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.

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.

 

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Classical String Quartets for the death metal fan, a first look

circa 1800:  Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827), German composer, generally considered to be one of the greatest composers in the Western tradition.  (Photo by Henry Guttmann/Getty Images)shostakovich01

The purpose of this series is to present the death metal fan (and by extension, the death metal writer/artist/composer) with a look into great classical string quartets that evoke the same violent and stark atmosphere that is typical of death metal.

The metal fan is encouraged to look beyond superficial parallels or differences so that he realizes how these string quartets by master composers developed into a cornucopia of expressions, patterns and details. I wish this would also be an aspiration or at least an inspiration for the artist (or would-be artist) that has the chance of reading it.

Another good reason to listen to string quartets in general is that they tend to express a more sincere and private facet of the composer while also being a test to his prowess in composition.

Ludwig van Beethoven: Op. 133, Grosse Fuge

Originally written as the last movement of his Op. 130, String Quartet No. 13 in B flat major, this massive movement was once commented on by Stravinsky saying that it is “an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever.”. Stravinsky was referring to the absolute character of the music and its jarring disparity with temporal conventions.

 

Dmitry Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 10 in A flat, Op. 118

The well-known dark personality of Shostakovich’s compositions comes through in distilled and intensified manner in his string quartets. In here we find a mature Shostakovich channeling visions of a personal hell. We can imagine his will to fight through and see the light at the end of the tunnel despite facing terror and dread.

Thoughts on Obliveon’s Nemesis

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The first album by the virtuoso technical death metal Obliveon, From This Day Forward, is a highly recommended release. Intricate and sophisticated guitar riffs along with clear, bright, shining bass grooving lines that are not just the echo of the guitars really catches my attention. The whole album is evocative, setting the epitome for technical bands today.

Which brings me to the following considerations. I turned down the second album, Nemesis a few days ago merely because I couldn’t find what I liked when it came to Obliveon: interesting bass lines that are composed in a way in which it is obviously competing for center stage with the two guitars. All without being too boasting, or too technically-oriented for the sake of showing off.

This is the reason why I love From This Day Forward.

With disappointment and bewilderment, I judged Nemesis as an album of low quality song-writing. But after I went through the whole album again, I realized this conclusion was just naive and ridiculous. We can’t just say Nemesis lost the spirit and the original intention of the band, but more specifically that they worked on a different dimension to explore how the sound of Obliveon could go on.

You can hear more complicated and fantastic guitar riffs which are connected tightly together in the way of unprecedented reach. Of course, undoubtedly, the bass parts in Nemesis are not as catchy and flexible as before, ending up being the echo of the guitars. This apparently unreasonable (I assumed they would carry this character on forever) change even made me check whether the line-up was preserved between the two albums. But by appreciating the more sophisticated guitars that make you catch your breath at every moment, this album succeeds in bringing an intense experience for technical death metal fans..

Unfortunately, their second album does not seem to bring the same feeling of overall fulfillment as From This Day Forward. Maybe I did not explore or experience the album thoroughly, failing to catch what Nemesis is supposed to deliver as a whole.

Obscura and Osho

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If, like me, the reader has also purchased the latest reissue of Gorguts’ Obscura, he will find that the booklet’s back side is graced by the following quote by Osho:

The journey is long and the path is pathless and one has to be alone. There is no map and no one to guide. But there is no alternative. One cannot escape it, one cannot evade it. One has to go on the journey. The goal seems impossible but the urge to go on is intrinsic. The need is deep in the soul.

Although definitely not typical of a 1990s death metal record, these lines describe the drive that produced this almost accidental album. But aren’t all such savant releases at least partially accidental?

The spiritual and existentialist atmosphere that this quote evokes actually reflects the nature of the album as a whole and are in perfect alignment with its lyrics.

Some metal albums have beautiful lyrics accompanying the music. But the best albums bring sound and word together to shape a living entity that takes lodge in man’s heart.

Latest being drowned
In fictive degradation
Coming depression revolved
Around an Earth
Nostalgia excludes the whole

As spleen takes over me
Resound, the echoes of my threnodies
And then the fact of being
Has no longer meaning
The hymns of light
They’ll sing once I’ll be gone

Reverie appears cause
Existence collapse

Nostalgia
Sadness shall obnuilate

Sadness, feels, the desolated

Desperately lost within
Lament, pain and misery
The more lies burden lives,
The more I am dying
The realm of light
I’ll reach once I’ll…

Latest feeling drowned
In lucid contradiction
Coming relation revolved
Around a heart
Nostalgia excludes the whole

Remember the fallen (Adam Gadahn)

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Remember those who never had a chance. Like many of us, they grew up in a wasteland of broken families, pointless wage-slave jobs, hippie ideals and grim social collapse mundanities, a utopia of fond visions and a dystopia of nightmarish collisions with the reality those denied. They had nothing to look forward to but a mortgage in the burbs, a family ending in divorce, and a society which systematically disregards the beautiful and zeroes in on the failed, the corrupt and the deceptive. A world coated in advertising and saturated with deceit.

It is my unfortunate duty to relay to you that Adam Gadahn, a metalhead and devout fan of Incantation and Timeghoul, passed away in January by drone strike. As the lapdog media relates:

Officials also announced that a separate strike killed Adam Gadahn, an American who became a prominent propagandist for al Qaeda, was close to Osama bin Laden, and had a $1 million bounty on his head. The deaths bring to seven the number of Americans killed in drone strikes, six of them inadvertently.

The White House said it was unaware the four were present at the sites, which were hit on Jan. 14 and Jan. 19 near the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. President Barack Obama apologized to the families of the hostages and said he took full responsibility as commander in chief.

This conflict is beyond politics. Yes, we have divided into factions but no, that is not our problem. Our problem rebirths itself time and again because it is within. We have become rotten, whores to our own independence and manipulators so canny we have even fooled ourselves. This civilization has sold itself snake oil for centuries and the result is the continual destruction of those with spirit, sensitivity and the guts to do something about it. Those who conform, lower standards and follow trends always win. This is the source of evil the real thing, as opposed to the supernatural scapegoat that the credulous choose to believe exists.

Evil is real. Its name is error, and all error consists of separating our expectations from reality. That eventually becomes a devotion to lying about the split between mental image and the world beyond, at which point we retreat into a fantasy existence of mental projection, desires and emotions. As a wise poet once said:

Take your instinct by the reins
You’d better best to rearrange
What we want and what we need
Has been confused, been confused

We are confused. Our wars no longer advance anything but the defense of the status quo, and all of us hate that. We all admit the problem is morons and that 90% of everything sucks, but no one is willing to get past the sacred cows lest some opportunist step up and whip up a lynch mob to tear down the heretic. “The nerve of that guy — he said our society is actually failing. What a rube!”

Above you can see a letter written by Gadahn back in the day. It contains some of his opinions on death metal and literature. He had great taste in metal, came from a broken home in a broken time, and did his best. Rest in peace, Adam.