Massacra – Sick

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Our minds quickly forget the vapidity of the 1990s amongst the greatest that some bands managed to achieve. In particular, its hangover from the 1980s was so unmemorable that the mind gratefully forgets it. That hangover was the attempt by industry and musicians to cash in on the notoriety of metal and the accessibility of rock by hybridizing the two.

In particular, this appealed to record execs. Why? They were all Baby Boomers. Their world defined itself through a search for the next Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd. As a result they found death metal to be totally alien, black metal to be unlistenable, and even most punk to be incomprehensible. Why don’t they just throw in a flute solo?

Straight in the middle of this process Massacra release Sick in 1994. Everything about it screams middle-90s when computer technology hit the point where you really could do just about anything from a desktop, but not quite do it well. Thus everything hit the page in bold colors, funky font tricks, and so on. Looking back, it resembles the 1980s teased hair and bright colored clothing: technological convenience. Similarly, the style of speed metal erupting with Pantera represented technological convenience.

Recording studios finally grokked how to record heavy guitar sounds so that the precision of the muted palm technique could be heard, which encouraged bands to divide aggressive rhythms with internal syncopation and expanding recursion, so that one rhythm broke down into several internal rhythms all of which outlined a “bounce” or offbeat rhythm based on slightly delayed expectation. This mixed funk (arguably the roots of rap), rock and metal into an abomination uniquely suited for dumb obedient tools of the system who wanted to blow off some steam before another shift and another six-pack of watery beer.

Sick represents a higher intelligence approach to this tradition and cites freely from the speed metal world, including the album that almost every intelligent metalhead had in the early 1990s, Prong’s Beg to Differ (which along with Exhorder and Vio-Lence influenced the Pantera sound). The band make conscious attempts to be avant-garde, most of which consist piledriver series of riffs ending in non-distorted semi-classical passages. If you wondered, however, where Meshuggah got their sound starting at this time, Sick seems to be the place. The same polyrhythms, the same use of groove between aggressive passages. Sick came out in May, and None (the first EP where Meshuggah demonstrated its modern technique) in November. Even the production has similar coloring, but this tells you all you need to know the sound here: based on expectation, like dogs chasing laser pointers, lots of bounce, basically rock structures subdivided by a proliferation of related riffs using the same concepts.

Most modern metalheads will experience embarrassment upon hearing this record. Like most fads, the bounce-metal fad experienced only very narrow relevance within a certain time period, and now sounds dated and awkward. Worse still is that a band like Massacra, no matter what their record label thinks, possesses too much talent to successfully chase a trend. What you get instead is something split between the music that they are good at making, and the music that industry wishes they would make (rewarmed Hendrix and Zeppelin, themselves rewarmed blues, itself rewarmed country music, that in turn rewarmed European folk music).

The tragedy is that much of the innovation that late 1990s bands relied upon in connecting together musical passages of this nature came from Sick or the prior release. American fans may forget how influential Massacra was (and is) in Europe, and how many American musicians heard it even when fans couldn’t find it in stores or on MTV (then an important method for mainstream fans of finding metal). Among the riffs that our minds skip over because we have heard the archetype so many times, great riffs populate this album at a 1:3 ratio to the rest. Some of the soloing contains concepts we have not yet heard metal elaborate on, and clearly someone thought hard about how to structure these songs. Musicians might keep Sick around as part of their book of tricks.

As far as a listening experience goes, Sick falls short in the range somewhere between “fru-fru” and “embarrassing.” Most metalheads would not want to be caught dead listening to this album, which sounds like the underground finally adopting how the mainstream saw metal (i.e. angry groovy drunken rock ‘n roll). The irony of course is brutal. By the time 1994 rolled around, Shark Records had fixed its US distribution problems and was able to get a record into just about every store. This meant that American metalheads who had heard tape-traders raving about Massacra for years finally got a chance to buy some and found this turd of an album belching in their faces. This, and the thin production on the first two Massacra albums which bothered American metalheads more than Europeans who liked the mids-centric feel of Bathory’s Blood, Fire, Death, relegated Massacra to a ring outside the inner circle of famous underground metal bands. Hopefully that will change someday, but not through Sick it would seem.

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Massacra re-issues arrive

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Century Media’s re-issues of classic Massacra works Final Holocaust, Enjoy the Violence and Signs of the Decline have landed. Massacra began innovating its high-speed Slayer-influenced style of death metal in the late 1980s and refined it to a frenetic blur of sound and aggression.

Final Holocaust inherits an updated production without excessive compression; it brings more tone and some but not dramatic loudness to the picture, which will be perfect on both vinyl and CD without obliterating the original sound or distorting it. Greater bass presence lets this album compete with other acts from that time whose work was more physically heavy in addition to being musically heavy as Massacra has always excelled at being. In addition, five additional tracks from a 1990 live show somewhere in France and a deluxe booklet with interview, snippets of old zines, and complete song lyrics finish out the package. This live show reveals the most chaotic version of Massacra yet with heavier live guitars and more extreme vocals. The band show their unique ability to play together live with an organic flow that does not necessarily correspond to the types of rhythm one might expect from the more mechanical music to follow.

Enjoy the Violence experiences similar upgraded sound with similar attention given to the need to preserve the classic sound of these now-ancient assaults. Similarly, the lower registers have been brought out with power that complements the otherwise mids-intensive production. A lack of knob-fiddling preserves the period document while a crisper sound gives it a similar intensity to the modern styles without going overboard into compression hell. Five additional tracks follow the album from a rehearsal in 1991, showing songs from the first album at peak proficiency and maximum intensity. These tracks give a feeling for how the band joined past to future without being merely repetitive. Having them on the second album rather than the first creates a powerful contrast as the album ends.

Signs of the Decline shows Massacra adapting to the departure of Fred Death halfway through the album’s creation and simultaneously attempting to evolve in parallel with the death metal it helped create. If someone ever asks for the difference between old school death metal and “regular” death metal, point them to the break between the last album and this one. Gestures at technicality and even crazier more fireworks-laden guitars and more of a speed metal rhythmic sense, using chunky chords in geometric divisions to create an expanding recursion, alongside an impulse toward what would be called “brutality” guide this album. Many parts of it show similarities to Sepultura Arise and Incantation from about the same period. The band is simultaneously racing toward something like Morbid Angel’s Covenant, which seems to have felt some influence from this album, and a percussive polyrythmic speed/death inhabiting the spectrum from Kreator through Deicide. Two additional tracks from a live show in Germany the previous year showcase two tracks from the previous album in grinding loudness and yet fully proficient rhythmic work, but the contrast between the two styles jars the listener. The earlier material integrates more smoothly and demonstrates its own presence. The later material, more hesitant, tries to be in too many places at once without having yet made its conclusions about how each element of style should be used.

Massacra often gets cheated out of the credit it deserves because most people see that the first album was issued in 1990. However, the band had three years of demos before that time which showed an advanced vision of death metal in the old school phrasal style like Morbid Angel, Slayer, Vader, Mortuary and early Incantation. It avoided the bounciness of speed metal and instead created a rhythmic sense that propelled energy through its listeners, rather than stopping with them as it chopped its momentum into ever smaller slices with muted palm strumming. Seeing these classics ride again — especially since German Shark Records who published them the first time had terrible distribution in the USA — shows new generations how to rediscover the ancient but vital past.

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Wormreich – Wormcult Revelations

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In darkness heavy metal finds its greatest friend. From the ominous tritone of Black Sabbath to the most vicious and bestial extreme metal of the modern day, diving into the abyss to find meaning has been metal’s clarion call. Keeping true to that paradigm, and displaying the ability to build upon it, Wormreich have crafted an EP of atonal black metal titled Wormcult Revelations.

Standing above ordinary circular composition, Womreich use leitmotifs if even on a small scale to expand the power of experience in this work. The narrative of this EP reveals itself through four songs which share returning ideas across the album, like a Satanic opera concluding in sinister victory. Cold and dark riffs, like a gathering of fervent souls brought together to recite the devil’s gospel, enclose this stygian mood. The dark, horror-like atmosphere of this EP separates this band from similar acts. The two instrumental keyboard tracks, “Shaare-Maveth” and “Codex Lvciferivm” use the dark-ambient style to emphasize that murky atmosphere.

Wormreich succeed in delivering a batch of haunting and devilish black metal similar to the likes of Aosoth, old Watain, and Deathspell Omega. Wormcult Revelations leads you through a whirlwind of smoke and fire for an authentic ritual experience.

Track Listing:
I. Revelation I: Vox in Rama 2:30
II. Revelation II: Serpents of Choronzon 7:06
III. Shaare-Maveth 1:57
IV. Revelation III: Devotion’s Final War 7:15
V. Revelation IV: Enim Satanas Meum Sanguinem 7:25
VI. Codex Lvciferivm 5:08
VII. Malign Paradigm [Deathspell Omega cover] 4:45

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Metallica’s Lars Ulrich identifies perceived metal class divide

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Attitudes toward metal differ between Europe and the United States with the UK in the middle. One thing remains certain: until metal started prettying itself up with accepted genres like lite-jazz and indie rock, and adopting socially cherished “civilized” attitudes, it got nowhere on a big scale.

In vaunted music magazine NME Lars Ulrich (Metallica) attacks the perceived class divide between hard rock/heavy metal fans and the “sophisticated” mainstream rock audience:

In an interview for BBC 6 Music, the Metallica drummer and founding member complained about the media’s attitude to hard rock. He continued: “People have short attention spans in 2014… They like things broken down into easy, digestible sound-bites. It’s like, Metallica at Glastonbury, what’s the sound-bite? ‘Here comes the big bad heavy metal band to our precious little festival.’ I don’t think it’s genuinely like that… but there obviously are people who snub their nose a little bit at hard rock, and look at hard rock as inferior or lower-class, some sort of lower music form or something, and [think] that the people who listen to hard rock are less educated.”

Speaking about the same festival, the Glastonbury pop fest in the UK, Bruce Dickinson (Iron Maiden) voiced a similar viewpoint but more from another angle — mainly an angle of attack:

He said: “In the days when Glasto was an alternative festival it was quite interesting.

“Now it is the most bourgeois thing on the planet. Anywhere Gwyneth Paltrow goes and you can live in an air-conditioned yurt is not for me.

“We’ll leave the middle classes to do Glastonbury and the rest of the great unwashed will decamp to Knebworth and drink lots of beer and have fun.”

American fans are used to this. In movies and books we are portrayed as the blue collar dropouts who work in garages and smoke too much dope to compensate for failure at life. This reveals both a snobbery against blue collar labor that is unconscionable, and the pretense of those making the distinction. They like to think they’re elevated to a higher grade of person because they’ve choked down eight years of education and work in office jobs (and only smoke expensive dope from exotic locales).

This stereotype both serves media interests and belittles metal. It enables the media to have an easy cue for its “bad boy” characters and to sell products based on that “rebel without a clue” image, but it also lets them subtly inform the rest of us that they, the writers and producers, are obviously much higher in the evolutionary chain than us neanderthals.

Indie rock and lite-jazz appeal to such people. The more precious and deliberately weird their music is, the more “educated” they assume they are. In the meantime, it’s metal fans out there who not only keep music from falling into an abyss of self-congratulatory clones, but also keep our infrastructure running. Whether we’re blue collar or something else, we’re realists… and we make sure stuff works while the rest of these clowns are posing.

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Empire Auriga – Ascending the Solar Throne

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American ambient-metal band Empire Auriga’s second album Ascending the Solar Throne expands the style pioneered by Burzum through the “Decrepitude” I& II tracks from “anti-black metal” album Filosofem. Ascending the Solar Throne comprises songs that are cold, distant, and simplistic. These spacious compositions rely on the repetition of arpeggiated guitars providing a base for reverb-drenched and piercing treble guitars to shine through, along with an anguished yet faint vocal accompaniment. Although the band forgoes the use of percussion entirely, tempi are regular and recursive song segments are identifiable. Synths or heavy guitar effects lightly sprinkle the mix almost as decoration, enhancing the presentation of the album but not interfering with its texture.

Expressing the desolation of technological existence, Empire Auriga weaves a journey through an inner experience of an individual separated from the external world of perception through pain, before coming to rest in a more peaceful place. Gradually moving from aggressive and dissonant chords in the beginning towards a calmer and safer mild major key conclusion, Ascending the Solar Throne is unfortunately unable to complete the journey which is hinted at in the opening tracks. Instead of turning the nihilism present into existential achievement, the album instead retreats into the safe and vacuous womb which afflicts most post-modern music.

Rather than confronting the question of one’s existence directly, as Filosofem did so elegantly, the choice instead is made to ignore it. This disappointment aside, Ascending the Solar Throne is an interesting album which attempts something rare in contemporary music: an artistic voyage. For that reason, it deserves consideration and acknowledgment where it succeeds, but ultimately the listener will be left slightly hollow and bereft.

Ascending the Solar Throne will be released on August 19th via Moribund Records.

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Why the art world rejected metal

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Metal took its time to be accepted by social institutions. At the outset, metal appeared to most as another variety of rock. But with NWOBHM it distinguished itself and then went underground with speed metal. During those years, society rejected metal first for its repugnance to conservative moral ideals, and next for its alienation of liberal social ideals. It thus made itself friendless in a time where having political clout matters.

One reason for a lack of acceptance by some areas, such as the art world, is that metal is not controllable. As Bruce Dickenson (Iron Maiden) said in a recent interview:

The closest the “art establishment” ever came to embracing metal was punk. The reason they embraced punk was because it was rubbish and the reason they embraced rubbish was because they could control it. They could say: “Oh yeah, we’re punk so we can sneer at everybody. We can’t play our fucking instruments, but that means we can make out that this whole thing is some enormous performance art.” Half the kids that were in punk bands were laughing at the art establishment, going: “What a fucking bunch of tosspots. Thanks very much, give us the money and we’ll fuck off and stick it up our nose and shag birds.” But what they’d really love to be doing is being in a heavy metal band surrounded by porn stars.”

During the 1980s, Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) demanded warning stickers on music with content that advocated drugs, casual or perverse sex, violence and mayhem. Naturally this included most of heavy metal (sex) and most of speed metal (violence). Until rap music came along and blew those old standards out of the water by making most of heavy metal’s worst moments look tame, a real threat of economic censorship — forcing up the cost and legal risk of selling heavy metal, thus encouraging record stores to quit selling it — hovered over heavy metal.

Although the transition to online sales (1998) and resulting lack of control helped, another factor changed which put metal into hyperdrive as far as social acceptance: it found an audience in mainstream politics. As the Washington Post wrote in “Heavy Metal Gets Socially Conscious”:

More than three decades after Black Sabbath conjured images of the dark arts, heavy metal is growing up. The genre is increasingly incorporating social and political messages into its dense power chords.

The art world did not accept metal in the past because it could not be controlled. Neither did the moral world, nor the political world. Now metal has created a hybrid of itself — the indie rock, lite-jazz and grindcore infused postmodern metal genres — that is artistically acceptable, morally tame and politically acceptable. The question remains: does that mean that it is now controlled?

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Heavy metal as an industry

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Anyone who lived as a metal fan in the 1970s and 1980s remembers The Line: some bands were rock enough to make it into the newspaper, others were “too metal.” Major newspapers never covered Slayer, rarely covered Metallica, and generally drew The Line at anything heavier than Guns ‘n Roses. Thus even major bands like AC/DC got cut out of the mix.

No more. As the image above illustrates, the front page of goody-two-shoes news network CNN shows us the latest about the AC/DC 40th Anniversary Tour. Even the biggest megaphone for mainstream news which spends most of its time nagging us about our bad habits or flashing sensationalistic messages of world decay finally acknowledges heavy metal. In the 1980s, this would have been unthinkable. And yet, now we’re here.

What’s behind metal’s legitimization? It’s not so underground anymore, being one of the bigger non-rock/pop genres. It’s also not so extreme, since rap opened up the lyrical gates to violence, lust and obscenity and nu-metal got radio accustomed to heavy crunch (and lyrics about parental neglect). But most importantly, metal is now an industry. With enough consistent fans and labels behind it, and those labels having found a way to “metalize” or “metal-flavor” just about anything (indie, rock, jazz, blues, industrial), metal now provides one of the pillars of the entertainment industry.

Even more, heavy metal is now a recognized part of our culture. Rap music represents a certain kind of rebellion or a certain kind of irony. Heavy metal raises the flag for a certain kind of rebellion that is both cluelessly adolescent and “old soul” world-weary and informed. It’s a feeling we all have, and its appeal seems to be increasing.

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Heavy metal’s relationship to religion

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If you ask a metalhead about the relationship between heavy metal and religion, you’ll no doubt get a few different answers. Some will tell you that it stands in firm opposition to all religion, some will list off a plethora of Christian heavy metal bands, and some have no opinion on the subject and just wanna headbang and tune out.

Perhaps there is half-truth to these assessments: Deicide’s militant anti-Christian message is obvious even to the most passive listener, but on the other hand heavy metal with Christian themed lyrics has existed since its inception with Black Sabbath. In addition, many bands use occult imagery in either an artistic or neutrally atheistic way.

But maybe there’s another road to take, maybe these assessments are analyzing the relationship incorrectly.

I was an atheist for four years of my life (age 12-16). I was fairly vocal and enthusiastic about it as well, looking upon anything religious with scorn. I was very stereotypical when it came to my atheism too: I posted anti-religious memes on social media, went into silly debates with random creationists, and I had no real understanding of science, I just vomited forth Richard Dawkins’ philosophy.

But sometime within my 16th year, my outlook changed. I began to listen to heavy metal more actively, and my atheism slowly faded into wonder. It seemingly lashed at my inflated ego and made me face the possibility of something greater than myself. It challenged me to be more ambitious with my existence, and to want more out of life.

Prior to my revelation, I had a very human-centric view of the world, but Hellhammer’s “Only Death is Real” concept made me look at this in a whole new light. Death will take everyone regardless of their status in life; in the end, it is the only victor. This is important because it weakens the ego of the individual, and forces them to look elsewhere for meaning. Humility before something more powerful than yourself (death) is an undeniably religious concept, and has grown to be the core ideology of death metal for decades.

Religion itself is very important to heavy metal, where would legends like Slayer and Morbid Angel be without it? Metal has always expressed a deep reverence for power, and what greater power than the omnipresent force of the cosmos? Some perceive it as God or Gods, some perceive it as Satan, and some perceive it as nothing more than a functional force that keeps the universe rolling. All of these possibilities are astonishing, and have inspired the greatest sense of awe and wonder in mankind throughout history.

Heavy metal has become not only my passion, but my guiding light to a life that I may not understand completely, but that I’m learning more about every day. It has taught me to appreciate and find beauty in all aspects of the world, from the worms in the earth to the birds in the sky. It — like every other aspect of an intense life — is a form of worship in itself.

So if, as a parent, you see your son/daughter with a copy of Slayer’s Hell Awaits, fear not. Heavy metal inspires a sense of wonder and passion. That wonder may very well turn their eyes to the stars, and that passion may very well ignite their flame of life.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wvHsX2lSW64

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God Macabre – The Winterlong re-issued

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Relapse records slotted the re-release of God Macabre’s 1993 album The Winterlong for June 10, 2014 in the US, June 6 (Germany) and June 9 (UK/World). Situated squarely within the old school Swedish Death Metal camp, this album represents a logical extension of Entombed’s Left Hand Path. Here you will find nothing less than what one would expect of an old school Swedish Death Metal record; foreboding doom, neoclassical melody, ferocity, and nods to the dramatics of heavy metal. Complete with the infamous Sunlight Studio production, The Winterlong remains an enduring study, and will provide neophytes with new source material, remind the veterans of what once was, and thankfully become a readily available source of inspiration for years to come.

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iUm1NlCUs9M

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How the internet changed heavy metal

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Many of the old school metal fans observed how the rise of the Internet coincided with the death of the underground and its replacement with the “funderground.” They opine how one-click access to music removed much of the challenge of finding music and created a culture of casual acceptance, not aggressively finding and hoarding quality material. There’s truth in that, surely. But there are other effects as well.

For example, easy access to music limited the emphasis on quality. When you buy music with limited funds, you tend to care about the best and/or cutting-edge material only. When the cost of trying out a new band is nothing, the tendency is to listen once and then file it by aesthetic category. “Sounds about like regular death metal. I need something different, maybe with a flute or jazz licks.”

Two more subtle effects occurred as well. First, the Internet in its post-AOL incarnation become fundamentally a social place. Metal on the internet became regulated by this social influence because the people talking about music on the Internet did so from a social outlook. They wanted to meet other people, and the music was secondary to that. As a result people began searching more for the ironic and music with novelty, leading to a rise in hipster-metal and related forms.

Second, the Internet made basic information about technique and style easily available. Learning how to write death metal no longer required listening, learning and working with other bands, zines, radio, etc. The user could visit a forum or any number of blogs and get a quick overview, which encouraged people to migrate over from other genres and adopt metal technique to the composition used in those other genres. This was not so much a genre mashup as an extraneous genre disguised as heavy metal.

With those two factors, emphasis switched from the music itself to the music as a “flavoring” to be applied to something else. Whether social flavoring, or a way to dress up those post-punk slash lite jazz hymns that your band had been kicking around for a decade, metal became the outlet for those impulses. The tendency of our media and society to see metal as “rebellious” made it a natural target because just about everyone wants to be different these days, in other words, rebels against the normal way of doing things.

In theory — which sometimes corresponds to reality — this would precipitate a focus not on the outward aspects of metal but its inward attributes, like spirit, compositional style and content. That day may come, but now that’s a much harder sell. It’s easier to dress up the same crap, push it down the line and produce it from your desktop, then spend all of your focus on the social and surface appearance aspects of the music. That’s how success is made these days.

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