A case study in wallpaper black metal and a discussion of its apologetics

chalice_of_blood-heilig_heilig_heilig

This album presents a perfect case study in wallpaper black metal and a discussion of its apologetics. The title, formed from three repetitions of the Swedish word for “holy,” incurs two different wallpaper metal infractions: pointless repetition of riffs and pointless contrasting ideas.

Pointless repetition of an entire rhythm or riff, as opposed to reusing a theme in a different context, occurs when a composer has one of several possible aims. Traditionally this has been to let the listener get familiar with an idea, to let it sink in, as some would say. The most popular aim of repetition in the more ambient-oriented black metal field is to create atmosphere. The aim of the latter is to lead the listener beyond familiarity with the riff and into a kind of stupor. The listener is taken into this state with the purpose of preparing him for something else: a deeper dream level, as it were, which would follow. But apologetics of wallpaper music claim that all ambient-oriented repetition, even the one they themselves may admit to being meaningless, achieves its goal if it brings the listener to the aforementioned state of stupor without necessary deepening of mood.

Pointless contrasting ideas serve to redirect of a musical path or modify the nature of the stupor in which the listener is in, such as from an anger-fueled one to another infused by sadness or even happiness. The use of a contrasting idea makes sense if it interacts with its context and primarily with its adjacent riff sections, much as in writing each sentence in a paragraph must relate to the topic and the sentences before and after it. When contrast lacks that purpose in context, it becomes a technique for distracting from the stupor so that the listener does not realize that the trick behind the stupor is repetition alone and it will lead nowhere, which converts a dream-state into a state of boredom in instants.

Wallpaper Music

Wallpaper is defined as: “paper that is pasted in vertical strips over the walls of a room to provide a decorative surface.” It provides a decorative surface only without reference to what surrounds it. Its context does not matter so long as it covers a blank surface and provides something to look at. It is not meant to have any meaning. The frescoes, carvings or statues of classical art, on the other hand, were meant to be both pleasing to the eye and to convey a certain meaning, inviting the visitor into a different dimension (in the mystic-spiritual metaphorical sense).

Now the following question assails us, would someone completely unfamiliar with Western art become induced into the mental state that the authors of such art intended? Not necessarily. The degree to which that person’s reaction to art approaches that which was intended depends directly on the similarity of the background in culture and experience of the subject to that whence the artwork sprung from. This, like context, comprises the memories that give a new musical figure meaning.

In fact, herein lies our key to reverse engineering intention (of the author) and/or purpose (which may be independent of the author’s conscious intent) in music. This key is context. Let us be clear here that this does not refer to Epistemic Contextualism, which does not lead to a discussion on inherent meaning arising from some original intention but to that of attributed meaning as interpreted in any situation, even alien contexts to that which gave rise to the original product. The intended meaning of context in this article is precisely the conventional one described in the previously linked article as:

…certain features of the putative subject of knowledge (his/her evidence, history, other beliefs, etc.) or his/her objective situation (what is true/false, which alternatives to what is believed are likely to obtain, etc.)…

This allows us to appreciate the sense and coherence of a work independently of if we agree with its tenets. On a separate but related note, it is also from this vantage point that its connection to a more transcendent nature can be gauged, since the particular context, that which is temporal, is known.

Analyses, use, limitations and power

Perceiving context in a particular way and analyzing a problem in the real world is the subject of studies that produce methods to approach them. Everything that is perceived is subjective in the sense that depending on our experience and background we may highlight and give importance to different factors. After that, methods are devised to point out objective qualities that are pertinent to the aspects we want to analyze. This is true of mathematical analysis, and even of scientific analyses in chemistry and physics.

Of course, there is a catch here. The complexity, in terms of scope, of what is being analyzed matters in no small measure to the objectivity of the results. In the case of the sciences, the scope is reduced to what is known while assumptions are made about what is not known and then, given the reduced and strictly defined boundaries of what is being analyzed (which is usually not the whole system but rather a model of the system), completely objective results are obtained in the context of the reduced-system model. As a more knowledgeable person in the field would put it:

The larger the scope of the analysis of a system becomes, the more assumptions regarding the conditions that enable the system to behave in a certain way become present. Sometimes these assumptions are made deliberately, but sometimes they are present unknowingly. This is due to the complexity associated with an increasing scope of analysis, which makes it unfeasible to obtain a straightforward solution. Furthermore, complexity is associated with the relationship among the different factors (variables) and the system/phenomena being observed. — L. Garrido

The error factor grows alongside this scope and it may even become unmeasurable if we do not know how to precisely quantify a particular element like purpose or intention. Which is precisely why they are not included in the scope of any scientific analysis. It must also be clarified that the error factor of a problem does not represent its concrete error, but the maximum magnitude of all possible errors. Meaning our analysis could indeed be perfect, although this is unlikely.

Analysis in Music

In music, a very wide scope must be admitted into its analysis. This is necessarily so since we acknowledge that music is much more than the notes themselves, than the organization of these notes alone, than the context in which they are perceived, or the intentions of the artist. Musical quality encompasses all of them at the same time and, in a Renascentist-Magical holistic view, ultimately engenders a separate entity altogether which is none of these elements and is rather born from all of them. Any music analysis consists on the breaking of music down to its components with the aim of understanding how they function as parts of a greater whole.

olivier_messiaen

One of the most intriguing techniques for the analysis of “conventional” tonal Western music is called Schenkerian analysis. This was a system named after the theorist who devised it, Heinrich Schenker (1868-1935). It consists of demonstrating how music can be divided into a hierarchy of notes which range from background indispensable notes to more those of a more “auxiliary” nature, although the terms “neighboring” and “passing” are more suitable since they do not carry such a strong connotation of these notes being less part of the music. Before him came Arnold Bernhard Marx (1795-1866) whose revolutionary way of analysing music included judging the purpose, character and direction in music independently of the composer’s conscious awareness through the subdivision of sections until one finds indivisible components. These can belong to one of two kinds: the self-sufficient and assertive Satz or the motion-oriented, forward-moving Gang. Schenker’s method is, in a way, a formalization of the more intuitive process of Marx, who used a more holistic approach (and a wider scope, more assumptions), into a more mechanical approach — though still subjective to a certain degree.

Despite wild claims by detractors of this way of analyzing music which want to reduce Schenkerian analysis to subjective make-believe so as to dismiss any objective value in it, an argument is to be made in favor of its objective and logic and characteristics. The user of this analysis at his best can be compared to a detective following clues. The best detectives are not clueless idiots blindly following a manual. Detectives first take note of context, use psychology and decipher motives and even subconscious processes that the criminal himself might not be aware of. There is a lot of guessing involved, but educated guessing, which while being subjective interpretation cannot just be dismissed as simple opinion (in the passive-derogative and dismissive sense) since it follows a method based on objective points. It is important, of course, to point out that the detective also relies heavily on experience.

It is here that we turn again to the idea of context. The ideas of direction, stability and instability, and character inherent to these style of analyses is born out of concrete knowledge of the development of music during the Common Practice Period (roughly 1600s up to 1900). These are “concrete” in the sense that they were not just an archaeological approach to understanding the past, in which the theorist is separated from the data in question and is always forced to look at it from the outside. Rather, the theorists who developed these analyses were part of the musical “subculture” (and the culture at large which encases it and is an audience to it) which engendered the music they studied. So their subjective views and experience are, in my opinion, validated as relevant by that same fact that places them as insiders.

The reader might rightly question this last claim denouncing that this in itself cannot possibly give the theorists and historical critics license to judge the music at the subjective levels previously mentioned. I will address this by calling attention to the music theory “standard”, or rather a “musical language”, that came into being in the first half of the 17th century thus producing what we know now as the Common Practice Period. This language is based on harmony that is built by contrapuntal norms, avoids certain musical effects and favors a narrative style. From its very beginning up until the 19th century, a certain significance, as meaning in a spoken language, was attributed to musical phrases, melody direction and movement, harmonic tension or instability, together with rhythm. What is relevant about this is not that these beliefs existed, but that they were part of the music education and culture of that time. The rules and conventions (even the ones relating to extra-musical implications) by which these theorists and critics measured and judged music were the same that the composers themselves ascribed to. This does mean that some of the less talented critics would see superficial aspects as set in stone, but this was not true of A.B. Marx who saw music as an everflowing, ever-evolving transformation of styles whose steps beyond what he knew in his time were only as visible as vague shapes in the horizon.

Is the application of Western European analysis and philosophy to metal music really justified?

Now, if this analysis belongs to the Common Practice Period, would it be fair to apply it to metal music? After all, the processes that produced Metal music are different. It would not make sense to apply the same analysis to Iranian or Indian music which follow their own systems whose musical constructions have inextricable spiritual and religious significance in the culture that engendered it. Neither would we thus judge jazz, which is the result of African-American music borrowing European art music notions to produce a language and a more sensual purpose of its own. My opinion is that we can say jazz gets excused because the ultimate product is more African-American than European.

When taking a look at music and judging its “coherence” one can metaphorically refer to it as its logic. When taking a look at a logical argument, we first take look at the premises or assumptions and from there follow it through its process. If the argument fails to make sense based on its premises we can say it has failed. The same applies to music. We can judge musical construction according to the premises it sets for itself. The style it chooses, yes, but more importantly, the general music language (Iranian classical music has different harmonic notions and goals, for example, as does jazz) it chooses for itself.

Metal starts with Black Sabbath taking rock-based music (which itself subscribes to the use of Common Practice Period harmony, but used in a more mechanical way to produce simple verse-chorus music) and bringing back the more theme-based approach of horror movie soundtracks. Soundtracks which were themselves inspired on 19th-century Romantic music. From then on metal develops as this rock-and-dark-Romantic musical hybrid and at different points borrows elements from other music genres but always distinguishing itself as Metal by always keeping an entrenched Romantic music orientation. One can then distinguish deserters who fled to the rock camp by abandoning of this orientation (Metallica is a clear example). The more the genre evolved the more marked the difference between rock defectors and those who remained metal became. This is because the latter would try to distinguish themselves more from the rock element which was so prominent in the former. This is the process that originally gave rise to the terms sell-out and underground. It must be clarified that what is meant here is not that the rock element in any music is bound to produce poor music.

The only constant at the heart of metal then, is the Romantic sense of theme-based music with a serious and heavy character. From this point it follows that the “premises” that metal has chosen for itself stem directly from the Common Practice Period in general. This does not mean that we should try to read metal music as we would read a Beethoven symphony — at least not on the surface. The characteristics that metal has borrowed from classical music affected the genre at multiple levels and thus surfaces in different bands in different ways and to different degrees. We cannot judge all metal in the same way either because just as different musical genres choose different languages (different premises for their arguments), so it is that different bands choose dialects of their own which require us to understand them and part from there on. But they must be seen as precisely that: dialects of the broader language of metal. Thus they still fall under the umbrella of our discussion (Ildjarn would be a particularly interesting case to discuss as its surface and the first impression it gives one leaves no room for obvious comparison to Romantic traits).

One understands the intense repetition of some black metal as stemming from the same purpose it has in electronic music. Black metal remains metal because it still ascribes to the dark-Romantic principles metal is defined by. Part of this is tonality and how harmony is used to create movement, which along with rhythm creates pulse and is tied by theme and the large-scale interplay of sections. Part of it is the more complex interpretation of how the character of each section and song speaks out and relates to the other sections or songs.

arnold_schoenberg

This character was an important trait during the Common Practice Period and it plays an important role in metal. When it goes unchecked, even if the outer technical aspects of music were all carefully crafted, the inner sense is perceived to be empty or messy. This thinking was very evident in the thoughts of both great composers and historical critics from the Romantic period such as Philipp Spitta (1841-1894) whose biography of Johann Sebastian Bach reveals extensive discussion, analysis and critique that encompasses everything from historical context and evolution of genres along with their influence over the German master, to detailed score analysis and explicit separation of what he refers to as “inside” and “outside” musical traits. The latter being musical expression itself, the structures, and the former being the character/aura/personality of not only the music pieces themselves but also of individual sections and their relation to the whole.

Modern metal unknowingly fails catastrophically by trying to create interest out of pure contrast. Still, some of the best modern bands keep a constant style and even use theme to tie a song together, but little or no evident thought is put into the aura of each section of a song and its balance with the rest of the song (see Fallujah).

The modern variety of metal bands which identify as “technical” (as opposed to Atheist, Immolation or Gorguts which were dubbed so after the fact) try to create interest by approaching this as if it were a textbook exercise, playing with the theme, placing it in different contexts, creating smart texture changes and witty variations. Since all that was cared about was the technical correctness of the piece, the evocation power of the music is negligible as it is not born out of Idea, but out of technical exploration (see Ara). The apologist comes in at this point and says that “emotion” is also in the process and that all parts are judged by passing them through this emotional filter. This is never denied here. But this statement would actually reinforce the notion that this music follows a backwards process: outside to inside, rather than inside to outside. The writer of purely technical music uses hard logic to drive his music creation and then judges it from an emotional vantage point. This works for science, but it spells out death for art.

Whereas in all productive men instinct is the truly creative and affirming power, and consciousness acts as a critical and cautioning reaction, in Socrates the instinct becomes the critic, consciousness becomes the creator — truly a monstrous defect. — Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, Chapter 13

This general idea has been understood in the European classical music traditions for centuries and awareness of it has given the world some of the most refined and whole works of art music. It is only in our post-modern era that we erroneously want to strip everything away from its original meaning and validate poor art by arguing that all that matters is the writer’s own intentions, which nobody can guess or question.

Defenses for Wallpaper Music

The most stalwart wallpaper music apologist is bound at this point to support the previous statement by stating the fact that our modern culture (and even more specifically, that our metal subculture) is very different from that which engendered classical Romantic music. While I consider this argument to be debatable, I will concentrate on the biggest issue that comes out as a result of this reasoning as a whole. This is the idea that because modern artists are free to choose how to express themselves they can pick from any musical-philosophical camp and just smash it together, twist it around in whatever way they see fit or their limited organizational skills and inspiration allows them to, with little or no justification other than their “need” or “right” to express individuality.

Allowing that artists are, indeed, free to choose their means of expression, their music can be rubbish in the context of the language they choose if they attempt to use it in ways it was not meant to be used. Can a previous “musical alphabet” give rise to a new “musical language”? Yes, and this is precisely what jazz and metal (separately and in very different directions, the former separating itself far more from a philosophical perspective while the latter remained akin in spirit) have done with Common Practice Period theoretical knowledge or general concepts.

A “smart” wallpaper apologist remark here is that we at DMU “fetishize” the European classical music outlook. But we do not ask bands to ascribe to the metal language which has explicit ties to that European tradition. If a band does not want to be judged from this perspective, then choose a different set of premises, a different language to speak. I would be very interested in witnessing attempts at using metal instrumentation to play music built on the principles of traditional Indian music. It would not be metal, but it would be a thing of its own with coherent expression.

Does it mean that everyone making music has to subscribe to already-existing musical languages and that there is nothing new to be had so that we can only indulge in superficial variations? This is what post-modern short-sightedness would have us believe and in doing so somehow justify the trivial superficiality of the so-called experimental bands. But then you can turn to great composers such as Arnold Schoenberg(1874-1951) and Olivier Messiaen(1908 – 1992) who effectively created brand new musical systems for them to express the music they wanted. They were both world-renowned advanced composition professors, which says a lot about how difficult it is to single-handedly accomplish such a task. Furthermore, as Uri O’Reilly’s article Developmental variation and underground metal implies, defined constraints and limits that guide genres and the languages they speak do not themselves imply a prison for the mind or shackles for creativity, but rather a tool much like a sniper rifle’s scope to reach precise and far-off targets. Bands that build incoherent music out of disparate musical languages or fail to use their chosen language effectively and expect the listener to submit to the purely emotional shock of the music, or worse, listen to exuses and rationalizations to “explain” the art, have missed the point: context is meant to be referred to, much as we expect language to have consistent approximate meaning. To ignore that meaning is communicate with no one, whether in music or the written word.

Defenders of wallpaper music will react in a populist manner and say that all that matters is that one likes the music, and ask rhetorically and spuriously who is to judge music otherwise. To assume that art should have meaning is to judge one subjective experience over another, they say. Some might say that in that case, anything deemed to be wallpaper from a point of view might be seen as meaningful from another. While this may be theoretically true, in application it is the same as claiming that spewing random syllables cannot be labeled as gibberish since they may, in fact, mean something in some hypothetical human language. The next wallpaper apologist complaint here would consist of pointing out that while language has hard and precise meanings (which is actually, not entirely true), music appeals to general emotions and moods and so, if the work accused of being wallpaper achieves some sort of reaction in the listener that produces coherent thought, then it has “meaning”. But this, again, is just the same as the random syllables reminding anyone of something in his own language and thereby acquiring a meaning provided from the outside.

 

Return to Chalice of Blood Heilig, Heilig, Heilig

Just like Romantic-era critics with knowledgeable background and cultural familiarity with their genres allowed them to make criticisms not only of technical construction (outer traits) but also of character and sense (inner traits) of the classical music of their time, so is the educated metal critic who understands the objective nature and origins of metal endowed with the same capacity to dissect metal music.
A track by track approach to Chalic of Blood Heilig, Heilig, Heilig will illustrate the concept of wallpaper music and reveal its failing as a method of artistic communication.

We start off with “Hoor-Paar-Kraat”, which, if seen as a song or independent piece fails immediately as it consists of a chord progression in four bars in standard time signature played through 1:39 minutes with no variation besides different pick-up and ending percussion patterns, and a background guitar strumming the same chord progression in different ways (more sparsely here, more vehemently there). One is then tempted to see it as just an introduction, a sort of prelude to what is to come.

It is then that we face “Nightside Serpent” whose structure consists of an introductory or main riff followed by two distinct verse riffs. The riffs talk to each other convincingly in their contrast and similarity. They clash against each other in a way that makes one think of the classic of classics, “Transilvanian Hunger”. But while Darkthrone used as little as two riffs per song in that album to create whole sections with functions ranging from intro, to verse to a sort of ramp into meditative climax, only to bring us back to its initial aura, Chalice of Blood’s song is simply that: a main riff, a verse, a second verse. This is simply played two times and brought to an abrupt and meaningless end at the 3:19 minute mark. It is here that we start to suspect that the presumed introductory track may just be a taste of the incompleteness and vacuity of this music.

The third track goes by the title of “Shemot.” It can easily be divided in four parts. The pick-up measures are soft and consist of a strummed chord bent by a whammy bar which applies vibrato at the same time. Then the first of these parts is a Darkthrone-intense section with use of the raw energy of hard-picked tremolo and fast Immortal blast beats. This section dissipates into the second. The texture changes drastically into sparsely strummed chords and mid-paced double-bass drums to the beat of a snare in duple time. We then climb back to the intense texture shown in the second section as a way of climaxing that brings back the riding first riff to function as outro as well. This all happens in 3:18 minutes. The focus here is how much “atmospheric black metal” riffs can they use contrastingly to create shock. Other than that, there is little eloquence to this.

“The Communicants” is probably the most deplorable song in this album with the most obvious wallpaper thinking displayed. The whole song is built by repeating the same slow-moving chord progression of 8 measures from beginning to end. The only thing that signals different points in the piece are the drum patterns and the presence or absence of the vocals. This repeating chord progression is not used as one would see one of the German master composers create vast amounts of content through clever variations and chaconnes, but it literally consists of repeating the exact same music ad nauseam. Or ad 7:11 minutes, to be precise.

Finally, we reach the last inconsequential, empty track named “Transcend the Endless.” In here we are presented with 3:30 minutes worth of the same minimalist black metal approach sans substance.

Albums such as these remind us how little understood monuments such as Transilvanian Hunger really are. The greatness of the classic lies in the careful use of the least number of riffs in arrangements that together with voice and drums created complex structures with cleverly placed articulation points. The minimalism of Darkthrone’s masterpiece is only in how little tools and riffs they used. It is not a minimalism of complexity of thought or construction.

A blatantly simple music which expects emotional shock and some consistency in style to do all its work, Chalice of Blood Helig Helig Helig gives us almost twenty minutes of essentially nothing. Nothing except transient noise.

20 Comments

Tags: , ,

Death metal is big money these days

cannibal_corpse-two_million_sold

Blabbermouth reports that Cannibal Corpse have sold more than two million albums, which makes death metal one of the more successful niche genres out there, since album sales of that nature plus tours equal a tidy sum of money. With founding bands like Morbid Angel and Slayer still gracing the charts, the spectrum of death metal related music sells more of its older albums today than it did back in the 1980s.

This puts an end to the assumption that bands cannot sell out by choosing underground metal. Once that might have been true, but now a band can launch into a genre with millions of fans, sell some albums and then detour into an indie rock project which then carries the cachet of edgy cool from having been involved with that rebel badboy metal music. There’s a lot of money in this genre for those willing to dig, and this means more entryists pounding at the door with careful camouflage for their insipid rock music.

6 Comments

Tags: ,

“Heavy Metal Church” combines two things and destroys both

heavy_metal_church

In the process of turning everything into a product, Ohio’s Heavy Metal Church combines Christian worship with heavy metal, and in the process reduces both to caricatures of themselves.

To put it in a nutshell, we are a non-denomination, Bible-based Church in a comfortable atmosphere with great music! Our congregation consists of people from all walks of life and age groups. We don’t care what you wear because we just want you there! Our Church has no racial, ethnic or gender barriers and we could care less about your past or present life. We only care about your FUTURE life in Christ! Most people want God in their lives, but think they must clean up first before coming to Christ… You don’t clean up before you jump in the shower, do you? God wants you EXACTLY the way you are at this very moment. As long as you actively seek God, He will actively seek you, and the Holy Spirit will gently clean you up along the way.

This shows a shift from traditional church logic, which is that religion represents a spiritual force (“God”) which is unchanging and immutable, and that humanity has never changed since its inception, so there is a stability in the constancy of belief and its conventions. Back then, the goal was to get the individual to move closer to God. Now, as if selling cheeseburgers, the goal is to sell the church to the individual by making the church more like the everyday life of that individual.

Hence… Heavy Metal Church.

Christian purists and heavy metal purists alike will feel repelled by this abomination that combines a music dedicated to being separate from social conventions and a religion that at its heart feels it should not bend to social conventions. On one, the social convention imposed is a genre of mostly-entertainment, and on the other, the social convention imposed is church and being nice to people even if they’re idiots.

As Vice magazine reports, the heavy metal church is not that far removed from other “contemporary” worship services which feature rock music and the word of Jeeezus all in the same handy product package:

“We’re going to have healing, redemption, salvation, and deliverance take place here today,” says assistant Pastor Ron, from the front of the auditorium. Pastor Ron is a bearded guy who, if he were in a motorcycle movie, would probably be nicknamed “Tiny.”

“Woo!” goes the crowd.

Then the music starts. It’s a head-thrashing, blood-pumping tune, with decidedly Jesusy lyrics: “I believe / How about you / I believe / It’s true / I believe in him!” We bang our heads.

“Get your hands clapping! Come on!” says the guitarist wearing black who plays Judas Priest–style guitar with his combo.

“Woo!” goes the crowd, throwing their hands up.

This is excruciating. I am embarrassed for them.

16 Comments

Tags: , ,

Developmental variation and underground metal

jean_sibelius

What is developmental variation?

The term developmental variation was coined by Arnold Schoenberg as a name for the principle which governed his compositional technique, which he claimed to have inherited from the music of the great Germanic composers such as Haydn, Beethoven and, in particular, Brahms. The technique consists of generating development in a piece through variation of an initial idea. Each new slice of content is developed from, and naturally connected to, the previous one, so that the whole piece is an elaboration of an initial idea. This provides unity and logic within dramatic movement and variety.

Why developmental variation?

Since the end of black metal around 1996, underground metal has found itself in a rut. As if struck dumb by the dizzy heights achieved by its greatest practitioners, most underground metal bands have veered into three equally fruitless directions:

  1. Blatant imitation of a specific set of bands from the past (New wave of old school death metal, Thrash revival, Darkthrone clones, etc.)
  2. Commercialization of the aesthetic, achieved through simplification of lyrical themes and musical structure (In Flames, Dimmu Borgir, deathcore, etc.)
  3. Experimentation in texture and instrumentation, fusion genres (Norwegian avant-garde, Djent, etc.)

One would assume that the practitioners of this third path feel, at least, the anxiety that naturally comes with working beneath the shadows of giants. Their response, however, betrays that anxiety to an excessive degree, as they scramble madly to distance themselves from those past greats, usually through the most immediately striking means they can find. Often with releases of this variety one is left with the sensation that they could be truly great works of art if they stopped hovering uncomfortably around the ghost of metal, and simply embraced their external tendencies. In other words, the solution most of these artists seem to find to the problem posed by the intimidating canon is to escape metal altogether, as many of them ultimately do.

This is not, however, because of any inherent flaw in the style, or any linear finality implied by the greatness of the canon. There is no denying that, in a sense, underground metal is a restrictive style. There are strict boundaries regarding instrumentation, tonality, and even lyrical themes (that old Euronymous joke about carrots notwithstanding). Though these may at times be somewhat malleable, when they remain blatantly unobserved the music simply stops sounding like underground metal. It is largely the imposing presence of these boundaries that has scared many promising musicians away from metal, and into the realm of the often masturbatory and self-referential pseudo avant-garde.

What this ultimately means is not that there is no room for growth within heavy metal, but that said room is to be found in a less immediately evident, but ultimately more significant element of musical construction; structure. Underground metal’s unpitched vocals allow it freedom from many structural conventions of popular music in which vocals are the lead instrument. Its literary and historical inclinations give it plenty of places from which to draw extra-musical influences. Heavy metal titans Iron Maiden have successfully done this in the past, shaping their more structurally ambitious and musically exciting pieces around the contours of literary or historical subjects.

The aforementioned underground metal greats have already exploited these natural tendencies. Albums such as Altars of Madness and Far Away From the Sun have expanded rock’s traditional strophic structures through the use of expansive melodies and conflicting themes, creating instrumental sections of great intensity, which modify the meaning and intention of the strophic recurrences. Greater variety in the stricter tenets of instrumentation and mood has been justified within the framework of a modified structural thought-process, for example in the Burzum albums Det som engang var and Hvis lyset tar oss. There are countless other examples of individual structural voices developed by bands in order to best fit their particular path or concept, from the intensely concentrated minimalism of Beherit and Skepticism to the outwardly chaotic narrative intricacy of Demilich and early At The Gates.

However, this was underground metal at its youthful best, when it was still discovering what it was and what it could do, and many of its greatest achievements were at least partially the product of amateurish accident. Metal is no longer a young musical style, and perhaps in order to age gracefully bands will need to sacrifice some spontaneity and be more strict about inwardly articulating their goals, the structure that will best fit these goals and the compositional process that will get them there.

Underground metal is a genre with entirely unique thematic concerns, which prizes the ability to create works of musical individuality that are still ultimately works of underground metal. Developmental variation is the perfect technique for this situation, as it allows content to organically generate form, which would not only allow for individual songs and albums to craft an individual perspective without resorting to surface gimmicks, but also lead to a deeper level of thematic coherence. In a style whose fans expect recordings to hold up on repeated listens, not for weeks or months but for years, the increased layered complexity of musical relationships created by this technique would heighten, not obscure, the expressive power of a particular song or album.

It is not enough for underground metal to simply lift structural arrangements from sources more sophisticated than rock and pop music, such as European classical music. Though this could work individual songs or albums planned around the idea, as it did for Fanisk on their debut Die and Become, it is not a suitable long-term direction. This is because at the end of the day, the practice is not too distant from the simple lifting of vocabulary from other sources, a practice whose short-lived capacity to produce quality content the underground has already witnessed.

However, there is a lot to be learned from the music of the Common Practice Period. There is a tendency to view classical forms as being set in stone, but this could not be further from the truth. The image of Beethoven stressing over whether or not theme B of his sonata form modulated to the bloody dominant or not is silly enough to dispel the notion. The truth is that these structures developed organically throughout the lives of many composers, growing around the type of thematic material and harmonic conventions of their time and style, until they became intuitively standardized elements of musical grammar. It is only much later, once their development had been completed, that theorists could attempt codifications.

Attempting to imitate such a process of could prove fruitful for underground metal bands. The idea would be for bands to create their own structural grammar, not by adhering to a new set of rules, or worse, an old one belonging to a different tradition, but by developing a new, more sophisticated intuition. It is this author’s belief that the technique of developmental variation could be extremely helpful towards this development. It will of course always be important to have a good idea first; no technique will write good music for you.

In the interest of getting all of this across to the reader’s musical instincts, as opposed to getting it across merely to his or her understanding, where it is useless, we will now undertake a case study of how this technique worked for the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius in his early tone poem, En saga. Sibelius faced a dilemma similar to that of the young Hessian today, standing in the shadow of a beautiful but intimidating tradition. By molding the structure of his piece around his material, through the technique of developmental variation, Sibelius managed to find a powerful individual voice for his piece, without resorting to gimmicks, or leaving the tradition he loved behind.

En saga: a case study in developmental variation

En saga is an orchestral tone poem, meaning that it is an entirely instrumental piece meant to describe or depict something outside of itself. The piece’s title translates simply to ‘a saga,’ and throughout his life Sibelius never specified whether it was based on any particular one. This clever bit of ambiguous programming presents Sibelius with a very malleable structural mold that nevertheless presents a general framework within which to work.

Sibelius builds nearly 20 minutes of music around four simple themes. All but the last of these has a length of four measures or less, and all of them keep the melodic action centered around a perfect fourth or fifth, emphasizing stepwise motion. The reader may have already noticed that this description could fit many metal riffs like a glove, and this proximity of thematic character to underground metal is one of the reasons why this piece is particularly relevant to our interests.

en_saga-theme_i

en_saga-theme_ii

en_saga-theme_iii

en_saga-theme_iv

The relationship between themes I and III is evident: they have the same range and an identical ending, being distinguished from each other by slight rhythmic variation and harmonic context. Though theme II might initially seem out of place, its ‘justification’ comes with the introduction of theme IV, a majestic melody that combines rhythmic and melodic elements from themes II and I-III. It also emphasizes the motivic element that unites all four of them; the repeated insistence on the starting pitch. This characteristic in particular is the one that betrays the tight relationship between the themes, allowing us to comfortably refer to them as variations on the same idea. The imaginative reader will begin to see how the relationships and conflicts between these four simple themes begin to lay out sketches of a large-scale work, or, in other words, how developmental variation suggests not only material, but also structure.

The piece starts off with a short introduction that leads into the uncomfortable minor seconds of the first theme (0:17), establishing the tension that drives the whole work. The theme is then pitted against wave-like arpeggio figures in increasingly tense juxtapositions, which seem to be leading towards an explosive climax, but then simmer away into an uncomfortable silence. The way this opening minute mirrors the structure of the entire piece, like an eerie premonition, is an indicator of the piece’s impressive unity, and a perfect example of the way relationships between related themes can be the basis for entire compositions, an idea we will return to later.

I said that I admired its (the symphony) style and severity of form, and the profound logic that created an inner connection between all of the motives. — Sibelius, conversation with Gustav Mahler, Helsinki, 1907.

This silence is broken by the sudden introduction of theme II (1:08) by the bassoons, in a tonal center very distant from that with which the piece began. However, the reappearance of the insisting note motive makes its appearance seem like a natural response in a conversation. After the statement, the conflict of the piece is laid out for the listener and the piece unravels with absolute naturality. Theme II passes around the orchestra, competing with increasingly dissonant response passages until its motives flower into a wonderful heroic melody in the double basses. This initiates a dialogue in the string section that spells out the conflict between the two main theme groups with great clarity.

Sibelius then goes on to present themes III (in the violas at 4:09) and IV (in the strings at 5:07) in a similar way, declaiming them lyrically throughout the orchestra and pitting them against transitional passages, often arpeggiated. The seeming culmination to which the piece comes after the presentation of triumphant theme IV is suddenly interrupted by a short bridge passage (5:44), tellingly outlining a fifth, which leads into a section centered around permutations of theme III and a flowing legato response idea that begins to overpower the theme itself. Theme IV’s conquest remains unattained.

Then, suddenly, the momentum collapses and we are led into the second part of the piece. This second section consists of a series of crescendos, in which particular themes seem poised to triumph and reveal themselves as ‘the’ theme. Yet, time and again these crescendos collapse in on themselves, eerily, almost unnervingly. Until, at the very last of these peaks, a response figure once again takes over the climax. Yet the fanfare quickly dissipates, and the piece ends with an extremely quiet and nearly uncomfortable uncertainty.

This second section appears to be what the themes themselves initially suggested, thanks to their close “variation” relationship: a conflict in which one of them emerged triumphant. In order to get a more intuitive sense for the depth of this relationship and its importance, notice how after a few listens of the piece the themes will be stuck in your head almost interchangeably, to the point where it is sometimes hard to tell which one you’re humming to yourself. This is the sort of conflict that arises naturally when material is created through developmental variation, and it is what makes it such an effective technique for the composition for styles that thrive on dramatic tension.

Now, Sibelius’ choice to make none of the themes triumph and to end the piece the way he does is not something intrinsically suggested by the themes. As a matter of fact, if we are allowed a guess, this was probably the narrative idea that Sibelius started out with. However, once he had his material, he had a pretty good outline for a conflict, as themes I-III and theme II clearly converge and culminate on theme IV. However, as previously noted, the first triumphant statement of theme IV is quickly negated by the aforementioned bridge passage, a dissonant entry of the theme and then the shifting of focus back to theme III.

The series of increasingly chaotic and dramatic anti-climaxes that constitute the second portion of the piece are the ones that outline the thematic conflict proper, along with the ultimate failure of any of the themes to impose themselves, even as they alternate and hybridize. However, in order for this section to make any sense, especially given the piece’s light programmatic tinge, the opening section in which the themes are presented becomes absolutely necessary. In order to establish the tension that rules the piece and give it coherence, the strange introductory section dominated by theme I becomes necessary.

This introduction mirrors the development of the whole piece, with its agonizing rising and falling motions, which eventually dissipate into a tense silence. Sibelius found his large-scale structure through his themes, and then constructed every other sub-section around the same general curve. This creates an immersive fractal effect, potent evidence of Sibelius’ developing genius despite the orchestration failings and occasionally meandering quality of the still young composer. A dramatic idea and four simple, closely related, themes allowed Sibelius to reach heights of structural ambition that, though not yet fully realized, would become the germ for his future masterpieces.

Closing words

I am by no means suggesting, of course, that is ‘the’ path metal must follow in the future. This is a suggestion, and idea, and more so than it hopes to be accepted, or even fully understood, it hopes to ignite some spark of creativity. Metal does not necessarily need developmental variation in order to escape it relative stagnation, but it does need to look at itself more seriously and its surroundings more seriously, and ask itself musical questions in a more articulate manner. Hopefully this article will be of some help to that end.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VyDRWw_g2xU

11 Comments

Tags: , , , , , ,

How #metalgate is totalitarian thought control

tipper_gore-parents_music_resource_center_pmrc

Totalitarianism 2.0 doesn’t look much like the former version. In the past, a dictator in uniform — like socialist and diversity advocate Joseph Stalin — would command secret police to enforce speech codes. Now, government sits back and allows a vast media establishment to enforce political ideas which just so happen to coincide with the goals of government: more control of citizens and ideological obedience, which makes government stronger.

As Jonathan Chait writes in New York Magazine, “political correctness” is an attempt to control thought by excluding all but one side of the debate:

But it would be a mistake to categorize today’s p.c. culture as only an academic phenomenon. Political correctness is a style of politics in which the more radical members of the left attempt to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate. Two decades ago, the only communities where the left could exert such hegemonic control lay within academia, which gave it an influence on intellectual life far out of proportion to its numeric size. Today’s political correctness flourishes most consequentially on social media, where it enjoys a frisson of cool and vast new cultural reach. And since social media is also now the milieu that hosts most political debate, the new p.c. has attained an influence over mainstream journalism and commentary beyond that of the old.

It also makes money. Every media company knows that stories about race and gender bias draw huge audiences, making identity politics a reliable profit center in a media industry beset by insecurity. A year ago, for instance, a photographer compiled images of Fordham students displaying signs recounting “an instance of racial microaggression they have faced.”

While on the surface this does not seem consistent with government objectives, it quickly becomes a servant to power, arguing from its good intentions to demand increasing amounts of control and often, violence. As Stephen Kinzer writes in the Boston Globe, yesterday’s civil rights and human rights advocates are today’s warmongers:

Now, several decades after the human rights movement traded its outsider status for influence in Washington, it is clear that this has produced negative as well as positive results. The movement has become a global behemoth. Sometimes it functions as a handmaiden to the power it was once dedicated to combating.

The most appalling result of this process in the United States is that some human rights activists now regularly call for using force to resolve the world’s problems. At one time, “human rights” implied opposition to war. Now some of the most outspoken warmongers in Washington are self-proclaimed human rights advocates.

Chait’s view is that this trend toward SJW hipster activism is in fact forming a parallel to the bad old days of 1940s totalitarianism:

The Marxist left has always dismissed liberalism’s commitment to protecting the rights of its political opponents — you know, the old line often misattributed to Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it” — as hopelessly naïve. If you maintain equal political rights for the oppressive capitalists and their proletarian victims, this will simply keep in place society’s unequal power relations. Why respect the rights of the class whose power you’re trying to smash? And so, according to Marxist thinking, your political rights depend entirely on what class you belong to. The modern far left has borrowed the Marxist critique of liberalism and substituted race and gender identities for economic ones.

In effect, as Jonathan Frum writes in The Atlantic, political correctness represents the self-radicalization of liberalism toward a totalitarian mindset. We can clearly see this in #metalgate and #gamergate, where SJW hipsters have crushed not just dissenting voices, but any voices that fail to parrot their own agenda.

The reason they target metal is that metal is chronically disobedient. We do not like illusions, metalheads, and we did not buy into the “peace and love” of the 1960s which culminated in ex-hippies getting into office and authorizing drone strikes on suspected extremists. We did not buy into the “just follow Jesus and Gordon Gekko” outlook of the 1980s, nor the 1990s dogma that all was going to be right through globalism, McDonald’s and peace. We see human society for what it is: an ugly tussle of animals competing to put their favored illusion above the rest, all while ignoring the majesty of reality as it is.

Remember how the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) acted back in the 1980s. First they said they wanted to stop “dangerous” content about sex and drugs, and suddenly, any album with swear words on it got the infamous warning label. This encouraged record stores to card you for buying the album, to not stock the album, or to put it in a special section. A few years later “censored” versions of Metallica and Cannibal Corpse albums could be found in your average record store, with conspicuous bleeps editing out the words that we shouldn’t hear, to the detriment of the music (often not in key).

It’s easy enough to ignore #metalgate right now because it may not affect you directly. But the important point is that it intends to. SJW hipsters behind the incursion into metal that provoked #metalgate want to censor your words and mine, not just avoiding bad stuff as they claim, but forcing you to repeat “good stuff” as they envision it, to the exclusion of anything else. If this isn’t totalitarian thought control, nothing is.

45 Comments

Tags: , , ,

#metalgate hipsters continue faking the news

caïna-band_photo

The increasing popularity of #metalgate has irked the hipster SJWs who promote it. One of the SJW hipsters who provoked #metalgate by demanding our editor be removed from the metal Journolist writes about the increasing popularity of #metalgate in terms of hateful denial:

Detractors included Phil McSorely, who was fired from the band Cobalt for using hate slurs towards Curtis-Brignell and others, accusing them of trying to establish a “USBM [American black metal] friendship scene” and “liberal agenda” in extreme metal. The incident became one of the flashpoints for #metalgate, a short-lived hate campaign and offshoot of #gamergate that attacked journalists and artists accused of attempting to “censor” heavy metal.

She lies. Cobalt was not the trigger for #metalgate; SJW demands for censorship and exclusion on the basis of one writer’s opinions were. And #metalgate was neither launched by #gamergate nor a “hate campaign.” It remains — and is growing in strength — a resistance campaign against intrusion by the newcomers who are hoping to make SJW metal mainstream. (As a side note, it appears that Mr. McSorely has “un-friended” our editor on Facebook, possibly for his own sometimes liberal sensibilities.)

Look at Caïna for example. Highly hyped by labels, heavily supported by media, and yet it has no staying power because metalheads do not want kumbaya indie-rock. We want metal. Like other bands of this ilk, it sells to a certain audience but goes no further, and within weeks is forgotten. No one cites Caïna as a cornerstone of the genre, which is why the SJW hipsters are trying to bring it back with this article as if it had ever been relevant in the first place.

He articulates what SJW hipsters actually want — a “safe space” meaning removal of all ideas that threaten their worldview — and tries to conceal the censorship threat behind that mentality:

“I’m done with metal culture in a sense — conventional metal culture, that is,” he explains. “I guess in the positive, it showed that there are people who did agree with me about metal’s attitude towards certain groups. So I think my real change is to be ‘done’ with hedging. I can’t backtrack and adopt some new persona to weasel out of what I said. I believe what I said. I think in the few days that followed the drama, I could have tried to distance myself from whatever it was I was accused of being.

“But no, fuck it, I absolutely believe that metal should be a safe space for women, people of colour, differently abled people, the LGBT community. There’s nothing metal about arbitrary exclusionism. Safe space: unsafe music.”

This reminds us of the 1980s, when the PMRC decided to make metal “safe” by removing lyrics about sex, drugs and obscenity. Or in the early 1990s when Christians decided to make black metal safe by releasing “white metal” or “unblack metal” which sounded like black metal, but had Christian lyrics (with Horde being the forefront). Now we have SJWs who are releasing “safe metal” which sounds like shoegaze trying to be black metal and has safe, politically correct lyrics which seem to follow the agenda of their media overlords.

In the meantime, this controversy rages in other areas. The assault is coming from the media and their lackeys, and numerous communities are reacting, with gamers being first but now metalheads and other subcultures responding. The attitude generally is not that those who react are opposed to the viewpoints offered, but they do not like the form in which they are forced upon the audience, which is a “my way or the highway” ideological test by which you either endorse the SJW hipster viewpoint or are seen as an enemy of the State… errr, media.

If you need proof of how relevant all of this is, notice how Wikipedia is censoring GamerGate-affiliated editors and how media employees are mounting a doxxing campaign against #gamergate activists who are resisting the SJW hipster incursion.

In the meantime, a number of academics and media darlings linked arms to make black metal “safe” with a academic conference entitled Coloring the Black: A Black Metal Theory Symposium which declares its intention to:

In response to this we wish to open up the more comedic, playful, camp, ludic, carnivalesque dimension of black metal and black metal theory. In so doing, we set out to “pink” black metal by questioning its more nihilistic impulses (“blackening” and more “blackening”) in favour of more affirmative approaches and utilizations of BMT.

In “pinking” black metal/theory (and we are thinking here of critical and ironic BM-related gestures such as The Soft Pink Truth, Pinkish Black, Zweizz, Deafheaven, not to mention the influence of My Bloody Valentine and “pink noise” on shoegaze, post, or “hipster” black metal) we also hope to queer it by decentering the cisheteronormative and patriarchal underpinnings of both the black metal music and philosophy scenes. We wish to further BMT from a range of feminist, LGBTQ, and intersectional perspectives, including disability studies, crip theory, animal studies, and cute studies. Our interest in a more rainbow approach to black metal would also seek to consider and destabilize the racial normativities of black metal musical and theoretical traditions.

In other words: if it doesn’t fit the status quo, we’ll “study” it until we can argue that it does, and then use that to exclude anyone who doesn’t toe the line as being deviant. Just like SJW hipsters have done with #metalgate so far.

29 Comments

Tags: , , , ,

Death Melodies: Fryderyk Chopin

death_melodies-fryderyk_chopin

Fryderyk Chopin (1810-1849) was a Polish composer and virtuoso pianist who lived out most of his brief but stellar career in Paris, where he died of tuberculosis at the age of 39.

Chopin mixed with the musical elite of his day, developing friendships with top composers and performers, particularly with the Hungarian virtuoso and proto-Hessian, Franz Liszt. He was not keen on public performance, a fact reflected in the intimate atmosphere of his music. However, he was a very successful piano teacher, and managed to earn comfortable wages by giving lessons to the Parisian elite and their children. His health was always bad, and his short life was troubled, but it was also intensely productive, and his body of work remains some of the most emotionally compelling and technically demanding music of the Western classical canon.

Though Chopin’s technical ability and fluency in classicist forms is undeniable, the most enduring element of his work is the profound musical intuition from which its construction seems to arise. Perfectly capable as he is of constructing a fine piece within traditional forms, his best work seems to occur when he listens closely to his own material, and allows it to naturalistically develop and suggest its own structure.

Chopin wrote most of his works for his own instrument, the piano, intending them for performance mostly by himself, usually in front of a few friends. The organic origin of these works shows in their fluid structure and their patient development; the changes that come at exactly the time where they will make the most emotional impact, not necessarily where they would theoretically make the most structural sense or be most immediately pleasing. This characteristic brings him close to underground metal, music in which there is both no divide between composer and performer and, ideally, little concern for audience expectations, but where emphasis is instead placed on genuine, valuable and intense expression.

A great example of Chopin’s emotional intensity, technical ability and structural ingenuity is his second piano sonata, in b flat minor. Although most of the piece’s movements are written broadly within conventional forms, the first being the expected sonata form and the next two being large ternary forms, Chopin manages to create the sensation that this large scale architecture arose naturally from the material, instead of being imposed on it.

We often find in the work of Romantic composers, even in the some of Chopin’s lesser works, a conscious attempt to hide underlying classical forms through over-extended or jarring transitional passages. This sonata has no need for such tricks: the thematic material and the relationships between it are so strong that the flow is seamless throughout. The material itself is of a mostly lyrical and impassioned nature, the axis for most of the themes being melodic. It is thus that the howling arpeggios of the fourth movement come as an intense shock, especially after the famous “Funeral March” of the third movement (which Candlemass covered on Nightfall). Even more rattling is the movement’s swift and violent conclusion. Though seemingly pointless, placing this little movement here is a stroke of narrative genius; it lets the listener know the piece is irrevocably over, and yet it feels unsatisfactory, it leaves one with a melancholy longing. The technique is similar, although the effect is altogether different, to the one used in Burzum Det som en gang var, also a piece organized in four main sections, whose last riff comes rather unexpectedly and then simply fades off into the distance.

There is another very important element that links Chopin’s music to underground metal: his great ability to be impressively creative within self-imposed limitations. The most evident of these restrictions is of course instrumental, as he chose to write most of his music for the solo piano. Obtaining strong results from a limited instrumental palette is of course a very familiar concept to a fan of underground metal. His spectacular waltzes and mazurkas also show him extending a limited rhythmic format to powerful expressive and structural heights, without ever abandoning it entirely. It is in these smaller pieces that Chopin’s tendency to generate structure from content is at its most alive.

A piece with seemingly unexceptional or bland material, such as the Prelude No.4 in E minor, is turned by clever and patient development into a masterpiece, whose economic simplicity only serves to emphasize the power of each event, however minor it may seem. The piece revolves around the thwarting of tonal expectations, a simple enough technique out of which Chopin carves a funereal dirge of both enormous emotional impact and absolute structural perfection. Chopin transforms formal and instrumental restrictions into challenges, forcing himself to find creative avenues around structural problems. This may be one explanation behind why practically all of Chopin’s best pieces are driven by strong melodies; he leaves himself no place to hide.

The Nocturnes are the obvious place to start with the music of Chopin, and for good reason. My personal recommendation would be Claudio Arrau’s 1978 set. Though not all the Preludes are equally good, the whole set is definitely worth a listen, and Martha Argerich’s 1977 DG recording is one of the finest options out there, and it also contains a marvelous rendition of the second Piano Sonata. Also of note are Dinu Lipatti’s disc of Waltzes for EMI and Krystian Zimmerman’s 1988 DG disc of Ballades and miscellanea. Outside the world of solo piano Chopin shines less, even his piano concertos suffer from a poor understanding of the orchestra. This can only serve as further proof that Chopin’s genius lay in his musical intuition, through which he allowed pieces to develop themselves organically in order to reach greater heights of expression, as opposed to merely accommodating themselves to an abstract formal plan. The kinship between Chopin’s fiercely expressive, instrumentally virtuosic and structurally organic style with underground metal is a clear one, and all Hessians are strongly advised to acquaint themselves with the Polish master.

10 Comments

Tags: ,

Did Accept invent speed metal with “Fast as a Shark” on Restless and Wild?

accept-restless_and_wild

Wolf Hoffmann asserts that Accept wrote the first speed metal song ever with “Fast as a Shark” from Restless and Wild way back in 1982. While the debate rages across the internet, now the equivalent of 1980s daytime television, the question can be answered by looking to what speed metal is.

Speed metal — as distinct from thrash a genre popularized by Thrasher magazine devotees and skaters making hardcore/metal crossover such as Dirty Rotten Imbeciles and Cryptic Slaughter — originated in the use of a single technique: the muted strummed downpicked power chord. This technique combined the repetitive downpicking of punk with palm muting, previously used only to emphasize specific notes. Much of its appeal came from the changes in amplification and production since the previous decade which allowed louder music to exist. Much like the 1980s itself, the muted strum conveyed a sound of clashing absolutes and decreased the amount of harmony heard in each chord, making the music more purely percussive like techno and early industrial. Even more, it gained the volume punks had always aspired to with its explosive and uncompromising sound. In the process, it inspired more use of accidentals leading to more chromatic fills, which in the next generation with death metal became a form of riffs themselves, where speed metal relied more on the NWOBHM song form and harmony.

Generally regarded as starting in 1983 with Metallica Kill ‘Em All, speed metal presented a radically new sound which had precursors in extreme (for the time) bands like Motorhead, Judas Priest, Blitzkrieg, Tank and Satan. However, no bands had fully adopted the new technique as the basis of their composition until the early cluster of Metallica, Exodus, Mercyful Fate, Nuclear Assault, Anthrax and Megadeth. During the 1980s these bands were the most extreme metal that most people could find in their local record stores, which were how most people got music back then, with the exception of Slayer which was a speed/death hybrid and Venom which was a punk-influenced form of NWOBHM. Accept does not measure up to this standard on the basis of technique, since its song fits within older heavy metal format and does not use the muted strum.

This statement does not decrease the importance of Accept in the creation of speed metal. A long line of innovations occurred leading to speed metal, starting with the incredibly rough sound of Motorhead in 1976 but aided by progressive bands like King Crimson and Greenslade as well as a chain of punk acts who pushed the envelope such as Discharge, The Exploited, Amebix and the Cro-Mags. Below you can hear “Fast as a Shark” and see this heritage for yourself, contrasted with the archetypal speed metal song, “Creeping Death” from the second Metallica work Ride the Lightning and Blitzkrieg’s self-titled track from their 1981 EP Buried and Alive.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K7ysTcd_-QY

13 Comments

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Sympathy for the Hipster

gigging_hipster

I write a lot about hipsters because I am fascinated by subcultures and how they attempt to find meaning independent of the center. You can join the ska kids, Goths, rivetheads, wi-fi hobos, ecolos or channers. You might have a thedic identity, a de facto tribe combined of ethnic pride and politics, or an outright political group like the earth firsters, crypto-coms or far-right. In a time of no actual commonality to our deconstructed societies, you know you will be a cog in the machine: working a job, paying taxes and housing, and doing all the day-to-day stuff like shopping at Costco that is about as romantic as math homework. To counter-balance that, people seek an identity which shows why their lives are important. All of these are extensions of the original “keeping up with the Joneses” that saw people trying to out-consume each other, but now we are consuming the image of ideas instead of pure product.

Modern life represents at its core a long slow grinding compromise. Any idea is taken from where it is found and made into a product by simplifying it, exaggerating its surface features, and then presenting it for mass consumption. Joining an identity first involves a shopping trip for music, books, clothing and personal accessories including tattoos, piercings, scarification and hitting the gym. Through this process, unique identities are gradually “assimilated,” or made into variants of the mainstream. Every ideation operator declares the gradual entry of those who perpetuate this process into their chosen identity — the falses, the poseurs, the day-trippers, scenesters and imitators — because when enough of them arrive, the unique group becomes overwhelmed and as happens in democracy, what is popular and easily understood wins out over the original idea, which then fades into a distant memory and a cartoon of itself.

Hipsters represent those who have given up on the idea of idea itself. They realize early on that this society is a kicked clip, empty of ammunition and fit only to be returned to the pocket and another retrieved, starting over. But discovering what we want for a future represents a good deal more ambiguity and risk than knowing simply what we detest, and in the meantime, people need an identity to distinguish themselves from the faceless mass. The hipster was born out of this situation by Generation X, who combined slacker culture with counter-culture and added the suburban desperation of their parents, who were only to happen to discuss in detail how the world was going to hell, in front of their children. As a result a new identity formed based on those who have dropped out of society but still seek a way to distinguish themselves, and instead of doing so through strong group identity, they base their concept of self on self-image alone. Thus the hipster opposes the idea itself, and instead seeks a different kind of center: what everyone else is doing, but with some unique conceit for the individual itself. Hipsters are bog-standard people who have hobbies in craft beer, tattooing, making artisanal objects, odd collections, activities chosen for their apparent randomness, and of course art, art and more art, because nothing makes a person look profound like the boho artist lifestyle.

As the definitive article on this topic says:

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.

People who seek an idea loathe hipsters because hipsters are the anti-idea. They reject the notion that we can have purpose outside of ourselves, and instead make their time by adorning the self with new fascinating attributes which are always bizarre because their sole goal is to distinguish themselves from the rest, and so whatever is sensible and normal is verboten. The hipster seeks to be unique, individual and different (UID) so that they do not get mistaken for the rest. Part of this is a counter-culture style protest saying that they do not endorse or enjoy the mainstream, and in fact oppose it so should not be held accountable for its failings; the rest comes from the simple need to distinguish oneself in a social scene flooded with people who are all trying to be noticed. Where in the 1920s doing stunts on the lawn might have worked, and in the 1980s it was enough to join an indie band, for the people who come after the reunion of right and left in the 1990s there is no longer an obvious majority culture to oppose. There is only the gradual compromise, and trying to stand out in its midst.

Hipsters suffer for the time into which they were born and the lack of easy and safe ways to rebel against it. Smoking weed and living in a VW van involved relatively few risks; at worst, an arrest occurred in some random little town in Ohio and dear old Dad had to dispatch money and lawyers to fix it. But opposing the conglomeration of democracy, capitalism, liberalism, consumerism and patriotism takes some guts and some time on the thinking couch, because it is not like The Establishment an easy thing to identify. Who can blame these people for laboring as poor cogs just trying to have normal lives? They can laugh at them but not indict them as the problem itself. The focus of the hipster becomes not reform of a society that is already lost, but saving oneself by at least being socially competitive through appearance and having a life independent from concern about the inward collapse — an idea — which might obligate one to sacrifice time otherwise spent on self toward some purpose.

That tendency reveals the problem with hipsters: they are perpetual entryists. Their only idea is the self, so any identity they discover they will turn into a product just as surely as their grandfathers did back in the 1950s. In essence, hipsters are the same consumers that people have always been, except now they are casting around for an appearance of having an idea and thus always sacrifice the idea itself because they are fundamentally opposed to ideas. Subcultures fear the hipster because to admit the hipster is to abolish the subculture and allow it to live on in zombie form as another branch of the great compromise but now as an adornment, like the “French bread” flavoring in the industrial-processed bread aisle or the “exotic scales” used in bog-ordinary rock music to dress it up and disguise its ordinariness. The hipster is indeed the dead end not of just Western civilization, but all civilization, because civilization requires an idea and with hipsterdom, all ideas have been sacrificed to the self.

At the same time, hipsters deserve our sympathy. They are the people on the deck of the Titanic, watching the unstoppable disaster that will inevitably compose them, choosing to get another pint from the bar and bum another cigarillo while bravely chatting about the inconsequential. The water grows incrementally closer and the lifeboats are long gone. Nothing remains except to live it up a little, stand out from the crowd and have your fun, before the darkness inexorably takes over. If you wonder why hipsters look as stressed and miserable as their parents, even when they have trust funds (and an alarming number of them do) and hip indie bands with the flavoring of metal, it is because they too see the approaching disaster and have found nothing to do about it.

14 Comments

Tags: , , , ,

How to make a digital promo kit (DPK) or electronic promo kit (EPK)

hard_at_work

Bands: if you want to get signed, you will need to send promos. First you will send them to labels, which will sign you eventually. Then you will send them to media, including record reviewers. Labels: you will do the same. Promoters: ditto. So how do you send a promo in this day and age?

The current standard, which thankfully does away with piles of physical promos, is to send an Electronic Press Kit (EPK) or Digital Promotions Kit (DPK) which mean roughly the same thing. Your EPK will be a zip archive containing your release in MP3, photos and a press release/biography. Each of these parts offers its own challenge.

MP3s should be of a decent bitrate, usually 256k or Variable Bit Rate (VBS) equivalent, and should be tagged appropriately with band name, album name and track name correct and consistent. The MP3s themselves should be in a folder within the archive named Band Name – Album Name. This enables writers to extract it completely and view the files as they write. If you are using Exact Audio Copy or a similar program, settings allow you to specific correct tagging by default. I also recommend installing Windows Media Player 11 and using the Fraunhofer MP3 codec which is superior to the LaME codec which tends to make heavily distorted music sound plastic. I use the following naming scheme in EAC:

Individual artist:

%artist%\%artist% - %albumtitle%\%artist% - %tracknr2% - %title%

Various artists:

various\%albumtitle%\%albumtitle% - %tracknr2% - %artist% - %title%

Press releases should fit standard format, which is an entirely different article, and include full contact information for the label and promotions agency. If you include band contact information, people will contact the band; if the band does not reply, do not include this information and have them contact the band through the promotions agency. Include the biography in here, generally a paragraph or two but not more. Also useful to include are all band public sites such as Facebook where the band might post more images or information as needed.

Images should include at least the cover art and a band photo, but many bands include logos as well for use as headers. These pictures should all be large (800px+) and in a format such as JPG or ideally PNG, which is not lossy like JPG.

Once you do all of the above, put the files into a zip archive and make it available to reviewers. Many use services like Haulix to make it easy to limit downloads to specific reviewers, and to embed codes in the work which identify who each package went to in case it gets leaked. In my view, labels should worry less about piracy from this angle because the release will inevitably be pirated and your only real recourse is to DMCA search engines to keep it out of the listings so that people are encouraged to buy it or stream it through a licensed streaming service like Spotify, Pandora or Last.fm. For this reason, lately more labels have simply been linking to their DropBox folders in acknowledgement of the impossibility of stopping all leaks, and it takes just one to spread it everywhere — or someone at a record store who drops the album into a computer for ten minutes to rip and upload it, as seems to happen in Russia and Latin America much to the delight of downloaders worldwide.

The above is written in the hopes of receiving fewer incomplete or botched promo packages. As stated elsewhere, most labels spend little time on getting these right because they want reviewers to spend as little time on the music as possible, and because the people who write the reviews the labels will republish are those who are making a personal connection with staff at the label in hopes of future hiring or collaboration. But for a starting band or label this advice may be helpful.

7 Comments

Tags: ,