Crushing old school death metal band Imprecation have unleashed new merchandise upon the world, but it takes a bit of old school engineering to get your hands on it. The new merch is specifically a tshirt designed by notorious underground artist Mark Riddick, a tshirt featuring the cover of last year’s Satanae Tenebris Infinita, and a logo patch for your killcoat or backpack.
Many of those who are involved with music have spoken praise for the 1980s speed metal explosion, which offered a form of music with both intensity and integrity. Until the great wave of commercialization, it simply refused to join the social impulse to all get along and behave like everyone else.
But a recent interview with Dominic West, who accompanied the UK’s Prince Harry to the North Pole, confirms that speed metal may have more going for it than simply being aloof to the great herding instinct. It is the music not only of Royals, but of soldiers:
The royal is addicted to the music of bands including Megadeth, Slayer, Metallica and Anthrax, according to actor Dominic West.
Dominic, 44, said it was the only music that Harry, 29, would listen to on their recent Walking With The Wounded expedition to the South Pole.
He said: “Harry has a terrible selection on his iPod. It is the sort of thing soldiers listen to. Hardcore thrash metal.”
While none of us want to be stuck in the 1980s, and retro-nostalgia is both embarrassing and makes us hate the future, perhaps it is time for metal to look back at what made speed metal so popular.
First, it did not behave. When the teacher said, “Everyone sit down,” it ran around its desk. When the teacher wanted everyone to play nice with each other, it did not. When someone said “Give peace a chance,” speed metal gave them the finger. It was disobedient, lawless, wild and uncontrolled.
Second, it had musical integrity. Please just say no to either (a) droning three-chord “trve kvlt” retro-metal and (b) droning three-chord “innovative and open-minded” post-metal. It’s musical simplisticism. No one seems against minimalism per se, but when it becomes an excuse to dumb it down, it’s time to leave the hall.
Third, it had a sense of imagination and vision — and abandoning those things crushed it. When Metallica were writing songs about Cthulhu, they were interesting; when they turned to social topics, they got less so. Similarly Slayer was awesome when writing about Satan and vampires but faded out when they started writing about serial killers and politics. (All of Anthrax’s best material is about comic books, and Megadeth is best when either full-on into drugs or full-on into Christ.)
Death metal and black metal at least initially carried on these values but over time got closer to the punk rock that had sold-out, standardized itself and caved in before them. When death metal was 300 intricate but occult nihilist riffs per song, it piqued our attention; when it became three riffs in verse-chorus form it made itself into a parody.
Perhaps our new watchword in metal should be to make music that belongs on Prince Harry’s iPod. As a cultural barometer, he provides a better sense of how metal is doing than most other sources we could consult.
For some time we have delved into academia and its treatment of heavy metal. Today however we take another course, which is to look at the technology of heavy metal and its implications for both society and technology.
You’re teaching an engineering class on the advances in technologies and how they have affected heavy metal music. Can you tell us what types of technologies these are? What are the “defining characteristics” of heavy metal that these have impacted?
I focus on the foundational characteristics of loudness and distortion and then expand from there. This means a lot of electronics, from signal generation via pickups and strings to amplification systems to signal modification via pedals, and mechanical design, including materials selection and manufacturing processes. I integrate these and more engineering aspects with the musical and cultural developments that have happened over the past 50 years.
How does global culture factor into this? Are you speaking of communications technologies here? For global culture, it is on a number of different levels.
“Global” for me and my university is really “non-local,” so we mean both around the world and just outside of immediate familiar surroundings. Heavy metal culture is foreign to a lot of my students, so the class is global for those students. We discuss international perceptions and usage of metal as a vehicle for socio-political commentary. We discuss the demographic aspects of metal as compared to that of larger popular musical culture. We discuss tape trading as the precursor to file sharing, and how there is a worldwide impact that affects band popularity and new band formation. It literally hits on about everything I can squeeze into the class about exploring beyond students’ comfort zones and knowledge bases.
What types of heavy metal do you study in the course?
I start with metal’s pre-history (Wagner, the blues, jazz, surf) and go forward from there. I cover about everything…if it’s in Ian Christe’s Sound of the Beast and Sam Dunn’s work, I address it. I spend the most time on the development of the various subgenres, and how certain technologies have manifested at certain points in time, and try to wrap up with more current trends and expected musical pathways. By and large, students don’t know their history of music in general (let alone metal), and so I try to build that history toward what they DO know.
I understand you’re a heavy metal listener, having recently attended a GWAR live show. What types of metal do you listen to? When did you become a metalhead?
I got into metal at age 8 due to Def Leppard’s “On Through the Night,” but didn’t really look the part until I was in eighth grade. I fit the young white male demographic, but I’ve never been blue-collar despite growing up in a union town and becoming an engineer. I mostly like NWOBHM, 70s metal, Thrash, Progressive and various Extreme subgenres, and will listen to about everything. Glam metal is even metal to me (David Lee Roth/Poison was my first show), and it’s a lot of fun. I’ve always wanted to hear more styles and bands, and expose people to more of what I like by introducing them to bands that I think fit their musical tastes. Iron Maiden is my all-time favorite band, and right now I’m into Kyng and Skeletonwitch pretty strongly.
What is, in your view, the historical importance of heavy metal, and does it signal any changes in the underlying course of human history, technological or otherwise?
Heavy metal’s technological importance is huge. If not for people wanting to make music louder, angrier, or more powerful, we would all still be playing six-string guitars and four-string basses and having relatively small amps. Because of metal, there is a ready market for 8-string guitars that engineers have had to figure out how to design and manufacture, along with all of the supported technology that goes with it (larger pickups, more robust bridges, wider necks, etc.). I also think that heavy metal has been a (not necessarily “the”) primary social voice for rebellion, and a more recent vehicle for the drive for social equality in many other countries (see Heavy Metal Islam by Mark LeVine). I’d like to think that the more that people find avenues to release stress and express their views through music, the less we will hear about people shooting up schools and movie theaters. So far, that hasn’t been the case, and so changing the course of human history is still a work in progress.
What has response been like from your students? Are they metalheads?
The students seem to love the class. I’d say that at the start of a given semester, about 20% of the students are metalheads and many of the rest of them take the class because it either sounds interesting, fulfills a math liberal education requirement, or think I’d be fun as an instructor. By the end of the semester, I’ve usually converted (at some level) about half of the non-metalheads into quasi-metalheads or better, and most of the rest have a greater appreciation for metal and its culture. The most satisfying thing, though, is that the class helps break down barriers and stereotypes that students have, and students really start thinking differently about the world around them and their interactions with it. Self-reflection is a HUGE part of the class.
Can you tell us a little bit more about yourself? How did you get involved in academia? What motivated you to be involved with engineering and computing?
Full disclosure…engineering wasn’t my first goal. I wanted to be a stand-up comic (Eddie Murphy was an idol), then an NFL quarterback, then a rock star, and THEN an engineer. I’ve always been in the gifted programs in school, but I was also always the class clown/athlete/music expert too, so I was never part of any particular cliques in school. I started college (Purdue U) with the intent of getting a job as an engineer, despite not really knowing what that meant. I liked to learn new stuff, whatever it was, and I was largely the only engineer in college who cared about liberal education. I decided to get my doctorate in engineering (U of Pennsylvania) because my BS degree job was pretty blah.
My first post-PhD job was managing a lab and working an electron microscope. Never put the class clown/lead singer/QB personality in a dark closed room by themselves… :) My mother-in-law got me to consider academia, as she pointed me to a job (my current one) where my personality was going to be core, and my technical chops were nice to have along for the ride.
I love what I do, because I recruit, advise, teach, help, and everything else that my “social me” needs to do. I’ve earned an endowment to my position because I throw myself and my passion into everything I do here. I’ve got the respect here that allows me to not only propose a heavy metal-and-engineering class, but also get it approved and part of the liberal education plan and have it accepted as an honors course. Now I get to include metal as a regular part of my job, and it’s GREAT!
Through the decades, metal has always been more like a crossroads than a cul-de-sac, with the intersection of punk and industrial as well as metal’s own internal genres, divided roughly between above-ground (heavy metal, nu-metal, glam metal) and underground (NWOBHM, death metal). The different threads feed back and forth into one another and cross-influence, but too much influence from any one would assimilate the whole genre.
Thus Caliban wanders into difficult waters. This band fuses Eskimo Callboy-style techno-influenced metalcore with post-metal and alternative metal, mixing in a fair amount of speed metal technique as well. The core of this band is the stadium hard rock of the 1980s and the alternative rock of the 1990s, which gives it a wistful and yet highly personal sound, like a nobody suddenly placed on national television and told to defend his life through a life history. Thus per its metalcore heritage it is highly emotional, as emo is a huge part of metalcore, but Caliban meld that 1980s stadium rock grandeur into the tendency of techno and industrial bands to make ceremonial moments out of their raging music. As a result, songs tend to rage along with metal riffs, then go into alternative rock choruses, and after a while expand into a bigger “meta-chorus” that sounds like a cross between Nine Inch Nails and a Chemical Brothers set.
Much of the focus is on the vocals which admittedly produce 1990s throwbacks, sounding a lot like a cross between Foo Fighters and Coldplay. They tend to use soaring melodies almost like those found in inspirational music, designed to contrast the distorted vocals which tend to chant in Pantera-style confrontational mode that got lifted from NYHC and Biohazard. This is a lot like what the more aggressive nu-metal bands do, but Caliban turn the volume up to ten with more melodic vocals and angrier chants. Although this leads to a binary focus in songwriting, where the soft conflicts the hard and fades out to an emotional finish, this is what makes for perfect radio/MTV hard rock. It delivers a ballad-like finish to an equal balance of aggression and sensitivity which is what today’s sophisticated audiences desire.
If you’re looking for something that is on the aboveground side of metal and in fact leans toward the rock side, which combines the raw emotion of 1980s stadium rock with the world-weary cynicism of 1990s alternative rock and the social aptitude of techno and metalcore, Caliban Ghost Empire offers something new you might want to check out. It’s like a Foo Fighters or Filter or Devin Townshend for this generation. Ghost Empire will not appeal to underground metalheads but might be a good introduction to the genre for people raised on the MTV-style emotive rock of contemporary fame.
Imagine you’ve returned to those magic years between 1985 and 1987. Thrash exploded, followed by speed metal and then the nascent proto-death/black bands are emerging. Almost everything is tinged with Metallica since they are looking like the first band of this ilk to make it out of the underground and into mainstream record stores.
Pentagram (CL) comes to us from those formative years but with two different versions of that time. The first is the second disc in the set, which re-records seven classic tracks using modern production and instrumental know-how. The second is the “first” disc in this set, which is thirteen new songs. While both derive from the fertile era of the middle 1980s, they each take different approaches, with the first disc actually showing more of what this band can do.
At their core these songs have not yet transitioned from speed metal to death metal. These are fundamentally based on the rhythmic riff, not the phrasal riff, and are oriented toward using choppy sounds not booming or columnar ones. However, this enables Pentagram (CL) to layer lead guitars over rhythm guitars, vocals over drums, and then to suspend them selectively, creating what is effectively a technique of adding textural depth to regulate intensity. What that requires is a fairly constant rhythm, thus both verse and chorus riffs and their various transitional riffs use very similar patterns. This pattern applies to both discs.
The second disc may be the more anticipated in the underground as these songs never made it out of the demo stages back in the 1980s when they were written. While we like to be production-agnostic as underground metalheads, because the nature of being “underground” is that you cadge production and promotion where you can, not where is optimal, it is often hard to hear what’s going on. These re-produced songs show a gentle hand in keeping their nature intact while playing them as they were always meant to be played, which is with some technical flair amidst the straightforward riffs and aggressive vocals. It is great to hear these songs ride again and to hear them in the context with demos from Possessed, Sepultura, Kreator, Destruction and Rigor Mortis who were at roughly the same time exploring a similar sound.
However, ultimately this reviewer found more to listen to in the first disc. It reminds me of the moments after a party where, the excitement having faded, analysis kicks in — and it’s from that, and not the frenzy of the moment, that emotion really comes. This is a retrospective of the 1980s not in terms of its surface traits but an attempt to get to its root, which is the massive sense of being in transition. These songs deliberately hover on the edge of death metal, and also on the edge of returning to the days of Venom and Motorhead, but also gesture at something else. A sense of suspended belief, the potential for anything to emerge from any moment, and an instability that calls forth primal conflict suffuses these songs. They use styling that may be from the farther side of that 1985-1987 window and apply it in a way that is not “modern” in the sense of metal now, but more fully mature, like the death metal to follow while retaining their speed metal core.
Hearing these two discs together is not the ridiculous time machine sensation of Hollywood movies but more like a re-visitation of the events that made the time so much of what it was. The first disc, showing newer songwriting, has a steadier hand. It would benefit from the tighter assembly which threw out anything too repetitive or tangential shown by the second disc, which has songs stripped down for bear as if played by a rogue guerrilla group wandering in the mountains, pursued by a vastly better equipped army. While these songs use the distorted vocals of underground metal, it is more accurate to see this band in the context of the generation before, when nothing had quite taken form and the bands wanted to make a statement underscoring the wisdom of that principle.
The crossover between metal and keyboard music is vast and well-documented to the point that the well-dressed death metal site simply ignores instrumentation and picks the keyboard bands that sound as evil and nihilistic as death metal. Whether that’s works by Neptune Towers, Beherit, Jaaportit, Goatcraft, Burzum or Danzig, evil metal has crossed over to occult keyboards.
Another entry into this world is Khand, made by lifelong metalhead and now synthesizer jockey Arillius. Describing his music as “cosmic ambient,” which overlaps with black ambient and dark ambient and neoclassical, Arillius started Khand back in 1998. Influenced by medieval, space and fantasy themes, Khand’s demo “Interstellar Dominions” was released in 2006 and immediately attracted an unusual but dedicated audience. Seven years later, Khand released The Fires of Celestial Ardour which is now available on tape for those who wish to order it.
The Fires of Celestial Ardour shows Khand having refined its style and narrowed its focus, which enables the band to train its resources on a certain type of deep space exploration sound. For those who want to experiment, the album is available as a free download from hi.arc.tow records.
Metal is not a job and will never pay the bills. Hence many metal musicians move on to other careers. Sometimes this includes other forms of music. Such is the case of Lorin Ashton, a/k/a Bassnectar, who previously was in a black/doom metal band called Pale Existence.
Correctly intuiting that metal would not pay the bills, and being from the already-undernoticed San Jose scene which got obscured by the greater prominence of nearby San Francisco, Ashton migrated from underground metal to playing multiple DJ sets a day in an effort to develop his hybrid style.
The result was Bassnectar, a merging of afterhours club music and sonic torment which showed its heavy metal origins. While Ashton retains his long hair and metal/punk tshirts collection, this lengthy history of involvement in underground metal is probably lost on his audience.
Pale Existence also featured Steve Cefala of doom/black metal band Dawning. Most fans don’t know of this underground history, so we present a comparison of Lorin Ashton a/k/a Bassnectar in both the old days as Pale Existence and in his newest form:
Crushing Tampa, FL football death metal band Massacre announce today their release of Back From Beyond, a new full-length album for 2014.
The album will be released on March 24th in Europe and on April 1st in North America via Century Media Records. Returning to the roots of their early 90s trademark sound, Back From Beyond was recorded and mixed by Tim Vazquez of CGM Studios, Florida, and features original MASSACRE members Rick Rozz (guitars; ex-MANTAS/DEATH) and Terry Butler (bass; OBITUARY, ex-DEATH/SIX FEET UNDER), as well as Ed Webb (vocals; ex-DIABOLIC/EULOGY) and Mike Mazzonetto (drums; ex-PAIN PRINCIPLE). The cover artwork was created by Toshihiro Egawa (CRYPTOPSY, KRISIUN, DEVOURMENT, etc.).
Formed in the wake of the breakup of an early Death lineup, Massacre quickly distinguished themselves by approaching old school death metal with creative basic riffs but, instead of relying on the percussive chugging or blasting techniques common to Tampa bands, Massacre used a constant tremolo strum and a big burly warm and fuzzy wave of distortion. The result created an otherworldly album that at the time sounded like nothing else, although it has been widely cloned since.
Back From Beyond has a lot of promise, with a caveat. The lineup is good and the clarity about the mission is good. However, self-referential statements by bands usually make for disasters, and while 2012′s Condemned to the Shadows showed much of their older promise but with more of a heavy metal/hard rock flavor. Hopefully the full-length will head in a more OSDM direction.
Today, Jeff Hanneman would have been fifty years old. The man who helped invent the sound that underlies all of underground death metal did not, as the people around him in the LA suburbs tend to do, waste his life away in repetition. Instead, he forged his own path and we celebrate him for it and the results of it.
Way back in 1983, as now, the holy grail of alienated music was the fusion of any two of its genres: metal, punk and industrial. Specifically there was great interest in using its guitar-based genres to create a new sound. Many people attempted to fuse metal and punk, and many credible sounds came out of it. One path was speed metal, which Metallica unleashed with Kill ‘Em All. Another was thrash, which DRI cut loose with Dirty Rotten LP. But still another was the foundation of death metal and black metal which was introduced by Slayer and refined the following year by Bathory, Hellhammer and Sodom.
Slayer took two things from punk and injected them into the prog-influenced songs structures of NWOBHM: they borrowed the constant tremolo strum, used by punk for drone, and the open drum patterns that allowed guitar to take the lead. Now a new style of music emerged. Rhythm guitar became the lead instrument, rapid-firing changing riffs at the audience while drums framed but did not lead the development. Riffs did not have to perfectly fit the drums which kept going in the background as a kind of timekeeper but not, as in most bands, a way of signaling the guitar to change. Further, riffs became phrasal, building on the longer chord progressions of Black Sabbath to become fully small melodies, developing in response to on another like classical motifs.
Music teachers, who were raised in the rock/jazz idea that drums lead and riffs should emphasize harmonic and a static melodic role, with the primary melodic role and lead instrument (and thus impetus for song “development”) being the voice, found Slayer to be unmusical. The record industry was appalled at this creation that unleashed the demonic side of life in such clarity; they make their money from selling happy illusions, not grim realities translated into elaborately conceived mythologies.
And yet it is this mythological tendency, dating back to “War Pigs,” that saves metal from self-consuming and burning out like hardcore punk. It is not literal; it is imaginative. It turns our focus from ourselves to the nature of power, history, nature and other forces larger than the individual, and then lets us imagine the greatness of participation in those. Where punk turned reality into a protest weapon and source of alienation, metal has turned it into a source of individual desire to do something epic with our lives. Slayer gave that mythological tendency a new voice, not just by singing about demons, vampires and The Holocaust, but by translating the sound of raw power into something you could throw on your bedroom hi-fi and be transported to a different world.
For this reason, Slayer captured the imagination of a generation and continues to enthrall us today. The early albums, which are completely written in horror movie mythology, incite in us a desire to see the hidden possibly occult underpinnings of a society gone insane. The Reign in Blood and afterwards material shows us a more punk-like grasp of all that terrifies us and sends us searching for reasons why, and if not why, how to use such things as war, murder and sadism in some constructive way. Slayer is not protest music; it acknowledges the horror, but doesn’t want to band us together into a drum circle to “stop” these horrors. It recognizes they are eternal. Instead, like the religion it loathed, Slayer drives us to find a way to accept these things as part of life itself, and look for a philosophy that shows us a reason to survive despite all these horrors.
Jeff Hanneman’s influence pervades the Slayer story. He wrote many of the band’s most epic and enduring songs, contributed the mythological outlook, and invented the musical changes described above. While he may be slighted by the Grammy’s, or ignored by a world of people seeking Shakira tunes instead of imaginative but realist metal, to those who can understand his trip — already a naturally elite group — Hanneman’s work is not just a source of wisdom, but of inspiration. In a world asleep, he stayed awake. In a world of imitation, he took his own path. Where most just wanted to participate for reward, he took on life at its most basic level and triumphed. For that reason, we’ll always celebrate his life and work.
An age of distrust.
When too many utterly mindless and pandering bands pile up in the review queue, even life seems washed out and hopeless. At that point, even death metal has lost its power and mystique. When that happens, I throw on Demilich Nespithe and my faith in the genre is restored. This album presents such a creative and yet meaningful interpretation of death metal that it restores faith in a lot more than the genre.
The 20th Adversary of Emptiness reproduces a restored Nespithe complete with original art, adds two songs from the 2006 return of Demilich, and then compiles the demos of this formative band. Svart Records prints these on vinyl and CD formats, with the vinyl option as a box set and the CD for more everyday listening (that way you can have a copy in the car, too). Naturally this adds three areas for study.
The original album remains as powerful as it was back in the 1990s. If any remastering has occurred, it has been slight because the originally subterranean and organic sound has been preserved. There is not much to say about this classic that wasn’t said in the original 1993 review, but for a short introduction, it is a death metal album that uses lead riffing and complex riff-rhythm interaction and development to create an entirely otherworldly sound. Into this it drops doubt, loneliness, and a sense of restoration through imagination. It is from the oldest school of artistry and a work of intensely fine-tuned thinking and musicianship.
Much will be made of the newer tracks. I see these as an attempt to take the classic Demilich sound into the more technical and streamlined death metal of the early 2000s. In fact, two these songs — “of Vanishing” and “of Emptiness” — were written in the early 1990s, while “Faces Right Below the Skin of the Earth” was the only one penned in 2006. The three tracks hold true to the Demilich format but give it more aggression and death metal thrills. “Faces Right Below the Skin of the Earth” starts with a rhythm tear that resembles something Covenant-era Morbid Angel and first album At the Gates might envision if they collaborated, but then drops into a cyclic riff that follows the old Demilich pattern. In developing that riff, the band put it into the more rhythmically challenging format that contemporary metal listeners might desire, but then begin their trademark cyclic polyrhythm while mutating the riff toward a larger pattern. Eventually this becomes the concluding theme and the song drives hard to a conclusion. “of Vanishing” uses a Morbid Angel trope, namely “Immortal Rites,” but gives it the more complex rhythmic and melodic vision of Demilich. This then filters through a full stop and drum roll into Demilich-styled cyclic melodic riffing before returning to theme. Interesting guitar solo on this one. “of Emptiness” uses a throttling melodic riff more like the stuff that Necrovore used to apply, and builds into the most conventional song in this three-track set. It slides into an almost Black Sabbath-styled doomy charging riff and alternates it with lead-picked riffs used to change tempo and add depth, but then returns to its aggressive attack. This track uses a lot of stops and starts and loses some momentum. On the whole, these three tracks show an interesting attempt to modernize Demilich and make it more aggressive, but also show why the band probably did not want to continue going in that direction. Sometimes the past is too distinct to be resurrected as anything but itself, and not everyone may want to do that two decades later.
On to the demos… these are fascinating because they show how deliberate the final Demilich sound really is. These songs are familiar but each has different changes. In particular, different styles of lead guitar were tried as well as attempts to make the riffs fit more into the rhythm styles favored by different subgenres of death metal. The closer demos get to Nespithe chronologically the more they exhibit an intense technicality and unique style, but as one goes back in time they are closer to standard death metal with some unique innovations woven in. As time passes, the weaving becomes more intense and the new style takes over the raw elements. It is fascinating to watch these songs develop and the demo pressing here is entirely worth the price of this album (or even box set). They do not bore and there is always something new to be heard in each of these classic demo tracks.
20th Adversary of Emptiness offers something to just about anyone. If this is your first Demilich experience, stick to the first disk (Nespithe) for a glimpse into classic death metal when it wasn’t afraid to be weird. For dyed-in-the-wool Demilich fans and hardcores, there’s hours of interest to be found in tracking back these older demo pieces and seeing where they go. Both groups will enjoy the three 2006-era tracks which show a more violent and streamlined Demilich. Ultimately, this whole package lives up to its strange title because it is an adversary of emptiness.
This music evokes loneliness and a hollow, achingly empty universe without inherent point, and shows the creation of a mythos within that void that could keep us focused on survival and improvement even through a long and depleting arctic circle winter. Seeing these rare tracks ride again is rewarding as is seeing Nespithe get the credit that it has always deserved but almost missed as people chased death metal trends back in the day. The booklet, featuring both classic art and pictures, comes with a length interview with guitarist Antti Boman and his commentary on each song with lyrics. This is rare and wonderful also. Just make sure you avoid reading the introduction, which is written by some idiot and makes no sense.