As in #metalgate, Islam finds metal has wrong opinions

January 6, 2015 –

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People do not want to admit that there is a war on for control of what you think. Some of this is what we consider innocuous, like the constant advertising on the roadsides, internet and in print. Other forms are more insidious, like people in your social group trying to bias you against people they do not like, or governments attempting to make certain ideas seem off-limits.

We know that in modern Western civilization, government both uses and allows Social Justice Warriors (SJWs) to enforce its strict taboos on un-democratic — the new term for “un-American” — thought. But other societies have not followed this same path and instead are limiting what people can say by excluding certain forms of music view religious decree. In particular, Malaysia has declared black metal and death metal off limits for its citizens:

All Muslims know pork, booze and premarital canoodling violates Islamic teachings. But in Malaysia, home to a rising tide of fundamentalist Islam, senior clerics are warning against more insidious dangers to the faith.

Such as death metal. And puppies. And Valentine’s Day.

“Black Metal” — Malaysian authorities have been fretting the influence of death metal since the 1990s. According to an official ruling against “Black Metal,” it’s powerful enough to force a Muslim to forsake his faith.

This approach is at least more honest than instead of banning a genre sending SJWs in to flood it with poor quality imitations of itself in the indie rock style, then taking over with a legion of *core fans who look like tattooed greebos who just stepped out of mental health treatment for low self-esteem. Speaking of which, recent research at Stanford suggests that people find “equality” a compelling goal in inverse proportion to how attractive and intelligent they feel. When you have low self-esteem, you make equality your life’s quest, and this explains why SJWs are moths drawn to that flame, in addition to their fundamentally hipster insincerity which has them using a political viewpoint to demand their own inclusion.

As we saw in #gamergate, #metalgate SJWs are not exactly competent. In fact, the only reason they talk about equality so much is that they could not advance themselves based on competence alone. This differentiates the SJW incursion from moral panics such as the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) in the 1980s in USA, or the type of fatwa issued in Malaysia, which seems to be a decree of general behavioral guidelines rather than an attempt to promote the fatwa-issuer based on how cool, hip and Pabst-swilling skinny-jeans wearing socially acceptable his opinions are. But the end result of both is the same: metal does not bow to their imaginary rules, and so they want metal destroyed.

Atriarch – An Unending Pathway

January 5, 2015 –

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Generic post-metal with bassier distorted power chords and doom metal pacing, Atriarch would like you to think that they are ” a living entity comprised of four parts, offering catharsis through sonic ritual. Our aim is to tear a hole in the veil that blinds us from our true selves. We are bombarded with ideals of a superficial shallow lifestyle, that we are enslaved to maintain.”

Even more, their press release states that Atriarch is “a mesmerizing death/doom metal force encompassing haunting atmospheres and droning avalanches of ritualistic sludge, a living entity comprised of four parts, offering catharsis through sonic ritual.” It then mentions their two “critically adored” previous records. Then the band adds: “Our aim is to tear a hole in the veil that blinds us from our true selves. We are bombarded with ideals of a superficial shallow lifestyle, that we are enslaved to maintain. This veil has become so powerful and overwhelming that we ignore our spirits to worship our shells, as money stokes the fires that burns our immortal souls. Greed corruption fear and hate is the true face of this Self Serving way of life that we have come to call ‘normal.’ While we believe in opening our minds and expanding our spirits we cannot forget our ability to fight. The spiritual battle for freedom of mind and body can be fought on all levels and violence is in our nature. There is no god there is no devil there is an All Encompassing force that connects all living things. Embrace the ritual and the veil will come crashing down…”

While we do not want to commmit the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, it seems that critical adoration increases the closer a band approximates the mainstream norm, which in this age is indie rock. If you take indie rock, slow it down and play it in power chords instead of open chords, then add a ton of screaming in an “emotional” way, you get something like Atriarch. While no individual part of this is offensive, the album adds up to a heap of boredom. You have heard these chord progressions before in a similar context. These rhythms you have also heard fit together in similar ways. It is just slower, bassier and with more screaming. Perhaps if they added a dying hyena it would get even more critical acclaim.

Remains – Angels Burned

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If there is ever a death metal album to break your heart, it is Remains Angels Burned: a collection of excellent riffs and ideas which never fully make it to realization, resulting in an album with filler and disorganization predominating over concepts that should stand on their own.

Many of these riffs show a detailed study of the past three decades of death metal and picking up on patterns which had potential to be developed in other ways, and doing so, but the songs feel like sketches where great riffs form the center but much of the rest is filled-in with junker riffs, e.g. bounce on the same chord a few times or a chromatic fill with no shape. Inevitably it will be compared to Suffocation Breeding the Spawn, which similarly created a “hasty” feel with many good ideas suspended in technique alone. With more time to think through these songs, Remains could have isolated the point they wanted listeners to get to as a culmination, instead of repeating it and then patching together a song.

Two basic conditions destroy death metal albums: being predictable and being disorganized. This falls under the latter, with as a consequence of its disorganization, a tendency to fill in song form without content. This is a crushing shame since there are so many amazing riffs and fertile ideas which get lost in the flood. If I had a wish for the new year, it would be that Remains get back in the practice room — not the studio — and rework this album until its brilliance outshines its disadvantages.

How music reviews are made

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If you must (“must”) watch television, probably the best thing on continues to be the Canadian program How It’s Made which shows the process by which everyday objects are manufactured. A similar program for the music industry might attract fewer watchers but be similarly informative.

The basics of the industry are that labels produce records, media write about those records, and artists — a pretentious term for musicians and bands — try to get chosen by either or both. Most records produce almost all of the profit they will create within a relatively short duration of their release. Labels need to constantly produce output so that they stay in the news, and media needs to constantly produce favorites (or drama) to sell news. Artists, on the other hand, are trying to create long-term audiences, but only if the artist believes they can produce quality material for a long period. Otherwise, their goal is to cash in and drop out, so they can go back to being the cool barista in a seaside town known for having put out that edgy metalcore album back in ’06.

When labels send out promotional packages, their goal is to ensure the reviewer spends as little time on the music as possible. They would prefer that the reviewer spend most of her time on the press release and biography, writing about the “unique” background to the band and how their album release is a news event, not a musical event. Ideally, the writer will focus on production and style more than substance, since new variations in production and style are easily produced while quality music is limited to a certain percentage of artists and striving for quality makes artists more valuable and labels/media less valuable.

The gig as a music reviewer is to say as little as possibly that is not blindingly obvious about the music while working in as many details as possible. The most successful reviews talk mostly about the biography, then about production, then style, and only finally in passing about the music itself. By the music itself I mean the composition, such that if you transferred it to midi or kazoo you would still recognize the song(s) but all of the production values from guitar sound through effects would be removed and you would see the composition as it is. If you have ever listened to someone playing acoustic guitar and realized the music sounds familiar, then figured out which song they are playing, you have had the experience of connecting with the music itself. The music itself however is the one part of music as a commodity that cannot be easily quantified and reproduced through systematic means (think of a recipe or instruction book). As a result, the music itself makes no one any money during the short period in which most albums generate profit.

You may see familiar names when you switch between your favorite magazines and your favorite music labels and the promotion companies that service them. The goal of most music reviewers is to get promoted within the industry, either as workers at the labels or writers in the media. They do this by making personal contacts, which generally happens when they are helpful to those people and promote whatever release they are working at the time. Very few people stay in the industry for long because it rewards a certain type of highly sociable person who writes whatever is needed to promote a record. This is why when you read record reviews, they normally take on a breathless tone that borders on praise. The goal of the reviewer is as a marketer, not a writer. Their job is to make you want to buy the album, but in such a way that you think it is your own idea, and so you blame no one when two weeks later you stop listening to it.

Most people are not words-people. They operate by gut feel, which is how their brains make a synopsis of all of the impulses they have in response to something. They tend to respond enthusiastically to new things but as time goes on, they respond less to them. For this reason, very few fans are aware of bad albums versus good ones. They know only that they bought something, they were excited about it, and then… it just sort of faded out of their consciousness. It became less interesting. The methods of art and music are well-known after centuries of exploration and what makes an album stay with us is no mystery. A good album is both musically adept, even if primitive, in that it is organized and produces something pleasing and non-obvious out of what it has to work with, and evocative, or representative of some feeling in ourselves or experience we have had in the world. Very few albums do this, but lots of albums can hit us with the pure physical sensation of listening to them, like acrobatic guitars, intense production, a bizarre or fresh style or even pure sonic intensity. These fascinate for a short while and then fade from our awareness.

As a reader, you must now be thinking this article is somewhat apocalyptic. I have just told you that the music industry has interests contrary to your own; they want to pump out formulaic stuff with new style/production, and you want to listen to music that stretches your time, money and energy by rewarding your listening minutes over many years. Actually I consider myself on the side of the music industry, because without labels to concentrate money that they can invest in production and promotion, good bands would remain unheard and without the budget to bring their promising music to a point where it is both pleasant as composition and pleasant to be heard. Few would listen to Beethoven if the only albums were played on kazoos and recorded on iPhones in subway restrooms. The music industry represents its own worst enemy because whenever something new — a band, an idea, a genre — makes a fan base, industry grows in response to it and produces more stuff “like” it that does not deliver the punch of the original. They thus ride trends for profit and then self-destruct when the trend is over, excepting a few labels who rise above the rest on the basis of having more profit, thus more money to put out new releases. The industry would be healthier if it could stop riding trends and instead focus on what makes bands and labels wealthy, which is the long tail or long-term relationship with fands.

The archetypal long tail band is Metallica. When …And Justice For All broke into the top 200, it brought every previous album of the band with it. During its classic era, when Metallica put out a new album and made a new fan, that fan tended to go out and buy everything else the band did, plus tshirts and concert tickets. It is the same way with massively successful acts in every genre — they cultivate a dedicated fanbase — but metal is a standout in how clearly it is defined in this way. The labels that dominate are the ones who get behind a band that cultivates a long-term audience. However, these bands are few and far between so labels make do with what they have. Unfortunately for them, the market is contracting as online availability of music reduces the power of novelty (“newness” + unique production/style). People can simply listen to the new fascination online for two weeks and then move on without having bought it.

To counter this, I propose a new model for the music industry: licensing. Under this model, bands would retain their copyright in an album and take out a license from the label, which would have the right to retain the album as long as they kept it in print. Big labels would license this content from smaller labels, creating a pyramid where the top reflects the bands with the best long-term audience potential and the bottom reflects new entries who are trying to build that audience. This would put more of a burden on the bands, who would be essentially taking a loan from the labels to produce their albums in exchange for that extensive promotion, but would enable labels to focus on the true breadwinners with their long-tail artists. In addition, because artists would be forced to assume direction of their efforts, there would be less of the kind of childish behavior of superstars in the 1970s and 1980s that caused labels to become strict in how they control their artists. This model also fits with the de facto standard of online music sales as they will become, which is the granting of a license to “own” the music regardless of form to the consumer. When physical form is no longer as important, we switch from a “goods” model to a “services” model, and the sooner labels do this the sooner they escape the overhead of defending a past business model and can move on to the future.

Akashah – Eagna an Marbh

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Akashah starts with Iron Maiden styled heavy metal and mixes in diverse influences ranging from the speed/death metal of Absu, the lengthy melodic passages of Dissection, the grandeur of viking-era Bathory, the odd grooves of 80s Gothic rock and the strange sad simple melodies of neofolk. Add to this choruses that are more infectious than Ebola on a bath house water fountain and you have the fundamental Akashah approach. Songs do not reach for unrealistic symmetry as bad music in the 1990s did, but find a catchy phrase and then expand upon it in a circular way that gratifies all of the emotional potential it has without delivery release.

The music that pours out as a result is sentimental like heavy metal but with the more advanced technique of putting energy into the riffs themselves and using them in a dramatic way. It approximates the narrative stream of newer death metal and black metal as a result, but the band clearly favors emotional moments — and this band is more outright and unconcealedly emotional than most bands on the heavier side of rock — and so goes back to a satisfying verse-chorus pair to hash that out, interrupting this loop to introduce tension with new riffs but not as frequently as might prevent a certain sense of being worn down by the listener. At times it resembles the black metal/heavy metal/doom metal hybrid of early Varathron in its riff phrasing. While the band writes excellent riffs both within known forms and of a nature entirely unique to themselves, songs follow the heavy metal format and so do not vary internal riffs as much, which leads to a loss of inertia on some of these longer songs; in addition, some melodies are too evenly balanced which creates overly-symmetrical phrases paired to repetitive vocal rhythms that are too obvious or too complete, giving the songs a jingle-like nature.

Inevitably, people will compared Akashah to Absu: the same speed metal infusion into heavy metal marks the heavier riffs on this album, as does the reliance on what feels like Celtic or central European melodies with insanely catchy choruses. Moments on Eagna an Marbh compare favorably with the best from black metal and heavy metal, but this album badly needs an edit to keep from feeling repetitive and to develop some of these ideas outside the chorus cycle. Nonetheless, there are riffs on this album that show up nowhere else and many moments of fine songwriting that, if properly channeled, could make for an A-level metal album.

Woodtemple – Hidden in Eternal Shadow

January 4, 2015 –

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For those who wanted more of Following the Voice of Blood, Woodtemple approximates this style in longer songs that allow a range of emotion to create a backstory to the dominant mood of darkness and ambiguity. Often these take the form of folksinger style acoustic (or at least sans distortion) strumming of simple melodies which reflect often pastoral moods, before contrast with abrupt tempo change to the darker black metal tremolo or churning slow strum in the style inspired by Mayhem/Thorns but taken to a darker place. While these two tracks sound like they could have come off the Graveland album, the emotional outlook for Woodtemple is both more naturalistic and more varied.

Vocals follow an entirely open pattern that comments at half-speed to the pace of the riff, with guitars enfolding internal texture through strumming speed and variation among strings creating an empty and lonely sound, allowing songs to background drums to a faster pace without making the guitars pick up speed, although creating a background of urgency. Often dual guitar tracks create a clear voice of simple strumming over a brooding, distorted sound, building up a tension of instability and threat within the sound. Songs tend to move in a cyclic pattern through multiple riffs that return to a chorus riff and vocal pattern through the contrast created by other pairs of riffs warring it out to establish a mood to contrast the dominant theme.

Hidden in Eternal Shadow creates the experiment black metal should have embarked on earlier in creating the intense dark atmosphere for which the genre is known, and then manipulating it like a mural, taking it to different places as a means of creating context and showing the origin of the melancholic morbidity. This follows up on the experiments of the Graveland/Lord Wind early years which attempted to find a folk voice in black metal that was not merely surfacing, as in the “Viking metal” (power metal with Norse lead guitar melodies and styling) of the time, and does so successfully by creating a new form of ambience which both drones and builds upon itself to the point of expression of melody. For this reason, Hidden in Eternal Shadow shows not just Woodtemple at its strongest but black metal evolving to pick up the promise it birthed and nurture it further toward the creation of what might be a new genre.

The History Of Black Metal

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As detailed in The Heavy Metal FAQ, heavy metal developed through parallels found between several musical traditions both inside and outside of the developing genre. Black Sabbath emerged from the intersection between heavy rock, nascent punk and progressive rock; black metal emerged from proto-underground metal and hardcore punk, taking the most intense aspects of each and fusing them together.

The Until the Light Takes Us crew filmed a lengthy interview with Fenriz in which he outlines the roots of black metal in several stages, from its rise in heavy metal with Black Sabbath, Motorhead and Mercyful Fate through the expansion out of speed metal (via hardcore and thrash) through Slayer and finally, the proliferation of bands inspired by NWOBHM band Venom such as Sodom, Hellhammer and Destruction from which much of the modern sound emerged, finalized (in his view) with Bathory Under the Sign of the Black Mark.

As black metal rotates around the same carcass that stopped artistically expanding 22 years ago, understanding its roots becomes even more important as it is necessary to drive away the ghouls, parasites and grave-robbers desperate for some of its legend through imitation and pandering to a new audience. The two videos add up to about fifty minutes of air time and worth watching for the black metal fan, historian or curious bystander.

Thou Shell of Death – Sepulchral Silence

January 3, 2015 –

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Resembling a collision between space-ambient music, doom metal and black metal, Thou Shell of Death creates slow-paced doom metal with the atmosphere of black metal bands — a more melancholic, brooding and existentially nihilistic outlook — but like past doom metal greats Winter, the lead instrument here may well be the keyboards, which in reverb-heavy waves lace melody through crashing guitar chords which gives them both context and foreshadows development. The ethereal and spectral sound of the keyboards conveys simultaneously an otherworldly removal and a soaring sense of possibility, which temples the normal self-indulgence of doom metal into an exploration of wonder in the darkened halls of a fallen world.

Guitars on Sepulchral Silence intelligently vary texture in the background under the keyboards which are more clearly heard both through being louder in the mix and being a clearer sound, which makes their orientation as lead intelligence. The musical role of guitar in this context is to set a basic progression in the background which the keyboards riff against in order to produce a sense of convergence, as if actors were in harmony with their background and role rather than opposed. Often mid-paced, guitars use a variety of technique including fast downstroking and tremolo but just as often fall back to the Black Sabbath/Winter styled power chords played open, or strummed once and allowed to resonate. Behind them drums lag comfortably and minimally, removing what might have been a distraction to a role as timekeeper plus a sound of inexorable time that affirms emptiness. Each progression stands distinct and keyboards take advantage of this to set up a mood that, like ambient music even of the discotheque variety, resonates around the listener while vocals are demoted to speech filling in the gaps with a narrative to center the song. Over this, heavily reverbed vocals hang like shrouds and flags hanging torn above ruins, battered by the winds of history.

Avoiding the dual traps of becoming essentially slowed-down hard rock or slowed-down death metal, Thou Shell of Death renovates funeral doom music with a new variety of emotions and technique that avoids the pitfall of this music, which is that it is often tedious both from its slowness and the resulting relative invariance of its riff texture. While riffs are relatively few compared to death metal in these songs, as in black metal songs, each serves a purpose and riffs tend to change with lyrical progress, creating the sense of a morbid storybook tale narrated by a demon rather than a rock song over which someone is ad libbing Tolkien. From this basic approach, Sepulchral Silence makes a dense liquid atmosphere that provides all of the dread and despair of doom metal but with the adventurous spirit of black metal and the hope of discovery that pervades electronic music, creating a new voice for funeral doom.

Woodtemple – Forgotten Pride

January 2, 2015 –

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Beginning its life as a band that clearly derived most of its influence from middle period Graveland, Woodtemple expanded with the addition of Graveland songwriter Rob Darken and now returns with short album clocking in at just over a half an hour. The fully-developed Woodtemple sound features its original form of flowing melodies and expansive song construction which resembles the mental effect of riding a galloping horse through a forested landscape, but pushes further on this release to make these patterns evocative of epic events and as a result shaping the wandering to tell a story. The general sound approximates the darker and more aggressive approach of Following the Voice of Blood-era Graveland, but with the distinct gentler and yet more varied sensibility that has been the hallmark of Woodtemple, in addition to recent Lord Wind-style instrumentation.

Hidden in Eternal Shadow adds a new range of thematic voices such that pleasant uplifting motifs exist in conflict with darker ones, and within the zone of darker sounds, melodies span the gamut from melancholic to outright evil, even capturing an exuberant and life-affirming sound at times (merely for contrast, of course — this is not peeking into the artist’s soul. Honest.). The new approach captures more of the “forest wandering” atmosphere of the earlier works by adding context and greater internal change, allowing these songs to become atmospheric adventures with the epic feel that black metal manifested against the grain. More Wagnerian in this sense, the longer songs use that space to let these themes play out, mixing guitars with female vocals and keyboards to create a soundtrack effect of immersive sound. As usual, a dominant pair of riffs occupy most of the space to achieve a dominant mood, but the variations introduce detours which return to the main theme with a renewed sense of its solidity having been tested in conflict. The malevolent and rancid vocals of early Graveland or Gorgoroth expand to fill each phrase, avoiding emphasis on the beat for a counterpoint to the rhythm of the guitars, creating a sense of an broader and more elemental narrative guiding the more temporal actions of guitars and bass. The heavy folk atmosphere and epic framing of a soundtrack creates a world in which the listener is both lost and oriented.

Perhaps one of the few black metal bands worth paying attention to in the last decade, Woodtemple increases its power with Hidden in Eternal Shadows. What was once less focused circular landscape riffing now becomes a theater of collision between oppositional forces as a wanderer tries to find root in an alien land, and the gentle slopes and chasms of past songs become broader and yet more nuanced as if showing us the transition between valleys of a fully-laden warrior. It captures the escapism of black metal while applying it to a sense of a desired aesthetic, compelling us to return to this ruined world and see its possibilities. While this album shows us only a short taste at a little over a half-hour, it restores the original — actual — black metal sound of warlike music with a contemplative, melancholic soul.

How to kick metal into overdrive

January 1, 2015 –

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In a saner world, all children approaching the age of purchasing their own music would be given the 2-disc set of Andres Segovia entitled The Art of Segovia and made to listen and understand it before moving on. This collection of songs reveals not just how good music can be, but how to think about music both as technical musicianship and as art.

A collection of songs arranged and performed by Andres Segovia, this set shows instrumental prowess at its best where it seems more controlled. Most of these pieces came from composers who originally wrote either for guitar or small ensembles, and Segovia laid them out so he could play multiple melody lines on guitar over the length of each song. As a result, these songs are dense in a way that most popular music is not, in that each part relates to the previous material in the piece but seeks to not just complement but expand upon what is there. Melodies grow from a few notes to a full-fledged expression and then modify themselves with material from contrasting voices in each song, creating an effect like reading a great book where every character changes over the course of their adventures while simultaneously influencing the course of that journey. What at first sound like fills and turn-arounds are not spurious material but continuation of the song, with every note played serving some purpose and nothing extraneous or for the sake of showing off. This alone puts the lie to technical music of the current time, where a simplistic song if dressed up in recognized “hard” techniques becomes “technical,” even if those adornments contribute nothing to the song itself. The technical art here is in the writing and arrangement of the music in addition to the performance.

In addition, The Art of Segovia forces us to look at what makes a song — one medium among several for the mental process we call “art” — strike us as great instead of simply adequate plus novel. Each of these songs evokes a feeling that is both unique to the song and can be found in life itself, not a subjective sense but more a subjective perception of the objective translated into a form that any logical mind can process. This transcends the limitations of not only the medium but the human mind itself, creating a commonality based on an accurate view of reality that is nonetheless interpretive, instead of pandering to the lowest common denominator that a crowd would find pleasing. All of the tools of art — rhythm, melody, harmony and phrase — apply themselves to revealing the inner essence of a complex experience, not so much distilling it to a simple statement as walking us through its evolution and reaching a moment of clarity, then allowing it to fade away as we absorb what we have sensed.

Very few people who listen to rock, metal, jazz or blues have sat down to listen to a great work, understand it, and understand outside of its medium what makes it great. As with a great book, a great piece of music reveals something in life that we have not discovered or denied. It shows us the truth within, not creating another surface category, and in doing so makes us consider how this experience is universal to those who invest the time in understanding it. Truth meets us halfway between our perspective and the world. Great art lifts us out of the subjective, transforms the objective through not just the power of personality but the insight of talent, and delivers it to us in a form that re-discovers life with freshness through a vividly accurate portrayal that shows the hidden possibility lurking even within the mundane. When we have that level of expectation for art, the trivial novelty and diehard pandering to comfortingly familiar sounds fades away and instead we seek something of greater clarity, power and ultimately meaning. Naturally this is not popular with record labels, for whom discovering a Segovia each month is impossible, but for those who value their time and want to listen to music that shows the best of what humanity can do, The Art of Segovia gives us a yardstick against which all great albums must compare.

Not all of these will be as technical as Segovia’s playing or the writing of the composers he arranges. They do not need to be. If they uphold the same spirit of discovery and revelation that makes this art so profound, they can do so with fewer musical techniques. But if they do not live up to that understanding of what art and by extension music can be, they sound hollow in comparison to Segovia and stand no chance of comparison. The best of metal lives up to this standard and it refuses to be controlled by those who wish to dumb it down so they can sell more of it or use it to push a message. As we go into a new year, and the second half of a dubious decade, demanding metal that live up to this standard ensures that we will have less to listen to, but enjoy it more.