The Mythology of Death Metal

Death metal arose in the early 1980s, when the children of the post-WWII generation matured in the West (USA, Europe). These individuals grew up during an era when the capitalist/democratic West pitted itself against the communist/totalitarian Eurasian and Asian states, in the shadow of the second world war which established this division.

This was an era when the constant threat of nuclear conflict or invasion of Europe by the Soviet Union was perceived to be not only real but likely, a shade short of inevitable. The Baby Boomers, born 1944-1953, hoped for a prosperous future without the threat of Nazi Germany, but faced instead a “Cold War” in which six minutes of warning could announce total nuclear annihilation.

Most popular music took a populist approach and warned against the increasing conservative powers of the West, but death metal eschewed the political for the philosophical. It portrayed a world of death, disease, and occult torment hidden behind a smokescreen of technology, religion and politics. Its lyrics, dripping with references to horrible ways to die or decay, and frequently referencing Nietzschean concepts as well as a strong anti-Christian bias, referred to a side of life not seen in the media or political dialogue of the time.

To most, this was baffling — in a political, economic or social context, how does one understand “Only death is real”? It seemed a reminder that beneath all of our social constructs, containers of consensual reality, we were missing something. In this it was not entirely divorced from the post-Nietzschean fascination with deconstruction, exhibited in the literature of 1959-1976 as “postmodernism,” or a sense that our definition of the “real world” was illusory and leading us astray. Somehow, we had lost sight of the actual world — reality — and were living in a dream turning rapidly to a nightmare, as all illusions do when they confront reality. Reminders of mortality, of an occult religion where no morality of good/evil existed, and visions of decay rather than an abrupt apocalyptic end marked the lyrical and imagic differences between death metal and the speed metal, heavy metal and hardcore punk (ancestors contributed its hybrid genetic material) before it.

Where death metal was most influential however was its style of composition. Where rock bands put together a verse and chorus loop united by harmony, death metal borrowed from the classical, progressive rock and electronic music (the latter two genres being influenced by classical music most profoundly of mainstream styles) to create a synthesis between the theatrics of opera and the melodic phrasal composition of classical. This led to a “narrative” composition, or a journey through many riffs and motifs which changed the listener between start and finish; this contrasted rock and jazz, which in their simple loops with embellishments of improvisation crafted a single state of mind in which the precepts were fulfilled by the conclusion. Death metal, in this sense, was both structuralist or a study of how events connect as a whole, and Romanticist, in that it emphasized change in experience over solid assumptions.

Having learned from the speed metal and heavy metal and hardcore punk experiences, in which new genres rapidly became absorbed by the same groupthink they attempted to evade, death metal deliberately styled itself as unlistenable. Heavy, bassy distortion created an angry and violent sound, as did the intense rhythms and howling, hoarse, screaming, shouting, rasping vocals it utilized. This was outsider music, not another product to fit into a functional modern life as an aesthetic complement to expensive decor and an entertainment system.

When all of these traits are analyzed, it is clear what death metal brought as art to the West: the idea that our modern life was an illusion based on a shallowness similar to the categorical division of life into good and evil, right and wrong, us and them. We had lost sight of reality through these illusory divisions, and the result was an apocalyptic confrontation that threatened all life — and while most wanted to evade this realization, death metal wanted to reinforce reality instead.

Twenty years later, no radical changes in this outlook have occurred, although black metal formed to address (in part) the shift from conservative to liberal politics in the West in the 1990s. Death metal is as relevant as it was in the 1980s, with black metal as an added commentary. Its physical presence as a genre has been mostly assimilated by groupthinkers who want an “authentic, radical” perspective, but the original music remains.

To see its relevance as art, and a more intensely artistic form of underground genre is hard to find, it is important we turn to philosophy. Kant saw us as living in a time of “radical evil” when our mundane actions of survival constituted a great future downfall; T.S. Eliot, interpreting Nietzsche, saw the modern time as a triumph of the taste and judgment of the masses absorbing the better wisdom of actual thinkers. Death metal, with its allusions to hollow men (Entombed) and Nietzschean topics as well as its perception of a pervasive occult evil, explored and explained these ideas.

How does a death metal artist or fan think about the world? As a slow suicide. These individuals grew up in a time when masses of credulous voters and buyers could be swayed from trend to trend, and easily duped by political lies of the basest quality. Death metal saw this mass of undifferentiated people as the sustaining force of our public illusion, and injected a dose of grim reality to counter the tendency toward pleasant illusion denying actual dangers. Death metal is the revealing force of our modern dread as we are slowly dragged toward a grisly doom by a popular opinion that resentfully denies any who assert reality.

Interestingly, despite all that has been written about death metal, very few thinkers touch on these points. They are not popular. They are dangerous ideas, and difficult to prove because they are stated in metaphor. Much like death metal itself, they are outsider perspectives which will never be accepted by the crowd, which speaks both for their accuracy and urgency as the slow suicide continues.

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Sadistic Metal Review: Blliigghhtted – Into the Cunt of the Witch (2016)

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Article by Lance Viggiano.

Into the Cunt of the Witch is grainy fatalistic pap embellished with agonizing atonal voids where music should exist. When the haze clears just enough for a melody to become audible it possesses a character of passivity and reception but is always intensely grating in its pointlessness. The tired corpse of speed metal and heavy metal drags lethargically through chromatic sections that form the locus of this work. Lightly struck syncopated rhythms are relied too heavily upon and flatten into a sterile ticking that results in a pure time keeping effect not unlike a distraught prisoner tallying his cell wall; tracking his sentence until his song merely ends – a fair metaphor for the experience of this record. Individual songs are parts of four whole works and do not stand well on their own; ending abruptly without proper conclusions before jumping into the next section in a greater cycle. Vocals operate in two essential modes: an apathetic crooning within artificial caverns as well as a faux-distraught occult street preacher reminiscent of contemporary orthodox/occult black metal.

(more…)

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Romanticism in heavy metal

For over twenty years, this site and its predecessors have advanced the idea that heavy metal bears much in common thematically with the Romantic movement in literature, arts and music. Multiple parallels exist between what metal idealizes, and what the Romantics did.

Consider one of the better summaries of Romantic philosophy available:

Romanticism can be seen as a rejection of the precepts of order, calm, harmony, balance, idealization, and rationality that typified Classicism in general and late 18th-century Neoclassicism in particular. It was also to some extent a reaction against the Enlightenment and against 18th-century rationalism and physical materialism in general. Romanticism emphasized the individual, the subjective, the irrational, the imaginative, the personal, the spontaneous, the emotional, the visionary, and the transcendental.

Among the characteristic attitudes of Romanticism were the following: a deepened appreciation of the beauties of nature; a general exaltation of emotion over reason and of the senses over intellect; a turning in upon the self and a heightened examination of human personality and its moods and mental potentialities; a preoccupation with the genius, the hero, and the exceptional figure in general, and a focus on his passions and inner struggles; a new view of the artist as a supremely individual creator, whose creative spirit is more important than strict adherence to formal rules and traditional procedures; an emphasis upon imagination as a gateway to transcendent experience and spiritual truth; an obsessive interest in folk culture, national and ethnic cultural origins, and the medieval era; and a predilection for the exotic, the remote, the mysterious, the weird, the occult, the monstrous, the diseased, and even the satanic.

Let us put those attributes in simplified form:

  • Naturalism
  • Anti-rationalism
  • Introspection
  • Elitism
  • Anti-formalism
  • Transcendentalism
  • Nationalism
  • Occultism

At this point, the argument makes itself, because metal frequently exhibits all of these. Naturalism manifests itself along with introspection, or a reliance on the beast within over the reasoning that becomes external when codified. Anti-rationalism and anti-formalism become a similar crossover, with a distrust of justification, rules, laws, public morals and arbitrary versions of abstract theory. Elitism is apparent both in metal’s innate hierarchy, manifested in both its quest for the hardest and heaviest music possible, and the tiered layers of importance signaled through what band is on a metalhead’s t-shirt. Occultism has been with metal from its early days, both through the horror movie and religion-inspired metaphysical explorations of Black Sabbath and the creation of epic, Tolkien-style spiritual mythology from Slayer through black metal.

Finally, we come to nationalism, which proves a troubling subject because of the ghost of Adolf Hitler which seems to loom large over all modern endeavors. While the National Socialists were nationalists (nationalism + socialism = national socialism), they were not alone in this, nor was their interpretation universal. Most saw nationalism as a glorification of national culture and a reason to turn away foreigners and not genocide them, although the numerous black and death metal lyrics about mass killing and WWII confuse the issue. Clearly Slayer were not pro-Nazi as their pejorative lyrics to “Angel of Death” illustrate, and while much of black metal — Burzum, Darkthrone, Graveland, and Emperor among others — endorsed outright national socialism, most bands took a more traditional nationalist path through pride in their identity and by reflex action, the rejection of anything which would dilute it. As the multicultural states of the West roil themselves yet again with ethnic unrest, we have to wonder if the “middle path” of Immortal, Mayhem, Enslaved and Storm might not have been a better one.

Yet nationalism is only one part of the bigger picture, although an inseparable one. People who favor a surface reading of history tend to opine that nationalism only occurred with the Enlightenment, confusing the formation of nation-states with the existence of nations, which are in fact the opposite of nation-states. A nation-state defines itself politically; a nation, both ethnically and culturally. Where the Nazis believed they could define a nation via a state with an exclusive ethnic delineation — although they had no problem admitting those who were mixed, and consequently 150,000 soldiers of mixed-Jewish heritage fought for Hitler — the Romantic-era nationalists tended to be more like Elias Lönnrot in focusing on a positive method of unification by strengthening culture against the dual onslaught of the Enlightement and the Industrial Revolution. In black metal, the form of elitism known as misanthropy crosses over with this nationalism, which seems it could be summarized as preserving the best of an ethnic group and killing off the cultureless, valueless, soft-handed beta cuck city dwellers who litter the countryside when on vacation and do nothing of value in their cubicle jobs.

The important point about Romanticism as noted above is that it rejected the Enlightenment. That dogma held that the human being itself was the highest good; Romanticism held that specific human beings, denoted by their ability to have specific thought process and mental abilities, was the highest form. Where the Enlightenment mandated a mob, the Romanticists demanded a hierarchy of realists (introspection leads to “know thyself” and thus a better understanding of reality itself). This puts Romanticism in perpetual clash with the dominant paradigm of our time, even if it is also popular with silly people who want to pretend to be deep for a few years from high school until their second job. We might distinguish between actual Romanticism and theater department Romanticism, or even “#yolo Romanticism,” which comprises the latter category.

Where do we see Romanticism in metal? First and foremost, in topic: metal bands tend to visualize life as a conflict between a thoughtless herd and a few realists who bring the heavy reality. It also shows up in the lyrics frequently, although not as clearly as in Romantic poetry. But let us begin our exploration of Romanticism with one of those classics, albeit a very popular one:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.–Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.
– The World is Too Much With Us, William Wordsworth (1789)

From that we venture to a rather Romantic composition by Black Sabbath which seems out of place considering the stereotype of metal lyrics. Its poetic imagery is nearly pastoral, but still incorporates at least some of the rage of nature (“red sun” & cockerels cry”).

Red sun rising in the sky
Sleeping village, cockerels cry
Soft breeze blowing in the trees
Peace of mind, feel at ease
– Black Sabbath, “Sleeping Village,” Black Sabbath (1970)

Then, for a mixed Enlightenment/Romanticism approach, there is this rather defiant piece by Metallica which takes teenage resentment of incompetent adulthood and a one-size-fits-all egalitarian and utilitarian society and channels that anger into a statement of defiance based in the individual, but reasoning from objective problems with society at large:

Rape my mind and destroy my feelings
Don’t tell my what to do
I don’t care now, ’cause I’m on my side
And I can see through you
Feed my brain with your so called standards
Who says that I ain’t right
Break away from your common fashion
See through your blurry sight

Out of my own, out to be free
One with my mind, they just can’t see
No need to hear things that they say
Life is for my own to live my own way
– Metallica, “Escape,” Ride the Lightning (1984)

Slayer took this general approach and converted it into a mythology that was as much Christian — avoidance of Satan, and fascination with the mythos of The Fall — as it was occult, incorporating elements of both alongside some defiant egotism. In this piece, the individual declares himself the opposition of all that is approved of (symbolized by “God” and “lie”) and takes on a mystical, spectral and vengeful presence:

Screams and nightmares
Of a life I want
Can’t see living this lie no
A world I haunt
You’ve lost all control of my
Heart and soul
Satan holds my future
Watch it unfold

I am the Antichrist
It’s what I was meant to be
Your God left me behind
And set my soul to be free
– Slayer, “The Antichrist,” Show No Mercy (1983)

Perhaps the most evocative lyric to my mind, and recalling scenes from another southern writer, William Faulkner, the Texas thrash band Dirty Rotten Imbeciles (DRI) wrote this paean to resistance to modern society on the basis of its ugliness and numbness. Again, the utilitarian — a culmination of Enlightenment thought — shows itself to be the enemy of the individual, but the individual points to larger things of importance (nature, beauty) as the reason for his enmity:

They block out the landscape with giant signs
Covered with pretty girls and catchy lines
Put up fences and cement the ground
To dull my senses, keep the flowers down
– Dirty Rotten Imbeciles (D.R.I.), “Give My Taxes,” Dealing With It (1985)

Finally, we come to a more stylized statement of the Slayer/DRI approach, in which the individual has like Friedrich Nietzsche rejected the definition of “good” used by the dying civilization. Instead, he is the enemy of humankind for having “(mis)understood” “this romantic place.” The usage of “romantic” here clearly refers to Romantic, and not lowercase-r romantic as in the rather icky novels with Thomas Kinkade covers. Much like Zarathustra, this individual rejects love (“hateful”) and civilization itself (“savages”) with a form of evil that originates in nature versus human delusion. Its call to destroy the excess of society and replace it with woods evokes the elitism and misanthropy of black metal, in that it sees most humans as “talking monkeys with car keys” (Kam Lee, Massacre).

Hateful savages, strong black minds
Out of the forest, kill the human kind
Burn the settlements and grow the woods
Until this romantic place is understood!
– Absurd, “Green Heart,” Raubritter/Grimmige Volksmusik (2007)

Perhaps this subject will receive future study instead of the rather politically-inclined pieces about race and gender in metal, neither of which seem to matter to metalheads except at the level of the political. Men and women of all races and creeds happily mix at metal shows, completely disagreeing with each other but, because they see civilization as failed, realizing they are not defending a social order but maintaining their own separate ones. This Romantic view sees the modern state as a parasite and modern society as a corrupt bourgeois entity dedicated to its own pleasure and wealth at the expense of shared good things like woods and truth. With that outlook, almost every metalhead can agree at least.

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Satanic and Norse Black Metal: A Comparative Examination of Philosophy and Staying Power

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Trying to discern a coherent ideology or philosophy behind the Black Metal movement,even if we’re only considering bands from a specific time and location, is automatically something of a losing proposition. Each band has its own idiosyncrasies which often conflict with the principles of their peers; bands’ philosophical stances are often transmitted only through totally over-the-top, gonzo lyrics; and, in a lot of cases, the bands were just making shit up as they went along without really thinking through what they were espousing. That said, there are still themes, principles, and behaviors that are common to multiple artists within the genre, and it’s even possible to sketch out rough groupings from these shared characteristics. In this article, I’m going to explore one of the bigger divides stemming from the early Scandinavian black metal movement: Satanic black metal and Norse black metal. Based on the philosophies of these groups, I think it’s even possible to project the future trajectories of these genres as social movements.

One of the biggest philosophical distinctions in Black Metal is probably between Satanic Black Metal and Norse Black Metal. Here are the differences in really, really broad strokes:Satanic black metal developed first, and as time went on pagan themes were often incorporated into the work of Satanic Black Metal bands. The two schools ended up splitting, however; adherents of Norse |Black Metal (many of whom previously endorsed Satanic ideologies) openly disparaged Satanism as juvenile and went off to do their own thing. Satanic Black Metal musicians, to whom Black Metal was defined entirely by its devotion to Satan, viewed the bands singing about Vikings and Odin as heretics or traitors. In this article, I’ll first discuss Norse Black Metal and its prospects as a genre before moving onto Satanic Black Metal, which, I think, has a more fruitful future ahead of it.

Norse Black Metal (hence, N.B.M.) musicians profess a devotion to the mythology of the Germanic tribes who inhabited northern Europe during the first millennium CE. Like Satanic Black Metal, N.B.M. is hostile to the Abrahamic religions, especially Christianity, which it considers an oppressive, invasive religion. N.B.M. musicians frequently lament the mass conversion of northern Europe to Christianity from roughly 800-1200 CE, and the destruction of pagan communities, art, and ways of life that this demographic shift brought with it. N.B.M.’s adherents see themselves as the only ones in their society who haven’t been brainwashed into giving up their true cultural heritage, and they fight to try to restore the old ways and kick the foreign religions out. Varg Vikernes, the musician behind Burzum and the murderer of , is a prolific author on the subject and is probably the single most prominent figure in both the musical movement and the related pan-European political arm, The Heathen Front.

N.B.M. musicians, strongly influenced by the unabashedly racist (or “racialist,” as he tends to call himself) Vikernes, often draw the lines between enemy and friend among ethnic and nationalist lines, which tends to make the genre insular, exclusive, and marginal. Ultimately, this is its greatest weakness: no matter how magnificent its music is (and don’t get me wrong, there is some great N.B.M. music out there), the N.B.M. ethos is perpetually preaching to the choir. By rooting its philosophy and social organization so deeply in considerations of ethnic and national divisions, rather than opening it to any like-minded individuals, N.B.M. has set a hard cap on its spread and influence within the wider global culture.

If you’re not a “Nordic, heterosexual [with] a Pagan ideology,” N.B.M. doesn’t really have much to offer you beyond the actual aesthetics of the music (and, to be fair, Vikernes has usually kept his political stances out of Burzum’s music; as he says, there isn’t anything in the music itself that would stop a “a Christian-born black gay feminist converted to Judaism… or worse; a Muslim” from enjoying one of his records, that certainly doesn’t apply to all N.B.M. bands). In terms of the philosophy espoused by N.B.M. musicians, if you’re not down with thinly-veiled racist and nationalist positions, you’ll probably not be able to stomach much N.B.M. rhetoric.

For this reason, it’s unlikely that N.B.M. will continue to grow much outside of its target demographic in northern Europe. Even the recent upswing of nationalist, xenophobic sentiment in Europe holds relatively little promise for N.B.M., given its radical opposition to the Christian values that most conservative European nationalists hold near and dear. Without a radical reorientation of N.B.M.’s priorities and inclusivity, it’s likely the genre will continue to grow more and more isolated and radical until it collapses into irrelevance.

Satanic Black Metal (“S.B.M.” or “Orthodox Black Metal,” as it’s sometimes been called) has, I think, a much more interesting future ahead of it. Drawing from the occult aesthetics of first-wave black metal bands like Venom, Bathory, Celtic Frost, and King Diamond, S.B.M. coalesced in Norway in the late 80’s, employing over-the-top, almost absurdly self-serious devotion to Satan and evil for evil’s sake. The Oslo-based S.B.M. band Mayhem is arguably most directly responsible for the rise of the movement, with founding member Øystein “Euronymous” Aarseth and vocalist Per “Dead” Ohlin initially crystallizing the movement’s philosophy and aesthetics, respectively.

Euronymous was more or less solely responsible for developing the misanthropic, elitist, self-consciously ‘evil’ streak that came to characterize this genre. He saw himself as the de facto leader of the entire Norwegian black metal movement, and he established a record store, Helvete, and a record label, Deathlike Silence, around which much of the early Scandinavian scene revolved. Aarseth embraced the Euronymous persona, sporting a full-on Fu Manchu style mustache and portraying himself as some sort of snooty, mysterious, Satanic noble who determined who was and wasn’t “true” black metal.

Whereas first wave black metal bands could often be vaguely tongue-in-cheek in their invocations of Satanism, S.B.M. was apparently deadly earnest; Euronymous served as a kind of whip for the Scandinavian scene, enforcing strict self-seriousness upon the genre. A second-wave black metal musician could never break character, or they would be immediately branded as posers chasing the Black Metal trend and ostracized. Helvete’s status as a genre mecca afforded Euronymous a mechanism for creating an in- and out-group, thereby allowing him to enforce a certain amount of ideological orthodoxy within the early Black Metal scene.

While this level of loose ideological control was possible, it’s still hard to discuss the early S.B.M. bands’ actual ideologies, because most of their “philosophy” was essentially performative. A lot of what the musicians ended up saying in interviews was ad-libbed to further develop the reputation (and ultimately the myth) of the black metal scene. Whatever seemed “extreme” or “brutal” was adopted, which included everything from Dead’s self-mutilation during sets to mounting impaled pigs’ heads on stage to burning down historic medieval churches (it’s worth noting that Vikernes, who was Mayhem’s bassist at the time, is widely considered to be responsible for kicking off Black Metal’s arson campaign). The bands reveled in media attention and they wanted to portray themselves as mysterious, dangerous figures. As such, they were willing to say whatever seemed most likely to give that impression and keep them in the spotlight. Much of what was said in interviews was said primarily for shock value, with little or no belief behind it, and some things which were initially stated for shock value later became dogma.

To put it crassly, the individuals creating this music were kids cobbling shit together as they went along. I don’t say that to disparage their work (in fact, as a Satanist myself, I’ve been prompted to confront many interesting ideas through their music and actions), but rather to stress that any discussion of these bands’ ideas necessarily entails a certain amount of piecing together half-formed, sometimes contradictory ideas. There’s no authoritative Satanic Black Metal manifesto out to neatly enumerate the core tenets and principles of the genre. In fact, there isn’t even a canon of philosophical remarks; it falls to fans to extract, interpret, and build on the incomplete, scattered ideas found in S.B.M. works.

As for what I personally find compelling in Orthodox Black Metal philosophy, I think its emphasis on dogged, uncompromising contrarianism is underappreciated. Norway in the 80s and 90s was an incredibly socially homogenous society, and the Scandinavian Black Metal movement grew in opposition to that fact. It starkly inverted the values and moral beliefs of society, forging a bizarre, counter-intuitive way of life: whatever society has deemed “evil” was to be pursued by Black Metal musicians as the highest good. It wasn’t hedonism or objectivism or any sort of LaVeyan bullshit like that; it was literally evil for evil’s sake.

Considering the ubiquity of Abrahamic religion in the western world, Satan is a natural figurehead for such a movement. If society’s very concepts of good and evil are largely derived from Christian morality, embracing “evil” doesn’t necessarily entail immoral behavior, but rather a rejection of the moral codes imposed by conventional social and religious authority. This type of Satanism is radically individualist, and it encourages idiosyncratic moral reasoning, non-conformity, and rejection of blind deference to authority. If you strip away all of the incendiary shock tactics and cheap nihilism of the early Norwegian movement, this is, I think, the most potent philosophical strand conveyed through it.

It is, I think, largely due to this egalitarian, individualist tendency that S.B.M. has been proliferating in recent years. As education improves world-wide and individuals become more and more secularly oriented, this brand of Satanism becomes more attractive to a wider segment of the population, who have been frustrated and stymied by outdated, authoritarian religious sentiment. Satanism can serve as a unifying banner dedicated to checking the role of traditional religions in society and politics. The Satanic Temple, for instance, has organized numerous campaigns in the United States in recent years to promote progressive political action and minimize the religious right’s ability to legislate morality. Its lobbying efforts and lawsuits have helped stop attacks on women’s reproductive rights, efforts to sneak religion into public schools, and restrictions on same-sex marriage. Because they are defined in opposition to the strict, authoritarian morality of the Abrahamic religions which still plays an undue role in political and social affairs in nominally secular countries, Satanic movements like these are increasingly becoming attractive means of political and ideological organization, especially for those most directly affected by religion’s influence.

This streak of Satanic thought is not exclusive to secular, western society, though; in fact, it holds the most promise in less permissive, more theocratic countries. In recent years a small but growing number of musicians in the Middle East have begun to play Black Metal as a means of expressing individual freedom and attacking the oppressive religious society around them. Three years ago, a woman-fronted black metal band called Janaza, purportedly from Iraq, made news across the web for its track, “Burn The Pages of Quran.” While doubts about Janaza’s authenticity have surfaced, there are plenty of real Black Metal bands in strongly Islamic countries, and the principle behind them is still compelling: Islam is an Abrahamic religion closely related to Christianity, and in Middle-Eastern countries it plays an even greater social and political role than Christianity does in the west. It’s natural, then, for dissidents in these societies to employ Black Metal to oppose the repressive religious tendencies of their society in the same way, albeit with much higher stakes, given that members of these bands could face the death penalty for blasphemy if their identities were ever discovered. In an interview with Vice, Mephisto of the Saudi Arabian black metal band Al-Namrood (“Non-Believer”), expressed the appeal of black metal in predominantly Islamic countries:

Christianity nowadays is passive. The church doesn’t control the country. I think whatever rage that people have got against the church cannot be compared with Islamic regimes. You can criticize the church under freedom of speech in European countries, but you can’t do that in Middle Eastern countries. The system doesn’t allow it. Islam has inflicted more authority on the Middle East than any other place in the world. Every policy has to be aligned with sharia law, and this is happening right now in 2015. We know that, 400 years ago, brutality occurred in the name of the church, but the same is happening right now in this age with Islam.

Recent events like the Arab Spring have shown that there is a growing population in traditionally Islamic societies that wants to catch up with the rest of the world’s secularism and individual freedom. Since conventional means of dissidence are outlawed, Satanic Black Metal, as a marginal, outsider movement itself, seems to be the perfect outlet for this dissatisfaction. In fact, I wouldn’t be very surprised (or dissatisfied, for that matter) to read about a series of ultra-conservative mosque burnings in the near future. Whether it’s against conservative Christianity or radical Islam, free-thinking individualists worldwide can unite under the banner of Satanic Black Metal to work for a world free of theocracy and religious authoritarianism.

All in all, it’s an exciting time for Black Metal. With the rise of online distribution and music sharing, it’s never been easier to disseminate new albums and spread niche genres like Black Metal across the globe. While I don’t think Norse Black Metal is going to have much enduring appeal without opening itself up to the rest of the world, the Satanic Black Metal movement seems to be waxing, and I’m excited to see what comes out of it, both musically and socially.

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The Best Underground Metal of 2014

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William Burroughs often wrote about the “edge,” or the liminal threshold between states. The last real edge year for underground metal was 2009 when strong contenders and new voices united to defend extreme metal against the onslaught of imitators making Potemkin village metal from hipster flair and lite-jazz fireworks but underneath it, nothing but disorganized songwriting and an absence of something to express. As the underground has come back with a vengeance, it has begun to displace the imitators because their music simply does not measure up. This has created a backlash as the hipsters defend their territory with guilt, ostentation, pretense and surface-level novelty. On the other hand, the underground has produced some strong contenders. And so we move forward through the past to the future, remembering that what is true is eternal, and trends, novelties, fads, hipsters and other transient moments pass quickly away…

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Blaspherian – Demos (Compilation of Death)

Compilation of Death Records has re-issued the a classic demo and rehearsal from a band of recent vintage but oldschool origins, Blaspherian. Their thunderous death metal sounds like Incantation and Obituary covering Deicide but has a voice of its own and unique perspective. It also carries forward the old school sensibility of building intensity and contrast in a morbid mood that is not self-echoing and redundant. Songwriter Wes Weaver (Imprecation, Infernal Dominion) avoids solos and other adornments to focus on tunneling riffs that are distinctive and create interplay with others in each song to give every song a unique feel within the lexicon of symbol and emotion that death metal addresses. Like the bands that inspire it, Blaspherian aims to create an immersive atmosphere of doom and morbidity in which it can bring forth other emotions in layers, such that the “mixed emotions” feel common to much music is not something achieved at the peak of a song, but is a constant in which the emotions mixed vary like a texture, revealing new combinations under the shifting striations of darkness.

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Blood Urn – …of Gory Sorcery and Death (Terrorghoul)

Death metal of the classic style fascinates this young band who write music much like the early years of death metal but with more of an emphasis on melodic bridging material, avoiding the pitfall of using melody as essentially a production technique and instead causing it to highlight songs that come alive with a ferment of conflicting riffs. Vocals use the old-school method of shadowing riffs and the salad of phrases itself fits together and creates a deepening mood. While on the heavier and slower side of death metal, this demo is varied enough to touch on all areas of the genre, assembling rich textures as a means to develop depth to the emotions in each part of the song. Unlike many newer bands, Blood Urn decided not to follow a single identifiable influence but instead sound like a study of European and American death metal rendered by someone approaching it with a fresh vision.

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Cenotaph – Riding Our Black Oceans (Chaos, re-issue)

A re-issue of this album restores it to its rightful place in the death metal canon. After the immensely powerful Gloomy Reflections of Our Hidden Sorrows, the thunderous Mexican death metal band Cenotaph changed their style to an airier and more intense high-speed melodic death metal sound. Unlike contemporary “melodic death metal” this style embraced the vigor of death metal by expressing it through sequences of tones that added melody without obscuring structure and darker moods, and Cenotaph displayed its customary acumen for songwriting by keeping each track centered around an idea that came forth not only in the whole but in the shape of its riffs. In the years following Sentenced North From Here and At the Gates The Red in the Sky is Ours, many bands attempted this newer style but few made it as vicious and uncompromising as Cenotaph.

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Conquering Dystopia – Conquering Dystopia

Conquering Dystopia creates instrumental mental that hybridizes death metal styles with progressive heavy metal and some of the newer progressive styles like that of At War With Self. The result often sounds a lot like Joe Satriani’s older works in that clear theme is expressed and highly repeated, but varied with other instrumental detours which strengthen it as the song progresses and all the pieces fit together more an in interrupted linear way than the geometries of pure death metal. While this is like most commercial rock indulgently emotional, the underlying music is good and the technique interesting without leaving service to what each song needs, which keeps it not only topical but interesting.

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Dead Congregation – Promulgation of the Fall (Martyrdoom)

Although this band gets mentioned as the foremost in the “Incantclone” series of bands inspired by streaming columnar detuned tremolo underground metal in the style of Incantation, Demoncy and Havohej, Dead Congregation draws influence as well from the subtler structuring of older Immolation in its use of melody to underscore is otherwise a thunderous series of chromatic rhythm riffs needing a center. Although songs vary in completeness throughout the album, generally these storming high-intensity dirges fit together well and produce an encompassing atmosphere which both crushes and awes the listener. If anything, this band could let up on the classic technique and float more of their own aesthetic ideas now that they are established.

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Demilich – 20th Adversary of Emptiness (Svart, re-issue)

Back when death metal was viewed by just about everyone as an incompetent genre of malcontent losers who would go nowhere and who were complaining about our new consumer+hippie paradise, a few bands emerged who saw the emerging genre not as a style but as an artistic voice with unlimited possibilities. One of these, Finland’s Demilich, created an album so circuitous and bizarre that the metal press basically dropped it and ran in fear, as did many fans. For those who discovered it however, Nespithe presented unlimited potential as to how death metal could adopt technicality and yet not be mastered by it and forced into the type of generic jazz-blues-rock theory that served to actually limit what musicians could conceive of and execute. With its twisted passages and seemingly erratic rhythms, Nespithe resembled a strange machine risen from the bowels of earth to conquer humankind. Instead, it inspired generations of fans and musicians to visualize death metal as a broader language than many wanted it to be. This re-issue pairs up older works with a handful of newer songs to make for a complete experience of this distinct voice and its concept.

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Desecresy – Chasmic Transcendence (Xtreem)

Desecresy combine Swedish death metal, doom-death metal and atmospheric influences from black metal to create towerlike scenes of dark moods in collision. With Chasmic Transcendence, the band update the formula with more easily separable rhythms to riffs and use of melodic transitions to intensify the building sense of doom. It builds grinding tension and discharges it in lengthy melodic passages which expand beyond their origins into new landscapes. Add to this a tendency to use lead melodic rhythm guitars over its power chord riffs and this makes for a haunting listen that resembles a descent into the underworld. With this third album, the band shows not only its staying power but the depths of the well of its creativity in not just re-inventing older styles but finding a new combination of them and using that to express a perspective which elaborates upon the basics of the genre and gives them new elegance and power.

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Enthroned – Sovereigns (Agonia)

Famed for their high-speed melodic black metal, Enthroned take the populist approach of middle-period Dimmu Borgir — before it went into its final stage as warmed-over hard rock — and craft it with greater urgency and the instrumental approach of older black metal. The result more resembles the later Bathory albums where heavy metal, proto-black metal and post-Slayer death metal influences merged to create a potent ferment. Sovereigns does not achieve the vast contrasts and epic sense of loss of earlier black metal, but upholds a battle-spirit and pushes it into song with strong melodies that do not lapse into the cloying saccharine world of “feelings” — personal observations based on personal perspective — but instead appeal to emotions, or the shared sense of importance and value to certain things which might be eternal. This album breaks up the formula slightly with slower songs as the album expands, in the style of Hypocrisy Penetralia.

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Entrench – Violent Procreation (War Anthem)

Following in the steps of Merciless, who could be seen as the stylistic ancestor of this band, Entrench craft speed/death metal with melodic underpinnings and a frantic but strident voice which guides riffs much in the way Dio narrated his own songs. To the Merciless formula of adroit ripping riffs concluding in both ambiguity and alignment, Entrench adds a Kreator style of finality to both vocal and guitar phrase, making these songs less emotional but more solidly violent. While speed/death hybridization usually ends badly, here the essence is speed metal riffs played as if by a death metal band in the context of a rhythm more like that of death metal. The result is satisfyingly impact-oriented but for it to take the next step to where Merciless is, it will have to coordinate its melodies and cultivate ambiguity both for it to resolve and preserve to keep the dark sensation produced by the riff-style of death metal, minor key melodies and mentalities outside those of the herd.

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Heresiarch – Wælwulf (EP, Dark Descent)

Attempting to forge a niche for itself in the Incantation/Blasphemy inspired style that has become a de facto underground currency during the past few years, Heresiarch create a muddier and more obscure version of their previous works, focusing less on tunneling riffs and more on simple two-chord riffs introducing songs that expand to greater degrees of structure with the slightest hints of melody. The band, in hoping to take war metal to the next dimension, probably consider their work to be unstudied and arising on impulse, but these songs show a clear pattern of development from the grinding to the structural and as a result, take the listeners with them on a journey of finding beauty in darkness and coherence in chaos. The violent slamming intensity remains but by lessening its consistency the band achieves a greater sense of contrast, like raising a sacred object higher above the marble floor to ensure that when it shatters the pieces are irreducible.

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Kever – Eon of Cycling Death (Dark Descent)

Perhaps one of the most inspiring releases this year, Eon of Cycling Death wears its old school influences in Suffocation and Morbid Angel on its sleeve but without imitating them in pale imprint of their technique without understanding their essence. Instead this band forges on with a kind of fantasy death metal that shows them living an alternative and parallel timeline to these bands, developing the basics they innovated with a voice specific to these individuals regardless of what time they are born into. Percussive riffs give way to an ensemble of death metal styles united by rhythm and space which convincingly outline the ideas of each song and then give them depth through internal dialogue. On top of it, an abrupt and croaking vocal gives new life to a very familiar technique with its guttural but carefully sculpted sonic enunciation.

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Massacra – Enjoy the Violence (Century Media, re-issue)

One of the great classics of death metal, long passed-over for more dramatic acts, gained new life with this re-issue. Massacra created their early music in the style which stretches from Slayer through Morbid Angel and emphasizes fast strumming of rapidly-colliding riffs which emphasize ambiguity and openness over the kind of certainty that works well with more percussive styles. Enjoy the Violence is like a rollercoaster between extremes where all things lead back to the same point, but the experience is changing enough that it is almost unrecognizable as the same. With the remaster, some of the weaker sound from the earlier recording is corrected and bonus tracks are added, giving new life to this under-recognized classic of the genre that was more highly influential among musicians than fans, and took on new life in the bands it influenced.

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Massacra – Final Holocaust (Century Media, re-issue)

This foundational album of death metal by Massacra has been re-issued by Century Media with bonus tracks and a booklet rich in information. That provides a good introduction to this view of the death metal style, which instead of attempting to be “heavy” aimed for shock and awe with fast riffs and convoluted songs that somehow emerged into an almost peaceful calm after chaos and combat. Massacra derive their strength from the ability to write fast-fingered riffs that capture the thrill and terror of being alive into a single moment and use this to make basic clashes within life into a mythology of trying to conquer empty spaces with the will and sensibility of a warrior wandering a dystopian wasteland. While this album was forgotten in the day mostly due to its mids-heavy (in contrast to bass-heavy) production and relative availability through distribution contracts more circuitous than its riffs, it rides again in new form.

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Massacra – Day of the Massacra (Century Media)

Century Media compiled several early Massacra demos into a single disc, paired it with extensive liner notes and pictures, and remastered everything for an insight into the rise of the Massacra sound while it was recognizable as what would emerge on the first two and most influential Massacra albums. These recordings show the band merging its early influences into a style and then finding its own voice within that beast, allowing it to compose distinctive and evocative songs immediately including several pre-album tracks with some duct tape still visible. While this might appeal most to Massacra maniacs, it also serves as a useful introduction to new fans who may appreciate the heavier production and more aggressive primitive approach here as a means of transitioning to the albums that follow, which focused not so much on slamming impact as a kind of sky architecture of riffery.

CD Booklet

Nausea – Condemned to the System (Willowtip)

Straddling the line between grindcore, crust and old-fashioned hardcore — which are inches apart as it is — Nausea return with this recording of older and newer tracks alike. Carefully pared down to incorporate only necessary elements and keep energy high, Condemned to the System demonstrates the simpler style of punk composition with all of the riff power of early grindcore, including several tracks (and pieces thereof) that later made it to the first Terrorizer album, World Downfall. The listener who can forget that heritage however will discover merely a crushing, efficient and streamlined album of enjoyable but hard-hitting punkish music that will not win awards for extremity or technicality, but shows care applied to songwriting so that a listener does not feel lost in a sea of riffs or drone, but can isolate each song in the mind and appreciate its individual attack.

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Nunslaughter – Angelic Dread (Hells Headbangers)

While some may be tempted to categorize Nunslaughter as dinosaurs, the fact remains that this band takes the raw ingredients of power metal, speed metal and most death metal and makes a stripped-down, hardcore-punk style ripping version of this that remains highly listenable even if not particularly distinguishable on a song-to-song basis. Like other collections of many short songs, such as Dead Infection or Carcass, Angelic Dread operates like many small insights into roughly the same idea. Somehow, what this band creates never gets old, in part because they understand their riffs as a language from the same basic source, and in part because like a thrash band their song format carefully fits the particular clash of the two riffs (with a few budget transitions, and sometimes rhythmic variations, Nunslaughter uses two riffs per song on average) and the need of presenting them in the best light. The result is compelling and enjoyable and upholds the best tradition of riffcraft and expressive violence in underground music.

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Oppression – Sociopathie & Gloire (Preposterous Creations)

Merging Oi!-style punk with some enhancements from black metal, tracks are short (2-3 minute) affairs. Melodies are catchy, yet wistful lines grounded in simple guitar and bass riffs, with vocal alternating between manic shrieks and an idiosyncratic, youthful attempt at melodic singing. Using the more linear style composition of punk, as opposed to the riff-stacking song construction used by much of black metal, each song contributes a sense of motion that builds the album up over successive tracks. Production values are what one would expect for this style of music; clear enough to make out each instrument, but raw enough to preserve low-budget ethos. This is a release that is not attempting to invent a new genre, but rather one which seeks to renew genres that had collapsed under their own entropy. The strange aesthetics may be off-putting to some, but if those can be sublimated into the spirit of this album, a refreshingly honest work will open itself for enjoyment.

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Personal Device – Microorganismos del Mal

First there was the faux 80s crossover thrash revival with party retro-thrash bands like Toxic Holocaust and Municipal Waste, then bands like Birth A.D. bounced back with actual thrash and reformed the genre. Now Personal Device take it a step both further and in a different direction by being a classic hardcore band that informs itself with early speed metal like the first Metallica and Nuclear Assault albums. The result is bouncy fast and precise punk like Ratos de Porao or even middle-period Bad Brains that is thoroughly enjoyable with riff breaks that resemble “The Four Horsemen” or maybe even “Live, Suffer, Die.” Their guitars are remarkably precise which creates an unusual sound for punk that by making it mechanistic makes it seem more inexorable than like protest music, and the result is a more testosterone-fueled and warlike approach. Mix that with the surging chord changes of speed metal and the fast repetitive chanted choruses from thrash, and you have a high-energy band. Its flaws are that experienced listeners may find this a bit too transparent, and that many of its rhythms are similar, but the band has administered its style with an editor’s red pen handy, cutting out any lesser parts, which gives it more staying power than all but a few albums in this stylistic range.

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Ripper – Raising the Corpse (Underground Defenders)

Much like Merciless, Ripper know to invoke a melodic hook with a rhythmic hook and gradually bring a song into unity, at which point they hammer home the infectious chorus until the audience is ready to carve it into their own flesh. While some may point out that little new occurs here stylistically, and many of these riff forms can be traced back to Slayer or Destruction, what Ripper does well is keep this music high-intensity without falling into sameness and to streamline into an effective delivery mechanism that outgrows the confused collision of styles that was the mid to late 1980s. This approach fits within the early speed metal model that formed the basis of great hook-laden German bands like Destruction and Sodom, and this tradition continues with Ripper. Where Ripper succeeds is in removing extraneous material and cutting to the core of its music, eliminating some of the distraction and randomness that blighted later work from the German bands.

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Sorcier Des Glaces – Ritual Of The End (Obscure Abhorrence)

Flowing dark melodic forest black metal band Sorcier des Glaces burst onto the scene as any appreciation for this style of Graveland and Immortal influenced black metal fully waned as the initial loss of momentum in the genre caught up with its inertia. Since that time, the band has continued its path of making naturalistic long-melody black metal with the distinctive wandering tempo and phrasal development that many of the French bands also explored. With Ritual of the End, Sorcier des Glaces present their vision in a more focused style that nonetheless preserves the inconclusive nature of their earlier music, becoming like a vision of the woods at twilight equal parts promise and ambiguity, revealing the continuous nature of life through its inability to achieve finite endpoints. When metal mistakenly went toward faster/more extreme variants of the past, it lost the majestic beauty which inspired imagination as well as aggression, and Sorcier des Glaces return it.

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Varathron – Untrodden Corridors Of Hades (Agonia)

One of the original Greek black metal bands, Varathron returns with higher speed and more dominant melody in a style that approximates what Borknagar and other later black metal bands tried to do, with some nods to music since but fundamentally a sensibility closer to Rotting Christ Thy Mighty Contract. Keeping energy high with frequent changes but return to theme and focus on a melody or progression at the heart of each song, Varathron expand their repertoie and craft an album that speaks enough of a contemporary language to dominate that style with the vocabulary of the older era, invoking both a return to and a continuation of the past. While the influence of the present time makes itself known, it remains under control of the guiding forces behind this band that seek to open the imagination instead of gratify self-image, and as a result more possibility emerges here than in other contemporary works.

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Witchblood – Hail to Lyderhorn (Aurora Australis)

Attempting to uphold the values of classic black metal while introducing to them some of the more recent developments in tradfolk-inspired music, Witchblood combines the catchy attack of Venom with riff technique from mid-90s black metal and adds its own voice, which consists of equal part narrative bardic style and an idiosyncratic ability to make memory-haunting tunes. The result features a range of techniques from the history of metal, including NWOBHM-inspired riffing right alongside streaming tremolo picked melodic riffs, but this band makes it work by keeping focus on an essential melody in each song paired to a vocal rhythm designed to deliver a foot-tapping chorus, as bands like Sodom or Destruction did years ago. The result takes the Venom school of metal, upgrades it with black metal, and restores it to a 1980s delivery that is both clear and dark and then infuses that with the type of ancestral identity and epic sensation of purpose that arises from folk music. Through this, Witchblood creates its own form of metal that shows clear roots in much older traditions.

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Woodtemple – Forgotten Pride (Sacrilege)

Showing more of an influence from Following the Voice of Blood era Graveland, Woodtemple return with a more focused version of their flowing black metal. In the past, the music more resembled flowing hills in a landscape of vast breadth, but now greater internal contrast makes what is portrayed closer to a mountain range with ragged crags over deep valleys. The addition of floating female vocals and gentle keyboards allow the band to put more aggression into guitars and bass, keeping vocals semi-backgrounded which produces the effect of reducing the “human” feel to the music. As a result, songs come together with more focus, making this the clearest statement from Woodtemple yet made. Like most metal in this style, Forgotten Pride creates an effect of distance from the human world, isolation and a focus on the larger picture through a lens of large leaps in time, but now creates another hypnotic effect in a distancing from humanity itself. This band, while not a Graveland side project, features Graveland composer Rob Darken on bass.

Album of the Year 2014

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Sammath – Godless Arrogance (Hammerheart)

Godless Arrogance features nearly constant high-intensity rhythmic riffing and finally has a production to match which emphasizes internal harmony but projects vocals and guitars to the forefront, creating an enveloping wall of sound. Drumming is violent martial battery without the happy kickbeat tendencies of overly rock-trained drummer; percussion here is more like punk, hard-driving intensity to channel the guitars, which alternate between abrupt chromatic confrontation in the Demoncy style to gentle unfolding melodies much like were found on Strijd. Bass folds into the guitar, and vocals are the high-volume bluster that reduces distorted vocals to a sound like a whisper spoken close to a microphone in high wind. The result is incessant and unrelenting but also has an inner life of melody that gives it depth and allows it to manipulate riff context like a death metal band while evoking ambient atmosphere in the best tradition of black metal. For resurrecting the black metal spirit of great beauty hidden within massive aggression and alienation, Godless Arrogance deserves to be seen as the best album of 2014.

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Call for submissions to Folk-Metal: Critical Essays on Identity, Myth and Culture

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A forthcoming journal on folk-metal, mostly in the pagan metal and viking metal sub-genres, requests that those with essays on the topic submit them for publication next year. The journal focuses on metal bands who use traditional musical instruments, lyrical references to customs and mythology, allusions to traditional culture, or displaying of cultural imagery in performer attire and artwork.

Folk-metal refers to the style of music that arose in the 1990s in Europe which consisted of “fusing traditional or folk music with heavy metal music forms.” The journal lists a number of bands from the power metal, black metal and death metal genres who qualify under this style:

Skyclad (England), Cruachan (Ireland), Finntroll (Finland), Skyforger (Latvia), Amon Amarth (Sweden), Amorphis (Finland), Falkenbach (Germany), Waylander (Ireland), Svartsot (Denmark), Metsatöll (Estonia), Empyrium (Germany), Mägo de Oz (Spain), Silent Stream of Godless Elegy (Czech Republic), Korpiklaani (Finland), Mael Mórdha (Ireland), Alkonost (Russia), Balkandji (Bulgaria), Dalriada (Hungary), Lumsk (Norway), Týr (Faroe Islands), Ensiferum (Finland), Celtachor (Ireland), Eluveitie (Switzerland), Elvenking (Italy), Primordial (Ireland).

Interested writers must submit a 300-word abstract and short biography of 50-100 words to to the editor, Dr Jenny Butler at j.butler@ucc.ie and cc. to butler.Jennifer@gmail.com by November 10, 2014. The final essays must be 4,000-7,000 words and will be due by June 1, 2015.

The journal suggests the following themes as a topical starting point:

  • Folklore, song lyrics, and cultural identity
  • Neo-pagan worldview of the bands
  • History of the genre, participants and events
  • Indigenous religion and mythology
  • Political and/or nationalistic agendas
  • The concept of homeland
  • The representation of deities and mythological beings in songs
  • Heroic elements
  • Fantasy literature
  • Nature, landscape and sacred sites
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5 albums that invented underground metal

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Before there were names for styles like death metal and black metal, and before anyone beyond a handful of people knew of these genres, pioneers created the groundwork for both genres and influences on several others. They had little at their disposal besides primitive recording and photocopied zines, but somehow these founders established the basis of new styles.

The media eventually adopted the term “extreme metal” but originally this music went by the appellation “underground metal” because you could not find it in stores, magazines, on TV or in academia. Eventually the genres within underground metal gained recognition and you could find them in record stores starting in 1997 when the distribution model changed.

But years before that the groundwork was laid by a few dissident artists. Let us look at the albums that set up the groundwork for both styles of underground metal, death metal and black metal:

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1. Discharge – Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing

By the time Discharge emerged, punk and metal both had large followings. Discharge birthed itself from within the movement called “hardcore punk” that assembled itself when punk fans felt like their music had been co-opted by the very radio industry it hoped to alienate. Hardcore punk bands lived in squats, recorded with whatever was handy, and promoted themselves with zines and 45 RPM singles (the origin of today’s 7″ records). They made their music deliberately abrasive and their themes beyond anarchistic into pure nihilism and rejection of all social thinking so that radio could not co-opt them. For the most part, they were successful, but then the genre became inundated with imitators who saw the simplicity of the music and the power of the social scene and entered for their own purposes, like marketers and advertisers would do years later. Discharge struck back with the ultimate anti-rock album. Drums did not coordinate with guitars, instead keeping time while streams of power chords flowed over them and changed at will. Vocals repeated short cryptic koans that entirely rejected the idea of society itself. Taking a cue from Motorhead, Discharge also added organic distortion to the vocals, creating a sound like an unearthly howl from a place collapsing into hell. Released in 1982, Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing launched a wave of others who used these techniques, including all of underground metal.

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2. Hellhammer – Apocalyptic Raids

In sunny, peaceful and socially engineered to perfection Switzerland, discontent arose with this occult and anti-social release. Turning up the intensity on distorted vocals, drawing influence from both Venom and Motorhead, Hellhammer wrote slower riffs than Discharge but added in the sense of dark finality that bands like Black Sabbath successfully captured a decade before. In addition, Hellhammer contributed a style of songwriting that probably derived from progressive rock records, who themselves borrowed it from classical: song structure followed the content of the song and not a standard song format. This caused the band to spend a great deal of energy matching up riffs so that they “talked” to one another with a type of internal dialogue. Heard best on the epic 9-minute “Triumph of Death,” this technique allowed Hellhammer to fuse the alienation of punk with the dramatic theological imagery of Black Sabbath into a mini-Wagnerian opus. These techniques came to live on in radically different forms in both the rising death metal and black metal genres.

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3. Bathory – The Return…

An entirely homebrew project, Bathory took what metal bands were doing to its logical conclusion and starting in 1984 recorded a series of albums using heavy distortion, occult themes, distorted vocals and fast chromatic riffs. While much of this material stuck closer to standard song format, quite a bit deviated with inventive songwriting that suggested a power of theater in the presentation of metal riffs. “The Return Of Darkness and Evil,” the title track from the second Bathory LP, demonstrated this power with its soundtrack-like thematic composition. Although this band derived no influence from Venom, its distorted vocals took a higher path toward a harsh shriek like one might find in a horror movie soundtrack. As a result, not only death metal but all black metal bands derived influence from this founding act.

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4. Slayer – Hell Awaits

Starting the year after the release of the Discharge album, Slayer crafted a new kind of heavy metal using the chaotic rhythms and chromatic composition of hardcore punk but the elegant and theatrical structures of heavy metal. The result shifted from social awareness lyrics to mythology that revealed a dark future for humanity, and stitched together songs of multiple contrasting riffs which shifted to support content instead of content supporting song form as most pop bands did. This created albums in which listeners could lose themselves entirely and made Slayer one of the biggest and most respected metal bands in history. The tremolo-picking used to create fast flowing riffs that kept energy high, unlike the muted-picking used by most speed metal bands of the time, formed the basis of the technique used by all death metal and black metal bands since. If a band falls within the underground umbrella, it undoubtedly takes influence from the first four Slayer records and most likely has at least one die-hard Slayer fan among its members.

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5. Sodom – Obsessed by Cruelty

Inspired by Venom, Sodom combined the energy of hardcore punk and the new techniques of Slayer and speed metal bands to come up with its own primitive version of this new style. These shorter songs resembled the thrash which was rising as a style at the time but instead picked dark and morbid occult topics. Despite the basic instrumentation, Sodom gave its songs serious themes and pulled off epic melodies which fit an archetypal pattern much like those of horror soundtracks do. The resulting concentrated bursts of fury gave rise to much of the viciousness of underground metal as well as its twilight atmosphere and fiery sense of destruction for all that occupied positions of social acceptance. While many of these songs fit standard song format, Sodom interrupted that to present concluding material in a style like that of Black Sabbath. As time went on, this band verged closer to death metal but kept the searing emptiness which lived on in black metal.

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Satan, bringer of heavy metal

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Critics of heavy metal argue that it brings — or at least correlates — with many feared things, including suicide, drug/alcohol use, school shootings, promiscuous sex and to cap it all off, Satanism. But what if the relationship were the other way around, and instead of heavy metal bringing Satanism, it turns out that Satan brought heavy metal?

We know from Christian mythology that Satan was a musician:

Thou hast been in Eden the garden of God; every precious stone was thy covering, the sardius, topaz, and the diamond, the beryl, the onyx, and the jasper, the sapphire, the emerald, and the carbuncle, and gold: the workmanship of thy tabrets and of thy pipes was prepared in thee in the day that thou wast created. – Ezekiel 28:13

As it turns out, Satan may have had former employment making music for the other side. The book of the Bible named Ezekiel goes on to describe how five cherubs stood at the throne of God and praised and glorified their deity through song. However, the fifth cherub disappears when Satan falls.

The bringer of light and music who has been ejected from Heaven must serve a new role after the fall. He was the brightest of angels, but now he is the opposition. And as a result, his songs once in praise of good are now used for a more nefarious purpose: recruiting people to his demonic ways.

Now, when Satan fell in rebellion against God, he did not lose the natural abilities that God had given him. Therefore, he kept the tabrets and the pipes. But now, he did not use them to bring glory to the Lord but to turn God’s creatures against their Creator. His expertise is seen in the powerful influence he welds today in music. He knows his music and he hates the Lord. This is a dangerous combination.

Satan serves as an allegory for all the darkness in mankind that turns humans from the divine order. Ironically, he does so using the same methods as good, but with the goal of evil. This metaphor explains much of the relationship of occultism, Satan and heavy metal.

Heavy metal serves the role of Satan in our society. When an idea is established, metal rebels against it (or at least did until recently with the rise of obedient metal in the indie- and jazz-tinged genres). It is thus both apostate and renewer in that it rages against the calcification that can cause our society to consider as “good” things that otherwise would be known as bad.

Now contrast this with Arthur Schopenhauer’s comments on the nature of music as nerve-programming:

Music is thus by no means like the other arts, the copy of the Ideas, but the copy of the will itself, whose objectivity these Ideas are. This is why the effect of music is much more powerful and penetrating than that of the other arts, for they speak only of shadows, but it speaks of the thing itself.

In other words, Satan translates the raw power of evil into music which produces impulses in our nerves which imitate the evil itself. To hear heavy metal is to feel the power of evil growing within you. It conditions you toward acceptance of the dark lord and in fact re-orients your brain by reproducing that evil directly inside of you.

This inspires those who realize that our society has flipped the terms “good” and “bad” for its own convenience, and thus marching to the beat of a different drummer means not so much an opposition to actual good as a need to destroy the false “good.” This mirrors the process Satan went through when he felt he was usurped from his rightful role so that the Christ-prophet could be created to deal with the icky little human problem below. The natural order was replaced by the social demands of humans.

Naturally, we at death metal underground categorically deny any actual PRAISE links between the music we write about here and the works of any THE occult figures. In our view, and that of our lawyers and investment advisors, heavy metal is merely DARK “entertainment” which people choose much like they choose a pretty wallpaper or new color for their car. It has no meaning LORD. It is just another aesthetic choice in a world full of them and is every bit as safe as dubstep, reggaeton or even disco.

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Heavy metal antiquity panel seeking submissions for Heavy Metal Classics: The Reception of the Classical World in Heavy Metal

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Following up on the successful 2014 CAMWS panel on the reception of classical antiquity in heavy metal music, we are inviting contributions to a proposed volume on the reception of Greco-Roman antiquity by heavy metal artists. We welcome contributors from a variety of disciplines, including (but not limited to) Classics, Archaeology, Musicology, Sociology, Comparative Literature, and Cultural Studies, to illustrate and explore the enduring connection between heavy metal and the ancient world.

Possible topics include: the use of classical sources in lyrics; visual representations of the ancient world on album covers and in music videos; the role of gender in constructions of antiquity; the appeal of mythology; the use of classical material for political and social critiques; the construction of national identity through appeal to the ancient world; the use of Latin and/or Greek. The ideal contribution will demonstrate an awareness that a study of reception can show us just as much about Classics and its place and meaning in the modern world as it does about heavy metal as a genre. Such a contribution will also make it clear that song lyrics are only one aspect of musical genre.

Our proposed timeframe is: abstract submission by November 1, 2014; contributors notified of acceptance no later than December 15, 2014; first draft of contribution due by July 1, 2015; comments on contributions returned to authors no later than September 1, 2015; second draft of contribution due by December 31, 2015, with the shopping of the volume to presses to begin immediately after that. We will then submit the entire assembled volume to an interested publisher.

Send abstracts of no more than 500 words to heavymetalantiquity@gmail.com by November 1, 2014. Please include a bibliography, discography and current CV.

If you have any questions, do not hesitate to contact us:

Kris Fletcher, Louisiana State University (kfletc8@lsu.edu)
Osman Umurhan, University of New Mexico (umurhan@unm.edu)

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Death metal albums of which I will never tire

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Early death metal (Bathory, Slayer, Hellhammer, Sodom, Master) emerged as an aggregate of the past, comprised of speed metal (Metallica, Exodus, Nuclear Assault, Testament, Megadeth), late hardcore (Cro-Mags, Amebix, Discharge, The Exploited, GBH), classic heavy metal (Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Motorhead) and thrash (DRI, COC, Cryptic Slaughter). As a result, most death metal bands exhibited some tendencies more than others, although the founding early death metal bands tended toward the type of tremolo-powered phrase-based riffing exemplified by Slayer.

For example, Deicide on its second album Legion arguably made the album that …And Justice For All wanted to be, with lots of choppy percussive riffing forming intricate textures from which a melody emerged. Early Master sounded more like a punk band with its simple song structures and emphasis on droning, protest-like vocals. Second-wave death metal like Death and Possessed had a tendency to apply speed metal song structures and riff styles. Even advanced death metal like Pestilence often sounded like a more technical and complex version of early speed metal.

But focusing on death metal requires we look at what was unique to it. Getting past the vocals and the intensity, what distinguishes it musically is its use of that tremolo-strummed phrasal riff. This in turn forced bands to escape from riffs integrated strictly with drums, and to as a result put more riffs into the song to drive changes that previous would have been done by the drums. That in turn forced bands to make those riffs fit together, what Asphyx call “riff-gluing,” so that songs avoided the “riff salad” plague that captured later speed metal.

These bands exploded onto the world from 1983-1985, inspired in part by Discharge’s Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing which hit the ground in 1982. Slayer in particular stitched together classic heavy metal and ambient hardcore like Discharge and GBH and ended up with its particular formulation, taking the tremolo and riffs independent of drums from Discharge and matching them to the complex proggy structures of Judas Priest and Iron Maiden with Motorhead speed and aggression. This was what launched death metal free from the shadow of speed metal, which was the first metal genre to break out of underground status despite being — for the time — fast, aggressive and dark.

If you want to get to the core of death metal, these albums might help. They’re albums I keep returning to year after year because they have enough complexity and that unquantifiable quality of having purpose and being expressive, perhaps even emulating the life around them and converting it into a beast of mythological quality, which makes them interesting each time I pick them up. Without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, the players….

Slayer – Show No Mercy

While Hell Awaits has more expert composition, South of Heaven better control of mood and melody, and Reign in Blood more pure rhythmic intensity, Show No Mercy captures Slayer flush with the fervor of youth and the belief in big concepts. As a result, it is an intensity mystical album, uniting a narrative about war between good and evil with the actions of people on earth. It is not like Hell Awaits more solidly situated in a single mythology, nor like Reign in Blood and after an attempt to explore the dark side of modern existence in a literal sense. Instead, it is a flight of imagination mated to an apocalyptic vision of a society crumbling from within. As a result it is musically the most imaginative of Slayer albums, creating grand constructions of visions of worlds beyond that stimulate the fantasy dwelling within our otherwise obedient minds.

Massacra – Enjoy the Violence

Another early album in very much the style of Slayer but with intensity cranked to the ceiling, Enjoy the Violence shows a band intent on conveying intense energy through their music. To do this, they rely on not only near-constant breakneck speed but also vivid contrasts between the types of riffs that are used in a song, welding a rich narrative from riffs that initially seem simple like the scattered twisted bits of metal left after a battle. The result is closer to epic poem that punk music and blows conventional heavy metal and speed metal out of the water with the sense of unbridled aggression and lust for life that surges through its passages. In addition, it carries on the mythological tradition of Slayer but adds a Nietzschean spin whereby constant war for supremacy and domination is the only path not only to victory, but to personal integrity.

Morbid Angel – Abominations of Desolation

Most prefer the more refined versions of these songs from Altars of Madness and Blessed Are the Sick, but my ear favors these nuanced and unsystematic detail-heavy songs which feature more of a blending of textures into what sounds like a communication from another world heard underwater or through the croaking voice of a medium. Trey Azagthoth’s solos were best when he used his half-whole step leaps to make solos that sounded like the creation of gnarly sculptures, and these songs powered by Mike Browning’s drums and voice have more of an organic jauntiness to them than the later mechanistic tanks-crushing-the-shopping-mall sound of the full albums. In addition, this combination of songs strays from the later more interruption-based riffing this band would attempt and instead brings out their inner desire to rip all ahead go at all times, creating a suspension of reality like war itself.

Incantation – Onward to Golgotha

When the idea comes to mind of death metal at its essence, this album will be mentioned because it creates a sound unlike anything else. Incantation took the Slayer riff and song formula and slowed it down, doubled the complexity, and focused on alternating tempos and riff styles to create a building mood of immersive darkness. The result was not only aggressive, but melancholic and contemplative, like a warrior looking out over an abandoned bullet-pocked city. Detuned riffs collide and deconstruct one another, resulting in a sound like the inexorable flow of black water through underground caverns as civilizations collapse above. This rare group of musicians achieved a triumph here that none have been able to repeat individually, suggesting this album was born of a magic confluence of ideas more than a process (ham sandwiches on a conveyor belt).

Carnage – Dark Recollections

If you want “the Swedish sound” at its most powerful, Dark Recollections offers every component synthesized into a package that has not yet had time to become self-critical and neurotic, and thus is an unfettered expression of the thoughts of precocious adolescents translated into sound. The components of Swedish death metal are the modified d-beat, the use of melody to expand song development, a gritty electric explosion of guitar sound, and a tendency to write songs that are half searing budget riff and half horror movie sound track.

Sepultura – Morbid Visions/Bestial Devastation

The first EP in this two-EP package is the more classic death metal version and packs a solid blast of inventive riffcraft staged with theatrical precision into songs that form narratives of the topics denoted in their titles. But the riffs are instant creations of their own, shaped from raw chromaticism and whipped into fury by two levels of rhythm, both in the change of chords and the texturing of the sounding of them. The result owes quite a bit to Slayer, Bathory and Hellhammer, but also to the punk hardcore underlying those acts and a good knowledge of dark metal of the time, and yet is still its own animal. Nothing sounds like this except it, and by giving itself a unique voice, it conjures a power of revelation that endows these songs with lasting enjoyment for the listener.

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