Composing Impulse – What Makes Metal Musicians Write Music?

Musicians are basically storytellers, like writers are. In literature, great works are deemed so not just for their superior arrangement of elements (i.e. how “beautiful” or “organized” a certain piece is), but by how well they tell a central message or idea which the artist tries to communicate to his audience.

Putting aside the need to earn a living, I think there are four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose. (…) They are:

1. Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. (…)

2. Æsthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. (…)

3. Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.

4. Political purpose.—Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.

George Orwell, Why I Write

In the above quote, the english author George Orwell indicates that writers have a special urge to fulfill their purpose, which also goes with a kind of appreciation for aesthetics that surpasses the experience of most people. All of that concentrated towards a goal: to express thoughts that go beyond the individual, a concern towards society or the world as a whole.

In an interview with another famous writer, Aldous Huxley, we can find a similar notion:

Interviewer: What would you say makes the writer different from other people?

Huxley: Well, one has the urge, first of all, to order the facts one observes and to give meaning to life; and along with that goes the love of words for their own sake and a desire to manipulate them. It’s not a matter of intelligence; some very intelligent and original people don’t have the love of words or the knack to use them effectively.

Aldous Huxley, The Art of Fiction

Both views could be summed up to 1) writers wish to satisfy a personal urge towards creating beauty and 2) through their art, they share their vision on life, the world and its direction.

Music, like literature, also focus on expressing ideas, but in a different language and with a similar care for aesthetics, or how well the elements expose that idea.

Metal is no exception:

This isn’t something we do to pay the bills, it’s not a job and it’s not a chore, its something we are truly passionate about. It is something that each one of us needs in our lives, because without it, our lives would have a huge void. It’s very hard to convey this feeling to some people, but it is like a drug, a powerful driving force that we enjoy following year after year, record after record. So this is what kills complacency, our love for what we do and our passion and drive to move it forward and improve on it.

(…)

Well, I really can’t speak for anyone else, but I would imagine and would like to think musicians use their music to express their thoughts and feelings, whether it be on religion, or just their take on the world. For us, Death Metal was the perfect vehicle for conveying our feelings, sometimes angry, bitter and sad, but ultimately to express ourselves through the music.

I don’t think musicians sharing similar views will necessarily create the same types of music, because music is an individual thing and it is personal. Our music is very aggressive and powerful with a lot of heaviness, dark melodies, and very haunting at times, and this certainly reflects what the lyrics are saying. Some bands do have something to say in their music that is real and will make people think, other bands like to go in a different direction and create lyrics that are fantasy, pure entertainment for the listener, which is also fine, and we have also incorporated some of this to drive home our point on some occasions, but I think for the most part we fall into the first category.

We usually have something to say, and we don’t like to be preachy about it, but we like to present it in such a way that it does paint a bleak picture, and I think this certainly drives home the point quicker once you understand what the point of the song is. This genre definitely has a culture AND a philosophy all of its own.

Immolation interview

For hessians, metal is beauty and order expressed in the language of fury and noise. The best works in the genre were created by people who are artists by nature, like Orwell and Huxley were and musicians like Ross Dolan are. Not everyone can become an artist and that’s why any form of art that encourages participation above all gets swamped into mediocrity.

Knowing that, hessians should think twice before giving their approval towards anything that comes their way. Be more critical. Some tips regarding that will appear in a future post.

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Judas Priest – Firepower (2018)

Judas Priest came from that intermediate stage between proto-metal and hard rock that emphasized really intense conclusions to compelling but basic riffs, and with Firepower, the band returns to form by delivering those moments of ritual ascension in which the foot-stomping, hand-flinging, and head-thrashing impulses join a sense of profundity through consilience as each track comes together.

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Musical Dissection of Pestilence “Out of the Body”

Once upon a time Pestilence were a very capable death/speed metal band that would attain great heights with the their magnum opus Consuming Impulse. Leaving behind the speed metal of Malleus Maleficarum for greater freedom in melody and structure, “Out of the body” is by far the most popular track on this album due to its catchy main riff, guitar acrobatics and absolute intensity.

Those are only the surface traits of what makes this song and the album a bonafide death metal classic.

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Pestilence Attempts Comeback But Forgets What Makes Death Metal Great

Listen to a track from the upcoming Hadeon from longstanding Dutch band Pestilence, one is immediately struck by the similarity to late-1990s Morbid Angel: the riffs are there, albeit a bit impatient and tightly circular, but the whole experience is not. What is missing? To understand this, we must go to the core of what made death metal what it is.

If you wanted to explain to a normal person what death metal is, looking at the core of its spirit, you might haul out Slayer Hell Awaits, Hellhammer Apocalyptic Raids, and Bathory The Return… because these influenced the techniques, composition, and spirit of death metal. From Hellhammer and Slayer, it got its song structure and aesthetics; from Bathory its themes and riff technique.

Death metal took the original idea of metal, formed when Black Sabbath and others began using power chords to make phrasal riffs instead of harmony-oriented open chord riffs, and developed it further. This is different than doing something “new” or “progressing” because it means undertaking the much harder task of developing an idea further at a structural level instead of just changing aesthetics.

With the rise of underground metal, death metal adopted chromatic riffing and made the interplay between riffs form a narrative to each song. This abolished typical rock song structure and, because the guitar served as a melodic instrument instead of a harmonic one, forced vocals, bass and drums into a background role. How well the riffs fit together and portrayed an atmosphere, idea, or sensation defined the quality of the music.

Pestilence came from a solid death metal background with Consuming Impulse but showed a speed metal styled approach on Malleus Maleficarum, and this tension has stayed with the band for its entire career. The speed metal style of verse and chorus built on a singular theme that is present in the music is easier to jam on and use harmony to complement, where death metal rarely explicitly states its theme, only silhouetting it in the interaction between its many riffs. With speed metal, bands can set up a chord progression and develop it in layers of internal commentary like jazz, and this puts vocals back in position number one among the lead instruments.

“Non-Physical Existent” is a two-riff song with both based on the same note progression. It creates its intensity through the clash between a ripping circular high speed riff and a slower chromatic riff that uses odd harmony to distinguish notes in an otherwise linear theme. The song breaks into a solo section over one of the riffs, and has a type of turnaround the drops into the faster riff as a return. But there is no real interplay nor any narrative.

From the riffs themselves, this is a good song, but unfortunately, it is not death metal. Nor will it last because essentially it is a closed-circuit video of itself, a riff commented on by another, without resembling any particular experience or emotion, therefore being a null journey, more like stasis in space while riffs loop. It is better than not bad, but still not of real interest to the death metal fan.

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Sin and Despair in Deathcrush

At the truest heart of metal lies a voice embodied, somewhat childishly, somewhat ineptly, but no less clearly and latent with potential, by Mayhem’s Deathcrush. The re-inversion of all values that metal enacts starts with the embracing of what modernity would see as its sickness unto death. The despair and sin of sickness unto death become vital active elements in the morbid minds of those who would vanquish dogmatic preconceptions in the Sky God Religions and their secular humanist counterparts.  Being, in essence a way of connecting back to itself, the ideological blockages set up by this dead-end society had to be faced head on.  Herein lies the relevance and meaning of the present album.  Despair is converted into pure energy, the rules disavowed, the road of sin is tread fanatically as a method of purification —a negative unity of evil towards the beyond, away from human-ness in its modern form, away from mundanity.  For the burgeoning underground, as seen from Mayhem’s perspective, primacy would placed on being and its dark discovery of self, against the presumption of knowing, and the oppressive, futile impositions from above.  All knowing, all value of music, would come from this ‘being’, from a dark exploration of the soul possessed by a cosmic force of destruction.

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