Recent publications on Death Metal Underground have triggered yet another group of self-entitled Dark Gurus and Awoken Entities of the Left Hand Path™, when the unholy names of some of the popular idols of the Satanic™ niche market group were apparently besmirched by people who simply do not think that the music in question is very good.
The grounds for this opinion rested on the simple perception of music as a form of communication and the knowledge and experience of the way black metal (and underground metal in general) aesthetics work; these are open to any with a sense of logic and understanding and in no moment alludes to ad hominem authority per se, but rather the sense of balanced, sensible consideration of the material at hand, which is always debatable.
To be fair, one must approach judgement of a legendary and veteran band such as Sodom, with care, so that their present actions are seen in light of the road they have tread. In this spirit, it is appropriate that we go over the band’s career, taking a brief look at each step of their evolution so as to get a picture of how the band came to be as we see it and hear them today on Decision Day. If we are to start from the very beginning, we have to look back to their very first demo released in 1984, Victims of Death, which stands in an area between Metallica – Kill ‘Em All and Bathory’s self-titled debut album. Sodom’s first step is closer to contemporary hardcore punk than speed metal, which affords them a certain street credibility.
Article by David Rosales; read yet another (negative) contemporary review of Belus here
After an incursion into ambient metal that lasted for a few albums, Burzum was seemingly trying to make a comeback to metal instrumentation. But appearances can be deceiving, and what seems like a failed attempt at creating streamlined metal music may be, in fact, an attempt at riffing-up ambient music. There is also a hint that it is packaged into an integral release that has to be listened to as a whole. This does sound an awful lot like the premise of post-rock, and while there is a good deal of wallpaper repetition, there are also plenty of good ideas in what is the closest heir we have to Vikernes’ seclusion.
The old DMU reception of the album when it had just come out is spot on in its criticism, but much may be added that redeems this understated album. A very clear line of evolution can be traced from Det Som Engang Var through Hvis Lyset Tar Oss and the anti-black metal ambient expansion of Filosofem to Burzum’s 2010 release. For all intents and purposes, an album like Belus is the next logical step. That it cannot harness the energies of black metal while it attempts to spread like synth ambient is proof of the impermeability of distinct genres.
This shaky, middle-ground positioning was resolved marvelously with 2013’s Sôl austan, Mâni vestan, whose incomprehension by black metal fans shows it as a next filter in the practical evolution of transcendental metal as it maintains its ideals. The filters before them can be seen in the commencement of different underground metal genres, with Black Sabbath being the first obscure revolution, Slayer and Metallica on their debut leading the second, and the waves of speed-going-on-black as intermediary steps towards the third explosion of death metal, which in its technical fetish gave way to the more musical black metal. The next great purge takes place after 1995 as several of the best black metal musicians lean heavily towards minimalist ambient-focused projects, which in some cases turn into affairs that are more electronic than metal in instrumentation (Beherit’s Electric Doom Synthesis is one of the crown jewels of this very select group).
Weakened as it is in its most objective sense, the soft, layered and simple cadences and droning melodies unique to Vikernes’ mind are still more full and less candy-coated than the likes of Drudkh. And where, in Belus, the music seesm to drone on, the choice in length is never as much as the likes of Sunn O))) so that it falls completely into the background. Hvis Lyset Tar Oss was a trip to another dimension, each moment pushes forward, but the next album was a trance with subtle pulsations and bumps, breathing in and breathing out in a quality that cannot be measure quantitatively but qualitatively at an abstract level, admitting no materialistic distinction. The repetition scheme here is a compromise and application of what was learned in Filosofem, relying on a certain quality of endurance that Vikernes’ simple but multi-layered riffs focus on and uniquely shine for.
At worst, Belus is solid ambient music played on suboptimal instrumentation, and at best, a unique chance at perceiving these landscapes through metallic lenses which distort and bring to the fore particular contours and colors. When positioned at the right place and at the right time (having the right mentality), the listener may find himself submerged into dense forests, fuzzy with the brume of unreality. The vision that Belus presents is not that different from Burzum’s early efforts, but where the quick underground fan may detect watered-down content, others may see a matured and spiritually refined thinking.
This is not objective music, this is a secluded path for those who have digested Burzum’s music beyond its atomic particles and into the very essence, flow and nature of it. This fourth filtering-out of profane minds certainly leaves most behind, and though these words may seem spurious, those with a balanced and logic mind, a strong and idealist heart, and an avid curiosity may find themselves on the right path to this shrouded grove.
J.R.R. Tolkien wrote without an outline using only the thoughts gathered in his head over long hours of smoking his pipe and staring into a fireplace. Sitting at his typewriter, head wreathed in smoke, he pounded out a first draft of the Lord of the Rings mythos, and then discarded it, beginning again from scratch. As the story took form, it left behind a litter of empty blue-painted cans of tobacco.
The tobacco was Capstan Original Navy Cut. Members of his family remember the tins proliferating around the house and being used to store household items. When Tolkien and other members of his literary group The Inklings met, nicotine burned in abundance, and they could be found by following the trail of smoke. In his books, Tolkien inserted characters finding great comfort and wisdom in their pipes much as he did in his.
As part of a recent binge of writings by Tolkien and fellow Inkling C.S. Lewis, this writer has indulged in their favorite tobaccos. Capstan Original Navy Cut comes in “flake” form, having been pressed into table-sized cakes and then sliced into wafers about a third the size of a playing card. These are either stuffed into the pipe or “rubbed out” which converts them into ribbons of tobacco. Throughout this experiment, the thought lingers at the back of the mind: why this tobacco, and does it resemble the Longbottom Leaf or Old Toby of his legends?
Original Navy Cut is composed of pure Virginias, but the pressing and aging has converted some of their sugar and acid into a more hay-like flavor, the partial decomposition of the leaf having released its most irksome elements. What remains is a sweet smoke, with slightly more Nicotine (PBUH) than the average medium smoke, which burns evenly and rewards small “sips” or short slow puffs, as one might take while hammering out words on a typewriter. It also admirably complements the smell of typewriter ribbon, for whatever that is worth.
Virginia flakes such as this tend to appeal to either new smokers who want a blend that is sweet and strong like a cigarette, or to the experienced who can nurse a pipe for hours. Since Tolkien was a master pipe smoker, he fit the latter category, and apparently always kept a pipe going with this and other blends to power himself through late-night endurance test writing sessions. And we can enjoy the results, and the metal inspired by them.
Since ancient times man has looked into both himself and nature around him as a portal into dimensions our species’ abilities are not adequately or readily prepared to perceive let alone understand. This is why and the sciences developed their theory and instruments which became increasingly specialized and compartmentalized, to the point that the ulterior workings of, for instance, chemistry and physics are not even truly understood by any single person but that have been recorded and detailed so that theories can be devised to model them. This is both a weapon for more precise understanding and a blindfold that prevents us from seeing the big picture. The ancient occult sciences attempted something contrary to this, which was to grasp at the phenomenon as a whole, not by measuring bits here and there, isolating them and attempting to harness them for mundane tasks, but rather seeing how everything interacted and describing it through metaphor and accepting that knowledge concerning reality cannot be taught or communicated: the path can only be hinted at but it is for each person to take.
“We do not know it because we are fooling away our time with outward and perishing things, and are asleep in regard to that which is real within ourselves.”
Music can be used as a way to contemplation, as a window of what is in front and within us. This is a way towards the self, towards one’s nature, the species’ nature, and our place in the planet as life springing from it. When done correctly, it is not an escape from “reality” as materialists would have it, but rather a search for the experience and understanding of actual reality through human eyes. This includes an accepting of the limitations we can never truly overcome and yet trying to capture visions and feelings of what the universe beyond us is like. Music can convey this by acting as a conduct, taking the mind to a certain state. This is much more than the “setting of a mood” of pleasure-oriented music, and requires an active engagement by the listener, a locking in the senses, a voluntary stepping-through to the unreachable umbra of that-which-is. This is not about salvation or reaching out for a different world, it is a discovery of the cosmos as it is in reality.
“Could one that’s damned stand in high Heaven, even there He’d feel within himself all Hell and Hell’s despair.”
Underground metal and its related genres (dark ambient, for instance) as a mystical experience may lead us through a variety of paths, up to mirrors, dead-ends and upside-down positions which may seem incomprehensible at first but whose value is appreciated in retrospect as a lesson. At the end of the day, no vision reflects reality, we can only dip into experiences that transmit flashes of this or that aspect, but nothing that encompasses everything which is far beyond our capabilities. It is like trying to capture the infinite in one’s mind, or simply trying to imagine not being human.
“To reach something good it is very useful to have gone astray, and thus acquire experience.”
The following are a few album recommendations that the author feels are strong and sure passageways from whence grand sights a piercing eye may descry. Though each of these may follow a slightly different path, they all shine light into particular corridors and avenues by virtue of different methodologies and philosophies. Each kind of experience is in the eye of the beholder and is ever partial and incomplete, but the truth behind all of them is one and whole.
Music serves a role in our lives: it connects us to truths about life and restores in us a belief in who we can be. Metal in particular either fills the soul with a rage for order, or creates an institutional-strength mental entropy by being disorganized. Bands that lack the guts and brains to write about real things and try instead to imitate what made others successful are doomed to fail, and we separate them from the rest with vicious strokes of the knife. Come for the cruelty, stay for the indignation and resentment, with this week’s Sadistic Metal Reviews…
Nocturnal Torment – They Come At Night
This punk/metal/grind hybrid acquits itself well by attempting to be no more than what it is: punk/grind songs with added death metal riffs, expanding upon a basic rhythm to drive it to detonation. If this band has room to improve, it is in putting the vocals into a support role for guitars and focusing more on continuing momentum rather than interrupting it early. Too much randomness and obvious riffs flesh out this album, but from the sound of things they were adopted to connect different parts in such a way that the vocals could continue their role as narrative organizer (N.O.) of the album. Like the first Bolt Thrower album, They Come At Night combines attributes of classic heavy metal with extreme underground punk hardcore, resulting in an oil-on-water separation at times. Lead guitars emphasize chaos in the way that enjoys bending the seemingly random into coherence just in time to slam into a conclusion, setting as much of the surrounding territory on fire as possible. There is much to like about this release, and a fair amount — but not more than is done right — to improve.
Feral – For Those Who Live in Darkness
Hopefuls send us their releases, and we murder there. Here hope must die: Feral is cycling Burzum-style riffs over simple song structures with emphasis on vocals to guide it. The vocals, unlike Burzum, forsake nuance for consistency and so quickly kill the mood. Riffs in themselves are not bad, but as assembled, are incoherent. This is painful to listen to for anyone who likes order, pattern or even chaos. It is just repetition of tropes in a slightly new form without the ability to express much but frustration at the four walls of an apartment and the desire to be in a black metal band. The challenge of humanity is to be able to tell the truth when it is unsociable, and that is what I attempt to do here. So much could go right with this release, but the best parts are marooned in a vast sea of disorganization and emulation outward-in of others, which stifles the inner voice. To this musician: go back to the studio, play music you like regardless of what your useless posturing friends say, and then record that. If it comes out as indie rock or folk music, only an idiot would think less of you for staying true to yourself and making something good, rather than this “me too” release.
Reptilian Death – The Dawn of Consummation and Emergence
More from the Nile camp, Reptilian Death uses the modern death metal sound of vocal-dominated songs with riffing as commentary that integrates intensely with drums to produce the kind of texturing that Meshuggah used, but without the overdominance of technique. To their credit, the band stitch together riffs well to produce tempo and layer changes that provide compelling background, but the focus remains on the vocals and so not only misses the death metal ideal but becomes repetitive in the way that nu-metal was: a chorus dominates, and a verse vocal rhythm backs it up, with instruments filling in the space. While well-executed in this case, that approach combines the worst of brutal death metal with the melodic hooks of indie-metal, resulting in catchy songs with no endurance.
Imperial Savagery – Imperial Savagery
In the style of new-death bands like Nile, this aggressive band orient themselves around the vocals and keep a rhythm drilling along that pattern while stringing along whatever riffs they can. These riffs show promise, but too often fall into the new-death paradigm of etching out a rhythm instead of a phrase, which results in a lack of coherence. Vocals pick up the slack, but the vocals are probably the least part of any death metal band, and that degrades the staying power of this release. Emphasis on jazz-style off-beat chording works as an interruption sometimes but appears too frequently to be a technique, becoming a trope. Angelcorpse-style charging riffs make up a large part of this album and they generate intensity but it needs to be “caught” by other parts of the song, and those devolve into the not-quite-chaos of relatively straightforward drum-guitar rhythm riff explosions. Chord progressions attempt to escape the ghetto of chromaticism but end up being so similar as to fade into background sound. There is nothing wrong with this release, but it falls short of enough right to have an enduring appeal. This is a shame, since clearly a great deal of fine musicianship went into this release.
Disordered – Carnal Materialism
This heavy metal/death metal hybrid would be best served by giving up the death metal pretense but keeping the drum attack. Quality guitar work, good melodic hooks and excellent pacing recommend this to the listener but as it falls short of death metal structuring, it ends up sounding empty where it could be more intense by simply opting to be edgy heavy metal. Iron Maiden and other melodic metal influences intrude where they can and are well-applied, but in the context of these songs seem floating in complete absence. As with most bands that have trouble organizing their disparate parts, Disordered rely too much on vocals, which correspondingly become the primary rhythmic hook, which forces guitars into a commentary role as in 70s rock. While nothing here is per se bad, the result does not form enough of a compelling narrative to be anything but background sound, and even then comes across as a hard rock band stranded in the wrong genre trying to make a tighter style work for what is ultimately a looser approach. Many of the tropes in this date back four decades and attempt to intermix with death metal pacing and layering, which just makes them sound ludicrous. This band needs to pick an approach instead of trying to satisfy “everyone.”
Sepulchral Aura – Demonstrational CD MMVII
Most people misunderstand black metal, especially the musicians after 1994. The point was to make beautiful music that concealed itself in an ugly sound. Most people interpret that as “ugly sound” and then add in quirks, idiosyncrasies and iconoclastic alterations to standard form. The end result reduces music to boredom by using constant interruption of its own process to produce an absence of end result, which ruins the function of music as a conveyance for emotion, understanding or even aesthetic appreciation. What is left is hipsterism and a focus on triviality. While there are some good riffs on this album, every one of the worst albums ever had some good riffs; what makes a great album is the ability to develop riffs in such a way that they reflect thought, reality, or emotion in a way that is meaningful to the audience. This release instead mirrors the confused mind of a modern person, and we do not need music for that, since an abundance of media and personal experience will come our way whether we want it or not. I had high expectations, but found the rule here of “if it’s after ’94, walk with extreme caution” applies on this album. The disorganized mess produces only a sense of emptiness, not the bravery going into emptiness that black metal once rendered.
Post-metal, a dirty word in knowing circles, can and should be applied to Gorguts‘ classic Obscura. Post-metal is an offshoot of post-modernism, a school of thought that attempts to reject overarching structural meaning and belief in greater narratives. To the post-modern mind, existence and experience consist of pluralities, splintered into fiercely individualistic cells prone to subjective rule, and inimical to any attempt at establishing a universal system of knowledge. Under this philosophy, adherence to a common-law guidebook serving as a framework for value judgments would amount to giving tacit approval to an authoritarian scheme of things.
The post-modern mind rebels against the idea of linear progress and containing edges. Instead it chooses to break free of tradition and to chase the open-ended horizon, giving wing to its often reactionary attitudes; in fact, it can be said that post-modernism, as an approach to inspecting knowledge and the various forms it finds expression in, exists only to uproot convention. It seems to lack a defining purpose of its own, mired as it is in its perpetual obsession to bring down pre-existing ideological superstructures.
However, in the absence of a time-honoured, governing set of principles, can ambiguity be far away? Can a severing with tradition with no motive other than just the severing and that alone ever have an impact beyond the momentary fascination that novelty engenders? A need to improve on boxed-in ideas is natural but is doing so by gleefully discarding much of what goes into the making of the original idea any improvement at all?
The original idea, as metal goes, is as much structural as it is ideological. There are a few qualities that are common to how all true metal should be constructed.
Melodic contiguity: All forms of metal, even the harshest strains, are inherently and recognizably melodic in nature. This means that the individual phrases that make up a metal song obey cohesiveness, as tenuous as it may seem at times. Though individual phrases are often in different keys, it is paramount that they share the same musical space.
Movement towards a discernible and logical conclusion: This is the will to motion previously outlined in these pages. Metal’s roots in traditional story-telling with a beginning, a middle, and an end, are not to be forgotten in eager exchange of a need to experiment. There has to be a gradual ascent, or a plummet as it were, towards an ultimate punctuation. Though various approaches can be used towards achieving this, playing for time in false hope of creating mood, while using ideas containing little intrinsic worth, is anathema to metal.
Rhythm section to assume a strong yet only supporting role: Metal is a predominantly lead-melody oriented form of music. Bass and drums are integral to creating a fuller sound but should only be viewed as swells on an ocean on top of which riffs and songs float. Often, swells rise and raise their load with them, but this hierarchy in relations is crucial and is to be preserved.
Atmosphere created not through textural embellishments and quirks but as a by product of composition: All claim to that shady word “atmosphere” should come from immanent qualities in the way the music is written. Metal does not need overt experimentation with harmonics or tone if these asides are incapable of holding together on isolated inspection.
Awareness that all forms of groove play to a far baser inclination in the mind’s analytical apparatus. They can be enjoyed on a case-by-case basis but are not something to be eagerly sought out or encouraged in metal.
A keen comprehension of repetition as device: Repetition is to be used as steadily outward-growing eddies that take a song to a different place, yes, but one that maintains a tangible relation to the place left behind. Individual components within the repeating phrase should have some emotional consonance and not serve as mere padding.
Conscious realization that metal is in fact composed music and not free jazz.
How does Obscura, universally regarded as Gorguts‘ creative zenith, fare in context with these? On an individual song basis and on an album-wide scale, Obscura flouts more than a few of these observations. Obscura‘s sound is a swirling melange of dissonant tones under cyclic orientation, created on a wildly giddy bedrock of percussion. Conventional melody is used not as the driving force behind the songs heard on this album, but as ballast to the band’s almost painful need to expand the template of extreme metal prevalent till then. Guitarists coax unnatural sounds out of their instruments, resembling those made by scurrying creatures of the night, and mold them into a form of strange melody not without appeal, but on honest reflection little more than an outlier gimmick.
While not all associations with the band’s previous classic Erosion Of Sanity have been severed, Obscura greatly favours repetition of its themes, themes that at times fail to register as true motifs, often to the point of tedium. Where the band’s younger work had irrepressible momentum on its side, they now seem stuck in a rut of their own making with no clear vision of how to extract themselves from it. Songs regularly lapse into the kind of navel-gazing that is so aggravating in modern technical bands, in hindsight obviously influenced by this album. The most obvious example of this would be ‘Clouded‘, an idea that would be deemed insufficient even for the most basic of interludes but here stretched beyond all limits of endurance.
It would be disingenuous to suggest that Obscura detonates the core of music entirely, contrary to epithets of “chaotic” and “cacophonous” regularly appended to its descriptions. There is a kind of twisted logic to these songs but it is so far removed from what has gone before in the metal canon that it barely, if at all, qualifies as metal. Perhaps the album’s greatest failing as a purportedly metal album is in the lack of a human aspect. One would have to project really hard to glean any kind of meaningful emotion from these songs, uniformly monochromatic, mechanized, and without hope, or rage, as they are. In its abundant jagged outcroppings and in its constant search for the next unorthodox detour, Obscurashortchanges the simple truth that holds up metal and indeed all “essential” music, that of relating an idea through sound.
Thou Shell of Death create funeral doom metal with what amounts to a lead keyboard layering sparkly and incongruously happy melodies over a background of churning doom-death riffing. Songs build slowly in circles, repeating two fundamental riffs with transitions to re-contextualize them before the cycle is entered again. Over this, shrouded vocals of alternating howls and dark death vocal chanting provide guidance and anchor rhythm which is divided between the slightly off-center keyboards and on-point guitars and drums.
Much like Winter, who similarly used slow guitars as a backdrop to keyboard and noise accompaniment, Thou Shell of Death depend on the contrast to give their work endurance. This serves as both strength and weakness in that it may create an intense layered atmosphere, but can also substitute for the “metal method” of interlocking riffs providing a shifting context like a villanelle or other poem form where repeated lines take on new meaning as the previous line changes the framing in which the new line will be heard. In particular, the risk is that vocals and keyboards will take over from the guitars which will entirely take a background role as happens several times on the two tracks that make up Grave Hill, a new 12″ from Thou Shell of Death. In each song, the journey it takes the listener on first descends through intense deepening and then contradicts itself, finding momentary light which is crushed, giving way to a greater light found in the new path adopted. While this occurs on a very small scale in these 17-minute tracks, the result is nonetheless a sense of descending into a cave and finding a new world that one feared to look at initially.
This 34-minute release takes the listener through a path of dark and morbid passages with the exuberant keyboards both providing contrast and becoming slowly absorbed so that they take on a morbid air. Fundamentally, however, this music debunks the illusion that funeral doom works well when finding despair; instead, what is found here is a type of melancholic wandering in the dark and threatening world of the ambiguous, with Thou Shell of Death like all metal bands finding beauty in the darkness and using it, re-interpreted in a new context, to instead inform our concept of beauty as relating to the structure of the journey and not the texture of the result. Its keyboards create an effect like that of 80s Goth where the “bittersweet” ambiguity of modern rock translates into an embrace of darkness through lightness toward the fear, delivering us into a new stygian world where possibilities exist despite society denying their presence.
Orcultus returns to the days before black metal when NWOBHM band Venom created short, catchy songs but Orcultus runs this approach through a Norsecore filter and adds post-metal riffing for atmosphere. The result is both eminently listenable and unendurable because its simplistic approach misses everything that made the Norse strong, adds too much adornment to achieve the simple pleasures of Venom, and will never be accepted by post-metal because it is not trendy enough.
Songs tend to launch relatively simply in the Norsecore droning riff style, redouble that with catchy choruses, then fade out with either more Norsecore or the patented drunken people waving in the breeze as a sad note sounds and then falls style of post-metal. They then repeat this formula with different Norse riffs matched to opposite corresponding Venom-style rhythms and a slight variant on the post-metal drone. This creates an effect of transitioning through the life cycle of black metal in a single song, which brings up miserable reminders and ends in the nowhere man gentrified urban neighborhood entropy that post-metal uses to make hipsters of us all.
Worse than obliterating the past by ignoring it is to destroy it by adulterating it, and then to let the adulterated hybrid take the place of the original. Yet this is what happens in most cases. Orcultus represents this attempt in the black metal genre, mixing several generations of heavy metal and hybrids into an indecisive and contentless paradigm that produces a sensation of fatigue, ambiguity and confusion, but not the dark and rich melancholic emotions of black metal. As a result, despite having much of the old school in it, this one goes on the black ‘n roll heap and gets consigned to the bit bucket.
As part of our exploration of academia in metal, we meet all sorts of interesting academics with different relationships to metal. Some are more on the academic side, some on the musical, and some in-between. Ross Hagen straddles both extremes by being both a musician and an academic with a focus on teaching metal. As a result, he brings both personal experience and delight in the genre to the otherwise more abstract academic view. We were lucky to get in a few questions with this interesting person and teacher.
You’ve got two degrees in music and one in musicology. What launched you along this direction? Did you intend to become an academic, or did the music lead you there?
I think this career path resulted from my love of music coupled with the fact that I didn’t really have the discipline for seriously practicing a musical instrument so I could play professionally. I’d much rather spend six hours a day in the library. Graduate school was also a nice way to extend my adolescence and avoid adult responsibilities for a few years after college. But when I think about it, I suppose that academia was always an intention of mine, whether I thought about it consciously or not. Both of my parents were educators, so I guess I’m something of a poster child for following the path laid out by my upbringing.
What got you involved with heavy metal? Were you a fan before you studied it? What appeals about it to you, both as a research subject and as a personal listening experience?
I was definitely a fan before I began pursuing it as a topic of study. My father was a college professor and his students would occasionally loan him tapes and CDs so I was listening to a lot of college rock and industrial music (well, NIN anyway) in my early teens. At one point he had a student who loaned him some of the early albums by Amorphis, Samael, Tiamat, and My Dying Bride and I dug them a lot. It wasn’t until college that I found other people who liked that kind of stuff and expanded my listening though. I feel like I’m still playing catch-up on a lot of older material from the 70s and 80s especially. I also got into musicology as an undergraduate and began including metal in my studies there.
…blast beats and tremolo picking seem to suspend rhythmic momentum and time in black metal when coupled with more slowly changing harmonies and hazy-sounding production. I also related the use of full chord voicings and the use of parallel minor 3rds and 6ths (in Emperor’s music especially) to an interest in chaotic sorts of sounds…
From a personal standpoint, I suppose I find it empowering in some respects, but I also like that black metal especially is a style where it’s easy to just get lost in the sound. As a bassist and composer I like that metal is challenging to perform and that it’s a style that is quite malleable in some respects even as its fundamental ingredients remain relatively stable. I think that’s part of what I like about it as a researcher as well; the tension between the metal’s core attributes and its desire to evolve and change.
You’ve contributed a piece, “Musical Style, Ideology, and Mythology in Norwegian Black Metal,” in the compilation Metal Rules the Globe. Can you tell us about this writing, and what your thesis generally was?
This was a version of my 2005 Master’s degree thesis where I wrote about some of the key elements of the “second wave” black metal musical style and related them to the genre’s interest in the supernatural and mythical. In particular I looked into the way that blast beats and tremolo picking seem to suspend rhythmic momentum and time in black metal when coupled with more slowly changing harmonies and hazy-sounding production.
I also related the use of full chord voicings and the use of parallel minor 3rds and 6ths (in Emperor’s music especially) to an interest in chaotic sorts of sounds since those types of chords are much less focused and resonant than the typical metal power chord when played with lots of distortion. I considered these musical conventions as evocations of trance experiences because they create a sense of stasis and timelessness (in a literal sense) by obscuring rhythmic propulsion and harmonic clarity.
I was at the time interested in connecting these musical devices to the sort of Norse revivalist rhetoric that was regularly coming from people like Varg Vikernes and that also underpins Michael Moynihan’s Lords of Chaos, especially mythical figures like the berserker…that black metal seems to reward an ideal of virtuosity based on physical endurance rather than dexterity and nimbleness, things like that. I do think that there was a certain aesthetic affinity with these mythical ideals for some black metallers, that they envisioned themselves as warriors or as part of a charivari tradition trying to bring back a romanticized ideal of pre-modern Europe. However, I think that the chapter’s main contribution is the articulation of the musical style…or at least when I go back and read it those are the parts that I think hold up the best.
You teach courses on popular music, music appreciation, and music history at Utah Valley University. Does this include metal? How do students respond to it? Does their response change depending on whether they are metalheads or not?
Most of them seem to respond fairly positively to it when I do teach it, which usually only happens in the course specifically centered around popular music. I do include bits of Eddie Van Halen and Yngwie Malmsteen in my schtick on musical virtuosity in the music appreciation classes, but more as a side comparison. Students in the popular music courses seem to respond well to it even if they aren’t fans, since by the time we get into it most of the students understand that “liking” a genre of music is not a prerequisite for investigating its musical style and influence. Metalheads or former metalheads (I actually hear that a lot here…metal is something they used to like as teenagers) tend get a little more into it, but I’m often pleasantly surprised as well when students who have no personal affinity with the style offer thoughtful considerations of it.
I find it interesting that you’ve composed music for the production of two ancient Greek plays at UVU. Are these going to be released? Is there any overlap between ancient Greco-Roman music and heavy metal?
Actually only one of them (Antigone) was an ancient Greek play. The other one, Eurydice, was a modern play by Sarah Ruhl that is built around the myth but definitely takes its own path (and was directed by my very talented and lovely wife Lisa). Oddly enough, my music cues for Eurydice actually did include a bit of Rammstein-ish heavy metal…the script called for it when the Lord of the Underworld enters dressed like a child and riding a tricycle.
I’m not planning to release recordings of Eurydice‘s music cues themselves since they wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense on their own (15 seconds of heavy metal, 45 seconds of lounge music, etc.) but I did put together a suite of sorts called gravity is very compelling out of the soundscapes from Eurydice. The Antigone score is likewise kind of boring out of context, but I’ve repurposed parts of it in other works here and there.
Regarding ancient Greek and Roman music, I can say with some certainty (even though ancient music isn’t a specialty of mine) that there’s not any overlap with heavy metal in terms of musical content. A lot of the theoretical ideas and writings helped lay the foundations for the European art music tradition in the medieval period, though. Plato’s famous concerns about the dangerous moral and social effects of “disordered” music also echo through the centuries to inform the various moral panics around heavy metal and other musical styles.
According to your biography, you’ve participated in more than a dozen album releases on various American and European labels, and perform in the ambient bands encomiast and Schrei aus Stein as well as two local metal bands. Can you tell us a bit about your musical history?
I started making ambient music with encomiast in the late 1990s, when I had access to a proper electronic music studio at college. That sort of whetted my appetite for it and I’ve continued recording stuff like it ever since, often drawing my friends into the mix as well. Most of the catalog from that project is available at encomiast.bandcamp.com, although I think my favorite is the 139 Nevada 2xCD that grew out of an attempt to record ghostly voices at a haunted theater. I started Schrei aus Stein when I wanted to do something that mixed drones and noise with more of a black metal aesthetic. Beyond those projects, in the last decade I’ve played in the absurdist metal duo Spawn of the Matriarch, the stoner metal band Governors, a krautrock/free jazz trio, a one-off Mortician-worship solo project named Immensite, and a couple of cover bands.
Currently I play bass in Burn Your World, a band that mixes extreme metal styles with some hardcore punk influence. We also have a side project called Curseworship in which I play bass and compose a lot of harsh noise and analog synth freakouts. Both of those bands have recordings coming out soonish.
What do you think is the role of music? Is it to communicate ideas, express emotions, or make an aesthetic object for others to appreciate? Or none of the above?
I’d probably say it’s more like all of the above in my view, depending on the context and the person who is experiencing it. Your last role (aesthetic object) is probably closest to the way I think about the music I create — I tend to think structurally rather than in emotional or rhetorical terms.
Do you think metal is a subject that should be taught in schools? There’s two viewpoints to this: from academia’s point of view, and from metal’s point of view.
I think that from an academic point of view it’s as valid a subject as any, and to my mind it provides a rich musical and cultural well for all sorts of areas of study. I’d also be lying if I denied that it gives me a lot of pleasure to teach and write about music I love, so there’s a selfish end too I guess! I certainly also understand why some metalheads might not appreciate it because sometimes it does seem like once something has the stamp of approval from the ivory tower it loses a lot of its countercultural credentials.
Some might see it (possibly correctly!) as a misguided attempt to validate metal as an art form…or perhaps to validate academia by borrowing some of metal’s coolness. I personally try to avoid giving that impression in my classes, but my position as an academic may make it impossible for me dodge those bullets entirely. So I suppose my ultimate answer is “yes,” but with acknowledgement of some pitfalls.
You taught a couple of metal-centric classes at CU-Boulder while you were finishing your degree. What were these like? How did you “teach metal”?
One of them was a single Saturday course done through Continuing Education that was sort of a quick trip through some various issues (musical style, censorship, etc.). The longer course was a version of a course on Rock Music that I team-taught with Joel Burcham. In that one my idea was to use metal as a way to explore various aspects of popular music, including recording, performance, fandom, authenticity, etc. My goal was less to teach metal and more to allow metal to teach us, if that makes sense.
You’re an ethnomusicologist; those seem like a cross between music historian and music analyst. How does understanding metal at a musical level help you understand it at a culture level? Are there correlations between the two dimensions of metal?
I sometimes feel like the primary thing my musical training provides me with is a vocabulary with which to work. I do find it helpful in terms of articulating aspects of metal music and production that encourage particular responses and experiences among listeners. As I mentioned in my summary of the “Metal Rules the Globe” article, I do think that some musical ideas can evoke particular experiences and reflect certain values. I would stop short of saying that they necessarily correspond to the values of the performer and the audience though. Sometimes that might certainly be the case, but I’ve come to be skeptical of sweeping correlations, mostly because I want to avoid misrepresenting the culture of metal as a monolithic entity. The more time I spend with metal and with other metalheads, the more I appreciate the diversity of experience within it.
One of your research interests is ritualism. Are there ritual aspects to heavy metal, especially the black metal variety?
I tend to think that almost every musical activity has some sort of a ritual component to it, using the term broadly. With black metal, though, I’m particularly interested in the deployment of Ritual “with a capital R” as a conscious effort to connect the music and performance with some archaic imagined past. In some respects, I think the past black metal invokes is the past of black metal itself, a retro recycling and recreation that is common to all music in some degree, but which has perhaps increased lately (Simon Reynold’s recent book deals with this better than I).
Rather than celebrating the protean side of 21st century identity, metal seems to demand a higher level of “identity essentialism” in that respect. It promises some measure of stability.
Invoking ritual also feels like an appeal to an authoritative kind of authenticity, an assertion that black metal is not entertainment or theater, but instead that it is a stable and “timeless” tradition and (importantly) not beholden to the vagaries of taste or fashion. The use of a fairly standard and narrow set of musical gestures and sounds, deindividualizing costumes and pseudonyms, and staged evocations of sacrificial death all work to this end. Of course, the “appeal to ritual” is also in some ways merely a marketing term and a performance conceit. It might go hand-in-hand with the increased visibility of black metal over the past decade or so.
I’m currently working with these ideas as part of a research project on musical ritualism as an authenticating tactic in popular music…possibly with a parallel trajectory in musical representations of monstrosity and supernatural forces. I’m still gathering my dogs together to see if they hunt though.
How important do you think heavy metal is as a cultural indicator? What does it tell us about our society?
I think it certainly has a role there, although I think that what it says varies a lot depending on who is involved in it. Actually, I think that if we look at metal around the globe, I might consider a lack of metal in a society to be more significant. It seems to be an almost ubiquitous presence, even under circumstances of war and deprivation.
I do think that the value so much metal discourse seems to place on trueness and authenticity is perhaps symptomatic of a larger sense of uprootedness in (American?) society. Rather than celebrating the protean side of 21st century identity, metal seems to demand a higher level of “identity essentialism” in that respect. It promises some measure of stability.
In your view, why is metal such a distinctive genre, with such strong rules and boundaries (trueness, cultness)?
It seems that being embattled or marginalized is an integral part of the way metal views itself, even if in some cases we might consider that metalheads doth protest too much. This sense of being outside the mainstream probably creates this sense of cohesion and belonging, as well as a bit of suspicion and distrust of outsiders and “un-metal” musical influences.
I think that the boundaries have actually gotten more stringent over the past decade or so in underground metal, although it’s probably more likely that I’ve just become more aware of them. I might suggest that as the artifacts and symbols of insider-ness in metal have become more readily available, the concern with maintaining boundaries has risen accordingly. As it becomes easier and easier to amass knowledge about the most obscure bands, along with their recordings, that obscurity loses its power.
Patch jackets don’t seem to carry the same weight if you can purchase a whole collection of rare kvlt “merit badges” in 20 minutes on eBay. This situation makes metal’s system of cultural signifiers less trustworthy in terms of judging someone’s commitment to the genre, so it seems like the boundaries need more strict enforcement. It’s only exacerbated in cyberspace. But of course the best way to be kvlt is to deny that it matters if you’re kvlt or not…it’s square to be hip, right?
You’re on the editorial board of the journal Metal Music Studies. How has metal in academia expanded during the time you’ve been observing, and where do you see it going in the future?
To be totally accurate, I’m actually just on the editorial advisory board, which just means I’ll be on-call as a peer reviewer once we’re totally underway. I hope to continue my involvement in the future, however.
When I first began writing about heavy metal as a graduate student in the early/mid 2000s, it seemed that there was precious little academic writing about metal beyond Walser, Weinstein, and sociological studies beating the dead horse connecting metal and crime/delinquency. Over the following decade it’s just blossomed as a field of study, and I think it’s impressively diverse. I mean, we’ve got people from sociology, ethnomusicology, historical musicology, fan studies, philosophy, and interested practitioners all in the mix. I’ve been trying (and failing) to keep up with all the publications. It’s an exciting and inspiring field.
I think that we’re going to see more studies that question the conceptions of locality and place in metal, since the increasing digital networks around the world are making physical geography less relevant in some respects. I know some scholars are working on the exoticism in metal, which seems especially interesting because it binds together questions of intent (patriotism? parody?) with issues of reception. It also seems that Metal Studies has focused a lot on the more extreme and underground subgenres, so I hope we might see more people begin to explore the intersections between metal and mainstream pop culture, both currently and in the past.