Category Archives: Article

Death Melodies: Fryderyk Chopin

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Fryderyk Chopin (1810-1849) was a Polish composer and virtuoso pianist who lived out most of his brief but stellar career in Paris, where he died of tuberculosis at the age of 39.

Chopin mixed with the musical elite of his day, developing friendships with top composers and performers, particularly with the Hungarian virtuoso and proto-Hessian, Franz Liszt. He was not keen on public performance, a fact reflected in the intimate atmosphere of his music. However, he was a very successful piano teacher, and managed to earn comfortable wages by giving lessons to the Parisian elite and their children. His health was always bad, and his short life was troubled, but it was also intensely productive, and his body of work remains some of the most emotionally compelling and technically demanding music of the Western classical canon.

Though Chopin’s technical ability and fluency in classicist forms is undeniable, the most enduring element of his work is the profound musical intuition from which its construction seems to arise. Perfectly capable as he is of constructing a fine piece within traditional forms, his best work seems to occur when he listens closely to his own material, and allows it to naturalistically develop and suggest its own structure.

Chopin wrote most of his works for his own instrument, the piano, intending them for performance mostly by himself, usually in front of a few friends. The organic origin of these works shows in their fluid structure and their patient development; the changes that come at exactly the time where they will make the most emotional impact, not necessarily where they would theoretically make the most structural sense or be most immediately pleasing. This characteristic brings him close to underground metal, music in which there is both no divide between composer and performer and, ideally, little concern for audience expectations, but where emphasis is instead placed on genuine, valuable and intense expression.

A great example of Chopin’s emotional intensity, technical ability and structural ingenuity is his second piano sonata, in b flat minor. Although most of the piece’s movements are written broadly within conventional forms, the first being the expected sonata form and the next two being large ternary forms, Chopin manages to create the sensation that this large scale architecture arose naturally from the material, instead of being imposed on it.

We often find in the work of Romantic composers, even in the some of Chopin’s lesser works, a conscious attempt to hide underlying classical forms through over-extended or jarring transitional passages. This sonata has no need for such tricks: the thematic material and the relationships between it are so strong that the flow is seamless throughout. The material itself is of a mostly lyrical and impassioned nature, the axis for most of the themes being melodic. It is thus that the howling arpeggios of the fourth movement come as an intense shock, especially after the famous “Funeral March” of the third movement (which Candlemass covered on Nightfall). Even more rattling is the movement’s swift and violent conclusion. Though seemingly pointless, placing this little movement here is a stroke of narrative genius; it lets the listener know the piece is irrevocably over, and yet it feels unsatisfactory, it leaves one with a melancholy longing. The technique is similar, although the effect is altogether different, to the one used in Burzum Det som en gang var, also a piece organized in four main sections, whose last riff comes rather unexpectedly and then simply fades off into the distance.

There is another very important element that links Chopin’s music to underground metal: his great ability to be impressively creative within self-imposed limitations. The most evident of these restrictions is of course instrumental, as he chose to write most of his music for the solo piano. Obtaining strong results from a limited instrumental palette is of course a very familiar concept to a fan of underground metal. His spectacular waltzes and mazurkas also show him extending a limited rhythmic format to powerful expressive and structural heights, without ever abandoning it entirely. It is in these smaller pieces that Chopin’s tendency to generate structure from content is at its most alive.

A piece with seemingly unexceptional or bland material, such as the Prelude No.4 in E minor, is turned by clever and patient development into a masterpiece, whose economic simplicity only serves to emphasize the power of each event, however minor it may seem. The piece revolves around the thwarting of tonal expectations, a simple enough technique out of which Chopin carves a funereal dirge of both enormous emotional impact and absolute structural perfection. Chopin transforms formal and instrumental restrictions into challenges, forcing himself to find creative avenues around structural problems. This may be one explanation behind why practically all of Chopin’s best pieces are driven by strong melodies; he leaves himself no place to hide.

The Nocturnes are the obvious place to start with the music of Chopin, and for good reason. My personal recommendation would be Claudio Arrau’s 1978 set. Though not all the Preludes are equally good, the whole set is definitely worth a listen, and Martha Argerich’s 1977 DG recording is one of the finest options out there, and it also contains a marvelous rendition of the second Piano Sonata. Also of note are Dinu Lipatti’s disc of Waltzes for EMI and Krystian Zimmerman’s 1988 DG disc of Ballades and miscellanea. Outside the world of solo piano Chopin shines less, even his piano concertos suffer from a poor understanding of the orchestra. This can only serve as further proof that Chopin’s genius lay in his musical intuition, through which he allowed pieces to develop themselves organically in order to reach greater heights of expression, as opposed to merely accommodating themselves to an abstract formal plan. The kinship between Chopin’s fiercely expressive, instrumentally virtuosic and structurally organic style with underground metal is a clear one, and all Hessians are strongly advised to acquaint themselves with the Polish master.

Did Accept invent speed metal with “Fast as a Shark” on Restless and Wild?

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Wolf Hoffmann asserts that Accept wrote the first speed metal song ever with “Fast as a Shark” from Restless and Wild way back in 1982. While the debate rages across the internet, now the equivalent of 1980s daytime television, the question can be answered by looking to what speed metal is.

Speed metal — as distinct from thrash a genre popularized by Thrasher magazine devotees and skaters making hardcore/metal crossover such as Dirty Rotten Imbeciles and Cryptic Slaughter — originated in the use of a single technique: the muted strummed downpicked power chord. This technique combined the repetitive downpicking of punk with palm muting, previously used only to emphasize specific notes. Much of its appeal came from the changes in amplification and production since the previous decade which allowed louder music to exist. Much like the 1980s itself, the muted strum conveyed a sound of clashing absolutes and decreased the amount of harmony heard in each chord, making the music more purely percussive like techno and early industrial. Even more, it gained the volume punks had always aspired to with its explosive and uncompromising sound. In the process, it inspired more use of accidentals leading to more chromatic fills, which in the next generation with death metal became a form of riffs themselves, where speed metal relied more on the NWOBHM song form and harmony.

Generally regarded as starting in 1983 with Metallica Kill ‘Em All, speed metal presented a radically new sound which had precursors in extreme (for the time) bands like Motorhead, Judas Priest, Blitzkrieg, Tank and Satan. However, no bands had fully adopted the new technique as the basis of their composition until the early cluster of Metallica, Exodus, Mercyful Fate, Nuclear Assault, Anthrax and Megadeth. During the 1980s these bands were the most extreme metal that most people could find in their local record stores, which were how most people got music back then, with the exception of Slayer which was a speed/death hybrid and Venom which was a punk-influenced form of NWOBHM. Accept does not measure up to this standard on the basis of technique, since its song fits within older heavy metal format and does not use the muted strum.

This statement does not decrease the importance of Accept in the creation of speed metal. A long line of innovations occurred leading to speed metal, starting with the incredibly rough sound of Motorhead in 1976 but aided by progressive bands like King Crimson and Greenslade as well as a chain of punk acts who pushed the envelope such as Discharge, The Exploited, Amebix and the Cro-Mags. Below you can hear “Fast as a Shark” and see this heritage for yourself, contrasted with the archetypal speed metal song, “Creeping Death” from the second Metallica work Ride the Lightning and Blitzkrieg’s self-titled track from their 1981 EP Buried and Alive.

Sympathy for the Hipster

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I write a lot about hipsters because I am fascinated by subcultures and how they attempt to find meaning independent of the center. You can join the ska kids, Goths, rivetheads, wi-fi hobos, ecolos or channers. You might have a thedic identity, a de facto tribe combined of ethnic pride and politics, or an outright political group like the earth firsters, crypto-coms or far-right. In a time of no actual commonality to our deconstructed societies, you know you will be a cog in the machine: working a job, paying taxes and housing, and doing all the day-to-day stuff like shopping at Costco that is about as romantic as math homework. To counter-balance that, people seek an identity which shows why their lives are important. All of these are extensions of the original “keeping up with the Joneses” that saw people trying to out-consume each other, but now we are consuming the image of ideas instead of pure product.

Modern life represents at its core a long slow grinding compromise. Any idea is taken from where it is found and made into a product by simplifying it, exaggerating its surface features, and then presenting it for mass consumption. Joining an identity first involves a shopping trip for music, books, clothing and personal accessories including tattoos, piercings, scarification and hitting the gym. Through this process, unique identities are gradually “assimilated,” or made into variants of the mainstream. Every ideation operator declares the gradual entry of those who perpetuate this process into their chosen identity — the falses, the poseurs, the day-trippers, scenesters and imitators — because when enough of them arrive, the unique group becomes overwhelmed and as happens in democracy, what is popular and easily understood wins out over the original idea, which then fades into a distant memory and a cartoon of itself.

Hipsters represent those who have given up on the idea of idea itself. They realize early on that this society is a kicked clip, empty of ammunition and fit only to be returned to the pocket and another retrieved, starting over. But discovering what we want for a future represents a good deal more ambiguity and risk than knowing simply what we detest, and in the meantime, people need an identity to distinguish themselves from the faceless mass. The hipster was born out of this situation by Generation X, who combined slacker culture with counter-culture and added the suburban desperation of their parents, who were only to happen to discuss in detail how the world was going to hell, in front of their children. As a result a new identity formed based on those who have dropped out of society but still seek a way to distinguish themselves, and instead of doing so through strong group identity, they base their concept of self on self-image alone. Thus the hipster opposes the idea itself, and instead seeks a different kind of center: what everyone else is doing, but with some unique conceit for the individual itself. Hipsters are bog-standard people who have hobbies in craft beer, tattooing, making artisanal objects, odd collections, activities chosen for their apparent randomness, and of course art, art and more art, because nothing makes a person look profound like the boho artist lifestyle.

As the definitive article on this topic says:

Ever since the Allies bombed the Axis into submission, Western civilization has had a succession of counter-culture movements that have energetically challenged the status quo. Each successive decade of the post-war era has seen it smash social standards, riot and fight to revolutionize every aspect of music, art, government and civil society.

But after punk was plasticized and hip hop lost its impetus for social change, all of the formerly dominant streams of “counter-culture” have merged together. Now, one mutating, trans-Atlantic melting pot of styles, tastes and behavior has come to define the generally indefinable idea of the “Hipster.”

An artificial appropriation of different styles from different eras, the hipster represents the end of Western civilization – a culture lost in the superficiality of its past and unable to create any new meaning. Not only is it unsustainable, it is suicidal. While previous youth movements have challenged the dysfunction and decadence of their elders, today we have the “hipster” – a youth subculture that mirrors the doomed shallowness of mainstream society.

People who seek an idea loathe hipsters because hipsters are the anti-idea. They reject the notion that we can have purpose outside of ourselves, and instead make their time by adorning the self with new fascinating attributes which are always bizarre because their sole goal is to distinguish themselves from the rest, and so whatever is sensible and normal is verboten. The hipster seeks to be unique, individual and different (UID) so that they do not get mistaken for the rest. Part of this is a counter-culture style protest saying that they do not endorse or enjoy the mainstream, and in fact oppose it so should not be held accountable for its failings; the rest comes from the simple need to distinguish oneself in a social scene flooded with people who are all trying to be noticed. Where in the 1920s doing stunts on the lawn might have worked, and in the 1980s it was enough to join an indie band, for the people who come after the reunion of right and left in the 1990s there is no longer an obvious majority culture to oppose. There is only the gradual compromise, and trying to stand out in its midst.

Hipsters suffer for the time into which they were born and the lack of easy and safe ways to rebel against it. Smoking weed and living in a VW van involved relatively few risks; at worst, an arrest occurred in some random little town in Ohio and dear old Dad had to dispatch money and lawyers to fix it. But opposing the conglomeration of democracy, capitalism, liberalism, consumerism and patriotism takes some guts and some time on the thinking couch, because it is not like The Establishment an easy thing to identify. Who can blame these people for laboring as poor cogs just trying to have normal lives? They can laugh at them but not indict them as the problem itself. The focus of the hipster becomes not reform of a society that is already lost, but saving oneself by at least being socially competitive through appearance and having a life independent from concern about the inward collapse — an idea — which might obligate one to sacrifice time otherwise spent on self toward some purpose.

That tendency reveals the problem with hipsters: they are perpetual entryists. Their only idea is the self, so any identity they discover they will turn into a product just as surely as their grandfathers did back in the 1950s. In essence, hipsters are the same consumers that people have always been, except now they are casting around for an appearance of having an idea and thus always sacrifice the idea itself because they are fundamentally opposed to ideas. Subcultures fear the hipster because to admit the hipster is to abolish the subculture and allow it to live on in zombie form as another branch of the great compromise but now as an adornment, like the “French bread” flavoring in the industrial-processed bread aisle or the “exotic scales” used in bog-ordinary rock music to dress it up and disguise its ordinariness. The hipster is indeed the dead end not of just Western civilization, but all civilization, because civilization requires an idea and with hipsterdom, all ideas have been sacrificed to the self.

At the same time, hipsters deserve our sympathy. They are the people on the deck of the Titanic, watching the unstoppable disaster that will inevitably compose them, choosing to get another pint from the bar and bum another cigarillo while bravely chatting about the inconsequential. The water grows incrementally closer and the lifeboats are long gone. Nothing remains except to live it up a little, stand out from the crowd and have your fun, before the darkness inexorably takes over. If you wonder why hipsters look as stressed and miserable as their parents, even when they have trust funds (and an alarming number of them do) and hip indie bands with the flavoring of metal, it is because they too see the approaching disaster and have found nothing to do about it.

How to make a digital promo kit (DPK) or electronic promo kit (EPK)

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Bands: if you want to get signed, you will need to send promos. First you will send them to labels, which will sign you eventually. Then you will send them to media, including record reviewers. Labels: you will do the same. Promoters: ditto. So how do you send a promo in this day and age?

The current standard, which thankfully does away with piles of physical promos, is to send an Electronic Press Kit (EPK) or Digital Promotions Kit (DPK) which mean roughly the same thing. Your EPK will be a zip archive containing your release in MP3, photos and a press release/biography. Each of these parts offers its own challenge.

MP3s should be of a decent bitrate, usually 256k or Variable Bit Rate (VBS) equivalent, and should be tagged appropriately with band name, album name and track name correct and consistent. The MP3s themselves should be in a folder within the archive named Band Name – Album Name. This enables writers to extract it completely and view the files as they write. If you are using Exact Audio Copy or a similar program, settings allow you to specific correct tagging by default. I also recommend installing Windows Media Player 11 and using the Fraunhofer MP3 codec which is superior to the LaME codec which tends to make heavily distorted music sound plastic. I use the following naming scheme in EAC:

Individual artist:

%artist%\%artist% - %albumtitle%\%artist% - %tracknr2% - %title%

Various artists:

various\%albumtitle%\%albumtitle% - %tracknr2% - %artist% - %title%

Press releases should fit standard format, which is an entirely different article, and include full contact information for the label and promotions agency. If you include band contact information, people will contact the band; if the band does not reply, do not include this information and have them contact the band through the promotions agency. Include the biography in here, generally a paragraph or two but not more. Also useful to include are all band public sites such as Facebook where the band might post more images or information as needed.

Images should include at least the cover art and a band photo, but many bands include logos as well for use as headers. These pictures should all be large (800px+) and in a format such as JPG or ideally PNG, which is not lossy like JPG.

Once you do all of the above, put the files into a zip archive and make it available to reviewers. Many use services like Haulix to make it easy to limit downloads to specific reviewers, and to embed codes in the work which identify who each package went to in case it gets leaked. In my view, labels should worry less about piracy from this angle because the release will inevitably be pirated and your only real recourse is to DMCA search engines to keep it out of the listings so that people are encouraged to buy it or stream it through a licensed streaming service like Spotify, Pandora or Last.fm. For this reason, lately more labels have simply been linking to their DropBox folders in acknowledgement of the impossibility of stopping all leaks, and it takes just one to spread it everywhere — or someone at a record store who drops the album into a computer for ten minutes to rip and upload it, as seems to happen in Russia and Latin America much to the delight of downloaders worldwide.

The above is written in the hopes of receiving fewer incomplete or botched promo packages. As stated elsewhere, most labels spend little time on getting these right because they want reviewers to spend as little time on the music as possible, and because the people who write the reviews the labels will republish are those who are making a personal connection with staff at the label in hopes of future hiring or collaboration. But for a starting band or label this advice may be helpful.

As in #metalgate, Islam finds metal has wrong opinions

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People do not want to admit that there is a war on for control of what you think. Some of this is what we consider innocuous, like the constant advertising on the roadsides, internet and in print. Other forms are more insidious, like people in your social group trying to bias you against people they do not like, or governments attempting to make certain ideas seem off-limits.

We know that in modern Western civilization, government both uses and allows Social Justice Warriors (SJWs) to enforce its strict taboos on un-democratic — the new term for “un-American” — thought. But other societies have not followed this same path and instead are limiting what people can say by excluding certain forms of music view religious decree. In particular, Malaysia has declared black metal and death metal off limits for its citizens:

All Muslims know pork, booze and premarital canoodling violates Islamic teachings. But in Malaysia, home to a rising tide of fundamentalist Islam, senior clerics are warning against more insidious dangers to the faith.

Such as death metal. And puppies. And Valentine’s Day.

“Black Metal” — Malaysian authorities have been fretting the influence of death metal since the 1990s. According to an official ruling against “Black Metal,” it’s powerful enough to force a Muslim to forsake his faith.

This approach is at least more honest than instead of banning a genre sending SJWs in to flood it with poor quality imitations of itself in the indie rock style, then taking over with a legion of *core fans who look like tattooed greebos who just stepped out of mental health treatment for low self-esteem. Speaking of which, recent research at Stanford suggests that people find “equality” a compelling goal in inverse proportion to how attractive and intelligent they feel. When you have low self-esteem, you make equality your life’s quest, and this explains why SJWs are moths drawn to that flame, in addition to their fundamentally hipster insincerity which has them using a political viewpoint to demand their own inclusion.

As we saw in #gamergate, #metalgate SJWs are not exactly competent. In fact, the only reason they talk about equality so much is that they could not advance themselves based on competence alone. This differentiates the SJW incursion from moral panics such as the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) in the 1980s in USA, or the type of fatwa issued in Malaysia, which seems to be a decree of general behavioral guidelines rather than an attempt to promote the fatwa-issuer based on how cool, hip and Pabst-swilling skinny-jeans wearing socially acceptable his opinions are. But the end result of both is the same: metal does not bow to their imaginary rules, and so they want metal destroyed.

How music reviews are made

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If you must (“must”) watch television, probably the best thing on continues to be the Canadian program How It’s Made which shows the process by which everyday objects are manufactured. A similar program for the music industry might attract fewer watchers but be similarly informative.

The basics of the industry are that labels produce records, media write about those records, and artists — a pretentious term for musicians and bands — try to get chosen by either or both. Most records produce almost all of the profit they will create within a relatively short duration of their release. Labels need to constantly produce output so that they stay in the news, and media needs to constantly produce favorites (or drama) to sell news. Artists, on the other hand, are trying to create long-term audiences, but only if the artist believes they can produce quality material for a long period. Otherwise, their goal is to cash in and drop out, so they can go back to being the cool barista in a seaside town known for having put out that edgy metalcore album back in ’06.

When labels send out promotional packages, their goal is to ensure the reviewer spends as little time on the music as possible. They would prefer that the reviewer spend most of her time on the press release and biography, writing about the “unique” background to the band and how their album release is a news event, not a musical event. Ideally, the writer will focus on production and style more than substance, since new variations in production and style are easily produced while quality music is limited to a certain percentage of artists and striving for quality makes artists more valuable and labels/media less valuable.

The gig as a music reviewer is to say as little as possibly that is not blindingly obvious about the music while working in as many details as possible. The most successful reviews talk mostly about the biography, then about production, then style, and only finally in passing about the music itself. By the music itself I mean the composition, such that if you transferred it to midi or kazoo you would still recognize the song(s) but all of the production values from guitar sound through effects would be removed and you would see the composition as it is. If you have ever listened to someone playing acoustic guitar and realized the music sounds familiar, then figured out which song they are playing, you have had the experience of connecting with the music itself. The music itself however is the one part of music as a commodity that cannot be easily quantified and reproduced through systematic means (think of a recipe or instruction book). As a result, the music itself makes no one any money during the short period in which most albums generate profit.

You may see familiar names when you switch between your favorite magazines and your favorite music labels and the promotion companies that service them. The goal of most music reviewers is to get promoted within the industry, either as workers at the labels or writers in the media. They do this by making personal contacts, which generally happens when they are helpful to those people and promote whatever release they are working at the time. Very few people stay in the industry for long because it rewards a certain type of highly sociable person who writes whatever is needed to promote a record. This is why when you read record reviews, they normally take on a breathless tone that borders on praise. The goal of the reviewer is as a marketer, not a writer. Their job is to make you want to buy the album, but in such a way that you think it is your own idea, and so you blame no one when two weeks later you stop listening to it.

Most people are not words-people. They operate by gut feel, which is how their brains make a synopsis of all of the impulses they have in response to something. They tend to respond enthusiastically to new things but as time goes on, they respond less to them. For this reason, very few fans are aware of bad albums versus good ones. They know only that they bought something, they were excited about it, and then… it just sort of faded out of their consciousness. It became less interesting. The methods of art and music are well-known after centuries of exploration and what makes an album stay with us is no mystery. A good album is both musically adept, even if primitive, in that it is organized and produces something pleasing and non-obvious out of what it has to work with, and evocative, or representative of some feeling in ourselves or experience we have had in the world. Very few albums do this, but lots of albums can hit us with the pure physical sensation of listening to them, like acrobatic guitars, intense production, a bizarre or fresh style or even pure sonic intensity. These fascinate for a short while and then fade from our awareness.

As a reader, you must now be thinking this article is somewhat apocalyptic. I have just told you that the music industry has interests contrary to your own; they want to pump out formulaic stuff with new style/production, and you want to listen to music that stretches your time, money and energy by rewarding your listening minutes over many years. Actually I consider myself on the side of the music industry, because without labels to concentrate money that they can invest in production and promotion, good bands would remain unheard and without the budget to bring their promising music to a point where it is both pleasant as composition and pleasant to be heard. Few would listen to Beethoven if the only albums were played on kazoos and recorded on iPhones in subway restrooms. The music industry represents its own worst enemy because whenever something new — a band, an idea, a genre — makes a fan base, industry grows in response to it and produces more stuff “like” it that does not deliver the punch of the original. They thus ride trends for profit and then self-destruct when the trend is over, excepting a few labels who rise above the rest on the basis of having more profit, thus more money to put out new releases. The industry would be healthier if it could stop riding trends and instead focus on what makes bands and labels wealthy, which is the long tail or long-term relationship with fands.

The archetypal long tail band is Metallica. When …And Justice For All broke into the top 200, it brought every previous album of the band with it. During its classic era, when Metallica put out a new album and made a new fan, that fan tended to go out and buy everything else the band did, plus tshirts and concert tickets. It is the same way with massively successful acts in every genre — they cultivate a dedicated fanbase — but metal is a standout in how clearly it is defined in this way. The labels that dominate are the ones who get behind a band that cultivates a long-term audience. However, these bands are few and far between so labels make do with what they have. Unfortunately for them, the market is contracting as online availability of music reduces the power of novelty (“newness” + unique production/style). People can simply listen to the new fascination online for two weeks and then move on without having bought it.

To counter this, I propose a new model for the music industry: licensing. Under this model, bands would retain their copyright in an album and take out a license from the label, which would have the right to retain the album as long as they kept it in print. Big labels would license this content from smaller labels, creating a pyramid where the top reflects the bands with the best long-term audience potential and the bottom reflects new entries who are trying to build that audience. This would put more of a burden on the bands, who would be essentially taking a loan from the labels to produce their albums in exchange for that extensive promotion, but would enable labels to focus on the true breadwinners with their long-tail artists. In addition, because artists would be forced to assume direction of their efforts, there would be less of the kind of childish behavior of superstars in the 1970s and 1980s that caused labels to become strict in how they control their artists. This model also fits with the de facto standard of online music sales as they will become, which is the granting of a license to “own” the music regardless of form to the consumer. When physical form is no longer as important, we switch from a “goods” model to a “services” model, and the sooner labels do this the sooner they escape the overhead of defending a past business model and can move on to the future.

The History Of Black Metal

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As detailed in The Heavy Metal FAQ, heavy metal developed through parallels found between several musical traditions both inside and outside of the developing genre. Black Sabbath emerged from the intersection between heavy rock, nascent punk and progressive rock; black metal emerged from proto-underground metal and hardcore punk, taking the most intense aspects of each and fusing them together.

The Until the Light Takes Us crew filmed a lengthy interview with Fenriz in which he outlines the roots of black metal in several stages, from its rise in heavy metal with Black Sabbath, Motorhead and Mercyful Fate through the expansion out of speed metal (via hardcore and thrash) through Slayer and finally, the proliferation of bands inspired by NWOBHM band Venom such as Sodom, Hellhammer and Destruction from which much of the modern sound emerged, finalized (in his view) with Bathory Under the Sign of the Black Mark.

As black metal rotates around the same carcass that stopped artistically expanding 22 years ago, understanding its roots becomes even more important as it is necessary to drive away the ghouls, parasites and grave-robbers desperate for some of its legend through imitation and pandering to a new audience. The two videos add up to about fifty minutes of air time and worth watching for the black metal fan, historian or curious bystander.

How to kick metal into overdrive

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In a saner world, all children approaching the age of purchasing their own music would be given the 2-disc set of Andres Segovia entitled The Art of Segovia and made to listen and understand it before moving on. This collection of songs reveals not just how good music can be, but how to think about music both as technical musicianship and as art.

A collection of songs arranged and performed by Andres Segovia, this set shows instrumental prowess at its best where it seems more controlled. Most of these pieces came from composers who originally wrote either for guitar or small ensembles, and Segovia laid them out so he could play multiple melody lines on guitar over the length of each song. As a result, these songs are dense in a way that most popular music is not, in that each part relates to the previous material in the piece but seeks to not just complement but expand upon what is there. Melodies grow from a few notes to a full-fledged expression and then modify themselves with material from contrasting voices in each song, creating an effect like reading a great book where every character changes over the course of their adventures while simultaneously influencing the course of that journey. What at first sound like fills and turn-arounds are not spurious material but continuation of the song, with every note played serving some purpose and nothing extraneous or for the sake of showing off. This alone puts the lie to technical music of the current time, where a simplistic song if dressed up in recognized “hard” techniques becomes “technical,” even if those adornments contribute nothing to the song itself. The technical art here is in the writing and arrangement of the music in addition to the performance.

In addition, The Art of Segovia forces us to look at what makes a song — one medium among several for the mental process we call “art” — strike us as great instead of simply adequate plus novel. Each of these songs evokes a feeling that is both unique to the song and can be found in life itself, not a subjective sense but more a subjective perception of the objective translated into a form that any logical mind can process. This transcends the limitations of not only the medium but the human mind itself, creating a commonality based on an accurate view of reality that is nonetheless interpretive, instead of pandering to the lowest common denominator that a crowd would find pleasing. All of the tools of art — rhythm, melody, harmony and phrase — apply themselves to revealing the inner essence of a complex experience, not so much distilling it to a simple statement as walking us through its evolution and reaching a moment of clarity, then allowing it to fade away as we absorb what we have sensed.

Very few people who listen to rock, metal, jazz or blues have sat down to listen to a great work, understand it, and understand outside of its medium what makes it great. As with a great book, a great piece of music reveals something in life that we have not discovered or denied. It shows us the truth within, not creating another surface category, and in doing so makes us consider how this experience is universal to those who invest the time in understanding it. Truth meets us halfway between our perspective and the world. Great art lifts us out of the subjective, transforms the objective through not just the power of personality but the insight of talent, and delivers it to us in a form that re-discovers life with freshness through a vividly accurate portrayal that shows the hidden possibility lurking even within the mundane. When we have that level of expectation for art, the trivial novelty and diehard pandering to comfortingly familiar sounds fades away and instead we seek something of greater clarity, power and ultimately meaning. Naturally this is not popular with record labels, for whom discovering a Segovia each month is impossible, but for those who value their time and want to listen to music that shows the best of what humanity can do, The Art of Segovia gives us a yardstick against which all great albums must compare.

Not all of these will be as technical as Segovia’s playing or the writing of the composers he arranges. They do not need to be. If they uphold the same spirit of discovery and revelation that makes this art so profound, they can do so with fewer musical techniques. But if they do not live up to that understanding of what art and by extension music can be, they sound hollow in comparison to Segovia and stand no chance of comparison. The best of metal lives up to this standard and it refuses to be controlled by those who wish to dumb it down so they can sell more of it or use it to push a message. As we go into a new year, and the second half of a dubious decade, demanding metal that live up to this standard ensures that we will have less to listen to, but enjoy it more.

Hippies fail at metal because metal hates hippies

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Hippies can’t play metal. Black Sabbath kicked off the metal movement because they wanted to make dark rock in contrast to the “peace, love and happiness” movement that had swept rock music into conformity. In this they joined other acts, like The Doors and Jethro Tull, who warned that good intentions would not save the world.

Since the 1990s, hippies are no longer the opposition to our evil conservative overlords… hippies are the Establishment, and they have become just as conservative and evil as anything before, except that now that have a mantle of moral superiority to use as a weapon like grandmothers use guilt. Not only have the hippies aged into their 60s, but they have adopted the view that they are right and anyone who deviates must be quashed. So much for the summer of love.

For that reason it’s natural that much as metal fought the suburban mom censors and Christian fundamentalists back in the 1980s, from the 1990s onward it has been fighting hippie fundamentalists who believe that peace, love, inclusiveness, happiness and political correctness are the only topics one can sing about, and if not, one is the enemy. This follows the path other ideological fanatics took, as in the Soviet Union, where their revolution for equality ended in mass executions.

This is a turf war. Hippies have wanted to take over metal since we challenged them (and their insipid rock) in the 1960s. They took over hardcore in the 1980s and songs went from rants about the imminent decline of our society to cute ditties about how the singer is outraged that people are not more accepting of everyone and everything. They transferred all that boring late hardcore into metal and threw some metal and jazz riffs on the top and called it a new genre, “modern metal.” The problem with it is that it is boring. Every single band of this type is random because the message it endorses is the anti-message: stand for nothing except going along with the hippies. This means writing transparent songs about SJW-topics that never really go anywhere since they all have the same meaning, “join the revolution!”

If you listen to enough modern metal, you will notice a pattern emerges. On the surface, this music is diverse and exciting. Jazz riffs, metal riffs, punk riffs and indie rock tropes compete for surface space. But then if you look at the heart of it, these songs really do not have much going for them. There is no melody or theme uniting them, just a loop of verse-chorus to which the band tacks on the randomness. This is because these are not songs about anything but are new and not very exciting ways of saying the exact same thing over and over again. Like a loudspeaker blaring in Moscow square, SJW-metal repeats the same propaganda in lockstep in hopes of reducing your brain to sludge so you go along with it. There is a reason it is all boring, and it relates to the purpose behind the music. Just like pop is annoying because its only purpose is to be catchy and vapid, SJW-metal is boring because its only purpose is to bleat propaganda while trying to be “unique” by making new surface variations of the same tired 1960s-1980s rock.

When hippies invaded rock, they destroyed it. When they invaded punk, they neutered it. If they successfully invade heavy metal, they will turn the last comfort of the rebellious soul into the dogma of the boring 1960s revolutionary left. SJWs are zombies who preach the same stuff that baby boomers were wailing on about in the 1960s, forgetting that all that stuff got debunked when the USSR fell in ruins and we got to see the SJW paradise: everyone was equal, and anyone who disagreed got shot, so no one did much of anything and it all fell apart. Hippies would bring us to the same end. They are essentially apologists for the decay of our society. Where metalheads want to look at reality and come up with solutions, hippies want us to space out with happy feelings and ignore the fact that we are in free fall as a society and soon to bottom out. This is why industry and government eventually embraced hippies: they do not threaten the power structure. Metal does, and that is why today’s hippies are trying to invade it, and why we must refute, resist and reject them.

Num Skull – Ritually Abused re-issue has fatal flaws

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The late 80s were an extremely volatile time for metal music. The speed metal movement that had started a handful of years prior was simultaneously peaking and sounding its death rattle. The noises coming from Europe and developing in New England were firing warning shots across the bow of metal as it had been known in full-out, transformational revolution. 1988 saw the release of Bathory Blood Fire Death, Bolt Thrower In Battle There Is No Law, Napalm Death From Enslavement To Obliteration, Carcass Reek Of Putrefaction, and demos from Paradise Lost, Samael, Rotting Christ, Rigor Mortis (pre-Immolation) and Exmortis, just to name a few. One can only imagine that this must have placed tremendous pressure on fledgling speed metal bands as the music world they thought they knew crumbled around them.

Very few of them escaped this period intact. Bands that had issued one or two great albums seemed to perceive that they could not continue as they had been. They saw a fork in the road: either trying to emulate one of the “big four” or struggling to “get harder” to keep up with the tectonic shift death and black metal were creating. Either move alienated the fan base they had built and universally failed as a result. This writer cannot think of one band that consciously changed vocalists and/or styles that got better because of said shift at that time.

This is not a lesson in music history or an album review, but it is important to understand the context of a given release. It is easy today to call up a band, a song, an album, and sample it immediately, piece by piece. Consuming historical output in a vacuum, outside of the understanding of the environment in which it was produced and unleashed, is simply folly. The timeline of modern metal, now at over three solid decades, conveys the idea that there were obvious plateaus and curves, slow and deliberate. However, focusing in closer reveals that there were a great many peaks and valleys along the way, some single high points among a lot of noisy low points.

Focusing on the US, 1988 saw some fine thrash releases from Nuclear Assault, Rigor Mortis, Vio-Lence, Wehrmächt, Wasted Youth, Wargasm, and the subject of this writing, Num Skull. Num Skull’s release of Ritually Abused, while not a game-changer, was significant. It toed the line of death metal; one can hear some hints of Immolation in some of the riffs on this album. The spitting delivery and effects on the vocals were very unique and helped set them apart. And, perhaps most importantly, it remains one of the very few releases from a midwestern-US band at that time. The midwest had the proto-death stylings of Macabre and Impetigo, the progressive metal of Anacrusis, the punk of Life Sentence, and the thrash of Zoetrope, but for thrash that edged closely to death metal, Num Skull were it. Ritually Abused caught them at their peak, before they decided they needed to be yet another poor-to-mediocre “brutal” death metal band to be discarded as also-rans. They were extremely talented, high-energy, and unique in a musical world filling up with same-ness.

Fast-forward to 2014. The original Ritually Abused is criminally difficult to find, with the lone CD pressing fetching triple-digits on eBay and in trading circles. When Relapse announced that finally, after much pleading, they were going to reissue it, complete with bonus track, it seemed time to rejoice. A limited-run of 300 units, pressed on purple vinyl, was promised, along with a CD and new apparel. This was an opportunity for younger listeners to hear what was a peak during the swan song of the US thrash movement with some proto-death metal tendencies, and for the label to pay respect to one of their deceased children, Medusa Records, with a release that helped put them on the map.

Upon inspection, the colors on the cover appear richer and the back cover has a new layout. Opening it, there is a basic lyrics sheet and plain sleeve. OK, so it’s not a deluxe reissue — this is not ideal but it is forgivable. After all, at least this piece of history was unearthed and given new life. Dropping the needle, fond memories of youth are replaced with jarring incongruity and disjointedness. What was originally a quick, seductive and declarative introduction of “The End” (“The end is near…”) followed by the huge, rhythmic hook of the title track was now the machine gun blast of “Death And Innocence”. Confused, a listener might consult the track listing again. As written, it shows the familiar order with the addition of a bonus track originally written for one of their demos:

  1. The End
  2. Ritually Abused
  3. Death And Innocence
  4. No Morals
  5. Friday’s Child
  6. Off with Your Head
  7. The Henchman
  8. Pirate’s Night
  9. Turn of a Screw
  10. Kiss Me, Kill Me
  11. Rigor Mortis
  12. Murder By The Minister (Bonus Track)

However, the lists of tracks as present on the disc is as follows:

    Side A

  1. Death And Innocence
  2. No Morals
  3. Friday’s Child
  4. Off With Your Head
  5. The Henchman
  6. Pirate’s Night
  7. Side B

  8. Turn Of A Screw
  9. Kiss Me, Kill Me
  10. Rigor Mortis
  11. Murder By The Minister (Bonus Track)
  12. The End
  13. Ritually Abused

The CD is also thus plagued. Such a clear display of “no fucks given” from the label dismantles the flow and intent of the original album and leaves the listener with a much less effective product. The lack of even basic quality control on this, after over a quarter of a century of waiting, demonstrates the fact that Relapse had no respect for this band or this release, a piece of its history. Relapse passed up an opportunity to finally give this release some deserved love and perhaps atone in some small way for the massive ignoring and lack of promotion payed to this upon its original release in favor of a quick cash-grab from their back catalog.

One wonders what little effort it may have taken to reach out to the band and seek their input and involvement on such a reissue. This has been done repeatedly lately to a high degree of success and satisfaction from fans; albums from Sacrifice, Darkthrone, and Bl’ast are prime examples of how to do proper reissues. Alternately, a few sentences from label leaders or peers about what the band meant to them at the time, initial reactions to hearing the album, etc. — anything — would have been a nice inclusion. At absolute minimum, a simple CD-to-vinyl rip using the 2002 disc as source material, while not giving a proper vinyl sound, would have resulted in a correct track listing and required exactly zero effort. It seems Relapse went out of their way to fuck this up, as though they gave the pressing plant some idea that there was a band called Num Skull that once upon a time had an album entitled Ritually Abused and let them figure out how to press it, never once checking any test pressings prior to collecting money and shipping another product about which they are ambivalent.

At their genesis, one likes to think that most record labels start with the idea of giving voice to deserving artists that would otherwise go unheard and unnoticed by other labels. In the mind of the listener, a label also bears the responsibility of curator of a slice of music history. Dear reader, what is the half life of such a fantasy? At what point does a label simply become a business with no artistic integrity left in their empty souls? At what point does churning out album after album of whatever flavor of the day fits best into the accepted formula that will sell enough product to turn a profit become more attractive than unleashing quality, moving music? Some rhetorical questions without answers, but one would think re-issuing a “lost” gem that requires minimal investment of money or time would be a simple feat if the label had one cell of shit-giving left.