Can We Judge Experimental Metal?

thequietus

I used to spend a lot of time plagued by the question of whether one can really judge experimental metal. At first glance, this may sound silly, because the tools of music criticism don’t disappear from a little experimentation. You can still ask how derivative it is; what the structure is; if the riffs are any good; and so on. But problems emerge when one realizes that there have been pieces of music throughout history which really defy all convention. I’d put forth Gyorgi Ligeti’s “Atmospheres” as an example which has no melodic or rhythmic content (and in some sense no harmonic motion either).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aI0P1NnUFxc

Many of you are already screaming at your screen: “Atmospheres” makes you feel something. It is highly unsettling and successfully elicits emotions and responses in the listener. The only objective we need in evaluating music that breaks with tradition is if it successfully does what it intends to do or elicits an emotional response from the listener. I agree this is one possibility, but I reject the idea that abstract art has to have some objective or emotional goal to be worth engaging with. Think of beautiful paintings of fruit. Some may feel moved by it, but I think it is a stretch to claim this is where its value lies. Its worth is in the pure aesthetic experience it gives. Often this is beauty, but we could say “Atmospheres” is worth listening to for its coherent new aesthetic experience it provides. In fact, many other works of Ligeti do not have the emotive experience for justification but are all part of his unified aesthetic vision.

I should address whether this question is even worth thinking about. I think it is, because if we don’t have a way to distinguish quality, we’ll find ourselves randomly accepting or rejecting anything that defies convention. I’ve seen both extremes: the art hipster that defends to the death the greatness of a blank white canvas to the pop idolizer whose ears bleed at anything other than a I-IV-V-I progression over a 4/4 rock beat. Neither extreme is good music criticism, because both are ideologies that pre-judge rather than evaluate an album on its own terms. This means we have to give some thought to the question of whether it is even possible to judge music that pushes the boundaries. I’ll admit that basically no metal album, no matter how experimental, will be so extreme that we lack all ability to use traditional criticism. That’s not the point.

I, and most other reviewers, often get lazy and gloss over anything that is difficult to engage with. I find myself reviewing albums as traditionally as possible and only throwing in mention of experimental aspects without much thought. It usually takes the form of the above ideological lines by pointing out the experimental aspects as “original.” This tends to make any experimentation come across as a good thing in my reviews (when I’m being lazy).

One way I like to think of the messiness of experimentation in music is through an analogy to other arts, even though the analogy isn’t perfect or historically accurate. One could say that abstraction techniques in painting arose in part due to an identity crisis. Early paintings were very much about accuracy and representation of the world: portraits, landscapes, still lifes, etc. Probably in part due to the birth of photography (though it started a bit earlier), painters needed to add a human element to be able to justify its purpose. “The Weeping Woman” by Picasso may be a portrait, but it deviates from an accurate depiction of the woman in order to more powerfully portray her emotional state. A perfect picture of the woman couldn’t capture the tragedy and suffering so well. What I’m trying to say is that painters realized they could experiment in order to filter something through a point of view to create a messier, more human art.

Music usually lacks a subject, so in some sense the starting point is closer to abstract expressionism in painting. Strangely, music tends to be more rigid than painting for various reasons usually involving time. If your song is in 4/4, it is very difficult to make something sound messy, because members of a band are locked in an orderly pattern. One way to add a messy, human element is change up the time signature. This gets us to a value judgement. Take a stereotypical progressive metal band, Between the Buried and Me, for example. Often their use of varied time signatures comes across as tidy, carefully planned, and gimmicky. This is an example of bad experimentation, because it doesn’t fulfill its purpose of making something sound original, messy, or unexpected. Say what you will about Behold… the Arctopus, but at least they fulfill their purpose of experimenting with time to disorient the listener.

This brings us back to an earlier point. We can judge the experimentation on whether it fulfills its purpose. Theodor Adorno has probably written and thought about experimentation in music more than any other person. One of my favorite points of criticism from him is his explanation of how terrible it is when the sound of music is in contradiction with its purpose. He uses as an example Joan Baez singing protest music against the Vietnam War. She completely undermines her point about the senseless, incomprehensible violence of war by wrapping the song in a neat, easily digestible pop song. How can making war palatable possibly fulfill the purpose of a song that war is not palatable?

A great example of a metal album in which the sound fulfilled its purpose is At the Gates’ With Fear I Kiss the Burning Darkness. It isn’t quite experimental in the sense we’ve been discussing, but it serves as an example of metal where the sound reinforces the content (which, let’s be honest, was an important factor in much early death metal). We’ve reverted to easy cases again. Before tackling the hardest cases, I think one easy-to-spot bad thing is what I call an “experimentation poseur.” The album is fairly boring and uninventive, so the band tries to hide this and appeal to a certain crowd by throwing in some experimentation. Not only does this cover-up not work, it is embarrassing, because it is so obvious to an intelligent listener that you are trying to fool them. Something like Buckethead, Iwrestledabearonce, or much that self-identifies as “mathcore” work for examples. Harder cases are Jute Gyte, Psyopus, Behold… the Arctopus, and Cloak of Altering. These bands are uncompromising in their difficulty throughout the whole album. They also appear to have something like a coherent and consistent aesthetic vision which differs vastly from other metal. As proof, give me a new track I’ve never heard from one of those four bands, and I will have no difficulty telling you which one wrote it.

I often hear the complaint that anyone can create an ugly mess of noise with no structure or feeling, reminiscent of the complaint that anyone can drizzle paint on a canvas like Pollack. We’ve already addressed why this is lazy criticism. But it is also intellectually dishonest, because I don’t think anyone but the most skilled musicians could copy these bands. Anyone that thinks they merely “dripped ink onto a staff” and played whatever happened hasn’t really listened to them, and frankly, is so disengaged from honest discussion that their opinions can be dismissed as irrelevant. They sound nothing like Milton Babbitt, for instance, which basically wrote music using a dice roll. This is not to say any of these band’s albums are good. Figuring this out is the point of the discussion: how can we tell? Hopefully those who were skeptical about the question originally can see its relevance now. I must come back to this idea of the pure aesthetic experience. Now I’ll reveal that I stacked the deck with these four choices. I think we can give rough tiers for each of these band’s most recent albums.

Psyopus tends to be absurd for the purpose of being absurd. This means they have a lot of internal inconsistencies in their sound and musical language. One moment they play fast chromatic riffs, the next they glissando up and down, the next they drone with a girl shouting. It tends to be all over the place with the only goal to be different or weird. This is not a high quality aesthetic experience. I’d level the same charge at Cloak of Altering, but a step up. He is a bit more consistent, and I think the album has more worth.

Jute Gyte is much better. His musical syntax is more internally consistent. After a few listens, the album makes sense within its context. It isn’t microtonal for the sake of being different, it’s microtonal because that is a deliberate and consistent aesthetic choice he makes. I’ll reiterate, you may not personally find the experience worthwhile, but it is justifiable as a work of experimental metal. This is the whole point of experimentation. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

I know, 90% of you just shit your pants and decided to leave the site forever, because I’m about to say that Behold… the Arctopus is the highest tier of this list. It would take another post as long as this one to make the argument, but the key idea is the same. They have a consistent tonality, sound, style, musical syntax, and so on which creates a coherent aesthetic experience. I have no problem with someone listening to it and saying, “Nope. Still a worthless waste of time,” in the same way that I have no problem with someone looking at a Rothko and saying, “Nope. That’s just rectangles, not worth looking at.” The thing is, art criticism is old enough and mature enough that someone can separate that personal reaction from the idea that Rothko had a legitimate aesthetic program.

Thinking about metal as art is a bit too new. We tend to treat our personal taste and reaction to an album as the final word. All this is to say, I think there are ways to tell the difference between crappy experimental metal which tries to dupe a certain crowd into praising them and legitimate experimental metal which has a concrete aesthetic program being carried out in earnest. It is an important step in treating metal as art to have serious discussions on the worth of various experimental bands, but we can’t do that if we get stuck in the mindset that all the ones we don’t like are equally bad.

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39 thoughts on “Can We Judge Experimental Metal?”

  1. Ara says:

    “Neither extreme is good music criticism, because both are ideologies that pre-judge rather than evaluate an album on its own terms.”
    Do you know what site you’re writing for, dude?

    I get what you’re saying about experimentation tiers, but to me it has more to do with maturity coming across through personal age in your writing. Iwrestledabearonce is music for kids by kids, and Behold the Arctopus is music for dudes by dudes, intelligence level of the kids and dudes in question notwithstanding. Psyopus is kind of in between, in that they try to deliberately sound annoying, like screaming children. None of this stuff is really for me, and if you break it down the bands in question don’t really have as unique a voice as you think, such as how Behold is little more than John Zorn meets Gordion Knot and so on. Scalar tonalities may be somewhat consistent but any player who is really a player has voicing a unique to their style. The only real difficulty in judgment for me is knowing whether each band’s writing flaws purposely befuddle the listener as part of their message or if it’s a crutch for weak structuring. Usually motive unravels as you listen and most intent is pretty clear, which is why genres like metalcore are universally maligned.

    1. “Do you know what site you’re writing for, dude?”

      Yes, he does. Which is why he phrased certain things with warnings and anticipating certain remarks and reactions.

      This article is written specifically for the audience of this website. This is where the most serious conception of metal is held, which is why it is the most important place to put forward advanced considerations regarding music appreciation.

      1. Ara says:

        Yes, but the easy flowchart of criticism of this site is usually

        Does the band claim they are (usually death or black) metal
        Does this correspond to the site’s idea of what (death or black) metal is
        If not, then fuck all of its content regardless of quality
        If so, let’s discuss the positives of the content

        Therefore, I found the quote of pre-judging an album based on prior experiences as a flawed approach to criticism to be kind of hilarious as rarely an album is judged here on its own terms without regard to specific forms of the past and instead the basic tenets of genre ideals are upheld first and foremost before the idea of the objective record is digested.

        1. I think at DMU, albums were always judged in a combination of the two. From its own terms and judged from the point of view of a set of standards, given what the premises of the album are.

          I wrote about this here: http://www.deathmetal.org/news/chalice-of-blood-helig-helig-helig/

        2. hypocrite says:

          “Therefore, I found the quote of pre-judging an album based on prior experiences as a flawed approach to criticism to be kind of hilarious as rarely an album is judged here on its own terms without regard to specific forms of the past and instead the basic tenets of genre ideals are upheld first and foremost before the idea of the objective record is digested.”

          Really, can anything be judged on ‘its own terms’? Do we determine the quality of music based solely upon criteria defined by its composer? You seem to of the opinion that many artists aren’t appreciated because only a few people listening to their music willfully shut themselves off from reality to engage themselves fully in the artist’s conception. Shouldn’t anything meaningful engage the attention and imagination of the listener of its own accord?

          1. to some degree. As I said before, we do not death metal like black metal or visce-versa.

          2. Ara says:

            Shutting off from reality is not the way I would describe it, but yes when we listen to things I would like to think we have the capacity to hear the author’s voice first before we allow our paranoia about the state of metal and modern society as a whole to obscure the vision. But I feel maybe of us want to be pissed at the outsiders attempting to utilize the metal medium to sound their unique voices through, and that makes us little better than the current feminist movement itching to be offended at every turn. I’m not flying the “metalheads aren’t open minded” flag but as others have mentioned the best metal records were the result of experimentation and you can only be blown away by a band if you approach it with the capacity, willingness and excitement to be blown away by said band, and prejudging it based on genre ideals or familiar tropes is a good way to set anyone up for failure.

            1. I agree with most of what you said here. Which is one of the reasons this article was posted.
              But I do want to emphasize that this simple way of judging based on familiar tropes is not how things have been done on this website, but the simple-minded cannot tell the difference.
              Regarding genre ideals, if they are understood, then you are not setting up “anyone” for failure, only the vast majority who only copy tropes or do not understand the genre.

              1. Ara says:

                I’m not simple minded, and the Thantifaxath review is an example of what I was saying in practice. Understanding a genre makes sense but if you fashion your voice around preconceived notions of genre you are already compromising your art and shouldn’t be chastised for avoiding such a trap. There are many, many ways to make bad music, but avoiding a rigid adherence to genre norms shouldn’t top the list of them.

                1. I agree.
                  I did not mean to call you simple minded, I always talk carelessly, apparently.
                  I do not like how many albums have been reviewed in the past here.
                  Even albums I think are poor music, like that Thantifaxath, which I do not find unappealing, I only find it poorly thought-out.
                  That is one of the things I am trying to change, actually, and you’ve seen the sort of reaction it has elicited from some people.

  2. trystero says:

    Creating a constant aesthetic experience is a fancy way of saying sounds the same throughout. Which Behold… the Arctopus does despite all the noodling. Every song is meaninglessly titled, a jumble of ideas (if you are lucky) heading in no particular artistic direction. What is interesting is how little experimentation there is here at all. Subtract the Warr guitar and what you are left with is utterly mundane music that sounds just like its contemporaries. This band can easily be judged on the standards of metal or rock music.

    1. I agree with this criticism of Behold the Arctopus. Matt recently introduced me to an “experimental rock” album by a band called Upsilon Acrux. To me, it is more of a proper progressive rock. Very off-puting and not Beethovenian in its approach, it does not build to a clear conclusion through a theme. But it builds and evolves organically. It is consistent through and through, creates expectation, satisfies, moves forward, confuses, but brings about the feeling of a train of thought when you become familiar with it.
      I think it would be a much better example than the messy music of Behold the Arctopus.Because we do not consider that album messy on account of its ideas being too “out there”, but because its ideas in each section are actually quite clear, and they do not make sense together, they do anything together, they are just stitched together.

    2. Matt says:

      I’m not asking this with some ulterior motive. What is a contemporary making mundane music that BtA sounds like? I’m actually interested in listening for the similarities to understand this point of view.

      1. I am going to venture forth and say.. like Origin’s Omnipresent or Ara’s Devourer of Worlds. I think I’ll listen to those ones again just to make sure. I did relisten to BtA to make sure my impression was’t based on some warped memory. their jumping between ideas is bothersome. It is a pity because they could make more coherent music if they wanted to…
        I don’t think they actually can go all the way like Upsilon Acrux, though.

        1. Ara says:

          Omnipresent is terrible, but what makes Devourer of Worlds mundane? Legitimately asked with desire to learn from and improve.

          1. We talked about this plenty before and I probably was not clear enough or respectful enough.
            It is a very long and difficult topic, but in my last comment I did not MEAN to say Ara was mundane but that BtA could be seen under it all, to be making something akin to what Ara does.

            But, it must be stressed that Ara’s music is much more organized and makes much more sense. The sins are very different.
            Just to summarize what we talked about last time, which Brett concisely and accurately represented as: Ara makes music from the outside in, but we praise music that is made from the inside out.

            I hope this does not become a thread about this, but as a small explanation, do not confuse this with it being a matter of having feeling or not. Everybody has feelings about music. Last time I redirected you to some literature on the subject that could be useful in illuminating this subject as we see it… (Nietzsche’s concept of the Dionysian and the Appolonian in art, as per his The Birth of Tragedy, and perhaps, some of the writings of A.B. Marx on musical form).

            I touch on this topic in the article I just linked for you above. Again, I hope you read it thoroughly and find that I am actually answering your questions there.

            1. Ara says:

              I still don’t see how you can make the claim of what is written from the outside in as opposed to the converse aside from being the author, and despite being open to criticism it seems like a way to write something off as hollow in a safe, proofless way without pointing to actual reasoning for it. I would feel this way if I saw this approach given to records that I didn’t write as well, so it’s not so much a kneejerk defensive reaction as it is a personal confusion toward what resembles a straw man argument for me. But thanks for listening.

              1. Ara says:

                To prove I am a good sport, I will read the articles when I get home but I prefer to not let the ideas of other philosophers cloud my idea of how to understand art. I am always open to suggestion and the leaps I’ve personally made in songwriting have been due to constructive criticism which I am eternally grateful for. Although I’m sure there is validity to some of his ideas, it seems metalheads have a hard on for Nietsche and try to blanket his opinions over all things regardless of whether they apply. I’ll objectively read the article, however.

                I am curious however- is the classical music that is praised here written from the inside out? A criticism I remember is that Ara is self referential and just music about music, so how does this not apply to classical when many pieces are simply named after what the musical process is? Is this because metal as opposed to classical needs an agenda to be valid?

                Also, what can Ara and BtW do within their style to improve? Without completely overhauling their aesthetic, can either be artistically valid?

                1. >” I prefer to not let the ideas of other philosophers cloud my idea of how to understand art”
                  I invite it, I am always eager to understand more.

                  >”, it seems metalheads have a hard on for Nietsche and try to blanket his opinions over all things regardless of whether they apply.”
                  Most of those people haven’t really read or understood Nietzsche. Not saying I do 100% either… but that article I wrote has little or nothing to do with Nietzsche, though.

                  > “I am curious however- is the classical music that is praised here written from the inside out”
                  Most of it is. There is a very accessible biography of Beethoven written by a Cooper. In it, a lot of Beethoven’s own remarks and approaches to music are discussed as you advance through his life and works.
                  Beethoven created turds too. Turds he admitted were turds. He also started out creating music from the outside in, as he was trying to grasp Mozart’s style when he was young.
                  He refined and refined… He fought a life-long battle to do this, to produce always from the inside out. That is why he waited so long (until he hit his 30s, if I do not remember wrong…) to start writing symphonies.
                  his late Quartets and sonatas are an example of this too…
                  But anyway.. not that I can tell 100% just by listening to something, I think you also have to be familiar with the type of music being discussed…
                  What can I say… try?

                  I think a lot of this, nobody can just teach you. It’s like improvising, or the sense for composition itself, although there may be guidelines, most things we learn how to do do not have an exact guideline, they are not recipes. The same when we judge… I am still learning, and want to keep learning…

        2. Richer Dead says:

          BtA guitarist Mick Barr also plays in Krallice which uses a lot of experimental rhythms and chords and structures but play much more coherent songs. Probably because they’re trying (and failing) to play black metal, but it shows that he has the skill to construct sensible music and so must be making BtA’s music insensible on purpose.

          1. Yes, but my point was that they are not capable of making the music sensible by going in the opposite direction.
            His death-ish and black-ish metal is very poor and is only pretentious. And his “experimental” music is just a mess. It isn’t even difficult to grasp, IMHO.

  3. Bobby says:

    The thing about that word…. The classics are experimental. De Mysteriis dom Sathanas, Ride The Lightning, Show No Mercy, Welcome to Hell, albums like this all experimented in their own context, using the language they grew up on. Of course they helped codify the new norm, so they’re not considered that way.

    Remember, part of a real experiment is realizing whether it’s a success or a failure, and learning from the failures. This is why defending the latest djent/polka fusion band with “it’s experimental, bro…!” misses the point.

    1. Richer Dead says:

      The author here didn’t have a clear idea of what “experimental” even means as a descriptor. If you undertake an experiment, then you necessarily do not know what the results of your undertaking will be. So if a band like Behold… (or any of the other bands he mentioned) has a consistent style, then the results are determined prior to the undertaking and worked toward through the process of writing (even if there is no clear goal, only showing off or confusing listeners). Therefore the music is not experimental. You are correct in listing early metal albums as being experimental since they worked with sounds, structures, and techniques that had not been undertaken prior (but they were good because they were applied toward a specific goal or expression).

      1. I think he was just using the word “experimental” as the genre tag. And he is actually trying to make clear the difference between actual experimentation and gimmicky acts.

        1. Richer Dead says:

          Yea but as a genre tag it fails to signify anything distinctive about the music. This is apparent when we consider the similarities between bands that he mentioned (there aren’t any, except for the fact that they all suck).

      2. Matt says:

        As David points out, I think it’s clear from context what was meant. I could have used “avant-garde” or something, but I’ve come to dislike that term.

        I will point out that your view is quite strange about what an experiment is. Suppose I want to undertake the experiment of incorporating microtones into metal. If I don’t consistently do that, I won’t even have results to judge. This doesn’t mean I know the results ahead of time.

        Consistency is a necessary prerequisite for it to even be considered an experiment. A science experiment is highly methodical, following a rigid set of instructions, all laid out ahead of time. But of course, the scientist doesn’t know the result until it is actually carried out.

        Similarly, a composer must actually carry out whatever consistent artistic vision they have to see the results. I think you’re confusing “experimental” with “improvisational” or something.

        1. Rich or Dead says:

          You could just look up “experimental” in any dictionary and see that I’m right.

          1. You could also try to understand rather than assume a contrarian attitude because you want to be right.

            1. Rich or Dead says:

              Contrarian attitude? No, I’m just defensively arguing with someone who is wrong.

              Because I want to be right? That’s a weak accusation; who doesn’t want to be right?

              What am I supposed to try to understand in this guy’s post? I explained exactly what experimental music is, and he thought that I was confusing it with extemporaneous music. That indicates a profound lack of comprehension on his part, not an failure to communicate the idea on my part.

              I insist that “experimental” be used correctly rather than as a general genre tag for the same reason that we don’t call metalcore bands death metal or indie bands black metal.

              1. Matt says:

                You’re being contrarian because you didn’t actually point out which part you disagree with in my post. You just claim yourself to be right be appealing to the dictionary. You obviously didn’t look the word up before childishly posting that comment, because you would find:

                A test under controlled conditions that is made to demonstrate a known truth, to examine the validity of a hypothesis, or to determine the efficacy of something previously untried.

                This is almost word-for-word what I wrote. Your insistence that a composer not have any idea what their music sounds like before it is played rules out all music as experimental except improvisation or chance music. It’s not a lack of comprehension. It’s what you wrote.

                1. Don’t bother if they don’t present an actual, valid argument.
                  I’m also burning myself against people who cannot read properly, who do not finish thinking, or who just don’t have the background and react defensively to something they do not understand.

                  Your article will reach those who are willing to think about this and consider it rather than automatically react with a backlash when their views are challenged only because they were.

        2. Rich or Dead says:

          My point is that bands like BtA and BTBAM put out the same album after album, with each song being written in the same style. There is no experimentation there. They are applying a formula; they know the results they want and they repeat the methods that are required to get them there. That’s not experimental. It’s a very straightforward concept I’m explaining here so just reread my comment more closely if it is still unclear by now.

    2. Nathan Metric says:

      To quote another commentor named Bobby

      “The thing about that word…. The classics are experimental. De Mysteriis dom Sathanas, Ride The Lightning, Show No Mercy, Welcome to Hell, albums like this all experimented in their own context, using the language they grew up on. Of course they helped codify the new norm, so they’re not considered that way.”

      These were original works, but they were also evolutionary works. They did not outright revolt against prior musical norms rather they would take two different sets of norms and then combine them together. An evolution that was also partially caused by progress in guitar and recording technology.

  4. Uncle John says:

    I’m not familiar with the music mentioned, but I think I know what you’re getting at. If so, point well taken.

    I have to admit that the title had me thinking I would read something about Crimson Massacre. Maybe they’re not as experimental as I thought.

  5. Disremember says:

    Napalm Death’s scum is an experiment
    Same with
    OLD’s lo flux tube…
    GODFLESH street cleaner
    All completely destroyed my musical senses the first time I heard it
    22 years ago…

    1. leaf says:

      Very true. Same reaction for me too and it stayed for years.

  6. Daniel says:

    Of course we can. Morbid Angel, Incantation, Demilich, and Burzum were all revolutionary and all great metal. Most tech “death” like Necrophagist and Portal, power chord sludge Soundgarden core noise, and riffless atmospheric hipster “black metal” might be innovative but they fail horribly as metal. Even the Swedes were revolutionary: Nihilist/Entombed added a crusty edge to Autopsy and Possessed and used unintended distortion in a cheap pedal to write novel riffs; The fellows in Carnage and Dismember took “too much gain” (I don’t think I’ve heard of any other band using as much gain as the Pieces EP) from a head without a great reputation (the JCM 900) to create songs around tremolo picked madness that have never been successfully copied.

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