Death Metal Underground

Is all metal speed metal now?

by Brett Stevens
March 15, 2014 –

pantera-cowboys_from_hell

Tom G. Warrior is a relentless innovator and amazing composer. As he details in his book Only Death is Real: An Illustrated History of Hellhammer he grew up in an abusive, uncertain environment within a broken home. He also grew up in “perfect” Switzerland, a place that has more rules than people. These events shaped his personality or rather, the limitations that are still imposed upon it.

What happened was that young Tom G’s ego was crushed and doubt was introduced into his mind. Doubt about the purpose of life, or even his own life. Doubt of self-worth. Fear that at any moment he might find himself without a justification for existing, and be truly discarded and alone. That’s a heavy load for a young person to carry, but the sequential success of Hellhammer and then Celtic Frost lifted Tom out of it. It also pushed aside a healing process.

When Celtic Frost evaporated, Tom launched on a series of attempts to find popularity again, but on his own terms. First, his highly inventive industrial music, and later, attempts to be contemporary. The latest two are below, and they are marked by a duality: a great underlying talent, desperately attempting to ingratiate itself with newer metal audiences. Like all things that do not take a clear direction, they are thus lost on both fronts.

This is not a hit piece on Tom G Warrior. Like many metalheads, I hold him in the highest regard. He is one of the great innovators and farseeing minds in metal. However, his tendency to try to adapt to what is current shows what is currently happening in metal: in a dearth of ideas, the genre is recombining past successes that represent the culmination of earlier genres, and is trying to recapture its lead by offering a buffet of different influences. But alas, like the music of Triptykon, these forays are lost causes.

Currently a morass of subgenre names exist. We can call it metalcore, or modern metal, or math metal, or tech-deth, or even djent, but all of it converges on a single goal: to make a form of that great 1980s speed metal — Metallica, Anthrax, Testament, Exodus, Nuclear Assault — that used choppy riffs made up of muted chords to encode complex rhythms into energetic songs. To that, the modern metal bands have added the carnival music tendency to pick entirely unrelated riffs to add variety, the grooves of later speed metal, and the vocals and chord voicings of late hardcore and its transition into emo.

What this represents is not a direction, but lack of one. By combining all known successes from late in these subgenres, modern metal is picking up where the past left off before death metal and black metal blew through and rewrote the book. The problem is that making music that is intense like those underground genres is difficult, and even more, unmarketable. It approaches the issues in life that most of us fear, like mortality and failure in the context of powerlessness and meaninglessness, and thus presents a dark and obscure sound that makes us uncertain about life itself. Like Tom G Warrior living through a shattered marriage of his parents and a society too concerned with order to notice its own boredom and misery, black metal and death metal shatter stability and replace it with alienated existential wandering.

On the other hand, late punk offered ideological certainty and heavy doses of emotion. Late speed metal, which Pantera cooked up out of heaping doses of Exhorder, Prong and Exodus, offers a groove and a sense of a party on the wild side. Inserting bits of death metal, especially its technical parts, and some of the frenetic riffing of Discordance Axis allows these bands to create a new kind of sound. But at its heart, this music is still speed metal. Where death metal played riff Jenga and put it all together in a sense that told a story, modern metal is based in variety and distraction. It exists to jar the mind, explore a thousand directions, and without coming to a conclusion ride out in the comforting emulation of the chaos of society around it.

But at its heart, these bands are speed metal. Like Triptykon who revitalize the E-string noodling and riff texture of more aggressive speed metal bands, with the bounce of Exodus and the groove of Pantera, these bands offer a smorgasbord combined into one. They mix in melodic metal, derived from what Sentenced and later Dissection made popular, to give it a popular edge. However, what they’re really doing is regressing to a mean. This has happened in metal before, when mid-1970s bands recombined Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath into rock-style metal, and in the mid-1980s when glam metal did the same thing but mixed in the gentler sounds of late 1970s guitar rock bands. When metal loses direction, it recombines and comes up with a mellower, less threatening version of itself.

All of this is well and good if we do one single but difficult thing: recognize that what we’re listening to now is a dressed-up version of what metal and punk were doing in the late 1980s. We’re walking backward in history, away from that scary underground death metal and black metal, and looking toward something less disturbing and more fun at parties. It seems no one has come out and said this, so I figured it must be said. Enjoy your weekend.

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17 comments

  • Nito

    I couldn’t even make it through the first song (stopped at 3:42). It sounds like Soulfly with moodiness. Another good article and another disappointment from Tom Warrior.

  • Lord Mosher

    I’ve become skeptical over the years, to the point I no longer expect anything worthwhile in metal. It doesn’t matter because anything worthwhile already exists.
    .
    What I find sad is not that Tom G Warrior released a piece of shit, but that, I’m sure, he didn’t do it intentionally. What I mean is even if he had wanted to create something of the caliber of his early works, he wouldn’t be able to do that again, even if his life depended on it.
    .
    I’ve come to believe that the great genre-defining bands and composers are genuinely incapable of composing anything of brilliance and artistic value anymore. That is sadly, beyond their current capabilities and it will not change ever again. Except (hopefully) for Varg Vikernes.
    .
    99 percent of my collection and listening habits are pre-96 all the time, so I honestly have no clue what is current or what does S.R Prozak means when he mentions metalcore.
    .
    My version of what metal should sound like is a combination of Gorgoroth’s or Sacramentum’s emotion fused with early Tangerine Dream´s texturized soundscapes. Obviously that’ll never happen.

  • apathetic loser

    Essentially, metal has been dead as an evolving art-form since 1995. Before that, in a matter of around two decades, metal went through a remarkable series of development, particularly its evolutionary trajectory of speed metal – death metal – black metal. That really took shape from 1983-1995, just over a decade. Since then, there has been nothing even close to this. All there has been for the last two decades is recombinations of past ideas. Seriously, is there really any reason to listen to post-1995 death or black metal? Some of it is good, but very little of it is truly great, to the level that would justify listening to it over the classics produced during metal’s golden era.

    I realized this around 1997/1998, and started to explore other genres of music that I neglected in the years when metal was destroying everything. These days, when I listen to or buy metal, it is almost always pre-1995.

    I know we want to be hopeful, but I sincerely believe we will never see anything like 1983-1995 again. What evidence is there to suggest otherwise? The great innovators have either lost their genius, abandoned metal altogether, or died. The newer bands desperately attempt to recapture the glory of the past, without really understanding what it made it great, or simply trying to make their own versions of favorite albums, which achieves nothing beyond personal gratification.

    I have resolved to celebrate the greats of metal, while always maintaining that metal itself achieved its highest level of artistic evolution with black metal’s “second wave”, particularly the early 90s Norwegian masterpieces, which was the first truly realized formulation of black metal as a distinct musical art. During that time, metal peaked in terms of composition, concept, expressive power, and strength of will/spirit.

    In a sense, the great works of Burzum, Emperor, Immortal, DarkThrone etc., brought metal to a transcendent conclusion. A few individual bands have come along since then to awaken the spirit of that time, but metal’s artistic evolution has been dead for 20 years, and I for one have stopped hoping for its renewal.

    1. Brett Stevens Post author

      If I stand for one thing, it is that we have a choice.

      If we want 1983-1995 level material back, it can be done.

      Life is paths… it does not matter how small the first step. If it is based on a lie, that the self encloses the world, it leads to decay and corruption. If it is based on truth, or a beautiful and transcendent vision, or inner willingness to make greatness and beauty in one’s path, it leads above.

      Light as a feather, stiff as a board.

      1. Lord Mosher

        I genuinely would like to agree with you.
        ” inner willingness to make greatness and beauty in one’s path, it leads above”.
        .
        And yet, it’s not being done. Letdown after letdown, one disappointment after another. One does not simply choose to create another Altars of Madness or another Reign in Blood and go do it.
        .
        Don’t agree? Let’s do a mental exercise: can we as fans, (with all our thirst for great metal and all our listening experience), even envision or imagine something better than Reign in Blood, let alone compose it?

        1. 1349

          can we as fans, (with all our thirst for great metal and all our listening experience), even envision or imagine something better than Reign in Blood

          Of course! There are things to improve about such music.

          One does not simply choose to create another Altars of Madness or another Reign in Blood

          When Morbid Angel and Slayer started writing material for these albums, were they thinking “let’s create another smth.”?

          I can say for myself: somewhere in the thin layers of the world there is music that i’d want to hear, but no one plays it here in the material world, and no one ever has. In other words, there “is” music i want to hear but can’t find it anywhere. And if i had time and personnel, i’d at least try to play it myself.

      2. The man next planet

        Absolutely right. Listen to latest offerings by Beherit, Demoncy, and Summoning. They don’t tell lies, and they follow their own path, never being condescending.

  • Tara

    I don’t see the point of all this delving. Music, regardless of genre, must have a soul. Tom Warrior has long lost his soul to the struggle of maintaining “reputation”, making up for absent self-esteem. Besides, why half of this article is about him, is beyond me. There are great metal bands who are the older bands. Judas Priest have great musical knowledge which they exploit with style and ingenuity; as far as the “metal” genre itself, I’m pretty sure Halford invented and defined it. No so-called “extreme” artist ever had his sharpness and his phrase. Let metal music be music before anything, and leave it at that. But yes, unfortunately, the greatest compositions I’ve heard date back to the 80s. Good of Metal Church to have reformed, even without that brilliant drummer. Hadn’t someone defined them as “speed metal”?…

    1. Judgment

      Metal cannot just be left as “music”, because that would imply it must be degraded in order for it to stand on the same ground level as, say, metalcore or k-pop. The whole point of this musical current we love and defend is to carry philosophical implications and portray a reality that has been neglected by pretty much everybody else. The whole point is to show that metal is not limited to pure aesthetics, or “just the music”.

      As for Halford, I’m gonna have to disagree. Sure, he’s been a key element to the magic of Judas Priest (though most of the magic resides within the rest of the band, IMO), but Sabbath came much earlier and metal was already fully formed with Master Of Reality.

      1. Tara

        Well, when I said “music”, I actually meant blues and jazz, not k-pop.:) And, like The Metal God himself chants, metal arose from “jazz and electricity and good old southern blues”.

        You’d have to define metal, if you wish to be philosophical. Metal to me is the ultimate extremity of expression. It implicates sharpness. I see no sharpness in Black Sabbath; I am cut through every time Halford whips me with his vocal phrase.

  • EDS

    I have said it before and I will say it again. Technique is one of the driving forces behind metal. Some disagree with that statement to varying degrees. Metal reached the sensible technique apex in the mid 90’s. I say sensible because playing techniques developed after the mid 90’s became off the wall technicality spectacles such as blast beats over 200 BPM’s, pitch shifted vocals, and over the top arpeggio driven guitar wankery. The subtlety of emotion and mood which also drives good metal cannot exist with these new breed techniques. Thus we see the metal of the 2000’s until today being about super crisp productions and over the top technicality. Recently we have witnessed a withdrawal back to old techniques as the article mentions. But these artists are merely cutting and pasting their favorite old school moments together. They do not have an understanding of how to create the old mood and emotions using those same old techniques like bands such as Immortal, Slayer, Burzum and Bathory did. The future looks bleak for metal.

    1. Nester

      I disagree. The problem isn’t so much the evolution of technique, as it is the degradation of ideals. There hasn’t been an aesthetic evolution to go along with the technical one. There are bands twice as fast, when they don’t deserve to be. They aren’t twice as intense, when that speed should have granted them that. Metal has grown outwardly, but not inwardly, and that’s the problem.

      1. EDS

        I agree 100%. I guess I didn’t go enough into detail on my original post. I acknowledge the lack of ideal progression in metals evolution. Since the original post dealt mostly with technique and songwriting critiques, I chose to spoke on that aspect.

  • mlotek

    You are right when to comes to the older bands.
    Usually they seem uninspired. Sometimes when I hear what I think is very good (example – certain tracks or albums by Megadeth), I will read/hear from a majority others they think it is not any good.

    TRIPTYKON – “Breathing” is what I hate about the above-ground metal scene since the mid-1990s. That tribal bullshit that was incorporated by Sepultura, Soulfly, spawned more garbage like Slipknot. Maybe it has a Panterrible sound, but I have done my hardest to avoid that gay shit.
    The second song Boleskine House is very good, but this may be due to Celtic Frost a long time ago bringing in the goth/ambient element into death/thrash/black metal which many of us were starting to hear by tuning into college radio stations (the only place to hear real metal),eg.CELTIC FROST’s Christian death influence which I appreciated, but did not pursue. Goth/alternative bands+fans owe CF a huge thanks for bringing then a fresh new audience, as even some lomghairs would get fully immersed in their music scene, more than they had previosly with metal!
    It was interesting, and I sure didn’t hate it, such as I did with commercial dance/rap/club music crapola).

    I have been buying a lot of demos and EP’s the last 2 years, and yes, especially from South America, the bands are predominantly rehashing the early-lid 1980s speed metal / very fast heavy metal style with a dirty thrash vibe. As much I like this, there is starting top be a GLUTTONY of copycat bands. It is hard to tell them apart. OR they have a very clean, sharp NWOBHM sound, and all sound alike. If anybody loved LIVING DEATH, WARRANT, TANK, JAGUAR, SAVAGE, TOKYO BLADE, DIAMOND HEAD, TYGERS OF PAN TANG, MOTORHEAD, or ACID, well guess what? There are probably at least a dozen current bands in many countries that sound exactly like them.

    I have gone through periods in my life where I actually looked forward to clones of Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Slayer, Megadeth, Metallica, Anthrax, Death, etc. I still do, mainly to avoid shit like Machinehead or material like that TRIPTYKON – “Breathing” song.
    PS. That last video, the JAWBREAKER tune was ok, reminds me of 1980s D.C. hardcore or 1990s radio friendly alt-rock bands that were influenced by the D.C./Dischord Records scene. Not sure if I ever listened to that band before.

  • Tara

    Just heard the new songs. Wow. Utter redundant garbage. Shatter was actually a song, unlike this new “ballad” with bits and pieces sucked out of one’s fingers and glued together. The other one sounds even more pathetic, given Fischer’s age. I actually liked the debut, and this is nothing like.