Classical String Quartets for the death metal fan, fourth edition

schubert webern

 

Today, we’ll visit string quartets from both the Romantic and Modernist eras. The purpose is to give continuity to the line started in the first few articles. We visited Beethoven and Shostakovich, then Mozart and Bartók, and for the last time we visited the respected teachers Haydn and Schoenberg. This time we visit one of the the Romantic heirs to the Beethovenian tradition, the writer of music with a very private character, Schubert, and the genius serialist composer Webern, one of the most (if not the most) outstanding students of Schoenberg.

 

Franz Schubert: String Quartet no. 14, Der Tod und das Mädchen

This quartet is dubbed after an earlier lied of the same name, whose main theme Schubert used as the theme for the the second movement of this string quartet.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jlzv1yUFo-A

 

Anton Webern: 5 Sätze für Streichquartett op.5 (5 movements for string quartet)

It is a common misconception that serialism is a more mechanical method of composition, because it s a method. While some (including myself) believe it is an unnatural (contrary to the Common Practice Period notions) method contradicting the physics of frequencies, it is, apart from that fact, as much of a valid and constrictive method as any other. No more, no less. It just follows a different set of rules. And because it is counter-intuitive for people unaccustomed  to it, compositions with this method may well prove to be even more demanding by virtue of this lack of familiarity the general public has with it – it has harder to make something that makes any sense for the human ear. In my humble opinion, the dependency on an ethereal pulse becomes paramount in this type of music.

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Megiddo returns with The Holocaust Messiah

megiddo-thm-flyer

Canadian one-man band Megiddo, who back in the late 1990s ushered in the transition of black metal to a war, black, death and speed metal hybrid, have returned with a new album The Holocaust Messiah to be released on Iron Pegasus Records for Halloween, October 31, 2015.

Sounding much like old Sodom, Blasphemy and Profanatica in a blender but built around the rhythms of punk and simpler song structures of older speed metal, Megiddo burst forth in the middle to late 1990s with two demos, “Hymns to the Apocalypse” and “The Heretic,” which have now been re-issued by Iron Pegasus as Hymns to the Apocalypse / The Heretic.

megiddo-flyer-kl

In addition, you can read the writings of composer and lyricist Chorazaim in our archive of Larm: The Fourth Reich of Reviews, a review site which popped up a few years after the DLA and covered black metal releases that were current at the time with an inimitable style.

https//www.youtube.com/watch?v=dwjUVkccKdM

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Sadistic Metal Reviews 9-11-09

In the United States at least, there’s a lot of talk about “death panels” and “eugenics” because of some political thing or another. We just have to ask: if we’re talking about metal bands, what’s so wrong with having a death panel to clear out the garbage? As long as you appoint competent people to the death panel, they’re going to kill off the stupid, bland, symmetrical, tasteless and blockhead bands, and leave behind the interesting, talented, insightful and visionary. If you support good metal, please use this link to tell President Barack Obama that you want death metal death panels.

Cock Sparrer – Here We Stand

With age, comes self-referentiality: scenes no longer write to the world at large, but comment on themselves to themselves. This album manages to avoid the staleness of that fate, and like middle period Iron Maiden, is melodic and exercise-inspiringly rhythmic in a way that the best power pop is, but it keeps itself rooted in a hybrid between The Clash-style light punk and the more pungent Oi from which this band originated. Every second of this record is highly crafted and without an ounce of extra fat, both hitting hard and being gratifyingly fun to listen to in an emotional but not maudlin way like the best of punk. Lyrics are positive, encouraging people to take a stand and move past the destruction around them, but it’s not a wallowing as much as a dismissal. This band has not just aged, but matured, and they’re riding a fine line between pop punk and truly dangerous music, but in the meantime, it’s here for us to enjoy and anyone who likes a good insurgent punk tune will love this.

Bahimiron/Unchrist – Last of the Confederates

Trying to forge a sound out of black metal is difficult because like a new universe, it expanded and diversified so rapidly as to become a wide field of options formed from the same basic elements. Bahimiron have taken the grimy, gnarled, ugly and digestive black metal of their debut EP and infused it with an Impaled Nazarene-style sense of all-ahead-go, taking the best of “war metal” and making out of it simple melodic hooks like were found on the first two Gorgoroth albums and other classics of violent, primitive black metal. About every other song really captures a sense of epic emotion rising out of disorder, and the others, like the first Krieg album, succumb to their own chaos and fade into the background noise. There’s a good sense of dynamic here, especially on the majestic “Blackest Morning Coming Down” and “Texas Witch Hammer,” which are the real reasons to own this CD. The latter ends with a Burzum-style lead rhythm solo that sounds straight out of Ancient and an Oi band making sweet love. Unchrist, on the other hand, are trying to be — much like Phil Anselmo’s project Christ Inverted — a classic deconstruction act, tearing music down into its very basics and doing so at high speed with unique aesthetic. Like all things deconstructive, it converges on the ghetto into which punk fit itself, and despite catchy rhythms never goes anywhere. This fits it squarely into that place reserved for all extreme bands that are competent but never found anything to express, where we all shrug and ask “Why would I listen to that?”

Red Fang – Red Fang

Imagine making a modern version of the punk/blues hybrid of early Motorhead, like mixing in 20% more Z.Z. Top and then rendering the whole thing through a computer programmed in modern indie album-oriented rock. There’s a fair amount of metal, except in song composition; there’s a lot of bluesy fills, bouncy driving hard rock rhythm and solos, punk riffs and then vocals straight out of the more recent Phrase For a Name style bands. A good deal of the vocal delivery and riff styling comes from the hard-driving honky-tonk blues/hard rock bands of the 1970s, and this rounds out this style to make a listenable and high intensity stream of sound, although over time it does not develop depth (like, we presume, a fine wine). Forget progress, subtlety, sincerity, emotion or artistry: This is straightforward gritty bar fight hard rock for your inner beast, designed for you to want to start drinking hard and smashing skulls. Don’t question it.

Atrocity – Contaminated

I love metal, but see no need for about 98% of the genre. The reasons for discarding this majority vary with each release, from artistic irrelevance, incompetence, vapidity, and simple boredom. In the case of Atrocity (US), I’d like to like this CD but it’s like a droning fever in the background. The primary influences on this are probably Repulsion and Slaughter; there’s a lot of two-chord riding rhythms and chaotic noise, interspersed with Slayer-style chiasmatic chord exchanges. Active bass really guides these songs, forming a doppler convergent nightmare sound, but repetition is high. The album is really high energy. It’s not high on organization or form however, which makes it sound like a less advance version of Angelcorpse.

Taranis – Flandriae

Black thrash…is like Destruction, but twenty years too late, with a full black metal rasp. If you’re looking for nostalgia, this does OK, but the Slaughterlord album or later Merciless is more powerful. Like Destruction, there’s so much emphasis on a foot-tapping, shout-chanting chorus that everything else gets simplified. However, this band use chords like an American band: sparsely, emphasizing a few clear notes and then dropping the rest into fast muted strum of open strings. It’s not terrible, just simple-minded, and you already have that Destruction album. Rasp to it and you’re ahead of the game.

Stinking Lizaveta – Sacrifice and Bliss

Postmodern fragmented rock jams that maintain a hard-driving rock rhythm but try to do the unexpected, the songs on this CD are spacious and noisy and tempting to like, but they try so hard to be “different” they forget a voice of their own. In fact, much of the music on this CD seems to be having its own dialogue such that each time a change occurs, the song must comment on that change to obscure any similarities it has with other music. These changes however are aesthetic; underneath the skin, this is standard indie rock that has been broken and re-arranged with a cut-up technique that leaves us peering toward its inner structure through layers of repetition. There’s not much to dislike, but the whole is formless and so becomes an exercise in trying to extract a motif from something whose technique is its own outlook.

Thor’s Hammer – Three Weeds From the Same Root

This fusion of skinhead punk music with simple, Darkthrone-cum-Graveland style black metal mirrors the early development of Graveland, but takes a punk direction instead of a metal one. The result is punk improved: while most of it is riff chorus, transition material gets us past binary riffs to three melodic fragments in motion in some cases; riffs vary pacing and use tremolo to better melodic effect; dynamic and pacing vary to create contrast. If you like Discharge, Cock Sparrer, GBH or any other classic punk hardcore, this CD represents a huge improvement on that style. Subtle melodies interweave with riot-incitement percussion and classic hardcore riffs, giving depth to music that is otherwise pure muscle on the street power. The problem is that it’s still highly repetitive punk-based music, so while much of the majesty of black metal is transferred, many of the people who enjoyed black metal for its depth will find this one-dimensional.

Anael – From Arcane Fires

Channeling early Samael and Darkthrone’s “Goatlord” in the same moment, Anael make a CD that is half indie-rock like Wolves in the Throne Room but uses its open tonal leaps to create waves of atmospheric harmony. It is a good effort; despite its repetition, this CD keeps the sense of feeling high. Unfortunately, that feeling goes nowhere, so it is like entering and exiting an atmosphere, and when the song ends, another repeats the process in highly similar ways. However, it’s a welcome break from the chromatic flailing of burst intensity bands.

Corpus Rottus – Ritual of Silence

Energetic death metal similar to a cross between Deicide and Malevolent Creation, the music of Corpus Rottus keeps momentum and charges forward in constant pummeling roar, but never manages to anchor this energetic rhythm into the sense of tonal dynamic that could give songs distinctiveness. Like Fallen Christ, this music seems to blur together because songs use similar patterns, tempi and textures. All of it is extremely well-played and better than anything from the deathcore era, but this will remain a B-level band for lacking a topography of harmonic meaning or poetic configuration to each song.

Sotajumala – Teloitus

Metalcore is the leftovers of the punk and metal movements. Like a hipster, it thinks it can hide emptiness with external adornments like costume, details of technical playing, and even outlandish behavior, but nothing can hide the lack of clarity in thinking. It’s like a politician who makes speeches about how he organizes files in his office. It’s a withdrawal from life itself. This band is straight down the middle metalcore, sticking in random metal riffs from four generations of metal, but its basic organization is that of punk, or deconstructionism. See how different this riff is from the last. Here’s a guitar solo to distract you. Now we’re going to chant. This riff goes in circles; this next one goes straight ahead. It’s basically random except for key and tempo, and those fail to compel.

Pensees Nocturnes – Vacuum

What if we crossed Mutiilation with progressive symphonic metal? That is the question asked by this rather interesting release. If it has a weakness, it’s a lack of solidly distinctive metal riffs, mainly because it is focused on making the whole thing work together. This artist does best when letting the melodies expand and doesn’t limit them in length or ambition “just because” they’re played on a guitar. Like many symphonic bands, Pensees Nocturnes unleash some of their best work in synthesized keyboards or violins, accenting some metal riffs that are now cut from archetype, namely influences as diverse as Gorgoroth, Ancient and Kvist. However, what this band really understands is the theatrical nature of metal: how each song must tell a story with internal conflict resolving into new contexts, like a poem, and it must do it through dramatic gestures that reinforce this story in a way that we feel it and know it at the same time. This can become a container for generic music, however, since the centrality of guitars is de-emphasized. For this reason, this release is head and shoulders above the rest of the genre, and if it more distinctive guitar riff voices can be built into the mix, will be a powerful force in the genre.

Ninth Kingdom – Where No Kings Shall Roam

This band has great potential, but hovers over a great pitfall as well. Their power is a facile ability to write riffs within several different styles and fit them together into a clean narrative. The pitfall is that this enables them to string together just about anything without some central direction, or narrative of some kind, which leads perilously close to the “circus music” that all deathcore and Cradle of Filth-style metal ends up being, where random riffs form a song without contributing to a central meaning. The melodic technical metal aspects of this CD fit in shoulder to shoulder with the best bands coming out of Europe in this style, and their wise use of faster death metal riffs to break up song development keeps them from falling into either uniformity or too much “hard rock” like, say, COF. It makes more sense to compare these guys to later At the Gates than the latest crop of Dimmu-inspired melodic disorganized black metal. For Ninth Kingdom however, their strength is their weakness; they are good at writing riffs and transitions, but need to slow down and shape their abundance of music into clearly-defined songs that communicate something unique to each song. The most conventional song on this CD, “A Storm on the Horizon,” is probably their most powerful statement. I will be watching this local band as they grow.

Sepultura – A-lex

Taking a slightly different approach to metalcore, Sepultura stick punchy punk rock riffs onto rigid drumbeats and then finish them off with metal touches like basic harmonization, layered rhythm, and chaotic interlude riffs of a chord or two. Like that genre of bands that tried to update death metal without becoming reliant on expectation of complements to offbeat emphasis, Sepultura just keep driving ahead with ranting vocals over a guitar/drum interplay that is extremely linear. Occasional sung choruses drift in randomly; so do noisy, squealing transitions. Drums keep trucking. Songs are simple and begin and end well, but it’s the middle part that runs long. Verse/chorus song structures are the norm, interruptions the adornment. If you can imagine Chaos A.D. with less bombast and more mechanistic forward drive, that’s about where this once great band is now.

S.V.E.S.T. – Urfaust

One man does something, another man sees, and he imitates, then tries to figure out a way to put the meaning into what he’s doing. Unfortunately, meaning comes from intent. S.V.E.S.T. carefully pidgin imitate the Norse and Black Legions past, and make some noisy melodic stuff that is very sweetly poignant, if you listen to the parts, but adds up to a whole bunch of nowhere.

Origin – Antithesis

Once you get past the fireworks, this album is wallpaper. It displays techniques in the same order and adapts them to whatever fragmentary notion of song differentiates each of these. Sweep, sweep; fill; chug-chug; offtime chord chiasmus; sweep sweep; squeal; fast riff, repeat. I consider this album the definitive deathcore archetype because it shows us mixed death metal, melodic death metal, heavy metal and rock riffs in a cycle of randomness that resembles the way punk bands liked to assemble their riffs, not the period doubling style of death metal where each riff makes each previous riff make sense in an expanding context. As a result, it’s highly literate circus music, and joins later Behemoth, Cradle of Filth, Cannibal Corpse and others in writing incoherent stuff and making people like it because it’s technical and has catchy rhythms. Deathcore, unlike death metal before it, is deconstructionist like punk, and leaves us with a sense of the helpless, although some of these sweeps are excellent guitar practice for a moderately advanced player.

Asag – Asag

This is black metal in the Funeral Mist style, which is to put really raw sawing riffs on top of very danceable rhythms and hope no one notices. The result is messy on the surface but if you start tabbing it out, tends toward the ridiculous. They tend to stay within a very narrow harmonic range as well, which makes this essential rhythm music with a few melodic intervals and harmonized chord progressions to keep your attention. There is as the old cliche goes “Much sound and fury, signifying nothing.” They know their black metal moves and put them in a semi-sensible order, but you don’t actually get much out of it as a listener on than the sensation that somewhere, black metal is occurring.

Samael – Above

A painful kind of harmonic symmetry emerges in rock music when bands do not design melodies, but tail basic riffs with melodic fills. As a result, there is a great temptation of beauty, and then a sense of disappointment when one realizes that complementary phrases end in very basic differences. This makes the music breathe boredom like alcohol from a whisky drunk as he sweats, even if the stuff on the surface seems interesting. Samael have returned to metal here by combining Gothenburg, late-model black metal and really basic punk/death metal hybrid riffs. It’s a commendable return to form but musically it’s boring, something they try to counterbalance by keeping a driving rhythm going, which tends to normalize the experience. This is where music is different than passing a test: this CD passes all tests, but still is nothing you will reach for time and again. A better example of this style is the final Sacramentum album.

Cadaver – Necrosis

Bands returning to the death metal genre after a long absence try to update it in some way or another to distinguish themselves, show they’ve progressed, and find a way to appeal to a wider audience. Here, Cadaver try to combine the deathcore sound with the kind of charging technical take on d-beat punk that Impaled Nazarene used to do. If you can imagine Disfear, Impaled Nazarene and Neuraxis in a blender, that’s about corrupt — punk riffs levitate verses, tightened death metal riffs conduct choruses, technical fills end each, and songs fade out into melodic punk alternating with death metal rhythm riffs of the single- or double-chord variety much like later Master. It’s a musically impressive album and catchy as all hell, but when compared to old Cadaver, it lacks the mysterious atmosphere and sense of joyful exploration. This is much more of an adult album, meaning that it aims to be consistent and to remember the milk at the grocery store, but its sense of wonder at the world has been absorbed by a functionalism that is both the source of its consistency and the gateway to its missing openness.

Obscura – Cosmogenesis

I really wanted to like this, but it’s circus music. Technical circus music, but still, it has ludicrous happy melodies that would fit been played from an ice cream truck. These are played in challenging rhythms, but because that involves so much emphasizing and complementing offbeats, they are played at a bouncy pace like Iron Maiden and Parliament writing video game music together. It bounces. It flounces. It knows its scales and chord construction, but it goes nowhere because it’s looking outside-in: it’s trying to use technicality to make art, instead of making art and finding a voice in technicality for that impetus. The circus music aspects come also from their tendency to throw as many diverse possibilities into a song as possible, ending up with a tour of unrelated elements tied together by key and rhythm, yet having no significance other than that proximity. This is far better than the recent Cynic, but that’s like shooting fish in a barrel.

Infernum – Farewell

If later Graveland albums had been less opulent in layers of keyboards, battle noises, and guitars, they might sound like this: a stripped-down and more melodic Graveland reminiscent of Thousand Swords and Following the Voice of Blood merged in an early Emperor filter. Because it’s stripped down, it doesn’t get lost in working through all those layers, and instead develops a very simple point. Like most Graveland, it repeats themes in an attempt to find their ultimate evolution, which keeps it from falling into irrelevance. It’s like the old themes become starter cultures and from it grows a mass of new themes, like throwing yeast into a vat of corn syrup. As a result however, this album seems instantly familiar, and brings on that reality distortion field that is one of the most glorious things about Graveland: you forget you’re listening to amplified guitars conveyed through MP3 on a 2009 personal computer, and think you’re in a deep valley hearing the voice of the wind forming figures around the rocks above.

Suffocation – Blood Oath

Much of what we know of death metal now came from Monstrosity, Malevolent Creation, and Suffocation, who invented the style that Cannibal Corpse distilled and popularized. Suffocation, in particular, was the first band to come roaring out of obscurity with intensely percussive songs where drums led guitars in a series of complex riff conglomeration and destruction. When Doug Cerrito left, a lot of that got replaced by faster riffing and more straight-ahead songwriting. In use of harmony, especially use of scalar harmony to hold songs together, Suffocation has improved to the point where rock and jazz musicians can recognize their musicality more easily. However, they’ve dropped out the focus on rhythmic work; Mike Smith’s excellent drum work now plays along with melodic guitars and muted strum speed metal style full stops. Songs are built around a vocal chant, usually with a creeping rhythm, and the ensuing repetition loses much of the power this band once had. If they return to making the intricate structures, and consequent theatre of pummeling dynamics, that distinguished their best work, Suffocation could easily be the top death metal band performing today.

Asphyx – Death…The Brutal Way

A good summary is that this album upholds the style and feel of the first two Asphyx albums, but more resembles the last few in that while it’s well done, it’s restating known themes. It sometimes does this in a self-aware way, like an artist looking at a past work and trying to copy it from outside. Where it thrives however is in delivering rushing rhythms, like combatants sizing each other up at a run, that ride forward into thunderous climactic theatre. Where most death metal is dusty from the city, this album surges with a post-human viewpoint that creates legitimate fear amongst the herd. However, it never loses sight of making enjoyable rolling thunder music that beats us with the most reductionist approaches to music and yet makes us like them and see them as artful. This band has never released anything but solid music, and although this CD probably lags toward the non-essential end of their release spectrum, it crushes all of the other death metal band comeback albums handily.

Nidrike – Blodsarv

You know how people will take a tiny little Mazda and give it ten grand of ground effects? This band is an improvement on Deathspell Omega, who have the same style: create a harmonically simple song and trick it out with melodies, long discursive passages that seem exciting in their radical leaps of tone but ultimately converge on the same spot, like a tetherball wacked by a retard on meth. Clearly a lot of effort went into this CD but it all went into building up the songs, not coming up with some insightful or unique angle of attack, so at the end of the day you’re back to the same essential chord progressions most black metal uses, even if there’s lots of finger-wiggling to make it seem like an epic melody is going to bust out of that Mazda and pwn your ass.

Death – Scream Bloody Gore

The more experience I have in life, the more I like this album. For starters, Chuck wasn’t left alone on songwriting: he had scene legends like Chris Reifert (Autopsy) and Kam Lee (Massacre) to help him, but also, had just completed jaunts with Repulsion and Slaughter (the proto-death metal band, like a cross between early Master and Necrophagia, but better). What’s great about this CD is that it’s the same old Death, which is a fusion between speed metal and nascent proto-Death like Master, but that it’s pure spirit. There are no pretensions to musicality here, so it’s pure rigid chord progressions and thunderous rhythms, but unlike later Death, it uses the death metal “riff salad” that tells a story better than any modulating-harmonic but static-form rock music could. True, there’s a wipeout or two in the solos, and often these very basic riffs are pretty messy, but the CD keeps up the high energy pace and inventive transitions between riffs that are variations on known themes from NWOBHM and punk, which makes it solid as hell. The second half sort of runs together into mush; I’m guessing that it was partially written or refined in the studio. But unlike the other great Death album, Human, this CD is chaotic and organic like a tradesman’s riot. Human is good but it’s like an introductory textbook to music theory because each song has two parts — (1) getting ready for the big picture and (2) here’s the big picture — and so for all its “musical complexity” it’s a simpler, easier and less interesting composition than this early fire-spitting version of Death.

Karnarium – Karnarium

When conducting audience surveys, it’s easy to confuse a desire for primal music with music that is so basic it becomes boring. The point is to “sound” primitive, not to be primitive. Karnarium confuse the two; it’s a hybrid of early Grave and Cannibal Corpse, resulting in alternating blasts of percussive riffing and fast death metal riffs which limit themselves to four notes. We would all like to like this, but it does not provide any lasting enjoyment of the style, only a battering repetition of discontinuous themes which leaves life more confusing and less coherent than before. Songwriting needs to be focus for this band because they have their technique down but fail to stitch together a meaningful code of these fragmented riffs.

Conjuration – Funeral of the Living

Let’s try being Barathrum or Countess, except as a doom metal/black metal band. Are you excited yet? Umm… yeah, we’ll toss in the extra evil, extra loud and extra repetitive spells, and try for a saving throw with a bluesy undertone to our chord progressions a lot like Cathedral. Are we having fun yet? It ends up sounding like Saint Vitus as if created by Cianide. It’s not bad but song development occurs with typical metal harmonization and abrupt breaks, and the riffs and rhythms are straight out of the late 1970s. Guitar sound is flamingly awesome however. The only problem is the whole MCD is kind of boring. I think they should play this in old age homes and have everyone clap in time.

Inveracity – Extermination of Millions

So that’s where Suffocation went: they got reincarnated as Inveracity. This band is not as fully coherent as Suffocation was for their first three albums, but captures the essence of their technique with a powerful forward drive, much like Deeds of Flesh. They could get from B+ to A by making their songs more clearly express a central theme and a journey toward a concluding mood, which would give them more than a sound a personality and a vision of reality that others could participate in. As it stands, the technique speaks for too much, but it’s done well — an A+ — with more of the melodic leads stitched in among fast ripping power chording, as Deeds of Flesh started doing with Inbreeding the Anthropophagi. Watch this band for future development.

Mordicus – Dances From Left

An interesting hybrid of death metal and speed metal, this album sounds like Destruction riffs put in the less disjointedly repetitive song structures of American speed metal bands like Testament. It flows quite well. The riffs are not unusual to someone familiar with Destruction, Kreator and Forbidden, but they fit cleanly into well-constructed songs. Clearly thought went into this record, which makes it unusual for the speed metal genre. In use of layers and lead melodic riff accents, this album shows a heritage of death metal. Like later Merciless, it is highly melodic and often quite graceful, but the tendency of this genre to like percussive guitar strumming and pounding chorus rhythms may drive away listeners accustomed to the greater subtlety of black and death metal. Still, this is a good record.

Chord – Flora

This project reminds me of the Mitch Harris project Lull, except that Chord have an appreciation for slow-building development through contrast and dynamic variation in songs, where much of Lull was either too abrupt or too linear. However, they’re still facing the challenge of noise (which, since it’s a type of communication using sound for its inherent properties, is probably music, but noise devotees freak out if you call it “noise music”) which is making something that a listener could enjoy repeatedly and not as a novelty. Like Justin Broadrick’s epic Final, Chord choose the distorted guitar and possibly modded electronics as their medium, and specialize in making reverb waves and then harmonizing to them. In the background, dark metallic abrasion noises churn far below the waves of light and atmosphere that are the feedback and sustain-fed echoes of the secondary notes and harmonics in chords and notes, creating a mental scene of a moribund industrial city at war under a vivid sunrise. There are overtones of the Fripp/Eno projects and their tendency to pit counterpoint noises against steadily increasing but repetitive patterns, creating a sense of cosmic order through creation and destruction that is quite beautiful. Of all the noise releases I’ve heard, this is probably the most listenable outside of middle-period K.K. Null.

Himinbjorg – Europa

A tribute to Bathory in a style halfway between Blood Fire Death and Hammerheart, with some updated technique borrowed from the early 1990s Norse revolution, this CD is what Viking heavy metal should be if we update it for the current era. Immediately evident is the restrained musicianship; these gents are not playing at the top of their technique, but have chosen a simplified version to achieve direct communication. The music resembles nothing else except in style, and maintains a good sense of harmony while creating the epic rhythm and melodic riffs that give metal its power. Vocals are probably going to be too Donald Duck for some, and the music is too heavy metal for the black metal fanbase, which could explain why this otherwise excellent CD remains undernoticed.

Electrocution – Inside the Unreal

Welcome to good B+ grade old school underground metal. Thankfully, this band have avoided the “modern death metal” (read: metalcore with death metal riffs) trap and just gone for old school material in the vein of Necrophiliac, Morpheus Descends or Oppressor but have upped the ante with technical improvements. Drums lead songs more accurately through more permutations of riff, and maintain an atmosphere of cadence and not kickhappy offbeat-anticipation patterns. Guitars collaborate tightly and deliver variations on the known styles of death metal riffs from the simple booming patterns fit into complex textures mold. Where this CD could improve is in some variation of the intervals used in writing riffs; too much of it falls into the whole-half variation that eventually gives it a feeling of tendency and an ashen lack of melodic or harmonic potential. For pure rhythm riffing however, this solid death metal album delivers the thrills.

The Warlocks – The Mirror Explodes

Mix Lou Reed, Sonic Youth and early REM and you get this indie for indie’s sake release. It’s quite good power pop wrapped in an aesthetic of decay and loneliness. As with most things, I don’t see the fucking point in the posing. Just be the The Beatles II and write songs about life with a nuance of the positive. I like their ability to stretch out a verse with noise and subtle variations on their main riff, creating a drone in layers that expands Ride-style to wrap a vocal track in lush sound. Unlike most bands, The Warlocks know how to draw out tension like moments before orgasm, keeping the sugar lust explosion of pop away until we’re good and exhausted by their waves of shuddering guitars softened by a lazy room mix. Musically, I like this. Artistically, I fear it’s going to get lost in a horde of others with the same “aesthetic” and “outlook” on life.

Katharsis – Fourth Reich

Unknown to most of us, this band resurrected the war metal tradition: speed up Bathory, mix in some Blasphemy, and make frenetic music which goes nowhere. True, this is more explicitly in the house that Darkthrone built, but even the longer songs cannot hide the lack of direction. Good songs throw pieces on the table like clues to a mystery, and slowly bring out a response to that mystery, so the listener feels as if they are in a combat situation and want a good outcome — but are learning what that would be from the experience conveyed by the music. Instead, this is “hot tub” black metal — it has two stages, getting into the hot tub, and getting out. The song begins and then you’re in the midst of it, with some fairly gratifying riffs, but then it ends without having anything changed in the listener’s mind. You were in the hot tub. In the hot tub, you found life exactly as it was before. Now towel off, and skip this record.

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Black Metal History

The genre that came seemingly last of all the metal genres was the one that considered its ideals the most seriously and consequently, produced a radically distinctive form of music. While black metal was somewhat of the cousin of speed and death metal during its early days, during the 1990s it bloomed into full musical form after developing a philosophy more coherent with its dark aesthetic than the hedonism and liberalism of the past. In a consequent blaze of controversy, the black metal genre streaked across the public perspective briefly before proliferating into a variety of styles and mainstream versions of its sound, forcing older variants out as a flood of similar bands absorbed the genre.

The Early Years

Black metal existed first as a singular concept in aesthetics, and later began to proliferate musically, only differentiating itself from death metal in the theoretical arena when its philosophical divergence became clear to the Norwegians in the early 1990s. A comparison from history can be found in the invention of the telephone; while Alexander Graham Bell invented the phone itself, the complex switching systems necessary to connect multiple parties within a city awaited later inventors. Similarly, the aesthetics [appearance and stylistic refinements of music] of black metal were created long before it really existed as a genre, influencing a period of long lull in the 1980s.

There is confusion as to who “invented” black metal, but it is clear that like death metal, its origins came from the same general area and were spread across creators worldwide contributing to the process. While Venom were the first band to grab headlines with their sensationally stripped down riffing and overtly occultist yet ludicrous image, it was Bathory, Sodom and Celtic Frost who gave the genre its enduring form. Where Venom was limited musically to deconstructed heavy metal, these bands took the neoclassical phrasing and minor key melodies of NWOBHM bands like Angel Witch, Judas Priest and Iron Maiden and matched them up with the droning three-note roar of early crustcore as exemplified by Discharge. As both bands depended on diminished melodies in power chord riffing it was a seamless match.

During this formative era of black metal, several general styles emerged. First was Bathory with a smoothly flowing, fast-tremolo picked flow of sound over consistent throbbing drums; next was Sodom, making three-chord primitivism which moved at high speed with unsteady and abrupt changes of riff, tempo and texture; also included were Hellhammer, who specialized in droning minimalist music that often resembled hardcore punk played in minor keys, and Celtic Frost, the continuation of that band into grandiloquent constructions resembling the musical staging of operatic scenes; finally, there was Venom, who continued to produce their heavy metal/punk hybrid which delighted in using the simplest possible musical devices to convey the broadest changes available.

From this time onward, the genre slept while innovations were made in the death metal camp, with a few notable exceptions soon to be covered. The same year that Bathory unleashed its first opus brought about a small but intense wave of hardcore/metal hybrids front by Slayer but including within the next two years formative works from Sepultura, Possessed and Morbid Angel. While the basic approach of death metal was to create intricate arrangements using extended phrasing in an architectural style, its essential approach involved rhythm and chromatic progressions which did not admit much obvious melody. The tightly-woven, complex and interlocked riffing used by early death metal bands produced a sense of deconstruction and immersion but gave little new direction. As the genre wound up for its grand entrace, black metal again split from the pack in the 1987-1988 era with Sarcofago and Mayhem, and was then silent for another four years while death metal raged.

Sarcofago presented something offensive, abrupt and even ludicrous to people of the time who were schooled in the riff salad style of death metal, with stilted and broken sounding rhythm changes matching akward, nearly imbecilic riffs which fit together into songs with an uncanny, barely discernible continuity. While the majority of the formative work of Sarcofago, “I.N.R.I.,” was abrasively disassociative rhythm riffing, the album held itself together with some admirably sonorous yet barely logical melodies, seemingly as if formulated on a whim by demons of a distracted but perversely insightful mentality. Ignored at the time by most, Sarcofago in part generated the impetus toward the bizarre and primitive that spurred the next generation of black metal into action.

Simultaneous to the release of “I.N.R.I.” was the fourth release from Sweden’s Bathory, “Blood, Fire, Death,” in which the rippingly fast and simple works of earlier albums had been turned into theatrical yet emotive quasi-operatic pieces in which rasping vocals and singing coincided and song structures staged dramatic encounters of their parts more than repeating cyclic patterns. Across the water in Norway, Mayhem were putting the finishing touches on a massively incompetent but enigmatic work known as “Deathcrush,” in which tortuous guitar patterns arced over drumming with the grace of an exhausted pack animal, and horrific howling vocals textured the mix. The following year, Merciless assembled “The Awakening,” a fast speed metal album with touches of death but an undeniably morbid melodic sensation. Together these releases defined what would go into the mix of the genre coming next: the aggression and grandeur of Bathory, the abrupt and convoluted structures of Sarcofago, the rough aesthetic of Mayhem and the dramatic staging of Celtic Frost, who had just unleashed their discontiguous but impressive masterpiece “Into the Pandemonium.”

The Modern Era

Again some years went by in which death metal was the primary focus of the community and fans. Where mainstream metal had vanished under the dual onslaught of grunge and the progressive selling out of speed and heavy metal bands like Metallica and Testament, the underground shot to the forefront of the minds of those who expected metal, and consequently, became the area where development in metal occurred while the more popular bands did their best to reiterate their essential sound and presence as a means of not losing ground. As death metal became more accepted, however, it became slowly infested with the same mentality that clogged mainstream metal: an underconfident, socially dependent, accepting and undiscriminating mentality which placed excellent bands next to derivative, unimaginative acts without thinking twice.

Born of the desire to surpass this mess, the modern era of black metal began in Norway with the first releases from Darkthrone, Immortal, Emperor, Burzum and Mayhem. Each differed from the death metal before it in an emphasis on melodic composition and intricate, classically-inspired song structures which functioned as motifs, returning to not verses or choruses but clusters of riffs and musical ideas which framed their concepts in a setting, not unlike the work of an opera or ancient Greek tragedy. This new form of metal was more vivid and emotionally evocative than the thunderous assault of death metal, and also less concerned with the immediate social values around it; it embraced independent thinking, a dislike for all social dogmas and humanism, a Romanticist love of nature and predation, and a penchant for fantasy and thoughts of ancient times.

The reaction of the death metal boy’s club was unanimous: “fags!” However, the new style rapidly gained ground and soon a second generation of the modern era, including bands like Ancient, Gorgoroth, Graveland, Behemoth, Abigor and Gehenna among others landed in the crowd. Many of these bands were inspired as were original black metal pioneers Darkthrone by the melodic tremolo picking of Swedish death metal bands from the previous generation, which caused the pace to be picked up as the aggression, but the fundamental differences remained. From the reaction to the first wave of black metal, and a desire to get “purer” and farther away from the possible infestation of death metal bands, black metal bands starting with Darkthrone on “Ablaze in the Northern Sky” began to use a fuzzed-out, lo-fi sound and primal song structures similar to those of Hellhammer, early Bathory, and Venom.

While this initially drove away the more sycophantic fans, it was a failing strategy for the same reasons it failed in the production of hardcore music: it made the genre extremely easy to emulate. As demonstrated by bands such as Dark Funeral, it was easy to transition from death metal and make primitive and fast melodic black metal songs which sold in the underground, and soon there were more ex-death metal, ex-crustcore and ex-rock personnel surging into the scene. By the time of the middle 1990s, bands such as The Abyss and Marduk had joined the party, creating in their process templates which any bands could use to emulate the style – and did.

In a few short years the genre had gone from a handful of bands making distinctive music to a horde of bands making indistinguishable music identified only by novelty factors of instrumentation, voice and concept. Nothing was any longer being achieved in the central group of black metal bands, so most of the “old guard” of Norwegian bands backed out and allowed their music to dissipate, as indicated by Darkthrone claiming their “Total Death” album would be final one from the band. As the hordes of scenesters and clone rock artists gathered, bands such as Graveland, Summoning and Ildjarn began experimenting in ambient forms of the original style, writing longer melodies and integrating semi-symphonic instrumentation in digital form in some cases and making rawer, less rock-like music in the case of Ildjarn.

The Drama

Much has been said about the dramatic entry of the Norwegian scene in the early 1990s. Articles ranting about the terror the “Inner Circle” and “Black Circle” would bring to Christian society overstated the case, and so by the year 2000 most fans were tired of hearing the same stories of the genesis of the scene. These will be mentioned here only for the purpose of conveying the ideology of black metal, and its effect upon society at large that in turn reflected the response of civilization to black metal and some of the factors that contributed to its demise.

In the beginning, there were a handful of black metal bands in Norway loosely unified around some ideals and a few meeting places, including the shop Euronymous from Mayhem ran called Helvete [Hell]. There is some debate over whether or not there was a formal “Black Circle” as initially was claimed by American and British publications, but clearly the members of these bands communicated and met within the 4.5 million person country. Strange things began happening in Norway: churches burned, a homosexual man was slit open, miscellaneous assaults and grave desecrations occurred, and then to cap it off, Euronymous was stabbed one night in his apartment. Furthermore, implications of fascism and/or Nazi beliefs were pointed at many members of the underground, most of whom quickly denied them.

First, the vocalist Dead of Mayhem committed suicide with a large knife and shotgun, leaving a note “Excuse all the blood.” Some time later, Varg Vikernes of Burzum was arrested for burning churches and murdering Euronymous; at the time of this writing, he is still serving his term [when arrested, Vikernes was near famished from lack of money to buy food, yet had 150kg of explosive in his basement for use in destruction of churches]. Over 20 other black metal musicians and fans were arrested for burning churches; a total of 77 burned in Scandinavia during that time, although not all have been definitively linked to “Satanists.” Several other musicians did time for killings, assaults, desecrations or unrelated arsons, including Jon Notveidt in Sweden who served 8 years for being accessory to a killing, and Hendrik Moebus in Germany, who served several years as accessory to a murder before being arrested for making a Roman salute while on parole. While the carnage was not widespread, the effect was; Europe saw a wakeup call to some Pagan values and anti-Judeo-Christian sentiment, and America saw a chance at rebellion and consequently, marketing.

Further, the community of black metal had a chance to demonstrate its values. While most members of the scene when pressed denied they had been involved in fascist or Nazi politics, they were indifferent to the roles of others in such things. Equally noncommittal were many around Euronymous after his murder; Hellhammer, the drummer of Euronymous’ band Mayhem, shrugged and said, “One of them had to die,” when queried about the feud between Vikernes and Euronymous. Most bands interviewed spoke positively of nature, negatively of Christianity, and displayed disdain for social behavior that placed the lives of individuals above that of a collective movement. This made many uneasy, especially in tolerant, peaceful and normally quite uneventful Scandinavia.

The Aftermath

When the mainstream bands such as Dimmu Borgir, Cradle of Filth and Marduk that attracted hundreds of thousands to black metal are confronted with the ideology of the founders of modern black metal, they quickly shake their heads and walk away. “Not for us, thanks.” In addition, their music is fundamentally different from that of the underground bands; where the originators of this style used diatonic and chromatic riffs and melodic modes, most of the “aboveground” black metal uses pentatonic scaling and much of the same riffs and rhythms of metal bands from the 1970s. Thus is exemplified a split in the genre: the bands who are doing what metal bands always have, and the bands who are moving away from traditional metal toward a more neoclassical, less rock-n-roll, more intricate musical form.

This split extends to every area of the black metal scene at the time of this writing. On one side, let’s call it the “left,” there are bands who embrace the current era and its variant aesthetics, including the mainstream genres outside of metal; a good example here would be Ulver or Sigh, both of who create postmodern metal from fragments and samples of other genres arranged into pieces delineated by key or rhythm. On the right would be the classicists, the old-schoolers who either only support black metal in the established tradition or who embrace a “purity” of both musical rawness and ideological allusion to the Greco-Roman, Viking or fascist values. For all intents and purposes this split is permanent, with the sides diverging into assimilation on the left and obscurity on the right, yet somehow they keep attracting audience, albeit a degraded one.

Some would say that there was a mystique about black metal that took a long time to die; it didn’t break in 1996, when The Abyss made an album so textbook Norwegian black metal that it provided a template for other bands to follow, and it didn’t even break in 1998 when all but a handful of the original bands had moved on to making more contented music. The year after however appears to have brought the death of black metal in a form emerging from within, similar to the story of Baldr’s death that conceptualizes a later Burzum album: betrayal from within. When the first of the more mainstream bands emerged, the underground took a clue from Darkthrone and it became de rigeur for the non-commercial bands to slap out albums with monochrome art and blindingly distorted, low-technicality music. As before however, this made it easy for further emulation to occur, diluting a genre with exactly what it opposed, and turning it from a movement where concept, music and action were joined into another form of entertainment for couchbound teenagers.

Black Metal Belief Systems

Conventional wisdom in the Judeo-Christian west holds that nature is lawless, dangerous and pointless; to give life meaning, there must be a moral goal, such as civilization itself: the conquering of natural frontiers and environments, taming of natural impulses in humans, and reduction of the law of the fittest – an equalization, as F.W. Nietzsche and later others pointed out. Nietzsche saw this equalization as a form of “revenge” on nature by depriving nature of what makes it threatening to the individual human, namely the potential imminent death – a form of judgment – for being less than capable in a situation calling for endurance and survival.

Sixty years after Nietzsche’s most influential period of work, explosions on the Polish border awakened the globe to the second world war. In this war, a conflict between the most fundamental division of ideology was established: collectivism versus individualism, with the latter favoring the kind of product-oriented, technologically-based, container-logical lifestyles currently seen in the first world nations. It was those insular and self-pleasing ways of living that first irked black metallers, and demonstrated to them a social devolution: there was no longer any competence needed, only obliviousness. Many black metallers, like Nietzsche, found greater inspiration in nature than in post-Judeo-Christian western society, and identified what Christians find horrible – the bloody, competitive, anti-individualist character of nature – to be an example of the most sublime beauty.

The ideological inclination of black metal remains disturbing to most and illegal in many countries. Yet it is not unique to black metal; as history shifted in the 1960s from a predominantly conservative society to a liberal society, thanks to the counterculture, and its effects were only felt with the children growing up in the 1980s, their response mirrors that of some who rejected the flower powery view of the politics and society. Among the thinkers and dissidents now coming back into favor are ecological fascists like Pentti Linkola and Theodore Kaczynski, as well as various stripes of nationalist and racial separatist leaders. [The Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish self-defense organization, claims that National Socialist and Neo-Nazi movements are increasing “worldwide.”] It’s hard to see what the future holds but this controversy remains in the forefront of not only black metal, but international politics, as shown by the amount of air time it is given by the entertainment industry, news media and American/U.N. politicians.

Interestingly, black metal joins not only the far right, but the far left, in many of its sentiments. As the world anti-globalist and anti-capitalist movement picks up speed, it echoes many of the ideals of black metal: natural ecosystems; ethnic uniqueness; population control; an end to technology-driven, product-oriented, convenience-based lifestyles. Protestors across the world in anti-war and anti-globalism protests would be shocked to know they have something in common with a group of bloodthirsty church-burning fascists who idealize the occult, but perhaps would be glad at least for a sympathetic ear. Interestingly also, the “modern primitives” movement as seen in events like the Burning Man festival and the survivalist trend around the time of Y2K align themselves in the same general direction these ideals seem to be taking, but the final synthesis has not yet been heard.

Subdivisions

After the initiation of modern black metal in the Scandinavian style, a fragmentation occurred along the general lines of techniques used to unify song composition, creating a number of subdivisions in the black metal subgenre [genre = metal, subgenre = black]. The following are general descriptions of these substyles and what they implied for changes in black metal as a whole.

Rock

The heavy metal style of black metal, descended directly from Venom and NWOBHM bands like Angel Witch who inspired them, is essentially rock music with some neoclassical influences in the loosest sense. Pentatonic, verse chorus music that stays within basic harmony, heavy metal/rock-styled black metal is recognizable for its radio friendly ways, redundant harmonic constructions and verse/chorus arrangements. Good examples include Venom of course, Dimmu Borgir albums after Stormblast, Cradle of Filth and Dissection.

Raw

Descended from Hellhammer and some early Bathory, this is mostly rhythm music which like hardcore punk is fashioned from the harmonic space of a basic interval between two anchoring notes, often a fifth. While this style is easy to do, it is difficult to do well, as the number of bands emulating Hellhammer and falling far short of what Hellhammer produced have found.

Epic

Symphonic styles and epic song structures often seem to go together, as seen in bands like Summoning, Graveland, Heidenreich and early Emperor. Where most bands indulge some complexity, these bands aspire to a demi-operatic state of unifying concept with staging, projecting a theatrical view of the action described in a song through the pure sound and arrangement of riffs. These bands are often the closest to classical music in types of melody and depth of layering, but it is important to note that epic is mainly a description of the complexity and arrangement of a band, not its techniques, so there is complete overlap with other styles mentioned here.

Trance

Music designed to utilize the undulating nature of the sweep picking of a guitar as suspended between unchanging percussion of a basic nature, this style is inspired by generations of metal with ambient experimentation, including Slayer, Von, Massacra, and Bathory. The most notorious band working in this group is Burzum, but other bands such as Nargaroth, I Shalt Become, Ildjarn and Darkthrone have created great works in this area.

Melodic

The oldest style of modern black metal, the melodic compositional approach was first utilized by Norwegian bands looking for a way to make simple power chord music more than thudding rhythm and chromatic patterns. Immortal’s “Pure Holocaust” is the best example of this, with highspeed tremolo picking whipping distorted noise into a flood of searing yet beautiful sound, but there are also examples to be found in Behemoth, Darkthrone, Mayhem and Sacramentum.

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