When a genre performs a postmortem on itself as black metal is about to do, it looks back through the years not only to find its peaks, but to find its forgeries. Like the first real black metal forgery, Ulver Nattens Madrigal, Maanes is an artistic fraud that uses the technique of black metal for its own sake, without having any idea of the underlying expression. It does not matter what that expression is because it cannot be policed with a list of rules, but the fact that it exists in actual black metal and not here is a matter of historical record.
“Sensitive guy” metal was nothing new when this was released. Opeth had already been mincing around the edges of the underground for a few years, following up on melodic softer death metal from Tiamat and Cemetary. Paradise Lost was huge and so was the idea of “crossover,” since everyone and their dog realized black metal had a narrow set of ideas that required exceptional people to implement, and that with those exhausted there was now a market for imitators. Maanes starts with the proposition that Burzum can be cloned, and to make that clone palatable to the kids emerging from the suburbs like spores from fungus, this clone could be hybridized with light progressive rock like Pink Floyd. The result is 90% black metal tropes laid out in mellow songs that develop seemingly independently of the melodic and corresponding artistic implications of the riffs, making an experience that is pleasant on the surface but leaves a gnawing emptiness from its failure to deliver the kind of profound transport and insightful revelation that black metal provided.
What makes this release hard to attack is that it is well-executed, well-produced and carefully concealed. Maanes are not amateurs; more likely, they are guys who got tired of having no success in other genres despite being better musicians than the people who were making the big bucks and getting their names in the newspapers. Like other Burzum clones of the era, most notably Abyssic Hate, Maanes make good use of Burzum sweep technique and even give a nod to Filosofem with the production. Using grandiose keyboards alongside somewhat obvious riffs capitalizing on known black metal patterns, Maanes keep up the black metal “sound” but these songs never go through the emotional process of discovering what lies beneath and so rapidly the listening experience becomes like hearing a front-loading washer finish up a duvet cover, if the washer had a good background in rock guitar.
The tragedy of black metal is that while it cannot be cloned it can be imitated, and so bands like Ulver and Maanes emerged to put a black metal surface on the same stuff they would have done with their Oingo Boingo cover bands a few years before. Interestingly, the technical competence as songwriters of these bands has declined over the years as nu-black has set its sights more on punk than on progressive rock. The approach remains the same and the effect similarly hollow, leaving listeners wanting more but not sure they want more of this. These sprawling songs carefully disguise how much they repeat their themes, often for seven minutes at a time, in what is essentially verse chorus songwriting that every two repetitions interrupts itself with a brief divergence. Newer bands do not even bother to do that, but make straight-up pop songs with black metal distortion and a few riff archetypes. Nods to Burzum, Darkthrone and Mayhem bubble to the surface throughout this release but it is unable to build context for its riffs to create the kind of atmosphere that those founding bands manipulated so well. The result is like every other aspect of modern society, ultra-competent on the surface and directionless within.
Old school death metal band Remains returns with its fourth release Evoking Darkness which shows inspiration from the Swedish and American greats of mid-90s death metal merged with the type of bluesy and infectious integration of classic heavy metal that made Clandestine a powerful album, albeit placed in a style that is closer to a cross between older Dismember and Unleashed. The band does not attempt to innovate in aesthetics but creates a sonic charge with the energy and unsettling corruption of mainstream archetypes which defined death metal during its heyday.
The band produced an impressive body of work with its 2012 demo “The True Essence,” the …Of Death EP the following year and Angels Burned in 2014, and follows up on those with simpler, tighter songs that eschew pure grinding in favor of a well-blended integration of metal styles designed to be both audially compelling and unnerving in the method of classic death metal. Songs rotate around a central break from the verse/chorus pairings, repeating themselves in both introduction and egress from that core confrontation. Lead guitars drop in with a variety of styles integrated into organic but energetic explosions of clusters of notes and lengthy fret runs. Vocals take on the gruff exhortations of older Dismember and give it the percussive rhythm of American death metal like Malevolent Creation, crafting a narrative of violence with a lining of excited morbidity. Remains shy away from the melancholic and dark side of death metal and instead converge on its region of pure energy, with music that delights in the finely-picked textures of Swedish death metal alongside the percussive power of Florida death metal. Herein lies where Remains can improve this work, which is that the hard rock/heavy metal integration into the death metal does not always emerge triumphant and often consumes the death metal portion, and extremely basic chord progressions which do not give songs much room to expand in structure or melody. The aesthetic, energy and atmosphere remain perfect and can expand over time as this band matures.
Most people will be floored by how Evoking Darkness not only stays true to the old school sound but gives it life through a voice of its own which is not expressed in style but in these songs themselves and their unique takes on the riff forms from the past forty years of metal. Where Remains shows its power is in the fitting together of these meticulously crafted rhythms so that riffs both flow and contrast one another; while greater harmonic or melodic death would enhance this, it alone makes Evoking Darkness more listenable than all but a few of the retro-death albums which fit together blockily or unevenly. These riffs balance each other in dissymmetry and create a sense of an evolving lacuna which propels the listener forward to see what comes next. Not only do riffs counterpart each other well, but their internal rhythms show a study of the power of the riff itself, and the album flows past without lapses or discontinuities. It shows vast improvement over the previous album from this band and signals a path to their future, since Remains has built a framework upon which more complexity, both in complexity of structure and use of tone, can be built.
The late 1990s belonged to bands of the Suffocation style of percussive death metal which derived its essential technique, the muted-strum power chord, from speed metal, but worked riffs into mazes with high dynamic variation but consistent narrative in the death metal style. This balance proves difficult to maintain as choppy riffing lends itself too easily to simply circular riff patterns and the resulting patchwork song structures. Starting with Sinister Hate in 1996, the subgenre experienced a revitalization through the injection of melody and the more theatrical song structures of mid-paced death metal. With the rise of Unique Leader bands in the early 2000s, the percussive brutal death metal sub-sub-genre exploded, and into that environment Infernal Dominion dropped its only album.
Salvation Through Infinite Suffering dwells within that narrow musical range but derives most of its influence from bands like Incantation (specifically 1997’s Forsaken Mourning of Angelic Anguish) and Immolation, although it applies these within the percussive blasting style. Bands of this era struggled to balance the need for compelling rhythm in vocals and verse riffs with the more fluid and aggressive choruses and other riffs designed to support the developing song structure. Any greatest strength is a greatest weakness, and in percussive death metal the same type of sound that makes it compelling also can take over composition and result in boring songs that repeat too much of the same stuff and go nowhere.
Infernal Dominion interpret this style as having a high dynamic intensity in song structure but built around loops that emphasize the verses and allow vocals and percussive strumming to take center stage. Onto that they add complex lead guitars that while jazz and rock influenced stay out of entirely cloning those styles. Many excellent riffs, some of the archetypes that later appear in guitarist Wes Weaver’s more recent band Blaspherian, go into this release as does a violent and compelling performance by the vocalist and other instrumentalists. The challenge remains allowing both influences to breathe, both the guttural blasting death metal that occupies the surface style and the underlying fascination with the darker doom-death and cavernous death metal styles. Sometimes the styles emerge and separate like two heads of a dragon fighting one another, and by the law of compromise the band defaults to the simpler elements.
While Salvation Through Infinite Suffering offers many moments of greatness, it possesses more potential than was ultimately delivered. It relies too much on its great strength, trying to make the vocals lead songs where guitar needs to lead, and then packing too much into each song. As the inclusion of several tracks from 2004 show on this release, over time the band streamlined its material and achieved greater clarity while still keeping the terrifying guttural vocals and perhaps making them even more violent. While this album may have attempted a grand vision that never quite realized itself, in part because of stylistic or personality conflicts in the band, it also provides a grimoire of great musical ideas which await development by future death metal musicians.
In the 1990s, there dwelled a cabal of musicians in France called Les Légions Noires which specialized in basic, raw, occult black metal. Many of the LLN releases were superb, most however, were significantly less than appealing. One of the more exceptional records to be served out of this French cauldron is Mütiilation’s debut album Vampires of Black Imperial Blood.
Stylistically, this album is similar to Black Funeral in terms of both riffing approach and occult fascination. This release works on its ability to place the listener upon the fulcrum between terror and nightly beauty. Cavernous rivers of melody advance and collide in such a way that it plunges the listener through a gloomy current that fluctuates between those two sensations until they are indistinguishable.
Vampires of Black Imperial Blood is often eclipsed by the oppressively colossal Remains of a Ruined, Dead, Cursed Soul that would come later. This makes sense because their sophomore effort does indeed leave a more lasting impression. However, to skip over this album would be a mistake as it nails down the grisly basis for the mastery to come.
What is the human problem? Everything we do is insincere, and any time someone rises above that standard, they are torn down out of the fear that their excellence might offend those who are mediocre, who (conveniently) comprise the majority of humanity. We separate mediocre conformity from people who make realistic, sincere and inspired art out of heavy metal genres, and ignore the blood on the floor and the tears on the fedora because feelings are always less important than truth. Step over the bodies of hipsters, poseurs, tryhards, SJWs, scenesters, day trippers, rationalization hamsters and sell-outs, and welcome to Sadistic Metal Reviews…
Torche – Restarter
What is sludge? It is what failed in other forms slowing itself down and mixing metal into its techniques in order to disguise that it has failed. If you tuned the guitars up, played it at mid-pace and avoiding the metal downstroke technique, Torche would be just another indie rock band in the late 90s style. The focus is on melancholic but egotistical vocal lines which are almost autistic and certainly narcissistic (and aren’t the two degrees of the same problem, which is exclusive self-referentiality?) in their tendency to confirm their precepts with their conclusions, backed by lots of downstrummed guitars and slow drums. In the 1990s, labels tried this style with Fudge Tunnel and later even Godflesh got in the game, but went nowhere, because people could realize the basic “Nirvana + doom” formula used back then. The formula now is even more basic. It is indie rock with metal technique and nothing else. Much of this sounds like outtakes from a Filter or Faith No More album, but updated with the kind of simplistic approach that became popular when music videos faded and became incorporated into mainstream cinema instead. This would be great background music for teenagers smoking dope by the old reservoir or similarly pointless rebellion that ends with them just getting locked into the system harder. This music is a fraud and its fans are idiots.
Armageddon – Captivity & Devourment
The title refers to the album itself: it lures you in with the promise of extreme metal, then subjects you to the 80s speed metal/nu-metal/melodeath hybrid cooked up by music industry executives looking over Excel spreadsheets of sales successes, or maybe just opportunistic musicians. Either way, most of our species are simple-minded idiots and this music panders to them with lots of Pantera/Meshuggah style violent verses and binary riffs that sort of wiggle around in the space between two points, ending symmetrically on the opposite note from the one that resolves the first half of the phrase. Lots of e-chord rhythm riffing in this style combines randomly with other influences and creates an end result that is not quite as blatantly distracting “carnival music” as Behemoth but more like heavy metal featured in movies: it sounds good when the solo kicks in, but the rest is lead-up to that with industrial music style vocals disguised as metal, and random riffs fleshing out what are otherwise pop songs whose parts barely relate to one another. For all the instrumental prowess of this band, they seem to have no idea what to write, and it shows in this amalgam of label darlings lashed together with rhythm for the brain-damaged.
Vermis Mortem – Evil Never Dies
The intro to this EP is pointless and should be deleted for being both without purpose and annoying. What follows is very closed-circuit death metal in a style like Angelcorpse merged with Hate Eternal and older Death, which is to say a very modern style, that emphasizes the vocals which lead songs through some rather stereotypical and extremely balanced and basic riffs. The result is painful boredom unless you like the vocals, which enunciate and jump around like a performer at a Shakespeare revival in the park, but this over-acting does not save us from the musical tedium of this release. It is catchy, its rhythms are compelling, but it develops nowhere. Vocal rhythms are obvious like children’s rhymes and riffs represent streamlined versions of what has worked well in the past 20 years, but in this streamlining, the parts of the riff that gave its shape interesting dimension are removed, and we are left with a three-part puzzle with no mystery. Burden a riff like that with the duty to provide support for vocals which are blurting out similarly quasi-catchy patterns and the result is a song which seems to chant in unison the most simplistic elements it has in common, and the listener is back in pop territory where repetition becomes a bludgeon and even small variations seem exciting. For as much as this band wants to be old school, its reliance on the ego — the vocals — forces it into surface-level composition and obliterates whatever of depth it may have hoped to express.
Pentagram – Relentless
We can all agree that 90% of everything on earth is crap and that most people are merely self-interested, meaning that there is no greater dimension to them, and as they tend to be incompetent they become the type of parasite that takes everything for itself and then destroys it, left blaming others for its “misfortune.” Most people behave this way and because they are somewhat aware of this, they seek material to camouflage their mediocrity with irony, novelty and other “different” and “unique” signals. These signals allow them to defer criticism by showing how they aren’t like the rest, which is a way of saying they are afraid we will find out that they are exactly like the rest. Pentagram has become somewhat of a media favorite and a crowd favorite mainly because it is not metal. This is straight out of the 1960s rock explosion, focused on melodic hooks in chorus and voice acting on the verses. They even made a movie about this band and its strung out vocalist, as if trying to make Pentagram into the doom metal version of Roky Erikson. The problem here is that Pentagram is a step back to before Black Sabbath but uses the muted strum of speed metal and the detuning of a heavy metal band, although its songs really have more in common with the previous generation. Beware of what the herd likes because they are liars trying to conceal their mediocrity, and this applies doubly with Pentagram. This band would not have gone far as a regular rock band but if you add the novelty factor of doom metal plus Satan-ish overtones, people are interested. Stoner doom metal is generally a fraud that disguises failed rock as innovative metal, and Pentagram is no exception. The herd lies and it will destroy anything it can control in its desperate quest to hide its own lack of soul, integrity and purpose. Throw this band in the ditch with the other 60s burnouts and move on to real, actual metal instead.
Acid King – Middle of Nowhere, Center of Everywhere
Heavy metal grew out of many influences including psychedelic music. The challenge to psychedelic music is to make sound that induces hallucinogenic experience in sober people, not to create music which appeals only to the very stoned with cover art that looks good next to a bag of Cheetos. Like most stoner rock, Acid King is a fraud: basically slow jam rock with heavy distortion played with a few aesthetic elements of doom metal, but essentially unchanged from the 1970s jive that sent people fleeing to heavy metal in the first place. This is boring music played slowly to disguise how little actually goes on. A female vocal drones alongside a rock-style riff, with no “shape” as metal riffs have, and then guitars wheedle-beedle and zeetly-zeetly-zeet after prolonged “melodic” solo introductions that are merely repetitive. If you are very high, preferably on the higher grade of cheap weed that deactivates all higher brain function except what is required to order pizza and play NES ironically, you may find this appealing because it is sonically well-formed and texturally distinctive enough. But there is no meaning here, nor even a really good distraction, which tends to be the case with all stoner doom (which we might as well be honest and call “nu-doom” or “nu-heavy” metal).
Eternal Solstice – Remnants of Immortality
What a horror: death metal styling applied like vinyl siding to what is essentially hard rock with an addiction to uniform conclusions and obvious riff forms. It is just blockhead, paint-by-numbers death metal. At this point, nothing more needs be said except to mention the electronic vocals, which would not be a problem except they sound like a bad American crime show where the bad guy uses a voice disguiser bought from Radio Shack back in the 1970s to hide his identity when calling over a pay phone. The style alone would not doom this band, if they could simply make hard rock in the heavier vein somewhere between early Motley Crue and later Pantera, but their music is just boring. No harmonic or melodic hook exists, and the rhythmic hook consists of the same type of expectation that comes from waiting for the person in the apartment above to drop the second shoe on the floor before retiring to bed for the night. Sometimes, bands like this get miscalled “heavy” because they are numbing through repetition and sheer simplistic mentality to their riff-writing, and Eternal Solstice qualifies in this department. What drives you to listen to this band is the quasi-OCD that people on the internet talk about, which is that if there is a basic sequence of events, you want to see it completed. Other than that, no appeal, and this one should go back to the pits of hell for recycling.
Recueil Morbide – Morbid Collection
Recueil Morbide takes the fertile music of the late 1980s where bands verged on death metal from speed metal and adds to it a sense of melody and modern metal vocals. The result attempts to fuse the Unique Leader style of brutal deathcore with melodeath and come out with a good result, which this band mostly does, but is limited by the demands of the style that it keep within one level of cause and effect, resulting in pounding riffs and soaring melodic passages being used as effects in otherwise fairly straightforward death metal songs. That is distinct from the classic death metal approach which used structure to express content, instead of doing so on the surface where structure was recombinant and vocals, lyrics, effects, etc. were required to make an impression on the listener. Too much of Recueil Morbide takes the same approach and the result is that meaning and interest — what distinguishes this band from all others — are left on the surface with a feeling of being unexplored. If this band wants to succeed, they will focus less on the stuff everyone else does and more on what they do, taking it from 10% of this album to a much higher figure. As a side note, the melodies that this band writes sound like variations on the James Bond theme, which happens several times on this release. Maybe it’s an allusion.
Znafelriff – Ruin
Creating melodic death/black with simple song structures, Znafelriff uses a number of influences along these lines — “Ruin” borrows quite a bit from “Mountains of Might” from Immortal Blizzard Beasts — to forge together music which keeps charging energy high but never intensifies the energy itself, leading to a kind of circularity. Songs start, launch into a riff, add a counterpoint riff, and then cycle until they wear down. When the band wants more power, they add blasting drums and more extreme vocals; for emotion, they work in melody. Many parts of this resemble early Tormentor given a death metal makeover. While nothing is particularly wrong here, it leaves no particular impression either since songs are exercises in maintaining a mood rather than developing it, and the style is a semi-unique mix of standard influences resulting in a genericism of low expectations. If this band wants to move further toward excellent, it should rely less on vocals and more on combining riffs to create a focal point at which atmosphere shifts, and to make that atmosphere resemble something other than a vague uncertainty, darkness and rage.
Nader Sadek – The Malefic: Chapter III
When I first heard this artist, I thought: someone attempting to make something of the Hate Eternal style, itself a smart move by Eric Tucker which tried to harness the appeal of modern metal through a style that still retained the coherence of older metal. The problem artists deal with is that this style brooks no compromise. It demands constant charging vocals ahead of the drums with insistent patterns and those lead the song, which crowds out other instruments as lead, which demotes guitar to a secondary role and thus demotes melody and structure as well, in favor of relatively monotonic vocals. Guitars appear as adornments to this basic style, which is closer to pop than heavy metal, but when the detour is over the ranting vocals resume. This forces the band to cram its best activities into relatively small areas of each song. Nader Sadek struggles with this impossible burden as well. It is simply paradoxical. The interesting parts of these songs are the little transitions and flights of fancy between the “hard” verse riffs with charging vocals and the parts of the solos that are designed to be fireworks for a “wow factor” with the mouth-breathing, fetus-hands and neck-bearded audience. Can’t some label give this artist enough money that he can write songs based on those interesting parts, instead of the parts which we know the herd will clap its little hands without forearms for? The style betrays the artist.
For that feeling of old school mid-paced death metal, Ossuaire makes a credible stab: good riff variation, songs fit together well, but with too much emphasis on vocals and not enough on structure, and often too much reliance on riffs that make their hook out of brief interruption of utter predictability. Those disadvantages are minor compared to the overall appeal of this brief recording which is its ability to keep intensity in a death metal style without relying on crutches, and while maintaining a character of its own, somewhere between old Morgoth, Infester and later Suffocation. The challenge for this band will not be to develop its own style, although it will want to go further in that direction, but to edit its material so that it presents its most dramatic elements at the right time after the right build-up, and so creates the kind of mood-shifting experience that made classic death metal great. All of the parts are there and the execution rapidly approaches that place; it would be aided with less reliance on the vocalist, which as many classic death metal bands found out, results in lessening of the influence of other instruments which bends composition back toward the rock/pop standard, which is designed as background music for vocals which exist to blurt out some message of peacelove or happiness, which was generally the point of rock ‘n roll. Ossuaire have done well to escape that, but if they do better, can be a top-flight death metal band.
Keep of Kalessin – Epistemology
This band went from being a bad black metal imitation to being a thinly-disguised modern metal band that uses melodic choruses to hide its otherwise bog-standard post-Pantera speed metal approach. Their “black metal” combined boring tryhard blasting with purposeless folk-metal styling and fooled a number of people, most notably the clueless NWN/FMP crowd, but apparently eventually the market caught up with them and started over-producing sing-song black metal so Keep of Kalessin switched to what could easily fit into the MTV hard rock of the late 80s with a stylistic upgrade to be contemporary. The melodic hooks are adequate but of well-known forms, and verses emphasize some kind of drama to distract from the underlying purposelessness, and the songs progress according to the formula of friendly verse, dramatic chorus, a brief bridge with noodly solo and then return to the loop. This formula appears in all rock, techno, blues, etc. and serves its purpose well for being background music to the unexceptional lives of the many people out there who, unwilling to step beyond the bounds of self to escape narcissism, flit from one distraction to the next without caring much about content. For anyone with a functional brain or any listening experience, Keep of Kalessin rings hollow and seems as commercial as it secretly is underneath the skin. It would be more honest to pick up an old Def Leppard album where these riff patterns and song forms are crafted with more conviction, and the nature of the music does not have to hide itself behind pretense, subterfuge and illusion.
Around a decade ago, the funderground types (NWN/FMP) started a campaign to include Venom as the “first wave of black metal,” even though before that time nearly all sources agreed that Venom were NWOBHM and probably less influential on black metal than Motorhead. But suddenly this huge push existed to bring Venom into black metal; why? Listening to Ravencult, it is clear: so that they could make mediocre heavy metal, speed it up like a punk band and add rasping vocals and call it black metal. This created an instant doubling of product to capture that boom in clued-out kids trying to buy into the black metal hype.
Ravencult drops firmly within this camp. They keep the constant forward rhythm of a war metal band and underneath it re-visit riffs from the 80s and 90s which, despite their chromatic nature, often have a basis in the rhythms and tonal changes of hard rock. The result is something that you want to like but it is too simple-minded and repetitive ultimately to provide anything but a sting of nostalgia and then lots of comforting background noise. It will never motivate anyone to any particular greatness like the old bands used to do. As they say in the funderground, at least it is true… or is that so? It might be better to sever from the past, and create something new instead. Or at least something with the same intensity of death/black metal, instead of trying to make lower intensity versions of the classics so that people can enjoy them like easy listening music or lite jazz, sitting on their comfortable sofas sipping Chivas and “appreciating” black metal.
and of course the unholy genesis of underground metal — Hellhammer, Bathory, Sodom and Slayer —
Purveyors of occult black/death Alchemyst introduced their ominous presence in the underground in 2009 only to seclude themselves in 2014. During that time the band released three demos, a compilation, a split, and the full length effort in question, Nekromanteion. While the atmosphere that this band deploys finds kinship in the mystic aura of black metal, its genesis lies in the archaic realms of ultra-cryptic riff-labyrinth death metal.
Alchemyst manifests through cavernous, dark death metal with an atmosphere that crushes the listener under pressure while simultaneously enervating them with despair. Songs are comprised of unique, murky, and arcane riffs that resound varying moods, which creates a dark and meancing instability. The compelling essence of the atmosphere originates in the unpredictable motion of the music, which varies both tempi and riff form on a constant basis, like musical quicksand obliterating any consistency or hope wherever it finds it. Bass plays an equally vital role in the dynamics of the song, both structuring songs through foreshadowing, and traversing a vitriolic, dark tone that goes hand in blender with the chaos that the guitars conjure. Penetrating the sense as though breathing serpent fire, the ensuing descent feels like having a luminous light permeating your body and devouring it like nuclear explosion from the inside out.
Alchemyst share a kinship with contemporary abyss-dwellers such as Antediluvian, Abyssal, and Lantern, in its use of dark, meditative resonance as the basis of its mood. However, it takes a different route toward instability, which is to base its sound in unexpected variation rather than constant grinding.
In the many years of reading about metal, I have often wished for something like Compilation of Death: a zine that goes back through other zines, pulls out the best content and annotates it so that a historical record is composed from many sources. Each of the stories in this zine are like a shelf in a great library of metal, usually about a band but equally possibly a scene, a sound or a time.
What you will find among these pages is a carefully curated view of metal, which borrows whole pages from zines from the periods in which these bands were active, combines them with current-day interviews and perspectives, and assembles them into a kind of metal investigative reporting that shows us a well-rounded picture of each band or topic.
Compilation of Death carefully gives credit to each of the source zines and includes information on how to contact them, so in addition to being a feast of metal zine information, this is a promotion for the entire idea of zines, which are experiencing a renaissance as people tire of the information overload — which guarantees a predominance of low-value content — and endless useless people who clog today’s internet. Democratizing content merely means that every bad idea gets repeated thousands of times and good ideas get driven to the periphery, so that established commercial interests with the bucks to advertise on the big sites win out. Zines on the other hand are by their nature curated, meaning that someone plays the role of librarian/editor and picks bands deliberately, asks questions with intent, and reveals something unique to that subject with the resulting reporting. This is different than the assembly line process of web sites and big metal magazines, who process whatever the labels send them in roughly the same way with surface changes so that the “quirky” outlook hides the utter sameness and entropy of it all. What made zines powerful was that they had purpose, which allowed them to reveal a truth non-objectively and for reasons of itself, instead of secondary reasons like popularity and profit. Compilation of Death doubles down on this concept by not only choosing direction and topic, but picking from the vast number of zines out there the best of what is written on that topic.
These two volumes offer reading matter that can be pored over many times because they are bursting with details that become increasingly relevant the more one knows about a topic. In addition, metal historians will find many unknown but important details here confirming the motivations of bands and their art, in addition to a broader perspective on the people behind the music which is never revealed by the more uptight, formal and procedural interviews conducted by big magazines. For those who want a heavy dose of information about the underground in a form that rewards the diligent reader with a deep understanding, Compilation of Death is a treat that can be revisited time and again to bring out the nuance of its topic.
This album presents a perfect case study in wallpaper black metal and a discussion of its apologetics. The title, formed from three repetitions of the Swedish word for “holy,” incurs two different wallpaper metal infractions: pointless repetition of riffs and pointless contrasting ideas.
Pointless repetition of an entire rhythm or riff, as opposed to reusing a theme in a different context, occurs when a composer has one of several possible aims. Traditionally this has been to let the listener get familiar with an idea, to let it sink in, as some would say. The most popular aim of repetition in the more ambient-oriented black metal field is to create atmosphere. The aim of the latter is to lead the listener beyond familiarity with the riff and into a kind of stupor. The listener is taken into this state with the purpose of preparing him for something else: a deeper dream level, as it were, which would follow. But apologetics of wallpaper music claim that all ambient-oriented repetition, even the one they themselves may admit to being meaningless, achieves its goal if it brings the listener to the aforementioned state of stupor without necessary deepening of mood.
Pointless contrasting ideas serve to redirect of a musical path or modify the nature of the stupor in which the listener is in, such as from an anger-fueled one to another infused by sadness or even happiness. The use of a contrasting idea makes sense if it interacts with its context and primarily with its adjacent riff sections, much as in writing each sentence in a paragraph must relate to the topic and the sentences before and after it. When contrast lacks that purpose in context, it becomes a technique for distracting from the stupor so that the listener does not realize that the trick behind the stupor is repetition alone and it will lead nowhere, which converts a dream-state into a state of boredom in instants.
Wallpaper is defined as: “paper that is pasted in vertical strips over the walls of a room to provide a decorative surface.” It provides a decorative surface only without reference to what surrounds it. Its context does not matter so long as it covers a blank surface and provides something to look at. It is not meant to have any meaning. The frescoes, carvings or statues of classical art, on the other hand, were meant to be both pleasing to the eye and to convey a certain meaning, inviting the visitor into a different dimension (in the mystic-spiritual metaphorical sense).
Now the following question assails us, would someone completely unfamiliar with Western art become induced into the mental state that the authors of such art intended? Not necessarily. The degree to which that person’s reaction to art approaches that which was intended depends directly on the similarity of the background in culture and experience of the subject to that whence the artwork sprung from. This, like context, comprises the memories that give a new musical figure meaning.
In fact, herein lies our key to reverse engineering intention (of the author) and/or purpose (which may be independent of the author’s conscious intent) in music. This key is context. Let us be clear here that this does not refer to Epistemic Contextualism, which does not lead to a discussion on inherent meaning arising from some original intention but to that of attributed meaning as interpreted in any situation, even alien contexts to that which gave rise to the original product. The intended meaning of context in this article is precisely the conventional one described in the previously linked article as:
…certain features of the putative subject of knowledge (his/her evidence, history, other beliefs, etc.) or his/her objective situation (what is true/false, which alternatives to what is believed are likely to obtain, etc.)…
This allows us to appreciate the sense and coherence of a work independently of if we agree with its tenets. On a separate but related note, it is also from this vantage point that its connection to a more transcendent nature can be gauged, since the particular context, that which is temporal, is known.
Analyses, use, limitations and power
Perceiving context in a particular way and analyzing a problem in the real world is the subject of studies that produce methods to approach them. Everything that is perceived is subjective in the sense that depending on our experience and background we may highlight and give importance to different factors. After that, methods are devised to point out objective qualities that are pertinent to the aspects we want to analyze. This is true of mathematical analysis, and even of scientific analyses in chemistry and physics.
Of course, there is a catch here. The complexity, in terms of scope, of what is being analyzed matters in no small measure to the objectivity of the results. In the case of the sciences, the scope is reduced to what is known while assumptions are made about what is not known and then, given the reduced and strictly defined boundaries of what is being analyzed (which is usually not the whole system but rather a model of the system), completely objective results are obtained in the context of the reduced-system model. As a more knowledgeable person in the field would put it:
The larger the scope of the analysis of a system becomes, the more assumptions regarding the conditions that enable the system to behave in a certain way become present. Sometimes these assumptions are made deliberately, but sometimes they are present unknowingly. This is due to the complexity associated with an increasing scope of analysis, which makes it unfeasible to obtain a straightforward solution. Furthermore, complexity is associated with the relationship among the different factors (variables) and the system/phenomena being observed. — L. Garrido
The error factor grows alongside this scope and it may even become unmeasurable if we do not know how to precisely quantify a particular element like purpose or intention. Which is precisely why they are not included in the scope of any scientific analysis. It must also be clarified that the error factor of a problem does not represent its concrete error, but the maximum magnitude of all possible errors. Meaning our analysis could indeed be perfect, although this is unlikely.
Analysis in Music
In music, a very wide scope must be admitted into its analysis. This is necessarily so since we acknowledge that music is much more than the notes themselves, than the organization of these notes alone, than the context in which they are perceived, or the intentions of the artist. Musical quality encompasses all of them at the same time and, in a Renascentist-Magical holistic view, ultimately engenders a separate entity altogether which is none of these elements and is rather born from all of them. Any music analysis consists on the breaking of music down to its components with the aim of understanding how they function as parts of a greater whole.
One of the most intriguing techniques for the analysis of “conventional” tonal Western music is called Schenkerian analysis. This was a system named after the theorist who devised it, Heinrich Schenker (1868-1935). It consists of demonstrating how music can be divided into a hierarchy of notes which range from background indispensable notes to more those of a more “auxiliary” nature, although the terms “neighboring” and “passing” are more suitable since they do not carry such a strong connotation of these notes being less part of the music. Before him came Arnold Bernhard Marx (1795-1866) whose revolutionary way of analysing music included judging the purpose, character and direction in music independently of the composer’s conscious awareness through the subdivision of sections until one finds indivisible components. These can belong to one of two kinds: the self-sufficient and assertive Satz or the motion-oriented, forward-moving Gang. Schenker’s method is, in a way, a formalization of the more intuitive process of Marx, who used a more holistic approach (and a wider scope, more assumptions), into a more mechanical approach — though still subjective to a certain degree.
Despite wild claims by detractors of this way of analyzing music which want to reduce Schenkerian analysis to subjective make-believe so as to dismiss any objective value in it, an argument is to be made in favor of its objective and logic and characteristics. The user of this analysis at his best can be compared to a detective following clues. The best detectives are not clueless idiots blindly following a manual. Detectives first take note of context, use psychology and decipher motives and even subconscious processes that the criminal himself might not be aware of. There is a lot of guessing involved, but educated guessing, which while being subjective interpretation cannot just be dismissed as simple opinion (in the passive-derogative and dismissive sense) since it follows a method based on objective points. It is important, of course, to point out that the detective also relies heavily on experience.
It is here that we turn again to the idea of context. The ideas of direction, stability and instability, and character inherent to these style of analyses is born out of concrete knowledge of the development of music during the Common Practice Period (roughly 1600s up to 1900). These are “concrete” in the sense that they were not just an archaeological approach to understanding the past, in which the theorist is separated from the data in question and is always forced to look at it from the outside. Rather, the theorists who developed these analyses were part of the musical “subculture” (and the culture at large which encases it and is an audience to it) which engendered the music they studied. So their subjective views and experience are, in my opinion, validated as relevant by that same fact that places them as insiders.
The reader might rightly question this last claim denouncing that this in itself cannot possibly give the theorists and historical critics license to judge the music at the subjective levels previously mentioned. I will address this by calling attention to the music theory “standard”, or rather a “musical language”, that came into being in the first half of the 17th century thus producing what we know now as the Common Practice Period. This language is based on harmony that is built by contrapuntal norms, avoids certain musical effects and favors a narrative style. From its very beginning up until the 19th century, a certain significance, as meaning in a spoken language, was attributed to musical phrases, melody direction and movement, harmonic tension or instability, together with rhythm. What is relevant about this is not that these beliefs existed, but that they were part of the music education and culture of that time. The rules and conventions (even the ones relating to extra-musical implications) by which these theorists and critics measured and judged music were the same that the composers themselves ascribed to. This does mean that some of the less talented critics would see superficial aspects as set in stone, but this was not true of A.B. Marx who saw music as an everflowing, ever-evolving transformation of styles whose steps beyond what he knew in his time were only as visible as vague shapes in the horizon.
Is the application of Western European analysis and philosophy to metal music really justified?
Now, if this analysis belongs to the Common Practice Period, would it be fair to apply it to metal music? After all, the processes that produced Metal music are different. It would not make sense to apply the same analysis to Iranian or Indian music which follow their own systems whose musical constructions have inextricable spiritual and religious significance in the culture that engendered it. Neither would we thus judge jazz, which is the result of African-American music borrowing European art music notions to produce a language and a more sensual purpose of its own. My opinion is that we can say jazz gets excused because the ultimate product is more African-American than European.
When taking a look at music and judging its “coherence” one can metaphorically refer to it as its logic. When taking a look at a logical argument, we first take look at the premises or assumptions and from there follow it through its process. If the argument fails to make sense based on its premises we can say it has failed. The same applies to music. We can judge musical construction according to the premises it sets for itself. The style it chooses, yes, but more importantly, the general music language (Iranian classical music has different harmonic notions and goals, for example, as does jazz) it chooses for itself.
Metal starts with Black Sabbath taking rock-based music (which itself subscribes to the use of Common Practice Period harmony, but used in a more mechanical way to produce simple verse-chorus music) and bringing back the more theme-based approach of horror movie soundtracks. Soundtracks which were themselves inspired on 19th-century Romantic music. From then on metal develops as this rock-and-dark-Romantic musical hybrid and at different points borrows elements from other music genres but always distinguishing itself as Metal by always keeping an entrenched Romantic music orientation. One can then distinguish deserters who fled to the rock camp by abandoning of this orientation (Metallica is a clear example). The more the genre evolved the more marked the difference between rock defectors and those who remained metal became. This is because the latter would try to distinguish themselves more from the rock element which was so prominent in the former. This is the process that originally gave rise to the terms sell-out and underground. It must be clarified that what is meant here is not that the rock element in any music is bound to produce poor music.
The only constant at the heart of metal then, is the Romantic sense of theme-based music with a serious and heavy character. From this point it follows that the “premises” that metal has chosen for itself stem directly from the Common Practice Period in general. This does not mean that we should try to read metal music as we would read a Beethoven symphony — at least not on the surface. The characteristics that metal has borrowed from classical music affected the genre at multiple levels and thus surfaces in different bands in different ways and to different degrees. We cannot judge all metal in the same way either because just as different musical genres choose different languages (different premises for their arguments), so it is that different bands choose dialects of their own which require us to understand them and part from there on. But they must be seen as precisely that: dialects of the broader language of metal. Thus they still fall under the umbrella of our discussion (Ildjarn would be a particularly interesting case to discuss as its surface and the first impression it gives one leaves no room for obvious comparison to Romantic traits).
One understands the intense repetition of some black metal as stemming from the same purpose it has in electronic music. Black metal remains metal because it still ascribes to the dark-Romantic principles metal is defined by. Part of this is tonality and how harmony is used to create movement, which along with rhythm creates pulse and is tied by theme and the large-scale interplay of sections. Part of it is the more complex interpretation of how the character of each section and song speaks out and relates to the other sections or songs.
This character was an important trait during the Common Practice Period and it plays an important role in metal. When it goes unchecked, even if the outer technical aspects of music were all carefully crafted, the inner sense is perceived to be empty or messy. This thinking was very evident in the thoughts of both great composers and historical critics from the Romantic period such as Philipp Spitta (1841-1894) whose biography of Johann Sebastian Bach reveals extensive discussion, analysis and critique that encompasses everything from historical context and evolution of genres along with their influence over the German master, to detailed score analysis and explicit separation of what he refers to as “inside” and “outside” musical traits. The latter being musical expression itself, the structures, and the former being the character/aura/personality of not only the music pieces themselves but also of individual sections and their relation to the whole.
Modern metal unknowingly fails catastrophically by trying to create interest out of pure contrast. Still, some of the best modern bands keep a constant style and even use theme to tie a song together, but little or no evident thought is put into the aura of each section of a song and its balance with the rest of the song (see Fallujah).
The modern variety of metal bands which identify as “technical” (as opposed to Atheist, Immolation or Gorguts which were dubbed so after the fact) try to create interest by approaching this as if it were a textbook exercise, playing with the theme, placing it in different contexts, creating smart texture changes and witty variations. Since all that was cared about was the technical correctness of the piece, the evocation power of the music is negligible as it is not born out of Idea, but out of technical exploration (see Ara). The apologist comes in at this point and says that “emotion” is also in the process and that all parts are judged by passing them through this emotional filter. This is never denied here. But this statement would actually reinforce the notion that this music follows a backwards process: outside to inside, rather than inside to outside. The writer of purely technical music uses hard logic to drive his music creation and then judges it from an emotional vantage point. This works for science, but it spells out death for art.
Whereas in all productive men instinct is the truly creative and affirming power, and consciousness acts as a critical and cautioning reaction, in Socrates the instinct becomes the critic, consciousness becomes the creator — truly a monstrous defect. — Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, Chapter 13
This general idea has been understood in the European classical music traditions for centuries and awareness of it has given the world some of the most refined and whole works of art music. It is only in our post-modern era that we erroneously want to strip everything away from its original meaning and validate poor art by arguing that all that matters is the writer’s own intentions, which nobody can guess or question.
Defenses for Wallpaper Music
The most stalwart wallpaper music apologist is bound at this point to support the previous statement by stating the fact that our modern culture (and even more specifically, that our metal subculture) is very different from that which engendered classical Romantic music. While I consider this argument to be debatable, I will concentrate on the biggest issue that comes out as a result of this reasoning as a whole. This is the idea that because modern artists are free to choose how to express themselves they can pick from any musical-philosophical camp and just smash it together, twist it around in whatever way they see fit or their limited organizational skills and inspiration allows them to, with little or no justification other than their “need” or “right” to express individuality.
Allowing that artists are, indeed, free to choose their means of expression, their music can be rubbish in the context of the language they choose if they attempt to use it in ways it was not meant to be used. Can a previous “musical alphabet” give rise to a new “musical language”? Yes, and this is precisely what jazz and metal (separately and in very different directions, the former separating itself far more from a philosophical perspective while the latter remained akin in spirit) have done with Common Practice Period theoretical knowledge or general concepts.
A “smart” wallpaper apologist remark here is that we at DMU “fetishize” the European classical music outlook. But we do not ask bands to ascribe to the metal language which has explicit ties to that European tradition. If a band does not want to be judged from this perspective, then choose a different set of premises, a different language to speak. I would be very interested in witnessing attempts at using metal instrumentation to play music built on the principles of traditional Indian music. It would not be metal, but it would be a thing of its own with coherent expression.
Does it mean that everyone making music has to subscribe to already-existing musical languages and that there is nothing new to be had so that we can only indulge in superficial variations? This is what post-modern short-sightedness would have us believe and in doing so somehow justify the trivial superficiality of the so-called experimental bands. But then you can turn to great composers such as Arnold Schoenberg(1874-1951) and Olivier Messiaen(1908 – 1992) who effectively created brand new musical systems for them to express the music they wanted. They were both world-renowned advanced composition professors, which says a lot about how difficult it is to single-handedly accomplish such a task. Furthermore, as Uri O’Reilly’s article Developmental variation and underground metal implies, defined constraints and limits that guide genres and the languages they speak do not themselves imply a prison for the mind or shackles for creativity, but rather a tool much like a sniper rifle’s scope to reach precise and far-off targets. Bands that build incoherent music out of disparate musical languages or fail to use their chosen language effectively and expect the listener to submit to the purely emotional shock of the music, or worse, listen to exuses and rationalizations to “explain” the art, have missed the point: context is meant to be referred to, much as we expect language to have consistent approximate meaning. To ignore that meaning is communicate with no one, whether in music or the written word.
Defenders of wallpaper music will react in a populist manner and say that all that matters is that one likes the music, and ask rhetorically and spuriously who is to judge music otherwise. To assume that art should have meaning is to judge one subjective experience over another, they say. Some might say that in that case, anything deemed to be wallpaper from a point of view might be seen as meaningful from another. While this may be theoretically true, in application it is the same as claiming that spewing random syllables cannot be labeled as gibberish since they may, in fact, mean something in some hypothetical human language. The next wallpaper apologist complaint here would consist of pointing out that while language has hard and precise meanings (which is actually, not entirely true), music appeals to general emotions and moods and so, if the work accused of being wallpaper achieves some sort of reaction in the listener that produces coherent thought, then it has “meaning”. But this, again, is just the same as the random syllables reminding anyone of something in his own language and thereby acquiring a meaning provided from the outside.
Return to Chalice of Blood Heilig, Heilig, Heilig
Just like Romantic-era critics with knowledgeable background and cultural familiarity with their genres allowed them to make criticisms not only of technical construction (outer traits) but also of character and sense (inner traits) of the classical music of their time, so is the educated metal critic who understands the objective nature and origins of metal endowed with the same capacity to dissect metal music.
A track by track approach to Chalic of Blood Heilig, Heilig, Heilig will illustrate the concept of wallpaper music and reveal its failing as a method of artistic communication.
We start off with “Hoor-Paar-Kraat”, which, if seen as a song or independent piece fails immediately as it consists of a chord progression in four bars in standard time signature played through 1:39 minutes with no variation besides different pick-up and ending percussion patterns, and a background guitar strumming the same chord progression in different ways (more sparsely here, more vehemently there). One is then tempted to see it as just an introduction, a sort of prelude to what is to come.
It is then that we face “Nightside Serpent” whose structure consists of an introductory or main riff followed by two distinct verse riffs. The riffs talk to each other convincingly in their contrast and similarity. They clash against each other in a way that makes one think of the classic of classics, “Transilvanian Hunger”. But while Darkthrone used as little as two riffs per song in that album to create whole sections with functions ranging from intro, to verse to a sort of ramp into meditative climax, only to bring us back to its initial aura, Chalice of Blood’s song is simply that: a main riff, a verse, a second verse. This is simply played two times and brought to an abrupt and meaningless end at the 3:19 minute mark. It is here that we start to suspect that the presumed introductory track may just be a taste of the incompleteness and vacuity of this music.
The third track goes by the title of “Shemot.” It can easily be divided in four parts. The pick-up measures are soft and consist of a strummed chord bent by a whammy bar which applies vibrato at the same time. Then the first of these parts is a Darkthrone-intense section with use of the raw energy of hard-picked tremolo and fast Immortal blast beats. This section dissipates into the second. The texture changes drastically into sparsely strummed chords and mid-paced double-bass drums to the beat of a snare in duple time. We then climb back to the intense texture shown in the second section as a way of climaxing that brings back the riding first riff to function as outro as well. This all happens in 3:18 minutes. The focus here is how much “atmospheric black metal” riffs can they use contrastingly to create shock. Other than that, there is little eloquence to this.
“The Communicants” is probably the most deplorable song in this album with the most obvious wallpaper thinking displayed. The whole song is built by repeating the same slow-moving chord progression of 8 measures from beginning to end. The only thing that signals different points in the piece are the drum patterns and the presence or absence of the vocals. This repeating chord progression is not used as one would see one of the German master composers create vast amounts of content through clever variations and chaconnes, but it literally consists of repeating the exact same music ad nauseam. Or ad 7:11 minutes, to be precise.
Finally, we reach the last inconsequential, empty track named “Transcend the Endless.” In here we are presented with 3:30 minutes worth of the same minimalist black metal approach sans substance.
Albums such as these remind us how little understood monuments such as Transilvanian Hunger really are. The greatness of the classic lies in the careful use of the least number of riffs in arrangements that together with voice and drums created complex structures with cleverly placed articulation points. The minimalism of Darkthrone’s masterpiece is only in how little tools and riffs they used. It is not a minimalism of complexity of thought or construction.
A blatantly simple music which expects emotional shock and some consistency in style to do all its work, Chalice of Blood Helig Helig Helig gives us almost twenty minutes of essentially nothing. Nothing except transient noise.
Dhwesha create death metal with a large influence from classic heavy metal, sounding like a cross between the first Torchure album and a melodic Swedish band like first-album Sentenced or Desultory. Their bread and butter is the crossover between recursive downpicked rhythms like a speed metal band would use underneath melodic rhythm leads, and death metal riffs which re-direct these songs to more vicious ends.
Aesthetically a good comparison might be Monstrosity: drums, bass and guitar work together to create a powerful unison which hammers out a clear theme which corresponds to song title and vocal concept. But like early Therion, Dhwesha incorporates older heavy metal patterns and pulsing rhythms as opposed to the darker and more abstract death metal themes, which creates an organic heart of energy to this band which allows them to incorporate speed metal technique without it taking over songwriting. Songs generally cycle between verse- and chorus-like sections with a couple riffs each and a transitional section or two per song, focusing in the death metal way on the presentation of each. Frequently a lead-picked tremolo will outline a melody over a grinding but bouncy rhythm riff which creates a sense of a landscape shift.
Vocals take on the best attributes of Blasphemy, which is an incoherent shout so hoarse it sounds like the wind or a wild bison charging on an inattentive traveler, giving the music a feral air. All musicians show great proficiency but avoid showing off, which makes Sthoopa move like a single entity. Unlike many of the recent death metal attempts, Dhwesha show no desire to incorporate modern methods but homebrew their own instead, but also unlike death metal, this band seems content to exist in the late 1980s ambiguity between death metal and heavy metal. The result has the sentiment of Desultory with the earth-moving power of a more explosive act, but by balancing the two creates more of an atmosphere than one might expect from a band on their first album.