Immolation’s Close to a World Below marked a clear departure from their earlier style. Their previous release, Failures for Gods, came out only the year before, but play the two albums back-to-back and you might be surprised it is the same band. On average, the songs are much slower. The dissonance is harsher and often tonality gets lost in a mess of pitch bends. At the same time, almost paradoxically, the production is higher: every part can be heard clearly and is given equal weight. At first glance, the songs are much more chaotic, but on further reflection, they have matured greatly in terms of structure and development. Exploring this idea will be the focus of the review.
In fact, this can probably be best understood by a thorough examination of a single track, “Father, You’re Not a Father.” The opening bass pattern is F descending to C scale-wise, but the catch is it is not a major or minor scale. The scalar pattern is the Locrian mode. Although this is typically considered a “standard” scalar mode, it is almost never used (parts of Sibelius’ 4th Symphony being a prominent exception), because the root chord is diminished. This makes the main chord of the key highly dissonant. The F to C construction is then used to introduce the first main riff (minor simplifications for readability were made):
The riff is offset from the start of the bass, so it occurs in a different place of the measure. It is also played in triplet rather than the bass duple. Everything about how these two main ideas are layered adds to the dissonance, confusion, and chaos of the sound. They even shift up a half step to F# and C# which layers a tritone on top of everything and pulls you temporarily out of the main key. Yet the whole riff is perfectly consistent and coheres with the introduction by being built from the same exact material. This is what I meant earlier when I said the songs sound chaotic at first but upon repeated listens, the internal logic emerges. We’ll call this section A.
The second main riff is introduced shortly after some vocals. A texture change happens for this riff, because it is played as power chords rather than single notes. The time signature also changes to 4/4 from the 3/4 of the beginning. The feel is naturally slowed by the use of quarter notes instead of eighth notes or eighth note triplets from section A. The riff itself ascends in opposition to the A idea which is descending.
All of this taken together is great songwriting, because the slower note values, longer measure, and power chords all contribute to a heavier feel. Each change they made between section A and B contributes in the same emotional direction. Many modern bands don’t understand this type of consistency. I wrote out the B idea for reference, but it there is enough going on that it could be heard differently by different people (maybe some fifths should be in there?):
The track returns to the A idea and then the B idea with some slight changes and vocals layered in. This can be seen as a development of the initial ideas or merely as a restatement. The next section is a true development section, because Immolation take a classical ornamentation idea and appropriate it into their own context. A mordant is a rapid alternating of the main note with a neighbor tone (sort of like a short trill). In this song, they glissando the whole thing and create an ugly, intensified version of it. This develops the A idea into its own groove which gives way to another development in which they elongate the opening bass motif.
While all of this is going on, more and more textures, intense drumming, extra dissonant notes, and layering of power chords contribute to a whole song build to the climax. The climax is the fantastic solo near the end. It teases by starting slow and slurred, almost like the guitar is trying to hold a single note that is unstable and can’t help but flick around. It then erupts into a short burst of technical prowess, and of course, quotes the A theme to tie it all together.
Overall, it is this type of excellent songwriting that makes the album worth listening to (and a departure from their earlier material). The songs are tightly constructed, coherent pieces that simultaneously feel unraveled and chaotic. They achieve a rare balance that speaks to both the mind and the emotions. Many newer bands have tried to copy the style unsuccessfully (the recent Ulcerate album comes to mind). They miss that this is not just static dissonance, but forward moving and organic in addition to being technical and rigid.
I used to spend a lot of time plagued by the question of whether one can really judge experimental metal. At first glance, this may sound silly, because the tools of music criticism don’t disappear from a little experimentation. You can still ask how derivative it is; what the structure is; if the riffs are any good; and so on. But problems emerge when one realizes that there have been pieces of music throughout history which really defy all convention. I’d put forth Gyorgi Ligeti’s “Atmospheres” as an example which has no melodic or rhythmic content (and in some sense no harmonic motion either).
Many of you are already screaming at your screen: “Atmospheres” makes you feel something. It is highly unsettling and successfully elicits emotions and responses in the listener. The only objective we need in evaluating music that breaks with tradition is if it successfully does what it intends to do or elicits an emotional response from the listener. I agree this is one possibility, but I reject the idea that abstract art has to have some objective or emotional goal to be worth engaging with. Think of beautiful paintings of fruit. Some may feel moved by it, but I think it is a stretch to claim this is where its value lies. Its worth is in the pure aesthetic experience it gives. Often this is beauty, but we could say “Atmospheres” is worth listening to for its coherent new aesthetic experience it provides. In fact, many other works of Ligeti do not have the emotive experience for justification but are all part of his unified aesthetic vision.
I should address whether this question is even worth thinking about. I think it is, because if we don’t have a way to distinguish quality, we’ll find ourselves randomly accepting or rejecting anything that defies convention. I’ve seen both extremes: the art hipster that defends to the death the greatness of a blank white canvas to the pop idolizer whose ears bleed at anything other than a I-IV-V-I progression over a 4/4 rock beat. Neither extreme is good music criticism, because both are ideologies that pre-judge rather than evaluate an album on its own terms. This means we have to give some thought to the question of whether it is even possible to judge music that pushes the boundaries. I’ll admit that basically no metal album, no matter how experimental, will be so extreme that we lack all ability to use traditional criticism. That’s not the point.
I, and most other reviewers, often get lazy and gloss over anything that is difficult to engage with. I find myself reviewing albums as traditionally as possible and only throwing in mention of experimental aspects without much thought. It usually takes the form of the above ideological lines by pointing out the experimental aspects as “original.” This tends to make any experimentation come across as a good thing in my reviews (when I’m being lazy).
One way I like to think of the messiness of experimentation in music is through an analogy to other arts, even though the analogy isn’t perfect or historically accurate. One could say that abstraction techniques in painting arose in part due to an identity crisis. Early paintings were very much about accuracy and representation of the world: portraits, landscapes, still lifes, etc. Probably in part due to the birth of photography (though it started a bit earlier), painters needed to add a human element to be able to justify its purpose. “The Weeping Woman” by Picasso may be a portrait, but it deviates from an accurate depiction of the woman in order to more powerfully portray her emotional state. A perfect picture of the woman couldn’t capture the tragedy and suffering so well. What I’m trying to say is that painters realized they could experiment in order to filter something through a point of view to create a messier, more human art.
Music usually lacks a subject, so in some sense the starting point is closer to abstract expressionism in painting. Strangely, music tends to be more rigid than painting for various reasons usually involving time. If your song is in 4/4, it is very difficult to make something sound messy, because members of a band are locked in an orderly pattern. One way to add a messy, human element is change up the time signature. This gets us to a value judgement. Take a stereotypical progressive metal band, Between the Buried and Me, for example. Often their use of varied time signatures comes across as tidy, carefully planned, and gimmicky. This is an example of bad experimentation, because it doesn’t fulfill its purpose of making something sound original, messy, or unexpected. Say what you will about Behold… the Arctopus, but at least they fulfill their purpose of experimenting with time to disorient the listener.
This brings us back to an earlier point. We can judge the experimentation on whether it fulfills its purpose. Theodor Adorno has probably written and thought about experimentation in music more than any other person. One of my favorite points of criticism from him is his explanation of how terrible it is when the sound of music is in contradiction with its purpose. He uses as an example Joan Baez singing protest music against the Vietnam War. She completely undermines her point about the senseless, incomprehensible violence of war by wrapping the song in a neat, easily digestible pop song. How can making war palatable possibly fulfill the purpose of a song that war is not palatable?
A great example of a metal album in which the sound fulfilled its purpose is At the Gates’ With Fear I Kiss the Burning Darkness. It isn’t quite experimental in the sense we’ve been discussing, but it serves as an example of metal where the sound reinforces the content (which, let’s be honest, was an important factor in much early death metal). We’ve reverted to easy cases again. Before tackling the hardest cases, I think one easy-to-spot bad thing is what I call an “experimentation poseur.” The album is fairly boring and uninventive, so the band tries to hide this and appeal to a certain crowd by throwing in some experimentation. Not only does this cover-up not work, it is embarrassing, because it is so obvious to an intelligent listener that you are trying to fool them. Something like Buckethead, Iwrestledabearonce, or much that self-identifies as “mathcore” work for examples. Harder cases are Jute Gyte, Psyopus, Behold… the Arctopus, and Cloak of Altering. These bands are uncompromising in their difficulty throughout the whole album. They also appear to have something like a coherent and consistent aesthetic vision which differs vastly from other metal. As proof, give me a new track I’ve never heard from one of those four bands, and I will have no difficulty telling you which one wrote it.
I often hear the complaint that anyone can create an ugly mess of noise with no structure or feeling, reminiscent of the complaint that anyone can drizzle paint on a canvas like Pollack. We’ve already addressed why this is lazy criticism. But it is also intellectually dishonest, because I don’t think anyone but the most skilled musicians could copy these bands. Anyone that thinks they merely “dripped ink onto a staff” and played whatever happened hasn’t really listened to them, and frankly, is so disengaged from honest discussion that their opinions can be dismissed as irrelevant. They sound nothing like Milton Babbitt, for instance, which basically wrote music using a dice roll. This is not to say any of these band’s albums are good. Figuring this out is the point of the discussion: how can we tell? Hopefully those who were skeptical about the question originally can see its relevance now. I must come back to this idea of the pure aesthetic experience. Now I’ll reveal that I stacked the deck with these four choices. I think we can give rough tiers for each of these band’s most recent albums.
Psyopus tends to be absurd for the purpose of being absurd. This means they have a lot of internal inconsistencies in their sound and musical language. One moment they play fast chromatic riffs, the next they glissando up and down, the next they drone with a girl shouting. It tends to be all over the place with the only goal to be different or weird. This is not a high quality aesthetic experience. I’d level the same charge at Cloak of Altering, but a step up. He is a bit more consistent, and I think the album has more worth.
Jute Gyte is much better. His musical syntax is more internally consistent. After a few listens, the album makes sense within its context. It isn’t microtonal for the sake of being different, it’s microtonal because that is a deliberate and consistent aesthetic choice he makes. I’ll reiterate, you may not personally find the experience worthwhile, but it is justifiable as a work of experimental metal. This is the whole point of experimentation. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
I know, 90% of you just shit your pants and decided to leave the site forever, because I’m about to say that Behold… the Arctopus is the highest tier of this list. It would take another post as long as this one to make the argument, but the key idea is the same. They have a consistent tonality, sound, style, musical syntax, and so on which creates a coherent aesthetic experience. I have no problem with someone listening to it and saying, “Nope. Still a worthless waste of time,” in the same way that I have no problem with someone looking at a Rothko and saying, “Nope. That’s just rectangles, not worth looking at.” The thing is, art criticism is old enough and mature enough that someone can separate that personal reaction from the idea that Rothko had a legitimate aesthetic program.
Thinking about metal as art is a bit too new. We tend to treat our personal taste and reaction to an album as the final word. All this is to say, I think there are ways to tell the difference between crappy experimental metal which tries to dupe a certain crowd into praising them and legitimate experimental metal which has a concrete aesthetic program being carried out in earnest. It is an important step in treating metal as art to have serious discussions on the worth of various experimental bands, but we can’t do that if we get stuck in the mindset that all the ones we don’t like are equally bad.
I got thinking about this while reading through some of the stuff on The Gabriel Construct’s webpage. He said he wants to make progressive metal progressive again. After thinking about this, I realized that this really strikes a chord with me. It is probably one of the reasons I’ve felt so uninspired by the stuff I’ve been listening to.
Let’s take as a case study: HeavyBlog’s top 12 of 2013 so far list (restricting to 2013 will not influence this discussion at all, since the best prog of 2012 falls into the same tropes) and pull the albums that can be labelled as “prog.” I actually like a lot of prog metal. You should remember this, because it is going to sound like a post in which I slam prog metal. Instead, this should be read as a sadness that such a promising genre has hit a stasis.
This is going to get hairy with putting bands into certain boxes, but as I see it the list is Tesseract (should djent actually count as a form of prog?), Persefone (is symphonic metal a form of prog?), Coheed and Cambria, Intronaut, Extol (OK, I haven’t actually listened to this one, but the list says it’s prog), Leprous, and The Ocean.
What do these bands have in common that makes them prog? They tend to have technical playing with technique that derives from classical skills of fast arpeggios and scale patterns than more traditional metal/rock techniques. The chord progressions tend to be less straightforward. This can mean jazz influenced or excessive chromaticism. The time signatures tend to be less straightforward and can even involve alternating time signatures and metric modulations. Lastly, the songs tend to be longer and more thoroughly developed and tied together with a common theme.
So what’s the problem? Well, at one point in time doing these things within metal was a progressive thing to do. They weren’t being done. It was interesting and new. It was moving the genre forward. Now it seems that these things that define the genre have become tropes. You have to have x number of time changes, y number of chromatic patterns, and z number of songs over 8 minutes long. Oh yeah, and we’ll praise you mindlessly if you make these numbers without actually doing anything original.
Instead of being truly progressive and trying to bring in new influences to make interesting and new music, it all ends up sounding similar. Just because you came up with a way to arpeggiate faster, using a “new” pattern, and you do more chromatic steps doesn’t mean you’re “more progressive” or even more interesting. It is more of the same pretending to be different.
Maybe I’m reacting to an over-saturation of prog lately, and I won’t feel this way after a break from it, but sometimes when listening to prog it sounds like a joke. It sounds like the band is stringing together a bunch of tropes in mockery of how derivative it all has become. Scale the Summit is unfortunately going to get my wrath, but I can’t listen that new album. It has such high praise all over the place, but I’m so bored by it. I mean listen to this. It is pretty, and quite impressive technically at parts, but how many times have you heard this?
No offense to Scale the Summit, I could have picked something off literally any of the bands listed above and some of those albums might even make my top 10 of the year. It is just a feature of the current prog scene. It has become static. There are the occasional minor details that are new, but overall, it isn’t progressing.
Progressive metal can become progressive again. To some people it may seem shocking. What more do I want? They are already employing all of the complexity you would find in any fully trained classical composer. I’d reply, well, yes, any trained composer through the 19th century. But this stuff is more than a century old now. You could incorporate tons of modern developments. You don’t have to write atonally, but you can incorporate interesting post-tonal techniques to make something progressive without losing your band’s characteristic sound.
Other than tonality, there have been tons of other innovations from play style (stop with the incessant arpeggios, please), to modern electronic filtering of sound in new ways, to how your band layers together its pieces texturally, to instruments used (thank you Hybrid for showing us clarinet can be used in metal), to more original genre crossover, and on and on. You shouldn’t have to be an Animals as Leaders or Dream Theater clone to be prog. I bet I could write a fugue a la Hindemith that would sound really good by a metal band. How about someone tries that for originality?
I know there are actually lots of bands out there doing this, but they immediately get labelled as avant garde and pushed out of the prog scene. As I pointed out last time, this term should probably be reserved for the really, really out there stuff. Incorporating these techniques subtly into your standard prog sound should still count as prog metal. We should embrace more experimentation to finally get out of this stasis.