With the fiftieth anniversary of metal music around the corner, forthcoming years will witness an increase of publications dealing with the history, legacy and defining characteristics of the genre. This could finally resolve the lack of consensus that still exists regarding the definition and origins of heavy metal.
Before the hybridization of different genres such as metal and industrial became something of a holy grail for underground musicians, an intermediate genre known as post-punk turned toward an eclectic and more contemplative mode of expression.
The music of Emperor is commonly misconceived by the mainstream metal media and certain YouTube clowns to be merely an atmospheric wall of sound or symphonic black metal orchestration engineered for superficial, surface level aesthetic appeal to an audience atypical for black metal. This is in fact not the case. In the Nightside Eclipse is just as perplexing to typical headbangers on first encounter as it was upon release in 1994. Mainstream audiences are even more flabbergasted and regard the record as a mere curiosity produced by those murderous church burners, preferring Emperor’s more rock-structured later work such as Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk, which abandoned the band’s signature riffing style and method in exchange for ones influenced by more stereotypical Norwegian B-listers such as Enslaved and Kvist. Emperor did eventually sell out, becoming technical guitar wank, rock-structured heavy metal after their rhythm guitarist Samoth and drummer Faust were imprisoned in 1994 and their songwriting influence subsequently waned. Yet In the Nightside Eclipse‘s hymns to Satan and Sauron remain as natural mutations of their metallic predecessors’ attempts to imitate horror scores and classical music’s overwhelming power of sublimity.
The stylistically inclusive nature of progressive rock allows quite a lot of stretching of the genre’s musical boundaries. This part of Death Metal Underground’s 1970s Progressive Rock for Hessiansseries looks into the early, classic period of the English group Hawkwind – a group of sonic shaman-warriors who transgressed more than one genre border right from their inception. Well, almost. Their unconvincing 1970 self-titled debut album can rightfully be dismissed as a failed attempt at improvisational psychedelic folk rock, with songs that sound too much like flawed byproducts of the flower power era. Luckily, the following years saw the band re-forge their sound on In Search of Space (1971), articulate it on Doremi Fasol Latido (1972) and finally push their newfound style to its limits on Space Ritual (1973).
As part of our exploration of academia in metal, we meet all sorts of interesting academics with different relationships to metal. Some are more on the academic side, some on the musical, and some in-between. Ross Hagen straddles both extremes by being both a musician and an academic with a focus on teaching metal. As a result, he brings both personal experience and delight in the genre to the otherwise more abstract academic view. We were lucky to get in a few questions with this interesting person and teacher.
You’ve got two degrees in music and one in musicology. What launched you along this direction? Did you intend to become an academic, or did the music lead you there?
I think this career path resulted from my love of music coupled with the fact that I didn’t really have the discipline for seriously practicing a musical instrument so I could play professionally. I’d much rather spend six hours a day in the library. Graduate school was also a nice way to extend my adolescence and avoid adult responsibilities for a few years after college. But when I think about it, I suppose that academia was always an intention of mine, whether I thought about it consciously or not. Both of my parents were educators, so I guess I’m something of a poster child for following the path laid out by my upbringing.
What got you involved with heavy metal? Were you a fan before you studied it? What appeals about it to you, both as a research subject and as a personal listening experience?
I was definitely a fan before I began pursuing it as a topic of study. My father was a college professor and his students would occasionally loan him tapes and CDs so I was listening to a lot of college rock and industrial music (well, NIN anyway) in my early teens. At one point he had a student who loaned him some of the early albums by Amorphis, Samael, Tiamat, and My Dying Bride and I dug them a lot. It wasn’t until college that I found other people who liked that kind of stuff and expanded my listening though. I feel like I’m still playing catch-up on a lot of older material from the 70s and 80s especially. I also got into musicology as an undergraduate and began including metal in my studies there.
…blast beats and tremolo picking seem to suspend rhythmic momentum and time in black metal when coupled with more slowly changing harmonies and hazy-sounding production. I also related the use of full chord voicings and the use of parallel minor 3rds and 6ths (in Emperor’s music especially) to an interest in chaotic sorts of sounds…
From a personal standpoint, I suppose I find it empowering in some respects, but I also like that black metal especially is a style where it’s easy to just get lost in the sound. As a bassist and composer I like that metal is challenging to perform and that it’s a style that is quite malleable in some respects even as its fundamental ingredients remain relatively stable. I think that’s part of what I like about it as a researcher as well; the tension between the metal’s core attributes and its desire to evolve and change.
You’ve contributed a piece, “Musical Style, Ideology, and Mythology in Norwegian Black Metal,” in the compilation Metal Rules the Globe. Can you tell us about this writing, and what your thesis generally was?
This was a version of my 2005 Master’s degree thesis where I wrote about some of the key elements of the “second wave” black metal musical style and related them to the genre’s interest in the supernatural and mythical. In particular I looked into the way that blast beats and tremolo picking seem to suspend rhythmic momentum and time in black metal when coupled with more slowly changing harmonies and hazy-sounding production.
I also related the use of full chord voicings and the use of parallel minor 3rds and 6ths (in Emperor’s music especially) to an interest in chaotic sorts of sounds since those types of chords are much less focused and resonant than the typical metal power chord when played with lots of distortion. I considered these musical conventions as evocations of trance experiences because they create a sense of stasis and timelessness (in a literal sense) by obscuring rhythmic propulsion and harmonic clarity.
I was at the time interested in connecting these musical devices to the sort of Norse revivalist rhetoric that was regularly coming from people like Varg Vikernes and that also underpins Michael Moynihan’s Lords of Chaos, especially mythical figures like the berserker…that black metal seems to reward an ideal of virtuosity based on physical endurance rather than dexterity and nimbleness, things like that. I do think that there was a certain aesthetic affinity with these mythical ideals for some black metallers, that they envisioned themselves as warriors or as part of a charivari tradition trying to bring back a romanticized ideal of pre-modern Europe. However, I think that the chapter’s main contribution is the articulation of the musical style…or at least when I go back and read it those are the parts that I think hold up the best.
You teach courses on popular music, music appreciation, and music history at Utah Valley University. Does this include metal? How do students respond to it? Does their response change depending on whether they are metalheads or not?
Most of them seem to respond fairly positively to it when I do teach it, which usually only happens in the course specifically centered around popular music. I do include bits of Eddie Van Halen and Yngwie Malmsteen in my schtick on musical virtuosity in the music appreciation classes, but more as a side comparison. Students in the popular music courses seem to respond well to it even if they aren’t fans, since by the time we get into it most of the students understand that “liking” a genre of music is not a prerequisite for investigating its musical style and influence. Metalheads or former metalheads (I actually hear that a lot here…metal is something they used to like as teenagers) tend get a little more into it, but I’m often pleasantly surprised as well when students who have no personal affinity with the style offer thoughtful considerations of it.
I find it interesting that you’ve composed music for the production of two ancient Greek plays at UVU. Are these going to be released? Is there any overlap between ancient Greco-Roman music and heavy metal?
Actually only one of them (Antigone) was an ancient Greek play. The other one, Eurydice, was a modern play by Sarah Ruhl that is built around the myth but definitely takes its own path (and was directed by my very talented and lovely wife Lisa). Oddly enough, my music cues for Eurydice actually did include a bit of Rammstein-ish heavy metal…the script called for it when the Lord of the Underworld enters dressed like a child and riding a tricycle.
I’m not planning to release recordings of Eurydice‘s music cues themselves since they wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense on their own (15 seconds of heavy metal, 45 seconds of lounge music, etc.) but I did put together a suite of sorts called gravity is very compelling out of the soundscapes from Eurydice. The Antigone score is likewise kind of boring out of context, but I’ve repurposed parts of it in other works here and there.
Regarding ancient Greek and Roman music, I can say with some certainty (even though ancient music isn’t a specialty of mine) that there’s not any overlap with heavy metal in terms of musical content. A lot of the theoretical ideas and writings helped lay the foundations for the European art music tradition in the medieval period, though. Plato’s famous concerns about the dangerous moral and social effects of “disordered” music also echo through the centuries to inform the various moral panics around heavy metal and other musical styles.
According to your biography, you’ve participated in more than a dozen album releases on various American and European labels, and perform in the ambient bands encomiast and Schrei aus Stein as well as two local metal bands. Can you tell us a bit about your musical history?
I started making ambient music with encomiast in the late 1990s, when I had access to a proper electronic music studio at college. That sort of whetted my appetite for it and I’ve continued recording stuff like it ever since, often drawing my friends into the mix as well. Most of the catalog from that project is available at encomiast.bandcamp.com, although I think my favorite is the 139 Nevada 2xCD that grew out of an attempt to record ghostly voices at a haunted theater. I started Schrei aus Stein when I wanted to do something that mixed drones and noise with more of a black metal aesthetic. Beyond those projects, in the last decade I’ve played in the absurdist metal duo Spawn of the Matriarch, the stoner metal band Governors, a krautrock/free jazz trio, a one-off Mortician-worship solo project named Immensite, and a couple of cover bands.
Currently I play bass in Burn Your World, a band that mixes extreme metal styles with some hardcore punk influence. We also have a side project called Curseworship in which I play bass and compose a lot of harsh noise and analog synth freakouts. Both of those bands have recordings coming out soonish.
What do you think is the role of music? Is it to communicate ideas, express emotions, or make an aesthetic object for others to appreciate? Or none of the above?
I’d probably say it’s more like all of the above in my view, depending on the context and the person who is experiencing it. Your last role (aesthetic object) is probably closest to the way I think about the music I create — I tend to think structurally rather than in emotional or rhetorical terms.
Do you think metal is a subject that should be taught in schools? There’s two viewpoints to this: from academia’s point of view, and from metal’s point of view.
I think that from an academic point of view it’s as valid a subject as any, and to my mind it provides a rich musical and cultural well for all sorts of areas of study. I’d also be lying if I denied that it gives me a lot of pleasure to teach and write about music I love, so there’s a selfish end too I guess! I certainly also understand why some metalheads might not appreciate it because sometimes it does seem like once something has the stamp of approval from the ivory tower it loses a lot of its countercultural credentials.
Some might see it (possibly correctly!) as a misguided attempt to validate metal as an art form…or perhaps to validate academia by borrowing some of metal’s coolness. I personally try to avoid giving that impression in my classes, but my position as an academic may make it impossible for me dodge those bullets entirely. So I suppose my ultimate answer is “yes,” but with acknowledgement of some pitfalls.
You taught a couple of metal-centric classes at CU-Boulder while you were finishing your degree. What were these like? How did you “teach metal”?
One of them was a single Saturday course done through Continuing Education that was sort of a quick trip through some various issues (musical style, censorship, etc.). The longer course was a version of a course on Rock Music that I team-taught with Joel Burcham. In that one my idea was to use metal as a way to explore various aspects of popular music, including recording, performance, fandom, authenticity, etc. My goal was less to teach metal and more to allow metal to teach us, if that makes sense.
You’re an ethnomusicologist; those seem like a cross between music historian and music analyst. How does understanding metal at a musical level help you understand it at a culture level? Are there correlations between the two dimensions of metal?
I sometimes feel like the primary thing my musical training provides me with is a vocabulary with which to work. I do find it helpful in terms of articulating aspects of metal music and production that encourage particular responses and experiences among listeners. As I mentioned in my summary of the “Metal Rules the Globe” article, I do think that some musical ideas can evoke particular experiences and reflect certain values. I would stop short of saying that they necessarily correspond to the values of the performer and the audience though. Sometimes that might certainly be the case, but I’ve come to be skeptical of sweeping correlations, mostly because I want to avoid misrepresenting the culture of metal as a monolithic entity. The more time I spend with metal and with other metalheads, the more I appreciate the diversity of experience within it.
One of your research interests is ritualism. Are there ritual aspects to heavy metal, especially the black metal variety?
I tend to think that almost every musical activity has some sort of a ritual component to it, using the term broadly. With black metal, though, I’m particularly interested in the deployment of Ritual “with a capital R” as a conscious effort to connect the music and performance with some archaic imagined past. In some respects, I think the past black metal invokes is the past of black metal itself, a retro recycling and recreation that is common to all music in some degree, but which has perhaps increased lately (Simon Reynold’s recent book deals with this better than I).
Rather than celebrating the protean side of 21st century identity, metal seems to demand a higher level of “identity essentialism” in that respect. It promises some measure of stability.
Invoking ritual also feels like an appeal to an authoritative kind of authenticity, an assertion that black metal is not entertainment or theater, but instead that it is a stable and “timeless” tradition and (importantly) not beholden to the vagaries of taste or fashion. The use of a fairly standard and narrow set of musical gestures and sounds, deindividualizing costumes and pseudonyms, and staged evocations of sacrificial death all work to this end. Of course, the “appeal to ritual” is also in some ways merely a marketing term and a performance conceit. It might go hand-in-hand with the increased visibility of black metal over the past decade or so.
I’m currently working with these ideas as part of a research project on musical ritualism as an authenticating tactic in popular music…possibly with a parallel trajectory in musical representations of monstrosity and supernatural forces. I’m still gathering my dogs together to see if they hunt though.
How important do you think heavy metal is as a cultural indicator? What does it tell us about our society?
I think it certainly has a role there, although I think that what it says varies a lot depending on who is involved in it. Actually, I think that if we look at metal around the globe, I might consider a lack of metal in a society to be more significant. It seems to be an almost ubiquitous presence, even under circumstances of war and deprivation.
I do think that the value so much metal discourse seems to place on trueness and authenticity is perhaps symptomatic of a larger sense of uprootedness in (American?) society. Rather than celebrating the protean side of 21st century identity, metal seems to demand a higher level of “identity essentialism” in that respect. It promises some measure of stability.
In your view, why is metal such a distinctive genre, with such strong rules and boundaries (trueness, cultness)?
It seems that being embattled or marginalized is an integral part of the way metal views itself, even if in some cases we might consider that metalheads doth protest too much. This sense of being outside the mainstream probably creates this sense of cohesion and belonging, as well as a bit of suspicion and distrust of outsiders and “un-metal” musical influences.
I think that the boundaries have actually gotten more stringent over the past decade or so in underground metal, although it’s probably more likely that I’ve just become more aware of them. I might suggest that as the artifacts and symbols of insider-ness in metal have become more readily available, the concern with maintaining boundaries has risen accordingly. As it becomes easier and easier to amass knowledge about the most obscure bands, along with their recordings, that obscurity loses its power.
Patch jackets don’t seem to carry the same weight if you can purchase a whole collection of rare kvlt “merit badges” in 20 minutes on eBay. This situation makes metal’s system of cultural signifiers less trustworthy in terms of judging someone’s commitment to the genre, so it seems like the boundaries need more strict enforcement. It’s only exacerbated in cyberspace. But of course the best way to be kvlt is to deny that it matters if you’re kvlt or not…it’s square to be hip, right?
You’re on the editorial board of the journal Metal Music Studies. How has metal in academia expanded during the time you’ve been observing, and where do you see it going in the future?
To be totally accurate, I’m actually just on the editorial advisory board, which just means I’ll be on-call as a peer reviewer once we’re totally underway. I hope to continue my involvement in the future, however.
When I first began writing about heavy metal as a graduate student in the early/mid 2000s, it seemed that there was precious little academic writing about metal beyond Walser, Weinstein, and sociological studies beating the dead horse connecting metal and crime/delinquency. Over the following decade it’s just blossomed as a field of study, and I think it’s impressively diverse. I mean, we’ve got people from sociology, ethnomusicology, historical musicology, fan studies, philosophy, and interested practitioners all in the mix. I’ve been trying (and failing) to keep up with all the publications. It’s an exciting and inspiring field.
I think that we’re going to see more studies that question the conceptions of locality and place in metal, since the increasing digital networks around the world are making physical geography less relevant in some respects. I know some scholars are working on the exoticism in metal, which seems especially interesting because it binds together questions of intent (patriotism? parody?) with issues of reception. It also seems that Metal Studies has focused a lot on the more extreme and underground subgenres, so I hope we might see more people begin to explore the intersections between metal and mainstream pop culture, both currently and in the past.
This issue is about to explode into public discourse because the rise in new-style metal bands has forced this question upon us all.
What is the underground?
Before even reading this article, keep in mind that there are some excellent resources. First, The Heavy Metal FAQ provides a complete answer. Second, Underground Never Dies! is a whole book dedicated to this topic through the eyes of metal bands from the 1980s-1990s underground era.
But we can come up with an even quicker definition.
The 1980s through early 1990s were a different time. Not only was there no internet, but music distribution was fairly strictly defined. Mainstream stores got what the big distributors had from the big labels and a select few smaller labels that pushed their way in. If you wanted a wider selection, you went to an “alternative” music store which stocked smaller labels. Often you bought imports, at a 50% markup. Most stores were completely uninterested in stocking something such as death metal, because it appealed to a small and antisocial niche audience. Why bother with selling a single copy of a Deicide album when you could sell 20 copies of Motley Crue without even trying?
In addition, there were forces of opposition to any metal that was not radio sanitized (which meant speaking on code words, probably encouraging deviant behavior to a greater degree). Very few people now remember when Tipper Gore and her Parents’ Music Resource Center (PMRC) were a powerful lobby for parental warning stickers on questionable albums. In addition, the threat of such people caused record stores to actually card people for buying violent rap or occult metal. You had to be 18 and prove it, or they would not sell to you.
And getting it on radio? There was college radio and also a handful of independent radio stations but these faced the same problem. Why play death metal when you could throw on a few sets of Sonic Youth and Rites of Spring and have 20 times as many listeners? Even among alternative music, death metal was unpopular because it was abrasive and did not have a large social movement behind it which made people like it. NWA was a violent, misogynistic and hilarious rap group that got banned just about everywhere, but there was a large social movement behind their work. It was easier to find that than your average, or even your top-selling, death metal band.
What underground meant back then seemed to be that it was offered through alternative channels. A few record stores, some college radio stations, tiny record labels run on a basically non-profit basis, and photocopied hand-assembled zines made of a pastiche of typed content and tattoo-style margin drawings. How did most people find new music in the early days? They hooked up with pen pals who would mail them cassette tape mixes of new music they found, often dubbed from cassette demos from the bands. Sometimes these tapes were many generations down the line and you could barely hear the band under the crepitant tape noise! But they did the job that mainstream media, record labels and magazines would not.
Toward the middle of the 1990s, this situation relaxed. First, the rise of used CD sales meant that smaller labels were making it into bigger stores via a backdoor. Second, magazines like Spin eventually gave coverage to death metal. Finally, changes in the way music was distributed opened up the middlemen who supplied record stores to the smaller labels. This meant that the traditional split between underground and mainstream was going away. Record labels, scared by the possibility of used CD sales eating up the profits from big mainstream releases, which relied on novelty to sell and interested their audiences for only a few months, started looking toward “niche” sales. But what really blew it out of the water was the notoriety of black metal.
Starting in the mid-1990s, rumors of the black metal movement in Norway and its legacy of violence — church burnings, murders, and stockpiling of military grade weapons — began to leak out through the zines into the magazines. Then the whole drama exploded with the trial of Varg Vikernes, who conveniently also ended the old black metal era with Hvis Lyset Tar Oss, an album so deeply nuanced and impossible to follow that most musicians shrugged and went back to three-chord, “punk style” black metal instead. He raised the bar at the same time bands like Darkthrone codified the genre with Transilvanian Hunger, an album that was difficult to create but easy to mimic. As mentioned in the documentary Until the Light Takes Us, black metal witnessed the decay of an idea. This decay happened through emulation that, because it looked at the outward traits like distortion and blast beats, missed the actual meaning of the genre which caused musicians to make such similar music in the first place.
It’s hard for people to realize now but black metal was initially viewed as slightly touched in the head. Death metalers often hated it violently; almost everyone else seemed to criticize it for its lo-fi approach and almost childish use of blasphemy and antisocial imagery. Many of the albums sounded like they were performed by people who had barely picked up an instrument and might have zero social graces. It was roundly mocked… until it started to become popular. Then the tables were turned. Within five years, black metal was in mainstream record stores (this shift happened in about 1997) and became really popular with a new generation.
After that point, the term “underground” seemed to lose meaning. The internet had come and made music and information about it universally available, and the proliferation of high-powered desktop computers meant that recording an album, running a label or making a zine involved far less labor and looked and sounded a lot better than the DIY labor of the 1980s (or even 1960s-1970s, when proto-punk and punk bands innovated it). At this point, people started going for an “underground sound,” which meant artificial lo-fi, simple three-chord songs, lots of ranting about antisocial topics including the occult, and a deliberately offensive resistance to any positive reinforcement.
The other issue that’s sparked controversy is exactly which bands get press — take Deafheaven and fellow shoegaze black metal band Alcest, who both benefited greatly from non-metal-centric coverage in 2013. The idea of using these bands to open of the gates of metal and let readers discover a new musical genre (or actually take it seriously) is a contentious one. One of the issues is the promotion of palatable metal bands that could potentially reach the masses with a sound that isn’t “metal” in the classic sense. Instead, these bands have been referred to as “extreme,” a catch-all, provocative phrase guaranteed to attract listeners who are looking for a more intense metal fix – and to satiate that self-satisfied outsider-metal “cool factor” that insecure metal fans love to laud over the pop-music contingent.
In the years from 1995-1998, the underground basically rehashed itself. It had no ideas, and more importantly, the bar was raised. To be a good death metal band, you had to be at the level of Morbid Angel’s Covenant or Suffocation’s Pierced From Within. To be a black metal band of note, you had to be at the level of Burzum’s Hvis Lyset Tar Oss or Enslaved’s Frost. Not many bands could do that and so an alternative underground built up based on fan-driven metal. Most of this was in emulation of the previous years and took the form of three-chord simplified versions of the more complex originals. The result was that, outside of a small cluster of people hanging around internet forums, this music went nowhere.
Nature abhors a vacuum, so from 1999-2006 or so, metalcore took over. This was also music designed to be easy to make. It took the randomness aesthetic of late hardcore punk and combined it with death metal riffs, making chaotic songs that made no sense but were plenty distracting and extreme. The music industry flogged this dead horse walking (to brutally mix metaphors) for five years before the trend started to die. Then from 2006 through the present, the music industry took a different tack: instead of trying to make a new genre, emulate something that has worked in the past. They found the fertile ground of the post-hardcore years where indie rock, shoegaze and post-rock coexisted in the same sphere of influence. This was generally what was called “alternative rock” before “alternative rock” became a brand for flannel wearing bittersweet droning hard rock bands from Seattle.
Deafheaven is a polarizing band becomes it comes from this tradition. Listening to it, it is not clear there is any metal in it at all. But labeling something “metal” or “underground” or “extreme” excites interest, mainly because few people trust the aboveground media. Thus there is a huge financial incentive to classify Deafheaven as metal, and for smaller blogs and magazines to go along with this fiction as well, if they do, they get advertising revenue and possibly a shot at the big time.
This leaves us with a complete quandary: does the term “underground” have meaning anymore at all?
My suggestion with my last article, “In defense of elitism,” was that underground is a misused term. The point is that metal has a spirit which defines it and separates it from everything else. That spirit must be expressed but it is of a nature that does not trust the dominant paradigm. Black Sabbath wrote their music to rain on the hippie parade of love, drugs and pacifism; their point was that altering our perspective does not change reality. Underground metal had a similar message and was unwilling to alter it in order to fit with the expectations of people who would rather hear about the denial fictions of love, drugs and pacifism (underground rap did the same thing in parallel, but with a different set of issues and a different set of denial fictions).
What makes a metal band underground is that it is unwilling to compromise its vision of truth for what people want to believe is true. It is unwilling to compromise its aesthetics for what people believe is comfortable and pleasant. It is committed to the idea that the only legitimacy comes from the art itself, not its popularity or album sales. Some would identify this as the ultimate non-“bourgeois” statement, in that it casts aside comfortable oblivion in favor of a raw blast of cold hard reality. This sense of underground is more fundamental than how the albums are sold or which zines write about them. It is an attitude and discipline. Underground means that which puts truth first and popularity second, which is a dramatic reversal of the way everyone else goes about it.
Metal is not the only genre to have an underground. Punk was originally underground but as it became fashionable in the late 1970s hardcore punk bands started vanishing into squats, playing midnight parties in abandoned foundries, and selling their music on 7″ records out of shirtsleeves. The noise movement in Japan remains underground to this day, with artists like K.K. Null constructing elaborate and beautiful pieces from raw noise, instead of making harsh blasting rebellious stuff like record labels had hoped. Robert Fripp, former guitarist of King Crimson, uses electronics to make his guitar sound like an organ and plays small concerts across the world. Underground is not a term specific to metal, but a term to describe any activity that is not encouraged in society at large yet believes it has ideological, artistic and/or political value.
You aren’t going to hear about any of these artists in big media and you may not be able to buy their CDs in regular stores. However, that is the symptom, not the cause. The reason they’re not in regular stores is that they’re not only niche, but also not given to comfortable oblivion. In a time when people can choose the artistic equivalent of a cheeseburger over the more challenging and substantive art, people tend to do so, which marginalizes actual art. As a result, the actual art is alien and threatening to most people, which makes it a terrible product, which means that it ends up in small record stores, small zines, and small labels.
If anything, the internet has exacerbated this tendency. In an age when we can find anything by googling it, the real problem is knowing what to google. Even worse, Google uses a search engine algorithm that moves higher links up the chain, thus burying marginalized results. We have all the information in the world but without a guide to it, none of us know what to do with it. It is for this reason that traditional media has won out on the net and the sites that attract the most eyes are the ones that are promoting essentially mainstream music.
What Deafheaven represents to a metaler is the triumph of mainstream music. There is nothing in Deafheaven that challenges the listener to even a second of soul-searching or discovery, or whatever it is that art does — that’s a separate debate — in contrast to what death metal and black metal provoked in us. Deafheaven in fact is the listening equivalent of wallpaper, a pleasant series of repeated images that make us think about shopping, perhaps. Whether it is bad music or not is irrelevant. “The medium is the message,” we’re told, and in the case of Deafheaven, the medium is inoffensive pop pretending to be “extreme.”
Since then, anything “new” and “innovative” done in metal has involved musicians stepping outside the boundaries of the genre more and more. Shoegaze, industrial, post-punk, krautrock, progressive rock, jazz, trance, dubstep. It’s been happening gradually over the past ten years, but Deafheaven’s 2013 album Sunbather just might be the first major splintering that will eventually see “extreme music” separating completely from actual heavy metal. Although my opinion on the album has already been published and will not change, it remains the most critically acclaimed album of 2013, of any genre, marking the first time an album that has occupied that grey area between “metal” and “extreme music” has captured the attention of so many mainstream critics and audiences. Some critics still call Sunbather “metal”, but to do so is to forget what makes heavy metal heavy metal in the first place, merely clutching to the few metallic threads in an otherwise richly varied musical fabric. In reality, Sunbather is a tremendous example of extremity transcending the metal ethos entirely.
In other words, there’s a reason Deafheaven doesn’t sound like Beherit, Demoncy, Imprecation, Blaspherian or any of the other bands which have resurrected the underground sound over the past five years. Deafheaven represents the mixing of mainstream sounds into underground metal, while Beherit represents underground metal growing and developing on its own terms.
If anything, the underground is in a renaissance because it has finally escaped the old standard of lo-fi music sold on cassettes/vinyl through dodgy mail orders and reported on only by small zines. We have gone from alienated from society to accepted (grudgingly) by society, and so now we are “niche” music. But what defines this niche is that it is underground. We face the hidden truths and evoke concealed emotions, and thrust a fist in the face of oblivion. That is what makes us underground, and it’s why the masses chose Deafheaven over Demoncy to report on as a face of extreme music.
In the landscape of popular music, there are obvious “pop” genres on the surface next to accepted forms like jazz and classical, but underneath that are the surly and dangerous types of music that are underground because they don’t place nice with the contemporary mythos and ideology of our society.
That group includes metal, hardcore punk (not pop punk, which belongs under rock/pop) and industrial. These genres just refuse to play by the same rules as everyone else who wants mainstream acceptance, mainly because they flirt with or outright endorse ideas that the mainstream has decided are unpalatable.
We were fortunate to get a brief Q&A with Amélie Ravalec and Travis Collins, filmmakers of Industrial Soundtrack For The Urban Decay.
Industrial Soundtrack For The Urban Decay as a title seems to suggest both a documentary on industrial music, and some sense of the motivations behind industrial artists. What made you choose this approach?
Industrial Soundtrack For The Urban Decay is the first film to document the history of industrial music, featuring interviews from the genre’s most influential bands, artists, labels and fanzines.
I was motivated to make this documentary as I felt this genre and these artists deserve to be exposed to a broader audience. This film is about more than just industrial music, it also reflects on art, politics and social issues, postindustrialisation and urban decay.
Are you and your fellow filmmaker industrial fans? If so, what first got you into the genre?
Amélie: I came across industrial music while directing my first documentary Paris/Berlin: 20 years of underground techno. I’ve always enjoyed the harsher and darker side of music. Throbbing Gristle’s song “Convincing People” is one of the first industrial songs I remember hearing. I was immediately attracted to Genesis’s monotonous British voice and the hypnotic repetitiveness of the song. This led me on a path to discovering more industrial, post punk and dark ambient, as well as beautiful crossovers bands like Coil or In The Nursery. As I dug deeper into the industrial genre, I realized that I shared a lot common influences and preoccupations with those artists, even though they were from a different generation. From a really young age I read books by Burroughs, Ballard etc and became interested in art movements like the dadaist or the futurists, so I felt an instant connection to this music.
Travis: Working in a record store from a young age, I discovered techno and experimental music and was immediately appealed by the rawness of this sound. While living in Perth, Western Australia I had the opportunity to meet and collaborate with Cabaret Voltaire’s Stephen Malinder on a radio program and had him DJ at a club night I hosted. Mal and I became friends over the years and he was the first industrial band I fell in love with. I also got into bands like Throbbing Gristle, Meat Beat Manifesto, Silver Apples, Renegade Soundwave and others through my favourite DJ at the time, Andrew Weatherall. I met Amélie while traveling Europe and we decided that this film needed to be made.
I am no expert, but it seems that metal, punk and industrial come from a similar root, which is a rejection of the social impulse of mutual tolerance. Why do you think this is, and how do you think it relates to social decay?
All bands and collaborations bring different influences to the music they make and the environment and social context of the musicians also plays an important role. Most of the early industrial bands we interviewed grew up in turbulent times, where unemployment, highrise living and cultural oppression were all part of the decaying environment in which this music blossomed.
When the history of humanity is written, how do you think industrial music will be recorded? Do you consider it a historically important musical movement?
Industrial bands have been influential in many ways inspiring art forms, using tape loops and edits that pre dated sample music and these days you can hear noise and industrial elements in all forms of music from, electronic music, pop through to classical music.
Industrial musicians are educated, artistically minded and politically aware artists. They found inspiration in the avantgarde movements from the early 20th century like the Futurists, Dadaists or Surrealists, as well as contemporary writers William Burroughs and Brion Gysin. They were also influenced by early science fiction movies, Krautrock artists Kraftwerk, Can and Faust, The Velvet Underground and the DIY ethos of punk music. These artists rejected major labels, mass media and mainstream culture to invent a culture of their own.
When will Industrial Soundtrack For The Urban Decay be released and how can people watch it?
Industrial Soundtrack For The Urban Decay explores the history of industrial music, featuring interviews from the genre’s most influential bands, artists, labels and fanzines.
The documentary film by filmmakers Amélie Ravalec and Travis Collins is currently in post-production. Its topic is industrial music, meaning the noise-based variety more than the post-EBM variety, defined as “an experimental music genre inspired by a wide spectrum of ideologies and interests” which “combines improvisation and performance with avant-garde, provocative, political and taboo themes alongside harsh noise and environmental sound recordings.”
According to the filmmakers, industrial was a DIY genre that rejected mainstream society — much like the original hardcore punk and metal — and “found inspiration in the avant-garde movements from the early 20th century like the Futurists, Dadaists or Surrealists, as well as contemporary writers William Burroughs and Brion Gysin. They were also influenced by early science fiction movies, Krautrock artists Kraftwerk, Can and Faust, The Velvet Underground and the DIY ethos of punk music.”
What follows is a list of the interviewees for this film:
Does it seem to you that the days are shorter
And does it seem to you that the nights seem so much longer
Well it does to me, and in time you will see
That the fate of the world is burning in fire
– Deströyer 666, Genesis to Genocide
In my visions of another age, Australia is a domain of rogues and devils, swept by sands and heat, a colony of fear. Aboriginals fight, mutated animals leap and grappling hooks are thrown from jeeps that speed with metallic roar across the wasteland. Humanity decays, but Australia preserves the instinct for survival, man against desert, taking pleasure in the primitive actions of hunting, fighting, lovemaking and getting drunk on bourbon. Nocturnal winds howl through the chasms, kangaroos leap over graves and tribal chants are raised amidst campfires as skull goblets are raised.
While I have never been to the country, the impressions of Australian black and death metal do nothing but strengthen the images of brutal frontier life. The sense of the wild is different, more internalized, almost Jack London -like, compared to the European romanticized walks in civilized Teutorburger woods or pure, silent Scandinavian nature. Australians are rebels who have tasted the whip of slavery and still remember it – with hate in their blood.
Every rock fan knows AC/DC and Nick Cave, the astonishing twin pillars that represent total opposites of image and style roleplay in hard rock. Both of them influenced heavy metal around the world, but a mainstream fan would be hard pressed to name any other Australian bands of note. I’m not going to dwell on the early 80′s, but mention some events that were triggered by the resurgent death and black metal ideas of Europe and the USA.
Australia is characterized by geographical distance from the Western pop culture trends and so, death metal didn’t happen early but it was marked by a serious intensity from the beginning. As a perfect example, we can take Armoured Angel, who with their late 80′s series of demos gradually developed from a heavy and grinding version of speed metal into a technical artillery of militantly precise death metal akin to Polish innovators Vader. Hobbs’ Angel of Death, due both to their cult reputation and connections to later more visceral bands, proved definitive with their self titled album in establishing the early death metal attitude and sound of bands like Destruction and Slayer in Down Under. Hobbs’ raw, molten hot solo bends and breaks were like burning gasoline leaking from a bullet torn hole in a fighter plane. Meanwhile, Sadistik Exekution initiated their campaign of abuse against every known musical principle, which continues up to this day.
Influenced by hardcore and speed metal, these madmen from Sydney proceeded to destroy the reputability of Australian metal with their on-stage and off-stage antics, almost becoming performance art with their macabre, sarcastic terror campaign of pure noise. Already “The Magus”, recorded in 1986, suggested that this band would dare to go where others would not, the subconscious realm of damnations and mutations, yet containing the elements within an underground death metal rhythm and riff based format. Their second and best album, “We Are Death… Fukk You!” was already something else – a noisy freakshow of an album, with the catatonic, desperate screams of Rok and nearly fusion jazz-y random blasts of violence from the strings of Rev Kriss Hades and Dave Slave. Sadly, their later albums mostly devolved into using the madness as a gimmick instead of a mode to express actual items of perception.
The next generation produced more self-contained music but it also showed the blooming of the world wide death metal presence, as we are talking about the days when death metal was at its commercial heights, ’91-’93. Many bands wanted to be like their big brethren in Florida, as a shameful but popular example let’s mention Mortification, who aped the thrashy sound of early Death with some of the complex rhythms of Obituary or Suffocation, yet infiltrating the standard gore text with reborn Christian propaganda, which had a widespread presence in Australian metal at large. Meanwhile, a band like Anatomy, whose elegant use of melody as texture, akin to Swedish bands like Grave or maybe even At the Gates, remained unknown to most death metal fans. Anatomy’s constructions weren’t altogether as brilliant, but as with many Norwegian early death metal bands, it was a breeding ground for musicians and ideas that would fully develop into a wave of satanic, intense war metal. And if you read the diSEMBOWELMENTreview we published some time ago, you already know that they were able to built a transcendentally blissful temple of Zen-like tranced out death metal from the simple basis of combining British style grindcore with British style doom.
The acid, sex and Satan obsessed wave of barbaric war metal, ca. 1994, was again closer to the sardonic “fighting man’s black metal” attitude of Beherit, Blasphemy and Impaled Nazarene, than Norwegian “top hat black metal”. This means that Bestial Warlust (“Vengeance War ’til Death”), Deströyer 666 (“Violence is the Prince of This World” and “Unchain the Wolves”) and Gospel of the Horns (“The Satanist’s Dream”) used Sarcofago and Destruction as templates to unleash a torrent of riffs which could have been untuned Motörhead on 45 rpm, emphasized by an artillery of ambient drumming to evoke images of blooddrenched hordes and endless streams of bombers. I remember how back in the day these bands were even widely detested in zines documenting the black metal phenomenon, but they proved crucial to bands which around the turn of the millennium clad in bullet belts and started wearing gas masks in “war metal” revival’s endless stream of clones.
All this might have you thinking that the Nordic and Romantic styles of black metal were obsolete in Australia, but this was not to be the case. Abyssic Hate (whose “Cleansing with an Ancient Race” was a perfect match for the Immortal related Det Hedenske Folk on their split album) intended to capture the harsh poetry of Burzum and Ildjarn. Later material was somewhat unsuccessful because of humanocentric (“suicidal”) terminology, despite ambient leanings in songwriting. Nazxul was the Australian counterpart to mysticist bands like Nåstrond or Osculum Infame, whose cloaked, symbolic stage presence was a source of controversy. Theatrical, esoteric and arrogant, Nazxul did not fail to clothe oblique satanism in suggestive and venomous fury, at times surprisingly cerebral – especially on the mini-album “Black Seed”. Samain‘s “Indomitus” recalled some of Enslaved‘s and Graveland‘s explorations in long songs influenced by folk and classical music, wandering through interludes and heavy, thunderous, emotional modes as if paralleling the documented trials of the ancient Indo-European tribes, whose mythological symbolism filled the lyrics.
Gradually, we can note the presence of all the international metal trends and hypes increasing in Australia, filling the continent with meaningless bands. It would be a lie to say that the random band you hear from Australia is up to anything good. But there’s some you might like to hear. Asphyxia is a young technical death metal band, influenced by Nile, Kataklysm and the rest of the champions of convoluted hyperspeed – they are bit in love with the Necrophagist digital treachery fashion but they have room to develop and the players definitely deserve applause for their instrumental excursion. Midnight Odyssey uses oceanic layers of slow melody to transform black metal to a landscape of dark clouds, using keyboards in the evocative manner familiar from Schulze and Summoning. The best of the epics on “Firmament” rediscover a youthful, hopeful beauty that hasn’t been too fashionable in the image and commodity oriented latter days of black and death metal. Nazxul, who sadly lost a vital member to a motorcycle accident, released in 2009 their possible magnum opus, the immense “Iconoclast” which has established itself as one of my top black metal choices of the year despite initial skepticism towards the more standard imagery and vocabulary employed on the surface. Suggestively classical and elegant, as Emperor and Avzhia did it, Nazxul praise the unliving and the unknown with a Bach-ian playful sonority, adding themes, keyboards and guitar leads to basically simple songs the same way an alchemist adds prime materials to his boiling tincture of salvation. It is all, and much more, than most of Funeral Mist (and their ilk) tried to achieve with their experimental norsecore.
The old horde is still going strong, of course, as I got the initial inspiration for this writeup when interviewing Deströyer 666 (now based in Netherlands and the UK) elsewhere. With their latest album “Defiance”, they continue to quote the metal history all the way back to Judas Priest and the NWOBHM and this was of course much enjoyed by this writer even though it would be false to say that they would have reinvented, or even surpassed, their old selves in any manner. The scene is still brimming with offshoots of Anatomy and Bestial Warlust, such as Ignivomous, who on “Death Transmutation” have definitely listened their Incantation and Immolation, not without streamlining them to a more generic barbaric noise approach though, and Razor of Occam, whose “Homage to Martyrs” updates the violence of Sodom and Kreator to a new generation yet again, as wolves surrounding the throne room of Absu who stumbled and diluted their ancient black thrash in favor of “progressive” stylings that mostly only pleases reviewers in Terrorizer.
I know that mortals’ ears are already bleeding, but it’s impossible to escape this topic without mentioning a few curiosities from Adelaide group of total nutcases, starting the cult old school death metal band Martire back in the early 90′s. The early demos and EP’s have been re-released multiple times. Since that, members who call themselves “The Great Righteous Destroyer” and “The Serpent Inquisitor” have continued to baffle the hapless headbangers with one after the other more indescribable and twisted songs. Stargazer‘s Lovecraftian, off-center and racing death metal is what I personally consider the flagship band, whereas Cauldron Black Ram grooves like a joint venture of Celtic Frost and Running Wild members (in concept also). Misery’s Omen paints a hyper-dramatic curtain of dreamy black metal resembling Samael and a krautrock band on an endless bad acid trip, describing “Desolate Winds of Mars”, “Antarctic Ice Chasms” and other spectacles of consciousness awaking to the immense possibilities offered by nature itself, impersonal, cold but beautiful.
Gather ’round all you fire-starters
Whirlwind reapers and comet riders
Come to our mountain hall
Come and heed the call