More on Stormkult

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Following up on Brett Steven’s review of Kaeck’s Stormkult, the present review starts off where he left off: the fusion of styles in Stormkult that are brought together under one unifying banner. The truth is that trying to split this album into its influences is almost pointless as it broke them down to such atomic and almost indivisible parts to build something that is completely their own. We may hear a trace of what Sammath or Kjeld sounds like almost only because we were told that members from these bands participate here. Otherwise, we would be hard pressed to find concrete influences.The previously mentioned review makes a very good job at describing the album both in an evocative way, as in describing a picture and by summoning the presence of other bands as to give the reader some idea of how Kaeck goes about building their music, but in no moment does this imply that Kaeck actually sounds like any of them (except, of course, for the fact that they are all black metal).

Kaeck’s “sound” can be broken down into the layered functions that the instruments fill. First we have the drums at the bottom. These are used more like a heartbeat rather than a metronome. A typical background black metal drum pattern will keep the beat with standard beats, but here the drum patterns are reduced in such an intentional manner to something that can only be described as primitive battle drums whose sole function is to drive deep and resounding vibrations in the martial host’s body. Guitars distorted to the poing of disfugurement provide the thickness of the sound, notes and chords themselves being barely recognizable through the fuzz and chaos of frequencies bent to the whims of an unfathomable will. Riding the maelstrom of riffs comes a coarse voice which simultaneously commands us out of letargic inaction and commends us to embrace the defying and righteous — though heretical — mission of the Angel of Light. A luminescence that, contrary to what the waylayer Paul would have us believe, is in all truth the true essence of that entity shrouded in damned robes of exhile. A garb worn as camouflage to avoid the tyrannical embrace that paralyzes thought from within in exchange for blissful mental atrophy. Echoing across the catacombs that serve as an imaginable setting for Stormkult we can hear a keyboard that outlines short melodic motifs counterpointing and delineating the whole in a loop, only changing with the tempestuous guitar and arising from within its bowels only to go back to them as a lost, desperate souls attempting to escape imminent destiny only be pulled back by a reality that admits no denial.

What we have now, is a static picture of Kaeck. But the enduring power of Stormkult resides in the living movement through temporal dimension that music is. Affirming dominance over the elements of music, bending them in an abuse characteristic of a necromancer trespassing the bounds set by divine order, we hear the violent plight of Godless Arrogance coming to fruition in the reining in of a beast of unnatural origin. The experience through which Kaeck hauls our terrified soul appears at first as an indistinguishable blur. It is only after our eyes have time to adjust in the dim light pushed into corners by an overpowering darkness that we see a pattern emerge in the frescoes on the walls splattered by blood old and new. And from the synchronized layers of sound we hear subtle transformations that a moment ago seemed to comprise only one motif in repetition. Once we latch on to the combat-inciting beats, and the voice guides us over the patterns of the riffs as the melodies produced in the keyboard and a soloing guitar move in and out of our field of view, we start to envisage this humble temple in all the dimensions conceived by its creator: the evolving motifs on the timeline as well as the entities represented in the melodies existing as reflections of the riff itself on parallel worlds.

While any music can rightfully pronounce themselves as comprising all necessary dimensions, seldom do creators actually think fully in all of them. It is usually the case that the whole is forgone to give prominence to one of the elements, no matter what is claimed. When the goal is the whole, all the parts are cared for in an obsessive manner in attention to how they affect the whole and not according to how they stand on their own which often leads to an imbalance in the relation of the parts that obstructs communication, for what is intended by the whole is either distorted or fades into the background as the prominence of egos. These consideration must include the temporal relations of things, it is not just how the instruments in the present riff interact, but how they interact with different parts throughout the song. Balance, then, does not imply a static situation where everything is still as a result of equating forces pulling in different directions, rather, a stable condition is attained without which a clear direction would be very difficult to follow. And although one should also keep in mind that there is no one singular formula to approach composition, each tradition has its guidelines based on conventions without which music would only be what modern popular music wants it to be: personalized pleasure fountains.

Kaeck approach this ideal of balance in all dimensions from the particular filter of minimalist and raging black metal. In Stormkult the tempered voices of the outward chaos of late Sammath and the adventurous impulse of Kjeld are not just channeled but fused and distilled to the point where only the most basic of essentials remains. This is why although we cannot actually hear Sammath or Kjeld in the music (apart from predictable superficial observations like “the vocalist is the same” or “it’s also aggressive black metal”), their approaches to music construction — from the naturalistic violence of Sammath that defines consistent yet distinct riff-writing to the refined delicacy of movement of Kjeld provided by a melding of sections through simple yet perspicacious rhythmic and melodic devices that makes such changes almost imperceptible, Stormkult is the titan born of a god and a primordial monster.

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Reflections on Nadia

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I’ve been meaning to write a review on Nadia for some time but even though, emotionally, I am deeply touched by this album, it has been impossible to bring myself to do so for this very reason: the overwhelming impression this music makes on me makes it difficult to develop an unbiased and piece-wise discussion. Listening to Nadia each time feels like falling in love once and again; one’s brain so full of endorphins that any effort to produce coherent verbal expression is rendered futile. I readily recognized this latent danger with Cóndor’s second album, Duin, and rather than try and present a crippled analysis, I embraced my impressions and came up with a description using everything that was on my mind at that point in time. The result was a mish-mash of philosophical and historical references, amateur attempts at designing metaphors and contradiction-based descriptions in the manner of mystics that pleased few people apart from myself and those in tune with that expression. More than a review, it was a picture of disjunct images. With Nadia, I have been afraid of not being able to give her everything she deserves. Just as we may shy away from a platonic love, a stalling of a well overdue caress whose occurrence suddenly becomes reality, inducing irreparable shock.

But now, the time has come to take on the undeferrable task of examining this portrait of romantic idealism and longing for a land and people that is not far from illusory. An admittedly Heideggerean notion of respect and admiration for an invisible essence or spirit that is found in all things yet in no single one at all. The related idea of technologies (techniques, approaches) as means to an end as the ungraspable static-immanent essence of things shone through in a sequence of truths that continually come into view and recede into the past permeates this album in its methodology.

First impressions of Cóndor’s debut invariably surround its stylistic menagerie and maudlin character. A basic technical analysis of an album like Nadia should be easy enough for most musicians to carry out successfully. Even without it, we can easily sight its modest means, perceive an almost too-sincere humility that becomes the target of disdain by those who have learned enough musicianship to play an instrument proficiently (and perhaps even developed the basic and undeniably necessary imitation-based creation skills) but not enough about music to grasp its essence, which they confuse with their own emotional reactions alone. One must not only become the receptacle of this essence, but one must also be equipped by experience, insight and meditations with a referential awareness that can connect the music to both its intentionality and context, judging its balance in accordance with its musical premises and contextual relations.

Here, I choose to avoid the incursions behind the the scenes of the music that a good review would normally entail, in fear of causing unnecessary degradation of the illusion that this artwork is in my eyes. This is not to say that there is a lack solid musical substance at the level of structures here. On the contrary, it is a sparse and opaque painting that transmits a story that flows from within the pigments in an ethereal stream of experiences that fade in and out of focus. We could go step by step in each song and show on a score (for a reference to patterns and structural framework) and with the recording (for references to dynamics and other performance-produced factors) how this occurs musically.

Many, many listens and a familiarity from the audience’s (rather than from the analyst’s) perspective with it may still reveal these ‘secrets’, but in a natural way and in due time.It is rather because of the modesty of the individual elements in the music that focusing on them would be an insult to the grand work that is produced from them. Furthermore, a too-detailed acquaintance with every implementation detail also runs the risk of causing the inability in the listener to properly distinguish the living spirit of the music: the unified whole. Deep familiarity with every gesture of the music from the functional point of view becomes an obstacle to perceiving it as ecstatic experience instead of as a collection of contraptions in a device. We must preserve the unified and spiritual dimension of art in mind first before diving further, which is precisely why it is paramount to go about analyzing music in a top-down manner.

In Nadia, Cóndor musically mirrored what the American continent represented for Europeans and other Old World immigrants after South American independence: a new vision, a new path that started at the meeting point of many other paths of distinct origins. This very nature that leaves undeniable traces in the structural dimension of its music, is what lies at the heart of my decision to not dwell in the minuteness of a melody or a riff. It is, nevertheless, worthy of our attention pointing out that the album is full of powerful and memorable such tributaries to its main current. In time the album reveals itself as unified in meaning and style, the erroneous perception of disalignment receding from perspective and displaying the mosaic that makes up the condor’s own featureless figure.

While the special acknowledgement to Felix Mendelssohn in the credits of Nadia may puzzle some and amuse most, the key lies in understanding the album’s relation to the romantic composer’s Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64. Alas, contrary to what one may expect, Nadia is more dependent on the concerto by Mendelssohn than even Duin is on Smetana’s Die Moldau. But the dependence manifests itself in a different dimension. In Duin we find a band that is differentiating itself, its expression becoming more and more distinct. It is a metal oeuvre utilizing and manipulating Smetana’s melodic themes for its purposes. The first album, on the other hand, took a hint from the Mendelssohn’s concerto as a seed for a physically (structurally) deeper motivation in the music: it learned from it a way to build and structure music, its way of carrying music through. In fact, like a concerto, Nadia is replete with solos that for very long spans of time are actually the music itself while the rest of the instrumentation plays the role of emphasizing and coloring in a sparse and laid-back manner to the point of being strongly reminiscent of the classical way of going about this which reduces accompaniment in many middle sections to almost complete silence.

But Cóndor is careful enough as to not mar its spirit in search of a foreign inspiration and template for structure. Despite all the interludes which are the backbone of the album, the importance of riff sections as tutti sections in a concerto is still prominent and on equal ground as the solos themselves (differentiating itself from both the concerto and from traditional metal methodology). In this and many other ways, Nadia thus remains decidedly a metal album that wisely and inspiredly uses metal and rock techniques with a classical approach to structure within a metal framework and use of texture.

A Closer Look at Suffocation’s “Pierced From Within”

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The title track of Suffocation’s third LP is a very interesting subject of analysis (as much as other excellent songs such as “Depths of Depravity”, “Suspended In Tribulation” or “Brood Of Hatred” from the same album could be) because it is a great example of recurrent motives reused in multiple different forms, of riff (musical ideas) progression and of narrative structure that ends with a climax and a release that brings a satisfying conclusion. The first step before going further is understanding how each idea of this song is crafted around the very simple and overused concept of two intervals a half step away from each other. The song is rather chromatic and has to be looked at with this idea in head.

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In this case, as I will (try to) demonstrate, the most important interval is the major third, and then the perfect fifths/fourths. From this basis we can establish five constant elements that will be identified throughout the whole analysis.

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  1. Element “a” is the collection of pitches that represent the major third intervals. Suffocation plays a lot with those intervals to create new motives and harmonies. It could also be considered as part of a harmonic minor scale (the last 3 degrees and the tonic).
  2. Same thing applies to element “b” but with the intervals of perfect fifths (and thus fourths), although the relation between the chromatic 5ths/4ths will gain another larger dimension sometimes.
  3. Element “c” is a diminished chord, something we will encounter frequently (Suffocation also uses frequently tritones and augmented fifth chords, especially in the Breeding The Spawn LP).
  4. Element “d” is a precise motive (and not collection) that finds meaning during the development of the song.
  5. Element “e” is just an ascending 3-notes chromatic scale that is used many times to partially conclude motives and phrases. It is of secondary importance.

I am not claiming that Suffocation used those leitmotifs very carefully and consciously like a classical composer would have, but my point is rather to show how, despite the lack of tonal material in the song “Pierced From Within”, unity was achieved between all components and how it creates a great song, structurally.

*From now on all the examples are in the F-clef*

Riff 1

The song starts with a long phrase at a fast tempo (riff 1) that is twice repeated. As shown in the score below, it is a mix of power chords and fast, technical strumming. We can see many manifestations of “a” as well as the repetition of rhythmic cells to create coherence. With its additional time, the last bar helps to generate an effect of oddness and temporal confusion through a more simple and effective way than modern bands trying over-technical rhythms and time signatures. This technique is used a few times in the song as you will see. Some have written the 3/4 as 12/8 but I prefer the former to adequately show rhythmic accents.

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Riff 1 is followed by a short bridge made of an arpeggiated diminished chord (element c) and an augmented fifth chord (constructed upon two major thirds, suggesting “element a”).

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Riff 2

From this long and complex riff, the music moves on to a generic “br00tal” verse (riff 2) where the vocals enter. However, it still manages to rhythmically catch interest due to the triplets at the end of the phrases.

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Suffocation used different basic textures (tremolo, then muted power chords) to make both verses different while keeping the same harmonic outline, but this is not much of a big deal since the difference is not very flagrant:

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Riff 3

Between the two verses appears riff 3(a), an intricate “melody” which marks a break for the vocals. This interlude introduces Suffocation’s technique of creating long musical phrases by the juxtaposition of motives that share different conclusions, yet constructed with the same material, as explained below. In addition of this, the different parts of the whole riff shift between “tonalities” or “regions”; where in the first bar the notes revolve around a certain fifth chord, in the next bar this fifth chord will be a semitone lower, hence the “larger” utilisation made of “element b” versus “a”. This is a very common (and cheap) way to make your material sound less repetitive when you are a bad and unoriginal death metal band, but in this song it becomes justified by the fact that the underlying concept of this technique is also used within a single part of a riff (and not only between parts) as the basis to craft multiple different melodic elements (just like the beginning of each bar in riff 3).

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Right after our second verse, the song returns to the riff 3, but only for one bar because Suffocation shifts to a complete variation of it. While all the verses and riff 3a were written in 4/4, Suffocation adds another 4/4 bar after this first one (of riff 3b) and with the help of a drum fill switches to 6/8, once again destabilizing the listener. The ideas of riff 3a are then developed under groups of 6 sixteenth notes and constitute an even more intricate melody. Descending and ascending power chords bring us to an atonal cascade of notes which contains, of course, our previously identified elements rearranged in many ways. Mike Smith contributes to this by adding a lot of unexpected snare accents. Once again, Suffocation added a beat to the last bar to create the same effect as riff 1, but this time it is silent. This stop-start technique will be used a few times and is now an overused element of many technical bands. As usual, the whole riff is repeated with changes at the end to form a different and better transition.

Fun fact: the total of eighth notes comprised within the repetition marks of the riff is 47, a prime number, which proves the total irregularity of the “melody”.

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Riff 3b, containing less literal repetition, brings us to what I called a “development”, because it is a short section of unique bars. Bar 1 and 4 are similar in concept, and the latter builds tension according to the former that will be released with another break and two violent snare hits. Between this, bar 2 and 3 offer chaotic rhythm where low palm muted chords meet high pitched tremolo notes and artificial harmonics. Notice that bar 1 uses what could be identified as harmonic minor scales, and thus suggesting our “element c” of diminished chords.

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Riff 4

After this, riff 4 comes in as the powerful and savage release of the tension with its unmerciful tremolo phrases. You can see once again the technique of using different conclusions to the motive that starts each bar. On second repeat, the riff stays almost the same but emphasis is put on the phrases’ end with the removal of all instruments but one guitar to play the first beats of each bar, and with the addition of power chords on “conclusions”. The interesting element is right at the end of the riff: element d is heard very fast both times with both techniques. Then, again, the song stops and is followed by a slow, apocalyptic moment.

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Breakdown and return

This moment is what I called (more or less rightfully) the “breakdown”. Now here is the trick: the first phrase of this section is exactly the same “element d” that concluded riff 4 but played way slower with power chords. Suffocation plays once again with textures and creates different accents with the use of palm mutes. And for another time, the last bar of the riff has an additional beat for your daily dose of rhythmic anarchy (or nihilism, as would say a controversial metal reviewer). This last bar present a rising chromatic phrase that we can interpret as developing “element d” and that presents a new 4-notes collection than in the first two bars. If you take those 2 pitches collections, you can notice that they are a major third away from each other (element a). I am not saying this was intentional or not, but I try to point out (coincidental?) links between all parts of the song.

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The slow breakdown leads us to a sudden fast solo. I won’t analyze it here, but you can find a lot of “scales” constructed with “element a”. Listen also how the guitar sometimes melts with the triplets of riff 2.

The song returns to riff 3a, and then instead of continuing with riff 3b moves on to a new variation of the idea, riff 3c. This time, the riff takes a more urgent turn and creates the final tension, while Mullen cries the last lyrics: “I am your savior/Shapeless to your perception/For I am you/Pierced from within”. You can see how some melodic elements are now harmonized with major thirds. As usual, the second phrase (bars 3-4) uses a different conclusion.

After a repetition with a new ending, this rising tension is interrupted by a suspended chord that brings us to riff 1, played once. The song concludes abruptly before the end of the riff while the last words, “Pierced from within”, are repeated on the last four power chords. I did not talk much about vocals’ rhythm but it is cleverly constructed to fit the different parts of the song, and I am personally fond of how the lyrics are arranged in riff 3b.

Conclusions

As I said earlier, this approach might be over-technical and exaggerated, but the important thing for the reader is to at least understand how the song is well-crafted on every aspect and not entirely a sequence of random ideas. An analysis of a less technical song that contains great development would provide a good counterbalance to this article. Something out of Cianide’s The Dying Truth comes to my mind.

It is sad to think that after this album, Suffocation would never come up with anything on par with their previous material, because they certainly had to potential to improve and create new highly artistic pieces of aggressive and intelligent death metal. I still think their recent (post-reunion) albums are getting better each time and Pinnacle Of Bedlam, despite a terrible production, showed promising signs of great songwriting even though they apparently opted for a more tonal and melodic modern metal-like approach.

A Closer Look at Immolation’s “Father, You’re Not a Father”

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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):

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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?):

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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.

Further thoughts on Obscura

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Many of us are fans of last.fm and other services which keep track of listening statistics. These allow me to link up various devices that I use and see what my actual listening patterns are instead of what I think they are. For example, if you asked me for a list of top death metal releases, I can easily name something like this list of the best in each genre. But that is an analytical opinion related to the art and music themselves, not a personal habit, which reflects more the day-to-day utility I find in different albums. Such is the split with Gorguts Obscura, an album I listened to extensively when it came out in accidental defiance of conventional wisdom, but then have not picked up since. Part of the reason is the unreasonably loud production, which makes it — like Sinister Hate and other albums of the “early ProTools era” — difficult to listen to alongside classic albums, and abrasively loud with lost texture of distortion. Another reason is that having heard it three times a day for five years, I may have simply absorbed it entirely. A third might be that while it is admirable as a piece of art, it may not be applicable to much of my life or thought process at this point.

I read Old Disgruntled Bastard‘s article “The postmodern Gorguts” with great interest not just because I enjoy ODB’s writing, but because he has cut into a vital topic: does Obscura belong to the old school death metal legions, or is it of a newer style that we call “modern metal”? Modern metal — comprised of nu-metal, metalcore, tech-death, post-metal and indie-rock — distinguishes itself from the old because it is composed like rock but with metal riffs mixed in among the jazz and prog affectations. The analysis of it as postmodern seems to make sense if one considers later postmodernism. Early postmodernism distrusted meta-narratives and so attempted to create its own based on the subtext, or invisible reality, as an alternative to the public text or consensual token-based narrative of our reality and civilization.

Later postmodernism simplified that to an idea of showing many different angles or perspectives of a topic, like a Pablo Picasso painting, which created a surface level of complexity of ingredients so intense that it reduced the organizing principle or internal complexity of the work to near nothingness. Compare Don Delillo’s White Noise to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (itself highly derivative of Pynchon, that highly derivative of Nabokov and Burroughs) for an example of this in literature.

The public school safe answer when asked about the origins of postmodernism is that it sprang up with Foucault, but someone who traces the history of ideas — and actually writes postmodern fiction — like myself may see the origins instead in an early writing by Fred “Mad Dog” Nietzsche entitled “On Truth and Lies in a Post-Moral Sense,” in which he points out the nihilism of language: tokens work only when people mean the same thing, but people project their own desires into the meaning through the imprecise device of memory, which means that narratives rapidly become deconstructed into manipulation and the only excuse is to discard the old values and definitions, and rebuild from common sense observation of reality.

There are, after all, very few ideas in history, and much as Plato was a watershed, Nietzsche defined the different perspectives in the modern time, but this analysis is too far-reaching to be made in public, least of all on the government dime. I remember talking with Audrey Ewell (Until the Light Takes Us) over this very split and finding myself dismissed as perhaps not knowing the background material, which is very un-postmodern as it affirms an official narrative in defiance of the introspection that leads to analysis of externality by structure and not appearance, a trait shared between Nietzsche and the Romantics that lives on in postmodernism albeit faintly, and only in the important works, excluding the forgettable Mitchell for example. Postmodernism appears in movies by David Lynch and Lars von Trier, specifically the death metal-friendly Melancholia, and even in the theories we tell ourselves about daily life. Discontent with The NarrativeTM abounds, but very few agree on what that narrative is or what is the truth that it conceals, which shows a difficulty of postmodernism: it deconstructs and points vaguely in a new direction, but never finalizes the task, which relegates it to the academic realm of sipping Merlot and watching the world build up tinder for the final carnage.

Having boiled out all of that context to postmodernism as idea, let us look at William Pilgrim’s excellent article. Death Metal Underground tries to provide multiple perspectives — in the postmodern sense — on any topic, but diverges from the postmodern narrative by affirming that reality itself is truth, and we can approximate that truth, so we must undertake the almost never undertaken second part of the process which is through reasoned debate to then find answers. People love the idea of multiple perspectives, because it means that since nothing is true, they can do whatever they want and that “feels” good to the forlorn or under-confident soul. They are less enthusiastic about boiling down the data found and constructing from it an assessment of truthfulness. The article contains two essential nodal points, the first of which is the definition of postmodernism:

…a school of thought that attempts to reject overarching structural meaning and belief in greater narratives. To the post-modern mind, existence and experience consist of pluralities, splintered into fiercely individualistic cells prone to subjective rule, and inimical to any attempt at establishing a universal system of knowledge. Under this philosophy, adherence to a common-law guidebook serving as a framework for value judgments would amount to giving tacit approval to an authoritarian scheme of things.

This sounds surprisingly like one of my favorite definitions, the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy definition of “nihilism”:

Nihilism is the belief that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated…By the late 20th century, “nihilism” had assumed two different castes. In one form, “nihilist” is used to characterize the postmodern person, a dehumanized conformist, alienated, indifferent, and baffled, directing psychological energy into hedonistic narcissism or into a deep ressentiment that often explodes in violence…In contrast to the efforts to overcome nihilism noted above is the uniquely postmodern response associated with the current antifoundationalists….French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard characterizes postmodernism as an “incredulity toward metanarratives,” those all-embracing foundations that we have relied on to make sense of the world. This extreme skepticism has undermined intellectual and moral hierarchies and made “truth” claims, transcendental or transcultural, problematic. Postmodern antifoundationalists, paradoxically grounded in relativism, dismiss knowledge as relational and “truth” as transitory, genuine only until something more palatable replaces it (reminiscent of William James’ notion of “cash value”). The critic Jacques Derrida, for example, asserts that one can never be sure that what one knows corresponds with what is.

Much of interest stands out here starting with caste. Alan Pratt seems to see the two interpretations of nihilism as reflecting degrees of abstraction. On one level, people say that life has no inherent meaning — that is the correct short form translation of what he says above — and translate that into dissipation; on the other, they see this as an opportunity to escape the dead definitions of a dying civilization and re-evaluate all that is known and how it is seen as important; in other words, to go back to Nietzsche and his Romantic-tinged apocalyptic renewal.

This also introduces the fundamental problem of modern philosophy, which it tries to handle through grammars of different fields of study, consisting of the coherence/correspondence split. A sentence can be completely grammatical and parse-able but contain no meaning because it imitates outward form but refers to nothing and resembles nothing found in reality. “A = x; if A > x, then the world ends” is entirely sensible as an expression, yet gives no information and relates to nothing. Like Nietzsche, most postmodern philosophers attack language, but unlike Nietzsche, they seek to find ways around language where Nietzsche’s point was the more flexible idea that language, logic and other forms of communication and truth-assessment are dependent on those who wield them, their intelligence, honest and intent; in other words, as he said, “There are no truths, only interpretations.”

This nihilism — which sounds a lot like postmodernism itself — distrusts not just a narrative, but the idea that there can be a narrative, or in other words one explanation of reality and how to deal with it that applies to all people. This translates to a distrust of the inherent or innate, such as the idea of “writing on the wall” or any other kind of definitive sign that communicates to all people. In other words, reality is out there, and all of our access to it comes through interpretations; these vary in value, and communication between them occurs through reality, so is subject to the same weakness. This means that there is no single symbolic or token communication which can be said to be innately true, and since the world itself issues forth no data in symbolic form, “truth” is a property of human minds and dependent on the quality, discipline and application of those minds, and is not shared among humanity collectively.

This applies less to the idea of a narrative within, say, a death metal album, that to the idea of a narrative describing our world and universal values to address it. However, individual interpretations can more closely approximate an understanding of reality, even if they cannot be communicated because communication depends on symbolic parity between all parties, which in turn depends on the ability to understand those symbols in roughly the same way. In ancient times, that viewpoint was called “esotericism” because it suggested that reality revealed its truths to those who were ready for them, with both a sense of knowledge being cumulative and not open to all people. A genius or highly talented person sees a different truth than others, thus this truth is localized to that person, and cannot be shared by the act of encoding it in symbols and speaking or writing them to others.

Taking this path through postmodern reveals that while postmodernism “flouts conventions”, as the article states, flouting conventions is not the total of postmodernism; it is one attribute, and it occurs not in and of itself but for the sake of undermining the narrative. This brings us to the core of Pilgrim’s analysis of Obscura:

In its abundant jagged outcroppings and in its constant search for the next unorthodox detour, Obscura shortchanges the simple truth that holds up metal and indeed all ‘essential’ music, that of relating an idea through sound.

I will simplify this in a grotesque but accurate way: tail wags dog. Instead of technique being used as a means of expressing an idea, the technique becomes the goal and the idea is filled in afterwards to unite the different technical parts. This common criticism of metal rings true in almost all disorganized works because the band wrote a bunch of riffs, adjusted rhythm like a big paper bag to fit them all together, and then called it a “song” despite having nothing in common between its parts, and thus no emergent atmosphere or communication which makes the whole more than the sum of the parts. This leaves us with the criticism of Obscura as failing to maintain a narrative, and whether this is related to the postmodern distrust of narratives, which itself could constitute a narrative. We could create a thesis of history describing humanity as a successive series of escapes from previously limiting narratives to new ones, but that then portrays postmodernism entirely as a form of deconstruction, which while compatible with the notion of extreme skepticism fails to capture the Nietzschean notion of “re-evaluation of all values” which is the second half of the postmodern process: (1) deconstruct and (2) reconstruct, from reality (correspondence) and not internal grammars (coherence).

The only remaining question is to analyze the music itself and see if its parts in fact associate in some way as to make a meaningful whole, which is the question here; postmodernism has served as a useful filter for introduction but not really a guide to how to do this. We are back to using the same compositional analysis that would apply to any death metal release, or any through-composed music.

Specifically, Pilgrim identifies the lack of a melodic or structural center:

Conventional melody is used not as the driving force behind the songs heard on this album, but as ballast to the band’s almost painful need to expand the template of extreme metal prevalent till then.

At this point my own narrative must switch to the incredibly general in lieu of analyzing each song. My take on this album is that Gorguts wrote an album in the style of The Erosion of Sanity and then, possibly through the work of Steve Hurdle, added strong melodic continuity. Then, they chopped it and re-arranged it so that riffs introduced themselves both in “backward” order of distilling from more texturally complex to most melodically clear, and arranged them so that the melody was introduced in a pattern which broke up its normal flow in order to introduce pieces in a sequence that created another emotional impression, then assembling it from its conclusion for the final part of the song. This seems to me both not the tail wags dog approach, but also a use of technique over composition, but in this case it was effective because the music was already composed and was modified with an additional layer of complexity and perhaps, some anticipatory contrarianism, in order to make its labyrinthine journey of fragmentary melodies into more of a puzzle assembled in the mind of the listener, not unlike how postmodern novels like Naked Lunch separated a story into vignettes and multiple character/setting groups in order to disguise it and force the reader to assemble it in the abstract, before repeating it in a finale in more concrete form.

However, it seems to me that the core of Pilgrim’s essay is his listing of seven attributes of metal, and that perhaps his intent is to use Gorguts and postmodernism as a point to speak about metal as both having postmodern attributes, and opposing postmodernism by asserting a narrative construction of its own. In this, metal may be a nihilistic exception to the norm of postmodernism, in that while it distrusts the contemporary narrative, and negates the idea of inherent truth/knowledge/communication, it asserts that it can portray reality in a fragment in such a way that others can appreciate it. Regarding the charges of amateurism, Pilgrim makes some solid points. The fixation on iconoclasm and paradigm-inversion, which itself strengthens a narrative by the fact that exceptions tend to prove the rule, and deliberately “whacky” permutations of arrangement draw skepticism, and deservedly so. The third possibility offered by this author is that like most works of art, parts of Obscura are sincere and insightful, and other parts are bullshit designed “outward in,” or from appearance to core, meaning that they communicate little or were modified to express something convenient after the fact. If taken as a whole however, the album minimizes these parts by fitting them within other songs that attract less trivial attention. Where Pilgrim seems proven right to me is through recent Gorguts output which emphasizes mysticism of the trivial as a means of enhancing the self-estimation of its listeners, much as Opeth and Meshuggah built a cottage industry around making simple music seem complex to attract low self-esteem fans who want bragging and pretense rights over their friends; where he falls short is that From Wisdom To Hate, while a more rushed and uneven album, further develops the techniques on Obscura.

 

Pilgrim’s progress

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I thoroughly enjoyed William Pilgrim’s “The postmodern Gorguts” for its list of metal attributes. For many years, writers have attempted to categorize metal and most commonly have ended up with a list of surface traits such as loud distortion, screaming, fast drums and occult lyrics. Pilgrim’s list looks at the compositional tendencies of metal that are consistent from proto-metal through black metal, and bears another analysis as separated from the topic of Gorguts, which is only ancillary to the question of metal itself. Thus follows his list:

The original idea, as metal goes, is as much structural as it is ideological. There are a few qualities that are common to how all true metal should be constructed.

  1. Melodic contiguity: All forms of metal, even the harshest strains, are inherently and recognizably melodic in nature. This means that the individual phrases that make up a metal song obey cohesiveness, as tenuous as it may seem at times. Though individual phrases are often in different keys, it is paramount that they share the same musical space.
  2. Movement towards a discernible and logical conclusion: This is the will to motion previously outlined in these pages. Metal’s roots in traditional story-telling with a beginning, a middle, and an end, are not to be forgotten in eager exchange of a need to experiment. There has to be a gradual ascent, or a plummet as it were, towards an ultimate punctuation. Though various approaches can be used towards achieving this, playing for time in false hope of creating mood, while using ideas containing little intrinsic worth, is anathema to metal.
  3. Rhythm section to assume a strong yet only supporting role: Metal is a predominantly lead-melody oriented form of music. Bass and drums are integral to creating a fuller sound but should only be viewed as swells on an ocean on top of which riffs and songs float. Often, swells rise and raise their load with them, but this hierarchy in relations is crucial and is to be preserved.
  4. Atmosphere created not through textural embellishments and quirks but as a by product of composition: All claim to that shady word “atmosphere” should come from immanent qualities in the way the music is written. Metal does not need overt experimentation with harmonics or tone if these asides are incapable of holding together on isolated inspection.
  5. Awareness that all forms of groove play to a far baser inclination in the mind’s analytical apparatus. They can be enjoyed on a case-by-case basis but are not something to be eagerly sought out or encouraged in metal.
  6. A keen comprehension of repetition as device: Repetition is to be used as steadily outward-growing eddies that take a song to a different place, yes, but one that maintains a tangible relation to the place left behind. Individual components within the repeating phrase should have some emotional consonance and not serve as mere padding.
  7. Conscious realization that metal is in fact composed music and not free jazz.

To insert a minor quibble, I disagree that metal is “ideological.” If anything, it is anti-ideological, being based in a harsh realism rather than a set of platitudes about Utopia, which seems to be the basis of all ideology to me. Metal is intensely artistic, and artists tend to have strong opinions, and from a distance this may look like ideology or even count as an ideology of sorts, but not in the modern sense, which means a series of appealing thoughts designed to mobilize mass approval and thus, political power. If metal has an ideology, it is an artistic outlook of a very general nature and not directed toward specific manipulations resulting in immediate real-world changes; rather, it hopes to condition the outlook of those who participate in it with the most general philosophies toward life itself.

By the same token, metal seems to me to less succumb to lists than a spirit which reflects this philosophy. Technique is a means to that end, and that we now live in an age when power chords and heavy distortion create a sense of foreboding of doom and insurgent power determines that these become the primal technique that unites all the others, like a drawstring bag around otherwise random artistic implements. Metal focuses on the union of harsh realism and intense mythology, because metal is fundamentally a worship of power and these are the greatest powers in human life. Only death is real, and yet people follow religions and hail the ancient stories. If metal has a goal, it is making realism into a kind of poetry, and it uses a series of techniques to that end that form its most visible component, but they are not in and of themselves the goal of the genre.

Let me then add my components of metal:

  1. Nihilism. The music must use the simplest and most gutter-level techniques possible when they are powerful.
  2. Through-composed. From Black Sabbath onward, metal bands have been stacking riffs to explode melodies.
  3. Guitar is lead rhythm. Songs are advanced by guitars, with drums/bass/vocals in supporting role.
  4. Phrasal riffs. Riffs use fills as main body of riff in order to create shapes which interact across key, time and form.
  5. Immanent meaning. No riff or part is the meaning, but the progression of the whole “reveals” meaning.

Any sensible observer will note that the above are simply less specific and more distilled versions of Pilgrim’s seven points above. His focus is more on specificity; mine more on spirit. And yet the two overlap and somehow hash out the same realistic truths about heavy metal. Metal is fundamentally anti-social music, in that it rejects “what everyone thinks” and experiences a downfall instead as it reverts to a nihilistic, literal, organic, materialistic and naturalistic level of reality. It rejects human society and all of its ideas, which are essentially pretense, in favor of harsh realism and mythological aims like beauty, truth, eternal love and eternal hate. I would argue that metal is conservative except for its constant forward focus, not toward “progress” but adventure.

As a result, I would argue that metal is impervious to both ideology and trends, since it consists solely of spirit and the aforementioned method. In fact, it takes no particular point of view, since its method must appear in all that it does. Thus metal is “spirit,” and will adapt to any developments in music, but since there have been none, it howevers around the intersection of the best humanity has produced so far — classical, modernist and baroque — using the techniques available to four guys, guitars, microphone and drums. This then leads us to a more vital question when examining metal, which is whether a band adopts this outlook and method through the question of what an adaptation of that method to the particular style of the band would look like. With post-metal, nu-metal, tech-death, metalcore and other modern metal, we find that missing and its opposite principle, the looping narrative of rock, instead.

Desecresy – The Band of Liquid Evil

Finnish death metal band Desecresy grew in recognition over the past half-decade but still finds itself overshadowed by the obvious Swedish death metal tributes and other shallow pitches to the purchasing sensibilities of information overload numbed fans. This band has more to offer than many realize, crafting death metal in the old school style but with the sparse melody and emotional mood tapestry of a doom metal, even slowly and cautiously introducing some newer influences so that it never loses its old school appear at its core, in its spirit and its intent.

Sounding very much like a submerged horror launching itself on humanity, Desecresy came about in 2009 from the ashes of previous bands. It consists of two members, Tommi Grönqvist and Jarno Nurmi, who somehow produce this massive sound on their own. As a result, Desecresy does not play live but has built an audience by putting out successively improved albums, although which is the best may depend on taste as these are highly idiosyncratic and expressive works. They are also remarkably consistent in that the sound the band forged on its first album continues through its third but not unchanged, only added to and refined, so that it grows organically.

This band successfully evokes the sensation liquid evil rising from the depths through its death-doom attack. Its death metal uses rhythms like those of Bolt Thrower merged with the powerful two-layer riffing of Abhorrence, possibly influenced by early Paradise Lost and the second half of Burzum “Key to the Gate,” with other influences such as Fleshcrawl and Incantation for its dark and doomy passages. Its distinctive technique of melodic lead rhythmic riffing overlaid on dirge power chord riffs makes Desecresy instantly recognizable, and creates an atmosphere more like a doom metal band or traditional heavy metal without the friendlier rock trappings of such band. On top of this float strongly enunciated death vocals that guide the developing feast of riffs and unique song structures.

Arches of Entropy (2010)

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The first Desecresy album shows the band attacking their sound from the most traditional death metal viewpoint. These songs attack from a mid-paced death metal standpoint, and then build on that with successive riffs that grind against one another in the Bolt Thrower style, leading up to the atmospheric riffing with melodic leads stitched over it like silver linings of clouds. Vocals take a gruff and bassy enunciation of death metal vocals that is difficult to correctly sequence but here the timing is both impeccable and vague, adding an air of mystery. As the technique is new, it sometimes overlaps in memory, causing these songs to seem indistinct, although when listened to separately they stand out. These songs have a groove, but instead of being centered around stretching between offbeat notes, it starts on an offbeat and drifts into cadence, creating a feeling of entering a dream. Of the Desecresy albums, this may be the most idiosyncratic, owing much of its perceived randomness to attempts to stretch this style in ways that most bands would not envision. Its mood evokes early evening on a dry clear night, when the wind murmurs through the leaves and strange noises echo from the surrounding mountains, a noisy organic voice arising amongst them which promises certain doom and, within it, adventure.

The Doom Skeptron (2012)

desecresy-the_doom_skeptron

For its second album, Desecresy attempted to introduce more of a death metal sound as contrasted to the melodic-layered half-grind of the first album. At the same time, the band experimented with making its songs more distinctive and so tried to vary tempo, notes and rhythms radically. The result sounds more like an Immolation album with an Asphyx plus Carnage vibe, in addition to the aforementioned influences. This provides a more energetic album and isolates the melodic doom parts between different sounds, which makes this album an interesting and varied listen like driving through unknown countryside. The intensity of it however lost some of the doom appeal, and this seems to be the least atmospheric of all the albums, but also the most satisfying to those who enjoyed the later years of death metal. The Doom Skeptron carries the intensity of the first into a more confrontational vein, and brings out some of the implicit conflict in these songs in more abrupt collision. Presaging the next album, this work also makes more use of simple melodic patterns to create a sonic backdrop for riff change. If the American influences behind Desecresy make an appearance, it is here that they stand out the clearest and to the greatest impact, although the droning resonance that makes this band appealing to doom metal fans also makes itself known. Best enjoyed on bright days at top volume from a distance.

Chasmic Transcendence (2014)

desecresy-chasmic_transcendence

Most bands decay as the years go on. Not so with Desecresy, who on this album integrate the grinding approach of the first album with more of the doom and black metal influenced atmospheric pieces which now dominate songs instead of relying on a sandwich of death metal to make them pop out. As a result, like Burzum Filosofem, this album induces a mood of suspended disbelief and then sinks further into it, creating like Summoning an environment where melodies seem to extend each other across songs because they are similar in parts but different in end configuration. On Chasmic Transcendence, Desecresy show a more fluid rhythm and more high-speed tremolo death metal riffing to drive it, and also start borrowing patterns from the newer post-metal bands like Cult of Luna, but very carefully adapt these to old school underground metal melodies and riff structures instead of becoming alternative rock like every other band who has tried this. In the Desecresy universe, riffs talk to one another to create and shape a transition between moods like an architect assembling a design, and the result showcases both the resonant emotion from melodic rhythm leads — now focusing more on internal harmony — and combinations of riffs evoking a labyrinthine passage between physical obstacles toward internal learning, like the best of adventures. This album provides excellent listening on nocturnal escapades.

The odd state of metal in 2015 is that many of the best bands are acknowledged by those who can understand them, but this is a small group, so they seem overshadowed by larger bands that appeal to the bread and circuses type. However, Desecresy has been steadily gaining momentum for its elegantly designed and thoughtful music that refuses to sacrifice the raw guts of death metal to make an atmosphere, and as a result portrays the type of desolate conflict that we expect from dystopian literature, but in sonic form with the riffs like serpents taking the form of the things we fear in our dreams and see shadows of in the reality around us, rushing at us from a yet indeterminate future. With this musical power, Desecresy presages the next age of metal, along with other pioneers like Sammath, Blaspherian, Demoncy, Blood Urn, War Master and Kever. The spirit of the old school lives on by refusing to emulate the past, and instead carrying forward its ideas in the abstract with implementations specific to the bands, in this case the fertile imagination and dark prophecy of Desecresy.

Unholy Prophecy

schoolbus

The forest warmed as the late afternoon sun stroked it from above. Insects rose out of their protective hiding place in the underground and ascended thermals into the high trees where birds pursued them. Far from the solar fire too bright for humans to glance into the sky at all, a school bus surrounded by dead leaves hid under the canopy of light-absorbing leaves.

“Christ on sandwich bread,” said Dennis as he vaulted into the bus. He looked around and realized he was speaking to an empty space. Shrugging, he began preparations for the ritual. He took one of the wax-streaked dimestore candles from the ad hoc plywood shelving where the driver used to sit, and put it on an old kitchen table that was propped up in back between sofas. Lighting it, he cleared the leaves and bugs from one seat, and perched on it to enjoy the ninth cigarette of the day. As he was finishing, the emergency door at the rear of the bus batted open.

“World’s gone crazy,” said Mark Reissdorf, with his inseparable best friend Thomas Nagel in tow. They each took seats on one of the four sofas that formed the seating area at the rear of the bus. Dennis and Thomas gathered dead and fallen branches, cramming them into the fire pit as Thomas wedged a newspaper from his pocket between them. Soon a fire blazed and smoke leaked from the bus into the woods.

Finally they heard more footsteps through the leaves and Mark leaned out the door to give Sam a hand in. Sam stood taller than any of them, but also carried extra weight, the consequence of being both the bullied youngest sibling in the Bormanns household and as a result, the one his mother soothed with treats. He dug around in his insulated vest and found a plastic sandwich bag which he flung onto the table before them. “It’s from Canada,” he said. “Where’s R?”

Thomas shrugged, and Mark and Dennis made me-too motions with their eyebrows. Sam grunted, then began rooting around in the bag.

“It’s not time,” said Thomas.

“Shut up,” said Sam. He towered over Thomas, but the smaller boy held his ground. “We have to stay true to the ritual. Defenders of the Faith.”

“You’re right,” said Mark, holding the syllable for just long enough to crucify it with a short word as if punctuation: “Fag.”

They all started giggling at that point. Then the front door of the bus opened — only R used that one — and he stepped in, chilly in his sweater and jean jacket. Where the other boys had long hair, R had none whatsoever. He had in fact shaved his entire body only because he discovered that it freaked out over 85% of the people he encountered on a regular basis, where tattoos and piercings hovered in the 60s, drug use in the 50s, and casual sex in the teens. When R stepped into a room, most people recoiled in fear. He loved that.

Mark threw more wood onto the fire, which now blazed up in the fire pit and filled the bus with smoke. R took a bong and a bottle of Old Valley Road bourbon out of his backpack. Sam tossed in the bag of weed. Mark pulled out a handful of pills and a knife, and Thomas tossed in a bag with traces of cocaine. R — his real name was Ron Carpenter, but he told everyone in freshman year that his name was actually DLANOR and he was from Sumeria, so no one trusted any name he gave — pulled out a key from his pocket and unfastened the padlock on the plywood box. Inside was a portable stereo. He plugged in his off-brand MP3 player and cranked the volume to ten. No one mentioned the week they had spent burying wire to snake a line off the nearest streetlight, nearly a half-mile away, but they all swelled with pride at the ability to have their music in this remote place.

The sounds of Hellhammer filled the bus. They simply did not trust any music or — well, anything — from any more recent time. The 1980s was when it fell apart. People like to talk about what a great decade it was, but really it must have been a terrible decade, like looking out your window to see a tsunami of Ebola-infected sewage coming your way.

The ritual had begun.

“Today was unbearable,” Thomas said, taking his privilege as the physically weakest in what had become a combination support group, revolutionary meeting and occult rebellion. “Let me tell you all about it.”

***

His day began, he related, with going to his high school and sliding into his first class in a stupor of boredom. The teacher did not even notice, having a rubric which demanded she cover a certain amount of material per minute, and confronting late students only interrupted that. He performed the minimum, being half-awake at the time, since he had spent most of last night roaming the empty places of an adult world he did not understand or wish to enter. When his parents settled down after a few mixed drinks, and his brothers and sister were camped in front of the TV, he grabbed the packet of cigarettes they kept in the kitchen drawer and headed out. He just walked: through the parking lots, across the empty roads, trying doorhandles in buildings, down the alleys. If anyone had a problem with it, he had his flick knife and used to be a star on the track team, so it would be a fair combat at least.

“You can’t sit there,” said someone in his second-period English class. Still groggy, he asked why. “All the football players sit here.”

“Fuck off,” he said. It was his favorite retort to people, who he would like to murder with great pain and cruelty, but in his inner heart he knew what he really wanted to murder was the world. The all of it. The ugly parking lots everywhere, stupid triplicate forms, waiting in line for morons to tell you what to do, brain-dead churches and politicians and the people who followed them like sheep, and everyone else strung out on booze like his parents or heroin like his friends from the past year. They were all cowards. Thomas was a small kid and he knew that if one of the football players made an issue of it, he would be at a major disadvantage. But he always fought back, leaving them with enough wounds that they thought twice about trying again, a wisdom he learned during the early years of bullying in elementary school.

Instead, Danny the Irish-Polynesian football player came into the room, took one look at Thomas taking up the first seat in the front table, and turned to the kid who had warned Thomas and punched him in the shoulder. “Good job keeping my place for me,” he said and stormed off.

More football players came in. A couple threw books at the kid who failed to guard the place. No one else sat at the table. Thomas shrugged it off, and sat through the class. He heard whispers behind him but ignored them as the usual screwing around of idiots. Then Mr. Danforth heard a knock at the door and went into the hall to talk with the fat piggish administrator who had a form for him to sign. Thomas had just settled into the lull of the background hum in his brain when an unstoppable form hit him from behind, knocking the table forward against the wall and sending Thomas crashing into it. Right before he smashed his head against the edge, he tightened his hand around his pencil and instinctively stabbed upward. A howl came in response and more books and papers crashed to the floor as the table slammed into the teacher’s desk.

“What the hell is going on here?” said Danforth, coming back into the room with a sheaf of papers to muddle over later during a bottle of discount white wine. Two students stood covered in blood in a snarl of wrecked furniture and ruined papers.

“I, uh, fell,” said the kid who had warned Thomas, with Danny standing right behind him. But Danny had blood pouring from a wound in his armpit that looked suspiciously like a pencil.

“He stabbed me,” said Danny, pointing at Thomas. Danny eyed him warily. Thomas wanted him to attack again, so he could strike with the pencil. Again and again. Murdering his parents, his teachers and the people who designed this ugly, boring, codependent place.

“I didn’t move,” said Thomas. “You must have fallen on me. I guess you just stumbled on a pencil too.”

“Well what were you doing sitting in my seat?” Danny finally managed.

“There are no assigned seats. Get over yourself,” said Thomas.

“Thomas, why don’t you ever just go along with what people want?” asked Danforth. “Go to the office. Marsha will take you. Danny, go to the Nurse.”

The nerdy kid who had warned him scoffed. “Told you so,” he said.

“At least I’m not a suck-up to jocks because I’m a mouth-breathing nerd,” said Thomas. “You’re as dumb as they are. Just math-dumb not football-dumb.”

“Fuck you, Thomas,” said the kid.

“You go to the office too,” said Mr. Danforth.

Marsha walked ahead of them carrying the yellow slip of paper which said they were rejects. “You really know how to make a small incident a big one,” she said. “Why didn’t you just do what other people want?”

Thomas sighed. “Because other people are usually crazy. Most people wanted the new dam built that flooded the woods, most people wanted the new road that makes town loud, most people actually like that stupid class, and most people watch football and drink Coors Light. I can’t do it,” he said, and suddenly felt a little bit weak.

She turned to him and he saw her eyes, a gentle blue, had faded. “You better get to the Nurse,” she said. “I’ll tell Danforth you were bleeding. That’s true, at least.”

Lunch had been no different. Some guy in a Polo shirt wanted to take his chocolate milk, and Thomas used one of the jiu-jitsu moves he studied on the weekend and threw him. That was a problem, since behind him was a chair and behind that, a glass window. Both shattered as the unlucky dumbshit went sprawling. Thomas did not get to finish his chocolate milk. As the campus cop escorted him from the premises, he caught Marsha’s eye. It looked worried and amused. He shrugged and bowed ever so slightly, which caused laughter at her table. Most likely they were making fun of him.

He went to his job at the movie theater after that. Clean the floor, they said. He took several dozen wet floor signs, found a movie that would not be out for another hour, and swabbed the whole floor then began drying it. A woman exited the individual theater and Thomas took her arm and guided her around the wet floor. “It’s tricky,” he said.

“Is that blood all over your face?” she asked. Thomas shrugged. He noticed she did not go into the theater and the next thing he knew, the manager was tapping his arm. “Why is so much of the floor wet? We’ve had a complaint.”

“I swab it down first, then get it all at once with the bucket,” said Thomas. “That way I’m not putting dirty water back on the floor to swab the next section.”

“Why don’t you just do it–” said the manager, but Thomas finished his words. “– like everyone else. My way is more efficient. I can show you — ”

” — No, no,” said the manager absent-mindedly. He was short like Thomas and Thomas always liked him for that, and hoped he had found a beautiful short wife. This guy was better than most.

“You know what, I don’t give a shit,” said the manager. “You’re going to have to go home because we had a complaint.”

“Even if it’s a… uh… ah… not really true one?” said Thomas, searching for words.

“Yes, because if someone else complains, I look like a stupid asshole,” said the manager. “Your whole goal is to not make me look like a stupid asshole.”

“Even if it’s less efficient?”

The manager threw up his hands. “Yes… I mean, no. Do what is efficient. Just don’t cause complaints. Like, next time, use an empty theater.”

“Right,” said Thomas. On his way out, he passed Marsha. “Going to a movie?” he asked.

“Going to visit my Dad,” she said, and pointed to the door he had just left. Thomas slapped his palm over his face and when he looked up she was gone.

The only saving grace came as he exited the kitchen area behind the concession stand. “Hey, Tom, wait up,” said Mikey, who wanted to be called “Mike,” the longest-haired of the crew. “Can you swap a bud for some blow?”

“Better be the real deal,” said Thomas, feeling for a moment more grown up than his milktoast parents who never did anything dangerous like drugs, crime or violence.

“Hell yeah it is,” said Mikey. “Hey, I heard you served that Danny guy in class today…”

***

“Jesus, what a lot of drama,” said Mark.

“Jesus would have hated all of those people,” said Dennis. As the token Christian in the group, or so it was suspected, they tolerated him like they might a homosexual: warily. Dennis was pretty sure he was not gay but sometimes he wondered about Sam. Not like it mattered, he thought. A gay guy who was not a stupid asshole would be OK, but most gay people would be stupid assholes, because most people were stupid assholes and no one got a pass.

Sam shrugged, busy packing weed into the bowl of his custom modified EZ-rip bong. First he painstakingly separated weed from stems, the fresh herbal scent enveloping him like a memory of flowers, and reduced the weed itself to dust. He then intermixed this with blonde tobacco he got at the local tobacconist by swiping it and then buying enough lighters to cover the cost, paying for them, but leaving the lighters behind. He wouldn’t steal from Mr. Walton. The guy was OK — he actually looked up what Sam could buy at his age and applied the letter of the law. “If you ask me,” Walton had drawled, “We don’t need any of these frickin’ laws. But they don’t ask me.”

“What about you, Sam,” asked Dennis.

“Long day at the computer store,” said Sam. He had dropped out of school, then taken the GED, then gone on to work at a local computer parts store. Now he fixed computers for little old ladies and businessmen alike, and was generally appreciated for his attention to detail — forestalling future secondary complications — although it was universally noted that his manner was diffident, almost standoffish, in the way of people who distrust socialization itself.

Mark passed over a joint he rolled with some of the dirt-cheap weed he got from his cousin who grew it in the hills. It would get you high, like a 40 oz malt liquor would get you drunk, but it was such a blunting and numbing experience that it seemed to replace fun with a grinding duty to be wasted.

“Theme of the day was barriers,” Sam began after a few moments. “I fixed a computer, then all of a sudden, things were wrong.”

***

“Did you get that laptop set up?” asked his boss.

“Yeah,” said Sam. “Needed a memory upgrade. Got it. Want me to install the usual anti-virus and repair software?”

“Sure,” said the boss, and disappeared between the shelves. Sam got to work. This one was more interesting than usual: two layers of security, and many cryptic files named only with alphanumerics in incremental form, like 1C5AFE3C0D1F.docx, stored in a generic folder. This one looked like a mess. He set about making a system backup, then preparing to install the suite of software that shielded the machine against hacks, spoofs, viruses, subversions, and errors.

He was about halfway done when his boss reappeared. “Ah,” Sam heard over his shoulder.

“–what?”

“Not that one. You can’t look in there. Just package it up for delivery.”

OK, thought Sam. He slid it onto the thin metal shelves and filled out the ticket, then turned back to his other tasks. But the memory tormented him: all those files, obviously inscrutable for a reason. Why? And the high security — for what? One did not lock doors beyond which lay only the mundane. His mind spit out a plan before his ego could approve it, but then he found himself drawn to it, cursing his lizard brain for having come up with such a perfect attack.

He dashed through the next computer, filled out the form, and slid it on the shelf, dallying next to the cryptic laptop which he plugged in to the wall, linking a network cable to its port. Then he re-arranged some bags, dropped his keys, straightened up again and left before the boss could get off the phone.

Back at his workstation he quickly fixed a point of sale machine in from a subscriber, then used it to sneak along the network and send a wake-up signal to the laptop. Then he ran a program that snaked past its security and showed him the file system. He began to download the mystery files. As he was opening the first file, he heard the door chime on the front door, seventy feet away. He paused as a voice burbled at the counter.

Walking as if heading to the stash of tools near the front, he got a glimpse of the check being handed over. His mystery laptop. The guy who owned it looked boring, reserved, maybe even a little bit withdrawn, but not paranoid as he expected a spy or criminal mastermind to be. Sam had other problems however. Within a half-minute his boss would reach over to the laptop, and have to unplug it and possibly explain to the customer why. Sam stepped back into the doorway of the loading dock, where he knew no cameras were, and lit a cigarette, blowing smoke into the fire alarm.

As the boss racked up the cost and entered the credit card, an ear-splitting siren blared through the store. Sam ditched the cigarette in a nearby flower pot. As employees rushed toward the door, he walked to the counter, then dropped his wallet. Straightening up halfway, he hunched over the machine and yanked out both cables, letting them drop, then joined the others outside.

“Weird,” said the boss. “Must have been a smoke test.” As it turned out, one of the new employees had inverted a power connector and popped a capacitor, which was accepted as the source of the smoke. The customer left, happy, and Sam wandered outside to pitch out the cigarette. When he came back to his desk, the boss was waiting for him. “We have lots of these high security jobs,” he said. “Here are another four that need doing today.”

It became a longer day than Sam intended. Toward the end, as he waited for one machine to restore its operating system, he peeked into the files he found. Columns of figures, debits and credits, on a weekly basis. He shrugged, but then looked closer. There were duplicate files for each week, but the numbers were not the same, and even without much life experience Sam knew he would rather pay tax on the second set than the first.

The boss came back inside. “Listen team, we’ve had a bit of a shakeup. I need you three to take weekend shifts, and shifts during the week are getting halved.” Sam realized his only chance to keep his salary was to take weekend shifts, so he doubled up on those as he penciled himself in to the sign-up sheet. Still, it felt unfair. The stroke of a pen and his weekend was obliterated. The voice of his boss and someone at least would be out of a job, since the total hours might support two workers but not four. And he thought they had been doing well?

His eyes slid down the counter and to the open door of the office. The computer in there might have answers. Maybe even double sets of numbers. As if sensing his discontent, the boss walked over and pushed the flimsy door shut, locking it.

Indirectly, the lowered hours brought him great fortune. Arlo sold him a fat bag of Canadian weed for a good low price, since he now needed money to hit the clubs and he would not get it from his four-hour shifts. These guys are all screwed, thought Sam, as he walked into the parking lot. He nodded as he passed the boss getting into his car. “Thanks for taking those shifts,” he said.

***

R stoked the fire. “Those are some of the most bum-ass days I’ve heard of it,” he said. “All I had was a short day at work, then wandering around looking for drugs for you guys, and playing guitar.” He showed the calluses on the ends of his fingertips.

He worked at a place that installs solar panels. When he got really stoned, R (his mother called him Ronald, before she passed on from unspoken-of ailments) talked excitedly about solar cells. How they work by allowing photons, which are particles of light, to knock electrons free from atoms, and these then form a flow of electricity. How much energy is stored in each. But then the moment fades and R is back to his sullen, defiant self, like the rest of them both detesting the time he is in now and fearing them more obligatory adulthood to follow.

“I thought you were studying for your license?” asked Thomas.

“Not today,” said R. He shrugged and Thomas returned the gesture.

Inside the bus, the cheap portable stereo blared on, both more background noise and a focal point which like a string running through random objects, tightens and pulls them together into a story, with each piece revealing the reasons for its presence and the action implicated by its effect on the other objects in the string. As twilight settled on the world, it turned all colors to gray, as if it were revealing the actual lack of interest, sincerity and purpose to it all, Dennis thought.

The bong came around again. Thomas and Sam did a line, then dropped the dust into the bowl and inhaled it with the smoke. A glass of vodka floated from somewhere. “Good stuff,” said R. “Tastes more like rubbing alcohol than diesel. That’s how you know it’s quality.”

“About the same for me,” said Mark. “Went to school, fell asleep in all but two classes, then went to work where I stocked groceries for four hours, then I’m here.” He reached into his backpack and pulled out a bottle of cooking sherry, then added it to the table. He had scored that from a heap of expired goods.

“The best drink is a free drink,” said Dennis, eyeing the bottle. “I’ll tell you mine, but you have to promise not to laugh.”

***

Dennis got schooled at home. This was a condition of his parole, involving an incident with a car going too fast with alcohol, marijuana and underage women in it. He was proud of the arrest, really, and hoped to wipe it from his record at 18 and go on to, like his father, settle into a comfortable business and make an unchallenging life for himself. One night late in the evening, surrounded by the cathedral shapes of the campfire, he had wandered into a lysergic chasm and faced his inner self, and realized what he found was more like the shuffling obedience of his father than the wild maniacs he imagined he socialized with.

First chapter was photosynthesis. Dennis liked this because he found it fascinating how light could fuse together carbon and water molecules to make sugars, the building blocks of all life. The leaves in these trees came from a diet of sugar created by sunlight, rain and the carbon dioxide he and other living things exhaled. He got too into talking about that, because his mother cut him off and changed to a different subject.

His mother, embarrassed as always by her son’s failure to be a responsible citizen like his older brother Randall, made him recite the material he had memorized and then presented him with the least of life’s delights, the pre-printed test from the back of one of his history books. He had an OK grasp of the material, he thought. “Now?”

“It’s a weekly test and I won’t be able to give it tomorrow,” she said.

OK. He gave it his best shot, and felt pretty good about it, but when he came back from the kitchen where he got a soft drink, his mother was shaking her head as she ticked red marks down the page. “This isn’t good enough,” she said. He saw the grade: 61, or a D.

“Can’t you just, uh, give it a little bump?” he asked.

“No,” she said. “If I do that and you go back to school and fail, they will think I acted against the court’s instructions and I could get in trouble. You just were not good enough, Dennis. This will set you back a week before you can get back on track.”

He knew he was supposed to panic. There were a dozen weeks remaining however. “Fine,” he said. He sat there until she gave him something else to do, and when she petered out at about the same time Mrs. Taggart came by with the latest gossip from church, he slipped out the back door.

The court ordered him to stay busy, a state policy being “idle hands do the devil’s work” but not officially so, and this mandated his appearance at a job for life burnouts like himself. The Helping Hand thrift store hired people like Dennis to receive and sort donations, then sell them to well-meaning suburbanites for money that went into a hilarious anti-drug program that Dennis had suffered through, laughing and groaning in equal doses internally as choked his way through interminable days of videos and group activities.

Dennis wanted to get on register. At the register, he could listen to the radio, even if it was just alt-country, and stay away from the dirty back yard where they heaped up the stuff they could not sell before shoveling it all into the dumpsters that would get towed to the county landfill once a week. He asked Maisie, but she said his skills were not up to speed. “You need to be at least as fast as David on the keys,” she said. “You’re just not doing well enough.”

Grumbling a bit, but not too much, he spent his shift unloading stuff from the cars that stopped in the front driveway and sorting it out. He had gotten pretty good at it when Sean his supervisor flagged him down. “You’re not including children’s clothes in the instore pile? Because we can’t use those anymore, new state law.”

“I didn’t hear about that,” said Dennis.

“It’s on a circular in your box,” said Sean. “You know, in the employee area in back. Except I can tell from looking at it that you haven’t checked it for a week.” Sean was a few years older, definitely bigger and stupider, but always seemed to do things that pleased the adults, so he was super and Dennis was… well, gopher. Odd jobs man. A guy you trusted to do only really simple stuff because otherwise he would screw it up.

Dennis shrugged. “Are you sure you’re even cut out for this job?” said Sean. “I mean, asking as a friend, maybe you should be doing something else. Something where you’re able to keep up. I wouldn’t want you to, you know, feel left out.”

Left out. That summarized the sensation well: standing alone in the heap of junk, cast off from the lives of people who had matured past it or died or moved, looking for children’s clothes to cast aside and just knowing that Sean or Maisie would stare at it for ten seconds and find the one set of My First Non-Waterproof Pants or whatever and they would tell him again how he was no good at it. Dennis worked the heap until his shift was over instead, then took his final break to overlap with the passing of the hour, and left over the back fence, his box still stuffed with all the printed notices and neurotic whining these people felt they had to send to everyone even though fully half the staff could barely read.

He sneaked into the lot surrounding the school. Mark was on the roof, smoking a cigarette when he was supposed to be sweeping up the gym, a punishment for a prank involving a firecracker and a toilet several days before. Dennis waved, but Mark did not see him. Dennis as usual experiences the cold shiver of sensation that perhaps here he is not good enough either, or that they know he is either slumming it with them or they are slumming it with him, the nerdly dork who has done many things in life, none of them right. He sighed and walked until he was just about beneath the outer wall of the school.

“Dennis,” came a voice from behind him. He turned. Sean bore down on him with wide strides. “You forgot to clock out,” he said. “Maisie sent me to make sure you weren’t doing anything you’re not supposed to.”

As the lecture went on, Dennis shrugged at Mark on the roof, who by now has taken notice. Mark pitched aside the cigarette, and gestured with his hands: closer to the wall. Dennis backed up so that he and Sean were parallel to the wall, then stepped to his right until his should nearly touched the brick. Unconsciously Sean did the same. Dennis looked up to see Mark inching closer and lining up, then tossing over the water bucket he used to mop the gym. The heavy plastic bucket pitched forward as if ready to soak Sean, then straightened so that its bottom faced downward.

I should warn him, thought Dennis, but something inside him shrugged. Not good enough, Sean. The bucket hit Sean on the top of his head and although only a quarter filled with water, knocked him out cold.

“Give me five and I’ll be out of here,” Mark called on down.

As they went through the woods toward the bus, Mark rubbed his cold hands together. “Sure was good to see a friendly face. You guys are the only ones who understand just about anything. That school is so retarded it thinks it’s a genius, when really it’s a fat blob waving its flippers at the sun.”

***

Inside the bus there was silence. Then: “Heavy,” said Thomas. R agreed, passing over the joint.

“So,” he said. “I lied. I took my commercial license exam today, and I totally failed it. Too much smoking weed, not enough boring book. I took a walk along the river after that, looking for floaters, but as usual this town let me down.”

“Sucks, man,” said Dennis. He punched up the stereo with something new, an old recording by an obscure Finnish death metal band. The energy pulsed through the bus just as the beer, liquor, wine, dope and coke flooded their bloodstreams. But even more, they had finally forgiven each other for the failings each had exhibited that day.

Above them the roof of the bus made small metallic sounds as it gave up the heat of the day. Now that the sunlight had diminished and people could again look toward the sky, the trees emitted a cooling mist and scent of earthy wholeness created from the conversion of water, carbon dioxide and sunlight into sugars. The forest takes in the sun that would kill them if exposed directly to it for too long, the water the rest of the world cannot use, and makes them into new life with the breath of people like these lost boys and angry men in the bus.

The alcohol and drugs converted tension into relaxation, if not hallucination. But as the music gained power, it converted their rage into a love. First of metal itself, then of the world that can produce such music, and finally of truth itself — the truth they find in this music, and imagine must exist outside of it somewhere else — that reduces the lunacy and irrelevance of their days into a nuisance occupying its proper role, like that of ticks and leeches, not the most important thing ever as authority figures want it to be.

As the forest quieted and hallucinogens seeped into their brains the music seemed louder. They were travelers in a world of icy power chord riffs and gurgling roars, temporarily passing through a clearing where a 1950s schoolbus rusted under the ancient trees. Its light spread farther as the light faded from the day. R fell out of the bus first, laughing with intoxication, pulling Mark after him. Thomas leaped out next, then Sam, with Dennis almost piling on top of them.

Soon they were circling in the light cast from the opaque windows of the bush, swinging each other in circles and colliding like atoms transfering electrons, passing energy along in a new form as it escaped the ashen world where all momentum dies.

On Appreciating Music and Reverse Engineering

04 Apr 2012, Athens, Greece --- April 4, 2012 - Athens, Greece - The famous ''Antikythera Mechanism'' is the earliest preserved portable astronomical calculator.The ''Antikythera Shipwreck'' exhibition takes place at National Archaeological museum in Athens. All antiquities recovered in 1900-1901 and 1976 from the legendary shipwreck off the islet of Antikythera, South of the Peloponnese will be presented for the first time in a temporary exhibition. The recovery of the shipwreck itself was the first major underwater archaeological expedition. It was undertaken by sponge divers with the assistance of the Greek Royal navy(1900-1901). The wreck is dated aproximately in 60-50 BC. (Credit Image: © Aristidis Vafeiadakis) --- Image by © Aristidis Vafeiadakis/ZUMA Press/Corbis

Music analysis and judgement (of any of its attributes or as a whole) can be done from different vantage points and with different emphases. Generally speaking, there are a few main approaches that are common in pop and metal reviews. Some judge it by its production qualities and its popularity, that is, mainly as a marketable commercial product. Others that are inclined to “feeling” the music will base their reviews on technically uninformed emotional impressions of the music. Others with a limited but comprehensive understanding of the technical will judge music as if it were a contraption, even being able to separate emotional impressions from material achievements of music. These are broad categories but individual reviewers usually fall in grey areas in between them with stronger tendencies towards one or another.

DMU’s approach has traditionally been one of judging music as romantic-era (19th century) literary and music critics would: an attention to evocative results as a function of technical means with a holistic emphasis. What this means is that what is most important is the final and total result and not the individual merits.  Additionally, we focus on the lasting evocative power arising from a layered and technically (at the composition level) competent work that moves beyond the technicality itself while not disregarding the musical balance it provides. In music we see the construction of Gothic cathedrals and not modern skyscrapers.

A useful analogy can be made between detailed music appreciation and reverse engineering in software engineering. Some might jump at the thought of comparing the two since “music is not a computer program” but these are nonsensically reductionist complaints. Anyone who truly understands how an analogy works knows that the source of its power arises from the insurmountable distance between the two obviously disparate objects being placed beside each other. The distance and disparity only serves to bring to the fore and underscore the characteristics we are interested in, achieving greater clarity by a negation of the irrelevant. The objects are not equated, they are superimposed. More precisely the main object under analysis is transposed into the space of the second one being used as an analogy.

To understand reverse engineering we must understand the order and direction of original construction. A vague idea is conceived usually behind a foggy screen since the builders have not yet figured out the details of how they will bring this into reality. Then, a step a time and usually with deviations from the original concept, the “material” shape of the concept comes into being. At the other end, when we are presented with a piece of software to reverse engineer, that is to say, to analyze and understand in terms of its parts, what we can see is the materialized concept only. The first step is to understand what this piece of software exactly does as we do not know how it was built. We get to understand what it does by categorizing input and output relations, which direct us towards an understanding its behavior in different situations — different contexts. The result of  a successfully reverse-engineered software program is a piece of code whose compiled object behaves the same as the original one in every conceivable way possible. This code is most probably different from the original one, but this is irrelevant since the importance of this code is the understanding and reproducing of the final piece of software. Original software building moves from details and into the solidification of a vision. Reverse engineering moves from the solidified vision and into the details.

In other words, what matters most is the total end result (as in music or software engineering) and not the judging of parts for their own sake (but only in relation as to how they affect that end result). This is why it is important as an analyst to move in a backward manner. But for this to be valuable, the person must understand this holistic result first, and this is only achieved through study and knowledge. This is comparable to the analyst of software who needs to not only see the input and output relations but understand higher-level concepts and probabilistic tendencies derivable from those. In the same way the analyst of music must through his own lenses and knowledge grasp a picture of the whole in its relations between harmony, rhythm and melody derive a map of sequences of movements and balances.

Going from the general to the specific enables us to keep a holistic view in focus. It helps us place the sum of the parts over the individual parts themselves. Trying to pick out the traits first and then judging the whole by making a recapitulation of these is not only obfuscating the whole which some with a more limited understanding judge to be impossible to put in objective terms but can be deceiving of just what the true quality of this work actually is.

To illustrate this point we can observe how appreciation of many so-called progressive acts is carried out. The positive reviews of these usually entail a shopping list of traits to be filled. Tempo changes, signature changes, contrasting moods, variety of instrumentation, instrumental competence, catchy and captivating melodies perhaps, too. An album like Dream Theater’s Images and Words fits these requirements to the letter and yet the result is a messy carnival train wreck that expresses nothing in particular precisely because there is no view of the whole in mind as a musically-balanced entity, but only as a sequence of cool moments.

This phenomenon can also occur through ignorance of what music constitutes. This happens in pop and the so-called symphonic metal, which I will re-baptize with a more honest name: metal-like pop, or just metal pop. In this vein, an album like Nightwish’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful is received by its fans and judged primarily in terms of how catchy it is. How effective its hooks are and how much they will like its melodies. Arguably a more musically honest affair than the pseudo prog of Dream Theater, this reduces music to only one of its many aspects and judges the whole by its effectiveness.

Finally, I would like to mention the often mis-appreciated Obscura by Gorguts. Ignorant and pretentious journalist twats like Anthony Fantano spewing almost nonsensical and musically irrelevant descriptions such as “intense technicality”, “noisy surprises” and “dizzying structures” of Gorguts’ music in Coloured Sands represent the epitome of the post-modernist hipster’s appreciation of the band’s music. While popular arguments in favor of Obscura include how “technical” it is (while most fans barely even grasp what this actually entails, they think it has to do with how difficult it is to play or hear), how foreboding its atmosphere is while remaining “brutal” (an obviously superficial judgement of quality) or even worse, how “original” (by which they mean different) it is. They’ve basically reduced a masterpiece to “difficult to play and listen to, brutal and quite different from most stuff out there”.

The merits of Obscura are far more subtle than that, as are any real merits resulting from true excellence. The degree to which it sounds superficially different comes from a use of the riff that I would call mystical. That is to say, the riffs and their harmony here no longer represent what they traditionally do, but they remain significant in terms of the operations they build in the context of their neighboring riffs. They stop being translucent symbols that show the way into a harmonic and melodic conclusion and they become opaque, acquiring new meaning — a specific musical function dictated by their author– determined by their positions at different moments that instead causes the mind to reach that conclusion on its own through coherent indirection and dissimilitude of expression within a consistent language. In this, Obscura is the death metal counterpart to Darkthrone’s Transilvanian Hunger.

Stepping away from the dynamic picture that music is and listening for the total results and relations in the big picture enable us to know exactly what to look for as explanations for these. In a way it implies focusing on an interplay between the subjective (our impressions of the whole) and the objective (the music structures themselves) to locate music — itself an expression of beauty, to which the dichotomy of objective and subjective is inapplicable — somewhere in between.