Symphony X – Underworld (2015)

symphony-x-underworld

Review by David Rosales

Symphony X has quite a following in the progressive power metal scene and has had such mainstream success in the technical musicians camp that almost each of the individual members of the band has his own little cult going on. In its very beginnings, the band leaned towards the so-called neoclassical stylings of ’80s melodic heavy metal. A few albums later, a clear progressive music orientation had crept in. All the while, the band retained a relatively original voice centered in Michael Romeo’s signature licks and Russell Allen’s distinctive vocalizations.

The band followed this course steadily up to their 2002 album titled The Odyssey, which seemed to crown their ever-ascending incursion into a world of structural complexity which tried to keep the music catchy nonetheless. The failure of Symphony X as a band may have to do precisely with this inability to fully compromise on a clear artistic path, choosing instead to use technique as a gimmick that attracts dorm-room guitarists and  pop singability with a touch of gospel that makes casual listeners acknowledge the band and perhaps open up their wallets occasionally.

After what seemed like the inevitable end of a journey for Symphony X, 2007 saw them coming back with Paradise Lost, which set a much darker and simpler tone to their music. Unfortunately, like most music of this sort, atmosphere is only skin deep, and the meat and core of the music continued to consist of disguised syncopations, clever groovy riffs with little thematic potential. The album was supported by a 3D music video vaguely illustrating the concept on which the album was supposed to be based. This mildly succeeded in attracting the superficially-minded who did not consider this to be on par with the graphics displayed in their Playstation games, and in pissing off serious art aficionados who cringed at the Hollywoodization of the classic story.

Symphony X took another four years to release their next album, Iconoclast, a massive oeuvre that could not be contained in one compact disc and had the audience yawning after 3 or 4 songs. By this time, it was fairly obvious that the band was beating a dead horse. The band wasn’t heading in any direction, nor was it keeping up in content — it was just a rehashing of riffs around whatever lyrics they came up with. The dumbed-down approach of the new era was prevalent but there was a deliberate intention of concealing it under longer songs and slower developments in tracks not intended for radio airtime.

Underworld in 2015 is the very reflection of an artistically defunct band. As butter scraped over too much bread, only a mere wraith of what the soul-infused band used to be remains. A collection of band cliches accumulated over the year rears its head in different postures and attitudes throughout the album while rather miscellaneous expressions form bridges between Romeo axe winks and Allen’s one-shoulder-shrugging, lip-biting, sensual diva outbursts. Taking the album for what it is (a professional metal pop collection of cool moments put together by very talented musicians) instead of for what it isn’t (an artistic achievement), Underworld shines bright in its hard rock firmly grounded in African American voices. Michael Romeo flashes solos that are worthy of mention in any guitar forum and have a well-earned place in the technical etudes of any student of the metal instrument.

The potpourri character of this album in combination with the adroit aloofness of the songwriting seems to indicate a secretive acknowledgement that the band knows this is the end of the road. The song titles and song lyrics towards the end of the album seem to reinforce this theory. After a relatively successful pop metal career and a couple of bill-paying, drowning-man albums towards the end, this seems like the appropriate place to retire with some dignity left.

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New Adagio Album Available Whenever You Pay

adagio - stephan forte motley crue

Article by Jon Faugustus.

Adagio, the French progressive metal band lead by Stephan Forte, has announced a fundraiser campaign to record and produce their fifth album to be titled Life. Throughout their history, the band has evolved from a mystical power metal band with contemplative overtones, to a decent but understated prog metal surpassing the likes of Symphony X, to a progressively more obvious selling out with pop songs covered with their dark progressivisms.

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David Rosales’ Expectations for 2016

condor3

Article (obviously) by David Rosales

Five years have elapsed since 2010, a year that seemed to mark a slight renewal in creative forces, a kind of premonition of a metal renaissance that came after 15 years of horrid decadence following the decease of black metal as a movement. By 2013 this force was still incipient but already showed potential for future development as acts with more refined views about composition grounded themselves in tradition, promising to build monuments to a past glory for future times. Musicians from the metal underground’s classical era also formed the bulk of this rebirth, either through perfection or purification of their own take on the art.

The last two years have seen a manner of steady output that is weakened in quantity of quality releases, little manifest presence to speak of, with a few exceptions. The same can be said of the years between 2010 and 2013. This seems to be in accordance with a 3-year pendulum swing as the small cycle of metal. The long one probably signaling stronger points of birth and decay – probably decades: 1970-birth, 1980-underground, 1990-golden era, 2000-dark ages, 2010-renaissance.

It was a different time, and when Slayer, Metallica and Iron Maiden were doing their thing at the beginning of the 1980s, metal was also at a mainstream high with many poopoo acts dominating the scene. When mainstream metal drowns in its filth at the end of the decade and the 90s leave them with unmetal metal like Pantera or Soundgarden is when the underground rears its head in greater numbers.This coincides a little with what is happening now, as nu-funderground and mainstream whoring like female-fronted so-called metal flourishes in numbers just as the shock rock and glam metal (hard rock) plague in the time of Slayer.

To make matters more complicated, we have the internet, along with other means of communication and technology that allow for pockets of both good and bad music to survive with less regard to overall trends. Metal is not yet at another apocalyptic end of an era like the one that saw the explosion of death metal, we may have to wait another decade for that, but there is rise not dissimilar to the rise of underground NWOBHM and soon after speed metal. The next ebbing of the tide is at hand, but not yet its climax. What changes is not the fact that there is or there isn’t more mainstream crap, but how much excellent underground music there is. The year 1990 was a very special time marker that signaled the advent of a climax low for the mainstream and climax high for the underground.

Now, that we posit the existence of such critical years does not mean that no excellent albums occur outside of them, but that there is a sort of genre-wide, or community-wide, perhaps, pulse that pushes general tendencies. Now, according to this idea, the next “big year” in the small cycle would be 2016. Below we give an overview of these so-called big years and some band releases we are looking forward to this year.

What are your expectations in metal releases in 2016?


A quick reference to distinguished metal works in the ‘pulse’ years. Not especially comprehensive.

 

1971:

  • Black Sabbath – Master of Reality

1974: (Not really metal, Black Sabbath is WAY ahead)

  • Deep Purple – Stormbringer
  • Rush – Rush
  • King Crimson – Red (Editor’s note: Probably closer in spirit to future metal than others)

1977:

  • Judas Priest – Sin After Sin
  • Motörhead – Motörhead

1980:

  • Iron Maiden – Iron Maiden
  • Black Sabbath – Heaven and Hell
  • Angel Witch – Angel Witch
  • Cirith Ungol – Cirith Ungol

1983:

  • Metallica – Kill ‘Em All
  • Slayer – Show No Mercy
  • Iron Maiden – Piece of Mind
  • Mercyful Fate – Melissa
  • Manilla Road – Crystal Logic
  • Manowar – Into Glory Ride

1986:

  • Slayer – Reign in Blood
  • Metallica – Master of Puppets
  • Kreator – Pleasure to Kill
  • Morbid Angel – Abominations of Desolation
  • Sepultura – Morbid Visions
  • Fates Warning – Awaken the Guardian
  • Candlemass – Epicus Doomicus Metallicus

1989:

  • Sepultura – Beneath the Remains
  • Morbid Angel – Altars of Madness
  • Bolt Thrower – Realm of Chaos
  • Voivod – Nothingface
  • Helstar – Nosferatu
  • Powermad – Absolute Power
  • Rigor Mortis – Freaks
  • Pestilence – Consuming Impulse

1992:

  • Burzum – Burzum
  • At the Gates – The Red in the Sky is Ours
  • Demigod – Slumber of Sullen Eyes
  • Morpheus Descends – Ritual of Infinity
  • Therion – Beyond Sanctorum
  • Sinister – Cross the Styx
  • Amorphis – The Karelian Isthmus
  • Deicide – Legion
  • Incantation – Onward to Golgotha
  • Atrocity – Longing for Death
  • Autopsy – Mental Funeral
  • Cadaver – …In Pains
  • Asphyx – Last One on Earth
  • Cenotaph – The Gloomy Reflections of Our Hidden Sorrows
  • Darkthrone – A Blaze in the Northern Sky
  • Emperor – Wrath of the Tyrant
  • Graveland – In the Glare of Burning Churches
  • Immortal – Diabolical Full Moon Mysticism
  • Sacramentum – Finis Malorum

1995:

  • Skepticism – Stormcrowfleet
  • Suffocation – Pierced from Within
  • Vader – De Profundis
  • Gorgoroth – The Antichrist
  • Graveland – Thousand Swords
  • Summoning – Minas Morgul
  • Deicide – Once Upon the Cross
  • Sacramentum – Far Away from the Sun
  • Immortal – Battles in the North
  • Abigor – Nachthymmen (From the Twilight Kingdom)
  • Funeral – Tragedies
  • Dissection – Storm of the Light’s Bane
  • Iced Earth – Burnt Offerings

1998:

  • Gorguts – Obscura
  • Vader – Black to the Blind
  • Incantation – Diabolical Conquest
  • Dawn – Slaughtersun
  • Sorcier des Glaces – Snowland
  • Angelcorpse – Exterminate
  • Blind Guardian – Nightfall in Middle-Earth
  • Symphony X – Twilight of the Gods
  • Rhapsody – Symphony of Enchanted Lands
  • Suffocation – Despise the Sun
  • Absurd – Asgardsrei
  • Soulburn – Feeding on Angels
  • Arghoslent – Galloping Through the Battle Ruins
  • Master – Faith is in Season
  • Skepticism – Lead and Aether

2001:

  • Gorguts – From Wisdom to Hate
  • Absu – Tara
  • Martyr – Extracting the Core
  • Lost Horizon – Awakening the World
  • Deeds of Flesh – Mark of the Legion
  • Averse Sefira – Battle’s Clarion
  • Graveland – Raise Your Sword!
  • Krieg – The Black Plague

2004:

  • Avzhia – The Key of Throne
  • Quo Vadis – Defiant Imagination

2007:

  • Blotted Science – The Machinations of Dementia

2010:

  • Avzhia – In My Domains
  • Krieg – The Isolationist
  • Burzum – Belus
  • Divine Eve – Vengeful and Obstinate
  • Atlantean Kodex – The Golden Bough
  • Graveland – Cold Winter Blades
  • Profanatica – Disgusting Blasphemies Against God
  • Autopsy – The Tomb Within
  • Overkill – Iron Bound
  • Decrepitaph – Beyond the Cursed Tombs

2013:

  • Black Sabbath – 13
  • Condor – Nadia
  • Graveland – Thunderbolts of the Gods
  • Satan – Life Sentence
  • Argus – Beyond the Martyrs
  • Autopsy – Headless Ritual
  • Profanatica – Thy Kingdom Cum
  • Imprecation – Satanae Tenebris Infinita

2016:

  • Condor?
  • Sammath?
  • Zealotry?
  • Deströyer 666? (Editor’s note: I have my doubts about this one’s possible… transcendence)
  • Vektor?
  • Voivod?
  • Summoning?
  • Graveland?
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THEM releases the first single from Sweet Hollow

Them - Sweet Hollow (2016)

October is indeed the season for Mercyful Fate, or at least pretenders to its metallic throne. Earlier this month, we saw two members’ underwhelming reunion in Denner/Sherman. More recently, THEM, composed of an unrelated group of musicians despite likely being named after King Diamond’s 1988 solo album, has released a track from their own upcoming attempt to capture something of that band’s approach.

Sweet Hollow is a concept album very much in the vein of King Diamond’s projects; at this point perhaps most notable for featuring members of Symphony X and Suffocation. The single (“Forever Burns”) resembles an exaggerated, more technically ambitious take on KD’s melodramatic heavy/speed metal sound, to the point of including a great deal of falsetto singing. Even if the final product turns out to be any good, this may scare some of its potential listeners away. Currently, Sweet Hollow is planned for a January 2016 release.

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Of Power Metal and Other Tales

1. Introduction
2. The Two Faces of the Genre: European and American Power Metal
3. European Power Metal
4. Power Metal of the United States

 

Introduction

There stood he, on his chariot made of gold
He did reveal the trinity of secrets old.
A sceptre of iron could mercy bring.
A shield of gold, the Creator and king,
And the great sword of steel.

– Manowar, Secret of Steel

It has been asserted that the earliest application of the term ‘power metal’ was the 1982 Metallica demo of that same title; then how exactly has it come to label the fantastic, spirited, even ‘fruity’ kind of music that is currently known as ‘power metal’? Well, the fact of the matter is that the term simply did not catch on with what eventually became the thrash and speed metal genres, whereas the melodic speed metal in Germany (Helloween, Blind Guardian, Running Wild, etc.) developed in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s to coalesce into the genre now popularly known as ‘power metal’. The reason why these bands were labeled differently from their more traditional sounding forerunners was their thematic and musical distinction; these bands dispensed with the darker, ‘doom and gloom’ perspectives of archetypal metal in favour of a much more positive, almost ‘happy’ outlook, and this really came through in the refreshing and inquisitive albums produced in the genre’s youth.

Power metal is something of an enigma in the annals of heavy metal: how does a movement deeply immersed in the fantastic folklore of Europe and beyond, and which borrows openly from Queen and the like, relate at all to the more twisted and obscure worlds of death and black metal? The answer is that the whole genre cannot be measured linearly as you would the passing years; it is to be viewed, rather, as a healthy maple tree, with dozens of branches emerging from the trunk, all headed in different directions but with the same fundamental constitution. Heavy metal represents, after all, a perennial expression of the epic, the tragic, and the victorious, and it would surely be unjust to evoke these eternal artistic truths merely through the medium of the Gothic nightmare, the Lovecraftian dreamscape; power metal exists, therefore, as a keen and adventurous opposite, enabling metal to travel to places impossible in other, darker vehicles.

The Two Faces of the Genre: European and American Power Metal

While the power metal of Europe is characteristically bright and optimistic on both the lyrical and instrumental fronts, the bands that derive from the United States take on a bit of a different slant; their work is generally darker, and more focused on building upon the foundation started by the NWOBHM, etc., which admittedly makes ‘USPM’ sometimes difficult to distinguish from good old-fashioned ‘heavy metal’. The distinction, however, is an important one, and to help delineate the differences between the genres, we need to recall the common elements that allow us to classify the Europeanbands into ‘power metal’. Sure, there are the basic similarities that are inherited from the same earlier English and German bands, but the crux pf European power metal is its fundamental underlying aim: to illustrate a mythic world (which could very well be our own reality interpreted in an imaginative light) that is at once real and fanciful, and to do so with a generally enthusiastic persuasion. If we are to throw all the European and American bands of the style under the same ‘power metal’ banner, then this intent, this ‘underlying aim’, must be identical in USPM.

If we consider the early black metal movement from Norway, and how it sought to unearth hidden truths through a dark, mystical aesthetic, we may actually find a parallel to what we mean. While both indubitably desire to ‘illustrate a mythic world at once real and fanciful’, black metal clearly purports to showcase an altogether averse side of that reality when power metal simply means to approach it like a narrative, a folk legend, demonstrating its nature through popular song and poetry. In a kind of microcosm of this, power metal from Europe is the visualization of things of the light, of a dramatic victory of life over death, whereas stateside power metal tends to convey a colder picture of these things: the former focuses on the regal hero, and his conquest over his villains and oppressors, whereas the latter focuses on the villains and the oppressors, and its hero is not so much the Aragorn of Tolkien fame, but Conan the Barbarian rather, a powerful yet lawless ‘antihero’ in the style of Omen’s ‘Axeman’!

When the bands from Europe broach whatever subject it is that they wish to express, it will be in a style that is as precise and accurate as as it is dramatic and theatric; the raw power of the music is dropped in favour of an immaculate finesse: this is simply in their nature. As for the Americans, however, a central goal is outlined from the beginning, and the path towards it is narrow but straight and unyielding, concentrated on the living rhythm of the thing rather than on the fine points of its aesthetic and artistic impressions. There may be yet other differences, to be sure, but none of them are more divergent than this simple preference in method; European and power metal are brothers at heart with similar identities and similar intentions. Now, to deliver the best of power metal post-haste!

European Power Metal

Whenever somebody thinks of power metal, he is likely thinking of the particularly dramatic style growing out of Europe, unless it is the popular barbarians in Manowar; indeed, Helloween’s ‘Keeper of the Seven Keys’ albums, Blind Guardian’s ‘Tales from the Twilight World’, and Rage’s ‘Secrets in a Weird World’ are veritable classics of the type. The music itself is, generally speaking, a sort of joyous hybrid consisting of Iron Maiden, thrash metal, and J.R.R. Tolkien, and is ultimately united by a strong sense of adventure and myth as is evinced by the themes widely explored by virtually every band involved in the scene. So, a taste for speedy rhythms, confessedly goofy, ‘cheesy’ lyrics, and plenty of high-calibre guitar solos is pretty much mandatory for anyone who wants to walk in the footsteps of the following albums…


Blind Guardian “Nightfall in Middle-earth”

In a word: What would Tolkien say?

As far as rankings go, this is the only album that is absolutely set in stone on this entire list. ‘Nightfall in Middle-earth’ is the ascendant apex of power metal; it is the crystallized embodiment of the genre’s ideal. The reason for offering such profound adulation really comes down to the band’s ability to transcend the limits of power metal whilst playing within them; they have nailed the ‘folky’, popular element of music with a peculiar ingenuity that comprehensively impresses upon the basic musical format of the genre; in other words, Blind Guardian has done for power metal what Johannes Brahms had done for Romantic music with his ‘Hungarian Dances’.

In narrating a large portion of Tolkien’s most ‘historical’ epic, The Silmarillion, Blind Guardian succeeds in demonstrating the raw power of a living mythos and a visceral pathos, as well as the simple wonders of storytelling, through a dynamic interplay between a tight rhythm section and an innovative mastery of the axe that Herr Ohlbrich presents for us, the audience; and the vocals of Hansi Kuersch, the real conduit of the myth’s passion, are never better, cutting through the music with a certain feeling that conveys the appropriate emotion, the appropriate strength needed to evoke the right imagery. ‘Nightfall in Middle-earth’ is an independent artistic monument: it is not a mere ‘ode to Tolkien’, or some such tribute, but a fully accomplished string of songs that successfully brings the majesty of Tolkien’s mythic world to the equally wonderful world of metal.


Helloween “The Keeper of the Seven Keys” Pt. I & II

In a word: The epitome of power metal

It is an indisputable fact that Helloween is no less than the very quintessence of power metal; from the triumphant ‘Initiation’ to the epic climax of the title track in Pt. II, there is nothing that escapes the boundaries, nothing that does not inherently belong in what the genre has come to mean. The outstanding evidence for this thesis can be found, as vague as it may sound, in the general spirit of the music: there is an excited, joyous pitch that pervades every aspect of the albums, and it draws the listener into the music, attempting to transport this transcendent gladness unto him. This is musically accomplished through a fast, upbeat rhythm, quick and virile riffs and solos, and of course through rich, charming vocals of Michael Kiske that are at once evocative and powerful.

Beyond the individual components, however, Helloween is a band that brought to metal not only a new and positive way of playing, but also a more or less original perspective on metal: they have come here in good humour, to have fun, and to never take life more seriously than it has to be. The final effect of all this is a pair of albums that are perhaps the most widely imitated in the entire genre, and the real cause of this is obvious: nowhere is the singular idea of power metal more manifest, more alive, and more euphoric than in ‘The Keeper of the Seven Keys’.

 


Gamma Ray “Land of the Free”

In a word: Helloween reborn

With original Helloween visionary Kai Hansen at the helm, Gamma Ray can and should be perceived as the true heir to the ‘Keeper’ albums of the late eighties – building off of a passionate drive forward on all instruments, and with Hansen’s emphatic vocals in firm control, all of the basic ingredients that conspired to make Helloween what it is are fully intact. What makes Gamma Ray so important, however, is that its creation of ‘Land of the Free’ ends nearly a decade of sterility from the Helloween camp; Gamma Ray has effectively resurrected the original spirit that caused the birth of so many clones.

As for the album itself, there is a sincere approach to the songwriting; there is a definite connection between all parts to form a good, coherent song; the riffs are brighter, more focused and vibrant, whereas the percussion lays a strong, fertile foundation for every melody, every chorus; in short, the masters reveal in ‘Land of the Free’ how to really invoke the mad and happy spirits of power metal. Interestingly, in an event that is based more in fact than in coincidence or irony, ‘Land of the Free’, at 1996, was released right before the resurgent waves of power metal took shape at the end of the nineties, just like the ‘Keeper’ albums in the twilight of the eighties…


Lost Horizon “Awakening the World”

In a word: Death metal turned upside down

Assembled from the remains of the death metal band Luciferion, Sweden’s Lost Horizon apply its former Satanic autonomy and egoistic ambitions to a new, far more personal mode of free will and individual freedom and power. Energetic and motivated, ‘Awakening the World’ moves quickly, showcasing a fluent sense of songwriting and technique that gladly transcends the sterile plains and generic conventions of recent power metal. The players have a strong taste for the old-school, and yet their collective synergy, with a special mention to the tireless guitars, which provide a seemingly inexhaustible supply of clever hooks and passionate leads, is wholly innovative in its united vision and dynamic execution; this makes for a convincing display of refreshing songcraft, which in turn injects something original and commanding into the old-school template; in summary, the legendary Helloween undergoes yet further renovations, and is re-invigorated into one of the few leading warriors of modern power metal. Indeed, excluding the few pointless ‘minitracks’ found on the record, ‘Awakening the World’, with all of its vigour and spirited determination, is the perfect testament to the full extent and capability of the independent human will.


Blind Guardian “Tales from the Twilight World”

In a word: Only Blind Guardian could merit such blatant disregard for the rules

Having released two speed metal classics in ‘Battalions of Fear’ and ‘Follow the Blind’ just prior to this record, Blind Guardian were ready to move firmly into the nascent realm of power metal. Rather than dropping all established identity in their process of growth, however, the guys from Krefeld, Germany initiate a deep melodic shift into the existent speed metal basis, allowing a subtle change to make a significant effect on the overall sound. The result is a more focused, more defined direction than what the two previous efforts had known; in addition to a lyrical and mythological construction that builds on what they had already started, albeit primitively, this meant that ‘Tales from the Twilight World’ became the first real power metal album that Blind Guardian would create.


Angra “Temple of Shadows”

In a word: Fresh, unique, articulate

It is certainly not an oversight of ours to include a Brazilian band in a list of allegedly European acts, but it certainly would be an oversight on anyone’s part to exclude Angra for that fact alone; indeed, Angra actually exemplify the strictly European style, often much more so than its intercontinental counterparts. On this particular album, ‘Temple of Shadows’, we believe that Angra hit its creative peak, even without Andre Matos, the legendary songwriter who had such a profound effect on their earlier records.

Angra has always been about fusing the flashy and melodic speed of early power metal with an accurate and concise technical performance arrayed in a way that many have termed ‘progressive’; this is no different on the present album, where speed and ‘progressivisms’ take on appropriately supplementary roles, allowing the melodies to embrace centre stage, and, apart from the occasional yet needless sentimental moment, they excel in the spotlight. With a concentrated, coherent method of songwriting, not to mention the impressive technical prowess of either axe, the melodic leads and solos are certain highlights of every song and, combined with a strong, classic understanding of the chorus and its importance, they are both literally and figuratively instrumental in making ‘Temple of Shadows’ a modern power metal classic.


Running Wild “Black Hand Inn”

In a word: Iron Maiden meets Accept meets Captain Blackbeard meets six bottles of rum

A typical occurrence in the development of any which power metal band is an attachment to some particular image or identity that is somewhat removed from ‘ordinary life’. So, in addition to faeries, elves and dragons of Italian symphonic bands like Rhapsody, we have Blind Guardian paying particular homage to the worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien; Grave Digger unearthing the historical remains of old, forgotten battles; and Running Wild, a band that was evidently dissatisfied with singing about the devil and had moved on to pirates instead.

There is not really a substantive or profound depth that drives the music onwards; this is simply a band that lures the listener in with the promise of a fun, exciting story about pirates (which is of course told by a drunk), and then promptly barrages him with easy, carousing rhythms that are inevitably met by a strong, anthemic chorus. Iron Maiden make their presence known on this record through the occasional galloping riff, as well as the many guitar harmonies, whereas the Running Wild anthem is unmistakably imbued with the infectious talents of their fellow Germans, Accept. Altogether, the band’s vision is not any higher than what many contemporary ‘folk metal’ bands attempt; namely, to create inebriated, party music. The difference is that, with their reliance on the well-tested techniques of bands like Iron Maiden, Accept, and Helloween, and with a perfectly suitable theme that can rouse any prole to drink, these Teutonic pirates actually succeed where the faux-vikings fail dismally.


Pagan’s Mind “Celestial Entrance”

In a word: Symphony X done right

While Pagan’s Mind is often referred to as ‘progressive metal’, we happen to think of its work as being far more along the lines of modern power metal, which is mainly due its focus on drafting songs that emphasize the traditional melody and rhythm combination, as opposed to whatever it is that actually constitutes the average Dream Theater album; when Jorn Lofstad launches into a solo, we can safely wager that it will not be prolonged into the pretentious affair of noodling for half an hour a la John Petrucci.

This is a good album because the band has (1) a firm grounding in the basics of what makes metal what it is; and (2) because they have just enough impetus to advance: where others might founder in the sterile waters of mediocrity, Pagan’s Mind actually manipulate its excellent instrumentation into well-structured compositions that reflect a band that clearly knows what it wants to achieve, and accordingly goes out and achieves it. So, through a strong sense of rhythm and a penchant for the dramatic, Pagan’s Mind combines the intricate work of a clever, flashy guitarist, the reliable rhythm section, with a typically illustrious vocalist to construct Celestial Entrance, an album that sounds precisely what its title implies: the epic adventure into the astral spheres.

Power Metal of the United States

It can be argued that while the charismatic and often operatic vocals lead the advance for the European bands, it is the powerof the simple yet efficient riff that drives the American bands forward. Indeed, the feeling of an honest, ‘blue-collar’ sentiment pervades many of the more emblematic records of this kind, and it does not get any more present than in an old-school technique of guitar playing; nothing fancy, nothing extra, it just gets the job done. This does not in any way blunt the efforts of these bands as they endeavour to create something epic, something that can even be called ‘mythological’ by the standards of our day; on the contrary, the stripped-down sound of many early albums helps produce the effect of being of modest birth, which allows them to be classified as ‘popular’ and even ‘folky’, the proper requirements of any nascent myth. Finally, to cite the execution of these theories, we give to you nine of the best USPM albums extant… (We have given the Americans an extra album due to their superiority in the sheer quantity of good power metal albums released over the years.)


Manowar “Into Glory Ride”

In a word: Comprehensively feudal

When it comes to picking the best Manowar album, any one of the first four would be a respectable choice; every which one is a proud testament to band’s core spirit, to the band’s purely honest will to play the kind of metal that is more barbaric than civilized, more feral than cultivated. ‘Into Glory Ride’ strikes a particularly powerful chord for us, however, and this is as much due to its consistency as its extra concentration on the epic narrative, which is constructed in an almost ‘cartoonish’ tribute to metal and to death.

The music is simple, written to the effect of a moving rhythm and a rousing anthem; the corresponding lyrics are more charming and pompous than they are cheesy, and they are essential in creating a medieval atmosphere of outlaws the ‘anything-goes’ attitude of the Wild West. The best reason for this band to receive the highest rank, however, is not merely for its flawless presentation of an honest yet primitive idea, but for how direct and how iconic this idea has become in its fullest execution: Manowar truly represents the fundamental vision of American power metal.


Iced Earth “Burnt Offerings”

In a word: An honest monument to the memory of Dante’s Inferno

In contrast with virtually every other featured in these lists, ‘Burnt Offerings’ evinces a conscious effort on the part of the songwriters to something darkly malignant, something sinister. Although firmly rooted in the melodic tradition of Iron Maiden, this album is steeped in the Faustian temptation to explore the infernal plains, to pursue the flame of self-discovery. This nefarious vision is revealed not only through the thematically relevant lyrics that cover everything from tragic love to Dante’s Inferno, but more importantly through the music itself: the guitars in particular exude a deep and molten darkness, providing profound and often chilling melodies as well as a layered rhythm that either gallops forth rapidly, or marches on slowly in a mystical calm not far removed from that of many doom metal acts. The dynamic vocals of Matt Barlow are at once dramatic, powerful, and are perfectly eloquent in conveying the appropriate emotion, especially of sadness and of wrath; the percussion, on the other hand, is straight-forward and simplistic, which is all that is needed to contribute to the pulsing, imperial rhythm. All of this is assembled and passed through an abyssal, velvet production that infuses the music with an invaluable sense of enduring darkness.

‘Burnt Offerings’ is really about an inverted heroism, a nocturnal pathos that gasps dryly and thrashes uncontrollably in the unfathomable depths; it is the musical monument to Satan’s legion as summoned by John Milton in the 17th Century. Where other American bands of this style commonly create something revolving around ‘practical reality’, Iced Earth is instead inspired to invoke an album that is crafted in the genuinely artistic sense, which enables ‘Burnt Offerings’ to really draw out its genuinely artistic qualities, which include but are not limited to its potent aesthetical romanticism, its fiery rebellion of a righteous condemnation, and finally its paradoxical delight in striving for the impossible.


Sanctuary “Into the Mirror Black”

In a word: Rhythmic power as opposed to moronic groove

Just before the stifling effect of the grunge scene overwhelmed the Seattle area, there was still a band that truly believed in the basics of heavy metal: Sanctuary. ‘Into the Mirror Black’ is the second of two quality albums made by a band that really epitomizes American power metal: heavy and forward riffs planted in a traditional format of composition, clear and stylized vocals, and lyrics that directly relate to practical reality and human emotion.

In Sanctuary’s case, the lyrics are particularly philosophic and investigative; they deliberately seek out the answers of some of the more obscure questions, and employ the technique of asking their own questions to the desired effect of placing emphasis where emphasis is needed. There is an almost poetic meter to the way that the lyrics are stressed, a rhythmic harmony that is evenly matched with an intelligent creation of riffs that accord with the meter of any which verse. This is important to remark upon not only because one of the key aims of this record is the exposition of several lyrical themes, but mostly because ‘Into the Mirror Black’ is built fundamentally around rhythm, and this particular sense of rhythm is not so much manufactured through the percussion and bass as it is by the guitars and vocals. So, yes, of course there are the lightning solos, the pounding battery and the occasional melody, but far more essential than all of this is the bold, relentless rhythm to which all else is subservient.


Crimson Glory “Crimson Glory”

In a word: Romanticism as Mary Shelley knew it

In the typical metal band, there is likely an emphasis on something, a particular area in which the band excels; we can mention that Slayer, for instance, was exceptional in pacing forward at a speed that few could immediately handle; or we can mention that Bathory was brilliant in evoking simple but dreadful subjects through simple but abrasive songwriting, and somehow being all the more fearsome for it. In this vein, Crimson Glory is excellent at putting together a song that subsists, indeed thrives on its melodic intuition: without that keen, delicate pulling of the strings, without the subtle taste in melancholy, everything would disintegrate.

All aspects of Crimson Glory, from the dramatic introductions to the starry chorus, from each sad rhythm to every slender, passionate solo, all of it depends on this fully pervasive emphasis on melody. The reason for this has already been hinted at: ‘Crimson Glory’ is a tragic album. Melody is seldom more useful than in conveying a deep and immutable sadness; the notes, while sufficient in number to prevent an outright dirge, are usually slower, downcast, hopelessly inflected by that precious melancholy sought by every romantic poet. While this album is obviously not overtly tragic, its subtleties are more than enough to allow us a glimpse of its true pathetic nature; indeed, its character is not really like that of the despondent misanthrope who cannot view life without seeing death as well, but more like that of a patient lover, the lover who is momentarily divorced from his opposite and yet at heart knows and feels that she is destined to return.


Manilla Road “Open the Gates”

In a word: A legendary band in the right circles

Manilla Road released several cult albums that have become essential to the traditional and power metal genres. ‘Open the Gates’, like sister records ‘ Crystal Logic’ and ‘The Deluge’, utilizes a low, throaty production that conveys their unique guitar and vocal sounds in the rough and hardened way that best suits the fundaments of classic Manilla Road. The axework resembles something sanguine and archaic: an image of an army of rusting skeletal soldiers is evoked by the creaking riffs that rumble over the heated rocks of the battlefield, as well as by the elongated solos that twist and turn in no predictable pattern until the tracks’ climax and descent is fulfilled. The music establishes the appropriate imagery for what the collective imagination of the band envisions: wide, perilous landscapes marked by the comings and goings of dread legions and tyrannical dragons; the colour scheme pervading the artistic schema is a vivid and unmistakable red in the likeness of a fast and ageless fire.

Nestled in the gentle plains of Kansas, Manilla Road has established a firm foothold in the annals of heavy metal with the attainment of an identity that is entirely its own; even with the most modest of song structures, ‘Open the Gates’ is successful in its ambition to recreate a fiery, mythic world through a dramatic and persuasive vocalist, destructive and bloody riffing, and that ever persistent struggle to perceive and grasp the Epic, the richest content in every story.


Savatage “Hall of the Mountain King”

In a word: Let the curtains fall

There has always been something purposefully theatrical about Savatage – the sense that the band is putting on some poignant story between the curtains is never absent in any Savatage album. Before Jon Oliva remembered his Italian roots and emphasized the story over the metal, he was deeply involved with an album that is actually more metal than it is melodramatic. The musicianship in ‘Hall of the Mountain King’ is fairly intricate and developed, although Jon’s brother Criss is rarely shy of occasionally firing in a simply, catchy riff; on the whole, however, the music is classy and orchestrated by a general motif revolving around that old art of telling tales the Italian way.

It might well appear that Savatage is not really of the American type of power metal; this is true to an extent, since these New Yorkers definitely focus on a neat and theatrical presentation of an appropriate theme; it is equally true that the music certainly comes across as Classically inspired, even going so far as to include a metal rendition of Grieg’s legendary ‘In der Halle des Bergkoenigs’. Beyond all of this, however, there is a peculiar, indefinable ‘dirtiness’ which is indisputably American by nature that infiltrates all aspects of Savatage; from Jon’s gritty vocals to Criss’s riffs and reckless solos, the bold advance of the Yankee puts its taint on a seemingly neoclassical, a seemingly European band.


Omen “Battle Cry”

In a word: Just look at any track title…

Beyond the justice and the caprice of society, beyond the state of sedentary existence, the law of the lawless rules unchallenged. Omen immediately brings to mind two possible landscapes: the first is of an exiled band of brigands and strongmen, fighting whomever for food, fun, or coin; the second is of a post-apocalyptic world similar to the dystopia of Snake Plisskin fame. In the end, however, the sights, smells, and noises of any age are irrelevant, for the fundamental idea that this album conveys is a timeless one: the barbarian, the ‘law unto oneself’ ideal of savages everywhere; it is unquestionably the focal point of this highly direct and uncompromising album.

The music is equally straightforward; quick yet still mid-paced verse sections are clearly rhythmic, nothing extraneous whatsoever; the chorus is typically anthemic, beckoning the listener to join in this gladiatorial brawl, or at least to sing along. However simple this album comes across as, it does not suffer anything by it, for really its execution of the perennial imagery of fighting outlaws is efficient and apt; after all, one can hardly expect or even imagine any band to arrange a full, technically adept orchestral composition to record the legends of a Conan or a Mad Max.


Hammers of Misfortune “The Bastard”

In a word: Mystical legends as told by a Satyr

While Mike Scalzi may be more renowned for his work in The Lord Weird Slough Feg, a band supposed to be at the forefront of a resurgence in traditional metal, we find that his more interesting project is undoubtedly Hammers of Misfortune. An outstanding reason for this assertion is that hammers is a novel production, a band that provides us with a much needed new perspective on heavy, trad, power, whatever kind of metal that this album actually falls into; ‘The Bastard’ is refreshing for this alliance of multiple concordant elements, for its eclectic understanding of musical creation.

The vocals, consisting of both male and female, both clean and bestial, are at the crux of the record, giving the unique story behind it an appropriately dramatic, even thespian approach: each voice seems to resemble either a character involved in the concept or an aloof narrator. The riffing is similarly diverse: the guitars flow easily, albeit in irregular patterns, curling and bending through each phrase, allowing an almost serpentine atmosphere to materialize; this does not, however, restrict the players from constructing rather inspiring melodic passages, or from submitting a low and swaying rhythm. ‘The Bastard’, for all its eccentricity and deviations from what we might call ‘normal songwriting’, is still an album with a resolute identity; in both lyrical and strictly musical content, Hammers of Misfortune is yet another metal band that invokes the spirit of a folky, medieval tradition to create a folky, medieval album.


Cirith Ungol “King of the Dead”

In a word: Where doom metal and fantasy collide

‘King of the Dead’ is one of those albums that defy any single classification: it is not only doom, it is not only power, and it is certainly not at all NWOBHM. There is, however, a single band that can be distinguished above all others in terms of influence: that band is Black Sabbath. While many of Cirith Ungol’s defining characteristics are fairly different from those of ’Sabbath, the traits in guitar wizardry are more or less identical; the movement of the song is wholly dependent on these slow, rumbling, repetitive riffs that crawl on and on; the song builds up into a zenith a behemoth of strength, powered by these simple, dreadful riffs that never relent. The vocals, on the other hand, are unique and virtuosic; Tim Baker’s voice is a mild shriek, as it were, a high-pitch, high-volume rasp.

The overall sum of the parts is a skeletal aesthetic that complies with the overt motif of Tolkien’s ghostly legion, which is of course ruled by the king of the dead. The black, crumbling riffs partnered with the neat, scratching solos depict a horrible chamber whilst the uncomfortable vocals unleash the eternal anguish of its prisoners. The name of the band and of this album really epitomizes the nature of both: Cirith Ungol is not content to simply look through the Lord of the Rings and be amazed at the immortal elves, or to stand in awe of a defiant, manly heroism; infact, Cirith Ungol will never be content until every proud and noble city is the lair of maggots and goblin filth, until every tall man is made short and swarthy due to some dark hubris; indeed, Cirith Ungol will never be content until every path, every secret passage becomes the private hunting ground of wild and wicked spiders.



In the sky a mighty eagle
Doesn’t care about what’s illegal
On its wings the rainbow’s light
It’s flying to eternity

– Helloween, Eagle Fly Free

 

Written by Xavier

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Interview: Kaiser Kuo (Chunqiu, Tang Dynasty)

Kaiser Kuo is a Chinese metal pioneer (Tang Dynasty and Chunqiu), blogger and columnist, who currently lives in Beijing. Having grown up in the United States, he was kind enough to offer his rare perspective to our questions on metal, media, and China.

First, we would appreciate it if you would kindly describe a bit about yourself for the benefit of our readers. Since this is a metal site, a brief history of your involvement with the genre would be helpful as well (as would some forgiveness from you for the metal-relatedness of many of the questions).

My pleasure, and thanks much for reaching out. I’m very happy to talk to you guys about what’s going on in the Metal scene in China. It’s something that the popular media doesn’t pay much attention to, and in the West, when stories get written about the Chinese rock scene, they tend to dwell on the punks and ignore the very vibrant and extremely creative Metal scene here. There’s also a lot of popular misunderstanding about what Metal means in the Chinese context, and this is a great forum to help clear some of that up I hope.

I get credited a lot for having been an early, if not the earliest, “Metal missionary” in China. I was born in the U.S. and from junior high on was really into two genres of music, Metal and Progressive Rock. I was one of those rare kids who was listening not just to Judas Priest, early Scorpions, and NWOBHM bads, but also to Yes and ELP. Rush was the band that, for me, wedded the two genres and I was a complete Rush fanatic all through high school and college and I owe them a tremendous debt for inspiring me in my early years as a musician. During college I played in a Prog Rock band, and through a fluke connection of my father’s — he was doing business in China — we were invited to come to China and play. It never happened, but that was because we couldn’t get it together on our end. Meanwhile I had this burning urge to go to China and see what I could make happen in music. So as soon as I graduated in 1988, I headed to Beijing ostensibly as a student of Mandarin, but really my goal was to hook up with the local musicians. I co-founded Tang Dynasty with a very talented guitarist/singer named Ding Wu and a bassist named Zhang Ju in early 1989. I went back to the States later that year, returning to China only for a few months at a time in the early 90s, and moving back to China to rejoin the band in 1996. I left the band in 1999, and in early 2001 co-founded the band I’ve been with since, Chunqiu, which people describe as a traditional Heavy Metal band with very distinct ethnic Chinese influences.

I know very little about metal in China, but I’ve read that Tang Dynasty is often considered a leader of the “movement.” How do you view your personal role in shaping the music?

I don’t think there’s anyone who doubts that Tang Dynasty was where Metal really got started in China. I certainly had a part in it: I introduced the other guys in the band to much of the music that would influence them (bands like Queensryche, for example), and I did come up with the name of the band. But they changed me as much as I changed them. Playing with Tang Dynasty I really found that the fusion of traditional Chinese music and Western Metal works: it’s not something I ever tinkered with before co-founding Tang Dynasty. A lot of credit is due not just to Ding Wu, the band’s singer and rhythm guitar player; but also to our first producer, Landy Chang from Rock Records in Taiwan, who saw the potential in the band and really helped shape the direction of the music.

And mutual fear brings Peace,
Till the selfish loves increase;
Then Cruelty knits a snare,
And spreads his baits with care.

– William Blake, Songs of Experience: The Human Abstract

If you had never lived in the US, do you feel metal in China would have effectively been stunted until much more recently?

I have no doubt that it would have taken off, but it might have been a bit later and there might not have been quite such a home-grown success story, Tang Dynasty, to look up to for young Metal players. Tang Dynasty gave Chinese players and fans their first Chinese guitar hero, Lao Wu (Liu Yijun), and showed them that Metal despite its clearly western origins could be recognizably Chinese and still really authentically ass-kicking. I think if I hadn’t started proselytizing in the late 80s, by the early 90s there were enough other American musicians coming to China and exposing people to Metal that there would have been a kernel to the scene anyway, and it would have snowballed like it did with the availability of cheap pirated discs in the mid-90s and Internet MP3 downloads and sharing by 2002/2003 all the same.

What has caused more run-ins with Chinese officials (if any): playing metal or having a well-regarded Internet presence?

There really haven’t been “run-ins” at all, either for me personally or for the Metal genre in China as a whole. The worst that will happen is a bit of censorship of lyrics, but it’s not really onerous. Unfortunately Metal is still just too marginal in China to really catch the attention, for better or worse, of Chinese officials. They have much bigger things to worry about. And certainly the kind of stuff I do and say on the Internet isn’t something that’s going to get Chinese authorities breathing down my neck. It’s all pretty innocuous.

Having experienced both extensively, is there anything you prefer about life in the “liberal, bourgeois West” to life in China (during any time)?

Sure, there are things about the West that I still really enjoy whenever I’m back there. The air quality comes to mind! It’s always a thrill to go to record stores; I like owning CDs and not just having digital music on my iPod, so that’s one thing I miss. There aren’t any world-class record stores in China. And even though there’s a great live scene here, it’s still rare that major international acts come to Beijing, let alone smaller, more interesting acts. But for 99% of what I want out of life, China either meets or exceeds my needs. There’s a dynamism and buoyancy to life here that comes from living in a place where life just gets better pretty much every day. It’s a really exciting place to live still, and I’ve been able to play the kind of role here that I simply wouldn’t have been able to play had I never come to China.

How do you feel heavy metal fits into this general Western cultural current; is it drastically different from rock music in itself?

Like rock itself, Metal has subdivided into so many subgenres that it’s really impossible to make generalizations about how it fits into Western culture anymore. There are attitudes, habits of mind, behavioral and even ideological tendencies that correlate pretty strongly to every subgenre, so that Deathcore fans are really, really different than people who like, say, Progressive Metal like Symphony X or Dream Theater. You have everything from misanthropic nihilists to just plain music geeks who might be really mainstream in other ways. Once upon a time you could make generalizations, but not any more.

Is there any more or less differentiation between rock and metal in a more information-tight society?

I don’t think that in the last 30 years, deliberate information control in China has had ANYTHING to do with either the development of rock and metal or differentiation between and among all the different genres and subgenres of music. The simple truth is that musical tastes in China are mainly dictated by marketing and by cultural aesthetic preferences. The former, when it comes to music, tends to favor the kind of candy-ass Mandopop and Cantopop (which sometimes has the nerve to call itself rock!), and the latter — the cultural aesthetic preference — is still relatively unsophisticated outside of the fringe scenes in a handful of cities. Sad, really, but in this case I don’t honestly think it’s the government’s fault in any meaningful way.

Along those lines, there have been stories recently in mainstream press covering the “rise” of heavy metal in Islamic nations. Do you think there is any parallel in this to metal’s gaining in popularity in China?

I think Metal faces a whole lot more difficulty in Islamic societies, particularly in really theocratic or heavily religious polities. In China there are occasional flare-ups of anti-western sentiment, but they’ve never in my memory had a cultural dimension. They’re always political. You see self-described punks rockers or Metalheads in China — people who clearly have close cultural affinities to the West — take part in these sometimes. There’s a decoupling of politics and culture. I don’t think that’s so true in Islamic societies. If Metal has failed to gain popularity in China it has nothing to do with either religion or state controls.

Metal lends itself to lyrics of a “blasphemous” nature as well as anything, but there are plenty of other genres that are just as noisy and iconoclastic that could seemingly have a similar effect when directed at the status quo. Are punk/hardcore and related genres gaining in popularity in China as well?

Metal lyrics in China don’t tend to be “blasphemous,” in part because there’s nothing that really stands in for Judeo-Christian dogma to blaspheme against. The state hasn’t made an enemy of Metal, and so Metal doesn’t make an enemy of the state here. I have strong suspicions that other genres, like punk (and to a much lesser extent, hardcore, which isn’t well represented in China that I know of) tend to write more iconoclastic lyrics — defiant, anti-authoritarian, even politically critical — out of a cynical knowledge that doing so gets the noticed by the western media, which laps that kind of shit up.

I can’t read Tang Dynasty’s lyrics… I’m wondering if you could please comment on some of the general themes they cover, and from where you drew influence for them.

First of all, I’ve never had a hand in writing lyrics either for Tang Dynasty or Chunqiu. Tang Dynasty drew lyrical influences from the Chinese poetic tradition (which really reached a peak in the eponymous dynasty, 618-907 A.D.), and like Chinese poetry, the lyrics are highly imagistic and even pretty sentimental. There are a lot of themes of heroism, romanticism, that sort of thing. There’s also quite a bit of Buddhist influence, especially in the lyrics for some of the songs on the second album, Epic. Chunqiu also goes in for the imagistic approach, and also draws on timelessly Chinese poetic themes, as well as mythological, heroic, historical, and philosophical themes in it.

In your view, is “protest music” a limiting term, and does it apply to heavy metal in any way?

I don’t think “protest music” is genre-specific, and I don’t think there are many genres of music that either abjure it altogether. So there are Metal bands who do it, and those who don’t. In China, to the extent that protest applies to Metal, it’s really a protest against social conformity and slavishness to mainstream pop music tastes, not political protest. I’ve never really gone in for the latter through music, but that’s just me. I figure that if I have something I feel strongly about politically or socially, I can offer more nuance and substance in an essay than in a song with rhymed verses ad a repeating chorus. I’m not into slogans. I know that at least in China, the country’s had too much by way of slogans already.

In a recent article, you touched on the “virtues of piracy” and called for a general openness in China to Western media. Can you please elaborate on what benefit to China you see coming from this openness, particularly in regard to entertainment media?

I think piracy — physical disk piracy, file sharing, MP3 downloads and all that — helped to really create an appetite for and knowledge of western entertainment media. There’s a point at which it goes too far, of course, and I’m inclined to think we’re at or past that right now, but there’s no doubt in my mind that the availability of western entertainment media at prices Chinese consumers could afford is during the 90s and the earlier part of this decade built a market that the same companies grumbling so loudly now will be able to tap into in a very lucrative way down the road.

In the West there was (was — I would call it gone now), of course, a substantial “underground” for heavy metal tape trading well up until digital media democratized the creation and distribution of music in general. Can any difference be discerned between something like this and piracy such as in China?

There was certainly a whole lot of tape trading in China in the early days, but back then we were talking about a fan base so small that and so geographically confined — just to Beijing, really — that it wasn’t substantial. What happens now with the easy distribution of digital music is the same thing but on a much more massive scale, practically without cost and frictionless to boot. It’s something that has upended the music industry as we know it, and if I really knew the way forward out of this I’d be a rich mother by now.

See too, I said, the forgiving spirit of democracy, and the ‘don’t care’ about trifles, and the disregard which she shows of all the fine principles which we solemnly laid down at the foundation of the city–as when we said that, except in the case of some rarely gifted nature, there never will be a good man who has not from his childhood been used to play amid things of beauty and make of them a joy and a study–how grandly does she trample all these fine notions of ours under her feet, never giving a thought to the pursuits which make a statesman, and promoting to honour any one who professes to be the people’s friend.

Yes, she is of a noble spirit.

These and other kindred characteristics are proper to democracy, which is a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequals alike.

– Plato, The Republic

To what degree have you seen ethnic nationalism used as a reactionary measure in China recently, particularly within heavy metal music (where it has often been made a component over the years, though a controversial one)?

I don’t think I’ve seen instances of “ethnic nationalism” in Chinese Metal. The few instances I’ve seen where Han Chinese musical or visual elements — or, for that matter, elements drawn from minority nationalities of China — it’s never been reactionary in any sense of the word I’m aware of. That’s not to say that it hasn’t been misinterpreted in that way. A lot of people assumed that Tang Dynasty, or even Chunqiu, was some cipher for anti-modernism and a desire to go back to some mythic golden age, but that was never the case: The name of the band in the case of Tang Dynasty was meant to evoke the age’s cosmopolitan nature, and its embrace of things foreign. This was really the source of that dynasty’s legendary greatness. It’s not “nationalistic” in any sense. Quite the contrary. I think using a genre like Metal, which is unarguably western in origin, to assert Chinese nationalism would be a complete contradiction and wouldn’t convince anyone in their right mind.

Is heavy metal malleable enough to act in multiple ways at once — say, both against “democracy” but for freedom in different instances and in different places — or are there more “correct” interpretations of its basic impetus?

Yes, I think it possesses that malleability but I haven’t really seen it employed to ends like you describe. I think only in rare instances is it harnessed for political ends at all. But in China it’s definitely used to vent the same sorts of emotions as in the west — things we’re all familiar with.

What conceivable event might make you move from China at this point?

Right now, it’d be pretty hard to think of something that would compel me to move short of massive civil unrest — something I rate as extremely unlikely — or a conflagration involving the U.S. triggered by a precipitous move toward independence by Taiwan that Washington unwisely decided to intervene in. Other than that, I do plan at some point to go back to the U.S. when my (now four-year-old) daughter starts college eventually. But that’s what, 13 years off, so who knows what’ll happen between now and then?

What will (or what does) an open China provide to the world that an open West has not already provided?

An open China has clearly already provided the world with inexpensive consumer goods and is moving up the value chain to become, within our lifetimes, a major force in innovation. By that I don’t just mean tech innovation, though that will doubtless be an important part of it; I also mean cultural innovation, plumbing the depths of traditional Chinese culture to give the world a taste of, among other things, a rich literary tradition of which the world now knows very little.

Being heavily involved with digital media, what drawbacks can you envision for children fully entrenched in the digital age in China? In the United States?

It’s the same in China as it is in the U.S., or perhaps even worse because there’s such a lack of compelling entertainment alternatives. Don’t get me wrong: The Internet’s the greatest thing ever, and it’s been a tremendous force for good wherever it’s seen wide adoption. But kids spend way too much time playing online games, and that’s just plain unhealthy when you’re playing for days straight and skipping meals, not sleeping, and screwing up in school. The Internet promotes too much of a sedentary lifestyle. I should know: I need to spend way less time in front of my Mac and way more time in the gym. Other than that, there are the usually dangers of digital stalkers and sex offenders — not as bad of an issue in China, to be sure — plus various scammers.

Thank you very much for the interview; parting words/shots, etc. can go here.

Thanks for having me! I’ve been on a mission to get people around the world aware of the really great Metal scene in China, which has dozens and dozens of talented acts and a few real stand-outs, like Kungfu Voodoo, Suffocated, and of course Chunqiu. You can download our stuff on iTunes. Unfortunately we don’t have other distribution outside of China currently.

Who looks upon a river in a meditative hour, and is not reminded of the flux of all things? Throw a stone into the stream, and the circles that propagate themselves are the beautiful type of all influence. Man is conscious of a universal soul within or behind his individual life, wherein, as in a firmament, the natures of Justice, Truth, Love, Freedom, arise and shine. This universal soul, he calls Reason: it is not mine, or thine, or his, but we are its; we are its property and men. And the blue sky in which the private earth is buried, the sky with its eternal calm, and full of everlasting orbs, is the type of Reason. That which, intellectually considered, we call Reason, considered in relation to nature, we call Spirit. Spirit is the Creator. Spirit hath life in itself. And man in all ages and countries, embodies it in his language, as the FATHER.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature (1836)

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