Category Archives: News

Classical music for metalheads

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Metal like any addiction sends us toward the next more intense experience by necessity. When we cannot find the rush in metal, we turn to other genres, but few of those satisfy. Metalheads often find themselves tempted by classical music, but shy away for a number of reasons.

Classical music requires greater attention to recording, conductor and year than do rock-style albums where artist name and album name will suffice. The choice of which of those to get appears at first baffling and ambiguous. The classical community can be a big help, but on the internet, fans of every stripe tend to have a holier-than-thou outlook which drives away others. Finally, classical cannot compete sonically with metal which is a constant delighted terror of high-intensity guitar.

For those who want to branch outward however, classical offers an option which resembles metal under the surface even if from a distance it appears the opposite. Classical music like metal is riff-based and knits those riffs together into compositions which transition between multiple emotions and forms to tell a story, unlike pop which is more cyclic if not outright static. It also embraces the same Faustian spirit of rage for order that defines metal.

The brave few might want to forge ahead with these albums which serve as good entry works to classical:

  1. Brahms, Johannes – The Four Symphonies

    Pure Romanticism, which is the most beautiful classical genre but also its most easily misled into human emotional confusion. Flowing, diving, surging passages which storm through tyrannical opposition to reach some of the most Zen states ever put to music.

    Four Symphonies by Herbert von Karajan/Berliner Philharmonik Orchestra

  2. Respighi, Ottorino – Pines, Birds, Fountains of Rome

    Italian music is normally inconsequential. This has an ancient feeling, a sense of weight that can only be borne out in an urge to reconquest the present with the past.

    Pines, Birds, Fountains of Rome by Louis Lane/Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

  3. Schubert, Franz – Symphonies 8 & 9

    A sense of power emerging from darkness, and a clarity coming from looking into the halls of eternity, as translated by the facile hand of a composer who wrote many great pieces before dying young.

    Symphonies 8 & 9 by Herbert von Karajan/Berliner Philharmonik Orchestra

  4. Saint-Saens, Camille – Symphony 3

    Like DeBussy, but with a much wider range, this modernist Romantic rediscovers all that is worth living in the most warlike and bleak of circumstances.

    Symphony No. 3 by Eugene Ormandy/Philadelphia Orchestra

  5. Bruckner, Anton – Symphony 4

    Writing symphonic music in the spirit of Wagner, Bruckner makes colossal caverns of sound which evolve to a sense of great spiritual contemplation, the first “heaviness” on record.

    Romantic Symphony by Herbert von Karajan/Berliner Philharmonik Orchestra

  6. Berwald, Franz – Symphony 2

    The passion of Romantic poetry breathes through this light and airy work which turns stormy when it, through a ring composition of motives, seizes a clear statement of theme from its underlying tempest of beauty.

    Symphony No. 2 by David Montgomery/Jena Philharmonic

  7. Paganini, Niccolo – 24 Caprices

    Perhaps the original Hessian, this long-haired virtuoso wore white face paint, had a rumored deal with the devil, and made short often violent pieces that made people question their lives and their churches.

    24 Caprices by James Ehnes

  8. Anner Bylsma and Lambert Orkis – Sonatas by Brahms and Schumann

    We list these by performer because this informal and sprightly interpretation is all their own. Played on period instruments, it captures the beauty and humor of these shorter pieces with the casual knowledge of old friends.

    Brahms: Sonatas for Piano and Cello; Schumann: 5 Stücke im Volkston

Not everyone will take this path. Where metal, pop, rock, blues, techno, hip-hop and jazz aim for a consistent intensity, classical varies intensity as it does dynamics and mood. The point of listening to classical is to let it take you on an adventure, which much like metal will at some point encounter a crashing conclusion in which all things vast, powerful and beyond our reach come to bear on us for the ultimate feeling of heaviness.

Extreme Metal II by Joel McIver

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For a short book that you can finish in an afternoon, Extreme Metal by Joel McIver packs a great density of information of unusual breadth into this deceptively simple volume. Comprised of brief introductions and then combination profile, history and review of the major works of each band, this book applies a flexible strategy to information and dishes out more on the more important bands but refuses to leave out essential minor ones.

McIver released two versions of this book: an original (2000) and this update (2005). With each edition, the book gains more factual information and the writing kicks it up a notch. I first read Extreme Metal I shortly after it came out in a bookstore and noted how some of the writing was boxy and distant, but how (thankfully) it did not drop into the hipster habit of insider lingo and extensive pointless imagery. In Extreme Metal II, McIver writes according to the journalistic standards of the broader media and skips over the conventions of music journalism and especially metal journalism which are less stringent. If there is an Extreme Metal III, the language will be even more streamlined and relaxed.

A good book on metal includes not only information but interpretations; all books filter by what their authors think is important, and one of the strengths of Extreme Metal is its ability to zoom in on not just the larger bands but a number of smaller ones that contributed to the growth of the genre. With each of these bands, McIver presents the information as relevant to a metal fan interested in learning the genre but also in hearing the best of its music. After an introduction by Mille Petrozza of Kreator, Extreme Metal launches into a brief history and afterward is essentially band profiles in alphabetical order. McIver includes all of the big names that one must include especially in any book that wishes to have commercial success, but devotes a fair amount of time to focus on the underground and the odd details that complete its story. He displays a canny instinct for rooting out the important, even if obscure, and relating it to the progress of the genre as a whole.

Written in a conversational but professional style, the book unloads a large amount of information with a low amount of stress and reads much like an extended magazine article covering the growth of the extreme metal genres. Depending on what sub-genres a listener enjoys, parts of the book will be skimmed, much as some Hessians glaze over whenever anything related to nu-metal emerges. McIver displays the instincts of a metal listener and refuses to sugar-coat his opinions, but does not drift into the trendy internet sweetness-and-acid diatribes that afflict those who rage at the excesses of the underground. Instead, the book assumes that its readers are open-minded enough to listen to any good heavy metal and tries to dig out the best of it, even if those standards need to expand when nu-metal or metalcore float by.

Massacra

Massacra was a French ‘neo-classical death metal’ band and was formed in 1986. Three demos landed them a deal with Shark Records from Germany and later, the major label Phonogram. However, the band was put on hold in 1997 when a founding member, Fred Duval, died of skin cancer at only 29. Some members of the band formed an industrial band, Zero Tolerance, and released an album on the Active label.

Recommended Album: Final Holocaust (Shark, 1990)

Among the truckloads of paper published since Lords of Chaos convinced the industry that money could be made in books about underground metal, Extreme Metal distinguishes itself by being open-minded and yet straight to the point. Most books pass over perceived minor bands like Massacra, Autumn Leaves and Onslaught, but this book fits them into context and explains their relevance in a way that is both enjoyable and informative. While major bands like Metallica will always get more coverage, here McIver works to tie his write-ups of those bands in with traits of other bands who both helped make that success happen and carried it forward.

McIver has gone on to write other books including a best-seller about Metallica, a biography of Max Cavalera of Sepultura, retrospectives of Motorhead and Black Sabbath, a band history of Cannibal Corpse and most recently, a book about alternative band Rage Against the Machine. He demonstrates comfort at every level of above-ground and underground bands, but his instinct as a fan makes him a writer worth reading as he tears through metal, sorting the entropy from the growth. While one can write about underground metal to any depth, Extreme Metal strikes the right balance of information and expediency and produces an excellent first step for any fan or researcher looking into these sub-genres of heavy metal.

Updated version of The Heavy Metal FAQ published

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Version 2.0 of The Heavy Metal FAQ exists within grasp of your browser. This update and addition to the sprawling work that first began in the early 1990s when a group of die-hard metal fans began writing to each other on USENET, first published in full form in 1996, now contains information on the metal years after the turbulent 1990s.

Running over 100 pages of print in length, The Heavy Metal FAQ covers the origins, history, philosophy and artistic purpose of heavy metal and its many sub-genres including death metal, black metal, NWOBHM, thrash, grindcore, speed metal and proto-metal. Its new and more detailed chronicle of the rise and proliferation of heavy metal reveals the development of this genre and its many offshoots.

Written by a former death metal radio presenter and editor of this site, the document aims to address the common questions that readers and listeners have about heavy metal, and then to go one layer deeper so they can see the motivation behind these artists and the social and historical significance of heavy metal. Not for the faint of heart, much like metal itself, The Heavy Metal FAQ could be a gateway to a lifelong habit of heavy metal reading.

Cloned: The Recreator Chronicles

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Horror films, like heavy metal, have drifted for the past two decades looking for a new path. A few trends have passed: violence porn, hipster zombie movies, and the incomparable Human Centipede series of dementia. But audiences have converged, and people seek horror films that are brainy and metaphorical like the roots of the genre, yet perhaps with a bit of the sci-fi and social paranoia of the newer genre.

Cloned: The Recreator Chronicles launches into this with a story spun from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: if science can make a better human, what happens if it’s a “better” (as envisioned by humans) version of you? For Generation X, this brings great trauma as we all know our parents would have “upgraded” in a moment. It also calls into question our relations with other people, namely would we hit a magic button to make our friends, lovers and coworkers smarter, faster and better?

Per the usual for horror films with aspirations to “atmosphere,” the movie begins slowly with an idyllic scene. Three average people go on vacation. The only glitch is that their chosen destination happens to be on top of an experimental genetics facility. The glitch has a subthread, which is that the facility is still active and samples from its environment for fresh humans to improve. The three fall into its trap and must confront their new doubles who are stronger, smarter and most of all, more confident.

The metaphorical nature of horror movies emerges in full flavor here. While the plot progresses, the questions hang in that dense atmosphere the movie creates. Perhaps if we encounter a better version of ourselves, we should just lay down and die. After all, they fix all that we find tragic and pointless about ourselves. But there are other issues here, much as there were in Frankenstein. Does greater ability alone convey the wisdom and moral character to use that ability well? Perhaps improvements make us more competent, but no more directed toward what we should be doing. Then again, it is hard to argue with a better version of yourself. And from the perspective of your clone, you appear as obsolete as a VHS tape, and if the clone can step into your life and make a better version of it, should it be allowed to happen?

Cloned: The Recreator Chronicles launches viewers down a path of extreme skepticism about humanity through a metaphor which can apply to technology, eugenics or even the cult of self-esteem. While much of the action fits the standard form of personal drama to further a plot, the writers skillfully layer cues to the darker issues beneath which unfold as the movie goes on. Nothing is as it seems. And as this plot races to its nihilistic conclusion, that is as should be.

Call for submissions to Folk-Metal: Critical Essays on Identity, Myth and Culture

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A forthcoming journal on folk-metal, mostly in the pagan metal and viking metal sub-genres, requests that those with essays on the topic submit them for publication next year. The journal focuses on metal bands who use traditional musical instruments, lyrical references to customs and mythology, allusions to traditional culture, or displaying of cultural imagery in performer attire and artwork.

Folk-metal refers to the style of music that arose in the 1990s in Europe which consisted of “fusing traditional or folk music with heavy metal music forms.” The journal lists a number of bands from the power metal, black metal and death metal genres who qualify under this style:

Skyclad (England), Cruachan (Ireland), Finntroll (Finland), Skyforger (Latvia), Amon Amarth (Sweden), Amorphis (Finland), Falkenbach (Germany), Waylander (Ireland), Svartsot (Denmark), Metsatöll (Estonia), Empyrium (Germany), Mägo de Oz (Spain), Silent Stream of Godless Elegy (Czech Republic), Korpiklaani (Finland), Mael Mórdha (Ireland), Alkonost (Russia), Balkandji (Bulgaria), Dalriada (Hungary), Lumsk (Norway), Týr (Faroe Islands), Ensiferum (Finland), Celtachor (Ireland), Eluveitie (Switzerland), Elvenking (Italy), Primordial (Ireland).

Interested writers must submit a 300-word abstract and short biography of 50-100 words to to the editor, Dr Jenny Butler at j.butler@ucc.ie and cc. to butler.Jennifer@gmail.com by November 10, 2014. The final essays must be 4,000-7,000 words and will be due by June 1, 2015.

The journal suggests the following themes as a topical starting point:

  • Folklore, song lyrics, and cultural identity
  • Neo-pagan worldview of the bands
  • History of the genre, participants and events
  • Indigenous religion and mythology
  • Political and/or nationalistic agendas
  • The concept of homeland
  • The representation of deities and mythological beings in songs
  • Heroic elements
  • Fantasy literature
  • Nature, landscape and sacred sites

Phobocosm – Deprived

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In the 21st century, quality death metal makes itself scarce in a genre that has become disappointingly stagnant since its peak in the mid-1990s. Any gems are shrouded by a haze of technical masturbation bands and equally soulless candied old-school imitators. The musicians no longer understand their art. Some challengers exist, such as Phobocosm, a recent addition to the death metal roster.

Phobocosm are a death metal band rising from Montreal that compose dark and dirge-like death metal in the vein of Incantation and perhaps Evoken, but with their own unique voice. They released a song entitled “Solipsist” from their upcoming full-length Deprived that burns with apocalyptic fervor.

The song begins with a chilling melody that picks up intensity and evolves into the musical representation of souls wandering across a vicious and ominous wasteland. This music exemplifies the spirit, and delivers crushing blows.

Phobocosm have the misfortune of inheriting a genre that peaked, attracted infiltrators and imitators, and now languishes in a mass of technically-competent but empty material. The Canadians try to rectify that with solid songwriting before they get to the technical parts, which makes Phobocosm a band to watch. Their debut album, Deprived, arrives via Dark Descent Records on September 30th.

Classical and metal experiencing same paradigm shift

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Over the past decade, metal and related genres have shifted toward a highly technical perspective on instrumentalism. Where earlier genres valued the primitive and passionate, bands now tend to begin with a grounding in jazz and progressive rock theory and expand into metal.

This raises the bar for entry into the genre, but on the level of mechanics only. Corresponding, creativity seems to have declined in the genre, perhaps because artists with something to communicate — a.k.a. “content” — now face an uphill path toward technical perfection before that content will be accepted in the genre.

A similar phenomenon occurred in the classical genre as well. Like metal, this niche genre struggles to keep existing fans while making new ones and not becoming “dumbed-down” like everything else in popular culture. As a result, it has become perfectionist on a technical level, perhaps to the detriment of content, notes an article on the evolution in classical music.

Today’s classical musicians are rarely given this choice between expression and perfection. As David Taylor, assistant concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, recently told the Los Angeles Times, “Today, perfection is a requirement. You must have flawless intonation, you must be a machine.” A single missed note or halting phrase could be a musician’s downfall: the end of a job interview, perhaps the end of a career.

This perfectionist culture can crush young musicians’ creativity: they’re too afraid of messing up to take risks. As Thor Eckert Jr. wrote for the Christian Post back in 1982, “the very qualities that made Rubinstein unique have been abandoned in the music world today. Rather than emotion, we now have technical prowess, rather than expressivity and poetry we have accuracy, rather than individuality, we have a bland sameness.”

The article goes on to discuss the impact that technology has had on classical music, namely a lowering of concert attendance and less of a tendency to purchase albums in favor of individual songs. This development threatens the mainstay income of classical musicians, and has driven them toward entrepreneurial ventures including pop music hybrids. While this particular source feels this is a positive development, many of us are not so sure.

When commerce takes over any given form, whether art or music or writing, it tends to increase the tangible factors of quality while decreasing the intangible ones, like content or profundity. This in turn drives artists toward increasing degrees of triviality and novelty in an effort to distinguish themselves, with the result that few focus on quality of expression beyond the technical at all.

Simultaneously, the knowledge of technical precision becomes democratized or spread widely at low cost, which means that soon the genre floods with highly proficient players who may have no ability to compose, improvise or otherwise contribute anything but “new” recombined versions of what previously existed. In metal, this has been a death knell; let us hope that for classical it is not the same.

Burzum releases “how-to” videos for classic songs

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Burzum mastermind Varg Vikernes has released instructional videos showing those out there in black metal fandom land how to play along with a selection of riffs from classic Burzum songs.

The videos, released via Vikernes’ ThuleanPerspective YouTube account, show him playing each riff and explaining its context and purpose in the corresponding song with an ear for atmosphere and emotion.

Heavy metal and hacking in 2600 magazine

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The Summer 2014 edition of 2600 magazine includes an article by Brett Stevens about the intersection between the heavy metal underground and the hacker underground.

“Crossover: Where Metal and Hacking Met and Mixed” concerns the early years of PC hacking when hackers used the BBS underground and other facilities, some borrowed, to communicate about the nascent underground metal scene. It includes interviews with the leading hackers of that era who listened to heavy metal, including Cult of the Dead Cow and Erik Bloodaxe.

The article follows up on an earlier article published at Perfect Sound Forever, a long-running music e-zine, entitled “Hacker Metal.” That article introduced the concept of hacking and how hackers used BBS culture to stay informed about heavy metal and work around low media coverage.

Although a small portion of the metal community, the crossover between hackers and metalheads provides a fertile ground for the outlook that seeks to defy pointless rules and pay attention to the mechanics of power instead. 2600, named for the signal that allowed hackers to dial out on a line to which they were connected, provides a nexus for the hacker community who may now discover its inner Hessian.

Cannibal Corpse – A Skeletal Domain

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The best-selling death metal band of all time, Cannibal Corpse maintains its audience by writing rhythmic hooks and cramming a half-dozen riffs into each song in a way that is memorable enough for the average listener. On their 13th album, A Skeletal Domain, Cannibal Corpse sensibly alter just about nothing to their winning formula.

If you can imagine the 1988-1990 period for Slayer and Exodus combined and turned up to 11, the basic idea of Cannibal Corpse will shine through the genre labels such as “death metal.” This music has little in common with early Morbid Angel, Deicide, Asphyx or other founders of the genre. If anything, it resembles 1980s speed metal given the death metal treatment with extremely distorted vocals, absurdist gore lyrics, and a higher dose of intensity in technique and speed.

Songs build themselves around either a chorus or a memorable riff, usually with hints of melody, and the rest of the time create a primitive groove based on an expectation of rhythmic satisfaction interrupted in sub-divided patterns that recombine the same few basic riff ideas. The guitars support vocals which take center stage in a monotone that foreshadows and echoes the dominant rhythms of each piece. Lead guitars sound straight out of the 1970s but played faster and more erratically, and bass while active and precise acts in a support role to guitars. The result delivers a compact sound that displays little internal variation.

When you listen to this album while distracted, after smoking a bowl, or while typing on the internet, it seems rather impressive. Each individual riff makes sense and the riff after also makes sense. The problem is that songs as a whole do not make sense. They fit together, but no internal tension or communication occurs, which leads to a very “postmodern” style where chaos surrounds an articulated foot-tapping chorus rhythm. The lack of relation and relevance between riffs and the whole of each song makes Cannibal Corpse seem like a stream of spare parts, even if linearly riffs follow in sensible order. You will hear a lot of Slayer in these riffs, which is always welcome.

Metal fans love this band and it is hard to see why they would not. It is catchy, extreme and chaotically hilarious. Its subversively discordant attitude toward all aspects of what most people accept as good and natural life makes it the surly kid who sneaks cigarettes into chapel. The best riffs are often the support riffs, which work in melody and challenging rhythms, and often sound like more intense versions of what second-string speed metal bands like Heathen, Atrophy and Assassin used to do. While I can praise what this album does well, and appreciate the ear candy attributes of it, there is no reason I would purchase this with my limited funds and listen to it on a repeated basis.

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