Becoming a classical listener

For kicks I decided to listen to nothing but classical music for a month. Having bounced around looking for the next genre to capture the power of old school metal, I realized that none were coming close, so skipped the drama and went right for the heavyweight — classical. In specific, I’d found the following frustrations:

  1. Jazz fans tend to praise music for its external traits, like how wild the sounds are, not the composition. This is because jazz composition is either based on pop music from the 1930s, or totally random. Most of the soloing is 80% random or memorized licks used to kill time while the musician tries to think up something good. Jazz fans don’t want to hear this because they listen to jazz to seem profound to their friends, and like talking about how it’s superior to every other form of music, especially country, metal and classical (“those people can’t improvise,” they say of the people who invented and still practice structured improvisation).
  2. I like the idea of noise music and many of the people involved with it. The music itself is fucking boring. It’s a texture study with some dynamic manipulation for effect, which gives them only a few semi-linear song structures they can develop. The result is a focus on the trivial, so that anyone who mikes his colon and samples a tractor engine through it then finds a way to distort it using atmospheric noise and biofuels becomes the Latest Genius, even though the end result sounds about like everything else.
  3. Similarly, I like the idea of industrial music, but it has been swallowed up by dance music and the beat-addicted nature reminds me of all I don’t like about our modern time: spoon-fed, concentration-interrupting, doofus-friendly society. Even stuff like VNV Nation, which is pretty brainy, gets old after a listen or two for this reason.
  4. I like the idea of country, and can enjoy bluegrass and pre-hippie folk, but not all the time. Much of it sounds very similar to my ears which may have to do with its reliance on similar techniques.
  5. I would never listen to metal for metal’s sake. That’s how you make something weak, by being an unquestioning audience. For this reason, other than a handful of releases, I skip out on post-1996 metal. The exceptions are great however.
  6. The “youth culture” aspects of popular music — how it’s a high-ticket item sold on certain assumptions, how millions of people use it as a cause/life/goal substitute, how it’s generally not profound thus people contort to give it extra gravitas — are what doomed metal and doom these other genres. I want to avoid the kiddie marketing and in-group/out-group social club aspects that get in the way of the music.
  7. This “youthiness” to the music means that you are expected to be willing to spend absurd sums of money, waste hours of time poking around magazines and web sites and youth chatter boards, all while becoming a target for the “youth market” of large corporations who realize that you can pander to people while condescending to them. They treat anything “youth” like it’s for morons and still people eat it up. They’re not going to do anything but insult your intelligence and cryptically hide information so someone can be the smartest monkey in the group for having found it.
  8. Popular music is, under the hood, very similar in melody, harmony and rhythm. As a result, dressing it up becomes the most important task. If you take a standard pop song and add a screaming female vocalist, a tuba player and a disco beat, it’s now “edgy.” Take that same pop song, drop the drums and add a chorus of gay penguins, and it’s “innovative.” Or just indulge in camp and mixed-up styles from the past and you’re “ironic.” Does anyone actually fall for this? Well, they know nothing of music theory, have little experience of life, and… here’s the secret: they have low self-esteem, are ordinary, but are trying to socialize by having something in common with others that they can trade around in a transactional basis. So they have rock music and they don’t care as much about the music as the cool.

Because of this, I chucked aside the notion of listening to popular music — at all. Even if it’s underground or indie, if it’s in the popular music format, that’s how it will be perceived and treated, which in turn affects how I’ll have to interact with it and get ahold of it. Specifically, I noted how the greatest artists were straining to escape the kiddie music ghetto, like Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk, Fripp and Eno. Why keep pushing the dead agenda?

Instead I hauled out an already moderate classical collection and went on a shopping spree at Amazon and Joel’s Classical Music, a local shop. My idea was to go the opposite direction for a month and see where it led me. I didn’t do any research because I wanted to emulate the experience of the normal, curious listener who has a job and family and so discovers things by serendipity while the music is playing in the background, over the screaming kids, chattering coworkers, and blaring TV.

What made the transition hardest was the difference in dynamics. Rock music is meant to be a constant pulse; classical music is like a ocean wave, sometimes loud and sometimes inaudible, usually somewhere in the middle. With rock music, you hear the first thirty seconds and set your sound level; with classical, you really have to find the loudest part of the piece because the bulk of it may be softer.

Even more, there’s a textural difference. Where rock is guitars and bass and drums and vocals, classical musicians have a choice of more than a dozen instruments. They use them unevenly because what’s a good effect for one emotion, or part of an emotional journey, doesn’t fit in another. You can be awash in violins one moment, and caught up in bass and brass the next.

Finally, there’s a time difference. Rock music is three-minute songs, with a few exceptions. Classical music has some three-minute songs, but more commonly, longer pieces are composed of several movements. Themes are shared across these movements, like a conversation with question, answer, debate, modification and restatement. You can’t hum a melody knowing that in thirty seconds, after the chorus, it’ll be back.

But I did it: I spent a month listening to nothing but classical, except the unavoidable retro swing-rockabilly at the ‘Bucks and the clinky ringtones of my fellow subway riders. Having fought it through, I have a few recommendations for those wanting to get into classical music.

  1. Stick with the standards. Learn to listen to the music by sticking with the most time-tested successes, namely Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, Schubert, and Wagner. You can branch into baroque later, and modern classical later, as these are reaches. Learn first how to listen to the music.
  2. Don’t find the most obscure, dark and stormy or avant-garde classical you can. Every cretinous idiot who wants to show you how profound he is will come out of the woodwork and recommend you listen to Buttzurski’s Ten Meditations For a Dying, Fly-Covered Child in Marshall McLuhan’s Singularity, but the modern stuff doesn’t meet the challenge of the older and is in fact kind of trivial. Equally idiots will try to get you to listen only to “dark” classical or classical for rock fans. This is always a path to stupidity. Learn to understand the big names and anything else will be easy.
  3. Pick conductor carefully but worry less about orchestra and year. Conductors are like film directors; they interpret the piece and can either ruin it or make it shine. However, the difference between great conductors is minimal, while the difference between a great conductor and a bad one is infinite. Pick some established names, like von Karajan or Harnoncourt.
  4. Don’t shy away from Naxos. Naxos has a simple business model: find inexpensive orchestras in out of the way places to record classical pieces in interpretations based on the greats. It’s part-clone, part-practicality. We can’t all afford the big name conductor box set, but we can afford a $8 Naxos CD that uses a similar approach and unknown, rising musicians.
  5. Support your local classical store. Among other things, the people that work there took that job because they love the music — they’re not getting paid much. They are probably susceptible to polite conversation, almost always open to questions, and if encouraged, will give you a viewpoint you can use to plot your own course through classical music. If you find someone who hates everything you love and loves everything you hate, the value is not lessened — apply the “Rule of 180” and go nuts.
  6. Don’t tell your friends until you are listening to classical music regularly. People are going to try to talk you out of it because they fear that you’re going to see The True Musical Truth of Truthy Truthness, and turn around and treat them like they’d treat you, by saying that their music is the random mutterings of droning peon brains. Even if that’s true — and in my view, it is for most rock and jazz — you don’t want to get into that fight. Don’t act like the jazz fans. Instead, do your thing and when someone asks, tell them the composer name but don’t mention it’s classical. “I’ve been listening to a lot of this Italian guy, Arcangelo Corelli.” If you’re a total deviant like me, you can describe the music as atmospheric narrative instrumental music, and no one is going to think it’s anything other than Autechre with a voice-over.

I found it rewarding to throw out the rules and plunge into the abyss, and leave behind all the safety blankets I had come to know. I still love metal, but I’ve found that classical music listening has sharpened my ear and made it easy for me to throw out the crap metal and keep the best, which means that the metal in my life is stronger in quality not quantity and so it is able to compete well with any other genre. In addition, I’ve found a new musical passion that doesn’t require me to ever hear the term “ironic” again.

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Sadist – Sadist

sadist-sadist

Many people, upon reading what we have posted here, assume we’re anti-progressive death metal. People note how much we squirt used nutrients all over Opeth, the latest Cynic or abortions of taste like Origin, and in order to justify their outrage, claim we don’t like prog metal. In fact, the opposite is true: we love prog metal, and go hog wild for bands like Atheist, Obliveon, Voivod, Gorguts and Pestilence. We even love classics of alternative progressive metal like Supuration. But what we don’t like is pose-prog, which is music that “sounds” progressive but is actually at blockhead levels of disorganization. Like Opeth. Like the new Cynic. Fake prog is bad prog, and because anyone who tries fake prog is probably a delusional and deceptive moron, is also usually bad music.

Today’s band isn’t death metal, and it’s “progressive lite” like Rush, in that there are difficult techniques and longer compositions at work, but not as much theoretical squirreling around key signature. From Italy, Sadist are a progressive death-ish metal band who love their keyboards, acoustic interludes and longer songs — just like Opeth. And like Cynic, they incorporate a ton of jazz-fusion technique, most notably in drums and bass.

On the whole, Sadist’s self-titled album is a lot like Obliveon’s Nemesis: beaucoups speed metal, some death metal, a lot of prog, some newer (“nu”) influences and then a sound all their own. What makes them different is that they are working in the genre split between speed metal and death metal where bands like Kreator, Destruction, Rigor Mortis and Slayer exist. Even more interesting is that by going progressive, they’ve approximated a sound halfway between older Sadus and newer Coroner.

The majority of the riffs on this CD are straight out of the speed metal canon, but on its rougher, more experimental edge, like those on Coroner’s “Grin,” and although they later merge with arpeggiated clean playing or lengthy keyboard interludes of a beauty not seen since Dimmu Borgir decided to rip off all that video game music for “Stormblast,” the songs follow a speed metal pattern like early Sadus: riff/chorus with divergences, but ultimately, returning to a fist-pumping foot-stomping chorus rhythm to complement the rhythms of drums and guitar.

The first track seems to me a fusion of the first and third Meshuggah albums, and that influences stretches throughout this album which made me at first want to avoid it, but the underlying music is of quality and fits in among other prog speed/death bands like Coroner, Sadus, Creepmime, later Voivod, etc. Vocals unfortunately show influence from nu-core (or more likely, Meshuggah), or all that metalcore-derived stuff (punk with speed metal pretensions and influences from metal, rock and jazz) that demands a ranting vocal rhythm that recurses every four syllables, causing out-of-the-closet assholes like me to wish we could make the vocal track Go Away for the remaining duration of a song.

These aesthetic concerns aside however, the music is quite good. What it isn’t is simplified enough in core, or theatrical enough, to stand out as well as the songs of, say, Atheist, so it’s less memorable. That isn’t to say less bad or less complex; in fact, it has more detail tied toward its core themes, but the core theme isn’t refracted throughout the details.

On the whole, this is a good album from an undernoticed band that has a better overall sense of metal going for it than its obvious competitive influences — Cynic, Meshuggah, Opeth, and Atheist are all influences here — with more of a sense of musicality than the newer “technical” bands that specialize in blockhead riffs at mind-bending speeds. It makes good rainy day listening, when the listener is already in a quiet state of mind and simply receptive, will find all the good this has to offer behind its somewhat cryptic aesthetic.

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The Best Metal Albums of 2008

Legion of Doom – The Horned Made Flesh (Zyklon-B)

This Greek band take their acerbic traditional metal and slowly meld in symphonic keyboard elements, making an album that is easy to appreciate but surpasses most others in artistic vision.

Motörhead – Motörizer (SPV)

Lemmy and Company rarely go completely wrong, and so they wing another one down the middle. Like all Motorhead, most songs are cut from similar patterns and the drone wears thin, but riffs remain cutting and rhythms compelling.

Neuraxis – Thin Line Between (Prosthetic)

We all know metalcore as a genre is like an omelette — throw everything in and hope the flavors carry a lowest common denominator mix. Neuraxis attack metalcore like a metal band, using melody and rhythm to centralize, to great effect.

Deeds of Flesh – Of What’s to Come (Unique Leader)

Getting experimental, this brutal technical death metal band play with some new ideas but deliver solidly resounding songs as they try to wrap their old school metal around metalcore technique.

Hellhammer – Demon Entrails (Noise)

Three bands formed this genre: Hellhammer, Sodom and Bathory. This re-release of formative material from the first of that triumvirate shows us again how mind-blowing it must have been to be there as it happened.

Gridlink – Amber Grey (Hydra Head)

Blurring grindcore with absurdist technical elements, Gridlink make an album that upholds the best traditions of thrash mixed with speed metal and technical death metal, and by keeping it short, don’t wander outside their content zone.

Averse Sefira – Advent Parallax (Candlelight)

This rarity upholds old school black metal and infuses it with classic death metal. Like Morbid Angel from the Convenant era colliding with Graveland from the time of Thousand Swords, this band makes vicious but beautiful music.

Bahimiron – Southern Nihilizm (Moribund)

Imagine early Impaled Nazarene and Gorgoroth combined: fast, melodic riffs with a tendency to deconstruct everything they touch. Although slightly confused in ideals, Bahimiron deliver music that does not compromise aggression or darkness.

Intestine Baalism – Ultimate Instinct (No Colours)

Swedish death metal fanatics make an album in tribute to all three eras of Swedish death metal — the initial surge, Gothenburg and NWOSDM, combined. It’s an improvement over their last and most things coming out of Sweden.

Master – Slaves To Society Re-Release (Ibex Moon)

Evolving from their early primitive roots, Master present us an album that is rippingly fast like Slayer and uses melodic fills to good effect, but never compromises the driving roadhouse rhythms that pound this music forward.

Skepticism – Alloy (Red Stream)

Lush ambient doom surges resoundingly throughout this album, like dye in a pool tracked by the motion of carp. It is meditative, powerful and insightful, but prefers not to state these explicitly, rather letting you absorb them from the resonance.

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Blake, Goethe, Romanticism and Black Metal

From the book Blake and Goethe: Psychology, Ontology, Imagination by Martin Bidney:

For Goethe as well as for Blake, fruitful competition between opposing forces is the law of life in both mind and world. The contraries are mutual opposition, but their creative tension is the life-giving power that paradoxically unites them. As Goethe says in one of the “Talismans” from the “Singer’s Book” of the West-East Divan:

“Im Atemholen sind zerierlei Gnaden:
Die Luft einziehn, sich ihrer entladen.
Jenes bedrängt, dieses erfrischt;
So wunderbar ist das Leben gemischt.
Du danke Gott, wenn er dich preßt,
Und dank’ ihm, wenn er dich wieder entläßt.”
(“Talismane” II. 17-22)

[In the act of breathing there are two gifts of grace: taking in the air and being relieved of it. The former oppresses, the latter refreshes; life is so wonderfully mixed. Thank God when he burdens you, and thank him when he sets you free again.]

Or, as Blake puts it: “Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence” (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell Pl. 3). Contraries are crucial to human existence, and evidently to cosmic existence as well: the concepts of attraction and repulsion had been given prominence in the intellectual world of Blake’s day through the influence of Cartesian and Newtonian science. “Without Contraries is no progression,” no life in mind or world, is what Blake means when he says, “Opposition is true Friendship” (MHH Pl. 20).

We find in both Blake’s and Goethe’s visions of creativity in mind and cosmos a kind of breathing motion, what Erich Trunz calls “Emanatio and Regressus,” emanation and return. In a passage from Conversations with Eckermann (11 April 1827) Goethe develops this image into a powerful reverie:

“I like to think of the earth with its circle of vapors metaphorically as a great living being, which is engaged in an eternal inhaling and exhaling. When the earth inhales, it draws to it the circle of vapors that approaches its surface and thickens into clouds and rain. I call this condition the water-affirmation [die Wasserbejahung]; if it lasted inordinately long, it would drown the earth. But the earth does not permit that; it exhales again and sends back up the water vapors which spread into all the spaces of the high atmosphere and thin out to such an extent that not only does the brilliance of the sun cross through them, but the eternal night of endless space is seen through them as a fresh blueness. This condition of the atmosphere I call the water-negation [die Wasserverneinung].”

What Goethe calls the earth’s affirmation and negation of water is an instance of what Blake would call “Attraction and Repulsion.” In the nonhuman universe, Goethe sees no need to distinguish between destructive negations and creative contraries… All contrasts in nature are part of her breathing; one feels that life and death themselves are, by implication, another manifestation of an eternal cosmic inhaling and exhaling.

Commentary:

When distilled philosophically, moral absolutes are simplistic visions of the world in that they fail to grasp the natural mechanism of the whole that relies on the interactions between opposing forces. Good and Evil, Life and Death, War and Peace — these are dualisms in which we’ve taken the superficially pleasing force and converted it into an absolute without realising that the opposite is required for the maintenance of a higher force. Although life is pleasant and we would hate to see those that we love die, death is necessary to allow new life. The dualism of Life/Death is transcended for a higher purpose: growth.

Black metal hails the realisations of such thinkers as Blake and Goethe by bringing into focus the denied aspects of these dualisms and praising their functions. Black metal was responding to an age where this rhetorical absolutism as derived from Judeo-Christianity saturates all sociopolitical discussion, aiming to bring a sense of holism echoing the thoughts of the Romantics and of an even older pre-Christian Europe where what was natural was more important than what was pleasant (good) or unpleasant (evil). Darkthrone emphasised the dark, cold, and evil forces that create impulsive, Dionysian passion within us. Immortal constructed a fantastical world of Winter storms and epic battlefields. Emperor created works which brought struggle and chaos into a sense of a majestic order. Most of Burzum’s work used fantasy to force us to dream of realms where the presence of exciting aspects that have been utterly denied in life leave us feeling that this concrete, absolutist world is boring and mundane — perhaps even dead — and forces us to question whether we live in an age of progress or whether the holistic ancients really lived in a greater, natural, more Human age:

Between the bushes we stared
At those who reminded us of another age
And told that hope was away
Forever
We heard elvensong and
Water that trickled
What once was is now
Away
All the blood
All the longing and pain that ruled
Are away
Forever
We are not dead
We have never lived
— Burzum “Det Som En Gang Var”

by Kalle

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