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Interview: Amber R. Clifford-Napoleone

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Amber R. Clifford-Napoleone is Associate Professor of Anthropology, and Curator of the McClure Archives and University Museum, at the University of Central Missouri. She specializes in the study of gender and sexuality in music scenes, and also works as in textile curation and preventive conservation.

Dr. Clifford-Napoleone also curates the largest collections of Middle Eastern traditional material culture in America. She is also a lifelong metal fan and one of the founders of the International Society for Metal Music Studies. She lives in rural Missouri with her wife, three dogs, and a very large collection of industrial metal.

We were lucky to get a few words with Dr. Clifford-Napoleone on the topic of metal and its relation to power and her study area of specialty.

You are an anthropologist. What drew you to this discipline?

I got into anthropology as a young child. I used to pretend I was Howard Carter in King Tut’s tomb! I started volunteering at a museum, working for an anthropologist, when I was a freshman in high school. I planned on being an archaeologist, but I didn’t like the excavations as much as the lab work. Then I started working in material culture studies and ethnography, and everything just clicked. I love the way that anthropology teaches us how to be more human, to revel in diversity as our biological imperative, to really see the world for the enormous ball of complexity that it is.

What is the anthropological perspective on heavy metal? Has this been enhanced by your own personal knowledge of and enjoyment of this genre?

Lots of folks might think anthropology and heavy metal is an odd fit, but actually anthropologists have worked on topics in heavy metal for a long time. Jeremy Wallach, one of the founders of metal studies, is a cultural anthropologist working on heavy metal in Indonesia. Sam Dunn, whom I am sure many of your readers know from his films, is an anthropologist from Canada. There are many others. For an anthropologist, all aspects of human life are considered both unique and important. That extends to heavy metal as well, and anthropologists who work on heavy metal topics discuss is cultural, social, artistic and sonic effects in all sorts of ways. As to your second question, the answer is a resounding yes. I tell my own students that they will always be successful if their career engages them in things they are passionate about. I love heavy metal, and my passion for heavy metal is absolutely part of my ability to think, talk and write about metal as an anthropologist.

You’ve got a book coming out in 2014 about queer fans in heavy metal. Can you tell me more about what’s going to be in it?

My book on queer fans (Queerness in Heavy Metal: Metal Bent, to be published by Routledge and released in February 2015) is the result of seven years of work talking to queer fans, and researching the influence of queer performers and lyrics on heavy metal scenes. My book includes a lot of material about the role queerness played, and continues to play, in heavy metal. That includes the information I received from over 500 self-identified queer fans who took my online survey, and dozens that participated in individual interviews with me. I see my work as transdisciplinary- anthropology certainly, but also metal studies, ethnomusicology, cultural studies, gender and sexuality. I’m trying to make the case the metal is inherently a queer institution.

How do you study queer fans of heavy metal? What kind of barriers do you face in trying to contact them, learn about them and so on?

Queer fans of heavy metal are more connected than you might think. There are a handful of active discussion groups, listservs and websites devoted to queer fans of heavy metal, as well as some Facebook groups and blogs. As a queer metal fan myself, I was already a member of a lot of those groups. Once I started posting the link to the survey online, queer fans just sent it out to other lists, groups, and folks that they knew. I’ve also posted it on my blog and website, and always talk about it when I give lectures or papers at conferences. Because my survey is anonymous, queer fans feel pretty comfortable telling me exactly what they think too. I ended up with information from queer fans from six continents and 39 countries.

Rob Halford is generally credited with heavy metal’s imagery of leather clothing, whips, motorcyles and studded leather belts. In one VH1 documentary I watched (yes a very credible source!) one of the pundits credited this imagery to the gay community in London in the 1970s. In your view, is this correct? Has heavy metal appropriated most of its image from the gay community?

In my opinion, there is absolutely no doubt that Halford started that trend, and even less doubt that it came from the gay leather community. This is one of the things I discuss in detail in my book. Did earlier metal acts wear leather jackets? Sure, taken either from post-World War II bomber jacket style, or late 1960s leather belted coats, or even from the post-war motorcycle culture in America and the Rockers in the UK. The problem is, if you take an image of Halford premiering his leather look, and set it side-by-side with Sabbath or Motorhead or even Blue Cheer, you’ll see that Halford’s leather is entirely different. Ozzy wore striped bell bottom jeams and a brown belted coat for many of their early appearances. Even Alice Cooper wore bell bottoms and white clothes on stage until Halford picked up a whip. If you take that same iconic image of Halford’s leather look and set it next to images from gay leather culture, you have an exact match. Rob Halford has, over the years, given some different statements on whether he identified with leather culture or not, but that’s where the look came from. What I find interesting is not only that heavy metal style comes from gay leather culture, but how heavy metal also appropriated the masculinity that came with that and then pretended that didn’t happen. If you really think about it, if we push masculinity to its limits can we get any more masculine than muscular leather men who only have sex with other men? Funny that heavy metal keeps trying to refashion that as straight male masculinity, when it never was.

Other than overlap between members, what do you think are the similarities between the heavy metal experience and the gay experience? Are both outsider groups, thus privy to certain knowledge that the socially accepted cannot perceive, or is it something else?

I can tell you one thing for certain- the queer fans I’ve spoken with see and feel an overlap. One fan called this feeling “outsider togetherness,” this idea that queer metal fans are outsiders in two overlapping worlds. The similarities between these overlapping outsider worlds are the kinds of similarities that anthropologists see in most marginalized groups: a coded language, symbols that mean something specific that people who are not outsiders do not understand, certain styles, and particular ways of using space. For example, let’s consider the dog collar, a popular accessory in heavy metal and punk scenes. I remember in the 1980s, we all did odd jobs around my neighborhood so we could buy studded dog collars at pet stores to look tough. I had a leather studded collar that I actually took off my dog to wear, and I equated it with being tough and being metal. That was the symbol of being a metal chick. Now, many years later, I know that people in BDSM relationships refer to certain submissives as being “collared” or “under the collar.” For BDSM-identified folks, seeing someone in a leather vest and a collar might mean something much more complex than just “I’m a tough metal chick.” The coded ways of existing in marginalized groups is complex insider knowledge, and for queer fans of heavy metal, even more complex because you can see where the codes overlap.

You also have expertise in textiles and their conservation. Are there any parallels you can draw between the conservation of textiles and the conservation of a culture or art form? What about a lifestyle?

Conservation is a big and tricky word. The idea is that you are preventing further damage, keeping something safe for perpetuity. As a museum curator, I work with textiles so that future generations can access them, study them, and perhaps understand something about the people who used them. I think that, in some way, we are always involved in the act of conserving our culture, whether that be lifestyles or arts or anything else. We record our music, we photograph things that signal our interests, we hand down important belongings- even the selfie that we see so often in social media is an example of conserving yourself, your life. How often do you tell a story about yourself, post a pic of your dinner or your beer on Facebook, post your music and art to the web so that others can rip, save or archive it? I think that for me, and speaking as a museum curator, the biggest conservation challenge is a digital one. It will be interesting to see what is actually conserved from an increasingly digital world. After all, how many emails do we actually print to save for some future archive?

Conserving a lifestyle or an art form is difficult. As an anthropologist, I think it might even be impossible. You cannot stop change. Human beings change, their environment changes, societies expand and contract. Art objects, recordings or paintings or quilts, we can conserve those. But conserving a lifestyle suggests we can trap humans in time like ancient insects encased in amber. And we can’t. Even if we could, I’m not sure we should. Heavy metal, as a subculture and an assemblage of scenes, has so many artifacts to leave behind: sounds, styles, film, images, on and on. But conserving the actual feeling of standing on a floor with a thousand other metalheads, blast beats shaking your bones, heads banging in rhythm? I don’t think we could conserve that any more than we could conserve our other feelings. Heavy metal has to change too, it is a human movement.

In a blog post, you mention studying the connections between leather and metal communities. What kind of connections are these? How do we observe them?

The connections are long-standing and quite deep. The first gay rights organization chartered in the United States was a leather motorcycle club, The Satyrs. Young metalheads, and later industrial and goth metal fans, found themselves welcomed in leather bars, clubs and parties where their tastes in style were not seen as threatening. After Halford premiered his leather look the ties became even more solid: metal performers donning leather gear, leather organizations using metal imagery and language, even the appearance of metal tracks at leather bars and parties. I think the key to observing them, however, is to know the history of leather-identified people in the western world. Leather-identified folks have been vilified and stereotyped for decades, both people in the queer communities and people form the straight communities. If you really want to understand those connections, you have to engage with leather culture in a new way. A visit to the Leather Archives and Museum in Chicago is a great start, I can never thank the staff there enough for everything they do for the leather community and its history. My week there as Visiting Scholar was one of the most important intellectual periods of my career.

You refer to metal as a “transitory space.” What defines a transitory space? What can be done in a transitory space that can’t be done in a regular cultural/artistic space?

Transitory essentially means temporary, almost an ethereal space that will only be there for a blink in time. If we think about metal concerts, for example, I think we see a good example. Imagine a concert experience you’ve had: the sound, the crowd, the music in your ears and the bass thumping in your bones. But when the concert ends, the metal space evaporates. The memory of it sits in your brain and your bones, but the next concert will be nothing like the one before. Transitory spaces provide a place for playing with the rules, because it is all going up in smoke anyway. I went to a Killswitch Engage show last year, and down in the mosh pit was a very tall, extremely muscular guy in a Little Bo Peep outfit. He was moshing with ferocity, with his bonnet on and his lace skirts flapping away. Am I going to see that at every show? Hell no, I’ve been going to shows for 25 years and that’s my first Bo Peep in the moshpit. Did I see that, hear it, feel it the same way as the guy standing next to me? Not even possible, I have no idea what he was thinking about Bo Peep. And when the show was over, Bo Peep was gone. You can’t play like that in a permanent space. If I showed up at the office tomorrow in a Bo Peep outfit, I’d be sent home.

For many years I’ve considered metal to be music dedicated to power, where most other music is dedicated to satiation. Do you see power as important in metal? How do power, sex and attitudes toward gender reveal themselves?

Power is such a slippery concept, isn’t it. Power over what, or who? Empowered or powerful? I agree, I think metal is about power. But I also think metal is about the brutality of life, about survival no matter how bloody the battle. Power in metal is so much about metal as a home for outsiders, a place where those of us who feel like we don’t fit (for whatever reason) find a place where the extremity of the sound matches the extremity of our experiences. It is a power that really refuses to bow to authority, and a bodily refusal at that since metal is so physical. So in metal we’re not really saying “I’m in power, I will tell you what to do,” we’re saying, “I’m a survivor, you can’t tell me what to do.” There’s a fascinating dynamic in there. Sex and gender, especially for people whose bodies, desires and orientations don’t fit what mainstream authority says is acceptable, fits in that conception of power. It’s my body, you can’t tell me what to do with it. I’ve read a lot online recently suggesting that hyperfeminine women in metal were anti-feminist too, and I don’t agree. Third wave feminism is right in line with the thinking about power in metal. There’s very little difference between “you can’t tell me what to do” and “get your laws off my body.” For queer folks, the power in metal also means that your refusal to bow to authority might mean losing family, friends, being isolated, and for intersex and trans folks the very real fight against a world that demands you act your body. Imagine the bodily refusal, the physical power in that individual act. This is sonic power too. You hear a song that empowers you, and it travels with you in your ears, in your memory, in your tissues. You see a show that empowers you, and the sight is branded on your brain.

In addition to your book, you’re fully active in the academic community including supporting metal. What’s ahead for you?

A lot. I’m giving one of the keynote lectures at the Metal and Cultural Impact conference in Ohio this November, and then getting ready for the Metal, Markets and Materials international conference in Helsinki in June 2015. I’m Treasurer for the International Society for Metal Music Studies, and we’re going to have a busy year getting membership systems rolling and the first issue of the journal Metal Music Studies out to the world. I’ve also got some essays in a couple of forthcoming collections, one based on the presentations at the Cologne conference in 2008, and another from the meeting in Puerto Rico last March. I’m lucky, I get to spend part of my day working with the smartest metal intellectuals on Earth, bringing metal studies to the masses. I’ve also got a second book on the way soon, the publication of my doctoral dissertation on sexuality in jazz scene Kansas City before World War II.

Do you think academia’s expanding focus on metal has brought more light to outsider communities? What do you think is responsible for the post-2006 relatively large expansion in metal and academia?

I think outsider communities are always going to be outside in some way. In truth, several of us who identify as metal scholars talk about our concerns in bringing academic attention to metal. But let’s face it, metal has always received a lot of attention, and not always positive. And it survives, maybe better than it ever has before, and still just as outsider as always. If we can survive Tipper Gore and Hot Topic, then metal will be just fine. I do think that the academic work on metal will bring better, more focused attention to metal scenes and fans, instead of the tired old stereotypes. As for the increased attention, that’s the work of a core of brilliant metalhead folks who are teaching, writing, and thinking about heavy metal in academic terms.

Can you tell us about your own history with metal? How did you get involved? Were you a fan first, or a researcher first?

Definitely a fan first. I started listening to metal as a kid growing up in west Texas. In my mixed-race and working class neighborhood you listened to three things: metal, country, and pop music from Mexico. I grew up listening to a tossed salad of Sabbath, Bob Wills and Menudo. First metal record I “owned” (I bootlegged it from the radio) was Black Sabbath’s “Fairies Wear Boots.” Then I got an 8-track of Iron Butterfly’s “In A Gadda Da Vida,” it was 1979 and my mom got it for me at a garage sale, I was 5. It was all downhill after that. I was a big-haired 80s glam band girl in the 80s, with posters of Motley Crue on the wall, and I have Tipper Gore to thank for turning me on to Judas Priest. By the mid to late 1990s I was a Rivethead, and I still love industrial and industrial goth metal. I started reading academic work about metal when I was in graduate school in the late 1990s. By the time I was done with my dissertation, I knew I wanted to devote my research to heavy metal.

Metal folks always want to know what you’re into now. I like my metal heavy, weapons grade plutonium heavy. I’m not much for thrash and speed metal. A good sludge album, a heavy shoegaze record, something dark and funereal- that’s what I prefer. I also listen to records by bands with openly queer members, and a ton of classic NWOBHM. Priest is my favorite band of all time. Last show I went to was Killswitch Engage, and my next three shows are Motley Crue’s farewell, Joan Jett and then Judas Priest’s latest tour. And my favorite recording right now? Torche’s Leather Feather.

Swine Overlord live stream of Parables of Umbral Transcendence

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Grunting percussive deathgrind band Swine Overlord unleash their Parables of Umbral Transcendence on the world on August 19, 2014. The title might lead a listener to believe this album will be more jazz-lite “technical death metal,” but instead what you have here is gurgling blasting primitive and raw sound in the style of all bands inspired by Suffocation.

While much of metal has focused on hybridizing with known rock, jazz and blues genres, the deathgrind genre continues its development of its hybrid of primal death metal and raw explosive grindcore, continuing the gore and paranoid dystopic themes of its origin. Swine Overlord take a similar path with music and lyrics in the blasting mayhem and cadenced grooves of this work of utter depravity and abandonment of social trust.

To celebrate the launch of Parables of Umbral Transcendence, Gore House Productions and DeathMetal.org present the live stream of the album in its entirety:

Imprecation to release split with Blaspherian on August 20, 2014

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Texas gut-crushing occult death metal band Imprecation will unleash their split release with Blaspherian through Dark Descent records on August 20, 2014. This new release will give metalheads a chance to see how both bands have developed since their latest full-lengths, Satanae Tenebris Infinita and Infernal Warriors of Death respectively.

In addition, the band plans to release a 10″ of its “Jehovah Denied” demo on Rex Bagude records (Mexico) and Morbid Metal records in the US. This demo revealed the style of this band that evolved in the intervening years since its acclaimed 1995 collection of demos, Theurgia Goetia Summa.

Rigor Mortis previews “Flesh for Flies” from final album Slave to the Grave

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Before the untimely passing of Rigor Mortis guitarist Mike Scaccia, the band recorded what will become its final album. Featuring the same lineup as 1980s Rigor Mortis, Slaves to the Grave emphasizes the unique approach of this groundbreaking speed/death metal band as rendered with contemporary production.

To spur interest in the album, Rigor Mortis released a preview track entitled “Flesh for Flies” which demonstrates the new style. The same frenetic high-speed rhythm guitar makes its presence known, but with more of the melodic depth seen on later Rigor Mortis works like Freaks and Rigor Mortis vs. The Earth. Bruce Corbitt elevates his frantic vocals with death metal technique mixed in with his urgent shouts, and provides the kind of engaging rhythmic chorus that will ensnare any metalhead with a love for 1980s style speed metal. In addition, Scaccia injects a solo that attacks with a blitzkrieg undulation of notes that creates a texture from which a melody slowly arises. Gone are the longer song structures of Freaks, replaced by a verse-chorus approach that hammers home the powerful transition between the more death metal verse riff and the elegant melody of the chorus.

The song consciously targets the self-titled Rigor Mortis album that floored the metal community with its gore lyrics but powerful instrumentalism and abundant energy. For those who are looking for a re-creation of that first album, Slaves to the Grave looks to be both in that vein and enhanced with the more immediately impacting approach that band members picked up from subsequent projects. The strength of this track comes from its simplicity and directness which allows its viral payload to intrude directly in the consciousness of the listener, leading wayward brains to a dark and morbid place undergirded with the trademark Rigor Mortis absurdism and musicality.

Morgoth unleashes first studio tracks since 1996

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German death metal band Morgoth releases its first new studio material since 1996 with God is Evil, a 7″ and digital single with two new tracks. The band also released a teaser of the new material which samples but does not include in full the first track, “God is Evil.”

The material shows the same classic death metal riffing as the original Morgoth releases that inspired their prominence in the early 1990s underground with Cursed and Grim Reality, but adds standoffish speed metal riffs and modern metal influences on the vocals. As a result, more groove and bounce enter the fray but are done in such a way as to maximize impact and deaden any similarities to life-loving positive music.

As the teaser runs only 1:38 further conclusions are difficult at this time but many of us are watching to see how this band develops for its return at a time when many classic death metal bands are seeing widespread notice for the first time. The single dropped on August 11 in Europe and will see US release over the new few days via Century Media.

Krieg releases single from new album Transient

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Post-metal/black metal hybrid Krieg unleashed the first single from its new album Transient in the form of “Order of the Solitary Road.” This track shows Krieg begin with a standard post-metal introduction, then segue into Taake-era black metal, then ride out most of the track in a Motorhead-inspired road riff. The result is notably better than most of this genre but the introduction of post-metal elements somehow fractures its message and leaves the black metal portions seeming isolated in an oil-on-water mix. Perhaps the direction for this band is to ditch what various music magazines think is a good idea and also discard the black metal, and focus on these Motorhead-style riffs that seem to fit its persona.

The first release from Krieg in over four years, Transient will be released on September 2, 2014 by CandleLight Records. It includes a guest appearance from Thurston Moore of seminal indie band Sonic Youth, and also features a cover of “Winter” by founding crust-punk act Amebix.

The tracklisting is as follows:

1. Order Of the Solitary Road
2. Circling the Drain
3. Return Fire
4. To Speak With Ghosts
5. Atlas With A Broken Arm
6. Time
7. Winter
8. Walk With Them Unnoticed
9. Ruin Our Lives
10. Home
11. Gospel Hand

5 albums that ruined metal

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If you create anything of beauty in this world, people will be attracted to it. They will want what it has, but because achieving that would require them to change themselves, they will instead make a version of your beautiful thing that fits their needs. This will become popular and soon idiots everywhere will adopt their dumbed-down version of your beautiful thing, effectively ruining what you have created.

Over the course of metal’s lifespan, it has several times been afflicted with the curse of popularity. During the middle 1970s, bands began cloning what Black Sabbath did and mixing it with the more radio-friendly sounds of Led Zeppelin, Cream, The Who and Deep Purple. The result gave metal such a bad name it required an underground genre, the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, to renovate it with punk energy and DIY spirit. Then in the late 1980s, speed metal bands started selling out and making radio-friendly jive that quickly destroyed the genre because no one wanted to associate with it anymore. Only a few years later in 1994, underground metal imploded as clone bands and outsiders began making imitations of the new sound that used songwriting conventions and “values” from other genres. Most recently in the 2000s metal became “socially acceptable” and became basically a cover story for lite jazz and indie/emo which now could claim they were groundbreaking and authentic.

But I digress. Let us look at a brief history of bands that helped ruin metal and see if we can figure out where their influences ended up in today’s milktoast hybrid metal.

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Pantera – Cowboys From Hell

Before this album came along, speed metal had a certain gravitas to it. Songs were about war, human moral conflict, literature and the apocalypse. Then along came Pantera and injected a bro-sized dose of personal drama into it. After Pantera, speed metal included talking about how angry you are, getting drunk and starting fights about whose jeans are out of fashion this season, and raging about your inability to retain women who are not covered in naturally-growing wool. It was a strike of Idiocracy against the intense music of Metallica, Nuclear Assault, Overkill, Testament, Anthrax and Megadeth that dumbed it down to the Belieber level, just with more angsty testosterone. Not only that but the complex songs got replaced by verse-chorus and lots of “emotional” vocals accompanied by softer guitar parts. The path to death for speed metal started with this watered-down, dumbed-down, ego-drama path to stupidity. Luckily after they had made their money, Pantera disappeared and the band members went on to more reputable projects.

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Cannibal Corpse – Tomb of the Mutilated

In the year that death metal reached its peak, Cannibal Corpse release an album that made death metal accessible and in doing so, made it a satire of itself. This is Dethklok before Dethklok. Borrowing from the percussive style that Suffocation innovated, Cannibal Corpse took out all the complex songwriting and replaced it with somewhat complex riffs in predictable format. It took away difficult rhythms and topics and replaced them with I-puke-blood style blockheaded lyrics. They also introduced Pantera-style songs about sexually mutilating women because women are difficult and sometimes all one can get is a brojob back at the frat house. This album crushed the growing death metal movement by putting a giant IDIOTS AND SYCOPHANTS WELCOME sign over the door to the genre and convincing people that songs with blockheaded gore lyrics and simplistic structures under grunting incoherent vocals were more “death metal” than the complex music of integrity that defined the genre at the time.

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Cradle of Filth – The Principle of Evil Made Flesh

Point your TARDIS back to 1994. Black metal was in full-swing, having just put forth all of its founding works and then exploded in a media-fueled inferno of murder, anti-Christian and politically incorrect sentiments. In come the “smart” people who figure they can make a buck off this new phenomenon. Their formula: make Iron Maiden style metal with the new screechy vocals and make it emo so that kids can feel like it sympathizes with their horrible lives where their parents just totally control them and stuff. Then mix in the usual “teen paranormal romance” rambling about vampires and evil and you have baby food for coddled toddlers. It took some brains to like black metal, but Cradle of Filth asks nothing so challenging of its listeners! Even more, this band introduced the “carnival music” style of putting radically different riffs next to each other so that the listener loses track of song structure entirely. These songs are basically advertising jingles and warmed-over Goth rock stuck into second-rate metal, but all the kiddies brought their sweaty dollars to Hot Topic because they felt it “understood them.”

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Meshuggah – None

Right in the middle of 1994 it became clear that black metal and death metal had left the building. They had said what they wanted to; people had to either top it or find some easier and sleazier way to do. Ripping off the percussive textures of Exhorder, Prong and Exodus, Meshuggah came up with a “new” style that consisted of over-extending ideas from previous and better bands. It’s worth mentioning that Meshuggah’s first album was 80s speed metal with death metal vocals, but that it was extremely boring. Meshuggah figured that if they just made their style more dramatic and used lots of choppy riffs with shiny new “complex” polyrhythms, they could fool a new generation into liking their stuff. Without fail, it worked, and now metal bands find it necessary to incorporate the worked-over 70s groove with two-chord texture riffs and claim a “djent” influence. At its core, this band remains the same bad 80s speed metal that failed on its first album.

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Opeth – Orchid

You can pitch a market one of two ways: on one hand, you can be “just one of us regular guys” and pull a Bruce Springsteen (or warmed over punk); on the other, you can claim that you are so far out and deep that only a few deep people can understand you. The best is to hide the former in the latter so that you are selling the “profundity” of sing-song music for children but it gives them a chance to pop on a Fedora and think they are really so deep, you know totally deep, that no one can be as deep as they are. Opeth sold itself on being “open-minded,” which is this message: we are different from the rest of metal because we use acoustic passages instead of just solid heavy metal riffs. What they choose not to tell their fans is that they are more like everything else that is not metal, so to like this stuff is to admit you fail as a metal listener and go back to pumping radio pap through your Beats by Dr. Dre headphones. But every underconfident basement-dwelling pretentious geek loved this stuff even though it consisted of a simple formula, soft verse and hard chorus, that is most famous for its use among nu-metal bands. Nonetheless, Opeth opened the door for people who wanted to signal to the world how profound and different they were, and now most bands are tinged with the same simpering pander that makes this music sickly sweet and an inch deep.

Hardcore, Punk, and Other Junk: Aggressive Sounds in Contemporary Music edited by Eric James Abbey and Colin Helb

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Metalheads tend to distrust academia. We distrust the machine in all of its forms, and since the machine accepts academia, we believe the voice of academia is tainted by interest toward social acceptance. Academia also has a habit of finding ways to cram reality into its theories rather than the other way around. However, some academics make insightful contributions to the study of metal and Hardcore, Punk, and Other Junk: Aggressive Sounds in Contemporary Music provides an example of the best of this process.

This collection of essays looks at extreme music in general and extends this to metal, hardcore punk and punk rock communities. Sadly many authors make the mistake many do of incorporating recent pseudo-metal hybrids as some form of legitimate metal, which spams their results with some nonsense. The balance of results however turns out for the best because these academics look at detail-level reproducible phenomena and so are able to avoid the kind of craziness that would happen if they took “modern death metal” to be a legitimate form of the genre. Since metal and hardcore punk share a heritage both influencing and as influences of one another, the multiple pieces on that topic serve to bolster the understanding of metal.

Ross Hagen‘s piece “No Fun: Noise Music, Avant-garde expression and Sonic Punishment” ventures into the world of noise as music and explores a number of theories of its appeal. His most tantalizing riff zeroes in on the idea that society attempts to control noise and categorize it by the containers used to sample it, thus the tendency of irregular acoustic noise is to overthrow the social control imposed for the convenience of society having categorical dominance. While this piece does not seem to be directly on point to metal, it explores the same sonic space that metal uses and suggests reasons for it that may overlap with the psychology of metalheads.

Nelson Varas-Diaz contributes writing that analyzes Puerto Rico as a metal scene and the historical antecedents for appreciation of metal in this unique context. While his research involves statistical analysis, the best part of it may be the narrative aspect where he explains the history of metal in Puerto Rico as a type of struggle to be heard. In this piece also can be found extensive information about founding and contemporary Puerto Rican metal bands.

While it is beyond the scope of this review to cover every piece in the book, several others merit immediate attention by the wandering metalhead. Mika Elovaara looks into the meaning of metal lyrics and finds something akin to the mythical-historical view expounded upon in these digital pages. As if clarifying Lords of Chaos, one of his research subjects from Norway opines:

I feel that it is important that people understand why they have been born and that other people fought for our well-being and to preserve our culture and society. Our cultural heritage is going to die because people ignore it or do not even realize its significance. Viking and Norse mythology have been described as something evil and distant, but in reality, it is close to home and not necessarily evil at all. That it is not Christian does not mean it is evil. I use the mythology to describe situations in the world and politics, actual topics that were part of our lives a thousand years ago just as they are today. One can be proud of one’s heritage and identity without any racist or nationalistic tendencies. And Satanism is quite outside of this.

His extensive interviews bring up other similar flirtations with the taboo which makes sense as metal is “edge music” that exists to push social standards beyond what they normally accept. He probes the filaments of metal’s obsession with the evil and dark, and yet finds a certain kind of benevolence. “They mean critical thinking and encourage independent thinking,” said one fan about metal lyrics. The entire study is too complex to summarize here but at a minimum provides food for thought about what metal is attempting to communicate.

Another metal-related piece by Marcus Erbe looks into the science of producing death metal vocals and what that type of sound might mean in the unconscious and shared experience of being human. He finds that human vocals universally split between a melodic voice and a textural voice, with the latter expressing “monstrous” sensations. He then explores the nature of the monstrous in psychology and finds that it includes both the other and our fears for what is within us. This thought-provoking essay fuels further the question about what it is in metal that is really socially unacceptable, its rejection of social mores or its seeing through them.

Other articles explore more specific topics. On the whole, the book shows a new face for academia in looking into metal that is less afraid of certain areas of metal that are alien to what academia customarily writes about and may reject attitudes held by the majority of academics. The insight offered into the mechanics of metal and the associated symbols that it invokes also suggests new areas for academics and thinkers to pry into this interesting genre. Hardcore, Punk, and Other Junk: Aggressive Sounds in Contemporary Music lives up to its title and presents a window into the troubling questions that most would ignore raised by these dissident genres.

Interview: Question

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Question come from Querétaro, Mexico and create technical death metal in a combination of old school styles. Their debut album Doomed Passages saw release through Chaos Records in early June. Question deliver a very spacious style of death metal reminiscent of The Chasm with some Finnish touches. The guitarist, Rodrigo, agreed to talk to us about the band.

Question caught my eye as an unusual name for a death metal band. What made you choose this name?

“Question” is a name which is coherent with the philosophy of the band and the lyrics; it’s consistent with the context that we want to portray. A friend came with the idea and we thought it fit perfectly with the music that we were composing at the time. It’s not surprising that some think it is a weird or dumb name; you’ll always find people that keep looking for the most rude or evil names, but I think that has become a weak point with the past of the years in the metal scene.

I detect a strong Finnish death metal influence on Doomed Passages. Would I be correct?

Well, we are fans of some early Finnish death metal bands; also we listen to some contemporary bands that have been spreading rottenness lately. However, it’s more appropriate to say that we’re heavily influenced by obscure death metal in general; Mexico has a lot of obscure metal bands and some of them are big influences for us. Also, besides metal, we listen to a lot of punk, progressive rock, etc.

What drove you to create death metal?

Curiosity. In terms of composition death metal has a very vast spectrum of possibilities and we all are very into obscure, heavy and strange stuff, not just music, also books, films, so I guess it’s natural to feel a tendency to create and play this kind of tunes.

Is art separate from entertainment or are they one in the same?

I’m afraid I’ve never established a delimited frontier between these two concepts; any attempt to be objective will fail, however I can resume my thoughts with the following: many expressions of art can be entertaining, but entertainment mostly lacks art. Art is an intimate vision of an artist, and sometimes the vision is shared with some people. In contrast, entertainment is made for the masses, is a guided story that leads to a guided conclusion. Art is more subjective, it makes you think what you’ve experienced.

Tell me about the recording process of Doomed Passages.

We recorded the album in April 2013 at Oz Recording Studios in Mexico City. The process lasted five days and it was the first time for the actual lineup to record something. All went well, the studio is amazing, and we had a really good time, although the mixing and mastering process was more exhausting, as we couldn’t make a connection with Roberto Granados. I think the result is good.

What does the artwork on Doomed Passages signify and how does it tie into what is being expressed musically?

Hector and I wrote a couple of ideas for the artwork based on the lyrics and the band’s philosophy. We send this to Arturo Vargas and he came with this spectral vision that became the cover of our first album. The significance is relative; art should not be restricted to a single interpretation.

Sadistic Metal Reviews 08-06-14

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What are Sadistic Metal Reviews? Most humans understand reality through social definitions because this flatters their pretense of being important in cold and empty universe. Others prefer to find meaning through bonding with reality in all of its darkness. For noticing the difference, we get called sadists.

Algebra – Feed the Ego

algebra-feed_the_egoLate 1980s speed metal gets a strong infusion of Slayer-styled energy and tempo. If you can imagine second-tier speed metal bands using the riff patterns and rhythmic shifts from Reign in Blood, you grasp the basic idea here. This makes for fun listening but underneath the surface, an ugly hard rock influence shows, and the derivative nature of the riffing makes it hard to take seriously.

 

Cradle of Filth – Total Fucking Darkness

cradle_of_filth-total_fucking_darknessThey released the demo of the band that initiated the downfall of black metal. Like Opeth, Cannibal Corpse, Meshuggah and Pantera, Cradle of Filth made a name for itself by taking a new style and dumbing it down for an audience that wanted spoon feeding. Notice the idiotic hipster trend of inserting the word “fucking” to make an otherwise recombinant title seem edgy. What you will hear on this lengthy demo is basic deathgrind verses with melodic heavy metal choruses kicked into high speed and aggression with borrowed technique. Oh wait, there are keyboards so you can feel more profound than your friends for listening to such an open-minded band. This entire thing is transparent and shows how from an early date, this band was scheming to make a vapid but “profound” (like dreamcatchers, Ansel Adams posters and Eckhart Tolle) sound. While it is not explicitly terrible it also fails to make any lasting connection to the inner layers of being, like higher brain functions or what we sometimes call a soul.

 

Ending Quest – The Summoning

ending_quest-the_summoningIn my dream, I was in a vast house by the seaside. In the east wing, the hallway had endless doors. I opened one and immediately recoiled. I was in the retro-Swedish death metal room again! Ending Quest provides a better than average take on the retro style but does not achieve any level of impact such that it must be listened to. Imagine mixing a melodic Necrophobic-style lead rhythm riff into a more rock ‘n’ roll version of Entombed Left Hand Path in the riff department. Then work in elements of the death ‘n’ roll that came a generation later: abrupt cuts, bouncy grooves, relatively standard song format and lots of melodic hooks. The problem is that after a while it starts to sound like sonic wallpaper because it uses roughly the same approach and template to writing each song. Thus what emerges is a dozen songs that feature familiar motifs and all run together into a blur of Swedish-tasting death metal with hard rock undertones.

 

Final Conflict – Ashes to Ashes

final_conflict-ashes_to_ashesI always enjoyed this late hardcore offering but never found it as hard-hitting as the Cro-Mags, Amebix or Discharge. There’s a good reason: if Descendents decided to make a hardcore, it might sound like this. Riffs fit the patterns of basic California hardcore adapted to the stream of powerchords attack of the Exploited or Cro-Mags. But ultimately, this is melodic punk. Vocal melodies predominate with heavy focus on chorus and riffs work in enough melody to be predominantly hook-driven. Add to this lyrics that span a gamut from radical anarchistic sentiment to mainstream right-wing moderate calls for defense of rights and freedoms, and you sense a movement looking for a purpose. However Final Conflict create an album without filler that hits hard and keeps riding that violent energy which makes this a hardcore album you can appreciate without descending into total alienation. It’s probably a great workout album.

 

Greenleaf – Trails and Passes

greenleaf-trails_and_passesDo they ever tire of peddling the same hackneyed crap? This sounds like early 1960s angry rock, with a heavy MC5 influence. Bluesy, with extended rhythmic breaks and emphasis on a hippie vocal, this band might think they are related to metal but this is purely on the aesthetic basis that they use distortion pedals. Baby Boomers love this stuff because it lets them revisit their ancient pointless youth in the free love and whatever-stupid-shit-you-think-is-OK-man 1960s, but for the rest of us this retro detour is a dead end.

 

Humut Tabal – The Dark Emperor ov the Shadow Realm

humut_tabal_dark_emperor_ov_the_shadow_realmSome of our writers here think highly of the Texas scene but it seems to me that much like Texas itself, the scene there is composed of odds and ends. Such is the case with Humut Tabal who are jack of all trades and master of none. The basis of this album is promising melodic black metal with too much influence from the ersatz article like Watain, but the band know how to write some songs that verge on the beautiful. Then they drop in some idiotic riff straight off a Pantera album and reduce the IQ in the room to Juggalo levels. While their melodic approach, reminiscent of Dawn and Sacramentum, is basically really good, the band overplay it and end up with an album that disappears into its own sound. On the plus side, these songs remain distinctive enough to tell the difference, which suggests this band has the ability to have a bright future if it wants it. But maybe drop the two-word trendy name and the ridiculous “ov” style spelling, get more of a purpose, and stop trying to please everyone at once. You can’t do it because it should never be done.

 

Mordbrand – Imago

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As a genre descends, it improves in attention to details including basic musicality but fails at its center where meaning lies. This Swedish death metal revival band bash out a formula at either fast or slow speeds, but the effect is the same. It is focused on chorus as hook like the later Sodom records and never really develops past having a cool melodic idea for a riff; songs are essentially in standard format and take huge influence from later crustpunk which was by definition formulaic. There are parts of this to admire but the whole adds up to less than the parts.

 

Steel Prophet – Omniscient

steel_prophet-omniscientMiddle 1980s style speed metal picks up a few stylistic flourishes from power metal but basically stays in the great quest for a catchy chorus that can be backed by lots of muted downstroke strumming. Melodically, it closest resembles Judas Priest but adds some Manowar-like touches. Songs fit more into the rock ‘n’ roll mold of building everything as a support structure for the vocals, and drums, bass and lead guitars generate a backgrond that is too busy to make this anything but the kind of sonic assault waged by a fast-sell commercial. The vocalist exhibits quite a bit of talent and none of the players are bad, but the way they choose to combine this material resembles the frenetic activity at a shopping mall in that for all that it is busy, it never gets anywhere.

 

Dawn – Nær Solen Gar Niþer For Evogher

dawn-naer_solen_gar_niber_for_evogherThis re-issue tempted me but ultimately I have decided it lives in a duality: it has great melodic ideas and riffs, but insists on the type of semi-random songwriting that later became famous with metalcore. Riffs shift into other riffs without any real sense to the arrangement; by rock theory, this is OK since they’re in the same key. But in metal, the riffs talk to each other. Sometimes this band tends to like to bash out fast repetitive melodies on a plodding rhythm until the audience shoots itself. But scattered throughout this album in abundance are good melodic ideas and some really great riff pairs. If the band had worked on song structure and arrangement more, this could have been an A-level black metal album.