Causality in music

Domino cascade (Image by aussiegall on Wikimedia Commons)
Guest post by William Pilgrim

Causality is the interplay between cause and effect. Infinite regress, or reduction till singularity, is of little practical use to our daily affairs, but when you pause to think about it, everything you do today has its roots in what you did yesterday. Today and yesterday might seem like two altogether discrete entities when considered in this fashion, but cause and effect work against the backdrop of time, and as such entail an infinite number of degrees or gradations between each other. Introduce a sufficiently large number of minute increments between the succession of two events, and this line of regression can be stretched all the way back to the point of our birth, and based on modern prenatal research, even beyond. This is the same principle that Buddhist philosophy talks about, the same premise on which Isaac Asimov’s Hari Seldon created his discipline of psychohistory in the Foundation books, and the same concept on which current market trends and data are analyzed.

There shouldn’t be complaints of determinism leveled against this line of thinking, simply a greater accountability for our actions, in both conscious and unconscious states. And, in any case, life cannot be lived with any kind of energy while constantly tracing our footsteps into the distant past; we can learn from our past but the power to affect change in our present and, more importantly, in our future rests entirely with us. How then does causality influence music? In the post on old and new extreme metal, I briefly mentioned how an idea arises in the mind and has to be persisted with for the entirety of a song for it to be logically, and emotionally, coherent. The following is a comment I made on the same post on DMU:

“A point I would’ve liked to touch on in this post is that in the case of most good extreme metal songs, you can trace a way back to the overall theme of the song from whichever point in its trajectory you may currently be occupying. David Rosales had a post on something related to this under the heading Developmental Variation, and it goes beyond simply staying in the same key, following chords, etc. “Vetteneter” is a good example of this, despite the significant change towards the end; so is Gorgoroth’s “Måneskyggens slave”. The cause needs to inhere in the effect, tenuous though it may seem, for a song to be coherent.”

The property of inherence means for a certain quality to be endemic or inherent in a substance. By the same token, it can also be taken to mean that this quality is permanent in the substance, and that the substance ceases to remain what it was once it loses this self-same quality. Often, effects bears little to no outward resemblance to the causes that led to them, but by the very nature of causality, all causes are germane in proceeding effects.

Music presents a peculiar example of causality in action. Songs have themes; the good ones do anyway. Every moment in a song exists in a chain with every other moment in the song, sharing an intimate bond with its neighbours. Good songs ensure that these bonds remain embedded in the listener’s consciousness, whether he realizes it then or not, and however strained their “valency” might initially appear. Simple rock music and rock-derived metal have it easier in this respect than architecturally intricate and harmonically ambivalent genres like death metal and black metal where songs are generally built on floating relationships between notes and modes.

Nevertheless, the point made above regarding a song’s trajectory holds, and that is this: the essence of a song has to suffuse its entire body, as impermeable as the body itself may seem. We can refer to this aspect of songwriting as logical dialogue and internal coherence between parts and of the parts themselves; the idea behind the song, wherever it may come from, needs to inhere throughout the length of the song, and maintain a trail of crumbs back to a relative first cause, as disparate as the effects that follow in its wake may seem.

The three songs below are from distinctly different extreme metal genres but they illustrate this point well. They use different techniques to realize these ideas but what initially appears as a jarring, irreconcilable severance from the core of the song is eventually subsumed into the greater idea. Subsumed, in fact, is the wrong word to use in this context, because the change, by everything that has been written above, would have had to naturally subsist in the initial idea.

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Extreme metal, old and new

Asteroid impact

Guest post by William Pilgrim

A reader recently posted a comment asking my opinion on modern extreme metal bands like Teitanblood and Ascension. We often take it as an article of faith that modern metal is a fallen genre that parted ways from the aspects that made the heyday of this music so glorious; indeed, it is almost a guarantee that any random second or third tier album from the early years of the genre will compare favourably with the current wave of practitioners.

But why should this be so? Forget about the intangibles for just now; elan vital, vir, passion, and spirit, as much stock as one puts in them, are ultimately amorphous, unquantifiable entities. But to the discerning ear, the very manner in which this music is played contributes greatly to the nurture and propagation of these ideas. But let’s not leave it at that even; the manner in which music is played is the result of an outlook on life and the world around us, a perspective that originates inside the mind with very distinct inspirations and goals assigned for itself. At least it should be so for the genuine musician who is willing to pay tribute to something greater than himself rather than be just another among the flock vying for whatever holds his fancy in the moment. When looked at from this angle, song writing and the musical techniques involved therein become offshoots of a state of mind. The difference between old and new then becomes the difference between states of mind that are separated by time, culture, and upbringing.

On the surface – and this is a broad generalization but it holds for the most part – new extreme metal bands lack definition and detail in riffs. Consider the most recent Teitanblood album Death and contrast it with something as universally unheralded – deservedly so in many quarters – as Krabathor’s debut Only Our Death from 1992. Teitanblood, hugely influenced as they are by the war metal of Blasphemy, attempt to paint broad swathes of atmosphere through repetition as opposed to the many-toothed, serrated approach to songwriting that Krabathor and others from that pocket of time display. The former lulls the unsuspecting listener into a trance-like state by concealing its lack of songwriting virtue through synthetic extremeness, but the second approach usually contains more thought, effort, and dynamics, and mimics the constant upturning and redressal of values that great death metal strives towards.

caspar_david_friedrich-the_wanderer_above_the_sea_of_fog

Old death metal as a combination of romanticism…

Edvard Munch - The Scream (1893)

…and expressionism

Bands like Teitanblood prioritize mood over content and coherence

Bands like Teitanblood prioritize mood over content and coherence

Borrowing terms from the schools of art and retrospectively applying them to metal, we can then say that old death metal is a curious but potent blend of romanticism and a nihilistic expressionism, on more or less equal footing: romantic in self-awareness, expressionist in revealing the horrors of the mind, and nihilistic in rejecting established values in favour of new belief systems. A band like Teitanblood, on the other hand, can be said to belong to an impressionist state of mind, the word impressionist signifying in no way any relation between Teitanblood and purveyors of that stream of thought in the arts. Instead, impressionism is used here merely to suggest the preeminence of mood over content, and the blurring of the music’s outer edges to the point of dissociation.

One might say that even undisputed classics like Darkthrone and Burzum used the repetition mentioned above to make their point, but the important thing to remember in those bands’ cases is that repetition was used as a story telling device to travel between distinctly realized book ends. Many modern bands seem to lack the roughest notion of what it means for a song to have a beginning and an end, and how islands spread across the length of the song can be used as “hooks” to hop from one spot to another, but always with the ultimate aim in mind: the song is God and everything else superfluous. Hear the song posted below from Ascension, a band many supposedly educated fans claim to be the second coming of the genre. Then contrast it with the Kvist song that immediately follows. Hear them back to back so that the dissonance stands out in stark relief.

Hear how the entire body of ‘Vettenetter’ is geared towards safeguarding the primacy of a greater idea, an idea that is directed outwards as opposed to the redundant, self-absorbed mannerisms of the Ascension track. The feelings Kvist induce in the listener can be classified as “romantic” in the truest sense of the word, a mixture of awe, beauty, human insignificance, yes, but also the perpetual struggle to understand and realize a greater meaning to our place in the world. As opposed to Kvist’s romanticism, however, bands like Ascension are entirely hedonistic, which by association implies a pathetic solipsism. The self is greater than the whole, the moment is greater than eternity, live now while you can, however you can, for who knows what tomorrow will bring?

This isn’t just abstract wool gathering; Ascension’s solipsism manifests itself in the carelessly strewn-about rock star solos, in the abrupt shifts in tone, in the complete absence of a unifying theme, and ultimately in the absurd, conceited belief that what they’re doing is in any way or form of artistic merit. Where Kvist intentionally dwarf themselves in humble tribute to the magnificent life-giving forces of nature, Ascension are like ghosts trapped between worlds, with no sense of who they are or what purpose they presently serve. Their concoction is cynically designed to appeal to Everyman, meaning the lowest common denominator in listener intelligence. A little of this, a little of that, take a potluck lunch home and you’re bound to find a bone to gnaw on. World Terror Committee, indeed.

Which of the two is the greater evil? Teitanblood’s impressionism, cheap and disoriented as it is, can be understood on some level as a honest effort from poor students of the metal genre. That is not to give it more credence than it deserves nor does it mean that it shouldn’t be called out for its many weaknesses or for its fans’ sheep-like mentality. But it’s only a matter of time before these bands are consigned to the dustbin of obscurity because of their self-devouring approach to music.

Bands like Ascension, however, work on the principle of fast-food equality, but through mechanisms subtler than what Cradle Of Filth and Dimmu Borgir employed twenty years ago. On the surface, they appear intoxicating to simpler tastes, shiny exterior, ersatz evil and all. They even go some distance in mimicking the sound of their elders, only to douse jaded listeners with buckets of icy cold water. Most listeners don’t care, however, and these pathetic tidbits are enough to guarantee the Ascensions of the world a name in the “new underground” for the foreseeable future.

The greater tragedy, however, is that these bands signify the death of the mind, and this is evidenced in the class of discussion that occurs around them and their music. To sensitive ears and minds, there is no higher emotion that a plastic, cookie-cutter band like Ascension is capable of eliciting, but by their subversive nature and by being infiltration points into this music for all the wrong elements, bands like these present the greatest danger to metal. That should no longer be considered an exaggeration, because for every new kid that discovers old treasures, ten more will flock to an Ascension and will eventually use the same strategies when they come to make music of their own, not knowing any better. After all, noise when amplified enough will always drown out quality.

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Order from Chaos – Frozen in Steel (2014)

Order from Chaos – Frozen in Steel (2014)

Review written by Daniel Maarat for DMU

The complete career recordings of unsung underground legends Order from Chaos have been definitely reissued by Nuclear War Now! Productions in five CD and nine and 12 LP boxed sets. These afford listeners the chance to experience the clear progression and compositional refinement from the band’s primitive Hellhammer, Sodom, and first wave beginnings. The LP editions have the usual analog distortion of vinyl and the peculiarities of GZ’s direct metal mastering. Fortunately, the CDs are well mastered with identical sound to the original pressings though the vinyl editions have the bonus of a 124-page hardbound book with lyrics, personal photos, and a biography of the band.

Stillbirth Machine opens with an excerpt from Ligeti’s “Requiem”and immediately proceeds into angular riffed, Teutonic deaththrash. Only intros and outros distract from the aural assault. The guitar tone resembles Swedish death metal with the fully dimed Boss Heavy Metal pedals but the production was marred by the inconsistent levels of a drunk seventies rock producer manning the knobs in an aging studio. The follow up Plateau of Invincibility EP is similar in material but self-recorded onto eight-track tape. This more amateur but consistent (e.g. no noise burst solos) production would continue for the rest of Order from Chaos’s career.

Dawn Bringer continued the compositional elaboration. The songs were more experimental and the melody that characterizes guitarist Chuck Keller’s and drummer Mike Miller’s future band, Ares Kingdom, appears on a twisted cover of Voivod’s “War and Pain.” The martial marching beats of the hybrid war metal sub-genre of first wave black metal and the three chord, hardcore punk side of grindcore was birthed too. Ending everything is the start of the intentional raw noise for which that bastard sub-genre is known as Keller pries off his guitar strings and pickups at full volume to end the album on “Webs of Perdition.”

An Ending in Fire shows the perfectionism that differentiated Order from Chaos from most of their contemporaries in the death and black metal scenes to even the most passive listeners. Earlier riffs and songs were rearranged with completely new material into three epic compositions. The songwriting focused on clever compositional coherency and melodic congruity rather than the random masturbation and showmanship of technical death metal. “Conqueror of Fear” twisted many of the band’s similar, Teutonic works into a flowing five-track declaration of bassist Pete Helmkamp’s existential, social Darwinist philosophy later laid out in his controversial Conqueror Manifesto. “There Lies Your Lord! Father of Victories!” was wholly original to the album and among Keller’s best guitar work. “Somnium Helios” updated the punky “Nucleosynthesis” from the Will to Power EP as the beginning of a requiem for the Earth’s future solar immolation. Order from Chaos broke up after An Ending in Fire’s recording, considering the album as fulfilling the band’s musical vision. The session outtakes were released as the And I Saw Eternity EP included in the set. This is true progressive heavy metal. Speaking more of musical specifics and the evolution of individual riffs and songs is best left for future articles as that would spoil listeners’ enjoyment.

Frozen in Steel is a fantastic value for fans. Purchasing just Order from Chaos’s three albums alone would cost well over a hundred dollars on the secondary market. Nuclear War Now! Productions should be commended for offering all the band’s studio material along with the extra rehearsals and live shows starting at just forty. This is the most significant and well put together anthology of an extreme metal band’s collected works since Demilich’s 20th Adversary of Emptiness.

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