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

blasphemy_-_fallen_angel_of_doom_-_reissue

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.

blood_-_impulse_to_destroy

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

napalm_death_-_scum

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.

carbonized_-_for_the_security_-_reissue

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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A Descent into the Occult

WAWf4Yi

Since ancient times man has looked into both himself and nature around him as a portal into dimensions our species’ abilities are not adequately or readily prepared to perceive let alone understand. This is why and the sciences developed their theory and instruments which became increasingly specialized and compartmentalized, to the point that the ulterior workings of, for instance, chemistry and physics are not even truly understood by any single person but that have been recorded and detailed so that theories can be devised to model them. This is both a weapon for more precise understanding and a blindfold that prevents us from seeing the big picture. The ancient occult sciences attempted something contrary to this, which was to grasp at the phenomenon as a whole, not by measuring bits here and there, isolating them and attempting to harness them for mundane tasks, but rather seeing how everything interacted and describing it through metaphor and accepting that knowledge concerning reality cannot be taught or communicated: the path can only be hinted at but it is for each person to take.

paracelsus-portrait “We do not know it because we are fooling away our time with outward and perishing things, and are asleep in regard to that which is real within ourselves.”

 

Music can be used as a way to contemplation, as a window of what is in front and within us. This is a way towards the self, towards one’s nature, the species’ nature, and our place in the planet as life springing from it. When done correctly, it is not an escape from “reality” as materialists would have it, but rather a search for the experience and understanding of actual reality through human eyes. This includes an accepting of the limitations we can never truly overcome and yet trying to capture visions and feelings of what the universe beyond us is like. Music can convey this by acting as a conduct, taking the mind to a certain state. This is much more than the “setting of a mood” of pleasure-oriented music, and requires an active engagement by the listener, a locking in the senses, a voluntary  stepping-through to the unreachable umbra of that-which-is. This is not about salvation or reaching out for a different world, it is a discovery of the cosmos as it is in reality.

silesius_2500090-69325 “Could one that’s damned stand in high Heaven, even there He’d feel within himself all Hell and Hell’s despair.”

 

Underground metal and its related genres (dark ambient, for instance) as a mystical experience may lead us through a variety of paths, up to mirrors, dead-ends and upside-down positions which may seem incomprehensible at first but whose value is appreciated in retrospect as a lesson. At the end of the day, no vision reflects reality, we can only dip into experiences that transmit flashes of this or that aspect, but nothing that encompasses everything which is far beyond our capabilities. It is like trying to capture the infinite in one’s mind, or simply trying to imagine not being human.

Teresa-of-Avila-150x150 “To reach something good it is very useful to have gone astray, and thus acquire experience.”

 

The following are a few album recommendations that the author feels are strong and sure passageways from whence grand sights a piercing eye may descry. Though each of these may follow a slightly different path, they all shine light into particular corridors and avenues by virtue of different methodologies and philosophies. Each kind of experience is in the eye of the beholder and is ever partial and incomplete, but the truth behind all of them is one and whole.

 

Emperor- In the Nightside Eclipse

An album about the astral origin of our self, a constant reference

to the nightsky, the dark forest and the darkest confines of

the individual’s mind and a connection to the source.

emperor-in_the_nightside_eclipse
Burzum – Sôl austan, Mâni vestan

The day, the movement of the major celestial bodies seen

through the eyes of a druid. This album is the trickling of life,

the flow of energies from one state into the next.

burzum-sol_austan_mani_vestan
Endvra – Black Eden
This is introspection and the exploration of the self’s demons in

a sincere way. A complete closing off from the outside, it is

best experienced alone and in complete darkness. This is

a facing of everything within oneself through oneself.

Endvra 1996 - Black Eden a
Mütiilation – Remains of A Ruined, Dead, Cursed Soul

Music for ruins, cemeteries and places in which dark memories

are still alive, this is the universe through deep pain. As with the

first item in this list, it hints at Black Magic, into illicit and

probably self-destructive channeling of negative energies.

Cover
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Reaching for a Red Sky

At-The-Gates---Line-up-02-old

I. A brief introduction

In 1992, At the Gates released their first full-length album after an earth-shaking demo of unprecedented refinement in composition. The full-length, titled The Red in the Sky is Ours, was to become not only the band’s magnum opus but also the greatest achievement of Scandinavian death metal then and since then. Hidden under distinct layers of complexity, ideas at different levels flourish, diverge and converge in ways that are not always easy to follow, throwing the less-than-adamant and less perceptive listener off at every turn and twist of the way. This is not a spurious claim but an observation based on deep acquaintance with the composition of the music in this album as it stands in contrast with the groove-banality of most Swedeath, including favorites of the populace like Entombed Left Hand Path.

According to Anders Björler, this early output was almost entirely arranged by the much aged (about 6 years older than the rest of the band members) founding member Alf Svensson, who painstakingly controlled the process even in the vocal department. To be fair, this debut album is definitely the result of the best talents of all the participating musicians directed in a very concentrated direction by a mastermind. In fact, a distinct At the Gates’ “sound” in this era comes from Tompa’s unique style and the exchange between the quirkiness of Svensson’s style and the melodic clarity and repose of Björler’s, without failing to mention the flexible, stellar and extremely appropriate tailor-made drum arrangements of Erlandsson. Among the often-commented and curious ways Svensson had of getting ideas for At the Gates’ music was playing folk music tapes backwards. The whispers, screeches and screams  of the vocals were also carefully gauged by this guy who even pitched certain passages — a very uncommon practice in death metal.

Given the strange appearance and convoluted (almost perverted) character of the music that confirm the topic of insanity and inner journeys discussed in the lyrics, it has been overlooked in the same way that even the great genius of J.S. Bach may be deemed “no more than a composer with a penchant for writing minor-key melodies” by the blind and the ignorant. This complexity extends from technique to progressive structures all the way to motif and idea.

Lyrically, The Red in the Sky is Ours is very poetic, describing scenes and mixing these visions with colored allusions and evocation of feelings, creating a land between the image and the emotion where the two come together and mix, blend and crystallize into one or the other at a different points. This mystic poetry is not only present in the words of the album but is reflected and paralleled in the music. The concept here is strongly integrated and reinforced at several levels that remain elusive enough to create a sense of mystery yet concrete enough to be identified without a shadow of doubt.

The mention of the use of a violin in the album is in order but should not be overemphasized as gimmick-oriented audiences have often highlighted it as if it were the defining or most interesting thing going on here. The violin is appropriately used and adds a very eerie aura through its intensified fretless access to microtones which make the semitone emphasis  and augmented intervals sound even more off than they sound on the distorted electric guitar. One can still detect an amateur performance at some level on the instrument, but it is not that notes were missed or that wrong notes were played, and more of a lack of finesse in performance.

II. Apparent influences

At the Gates was formed out of the ashes of Grotesque, a melodic-motif-based, riff-salad-propelled progressive death metal band. The creative and savage impulse of the younger band remains in At the Gates, but filtered through a matured and controlled thought process under the guiding hand of a visionary metal composer. In my opinion, the single greatest metal influence on the band were the Americans from Atheist, whose shadow looms over the fully-formed style of At the Gates in The Red in the Sky is Ours.

Atheist’s trademark is found in its jazz-inspired rhythmic playfulness, ever throwing the audience off balance through ploys in the music that never allow one to feel too at home, always carrying the imagination forth in river rapids that form part of a distinctive greater whole that flows in one direction. As good metal, it is composed and not improvised (though improvisation definitely always plays a role in any composition process, to one degree or another). The stability-instability interplay from section to section follows the Gang‘s and Satz‘s  described by A.B. Marx conceptually and through examples of Beethoven piano sonatas.

What At the Gates The Red in the Sky is Ours took from Atheist was an informed fearlessness in the face of convention that did not destroy the music for the sake of innovation but introduced all sorts of pauses, tempo and time signature changes as well as other creative rhythmic gestures within a homogeneous framework that maintained a clear language that conspired to a strong concept rather than indulging any of the musicians. But the younger band took this further and deeper than veterans even in their masterpiece Unquestionable Presence, creating much more powerful and meaningful gestures by making them varied yet subservient to a layered concept.

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III. Creating a language

Usually, one relates a band with a style. This style implies the use of not only certain instrumentation but also musical tropes that the audience can expect. A good reason for a band to adopt a particular style (rather than going rogue and define parameters completely on their own) is intelligibility. Unfortunately, more often than not this is not the reason why bands do this, but rather because they are not gifted in music creation and thus only choose a style as a suit to wear and not as what it actually is: a language to speak.

When it comes to this band’s early works, the first step in understanding just what exactly this style they chose is requires an acknowledging of the fact that At the Gates created a dialect of their own from the firm bases of contemporary underground metal at the time. This consisted in abandoning as much as possible stylistic tendencies in structure or composition and reducing their relation to death metal to rudimentary technique aspects such as blast beats,  d-beats and other variations basic percussion patterns  when it came to the drums, and “tremolo” picking for melodies, power chords (and absolutely no use of any other kind of chord in a single guitar), hammer-on’s and simple, non-tremolo picking mostly for syncopated passages.

It is not claimed here that all this was precisely calculated by the band, and it is acknowledged that in all possibility, it was the result of the unconscious result of musically talented minds searching for self-expression. The following section illustrates approaches in applications of typical then-contemporary death and black metal techniques in the framework of distinct songwriting procedures in The Red in the Sky is Ours.

IV. Tainting the sky with red

  • Motif forms. Motif forms in developmental variation as described by Arnold Schoenberg in his Fundamentals of Musical Composition is a series of melodic patterns evolve from executing transformation functions on a primordial one. As little as two distinctive notes from this first melodic pattern can be highlighted and played upon as the central motif, while the rest is twisted, expanded, contracted, flipped, omitted or changed in any other way in progressively differentiating ways. This is not to be confused with a theme, which is a distinctive melodic pattern that is kept intact in the relative relation between its notes and which in the most extreme cases is played slower or faster, or in a different register.  Motif forms allow for a wider range of manipulation that nonetheless preserves a link to a central idea that can be sometimes difficult to see at first, leading relations between sections to sound less than obvious. In the case of The Red in the Sky is Ours, this has resulted in accusations of riff-salad looseness, but these allegations do not hold up in light of the evidence. However, it is true that a degree of intelligibility is sacrificed when flexibility is increased, and these two are one of the so many extreme poles in between which musics attempt to find a certain balance or inclination for their expression.
  • Harmonic coloring. After the selection and limitation to a rudimentary “alphabet”, the reducing of building materials to a homogeneous mixture, At the Gates proceeds to define the next layer: their vocabulary. What happens next are the decisions that shape the character and coloring of the music in terms of the relations between the instruments in terms of texture and harmony. Harmony here does not only refer to the horizontal relation of notes at any one point in time, but of the sequence of harmonic implications within or between riffs. In the strictly horizontal aspect, when the two guitars play melody lines, they often play the same, leaving “harmonization” as an afterthought until after the riff has been properly introduced and the listener is very well-acquainted with it. Rather than a way to easily beef-up the music as in Sentenced North from Here, At the Gates makes a much more elegant and measured use of it as if it were a punctuation mark. This is mostly done in fifths, sometimes in octaves and a very few times in minor third intervals. A very few passages make use of short counterpointed melodies of the most basic sort, but inserted in crucial points to a very powerful effect. The use of each of these not as a feature but as part of a set of calculated flourishes is another thing that makes At the Gates rise above most bands. Needless to say, the rhythm-and-lead modality is used by At the Gates very, very little and usually takes the form of something more akin to melody and counter-melody. The second aspect can be noticed in different applications. One of them is playing a melodic pattern in one register and then playing it exactly as it is exactly one semitone above its original instantiation. The band uses this simple technique to expand several riffs throughout their debut and is in line with the music’s apparent penchant for focusing on the semitone as a motif, giving the music a very uncomfortable lingering feeling most of the time as the minor second interval is a very dissonant one only a little step away from perfect resolution. This, in turn, is liberated by the addition of more stable (so-called “melodic” — correct term: consonant) passages that are in turn intensified and elevated by being placed amongst the ever-present hanging melodic, semi-tone dissonance.

  • Percussion. As has been said before, the drums in metal should be more than the strict representation of tempo, but they should not run amok in self-indulgent expressions of virtuosity or “feeling” either. In the band’s debut album, Adrian Erlandsson achieves perfection in balance between creativity and functionality in a very technically-oriented style. Like many of the early classics, this technically intense music can go undetected because of two reasons this writer can think of in this moment. The most easily pointed out is the fact that the basic expressions are rudimentary metal techniques which in themselves do not present a challenge to accomplished drummers. But looks can be deceiving as the difficulty lies in the smoothness between patterns, in addition to the right emphasis within and between them in relation to the rest of the music. This is basically metal drumming taken to classical heights and taking technical cues from the only available precedent: old jazz drumming. A very good example is the way the drums complement (rather than mirror) the speed of the notes and intensity of the guitar patterns. Sometimes these two come together and accents are focused, sometimes the drums will reduce intensity and calm down to a very basic pattern in order to give space and highlight to a particularly melodic-consonant guitar melody interplay and yet sometimes it will blast away as the guitars play moderately midpaced and slow notes. These never feel forced or out of place when seen from the point of view of being an expression inside a larger scheme, but may seem a little “weird” when taken out of context. Unfortunately for the appreciation of this album, most listeners cannot go beyond the moment and the riff or the cool drum pattern. The beauty of truly advanced drum arrangement (as opposed to virtuosic display alone) is completely lost on most of the audience.

  • Silences and pauses.  A subtle but decisive element that elevates the composition in The Red in the Sky is Ours to a place actually besides classical music (as opposed to the many metal albums that are superficially likened to classical music based on this or that pattern in the music) is the use of silences for articulation — yet another device used by Atheist that At the Gates took to a whole other level. Silences throughout the album work mainly as expectation creators, creating an effect of falling through empty space, and as buffers between two different motific areas. It is also worth pointing out that silences do not only occur in total muting of all the instruments. Sometimes the little trick Atheist likes of letting the bass run over a little drum pattern alone only to have the guitars come after it is used. But also, one guitar alone over drums, or only drums, or alternations of all of them (as occurs in the closing passage of “City of Screaming Statues”).

  • Orchestration. The bas-reliefs created in The Red in the Sky is Ours thus run at multiple levels, from these plays of harmony, to motif relations, to textural adjustments in between the instruments in which the percussion plays no small role.  An analysis of the flow of the music from one section to another reveals a painstaking amount of planning and consideration regarding these elements. The album amounts to an extremely expressive and variable set of statements and arguments from a single voice (embodied by the aforementioned homogeneous-ness from adherence to rudimentary techniques and particular harmonic-melodic inclinations). When it comes to orchestration, the decisions of how and when to let the guitars use this or that picking technique, when to make them play the same or in harmony, when to let the drums lead, when to make the drums fade into the background seem to obey a song-wide plan, and not one in which only the shock or pleasing nature of any one passage is considered. So, it is not which techniques or approaches At the Gates used in their debut, but how and to what ends they did. This music speaks out as if it had sentient and emotional capacity of its own beyond the words or the execution of any single instrument that produces it.

“The term orchestration in its specific sense refers to the way instruments are used to portray any musical aspect such as melody or harmony.”

— Orchestration Wiki

V. Long-range planning

Now comes one of the most exciting and accomplished aspects of The Red in the Sky is Ours: its composition on the scale of whole pieces, rather than in a collection of disparaged cool-sounding passages. Without any assumption of a voluntary or conscious reference by the band to master composers, this writer feels the need to illustrate the outstanding crystallization of advanced thought processes in composition by making a connection between this great metal work to certain general procedures of Ludwig van Beethoven, Anton Bruckner and Antonio Vivaldi.

Structurally, the affinity to Beethoven’s method comes first as it refers to the encompassing of motifs and their tying-together by entanglement. The late German master would develop a first main motif, sometimes introducing a contrasting idea that may be mistaken as simple gimmicks for effect here and there. Now, he would not allow these to remain simple dead ends. These initial and apparently random passages that salted the presentation of a first motif would become the seeds for other areas of development, thereby revealing them as hints and vistas of what lay ahead. Like At the Gates, Beethoven sometimes introduced new ideas in a contrasting and almost transition-less manner, and then proceeded to slowly integrating them by interpolating them and already-established motifs, even using them together while always looking ahead in the development.  Beethoven’s late quartets display everything one can look forward to in At the Gates The Red in the Sky is Ours in more advanced arrangements.

The reference to Anton Bruckner may not be as pervading and far-reaching as Beethoven’s, but it is still a key aspect of the character of At the Gates’ debut. This is a specific way of reusing and sometimes transforming a motif which works on a different dimension than the developmental variation. This is the attention to the color of a same idea, perhaps a theme or simply a motif in different contexts as it shines through different harmonies and textures. Brett Stevens has aptly described this as prismatic technique, alluding to the effect a crystal has over light going through it and exiting from different angles.

Last comes the most general and slightly elusive comparison to Antonio Vivaldi’s music. The relation of any metal music which has separate guitar lines can be likened to a lot of Vivaldi’s music for two violins, as this revolves around two lines. The best melodic death metal uses this concept to its full potential. Also, the clarity and rhythmic straightforwardness and affirmative character of this pure, Italian baroque music is a template and reflection of good and simple progressive underground melodic metal such as the album under discussion. In the case of this metal masterpiece, I want to especially call attention to an section-expanding procedure in which a pattern is repeated while elements surrounding it add to its texture in increasing waves or in slide-shift manner that quickly takes one idea and juxtaposes it to a second as the second one takes precedence towards the end of the whole section. (Typical in At the Gates’ music -> G1: A A A’ A’  BBB’B’ B’B’, G2: AAAA  A’BB’B’ B’harB’har)

Last of all, there is a high-level characteristic that gives this music a very organic feeling, that is how the number of repetitions adjust to the needs of the music, often avoiding sounding too squared, too even. Instead of a lot of the typical “repeat four times”  formula we find in metal we find a lot of different combinations that nonetheless favor the even-ness traditional to the genre. What is achieved here is an element that lends unpredictability but does not detract from the music, a small tool used when music needs a little push from un-evenness: odd number of repetitions. This becomes especially powerful when combined with the riff-motif sliding technique just mentioned. A perfect exampled can be distinguished in the middle climax/breaking point of “City of Screaming Statues”.

While most would agree that most death and black metal need to be analyzed with a modal mindset, approaching The Red in the Sky is Ours with this more simple-minded preconception would be doing the masterpiece a great disservice. The powerful way in which harmony, implied or explicitly presented, is used here was unprecedented in its time and has largely remained unparalleled since in the death metal world. Yet it is not this or that aspect what makes it astounding, but the convergence of all the elements and the stacked up layers of refined aspects from playing technique to mind-numbing attention to composition technique in its vertical and horizontal dimensions and in its short and long ranges.

Crafting a unique album in the full sense of the expression, At the Gates gave us an example of how thinking that everything has already been done is just a scapegoat for people who were not meant to be creating artists in the first place. The Red in the Sky is Ours does not introduce new playing techniques or strange avant-garde-isms in strange influences that change the character of the music, but for those with the eyes to see it, they rose above the masses in producing a profound work of art that will remain immortal so long as its objective qualities, at least, are understood. This is an album that stands besides Burzum Det Som Engang Var and Cóndor Duin in showing us how excellent, original and forward-looking music can be created without resorting ignorant attempts at directly redefining paradigms or favoring nonsensical experimentation that results in garbage. Instead, what we have here is sure-footed creativity based on tradition that is carefully gauged through both technical knowledge in its Apollonian manifestation and its inner Dionysian sense to a both logical but unpredictable result.

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The new censorship: how corporations and complainers silence speech

the_new_censorship

The ire generated by GamerGate and MetalGate showed us that a large segment of our society finds it disturbing to be called out on their constant demands to silence speech. Those however were merely private individuals; what happens when large corporations join them by enabling complaints as a means of censorship?

It might sound far-fetched, but that is exactly what the movie industry is trying to do:

This time, the studios are asking for one court order to bind every domain name registrar, registry, hosting provider, payment processor, caching service, advertising network, social network, and bulletin board—in short, the entire Internet—to block and filter a site called Movietube. If they succeed, the studios could set a dangerous precedent for quick website blocking with little or no court supervision, and with Internet service and infrastructure companies conscripted as enforcers. That precedent would create a powerful tool of censorship—which we think should be called SOPApower, given its similarity to the ill-fated SOPA bill.

In this case, the complaint system is based on copyright. But as we have seen in the past, internet websites — who lose money each time they must process a complaint — lump together copyright, harassment, doxxing and other bad content claims with the vague “offensive content” label. The raging SJWs that GamerGate put in their place found they had the power to silence others by merely mobbing some site with complaints, and the owners, wanting to avoid controversy and bad press from an SJW-compliant media, would simply remove the content, fire the employee or delete the user account.

This power is now being amplified through the American court system. Under this new precedent, if it succeeds, any website which does not filter certain content will find itself with legal liability, which means that all websites will quickly remove both copyright and merely controversial content. What defines what is controversial? If it gets complaints, it is controversial — and will soon be removed.

So far SJWs have gotten a pass from the legal system thanks to their perceived power in media and as a voting bloc, even if it turns out that 90% of them are internet brats on trust funds, living off food stamps in Williamsburg while making artisanal strap-ons for sale on Etsy. This type of “accountability” allows the complainers to determine what content will be permitted, and quickly marginalizes anything but the usual circle-jerk to the extreme corners of the internet. However, even those will be threatened because complaints go to their web providers, and those above providing services to those. The EFF article does a great job of pointing out the important fact here, which is that the complaint itself is viewed as proof. Someone complains, and your web site goes down, without a trial or anyone even considering if it is fair.

As metalheads well know, the problem in society is not so much the leadership as the people who choose it and their tendency to be petty, greedy and controlling. This latest step not only gives them a pass for their actions, in other words removing any accountability they might have, but also gives them the power of the law. While right now the focus is on movies, the mission creep/slippery slope of such laws in the past has rapidly expanded them to other areas. All who wish for uncensored expression owe it to themselves and future generations to fight this troubling development.

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Revisiting: Cemetary An Evil Shade Of Grey

cemetary_-_an_evil_shade_of_grey

Some albums have an inherently nocturnal mood to them, a form of parent moods to all others; Cemetary combines the sensation of doom metal with a heavy metal twist with the lighter and more ethereal vein of death metal to create an album of suspension of the world to venture into an exploration of nocturnal, ambiguous and excitingly lawless worlds.

Like the primeval forest, the world of thought outside of what Society demands must be true is an unnerving place full of possibility and danger, and Cemetary tempers this with a more traditional heavy metal compositional style but uses some of the death metal method of song structure as a means of emotional conveyance, much like opera does in theater. Songs break to reconstruct themselves, and then burrow deeper into a circular wending of riffs that culminates in a collision of internal forces which forces the dormant mood to the surface, by reflexive contrast relegating the previous sensations of personable melancholy to the background and uncovering a more unsettling feel of indirect, invisible forces at work.

Featuring use of a left-hand technique that seems to achieve a two-note vibrato for a further ghostly sound, these songs betray an Iron Maiden-styled heavy metal background in both progression and harmonic structure, but augment this with extensive internal evolution in the death metal style. Many will recognize this band (and fellow travelers Tiamat) as the inspiration behind Opeth, who realized if they kept the death metal to choruses and added some bouncy self-pitying pretentious folk rock for the verses they could convince the basement NEETs of the world to pompously parade around telling others how Opeth was perhaps too deep for them, by reflex incarnating themselves as agents of profundity. Cemetary avoids that fate with a simple pragmatism in that its destabilizing obscurity and isolated emotion pairs itself with good times heavy metal, converting both so that the familiar becomes self-critical and the darkness warms so that it gains a friendly touch. This gives the album a perfect mental feel for an evening with friends and a pipe of dark tobacco, perhaps Dunhill Nightcap or one of the dark flakes that conceal their high strength behind matured harvest flavors.

As in a good tobacco, the power of An Evil Shade Of Grey blooms from within the darkness, appearing first as a light alternative but then taking on a demonic sense of perverting the familiar into the uncertain. This bloom then matures in its own darkness, and reintegrates with the more friendly sounds, creating a continuum which releases expectations and allows the blended moods of solitary introspection and vigilance against imminent camouflaged threats to become themselves a type of familiarity. Through that device, this simultaneously conventional and oddball album achieves a deep subconscious effect on the listener, like all good death metal unfolding so that past riffs shift context dramatically and create the sense of discovery for the listener.

Most remember this album for its selective use of acoustic guitar in with the death metal riffs, and its parallels of listenability and challenging emptiness, but its surface traits only serve to propel it deeper into its own brooding ambiguity. An Evil Shade Of Grey recently celebrated 23 years since its introduction, and remains as perfect for nighttime perambulation and contemplation as it did then, joining albums like the first Darkthrone and early doom metal in stimulating both the mind and the heart in a study of the dark spaces of existence.

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Romanticism in heavy metal

For over twenty years, this site and its predecessors have advanced the idea that heavy metal bears much in common thematically with the Romantic movement in literature, arts and music. Multiple parallels exist between what metal idealizes, and what the Romantics did.

Consider one of the better summaries of Romantic philosophy available:

Romanticism can be seen as a rejection of the precepts of order, calm, harmony, balance, idealization, and rationality that typified Classicism in general and late 18th-century Neoclassicism in particular. It was also to some extent a reaction against the Enlightenment and against 18th-century rationalism and physical materialism in general. Romanticism emphasized the individual, the subjective, the irrational, the imaginative, the personal, the spontaneous, the emotional, the visionary, and the transcendental.

Among the characteristic attitudes of Romanticism were the following: a deepened appreciation of the beauties of nature; a general exaltation of emotion over reason and of the senses over intellect; a turning in upon the self and a heightened examination of human personality and its moods and mental potentialities; a preoccupation with the genius, the hero, and the exceptional figure in general, and a focus on his passions and inner struggles; a new view of the artist as a supremely individual creator, whose creative spirit is more important than strict adherence to formal rules and traditional procedures; an emphasis upon imagination as a gateway to transcendent experience and spiritual truth; an obsessive interest in folk culture, national and ethnic cultural origins, and the medieval era; and a predilection for the exotic, the remote, the mysterious, the weird, the occult, the monstrous, the diseased, and even the satanic.

Let us put those attributes in simplified form:

  • Naturalism
  • Anti-rationalism
  • Introspection
  • Elitism
  • Anti-formalism
  • Transcendentalism
  • Nationalism
  • Occultism

At this point, the argument makes itself, because metal frequently exhibits all of these. Naturalism manifests itself along with introspection, or a reliance on the beast within over the reasoning that becomes external when codified. Anti-rationalism and anti-formalism become a similar crossover, with a distrust of justification, rules, laws, public morals and arbitrary versions of abstract theory. Elitism is apparent both in metal’s innate hierarchy, manifested in both its quest for the hardest and heaviest music possible, and the tiered layers of importance signaled through what band is on a metalhead’s t-shirt. Occultism has been with metal from its early days, both through the horror movie and religion-inspired metaphysical explorations of Black Sabbath and the creation of epic, Tolkien-style spiritual mythology from Slayer through black metal.

Finally, we come to nationalism, which proves a troubling subject because of the ghost of Adolf Hitler which seems to loom large over all modern endeavors. While the National Socialists were nationalists (nationalism + socialism = national socialism), they were not alone in this, nor was their interpretation universal. Most saw nationalism as a glorification of national culture and a reason to turn away foreigners and not genocide them, although the numerous black and death metal lyrics about mass killing and WWII confuse the issue. Clearly Slayer were not pro-Nazi as their pejorative lyrics to “Angel of Death” illustrate, and while much of black metal — Burzum, Darkthrone, Graveland, and Emperor among others — endorsed outright national socialism, most bands took a more traditional nationalist path through pride in their identity and by reflex action, the rejection of anything which would dilute it. As the multicultural states of the West roil themselves yet again with ethnic unrest, we have to wonder if the “middle path” of Immortal, Mayhem, Enslaved and Storm might not have been a better one.

Yet nationalism is only one part of the bigger picture, although an inseparable one. People who favor a surface reading of history tend to opine that nationalism only occurred with the Enlightenment, confusing the formation of nation-states with the existence of nations, which are in fact the opposite of nation-states. A nation-state defines itself politically; a nation, both ethnically and culturally. Where the Nazis believed they could define a nation via a state with an exclusive ethnic delineation — although they had no problem admitting those who were mixed, and consequently 150,000 soldiers of mixed-Jewish heritage fought for Hitler — the Romantic-era nationalists tended to be more like Elias Lönnrot in focusing on a positive method of unification by strengthening culture against the dual onslaught of the Enlightement and the Industrial Revolution. In black metal, the form of elitism known as misanthropy crosses over with this nationalism, which seems it could be summarized as preserving the best of an ethnic group and killing off the cultureless, valueless, soft-handed beta cuck city dwellers who litter the countryside when on vacation and do nothing of value in their cubicle jobs.

The important point about Romanticism as noted above is that it rejected the Enlightenment. That dogma held that the human being itself was the highest good; Romanticism held that specific human beings, denoted by their ability to have specific thought process and mental abilities, was the highest form. Where the Enlightenment mandated a mob, the Romanticists demanded a hierarchy of realists (introspection leads to “know thyself” and thus a better understanding of reality itself). This puts Romanticism in perpetual clash with the dominant paradigm of our time, even if it is also popular with silly people who want to pretend to be deep for a few years from high school until their second job. We might distinguish between actual Romanticism and theater department Romanticism, or even “#yolo Romanticism,” which comprises the latter category.

Where do we see Romanticism in metal? First and foremost, in topic: metal bands tend to visualize life as a conflict between a thoughtless herd and a few realists who bring the heavy reality. It also shows up in the lyrics frequently, although not as clearly as in Romantic poetry. But let us begin our exploration of Romanticism with one of those classics, albeit a very popular one:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.–Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.
– The World is Too Much With Us, William Wordsworth (1789)

From that we venture to a rather Romantic composition by Black Sabbath which seems out of place considering the stereotype of metal lyrics. Its poetic imagery is nearly pastoral, but still incorporates at least some of the rage of nature (“red sun” & cockerels cry”).

Red sun rising in the sky
Sleeping village, cockerels cry
Soft breeze blowing in the trees
Peace of mind, feel at ease
– Black Sabbath, “Sleeping Village,” Black Sabbath (1970)

Then, for a mixed Enlightenment/Romanticism approach, there is this rather defiant piece by Metallica which takes teenage resentment of incompetent adulthood and a one-size-fits-all egalitarian and utilitarian society and channels that anger into a statement of defiance based in the individual, but reasoning from objective problems with society at large:

Rape my mind and destroy my feelings
Don’t tell my what to do
I don’t care now, ’cause I’m on my side
And I can see through you
Feed my brain with your so called standards
Who says that I ain’t right
Break away from your common fashion
See through your blurry sight

Out of my own, out to be free
One with my mind, they just can’t see
No need to hear things that they say
Life is for my own to live my own way
– Metallica, “Escape,” Ride the Lightning (1984)

Slayer took this general approach and converted it into a mythology that was as much Christian — avoidance of Satan, and fascination with the mythos of The Fall — as it was occult, incorporating elements of both alongside some defiant egotism. In this piece, the individual declares himself the opposition of all that is approved of (symbolized by “God” and “lie”) and takes on a mystical, spectral and vengeful presence:

Screams and nightmares
Of a life I want
Can’t see living this lie no
A world I haunt
You’ve lost all control of my
Heart and soul
Satan holds my future
Watch it unfold

I am the Antichrist
It’s what I was meant to be
Your God left me behind
And set my soul to be free
– Slayer, “The Antichrist,” Show No Mercy (1983)

Perhaps the most evocative lyric to my mind, and recalling scenes from another southern writer, William Faulkner, the Texas thrash band Dirty Rotten Imbeciles (DRI) wrote this paean to resistance to modern society on the basis of its ugliness and numbness. Again, the utilitarian — a culmination of Enlightenment thought — shows itself to be the enemy of the individual, but the individual points to larger things of importance (nature, beauty) as the reason for his enmity:

They block out the landscape with giant signs
Covered with pretty girls and catchy lines
Put up fences and cement the ground
To dull my senses, keep the flowers down
– Dirty Rotten Imbeciles (D.R.I.), “Give My Taxes,” Dealing With It (1985)

Finally, we come to a more stylized statement of the Slayer/DRI approach, in which the individual has like Friedrich Nietzsche rejected the definition of “good” used by the dying civilization. Instead, he is the enemy of humankind for having “(mis)understood” “this romantic place.” The usage of “romantic” here clearly refers to Romantic, and not lowercase-r romantic as in the rather icky novels with Thomas Kinkade covers. Much like Zarathustra, this individual rejects love (“hateful”) and civilization itself (“savages”) with a form of evil that originates in nature versus human delusion. Its call to destroy the excess of society and replace it with woods evokes the elitism and misanthropy of black metal, in that it sees most humans as “talking monkeys with car keys” (Kam Lee, Massacre).

Hateful savages, strong black minds
Out of the forest, kill the human kind
Burn the settlements and grow the woods
Until this romantic place is understood!
– Absurd, “Green Heart,” Raubritter/Grimmige Volksmusik (2007)

Perhaps this subject will receive future study instead of the rather politically-inclined pieces about race and gender in metal, neither of which seem to matter to metalheads except at the level of the political. Men and women of all races and creeds happily mix at metal shows, completely disagreeing with each other but, because they see civilization as failed, realizing they are not defending a social order but maintaining their own separate ones. This Romantic view sees the modern state as a parasite and modern society as a corrupt bourgeois entity dedicated to its own pleasure and wealth at the expense of shared good things like woods and truth. With that outlook, almost every metalhead can agree at least.

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