Brett Stevens Nihilism: The First Lecture

In Brett Stevens Nihilism, the author introduces an article consisting of a series of twelve lessons which he describes as an awakening to the reality of life.  A tinge of morality seemingly colors the lessons, but upon closer look, the prescriptions given are described in a way that one can see them arising from causal, qualitative observations.

In all this, there is, of course, the singular opinion of the author.  In approaching a discussion and description of said ideas, the latter will be kept in mind, opting to expand, interpret and focus.  Also, in order to respect the integrity of the book wherein these appear, they will not be spelled out either in their titles nor in their original exposition.
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Another Take on Ritual Chamber – Obscurations (2016)

I have no way of knowing if anyone will read this letter. It joins the others which have been hidden in the knot-hole of the ancient tree on top of the mountain that locals simply call “the big one,” to which I make a daily pilgrimage. My life has become oriented around what I can only describe as a portal to the future.

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Meditations on the Death of Wishful Thinking

To be a writer, if you are any good, is to be a blasphemer. Humanity is an entropy engine because each person decides on what view of the world makes them look the best, and so the constant weight pushing down on us is that of the herd, of a group of individuals united only by selfishness, come together into a mob for the purpose of asserting their right to be different and unique, constantly leading away from an understanding of the world around us and any meaning that can be found in it.

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Sadistic Metal Reviews: 3-14-2017

These bands attempt to masquerade their GarageBand music fit only for arcades, pizza parlors, and high school dances as underground metal. They fail.

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Ungod: The German War Machine That Flies Under Metalhead Radar

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History is full of paradoxes. Twentieth century Germany provides one of the major mysteries of the modern era: Why haven’t the Germans produced more high-quality black metal?

The country has been a heavy metal-stronghold since Neolithic times with a significantly high metalhead-per-capita rate. Furthermore, Germany has spawned more metal bands than any other country in Europe with abundant native labels, zines and distros supporting them. Yet, when it comes to black metal, there’s not much to write home about. (more…)

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Analyze it to Life: Yes – Close to the Edge

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Ok, so, I was listening to the YES album Close to the Edge with my best friend Rick Ossian yesterday, and as is usually the case when we listen together, I started to contemplate its deeper meaning in a new way.

In a 1996 interview, Jon Anderson mentions Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha as an inspiration for this album, so there is a stated philosophical source. Even taking that statement as true, we can see in the lyrical imagery an embrace of other traditions. Acknowledging one source of inspiration does not exclude the possibility of other literary groundings. I’ve long noted Platonic elements in the classic YES albums. One could say that they are usually close to the edge of a greater understanding. Their lyrics often puzzle us, and it may be valid to postulate that the lyrics sometimes serve as way of adding the vocals into the instrumentation as an element of the overall sound. That in itself is Platonic: seeing that the surface can be altered to serve a greater truth, that it need not be only a linguistic item. That said, it is also possible that the lyrics have an allegorical sophistication that works across other traditions.

I will be arguing just this premise: that the lyrical content of Close to the Edge operates on an archetypal level, and that even if the inspiration is drawn from Hesse, YES uses framing and language from multiple traditions to connect to listeners. So, as I was listening with Plato in mind, and as I did so, I understood how it was that the Platonic elements were woven into this album. I had long suspected a Platonic basis, but yesterday, I looked at the lyrics and knew how I knew. Perhaps without meaning to do so (though there are certainly moments where it appears to be deliberate), YES incorporates imagery from the crucifixion narrative into the lyrics of this album. Those familiar elements serve as the nexus between the words and the Platonic underlay. I may never have noticed this if Rick and I had not sought to listen to this album and Analyze It to Life.

I have long held that Calvary is the most profound literary moment in the Western tradition. There are numerous reasons for this, some of which I’ll discuss. I won’t be saying anything new about the crucifixion itself; in fact, this argument rests on the familiarity of the crucifixion narrative. The thrust of this analysis will be about the ways in which crucifixion imagery activates an archetypal approach to the album. I’m arguing that the Platonic and Christian elements (and even Hesse) are parts of the same basic inventory of archetypes. I’m not seeking any outside sources (for the moment, anyway). The album, the King James Bible, and Plato are my sources. I’m not sure if this has been argued elsewhere or not. An occasional nod to Siddhartha may be needed, but this analysis is devoted to elements heretofore not interrogated. It seems very likely that YES has consciously written in multiple viewpoints, though it is possible some of the archetypal elements may have been included unconsciously. Archetypes apply to everyone, and YES may have been governed by them just as the listener is.

Whether or not they meant to activate the subconscious, YES has done so on this album. The lyrics include the words “crucified,” crucifixion,” “cross,” “preacher,” “teacher,” and “nail.” While the importance of the river can surely be tied to Siddhartha, the biblical implications of a river speak for themselves, and Lethe (the River or Forgetfulness) also plays a role at the end (the edge) of Plato’s Republic. In each instance, the river marks the edge of transformation or edification. There also appears to be a relatively clear expression of, in fact sometimes a recapitulation of, the chronology of the biblical narrative itself, and certainly the path to salvation that narrative offers plays a role in the thematic content of this album, for both individual believers and the savior who holds it. So, that chronology will surface as I explicate the references to the crucifixion narrative. Bear in mind that the purpose here is to reveal the album’s Platonic/archetypal underpinnings. The larger constructs of the actual and the ideal, the GOOD, and the glimpse are the archetypes that seem to rise to the top here, and the biblical imagery surely makes references to Siddhartha more easily apprehended for a Western listener as well. The biblical elements are the illocutionary force (suggestion) deployed in the lyrics; the archetypal elements are the perlocutionary force (perception) that makes this album the enduring masterwork that it is.

Here beginneth the lyrical analysis. I’ll take one song at a time, in the order they occur on the album: “Close to the Edge,” “And You and I,” and “Siberian Kathru.” The order is important. This isn’t an exercise in cherry-picking; it’s an enterprise in analyzing it to life.

“Close to the Edge”:

As I mentioned, there seems to be an observance of the chronological order of the crucifixion narrative, and while that sequential similarity exists in more metaphorical ways across the album, it sustains remarkable fidelity in this song. Given the fact that this song constitutes nearly half of the entire album, it is fair to say that the sequential imperative persists into the remainder of the overall work. An important question, naturally, is “Where does that narrative begin?” Drawing from the order of the album, the narrative begins with Christ’s baptism by John the Baptist. In fact, the first two verses in the song evoke this.

A seasoned witch could call you from the depths of your disgrace / And rearrange your liver to the solid mental grace / Achieve it all with music that came quickly from afar / Then taste the fruit of man recorded losing all against the hour.

The Romans saw John the Baptist as a mentally unstable rabble-rouser, a “seasoned witch” stirring up religious fervor by suggesting that sins needed to be washed away (“call you from the depths of your disgrace / and rearrange your liver to the solid mental grace”). Those who sought purification from him knew that their venal human weaknesses, “the fruit of man recorded losing all against the hour,” would ultimately be cleansed by the Messiah John heralded “with music that came quickly from afar.” John the Baptist’s stated purpose is to call sinners to God’s forgiveness, anticipating the deliverer who would purify them beyond his imitative cleansing, as articulated in Matthew 3:11: I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire.”

This begins both the story of the crucifixion narrative (because it foreshadows the eventual sacrifice on the cross required for the forgiveness John suggests Jesus brings) and the Platonic underlay (John is an imitation of Jesus, who is a tangible form of the Holy Spirit). In a masterful literary move, YES has initiated a multilayered allegory in four verses.

The opening verses are followed by four more verses, then the chorus—which explains where the edge is—then another verse with a direct suggestion of divine intervention remarkably indicative of Numbers 11:9: “And when the dew fell upon the camp in the night, the manna fell upon it.” In fact, there seems to be a reference to the first part of the verse before the chorus and the second part after it (not to mention the use of the work “crucified” immediately after the use of the word “Manna”—our link to a biblical level of allegory),

And assessing points to nowhere leading every single one
A dewdrop can exalt us like the music of the sun
And take away the plain in which we move
And choose the course you’re running

Down at the end, round by the corner
(Not right away, not right away)
Close to the edge, down by a river
(Not right away, not right away)

My eyes convinced, eclipsed with the younger moon attained with love
It changed as almost strained amidst clear manna from above
I crucified my hate and held the world within my hand
There’s you, the time, the logic or the reasons we don’t understand

While this is an Old Testament verse, it sustains the idea of divine salvation, and the notion of Manna suggests communion, perhaps hinting at the Last Supper episode of the crucifixion narrative. With the river metaphor evocative of Christ’s baptism interposed as a chorus between the two halves of the verses, and especially the dew (water) and manna (bread) being placed on either side of the chorus, it does seem to echo the verse from Matthew quoted above. Further, the antistrophic “Not right way” in the chorus seems to recapitulate John’s assertion that the true savior’s arrival is imminent: the water washes away the past sins, the bread sustains the future of salvation. From a Platonic perspective, the shadows of human existence are eclipsed by the greater reality of expanded perception as portrayed in Book 7 of the Republic,

Socrates: To them, I said, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.

Glaucon: That is certain.

S: And now look again, and see what will naturally follow if the prisoners are released and disabused of their error. At first, when any of them is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and walk and look towards the light, he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of which in his former state he had seen the shadows; and then conceive someone saying to him, that what he saw before was an illusion, but that now, when he is approaching nearer to being and his eye is turned towards more real existence, he has a clearer vision, -what will be his reply? And you may further imagine that his instructor is pointing to the objects as they pass and requiring him to name them, -will he not be perplexed? Will he not fancy that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects which are now shown to him?

G: Far truer.

S: And if he is compelled to look straight at the light, will he not have a pain in his eyes which will make him turn away to take and take in the objects of vision which he can see, and which he will conceive to be in reality clearer than the things which are now being shown to him?

G: True, he now

S: And suppose once more, that he is reluctantly dragged up a steep and rugged ascent, and held fast until he’s forced into the presence of the sun himself, is he not likely to be pained and irritated? When he approaches the light his eyes will be dazzled, and he will not be able to see anything at all of what are now called realities.

G: Not all in a moment, he said.

S: He will require to grow accustomed to the sight of the upper world. And first he will see the shadows best, next the reflections of men and other objects in the water, and then the objects themselves; then he will gaze upon the light of the moon and the stars and the spangled heaven; and he will see the sky and the stars by night better than the sun or the light of the sun by day?

G: Certainly.

S: Last of he will be able to see the sun, and not mere reflections of him in the water, but he will see him in his own proper place, and not in another; and he will contemplate him as he is.

YES captures this in the verse “A dewdrop can exalt us like the music of the sun.” We see the same idea expressed in Matthew 3:16: “And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him,” or the heavenly body of the Moon here, the eclipsed moon, that is. After this is the reference to “crucified my hate,” which foreshadows Luke 23:34: “Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do. And they parted his raiment, and cast lots”: a stunning Platonic juxtaposition of the eternal truth of forgiveness with the temporal human incapacity to recognize the savior for his clothing, or as YES has it “you, the time, the logic or the reasons we don’t understand”: a basic summary of the Platonic argument quoted above.

The next verses of the song evoke a more Platonic than biblical moment. That said, they do seem to include a basic archetypal motif of elevation and increased perception, of the physical and temporal manacles giving way to the apprehension of a greater truth:

Sudden problems take away the startled memory
All in all the journey takes you all the way
As apart from any reality that you’ve ever seen and known

Guessing problems only to deceive the mention
Passing paths that climb halfway into the void
As we cross from side to side, we hear the total mass retain

While these lyrics surely allude to Siddhartha, the also express the general principles of progressive illumination and serve as a reminder of the Platonic/archetypal foundation of the album: a direct rendering of the philosophical inspiration.

The next verses of the song seem to suggest Christ’s resurrection and appearance to Mary and the disciples as articulated in John 20:11-31:

11 But Mary stood without at the sepulchre weeping: and as she wept, she stooped down, and looked into the sepulchre, 12 And seeth two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain. 13 And they say unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? She saith unto them, Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him. 14 And when she had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away. 16 Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master. 17 Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God. 18 Mary Magdalene came and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord, and that he had spoken these things unto her. 19 Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. 20 And when he had so said, he shewed unto them his hands and his side. Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the Lord. 21 Then said Jesus to them again, Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you. 22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost: 23 Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained. 24 But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the Lord. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe. 26 And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you. 27 Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing. 28 And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God. 29 Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed. 30 And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: 31 But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.

And the YES lyrics,

In her white lace, you could clearly see the lady sadly lookin’
Sayin’ that she’d take the blame
For the crucifixion of her own domain

Two million people barely satisfy
Two hundred women watch one woman cry, too late
The eyes of honesty can achieve

Then according to the man who showed his outstretched arm to space
He turned around and pointed, revealing all the human race
I shook my head and smiled a whisper, knowing all about the place

On the hill we viewed the silence of the valley
Called to witness cycles only of the past
And we reach all this with movements in between the said remark

These lyrics nearly paraphrase the biblical account. The two million people elicits an image of the new faithful, the two hundred women symbolize the two angels, and the lady in white is the immaculately conceived Mary come to take away the body, her crucified domain, and “the man who showed his outstretched arm to space” represents the risen Jesus who instructs Mary and the disciples in how to sustain his legacy.

And You and I

The second song on the album, “And You and I,” also uses imagery from the crucifixion narrative. While the elaboration of this imagery is not as extensive or as sequentially coincident with the crucifixion narrative as “Close to the Edge,” there are several unmistakable correspondences. The first rests in the direct mention of the word “crosses,”

Oh, coins and crosses never know their fruitless worth

This verse evokes Matthew 22:21 “They say unto him, Caesar‘s. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar‘s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” This verse rests among the parables, great lessons articulating the differences between the temporal and eternal. Indeed, this passage works on the Platonic level as well. Christ’s message is not one of rebellion. It is a message of higher understanding, and it is delivered in parables, much the same way Socrates (or even Gautama) would do so.

The next applicable lyrics seem again to recapitulate the Christ’s baptism. Whether intentional or not, there seems to be an allegorical expression of Jesus as the preacher and John the Baptist as the “insane teacher.” Further, following from the hint of the Roman Empire’s role in the crucifixion and the subsequent replacement of that Empire with the Church, the lyrics quoted below seem to summarize the overall historical moment under examination.

Sad preacher nailed upon the colored door of time
Insane teacher be there reminded of the rhyme
There’ll be no mutant enemy we shall certify
Political ends, as sad remains, will die
Reach out as forward tastes begin to enter you

The “insane teacher” echoes the truth (“reminded of the rhyme”—temporal truth), the “sad preacher” suffers for that same truth (“nailed upon the colored door of time”—eternal truth) and the “political ends, as sad remains” collapse under the weight of the truth (“forward tastes”).

The salvation motif continues in the next verses.

I listened hard but could not see
Life tempo change out and inside me
The preacher trained in all to lose his name
The teacher travels, asking to be shown the same
In the end, we’ll agree, we’ll accept, we’ll immortalize
That the truth of the man maturing in his eyes
All complete in the sight of seeds of life with you

Speaking in first person now, the seeker articulates an emotional crisis: “I listened hard, but could not see/ life tempo change out and inside me.” The then recalls the preacher and teacher, those before him who brought the message, he ultimately unites with them in achieving the goal “in the end, we’ll agree, we’ll accept, we’ll immortalize / that the truth of the man maturing in his eyes / all complete in the sight of seeds of life with you,” an expression of salvation in the Christian sense or of transmigration in the Platonic sense. Interestingly, the lyrics here step beyond a mere retelling of the Platonic or Christian narratives and postulate the ultimate goal of both, of perhaps all philosophy: living a better life. The key to living that better life comes from what Platonists call “the glimpse” or what Christians may call an epiphany. The only way to open the “colored door of time” is if your journey for truth takes you close to the edge.

Siberian Khatru

The final song, “Siberian Khatru,” holds the fewest direct connections to the narratives being examined here. In fact, the final song extends the expression of the goal explained above. In an idealized and compressed expression of the outcome, the lyrics of the final song create a space to unite the disparate traditions under a final archetypal umbrella.

The first allusion refers to the instrument of crucifixion: the nail. However, the lyrics describe the nail in ideal terms and suggest that it is a fastener not of a person to a cross but of people to each other and to a shared vision: “Gold stainless nail / Torn through the distance of man / As they regard the summit.” Echoing the scene at Golgotha, these lyrics idealize the even and suggest that the unity of those who believe look outward toward a greater truth. Then an implication that the release is at hand rests in these lyrics, perhaps channeling the irony that the nail the used in the crucifixion ultimately became the nail that affixed the Romans to history and freed Christians to supplant them: “Cold reigning king / Hold all the secrets from you / As they produce the movement” and “Cold reigning king / Shelter the women that sing / As they produce the movement.”

The song and album then close with a list of images suggesting many traditions, of movements produced and secrets revealed:

Bluetail, tailfly

Luther in time

Suntower asking

Cover, lover

June cast, moon fast

As one changes

Heart gold, leaver

Soul mark, mover

Christian, changer

Called out, saviour

Moon gate, climber

Turn round, glider

Thus, these seemingly disparate approaches to faith have reinterpreted the same basic truth and broken free of their oppressors, much as the Platonic tradition would advance a search for truth over an acceptance of immediate circumstances. Both traditions, as well as the obvious references to nature, Jesus, Protestantism, and probably Buddhism as well, have apprehended the truth beneath the truth, which is that truth is not a static object to be held and adored but a living practice to be embraced and interrogated. As John 8:32 has it, “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” As Plato and YES (and Hesse) suggest, knowing the truth results from a profound and unremitting search for glimpses of a greater reality that may be seen if you are close to the edge.

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Sympathy for the Hipster

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I write a lot about hipsters because I am fascinated by subcultures and how they attempt to find meaning independent of the center. You can join the ska kids, Goths, rivetheads, wi-fi hobos, ecolos or channers. You might have a thedic identity, a de facto tribe combined of ethnic pride and politics, or an outright political group like the earth firsters, crypto-coms or far-right. In a time of no actual commonality to our deconstructed societies, you know you will be a cog in the machine: working a job, paying taxes and housing, and doing all the day-to-day stuff like shopping at Costco that is about as romantic as math homework. To counter-balance that, people seek an identity which shows why their lives are important. All of these are extensions of the original “keeping up with the Joneses” that saw people trying to out-consume each other, but now we are consuming the image of ideas instead of pure product.

Modern life represents at its core a long slow grinding compromise. Any idea is taken from where it is found and made into a product by simplifying it, exaggerating its surface features, and then presenting it for mass consumption. Joining an identity first involves a shopping trip for music, books, clothing and personal accessories including tattoos, piercings, scarification and hitting the gym. Through this process, unique identities are gradually “assimilated,” or made into variants of the mainstream. Every ideation operator declares the gradual entry of those who perpetuate this process into their chosen identity — the falses, the poseurs, the day-trippers, scenesters and imitators — because when enough of them arrive, the unique group becomes overwhelmed and as happens in democracy, what is popular and easily understood wins out over the original idea, which then fades into a distant memory and a cartoon of itself.

Hipsters represent those who have given up on the idea of idea itself. They realize early on that this society is a kicked clip, empty of ammunition and fit only to be returned to the pocket and another retrieved, starting over. But discovering what we want for a future represents a good deal more ambiguity and risk than knowing simply what we detest, and in the meantime, people need an identity to distinguish themselves from the faceless mass. The hipster was born out of this situation by Generation X, who combined slacker culture with counter-culture and added the suburban desperation of their parents, who were only to happen to discuss in detail how the world was going to hell, in front of their children. As a result a new identity formed based on those who have dropped out of society but still seek a way to distinguish themselves, and instead of doing so through strong group identity, they base their concept of self on self-image alone. Thus the hipster opposes the idea itself, and instead seeks a different kind of center: what everyone else is doing, but with some unique conceit for the individual itself. Hipsters are bog-standard people who have hobbies in craft beer, tattooing, making artisanal objects, odd collections, activities chosen for their apparent randomness, and of course art, art and more art, because nothing makes a person look profound like the boho artist lifestyle.

As the definitive article on this topic says:

Ever since the Allies bombed the Axis into submission, Western civilization has had a succession of counter-culture movements that have energetically challenged the status quo. Each successive decade of the post-war era has seen it smash social standards, riot and fight to revolutionize every aspect of music, art, government and civil society.

But after punk was plasticized and hip hop lost its impetus for social change, all of the formerly dominant streams of “counter-culture” have merged together. Now, one mutating, trans-Atlantic melting pot of styles, tastes and behavior has come to define the generally indefinable idea of the “Hipster.”

An artificial appropriation of different styles from different eras, the hipster represents the end of Western civilization – a culture lost in the superficiality of its past and unable to create any new meaning. Not only is it unsustainable, it is suicidal. While previous youth movements have challenged the dysfunction and decadence of their elders, today we have the “hipster” – a youth subculture that mirrors the doomed shallowness of mainstream society.

People who seek an idea loathe hipsters because hipsters are the anti-idea. They reject the notion that we can have purpose outside of ourselves, and instead make their time by adorning the self with new fascinating attributes which are always bizarre because their sole goal is to distinguish themselves from the rest, and so whatever is sensible and normal is verboten. The hipster seeks to be unique, individual and different (UID) so that they do not get mistaken for the rest. Part of this is a counter-culture style protest saying that they do not endorse or enjoy the mainstream, and in fact oppose it so should not be held accountable for its failings; the rest comes from the simple need to distinguish oneself in a social scene flooded with people who are all trying to be noticed. Where in the 1920s doing stunts on the lawn might have worked, and in the 1980s it was enough to join an indie band, for the people who come after the reunion of right and left in the 1990s there is no longer an obvious majority culture to oppose. There is only the gradual compromise, and trying to stand out in its midst.

Hipsters suffer for the time into which they were born and the lack of easy and safe ways to rebel against it. Smoking weed and living in a VW van involved relatively few risks; at worst, an arrest occurred in some random little town in Ohio and dear old Dad had to dispatch money and lawyers to fix it. But opposing the conglomeration of democracy, capitalism, liberalism, consumerism and patriotism takes some guts and some time on the thinking couch, because it is not like The Establishment an easy thing to identify. Who can blame these people for laboring as poor cogs just trying to have normal lives? They can laugh at them but not indict them as the problem itself. The focus of the hipster becomes not reform of a society that is already lost, but saving oneself by at least being socially competitive through appearance and having a life independent from concern about the inward collapse — an idea — which might obligate one to sacrifice time otherwise spent on self toward some purpose.

That tendency reveals the problem with hipsters: they are perpetual entryists. Their only idea is the self, so any identity they discover they will turn into a product just as surely as their grandfathers did back in the 1950s. In essence, hipsters are the same consumers that people have always been, except now they are casting around for an appearance of having an idea and thus always sacrifice the idea itself because they are fundamentally opposed to ideas. Subcultures fear the hipster because to admit the hipster is to abolish the subculture and allow it to live on in zombie form as another branch of the great compromise but now as an adornment, like the “French bread” flavoring in the industrial-processed bread aisle or the “exotic scales” used in bog-ordinary rock music to dress it up and disguise its ordinariness. The hipster is indeed the dead end not of just Western civilization, but all civilization, because civilization requires an idea and with hipsterdom, all ideas have been sacrificed to the self.

At the same time, hipsters deserve our sympathy. They are the people on the deck of the Titanic, watching the unstoppable disaster that will inevitably compose them, choosing to get another pint from the bar and bum another cigarillo while bravely chatting about the inconsequential. The water grows incrementally closer and the lifeboats are long gone. Nothing remains except to live it up a little, stand out from the crowd and have your fun, before the darkness inexorably takes over. If you wonder why hipsters look as stressed and miserable as their parents, even when they have trust funds (and an alarming number of them do) and hip indie bands with the flavoring of metal, it is because they too see the approaching disaster and have found nothing to do about it.

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Interview with Dom from MetalRecusants.com

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Photo: Paradise Lost from a MetalRecusants.com article, by Vivien Varga.

Online resources for metal pose a problem. On one hand, smaller entities tend to dry up and blow away as their members move on in life and get tired of paying hosting. On the other, large centralized resources are quickly gamed by industry and dominating by small in-groups. Thus the post-modern metalhead always has an eye out for new resources.

A recent entrant in this field is Metal Recusants, a semi-unorthodox site known for its wise-ass reviews and scathing commentary on the metal scene. We were fortunate to be able to get in some words with Dom, head reviewer and site founder, on his activity and the appeal of Metal Recusants in a time of increasing metal information overload.

What’s a “recusant,” why did you pick the term, and how does it describe what you do?

“Recusant,” similarly to “non-conformist,” is a term taken from English history. Recusants were Catholics in England who did not convert to the new Anglican religion. I thought of this term because I was looking for something similar to non-conformism. As you wrote on your site, metalheads do not conform easily and that is the message I want to pass on with this name. I think it fits in perfectly with our mission to promote less-known “underground” music but also in describing the “underground” way we write in and organise ourselves.

Our aim is to not only feature the most obscure metal band that no one knows about but also to provide a balance of the less-known acts with the better-known ones. Additionally, there are many opinions, different tastes and different writing styles that people have. I aim to highlight this with our site by not having strict writing guidelines. Apart from the way our articles are formatted I do not ask our writers to write in a certain style. I do not want MetalRecusants to become the next fruitless mainstream metal magazine in which you cannot easily tell the difference between reviews apart from the album name and the rating.

In many cases they are all written in the same way, most commonly in the third person the writer distances himself/herself from the music and gives an authoritative opinion of the music… Therefore, I do not ask our writers to write in the first or third person, I do not tell them to write in British or American English, I do not ask them to write “death metal” in capitals or small letters. Moreover, I do not ignore genres or sub-genres which I may not like. For instance, I hate metalcore but you can see that we have featured that sub-genre quite a few times. There is no one single music taste which is superior or better, we all have different styles whether it is the way we write or the music we choose to listen to. No one on this planet is a “metal guru” who tells you what you should listen to. We write our opinions in our own way and we let you decide whether you want to check that band out or ignore it.

“Recusant” is also an obscure term, a word not used in everyday language, and, hence, whether someone remembers the word correctly or not, he or she will remember that that is the site with the weird name – which is actually the majority of people, haha!

Apparently MetalRecusants.com started after you’d been writing other reviews. Where did you write, and what was the reaction?

I did not have any experience writing for other websites or magazines prior to starting this site. I have only been writing personal reviews on my last.fm journal after attending gigs and discovering new music. Therefore, the audience was usually my family and friends as well as the odd last.fm user who would stumble upon my writing. The reaction from my family and friends was great, everyone supported me, especially my parents and siblings. I always have the urge to share the stuff I discover if not by writing articles then by sending out emails or messages. On some occasions some friends and family learnt about new bands through me while on other I was just being a nuisance by filling their inboxes with messages.

Do you consider yourselves “elitists”? What is an elitist? How is that different from a snob, poseur, scenester and hipster?

Not at all. As I mentioned before, even though I am the one taking most of the big decisions for MetalRecusants, I still feature music which I may not like but my writers like and want to write about. Since my aim is to feature all kinds of metal (and non-metal with our “31 Flavors” series) music and I do not decide what music is featured by just looking at how the band dresses or if they are labelled as metalcore or black metal, I can safely say that I do not consider MetalRecusants as elitist.

What is an elitist? In metal, the most common term I came across of an elitist person is someone who listens to only the most obscure underground metal – usually death and black – and hates anything else unless it is an old band which had an impact on the metal scene.

I think elitists have many parallels with snobs, poseurs, scenesters and hipsters. They certainly tend to follow a certain limited type of music while ignoring other types. However, poseurs, snobs, scenesters and hipsters may be doing it more in order to show off and fit into a scene. This happens a lot in metal as well but I think the “elitism”, “hipsterism” and “scenesterism” in metal is much more than just showing off. It is a community in which you share the music you listen to with like-minded people.

That is why going to small club metal shows is my favourite activity because the atmosphere is very intimate and makes you feel like at home. Wherever you may find a metalhead, you straight away have something to talk about – you may not have the same tastes and opinions but who does? Metalheads may seem to be elitist but I think it happens in many cases because they have found what they like, they learnt which labels, magazines and venues they can rely on. They feel comfortable with that and I think that is perfectly healthy as long as you keep your mind open of course and do not start following blindly these institutions – something which unfortunately is happening in metal. Sometimes I think commercialism is taking over and some people are becoming victims of it by following things blindly. Sorry, I am straying away from the main topic so I will just stop here!

Do you treat other genres with the same outlook? Is heavy metal different from other genres, with — dare I say it — heavy metal “exceptionalism” such that it merits different treatment?

I always used to (and still do) compare heavy metal to classical music. I do that because when I was crazily into Iron Maiden at the age of 12-13, I would compare their three guitars and all the layers of their music to an orchestra. Being brought up with a variety of music, going to music school in the afternoons almost every day, caused me to draw parallels with classical music. The more I listened to stuff like Beethoven, Mozart or Chopin (which is playing almost constantly in my parents’ living room), the more I could compare it to metal music. Since this was happening in my early teens, it made me into a kvlt (or elitist) metalhead with easy justifications that metal is the only “just” genre in popular music because it has such serious and historical roots!

You could say I matured a bit now as in the same day you can see me listening to stuff such as Vader, ABBA, Beethoven, The Doors, Pearl Jam or Immortal. Anything goes really. It’s all music in the end. To answer your question, I do not think metal should be treated differently than other genres but I do think it is as much of a serious genre as classical music and it has a rich and fruitful history. Heavy metal is already not treated the same way as all the other genres, therefore, I believe, the greater society should start treating heavy metal seriously and not as just some teenager’s rebellious phase.

Is metal an art form, entertainment, both or does it straddle the line? Is there a difference between Beethoven’s Fifth or “Journey to the End of the Night” and Miley Cyrus (“Bangerz”) or “Game of Thrones”?

In most cases, I see metal more as an art form rather than entertainment. The fact that the majority of metal musicians create the music first for themselves, they make music based on how they are inspired, makes it art. They do not care how it is received by the greater public. If you start caring how your music is received by the average person, then that means you are not creating art anymore, you are trying to sell a product to a certain audience.

Metal is not all about entertaining people, however, metal creates great music to rock out to on a night out, right?! I know this has been talked about in all documentaries and interviews and it sounds like a cliché but the following is true: metal music is always there with you and for you. It can make you smile, laugh, cry, feel depressed or be there just as a great soundtrack to getting drunk (or whatever else you might want to poison yourself with). You can only understand this if you truly get into heavy metal by listening to the albums, reading about the bands’ history and going to the shows.

What do you look for in a band that makes you think favorably of them and possibly write a favorable review? Do you treat demo and first album bands differently from established acts on major labels?

There are various things to look out for but I am always up for surprises. Actually, if I listen to a band expecting something totally different and I end up loving it then we have a winner. Nonetheless, for a band to receive a favourable review from me, the music has to reach out to me emotionally and bring me into a certain state of mind. There is no mathematical equation for this really. Some piece of music can reach out more to you than me or the other way around. And here I am talking about myself – I can’t speak for the other writers on our team. They may disagree with me.

Everyone is treated the same by us. Of course, I love to listen to demos and new bands – recently I discovered Dismemberment and we streamed Thunderwar’s debut EP The Birth of Thunder. Because we receive LOADS of requests every week, we end up picking randomly the music we feature. There is only so much we can do since this is not a full-time job for us. Therefore, I would like to aim this to any bands or record labels which got in touch with us and never heard back or did not see their music on our site: please keep getting in touch with us, maybe in a few months we will feature you.

About how many people come through MetalRecusants every day (or month)? Has this gone up over the past year?

The numbers keep increasing every couple months or so. At the moment we have on average 4,000 unique visitors per month. If I remember correctly, half way through or towards the end of 2012, we had some 1,000 visitors, so yeah, the numbers are going up all the time. It is overwhelming when I think that I had literally zero people coming in when I started this as a blog in 2011. The more writers we got, the more bands we featured then the numbers kept going up.

Can you give us your (Dom) background in writing, music and theory? Does your day job/school overlap with your metal identity and life? Do the people in your daytime world understand your nighttime world (metal) or are the two incompatible?

I was brought up with all kinds of music in my family and I went to music school until the age of 19 where I did music theory, history and learnt to play piano and guitar (both classical and electric). My background in writing? I am a History student at the University of Essex in the UK – and currently as an exchange at Purdue University in Indiana, USA – so I guess I get to do a lot of writing like most students do! I think having this website and being a humanities student benefits me both ways because I am now used to writing all the time but it is also improving my writing style.

So far, I did not have to “sacrifice” my metal way of life for my university studies and social life. On the contrary, I will be writing a dissertation about heavy metal behind the Iron Curtain and I have met some wonderful metal (and non-metal as well) people while at university. At Essex there is a Metal Society of which I was an “executive” last year. We did – and they still keep doing – loads of awesome stuff; from organising simple socials at the bar to hosting our own metal nights on campus. I had an amazing time with those people and I am looking forward to going back in June and seeing all of them again as well as meeting any new faces!

MetalRecusants does not rate (assign a numerical value to) a band. Can you go into depth about why you don’t like this method?

That is correct! So people actually notice this? Haha! I always found album ratings ridiculous and especially the ones with decimal points. I mean, seriously, 98.6% or 5.5/10?! Focus on more how the music on the disc in front of you communicates with you, what do you feel when you listen to it? Does it make you smile, laugh or cry? Be creative, let us know how you feel instead of coming up with a weird ranking table. I actually talked about this with the great guys from Cattle Decapitation, we had some laughs about some of the Metal-Archives reviewers.

Music, in most cases, for me is an art form. I do not understand how I can give a numerical value to an album. An album/band rating is misleading, in my opinion, because if someone sees a 3/10 rating, he or she will most probably disregard that album. That person would not have noticed that there might have been something in that album that he/she might have enjoyed. However, if there is no rating, that person can read a balanced and detailed review of the music and come across elements of the music that he/she might have not learnt by looking at the rating. I just find album ratings to be limiting one’s imagination.

Do you think there’s a hazard to over-simplifying ideas expressed in written form? What makes an effective review/article for you?

It can be a hazard but all you have to do is choose the right words. To be honest, sometimes I can’t be bothered to read through a 1,000 word article. Therefore, it is nice to see articles with embedded music players or videos. We have a rule of at least 300 words per article (excluding news posts) on MR which equates to a longer paragraph, which is not that much. As long as the review/article goes into depth about the aforementioned qualities of the music (that we are told whether the writer felt anything while listening to the music) and also given a brief background about the band’s history then it doesn’t matter whether it is a 300 or 2,000 word article.

Can you give us a bit of background on MetalRecusants, i.e. what year it began, how it has grown, and where it’s going in the future?

I started MetalRecusants in March 2011 during my last year of high school on the small Mediterranean island of Cyprus. I somehow started getting more and more familiar and associated with the Cypriot metal scene. A German black metal band, Ctulu, got in touch with me about playing on the island and doing an interview so I gave them the contact details of all the promoters I knew and also contacted them myself to get them to the island – guess what? They played on the island twice so far and I’m now good friends with them, we keep meeting at Wacken Open Air almost every year. Regarding the interview, I decided – after being convinced by members of Cypriot death metal act Vomitile – to start a blog with my friend from school, Christian, since there were no proper active zines in Cyprus; there was only a forum (Cy-Metal) and zines from Greece, nothing truly Cypriot though. As you can see though, I did not make this site into a site about the Cypriot metal scene; I wanted something more than that, haha! There are many great bands in Cyprus though.

As I wrote before, the site has grown because we kept on writing and writing and getting more contributors. It works on a word of mouth basis really. We write a review, a band shares it on their pages, people like it or dislike it and we get recognised. It is important that bands and record label share these reviews – especially at the early stages.

What does the future hold for us? Well, I want to keep on carrying the flame and continue what we are doing as long as possible. I would like one day to start paying all my writers for their hard work but that’s the future. One thing which will definitely not change is that we will keep on writing honest articles and we will never rate releases!!!

Do you think the metal industry has changed over the past few years? Have any genres waned? What seems to be “happening” now?

I actually ask a similar question in some of my band interviews. I like older bands to compare the times when they were starting out to now. I think I came to an agreement with Jonas Renkse of Katatonia/Bloodbath that the metal scene has become more “professional” over the years, it turned into this proper metal music industry which lost that “underground” spirit which was more evident in the 70s, 80s and 90s. I was not really present in the scene (or alive) back then so I can’t really tell. However, I can agree that the metal industry is “professional” at the moment.

There are more people taking care of the bands’ tours, the record labels, the public relations with the press and promoters. Nowadays if you don’t have a PR, you’re less likely to be recognised outside of your own local scene. There are so many bands nowadays that it is very hard for a band to break through on its own. I don’t think any genres have waned over the past few years. On the contrary, every genre seems to have many bands – whether it is new bands forming or older ones creating new material. How many “comeback” albums did we have in 2013?! I am not the one to follow what is “happening” now and I hate editors or journalists who think they are someone and tell the world what is “in” or “out”. Of course, it is great to tell the world what you think is “in” or “the next big thing” but stating such opinions in an authoritative way is rubbish. Nonetheless, there seems to be some kind of stoner/doom/old-school 70s type of revival with loads of such rock ‘n’ roll bands forming which I don’t mind at all!

Do you use subgenre terms, like “death metal” or “discogrind”? How would these be useful to a metal fan?

I usually use the basic subgenre terms like “death metal”, “thrash metal”, “black metal”, “glam metal” and “doom metal”. I have come across a lot of weird terms like the one you mention “discogrind” or “trance death metal”. These terms might be good sometimes to label some piece of music very briefly and might come handy for a review. I am, however, not a big fan of labelling. I prefer to use the basic terms and if I see that there are other styles in the band’s music then I will point out that it is a mix of thrash and death or doom and black.

Finally, the hardest question of all: what is heavy metal? What makes a band heavy metal? How do we tell the difference between a band that is hard rock, industrial, etc. and heavy metal, death metal, grindcore, etc?

That is a good question and a hard one indeed! I guess it is rather hard to define heavy metal nowadays because of how much the genre has evolved. Everyone likes mixing their metal with everything now; there’s jazz metal, discogrind, trance metal, psychedelic/progressive, operatic, orchestral, there’s literally everything you can imagine. For me, heavy metal is something that really rocks, really moves you and fills you with emotions. I will borrow our writer’s, David Halbe, phrase here: “if something rocks, it rocks!”

In the famous documentary Heavy Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, Deena Weinstein defined metal with a deep bass, distorted guitars and masculine leather-wearing men. That could have been applied in the 80s but cannot be applied anymore in the 21st Century because the genre has expanded so much musically but also visually – you see a lot of bands not wearing the “traditional” black uniform with band T-shirts but still a lot of these bands do play very good metal. Winterfylleth comes to mind straight away.

If someone wants to learn to tell the difference between traditional heavy metal, death metal, thrash metal, grindcore, black metal and all that, then I would suggest going on a listening history trip back to the late 60s and make your way up through to the early 90s. There you can see the traditional evolution of these sub-genres and learn what are their basic differences and even come up with your own description/formula.

Keith Kahn-Harris, a UK-based academic who writes about metal, has recently opined that there’s a glut of metal and it has become impossible to tell good from crap, thus the genre’s stagnating. Does this type of thinking factor into your reviewing choices at all? What about your purchasing choices?

I actually did not know Keith Kahn-Harris’ work before – although I have seen that book on extreme metal on Amazon somewhere – but I checked it out right now and he does have a lot of interesting things to say. He is right that the scene is overflowing with a crazy amount of bands, especially now with the Internet. But I can’t really compare to how it was before when there was no Internet and your only choice was to copy a tape or trade. I was born into the Internet age and I’m used to having everything ready for immediate download either legally or illegally… I discover most of the bands that I listen to either through the Internet or from relatives/friends. And now thanks to MetalRecusants my e-mail inbox is a never ending discovery lane of new and old bands which is something I’m very lucky to have.

Anyways, to answer your questions, I do not think that it has become impossible to tell good from crap – obviously here everyone has their own definition of “good” and “crap”. You know, I think that the more you learn about the metal scene, the more you research and listen, you find your own personal satisfactory source of new music whether it is a few record labels you trust, a website/blog or a magazine. Metalheads are a very opinionated bunch of people and they can definitely tell what is good or crap for them. So, to give you some definite answer out of this brainstorming session, yes it can be sometime chaotic with the reviewing choices; what to assign to our writers, which band should we focus on more and interview, which show to attend. All of this can get frustrating at times but as I said before we choose what we review randomly; sometime because we like the music from first listen and want to learn more about the bands with interviews and sometimes because we want a bit of a challenge in writing about something new.

As for the purchasing choices, yes, I sometimes do end up having a headache as I want to buy too much stuff. That’s why I limit myself to purchasing music at concerts and record shops. I rarely order online nowadays – maybe if it’s a pre-order which I can’t wait for or if it is something which I know I won’t be able to find at my local record shop or I won’t be able to see the band in concert in the near future. I do not like purchasing digital downloads because it feels like buying air. If I am going to spend money, I’d rather have the whole package.

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Interview with Morgengrau

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Morgengrau rose from the ashes of underground metal and resurrected the ancient ways of old school death metal, hailing back to the 1980s and its fertile ferment of fusion between speed metal, death metal and the various hybrids. Sounding in part like a late 1980s speed/death album and in part like a crushing death metal venture from 1992, Morgengrau carry on the tradition of death metal and give it their own unique stamp.

Extrinsic Pathway is the band’s first full-length release and hits the stores on April 2, 2013. This album features all of what you might expect from older death metal, but also keeps true to its own vision of what the future and the past should hold in common. We were fortunate enough to get a chance to speak to Erika, Morgengrau‘s guitarist/vocalist, about the nature of death metal and where Morgengrau fits into this complex formula.

What made you enjoy death metal, and want to be in a death metal band?

The ferocity of death metal has had me since I first heard bands like Possessed, Malevolent Creation and Cannibal Corpse. While I’ve drifted in and out of enjoying other genres, death metal has been a constant. It speaks to me at a deep, intrinsic level more so than any other musical form. I think it’s natural for humans to create more of the things they love. This is certainly my story. I’m not looking to reinvent the genre or forge brave new paths into the realms of extreme music. Morgengrau is about writing songs springing from the dark places inside us, songs we identify with and enjoy hearing and playing.

Can you tell us a bit about the musical history of the band members? Who plays what and where are they from?

We’re all lifer metalheads, with some of us farther along the road than the others. Multigenerational, shall we say. I’m the oldest with the most bands and experience under my belt. I’m also the only non-native Texan in the band. For those who don’t know, I started out in 1995 up in the Boston, MA area singing for neoclassic group Autumn Tears. Kind of a bizarre beginning, now that I look back on it. Since then I’ve worked my way through progressively heavier projects: Ignitor, Bracaglia, sessioning for Vesperian Sorrow and regularly playing in Drifter, an Iron Maiden tribute. In Morgengrau, I’ve finally created the right band for me where I have full creative control and leadership. This is the first band in which I’ve done more than vocals. Learning to play guitar and sing has been quite the learning experience for me.

The others have had shorter but more focused careers. Reba drummed for a technical death metal band called Manifestation for about 5 years; Jake played bass with avant garde black metallers Humut Tabal and now plays in Plutonian Shore, a very traditional black metal band based in San Antonio. Morgengrau is Nick’s first band.

You list Asphyx, Pestilence and Immolation as influences for at least how you want the album to sound. But there’s a lot more influence in there, ranging all over the place. Can you tell us what else influences you?

I’m terrible at describing my own music; I use what others say they hear to describe it. A number of reviews so far have mentioned it as having “progressive” elements which is a shock — I don’t like progressive metal and certainly wasn’t aiming for that. Simply proves how everyone experiences music a different way. For me, it is what it is. I listen to a lot of Immolation and Finnish death metal like Torture Killer, Winterwolf and Demigod. That definitely lends a flavor, however, I’m acutely aware of avoiding becoming a clone. Morgengrau needs to stand on its own. When I write, I think about what attracts me to certain songs verses what repels me. What works, what doesn’t work. Why do I go back to certain songs time and again? What makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck?

How long has Morgengrau been around? How did you all find each other? Is it hard to find people who want to be in old school bands, as opposed to the new school styled ones?

Morgengrau officially formed in July 2010. Reba and I had been jamming cover tunes for a while and asked Jake to join us in the summer. Very quickly, we realized we made a good a unit. I’ve known Reba since ’04 when I met her at an Ignitor show. I prefer to hang out with guys, but when I saw Reba banging her head like a maniac, I knew we’d be friends. I met Nick in 2009 at a Belphegor show, and Jake shortly after. They were both going to school in San Antonio at that time. The whole process of coming together was inspiring, as it seemed ridiculous at first for a 40 year old to be asking 20 year olds to join a band, yet it worked amazingly well. There’s a whole group of young kids in Texas who are into old school metal for all the right reasons. Unlike when I lived up Northeast, down here I’m surrounded by musicians with whom I can connect and trust. I’m very particular about who I’ll have in my band. No drama or critical life dysfunctions. I’ve been in bands with that and it’s the worst. No thanks.

Extrinsic Pathway suggests someone reaching out, or finding a way through life that’s outside of the internal dialogue of a human being. Is this a concept song or album? Can you tell us what it’s about?

The inspiration came from Reba, who mentioned the phrase after hearing it in class. It’s a medical term — part of the blood clotting process triggered by outside damage to a vessel. I realized it could be used to describe walking the Left Hand Path. Most of us who walk it have been damaged or driven to the dark side in some way. It’s our way of protecting and defending against that unwanted outside insult. We’re all hurtling towards our own personal armageddon. You must ask yourself – “When the time comes, will I go standing and proud, or mewling and crawling on my belly like most everyone else?” Walking the Left is my way of embracing and preparing for that ending, however it comes. That awareness gives me incredible focus and strength. My bandmates feel similarly, in their own ways. The concept should ring true with other listeners, I imagine.

The cover of Sepultura “Inner Self” is phenomenal. You’ve also covered Pestilence and Asphyx. Why these three? Why did you pick “Inner Self”? Is it a “message thing”?

Thanks for the compliment. Before we started writing original material, like most bands we jammed a lot of cover tunes. Asphyx‘s music is simple, catchy and easy to play. I’d not played guitar for almost 20 years so when I picked it back up in 2009, I needed something fun with which to brush off the dust.

Pestilence is my favorite death metal band of all time. Consuming Impulse will be forever timeless. Sepultura wasn’t on the roster until Jake, Nick and Reba started banging out “Inner Self” at the end of practices just for fun. We weren’t planning to make part of our repertoire but it quickly stuck. The song means a lot to Jake, as more than any of us, he’s experienced a coalescence of self over the last few years. When we first met, he was unsure of his path, figuratively dipping his toe into the Acheron, while still clinging to old beliefs. We’ve watched him shed his weak skin for a more confident hide, to begin living a life beholden to none but him. What a pleasure it has been, watching his transformation. It’s one of the reasons why he handles vocals on “Inner Self” — that is his song, in many ways.

The first half of Extrinsic Pathway shows what seems to me is an affinity for mid- to late-1980s speed metal type stuff, which Sepultura and Slayer overlap, since they’re sort of half-death/half-speed. What do you think it is about that time period that’s so appealing, both to Morgengrau and the rest of us out here?

It’s a time of life thing. The late 80s were when I, as a teenager, truly found who I wanted to be as a musician. The riffs and sounds of that time are permanently imprinted in my psyche. This was the Buffalo scene at its heyday, so everything was about Slayer, Sepultura, Death, Deicide, Morbid Angel, Cannibal Corpse and Obituary. That time was truly magic. The ferocity of this new music was withering. I remember going with my boyfriend to Mark “Psycho” Abrams’ house to get a copy of Deicide‘s debut album which we’d won from his radioshow. We sat in the car after getting it, holding it, mute, afraid of it. Same thing with Morbid Angel‘s Altars of Madness. Music of such incredible intensity, that went straight to my core, ripped my soul out then fed it back to me, bloody and shredded. If I can capture even an nth of that feeling in my songs, I’ll consider myself successful. I want a young person to hear Morgengrau and feel something of that same, frothing insanity which marked all our days back then. There will never be another time like it.

It sounds like a conscious effort was made to vary up song structure and offer different conclusions to riffs so that each song grows a bit. What appeals to you about this idea?

That’s just good songwriting. It’s easy to write a bunch of singular riffs and stitch them together like a patchwork quilt. Some people love that kind of music but personally, I hate it. It feels like a epileptic fit. Songs have to flow. The transitions need to make sense. Dynamic is critical, otherwise the ear goes numb. Let’s not forget the importance of the concept of “hook.” If you can’t keep the main riff in your head after the song is over, it might as well not even exist. Bands get all wrapped up writing these complex, super fast, theory-based riffs to prove their musicianmanship. That does not a good song make — those tunes never sound like anything other than WHOMP WHOMP WHOMP WHOMP in the typical shitty live setting. All I want is for the interested to get our music on first listen, so they come back for more.

Can you tell us where you produced this album, and how was your first time as a band in a studio? What techniques did you use to get that nice thick early 1990s sound?

Two words about studio time: fucking hell.

To elaborate: We recorded at Amplitude Media here in Austin. It was close and flexible, which in the end was fortunate as we didn’t move along nearly as fast as expected. I’d never recorded anything from the ground up. Reba had one demo under her belt. Nick and Jake – no experience to speak of. We got the click track going and off we went… into the sterile land of first album territory where the fan reaction is, “What the fuck happened? The demo was so ferocious!” I instantly understood how that happens — you think the “right way” is to record to a click and you’ve NEVER EVER used one in practice, so that click sucks all the life out of the songs. So… no click. Sure there’s some timing stuff here and there, but the songs sound alive, and that’s the key.

Four rhythm tracks with my Mesa cabinet double miked got us that fat sound. We used a Rectifier Roadster and a custom Brugera for amplification. All those tracks took a long time. It was very taxing — I’m certainly not a one take kind of player.

Everyone had their own personal freakout moment during recording. Rather unifying, in the end. The day I had mine it was hot (it was a good 108º outside, probably 90º in the studio), I’d had a long, shitty day at work and had received some rather horrible personal news a few days before. I sat down with the guitar to start on rhythm track 3 for “Antithetical,” sweat was pouring down the back of my neck and my arms and an ant was walking up the neck of my guitar. I just about started screaming. I wanted nothing more than to quit. But how could I? I had three other people believing that I could do it, that this would happen. So I shoved the panic down, ignored the ant and the sweat, and got it done.

Once we got to vocals, things smoothed out. Reba floored us with her backing tracks. She has a hell of a voice! On “Extrinsic Pathway,” “Antithetical,” and “Polymorphic”, that really deep roar under mine is her. The day she cut her tracks will forever remain one of my fondest memories. There she was in the isolation room, all 5’4″ of her, never having recorded vocals before, and suddenly this enormous demonic roar coming pouring out of the monitors and knocks us all off the couch. Jake was just open-mouthed. At that point, I started laughing and could not stop. It was such an amazing moment. What a hidden talent she has.

We mixed and mastered with Devo Andersson and Endarker Studio. Devo’s a friend whose work I hold in high regard. Mixing from a distance was challenging but worth it. There was no way I was going to let everyone’s blood, sweat, and almost-tears be wasted by cheaping out on the final stages. We finished the album late, vastly overbudget, way stressed out and exhausted… and it was worth every penny, minute, and ounce of energy.

What’s next for Morgengrau? I know that most of your team have other projects, both musical and otherwise. Are you going to tour? Gig around Austin, TX, which I believe is your homebase? Sacrifice goats to the Dark Lord Ba’al and His Legions of Necrocaprous Antagonists?

Hipster abuse. Shameless self promotion. Spamming teh Interwebz. Cat memes — ok, just kidding. We’re going to play as many strategically important shows as possible. There are gigs in San Antonio and Houston booked, then we’re heading to NYC to play Martyrdoom in June. I have to give thanks to Vinny and Signature Riff for such an amazing opportunity — we are so excited! Touring is definitely on the wish list, but with our various job schedules, might be tough. Never say never, though. One thing I will avoid is overplaying — we see that so much in TX. There’s always that one band that’s on every goddamned bill. After six months, nobody cares. It’s important to keep anticipation up. New material is in the works, and we continue to work on stage presentation. If you’re going to do it, do it big and do right, and with passion.

Do you think old school death metal is returning? Other than technique, what makes OSDM different from “modern” death metal, metalcore, deathcore, indie-metal, post-metal and bounce metal?

You forgot crabcore. I’ll tell you, the day someone sent me that Attack Attack video at work I nearly had to go into the bathroom and drown myself in the toilet. That’s METAL? And those are MEN? I’ve got more testosterone in my wizened left ovary than all five of them combined. WHAT HAPPENED?

I think old school DM is already back. Bands like Funebrarum, Disma, Cruciamentum and War Master are merely a few of the great examples of new death metal done the right way. It helps the old greats are still around with more enthusiasm than ever — last night, I saw Imprecation, Master and Incantation — that’s about 100 years of death metal experience rolled up into one show. Immolation‘s new album sounds like it’s going to be killer.

What makes it different? Shit, where to begin? Good songwriting. No jerking off on the fretboard. Solos that complement the music, even if they’re only five notes. Lyrical focus on destruction, the occult, anti-Christian sentiments, war, suffering, darkness. Musicians who would sooner kill themselves than get on stage wearing a white belt. Long hair or no hair, nothing in between. Pointy guitars. Blood, our own or yours, we don’t care. Steaks and hamburgers, none of that vegan shit. Going on stage blind because you’d sooner die than play wearing your glasses. Songs that generate circle pits. Self-knowledge. Willingness to sacrifice all. Passion without drama. Lifetime commitment. Honesty.

I could talk your ear off, but you probably need that ear for the next album. I appreciate the time you put into this and know our readers will as well.

I’ve always got an ear for DeathMetal.org. Thank you, Brett and your readers, for the support. Come walk the Extrinsic Pathway with us… Hail Metal, hail Death!

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The Best Underground Metal of 2012

The year is done. It brought many things: a new wave of hipster metal that blipped and died, an old school revival that’s been percolating for years, drama and sadness with the recent death of Rigor Mortis’ Mike Scaccia. Above all else, however, it brought us some quality music, some of which is heavy metal and some of which is metal in spirit only. Enjoy this survey of the best of 2012.

The Best Metal (and related) of 2012

  • Abhorrence – Completely VulgarThis legendary band existed before Amorphis and plays a grittier style of the bold, warlike and heavy yet melodic music that graced Amorphis’ first album, The Karelian Isthmus. These Abhorrence tracks show the band that would later write that album as they emerge from early grind/death stylings and gradually work more melody into their work. This is metal’s holy grail: how to be both epic and amoral in the nihilistic sense of worshipping power, darkness and nature, but also use melody and harmony to give the works some staying power. As this collection of re-released demos progresses, the fusion of the two gets more confident and deft, leading us up to the point where the greatness of the first Amorphis album was inevitable.
  • Angel Witch – As Above, So BelowAfter a lengthy absence, this classic NWOBHM band returns with an album that shows integration of more recent influences, specifically American heavy metal and progressive metal, but still keeps up the power. These songs are not as distinctive or as oddball as the heavily personalitied offerings from their self-titled album, but As Above, So Below is important because it takes disparate influences and places them under the control of one voice and style, which gives others room to build on. The oil-on-water aspect of bands switching between influences is gone and replaced by a smooth enwrapping of these styles into the substrate of Angel Witch’s lauded and learned evil heavy metal.
  • Beherit – Celebrate the DeadIf death metal was modernism, with its emphasis on structure, black metal was postmodernism, or an attempt to show through atmosphere the many facets of an idea in a clarity which could not be confined to a single statement. This was a quest as old as humanity, which is how to communicate in such a way that people who do not understand it do not simply imitate it from the outside-in and make something that looks about like it, fooling most people. Since the late 1990s Beherit have been at work inventing the next wave or movement of metal, one in which multiple statements co-exist in contradictory opposites that reveal the shadow or silhouette of an underlying truth. Two forms are in tension here: the “loop” form of traditional ambient music, in which layers are poured on top of a basic dub to create a simple sonic tapestry, and the pure narrative form which electro-acoustic music (and even some dubstep) touches on, in which a story is told through the change of riffs. This is closer to the original death metal idea of structure, but it is structure created through atmosphere, like old Tangerine Dream and Brian Eno albums, or even classical music. To this end, Beherit has re-released two demo songs from Engram which are ambitious longer (13- and 15-minute) works which show a deepening and changing of atmosphere, using both looping and narrative constructs at the same time. This is a valiant and clear-headed attempt to resurrect black metal, which has fallen into the hands of those who imitate the “external” aspects of the early classics like simple riffs and fast songs, but understand none of the underlying ideas or songwriting methods. While it seems unconventional at first, Celebrate the Dead is a return to the truest form of black metal by expanding its orthodoxy to include the transcendental narrative of those more experienced in both this world, and the realms beyond. Be not fooled — evil pervades this release, so subtly that you will not know until it has seized your soul.
  • Dead Can Dance – AnastasisFor their return after some absence, Dead Can Dance have taken the style on Spiritchaser and refined it even more with the sensibility of modern club music and soundtrack influences. Rhythms and tempo work like you might expect a big label ambient album to work, fitting very much into the slightly picked up chill-out range with gentle backing beats that are still identifiable enough to make it easy to listen to. Consistent with even earlier work, songs use extended structures, but they fit the pattern of an early MTV video or short film more than a musical one. The result is that these are immersive little sonic ventures that are both easy to hear and not surprising, and also, rewarding in their consistency and adept arrangements. Melodies themselves are not as adventurous or period/locale-specific as older Dead Can Dance, and in fact more lifts from earlier influences can be heard (check out the Doors “The end” inspirations on the first track). For a purist, this will not be the best Dead Can Dance album, but for something that has stepped into the Loreena McKennit or Enya range of “accessible,” this is far beyond what most would encounter otherwise and makes for a pleasant listen on its own.
  • Demoncy – Enthroned is the NightAlong with Beherit, this shares the top spot as album of the year. In 2012, a wave of bands like Cruciamentum and Heresiarch rediscovered the sound of classic Incantation from the Onward to Golgotha area. Having come from the same school, joined to Incantation by Ixithra’s former band Havohej’s primary composer, Paul Ledney, having been an original member of Incantation, Demoncy launched into the same by creating a faithful followup to 1996’s Joined in Darkness. In this case, Demoncy add a bit of melody and atmosphere, channeling from first album Unleashed and other Swedish death metal classics, thus combining the two most intense areas of death metal into what is really a death metal album with a black metal sense of atmosphere. The result is a descent into a dark and primal place in which occult spiritual warfare transpires through the battling of motifs in this complex album made of simple parts. Like Joined in Darkness, it is otherworldly and foreboding, but a bit less purely alienated; instead, this album creates a sense of symbolic significance emerging like melody from the clouded obscure. Very little black metal of this intensity has been made since the mid-1990s which makes this both faithful to the spirit and pushing the boundaries of the genre, a simultaneous advancement that eludes most musicians and fans alike.
  • Derkéta – In Death We MeetArising from the ashes of Mythic, the all-female doom-death band from the early 1990s, Derkéta follows in a more purely doom metal path including some of the juicy 1970s heavy metal style doom metal that audiences enjoy with bands like Pentagram and Witchfinder General. 24 years later, this album is the first for this promising band, and holds back nothing. Like Mythic, the music is formed of giant bolsters of tunneling power chords colliding slowly over a changing melodic landscape. Atmosphere emerges from within. The simplicity of it removes the glitz and contentless enhancement of current doom metal bands, and takes the listeners back to the essence of the genre, which is an unsettling sense of pervasive dread. A prominent Candlemass Ancient Dreams influence seems to be present in these compact and droning songs.
  • Desecresy – The Doom SkeptronDesecresy approach Finnish death metal the way others might approach doom metal, using melody and abstract song structures to convey an experience not unlike watching the helmet camera of a pilot flying through a vast and ancient underground cave in which demons seem to lurk behind every stalagtite. Comparable to a hybrid between Amorphis and Skepticism, this album nonetheless keeps up the umptempo riffing and lets its melodies emerge to construct an emanating atmosphere. The result is both aggressive and enjoyable from a purely death metal perspective, but where appropriate, it uses the moods of doom metal to complete that raging insanity to produce an experience that is like a journey. There are doubts, fears, joys, rage and sadness, but pervading all of it is a sonorous melancholy which indicates a change in viewing life from orientation toward what is safe, to prizing what is adventurous and as such being alone on a planet of people concerned with safety labels and microwave cooking.
  • Drawn and Quartered – Feeding Hell’s FurnaceImagine a hybrid between Angelcorpse and Num Skull. These songs are extremely basic, like the melodies of horror movies, but are put together with interlocking rhythms that propel them forward and give them atmosphere. As a result, their themes feel intuitive like paths through a forest remembered from a childhood story. There will not be surprise at the ways these tunes twist and bend, but appreciation for a well-done interpretation on a necessary idea. In the same way you might appreciate an excellent sword or well-executed painting of a familiar subject, these songs will be appreciated for how well they do what they love. Just as most musicians make their best work when they design it to be enjoyed repeatedly by people with their own tastes, this faithful and yet creative interpretation of the old school death metal genre will be shared among those who can appreciate it, for taking the past and making it live on by keeping it current to itself and through inventiveness, an enjoyable listen.
  • Faustcoven – Hellfire and Funeral BellsThis release is not particularly metal, or at least underground metal, even though it aspires to the aesthetics of it. Rather, this is like Marilyn Manson interpreting classic heavy metal in a gothic doom metal context as informed by death metal aesthetics but not technique. It’s basically blues rock with short phrase power chord riffs and highly compelling rhythm, underneath leads that are reminiscent of a friendlier version of St. Vitus. Good use of theme allows this release to be a faithful listen and also have some staying power for those who like this style. Like most doom metal, it is designed to build a repetitive atmosphere that is part curl of enjoyment, and part linear path of a melancholic mood. The death metal vocals would normally be out of place here but with the heavy reverb they take a backseat and let the guitars talk, which is the point of this band. It will probably not delight those who like underground metal, but if you’re looking for someplace to go for your next Cathedral or Sleep fix, this furry doom band holds the ticket.
  • Grave – Endless Procession of SoulsGrave return to the Swedish style which they helped make famous. Like later Fleshcrawl, this music is simplified from the original riff-salad which was reverse-assembled to make a journey into darkness emerge from thin air, but although it uses plenty of verse-chorus segments, they are not the entirety of each song. There are enough labyrinthine twists and turns to be fun, a good motivational rhythm, and an atmosphere of darkness and aggressive that is also (oddly) comforting and natural. Although musically this is fairly basic, like early Grave, it shows more use of melody and harmony, which adds an appreciable dimension of compactness and centering without falling into standard rock music. The result is easy to listen to and yet brings out its power in moments of sudden clarity which, as in life, make the listener think there might be more afoot than the obvious.
  • Imprecation – Jehovah DeniedThis four-song EP shows the resurrected Imprecation: more consistent in its songwriting, slightly less manic, and more inclined to create a pervasive atmosphere of darkness. The occult death metal founders from Houston originally shone in the early 1990s, when their demos and later CD were released, but returned after inaction and the lending of band members to other acts. Their earlier material had more of a Morbid Angel influence and presented itself as clear occultism, where the newer material goes back more toward where Possessed and early old school death metal (Morpheus Descends, Massacre) were headed back in their day. Mood-enhancing use of background keyboards gives an aura of the mysterious to these dark melodies and the organic rhythms which suffuse them. Influences on this music span from pre-death metal, through the walking and stalking rhythms of speed metal, to the later black metal works in song structure and atmosphere. This EP presages a killer full-length but stands on its own as quality music with a voice particular to its worldview.
  • Incantation – Vanquish in VengeanceWith new personnel and possibly the strongest sense of unity in a long time, Incantation very sensibly took influences deliberately from their own two greatest successes: Onward to Golgotha and Diabolical Conquest. The result is an album that self-consciously borrows from those albums in style but tries to create new songs to wrap in that style, and with the aid of new guitarist Alex Bouks (ex-Goreaphobia) shapes its works around melodic shapes but does not adorn them in melodic riffing, creating a sense of an inner region of hidden energy within the exterior of rugged chromatic shapes. The result is one of Incantation’s most conventional albums but also a festival of the methods that made early Incantation so distinctive and powerful, which combined makes for a good later death metal listen.
  • Legion of Doom – The Summoning of ShadowsThis oddity of an album begins with some form of sung prayer and launches into songs that are both adorned in the harmonic glaze of melodic playing and also possessed of the manic simplicity of early black metal. Like the primitive era of black metal, these songs are specific structures fitting the content of each song, with droning riffs that interact and build to a culmination before dissipating. On this album, Legion of Doom use more death metal and speed metal technique in with their Burzum-inspired black metal, ending in a result that sounds more like an ornate and elegant version of Gorgoroth’s Destroyer. Like all Legion of Doom releases, The Summoning of Shadows features songs that accelerate thematic intensity in layers and produce an immerse, ambient experience that suspends reality through the sheer dominating power of its riffs. This album is more efficient than the last couple of releases of this band, and by embracing a listenable style, makes the type of outsider album that Marduk or Watain wish they could.
  • Lord Wind – Ales StenarIf you want to immerse yourself in ancient sensation, Graveland axeman Rob Darken’s ambient/neofolk/soundtrack project Lord Wind is a good place to start. Unlike previous Lord Wind efforts, Ales Stenar mixes real vocals and violin with electronic music that is roughly inspired by the Conan and Red Sonja soundtracks. The goal however is less like the rock-ish folk songs of neofolk, or the grand accompaniment for cinema provided by soundtracks; this is music like Burzum or Graveland that is designed for the listener to lose themselves in its repetitive hypnotic surges, like a catechism or mantra. Its soaring melodies and plunging dynamics give it a familiarity like the rush of blood through veins in the ears, and the result feels natural and yet inspired to rise above the mundane at the same time. Like entering a forest, the songs open up to repeated listens and soon each part is distinct, but our natural way is to hear it all at once and derive a sentimental feeling, perhaps warlike, from it. This is the most proficient and perhaps most profound of the Lord Wind albums, proffering a complete escape from reality to a world that is both fantasy and more real than the stuporous dream of modernity.
  • Master – The New EliteOver the past few albums, punk/heavy metal hybrid Master has steadily been migrating toward late-1990s death metal. This new album presents a more technical view than the verse-chorus-exposition songs that Master (and related Speckmann projects) evolved from. Much like On the Seventh Day God Created…Master, riffs are strummed with precision at high speed and tend to lead away from stable grouping by adding riffs to the existing loop. These riffs use longer progressions and more chromatic fills, giving the music a mechanical terror that makes it sound like technocracy taking over. Speckmann’s vocals are tighter than in the past and urge the music along, but somewhere in this musical process of evolution, his overall tone has started sounding less like protest music and more like a cheering of the coming conflagration. Seeing that Master keep improving over time provides a great incentive to follow this band as they evolve further.
  • Profanatica – Sickened by Holy Host / The Grand Masters SessionsSometimes, in order to reach your next aspiration, it is necessary to part with the past. Profanatica have done this in grand style by accumulating old tracks and re-working them in parallel, with one disc containing newer versions done in the early 1990s style, and the other containing older session takes on the same songs, interspersed with acoustic landscapes by Aragorn Amori, the band’s much-admired deceased former guitarist. Through its long history, the entity known as Profanatica/Havohej (or: Paul Ledney and friends) has consistently released material showcasing a truly artistic brilliance. Usually, between moments of brilliance there are experiments and less intense offerings that make it easy to forget that when they are in full swing, these musicians are unstoppable forces creating a unique type of black metal that is closer to ambient death metal but unlike most black metal at this time, possessed of a full mythos and unique view of the world. Like the best of Profanatica/Havohej, these two discs are ripping sonic terror that transcend daily life and divulge the essence of the feral spirit of pre-civilized humanity. In that vision of evil, Profanatica offer us something both inspiring and instructive, and do so through some of the best music of their career.
  • Terrorizer – Hordes of ZombiesPeople love change if it is constant and hate it if not. Terrorizer misstepped with their first post-World Downfall album, but came back with a strong contender on Hordes of Zombies. It does not attempt to be World Downfall II which is intelligent since outward-in emulation of the past usually produces hollow shells, and a good many classic bands have gone to their graves in disgrace by doing the same thing. Instead, this aims more at the territory scoped by Napalm Death with Fear, Emptiness, Despair: a modern form of grindcore that is musical and listenable without being commercial, and aims less at creating an atmosphere of terror and misery than creating motivational, energetic and yet literalist/realist music. These songs convey a desire to look at a dangerous situation with hopeless odds, then jump in and fight it out. It’s war music, but music of a normalized war, like going out into a declining civilization and fighting for mundane survival. Hordes of Zombies does this through a somewhat overused metal metaphor, that of the zombie takeover of society, but as a movie/musical trope this theme has remained consistent since the 1960s because it so aptly describes egalitarian society. Consumerism, mass trends, fads, panics, elections, Black Friday sales, save-the-children; it’s all in there. Terrorizer may be brilliant satirists for transforming all of that mass neurosis into a simple symbol and then making these engaging songs about it. Each piece uses a combination of rhythmic and slight melodic hook to lure us in, then pits grinding riffs against one another while fitting them into bounding rhythms that unleash an inner fury in their conflict between the fear and the mundane. The result is a stream of ferocious riffs in songs that hold together as songs in the Terrorizer tradition, creating an experience of immersion in conflict that is both justified and everyday. For a genre such as grindcore, this more stable form is preferable to re-living the past or trying to “innovate” by including outside elements. As a result, Hordes of Zombies is not only a great listening experience but an archetype others will follow.
  • Thevetat – Disease to DivideOne of the more interesting entries comes from ex-Ceremonium musician Thomas Pioli who has assembled a new team to make music that sounds like early NYDM mixed with the melodic undertones of heavy but intriguing bands like Montrosity, Malevolent Creation and Gorguts. The result hits hard with a rushing wall of chords and then drops into socketed rhythms that invoke a change in riffs, causing a twisted inner torment to emerge in Protean form. This gives old school death metal a new life without giving it a new form, since the form is the result of the content, which is essentially unchanged but slightly updated since 1992. No concessions to “modernization” (a/k/a mixing death metal with rock, jazz, metalcore, disco, punk, etc.) occur here, which allows this music to be in touch with its own spirit and flow freely from the source of its own inspiration. It is thunderous and yet perceptive, bringing with it the spirit of doom metal and its introspective melancholy. Although a three-song EP, this release beats out most albums released this year for pure death metal intensity.
  • Timeghoul – 1992-1994Metal developed its own sense of “progressive” and “technical” music long before it imported jazz-fusion in order to help it. In fact, part of metal’s birth was from the original progressive rock in the 1970s and the soundtracks of horror movies, which gave it a predilection for this direction. “Progressive” itself is a misnomer since nothing new gets discovered in music, but probably more accurately means “complex”: music with unconventional song structures, extensive use of harmony, melody and key; possibly linked to some kind of story outside the music itself and the usual topics (love, sex, drama) of pop songs. These songs craft winding riffs and intricate structures, using embedded melody to transition between more chromatic riffs, and culminate in odd twists of fate that translate them into seemingly the reverse of their initial outlook. Culminating in the epic 10-minute “Occurrence on Mimas,” this collection of early works by this band showcase the enjoyably weird variety of death metal in its early days.
  • War Master – Pyramid of the NecropolisThis modern band attempts to revive the death metal style, starting with the deathgrind of its namesake Bolt Thrower and incorporating influences from many of the bands of the era, and succeeds by staying true to its own enjoyment. As a result, it’s working in a style, and not from a template; the band want to create old school death metal, but aren’t doing it by imitating songs or styles, but by writing in that style based on similar inspirations. As a result, this band has its own voice despite being very familiar in technique, and has chosen its own path for subject matter and thus the arrangement of many of these songs and the types of riffs used. Its aesthetic mixes the grinding mid-tempo riffs and repetitive choruses of grindcore with the circuitous riffing of death metal and its tendency to unveil changes in layers of rhythm, guitar and vocals. While the style shows the influences of later death metal, its sensibility is firmly grounded in the early years, which makes this a great old-school death metal experience. However, its most salient factor is that it’s also interesting music. Songs are formed around their topic, with riffs and structure contorting to resemble the object, and riffcraft shows learning from the past but creation of its own new forms. Guttural vocals which maintain an ascetic detachment from the emotional content of the music help to give Pyramid of the Necropolis the ultimate death metal point of view, which is as a dispassionate observer amongs the ruins detailing the conflict that created this mess, and must endure after its collapse.

Disappointments of 2012

Abigor – Quintessence

Apparently this is new and old material. The shift between the new and old is like jumping out of a sauna into the snow. The newer material shapes itself to an expectation, much like the newer Swedishy bands in the style of Watain, that combines melodic punk with raw and random riffing in catchy rhythms. The result is like a painting made of painted dog turds, in that from a distance it is appealing, but as you get closer its mundane nature is revealed. Abigor have always suffered from being too quick-thinking and inventive for their own good, because they can always throw together a bunch of quality riffs and make most people think a song happened, but here that model breaks down. The songs feel more like slide-shows than organic wholes. The older material is good however.

Absurd – Asgardsrei

This remaster of the 1998 album was in theory supposed to improve sound quality. Had they simply done that, this would have been a shining victory. Instead, it has been standardized. The drums have been pumped up to emphasize rhythm, and the guitars doubled and bass-maximized, with vocals shrouded in reverb. Alone that removes much of the distinctive sound, but attempts have also been made to lower the volume on elements that are not orthodox black metal-cum-oi that Absurd makes now. The result is a loss of detail and an emphasis on the simpler parts of each riff, not the interesting interplay of riffs. They’ve made this album sound more like their remakes of earlier material and by pandering to one audience, lost a lot of what made Absurd interesting.

Acephalix – Deathless Master

A highly-praised release, this album purports to combine Swedish death metal and crustcore. What it ends up with is neither, but a mishmash of riffs around a rollicking beat, changing entirely at random. You hear a little bit of old Entombed, some Dismember, and a lot of filler riffing that really goes nowhere. For about three songs, it’s pleasant listening because you can tap your toes to it and it reminds you of Left Hand Path. Then you realize the songs never went anywhere. They’re like wallpaper. And to the horror of any crust fan, this is built on the bouncy beats and song structures of pop-punk. It’s closer to Blink 182 than Entombed or Amebix.

Aura Noir – Out to Die

Once upon a time, I referred to Aura Noir as a black metal Britney Spears because their music is pop dressed up as black metal. However, it’s normally fun pop with high energy and catchy riffs, even if in verse-chorus structures so repetitive that you have to background it. But with this album, they go into the boring zone. This is almost like a drone with a horse galloping in the background to keep up energy. And yet, like the lady that doth protest too much, the more “energy” you need to inject, the less the music is actually compelling. And on that level, this album is basically the same speed metal/Motorhead style riffs that bands were rehashing back in the 1980s, but now revived in an even more exhausted form.

Coffin Texts – The Tomb of Infinite Ritual

The people behind this band are good, and their intentions are good. The result of their efforts however is bog-standard death metal, not so because it imitates anything else, but because it is unreflective of any purpose outside being death metal. It’s predictable in the sense that nothing is surprising, and yet, it doesn’t really gesture at anything more than being death metal itself. I hope these guys stop trying to be whatever they think they should be, and find whatever they actually enjoy instead. Best yardstick for your music: what you enjoy and would listen to on your own, even if you knew no one in the band.

Graf Spee – Reincarnation

Some things should stay in the 1980s. This is prescient in that it emphasizes the kind of bouncy riffing that fits on the spectrum from Anthrax to Meshuggah and onward to metalcore, but it’s disorganized, inconsistent with the vocals, and feels more like a pile of spare parts than a smoothly running engine.

Hellevetron – Death Scroll of Seven Hells and Its Infernal Majesty

2012 was the year everyone rediscovered Onward to Golgotha. I agree, it’s a killer album. There’s nothing wrong with Hellvetron, who seem like competent musicians, but this album attempts to imitate the outward form of Onward to Golgotha without grasping the underlying tension in the music that makes it work. As a result, Hellvetron impose current song structures (loops) and standards onto the aesthetic of the past, which makes for a decent listen until it becomes apparent that it’s not really about anything except itself.

Impiety – Ravage and Conquer

It’s hard not to enjoy this album, which is like a hybrid between Angelcorpse and Mortem with a squidge more melody. However, it is highly repetitive because it doesn’t go much beyond that concept. Like Krisiun before it, the concept is full speed ahead skull-crushing aesthetic, and this is so powerful it squeezes out most artistic content. This leaves you with some creative riffs, some talented use of tempo, but nothing that holds together long enough to listen to for a decade.

Inverloch – Dusk | Subside

These ex-Disembowelment musicians have a bit of a cult formed around themselves. Part of the reason is that unlike almost every other band before black metal, they knew how to write melodic music, which they do here as well, in something that resembles a cross between death-doom like Asphyx and melodic doom like Candlemass or Paradise Lost. Crashing riffs coexist with gentle melodic fills and overlays that create a dense atmosphere of nocturnal wonder. However, beyond that, the direction seems confused, which is appropriate for a re-entry EP but excludes it from this year’s best of.

Mantas – Death by Metal

Before the first Death album, Chuck Schuldiner tried out his riffcraft in Mantas, named in tribute (by educated guess) to Venom. There’s a reason these sort of re-releases are confined to collectors, and that is that these demos show a young band trying to get the order of riffs in its songs correct and at the same time develop an image, sound and voice. The result is great, if you like listening to parts of the same six songs 18 times each. A true-blue die-hard ultra-kvlt collector will put this on the stereo next to “Scream Bloody Gore” and “Spiritual Healing” and start working out each riff until he’s sure how everything works. Then again, with the hindsight of nearly thirty years, we know exactly how it should turn out, which means that for the rest of us, this will sit on the shelf in perpetuity except as a conversation piece.

Maveth – Coils of the Black Elite

This album reminds me of middle period Immolation, in which creative riffing often fell into very similar rhythms and as such, the songs sort of became a continuum which resembled pulled taffy: cut off a length of Immolation, let’s listen to that. Oh look, sliced Immolation! It’s the same way here. Maveth has very creating riffing with excellent right-hand control, but the songs themselves are a muddle because the riffs are the direction and as such, there’s not really a way to put the riffs together that makes sense, so the band converges on a mean and drops into very similar trudge rhythms to make the songs catchy. At first listen, especially the first three tracks, promise is everywhere; by track five, it’s clear that circularity has occurred.

Purtenance – Sacrifice the King

This EP suffers from a primary flaw, which is disorganization. It’s not random, but it’s what happens when you decide to make death metal and so treat that as a container, and then “write to fill” and twist the riffs into place so they work with each other. It’s not about anything, and thus is “random” in the sense that it could mean anything. As a musical experience, it mostly conveys a sense of disorganization and frustration. The best bands mold that sort of raw emotion into something which rises above the confusion and achieves clarity. If not beauty, truth, goodness, etc. at least something that is desired more than it is hated, and so inspires them, even if that goal is hatred itself.

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