Heavy metal linked to systemic thinking

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Researchers have found that heavy metal fans tend to be systemic thinkers, leading to the supposition that systemic thinkers like heavy metal because its structure, themes or musicality rewards those who think on a systemic level. As one summary read:

Participants were then subjected to 50 short pieces of music spanning 26 different styles, and asked to give each a rating between one and 10.

People who scored highly on empathy were more likely to be drawn to R&B, soft rock and folk.

In contrast those who score more highly on systemising tended to like music by heavy metal bands and more complex, avant-garde jazz.

In other words, people who think at an empathic level reward music which is emotional on its surface, but those who think structurally and broadly like metal fans tend to only feel rewarded when the emotion emerges from the conflicts within the music itself, more like “set/setting” than adding some minor notes to a melody or dramatic vocals.

As research finds many ways further into metal, the conclusion becomes clear that people like metal for different reasons than other mainstream music. While metal academia itself has not raised this point directly, this research and other recent revelations about the mentality of metal suggest that direction is a rewarding area of study.

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Sammath to reissue debut LP on Hammerheart

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Sammath unleashed its debut album Strijd in 1999 to not much fanfare. The black metal community had essentially collapsed under a wave of Dimmu Borgir/Cradle of Filth clones, and the underground had retreated to the Full Moon Productions board to re-style punk riffs as black metal and make boring music that is forgotten at this time. Almost no one wanted to simply keep their eye on what had worked and make it return.

As our review published at the time opined, however, Strijd succeeded because it conveyed both the elegance and violence of black metal, instead of becoming a top hatted children’s show satire focusing only on what the Thomas Kinkade fans of the world think is “elegant” (in America at least, every pretentious but incompetent person must have at least one Thomas Kinkade painting, Ansel Adams print, and dreamcatcher). Sammath brought back the ancient feeling, the meditative look at a life shrouded in darkness, and the misanthropy and intolerance for stupidity and lies that made black metal so satisfying in the midst of the lie-drenched 1990s.

Hammerheart Records has been focusing more of its attention on resurrecting classics and picking out modern bands with the same power, which seems to signal that the great metalcore trend is on the wane and people are looking for the kind of power they found in traditional metal genres, again. Strijd delivers this in high-powered generous doses but also maintains its introspective side, creating the perfect melancholic warrior album for a dying world. Although a date for the vinyl re-issue has not been specified, it is something to look forward to sometime in the latter half of 2015.

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Deverills Nexion releasing A Sinister Tarot on Ajna Offensive

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Cult ritual ambient/discovered sounds band Deverills Nexion will release its upcoming The Sinister Tarot – A Musickal Working, Instruments Modern and Voice LP with a 12 page A5 booklet via Ajna Offensive later this month. Consisting of ritual formatting to instrumental and natural sounds, the music of Deverills Nexion fits in with bands such as Lull and Lustmord who create background ambient, although with an occult flair.

The LP will be distributed in Europe by The Sinister Flame (email them to reserve a copy), and is also available from the band website. The band describes the work with the following press release:

The Sinister Tarot is a variant of the “standard” tarot. It is described fully in the Order of Nine Angles’ key guide to practical Satanism, NAOS. Each track is an interpretation in sound of a specific card (from the major arcana only for the purposes of this “album”).

The musick herein can be seen as well as heard, being a spontaneous manifestation expressed through the magickal meditations of each element, associative and dissociative, linear or otherwise. The musick, like that of the individualized tarot cards of the sinister deck, being self-divined, self-made, self-sourced to a largely personal degree, still has immense relevance for others as it further informs and enriches the egregore of the Septenary path that is ONA.

With visualizations in sound of:
Col Cruachan, the hill of the wizard (1. The Magickian)
Forest tides (4. Lord of the Earth)
Inversely twisting oak gibbet (12. The Hanged Man)
The geryne of Satan (8. Change)
Sisters of the starry mere (10. Wyrd)
Ere the dancers depart (19. The Sun)
A Deverills man at the Bladud’s Head (20. The Aeon)
The glade of flowery broken skulls (3. Mistress of Earth)
Bestride a corpse with my face (14. Hel)
A curious long barrow view, one of many (0. The Fool)
Dawn’s flow (17.The Star)

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Can we admit that metalcore is the glam metal of our time?

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In the early 1990s, a new music burst forth. The dark sounds of Black Sabbath and the guitar-oriented heavy rock of Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin merged and, through the wizardry of Hollywood-style image, became a new genre that hyper-extended the characteristics of the most rebellious music in the previous generation of rock. This was called glam metal, and you may recognize it by names like Motley Crue, Poison, Twisted Sister, Quiet Riot, Cinderella, Van Halen, Ratt and Winger.

Glam metal stood out from other rock at the time. It was more technical, featuring early shred guitar wizardry, and more visual, incorporating gender-bending into its image as well as tattoos, long hair and leather. For the radio music of the era, it was one of the more advanced and outside the mainstream sounds one could purchase at the local record shack. Kids liked it because it drove parents mad; politicians responded by trying to criminalize it with Tipper Gore and the PMRC targeting glam metal bands for their overly-sexual lyrics about outré topics such as drugs, suicide and promiscuity.

What makes glam metal stand out is to look at the backdrop of music at the time. Most bands were taking advantage of newly-available electronic instruments and more options in the studio, and were focused more toward being synthpop or album-oriented rock. The nascent indie rock movement, to explode with bands like REM and U2, dwelt still in the basements. Punk had died and punk hardcore was unlistenable by most, as were bands like Motorhead and the NWOBHM who were still just a bit too loud, and too controversial. Glam allowed people to be rebels without really rebelling against anything, because glam rock was just what David Bowie and Sid Vicious were doing with the actual danger removed and all the imagery turned up to eleven.

Compare this to the present time. Radio is much louder, and rap-based music has replaced synthpop. Indie rock became huge and expanded into emo and post-Joy Division quasi guitar ambient bands. The old dad rock like Springsteen and Mellencamp faded like an autumn sunset, and while millions of niches exist, most people hit up the big favorites. Metal is the radio now, too, and thanks to nu-metal — the second generation of rap/rock — people are accustomed to heavy distortion, detuned guitars and raucous drums. People wearing bizarre costumes and masks while acting out self-destructive tropes are common. What remains to shock the parents of today?

Much like glam metal, metalcore attempts to pick everything that stood out in the past generation and amplify it. The introspective despair of indie rock joins the progressive stylings of 90s bands and the whine of alternative rock; the proto-djent of Pantera and Helmet shows up as well, alongside the deliberately random songwriting of emo and post-hardcore bands. Add them all together and you have a template for making infinite music: an aesthetic of randomness, with high technicality, and metal power but not its threatening antisociality, melded together into a product that is more like a jam session than a planned event. This resembles what happened after progressive rock fiddled the first time, and jam bands showed up that merged jazz, progressive and rock into expanded-format songs that wandered. Metalcore can take any form, whether melodic death metal or math-influenced grindcore, because it is at heart a philosophy much like glam was. It takes what shocked the last generation, adds it all together, and ramps up the imagery to deliver a “new” (old) product.

If we are honest, we will admit that metalcore is the glam metal of today. Designed to shock, it pretends at being “underground” only to keep its indie cred, and relies on the disturbing self-absorption of indie and emo to make parents quake. Formed of too many elements to support together in one coherent genre, it focuses on incoherence, and ties it together with imagery. It emphasizes technicality, which thanks to endless instructional videos and better access to guitar equipment (thanks Guitar Center!) has cranked up a notch, but uses it as a means to the end of its appearance. While band members no longer dress up in clothing of the opposite gender and tease their hair, they perform the equivalent through their embrace of passivity, feminism and self-pity as fundamental values. This shocks parents as much as glam metal did, and has correspondingly bad effects on metal as a whole.

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Economics of metal

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Metal is fun and this is one of its greatest strengths. But great strengths are also great weaknesses, and the fun in metal leads to people to assume the usual forces do not act within it. One such force is economics, both in the sale of music and the sale of attention.

We can visualize the metal world as a giant economy based on who is listening to and talking about which release. Money is replaced by stereo-hours (or earbud-hours) with those being of unequal value. For example, a record company exec or top-ranked writer listening to an album may have more import than the average fan because such a role in the metal economy means that the exec or writer lures more people to specific releases. Both writers and execs make their money by betting on a type of stock market where the releases they choose as important either rise or fall, with corresponding consequences for the career in question.

With this in mind, we can look at the flow of new releases as a type of market. The more releases there are, the less each one is valuable; the more accurate information there is about new music, the more likely consumer choice is to be informed choice and reflect some measure of quality. When there are too many releases, all are disproportionately worth more, with the big mainstream bands — analogous to blue chip stocks — seeming like better options to the consumer than taking a chance in a sea of bands that seem to be about equal in potential. When all record reviews praise every new album, consumers have no information, and turn toward buying from established bands, even if the quality is sub-par.

Similarly, the effect of digital downloading can be modeled. Leaving aside purchases of digital music for a moment, we can look at the effects of downloading the latest releases from mega.nz or torrents. When the cost is free, the consumer may value that album less, but more importantly, the consumer is suddenly swimming in utter tons of music. If you have 500gb of death metal on your hard drive, it is unlikely that you will have the time or energy to listen to even a tenth of that. The more music that is downloaded, the less any particular release is likely to get stereo-hours.

Looking even further, we can see the impact of the metal community. When the metal community is supportive of every release that comes out, it means that none stand out and as a result, all get fewer listens. Where a healthy economy has some clear winners, a blind endorsement for all releases means that consumers know nothing about differences between them in quality — leaving aside aesthetic/genre for the moment — and so end up purchasing blindly or not at all. When digital downloads are available for free, or streaming online is free, the consumer sees less of a reason to visit a band for more than a few listens.

And extending this a bit further, the more similar bands are to one another, both aesthetically and in quality, the less likely consumers are to choose any one. This type of “heat death” of the metal markets occurs when consumers lack information about bands or cannot find substantial differences between them. At that point, the smart strategy for a metal listener is to download something new on a regular basis and listen to it for a few weeks because, heck, it is about like every other release in quality and sound. They know it will last for only a few weeks, so there is no point in buying it. I suggest that it is this phenomenon — a glut of similar-sounding and similar-quality metal bands — and not digital piracy itself that is terrorizing the music industry.

Industries tend to respond to a narrowing of the market by increasing frequency of product release. This in turn creates a glut, and tends to drive quality down, because in order to release regularly they need people who will bash out something obvious instead of spend time ruminating on it. Further, industry does not want expensive single units, as occur when musicians try to make a career of it, but — much like information technology hiring — prefer the young and clueless who they can use to make a release or two for low cost. All of these contribute to an oversupply of releases, a situation which is made worse by the tendency of journalists to champion almost all of these releases, which makes consumers less likely to purchase any single one.

Let us then consider the role of the Elitist. If we use the non-hipster definition of elitist, the term comes to mean those who prefer quality over quantity. That means that instead of 500gb of similar-sounding and similar-quality bands, this person wants 50gb of high-quality bands that may or may not be similar-sounding. Elitists create a different type of pressure on the metal market, which is concentration: they create winners who rise above the herd, because the non-hipster elitist also tends to be a type of “power user” of metal who spreads information to friends and influential people. When an elitist likes something, unlike when an average person does, the consumer is offered a strong signal of quality or interest. This creates a tendency to rely on elitists more, much like experienced music consumers read the cynical reviewers because they do not have the time or energy to sort through many indistinguishable releases.

Elitists may be the answer to the music industry’s woes. With labels releasing as fast as they can, and journalists praising almost everything, the result is a “heat death” of the market. When elitists step in and separate the good from the merely adequate, this creates contours to the market and allows some bands to win, which creates a pressure on bands to not simply produce, but produce well, encouraging an expenditure of more time, thought and effort on the releases in question. These elitists are distinct from hipster elitists, who do not value quality over quantity but value novelty over both, and specialize in bands that — whether good or bad, as the hipster elitist is agnostic to quality — are weird, quirky, odd or ironic. This creates a market pressure that rewards the trivial and manufactures niches which can then be further developed by non-hipster elitists who sort the best above the rest.

Similarly, since online downloading does not appear to be going away, the non-hipster elitist serves a role in making downloading work for the music industry: by selecting some bands as good, they signal that these are worth buying while the others are merely worth downloading. We have no data on how many people who download actually listen to the music they capture, but one thought is that like many collectors of free things, they simply hoard it — especially since they lack the time to actually listen to all of it. The average person may be able to hear twelve hours of music a day, but they can probably only listen to five or six before they lose track of the differences. Listening requires concentration and not very many people have even four hours a day to actually pay attention to music.

As an explorer of metal music, I have downloaded at least 500gb in my lifetime. 99% of it goes right back to where it came: ashes to ashes, bits to zeroes. The remaining one percent gets purchased and, from informal conversations with other metalheads, I am far from alone in this. For this reason, I have for years encouraged “natural selection” downloading, because it means that instead of buying blind, consumers devote their attention to music that they like. Streaming sites like Spotify, Bandcamp, Soundcloud and ReverbNation have arisen to address this need, and informally many users report scanning those tracks before deciding to make an illegal download. Whether or not the user eventually purchases the music, it is succeeding in the market for attention, and this leads to its propagation among metalheads and greater likelihood of being purchased.

Few will say so publicly, but in private many journalists, fans and workers in the industry will admit that metal has lost quality massively since 1994. Not coincidentally, its popularity has been steadily rising since that time, as has its availability. While many blame the internet and digital downloads for collapse of metal, the model above suggests that it is not the means of consumption, but the glut of the market that is causing the woes of the music industry and fans alike. While unpopular, non-hipster elitists may represent a solution to this problem.

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Kaeck releases new track “Akolieten van de nacht” from Stormkult

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In preparation for their upcoming album Stormkult, which sees release on Folter Records worldwide on August 28, Kaeck has released a new track “Akolieten van de nacht” which shows the internal variation of this powerful album. Detouring more into classic black metal territory, Kaeck nonetheless give it a tour de force renovation with simple but powerful riffs in a contexture of ideas that creates a constant rush of discovery.

Folter Records has made Kaeck Stormkult available for pre-order in its digital shop. Having heard the album, I look forward to it being unleashed into the light like a demon escaping from hell, and bringing the typical intolerant occultism and vigilant Nietzschean Darwinism that defines the black metal genre.

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Villiger Cigars – Newminster No. 400 Superior Navy Flake

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The first question any smoker should ask when approaching this tobacco is whether or not Navy Flake is a style that they enjoy. The name conveys both the form, which is dense slices from a pressed brick, and the flavor which is provided by Virginia tobacco with very minor casing or additions to the mix. The result is a thick sheaf of tobacco that can either be rubbed out into shreds or stacked in the bowl.

Its flavor will appeal to those who like straight Virginias: a combination of harvest hay smells and clover honey, lightly touched with warm molasses and perhaps the scent of leaves in fall. It tastes like it smells, and brings a warmth of flavor into the bowl. This tobacco competes with other Navy Flakes like those from Dunhill, Escudo and Gawaith, but aims for a more middle-of-the-road appeal for those who want something flavorful to smoke all day. Its nicotine dosage registers at the lower half of the middle of the scale, not as light as the drugstore aromatics but not as hard hitting as the flakes which appeal to the battle-scared pipe smoker, aloft in his mountain retreat or on the prow of a ship, pausing only briefly to inhale before firing back at some unseen enemy. Newminster flake burns gracefully and leaves behind a fine white-grey ash, coating the room in a gentle note that often appeals to non-smokers as well.

Navy Flake appeals to a certain type of smoker in a certain situation. It is a light smoke not as in taste reduced, but in that all of its flavors strike gently rather than hard; the smoke from this, while somewhat harsh with some bite, floats gently and rewards slower smoking. The disadvantage to this blend frankly is that it is lighter in nicotine and flavor, which makes it better for smoking all day when distracted than sitting down for a good solid smoke when working or relaxing. While it ranks higher in gentle flavor than some of the other flakes, it lingers behind them in power and interest; a good Virginia brown, better than many but not configured to be a favorite.

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Alexander Jacob – Richard Wagner: Parsifal (2015)

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Richard Wagner wrote epic operas based around primal mythology as based on Nordic and German folklore. Almost two centuries later, Alexander Jacob sat down with piano scores by Richard Kleinmichel and created an album of spacious, otherworldly music using that interpretation of the original. Numen Media released Richard Wagner: Parisfal on digital and compact disc for an audience wanting to explore Wagner in a sitting and not an afternoon.

The selected scenes from the opera translate into music with strong themes emerging from dense backgrounds, giving it both the textural feel of contemporary electronic music and the depth of heavy instrumental complexity as is found in most classical and progressive rock, but in the single voice of the piano this becomes a comforting shift like transition from city to country to town via train. Themes arise and then recede, like ideas in a dream, and play off related ideas in a shifting scenery which reveals its contours only slowly.

Transitioning to a single instrument from the multi-layered score written by Wagner, which famously required larger orchestras than were normally used, requires sacrificing some detail as many voices become one. The piano, on the other hand, demands lack of outright repetition as it becomes too obvious. Jacob and Kleinmichel navigate those obstacles by isolating different leitmotifs and working them into the piano as complementary voices. The result strikes the listener as more peaceful than Wagner, and relies on subtlety to bring out its power, manifesting out of a background ambiance a striking and sudden clarity like an explosion in darkness, then returning to a piece that almost conceals itself in calm. As a result, Richard Wagner: Parsifal serves as soothing music which inserts its intensity like a revelation in the mind of the listener after the fact, leaving a lingering sense of being transported to a different and more epic era.

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Metalhead pipesmokers unite!

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The old saying goes that those who love to use tobacco smoke cigarettes, and those who love tobacco smoke cigars and pipes. The cigarettes give you a quicker hit because the lungs, with their much vaster absorption area, deliver nicotine to the brain within about three seconds. The cigarette ends within three to seven minutes and the craving subsides momentarily. With pipes and cigars, the nicotine slowly oozes in through the mucus membranes in the mouth, tongue and (sometimes) throat, creating a stronger dose of nicotine but without the sudden “falling off a cliff” sensation. Many metalheads smoke cigarettes, but more are branching out to pipes and cigars for the flavors, more intense dosage and less damage to the body.

Please do not read this as an anti-cigarette rant. They are wonderful, in their own right, and much less work than cigars or pipes. However, burning any leaves and inhaling them directly into your lungs 10-20 times a day would cause some kind of long term health problem as gunk — tar, ash and irritants — builds up on the alveoli. On top of that, our industry and lawmakers have decided to mandate all sorts of processing of the tobacco, so who knows what else is being inhaled. If you would not mind going into a fast food joint, taking home their lettuce, dehydrating it and sitting next to a giant pile of it burning all day, cigarettes might not bother you. And keep in mind that there are brain-boosting benefits to nicotine in addition to resistance to neurodegenerative disorders, an effect which you do not get with the charred salad.

Cigars are beyond the scope of this article, but pipes are its focus. Pipes are essentially little wooden, stone or clay cups for burning tobacco with an inhalation tube attached. The smoker fills the pipe loosely with tobacco, then ignites it with some of the many means available to us ex-hominids, inhaling the smoke into his mouth and savoring it before blowing it outward into the personal space of those around him. While the topic of smoking pipes merits a full book, this article provides an introduction to pipe smoking designed to be as simple and low-cost as possible.

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To get started, you will need:

  • A pipe. Generally between $35-$65 for a good starter pipe. Look for 0.7inch diameter bowls and filterless stems. This tool may help.
  • Tobacco. This comes in tins and bulk, usually found at Brick and Mortar (B&M) shops, and Over the Counter (OTC) usually found at drugstores and supermarkets.
  • Pipe cleaners. Each time you smoke, you will want to clean your pipe. Pipe cleaners have two ends, so that is two smokes per cleaner. It is not a terrible habit to include a bundle or package of these each time you buy tobacco.
  • A pipe nail. Demystifying this tool: it can be as simple as a key. You use one end to cut up tobacco, allowing it to collapse into an ember, and the other to tamp it after you light it for the first time. Tobacco rises like a demon unleashed when touched with fire, but compressing it allows it to smoulder so you can sip the pipe.
  • Fire. I favor the compressed cardboard matches in matchbooks, but you can use anything. For some, lighters and zippos taste horrible, so they prefer the match. The only trick is to burn off the tip before lighting.

To avoid the usual drama, let us launch into the process of smoking:

You go to some place with little wind, but some air circulation, where you have a comfortable chair. Sitting in it, you take out your tobacco. Holding the pipe over the tobacco container, let the shreds of tobacco fall into the pipe. When it is half-full, gently tamp with a finger. When it reaches the top, pinch from the center to one side and then the other, compressing the tobacco and letting it fall back into place. (Much has been written on this topic, usually under the unfortunate appellation of packing a pipe, when the correct word to use is fill: put tobacco into the pipe so there are no fully empty spaces, but fall short of compacting it so air — necessary for fire and smoke — can flow through. Ignore all other advice.)

Put the pipe in your mouth, holding it gently with teeth and firmly with lips. Light a match, and hold it vertically at a slight angle so the flame climbs the stalk of the match, then when the head has burned off, move the match over the tobacco in slow circles while inhaling. Take the smoke into your mouth and the top part of your throat if you wish, but try to avoid it leaking further down toward the lungs. You can compress it by gently blowing out the air from the front of your mouth, which draws in smoke from the pipe. The best way to inhale that I have found involves flaring the nose and drawing in air slowly but steadily.

My favorite cycle runs in seven second increments. For bigger mouthfuls, draw in your smoke, then keep it in your mouth for three seconds, then exhale and wait another four seconds. For slower sips, take one for about a half-second, then wait at least three seconds before the next. It helps to have a slight background circulation of air to keep the pipe oxygenated and smouldering well.

Many smokers do a “char and light” where they torch the top layer of tobacco, then tamp it lightly because it has risen up as it burned, and then light again to get the resulting compressed tobacco to blaze. At two-thirds through the bowl, it may be helpful to use a poker or the pointy end of your pipe nail to chop up the resulting ember and set it ablaze again. The lighting requirements vary between tobacco types, which will be addressed below.

When no more smoke comes out of the pipe, and you sense that the tobacco has been converted mostly to ash, tap it out into convenient bushes or a metal trash receptacle without a plastic bag. The ash will be hot and melt plastic. To tap out, hold the pipe in your hand and swing it downward to shake the ash out of the bowl. You may have to stir it with poker or nail beforehand.

Then comes the most important part of the ritual. If your pipe lacks a filter, run a pipe cleaner from the mouthpiece into the pipe and leave it there for a few minutes to absorb both direct and ambient moisture. This will keep your pipe fresh-tasting for its next use.

Pipe smokers vary. Some are hard-hitters who blaze through a bowl quickly, where others are sippers who have a pipe going all day for an hour at a time. If you re-light too frequently, or smoke too fast, the pipe may get hot; if this happens enough and to a great enough extreme, it may cause a condition known as “burnout” where the material of the pipe chars and cracks. To help avoid this, smoke on the seven-second method and also, allow some nice thick gunky tar to line the bowl, especially on the bottom. I always smoke some OTC aromatics, which are full of sugary flavoring that bonds together the goo and forms a kind of tar cement, down to the bottom of the bowl to layer it with a nice thick coating of glop. This glop chars over time and becomes a sort of pipe creosote that insulates against extremes.

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Tobacco originates as leafy plant in the genus Nicotiana, which when cured, dried, pressed and shredded becomes a delicious flammable method of nicotine delivery. The great variations in what are called generically tobaccos occur in the different strains of tobacco plants, and the different methods used to grow, cure, dry, press, and cut the leaves.

That process produces a number of tobacco types, which are then combined in varying amounts into different blends, which you might think of as “tobacco recipes” because they achieve a unique flavor through the ingredients — different types of tobacco — mixed within them. These blends are also distinguished by their cut or how they are sliced, which is related to the flavor and tobacco characteristics in each blend. Many blends are then coated in flavoring known as “aromatic”; if the primary flavor to the smoking blend is the flavoring and not the underlying tobacco, the blend is referred to as an aromatic tobacco.

For the end user, tobacco is then shaped by another force — the consumer market — and placed into the following silos:

  1. Over-the-Counter (OTC). OTC tobaccos are designed for convenience. They are usually either aromatics or a type of shag-cut tobacco that is also used for Roll Your Own (RYO) cigarettes. These burn most easily, cost about $2 an ounce, and are generally mild in both flavor and nicotine level.
  2. Luxury. Like most things in our society, the good stuff only starts when you step off the mainstream and pony up some more cash. You would not buy Budweiser to drink, nor Marlboro to smoke, so you will choose a pipe tobacco made under the brand name of an established firm. A handful of producers make these tobaccos now, but they tend to be stronger and rely more on the flavor of natural tobacco, although many are also aromatics but with a wider variety of flavors than OTC.
  3. Boutique. A cottage industry has sprung up in making this variety of luxury tobacco which aims for unique and intense flavors, sometimes combining aromatic and unflavored tobaccos. These are more expensive than “regular” luxury and are made by a handful of blenders who also own mail-order tobacco shops.
  4. Vintage. In the past, everything was better. People have been saying that for generations, and apparently each were correct: the tobaccos of only 20 years ago were stronger and more flavorful. Luxury tobaccos, once considered regular tobacco, have been stored in sealed tins (if you buy one on eBay, make sure it is also “unopened” as opposed to re-sealed) and are now much sought-after.

I recommend starting with a solid OTC like Carter Hall, Prince Albert, Captain Black, Five Brothers or even Drum. These are the easiest to learn to pipe with, and give you a feeling for what mild levels of nicotine and flavor are like. In addition, they are low-cost so you will not howl and scream if you accidentally ruin a bowl or spill some.

You may find that these are pleasing enough for you and that you are content to smoke them for life. There is nothing wrong with this; many have done so and it provides the least fetishistic and complex smoking experience. Five Brothers stands out from most of these because it does not use aromatic flavoring or propylene glycol (PG), a moisturizing agent added to many OTC tobaccos. If your OTC tobacco comes out of the can or pouch and seems damp, it probably has a good dose of PG. Many aromatics, including those sold at the luxury level, also have this treatment.

From that point, the next stop is an entry-level luxury tobacco. I suggest going with a Dunhill blend because they are widely available, not overly flavored, and tend to be sliced for easy burning. You can generally get a tin of 50g/1.76oz for about $9 online or $15 in the real world, if you are in the United States; this will vary with local tobacco taxes. You may notice that you are paying quite a bit in taxes throughout this whole process, and wonder if that is in fact the impetus for the whole societal jihad against tobacco. Keep wondering. In places like Canada and Europe, they pay multiples of what you pay here. Scary.

At this point, I would stop moving up the ladder. Boutique blends are a variety of luxury blend that costs more and has more unique, ironic, oddball, quirky, and otherwise off-the-beaten path blends. However, it tends to be lower in nicotine content and it is unclear whether these weird little blends are actually that distinct from their archetypes. There are only so many types of tobacco and while many different combinations can be made, most of them resemble a few fundamental types. I have never ventured into Vintage tins and can say that, while undoubtedly these older blends were of a finer quality, that may not have been preserved over the years. Nicotine levels especially degrade. To my mind, the piping experience cannot be separated into “taste” or effect but must include both, and so the fetishism with flavor — even if grounded in science and experience — strikes me as perhaps being a mistake.

Tobacco comes in several cuts which reflect how the leaves are presented:

  • Shag. Cut laterally across the leaf, leaving an interlocked mess like peat moss that loads easily and burns well.
  • Ribbon. “Normal.” Thicker slices that seem to be vertically up and down the leaf.
  • Flake -> Ready Rubbed. Flake occurs when tobacco is pressed in blocks and then sliced; Ready Rubbed is the result of “rubbing out” those slices.
  • Plug. Tobacco is pressed together and allowed to mature that way, then cut into little pucks.
  • Cake. Like a plug, but loosely packed, resulting in a crumbly “coffee cake” style.
  • Cube. Cross-slicing the tobacco produces tiny cubes; sometimes hard to keep lit.
  • Twist -> Slices. Tobacco is twisted in plugs or flake is re-twisted in tubes, then cut into little “coin” shaped bits called slices.

The above simplifies a fairly complex process. You might also enjoy these viewpoints from P&C blender Russ Ouellette and Lane Limited manager Leonard Wortzel.

Multiple types of tobacco dot the landscape. These refer to the strain of tobacco plant and how it was cured and prepared. These are:

  • Burley. Think cigar leaves. This air-cured tobacco has a nutty flavor and higher nicotine and oil than most others. It is used to complement other tobaccos in blends, and is known for its tongue “bite” from high alkalinity.
  • Virginia. High sugar content and sweet natural taste make this type a favorite in many blends. Although this tobacco comes in many colors, its flavor stays within the mild range and makes it the basis of many blends.
  • Cavendish. This term applies to any tobacco that has been aged and cured with a heating process that brings out a fuller taste.
  • Latakia. This is Oriental tobacco which has been cured with smoke from burning oak, pine, juniper and yew wood to give it a bittersweet taste.
  • Oriental/Turkish. Sweet and low in nicotine, this is tobacco grown using the Eastern method of low soil nutrients and plenty of sun, which produces its fragrance and flavor.
  • Perique. Fermentation in its own juices after Burley tobacco is pressed into barrels gives Perique a spicy-sweet flavor. This is generally an additive to other blends to give them some spark
  • Dark Fired. Leaves are cured with smoke under carefully managed heat and humidity, producing a blend both strong in nicotine and flavor. It is used as an additive more than a main ingredient because of its intensity.

For more information, check out Russ Ouellette’s descriptions.

These are used in the following blends:

  • English. Mostly Virginia, with Latakia for body and Oriental tobaccos to provide spice.
  • Scottish. Similar to an English blend, the Scottish blend uses less Latakia and more Virginia, with little or no Orientals.
  • Balkan. Strong in Orientals and Latakia, this tobacco blend uses Virginia to balance those dominant flavors.
  • American. Although there are some similarities to the English, the American blend uses more Virginia with possible Cavendish or Kentucky style tobaccos.
  • Danish. These resemble the English, but with a deeper flavor and less spice, using more Burley and Cavendish but emphasizing stronger, more balanced flavors.

You will probably find yourself shopping by blend, which could be a substitute term for flavor. What type of smoke do you wish to taste tonight? There are several indexes for ranking different blends:

  • Harshness. How much acridity and bite there is. Strong smoke can be hard on the smoker, and “bite” is created by the alkalinity of the tobacco, which raises the pH and increases absorption of nicotine but may also cause a tangy burning sensation on the tongue.
  • Strength. You are smoking a nicotine-bearing plant. How much nicotine is delivered? A tobacco with high nicotine may be worth pounds of low-nic fruity aromatics.
  • Note. This refers to the smell left behind after the tobacco is burned. This influences both your taste of the tobacco, and what your friends, family and coworkers experience.

The de facto standard for tobacco assessments is Tobacco Reviews. Like other crowd-sourced sites such as Wikipedia and Metal-Archives, or reviews on Amazon, it is good for basic factual information and opinions from people whose judgment you have verified and who — as a result — you trust. It is not good for randomly reading reviews because most of them are written by twitchy, bitchy and queeny internet consumers who complain about all the wrong things, like all the irrelevant, and miss the point. Some of the tobaccos rated highly by this site’s users are excellent, but others are simply quirky hipster fodder. Tread carefully, and consider using the various pipe forums out there: Puff, Pipes, Smokers Forum, and Tamp and Puff. The private reviews at this location have endured because they are frequently strikingly accurate. The main point is: find someone whose opinions you respect and tastes who align with yours, even if the exact opposite of yours, and you can figure out what you will like.

***

A word on lighting pipes: some prefer magnifying glasses and sun, others coals from the fire, still others matches and apparently, most like either butane lighters or Zippos. As a diehard match user, I can say that matches fail in the wind, and there is more wind that you might think, but that they seem to create the least influence on taste. Perhaps a laser is appropriate.

The pipe world is full of both facts and lore. Lore refers to anything passed on by groups of humans in social circumstances; the idea is that if it survives a dozen generations, it might be true. In the meantime, you will be wading through mountains of nonsense and worst of all, unnecessary complexity added by people who wish to seem profound or wise. Pipe-smoking is simple: you are lighting dried leaves in a tube and inhaling. The rest is mere adjustment.

The following resources may be helpful for those seeking to know more:

Here are some good places to go shopping for pipes and luxury tobacco:

Places to buy OTC tobacco, which online is sold in bulk:

Resources for those who wish to grow or blend their own tobacco:

Tobacco blenders and brands:

If you do not see your favorite blend, it is probably an imprint licensed to and manufactured by a larger group, or a boutique variety manufactured by one of the tobacco shops linked above.

For kicks, here is a list of famous pipe smokers. You can add me on there when I get famous, but be sure to mention I detest wimpy tobacco and think it should leave the hall.

Finally, the best metal for pipe smoking…

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The economics of metal evolution

the_corpse_of_metal

The DLA/DMU has taken flak over the years for being unwilling to embrace new trends, but this criticism forgets that we also avoided endorsing older bad ideas. Our writers have generally avoided jumping on the bandwagon for the “trve kvlt” just as much as the new, millennial-friendly indie-rock version of metal. The reason we can do this is that we apply a simple quality standard instead of using the consensus of others to determine truth.

Despite having many editors, each of whom had somewhat varied opinions on the process, if viewed on the large scale the site has kept a generally consistent opinion. That is: some of the so-called classics are good, and few of the new school releases are good, but the determination is not made by category, but by analyzing each release on its own merits. This leads to sudden shock for some who expected us to be cheerleaders for anything that seems to “uphold the true spirit of the underground,” and dismay for those who like the newer material as release after release fails our test.

Metal is in a slump and has been since 1994, in quality. Correspondingly, it has been in a boom in terms of quantity of fans. We have more “metalheads” (cough) now than ever before. However, anyone who is not in denial — and most are — can tell you that quality has fallen off dramatically. The music has lost its energy, its nerve and its insight and been buried under a wave of bands that are either obedient and docile system products, or slaves to the underground record-collecting audience that does not care about quality so long as the aesthetics of previous generations are preserved. Both groups unfortunately are useful idiots for industry, which can keep producing low-cost clone bands and reaping the profits.

We discard bands for two reasons: not being metal, and not being good. The bands that are simply not good tend to have the most fans, ironically. Who among us can claim that, for example, Blazebirth Hall bands and Drudkh offered anything musical or artistic to metal? They cloned Graveland in a light and breezy melodic form that is essentially music for children. In the same way we refuse to celebrate underground “favorites” that consist of ranting and disorganized music like Sepulchral Aura, or avantgarde prog fanboy-bait like Fanisk and Deathspell Omega.

In addition, we discard that which does not uphold the artistic, intellectual and philosophical spirit of metal. There is quite a bit of overlap here with “not being good.” We would not endorse Cradle of Filth; nor would we endorse Opeth, back in the day, or Cannibal Corpse, on the basis that they were essentially rock bands trying to assimilate metal and thus produced a moronic mindset. Similarly Pantera and to a lesser degree, Anthrax. Back in the day we thought SOD was inferior to Cryptic Slaughter, DRI, and Corrosion of Conformity. We refused to endorse Wolves in the Throne Room, Animals as Leaders, Gojira, Mastodon and other indie-rock pretending to be metal. We ignore Pelican and all stoner doom bands because they are boring and terrible. This music is distraction from metal, not metal, but its fans make a big show of being “very metal,” which tells you exactly what they are hiding and deflecting your attention from.

This approach wins us zero friends in the short term, but trusted readers in the long term. People — especially those who lead purposeful lives and do not have lots of time, nor enjoy, combing through catalogs and blogs trying to figure out which 1% of the reviews are not lies — like getting the low-down on quality metal. They enjoy that moment of discovery when they find something really good, something they can listen to not just this week and six months or a year from now, but for future decades. That is ultimately the standard by which any music fan operates; they like music, so they veer toward the best, not just at a level of mechanics (technicality) but artistically, or its relevance to the ongoing philosophical and moral maturation of humankind. Most of humanity likes mediocrity or at least convinces itself that it likes those bands. After all, Third Eye Blind has sold more records than most segments of the metal genre. But popularity — whether among credulous hipsters or gormless mass media fans — has never determined quality. Consensus is not reality. Only reality is reality, and we make our best stab at it.

With that in mind, you may ask: why write negative reviews? The answer may surprise you. We seek to give music fans the intellectual tools they need to fight back the onslaught of Opeth, Pantera, Ulver, Cradle of Filth, Meshuggah, Vattnet Viskar, Cannibal Corpse and Deathspell Omega styled bands. We use both positive and negative examples to illustrate, to the best of our ability, what metal is and which approaches to it have produced the quality level necessary for prolonged listening. This puts us at odds with most metal journalists, for whom writing is a day job and as a result, is interpreted as endless enthusiasm for whatever is new and exciting because the consensus likes it. They are essentially advertisers because they are writing ad copy about these bands, not a look into what makes their music function. It is designed to make you buy music, because journalists who can sell music get famous and become editors. You will notice that major publications run almost no negative reviews. Why is that, you might ask? Because their job is to sell music, not review it, even if they call it “review.”

In all human endeavors our social impulses, which because we are selfish beings are actually self-interested impulses translated to altruism to flatter and manipulate others, override any sense of quality or purpose. The task ceases to become the task and becomes the process of creating the appearance of results instead of results; bands stop trying to be good, and focus on replicating what has worked before in new forms. The “best” (by consensus) bands “sound” different on the surface, but musically are extremely similar, because that formula has worked in the past. That is a social impulse: make what people like because it does not challenge them and makes them feel smart, profound or at least “with the crowd” to be listening to it. This social impulse has ruined metal since 1994.

Metal thrives — as it did during the mid-70s, early 80s and early 90s — under two factors: (1) it is ignored by most people, so it is free from the manipulations of those who want to sell rebellion-flavored rock to morons, and (2) it has some truly great artists to kickstart it and establish a standard. The former is self-evident, but the latter can be explained as follows. When early Norse black metal came out, it set a standard of quality and allowed fans, by simply choosing to spend their money on what was more rewarding, to exclude bands that did not meet that standard. Why would you buy Forgotten Wolves when you can get Darkthrone? Why would you pick up another speed metal clone when you can have top-quality death metal? Metal thrived when it was elitist, closed-minded and viciously competitive. Now that it has become a group hug, quality has suffered and no one seems to have noticed. Except us — and we are watching.

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