Two of the most pervasive topics in metal are the “underrating” and the “overrating” of a band or album. Given that most people are prone to confuse their emotional attachment to music with a sign of its quality, most of these claims are specious complaints that reflect the need for acknowledgement from other people as a fan more than anything else. Claims of “underratement” usually occur in regards to cult bands, and less often, to personal favorites that should be recognized by each fan as a mere guilty pleasure. Statements of “overrating”, then, comprehensibly come about when a disgruntled fan wants to bash any band that does not appeal to him, independently of the reason.
However, when leveled as a result of balanced, informed and insightful judgement, these observations become meaningful in that they have solid foundation and a motivation outside selfish emotional need for attention. Contrary to popular opinion, these arguments only need to be based on objective observationsbut need not be objective in the full sense of the word themselves. The reason for this is that the concepts of objectivity and subjectivity represent a false dichotomy inapplicable in the context of art appreciation. Appreciation rests outside any single preference, it always lies outside the emotional reaction of any one person, but is nonetheless attached to a social group’s set of principles. And principles are a human construct, not tangible, objective reality. In other words, it entails the individual perception through the lenses of convention of objectively observed qualities.
Art appreciation can be reduced to the appreciation of beauty. The concept of beauty has always been a complicated one, and like anything complicated, it gets reduced to the absurd by small minds that feel the need to fool themselves into believing they have everything under control. A sense of what is beautiful rests on what is considered to be goodtaste. The nature of both beauty and taste is neither objective nor subjective. If it were objective, beauty would be a hard, flat fact measurable by scientific instruments, and not the esoteric – perhaps mystical – sign existing completely and individually in meaning, perception and medium but also in the whole of an object, all at the same time. A divine omnia in omnibus, as it were, perceptible to the unconscious but only vaguely grasped by the conscious as an ethereal idea. The duality that implies being human, having one eye on time and the other on eternity. On the other hand, if it were subjective, it would be completely pointless to talk about beauty or taste, as these would be demoted to euphemisms for what is simply our personal preference.
It is therefore, unsurprising that beauty is sometimes linked to the presence of the divine, and therefore of that which is natural, full of meaning and in balance. Again, simplified misconceptions come to distort each of these and in an increasingly individualist society that is just so for the sake of individualism itself, renders them powerless, trapped in small containers as catchwords for egotistical affectations. In other words, beauty has indeed been stripped from its cosmic framework and taste has become personal rather than communal. Both have lost any of the usefulness they had for communication of hermetic meaning.
This egotistical individualism is deeply entrenched in group-oriented thinking, paradoxically self-indulging as it is unoriginal and lacking in personal identity. This is to be expected since unthinking compliance to the system goes hand in hand with a deep-rooted cowardice of the mind. So, taking refuge in the rise of science, humanism and tacit nihilism, our brave new world does away with meaning as it has forgotten why man created it in the first place. Our modern society, contemptibly lacking in any courage to face reality and the pressing matters of our times, turns away from an understanding of the transcendent in favor of self-validation.
Art and its appreciation suffer first in this headlong plunge into the shadows. The reason for this is that art (artificial) arises entirely from man-given meaning. The greatest art has always had the power to communicate and bring forth an awareness of enduring meaning through individually-perceived universal truths of the human condition. Forsaking the use of any actual meaning in beauty, and consequently in art, music becomes a vulgar tool for individual satisfaction.
While quiet deference is directed towards names like Yes, King Crimson, Black Sabbath, Slayer, Bathory or Morbid Angel, my experience tells me that most fans who hold these bands in some kind of respect do not understand half of the reasons why these bands are great. The case of directly disrespected and underrated but equally excellent art like that of selected works of Burzum or early At the Gates is a different although related matter into which I will not go here. In the meantime, let’s turn our attention to canonical works of the metal underground.
It seems rather unfortunate that after achieving canonical status in any genre, a classic work is condemned to be defiled in two stages. The first is one in which the cause and effect relationship between being a classic and achieving canonical status is not inverted but flattened, the popular conception of the relationship between the terms being one of equality and interchangeability. Something then happens as a direct consequence of this misunderstanding along with an ignorance of the nature of classical works at several levels. In this second stage the distorted image of what being a canonical work implies is rightly questioned, resulting in an at least partial repudiation of their validity. The term classic is then also demoted into a euphemism for “what many/most people like”. Equating popularity with quality in art is a direct consequence of the loss of meaning discussed earlier.
This is why it is important to clarify what is originally meant by classical. It is closest to the condition of being an epitome, except that this latter term is neutral and can signify an accurate representation of the qualities of a group or classification. Classical refers to the highest degree of excellence in regards to quality, which implies distinction, perfect balance and adequacy in a work within its genre. Disquieting as the perversion of this concept is, simple and effective education coupled with the audience’s willingness to let go of their ego would be enough to remedy this situation. As with many things, it is easier said than done.
An additional third stage also bears mentioning which can then be appended to the steps in the process of decay in the perception of classic works. After the flattening and disavowal of the aforementioned terms has taken place in the collective mind, a confusion ensues which brings forth the nominating of undeserving artists or works into what used to be a pantheon of the gods. As I see it, there are two main ways in which this happens. The first was already mentioned, very popular works are inserted into the lists by virtue of their popularity itself. The other is the result of the backlash classic works receive from the lack of understanding towards their classic status. The original and true classics are reduced by a narrow-minded audience with a lack of depth perception to a collection of tropes to be imitated. A collateral effect of this in metal is that after a certain amount of time, since the audience cannot understand what a classic actually is, seniority is equated with relevance and quality, and then novelty is equally mistaken for innovation.
Without control or awareness, these things happened lightning-fast in progressive rock and metal, accounting for the extremely fast evolution of metal genres running away from the mainstream limelight and into increasingly obscure territories. Giants like King Crimson, Yes, Emerson Lake & Palmer and Genesis were then piled up with second-raters from all over the world. Nowadays it is customary to see Rush, Camel or Jethro Tull mentioned besides the first. Childish and musically wanting works belonging to the catalogues of Schuldiner’s Death and Cannibal Corpse even take precedence over the monumental early Morbid Angel. A closer and more knowledgeable and perceptive look into the qualities of their works reveals an enormous chasm in musical excellence and refinement separates them. They belong to completely different worlds.
Metal is encumbered by an additional hindrance: a recurrent appeal to cavemanish foolishness by the audience. This is the belief that as an essentially underground movement, metal is a blue-collar music which needs to be kept rough, dirty, mean and, well, ignorant. It is a combination of something similar to communism’s appeal to the true sense of the young masses and the testosterone posturing of a macho Homer Simpson. This idiotic claim basically consists in the stereotype that metal’s nature resides in young and unlearned spirit which yearns for adventure, rebellion and hedonism. They do not realize that these are closer to the hippie ideals than to the true metal spirit which actually resides in a warrior’s mysticism that stares reality in the face without losing sight of the transcendent.
While metal needs to grow up and continue in its journey towards higher peaks, it must do so through a profound understanding of its roots and thereby a correct appreciation of its own classics and an embracing of its core and true ideals. The mainstream would have metal become a compliant rock music in disguise, an edgy but safe expression of castrated dissent. Absorbing or becoming other genres is not progress, it is only regression or distraction. This must be rejected at all costs and a unique path into the maturity of the genre must take place in a truly forward-looking but conservative manner. Metal has always made its most significant strides in those albums which on the surface seemed orthodox but which brought meaningful innovation at the level of musical thinking, information and communication. It was not the experimentalists who revel in the strange, the unexpected and the new, but the disciplined adherents to the tenets of metal who look for their own voice while keeping the spirit of Vir at the heart of the music who move metal forward.
Ok, so, I was listening to the YES album Close to the Edge with my best friend Rick Ossian yesterday, and as is usually the case when we listen together, I started to contemplate its deeper meaning in a new way.
In a 1996 interview, Jon Anderson mentions Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha as an inspiration for this album, so there is a stated philosophical source. Even taking that statement as true, we can see in the lyrical imagery an embrace of other traditions. Acknowledging one source of inspiration does not exclude the possibility of other literary groundings. I’ve long noted Platonic elements in the classic YES albums. One could say that they are usually close to the edge of a greater understanding. Their lyrics often puzzle us, and it may be valid to postulate that the lyrics sometimes serve as way of adding the vocals into the instrumentation as an element of the overall sound. That in itself is Platonic: seeing that the surface can be altered to serve a greater truth, that it need not be only a linguistic item. That said, it is also possible that the lyrics have an allegorical sophistication that works across other traditions.
I will be arguing just this premise: that the lyrical content of Close to the Edge operates on an archetypal level, and that even if the inspiration is drawn from Hesse, YES uses framing and language from multiple traditions to connect to listeners. So, as I was listening with Plato in mind, and as I did so, I understood how it was that the Platonic elements were woven into this album. I had long suspected a Platonic basis, but yesterday, I looked at the lyrics and knew how I knew. Perhaps without meaning to do so (though there are certainly moments where it appears to be deliberate), YES incorporates imagery from the crucifixion narrative into the lyrics of this album. Those familiar elements serve as the nexus between the words and the Platonic underlay. I may never have noticed this if Rick and I had not sought to listen to this album and Analyze It to Life.
I have long held that Calvary is the most profound literary moment in the Western tradition. There are numerous reasons for this, some of which I’ll discuss. I won’t be saying anything new about the crucifixion itself; in fact, this argument rests on the familiarity of the crucifixion narrative. The thrust of this analysis will be about the ways in which crucifixion imagery activates an archetypal approach to the album. I’m arguing that the Platonic and Christian elements (and even Hesse) are parts of the same basic inventory of archetypes. I’m not seeking any outside sources (for the moment, anyway). The album, the King James Bible, and Plato are my sources. I’m not sure if this has been argued elsewhere or not. An occasional nod to Siddhartha may be needed, but this analysis is devoted to elements heretofore not interrogated. It seems very likely that YES has consciously written in multiple viewpoints, though it is possible some of the archetypal elements may have been included unconsciously. Archetypes apply to everyone, and YES may have been governed by them just as the listener is.
Whether or not they meant to activate the subconscious, YES has done so on this album. The lyrics include the words “crucified,” crucifixion,” “cross,” “preacher,” “teacher,” and “nail.” While the importance of the river can surely be tied to Siddhartha, the biblical implications of a river speak for themselves, and Lethe (the River or Forgetfulness) also plays a role at the end (the edge) of Plato’s Republic. In each instance, the river marks the edge of transformation or edification. There also appears to be a relatively clear expression of, in fact sometimes a recapitulation of, the chronology of the biblical narrative itself, and certainly the path to salvation that narrative offers plays a role in the thematic content of this album, for both individual believers and the savior who holds it. So, that chronology will surface as I explicate the references to the crucifixion narrative. Bear in mind that the purpose here is to reveal the album’s Platonic/archetypal underpinnings. The larger constructs of the actual and the ideal, the GOOD, and the glimpse are the archetypes that seem to rise to the top here, and the biblical imagery surely makes references to Siddhartha more easily apprehended for a Western listener as well. The biblical elements are the illocutionary force (suggestion) deployed in the lyrics; the archetypal elements are the perlocutionary force (perception) that makes this album the enduring masterwork that it is.
Here beginneth the lyrical analysis. I’ll take one song at a time, in the order they occur on the album: “Close to the Edge,” “And You and I,” and “Siberian Kathru.” The order is important. This isn’t an exercise in cherry-picking; it’s an enterprise in analyzing it to life.
“Close to the Edge”:
As I mentioned, there seems to be an observance of the chronological order of the crucifixion narrative, and while that sequential similarity exists in more metaphorical ways across the album, it sustains remarkable fidelity in this song. Given the fact that this song constitutes nearly half of the entire album, it is fair to say that the sequential imperative persists into the remainder of the overall work. An important question, naturally, is “Where does that narrative begin?” Drawing from the order of the album, the narrative begins with Christ’s baptism by John the Baptist. In fact, the first two verses in the song evoke this.
A seasoned witch could call you from the depths of your disgrace / And rearrange your liver to the solid mental grace / Achieve it all with music that came quickly from afar / Then taste the fruit of man recorded losing all against the hour.
The Romans saw John the Baptist as a mentally unstable rabble-rouser, a “seasoned witch” stirring up religious fervor by suggesting that sins needed to be washed away (“call you from the depths of your disgrace / and rearrange your liver to the solid mental grace”). Those who sought purification from him knew that their venal human weaknesses, “the fruit of man recorded losing all against the hour,” would ultimately be cleansed by the Messiah John heralded “with music that came quickly from afar.” John the Baptist’s stated purpose is to call sinners to God’s forgiveness, anticipating the deliverer who would purify them beyond his imitative cleansing, as articulated in Matthew 3:11: I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, andwithfire.”
This begins both the story of the crucifixion narrative (because it foreshadows the eventual sacrifice on the cross required for the forgiveness John suggests Jesus brings) and the Platonic underlay (John is an imitation of Jesus, who is a tangible form of the Holy Spirit). In a masterful literary move, YES has initiated a multilayered allegory in four verses.
The opening verses are followed by four more verses, then the chorus—which explains where the edge is—then another verse with a direct suggestion of divine intervention remarkably indicative of Numbers 11:9: “And when the dew fell upon the camp in the night, the manna fell upon it.” In fact, there seems to be a reference to the first part of the verse before the chorus and the second part after it (not to mention the use of the work “crucified” immediately after the use of the word “Manna”—our link to a biblical level of allegory),
And assessing points to nowhere leading every single one A dewdrop can exalt us like the music of the sun And take away the plain in which we move And choose the course you’re running
Down at the end, round by the corner (Not right away, not right away) Close to the edge, down by a river (Not right away, not right away)
My eyes convinced, eclipsed with the younger moon attained with love It changed as almost strained amidst clear manna from above I crucified my hate and held the world within my hand There’s you, the time, the logic or the reasons we don’t understand
While this is an Old Testament verse, it sustains the idea of divine salvation, and the notion of Manna suggests communion, perhaps hinting at the Last Supper episode of the crucifixion narrative. With the river metaphor evocative of Christ’s baptism interposed as a chorus between the two halves of the verses, and especially the dew (water) and manna (bread) being placed on either side of the chorus, it does seem to echo the verse from Matthew quoted above. Further, the antistrophic “Not right way” in the chorus seems to recapitulate John’s assertion that the true savior’s arrival is imminent: the water washes away the past sins, the bread sustains the future of salvation. From a Platonic perspective, the shadows of human existence are eclipsed by the greater reality of expanded perception as portrayed in Book 7 of the Republic,
Socrates: To them, I said, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.
Glaucon: That is certain.
S: And now look again, and see what will naturally follow if the prisoners are released and disabused of their error. At first, when any of them is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and walk and look towards the light, he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of which in his former state he had seen the shadows; and then conceive someone saying to him, that what he saw before was an illusion, but that now, when he is approaching nearer to being and his eye is turned towards more real existence, he has a clearer vision, -what will be his reply? And you may further imagine that his instructor is pointing to the objects as they pass and requiring him to name them, -will he not be perplexed? Will he not fancy that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects which are now shown to him?
G: Far truer.
S: And if he is compelled to look straight at the light, will he not have a pain in his eyes which will make him turn away to take and take in the objects of vision which he can see, and which he will conceive to be in reality clearer than the things which are now being shown to him?
G: True, he now
S: And suppose once more, that he is reluctantly dragged up a steep and rugged ascent, and held fast until he’s forced into the presence of the sun himself, is he not likely to be pained and irritated? When he approaches the light his eyes will be dazzled, and he will not be able to see anything at all of what are now called realities.
G: Not all in a moment, he said.
S: He will require to grow accustomed to the sight of the upper world. And first he will see the shadows best, next the reflections of men and other objects in the water, and then the objects themselves; then he will gaze upon the light of the moon and the stars and the spangled heaven; and he will see the sky and the stars by night better than the sun or the light of the sun by day?
S: Last of he will be able to see the sun, and not mere reflections of him in the water, but he will see him in his own proper place, and not in another; and he will contemplate him as he is.
YES captures this in the verse “A dewdrop can exalt us like the music of the sun.” We see the same idea expressed in Matthew 3:16: “And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him,” or the heavenly body of the Moon here, the eclipsed moon, that is. After this is the reference to “crucified my hate,” which foreshadows Luke 23:34: “Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do. And they parted his raiment, and cast lots”: a stunning Platonic juxtaposition of the eternal truth of forgiveness with the temporal human incapacity to recognize the savior for his clothing, or as YES has it “you, the time, the logic or the reasons we don’t understand”: a basic summary of the Platonic argument quoted above.
The next verses of the song evoke a more Platonic than biblical moment. That said, they do seem to include a basic archetypal motif of elevation and increased perception, of the physical and temporal manacles giving way to the apprehension of a greater truth:
Sudden problems take away the startled memory
All in all the journey takes you all the way
As apart from any reality that you’ve ever seen and known
Guessing problems only to deceive the mention
Passing paths that climb halfway into the void
As we cross from side to side, we hear the total mass retain
While these lyrics surely allude to Siddhartha, the also express the general principles of progressive illumination and serve as a reminder of the Platonic/archetypal foundation of the album: a direct rendering of the philosophical inspiration.
The next verses of the song seem to suggest Christ’s resurrection and appearance to Mary and the disciples as articulated in John 20:11-31:
11 But Mary stood without at the sepulchre weeping: and as she wept, she stooped down, and looked into the sepulchre,12 And seeth two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain.13 And they say unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? She saith unto them, Because they have taken away myLord, and I know not where they have laid him.14 And when she had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus.15 Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away.16 Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master.17 Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.18 Mary Magdalene came and told the disciples that she had seen theLord, and that he had spoken these things unto her.19 Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you.20 And when he had so said, he shewed unto them his hands and his side. Then were the disciples glad, when they saw theLord.21 Then said Jesus to them again, Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you.22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost:23 Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.24 But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came.25 The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen theLord. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.26 And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you.27 Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.28 And Thomas answered and said unto him, MyLordand my God.29 Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.30 And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book:31 But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.
And the YES lyrics,
In her white lace, you could clearly see the lady sadly lookin’ Sayin’ that she’d take the blame For the crucifixion of her own domain
Two million people barely satisfy Two hundred women watch one woman cry, too late The eyes of honesty can achieve
Then according to the man who showed his outstretched arm to space
He turned around and pointed, revealing all the human race
I shook my head and smiled a whisper, knowing all about the place
On the hill we viewed the silence of the valley
Called to witness cycles only of the past
And we reach all this with movements in between the said remark
These lyrics nearly paraphrase the biblical account. The two million people elicits an image of the new faithful, the two hundred women symbolize the two angels, and the lady in white is the immaculately conceived Mary come to take away the body, her crucified domain, and “the man who showed his outstretched arm to space” represents the risen Jesus who instructs Mary and the disciples in how to sustain his legacy.
And You and I
The second song on the album, “And You and I,” also uses imagery from the crucifixion narrative. While the elaboration of this imagery is not as extensive or as sequentially coincident with the crucifixion narrative as “Close to the Edge,” there are several unmistakable correspondences. The first rests in the direct mention of the word “crosses,”
Oh, coins and crosses never know their fruitless worth
This verse evokes Matthew 22:21 “They say unto him,Caesar‘s. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore untoCaesarthe things which areCaesar‘s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” This verse rests among the parables, great lessons articulating the differences between the temporal and eternal. Indeed, this passage works on the Platonic level as well. Christ’s message is not one of rebellion. It is a message of higher understanding, and it is delivered in parables, much the same way Socrates (or even Gautama) would do so.
The next applicable lyrics seem again to recapitulate the Christ’s baptism. Whether intentional or not, there seems to be an allegorical expression of Jesus as the preacher and John the Baptist as the “insane teacher.” Further, following from the hint of the Roman Empire’s role in the crucifixion and the subsequent replacement of that Empire with the Church, the lyrics quoted below seem to summarize the overall historical moment under examination.
Sad preacher nailed upon the colored door of time
Insane teacher be there reminded of the rhyme
There’ll be no mutant enemy we shall certify
Political ends, as sad remains, will die
Reach out as forward tastes begin to enter you
The “insane teacher” echoes the truth (“reminded of the rhyme”—temporal truth), the “sad preacher” suffers for that same truth (“nailed upon the colored door of time”—eternal truth) and the “political ends, as sad remains” collapse under the weight of the truth (“forward tastes”).
The salvation motif continues in the next verses.
I listened hard but could not see
Life tempo change out and inside me
The preacher trained in all to lose his name
The teacher travels, asking to be shown the same
In the end, we’ll agree, we’ll accept, we’ll immortalize
That the truth of the man maturing in his eyes
All complete in the sight of seeds of life with you
Speaking in first person now, the seeker articulates an emotional crisis: “I listened hard, but could not see/ life tempo change out and inside me.” The then recalls the preacher and teacher, those before him who brought the message, he ultimately unites with them in achieving the goal “in the end, we’ll agree, we’ll accept, we’ll immortalize / that the truth of the man maturing in his eyes / all complete in the sight of seeds of life with you,” an expression of salvation in the Christian sense or of transmigration in the Platonic sense. Interestingly, the lyrics here step beyond a mere retelling of the Platonic or Christian narratives and postulate the ultimate goal of both, of perhaps all philosophy: living a better life. The key to living that better life comes from what Platonists call “the glimpse” or what Christians may call an epiphany. The only way to open the “colored door of time” is if your journey for truth takes you close to the edge.
The final song, “Siberian Khatru,” holds the fewest direct connections to the narratives being examined here. In fact, the final song extends the expression of the goal explained above. In an idealized and compressed expression of the outcome, the lyrics of the final song create a space to unite the disparate traditions under a final archetypal umbrella.
The first allusion refers to the instrument of crucifixion: the nail. However, the lyrics describe the nail in ideal terms and suggest that it is a fastener not of a person to a cross but of people to each other and to a shared vision: “Gold stainless nail / Torn through the distance of man / As they regard the summit.” Echoing the scene at Golgotha, these lyrics idealize the even and suggest that the unity of those who believe look outward toward a greater truth. Then an implication that the release is at hand rests in these lyrics, perhaps channeling the irony that the nail the used in the crucifixion ultimately became the nail that affixed the Romans to history and freed Christians to supplant them: “Cold reigning king / Hold all the secrets from you / As they produce the movement” and “Cold reigning king / Shelter the women that sing / As they produce the movement.”
The song and album then close with a list of images suggesting many traditions, of movements produced and secrets revealed:
Luther in time
June cast, moon fast
As one changes
Heart gold, leaver
Soul mark, mover
Called out, saviour
Moon gate, climber
Turn round, glider
Thus, these seemingly disparate approaches to faith have reinterpreted the same basic truth and broken free of their oppressors, much as the Platonic tradition would advance a search for truth over an acceptance of immediate circumstances. Both traditions, as well as the obvious references to nature, Jesus, Protestantism, and probably Buddhism as well, have apprehended the truth beneath the truth, which is that truth is not a static object to be held and adored but a living practice to be embraced and interrogated. As John 8:32 has it, “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” As Plato and YES (and Hesse) suggest, knowing the truth results from a profound and unremitting search for glimpses of a greater reality that may be seen if you are close to the edge.
I used to spend a lot of time plagued by the question of whether one can really judge experimental metal. At first glance, this may sound silly, because the tools of music criticism don’t disappear from a little experimentation. You can still ask how derivative it is; what the structure is; if the riffs are any good; and so on. But problems emerge when one realizes that there have been pieces of music throughout history which really defy all convention. I’d put forth Gyorgi Ligeti’s “Atmospheres” as an example which has no melodic or rhythmic content (and in some sense no harmonic motion either).
Many of you are already screaming at your screen: “Atmospheres” makes you feel something. It is highly unsettling and successfully elicits emotions and responses in the listener. The only objective we need in evaluating music that breaks with tradition is if it successfully does what it intends to do or elicits an emotional response from the listener. I agree this is one possibility, but I reject the idea that abstract art has to have some objective or emotional goal to be worth engaging with. Think of beautiful paintings of fruit. Some may feel moved by it, but I think it is a stretch to claim this is where its value lies. Its worth is in the pure aesthetic experience it gives. Often this is beauty, but we could say “Atmospheres” is worth listening to for its coherent new aesthetic experience it provides. In fact, many other works of Ligeti do not have the emotive experience for justification but are all part of his unified aesthetic vision.
I should address whether this question is even worth thinking about. I think it is, because if we don’t have a way to distinguish quality, we’ll find ourselves randomly accepting or rejecting anything that defies convention. I’ve seen both extremes: the art hipster that defends to the death the greatness of a blank white canvas to the pop idolizer whose ears bleed at anything other than a I-IV-V-I progression over a 4/4 rock beat. Neither extreme is good music criticism, because both are ideologies that pre-judge rather than evaluate an album on its own terms. This means we have to give some thought to the question of whether it is even possible to judge music that pushes the boundaries. I’ll admit that basically no metal album, no matter how experimental, will be so extreme that we lack all ability to use traditional criticism. That’s not the point.
I, and most other reviewers, often get lazy and gloss over anything that is difficult to engage with. I find myself reviewing albums as traditionally as possible and only throwing in mention of experimental aspects without much thought. It usually takes the form of the above ideological lines by pointing out the experimental aspects as “original.” This tends to make any experimentation come across as a good thing in my reviews (when I’m being lazy).
One way I like to think of the messiness of experimentation in music is through an analogy to other arts, even though the analogy isn’t perfect or historically accurate. One could say that abstraction techniques in painting arose in part due to an identity crisis. Early paintings were very much about accuracy and representation of the world: portraits, landscapes, still lifes, etc. Probably in part due to the birth of photography (though it started a bit earlier), painters needed to add a human element to be able to justify its purpose. “The Weeping Woman” by Picasso may be a portrait, but it deviates from an accurate depiction of the woman in order to more powerfully portray her emotional state. A perfect picture of the woman couldn’t capture the tragedy and suffering so well. What I’m trying to say is that painters realized they could experiment in order to filter something through a point of view to create a messier, more human art.
Music usually lacks a subject, so in some sense the starting point is closer to abstract expressionism in painting. Strangely, music tends to be more rigid than painting for various reasons usually involving time. If your song is in 4/4, it is very difficult to make something sound messy, because members of a band are locked in an orderly pattern. One way to add a messy, human element is change up the time signature. This gets us to a value judgement. Take a stereotypical progressive metal band, Between the Buried and Me, for example. Often their use of varied time signatures comes across as tidy, carefully planned, and gimmicky. This is an example of bad experimentation, because it doesn’t fulfill its purpose of making something sound original, messy, or unexpected. Say what you will about Behold… the Arctopus, but at least they fulfill their purpose of experimenting with time to disorient the listener.
This brings us back to an earlier point. We can judge the experimentation on whether it fulfills its purpose. Theodor Adorno has probably written and thought about experimentation in music more than any other person. One of my favorite points of criticism from him is his explanation of how terrible it is when the sound of music is in contradiction with its purpose. He uses as an example Joan Baez singing protest music against the Vietnam War. She completely undermines her point about the senseless, incomprehensible violence of war by wrapping the song in a neat, easily digestible pop song. How can making war palatable possibly fulfill the purpose of a song that war is not palatable?
A great example of a metal album in which the sound fulfilled its purpose is At the Gates’ With Fear I Kiss the Burning Darkness. It isn’t quite experimental in the sense we’ve been discussing, but it serves as an example of metal where the sound reinforces the content (which, let’s be honest, was an important factor in much early death metal). We’ve reverted to easy cases again. Before tackling the hardest cases, I think one easy-to-spot bad thing is what I call an “experimentation poseur.” The album is fairly boring and uninventive, so the band tries to hide this and appeal to a certain crowd by throwing in some experimentation. Not only does this cover-up not work, it is embarrassing, because it is so obvious to an intelligent listener that you are trying to fool them. Something like Buckethead, Iwrestledabearonce, or much that self-identifies as “mathcore” work for examples. Harder cases are Jute Gyte, Psyopus, Behold… the Arctopus, and Cloak of Altering. These bands are uncompromising in their difficulty throughout the whole album. They also appear to have something like a coherent and consistent aesthetic vision which differs vastly from other metal. As proof, give me a new track I’ve never heard from one of those four bands, and I will have no difficulty telling you which one wrote it.
I often hear the complaint that anyone can create an ugly mess of noise with no structure or feeling, reminiscent of the complaint that anyone can drizzle paint on a canvas like Pollack. We’ve already addressed why this is lazy criticism. But it is also intellectually dishonest, because I don’t think anyone but the most skilled musicians could copy these bands. Anyone that thinks they merely “dripped ink onto a staff” and played whatever happened hasn’t really listened to them, and frankly, is so disengaged from honest discussion that their opinions can be dismissed as irrelevant. They sound nothing like Milton Babbitt, for instance, which basically wrote music using a dice roll. This is not to say any of these band’s albums are good. Figuring this out is the point of the discussion: how can we tell? Hopefully those who were skeptical about the question originally can see its relevance now. I must come back to this idea of the pure aesthetic experience. Now I’ll reveal that I stacked the deck with these four choices. I think we can give rough tiers for each of these band’s most recent albums.
Psyopus tends to be absurd for the purpose of being absurd. This means they have a lot of internal inconsistencies in their sound and musical language. One moment they play fast chromatic riffs, the next they glissando up and down, the next they drone with a girl shouting. It tends to be all over the place with the only goal to be different or weird. This is not a high quality aesthetic experience. I’d level the same charge at Cloak of Altering, but a step up. He is a bit more consistent, and I think the album has more worth.
Jute Gyte is much better. His musical syntax is more internally consistent. After a few listens, the album makes sense within its context. It isn’t microtonal for the sake of being different, it’s microtonal because that is a deliberate and consistent aesthetic choice he makes. I’ll reiterate, you may not personally find the experience worthwhile, but it is justifiable as a work of experimental metal. This is the whole point of experimentation. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
I know, 90% of you just shit your pants and decided to leave the site forever, because I’m about to say that Behold… the Arctopus is the highest tier of this list. It would take another post as long as this one to make the argument, but the key idea is the same. They have a consistent tonality, sound, style, musical syntax, and so on which creates a coherent aesthetic experience. I have no problem with someone listening to it and saying, “Nope. Still a worthless waste of time,” in the same way that I have no problem with someone looking at a Rothko and saying, “Nope. That’s just rectangles, not worth looking at.” The thing is, art criticism is old enough and mature enough that someone can separate that personal reaction from the idea that Rothko had a legitimate aesthetic program.
Thinking about metal as art is a bit too new. We tend to treat our personal taste and reaction to an album as the final word. All this is to say, I think there are ways to tell the difference between crappy experimental metal which tries to dupe a certain crowd into praising them and legitimate experimental metal which has a concrete aesthetic program being carried out in earnest. It is an important step in treating metal as art to have serious discussions on the worth of various experimental bands, but we can’t do that if we get stuck in the mindset that all the ones we don’t like are equally bad.
Today we will visit the works of two great composers in their own right who were also the teachers, directly or indirectly, of other composers who are considered musical geniuses. These geniuses were Mozart and Beethoven after Haydn, and Webern and Berg after Schoenberg.
In a way, Haydn and Schoenberg represent opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of the relation between composer and society. Haydn was employed by the Esterhazy family for many years, serving as personal composer for their events and whims. An honored servant, making music in the styles fashionable to the aristocracy. Schoenberg, on the other hand, was a product of a much different era, a century and a half later, when composers had attained a position of independent eminence and power as a result of a process that had started in Mozart’s time and made more clear with Beethoven. Schoenberg’s attitude and music widened the gap between an artists pursuit of perfection and the audience’s taste and preferences. This, of course, was a result of larger historical processes and not the work of a composer; Schoenberg was a result of these, not a cause.
Franz Joseph Haydn: Seven Last Words of our Saviour on the Cross
Originally written for a classical orchestra as a commission for the Oratorio de la Santa Cueva in Spain, Haydn reworked this music intended as accompaniment for the mass as a string quartet at the petition of his publisher. Irrelevant here, but it is worth mentioning that the composer later adapted this work as an oratorio as well.
Arnold Schoenberg: String Quartet No. 2
Powerful and particularly lyrical in its melodies, this quartet is unusual in its use of a soprano in its last two movements. About this quartet, the composer says:
“I was inspired by poems of Stefan George, the German poet, to compose music to some of his poems and, surprisingly, without any expectation on my part, these songs showed a style quite different from everything I had written before.” – Arnold Schoenberg (1937)
The work uses a wide array of work tools, starting with a very late romantic feeling and moving into atonal experiments; the last movements in which all chromatic tones are used.
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.”
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Weinstein, D. (2000) Heavy metal: the music and its culture. Boulder, CO: Da Capo Press.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.