A Brief History of Grind and Space: Extreme Metal and the Internet

joeperkins01

Introduction

Extreme metal, specifically grindcore music from the beginning of the 21st century to the present day, has been composed and distributed between digital-communities. Grindcore has often existed exclusively within online communities and abandons its previous ‘live’ traditions. This online phenomenon is sometimes described as ‘cybergrind’, defined only partly by its musicality (i.e. rhythm, structure, notation), but more importantly by the cyberspace in which extreme metal music is staged through the Internet. This will detail a brief history of grindcore’s online migration and transient occupation of various cyberspaces on the Internet. I will discuss a few of the reasons for grindcore’s online relocation and evaluate the more discursive nature of the music that warrants it’s suggestively ‘non-musical’ prefix (cyber) in an attempt to provide a more encompassing study surrounding the music.

Space – Cyber

The beginning of the 21st Century saw an online musical phenomenon that made a serious impression on the music business. Grindcore’s online relocation was indeed partly an impression if not a reaction against commercial music businesses and provided a community for self-published and non-profit grindcore to exist. Rosemary Overell’s book,

In an interview with Mike Glenn, ‘programmer’ for Myspace based grindcore band, ‘wecamewithbrokenteeth’; “It was definitely an internet phenomena, although I really don’t keep up with the ‘scene’ anymore. I believe WCWBT kinda took the ‘cybergrind’ thing to a new level and spread it to the masses more so than other acts … our online fan base was definitely our strongest”. My interview was undertaken on Facebook, whereby the ‘wecamewithbrokenteeth’ page is located and acts as their ‘official’ cyberspace. Benedict Anderson may have described this online phenomenon as an ‘Imagined Community’, or self-conceived nation (1991). However, the music’s online exclusivity suggests that it was far from imagined, but as close to a real environment as necessary (for both artist and consumer); the transient nature of cyberspace is more freely adaptable than the set-in-stone physicality of the ‘stage’. In Lysloff René’s, Musical Community on the Internet, he states that:

Many websites do represent the loci of complex networks and social relationships that are in fact dispersed in geographical space. What bought us all together were the metaphorical places that stood as monuments to the social relationships created through them. Thus, Internet research entails a form of travel, in a metaphorical sense to radically different kinds of social place … I argue that on-line communities … are as ‘real’ (or imagined) as those off line. – René, L. (2003)

‘Cybergrind’ exists as a non-profit community whereby free distribution amongst fans is encouraged to promote the music to a wider audience. This was also articulated by Glenn, “The few things we did release were free, I’m a heavy music pirate myself, so why the fuck not? I’m cool with YouTube and all that, anyway, to get your name out there is a plus in my eyes.” An online record label, ‘Grindcore Karaoke’ (2011), enable free downloads for all of their featured-artists. Vocalist for ‘Agorophobic Nosebleed’, J Randall, initiated this non-profit organization. This label ‘employs’ grindcore artists globally, such as Birmingham based ‘Kuntpuncher’, and Japan based ‘Self Deconstruction’. Their first release was ‘Grindcore Lu’au’ by ‘Wadge’ and advertised weekly uploads; their last upload was ‘CLVB DRVGS’ ‘Beach Blanket Bong Out’, published on the 10th March, 2014, however the music remains available for download (last accessed 22/04/15). Tom Bradfield, owner of Grindethic records, has expressed how online relocation has inevitably affected the industry, specifically record labels; “I suspect that even if piracy was somehow eradicated (which it won’t be), then the move to downloading would still have happened anyway. The hard thing is convincing people to pay for something they can easily get for free.” Therefore, the power the Internet has provided a convenient platform for artist self-promotion, but potentially threatens industry establishments such as Grindethic records.

René (2003) describes this phenomenon as a ‘new materiality’; “On-line music production and dissemination set up the conditions for a prestige economy in which ‘goods’ … are exchanged by electronic means. As with other on-line communities … the Internet provides a new materiality through which social interaction and group formation can take place and from which new possibilities for subjectivity and group identity can emerge.” Therefore, grindcore labels/artists may still be adapting to this ‘new materiality’ the Internet continues to provide.

‘Extreme Metal in Lebanon’, as researched by Mark LeVine, exists on the Internet for political reasons. In his book, Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam (2008), LeVine describes the band, ‘Oath to Vanquish’, as one of the “most distinctive Death Metal/Grind bands in the MENA”. The Lebanese government banned certain Heavy Metal CD’s at the beginning of the 21st Century, however they remained increasingly available on the Internet, a platform less hindered by political censorship. LeVine describes the Internet as a ‘liberating Power’ and musicians as part of a “cyber-intifada”. The band tackle political issues in their music lyrically, “through the veil of allegory and unsettling imagery”. ‘Oath to vanquish’ are signed to UK-based ‘Grindethic’ records, however according to LeVine, “the farther you are from the mainstream in Lebanon, the greater the risk of persecution.” According to LeVine, extreme metal in Egypt is similarly restricted, “many young Egyptians found more useful things on the web, from political blogs to heavy metal forums, that help them resist or at least survive, government oppression.”

The absence of ‘live performance’ due to a rise in online-presence has raised certain authenticity debates, some of which I shall discuss now. In my own interview with Tom Bradfield (Grindethic), he wrote that:

The Myspace era was probably the turning point for underground bands being able to exist outside of the live environment. Before the Internet there was no point in having a band that didn’t play gigs … Now there was a way to expose yourself to potential fans and build a support base without needing to play live. This coincided with home recording becoming more affordable so bands could produce demos of ever increasing quality without studio time necessarily being a prohibitive cost. – Tom Bradfield.

The absence of live performance and the internet-as-stage may be what Chanan describes a loss of authenticity due to various techniques of reproduction:

Technique of reproduction detaches the musical work from the domain of the tradition that gave birth to it, and destroys what Benjamin calls the aura which signals its authenticity; except that it also creates new types of musical object which do not belong to a particular domain but rather anywhere that a loudspeaker (or earphone) may be found – some of these recordings cannot be performed live at all. This process also redefines the audience, which comes to be constituted quite differently from before. It is no longer limited to traditional concepts of community. – Chanan, M. (1997) 

However I believe that the ‘aura’ is still present in a cyberspace, but I agree that there is obviously a detachment from traditional conceptions of ‘liveness’ and ‘community’. Grindcore has therefore transcended this barrier of authenticity by its often-unfeasible existence in a ‘live’ and ‘real world’ environment. This further points to grindcore’s inherent anti-establishment disregard for previous ‘formats’ (I will later discuss this in relation to musicality) and is therefore a liberating factor for both musicians and listeners. In the same way that the Beatles’ never performed ‘Sgt. Peppers’, whereby live performance wasn’t felt necessary or wasn’t possible; Glenn states, “We never actually played live shows, although I’ve heard stories of people claiming to be us and playing shows under the name, haha. WCWBT was strictly an online thing.” Similarly, Tom Bradfield told me about one of his own bands:

I joined a band called Repulsive Dissection where the members had come together for the first time over Myspace. We were variously located in Ukraine, Japan, UK and Sweden, so the idea of playing live was never seriously considered … The internet allowed us to send material backwards and forwards online and collaborate on writing. We could all record separately and compile our efforts at the end, and to this day I’ve never met the guitarist in person. – Tom Bradfield.

Weinstein (2000) states that, “Most bands never sign a record contract. They are the losers in a Darwinian struggle for access to the facilities of the mediators: The record companies and the concert promoters”. However, Bradfield argues that it is in fact; the record labels are now equally involved in a ‘Darwinian Struggle’, although they’re power as ‘gatekeepers’ (or trend-setters) within the industry are still apparent in providing a ‘stamp of approval’:

I’m sure mass consumption of music, and all media in general, can only be heading towards streaming everything online, but a new generation of artists will embrace this and find new ways to present their music. How labels will survive this change is harder to foresee. I think there will still be a need for labels to exist as a way of putting a stamp of approval on the top bands and helping to raise them above the rest. – Tom Bradfield.

Australian grindcore band, ‘The Bezerker’, existed online for both performance limitations and to simultaneously self-promote through successful social media such as Myspace and their own website. They also departed from ‘Earache Records’, famed for signing traditional grindcore artists such as, ‘Napalm Death’ and ‘Carcass’. This short text by Brian Fischer is the first time I have seen the term, ‘cyber-grind’ used in any published writing, although does little to describe what ‘cybergrind’ actually is:

The bezerker is an extreme metal entity from Melbourne that plays a noise form of cyber-grind. The band is the brainchild of … Luke Kenny, a one time metal and grind drummer who was forced to give up his instrument after sustaining near-fatal injuries in a motor vehicle accident… Kenny began to produce music that was a cross between “gabba” techno and industrial grind … The Berzerker split from Earache in 2008 and their fifth album came out on September 1, 2008 through the band’s website exclusively. – Fischer-Giffin, B. (2002)

‘The Bezerker’ may have departed from the established ‘Earache Records’ due to the apparent trend towards the self-sufficient sustainability of Internet based promotion and publication.

Musicality – Grindcore

The Oxford dictionary defines ‘Cyber’ as, “Relating to or characteristic of the culture of computers, information technology, and virtual reality”. In which case, one could argue that grindcore music is now in a ‘cyber age’, where computers are an interface not only for music production, but also for mediation, collaboration, and consumption. Certain musical aspects can be attributed to the style as a contributory defining factor:

“I’m proud to say it’s the fastest, and nothing can be faster, sorry Dave, [Dave Lombardo, Slayer] but it’s just not fast enough mate” – Mick Harris, Napalm Death

Derek Roddy (2007) describes ‘blast beats’, a traditional musical signifier of grindcore as a genre defining feature: “Until now, blast beats have been a musical myth … a part of musical expression since the 1980s with the European grindcore movement … a form of musical expression on it’s way to becoming it’s own genre.” The speed and physical performance of grindcore ‘blast beats’ could be seen as, “a fulfilling achievement that one can be proud of”. Drum machines are often programmed to perform ‘blast beats’ at a speed and metronomic precision previously unachievable in ‘human performance’. Drum machines are used as an instrumental signifier of the ‘post-human’ speed and technical precision predominantly unachievable in human performance. (Refer to my transcriptions of ‘Wecamewithbrokenteeth’ and ‘Malodorous’). This renders Mick Harris’ (Napalm Death) statement that ‘nothing can be faster’ as limited to a ‘live’ grindcore tradition. The processual nature of genre shows a dramatic transformation of opinion to what constitutes ‘grindcore performance’, when drum machines replace human; ‘Sorry Mick, it’s just not fast enough mate’!

“We’ve sort of abandoned musical standards, we don’t write songs to the ‘rock’ sort of format. We’re pretty much the end of the line, I don’t think you’re going to get a band that’s more extreme than us.” – Shane Embury, Napalm Death

Napalm Death, along with the other grindcore artists strive to be the most ‘extreme’ in terms of musicality. Overell (2014) describes this as a sense of ’more-than-ness’. If the performance is then eradicated from the ‘brutal’ experience, surely this lack of ‘liveness’ constitutes less extremity. The ubiquitous use of drum-machines in cybergrind is a way of sonically identifying the music as ‘digital’ or ‘cyber’. Thus the music’s existence is inherently impossible in a real-world environment such as a stage; it is also reliant on computer based interfaces i.e. VST instruments, DAW’s, Audio Interfaces which are becoming increasingly more popular. Harris (2006) states that, “Only in slower forms of extreme metal is ‘putting on a [live] show’, in a conventional sense, possible.” Harris does not elaborate on his use of the word ‘conventional’, although could be referring to the use of electronic instruments and physical constraints of an ‘acoustic’ musical performance. ‘Wecamewithbrokenteeth’, gained popularity through Myspace around 2005 and built their fan base through social networking. Their music was produced on FL Studio, and until 2006, only used computer generated instruments, minus vocals, such as FLslayer for synthesized Guitar tracks; the low-end pitches would have been impossible to effectively produce on a detuned electric guitar. The vocal parts are the only ‘live’ recorded part of the music.

There are many ways in which ‘extremity’ is now raised within the Genre. The first is musicality, where musicians are striving to make the fastest, shortest or most sonically dense Grindcore possible. (Refer to my transcriptions of Napalm Death and Clotted Symmetric Sexual Organ). The second and more controversial way in which extremity is pushed is lyrical subject matter, resulting in subgenres such as ‘Porogrind’ and ‘Goregrind’. As mentioned in Nasum’s online biography, a change in aesthetic and lyrical content results in a deviation from ‘true grindcore’. Tom Bradfield states, “The one thing I’m bored of is all the misogynistic rape/gore type lyrics that are still pretty prevalent.” Bradfield is more concerned with ‘punkier origins’ or traditional grindcore aesthetic, “For many though I think the punkier origins of grindcore lend it to a more political direction which I still think works well with the inherent aggression in the music.”

Despite this, the lyrics in Grindcore music are often unidentifiable due to the vocal style. This is however, unimportant; Simon Frith’s (2007) theory on Metal vocal style; “ The tone of voice is more important … than the actual articulation of particular lyrics. We can thus identify with a song whether we understand the words or not, whether we already know the singer or not, because it is the voice – not the lyrics – to which we immediately respond.” Weinstein (2000) adds that, “Special sounds, especially screams, serve to emphasize the power and the emotionality of the voice”. Tom Bradfield states that, “To be honest I’m not particularly interested in the lyrical content of bands, even if it aligns with something I personally believe in. First and foremost I care about the music itself, and the concepts or message behind the band doesn’t sway me too much either way when it comes to signing them.”

There were many complex eco-systems in action during the emergence of Grindcore, of which I will give a brief description now. Common belief is that grindcore was initiated in Birmingham with Napalm Death. The local aspect of Birmingham’s grindcore is often romanticised but its rapid globalization was apparent from its early years. ‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬I have provided one a brief case study into the globalisation and subsequent migration of grindcore into cyberspace. Popat (2005) argues that the nature of the Internet is solipsistic, “Communities of interest [Music] are most likely to arise since communities of locality and social structure, for example, mean little in the remoteness of the online environment.” However, I feel that this could be conceived as creating some form of online social ‘locality’. The locality is in this case, a specificity of taste and tied by interest. She continues, “Although a vast number of people with different interests and concerns may be using the Internet, it is likely that they will only tend to communicate with others sharing their interests”.

‘Clotted Symmetric Sexual Organ’ (C.S.S.O) were a Japanese grindcore band active from 1993 – 2001. Their composition, ‘P.S. I Love You’, was released on a compilation or ‘Split’ CD entitled ‘Grindworks’, featuring other grindcore artists Nasum (Sweden), Retaliation (Sweden), Vivisection (Japan) and C.C.S.O (Japan). The CD was released in Sweden on the label, ‘Grindwork Productions’, whom only ever released two albums; the compilation mentioned and Swedish group, Nasum’s ‘Domedagen’ (1994). ‘P.S. I Love You’, resonates with the jazz standard by Gordon Jenkins (1934), and later the Beatles (1962). As articulated by Shane Embury, grindcore abandons previous ‘rock formats’, and therefore the reclaiming of ‘P.S. I Love You’ is a way in which C.C.S.O subverted the ubiquitous ‘love song’ as a reaction against conformity and ‘popular’ musical idioms. The total length of the composition, 10 seconds, also suggests a reactionary musical form established by Napalm Death as a grindcore idiom. This particular case demonstrates the global impact of grindcore in 1994, and how it’s ‘rarity’ elicited an online re-release through the ‘The Grind Show” on YouTube (3 October 2011). The video has 124 views (last accessed 14 February 2015) and published by ‘The Grind Show’, a YouTube channel and cyberspace seemingly dedicated to sharing rare grindcore recordings. The obscurity and lack of popularity for this particular track is by no means a reflection of cybergrind’s popularity in general (I will demonstrate this in later case studies), but more a reflection of a communal effort in preserving grindcore of the past, or ‘non-cyber’ grindcore into a virtual and residual ‘mosh-pit’ or communal appreciation and canonization of ‘extreme’ music that is no longer active as a ‘Live’ tradition (C.C.S.O haven’t performed live since 2001).

This canonization within cyberspace also exhibits bands such as ‘Napalm Death’ despite their ongoing ‘live’ presence and commercial releases. This is quite often an exception whereby ‘Napalm Death’ transcends both ‘live’ and ‘cyber’ communities, most likely due to their wide acceptance as satisfying the definition of ‘grindcore’. This online existence is celebrated as a further disassociation from previous ‘rock formats’. Ironically this music has now fallen into a Cyberspace, and more importantly, it has been canonized within ‘The Grind Show’ musical-program, thus adopting an extra-musical narrative as part of a contemporary grindcore community. Of course, most ‘popular music’ can be found somewhere on the Internet, but it’s online exclusivity (apart from several hard-copies available second hand on Discogs) could infer it’s belonging to a cybergrind community. This dissemination could also be seen metaphorically as a larger scale ‘split’ recording, whereby Artists share a physical platform or space for economic viability, building a larger fanbase, and generally building a larger sense of community.

Following on from talking about musicality, collaborative techniques used in a traditional group environment are varied in online grindcore. Tom Bradfield spoke to me about his experience collaborating over the Internet:

I joined a band called Repulsive Dissection where the members had come together for the first time over Myspace. We were variously located in Ukraine, Japan, UK and Sweden, so the idea of playing live was never seriously considered.  We came close once but a visa issue scuppered plans at the last minute. The Internet allowed us to send material backwards and forwards online and collaborate on writing. We could all record separately and compile our efforts at the end, and to this day I’ve never met the guitarist in person. – Tom Bradfield.

A similar musical experience was realized by grindcore artists, ‘Malodorous’, who compose in remote geographical locations for a ‘web-based’ collaboration. Sita Popat argues the Internet as an enabling factor for opportunities in remote interaction and collaboration “on a scale never before imaginable”. She explains that the possibility to communicate and transfer media “simply, quickly and relatively cheaply between people around the globe.” She also believes that the Internet provides a uniquely asynchronous collaborative process can potentially work in favour of creativity. “This process promotes ‘reflective’ communications and the considered response. It does not rush the communication into a reaction, and as such it allows time for crossing that proscenium thoughtfully.”

Overell’s writing, although partly focused on affective space, does not mention the Internet as a space in itself, although focuses exclusively on grindcore as a ‘live’ tradition. She discusses the benefits of long distance communication for organisation of international events, “Via email, Sensei nominated suitable dates and Joel organized gigs at Melbourne venues.” Rene describes the ‘culture of simulation’ to what Arturo Escobar calls ‘cyberculture’. Rene goes on to describe that, “although the Internet may be rooted in familiar terrain, it still holds the promise of new cultural narratives and social formations.” The Internet has proven to be as much of a social phenomenon, if not more than grindcore music itself. Popat quotes Dix et al, “[The Internet] is much more a social phenomenon than anything else, with users attracted to the idea that computers are now boxes that connect them with interesting people and exciting places to go, rather than soulless cases that deny social contact”.

This implies that our methods of communication and interaction are transient, and as a consequence, musical output evolves accordingly to its situation. I have argued that ‘extreme metal’, for aforementioned political and economical reasons, has particularly settled in an online environment for what Overell might call ‘brutal belonging’, within an affective space. Despite the more traditional ‘live’ setting for grindcore music, Tom Bradfield agrees that, “for most underground bands, the majority of fans they make online will dwarf the number of total number of people that ever see them play live.”

Bibliography:

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  • Feld, S. (2001) ‘A Sweet Lullaby for World Music’, Globalization, pp. 189–216. doi: 10.1215/9780822383215-011
  • Fischer-Giffin, B. (2002) Encyclopedia of Australian heavy metal. United Kingdom: Brian Fischer-Giffin.
  • Frith, S. (1996) ‘Music and Identity’, in Questions of cultural identity. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications,
  • Frith, S. (2007) Taking Popular Music Seriously (Ashgate Contemporary Thinkers on Critical Musicology). Aldershot, England: Ashgate Publishing, p. Towards an Aesthetic of Popular Music.
  • Keith, K.-H. (2006) EXTREME METAL: MUSIC AND CULTURE ON THE EDGE. OXFORD: Berg Publishers
  • Laderman, D. (2010) Punk Slash! Musicals: Tracking Slip-Sync on Film. Austin: University of Texas Press
  • LeVine, M. (2008) Heavy metal Islam: rock, resistance, and the struggle for the soul of Islam. New York: Crown Publishing Group.
  • Michelsen, M. (2004) ‘Histories and complexities: Popular Music History Writing and Danish Rock’, Popular Music History, 1. doi: 10.1558/pomh.v1i1.19.
  • Overell, R. (2014a) Affective Intensities in Extreme Music Scenes. England: Palgrave Macmillan. doi: 10.1057/9781137406774.
  • Overell, R. (2014b) ‘Brutal Belonging in Brutal Spaces’, Affective Intensities in Extreme Music Scenes. doi: 10.1057/9781137406774.0007.
  • Parnham, J. (2011) ‘A Concrete Sense of Place: Alienation and the City in British Punk and New Wave 1977-1980’, Green Letters 15:, pp. 76–88.
  • Pedlety, M. (2013) ‘Ecomusicology, Music Studies, and the IASPM: Beyond “Epistemic Inertia”’, IASPM@Journal, 3(2), pp. 33–47. doi: 10.5429/2079-3871(2013)v3i2.3en.
  • Phillipov, M. (2012) Death Metal and Music Criticism: Analysis at the Limits. United States: Lexington Books.
  • Popat, S. and Beardon, C. (2005) Invisible connections: dance, choreography and Internet communities. 1st edn. London: Taylor & Francis.
  • René, L. (2003) ‘Musical Community on the Internet: An On-Line Ethnography’, American Anthropological Association, Vol.18, No. 2, pp. 233 – 263.
  • Roddy, D. (2007) The Evolution of Blast Beats. World Music 4all Publications.
  • Thrift, N. (2007) Non-Representational Theory: Space, Politics, Affect. United States: London ; Routledge, 2008.
  • Weinstein, D. (2000) Heavy metal: the music and its culture. Boulder, CO: Da Capo Press.

  

Joe Perkins, 2015
www.joeperkinsmusic.com
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Brett Stevens granted a Honoris Causa title of Doctor of Heavy Metal

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There are a few people out there who get it. These individuals, able to see beneath appearance to the structure of reality far more than the average, understand not just what things are but how and why they are what they are. They do this not for the fame or money, since those come to people who weaken meaning in order to benefit appearance that rewards pleasant oblivion, but instead because understanding our world is a fundamental desire that advances us as a species. These are the people who get burned by the angry crowd for “witchcraft” for having discovered new ideas that threaten the order of society as it is, making people look foolish for relying on the old when a better way is available.

Dr. Martin Jacobsen is one of those who looks beneath the surface and discovers, like heavy metal, the difficult questions of reality that humans prefer to bury under waves of social control, pleasant illusion and comfortingly bourgeois products. In the truest spirit of both education and outsider music, he explores that areas where society has said non plus ultra (“go no further”) because they reveal fundamental contradictions in many of the assumptions upon which our civilization relies for its sense of well-being and that it is pointed in the right direction. Unsettling, dark, morbid, nihilistic, feral, atavistic, self-negating and amoral, these spaces confront us with what most of us view as the problem to which society is a solution, namely all that disturbs us about the conditions of life itself. Society offers us salvation from threats and deliverance from want, but also grants us on an existential level a sense of purpose that is more important than the conditions of life which make us doubt ourselves and our purpose. Society sells comfort on a mental level as well as a physical.

Thus it is a great honor to be presented with Doctor of Heavy Metal certification by Dr. Jacobsen, whom I consider one of the highest authorities in the field capable of doing so. As a recognized scholar of metal in this mode, I am able to continue my writing and journey of discovery into this rich genre of music which has rejected both The Establishment and the counter-culture in its pursuit of truth at a lower level than the social categories, feelings and desires with which most of us paper over the disturbing aspects of life. There is not much recognition for those of us who attempt to unearth the real beneath the surreal and yet profitable, but being recognized by others whose work we esteem in this field may be the best of all. Thank you, Dr. Jacobsen, and my wall will wear this with pride, as will my metal soul.

N.B. signature digitally removed for security reasons.

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“Selling out” is as real as entropy

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“Nothing gold can stay,” Robert Frost famously wrote, referring to the tendency of all things in life to break down and become eroded versions of themselves. In addition to the obvious tendency of aging and death, we moderns have become familiar with the term “entropy” for the proliferation of possible options that then then renders choice almost impossible. Underneath all of this a more virulent tendency lurks, which is the human habit of destroying everything we encounter, including — especially — our own best creations.

In heavy metal we think of this through the decline of bands from excellent and striking to a version of what we already know is popular, like the steady unraveling of Metallica from the band that made Ride the Lightning to a country-fried version of Motley Crue or Led Zeppelin. We see it other places as well. For the last two decades, I have relied on a certain British company that makes teapots as a source of reliable gifts. People friggin’ love a quality teapot. But a few weeks ago, the company was sold, and the MBAs moved in and quickly figured out how to add a stylish handle to the teapots and make them of cheaper material and less of it, translating into fragile and less-effective teapots.

This parallels what happens to interesting movies from Highlander to The Bourne Identity which is that after an interesting premiere, the sequels emerge and they are of not only lower quality, but outright stupidity. The decision-making and leadership choices behind these movies are just of a radically lowered degree, such that if the first movie was a genius the followups have the abilities of a moron who works as a bureaucrat. For example, The Bourne Identity gave us a fast-paced and intricate but interesting script which maintained the emotion of a character lost in a world where he has no roots, but the sequel managed to not only hit every Hollywood cliche but present them in a series of improbable scenes which were clearly derived from better versions in the earlier film, all while creating the emotional flatline that is the result of cardboard characters and nonsensical motivations. We might even target Star Wars which, after an initial foray which mixed humor, sci-fi, religion and a classic quest narrative, dove into the edgy but pointless followup and then threw in the towel and headed for the gift shop and standard Hollywood dreck with the third.

It would be nice to be able to blame Hollywood, whether of the movie or music industry variety, but the grim truth is that this pattern shows up in more than teapots and speed metal. It appears anywhere humans attempt to organize themselves. The large tech companies who were visionaries and rebels a generation ago are now stodgy corporates, albeit with the appearance of being insightful and life-positive, whose products are designed to manipulate us to buy more of their high-margin offerings. Even the most necrotic of underground metal bands fall prey to this syndrome, but for miniscule amounts of money and fame, suggesting that the classic narrative of “selling out” — changing your sound to be more like Motley Crue or Led Zeppelin, both rock/metal hybrids that allow people to purchase edginess of metal within the familiar and non-threatening music of the herd, like jeans or Jack Daniels or other “extreme” products that in fact reflect extreme conformity — is incorrect and money and fame in itself do not explain the motivation for this choice.

Considering the nature of this problem as universal or nearly so, it makes sense to analyze it at a level lower than the reward itself, and instead to look at motivations. People are fundamentally social creatures; we are pack animals, allegedly at a higher level of evolution than the apes but retaining their most fundamental behaviors (and if you disagree, I’ll hurl a turd at you while beating on my chest and howling). We motivate each other with social guilt and shame, but that is only the stick; the carrot is that we offer inclusion to others who do things that please us, and create “heroes” out of those who do what many of us find appealing. This is the underlying mechanism of the sell-out, which is not so much profitable — since it exists as attempt without certainty of reward — as it is sociable.

When Metallica switch from “For Whom the Bell Tolls” to “Nothing Else Matters,” they are offering a simplified version of their edgy sound that more people can understand. This gives everyone the warm fuzzies, since it offers peace through pacification of others, and makes Metallica appear more altruistic and friendly. It also retains the surface appearance of extremity, which lets ordinary conformists play the charade of extraordinary (and possibly visionary) non-conformist without any risk to themselves, since what they are actually doing is buying a product which is just another flavor of the same ordinary rock everyone else litens to. Selling out is offering a product that is designed to please more people by giving to them what they already think they want, and by not challenging them, allows them to confirm their status as having valuable lives without raising the bar and forcing them to exceed their normal, self-interested and self-referential or narcissistic behavior. When you see something good go bad, it is almost always the result of this phenomenon, which consists of self-interested producers expanding their market by lowering the different-ness of their product, and in turn allowing the social group to feel pleasant illusions about its togetherness.

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Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011)

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Compared to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy most films appear to simply be extended commercials with music videos for the emotional parts. Telling the story of Soviet infiltration of the British secret services through an interlocking series of clues, this film takes the approach that Agatha Christie might use for one of her cerebral murder cases and applies it instead to international espionage. It will never outsell The Avengers because in this film, every detail is part of the mechanism that builds up to an intense finale for its ultimate revelation. Even more damning, themes in this movie illustrate human narcissism, how the West was destroyed by the same individualistic self-interest that made it strong, and the importance of honor, loyalty and truthfulness.

Gary Oldman stars as John le Carré’s character George Smiley, modulated from the outsider nerd in the book to a methodical and highly analytical man who finds much of society around him to be short-sighted and erroneous. Like the best characters from literature, he endures civilization as it is but upholds it as it is at its best, creating a worldview that would approve of the mythological analysis of the human soul as found in Slayer lyrics or the darker days of grindcore. Exiled from his position at MI6 because of his refusal to endorse a new and magical source of Soviet secrets, and passed over by those who built careers on it, Smiley hunts for a “mole” or double-agent who is compromising British intelligence whenever it tries to operate in enemy territory. Unlike those who have taken over his former role, he searches through the type of logical analysis and study of the relationship between details that made sleuths like Sherlock Holmes, Ellery Queen, Hercule Poirot, the Continental Op, Phillip Marlowe and Miss Jane Marple legends in their field.

Sadly for most modern audiences, this film requires attention. No detail is spurious and every scene follows from the systematic and interlocking pursuit of details. In addition, the filmmakers layer that story with parallel themes of love and loss, loyalty and motivation, and strength of character versus the tendency to appeal to pleasant but erroneous notions that receive the aplomb of journalists, politicians and the faceless voting masses. While its logicality deserves praise, the emotionality of this film in bringing out the loneliness of its characters and the equal isolation of the struggle for truth, as not a motivator but a shaper and revelation of personality, enhances a solid story into an epic one. The acting is brilliant without being self-absorbed — no one in this film looks like they are acting, or resembles other characters they have played in other films — and the soundtrack is minimal and on point, the cinematography both bleak and elegant, and the directing and editing show a perfect sense of timing that both preserves atmosphere and cuts out anything but the powerful. Of the films made in the 2010s, this will either be the best or in the top three, because movies this intense rarely come along at a rate of more than a handful per generation.

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Early Music for Metalheads: Part 1

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The history of Western music did not begin in the baroque period. A continuous musical tradition can be traced back at least as far as the early middle ages and this music itself has links to the musical traditions of ancient Greece. Much of this music fell into relative obscurity due to its notation and the anonymity of its composers, however throughout the 20th century a concerted effort on the part of scholars and performers has resulted in a revival of much of the music of the middle-ages and the renaissance. This series will present selections of music from the middle-ages and the renaissance together with some historical and philosophical background along with reflections on why it is relevant to metalheads.

The earliest medieval music that has been preserved to the present day is monophonic, that is to say it consists of a single melodic line without a harmonic accompaniment. This music has mainly been preserved in the form of the sacred chants of both the Catholic and Orthodox churches. The chants associated with the Catholic church are relatively well known to Western ears as Gregorian chant, whereas the chants of the Orthodox church are less familiar.

From a purely technical standpoint these pieces are interesting due to their use of different modes (scales) and the fact that they focus on pure melody, rather than using melodic lines that conform to a harmonic structure. This approach will not be entirely unfamiliar to metal listeners given that death metal in particular tends to utilise melodic lines which are not rooted to a particular harmonic scheme. From an artistic standpoint these chants are also of interest to metal listeners. Their contemplative and reverent nature speaks to a mentality more aligned with metal than with modern incarnations of Christianity and suggest an understanding of that religion which has long since been forgotten.

 

The following is an example of Byzantine chant (the chant of the Greek Orthodox Church). Note that it utilises a vocal drone which is not entirely static but moves away from and returns to the tonic note of the mode in order to create tension and resolution. This technique may be considered a predecessor of modern harmony but the music is still essentially focused on melodic material.

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Classical String Quartets for the Death Metal Fan, A Second Look

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In order to help death metallers make a smooth transition into string quartets, the first edition of this series presented the reader with two quartets that are superficially and at least partially, in terms of a simplistic judgement of mood, akin to underground death metal. Today, we will venture into a territory that is equally relevant to metal, composition-wise, not because metal artists compose in this way, but as I suggested last time, because there are many ideas relating to refinement that could be extrapolated and applied in a death metal context. In order to make this transition smoothly, one of the quartets introduced in this second edition is still superficially dark in atmosphere.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: String Quartet No. 19, “Dissonance”

Nicknamed after the prominent dissonances right at beginning of the first movement, it was the last of six quartets that Mozart dedicated to Haydn, who defined the classical way to write for string quartets. Even Beethoven recalls a before-and-after marked by the study of Haydn’s quartets. Mozart describes these quartets as “the culmination of a long and laborious effort” and many think it is the display of composer’s finest faculties.

As with any string quartet, the listener is encouraged to pay attention to each moment, absorb it, but not dwell on it. References to the exercise in dissonance application to an otherwise strict style can be found in other places in the quartet. A challenge may be to spot where this happens. We can start trying to wait for the moment in the second movement when the cello receives a leading line and the rest of the instruments play dissonant harmonies around it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZyNFElawfTg

 

Béla Viktor János Bartók: String Quartet No. 4

An important influence to many from Benjamin Britten to King Crimson’s Robert Fripp, Bartók’s string quartets’ particular sound owed a great deal to the composer’s extensive field research on European folk music. Paul Wilson in his book, The Music of Béla Bartók, wrote that it was this research that allowed the composer to rid himself of the “tyrannical rule of the major and minor keys, leading eventually to a new conception of the chromatic scale, every tone of which came to be considered of equal value and could be used freely and independently.”. The astute and attentive observer may note that this, Bartók’s fourth string quartet, uses no prominent themes (complete musical expressions in themselves), but advances through developing motifs (musical cryptograms) only.

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A Comment on Bardic Tradition in metal

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The terms bardic or minstrel metal have often been used to describe bands that usually sing in a clear voice and with anthemic overtones, often imitate medievalesque motifs and write lyrics in the manner of romanticized ancient legends. Generally, the metal subgenre most readily associated with bardic expression is power metal because they advertise themselves as modern-day minstrels and theirs is the kind of catchy and upbeat music most people can latch on to most easily. The bardic spirit along with the culture it transmits, however, requires a sturdier medium that is able to etch its runes indelibly without detracting from the importance of their message.

Power metal could be described as a blend of Judas Priest and Iron Maiden mixed with the energy of speed metal. The influence of Ritchie Blackmore cannot be overstated either. In time, they developed their own tropes and particular voices that set them apart from their Briton godfathers. Bands making music in this style are known for an overt expression and presentation that falls just a little short from that of the despicable glam metal. More often than not, these theatrical habits and indulgences overshadow both the content of the music and the words, both of which come close to becoming only an excuse for narcissistic expression. The persona takes precedence over the message.

A sensible division of terms would be advisable here since the words bard and minstrel actually denote two very similar but different traditions. The bard was said to be an itinerant poet who, with the help of music, kept traditions and values alive through stories and legends written in meter. The minstrel made its most significant appearances in courts. Its main job was to entertain the nobility. The latter job’s description often overlaps with that of a jester whose curriculum included clownish acts like juggling. Here is where we find the most apt description for bands like Helloween or Blind Guardian, who willingly and naively took the latter term for themselves.

In lieu of this minstrel metal, a bardic one, with enduring power to carry and transmit the word by giving it the place of honor, is needed. Firstly, any musical tradition with this aim must achieve an optimal balance between being both evocative and submerging yet enveloping the words so that these are propelled forward, emphasized, given contour and colour. Secondly, this is metal. And as proper metal, the riff must lead.

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Good Taste, not Gimmick

Many different artists have sought to bring instrumentation that is unconventional to the genres they work in, be it metal, the folk music of a certain region, rap or   European classical music of a certain period. Oftentimes, these unusual choices in instrumentation are made with the intention of bringing in an element of novelty to the music. In other cases, it has been done because the picture, concept or sound in the artist’s mind can only, to him, be portrayed by making use of an imported medium.

When playing any instrument, though, it is paramount that the sonic qualities of its output, its strengths and weaknesses, are inventoried.  This permits us to wield instruments of different kinds with not only efficacy but efficiency. Unusual instrumentation and unusual usage of conventional instrumentation (e.g. the prepared piano) became a trend, almost a hallmark, of post-modernist 20th century music. This way of treating the way each instrument is played and how we focus on using its power rather than forcing it on its weak side, is referred to as playing an instrument idiomatically.
20th Century Minimalism arose as a peaceful revolution against the saturated and purposefully inaccessible music that classical music had become. Now, a lot of very different things are dubbed minimalism so that this term is more of a descriptor than a genre name. The idea is that minimalism reduces instrumentation, technique and expression to the most indispensable by stripping down willingly, rather than by building in its sense of belonging, as Beethoven would have done. This is why minimalism-oriented works can provide us with a most clear visage of how to make use of a musical instrument’s power appropriately.

Although not an official or strictly minimalist work, Olivier Messiaen‘s Vingt Regards Sur L’enfant-Jésus takes us through a strange spirit-journey attempting to bridge the gap between our everyday selves and our inner souls. Influences on this work range from the evident Debussy, to Machaut and even to Greek metrics.

Contemplation of the child-God of the manger and (others) contemplating Him: from the inexpressible contemplation of God the Father to the manifold contemplations of the Church of Love, passing through the unbelievable contemplation of the Spirit of Joy, through the tender contemplation of the Virgin, then the Angels, the Wise Men, and of the incorporeal or symbolic creatures (time, heights, silence, the star, the cross).

The star and the cross have the same theme because one opens Jesus’ life on earth and the other closes it. The Theme of God clearly returns in the Contemplation of the Father, the Contemplation of the Son Upon the Son, and the Contemplation of the Spirit of Joy, in By Him All Has Been Made, in The Kiss of the Infant Jesus; it is present in The First Communion of the Virgin (she carried Jesus in her body), it is rendered glorious in The Contemplation of the Church of Love, which is the body of Christ. This is aside from the songs of birds, carillons, spirals, stalactites, galaxies, photons, and texts by Dom Columba Marmion, Saint Thomas, Saint John of the Cross, Saint Theresa of Lisieux, and the Gospels and Missal that influenced me. A Theme of Chords circles from one piece to another, fragmented or concentrated into a rainbow; one also sees rhythmic canons, polymodalities, non-retrogradable rhythms amplified in both senses, rhythms progressively accelerated or slowed, asymmetrical enlargements, shifts of register, etc. The writing for piano is quite eclectic: inverted arpeggios, resonances, contrasting features. Dom Columba Marmion (The Christ in His Mysteries) and, after him, Maurice Toesca (The Twelve Contemplations) spoke of the contemplation of the shepherds, the angels, the Virgin, and of the Heavenly Father; I brought back the same idea in a slightly different manner, adding sixteen new contemplations. More than in any of my previous works, I sought a language of mystical love, at once varied, powerful, and tender, sometimes brutal, in multicolored arrangements.

— OLIVIER MESSIAEN
(December 10, 1908 – April 28, 1992)

 
Erik Satie‘s piano works are also not strictly considered part of minimalism as a movement, but they are a recognized precursor to it, probably in the same way that Debussy’s are. From Gymnopédies and Gnossienne to Satie’s Nocturne and his Sarabande, these piano works are as familiar as they are eerie. Just as the most disturbing images to the human mind involve figures that are almost human but not quite human. There is just enough for you to recognize them, but also just enough for you to find them possibly threatening, but not entirely so. The power of his music lies in the use of emotional uncertainty at focal points. So it is that Satie shows us a world both familiar and alien.

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On Obscura and metal albums as song collections

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Arising from modern popular music, underground metal has retained many vestigial traits that several artists have consciously tried to erase and that some observers have started to question as detrimental to the effective expression of the genre. As the title of this article reveals, the case in point is the matter of albums as song collections. A good example of this becoming a hindrance to the message of the music is Gorguts’ Obscura.

Clocking in at one hour, Obscura consists of twelve songs, a little over the typical ten tracks of metal albums since the mid 1970s. The number ten has traditionally been associated with wholeness or completeness. In the most mainstream heavy metal circles it is considered only right to fill that exact number. No more, no less. A lot of death and black metal albums have veered slightly away from this rule and tend close their albums with eight or twelve tracks. Grindcore degenerates have never let numbers stand in their way and have completely given the finger to this rule as Repulsion, Napalm Death and Blood have shown us with their two-digit track lists.

The reason why more original and progressive-minded artists pay no attention to these unofficial guidelines is because whatever the artist has to say in an album should not be restricted by too many tracks. Even worse than being limited by the number of tracks is having to fill up tracks in order to reach the required number. This is precisely how we get the albums with “filler” tracks. Tracks nobody cares for but which make the album more “meaty” for those who care about such things.

More important than the adherence to a particular number of songs or tracks in an album is the fact that most bands produce precisely that: individual tracks bundled up in collections. This is Gorguts’ worse enemy even on their classic of classics. Every one of the songs up to the sixth track, Clouded, expresses a very distinct message in its method. After that, we basically get more of the same. The songs aren’t bad at all, but they do not add anything more to the album except extra minutes and more good songs whose essence is not any different from the ones before them. It’s basically thesaurus recitation.

Some propose that metal needs to look beyond the number, both as a rule and as a kind of indulgence. Just because that you have more songs does not mean you have to put them in the album. Just because you have more riffs does not mean they need a song to contain them. It is suggested that the album format in underground metal be exchanged for the classical opus format, where we have movements belonging to a coherent whole work, in which saying the same thing again and again is unnecessary and highly discouraged but in which consistency in style and voice is required to a healthy but not over-restrictive degree. Metal is not young anymore, the time to consciously take the step to the next level has come.

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Is Progressive Metal Progressive?

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I got thinking about this while reading through some of the stuff on The Gabriel Construct’s webpage. He said he wants to make progressive metal progressive again. After thinking about this, I realized that this really strikes a chord with me. It is probably one of the reasons I’ve felt so uninspired by the stuff I’ve been listening to.

Let’s take as a case study: HeavyBlog’s top 12 of 2013 so far list (restricting to 2013 will not influence this discussion at all, since the best prog of 2012 falls into the same tropes) and pull the albums that can be labelled as “prog.” I actually like a lot of prog metal. You should remember this, because it is going to sound like a post in which I slam prog metal. Instead, this should be read as a sadness that such a promising genre has hit a stasis.

This is going to get hairy with putting bands into certain boxes, but as I see it the list is Tesseract (should djent actually count as a form of prog?), Persefone (is symphonic metal a form of prog?), Coheed and Cambria, Intronaut, Extol (OK, I haven’t actually listened to this one, but the list says it’s prog), Leprous, and The Ocean.

What do these bands have in common that makes them prog? They tend to have technical playing with technique that derives from classical skills of fast arpeggios and scale patterns than more traditional metal/rock techniques. The chord progressions tend to be less straightforward. This can mean jazz influenced or excessive chromaticism. The time signatures tend to be less straightforward and can even involve alternating time signatures and metric modulations. Lastly, the songs tend to be longer and more thoroughly developed and tied together with a common theme.

So what’s the problem? Well, at one point in time doing these things within metal was a progressive thing to do. They weren’t being done. It was interesting and new. It was moving the genre forward. Now it seems that these things that define the genre have become tropes. You have to have x number of time changes, y number of chromatic patterns, and z number of songs over 8 minutes long. Oh yeah, and we’ll praise you mindlessly if you make these numbers without actually doing anything original.

Instead of being truly progressive and trying to bring in new influences to make interesting and new music, it all ends up sounding similar. Just because you came up with a way to arpeggiate faster, using a “new” pattern, and you do more chromatic steps doesn’t mean you’re “more progressive” or even more interesting. It is more of the same pretending to be different.

Maybe I’m reacting to an over-saturation of prog lately, and I won’t feel this way after a break from it, but sometimes when listening to prog it sounds like a joke. It sounds like the band is stringing together a bunch of tropes in mockery of how derivative it all has become. Scale the Summit is unfortunately going to get my wrath, but I can’t listen that new album. It has such high praise all over the place, but I’m so bored by it. I mean listen to this. It is pretty, and quite impressive technically at parts, but how many times have you heard this?

No offense to Scale the Summit, I could have picked something off literally any of the bands listed above and some of those albums might even make my top 10 of the year. It is just a feature of the current prog scene. It has become static. There are the occasional minor details that are new, but overall, it isn’t progressing.

Progressive metal can become progressive again. To some people it may seem shocking. What more do I want? They are already employing all of the complexity you would find in any fully trained classical composer. I’d reply, well, yes, any trained composer through the 19th century. But this stuff is more than a century old now. You could incorporate tons of modern developments. You don’t have to write atonally, but you can incorporate interesting post-tonal techniques to make something progressive without losing your band’s characteristic sound.

Other than tonality, there have been tons of other innovations from play style (stop with the incessant arpeggios, please), to modern electronic filtering of sound in new ways, to how your band layers together its pieces texturally, to instruments used (thank you Hybrid for showing us clarinet can be used in metal), to more original genre crossover, and on and on. You shouldn’t have to be an Animals as Leaders or Dream Theater clone to be prog. I bet I could write a fugue a la Hindemith that would sound really good by a metal band. How about someone tries that for originality?

I know there are actually lots of bands out there doing this, but they immediately get labelled as avant garde and pushed out of the prog scene. As I pointed out last time, this term should probably be reserved for the really, really out there stuff. Incorporating these techniques subtly into your standard prog sound should still count as prog metal. We should embrace more experimentation to finally get out of this stasis.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9HKeuXQg5-Y

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