Sadistic Metal Reviews 12-29-08

Lubricant – Nookleptia (1992)

After the initial solidification of the the sound of death metal (1988-1990) a number of up-and-coming bands caused it to, like the dendritic expansion of a leafed branch, to explore every possible combination with past elements and stylistic possibility. Among the products of that tendency was Finland’s Lubricant, who sound like a progressive death metal band hybridized with hardcore punk under the direction of a hard rock conductor. Like countrymen Sentenced produced on Amok, these bouncy songs use a melodic core to create two-part expansions, bouncing between not call and response but hypothesis and counterpoint. Riffing makes extensive use of dissonant chords, some voicings in contexts familiar in both black metal and emo, and strip death metal riffs of much of the downstrum-empowered, recursive rhythm complexity so that they ride on a few notes and the rhythms of their presentation like a hardcore band. Although goofy experimentation like spoken and sung vocals in opposition to death growls are now rarities, in part thanks to the overuse of this technique by dreaded nu-metal bands, they occur here with enough ingenuity to be presumed innocent and not MTV in intent. Yet style is only half of a band; the melodies and rhythms here are simple but unencumbered and often beautiful in their spiralling cycle around a fragment of vision, in a way reminiscent of both Ras Algethi and Discharge. They are not quite decisive enough to encapsulate the sensation of a generation or era as some of the greater bands did, but they achieve a powerful observational facility from the periphery. My guess is that this band was overlooked because of its bouncy hard rock rhythm and its tendency to structure songs around breakdowns that filter through past riffs like computer code comparing arrays and finally reduce to a simple riff measurably more poignant than its counterparts. In other words, this is not only unfamiliar ground for death metal listeners, but is less discretely concise like beaded water sliding down plastic sheeting, and therefore, harder to identify and appreciate.

Bethzaida – Nine Worlds (1996)

In both guitar tone and composition this resembles Eucharist with a death metal sense of percussion and tempo, spindly melodic lead lines arching through a rhythm to enforce it in offset, but borrows from the short-lived “dark metal” genre that was transitional between death and black (its most persistent artifact is the first Darkthrone album): cyclic arpeggiated riffs give way to either racing fire of chromatic progressions or looser, short melodies repeated at different intervals in the scale comprising the foundation of each piece. Like Dissection, there is a tendency to etch out a dramatically even melody architected across levels of harmony, and then to curl it back around a diminishing progression to achieve closure; while this is effective, it must be used sparingly to avoid audience saturation with its effect, and it isn’t here. What kept this band from the big time might indeed be something similar, which is its tendency to set up some form of constant motion and, after descending into it, failing to undergo dynamic change. Much of its phrasing celebrates symmetry between resolution and inception, creating a squeaky clean obviousness that in metal unlike any other genre becomes tedious fast, and there is like Dissection a tendency to break a melodic scale into a counter direction and a counter to that, then regurgitate it in the dominant vector, then its opposite, then in turn its antithesis, producing a flow of notes that like a river bends in order to go straight. Zoom back on the scale function, and view the album as a whole: like most postmodern art, it is replacing lack of internal strength (encouragement toward self-sacrificial or delayed-gratification values, e.g. heroism and adventure) with a surplus of external embellishment, including flutes dressing up elaborate versions of tedious patterns and keyboards. Like Dissection it achieves a sheath of immersive aesthetic, and like Metallica (occasional similarities in chord progression) it maintains an internally resurgent energy, but when one peels back this externality, there is less of a compelling nature here than a flawless but overdone, directionless aesthetic.

Depression – Chronische Depression (1999)

Although aesthetically this band resembles a more dominating version of the early percussive death metal bands like Morpheus (Descends) or Banished, in composition it is most like grindcore: one thematic riff repeated unless interrupted by detouring counterpoints, then a series of breakdowns and transitions working back to the point of harmonic inception and rhythmic wrapper of the original riff. Like countrymen Blood this band specializes in the simple and authoritative in roaring noise, but musical development from repetition is even sparser and the anthemic factor of repeating a motif at different tempos and key-locations wears thin after some time. Undeniably, this band have talent and apply it well, but are limited by their conception of music to make sonic art that while forceful is so repetitive that few outside those who delight in the shock of its pure and total deconstruction of music will listen again to these mostly two-riff songs. Vocals are of the guttural alternation with shrieking whisper type and rather than counteracting this effect, bring it into prominence, but that seems to be the intent — this band desire to become the unrelenting assault of early Napalm Death but with rigid and not “organic” chaotic structure, and thus they take a concept sometimes unknown and sometimes built as a subset of known variants (Dies Irae themes, monster movie music, old hardcore progressions) and hammer it home over a sequence of staggered tempos, interweaves with oppositional riffs, and rhythmic breaks. Underneath it all is the kind of sly iconoclasm and gleeful weirdness that comes naturally in times when one must be careful about which truths one tells unmasked. Probably this grinding death CD is the closest we will have in this era to an updated version of DRI/COC-style thrash, and true to this form, it incorporates a number of figures from hardcore music. This will not be for everyone and will not be heard every week, but for an approach to this ultra-deconstructed style, Depression are one of the better efforts on record.

Phlegethon – Fresco Lungs (1992)

Many of the early contributors to death metal were heavy metal fans who wanted to avoid the sickening glossy vocals, dramatic love songs, and moronically one-dimensional aesthetic of heavy metal, so they incorporated the aesthetic and artistic direction of death metal, but underneath made music that could compete with Van Halen if applied to FM radio. Phlegethon is one such act; like “Symphony Masses: Ho Drakon Ho Megas” from Therion, this is a heavy metal album that uses the riff salad wrapped around a narrative thematic development of death metal, accented with keyboards and unusual song structures, to create epic music that eschews the mainstream cheese. Each song is gyrationally infectious and yet understated, like throwing the grenade of an irresistible rhythm into a room and then skipping down the hall whistling (one track deliciously parodies techno). Keyboards guide the root notes of power chords but vary harmony for conclusion or emphasis. Song structures bend out of introductory material into a sequence of candidates for introduction or transition to verse and chorus, and the result is an architectural feel like that of fellow Finns Amorphis as the listener progresses between riffs of different shape and sonic impact, like a flash of light outlining the features of a vast room — similarly, there are lengthy offtime melodic fretruns highlighting descending power chord riffs as that band also used to great effect. Admirably, drums migrate through layers which silhouette the current riff in contrast and foreshadow adept tempo changes; vocals are low guttural death growls that stretch themselves to the point of fragmentation, spearing the beat in each phrase and decaying after each emphatic syllable to create a reference frame of surreal incomplete rhythm. The rampant creativity and pulsingly infectious rhythms of this CD give it presence which so powerfully hints at a more complete musical language that the intrusions of heavy metal-derived music often seem like dilutions, but it is clear from even this glimpse that the world missed out on the future evolution of this band.

Avathar “Where Light and Shadows Collide” (CD, 2006)

A cross between In Battle and Summoning, this band attempts to make epic music but in the uptempo style of black metal such as Mayhem or Abigor. Like The Abyss, this band wield such a lexicon of technique that tendencies in their music become evident early on and seem repetitive by the end of the album. For background listening it is preferrable to the disorganized noise and posing produced by the black metal underground, but one wonders if this is not like most art in the modern time good with technique/appearance but poor at confronting the inner world of meaning.

Order From Chaos “Dawn Bringer” (Shivadarshana Records, 1994)

At the nexus of several rising conceptual directions in underground music, Order From Chaos fuses them sublimely into a subconscious manipulation by music that remains stranded in the older generations of punk and metal by its refusal to integrate longer melodies; it is pure rhythmic pattern and song structure, a Wagnerian demonstration of a course of thought developed through the sensation represented by riffs that like scenes guide listeners through the acts of the drama. It is this theatrical sense that interrupts the verse-chorus spiralling of riffs layered with accompaniment of increasing intensity from drums and vocals and bass, with songs dropping to moments of presentation and equalization when forward action ceases and a quietude of sorts drops over the action. In this, like early Krieg, the music is an improvisational theatre acting out the raw id of human experience when that experience represents those brainy enough to see how modern society and its assumptions (order, legality, morality) are completely bankrupt, but it is a scream of protest and not, as is needed, a counter-construction. Thus while no piece of this is in error, the whole is discohesive and with a good augmentation could become far better; among Nationalist bands (it is fair to note allusions to nationalism on this record, with “Die Fahne Hoch” making an appearance on track two) Skrewdriver remains pre-eminent because they wrote melodic, expressive — while as cheesy, overblown and dramatic as those from the Ramones or the Sex Pistols — songs that gave people something to live for as much as a knowledge of what is lacking in our world. With luck in future albums, this band will approach structure with as much pure energy as they unleash here. Track fourteen (Golgotha) contains a riff tribute lifted from the nether moments of “Reign in Blood.”

Vordven “Woodland Passage” (CD, 2000)

Hearing this album is like running into Boston and screaming “The British are coming!” in 2006: completely irrelevant. A mixture of old Emperor and Graveland stylings, it is perfectly competent but by emulating the past, both fails to uphold that spirit and precludes itself from finding its own direction. We don’t need new styles; we don’t need “progress”; we do need music that has some idea of what it wants to communicate, and can make that experience meaningful. This sounds like retro or a coverband in that everything is bureaucratically plotted: after the keyboard interlude comes the pre-theme, then the main theme, then break for demonic scream and drum battery to drive it all home. Clearly better musicians than many of the original bands, Vordven are lesser artists and thus have less of interest to give us. It feels less dishonest to listen to Muzak versions of Metallica hits from the 1980s.

Warhorse “Warhorse” (CD, 2000)

Sounding like a hybrid between old Confessor and middle-period Motorhead, Warhorse is a rock band playing doom metal with a sensibility for both slow pumplike riffs over which vocals suddenly slow, causing a relative shift that makes the entire song seem to stand still, and the type of pick-up transitions and breakdowns for which both Motorhead and death metal bands are famous. In the sense of bands like Saint Vitus or Cathedral this band is intensely mated to the rock culture and its dramatic self identity, adding over it high pitched vocals that sound like a whisky-soaked Sigur Ros in an Alabama bar. For this reviewer it is a question of relevance: what does one need express in this style that would take a band beyond the level of background music for a local bar? However, among those who undertake this format, Warhorse keeps a sense of style and intensity, even if by appropriately keeping its horizons forshortened in the ambition department.

Revenge “Victory. Intolerance. Mastery.” (Osmose, 2004)

Although in fundamentally the same style as previous releases, the latest from Revenge improves upon it by simplifying the chaotic stew of impulses diverging into every conceivable direction, therefore achieving a greater coherence and thus listenability. That being said, the same problems that plague previous releases are here: distracting directionless percussion, riff salad, a tendency to deconstruct without a replacement ideal. However, by dropping all but the most necessary elements of their music, Revenge have come closer to making an expressive black metal album.

Ankrehg “Lands of War”

Oh, neat: someone hybridized Impaled Nazarene with Gorgoroth and made a band that balances between sawing punk riffs and trills of melodic scale fretruns. Having mastered that technique, this band was left neurotic and clueless as they attempted to find a direction; barring that, they settled on a generalized path and threw everything but the kitchen sink into it, creating songs that leap at every conceivable point of the compass but seize nothing. Their technique is to distract the listener with this constant stream of chaos and hope it is not noticed as irrelevant; with this reviewer, it was, and thus the listening session ended. Worse than shit, this is confusion masquerading as profundity.

Revenge “Triumph. Genocide. Antichrist.” (Osmose, 2003)

Whenever one is handed a piece of music or writing, it makes sense to ask, “What are the artistic aims of this work?” Art does not exist in a vacuum, much as conversation does not; there has to be some joy in it, something shared between listener and creator. Revenge is blasting drums that chase a pace with successive lapses and then catch-up intensifying speed, harsh harmonized vocals that surge overhead like rainbows of oil in floodwaters, and riffs of often high quality; like the first Krieg album however, it arrays these in an incoherent order which results in the stream of consciousness sensation without imparting greater wisdom of any form. As such, this album is a stepping back from what black metal achieved, which was an arch grace and continuity in expressing a meaning to darkness, and a descent into the disorganized deconstructionism that denotes modern grindcore (as if to underscore this, the drumming here is highly reminiscent of Derek Roddy’s work on Drogheda’s “Pogromist”). To communicate breakdown, one does not portray breakdown in its literal form, necessarily – here we see good raw material – powerful percussion, adroit riffcraft – converted into a melange of confusion by its lack of deliberation and planning. No single part of it has anything wrong with it. The whole is a death of ambition, of heroism, of tragedy and meaning.

Vinterland “Welcome My Last Chapter” (2003)

This band is like The Abyss a template of black metal technique recombined around the most fundamental songwriting techniques, but to that mixture it adds lifts from Gorgoroth and Sacramentum to make it a flowing but gracefully intricate and arcane metal style. Nothing here is bad and it listens well, but it manages less suspension of disbelief than The Abyss (first album; the second one is random riffs and screaming) because although its songs are well-written and flow expertly it is hard to find a statement to any of them; what are they about? They’re about being melodic black metal songs. Undoubtedly Vinterland is far better than almost all of what has been called “melodic black metal” since 1996, but it’s only because our standards have fallen that such a band is construed as good listening. Preferrable would be a simpler more honest band trying to communicate an experience rather than partake of membership; in this Vinterland and Deathspell Omega are similar in that while both are at the top of their genre in formal ability, neither captures the essence of this music because they are trying to be the music, not trying to be something that ultimately will express itself in music. Hoarse whispery Dimmu Borgir vocals dive and glide over sheeting melodic guitar riffs, replete with fast fretruns and descending arpeggiations; the band know when to break from meaty riffs into calming simplicity like a ship exiting rapids. Those familiar with black metal history will hear lifts from Ancient, Dimmu Borgir, Sacramentum, The Abyss, Satyricon and Sacramentum, as well as hints of At the Gates and later Emperor. It is not badly done, but that’s not the point: this CD never takes any direction but tries to use summarizes of past paths as a condensed variety show of black metal; while it is an enjoyable listen the first time, it does not hold up as these other bands have, as there is nothing to center all of this technique and its moments of beauty, creating the impression of a sequence of distractions instead of deliberate craftsmanship helping to reveal a secret beneath the skin.

Regredior “Forgotten Tears” (Shiver Records, 1995)

This band of highly talented musicians have created an album that is half excellence and half disaster by focusing too much on individual instruments, and thus failing to organize songs by composition instead of playing, have been forced to rely on stitching together disconnected pieces of music with two-part attention span grabbers: a repeated pattern to seize attention, and then a pause and an “unconventional” response to fulfil that expectation. If that is a desired compositional style, one wonders why this band did not simply make grunge music and derive actual profit from the endeavor? They mean well and play well — the acoustic instrumentals here are beautiful, many of the riffs top-notch in the slumberlike earthmoving simplicity of older Therion, and concepts for songs are great — but the final product is marred by its own showiness and awkward assimilation of different musical impulses. Squeals, offtime drum hits, dissonant guitar fills and rhythmic jolts do not move compelling music along; they advance by inches and drain away the energies that allow bands to make the world-redefining musical statements required for songs to be distinctive and expressive enough to be great. For those who like later Carcass, this band utilizes many of the same techniques and has similar technicality.

Sombrous “Transcending the Umbra” (CD, 2005)

Imagine Biosphere executed with the sensibilities of Dead Can Dance: the same implications of melody in sonic curve rising to full volume and then pulsing like a wave before disappearing to form a cycle, with songs arising from the piling of successive layers at offset rhythms on top of one another. It is slow, percussionless, delicate, and in part thanks to the heavy reverberations used, as melancholic as the echo of one’s lonely voice in an abandoned cellar. The more style-heavy music gets and the farther it gets from something that can be easily played on one or two acoustic instruments, paradoxically, the easier it gets to create once one has mastered aesthetic, and if this music has a weakness it is the tendency to use four-note melodies as the basis of a song and only occasionally complement them with others. Biosphere helpfully used found melodies and instrumentals of greater detail to do this; Sombrous could actually go further within their own aesthetic and layer keyboards as they have but give them more to play than rising or falling modal lines. It would also help to even further vary the voices/samples used here, as too many echoed stringplucks or keyboard throbs start to sound the same; sometimes, one slips too far into the mood generated and boredom sets in. Yet there is something undeniable here in both aesthetic and composition, in that unlike almost all “ambient” releases from the underground this has grace and a sense of purpose that unites these tracks into a distinct musical entity. It is not unwise to watch this band for future developments.

Emit/Vrolok “Split”

Emit is ambient soundscapes made from guitar noise, sampled instruments and silences; it is good to see this band branch out into a greater range and artistic inspiration, but they would do well to remember the listener should be both learning and enjoying the experience of listening: what differentiates art from philosophy is that art is made to be a sensual tunneling through knowledge, where philosophy is a description of knowledge. Vrolok is of the Krieg/Sacramentary Abolishment school of fast noisy guitars over drums that outrace themselves and then catch up with flying chaotic fills. Nothing is poorly executed, but this recording seems to be an artist’s impression of what his favorite bands would do; there are some nice touches like background drones and bent-string harmonics of a sickening nature, but to what end? If black metal has another generation it’s not going to be in retrofitting the past in form, but in resurrecting the past in content, even if all the aesthetics are (like with the early Norse bands) garbage Bathory/Hellhammer ripoffs.

Nightbringer “Rex Ex Ordine Throni”

This is a competent black metal release with a Darkthrone/Graveland hybrid melodic guitar playing style, kettledrum flying battery in the Sacramentary Abolishment canon, vocals like later Dimmu Borgir and composition that, like that of Satyricon, assembles all of the correct elements but does not understand melody intuitively enough to keep the illusion going. If this band delved more deeply into composition and had something to say, this CD would be one of the best of the year because its aesthetic formula is perfect, but its melodies go nowhere and barely match harmonic expectation between phrases, when they’re not outright symmetrical and blatantly obvious; in short, it falls apart when one goes deeper than skin-level. If an ambitious melodic thinker gets transplanted into this band or its members grow in that direction (a big leap), it will be a major contribution.

Polluted Inheritance “Ecocide” (CD, 1992)

This is one of those CDs that came very close and with a little more focus and depth of thought could have been a classic of the genre. It is death metal in a hybrid style that includes jaunty post-speed metal expectant rhythms, such that incomplete rhythmic patterns provide a continuity through our anticipation of the final beat established through contrast of offbeats as necessary, and sounds as a result somewhere between Exhorder and Malevolent creation, with verse riffs that resemble later work from Death. Songs operate by the application of layers of instrumentation or variation on known riff patterns in linear binary sequence, driven by verse/chorus riffs and generally double bridges that convey us from the song’s introduction to the meat of its dispute to a final state of clarity. Probably too bouncy for the underground, and too abrasive for the Pantera/Exhorder crowd, this CD is very logical and analytic to the point that it makes itself seem symmetrical and obvious. With luck this band will continue writing, and will offer more of the ragged edge of emotion or concept which could make this a first-class release.

The Tarantists “demo 2004” (CD, 2004)

From the far-off land of Iran comes a band with a new take on newer styles of metal. Incorporating influences from Metallica, progressive and jazz-influenced heavy metal, and some of the recent grunge-touched modern metal, the Tarantists render something true both to themselves and to metal as an ongoing musical culture. Prominent jazzy drums lead riffs that are not melodic in the “style” of constant melodic intervals popular with cheesy Sentenced-ripoff bands, but use melodic intervals at structural junctures in riffs that smoothly branch between phrasal death metal styled riffs and bouncy recursive heavy metal riffs. Over this lead guitar winds like a vine and favors the bittersweet sensation of melodies that decline in harmonic spacing until they trail off in melted tendrils of sound; riffing is most clearly influenced by the NWOBHM style hybridized with speed metal’s adept use of muffled and offtime strums to vary up what are otherwise harmonically static riffs. The Tarantists can achieve this melding of motion-oriented and pure rhythm riffing through their tendency to change song structure rapidly after having made their point, such that listening to this resembles going between different parts of a complex city, climbing stairs and finally entering a destination, then jumping back in the car for a manic deviation to another location. Highly listenable, this is impressive work for a demo band and represents a brighter future for metal than the kneejerk tedium of nu-metal or the repetition of past glories offered blankfacedly by the underground. It is unabashedly musical, and takes pride in interlocking melodic bass and lead guitar lines that exchange scale vocabularies as freely as rhythm. The only area that seems unresolved are the gruff Motorhead-style vocals, which might be either updated or discarded for pure singing, as there’s enough sonic distance within this work to support such a thing. The clearest influences here are Iron Maiden and Metallica, but a familiarity with recent metal of almost every genre is also audible. Of the recent demos sent this way, this is the one most likely to gain repeated listening because it focuses on music first and aesthetics second.

Beyond Agony “The Last of a Dying Breed” (CD, 2005)

Trying to mix the high-speed melodic riffing of black metal with the thunderous bassy trundle of mainstream death metal/nu-metal riffing, this band produce something that sounds like Acid Bath without the variation or singing, and resembles Pantera in its tendency to match riffs with clear poised expectant endphrases to rapped vocals and shuffle drumming. It’s a variation on a pattern seen many times before. It’s impossible to tell what kind of musical ability exists in these musicians because these riffs are rhythmic and aharmonic, since their melodic trills exist only to emphasize the E-chord noodling at the low end. Some Meshuggah fans might appreciate this, as might the hordes of people who think Slipknot and Disturbed are OK, but to an underground death metal fan there’s nothing here. These guys are clearly professional and have studied all of the other offerings in the field, and mixed in enough melody to distinguish themselves, and clearly these songs hold together better than your average nu-metal, but when one picks a dumbshit conception of music — which really, the entire Pantera/nu-metal genre is: music for morons to bounce around to while working off their frustration at having their democratic right to be spoiled and bratty constrained by reality — one limits oneself to making things that no matter how smart they get, have the dominant trait of being aimed at supporting and nurturing stupidity. I might even wax “open-minded” if I didn’t know that devolving metal into pure angry, pointless, rhythmic ranting has been the oldest tendency of the genre, and one that always leads it astray, because bands that do this have no way of distinguishing between each other except aesthetic flourishes and therefore end up establishing a competition on the basis of external factors and not composition. Some riffs approach moments of beauty but tend to come in highly symmetrical pairs which demand bouncy stop-start rhythms to put them into context. It’s all well-executed, but it’s standard nu-metal/late Pantera, with touches of Iron Maiden and Slayer. Should we care? Some of the celebrities who paid tribute to the late guitarist of Pantera/Damageplan noted that he had the ability to play well beyond the style which he’d chosen; it sounds like the same thing is evident here, and that seems to me a tragedy, because this style is so blockhead it absorbs all of the good put into it in its desire to provide a frustration condom for burnt-out suburban youth.

Fireaxe “Food for the Gods” (CD, 2005)

If you’ve ever wished that old-style heavy metal would be just a little less effete and self-obsessed, and take the literal attitude that hardcore punk had toward the world but give it that grand lyricism for which metal is famous, you might find a friend in Fireaxe. It’s low-tech, with basic production without the touches of tasty sound that make big studio albums so richly full, and it is often a shade short of where it needs to be in content – often repetitive or too basic in the logic that connects sections, as if it suffers from a surfeit of symmetry brought about by too much logical analysis – but it is what heavy metal could be if it grew up, somewhere between Mercyful Fate and Queensryche and Led Zeppelin, an epic style with a desire to be more of a kingshearth bard than a stadium ego-star. Brian Voth does the whole thing, using electronics for percussion and his trusty guitar, keyboards and voice to pull it off. His voice is thin like his guitar sound, and his solos are clearly well-plotted but do not let themselves go into chaos enough; his use of keyboards is reminiscent of a sparing take on Emperor. This 3-CD set is an attempted historiography of humanity and its religious symbolism, with a cynical outlook on such things as originally perhaps healthy ideas gone perverse and become manipulators. “On Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense”? Perhaps, but this is earthier; in true heavy metal form, “Food for the Gods” delights in the literal manifestations of spacy otherworldly “truths.” Overall musical quality is high, and artistic quality is immaculate, but the CD is often designed less for the listener than to complete its thought cycle, and here it could use an edit; it is so analytical it is almost apoetic, and so literal it is almost a stab against symbolism itself (already in vogue for 90 years with the postmodernists, alas). My advice to Fireaxe would be to stop looking so deeply into causes and to start looking into spiritual solutions, e.g. to “sing” in the oldest sense of praising the beauty of life even in darkness, and lifting us up not into educated obligation but into ignorant but healthy spirits. Think of a bard singing by his cup of mead, looking for a way to console and encourage those who might on the morrow die in battlefields, all through the symbols, song and sense of ancient tales. This album could be cut to a single CD with proper editing gain some denseness and unpredictability it lacks; right now, although its patterns vary its delivery is of such an even mien that it is nearly predictable. The roots of excellent music are here, including Voth’s creative and playful leads, but need discipline into a more advanced and yet less progressive form for Fireaxe to have the full range of voice it requires. It is a welcome diversion from the insincere and manipulative stadium metal, and the guilelessly fatalistic underground music that shadows it (although it will not admit it), and while it waxes liberal in philosophy, does not go toward the eunuch extreme of emo; the heart is behind the music, and the flesh is competent, but somehow, the soul has not yet lifted its wings and flown, yet sits contemplating the right flightpath in radiant detail.

Gnostic “Splinters of Change” (5 song demo, 2005)

Upon hearing of the reemergence of pioneering Atheist drummer Steve Flynn, my curiousity was piqued immediately. I’d always appreciated his slippery brilliance behind the kit, forever giving the impression of struggling not to become caught in the tornado of bizarre rhythmic patterns he himself was creating. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that thirteen years between major recordings and immersion within the materialistic modern-day workplace had not dulled his creativity. In fact, his refreshingly brazen yet occultish approach to rhythmic structuralization is very reminiscent of his previous output, a fact which initially inspired hope. Further, Gnostic is composed of talented players. Former Atheist vocalist Kelly Shaefer produced the album. A concern nags silently: can this band escape the shadow of its predecessor?

As it turns out, no. The band has missed the fundamentally esoteric application of that theory which lends such timelessness to Atheist; say what you will about such a loaded term as “populist” being utilized in musical review, but this is merely music written to “sound good” from a quasi-prog perspective. The musical framework has each component part of the equation stepping all over every other part to prove that the instrumentalists are capable, losing the transcendence which Atheist channeled through their controlled chaoticism. Gnostic is all over the map structurally, with Flynn doing everything he can to hold the ship together at the seams. There is no message here, other than one-dimensional instrumentalism. We’ve already heard these same songs from the same bands for fifteen years now. It seems to this reviewer that this demo chalks yet another victory up to Redundant Mediocrity over Art. Consume, consume, consume. – blaphbee

Therion “A’arab Zaraq Lucid Dreaming” (Nuclear Blast, 1995)

It’s hell on metal bands who want to leave the underground. In trying to popularize their style, they usually kill whatever appeal it had, because those who enjoy their music have found truth somewhere in the alienation and whatever values the band managed to sustain under that assault. Further, the band usually confuse themselves, and end up prostrating themselves as whores, thus losing the respect of their fans. This CD is a collection of outtakes from Theli, a soundtrack and some Therion odds and ends that chronicle this band’s descent into commerciality and simultaneous rise in the esteem of metal fans as a whole. The first two tracks represent everything disgusting about trying to make popular neoclassical music, in that they focus first on making foot-stomping crowd-pleasing music, and adorn it with bits of classical allusion and the like, creating in the end a carnival of confusion. The next track, “Fly to the Rainbow,” is apparently a cover of an old Dio tune, which is amusing considering how similar it is to “The Way” from Therion’s epic second album. This is followed by one of the cheesiest Iron Maiden covers ever, with overdone vocals drowning out the subtlety of the original, and a Running Wild
song that comes across as blockheaded, but is less dramatically re-enacted, and therefore is more welcome. It sounds very much like punk hardcore with a metal chorus. Next is an off-the-cuff cover of “Symphony of the Dead,” from the second album as well, but its mix emphasizes the keyboards to the point where it becomes muzak. Good song, terrible version, and as fully meaningless as the Emperor keyboard-only Inno A Satana. The band have lost their grasp of what made their earlier material great, that it blended the raw and the beautiful, not that it standardized itself for radio airplay as this CD clearly does. All finesse is gone, all artistry, and what replaces it is the populist heavy metal mentality. There’s no class to this, or self-respect, and while any of its elements are quite powerful, the whole is tediously directionless. This syndrome blights the remaining Therion tracks on this CD, which then takes us to the soundtrack portions – these are actually promising. Like a synthesis between Dead Can Dance and Summoning, these are wandering keyboard background musics that maintain a mood and are kept in check by the need to be less disruptively attention-seeking. Although plenty of cliches and obvious figures work their way into this music, it’s clear that (were Swedes to control Hollywood) soundtracks are where the “new” Therion belong.

Aletheian “Dying Vine” (Hope Prevails, 2005)

This album demonstrates how if you mix great ingredients randomly, you end up with something disgusting. About half of the riffs on this album are excellent, and the sense of rhythm the band has is wonderful. But it’s garish, gaudy and overblown. Like a metalcore band, they mix riffs in a merry-go-round of directionless ideas, never actually stating anything. In this case the riffs are of the melodic Swedish death metal meets technical speed metal style, with influences from “modern metal” and showboat heavy metal. Any one part of this could be great, but it says nothing and thus ends up being random elements stitched together in a circus show of diverse and incompatible fragments of ideas. Some goofy modern touches, like synthesized voices, put nails in the coffin. There’s a lot to like here but the whole is not worth loving. My advice to these dudes: meditate and work on your band politics, because the raw material in this album if presented differently would be listenable, but right now it’s a technical mash that has no artistic or aesthetic statement.

Harkonin “Sermons of Anguish” (Harkonin, 2005)

The good news is that Harkonin have good concepts, write good riffs, and understand something of gradual mood shifts. The bad news is that they compress this process, remove the anticipation, and hammer it out in repetitive endurance tests that hide the actual talent of the members of this band. None of the elements are bad; in fact, they’re far above average, and the band has an aesthetic vision – the CD skirts metalcore but incorporates some of the newer urban and rock influences into metal – that outpaces most of their contemporaries. However, they need to find some inner calm, and let it out slowly, and discover the poetry of their own vision, as right now, this album is unrelenting violence that becomes perceived as a single unchanging texture because of its emotional disorganization. Luckily this experienced band has time to take some of their more intense moments of riffing and put them at the end of each song, then re-arrange the other riffs (and maybe develop them by another layer, meaning for each good riff, split out two complementary ones that can resolve into it, Suffocation style) to lead up to that point. If they do that, they will be on the path toward conveying meaning through their music – right now, what it conveys is abrasion, and too much of that will pass in the listener’s mind into a sense of unchanging mood.

Dug Pinnick “Emotional Animal” (Magna Carta, 2005)

Former King’s X member comes out with new album. Any guesses? It sounds like a heavier, groovier King’s X, which seems to be an attempt to make metal sound more like rock music. It’s jazzy and funky, and has some grunge-meets-prog metal riffing, but on the whole, the composition is the same stuff that gets played on the radio. Pinnick would do better applying his talents to something fully proggy like Gordian Knot.

Aphotic/Dusk “Split” (Cursed Productions, 2005)

Like most releases from Cursed Productions, this CD showcases regular guy songwriting enclosed in an unusual form. Aphotic is a fusion of soundtrack doom metal like My Dying Bride and Katatonia, fused with a progressive edge like that of Gordian Knot, creating a listenable package with plenty of depth to its instrumentation. Many of these riffs sound like something borrowed from a Graveland album, but on top of the basic guitar, flourishes of lead guitar and synthesized instruments accent the dominant theme, as does offbeat guitar playing with an emphasis on the internal rhythms for which metal is famous. Although these songs generate a great deal of atmosphere, and are at heart hook-laden and listenable to an extreme, they may be too sentimental for progressive rock fanatics and too straightforward for early 1990s black metal fans. An underpinning of old-fashioned foot-stomping heavy metal may make these popular in the contemporary metal audience, and if there’s any criticism here, it’s that this band could give their instrumentalism greater reign. Dusk, on the other hand, is a much clearer fusion of doom metal and classic heavy/power metal, with growling voices guiding bouncy riffs to their targets. It is proficient but on the whole not fully developed enough to either have its own voice or rise above metal cliche, but it is inoffensive listening especially for one who wouldn’t mind being locked in a room with Cathedral and Prong re-learning their formative material.

Odious Sanction “Three Song Demo” (2005)

These few cuts from the upcoming album “No Motivation to Live” feature the talents of Steve Shalaty, now drumming for Immolation, but that’s about the whole of their appeal. Much like his work in Deeds of Flesh, Shalaty’s percussion is ripe with a precision interplay between double bass and an ongoing breakdown of fills, but the music over it is numbingly empty of anything but relentless interrupted cadence rhythm. Somewhere between metalcore and deathgrind, it lacks most dimensions of harmony and any of melody, resulting in a whirring and battering mechanistic noise that offers little to the experienced listener.

Emit “A Sword of Death for the Prince” (2005)

The microgenre of blacknoise is what happens when one fuses the abrasive Beherit-style cacophonous assault of minimal black metal and the droning sonic collages of acts like Mz. 412 or Claustrum. Where this CD is excellent are the moments when being shockingly extreme and unlistenable are forgotten, and overlapping patterns of melodic or textural fragments knot the listener into moods of darkness and contemplation. Here, Emit has found an outlet for its style, as the guitar is liberated from rigid hardcore/black metal style riffing and can focus on the mournful and regal use of ambient, repetitive melody, hiding it amongst distorted voices and sampled aural experiences of modern life. The pretenses of black metal should be discarded, as this release has more in common with Tangerine Dream and Godflesh than anything else. If this reviewer has anything to suggest, it is that this band not hold itself back, but plunge forward in the direction it is exploring, and use its dense layers of sonorous noise-guitar and vocals to develop a sense of melody and composition, as that is the strength of both this band and non-instrumental music in general, and — well, nothing’s been “shocking” for some time.

P – The Larch Returns (Music Abuse, 2005)

As metal continues, like a snowball rolling over open ground it assimilates all that went before it and thrusts it forward in recombinations hoping to find another powerful aesthetic voice for the eternal metal spirit (which also picks up details, but rarely additions, to its sense of being). P is the side project of Alchemy member P and can be described as a black metal-informed death-doom band, with influences primarily in the Asphyx and Cianide camp with touches from Paradise Lost and Master. Its strengths are its booming, bassy, cinderblock-simple riffs that thunder through repetition in a trancelike resonance. Where many simple riffed bands can be irritating, these are sustaining. Songs move from one perspective to a final response to it without ado because the goal of this music is to carve tunnels of explosive sound through the rock face of silence, enacting mood more than drama. P needs to work on its rhythmic transitions and vocals, the former being stiff and the latter overacted; the local-band style of shout/rasp does nothing for a listener who might prefer to not be reminded of vocals at all should the question arise. Influence might also be gained by pacing riffs, especially introductory ones, differently to radically offset each other and effect a smoother convergence of forces. Three songs are of solid death/doom, and then there’s junk — an Aldo Nova cover that is unconvincing, a duet with a young girl that is amusing, and a comic song about baseball that dilutes the mood — but this is followed by a final instrumental that is beautiful like an unfocused eye, being a careless-sounding collection of sounds so natural that it is both unnoticed and profound in its emotional impact. Should this band ever decide to take a direction and master it, they will be a potent force in the death/doom field.

Alchemy – Alchemy (Alchemy, 2004)

Reminiscent of Abyssic Hate and Xasthur and I Shalt Become, Alchemy creates Burzum-styled ambient drone in a song format that seems inspired by Dark Funeral more than anything else. It is elegant and embraces the listener but beyond getting into said mood, goes nowhere: it is not directionless but each song is monodirectional to the point it might not be said to be a narrative or even statement as much as observant glimpse. If this band wishes to go to the next level, it needs to divide the formative material of each song into two parts, and layer the first one for 2/3 of the song until an apex, at which point it can switch into the conclusion for the last third and be more effective and satisfying to a listener. Far from incompetent, it is best viewed as something in transition.

One Liners

Toil – Demo I

Slick in ability and appearance but boring as rocks except for the enlightening, faithful, identical cover of Graveland’s “Thurisaz.”

Cannibal Corpse – Kill

A formula continuing the tradition of getting more like rap music and Six Feet Under, so is basically like every other Cannibal Corpse album. That alone is reason to avoid it, unless you like music designed to coordinate the head motions of retarded children being electrocuted.

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Classical Music for Metal Fans

Underground metal — the more artistic and less crowd-pandering arm of the heavy metal genre — headed downwards in quality simultaneously heading upward in quantity, starting in about 1994. As the old bands got sick of their day jobs and sold out in failing bids to become “professional” musicians like crowd-pandering heavy metal, and the new bands started imitating the effects of older metal without knowing the causes, underground death metal and black metal fans began casting out for something new.

Our choices are bleak. We can try jazz, but it’s not only pompous, repetitive and random, but also the exact contrary spirit to what metal espouses: a charging ahead and saying YES to life by accepting the intolerant and violent aspects of nature as necessary for its beauty. Jazz is socialization music. So is rock, pop, etc. What’s left? We could listen to neofolk, but after about three albums it becomes clear that neofolk is a sham, namely bad rock music that sells because it is controversial and played acoustically sometimes like folk music. Then there’s electronica, which has a few acts but is mostly more party music. Popular music does not offer another genre with the power and sincerity of metal, so instead you get “soul” which means blind compassion and encourages, rather than discourages, submission to conformity.

There is an option but unfortunately for modern listeners, it does not conform to the production values of rock, so you can’t throw it on and have it aggressively grab your head the way loud-mastered, constant syncopated drumming and “soulful” human wailing will. It requires you to clear your desk, empty your mind and listen with your whole attention, and as a result it’s less convenient than the junk they’ll sell you at the record store. It’s not as cheap to produce or promote either, which is why that record store is there — listening to classical is not just bucking a trend, it’s bucking an industry based around trends, and the same industry that afflicts metal and turns good bands into crowd-pandering drek.

For the metalhead looking to get into classical music there is almost no recognition of this effect. The classical fans have no idea how to communicate with metalheads (and generally don’t understand or like metal, conflating Guns and Roses with Demilich, Atheist and Gorguts in the most oblivious way possible) and the classical industry has been sidelined for so long that it has no idea how to explain the beauty of classical or give modern listeners a chance. It operates like a cult, assuming that those who are in the cult belong there and everyone else is crazy — not a horrible assumption, you’ll find after six months of listening to classical, given the wide gulf of quality and brainpower between classical and mainstream music.

To address this problem, we list here some good introductory pieces and recordings for metalheads. Unlike popular music, classical music is written by a composer, shaped by a conductor and performed by an orchestra — and that does not even take into account different recording times, technologies and locations. So there’s another four layers on top of the mind-numbingly-simple “Band Name – Album Name” that we’re accustomed to, thanks to metal’s heritage in rock. These pieces are here because they capture the spirit of metal — a Romanticist transcendental idealism — in a way that eases you into the transition.

  1. Brahms, Johannes – The Four Symphonies

    Pure Romanticism, which is the most beautiful classical genre but also its most easily misled into human emotional confusion. Flowing, diving, surging passages which storm through tyrannical opposition to reach some of the most Zen states ever put to music.

    Four Symphonies by Herbert von Karajan/Berliner Philharmonik Orchestra

  2. Respighi, Ottorino – Pines, Birds, Fountains of Rome

    Italian music is normally inconsequential. This has an ancient feeling, a sense of weight that can only be borne out in an urge to reconquest the present with the past.

    Pines, Birds, Fountains of Rome by Louis Lane/Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

  3. Schubert, Franz – Symphonies 8 & 9

    A sense of power emerging from darkness, and a clarity coming from looking into the halls of eternity, as translated by the facile hand of a composer who wrote many great pieces before dying young.

    Symphonies 8 & 9 by Herbert von Karajan/Berliner Philharmonik Orchestra

  4. Saint-Saens, Camille – Symphony 3

    Like DeBussy, but with a much wider range, this modernist Romantic rediscovers all that is worth living in the most warlike and bleak of circumstances.

    Symphony No. 3 by Eugene Ormandy/Philadelphia Orchestra

  5. Bruckner, Anton – Symphony 4

    Writing symphonic music in the spirit of Wagner, Bruckner makes colossal caverns of sound which evolve to a sense of great spiritual contemplation, the first “heaviness” on record.

    Romantic Symphony by Herbert von Karajan/Berliner Philharmonik Orchestra

  6. Berwald, Franz – Symphony 2

    The passion of Romantic poetry breathes through this light and airy work which turns stormy when it, through a ring composition of motives, seizes a clear statement of theme from its underlying tempest of beauty.

    Symphony No. 2 by David Montgomery/Jena Philharmonic

  7. Paganini, Niccolo – 24 Caprices

    Perhaps the original Hessian, this long-haired virtuoso wore white face paint, had a rumored deal with the devil, and made short often violent pieces that made people question their lives and their churches.

    24 Caprices by James Ehnes

  8. Anner Bylsma and Lambert Orkis – Sonatas by Brahms and Schumann

    We list these by performer because this informal and sprightly interpretation is all their own. Played on period instruments, it captures the beauty and humor of these shorter pieces with the casual knowledge of old friends.

    Brahms: Sonatas for Piano and Cello; Schumann: 5 Stücke im Volkston

Some conductors do an excellent job of certain styles, and so get picked more than others. Herbert von Karajan, in particular, is the original master of the Faustian style of conducting Northern European classical music. Certain performers like Orkis and Bylsma are also preferred for their ability to interpret certain ideas that — like genres have ideas in common and as a result, sounds in common — composers explored as part of their collective membership in certain time periods or recurring ideas, like the Faustian, the Romantic and the reverent/sublime outlook, all of which are shared between metal and classical.

These similarities in composition explain why metal and classical have a lot in common — and this is why the correct interpretors are needed. Rock is harmonic-rhythmic, metal is phrasal-narrative. When making rock music, you pick a rhythm, and then use a standard song form or variation to fit it into a scale, which in turn determines harmony. Rock riffs are not as active or as shaped as metal riffs, because generally they are variations within a scale whose goal is to return to the chord being played; they are based around open chords and lead rhythm playing of the scale. Metal is phrasal, meaning that its riffs take the form of phrases made of power chords, and narrative, which means that metal song structure is determined by content of each song more than by a standard form — that’s the infamous “riff salad” rock musicians bemoan in metal.

Classical music also uses narrative composition. While imbeciles will focus on its fixed forms — sonata, fugue, aria — the more important idea here is that the song follows the poetic content being expressed. This mirrors the epic poetry of ancient European and Indian civilizations, where it was understood that each adventure had stages of ritual, much like we have stages in acceptance of death or change. As a result, there was a need for an overture, a reconsideration, some changes and a recapitulation and synthesis of themes, and these got formalized in the song structures that today imbeciles regard as iron laws. The narrative style however is the common thread in classical music from its beginning to the present.

In rock music, you write to fit the scale to the rhythm, and then melody is added to accentuate that. This is easier work because all of the real variables are defined by the form. Similarly, in jazz, the form is fixed and within it the player riffs off harmony and rhythm, and inserts fragments of melody to that end — this is why most jazz artists make thousands of recordings of a song, and only one or two are considered “the real deal” by collectors: without the artist making it happen, cerebrally, the pieces fit together by random convenience. Classical works by the opposite principle, which is creating or adapting a general form to the poetic needs of a piece — expressing the change in both listener and “actor” within the story or feeling being related — and then designing a combination of rhythm, melody, theme, motif and form to express it well.

Metal is similar, although less schooled in this regard, because it seeks to express a similar worldview — underlying philosophical assumptions about life — to that of classical. Metal is reverent for the sublime; it sees the power and the horror of nature as necessary for its perpetuation, and is like nature intolerant of the oblivious and unrealistic because they create a parasitic slowdown of the exciting experiences in life. It derives much of its thematic development from the pace of horror movies, in which a few “awakened” people realize that they face a supernatural — or invisible pattern underlying all reality — foe against which technology and their oblivious, unrealistic social partners are useless. Finally, metal like classical expresses the Faustian spirit, or a sense of struggling for the rare and inconvenient beauty life offers, and fighting back those who submit to static obedience or dogma; this sense of purity through struggle is called vir, or the virtuous warlike acts of ancient man. These themes repeat throughout classical music, like metal, and while there are exceptions, it’s more than a coincidence that the best among metal and classical use these themes repeatedly.

If you find yourself enjoying the above, we recommend you move on to other classical music that expresses these ideas, and bypass the trendier “new music” and quirky classical that your friends, in an attempt to impress you with how knowledgeable or non-normal they are, will tell you are important. Our attitude is different: build outward from the greats and later get into the novelties like “new music” or Eric Satie, Charles Ives or John Cage, if you decide at that point that you want to explore postmodernism, which is deconstruction of all that metal and classical music desire. In any case, we hope you enjoy the music and can turn on some friends to this treasure of musical beauty that hides in plain sight amongst us.

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When To Stop Listening

If the motive is to pander, not find adventure, the music will be worthless

If you’re faced with a problem, you fix it through the scientific method. You come up with a number of possible solutions, test them against reality, pick the ones that succeed — looping through a few times to refine them so they’re accurate — and use those. You throw away the ones that did not work.

Our universe is mathematically stable because it has something (reality) to test solutions against, and because it allows the discarding of bad solutions. This avoids a state of entropy, or a condition where every solution possible has about the same effectiveness. Entropy afflicts everything we do through a type of organizational decay, but when it becomes the state of a situation, all motion and change ceases. Heat death, or the lack of motion to energy and hence its dissipation, occurs.

This information logic to our world underlies natural selection just as much as it describes how our brains work. Imagine multiple ideas; pick the ones that converge; throw out the rest. In the case of heavy metal music, we strengthen the genre when we as fans pick only the best bands and albums. We weaken it when we tolerate mediocre metal, because then being mediocre is just about as important as being good, so people stop trying to be good — heat death.

While heat death is comforting because it enables us to avoid challenging ourselves, and to feel like we’re heroes and geniuses for recording any metal music, it means that we no longer have great metal music — the kind that makes you sit up, pay attention, and rediscover life through a worship of power, saying a kind of cosmic yes (in the James Joyce sense) to accepting life as constant conflict for a few rare, beautiful possible outcomes.

For those who still have red blood coursing through their veins and so aren’t so afraid of failure that they’re unwilling to try, it’s imperative to pick good metal music. This means not making the categorical mistake of buying an album just because the band that made it was good once, or because that band is trendy, has some novel implementation like flutes and tubas, or because you know the people in the band and you want to make them happy. It’s important to know when to stop listening and throw out the bad ideas.

What makes music bad?

Bad music is all the same. Most bands record music that is competent but fails to articulate anything that makes us sit up and take notice, because they’re either repeating the past or suggesting something unrealistic, which means we cannot feel that sense of the music being vital to our lives because we have to live in reality. At least 99% of music falls into this category, but perhaps more, because out of tens of thousands of metal bands, only a few hundred stand the test of time.

In that mindset, we can see that what makes “bad metal” is not that it’s unmusical, or stupid, except in a few cases. In most cases, it is simply unremarkable because it hasn’t challenged itself to find meaning in life and sing about it. This is why almost all reviews of albums that are destined to fail go like this:

This CD recombines past methods that worked, without knowledge of the reasons why they worked. Quirky as a result, it is a unique collage of instruments and techniques. Yet it is without direction because it imitates the effects of the past without knowing the causes, like someone looking into the genre from outside. Therefore, it’s not bad, but not great, and so we’ll forget it soon because time is valuable and this CD is not going to make us feel a sense of connection to life through power.

In other words, the CD is bringing us to a state of entropy. It isn’t bad, it isn’t good, which means by default that it’s not good. You will see this review format on many metal sites. It usually looks like this:

I don’t normally like ultra-brutal death metal, but this CD combines ultra-brutal death metal with hardcore vocals and black metal riffs. I have never before heard a flute used to make brutal riffs come slamming home. Guitar solos are like fire in the veins of a poisoned dragon. Although it’s really brutal, parts of this CD are riff salad where they get confused about whether they are black metal or death metal. But the end result isn’t bad, even if it won’t make my top ten for this year. If you really like brutal death metal with flutes, get this CD.

That’s a review done by a fan, a zine, or another band. What does it look like when we combine the art of making people think they should buy something — marketing — with this review type?

Brutal death metal fans have waited too long for a real masterpiece, but [ name redacted ] is going to change all that. With pummeling brutal riffs, you might think this band were closed-minded, but they have a full-time flute player who brings a progressive, liberal touch to the old and musty genre of brutal death metal. This groundbreaking act goes where no metal band has gone before! Don’t expect mercy from these powerful slamming riffs. This CD is brutal and it’ll tear your fuckin head off!

In the above, you will see something all smart marketers do. They find an audience for something, and then try to convince them that a product is better than others. If you can’t sell it on “better,” you sell it on novelty. It’s unique. It does something others don’t do. What you really want to do is avoid mentioning whether or not this is important. For example, who cares if a band uses a flute if their music is just as boring as if they did not?

What is pandering?

Most people will recognize, after hearing enough music, that while good music is made to be bought, it isn’t designed so that it will make the most money by offering the least challenging listen. If you’re not listening to radio pop, it’s because you got tired of melodic hooks and three-minute songs using verse-chorus structures. The riffs in such songs may be good, but since they achieve a state and cycle in it, but don’t really change, it’s hard to call them art — or claim they’ll inspire our lives. They’re like pretty wallpaper or television shows: background noise to make life pleasant, not give it meaning.

What separates good music from bad music is what separates scientific information from marketing: marketing is designed to appeal to a need that’s already there, and exploit it as a way of making money. Where good music/art is designed to make life more meaningful by showing us a new vision of it, marketing is designed to affirm our current vision of life so we can fit a product into it. Marketing panders. Art doesn’t.

Pandering – We use the panda image to suggest that music panders, and so has not only suspect motivations but minimal joy in listening. You may think this is sorta neat for a couple weeks, but then you’ll forget it. In the meantime, the band and others like them will start making more of this crap, so that instead of getting albums you can listen to for years, you’ll get lots of new albums you have to buy that won’t really satisfy you.

Selling Out – When a band goes from having made quality music to a state of extreme pandering, we realize that a psychological change has occurred in the artists. Instead of trying to make good music so that they can make money, they bypass the middle step and make music that makes money not because it’s good, but because it panders. We use the tombstone image to suggest that this band has left the reservation and headed for pop territory, so we’re not going to bother reviewing any of their other stuff until this changes.

Why so judgmental? — you are trained to ask. Why not just write about the music as it is? The answer is that mediocre music far outnumbers good music, and we are interested in preserving the good, and so instead of leaving you wondering about why we stopped reviewing a band, we’re just going to point out that they have changed motivation and results. It’s no different from reviewing every metal album ever made, and writing the generic review above 99% of the time and not telling you that there’s something all bad albums have in common.

You’re also trained to ask: Who made you the judge? Who are you to decide? — these questions are illogical. In a relative universe, we all decide, and our value is decided by the decisions we make, although it takes someone who has a clue to see that. Who made you the judge to decide we’re not the judge? Who are you to decide who is to decide? These questions make light of how ridiculous those common questions are.

If you want to know why a band’s CD or performance is referred to this page, it is because the above is the best that can be said about it, and we do not wish to be ironic or condescending to you, our reader. We are here to praise the art in the genre and its best incarnations, and we treat you and the artists with greater respect by having such reverence for the art.

What Makes Good Metal?

Metal is Romantic art, much as the novel Frankenstein or the opera Parsifal are: discovery of transcendent meaning in life by embracing its struggle and suffering as means to a higher end, an idea beyond material satisfaction or fear. To those who see the greatness of this idea, it is a worldview and a life-philosophy, and metal is one of its voices.

When we say metal expresses this idea, we are speaking only secondarily of imagery and lyrics (which mainstream academics prefer to study because they’re easy). We speak of the music and the spirit it evokes. Much like songs can convey sadness, fear, anger or hope, like the leitmotifs of Wagner different impulses are encoded in metal music that together suggest a Romantic worldview.

As art, heavy metal music is unique among popular genres for this viewpoint. What makes sonic art “metal” is its expression of this spirit more than any dogma or musical conceits; after all, other bands have appropriated metal riffs for years but without grasping this idea, much like innumerable Hollywood soundtracks have borrowed from Wagner without capturing his ideal.

When a metal band ceases to make Romantic art and becomes another voice for the easy, non-transcendent answers of life — material comfort, self-satiation, revengeful morality or simply self-obsession — it is no longer metal, but an imitation of metal, much like advertising jingles often “sound like” a genre without having its artistry or ideas.

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diSEMBOWELMENT – Transcendence into the Peripheral

diSEMBOWELMENT – Transcendence into the Peripheral
Review by Alexis

While the doom metal genre during the early ’90s in general followed the melodic style of bands like Candlemass, Australian Disembowelment pushed the genre forward by concentrating its topics into esoteric territory, in an attempt to re-discover the abstract language behind metal. Traditionally seen as one of the main innovators of the death/doom crossover, this band fused grindcore influences with the technical patterns of death metal, distilled in epic-long compositions.

Transcendence into the Peripheral from 1993 is their only full-length album and marks the height of the band’s career. The first compositions roughly follow a sonata form, with melodic introductions accentuating the main theme, long passages of structural improvisation, and ending with a repetition of the introductory theme, sometimes fading into technical percussive patterns, hailing its death metal language roots.

Often pending between fast paced moments and longer, intricate passages where the symphonic and droning riffs melt in with the cathedral-like sound production, this band adopts the staggering, epic phrases of Black Sabbath, discarding melody in favour of a rhythmic-harmonic aesthetic. This gives the music its spiritual, ritualistic aesthetic, setting this band apart from most other doom metal bands at the time. The droning sound of the bass and guitars, melting with the drums that pound like gigantic timbales for a funeral ceremony, invokes a sound picture of huge reverb, letting each sound slowly die away like space dust in the universe.

The second half of the album somewhat loses the sonata intention and instead builds up 9+ minute improvisational compositions, where the structural changes in the music require full attention from the listener. Not dissimilar from a mental ritual, the language of Disembowelment is both hopelessly beautiful and heroically assertive, expressing in both content and form the Sumerian concept of the tree of life and death, stretching from the ocean of eternal truth (Abzu) to the divine heaven (Anu).

Although lacking in the department of melodic development, and despite a compositional coherence that could have tied the intricate riff salads together into more central harmony from the lead guitarist, Transcendence into the Peripheral stands apart from the rest of the metal clones to date through its direction into the abstract foundation of metal language. Macabre, stylistic, technical and emotionally heavy, this is a musical manual into personal development–and during its heights, transcendence beyond the mundane world of humans.

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Why metal needs frontiers

Evolutionary skips like humanity do not occur without the introduction of a radical new method. In the case of humans, it was language, which allowed us to form societies of larger than familial groups, specialize in certain tasks, and so preserve a massive knowledge of tools and methods that would overwhelm any human. As a result, we are smarter chimps with socialization in our blood.

From this origin, it is easy to see why humans crave company, but approach it with an unease rooted in the need to keep a balance over social obligation and personal obligation. Too much obligation to society, and we become Stalinist slaves; too much obligation to the individual, and we become modern Americans shuttling between the shopping mall and the psychologist, wondering why we cannot fill the holes our souls with our rank, our wealth, and the possessions we pile up in our castle retreats before shipping them to third world landfills.

Too many people around us creates a hubbub that drowns out our own thoughts. In such situations, we get overwhelmed and it becomes harder to hear our own minds and memories because as we are concentrating, other voices intervene. It is like having someone talking to you when you type; inevitably, you type pieces of the conversation instead of what you meant to scribe. When we are overwhelmed by socialization, we get beaten down into accepting external trends and ideas as our own thoughts.

Someday this condition will be recognized as belonging to that indefinite area between disease and pathology where alcoholism, drug abuse, promiscuity, compulsive gambling, religious delusion and overeating fall. Just as the right dose of a compound has medicinal effect, but too much is poison, and too little is apathy, we need some degree of socialization: murder is wrong (except when necessary), don’t defecate in the water supply, help your neighbor if her house is on fire.

These thoughts are helpful when we can take them into ourselves as a logical conclusion, and realize their necessity, but when societies get too big and too unequal in the abilities of their populations, large centralized institutions or social movements occur which try to hammer these thoughts into our head. The fine line between “murder without reason creates anarchy” and “murder is bad in an absolute sense, and you’ll go to hell” is where things go wrong. If we get afraid for ourselves, and insist on making ever more rigid rules, we take American individualism and turn it into Stalinist persecution of those who step out of line.

In the same way that suffocation might be viewed as CO2 crowding out oxygen, this social overdose might be seen as nature, abhorring a vacuum as the cliche goes, flooding our minds with the will of others which magnified by the credence we give external objects for their self-evidence, take on a higher weight of appearance than our own thoughts — or observations which, while not our own, ring true with what we know from experience and analysis. Civilization can drown us in what makes it strong, which is its support network for us.

Nature thrives on complexity, and like most patterns in nature, this sequence of logical events is repeated in any situation where individual brains must form one brain for the purpose of supporting greater knowledge. One such case is that of musical genres, especially those which derive much of their power from their claim that they are an alternative view to the dominant cliche, which may be either Stalinism or Americanism, or the hybrid of the two mentioned above. Neither Stalin nor Americans invented these two extremes; they are repeated patterns formed by the constraints of nature itself in the task of uniting individuals to perform the functions required for civilization.

When such patterns form in a musical genre, equality results, because when there are too many people in a cycle they make an unspoken agreement to treat each other equally so that none are seen as aggressors. This is similar to Americanized Stalinism in that it is the fear of the individual which motivates a stronger society with more rigid rules, such that the rules themselves become the goal, instead of the avoidance or promotion of consequence that the rules were intended to cause. Fear is the cause, and the result is a type of negative thinking that presupposes bad consequences to justify radical and extreme actions taken against its possibility. As the negative thinking spreads, it dominates every form of social and political discourse, and becomes accepted as a fact of civilization itself and not an option.

This negative thinking aims to nullify possible threats instead of treat the source of threat, so it has a neutralizing effect, and soon standards lower. From the best of civilized intentions, collaboration, we produce unending compromise. The compromise arises from our fear of transgressing against well-intentioned but rigid rules, and because the rules are irrational, all other thinking becomes irrational. The individual becomes the root of all justification, and so even if the individual produces mediocrity, there is a demand that all respect that individual for the sole reason of he or she being an individual — otherwise, the negative thinking is violated, and we all will descend into anarchy (the thinking goes).

In an artistic genre, this results in tolerance for all artists which means an information overload so great that none can rise above the crowd. As a result, you have many people happy to have achieved mediocre success, because that’s where 99% of all artists are going anyway, and 1% of the artists who could do better standing alone, longing for a frontier. All suffer because they can’t promote this 1%, because those are the superstars who keep new people coming into a genre, which is necessary because fans age and drop out or die. However, they prefer on an individual level to be rockstars of their block instead of allowing others to be recognized artists who lead.

This pattern repeats itself time and again. It’s how nature sloughs off the dead and dying before they actually exterminate itself, kind of like the sudden summer colds the gods wisely designed to erode the elderly population (think quickly: die for months in a hospital bed, or get the sniffles, go to sleep and kick off in a matter of hours? if the two were methods of execution, we’d quickly decide the latter was more “humane”). If any society cannot find a balance between individual and collective, it tends toward the extremes, becomes rigid and collapses into the kind of third-world entropy we see in the ruins of past superstar civilizations and, hehe, black and death metal today.

One on extreme, in black and death metal, you’ve got the “let’s be one unit” people, or Stalinists, who call themselves “true” but are true to looking like they’re the past, but not understanding, because they’re actually there to be rockstars of the block (note that the first pose adopted by rockstars of the block is humility; it lets them manipulate other people into supporting their own mediocrity, under the guise of “helping one another” and when no one’s looking, taking advantage of the situation; a community of rockstars of the block would rapidly starve itself: “I swear, Jimbo, there was a whole bushel of grain there we were going to share! I don’t know how it got so small, but let’s split it anyway”). The faux true contingent of death metal and black metal bands take the past, put it in a blender, and then drift toward whatever their childhood influences were, which is what they were going to do anything. As a result you have Suffocation-style death metal with black metal choruses mixed into what sounds, at its core, like a Def Leppard ballad. You should buy it because it’s unique.

The other extreme are those who want to embrace the crowdthink through individualism people, or Americans, who want to make that uniqueness be the central feature of the music, but they also tend to play exactly what their childhood influences were, and spend a good deal of time neurotically trying to cover it up. To them, good music has a combination of instruments, images, or quirks never done before, so they specialize in making funk-based death metal with black metal face paint and electric tuba solos. These combinations are inherently unstable, and if you listen carefully, you can hear the Def Leppard peeking through underneath. These musicians deal exclusively in re-combined aesthetic, but never change the structure, form, or musical language of the music. It remains Def Leppard, cut up by jazz breaks and horn solos, grindcore blast beats and disco choruses.

Both extremes share one thing in common: Because the music they make is blatantly ludicrous, and at its essential level unremarkable and in fact in agonized neurotic contortions to hide its ordinariness, the “artists” adopt a pose of self-reflexive irony: “It’s supposed to be entertainment, and between you and me, most of them don’t get it. We’re laughing at ourselves! The people in the audience who know the hip joints are laughing with us, at themselves and ourselves. It’s a big, UNIQUE, party!” Unfortunately for humanity, most people are barely entering maturity when they start listening to this stuff, and it can take them another decade to take a long hard look at what they were listening to, cough, and throw in the towel. At that point, most are so cynical they expect all forms of potential truth or vision to be scams, and so embrace a Gene Simmons-style “it’s all entertainment, don’t take it so seriously” attitude. Doubly unfortunate is that they approach religion and taxes with the same attitude.

The interesting thing about patterns however is that they do not have a central controller. Instead, they emerge from a situation when multiple conditions are correct. The horde of people making stupid music would like you to believe that at some point, the hand of G-d descended upon Earth and wrote in clear Spanglish that all metal must be insincere, and either imitate the past or combine motley cliches to make a new horror of self-analytical but unprofound music. Like all things in the modern time, the pattern of clueless music emerges when a genre makes a name for itself, and then the hordes of bored kids accustomed to being lied to in the suburbs surges into the genre with the assumption that it should be as lie-ridden, popularity-dominated, and self-marketing like their parents as every other media they encounter is.

Ocean streams are another example of emergent patterns. They flow a certain way because that way is the path of least resistance for water to flow, guided by gravity and tides, shaped by shorelines and underwater formations, channeled by differentials in temperature; the paths of ocean streams are not inherent, but appear again and again because the needs of their waters are met by the situation. It’s like horses and open barn doors: you don’t need to tell them to leave, because any creature cooped in a barn wants to leave and will do so, given (a) an aperture and (b) the promise of relative impunity in escape.

What is common about emergent systems is the need for an attractor, which can either be something valuable (atoms bonding with atoms to form stable molecules) or something empty, like a void or frontier (horses rushing toward open barn door). There is in nothingness always possibility; in somethingness, there is safety, but at the expense of variability. It’s like picking a boring day job over a more chaotic self-employment, or choosing to be a domesticated dog instead of a wolf, filling your head with television instead of thinking, or deciding to stay single instead of risking a relationship in which real work must be required. Metal music requires a frontier, unfilled in nothingness, so it can have space to expand.

In this however we see the parallel roles of creation and destruction. For creation to occur, there must be empty spaces but these are only acquired through the removal of something that exists. This principle underlies both natural selection and our tendency toward, in boredom, smashing boring things. When there is too much somethingness, we must make nothingness by removing that which is and is also unsatisfying. For example, if we burned every death and black metal recording but that top slice of really profound works, would the genre be stronger or weaker? Weaker in quantity, stronger in quality, with lots of empty space in which others can visualize their musical/artistic dreams being fulfilled.

Underground metal flourished in a brief period of frontier. Indie labels were a creation of the 1980s when, with digital recording technology becoming affordable just around the corner, printing plants began to more widely open up the new digital technology of compact discs to smaller businesses. As it became possible to print just a few thousand CDs, it became possible to run a small label without it being a complete financial loss, and so indie rock and eventually, indie metal (known as underground metal: thrash, death metal, black metal, grindcore, doom metal) expanded. To distance themselves from mainstream rock, and to compensate for their lack of big bucks for flashy studios, both indie rock and underground metal embraced a gritty aesthetic that made them unpalatable to the average consumer.

However, the average consumer wants to buy something that is intangible, which is that hipness or cachet of authenticity of which rock writers rave. This is why white kids bought forbidden “race music” called the blues, even though it was essential Celtic-Germanic folk music repackaged with a constant beat and gritty vocals. This is why punk music grew rapidly once people living boring lives saw it as a chance to walk on “the other side.” This is why freaks of nature and often pointless artist from Klaus Nomi to Insane Clown Posse have always attracted an audience, because they’re “unique” and “different.” The history of rock music is of one undending scam that sells inferior music to bored kids who are seeking an alternative to the staid social lifestyle of compliance that they see in their parents, who because of their dysfunctional attitudes, treat their children like objects and are consequently covertly hated.

In metal, this desire for the other side manifested itself in Pantera making death-metal-like albums for the real meatheads out there, Cannibal Corpse making a parody of death metal (later parodied by art rock band Fetid Zombie) that had enough groove and bounce for the masses, and eventually, in boutique black metal like Ulver and trend-oriented death metal like Opeth, as well as a horde of “blender bands” who throw past successes into a blender, make an incomprehensible melange, and then wrap it around the same three-chord boring moron rock music that has afflicted the “culture” of industrialized nations since the 1950s.

Frontiers are the antidote to this, but they must begin in destruction. Idiots will tell you destruction is bad, because in their view, more metal means more power in metal. However, life is a science of pattern organization, and this is why patterns of higher organization (complexity) trump those of lower organization; this is why one Beethoven outshines 6,000,000 rock bands and forces their fans into denial of their inferiority. Idiots naturally feel defensive when they develop the resulting inferiority complex, so they come up with endless insincere excuses for why they should continue to listen to stupid music instead of facing reality and finding better music: we like it, it’s unique, every person has musical taste that is unrelated to their mental capacity, it’s our right to like garbage if we want, stupid music is more profound because it has a perspective contrary to the ruling classes, and so on. It’s all mental chewing gum that will keep a brain noshing, trying to find the substance, until it realizes that these statements are broken tautologies of the form “this is important because it claims to be important,” and then moves on.

Artists long for frontiers because they understand the odd relationship between creativity and power. We all want to feel power in life so we can think that our time was well spent as we lie on our deathbeds, and before, as we question daily whether we should keep going. Power is felt by having the ability to change things for the better, and this ability is afforded by looking at life, understanding the rules of nature, and using our creativity to find a way to work greatness within those rules. Freedom is not the answer, because freedom in human minds means no rules, which means our creativity has nothing to chew on, so we make garish “unique” and uniquely useless melanges instead. For creativity to thrive, we need an empty space in which to exert our power, like ancient men approaching their fields and streams and leaving behind farms and windmills irrigating them.

For those who want a frontier in metal, the path is clear. We must laugh at the now-dead past of fifteen years of unsuccessful metal which was “good enough” but never really good, and as we laugh, smash it aside. We do not need greater numbers. We need better fighters. We need bands on the level of Black Sabbath, Slayer, Morbid Angel, Burzum and Gorguts in order to make for ourselves a new space in which healthier metal can grow. For those of us who are not active musicians, this starts in intolerance of garbage music, progresses to its destruction, and then manifests itself in the tolerance of a gardener: we accept everything, but ignore all but the exceptional, and since we water that exceptional and nurture it, we let nature carry off the rest to an early death. This is both natural selection and common sense: if you tolerate everything, you will never have great things, but if you focus on the great, you will bring more of it upon yourselves.

Metal exists in a dual state of brain/body because of its hybrid origin in soundtracks/rock music, even though it was a fundamental rebellion against the careless hippie music of the time which introduced non-solutions as a good way to stay oblivious and justify personal profit, sexual conquest and hedonism despite the obvious need for hard work to resurrect a confused and dying civilization. Metal brought us back to the heavy, but because people living pointless lives like easy solutions and would like to think that buying a CD means they can “walk on the wild side” and feel OK with their mediocrity, it fights this dual nature. It’s 25% Demilich-Burzum fans, and 75% Cannibal Corpse-Skinless fans. However, as the morons fill every available space with garbage, there’s room for the 25% to return in vengeful fashion, mocking and burning the stupid, and opening up a frontier horizon for exploration.

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Jazz, Jazz-metal and the future of a hybrid

Our society is fascinated by outsiderness. This neurosis comes from the fact that we exist by the support of a civilization we see as going down a bad path, if we think about things at all. Our outsiders look more askance at this society than we who must maintain it, but they also do so from within it, so they are both critical of and dependent upon it. This creates a need for not a new civilization, but a new psychology of civilization, and it is mostly commonly engendered by song: poetry, jazz, prose or violence.

Jazz is “America’s music.” A hybrid of the blues and public-school training in European classical harmony, it nonetheless is not unique, because it has existed on every continent at some time in their growths. It is a universal language, the free and open jam, and appeals less to theory — despite being heavy on theory — than it does to an impulse of the soul which wants to start playing first, and then figure out how to cram the symbolism of emotions into song. Even so, when we speak of jazz we speak of the American variety.

Because jazz is extreme compared to pop music, and both in its day and today an outsider music, and because it went through a ring cycle from innocent complex pop music to nearly total psychoacoustic noise with the extremes of free jazz, we see it is parallel to heavy metal and hardcore punk. Both of those as well are falling from grace, exiling themselves from a comfortable modern existence to be extremes. Both of those totally reject society. Where jazz is cool alienation, and an attempt to find itself through degrees of emotion, metal and punk are a rejection of human emotion and a hot alienation that points to the hard, cold historical record — the abstract. Jazz is earth and metal is sky.

As metal expanded through its own cycle of growth and decay, its growth mirrored the process jazz underwent. At first, metal was just a heavier form of rock with more phrasal composition as evidenced by the long melodic riffs of Black Sabbath, but then it became a “serious” art form with speed metal, after the 70s stadium metal wrecked its credibility but good. When that “serious” social consciousness art wasn’t enough, it became crypto-symbolic art with death metal, with an extensive philosophical interpretation required to get from “only death is real” to a philosophy of abstraction to rival Plato.

When death metal got itself established after a painful birth from fragments of thrash/hardcore punk and speed metal, it found itself as an art form embracing simplicity and yet structure, shying away from mainstream consonance or even harmonic structure. Its structure came entirely from worship of the riff, or rather the way death metal bands would string together seemingly unconnected riffs that made sense as the piece culminated, like poetry unifying disparate symbolism. Death metal was unlike the harmonies of heavy metal, or the rhythmic culmination of speed metal, but it was pure structure in arrangement of complex riffs, and the distinct phrasing that made each one both evocative and complementary to others.

Because these riffs operated independently of scalar or chordal structures, death metal was compared to free jazz by the savvier elements of the music press. Much of this comparison occurred before death metal was fully defined, when the more jam-friendly elements in hardcore (Black Flag’s “The Process of Weeding Out” most notably) and more dissonant, theoretically detached elements of grindcore (Napalm Death’s opus of microsong disrhythmic chaos, “Scum”) were noticed by bored, underpaid and desperate writers looking for a story. Death metal being half-hardcore, half-heavy metal, the genre rotated to face jazz for a golden period of about five years.

The first real salvo in this battle was fired by Atheist on their first and second albums, “Piece of Time” and “Unquestionable Presence.” The increasing mixture of jazz crept outward from the rhythm section to the point where the second album embraced much of the aesthetic of jazz, especially the fusion-tinged variety that used intense dynamic variation to resemble a soundtrack, more like Al DiMeola’s “Cielo E Terra.” Atheist embraced the same jazz direction, but added to jazz what punk and hardcore had, what made them “hot” and not “cool”: that inhuman, abstract, theoretical structure that allowed them to stitch riffs together on the basis of phrasing and melody alone, leaving behind the artifacts of tonal context needed by most people to orient themselves in the composition.

If emotional is cool, abstract is hot, and it fits better with the raw anger of death metal, because rage without some idea of how it might manifest itself to soothe its source of irritation becomes impotent and self-serving. What makes jazz cool is its acqueous descent into pure organic emotion, a casting aside of all structure that lets the psyche move with total freedom, given a few rules to keep its motion consonant — like a morality of sound, it throws out conceptions of hierarchy and shared goals and lets the individual freestyle it, but imposes some rigid rules. What makes metal hot is that it throws out that coolness, and imposes an order that transcends human limitations, giving rise to speculation about the motion of empires and epic ideas in collision, like a heavenly war of symbols.

Atheist fused these two outlooks, and in doing so, unleashed a revolution in metal. First, the clones came, but since metal is hot and not cool we pay no attention to them. Next, other bands picked up on this revolution and put it to good use. The two remaining explicitly jazzy death metal albums came from the Netherlands and Florida, respectively, and further advanced the science of jazz-metal. Longstanding death metal/speed metal hybrid legends Pestilence had been growing increasingly toward a greater display of musical skill, including conventional means such as harmony, and after going halfway on their third album created a jazz/metal fusion for their fourth, “Spheres.”

Spheres split a room full of metalheads into people who hated it, and people who loved it. With guitars plugged into MIDI samplers outputting in a range of voices, and offtime tempos marching past with unpredictable variations, Spheres was difficult to grasp as a listening experience much less a piece of art, but many did enjoy it so much that fifteen years after its release, it has been re-released with new live tracks. Metalheads at the time were fascinated that one of their own, from a genre so alienated it was not listed on any mainstream music reporting or labels, could go toe-to-toe with the progressive and jazz bands of its day. Others were appalled at what they saw as an attempt to reduce what made metal unique, and make it more like the conformist music of the mainstream.

Cynic’s “Focus” came out the following year and further divided the community. It did not enwrap its guitars in synthetic sounds, but chose to do that for the vocals, creating an otherworldly but rarely forceful effect that jarred with the assertive psychology of death metal. That coupled with Buddhist-influenced positive lyrics, a tendency toward light interludes, and lush keyboards backing guitars made the album rejectable by most metalheads. Riffs resembled those of the first Atheist album, making many jazz-metal diehards wonder if it was an evolution in artform or production.

While these four albums were the most evident manifestations of the jazz aesthetic, jazz influences abounded in works from other bands. Morbid Angel, known for their otherwordly seizure of souls through intense music, showed a familiarity with jazz technique especially in percussion, but without being jazzy. Demilich created a monstrosity of lead-picked intricate riffs that resembled the most avantgarde of jazz fusion, but with the subtler rhythmic introductions of death metal. Gorguts showed more of a classical influence, but balanced with lessons from avantgarde jazz.

As the death metal experiment with jazz ended, many reflected on the similarities and impossibilities of the two genres. Jazz and metal are both outsider music; both reflect a perception of persecution by society at large, it being supposed to be ignorant of some principle, and offer up radically different solutions. Jazz, it might be said, is a nurturer; death metal, it might be said, is a reality check. While the two overlap somewhat, ultimately they don’t overlap in ideas, and this carries over to aesthetic. Death metal sounds abstract; jazz sounds emotional. Death metal builds a tension for dynamic release through structuring of phrase, where jazz develops phrase to emphasize an underlying harmonic pattern.

Much as Ornette Coleman rebelled against jazz and created free jazz, metal (through hardcore, most notably Discharge) rebelled against the structure of pop songs and created through its new freedom of abstraction a language of expression. Ultimately, its rebellion was that in a world of humans singing about individual fascinations and neurosis, it would be an expression of the structures of the whole. A pattern language of ideas and consequences, death metal is intensely structured music in the way classical is, using narrative composition to unite disparate elements in a storyline, like a poem. Jazz is more like the visual arts, showing exactly what occurs and winding details together in an anti-narrative.

Since the death metal flirtation with jazz, two paths have been taken to resolve this paradox. The first recognizes that death metal’s structure is closer to progressive rock, and incorporates jazz into progressive rock with death metal riffing, as Gordian Knot (featuring Cynic members) or grindcore-influenced acts like Dillinger Escape Plan have done. The second recognizes that jazz’s rhythm can be used to wrap heavy metal-styled riffs into the jaunty, bouncy aesthetic of jazz/funk based music, and this has exploded forth in bands from Candiria to Mordred to The Red Hot Chili Peppers. The problem with both of these approaches is that they must distill death metal to rock in order to proceed.

It may be that a fusion never happens because the genres are too different. Jazz is inherently aesthetic-heavy, because it lacks structure to differentiate its songs; metal exclusively differentiates its songs through structure, and is uniform in aesthetic. Where metal is structured music, jazz is unstructured to permit wide-open jams, but the result is that sets tend to run together and, outside of aesthetic innovations like switching instruments or making the musical elements more bizarre, it has nowhere to evolve, where metal as an inherently storytelling format still has room to expand. But by the same token, metal is pulled downward by its attachment to an audience shared with rock, who will often try to make it into something more like the mainstream even as its most intelligent creators pull in the opposite direction.

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Metal as Mythic Imagination

The notion of a prism represents the first challenge to our early worlds of concrete time and space. A device that fragments light, and reveals a space withina solid known quantity, seems to us an expansion of dimension. As we get older, we realize the expansion of dimension occurs within ourselves as we assemble a more complex view of the universe.

Metal music as art is composed of sound and lyrics and imagery. The pure aesthetic expands as we analyze it and recognize that it is beauty found in chaos; the songwriting expands as we see that its narrative motivic composition is more poetic than the looping closed circuit cycle of rock or pop; the keyless melodic nature of it becomes in our fertile minds a sense of construction not by a “third party” of rigid harmonic theory but by the unfolding narrative. Metal music like all great art begins by appearing simple, but opens to reveal greater complexity when we look into the dimension that it creates for itself.

From this alone, we might conclude that metal is prismatic in the same way modernist classical composers and the ancient Greek plays that bonded song to poetry to theatre were. Two more elements demand our consideration: that metal represents an escape from the karmic cycle as described by numerous philosophies, and that it inspires mythic imagination in the way both Sophocles and Wagner did.

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Most of what we see in life affirms the karmic cycle. The rock music that plays from passing cars, the lighted billboards over our roads, the conversations of our friends and neighbors: who are you going to be in love with? And marriage? Or what will you buy? Where you go? How will you build your identity using material things, including your body?

This fascination might be called aphilosophical because it is not reaching for anything more than what is in front of us, one object after another, in the process of life. This is called the karmic cycle because it deals with the functions of birth and death and sustenance and nothing else. It is not an active philosophy or an aspiration toward ideals, but a continuation of what is presented to us, a reaction to life itself.

Metal music does not oppose the karmic cycle, as it is fully hedonistic, but it views it as secondary to an idealistic quest for meaning. This quest is expressed in the sound of metal, which unites beauty and ugliness in the pursuit of a kind of power, or “heaviness,” in which the burdens of life are converted to a sense of pride in not only survival but a quest for higher things. Metal bands glorify war and the occult, death and heroism, victory and defeat, without taking on that tone of self-serving lament which protest music brings.

Fear runs wild in the veins of the world
The hate turns the skies jet black
Death is assured in future plans
Why live if there’s nothing there
Sadistic minds
Delay the death
Of twisted life
Malicious world

The crippled youth try in dismay
To sabotage the carcass Earth
All new life must perish below
Existence now is futile

Convulsions take the world in hand
Paralysis destroys
Nobody’s out there to save us
Brutal seizure now we die

Hardening of the Arteries, Slayer

Death is now the day
When the fires fall from the sky
Let us pray
When the darkness falls we will die
Endless pain
Crucifying death from above
We must pay
Day of darkness

Question our fate when day of darkness
Forces of evil now upon us
Forces of evil on display
Forces of holy brought this day

Death is now the day
When the reaper calls for the dead
We’ll be saved
In this world of desecrating minds
We must pay
Crucifying world of evil death
Let us pray

Day of darkness

Day of Darkness, Deicide

It is an introduction to basic transcendental theory in that metal does not deny the suffering and horror of life, nor our desires within it. More pointedly, it looks beyond them to the beauties and greatnesses that can be found in this vast unpure mix of good and bad that forms a “meta-good,” or the space of life itself in which our decisions can reward us — even if we are personally destroyed. Where rock music is a descent into the karmic cycle, metal points its gaze above it toward the ideals a karmic cycle can serve.

In doing so, metal introduces meaning through nihilism, or a denial of all except the immanent. It rejects morality and eschews religion, preferring a pragmatic idealism in which death may be final but there are things worse than death such as dishonoring oneself or becoming cowardly. It seeks to find meaning in the emotions of an individual that have accepted the logic of life as suffering and transcended it, or found meaning in existence to balance that suffering and make it less consequential. Metal tears away all of our illusions to show us life, and then reconstructs our belief in life by showing us the beauty and power outside of our artificial reality of morality, money and social esteem.

Among popular music genres, metal is the only one to explicitly strive for this goal, although it might be said that industrial acts like Kraftwerk or folk acts like Väsen aim for the same as exceptions to the norm. In a time when most products are tangible, and therefore require karmic fascination, and most political power is derived by tantalizing people with the reward of karmic tangibles, and all social prestige falls within the egosphere of karmic need, metal is the odd man out who has cast aside the normal trappings of life and is staring at the sky into the infinite space of his own mind and that of the universe.

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In this idealism, or belief that thoughts and the physical world act by similar principles if they are not outright dimensions of one another, metal reawakens something that has lain dormant in humanity during its time of modernity: the mythic imagination. While our modern world deals exclusively with attempts to allay the suffering of the karmic cycle through technology, metal is geared toward finding uses for that suffering in the form of greater glories against which suffering and death become puny. In that state of mind, one has awakened not just a higher aspiration but a sense of magical possibility (miracles, dreams, a positive order beyond the visible) in which life itself is a living continuity of mind and reality.

Pascal is right in maintaining that if the same dream came to us every night we would be just as occupied with it as we are with the things that we see every day. “If a workman were sure to dream for twelve straight hours every night that he was king,” said Pascal, “I believe that he would be just as happy as a king who dreamt for twelve hours every night that he was a workman. In fact, because of the way that myth takes it for granted that miracles are always happening, the waking life of a mythically inspired people — the ancient Greeks, for instance — more closely resembles a dream than it does the waking world of a scientifically disenchanted thinker. When every tree can suddenly speak as a nymph, when a god in the shape of a bull can drag away maidens, when even the goddess Athena herself is suddenly seen in the company of Peisastratus driving through the market place of Athens with a beautiful team of horses — and this is what the honest Athenian believed — then, as in a dream, anything is possible at each moment, and all of nature swarms around man as if it were nothing but a masquerade of the gods, who were merely amusing themselves by deceiving men in all these shapes.

There are ages in which the rational man and the intuitive man stand side by side, the one in fear of intuition, the other with scorn for abstraction. The latter is just as irrational as the former is inartistic. They both desire to rule over life: the former, by knowing how to meet his principle needs by means of foresight, prudence, and regularity; the latter, by disregarding these needs and, as an “overjoyed hero,” counting as real only that life which has been disguised as illusion and beauty. Whenever, as was perhaps the case in ancient Greece, the intuitive man handles his weapons more authoritatively and victoriously than his opponent, then, under favorable circumstances, a culture can take shape and art’s mastery over life can be established. All the manifestations of such a life will be accompanied by this dissimulation, this disavowal of indigence, this glitter of metaphorical intuitions, and, in general, this immediacy of deception: neither the house, nor the gait, nor the clothes, nor the clay jugs give evidence of having been invented because of a pressing need.

— from On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense (1873) by Friedrich Nietzsche

A myth elides the tangible into a visible manifestation of invisible forces, only some of which can be explained by material science. Whether or not it is technically “correct” regarding the immediate causal relationship between impetus and result, it is a correct description of the cosmic order as the human sees it and feels it. There are balances between voids and solidities, certainties and doubt, horror and beauty. In the mythic state, a human being focuses less on a singular moment and singular end result than on the continuing relationship between many results and the tendency of mathematical organization to the universe they suggest.

The foremost thrust of mythic imagination into art in the modern era (post-Middle Ages) was the art of the Romantics, who in literature and painting and music and dance crafted a world where symbols were no longer literal but spoke of a personality of a living existence. They replaced God the judge of moral actions with Nature the god of function that rewarded the best, and in this more realistic view of life crafted a conception of the human being as looking inward for ways to complement this external greatness. They were not individualists in the modern sense, rewarding themselves with pleasures of the flesh, but they looked into the individual soul to find by intuition not only what was true but what was desired.

Some attack this view as “aestheticism,” meaning that it rewards that which seems beautiful instead of that which is functional, or, in the humanist view, moral. Humanism like materialism is aphilosophical in that it approaches the karmic cycle as an end in itself, and tries to preserve “freedom” and material comfort and survival for all individuals. Humanism does not recognize that a tragic death is beautiful, or a heroic death majestic, because its only concern is with maintaining the flesh and meat of human beings. Humanists claim mythic imagination is aestheticism because it sacrifices individuals to beauty and thus is amoral.

To this those who have made the journey from materialism and fear of death to the other side where death is not only accepted but seen as a challenge, by nature of the learning gained on this journey, admit gleefully to being laughing amoralists who are unconcerned by morality. In the aestheticist view, having a beautiful and meaningful life far surpasses living for the safety of morality and spreadsheet-style risk management; aestheticism sees the best life as the one lived intoxicated with the beauty and potential of existence, and that precludes safety labels, warning rails, and fear of dying. Death is certain, but life is not, and that uncertainty comes in the form of finding an “aesthetic” that bestows upon us meaning.

In this sense of the world, where the entirety of life is connected by a logical yet invisible system of purpose, it is possible to have vir or the “warlike” virtue of ancient peoples. The Greeks and every other civilization that rose from the mire of infighting over karmic goods and status possessed this warlike spirit, as Nietzsche noted, and metal reflects this in its “inhuman” sound and lack of personal, gender and desire-oriented language in its lyrics. It reaches beyond the karmic cycle for the cosmic order, and in doing so, transcends humanity to find what makes us most human: our search for meaning beyond the suffering that being alive entails.

A dream of another existence
You wish to die
A dream of another world
You pray for death
To release the soul one must die
To find peace inside you must get eternal

I am a mortal, but am I human?
How beautiful life is now when my time has come
A human destiny, but nothing human inside
What will be left of me when I’m dead?
There was nothing when I lived

What you found was eternal death
No one will ever miss you

Life Eternal, Mayhem

When night falls
she cloaks the world
in impenetrable darkness.
A chill rises
from the soil
and contaminates the air
suddenly…
life has new meaning.

Dunkelheit, Burzum

Tears from the eyes so cold, tears from the eyes, in the grass so green.
As I lie here, the burden is being lifted once and for all, once and for all.
Beware of the light, it may take you away, to where no evil dwells.
It will take you away, for all eternity.
Night is so beautiful (we need her as much as we need Day).

Decrepitude I, Burzum

Where modern society in a desire for safety imposes values designed for an average person onto all of us, and assumes that our material and humanist wellbeing constitutes meaning in life, Romanticism explodes from within. It is not a philosophy of cautions, but of desires for the intangible, and as so it worships risk and conquest and a lack of fear toward the karmic existence. It transcends the desire to either live karmically, or live akarmically, because it sees karmicism as a means to an end and concerns itself only with the end: the ideal.

In this, Romanticism constitutes a philosophy because it posits intangible ideals as a balance weight to the certainty of death. It seeks a sense of unfolding; the discovery of something new in a prismatic space hiding behind the mundane. In doing so, it renovates life itself by working from within and renewing the brain in its aspiration and heroic transcendence of the karmic drag, in the exact opposite principle to modernity, which is materialism/humanism as supported by technology and populist political systems.

Its philosophy rises above life, and above categories like political and religious and cultural, because it is a principle of the highest abstraction and so can be expressed through any number of outlets. Like Zen, it is a discovery of the connection between life and mind with a slap, but unlike any other formalized system, it goes further to demand that the slap of life have a meaning, and it invents this meaning and then creates aspiration within it through its mythic imagination. Despite the overwhelming solidity of most modern art in affirming the opposite, Romanticism continues to live on.

One of its voices is metal music, whether through the seize-the-night ethos of heavy metal or the “only death is real” of underground metal. It is nihilism, but it is also idealism; it is realism, but it is also religion. Perhaps this is why every time we think heavy metal is dead it rises again, as people still seek meaning in life despite the crushing gravity of need and obligation that is modern living. Heavy metal is eternal because its truth is eternal, as for any existence there will be a potential end, and thus a need to find not only a reason why but a reason for living not just to survive but to exceed.

As this emotion was true to the existence of thinking beings in the time of the Greeks, and allowed them to rise and make one of the greatest civilizations known to humankind, it is true now and inspires those who have rejected the long path through lighted signs and fleshy desires and moneyed popularity. For those who seek more, it is a doorway. Like our souls, heavy metal is a prismatic dimension unfolding beneath us and within us, and a journey we are only too glad to undertake.

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Appreciating Deicide’s Legion

Sometimes an album requires 15 years of examination before it can be addressed adequately. Deicide released their second album Legion in the summer of 1992, and it proved to be the apex of their career. It was long in coming, delayed three times by Roadrunner, and I was obsessed with obtaining it.

I was fifteen going on sixteen, and for almost six months I hardly cared about anything else. Girls? What are those? Can they get me the new Deicide album? No? Then forget it. My mania began when Deicide had come to town on a week’s notice the previous winter. They had never before played Texas, and a whole state’s worth of hessians had been clamoring to see them since their eponymous release over a year before. The show itself was a revelation. The band was tight, proficient, ferocious, and surprisingly charismatic. They tore through the entirety of their sole album which only a few breaks for frontman Glen Benton to praise and incite the crowd, as well as an intermission while the security team hastily nailed the wooden stage barrier back together after we smashed it to pieces in our fervency. Once the band had exhausted their catalog my friends and I caught our breaths, and started to walk towards the exit. That was all the songs they had to play, after all.

Suddenly a voice boomed at our backs- “We got a couple of new ones for you!” Glen and company had taken the stage once more. “This is from our upcoming album Legion! In Hell I Burn!” The room ignited. We rushed back to the front of the stage and joined the crushing wave of bodies. The new song was chaotic and technical, and Deicide were clearly excited about their new material as they played it to the hilt. “Holy Deception” followed with the same inflammatory delivery, and then the band stood down and left us to sort out our tangled hair, soggy shirts, and missing shoes.

And he asked him, What is thy name?
And he answered, saying,
My name is Legion: for we are many.

Mark 5:9, KJV

I was bewitched. Deicide was already my favorite band and the brief taste of new songs further tightened their grip upon me. As Legion continued to be delayed (as it happens, it was announced before the band had even completed it) my anticipation became feverish. One Friday my friend Chris, with whom I’d attended the show, came to my house to “show me something”. It was a new album but he wouldn’t let me see it and instead just put it in my CD player. A droning roar and cacophony of bleating sheep drifted out of my speakers. What could it be? Legion was finally to come out on Tuesday, and I had already planned to devote the whole day to buying and listening to it. The first notes of the opening song struck abruptly and I was still confused. What WAS it? Then a familiar death-preacher voice cut through the tangle of guitars and blast beats; Chris grinned as he pulled the CD longbox out of the bag, and there was a full-sized photo of Deicide in all their Satanic glory. Glen’s bottomless black eyes stared back at us as the songs hammered the room. The record store had gotten the CDs early and decided to put them on the shelves for the weekend. And for all the build-up, for all the anticipation and impatience, every note of the album was worth the wait. Chris and I finished listening to it in disbelief, then immediately started it again. It was a good day to be a Deicide worshipper.

Almost two decades later I have listened to this album literally thousands of times. At 29 minutes it is very easy to set the CD on repeat and feel my brain cells become awash in hellish audio napalm again and again. It never loses its impact. I know every note by heart, and I have studied it and dissected it by every available means (the Hoffman brothers hard panned their guitars, so adjusting the balance switch will yield new and enlightening information about the song arrangements). Many people didn’t understand Legion upon its initial release. The preceding album was a collection of intense but highly musical anthems about the occult, godkilling, and Satanic suicide. The songs were brilliant and infectiously mnemonic, and they allowed Deicide to rise to a status second only to Morbid Angel in the Death Metal movement.

Legion, however, was a headlong dive into the abyss; a feral and fractured deconstruction of the band’s first outing that transformed their established sound into a berserker rage of sonic violence. The arrangements were twisted and jarring, the production was ear-shattering, and the message was more focused and dire than ever. This was not just an album, it was a mission statement. Glen Benton had already repeatedly decreed his own suicide at age 33, and this deadline seemed to serve as the impetus of abandon with which the band attacked each song. Legion was an affirmation of the Great Beyond, albeit one that promised eternal torment and pain, as well as an utter rejection of life, comfort, and the mundanity of daily existence that reduces people to craven weaklings.

Accordingly, the less cerebral portion of the Death Metal fanbase was alienated by such a challenging offering and it could be argued that the backlash to Deicide’s audacity was a large contributor towards the mainstream success of bands like Cannibal Corpse. Nevertheless, time inevitably bears out the merit of all great efforts and as such Legion is now widely regarded as a groundbreaking classic. Virtually all Death Metal releases in the following five years bear the marks of its influence, most notably in regard to increased attack and tempo. Despite its impact, no band has ever managed to truly recapture the nature of this release. This is true for even Deicide themselves, who ultimately reversed course with Once Upon the Cross, and then degenerated into the same low-grade Death Metal drudgery that they had once endeavored to dismantle. In fairness, there could not really be a Legion II and to their credit the band declined to attempt one.

The tragedy of Deicide and their legacy is that a whole generation of hessians know the band as a blunt, inelegant, and jock-brained outfit that write thudding tunes with a weak grasp of Satanism and even weaker sense of songcraft. This is not the band I remember, the band that fired my imagination and made me want to take up arms and scourge the Christian vermin. To me, Glen Benton died at 33 because the man he has become is a man long dead. A white hot rage is one that will consume a soul rapidly, and Deicide’s brand of rage was enough to consume them all. Still, I refuse to allow their transgressions to negate their contributions.

Legion will always be one of the best albums ever, no matter what Glen and his current line-up of mercenary Christians do next. It no longer belongs to them; it belongs to the fans and the people who still listen to that album year after year without surrender. If you haven’t listened to it in a while or avoided it because of the band’s recent output, challenge yourself to embrace this masterwork in all its caustic, quixotic glory. You will become a believer. You will become Legion.

by David Anzalone

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Metalocalypse: Hipsters Slandering Hessians

Ironic, “unique” show celebrates metal as a genre for failures

In the last decade metal music, once more or less exclusive to a community of dedicated Hessians and at worst a more removed group of transient but still fervent supporters, has fallen victim to a superficial co-opting by hipster culture. That is, they wear Slayer or Iron Maiden shirts not because they genuinely enjoy the music but because these bands are “kooky” or “crazy” and associating oneself with them is the defining statement of hip irony in the 21st century. Tolerating this trend is annoying enough, as it brings the dedication of Hessians into question: “So, do you really like Slayer, or are you just wearing that for fun?” but the problem has become epidemic as hipster-focused media is produced en masse for outlets like Cartoon Network’s “Adult Swim”. Even in this arena, metal no longer safe.

Twenty years ago, most people had a hyperbolic and absurd idea of heavy metal and the bands creating it, thanks to the oft-quoted (and increasingly tiresome) film “Spinal Tap”. However, it was clear that the writer/actors of this movie actually had a degree of affection for the music they aped, and it was reflected in the way they managed to address many truisms of the continuous collisions between metal’s fantastic elements and the inflexible realities of the layman’s world in which the music must struggle to be understood. This degree of sympathy and insight is strictly absent from the new animated feature “Metalocalypse”, which basically takes the “Beavis and Butthead” premise of Hessian daily life and elevates it to an insulting degree.

The show offers the premise of a fictional metal band called “Deathklok”, and the creators reveal their weak grasp of the material by first portraying the band as literally one of the richest and most powerful entities on earth (a feat that not even Metallica has accomplished), and then making their music sound wholly ambiguous- we hear three-note trudges and growls ala Six Feet Under combined with keyboards and guitar wankery more befitting of Demons & Wizards. While some may be quick to point out that the show is a parody and as such is not obligated to follow “the rules”, this reviewer believes that such decisions reflect broad generalizations about metal and its subgenres and bring the intent of the show into question.

More damning, however, are the characterizations of the band members. The writers attempt to place a death metal vocalist, a speed metal guitarist, two “European” power metal guitarists, and a nu-metal drummer into the same band, presumably in the interest of painting the entire genre with the same brush. All the members are portrayed as rock-stupid, and the shrill and unintelligible voice acting is no help. A joke can only go so far if absolutely nothing said is understood. The band is portrayed as savants who can play music to millions of people at a time but cannot grasp the idea of purchasing food at a grocery store. It seems like a more consistent idea would be to portray a relatively unsuccessful band doing everything in life unsuccessfully, or a successful band doing things in the wild excess that their lifestyle affords them, but to cram two half-baked ideas together only goes further toward ensuring that the cartoon serves as a mocking affront rather than a sly parody. The only real thing that gives the show a chance at holding interest is the random and prolific violence, though it does contributes little more than an opportunity for a very cheap laugh.

The real problem is that “Metalocalypse” (this is the last time I’m typing that stupid fucking name) is not designed to entertain Hessians, but rather it is there to give hipsters a false insight into a world they cannot or do not wish to understand in genuine terms. The show is made by outsiders looking in, and it shows on every level. Never mind the fact that the dialogue, when intelligible, is stilted and inane, the comic timing is non-existent, the plots are ambiguous, and the animation is lazy and sub-par. Metal is one of the only art forms on earth that must tolerate this kind of insult, in part because it advocates goals and means that threaten the status quo, but it is nevertheless a valid endeavor that deserves respect and legitimacy. It goes without saying that any serious Hessian should ignore this cartoon, but it wouldn’t hurt to encourage others to do the same. If someone at your school or place of business sees you wearing the shirt of your favorite band and starts talking about metal hipsterism with you, set them straight. Explain why they have got the wrong idea, and see if you can steer them in the right direction (i.e. “Have you ever listened to Show No Mercy”?). Maybe they won’t become converts, but then again maybe they won’t make their decisions about an entire genre of music and its culture based on a half-assed joke show either.

by David Anzalone

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What makes some music better than the rest

Although the “art” of music, as an intangible creation expressed best as an abstraction translated through that pattern into its creation, cannot be sold in any true sense of the word, all art must have a conveyance and if it is not live informally, that is a product whether recorded CD, MP3 or concert. For this reason, the music market affects how metal music is able to propagate(tm) its sinister meme through the stupefacted masses of modern humanity.

The record industry, which is what we call the support structure for the expensive prospect of selling music, is reeling under the dual assault of MP3s and a fragmenting culture. The former allow people to download full albums and have them free, with no obligation except legal to buy the CD. The latter, cultural fragmentation, means that instead of a single dominant genre that sells massively there are now many niches that have to sell consistently to break even. Business plans are shifting.

What this means for metal, which sells few of any one CD but many CDs over time, and has the highest rate of people buying all the albums of an artist if they like one, can be discerned from the black metal experience. The average fan seems to download a few gigabytes a week of black metal, and they listen to it while IMing and watching TV, and then they either delete most of it or keep it in elaborate collections that are magically not restored after the hard drive crashes.

We can describe this hoarding behavior as what might happen if people were able to listen to any radio program from any time in history, and could bookmark them. There would be thousands of bookmarks on each computer. Since any music of reasonable complexity requires more than one listen to grasp its basic intention and structure, people would listen, be either perplexed or enticed, and would bookmark, then not return — except to those few incidences that seemed so perfectly complete or historically important that they could not be ignored.

For the first time in its career, black metal attracts fans who behave like pop fans. They are accustomed to music being cheap, meaning used everywhere in commercial messages and enticements to purchase it, and they saturate themselves in it for a few teenage and early 20s years before their jobs and televisions take their souls.

Black metal, which really picked up momentum in 1993 and collapsed in 1996 with the foundational bands spent and the hipster imitators coming in with inferior duplicates, has spent the last dozen years in a state of suspended animation, with people trying to like what is current but returning to the classics and a handful of bands out of thousands who are not only better than average, but are able to put together a complete package: music, lyrics, symbols, artistic vision, sane public statements and each part complementing the others and showing enough artistry to seem complete. Whole.

In this we see what will prevail in the time of MP3s and cultural fragmentation. It is not enough to have an album, and to have it be pretty good. It must be complete in the way the best albums are. Vision and voice, concept and execution come together like the interface to a warplane, or an elite computer program, or the echoing profundity of a well-constructed argument or theory. The albums that will be bought, as opposed to being downloaded and forgotten, are those that will ring true in this sense.

Through this lens we approach the most difficult question of human music, which is: if music alone communicates, why is it that one album in the same style is better than another? What motivates many of us to recognize this choice and make it simultaneously? It is the quality of the album as a whole product. Mathematically, it shows a higher degree of organization; artistically, whether we agree with it or not (or “like” it) it shows a willingness to tackle some idea which is neither dogmatic nor carelessly milktoast. It is whole.

Bands and labels wonder how to sell in a time of free music. The answer is simple: make concept albums, or maybe we should call them demi-concept albums, because they do not need overblown “conceptualization” that ends up with song titles like Ragn-Thor Attacking the Climate Control Apparatus of Zoroaster. We need albums that are whole. More work and thought must go into them. It is not a question of style. The style from 1992 will do. But an album that is whole will not sound like anything else, even though it’s in the same style.

The dummy writers sit out there wondering why people go wild over Sorcier des Glaces, Averse Sefira, Avzhia or Profanatica when there are 8,000 bands that “sound like” those bands, in style. The answer is that music can be a means to only one end, and that is enjoyment of a journey which involves a change in state. It cannot be manipulated through its form alone. That form must match something it is communicating, and that communication must be highly organized.

Record labels got by for years slapping together pop music “about nothing” — songs about sex, loss, anger, and material desire — and relied on their greater production power and the mechanical task of songwriting, or keeping songs in harmony with enough melodic expectation to deliver a quenchingly satisfying chorus. Bands in black metal got by from 1994-2007 by slapping together a composite of past successful riffs, bloviating on overworn topics, and putting a pentagram, swastika or Horus on the cover.

These times have changed. In fact, if we think carefully, those times of easy fat were themselves anomaly, because in them the music itself became a product — it was a means to an end of selling musical conveyances, like CDs. But now, the music is no longer rare. What is rare is someone who can put together patterns in such a way to fit nearly perfectly, and in that fit, to express something words and images alone cannot.

It’s natural selection for black metal, as for all music, and it will dovetail with the rise in cost of consumer products as cheaply drillable oil tapers off (about 2013). Suddenly, the hard years — that metaphorical frost of the elders of black metal — will return, and it will shape music to be a more precious commodity, more carefully thought out like the last missive of a dying man in prison.

Through pressures of the tangible, the focus will return to the intangible, and metal will rise in power as it leaves both hipsters and corporate behemoths — and aren’t they the same mentality, which is to manipulate others for their own social power — behind.

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