Metal riffs without distortion

As something of a followup to yesterday’s article about rearranging or otherwise reinterpreting metal for compositional purposes – Youtube guitarist VAALVLA recently uploaded a video showcasing the main riffs of some popular metal and rock songs played clean and without any guitar distortion.

This was insightful and/or gimmicky enough to earn the attention of a couple other metal journalism websites, and it helps to reveal, on some level, the difference in technique between, for example, a Slayer and a Pantera song. A drum track was provided, but it doesn’t detract from the lesson at hand. VAALVLA also has several other videos in a similar vein that may be interesting to our readers.

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Hipsters

croquet

The metal community has always defended itself against poseurs, with most of us realizing that hipsters, scenesters and other groups are varieties of poseur.

What is a poseur? Someone who pretends for the social status of being seen in a hip group. Metal, as it turns out, has authenticity because we are actual rebels, not rock ‘n’ rollers singing protest songs to give legitimacy to their pursuit of hedonism.

Hipsters, poseurs and scenesters are threatening because they are insincere. They adopt a musical genre to make themselves look cool, and in the process sabotaging it by bring it to a lowest common denominator of attention-getting behavior.

This guts the genre from within. The spirit that made it authentic has been replaced with the same trashy plastic advertising that covers everything else. The genre then becomes absorbed by the same old stuff, which is itself a mishmash of whatever has sold records over the past five generations.

Perhaps the best definition of hipster — the mishmash left over when a civilization fails — comes to us from AdBusters magazine:

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

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

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

But even that captures what hipsters are now, not the simple fact that they are an old archetype going back to The Enlightenment. The Bohemians of the 1900s, the rebels of the 1600s, and the giggin’ hipsters of the 2010s have some things in common: deliberately unconventional behavior, focus on ironism and uniqueness at an aesthetic level, and hedonistic lifestyles at the expense of the rest of us.

New York Magazine has more on the history of the hipster:

The hipster, however, was someone else already. Specifically, he was a black subcultural figure of the late forties, best anatomized by Anatole Broyard in an essay for the Partisan Review called “A Portrait of the Hipster.” A decade later, the hipster had evolved into a white subcultural figure. This hipster—and the reference here is to Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro” essay for Dissent in 1957—was explicitly defined by the desire of a white avant-garde to disaffiliate itself from whiteness, with its stain of Eisenhower, the bomb, and the corporation, and achieve the “cool” knowledge and exoticized energy, lust, and violence of black Americans. (Hippie itself was originally an insulting diminutive of hipster, a jab at the sloppy kids who hung around North Beach or Greenwich Village after 1960 and didn’t care about jazz or poetry, only drugs and fun.)

The hipster, in both black and white incarnations, in his essence had been about superior knowledge—what Broyard called “a priorism.” He insisted that hipsterism was developed from a sense that minorities in America were subject to decisions made about their lives by conspiracies of power they could never possibly know. The hip reaction was to insist, purely symbolically, on forms of knowledge that they possessed before anyone else, indeed before the creation of positive knowledge—a priori.

This leads us to wonder: why are hipsters so omnipresent, if they are transparent? Hipsters seek others who are either clueless or equally dependent on not mentioning the fakeness of hipsterism. Like drug addicts clustering, or cult members in their caverns, hipsters seek out people they can manipulate, control and influence.

The New York Times gives us a glimpse into the psychology of the hipster:

All hipsters play at being the inventors or first adopters of novelties: pride comes from knowing, and deciding, what’s cool in advance of the rest of the world. Yet the habits of hatred and accusation are endemic to hipsters because they feel the weakness of everyone’s position — including their own. Proving that someone is trying desperately to boost himself instantly undoes him as an opponent. He’s a fake, while you are a natural aristocrat of taste. That’s why “He’s not for real, he’s just a hipster” is a potent insult among all the people identifiable as hipsters themselves.

With all that being said, would you want this self-important psychology and fake social scene to invade your genre? This question weighs heavily on metalheads as SJWs emerge as the newest form of hipster, combining the demands for personal hedonism with a Communist-derived insistence that others subsidize it through tolerance and, ultimately, actual subsidies. It’s not surprising that many hipsters exist on an equal diet of trust funds and food stamps.

SJWs want to have the hipster psychology take over heavy metal, and while they claim it is for political reasons, the real reason is much simpler: they want to fill the room with people they can control, manipulate and influence by excluding anyone who is a realist, or has a complex worldview, or adheres to traditional heavy metal ideals. SJWs want to destroy our standards and replace them with their own so that, in the new chaos, they can keep the genre filled with clueless people who won’t point out the obvious.

That SJWs are just giggin’ hipsters.

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How to write better metal music – Recontextualization

Rachmaninoff playing a Steinway grand piano

Too many of the bands I review are (apparently) uninterested in their songwriting beyond a basic level, and too many of those that actually are interested approach improving it from exclusively an academic position – the idea that applying enough ideas from theory will make for interesting content. DMU’s orthodox positions are firstly that being able to work from some sort of message/concept is a potent motivator, and secondly that greater emphasis is needed on structural development. These are both useful things to keep in mind, but properly implementing them requires a great deal of effort and possibly some rearrangement of your internal mental hardware. While there is no substitute for hard work, there is one particularly useful technique I’d like to share that helps with the latter.

The concept is fairly basic – take a work of music, transcribe it, and adapt it for different instrumentation, but executing it effectively takes some proficiency. For the best results, you need to use instruments that require radically different performance technique than the originals, or at least something that imposes major restrictions on your sonic palette. The canonical example around here is either a kazoo or a piano, depending on how serious an article discussing the subject is. As someone who relies heavily on software to create and ‘perform’ music, I would tend to recommend restrictive, simulationist sequencing software like Famitracker (which emulates the limited sound hardware of the Nintendo Entertainment System). Ultimately, the exercise has been done enough by other people that de-emphasizing the specific choice of instrument makes sense.

Ideally, the very act of rearranging a composition will provide some insights into its structure. Transcribing the composition requires some understanding of what an instrument can and can’t do, and possibly a strong ear if good notation or transcription is lacking. Furthermore, the limitations of the new instruments may force one aspect of the songwriting into the limelight, revealing its strengths and weaknesses. One caveat is that the derivative you end up making will probably incorporate your own biases as a performer and composer, but even that might help you to understand your own strengths and weaknesses in that regard. I personally should know, since I often end up taking my own compositions and rearranging them as I gain access to new tools I want to take advantage of. In the process, I often end up making structural changes that hopefully strengthen the new versions, and I also learn ways to make future works better.

In short, rearranging is a useful technique to learn some aspects of composition, although it’s no panacea, especially since there are limits to how much original thought you add while still calling it a rearrangement. Given an opportunity to hone your composition skills, though, you should seriously consider giving it a shot, especially if you’re in a band that likes to play covers.

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Academics create witch hunt against metal

karl_spracklen_-_gabrielle_riches

Academics, always in a position to justify their jobs and knowing they can make headlines by finding “racism” and “sexism” under every rock like 21st century witchfinders general, have recently released a study claiming associations with racism and sexism in folk metal.

As Leeds Beckett University states:

“Through the study, I found that although women fans of heavy metal enjoy folk metal with the same kind of passion and intensity as male fans, and there is no doubt they find identity and belonging through the music, the heart of folk metal is predominantly masculine. The warrior myth that folk metal is focused on is normalising this masculine predominance in our modern day world- men still have enormous social, cultural and political power.

“Folk metal’s obsession with warriors and cultural purity, displayed through tales of Vikings and dressing up as Vikings on stage, reduces belonging and identity in a muti-cultural, cosmopolitan society to a few exclusive myths. It is showing white men how to be white men and showing women and ethnic minorities their place in European society.”

Talk about jumping the shark: the definition of “racism” used by these academics is pride in your heritage and masculinity, in the context of music enjoyed by women (and, from my observation, people from minority groups as well). What is this, then? It’s another attempt to browbeat metal into going along with the SJW agenda by calling us bad names and hoping we’ll apologize, purge the dissenters and start repeating the correct message as these academics see it.

Karl Spracklen, previously interviewed here, became part of Metalgate when he “unfriended” me on Facebook and presumably helped block me from the Metpol mailing list after SJWs attacked me for allegedly having opinions that were not politically corrected. It is interesting that he, as a white male, caught the fear and now has joined the SJW side.

As always, metal remains a desired commodity. Metal symbolizes rebellion and freedom. That is why many groups — Christians, Nazis, SJWs, corporations — would love to be able to control it and have it parrot their party line, thus controlling more minds. But as Metalgate pointed out, the resistance in metal to such control is strong and we enjoy telling society where it can stick its pretentious and manipulative “moral” standards.

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Causality in music

Domino cascade (Image by aussiegall on Wikimedia Commons)
Guest post by William Pilgrim

Causality is the interplay between cause and effect. Infinite regress, or reduction till singularity, is of little practical use to our daily affairs, but when you pause to think about it, everything you do today has its roots in what you did yesterday. Today and yesterday might seem like two altogether discrete entities when considered in this fashion, but cause and effect work against the backdrop of time, and as such entail an infinite number of degrees or gradations between each other. Introduce a sufficiently large number of minute increments between the succession of two events, and this line of regression can be stretched all the way back to the point of our birth, and based on modern prenatal research, even beyond. This is the same principle that Buddhist philosophy talks about, the same premise on which Isaac Asimov’s Hari Seldon created his discipline of psychohistory in the Foundation books, and the same concept on which current market trends and data are analyzed.

There shouldn’t be complaints of determinism leveled against this line of thinking, simply a greater accountability for our actions, in both conscious and unconscious states. And, in any case, life cannot be lived with any kind of energy while constantly tracing our footsteps into the distant past; we can learn from our past but the power to affect change in our present and, more importantly, in our future rests entirely with us. How then does causality influence music? In the post on old and new extreme metal, I briefly mentioned how an idea arises in the mind and has to be persisted with for the entirety of a song for it to be logically, and emotionally, coherent. The following is a comment I made on the same post on DMU:

“A point I would’ve liked to touch on in this post is that in the case of most good extreme metal songs, you can trace a way back to the overall theme of the song from whichever point in its trajectory you may currently be occupying. David Rosales had a post on something related to this under the heading Developmental Variation, and it goes beyond simply staying in the same key, following chords, etc. “Vetteneter” is a good example of this, despite the significant change towards the end; so is Gorgoroth’s “Måneskyggens slave”. The cause needs to inhere in the effect, tenuous though it may seem, for a song to be coherent.”

The property of inherence means for a certain quality to be endemic or inherent in a substance. By the same token, it can also be taken to mean that this quality is permanent in the substance, and that the substance ceases to remain what it was once it loses this self-same quality. Often, effects bears little to no outward resemblance to the causes that led to them, but by the very nature of causality, all causes are germane in proceeding effects.

Music presents a peculiar example of causality in action. Songs have themes; the good ones do anyway. Every moment in a song exists in a chain with every other moment in the song, sharing an intimate bond with its neighbours. Good songs ensure that these bonds remain embedded in the listener’s consciousness, whether he realizes it then or not, and however strained their “valency” might initially appear. Simple rock music and rock-derived metal have it easier in this respect than architecturally intricate and harmonically ambivalent genres like death metal and black metal where songs are generally built on floating relationships between notes and modes.

Nevertheless, the point made above regarding a song’s trajectory holds, and that is this: the essence of a song has to suffuse its entire body, as impermeable as the body itself may seem. We can refer to this aspect of songwriting as logical dialogue and internal coherence between parts and of the parts themselves; the idea behind the song, wherever it may come from, needs to inhere throughout the length of the song, and maintain a trail of crumbs back to a relative first cause, as disparate as the effects that follow in its wake may seem.

The three songs below are from distinctly different extreme metal genres but they illustrate this point well. They use different techniques to realize these ideas but what initially appears as a jarring, irreconcilable severance from the core of the song is eventually subsumed into the greater idea. Subsumed, in fact, is the wrong word to use in this context, because the change, by everything that has been written above, would have had to naturally subsist in the initial idea.

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Extreme metal, old and new

Asteroid impact

Guest post by William Pilgrim

A reader recently posted a comment asking my opinion on modern extreme metal bands like Teitanblood and Ascension. We often take it as an article of faith that modern metal is a fallen genre that parted ways from the aspects that made the heyday of this music so glorious; indeed, it is almost a guarantee that any random second or third tier album from the early years of the genre will compare favourably with the current wave of practitioners.

But why should this be so? Forget about the intangibles for just now; elan vital, vir, passion, and spirit, as much stock as one puts in them, are ultimately amorphous, unquantifiable entities. But to the discerning ear, the very manner in which this music is played contributes greatly to the nurture and propagation of these ideas. But let’s not leave it at that even; the manner in which music is played is the result of an outlook on life and the world around us, a perspective that originates inside the mind with very distinct inspirations and goals assigned for itself. At least it should be so for the genuine musician who is willing to pay tribute to something greater than himself rather than be just another among the flock vying for whatever holds his fancy in the moment. When looked at from this angle, song writing and the musical techniques involved therein become offshoots of a state of mind. The difference between old and new then becomes the difference between states of mind that are separated by time, culture, and upbringing.

On the surface – and this is a broad generalization but it holds for the most part – new extreme metal bands lack definition and detail in riffs. Consider the most recent Teitanblood album Death and contrast it with something as universally unheralded – deservedly so in many quarters – as Krabathor’s debut Only Our Death from 1992. Teitanblood, hugely influenced as they are by the war metal of Blasphemy, attempt to paint broad swathes of atmosphere through repetition as opposed to the many-toothed, serrated approach to songwriting that Krabathor and others from that pocket of time display. The former lulls the unsuspecting listener into a trance-like state by concealing its lack of songwriting virtue through synthetic extremeness, but the second approach usually contains more thought, effort, and dynamics, and mimics the constant upturning and redressal of values that great death metal strives towards.

caspar_david_friedrich-the_wanderer_above_the_sea_of_fog

Old death metal as a combination of romanticism…

Edvard Munch - The Scream (1893)

…and expressionism

Bands like Teitanblood prioritize mood over content and coherence

Bands like Teitanblood prioritize mood over content and coherence

Borrowing terms from the schools of art and retrospectively applying them to metal, we can then say that old death metal is a curious but potent blend of romanticism and a nihilistic expressionism, on more or less equal footing: romantic in self-awareness, expressionist in revealing the horrors of the mind, and nihilistic in rejecting established values in favour of new belief systems. A band like Teitanblood, on the other hand, can be said to belong to an impressionist state of mind, the word impressionist signifying in no way any relation between Teitanblood and purveyors of that stream of thought in the arts. Instead, impressionism is used here merely to suggest the preeminence of mood over content, and the blurring of the music’s outer edges to the point of dissociation.

One might say that even undisputed classics like Darkthrone and Burzum used the repetition mentioned above to make their point, but the important thing to remember in those bands’ cases is that repetition was used as a story telling device to travel between distinctly realized book ends. Many modern bands seem to lack the roughest notion of what it means for a song to have a beginning and an end, and how islands spread across the length of the song can be used as “hooks” to hop from one spot to another, but always with the ultimate aim in mind: the song is God and everything else superfluous. Hear the song posted below from Ascension, a band many supposedly educated fans claim to be the second coming of the genre. Then contrast it with the Kvist song that immediately follows. Hear them back to back so that the dissonance stands out in stark relief.

Hear how the entire body of ‘Vettenetter’ is geared towards safeguarding the primacy of a greater idea, an idea that is directed outwards as opposed to the redundant, self-absorbed mannerisms of the Ascension track. The feelings Kvist induce in the listener can be classified as “romantic” in the truest sense of the word, a mixture of awe, beauty, human insignificance, yes, but also the perpetual struggle to understand and realize a greater meaning to our place in the world. As opposed to Kvist’s romanticism, however, bands like Ascension are entirely hedonistic, which by association implies a pathetic solipsism. The self is greater than the whole, the moment is greater than eternity, live now while you can, however you can, for who knows what tomorrow will bring?

This isn’t just abstract wool gathering; Ascension’s solipsism manifests itself in the carelessly strewn-about rock star solos, in the abrupt shifts in tone, in the complete absence of a unifying theme, and ultimately in the absurd, conceited belief that what they’re doing is in any way or form of artistic merit. Where Kvist intentionally dwarf themselves in humble tribute to the magnificent life-giving forces of nature, Ascension are like ghosts trapped between worlds, with no sense of who they are or what purpose they presently serve. Their concoction is cynically designed to appeal to Everyman, meaning the lowest common denominator in listener intelligence. A little of this, a little of that, take a potluck lunch home and you’re bound to find a bone to gnaw on. World Terror Committee, indeed.

Which of the two is the greater evil? Teitanblood’s impressionism, cheap and disoriented as it is, can be understood on some level as a honest effort from poor students of the metal genre. That is not to give it more credence than it deserves nor does it mean that it shouldn’t be called out for its many weaknesses or for its fans’ sheep-like mentality. But it’s only a matter of time before these bands are consigned to the dustbin of obscurity because of their self-devouring approach to music.

Bands like Ascension, however, work on the principle of fast-food equality, but through mechanisms subtler than what Cradle Of Filth and Dimmu Borgir employed twenty years ago. On the surface, they appear intoxicating to simpler tastes, shiny exterior, ersatz evil and all. They even go some distance in mimicking the sound of their elders, only to douse jaded listeners with buckets of icy cold water. Most listeners don’t care, however, and these pathetic tidbits are enough to guarantee the Ascensions of the world a name in the “new underground” for the foreseeable future.

The greater tragedy, however, is that these bands signify the death of the mind, and this is evidenced in the class of discussion that occurs around them and their music. To sensitive ears and minds, there is no higher emotion that a plastic, cookie-cutter band like Ascension is capable of eliciting, but by their subversive nature and by being infiltration points into this music for all the wrong elements, bands like these present the greatest danger to metal. That should no longer be considered an exaggeration, because for every new kid that discovers old treasures, ten more will flock to an Ascension and will eventually use the same strategies when they come to make music of their own, not knowing any better. After all, noise when amplified enough will always drown out quality.

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Doom and the normalization of metal

Main menu from Doom (1993)

The year was 1993, and Western society’s appetite for ultraviolence was steadily growing, as perhaps evidenced by our knowledge of the period’s death metal. Besides the music industry, other forms of entertainment embraced this, including Id Software, which at the time was a small but successful video game developer who increasingly specialized in first person shooters. Doom used much of the same technology as Id’s previous games in the genre, but due to better technology and marketing, it sold enormously more copies and understandably exerted more influence on game culture. Particularly interesting to us at DMU was Id’s decision to incorporate metal music into Doom. This wasn’t the first video game to showcase a straight up heavy metal soundtrack; that honor most likely goes to Rock’n’Roll Racing on the Super Nintendo, six months before the release of Doom. Rock’n’Roll Racing used synthesized covers of several popular heavy metal and hard rock tunes, but Doom arguably went a step further by using nominally original music. Robert Prince’s compositions for the game (and its immediate sequel, Doom II) are split between these ‘metal’ tracks and more ambient, downtempo tracks.

The music of Doom is definitely inspired by contemporary popular metal works to the point of near plagiarism; Prince mentions on the fan site Doomworld that Id initially asked him to do a contemporary metal soundtrack. Other sources mention that Prince relied primarily on the game’s design documents to inform his efforts and had limited contact with Id’s employees during the process. Regardless, tracks here are often just a few notes off from literally being rehashed Slayer or Metallica or one of the other popular bands that inspired this music. Song structures and everything else is understandably simplified, as video game music generally has to loop and can’t afford to be too prominent or obnoxious lest it be muted by an irritated player. It is still a reasonably appropriate backdrop to Doom‘s mixture of gun combat and labyrinthine exploration, although some players here will just use their death metal collections instead.

While streamed, sampled audio was common in video games by 1993, Doom initially used sequenced music, presumably to save on storage space and to avoid locking out potential buyers without access to a CD-ROM drive. The soundtrack was originally composed for General MIDI-compatible devices like Prince’s synthesizers, but on the average computer of the time, it’s most likely the soundtrack’s metal simulacra would play through one of Yamaha’s FM synthesis chips. The main problem with the OPL3 version of this soundtrack is a hardware one – while capable of producing a wide variety of sounds, the OPL3 suffers from severe anemia, particularly because of its weak percussion abilities, and therefore this version belies the music’s instrumentation.

Doom was, however, quickly ported to many other computers and consoles in light of its commercial success, where it would run into all sorts of technical limitations. Everyone involved in the ports handled the soundtrack differently, ranging from the complete omission of music on the Atari Jaguar, to rearrangements of various quality, including the infamously bad Sega 32X version, and even the Playstation port, notable as its main composer (Aubrey Hodges) contributed his own, original soundtrack of dark ambient music instead of using Prince’s work. The most “authentic” way to experience the soundtrack is probably Prince’s Doom Music compilation, which showcases much of the music performed on its original synthesizers; any additions are at least intended by the original author, although I still find the ability of mid-90’s electronics to mimic a distorted guitar underwhelming at best.

I doubt Id was specifically planning to popularize metal music when they released Doom, but they probably did a great deal in that regard, even though by 1993, mainstream metal was on the verge of commercial collapse and/or Pantera. The correspondence between common metal imagery, and the game’s demon-slaughtering violence and hellscapes is too obvious to ignore, though. Doom presumably sold more copies for pushing computers to their limit and being graphically violent, but the soundtrack’s decisions definitely paved the way for more and better-known works to feature metal as a soundtrack. In the process, it’s won such fans as Trey Azagthoth of Morbid Angel, who even made his own content for the game (although unfortunately, he didn’t bother to include his band’s music).

 

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The differences between politeness and political correctness

duel

When our society fell apart, we lost politeness. In our modern view, politeness consists of validating other people whether they deserve it or not, especially if what they are doing is stupid or destructive. “It’s all good, man,” is the refrain of our time, inspired by our hippie grandparents.

Politeness originally evolved as a way to disagree without making it personal. With its replacement, Political Correctness (PC), everything is personal. Under politeness, you could disagree vehemently with a fellow citizen and then go on your way and still be friends. With PC, you have no reason to disagree with him unless he is bad — which used to be reserved for pedophiles, rapists, thieves and the like — but being un-PC is reason enough to consider him bad.

Members of the cult of PC will drop friendships with people who disagree with them. Where an impolite person would be simply shunned, in the PC mindset the only way to lose someone is to make them out to be a villain or enemy. They achieve this status by failing to universally validate all of the people they encounter. Dislike of someone’s behavior is considered dislike of the person themselves, and reason enough to exile the person who dared notice the bad behavior.

Consider this conversation:

Person 1: You’ll like Sally, she’s nice.

Person 2: Everyone here is nice.

Person 1: Yeah, but I know Sally.

Person 2: Why do you hate most people?

Under politeness, it was understood — and this is too complex for PC people — that saying Sally was nice was a way of vouching for her. But PC does not allow you to selectively approve of anything. Either it is all good (“, man”) or you are an enemy who targets some people by the simple act of not approving of them. In the same way, PC people demand that you relinquish any personal preference or opinion other than a positive one.

Person 1: I really like tech-deth.

Person 2: Which bands?

Person 1: Oh, anything, really. All of it is good.

Person 2: I only like Shove This Microphone Into My Rectum.

Person 1: Only? There’s a lot more good than that. Lighten up, citizen. Expand your calm.

Politeness allowed people to converse on the basis of exchanging information. This meant that an answer could be reached, or at least viewpoints could be fully articulated and people could mull it over later. Under PC, the right answer is always the same answer: everyone is right, we just really like one answer (but the others are fine, too, not that there’s anything wrong with that). It is essentially an agree to disagree for all debates, factual questions, logical questions and preferences.

Person 1: Incantation is the best old-school death metal band.

Person 2: Naw, I like Death better.

Person 3: We all have our preferences and all of them are good.

Person 2: That’s just your opinion, man.

Needless to say, PC is the defense of people who are underconfident in their beliefs. If they honestly thought that being a slut, being a hipster or liking stupid music was acceptable, they would not be trying to force you to validate it through universal acceptance. They would be instead proudly liking what they like and would be able to articulate why. PC replaces the need to have a why (or facts, or logic) for any belief. Instead, they simply regard everything as a subjective preference …except… when someone has a negative preference, then they gang up on that person and wreck his life.

When we shifted from politeness to PC, we lost the ability to have principles and get to a right answer at the end of a discussion. Instead, everything is now a Facebook wall: people spouting off about whatever they encounter, hoping to appear different enough to stand out, with nothing being wrong but also nothing being right, and so nothing is decided and nothing is acted upon. In this state of entropy, we sit decisionless and await some fortunate apocalypse which will deliver us from this utter tedium of being alive.

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Septic Flesh – 1991-2003 (2015)

Septic Flesh - 1991-2003 (2015)

Floga Records is releasing a box set of Septic Flesh’s first era in cassette format. While this box-set is limited to 300 copies and the format is somewhat obscure, much of the content included is of high quality, as Septic Flesh’s early discography is one of the high points of Greek underground metal, measuring up to such luminaries as Rotting Christ, Varathron, and Necromantia.

Septic Flesh began their career playing rough death metal, but even on their earliest demo (Forgotten Path) showed signs of the melodic, atmospheric sound that would become their signature. The abrasive death metal elements would remain for some years, but the band’s heavy keyboard presence, an emphasis on consonant guitar leads, and elaborate compositions make for a a more contemplative experience than, for instance, the generally more aggressive American metal acts. Septic Flesh’s first full-lengths admittedly suffer from flaws in their production that detract from the possible intensity they could reach (like the use of a weak drum machine), but they still capitalize on the band’s ability to create ethereal soundscapes in the context of metal. Mystic Places of Dawn and Esoptron in particular are masterpieces of this style, effortlessly integrating this into the admittedly declining quantities of death metal that this era showcases.

Later albums in this collection showcase the band reaching simultaneously towards higher heights of orchestration and problematically trying to secure some gothic metal money. This niche became enormously popular in the mid-90s despite being so wide as to encompass similar acreage of musical ground. Septic Flesh never discarded their ability to write melodic hooks, but after 1995, they were quick to simplify their style and write more accessible, less cavernous songs. These changes become strikingly obvious on Revolution DNA, which trades in the mythological and occult themes of previous works for sleek, shining futurism. That the band manages to retain their melodic prowess makes it serve as a functional and adequate work of pop music, but it is truly a low point of the compilation. The band’s previous overtures towards the mainstream (primarily in the form of operatic vocalists) were spun off into their own project (Chaostar), and Septic Flesh was arguably sundered. In recent years, partially represented on this compilation’s finale, Sumerian Daemons, the band has embraced the great simplification of their past, albeit overlaid and decorated with modern metal technique and an orchestral presence, creating music that in its strengths resembles that of mainstream film music filtered through the extreme metal mold. The new Septic Flesh is a much louder and brutish beast, separated from the atmospheric voice it was born with, but hints of the past permeate even the band’s latest releases to give it strength in its darkest hours.

1991-2003 is excellent as a historical archive and a collector’s item, at least for those few who value compact cassettes. It is probably entirely useless outside that niche, although it’s always possible that a similar box set may come out in a more accessible format. In addition, like other comprehensive box sets, it comes with its share of chaff and filler. Individual albums by Septic Flesh should not be too difficult to find, though, and some of them have even been reissued with new artwork and bonus rarities. The early full lengths are certainly worth the listener’s time.

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What thrived and what died from the 1990s (Part I)

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While the new last.fm redesign seems to me another exercise in pointless self-justification by middle management, the ability to see statistics on my listening has entirely changed how I view the music held closest to my heart. Seeing the numbers has shown me how it is one thing to list a band as a favorite or recommendation, and one far different animal to listen to it on a monthly basis. One is assessment alone, as if listening were your sole task, and the other utility, showing that this piece of music has a place in your life of many tasks and goals.

This assessment filters among the upper level of the highest echelon of metal. The assessment itself filters out the nonsense, all of which suffers from a single sin — disorganization — which takes many different forms but reveals a lack of will, purpose and principle in constructing art and always red-flags a directionless listen. But among those bands who have escaped the madness, there is no equality in listening. Some have risen and some have fallen over 20 years of pounding out metal from my speakers as I work or relax at home. In most cases, the reaction was first shock and then realization that the seeds of this knowledge were there all along. Let us look at a few pairs where listening habits elevated one album over a similar one…

Blasphemy Fallen Angel of Doom vs. Blood Impulse to Destroy

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Over the years metal has frequently benefited from punk influences because metal, as befits its partially progressive rock heritage, has a tendency to create layers of abstraction and complex musical discourse where punk cuts to the chase. This is both a strength and weakness for each genre; metal is abstract, which makes imitators very obvious but can get lost in muddle-headed musical wanderings, and punk is concrete, which makes it effective but imitation easy. Blasphemy introduced a punk-based genre, grindcore, into black metal. It adopted the aesthetic approach of Sarcofago but underneath applied the percussive lower-five-frets texture musik of grindcore. The result is very effective, and easy to listen to, but also — if you have many other options — kind of boring. In fact, many of these riff patterns are the same ones, albeit simplified, that speed metal bands tried and failed to use to revitalize that genre. As raw motivational material, the music is fantastic, but over time, it fades a bit as one realizes that its strength as low-complexity high impact music also means that its content is one-dimensional. Over the past 20 years, I have thrown this record on five times and apparently terminated it early each time.

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I chose Impulse to Destroy because Germany’s Blood also occupies the narrow space of grindcore bands who think like black metal or death metal bands. Grindcore generally self-reduces to extreme minimums and must, like junk food, reintroduce sugar and salt at the surface to spice up the otherwise one-dimensional utilitarian approach. Death metal on the other hand is not utilitarian, while it is consequentialist (“only death is real” being the ultimate statement of that belief) and yet also has a highly aesthetically-motivated but not aesthetically-expressed transcendental outlook. At its best, grindcore overcomes its utilitarian tendencies for a ludic or playful view of the collapsing world, and from that some of the best material emerges. Blood for example creates a dark and morbid absurdism which brings to light all that our society suppresses with itself, and like Blasphemy, creates it through patterning cut from the chromatic strips of the lower registers of guitar. In this case, however, the textures take on a life of their own, like a three-dimensional house made from flat punch-out cards. Different riffs interact with one another and dramatic pauses and collisions give rise to interesting song structures. Like Disharmonic Orchestra Expositions Prophylaxe, Impulse to Destroy provides a wealth of riff archetypes applied with enough personality and purpose to create unique compositions which may be enjoyed for decades or longer despite their simplicity.

Napalm Death Scum vs. Carbonized For the Security

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This is one of those albums that most people get for the sake of novelty. “But check these guys out, they’ve got one second songs and stuff, it’s just about noise…” — rock music does not get more ironic than that. And ultimately, that was the power of grindcore. Like punk a decade before, it removed all the pretense of rock and boiled it down to simple songs. It then sometimes added in new flourishes of song structure which made those songs more interesting than radio pop, which had been studied by MBAs and PhDs and reduced to a simple formula distinguished only (barely) by rhythm, production, instrumentation and vocals. But once the money men and white lab coats were able to look at rock as a product like any other, they saw that to please enough people in the audience to make it a hit, they did not have to innovate at all. They only needed a new skin for the same basic patterns and they could produce it over and over again with high margins (well, until digital piracy hit). Like the punk rock and then hardcore punk, grindcore stripped away illusion and replaced it with innovation. The problem here is that these songs are very similar themselves because they rely on dramatic confrontation within each song, which like all things “turned up to 11” becomes expected and thus a sort of background noise. Every time I have listened to this album it has made itself into sonic wallpaper before the halfway point.

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Some of the albums which were considered “also-rans” back in the 1990s had more to them than people initially considered. This one has been a favorite for me, along with the second album from Carbonized but not the third, for two decades. I listen to it regularly, finish the whole thing, and sometimes start it over. Record labels tried to shoehorn Carbonized into the “death metal” model despite some clear warning signs, and consequently bungled — the root of all evils is incompetence at some level, starting with the ability to be honest — the career of this promising band, but for those of us who lumped this in with aggressive grindcore like Terrorizer and Repulsion, the similarities outweighed the differences. For the Security expresses paranoia, existential insecurity, melancholic doubt of the future and a desire to explore all that life offers in depth, all within and as part of the same outlook. This is the music of a brighter-than-average teenager who perceives the world honestly and rejects the foolishness but wants to look deeper into the interesting stuff that, because it does not affirm the dominant lie, is rejected by the herd. Chunky riffs alternate with broader rhythms derived from punk and yet are dominated by a desire to make song structure vary with content inherited through metal from progressive rock. Each song forms a sonic sigil to the topic at hand and the response of the artist, making each bursting with personality and reality portrayed in finely-observed ways at the same time. This is a masterful album which will never bore.

Roundup

As you can see, Dear Reader, these albums are both quite similar on the surface — and quite different underneath. That bands can do so much with a handful of power chords, and have such different outcomes, is endlessly fascinating. Yet not every metal-influenced album is, even among A-listers like these. It may be time for all of us to go back through our listening, search ourselves honestly, and see what has actually stood the test of time.

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