers for thrash. Metallica are huge, but Slayer has been the Big Four band that stayed true to their original sound and style. They never tried to cash in or cross over. They’re the gold standard for a credible long-term metal career.

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Incantation – “Carrion Prophecy” from Dirges of Elysium

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Foundational death metal band Incantation have released the first single off their upcoming album, Dirges of Elysium. Entitled “Carrion Prophecy,” the single showcases Incantation widening the extent of their genre limit and leaning in the direction of modernity’s post-death metal doom/sludge marketplace.

While half of the song creeps by in this fashion, which is far below the par of structural arrangement Incantation has demonstrated in the past, the track picks up whenever this riff fragment concludes. Here, the band plays more to the level of their ability of merging torrential bursts of arpeggiation alongside their unique rhythmic signature of straightforward American death metal alongside the more dextrous, syncopated “push-pull” structures that easily identify bands from that original era and location, including Immolation alongside Incantation.

Incantation’s throwback to their past discography along with more mainstream song structures lends credence to the notion that Dirges of Elysiumwill be similar to their last album, Vanquish in Vengeance, which surpassed the artistic vision of many contemporary releases but ultimately fell short of the artistic heights of the past. However, we here at DMU headquarters remain hopeful that this track is merely intended for commercial distribution and does not necessarily reflect the tone of the entire album.

Dirges of Elysium will be released, in the US, on June 24th via Listenable Records.

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