Why Hellhammer’s Satanic Rites is possibly the most important metal record ever made

hellhammer-satanic_ritesMost people place the birth of black and death metal somewhere between Venom’s first album Welcome to Hell (1981) and Bathory’s third full-length Under the Sign of the Black Mark (1987). The exact moment of divergence from ancestors depends on the speaker’s level of metal puritanism and their favorite albums are from that era, and can sometimes seem a trivial dichotomy. Moot though it may be, my pick for the first discernible piece of death/black metal music is also, more importantly, the moment at which metal realizes it can be more than just warmed-over rock music.

Tom Warrior and co will forever be canonised in the metal pantheon for the early Hellhammer and Celtic Frost releases, which collectively shaped the sound of metal in a way that is only really matched by Slayer (who were probably influenced by Hellhammer in their change of sound between Show no Mercy and Haunting the Chapel). The first couple of Hellhammer demos however were only really third rate crust punk/Venom rip off played by three young guys who didn’t really know what they were doing. With the third demo and the introduction of Martin Ain to the writing team though, Hellhammer began introducing ideas that weren’t immediately noticed or appreciated by the rest of the world, prompting the band to less than twelve months later reconstitute itself as Celtic Frost and spend most of the next three decades trying to bury the Hellhammer name and the material associated with it.

Many of the tracks on Satanic Rites are in much the same vein as the first two demos, although better played and with greater surety about the morbid chromatic rock riffs. However, with “Buried and Forgotten,” and to a slightly lesser extent “Triumph of Death,” there is a real ‘eureka’ moment. Verse-chorus-verse, single groove writing gives way to longer structures that piece together like musical jigsaw puzzles, reminiscent of the best moments of Black Sabbath made more twisted and involving. The grimmer, more elemental, less blues-rocky riffs of Hellhammer also hint at emergent melodic shapes, whose detail unfurls piecemeal over the course of the track.

“Buried and Forgotten” for a little over two and half minutes builds one riff atop another towards an emotional plateau, each one referencing some element (however small) of the one that preceded it. The rest of the track then recombines and repeats all the material amassed over the course of the opening part, changing the order of and implied relationship between riffs. All except one slightly dodgy contrasting riff towards the end (which stands out by a mile), is built out of the same basic pool of ideas, and so each can be moved about and fit back together again as they are and create a neat, logical song structure.

This streamlined song-writing mentality also filters down quite brilliantly into the track “Messiah,” which is probably the most well-known, heavily covered Hellhammer song, and a borderline genius exercise in metal song-writing fundamentalism. Effectively the entire song is crafted out of one interval (the space between two notes, denoting their relationship to each other): a minor 2nd (or semitone), the smallest interval in regular Western music. Everything from the ponderous two-note verse riff, to the creeping chorus motif of four descending consecutive semitones, to the brief bridge section made up of the same rumbling low E that drives the verse and a major 7th above that (which, deceptively, is just an inversion of a minor 2nd, and so basically the same note relationship as nearly everything that has come before it in the song).

All of a sudden the focus shifted from form (and the resulting dramatic arc it creates) as something that comes from solely juxtaposing contrasting elements, to something that can grow out of only a tiny number of ideas, and through clever variation and development can became something much more journey-like. This makes this music unlike rock, jazz and more recent false-metal, and more like a Beethoven symphony or a Bach fugue. Needless to say, I’m not suggesting for a moment that Hellhammer is equal to the work of Bach. What I am saying however is that both classical music and the more inspired moments of this demo proceed from a similar sort of underlying sense of elegance in developing things methodically out of smaller details into bigger, consistent ideas.

The version of “Triumph of Death” on this demo is inferior to the one on Apocalyptic Raids (which has, surely, one of the greatest metal vocal performances anywhere, ever) and as far as Celtic Frost/Hellhamer goes my favourite work is probably To Mega Therion. Still, it’s hard to understate just how important this demo and the ideas it set in motion are to all of the metal that has followed it. Underground metal not only became scarier, heavier and less po-faced after Hellhammer, but from this demo (and the Celtic Frost/Hellhammer works that followed it) metal inherited a paradigm that enabled the construction of more complex, distinctive songs and would come to define underground metal.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MsJ1I1cL_NY

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The enduring brilliance of Varathron’s His Majesty at the Swamp

varathron-his_majesty_at_the_swampHad I encountered this album in the early days of my journey of metal discovery I probably would’ve dismissed it as boring. True enough, this album does get a bit samey and the production doesn’t really help things by being quite plain and unadorned. What this album does have going for it – and what certifies it a classic, is its patient and utterly logical riff writing.

Taking the tradition as laid down by Hellhammer/Celtic Frost (more on that next week), each new musical idea on this album proceeds from a blueprint motif/riff that drives the whole track and makes each change sound like a clear and meaningful development from the one that preceded it. Most of the tracks remain in the one key for more or less their entire duration, whilst introducing a sparing and arguably quite Classical (Haydn, Mozart) sense of chromaticism at specific points to colour passing harmonic regions and create the necessary dramatic arc in the track. Being largely monodic though, it skirts the line between evocative ancient-feeling, modal style melody and more Classical structure-centric writing.

For example, Son of the Moon first deviates from its blueprint Aeolian/natural minor by introducing a riff with a # 3rd, returns to the Aeolian melodic shape and then introduces a riff with a raised 4th – two very typically Classical bits of chromaticism that colour regions related by the circle of fifths (a system that explains keys relationships and how to change key coherently) yet also, in the way they are used, give the riff a folkish/modal feel. They also come at just the right moment in the track, when the initial idea has been very much established and it’s time to reveal a bit of conflict and ambiguity. True to the narrative structural approach the track has been leading us along, what follows is a riff that returns to the Aeolian basis, responding to the ‘conflict section’ and expanding the original melodic idea. A properly satisfying emotional resolution is delayed until the very end of the track, yet even then, in typically metal form, the sensation it leaves the listener with is one reminding them that the journey goes ever on – rather than offering up a neat ‘happily ever after’ cadence, the way a pop song or even a piece of Classical music would be expected to end with.

The fact that the production comes with no proverbial bells and whistles means all the more that the riffcraft is laid bare and made the main focus of the listener’s attention. Melodically a lot of the album is very simple, and it really doesn’t stretch itself in terms of speed, variety or technicality, but it does what it does very well, revealing the essentiality of metal song writing in a relatively calm and assured way.

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The enduring beauty of Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism

immortal-diabolical_fullmoon_mysticismThis week I have mostly been listening to…. Immortal – Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism

Less often cited as a classic than the follow up, Pure Holocaust, Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism is still to my mind one of the gems of second wave black metal. Some of the transitions between riffs/themes are a bit ragged, and the drummer is clearly not up to much of a standard playing-wise, but there’s great charm in this album, and some real magic about the riff-craft at work on it.

Riff-wise, this album is not fully black metal, but borrows heavily from death metal, although the band covers the fact with a cavernous production and droning under parts. Unlike the straightforward melodic approach of black metal the bulk of these riffs are composed in two parts: a modal/chromatic melodic part that becomes more detailed with iteration, and a counter-part that responds to the first idea at a lower register with an oppositional retort. ‘Epic’ moments are generally more straightforwardly black metal – single-motif melodic ideas with plenty of yearning, emotive harmonies.

The interplay between the epic bits and the controlled-chaos parts are really where this album shows what it’s about – an icy warrior outlook that turns whirlwinds of strife into the joy of the fight and the triumph of cosmic forces.

Musically this is also where things can become a bit rough sounding. Sometimes it works really well – Like around the 3/4 minute mark in “A Perfect Vision of the Rising Northland,” where themes from the chaotic/violent moments intermingle and then separate again to create an excellent fist-in-the-air, hair-flying-in-the-wind sort of moment. Other times, there’s only a steep drop off from one theme to the next; which is a little less satisfying even if the production does a decent job of smoothing over the edges (see certain moments in “Call of the Wintermoon” and “Unholy Forces of Evil” – less obvious when you’re just letting the mood of the music take you along, but a bit more noticeable when you’re listening more intently. Contrarily though, “Unholy Forces of Evil” is probably a better track on the whole than “A Perfect Vision”…).

This style of riff writing disappears somewhat on the following two (more melodic-riff centred) albums, but makes a return on Blizzard Beasts – which, although also a good album, wears the death metal influence in less of an understated way, taking away from some of the mysteriousness that made the first album special. Unlike with some of the other prominent Nordic second-wavers (Darkthrone, Mayhem, Burzum) I can’t immediately think of anyone who successfully and completely took on Immortal’s early riff writing style (although Averse Sefira’s latter two albums sound like they might’ve been at least partly influenced). Perhaps this is down to the more technical/complex nature of the band’s sound when compared to that of their peers, and the hyperactive, difficult-to-repeat playing style of Demonaz. As well as being a quality album then, Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism is also an interesting hint at where black metal might’ve gone had it stuck closer to death metal ideas of riff creation.

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Black Sabbath – God is Dead?

black_sabbath-nihilismLost in the darkness
I fade from the light
Faith of my father, my brother, my Maker and Savior
Help me make it through the night
Blood on my conscience
And murder in mind
Out of the gloom I rise up from my tomb into impending doom
Now my body is my shrine

The blood runs free
The rain turns red
Give me the wine
You keep the bread
The voices echo in my head
Is God alive or is God dead?
Is God dead?

Rivers of evil
Run through dying land
Swimming in sorrow, they kill, steal, and borrow. There is no tomorrow
For the sinners will be damned
Ashes to ashes
You cannot exhume a soul
Who do you trust when corruption and lust, creed of all the unjust,
Leaves you empty and unwhole?

When will this nightmare be over? Tell me!
When can I empty my head?
Will somebody tell me the answer?
Is God really dead?
Is God really dead?

To safeguard my philosophy
Until my dying breath
I transfer from reality
Into a mental death
I empathize with enemy
Until the timing’s right
With God and Satan at my side
From darkness will come light

I watch the rain
And it turns red
Give me more wine
I don’t need bread
These riddles that live in my head
I don’t believe that God is dead
God is dead

Nowhere to run
Nowhere to hide
Wondering if we will meet again
On the other side
Do you believe a word
what the Good Book said?
Or is it just a holy fairytale
And God is dead?
God is Dead x4

Right!

But still the voices in my head
Are telling me that god is dead
The blood pours down
The rain turns red
I don’t believe that God is dead
God is Dead x4

Lyrically, it reminds me of “After Forever” but a bit more world-weary. Musically, it contains several allusions to past Sabbath and solo work by its members.

Thematically, it seems to me a response to black metal. Was Nietzsche’s target God, or our tendency to say nice things to each other and conceal the essential truth of the challenges before us? There are often many problems, but one root cause. If you don’t strike at that root cause, you get lost. If the problem is man, and not God, and society (collection of humans) instead of some external scapegoat, then we have a greater struggle than can be fixed by burning churches.

Black metal was purely Nietzschean in that it rejected the idea of a moral society and replaced it with the notion that the natural order of Darwinism produced better results. All of the Nietzschean tropes come out: praise of winter, of hardness, of privation, of wolves and of combat and struggle.

Black metal faltered in the mid-1990s when the bands realized that they might have missed their real target, which is something more like people socializing with each other and thus concealing unpleasant truths. While there are other intermediate and proximate causes of the problems we find it this world, the root cause often gets overlooked. That isn’t to say those other causes are good, or shouldn’t be fought in some form or another, just that they’re not the cause.

Black Sabbath is asking “Is God Dead?” and responding in the negative, pointing out that perhaps that last fifteen years of metal have been barking up the wrong tree. The first half of the song is questioning and self-centered, a personal drama. The second half, after the question is posed, is a thunderous rejoinder. The song splits on themes: the wine, the voices that fill the head (he cannot “empty his head”), the lack of any holiness outside the body that is the shrine, and the sense of a “mental death.” On the other hand, there is belief, a pervasive sense of something not fitting together with the narrative of the voices in his head.

Much is left ambiguous by this. “With God and Satan at my side” suggests a type of esotericism that mainstream Christianity will not embrace, and although there are references to the “Good Book,” a particular denominator has not been mentioned. However, the conflict between logic and intuition rises strongly in this song. On one side, there are empirical forces at work; on the other, instinct and a gut feeling. The song ultimately concludes with the idea that God is not dead.

And all of this happens under a banner formed of (a) a dour Friedrich Nietzsche and (b) a nuclear blast. This reminds me of not only black metal’s Nietzscheanism, but its apocalyptic viewpoint. In bad times, people start to get serious again about what they’re doing. Part of getting serious was, at least for black metal and probably for old Black Sabbath, rejecting what is popular and social.

Black metal is uncompromisingly against what makes people comfortable. In Until the Light Takes Us, musicians from Burzum and Darkthrone describe how they tried to get “bad” production for their music, to make it sound old and rotted. How they embraced evil imagery and acted out the most extreme things possible. This wasn’t a rejection of Christianity; it was a rejection of the social impulse behind civilization that prizes what looks/feels good to a group, to what is true — something that generally can be known by only a few, in the Nietzschean sense of the “apex predators” who have through natural selection risen above the rest and can see through a noble light how aggression is central to life.

Black metal may be anti-Christian, but more, it’s about the potentially mind-warping effects of socializing with others. Black Sabbath seems to be suggesting a new direction, which is less toward atheism and Nietzsche, and more toward sacrality, to which black metal might then respond that sacredness itself is what gets destroyed by socializing with others and obscuring the truth. This mirrors where a lot of the black metal guys went after the movement — Beherit to Buddhism, Darkthrone to cosmic space music, Varg to esoteric nationalism, the Graveland guys to folk music, and many others moving on to esoteric sounds like Jaaportit or Vinterriket.

Although they’d probably kill me for saying this, black metal people are generally the most religious people in the room. They believe that life is sacred, that forests are sacred, and that if nature is “red in tooth and claw” and life is “nasty, brutish and short,” that these are manifestations of the divine as well. Far from being “god is dead” people, black metal musicians strike me as being “we are worshipping the wrong god” people.

Hegel would argue that history moves through new ideas, their opposites, and compromises (synthesis). I would argue that history moves by the ideas created through a type of play acted out by characters representing extremes. In this, black metal shows us the antisocial, and Black Sabbath comes out for the sacred; the two will find common ground, because metal is ultimately sacred music. It worships power, death, nature and violence while others prefer pretty flowers and prancing kittens, but only one of those two perspectives embraces all of reality, while the other requires a social filter to merely exist. Black Sabbath and black metal are united in their dislike of that social filter.

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Album covers: In the Nightside Eclipse

emperor-in_the_nightside_eclipse

Inspired by Bosch, Dürer and Caspar David Friedrich, Kristian “Necrolord” Wåhlin has painted album covers for shiploads of underground bands since the early 90s (Therion and Dissection among others), but his most important and most striking contribution is probably the cover of Emperor’s In the Nightside Eclipse (1994).

altdorfer-battle_of_issusSome of its style and composition takes me back to Albrecht Altdorfer’s anachronistic oil painting The Battle of Alexander at Issus (1529), but true to the bleak genre of black metal the cover of ItNE is practically monochrome, which is rather typical of Wåhlin’s paintings at large (as seen in his paintings for Sacramentum’s Far Away From the Sun and Dark Funeral’s The Secrets of the Black Arts).

Wåhlin nevertheless manages to capture much of the grandeur sought by Emperor in those days. He allows us to delve in a detailed landscape of rugged forests, cold mountains and an army of monsters seemingly popping out of the ground in a setting of strange angles and charmingly inconsistent perspectives. High above, emanating from a crack in the clouds, Death sweeps his scythe across the sky, resonating the lofty keyboard phrases in the music of this album. The whole scene is awash in the light of the moon, gazing at us like a gate to eternity (try to outstare it during the finale of Inno a Satana …). The incorporation of Death seems to have been a way of providing a sense of iconic continuation, referring back to Emperor’s début EP which depicted a section of Gustave Doré’s engraving Death on a Pale Horse (Revelation). (The use of old engravings – especially those of Doré – seems a favourite means of visual expression in the universe of Emperor.)

kupka_resistanceI always assumed that the otherworldly castle and the winding path leading to it were reminiscent of that of a certain bloodsucking count. This is probably no coincidence: have a look at the lyrics of the song Beyond the Great Vast Forest. Not only does it refer to Werner Herzog’s film Nosferatu (1979); parts of the story of the over-the-top film Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) – which was immensely popular around the time of ItNE’s inception – had also found its way into the lyrics, and the solitary structure of that film’s castle and its inspiration, František Kupka’s The Black Idol (1903), somewhat parallels the idea of the castle on display here.

Ultimately, the cover of In the Nightside Eclipse confirms the nature of its music as slightly cheesy yet chillingly sincere, a satisfying visual representation of one of the best albums of the genre.

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Music doesn’t need to be explained.

“Things that are genuinely sublime speak for themselves.”

ideological_zombiesOnce upon a time I used to cringe whenever I read interviews with my favorite metal musicians, as no matter how well they started they would almost always lead up to the same sort of question and the same disappointing response. Something along the lines of: “What did you mean by this song/album?” followed by “It’s up to the listener to decide what it means.”

This is a stock response almost across the board in metal (from the brainless to the most inspired of bands) and it used to annoy me. After all the effort I was putting in trying to convince people that metal was a legitimate and thoughtful art-form, whose creators are both articulate and deliberate, it would all be undone in one swift blow by what sounded to me like an under-confident and poorly thought-out response.

Was it embarrassment at talking about their motivations? Or a lack of deliberation over the creative process (which just didn’t seem true at all when I listened to the music)? This kind of off-hand, Hallmark-card relativism belonged in rock & pop, where the music really is an empty vessel for the listener to paste in their own experiences and fantasies, but not in metal.

Surely metal bands didn’t believe this of their own work — that their decision to come to this outsider genre, to innovate and/or fervently uphold an enshrined sense of metalness against a society that wanted to assimilate, emasculate and repackage it, the meandering music and reference-laden lyrics — none of it had any significance outside of whatever the listener felt like, however trivial or stupid?

I now get that I was looking at it wrong. It’s not that the listener gets to choose what the work means, but that they must explore it in order to find its meaning. This is a standard approach toward learning called esotericism, which means simply that the learner advances as his or her own pace, and without that readiness in the listener, more cannot “be taught.”

What they do not need is to be told what it means and how to think about it. Long-winded explanations kill the sense of mystery that’s inherent to good metal. In the same way that reading Quorthon explain how the guitars on Blood Fire Death were recorded in the toilet of a garage kind of dampens the mythical, Viking warrior image of that album, too much talk about the background mental processes that go into any piece of art takes away from actually experiencing the art itself. Things that are genuinely sublime don’t need too much explanation, they speak for themselves.

The nerd in me will always enjoy finding out about how and why something was made the way it was. But unlike, say, cathedral architecture, metal doesn’t really have generations of pedagogical artistic and academic development behind it that a person can study and still be filled with a sense of how awesome it is that human endeavor conspired to make it possible.

Even when there is this kind of background to an art-form, it probably only benefits those of a technical mind to find out about how and why something is done. It’s a bit of a Promethean bargain, in which you lose the sense of wonderment in order to find out how to recreate or add to it. Metal is a relatively young genre of music with murky origins and a strange streak of conservatism about it, combating a world that is at various levels hostile or antithetical yet constantly influxing it with new, clueless people looking to join in and take ownership of it.

Amongst newbies misunderstandings will always abound, and whilst it could be argued that clearer explanation by bands of what their work stands for might stop some of this, the opposite might also be the case.

The inverse of metal is the modern art world, which with its aptly sterile settings (the white walls and straight, squared lines of a typical pretentious art gallery) has decided that the explanations are more important than the quality of the work. A turd in a tin can, a cow sawed in half or a semen-streaked bed can all pass as acceptable art, provided they are accompanied by an essay qualifying the artist’s ‘creative’ decisions.

This is where the likes of Liturgy are approaching metal from – a liberal arts background that name-checks all the right theories and schools, and values the backwards relationship between aesthetics and explanation espoused by modern art. Bands like this show us that some people are only ever going to be interested in using metal as window-dressing for their own social posturing, and that too much intellectual naval-gazing (of which there has been a lot over black metal, although not necessarily by the bands themselves) helps attract the sort who are interested in appearing clever without making anything clever.

Being a hessian does not necessarily mean being caveman thick when it comes to understanding or articulating the genre’s purpose and intentions; but something of metal’s primal energy definitely gets lost in too much chin-stroking, as well as in directing people too much to the source or meaning of it all.

Music although underpinned by logical systems is not an entirely rational process, but a visceral one; which is not to diminish rationalizing things, but to say that ultimately art needs to be this way in order to work as it does – it needs the sense of release from talking about stuff in order to express that which is both inexpressible and more than the sum of the parts.

Similarly, life as a whole is more like a journey than an exam study session; the motives and end-point are never always clear, but the actual act of going on the adventure and finding for oneself how to place things within their context is much more fulfilling than being told by someone else what it’s all supposed to mean.

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A Legend Out of Control

Bathory’s relation to the band’s fanbase is an infected story of contradictory interests concerning very human desires for truth and meaning. Oftentimes fans and creator pulled in opposite directions, fighting over whether to leave the Bathory mask on or reveal Bathory’s inner workings.

Debuting in 1984, Bathory’s cult status was rapidly acknowledged in the musical underground. But during a long time a certain air of mystery surrounded the band. It seemed beyond time, beyond space, and even out of national context (to a Swedish person this Stockholm wonder didn’t seem as typically Swedish as many of the later Death Metal bands). In general, main man Quorthon kept to himself, few pictures of the band existed, and there were hardly any live gigs at all, in particular once the music got closer to Wagner than to Motörhead. Bathory took one heavy metal tradition to extremes: it created a mythos out of nothing more than a few cover images and an interview or two. This obscure and ambiguous myth bound people together. They wanted to live out this vision as they found it more appealing than their world. When the fanbase went looking for answers, and found little else but songs of evil, darkness, destruction and conspiracies with Satan, imaginations ran wild and filled in the gaps with what they wanted to see, not what they saw.

People have a desire for continuity in an individual’s past. In this case, that desire was expressed among metal fans by trying to explain Bathory’s music through references to a heavy influence from a band which prior to Bathory was seen as the most extreme: Venom. In several interviews Quorthon himself has denied any Venom influence, but in many biographies the memory of early Bathory as a Venom clone is nevertheless quite persistent. (According to Quorthon, his main influences were Black Sabbath, Motörhead, The Exploited, and GBH, and later on Wagner, Beethoven, and Haydn among others.)

The will to interpret Bathory’s music as a logical continuation of Venom, and accordingly seek out a sense of “eternity” in the genre which these two bands (among others) officially created in the earliest of times, is hardly surprising. A consistent pattern which suggests some sort of intention is simply more attractive than a chaotic mess of a genesis produced by two groups entirely unknown to each other.

It is, however, easy to recognize among the authors of reviews of early Bathory albums an aspiration towards and an acknowledgement of a distinct identity of the band and its founder. Regarding Bathory’s self-titled debut album and its follow-up, a mantra is repeated: these records are the starting point for a whole genre and Quorthon is its first hero. This is, so to speak, the creation myth associated with Bathory.

Repetition of this myth is presumably what makes it go beyond historicity and is what makes it timeless. It’s a way for a metal fan to not only “create” Bathory, but also be a part of the phenomenon. Even repeated listens to Blood Fire Death is a repetition of a mythical Now, which gives us a sort of “vertical anchoring.” If myth is a celebration of life, a summary of the Past in the Now, then this is certainly what Bathory is to the band’s followers.

Quorthon himself seems to have had an enormous respect for the mythical power of Bathory. Referring to his fanbase as “The Bathory Hordes”, he tried to reach out to it in order to receive answers on how to deal with this beast:

[…] send me a letter of what you think, what you would want us to do in the future […] Remember, it is you the fans out there on whom we depend on. […] Stay united and may the northstar shine on you all, keep metal at heart!!

This kind of democratization most likely rendered him unable to control the myth of the band. As Quorthon “grew out” of Satanism, and myths surrounding his persona still insisted on his being a demonic devil worshipper, he wanted to set the record straight. And this is where things get interesting.

In 1996, Bathory released Blood On Ice, a retro album with liner notes containing a lengthy exposition on the band’s early history. Presumably, Quorthon had wished to update his biography and rid it of the misconceptions that according to him were abundant in the metal world, but it was probably also a way to pay tribute to the legend by contributing to it with a few “behind the scenes” stories.

This, however, proved to be a serious miscalculation of what the fans wanted. The unmasking threatened the consistent cultural memory of Bathory. And reactions weren’t long in coming: fans spoke of sacrilege and treachery in the many letters that were sent to Quorthon as a direct reaction to the liner notes. The memory of Bathory was now to a great extent a social concern and no longer only the creation of one man. Quorthon writes:

I realized then more than ever before that BATHORY was surrounded by the same sort of stuff only legends are made from. The element of mystery and suspense was still very important to a lot of die-hard BATHORY fans. [The truth] didn’t suit the image that a lot people had of BATHORY or myself.

Quorthon died in June 2004, but shortly before his death he founded an official Bathory website in which he denies the old image of himself as someone who eats children, drinks blood, and lives in a cage, an image that apparently still needed to be denied. Quorthon tells of an interview many years after he abandoned his satanic image: despite the time that had passed, he was still expected to pose for a photo session with pentagrams, skulls and cobweb.

Ironically, many fans have as of recently noted that Quorthon himself tampered with the truth quite deliberately. The iconic Bathory goat – which has become a sort of identity marker among fans – is, according to Quorthon, a collage created out of bits and pieces “from several horror comic magazines”. In fact, the goat is taken from a finished illustration in a book on witches from 1981. It wasn’t until 2007 that the originator, Joseph A. Smith, got to know that his drawings had been used as subject matter for tattoos and the like all around the world for decades. It also turns out that the lyrics and title to Bathory’s “For All Those Who Died” is more or less stolen from a feminist poem by Erica Jong.

The legacy of Bathory will nevertheless die hard. Quorthon created a legend so powerful neither he nor its fans could control it, an art that hovers above independently of its creator and its receivers. Yet we shouldn’t forget the core quality of its longevity: Quorthon’s compositions. These are what will always create very much alive “elements of mystery and suspense” in the mind of the listener. That’s where the magic happens. Hence the art of Bathory is stronger than both the fans’ myth-making and Quorthon’s myth-busting.

Going through Bathory’s albums again, experiencing the passionate evil melody of “The Return of the Darkness and Evil” or the haunting existential angst of “Twilight of the Gods,” they contain the same everlasting power they ever did and is what makes Bathory eternal. The mask is put back on. Continuity reappears and everything returns.

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If Metal was a Painting

Les_Demoiselles_d'AvignonThe other day I looked up Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. I had seen it before a couple of times and heard it was important. It’s basically some chicks from a brothel with bodies deformed by Pablo’s furious brushstrokes, eyes staring at you uncomfortably and somewhat comically. A painting central to the evolution of Cubism, apparently. The point is that this is where visual art collapsed. The year was 1907; the nightmarish figures of modern art had already been around for decades, but now all traditional assumptions had to be annihilated, paving the way for all modern things to come – for all things post-modern as well. In hindsight, it’s simply the putrefaction of dying tradition doing its job. And we understand you, Pablo; you, the genius, had to show us what this meant, you had to show us the horrors of having no perspective at all. (How do we even start looking at a woman with two and a half arms?) Comedy aside, make no mistake: Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is sheer terror. As such, it suffices, it does what it should – it works. Those disconnected shapes told of all modern art to come, avoiding conformity to the most extreme degree.

But as with all such experiments, it fails to tell a story. It’s easy to point fingers at modern art because of its apparent ugliness, but its real weakness is that it’s a simple cry in the dark. Yes, the modern world leaves quite a few existential challenges for man to take on, but making your art as pointless as you perceive the world will make us all end up in a downward spiral. If you have something to tell the rest of us, then wrap it up properly and share the experience. You can’t do that with a “perspectiveless” experiment. But that is, unfortunately, how modern and much of contemporary art has interpreted the world.

(Now, I’m no expert when it comes to modern art and I have no problem saying that all modern art is not crap. But when you’ve come to understand its overall idea, you don’t have to be an expert to dismiss it. As with jazz, the very idea behind modern art is “faulty”, which is why the probability of finding beauty among the rubbish is very modest.)

Heavy metal music chose a different path. Black Sabbath knew the world was not all beer and skittles when they recorded their first album, but they weren’t crybabies either. They didn’t, like Picasso, make an experiment based on how we have nothing to base things on. Instead, they told a mysterious and intriguing tale of what the world had become. Following in their footsteps, bands like Slayer, Deicide and Emperor put all this ugliness in musical narratives which in themselves were paradoxically beautiful. Not as direct mirrors of our world and society, but as stories with a glimmer of excitement.

This is how metal music rediscovered tradition, a tradition of storytellers who have supported our souls through the ages, from Homer to Bach to Rembrandt to old men by a fire in a small hut in a murky forest. Metal was chaotic, especially at a glance, but underneath it all was a spirit that believed in life. This way metal music created a resonant mythos for people in the postmodern era.

But finding tradition seems a happy coincidence in this case, or, more likely, something which metal music realized only through sheer necessity. Deliberately reinventing tradition in art isn’t always a good idea. It has been tried before, and in my experience the results are actually worse than a cry in the dark. If we go back to the visual modern arts and look across the spectrum from Picasso’s wild experiments to the opposite side, we find (among others) the Academics, like William-Adolphe Bouguereau. This is from the wow-I-can-definitely-see-what-it-depicts-but-it’s-boring-me-to-tears school of art. It has no urgency. Great art is almost by necessity always inspired by personal experience in the world and time we live in. Trying to remove yourself from it will turn the art into stories about virtually nothing. And that’s what we see in Bouguereau. An artist trained in the old school, with all the craft of tradition but none of the spirit gained from experience. That experience doesn’t need to be one of terror, but giving an artwork weight demands an ability to pick up what is going on around you and inside you. And we are not talking socio-political particularities here, but an existential understanding. What does it mean to be human during this time and this place?

One may find it hard to believe that the musicians of the most extreme bands in existence ever thought about this, and perhaps many of them never did. But somehow their instincts have sniffed in the air the feelings of the time, remolded it in their heads and had their guitars resound of what it tells – even if they motivate it by, “Listen to this sound, man, it’s awesome!” The artist is told something about the world, and tells it back to us. Bouguereau in comparison sure makes fancy wallpaper, but it’s anything but awesome – it’s lifeless.

Metal music, then, builds anew in accordance with a tradition that the Academics only very superficially mimicked. It also sees much of the same things Picasso saw, but while he screamed with pathetic terror, metal screams with delight.

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Outsiderness in heavy metal

The world has never forgiven metal for being an outsider. Since the dawn of its creation, metal has not gone along with the love songs, hippie values and cheerful oblivion of the rock/pop crowd.

When other bands were singing about flowers in their hair and how peace would save the world, Black Sabbath — inspired by horror films, which have similar themes and sound — took a view that could only be described as “heavy” and thus as unpopular, inevitably outsider.

Much like Galileo centuries before, Black Sabbath upended the human cosmos. Most people saw themselves as the center of the universe, and their individual desires and concerns as important.

Heavy metal smashed all that down by viewing humanity like microbes on a microscope slide. We are tiny, insignificant, and battered by the winds of history, in its view. The highest goal is not some callow happiness, but to fight with honor for glory!

This sentiment shows up throughout metal in many genres. This is music for war, death and evil. It is music that recognizes hatred and cruelty as a necessary part of the dark half of the human soul. It is natural music, as natural as a predator crushing its adorable prey.

Naturally, this is very offensive to some people.

In the 1980s and 1990s, their response was to try to ban metal, first for sex, drugs and Satan, and next for politically unacceptable speech. Starting in the 2000s they found a better way to smash it: assimilate it.

Their method is simple. They make bands that sound like metal, but are compositionally closer to mainstream rock music. That way people stop seeing a difference between the two, and metal vanishes, replaced by rock music.

This brings us to “indie rock.” In the early 1980s, people used the term to refer to any DIY rock bands, most of which emerged from the DIY punk movement of the previous decade. Because of the punk influence and outlook, most of these bands sounded similar.

Indie bands use punk riffs and power chords, tend toward minor key droning, have a little bit more country and folk music in them, and are less consumer-oriented. Where the big bands sing about politics and getting laid, indie rock sings about being alone and confused.

If big rock ‘n’ roll makes perfect consumers, indie rock does even better. It makes people who pity themselves and need a lifestyle with lots of products to buy in order to fit in. Do all indie people collect records, buy nostalgia toys, and have ironic tattoos? Maybe not all, but most.

In fact, indie rock and mainstream rock are two sides of the same coin. They are both based on the desires of the individual and a need for some kind of consumption to have identity. One appeals to the thoughtless, the other to the neurotic.

On the radio there are songs about disposable relationships, getting laid, feeling good and buying new things. In the dark hipster corners of the internet, indie rock bands pour out songs about having a cup of coffee, feeling empty and giving up on love.

When nu-black metal superground “Twilight” (composed of Nachtmystium’s Blake Judd, Atlas Moth’s Stavros Giannopoulos, Sanford Parker, Leviathan’s Jef Whitehead, and Krieg’s Neil Jameson) announced that Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore would be joining the band, it was a formal certification that black metal was being replaced by metal-flavored rock.

This sleight-of-hand is a play on outsiderness. Paradoxically, outsiderness is the easiest way to sell a product. It says “You’re different, you’re not like everyone else.” Much as birds in the jungle like to have bright plumage to stand out from the others, men and women in modern society like to be different.

However, truly being different is a big deal. It means nothing is convenient, and that you have to live a lifestyle that takes you away from the herd, and reduces your access to easy friendship, mates, business, etc. You have to be a real wildman, underground man or drop-out. Most people don’t want to do this.

As a result, there is a huge profit to be found in manufacturing outsiderness, or taking the same old stuff and re-surfacing it with something tinged with outsiderness. Hence metal-flavored rock: look outsider like a metalhead, but be normal and social like a rocker.

The world experts on having an outsider surface to cover their inner mundanity are the hipsters. They like indie rock because it, too, is a re-surfacing: it’s essentially the same stuff that’s on pop radio, but with DIY aesthetics and lyrics about being an outsider.

Hipsterism has taken over mass culture because, as AdBusters puts it, hipsters are what happens when your culture has died and there is nothing left but interpersonal drama. The hipsterification of metal picked up steam in the late 1990s.

Indie-metal superstars Mastodon are working on a new single collaboration with indie drama queen Feist. Some new horror called “vest metal” is already showing us indie trends in action.

Underneath the skin, however, modern science has officially recognized that all pop music is essentially very similar on a musical level, even if on the surface — its “flavoring” — it’s “different.” This has caused others to wonder if music now is a spectacle that’s all image, with musical quality ignored in favor of novelty and popularity.

This won’t suprise metal fans, who tend to see society as a lost colony of narcissistic sheep rocketing toward an apocalypse, but might upset the “normals.” I guess there really is something to outsider status, after all.

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Of Power Metal and Other Tales

1. Introduction
2. The Two Faces of the Genre: European and American Power Metal
3. European Power Metal
4. Power Metal of the United States

 

Introduction

There stood he, on his chariot made of gold
He did reveal the trinity of secrets old.
A sceptre of iron could mercy bring.
A shield of gold, the Creator and king,
And the great sword of steel.

– Manowar, Secret of Steel

It has been asserted that the earliest application of the term ‘power metal’ was the 1982 Metallica demo of that same title; then how exactly has it come to label the fantastic, spirited, even ‘fruity’ kind of music that is currently known as ‘power metal’? Well, the fact of the matter is that the term simply did not catch on with what eventually became the thrash and speed metal genres, whereas the melodic speed metal in Germany (Helloween, Blind Guardian, Running Wild, etc.) developed in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s to coalesce into the genre now popularly known as ‘power metal’. The reason why these bands were labeled differently from their more traditional sounding forerunners was their thematic and musical distinction; these bands dispensed with the darker, ‘doom and gloom’ perspectives of archetypal metal in favour of a much more positive, almost ‘happy’ outlook, and this really came through in the refreshing and inquisitive albums produced in the genre’s youth.

Power metal is something of an enigma in the annals of heavy metal: how does a movement deeply immersed in the fantastic folklore of Europe and beyond, and which borrows openly from Queen and the like, relate at all to the more twisted and obscure worlds of death and black metal? The answer is that the whole genre cannot be measured linearly as you would the passing years; it is to be viewed, rather, as a healthy maple tree, with dozens of branches emerging from the trunk, all headed in different directions but with the same fundamental constitution. Heavy metal represents, after all, a perennial expression of the epic, the tragic, and the victorious, and it would surely be unjust to evoke these eternal artistic truths merely through the medium of the Gothic nightmare, the Lovecraftian dreamscape; power metal exists, therefore, as a keen and adventurous opposite, enabling metal to travel to places impossible in other, darker vehicles.

The Two Faces of the Genre: European and American Power Metal

While the power metal of Europe is characteristically bright and optimistic on both the lyrical and instrumental fronts, the bands that derive from the United States take on a bit of a different slant; their work is generally darker, and more focused on building upon the foundation started by the NWOBHM, etc., which admittedly makes ‘USPM’ sometimes difficult to distinguish from good old-fashioned ‘heavy metal’. The distinction, however, is an important one, and to help delineate the differences between the genres, we need to recall the common elements that allow us to classify the Europeanbands into ‘power metal’. Sure, there are the basic similarities that are inherited from the same earlier English and German bands, but the crux pf European power metal is its fundamental underlying aim: to illustrate a mythic world (which could very well be our own reality interpreted in an imaginative light) that is at once real and fanciful, and to do so with a generally enthusiastic persuasion. If we are to throw all the European and American bands of the style under the same ‘power metal’ banner, then this intent, this ‘underlying aim’, must be identical in USPM.

If we consider the early black metal movement from Norway, and how it sought to unearth hidden truths through a dark, mystical aesthetic, we may actually find a parallel to what we mean. While both indubitably desire to ‘illustrate a mythic world at once real and fanciful’, black metal clearly purports to showcase an altogether averse side of that reality when power metal simply means to approach it like a narrative, a folk legend, demonstrating its nature through popular song and poetry. In a kind of microcosm of this, power metal from Europe is the visualization of things of the light, of a dramatic victory of life over death, whereas stateside power metal tends to convey a colder picture of these things: the former focuses on the regal hero, and his conquest over his villains and oppressors, whereas the latter focuses on the villains and the oppressors, and its hero is not so much the Aragorn of Tolkien fame, but Conan the Barbarian rather, a powerful yet lawless ‘antihero’ in the style of Omen’s ‘Axeman’!

When the bands from Europe broach whatever subject it is that they wish to express, it will be in a style that is as precise and accurate as as it is dramatic and theatric; the raw power of the music is dropped in favour of an immaculate finesse: this is simply in their nature. As for the Americans, however, a central goal is outlined from the beginning, and the path towards it is narrow but straight and unyielding, concentrated on the living rhythm of the thing rather than on the fine points of its aesthetic and artistic impressions. There may be yet other differences, to be sure, but none of them are more divergent than this simple preference in method; European and power metal are brothers at heart with similar identities and similar intentions. Now, to deliver the best of power metal post-haste!

European Power Metal

Whenever somebody thinks of power metal, he is likely thinking of the particularly dramatic style growing out of Europe, unless it is the popular barbarians in Manowar; indeed, Helloween’s ‘Keeper of the Seven Keys’ albums, Blind Guardian’s ‘Tales from the Twilight World’, and Rage’s ‘Secrets in a Weird World’ are veritable classics of the type. The music itself is, generally speaking, a sort of joyous hybrid consisting of Iron Maiden, thrash metal, and J.R.R. Tolkien, and is ultimately united by a strong sense of adventure and myth as is evinced by the themes widely explored by virtually every band involved in the scene. So, a taste for speedy rhythms, confessedly goofy, ‘cheesy’ lyrics, and plenty of high-calibre guitar solos is pretty much mandatory for anyone who wants to walk in the footsteps of the following albums…


Blind Guardian “Nightfall in Middle-earth”

In a word: What would Tolkien say?

As far as rankings go, this is the only album that is absolutely set in stone on this entire list. ‘Nightfall in Middle-earth’ is the ascendant apex of power metal; it is the crystallized embodiment of the genre’s ideal. The reason for offering such profound adulation really comes down to the band’s ability to transcend the limits of power metal whilst playing within them; they have nailed the ‘folky’, popular element of music with a peculiar ingenuity that comprehensively impresses upon the basic musical format of the genre; in other words, Blind Guardian has done for power metal what Johannes Brahms had done for Romantic music with his ‘Hungarian Dances’.

In narrating a large portion of Tolkien’s most ‘historical’ epic, The Silmarillion, Blind Guardian succeeds in demonstrating the raw power of a living mythos and a visceral pathos, as well as the simple wonders of storytelling, through a dynamic interplay between a tight rhythm section and an innovative mastery of the axe that Herr Ohlbrich presents for us, the audience; and the vocals of Hansi Kuersch, the real conduit of the myth’s passion, are never better, cutting through the music with a certain feeling that conveys the appropriate emotion, the appropriate strength needed to evoke the right imagery. ‘Nightfall in Middle-earth’ is an independent artistic monument: it is not a mere ‘ode to Tolkien’, or some such tribute, but a fully accomplished string of songs that successfully brings the majesty of Tolkien’s mythic world to the equally wonderful world of metal.


Helloween “The Keeper of the Seven Keys” Pt. I & II

In a word: The epitome of power metal

It is an indisputable fact that Helloween is no less than the very quintessence of power metal; from the triumphant ‘Initiation’ to the epic climax of the title track in Pt. II, there is nothing that escapes the boundaries, nothing that does not inherently belong in what the genre has come to mean. The outstanding evidence for this thesis can be found, as vague as it may sound, in the general spirit of the music: there is an excited, joyous pitch that pervades every aspect of the albums, and it draws the listener into the music, attempting to transport this transcendent gladness unto him. This is musically accomplished through a fast, upbeat rhythm, quick and virile riffs and solos, and of course through rich, charming vocals of Michael Kiske that are at once evocative and powerful.

Beyond the individual components, however, Helloween is a band that brought to metal not only a new and positive way of playing, but also a more or less original perspective on metal: they have come here in good humour, to have fun, and to never take life more seriously than it has to be. The final effect of all this is a pair of albums that are perhaps the most widely imitated in the entire genre, and the real cause of this is obvious: nowhere is the singular idea of power metal more manifest, more alive, and more euphoric than in ‘The Keeper of the Seven Keys’.

 


Gamma Ray “Land of the Free”

In a word: Helloween reborn

With original Helloween visionary Kai Hansen at the helm, Gamma Ray can and should be perceived as the true heir to the ‘Keeper’ albums of the late eighties – building off of a passionate drive forward on all instruments, and with Hansen’s emphatic vocals in firm control, all of the basic ingredients that conspired to make Helloween what it is are fully intact. What makes Gamma Ray so important, however, is that its creation of ‘Land of the Free’ ends nearly a decade of sterility from the Helloween camp; Gamma Ray has effectively resurrected the original spirit that caused the birth of so many clones.

As for the album itself, there is a sincere approach to the songwriting; there is a definite connection between all parts to form a good, coherent song; the riffs are brighter, more focused and vibrant, whereas the percussion lays a strong, fertile foundation for every melody, every chorus; in short, the masters reveal in ‘Land of the Free’ how to really invoke the mad and happy spirits of power metal. Interestingly, in an event that is based more in fact than in coincidence or irony, ‘Land of the Free’, at 1996, was released right before the resurgent waves of power metal took shape at the end of the nineties, just like the ‘Keeper’ albums in the twilight of the eighties…


Lost Horizon “Awakening the World”

In a word: Death metal turned upside down

Assembled from the remains of the death metal band Luciferion, Sweden’s Lost Horizon apply its former Satanic autonomy and egoistic ambitions to a new, far more personal mode of free will and individual freedom and power. Energetic and motivated, ‘Awakening the World’ moves quickly, showcasing a fluent sense of songwriting and technique that gladly transcends the sterile plains and generic conventions of recent power metal. The players have a strong taste for the old-school, and yet their collective synergy, with a special mention to the tireless guitars, which provide a seemingly inexhaustible supply of clever hooks and passionate leads, is wholly innovative in its united vision and dynamic execution; this makes for a convincing display of refreshing songcraft, which in turn injects something original and commanding into the old-school template; in summary, the legendary Helloween undergoes yet further renovations, and is re-invigorated into one of the few leading warriors of modern power metal. Indeed, excluding the few pointless ‘minitracks’ found on the record, ‘Awakening the World’, with all of its vigour and spirited determination, is the perfect testament to the full extent and capability of the independent human will.


Blind Guardian “Tales from the Twilight World”

In a word: Only Blind Guardian could merit such blatant disregard for the rules

Having released two speed metal classics in ‘Battalions of Fear’ and ‘Follow the Blind’ just prior to this record, Blind Guardian were ready to move firmly into the nascent realm of power metal. Rather than dropping all established identity in their process of growth, however, the guys from Krefeld, Germany initiate a deep melodic shift into the existent speed metal basis, allowing a subtle change to make a significant effect on the overall sound. The result is a more focused, more defined direction than what the two previous efforts had known; in addition to a lyrical and mythological construction that builds on what they had already started, albeit primitively, this meant that ‘Tales from the Twilight World’ became the first real power metal album that Blind Guardian would create.


Angra “Temple of Shadows”

In a word: Fresh, unique, articulate

It is certainly not an oversight of ours to include a Brazilian band in a list of allegedly European acts, but it certainly would be an oversight on anyone’s part to exclude Angra for that fact alone; indeed, Angra actually exemplify the strictly European style, often much more so than its intercontinental counterparts. On this particular album, ‘Temple of Shadows’, we believe that Angra hit its creative peak, even without Andre Matos, the legendary songwriter who had such a profound effect on their earlier records.

Angra has always been about fusing the flashy and melodic speed of early power metal with an accurate and concise technical performance arrayed in a way that many have termed ‘progressive’; this is no different on the present album, where speed and ‘progressivisms’ take on appropriately supplementary roles, allowing the melodies to embrace centre stage, and, apart from the occasional yet needless sentimental moment, they excel in the spotlight. With a concentrated, coherent method of songwriting, not to mention the impressive technical prowess of either axe, the melodic leads and solos are certain highlights of every song and, combined with a strong, classic understanding of the chorus and its importance, they are both literally and figuratively instrumental in making ‘Temple of Shadows’ a modern power metal classic.


Running Wild “Black Hand Inn”

In a word: Iron Maiden meets Accept meets Captain Blackbeard meets six bottles of rum

A typical occurrence in the development of any which power metal band is an attachment to some particular image or identity that is somewhat removed from ‘ordinary life’. So, in addition to faeries, elves and dragons of Italian symphonic bands like Rhapsody, we have Blind Guardian paying particular homage to the worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien; Grave Digger unearthing the historical remains of old, forgotten battles; and Running Wild, a band that was evidently dissatisfied with singing about the devil and had moved on to pirates instead.

There is not really a substantive or profound depth that drives the music onwards; this is simply a band that lures the listener in with the promise of a fun, exciting story about pirates (which is of course told by a drunk), and then promptly barrages him with easy, carousing rhythms that are inevitably met by a strong, anthemic chorus. Iron Maiden make their presence known on this record through the occasional galloping riff, as well as the many guitar harmonies, whereas the Running Wild anthem is unmistakably imbued with the infectious talents of their fellow Germans, Accept. Altogether, the band’s vision is not any higher than what many contemporary ‘folk metal’ bands attempt; namely, to create inebriated, party music. The difference is that, with their reliance on the well-tested techniques of bands like Iron Maiden, Accept, and Helloween, and with a perfectly suitable theme that can rouse any prole to drink, these Teutonic pirates actually succeed where the faux-vikings fail dismally.


Pagan’s Mind “Celestial Entrance”

In a word: Symphony X done right

While Pagan’s Mind is often referred to as ‘progressive metal’, we happen to think of its work as being far more along the lines of modern power metal, which is mainly due its focus on drafting songs that emphasize the traditional melody and rhythm combination, as opposed to whatever it is that actually constitutes the average Dream Theater album; when Jorn Lofstad launches into a solo, we can safely wager that it will not be prolonged into the pretentious affair of noodling for half an hour a la John Petrucci.

This is a good album because the band has (1) a firm grounding in the basics of what makes metal what it is; and (2) because they have just enough impetus to advance: where others might founder in the sterile waters of mediocrity, Pagan’s Mind actually manipulate its excellent instrumentation into well-structured compositions that reflect a band that clearly knows what it wants to achieve, and accordingly goes out and achieves it. So, through a strong sense of rhythm and a penchant for the dramatic, Pagan’s Mind combines the intricate work of a clever, flashy guitarist, the reliable rhythm section, with a typically illustrious vocalist to construct Celestial Entrance, an album that sounds precisely what its title implies: the epic adventure into the astral spheres.

Power Metal of the United States

It can be argued that while the charismatic and often operatic vocals lead the advance for the European bands, it is the powerof the simple yet efficient riff that drives the American bands forward. Indeed, the feeling of an honest, ‘blue-collar’ sentiment pervades many of the more emblematic records of this kind, and it does not get any more present than in an old-school technique of guitar playing; nothing fancy, nothing extra, it just gets the job done. This does not in any way blunt the efforts of these bands as they endeavour to create something epic, something that can even be called ‘mythological’ by the standards of our day; on the contrary, the stripped-down sound of many early albums helps produce the effect of being of modest birth, which allows them to be classified as ‘popular’ and even ‘folky’, the proper requirements of any nascent myth. Finally, to cite the execution of these theories, we give to you nine of the best USPM albums extant… (We have given the Americans an extra album due to their superiority in the sheer quantity of good power metal albums released over the years.)


Manowar “Into Glory Ride”

In a word: Comprehensively feudal

When it comes to picking the best Manowar album, any one of the first four would be a respectable choice; every which one is a proud testament to band’s core spirit, to the band’s purely honest will to play the kind of metal that is more barbaric than civilized, more feral than cultivated. ‘Into Glory Ride’ strikes a particularly powerful chord for us, however, and this is as much due to its consistency as its extra concentration on the epic narrative, which is constructed in an almost ‘cartoonish’ tribute to metal and to death.

The music is simple, written to the effect of a moving rhythm and a rousing anthem; the corresponding lyrics are more charming and pompous than they are cheesy, and they are essential in creating a medieval atmosphere of outlaws the ‘anything-goes’ attitude of the Wild West. The best reason for this band to receive the highest rank, however, is not merely for its flawless presentation of an honest yet primitive idea, but for how direct and how iconic this idea has become in its fullest execution: Manowar truly represents the fundamental vision of American power metal.


Iced Earth “Burnt Offerings”

In a word: An honest monument to the memory of Dante’s Inferno

In contrast with virtually every other featured in these lists, ‘Burnt Offerings’ evinces a conscious effort on the part of the songwriters to something darkly malignant, something sinister. Although firmly rooted in the melodic tradition of Iron Maiden, this album is steeped in the Faustian temptation to explore the infernal plains, to pursue the flame of self-discovery. This nefarious vision is revealed not only through the thematically relevant lyrics that cover everything from tragic love to Dante’s Inferno, but more importantly through the music itself: the guitars in particular exude a deep and molten darkness, providing profound and often chilling melodies as well as a layered rhythm that either gallops forth rapidly, or marches on slowly in a mystical calm not far removed from that of many doom metal acts. The dynamic vocals of Matt Barlow are at once dramatic, powerful, and are perfectly eloquent in conveying the appropriate emotion, especially of sadness and of wrath; the percussion, on the other hand, is straight-forward and simplistic, which is all that is needed to contribute to the pulsing, imperial rhythm. All of this is assembled and passed through an abyssal, velvet production that infuses the music with an invaluable sense of enduring darkness.

‘Burnt Offerings’ is really about an inverted heroism, a nocturnal pathos that gasps dryly and thrashes uncontrollably in the unfathomable depths; it is the musical monument to Satan’s legion as summoned by John Milton in the 17th Century. Where other American bands of this style commonly create something revolving around ‘practical reality’, Iced Earth is instead inspired to invoke an album that is crafted in the genuinely artistic sense, which enables ‘Burnt Offerings’ to really draw out its genuinely artistic qualities, which include but are not limited to its potent aesthetical romanticism, its fiery rebellion of a righteous condemnation, and finally its paradoxical delight in striving for the impossible.


Sanctuary “Into the Mirror Black”

In a word: Rhythmic power as opposed to moronic groove

Just before the stifling effect of the grunge scene overwhelmed the Seattle area, there was still a band that truly believed in the basics of heavy metal: Sanctuary. ‘Into the Mirror Black’ is the second of two quality albums made by a band that really epitomizes American power metal: heavy and forward riffs planted in a traditional format of composition, clear and stylized vocals, and lyrics that directly relate to practical reality and human emotion.

In Sanctuary’s case, the lyrics are particularly philosophic and investigative; they deliberately seek out the answers of some of the more obscure questions, and employ the technique of asking their own questions to the desired effect of placing emphasis where emphasis is needed. There is an almost poetic meter to the way that the lyrics are stressed, a rhythmic harmony that is evenly matched with an intelligent creation of riffs that accord with the meter of any which verse. This is important to remark upon not only because one of the key aims of this record is the exposition of several lyrical themes, but mostly because ‘Into the Mirror Black’ is built fundamentally around rhythm, and this particular sense of rhythm is not so much manufactured through the percussion and bass as it is by the guitars and vocals. So, yes, of course there are the lightning solos, the pounding battery and the occasional melody, but far more essential than all of this is the bold, relentless rhythm to which all else is subservient.


Crimson Glory “Crimson Glory”

In a word: Romanticism as Mary Shelley knew it

In the typical metal band, there is likely an emphasis on something, a particular area in which the band excels; we can mention that Slayer, for instance, was exceptional in pacing forward at a speed that few could immediately handle; or we can mention that Bathory was brilliant in evoking simple but dreadful subjects through simple but abrasive songwriting, and somehow being all the more fearsome for it. In this vein, Crimson Glory is excellent at putting together a song that subsists, indeed thrives on its melodic intuition: without that keen, delicate pulling of the strings, without the subtle taste in melancholy, everything would disintegrate.

All aspects of Crimson Glory, from the dramatic introductions to the starry chorus, from each sad rhythm to every slender, passionate solo, all of it depends on this fully pervasive emphasis on melody. The reason for this has already been hinted at: ‘Crimson Glory’ is a tragic album. Melody is seldom more useful than in conveying a deep and immutable sadness; the notes, while sufficient in number to prevent an outright dirge, are usually slower, downcast, hopelessly inflected by that precious melancholy sought by every romantic poet. While this album is obviously not overtly tragic, its subtleties are more than enough to allow us a glimpse of its true pathetic nature; indeed, its character is not really like that of the despondent misanthrope who cannot view life without seeing death as well, but more like that of a patient lover, the lover who is momentarily divorced from his opposite and yet at heart knows and feels that she is destined to return.


Manilla Road “Open the Gates”

In a word: A legendary band in the right circles

Manilla Road released several cult albums that have become essential to the traditional and power metal genres. ‘Open the Gates’, like sister records ‘ Crystal Logic’ and ‘The Deluge’, utilizes a low, throaty production that conveys their unique guitar and vocal sounds in the rough and hardened way that best suits the fundaments of classic Manilla Road. The axework resembles something sanguine and archaic: an image of an army of rusting skeletal soldiers is evoked by the creaking riffs that rumble over the heated rocks of the battlefield, as well as by the elongated solos that twist and turn in no predictable pattern until the tracks’ climax and descent is fulfilled. The music establishes the appropriate imagery for what the collective imagination of the band envisions: wide, perilous landscapes marked by the comings and goings of dread legions and tyrannical dragons; the colour scheme pervading the artistic schema is a vivid and unmistakable red in the likeness of a fast and ageless fire.

Nestled in the gentle plains of Kansas, Manilla Road has established a firm foothold in the annals of heavy metal with the attainment of an identity that is entirely its own; even with the most modest of song structures, ‘Open the Gates’ is successful in its ambition to recreate a fiery, mythic world through a dramatic and persuasive vocalist, destructive and bloody riffing, and that ever persistent struggle to perceive and grasp the Epic, the richest content in every story.


Savatage “Hall of the Mountain King”

In a word: Let the curtains fall

There has always been something purposefully theatrical about Savatage – the sense that the band is putting on some poignant story between the curtains is never absent in any Savatage album. Before Jon Oliva remembered his Italian roots and emphasized the story over the metal, he was deeply involved with an album that is actually more metal than it is melodramatic. The musicianship in ‘Hall of the Mountain King’ is fairly intricate and developed, although Jon’s brother Criss is rarely shy of occasionally firing in a simply, catchy riff; on the whole, however, the music is classy and orchestrated by a general motif revolving around that old art of telling tales the Italian way.

It might well appear that Savatage is not really of the American type of power metal; this is true to an extent, since these New Yorkers definitely focus on a neat and theatrical presentation of an appropriate theme; it is equally true that the music certainly comes across as Classically inspired, even going so far as to include a metal rendition of Grieg’s legendary ‘In der Halle des Bergkoenigs’. Beyond all of this, however, there is a peculiar, indefinable ‘dirtiness’ which is indisputably American by nature that infiltrates all aspects of Savatage; from Jon’s gritty vocals to Criss’s riffs and reckless solos, the bold advance of the Yankee puts its taint on a seemingly neoclassical, a seemingly European band.


Omen “Battle Cry”

In a word: Just look at any track title…

Beyond the justice and the caprice of society, beyond the state of sedentary existence, the law of the lawless rules unchallenged. Omen immediately brings to mind two possible landscapes: the first is of an exiled band of brigands and strongmen, fighting whomever for food, fun, or coin; the second is of a post-apocalyptic world similar to the dystopia of Snake Plisskin fame. In the end, however, the sights, smells, and noises of any age are irrelevant, for the fundamental idea that this album conveys is a timeless one: the barbarian, the ‘law unto oneself’ ideal of savages everywhere; it is unquestionably the focal point of this highly direct and uncompromising album.

The music is equally straightforward; quick yet still mid-paced verse sections are clearly rhythmic, nothing extraneous whatsoever; the chorus is typically anthemic, beckoning the listener to join in this gladiatorial brawl, or at least to sing along. However simple this album comes across as, it does not suffer anything by it, for really its execution of the perennial imagery of fighting outlaws is efficient and apt; after all, one can hardly expect or even imagine any band to arrange a full, technically adept orchestral composition to record the legends of a Conan or a Mad Max.


Hammers of Misfortune “The Bastard”

In a word: Mystical legends as told by a Satyr

While Mike Scalzi may be more renowned for his work in The Lord Weird Slough Feg, a band supposed to be at the forefront of a resurgence in traditional metal, we find that his more interesting project is undoubtedly Hammers of Misfortune. An outstanding reason for this assertion is that hammers is a novel production, a band that provides us with a much needed new perspective on heavy, trad, power, whatever kind of metal that this album actually falls into; ‘The Bastard’ is refreshing for this alliance of multiple concordant elements, for its eclectic understanding of musical creation.

The vocals, consisting of both male and female, both clean and bestial, are at the crux of the record, giving the unique story behind it an appropriately dramatic, even thespian approach: each voice seems to resemble either a character involved in the concept or an aloof narrator. The riffing is similarly diverse: the guitars flow easily, albeit in irregular patterns, curling and bending through each phrase, allowing an almost serpentine atmosphere to materialize; this does not, however, restrict the players from constructing rather inspiring melodic passages, or from submitting a low and swaying rhythm. ‘The Bastard’, for all its eccentricity and deviations from what we might call ‘normal songwriting’, is still an album with a resolute identity; in both lyrical and strictly musical content, Hammers of Misfortune is yet another metal band that invokes the spirit of a folky, medieval tradition to create a folky, medieval album.


Cirith Ungol “King of the Dead”

In a word: Where doom metal and fantasy collide

‘King of the Dead’ is one of those albums that defy any single classification: it is not only doom, it is not only power, and it is certainly not at all NWOBHM. There is, however, a single band that can be distinguished above all others in terms of influence: that band is Black Sabbath. While many of Cirith Ungol’s defining characteristics are fairly different from those of ’Sabbath, the traits in guitar wizardry are more or less identical; the movement of the song is wholly dependent on these slow, rumbling, repetitive riffs that crawl on and on; the song builds up into a zenith a behemoth of strength, powered by these simple, dreadful riffs that never relent. The vocals, on the other hand, are unique and virtuosic; Tim Baker’s voice is a mild shriek, as it were, a high-pitch, high-volume rasp.

The overall sum of the parts is a skeletal aesthetic that complies with the overt motif of Tolkien’s ghostly legion, which is of course ruled by the king of the dead. The black, crumbling riffs partnered with the neat, scratching solos depict a horrible chamber whilst the uncomfortable vocals unleash the eternal anguish of its prisoners. The name of the band and of this album really epitomizes the nature of both: Cirith Ungol is not content to simply look through the Lord of the Rings and be amazed at the immortal elves, or to stand in awe of a defiant, manly heroism; infact, Cirith Ungol will never be content until every proud and noble city is the lair of maggots and goblin filth, until every tall man is made short and swarthy due to some dark hubris; indeed, Cirith Ungol will never be content until every path, every secret passage becomes the private hunting ground of wild and wicked spiders.



In the sky a mighty eagle
Doesn’t care about what’s illegal
On its wings the rainbow’s light
It’s flying to eternity

– Helloween, Eagle Fly Free

 

Written by Xavier

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