Jazz, Jazz-metal and the future of a hybrid

Our society is fascinated by outsiderness. This neurosis comes from the fact that we exist by the support of a civilization we see as going down a bad path, if we think about things at all. Our outsiders look more askance at this society than we who must maintain it, but they also do so from within it, so they are both critical of and dependent upon it. This creates a need for not a new civilization, but a new psychology of civilization, and it is mostly commonly engendered by song: poetry, jazz, prose or violence.

Jazz is “America’s music.” A hybrid of the blues and public-school training in European classical harmony, it nonetheless is not unique, because it has existed on every continent at some time in their growths. It is a universal language, the free and open jam, and appeals less to theory — despite being heavy on theory — than it does to an impulse of the soul which wants to start playing first, and then figure out how to cram the symbolism of emotions into song. Even so, when we speak of jazz we speak of the American variety.

Because jazz is extreme compared to pop music, and both in its day and today an outsider music, and because it went through a ring cycle from innocent complex pop music to nearly total psychoacoustic noise with the extremes of free jazz, we see it is parallel to heavy metal and hardcore punk. Both of those as well are falling from grace, exiling themselves from a comfortable modern existence to be extremes. Both of those totally reject society. Where jazz is cool alienation, and an attempt to find itself through degrees of emotion, metal and punk are a rejection of human emotion and a hot alienation that points to the hard, cold historical record — the abstract. Jazz is earth and metal is sky.

As metal expanded through its own cycle of growth and decay, its growth mirrored the process jazz underwent. At first, metal was just a heavier form of rock with more phrasal composition as evidenced by the long melodic riffs of Black Sabbath, but then it became a “serious” art form with speed metal, after the 70s stadium metal wrecked its credibility but good. When that “serious” social consciousness art wasn’t enough, it became crypto-symbolic art with death metal, with an extensive philosophical interpretation required to get from “only death is real” to a philosophy of abstraction to rival Plato.

When death metal got itself established after a painful birth from fragments of thrash/hardcore punk and speed metal, it found itself as an art form embracing simplicity and yet structure, shying away from mainstream consonance or even harmonic structure. Its structure came entirely from worship of the riff, or rather the way death metal bands would string together seemingly unconnected riffs that made sense as the piece culminated, like poetry unifying disparate symbolism. Death metal was unlike the harmonies of heavy metal, or the rhythmic culmination of speed metal, but it was pure structure in arrangement of complex riffs, and the distinct phrasing that made each one both evocative and complementary to others.

Because these riffs operated independently of scalar or chordal structures, death metal was compared to free jazz by the savvier elements of the music press. Much of this comparison occurred before death metal was fully defined, when the more jam-friendly elements in hardcore (Black Flag’s “The Process of Weeding Out” most notably) and more dissonant, theoretically detached elements of grindcore (Napalm Death’s opus of microsong disrhythmic chaos, “Scum”) were noticed by bored, underpaid and desperate writers looking for a story. Death metal being half-hardcore, half-heavy metal, the genre rotated to face jazz for a golden period of about five years.

The first real salvo in this battle was fired by Atheist on their first and second albums, “Piece of Time” and “Unquestionable Presence.” The increasing mixture of jazz crept outward from the rhythm section to the point where the second album embraced much of the aesthetic of jazz, especially the fusion-tinged variety that used intense dynamic variation to resemble a soundtrack, more like Al DiMeola’s “Cielo E Terra.” Atheist embraced the same jazz direction, but added to jazz what punk and hardcore had, what made them “hot” and not “cool”: that inhuman, abstract, theoretical structure that allowed them to stitch riffs together on the basis of phrasing and melody alone, leaving behind the artifacts of tonal context needed by most people to orient themselves in the composition.

If emotional is cool, abstract is hot, and it fits better with the raw anger of death metal, because rage without some idea of how it might manifest itself to soothe its source of irritation becomes impotent and self-serving. What makes jazz cool is its acqueous descent into pure organic emotion, a casting aside of all structure that lets the psyche move with total freedom, given a few rules to keep its motion consonant — like a morality of sound, it throws out conceptions of hierarchy and shared goals and lets the individual freestyle it, but imposes some rigid rules. What makes metal hot is that it throws out that coolness, and imposes an order that transcends human limitations, giving rise to speculation about the motion of empires and epic ideas in collision, like a heavenly war of symbols.

Atheist fused these two outlooks, and in doing so, unleashed a revolution in metal. First, the clones came, but since metal is hot and not cool we pay no attention to them. Next, other bands picked up on this revolution and put it to good use. The two remaining explicitly jazzy death metal albums came from the Netherlands and Florida, respectively, and further advanced the science of jazz-metal. Longstanding death metal/speed metal hybrid legends Pestilence had been growing increasingly toward a greater display of musical skill, including conventional means such as harmony, and after going halfway on their third album created a jazz/metal fusion for their fourth, “Spheres.”

Spheres split a room full of metalheads into people who hated it, and people who loved it. With guitars plugged into MIDI samplers outputting in a range of voices, and offtime tempos marching past with unpredictable variations, Spheres was difficult to grasp as a listening experience much less a piece of art, but many did enjoy it so much that fifteen years after its release, it has been re-released with new live tracks. Metalheads at the time were fascinated that one of their own, from a genre so alienated it was not listed on any mainstream music reporting or labels, could go toe-to-toe with the progressive and jazz bands of its day. Others were appalled at what they saw as an attempt to reduce what made metal unique, and make it more like the conformist music of the mainstream.

Cynic’s “Focus” came out the following year and further divided the community. It did not enwrap its guitars in synthetic sounds, but chose to do that for the vocals, creating an otherworldly but rarely forceful effect that jarred with the assertive psychology of death metal. That coupled with Buddhist-influenced positive lyrics, a tendency toward light interludes, and lush keyboards backing guitars made the album rejectable by most metalheads. Riffs resembled those of the first Atheist album, making many jazz-metal diehards wonder if it was an evolution in artform or production.

While these four albums were the most evident manifestations of the jazz aesthetic, jazz influences abounded in works from other bands. Morbid Angel, known for their otherwordly seizure of souls through intense music, showed a familiarity with jazz technique especially in percussion, but without being jazzy. Demilich created a monstrosity of lead-picked intricate riffs that resembled the most avantgarde of jazz fusion, but with the subtler rhythmic introductions of death metal. Gorguts showed more of a classical influence, but balanced with lessons from avantgarde jazz.

As the death metal experiment with jazz ended, many reflected on the similarities and impossibilities of the two genres. Jazz and metal are both outsider music; both reflect a perception of persecution by society at large, it being supposed to be ignorant of some principle, and offer up radically different solutions. Jazz, it might be said, is a nurturer; death metal, it might be said, is a reality check. While the two overlap somewhat, ultimately they don’t overlap in ideas, and this carries over to aesthetic. Death metal sounds abstract; jazz sounds emotional. Death metal builds a tension for dynamic release through structuring of phrase, where jazz develops phrase to emphasize an underlying harmonic pattern.

Much as Ornette Coleman rebelled against jazz and created free jazz, metal (through hardcore, most notably Discharge) rebelled against the structure of pop songs and created through its new freedom of abstraction a language of expression. Ultimately, its rebellion was that in a world of humans singing about individual fascinations and neurosis, it would be an expression of the structures of the whole. A pattern language of ideas and consequences, death metal is intensely structured music in the way classical is, using narrative composition to unite disparate elements in a storyline, like a poem. Jazz is more like the visual arts, showing exactly what occurs and winding details together in an anti-narrative.

Since the death metal flirtation with jazz, two paths have been taken to resolve this paradox. The first recognizes that death metal’s structure is closer to progressive rock, and incorporates jazz into progressive rock with death metal riffing, as Gordian Knot (featuring Cynic members) or grindcore-influenced acts like Dillinger Escape Plan have done. The second recognizes that jazz’s rhythm can be used to wrap heavy metal-styled riffs into the jaunty, bouncy aesthetic of jazz/funk based music, and this has exploded forth in bands from Candiria to Mordred to The Red Hot Chili Peppers. The problem with both of these approaches is that they must distill death metal to rock in order to proceed.

It may be that a fusion never happens because the genres are too different. Jazz is inherently aesthetic-heavy, because it lacks structure to differentiate its songs; metal exclusively differentiates its songs through structure, and is uniform in aesthetic. Where metal is structured music, jazz is unstructured to permit wide-open jams, but the result is that sets tend to run together and, outside of aesthetic innovations like switching instruments or making the musical elements more bizarre, it has nowhere to evolve, where metal as an inherently storytelling format still has room to expand. But by the same token, metal is pulled downward by its attachment to an audience shared with rock, who will often try to make it into something more like the mainstream even as its most intelligent creators pull in the opposite direction.

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Heavy Metal In Academia

The last two decades has witnessed an exponential growth of studies devoted to popular music, coupled with a re-evaluation of past theories and models for interpretation and analysis. This paradigm shift has sparked interest in music “at the fringes” which in turn has led to the unlikely emergence of “metal studies”: a multi-disciplinary field of research centered around all things related to metal music.

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Pestilence Attempts Comeback But Forgets What Makes Death Metal Great

Listen to a track from the upcoming Hadeon from longstanding Dutch band Pestilence, one is immediately struck by the similarity to late-1990s Morbid Angel: the riffs are there, albeit a bit impatient and tightly circular, but the whole experience is not. What is missing? To understand this, we must go to the core of what made death metal what it is.

If you wanted to explain to a normal person what death metal is, looking at the core of its spirit, you might haul out Slayer Hell Awaits, Hellhammer Apocalyptic Raids, and Bathory The Return… because these influenced the techniques, composition, and spirit of death metal. From Hellhammer and Slayer, it got its song structure and aesthetics; from Bathory its themes and riff technique.

Death metal took the original idea of metal, formed when Black Sabbath and others began using power chords to make phrasal riffs instead of harmony-oriented open chord riffs, and developed it further. This is different than doing something “new” or “progressing” because it means undertaking the much harder task of developing an idea further at a structural level instead of just changing aesthetics.

With the rise of underground metal, death metal adopted chromatic riffing and made the interplay between riffs form a narrative to each song. This abolished typical rock song structure and, because the guitar served as a melodic instrument instead of a harmonic one, forced vocals, bass and drums into a background role. How well the riffs fit together and portrayed an atmosphere, idea, or sensation defined the quality of the music.

Pestilence came from a solid death metal background with Consuming Impulse but showed a speed metal styled approach on Malleus Maleficarum, and this tension has stayed with the band for its entire career. The speed metal style of verse and chorus built on a singular theme that is present in the music is easier to jam on and use harmony to complement, where death metal rarely explicitly states its theme, only silhouetting it in the interaction between its many riffs. With speed metal, bands can set up a chord progression and develop it in layers of internal commentary like jazz, and this puts vocals back in position number one among the lead instruments.

“Non-Physical Existent” is a two-riff song with both based on the same note progression. It creates its intensity through the clash between a ripping circular high speed riff and a slower chromatic riff that uses odd harmony to distinguish notes in an otherwise linear theme. The song breaks into a solo section over one of the riffs, and has a type of turnaround the drops into the faster riff as a return. But there is no real interplay nor any narrative.

From the riffs themselves, this is a good song, but unfortunately, it is not death metal. Nor will it last because essentially it is a closed-circuit video of itself, a riff commented on by another, without resembling any particular experience or emotion, therefore being a null journey, more like stasis in space while riffs loop. It is better than not bad, but still not of real interest to the death metal fan.

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Trendkillers #2: Blast Beats Must Die!

The blast beat has had a very unlikely journey through its relatively young lifespan in music.  Rooted in a jazz technique of an alternating bass drum/hi-hat and snare 16th note pattern (though played at much slower tempo in jazz music), it found a unique identity in the early 1980s when underground hardcore punk bands like Siege and Asocial began using it at aggressive speeds to enhance their violent bursts of rebellion.  This made it a close friend of metal when the middle of the decade saw a fledgling death metal movement getting its hands dirty with hardcore punk speed and sound in an effort to push its own extremity.  Over the next 15 years, several drummers would rise to prominence with their clever use of the blast beat to either push these combinations to extreme speeds or to utilize them enduringly for an effect similar to trance music.  Suddenly, every metal band that wanted to play fast or play simplistically HAD to play blast beats, and we eventually reached a point where blast beats were the most dominant part of every death and black metal song’s drum composition.

For the future of death and black metal to establish themselves distinctively, they must abandon what has become routine and keep only what is necessary to preserve their underlying spirit.  And with this understanding comes an unfortunate truth- the beloved blast beat must be laid to rest, so that new life in metal can grow.
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Metal Vocals are Obstructive.  Remove them.

There are many well cultured intellectuals who, when presented with metal music, will immediately be tuned out by the vocals.  This results in much of the metal collective being comprised of hold-my-beer normies and most of the world’s high IQ population never grasping a music genre that has both the depth and the complexity they yearn for.  Moreover, vocals in metal have not progressed AT ALL since the 1990s and therefore vocalists have been rendered indistinguishable from one another.  Through this understanding comes the ultimate revelation:  metal vocals, more than any other factor, are hindering the next great wave of metal. 

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In The Age Of Ideology Dying, The “Political” Album Also Dies

Growing up, I always detested “political” albums because people were ranting to me about partisanship from an adult world that I knew had already failed. It really was shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic to demand one failed version of the current order over another. It also violated what I felt was sacred about art: its abstraction, metaphor, and connection to the naturalistic experience.

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Morbid Angel – Kingdoms Disdained (2017)

There are twelve notes. There are twenty-six letters. We can form them into combinations/patterns. The ones that stay with us are the ones that communicate. This takes us above the level of riff (metal), harmony (jazz/rock), and into the realm of melody, which uses phrase and harmony as means of strengthening the expression of a melody, or a unique combination which resembles the psychological sensation of a certain experience.

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Bad Brains – Bad Brains (1982)

Early English and US hardcore punk served as important catalysts in the development of underground metal. During the earliest years of the 1980s, it was hardcore punk and not metal that provided the most violent and intense music within grasp of disgruntled and alienated kids attempting to survive the suburbs of Western Civilization.

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Acquiring the Taste : A Tour Through Progressive Rock, Part I

Since progressive rock first arose out of British and North American psychedelia, it has crossed every boundary that it could identify, which makes it like metal more a question of a spirit than a concrete set of musical or extra-musical traits. We can identify a few aspects of this spirit: a desire to make unique song forms which fit the shifting demands of their content, a passion for exploring melody and harmony, an obsession with the unconventional, and a chameleon-like ability to explore other styles and adopt them as its own.

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Sterilizer – II (2017)

For decades, musicians have sought the holy grail of combining metal with industrial, but the problem is one of space. Industrial uses space more like rock or jazz, to separate notes, where metal focuses on the continuity of power chord riffs. If the hybrid goes too far to one extreme, it sounds like industrial with fragmented metal riffs; on the other extreme, it loses the machine-like sound of industrial. (more…)

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