It’s the rare band that improves with age. New York’s Dehumanized returns with a leaner and more complex sound in the style of percussive death metal, a lot like Suffocation or Malevolent Creation given lessons in being mean.
Although the band bill their as “slam death metal,” its roots are in the muted-strumming high-impact styles that extends from Exodus through Meshuggah, with stops in the middle for Morpheus Descends and Resurrection. It is a mathematics of complex impacts, like Shao-lin monks attacking with the precision of a supercomputer.
Dehumanized make their songs out of chromatic strips of chords arrayed in layers of riffs, alternating every third riff or so with a melodic counter-commentary similar to that used by newer percussive death bands like Deeds of Flesh. The result keeps interest throughout and gives you a break between pummeling skull-crushing material and abrupt tempo changes that leave a whiff of snapped necks in their path.
Vocals are chortled guttural rants that undulate through the guitar rhythms that dominate each song. Percussion follows with a flair for fills in the style of modern technical death metal, but rides a cadence like old school death. Songs are efficient, and listenable in that way that Napalm Death’s Fear, Emptiness, Despair is, meaning that they are catchy and minimal but not so repetitive that the brain filters them out.
Lite jazz musicians and metalcore enthusiasts will fear and loathe this album, but for those who like meaty and violent death metal, it is a treat that deserves more inspection. Birthed of the militaristic NYDM scene, Controlled Elite lives up to its reputation by being simultaneously ferocious and listenable.
Many of us are fans of last.fm and other services which keep track of listening statistics. These allow me to link up various devices that I use and see what my actual listening patterns are instead of what I think they are. For example, if you asked me for a list of top death metal releases, I can easily name something like this list of the best in each genre. But that is an analytical opinion related to the art and music themselves, not a personal habit, which reflects more the day-to-day utility I find in different albums. Such is the split with Gorguts Obscura, an album I listened to extensively when it came out in accidental defiance of conventional wisdom, but then have not picked up since. Part of the reason is the unreasonably loud production, which makes it — like Sinister Hate and other albums of the “early ProTools era” — difficult to listen to alongside classic albums, and abrasively loud with lost texture of distortion. Another reason is that having heard it three times a day for five years, I may have simply absorbed it entirely. A third might be that while it is admirable as a piece of art, it may not be applicable to much of my life or thought process at this point.
I read Old Disgruntled Bastard‘s article “The postmodern Gorguts” with great interest not just because I enjoy ODB’s writing, but because he has cut into a vital topic: does Obscura belong to the old school death metal legions, or is it of a newer style that we call “modern metal”? Modern metal — comprised of nu-metal, metalcore, tech-death, post-metal and indie-rock — distinguishes itself from the old because it is composed like rock but with metal riffs mixed in among the jazz and prog affectations. The analysis of it as postmodern seems to make sense if one considers later postmodernism. Early postmodernism distrusted meta-narratives and so attempted to create its own based on the subtext, or invisible reality, as an alternative to the public text or consensual token-based narrative of our reality and civilization.
Later postmodernism simplified that to an idea of showing many different angles or perspectives of a topic, like a Pablo Picasso painting, which created a surface level of complexity of ingredients so intense that it reduced the organizing principle or internal complexity of the work to near nothingness. Compare Don Delillo’s White Noise to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (itself highly derivative of Pynchon, that highly derivative of Nabokov and Burroughs) for an example of this in literature.
The public school safe answer when asked about the origins of postmodernism is that it sprang up with Foucault, but someone who traces the history of ideas — and actually writes postmodern fiction — like myself may see the origins instead in an early writing by Fred “Mad Dog” Nietzsche entitled “On Truth and Lies in a Post-Moral Sense,” in which he points out the nihilism of language: tokens work only when people mean the same thing, but people project their own desires into the meaning through the imprecise device of memory, which means that narratives rapidly become deconstructed into manipulation and the only excuse is to discard the old values and definitions, and rebuild from common sense observation of reality.
There are, after all, very few ideas in history, and much as Plato was a watershed, Nietzsche defined the different perspectives in the modern time, but this analysis is too far-reaching to be made in public, least of all on the government dime. I remember talking with Audrey Ewell (Until the Light Takes Us) over this very split and finding myself dismissed as perhaps not knowing the background material, which is very un-postmodern as it affirms an official narrative in defiance of the introspection that leads to analysis of externality by structure and not appearance, a trait shared between Nietzsche and the Romantics that lives on in postmodernism albeit faintly, and only in the important works, excluding the forgettable Mitchell for example. Postmodernism appears in movies by David Lynch and Lars von Trier, specifically the death metal-friendly Melancholia, and even in the theories we tell ourselves about daily life. Discontent with The NarrativeTM abounds, but very few agree on what that narrative is or what is the truth that it conceals, which shows a difficulty of postmodernism: it deconstructs and points vaguely in a new direction, but never finalizes the task, which relegates it to the academic realm of sipping Merlot and watching the world build up tinder for the final carnage.
Having boiled out all of that context to postmodernism as idea, let us look at William Pilgrim’s excellent article. Death Metal Underground tries to provide multiple perspectives — in the postmodern sense — on any topic, but diverges from the postmodern narrative by affirming that reality itself is truth, and we can approximate that truth, so we must undertake the almost never undertaken second part of the process which is through reasoned debate to then find answers. People love the idea of multiple perspectives, because it means that since nothing is true, they can do whatever they want and that “feels” good to the forlorn or under-confident soul. They are less enthusiastic about boiling down the data found and constructing from it an assessment of truthfulness. The article contains two essential nodal points, the first of which is the definition of postmodernism:
…a school of thought that attempts to reject overarching structural meaning and belief in greater narratives. To the post-modern mind, existence and experience consist of pluralities, splintered into fiercely individualistic cells prone to subjective rule, and inimical to any attempt at establishing a universal system of knowledge. Under this philosophy, adherence to a common-law guidebook serving as a framework for value judgments would amount to giving tacit approval to an authoritarian scheme of things.
This sounds surprisingly like one of my favorite definitions, the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy definition of “nihilism”:
Nihilism is the belief that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated…By the late 20th century, “nihilism” had assumed two different castes. In one form, “nihilist” is used to characterize the postmodern person, a dehumanized conformist, alienated, indifferent, and baffled, directing psychological energy into hedonistic narcissism or into a deep ressentiment that often explodes in violence…In contrast to the efforts to overcome nihilism noted above is the uniquely postmodern response associated with the current antifoundationalists….French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard characterizes postmodernism as an “incredulity toward metanarratives,” those all-embracing foundations that we have relied on to make sense of the world. This extreme skepticism has undermined intellectual and moral hierarchies and made “truth” claims, transcendental or transcultural, problematic. Postmodern antifoundationalists, paradoxically grounded in relativism, dismiss knowledge as relational and “truth” as transitory, genuine only until something more palatable replaces it (reminiscent of William James’ notion of “cash value”). The critic Jacques Derrida, for example, asserts that one can never be sure that what one knows corresponds with what is.
Much of interest stands out here starting with caste. Alan Pratt seems to see the two interpretations of nihilism as reflecting degrees of abstraction. On one level, people say that life has no inherent meaning — that is the correct short form translation of what he says above — and translate that into dissipation; on the other, they see this as an opportunity to escape the dead definitions of a dying civilization and re-evaluate all that is known and how it is seen as important; in other words, to go back to Nietzsche and his Romantic-tinged apocalyptic renewal.
This also introduces the fundamental problem of modern philosophy, which it tries to handle through grammars of different fields of study, consisting of the coherence/correspondence split. A sentence can be completely grammatical and parse-able but contain no meaning because it imitates outward form but refers to nothing and resembles nothing found in reality. “A = x; if A > x, then the world ends” is entirely sensible as an expression, yet gives no information and relates to nothing. Like Nietzsche, most postmodern philosophers attack language, but unlike Nietzsche, they seek to find ways around language where Nietzsche’s point was the more flexible idea that language, logic and other forms of communication and truth-assessment are dependent on those who wield them, their intelligence, honest and intent; in other words, as he said, “There are no truths, only interpretations.”
This nihilism — which sounds a lot like postmodernism itself — distrusts not just a narrative, but the idea that there can be a narrative, or in other words one explanation of reality and how to deal with it that applies to all people. This translates to a distrust of the inherent or innate, such as the idea of “writing on the wall” or any other kind of definitive sign that communicates to all people. In other words, reality is out there, and all of our access to it comes through interpretations; these vary in value, and communication between them occurs through reality, so is subject to the same weakness. This means that there is no single symbolic or token communication which can be said to be innately true, and since the world itself issues forth no data in symbolic form, “truth” is a property of human minds and dependent on the quality, discipline and application of those minds, and is not shared among humanity collectively.
This applies less to the idea of a narrative within, say, a death metal album, that to the idea of a narrative describing our world and universal values to address it. However, individual interpretations can more closely approximate an understanding of reality, even if they cannot be communicated because communication depends on symbolic parity between all parties, which in turn depends on the ability to understand those symbols in roughly the same way. In ancient times, that viewpoint was called “esotericism” because it suggested that reality revealed its truths to those who were ready for them, with both a sense of knowledge being cumulative and not open to all people. A genius or highly talented person sees a different truth than others, thus this truth is localized to that person, and cannot be shared by the act of encoding it in symbols and speaking or writing them to others.
Taking this path through postmodern reveals that while postmodernism “flouts conventions”, as the article states, flouting conventions is not the total of postmodernism; it is one attribute, and it occurs not in and of itself but for the sake of undermining the narrative. This brings us to the core of Pilgrim’s analysis of Obscura:
In its abundant jagged outcroppings and in its constant search for the next unorthodox detour, Obscura shortchanges the simple truth that holds up metal and indeed all ‘essential’ music, that of relating an idea through sound.
I will simplify this in a grotesque but accurate way: tail wags dog. Instead of technique being used as a means of expressing an idea, the technique becomes the goal and the idea is filled in afterwards to unite the different technical parts. This common criticism of metal rings true in almost all disorganized works because the band wrote a bunch of riffs, adjusted rhythm like a big paper bag to fit them all together, and then called it a “song” despite having nothing in common between its parts, and thus no emergent atmosphere or communication which makes the whole more than the sum of the parts. This leaves us with the criticism of Obscura as failing to maintain a narrative, and whether this is related to the postmodern distrust of narratives, which itself could constitute a narrative. We could create a thesis of history describing humanity as a successive series of escapes from previously limiting narratives to new ones, but that then portrays postmodernism entirely as a form of deconstruction, which while compatible with the notion of extreme skepticism fails to capture the Nietzschean notion of “re-evaluation of all values” which is the second half of the postmodern process: (1) deconstruct and (2) reconstruct, from reality (correspondence) and not internal grammars (coherence).
The only remaining question is to analyze the music itself and see if its parts in fact associate in some way as to make a meaningful whole, which is the question here; postmodernism has served as a useful filter for introduction but not really a guide to how to do this. We are back to using the same compositional analysis that would apply to any death metal release, or any through-composed music.
Specifically, Pilgrim identifies the lack of a melodic or structural center:
Conventional melody is used not as the driving force behind the songs heard on this album, but as ballast to the band’s almost painful need to expand the template of extreme metal prevalent till then.
At this point my own narrative must switch to the incredibly general in lieu of analyzing each song. My take on this album is that Gorguts wrote an album in the style of The Erosion of Sanity and then, possibly through the work of Steve Hurdle, added strong melodic continuity. Then, they chopped it and re-arranged it so that riffs introduced themselves both in “backward” order of distilling from more texturally complex to most melodically clear, and arranged them so that the melody was introduced in a pattern which broke up its normal flow in order to introduce pieces in a sequence that created another emotional impression, then assembling it from its conclusion for the final part of the song. This seems to me both not the tail wags dog approach, but also a use of technique over composition, but in this case it was effective because the music was already composed and was modified with an additional layer of complexity and perhaps, some anticipatory contrarianism, in order to make its labyrinthine journey of fragmentary melodies into more of a puzzle assembled in the mind of the listener, not unlike how postmodern novels like Naked Lunch separated a story into vignettes and multiple character/setting groups in order to disguise it and force the reader to assemble it in the abstract, before repeating it in a finale in more concrete form.
However, it seems to me that the core of Pilgrim’s essay is his listing of seven attributes of metal, and that perhaps his intent is to use Gorguts and postmodernism as a point to speak about metal as both having postmodern attributes, and opposing postmodernism by asserting a narrative construction of its own. In this, metal may be a nihilistic exception to the norm of postmodernism, in that while it distrusts the contemporary narrative, and negates the idea of inherent truth/knowledge/communication, it asserts that it can portray reality in a fragment in such a way that others can appreciate it. Regarding the charges of amateurism, Pilgrim makes some solid points. The fixation on iconoclasm and paradigm-inversion, which itself strengthens a narrative by the fact that exceptions tend to prove the rule, and deliberately “whacky” permutations of arrangement draw skepticism, and deservedly so. The third possibility offered by this author is that like most works of art, parts of Obscura are sincere and insightful, and other parts are bullshit designed “outward in,” or from appearance to core, meaning that they communicate little or were modified to express something convenient after the fact. If taken as a whole however, the album minimizes these parts by fitting them within other songs that attract less trivial attention. Where Pilgrim seems proven right to me is through recent Gorguts output which emphasizes mysticism of the trivial as a means of enhancing the self-estimation of its listeners, much as Opeth and Meshuggah built a cottage industry around making simple music seem complex to attract low self-esteem fans who want bragging and pretense rights over their friends; where he falls short is that From Wisdom To Hate, while a more rushed and uneven album, further develops the techniques on Obscura.
We reviewed Personal Device Microorganismos del Mal in Sadistic Metal Reviews 05-19-14 and found this to be an excellent late thrash album inspired by some of the more technical hardcore punk out there. At that point, we wanted to learn more, so wrote to the band with a short interview some months later. They were generous with their time and able to share their answers about music, life, micro-organisms, thrash and world destruction.
When did Personal Device start, and what bands or ideas inspired you at the time? What does the name “Personal Device” signify?
We go way back as a band.
We started up in 2006 as UNHEILBAR (German: incurable), playing what you may call “classic thrash.” At that point we were looking up to the Bay Area scene, trying to mix it up with some German influences: we were trying to capture the essence of such bands as Metallica, Anthrax, Exodus, Slayer, Sacred Reich, Testament, and so on. Then, circa 2009, we started exploring a fresher sound with crossover: Suicidal Tendencies, Nuclear Assault, Ratos de Porao, Billy Milano’s S.O.D and M.O.D. At that point, we made a switch from a purely thrash project to a more comprehensible one: mixing both old school thrash with some 80s hardcore punk (Minor Threat, Black Flag, Bad Brains, Batallion of Saints). With this new approach came along our changing the name of the band to Personal Device in 2013. To us it means the constant struggle to find oneself, one’s tools to get by. Plus, it sounds like something about to explode.
Are you a metal band? A punk band? A crossover thrash band?
Our music is based on Metal but we incorporate elements of hardcore punk sounds, which kinda makes us a crossover thrash band. We often refer to ourselves as thrash-punk, but we don’t care much about labeling us in a certain way. We are comfortable being refered to as a Thrash Band. If you want to Mosh, if you are looking forward to heavy riff-orientated, fast pace, songs, then Personal Device is for you.
Much of your sound seems like a better-played vision of what people were doing in the 1980s. What made you pick up this banner? Have you added anything to it that’s new? What have you added that’s all your own?
While it’s true that we draw heavy influences from the so called old-school 80s scenes of thrash and punk, we don’t consider Personal Device to be a mere “revival band.” You could that we are not nostalgic, we aim to produce our own sound, though we can’t deny our great debt to the old school. Even so, we also like the New Wave of Thrash Metal bands, it’s just that we find it somehow pointless if your entire music is devoted to yell BRING 80s THRASH BACK.
What inspires your lyrics, and is this important in the style of music that you’re making?
Our lyrics deal with the condition of modern circumstances, living in big dehumanized cities. Nonetheless, you may find some sporadic nonesense as well as constant references to Colombia. We also have one or two jams dedicated to thrash music, a couple of thrash-party anthems if you will.
Where did you record Microorganismos del Mal, and were these new songs or a collection of songs? Did you use any special techniques to get the very crisp sound on the recording?
After signing with our friends at the independent label Gomorrah Records, we went to the 4Cuartos studio in Bogotá D.C. We recorded our first full-length album Microorganismos del Mal (Spanish for Microorganisms of Evil) which is the consecration of eight years worth of work. There are 10 tracks in it: five of them are re-recordings of songs we had already recorded as Unheilbar, the other five are original compositions. The recording was pretty standard for a heavy metal band; we worked with two great sound engineers, Juan Carlos Bravo and Alejandro Veloza.
Can you tell us something about the concept behind the album?
The concept behind Microorganismos del Mal deals with our city, Bogotá, and with the meaning of Thrash and Punk.: a reflection on how important it is for us to live the whole experience of making music.
When did you sign to Gomorrah Records, and what made you choose this label?
We signed with Gomorrah around November 2013, and it was not much of a deal at the time of doing it since there was, and still there is, a friendship in between. So they just told us that they wanted us to release an album produced by them and we never doubted it.
Are you going to go on tour now, record more material, or both?
For sure we are planning to go on tour. There is the possibility to self manage a tour around the US more specifically in Florida. And also we have been looking for rock venues around South America where we could play. All this under a “do it yourself” philosophy. About new recordings, right now we are working on new material, and some of those songs were recorded in collaboration with sound engineering and visual arts students, with the idea of launching a live session
Do you think it’s hard for a band to get recognized in the underground now? How do you think people will find you?
It is definitely hard to get recognition when you play Thrash. Especially when you live in Colombia, but we think it is a matter of time and hard work. We have been playing together for around eight years and you can see how things start to happen when you are consistent. So in this moment the best way to be recognized its playing and having approaches with different people and all the movements that are concerned about music and keeping the scene alive.
What’s the most important aspect of a song for you, lyrics, riffs, structure or imagery?
For us, all those aspects are important. We like to come up with songs that have coherence between sound and lyrics, and that involves off course, structure and imagery.
If people want to learn more about Personal Device, how can they do so?
There is no doubt the best way to learn about a band is going to their concerts, buying their albums, reading the interviews, reviews and all that stuff. So taking into account we are a band…well people just can start by doing it. A good place to go first would be our bandcamp page, personaldevice.bandcamp.com.
One effect of the recent uptick in nostalgia bands and reunions is that newer bands have seen the light. This illumination is that if a band simply continues where the past left off, it can both have a unique perspective and uphold the traditions that have made metal great. This escapes the dual ills of false novelty and being a tribute band.
Scalpel combines the West Coast style of blasting percussive death metal, commonly called the Unique Leader sound after the label that signed the innovators of this style, with the East Coast post-Suffocation form of grinding pneumatic explosive technical death. The result is high-intensity percussion mated with simple riffs that proliferate into layered textures that expand in complexity as the song develops.
Sorrow and Skin will immediately call to mind recent Deeds of Flesh and Northeasterners Dehumanized, who made similar percussion-intensive death metal with similar pacing: frenetic, but with lots of pauses and interludes, drawing together high intensity moments like scenes in an atmospheric horror film. Scalpel pair up riffs and let them develop, but keep it simple so that no element rises above the others.
The result is high-intensity music that also has enough internal musical meat to keep the brain occupied and searching for meaning in its patterns, which creates a vertiginous effect of discovery when the unpredictable occurs. Use of melody allows songs to embed moods within previous sensations crafted only by the pattern of riffs.
While Scalpel uses little of metal’s classic phrasal riffing, preferring the more speed metal percussive and choppy styles, these riffs branch out to include different textures and rhythms. The result is a sense of each song like a mini-golf course, where each riff has a mechanism and after you play through, a surprise that reveals its purpose in the whole.
In keeping with the West Coast school of percussive death metal, Scalpel uses the “dog barking into the wind” style of vocals that are both guttural but not exclusively bass-heavy, giving them greater range to match instruments. The result packages a good deal of musical activity within songs that, while made from simple parts, end up being tiny visions of inward journeys that take us to more interesting places than the sum of their pieces.
With the arrival of A Blaze in the Northern Sky, Darkthrone presented a new musical evil with the help of a new visual evil. The first four of Darkthrone’s black metal albums depicted a sole band member in a state of aggression, triumph and/or despair, in black-and-white photos stripped of all decoration, reflecting the intentionally unaesthetic music of the band.
This minimalist approach culminated both visually and musically with Transilvanian Hunger, showing a photocopied, grainy picture of Fenriz dehumanized beyond recognition, holding a candelabrum and presumably screaming his lungs out in the night. Some of its appeal lies in its ambiguity; feelings of futility, anger and power are intermixed, widening its significance.
Although Darkthrone’s visual idea was immediately inspired by Mayhem’s Live in Leipzig, its monochromatic, Xeroxed quality also has an eerie resemblance to Black Sabbath’s Vol. 4 from twenty years earlier and its anguished enigmatic quality to Edvard Munch’s The Scream even further back in history. The parallel is not entirely farfetched: it echoes the troubled mind of Fenriz himself, who reportedly loves art that comes from “the exhaustion of easy life”. To black metal fans the Transilvanian Hunger cover is presumably the one archetypical image of what “necro” signifies, much like The Scream is still very much considered the face of existential anguish.
The “necro” imagery, however, may have been unintentional: In Precious Metal: Decibel Presents the Stories Behind 25 Extreme Metal Masterpieces, Fenriz asserts that mere photocopies from the TH photo session were the only thing he could find at the time to send to Peaceville Records, implying that the same picture could have been reproduced in a more polished fashion. But it doesn’t seem entirely unlikely that the use of a photocopy was inspired by Peaceville’s 1992 compilation album, Peaceville Volume 4, spoofing both cover art and title of the famous Black Sabbath album mentioned above and containing one of Darkthrone’s pre-TH songs, implying that the use was deliberate after all. (Rabid speculation is any fan’s right, right?)
In any case, the cover of Transilvanian Hunger effectively summarized its music by a single iconic image and was later emulated by hordes of lesser bands and is to this day worn on t-shirts by serious music lovers and the occasional hipster alike.
Official reissue of their 1993 album, originally released on Modern Primitive, with the “Dehumanized” demo, two live tracks and a compilation song as bonus tracks. Death Metal the way it was always meant to be, rotten and moist, with some mandatory doom-laden tempos and a little bit of Thrash thrown in for good measure. Draw a mental picture of Autopsy, Obituary or Nihilist with the occasional pinch of ancient Thrash Metal and you’re almost there. This reissue features a jaw-dropping new artwork and layout by Richard Schouten @ Robotmonster, including a 12-page booklet that is packed with rare photos, old flyers, lyrics, etc. Limited to 500 copies.