The difference between metal and punk, rock: it’s not literal

April 10, 2014 –

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As author of The Heavy Metal FAQ, I have wrestled with the question of how to define metal over the years. Since it uses the same techniques as any other form of music, but used in different proportions and combinations, I have always focused on the idea that unites these uses which makes metal so obviously distinct from rock, punk and other forms of music.

To this I’d like to add another idea: metal is not literal. That is, metal tends to view the world through a symbolic or mythological lens. It does so to reflect our inward sensations about what is going on, plus a historical viewpoint which requires a more high-level view. The details don’t matter as much as the form, in metal, and we pay attention to the form and then put it in a folk-wisdom format.

Archetypal examples of this can be found in classic metal like “War Pigs” (Black Sabbath), “Hardening of the Arteries” (Slayer), “Painkiller” (Judas Priest) and “My Journey to the Stars” (Burzum). In these songs, mythological forces clash to reveal a truth of everyday life. They inform us about our time and put us into a symbolic and emotional framework with it in which we want to fight it out, fix it, struggle and win.

In contrast, most music is either sensuality-based or protest music. Sensuality-based music is exemplified by stuff like Shakira. Protest music really exploded in the 1960s, but reformed itself with punk, which took a more abstract and yet earthy view. Where the 60s bands sang about politics, punks sang about everyday life and the insanity of existence. This finally culminated in thrash, which used hints of metal’s mythology to make the personal into the universal, as in “Give My Taxes Back” (DRI), “M.A.D.” (Cryptic Slaughter), “Minds are Controlled” (COC) and “Man Unkind” (DRI).

Metal does go wrong sometimes and get literal. The worst of these are the ego-based songs, as in Pantera, or the songs about being metal and going to shows and the like, which are generally just dumb. It is not surprising that these are not favorites of the genre because they drop away from that 30,000-foot view and instead become more personal drama like the rest of our society, which explains why its institutions don’t function and its ideas are corrupt.

Interestingly, other genres are not literal either. Progressive rock was famous for songs about weird adventures in fantasy worlds that had striking parallels to our own (compare to JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis). Classical music tends toward fantastic descriptions from literature and history. These are genres of the weighty and impersonal, not the direct and immediate and personal. They have a different scope and internal language.

Jazz is the outlier. When sung, it tends toward protest and sensual lyrics. When instrumental, the sound of it suggests a combination of the two: a kind of secular (no meaning greater than the material and immediate) version of imagination, but applied to literal experience, such that it forms a kind of texture without a unifying core. It communicates the loneliness of modern isolation and a retreat into the personal complexity of the mind.

Where metal stands out among modern genres is that it still embraces this viewpoint, or at least did until the nu/mod-metal started appearing. Part of what makes such a viewpoint necessary is that metal, despite being about killer riffs, is not about the riff. It’s about many riffs stitched together to make an experience so that when the killer riff comes out, it has a meaning in context that makes it heavy. No song is heavy from just one riff. It’s heavy because when you get to that super-heavy riff, everything else has set it up to resonate.

This in part explains the audience of metal. Mythology, historical significance and topics of philosophy do not inspire the honor students, who are busy working on their careers (and the obedience-profitability nexus that these entail), or the average student, who is busy in a world of his/her own pleasures and delights. They do however appeal to the outliers, the dreamers and dissidents, who might find class boring because they find society boring and purposeless, and instead turn toward fantasy and a bigger, more abstract realism to express themselves.

Dave Mustaine explores classical-metal hybrid

April 8, 2014 –

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Speed metal tyrant Dave Mustaine (Metallica, Megadeth) takes to the stage with the San Diego Symphony to play guitar solos in place of violin leads.

He will play along with “Summer” and “Winter” from Antonio Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons,” Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Air,” Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” and Antonín Dvořák’s “New World Symphony.” Mustaine described these pieces as shredding, fast and melodic.

In addition, the guitarist revealed some surprising background to his own music:

Mustaine also talked about Megadeth’s classical influence since its formation.

“On the very first song on our very first record, I actually played piano … Funny thing was, it was a very, very, hacked up version of Beethoven’s Fugue in D Minor and going back and listening to the actual performance of Beethoven, it’s kind of like, ‘Nice try Dave’ because it was close to it, but I mean, I was a gutter kid that grew up on the street and was playing from memory. I was surprised I could even play the piano.”

For the full story, head on over to The Daily Aztec.

Metal Music Studies journal selling subscriptions directly

April 2, 2014 –

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The journal of the International Society of Metal Music Studies (ISMMS), Metal Music Studies, is now available via subscription through direct purchase from the publisher Intellect Books. Editors Karl Spracklen and Niall Scott have been at the forefront of integrating heavy metal and academia so that the latter may study the former.

Until 2016, when membership in the International Society of Metal Music Studies comes with a subscription to Metal Music Studies, interested parties — whether members of ISMMS or not — will need to purchase a subscription at the following location. Volume One of Metal Music Studies is available in three issues over 2014 and 2015.

Subscriptions will become available for sale in May. We’re hoping for heavy coverage (hehe) of early primitive death metal.

Burzum announces release of The Ways of Yore on June 2, 2014

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Burzum, the sometimes black metal and sometimes ambient project of Norwegian-descended French national Varg Vikernes, announced the release of new album The Ways of Yore on Byelobog Productions/Plastic Head for June 2, 2014. No further information is given about whether the album will continue with the post-modern black metal style of Umskiptar or the folkish dark ambient style of Sôl austan, Mâni vestan, which was one of our “Best of 2013″.

Emerging from the same locus of intensity in Norway that produced Immortal, Mayhem, Emperor and Ildjarn, Burzum began in the early 1990s as a complex riff-narrative style of black metal with unnerving vocals that combines a feral animality with emotional sensitivity. Early works attempted to integrate elements of ambient music and create a sense of ritual designed to “stimulate the fantasy of mortals.” This era ended with Filosofem and composer Varg Vikernes being jailed for the murder of Euronymous of Mayhem.

During the incarceration years, Burzum shifted direction to full ambient with Dauði Baldrs and Hliðskjálf. These albums allowed Vikernes to escape the monolithic sound of guitar/bass/drums and work with multiple instruments, culminating in the lush creative density of Hliðskjálf (which was revisited somewhat in Sôl austan, Mâni vestan).

After prison, Burzum entered a period of post-modern black metal influenced by droning indie-pop variants of NSBM such as Drudkh and other Eastern European bands. This music reflected pop song structures, a shoegaze-style approach to melody but with the longer phrasing — albeit recursive — of black metal like early Ancient, and extensive use of North mythology. It is unclear whether this period continues now with folkish dark ambient album Sôl austan, Mâni vestan in 2013 being a temporary detour, or whether Vikernes will launch Burzum into a fourth period with the more complex instrumentation and hence compositional density of that album and Hliðskjálf.

Tony Iommi – Iron Man: My Journey Through Heaven & Hell with Black Sabbath

April 1, 2014 –

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When Black Sabbath shifted from trying to be a hard rock band to trying to make a horror movie sound appear in guitar music, they opened a new world. It was not a world that would resist opening for long anyway, since if you mix Iggy and the Stooges with the prog rock of the same era like Jethro Tull and King Crimson, you get something a lot like Black Sabbath.

But guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler, vocalist Ozzy Osbourne and drummer Bill Ward did it first, and during the first decade of their career fought through the enduring questions of the genre in prototype form. While Black Sabbath gets classed by most as “proto-metal,” or not quite yet metal, it is also clearly not quite still rock ‘n’ roll. In this perpetual liminal state Black Sabbath, like metal itself would a generation removed, rediscovers itself again and again as a way of outracing the calcification and corruption of message that is common in modern life.

In Iron Man: My Journey Through Heaven & Hell with Black Sabbath, Tony Iommi writes his memoirs for a book that is both everything and Black Sabbath fan could want, and not enough. He writes about everything important and brings out some moments of great clarity, but then at some point the book expands like a drunken conversation and spills too much ink on the less important later Black Sabbath works. Iommi also has an offhand and conversational way of explaining things from his point of view that does not flesh out the details and background enough to let people know what was really going on. However, the juicy stories of rock ‘n’ roll excess, and most of the potent decision points in the Black Sabbath career, are not missed.

Those first songs are often described as scary. I liked horror films and so did Geezer. We used to go to the cinema across the street from our rehearsal place to see them, so maybe it was something that subconsciously directed us to that sort of thing. I know there is a Boris Karloff movie called Black Sabbath, but we never saw it at that time. Geezer came up with the name Black Sabbath and it just sounded like a good one to use. (54)

The narrative starts out fairly crisply and over time slouches into many unresolved threads the way most retrospectives do. The early days were clarity, but after that chaos reigns. Sensibly, Iommi does not spend too long on the days before Black Sabbath, but does set enough of the scene to get the narrative rolling. After that, very little detail is given, and the conversational takes over. Iommi will say that they went to a house or studio somewhere and mention no other detail, but he does spend a lot of time on human relationships. He describes people and their patterns. He also talks a good deal about relationships in the bands and the states of mind of the various players as albums were released.

It may be that a Black Sabbath fanbase wants to hear more about the mechanics behind the later Black Sabbath albums, solos and side projects, but to this writer much of this material was redundant. Not that it was mentioned at all, but that it was internally duplicative and went through similar patterns without identifying them. Like a night at the bar, the description of events begins with a clear context, direction and development of events, but devolves into a description of personalities and factual data that seems to focus on complexities.

I hope it is not insulting to say this, but people are not as interested in the later Black Sabbath works as they are the earlier ones. We would have preferred the same crispness, detail and narrative integration of the first three chapters be applied to the middle three, with the later ones giving less detail and more of a linear narrative. The reason for this is that the formation of those early albums and the Black Sabbath sound is what defined this band for eternity and will make it forever important. The later stuff shows us four guys out of their depth reacting to the changes in their lives.

We used one of Ronnie’s ideas in its entirety, which was ‘Atom and Evil’, the first track on the album. And we used bits of each other idea. Some of Geezer’s riffs would come halfway through, or some of mine. We just swapped them around, building songs. It was a great way of working. INstead of having to come up with everything myself, everybody was completely involved in it from day one, and that helped me immensely. We wrote about six songs this way. (352)

Details such as the above provide meaning to the listener because we are curious about such things. What made some albums more listenable or more interesting than others? In the compositional process, and the formation of decisions, we can see how they are distinct. Sometimes too much focus on personality and politics not only obscures the narrative, but is a substitute for discussing how decisions were made. Buried throughout are nuggets of clarity such as the above. These make the book not only memorable but poignant, as you can see why so much attachment occurs between these musicians, and how their knowledge of each other was more than practical, but a deep appreciation.

Iron Man: My Journey Through Heaven & Hell with Black Sabbath will stay on the shelves because of its subject’s importance to rock music and heavy metal. It will also provide much fodder for others to discuss, as it touches on everything once. While some of us might prefer a two-volume set, with Volume I for the Black Sabbath albums from 1970-1976 and all of the depth of narrative that makes the creative decisions made during that time relevant still, as a quick read and overlook of the Black Sabbath experience Iron Man: My Journey Through Heaven & Hell with Black Sabbath succeeds and also gives us rare if erratic insights into the story behind the band.

Blaspherian demonstrate new song in San Antonio

Blasphemous occult old school thunderous death metal band Blaspherian rose to the stage at Bonds 007 in San Antonio and revealed their newest hymn, “Awakened Into Impious Absolvement.”

Heavy metal documentary The Distorted Island: Heavy Metal music and community in Puerto Rico releases first trailer

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A group of academics and metal fans called Puerto Rico Heavy Metal Studies spends its time working on a documentary about heavy metal in Puerto Rico named The Distorted Island: Heavy Metal music and community in Puerto Rico. The first trailer, seen below, from this project has been released as of yesterday.

Nelson Varas-Díaz, Osvaldo González, Eliut Segarra and Sigrid Mendoza comprise the research and filmmaking team. Dr. Nelson Varas-Díaz is Associate Professor at the University of Puerto Rico and a lifelong metal fan who has led the team in carrying out a research study on the local scene.

Heavy metal music is a global phenomenon composed of distinctive smaller communities throughout the world. In this upcoming documentary the glance is turned on Puerto Rico, a Caribbean island whose scene has been active for 30 years in almost complete underground status. The documentary film addresses how local bands have survived for such a long period of time through strong community ties while also highlighting the cultural and historical challenges faced along the way.

Varas-Díaz said: “The film is a tribute to the local metal scene who has survived against all odds for three decades in a cultural space that is either unaware of them, or considers them culturally unimportant. Nevertheless they continue to push forward, and while doing so, reflect on issues of local importance like religion, colonial politics, gender, and violence, among other subjects that most individuals on the Island wish to avoid.”

The film will see release later in 2014.

Free show: Ayasoltec at the Lucky Lounge, Sunday March 30, 2014

March 30, 2014 –

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Technical death metal band Ayasoltec, formed by ex-Masochism shredder Juan Torres, plays a free show tonight at the Lucky Lounge in Austin, Texas. Ayasoltec builds on the heritage of death metal with a strong jazz-fusion (YellowJackets, Al DiMeola) basis with a Latin American influence on the rhythm section, mixing shredder metal riffs with extensive solo-like passages building the mood in each song.

Lyrically, the band uses primarily Mayan and Aztec mythologies of life and death as a canvas for its explorations, employing a bi-ingual approach in which the English and Spanish languages are used to match the underlying music. The result takes the sound we expect from “technical death metal” (really, jazz/metal/punk fusion) and gives it more breadth musically while expanding the role metal can serve in delivering recognizable songs.

Torres’ previous band Masochism gained fame in Texas and beyond for its tight compositions and complex, aggressive guitar solos. Since 2006, he has played exclusively in Ayasoltec, which by combining ancient imagery with modern fusion hybrids creates an atmosphere unmatched by most bands attempting the post-death-metal styles. They are accompanied tonight by Immerse and Knights of Darkness.

Ayasoltec, Immerse and Knights of Darkness
The Lucky Lounge
209-A West 5th Street
Austin TX 78701

(512) 479-7700

“Hacker Metal” by Brett Stevens on Perfect Sound Forever

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I wrote an article about the cross-influence between hacking and heavy metal. It covers the use of alternative media, like BBS and AE lines, to convey a hidden truth that is shared between metalheads and hackers. The article is entitled “Hacker Metal” and it is published in Perfect Sound Forever webzine.

For those who remember the early web, Perfect Sound Forever is an e-zine that started in 1993 and has run continuously since. It derived its name from an early Sony/Philips ad designed to convince people to switch to compact disks, and covers all forms of music including a fair amount of metal.

Interview: Jari of Agonized

March 28, 2014 –

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Finnish band Agonized got the break last year that they wanted two decades ago: a horde of people interested in their only demo, “Gods…,” which was subsequently and sequentially released on CD-R, vinyl, CD and tape.

Created in the old school style of primitive rumbling death metal somewhere between Belial and Demigod, “Gods…” comprised four tracks (and an intro) of disturbing inhuman noise shaped into musical form. Since metal has not produced any style more compelling than old school death metal, interest in such material has accelerated over the recent years.

We were fortunate to get in a few words with Jari from Agonized about “Gods…” and the circumstances of its creation, and how and why it endures today…

Was there a “Finnish sound” to death metal, or multiple Finnish sounds? It seems to be popular to group bands like Funebre, Demilich, Xysma, and Demigod together and proclaim a similarity to them. Does this sound exist? Is Agonized part of the group that uses this sound?

I think there was. There was a similar sound to bands of that era. Like there was, or still is “Swedish sound.” It might be pure coincidence that bands played like that. In our case, we listened to Xysma, Abhorrence and Disgrace in 90s so those really had a big influence on our music. Of course every band sounded like their own style, doing their own mix of influences through the “Finnish” filter. You simply cannot say all Finnish bands sounded the same. They just had some Finnish trademark on their sound. I cannot define that better. I am not a musician haha.

What drew you personally to death metal back in the late 80s and early 90s? Did you have any connection to metal before death metal? Do you know if the other members of Agonized had a similar experience?

Three of us grew up together. Me, Janne (bass) and Mauno (drums) were childhood friends and have known each other since we were something like seven years old. We started like any other young kid those days. First there was Iron Maiden, W.A.S.P. and Kiss. I remember I bought my first W.A.S.P. record when I was ten years old. After that we just tried to find more and more extreme and heavy stuff. Then we started to find out heavier stuff like Slayer, Bathory and Destruction to name a few. I think this has been the way many of today’s death metal fans have started. Also I had some sort of punk era in between.

After Napalm Death released From Enslavement to Obliteration we read about them from Finnish music magazines and were like, “Whoa, that must be some cool shit.” At that time only way to get your hands on Napalm Death records was to travel to Helsinki from Lahti by train and buy them.

When I found that Napalm Death LP in Helsinki, at the same time I saw Carcass’s Reek of Putrefaction LP and Bolt Thrower Realm of Chaos. When I got home from Helsinki and put on the first notes of the Napalm Death LP, I could say my head exploded. What an absolute annihilation after listening years of thrash and speed metal. After that I got into the next LP, Carcass… yeah, right… Another deadly hit. Rest is history. I have never survived that actually. So I am still on that road.

When did Agonized form, and what were your inspirations and influences at that time? Did you have any non-musical influences, like literature or other forms of art or culture?

Agonized was formed in 1990 if I remember correctly. Janne, Mauno and I wanted to play some death metal after hardcore/grind experiments but it was really hard to find anyone skilled enough to play guitars. We put an advert on a Finnish music magazine that we are searching some guitarists to play death metal. We got contacted by two dudes (Antti and Mika) from Vantaa and went to see if it would work out. We had a nice playing session and everyone thought let’s play something together. We gathered few times, in Vantaa and Lahti, to play together.

As we were arranging concerts in Lahti for underground bands we played few shows on those events. Agonized had big influences from Bolt Thrower, Carcass and Xysma. Those must have been the most influential bands on Agonized, at least for me. I don’t remember any non-musical influences. No, I don’t think there was any non-musical influences. Agonized was mostly for just having fun playing the music we wanted to hear.

The band put out one demo, “Gods…” Can you tell us how this demo came about? When did you write the songs, and how did you record it?

After few shows we decided to record those tracks we played to tape. Songs on this tape are all Agonized ever managed to come by. Our shows contained only those tracks and I remember we played those twice to play even a decent length of set. All songs was born at those rehearsals we had together. We just started playing and decided that “hey, that sounded cool” and continued to another one.

“Gods…” was recorded in a local studio, we got two or three hours of free use of it with the guy who mixes the tape. Guy behind the desk did not have any idea what to do with this kind of music. I doubt he had never even mixed any metal band. We just listened the results and said “do this, do that…”. Guitars and drums were recorded first. After that we recorded vocals and last bass. Janne had some issues in his life and did not manage to recording session, so Mika played also bass on “Gods…”

Whole thing was ready in those two or three hours we got to be in the studio for free. We could have done it better with more, but were totally broke as we were just a bunch of kids who spent all their money the previous evening getting wasted. So we had to accept the fact that we did not have any money for more studio time.

Apparently the band members went separate ways after the recording of this demo. Do you know why this was? Did you personally want to keep going as Agonized?

After recording, I remember some got bored playing death metal and wanted to play something else. I myself was bored with my whole life and started some sort of seven year period of self destruction with substance abuse and techno haha. So I kind of departed from the whole scene to a completely different world. Couldn’t care less about Agonized or the whole scene. Of course I still listened to some bands but was completely away from the scene for years.

Looking back, what do you think of the demo, and the potential that the band had?

I have always thought it is a good demo. Still we could have done it better. But maybe if we would have done it with more time, it might have lost its primitive approach and become shit. Maybe, just maybe, it was done in the best possible way. Without thinking too much of the final result. Band definitely had potential, if we had just continued playing.

But due to personal problems and interests that just was not possible.

Several former Agonized members reunited in Cadavericmutilator, which as far as I know has never released a demo. What was Cadavericmutilator like?

Actually it was other way around. Cadavericmutilator was before Agonized. It was a noise/grindcore band including Janne, Mauno, me and several various members playing guitars. We made few shows and actually recorded one demo, which was not spread anywhere. It was just pure chaos. Just blasting with some noisy guitars playing whatever and two vocalists screaming with shitloads of effects on them. That demo would have been nice to hear today, unfortunately it was destroyed as I shot holes through the master tape when I was being a bit paranoid years ago hahaha. Well, it was quite crap anyways. So no big loss.

Some reviewers have mentioned that Agonized, while using the classic Finnish death metal ™ style, had more of the pace of Autopsy and the grinding presence of Carcass. Did any of these bands factor into your listening? How do you describe the music of Agonized?

I would describe music of Agonized as a hybrid of American and Finnish death metal. It is just like Bolt Thrower and Carcass mixed with Xysma. At least I think so. Some have compared it to Mortician, but I must admit that any of us did not even know what Mortician was back in the days we were active. So I cannot compare us to them.

I thought it was a stroke of genius how the band (or you alone?) managed to first release a CD-R of the demos, build interest, then get a 7″ released, build more interest, and finally get the CD re-release on Aphelion records. Can you tell us how each of these steps came about, and roughly how many copies of “Gods…” are out there as a result?

Actually this re-release fuzz is completely my fault. I wanted to just have a personal copy on CD-R, but due to high popular interest I decided to release 140 copies of CD-R so that people who want it can have it. Very soon after I did that, Emptiness released a 7″ that was limited to 500 copies. Patches were made at the same time to include with some of the copies. Also Aphelion released a CD version quite soon after this, limited to 1000 copies.

Latest news is that there is coming a tape version that has limitation of 100 copies. This will be released by Dunkelheit. Tape version is a bit different one. After all these other releases I found a nice copy of “Gods…” tape from Mexico (thanks Agata) and tape version uses that as a source. So it sounds a bit different than other versions that use Mr. Moyen’s tape as a source.

What have you done since the days of Agonized? Are you still active in the death metal community? What about the other members?

After Agonized I was away from this world for seven years with my substace abuse problems I defined earlier on this interview. For 15 years I have now been sober and have four great little kids and a wife and a daily job. Sounds boring eh? So I do not have time to be very active in anything. I do collect CDs and mainly they are death metal. New and old. There are excellent new albums and bands popping up every week. But it’s not like I am being active, just listening to same kind of music as when I was a kid. I do not know about other members. I suppose some of them do have some music related projects but no idea what kind of.

Are there any plans to get Agonized back together and write more material? If not, why? If so, what can we expect?

There was some discussion of this with other members. But as for now, at least I think this would not be so good idea. At least not under the name Agonized. I think reunions are not a very good idea after over 20 years of silence. When “Gods…” was released we were 16 year old angry young metal heads with great passion to do what we do. How in the hell that same can be achieved now, when we are like 40 year old dudes with families. I could do vocals, but I doubt it will be the same anymore. I’m not saying that when you are 40 you can’t play death metal, but for sure it won’t be the same band as it was over 20 years ago. It would be completely different story. But… Never say never.

Do you think death metal and underground metal are still relevant? Why do you think people are still drawn to this art form?

Absolutely. Seems to be very alive and kicking. Death metal is here to stay, where would it go. People like me like to listen to it. What would I listen if not death metal? I have grown with it. It is a tool to get away from this every day life for just a while. People want to release their anger by playing it and why not. It gives youth of today a good alternative on all the shit this world hits at you from every side.

Underground metal is a honest form of music and way to express yourself. Not the crap you stumble across everyday to make you dumb. I also do admire bands that have been around since the beginning. That is one hell of an achievement to play this kind of music 20-30 years active, touring and recording. Now that is something.