A Descent into the Occult

WAWf4Yi

Since ancient times man has looked into both himself and nature around him as a portal into dimensions our species’ abilities are not adequately or readily prepared to perceive let alone understand. This is why and the sciences developed their theory and instruments which became increasingly specialized and compartmentalized, to the point that the ulterior workings of, for instance, chemistry and physics are not even truly understood by any single person but that have been recorded and detailed so that theories can be devised to model them. This is both a weapon for more precise understanding and a blindfold that prevents us from seeing the big picture. The ancient occult sciences attempted something contrary to this, which was to grasp at the phenomenon as a whole, not by measuring bits here and there, isolating them and attempting to harness them for mundane tasks, but rather seeing how everything interacted and describing it through metaphor and accepting that knowledge concerning reality cannot be taught or communicated: the path can only be hinted at but it is for each person to take.

paracelsus-portrait “We do not know it because we are fooling away our time with outward and perishing things, and are asleep in regard to that which is real within ourselves.”

 

Music can be used as a way to contemplation, as a window of what is in front and within us. This is a way towards the self, towards one’s nature, the species’ nature, and our place in the planet as life springing from it. When done correctly, it is not an escape from “reality” as materialists would have it, but rather a search for the experience and understanding of actual reality through human eyes. This includes an accepting of the limitations we can never truly overcome and yet trying to capture visions and feelings of what the universe beyond us is like. Music can convey this by acting as a conduct, taking the mind to a certain state. This is much more than the “setting of a mood” of pleasure-oriented music, and requires an active engagement by the listener, a locking in the senses, a voluntary  stepping-through to the unreachable umbra of that-which-is. This is not about salvation or reaching out for a different world, it is a discovery of the cosmos as it is in reality.

silesius_2500090-69325 “Could one that’s damned stand in high Heaven, even there He’d feel within himself all Hell and Hell’s despair.”

 

Underground metal and its related genres (dark ambient, for instance) as a mystical experience may lead us through a variety of paths, up to mirrors, dead-ends and upside-down positions which may seem incomprehensible at first but whose value is appreciated in retrospect as a lesson. At the end of the day, no vision reflects reality, we can only dip into experiences that transmit flashes of this or that aspect, but nothing that encompasses everything which is far beyond our capabilities. It is like trying to capture the infinite in one’s mind, or simply trying to imagine not being human.

Teresa-of-Avila-150x150 “To reach something good it is very useful to have gone astray, and thus acquire experience.”

 

The following are a few album recommendations that the author feels are strong and sure passageways from whence grand sights a piercing eye may descry. Though each of these may follow a slightly different path, they all shine light into particular corridors and avenues by virtue of different methodologies and philosophies. Each kind of experience is in the eye of the beholder and is ever partial and incomplete, but the truth behind all of them is one and whole.

 

Emperor- In the Nightside Eclipse

An album about the astral origin of our self, a constant reference

to the nightsky, the dark forest and the darkest confines of

the individual’s mind and a connection to the source.

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Burzum – Sôl austan, Mâni vestan

The day, the movement of the major celestial bodies seen

through the eyes of a druid. This album is the trickling of life,

the flow of energies from one state into the next.

burzum-sol_austan_mani_vestan
Endvra – Black Eden
This is introspection and the exploration of the self’s demons in

a sincere way. A complete closing off from the outside, it is

best experienced alone and in complete darkness. This is

a facing of everything within oneself through oneself.

Endvra 1996 - Black Eden a
Mütiilation – Remains of A Ruined, Dead, Cursed Soul

Music for ruins, cemeteries and places in which dark memories

are still alive, this is the universe through deep pain. As with the

first item in this list, it hints at Black Magic, into illicit and

probably self-destructive channeling of negative energies.

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Reaching for a Red Sky

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I. A brief introduction

In 1992, At the Gates released their first full-length album after an earth-shaking demo of unprecedented refinement in composition. The full-length, titled The Red in the Sky is Ours, was to become not only the band’s magnum opus but also the greatest achievement of Scandinavian death metal then and since then. Hidden under distinct layers of complexity, ideas at different levels flourish, diverge and converge in ways that are not always easy to follow, throwing the less-than-adamant and less perceptive listener off at every turn and twist of the way. This is not a spurious claim but an observation based on deep acquaintance with the composition of the music in this album as it stands in contrast with the groove-banality of most Swedeath, including favorites of the populace like Entombed Left Hand Path.

According to Anders Björler, this early output was almost entirely arranged by the much aged (about 6 years older than the rest of the band members) founding member Alf Svensson, who painstakingly controlled the process even in the vocal department. To be fair, this debut album is definitely the result of the best talents of all the participating musicians directed in a very concentrated direction by a mastermind. In fact, a distinct At the Gates’ “sound” in this era comes from Tompa’s unique style and the exchange between the quirkiness of Svensson’s style and the melodic clarity and repose of Björler’s, without failing to mention the flexible, stellar and extremely appropriate tailor-made drum arrangements of Erlandsson. Among the often-commented and curious ways Svensson had of getting ideas for At the Gates’ music was playing folk music tapes backwards. The whispers, screeches and screams  of the vocals were also carefully gauged by this guy who even pitched certain passages — a very uncommon practice in death metal.

Given the strange appearance and convoluted (almost perverted) character of the music that confirm the topic of insanity and inner journeys discussed in the lyrics, it has been overlooked in the same way that even the great genius of J.S. Bach may be deemed “no more than a composer with a penchant for writing minor-key melodies” by the blind and the ignorant. This complexity extends from technique to progressive structures all the way to motif and idea.

Lyrically, The Red in the Sky is Ours is very poetic, describing scenes and mixing these visions with colored allusions and evocation of feelings, creating a land between the image and the emotion where the two come together and mix, blend and crystallize into one or the other at a different points. This mystic poetry is not only present in the words of the album but is reflected and paralleled in the music. The concept here is strongly integrated and reinforced at several levels that remain elusive enough to create a sense of mystery yet concrete enough to be identified without a shadow of doubt.

The mention of the use of a violin in the album is in order but should not be overemphasized as gimmick-oriented audiences have often highlighted it as if it were the defining or most interesting thing going on here. The violin is appropriately used and adds a very eerie aura through its intensified fretless access to microtones which make the semitone emphasis  and augmented intervals sound even more off than they sound on the distorted electric guitar. One can still detect an amateur performance at some level on the instrument, but it is not that notes were missed or that wrong notes were played, and more of a lack of finesse in performance.

II. Apparent influences

At the Gates was formed out of the ashes of Grotesque, a melodic-motif-based, riff-salad-propelled progressive death metal band. The creative and savage impulse of the younger band remains in At the Gates, but filtered through a matured and controlled thought process under the guiding hand of a visionary metal composer. In my opinion, the single greatest metal influence on the band were the Americans from Atheist, whose shadow looms over the fully-formed style of At the Gates in The Red in the Sky is Ours.

Atheist’s trademark is found in its jazz-inspired rhythmic playfulness, ever throwing the audience off balance through ploys in the music that never allow one to feel too at home, always carrying the imagination forth in river rapids that form part of a distinctive greater whole that flows in one direction. As good metal, it is composed and not improvised (though improvisation definitely always plays a role in any composition process, to one degree or another). The stability-instability interplay from section to section follows the Gang‘s and Satz‘s  described by A.B. Marx conceptually and through examples of Beethoven piano sonatas.

What At the Gates The Red in the Sky is Ours took from Atheist was an informed fearlessness in the face of convention that did not destroy the music for the sake of innovation but introduced all sorts of pauses, tempo and time signature changes as well as other creative rhythmic gestures within a homogeneous framework that maintained a clear language that conspired to a strong concept rather than indulging any of the musicians. But the younger band took this further and deeper than veterans even in their masterpiece Unquestionable Presence, creating much more powerful and meaningful gestures by making them varied yet subservient to a layered concept.

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III. Creating a language

Usually, one relates a band with a style. This style implies the use of not only certain instrumentation but also musical tropes that the audience can expect. A good reason for a band to adopt a particular style (rather than going rogue and define parameters completely on their own) is intelligibility. Unfortunately, more often than not this is not the reason why bands do this, but rather because they are not gifted in music creation and thus only choose a style as a suit to wear and not as what it actually is: a language to speak.

When it comes to this band’s early works, the first step in understanding just what exactly this style they chose is requires an acknowledging of the fact that At the Gates created a dialect of their own from the firm bases of contemporary underground metal at the time. This consisted in abandoning as much as possible stylistic tendencies in structure or composition and reducing their relation to death metal to rudimentary technique aspects such as blast beats,  d-beats and other variations basic percussion patterns  when it came to the drums, and “tremolo” picking for melodies, power chords (and absolutely no use of any other kind of chord in a single guitar), hammer-on’s and simple, non-tremolo picking mostly for syncopated passages.

It is not claimed here that all this was precisely calculated by the band, and it is acknowledged that in all possibility, it was the result of the unconscious result of musically talented minds searching for self-expression. The following section illustrates approaches in applications of typical then-contemporary death and black metal techniques in the framework of distinct songwriting procedures in The Red in the Sky is Ours.

IV. Tainting the sky with red

  • Motif forms. Motif forms in developmental variation as described by Arnold Schoenberg in his Fundamentals of Musical Composition is a series of melodic patterns evolve from executing transformation functions on a primordial one. As little as two distinctive notes from this first melodic pattern can be highlighted and played upon as the central motif, while the rest is twisted, expanded, contracted, flipped, omitted or changed in any other way in progressively differentiating ways. This is not to be confused with a theme, which is a distinctive melodic pattern that is kept intact in the relative relation between its notes and which in the most extreme cases is played slower or faster, or in a different register.  Motif forms allow for a wider range of manipulation that nonetheless preserves a link to a central idea that can be sometimes difficult to see at first, leading relations between sections to sound less than obvious. In the case of The Red in the Sky is Ours, this has resulted in accusations of riff-salad looseness, but these allegations do not hold up in light of the evidence. However, it is true that a degree of intelligibility is sacrificed when flexibility is increased, and these two are one of the so many extreme poles in between which musics attempt to find a certain balance or inclination for their expression.
  • Harmonic coloring. After the selection and limitation to a rudimentary “alphabet”, the reducing of building materials to a homogeneous mixture, At the Gates proceeds to define the next layer: their vocabulary. What happens next are the decisions that shape the character and coloring of the music in terms of the relations between the instruments in terms of texture and harmony. Harmony here does not only refer to the horizontal relation of notes at any one point in time, but of the sequence of harmonic implications within or between riffs. In the strictly horizontal aspect, when the two guitars play melody lines, they often play the same, leaving “harmonization” as an afterthought until after the riff has been properly introduced and the listener is very well-acquainted with it. Rather than a way to easily beef-up the music as in Sentenced North from Here, At the Gates makes a much more elegant and measured use of it as if it were a punctuation mark. This is mostly done in fifths, sometimes in octaves and a very few times in minor third intervals. A very few passages make use of short counterpointed melodies of the most basic sort, but inserted in crucial points to a very powerful effect. The use of each of these not as a feature but as part of a set of calculated flourishes is another thing that makes At the Gates rise above most bands. Needless to say, the rhythm-and-lead modality is used by At the Gates very, very little and usually takes the form of something more akin to melody and counter-melody. The second aspect can be noticed in different applications. One of them is playing a melodic pattern in one register and then playing it exactly as it is exactly one semitone above its original instantiation. The band uses this simple technique to expand several riffs throughout their debut and is in line with the music’s apparent penchant for focusing on the semitone as a motif, giving the music a very uncomfortable lingering feeling most of the time as the minor second interval is a very dissonant one only a little step away from perfect resolution. This, in turn, is liberated by the addition of more stable (so-called “melodic” — correct term: consonant) passages that are in turn intensified and elevated by being placed amongst the ever-present hanging melodic, semi-tone dissonance.

  • Percussion. As has been said before, the drums in metal should be more than the strict representation of tempo, but they should not run amok in self-indulgent expressions of virtuosity or “feeling” either. In the band’s debut album, Adrian Erlandsson achieves perfection in balance between creativity and functionality in a very technically-oriented style. Like many of the early classics, this technically intense music can go undetected because of two reasons this writer can think of in this moment. The most easily pointed out is the fact that the basic expressions are rudimentary metal techniques which in themselves do not present a challenge to accomplished drummers. But looks can be deceiving as the difficulty lies in the smoothness between patterns, in addition to the right emphasis within and between them in relation to the rest of the music. This is basically metal drumming taken to classical heights and taking technical cues from the only available precedent: old jazz drumming. A very good example is the way the drums complement (rather than mirror) the speed of the notes and intensity of the guitar patterns. Sometimes these two come together and accents are focused, sometimes the drums will reduce intensity and calm down to a very basic pattern in order to give space and highlight to a particularly melodic-consonant guitar melody interplay and yet sometimes it will blast away as the guitars play moderately midpaced and slow notes. These never feel forced or out of place when seen from the point of view of being an expression inside a larger scheme, but may seem a little “weird” when taken out of context. Unfortunately for the appreciation of this album, most listeners cannot go beyond the moment and the riff or the cool drum pattern. The beauty of truly advanced drum arrangement (as opposed to virtuosic display alone) is completely lost on most of the audience.

  • Silences and pauses.  A subtle but decisive element that elevates the composition in The Red in the Sky is Ours to a place actually besides classical music (as opposed to the many metal albums that are superficially likened to classical music based on this or that pattern in the music) is the use of silences for articulation — yet another device used by Atheist that At the Gates took to a whole other level. Silences throughout the album work mainly as expectation creators, creating an effect of falling through empty space, and as buffers between two different motific areas. It is also worth pointing out that silences do not only occur in total muting of all the instruments. Sometimes the little trick Atheist likes of letting the bass run over a little drum pattern alone only to have the guitars come after it is used. But also, one guitar alone over drums, or only drums, or alternations of all of them (as occurs in the closing passage of “City of Screaming Statues”).

  • Orchestration. The bas-reliefs created in The Red in the Sky is Ours thus run at multiple levels, from these plays of harmony, to motif relations, to textural adjustments in between the instruments in which the percussion plays no small role.  An analysis of the flow of the music from one section to another reveals a painstaking amount of planning and consideration regarding these elements. The album amounts to an extremely expressive and variable set of statements and arguments from a single voice (embodied by the aforementioned homogeneous-ness from adherence to rudimentary techniques and particular harmonic-melodic inclinations). When it comes to orchestration, the decisions of how and when to let the guitars use this or that picking technique, when to make them play the same or in harmony, when to let the drums lead, when to make the drums fade into the background seem to obey a song-wide plan, and not one in which only the shock or pleasing nature of any one passage is considered. So, it is not which techniques or approaches At the Gates used in their debut, but how and to what ends they did. This music speaks out as if it had sentient and emotional capacity of its own beyond the words or the execution of any single instrument that produces it.

“The term orchestration in its specific sense refers to the way instruments are used to portray any musical aspect such as melody or harmony.”

— Orchestration Wiki

V. Long-range planning

Now comes one of the most exciting and accomplished aspects of The Red in the Sky is Ours: its composition on the scale of whole pieces, rather than in a collection of disparaged cool-sounding passages. Without any assumption of a voluntary or conscious reference by the band to master composers, this writer feels the need to illustrate the outstanding crystallization of advanced thought processes in composition by making a connection between this great metal work to certain general procedures of Ludwig van Beethoven, Anton Bruckner and Antonio Vivaldi.

Structurally, the affinity to Beethoven’s method comes first as it refers to the encompassing of motifs and their tying-together by entanglement. The late German master would develop a first main motif, sometimes introducing a contrasting idea that may be mistaken as simple gimmicks for effect here and there. Now, he would not allow these to remain simple dead ends. These initial and apparently random passages that salted the presentation of a first motif would become the seeds for other areas of development, thereby revealing them as hints and vistas of what lay ahead. Like At the Gates, Beethoven sometimes introduced new ideas in a contrasting and almost transition-less manner, and then proceeded to slowly integrating them by interpolating them and already-established motifs, even using them together while always looking ahead in the development.  Beethoven’s late quartets display everything one can look forward to in At the Gates The Red in the Sky is Ours in more advanced arrangements.

The reference to Anton Bruckner may not be as pervading and far-reaching as Beethoven’s, but it is still a key aspect of the character of At the Gates’ debut. This is a specific way of reusing and sometimes transforming a motif which works on a different dimension than the developmental variation. This is the attention to the color of a same idea, perhaps a theme or simply a motif in different contexts as it shines through different harmonies and textures. Brett Stevens has aptly described this as prismatic technique, alluding to the effect a crystal has over light going through it and exiting from different angles.

Last comes the most general and slightly elusive comparison to Antonio Vivaldi’s music. The relation of any metal music which has separate guitar lines can be likened to a lot of Vivaldi’s music for two violins, as this revolves around two lines. The best melodic death metal uses this concept to its full potential. Also, the clarity and rhythmic straightforwardness and affirmative character of this pure, Italian baroque music is a template and reflection of good and simple progressive underground melodic metal such as the album under discussion. In the case of this metal masterpiece, I want to especially call attention to an section-expanding procedure in which a pattern is repeated while elements surrounding it add to its texture in increasing waves or in slide-shift manner that quickly takes one idea and juxtaposes it to a second as the second one takes precedence towards the end of the whole section. (Typical in At the Gates’ music -> G1: A A A’ A’  BBB’B’ B’B’, G2: AAAA  A’BB’B’ B’harB’har)

Last of all, there is a high-level characteristic that gives this music a very organic feeling, that is how the number of repetitions adjust to the needs of the music, often avoiding sounding too squared, too even. Instead of a lot of the typical “repeat four times”  formula we find in metal we find a lot of different combinations that nonetheless favor the even-ness traditional to the genre. What is achieved here is an element that lends unpredictability but does not detract from the music, a small tool used when music needs a little push from un-evenness: odd number of repetitions. This becomes especially powerful when combined with the riff-motif sliding technique just mentioned. A perfect exampled can be distinguished in the middle climax/breaking point of “City of Screaming Statues”.

While most would agree that most death and black metal need to be analyzed with a modal mindset, approaching The Red in the Sky is Ours with this more simple-minded preconception would be doing the masterpiece a great disservice. The powerful way in which harmony, implied or explicitly presented, is used here was unprecedented in its time and has largely remained unparalleled since in the death metal world. Yet it is not this or that aspect what makes it astounding, but the convergence of all the elements and the stacked up layers of refined aspects from playing technique to mind-numbing attention to composition technique in its vertical and horizontal dimensions and in its short and long ranges.

Crafting a unique album in the full sense of the expression, At the Gates gave us an example of how thinking that everything has already been done is just a scapegoat for people who were not meant to be creating artists in the first place. The Red in the Sky is Ours does not introduce new playing techniques or strange avant-garde-isms in strange influences that change the character of the music, but for those with the eyes to see it, they rose above the masses in producing a profound work of art that will remain immortal so long as its objective qualities, at least, are understood. This is an album that stands besides Burzum Det Som Engang Var and Cóndor Duin in showing us how excellent, original and forward-looking music can be created without resorting ignorant attempts at directly redefining paradigms or favoring nonsensical experimentation that results in garbage. Instead, what we have here is sure-footed creativity based on tradition that is carefully gauged through both technical knowledge in its Apollonian manifestation and its inner Dionysian sense to a both logical but unpredictable result.

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Abyssum – Poizon of god (2008)

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After a little over a decade had elapsed since Abyssum’s debut, the only remaining and the leading voice of the project, Rex Ebvleb, released a full-length album titled Poizon of god. This 2008 offering was both a step forward with a nod to the old material in a conscious effort to be both consistent in the style of the project (this artist  has several projects with very distinct voices and writing procedures and inspirations). This album also sees the enlisting of drummer Akherra to the project as a permanent member of the band. Following in the steps of the methodology of Thy Call, this new comeback album follows the general songwriting approach that does not focus on what we would consider the “metal sections”, and rather uses the distorted guitars and drums as one more color in a palette for black ambient music. Overall, the underlying methodology does not diverge greatly from the debut album but there is a greater variety of pigmentation and expression, a more careful attention to detail, stronger sense of movement and a comparatively darker intent in its character.

Synths are used by themselves in a similar manner to Ildjarn’s, and when together with the metal instrumentation in a way reminiscent of Emperor’s In the Nightside Eclipse, though one can clearly see the difference in orientation that implies that the influence is specific and limited to a technique and does not detract from any claims of originality by Abyssum. Vocals are sparse and drowned in an already thin production whose space is filled out mostly by the keyboards. The exquisiteness of this album’s production lies in the clear-cut distribution in layers of the electric guitars and synths, which makes their subtle interplay all the more interesting. In addition to different synth effects that are used carefully and only where they are precisely required in a very conservative manner, an acoustic guitar graces some of the interludes and is almost invisible in the main songs but does make an appearance that fills out the texture to a delightful effect.

The extra-musical (or should I say ultra-musical, because it is beyond rather than with-out) goal is unmistakable in a humble but effective use of music as a vehicle to experience. These are explorations in sounds as pathways to portals, a trait shared with only the most profound black metal albums of a metaphysical nature. Admittedly a technically unrefined affair, this album will not do for a deep technical study but it does hold up. In addition, the balance between evocation and formal music construction preserves decorum while taken to its sensible limits in a very atmospheric-minded creation in which each single moment is virtually meaningless but the sequence of moments adds up to an idea, the sequence of such sections becomes a transformational process and the album as a whole constitutes footsteps to an epiphany. This hanging in the balance of the line between evocation and musical nonsense contributes strongly to its power, but this power is only manifested once the listener stops inspecting and looking for “interesting” musical arrangements or expressions and lets the stream of notes carry him.

guateVolcanesAtitlan

The classic black metal methodology that uses repetition in clever ways to channel energies is present in its purest  form. The experienced black metal listener knows how to feel the flow of the music and latch on to it as an organism and not worry about how this or that works. The only exception to this is if the music actually fails to do this by presenting disparaged or distracted elements in a disorganized way that tries to pass for “creative”. Abyssum’s use of repetition through changing sections as stanzas in a mantra. The secret of the mantra and the black metal way is that the power lies not in the repeated passage, but in the little variations and truncations that give life to it. The black metal method, its pulse and rhythm in word and phrase alternations, can be seen clearly in the ceremonial telling of a section of The Epic of Gilgamesh:

“(…)he followed the SUN’s road to his rising, through the mountain.

When he had gone one league the darkness was thick around him, for there was no light, he could see nothing ahead and nothing behind him.

After two leagues the darkness was thick and there was no light, he could see nothing ahead and nothing behind him.

After three leagues the darkness was thick and there was no light, he could see nothing ahead and nothing behind him.

After four leagues the darkness was thick and there was no light, he could see nothing ahead and nothing behind him.

At the end of five leagues the darkness was thick and there was no light, he could see nothing ahead and nothing behind him.

At the end of six leagues the darkness was thick and there was no light, he could see nothing ahead and nothing behind him.

When he had gone seven leagues the darkness was thick and there was no light, he could see nothing ahead and nothing behind him.

When he had gone eight leagues Gilgamesh gave a great cry, for the darkness was thick and there was no light, he could see nothing ahead and nothing behind him.

After nine leagues he felt the northwind on his face, but the darkness was thick and there was no light, he could see nothing ahead and nothing behind him.

After ten leagues the end was near: After eleven leagues the dawn light appeared.

At the end of twelve leagues the SUN streamed out.”

The mantra’s text is nothing when it is not being vocalized through the inhaling and exhaling of a human medium, occasionally shuddering in the cold breeze of the mountain. In Poizon of god, the cyclic melody is the verse the stanza’s text that is not counted but is pronounced as long as it takes for a certain consciousness level to be reached. The guitars provide some of the meat and variation of this thought, sometimes concentrated, sometimes faltering, sometimes more emphatic. The drums are the lungs and heart and are the representation of organic life channeling the mantra. Spaces and silences, different percussion patterns, different emphases on the same melody, different intensities all describe the flow of living energy. In contrast to most modern black metal, though, Akherra’s drumwork adheres strictly to the purpose inherent to the music and limit themselves to complementing or counterpointing  in strict manner. In so-called modern black metal, the introduction of grooves and polyrhythms in contrasting, novel and “catchy”arrangements only work as distractions. The latter are not the sacred meditations or black ceremonies of dark adepts but rather the hedonistic, drug-and-booze-induced forest orgies of New Age youngsters.

It shares with Cóndor Nadia the quality of being very private, presenting an outwardly naive presentation that hides worlds of relations and nuances that escape all those who would barely notice these works’ discreet — even secretive — entrances. In this aspect, these two stand in contrast with works conducive to explicit black magic libations such as Morbid Angel’s Blessed are the Sick or the previously mentioned In the Nightside Eclipse. For Nadia, this is merely a by-product of its concern with a romantic and melancholic topic which to a casual listener may appear as indistinguishable from the most cliched and unoriginal — it hides an invaluable treasure in plain sight, perhaps one too precious for vulgar minds to even recognize. In the case of Poizon of god, this retreating is intentional and is an attempt at creating distance between itself and the vain, empty and pretentiously misguided so-called black metal found in abundance nowadays.

A better picture of how the outside and the innards relate to each other can be had by picturing a decrepit wooden hut built into the side of the mountain. Now imagine entering this humble abode that probably served as cellar and storehouse but is now abandoned. Dust covers everything in a quaint and nostalgic picture of ages past. The visitor who is captured by this and would contemplate this place with different eyes finds that in the backroom under a worktable there is a stunted stone doorway leading into the mountain whose presence is only captured by afternoon sun coming in through the window in a very specific angle. Whether underground worlds with their own forest and fauna or catacombs from time immemorial are to be found depends on the nature of the music as a portal and guiding spirit which allows the cosmic traveler to behold them.

 

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The Mystic Tradition in Metal

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As a movement arising from in the post-modernist era but against this establishment, metal has often taken connotations of mysticism. To further clarify this position we must stress that contrary to what seems to be the popular understanding, mysticism is anything but superstitious. Mysticism was the response of lone wolves, singled-out intellectuals and contra-status-quo savants  to established and unquestioned dogma for hundreds of years. Come the age of post-Enlightment scientific-mechanistic materialism, it was the mystics who opposed its arrogance as well: the pretension of the mechanistic paradigm of the sciences that attempted to define reality only by what they could account for within the limitations of their formulae. Mysticism cannot be defined as a philosophical current per se, because its tradition is one of scattered individuals barely connected in a network that spans through cultures and time as well as transcending gender and race as the privilege of those who rise above the self-centered and limited vision of the societies into which they were born.

When referring to metal in this elevated manner, we are referring to the best of the best, and to those who upheld a deeper view of the genre while crystallizing the view with great musical prowess. Both need to be present, the power of a dialectical mind and the divine rapture that lights the unconscious and undefinable. As was explained, mysticism as a tradition is more of a method and a mindset that parts from the notion that experience cannot be shared and that the best attempts to communicating deeper and holistic experiences come from the use of objects and language as opaque symbols that indicate relations and motions rather than refer back to the physical object or original “logical” concept they were referring to. What Cusanus refers to as the “coincidence of opposites” and others as the all in all, the all in one and the one in all — the universe in a drop of water.

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These elite metal artists that do not follow directly after each other but appear consciously independent of one another (Iommi, Quorthon, Hanneman, Warrior, Azagthoth, Vikernes, Ledney, among others) illustrate in ways that seek to evoke and communicate first, and consider artistry as an after thought, if at all. A latent danger of aesthetic lawlessness may be perceived here that has been adopted by lesser minds in their confusion about how to go about implementing this. The mystic artist does not do away with language or convention altogether, he bends it so that words and expressions create impressions. The original meaning of the figure of speech/music or term has to be known by the audience for them to understand the solidification and transposition that the artist puts the symbol through.

As a way of illustration we can take repetition, which in classical tradition is used minimally for the audience to get acquainted with an idea, is used in metal for mood-setting and an entrancing — a setting-out in a grand adventure or a passing-through the gates of perception into another plane. The proportion of repetition in relation to the length and weight of other sections as well as a consideration of their individual properties and relations between the sections, structures and riffs all weigh on the mind of the gifted and mindful artist.

The chaos of bands like late Deathspell Omega that seek to shock and produce a random feeling of overwhelming disorientation can never communicate anything more than a blatant sense of disorder. That is the limitation of such experimental or avant-garde bands: their revolution is only skin deep and being concerned with appearances and the effect of how changing these directly affect the experience. Metal in its highest mystic expression will use the existing language as it is, allowing the significance of symbols (cadences, ascending or descending melodies, percussion, etc) retain a semblance of their original function while their actual usage is shifted to point to the indescribable and unrepresentable meaning, becoming the vehicle for new relations directed by the mind of the composer — a method illustrated but little comprehended in Ludwig van Beethoven’s process.

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But understanding of this Platonic acknowledgement is not given to most and so interpretation of metal’s nature gets diluted and bastardized to terms such as “playing with feeling” or  “being heavy” that barely scratch the surface. We understand these and their superficial descriptions, but when in the hands of the uninitiated, such simplification becomes the total understanding and decadence of a movement becomes imminent as ideas are perverted by inferior comprehension. Metal was started and carried forward at each meaningful juncture by one of these luminaries, and while a few lost underground gems wrought by excellent minds can be found in caves, in between, there was only uncountable fodder.

As a mystic understanding and reaching for the Dionysian through differing Apollonian guises metal seeks to discretely transmit glimpses of phenomena that recur in and around us. A reality that flows and changes state producing what we know as time, but that remains one and the same through and through from beginning to end.

“True, authentic being consists in our ability to let all that is be as and how it is, not distorting it, not denying its own being and its own nature to it.”

— Jan Patočka

 

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Jordi Savall – Tous Les Matins Du Monde OST (1991)

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Tous les Matins du Monde was the result of novel writer Pascal Quignard’s desire to bring to life a story about one of the greatest composers and perhaps performers of the the viola da gamba (“leg viol” in Italian, from the traditional position in which it is held), Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe, and his most famous student, Marin Marais. He partnered with writer-director Alain Corneau, who had been formally trained as a musician before switching interests to film-making in his youth. The writer built a fictitious novel around what little is known about “Jean” de Sainte-Colombe and later adapted it for the movie. The movie has a melancholic tone, suitable for what is known about the composer as a recluse, a trait that Quignard exploited to the point of romanticizing the legend to a believable but ultimately symbolic level as inspiration for the spirit of art.

There was a man who was perfect for the job, his name was Jordi Savall. This decision came as no surprise given that Quignard first found out about Sainte-Colombe from a recording Savall and Wieland Kuijken did of the French composer’s music in 1976 under the title Sieur De Sainte Colombe – Concerts A Deux Violes Esgales. Whether the consequent recordings by the duo of Sainte-Colombe’s music were at least in part due to the movie is unclear, but a second tome was released in 1992 followed by reissues of the older work several years later. Savall was already a well-known name in his world, but the movie boosted it to popular stardom as he became famous all over the world as a viol player and ensemble conductor.

The music in the soundtrack has a very private feel to it and stands in contrast with the contemporary religious music we know was for service. At the same time, it shares with it a quality of “introspection”. What this implies musically, exactly, is something that cannot be pinpointed easily and is probably a confluence of several different traits, similar to how the romantic “authentic” has been systematically analyzed by some in very interesting but abstract descriptions (for instance, simple, understandable melodies in the manner of folk music). The movie depicts a time of transition when a lot of the music that was being made by amateur nobility was increasingly being taken up by professional musicians playing in courts (this is, essentially, what separates Sainte-Colombe and Marais). Herein, the transcendental and the temporal and commonplace are juxtaposed.

This soundtrack consists most of pieces by Sainte-Colombe and Marais with a minimal addition of a few superb piece by other composers. Personally, I recommend “Le Bandinage” by Marin Marais  and the excellent addition of a piece by an anonymous composer simply titled “Fantasie en mi mineur”.

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Monastery – Ripping Terror 91 (2015)

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This is the reissue of a grindcore album released by a Dutch band in 1991 and was previously only available in cassette format. Most of these are just hipster and collector fun coming to light. In the case of this Monastery, the music is solid but just does not have any spark in it. Everything in Ripping Terror had already been done better by the trinity of grindcore, Repulsion, Napalm Death and Blood (bands that have rendered all other grindcore output virtually redundant). Thus, the re-release of this passing triviality is just one more move to cash in on nostalgia and collector’s obsession to possess every tape out there.

This impulse bring back to life just about any band from the golden era of underground metal is both detrimental and helpful. On the one hand, the albums that are really deserving in being reissued, the ones whose legacy should endure are being suffocated in their own niche by a great many Bs, Cs and Ds that had no reason to come to light back in the day and have no reason to do so today. On the other hand, a historian of music wishing to compile human activity in a genre will be delighted to have such a large-scale reproduction of the output of the era.

I am torn between the two and my proposed solution is that the albums are produced on demand instead of Cs like Monastery getting thrown in with the rest of the promos. Which also implies that re-releases or re-issues should have a stack or channel of their own that does not mix in or get clotted by the rivers of filth being vomited on the audience by modern bands. Now, having separate stacks, and the reissues only being produced on demand would save us all time and trouble. Whoever is interested in a completely forgettable like this from back in the day can indulge himself, while Massacra, Incantation, Immolation or Gorguts can dominate the market as they ought to as superior works of art. Save the planet, recycle, stop manufacturing more plastic to release mediocre albums, EPs and demos.

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Amok – Necrospiritual Deathcore (2015)

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Tagged as a death/thrash sort of cross-over band, Amok, at least in the present album, sounds much closer to hardcore stemming from the tradition of Discharge Hear Nothing, See Nothing, Say Nothing and filtered along the line of Amebix Arise!. Some gestures of 80s heavy metal show up but only briefly and not prominently enough to turn this into one of the many kinds of  so-called “melodic death” bands out there. In Necrospiritual Deathcore a healthy, coherent mixture of different punk and metal expressions collide to form an enjoyable album.

Like any hardcore album worth its salt, we find fragments of speech taken from television or radio, snippets of urban audio, coughing, among the rough scream-barks of the vocalist. All this, combined with the great pains to which Amok goes to give this album musical variety despite the fact that the music is primarily percussive (and simple in its percussion). Commendable are the smooth tempo changes in the album that are never abrupt even though they change the music drastically. Voice and instruments conspire so that the “line” is never broken when going from a faster speed to a slower one. When it comes to accelerating, though, the punks show themselves.

On the other hand, given the simplicity (and I mean real simplicity) of each song and the fact that the album is a song-collection (rather than a concept album, or a greater work, or a set of variations), the staying power of this kind of record is very limited. Sounding like a more single-minded, less flexible Amebix, Amok Necrospiritual Deathcore will please and entertain, but there is little reason to continue listening to it when there are albums like Arise! lying around. All in all, it is a refreshing hardcore album with heavy and death metal colors done by expert musicians.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SBosT9rPRPk

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Metal as Transcendental Art

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I. Music for the sake of…

In Book I of Plato’s The Republic, Socrates is engaged in an exchange of ideas with Thrasymachus regarding the nature of justice. In this debate, Thrasymachus is noticeably anxious to drive a point that justifies his views rather than finding out the truth. In between the sarcastic remarks and false humility that characterize Socrates, the older philosopher puts forward questions and comparisons that shed light on the topic in interesting angles.

One of the most interesting arguments came after Socrates’ opponent declared that justice could be defined as “the interest of the stronger”. Socrates’ response came to a point where he postulated that all art (which he uses as an equivalent to “talent” or “occupation”) acts rather in the interest of the receiver of his work. So the true art of the physician is neither in the receiving of money nor in a perfection of medicine in itself, but in the curing of maladies and keeping the body healthy.

Socrates then extrapolated this to illustrate how justice was what a ruler imparted in the interest of the people. A ruler is given power to lead and impart justice to the best interest of the people they govern. That rulers may often become corrupt is a different matter.

This got me thinking, what about music? What is the purpose of music? What is music for? From history, we know music has served different roles, from religious expression, conducive to a form of indoctrination, to aristocratic caprice, to romantic ideology, nationalist propaganda and every other conceivable use of music as ambiance or a vehicle for anything else.

We should make it clear that not only were these approaches different, but not all were equally close to the truth about music. Most do not understand that it can only evoke sentiments, even if detailed and vivid, but not particular scenes. It can speak to the human subconscious through the filter of the conscious (which is why you cannot “get” a music that is completely new in style to you — for example, the “learning process” one goes through when getting into death and black metal). More importantly, it cannot speak of individual ideas without the aid of words because it belongs to the instinctive understanding of humans as a species. Human nature and education mold these perceptions.

The most empty of all the interpretations was that art should be done for its own sake. A laughable oxymoron, if ever there was one. As Socrates correctly argued, art is done for the sake of the less powerful that receives it, the object of its mercy. For music, that is the human spirit, the subconscious and the conscious as a whole, your state of mind, whatever you wish to call it.

II. The options that metal has at its disposal

In his Fifth Heretical Essay, “Is Technological Civilization Decadent, and Why?”, Jan Patočka briefly goes over the topic of pre-history (which he clarifies does not mean non-history), its transition into history and humanity’s ascending from an animalistic lifestyle to one where one’s considerations extend beyond personal immediate necessities.

Pre-history for humans was characterized by having survival itself as a main preoccupation. Life for life’s sake. Setting the conditions for historical life, humans moved into settlements and gradually were able to afford independence from the every-day fight for one’s life. The price of this was work. This work became a responsibility in exchange for safety and space to indulge in pleasurable activities. Patočka refers to the second one of these as the the orgiastic, a release and exchange from the toil of responsibility that provides an escape from a life of pure survival.

This sort of life could still be considered as life for its own sake. The clever reader may observe that in the previous description a full circle is described. Each activity on the stack is concerned with an individual trying to escape the previous state in order to keep going, to ensure survival.

It is then that the transcendental, the sacred, the divine, the ulterior, makes an entrance into human awareness. This is not to be confused with religion, which is only a systematic arranging of rituals and beliefs which may or may not be a way to the divine. Independently of the system chosen or the disavowal of all systems, keeping something larger than ourselves in perspective can make us redefine the way we see our individual lives. Our lives are no longer lived in redundancy, just in order to keep living, but are charged with energy and will power to build or attain something without the intention of receiving personal reward. (Remark: It is common for people to have kids in order escape their mundane lives, but their intentions are equally mundane and selfish, mostly bringing children they cannot properly raise to an overpopulated world in order to satisfy their empty lives. The transcendent  ideal goes beyond such gimmicks of self-deception .)

Thus we can descry three possible avenues for music:

  1. For mere function in context (responsibility)
  2. For pleasure itself (the orgiastic)
  3. As a medium to perceive and keep in sight something larger than our individual human lives (the transcendental)

The nature and goals of different music, perhaps to different degrees rather than in straight-up black-and-white distinctions, can be classified using these three elements. Music that is deemed superficial is that which lacks in transcendence. Mainstream (a term that only makes any sense from the 20th century on) music, specially, can be said to work in the primitive paradigm of responsibility on the side of the artist and pure orgiastic pleasure on the side of the listener. In most music, this activity is usually a combination of both on the side of the musician, responsibility to norms in order to get his pay and an attention to how much pleasure the music provides him. A reflection of life for life’s sake in an empty music devoid of any transcendent meaning.

Transcendental music and art in general would imply musicians being invested in the music for something larger than their own personal profit (monetary or otherwise) and an audience similarly invested and discerning of music that gives them that sense of going-beyond their individual lives. All the songs about common love, friendship and equality notwithstanding as they only serve to comfort weak individuals in their self-pity, not propel them forward to greater heights were the self is at least partially dissolved.

An example of a middle-of-the-road agreement would be Johan Sebastian Bach, who, like any man living off of music has to fill certain requirements. At the same time, he is renowned to have constantly searched for an ideal in music that would reflect the divine through proportions and relations, guided as well through a crystallization of rules in smoothness and logic that results from a fastidious attention to natural human perception of intervals (artists two hundred years later did the opposite…). In practice, he often got into trouble and wasn’t the best “worker” in the sense that what he produced was seldom exactly what was expected of someone in his post. But he survived, was honored by the clergy and royalty alike and his music outlasted him because the society in which he lived (Germany in the late 17th and early 18th centuries) valued the transcendent, the divine, above anything else. Cynics can stop laughing, of course Germans at the time also fought wars and had to take care of business, and so did Bach. Following a transcendental path does not mean you are exempt from the toil and eventualities of life.

That metal’s nature is that of a transcendental art can be proven by pointing out the way in which it developed. As we have previously described before, each metal stylistic development had to do with a shedding of aesthetics in which it lurched forward away from the mainstream and into more distinct characteristics that would set it apart from rock music and in a rebellious statement of intention that stated its anti-establishment position. But in contrast to punk and other protest music, metal was not anti-authoritarian out of a social revolutionary sentiment, but from a nihilist-realist point of view. It was a reducing of humans to ants in an uncaring universe by using Satanic, pagan or occult imagery to depict concepts that stay true from antiquity to this day. This is the same reason why metal is so prone to using fantasy fiction themes. Metal is not an escape, it is reducing of this pseudo-reality to what it actually is: one of many possible constructs.

Individually, this or that artist may believe or use the imagery and language they adopt, but as a whole, metal is none but that transcendent essence that refuses to bow to the arbitrariness of present human status quo. In its place it does not propose anarchy or freedom, but calls for an awareness of reality as existing outside human expectation, want, need or hope. It is a confronting of reality instead of a twisting of truths for the shielding of and maintaining of mundane activities for the sake of staying alive peacefully and pleasurably. More importantly, this confronting of reality does not imply a fatalism, but a way to emerge triumphantly, seeing through individual situations and times, recognizing our place in nature and our dependence on it.

III. Implications in Practice

How does this translate into music? Is art more than just its intention or its random interpretation by an audience?

In his discussion, Patočka made three important distinctions in order to better attack the problem of the decadent. The separation between meaningsignificance and purpose was stated functionally different. Meaning is the most difficult of these to grasp. It is not a value, nor is it the same as purpose although they could fill a same role in certain circumstances. Meaning is said to make something open to reading, to a sense, to understanding of something that is as it is. Purpose itself is the reason or intention why something is carried out or why it is brought into being. Significance is concerned with its relative role or function in relation to a particular context.

Purpose and significance are subject to times and context. Meaning is not. The meaning of something can be interpreted to have different significance in different places, or it can be used for different purposesBut what it is does not change, and so its meaning does not. The distinction between purpose and significance is of the utmost importance when it comes to understanding and judging music. The purpose of musical devices is often confused by individualists and relativists to be one of the other two. The purpose of music matters little to the music critic who is charged with judging its quality and not its good intentions. The music critic cares only about significance.

But I propose a slightly different mapping in which the human mind, not the rest of the universe, is the world of action for music. After all, music is artificial, it is made by us, for us and it is its effect over us that matters. Therefore, meaning can be redefined in the context of universally perceivable effects in patterns, textures and intervals. Universally as in across the human species. It is to be expected that there is a variance in the effect, but that does not detract from the existence and relevance of a mean.

The definition of purpose need not change, it still lies in the reason why a certain music would be made. Now, significance would shift to being the acquired role of structures and relations in different music paradigms, different genres, different traditions. That means that just as different spoken languages, music can have its own rules arising from conventions between human perception and arbitrary organization. But the more arbitrary it is and the less it conforms to natural human perception, the less capable of transcendence a music is. This does not mean that education cannot be involved. But education can reinforce and deepen what comes naturally and follows the path of human potential (Common Practice Period), or it can be capricious arbitrariness arising from the fallacy of the human mindas a blank slate (see Serialism).

Two things need to happen for a transcendental music tradition to be sustainable. The first is artists that are devoted to the transcendental aspects of music. The second is a discerning audience. Part of this discernment is a certain trust in musicians, their own vision and values as well as their abilities. This is the same sort of trust we have for leaders of any kind, be them rulers or scientists.

The reason why we do not have this trust in musicians in modern times is because as a result of historical processes, they have come to disgrace themselves. The sort of respect for artistry and trust in their distinction above ours survives today only in very dark corners of human action like specific classical music niches and extremely underground metal and ambient circles. In metal, these are the sort of circles that remain willingly untouched by labels in order to keep their art at away from vulgar and unworthy reception.  These remain the last bastion of metal against the taint of the mainstream.

It is in understanding there is something more to human nature and human experience that is both innate to us and that we share with other human beings, that we can also come to respect the power of transcendental music: music that taps into these aspects. Music that has the power of directing human conscience in a particular direction, as well. Today, underground metal is one of the few musics that go beyond the merely functional or the pleasurable. This is music that has the power of cultivation, of expanding the mind, of looking beyond your own fear of the unknown, of inevitable death and into the future of humans as a species and not just you as an individual, but as an individual channeling the species into a more aware future.

IV. The Transcendental: Art for the Sake of Human Evolution

It is no surprise that we can trace a very clear line from the 18th century to the 21st at the beginning of which art is universally sponsored by the ruling classes and institutions of power that through gradual changes becomes increasingly independent (19th century) and later on less connected to human nature (20th century). This culminates in a complete stagnation in the 21st century, our times…

The question of true transcendental art being underground or not depends on the current values of society. In the case of our modern society, its purely materialist and ultra-democratic outlook that dictates that personal caprices matter more than reality is the antithesis of the environment where a transcendental — one that reflects enduring meaning — art can be fostered.

By definition, a materialist civilization that attributes no meaning to anything except the massing of perceived riches or power, cannot produce such an art. That is to say, such a civilization does not even believe there is such a thing as the trascendental. Furthermore, this materialist outlook is based on an absurd pushing of boundaries through a rational point of view taken to an extreme. But anything taken to any extreme loses contact with reality, which is itself an amalgam of degrees of many different qualities — compromises between opposites.

A rejection of reality in favor of an artificial extreme such as materialism is then enabled to brush aside and subvert anything that does not conform to itself. This includes human nature itself. In fact, the materialist position claims there is no such thing as human nature. This enables the power-hungry, the greedy and anyone else to try and clean their conscience through a pandering of the idea that we are only the result of the cultures into which we are born and values are only social constructs. The dogma then becomes: power is the only objective measure of success. A side effect of materialism is the idea that everything we perceive is subjective and therefore not subject to judgement or control.  All that matters is if I think this or I like that. The weakling’s alternative to the dogma becomes: happiness is the only subjective measure of success.

Both of these emphasize an enlarged “living in the moment” that favors egoism that, as proven by history, results in an almost complete disregard for others’ living in this same present and those yet to be born — unless an immediate reward/punishment is offered to the materialist individual. The transcendental provides precisely the opposite: a view into the characteristics that make you human, that dictate our nature, that both unite us and make us different. As Steven Pinker summarizes in his book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, this flies in the face of research that has in turn been suppressed and vilified by an establishment eager to maintain the status quo in a similar gesture to a superficial Church censoring scientific discoveries centuries ago.

Also contrary to a short-sighted reading, this should not result in us embracing the understanding of one’s own nature as licence to indulge in it, but rather a precise knowledge of how to control it and channel it in order to become better.  A transcendental view of time and values applied to our species may pave the way for not only a widespread search for individual enlightenment but a species-wide one. One in which humanity works together for its own good, which at this point would translate into a caring for the planet it is destroying in the vulgar self-interest dictated by materialism.

The importance of metal as this transcendental art is its power to maintain this knowledge and to promote universal values and even more importantly, their understanding. The reaction of materialism and the religion of scientism against the notions of transcendental value are emotional to their very core but also based on observations of how values defined arbitrarily in the past lead to social disasters. This, combined with their own superficial and strictly functional misunderstanding of the values prevented them from fully becoming aware of the underlying human need and impulse to reach for something beyond the material and the every-day.

This is why those who understand such transcendentalism treat the mainstream with opprobrium and an extreme disgust. As with anything else, the attitude of those who understand can be confused with those who follow and do not understand, those who adopt attitudes — even pseudo transcendental ones — with the ulterior motivation of immediate reward to themselves. And thus elitism and the upholding of all that is truly excellent is marred and disgraced by a civilization of insecure and selfish individuals who cannot see past their own self-interest, a selfishness that is then projected onto those who they judge because they cannot conceive of anyone actually believing and acting for the sake of something larger than themselves.

Nietzsche is reviled by the religious (who, in general, have never read him, let alone understand him) and by the materialists (or at least those have read him, those who haven’t or do not understand seem to think him some sort of atheist hero). The main reason why materialists despise him is because he is a realist. Realism flies in the face of extreme and delusional reality-deforming conceptions of life such as materialism. As a realist, Nietzsche recognizes the inherent human need to believe in something outside himself. For those who have been paying attention, it is obvious this does not necessarily imply some sort of superstition or dogma.

Nietzsche’s Übermensch (the “superman”, the “overman”, the superior human) as described in Thus Spake Zarathustra, is one that sees and goes beyond his own times. One that is not trapped by the paradigm of his contemporary society and that furthermore excels himself above his peers in a work. This sort of talking can be taken metaphorically, but it is not meant to be. Going beyond one’s own times has to do with recognizing history as a set of changing variables within a timeline on an unchanging or slowly-changing human nature where a set of set meanings remain constant for us but are, perhaps,   difficult to see.

It is in the of going over and overcoming of common man who is little more than a tamed beast, that we humankind can continue on their learning and growing path as a species. This is the nature of the transcendental. The individual transcends in his perception of his people and time and contributes to a flow of which he is only a part. Only then can the species attain a transcendental vision in which it is not only looking at its immediate problems but at its long-term development ten or twenty generations in the future. Would that we could see such a civilization arise, it would be a beautiful sight to behold.

V. The Transcendental in Action through Metal

Arising from the context of popular rock music in the late 1960s with a different musical method and a realist mentality, metal veiled its message behind mystic frontispieces that became whole with the dark romantic aura behind its motif-driven music. The classical romantic tradition that so influences it has as one of its focal points the return to an intelligibility and “naturalness” that was most readily searched for in taking hints from folk music melodies and rhythms from different rural landscapes around the world (primarily from Europe, unsurprisingly). This did not mean a ridiculous simplification of music to banal catchy lines, but a simplicity of which Plato’s Socrates spoke.

Then beauty of style and harmony and grace and good rhythm depend on simplicity,–I mean the true simplicity of a rightly and nobly ordered mind and character, not that other simplicity which is only an euphemism for folly.

— The Republic, Book III

Musically, what is transcendental must necessarily be atemporal, it must have the capacity to communicate with human beings from any historical (or pre-historical, for that matter) period, age or walk of life. This does not mean that the connection has to be instant or that the listener does not need to go through a “learning process”. In fact, in the particular case of metal as a veiled teaching, it is only through maturity in understanding it in a holistic manner that one comes to understand the truths that several great musicians with piercing views about what it is to be human reflected through it.

Despite the influence, there is a very sharp contrast between classical romantic music and metal. The difference is a consequence of the historical context, particular social class and sentiment out of which they each arose. Romantic art came from both the need of the individual to find a place and expression of his own, not in the modern selfishness of the individualist, but a place in nature and in reverence to it. A connection to what it is to be human. As classical music, its prestige and the station of those making it allowed it to pursue such things in broad daylight. To this, we should add the nontrivial matter of the nonexistence of recorded music or other conveniences that flood and distract listeners. The expression of the romantic artist could be full and undisclosed.

Metal, on the other hand, comes in a time where popular culture reigns in saturation of kitsch: superficiality and banality for the immediate pleasure of the distracted and manipulated masses. Less important but worth mentioning is that it originated in strong and independent-thinking middle-class individuals who saw through the deception of their times. Several choices in its underground character come from this. As an art form that subverts the ruling falsehood, it is not allowed to be displayed directly. The fact that being an intellectual resistance also means that not all can understand it and that its concerns go beyond the present manifestation of human society and its dogmas require that it is not fully out in the open. It must assume a mask that reflects an outer and simple intent that keeps most at bay to guard what it contains. Its identity must be more distinct and defined than its predecessor and so, willingly, metal takes on a much more limited range of expression than classical romantic music from the 19th century.

Of the harmonies I know nothing, but I want to have one warlike, to sound the note or accent which a brave man utters in the hour of danger and stern resolve, or when his cause is failing, and he is going to wounds or death or is overtaken by some other evil, and at every such crisis meets the blows of fortune with firm step and a determination to endure; and another to be used by him in times of peace and freedom of action, when there is no pressure of necessity, and he is seeking to persuade God by prayer, or man by instruction and admonition, or on the other hand, when he is expressing his willingness to yield to persuasion or entreaty or admonition, and which represents him when by prudent conduct he has attained his end, not carried away by his success, but acting moderately and wisely under the circumstances, and acquiescing in the event. These two harmonies I ask you to leave; the strain of necessity and the strain of freedom, the strain of the unfortunate and the strain of the fortunate, the strain of courage, and the strain of temperance; these, I say, leave.

– The Republic, Book III

It is also important to understand the outer and the inner manifestations of the spirit of music. There is a learning process to each kind of music, because outside is manifested the tropes of a region, culture, group, perhaps a particular “language” or set of conventions. By basing itself on patterns and harmonies the human ear feels naturally drawn to, the music is aligning itself to what is permanent to human perception, at least in this point of our evolution. But all these are developed, “discussed” in a music that speaks a very particular mind. Just as Plato might have spoken in ancient Greek about similar things we would speak of today in modern English, so it is that transcendental music from music separated by centuries might be speaking the same message under different grammatical guises — tropes and conventions of times and style. The act of the  Dionysian manifesting itself through the Apollonian as the young Nietzsche described to us in The Birth of Tragedy.

Someone might ask if it isn’t better to disavow all conventions and try to speak in  “plainspoken transcendental”. The innocence of such a suggestion comes from the incorrect belief that what is felt, what is understood and experienced wholly as a human being can be put purely, clearly and unambiguously into words. Necessity dictates that emotion and experience be transmitted to the innermost core of the individual– a penetrating of various layers of prejudice and consciousness in order to move the primal and ripple back through to the higher, if possible. Neither mere words in their plain meaning nor musical structures on their own, in the beauty of orderly symmetry and mathematical correctness can achieve this. These only speak to the higher intellect, which may or may not translate this to the deeper self.

Reaching the innermost sanctum of metal, though, requires much more than being touched by it. For that to happen, metal cannot just be a passing entertainment or the object of devoted fanhood alone. It needs to be taken seriously and read correctly in its contradictions and flagrant imagery that bespeak a connection to the transcendental beyond mere unambiguous pattern codification. It is not a science in the modern sense and is more akin to occultism and its voluntary hiding-away. Following from that, we may infer that it is far more esoteric than exoteric, this latter being ridiculous or incomprehensible when taken at face value. Only treading the serpentine and treacherous paths through cycles of internalization and externalization does the metal fan become the metal initiate.

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Miscellaneous Turn-of-the-Century-ish Recommendations

british-tank-rolling-over-trench

In view of our recent emphasis on the fact that post-1994 metal landscape is a desert of creativity with very few well-realized projects, most of which were pretty underground efforts. By the turn of the century, death and black metal aesthetics had been absorbed into the mainstream mindset and so we can not automatically consider bands with said genre tags as underground. But the ones recommended below are, indeed, high-quality efforts (in the way of music writing) that were never hyped to any wide audience.

The turn of the century itself was one of the darkest moments in metal history when there was no relevant innovation being worked into metal. In place, a superficial re-mixing of styles done by the thousands became the obsession of scenes. Something had happened: Metal had reached its young adult life. Until now, childish enthusiasm and creativity had been enough for it to keep making discoveries. A spirit of rebellion  had propelled it in the search for a deeper romantic meaning that drove it forward. Once this bottomed out with with mid-nineties albums by projects like Burzum, Ildjarn and Summoning, it was evident that metal would have to rely on a refinement of its technical approach that could keep feeding the aesthetics needs of its spirit.

In the following recommendations, we have thrown some worthwhile non-metal releases that are also strongly recommended. The reader is encouraged to explore each of these with all their attention and in reflection of the trails that the golden era left that are only in recent years fully crystallizing into promising proposals for a real re-start and future based on the previously mentioned refinement applied to a study and digestion of the older spirit in order for the genre to continue. This future is precisely what metal needs and not a return to anything. The past is the past. Metal must look ever ahead if it is to be an artistic movement with life. This post is in part to honor those releases and to offer a glimmer of hope that although metal is suffocated, it is not dead.

Summoning – Stronghold (1999)

Mütiilation – Remains of A Ruined, Dead, Cursed Soul  (1999)

Worship – Last Tape Before Doomsday (1999)

Tenhi – Kauan (1999)

Jordi Savall & Ton Koopman – J.S. Bach, Die Sonaten Für Viola Da Gamba Und Cembalo (2000)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CwxeE5LGgdA&feature=youtu.be

Paysage D’Hiver – Paysage d’Hiver (2000)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8OgCIIqUzkI

Antaeus – Cut Your Flesh and Worship Satan (2000)

Immolation – Close to a World Below (2000)

Gorguts – From Wisdom to Hate (2001)

 

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Blood Urn – …of Gory Sorcery and Death (2014)

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Blood Urn is a death metal project whose approach to the genre is one that can reinvigorate it while being very traditional. Superficially, a listener who only glances over the surface of …Of Sorcery and Death may incorrectly say this is an old school album, a modern euphemism for retro-acts or merely those who do not play the metalcore-based so-called technical death metal. It is true that this is an old school release, but only in the sense that it upholds the same ideals of the best of that era, including certain preferences in aesthetics as a reflection of an inner attitude — an idea that stands in contrast with the superficial selection of genres and expressions of modern bands that wear style as a change of clothes to pose as something they are not.

If we made the mistake of approaching this distinction like most clueless people do, that is, with a shopping list of the aesthetic characteristics that usually accompany a genre in order to identify it, we would definitely arrive at the same conclusions. That is why premises are as important as having good logic. Wrong premises and good logic only lead you safely to wrong conclusions. But if we start with the premise that those aesthetic characteristics are only the reflection of a spirit which is much more than intention or purpose but also crystallized significance, we will recognize that the shopping-list approach is at best a collection of hints and not a concrete definition.

Blood Urn …Of Sorcery and Death is a death metal (‘old school’ death metal is the only one, with various regional styles) album in the truest sense. A death metal at heart and in representation. The expressions that seem typical of death metal are used here in what can be accurately described as progressive without incurring in the fallacy that all disparate appending of music qualifies as such.  In accordance with death metal tradition, music builds up through structural devices: mainly through variation and manipulation of theme with a climax and a clear musical goal in mind for an end.  By musical goal we mean one as defined by traditional classical theory, not by the “good intentions” of the music writer. Intention and realization are two different and distinguishable things, something relativists and individualists would do well to keep in mind.

While varied in expression, Blood Urn manages to remain fairly coherent, choosing to tie different textures in a mix that also incorporates the riff-salad approach. In this, it is somewhat similar to the way Horgkomostropus Lúgubre Resurrección builds in a very typical death metal push and pull between structural theme-play and variation and contrasting ideas that are brought gradually into the fold, first as a splash of cold water to the listener and then in gradual integration through interleaving and recombination of sections and themes. It is important to say that in good death metal fashion, the limit of the contrasting ideas does not break away from the chosen style, which is the sin of many a pseudo-prog outfit. This conjoined approach of dealing structural development from a theme with one and then riff-salad with the other only to increasingly interleave them and sometimes ultimately fuse them into altogether different endings can be referenced in masterful albums such as At the Gates’ The Red in the Sky is Ours and is also the approach of Blood Urn to music composition, albeit with a much more humble and less-layered result.

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