Interview: Karl Spracklen of the International Society of Metal Music Studies

karl_spracklen-international_society_for_metal_music_studiesAcademic acceptance of metal accelerates through conferences dedicated to studying metal, professors teaching about heavy metal, investigations of links between heavy metal and religion, and the launch of an international journal for studying metal.

While the metal community may not have found a position on this change as of yet, the very fact of its existence is startling to those of us who experienced metal in the 1980s or 1990s, when society viewed us as outcasts of a likely deranged, intoxicated, criminal and Satanic nature. From the censorship battles of the 1980s, when the Parent’s Music Resource Center (PMRC) attempted to prevent younger people from acquiring metal in record stores and tried to legislate a requirement for lyrical content warning stickers on metal records, to the 1990s bourgeois bohemians wrinkling upper lips at the impolitic and feral nature of metal, society hasn’t liked us.

Luckily, academics don’t see it that way and have forged ahead with metal study, coinciding with a massive “hipness” of metal in the mainstream press and hipster underground. Metalheads might find this interesting because academic study can balance out what social pressures amplify.

We are fortunate to have Dr. Karl Spracklen, Professor of Leisure Studies at Leeds Beckett University, here to tell us more about his projects, the International Society for Metal Music Studies, its conference, and its journal.

Why study heavy metal?

Heavy metal is an important part of modern culture and everyday life, so studying heavy metal enables us to understand both of those things. For me, the interesting thing about heavy metal is the tension between metal’s strong sense of being part of a non-mainstream subculture, and metal’s place in the industry of modern pop and rock music. That’s because I’m essentially a sociologist. Other heavy metal scholars might be interested in the way the music is constructed, or the meaning behind song lyrics, or the history of the scene, or the use of heavy metal as a philosophy or ideology of life. Heavy metal is just a subject field, a lens, through which we can think about problems in other academic disciplines.

You’ve created Metal Music Studies to in part serve as “a bridge between the Academy and the wider genre of metal music writing.” What is the wider genre of metal music writing?

People like you — we want the journal to be read and used by journalists and writers who are fans and critics of heavy metal. We want people from outside the university system, non-academics, to read the academic papers but also get involved in writing articles for the journal themselves. There will be a separate section in the journal for shorter pieces that are not written in the standard, academic style: articles that are more polemical, or articles that respond to key issues in the metal scene,

Do you think academia has been hostile to metal in the past, or simply seen it as being part of the amorphous cloud of “rock” without an identity of its own?

I think there have been academics who have been very dismissive of heavy metal in the past, people who have seen the music as serving no good purpose in everyday life. I think for many of these critics, their own prejudices and tastes have got in the way: metal has always had that blue-collar association, and some cultural academics still can’t bring themselves to acknowledge the diversity and depth of the genre. There are also some academics who think heavy metal is a great evil, and we still see some papers written that claim metal fans are more likely to be criminals and so on. This is just bad science, but every time someone publishes these crude generalisations the press picks up the story. This journal is the journal of the International Society for Metal Music Studies. This learned society is partly for academics who have a professional interest in metal, but also those in the industry who want to be a part of Metal Music Studies, including musicians and journalists, and fans. You should join up. When you do, you will get a subscription to the journal. And all your readers should join! (Advert over.)

You’re taking an inter-disciplinary approach as opposed to a pure musicological one. What are the advantages of this approach, and does metal uniquely require them?

Inter-disciplinarity is the only way you can create a subject field such as metal music studies. If all you do is focus on one discipline you miss half the interest, half the story, and half the explanation. Just think about how and why death metal appeared on the scene in the 1980s. Part of it was technological, such as the practice of certain producers and studios; part of it was musicological, such as the evolution of certain vocal styles, riffs and beats; and part of it was social, a reaction by bands and fans against the mainstream metal of the day. Heavy metal is not unique in requiring inter-disciplinarity to explore it: sport and leisure are other possible subjects of this kind of work, and there are many others.

When you speak of the journal publishing “high-quality, world-class research, theory,” what do you mean by “theory”?

When we mention theory we are suggesting we will publish academic papers that develop new theories about heavy metal, or that use heavy metal to develop new theories in their parent disciplines. A lot of academic work is research (investigating stuff), but not all of it, and we’d like to see papers on theory as well as papers based on new research.

What sort of topics would one research in metal? Does this include statistical approaches?

There are hundreds of possible research topics in metal! In Metal Music Studies, we will be interested in research about the music itself, the industry, the fans, the spaces, the lyrics, the metal media, metal in wider society, metal in different countries, genres, philosophies, histories, ideologies, the politics of metal, metal events, metal and globalisation, just to list a few obvious research topics that come to mind. My own academic interest in heavy metal is the local extreme metal scene in the north of England, elitism in black metal and the ways in which the Norwegian BM scene of the early 1990s has been mythologised.

How important do you think it is to study the history of metal? Does this include the context in which these musicians formulated their music?

The history of metal is a crucial part of metal music studies — and yes, this is musicological history as well as social or cultural history.

Do you think it is appropriate to view metal as a form of deliberate and purposeful art, or more as an entertainment product which reflects community attitudes?

Heavy metal is both of those things, sometimes at the same time, but not always. That’s the reason why it is an interesting subject of study. People in the scene, musicians and fans, talk about heavy metal being something artistically important and culturally authentic, something that stands against everything we dislike about mainstream pop music. But so much of heavy metal is part of that mainstream, and even death and black metal are shaped by the forces of commerce.

What, in your view, is the dividing line between “metal” and “rock”?

Metal is one louder. Actually, there isn’t a clear dividing line, and for many people I think there is a smooth transition. For the purposes of the journal, we will allow histories of rock music as they shed light on metal’s evolution. We will probably also allow in scene studies where there is a connection between rock and metal fans, in the same way we will publish research on the intersections between metal and punk, or metal and goth music.

Do you personally listen to heavy metal? Does study of metal require enjoying metal, and/or does enjoying metal lend anything to the study?

Yes, I listen to a lot of heavy metal, mainly black metal and doom, and local bands from the north of England. I try to get out to gigs when something comes around worth travelling for: the last gig I was at was Enslaved in Manchester, England, with the mighty Winterfylleth in support. I think being a metalhead myself allows me to understand the nuances of the scene, its history and the music. I think that makes my research have a certain depth to it. But I do think it’s quite possible to do research on heavy metal and not personally like it.

Many people view metal fans as people who are social outcasts who are unlikely to pursue education. Why do you think metal fans are so alienated? Do you think your research will bridge this gulf as well?

I think that stereotype about the average metal fans is out-dated. I think metal fans tend to be very intelligent people, and that’s why they are drawn to the music. I’m hoping the journal and the International Society for Metal Music Studies will prove that there are metal fans who are able to articulate their passion for the music while remaining critical and measured.

Are there any sources in the metal community who are doing what you are doing?

None that I know about.

Who are your forebears in this field? What is the history of academic involvement in metal?

Robert Walser and Deena Weinstein were the key academics who first proved that heavy metal was worthy of serious academic study. Keith Kahn-Harris has been important in championing the field.

Prof. Martin Jacobsen is teaching an English class at WTAMU about metal lyrics, and Prof. Josef Hanson is teaching a metal musicological course at University of Rochester. Are you aware of these? How would this type of activity fit in with what you’re doing, and vice-versa?

I wasn’t aware of these, but I’m not surprised. I use metal in my own classes on the sociology of leisure.

Can you tell us more about the upcoming journal, including when it will be available, and what sorts of things to expect in it?

The new journal’s first issue will be out at the end of 2014. The content of the journal will demonstrate the range of metal music studies, so an ideal issue would include perhaps some of the following (these are just ideas, and this is not an actual list of contents):

  • research published by a range of established names, early career researchers and those from parent disciplines;
  • research on the performance and production of metal;
  • research on the analysis of metal lyrics;
  • research on new sub-genres and fandom;
  • research on the evolution of heavy metal from rock music;
  • ethnographic research on a metal scene in Kenya;
  • research on the aesthetics of metal;
  • research on the social psychology of death metal growling;
  • and smaller pieces discussing whether black metal is dead or alive, written by a print journalist and a blogger.
  • The bulk of the content will be original research and theory papers (6-10k size), alongside smaller articles/opinion pieces (1-3k) devoted to discussion of metal by ‘serious’ non-academics (journalists, fans and industry insiders).
  • There will also be book reviews.

How does one join the ISMMS?

At the moment ISMMS does not have membership, as it is not yet set up officially and legally with the authorities in the States. Amber Clifford is the Treasurer so her email contact should be used for anyone who wants to join the Society. When the paperwork is finalised membership details will be confirmed via the ISMMS web-site, the Metpol mailing list, the ISMMS Facebook page and other channels.

Do you accept submissions from people who are not academics, merely metalheads or metal journalists?

The journal will accept submissions from independent scholars and non-academics, and the society will accept such people as members. There will be a separate section in the journal for shorter papers that will allow non-academics to contribute, but there is nothing to stop independent scholars submitting full papers – all full papers will be subject to peer review against the usual standards of academic writing. We want to encourage such contributions.

What can a metal band do to make it easier for them to be studied? Is there a place, for example, where well-known metal bands can sign up to be part of a study, or to put their stamp of approval on the project?

There isn’t a place where metal bands can sign up to be part of research studies — sounds like a great idea, actually! In terms of endorsements, we are hoping some high-profile musicians and band will sign up to the Society and support its aims, and maybe even write in the journal.

Sinistrous Diabolous – Total Doom // Desecration

sinistrous_diabolous-total_doom_desecrationSinistrous Diabolous creates funeral doom metal from the fragments of death metal. It uses the rapid strumming of slow chording that made Incantation so thunderous, merged with the abrupt tempo changes of Autopsy, and the mixed sounds and dynamic variation of Winter.

Total Doom // Desecration is as a result both shockingly absent of any of the trimmings of civilization or what we recognize as music, and also momentarily beautiful, like a ship emerging from the fog only to be lost again. Its primitive production and dark chromatic riffs enhance this sense of naturalism emerging against the hopeless mental muddle of humanity.

The atmosphere of murky ambiguity that enshrouds this album also grants it a resonant sense of purpose. Between power chorded riffs, interludes of pure sound or lighter instruments pervade, creating a sensation like slowly poling a raft through a dense swamp, looking for enemies.

Of note are the vocals, which deliberately abstract themselves into an uncivilized and primitive growl that calls alongside the music like a pack of dogs howling at a kill. Percussion fits the Autopsy model, being both alert and intense and knowing when to fade out into the drone.

Sinistrous Diabolous use heavy sustain not only on their guitars, but in the way riffs are sliced into these songs. Notes of doubt and ambiguity hang over every change, waiting for the song to roll over again and from the relentless ferment of its imagination, pull forth another riff.

While many doom albums come and go, and most either slide into the 1970s style or death-doom, this album cleanly integrates the last two decades of the variation in the latter styles, and comes up with something that is not only bone-crushingly weighty in sound and meaning, but also brings forth a beautiful melancholic isolation at sensing what has been lost.

Hessian Studies becomes real: hate-crime protection for metalheads

heavy_metal_subcultureAccording to UPI, the police in Manchester, UK have decided to extend hate crime protection to “subcultures such as punk rockers, Goths and heavy metal fans.”

This is the realization of one aspect of Hessian Studies, the concept dreamed up during the PC early 1990s to give the metal subculture the same respect, study and attention given to other cultures. Recent years have seen acceptance of metal as a religion, as a disability and as a topic for academic study.

Now, with recognition of metal as a sub-culture becoming formalized, metal faces both the greatest success and greatest risk of its 40-year lifespan. The success is that mainstream society has adopted it and legitimized its viewpoint; the danger is that modern society will project its own viewpoint onto metal as a pre-requisite to adopting it. As we all know, the easiest way to accept something strange is to make it into a version of the same old stuff we see everyday, like Chinese Take-Out and Italian Microwave Dinners.

“We are able to officially recognize that people who wish to express their alternative subculture identity freely should not have to tolerate hate crime — something that many people have to endure on a daily basis,” said Assistant Chief Constable Garry Shewan.

Apparently, this act was spurred by the assaults on Sophie Lancaster, a 20-year-old Goth who was attacked as she walked through a park and never regained consciousness. As a result, the courts and police are expanding the list of protected groups from “religion, ethnicity, disability and sexual orientation” to also include subculture status such as that experienced by metallers, punkers and Goths.

Hessian Studies, a movement begun in 1994 and thriving throughout the 1990s, hoped to achieve this kind of recognition for metal and acceptance of its validity as a subculture. Apparently, the dream is coming true.

Hellbastard – Sons of Bitches EP

hellbastard-sons_of_bitchesThe limitation of metal is that it has such a strong identity that it can easily become repetitive. The danger of going the opposite direction is that with no sense of identity music loses its own character in an effort to be open-minded.

Hellbastard hover on the lintel of that conundrum. Famous for their mid-1980s crustcore (and possibly for coining the name of that genre) the band detoured into metal on 1990’s Natural Order, but return here in a blur of distorted power chords and hoarse vocals.

The first four songs are relatively straightforward Amebix-style crust with interesting time changes. Vocals are searing and impressively aggressive. In addition to some ideas borrowed from rock, many riffs bear the stamp of middle-period Slayer.

Sons of Bitches mixes in the jaunty rhythms of late speed metal, conveyed mainly through the vocals but causing all of the music to be pulled by the catchy, repetitive chorus phrases. If you can imagine later Destruction fused with Pantera, embedded into a crust band, that’s the rough idea.

There are two outlier tracks. “We Had Evidence” starts a metal-styled instrumental that acquits itself quite well and then veers off into jazz fusion technique while recorded loudspeaker voices play in the background; then becomes a chanty metal-crust hybrid. Then “Throw the Petrol Bomb” comes on, which is some form of reggae lite with lyrics taunting the anger and frustration of political protesters.

The strength of this EP is its pure crust orientation. While the Slayer-style riffs give some power to the underlying material, the speed metal chant-vocals and assorted odds ‘n’ ends tossed in from rock and metal distract from the power of these songs. Perhaps on a full-length the band will focus more on its strength and slash out a slew of crust anthems.

Absu North American Tour 2013

absu-north-america-tour-2013

Many know Absu as the band that transitioned from mythological death metal to heavy-metal tinged black metal to finally a progressive, jazzy, and eclectic blend of metal, Celtic folk and psychedelic fusion styles.

According to percussionist/vocalist Proscriptor, “We’re attempting to divide the concerts into two sections: the first act will showcase songs spanning from our entire discography, as the second act will focus on Phase Two from the album Tara: The Cythrául Klan’s Scrutiny. For the past couple of years, many of ABSU’s followers have requested specified songs from this chapter of Tara, so it is our aspiration to give the people what they want.”

The tour covers North America in the blood of the righteous, and gives Absu a chance to show off their psychedelic rock-metal fusion trilogy: Absu, Abzu and the upcoming Apsu. As always, it is expected that the tour will showcase fantastic musicianship, chaotic pits and manic scrambling of residents for talisman artifacts of protection against the summoned evil.

  • 4/05/2013 Millcreek Tavern – Philadelphia, PA
  • 4/06/2013 Roger’s – Chesapeake, VA
  • 4/07/2013 Strange Matter – Richmond, VA
  • 4/08/2013 The Windup Space – Baltimore, MD
  • 4/09/2013 Middle East upstairs – Cambridge, MA
  • 4/10/2013 St. Vitus – Brooklyn, NY
  • 4/11/2013 St. Vitus – Brooklyn, NY
  • 4/12/2013 El N Gee – Hartford, CA
  • 4/13/2013 Theatre Plaza – Montreal, QC
  • 4/14/2013 L’Agitte – Quebec City, QC
  • 4/15/2013 Wreck Room – Toronto, ON
  • 4/16/2013 Ace of Cups – Columbus, OH
  • 4/17/2013 Mojoe’s – Joliet, IL
  • 4/18/2013 Rocco’s – Milwaukee, WI
  • 4/19/2013 Station 4 – St. Paul, MN
  • 4/20/2013 Zoo Cabaret – Winnipeg, MT
  • 4/22/2013 Dickens Pub – Calgary, AB
  • 4/24/2013 Biltmore Cabaret – Vancouver, BC
  • 4/25/2013 Highline – Seattle, WA
  • 4/26/2013 Ash Street Saloon – Portland, OR
  • 4/27/2013 Shinneybrook Creek Cabins @ Festum Carnis – Soda Springs, CA
  • 4/28/2013 DNA Lounge – San Francisco, CA
  • 4/30/2013 The Vex – Los Angeles, CA
  • 5/01/2013 Ruby Room – San Diego, CA
  • 5/02/2013 Rocky Point Cantina – Tempe, AZ
  • 5/04/2013 The Boiler Room – Dallas, TX

For more information, check the Absu web coven.

absu-sigil

Interview with Remains

remains-of_deathA promising recent entry into the old school death metal world is a new band from Mexico named Remains.

We recently had a chance to hear and review their most recent EP, …Of Death, which is available for free download on the band’s Facebook homepage.

Burly, basic, and uncompromisingly fit together like ancient stonework in the war room of occult martial artists, the old school death metal of Remains is casually minimalistic but smoothly fit together into a series of visions of dark passages through life. Instrumentalism is good, composition is promising, and we’d like to hear more from this band.

Luckily, we were able to catch these up-and-coming metal wizards for a brief interview…

Hail Remains!

First of all, thank you to the support to our band; we are very happy to know that the EP has been well received.

Now, the questions…

Can you give us a brief history of the band? How did you start, how did you meet, how long have you been a band and what other projects do you have?

Miguel, Emmanuel and Leonardo knew each other because they are studying at the same university. On the other hand, Edoardo and Miguel know each other because they were in an old project some time ago.

Remains was originally proposed by Miguel and the project was born at the beginning of 2011 with a different line-up, but it wasn’t until of the middle of 2012 that it stopped being a project and became a band. With the present lineup Remains recorded the demo “The True Essence” and then in 2013 the EP …Of Death.

About other projects… Leonardo and Miguel have a melodic death metal project called “Fractal Entropy.” Emmanuel plays in two more bands which are “Sinister Mind” (black metal) and “The Light Of Dark” (brutal death metal) and Edoardo has a black metal project named “Fog of Chasm.”

This is a two-part question: (a) what bands influenced you most in your composition and songwriting; and (b) what bands do you think you sound like, even if you think you sound a little bit like more than one band?

a – Death Metal in general, bands like: Grave, Carnage, Dismember, Autopsy, Edge Of Sanity, Vomitory, etc.

b – Maybe something of Grave and Edge of Sanity, you know… old school bands, someone said that Remains sounds a little bit like Master.

Why did you decide to make old school death metal in a time when most of metal has gone on to newer styles, or just given up and become nu-metal?

The principal idea has been never been fashion; we don’t try to follow every new tendency. In my own opinion (Miguel) I grew listening to death metal because of my father (Miguel Angeles – Darkcreed, Pyphomhertum, Foeticide) I mean … death metal is my forte.

So… Remains was born as a tribute to the bands that gave origin to the Death Metal.

Do you think there is a metal “sound” for Mexico? How do you think of yourselves in the lineage of bands such as Cenotaph, Transmetal, Mortuary, Toxodeth and Xibalba?

Maybe there are features which distinguish a Mexican band from others, but is difficult to say that there’s a pure Mexican sound. Those bands are the best we have had in Mexico and we would like to continue that lineage and not lose it with the birth of new bands and styles.

We believe we can do something so the scene grows and doesn’t forget with the passage of time.

You decided to release your first EP, “…Of Death,” online as MP3 files in a downloadable zip archive. What made you decide to do this? How do you think it will help you? Are you worried that people will just pirate the MP3s and not buy the EP? Do you think musicians can make money even if they give away their MP3s? Does it matter?

The idea of the band has never been to get money. When we put out the EP we decided that it would be in the free MP3 format because someone who really likes what he hears will go looking for the CD or tape. (Now we do not have a label) If you want to buy or download our music… whatever, you are listening us and… that’s good for us.

What’s next on your agenda? Are you going to write more material, go on tour, or do something else?

Right now we are working in our first LP and we hope it will be ready in September of this year (of course, when we finish it, we would like that you listen to it).

These songs (on “…Of Death”) are well put-together, where every riff has its place and they fit together well. How did you compose these songs? Did you spend a lot of time after you wrote them, going over them to get the details right and make sure all the riffs fit together?

Every song came to its moment. When Miguel composes a song he always has a clear idea of what he is looking for in every riff and the way to adjust and mix them; then, every member of the group put their personal stamp on Miguel’s composition. We don’t spend too much time in details; if something doesn’t work, it stays out.

What do you think are the origins of death metal? Is it still relevant as a style of music today? What do you think motivates people to want to enjoy and eventually create death metal?

Since the metal was born, the trend always has been to be more aggressive. Bands like Possessed or Mantas gave us the guideline for this style; it continues being relevant since more bands of Death Metal are born every day, maybe what motivates people to listen to it is the aggression, the force that has death metal’s song as well as the theme of the lyrics of every band or the technique that is necessary to make it possible.

If someone wanted to hear some death metal bands from 2013, what newer bands would you recommend to them?

From México you have to listen to “Demonic Manifestation” and “Elemental Extinction”.

Maybe not bands but releases of Lie in ruins, Corpsessed, Massacre, Entrails, Hail Of bullets, Necronomicon and/or Carcass.

“…Of Death” has a very professional sound. How did you record this album, and how long did it take from songwriting to finished product?

It was recorded in MAT STUDIO under Miguel’s production, trying to respect the sound of the old school keeping the essence of the aforetime recordings. It took us approximately 4 or 5 months in total.

    Remains

  • Miguel Angel – Voice & Guitars
  • Leonardo Valdez – Guitars
  • Emmanuel Guerrero – Bass
  • Edoardo Gascon – Drums

Thanks for the support, Death Metal!!!

Death Metal Underground podcast 04-03-13

death_metal_underground-podcastDeathMetal.org continues its exploration of radio with a podcast of death metal, dark ambient and fragments of literature. This format allows all of us to see the music we enjoy in the context of the ideas which inspired it.

Clandestine DJ Rob Jones brings you the esoteric undercurrents of doom metal, death metal and black metal in a show that also exports its philosophical examinations of life, existence and nothingness.

This niche radio show exists to glorify the best of metal, with an emphasis on newer material but not a limitation of it, which means that you will often hear new possibilities in the past as well as the present.

If you miss the days when death metal was a Wild West that kept itself weird, paranoid and uncivilized, you will appreciate this detour outside of acceptable society into the thoughts most people fear in the small hours of the night.

The playlist for this week’s show is:

  • Necrophobic – The Nocturnal Silence
  • Extracts from The Hollow Men by T.S. Eliot (read by Eliot himself)
  • A Transilvanian Funeral – Cold Blood and Darkness
  • Sergei Prokofiev – Night (from Scythian Suite)


Metal music has from its very beginning existed as music outside the normal narrative of popular culture. Refusing to conform to the saccharine hippy outlook of 60s rock, or later the cheap sloganeering of punk, it existed even outside of the officially sanctioned definitions of ‘outsider’ music. It eschewed both post-modern self-irony and the pre-packaged emotions of pop to create a music that was both assertive and esoteric at the same time.

Peak metal genres, death and black metal, essentially grew up in a parallel cultural atmosphere to what was gracing the covers of Rolling Stone and NME magazines or playing on MTV – a culture that only made sense to the initiated and the dedicated, and spoke a language of death, danger and intolerance for the posers who would water down metal’s intensity.

Metal first came in from this wilderness as music that was only an echo of its surface sound. Bands playing loud, distorted guitar rock with a stand-offish attitude were taken up by the media and the public as relatively accessible versions of what had previously been denied either by them or to them by Darwinian means. It had little of the substance of metal but claimed its name.

Metal had been co-opted by people who had neither the heart nor the stomach to understand it, who parodied its most obvious components and fed back into the general perception of what metal was without any idea of what it had been up to that point. Shortly, bands who had been underground stalwarts were picked up by major labels looking for the next profitable act, and together duly proceeded to water down their sound to fit more closely the rock paradigm that suited the market and reinforced the conception of metal created by the co-opters.

Where metal had once ignored how people dismissed it as mindless brutish music, to privately develop its own distinct and even elegant musical language, it now embraced its stereotype, and turned into an angry flavour of the same musical clichés all pop music is based on. Where once it dismissed the crowd, it now was overwhelmed by it.

Whilst its popularity may have soared, hollowed out, the quality of metal went into a nearly two decade-long decline.

  • Dead Congregation – Martyrdom
  • Supuration – Consumate
  • Cosmic Atrophy – Shattering of Terrestrial Reality


Perhaps as an inevitable consequence of generational power shifts, academia is now taking seriously this music that two and three decades ago a diffuse bunch of young people held out to insist was both unique and powerful. Metal seems to be once again coming in from its wilderness, this time however it is being assessed on its own terms. Rather than sanitising or absorbing it into the broader cultural milieu, people from outside of metal are trying to understand it, and discovering the surprising quality of work that can be discovered when one scratches beneath the mainstream-encrusted surface.

It perhaps says something for the morbidity of metal art that it has become a sort of study piece – a museum-worthy curio to sit around chin-scratching and taking notes on. Near-extinct – or, at least, no longer threatening.

The new-found seriousness about metal may prove to be a healthy dose of self-confidence for a much misunderstood genre, too long equated with aggro-rock and/or blamed for any number of society’s problems. Yet still, it remains to be seen whether metal will be creatively spurred by this new-found level of acceptance and recapture anything like the long-gone glory days of the genre.

The dry, sanitary air of academia may not suit it as much as an atmosphere of evaporated sweat, grave miasma and dried blood. For as strong as metal is artistically, it is nonetheless still an art that emphasises outward action over introversion. The capricious nature of inspiration means that art is something that must be lived, not theorised and examined in microscopic detail. Sometimes this means that inspiration comes once in one big unself-conscious outpouring, and then afterwards simply never surfaces again.

  • Candlemass – A Sorcerer’s Pledge
  • Disma – Lost in the Burial Fog

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Killing Joke – MMXII

killing_joke-mmxiiStaying true to roots is difficult because as time goes on and learning increases, one must necessarily spread wings and soar to more ambitious ground. Killing Joke do both on MMXII, an album that showcases the style of their first album as interpreted through a more modern style and revisiting their influences.

Categorizing Killing Joke has never been easy. They sound like they should be an electronic music band, with spacious beats and future pop song structures, but then they add in guitar which sounds like a lighter version of Amebix, and a distinctly sweet-sour male vocal that gives the music an expansive mood and lightens the sometimes intense distortion on the guitars. They augment this with atmospheric keyboards and a throbbing, pulsing aggro-pop bass groove.

On MMXII, the band get closer to their roots in early electro and British techno pop, using melody to lead the otherwise unstoppable fusion of industrial, pop, punk and rock that they wrap into a final product that is both passionate and furious. While this is no way a metal band, Killing Joke has influenced a good many metal bands because it shares a similar mood: mythological, metaphorical, distanced from the human and yet emotional in the sense of someone watching a lovely mountainside burn in a drought.

As fierce critics of the modern life and its favorite crutches, Killing Joke also have a mood that is more punk than the most righteously self-proclaimed punk. This gives the music a surging quality, between a contemplative Britpop melancholy and harmony, and a driving rage during which the vocals distort to the edge of black or death metal territory. The result is an enclosing wall of sound that catches the listener in its emotion.

MMXII presents an amazingly consistent package. While songs are generally verse-chorus with strategic breaks, and cycle around to circular structures that repeat with changes, they are not consistent and each one has a different set of moods. Like actors playing a role in the drama of the album, each seems like a shard of the glass face reflecting the true experience of this album, which is both elaborate and brilliantly compelling.

Monsterworks – Album of Man

monsterworks-album_of_manThe job of a reviewer is to describe music, not judge it. Assessment ultimately becomes obvious from the context of expectation created by the reviewer which shows where all things must fit in the bigger pattern.

Monsterworks resembles a mixture of things and prefers to stay that way. The majority of the structural parts of songs are like Led Zeppelin mixed with Southern Rock and early doom metal, using metalcore style rasp vocals, so that most of what you hear is very guitar-rock styled heavy metal. This is a welcome change from the less organic metalcore of late.

If you like guitar playing that is bluesy, varied and emotional, this album will pique your interest. While the vocals rant, guitars hit all the right rhythms and then work in leads with the fills, slowly building up intensity until the song explodes in sound. If you can imagine Led Zeppelin and Ion Dissonance collaborating on a stoner doom album, this might be about it.

Monsterworks create very much in the 1970s style, and yet with its vocals and aesthetics, very much in the 2010s style as well. The result is both deeply engaged and like newer metal hybrids, incessant in its peak intensity, which can make it meld together indistinctly. It often detours into “different” arenas, like progressive rock, tech-deth, and straight up hardcore, as if a variety show.

Album of Man reforms the anti-technical side of post-metal and metalcore however by using the guitar as a voice of its own, and breaking up the strident extremity with old fashioned instrumentalism. This both brings rock and metal back to their core and renews the intensity of the vocals. By doing so, it takes newer metal to a better place and makes for a more satisfying listen.

A Short History of Underground Punk and Metal Music

the_ancient_history_of_heavy_metalWe can only know the present by knowing the past. In the case of heavy metal, it is a murky past obscured by both the grandiose rockstar dreams of individuals and the manipulative fingers of a voracious industry.

Metal arose through a complicated narrative worthy of a lost empire, and by knowing this history, we can know more of the music we enjoy today.

Specifically of interest are a number of threads that interweave throughout the history of the genre, both as outside influences and later as internal habits, which influence its twisting path from something a lot like rock to a genre entirely separate.

This story then is a tale of how many became one, or how they found something in common among themselves, and how it has taken years of creative people hammering on the parts to meld them into one single thing, known as heavy metal.

However, no one really likes a lengthy essay. Instead, here’s metal’s history the best way it can be experienced: by listening to it.

1968-1970 — the origins

Three threads ran alongside each other: punk, proto-metal and progressive rock. All three are on the edge of being metal, since the type of progressive rock in question is raw and disturbing and not of the “everybody be happy love friends” hippie style. This is music that thinks our society is disturbed, and that therefore many of the values we reject are worth a closer look. Some is fatalist-nihilist, like the self-destructive tendencies of punk, where progressive rock is more clinical, and metal more epic (looking for meaning in the ancients, in nature, the occult and conflict).

Iggy and the Stooges – Raw Power
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6DIIPeUctP4

Black Sabbath – Black Sabbath
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C_wnmai0tjI

King Crimson – In the Court of the Crimson King
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H678XUB77OA

1971-1981 — maturation

A lot happened here, but basically, metal became more like its ancestors (hard rock), progressive rock faded out, and punk got more rock-music-like. The punk from this era is more like normal rock music than the outsider stuff it originally was, but also gains some aggression from Motorhead, who may technically be metal but were born of a progressive rock band (Hawkwind) and sounded very punk and inspired the next generation of punks to be louder, lewder, etc.

PUNK

Punk music arose from the earlier work by Iggy and the Stooges, but formalized itself into a pop genre that used guitars more like keyboards than like the guitar fireworks of conventional guitar-intense bands like Cream and The Who.

Ramones – Ramones
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O7PEzQQYWag

Misfits – Static Age
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=40SM7SpmX1Y

NWOBHM

An exception to the metal of the period was NWOBHM (New Wave of British Heavy Metal). DIY and extreme for the day, it left behind the Led Zeppelin-styled “hard rock” vein of metal and got away from Sabbath’s detuned doom and gloom to make energetic, mythological but also somewhat excited-about-life metal.

Motorhead – Motorhead
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xa88CK3DwUo

Satan – Court in the Act
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9cj07nHVWRU

Angel Witch – Angel Witch

Iron Maiden – Killers

Judas Priest – Sin After Sin
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DTBZK2-N_Gs

1982-1987 — the peak

Punk got its act together, in part inspired by the more commercial bands like Ramones and Sex Pistols. This is where hardcore punk really happened. That in turn spurred a revolution because music had finally left rock behind, and by mating the nihilistic (no inherent rules) composition of punk with the longer-phrase riffs of metal (derived from horror movie soundtracks), the riff styles of death metal and black metal were born, and the progressive song structures of speed metal evolved. At the same time, essentialist movements in punk hybrids (thrash) and metal (doom) emerged, sending many back to the roots of these subgenres.

HARDCORE PUNK

Discharge – Hear Nothing, See Nothing, Say Nothing
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3DmSbqmJaig

The Exploited – Death Before Dishonour
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=65AruzHG8Qc

Amebix – Arise!

A second generation arose in the USA (all of the above bands are UK):

Cro – Mags – The Age of Quarrel
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KUSzM9GB9s4

Black Flag – Damaged
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=61q-yAtU5-E

Minor Threat – Discography
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pAEzAjFZPys

1983 — the big branching: speed, thrash and death/black

1983 is a crucial year, and so it gets its own entry. Metal and punk cross-influenced each other. The result was a lot more metal. If you’re familiar with nu-metal or more radio style metal, start with speed metal, as it’s the most like really violent rock music with influences from progressive rock in song structure. If you like messy punk (!!!) try some thrash. And if you’ve already given your soul to Satan, try death/black. With death/black, there’s also some influences from progressive rock, although they’re balanced with punk technique which makes for a chaotic spawn.

SPEED METAL

Speed metal took the complex song forms of progressive rock, the muted-strum guitar riffing of the NWOBHM bands like Blitzkrieg, and added to it the high energy of punk hardcore and came up with songs that kept getting faster and faster. This shocked people of the day, and was the primary reason speed metal bands were different from the NWOBHM that came before them, hence it was dubbed “speed metal.”

Metallica – Kill ‘Em All

Nuclear Assault – Game Over
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KrG8vQEVYwo

Megadeth – Rust in Peace
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4l9WbnqFSw8

Testament – The New Order
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VqE3wz1J1ik

THRASH

Thrash is a hybrid genre that takes punk songs and puts metal riffs in them. Its name arises from “thrasher,” or skater, and those were the people who embraced this style of music that was more extreme than metal or hardcore at the time. While it leans toward punk, it used metal riffs, and wrote short songs that in the punk style lambasted society but in the metal style tended to mythologize the resulting conflict.

DRI – Dirty Rotten LP
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i6XteJQhpc4

Cryptic Slaughter – Convicted
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=323jnOT-SSo

Corrosion of Conformity – Animosity
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eBkB5vEP8mM

GRINDCORE

Like thrash, this was a hybrid of metal and punk that leaned toward the punk side for song structures, and the metal side for riffs.

Napalm Death – Scum

Terrorizer – World Downfall
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YSLzeoVkkBw

Repulsion – Horrified
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sjRr3JG6A38

Carcass – Reek of Putrefaction

PROTO-DEATH/BLACK METAL

In 1983, these bands contributed just about equally to the new sound. In the largest part inspired by NWOBHM like Venom and Motorhead filtered through aggro-hardcore like GBH and Discharge, the unholy triad invented underground metal to come.

Bathory – The Return
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1xAVpAPHehc

Hellhammer – Apocalyptic Raids
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4zQCBAzM8ck

Slayer – Show No Mercy
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1_X5nW4A3II

DEATH METAL

Once proto-death/black metal had occurred, people began to expand on the formula. One side decided to make it more technical, and riffy, and taking after Hellhammer’s “Triumph of Death” and the increasingly mind-bending riffing of Slayer, made it use mazes of mostly chromatic phrasal riffs. On the other side, some wanted to preserve the atmosphere of the simpler songs that Bathory and Hellhammer had to offer, but injected melody and loosened up the drums to keep it from being as clear and rigid as death metal. While that latter group went off to figure out black metal, the death metal team experienced a boom of creativity and excess during 1985-1995.

Possessed – Seven Churches

Sepultura – Morbid Visions/Bestial Devastation
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=brf71GAwavU

Necrovore – Divus Te Mortuus
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R09JrN9aiso

Morbid Angel – Abominations of Desolation
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zCP-No1DcQI

PROTO-BLACK METAL

While death metal was just starting up, other bands were trying to figure out how to make melodic ambient metal, structured equally after early melodic metal and free-floating songs like Slayer’s “Necrophiliac.” The result had chaotic drums, deliberately bad sound quality to avoid becoming a trend or something which could be imitated, and high shrieking vocals to death metal’s guttural growl. Taking a cue from Bathory, Slayer and Hellhammer, it also embraced the occult and esoteric and rejected conventional social norms and religions.

Sarcofago – INRI

Blasphemy – Fallen Angel of Doom

Merciless – The Awakening

BLACK METAL

As black metal matured, it moved into Norway, possibly inspired by the previous generation of melodic Swedish death metal bands who used high sustain through heavy distortion to make melodic songs which featured less constant riff-changing than the bigger bands from overseas.

Immortal – Diabolical Full Moon Mysticism

Mayhem – De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas

Darkthrone – Under a Funeral Moon
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h08zTR0F-qQ

Burzum – Burzum
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ICNIRMH-8jA

Emperor – Wrath of the Tyrant

Gorgoroth – Pentagram
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sHfgXh1506Q

Enslaved – Vikinglgr Veldi

This is just the beginning; there’s a lot more after this in all of the genres, which kept developing in their own ways. This is only an introduction to the history of it all, and is not designed to be comprehensive…