First in Line: Metallica – Kill ‘Em All

metallica-kill_em_allThirty years ago, a struggling band from California unleashed their first album and changed the world of heavy metal forever. The genre that they may not have invented but certainly formalized was speed metal, and it represented the start of heavy metal’s journey away from verse-chorus rock into the dual worlds of hardcore punk intensity and progressive rock song structures.

At first, these changes were less obvious. Kill ‘Em All owes a huge debt to the heavy metal that came before it, and embraces many of the conventions of rock music as well, but it funneled them through a singular filter and achieved a uniformity of sound. In addition, this new style crept in with a number of innovations, like the use of introductions and instrumentals to change song structure, that presaged where this new subgenre would go.

From a casual observer’s position, the first Metallica album isn’t that far removed from its predecessors. The dual influences of UK heavy metal and hardcore punk are clear, as is the distinctive feature of speed metal: the muted strum that produces a choppy explosive sound from percussive lead rhythm guitar, allowing the construction of more complex riffs by making the power chord a building block instead of a place where the riff rests, as open chords are in rock.

Kill ‘Em All showed a new blueprint for metal that developed the extremity of Motorhead with the intricate riffery of Judas Priest and other NWOBHM bands, making for a brainy album that relied on speed to cram all of its power into songs of a normal length. In addition, the speed kicked it up to a new level of complexity in riffing. Speed reveals the sparseness of a riff, and so the one- and two-note riffs of the past would seem immensely repetitive at a faster pace. Thus the riff itself grew with speed metal.

Conceptually, metal grew up with Kill ‘Em All as well, at least partly. Yes, there were some embarrassing songs that sounded like West Side Story retrofitted for violent Northern California speed metal gangs. But more importantly, there was an epic view of existence. Songs about fate, about the fall of civilization, and dark lore that reveals the topics feared by daylight conversation all gave the album a weight beyond its (merely) heavy riffs. Like hardcore punk, this was the howling voice of the apocalypse at our door.

One of Metallica’s most important contributions was to liberate the riff from the drums, hence the “lead rhythm guitar” designation that appeared with many speed metal bands. Following the lead of UK crust punk bands like Discharge, Metallica viewed the drums as a background timekeeper which framed the riff loosely rather than accentuated it, and thus the riff could change without the drums changing. This allowed the riff to change more frequently without forcing tempo changes, although the band delighted in abrupt and surprising tempo changes as well.

Speed metal took this pattern and ran with it. While its antecedents are clear, such as the proto-speed metal of Satan/Blitzkrieg and Motorhead, and the fast-fingered intricate melodic riffs of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, the new speed metal band from California turned up the intensity and pushed aside conventional song structures. This set metal free from the world of rock, and laid the groundwork for the next generation, which would not only inherit the true lawlessness of hardcore punk, but build up complexity to be closer to the world of progressive rock.

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The strong link between heavy metal and high intelligence

heavy_metal_high_intelligenceAfter years of society looking down its nose at heavy metal, it appears to be showing up in unusual places: high intelligence occupations, health and academia.

Even though metalheads are still a discriminated-against group, with long hair for men, tattoos, loud music, mentions of Satan and chaos magick banned in many workplaces and government offices, the forces of metal are rising worldwide.

Wired reports on an intelligence-research prodigy in China who, after mastering difficult subjects in a fraction of the time it would require even another gifted person, takes the day off to see a “Satanic heavy metal concert.” Then returns to studying intelligence itself.

Over on the Wall Street Journal, Jon Wiederhorn reminds us that “Metal Music Can Be Good For You,” mentioning among other things that metal can “keep fans that have been scarred by trauma feeling alive and surrounded by family” and that “heavy metal has never faded into obscurity.”

All of this follows an article from a few years ago, “Gifted Students Beat The Blues With Heavy Metal”, which revealed how many who society would consider its best and brightest are turning to metal.

At DeathMetal.org, we don’t find this surprising. Metal is more brainy at the compositional level, meaning how the riffs fit together to develop themes, than rock music or even jazz, which tend to be cyclic. It tackles the big subjects that people would rather forget about, and thus attracts the smarter alienated teens who find the lack of order in life to be appalling.

But best of it, it delivers a punch to life. Like spice in food, combat, sky-diving or a new idea, metal brings out the terrifying and empowering all at once, making us view life with new eyes. That could be the healthiest of all.

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Dread Lair releases From the Vault of the Dread Lounge Vol. 1 compilation

the_dread_lair-houston_texas-heavy_metal_label_promoterHouston promoter/label The Dread Lair has released a digital compilation, originally intended for zines and radio, which showcases Houston bands and other bands this force of metal propagation supports.

The lengthy work features Mantus,Emperial Massacre, Human Chunks, Plutonian Shore, Humut Tabal and more. It’s best to think of this as a sampler, where you’re looking for many different samples of a scene, rather than some kind of overall plan. This liberates you to enjoy the chaos.

As the metal scene expands, the necessity of promoting bands changes from a scarcity of information to a scarcity of choices. At this point, there is an immeasurable flood of metal. Finding something worth listening to is very difficult, since 99% of it is very bad.

The result is that old school means of “taste making,” or shaping an audience’s taste by presenting them selected works and shutting off or filtering the flood, has become more important than ever.

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Witches Mark – Witching Metal Ritual

witches_mark-witching_metal_ritualThis affectionate tribute to the days of classic metal, both NWOBHM and its more bombastic American cousin, fits into the same vein as material like Gehennah, Nifelheim or Diamonsnake: it’s catchy, with overemphasis on the flourishes of the past, but can be compelling for its sentimental view of the world that comes off as poetic.

Witching Metal Ritual features motives from the initial heavy metal era but played with the energy and less responsive drumming of hardcore punk, with occasional touches of the speed metal techniques of the early 1980s. However, what drives this recording are its melodic moments and the use of lead guitar as a running commentary to create a sense of detachment.

Vocals are chants with harmonized singing at intervals, and these complement the guitar, but it is the six-string that sustains emotion. If the album has an achilles heel, it is that too much of this guitar is lead which introduces complexity with more variety in riff could have been powerful. Similarly, drums may be a bit too detached for this style, although it creates an interesting effect.

Witches Mark are more creative than most of the bands who attempt this style and forge a unique sound for themselves that seems influenced by some of the more proggish material in the metal world of late, but is based very much in simple heavy metal riffs and grandiloquent moments where a collision by one or more motifs creates the kind of “heaviness” that metal is famous for.

However, much like later Ihsahn, the tendency to fill sparse songs with internal complexity can lead to listener disorientation and often prevents themes from fully developing. However, the faithful rendition of the past, including a vocalist with a wide range and crystal pipes, may over-ride that with a mood that is hard not to like.

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Metal across borders

orphaned_land-band_photo

At a recent concert in Tel Aviv, Israel, a remarkable thing happened: two bands from two different cultures, Jewish and Arab, stood up together and performed a concert.

“We are metal brothers before anything,” Abed Khathout, bass player for Khalas (“enough” in Arabic) said. His comment was underscored by Koby Farhi, Orphaned Land’s lead singer. ” Tonight is the second time we’re playing together — Orphaned Land and Khalas, as Israelis and Arabs. Having a brotherhood, sharing the stage, simply shows that Rock and Roll music is above politics, ” he said.

Farhi added, “The purpose of art is to represent harmony and coexistence in places of disharmony.” This marks the first time the bands were able to do this, after a similar show in Egypt was cancelled in November.

The more pressing question might be whether metal, the music that decidedly is not about peace and harmony, achieves a greater sense of balance by allowing people to speak honestly about their ambitions and desires, instead of hiding behind layers of social pretense.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UF4vfL9JMqs

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First in Line: Slayer – Show No Mercy

slayer-show_no_mercySlayer’s Show No Mercy turned the metal world upside down when it hit the record stores. Keep in mind this was back in the 1980s, so there was no instant effect, more like a quick ripple as it took people time to learn about the album, get to the store to buy it, dub it from a friend, hear it on a weekly radio show, or get mailed a mix tape.

At the time, the world was just awakening to the possibility of speed metal, which grew out of American bands taking the best of NWOBHM, like Blitzkrieg, Satan, Motorhead, Witchfinder General, etc. and combining them, adding in the attitude of hardcore punk and its rhythms. However, speed metal had a defining characteristic, which was the sharp sonic edges produced by the use of the muted strum.

Slayer took another approach, also derived from hardcore (mainly Discharge), which was the tremolo strum. Instead of producing sharp edges, this produced fuzzy columns of sound like an organ or other instrument with huge sustain. The result was that longer riffs could be created and could be relatively independent from the drums. The song structure opened up with guitar as the lead voice.

This innovation basically created all of underground metal. When Slayer was combined with Bathory and Hellhammer, both black metal and death metal emerged. Black metal was a more ambient variety, where death metal was more structuralist, but both used the same ingredients brought about by this combination, namely the techniques and attitudes of these three bands.

However, Slayer’s invention was what was able to unite the long-form song structures of Hellhammer and the atmospheric approach of Bathory into a format that could expand. Immediately recognizing the power of a style of music which put riff changes before harmony or conventional song structure, Slayer expanded their work beyond the verse-chorus using their famous pattern of introductory and transitional riffs.

A new science was born. It was opposed by many in the speed metal world, since it offered competition to what those musicians were doing and signaled the end of that paradigm (speed metal officially hung up its metal union card in 1991, five years after Slayer took this style over the top with Reign in Blood). Others saw the possibility in this new style.

As a result, when you hear metal music today, you are hearing an inheritance from Slayer. Even outside metal music the idea of a guitar or keyboard leading the drums has gained traction, which breaks out of the somewhat rigid format of rock/pop and gives artists more options. It’s not entirely surprising that Slayer burst onto the scene only ten years after the groundbreaking ambient of Tangerine Dream and Brian Eno/Robert Fripp.

Critics have never really understood how to analyze Show No Mercy in part because the album links together so many influences. Iron Maiden lurks in the chord progressions, Discharge and GBH in the technique, Motorhead in the rugged riffing, Kiss in the somewhat grandiose theatrics, and Judas Priest in the conceptualization of riff structure. But what holds them together is this metal first, which is the tremolo strum and its implications for songwriting.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EdjS4qMXQmQ

The “First in Line” series celebrates the metal bands and albums who did something important, and did it first. It’s like an inventor’s award.

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Sammath unleashes title track from Godless Arrogance

sammath-godless_arroganceWhat a difference studio recording and mastering can make. Sammath went into the studio with a demo full of their iconic black/death battle metal, but in the studio, something magic happened: it became transformed into a hybrid of early Morbid Angel and early Ancient, being both relentless and hiding melody inside its rigorous riffs.

Godless Arrogance promises to be a relentless war-charge of high speed percussion, fuzzily distorted fast riffing, and demented mocking vocals which sound like a criticism of the mundane world by something beyond it. The band have upgraded their playing to leave fewer spaces in the wall of sound, and have used production to mate their fuzzy guitars and whirlwind drums into a channel of sonic violence.

To be released by Hammerheart Records worldwide, Godless Arrogance shows this Dutch-German band backing off of the technicality of the last album in favor of the relentless riff assault of their most popular middle albums, combined with the sublime sense of melody that made their first album a keeper for so many metalheads.

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Varg Vikernes arrested in France

varg_vikernes-burzumAs related in this news report, Varg Vikernes has been arrested on suspicions of terrorism in France.

The evidence against him appears to be that Anders Breivik wrote to Vikernes some time ago, and while Vikernes then called Breivik a “Christian loser” on his blog (for killing Norwegians), Varg’s wife had recently purchased four rifles legally in France. Somehow these two events add up to a possible massacre.

This is unfortunate because Vikernes has just released the excellent Sôl austan, Mâni vestan, which is like a cross between classic Burzumic ambient and the music of William Orbit. We’re hoping he’ll be freed to make more floaty ambient albums.

We also tend to think the whole thing is dumb and overblown. He went to prison; he served his time. Now he’s living a normal life for the first time in two decades. He should be encouraged to do this! Not only for society at large, but for metal, which now permanently has Burzum in its blood.

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Morbid Angel Covenant Tour 2013

morbid_angel-covenantTwenty years ago this year, Morbid Angel released their third album, Covenant, which stepped back from the concept album madness of their second work and seemed to look instead toward the collection of ripping songs and experiments that distinguished their first album.

Working more melody and conventionally-recognizable technicality into the mix, Covenant showed Morbid Angel after most of the initial thrust of ideas from their demos had worn off — leaving them to create anew, from a place where they were at the peak of their musical power. As a result, it is for many people a favorite from this band to this day.

Starting November 7, the re-constituted Morbid Angel of David Vincent, Trey Azagthoth and Pete Sandoval will tour North America playing the songs from Covenant in its entirety. This show be a good chance to introduce your college-aged children, who were conceived to this album, to the magic of Morbid Angel. Tickets go on sale July 19, 2013.

Morbid Angel Covenant Tour 2013:

City Date Venue
Atlanta, GA Nov 7 The Masquerade
Charlotte, NC Nov 8 Tremont Music Hall
Baltimore, MD Nov 9 Baltimore Soundstage
Cambridge, MA Nov 10 Middle East Nightclub
New York, NY Nov 12 Irving Plaza
Philadelphia, PA Nov 13 Theatre of the Living Arts
Cleveland, OH Nov 16 Peabody’s Downunder
Chicago, IL Nov 17 House Of Blues
Minneapolis, MN Nov 18 Mill City Nights
Sauget, IL Nov 19 Pops
Lawrence, KS Nov 20 Granada
Denver, CO Nov 22 Bluebird Theater
Seattle, WA Nov 25 Studio Seven
Portland, OR Nov 26 Hawthorne Theater
San Francisco, CA Nov 27 Slim’s
Los Angeles, CA Nov 29 Henry Fonda Theatre
Phoenix, AZ Nov 30 Joe’s Grotto
Albuquerque, NM Dec 1 Sunshine Theater
El Paso, TX Dec 2 Tricky Falls
Austin, TX Dec 3 Red 7
Houston, TX Dec 4 Warehouse Live
Orlando, FL Dec 6 Beacham Theater
Ft. Lauderdale, FL Dec 7 Culture Room
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Exhumed – Necrocracy

exhumed-necrocracyFounded by a group of career metalheads, Exhumed started with a simple mission: make grind, but make it entertaining and participatory like the better heavy metal of the past few generations. While they were initially known as a Carcass clone, that comparison involves the vocals, while the guitar music is itself quite different.

Necrocracy continues the tradition with some very professional songwriting. The technique is pure death metal, grindcore and smatterings of punk and speed metal; under that surface, what lurks is old school heavy metal combined with Swedish-style melodic songwriting (which interestingly was also discernible on the debut).

As part of that professionalism, Exhumed fit each song into a series of gratifications: a good introduction, pounding verses, surging choruses, fireworks for solos and then a transition through a minor key melody into a triumphant return to the verse, plus an optional outro. This formula — adopted in part from glam ballads — propelled speed metal and heavy metal bands to the stratosphere. It’s doing something similar for Exhumed.

What makes Necrocracy hold together is that each song is composed of only necessary parts toward achieving this goal, which could be roughly described as half wanting to be a fun grindcore band, and half wanting to be a professional metal band with MTV-ready songs. Much like Amebix recently saw the utility of this format for reaching the slumbering masses, Exhumed use it to inject some death metal into the melange of hard rock, punk, speed metal, grind/death and heavy metal that makes up their songs.

It is probably not wise for old school death metal fans to rush to this album. It has more in common with grindcore and album-oriented stadium heavy metal, since it relies on the verse-chorus and derives much of its effect from application of known songwriting technique instead of straying into odd structures, bizarre twists, and experimental riffs. Its choruses are hooky, its verses catchy and chanty, and the heavy production and technique hides a band that could go toe-to-toe with the big heavy metal bands of the 1980s through 2000s. Their audience is its audience, updated a bit.

Carrying on the tradition of making metal music that pushes past what is socially acceptable, Exhumed return with an onslaught of cynicism about humanity that takes joy in its own dire predictions. Energetic and necrotically enthusiastic, Necrocracy pumps out the energy and the engaging heavy metal tropes in a voice that is all its own, and will serve as a great introduction for many to these genres.

Necrocracy will be released on August 6, 2013 via Relapse Records and can be pre-ordered here. Catch Exhumed on tour:

EXHUMED European Takeover 2013 [remaining dates]:

  • 7/17/2013 Vlamrock – As, Belgium
  • 7/23/2013 Metal Days – Tolmin, Slovenia
  • 7/24/2013 Garage – Munich, Germany
  • 7/25/2013 Eisenwahn – Obersinn, Germany

EXHUMED w/ Dying Fetus, Devourment, Waking The Cadaver

  • (10/4 – 10/19), Abiotic,Rivers Of Nihil (10/26 – 11/2):
  • 10/04/2013 Mojo 13 – Wilmington, DE
  • 10/05/2013 The Soapbox – Wilmington, NC
  • 10/06/2013 Back Booth – Orlando, FL
  • 10/07/2013 The Orpheum – Tampa, FL
  • 10/09/2013 Fitzgerald’s – Houston, TX
  • 10/10/2013 Red 7 – Austin, TX
  • 10/11/2013 Trees – Dallas, TX
  • 10/12/2013 Chameleon Room – Oklahoma City, OK
  • 10/13/2013 Warehouse 21 – Santa Fe, NM
  • 10/14/2013 Rocky Point – Tempe, AZ
  • 10/15/2013 Observatory – Santa Ana, CA
  • 10/16/2013 The Whisky – W. Hollywood, CA
  • 10/17/2013 DNA Lounge – San Francisco, CA
  • 10/18/2013 Branx – Portland, OR
  • 10/19/2013 Studio Seven – Seattle, WA
  • 10/20/2013 Rickshaw Theater – Vancouver, BC
  • 10/22/2013 Republik – Calgary, AB
  • 10/23/2013 Pawn Shop – Edmonton, AB
  • 10/24/2013 Riddell Centre – Regina, SK
  • 10/25/2013 Park Theater – Winnipeg, MB
  • 10/26/2013 Station-4 – St Paul, MN
  • 10/27/2013 Reggie’s – Chicago, IL
  • 10/29/2013 Peabodys – Cleveland, OH
  • 10/30/2013 Chance Theater – Poughkeepsie, NY
  • 10/31/2013 Palladium – Worcester, MA
  • 11/01/2013 Gramercy Theater – New York, NY
  • 11/02/2013 Empire – Springfield, VA

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