Invention versus novelty in metal

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There is an experience like deja vu which feels more like parallax motion. This sensation is that of seeing parallels between two things which, visually at least, seem to have nothing in common. And yet it also feels like racing over open ground in a landscape of discovery. Consider this observation from a pipe collecting writer:

Some innovations are not innovative at all. They are ideas that have been explored–and even made–long before. That the current experimenter is ignorant of previous attempts does not make the effort novel. It also does not make revising an idea or revisiting a solution unworthy. But don’t make untrue claims. Socrates’ observation that “There is nothing new under the sun” is almost always true.

Other “innovations” are transparent attempts at attention-getting. Putting products out there that exclaim “Look at me! I’m SO leading edge! I’m an artist!” might work for Miley Cyrus, but the average pipemaker’s target audience is somewhat less naïve nor impressionable, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at some of the work being touted on Facebook pipe groups these days.

What amazes me even more is that the work on the ridiculous end of the sublime-to-ridiculous continuum attracts its champions, and they seem eager to whoop and hurrah without engaging in any critical discourse at all. It’s hype, hype, hype. In my view, hyping isn’t helpful because it inhibits thoughtful conversations that might contribute to improving or at least refining the innovations being touted.

He draws a distinction between what we might call invention, or application of new ideas to a realistic use, as distinct from novelty, which is the creation of “new” ideas for newness’ sake. In metal terms, it takes some brains and guts to create a sublime form of a metal genre, but any idiot can add ska, jazz and rockabilly to Pantera and come up with something “new.”

Metalcore in particular is consumed by this view of novelty as a target. Since its songs are built in the post-hardcore random collage style, just about anything fits into a metalcore band, which is why it has aesthetically-diverse but musically-similar acts like Animals as Leaders, Obscura, Behemoth, The Haunted and The Red Chord under the same genre banner. Each riff is like a different act in a variety show. This is why it has the “carnival music” approach: its compositional structure is verse chorus with an extended musical appositive in which the random is prized more than the coherent, or that which flows from one point to another in a sensible narrative.

Some would say this is its artistic appeal, that metalcore expresses the randomness and purposeless directionless consumption of our time. That may be true, but the best art does not merely protest, but forms beauty out of sense and makes it compelling in a new way. Others might defend metalcore as “open-minded,” as was popular with bad gimmick death metal bands in the early 1990s, and even early mathcore experiments. Yet randomness is not open-mindedness; it is refusal to make up one’s mind, and by burying the audience under different elements, essentially hiding what one thinks and hedging one’s bests. How do you criticize a band that has a riff from every imaginable style in each song, except to note that greater randomness produces greater proximity to background noise? Andy Warhol might sell metalcore as an avant garde representation of the background noise of the city.

And yet, we had two-riffs plus breakdowns bands back in the day. Metalcore itself is an extension of post-hardcore, which was a late 1980s thing. None of this “innovation” is in fact new; it is merely recycling the same old sad elements, like the clichés in movies where every rebellious character has to ride a Harley, drink Jack Daniels, smoke Reds and listen to heavy metal. Generally the pattern for metalcore bands is that they find something that people want but do not understand, then make a simplified — in this case, random — version of it, and then pimp it out. Opeth for example made their career off the idea of being too deep for most people, but were basically a re-hash of what Cemetary and Tiamat did five years before. Meshuggah took what Exhorder and Vio-lence did with speed metal riffs but made it more obvious, simplified and put it to a jazz-style complex offbeat structure, but added nothing new musically, and in fact took away most of the musicality. Cradle of Filth figured out that if someone made a heavy metal band that sounded like black metal, it would outsell the original. And so on.

Here is a useful definition regarding metalcore:

A blend of hardcore and metal music that evolved in the mid-to-late 90’s with bands like Unbroken, Earth Crisis, Harvest, Endeavor, Poison The Well and Unearth. There is a liberal use of breakdowns in the music and the lyrical themes range from the political to the personal.

Compare to a similar definition for deathcore:

Deathcore is a style of extreme music often confused by its fans with death metal. Deathcore draws heavily from the “malcore” style of metalcore in the sense that elements of its sound, both in composition and production, are rejected by the more conservative metal culture (ex. death/black/thrash/sludge metal). Deathcore differs from metalcore in the sense that it is generally faster, more heavy, and tending toward darker themes such as are present in death metal. Deathcore is also notorious for the excessive use of breakdowns, an element also present (but less frequent) in death metal and other ‘true’ metal genres. Hardcore dancing, a dance style in which fans swing their arms and legs violently in rhythm, has become hugely popular among deathcore fans, and is a trademark of live deathcore shows.

Despite many fans’ beliefs, deathcore is vastly different from traditional death metal. Musically, the deathcore song structure is generally much more formulaic than that of death metal; songs tend to have one or two guitar riffs, several breakdowns, and possibly a chorus. Deathcore composition is also much less complex, many songs featuring doubled guitar parts or simple guitar harmonies, with the bass guitar being almost entirely indistinguishable.

Our normal impulse is to say “Well, you listen to what you like, and I will listen to what I like.” That is the socially correct answer at least which is one reason why it is wrong: social preference selects for the unreal because people prefer illusion. The problem is that when idiot music shows up, idiots show up, and they outnumber anyone competent. If they can appropriate the style of your genre and make a dumbed-down sugar, salt and fat added version of it, they will replace you. You will not keep listening to what you like because no new versions of it will come out because no musician will touch a genre infested by idiots unless he or she wants to profit from idiots. Your genre will be assimilated and replaced. That is exactly what happened to metal since 1994.

Some people moan any time a person wants to connect metal with social trends, history or other traditional forms of analysis. that is because those people want to keep metal as a hobby, a product and something special removed from everything else that is just there to be enjoyed. But on the other hand, many artists have given up more comfortable lives cranking out alt-country, indie rock or rap to spend their time trying to make quality metal, and it seems pointless to disrespect and ignore that. If we look at metal through the historical development of an artistic movement, it becomes clear that it offers not just another version of the same rock ‘n’ roll idea, but an entirely different idea. Rock is, like all post-Enlightenment thought, about the primacy of the individual. Metal rebels against that with hard realism.

Perhaps the hard realism is right. After all, this society is miserable — another one of those things that metal reminds us of daily — and besotted with lies, committing ecocide against nature, forcing people into miserable jobs, and specializes in tearing down beautiful things to replace them with strip malls and endless rules. I would go so far as to say this is the worst age of humanity, except for the mindlessly selfish, who sure love that 500-channel cable and easy jobs and fast credit that make them feel like kings in the tiny little fraction of the universe that they notice. Over time I have come to observe that the smarter someone is, the more aware they are not just of particular ideas or facts but of space, area, time and their own smallness. An idiot thinks he is the sole occupant of the planet; a medium-intelligence person is aware of his community; a genius is aware of the cosmos, the past and future of humanity as a whole, and the people even far from him. Metal rebels against our society both on the basis that it is formed of affectionate-sounding lies, and that it is ugly, pointless, boring and crass.

But that is “alternative history” to the majority of people. They believe — because they want to believe — that our time is the apex of humanity. And technologically, surely it is, although most of this stuff seems like fumbly-fidgety rehashes of 1970s inventions like UNIX and networking. They ignore the vast misery not just among the impoverished, but among the successful, and the utter boredom of the purposeless nature of modern life. Every generation, social order decays further and people become more like witches, of dishonest, selfish, petty, and oblivious character. Each generation can say to the one after, “Stuff’s worse than when I was a kid, so have an iPod and we’ll call it even, OK?” As long as we stick with official history there is nothing we can do with that. As others have noted, perhaps the root of invention as opposed to novelty is a willingness to leap off the platform of official history and look into other reasons, not new but realistic and truthful instead of merely socially popular ones.

Speaking of alternative history, I encountered this passage today. You might call it Libertarians for Monarchy. It takes an economist’s view of the change in history, and shows how alternative history might have been right, after all, and how we might all just be living in denial and cruising on the wealth of the past (Hans-Hermann Hoppe via Outside In:

A king owned the territory and could hand it on to his son, and thus tried to preserve its value. A democratic ruler was and is a temporary caretaker and thus tries to maximize current government income of all sorts at the expense of capital values, and thus wastes. […] Here are some of the consequences: during the monarchical age before World War I, government expenditure as a percent of GNP was rarely higher than 5%. Since then it has typically risen to around 50%. Prior to World War I, government employment was typically less than 3% of total employment. Since then it has increased to between 15 and 20%. The monarchical age was characterized by a commodity money (gold) and the purchasing power of money gradually increased. In contrast, the democratic age is the age of paper money whose purchasing power has permanently decreased. […] Kings went deeper and deeper into debt, but at least during peacetime they typically reduced their debt load. During the democratic era government debt has increased in war and in peace to incredible heights. Real interest rates during the monarchical age had gradually fallen to somewhere around 2½%. Since then, real interest rates (nominal rates adjusted for inflation) have risen to somewhere around 5% — equal to 15th-century rates. Legislation virtually did not exist until the end of the 19th century. Today, in a single year, tens of thousands of laws and regulations are passed. Savings rates are declining instead of increasing with increasing incomes, and indicators of family disintegration and crime are moving constantly upward.

In a time when popularity determines success, appearance is more important than reality. This is what gives rise to novelty, or essentially — as our pipe smoker above reminded us — re-visiting of old ideas in bizarre new forms that entice the herd because they are different and unique, which is how all of those bonobos view themselves and want to assert as their reason for having importance. We call most of them hipsters, but the phenomenon is broader than that; we live in a time that is appearance-over-substance, and as long as metal panders to that demographic, its fortunes will not improve.

Metal as Transcendental Art

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I. Music for the sake of…

In Book I of Plato’s The Republic, Socrates is engaged in an exchange of ideas with Thrasymachus regarding the nature of justice. In this debate, Thrasymachus is noticeably anxious to drive a point that justifies his views rather than finding out the truth. In between the sarcastic remarks and false humility that characterize Socrates, the older philosopher puts forward questions and comparisons that shed light on the topic in interesting angles.

One of the most interesting arguments came after Socrates’ opponent declared that justice could be defined as “the interest of the stronger”. Socrates’ response came to a point where he postulated that all art (which he uses as an equivalent to “talent” or “occupation”) acts rather in the interest of the receiver of his work. So the true art of the physician is neither in the receiving of money nor in a perfection of medicine in itself, but in the curing of maladies and keeping the body healthy.

Socrates then extrapolated this to illustrate how justice was what a ruler imparted in the interest of the people. A ruler is given power to lead and impart justice to the best interest of the people they govern. That rulers may often become corrupt is a different matter.

This got me thinking, what about music? What is the purpose of music? What is music for? From history, we know music has served different roles, from religious expression, conducive to a form of indoctrination, to aristocratic caprice, to romantic ideology, nationalist propaganda and every other conceivable use of music as ambiance or a vehicle for anything else.

We should make it clear that not only were these approaches different, but not all were equally close to the truth about music. Most do not understand that it can only evoke sentiments, even if detailed and vivid, but not particular scenes. It can speak to the human subconscious through the filter of the conscious (which is why you cannot “get” a music that is completely new in style to you — for example, the “learning process” one goes through when getting into death and black metal). More importantly, it cannot speak of individual ideas without the aid of words because it belongs to the instinctive understanding of humans as a species. Human nature and education mold these perceptions.

The most empty of all the interpretations was that art should be done for its own sake. A laughable oxymoron, if ever there was one. As Socrates correctly argued, art is done for the sake of the less powerful that receives it, the object of its mercy. For music, that is the human spirit, the subconscious and the conscious as a whole, your state of mind, whatever you wish to call it.

II. The options that metal has at its disposal

In his Fifth Heretical Essay, “Is Technological Civilization Decadent, and Why?”, Jan Patočka briefly goes over the topic of pre-history (which he clarifies does not mean non-history), its transition into history and humanity’s ascending from an animalistic lifestyle to one where one’s considerations extend beyond personal immediate necessities.

Pre-history for humans was characterized by having survival itself as a main preoccupation. Life for life’s sake. Setting the conditions for historical life, humans moved into settlements and gradually were able to afford independence from the every-day fight for one’s life. The price of this was work. This work became a responsibility in exchange for safety and space to indulge in pleasurable activities. Patočka refers to the second one of these as the the orgiastic, a release and exchange from the toil of responsibility that provides an escape from a life of pure survival.

This sort of life could still be considered as life for its own sake. The clever reader may observe that in the previous description a full circle is described. Each activity on the stack is concerned with an individual trying to escape the previous state in order to keep going, to ensure survival.

It is then that the transcendental, the sacred, the divine, the ulterior, makes an entrance into human awareness. This is not to be confused with religion, which is only a systematic arranging of rituals and beliefs which may or may not be a way to the divine. Independently of the system chosen or the disavowal of all systems, keeping something larger than ourselves in perspective can make us redefine the way we see our individual lives. Our lives are no longer lived in redundancy, just in order to keep living, but are charged with energy and will power to build or attain something without the intention of receiving personal reward. (Remark: It is common for people to have kids in order escape their mundane lives, but their intentions are equally mundane and selfish, mostly bringing children they cannot properly raise to an overpopulated world in order to satisfy their empty lives. The transcendent  ideal goes beyond such gimmicks of self-deception .)

Thus we can descry three possible avenues for music:

  1. For mere function in context (responsibility)
  2. For pleasure itself (the orgiastic)
  3. As a medium to perceive and keep in sight something larger than our individual human lives (the transcendental)

The nature and goals of different music, perhaps to different degrees rather than in straight-up black-and-white distinctions, can be classified using these three elements. Music that is deemed superficial is that which lacks in transcendence. Mainstream (a term that only makes any sense from the 20th century on) music, specially, can be said to work in the primitive paradigm of responsibility on the side of the artist and pure orgiastic pleasure on the side of the listener. In most music, this activity is usually a combination of both on the side of the musician, responsibility to norms in order to get his pay and an attention to how much pleasure the music provides him. A reflection of life for life’s sake in an empty music devoid of any transcendent meaning.

Transcendental music and art in general would imply musicians being invested in the music for something larger than their own personal profit (monetary or otherwise) and an audience similarly invested and discerning of music that gives them that sense of going-beyond their individual lives. All the songs about common love, friendship and equality notwithstanding as they only serve to comfort weak individuals in their self-pity, not propel them forward to greater heights were the self is at least partially dissolved.

An example of a middle-of-the-road agreement would be Johan Sebastian Bach, who, like any man living off of music has to fill certain requirements. At the same time, he is renowned to have constantly searched for an ideal in music that would reflect the divine through proportions and relations, guided as well through a crystallization of rules in smoothness and logic that results from a fastidious attention to natural human perception of intervals (artists two hundred years later did the opposite…). In practice, he often got into trouble and wasn’t the best “worker” in the sense that what he produced was seldom exactly what was expected of someone in his post. But he survived, was honored by the clergy and royalty alike and his music outlasted him because the society in which he lived (Germany in the late 17th and early 18th centuries) valued the transcendent, the divine, above anything else. Cynics can stop laughing, of course Germans at the time also fought wars and had to take care of business, and so did Bach. Following a transcendental path does not mean you are exempt from the toil and eventualities of life.

That metal’s nature is that of a transcendental art can be proven by pointing out the way in which it developed. As we have previously described before, each metal stylistic development had to do with a shedding of aesthetics in which it lurched forward away from the mainstream and into more distinct characteristics that would set it apart from rock music and in a rebellious statement of intention that stated its anti-establishment position. But in contrast to punk and other protest music, metal was not anti-authoritarian out of a social revolutionary sentiment, but from a nihilist-realist point of view. It was a reducing of humans to ants in an uncaring universe by using Satanic, pagan or occult imagery to depict concepts that stay true from antiquity to this day. This is the same reason why metal is so prone to using fantasy fiction themes. Metal is not an escape, it is reducing of this pseudo-reality to what it actually is: one of many possible constructs.

Individually, this or that artist may believe or use the imagery and language they adopt, but as a whole, metal is none but that transcendent essence that refuses to bow to the arbitrariness of present human status quo. In its place it does not propose anarchy or freedom, but calls for an awareness of reality as existing outside human expectation, want, need or hope. It is a confronting of reality instead of a twisting of truths for the shielding of and maintaining of mundane activities for the sake of staying alive peacefully and pleasurably. More importantly, this confronting of reality does not imply a fatalism, but a way to emerge triumphantly, seeing through individual situations and times, recognizing our place in nature and our dependence on it.

III. Implications in Practice

How does this translate into music? Is art more than just its intention or its random interpretation by an audience?

In his discussion, Patočka made three important distinctions in order to better attack the problem of the decadent. The separation between meaningsignificance and purpose was stated functionally different. Meaning is the most difficult of these to grasp. It is not a value, nor is it the same as purpose although they could fill a same role in certain circumstances. Meaning is said to make something open to reading, to a sense, to understanding of something that is as it is. Purpose itself is the reason or intention why something is carried out or why it is brought into being. Significance is concerned with its relative role or function in relation to a particular context.

Purpose and significance are subject to times and context. Meaning is not. The meaning of something can be interpreted to have different significance in different places, or it can be used for different purposesBut what it is does not change, and so its meaning does not. The distinction between purpose and significance is of the utmost importance when it comes to understanding and judging music. The purpose of musical devices is often confused by individualists and relativists to be one of the other two. The purpose of music matters little to the music critic who is charged with judging its quality and not its good intentions. The music critic cares only about significance.

But I propose a slightly different mapping in which the human mind, not the rest of the universe, is the world of action for music. After all, music is artificial, it is made by us, for us and it is its effect over us that matters. Therefore, meaning can be redefined in the context of universally perceivable effects in patterns, textures and intervals. Universally as in across the human species. It is to be expected that there is a variance in the effect, but that does not detract from the existence and relevance of a mean.

The definition of purpose need not change, it still lies in the reason why a certain music would be made. Now, significance would shift to being the acquired role of structures and relations in different music paradigms, different genres, different traditions. That means that just as different spoken languages, music can have its own rules arising from conventions between human perception and arbitrary organization. But the more arbitrary it is and the less it conforms to natural human perception, the less capable of transcendence a music is. This does not mean that education cannot be involved. But education can reinforce and deepen what comes naturally and follows the path of human potential (Common Practice Period), or it can be capricious arbitrariness arising from the fallacy of the human mindas a blank slate (see Serialism).

Two things need to happen for a transcendental music tradition to be sustainable. The first is artists that are devoted to the transcendental aspects of music. The second is a discerning audience. Part of this discernment is a certain trust in musicians, their own vision and values as well as their abilities. This is the same sort of trust we have for leaders of any kind, be them rulers or scientists.

The reason why we do not have this trust in musicians in modern times is because as a result of historical processes, they have come to disgrace themselves. The sort of respect for artistry and trust in their distinction above ours survives today only in very dark corners of human action like specific classical music niches and extremely underground metal and ambient circles. In metal, these are the sort of circles that remain willingly untouched by labels in order to keep their art at away from vulgar and unworthy reception.  These remain the last bastion of metal against the taint of the mainstream.

It is in understanding there is something more to human nature and human experience that is both innate to us and that we share with other human beings, that we can also come to respect the power of transcendental music: music that taps into these aspects. Music that has the power of directing human conscience in a particular direction, as well. Today, underground metal is one of the few musics that go beyond the merely functional or the pleasurable. This is music that has the power of cultivation, of expanding the mind, of looking beyond your own fear of the unknown, of inevitable death and into the future of humans as a species and not just you as an individual, but as an individual channeling the species into a more aware future.

IV. The Transcendental: Art for the Sake of Human Evolution

It is no surprise that we can trace a very clear line from the 18th century to the 21st at the beginning of which art is universally sponsored by the ruling classes and institutions of power that through gradual changes becomes increasingly independent (19th century) and later on less connected to human nature (20th century). This culminates in a complete stagnation in the 21st century, our times…

The question of true transcendental art being underground or not depends on the current values of society. In the case of our modern society, its purely materialist and ultra-democratic outlook that dictates that personal caprices matter more than reality is the antithesis of the environment where a transcendental — one that reflects enduring meaning — art can be fostered.

By definition, a materialist civilization that attributes no meaning to anything except the massing of perceived riches or power, cannot produce such an art. That is to say, such a civilization does not even believe there is such a thing as the trascendental. Furthermore, this materialist outlook is based on an absurd pushing of boundaries through a rational point of view taken to an extreme. But anything taken to any extreme loses contact with reality, which is itself an amalgam of degrees of many different qualities — compromises between opposites.

A rejection of reality in favor of an artificial extreme such as materialism is then enabled to brush aside and subvert anything that does not conform to itself. This includes human nature itself. In fact, the materialist position claims there is no such thing as human nature. This enables the power-hungry, the greedy and anyone else to try and clean their conscience through a pandering of the idea that we are only the result of the cultures into which we are born and values are only social constructs. The dogma then becomes: power is the only objective measure of success. A side effect of materialism is the idea that everything we perceive is subjective and therefore not subject to judgement or control.  All that matters is if I think this or I like that. The weakling’s alternative to the dogma becomes: happiness is the only subjective measure of success.

Both of these emphasize an enlarged “living in the moment” that favors egoism that, as proven by history, results in an almost complete disregard for others’ living in this same present and those yet to be born — unless an immediate reward/punishment is offered to the materialist individual. The transcendental provides precisely the opposite: a view into the characteristics that make you human, that dictate our nature, that both unite us and make us different. As Steven Pinker summarizes in his book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, this flies in the face of research that has in turn been suppressed and vilified by an establishment eager to maintain the status quo in a similar gesture to a superficial Church censoring scientific discoveries centuries ago.

Also contrary to a short-sighted reading, this should not result in us embracing the understanding of one’s own nature as licence to indulge in it, but rather a precise knowledge of how to control it and channel it in order to become better.  A transcendental view of time and values applied to our species may pave the way for not only a widespread search for individual enlightenment but a species-wide one. One in which humanity works together for its own good, which at this point would translate into a caring for the planet it is destroying in the vulgar self-interest dictated by materialism.

The importance of metal as this transcendental art is its power to maintain this knowledge and to promote universal values and even more importantly, their understanding. The reaction of materialism and the religion of scientism against the notions of transcendental value are emotional to their very core but also based on observations of how values defined arbitrarily in the past lead to social disasters. This, combined with their own superficial and strictly functional misunderstanding of the values prevented them from fully becoming aware of the underlying human need and impulse to reach for something beyond the material and the every-day.

This is why those who understand such transcendentalism treat the mainstream with opprobrium and an extreme disgust. As with anything else, the attitude of those who understand can be confused with those who follow and do not understand, those who adopt attitudes — even pseudo transcendental ones — with the ulterior motivation of immediate reward to themselves. And thus elitism and the upholding of all that is truly excellent is marred and disgraced by a civilization of insecure and selfish individuals who cannot see past their own self-interest, a selfishness that is then projected onto those who they judge because they cannot conceive of anyone actually believing and acting for the sake of something larger than themselves.

Nietzsche is reviled by the religious (who, in general, have never read him, let alone understand him) and by the materialists (or at least those have read him, those who haven’t or do not understand seem to think him some sort of atheist hero). The main reason why materialists despise him is because he is a realist. Realism flies in the face of extreme and delusional reality-deforming conceptions of life such as materialism. As a realist, Nietzsche recognizes the inherent human need to believe in something outside himself. For those who have been paying attention, it is obvious this does not necessarily imply some sort of superstition or dogma.

Nietzsche’s Übermensch (the “superman”, the “overman”, the superior human) as described in Thus Spake Zarathustra, is one that sees and goes beyond his own times. One that is not trapped by the paradigm of his contemporary society and that furthermore excels himself above his peers in a work. This sort of talking can be taken metaphorically, but it is not meant to be. Going beyond one’s own times has to do with recognizing history as a set of changing variables within a timeline on an unchanging or slowly-changing human nature where a set of set meanings remain constant for us but are, perhaps,   difficult to see.

It is in the of going over and overcoming of common man who is little more than a tamed beast, that we humankind can continue on their learning and growing path as a species. This is the nature of the transcendental. The individual transcends in his perception of his people and time and contributes to a flow of which he is only a part. Only then can the species attain a transcendental vision in which it is not only looking at its immediate problems but at its long-term development ten or twenty generations in the future. Would that we could see such a civilization arise, it would be a beautiful sight to behold.

V. The Transcendental in Action through Metal

Arising from the context of popular rock music in the late 1960s with a different musical method and a realist mentality, metal veiled its message behind mystic frontispieces that became whole with the dark romantic aura behind its motif-driven music. The classical romantic tradition that so influences it has as one of its focal points the return to an intelligibility and “naturalness” that was most readily searched for in taking hints from folk music melodies and rhythms from different rural landscapes around the world (primarily from Europe, unsurprisingly). This did not mean a ridiculous simplification of music to banal catchy lines, but a simplicity of which Plato’s Socrates spoke.

Then beauty of style and harmony and grace and good rhythm depend on simplicity,–I mean the true simplicity of a rightly and nobly ordered mind and character, not that other simplicity which is only an euphemism for folly.

— The Republic, Book III

Musically, what is transcendental must necessarily be atemporal, it must have the capacity to communicate with human beings from any historical (or pre-historical, for that matter) period, age or walk of life. This does not mean that the connection has to be instant or that the listener does not need to go through a “learning process”. In fact, in the particular case of metal as a veiled teaching, it is only through maturity in understanding it in a holistic manner that one comes to understand the truths that several great musicians with piercing views about what it is to be human reflected through it.

Despite the influence, there is a very sharp contrast between classical romantic music and metal. The difference is a consequence of the historical context, particular social class and sentiment out of which they each arose. Romantic art came from both the need of the individual to find a place and expression of his own, not in the modern selfishness of the individualist, but a place in nature and in reverence to it. A connection to what it is to be human. As classical music, its prestige and the station of those making it allowed it to pursue such things in broad daylight. To this, we should add the nontrivial matter of the nonexistence of recorded music or other conveniences that flood and distract listeners. The expression of the romantic artist could be full and undisclosed.

Metal, on the other hand, comes in a time where popular culture reigns in saturation of kitsch: superficiality and banality for the immediate pleasure of the distracted and manipulated masses. Less important but worth mentioning is that it originated in strong and independent-thinking middle-class individuals who saw through the deception of their times. Several choices in its underground character come from this. As an art form that subverts the ruling falsehood, it is not allowed to be displayed directly. The fact that being an intellectual resistance also means that not all can understand it and that its concerns go beyond the present manifestation of human society and its dogmas require that it is not fully out in the open. It must assume a mask that reflects an outer and simple intent that keeps most at bay to guard what it contains. Its identity must be more distinct and defined than its predecessor and so, willingly, metal takes on a much more limited range of expression than classical romantic music from the 19th century.

Of the harmonies I know nothing, but I want to have one warlike, to sound the note or accent which a brave man utters in the hour of danger and stern resolve, or when his cause is failing, and he is going to wounds or death or is overtaken by some other evil, and at every such crisis meets the blows of fortune with firm step and a determination to endure; and another to be used by him in times of peace and freedom of action, when there is no pressure of necessity, and he is seeking to persuade God by prayer, or man by instruction and admonition, or on the other hand, when he is expressing his willingness to yield to persuasion or entreaty or admonition, and which represents him when by prudent conduct he has attained his end, not carried away by his success, but acting moderately and wisely under the circumstances, and acquiescing in the event. These two harmonies I ask you to leave; the strain of necessity and the strain of freedom, the strain of the unfortunate and the strain of the fortunate, the strain of courage, and the strain of temperance; these, I say, leave.

– The Republic, Book III

It is also important to understand the outer and the inner manifestations of the spirit of music. There is a learning process to each kind of music, because outside is manifested the tropes of a region, culture, group, perhaps a particular “language” or set of conventions. By basing itself on patterns and harmonies the human ear feels naturally drawn to, the music is aligning itself to what is permanent to human perception, at least in this point of our evolution. But all these are developed, “discussed” in a music that speaks a very particular mind. Just as Plato might have spoken in ancient Greek about similar things we would speak of today in modern English, so it is that transcendental music from music separated by centuries might be speaking the same message under different grammatical guises — tropes and conventions of times and style. The act of the  Dionysian manifesting itself through the Apollonian as the young Nietzsche described to us in The Birth of Tragedy.

Someone might ask if it isn’t better to disavow all conventions and try to speak in  “plainspoken transcendental”. The innocence of such a suggestion comes from the incorrect belief that what is felt, what is understood and experienced wholly as a human being can be put purely, clearly and unambiguously into words. Necessity dictates that emotion and experience be transmitted to the innermost core of the individual– a penetrating of various layers of prejudice and consciousness in order to move the primal and ripple back through to the higher, if possible. Neither mere words in their plain meaning nor musical structures on their own, in the beauty of orderly symmetry and mathematical correctness can achieve this. These only speak to the higher intellect, which may or may not translate this to the deeper self.

Reaching the innermost sanctum of metal, though, requires much more than being touched by it. For that to happen, metal cannot just be a passing entertainment or the object of devoted fanhood alone. It needs to be taken seriously and read correctly in its contradictions and flagrant imagery that bespeak a connection to the transcendental beyond mere unambiguous pattern codification. It is not a science in the modern sense and is more akin to occultism and its voluntary hiding-away. Following from that, we may infer that it is far more esoteric than exoteric, this latter being ridiculous or incomprehensible when taken at face value. Only treading the serpentine and treacherous paths through cycles of internalization and externalization does the metal fan become the metal initiate.

Miscellaneous Turn-of-the-Century-ish Recommendations

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In view of our recent emphasis on the fact that post-1994 metal landscape is a desert of creativity with very few well-realized projects, most of which were pretty underground efforts. By the turn of the century, death and black metal aesthetics had been absorbed into the mainstream mindset and so we can not automatically consider bands with said genre tags as underground. But the ones recommended below are, indeed, high-quality efforts (in the way of music writing) that were never hyped to any wide audience.

The turn of the century itself was one of the darkest moments in metal history when there was no relevant innovation being worked into metal. In place, a superficial re-mixing of styles done by the thousands became the obsession of scenes. Something had happened: Metal had reached its young adult life. Until now, childish enthusiasm and creativity had been enough for it to keep making discoveries. A spirit of rebellion  had propelled it in the search for a deeper romantic meaning that drove it forward. Once this bottomed out with with mid-nineties albums by projects like Burzum, Ildjarn and Summoning, it was evident that metal would have to rely on a refinement of its technical approach that could keep feeding the aesthetics needs of its spirit.

In the following recommendations, we have thrown some worthwhile non-metal releases that are also strongly recommended. The reader is encouraged to explore each of these with all their attention and in reflection of the trails that the golden era left that are only in recent years fully crystallizing into promising proposals for a real re-start and future based on the previously mentioned refinement applied to a study and digestion of the older spirit in order for the genre to continue. This future is precisely what metal needs and not a return to anything. The past is the past. Metal must look ever ahead if it is to be an artistic movement with life. This post is in part to honor those releases and to offer a glimmer of hope that although metal is suffocated, it is not dead.

Summoning – Stronghold (1999)

Mütiilation – Remains of A Ruined, Dead, Cursed Soul  (1999)

Worship – Last Tape Before Doomsday (1999)

Tenhi – Kauan (1999)

Jordi Savall & Ton Koopman – J.S. Bach, Die Sonaten Für Viola Da Gamba Und Cembalo (2000)

Paysage D’Hiver – Paysage d’Hiver (2000)

Antaeus – Cut Your Flesh and Worship Satan (2000)

Immolation – Close to a World Below (2000)

Gorguts – From Wisdom to Hate (2001)

 

Heavy metal linked to systemic thinking

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Researchers have found that heavy metal fans tend to be systemic thinkers, leading to the supposition that systemic thinkers like heavy metal because its structure, themes or musicality rewards those who think on a systemic level. As one summary read:

Participants were then subjected to 50 short pieces of music spanning 26 different styles, and asked to give each a rating between one and 10.

People who scored highly on empathy were more likely to be drawn to R&B, soft rock and folk.

In contrast those who score more highly on systemising tended to like music by heavy metal bands and more complex, avant-garde jazz.

In other words, people who think at an empathic level reward music which is emotional on its surface, but those who think structurally and broadly like metal fans tend to only feel rewarded when the emotion emerges from the conflicts within the music itself, more like “set/setting” than adding some minor notes to a melody or dramatic vocals.

As research finds many ways further into metal, the conclusion becomes clear that people like metal for different reasons than other mainstream music. While metal academia itself has not raised this point directly, this research and other recent revelations about the mentality of metal suggest that direction is a rewarding area of study.

Can we admit that metalcore is the glam metal of our time?

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In the early 1990s, a new music burst forth. The dark sounds of Black Sabbath and the guitar-oriented heavy rock of Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin merged and, through the wizardry of Hollywood-style image, became a new genre that hyper-extended the characteristics of the most rebellious music in the previous generation of rock. This was called glam metal, and you may recognize it by names like Motley Crue, Poison, Twisted Sister, Quiet Riot, Cinderella, Van Halen, Ratt and Winger.

Glam metal stood out from other rock at the time. It was more technical, featuring early shred guitar wizardry, and more visual, incorporating gender-bending into its image as well as tattoos, long hair and leather. For the radio music of the era, it was one of the more advanced and outside the mainstream sounds one could purchase at the local record shack. Kids liked it because it drove parents mad; politicians responded by trying to criminalize it with Tipper Gore and the PMRC targeting glam metal bands for their overly-sexual lyrics about outré topics such as drugs, suicide and promiscuity.

What makes glam metal stand out is to look at the backdrop of music at the time. Most bands were taking advantage of newly-available electronic instruments and more options in the studio, and were focused more toward being synthpop or album-oriented rock. The nascent indie rock movement, to explode with bands like REM and U2, dwelt still in the basements. Punk had died and punk hardcore was unlistenable by most, as were bands like Motorhead and the NWOBHM who were still just a bit too loud, and too controversial. Glam allowed people to be rebels without really rebelling against anything, because glam rock was just what David Bowie and Sid Vicious were doing with the actual danger removed and all the imagery turned up to eleven.

Compare this to the present time. Radio is much louder, and rap-based music has replaced synthpop. Indie rock became huge and expanded into emo and post-Joy Division quasi guitar ambient bands. The old dad rock like Springsteen and Mellencamp faded like an autumn sunset, and while millions of niches exist, most people hit up the big favorites. Metal is the radio now, too, and thanks to nu-metal — the second generation of rap/rock — people are accustomed to heavy distortion, detuned guitars and raucous drums. People wearing bizarre costumes and masks while acting out self-destructive tropes are common. What remains to shock the parents of today?

Much like glam metal, metalcore attempts to pick everything that stood out in the past generation and amplify it. The introspective despair of indie rock joins the progressive stylings of 90s bands and the whine of alternative rock; the proto-djent of Pantera and Helmet shows up as well, alongside the deliberately random songwriting of emo and post-hardcore bands. Add them all together and you have a template for making infinite music: an aesthetic of randomness, with high technicality, and metal power but not its threatening antisociality, melded together into a product that is more like a jam session than a planned event. This resembles what happened after progressive rock fiddled the first time, and jam bands showed up that merged jazz, progressive and rock into expanded-format songs that wandered. Metalcore can take any form, whether melodic death metal or math-influenced grindcore, because it is at heart a philosophy much like glam was. It takes what shocked the last generation, adds it all together, and ramps up the imagery to deliver a “new” (old) product.

If we are honest, we will admit that metalcore is the glam metal of today. Designed to shock, it pretends at being “underground” only to keep its indie cred, and relies on the disturbing self-absorption of indie and emo to make parents quake. Formed of too many elements to support together in one coherent genre, it focuses on incoherence, and ties it together with imagery. It emphasizes technicality, which thanks to endless instructional videos and better access to guitar equipment (thanks Guitar Center!) has cranked up a notch, but uses it as a means to the end of its appearance. While band members no longer dress up in clothing of the opposite gender and tease their hair, they perform the equivalent through their embrace of passivity, feminism and self-pity as fundamental values. This shocks parents as much as glam metal did, and has correspondingly bad effects on metal as a whole.

Economics of metal

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Metal is fun and this is one of its greatest strengths. But great strengths are also great weaknesses, and the fun in metal leads to people to assume the usual forces do not act within it. One such force is economics, both in the sale of music and the sale of attention.

We can visualize the metal world as a giant economy based on who is listening to and talking about which release. Money is replaced by stereo-hours (or earbud-hours) with those being of unequal value. For example, a record company exec or top-ranked writer listening to an album may have more import than the average fan because such a role in the metal economy means that the exec or writer lures more people to specific releases. Both writers and execs make their money by betting on a type of stock market where the releases they choose as important either rise or fall, with corresponding consequences for the career in question.

With this in mind, we can look at the flow of new releases as a type of market. The more releases there are, the less each one is valuable; the more accurate information there is about new music, the more likely consumer choice is to be informed choice and reflect some measure of quality. When there are too many releases, all are disproportionately worth more, with the big mainstream bands — analogous to blue chip stocks — seeming like better options to the consumer than taking a chance in a sea of bands that seem to be about equal in potential. When all record reviews praise every new album, consumers have no information, and turn toward buying from established bands, even if the quality is sub-par.

Similarly, the effect of digital downloading can be modeled. Leaving aside purchases of digital music for a moment, we can look at the effects of downloading the latest releases from mega.nz or torrents. When the cost is free, the consumer may value that album less, but more importantly, the consumer is suddenly swimming in utter tons of music. If you have 500gb of death metal on your hard drive, it is unlikely that you will have the time or energy to listen to even a tenth of that. The more music that is downloaded, the less any particular release is likely to get stereo-hours.

Looking even further, we can see the impact of the metal community. When the metal community is supportive of every release that comes out, it means that none stand out and as a result, all get fewer listens. Where a healthy economy has some clear winners, a blind endorsement for all releases means that consumers know nothing about differences between them in quality — leaving aside aesthetic/genre for the moment — and so end up purchasing blindly or not at all. When digital downloads are available for free, or streaming online is free, the consumer sees less of a reason to visit a band for more than a few listens.

And extending this a bit further, the more similar bands are to one another, both aesthetically and in quality, the less likely consumers are to choose any one. This type of “heat death” of the metal markets occurs when consumers lack information about bands or cannot find substantial differences between them. At that point, the smart strategy for a metal listener is to download something new on a regular basis and listen to it for a few weeks because, heck, it is about like every other release in quality and sound. They know it will last for only a few weeks, so there is no point in buying it. I suggest that it is this phenomenon — a glut of similar-sounding and similar-quality metal bands — and not digital piracy itself that is terrorizing the music industry.

Industries tend to respond to a narrowing of the market by increasing frequency of product release. This in turn creates a glut, and tends to drive quality down, because in order to release regularly they need people who will bash out something obvious instead of spend time ruminating on it. Further, industry does not want expensive single units, as occur when musicians try to make a career of it, but — much like information technology hiring — prefer the young and clueless who they can use to make a release or two for low cost. All of these contribute to an oversupply of releases, a situation which is made worse by the tendency of journalists to champion almost all of these releases, which makes consumers less likely to purchase any single one.

Let us then consider the role of the Elitist. If we use the non-hipster definition of elitist, the term comes to mean those who prefer quality over quantity. That means that instead of 500gb of similar-sounding and similar-quality bands, this person wants 50gb of high-quality bands that may or may not be similar-sounding. Elitists create a different type of pressure on the metal market, which is concentration: they create winners who rise above the herd, because the non-hipster elitist also tends to be a type of “power user” of metal who spreads information to friends and influential people. When an elitist likes something, unlike when an average person does, the consumer is offered a strong signal of quality or interest. This creates a tendency to rely on elitists more, much like experienced music consumers read the cynical reviewers because they do not have the time or energy to sort through many indistinguishable releases.

Elitists may be the answer to the music industry’s woes. With labels releasing as fast as they can, and journalists praising almost everything, the result is a “heat death” of the market. When elitists step in and separate the good from the merely adequate, this creates contours to the market and allows some bands to win, which creates a pressure on bands to not simply produce, but produce well, encouraging an expenditure of more time, thought and effort on the releases in question. These elitists are distinct from hipster elitists, who do not value quality over quantity but value novelty over both, and specialize in bands that — whether good or bad, as the hipster elitist is agnostic to quality — are weird, quirky, odd or ironic. This creates a market pressure that rewards the trivial and manufactures niches which can then be further developed by non-hipster elitists who sort the best above the rest.

Similarly, since online downloading does not appear to be going away, the non-hipster elitist serves a role in making downloading work for the music industry: by selecting some bands as good, they signal that these are worth buying while the others are merely worth downloading. We have no data on how many people who download actually listen to the music they capture, but one thought is that like many collectors of free things, they simply hoard it — especially since they lack the time to actually listen to all of it. The average person may be able to hear twelve hours of music a day, but they can probably only listen to five or six before they lose track of the differences. Listening requires concentration and not very many people have even four hours a day to actually pay attention to music.

As an explorer of metal music, I have downloaded at least 500gb in my lifetime. 99% of it goes right back to where it came: ashes to ashes, bits to zeroes. The remaining one percent gets purchased and, from informal conversations with other metalheads, I am far from alone in this. For this reason, I have for years encouraged “natural selection” downloading, because it means that instead of buying blind, consumers devote their attention to music that they like. Streaming sites like Spotify, Bandcamp, Soundcloud and ReverbNation have arisen to address this need, and informally many users report scanning those tracks before deciding to make an illegal download. Whether or not the user eventually purchases the music, it is succeeding in the market for attention, and this leads to its propagation among metalheads and greater likelihood of being purchased.

Few will say so publicly, but in private many journalists, fans and workers in the industry will admit that metal has lost quality massively since 1994. Not coincidentally, its popularity has been steadily rising since that time, as has its availability. While many blame the internet and digital downloads for collapse of metal, the model above suggests that it is not the means of consumption, but the glut of the market that is causing the woes of the music industry and fans alike. While unpopular, non-hipster elitists may represent a solution to this problem.

Metalhead pipesmokers unite!

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The old saying goes that those who love to use tobacco smoke cigarettes, and those who love tobacco smoke cigars and pipes. The cigarettes give you a quicker hit because the lungs, with their much vaster absorption area, deliver nicotine to the brain within about three seconds. The cigarette ends within three to seven minutes and the craving subsides momentarily. With pipes and cigars, the nicotine slowly oozes in through the mucus membranes in the mouth, tongue and (sometimes) throat, creating a stronger dose of nicotine but without the sudden “falling off a cliff” sensation. Many metalheads smoke cigarettes, but more are branching out to pipes and cigars for the flavors, more intense dosage and less damage to the body.

Please do not read this as an anti-cigarette rant. They are wonderful, in their own right, and much less work than cigars or pipes. However, burning any leaves and inhaling them directly into your lungs 10-20 times a day would cause some kind of long term health problem as gunk — tar, ash and irritants — builds up on the alveoli. On top of that, our industry and lawmakers have decided to mandate all sorts of processing of the tobacco, so who knows what else is being inhaled. If you would not mind going into a fast food joint, taking home their lettuce, dehydrating it and sitting next to a giant pile of it burning all day, cigarettes might not bother you. And keep in mind that there are brain-boosting benefits to nicotine in addition to resistance to neurodegenerative disorders, an effect which you do not get with the charred salad.

Cigars are beyond the scope of this article, but pipes are its focus. Pipes are essentially little wooden, stone or clay cups for burning tobacco with an inhalation tube attached. The smoker fills the pipe loosely with tobacco, then ignites it with some of the many means available to us ex-hominids, inhaling the smoke into his mouth and savoring it before blowing it outward into the personal space of those around him. While the topic of smoking pipes merits a full book, this article provides an introduction to pipe smoking designed to be as simple and low-cost as possible.

***

To get started, you will need:

  • A pipe. Generally between $35-$65 for a good starter pipe. Look for 0.7inch diameter bowls and filterless stems. This tool may help.
  • Tobacco. This comes in tins and bulk, usually found at Brick and Mortar (B&M) shops, and Over the Counter (OTC) usually found at drugstores and supermarkets.
  • Pipe cleaners. Each time you smoke, you will want to clean your pipe. Pipe cleaners have two ends, so that is two smokes per cleaner. It is not a terrible habit to include a bundle or package of these each time you buy tobacco.
  • A pipe nail. Demystifying this tool: it can be as simple as a key. You use one end to cut up tobacco, allowing it to collapse into an ember, and the other to tamp it after you light it for the first time. Tobacco rises like a demon unleashed when touched with fire, but compressing it allows it to smoulder so you can sip the pipe.
  • Fire. I favor the compressed cardboard matches in matchbooks, but you can use anything. For some, lighters and zippos taste horrible, so they prefer the match. The only trick is to burn off the tip before lighting.

To avoid the usual drama, let us launch into the process of smoking:

You go to some place with little wind, but some air circulation, where you have a comfortable chair. Sitting in it, you take out your tobacco. Holding the pipe over the tobacco container, let the shreds of tobacco fall into the pipe. When it is half-full, gently tamp with a finger. When it reaches the top, pinch from the center to one side and then the other, compressing the tobacco and letting it fall back into place. (Much has been written on this topic, usually under the unfortunate appellation of packing a pipe, when the correct word to use is fill: put tobacco into the pipe so there are no fully empty spaces, but fall short of compacting it so air — necessary for fire and smoke — can flow through. Ignore all other advice.)

Put the pipe in your mouth, holding it gently with teeth and firmly with lips. Light a match, and hold it vertically at a slight angle so the flame climbs the stalk of the match, then when the head has burned off, move the match over the tobacco in slow circles while inhaling. Take the smoke into your mouth and the top part of your throat if you wish, but try to avoid it leaking further down toward the lungs. You can compress it by gently blowing out the air from the front of your mouth, which draws in smoke from the cigar. The best way to inhale that I have found involves flaring the nose and drawing in air slowly but steadily.

My favorite cycle runs in seven second increments. For bigger mouthfuls, draw in your smoke, then keep it in your mouth for three seconds, then exhale and wait another four seconds. For slower sips, take one for about a half-second, then wait at least three seconds before the next. It helps to have a slight background circulation of air to keep the pipe oxygenated and smouldering well.

Many smokers do a “char and light” where they torch the top layer of tobacco, then tamp it lightly because it has risen up as it burned, and then light again to get the resulting compressed tobacco to blaze. At two-thirds through the bowl, it may be helpful to use a poker or the pointy end of your pipe nail to chop up the resulting ember and set it ablaze again. The lighting requirements vary between tobacco types, which will be addressed below.

When no more smoke comes out of the pipe, and you sense that the tobacco has been converted mostly to ash, tap it out into convenient bushes or a metal trash receptacle without a plastic bag. The ash will be hot and melt plastic. To tap out, hold the pipe in your hand and swing it downward to shake the ash out of the bowl. You may have to stir it with poker or nail beforehand.

Then comes the most important part of the ritual. If your pipe lacks a filter, run a pipe cleaner from the mouthpiece into the pipe and leave it there for a few minutes to absorb both direct and ambient moisture. This will keep your pipe fresh-tasting for its next use.

Pipe smokers vary. Some are hard-hitters who blaze through a bowl quickly, where others are sippers who have a pipe going all day for an hour at a time. If you re-light too frequently, or smoke too fast, the pipe may get hot; if this happens enough and to a great enough extreme, it may cause a condition known as “burnout” where the material of the pipe chars and cracks. To help avoid this, smoke on the seven-second method and also, allow some nice thick gunky tar to line the bowl, especially on the bottom. I always smoke some OTC aromatics, which are full of sugary flavoring that bonds together the goo and forms a kind of tar cement, down to the bottom of the bowl to layer it with a nice thick coating of glop. This glop chars over time and becomes a sort of pipe creosote that insulates against extremes.

***

Tobacco originates as leafy plant in the genus Nicotiana, which when cured, dried, pressed and shredded becomes a delicious flammable method of nicotine delivery. The great variations in what are called generically tobaccos occur in the different strains of tobacco plants, and the different methods used to grow, cure, dry, press, and cut the leaves.

That process produces a number of tobacco types, which are then combined in varying amounts into different blends, which you might think of as “tobacco recipes” because they achieve a unique flavor through the ingredients — different types of tobacco — mixed within them. These blends are also distinguished by their cut or how they are sliced, which is related to the flavor and tobacco characteristics in each blend. Many blends are then coated in flavoring known as “aromatic”; if the primary flavor to the smoking blend is the flavoring and not the underlying tobacco, the blend is referred to as an aromatic tobacco.

For the end user, tobacco is then shaped by another force — the consumer market — and placed into the following silos:

  1. Over-the-Counter (OTC). OTC tobaccos are designed for convenience. They are usually either aromatics or a type of shag-cut tobacco that is also used for Roll Your Own (RYO) cigarettes. These burn most easily, cost about $2 an ounce, and are generally mild in both flavor and nicotine level.
  2. Luxury. Like most things in our society, the good stuff only starts when you step off the mainstream and pony up some more cash. You would not buy Budweiser to drink, nor Marlboro to smoke, so you will choose a pipe tobacco made under the brand name of an established firm. A handful of producers make these tobaccos now, but they tend to be stronger and rely more on the flavor of natural tobacco, although many are also aromatics but with a wider variety of flavors than OTC.
  3. Boutique. A cottage industry has sprung up in making this variety of luxury tobacco which aims for unique and intense flavors, sometimes combining aromatic and unflavored tobaccos. These are more expensive than “regular” luxury and are made by a handful of blenders who also own mail-order tobacco shops.
  4. Vintage. In the past, everything was better. People have been saying that for generations, and apparently each were correct: the tobaccos of only 20 years ago were stronger and more flavorful. Luxury tobaccos, once considered regular tobacco, have been stored in sealed tins (if you buy one on eBay, make sure it is also “unopened” as opposed to re-sealed) and are now much sought-after.

I recommend starting with a solid OTC like Carter Hall, Prince Albert, Captain Black, Five Brothers or even Drum. These are the easiest to learn to pipe with, and give you a feeling for what mild levels of nicotine and flavor are like. In addition, they are low-cost so you will not howl and scream if you accidentally ruin a bowl or spill some.

You may find that these are pleasing enough for you and that you are content to smoke them for life. There is nothing wrong with this; many have done so and it provides the least fetishistic and complex smoking experience. Five Brothers stands out from most of these because it does not use aromatic flavoring or propylene glycol (PG), a moisturizing agent added to many OTC tobaccos. If your OTC tobacco comes out of the can or pouch and seems damp, it probably has a good dose of PG. Many aromatics, including those sold at the luxury level, also have this treatment.

From that point, the next stop is an entry-level luxury tobacco. I suggest going with a Dunhill blend because they are widely available, not overly flavored, and tend to be sliced for easy burning. You can generally get a tin of 50g/1.76oz for about $9 online or $15 in the real world, if you are in the United States; this will vary with local tobacco taxes. You may notice that you are paying quite a bit in taxes throughout this whole process, and wonder if that is in fact the impetus for the whole societal jihad against tobacco. Keep wondering. In places like Canada and Europe, they pay multiples of what you pay here. Scary.

At this point, I would stop moving up the ladder. Boutique blends are a variety of luxury blend that costs more and has more unique, ironic, oddball, quirky, and otherwise off-the-beaten path blends. However, it tends to be lower in nicotine content and it is unclear whether these weird little blends are actually that distinct from their archetypes. There are only so many types of tobacco and while many different combinations can be made, most of them resemble a few fundamental types. I have never ventured into Vintage tins and can say that, while undoubtedly these older blends were of a finer quality, that may not have been preserved over the years. Nicotine levels especially degrade. To my mind, the piping experience cannot be separated into “taste” or effect but must include both, and so the fetishism with flavor — even if grounded in science and experience — strikes me as perhaps being a mistake.

Tobacco comes in several cuts which reflect how the leaves are presented:

  • Shag. Cut laterally across the leaf, leaving an interlocked mess like peat moss that loads easily and burns well.
  • Ribbon. “Normal.” Thicker slices that seem to be vertically up and down the leaf.
  • Flake -> Ready Rubbed. Flake occurs when tobacco is pressed in blocks and then sliced; Ready Rubbed is the result of “rubbing out” those slices.
  • Plug. Tobacco is pressed together and allowed to mature that way, then cut into little pucks.
  • Cake. Like a plug, but loosely packed, resulting in a crumbly “coffee cake” style.
  • Cube. Cross-slicing the tobacco produces tiny cubes; sometimes hard to keep lit.
  • Twist -> Slices. Tobacco is twisted in plugs or flake is re-twisted in tubes, then cut into little “coin” shaped bits called slices.

The above simplifies a fairly complex process. You might also enjoy these viewpoints from P&C blender Russ Ouellette and Lane Limited manager Leonard Wortzel.

Multiple types of tobacco dot the landscape. These refer to the strain of tobacco plant and how it was cured and prepared. These are:

  • Burley. Think cigar leaves. This air-cured tobacco has a nutty flavor and higher nicotine and oil than most others. It is used to complement other tobaccos in blends, and is known for its tongue “bite” from high alkalinity.
  • Virginia. High sugar content and sweet natural taste make this type a favorite in many blends. Although this tobacco comes in many colors, its flavor stays within the mild range and makes it the basis of many blends.
  • Cavendish. This term applies to any tobacco that has been aged and cured with a heating process that brings out a fuller taste.
  • Latakia. This is Oriental tobacco which has been cured with smoke from burning oak, pine, juniper and yew wood to give it a bittersweet taste.
  • Oriental/Turkish. Sweet and low in nicotine, this is tobacco grown using the Eastern method of low soil nutrients and plenty of sun, which produces its fragrance and flavor.
  • Perique. Fermentation in its own juices after Burley tobacco is pressed into barrels gives Perique a spicy-sweet flavor. This is generally an additive to other blends to give them some spark
  • Dark Fired. Leaves are cured with smoke under carefully managed heat and humidity, producing a blend both strong in nicotine and flavor. It is used as an additive more than a main ingredient because of its intensity.

For more information, check out Russ Ouellette’s descriptions.

These are used in the following blends:

  • English. Mostly Virginia, with Latakia for body and Oriental tobaccos to provide spice.
  • Scottish. Similar to an English blend, the Scottish blend uses less Latakia and more Virginia, with little or no Orientals.
  • Balkan. Strong in Orientals and Latakia, this tobacco blend uses Virginia to balance those dominant flavors.
  • American. Although there are some similarities to the English, the American blend uses more Virginia with possible Cavendish or Kentucky style tobaccos.
  • Danish. These resemble the English, but with a deeper flavor and less spice, using more Burley and Cavendish but emphasizing stronger, more balanced flavors.

You will probably find yourself shopping by blend, which could be a substitute term for flavor. What type of smoke do you wish to taste tonight? There are several indexes for ranking different blends:

  • Harshness. How much acridity and bite there is. Strong smoke can be hard on the smoker, and “bite” is created by the alkalinity of the tobacco, which raises the pH and increases absorption of nicotine but may also cause a tangy burning sensation on the tongue.
  • Strength. You are smoking a nicotine-bearing plant. How much nicotine is delivered? A tobacco with high nicotine may be worth pounds of low-nic fruity aromatics.
  • Note. This refers to the smell left behind after the tobacco is burned. This influences both your taste of the tobacco, and what your friends, family and coworkers experience.

The de facto standard for tobacco assessments is Tobacco Reviews. Like other crowd-sourced sites such as Wikipedia and Metal-Archives, or reviews on Amazon, it is good for basic factual information and opinions from people whose judgment you have verified and who — as a result — you trust. It is not good for randomly reading reviews because most of them are written by twitchy, bitchy and queeny internet consumers who complain about all the wrong things, like all the irrelevant, and miss the point. Some of the tobaccos rated highly by this site’s users are excellent, but others are simply quirky hipster fodder. Tread carefully, and consider using the various pipe forums out there: Puff, Pipes, Pipe Smokers, Smokers Forum, and Tamp and Puff. The private reviews at this location have endured because they are frequently strikingly accurate. The main point is: find someone whose opinions you respect and tastes who align with yours, even if the exact opposite of yours, and you can figure out what you will like.

***

A word on lighting pipes: some prefer magnifying glasses and sun, others coals from the fire, still others matches and apparently, most like either butane lighters or Zippos. As a diehard match user, I can say that matches fail in the wind, and there is more wind that you might think, but that they seem to create the least influence on taste. Perhaps a laser is appropriate.

The pipe world is full of both facts and lore. Lore refers to anything passed on by groups of humans in social circumstances; the idea is that if it survives a dozen generations, it might be true. In the meantime, you will be wading through mountains of nonsense and worst of all, unnecessary complexity added by people who wish to seem profound or wise. Pipe-smoking is simple: you are lighting dried leaves in a tube and inhaling. The rest is mere adjustment.

The following resources may be helpful for those seeking to know more:

Here are some good places to go shopping for pipes and luxury tobacco:

Places to buy OTC tobacco, which online is sold in bulk:

Resources for those who wish to grow or blend their own tobacco:

Tobacco blenders and brands:

If you do not see your favorite blend, it is probably an imprint licensed to and manufactured by a larger group, or a boutique variety manufactured by one of the tobacco shops linked above.

For kicks, here is a list of famous pipe smokers. You can add me on there when I get famous, but be sure to mention I detest wimpy tobacco and think it should leave the hall.

Finally, the best metal for pipe smoking…

The economics of metal evolution

the_corpse_of_metal

The DLA/DMU has taken flak over the years for being unwilling to embrace new trends, but this criticism forgets that we also avoided endorsing older bad ideas. Our writers have generally avoided jumping on the bandwagon for the “trve kvlt” just as much as the new, millennial-friendly indie-rock version of metal. The reason we can do this is that we apply a simple quality standard instead of using the consensus of others to determine truth.

Despite having many editors, each of whom had somewhat varied opinions on the process, if viewed on the large scale the site has kept a generally consistent opinion. That is: some of the so-called classics are good, and few of the new school releases are good, but the determination is not made by category, but by analyzing each release on its own merits. This leads to sudden shock for some who expected us to be cheerleaders for anything that seems to “uphold the true spirit of the underground,” and dismay for those who like the newer material as release after release fails our test.

Metal is in a slump and has been since 1994, in quality. Correspondingly, it has been in a boom in terms of quantity of fans. We have more “metalheads” (cough) now than ever before. However, anyone who is not in denial — and most are — can tell you that quality has fallen off dramatically. The music has lost its energy, its nerve and its insight and been buried under a wave of bands that are either obedient and docile system products, or slaves to the underground record-collecting audience that does not care about quality so long as the aesthetics of previous generations are preserved. Both groups unfortunately are useful idiots for industry, which can keep producing low-cost clone bands and reaping the profits.

We discard bands for two reasons: not being metal, and not being good. The bands that are simply not good tend to have the most fans, ironically. Who among us can claim that, for example, Blazebirth Hall bands and Drudkh offered anything musical or artistic to metal? They cloned Graveland in a light and breezy melodic form that is essentially music for children. In the same way we refuse to celebrate underground “favorites” that consist of ranting and disorganized music like Sepulchral Aura, or avantgarde prog fanboy-bait like Fanisk and Deathspell Omega.

In addition, we discard that which does not uphold the artistic, intellectual and philosophical spirit of metal. There is quite a bit of overlap here with “not being good.” We would not endorse Cradle of Filth; nor would we endorse Opeth, back in the day, or Cannibal Corpse, on the basis that they were essentially rock bands trying to assimilate metal and thus produced a moronic mindset. Similarly Pantera and to a lesser degree, Anthrax. Back in the day we thought SOD was inferior to Cryptic Slaughter, DRI, and Corrosion of Conformity. We refused to endorse Wolves in the Throne Room, Animals as Leaders, Gojira, Mastodon and other indie-rock pretending to be metal. We ignore Pelican and all stoner doom bands because they are boring and terrible. This music is distraction from metal, not metal, but its fans make a big show of being “very metal,” which tells you exactly what they are hiding and deflecting your attention from.

This approach wins us zero friends in the short term, but trusted readers in the long term. People — especially those who lead purposeful lives and do not have lots of time, nor enjoy, combing through catalogs and blogs trying to figure out which 1% of the reviews are not lies — like getting the low-down on quality metal. They enjoy that moment of discovery when they find something really good, something they can listen to not just this week and six months or a year from now, but for future decades. That is ultimately the standard by which any music fan operates; they like music, so they veer toward the best, not just at a level of mechanics (technicality) but artistically, or its relevance to the ongoing philosophical and moral maturation of humankind. Most of humanity likes mediocrity or at least convinces itself that it likes those bands. After all, Third Eye Blind has sold more records than most segments of the metal genre. But popularity — whether among credulous hipsters or gormless mass media fans — has never determined quality. Consensus is not reality. Only reality is reality, and we make our best stab at it.

With that in mind, you may ask: why write negative reviews? The answer may surprise you. We seek to give music fans the intellectual tools they need to fight back the onslaught of Opeth, Pantera, Ulver, Cradle of Filth, Meshuggah, Vattnet Viskar, Cannibal Corpse and Deathspell Omega styled bands. We use both positive and negative examples to illustrate, to the best of our ability, what metal is and which approaches to it have produced the quality level necessary for prolonged listening. This puts us at odds with most metal journalists, for whom writing is a day job and as a result, is interpreted as endless enthusiasm for whatever is new and exciting because the consensus likes it. They are essentially advertisers because they are writing ad copy about these bands, not a look into what makes their music function. It is designed to make you buy music, because journalists who can sell music get famous and become editors. You will notice that major publications run almost no negative reviews. Why is that, you might ask? Because their job is to sell music, not review it, even if they call it “review.”

In all human endeavors our social impulses, which because we are selfish beings are actually self-interested impulses translated to altruism to flatter and manipulate others, override any sense of quality or purpose. The task ceases to become the task and becomes the process of creating the appearance of results instead of results; bands stop trying to be good, and focus on replicating what has worked before in new forms. The “best” (by consensus) bands “sound” different on the surface, but musically are extremely similar, because that formula has worked in the past. That is a social impulse: make what people like because it does not challenge them and makes them feel smart, profound or at least “with the crowd” to be listening to it. This social impulse has ruined metal since 1994.

Metal thrives — as it did during the mid-70s, early 80s and early 90s — under two factors: (1) it is ignored by most people, so it is free from the manipulations of those who want to sell rebellion-flavored rock to morons, and (2) it has some truly great artists to kickstart it and establish a standard. The former is self-evident, but the latter can be explained as follows. When early Norse black metal came out, it set a standard of quality and allowed fans, by simply choosing to spend their money on what was more rewarding, to exclude bands that did not meet that standard. Why would you buy Forgotten Wolves when you can get Darkthrone? Why would you pick up another speed metal clone when you can have top-quality death metal? Metal thrived when it was elitist, closed-minded and viciously competitive. Now that it has become a group hug, quality has suffered and no one seems to have noticed. Except us — and we are watching.

The Forgotten Role of Drums in Metal

darkthrone

Fenriz as the archetypal metal drummer is perhaps a puzzle to most, perhaps considering his status to be a mere by-produt of Darkthrone becoming an icon. The status of most worthy personalities of metal tends to be double sided in that way. There is the respect for what came before, usually a blind fanhood of what is not understood and is only explainable in terms of some kind of historical relevance and then there is the underground ackowledgement of the musical talents of the artist in question that stand the test of time. The difference in perception arises from the fact that these artists’ greatest merit lies in subtletly. The Subtlety of where to use a specific technique, however rudimentary, so that the music is better enhanced, completed or open to being built on (say the drums got written before everything else).

In drumming in particular, the lack of appreciation for proper arrangement has been greater than in the vocal or guitar departments, perhaps because the only antecedents in this type of percussion come from rock and jazz. In rock, the drums are merely a time keeper and groove-adder. In Jazz, it is typical that they serve that function plus, like all the other instruments, allow the musician to keep masturbating on the instrument with little thought to how this adds to the music as concept and not self-referential indulgence. But in all fairness, there is an old school of jazz in which the music is kept together more neatly and in which the drums play a much more constructive role.

In metal, the drums are not only a support instrument but should blend in into a whole. In fact, ideally, the guitars should be doing this too. The point is so subtle and hard to grasp that even the musicians that acknowledge it have a very hard time translating it into practice. As with all great things coming from a simple concept, it is easier said than done. The most prudent drummers and bands limit the percussion to a function (that in metal is more prominent and important than in rock) rather than the spotlight, and this is at least a first step.

It was the increasing distance between all rock-like perspective in music that made metal approach a more purified and important integration of drums into its frameworks. Works such as Hvis Lyst Tar Oss or Transilvanian Hunger are inconceivable without percussion. That is not to say that the rest of the elements are not good, but they are incomplete without percussion. And so are their corresponding drum patterns without them. Metal had to go back to an extreme minimalism, stripping down every layer to realize the importance of every little element. This Burzum album belongs to end of black metal as an era, but I will place it here even if it appears counter-chronological.

After an initial dive into this primitivism driven (Celtic Frost, Bathory) by gut instinct of the most authentic kind, death metal proper developed and quickly escalated in its use of technical arrangements that went overboard in the sense that they were unnecessary for the point of the music itself, though not necessarily bad. Technicality was set besides essence and communication in importance. The formal music tendencies that are so prominent in classical music started to surface in metal.

A great overlooked exception to this rule was the work of Adrian Erlandsson within the framework of arrangements and indications of Alf Svensson for At the Gates The Red in the Sky is Ours. The fact that these integral arrangements are unmatched in death metal to this very day is a testament to how little understood they are. The fact that the drumming here twists, bends, propulses, stops, counterpoints in a great variety of different drum patterns that while theoretically rudimentary are often technically demanding, especially when performed as  a whole, indicate that a sense of continuity in expression must be kept by the drummer through changes of tempo, time signature and character. What makes this superior to other progressive-oriented albums is that for all this variety, the style of expression is tightly restricted. The reduced repertoire of guitar and drum techniques to the minimal from which it builds its complexity in a language of its own endows it with this distinct personality. Without the guidance of the architect Svensson, though, this band completely floundered in mediocrity soon after his departure.

Today, few bands grasp the importance of the integrated drums let alone being actually capable of translating the concept to a concrete plan and then puting it into practice. As far as I have seen, with very particular exceptions, the most sober drumming comes from the modern tradition that has branched from (old, the only real) black metal. First of all, it may come to those learning it by virtue of studying the past, this makes the grasping of a concept much easier. This does not include the nu-black or post-black camps which represent a departure, regression and deconstruction of metal, a reflection of decadence.

It is rather in the work of Abyssum’s Akherra that we see the role of drums as an essential part of the music. For this, the rest of the instruments must accomodate the drums, not only run on top of it. The naive layering of instruments most bands are used to is precisely what makes them amateurs in this. In proper metal, the drums are inside, not under the music. This is part of what the metaphor “drumming in counterpoint” reflects. Drum patterns that are relatively independent in the sense that they aren’t just there as a support, but come into contact at every moment with the music, bending, yielding and transforming along with the rest of the music.

Such attention to detail goes far beyond just playing slower or faster, stronger or softer when the rest of the music does so. It is not only a matter of intensity or speed in correspondence. The drums must live in symbiosis with the guitars, and not like a running pair of athletes besides each other. Silences and types of drum patterns specifically tailored to different sections are exemplified in Abyssum’s “The Illusion of Pan” in which we see important  decisions taken about the smallest details such as ride strikes in the rhythm of a particular keyboard melody speed, the variations between soft blast beats and other less forward-moving patterns as great inflections and indicators of the song’s pictorial journey that are not as clearly reflected in the rest of the music alone.

This entry is not about judging this or that band over another. The point is the study of drums for the future of metal. The recognition of the evolution in the use of drums throughout the genre. Surprisingly, Black Sabbath Master of Reality shows the kind of thinking that would go into Celtic Frost To Mega Therion in terms of the reduction and powerful use of elements into highly-personalized expressions. In this Black Sabbath showed how far ahead of their times they were. It took metal more than a decade to catch up to them. These musical transpirations in their music were refined through the black metal tradition going through death metal. The best we can hope for is bands today piecing out elements in this way, and being able to identifying what great drumming consists of in metal. But this must start out from the vision of metal as a proper music, as highly-integrated elements which conspire within an indissolubly dependent complex set of relations.

Olivier Messiaen plays Olivier Messiaen (1956)

Olivier Messiaen about 1940 at the console of the Cavaillé-Coll-organ St.Trinité in Paris

Olivier Messiaen about 1940 at the console of the Cavaillé-Coll-organ St.Trinité in Paris

Famously noted for having claimed that he saw colors when listening to music, Olivier Messiaen was born very early in the 20th century (1908) and was one of the last in a bastard’s litter of composers to be caught in the crossfire between a lingering romantic spirit and modernist aesthetics. This extremely vivid perception of musical tones and his fondness for birds and their songs were, doubtless, a great influence on his methodical choice for musical language. This includes his own compiled and defined modes of limited transposition. These existed before but he was the first to compile them and examine their boundaries and relationships exhaustively.

Hanging in an interesting intersection of the concentrated meditations of Ildjarn Landscapes, Tangerine Dream’s and Klaus Schulze’s early improvisation-like soundscapes and the latter’s methodic motific constructions, Messiaen’s organworks such as Les Corps Glorieux anticipates them all and brings them together in a very personal language. Appart from that, we find passages that could be taken from the most bizarre organ fantasias dreamed of by Baroque or Romantic composers. What is special about these works is the convincing power with which he brings all this together without falling into the modern tendency of classical music to twist around and transform ideas so quickly the listener barely has time to be submerged in them.

In contrast, his music lingers in the ecstatic wonder that we might guess was induced by an appreciation of nature and its patterns as the grand work of the Judeo-Christian god as per his Roman Catholic beliefs. The exact source of it is not important, but the state of mind achieved in silent and inner introspection and  outwardly-projected contemplation is transmitted in these organworks through a plethora of distinct techniques that Messiaen manipulate without incurring in an overcrowding of any particular piece. But even when a comparison between movements is done, the nature of the whole work is not disrupted, all come under an intent, even though each of these is an idea of its own. While any can lump compositions and songs in an album or title and call it a day, in Messiaen’s different organworks we find the perfect example of  works as expressions of ideas in episodes. Integral works that divide individual ideas into self-contained movements.

The recordings of 1956 are said to suffer from audo-technical problems even for the recording technology of the time. A hiss is present here and there, and not all tones are captured in the pristine way that classical music audiophiles fantasize about. In addition to that, the way Olivier Messiaen himself plays his works on the organ is criticized heavily by some, arguing that he is not a real organist. This is quite a statement given that he held a post as an organist at a church for decades. The third condition that affects the recording is that the organ is said to be out of tune, with some pipes diverging slightly from how they should sound. In my personal opinion, given the nature and character of Messiaen’s music, and the fact that he wrote the pieces for that precise organ, the imperfect condition of the instrument is perfect for the performance. His talents are more than enough, as he composed and feels the music he gave birth to, filling it with  expression in rubato and more as it flows through and out of him. The subpar recording and defects in hiss and what not only add to the eery atmosphere of mixed wonder and dread that probably represents the Christian fear of God. Love and admiration and extreme fear mixed together in irreconcilable battle for primacy in an endless cycle that fades into eternity.

The following is a three-part series of articles discussing this performance and contain links to horribly-tagged mp3 files of the 1956 performance of the composer’s works by himself:

Olivier Messiaen plays Olivier Messiaen part 1

Olivier Messiaen plays Olivier Messiaen part 2

Olivier Messiaen plays Olivier Messiaen part 3

While he was instrumental in the academic exploration of his techniques (he compiled two treatises: the later one in five volumes was substantially complete when he died and was published posthumously), and was himself a master of music analysis, he considered the development and study of techniques to be a means to intellectual, aesthetic and emotional ends. Thus Messiaen maintained that a musical composition must be measured against three separate criteria: it must be interesting, beautiful to listen to, and it must touch the listener.”

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olivier_Messiaen#Music