On October 16th, 1995, Napalm Records released Summoning’s second album, Minas Morgul; it is arguably the first release by the band to showcase their signature sound. Minas Morgul is heavy on repetition, ambiance, and cheap keyboards, but in spite of its minimalist elements (or perhaps because of them), it’s a surprisingly sophisticated work. On full display here is Summoning’s ability to convey an overarching mood or idea without resorting to extreme aesthetic shifts or overstuffing their tracks. In the process, Summoning often leaves behind conventional black metal technique but never abandons the themes at the core of their music – war, wandering, fantasy, triumph, and so forth. The band’s next album (Dol Guldur) refines much of the technique and production surrounding this approach, but Minas Morgul is still an excellent album 20 years after its debut.
Back in the days of information scarcity when metal fans found bands through fifteen-generation tapes and xeroxes of pasted-together fanzines, I made the decision to focus on bands of quality. People needed more than anything else a shopping list when they wrote to Wild Rags or Relapse with an order form; as Relapse mailorder grew and essentially became the center of the underground mail order scene, the copywriting got more exuberant and people became even more confused. They needed solid information in the form of “reviews” that actually assessed the material and came up with solid reasons why it might be worth listening to for more than a few months. Looking down a list of of releases with two-line descriptions that ended with “it’ll tear your head off!” gave people nothing, and in the limited hours they had for finding new metal, they needed descriptive writing that could show them what stood out above the rest.
For that reason, I wrote positive reviews and ignored the bands that did not strike me as interesting enough to hear for repeated listens over the years. As Karl Marx reminds us, time is money and conversely, money is time, exchanged by working hours for what can then be spent. Money spent on the wrong bands damges fans. It also damages the health of the scene. Worse, it creates a Darwinistic negative effect where bands are rewarded for slapping out some haphazard or soulless material but getting a good cover, signing to the right label, or having solid promotion, and then getting rewarded for this mediocre content but good marketing. Quality reviews enforce natural selection on metal where the best rises.
Over time the market shifted. With the rise of big metal magazines which would cover the underground, and then the internet, there was no longer a shortage of information. The opposite problem presented itself: we were literally drowning in information. Magazines published thousands of reviews, most of which described some of the surface attributes of a band and then praised it as the next best thing. Internet websites emulated them and became cheerleaders more than critical voices. People now had so many options that they needed not only a list of things to look out for, but defenses against the hype and promotion. They needed solid reasons why some bands were just promotion and aesthetics with no content.
I wish that during this time I had written more critical reviews. I should have been shouting from the rooftops that the first Opeth was warmed-over hard rock made in a cryptic pseudo-progressive format to give basement dwellers some reason to think they were more “deep” than their friends. I should have screamed at the first Slayer to deviate from their unbroken quality, Divine Intervention, and pointed out that the band would have kept its old audience and new by not imitating the past, but keeping up the quality and compositional style of the past instead of going toward vocal-driven hard rock. I should have called out every band of the two types that make metal fail, the false-authentic “tryhard” bands that imitate the surface of past greats, and the “open minded” bands that borrow from old genres and call the hybrid a new thing. But I was stuck in the old mode of trying to find the good in a stream of so-so.
The problem with this approach became obvious over time: there were few gems, but a constant stream of news, and by dropping out of that news stream, I failed to comment on what people were seeing on their screens and pages. They needed guidance from experienced hands who could say, “Nope, seen this before — it’s Bruce Springsteen riffs tricked out as jazz rock with some metal flourishes.” Or, equally important, to ask why it was that a band sounded exactly like Celtic Frost or Blasphemy but the songs had none of the personality and variation of those bands. With the information overload, metal needed mean voices to provide counter-arguments to the excuses and trends offered in the promotions.
For this reason, in the latest incarnation of this site we launched the sadistic style of writing metal reviews. We take the highly-hyped and show why it is hollow, empty and meaningless. The point is not the band itself, but the series of tropes used by labels and magazines to sell this band. If they claim it is open-minded, we need to show how it is merely an imitation of the past in an older genre than metal. If they claim it is trve, its utter lack of ideas and simultaneous aping of the past needs to be revealed. People need mental weapons against the onslaught of advertising coming from both big media and thousands of little over-enthusiastic blogs.
Those of us who write do so — if we are good — to convey some kind of information, usually the type of learning one gains with experience. We can peer beneath the layers of production, marketing, trendy chatter and hype and get to the real question: is this music interesting enough to listen to for months and years, instead of another passing fad? This helps keep metal healthy by ensuring that the good releases get rewarded and the bad forgotten. For many years, I failed you all in this capacity, and I hope to rectify it with well-placed cruelty laying bare the essence of this music.
When issues arise like those of ideological fascists in metal, whether of the SJW or far-right types, the inevitable division between art and propaganda arises. Having written about this for over two decades, I make the following distinction: art has artistic purpose, which is to reveal; propaganda has dogmatic purpose, which is to condition and manipulate the mind through projecting a sense of self-congratulatory correctness onto the perceiver.
Luckily, others have written about this topic, and well. From Canadian author Robertson Davies writing at First Things comes this cogent analysis:
When I was a boy, I was a voracious reader. My home had plenty of moral literature on its shelves, and I was urged to read it for my betterment. There was lots of other literature, as well, but I was not forbidden, only discouraged, from reading it as it was said to be “beyond me,” which I quickly discovered meant that it dealt with life pretty much as life was, and not as the determinedly moral writers wanted me to think.
…I could not stomach Little Lord Fauntleroy, who presented me with a political puzzle especially hard for a Canadian: What was that boy, and what did he do? He was an American, but by chance he inherited a title and went to England and became a Lord, and thereafter was remorselessly democratic toward anyone who kept it firmly in mind that he was a Lord, and behaved accordingly. The Little Lord existed to hammer home two things that were presented as mighty truths: We must be democratic and we must recognize the moral superiority that goes with poverty. It was easy, I thought, to be a democrat if everybody toadied to you, and I wished that the Little Lord could spend a few days at the school I went to, where to be known as a tireless reader (for I could not conceal it) was to be an outcast. Many of my persecutors enjoyed the blessing of poverty, but it did not seem to improve their characters. They were savage, jealous, and without bowels of compassion.
My sanity was saved by the books I read on the sly. Dickens, where evil people were plentiful and often rich, successful, and attractive. Thackeray, where snobbery seemed to be the mainspring of much of the action. Thomas Hardy, where life was complicated by opposed moralities and the uncontrollable workings of Destiny, and where God was decidedly not a loving Father. I did not know it at the time, but of course these were the works of literary artists who observed life with keen eyes and wrote about what they saw, as their widely varying temperaments enabled them to see. When I myself became a writer, it was these whom I chose to follow, as best I could, and not the aggressive moralists.
SJW is a form of aggressive moralism. Nazism, which is an attempt to mold far-right values to a Leftist-style ideological structure, makes that same error (which became fatal for it). Similarly Communism and Socialism are moral appeals, meaning that they base themselves not on practical reasoning — “this works” — but on what should be, based on the feelings of individuals united into large angry groups dedicated to tearing down all people above them. Similarly, Christianity in metal attempts to be a dogmatic ideology, and so we get ludicrous songs about fighting for the Lord which like the propaganda above, present the world in black/white distinctions: one side all is goodness and purity, and the other is bad, stupid, rich and horrible.
When approaching these types in metal it is essential to see this distinction. The victimhood music of indie-rock bands for example presents us perfect, innocent, suffering victims of the type that appeared in moralist Christian literature, opposed by equally dark, evil and cruel forces of large corporations and right-wing tyrants. These overly-simplified moral models exist to make people want to be the good, and to polarize against the bad, without digging into any of the complexity of life that a realistic perspective provides. They are baby food for the brain, as manipulative as television commercials, and as deceptive as the seductions of a whore.
Art will always be better than propaganda, but people like propaganda because it makes them feel good about themselves. When you are presented with absolutes like good and evil, and those are put into simple terms of intent rather than achievement of goals, it makes every idiot shuffling in off the street into a hero just by wanting to be like the good guy in the propaganda. This is why propaganda is easily recognizable through its extreme polarization between the bad enemy scapegoat and the good virtuous long-suffering victim who is secretly a hero, just like the average person with a half-failed life wants himself to be, but will never take steps to be alone and can only do so in a large angry mob.
The assault on metal has taken many forms. During its early days, it was rock bands pretending to be metal to try to capture the authentic feel and thus the bourgeois rebel audience. Later the Christians came in, feeling that a message of evil needed to be replaced with a good one. The white power types have tried for years, often with sympathy from legitimate metal bands, but have never taken ground because metal emphasizes realism over politics. Now the SJWs — who are more similar to Communists than Nazis, but use the same methods — are trying to exact same approach. It helps to see this, recognize it as the attempted mind control that it is, and show it the door.
Before I had studied Zen for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains, and waters as waters. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and waters are not waters. But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest. For it’s just that I see mountains once again as mountains, and waters once again as waters.
— Ch’ing-yüan Wei-hsin, Ch’uan Teng Lu
Those who thirst for knowledge and wisdom move in cycles of understanding delimited by internalization and externalization. These transitions are not tied to fixed degrees and their own depth as well as their distance from the next phase varies from one person to the next. The cycles of understanding can be exemplified by the process of finding out how an electronic or mechanical device works: we first pry it open and find ourselves faced with a multitude of components whose nature we usually do not even begin to understand. It is only after a while that we slowly start to identify the function pertaining each of these elements.
At first, and as we acquire basic information on the system, we are taken aback by the complexity of the relations between the different pieces working with each other in interlocked patterns. Even after understanding the purpose and function that each of the pieces has, one is not assured a proper grasp of the bigger picture. The reason for this is that this is not simply the result of the mechanical output of wheels and cogs, but something else arising from the total.
And so, after a first wave of study, analysis and pondering, a first picture is obtained. The student may think he now knows what’s going on, and that all undetermined parts are simply “subjective” or “random” and cannot be considered relevant. Some would call it a day and leave it at that. Others would continue from this higher ground, recharging batteries and pushing forth theories and testing them for incongruences until a newer picture emerges, one where what he considered parts of a whole are only parts of a partial system, embedded in either a greater mesh or having a completely different shape or balance of parts.
In dealing with the enigma of true learning, the conscious human mind is impaired with an understanding that remains clear only up to very straightforward deterministic causal relations and requires its most powerful tool to attain its full potential: the underestimated intuition. If anyone has doubts regarding the role of intuition and the subconscious (unconscious?) in learning (the attaining of understanding), one only has to think that cramming on a particular subject yields instant information on the most direct and obvious levels, but that it is only after one has “slept on it” that repercussions and otherwise unimagined dependencies are revealed to the mind.
Most valuable information, of course, can also come through experience and a scientific exploration of any subject, which provides the springboard of systematized analysis that scientific thought is. Unfortunately for humanity, “science” has slowly become a synonym for “materialist close-mindedness” ever since the so-called Enlightenment, and anything that is not “scientifically proven” (which is an interesting parallel to reducing any idea to the lowest common denominator in its requirement of the idea in question being universally reproducible in laboratory conditions) is held to be unreliable and irrelevant – unless the establishment likes the idea (for political or ego reasons, more often than not), making the profit-based scientific research advance at an unbearably slow speed towards the fabrication of commodities and pointless lifespan prolongation.
Applying this description of universal acquisition of human wisdom to music appreciation cannot only afford us with a clearer way of realizing the value of art but may as well arm us with the steel necessary to combat the nonsensical idea of complete subjectivity in the perception of music which cripples any discussion on its value in favor of modernist un-human experimentalism and post-modernist adoration for the recycled novelty. Modernist and post-modernist ideas about art arise from the same so-called-scientific materialist thinking that spawned infantile Marxist thought. All of these have in common that they use the word “science” and “objectivity” as a shield while they naively ignore human nature in favor of completely biased ideas on how civilization should proceed in their consideration of either arts, politics or economy. The haughty claim is made that there is no such thing as human nature or that nobody understands what this even means. As if its imperfect understanding were enough to discard it as irrelevant, all evidence to the contrary.
In the true spirit of the scientist, the learner, the explorer, the experimenter, the reader and avid metal fan is encouraged to never stop considering the reasons behind the effects of music, the role of structures and textures and how they can be perceived, how they relate to meaning and in what contexts, as well as any other ideas that lead to understanding rather than to an obfuscation into which unscientific thought has lead the establishment while at the same time they hijack the word “science” for their personal views! Just because a problem is hard to solve, just because the variables involved are complex, and just because the obtaining of a knowledge does not represent life or death it does not mean it need not be pursued. Humans thrive on the tackling of problems, and the supplying of baser needs such as food and clothing should only mean that human intellect is now more free than ever to delve into higher mysteries.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
Old death metal as a combination of romanticism…
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.