Chupacabra’s music comes from the heart – that is, the part of the individual that is between the mind and the gut. Working without an established template, the songwriter finds and applies sounds in a unique organization specifically to reflect a profoundly idiosyncratic perspective on existence. This is a risky move: Most musicians are content to operate within an established paradigm, adapting to the constraints and handicaps offered by the genre that produces music with which they most closely identify. To abandon paradigm altogether and strike out on one’s own, neither with nor against the current but out of the river itself, is quite bold. But for Chupacabra, it is completely natural. Take a listen to this musical example of what Jung called “individuation”; the process that unifies the unconscious and the conscious, completing a powerful circuit through which ancient genetic memory is filtered and refined by real-time intelligent planning and analysis.
The slow evolution of Western society (and in consequence of the whole world) into the post-modern paradigm arising inevitably from the purely mechanistic cosmovision of the Enlightment sciences, which in the best of cases allow for a Cartesian separation of the physical and the spiritual, pervade every corner touched by the status quo culture. This results in a relegating of anything which cannot be explained or described in purely mathematical terms to what is referred to as ‘subjective’. Anything that is experienced but cannot (yet) be explained is assumed to be subjective. There would be a certain justice to this if the phenomena that are still unaccounted for by science were squarely placed in a category under a truthful label by the establishment confessing: “We don’t know how to explain this in our terms, but that does not mean it is any less real or without possible objective basis.” What takes place is an arbitrary classification of these into morally-justified beliefs when they are in line with the status quo and into so-called subjective experiences when they are not.
The views held by society must be enforced in every discipline precisely because they are the result of dogma and not actual science (a word unfortunately hijacked by a corrupt establishment lead by weak minds elevated to positions of prestige and power by other weak minds). It follows that dogmatic belief cannot be challenged at any level since any divergence spells out potential intellectual catastrophes and conflicts that are not guaranteed to be won by the powers that be. As a result, not only does education suffer in the form of indoctrination but so do the supposed heroes of objective knowledge that the sciences are said to be comprised of turn into the priests of the temple to whatever the hive believes. It is only to be expected, then, that the humanities and the arts are the most easily and selectively suppressed, limited or made irrelevant, since the processes and phenomena studied by them are even further away from the grasp of mathematical explanations.
In the Western classical music tradition, the tenets of the Common Practice Period have been put into question for a very long time in progressively derisive waves. Very often, revolutionary thinkers that spearheaded such contrarian views had transcendent and elaborate reasons that motivated and justified their moving-beyond. But the hordes of followers understood only a portion of this, often inclined towards its most easily understood materialist explanation. In the case of Beethoven, followers of his defiance of what was expected of music were shielded from degeneration by the very fact that the then contemporary German culture was a very spiritual one, and its artists still acknowledged the magic behind music — occult properties and processes that can only be perceived but not fully explained. Contrastingly, in the age of Anton Webern, his decision based on artistic principle to move away from traditional harmony to work with a self-defined and logical set of rules that he would use without falling into an empty materialism was taken up as fashion — the next “big thing” in classical music development. This directly reflected the way Western society saw the world around it at the beginning of the 20th century: as its playground, where anything “I like” goes and the capricious human will is allowed to do whatever it wants because we are the nihilist masters of the natural world. Gone was the romantic respect of nature and its view of humans as part of it. We must ask ourselves what dissolved the old German mysticism? The simple answer is that they, too, had to change, even if slowly and reluctantly, in order to not be destroyed in a world dominated by French Enlightment and overarching Russian influences — both with primarily materialist tendencies.
Music theory is one such set of occult properties. Yet it is only occult (hidden but observable) because there is no theory developed for the relation between arranged sound frequencies and mental states, especially at increased levels of complexity. Contrary to what scientifically-ignorant artists think, this is neither impossible nor irrational, just difficult. Contrary to the beliefs of Blank Slate – indoctrinated scientists, the study of innate human nature can yield explanations as to why, as a species, certain tastes, visual and sound arrangements and textures have certain effects on the mind (itself rooted in chemical states of the brain). The reason why both groups tend to back away from such ideas is not rooted in reason, but in the fear of not being acknowledged for who they are, which for them translates into what they want, like or prefer to believe to feel validated. In other words, reality is shunned in order to give way to a truth built on the necessities of feable human egos. The ramifications are manifold and most are out of the scope of this article.
Out of the accusations levelled against Common Practice Period theory, one of the most common and often accepted is that it somehow limits the imagination of artists. Presumably, this is because its rules define a perimeter around permissible options in a finite-state machine, thereby prohibiting the random allocation of space and time to music tones selected purely out of gut feeling. And that precisely is one of the defining factors of the post-modern vision of art. At this point, it may seem like I am contradicting my previous statements regarding the possibility of harmony rules being developed and justified on the basis of human nature. If they are, then an artist following only his gut feeling should arrive to at least similar results. First, that these rules are based on human nature does not mean they are free of the constraints of their historical context, including not only cultural implications but also material possibilities for the construction of certain instruments with particular timbres. Second, the rules were developed through collective observations and philosophies over hundreds of years by many different people building on top and beside one another– in the same way that mathematics and modern science were gestated.
While older attitudes were nature-oriented, and tried to keep their understanding of human nature in line with what was then understood of the natural world, the Enlightment sees a rupture between them as a necessary effect of placing human beings over nature as overlords to do as they please with it– thereby setting them beyond judgement within it. It was an ideology-based decision, not a scientific one. As a result, there are those, especially among the post-modernist classical artists, that are not guided by a free search for musical perfection, but by contrarian and politically-charged statements that can only be described as the ultimate incarnation of a hipster’s dreamworld.
The comparison to mathematics is in dire need of further elaboration as it contains the potential to elucidate much about what musical theory is and what it is not. We may start by stating that they are both tools and means to an end. Admiring the organization and arrangement of a music passage on grounds of technique is akin to feeling a sense of wonder when shown a beautifully and clearly derived mathematical formula. But neither of them by themselves attest to the accuracy of the connection of these to reality itself. Both musical and mathematical theory are dependent on premises — they are both arguments developed from a set of assumptions which may reflect conditions and events in the real the world.
Common Practice Period theory arose from organizing tones in the spectrum of perfect consonance to most extreme dissonance as perceived by human beings. Not one human being arbitrarily writing up rules, but scores of audiences reacting to the works of many different composers through lifetimes. Each composer taking notes on the triumphs and blunders of those that came before them and adding their own ideas. It was a veritable scientific effort of occult nature. The fact that the notes were taken not from one society at one point but by the cumulative effort many through many generations also somewhat lends to the tradition a tendency towards the transcendental. Of course, this is completely dependent on a healthy balance between acknowledgement of tradition (whatever that tradition is for the artist) and a continuation of its ideals with a progressive intent.
To round off the metaphor of mathematics, we should stress that no development invalidates or properly subordinates older techniques to newer ones. This fallacy is so pervasive that it is common to hear people referring to the use of newer techniques in themselves as a sign of superior expression. This is related to the malady that is born from the cult of novelty. In truth, when it comes to mathematics, if one person solves a problem using simple algebra yet another fails using calculus, it is obvious that the simple use of a more sophisticated technique is not in itself superior. It may be true that in art and music we do not have the luxury of calling something right and wrong, but the comparison is done in parallel and not on the same plane as mathematics. This is the same as when Newton developed Calculus, he did not ditch arithmetic and algebra developed hundreds of years before he was born, but used them to build this tool that would allow him to develop theories concerning abstract models of the physical world.
Nobody is saying there is a right and wrong dichotomy in music. In fact, this is where it is necessary to part from the analogy. Music is much more comprehensive and complex than mathematics (which only has a cumulative complexity, not a multi-dimensional one). Mathematics is comparable to music theory, the tool, and not to music. Music is the resulting idea crystallized, probably through the use of music theory techniques, the same ways physics derive explanations of the universe by using different techniques from mathematics. By its occult nature, music’s domain being states of mind and evocation, what we do have in music is degrees of esoteric communication through sensory perception. It is a communication at many levels rather than only at the level of reason and goes beyond it and to our instincts and learned behaviors which as a total reflect a unique vision from a unique individual. “Personal taste” advocates need not get too excited as the variation can only be as wide as human minds allow — which scientific research shows is not as much as we like to think. Variation is wide with respect to how we see ourselves, but not that wide when we see the whole spectrum of possibilities. And as an occult discipline guessing at phenomena of the universe (and our mind in it) that we do not understand, music is more liable to wander off more than mathematics in its search for perfection.
Music as the manifestation of experience, as a gateway to purposely changing states of the mind in humans, is something that stands at odds with the idea of absolute music, for which music aesthetics themselves are the goal. This materialist vision based on the fact that current (this is a 19th century idea) scientific limitation of not yet having a mathematical model outside of aesthetics and certain organization cannot accept or encompass the higher-level processes of creation that reach for proportion, balance, direction and movement in an attempt to communicate. Ironically, it is rather this lack of tradition or significance that results in theory and rules being all there is that produces a much more limiting paradigm. The race of stretching aesthetics could only go so far and an artistic compound devoid of transcendental goals quickly gave up as they broke the boundaries of tonality, declaring music as we know it to be dead. Needless to say, this was as short-sighted as limiting literature to the number of “clever” arrangements of words — precisely the dead end of poetry without meaning, or poetry without form, all products of post-modernism. In any case, the disavowal of all meaning leads to music pursued as a sport, for the excitement that its physical acrobatics produce and not from what it communicates in and beyond its forms.
The other branch of a materialist appreciation of music surfaced more clearly in the freedom afforded by the post-modernist world to idiots to call themselves artists and plague us with moronic musical expressions supporting themes of self-pity communicated only through lyrics. Going further, many artists not only took this liberty but openly rejected any sort of tradition or knowledge as being only an obstacle for their expression. Again, ironically, their rejection of it resulted not in a revealing work transcending the ages, but an extremely simple product that even a child banging on the wall and singing with no thought or experience could produce.
This is not to say that you need theory to create good music. As was explained before, theory is only a tool based on cummulative observations over many lifetimes. We do fine geniuses and other people with an outstanding aptitude for music creation who will find ways to create solid music that is often technically rudimentary but complex in communication.
As with any mathematical techniques or grammar in language, theory augments and sharpens the natural talents of the person. But the catch here is that the artistic intent and vision of the artist is often as important as his natural aptitude towards creation. Whereas a Varg Vikernes consistently tries to find an ever-more ephemeral depuration of the essence of his music against the tides of trends in what is fashionable, a Luc Lemay gets lured in by what is chick, his talents wasted on kitsch. Granting a directed vision of music in a clear direction rather than with vague adjectives to justify fashionable aesthetics, the person with average talents can, with appropriate training and dedication, become a Franz Berwald, while the talented may reach the heights of Johannes Brahms.
The importance of following a transcendental route versus a materialist one are exemplified in two products of the 20th century. One followed the mechanistic descriptions of music to the point of absurdity and was hailed as a genius by the hipsters crowding the halls of academia. These were the many frauds of John Cage. Intellectually interesting experiments devoid of the basic dimensions of music: melody, rhythm and harmony. Contrasting the first comes a work that attempts to communicate a sense of wonder in nature without the vulgarity of dissoluting music proper for recordings of nature or other cheap tricks of post-modernism. This is the Fourth Symphony of the romantic Jean Sibelius, reviled by academic theorists and critics looking forward to the mechanistic augmentations of aesthetics and possible transformations rather than for the actual content of music. This was music for the music fan, not the ironic intellectual.
The metal genre has been through an accelerated evolution through the course of 45 years in which it has seen itself renewed once and again. Each reincarnation representing a distillation of its essence. This process of stripping down rock-genre influences and following the path laid down by Black Sabbath in terms of spirit and methodology in composition hit rock bottom with black metal in or around 1994 (a precise date cannot be pinpointed, but this is a good marker). The meaning of this is not that black metal is superior to the rest of the metal genres (or subgenres, whatever you want to call them), this would be incurring in the mistake in appreciation we are here, in part, trying to correct and a misunderstanding of what evolution means. The ideal black metal shows little trace of having had any connection to rock at any level apart from its general instrumentation. This is similar to how rock music uses almost exactly the same instrumentation as jazz but we would never lump the two together. Thus, metal established itself as a completely differentiated genre.
What followed was a constant attempt at superficially injecting doses of alleged boundary-pushing elements that only resulted in either hardcore or rock outfits adopting metal riffs and vocals, or in avant-garde-isms that did away with what makes metal what it is and often did not build something of their own but just made an embarrassing disaster out of the music (see later Deathspell Omega). In part, this has come from a desperate and hopeless allegiance to the Cult of Novelty which comes from a misappreciation of the growth process of metal from Black Sabbath’s debut to the different branches into which it is said to have evolved. It is because in general this evolution is seen as a branching out in which each separate style is guided by a so-called innovation or separation (which in most cases was only a superficial distinction) that it has not been made clear that in fact metal’s real development has been an almost straight line towards death and black metal. Incorrectly including Led Zeppelin and AC/DC in the metal canon is also a grave mistake that leads to a misunderstanding of metal, in fact it is precisely this that leads to the loose definition that metal is a “loud music genre that uses distorted electric guitars and drums to sing about shocking topics”. To move on, we must first do away with such contemptible attempts at construing the genre and look towards deeper and more complex definitions as metal is not, as many seem to believe, undefinable, as it is said of love and hate.
What metal needs is to come into maturity. Contrary to what many still believe, that metal should keep playing the game of trying to present something new, the retro camp got something right in their lazy pessimism: everything has already been done, every riff, every melody, every variation. Well, not right, but it hints to a truth. The truth that there is only so much variation you can achieve through thinking superficially, thinking in terms of making something “interesting” in the sense of being “different” or “catchy”, which in disguise is what even nu-underground bands like Blaze of Perdition are doing. Under it all, there is a very simple backbone to a messy presentation and deplorable organization with non-existing clarity. Rather than concentrating on being “different”, “novel” or “interesting”, metal needs to concentrate completely on composition as a means to communication. Modern bands with some knowledge of theory will say they know this, that they are completely aware of it and that they keep it in mind, although their music tells another story, showing only a basic application of advanced techniques — a superficial understanding. This attitude is often accompanied by a “I know what I am doing, fuck off” implied (or sometimes explicitely expressed) statement that could reflect inferiority complexes that should be properly addressed. Rather than self-indulging and posturing, maturity leads to humbly facing your weaknesses — a looking up and learning from your betters.
But what does this maturing entail, precisely? First and foremost an accepting of metal for what it is through an integral understanding of its nature. Once this is achieved, the notion of bringing avant guarde (in metal, merely a euphemism for careless “experimentation”) into the picture will seem not only outlandish but utterly unnecessary. Second, find approaches to the development of metal that preserve it not only in spirit but in the full musical sense. Honorable efforts faithful to metal can be found in the work of Manilla Road and The Chasm, but both of these lack the ideal bringing-together of techniques and ideas in a clear direction. But a more excellent example lies in progressive and monolithic albums like Incantation’s Onward to Golgotha. Third, and equally important, is the abandonment of this hit-and-miss (miss, more often than not) philosophy as a method to achieve excellence. This, both at the level of a single band and of the metal world as a whole. Stop telling kids that making metal music means performing in any dirty hole and trying to get a deal with a label. That is not how you make music. That is definitely not how you make art. Besides, the Internet alongside improved hardware and tools for personal computers have rendered labels virtually obsolete — you do not need them to get your music out there.
Metal also has a big brother it can look up to not only as a source of experience of both dead ends and disasters to avoid but also of pathways to heavenly abodes. This is the quasi-defunct classical music tradition. Classical music bestows upon the modern composer a vast resource of more than a thousand years of rich tradition in composition, analyses and philosophy of music. It would be foolish, to say the least, to ignore it. Metalheads need to get this through their thick skulls: tradition does not mean stagnation, it means experience. Most metal is like an untended 12-year-old kid with boogers coming out of his nose playing at being a knight with a wooden sword, classical music up to the Second Viennese School is then like a veteran crusader returning home from fighting the Saracens. After that, most classical music, apart from a few exceptions, falls prey to post-modernism, just as metal did after 1994. Fortunately, there is a spark of hope for metal, it lies in those bands that have parallels in classical music to 20th century composers with a naturalistic and spiritual orientation like Jean Sibelius and Arvo Pärt. Such an orientation, when paired with trained composition and a high-level view of its applications, helps the composer (classical and metal alike) keep everything in perspective. But like them, these bands are a miniscule minority in an ocean of incompetence and pretension; an overwhelming number of other time-wasting projects that only come in to serve as more fodder for the distraction of clueless consumers.
There is a way to channel the abundant energy and willingness of metalheads from all walks of life. It also comes as a hint from the classical music world. This is the separation of roles according to aptitudes and interests. The first myth I want to bring down is that if you are a metal ‘musician’ then you must publish music. With today’s much more effective communication and far more accessible recording, this leads to an excessive overload of subpar material, even including the great majority of what is professionally-produced. Among the heaps of embarrassingly poorly-written music we find the talent of many technically-gifted musicians, even virtuosos in their respective instruments (see Hannes Grossmann). They are virtuosos because they spent countless hours through years of toil honing their skills on their instrument. In classical music they are called performers and are placed in a completely separate category from composers, who ideally should be proficient at some instrument but spent most of their effort and time in composition. In their world, performers are given as much respect as proper composers. This is also true of music scholars who are usually proficient musicians with deep knowledge of composition as well. This differentiation of roles would benefit metal greatly.
This has several immediate implications. One of them is that each project/band’s music should be the brainchild of a single person, with possible advice from second parties. Statistically, this has produced most of the best metal there is (Burzum, Bathory, early At the Gates, etc), so we have direct evidence in our own camp for the truth of this. Also, performer-bands can be formed that trains in particular styles, and specialize in the outstanding performance of certain kinds of metal works (both past and current). It must be clear that this concept is completely separate from the so-called professional “cover bands” we have today, which are identity-less imitators of a single famous band (see The Iron Maidens, Nemesis). This is not to say that the would-be metal composers cannot be part of the performing ensemble, but that the two functions should be separated for greater efficiency. As a direct result, we can avoid having musicians (performers) wasting their time (and torturing our ears) with music they aren’t prepared to make. If you spent your time learning how to express passages, become faster, improvising but very little on formal, controlled writing, your talents will consequently be lopsided towards the performance area. Composers can be amazingly gifted performers (see Beethoven), but these are rare cases of people who devoted every single moment of their waking lives (and probably their sleeping dreams as well) to music as an art. Modern metal technicality is more of a sport, although, we need not kid ourselves, wanking is nothing new in the world (see the young Liszt, Paganini). In the same manner, this also would allow the metal composer to focus on his composition instead of thinking of “the gig” itself, or worrying that his sweeping arpeggios are not heard clearly enough through the distortion. What we would have is a dialogue between metal composers and metal performers, with permissible and welcome overlappings. Last comes the category of true metal scholars. These should be as versed in history, philosophy and composition as composers, and should have a proficient grasp on performance of some kind. The metal scholar would come to correct the verbal debauchery and banality of the metal journalist, giving the audience a proper and well-deserved look and guidance in appreciation of metal works.
The road is clear for those with a clear mind to see. It is either this or destruction. The bands actually carrying metal forward without degrading it are already doing precisely what is suggested here. Specific methodologies are only possibilities and variations in the general direction. Remember, metal is not a kid anymore, it is time to grow up. This means embracing what metal is (and not adopting politically-correct discourse or becoming rock or jazz), recognizing the boundaries of the genre and great power that comes with the keeping of a clear direction.
Immolation’s Close to a World Below marked a clear departure from their earlier style. Their previous release, Failures for Gods, came out only the year before, but play the two albums back-to-back and you might be surprised it is the same band. On average, the songs are much slower. The dissonance is harsher and often tonality gets lost in a mess of pitch bends. At the same time, almost paradoxically, the production is higher: every part can be heard clearly and is given equal weight. At first glance, the songs are much more chaotic, but on further reflection, they have matured greatly in terms of structure and development. Exploring this idea will be the focus of the review.
In fact, this can probably be best understood by a thorough examination of a single track, “Father, You’re Not a Father.” The opening bass pattern is F descending to C scale-wise, but the catch is it is not a major or minor scale. The scalar pattern is the Locrian mode. Although this is typically considered a “standard” scalar mode, it is almost never used (parts of Sibelius’ 4th Symphony being a prominent exception), because the root chord is diminished. This makes the main chord of the key highly dissonant. The F to C construction is then used to introduce the first main riff (minor simplifications for readability were made):
The riff is offset from the start of the bass, so it occurs in a different place of the measure. It is also played in triplet rather than the bass duple. Everything about how these two main ideas are layered adds to the dissonance, confusion, and chaos of the sound. They even shift up a half step to F# and C# which layers a tritone on top of everything and pulls you temporarily out of the main key. Yet the whole riff is perfectly consistent and coheres with the introduction by being built from the same exact material. This is what I meant earlier when I said the songs sound chaotic at first but upon repeated listens, the internal logic emerges. We’ll call this section A.
The second main riff is introduced shortly after some vocals. A texture change happens for this riff, because it is played as power chords rather than single notes. The time signature also changes to 4/4 from the 3/4 of the beginning. The feel is naturally slowed by the use of quarter notes instead of eighth notes or eighth note triplets from section A. The riff itself ascends in opposition to the A idea which is descending.
All of this taken together is great songwriting, because the slower note values, longer measure, and power chords all contribute to a heavier feel. Each change they made between section A and B contributes in the same emotional direction. Many modern bands don’t understand this type of consistency. I wrote out the B idea for reference, but it there is enough going on that it could be heard differently by different people (maybe some fifths should be in there?):
The track returns to the A idea and then the B idea with some slight changes and vocals layered in. This can be seen as a development of the initial ideas or merely as a restatement. The next section is a true development section, because Immolation take a classical ornamentation idea and appropriate it into their own context. A mordant is a rapid alternating of the main note with a neighbor tone (sort of like a short trill). In this song, they glissando the whole thing and create an ugly, intensified version of it. This develops the A idea into its own groove which gives way to another development in which they elongate the opening bass motif.
While all of this is going on, more and more textures, intense drumming, extra dissonant notes, and layering of power chords contribute to a whole song build to the climax. The climax is the fantastic solo near the end. It teases by starting slow and slurred, almost like the guitar is trying to hold a single note that is unstable and can’t help but flick around. It then erupts into a short burst of technical prowess, and of course, quotes the A theme to tie it all together.
Overall, it is this type of excellent songwriting that makes the album worth listening to (and a departure from their earlier material). The songs are tightly constructed, coherent pieces that simultaneously feel unraveled and chaotic. They achieve a rare balance that speaks to both the mind and the emotions. Many newer bands have tried to copy the style unsuccessfully (the recent Ulcerate album comes to mind). They miss that this is not just static dissonance, but forward moving and organic in addition to being technical and rigid.
What is developmental variation?
The term developmental variation was coined by Arnold Schoenberg as a name for the principle which governed his compositional technique, which he claimed to have inherited from the music of the great Germanic composers such as Haydn, Beethoven and, in particular, Brahms. The technique consists of generating development in a piece through variation of an initial idea. Each new slice of content is developed from, and naturally connected to, the previous one, so that the whole piece is an elaboration of an initial idea. This provides unity and logic within dramatic movement and variety.
Why developmental variation?
Since the end of black metal around 1996, underground metal has found itself in a rut. As if struck dumb by the dizzy heights achieved by its greatest practitioners, most underground metal bands have veered into three equally fruitless directions:
- Blatant imitation of a specific set of bands from the past (New wave of old school death metal, Thrash revival, Darkthrone clones, etc.)
- Commercialization of the aesthetic, achieved through simplification of lyrical themes and musical structure (In Flames, Dimmu Borgir, deathcore, etc.)
- Experimentation in texture and instrumentation, fusion genres (Norwegian avant-garde, Djent, etc.)
One would assume that the practitioners of this third path feel, at least, the anxiety that naturally comes with working beneath the shadows of giants. Their response, however, betrays that anxiety to an excessive degree, as they scramble madly to distance themselves from those past greats, usually through the most immediately striking means they can find. Often with releases of this variety one is left with the sensation that they could be truly great works of art if they stopped hovering uncomfortably around the ghost of metal, and simply embraced their external tendencies. In other words, the solution most of these artists seem to find to the problem posed by the intimidating canon is to escape metal altogether, as many of them ultimately do.
This is not, however, because of any inherent flaw in the style, or any linear finality implied by the greatness of the canon. There is no denying that, in a sense, underground metal is a restrictive style. There are strict boundaries regarding instrumentation, tonality, and even lyrical themes (that old Euronymous joke about carrots notwithstanding). Though these may at times be somewhat malleable, when they remain blatantly unobserved the music simply stops sounding like underground metal. It is largely the imposing presence of these boundaries that has scared many promising musicians away from metal, and into the realm of the often masturbatory and self-referential pseudo avant-garde.
What this ultimately means is not that there is no room for growth within heavy metal, but that said room is to be found in a less immediately evident, but ultimately more significant element of musical construction; structure. Underground metal’s unpitched vocals allow it freedom from many structural conventions of popular music in which vocals are the lead instrument. Its literary and historical inclinations give it plenty of places from which to draw extra-musical influences. Heavy metal titans Iron Maiden have successfully done this in the past, shaping their more structurally ambitious and musically exciting pieces around the contours of literary or historical subjects.
The aforementioned underground metal greats have already exploited these natural tendencies. Albums such as Altars of Madness and Far Away From the Sun have expanded rock’s traditional strophic structures through the use of expansive melodies and conflicting themes, creating instrumental sections of great intensity, which modify the meaning and intention of the strophic recurrences. Greater variety in the stricter tenets of instrumentation and mood has been justified within the framework of a modified structural thought-process, for example in the Burzum albums Det som engang var and Hvis lyset tar oss. There are countless other examples of individual structural voices developed by bands in order to best fit their particular path or concept, from the intensely concentrated minimalism of Beherit and Skepticism to the outwardly chaotic narrative intricacy of Demilich and early At The Gates.
However, this was underground metal at its youthful best, when it was still discovering what it was and what it could do, and many of its greatest achievements were at least partially the product of amateurish accident. Metal is no longer a young musical style, and perhaps in order to age gracefully bands will need to sacrifice some spontaneity and be more strict about inwardly articulating their goals, the structure that will best fit these goals and the compositional process that will get them there.
Underground metal is a genre with entirely unique thematic concerns, which prizes the ability to create works of musical individuality that are still ultimately works of underground metal. Developmental variation is the perfect technique for this situation, as it allows content to organically generate form, which would not only allow for individual songs and albums to craft an individual perspective without resorting to surface gimmicks, but also lead to a deeper level of thematic coherence. In a style whose fans expect recordings to hold up on repeated listens, not for weeks or months but for years, the increased layered complexity of musical relationships created by this technique would heighten, not obscure, the expressive power of a particular song or album.
It is not enough for underground metal to simply lift structural arrangements from sources more sophisticated than rock and pop music, such as European classical music. Though this could work individual songs or albums planned around the idea, as it did for Fanisk on their debut Die and Become, it is not a suitable long-term direction. This is because at the end of the day, the practice is not too distant from the simple lifting of vocabulary from other sources, a practice whose short-lived capacity to produce quality content the underground has already witnessed.
However, there is a lot to be learned from the music of the Common Practice Period. There is a tendency to view classical forms as being set in stone, but this could not be further from the truth. The image of Beethoven stressing over whether or not theme B of his sonata form modulated to the bloody dominant or not is silly enough to dispel the notion. The truth is that these structures developed organically throughout the lives of many composers, growing around the type of thematic material and harmonic conventions of their time and style, until they became intuitively standardized elements of musical grammar. It is only much later, once their development had been completed, that theorists could attempt codifications.
Attempting to imitate such a process of could prove fruitful for underground metal bands. The idea would be for bands to create their own structural grammar, not by adhering to a new set of rules, or worse, an old one belonging to a different tradition, but by developing a new, more sophisticated intuition. It is this author’s belief that the technique of developmental variation could be extremely helpful towards this development. It will of course always be important to have a good idea first; no technique will write good music for you.
In the interest of getting all of this across to the reader’s musical instincts, as opposed to getting it across merely to his or her understanding, where it is useless, we will now undertake a case study of how this technique worked for the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius in his early tone poem, En saga. Sibelius faced a dilemma similar to that of the young Hessian today, standing in the shadow of a beautiful but intimidating tradition. By molding the structure of his piece around his material, through the technique of developmental variation, Sibelius managed to find a powerful individual voice for his piece, without resorting to gimmicks, or leaving the tradition he loved behind.
En saga: a case study in developmental variation
En saga is an orchestral tone poem, meaning that it is an entirely instrumental piece meant to describe or depict something outside of itself. The piece’s title translates simply to ‘a saga,’ and throughout his life Sibelius never specified whether it was based on any particular one. This clever bit of ambiguous programming presents Sibelius with a very malleable structural mold that nevertheless presents a general framework within which to work.
Sibelius builds nearly 20 minutes of music around four simple themes. All but the last of these has a length of four measures or less, and all of them keep the melodic action centered around a perfect fourth or fifth, emphasizing stepwise motion. The reader may have already noticed that this description could fit many metal riffs like a glove, and this proximity of thematic character to underground metal is one of the reasons why this piece is particularly relevant to our interests.
The relationship between themes I and III is evident: they have the same range and an identical ending, being distinguished from each other by slight rhythmic variation and harmonic context. Though theme II might initially seem out of place, its ‘justification’ comes with the introduction of theme IV, a majestic melody that combines rhythmic and melodic elements from themes II and I-III. It also emphasizes the motivic element that unites all four of them; the repeated insistence on the starting pitch. This characteristic in particular is the one that betrays the tight relationship between the themes, allowing us to comfortably refer to them as variations on the same idea. The imaginative reader will begin to see how the relationships and conflicts between these four simple themes begin to lay out sketches of a large-scale work, or, in other words, how developmental variation suggests not only material, but also structure.
The piece starts off with a short introduction that leads into the uncomfortable minor seconds of the first theme (0:17), establishing the tension that drives the whole work. The theme is then pitted against wave-like arpeggio figures in increasingly tense juxtapositions, which seem to be leading towards an explosive climax, but then simmer away into an uncomfortable silence. The way this opening minute mirrors the structure of the entire piece, like an eerie premonition, is an indicator of the piece’s impressive unity, and a perfect example of the way relationships between related themes can be the basis for entire compositions, an idea we will return to later.
I said that I admired its (the symphony) style and severity of form, and the profound logic that created an inner connection between all of the motives. — Sibelius, conversation with Gustav Mahler, Helsinki, 1907.
This silence is broken by the sudden introduction of theme II (1:08) by the bassoons, in a tonal center very distant from that with which the piece began. However, the reappearance of the insisting note motive makes its appearance seem like a natural response in a conversation. After the statement, the conflict of the piece is laid out for the listener and the piece unravels with absolute naturality. Theme II passes around the orchestra, competing with increasingly dissonant response passages until its motives flower into a wonderful heroic melody in the double basses. This initiates a dialogue in the string section that spells out the conflict between the two main theme groups with great clarity.
Sibelius then goes on to present themes III (in the violas at 4:09) and IV (in the strings at 5:07) in a similar way, declaiming them lyrically throughout the orchestra and pitting them against transitional passages, often arpeggiated. The seeming culmination to which the piece comes after the presentation of triumphant theme IV is suddenly interrupted by a short bridge passage (5:44), tellingly outlining a fifth, which leads into a section centered around permutations of theme III and a flowing legato response idea that begins to overpower the theme itself. Theme IV’s conquest remains unattained.
Then, suddenly, the momentum collapses and we are led into the second part of the piece. This second section consists of a series of crescendos, in which particular themes seem poised to triumph and reveal themselves as ‘the’ theme. Yet, time and again these crescendos collapse in on themselves, eerily, almost unnervingly. Until, at the very last of these peaks, a response figure once again takes over the climax. Yet the fanfare quickly dissipates, and the piece ends with an extremely quiet and nearly uncomfortable uncertainty.
This second section appears to be what the themes themselves initially suggested, thanks to their close “variation” relationship: a conflict in which one of them emerged triumphant. In order to get a more intuitive sense for the depth of this relationship and its importance, notice how after a few listens of the piece the themes will be stuck in your head almost interchangeably, to the point where it is sometimes hard to tell which one you’re humming to yourself. This is the sort of conflict that arises naturally when material is created through developmental variation, and it is what makes it such an effective technique for the composition for styles that thrive on dramatic tension.
Now, Sibelius’ choice to make none of the themes triumph and to end the piece the way he does is not something intrinsically suggested by the themes. As a matter of fact, if we are allowed a guess, this was probably the narrative idea that Sibelius started out with. However, once he had his material, he had a pretty good outline for a conflict, as themes I-III and theme II clearly converge and culminate on theme IV. However, as previously noted, the first triumphant statement of theme IV is quickly negated by the aforementioned bridge passage, a dissonant entry of the theme and then the shifting of focus back to theme III.
The series of increasingly chaotic and dramatic anti-climaxes that constitute the second portion of the piece are the ones that outline the thematic conflict proper, along with the ultimate failure of any of the themes to impose themselves, even as they alternate and hybridize. However, in order for this section to make any sense, especially given the piece’s light programmatic tinge, the opening section in which the themes are presented becomes absolutely necessary. In order to establish the tension that rules the piece and give it coherence, the strange introductory section dominated by theme I becomes necessary.
This introduction mirrors the development of the whole piece, with its agonizing rising and falling motions, which eventually dissipate into a tense silence. Sibelius found his large-scale structure through his themes, and then constructed every other sub-section around the same general curve. This creates an immersive fractal effect, potent evidence of Sibelius’ developing genius despite the orchestration failings and occasionally meandering quality of the still young composer. A dramatic idea and four simple, closely related, themes allowed Sibelius to reach heights of structural ambition that, though not yet fully realized, would become the germ for his future masterpieces.
I am by no means suggesting, of course, that is ‘the’ path metal must follow in the future. This is a suggestion, and idea, and more so than it hopes to be accepted, or even fully understood, it hopes to ignite some spark of creativity. Metal does not necessarily need developmental variation in order to escape it relative stagnation, but it does need to look at itself more seriously and its surroundings more seriously, and ask itself musical questions in a more articulate manner. Hopefully this article will be of some help to that end.
Colombian band Cóndor presents an album which European Romantics might have undertaken had their tastes run to heavy metal, with an explicit influence from Bedřich Smetana and a more subtle yet pervasive inspiration from Jean Sibelius, manifested in a style of underground metal that sounds like Atheist covering Graveland. An organic, fluent and natural flow embodied in sweeping melodies and choking riffs that overcome and seem to grow out of each other independent of the composer, as if taking a hint from a young Friedrich Nietzsche, gives this music a childish and innocent Dionysian center driven by instinct. The result is an album that must be listened to as a whole experience to find the moments which strike us as stereotypically metal sharing space with entirely contrasting ideas which set up the emotional background to those moments of violent intensity.
Unlike modern-day posturing in black metal, Duin looks toward the older tradition of abstract Romantic 19th century Nationalism as expressed in classical music and folk art. Both betray their presence in the use of typically long, modal, easy-to-get melodies of the folk kind. Sibelius lives in that tendency to drift into very paused passages and quiet dynamics seemlessly which was so characteristic of Nadia. In this sense, we could say that while Nadia was a Sibelian album, Duin is more of a Smetana-Fudali-ean album. It exists in a type of magical music like that conceived in Marsilio Ficino’s mind, a form of sonic art which follow celestial designs with metaphor of the spirit such that its effect over us is as sure and profound as that of the Sun and the Moon on the creatures of a forest. These strong ‘authentic’ folk inclinations serve as converging points of most visible influences. There is both a sylvan spirit underlying the music and a warm home-welcoming one as opposed to a warlike and epic one. These last two characters are instead represented in the more energetic passages which do not override the greater scheme of things and instead contribute to a desire for adventure that does not quite reach epic proportions. This follows the general theme of this work as, in contrast to the Apollonian rigid order of Beethoven or Bach, a wandering organic Dionysian spirit which aims to be appreciate from the atmosphere it saturates with meaning instead of a linear narrative progressing toward the conclusion of a musical argument. Like the naturalistic music of Burzum, Duin follows the thought process that repetition of a riff does not end when the composer or audience wants it to, but when the nature of that riff in the context of the song indicates a need for change. A kind of musical “sixth sense” pervades this album.
The first track, “Río Frío” starts off by quoting the last track from the debut album, El Roble Será Mi Trono Eterno for a few measures only to quiet down and performing an adaptation of Smetana’s Vltava for overidden and distorted guitars and bass. The second track, “El Lamento de Penélope” will probably give the strongest impression of this relation to Absurd in its urgent and minimalistic rhythmic riffing. The way the following melodies are carried in triple time reinforce this view until Vltava‘s theme is used in the climax section of the song. The following song, “La Gran Laguna,” is a roller coaster ride which takes us again through vistas of minimalist folk metal with quasi-marching beats and prominent melancolic melodies alternationg with ambient-like sections with a picked clean guitar outlining chords over the roar of its distorted partner. An instance of this supports the song’s solo section, which show off how Cóndor has stepped up even in its melodic treatment of solos which when compared to Nadia display a more mature independence from guitar-scale blocks.
“Coeur-de-lion” starts the visible slowing down and gradual elongating of expression that the album manifests increasingly a step at a time. The riffs are given a different tone by both the change in pacing, along with the playful exchange and duple and triple times which in different inceptions point the music in different directions. With a 2/4 reciting inisting, childish urgency, a 4/4 allowing for settling feeling, a 3/4 for a more bouncy feeling which slowed down and seen differently can be a martial and/or swinging 6/4 or 6/8, depending on the note value. “Condordäle” takes us one step further in what is almost a dirge in the beginning but which allows smooth and sensuous transition between riffs forming layers of an idea, with clear vocals reminiscent of a classical chorus.
“Helle Gemundon in Mod-Sefan” begins with a clear, long and emotional melody line gradually introduced and repeated, but is always interrupted by chords which sound dissonant in the context so as to disrupt the final resolution that we might expect in the line. Each time the line is allowed more time and to soar higher and higher. In the last of these repetitions the song then turns to the riff styling of the aforementioned dissonance-inducing chords, and riff after riff is wrought from this idea until its natural duration is expired. A break is brought which leads into a more conventional metal section comes in which a series of solos in the same vein are played. Mid-paced, emotional, almost aloof and relaxed playing which would not seem out of place in urban underground styles of rock characteristic of Latin America.
“Adagio” is an interlude for bass and clean electric guitars which serves as a beautiful gasping point before the last track, named after the album, that serves as a closing for the album. After the slowing down and exploration of different influences towards the middle of the album, a bit of everything is brought back in this song with a slow beginning which blooms almost inperceptibly harsh, hammering riffs, slow, folk-song melodies in lullabying triple time, which again alternate into a bridge of descending chromatic notes in the classical style leading directly into melodic indulgence in solo and riff proper of that folk metal which displays the transparency of rock and the honeset simplicity of the folk melody.
This is an album in which each song feels “better” than the one before. But when listened to many times one discovers this is not really the case. It is just that the progression between songs and within songs makes it feel as if each new event in the music is reaching towards a new goal, new vistas, but always through the eye of the Cóndor. Just like the compositions of the young Sebastian Bach shortly before and after his visiting Dietrich Buxtehude in Lübeck betrayed the unmistakable mark of the old master in form and method but never bowed down to him so that the pieces were, nevertheless, stamped with the young genius’ name, so does the band manages yet again to sound like itself independently or in spite of its distinguishable inspirations. Sounding like a more seasoned band than on Nadia, the telling silhouette of the Cóndor comes out of the foggy shadows and into a golden Autumn light.
To partake of underground metal in the current year is to keep eyes open for new possibilities. Because this is underground — meaning-first and surface appeal later, where everyone else does it the other way around — music, this requires looking past early limitations to see if a band has the outlook required. This worldview is a desire to make music in the true metal spirit, with a personal voice that reveals vastly impersonal truths.
Under our eye for some time has been Colombian band Cóndor, whose album Nadia represents a good future path for metal that is both innovative and true to the ideals and lifestyle of metal since its inception. It’s underground, so it isn’t groovy, crowd-friendly, slickly produced or designed to appeal ironically. It is exactly as it represents itself, and clearly thrives from bonding its metallic influences with a unique view of the world.
Checking in with Cóndor, we found the band clarifying its vision and intent and also, planning for the future. As is the nature of underground music, this band exists in the interstices of official tasks and required acts of life, filled in with spare moments and sheer will. We were lucky to get a brief update from the band as they barely pause in their quest to become known.
When was Cóndor founded, and what music influenced you? Did you have a plan, stylistically or otherwise?
Cóndor was founded in late 2012. The plan from the outset was to create narrative heavy metal and to have the lyrics deal with the collapse of Western civilization viewed from the vantage point of the great grandchildren of the Conquistadors. Musically we were influenced mostly by the early work of melodic metal bands in various subgenres, such as Amorphis, At the Gates, Mournful Congregation, Sacramentum, Candlemass etc.
Do you have other non-metal or non-musical influences?
Non-metal influences are limited mostly to the realm of romantic classical music, particularly 20th century “nationalist” composers such as Sibelius, Smetana and Vaughan Williams. As far as non-musical influences, the work of J.R.R. Tolkien heavily influences our music, and our lyrical/conceptual outlook is indebted to the conception of time as destiny present in the works of Oswald Spengler and Martin Heidegger. The most important influence however is the landscape of our native region, and the story of our Spanish forefathers, to which we are heirs.
How long had you all been metalheads? Or are you metalheads?
We all got into metal while very young, around the ages of 11 and 12. The level of individuals’ current dedication to metal varies within the band, some of us still being fully devout while others have drifted away, but metal was everyone’s path into music and we all share deep roots in it, thus why we chose it as a vehicle.
What’s the scene like in Bogotá? Is it hard or easy to be a metalhead there?
Even though it is an ever-growing community, unfortunately it is swarmed with people who are attracted merely by the metal aesthetic, or people who don’t really think about what they’re listening to. The same people that go to a black metal concert can then go to a metalcore one the day after, which leads one to believe all they get from listening to metal is fun, rebellious noise. After an initial rush of inspiration in the 80s local bands have since been mostly derivative and boring, which has led to widespread skepticism about newer bands. Add that to the fact that venues tend to be geared towards the 80s rock crowd and gigging locally becomes a hard and often fruitless endeavor. However there are many encouraging factors, for one the sheer amount of metalheads as well as the incredibly devout local medium of cult metal record stores, along with an increasing number of international bands who come around to play in the city. It’s worth mentioning that the scene had many classic bands when it was peaking in the late 80s/early 90s, such as Parabellum, Reencarnación, Kraken, Masacre, Kilcrops, Witchtrap and Acutor.
How did you write the songs on Nadia? Were they conceptual songs, or just kickin’ around some riffs?
Music and lyrics on Nadia were written simultaneously with a view towards creating a coherent atmosphere and a dynamic structure. The concept of the album pertains mainly to the question of identity and destiny in the modern world, viewed naturally through our particular vantage point as Colombians. However, many of the riffs are very old and were simply worked into the broader scheme of the album later on. The material on the album stretches back at least three years in some cases while some of it was written just weeks before recording.
Did your influences change for Nadia from past efforts? How much had you learned since your earlier recordings, rehearsals or live performances?
Nadia was our first effort, and the entirety of the album was written before the band ever played together in a room, so this is a tough question to address. As far as live performances we believe they must reflect visually what the audience is listening to. That’s why we use body paint and use elements such as the accordion and wine during shows, to create an experience that enhances the atmosphere and weltanschauung that is already inherent in the music.
What has response been like so far?
Nadia has received a limited, but largely positive response, which we weren’t expecting to be honest. Colombian record stores have been enthusiastic, though larger distribution has been lacking. A few people seem to really dig the album, which is encouraging.
What’s next? Will you record more, tour or rest awhile?
Album number two is currently in the works and we hope to record it in summer of 2014, which would imply an early 2015 release date. Touring is unlikely for now as the band has been scattered by collegial pursuits, but you never know…
If you had to pick the most important bands in the evolution of metal, how would you do it? What bands would be there?
This is a tough question… I guess the method would be to pick bands that innovated in a way that helped the genre evolve without compromising its boundaries and also managed to make albums that stand on their own as coherent and meaningful works. Clearly, the bands that have had a real significance are most often those with members who really understood what they were doing; this applies for both metal and non-metal bands alike. Unfortunately, most great bands have a good start and release one or two great albums, but then seem to lose their touch and limit themselves to appease their audience, without giving much thought to the composition process.
Obviously objectivity is unattainable in such an endeavor… So without further ado, the much desired, and highly subjective, name dropping: Black Sabbath, Rainbow, Manilla Road, Manowar, Mercyul Fate, Slayer, Hellhammer/Celtic Frost, Possessed, Bathory, Fates Warning, Helloween, Morbid Angel, At the Gates, Darkthrone, Enslaved, Thergothon, Beherit, Skepticism, …After this the real innovation stops and the tenets of the genre are pretty much established, but many significant works have been published since then by bands such as Sacramentum, Averse Sefira, Fanisk, Pallbearer, etc. Metal is alive and well; quality output is just a bit slower than in days of yore.
If people are interested in supporting Cóndor, how do they acquire your recordings and keep in touch with the new happenings with the band?
Nadia can be bought both digitally (for whatever price you want) and physically through our bandcamp page. People living in Colombia or Mexico are encouraged to contact us through our Facebook page or our email (email@example.com) to obtain a physical copy directly through a band member. To keep in touch with the band and its happenings follow us on facebook or send us an e-mail and we’ll add you to our mailing list.
Hail Gómez Dávila!
On the 93rd (number of the Thelemic Law) anniversary of the independence of Finland from the Russian Empire, let the northern lights flash their yearning flames beckoning the souls of the fallen warriors of the Civil War. While it may seem to some as a sacrilege to play anything but the Romantic sylvan mystery plays of Sibelius, the true heir of Wagner and one of Finland’s national composers, the early death metal symphonies of Oulu’s Sentenced epitomize a great deal of the same thundering natural melancholy. Following the youthful, reaping, Dismember-esque debut album Shadows of the Past, the musical theory of Jarva, Lopakka and Tenkula turned like the Roman mythical Janus statue two ways at once: towards the pure riffcraft of Iron Maiden and the ethereal, streaming melody of Nordic black metal. Much like At the Gates had captured nearly protestant-religious passion and sadness in Sweden, Sentenced managed to concoct music which was worshipful, raging, realistic (even pessimistic) and imaginative all at once, in defiance of the taciturn apathy characteristic (like alcohol) of the working class of northern Finland. In Sentenced, the pent-up rage of skeptical and prematurely cynical young men was transformed into elaborate poetic reflection.
Power metal riffs in a death metal production would later experience a horrible mangled mutilation death in Children of Bodom’s excessive rock stage theatrics, but the sharp minds of Sentenced treated their source material with such profound affection that heavy metal, thrash, death metal and black metal weave into each other as interminable patterns of tangled paths amidst hypercosmos – a Northern Finnish shaman’s spell. The careful production recalls the most biting moments of Kreator while the technical skills of the guitarists are on par with the hallowed “prog” moments of Atheist and Death. The songs hardly suffer from any useless repetition (the anthemic verse-chorus structure of “Awaiting the Winter Frost” serves a specific purpose in exclaiming the satirical “heavy metal victory” over the forces of light, while it is deliberately obscured whether the narrator is a man, a beast or a spirit). That North from Here was never Sentenced’s most popular or esteemed moment is a total wrongness, as Amok followed on the footsteps of this work adequately, but only that. One of the strongest candidates for the best Death Metal album in the history of Finland, the bewitching maledictions of North from Here, from “Capture of Fire” to “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” (and practically any piece since there is no filler), achieved the aims of “Gothenburg” much more effectively and impudently than the horde’s western neighbours.