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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Pyrrhic Victories: A Brief Study Of Artistic Decline

1. Introduction
2. Sepultura – Arise
3. Metallica – Master of Puppets
4. Coroner – Mental Vortex
5. Morbid Angel – Covenant

Written by Pearson, Devamitra and ObscuraHessian

Introduction

All historical events at some stage pertain to a barrier, or a Rubicon that when crossed marks a watershed in the life cycle of an organism in which an achievement cannot be matched in terms of it’s overall qualities. In particular instances, these successes are such that what succeeds can only be a steady decline, or an outcome that pales in comparison to the glory that prevailed at a particular stage of time. This feature aims to give insight into some known examples of the ‘Pyrrhic Victory’ in the metal genre and give light to releases that represent strengths of once great acts, and at the same time foreshadowed artistic saturation.

A common thread that seems to run through these turning points in the careers of metal bands is the apparent contradiction between a musician’s personal evolution and the progress of the musical style into more authentic and expressive forms in service of the concept. We all understand that a maturing musician is not going to be satisfied with the same apparently simple techniques he mastered upon his first year of guitar practice for ages. He probably has musical heroes he is looking up to and he always wanted to learn that Eddie Van Halen or Ritchie Blackmore solo.

Vital musical forms rely on creativity, spontaneity and message over matter. It is the curse of the artist that often the best of their work is at the behest of youthful lunacy and drunken madness, the early recordings where they grasp at the straws of vision without quite having formulated the techniques for achieving them – so they improvise and as Nietzsche would say, “give birth to a dancing star“. ‘Human‘, ‘Tales from the Thousand Lakes‘ and ‘Heartwork‘ are all perfect examples of a band with the full arsenal of accumulated weapons, evolved to near its maximum potential in knowing exactly how to compose all the contemporary forms of metal, from death metal and grindcore to pop progressive, even soft rock.

But here comes the paradox. Instead of sounding updated, the recording sounds more dated every passing year, because what has happened is that the band has incorporated a plethora of archaisms to a sound that used to be cutting edge. The bludgeoning dark tremolos of ‘Leprosy‘ that used to climax in nearly atonal solos become melodious post-modernist “cut up” riff salads; the doomy Wagnerian grandeur and slow movements reminiscent of historical battles in ‘The Karelian Isthmus‘ is stealthily exchanged with stoner rock and circular meditations that happen after a couple too many smoked joints; the to-the-point socio-anatomical parody of the hilariously grotesque and twisted ‘Symphonies of Sickness‘ gets discursive and bloated with instrumental worship, as if the band suddenly turned from anarchists into voters. The core question would be: did the band think these are more sensible ways of composition and a better illustration of the topic at hand – or did they forget the composition and the topic altogether in the name of randomly generating “music” with cold technique?

Sepultura – Arise

Coming off the back of the raging, deathly, speed metal of ‘Beneath The Remains‘, Sepultura stay true to the compact musical execution that began making itself clear on the ‘Schizophrenia‘ album onwards. There is more variation in pace, with the lower tempo compositions often resemblant of the riotous and anthemic cycles of of ‘Beneath The Remains’ played out in suspended animation. The introduction of the now ‘tribal’ meme that first makes itself present in Sepultura’s music introduces itself through in various songs, and whilst here it is applied in a more than tasteful enough manner it sometimes gives the idea that whilst this indicates an ‘open-mindedness’ to the average listener, on deeper insight it gives light to the possibility that the band by this time may have been starting to run short of creative ideas. Whilst this is a very good record by Sepultura, prevailing characteristics get the upper hand, and in a year where speed metal had long had it’s glory days, and death metal attaining new peaks of aggression in a period of artistic blossom, it’s no surprise looking back that the dumbed down and singularly ‘angry’ mosh-fodder that was ‘Chaos A.D.’ would suceed this work. –Pearson

Metallica – Master Of Puppets

A controversial pick, Metallica’s excellent third album fulfills the incorporation of progressive themes but seems to crystallize them to such an extent that no more creative spark would emanate from their later works. Cliff Burton’s presence in the unit, and his bridging of neo-classicist influences into their progressive speed metal was a defining feature of what many hessians and metallers saw to be the main component of their excellence. Having let this seep in on ‘Kill Em All‘ and fully realise itself on ‘Ride The Lightning‘, ‘Master Of Puppets’ steps further towards punchier and anthemic songs, with a steeping emphasis on percussive, palm-muted rhythm riffs which are the dominant motif in the album’s musical execution. This is structurally still in the exact same mould as ‘Ride The Lightining’, in that despite a different order of where songs are, we get aggression in ‘Damage Inc.’ and ‘Battery’ where there was once ‘Fight Fire With Fire’ and ‘Trapped Under Ice’. Songs such as ‘Sanitarium’ continue a rock music inclined sense of songwriting that continues what started with ‘Fade To Black’ and inevitably foreshadows the growing commercialism of Metallica on later releases. The excellence of ‘Orion’ also signals a continuity shift that began with ‘Anesthesia (Pulling Teeth)’ and fulfilled itself with the ‘Call Of Ktulu’ instrumental. This is a great album that solidifies the importance of Metallica in the genre’s history, though the death of Cliff Burton and the lack of creative steam that ensued signalled the artistic decline that came in 1988 with ‘And Justice For All…’. –Pearson

Coroner – Mental Vortex

While the speed and thrash metal boom was crumbling all around in the wake of Seattle and LA-based clothing styles storming the nation, a few European stalwarts lingered on the fringes and while some of them didn’t dare to take up the arms for intricate, narrative death metal, they were influenced by its vicious aggression and psychedelic subject matter. Coroner from Zürich, around Tom G. Warrior‘s circle of the tyrants, never became a vastly recognized or influential name in extreme metal but superceded most of its peers in technicality and consistency, releasing a discography of five albums ranging from the raging “R.I.P.” to the eclectic “Grin“, where the fourth one “Mental Vortex” is where the playing abilities peak but the ultimate purpose of the band is starting to wane. When the idealism of youth fades and with it the spontaneous power of iconographic assault, the only avenue left for speed metal to challenge the moral preconceptions of hypocritical generations was to turn to psychology and explore lies and paranoia in the internal spheres, cutting up joy and sadness into fusion-esque rhythm riff salads (with the timing of an atomic clock) cut up from brilliant small pieces akin to Burroughs’ or Gysin’s style of literature. Such a hectic style provides an engaging rhythmic tension for this album, arguably one of the last triumphs of the entire genre, but it’s also cold and calculated like a scientific experiment. The vastly more popular but not much better Carcass realized essentially the same things many years later on their hit album “Heartwork” and ended up on the pages of guitar magazines, while Coroner was already entombed to the mausoleums of Noise Records’ speed metal roster. –Devamitra

Morbid Angel – Covenant

Among the most ancient, recognisable and influential cults in Death Metal’s history, Morbid Angel’s tale of decline is a prolonged one, and raised continuous questions about the band’s creative state, as though their instruments were being channelled purely at the whim of the Outer Gods. The Floridan giants finally resisted the unearthly impulses that once guided them to create powerful statements of occult awareness bound up with a Nietzschean sense of overcoming and will-to-power, such that with the releases of ‘Gateways of Annihilation’ and ‘Heretic’, the band fell victim to triviality. Incremental lapses in quality can be traced back to much earlier albums however, with the departure of guitarist Richard Brunelle being the first to impact the legendary line-up responsible for two of the finest Metal albums ever recorded, meaning that ‘Covenant’ would initiate the band’s slow decay. In addition, Morbid Angel’s growing populist tendencies were perhaps never more commercially viable than at this time, with the production left in the hands of Fleming Rasmussen, and not one but two music videos filmed to promote the album. Brunelle’s exit would mean that Trey Azagthoth would be fully responsible for filling the suffocating mix with his trademarked guitarwork, to the surprising detriment of ‘Covenant’s sound wherever the album’s conceptual direction becomes overwhelmed by a one-dimensional bluntness. Characterised by unfocused and uniform phrasing and only held in place by Pete Sandoval’s tightly militaristic drumming, the latter half of the album demonstrates little of the dynamism that could be heard on every one of their preceeding songs. The spiritual inversion of Morbid Angel, a transvaluation of religious language to re-vitalise and Paganise the path of transcendence and condemn the submissive and world-denying, corrupt parasites turns into an unaltering, blind rage that’s summarised by the lyric of ‘God of Emptiness‘, “So, what makes you supreme?”, setting a blueprint for the band to follow on ‘Domination‘ and the hordes of imitators that were given an undeserved license to record by virtue of Death Metal’s growing popularity. ‘Covenant’ in this sense is not dissimilar to Deicide’s Pyrrhic fall from the adept demonology of ‘Legion‘ to the dumbed-down ‘Once Upon the Cross‘, though Azagthoth’s wizardry would earn Morbid Angel some redemption with the primordial dance of cosmic energies to be heard on ‘Formulas Fatal to the Flesh‘ before finally digging their own grave without cursing their own reputation quite as badly as the truly shattered idols from the golden age of Death Metal. –ObscuraHessian

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Why I’m a Hessian and not a metalhead

hessian_goat

There are many books, movies and CDs that float through our lives.

When we really like many of a certain type, we may identify with them. “I like Romance novels! I like disco!”

If you like the music, you’re a metalhead. You like to buy certain things and listen to them.

If you like the ideas behind the music — the lifestyle, the worldview, the imagery and most importantly, the spirit — you need to use a word that means you are more than a consumer of metal music.

You’re a Hessian. Derived from California slang from the time when Slayer were starting out, this term refers to the mercenaries who fought for both sides during the Revolutionary War — from Hesse, in Germany, they had long hair and fought like demons.

Obviously, this term belongs with the person who loves the abstract ideals of metal!

Anyone can be a metalhead. For under $100 you can get a starter collection, and if you hit the thrift stores, you can pick up some classic ironic metal tshirts for under ten bucks.

If you really want to appear extreme, you can go the ‘kvlt’ route and buy up classic releases on ebay, then refuse to like anything that has more than two chords.

Or you can be an Opeth fan and talk about how profound and progressive your music is.

Either way, you’ve bought yourself an identity with your cash and time.

But is that really a commitment? Nope, because you can whip that identity off in 30 seconds. Put the CDs back on ebay (where they seem to recycle; wonder why). Give the tshirts to Goodwill (same situation). Take the posters off your walls, buy a Miles Davis CD and a beret and you’ve got a new lifestyle.

But to be a Hessian means you identify with the ideas and have made them your own, just like when you find a philosopher who answers part of the question of life for you. You become a Schopenhauerian, or Nietzscheian, or Kantian — perhaps all at the same time.

Being a metalhead is just too easy. Being a Hessian takes commitment. I don’t begrudge those who want to pass through metal on their way somewhere else, and in fact cheer them on if they recognize this fact. But it’s the Hessians who always impress me.

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Metal bands to love to hate

If you like anything, you hate what destroys it. The worst are things that destroy it from within. These usually pretend to be it, then use it for their own purposes, corrupting it. Like a cancer or disease.

The best example in our time of course is the hipster. The hipster is the eternal party of one: he or she does everything to make him or herself look good to others. They “like” music because they want to look like the image of that music. They then have to be a very big deal, so they make their own art or music which is shallow and surface-oriented, but they trick it out to make it look cool.

In metal, we have the equivalent. They come in many forms. Some like to think they’re smart, so they like dumb kiddie music tricked out like prog rock. Some like to think they’re cool, so they like angry pointless three-chord bands with weird names and gimmicks. Some like to be political, so they pick bands that are anarchists or Nazis. They’re not thinking about the music; they’re thinking about how cool it makes them look. The best music to make you look cool is basically the same crap you get on MTV, but with a cool image. They are a cancer on metal.

And they have some favorite bands. Not coincidentally, these bands are the worst depthless and pointless stuff to hit metal. Note bene: This list is about music I hate, not people I hate. Some people whose music I like hate me, and some people I hate make great music. Some people who I like also make terrible music. I can only tell it as I see it and hope the pagan gods sort out the fracas.

Here’s the list:

Dethklok

How can you hate a cartoon? It’s supposed to be funny. It makes fun of metal’s weaknesses. Ergo, by the passive-aggressive inversion, if you dislike this you’re afraid to laugh at yourself. And who likes someone who can’t laugh at himself? Except that joke bands have always been stupid, with the joke/hype/trend coming before the music, and Dethklok is no exception. Recycled riffs. Moronic pop song structures. TV commercial jingle-like melodies. And bad guitar playing that dumbs metal down to MTV levels. Let’s turn it around on them: who has a need to look like they can laugh at themselves? Why, people who cannot, of course. But they don’t want you to know that.

Cannibal Corpse

When I was a wee liberal, I never thought much of Cannibal Corpse until I read their immensely misogynistic lyrics. Then I decided to hate them. Upon reflection, however, what I really hate about this band is its falseness. They studied metal in the early 1990s, and came up with a pre-chewed version. Taking their style from Suffocation, and their songwriting from Malevolent Creation, they bashed out these simple hymns and instead of having an idea behind them like “only death is real,” they just tried to be offensive and gross. How junior high school! Even more, they have gotten more repetitive and grind-you-down-with-simple-stuff as they years have gone on. I couldn’t hate this band more. But, having met them and seen they are nice intelligent fellows, my only conclusion can be that this band is a pure money-maker — and they about admitted as much.

Opeth

Life isn’t fair to you. You have few friends. You haven’t succeeded at anything, school or otherwise. Even your parents think they consumed too much Bisphenol-A before conceiving you. But you’ve found a new weapon; you’re going to show everyone you’re better than them. Enter the fake progressive rock band. Opeth take very simple songs and dress them up with prog rock lite flourishes, and “unexpected” changes like ZOMG going from acoustic to distorted on the chorus, because they know that all you low self-esteem cases want a reason to seem smarter and more profound than the rest of us. Well, now you have it. Opeth “sounds like” prog even if it has none of what made prog great: real musical development, song structures that build upon themes instead of being random, and truly mindblowing chops. Instead, you get watered down Rush riffs and random songs, all with a lot of guilt and bleeding-heart sympathy because they, Opeth, know you are a loser. Stop comparing homosexuals and Mac users to Opeth. It’s an undeserved insult to homosexuals.

Meshuggah

I was talking with a Texas technical deathgrind master and he wrote a formula for me: Meshuggah = lots of clueless fans x lack of musical knowledge. If you have played guitar and learned theory, you know how trivial this band is. It’s basically a jazz percussion approach to metal rhythm guitar. Lots of offbeats within offbeats, if you know what I mean. No melody, no song development. In fact, song structures are linear in that they follow the sub-division of beats to a riff, expanding over time in a circular fashion. It’s really boring. But if you want to seem like you got the ultimate in technical metal, you’ll think you’re really cool for liking this distracted, random, artless band. Same critique applies to Necrophagist. They both attract people who want to be cool and smart, but have no knowledge of how the world works, which is why people are Meshuggah fans for exactly two years and then go on to liking Deerhoof and Yoko Ono.

Cradle of Filth

What’s the best new thing? Something that’s the old thing… but “sounds” new! You can make anything sound different with different production, playing at different speeds, using black metal voices or more distortion. And so if you take Iron Maiden, throw in some fast melodic death metal riffs, but keep it nice and tasty pentatonic, you’ll have the perfect product. People can be undercover conformists. They can look like rebels for listening to this angry sounding music, but underneath it, there’s that same old happy Iron Maiden that millions of people the world over like. Cradle of Filth is the perfect product and millions bought it, then immediately forgot them, to the point where you don’t hear about them at all. But this was a huge trend and basically boring music with a lot of drama surrounding it.

Ulver

In theory, I would like this band as they have a formal background in music and clearly know theory. However, they have no souls. They made the plasticine “Nattens Madrigal” by imitating black metal bands, but playing indie rock songs in the black metal style. Sweet, twee, poignant, ironic melodies and pop song structures defined that CD. Ever since then, Ulver has made a career out of being “different.” They make electronica that sounds like an angrier version of all other electronica! They make concept albums that sound like two indie rock CDs with the lyrics re-written! They make bold public statements and image changes like Bono of U2! What they don’t do, however, is understand metal and what makes it great. Instead, they try to make metal into the genre they belong in, which is indie rock, and dumb it down accordingly. Again, conformity disguised as non-conformity, because if you tell everyone you’re a non-conformist, you can’t possibly be a secret sheep, amirite?

Necrophagist

Musical illiteracy is a ripoff musician’s best friend. People do not understand how melodies should develop over the course of a song, and how technical playing without a goal creates chaos and fragments your consciousness, not builds on it. Necrophagist play melodies, all right. They play short blasts of melody over and over again, very quickly. Then the song jumps to something unrelated and obviously “different.” It’s like a sampler plate at a restaurant, a little bit of everything so you don’t have to choose what you want. Then it jumps back. And back again. And then it’s over. The vocals are like the chant of an auctioneer. The riffs are advancing guitar exercises. Drums are what you’d expect from a failed jazz drummer on tons of meth trying to cover Nine Inch Nails. The end result? A lot of distracting, directionless crap. But people like it because it’s more technical than what you are listening to, therefore they must be smarter. QED, muddafugga.

Baroness

If your douchey alt-rock band fails, throw on the distortion and play really slowly with obvious stoner themes. Now, thanks to the magic of record company marketing, you’re the latest metal trend! Work hard before your 15 minutes (or 18 months, at which point all your fans get promoted to head waiter) of fame evaporates. You’ll make money by making them feel like they’ve discovered the one secret rebellion that will really upset their parents. It’s like a giant tribe of stoners, descending on the world, man. They’re going to make everything right or at least feel all-right. Do you realize you’re listening to the same sad crap your grandparents grew out of in the 1970s?

In Flames

First there was At the Gates, who made The Red in the Sky is Ours, and blew us all away. Then came black metal. Then came Dissection. Then someone wondered what would happen if you took Dissection and dumbed it down, made it a little more like regular rock ‘n’ roll, and claimed it was new and exciting. I guess that person was a genius because people still take In Flames seriously, although at the time their first CD came out metalheads universally viewed them as clueless, wimpy and latecoming carpetbaggers. These guys are ripping off Iron Maiden on every album. They get away with it because their fans want to think they’re new and fresh and evil, not warmed-over 1978 heavy metal. These retreads from the mid-1990s keep puking out the crap and for some reason, people still discuss them.

Rammstein

Once there was a band called Ministry. They realized that no one had done IDM with guitars yet. So they made this style of really simple metal/punk/rock with industrial beats and weird background samples, and a huge audience went crazy for it. The same year, Nine Inch Nails made an album that was equal parts dance and hatred, with lots of keyboards and some buzzy guitars. Ever since then, people have been trying to recapture this audience because they’re still out there. Rammstein is the industrial hard rock version of Mickie Krause, with a heavy dose of Tool in the backdoor. They like to be shocking. It’s really a tiresome play that happens every generation as kids try to shock their parents and teachers. But you can’t shock the world at large because it doesn’t care. It’s more apathetic, cynical, nihilistic and cruel than any candy-industrial rock band is going to be. So Rammstein are in the big picture like greeting cards. They tell you a little bit of truth, put some flowers and kittens around it, and you pay a 1500% markup and go home happy, but confused. Just go listen to Ministry already.

Cynic

This band started out really well with a solid demo that sounded like it was one third speed metal, one third death metal, and about a third jazz fusion. No problem; we all want to be Atheist. But then immediately the neurosis started. First they tried to get more fruity sounds in their instrumentation, then they added the harmonized vocals, and finally, they just admitted they didn’t want to be death metal and quit, after a decent first album, Focus. Then in 2009 they decided to really ruin their reputations except among morons. They piled together a bunch of jazz cliches and metal cliches, and threw them at each other, then overplayed the rest. This is because they know their fans know little about music but want to seem like they do. If you take a few guitar lessons, you really want to show you’ve got that knowledge, so you start listening to Big Important Concept bands and genres like jazz, which is sort of like degraded classical music for people who need ideas pre-chewed. Cynic fans like to act outraged that anyone cannot see the greatness and complexity of Cynic, and use that to imply that the rest of us are stupid, when if they took the time to tab out these songs, they’d see that they are random bits stuck together with excessive guitar licks.

Wolves in the Throne Room

You’re at home listening to your new outrageous indie rock CD when your Mom comes home and catches you. It turns out she has the same CD. In the car. She and her friends listen to it, your Dad likes it, even your grandfather thinks it’s OK, because indie rock is the same crap they’ve made since 1952 or so, just with more wailing and self-pity (and minor chords). So you storm out of the house thinking, “I’ll show them!” You go to the record store and decide to skip past all the music for healthy people, you’ll get metal. And then you find Wolves in the Throne Room. It’s like that outrageous metal, but it’s safe. It contains safe moral opinions that people at your church and Democratic fund raiser would agree with. It’s basically indie rock, but they play it like it was black metal. And it’s totally boring, so you can have it droning in the background while you wonder if anyone ever anywhere has suffered as much as you have.

Boris

Wait — it’s Yoko Ono! No, it’s Deerhoof! No, it’s another chick wailing her head off with the coordination of a trisomy 21 patient. She wants us to think this is profound and progressive and new because normally, people don’t try to repackage SUCKS as SUCCESS. But that’s her gimmick, and the gimmick of most modern art. This is unusual because it’s illogical. If you don’t understand it, you’re little people — fetch me a sandwich. Only the enlightened pure and true understand our indie rock that we play (occasionally) as if it were black metal. Nevermind that black metal already existed. We want to remake it in our new and improved style. Which suspiciously resembles normal indie rock, but did we mention, there’s a chick wailing like a burnt Down’s syndrome kid? The fans can’t tell the difference because they learn to play guitars and basic music theory, but never think about what gives music meaning, because that would require they look into their own souls. And you can’t look into your soul, and still think you’re the whole world. Hipsters love this music because each one of them is a party of one and the rest of the world just doesn’t exist! So they call it brilliant. On and on, South of Heaven.

Sunn o)))

Stephen O’Malley is a fantastic person, a great artist, the world’s best stoner and truly, an insightful individual. However, he sold his soul to the devil with this hipster project. If you live in Austin, or are intimately familiar with the apps on your iPhone, this might be for you. It’s concept art. That means that they think up an idea that would be unusual, and make it in musical form, even if it’s boring, because it has symbolic value that us peons cannot decipher because we have tiny peon brains. So when someone plays a guitar really slowly for ten minutes and never develops a song out of it, you either get it because you’re a genius, or you’re an intolerant backward moron with a peon brain. They even get funky and throw in “found sounds” and sometimes have an orchestra show up and try to riff on the two notes allotted for each song. The word “sophomoric” describes people who take a little knowledge and use it to pretend they understand the world. It also describes all Sunn o))) fans.

Pantera

We’ve saved the best for last. Rocket back to the late 1980s with me. Your hair metal band just failed because you look gay even to homosexual rights activists, and not in the good way. In the supersonic stupid way. You’re out of money, and this band named Metallica has just raised the stakes for metal bands by being harder and faster. They’re harder and faster, while you’re prancing and pouting. So what do you do? Turn that fear of your masculinity outward, and become a tough-guy version of Metallica. This is what Pantera did with their first “real” album, Cowboys From Hell. Metallica riffs in simple songs with lots of ‘roid rage posturing. It got worse after that as Pantera added more trends to their faux metal charm bracelet, dabbling in death metal and blues rock, until their music ended up a mishmash of completely random influences. People like this band because it’s a good introduction to basic rock guitar. They can understand it, and it also appeals to their wounded masculinity. If you buy a Pantera album, the thinking goes, you’ll become more tough and angry like Phil Anselmo. People from the real world know that’s not true, which is why most of Pantera’s fans are skinny teenagers trying to figure out which fraternity will be most likely to help them score someday.

There you have it: a catalogue of fail. Or rather, fail that is highly praised by those who know not much of anything. Naturally, products designed for idiots that make idiots feel like geniuses are big sellers, so you’ll have to suffer seeing this bands around for a while yet. But as time goes on, it’s amazing how the crap gets filtered out and the really powerful stuff endures.

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Metal Orthodoxy

You may have noticed a metal orthodoxy forming over the years, but especially 1998 to the present. This orthodoxy emphasizes “trueness” to the concept (as well as the trappings, aesthetic, style, etc) of the original bands, and is paranoid wary of newcomers who do not embrace it.

Now that the official hipster central of the internet, The Onion, has published a metal list, we can demonstrate why metal orthodoxy exists: it’s designed to keep metal from being assimilated, or taken on by the larger genre of popular music as a style without ideas of its own.

Keeping it simple:
Ideas -> music -> genre of its own = metal orthodoxy
Just a style, any ideas = rock ‘n roll

See why there’s a distinct movement to metal orthodoxy? No one in a genre that is unique wants to be assimilated by what’s not unique, and in fact is the average of everything it has so far consumed. Rock music is like a large corporation, eating up small brands and removing what makes them unique, turning them into a label that can be stuck on just about any product in order to sell it.

Here’s The Onion’s list:

  • Agoraphobic Nosebleed, Frozen Corpse Stuffed With Dope (2002)
  • Amon Amarth, Twilight Of The Thunder God (2008)
  • Anaal Nathrakh, The Codex Necro (2001)
  • Baroness, Blue Record (2009)
  • Blut Aus Nord, The Work Which Transforms God (2003)
  • Boris, Pink (2005)
  • Converge, Jane Doe (2001)
  • Deftones, White Pony (2000)
  • The Dillinger Escape Plan, Ire Works (2007)
  • Earthless, Rhythms From A Cosmic Sky (2007)
  • Electric Wizard, Dopethrone (2000)
  • Goatwhore, Carving Out The Eyes Of God (2009)
  • Harvey Milk, Life… The Best Game In Town (2008)
  • High On Fire, Blessed Black Wings (2005)
  • Isis, Oceanic (2002)
  • The Mars Volta, Frances The Mute (2005)
  • Mastodon, Leviathan (2004)
  • Melechesh, Djinn (2001)
  • The Melvins, (A) Senile Animal (2006)
  • Meshuggah, Catch Thirtythree (2005)
  • Opeth, Watershed (2008)
  • Orthrelm, OV (2005)
  • Pelican, The Fire In Our Throats Will Beckon The Thaw (2005)
  • Pig Destroyer, Phantom Limb (2007)
  • Queens Of The Stone Age, Songs For The Deaf (2002)
  • Skeletonwitch, Breathing The Fire (2009)
  • Slayer, Christ Illusion (2006)
  • Sleep, Dopesmoker (2003)
  • The Sword, Age Of Winters (2006)
  • System Of A Down, Toxicity (2001)

Why do they like these bands? Well, first and foremost — you, dear reader, are not naieve enough to think that there’s not a financial connection here. These are bands distributed by or signed to the labels that help support The Onion and may at this point be personal friends or just “scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” type buddies.

But next, they’re bands that rock listeners can comprehend. Except Melechesh, which is there for a different reason. And that reason is next: each band is different, meaning that it doesn’t fit into a perceived orthodoxy. Each band is “different” by being not the perceived norm, as perceived by outsiders who cannot tell the difference between Incantation and Immolation even though that difference is immediately perceptible to anyone who likes, understands and most of all pays attention to the music.

The “different” plays into the psychology of the individual. You’re just a cog in the machine. You’d like to think differently, but every day you keep doing whatever a cog does. So you find some way to be the cog that’s a cog, but also has a little something else. Interpretive dance. A flute on your death metal album. Or you’re an oddity, the one thing of type X that isn’t like the others.

See this in action, with bonus points for adding a sense of victimization — all cogs are victims, because otherwise they’d be running the machine! — added in:

Long before The Sword, Boris was getting smeared as poseur metal. It’s unlikely that would have happened if the band wasn’t Japanese, and if lead guitarist Wata wasn’t a woman

That must be it.

Not that this band is indie rock dressed up with some metal stylings and has nothing in common with metal as an idea, as a genre, but everything in common with indie rock. After all, irony is a key way to be different.

Here’s another great dickslap in the face for metal:

Metal, more than most genres, rewards consistency; a lot of headbangers would just as soon their favorite bands keep making the same record over and over. As elsewhere, though, there’s always something to be said for progress, and Goatwhore’s most recent record is a great leap forward.

The same album over and over means “the album sounds the same aesthetically.” It doesn’t mean the notes are the same; it means the distortion, tempi, vocals, and concept are similar. So it’s not the same album, is it? But for people who cannot appreciate that album, it’s important to find a good put-down so they can feel better about their own CD rack. Yeah, it’s the same old stuff. Yeah, it’s just consistent. But this other band… they’ve (gush here) progressed, which means they added a flute to their grindcore. Did they progress? No, but all of us can tell that a flute is a change, where only a few of us can tell that composition gained depth, or new emotions, even if the aesthetic remained the same.

Indie rock is what happens when you have a bunch of people making music just as vapid as Madonna or Sting, but they want some way to appear not-a-cog so they trick it out in this superficial progress using irony to be different so we know they’re the unique cogs. But their problem is that every cog thinks it’s a unique cog, so then they’re in an arms race to both trick out their own music with weirdness, causing it be basically ugly trash (this has happened to all modern art), and put down any music which does have artistic content, because it threatens them.

And at the end of the day, that’s what this Onion article is about: the fear of masses of hipsters that they missed something within the music (e.g. not adding a flute) and therefore, that they are just cogs after all. Which as they go back to their hipster “it pays nothing but I feel educated or socially important” jobs, is a bitter consolation indeed.

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Motifs and Leitmotifs in Metal

The use of motifs and leitmotifs is very frequent in the musical genres of classical and opera, but we can also find some examples of their use in that furious contemporary “classical” brand of sound making we known as heavy metal. Here we’ll explain what they are and their application in metal music.

The Virginia Tech Multimedia Music Dictionary defines “leitmotif” as follows:

Leitmotif
(LITE-moe-teef)
[Ger., leading motif]

A recurring motif in a composition (usually an opera) which represents a specific person, idea, or emotion. This term was first applied to the operas of Richard Wagner.

(…)

Motif
(moe-TEEF)
[Fr.]

A short tune or musical figure that characterizes and unifies a composition. It can be of any length, but is usually only a few notes long. A motif can be a melodic, harmonic or rhythmic pattern that is easily recognizable throughout the composition.

Virginia Tech Multimedia Music Dictionary

A motif (without the “leit-” attached ot it) can be either melodic, rhythmic or harmonic, it doesn’t matter. It must be short in duration, though, and it must contain some importance for the structure of the composition, if not providing the backbone itself. It is not just a casual riff, but a memorable mini-tune around which parts or the whole of the composition depend on.

Motifs have been used in metal music for all of its existence. In fact, the first motif in the history of the genre is the universally recognizable three-note sequence which is the main riff of the song “Black Sabbath” by the band of the same name. What would the rest of the song be without it? Like this transcendental example, motifs are the norm, rather than the exception, in metal.

Leitmotifs, on the other hand, are motifs that are recurrent in an entire composition or album, and serve to return our minds to a particular feeling or idea. As such, these are not restricted to a single song, but frequently reappear on an album or entire work to reminds us of the object the motif evokes. An entire composition structured around leitmotifs is, then, rather than a collection of individual songs, a unit, or a large song composed itself of songs.

Leitmotifs are famously associated with opera composer Richard Wagner. Its use in metal isn’t much of a recurring happening, nor its full potential been exploited so far, but I can name a few examples of its use that will immediately ring the bell of any devoted hessian:

The acoustic short piece used as both intro and outro of Iron Maiden’s “Seventh Son of a Seventh Son” album.

– Listen to the album’s intro on mp3: Moonchild (Intro)

– Listen to the album’s outro on mp3: Only The Good Die Young (Outro)

Notice that both differ solely on interpretation. The piece as the outro to the album is played slower and in a more tired fashion compared to the intro. Leitmotifs don’t have to reappear on a composition at exactly the same way all the time – rather the subtle variation between them can create a contrast, which in turn give the listener a feeling that a narration is taking place. Iron Maiden’s 1988 album is a concept work which tells the life of a clairvoyant from birth to death and it makes sense that the outro, with its more dragging mood represents the end of the life of such person.

Another example from the same album are the intro sequences to the title track and the last track. Both are strikingly similar, except that the first is slower and ominous while the second is more upbeat. Notice that the lyrics on the last track of the album show a man resigned to his fate and happy despite of it, so the altered use of the riff from the title track (which could very well be the seventh son’s main motif) makes sense from this standpoint.

– Listen to the intro riff to “Seventh Son of a Seventh Son” on mp3: Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son (Intro)

– Listen to the intro riff to “Only the Good Die Young” on mp3: Only The Good Die Young (Intro)

Bathory, in its viking era, used a number of leitmotifs in its music and particularly in the “Twilight of the Gods” album. Here is but one example:

– Listen to the intro sequence of “Through Blood by Thunder” on mp3: Through Blood by Thunder (Intro)

– Listen to the intro sequence of “Blood and Iron” on mp3: Blood and Iron (Intro)

Two different intros with the same motif attached to them. If you have the album, you can also notice how the intro to “Blood and Iron” further develops until it turns into the main motif of the song, which carries it to its end. It is not unusual to slowly turn one motif into another – Wagner did that on his operas, particularly in the transition between scenes 1 and 2 of “Das Rheingold”.

– Listen to the previous motif developing into the main motif of “Blood and Iron” on mp3: Through Blood by Thunder (Motif Development)

A small example of an implied leitmotif that gets displayed on its full extension later on the album is to be found on Rotting Christ’s “Non Serviam”.

– Listen to an excerpt from “Mephesis Of Black Crystal” on mp3 (the implied leitmotif):

– Listen to an excerpt from “Saturn Unlock Avey’s Son” on mp3 (the full leitmotif):

These were only a few examples. Notice that the use of leitmotifs isn’t just restricted to concept albums. See how many more you can find on your CDs.

To learn more about leitmotifs, visit this excellent link: Leitmotifs in Der Ring des Nibelungen – an introduction.

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