Metal is fun and this is one of its greatest strengths. But great strengths are also great weaknesses, and the fun in metal leads to people to assume the usual forces do not act within it. One such force is economics, both in the sale of music and the sale of attention.
We can visualize the metal world as a giant economy based on who is listening to and talking about which release. Money is replaced by stereo-hours (or earbud-hours) with those being of unequal value. For example, a record company exec or top-ranked writer listening to an album may have more import than the average fan because such a role in the metal economy means that the exec or writer lures more people to specific releases. Both writers and execs make their money by betting on a type of stock market where the releases they choose as important either rise or fall, with corresponding consequences for the career in question.
With this in mind, we can look at the flow of new releases as a type of market. The more releases there are, the less each one is valuable; the more accurate information there is about new music, the more likely consumer choice is to be informed choice and reflect some measure of quality. When there are too many releases, all are disproportionately worth more, with the big mainstream bands — analogous to blue chip stocks — seeming like better options to the consumer than taking a chance in a sea of bands that seem to be about equal in potential. When all record reviews praise every new album, consumers have no information, and turn toward buying from established bands, even if the quality is sub-par.
Similarly, the effect of digital downloading can be modeled. Leaving aside purchases of digital music for a moment, we can look at the effects of downloading the latest releases from mega.nz or torrents. When the cost is free, the consumer may value that album less, but more importantly, the consumer is suddenly swimming in utter tons of music. If you have 500gb of death metal on your hard drive, it is unlikely that you will have the time or energy to listen to even a tenth of that. The more music that is downloaded, the less any particular release is likely to get stereo-hours.
Looking even further, we can see the impact of the metal community. When the metal community is supportive of every release that comes out, it means that none stand out and as a result, all get fewer listens. Where a healthy economy has some clear winners, a blind endorsement for all releases means that consumers know nothing about differences between them in quality — leaving aside aesthetic/genre for the moment — and so end up purchasing blindly or not at all. When digital downloads are available for free, or streaming online is free, the consumer sees less of a reason to visit a band for more than a few listens.
And extending this a bit further, the more similar bands are to one another, both aesthetically and in quality, the less likely consumers are to choose any one. This type of “heat death” of the metal markets occurs when consumers lack information about bands or cannot find substantial differences between them. At that point, the smart strategy for a metal listener is to download something new on a regular basis and listen to it for a few weeks because, heck, it is about like every other release in quality and sound. They know it will last for only a few weeks, so there is no point in buying it. I suggest that it is this phenomenon — a glut of similar-sounding and similar-quality metal bands — and not digital piracy itself that is terrorizing the music industry.
Industries tend to respond to a narrowing of the market by increasing frequency of product release. This in turn creates a glut, and tends to drive quality down, because in order to release regularly they need people who will bash out something obvious instead of spend time ruminating on it. Further, industry does not want expensive single units, as occur when musicians try to make a career of it, but — much like information technology hiring — prefer the young and clueless who they can use to make a release or two for low cost. All of these contribute to an oversupply of releases, a situation which is made worse by the tendency of journalists to champion almost all of these releases, which makes consumers less likely to purchase any single one.
Let us then consider the role of the Elitist. If we use the non-hipster definition of elitist, the term comes to mean those who prefer quality over quantity. That means that instead of 500gb of similar-sounding and similar-quality bands, this person wants 50gb of high-quality bands that may or may not be similar-sounding. Elitists create a different type of pressure on the metal market, which is concentration: they create winners who rise above the herd, because the non-hipster elitist also tends to be a type of “power user” of metal who spreads information to friends and influential people. When an elitist likes something, unlike when an average person does, the consumer is offered a strong signal of quality or interest. This creates a tendency to rely on elitists more, much like experienced music consumers read the cynical reviewers because they do not have the time or energy to sort through many indistinguishable releases.
Elitists may be the answer to the music industry’s woes. With labels releasing as fast as they can, and journalists praising almost everything, the result is a “heat death” of the market. When elitists step in and separate the good from the merely adequate, this creates contours to the market and allows some bands to win, which creates a pressure on bands to not simply produce, but produce well, encouraging an expenditure of more time, thought and effort on the releases in question. These elitists are distinct from hipster elitists, who do not value quality over quantity but value novelty over both, and specialize in bands that — whether good or bad, as the hipster elitist is agnostic to quality — are weird, quirky, odd or ironic. This creates a market pressure that rewards the trivial and manufactures niches which can then be further developed by non-hipster elitists who sort the best above the rest.
Similarly, since online downloading does not appear to be going away, the non-hipster elitist serves a role in making downloading work for the music industry: by selecting some bands as good, they signal that these are worth buying while the others are merely worth downloading. We have no data on how many people who download actually listen to the music they capture, but one thought is that like many collectors of free things, they simply hoard it — especially since they lack the time to actually listen to all of it. The average person may be able to hear twelve hours of music a day, but they can probably only listen to five or six before they lose track of the differences. Listening requires concentration and not very many people have even four hours a day to actually pay attention to music.
As an explorer of metal music, I have downloaded at least 500gb in my lifetime. 99% of it goes right back to where it came: ashes to ashes, bits to zeroes. The remaining one percent gets purchased and, from informal conversations with other metalheads, I am far from alone in this. For this reason, I have for years encouraged “natural selection” downloading, because it means that instead of buying blind, consumers devote their attention to music that they like. Streaming sites like Spotify, Bandcamp, Soundcloud and ReverbNation have arisen to address this need, and informally many users report scanning those tracks before deciding to make an illegal download. Whether or not the user eventually purchases the music, it is succeeding in the market for attention, and this leads to its propagation among metalheads and greater likelihood of being purchased.
Few will say so publicly, but in private many journalists, fans and workers in the industry will admit that metal has lost quality massively since 1994. Not coincidentally, its popularity has been steadily rising since that time, as has its availability. While many blame the internet and digital downloads for collapse of metal, the model above suggests that it is not the means of consumption, but the glut of the market that is causing the woes of the music industry and fans alike. While unpopular, non-hipster elitists may represent a solution to this problem.
The old saying goes that those who love to use tobacco smoke cigarettes, and those who love tobacco smoke cigars and pipes. The cigarettes give you a quicker hit because the lungs, with their much vaster absorption area, deliver nicotine to the brain within about three seconds. The cigarette ends within three to seven minutes and the craving subsides momentarily. With pipes and cigars, the nicotine slowly oozes in through the mucus membranes in the mouth, tongue and (sometimes) throat, creating a stronger dose of nicotine but without the sudden “falling off a cliff” sensation. Many metalheads smoke cigarettes, but more are branching out to pipes and cigars for the flavors, more intense dosage and less damage to the body.
Please do not read this as an anti-cigarette rant. They are wonderful, in their own right, and much less work than cigars or pipes. However, burning any leaves and inhaling them directly into your lungs 10-20 times a day would cause some kind of long term health problem as gunk — tar, ash and irritants — builds up on the alveoli. On top of that, our industry and lawmakers have decided to mandate all sorts of processing of the tobacco, so who knows what else is being inhaled. If you would not mind going into a fast food joint, taking home their lettuce, dehydrating it and sitting next to a giant pile of it burning all day, cigarettes might not bother you. And keep in mind that there are brain-boosting benefits to nicotine in addition to resistance to neurodegenerative disorders, an effect which you do not get with the charred salad.
Cigars are beyond the scope of this article, but pipes are its focus. Pipes are essentially little wooden, stone or clay cups for burning tobacco with an inhalation tube attached. The smoker fills the pipe loosely with tobacco, then ignites it with some of the many means available to us ex-hominids, inhaling the smoke into his mouth and savoring it before blowing it outward into the personal space of those around him. While the topic of smoking pipes merits a full book, this article provides an introduction to pipe smoking designed to be as simple and low-cost as possible.
To get started, you will need:
A pipe. Generally between $35-$65 for a good starter pipe. Look for 0.7inch diameter bowls and filterless stems. This tool may help.
Tobacco. This comes in tins and bulk, usually found at Brick and Mortar (B&M) shops, and Over the Counter (OTC) usually found at drugstores and supermarkets.
Pipe cleaners. Each time you smoke, you will want to clean your pipe. Pipe cleaners have two ends, so that is two smokes per cleaner. It is not a terrible habit to include a bundle or package of these each time you buy tobacco.
A pipe nail. Demystifying this tool: it can be as simple as a key. You use one end to cut up tobacco, allowing it to collapse into an ember, and the other to tamp it after you light it for the first time. Tobacco rises like a demon unleashed when touched with fire, but compressing it allows it to smoulder so you can sip the pipe.
Fire. I favor the compressed cardboard matches in matchbooks, but you can use anything. For some, lighters and zippos taste horrible, so they prefer the match. The only trick is to burn off the tip before lighting.
To avoid the usual drama, let us launch into the process of smoking:
You go to some place with little wind, but some air circulation, where you have a comfortable chair. Sitting in it, you take out your tobacco. Holding the pipe over the tobacco container, let the shreds of tobacco fall into the pipe. When it is half-full, gently tamp with a finger. When it reaches the top, pinch from the center to one side and then the other, compressing the tobacco and letting it fall back into place. (Much has been written on this topic, usually under the unfortunate appellation of packing a pipe, when the correct word to use is fill: put tobacco into the pipe so there are no fully empty spaces, but fall short of compacting it so air — necessary for fire and smoke — can flow through. Ignore all other advice.)
Put the pipe in your mouth, holding it gently with teeth and firmly with lips. Light a match, and hold it vertically at a slight angle so the flame climbs the stalk of the match, then when the head has burned off, move the match over the tobacco in slow circles while inhaling. Take the smoke into your mouth and the top part of your throat if you wish, but try to avoid it leaking further down toward the lungs. You can compress it by gently blowing out the air from the front of your mouth, which draws in smoke from the cigar. The best way to inhale that I have found involves flaring the nose and drawing in air slowly but steadily.
My favorite cycle runs in seven second increments. For bigger mouthfuls, draw in your smoke, then keep it in your mouth for three seconds, then exhale and wait another four seconds. For slower sips, take one for about a half-second, then wait at least three seconds before the next. It helps to have a slight background circulation of air to keep the pipe oxygenated and smouldering well.
Many smokers do a “char and light” where they torch the top layer of tobacco, then tamp it lightly because it has risen up as it burned, and then light again to get the resulting compressed tobacco to blaze. At two-thirds through the bowl, it may be helpful to use a poker or the pointy end of your pipe nail to chop up the resulting ember and set it ablaze again. The lighting requirements vary between tobacco types, which will be addressed below.
When no more smoke comes out of the pipe, and you sense that the tobacco has been converted mostly to ash, tap it out into convenient bushes or a metal trash receptacle without a plastic bag. The ash will be hot and melt plastic. To tap out, hold the pipe in your hand and swing it downward to shake the ash out of the bowl. You may have to stir it with poker or nail beforehand.
Then comes the most important part of the ritual. If your pipe lacks a filter, run a pipe cleaner from the mouthpiece into the pipe and leave it there for a few minutes to absorb both direct and ambient moisture. This will keep your pipe fresh-tasting for its next use.
Pipe smokers vary. Some are hard-hitters who blaze through a bowl quickly, where others are sippers who have a pipe going all day for an hour at a time. If you re-light too frequently, or smoke too fast, the pipe may get hot; if this happens enough and to a great enough extreme, it may cause a condition known as “burnout” where the material of the pipe chars and cracks. To help avoid this, smoke on the seven-second method and also, allow some nice thick gunky tar to line the bowl, especially on the bottom. I always smoke some OTC aromatics, which are full of sugary flavoring that bonds together the goo and forms a kind of tar cement, down to the bottom of the bowl to layer it with a nice thick coating of glop. This glop chars over time and becomes a sort of pipe creosote that insulates against extremes.
Tobacco originates as leafy plant in the genus Nicotiana, which when cured, dried, pressed and shredded becomes a delicious flammable method of nicotine delivery. The great variations in what are called generically tobaccos occur in the different strains of tobacco plants, and the different methods used to grow, cure, dry, press, and cut the leaves.
That process produces a number of tobacco types, which are then combined in varying amounts into different blends, which you might think of as “tobacco recipes” because they achieve a unique flavor through the ingredients — different types of tobacco — mixed within them. These blends are also distinguished by their cut or how they are sliced, which is related to the flavor and tobacco characteristics in each blend. Many blends are then coated in flavoring known as “aromatic”; if the primary flavor to the smoking blend is the flavoring and not the underlying tobacco, the blend is referred to as an aromatic tobacco.
For the end user, tobacco is then shaped by another force — the consumer market — and placed into the following silos:
Over-the-Counter (OTC). OTC tobaccos are designed for convenience. They are usually either aromatics or a type of shag-cut tobacco that is also used for Roll Your Own (RYO) cigarettes. These burn most easily, cost about $2 an ounce, and are generally mild in both flavor and nicotine level.
Luxury. Like most things in our society, the good stuff only starts when you step off the mainstream and pony up some more cash. You would not buy Budweiser to drink, nor Marlboro to smoke, so you will choose a pipe tobacco made under the brand name of an established firm. A handful of producers make these tobaccos now, but they tend to be stronger and rely more on the flavor of natural tobacco, although many are also aromatics but with a wider variety of flavors than OTC.
Boutique. A cottage industry has sprung up in making this variety of luxury tobacco which aims for unique and intense flavors, sometimes combining aromatic and unflavored tobaccos. These are more expensive than “regular” luxury and are made by a handful of blenders who also own mail-order tobacco shops.
Vintage. In the past, everything was better. People have been saying that for generations, and apparently each were correct: the tobaccos of only 20 years ago were stronger and more flavorful. Luxury tobaccos, once considered regular tobacco, have been stored in sealed tins (if you buy one on eBay, make sure it is also “unopened” as opposed to re-sealed) and are now much sought-after.
I recommend starting with a solid OTC like Carter Hall, Prince Albert, Captain Black, Five Brothers or even Drum. These are the easiest to learn to pipe with, and give you a feeling for what mild levels of nicotine and flavor are like. In addition, they are low-cost so you will not howl and scream if you accidentally ruin a bowl or spill some.
You may find that these are pleasing enough for you and that you are content to smoke them for life. There is nothing wrong with this; many have done so and it provides the least fetishistic and complex smoking experience. Five Brothers stands out from most of these because it does not use aromatic flavoring or propylene glycol (PG), a moisturizing agent added to many OTC tobaccos. If your OTC tobacco comes out of the can or pouch and seems damp, it probably has a good dose of PG. Many aromatics, including those sold at the luxury level, also have this treatment.
From that point, the next stop is an entry-level luxury tobacco. I suggest going with a Dunhill blend because they are widely available, not overly flavored, and tend to be sliced for easy burning. You can generally get a tin of 50g/1.76oz for about $9 online or $15 in the real world, if you are in the United States; this will vary with local tobacco taxes. You may notice that you are paying quite a bit in taxes throughout this whole process, and wonder if that is in fact the impetus for the whole societal jihad against tobacco. Keep wondering. In places like Canada and Europe, they pay multiples of what you pay here. Scary.
At this point, I would stop moving up the ladder. Boutique blends are a variety of luxury blend that costs more and has more unique, ironic, oddball, quirky, and otherwise off-the-beaten path blends. However, it tends to be lower in nicotine content and it is unclear whether these weird little blends are actually that distinct from their archetypes. There are only so many types of tobacco and while many different combinations can be made, most of them resemble a few fundamental types. I have never ventured into Vintage tins and can say that, while undoubtedly these older blends were of a finer quality, that may not have been preserved over the years. Nicotine levels especially degrade. To my mind, the piping experience cannot be separated into “taste” or effect but must include both, and so the fetishism with flavor — even if grounded in science and experience — strikes me as perhaps being a mistake.
Tobacco comes in several cuts which reflect how the leaves are presented:
Shag. Cut laterally across the leaf, leaving an interlocked mess like peat moss that loads easily and burns well.
Ribbon. “Normal.” Thicker slices that seem to be vertically up and down the leaf.
Flake -> Ready Rubbed. Flake occurs when tobacco is pressed in blocks and then sliced; Ready Rubbed is the result of “rubbing out” those slices.
Plug. Tobacco is pressed together and allowed to mature that way, then cut into little pucks.
Cake. Like a plug, but loosely packed, resulting in a crumbly “coffee cake” style.
Cube. Cross-slicing the tobacco produces tiny cubes; sometimes hard to keep lit.
Twist -> Slices. Tobacco is twisted in plugs or flake is re-twisted in tubes, then cut into little “coin” shaped bits called slices.
Multiple types of tobacco dot the landscape. These refer to the strain of tobacco plant and how it was cured and prepared. These are:
Burley. Think cigar leaves. This air-cured tobacco has a nutty flavor and higher nicotine and oil than most others. It is used to complement other tobaccos in blends, and is known for its tongue “bite” from high alkalinity.
Virginia. High sugar content and sweet natural taste make this type a favorite in many blends. Although this tobacco comes in many colors, its flavor stays within the mild range and makes it the basis of many blends.
Cavendish. This term applies to any tobacco that has been aged and cured with a heating process that brings out a fuller taste.
Latakia. This is Oriental tobacco which has been cured with smoke from burning oak, pine, juniper and yew wood to give it a bittersweet taste.
Oriental/Turkish. Sweet and low in nicotine, this is tobacco grown using the Eastern method of low soil nutrients and plenty of sun, which produces its fragrance and flavor.
Perique. Fermentation in its own juices after Burley tobacco is pressed into barrels gives Perique a spicy-sweet flavor. This is generally an additive to other blends to give them some spark
Dark Fired. Leaves are cured with smoke under carefully managed heat and humidity, producing a blend both strong in nicotine and flavor. It is used as an additive more than a main ingredient because of its intensity.
English. Mostly Virginia, with Latakia for body and Oriental tobaccos to provide spice.
Scottish. Similar to an English blend, the Scottish blend uses less Latakia and more Virginia, with little or no Orientals.
Balkan. Strong in Orientals and Latakia, this tobacco blend uses Virginia to balance those dominant flavors.
American. Although there are some similarities to the English, the American blend uses more Virginia with possible Cavendish or Kentucky style tobaccos.
Danish. These resemble the English, but with a deeper flavor and less spice, using more Burley and Cavendish but emphasizing stronger, more balanced flavors.
You will probably find yourself shopping by blend, which could be a substitute term for flavor. What type of smoke do you wish to taste tonight? There are several indexes for ranking different blends:
Harshness. How much acridity and bite there is. Strong smoke can be hard on the smoker, and “bite” is created by the alkalinity of the tobacco, which raises the pH and increases absorption of nicotine but may also cause a tangy burning sensation on the tongue.
Strength. You are smoking a nicotine-bearing plant. How much nicotine is delivered? A tobacco with high nicotine may be worth pounds of low-nic fruity aromatics.
Note. This refers to the smell left behind after the tobacco is burned. This influences both your taste of the tobacco, and what your friends, family and coworkers experience.
The de facto standard for tobacco assessments is Tobacco Reviews. Like other crowd-sourced sites such as Wikipedia and Metal-Archives, or reviews on Amazon, it is good for basic factual information and opinions from people whose judgment you have verified and who — as a result — you trust. It is not good for randomly reading reviews because most of them are written by twitchy, bitchy and queeny internet consumers who complain about all the wrong things, like all the irrelevant, and miss the point. Some of the tobaccos rated highly by this site’s users are excellent, but others are simply quirky hipster fodder. Tread carefully, and consider using the various pipe forums out there: Puff, Pipes, Smokers Forum, and Tamp and Puff. The private reviews at this location have endured because they are frequently strikingly accurate. The main point is: find someone whose opinions you respect and tastes who align with yours, even if the exact opposite of yours, and you can figure out what you will like.
A word on lighting pipes: some prefer magnifying glasses and sun, others coals from the fire, still others matches and apparently, most like either butane lighters or Zippos. As a diehard match user, I can say that matches fail in the wind, and there is more wind that you might think, but that they seem to create the least influence on taste. Perhaps a laser is appropriate.
The pipe world is full of both facts and lore. Lore refers to anything passed on by groups of humans in social circumstances; the idea is that if it survives a dozen generations, it might be true. In the meantime, you will be wading through mountains of nonsense and worst of all, unnecessary complexity added by people who wish to seem profound or wise. Pipe-smoking is simple: you are lighting dried leaves in a tube and inhaling. The rest is mere adjustment.
The following resources may be helpful for those seeking to know more:
The DLA/DMU has taken flak over the years for being unwilling to embrace new trends, but this criticism forgets that we also avoided endorsing older bad ideas. Our writers have generally avoided jumping on the bandwagon for the “trve kvlt” just as much as the new, millennial-friendly indie-rock version of metal. The reason we can do this is that we apply a simple quality standard instead of using the consensus of others to determine truth.
Despite having many editors, each of whom had somewhat varied opinions on the process, if viewed on the large scale the site has kept a generally consistent opinion. That is: some of the so-called classics are good, and few of the new school releases are good, but the determination is not made by category, but by analyzing each release on its own merits. This leads to sudden shock for some who expected us to be cheerleaders for anything that seems to “uphold the true spirit of the underground,” and dismay for those who like the newer material as release after release fails our test.
Metal is in a slump and has been since 1994, in quality. Correspondingly, it has been in a boom in terms of quantity of fans. We have more “metalheads” (cough) now than ever before. However, anyone who is not in denial — and most are — can tell you that quality has fallen off dramatically. The music has lost its energy, its nerve and its insight and been buried under a wave of bands that are either obedient and docile system products, or slaves to the underground record-collecting audience that does not care about quality so long as the aesthetics of previous generations are preserved. Both groups unfortunately are useful idiots for industry, which can keep producing low-cost clone bands and reaping the profits.
We discard bands for two reasons: not being metal, and not being good. The bands that are simply not good tend to have the most fans, ironically. Who among us can claim that, for example, Blazebirth Hall bands and Drudkh offered anything musical or artistic to metal? They cloned Graveland in a light and breezy melodic form that is essentially music for children. In the same way we refuse to celebrate underground “favorites” that consist of ranting and disorganized music like Sepulchral Aura, or avantgarde prog fanboy-bait like Fanisk and Deathspell Omega.
In addition, we discard that which does not uphold the artistic, intellectual and philosophical spirit of metal. There is quite a bit of overlap here with “not being good.” We would not endorse Cradle of Filth; nor would we endorse Opeth, back in the day, or Cannibal Corpse, on the basis that they were essentially rock bands trying to assimilate metal and thus produced a moronic mindset. Similarly Pantera and to a lesser degree, Anthrax. Back in the day we thought SOD was inferior to Cryptic Slaughter, DRI, and Corrosion of Conformity. We refused to endorse Wolves in the Throne Room, Animals as Leaders, Gojira, Mastodon and other indie-rock pretending to be metal. We ignore Pelican and all stoner doom bands because they are boring and terrible. This music is distraction from metal, not metal, but its fans make a big show of being “very metal,” which tells you exactly what they are hiding and deflecting your attention from.
This approach wins us zero friends in the short term, but trusted readers in the long term. People — especially those who lead purposeful lives and do not have lots of time, nor enjoy, combing through catalogs and blogs trying to figure out which 1% of the reviews are not lies — like getting the low-down on quality metal. They enjoy that moment of discovery when they find something really good, something they can listen to not just this week and six months or a year from now, but for future decades. That is ultimately the standard by which any music fan operates; they like music, so they veer toward the best, not just at a level of mechanics (technicality) but artistically, or its relevance to the ongoing philosophical and moral maturation of humankind. Most of humanity likes mediocrity or at least convinces itself that it likes those bands. After all, Third Eye Blind has sold more records than most segments of the metal genre. But popularity — whether among credulous hipsters or gormless mass media fans — has never determined quality. Consensus is not reality. Only reality is reality, and we make our best stab at it.
With that in mind, you may ask: why write negative reviews? The answer may surprise you. We seek to give music fans the intellectual tools they need to fight back the onslaught of Opeth, Pantera, Ulver, Cradle of Filth, Meshuggah, Vattnet Viskar, Cannibal Corpse and Deathspell Omega styled bands. We use both positive and negative examples to illustrate, to the best of our ability, what metal is and which approaches to it have produced the quality level necessary for prolonged listening. This puts us at odds with most metal journalists, for whom writing is a day job and as a result, is interpreted as endless enthusiasm for whatever is new and exciting because the consensus likes it. They are essentially advertisers because they are writing ad copy about these bands, not a look into what makes their music function. It is designed to make you buy music, because journalists who can sell music get famous and become editors. You will notice that major publications run almost no negative reviews. Why is that, you might ask? Because their job is to sell music, not review it, even if they call it “review.”
In all human endeavors our social impulses, which because we are selfish beings are actually self-interested impulses translated to altruism to flatter and manipulate others, override any sense of quality or purpose. The task ceases to become the task and becomes the process of creating the appearance of results instead of results; bands stop trying to be good, and focus on replicating what has worked before in new forms. The “best” (by consensus) bands “sound” different on the surface, but musically are extremely similar, because that formula has worked in the past. That is a social impulse: make what people like because it does not challenge them and makes them feel smart, profound or at least “with the crowd” to be listening to it. This social impulse has ruined metal since 1994.
Metal thrives — as it did during the mid-70s, early 80s and early 90s — under two factors: (1) it is ignored by most people, so it is free from the manipulations of those who want to sell rebellion-flavored rock to morons, and (2) it has some truly great artists to kickstart it and establish a standard. The former is self-evident, but the latter can be explained as follows. When early Norse black metal came out, it set a standard of quality and allowed fans, by simply choosing to spend their money on what was more rewarding, to exclude bands that did not meet that standard. Why would you buy Forgotten Wolves when you can get Darkthrone? Why would you pick up another speed metal clone when you can have top-quality death metal? Metal thrived when it was elitist, closed-minded and viciously competitive. Now that it has become a group hug, quality has suffered and no one seems to have noticed. Except us — and we are watching.
Fenriz as the archetypal metal drummer is perhaps a puzzle to most, perhaps considering his status to be a mere by-produt of Darkthrone becoming an icon. The status of most worthy personalities of metal tends to be double sided in that way. There is the respect for what came before, usually a blind fanhood of what is not understood and is only explainable in terms of some kind of historical relevance and then there is the underground ackowledgement of the musical talents of the artist in question that stand the test of time. The difference in perception arises from the fact that these artists’ greatest merit lies in subtletly. The Subtlety of where to use a specific technique, however rudimentary, so that the music is better enhanced, completed or open to being built on (say the drums got written before everything else).
In drumming in particular, the lack of appreciation for proper arrangement has been greater than in the vocal or guitar departments, perhaps because the only antecedents in this type of percussion come from rock and jazz. In rock, the drums are merely a time keeper and groove-adder. In Jazz, it is typical that they serve that function plus, like all the other instruments, allow the musician to keep masturbating on the instrument with little thought to how this adds to the music as concept and not self-referential indulgence. But in all fairness, there is an old school of jazz in which the music is kept together more neatly and in which the drums play a much more constructive role.
In metal, the drums are not only a support instrument but should blend in into a whole. In fact, ideally, the guitars should be doing this too. The point is so subtle and hard to grasp that even the musicians that acknowledge it have a very hard time translating it into practice. As with all great things coming from a simple concept, it is easier said than done. The most prudent drummers and bands limit the percussion to a function (that in metal is more prominent and important than in rock) rather than the spotlight, and this is at least a first step.
It was the increasing distance between all rock-like perspective in music that made metal approach a more purified and important integration of drums into its frameworks. Works such as Hvis Lyst Tar Oss or Transilvanian Hunger are inconceivable without percussion. That is not to say that the rest of the elements are not good, but they are incomplete without percussion. And so are their corresponding drum patterns without them. Metal had to go back to an extreme minimalism, stripping down every layer to realize the importance of every little element. This Burzum album belongs to end of black metal as an era, but I will place it here even if it appears counter-chronological.
After an initial dive into this primitivism driven (Celtic Frost, Bathory) by gut instinct of the most authentic kind, death metal proper developed and quickly escalated in its use of technical arrangements that went overboard in the sense that they were unnecessary for the point of the music itself, though not necessarily bad. Technicality was set besides essence and communication in importance. The formal music tendencies that are so prominent in classical music started to surface in metal.
A great overlooked exception to this rule was the work of Adrian Erlandsson within the framework of arrangements and indications of Alf Svensson for At the Gates The Red in the Sky is Ours. The fact that these integral arrangements are unmatched in death metal to this very day is a testament to how little understood they are. The fact that the drumming here twists, bends, propulses, stops, counterpoints in a great variety of different drum patterns that while theoretically rudimentary are often technically demanding, especially when performed as a whole, indicate that a sense of continuity in expression must be kept by the drummer through changes of tempo, time signature and character. What makes this superior to other progressive-oriented albums is that for all this variety, the style of expression is tightly restricted. The reduced repertoire of guitar and drum techniques to the minimal from which it builds its complexity in a language of its own endows it with this distinct personality. Without the guidance of the architect Svensson, though, this band completely floundered in mediocrity soon after his departure.
Today, few bands grasp the importance of the integrated drums let alone being actually capable of translating the concept to a concrete plan and then puting it into practice. As far as I have seen, with very particular exceptions, the most sober drumming comes from the modern tradition that has branched from (old, the only real) black metal. First of all, it may come to those learning it by virtue of studying the past, this makes the grasping of a concept much easier. This does not include the nu-black or post-black camps which represent a departure, regression and deconstruction of metal, a reflection of decadence.
It is rather in the work of Abyssum’s Akherra that we see the role of drums as an essential part of the music. For this, the rest of the instruments must accomodate the drums, not only run on top of it. The naive layering of instruments most bands are used to is precisely what makes them amateurs in this. In proper metal, the drums are inside, not under the music. This is part of what the metaphor “drumming in counterpoint” reflects. Drum patterns that are relatively independent in the sense that they aren’t just there as a support, but come into contact at every moment with the music, bending, yielding and transforming along with the rest of the music.
Such attention to detail goes far beyond just playing slower or faster, stronger or softer when the rest of the music does so. It is not only a matter of intensity or speed in correspondence. The drums must live in symbiosis with the guitars, and not like a running pair of athletes besides each other. Silences and types of drum patterns specifically tailored to different sections are exemplified in Abyssum’s “The Illusion of Pan” in which we see important decisions taken about the smallest details such as ride strikes in the rhythm of a particular keyboard melody speed, the variations between soft blast beats and other less forward-moving patterns as great inflections and indicators of the song’s pictorial journey that are not as clearly reflected in the rest of the music alone.
This entry is not about judging this or that band over another. The point is the study of drums for the future of metal. The recognition of the evolution in the use of drums throughout the genre. Surprisingly, Black Sabbath Master of Reality shows the kind of thinking that would go into Celtic Frost To Mega Therion in terms of the reduction and powerful use of elements into highly-personalized expressions. In this Black Sabbath showed how far ahead of their times they were. It took metal more than a decade to catch up to them. These musical transpirations in their music were refined through the black metal tradition going through death metal. The best we can hope for is bands today piecing out elements in this way, and being able to identifying what great drumming consists of in metal. But this must start out from the vision of metal as a proper music, as highly-integrated elements which conspire within an indissolubly dependent complex set of relations.
Olivier Messiaen about 1940 at the console of the Cavaillé-Coll-organ St.Trinité in Paris
Famously noted for having claimed that he saw colors when listening to music, Olivier Messiaen was born very early in the 20th century (1908) and was one of the last in a bastard’s litter of composers to be caught in the crossfire between a lingering romantic spirit and modernist aesthetics. This extremely vivid perception of musical tones and his fondness for birds and their songs were, doubtless, a great influence on his methodical choice for musical language. This includes his own compiled and defined modes of limited transposition. These existed before but he was the first to compile them and examine their boundaries and relationships exhaustively.
Hanging in an interesting intersection of the concentrated meditations of Ildjarn Landscapes, Tangerine Dream’s and Klaus Schulze’s early improvisation-like soundscapes and the latter’s methodic motific constructions, Messiaen’s organworks such as Les Corps Glorieux anticipates them all and brings them together in a very personal language. Appart from that, we find passages that could be taken from the most bizarre organ fantasias dreamed of by Baroque or Romantic composers. What is special about these works is the convincing power with which he brings all this together without falling into the modern tendency of classical music to twist around and transform ideas so quickly the listener barely has time to be submerged in them.
In contrast, his music lingers in the ecstatic wonder that we might guess was induced by an appreciation of nature and its patterns as the grand work of the Judeo-Christian god as per his Roman Catholic beliefs. The exact source of it is not important, but the state of mind achieved in silent and inner introspection and outwardly-projected contemplation is transmitted in these organworks through a plethora of distinct techniques that Messiaen manipulate without incurring in an overcrowding of any particular piece. But even when a comparison between movements is done, the nature of the whole work is not disrupted, all come under an intent, even though each of these is an idea of its own. While any can lump compositions and songs in an album or title and call it a day, in Messiaen’s different organworks we find the perfect example of works as expressions of ideas in episodes. Integral works that divide individual ideas into self-contained movements.
The recordings of 1956 are said to suffer from audo-technical problems even for the recording technology of the time. A hiss is present here and there, and not all tones are captured in the pristine way that classical music audiophiles fantasize about. In addition to that, the way Olivier Messiaen himself plays his works on the organ is criticized heavily by some, arguing that he is not a real organist. This is quite a statement given that he held a post as an organist at a church for decades. The third condition that affects the recording is that the organ is said to be out of tune, with some pipes diverging slightly from how they should sound. In my personal opinion, given the nature and character of Messiaen’s music, and the fact that he wrote the pieces for that precise organ, the imperfect condition of the instrument is perfect for the performance. His talents are more than enough, as he composed and feels the music he gave birth to, filling it with expression in rubato and more as it flows through and out of him. The subpar recording and defects in hiss and what not only add to the eery atmosphere of mixed wonder and dread that probably represents the Christian fear of God. Love and admiration and extreme fear mixed together in irreconcilable battle for primacy in an endless cycle that fades into eternity.
The following is a three-part series of articles discussing this performance and contain links to horribly-tagged mp3 files of the 1956 performance of the composer’s works by himself:
“While he was instrumental in the academic exploration of his techniques (he compiled two treatises: the later one in five volumes was substantially complete when he died and was published posthumously), and was himself a master of music analysis, he considered the development and study of techniques to be a means to intellectual, aesthetic and emotional ends. Thus Messiaen maintained that a musical composition must be measured against three separate criteria: it must be interesting, beautiful to listen to, and it must touch the listener.”
The slow evolution of Western society (and in consequence of the whole world) into the post-modern paradigm arising inevitably from the purely mechanistic cosmovision of the Enlightment sciences, which in the best of cases allow for a Cartesian separation of the physical and the spiritual, pervade every corner touched by the status quo culture. This results in a relegating of anything which cannot be explained or described in purely mathematical terms to what is referred to as ‘subjective’. Anything that is experienced but cannot (yet) be explained is assumed to be subjective. There would be a certain justice to this if the phenomena that are still unaccounted for by science were squarely placed in a category under a truthful label by the establishment confessing: “We don’t know how to explain this in our terms, but that does not mean it is any less real or without possible objective basis.” What takes place is an arbitrary classification of these into morally-justified beliefs when they are in line with the status quo and into so-called subjective experiences when they are not.
The views held by society must be enforced in every discipline precisely because they are the result of dogma and not actual science (a word unfortunately hijacked by a corrupt establishment lead by weak minds elevated to positions of prestige and power by other weak minds). It follows that dogmatic belief cannot be challenged at any level since any divergence spells out potential intellectual catastrophes and conflicts that are not guaranteed to be won by the powers that be. As a result, not only does education suffer in the form of indoctrination but so do the supposed heroes of objective knowledge that the sciences are said to be comprised of turn into the priests of the temple to whatever the hive believes. It is only to be expected, then, that the humanities and the arts are the most easily and selectively suppressed, limited or made irrelevant, since the processes and phenomena studied by them are even further away from the grasp of mathematical explanations.
In the Western classical music tradition, the tenets of the Common Practice Period have been put into question for a very long time in progressively derisive waves. Very often, revolutionary thinkers that spearheaded such contrarian views had transcendent and elaborate reasons that motivated and justified their moving-beyond. But the hordes of followers understood only a portion of this, often inclined towards its most easily understood materialist explanation. In the case of Beethoven, followers of his defiance of what was expected of music were shielded from degeneration by the very fact that the then contemporary German culture was a very spiritual one, and its artists still acknowledged the magic behind music — occult properties and processes that can only be perceived but not fully explained. Contrastingly, in the age of Anton Webern, his decision based on artistic principle to move away from traditional harmony to work with a self-defined and logical set of rules that he would use without falling into an empty materialism was taken up as fashion — the next “big thing” in classical music development. This directly reflected the way Western society saw the world around it at the beginning of the 20th century: as its playground, where anything “I like” goes and the capricious human will is allowed to do whatever it wants because we are the nihilist masters of the natural world. Gone was the romantic respect of nature and its view of humans as part of it. We must ask ourselves what dissolved the old German mysticism? The simple answer is that they, too, had to change, even if slowly and reluctantly, in order to not be destroyed in a world dominated by French Enlightment and overarching Russian influences — both with primarily materialist tendencies.
Music theory is one such set of occult properties. Yet it is only occult (hidden but observable) because there is no theory developed for the relation between arranged sound frequencies and mental states, especially at increased levels of complexity. Contrary to what scientifically-ignorant artists think, this is neither impossible nor irrational, just difficult. Contrary to the beliefs of Blank Slate – indoctrinated scientists, the study of innate human nature can yield explanations as to why, as a species, certain tastes, visual and sound arrangements and textures have certain effects on the mind (itself rooted in chemical states of the brain). The reason why both groups tend to back away from such ideas is not rooted in reason, but in the fear of not being acknowledged for who they are, which for them translates into what they want, like or prefer to believe to feel validated. In other words, reality is shunned in order to give way to a truth built on the necessities of feable human egos. The ramifications are manifold and most are out of the scope of this article.
Out of the accusations levelled against Common Practice Period theory, one of the most common and often accepted is that it somehow limits the imagination of artists. Presumably, this is because its rules define a perimeter around permissible options in a finite-state machine, thereby prohibiting the random allocation of space and time to music tones selected purely out of gut feeling. And that precisely is one of the defining factors of the post-modern vision of art. At this point, it may seem like I am contradicting my previous statements regarding the possibility of harmony rules being developed and justified on the basis of human nature. If they are, then an artist following only his gut feeling should arrive to at least similar results. First, that these rules are based on human nature does not mean they are free of the constraints of their historical context, including not only cultural implications but also material possibilities for the construction of certain instruments with particular timbres. Second, the rules were developed through collective observations and philosophies over hundreds of years by many different people building on top and beside one another– in the same way that mathematics and modern science were gestated.
While older attitudes were nature-oriented, and tried to keep their understanding of human nature in line with what was then understood of the natural world, the Enlightment sees a rupture between them as a necessary effect of placing human beings over nature as overlords to do as they please with it– thereby setting them beyond judgement within it. It was an ideology-based decision, not a scientific one. As a result, there are those, especially among the post-modernist classical artists, that are not guided by a free search for musical perfection, but by contrarian and politically-charged statements that can only be described as the ultimate incarnation of a hipster’s dreamworld.
The comparison to mathematics is in dire need of further elaboration as it contains the potential to elucidate much about what musical theory is and what it is not. We may start by stating that they are both tools and means to an end. Admiring the organization and arrangement of a music passage on grounds of technique is akin to feeling a sense of wonder when shown a beautifully and clearly derived mathematical formula. But neither of them by themselves attest to the accuracy of the connection of these to reality itself. Both musical and mathematical theory are dependent on premises — they are both arguments developed from a set of assumptions which may reflect conditions and events in the real the world.
Common Practice Period theory arose from organizing tones in the spectrum of perfect consonance to most extreme dissonance as perceived by human beings. Not one human being arbitrarily writing up rules, but scores of audiences reacting to the works of many different composers through lifetimes. Each composer taking notes on the triumphs and blunders of those that came before them and adding their own ideas. It was a veritable scientific effort of occult nature. The fact that the notes were taken not from one society at one point but by the cumulative effort many through many generations also somewhat lends to the tradition a tendency towards the transcendental. Of course, this is completely dependent on a healthy balance between acknowledgement of tradition (whatever that tradition is for the artist) and a continuation of its ideals with a progressive intent.
To round off the metaphor of mathematics, we should stress that no development invalidates or properly subordinates older techniques to newer ones. This fallacy is so pervasive that it is common to hear people referring to the use of newer techniques in themselves as a sign of superior expression. This is related to the malady that is born from the cult of novelty. In truth, when it comes to mathematics, if one person solves a problem using simple algebra yet another fails using calculus, it is obvious that the simple use of a more sophisticated technique is not in itself superior. It may be true that in art and music we do not have the luxury of calling something right and wrong, but the comparison is done in parallel and not on the same plane as mathematics. This is the same as when Newton developed Calculus, he did not ditch arithmetic and algebra developed hundreds of years before he was born, but used them to build this tool that would allow him to develop theories concerning abstract models of the physical world.
Nobody is saying there is a right and wrong dichotomy in music. In fact, this is where it is necessary to part from the analogy. Music is much more comprehensive and complex than mathematics (which only has a cumulative complexity, not a multi-dimensional one). Mathematics is comparable to music theory, the tool, and not to music. Music is the resulting idea crystallized, probably through the use of music theory techniques, the same ways physics derive explanations of the universe by using different techniques from mathematics. By its occult nature, music’s domain being states of mind and evocation, what we do have in music is degrees of esoteric communication through sensory perception. It is a communication at many levels rather than only at the level of reason and goes beyond it and to our instincts and learned behaviors which as a total reflect a unique vision from a unique individual. “Personal taste” advocates need not get too excited as the variation can only be as wide as human minds allow — which scientific research shows is not as much as we like to think. Variation is wide with respect to how we see ourselves, but not that wide when we see the whole spectrum of possibilities. And as an occult discipline guessing at phenomena of the universe (and our mind in it) that we do not understand, music is more liable to wander off more than mathematics in its search for perfection.
Music as the manifestation of experience, as a gateway to purposely changing states of the mind in humans, is something that stands at odds with the idea of absolute music, for which music aesthetics themselves are the goal. This materialist vision based on the fact that current (this is a 19th century idea) scientific limitation of not yet having a mathematical model outside of aesthetics and certain organization cannot accept or encompass the higher-level processes of creation that reach for proportion, balance, direction and movement in an attempt to communicate. Ironically, it is rather this lack of tradition or significance that results in theory and rules being all there is that produces a much more limiting paradigm. The race of stretching aesthetics could only go so far and an artistic compound devoid of transcendental goals quickly gave up as they broke the boundaries of tonality, declaring music as we know it to be dead. Needless to say, this was as short-sighted as limiting literature to the number of “clever” arrangements of words — precisely the dead end of poetry without meaning, or poetry without form, all products of post-modernism. In any case, the disavowal of all meaning leads to music pursued as a sport, for the excitement that its physical acrobatics produce and not from what it communicates in and beyond its forms.
The other branch of a materialist appreciation of music surfaced more clearly in the freedom afforded by the post-modernist world to idiots to call themselves artists and plague us with moronic musical expressions supporting themes of self-pity communicated only through lyrics. Going further, many artists not only took this liberty but openly rejected any sort of tradition or knowledge as being only an obstacle for their expression. Again, ironically, their rejection of it resulted not in a revealing work transcending the ages, but an extremely simple product that even a child banging on the wall and singing with no thought or experience could produce.
This is not to say that you need theory to create good music. As was explained before, theory is only a tool based on cummulative observations over many lifetimes. We do fine geniuses and other people with an outstanding aptitude for music creation who will find ways to create solid music that is often technically rudimentary but complex in communication.
As with any mathematical techniques or grammar in language, theory augments and sharpens the natural talents of the person. But the catch here is that the artistic intent and vision of the artist is often as important as his natural aptitude towards creation. Whereas a Varg Vikernes consistently tries to find an ever-more ephemeral depuration of the essence of his music against the tides of trends in what is fashionable, a Luc Lemay gets lured in by what is chick, his talents wasted on kitsch. Granting a directed vision of music in a clear direction rather than with vague adjectives to justify fashionable aesthetics, the person with average talents can, with appropriate training and dedication, become a Franz Berwald, while the talented may reach the heights of Johannes Brahms.
The importance of following a transcendental route versus a materialist one are exemplified in two products of the 20th century. One followed the mechanistic descriptions of music to the point of absurdity and was hailed as a genius by the hipsters crowding the halls of academia. These were the many frauds of John Cage. Intellectually interesting experiments devoid of the basic dimensions of music: melody, rhythm and harmony. Contrasting the first comes a work that attempts to communicate a sense of wonder in nature without the vulgarity of dissoluting music proper for recordings of nature or other cheap tricks of post-modernism. This is the Fourth Symphony of the romantic Jean Sibelius, reviled by academic theorists and critics looking forward to the mechanistic augmentations of aesthetics and possible transformations rather than for the actual content of music. This was music for the music fan, not the ironic intellectual.
I was listening to Antaeus’ Cut Your Flesh and Worship Satan the other day and found myself thinking “This is pretty awesome metal coming from France!”. After all, France is not a very metal country, so the surprise is not, itself, surprising. At best, that country has produced a few flukes like giants Massacra and obscure Mutiilation, a product of Les Légions Noires’ elite circle. It is my contention that true metal art loci arise in such elite circles in very particular conditions and in reaction (metal is, to a certain point, what detractors of realism in a deluded society call “contrarian”) to different but at some level similar kinds of environments in which strong and perceptive minds fight an intellectual battle against a modern, peaceful yet poisonous complacency. Therefore, we may also clarify that metal proper is not a protest music. Protest belongs to a class warfare, while metal abstracts itself from both the futility of human rejection of reality and the petty strife caused by ignorance and incomprehension of our relative place in an uncaring universe. Not an evil universe as some fairy tales say, but an indifferent universe that could only care about humans as much as we care about a microbe that dies on the surface of our skin without ever even registering in our conscience in any way.
What does it take to be infused with the primordial essence of metal? Individual paths to a certain illumination over which we do not have total control? Metal is, after all, not made of the same matter as intellectually and experimentally-driven traditions such as classical music. We may learn certain methodologies that will better focus inspiration and drive, but the metal way is the way of the mystic, the way of spiritual transcendence. As with any opposition to esoteric affairs, there will be outcries against the allusions to an ultra-physical dimension in the wording, perhaps pointing out that metal has traditionally been strictly realist to the point of nihilism. But for those who understand what it means, mystic references will carry the point home without there being any suspicion of a contradiction. The mystic way is the use of images as passageways to vantage points that are unreachable through common language and from which we can see behind the frontispiece of human constructions.
Simple statistical scans of data from bands in different countries and at different times that it is also not a the healthy “scene” that brings about excellence. Scenes bring about scenesters and poseurs, not better music. For the better part of this last week, I had been on a mission to try and discover lost gems from among Central American bands (that means Guatemala down to Panama, for the geographically impaired). The task is not so easy, but I thought I might cover a lot of ground by first heading to Metal Archives (a very useful resource worked tirelessly by the plebeian masses of metal underlings that think any third-rate metal band around the corner is worth documenting) and looking at the entries of lists by country. Although the number of entries per country varied wildly in relation to their sizes (from 30+ in Nicaragua to almost 200 in Costa Rica), after scanning the lists and listening to songs from each of the bands in the lists, one finds out that only a similar number of bands from each country would pass the high-level standards of metal we espouse here. That our “judgement” is suitable or not is not the point and is irrelevant to this point. The point is that a comparatively huge scene like Costa Rica’s did not yield more quality music in terms of composition than the meager offerings of Nicaragua or Honduras. Costa Rica’s larger scene, in great part fomented by a larger population and improved economic conditions, boasts of many albums with European-level metal production, abundant professional musicianship and and more gifted performers. All that is for nothing, at the end of the day.
This is also true for classical music, but it will not be discussed here for it requires a little more research about its particular condition to assert anything further. Metal flourishes not from fully-formed scenes, but rather from individuals in intellectually-challenging or adverse landscapes that choose not to fight social convention or status quo as such from within, but seek to escape it altogether after recognizing how nonsensical it is to submit to human imagination is if it were reality. Our minds are innately equipped with the machinery to see things in terms of illusions, essences and constructions. In the end, it is unavoidable. But it is in the individual to decide whether the illusion will dominate him or he will use it as a tool to carve his path through the uncertainty of chaos. Scenes, as human social circles that promote tolerance for the mediocre, are completely unfit to give birth or nurture creators — only perhaps shadows of them that bring more of the same or complete nonsense that does not amount to music.
Does this mean that we should stop trying to make metal as individual artists if we do not consider ourselves to be chosen? Not at all. Those we could consider somehow chosen (the patriarch Iommi, Hanneman, Quorthon, Warrior, Vikernes — frankly, I do not think death metal produced any such luminaries) were not self-referential assholes who believed themselves to be some sort of Messiah. Rather, they worked single-mindedly at their craft. While they were immersed in that and that goal remained the sole focus of their efforts, their music grew and expanded, building ever higher towers whose tops penetrated and seared the stratosphere in spite of scorching winds and burning ice. Experimentalists, retro-acts and self-professed proggers with no direction, on the other hand, kept running around in circles chasing their tails in a puddle of filth. Besting the destructive cyclones of hail that make short work of feeble-minded, the true leaders crossed boundaries and opened doors that were locked. But these accomplishments are built on two equally important pillars. The first is the struggle in the midst of intellectual adversity. The second is tradition.
Much like Darkthrone’s Under a Funeral Moon preceding Transilvanian Hunger or Immolation’s Herein After before Failures for Gods and Close to a World Below, Burzum’s Det Som Engang Var(roughly translatable as “What Once Was”) before Hvis Lyset Tar Oss(“If the Light Takes Us) puts on display all of Varg Vikernes’ faculties as a composer in a way that is still relatively easy for a listener to make out the different things he is doing, unlike the next album where a convergence and purification that only a minority are able to grasp in all its excellence and magnificence. As Brett Stevens commented not so long ago in reference to Immolation’s Close to a World Below, some bands make the same album again and again until they are able to solidify their vision in a magnum opus.
Many metalheads who respect this album may do so out of a respect for how influential it is, without truly understanding that even if this album came out today, after all the others they are said to have influenced, it would still be as impressive and worthy of high praise — but perhaps it would not be noticed by the same people who today profess to appreciate it. Contrary to common belief, its worth is musical, not historical only. This is not very different from people who “enjoy” Black Sabbath or Celtic Frost, but fail to see the monument that works like Master of Reality and To Mega Therion are. In great part this error lies in associating or equating technical prowess on the instrument and an apparent “complexity” of notes with a complexity of thought and excellence in composition. These albums display an astounding clarity resulting from the exquisitely fused elements of music (harmony, melody, rhythm…) in a way that may strike the unaware as “simple”. Confusing intelligibility with limitation/blandness/simplicity is the greatest sin one can commit against masterworks of music, because the greatest works all share this as a common trait.. While this is even more true of Hvis Lyset Tar Oss, it bears bringing into question the undue musical disrespect of which Burzum in general is the victim.
The album contains tracks that make use of abrasive and extremely dissonant intervals, very consonant and relaxed harmonizations of melodies, synths as support and synths as the main instrument in ambient tracks all together and mixed in different ways and given the spotlight in different tracks. It is, perhaps, this up-front “complexity” of having so many distinct colors that at least attracts the attention of and mention by even those who do not understand black metal. The composition itself is technically nuanced but like any proper work of art, comes off as intelligible to the point of being confused with “simplicity” in its negative connotation. The complexity of the works like Burzum lies in the seamless unfolding of a story, a masterfully woven tapestry blending all sorts of disparaged puzzles and meanings within its frames not unlike Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. The importance of discussing Det Som Engang Var is that it is here that his thinking is most easily and obviously seen. Without understanding this album, monumental works like Hvis Lyset Tar Oss and Burzum’s stepping-into ambient(or as he described it, Anti-Black Metal) territory, Filosofem, can never be truly appreciated.
Regarding its little-mentioned lyrical topics that are actually worth mentioning in any integral metal work, they consist on a mixture of melancholy and longing for a grand and fantastic past that exists more in the mind of a romantic than in historical reality (but which makes the values and traditions it longs for no less meaningful or real), and an existentialist questioning of the self’s position in a world of men that makes little sense and which launches the brave man in search of truth behind, or rather past, human constructions. In addition to that, the tendency towards nature worship and an attraction towards the forest as the archetypal home of homes, a safeguard from the evil of men and their perversions motivated by greed and thirst for power, is ever present in Varg Vikernes’ language and allusions. These have also been the target of cynical contempt by the petty minds of postmodernists who are unable to make a connection with nature and are rather too fond of themselves as creatures of a decadent society, leading them to denounce anyone pointing at obvious truths about its breaking-apart.
Restoring the pride and respect that Det Som EngangVar has never had in truth, just as Burzum hearkens to a grand past that has never existed here on Earth but that through an evocation of opposites rather points to an idealist future, so we attempt here to find a direction for future metal to grow in undreamed of ways that do not diverge from the essence of metal and that stand on the firm example of the greats that did exist but have never been duly studied.
From its very inception with Black Sabbath metal has always placed a special emphasis on a realism that looks beyond human “nature” and its caprices. We can safely ignore the hedonist tendencies of certain styles of metal imitators and detractors who musically, ultimately took more from the rock and hippie attitudes than from metal. It is also important to clarify that most modern bands, especially past the 1994 mark, are followers and imitators who were not born into the music out of a deeper mindset. In a rather tongue-in-cheek manner, they enjoy the music’s aesthetics while they jest about the lyrics and apparent driving motives of extreme underground innovators, naming them conspiracy theorists or deluded savants, because what the greats say goes against their own culture-dictated values. They ignore that Beethoven, the original creator, is born not when he starts to write great music (which happened at a relatively young age) but when he finds ulterior motivations(circa the sketching of his 3rd Symphony); transcendental visions of a greater humanity born out of fraternity and the individual struggle for self-improvement through suffering push his music towards new landscapes until the day he dies.
Black Sabbath is metal incarnate because not only is it from them that the genre evolves musically, but the very essence of everything that makes metal what it is is reflected in their lyrics. A curiosity for occult knowledge or mystic experience through various means, the so-called worship of power and an apolitical realism that attacked the establishment and that in its time was confused (and probably marketed) as hippie flower-power are all manifest in the band’s first few albums. The three elements ultimately boil down to the search for a truth that lies beyond human construction. Of course, because we are humans, all we have is our human brains and our human motivations — this is something we cannot escape. So what is there left to take a hint from? Nature. The same nature that gave birth to us as a species. The nature that produced an environment which gave rise to our own human “nature” (two different uses of the word nature, for those not paying enough attention).
Nature worship is misconstrued by cynics as either an extreme and retrograde cultural suicide that proposes we abandon the cities to go back to living in caves as wild animals, or simply a kind of replacement for any religion as a different set of beliefs that at the end lead you roughly towards the same goal. What a proper nature worship really entails is not a blind respect for other living creatures at the expense of human well-being, but rather an enhancement of the latter through a mindful and knowledgeable understanding of our relationship to the rest of nature as an ecosystem. In other words, beyond this bubble of social constructions that leave us oblivious or simply make us insensitive to the full extent of the consequences of our careless actions three or four generations into the future (think of uncontrolled population growth and greedy depredation of resources in order to get more money, yet another human illusion to maintain greater mirages).
Realism is here referred to not as the selfish conception driving a Machiavellian politics, but rather the philosophy of forming opinions and taking decisions based on a nihilist but profound understanding of the relative situation of ourselves as humans. The profound understanding is a necessary appendage to the nihilist mentality because otherwise it can very easily degrade into hedonism or other kinds of short-sighted foolishness. An understanding of the inherent necessities we have as humans, both physical and psychological, can lead us in a very few particular directions. As I see it, we either embrace the rest of the ecosystem as something to worship and live in as vital to us in our everyday lives and long-term decisions as a species, or we develop the technology to live independently from it. So far, we are at a crossroads where we are at the brink of destroying the balance of this planet’s system beyond repair, and we do not possess the technological means to live without Earth: precisely because our motivations have been too short-sighted, driven by immediate or selfish profit.
Rocket’s engines burning fuel so fast
Up into the night sky they blast
Through the universe the engines whine
Could it be the end of man and time
Back on Earth the flame of life burns low
Everywhere is misery and woe
Pollution kills the air, the land, and sea
Man prepares to meet his destiny
Rocket’s engines burning fuel so fast
Up into the black sky so vast
Burning metal through the atmosphere
Earth remains in worry, hate and fear
With the hateful battles raging on
Rockets flying to the glowing sun
Through the empires of eternal void
Freedom from the final suicide
Freedom fighters sent out to the sun
Escape from brainwashed minds and pollution
Leave the earth to all its sin and hate
Find another world where freedom waits
Past the stars in fields of ancient void
Through the shields of darkness where they find
Love upon a land a world unknown
Where the sons of freedom make their home
Leave the earth to Satan and his slaves
Leave them to their future in their graves
Make a home where love is there to stay
Peace and happiness in every day.
The direction from or mentality with which we approach problems is a non-trivial factor in the resulting answer. If we approach the matter of how we should conduct ourselves from the top-down viewpoint that what matters is this or that political scheme as a result of our “rights”(more human constructions) or needs only, and without acknowledging that our needs depend on and arise from our the rest of nature on Earth, then we will always lose sight of the whole picture. This human-only vision traps us in a political/theological game which gradually becomes more and more alienated from the real struggle for survival played against and within our place in the universe.
Metal was given birth by those who despise petty human society and is continued to be upheld as the greatest art there ever was by those who have come to this ultra-human vision. To us, every vacuous formality is a burden, every accepted social deception that is taken for granted by the herd can be confusing because we are expected to follow it despite the fact that even the sheep know it’s complete bullshit. Most sheep know it, but they know it is in place for everyone to be happy and shielded away from each other, but most importantly, from reality. True metal stands against all of that. Not as a statement of individuality like most modern bands who care about being politically-correct and are given free reign to pose as some sort of social-cause rebels, but as an acceptance of the harsher truths of reality and how they make the upsides even more intense and worth living for.
“This beginning then reaches out to future historical outreach, especially by teaching what humankind does not wish to comprehend, in spite all the immense hardness of history, does not want to understand, something that perhaps only latter days will learn after reaching the nadir of destruction and devastation — that life need be understood not from the viewpoint of the DAY, of life merely accepted, but also from the view of strife, of the night, of POLEMOS. The point of history is not what can be uprooted or shaken, but rather the openness to the shaking.”
–Jan Patočka, The Beginning of History
Only Death is Real
Blind lies rise
Eternal sweet fire
One with soul
Licking throne of gold
Soul of bricks
Plague of deaths
Hate rise/fill my eyes
Those with no eyes
Blind to see (him)
Those with no eyes
Come feel inside
Souls of fate
Those with no eyes
Blind to see
Breath now, worship (him)
Warm caress of fire
Breaks the pulse
Close your eyes
I was listening to “Sign of the Southern Cross,” from the album Mob Rules, and it reminded me of the long-time paradox I’ve contemplated about it. Let’s call it the Iommi Paradox. “Sign Of The Southern Cross” has this huge, epic riff. It’s like many of Tony’s riffs. Everyone talks about his riffs, but I’m wondering if very many people see the real magic. For me, this riff embodies that magic, which I am calling the Iommi Paradox. Let’s define the term.
The Iommi Paradox:
1. A main riff, composed of power chords, usually derived from a basic diatonic pattern
2. A basic configuration that seems simple, even skeletal, in its composition 2a. So simple, in fact that you say, “It’s so simple”(2b. Until you try to play it and find that doing it correctly and consistently isn’t so easy)
3. Somehow, this simple riff is completely original, memorable, and chilling.
HOW DOES HE DO THIS? Mob Rules was their 10th studio album. Any fan can go back through the first nine albums and make a list of these riffs, album after album, riffs like Iron Man, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, and Heaven and Hell. So, he’d been composing these riffs for at least 11 years when “Sign Of The Southern Cross” came out. There was an explosion of metal albums in the early 80s, and metal was about 11 years old. Iommi himself had written numerous complex riffs and bridges and solos by 1981. I did nothing but work and listen to metal in 1981. You would think that either he’d have run out or that someone else would have found this one, and I would have surely heard it. But I recall with perfect clarity how overwhelmed I felt when I heard “Sign Of The Southern Cross”. It was magic, and I knew immediately that only Tony could have done it.
I submit that the Iommi Paradox is only partly musical. I’ve said it before: Tony Iommi is not just a player, and perhaps not just a composer. He finds riffs and structures that are so wired into us that we respond to them as if they have always been there. And maybe they have. We say he writes them, but I think he discovers them. They are too perfect, too primordial, to be the work of human hands. Maybe his injured human hands had to look elsewhere. Rather than default to speed and flash like many of the guitarists did then, Tony reached out to the universe and moved its beauty and grandeur onto his fretboard in a kind of novel familiarity that-in another paradoxical moment-warms our hearts with chilled blood.
Maybe these “simple” riffs didn’t exist before because no one was looking for them. I know it may sound a little odd, but Tony’s gift is one of awareness. He finds the terrible beauty of the cosmos and gives it to us in a handful of power chords. And somehow, we know that it’s way beyond the notes and patterns. It’s a basic human response, perhaps because we are also of the universe.
Maybe it’s like the Fibonacci Sequence: a pattern so consistent that it’s not accidental. There’s an analysis for someone. I wonder if you could plot these riffs that way.