Interview with Dr. Martin Jacobsen who teaches “Heavy Metal as a Literary Genre”

professor_martin_jacobsen-heavy_metal_as_a_literary_genre

Over the four decades that heavy metal has been with us, people in responsible positions in society have gradually become more accepting of it as an art form and a message from its fanbase.

Such acceptance could not exist without people like Dr. Martin Jacobsen, who by teaching a class on heavy metal as literature has introduced academics to the depth and richness of this genre.

For the past semester, Dr. Jacobsen has been teaching “Heavy Metal as a Literary Genre” at WTAMU, where he introduces students to the literary and artistic aspects of heavy metal. In addition, he writes for Death Metal Underground and is a world-recognized expert in death metal who is active in his local death metal scene.

Jacobsen has returned to teach another semester of the class, which seems to be attracting more students as word of it spreads. We were able to follow up on our first interview with Professor Jacobsen to get a feel for what has changed between the years.

This is the second time you’re offering your class on heavy metal, “Heavy Metal as a Literary Genre.” Was the last time a success?

It was beyond successful. Our local paper did a story on us that went viral — ultimately being translated into 7 or 8 languages, and garnering a spot on Brazilian TV and an Canadian Public Radio. Our 15 minutes of fame. DMU was the first to pick up the story, and we are very grateful for your support of our class.

How have you changed the class? Is the class format the same?

It’ll be a discussion class with lots of music-about 50-50. I have added a lecture devoted to death metal, and I plan to add others about other forms. I’m going to require more writing and much more stringent guidelines for that writing. I’ve also invited local recording and performing artists speak about the lifestyle, the recording process, touring.

What is a typical class period like?

We will begin each day with a student presentation of a song . There will be a required PowerPoint slide with it to show the group, album, lyrics, and so on, in proper style-sheet format. It’s a quantity/quality thing. That will be the first 10 minutes or so. There we will have a lesson in which a sub-genre, group, musician or other germane idea is presented in a standard format: Premises, basically the context behind the thesis; thesis, the point of the lecture; and evidence, documented proof of the point and sample songs to let the students hear it for themselves. I am hoping that we will have a Metal God Profile or two, and if we run across something important as we listen and discuss, we will go with it. We will also, I’m hoping, have guest speakers, and I do plan to bring my guitar in to define certain musical structures and so on.

What disciplines does HMLG touch on? It’s a literature class about music; does that influence what you teach?

We will treat music as if it were literature, looking at its structures, motifs, themes. We will identify the features of heavy metal and how those features are altered to signify different sub-genres. There will be a strong trans-historical structure to the class. I like to think of the history of heavy metal as dominoes standing up. Black Sabbath kicked off the genre and their early albums really set the dominoes in motion. But rather than falling, the dominoes rose like headstones.

You were recently quoted in the Amarillo Globe-News with a definition of death metal:

“Death Metal is an extreme form of metal that tends to privilege growled vocals, blast-beat drumming and virtuosic guitar work. Death metal often uses lengthy compositions featuring minor keys and multiple tempo changes. Thematically, death metal often focuses on violence and gore, but themes of all kinds are interrogated by death metal bands, usually reflecting a pessimistic, even hopeless, outlook. Multiple subgenres exist under the banner of death metal.”

Do you teach such things in the class? Do you realize how totally awesome it is to be quoted in your local newspaper as a death metal expert?

We do work with definitions. And it’s damned cool to be quoted as an expert.

You have become a proficient guitarist over the last few months. What has this taught you about metal?

It is sophisticated music. It’s pushing the edges most of the time. In so many ways, it’s like classical music. It uses tempo changes, it’s riff-driven, it features instrumental virtuosity. Learning how to play again has given me a hands-on, ears-on ability to both understand and interrogate elements that would have been only something I’d have talked about before. I’m thinking about taking my guitar to class for some illustrative lessons. Last term, I had students who didn’t know what a riff is. And amp in the room will quickly solve that. Anyway, It’s given me the musical part of the class in a way no other practice could. Knowing a solo or riff enhances my ability to articulate the ways that such elements differentiate or sustain a genre.

This recent guitar-playing is following up on a youthful musical career. Can you tell us about that? What groups were you in, and what styles did they play?

Career is a bit of an overstatement, but I did play in a couple of local groups. One comprised classmates of mine, and we played mostly pop. I was lead guitarist. The other band was a metal band. I played rhythm guitar. We did mostly well-known metal of the early 1980s-Dio, Def Leppard, Scorpions, AC/DC. It was kid stuff in many ways.

What forms of music do you listen to, when you have no agenda at hand? Does this correspond to what was current when you were of high school – college age?

My tastes have gotten heavier as I’ve gotten older. I didn’t listen to anything really heavy in high school. I started metal as a young adult. I returned to it about ten years ago. I like classic metal best. I’m starting to like death metal bands that end up progressive bands, like Opeth. But I like heavy music. Black Sabbath is my favorite group.

I also listen to a lot of prog, Yes and Kansas being my favorites. I like the Flying Colors supergroup. I like some southern rock, but I don’t have a systematic understanding of it in the same way as I do about metal.

What is heavy metal? Is it distinct from rock music? Is death metal distinct from other forms of heavy metal?

We actually sought to define heavy metal as a a group last time. We ended up with this: “Heavy metal is a form of rock music with a heavy, distorted, menacing sound and concerned with dark, disturbing, and pessimistic themes.”

Death Metal is distinct from other forms. It’s often more thematically disturbing than other forms, but in many instances beside the obviously shock-based bands and motifs, it’s disturbing because it’s asking the questions other forms of art — or even metal — do not ask. I’m also really taken with instrumental virtuosity. Death metal tends to privilege excellent playing. It’s a boundary extension thing. And the structures of good death metal are frequently quite elaborate, even symphonic. I think it’s also interesting that some death metal masterminds, say Schuldiner or Åkerfeldt-become proggy later. It’s another type of boundary testing. As I say so often, metal is in so many ways similar to classical music. It’s not surprising that death metal sometimes veers into other genres. Compare that with black metal, which so often seems to have simplicity and even homogeneity as elements of its ethos.

You have said, in the past that much of heavy metal’s content is similar to Romanticism. What was Romanticism? Does it still walk among us?

It totally does. I think of Romanticism as applied Platonic philosophy. Metal at its best offers a way of thinking about music and thinking that breaks the boundaries and lays before us the larger patterns of musical and thematic expression. It’s the boundaries that are interesting to me. And the Romantics did that. They looked at classical sources and wrote (or expressed via many art forms) about their own experiences within that frame.

Has heavy metal changed the way you look at literature?

I think so. I think all art sharpens perceptions and adds ways of experiencing other forms. I’ve taken up the guitar again after a very long time. And while my playing is a work-in-progress, playing again sharpens my listening and adds a critical lens I didn’t have last time. I’m not sure this is a very good answer to your question. I think the way metal expresses itself is literary in its basic constructions, so engaging that enhances how I think. Analyzing lyrics is literary analysis, so from that standpoint I am definitely applying my training to the process and gaining from doing so. And metal also has other ethos-building elements that any humanities scholar would find interesting.

Contact with your students has deepened your own experience of metal apparently. Can you tell us about this?

I have bonded with several students from the earlier class, and I’ve actually met some of my future students at shows. Some of my former students play in local bands. I think it’s incumbent upon me to know my local scene. But the local scene here has become much more to me than metalheads I know. They’ve become my community.

Do you think the administration at WTAMU have become more open to heavy metal thanks to the first semester of this class and the response to it?

Yes. It’s a permanent addition to our course offerings in an era when core classes are evaporating.

Do you think or have experience that this class has made students more motivated to check out more literature?

Yes. I was able to get them to think about books and to read closely for class discussion. Again, it’s a humanities class and the title is a little misleading. We are embracing other forms. But in identifying the literary influences in metal, I have been able to get students to try literature they may not otherwise have tried.

You’re now one of the foremost instructors using metal in classes in the world. What advice do you have for other educators along these lines?

Well, thank you. That’s very kind. The advice I’d give is to proceed only if you have the freedom to do it right. My department and university totally backed me. I’ll also say that you should tap into student knowledge. This is a class where the students may know as much or more about “their” metal as I do about mine. It’s a bit of a partnership. A Facebook page is a good idea too. It takes the learning into their lives where metal is a constant and collects their experiences for the class.

Will there be a open course / distance learning version of the class? Have you considered packaging it as videos like the classes on Coursera or MIT’s open courseware?

We can do it. And the idea of podcasts has been bandied about.

4 Comments

Tags: , , , , , ,

Martin Jacobsen joins Death Metal Underground staff

martin_jacobsen-guitar_photoWe are fortunate to be able to announce that Martin Jacobsen, a talented writer and educator, and full-time metalhead, has joined our staff as a writer. He will continue to pen his “Analyze it to Life” column, which gives metal the detailed analysis it merits, as well as other news stories and reviews.

As an author, Jacobsen has covered a range of academic and popular topics, but readers may remember him on DeathMetal.org for his thorough inspection of the new Black Sabbath song “God is Dead?” and the even more detailed review of the new Black Sabbath album, 13.

A full-time Hessian, Jacobsen plays guitar and stays abreast of developments in the world of metal both above and below ground. All of us on the staff look forward to more of his insightful writing and to working with him in the future.

No Comments

Tags: ,

Deathfests went wrong way on Disma

disma_-_towards_the_megalith

Nothing makes a big deal out of something faster than making a big deal out of it. – Martin M. Jacobsen, Ph.D.

It’s old news that the Maryland Deathfest, California Deathfest, and the Netherlands Deathfest removed New Jersey death metal band Disma from their shows, citing vocalist Craig Pillard’s association with the Nazi band Sturmführer and his public embrace of right-wing positions.

The fests had the right to remove Disma. I’m not really writing about that. Pillard has the right to embrace any position he wishes. I’m not really writing about that either. I have no sympathy for Nazi thinking, and I’ve noted a wave of Nazi apologia flying around the net lately, which may have contributed to Disma’s difficulties. I’m generally put off by overtly political bands that place ideology of any kind before musical expression. But I’m not really writing about my positions or political bands either. I’m disinclined to discuss SJWs or criticize the fests or Pillard or Sturmführer.

This editorial addresses the imbecility of the outcome of banning Disma from these fests or other shows. Since removing Disma from the playbill has become a bandwagon phenomenon, Sturmfuhrer and Nazism have benefited. If these fests would have let Disma play, it stands to reason that fewer people would have been “affected” than have been reached by the news of banning them. As Pillard and countless other have correctly pointed out, Disma is not invested in political stances. They’re a fairly standard death metal band offering fairly standard death metal lyrics and themes. In fact, they’re so standard that the Netherlands Deathfest said this:

We feel that Funebrarum is an adequate replacement to make up for this, but if for some reason you purchased a Sunday ticket to see Disma, you may request a refund.

Funebararum may or may not be equivalent (ironically it shares a drummer with Disma). But the passive-aggression in the second part of this statement typifies the mindset here under discussion. What they really mean to say is “If you wanted Disma, you’re a Nazi because now that the story is out you couldn’t possibly like Disma because they are a relatively middle-of-the-road doom/death band-you must follow in lock-step the condemnation of what we condemn.”

Sound familiar?

Disma fans who know of Pillard’s association with the aforementioned band and ideas are surely not legion. Other fans who like Disma as Disma may not have known much about it at all. While there’s no way to know how many of the latter would be ‘reached’ by the former, the number of people ‘affected’ by ‘exposure’ to Disma and their fans surely would not have been overwhelmingly unsettling.

But banning Disma has had a reverse effect. Rather than disassociating themselves from the problems listed above, the actions of these promoters have generated a wave of ‘reporting’ in the metal press that has carried the ethos they sought to exclude to an audience far larger than any fest would draw. As the ‘news’ spread, so did the imagery and ideas that the fests claimed to oppose. As often happens in a media frenzy, the reporting of the ‘problem’ results in the promotion of it.

MetalSucks, Metal Injection and other cut-and-paste journals wasted no time spreading the story, modeling their best bandwagon morality, adding their outrage to the outrage. But for reasons that do not make any sense to me at all, they chose to splatter a swastika-clad CD and screen shots of Pillard’s statements all over the internet. Undoubtedly the purveyors of this story would argue they are being accurate and thorough, but the proliferation of these ideas in any form actually incites the very mania these people claim to fear. They hate these ideas, they say, and yet knowingly make them available to a larger audience than letting Disma play at all the fests would ever have done.

And I’m guessing that people who advocate for Nazi or right-wing positions are not terribly afraid of MetalSucks or Metal Injection being outraged about anything, but they are undoubtedly delighted by the idea of these images breaking into a medium that they would never be included in otherwise. It makes these fest promoters and ‘journalists’ accessories after the fact.

After all, somebody once associated with propaganda said that people will believe a square is a circle if you repeat it enough. Circling Disma like vultures circling a carcass has drawn far more attention to these ideas, repeating the unintended message as much as the intended one. Being so against something that you expose its artifacts to the entire world in an attempt to lessen their impact is about as logical as believing in God.

Correction: the wrong image was used with this original post against the author’s wishes. We regret this oversight.

1 Comment

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Brett Stevens granted a Honoris Causa title of Doctor of Heavy Metal

honoris_causa_heavy_metal_doctorate

 

There are a few people out there who get it. These individuals, able to see beneath appearance to the structure of reality far more than the average, understand not just what things are but how and why they are what they are. They do this not for the fame or money, since those come to people who weaken meaning in order to benefit appearance that rewards pleasant oblivion, but instead because understanding our world is a fundamental desire that advances us as a species. These are the people who get burned by the angry crowd for “witchcraft” for having discovered new ideas that threaten the order of society as it is, making people look foolish for relying on the old when a better way is available.

Dr. Martin Jacobsen is one of those who looks beneath the surface and discovers, like heavy metal, the difficult questions of reality that humans prefer to bury under waves of social control, pleasant illusion and comfortingly bourgeois products. In the truest spirit of both education and outsider music, he explores that areas where society has said non plus ultra (“go no further”) because they reveal fundamental contradictions in many of the assumptions upon which our civilization relies for its sense of well-being and that it is pointed in the right direction. Unsettling, dark, morbid, nihilistic, feral, atavistic, self-negating and amoral, these spaces confront us with what most of us view as the problem to which society is a solution, namely all that disturbs us about the conditions of life itself. Society offers us salvation from threats and deliverance from want, but also grants us on an existential level a sense of purpose that is more important than the conditions of life which make us doubt ourselves and our purpose. Society sells comfort on a mental level as well as a physical.

Thus it is a great honor to be presented with Doctor of Heavy Metal certification by Dr. Jacobsen, whom I consider one of the highest authorities in the field capable of doing so. As a recognized scholar of metal in this mode, I am able to continue my writing and journey of discovery into this rich genre of music which has rejected both The Establishment and the counter-culture in its pursuit of truth at a lower level than the social categories, feelings and desires with which most of us paper over the disturbing aspects of life. There is not much recognition for those of us who attempt to unearth the real beneath the surreal and yet profitable, but being recognized by others whose work we esteem in this field may be the best of all. Thank you, Dr. Jacobsen, and my wall will wear this with pride, as will my metal soul.

N.B. signature digitally removed for security reasons.

15 Comments

Tags: , ,

The Theory of Metal Relativity

fields_of_elysium_-_live_photo

The conclusion of the final West Texas Death Fest leaves me with many questions. Jess and Ramon Cazares — the driving force behind The Fest — will relocate soon, and that not only means that this particular show will be no more but also raises the less comfortable question about the sustainability of metal in our area. The WTDF exists because of their devotion and toil. Losing them may mean losing local metal. I’m not writing about this problem here, but the foreboding it causes provides some context for the story I do want to tell.

The Fest experience this year offered the expected benefits: seeing friends and former students, talking to people from different places, and experiencing a kaleidoscope of death metal subgenres. Internally, I like The Fest because I can behave in a more extreme way than I usually do. As a native analyst, the major draw for me is the wealth of musical data, and I spend much of my time standing back and watching, taking pictures, comparing styles, ranking bands. That said, I’m also an extreme personality making my way in a buttoned-up, even urbane, profession where my initial responses to almost everything must be tabled. At The Fest, I can bang my head right off my shoulders and no one cares; in fact, a stranger next to me does exactly that same thing: absorbs the musical energy, processes it through his or her heart, and gives it back through unbridled physical response. The two processes sustain and create each other, like a heavy metal version of Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Extreme metal draws — and draws from — extreme mentalities.

Photo by Martin Jacobsen.

Photo by Martin Jacobsen.

Numerous fulfilling moments arose from this Fest. I communed with some people from my home state, talked with musicians, and lost myself in Abolishment of Flesh’s “The Suffering” — that headbanging moment I noted above (and many thanks to the wild redhead next to me, whoever you are, for that moment of anonymous unity headbanging offers). Plainview tech-death band Astringency, who performed immediately before the band that created the moment I’m chronicling, contributed to this experience. They seem to have always gone everywhere together, and their ladies accompany them (some bands brought their parents and kids), so when they are playing, the entire front row knows what’s coming. There is an explosion of headbanging that’s so perfectly timed that it’s a bit of a shock. Many of their fellow townspeople have studied with me at the university, and all of them seem to be musicians. I have surmised that Plainview, TX, seems to produce multi-instrumentalists like other Texas towns produce football teams. Anyway, I was alive after the Astringency set, which was largely new material, humbled and inspired by their astonishing vision and talent. I could have stopped there and been satisfied with The Fest.

But, enough context. The moment has come to attempt a description of the moment that came from the next band’s set. Fields of Elysium, a progressive technical death metal band from Santa Fe, NM, followed Astringency (with whom they had recently toured). I’d seen them a couple of times already. The last time I saw them, they said they wanted to “try a new one; we’ll see how it goes.” It amazed me that they would risk that. They have CDs and a core of fans. They could have just played a show. But they took that extra step.

This time, they said everything was new. I had been listening to them all week before the show. I was expecting to hear some of that music. This announcement reminded me of the risk they had taken the last time I’d seen them. It seemed admirable to me that they would bring their creative process to us like that. I was already so alive from the Astringency set that I just settled in and set the sensors on full.

And perhaps it was this unprepared but receptive state of mind that allowed me to see the magic. They did not play a different version of the same thing. It was better. And they were better. They were better players than the year before, and the year before they had left the audience slack-jawed and enlightened. They were playing their instruments in ways that didn’t even make sense to me. The compositions were different, more intricate, more enlivened. All of the band members focused intently on their playing-no acting, just music. While I was watching one of the guitarists sweep-picking, almost like playing a harp, for some reason, everything suddenly felt funny. I looked behind me and discovered why.

The magic had spread. A spell had settled over the crowd and quelled any moshing or headbanging. Fields of Elysium focused on their instruments, and we focused on them. It was still and silent, two of the last responses you might think a band at an extreme metal fest may elicit.

Then it hit me. Maybe it’s one of the few places such a moment could exist. Maybe a local fest with a community ethos was the just the place for it to happen — a collection of musically-aware extremists. Fields of Elysium brought us something different. They trusted us with their work. This wasn’t about what they’d done. It wasn’t about what they were doing at that moment. It was about what they do. They were out on the edge of possibility, of discovery. They were seeking the next note, the next phrase, the next level. They were seeking the nexus to another awareness that only music can open.

Photo by Martin Jacobsen.

Photo by Martin Jacobsen.

And they let us watch.

And at that moment, we were no longer fans: we had become witnesses.

And then witness transmogrified into wisdom.

At that moment, we were able to perceive not just the creative process but its goal: the discovery of beauty, which is forever the essence of music, and which for that moment, made even forever a tangible element. It may have been only a minute or two on the clock, but the experience existed as a microcosmic eternity.

And perhaps only a group of extremists possess the ability to be still and silent when stillness and silence constitute the right approach. It’s metal relativity: channeling the atmosphere created by the music, processing it through awareness, and giving it back as the reverent attention the “finite infinity” Fields of Elysium created at that moment required.

The end of the West Texas Death Fest may be inevitable, and no doubt many people will say “That’s life.” While some moments in our lives — such as the diminution of metal in our region—may be tragic, other moments — such as the one described here, are magic.

I hope we do not lose the magic moments.

Photo by Carly Carthel.

Photo by Carly Carthel.

No Comments

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Interview with The Inverted Katabasis author Dean Swinford

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We were fortunate to get some time for a chat with Dean Swinford, author of Death Metal Epic I: The Inverted Katabasis. As a person with extensive experience in both death metal and literature, Swinford provides a great deal of insight into both.

You’ve walked dual paths in this life, both metal and literature. Do you see any parallels between them?

I definitely see lots of parallels between the two. Indirectly, you can find groups in any metal subgenre that work with myths or legends of some kind. More directly, so many metal songs have connections to specific books and stories by modern authors.

Beyond that, so many of the thank you lists in the liner notes specifically mention authors and books that influenced the musicians. I’ve never seen that done so consistently in any other modern music genre.

Both metal and literature are ways to, and I’m paraphrasing Dante a bit here, walk through the dark forest. I guess what I’m doing is joining the two so that I can write about the ways that the two paths become one. Just a note about the images in the interview — I’ve included some sketches from my journals to go along with the questions. I draw a lot when I’m writing and I think the images help to show how I worked through and continue to work through ideas for the books.

Figure 1. One of my characters (David? Nekrokor? Svart?) in the woods

Figure 1. One of my characters (David? Nekrokor? Svart?) in the woods

Your book, Death Metal Epic I: The Inverted Katabasis, is a fictional account of early 1990s Florida death metal — but it’s clear it was influenced by events that were far from fictional. What inspired this book, and how does it connect with your own story?

You’re right that the book has a number of features taken from my own life, but I’ve put them within the context of someone in an early 1990s Florida death metal band. I grew up in Miami and I was the music director of the college radio station at Florida International University.

A friend of mine did the metal show at University of Miami, and he also ran the metal section at Yesterday and Today Records. As you know from your experience in college radio, it’s pretty thrilling to talk to people from the labels, meet people from bands you like, and, of course, get music sent to you in the mail.

The places in the book are places I’ve lived in or traveled to, so in that sense, it’s a way for me to revisit different parts of my life. I’ve always liked coming of age stories and novels about artists and musicians. This seemed like a way to write that kind of book, but in a context that I’m familiar with. Also, I wanted to write something relatively light and funny that still dealt with some deeper themes.

I used to write stories that were more surreal or fantastic in their approach. I still use that kind of voice for the “metametal” chapters in the book. As I got older, I started to realize that it was more interesting and satisfying to write a story about every day events, about getting annoyed at your friend or suffering through the stomach flu.

One of the things I’ve always liked about metal is that it tends to be very escapist. I like songs about dragons, ancient rites, and forgotten deities precisely because I don’t encounter those things on a daily basis.

One of the things I’ve always liked about metal is that it tends to be very escapist. I like songs about dragons, ancient rites, and forgotten deities precisely because I don’t encounter those things on a daily basis. I guess if I’m doing anything new in the book, I’m taking that escapism and juxtaposing it with the kinds of struggles a lot of people seem to encounter as they move into their twenties.

Figure 2. Journaling with a portrait of Nekrokor

Figure 2. Journaling with a portrait of Nekrokor

Do you think death metal was inspired by literature? If so, what, and how did it shape the genre?

Oh, sure. I mean, if Tolkien’s orcs made folk music of their own, what would it sound like? When one of Lovecraft’s protagonists hears the batrachian choir that tips him into madness, what does he hear? And I think that it contributes to literature through what you could call the “poetics” of metal lyrics and the textual features of liner notes—the mix of images and lyrics paired with personal notes and lists from the musicians.

You mentioned in an email to me that you’ve found some metal lyrics that remind you of Neoplatonism. Could you explain what you mean?

Neoplatonism refers to the synthesis of pagan and Christian philosophy into a kind of mystical and theological framework that had a pretty broad influence until the early modern scientific revolution. I write about its influence on the astronomer Johannes Kepler in another book of mine, Through the Daemon’s Gate. I guess because I’m interested in Neoplatonism, I see traces of it everywhere. I don’t want to go into too much detail on this, but one specific example I could talk about is pretty evident in Inquisition‘s Ominous Doctrines of the Perpetual Mystical Macrocosm. The idea of the macrocosm influencing the microcosm comes directly from Neoplatonism. The concept that space is a kind of tomb is evident in classical literature as well. In Cicero’s Dream of Scipio, the narrator ascends into space, where he speaks with the ghost of his dead grandfather. It’s no accident that the last word of each part of Dante’s Commedia is “stars.”

Another idea that Dagon mentions in the liner notes is what he calls the “eternal quest for infernal tone.” That idea of the true disciple uncovering the most diabolic tone is linked to the thematic concern of the album, which is the power that the macrocosm exerts on those of us on earth.

In Neoplatonism, the interlocking spheres of the cosmos produce tones that are perfect and inspire order in the sublunary realm. That’s the mystical element of Pythagoras’s theories on tonal proportions. The key shift from Pythagoras to Dagon is that, while the Ptolemaic universe was seen as orderly and divine, Inquisition’s musings tend more towards a contemplation of the universe as infinite chaos.

Do you still listen to metal? If so, what inhabits your player these days? How does this differ from the hazy glory days of the early 1990s?

Of course. I still get excited when I discover a band. Plus, I do most of my writing while listening to music, so I like to get something new as a writing reward when I meet some kind of deadline. I just picked up the two Atlantean Kodex albums and I am loving those. It helps that their myth-themed approach is just the kind of thing that I write about in my book. I mean, the second one is based on the same Robert Graves book that my character Juan is obsessed with, so I had to check it out!

I’m also really into some of the newer Inquisition albums, as mentioned above. Other current favorites include Obscura, Mournful Congregation, and this Dutch doom band Officium Triste. Of course, I still listen to all the classics, too. I listen to Candlemass and Solitude Aeternus a lot. As I’m writing these books, I try to listen to music that corresponds most with the plot. So, right now I’m trying to listen to things that meet the approval of Svart, the mastermind of Desekration.

Figure 3. Journaling and sketch of Svart's record shop

Figure 3. Journaling and sketch of Svart’s record shop

Do you detect any influences from Gothic or Romantic literature in death metal? If these aren’t direct influences, do you think the two genres converge on similar ideas because they’re writing about similar experiences/concepts?

I think you’re probably right. You could probably catalog a lot of specific references, everything from the Frankenstein samples on Morpheus DescendsRitual of Infinity to the painting by Caspar David Friedrich on the new Atlantean Kodex album. As far as similar experiences and concepts, I’d say that metal lyrics, like Gothic and Romantic lit, use fantasy as an indirect way to represent complex emotions like longing and despair.

You’re writing a paper on prosopopoeia, which I’m told is a rhetorical device in which a speaker or writer communicates by speaking through another object or person. How do you think this applies to metal?

Yeah, that’s right. I’m working on a paper that looks at corpsepaint as a kind of mask, especially given statements by Dead that he used corpsepaint to become or give voice to a victim of the Black Death. What’s interesting is that prosopopoeia is a device that seems to clearly apply to black metal performance — Dead popularized corpsepaint, but so many bands still use it — but the rhetorical device is also evident in the lyrics on De Mysteriis. There are more than a few examples in the lyrics of address from the point of view of a long-dead spirit. I think that’s interesting in the context of medievalism, or the ways that contemporary culture still uses or speaks through the Middle Ages as a way of talking about our own time.

Do you think this type of “mask” applies to black metal and hardcore punk more than other genres? Why would a genre need to conceal the origin of its thoughts — do you think that determination lies more with the band, or what the audience can tolerate?

I think that idea of masking occurs in every genre to some extent and probably waxes and wanes over time. Right now, it seems like it’s often used more as a genre marker than anything. You can buy an action figure of Lars Umlaut, the Guitar Hero character modeled off of the guys in Immortal.

In The Inverted Katabasis, you utilize a literary figure known as the katabasis. What is this and how does it apply to death metal and other underground genres?

Right — the katabasis is the mythical journey to Hell. It’s just a name to describe a kind of journey that lots of mythic heroes undertake. In most cases, it’s linked in some way to a quest against death or against the realization of one’s mortality. Orpheus goes to Hell to rescue his lady, but it doesn’t work out so well. He ends up wandering the world like a depressive, plucking doomy odes on his lyre until he gets ripped apart by Maenads. Dante’s journey into the underworld is a katabasis as well.

I’d say the connection to myth is really important. I remember seeing Nile a few years ago and it felt like they had, if even only temporarily, resurrected the dead gods.

So, an inverted katabasis is a journey out of hell. There’s a word for that, too. It’s called an “anabasis.” But I liked inverted katabasis better because it sounded more like something that could work as an album title. For David Fosberg, the inverted katabasis is an escape from the minimum wage hell of his life in Miami. Plus, my ironic treatment of the trope helps to put the book in its true genre, the mock epic.

image4

Several of the people I’ve talked to about this book have found in David Fosberg an uncanny portrait of the years following a successful second-tier death metal release that pushed the limits but never got big. Why do you think so many of these bands vanished into obscurity?

Thanks for that. In a lot of ways, I’m writing about metal, but I think that this trajectory is probably pretty common for people in any number of fields. The moment I’m writing about in the books goes from the time that death metal was big enough for bands like Napalm Death, Carcass, Cathedral, Godflesh, and Morbid Angel to get some major label attention to the influx of black metal that seemed to bring everything back to small, purposefully obscure labels.

In a lot of ways, this seems similar to the way the skateboarding industry crashed in the early nineties. As far as all the great bands that vanished into obscurity, my guess is that it’s because life is hard and, ultimately, releasing an album (or a book, for that matter) isn’t going to change that.

Do you think death metal has a place in education? If you were to teach death metal, say as a form of literature or art, how would you introduce it to your students?

Sure. There are a number of people working in that direction. Martin Jacobsen at West Texas A & M teaches a course on metal and literature. There’s an International Society for Metal Music Studies. Nicola Masciandaro and others have done a lot of work on theorizing black metal. I think if I were to link the two in a class, I’d do it as part of a broader exploration of medievalism.

You’ve moved on from death metal, but haven’t quite left it behind; it seems to live in your thoughts. What do you think is the enduring appeal of death metal? Did it have an artistic or generational statement to make that was profound then and remains so today?

That’s a good question. I think the way it pushes musical limits is important. Even with something like the speed of drumming featured in that recent Wall Street Journal article. For me, I’d say the connection to myth is really important. I remember seeing Nile a few years ago and it felt like they had, if even only temporarily, resurrected the dead gods. That process has long been an important part of human culture.

In another interview, you said that your own musical project had “layers of ambient keyboards and lyrics taken from myths, the sagas, and so forth.” Do you think you were ahead of the times, having seen how black metal shifted in that direction after its initial thrust (Neptune Towers, Beherit, Ildjarn, Wardruna, Burzum)?

I wish! I recorded it in a radio station studio like the one I describe in the book. By the time I started to figure out what I was doing, I had to return my studio key in a situation pretty similar to what happens to Juan. I still think there’s a way to use this approach to make something interesting. Maybe someday.

Yours appears to be one of the first entries in the “death metal literature” genre. Do you think this field is going to grow?

I think so. Since I’ve been getting my book out there, I’ve met a lot of people who seem really interested in the possibilities of metal lit, or whatever you want to call it. Kriscinda Lee Everitt has started a journal for metal themed fiction called Despumation Press, so anyone who has a story to tell should send in a submission.

Speaking of growing, I understand that The Inverted Katabasis is part of an ongoing series. How big does it get? Do you have fantasy worlds like Mordor and Hogwarts for us?

That’s right. The current plan is to do three books. What’s more metal than an epic trilogy, right? It might be even more metal if I never actually finish. I try to make the bands, characters, and albums in the books as convincing as I can so that they take on a life of their own. That’s probably one of my favorite parts of this. I really enjoy the creative process of inventing new band logos, albums, characters, and liner notes. Who knows? Maybe someday, someone will cover a Katabasis song or try to recreate the groundbreaking work of Astrampsychos.

Figure 5. The Astrampsychos logo and some notes on the ocarina

Figure 5. The Astrampsychos logo and some notes on the ocarina

What’s your next step in your career as a death metal writer — are you going to continue working on the books linearly, write short stories, or return to music and use it to accompany the next volume?

Right now, I’m trying to finish up the second book of the Death Metal Epic. The next one is going to be called The Goat Song Sacrifice. There will be new characters, new bands, new struggles for David Fosberg to endure.

9 Comments

Tags: , , , , , ,

Black Sabbath – Tyr

black_sabbath-tyr

If I ever have to declare a field of study — and I hope I never must — I will declare my intention to study transitional material. It is the most fascinating by far, and Black Sabbath Tyr demonstrates why.

Emerging in the final days of the 1980s and the first days of the new decade, Tyr shows Black Sabbath trying to keep one foot in what succeeded in the previous era while gesturing at inventing the next. The band is not bold enough to simply invent it, since they are too invested in being an industry in themselves. That puts them in the position of defending what they have by incorporating the current, not by redefining it and trying to become something new.

The 80s influences are most painful in the vocals, which bring back flashbacks to Miami Vice and War Games. The 1980s were above all a sentimental time: the late 60s had changed the nation, and now we were in the grips of a Cold War that threatened to eliminate us all in the absolute erasure of kill zone radius extermination. People sought emotion, a fleeting sense of beauty and hope in the night, before the coming darkness swallowed all. It was really a prolonged version of what Berlin must have been like in 1945, but no one could recognize it. They buried themselves in things: in work, in religion, in warfare or in ideology. And so the 1980s sound is that of the lover glimpsed on a passing train, a moment of hope in the doom, a taste of what could have been, drowned out in mechanical rumblings and coalescent submerging blackness.

While the elements of the proto-metal/prog fusion that Black Sabbath pioneered by adopting the longer phrase moveable melodies of modernist classical influenced Italian horror movie soundtracks are still present, the majority of the riffing on this album resembles 1970s hard rock emulating the electronic rhythms of 1980s pop. It’s not surprising that Ministry may have borrowed a few rhythm/riff-idea combinations from this album, given the raw creativity put into them and their mutual inspiration in the basis of 1980s “industrial” music through electronic body music (EBM). Black Sabbath balance the shorter, more mechanical hard rock riffs with their usual spanning chord progressions that give the sense of the camera pulling back to reveal a vista.

The result is highly melodic and merges with the vocals which sound like they’re right off a Mike & The Mechanics or Red7 record. The result neuters Sabbath to an uncomfortable degree because the focus is on vocals and synths and the guitar takes a rhythm role that supports those from the background. That has not stopped guitarist Tony Iommi from coming up with some rather odd and noisy variations on the riff that he uses to add uncertainty and a sense of being lost in a windswept plain to the otherwise more straightforward compositions.

Where Black Sabbath reach toward the future is in the layout of these songs and album. They are deliberately expanded structures with more variation between them, like scenes in a movie or different rooms in a house in a pursuit dream. This both reflects the influence of MTV and the increasingly technological nature of music which allowed radical changes in instrumentation, thus musicians could stick in entirely radical dynamic changes and have them work as more than a distraction. The album follows the same thought process, beginning with an acoustic introduction with semi-chanted vocals, as if invoking the Druids and giving the entire production a visual leadoff. The album itself moves like a conversation, starting with its most obvious big points and indulging in all the conventions of its decade, but then gradually bringing those back to roots and then expanding them with the final tracks, notably “Heaven in Black,” where hints of a more metal-oriented Sabbath emerge (especially in its recapitulation of the riff-idea for “Symptom of the Universe,” which as my colleague Martin Jacobsen writes, precapitulates the muted-strum technique used by all speed metal bands). Much of this anticipates the more epic conceptual and structural layout of both songs and albums that black metal and death metal would popularize; it is unclear whether Black Sabbath heard early prototypes of this notion, such as Bathory Blood Fire Death, but the similarities are great as they are to later Judas Priest like Sin After Sin and Iron Maiden’s epic 1980s material such as Seventh Son of a Seventh Son. Interesting also is the choice of Odinist thematic matter wrapped in Celtic imagery, as if questing for a new identity for metal that united its past with future.

Tyr shows Black Sabbath twenty years into their career. They are less innovators than standard-bearers and so their tendency is to absorb outside influences and translate them into heavy metal to give their genre relevance in the wider world. There are also other influences from within the metal world, such as a notable increase in Iron Maiden-styled galloping riffs and broader themes. As one reviewer once said, some albums are more interesting than good for listening to, and thus are more compelling to write about; Tyr may be too 1980s for me to listen to again, and I remember chucking it across the resale counter at a used CD shop over a decade ago for that reason. However, it shows us a nodal point for heavy metal in its evolution and anticipation of the next era.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O0eOblstpng

6 Comments

Tags: , ,

Heaviness, the epic and masculinity

manowar-band_photo

In conversation with Martin Jacobsen, the topic of “heaviness” came up. What is heavy? Why is the term applied to metal? This question in many ways defines why it’s so hard to understand what metal is, much less describe it.

From my experience, metal is a spirit that leads to an approach. It’s not dissimilar to classical, where a certain attitude toward life, spirituality and culture leads to a form of music complete with its complexity and techniques. Nor is it all that different from martial arts, where a specific outlook leads to some near-universal shared characteristics.

Coming at metal from a literary/philosophy background, this isn’t surprising. Artistic movements tend to share traits they develop independently. They do this because they approach their art with a similar feeling, sentiment or belief system, and as a result no matter where they start, they end up in similar places. This is analogous to how just about every culture on earth has invented something like a chair, with most designs being very similar.

Jack Fischl over at PolyMic has another take on metal with his article ‘”That’s So Metal” Might As Well Mean “That’s So Masculine”‘ — it’s a bastion of alternative masculine thought:

According to the book Running with the Devil by Robert Walser, heavy metal imagery, music, style, and lyrics offer the illusion of power to a group (young men) that simultaneously lacks traditional forms of power (money, social standing) and is constantly barraged with cultural messages that inforce the importance of those forms of power. Listening to the music, especially by going to a concert, allows low-power young men to escape and live vicariously through metal’s imagery, the way one might live through books, movies, or TV shows.

Whereas pop music tends to portray (or at least address) your classical “manly” man, metal more often ties into elements of fantasy and science fiction — two other bastions of alternative masculine escape. Any given metal song likely depicts a man or male entity (spirit, creature) struggling with something — his place in the world, a woman, his own emotions. In other words, a typical song involves guys dealing with normal guy issues from a guy’s perspective.

He does have a point. The modern world does not exactly relish the hyper-masculine, but it gives it voice in rock music through the intense sexuality of the sound. However, metal takes this a degree higher. Where rock is about individual sexual power, metal is about power itself, and transcends the sexual per se in favor of an overall masculine intensity. This is the epic nature of metal; it is not based in the individual, but all that the individual cannot control.

Some might say this world, by being so obsessed with the safety of each and every person and ensuring that we all get along, is against the kind of conflict-driven Nietzschean masculinity that metal seems to espouse with its lyrics on war, death, violence and destruction.

For many of us however metal is more than masculinity. It is a worship of power itself. When you wield death and conquest, you are the power that society denies. This unites metal’s outsider status with its realistic ideals and returns us to a definition of “heavy.” In a time of stoned flower children worrying about nothing more than their next hook-up, “heavy” encompassed all the thoughts that this worldview could not tolerate. It was all that we fear and want to suppress, including mortality and fear of loss.

What made Black Sabbath “heavy” was not a specific technique but a tendency to gravitate toward these dark thoughts and the reality that society denies. This neatly coupled metal with hardcore punk, which saw a society out of control and in denial of basic facts of life. Together these ideas brought metal to its underground state where it is completely alienated from the values and behaviors of most of civilization.

What is “heavy”? It is that which we cannot define because it is beyond the instruments of our culture — such as it is — to discuss. It is the thoughts that grip us at four in the morning and shock us awake. It is what stalks us in dreams. And it is our primal past, reaching past our modern technology and enforced civility, awakening the beast within.

5 Comments

Tags: , ,

The importance of experiencing local metal

fields_of_elysium
Fields of Elysium.

Some time ago, Jon Wild relayed a local news write-up about Amarillo-based death metal band Abolishment of Flesh. I am a part of Death Metal Underground, and I live in Amarillo. I’ve gotten to know these folks, and I thought I’d offer a follow up. I can say without reservation that they are as great as the best of people one finds anywhere. Since moving here 14 years ago, I’ve found I had trouble finding a niche. The ostensibly Christian veneer of this region fades rather quickly when it becomes known that one does not practice some variety (or in my case, no variety) of faith. That sense of alienation grows when one prefers Pentagram CDs to Pentacostal services. So outside the people I knew from work, I really didn’t associate much with the local population. As metalhead and loner from way back, this arrangement suited me just fine. Solitude trumps solicitousness any day, and twice on Sunday.

Then, as Brett Stevens reported earlier this year, a long-time dream came true for me. I offered a college course in heavy metal. As a result of this class and the monumentally fantastic people in it, I started to become acquainted with the local metal scene. A couple of my students were in metal bands, and a couple of others were involved in the campus radio metal show, The Rocket. So when a trivia question about death metal arose on The Rocket, I called in and won tickets to the West Texas Death Fest (WTDF). And as the cliché goes, it changed my life.

abolishment_of_flesh
Abolishment of Flesh.

When I walked into the show, I saw ink, piercings, gothic scripts, black t-shirts. I learned rather quickly that the black t-shirts covered hearts of gold. A former student was taking tickets. Two students met me there. The promoters of WTDF, who had offered the trivia question, were waiting for me. They knew who I was, and I was welcomed with a hug. Facebook friendships formed. I learned that they were also a local metal band called Abolishment of Flesh, which is supremely ironic because instead of abolishing flesh, they live to sustain the good fortunes of everyone they know. In any event, I got to know Jess (promoter) and Ramon (guitarist/ vocalist) Cazares over the next few months. I think of them as the hearts of local metal. Hearts, plural. I went to see Abolishment of Flesh and kept tabs on their national Brutal Alliance tour, in which they partnered with New Mexico neighbors Fields of Elysium. Par for the course, the bands shared everything along the way. It was part tour (death metal overground, I like to call it), part family vacation. I also became an avid follower of local metalcore band Sixgun Serenade — the rhythm section of which comprises two former students of mine — who are at work on an album to follow up 2013’s The Avenue of the Giants. I’ve gotten to know their families. In much the same way a “church home” may sustain some people; I found my niche in the local metal community. These are my people.

A few weeks ago, The Rocket again hosted Abolishment of Flesh in the studio as guests to talk about their forthcoming CD Creation to Extinction. On that day, I wore the band’s t-shirt to all my classes and changed my profile picture on Facebook to reflect that. I made my cover picture a picture on the band and me taken after a show. Of course all the people involved altered or posted to their pages. It was an event. Encouraged by this activity, I tossed out the notion of a campus metalfest. People came out of the metalwork. More Facebook friendships were forged, more family adopted (and probably more shows to see, more t-shirts to wear). All for an idea.

I’ll be heading out to see Abolishment of Flesh on December 14 as they inaugurate their new CD (and celebrate drummer Robert Ginn’s birthday, because it’s a family thing). Sixgun Serenade will play a benefit in January. West Texas Death Fest is slated for April. I believe we are fortunate to have a metal venue, numerous metal bands, an annual metal festival, a couple of metal radio shows, and a university metal course. We’re pretty active for being smaller city distant from metropolises and centered in a region that by all accounts is not particularly comfortable with metal.

So, in the end, together, we have the mettle to sustain our metal. We smelt the ore daily through friendship and family. It’s not about death metal. It’s about life metal. It’s about living metal and living, metal.

sixgun_serenade
Sixgun Serenade (with author Martin Jacobsen).

Abolishment of Flesh:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8BH6MM6EEss

Fields of Elysium:

Sixgun Serenade:

1 Comment

Tags: , , , , ,

“Altars of Madness” art exhibit opens at Casino Luxembourg

altars_of_madness_exhibitFrom May 18 through September 15 of this year, a new kind of art exhibit is coming to the notable Casino Luxembourg gallery. This exhibit, entitled Altars of Madness, “displays and brings together the works of art of a generation of artists affected by extreme metal” through the use of imagery and content similar to that in extreme metal.

Even better, the exhibit explores the origins of metal and explains some of the purpose behind these genres. “Extreme metal emerged in the second half of the 1980s through three distinct musical genres with different principles, aesthetics and evolutions: grindcore, death metal and black metal. Like all underground cultures, extreme metal is not something that can simply be passed on: you have to experience it on your own,” says the exhibit program. This is a far cry from the media treatment of metal in the 1980s, 1990s and even 2000s where it was viewed as a sort of hard rock with better costumes.

The exhibit is divided into three parts, corresponding to those three genres. “Lucid fairytale,” “Death is just the beginning,” and “Dark matter landscape” each reflect the different values of each period. The grindcore exhibit “emphasises the political dimension of extreme metal,” by which the creators seem to mean grindcore. The death metal exhibit uses memento mori and vanitas symbolism to embrace mortality. Finally, the black metal exhibit explores nihilism, violence, Satan and “the romantic or symbolist note to black metal” which is a recurring theme.

On the whole, this exhibit explores metal in a way that is rarely done and needs to be done more. It’s not surprising that many of the artists listed are either experienced within the genre, used by the genre, or may even be pseudonyms, including Matthew Barney, Nicholas Bullen, Larry Carroll, Grégory Cuquel, Damien Deroubaix, Seldon Hunt, Gregory Jacobsen, Theodor Kittelsen, Harmony Korine, Élodie Lesourd, Juan Pablo Macías, Maël Nozahic, Torbjørn Rødland, Steven Shearer, Mark Titchner, Gee Vaucher, and Banks Violette. You might spot Nicholas Bullen and Theodor Kittelsen right away, as well as metal popularizer Harmony Korine (Gummo).

For more information, see the exhibit program or visit the gallery page.

No Comments

Tags: , ,