Why the art world rejected metal

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Metal took its time to be accepted by social institutions. At the outset, metal appeared to most as another variety of rock. But with NWOBHM it distinguished itself and then went underground with speed metal. During those years, society rejected metal first for its repugnance to conservative moral ideals, and next for its alienation of liberal social ideals. It thus made itself friendless in a time where having political clout matters.

One reason for a lack of acceptance by some areas, such as the art world, is that metal is not controllable. As Bruce Dickenson (Iron Maiden) said in a recent interview:

The closest the “art establishment” ever came to embracing metal was punk. The reason they embraced punk was because it was rubbish and the reason they embraced rubbish was because they could control it. They could say: “Oh yeah, we’re punk so we can sneer at everybody. We can’t play our fucking instruments, but that means we can make out that this whole thing is some enormous performance art.” Half the kids that were in punk bands were laughing at the art establishment, going: “What a fucking bunch of tosspots. Thanks very much, give us the money and we’ll fuck off and stick it up our nose and shag birds.” But what they’d really love to be doing is being in a heavy metal band surrounded by porn stars.”

During the 1980s, Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) demanded warning stickers on music with content that advocated drugs, casual or perverse sex, violence and mayhem. Naturally this included most of heavy metal (sex) and most of speed metal (violence). Until rap music came along and blew those old standards out of the water by making most of heavy metal’s worst moments look tame, a real threat of economic censorship — forcing up the cost and legal risk of selling heavy metal, thus encouraging record stores to quit selling it — hovered over heavy metal.

Although the transition to online sales (1998) and resulting lack of control helped, another factor changed which put metal into hyperdrive as far as social acceptance: it found an audience in mainstream politics. As the Washington Post wrote in “Heavy Metal Gets Socially Conscious”:

More than three decades after Black Sabbath conjured images of the dark arts, heavy metal is growing up. The genre is increasingly incorporating social and political messages into its dense power chords.

The art world did not accept metal in the past because it could not be controlled. Neither did the moral world, nor the political world. Now metal has created a hybrid of itself — the indie rock, lite-jazz and grindcore infused postmodern metal genres — that is artistically acceptable, morally tame and politically acceptable. The question remains: does that mean that it is now controlled?

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Heavy metal as an industry

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Anyone who lived as a metal fan in the 1970s and 1980s remembers The Line: some bands were rock enough to make it into the newspaper, others were “too metal.” Major newspapers never covered Slayer, rarely covered Metallica, and generally drew The Line at anything heavier than Guns ‘n Roses. Thus even major bands like AC/DC got cut out of the mix.

No more. As the image above illustrates, the front page of goody-two-shoes news network CNN shows us the latest about the AC/DC 40th Anniversary Tour. Even the biggest megaphone for mainstream news which spends most of its time nagging us about our bad habits or flashing sensationalistic messages of world decay finally acknowledges heavy metal. In the 1980s, this would have been unthinkable. And yet, now we’re here.

What’s behind metal’s legitimization? It’s not so underground anymore, being one of the bigger non-rock/pop genres. It’s also not so extreme, since rap opened up the lyrical gates to violence, lust and obscenity and nu-metal got radio accustomed to heavy crunch (and lyrics about parental neglect). But most importantly, metal is now an industry. With enough consistent fans and labels behind it, and those labels having found a way to “metalize” or “metal-flavor” just about anything (indie, rock, jazz, blues, industrial), metal now provides one of the pillars of the entertainment industry.

Even more, heavy metal is now a recognized part of our culture. Rap music represents a certain kind of rebellion or a certain kind of irony. Heavy metal raises the flag for a certain kind of rebellion that is both cluelessly adolescent and “old soul” world-weary and informed. It’s a feeling we all have, and its appeal seems to be increasing.

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Heavy metal’s relationship to religion

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If you ask a metalhead about the relationship between heavy metal and religion, you’ll no doubt get a few different answers. Some will tell you that it stands in firm opposition to all religion, some will list off a plethora of Christian heavy metal bands, and some have no opinion on the subject and just wanna headbang and tune out.

Perhaps there is half-truth to these assessments: Deicide’s militant anti-Christian message is obvious even to the most passive listener, but on the other hand heavy metal with Christian themed lyrics has existed since its inception with Black Sabbath. In addition, many bands use occult imagery in either an artistic or neutrally atheistic way.

But maybe there’s another road to take, maybe these assessments are analyzing the relationship incorrectly.

I was an atheist for four years of my life (age 12-16). I was fairly vocal and enthusiastic about it as well, looking upon anything religious with scorn. I was very stereotypical when it came to my atheism too: I posted anti-religious memes on social media, went into silly debates with random creationists, and I had no real understanding of science, I just vomited forth Richard Dawkins’ philosophy.

But sometime within my 16th year, my outlook changed. I began to listen to heavy metal more actively, and my atheism slowly faded into wonder. It seemingly lashed at my inflated ego and made me face the possibility of something greater than myself. It challenged me to be more ambitious with my existence, and to want more out of life.

Prior to my revelation, I had a very human-centric view of the world, but Hellhammer’s “Only Death is Real” concept made me look at this in a whole new light. Death will take everyone regardless of their status in life; in the end, it is the only victor. This is important because it weakens the ego of the individual, and forces them to look elsewhere for meaning. Humility before something more powerful than yourself (death) is an undeniably religious concept, and has grown to be the core ideology of death metal for decades.

Religion itself is very important to heavy metal, where would legends like Slayer and Morbid Angel be without it? Metal has always expressed a deep reverence for power, and what greater power than the omnipresent force of the cosmos? Some perceive it as God or Gods, some perceive it as Satan, and some perceive it as nothing more than a functional force that keeps the universe rolling. All of these possibilities are astonishing, and have inspired the greatest sense of awe and wonder in mankind throughout history.

Heavy metal has become not only my passion, but my guiding light to a life that I may not understand completely, but that I’m learning more about every day. It has taught me to appreciate and find beauty in all aspects of the world, from the worms in the earth to the birds in the sky. It — like every other aspect of an intense life — is a form of worship in itself.

So if, as a parent, you see your son/daughter with a copy of Slayer’s Hell Awaits, fear not. Heavy metal inspires a sense of wonder and passion. That wonder may very well turn their eyes to the stars, and that passion may very well ignite their flame of life.

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

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God Macabre – The Winterlong re-issued

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Relapse records slotted the re-release of God Macabre’s 1993 album The Winterlong for June 10, 2014 in the US, June 6 (Germany) and June 9 (UK/World). Situated squarely within the old school Swedish Death Metal camp, this album represents a logical extension of Entombed’s Left Hand Path. Here you will find nothing less than what one would expect of an old school Swedish Death Metal record; foreboding doom, neoclassical melody, ferocity, and nods to the dramatics of heavy metal. Complete with the infamous Sunlight Studio production, The Winterlong remains an enduring study, and will provide neophytes with new source material, remind the veterans of what once was, and thankfully become a readily available source of inspiration for years to come.

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iUm1NlCUs9M

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How the internet changed heavy metal

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Many of the old school metal fans observed how the rise of the Internet coincided with the death of the underground and its replacement with the “funderground.” They opine how one-click access to music removed much of the challenge of finding music and created a culture of casual acceptance, not aggressively finding and hoarding quality material. There’s truth in that, surely. But there are other effects as well.

For example, easy access to music limited the emphasis on quality. When you buy music with limited funds, you tend to care about the best and/or cutting-edge material only. When the cost of trying out a new band is nothing, the tendency is to listen once and then file it by aesthetic category. “Sounds about like regular death metal. I need something different, maybe with a flute or jazz licks.”

Two more subtle effects occurred as well. First, the Internet in its post-AOL incarnation become fundamentally a social place. Metal on the internet became regulated by this social influence because the people talking about music on the Internet did so from a social outlook. They wanted to meet other people, and the music was secondary to that. As a result people began searching more for the ironic and music with novelty, leading to a rise in hipster-metal and related forms.

Second, the Internet made basic information about technique and style easily available. Learning how to write death metal no longer required listening, learning and working with other bands, zines, radio, etc. The user could visit a forum or any number of blogs and get a quick overview, which encouraged people to migrate over from other genres and adopt metal technique to the composition used in those other genres. This was not so much a genre mashup as an extraneous genre disguised as heavy metal.

With those two factors, emphasis switched from the music itself to the music as a “flavoring” to be applied to something else. Whether social flavoring, or a way to dress up those post-punk slash lite jazz hymns that your band had been kicking around for a decade, metal became the outlet for those impulses. The tendency of our media and society to see metal as “rebellious” made it a natural target because just about everyone wants to be different these days, in other words, rebels against the normal way of doing things.

In theory — which sometimes corresponds to reality — this would precipitate a focus not on the outward aspects of metal but its inward attributes, like spirit, compositional style and content. That day may come, but now that’s a much harder sell. It’s easier to dress up the same crap, push it down the line and produce it from your desktop, then spend all of your focus on the social and surface appearance aspects of the music. That’s how success is made these days.

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Dementium adds voice to Puerto Rican metal revolution

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As part of an ongoing revolution, Puerto Rico launches a quality metal band every few months. In this case, Dementium — featuring Organic Infest bassist/composer Jose “Chewy” Correa on bass — create a fertile mix of styles from the late 1980s, mixing majority speed metal material with death metal influences. However, the core of this album breathes the more intense varieties of speed metal like came from Exodus, Kreator and Destruction.

Using the tried-and-true German formula of fast verse riffs with periodic melodic insertions balanced against slower choruses full of rhythmic hook, Dementium stack riffs against one another in songs that generally conform to a verse/chorus structure. However, these solid constructions detour into related riff clusters like a person lapsing into daydream, and these variations prove to be varied and to enhance the mood. This kicks the band out of the strident chanting repetition that killed many of these bands.

Although the style comes from the past, a number of updates shine through. For example, percussion fits more into the later Metallica pattern of sparse but energy-inducing rolling beats. Riffs take advice from later death metal and Correa’s melodic bass underscores the compositions like a cross between Sadus and Iron Maiden. Vocals mix the Kreator shriek and the Sodom chant with the bouncy energy of later Exodus. It provokes a desire to see the style grow with this promising new band.

For more information, see the Dementium Facebook page.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ESl9S4yvmHU

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Diocletian – Gesundrian

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The sheer power of war comes alive in the third full-length from New Zealand warriors Diocletian, Gesundrian. The name Diocletian comes from the Roman emperor of the same name who waged what came to be known as the Diocletianic Persecution, which was the final and most severe attack on Christians in the Roman Empire. This band carries on the tradition of hatred and violence from those ancient times in the ferocious Gesundrian.

Not unlike similar acts such as Angelcorpse, Diocletian crafts war metal band but delves into more chaotically melodic construction rather than remaining a cookie-cutter clone of the Canadian bands. Gesundrian thunders forth with a dirge-like riff that builds an intense ardency, like sadness warping into anger, and progresses into a violent and powerful stampede of riffs throughout the entirety of this album like hordes of horseback warriors in the midst of battle.

While not offering anything fundamentally new, Gesundrian maintains the warlike spirit of metal, musically, lyrically, and structurally. For those who crave the invigorating dangers of ancient times, this is a work for you. Sound the drums of war: Diocletian approaches.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MQEI2kMdGr0

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Corrosion of Conformity – IX

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Former thrash band Corrosion of Conformity will release their latest album on June 24th via Candlelight Records.

Entitled IX (it would appear the band scrapped the earlier title, Corinthians) the album sees COC continuing their recent pattern of mixing rock with a non-threatening and reduced version of their punk trajectory. Hook-driven riffs array to complement the sing-along nature of the vocal tracks. When vocals cease, guitar riffs pick up the sugar-candy melodic impulse and continue it onwards, with easy post-Sabbath riffing and bland solos which quickly fade from memory into the formless void. Simplistic in its catchiness, this album bears some semblance to Cathedral’s final album in that it represents a band stripped of impetus, creating entertainment as opposed to art. Although the talent and skill of the members involved still leaks through, thus lending the album more credence than many of its contemporaries, and probably earning them well-deserved financial success and recognition, nothing can save the lack of purpose to this album.

Corrosion of Conformity, along with DRI and Cryptic Slaughter, helped construct the genre known as thrash, which brought the epic quality of metal together with the topical focus of punk in a high-energy cocktail that inspired a strong reaction from an alienated generation. Although it was not simple protest music, the heroic looking-forward present in thrash stands in contrast to its anger and regret in an organic circle of experience, which is particularly stark when returning from the obscene vapidity present on album IX.

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Listening single-mindedly is the only way to appreciate metal

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Metal worth listening to is worth listening to properly. You listen properly by listening single-mindedly. This means that you set aside everything else and put your focus on the music. Although our society places a false premium on time, this is even more important when you have little time: make the most of your time by making your listening experience the most intense one possible. Since attention spans are on the decline, actual listening is rare. Instead, there’s a hearing of background noise while doing something else. The rise of YouTube has exacerbated the issue.

Ideal listening conditions require one to keep all distractions out of reach and out of earshot, allowing as little other sensory input as possible. This means no distractions, no facebooking, no chitchat, no multitasking — leave that to the kitchen while preparing multiple dishes — and listening to entire albums from start to finish. This is most important and cannot be stressed enough. Create a ritual aspect through the act of listening.

Immersing oneself in the depth of an album, one senses the ebb and flow of momentum, the pacing and construction. Also audible are characteristics — you get to see which are effective and why — and one is able to consider the album as a whole, rather than as a collection of similar sounding songs in the same style. Even an average band sequences songs on an album in a particular way for a reason, even if they have not mastered use of theme and leitmotif. The truly great ones lead you on a journey, enable epiphanies, and insights that go beyond music.

When listened to single-mindedly, In the Nightside Eclipse elevates the spirit into the farthest cosmic realms; Farseeing the Paranormal Abysm plays out like a vision of the coming battle before the fact and a return to genesis with clearer, wiser eyes not unlike the role played by the “Bhagavad Gita” in the Mahabharata. Great metal at its best attempts to communicate facets of the ineffable: the vastness and timelessness of the universe, the pervasive nature of the primal life force.

To even begin to experience this, one needs to make a concerted effort at listening. This effort and immersion also reveals which music is timeless, which albums have almost everything in the right place but do not ascend into the pantheon and which are to be hung on a wall for the “collectors” only. A realization dawns about the elements that make albums great, beyond a purely musical value. Superficialities and externalities go out the window. You see into structure, or how all the parts fit together to make a greater whole.

On the other hand, it has become a common tendency to stream a song on YouTube while doodling on Facebook, watching video and playing video games all at once. The best you can hope for there is to pay random attention to how it “sounds,” maybe notice a few hooks or sudden, jarring changes make themselves felt, and declare it a gem. Then jump to the next song on the list of suggestions, repeat procedure. It is no surprise that so many record reviews now are breathless and full of praise yet notice nothing but surface traits of an album.

Casual listening can aid in the initial discovery of bands like you skim a novel you pick up in a bookstore as you decide whether to buy it (or put it on a mental list for later to get from the library). While distracted listening can aid in initial discovery of bands, prolonged reiteration of the same obliterates your ability to distinguish an exceptional album from a merely acceptable one. Listening habits decay and quality of metal declines in parallel. If your time is precious, reward it by listening to only the very best and giving all of yourself to the experience.

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