What the heck is metalcore?

fugazi_flyerDuring the late 1990s, a different style of metal emerged in the death metal camp. Starting with bands like Dillinger Escape Plan, Killswitch Engage, Misery Index, The Haunted, Human remains, Ulcerate, Meshuggah and Discordance Axis, this new style was given many names at first.

It’s math-metal, they said. No, it’s technical death metal (later shortened to “tech-deth” to keep people from expecting something like what Pestilence did on Spheres). Finally someone came up with “modern metal,” which many of us use like a catch-all.

The record companies were excited. Musically it was different. This style is accessible to more musicians, in addition to more fans, than the old style. It’s easier to make a reasonable impression of it, at least.

Thematically it was different. It’s everything that rock ‘n’ roll has always been. It’s loud, angry, and chaotic; perfect to disturb parents, which sells albums. Finally, unlike metal, it doesn’t stray into truly dangerous areas of thought. It is more likely to be written from an individual perspective, and less likely to glorify war, disease and death than protest them. Socially, it’s much “safer.”

What made it new was that it wasn’t like the extreme metal before it. However, it shared many techniques in common not just with that generation, but the generation before it. Specifically, many of the composition aspects are similar to those from post-hardcore bands like Fugazi, Rites of Spring, and Botch. These differences distinguished it from death metal in the following ways:

  1. Vocal rhythms. Death metal vocals are more like speed metal, which is to chant out the rhythm of the main riff or chorus phrase. Modern metal vocals are much like hardcore, which uses regularity of intervals between syllables to form a sound of protest. Death metal also prefers monotonic delivery with variant timbre, where hardcore vocals prefer more melodic vocal delivery with invariant timbre.
  2. Riffing. Death metal riffs are phrasal, or written as a flow of power chords forming a phrase or melody, and these fit together to form a narrative with poetic form, meaning that it takes the song from an initial place to a final place with a much different outlook. Modern metal riffs are inherently designed toward circular song constructions, like hardcore, and are based upon radical contrast between each other to suggestdeconstruction, like hardcore. Metal riffs form a synthesis through contrast; hardcore riffs deconstruct through contrast and reject synthesis.
  3. Drumming. Death metal drumming tends to follow the riff changes; modern metal drumming tends to lead the riff changes, anticipating them. In death metal, instruments tend to act in unison. In metalcore, they tend to each work separately and overlap as convenient.
  4. Style. Death metal aims toward unison of all instruments and riffs fitting together to make a larger narrative so as to maintain mood; modern metal, like hardcore before it, seeks to interrupt mood as if a form of protest music.

Critics of the terms “metalcore” and “modern metal” correctly note that these terms are being used as a catch-all. That’s correct, but it’s only part of the story. These terms are being used to describe something that’s not new, but existed before death metal and black metal reached their modern form. It’s an alternate branch of metal’s evolution, upgraded with death metal technique.

For students of metal history, this isn’t surprising. Genres tend to lie dormant in alternating generations, and then pick up on whatever was done well by the intervening generation. For example, power metal is what happens when speed metal and glam metal bands integrate death metal technique. Grindcore occurs when hardcore adopts crust and death metal technique. Speed metal occurs when metal adopts punk technique. By the same token, metalcore is what happens when you mix Fugazi with death metal technique.

This is not an argument against metalcore. If we’re going to like metal, we should understand it; if we’re going to understand it, we should study it; if we study it, we should organize our categories and language so as not to mislead each other. By this analysis, metalcore is an extension not of metal, but of the post-hardcore movement using metal technique, and thus it should be analyzed as more like hardcore instead of having us project our metal expectations upon it.

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The rise of metal in Africa

death_metal_angolaIn parts of Southern Africa, a vibrant scene that hybridizes metal and extreme rock is taking hold, and defining a new vision of metal that is part local tradition and part melange of worldwide metal concepts.

According to Africa Review, metalheads in Angola and Botswana have formed an “unexpected niche” through an energetic new metal scene.

American author Eddie Banchs comments on what makes a metal scene so distinctive. “Heavy metal is synonymous with a lifestyle which is seldom seen with other genres of music. Africa metal fans are not atypical in this regard,” he said.

According to Swedish researcher Magnus Nilsson, this new heavy metal culture was influenced in part by an alliance between heavy metal fans and country music fans. The metalheads adorn themselves with traditionally “country” accoutrements like sheriff badges, bandanas, cowboy hats and even toy revolvers.

According to the article, Botswana band Metal Orizon lead the movement by taking “Western-style hardcore rock and fusing it with familiar influences like African chants percussions to create a unique sound.” This gives the region a distinctive sound in addition to image.

In addition the article mentions several ongoing projects to document this phenomenon including the film Death Metal Angola, which documents the rise of a death metal sound unique to the region.

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Interview: Ara

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Music is never in stasis. It is composed of two parts, a form and a content. The two are related; in the best of situations, content causes the musician to innovate a new form. When the content changes, the old form is not relevant. However, some things are timeless and those forms persist.

Such questions emerge at the front of the mind when we look at Wisconsin’s Ara and their latest album, The Blessed Sleep. Whatever the changes that have been wrought in metal over the past 20 years, Ara roll back some of the tendencies toward excessive form and pointless technicality, and return the focus to songwriting. (See our review of The Blessed Sleep.)

Ara presents a challenge to what metal has become and to what many conceive of as metal. We figured we would go deeper for the whole story, and were fortunate to speak with guitarist and band cofounder Jerry Hauppa, who helped clarify the situation and told us about the inspiration and musical vision behind Ara’s latest, The Blessed Sleep.

You approach metalcore/tech-deth with a stripped-down style that focuses more on songwriting. What made you decide to do this, against the conventions of the genre?

None of us are really thrilled by the theatrics of sweeped scales masquerading as riffs in extreme metal nowadays. To the casual fan this can superficially be interpreted as sounding crazy and chaotic but we all come from older metal backgrounds where the riffs and arrangements had to have creativity and personality in order to express deviation between songs and moods. Cluttering up a song with a ton of parts can be an effective way to display chaos at times but we are trying to make sure each part serves the song well enough where nothing seems to be either filler or extraneous.

What do you think separates “modern metal” (metalcore, tech-deth, indie metal) from the older extreme metal like death metal and black metal?

The Blessed Sleep seems to have indirectly caused quite the argument about this in the comments section of your review for the record, but in my defense of death metal I clearly differ from the opinion of your readers in terms of what I feel falls under its umbrella. I think that “modern metal” is less a genre and more a statement that tries to separate any current take on the genre that threatens the ethos created in the early 90s. I agree that most of what I hear nowadays doesn’t resonate with me, but I’m not going to invalidate it by claiming it isn’t death metal or black metal because I’m afraid of what that means for me as a listener.

What I will say, is that I feel I have an uncanny ability to hear motive in music, and what I think you are getting at with the title “modern metal” is the unfortunate actions of -core acts that clearly resemble marketing ploys and the inhibiting crutches present in their writing, which throw at the listener a sense of immediate gratification through the aforementioned sweeps and of course, breakdowns. What we are trying to do is not throw the listener a bone so I feel we have more in common with the rebellious aspects of the early death metal movement than what people are considering to be “modern.”

In your view, what are the founding acts that influenced this style? What influences do you as a band have in addition to these?

The style shown on the record, or in modern metal? As for the latter, I have no idea really. I know that it seems many young bands don’t understand the history of metal and are trying to emulate a band that has emulated another band and so on, and that’s a shame with the ease of resources we have nowadays.

I guess as for the aspect of a more chaotic form of death metal, you could probably say that Cryptopsy’s Whisper Supremacy took the idea of a metal song arrangement and turned it upside down- at least for me, when I heard it, nothing really sounded like it. Today’s bands probably are really far removed from that record but the bands they ripped off might be familiar, I don’t know.

As for the influences of the band, for me, I’ve always been drawn to more complex music because I like to hear something new in a song each time I hear it. I’d say Gorguts, Anata and Cryptopsy are definite influences, as well as Theory in Practice and maybe the early explosion of Unique Leader bands. As far as how the record sounds, I could probably say I was drawn to the feel of Sinister’s Aggressive Measures record in terms of their atonal leanings and not having the guitars be tuned super low. The rest of the guys in the band have a huge list of influences, but I can say I know Erik worships Discordance Axis, Adam loves stuff like Fleshgod Apocalypse and Jim listens to everything under the sun.

How did you get the crisp sound on The Blessed Sleep? It sounds like you played it live, but somehow got a nice digital snap to each track. Where was it recorded?

We recorded with Shane Hochstetler at Howl Street Studios, and we are extremely happy with the sound. We have recorded there numerous times with other projects and he is a blast to work with and everything he does sounds amazing. I don’t really care for the sterile production of modern metal bands and really wanted this record to sound tight yet savage, so we deliberately left it without too much polish to give it its own atmosphere. As for how we got the sound, I know there are tons of guitar tracks going on all the time so it has a wall of sound that gives it the heaviness that I think a lot of technical bands are lacking.

What prompted you to found Ara, in the style you’ve chosen, and what additions do you hope to make to the genre?

I always wanted to do my take on death metal since I was a teenager, and only now am I lucky enough to be around the musicians that can make it happen. The style is I suppose an amalgamation of all of my influences in extreme metal, but as I get better at writing music I really feel as though the compositions are inherently mine and don’t directly emulate any particular band.

As far as the second half of your question, I don’t have any lofty goals where I think we can be flagbearers for any kind of genre movement, I just hope people check out the record and like it. If I had any wish that we could influence anything, I do hope the riff can come back. I miss and mourn for the riff.

Where do you want to go after The Blessed Sleep? It seems like you’ve reached a peak within this genre; are you going to grow in a new direction, or refine?

As of today I have written 11 songs for a full length and am really excited to see how the new material will shape up. The rest of the guys know four of the new songs and I would say it is decidedly different from The Blessed Sleep. There is a much greater focus on melody but not in the At the Gates way, probably more in an Anata way. I am trying to make the songs complex but with very few themes explored per song because I want each song to be its own entity. You can hear one of the new songs in the live set on the youtube video you posted, it’s the last one we played. I’m trying to balance melody with discordance in each song. Some of the newer stuff is way faster than anything we’ve done and we have some doomier stuff as well. If you like The Blessed Sleep I think you’ll be excited for the progression. Also, we are very much hoping for label support for future recordings.

What do you think draws people to your music?

The band is very new so I don’t really know yet. People like speed and we have and love lots of blast beats. We also try to be atypical so I assume people that like weird metal will hopefully like it. Time will tell.

If fans wanted to explore your music, where do you recommend they start, and what should they do next?

You can stream the whole record at arawi.bandcamp.com, so there you go. Then I suppose you should follow us on Facebook to find out what we’re up to and where we’re playing.

Will you be touring for this album? Will we see you in Texas?

I absolutely want to get on the road for this record and hopefully we can do so later in the year. Erik and I play in another band called Northless that is in the studio next month so after that is wrapped up we can get our scheduling straight and play outside our home town. We would love to play in Texas if everything works out and if so we will definitely let you know! Thanks for your time and the support!

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Standard Whore (Demilich)

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Continuing our series of metalcore bands, a brief look at Standard Whore shows us an exceptional version of the modern metal style combined with a guitar rock outlook.

From the mastermind guitarist and drummer of Demilich, this style in post-Gorguts Obscura era metal hybrids uses the post-hardcore tendency to string together surprising and alarming riff combinations with a stoner rock or guitar rock tendency to stitch it all into a big jam session. One thing’s for sure: if you’re looking for metal, look elsewhere.

The same quirky riffing that made Demilich distinct is here but with more groove, less complexity, and its weirdness has been redirected to a sense of catch and hooky sounds. The result is really easy to listen to, and joins other mostly-instrumental projects like Blotted Science in trying to forge a new late model of the old influences.

Boman’s guitar is the organization voice here and gives to this style a new dimension into which it could expand, which is to remove the pretense of deconstruction and allow a jam to bleed itself together out of these spacy riffs and tortuous tempi.

Somehow I missed this back in 2010, but it’s good to give it some air and light now. These songs are from a live rehearsal session featuring material written 2008-2010.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IzBwprczDm4&feature=related

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XjyyKaOw3sI&feature=related

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dimd6hqsaDk&feature=related

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pThtiIE3RKE&feature=related

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6OhS5JSFLCs&feature=related

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KBa6i9aE1kc&feature=related

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Profane Prayer – Tales of Vagrancy and Blasphemy

profane_prayer-tales_of_vagrancy_and_blasphemyOne of the things that distinguished Norwegian black metal from what had preceded it was its emphasis on storytelling: inviting the listener to not just observe, but be an active participant in discovering the meaning behind the work. The elements of composition were not, in themselves, the end goal of a song, but rather were tools used to convey the artist’s intention.

By using heroic imagery coupled with atonal yet melodic music, it went beyond the violent deconstruction of death metal by showing not only that the supposed progress of the modern era has been a sham, it offered an alternative: a return to an earlier age, a time when survival depended upon more than earning enough money to purchase antidepressants and microwave dinners.

This core of black metal was something that was increasingly lost as the genre became more popular, as newer bands overlooked this when attempting to understand how to play this genre of music.

As one of these contemporary bands, Profane Prayer plays black metal in the later Darkthrone style with an old school heavy metal influence. Indicative of its generation, this track (taken from their upcoming album) at first glance has all the elements of black metal: screaming vocals, pounding blastbeats, dissonant tremolo picking, and anti-christian themes.

However, what is lacking is the artistic vision the presages its creation. Although all of the individual components may be sound, there is nothing linking them together. Sections of the song are easily recognizable and there is care in how they are ordered, but the song does not challenge the listener to discovery. Like most black metal of its age, it’s not awful, but not particularly good either. If this band could couple their musical talent with a deeper artistic spirit, they would assuredly have a worthwhile composition.

Tales of Vagrancy and Blasphemy will be released via No Colours Records the first week of May.

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Suicidal Tendencies – 13

suicidal_tendencies-13The problem with success is that it can become a cage: you get known for doing something that meant a lot to you at the time, but time goes on. You want new horizons. It’s hard to express them, and you see others succeed for doing a lot less.

Suicidal Tendencies launches 13 into a time where metal and punk have both decided to commit suicide by melding so extensively with other genres as to lose their own identities. Melding itself isn’t bad, but when a whole genre does it, it essentially obliterates its unique voice and makes itself another flavor of rock music.

13 escapes Suicidal Tendencies’ past by mixing in a number of alternative, improvisational and extrinsic styles. In particular, you’ll hear island-based world music, Rage Againsst the Machine, and even the keg-party reggae-influenced rock of bands like Sublime, all mixed into what’s essentially a punk band playing metal. The locus of the action has changed: where the original Suicidal Tendencies want to make a point with its songs, these songs want to set up a convivial atmosphere and into that speak some ideas with lyrics. The original songs resembled their content; these songs are a mixture of fun and diverse elements, and expression occurs in the lyrics.

With this album, Suicidal Tendencies demonstrate how an album can be quite good and not satisfy its original audience. I think this will be a huge hit among the alt-rock and nu-metal crowds because it’s more musically interesting than most of the kiddie music. It’s based on firm grooves, catchy melodic vocal hooks, and an insanely over-the-top constant lead guitar jam that gives this music a breadth that is rarely found in music you hear on the radio.

However, for metal fans this one is going to be a failure. It has lost the metal spirit, and it essentially party rock with some metal riffs. The cool guitar work and occasional shredding give this some power, but it doesn’t switch it to the viewpoint a metal fan will appreciate.

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Ara – The Blessed Sleep

ara-the_blessed_sleepThe metalcore community is aware of your criticisms and attempting to reform itself.

During the past decade, a number of bands have tried to reign in the genre from its Necrophagist-style peak of unrelated technical fireworks to more of the songwriting that made bands like Botch, Human Remains and Rites of Spring influential founders of the genre.

With The Blessed Sleep, Ara steps up to the plate by streamlining the genre and removing the unrelated parts, which keeps a focus on songwriting like Harkonin or Neurosis. This eliminates the biggest problem, but for those who don’t like metalcore, it leaves the tendency to scream out lyrics in a trope of regularity and a fascination with “different” riffs and surprise twists that often leads toward a predictability of being unpredictable. (Imagine a general on the battlefield who maintains an advantage by being unpredictable. After a while, it becomes random, and easier to respond to because there is no expectation otherwise.)

The Blessed Sleep attempts to work around these challenges to the genre by varying tempo and the texture of riffing, stacking subtly melodic arpeggios up against chromatic chugging riffing, and by not using any single technique constantly (except the angry-man-in-a-phone-booth vocals). The result is far more listenable and develops actual songs that, although based on jarring contrast, are able to return to a single pair of themes and develop variation there.

Although Ara are touted by many as technical, nothing here is particularly technical as in specific skills, but putting these songs together without them falling apart and playing them on the nose will be difficult for any but a professional and experienced band. The streamlined songwriting, topicality and focus make The Blessed Sleep one of the more intense tech-deth albums to emerge in recent years.

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Black Sabbath announce US tourdates for new album “13”

black_sabbath-nihilismSeminal heavy metal band Black Sabbath has released the first single from their upcoming album, 13. Entitled “God Is Dead?”, it features 3/4 of the iconic Sabbath lineup.

While still possessing the distinctive Sabbath sound, it is clear that this is a song produced in the commercial hard rock vein, rather than a unique artistic statement as was their original work.

Even done relatively well, it’s not the Sabbath of lore and must be viewed in a different light than the original era. Forty-three years after the band’s debut, it is not unexpected that they might alter their sound somewhat.

Releasing their debut self-titled album in 1970, Black Sabbath were the first “proto-metal” band in that they used the movable form of the power chord to make riffs that slid down the fretboard and thus encouraged songwriting with longer phrases, more atmosphere and a more flexible rhythmic attack than the rock music of the day. Distinguishing themselves with a number of chart-toppers as well as an audience who craved more, Black Sabbath kicked off the metal genre which quickly differentiated itself from rock and became a subcultural movement in its own right.

13 is due to be released on June 11 and the band will be reaching North America later in the year. Initial tour dates have been announced as follows:

  • 8/4 — Holmdel, N.J. — PNC Bank Arts Center
  • 8/14 — Toronto, Ontario — Air Canada Centre
  • 8/24 — Seattle, Wash. — Gorge Amphitheatre
  • 9/3 — Los Angeles, Calif. — Los Angeles Sports Arena

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Autopsy “The Headless Ritual” coming this July, Cover art and track list revealed

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAThis July 2, Autopsy returns with their sixth studio album of horror and gore inspired death metal, The Headless Ritual.

Featuring the returning quartet of Chris Reifert, Eric Cutler, Danny Coralles, and Joe Trevisano, The Headless Ritual explores the all-out sonic assault of and varied tempos that made Autopsy famous as a death metal band with variation. The album was recorded and mixed April 2013 at Fantasy Studios, San Francisco, Calif. with Adam Munoz, and features cover artwork by renowned artist Joe Petagno (Motörhead, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin) and will be released on Peaceville Records.

Drummer/vocalist Chris Reifert said, “Expect nothing less than the monstrous brutality that Autopsy has been known to offer. Laurels will not be rested upon, trends will not be followed and mercy will not be shown. Mark your calendars for June and pick out a coffin to lie down and die in. Darkness and death await…”

Autopsy formed in 1987 in the San Francisco Bay Area and released four albums on Peaceville Records, beginning with Severed Survival (1989) and peaking with Mental Funeral (1992), which many acknowledge as their best work. After disbanding in 1995, Autopsy returned in 2010 with the EP The Tomb Within, followed by the release of the band’s fifth studio album Macabre Eternal the following year.

1. Slaughter at Beast House
2. Mangled Far Below
3. She is a Funeral
4. Coffin Crawlers
5. When Hammer Meets Bone
6. Thorns and Ashes
7. Arch Cadaver
8. Flesh Turns to Dust
9. Running From the Goathead
10. The Headless Ritual

For more information, see the official Autopsy website or the mini-site on Peaceville Records.

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