Musical Theory: Misuse, Pitfalls and Power

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The slow evolution of Western society (and in consequence of the whole world) into the post-modern paradigm arising inevitably from the purely mechanistic cosmovision of the Enlightment sciences, which in the best of cases allow for a Cartesian separation of the physical and the spiritual, pervade every corner touched by the status quo culture. This results in a relegating of anything which cannot be explained or described in purely mathematical terms to what is referred to as ‘subjective’. Anything that is experienced but cannot (yet) be explained is assumed to be subjective. There would be a certain justice to this if the phenomena that are still unaccounted for by science were squarely placed in a category under a truthful label by the establishment confessing: “We don’t know how to explain this in our terms, but that does not mean it is any less real or without possible objective basis.” What takes place is an arbitrary classification of these into morally-justified beliefs when they are in line with the status quo and into so-called subjective experiences when they are not.

The views held by society must be enforced in every discipline precisely because they are the result of dogma and not actual science (a word unfortunately hijacked by a corrupt establishment lead by weak minds elevated to positions of prestige and power by other weak minds). It follows that dogmatic belief cannot be challenged at any level since any divergence spells out potential intellectual catastrophes and conflicts that are not guaranteed to be won by the powers that be. As a result, not only does education suffer in the form of indoctrination but so do the supposed heroes of objective knowledge that the sciences are said to be comprised of turn into the priests of the temple to whatever the hive believes. It is only to be expected, then, that the humanities and the arts are the most easily and selectively suppressed, limited or made irrelevant, since the processes and phenomena studied by them are even further away from the grasp of mathematical explanations.

In the Western classical music tradition,  the tenets of the Common Practice Period have been put into question for a very long time in progressively derisive waves. Very often, revolutionary thinkers that spearheaded such contrarian views had transcendent and elaborate reasons that motivated and justified their moving-beyond. But the hordes of followers understood only a portion of this, often inclined towards its most easily understood materialist explanation. In the case of Beethoven, followers of his defiance of what was expected of music were shielded from degeneration by the very fact that the then contemporary German culture was a very spiritual one, and its artists still acknowledged the magic behind music — occult properties and processes that can only be perceived but not fully explained. Contrastingly, in the age of Anton Webern,  his decision based on artistic principle to move away from traditional harmony to work with a self-defined and logical set of rules that he would use without falling into an empty materialism was taken up as fashion — the next “big thing” in classical music development. This directly reflected the way Western society saw the world around it at the beginning of the 20th century: as its playground, where anything “I like” goes and the capricious human will is allowed to do whatever it wants because we are the nihilist masters of the natural world. Gone was the romantic respect of nature and its view of humans as part of it. We must ask ourselves what dissolved the old German mysticism? The simple answer is that they, too, had to change, even if slowly and reluctantly, in order to not be destroyed in a world dominated by French Enlightment and overarching Russian influences — both with primarily materialist tendencies.

Music theory is one such set of occult properties. Yet it is only occult (hidden but observable) because there is no theory developed for the relation between arranged sound frequencies and mental states, especially at increased levels of complexity. Contrary to what scientifically-ignorant artists think, this is neither impossible nor irrational, just difficult. Contrary to the beliefs of Blank Slate – indoctrinated scientists, the study of innate human nature can yield explanations as to why, as a species, certain tastes, visual and sound arrangements and textures have certain effects on the mind (itself rooted in chemical states of the brain). The reason why both groups tend to back away from such ideas is not rooted in reason, but in the fear of not being acknowledged for who they are, which for them translates into what they want, like or prefer to believe to feel validated. In other words, reality is shunned in order to give way to a truth built on the necessities of feable human egos. The ramifications are manifold and most are out of the scope of this article.

Out of the accusations levelled against Common Practice Period theory, one of the most common and often accepted is that it somehow limits the imagination of artists. Presumably, this is because its rules define a perimeter around permissible options in a finite-state machine, thereby prohibiting the random allocation of space and time to music tones selected purely out of gut feeling. And that precisely is one of the defining factors of the post-modern vision of art. At this point, it may seem like I am contradicting my previous statements regarding the possibility of harmony rules being developed and justified on the basis of human nature. If they are, then an artist following only his gut feeling should arrive to at least similar results. First, that these rules are based on human nature does not mean they are free of the constraints of their historical context, including not only cultural implications but also material possibilities for the construction of certain instruments with particular timbres. Second,  the rules were developed through collective observations and philosophies over hundreds of years by many different people building on top and beside one another– in the same way that mathematics and modern science were gestated.

While older attitudes were nature-oriented, and tried to keep their understanding of human nature in line with what was then understood of the natural world, the Enlightment sees a rupture between them as a necessary effect of placing  human beings over nature as overlords to do as they please with it– thereby setting them beyond judgement within it. It was an ideology-based decision, not a scientific one. As a result, there are those, especially among the post-modernist classical artists, that are not guided by a free search for musical perfection, but by contrarian and politically-charged statements that can only be described as the ultimate incarnation of a hipster’s dreamworld.

The comparison to mathematics is in dire need of further elaboration as it contains the potential to elucidate much about what musical theory is and what it is not. We may start by stating that they are both tools and means to an end. Admiring the organization and arrangement of a music passage on grounds of technique is akin to feeling a sense of wonder when shown a beautifully and clearly derived mathematical formula. But neither of them by themselves attest to the accuracy of the connection of these to reality itself. Both musical and mathematical theory are dependent on premises — they are both arguments developed from a set of assumptions which may reflect conditions and events in the real the world.

Common Practice Period theory arose from organizing tones in the spectrum of perfect consonance to most extreme dissonance as perceived by human beings. Not one human being arbitrarily writing up rules, but scores of audiences reacting to the works of many different composers through lifetimes. Each composer taking notes on the triumphs and blunders of those that came before them and adding their own ideas. It was a veritable scientific effort of occult nature. The fact that the notes were taken not from one society at one point but by the cumulative effort many through many generations also somewhat lends to the tradition a tendency towards the transcendental. Of course, this is completely dependent on a healthy balance between acknowledgement of tradition (whatever that tradition is for the artist) and a continuation of its ideals with a progressive intent.

To round off the metaphor of mathematics, we should stress that no development invalidates or properly subordinates older techniques to newer ones. This fallacy is so pervasive that it is common to hear people referring to the use of newer techniques in themselves as a sign of superior expression. This is related to the malady that is born from the cult of novelty. In truth, when it comes to mathematics, if one person solves a problem using simple algebra yet another fails using calculus, it is obvious that the simple use of a more sophisticated technique is not in itself superior. It may be true that in art and music we do not have the luxury of calling something right and wrong, but the comparison is done in parallel and not on the same plane as mathematics. This is the same as when Newton developed Calculus, he did not ditch arithmetic and algebra developed hundreds of years before he was born, but used them to build this tool that would allow him to develop theories concerning abstract models of the physical world.

Nobody is saying there is a right and wrong dichotomy in music. In fact, this is where it is necessary to part from the analogy. Music is much more comprehensive and complex than mathematics (which only has a cumulative complexity, not a multi-dimensional one). Mathematics is comparable to music theory, the tool, and not to music. Music is the resulting idea crystallized, probably through the use of  music theory techniques, the same ways physics derive explanations of the universe by using different techniques from mathematics. By its occult nature, music’s domain being states of mind and evocation, what we do have in music is degrees of esoteric communication through sensory perception. It is a communication at many levels rather than only at the level of reason and goes beyond it and to our instincts and learned behaviors which as a total reflect a unique vision from a unique individual. “Personal taste” advocates need not get too excited as the variation can only be as wide as human minds allow — which scientific research shows is not as much as we like to think. Variation is wide with respect to how we see ourselves, but not that wide when we see the whole spectrum of possibilities. And as an occult discipline guessing at phenomena of the universe (and our mind in it) that we do not understand, music is more liable to wander off more than mathematics in its search for perfection.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yGNh5BYJke0

Music as the manifestation of experience, as a gateway to purposely changing states of the mind in humans, is something that stands at odds with the idea of absolute music, for which music aesthetics themselves are the goal. This materialist vision based on the fact that current (this is a 19th century idea) scientific limitation of not yet having a mathematical model outside of aesthetics and certain organization cannot accept or encompass the higher-level processes of creation that reach for proportion, balance, direction and movement in an attempt to communicate. Ironically, it is rather this lack of tradition or significance that results in theory and rules being all there is that produces a much more limiting paradigm. The race of stretching aesthetics could only go so far and an artistic compound devoid of transcendental goals quickly gave up as they broke the boundaries of tonality, declaring music as we know it to be dead. Needless to say, this was as short-sighted as limiting literature to the number of “clever” arrangements of words — precisely the dead end of poetry without meaning, or poetry without form, all products of post-modernism. In any case, the disavowal of all meaning leads to music pursued as a sport, for the excitement that its physical acrobatics produce and not from what it communicates in and beyond its forms.

The other branch of a materialist appreciation of music surfaced more clearly in the freedom afforded by the post-modernist world to idiots to call themselves artists and plague us with moronic musical expressions supporting themes of self-pity communicated only through lyrics. Going further, many artists not only took this liberty but openly rejected any sort of tradition or knowledge as being only an obstacle for their expression. Again, ironically, their rejection of it resulted not in a revealing work transcending the ages, but an extremely simple product that even a child banging on the wall and singing with no thought or experience could produce.

This is not to say that you need theory to create good music. As was explained before, theory is only a tool based on cummulative observations over many lifetimes. We do fine geniuses and other people with an outstanding aptitude for music creation who will find ways to create solid music that is often technically rudimentary but complex in communication.

As with any mathematical techniques or grammar in language, theory augments and sharpens the natural talents of the person. But the catch here is that the artistic intent and vision of the artist is often as important as his natural aptitude towards creation. Whereas a Varg Vikernes consistently tries to find an ever-more ephemeral depuration of the essence of his music against the tides of trends in what is fashionable, a Luc Lemay gets lured in by what is chick, his talents wasted on kitsch. Granting a directed vision of music in a clear direction rather than with vague adjectives to justify fashionable aesthetics, the person with average talents can, with appropriate training and dedication, become a Franz Berwald, while the talented may reach the heights of Johannes Brahms.

The importance of following a transcendental route versus a materialist one are exemplified in two products of the 20th century. One followed the mechanistic descriptions of music to the point of absurdity and was hailed as a genius by the hipsters crowding the halls of academia. These were the many frauds of John Cage. Intellectually interesting experiments devoid of the basic dimensions of music: melody, rhythm and harmony. Contrasting the first comes a work that attempts to communicate a sense of wonder in nature without the vulgarity of dissoluting music proper for recordings of nature or other cheap tricks of post-modernism. This is the Fourth Symphony of the romantic Jean Sibelius, reviled by academic theorists and critics looking forward to the mechanistic augmentations of aesthetics and possible transformations rather than for the actual content of music. This was music for the music fan, not the ironic intellectual.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yybn6iKmYdQ

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Finland hosts Modern Heavy Metal: Markets, Practices and Cultures conference in June 2015

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Toni-Matti Karjalainen of the Aalto University School of Business announced the Modern Heavy Metal: Markets, Practices and Cultures as slated for June 2015, in coordination with the International Society for Metal Music Studies. The conference is designed to be a fusion of business and management theory and observations on the business of heavy metal.

“The former black sheep of popular culture is today a relevant subject for almost any scientific discipline,” the conference organizational flyer announces. A Call For Papers and more information will be unleashed on March 31, 2014.

According to the conference organizers, the topic of papers and the conference is “exploring the phenomenon, culture, and practices of heavy metal as a specific genre; the form and philosophy of the genre; the position of metal within the popular music industry context and its transformation; metal market studies; global considerations and country-specific peculiarities; fan perceptions; creative management; artistic and aesthetic considerations; and many other topics.” Although this is viewed from a business organization perspective, like most metal studies this one is interdisciplinary.

The conference follows The Heavy Metal and Popular Culture conference that was organized at the Bowling Green State University last year. For more information, visit the Modern Heavy Metal: Markets, Practices and Cultures conference site or contact Dr. Karjalainen directly.

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Helvete: A Journal of Black Metal Theory

helvete-a_journal_of_black_metal_theoryAs part of the burgeoning movement to understand metal and how it relates to the world, comes the first issue of Helvete: A Journal of Black Metal Theory. Although the title of the publication may imply that it is a technical analysis of black metal composition, this is not the case. As the back cover states, “Not to be confused with metal studies, music criticism, ethnography, or sociology, Black Metal Theory is a speculative and creative endeavor, one which seeks ways of thinking that count as Black Metal events — and indeed, to see how Black Metal might count as thinking.”

The book consists of about a half dozen short essays in a contemporary writing style, with full sourcing, complemented by some photographs of black metal musicians and landscapes. Subjects covered in the book range from suicide, ecocide, self-discovery, and more. Rather than treating black metal as both the beginning and end point of the book, it is instead the launching ground for exploration of how black metal’s spirit can find meaning in a cold and modernist world. The flaw in this is that some essays form a rather tenuous link to black metal, often distorted by what the authors want black metal to be, rather than what it actually is.

Of note for exploring this style is the essay by David Prescott-Steed with the admittedly disarming title of “Frostbite on my Feet: Representations of Walking in Black Metal Visual Culture”

Walking can be understood as a transitional practice whereby a person steps into, and through, a complex set of spatial and cognitive relationships. An example of such a theory of walking can be seen in the act of stepping through the doorway of a Gothic Cathedral (Notre Dame, for instance). Entering the westwork has long held physical and religious significance for Catholic devotees, symbolising one’s departure from a world in which a conceived God is incomprehensible and indeterminable (a transcendental space) into a space of communion with that God (an immanental space). Each step into the vast and ornate interior space of the nave, and beyond, comprises a transitional ritual that puts the walker in dialogue with the sacred.

The link to black metal given:

Truncated by the public’s engagement with the spectacle of Black Metal, the less exotic practice of walking nonetheless remains an important practice within the genre.Its significance can be seen in two recent documentaries on Black Metal: Vice Broadcasting System (VBS)’s True Norwegian Black Metal and Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell’s Until the Light Takes Us. In the first instance, Gaahl (the documentary’s leading figure and the former frontman of Gorgoroth) insists that the film crew join him on a long trek into the Norwegian tundra. The hike draws our attention to the meaningfulness of the journey and speaks to the aura of solitude and endurance, of a confrontation with the unknown and human potential. Gaahl enforces: “I become what never fails, following the footsteps behind me.” In Until the Light Takes Us, slow-motion footage of Darkthrone’s Fenriz walking along a snowy forest path seems to evoke similar notions of the shadows of former selves seeking an obscured locus of self-authenticity. Both examples illustrate the capacity of walking to communicate a deeply planted Black Metal aesthetic.

This is indicative of the book’s tendency to have a coherent and intelligent view to convey in the essay, but have the given connection to black metal be suspect. A better idea would be to focus on the music, rather than aesthetics. (What’s more solitary than Transilvanian Hunger? Reference this instead.)

Other questionable choices include analyzing the compositions of Wolves in the Throne Room as being the last gasp of nature in an increasingly concrete world, the apparently transcendent lyrics of a band calling itself Make a Change…Kill Yourself, and how a slashed black t-shirt stuck to a wall is representative of “Ornament and crime (Hvis Lyset Tar Oss)”.

These flaws aside, the content of these essays can be interesting in itself, such as the idea that portable music represents a shield between us and a decaying word; where black metal heralds its deconstruction and the triumph of the wilderness, praise of the physical action of exploration, and how all worthwhile knowledge is achieved through struggle.

For people (like this author), who were hoping for a measured and academic analysis of black metal’s original music, meaning, and spirit, you will probably be disappointed. However, if one views the book as a collection of reasonably intelligent contemporary writers exploring unpopular subjects in the shadow of an often misunderstood genre, you will perhaps find something of interest.

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Interview: Ara

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Music is never in stasis. It is composed of two parts, a form and a content. The two are related; in the best of situations, content causes the musician to innovate a new form. When the content changes, the old form is not relevant. However, some things are timeless and those forms persist.

Such questions emerge at the front of the mind when we look at Wisconsin’s Ara and their latest album, The Blessed Sleep. Whatever the changes that have been wrought in metal over the past 20 years, Ara roll back some of the tendencies toward excessive form and pointless technicality, and return the focus to songwriting. (See our review of The Blessed Sleep.)

Ara presents a challenge to what metal has become and to what many conceive of as metal. We figured we would go deeper for the whole story, and were fortunate to speak with guitarist and band cofounder Jerry Hauppa, who helped clarify the situation and told us about the inspiration and musical vision behind Ara’s latest, The Blessed Sleep.

You approach metalcore/tech-deth with a stripped-down style that focuses more on songwriting. What made you decide to do this, against the conventions of the genre?

None of us are really thrilled by the theatrics of sweeped scales masquerading as riffs in extreme metal nowadays. To the casual fan this can superficially be interpreted as sounding crazy and chaotic but we all come from older metal backgrounds where the riffs and arrangements had to have creativity and personality in order to express deviation between songs and moods. Cluttering up a song with a ton of parts can be an effective way to display chaos at times but we are trying to make sure each part serves the song well enough where nothing seems to be either filler or extraneous.

What do you think separates “modern metal” (metalcore, tech-deth, indie metal) from the older extreme metal like death metal and black metal?

The Blessed Sleep seems to have indirectly caused quite the argument about this in the comments section of your review for the record, but in my defense of death metal I clearly differ from the opinion of your readers in terms of what I feel falls under its umbrella. I think that “modern metal” is less a genre and more a statement that tries to separate any current take on the genre that threatens the ethos created in the early 90s. I agree that most of what I hear nowadays doesn’t resonate with me, but I’m not going to invalidate it by claiming it isn’t death metal or black metal because I’m afraid of what that means for me as a listener.

What I will say, is that I feel I have an uncanny ability to hear motive in music, and what I think you are getting at with the title “modern metal” is the unfortunate actions of -core acts that clearly resemble marketing ploys and the inhibiting crutches present in their writing, which throw at the listener a sense of immediate gratification through the aforementioned sweeps and of course, breakdowns. What we are trying to do is not throw the listener a bone so I feel we have more in common with the rebellious aspects of the early death metal movement than what people are considering to be “modern.”

In your view, what are the founding acts that influenced this style? What influences do you as a band have in addition to these?

The style shown on the record, or in modern metal? As for the latter, I have no idea really. I know that it seems many young bands don’t understand the history of metal and are trying to emulate a band that has emulated another band and so on, and that’s a shame with the ease of resources we have nowadays.

I guess as for the aspect of a more chaotic form of death metal, you could probably say that Cryptopsy’s Whisper Supremacy took the idea of a metal song arrangement and turned it upside down- at least for me, when I heard it, nothing really sounded like it. Today’s bands probably are really far removed from that record but the bands they ripped off might be familiar, I don’t know.

As for the influences of the band, for me, I’ve always been drawn to more complex music because I like to hear something new in a song each time I hear it. I’d say Gorguts, Anata and Cryptopsy are definite influences, as well as Theory in Practice and maybe the early explosion of Unique Leader bands. As far as how the record sounds, I could probably say I was drawn to the feel of Sinister’s Aggressive Measures record in terms of their atonal leanings and not having the guitars be tuned super low. The rest of the guys in the band have a huge list of influences, but I can say I know Erik worships Discordance Axis, Adam loves stuff like Fleshgod Apocalypse and Jim listens to everything under the sun.

How did you get the crisp sound on The Blessed Sleep? It sounds like you played it live, but somehow got a nice digital snap to each track. Where was it recorded?

We recorded with Shane Hochstetler at Howl Street Studios, and we are extremely happy with the sound. We have recorded there numerous times with other projects and he is a blast to work with and everything he does sounds amazing. I don’t really care for the sterile production of modern metal bands and really wanted this record to sound tight yet savage, so we deliberately left it without too much polish to give it its own atmosphere. As for how we got the sound, I know there are tons of guitar tracks going on all the time so it has a wall of sound that gives it the heaviness that I think a lot of technical bands are lacking.

What prompted you to found Ara, in the style you’ve chosen, and what additions do you hope to make to the genre?

I always wanted to do my take on death metal since I was a teenager, and only now am I lucky enough to be around the musicians that can make it happen. The style is I suppose an amalgamation of all of my influences in extreme metal, but as I get better at writing music I really feel as though the compositions are inherently mine and don’t directly emulate any particular band.

As far as the second half of your question, I don’t have any lofty goals where I think we can be flagbearers for any kind of genre movement, I just hope people check out the record and like it. If I had any wish that we could influence anything, I do hope the riff can come back. I miss and mourn for the riff.

Where do you want to go after The Blessed Sleep? It seems like you’ve reached a peak within this genre; are you going to grow in a new direction, or refine?

As of today I have written 11 songs for a full length and am really excited to see how the new material will shape up. The rest of the guys know four of the new songs and I would say it is decidedly different from The Blessed Sleep. There is a much greater focus on melody but not in the At the Gates way, probably more in an Anata way. I am trying to make the songs complex but with very few themes explored per song because I want each song to be its own entity. You can hear one of the new songs in the live set on the youtube video you posted, it’s the last one we played. I’m trying to balance melody with discordance in each song. Some of the newer stuff is way faster than anything we’ve done and we have some doomier stuff as well. If you like The Blessed Sleep I think you’ll be excited for the progression. Also, we are very much hoping for label support for future recordings.

What do you think draws people to your music?

The band is very new so I don’t really know yet. People like speed and we have and love lots of blast beats. We also try to be atypical so I assume people that like weird metal will hopefully like it. Time will tell.

If fans wanted to explore your music, where do you recommend they start, and what should they do next?

You can stream the whole record at arawi.bandcamp.com, so there you go. Then I suppose you should follow us on Facebook to find out what we’re up to and where we’re playing.

Will you be touring for this album? Will we see you in Texas?

I absolutely want to get on the road for this record and hopefully we can do so later in the year. Erik and I play in another band called Northless that is in the studio next month so after that is wrapped up we can get our scheduling straight and play outside our home town. We would love to play in Texas if everything works out and if so we will definitely let you know! Thanks for your time and the support!

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Roots of Evil: The Origins of Metal

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.

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Deconstructing USBM’s Deviation from the Golden Path

As America’s conservative renaissance thrives through its flourishing Alt Right movement, the time is ripe for a full fledged rebirth of its black metal identity.

With the genre having reached rock bottom in recent years due to pop punk and screamo influences, beta male journalism, communist ideologies, and a faux transcendentalist philosophy, we can begin to right the ship by exhuming and examining the cadaver of its formative age.

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Personal Device – En Puerto (2015)

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Like the band with whom it shares members, Cóndor, the hardcore/thrash band Personal Device — the name refers to “antipersonnel devices,” not Fleshlights — makes music with a lot of promise that sells itself short by demonstrating theory instead of creating experiences.

Art contains ideas as much as any essay, and those who deny that are morons, but it is encoded through the sensual, emotional and intellectual experience of appreciating something of great beauty and power. This is how metal makes beauty out of ugliness and reveals to us the forgotten ideas of ancient history in a form we can now recognize. It is also why Christian, Nazi and SJW music falls short, because it is preaching and illustrating theory more than it is taking us on a magic ride through the world of its ideas in application.

Personal Device thrives when the band members get in touch with their inner rebellious but sensible youth. They bash out hardcore-based tunes with metal riff framing, sounding like Emperor covering Iggy Pop or G.G. Allin sometimes, and put these in songs with some breathing room a lot like early Suicidal Tendencies. Riff quality is very good. So is their ability to know when to bring on the power and when to let a rhythm ride to its natural conclusion. Moments on this album, like on Cóndor’s works, are so good they burst with potential and make you think you have discovered a new classic.

It is interrupted however by a tendency to demonstrate. Either they show how they can fit in a blues part, use an unnecessary spoken word piece, or expand song structures to include the non-relevant for the point of making a point, but it breaks the flow of the album and adulterates the good stuff. This also blighted Cóndor Duin: theory is only good when put into practice, in a way that converts the cerebral into the existential and experiential. At the risk of ruining this review by doing the same, I will step off that soap box and summarize.

This is a great album within another album. Many good ideas ooze from the fabric of En Puerto. Their first album however had more of a feeling of a garage project designed just to be music that the musicians — enlightened as they are by theory, and their theoretical background is known to me and quite substantial — found themselves liking, not just in “body” (how it feels and sounds) but in “mind” (what it delivers) and possibly in “soul” (how it makes poetic the condition of life). The best albums do all three, and their first was closer because it was less obsessively engineered in the front-brain and more unleashed from within. Moments of En Puerto do the same, and if they cut the rest out, they’d have an album on par with DRI’s Four of a Kind or Cryptic Slaughter Money Talks. Here’s hoping for album three.

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Early Music for Metalheads Part 2: Organum

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The influence of classical Greek thought was present in most aspects of intellectual life in the middle ages. Aristotelian thought is central to the works of Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the best known theologian of the era and neoplatonism was influential on those theologians of a more mystical inclination. In the musical world, the basis of medieval music theory – the Church modes – was derived directly from the medieval understanding of Greek musical theory. This musical theory had its origins in the Pythagorean school. Pythagoras was the first westerner to record the mathematical relationships between pitches and used these relationships to derive musical modes. Related to this was the idea, also attributed to Pythagoras, of the music of the spheres, the concept that the proportions of the movements of celestial bodies create an inaudible music that is superior to any form of audible music. Implied in this idea is the belief that audible music should microcosmically re-create this celestial music.

 

Medieval music theorists did not interpret this Pythagorean conception of music as a mere metaphor. There existed a consensus that certain musical intervals were superior to others by virtue of their simpler and therefore more universal harmonic ratios. As a result the earliest examples of organum in medieval music involved the doubling of a chant melody at a consonant interval (1). Over time this practice evolved organically, with the added voice being granted greater independence from the original melody. Eventually organum evolved into a practice where the notes of the chant melody were extended into lengthy drones while the added voice sung extended composed melismas. This practice was known as florid organum.

 

This example shows an earlier form of organum with the added voice having some independence, however parallel consonsances still form a significant component of the musical texture.

 

This next example comes from the St. Martial of Limoges school of composition which produced a large number of works in the 12th century. This piece is not based on a chant melody and is therefore not an organum but rather a conductus. This shows the trend towards more freely composed music.

 

By the latter part of the 12th century the practice of organum was widespead across Europe and numerous theoretical treatises had been produced which shed light on the musical thought of the time. One of these treatises came from an English music student studying in Notre-Dame, Paris, who is known only as Anonymous IV. He wrote at length about the two musical masters working out of Notre-Dame whom he called Leonin and Perotin. If not for Anonymous IV’s treatise the names of these composers would not be known. Together these composers made a number of significant innovations in the composition of organum and other genres which ushered in a new era of musical composition and played a key role in the eventual development of counterpoint and harmony.

 

The older of the two composers of the Notre-Dame school, Leonin, is best known for his organum duplum (organum with one voice added to a chant melody) which employ a form of rhythmic organisation using six rhythmic modes (short rhythmic patterns). Leonin’s younger contemporary, Perotin, was probably the earliest composer to add a third and fourth voice in his organum. He was therefore instrumental in the development of counterpoint of which his music is an early example albeit following different rules to those that governed the counterpoint of later composers. Perotin also utilised the six rhythmic modes although in contrast to Leonin’s free and improvisatory use of these modes Perotin created thematic structures from these rhythmic materials which were developed and varied throughout a piece. Through the use of this and other techniques Perotin composed organum which were an early example of large scale, structured compositions of the kind which became the standard during the common practice period.

 

This example is a somewhat stylised performance of an organum composed by Leonin. The use of rhythmic modes and melismas above a chant melody are made quite clear.

 

And here we have one of Perotin’s two surviving organum quadruplum: Sederunt Principes.

 

 


[1] It may be of interest to note here that this doubling of a melody at a consonant interval is precisely the same technique as playing a melody in power chords rather than single notes since the melodic line is doubled at the fifth.

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A Brief History of Grind and Space: Extreme Metal and the Internet

joeperkins01

Introduction

Extreme metal, specifically grindcore music from the beginning of the 21st century to the present day, has been composed and distributed between digital-communities. Grindcore has often existed exclusively within online communities and abandons its previous ‘live’ traditions. This online phenomenon is sometimes described as ‘cybergrind’, defined only partly by its musicality (i.e. rhythm, structure, notation), but more importantly by the cyberspace in which extreme metal music is staged through the Internet. This will detail a brief history of grindcore’s online migration and transient occupation of various cyberspaces on the Internet. I will discuss a few of the reasons for grindcore’s online relocation and evaluate the more discursive nature of the music that warrants it’s suggestively ‘non-musical’ prefix (cyber) in an attempt to provide a more encompassing study surrounding the music.

Space – Cyber

The beginning of the 21st Century saw an online musical phenomenon that made a serious impression on the music business. Grindcore’s online relocation was indeed partly an impression if not a reaction against commercial music businesses and provided a community for self-published and non-profit grindcore to exist. Rosemary Overell’s book,

In an interview with Mike Glenn, ‘programmer’ for Myspace based grindcore band, ‘wecamewithbrokenteeth’; “It was definitely an internet phenomena, although I really don’t keep up with the ‘scene’ anymore. I believe WCWBT kinda took the ‘cybergrind’ thing to a new level and spread it to the masses more so than other acts … our online fan base was definitely our strongest”. My interview was undertaken on Facebook, whereby the ‘wecamewithbrokenteeth’ page is located and acts as their ‘official’ cyberspace. Benedict Anderson may have described this online phenomenon as an ‘Imagined Community’, or self-conceived nation (1991). However, the music’s online exclusivity suggests that it was far from imagined, but as close to a real environment as necessary (for both artist and consumer); the transient nature of cyberspace is more freely adaptable than the set-in-stone physicality of the ‘stage’. In Lysloff René’s, Musical Community on the Internet, he states that:

Many websites do represent the loci of complex networks and social relationships that are in fact dispersed in geographical space. What bought us all together were the metaphorical places that stood as monuments to the social relationships created through them. Thus, Internet research entails a form of travel, in a metaphorical sense to radically different kinds of social place … I argue that on-line communities … are as ‘real’ (or imagined) as those off line. – René, L. (2003)

‘Cybergrind’ exists as a non-profit community whereby free distribution amongst fans is encouraged to promote the music to a wider audience. This was also articulated by Glenn, “The few things we did release were free, I’m a heavy music pirate myself, so why the fuck not? I’m cool with YouTube and all that, anyway, to get your name out there is a plus in my eyes.” An online record label, ‘Grindcore Karaoke’ (2011), enable free downloads for all of their featured-artists. Vocalist for ‘Agorophobic Nosebleed’, J Randall, initiated this non-profit organization. This label ‘employs’ grindcore artists globally, such as Birmingham based ‘Kuntpuncher’, and Japan based ‘Self Deconstruction’. Their first release was ‘Grindcore Lu’au’ by ‘Wadge’ and advertised weekly uploads; their last upload was ‘CLVB DRVGS’ ‘Beach Blanket Bong Out’, published on the 10th March, 2014, however the music remains available for download (last accessed 22/04/15). Tom Bradfield, owner of Grindethic records, has expressed how online relocation has inevitably affected the industry, specifically record labels; “I suspect that even if piracy was somehow eradicated (which it won’t be), then the move to downloading would still have happened anyway. The hard thing is convincing people to pay for something they can easily get for free.” Therefore, the power the Internet has provided a convenient platform for artist self-promotion, but potentially threatens industry establishments such as Grindethic records.

René (2003) describes this phenomenon as a ‘new materiality’; “On-line music production and dissemination set up the conditions for a prestige economy in which ‘goods’ … are exchanged by electronic means. As with other on-line communities … the Internet provides a new materiality through which social interaction and group formation can take place and from which new possibilities for subjectivity and group identity can emerge.” Therefore, grindcore labels/artists may still be adapting to this ‘new materiality’ the Internet continues to provide.

‘Extreme Metal in Lebanon’, as researched by Mark LeVine, exists on the Internet for political reasons. In his book, Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam (2008), LeVine describes the band, ‘Oath to Vanquish’, as one of the “most distinctive Death Metal/Grind bands in the MENA”. The Lebanese government banned certain Heavy Metal CD’s at the beginning of the 21st Century, however they remained increasingly available on the Internet, a platform less hindered by political censorship. LeVine describes the Internet as a ‘liberating Power’ and musicians as part of a “cyber-intifada”. The band tackle political issues in their music lyrically, “through the veil of allegory and unsettling imagery”. ‘Oath to vanquish’ are signed to UK-based ‘Grindethic’ records, however according to LeVine, “the farther you are from the mainstream in Lebanon, the greater the risk of persecution.” According to LeVine, extreme metal in Egypt is similarly restricted, “many young Egyptians found more useful things on the web, from political blogs to heavy metal forums, that help them resist or at least survive, government oppression.”

The absence of ‘live performance’ due to a rise in online-presence has raised certain authenticity debates, some of which I shall discuss now. In my own interview with Tom Bradfield (Grindethic), he wrote that:

The Myspace era was probably the turning point for underground bands being able to exist outside of the live environment. Before the Internet there was no point in having a band that didn’t play gigs … Now there was a way to expose yourself to potential fans and build a support base without needing to play live. This coincided with home recording becoming more affordable so bands could produce demos of ever increasing quality without studio time necessarily being a prohibitive cost. – Tom Bradfield.

The absence of live performance and the internet-as-stage may be what Chanan describes a loss of authenticity due to various techniques of reproduction:

Technique of reproduction detaches the musical work from the domain of the tradition that gave birth to it, and destroys what Benjamin calls the aura which signals its authenticity; except that it also creates new types of musical object which do not belong to a particular domain but rather anywhere that a loudspeaker (or earphone) may be found – some of these recordings cannot be performed live at all. This process also redefines the audience, which comes to be constituted quite differently from before. It is no longer limited to traditional concepts of community. – Chanan, M. (1997) 

However I believe that the ‘aura’ is still present in a cyberspace, but I agree that there is obviously a detachment from traditional conceptions of ‘liveness’ and ‘community’. Grindcore has therefore transcended this barrier of authenticity by its often-unfeasible existence in a ‘live’ and ‘real world’ environment. This further points to grindcore’s inherent anti-establishment disregard for previous ‘formats’ (I will later discuss this in relation to musicality) and is therefore a liberating factor for both musicians and listeners. In the same way that the Beatles’ never performed ‘Sgt. Peppers’, whereby live performance wasn’t felt necessary or wasn’t possible; Glenn states, “We never actually played live shows, although I’ve heard stories of people claiming to be us and playing shows under the name, haha. WCWBT was strictly an online thing.” Similarly, Tom Bradfield told me about one of his own bands:

I joined a band called Repulsive Dissection where the members had come together for the first time over Myspace. We were variously located in Ukraine, Japan, UK and Sweden, so the idea of playing live was never seriously considered … The internet allowed us to send material backwards and forwards online and collaborate on writing. We could all record separately and compile our efforts at the end, and to this day I’ve never met the guitarist in person. – Tom Bradfield.

Weinstein (2000) states that, “Most bands never sign a record contract. They are the losers in a Darwinian struggle for access to the facilities of the mediators: The record companies and the concert promoters”. However, Bradfield argues that it is in fact; the record labels are now equally involved in a ‘Darwinian Struggle’, although they’re power as ‘gatekeepers’ (or trend-setters) within the industry are still apparent in providing a ‘stamp of approval’:

I’m sure mass consumption of music, and all media in general, can only be heading towards streaming everything online, but a new generation of artists will embrace this and find new ways to present their music. How labels will survive this change is harder to foresee. I think there will still be a need for labels to exist as a way of putting a stamp of approval on the top bands and helping to raise them above the rest. – Tom Bradfield.

Australian grindcore band, ‘The Bezerker’, existed online for both performance limitations and to simultaneously self-promote through successful social media such as Myspace and their own website. They also departed from ‘Earache Records’, famed for signing traditional grindcore artists such as, ‘Napalm Death’ and ‘Carcass’. This short text by Brian Fischer is the first time I have seen the term, ‘cyber-grind’ used in any published writing, although does little to describe what ‘cybergrind’ actually is:

The bezerker is an extreme metal entity from Melbourne that plays a noise form of cyber-grind. The band is the brainchild of … Luke Kenny, a one time metal and grind drummer who was forced to give up his instrument after sustaining near-fatal injuries in a motor vehicle accident… Kenny began to produce music that was a cross between “gabba” techno and industrial grind … The Berzerker split from Earache in 2008 and their fifth album came out on September 1, 2008 through the band’s website exclusively. – Fischer-Giffin, B. (2002)

‘The Bezerker’ may have departed from the established ‘Earache Records’ due to the apparent trend towards the self-sufficient sustainability of Internet based promotion and publication.

Musicality – Grindcore

The Oxford dictionary defines ‘Cyber’ as, “Relating to or characteristic of the culture of computers, information technology, and virtual reality”. In which case, one could argue that grindcore music is now in a ‘cyber age’, where computers are an interface not only for music production, but also for mediation, collaboration, and consumption. Certain musical aspects can be attributed to the style as a contributory defining factor:

“I’m proud to say it’s the fastest, and nothing can be faster, sorry Dave, [Dave Lombardo, Slayer] but it’s just not fast enough mate” – Mick Harris, Napalm Death

Derek Roddy (2007) describes ‘blast beats’, a traditional musical signifier of grindcore as a genre defining feature: “Until now, blast beats have been a musical myth … a part of musical expression since the 1980s with the European grindcore movement … a form of musical expression on it’s way to becoming it’s own genre.” The speed and physical performance of grindcore ‘blast beats’ could be seen as, “a fulfilling achievement that one can be proud of”. Drum machines are often programmed to perform ‘blast beats’ at a speed and metronomic precision previously unachievable in ‘human performance’. Drum machines are used as an instrumental signifier of the ‘post-human’ speed and technical precision predominantly unachievable in human performance. (Refer to my transcriptions of ‘Wecamewithbrokenteeth’ and ‘Malodorous’). This renders Mick Harris’ (Napalm Death) statement that ‘nothing can be faster’ as limited to a ‘live’ grindcore tradition. The processual nature of genre shows a dramatic transformation of opinion to what constitutes ‘grindcore performance’, when drum machines replace human; ‘Sorry Mick, it’s just not fast enough mate’!

“We’ve sort of abandoned musical standards, we don’t write songs to the ‘rock’ sort of format. We’re pretty much the end of the line, I don’t think you’re going to get a band that’s more extreme than us.” – Shane Embury, Napalm Death

Napalm Death, along with the other grindcore artists strive to be the most ‘extreme’ in terms of musicality. Overell (2014) describes this as a sense of ’more-than-ness’. If the performance is then eradicated from the ‘brutal’ experience, surely this lack of ‘liveness’ constitutes less extremity. The ubiquitous use of drum-machines in cybergrind is a way of sonically identifying the music as ‘digital’ or ‘cyber’. Thus the music’s existence is inherently impossible in a real-world environment such as a stage; it is also reliant on computer based interfaces i.e. VST instruments, DAW’s, Audio Interfaces which are becoming increasingly more popular. Harris (2006) states that, “Only in slower forms of extreme metal is ‘putting on a [live] show’, in a conventional sense, possible.” Harris does not elaborate on his use of the word ‘conventional’, although could be referring to the use of electronic instruments and physical constraints of an ‘acoustic’ musical performance. ‘Wecamewithbrokenteeth’, gained popularity through Myspace around 2005 and built their fan base through social networking. Their music was produced on FL Studio, and until 2006, only used computer generated instruments, minus vocals, such as FLslayer for synthesized Guitar tracks; the low-end pitches would have been impossible to effectively produce on a detuned electric guitar. The vocal parts are the only ‘live’ recorded part of the music.

There are many ways in which ‘extremity’ is now raised within the Genre. The first is musicality, where musicians are striving to make the fastest, shortest or most sonically dense Grindcore possible. (Refer to my transcriptions of Napalm Death and Clotted Symmetric Sexual Organ). The second and more controversial way in which extremity is pushed is lyrical subject matter, resulting in subgenres such as ‘Porogrind’ and ‘Goregrind’. As mentioned in Nasum’s online biography, a change in aesthetic and lyrical content results in a deviation from ‘true grindcore’. Tom Bradfield states, “The one thing I’m bored of is all the misogynistic rape/gore type lyrics that are still pretty prevalent.” Bradfield is more concerned with ‘punkier origins’ or traditional grindcore aesthetic, “For many though I think the punkier origins of grindcore lend it to a more political direction which I still think works well with the inherent aggression in the music.”

Despite this, the lyrics in Grindcore music are often unidentifiable due to the vocal style. This is however, unimportant; Simon Frith’s (2007) theory on Metal vocal style; “ The tone of voice is more important … than the actual articulation of particular lyrics. We can thus identify with a song whether we understand the words or not, whether we already know the singer or not, because it is the voice – not the lyrics – to which we immediately respond.” Weinstein (2000) adds that, “Special sounds, especially screams, serve to emphasize the power and the emotionality of the voice”. Tom Bradfield states that, “To be honest I’m not particularly interested in the lyrical content of bands, even if it aligns with something I personally believe in. First and foremost I care about the music itself, and the concepts or message behind the band doesn’t sway me too much either way when it comes to signing them.”

There were many complex eco-systems in action during the emergence of Grindcore, of which I will give a brief description now. Common belief is that grindcore was initiated in Birmingham with Napalm Death. The local aspect of Birmingham’s grindcore is often romanticised but its rapid globalization was apparent from its early years. ‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬I have provided one a brief case study into the globalisation and subsequent migration of grindcore into cyberspace. Popat (2005) argues that the nature of the Internet is solipsistic, “Communities of interest [Music] are most likely to arise since communities of locality and social structure, for example, mean little in the remoteness of the online environment.” However, I feel that this could be conceived as creating some form of online social ‘locality’. The locality is in this case, a specificity of taste and tied by interest. She continues, “Although a vast number of people with different interests and concerns may be using the Internet, it is likely that they will only tend to communicate with others sharing their interests”.

‘Clotted Symmetric Sexual Organ’ (C.S.S.O) were a Japanese grindcore band active from 1993 – 2001. Their composition, ‘P.S. I Love You’, was released on a compilation or ‘Split’ CD entitled ‘Grindworks’, featuring other grindcore artists Nasum (Sweden), Retaliation (Sweden), Vivisection (Japan) and C.C.S.O (Japan). The CD was released in Sweden on the label, ‘Grindwork Productions’, whom only ever released two albums; the compilation mentioned and Swedish group, Nasum’s ‘Domedagen’ (1994). ‘P.S. I Love You’, resonates with the jazz standard by Gordon Jenkins (1934), and later the Beatles (1962). As articulated by Shane Embury, grindcore abandons previous ‘rock formats’, and therefore the reclaiming of ‘P.S. I Love You’ is a way in which C.C.S.O subverted the ubiquitous ‘love song’ as a reaction against conformity and ‘popular’ musical idioms. The total length of the composition, 10 seconds, also suggests a reactionary musical form established by Napalm Death as a grindcore idiom. This particular case demonstrates the global impact of grindcore in 1994, and how it’s ‘rarity’ elicited an online re-release through the ‘The Grind Show” on YouTube (3 October 2011). The video has 124 views (last accessed 14 February 2015) and published by ‘The Grind Show’, a YouTube channel and cyberspace seemingly dedicated to sharing rare grindcore recordings. The obscurity and lack of popularity for this particular track is by no means a reflection of cybergrind’s popularity in general (I will demonstrate this in later case studies), but more a reflection of a communal effort in preserving grindcore of the past, or ‘non-cyber’ grindcore into a virtual and residual ‘mosh-pit’ or communal appreciation and canonization of ‘extreme’ music that is no longer active as a ‘Live’ tradition (C.C.S.O haven’t performed live since 2001).

This canonization within cyberspace also exhibits bands such as ‘Napalm Death’ despite their ongoing ‘live’ presence and commercial releases. This is quite often an exception whereby ‘Napalm Death’ transcends both ‘live’ and ‘cyber’ communities, most likely due to their wide acceptance as satisfying the definition of ‘grindcore’. This online existence is celebrated as a further disassociation from previous ‘rock formats’. Ironically this music has now fallen into a Cyberspace, and more importantly, it has been canonized within ‘The Grind Show’ musical-program, thus adopting an extra-musical narrative as part of a contemporary grindcore community. Of course, most ‘popular music’ can be found somewhere on the Internet, but it’s online exclusivity (apart from several hard-copies available second hand on Discogs) could infer it’s belonging to a cybergrind community. This dissemination could also be seen metaphorically as a larger scale ‘split’ recording, whereby Artists share a physical platform or space for economic viability, building a larger fanbase, and generally building a larger sense of community.

Following on from talking about musicality, collaborative techniques used in a traditional group environment are varied in online grindcore. Tom Bradfield spoke to me about his experience collaborating over the Internet:

I joined a band called Repulsive Dissection where the members had come together for the first time over Myspace. We were variously located in Ukraine, Japan, UK and Sweden, so the idea of playing live was never seriously considered.  We came close once but a visa issue scuppered plans at the last minute. The Internet allowed us to send material backwards and forwards online and collaborate on writing. We could all record separately and compile our efforts at the end, and to this day I’ve never met the guitarist in person. – Tom Bradfield.

A similar musical experience was realized by grindcore artists, ‘Malodorous’, who compose in remote geographical locations for a ‘web-based’ collaboration. Sita Popat argues the Internet as an enabling factor for opportunities in remote interaction and collaboration “on a scale never before imaginable”. She explains that the possibility to communicate and transfer media “simply, quickly and relatively cheaply between people around the globe.” She also believes that the Internet provides a uniquely asynchronous collaborative process can potentially work in favour of creativity. “This process promotes ‘reflective’ communications and the considered response. It does not rush the communication into a reaction, and as such it allows time for crossing that proscenium thoughtfully.”

Overell’s writing, although partly focused on affective space, does not mention the Internet as a space in itself, although focuses exclusively on grindcore as a ‘live’ tradition. She discusses the benefits of long distance communication for organisation of international events, “Via email, Sensei nominated suitable dates and Joel organized gigs at Melbourne venues.” Rene describes the ‘culture of simulation’ to what Arturo Escobar calls ‘cyberculture’. Rene goes on to describe that, “although the Internet may be rooted in familiar terrain, it still holds the promise of new cultural narratives and social formations.” The Internet has proven to be as much of a social phenomenon, if not more than grindcore music itself. Popat quotes Dix et al, “[The Internet] is much more a social phenomenon than anything else, with users attracted to the idea that computers are now boxes that connect them with interesting people and exciting places to go, rather than soulless cases that deny social contact”.

This implies that our methods of communication and interaction are transient, and as a consequence, musical output evolves accordingly to its situation. I have argued that ‘extreme metal’, for aforementioned political and economical reasons, has particularly settled in an online environment for what Overell might call ‘brutal belonging’, within an affective space. Despite the more traditional ‘live’ setting for grindcore music, Tom Bradfield agrees that, “for most underground bands, the majority of fans they make online will dwarf the number of total number of people that ever see them play live.”

Bibliography:

  • Anderson, B. O. R. (1991) Imagined communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. 2nd edn. New York: Verso Books.
  • Born, G. (2010) ‘For a Relational Musicology: Music and Interdisciplinarity, Beyond the Practice Turn’, Journal of the Royal Musical Association, 135(2), pp. 205–243. doi: 10.1080/02690403.2010.506265.
  • Chanan, M. (1997) Repeated Takes: A Short History of Recording and Its Effects on Music. United Kingdom: Verso Books.
  • Cottrell, S. (2010) ‘Ethnomusicology and the Music Industries: An Overview’, Ethnomusicology Forum, 19(1), pp. 3–25. doi: 10.1080/17411912.2010.489279.
  • Dixon, S. (2002) ‘Absent Fiends Internet Theatre, Posthuman bodies and the Interactive Void’, Performative Arts International.
  • Feld, S. (2001) ‘A Sweet Lullaby for World Music’, Globalization, pp. 189–216. doi: 10.1215/9780822383215-011
  • Fischer-Giffin, B. (2002) Encyclopedia of Australian heavy metal. United Kingdom: Brian Fischer-Giffin.
  • Frith, S. (1996) ‘Music and Identity’, in Questions of cultural identity. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications,
  • Frith, S. (2007) Taking Popular Music Seriously (Ashgate Contemporary Thinkers on Critical Musicology). Aldershot, England: Ashgate Publishing, p. Towards an Aesthetic of Popular Music.
  • Keith, K.-H. (2006) EXTREME METAL: MUSIC AND CULTURE ON THE EDGE. OXFORD: Berg Publishers
  • Laderman, D. (2010) Punk Slash! Musicals: Tracking Slip-Sync on Film. Austin: University of Texas Press
  • LeVine, M. (2008) Heavy metal Islam: rock, resistance, and the struggle for the soul of Islam. New York: Crown Publishing Group.
  • Michelsen, M. (2004) ‘Histories and complexities: Popular Music History Writing and Danish Rock’, Popular Music History, 1. doi: 10.1558/pomh.v1i1.19.
  • Overell, R. (2014a) Affective Intensities in Extreme Music Scenes. England: Palgrave Macmillan. doi: 10.1057/9781137406774.
  • Overell, R. (2014b) ‘Brutal Belonging in Brutal Spaces’, Affective Intensities in Extreme Music Scenes. doi: 10.1057/9781137406774.0007.
  • Parnham, J. (2011) ‘A Concrete Sense of Place: Alienation and the City in British Punk and New Wave 1977-1980’, Green Letters 15:, pp. 76–88.
  • Pedlety, M. (2013) ‘Ecomusicology, Music Studies, and the IASPM: Beyond “Epistemic Inertia”’, IASPM@Journal, 3(2), pp. 33–47. doi: 10.5429/2079-3871(2013)v3i2.3en.
  • Phillipov, M. (2012) Death Metal and Music Criticism: Analysis at the Limits. United States: Lexington Books.
  • Popat, S. and Beardon, C. (2005) Invisible connections: dance, choreography and Internet communities. 1st edn. London: Taylor & Francis.
  • René, L. (2003) ‘Musical Community on the Internet: An On-Line Ethnography’, American Anthropological Association, Vol.18, No. 2, pp. 233 – 263.
  • Roddy, D. (2007) The Evolution of Blast Beats. World Music 4all Publications.
  • Thrift, N. (2007) Non-Representational Theory: Space, Politics, Affect. United States: London ; Routledge, 2008.
  • Weinstein, D. (2000) Heavy metal: the music and its culture. Boulder, CO: Da Capo Press.

  

Joe Perkins, 2015
www.joeperkinsmusic.com
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A case study in wallpaper black metal and a discussion of its apologetics

chalice_of_blood-heilig_heilig_heilig

This album presents a perfect case study in wallpaper black metal and a discussion of its apologetics. The title, formed from three repetitions of the Swedish word for “holy,” incurs two different wallpaper metal infractions: pointless repetition of riffs and pointless contrasting ideas.

Pointless repetition of an entire rhythm or riff, as opposed to reusing a theme in a different context, occurs when a composer has one of several possible aims. Traditionally this has been to let the listener get familiar with an idea, to let it sink in, as some would say. The most popular aim of repetition in the more ambient-oriented black metal field is to create atmosphere. The aim of the latter is to lead the listener beyond familiarity with the riff and into a kind of stupor. The listener is taken into this state with the purpose of preparing him for something else: a deeper dream level, as it were, which would follow. But apologetics of wallpaper music claim that all ambient-oriented repetition, even the one they themselves may admit to being meaningless, achieves its goal if it brings the listener to the aforementioned state of stupor without necessary deepening of mood.

Pointless contrasting ideas serve to redirect of a musical path or modify the nature of the stupor in which the listener is in, such as from an anger-fueled one to another infused by sadness or even happiness. The use of a contrasting idea makes sense if it interacts with its context and primarily with its adjacent riff sections, much as in writing each sentence in a paragraph must relate to the topic and the sentences before and after it. When contrast lacks that purpose in context, it becomes a technique for distracting from the stupor so that the listener does not realize that the trick behind the stupor is repetition alone and it will lead nowhere, which converts a dream-state into a state of boredom in instants.

Wallpaper Music

Wallpaper is defined as: “paper that is pasted in vertical strips over the walls of a room to provide a decorative surface.” It provides a decorative surface only without reference to what surrounds it. Its context does not matter so long as it covers a blank surface and provides something to look at. It is not meant to have any meaning. The frescoes, carvings or statues of classical art, on the other hand, were meant to be both pleasing to the eye and to convey a certain meaning, inviting the visitor into a different dimension (in the mystic-spiritual metaphorical sense).

Now the following question assails us, would someone completely unfamiliar with Western art become induced into the mental state that the authors of such art intended? Not necessarily. The degree to which that person’s reaction to art approaches that which was intended depends directly on the similarity of the background in culture and experience of the subject to that whence the artwork sprung from. This, like context, comprises the memories that give a new musical figure meaning.

In fact, herein lies our key to reverse engineering intention (of the author) and/or purpose (which may be independent of the author’s conscious intent) in music. This key is context. Let us be clear here that this does not refer to Epistemic Contextualism, which does not lead to a discussion on inherent meaning arising from some original intention but to that of attributed meaning as interpreted in any situation, even alien contexts to that which gave rise to the original product. The intended meaning of context in this article is precisely the conventional one described in the previously linked article as:

…certain features of the putative subject of knowledge (his/her evidence, history, other beliefs, etc.) or his/her objective situation (what is true/false, which alternatives to what is believed are likely to obtain, etc.)…

This allows us to appreciate the sense and coherence of a work independently of if we agree with its tenets. On a separate but related note, it is also from this vantage point that its connection to a more transcendent nature can be gauged, since the particular context, that which is temporal, is known.

Analyses, use, limitations and power

Perceiving context in a particular way and analyzing a problem in the real world is the subject of studies that produce methods to approach them. Everything that is perceived is subjective in the sense that depending on our experience and background we may highlight and give importance to different factors. After that, methods are devised to point out objective qualities that are pertinent to the aspects we want to analyze. This is true of mathematical analysis, and even of scientific analyses in chemistry and physics.

Of course, there is a catch here. The complexity, in terms of scope, of what is being analyzed matters in no small measure to the objectivity of the results. In the case of the sciences, the scope is reduced to what is known while assumptions are made about what is not known and then, given the reduced and strictly defined boundaries of what is being analyzed (which is usually not the whole system but rather a model of the system), completely objective results are obtained in the context of the reduced-system model. As a more knowledgeable person in the field would put it:

The larger the scope of the analysis of a system becomes, the more assumptions regarding the conditions that enable the system to behave in a certain way become present. Sometimes these assumptions are made deliberately, but sometimes they are present unknowingly. This is due to the complexity associated with an increasing scope of analysis, which makes it unfeasible to obtain a straightforward solution. Furthermore, complexity is associated with the relationship among the different factors (variables) and the system/phenomena being observed. — L. Garrido

The error factor grows alongside this scope and it may even become unmeasurable if we do not know how to precisely quantify a particular element like purpose or intention. Which is precisely why they are not included in the scope of any scientific analysis. It must also be clarified that the error factor of a problem does not represent its concrete error, but the maximum magnitude of all possible errors. Meaning our analysis could indeed be perfect, although this is unlikely.

Analysis in Music

In music, a very wide scope must be admitted into its analysis. This is necessarily so since we acknowledge that music is much more than the notes themselves, than the organization of these notes alone, than the context in which they are perceived, or the intentions of the artist. Musical quality encompasses all of them at the same time and, in a Renascentist-Magical holistic view, ultimately engenders a separate entity altogether which is none of these elements and is rather born from all of them. Any music analysis consists on the breaking of music down to its components with the aim of understanding how they function as parts of a greater whole.

olivier_messiaen

One of the most intriguing techniques for the analysis of “conventional” tonal Western music is called Schenkerian analysis. This was a system named after the theorist who devised it, Heinrich Schenker (1868-1935). It consists of demonstrating how music can be divided into a hierarchy of notes which range from background indispensable notes to more those of a more “auxiliary” nature, although the terms “neighboring” and “passing” are more suitable since they do not carry such a strong connotation of these notes being less part of the music. Before him came Arnold Bernhard Marx (1795-1866) whose revolutionary way of analysing music included judging the purpose, character and direction in music independently of the composer’s conscious awareness through the subdivision of sections until one finds indivisible components. These can belong to one of two kinds: the self-sufficient and assertive Satz or the motion-oriented, forward-moving Gang. Schenker’s method is, in a way, a formalization of the more intuitive process of Marx, who used a more holistic approach (and a wider scope, more assumptions), into a more mechanical approach — though still subjective to a certain degree.

Despite wild claims by detractors of this way of analyzing music which want to reduce Schenkerian analysis to subjective make-believe so as to dismiss any objective value in it, an argument is to be made in favor of its objective and logic and characteristics. The user of this analysis at his best can be compared to a detective following clues. The best detectives are not clueless idiots blindly following a manual. Detectives first take note of context, use psychology and decipher motives and even subconscious processes that the criminal himself might not be aware of. There is a lot of guessing involved, but educated guessing, which while being subjective interpretation cannot just be dismissed as simple opinion (in the passive-derogative and dismissive sense) since it follows a method based on objective points. It is important, of course, to point out that the detective also relies heavily on experience.

It is here that we turn again to the idea of context. The ideas of direction, stability and instability, and character inherent to these style of analyses is born out of concrete knowledge of the development of music during the Common Practice Period (roughly 1600s up to 1900). These are “concrete” in the sense that they were not just an archaeological approach to understanding the past, in which the theorist is separated from the data in question and is always forced to look at it from the outside. Rather, the theorists who developed these analyses were part of the musical “subculture” (and the culture at large which encases it and is an audience to it) which engendered the music they studied. So their subjective views and experience are, in my opinion, validated as relevant by that same fact that places them as insiders.

The reader might rightly question this last claim denouncing that this in itself cannot possibly give the theorists and historical critics license to judge the music at the subjective levels previously mentioned. I will address this by calling attention to the music theory “standard”, or rather a “musical language”, that came into being in the first half of the 17th century thus producing what we know now as the Common Practice Period. This language is based on harmony that is built by contrapuntal norms, avoids certain musical effects and favors a narrative style. From its very beginning up until the 19th century, a certain significance, as meaning in a spoken language, was attributed to musical phrases, melody direction and movement, harmonic tension or instability, together with rhythm. What is relevant about this is not that these beliefs existed, but that they were part of the music education and culture of that time. The rules and conventions (even the ones relating to extra-musical implications) by which these theorists and critics measured and judged music were the same that the composers themselves ascribed to. This does mean that some of the less talented critics would see superficial aspects as set in stone, but this was not true of A.B. Marx who saw music as an everflowing, ever-evolving transformation of styles whose steps beyond what he knew in his time were only as visible as vague shapes in the horizon.

Is the application of Western European analysis and philosophy to metal music really justified?

Now, if this analysis belongs to the Common Practice Period, would it be fair to apply it to metal music? After all, the processes that produced Metal music are different. It would not make sense to apply the same analysis to Iranian or Indian music which follow their own systems whose musical constructions have inextricable spiritual and religious significance in the culture that engendered it. Neither would we thus judge jazz, which is the result of African-American music borrowing European art music notions to produce a language and a more sensual purpose of its own. My opinion is that we can say jazz gets excused because the ultimate product is more African-American than European.

When taking a look at music and judging its “coherence” one can metaphorically refer to it as its logic. When taking a look at a logical argument, we first take look at the premises or assumptions and from there follow it through its process. If the argument fails to make sense based on its premises we can say it has failed. The same applies to music. We can judge musical construction according to the premises it sets for itself. The style it chooses, yes, but more importantly, the general music language (Iranian classical music has different harmonic notions and goals, for example, as does jazz) it chooses for itself.

Metal starts with Black Sabbath taking rock-based music (which itself subscribes to the use of Common Practice Period harmony, but used in a more mechanical way to produce simple verse-chorus music) and bringing back the more theme-based approach of horror movie soundtracks. Soundtracks which were themselves inspired on 19th-century Romantic music. From then on metal develops as this rock-and-dark-Romantic musical hybrid and at different points borrows elements from other music genres but always distinguishing itself as Metal by always keeping an entrenched Romantic music orientation. One can then distinguish deserters who fled to the rock camp by abandoning of this orientation (Metallica is a clear example). The more the genre evolved the more marked the difference between rock defectors and those who remained metal became. This is because the latter would try to distinguish themselves more from the rock element which was so prominent in the former. This is the process that originally gave rise to the terms sell-out and underground. It must be clarified that what is meant here is not that the rock element in any music is bound to produce poor music.

The only constant at the heart of metal then, is the Romantic sense of theme-based music with a serious and heavy character. From this point it follows that the “premises” that metal has chosen for itself stem directly from the Common Practice Period in general. This does not mean that we should try to read metal music as we would read a Beethoven symphony — at least not on the surface. The characteristics that metal has borrowed from classical music affected the genre at multiple levels and thus surfaces in different bands in different ways and to different degrees. We cannot judge all metal in the same way either because just as different musical genres choose different languages (different premises for their arguments), so it is that different bands choose dialects of their own which require us to understand them and part from there on. But they must be seen as precisely that: dialects of the broader language of metal. Thus they still fall under the umbrella of our discussion (Ildjarn would be a particularly interesting case to discuss as its surface and the first impression it gives one leaves no room for obvious comparison to Romantic traits).

One understands the intense repetition of some black metal as stemming from the same purpose it has in electronic music. Black metal remains metal because it still ascribes to the dark-Romantic principles metal is defined by. Part of this is tonality and how harmony is used to create movement, which along with rhythm creates pulse and is tied by theme and the large-scale interplay of sections. Part of it is the more complex interpretation of how the character of each section and song speaks out and relates to the other sections or songs.

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This character was an important trait during the Common Practice Period and it plays an important role in metal. When it goes unchecked, even if the outer technical aspects of music were all carefully crafted, the inner sense is perceived to be empty or messy. This thinking was very evident in the thoughts of both great composers and historical critics from the Romantic period such as Philipp Spitta (1841-1894) whose biography of Johann Sebastian Bach reveals extensive discussion, analysis and critique that encompasses everything from historical context and evolution of genres along with their influence over the German master, to detailed score analysis and explicit separation of what he refers to as “inside” and “outside” musical traits. The latter being musical expression itself, the structures, and the former being the character/aura/personality of not only the music pieces themselves but also of individual sections and their relation to the whole.

Modern metal unknowingly fails catastrophically by trying to create interest out of pure contrast. Still, some of the best modern bands keep a constant style and even use theme to tie a song together, but little or no evident thought is put into the aura of each section of a song and its balance with the rest of the song (see Fallujah).

The modern variety of metal bands which identify as “technical” (as opposed to Atheist, Immolation or Gorguts which were dubbed so after the fact) try to create interest by approaching this as if it were a textbook exercise, playing with the theme, placing it in different contexts, creating smart texture changes and witty variations. Since all that was cared about was the technical correctness of the piece, the evocation power of the music is negligible as it is not born out of Idea, but out of technical exploration (see Ara). The apologist comes in at this point and says that “emotion” is also in the process and that all parts are judged by passing them through this emotional filter. This is never denied here. But this statement would actually reinforce the notion that this music follows a backwards process: outside to inside, rather than inside to outside. The writer of purely technical music uses hard logic to drive his music creation and then judges it from an emotional vantage point. This works for science, but it spells out death for art.

Whereas in all productive men instinct is the truly creative and affirming power, and consciousness acts as a critical and cautioning reaction, in Socrates the instinct becomes the critic, consciousness becomes the creator — truly a monstrous defect. — Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, Chapter 13

This general idea has been understood in the European classical music traditions for centuries and awareness of it has given the world some of the most refined and whole works of art music. It is only in our post-modern era that we erroneously want to strip everything away from its original meaning and validate poor art by arguing that all that matters is the writer’s own intentions, which nobody can guess or question.

Defenses for Wallpaper Music

The most stalwart wallpaper music apologist is bound at this point to support the previous statement by stating the fact that our modern culture (and even more specifically, that our metal subculture) is very different from that which engendered classical Romantic music. While I consider this argument to be debatable, I will concentrate on the biggest issue that comes out as a result of this reasoning as a whole. This is the idea that because modern artists are free to choose how to express themselves they can pick from any musical-philosophical camp and just smash it together, twist it around in whatever way they see fit or their limited organizational skills and inspiration allows them to, with little or no justification other than their “need” or “right” to express individuality.

Allowing that artists are, indeed, free to choose their means of expression, their music can be rubbish in the context of the language they choose if they attempt to use it in ways it was not meant to be used. Can a previous “musical alphabet” give rise to a new “musical language”? Yes, and this is precisely what jazz and metal (separately and in very different directions, the former separating itself far more from a philosophical perspective while the latter remained akin in spirit) have done with Common Practice Period theoretical knowledge or general concepts.

A “smart” wallpaper apologist remark here is that we at DMU “fetishize” the European classical music outlook. But we do not ask bands to ascribe to the metal language which has explicit ties to that European tradition. If a band does not want to be judged from this perspective, then choose a different set of premises, a different language to speak. I would be very interested in witnessing attempts at using metal instrumentation to play music built on the principles of traditional Indian music. It would not be metal, but it would be a thing of its own with coherent expression.

Does it mean that everyone making music has to subscribe to already-existing musical languages and that there is nothing new to be had so that we can only indulge in superficial variations? This is what post-modern short-sightedness would have us believe and in doing so somehow justify the trivial superficiality of the so-called experimental bands. But then you can turn to great composers such as Arnold Schoenberg(1874-1951) and Olivier Messiaen(1908 – 1992) who effectively created brand new musical systems for them to express the music they wanted. They were both world-renowned advanced composition professors, which says a lot about how difficult it is to single-handedly accomplish such a task. Furthermore, as Uri O’Reilly’s article Developmental variation and underground metal implies, defined constraints and limits that guide genres and the languages they speak do not themselves imply a prison for the mind or shackles for creativity, but rather a tool much like a sniper rifle’s scope to reach precise and far-off targets. Bands that build incoherent music out of disparate musical languages or fail to use their chosen language effectively and expect the listener to submit to the purely emotional shock of the music, or worse, listen to exuses and rationalizations to “explain” the art, have missed the point: context is meant to be referred to, much as we expect language to have consistent approximate meaning. To ignore that meaning is communicate with no one, whether in music or the written word.

Defenders of wallpaper music will react in a populist manner and say that all that matters is that one likes the music, and ask rhetorically and spuriously who is to judge music otherwise. To assume that art should have meaning is to judge one subjective experience over another, they say. Some might say that in that case, anything deemed to be wallpaper from a point of view might be seen as meaningful from another. While this may be theoretically true, in application it is the same as claiming that spewing random syllables cannot be labeled as gibberish since they may, in fact, mean something in some hypothetical human language. The next wallpaper apologist complaint here would consist of pointing out that while language has hard and precise meanings (which is actually, not entirely true), music appeals to general emotions and moods and so, if the work accused of being wallpaper achieves some sort of reaction in the listener that produces coherent thought, then it has “meaning”. But this, again, is just the same as the random syllables reminding anyone of something in his own language and thereby acquiring a meaning provided from the outside.

 

Return to Chalice of Blood Heilig, Heilig, Heilig

Just like Romantic-era critics with knowledgeable background and cultural familiarity with their genres allowed them to make criticisms not only of technical construction (outer traits) but also of character and sense (inner traits) of the classical music of their time, so is the educated metal critic who understands the objective nature and origins of metal endowed with the same capacity to dissect metal music.
A track by track approach to Chalic of Blood Heilig, Heilig, Heilig will illustrate the concept of wallpaper music and reveal its failing as a method of artistic communication.

We start off with “Hoor-Paar-Kraat”, which, if seen as a song or independent piece fails immediately as it consists of a chord progression in four bars in standard time signature played through 1:39 minutes with no variation besides different pick-up and ending percussion patterns, and a background guitar strumming the same chord progression in different ways (more sparsely here, more vehemently there). One is then tempted to see it as just an introduction, a sort of prelude to what is to come.

It is then that we face “Nightside Serpent” whose structure consists of an introductory or main riff followed by two distinct verse riffs. The riffs talk to each other convincingly in their contrast and similarity. They clash against each other in a way that makes one think of the classic of classics, “Transilvanian Hunger”. But while Darkthrone used as little as two riffs per song in that album to create whole sections with functions ranging from intro, to verse to a sort of ramp into meditative climax, only to bring us back to its initial aura, Chalice of Blood’s song is simply that: a main riff, a verse, a second verse. This is simply played two times and brought to an abrupt and meaningless end at the 3:19 minute mark. It is here that we start to suspect that the presumed introductory track may just be a taste of the incompleteness and vacuity of this music.

The third track goes by the title of “Shemot.” It can easily be divided in four parts. The pick-up measures are soft and consist of a strummed chord bent by a whammy bar which applies vibrato at the same time. Then the first of these parts is a Darkthrone-intense section with use of the raw energy of hard-picked tremolo and fast Immortal blast beats. This section dissipates into the second. The texture changes drastically into sparsely strummed chords and mid-paced double-bass drums to the beat of a snare in duple time. We then climb back to the intense texture shown in the second section as a way of climaxing that brings back the riding first riff to function as outro as well. This all happens in 3:18 minutes. The focus here is how much “atmospheric black metal” riffs can they use contrastingly to create shock. Other than that, there is little eloquence to this.

“The Communicants” is probably the most deplorable song in this album with the most obvious wallpaper thinking displayed. The whole song is built by repeating the same slow-moving chord progression of 8 measures from beginning to end. The only thing that signals different points in the piece are the drum patterns and the presence or absence of the vocals. This repeating chord progression is not used as one would see one of the German master composers create vast amounts of content through clever variations and chaconnes, but it literally consists of repeating the exact same music ad nauseam. Or ad 7:11 minutes, to be precise.

Finally, we reach the last inconsequential, empty track named “Transcend the Endless.” In here we are presented with 3:30 minutes worth of the same minimalist black metal approach sans substance.

Albums such as these remind us how little understood monuments such as Transilvanian Hunger really are. The greatness of the classic lies in the careful use of the least number of riffs in arrangements that together with voice and drums created complex structures with cleverly placed articulation points. The minimalism of Darkthrone’s masterpiece is only in how little tools and riffs they used. It is not a minimalism of complexity of thought or construction.

A blatantly simple music which expects emotional shock and some consistency in style to do all its work, Chalice of Blood Helig Helig Helig gives us almost twenty minutes of essentially nothing. Nothing except transient noise.

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