How the internet ruined metal

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A common sentiment expressed by “diehards” (or as cynics call them “tryhards”) is that the internet ruined metal. It was a paradise before, they say. You bought zines, traded tapes, bought from small labels, and everything was pure and innocent. The demon of convenience and commerce had not yet reared its ugly head.

With the internet, it is said, all of that ended because it became easy to acquire a band by just typing the name into a search engine. There was no commitment that way, the story goes. People became accustomed to everything being easy and no longer cared about quality. They stopped going to shows and “supporting the scene.” Underground metal became armchair metal.

While I don’t doubt there is some legitimacy to those complaints, I offer another view: what made the internet kill metal was that it turned the process of being a fan inside out. In the old days, you picked bands you liked. Now, you pick bands to make your online personality look good. When someone asks a question about a type of music, you want to have something unique to answer with.

The result is blog posts and threads on forums which are dedicated to “being different.” You get zero scene cred for stating the obvious top ten, and that list can be found anywhere, so people are now craving bands that are more obscure. But the problem is that wanting something for a trait unrelated to its content means you no longer care about quality. Thus quality has plummeted as people seek novelty.

For the aboveground metalheads, this novelty-seeking manifests itself in the same trends that black metal talked about. This week it’s shoegaze; next week it will be “industrial black metal” again, or maybe punkish black metal, or ironic ABBA covers by grindcore bands, who knows. For diehards, the novelty-seeking is obscurity bias: a desire to dig back in the vault and find something that no one else knows about, then make it your favorite band ever.

The point is that no one is a fan anymore. Fans decide what’s good and celebrate it. But hipsters and scenesters have a different approach. They look for ways to make a name for themselves. “That’s my man Bill, he’s an expert in Seattle drone metal.” This is why there are ludicrous genre names in the post-internet arena, and why the advice you get on metal from the internet is almost universally garbage. It’s hipsters being hip, not people talking about quality or relevance.

The internet has made us all into hipsters. To get people to pay attention to your online profile or blog, you need to invent something “important” whether it’s there or not. You to find novelty either in the past or the present. The last thing you’re going to do is offer up some honest opinion. It’ll never get you Google AdWords dollars. It’s not unique and different enough for the social environment the internet has to offer.

Diehards need to quit complaining about the internet. It has had no different effect than moving all of metal into a dense, high social and cosmopolitan city like New York City would. City culture has always rewarded the “different,” which is why cities have always had hipsters. Bands struggled against that culture, not succeeded because of it.

What’s ironic about this whole situation is that complaining about the internet is another way of being “different.” That in turn serves to conceal the fact that since 1994, metal has produced little worth writing home about. Why has that been, you wonder? The black metallers told us: when hipsters appear, trends arrive, and then quality leaves the hall.

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The difference between metal and punk, rock: it’s not literal

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As author of The Heavy Metal FAQ, I have wrestled with the question of how to define metal over the years. Since it uses the same techniques as any other form of music, but used in different proportions and combinations, I have always focused on the idea that unites these uses which makes metal so obviously distinct from rock, punk and other forms of music.

To this I’d like to add another idea: metal is not literal. That is, metal tends to view the world through a symbolic or mythological lens. It does so to reflect our inward sensations about what is going on, plus a historical viewpoint which requires a more high-level view. The details don’t matter as much as the form, in metal, and we pay attention to the form and then put it in a folk-wisdom format.

Archetypal examples of this can be found in classic metal like “War Pigs” (Black Sabbath), “Hardening of the Arteries” (Slayer), “Painkiller” (Judas Priest) and “My Journey to the Stars” (Burzum). In these songs, mythological forces clash to reveal a truth of everyday life. They inform us about our time and put us into a symbolic and emotional framework with it in which we want to fight it out, fix it, struggle and win.

In contrast, most music is either sensuality-based or protest music. Sensuality-based music is exemplified by stuff like Shakira. Protest music really exploded in the 1960s, but reformed itself with punk, which took a more abstract and yet earthy view. Where the 60s bands sang about politics, punks sang about everyday life and the insanity of existence. This finally culminated in thrash, which used hints of metal’s mythology to make the personal into the universal, as in “Give My Taxes Back” (DRI), “M.A.D.” (Cryptic Slaughter), “Minds are Controlled” (COC) and “Man Unkind” (DRI).

Metal does go wrong sometimes and get literal. The worst of these are the ego-based songs, as in Pantera, or the songs about being metal and going to shows and the like, which are generally just dumb. It is not surprising that these are not favorites of the genre because they drop away from that 30,000-foot view and instead become more personal drama like the rest of our society, which explains why its institutions don’t function and its ideas are corrupt.

Interestingly, other genres are not literal either. Progressive rock was famous for songs about weird adventures in fantasy worlds that had striking parallels to our own (compare to JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis). Classical music tends toward fantastic descriptions from literature and history. These are genres of the weighty and impersonal, not the direct and immediate and personal. They have a different scope and internal language.

Jazz is the outlier. When sung, it tends toward protest and sensual lyrics. When instrumental, the sound of it suggests a combination of the two: a kind of secular (no meaning greater than the material and immediate) version of imagination, but applied to literal experience, such that it forms a kind of texture without a unifying core. It communicates the loneliness of modern isolation and a retreat into the personal complexity of the mind.

Where metal stands out among modern genres is that it still embraces this viewpoint, or at least did until the nu/mod-metal started appearing. Part of what makes such a viewpoint necessary is that metal, despite being about killer riffs, is not about the riff. It’s about many riffs stitched together to make an experience so that when the killer riff comes out, it has a meaning in context that makes it heavy. No song is heavy from just one riff. It’s heavy because when you get to that super-heavy riff, everything else has set it up to resonate.

This in part explains the audience of metal. Mythology, historical significance and topics of philosophy do not inspire the honor students, who are busy working on their careers (and the obedience-profitability nexus that these entail), or the average student, who is busy in a world of his/her own pleasures and delights. They do however appeal to the outliers, the dreamers and dissidents, who might find class boring because they find society boring and purposeless, and instead turn toward fantasy and a bigger, more abstract realism to express themselves.

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Why metal will never be understood, and never wants to be

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We live in a land of confusion. Most people here have trouble differentiating between a conclusion and a method used to reach a conclusion.

Take for example the phrase, “That’s logical.” To most people, this conjures up a list of things that are accepted as having a basis in logic. When you ask them to parse something new, which involves applying a method to each sequential detail in order to find out how they fit together. That’s difficult; tracking conclusions and having a whitelist/blacklist of accepted ideas is easier.

If you want to know how metal calcifies itself, it is through these conclusions. Darkthrone ended up sounding the way they did as a result of their method, putting together all the pieces and coming up with a bigger direction. When bands imitate Darkthrone, none of this happens, and thus none of the music is nearly as good. They know how to imitate it from the surface inward, but they don’t know why it came about it and thus, how to charge it with the meaning the original had.

Especially threatening to popular music is the process of calcification by which the method of the past generation becomes the conclusions of the next. Darkthrone makes a great album; everyone imitates it; as a result, that sound becomes stale and disassociated from the meaning it once had.

It was once common for metalheads to complain about being misunderstood, and their music not being understood and accepted. Now it is accepted, and it has rendered it harmless. What did that rendering was all the metal bands ripping each other off, churning the original ideas into a mush of imitation. In fact, the problem is that metal when understood is in fact misunderstood, and keeping it not-understood is what is required for people to go back to method instead of just trusting its conclusions as gospel and repeating them in recombined form.

Metal is in fact like a snake consuming itself. As soon as orthodoxy is established, it is destroyed and its destroyer rises only to be in turn consumed itself. Parallels can be drawn to ocean waves cresting and then self-destructing, the need for forest fires, how predation ensures that prey animals get smarter, or other natural metaphors. What it fears is the calcification and a related process known as social acceptance. When a group of people encounters a new idea, it mocks it, then tries to destroy it, and finally accepts it. But once the idea is accepted, the process of calcification happens as society assimilates the idea as conclusion and throws out the methods, but even worse, the nature of having the idea accepted means a process of compromise which shaves off the parts of that idea that offend various segments of society (think of a PTA meeting: can’t move the parking spaces, or you upset either the church ladies, the teachers’ union, or the parking authority). Social acceptance destroys ideas through imitation and compromise.

This process goes back to metal’s birth. The members of Black Sabbath couldn’t get on board with the happy hippie world around them, so they made their own music which destroyed that illusion with powerful sound. They were reacting to the acceptance of conclusions from the past period, the 1950s, in which people were fed on Dale Carnegie style salesmanship as a means to success. As a result, society stopped being truth-oriented and started being feelings-oriented. Happy feelings meant a sale. Ten years later, happy feelings meant social success. Salespeople knew that acceptance and inclusiveness made sales, so they made their advertising as innocuous as possible. The hippie movement imitated this but used politics instead of profit (at first) as their guide.

The problem was that the hippie portion was just as fake as the 1950s salesmanship portion. Similarly, the current imitation of the 1990s black metal scene or worse, the 1980s emo and shoegaze scene, is completely fake. The fifteenth Blasphemy clone is as burnt out as the fifteenth Beatles clone or fifteenth Dale Carnegie graduate. All of it is emulation of the past through its surface, which fundamentally disturbs the metal outlook. For underground metal, all that is left is to seek total nihilism or negation of values, or to pick values that cannot be compromised and thus cannot be assimilated by society. If you want to know why metal has been drifting toward extremes lately, this might explain it.

All of this is a rather long path to saying what every teenage music fan does not want to face: it’s time to stop talking about how you are misunderstood. You don’t want to be understood. Even more, being understood would destroy your chance for growth and turn you into an identical suit-wearing conformist droid marching off to do the same stuff the last generation did, and we can see them drinking themselves to sleep every night. When people obviously don’t get what you’re about, thank them. They’re helping you grow, just like they’re helping metal grow every time they run into a WTF moment and toss it out in the dustbin.

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An At the Gates career retrospective

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Since the days of being a small child I have been fascinated by how things fall apart. At an early age I could recognize decay, but knew it was separate from the tendency of human efforts to disintegrate once they grew past their initial effort.

A simple example was our veterinarian. He started out with a group of other animal doctors. Then people realized this one guy does great work. He struck out for himself. Soon he had too much work to do. He expanded, hiring more people and getting a new building. Soon he was no longer doing great work and he was more expensive. It took people a decade to find out. Most of them were still telling each other the accepted truth that he was doing great work.

At the Gates have announced their reformation as part of the 2013-inspired wave that saw Gorguts and Carcass return. Unlike the 2009-wave of returning bands, like Asphyx and Beherit, this retro-underground-revival has featured classic bands “modernizing” their sound. It also generally exhibits bands who had already cast aside their metal roots for musical reasons. Where the previous wave was more a sense of bands returning to pick up where they left off, the new wave seems to be about bands participating in the new metal scene and trying to siphon off some of that interest, newsworthiness and cash flow.

At the Gates started from the ashes of Grotesque back in 1990. They quickly released an EP, Gardens of Grief, followed by an LP, The Red in the Sky is Ours. These two works constitute the important artistic output from At the Gates because they were so radical in death metal. First, they incorporated melody as a structural device, where previously it had been used as a technique and worn to death. Next, they showed song development that surpassed what most bands were doing. Finally, their use of single-note picked riffs and spacious drumming produced a greater range of dynamics for death metal. Between At the Gates and other Swedish death metal acts that used melody such as Therion and Carnage, the roots of black metal were laid.

After that, things got confused. With Fear I Kiss the Burning Darkness followed in 1993 but lacked the clarity of the early work, showing a band in conflict over whether it wanted to follow its initial style, or get more power chords and catchy choruses in there. This led to the departure of original member Alf Svensson and regrouping with guitarist Martin Larsson, formerly of House of Usher. At this point, the band reformulated their sound to be more like regular death metal and yet also more like accepted rock music, including displaying the technical chops expected in that field. Now, like countrymen Dissection, At the Gates sounded like a death metal wrapper around a regular rock band, and a good one at that. Interest soared. The band released Slaughter of the Soul to grand acclaim despite the album having more in common with the speed metal of the mid-1980s than the death metal of the 1990s.

After their most popular album ever, the band fragmented when the Björler brothers moved on to form The Haunted. Most metalheads recognize that moment as the ground zero for melodic metalcore, which combined the 1980s speed metal approach to songwriting with the late hardcore tendency to value random riffs stacked together in carnival sideshow music style. However, for a new neurotic generation, this distraction-oriented music was a perfect soundtrack, and The Haunted became a success in its own right. At the Gates put out a few retrospectives and occasionally re-united but basically was dead.

In 2014, it’s hard to imagine the band not making Slaughter of the Soul II. It was their greatest success and introduced themes of self-pity, such as suicide, which are always popular with the youth of narcissistic parents who essentially feel doomed from puberty onward despite living in relative luxury. Slaughter of the Soul was a clear precursor to The Haunted which took the frenetic randomness of bands like Discordance Axis and Human Remains and made it into a new style that, by using the sweet sounds of Iron Maiden-styled harmony, found mass appeal.

At the Gates made the following statement:

We know you are all curious about the new material, and to make a simple explanation of where we are at musically, we would describe it as a perfect mix between early AT THE GATES & ‘Slaughter of the Soul’-era AT THE GATES, trying to maintain the legacy and the history

This leaves us wondering what they consider “early” At the Gates since presumably that’s everything before Slaughter of the Soul, and they did not specifically mention the first EP or LP by name.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EFKuR3-G4K0

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mXbwnMCT79w

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Analyze it to Life: Black Sabbath – Master of Reality

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The resurgence of Black Sabbath following the success of their new album 13 presents an ironic success when compared with the more substantial legacy of their earlier work. Without the first five albums, metal as we now know it would not exist. And on one album in particular, Black Sabbath laid the groundwork for three subgenres — stoner metal, thrash metal and doom metal — such that future generations could pick up the hint and fully develop these new alloys of the raw metal that Black Sabbath forged forty years ago.

Black Sabbath is widely acknowledged by critics and fans as the beginning of heavy metal. From the eerie tri-tone chills of “Black Sabbath” to the menacing crawl of “Electric Funeral,” from the sludge of “Cornucopia” to the pop sensibility of “Killing Yourself to Live,” the black stamp of Black Sabbath radiates forward into the future, culminating in a reprise of their career (including post-Ozzy line-ups) in 13. Ranking the first five Black Sabbath works on a scale of one to five, a convincing argument could be made for either chronological sequence going from best to least. It’s a toss-up for fans and critics alike. Paranoid garners most of the nods as the most influential album from all corners, and many fans cite Vol. 4 as their favorite. Numerous others consider Sabbath Bloody Sabbath the salvation of Black Sabbath, bringing a newer sound to the band

But whichever direction you go, Master of Reality stands in the center. It is the first, and maybe the last, Black Sabbath album from the Ozzy-era (and perhaps from the entire canon) to purge extraneous elements and render a pure metal, so pure that other alloys — especially stoner metal, thrash metal, and doom metal –- would not exist without it. While seeds of different genres surely exist on the other four albums mentioned, I will be arguing that Master of Reality not only undergirds these three subgenres of heavy metal but may well be the finest classic Black Sabbath album.

From start to finish, Master of Reality casts a dark, heavy, menacing, and philosophical spell on the listener. Perhaps “uncompromising” describes it best. As an artifact judged solely on its own composition and delivery, Master of Reality may be the first metal album conceived of as a metal album. While the first two Black Sabbath albums undeniably forge many elements of heavy metal, each deviates at certain points. Black Sabbath has numerous forays into jazz and blues. It’s heavy when it’s heavy, but an almost exploratory vibe pervades about one-third of the album. Paranoid, while certainly heavier overall and much more consistent than Black Sabbath, retains blues and jazz elements that do not appear on Master of Reality. The first two albums stand as classics of the genre, and valid arguments for their status as primordial metal albums absolutely exist. However, the unity and purposefulness of Master of Reality indicate that these albums were like drafts of an essay, brimming with good ideas and clever phrases but ultimately collections of elements rather than unified wholes. Master of Reality starts heavy, grows heavier, and finishes heaviest. As the analysis below will demonstrate, the thematic consistency of this album far exceeds that of its predecessors. The lyrical expression of the themes reflects a deeper and more reasoned understanding of the issues involved. Musically, the songs are tighter and more direct. While the free-form jams of the first two albums are quite interesting and in my opinion as good as anything of the era, they reflect yet again a collection of elements. Master of Reality offers much more stylistic consistency, indicating a more holistic approach to the project.

The opening track, “Sweet Leaf” stands as a blueprint for stoner metal. The lyrics celebrate marijuana as a window to another dimension only the enlightened perceive: “Straight people don’t know what you’re about / They put you down and shut you out / You gave to me a new belief / And soon the world will love you sweet leaf.” The plodding riff that dominates the song permeates the descendant genre. Then the break from around 2:35-3:25 shifts into a proto-thrash mode (especially evident in Bill Ward’s drumming) that will show up again and again on this record. The song concludes with the stoner plodding that begins it.

“After Forever” and “Children of the Grave” carry the proto-thrash elements to the next level. While many critics have begun to agree that “Symptom of the Universe” off Sabotage inaugurates proto-thrash, one hearing of Master of Reality should be adequate evidence that the thrash style was being perfected, not invented, by the time “Symptom” was pressed into vinyl. Taking on religion (and ironically deciding in its favor, saying “They should realize before they criticize / That God is the only way to love”), the shouted lyrics of “After Forever” offer a direct exploration of the question of the soul versus the institutionalized mechanisms that supposedly provide for its sustenance. Both of these themes persist into thrash metal. The up-tempo opening and subsequent power chord extravaganza stand as a stark contrast with the opening track. “Children of the Grave” is pure thrash. Again featuring a shouted vocal, the song amplifies lyrics that challenge war and societal manipulation with verses like “Show the world that love is still alive you must be brave / Or your children of today are children of the grave.” The lyrics of this song presage two of the most prominent themes in thrash metal. Like “Paranoid” before it, “Children of the Grave” chugs forward, adding sustained chord progressions above it. The break from 2:10-2:20 proves itself worthy thrash to this day. Bill Ward’s work heralds the prominence of drums in thrash. Taken together, these two songs form the blueprint for thrash metal.

“Lord of this World,” “Solitude,” and “Into the Void” constitute a “doom suite.” As Osbourne’s plaintive wail pierces our eardrums, evil, demonic possession, psychological instability, and societal collapse penetrate our consciousness like a needle pushing a drug under the skin. The lyrics reflect a pessimism only hinted at in the preceding songs. The song titles themselves indicate a doom ethos. Try to imagine a darker or doomier final song than “Into the Void.” With the exception of a break in “Into the Void,” the tempos, riffs, and rhythms slow to a sometimes mechanistic, sometimes mournful, sometimes throbbing, always menacing procession of deliberate despair. The churning “Lord of this World” offers a view of demonic influence based not on Satan’s assiduity but human apathy: “You made me master of the world where you exist / The soul I took from you was not even missed.” The naysayers vilified in “After Forever” have won, and the dim hope that “God is the only way to love” offered in “After Forever” is snuffed out like a candle after a mass. “Solitude,” a slower, softer song expresses the ennui of a person suffering from self-directed pessimism. Ostensibly about a woman, the lyrics also sustain an interpretation of addiction or perhaps depression: “Crying and thinking is all that I do / Memories I have remind me of you.” The theme of hopelessness would become a staple of doom metal. “Into the Void” comprises interesting movements and perhaps one of the best introductory and main body riffs in all of Black Sabbath. The theme of contradictory practices, probably based on the co-occurrence of the Apollo missions and the Vietnam War, ultimately rests on the fact that hope is an illusion and the only peace that exists comes from journeying into the void — not on a rocket ship but in a grave on a planet “left to Satan and his slaves.” Again, the hope expressed in “After Forever” falls to the psychological manipulation of the children of the grave. The thematic consistency across the album is summarized and re-presented as a void that ultimately becomes the only option: a dark, heavy, menacing, and philosophical elaboration of the pessimism that will come to characterize heavy metal.

Master of Reality presents an overall coherence and depth reflective of a band that has realized its vision. Working out the details during the production of their first two records, Black Sabbath tempered that vision with experience. The musical, lyrical, and thematic sophistication of this album leads to an even heavier sound than had existed before. While it may be that down-tuning contributed to a darker sound, the beauty of this album emerges not from lower notes but from higher understanding. Some may suggest that Vol. 4 goes the next step further, but I would argue that it is the first step down-less consistent, less profound (although of Vol. 4 possesses a rather remarkable lyrical finesse). Sabbath Bloody Sabbath seems in the main a different enterprise than the first four albums (though it does elaborate some of the elements started on Vol. 4.) Some may suggest that Black Sabbath was an almost miraculous first outing, therefore making it best. I would agree that it laid the foundation for the genre but lacks the unity and purpose of Master of Reality, which is the album that confirmed the genre. Some may suggest the commercial success and exposure of Paranoid makes it the best expression of Black Sabbath’s ethos. Paranoid ranks as one of the greatest albums in the Sabbath canon, and many arguments could be made about the songs on Paranoid being their best work. But this analysis seeks to determine the best album. And Paranoid lacks the lyrical, thematic, and musical consistency of Master of Reality. In fact, from my perspective this level of excellence does not reappear until Heaven and Hell. But that album resulted from a new line-up and a new vision. In the end, I have to choose Master of Reality over Heaven and Hell.

A true testament to the importance of this album appears in the track list for 1997’s live collection Reunion. If we accept the postulate that Black Sabbath intended this collection to be a compendium representing the legacy of the Ozzy era as it stood at that time, the importance of Master of Reality becomes clear. Only four songs from the final five albums of the era are included. Only three are chosen from the eponymous first album. That leaves five songs each from Paranoid and Master of Reality (I’ll concede that “Orchid” is less important than any of the songs from Paranoid, yet there it is). With many fine tunes available from the final five albums, Black Sabbath included two-thirds of Master of Reality (four of six full-length songs). Surely they would not have featured so much of this album (and so little of the final five) if they did not want it to represent their legacy.

At the very least, Master of Reality caps the most important three-album sequence in the history of heavy metal. Although the first two albums present fierce, fatalistic, and fear-laden songs, songs with symphonic sensibilities and fusion-based energy, Master of Reality far exceeds both of them as a holistic project. The musical consistency and thematic pessimism of this album refines the ethos and aesthetic of the first two albums into a tighter work of art, at once more controlled and more innovative, perhaps because of the greater degree of precision and planning. Further, the variety of styles and increasing darkness of the themes and lyrics as the album progresses create the design signatures for the stoner, thrash, and doom metal of today, making it more influential than a cursory understanding would indicate. As a result Master of Reality reigns as the finest Black Sabbath album.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xRKGKXL1seE

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Immortal Pure Holocaust is 20 today

immortal-pure_holocaustIf you bought Immortal’s Pure Holocaust the day it was released, and conceived a child in the ensuing fury, that child would be entering college age today.

Our review, written in the year of this CD’s release, captures much of what makes this album great. There are two levels to its greatness, stylistic and content, and while related they cannot be made equivalent.

Stylistically, Immortal on their second album saw the ambient and atmospheric tendencies of black metal and developed them. First, they used lightning fast chaotic drumming that quickly reduced the drums to a background timekeeper, allowing riffs to change phrase freely without being trapped by a specific rhythmic pattern. Second, they upgraded the speed of their guitars and level of reverbed distortion to create a sonic tunnel of sound that from a distance, sounds more like a synthesizer with heavy sustain than a guitar.

In content, Immortal focused what it was to be black metal: naturalism. Like the creatures of nature, or its mercurial winds and storms, black metal is not “rational” and “moral” in the human way, but practical in a way that humans — even non-Christian ones — are often afraid to understand. However, it is a method that a forest creature or great tree would understand, a cross between Zen buddhism and the feral antagonism of a wandering predator. Incorporating previous themes of occultism, tribalism, cosmicism and warfare, Immortal fused the ideas of black metal into a singular concept. As such, this album defies all categories of logic or music, at least the human ones. To a wolf or jaguar, it would make perfect sense.

The result was a blaze of noise and musical terror that swept black metal into its second age. Pure Holocaust, along with Transilvanian Hunger (Darkthrone) the following year, moved black metal beyond the framework established by its 1980s origins in Bathory and Celtic Frost. Now it was something new, something emotional without being self-pitying, some cold and element floating above the clouds. Something that could not be tamed.

While most popular entertainment fades away after only a few years, and with good reason, Pure Holocaust remains strong two decades later. Without having heard it, or any black metal, a music listener can take this off the rack and throw it on the player — even if that means double-clicking — and be lost in an entirely different world, and inspired to try to create that here on modern earth.

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First in Line: Metallica – Kill ‘Em All

metallica-kill_em_allThirty years ago, a struggling band from California unleashed their first album and changed the world of heavy metal forever. The genre that they may not have invented but certainly formalized was speed metal, and it represented the start of heavy metal’s journey away from verse-chorus rock into the dual worlds of hardcore punk intensity and progressive rock song structures.

At first, these changes were less obvious. Kill ‘Em All owes a huge debt to the heavy metal that came before it, and embraces many of the conventions of rock music as well, but it funneled them through a singular filter and achieved a uniformity of sound. In addition, this new style crept in with a number of innovations, like the use of introductions and instrumentals to change song structure, that presaged where this new subgenre would go.

From a casual observer’s position, the first Metallica album isn’t that far removed from its predecessors. The dual influences of UK heavy metal and hardcore punk are clear, as is the distinctive feature of speed metal: the muted strum that produces a choppy explosive sound from percussive lead rhythm guitar, allowing the construction of more complex riffs by making the power chord a building block instead of a place where the riff rests, as open chords are in rock.

Kill ‘Em All showed a new blueprint for metal that developed the extremity of Motorhead with the intricate riffery of Judas Priest and other NWOBHM bands, making for a brainy album that relied on speed to cram all of its power into songs of a normal length. In addition, the speed kicked it up to a new level of complexity in riffing. Speed reveals the sparseness of a riff, and so the one- and two-note riffs of the past would seem immensely repetitive at a faster pace. Thus the riff itself grew with speed metal.

Conceptually, metal grew up with Kill ‘Em All as well, at least partly. Yes, there were some embarrassing songs that sounded like West Side Story retrofitted for violent Northern California speed metal gangs. But more importantly, there was an epic view of existence. Songs about fate, about the fall of civilization, and dark lore that reveals the topics feared by daylight conversation all gave the album a weight beyond its (merely) heavy riffs. Like hardcore punk, this was the howling voice of the apocalypse at our door.

One of Metallica’s most important contributions was to liberate the riff from the drums, hence the “lead rhythm guitar” designation that appeared with many speed metal bands. Following the lead of UK crust punk bands like Discharge, Metallica viewed the drums as a background timekeeper which framed the riff loosely rather than accentuated it, and thus the riff could change without the drums changing. This allowed the riff to change more frequently without forcing tempo changes, although the band delighted in abrupt and surprising tempo changes as well.

Speed metal took this pattern and ran with it. While its antecedents are clear, such as the proto-speed metal of Satan/Blitzkrieg and Motorhead, and the fast-fingered intricate melodic riffs of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, the new speed metal band from California turned up the intensity and pushed aside conventional song structures. This set metal free from the world of rock, and laid the groundwork for the next generation, which would not only inherit the true lawlessness of hardcore punk, but build up complexity to be closer to the world of progressive rock.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The enduring beauty of Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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