I am aware that human beings specialize in denial, and that our method of handling denial is transference and projection, by which we invert accountability and place it on those who do not conform to social expectations, which is a vast tolerance of everything and anything that some living breathing human has put out. As a result, I don’t expect much from the first wave of reviews anywhere, but I’m also not the kind of jerkoff editor who will cut his writers off at the knees.
This left only one solution: listen to The Underground Resistance myself.
This is more difficult than it seems. I do not believe youth is the sweetest time of life; in fact, I hate nostalgia. But when I was developing (or clarifying) the most important ideas and truths I have found in this life, it was a reasonable guess that Darkthrone might have been on the stereo (back then, we used big hulking stereo amplifiers with CD players to reproduce sound from a primitive form of MP3 file stored on a physical medium with reflective bits). In fact, I can remember a number of important discoveries in which Darkthrone featured prominently by being the soundtrack to some dark and some light realizations, and at least one Darkthrone tape (ah yes, youngsters; unless you were rich, you had a “cassette tape player” in your car, to which you dubbed CDs using your big hulking stereo, and then played primitive analogues of MP3 files using magnetic flipped bits on chromium dioxide-covered plastic tape) that lived in my car during a dark era when I drove many miles at night under the threat of an uncertain future.
When I had triumphs, I threw on Transilvanian Hunger, which was a cry to war for a generation. When I studied late at night, Soulside Journey was often on the stereo (low volume, using an anachronistic physical volume knob — crazy shit, man). I remember first “getting” the black metal ideal when listening to Under a Funeral Moon, and realizing this was the revenge of the naturalists. It wasn’t bad production; it was organic sound, a blaze of it, in which the message hid like a signal/noise ratio refinement experiment. It was deliberately obscured, esoteric music in which one could hide the truths that a dying society could no longer face. I loved it, and still do, but I really hate nostalgia. Nostalgia says the best days were past; that’s nonsense, since we learn every day and constantly get better at being who we are. That last sentence contained the main point of this article.
The context in which Darkthrone exists for its longtime listeners is hard to express, however. It’s somewhere aligned with worship and built on trust. We entrusted our hopes, fears, terrors and anger to Darkthrone back in the day, and in exchange vested in them a belief in them as musicians and people. They were no longer just a bunch of guys bashing on guitars, but sages, deliverers of wisdom. Maybe this is wrong, but black metal is a somewhat messianic genre to which children run when they start to realize that the modern world is not a train to Utopia, but a train wreck of false illusions and trends which the majority of people are too zombie-drugged on consumerism and ideology to notice. We the children of this dead world were seeking some reason to keep going and to thrive, and Darkthrone gave us those reasons among other black metal sages.
As a result, it’s impossible (think of Heisenberg) to simply listen to a Darkthrone album. Too much comes with it: history, context, emotion. For many artists, this is good. For example, Robert Fripp and Brian Eno are still making ambient music and their faithful buy up each one and revel in the new space discovered. Some bands find niches and are able to keep improving. Others flatten out, having lost the point of what they were doing, and instead try to become inclusive and patch together all their influences and all the stuff they know makes people happy to listen to their songs. The result is like a hotel room, in that it fits everyone’s specifications but no one’s needs.
When I first listened to The Underground Resistance, I was tempted to consider Jon Wild’s piece inaccurate. Darkthrone have made an album of pleasant music that is equal parts Iron Maiden, Celtic Frost and random death metal and speed metal era influences. I caught Slayer references, something that sounded like a Destruction cadence, and many riff types from the last four decades of metal. I doubt any of this is wholly and completely lifted, but I could be wrong. The fact is that they’re of the same archetypes. However, that has no bearing on whether the album is good or not. If someone were to assemble songs of classic riffs, and give those riffs new life by putting them together in a song which was evocative of some emotion or concept, then that would be a victory. Originality doesn’t matter, because no matter what you’re doing, Haydn did it four centuries ago, or Mozart slightly later. That’s the great farce of music. It’s not about discovering some new theory about making music, but about making music, and much as you’d write a story or sculpt a figurine, using those skills to shape raw material into something which reminds us of something truthful in life. The best art becomes “classic” because it did that better than anyone else.
However, as time went on, I realized Jon is both far off — and dead on. The problem with this album is not the recycled riffs, or the style, or the goofy vocals. It’s that it has nothing to express except that a metal band made an album out of things they knew would work. We know Fenriz and Nocturno Culto can put together a great catchy album in their sleep, and have it humming it all year if they want. Here, they seem exhausted, a couple of old buddies who got together on the weekend to jam and when it was done, cut the tape and mailed it off. This tendency is most clear in the fills that connect riffs to one another. They are obvious in the sense of being very basically musically, not adapted to the song, not possessed of grace. They just tie together some riffs and do an adequate job, and that’s apparently all that’s required.
Remember above how I said the main point of the article was encoded in a sentence about nostalgia? We should always be growing in knowledge and power, and moving toward being better at what we do. Darkthrone still have this in them; for some reason, they’re tired of exercising it. In doing so, they’ve become a cult of their own entropy. There’s nothing wrong with this album except that it has nothing to recommend it. It is competent; it’s fun to listen to; I never want to hear it again. It is people who gave up on their own future and now are doing what the world expects of them, just like going to a job. Our world is broken and failed indeed if it has condemned such talented people to such a fate, but I hope they pull out of this tailspin because they as people and Darkthrone as a concept are worth doing better than this.
Production: Static-free, slightly muddy guitar tone. Drums are clear and unremarkable.
Review: Continuing Darkthrone‘s recent series of forcing anachronistic albums, all traces of black metal have been stripped from this album. Fenriz’ tracks consist of the same relentlessly bouncy riffs over which unbearably clean vocals are belted. Nocturno Culto’s are differentiated only by slightly heavier vocals.
Nothing on this album is unique; if you’ve listened to 70s and 80s metal to any extent, you will know these riffs. Devoid of originality, this album could have been recorded by any nameless metal band.
Whatever motivated these musicians to release such toweringly monumental works in their earlier careers has clearly been lost. At a certain point, the creative spark burns out and all that’s left is talent but no sense of urgency or spirit, which is how albums like this are created. Like junk food, at first glance it appears edible but afterwards leaves you feeling slightly nauseous and unfulfilled.
This issue is about to explode into public discourse because the rise in new-style metal bands has forced this question upon us all.
What is the underground?
Before even reading this article, keep in mind that there are some excellent resources. First, The Heavy Metal FAQ provides a complete answer. Second, Underground Never Dies! is a whole book dedicated to this topic through the eyes of metal bands from the 1980s-1990s underground era.
But we can come up with an even quicker definition.
The 1980s through early 1990s were a different time. Not only was there no internet, but music distribution was fairly strictly defined. Mainstream stores got what the big distributors had from the big labels and a select few smaller labels that pushed their way in. If you wanted a wider selection, you went to an “alternative” music store which stocked smaller labels. Often you bought imports, at a 50% markup. Most stores were completely uninterested in stocking something such as death metal, because it appealed to a small and antisocial niche audience. Why bother with selling a single copy of a Deicide album when you could sell 20 copies of Motley Crue without even trying?
In addition, there were forces of opposition to any metal that was not radio sanitized (which meant speaking on code words, probably encouraging deviant behavior to a greater degree). Very few people now remember when Tipper Gore and her Parents’ Music Resource Center (PMRC) were a powerful lobby for parental warning stickers on questionable albums. In addition, the threat of such people caused record stores to actually card people for buying violent rap or occult metal. You had to be 18 and prove it, or they would not sell to you.
And getting it on radio? There was college radio and also a handful of independent radio stations but these faced the same problem. Why play death metal when you could throw on a few sets of Sonic Youth and Rites of Spring and have 20 times as many listeners? Even among alternative music, death metal was unpopular because it was abrasive and did not have a large social movement behind it which made people like it. NWA was a violent, misogynistic and hilarious rap group that got banned just about everywhere, but there was a large social movement behind their work. It was easier to find that than your average, or even your top-selling, death metal band.
What underground meant back then seemed to be that it was offered through alternative channels. A few record stores, some college radio stations, tiny record labels run on a basically non-profit basis, and photocopied hand-assembled zines made of a pastiche of typed content and tattoo-style margin drawings. How did most people find new music in the early days? They hooked up with pen pals who would mail them cassette tape mixes of new music they found, often dubbed from cassette demos from the bands. Sometimes these tapes were many generations down the line and you could barely hear the band under the crepitant tape noise! But they did the job that mainstream media, record labels and magazines would not.
Toward the middle of the 1990s, this situation relaxed. First, the rise of used CD sales meant that smaller labels were making it into bigger stores via a backdoor. Second, magazines like Spin eventually gave coverage to death metal. Finally, changes in the way music was distributed opened up the middlemen who supplied record stores to the smaller labels. This meant that the traditional split between underground and mainstream was going away. Record labels, scared by the possibility of used CD sales eating up the profits from big mainstream releases, which relied on novelty to sell and interested their audiences for only a few months, started looking toward “niche” sales. But what really blew it out of the water was the notoriety of black metal.
Starting in the mid-1990s, rumors of the black metal movement in Norway and its legacy of violence — church burnings, murders, and stockpiling of military grade weapons — began to leak out through the zines into the magazines. Then the whole drama exploded with the trial of Varg Vikernes, who conveniently also ended the old black metal era with Hvis Lyset Tar Oss, an album so deeply nuanced and impossible to follow that most musicians shrugged and went back to three-chord, “punk style” black metal instead. He raised the bar at the same time bands like Darkthrone codified the genre with Transilvanian Hunger, an album that was difficult to create but easy to mimic. As mentioned in the documentary Until the Light Takes Us, black metal witnessed the decay of an idea. This decay happened through emulation that, because it looked at the outward traits like distortion and blast beats, missed the actual meaning of the genre which caused musicians to make such similar music in the first place.
It’s hard for people to realize now but black metal was initially viewed as slightly touched in the head. Death metalers often hated it violently; almost everyone else seemed to criticize it for its lo-fi approach and almost childish use of blasphemy and antisocial imagery. Many of the albums sounded like they were performed by people who had barely picked up an instrument and might have zero social graces. It was roundly mocked… until it started to become popular. Then the tables were turned. Within five years, black metal was in mainstream record stores (this shift happened in about 1997) and became really popular with a new generation.
After that point, the term “underground” seemed to lose meaning. The internet had come and made music and information about it universally available, and the proliferation of high-powered desktop computers meant that recording an album, running a label or making a zine involved far less labor and looked and sounded a lot better than the DIY labor of the 1980s (or even 1960s-1970s, when proto-punk and punk bands innovated it). At this point, people started going for an “underground sound,” which meant artificial lo-fi, simple three-chord songs, lots of ranting about antisocial topics including the occult, and a deliberately offensive resistance to any positive reinforcement.
The other issue that’s sparked controversy is exactly which bands get press — take Deafheaven and fellow shoegaze black metal band Alcest, who both benefited greatly from non-metal-centric coverage in 2013. The idea of using these bands to open of the gates of metal and let readers discover a new musical genre (or actually take it seriously) is a contentious one. One of the issues is the promotion of palatable metal bands that could potentially reach the masses with a sound that isn’t “metal” in the classic sense. Instead, these bands have been referred to as “extreme,” a catch-all, provocative phrase guaranteed to attract listeners who are looking for a more intense metal fix – and to satiate that self-satisfied outsider-metal “cool factor” that insecure metal fans love to laud over the pop-music contingent.
In the years from 1995-1998, the underground basically rehashed itself. It had no ideas, and more importantly, the bar was raised. To be a good death metal band, you had to be at the level of Morbid Angel’s Covenant or Suffocation’s Pierced From Within. To be a black metal band of note, you had to be at the level of Burzum’s Hvis Lyset Tar Oss or Enslaved’s Frost. Not many bands could do that and so an alternative underground built up based on fan-driven metal. Most of this was in emulation of the previous years and took the form of three-chord simplified versions of the more complex originals. The result was that, outside of a small cluster of people hanging around internet forums, this music went nowhere.
Nature abhors a vacuum, so from 1999-2006 or so, metalcore took over. This was also music designed to be easy to make. It took the randomness aesthetic of late hardcore punk and combined it with death metal riffs, making chaotic songs that made no sense but were plenty distracting and extreme. The music industry flogged this dead horse walking (to brutally mix metaphors) for five years before the trend started to die. Then from 2006 through the present, the music industry took a different tack: instead of trying to make a new genre, emulate something that has worked in the past. They found the fertile ground of the post-hardcore years where indie rock, shoegaze and post-rock coexisted in the same sphere of influence. This was generally what was called “alternative rock” before “alternative rock” became a brand for flannel wearing bittersweet droning hard rock bands from Seattle.
Deafheaven is a polarizing band becomes it comes from this tradition. Listening to it, it is not clear there is any metal in it at all. But labeling something “metal” or “underground” or “extreme” excites interest, mainly because few people trust the aboveground media. Thus there is a huge financial incentive to classify Deafheaven as metal, and for smaller blogs and magazines to go along with this fiction as well, if they do, they get advertising revenue and possibly a shot at the big time.
This leaves us with a complete quandary: does the term “underground” have meaning anymore at all?
My suggestion with my last article, “In defense of elitism,” was that underground is a misused term. The point is that metal has a spirit which defines it and separates it from everything else. That spirit must be expressed but it is of a nature that does not trust the dominant paradigm. Black Sabbath wrote their music to rain on the hippie parade of love, drugs and pacifism; their point was that altering our perspective does not change reality. Underground metal had a similar message and was unwilling to alter it in order to fit with the expectations of people who would rather hear about the denial fictions of love, drugs and pacifism (underground rap did the same thing in parallel, but with a different set of issues and a different set of denial fictions).
What makes a metal band underground is that it is unwilling to compromise its vision of truth for what people want to believe is true. It is unwilling to compromise its aesthetics for what people believe is comfortable and pleasant. It is committed to the idea that the only legitimacy comes from the art itself, not its popularity or album sales. Some would identify this as the ultimate non-“bourgeois” statement, in that it casts aside comfortable oblivion in favor of a raw blast of cold hard reality. This sense of underground is more fundamental than how the albums are sold or which zines write about them. It is an attitude and discipline. Underground means that which puts truth first and popularity second, which is a dramatic reversal of the way everyone else goes about it.
Metal is not the only genre to have an underground. Punk was originally underground but as it became fashionable in the late 1970s hardcore punk bands started vanishing into squats, playing midnight parties in abandoned foundries, and selling their music on 7″ records out of shirtsleeves. The noise movement in Japan remains underground to this day, with artists like K.K. Null constructing elaborate and beautiful pieces from raw noise, instead of making harsh blasting rebellious stuff like record labels had hoped. Robert Fripp, former guitarist of King Crimson, uses electronics to make his guitar sound like an organ and plays small concerts across the world. Underground is not a term specific to metal, but a term to describe any activity that is not encouraged in society at large yet believes it has ideological, artistic and/or political value.
You aren’t going to hear about any of these artists in big media and you may not be able to buy their CDs in regular stores. However, that is the symptom, not the cause. The reason they’re not in regular stores is that they’re not only niche, but also not given to comfortable oblivion. In a time when people can choose the artistic equivalent of a cheeseburger over the more challenging and substantive art, people tend to do so, which marginalizes actual art. As a result, the actual art is alien and threatening to most people, which makes it a terrible product, which means that it ends up in small record stores, small zines, and small labels.
If anything, the internet has exacerbated this tendency. In an age when we can find anything by googling it, the real problem is knowing what to google. Even worse, Google uses a search engine algorithm that moves higher links up the chain, thus burying marginalized results. We have all the information in the world but without a guide to it, none of us know what to do with it. It is for this reason that traditional media has won out on the net and the sites that attract the most eyes are the ones that are promoting essentially mainstream music.
What Deafheaven represents to a metaler is the triumph of mainstream music. There is nothing in Deafheaven that challenges the listener to even a second of soul-searching or discovery, or whatever it is that art does — that’s a separate debate — in contrast to what death metal and black metal provoked in us. Deafheaven in fact is the listening equivalent of wallpaper, a pleasant series of repeated images that make us think about shopping, perhaps. Whether it is bad music or not is irrelevant. “The medium is the message,” we’re told, and in the case of Deafheaven, the medium is inoffensive pop pretending to be “extreme.”
Since then, anything “new” and “innovative” done in metal has involved musicians stepping outside the boundaries of the genre more and more. Shoegaze, industrial, post-punk, krautrock, progressive rock, jazz, trance, dubstep. It’s been happening gradually over the past ten years, but Deafheaven’s 2013 album Sunbather just might be the first major splintering that will eventually see “extreme music” separating completely from actual heavy metal. Although my opinion on the album has already been published and will not change, it remains the most critically acclaimed album of 2013, of any genre, marking the first time an album that has occupied that grey area between “metal” and “extreme music” has captured the attention of so many mainstream critics and audiences. Some critics still call Sunbather “metal”, but to do so is to forget what makes heavy metal heavy metal in the first place, merely clutching to the few metallic threads in an otherwise richly varied musical fabric. In reality, Sunbather is a tremendous example of extremity transcending the metal ethos entirely.
In other words, there’s a reason Deafheaven doesn’t sound like Beherit, Demoncy, Imprecation, Blaspherian or any of the other bands which have resurrected the underground sound over the past five years. Deafheaven represents the mixing of mainstream sounds into underground metal, while Beherit represents underground metal growing and developing on its own terms.
If anything, the underground is in a renaissance because it has finally escaped the old standard of lo-fi music sold on cassettes/vinyl through dodgy mail orders and reported on only by small zines. We have gone from alienated from society to accepted (grudgingly) by society, and so now we are “niche” music. But what defines this niche is that it is underground. We face the hidden truths and evoke concealed emotions, and thrust a fist in the face of oblivion. That is what makes us underground, and it’s why the masses chose Deafheaven over Demoncy to report on as a face of extreme music.
Darkthrone have spent the records FOAD through The Underground Resistanceregressing into their pre-Celtic Frost influences. Sensing their customers’ growing unpopularity with this black ‘n’ roll approach, Fenriz and Nocturno Culto try to save face on Artic Thunder by regressing into their own work. The upshot is that nobody but Miller Lite Throne can sell mediocre riffs in cyclical songs as well as these two. The downshift is that they cannot muster enough enthusiasm or energy to play their own ideas with the dedication of a devoted bar-tier cover band.
Darkthrone announced that the title and cover of their upcoming album, Arctic Thunder, shares a similar name with many breath mint brands and 1980s ski bro flicks. Hopefully this album is not phoned-in retro-heavy metal more disposable than an Altoids tin like The Underground Resistance was.
Watching the greats fall is always painful. But watching Darkthrone go from Transilvanian Hunger to The Underground Resistance is not half as painful as seeing how Enslaved defile their name in a pseudo-prog mainstream pop metal album like In Times after knowing they were capable of something like Vikingligr Veldi. Even without drawing a comparison, the contrast-oriented sequence of scenes posited by the modern metal of In Times as an excuse for music is in itself enough to throw this out the window.
The sort of failure that an album like this represents is one of the most pervasive maladies that afflicts modern metal, but it was born long before the metal itself developed. The pseudo-prog musical fallacy of either stitching unrelated sections with disparate characters and contrasting ideas or merely repeating riffs and similar ideas with no subtlety was born as soon as progressive rock became a “thing” and paper-thin rednecks like Camel and Rush were confused with the real-deal bands like Yes and King Crimson which require much more subtlety to appreciate. This is a sickness that metal has to overcome if it is to have an artistic future and if the absorption into mainstream pop music is to be staved off.
This absorption is always taking place, and there are always pockets of resistance. Enslaved is showing us the most dangerous example of this watering down. It is the most dangerous because it gives the superficial appearance of attaining greater complexity. But it is a trivial complexity. It is no real musical complexity as it only consists in stacking elements that sound appealing in passing much in the way Michael’s Pink Frothy AIDS constructs for the intellectual, sensitive hipsters. This music is painful to listen to for any discerning listener looking for coherence and meaning in art and should be avoided by any fan or musician looking for excellence except as an example of a common pitfall of the pseudo-intellectual metal movement.
Nocturno Culto, who forms one-half of the nefarious duo known as Darkthrone, has a long history of side projects. Among other contributions, he worked out the intricate riffcraft behind Satyricon’s Nemesis Divina, making it a favorite in that band’s catalog.
Now he has embarked on a new side project which is a pure traditional heavy metal band called Gift of Gods. Gift of Gods will release its debut mini-album Receive on Peaceville Records on November 5, 2013.
Commented Nocturno Culto, “Finally, the mini-album is done. Gift Of Gods has been a great ride for me. I don’t want this to end now, so I will most likely work on new material. Thanks to my partner in crime, K.A. Hubred, we got to rehearse during the last two years. What to expect? I have no idea how to describe this, but it’s metal for sure.”
Receive was performed and recorded by Culto and Hubred at Culto’s home studio, and mixed and mastered by Jack Control at Enormous Door, who recently worked with Nocturno on Darkthrone’s The Underground Resistance.
So far the only reports tell us this will be traditional heavy metal with a wide range of influences and that it will lead toward the melodic side of things. This EP/mini-album will be a half-hour of material including a cover of “Looking For an Answer” originally by obscure Swedish 80s band Universe.
November 8th, 2016. Manhattan, NY. Election night. I was there.
Wading back and forth between a crowd of suits and red hats gathered outside the Fox News building on 6th ave and a similar group gathered a few blocks north outside the Hilton hotel where the soon-to-be President-Elect was present, I celebrated ecstatically as electoral college results came in showing my favorite politician on the cusp of capturing the presidency. All of us were over the moon with excitement and bliss, particularly because New York City had seldom presented a place where support of the man the media branded as Hitler 2.0 could be expressed openly.
While walking home and passing virtually every media truck parked for a mile along the road where America’s next President prepared his victory speech, a young NPR reporter excitedly rushed over to me with her microphone and cameraman after seeing the ridiculous “Trump 2020” pins on my shirt. I agreed to her request for interview and explained why I thought Trump’s non-interventionist foreign policy and realist economic objectives would benefit the country’s middle and working classes. Admitting her surprise to learn that I was a compliance director working near Wall St. and not the basic redneck Trump voter the media had branded us as, she asked if I was excited about the likelihood of supporting Trump being more socially acceptable now that he was president. “Yeah” I said “It finally won’t be taboo now!”
Kshatriya‘s Vsque ad Sidera Vsque ad Inferos is a black metal album celebrating the prehistoric conquest of everything from Ireland to India by pastoral Proto-Indo-European peoples from their urheimat located in the northern reaches of the Pontic-Caspian steppe in what is now Russia and Ukraine. The Indo-Europeans were a martial race among the first peoples to domesticate horses, worshiped the sky father Dyeus Pater, and spoke antecessor of most European languages.