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The Underground (No Longer Exists)

The Underground (No Longer Exists)
December 18, 2005, 07:12:04 PM
The Underground
No Longer Exists

As metal music has further slid into an abyss of genericism and meaningless sound and fury, the bleating of "Support the Underground!" has intensified to the point where its cliche is expected as if a test of allegiance. What none will say is that the underground does not exist, and even were someone to construct it, it would no longer be relevant, as the circumstances which made "underground" metal important are long departed.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, it was more difficult to get one's music published than today. There were few labels, and putting out releases was expensive. A few gigantic companies controlled what most people see and hear (and still do, because only they can afford the advertising). Consequently, small underground labels popped up and tended to put out a couple CDs a year and sell them for reasonably high prices.

When one said "support the underground" back then, it meant going the extra mile to get the quality releases from these off-broadway sources. Because pressure on the underground was high, most of its releases were meaningful art even if not as slick as the major label stuff, and it was not a terrible idea to support the underground as an agenda.

The current decade is a different story entirely. First it is important to note that despite thousands of people chanting in unison how we should support the underground, it has been nearly ten years since the underground produced excellent art in any numbers. Sure, there are some good bands around, like Averse Sefira or Demoncy, but they're the exception and they are not getting the reception one could expect when the underground was vibrant and any band of high quality was immediately recognized widely.

In fact, when an outsider says that all of the current metal bands sound the same, he or she is not entirely inaccurate. The radical differences in music between bands like Emperor and Morbid Angel, or Deicide and Burzum, no longer exist; metal, like a product, has come to sound very similar because the same assumptions propel its creation. Much like in the 1970s, when stadium metal turned the entire genre into cliche, almost all of the bands today operate within the same narrow band of technique, artistic idea, song structure and aesthetic. If you miss one this week, there will be a nearly-identical one next week which will be just as good - or bad, if you're feeling realistic.

While the degree of instrumental ability and production quality has risen, the variation of metal bands from a tedious norm has declined alarmingly. There is an endless procession of bands that people talk about as "the next big thing," but it has been many years since there have been true greats: bands that express something profoundly and well so exactly that a selection of intelligent fans will find it universal.

Our problem now is abundance. Where in the 1980s, getting a CD out was so difficult that there were few bands and few labels, we now have thousands upon thousands of bands, labels, zines, websites and concert festivals. Everyone can record, and everyone does, which generates a flood of mediocre metal.

The problem with this flood isn't its quality in itself. The problem is that when there is a flood of undistinctive material, (a) anything that does not conform to the pattern is not recognized and (b) the information overload is so great than any excellent band that does rise will be ignored. In essence, the underground has replicated the errors made by gigantic record labels in the 1980s!

For this reason, those who might make excellent art are staying away from metal. They know that their chances of success are slim, and that then they will be one voice among millions, with whatever unique or personal qualities they put into the art ignored. For this reason, the fans start to look toward external traits: slick playing over profound songwriting, quality of production, technical concerns like instrumental precision, the novelty of aesthetic and/or band origin, and most of all, whether or not the band has networked socially among what we call "the underground" but is in fact a very accessible fanbase that is no different than the mainstream in how it rewards trends, group favorites, sycophants and the well-financed.

Why play in a metal band if everything excellent that you do goes unrecognized? The crowd of imitators and fools will look over your best work and nod, but they will not give it wings to rise above the others. After all, they each have their own bands and labels and zines to promote, so why defer their own success and participate in yours, even if your work is better? Social favorites dominate over quality. Consequently, the best people go elsewhere, where they can be recognized for what they do well, and where they are not doomed to being one of a crowd which, by its size, will never get anywhere.

If you start a black metal band today, and are as good as Emperor were on their demos, you will first face censure from others who fear that you will "get ahead" of their own mediocre bands without having "paid your dues," which translated into realistic terms means participation in the society of fans. Both of these factors have nothing to do with your demo, or your music.

Such a hypothetical band can expect that, once it has decided to socialize and become popular enough to be recognized, it will become flavor of the week, because there are so many bands that there is no time or energy to single out some excellent ones. Even more, the fanbase is numb to quality, and therefore will rank an excellent band on par with mediocre ones. The end result is that our hypothetical excellent band will get an equal share of the metal pie, but will never rise above that, even if its quality is far above that of all others.

This means the band members will have to content themselves with an endless series of day jobs, the praise of idiots, and a lack of recognition that means when it is all over, their excellent work will be forgotten, buried beneath a landfill of the mediocre. Any artist who is not strictly a hobbyist is going to avoid this genre, because the crowd has taken over and will not recognize quality, thus there is no way to make a name for oneself.

Interestingly, the same thing happened in hardcore music in the 1980s when it became cheap and easy to release seven-inch records. Suddenly, there were no "fans": everyone had a band, zine, label or distro. Consequently, quality went down, because no leaders were picked, and a great averaging occurred. Everyone could participate, but because there was no specialized fanbase, the farthest they got was participation, getting their share. No one great rose above and therefore, the great people stopped trying. There was no direction.

Analogous to the effects of democracy and consumerism on the quality of people in society as a whole? You bet it was. Analogy to egocentricism of the west, and its own cultural failings? You bet: the same mechanism was in effect: a lack of appreciation for quality because popularity/social pressures dictated participation, an external factor, not hierarchy, which requires a measurement of amorphous qualities such as "artistic worth" which are unrecognizable to most people in the crowd. Consequently, hardcore declined to the point where, in 1985, all the bands sounded exactly the same and there were no leaders.

The underground is dead, and if it shows signs of reviving, shoot it. It no longer has meaning and thus has become a way to sell music, a brand name even, not a distinction in quality or attitude. "Underground" metal is marketed exactly the same way mainstream music is, on a smaller scale, and while it does hard to hide this fact behind angry album covers, bad sound quality, and sociopathic topics, the lack of quality reveals what a lie its "underground" status is.

To use the occult terms, our current view of metal is exoteric: show up, participate, and you'll get your equal share. The best years of metal came about when it was esoteric, or rewarded the best among its members, and had a community in place that could tell the difference. Consider it a form of evolution. When such conditions are again in place, quality metal on a broad scale will return.

If there is something to replace the underground, it is the dissidents who choose music based on artistic quality alone. They don't care about the album covers, who the band knows, or how well its production makes it sound. They look for quality art of the poetic but aggressive nature found in early 1990s blackmetal, and when the horde of imitators stops flooding the market with crap, they stand a chance in hell of finding it - if any remains.

(For J. and N., with whom this was discussed extensively.)

http://www.anus.com/metal/about/metal/underground/

Re: The Underground (No Longer Exists)
December 19, 2005, 02:22:37 AM
This is one of the few cases when I agree with you on something. To cut in short, Metal has been dead for the last decade in case with Thrash, Heavy Metal for 15 years.

TC

Re: The Underground (No Longer Exists)
December 19, 2005, 01:40:25 PM
nice analysis.  feels like a continuation of the 'how to be a black metal fan in 2005' essay.

Re: The Underground (No Longer Exists)
December 26, 2005, 02:58:55 AM
Yes, it's a continuing series of thoughts.

And agreed, metal has been in decline for some time. 15 years? Well, that's about when speed metal died - 1990ish.

Death metal had its day - 1985-1993.

Black metal had its day - 1990-1995.

Thrash had its day - 1983-1986.

To me, it seems like we should purge the non-meaningful so that there is a total void into which meaning is encouraged to grow. Nature abhors a vacuum, and while there's a vacuum of quality in metal now, there's no vacuum of shit filling it, and it's that shit that prevents better things from rising.


TC

Re: The Underground (No Longer Exists)
December 27, 2005, 12:54:41 PM
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To me, it seems like we should purge the non-meaningful so that there is a total void into which meaning is encouraged to grow.

yeah, that should be about as easy as disarming america.

Re: The Underground (No Longer Exists)
December 29, 2005, 02:20:57 AM
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yeah, that should be about as easy as disarming america.


Disarming America? THEY'LL NEVER TAKE MY GUN.

I think it's already happening. And, in any situation, there's about 2% of the population that actually does the important things that keep the situation afloat. If they see it as I have expressed above, well, things will change rapidly!

Re: The Underground (No Longer Exists)
December 30, 2005, 04:15:43 AM
Parts of your argument seem a tad convoluted and anachronistic, perhaps even a bit romantic of the ‘80s and early ‘90s. For example you said,

“Our problem now is abundance. Where in the 1980s, getting a CD out was so difficult that there were few bands and few labels, we now have thousands upon thousands of bands, labels, zines, websites and concert festivals. Everyone can record, and everyone does, which generates a flood of mediocre metal.”

CDs weren’t really around in the ‘80s and most “underground” bands aspired toward vinyl or cassette. Regular metalheads relied on things like tape-trading circles and dubbing cassettes for one another to get new stuff around for cheap. (Which is very similar to modern mp3 trading)

As for the differences mentioned in genres, you listed European vs. American bands for both examples,

“The radical differences in music between bands like Emperor and Morbid Angel, or Deicide and Burzum, no longer exist; metal, like a product, has come to sound very similar because the same assumptions propel its creation.”

Really it was the ‘90s that shaped these differences between American and European metal in many ways, because many thrash albums in the ‘80s often sounded similar regardless of origin. If you buy a Turisas, Mastodon, and Lykathea Aflame album, I am sure you will hear a distinct difference in sound between the three. Perhaps those are a bad example I don’t know.

The ‘80s were just as flooded with crap as the ‘90s and the ‘00s. For every “ground-breaking” album there were people who thought it ruled and people who thought it was sell-out crap. I have noticed that there is a trend in the US lately to revive old styles by imitating(?) popular bands of the past. Look at bands like Lair Of The Minotaur, High On Fire, and Municipal Waste, for example all have styles that are rooted in popular ‘80s-early ‘90s bands. But who can blame them? They are recreating the kickass music that 18-24ish metal-heads never got to experience live.  

The ‘90s death metal wave was loaded with shit, because it was like a void between the days of tape-trading and what was to become (and is still becoming) the computer backed mp3 revolution. If you wanted an album you had to buy based on word of mouth, because it wasn’t like you could hop on the net and download 15 albums in a day and delete the shitty ones. There were so many shitty bands in the early ‘90s trying to copy Cannibal Corpse and Deicide. It became a wave of bands with the same vocals, the same riffs, and eventually culminated into this cookie-cutter image of “Death Metal” as “brutal” which meant perhaps slightly faster or louder than the last band. Similarly, Black Metal became this Euro-trash pop music loaded with cheesy keyboards, boring riff-work and rock-star wannabe lead singers. In the late ‘90s and ‘00s however a new generation picked up black metal and decided to change it from the Dimmu style back into a romanticized version of early ‘90s metal. And what became? A new wave of cookie-cutter crap. Record labels like moribund push tired-ass wannabe elite black metal. I have no real problem with this except that most of the bands sound contrived, and lack the real “force and fury” that early ‘90s black metal contained.  



Basically I see it this way, the price of innovation by a handful of brilliant and diverse bands will be a wave of imitators attempting to copy them that will eventually become a dogmatic “scene”.
Even Metallica, Slayer, Morbid Angel, Darkthrone, etc etc... Had a plethora of obscure metal bands before them. Hell Metallica weren’t even really speed metal innovators, they were just a metal cover band that loved metal like Mercyful fate, overkill, saxon, so on, and decided to write their own tunes.

“This means the band members will have to content themselves with an endless series of day jobs, the praise of idiots, and a lack of recognition that means when it is all over, their excellent work will be forgotten, buried beneath a landfill of the mediocre. Any artist who is not strictly a hobbyist is going to avoid this genre, because the crowd has taken over and will not recognize quality, thus there is no way to make a name for oneself.”

That is a definition of the underground as it has always been!!! The “underground” bands remain buried in obscurity and their innovation is usurped by more popular bands that rise to the top...eventually people get sick of the style as another wave of followers copy the popular bands and a new band comes along to fuck shit up again. Of course this is somewhat different, because the world is becoming one large international community. I can get on the net right now and see what a buddy is doing in Finland, Canada, China or anywhere. Thus the metal-network too has expanded, sometimes for the better and other times for the worse.  

Our generation is actually lucky and cursed then to have such choice, the ability to select and indulge and the dissatisfaction that is the weight of our own privilege.

TC

Re: The Underground (No Longer Exists)
December 30, 2005, 11:35:20 AM
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Our generation is actually lucky and cursed then to have such choice, the ability to select and indulge and the dissatisfaction that is the weight of our own privilege.

nicely put.

Re: The Underground (No Longer Exists)
December 30, 2005, 10:51:09 PM
Yes, and what quality improvements has it gotten us?

History is greater proof than weird quasi-moralistic conjecture.


Re: The Underground (No Longer Exists)
December 30, 2005, 10:52:05 PM
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CDs weren’t really around in the ‘80s


Is this why the first three Metallica albums came out on CD first?