#MetalGate

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I had hoped that the busload of squalling drama that was #GamerGate (see here: pro | con) would not come to metal, but #metalgate has arrived courtesy of the same people who intruded into the gaming industry despite a striking lack of actual contributions:

Metal is still dogged by the issues that arise from its deep-seated conservative values, but thanks to an increase in conversations about racism, politics, and feminism, those on the right side of history have gained solid ground. – SPIN

Before we get involved in this partisan squabble, consider that metal is beyond the left-right divide. The left wants individualism through equality, and the right wants individualism through lack of social obligation. Neither recognize that societies, like metal genres, are organic entities where more is required than individualism; we need cooperation.

It is easy to see however why someone might want to — as writers have in the past — call heavy metal conservative. Metal avoids “social issues” and other internal questions of a society and instead looks at the health of a society as a whole, or in other words, how sane it is. We see a world gone insane through a refusal to pay attention to reality. The methods of that are beyond an artistic genre and should be injected into it, but since 2006 at least trying to reform metal has been a pet project of certain groups:

More than three decades after Black Sabbath conjured images of the dark arts, heavy metal is growing up. The genre is increasingly incorporating social and political messages into its dense power chords.

Cattle Decapitation vocalist Travis Ryan said his San Diego band’s mix of charging guitars and an animal rights message is drawing a diverse crowd that includes activists as well as traditional metal fans. – The Washington Post

The grim fact is that metal has split into two groups. When the newer group encountered the older group, they were appalled that it did not share their opinions, not just on politics but how to live. This new group is inherently “social” and they share opinions which make their friends feel warm and fuzzy about them. That is at odds with the older metal tradition of not caring what society thought, telling the hard truth, and being obligated to no one because most people are crazy.

It is only when you get involved in a managerial role with society, like a kindergarten teacher insisting that we all play nice together, that you care at all about making sure that everyone is included. Metal does not. Metal looks at society from the view of history and whether it is healthy or diseased from within. The metalhead view is consistently anti-managerial, since metalheads recognize the deficiencies of people and want to keep most of them at a great distance. It is not that we want to manage them, like political people do, but that we want to be free of them.

For years people have tried to make metal more sociable. They first tried in the mid-1970s when they mixed Black Sabbath with Led Zeppelin and produced hard rock, hoping that they could sell it to more people. “Sociable” sells. Then they tried in the 1980s with rap/rock, funk metal and other abominations. Finally they hit on nu-metal but that turned into an extended conversation about the impact of child molestation. And then, during the early 2000s, they rolled out a metal/hardcore fusion that had sociable lyrics like hardcore punk has for many years.

Notice that none of this was brought on by metalheads. It was created by people who wanted to be metalheads, but felt they could not be metalheads unless the genre agreed with their existing social, political and lifestyle biases. At this point, the metal community has entirely split between those who like the old school and those who want to be “nu-skool.” This is because they are two separate genres. Metal is metal, and the indie-metal/metalcore wave is someone else trying to use us for their agenda. #MetalGate is just the latest salvo in this fight.

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Sepultura and Les Tambours du Bronx – Metal Veins: Alive at Rock in Rio

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Had Sepultura taken this direction instead of the path they chose on Chaos A.D., they would have receded into rock history as legends and not warmed-over attempts at former glory that got swallowed by their attempts to popularize a form of music that is inherently against all things dictated by popularity and illusion in the heart of the individual.

As every write-up on this band will tell you, Les Tambours du Bronx are a sort of Blue Man Group from New York whose shtick is to have a dozen men banging on samizdat percussion instruments, most visually impressive when made from 55-gallon drums and malleted with baseball bats. Like Crash Worship, on whose fame they surely predicate their own but with an intent for a more public spectacle, Les Tambours du Bronx put on a show that is as much visual as audial. They team up with Sepultura, playing its crowd favorites from Chaos A.D. onward into the post-Max years. The result shows a great deal of promise that with a nudge it might live up to.

To make this a great release, they would have dropped the vocals and given Andreas Kisser more time lacing his lead guitar through the riffs like a jazz player covering an old standard in a new interpretation. They might have allowed Sepultura to do what they do best, which is to write a string of ear-snagging riffs in a riff salad that nonetheless makes sense, and let the rhythm of Les Tambours du Bronx carry the songs entirely. This would have given the music an intense ritual air with primal undertones that belong to no tradition and fuse the modern with the energy of antiquity. Instead, as usual, there are too many chefs stirring the pot, or as it might be said for metal music, too many influences warring for dominance. Random industrial noises and squeals, the ranting pseudo-death vocals of Derrick Green and other attempts to impose rock-style song structure onto this open jam limit its power.

Since leaving speed/death metal behind, Sepultura have sought a way to become a Ramones for heavy metal, playing simple riffs that unite a carnival crowd and bring people to a point of energetic focus. Similarly, the style of percussion on this album creates a massive feeling of unison especially as it internally deviates from the archetypal rhythms it sets up for the audience to follow. Together these make for a spectacle, but the musical intensity is not here mainly owing to the lack of focus on the Sepultura side. Instead of trying to use outside forces to accent their own music, they should adapt their music to complement those forces and through mutuality, achieve something new. Metal Veins: Alive at Rock in Rio as a live album makes for dubious listening owing to the muddy sound, but with this being basically a “we’re different” stunt using nu-Sepultura in unchanged form, it offers little for repeat listens.

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Neopera – Destined Ways

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I’ll let you in on a dark secret from music reviewers: sometimes we write about stuff that is fun to write about even if it will quickly slip under the foamy surf of history. Neopera is one of these bands which is proficient in a terrible cheesy style but whose presence evokes so many observations on metal and society that it cannot be passed up. It is not an easy bash like the phenomenally boring Abysmal Lord, nor a making fun of chronic idiots like a Pantera or Meshuggah review would be, but an insight into human thinking about the uses for music and what it says about us.

To get it out of the way, let it be said that these musicians clearly know what they’re about. These players could have made an album in any style, but deliberately chose one that allowed them to target a power metal audience that wants male and female vocals with extensive harmonization and a positive outlook to the music as a whole. What emerges as a result is basically “princess metal” in that it has more in common with Disney theme songs and inspirational (Christian) rock than anything else, adorned in some folk-metal trappings but in that sweetened overly-romanticized way that works in children’s movies but not so well with red-blooded stout-hearted metal. Excessive sentimental and lush in its use of keyboards and vocals in a swell that relegates guitars to a constant background texture and primary rhythmic instrument, with drums shadowing that role, Destined Ways overflows with the kind of soaring choruses and heavy use of theme that Hollywood soundtracks made famous. The descriptions of this album mention “classical music,” but the closest it comes to that is the instrumentation and moments that sound like Andre Rieu covering Tchaikovsky with Trans-Siberian Orchestra overseeing.

Songs follow the Iron Maiden formula of a compelling intro, a descent into theme through paired contrasting motifs, and then a deepening with verse and chorus repeated in layers as melodic adornments expand the vocal, then a triumphant return and fade out in a variation on the theme. Far more organized than the average metal composers, Neopera show the promise of their name: a kind of melodramatic adaptation of the vocal forms of European music but applied through the pop formula for satisfaction with underlying metal. Fortunately, the metal they use tends to be consistent with the better half of speed metal, but it cannot take away from the perception that this music is essentially a saccharine play set to words with guitars going in the background.

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Execration – Morbid Dimensions

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When a genre becomes buried under layers of confusion, people identify it by what it lacks more than what it is. A more sensible approach understands such a genre as having a spirit or other indefinable center that holds the rest together. Such is the case in death metal, which is relevant as Execration clearly aspire to an old-school death metal style that incorporates sounds from newer hybrid-metal genres.

For example, Morbid Dimensions makes greater use of the open strum as a harmonic fill between riffs, and prefers that its phrases end in rhythmic suspension, allowing them to use such fills to keep the music from becoming too violent. While they do not incorporate blatant sweeps, Execration enjoy putting riffs with clear influence from punk in with the metal, creating an oil on water effect. The band explores the textures and rhythms of the smarter edge of metalcore, stoner doom metal and the post-metal era, but works them into songs which aesthetically and compositionally hail the old school underground metal approach.

In that general mission, Execration succeed triumphantly: Morbid Dimensions presents an album of mid-paced doom-death songs which touch on favorite riff archetypes without becoming derivative, although in fairness this band sounds like Dismember playing Desecresy while taking advice from Hypocrisy and Unleashed. Riffs combine to form highly textured and thoughtful songs with a melodic basis, but the target here is clearly the post-metal model of long slow simple melodies unfurling rather than a charging desire to fit riffs together into brain Jenga about the imponderable. To break up the melodic mood domination, Execration vary the pattern with both Black Sabbath-sounding riffs and classic mid-paced death metal riffs. Like modern metal however, emphasis rides on the vocals rather than guitars, which creates more of a recognizable song format to rock listeners.

At their best, Execration manage a better version of the old-school sound than the twin evils of those who make imitations without soul, and those who make hybrids without sense. Despite this being a competent album, the inclusion of too many of the newer influences prevents Execration from using old school songwriting alone, and so sometimes they end up with riff salad. Several of these songs include one or two riffs that have no real relation to the content and suggest either hasty songwriting, or an argument between creators that is resolved by pacifying everyone and including whatever each person wants to throw in. For raw ability, Execration ranks up there with recent doom-death tyrants Desecresy, and if they can keep the randomness and post-nu-metal influences out, they might make a crushing album out of these raw materials.

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Morgoth – God is Evil

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Morgoth defined its path in the 1990s with two EPs that combined the American and European death metal sounds, then deviated into a more contemporary sound with Cursed and ultimately Odium, at which point the band lay low for 18 years before returning with God is Evil, an EP of two songs which combine their early years with their middle-period work on Cursed, although the band consciously strives to make the aesthetic identification with the EPs stronger than anything else. That makes sense, since death metal and death metal nostalgia are both big business, with the younger audience wanting to hear the glory years come roaring to life again and the greybeards wanting to re-live some of their fond memories of what death metal meant back then.

“God is Evil” begins with the type of chord progression and accompanying constant double-bass drums that would have kicked off a classic Florida album, maybe Death Spiritual Healing, but with more of a European melodic flair. The Florida influences remained hidden to me until this release, where suddenly the influences from several big Florida bands including Deicide show in the riff rhythm and tempo changes as well as the choice of chord progression used. Death in particular specialized in these kind of storming extended riffs, but much like Death, Morgoth suffers from making the riffs too “pat” or too handily concluding on a symmetrical counterpart to their initiating phrase. The result makes this easy to nod along to. The song develops with slightly more melody in the guitar and some very Tampa downstroke triplet riffing, then fleshes out its theme expertly. This song strikes me as not only very well-done but as reflecting the kind of forward thought that a band can have when they stop worrying about how clear their influences are, and work instead on putting the song together like they would construct a building, engine or electronic gadget: each piece relating to one another with a function or design idea at the center.

“Die As Deceiver” fares slightly worse. Starting with a riff that might have come from “Pull the Plug” with a few modifications, in the same way ground effects make a Honda Civic a race car, this song launches into a series of chant-heavy choruses that require lots of downstroke barrages to create emphasize, before a melodic vocal leading the chorus in the best Destruction style. Then the song breaks into a classic-era Death style transition with more of a hard rock modality to it, then layers this with increasing drum and bass accompaniment before breaking to the original loop. This song sounds hastier or at least more hesitant in that the band clearly builds itself around a couple of tropes but is unclear how they relate outside of rhythm, which creates the impression of a play with the scenes shown in the wrong order. The use of heavy expectation in riff delivery here creates more of a pop influence on this song and makes it less likely to sustain repeated listens. The strained vocals of Mark Grewe attempt to emulate the The Haunted or later At the Gates style and do nothing for the music, because like all “modern metal” (read: lapsed metal) that style leads with vocals and relegates guitar to a sidekick role, at which point it quick becomes more like mainstream rock, which seems to have been the goal. More like the average, more audience. Morgoth shows they do not need to stay current or worry about their influences from the first song but almost seem to have lost confidence on the second and fallen back on crowd-pleaser technique which promptly swallowed up their quality songwriting.

On the whole, God is Evil shows a revitalized Morgoth making a credible attempt at restoring the power of its early years while incorporating some of the musical lessons learned with its more populist albums. My advice to this band is to trust your gut, not your spreadsheets, and focus on writing the music that comes most naturally. Cursed and Odium were the same mistake in opposite directions: trying to be current with the most underground stuff possible, and trying to catch up with the mainstream stuff (which was actually a regression from what death metal had done). These are clearly talented players who, when they let themselves, make amazing death metal that infuses European melody into the charging Florida style.

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Excel – Split Image

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Now that our society has fallen apart further, the 1980s like simple and honest like the 1950s did to people exhausted of modern society in the 1980s. A better outlook might be that however our fallen time, it is a more fallen version of the 1980s, with the same pitfalls and failures. Those who lived through it can tell you how much a time of terror it was, with nuclear warfare and social collapse at every turn, and how this propelled some artists to put their most sacred hopes and fears into music. Excel was not one of them.

Excel created this “crossover thrash” back in the 1980s but really, this album belongs in with the Pantera/Biohazard school of bouncy hard rock in punk form with some added metal riffs. The problem with hard rock is that it relies on a simple mentality behind its riffs and that it aims to attract, so it is the equivalent of carnival music or a dinner theater side-show, which is really obvious music that gratifies really basic desires. That keeps the interest less than something articulated and involved like DRI, which offers its own riff style that obviously derives influence from many places, but does not parrot them. The only hidden influence here would be a more pronounced version of the Orange County surf-rock sound that incorporates novelty and party music into basic rock and projects it onto whatever genre can serve as canvas, in this case the basic punk of Excel. The tendency toward riffs based on playing a consistent trope, then interrupting it so the audience can get excited for it to return, while a technique to some degree in most music here becomes a staple in the most basic, drunk football fan throwing feces at the stage way.

The “crossover” part here consists of faster punk riffs that pick up after the chunky bounce-metal riffs and grandstanding hard rock riffs run out. Over this, a vocalist essentially speaks his lines and ends them on a melodic uptake, and although he deserves some note for periodically sounding like Snake from Voivod, these vocals bring out nothing in the music and mostly try to draw attention to themselves with the rest of the music as background atmosphere. Drums sound like a jogger trying to keep up with the vocals and far too often fall into the same syncopated beat that adds nothing but background noise, since the guitar and vocal hooks are nearly in unison and provide all the rhythm we need. While from a distance this album will appear to be no different than DRI, Cryptic Slaughter and Suicidal Tendencies, it lacks the fundamental spirit toward the expression itself as something distinct from and not pandering to the crowd. There is too much pander in Excel, and it dumbs down the music.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RbynRdNQ3vc

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Blackwolfgoat – Drone Maintenance

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Since the dawn of metal the music industry has sought to stretch the definition of “heavy metal” to include anything with heavy guitars because that would enable them a new sales channel for the usual pap. The arguably metal-influenced seemed to excite labels for that reason.

I freely admit to liking this release but not recommending it. This takes some unpacking to make sense, so let me first remind us all of the role of a record reviewer: we need to help you buy the 1% among all the new stuff that is worth listening to multiple times. That elite group consists of records that are not only aesthetically interesting, but musically interesting, and have some form of artistic content, because nothing other than those three will hold the attention of a metalhead for very long. What I do not want to do is hype a record that has an excess of one of the three without the others catching up, like a punk record with really deep political reviews, or a post-metal disc with great production, or even a jam band that remakes jazz but communicates nothing. A record that you will listen to time and again requires all three in roughly matching proportions, and if it lacks those, you will find you bought something in the way pop music listeners do, so that it fascinates you for a week and then languishes in the closet to get dumped at the used record store (where you will find many others of the same record, and get fifty cents for it as a result).

Blackwolfgoat is basically an atmospheric jam. There are spoken interludes on drone-related topics that really offer nothing and are replaying a hackneyed technique; if you delete those tracks (1, 5 and 9) you are left with a record of distorted guitar which uses technique and recursive melody well but aims for ambiance, i.e. not really coming to a point. This is where it fails: this is a jam, not an artistic communication, so while there’s a lot to like here, there is not much to listen to repeatedly here. The intention to create specific moods and expand their depth rather than extend them linearly, which is the core attribute of ambient music, does not rear its head often. Thus while this is enjoyable, it is best passed buy until the time when it hits the used rack for fifty cents, at which time it will make an interesting study in technique and texture for the budding guitarist.

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Wömit Angel – Holy Goatse

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Does anyone remember Driller Killer? Wömit Angel joins the tradition of metal bands making novelty releases on the society-hating side. Obviously inspired by Impaled Nazarene, Wömit Angel serves up fast hardcore riffs with a heavy dose of hard rock on the choruses.

And that is about all you must know.

This release makes for pleasant listening in that obviously these guys have been in metal bands for some time and know all the ways to give a song power. There are no random wanderings like one finds with inexperienced bands; everything fits together like a puzzle. The problem is that each puzzle is based around a melodic hook per song, with a corresponding rhythmic hook in vocals, and then nothing really interesting happens even when they inject a bit of riff salad. What fails to hold these songs together is internal, at a conceptual level lower than music. They are all variations of the same idea which is fun background music to hate society and self-destruct to.

Driller Killer was similar but of 1999 or so vintage. It was fast hardcore with melodic undertones but the heavier emphasis on chorus vocal rhythm common to German speed/death metal bands (we’re looking at you, Destruction). It was catchy. No part of it was incompetent. But like Holy Goatse, the Driller Killer album was temporary, transient and quickly forgotten. Music is best when it evokes a feel from life and observes something poetic about it. If that feeling is living on Euro-welfare, drinking $9 beers and hating society — with no motivation to find a reason why — the result will be a nostalgia-tinged journey through influences and convenient songwriting.

Thus rises the epitaph of Wömit Angel. If you found this at a yard sale, it would hold your attention for a couple weeks, but mostly for the novelty of the name and cover. Then you would put it in a box and ten years later drop it off somewhere where it would again end up as a yard sale item. Music must have meaning or it becomes universal pop which is like elevator music at this point: always there, always cheap, and rarely lasting more than an instant.

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Hammerheart Records to re-issue Mystifier albums

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Dutch metal label Hammerheart Records announced that it would release three releases from Brazilian band Mystifier, Wicca (1992), Göetia (1993) and The World Is So Good That Who Made It Doesn’t Live Here (1996). The first two of those releases constitute the essential works from this band and its greatest historical impact during the fertile 1989-1994 period of black metal.

All three albums will be released in deluxe vinyl and compact disc editions after an unspecified remastering treatment. The label also intends to release a live album on DVD plus compact disc or vinyl sometime in 2015. Describing the arrangement as a “long-term agreement,” the label and band seem to have hammered out a distribution deal for present and possibly future works, since Mystifier has been active again over the last decade after a long absence.

Starting their musical career just after the Norse boom in black metal in the early 1990s, Mystifier appealed to the raw and primitive side of the new genre explored by other tyrants such as Sarcofago, Blasphemy, Impaled Nazarene and Beherit. Their primal and uneven hymns created a destabilizing force even as the hip kids mustered themselves to make slick versions of the new genre. As we enter the second decade of elevator black metal, this infusion of unsystematic hatred should help even the score.

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Powerlord – The Awakening

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When people want to say something “controversial” but inoffensive about metal, they talk about how great 1980s speed metal was. I beg to differ: that music had a few standouts but for the most part was exceptional only in pulling metal out of its 1970s slump into audience-pleasing hard rock, and most of it was boring and repetitive like the punk on which it was based.

Powerlord create a functional hybrid between Judas Priest and early Metallica with The Awakening, but songs develop more like the middle-of-the-road heavy metal of the 1970s. Like dolphins swimming, songs dive from surface to chorus and resurrect, with perhaps a bridge but often just a break, and then do it again until the end.

Nostalgia for the 80s seems misplaced when listening to this 1986 recording re-mastered for a new generation, or the 40-somethings who want to recapture some of the joy of youth by purchasing things. It completely fails here, because the 1980s were essentially a hybrid time. Caught between the salaryman mentality of the 1950s and the licentious 1970s, with fear of the ugliness of the late 1960s resurrecting, the 1980s showed America pulling itself apart between two extremes, those who wanted to join with the Soviets and those who would rather die by nuclear warfare than yield to them. This created a powerfully unstable social climate but also meant that to stay in the middle, artists had to focus on the trivial. From that you get goodtimes metal like Powerlord which avoids hitting anything too hard, but repetitively tears into known quantities that the audience has been proven to enjoy.

Some say The Awakening helped found the power metal genre. Aside from the fact that power metal means “speed metal,” this statement may be true but does not change the fact that this music owes more to its 1980s backdrop than to heavy metal itself. It repeats itself, goes nowhere, and while not fully random like bad metal, also has no internal dialogue and so seems really pointless unless the sound itself of repetitive downstroke riffing makes you excited.

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