What is the underground?

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This issue is about to explode into public discourse because the rise in new-style metal bands has forced this question upon us all.

What is the underground?

Before even reading this article, keep in mind that there are some excellent resources. First, The Heavy Metal FAQ provides a complete answer. Second, Underground Never Dies! is a whole book dedicated to this topic through the eyes of metal bands from the 1980s-1990s underground era.

But we can come up with an even quicker definition.

The 1980s through early 1990s were a different time. Not only was there no internet, but music distribution was fairly strictly defined. Mainstream stores got what the big distributors had from the big labels and a select few smaller labels that pushed their way in. If you wanted a wider selection, you went to an “alternative” music store which stocked smaller labels. Often you bought imports, at a 50% markup. Most stores were completely uninterested in stocking something such as death metal, because it appealed to a small and antisocial niche audience. Why bother with selling a single copy of a Deicide album when you could sell 20 copies of Motley Crue without even trying?

In addition, there were forces of opposition to any metal that was not radio sanitized (which meant speaking on code words, probably encouraging deviant behavior to a greater degree). Very few people now remember when Tipper Gore and her Parents’ Music Resource Center (PMRC) were a powerful lobby for parental warning stickers on questionable albums. In addition, the threat of such people caused record stores to actually card people for buying violent rap or occult metal. You had to be 18 and prove it, or they would not sell to you.

And getting it on radio? There was college radio and also a handful of independent radio stations but these faced the same problem. Why play death metal when you could throw on a few sets of Sonic Youth and Rites of Spring and have 20 times as many listeners? Even among alternative music, death metal was unpopular because it was abrasive and did not have a large social movement behind it which made people like it. NWA was a violent, misogynistic and hilarious rap group that got banned just about everywhere, but there was a large social movement behind their work. It was easier to find that than your average, or even your top-selling, death metal band.

What underground meant back then seemed to be that it was offered through alternative channels. A few record stores, some college radio stations, tiny record labels run on a basically non-profit basis, and photocopied hand-assembled zines made of a pastiche of typed content and tattoo-style margin drawings. How did most people find new music in the early days? They hooked up with pen pals who would mail them cassette tape mixes of new music they found, often dubbed from cassette demos from the bands. Sometimes these tapes were many generations down the line and you could barely hear the band under the crepitant tape noise! But they did the job that mainstream media, record labels and magazines would not.

Toward the middle of the 1990s, this situation relaxed. First, the rise of used CD sales meant that smaller labels were making it into bigger stores via a backdoor. Second, magazines like Spin eventually gave coverage to death metal. Finally, changes in the way music was distributed opened up the middlemen who supplied record stores to the smaller labels. This meant that the traditional split between underground and mainstream was going away. Record labels, scared by the possibility of used CD sales eating up the profits from big mainstream releases, which relied on novelty to sell and interested their audiences for only a few months, started looking toward “niche” sales. But what really blew it out of the water was the notoriety of black metal.

Starting in the mid-1990s, rumors of the black metal movement in Norway and its legacy of violence — church burnings, murders, and stockpiling of military grade weapons — began to leak out through the zines into the magazines. Then the whole drama exploded with the trial of Varg Vikernes, who conveniently also ended the old black metal era with Hvis Lyset Tar Oss, an album so deeply nuanced and impossible to follow that most musicians shrugged and went back to three-chord, “punk style” black metal instead. He raised the bar at the same time bands like Darkthrone codified the genre with Transilvanian Hunger, an album that was difficult to create but easy to mimic. As mentioned in the documentary Until the Light Takes Us, black metal witnessed the decay of an idea. This decay happened through emulation that, because it looked at the outward traits like distortion and blast beats, missed the actual meaning of the genre which caused musicians to make such similar music in the first place.

It’s hard for people to realize now but black metal was initially viewed as slightly touched in the head. Death metalers often hated it violently; almost everyone else seemed to criticize it for its lo-fi approach and almost childish use of blasphemy and antisocial imagery. Many of the albums sounded like they were performed by people who had barely picked up an instrument and might have zero social graces. It was roundly mocked… until it started to become popular. Then the tables were turned. Within five years, black metal was in mainstream record stores (this shift happened in about 1997) and became really popular with a new generation.

After that point, the term “underground” seemed to lose meaning. The internet had come and made music and information about it universally available, and the proliferation of high-powered desktop computers meant that recording an album, running a label or making a zine involved far less labor and looked and sounded a lot better than the DIY labor of the 1980s (or even 1960s-1970s, when proto-punk and punk bands innovated it). At this point, people started going for an “underground sound,” which meant artificial lo-fi, simple three-chord songs, lots of ranting about antisocial topics including the occult, and a deliberately offensive resistance to any positive reinforcement.

You can see the resulting confusion in this artfully assembled article by Laina Dawes:

The other issue that’s sparked controversy is exactly which bands get press — take Deafheaven and fellow shoegaze black metal band Alcest, who both benefited greatly from non-metal-centric coverage in 2013. The idea of using these bands to open of the gates of metal and let readers discover a new musical genre (or actually take it seriously) is a contentious one. One of the issues is the promotion of palatable metal bands that could potentially reach the masses with a sound that isn’t “metal” in the classic sense. Instead, these bands have been referred to as “extreme,” a catch-all, provocative phrase guaranteed to attract listeners who are looking for a more intense metal fix – and to satiate that self-satisfied outsider-metal “cool factor” that insecure metal fans love to laud over the pop-music contingent.

In the years from 1995-1998, the underground basically rehashed itself. It had no ideas, and more importantly, the bar was raised. To be a good death metal band, you had to be at the level of Morbid Angel’s Covenant or Suffocation’s Pierced From Within. To be a black metal band of note, you had to be at the level of Burzum’s Hvis Lyset Tar Oss or Enslaved’s Frost. Not many bands could do that and so an alternative underground built up based on fan-driven metal. Most of this was in emulation of the previous years and took the form of three-chord simplified versions of the more complex originals. The result was that, outside of a small cluster of people hanging around internet forums, this music went nowhere.

Nature abhors a vacuum, so from 1999-2006 or so, metalcore took over. This was also music designed to be easy to make. It took the randomness aesthetic of late hardcore punk and combined it with death metal riffs, making chaotic songs that made no sense but were plenty distracting and extreme. The music industry flogged this dead horse walking (to brutally mix metaphors) for five years before the trend started to die. Then from 2006 through the present, the music industry took a different tack: instead of trying to make a new genre, emulate something that has worked in the past. They found the fertile ground of the post-hardcore years where indie rock, shoegaze and post-rock coexisted in the same sphere of influence. This was generally what was called “alternative rock” before “alternative rock” became a brand for flannel wearing bittersweet droning hard rock bands from Seattle.

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Deafheaven is a polarizing band becomes it comes from this tradition. Listening to it, it is not clear there is any metal in it at all. But labeling something “metal” or “underground” or “extreme” excites interest, mainly because few people trust the aboveground media. Thus there is a huge financial incentive to classify Deafheaven as metal, and for smaller blogs and magazines to go along with this fiction as well, if they do, they get advertising revenue and possibly a shot at the big time.

This leaves us with a complete quandary: does the term “underground” have meaning anymore at all?

My suggestion with my last article, “In defense of elitism,” was that underground is a misused term. The point is that metal has a spirit which defines it and separates it from everything else. That spirit must be expressed but it is of a nature that does not trust the dominant paradigm. Black Sabbath wrote their music to rain on the hippie parade of love, drugs and pacifism; their point was that altering our perspective does not change reality. Underground metal had a similar message and was unwilling to alter it in order to fit with the expectations of people who would rather hear about the denial fictions of love, drugs and pacifism (underground rap did the same thing in parallel, but with a different set of issues and a different set of denial fictions).

What makes a metal band underground is that it is unwilling to compromise its vision of truth for what people want to believe is true. It is unwilling to compromise its aesthetics for what people believe is comfortable and pleasant. It is committed to the idea that the only legitimacy comes from the art itself, not its popularity or album sales. Some would identify this as the ultimate non-“bourgeois” statement, in that it casts aside comfortable oblivion in favor of a raw blast of cold hard reality. This sense of underground is more fundamental than how the albums are sold or which zines write about them. It is an attitude and discipline. Underground means that which puts truth first and popularity second, which is a dramatic reversal of the way everyone else goes about it.

Metal is not the only genre to have an underground. Punk was originally underground but as it became fashionable in the late 1970s hardcore punk bands started vanishing into squats, playing midnight parties in abandoned foundries, and selling their music on 7″ records out of shirtsleeves. The noise movement in Japan remains underground to this day, with artists like K.K. Null constructing elaborate and beautiful pieces from raw noise, instead of making harsh blasting rebellious stuff like record labels had hoped. Robert Fripp, former guitarist of King Crimson, uses electronics to make his guitar sound like an organ and plays small concerts across the world. Underground is not a term specific to metal, but a term to describe any activity that is not encouraged in society at large yet believes it has ideological, artistic and/or political value.

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You aren’t going to hear about any of these artists in big media and you may not be able to buy their CDs in regular stores. However, that is the symptom, not the cause. The reason they’re not in regular stores is that they’re not only niche, but also not given to comfortable oblivion. In a time when people can choose the artistic equivalent of a cheeseburger over the more challenging and substantive art, people tend to do so, which marginalizes actual art. As a result, the actual art is alien and threatening to most people, which makes it a terrible product, which means that it ends up in small record stores, small zines, and small labels.

If anything, the internet has exacerbated this tendency. In an age when we can find anything by googling it, the real problem is knowing what to google. Even worse, Google uses a search engine algorithm that moves higher links up the chain, thus burying marginalized results. We have all the information in the world but without a guide to it, none of us know what to do with it. It is for this reason that traditional media has won out on the net and the sites that attract the most eyes are the ones that are promoting essentially mainstream music.

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What Deafheaven represents to a metaler is the triumph of mainstream music. There is nothing in Deafheaven that challenges the listener to even a second of soul-searching or discovery, or whatever it is that art does — that’s a separate debate — in contrast to what death metal and black metal provoked in us. Deafheaven in fact is the listening equivalent of wallpaper, a pleasant series of repeated images that make us think about shopping, perhaps. Whether it is bad music or not is irrelevant. “The medium is the message,” we’re told, and in the case of Deafheaven, the medium is inoffensive pop pretending to be “extreme.”

As BasementGalaxy has revealed, Deafheaven represents aboveground genres invading metal:

Since then, anything “new” and “innovative” done in metal has involved musicians stepping outside the boundaries of the genre more and more. Shoegaze, industrial, post-punk, krautrock, progressive rock, jazz, trance, dubstep. It’s been happening gradually over the past ten years, but Deafheaven’s 2013 album Sunbather just might be the first major splintering that will eventually see “extreme music” separating completely from actual heavy metal. Although my opinion on the album has already been published and will not change, it remains the most critically acclaimed album of 2013, of any genre, marking the first time an album that has occupied that grey area between “metal” and “extreme music” has captured the attention of so many mainstream critics and audiences. Some critics still call Sunbather “metal”, but to do so is to forget what makes heavy metal heavy metal in the first place, merely clutching to the few metallic threads in an otherwise richly varied musical fabric. In reality, Sunbather is a tremendous example of extremity transcending the metal ethos entirely.

In other words, there’s a reason Deafheaven doesn’t sound like Beherit, Demoncy, Imprecation, Blaspherian or any of the other bands which have resurrected the underground sound over the past five years. Deafheaven represents the mixing of mainstream sounds into underground metal, while Beherit represents underground metal growing and developing on its own terms.

If anything, the underground is in a renaissance because it has finally escaped the old standard of lo-fi music sold on cassettes/vinyl through dodgy mail orders and reported on only by small zines. We have gone from alienated from society to accepted (grudgingly) by society, and so now we are “niche” music. But what defines this niche is that it is underground. We face the hidden truths and evoke concealed emotions, and thrust a fist in the face of oblivion. That is what makes us underground, and it’s why the masses chose Deafheaven over Demoncy to report on as a face of extreme music.

Alex Hellid creates contest to re-mix Entombed

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Alex Hellid of Entombed is offering a contest which puts a challenge to his listeners: make something of Entombed, and possibly win free stuff.

Here’s his statement:

Here are three instrumental demos. Take them and do something…add your own flavor…lay down the vocals…be the voice…remix…cut it up…add samples…do an animation…shoot a video clip…anything…and let us see it! Then post it on our facebook page.

Go to the contest page to download the three tracks and begin re-mixing. Then, upload them to the Entombed Faceborg page and see what happens.

I won’t share my own plans for this but if you can imagine ABBA covering GBH doing Entombed, you’re on the right track.

In defense of elitism

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One good way to make a name as a writer is to disguise a begging the question fallacy as an article. That’s what happened with “Why Are Black Metal Fans Such Elitist Assholes?”, a new piece staining the otherwise semi-respectable site Vice.com.

The article starts like a bad joke: a writer walks into a bar in Brooklyn. He hears people talking about black metal. He suggests Deafheaven and everyone there, including the bartenders, tell him that’s not black metal. He then omits vital information about this bar, knowing that all of us would immediately gang-rush it in support, and goes on a lengthy tirade that uses a logical fallacy. The begging the question fallacy relies on setting up a false association, and then arguing against the object of that association with what it’s associated with. It’s like this: “Knowing the connections between black metal and airborne AIDS, it’s unbelievable to me that anyone would support black metal, unless they really like people writhing in the street from autoimmune diseases on the wind.”

The actual argument in the article is here, six paragraphs down:

There is a level of inherent elitism in every special interest group. It’s just maybe more pronounced and ingrained in something as fringe as black metal is today. This is probably the same way Sex Pistols fans felt when Green Day and the Offspring blew up in the nineties. However, at some point you need to just accept that the thing that you love may get more popular or have elements of it co-opted by other genres—and if you take a step back, that’s part of what makes music or any other art form valuable to the culture. The conflict occurs when you overlook the fact that nothing exists in a vacuum and in order for anything to thrive it has to be identifiable to people on some level, otherwise it’s just an abstract mass floating aimlessly through the conceptual ether.

What he’s done here is cleverly re-define “elitism” to mean fear of other genres using black metal’s technique. However, the example he began the article with is that of other bands pretending to be black metal. Not a single elitist has argued against bands appropriating black metal technique, so long as they do it in their same camp. The point of elitism is to keep out impostors.

Impostors, you say? Yes: genres form because small groups break away from what everyone else is doing. These small groups then do something in an unorthodox way, and it works. The large group, fearing that it has been left behind, then creates a bandwagon effect where they all start imitating the small group. If the small group wishes to survive, it needs to oust the bandwagon-jumpers and keep itself internally consistent.

This is why many groups are elitist and not just in music. They are trying to preserve their way of doing things which is different from what the herd wants to do, while the herd wants to appropriate the mantle of these rebellious groups while continuing — underneath the aesthetic — to do exactly what the herd always does. In this case, they want to dumb down black metal into emo/indie/shoegaze/rock. That’s why people hate Deafheaven.

It’s not popular to defend elitism because elitism itself is under a similar attack. The herd would love to consider themselves elitists, but in the time-honored tradition of morons everywhere, they get it wrong. To them, elitism means finding the most obscure band possible and browbeating the rest of us for not knowing about it. It’s like a shibboleth or entry code to the cool kids group. But that group only appeals to hipsters, and those are actually irrelevant, since they produce nothing except low-run memes for each other.

Actual elitism is defense of the values of a genre. Not any band and definitely not every band can be black metal. However, the anti-elitists would like to argue that just about anything can be black metal by, you know, wishing it so. That amounts to obliteration by assimilation and adulteration, and would terminate the black metal genre. It seems that like this writer, most anti-elitists aren’t actually black metal fans, and what they want isn’t black metal, but the usual music that they like to be labeled as black metal… so they can be elitist (but humble) about it.

Narcotic Wasteland – “Shackles of Sobriety”

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Nile guitarist Dallas Toler-Wade has unveiled his new project Narcotic Wasteland with the debut of their self-titled album today and the release of a sample song, “Shackles of Sobriety.”

Based on this song, it’s clear the album comes from the modern metal camp and not the death metal camp. It starts with an impressive melodic metal introduction, then drops into the trademark of modern metal, which is Pantera-influenced vocals leading the guitars, reversing the classic death metal formula. Thus most of what you hear is vocal rhythm with guitar keeping constant texture on the backdrop, not guitar leading and vocals filling in secondary texture as all the best death metal bands did.

This creates a “rant effect” which makes me want to scream “Are you talkin’ to me?” at the screen. Behind this during verses is an updated version of the type of lead-picked speed metal riff that might have gone on a Forbidden, Anacrusis or Coroner album back in the day. Then for the chorus, we switch to similar vocal rhythms over a more percussive death metal riff which leads in to remnants of the melodic introduction. That in turn leads to a high-speed guitar solo which borrows obliquely from jazz technique but tends to do so in a throwaway style as if the solo was more there to occupy a necessary space than to serve a musical role. Then repeat and fade away.

“Shackles of Sobriety” is part of a concept album about drug addiction. Apparently Toler-Wade and friends live in a neighborhood blighted by people getting strung out and being dysfunctional, and decided to put it to comedic use by styling it as a narcotic wasteland. All humor at the over the top but prescient reference aside, there’s legitimacy to their gripe. Most of America and Europe are strung out at least on alcohol, and the result is massive dysfunction everywhere. This has been consistent since at least 1959 when William S. Burroughs wrote his epic Naked Lunch, where everybody has some vice, and some have more than enough.

While I applaud this effort by DTW and friends, I still can’t get jazzed for either Nile or this because I am a death metal fan. Nile sounds on the surface like death metal, but it uses harmonically static riffs and keeps them in standard verse-chorus positions most of the time, which obliterates the riff-leading composition used by death metal bands. Most of their stuff more resembles speed metal, as does this modern metal offering.

Fan kills black metal singer for not being Satanic enough

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I’m going to hell for this, but it’s an observation, not a recommendation: black metal was a lot better when it was the Wild West, with bodies cropping up everywhere, churches aflame, and musicians stockpiling paramilitary gear.

Then it got all civilized — about the same time it became sociable and profitable — and immediately descended to the same repetitive and soulless level as all other music that has been socially accepted.

For this reason, while I’m not going to cheer the acts involved (and no one accountable can, because we are civilized), I have to admit a brief flicker of something — nostalgia? hope? — crossed my nerve net as I read in this morning’s virtual paper about the self-proclaimed Satanist who killed the singer of a Thai metal band, Surrender of Divinity.

Surrender of Divinity have released a number of underground efforts to some acclaim, culminating in a split with Finnish war/noise metal cult Archgoat. Prices on Surrender of Divinity merch on eBay have already spiked in response, for you cynics.

The alleged killer, Prakarn Harnphanbusakorn, was apparently a fan of Surrender of Divinity when he reportedly met with the band’s vocalist, Samong Traisattha, for some beers at the latter’s home. When Mr. Samong’s wife returned to check on the two several hours after the gathering began, she found her husband dead from multiple deep knife trauma wounds.

Posting on Facebook as Maleficient Meditation, Mr. Prakarn posted pictures of the gory scene of the killing and made a series of references to the sacral nature of his act:

“I have intended to end my life since I was 25. Because I’ll die eventually, I want to drag down those who tarnish Satanism with me. But I refrained from killing women and children,” he wrote.

“In my view, I have more respect for devoted Buddhists, Christians and Muslims than those who call themselves Satanists without knowing anything about it,” he wrote. “If I did not kill him, I’m sure he would be murdered by someone else later.”

“Maleficent Meditation” concluded that people who do not have faith in Satan should not call themselves Satanists. He also said he hoped he would be with Satan after he died.

He had previously mostly posted black metal news, snippets of Satanist information, and kitty pictures.

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Is rock ‘n’ roll assimilating metal?

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Metal interviews are like connecting violent minds to an amplifier. The musician is given a chance to speak plainly, and rewarded for saying something outlandish enough to make a headline. It’s like pouring gasoline on a fire.

Much as “in vino veritas” describes how drunk people often accidentally blurt out the truth, interviews often get the essential thoughts out of musicians. Tired, often doing multiple interviews in a day, musicians are apt to cut to the chase. Further, since they’ve been working that part of the brain that makes language, they’re often at their clearest several interviews into the process.

Thus it’s not sensible to either discount interviews, or to wholly accept them without being critical. But recent comments by Nominon drummer Per Karlsson highlight why metal interviews will always be popular — the offhanded, casual and yet direct blurting of truth:

I’d say that black and death metal pretty much go hand in hand, but that’s just my opinion. I am a bit worried though, since more or less all death/black metal of today has turned into rock ’n’ roll or something, all the new bands seems to be more into retro-rock, either that or looking/sounding like Ghost. I am ashamed of what this has turned into, it makes me sick.

Score one for the surly musician. First it makes sense to discard is the “that’s just my opinion” which is a passive-aggressive way of saying that some opinions coincide with truth where others do not. Then to analyze his main point, which is basically that rock music is assimilating metal.

For a brief historical re-cap, metal is a breakaway genre from rock, itself a breakaway genre from blues, itself a breakaway genre from folk. Rock music represents a distillation of many traditions down to the simplest transmissible commercial product. It was always a simpler option to the popular music of the time, and then at some point in the 1960s it took over not just music but popular culture. Much of this has to do with how our commercial society worships whatever seems popular at the moment.

Metal never wanted to be rock. If it had, it would have stayed in the rock camp. It also didn’t fully want to be blues. The influences on Black Sabbath were not only previous rock and heavy blues, but progressive rock and horror movie soundtracks (these inherited heavily from modernist classical, notably Wagner). With metal, rock’s rather static textural riffing evolved into the power chord phrase, which is closer to the horror movie music than what rock was doing at the time.

This upset the existing order.

Rock music saw itself as the bad boy and rebel, the counterculture upsetting civilization. Now there was a counter-culture to the counter-culture. Where the rock boys were singing about flowers, love, peace and our bright future, metal brought in the harsh discordant notes of realism: idealism is poppycock, death is ever-present, and the obliviousness of the average person (see “War Pigs”) is what brings evil into the world. Where the rock guys thought you could fight evil with love, metal counter-posited that you can only fight evil with vigilance, and eyes-wide-open awareness of life, warts and all. That shocked the rock community.

Since that time, metal has been the go-to imagery for advertising firms, movies, books and other entertainment products to symbolize “rebellion.” They also try with punk. Metal and punk are the two drop-out genres that consciously elect to be outsiders, and to avoid just doing what other rock bands doing and, by following that trend, to choose “success.” Popular music is fairly simple: find a unique version of doing what everyone else is doing so your audience both recognizes what you’re doing, and has some unique “mental handle” that causes them to single you out. It’s basic memetics.

This means that entertainment products have both a core and a surface. The core is the actual musical content; the surface is the aesthetics, the quirk, the irony, the imagery, and so forth. Metal has rebellion both in its core and its surface. However, if that metal surface could be transferred to rock, the ideal product would result. The band that came closest was Guns n’ Roses who managed rock song format with later Black Sabbath-styled riffs and bluesy leads. If someone were able to make hard rock that felt like metal, the market would roll over and beg for them.

As a result, the primary threat to metal is bands that “look like” (surface) metal but are actually the same old stuff. A number of bands are indicted under this banner, including Opeth and all nu-metal (which under the skin is “rap/rock”). Recently this process has picked up more steam in the underground. “Post-metal” — which is basically late 1980s post-hardcore, emo or indie rock — has begun to be sold as black metal. Nu-metal with late hardcore stylings has been sold as death metal. The result is fans unable to tell the difference between metal and rock.

This advertiser’s dream will backfire. The more metal gets like rock, the more it loses its outsider status. The more metal shows up in “legitimate” publications and entertainment, the less it is consciously outside of the mainstream world. Like punk, it will end up a “flavor” of rock that is used to sell certain products like motorcycles, cologne, hot dogs and chain saws. This is what Karlsson is warning us against, and it’s a good thing we heed him.

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Cryogen – Continuum

cryogen-continuumTwo revelations before listening to this: first, when I first got into music I thought talent and ability were rare; now I realize they’re commonplace, but the ability to apply them in some non-inert interesting way is rare. Second, that metalcore — the mix of metal genres in the post-hardcore style of “contrast without continuity” riffing — borrows almost everything it has from 1980s speed metal.

Cryogen offer us a highly musical take on metalcore with Continuum, which displays excellent playing abilities, clear songwriting aptitude, and even the rarer ability to present songs in such a way that they are not only emotionally engaging but create a sense of transition that is coherent and not just random emotional outbursts giving way to one another like the rants of officer workers on sitcoms.

What brought us metalcore? A fusion of Meshuggah and The Haunted. Both used speed metal as a basis, but broke down the metal structure of internal riff dialogue and replaced it with the post-hardcore notion that great contrast between riffs to the point of incoherence makes for a better song. What it does is emphasize deconstruction and isolation to the point where the listener’s attention span is destroyed, which makes it easier to compose this way since the requirements are much lower.

Cryogen is best when the speed metal peeks out, or even when the heavy metal parts emerge. With their technical skill, they could easily make a classic heavy metal album. Instead they insist on burdening themselves with surface complexity, which because it must cram in more diverse elements, requires the unifying elements of the song be simplified. The result is very basic chord progressions underlying a pile of textural depth and intensive variation, which means that when you drill down you find your father’s bouncy heavy metal riffs.

I wish this band would knock it off with trying to stay current, and just drift in the direction they clearly want to go, which is in the direction of the first Cynic album. Those songs actually held together, and the core of them was a complex sense of harmony leading to a flexibility in key transition that gave them elegance. Cryogen is sort of the opposite: a lot of styling that is ultimately held back by the musically simplistic core enforced on it by the burden of participating in the great metalcore trend.

Pestilence releases “Necro Morph” from Obsideo

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Pestilence will be remembered as one of the heroes of death metal, but many have stated reservations about their more recent output, which seems unduly influenced by the modern metal movement, including tek-deth and alt-metal, which always seem to go hand-in-hand.

“Necro Morph” shows the band dialing back from the modern metal fringe and making what’s basically renovated speed metal with modern metal touches, avoiding the true randomness of tek-deth. The counterweight to that is that this makes the music more repetitive, which forces the vocals to overcompensate to give it textural depth.

That approach might make sense if the vocals were sung, but it’s an unfortunate choice here. Pestilence has always excelled at instrumentals, not vocals; when your strongest instrument is the guitar, why make a vocal-heavy style? Second, this puts the emphasis on a style of growled/shouted vocals that don’t have that much variation, which requires comedic emphasis that in turn puts weight on the lyrics to be “interesting,” which in rock-n-roll-speak usually means “ludicrous.”

Further, putting the main thrust of the band’s effort into rhythm guitars that support vocals has dumbed down the riffs themselves, which have gone from interesting phrases that use both partial chords and single-string picking to constant power chords that form uniformly repetitive walls of sound interrupted strategically by rhythm for the Meshuggah-style jazz “offtime” effect.

When the solo does appear, it’s a beautiful thing, because these guys not only play their instruments well (which is cheap, as millions play well) but have a good ear for music that is both sonorous and pushing the edges of what we would consider organized sound. Can we have some more of this, please?

If anything, Pestilence should recognize that their audience is not “the kids,” who will always want something dumber than Pestilence can provide, but the maturing listener who wants something with a bit more meat than the mostly rock-based pop metal that dominates the airwaves. You can’t get successful by imitating what works for others, and Pestilence must find their own path.

Wan – Enjoy the Filth

wan-enjoy_the_filthGenres aren’t arbitrary things. They have certain ideals and certain boundaries, like all ideas or practices. Some people find that constraining and want things to fit in certain genres just because they say so.

Such must be the case with Wan, which is labeled as black metal and has been repeatedly introduced as such. It isn’t. This is a great late hardcore record, and thoroughly enjoyable as that, but it isn’t black metal. Not only that, it would be a total failure at black metal, so it’s unwise to list it as such.

Calling to mind Impaled Nazarene’s Latex Cult, which arose when that band decided black metal was out of possibilities for the time being, Wan Enjoy the Filth is bounding, high-energy hardcore riffs and simple verse-chorus songs. This one comes out of the gate rockin’ hard with riffs that seem inspired by Discharge, Terveet Kadet, the Exploited and GBH. Others might point out late-1990s punk like Driller Killer and Disfear, Dischange, etc.

Most of these songs are based on bottom two-string power chord riffs in the hardcore style, which means they’re less built around phrase and more around droning interrupted by a catchy rhythm. Drums keep up a d-beat or a similar “background” rhythm while vocals belt out a series of ambitious lyrics involving war, evil and hatred.

If you want to compare this band to anything, the aforementioned Impaled Nazarene is the closest link to “black metal,” but it has more in line with the late-1980s hardcore like Sick of It All, albeit in a more European-descended form. It’s quite enjoyable to listen to, and probably won’t stick around for too long, but it’s certainly not black metal.

The relationship between metal and horror films

carnival_of_soulsWe all know why we distrust public statements by musicians. To be popular in this world, you first must endorse the lifestyle that most people lead, and this usually means praising something from the “edgy” mainstream so everyone knows you’re controlled (and thus “safe”) just like the rest.

Ironic, isn’t it. A whole group of people wanting to be rebels, but unwilling to go past that line that no rebel dare cross and still have the support of the peanut gallery which is encouraging him to rebellion. Reminds me of why the James Dean character finally offed himself in Rebel Without a Cause.

But Ihsahn, formerly of arch-rebels Emperor, is now a safe rebel and he’s giving some interviews praising stuff that you’d expect, if you watched your TV attentively, that “edgy” characters might like. However, some of the subversive is still left in him, so he sneaked in a few goodies in a recent interview:

The dynamics and emotional impact of soundtracks have been great influences on me and much of the reason I wanted to implement orchestral sounds in my music. Jerry Goldsmith’s work with the Omen movies has been an absolute highlight and still is. Also, his use of non-orchestral sounds in this context is very interesting.

However, this isn’t the first mention of horror movies as an inspiration. Just this week, Warbeast’s Bruce Corbitt opined that most of his work was inspired by horror movies. Entombed used horror film riffs in their own work. Black Sabbath tooktheir name from a horror movie, and wrote music to emulate the scary sense of suspense in the dark films they enjoyed.

At what point do we acknowledge this pervasive musical influence, with its own debt to modernist classical, as perhaps the foundational influence on metal itself?