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Is rock ‘n’ roll assimilating metal?

by Cory Van der Pol
January 4, 2014 –

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Metal interviews are like connecting violent minds to an amplifier. The musician is given a chance to speak plainly, and rewarded for saying something outlandish enough to make a headline. It’s like pouring gasoline on a fire.

Much as “in vino veritas” describes how drunk people often accidentally blurt out the truth, interviews often get the essential thoughts out of musicians. Tired, often doing multiple interviews in a day, musicians are apt to cut to the chase. Further, since they’ve been working that part of the brain that makes language, they’re often at their clearest several interviews into the process.

Thus it’s not sensible to either discount interviews, or to wholly accept them without being critical. But recent comments by Nominon drummer Per Karlsson highlight why metal interviews will always be popular — the offhanded, casual and yet direct blurting of truth:

I’d say that black and death metal pretty much go hand in hand, but that’s just my opinion. I am a bit worried though, since more or less all death/black metal of today has turned into rock ’n’ roll or something, all the new bands seems to be more into retro-rock, either that or looking/sounding like Ghost. I am ashamed of what this has turned into, it makes me sick.

Score one for the surly musician. First it makes sense to discard is the “that’s just my opinion” which is a passive-aggressive way of saying that some opinions coincide with truth where others do not. Then to analyze his main point, which is basically that rock music is assimilating metal.

For a brief historical re-cap, metal is a breakaway genre from rock, itself a breakaway genre from blues, itself a breakaway genre from folk. Rock music represents a distillation of many traditions down to the simplest transmissible commercial product. It was always a simpler option to the popular music of the time, and then at some point in the 1960s it took over not just music but popular culture. Much of this has to do with how our commercial society worships whatever seems popular at the moment.

Metal never wanted to be rock. If it had, it would have stayed in the rock camp. It also didn’t fully want to be blues. The influences on Black Sabbath were not only previous rock and heavy blues, but progressive rock and horror movie soundtracks (these inherited heavily from modernist classical, notably Wagner). With metal, rock’s rather static textural riffing evolved into the power chord phrase, which is closer to the horror movie music than what rock was doing at the time.

This upset the existing order.

Rock music saw itself as the bad boy and rebel, the counterculture upsetting civilization. Now there was a counter-culture to the counter-culture. Where the rock boys were singing about flowers, love, peace and our bright future, metal brought in the harsh discordant notes of realism: idealism is poppycock, death is ever-present, and the obliviousness of the average person (see “War Pigs”) is what brings evil into the world. Where the rock guys thought you could fight evil with love, metal counter-posited that you can only fight evil with vigilance, and eyes-wide-open awareness of life, warts and all. That shocked the rock community.

Since that time, metal has been the go-to imagery for advertising firms, movies, books and other entertainment products to symbolize “rebellion.” They also try with punk. Metal and punk are the two drop-out genres that consciously elect to be outsiders, and to avoid just doing what other rock bands doing and, by following that trend, to choose “success.” Popular music is fairly simple: find a unique version of doing what everyone else is doing so your audience both recognizes what you’re doing, and has some unique “mental handle” that causes them to single you out. It’s basic memetics.

This means that entertainment products have both a core and a surface. The core is the actual musical content; the surface is the aesthetics, the quirk, the irony, the imagery, and so forth. Metal has rebellion both in its core and its surface. However, if that metal surface could be transferred to rock, the ideal product would result. The band that came closest was Guns n’ Roses who managed rock song format with later Black Sabbath-styled riffs and bluesy leads. If someone were able to make hard rock that felt like metal, the market would roll over and beg for them.

As a result, the primary threat to metal is bands that “look like” (surface) metal but are actually the same old stuff. A number of bands are indicted under this banner, including Opeth and all nu-metal (which under the skin is “rap/rock”). Recently this process has picked up more steam in the underground. “Post-metal” — which is basically late 1980s post-hardcore, emo or indie rock — has begun to be sold as black metal. Nu-metal with late hardcore stylings has been sold as death metal. The result is fans unable to tell the difference between metal and rock.

This advertiser’s dream will backfire. The more metal gets like rock, the more it loses its outsider status. The more metal shows up in “legitimate” publications and entertainment, the less it is consciously outside of the mainstream world. Like punk, it will end up a “flavor” of rock that is used to sell certain products like motorcycles, cologne, hot dogs and chain saws. This is what Karlsson is warning us against, and it’s a good thing we heed him.

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23 comments

  • It seems the last paragraph is already happening through Municipal Waste (beer and “thrasher” fashion), Behemoth (motorcycles and energy drinks) and Ghost (dildos).

    Reply
  • eman

    “This advertiser’s dream will backfire. The more metal gets like rock, the more it loses its outsider status. The more metal shows up in “legitimate” publications and entertainment, the less it is consciously outside of the mainstream world.”

    Great point, appreciate being able to read that.

    In my state, people are seeing a resurgence of mountain lions and coyotes. This is because some federal department was allowing the deer population to grow beyond control. The result of this is a surge of predators. Nature balances itself immaculately. Humans, business, entertainment, and metal are not exempt from the natural order of things.

    Reply
  • trystero

    The article is wonderful, but its premise has already occured. It occurs in cycles. Metal music rebels, it is absorbed by rock, there is further rebellion by pushing the scene underground and so on. Example: nwobhm. That further was normed into glam with rock influence. Stadium rock was born. Just like now, this music used established past formula dressed up in new sound in order to sound new and different. It offered safe metal music. No reactionary, counter-counter-culture stuff. So punk intervenes and through Motorhead metal absorbs the dont-give-a-fuck attitude while still maintaining its uniqueness. Speed metal or Thrash w/e you want to call it is born.

    Like Tom Arraya said, their music was british heavy metal + punk, that is it. Metallica also contributed with their debut and perhaps their second album, Megadeth and Nuclear Assault put out political material that was appropriate for the period. The right response to a fearful world on the brink of nuclear extinction at any moment. Yet this was also normed and absorbed. We got tons of clones of Bay Area thrash. Another cycle completed. Another push underground as musicians added more extremity, more `evil` and as a result more complexity and emotional integrity to their music. More permanent things than social issues and politics (which was the death of the band Sodom).

    Proto-death and Proto-black metal were born in response to this norming and with the influence of the integral and honest (initially Slayer). Even Slayer was absorbed into political, nonsense after a couple of great albums eventually. Nothing was immune. So American death metal was born with a few greats, then copied and copied and copied. The Europeans caught on and injected their sense of melody into the more chromatic American music.

    Swedish death metal was born and it was good. The best bands were pure art of a level not seen since the era of great western classical (though it could never approach its technical complexity). Take Wagner, is not metal his complete work of art? Sung lyrics with meaning describing scenes through rapid riff change. Songs with structures unique to their topic. Albums with cohesive structures from beginning to end. The magnum opus of At the gates… so many bands to mentions.

    Yet even this was eventually absorbed. Normed. It became acceptable, it became normal, it became cool. Clones upon clones of mediocre metal were born. This was not the fault of any particular weak album but a natural consequence of these musicians not understanding the value of their own music and feeling a sense of inferiority (perhaps) to musical peers in rock music. After all, these old rock bands were the heroes of many death metal individuals.

    Another reaction occured. Some Norwegians got sick of sneaker wearing, non-serious, normed Swedish death metal. Through the force of personality of some individuals, from a point of great adversity in metal music was born another genre, taking different cues from the proto-bands than death metal did. Bathory was an integral element here and eventually gravitated towards the music that was so influential for the true first wave of black metal.

    Now we reach the final part of our little cycle. Black metal explodes, extends to real life violence and a final ideological purity that perhaps even death metal lacked. Yet this energy itself burned this scene out quicker than a flash. Even some of these musicians were influenced by rock musicians. They wanted the fame, they wanted the lifestyle. After all, their music was better, so why not (thinking of Emperor in particular here). Even in the early days of black metal, Cradle of Filth and Dimmu were heading towards a full norming and assimilation into rock music.

    With the death of Euronymous, the jailing of Varg and hvis lyset tar oss especially, black metal was basically dead. Once again with Marduk and the earlier mentioned bands, the labels figured out they could make some money here! A `second wave` of black metal was born which was totally disconnected from the original spirit. It is basically glam metal at heart. A handful of second wave bands managed some beauty, but not the level of art their forerunners achieved. Slowly even they became corrupted, selling themselves out (not TO anyone, just their own souls). We got later Emperor, later Darkthrone, and the rock music that is later Enslaved.

    From this metal has never recovered. Is this the end then? Are the cycles complete? I dont believe so. Peole are starting to appreciate these older, classic albums because they have withstood the test of time. No one has as of yet pushed forward beyond Norwegian black metal. That is the hopeful expectation of this community. The answer isnt in electronic music. The answer isnt in instrumental metal. The answer isnt in emulating classical, it is pushing forward metal itself. To make music with FIRE, with VIR. If a rebirth is successful, metal will emerge fully forged, immune and powerful. There will be some norming but I believe the core will stay pure. Once again… if it occurs in the first place.

    A great article with an excellent interview. Thank you.

    Reply
    1. fenrir

      I think your take on Classical music is rather erroneous. To start of Classical music is not even a musical genre, although a lot of people seem to think so.
      We could say that Classical music encompasses all genres. A classical approach to music writing and performing is more of an attitude. Similar to that of the term “progressive”. Though the classical tradition has far more history and a structured system of learning built on centuries of tradition.
      Speed Metal evolved from NWOBHM and took from Punk. Emulated different aspects of them. So why are you against the idea of emulating the best aspects of the classical approach? If anything, great albums such as Obscura and Blessed are the Sick WERE emulating certain classical composers.

      I say, emulating the classical approach IS the way. For the classical approach is the trascendental way. It asks both rigor and focus from the artist as well as allowing freedom to walk any path.

      Reply
      1. Dionysus

        If anything Mr.Fenrir, it’s your approach to classical music that is erroneous. You are mythologizing the style and period based on an idealization of it, something people around this site are guilty of quite often. Sure, few things can compare to the great works of Schubert, Beethoven and Mozart, but those guys also wrote tons and tons of trite, pointless shit, and even the greatest of their works was written with of commercial reception in mind. This is why the greatest classical music tends to be religious, (and thus mostly immune to critics who probably wouldn’t go listen to it anyway), and based on formats and ideas from before the Common Practice Period (Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, Mozart’s Requiem etc.)

        Common Practice Period music, which is the only thing that should really be called “classical” at all, is hindered tremendously by its inevitable inheritance from the ballet, the opera, and other popular viennese bourgeois schlock, which Haydn and Mozart were absolutely enamored with. One Chinese composer once remarked quite poignantly that all Western Classical sounded like marching music to him. It took until Liszt to get rid of this inheritance, and by then the art music world had been transformed into an entertainment industry. Moreover, classical music is piano music (how many famous composers of the era were not pianists?), and all its ideas relate back to it (most symphonies started out as piano “redux” versions), and this is perhaps the best way to define it, in opposition to the vocal-based approach of the Renaissance and Medieval periods, string based approach of the Baroque and mainly abstract modernist approach. This means that, like every style, it does some things very well, and others not so well.

        Personally I am far more fond of Baroque (Corelli, Vivaldi, etc.) and Renaissance (DesPrez, Dufaye, etc.) music. Though it is more limited in scope and range, it is more honest and genuinely spiritual, less dampened by the concert scene than proper classical music. In fact, these very limitations allow composers to be more properly and fully in control of all their elements, unlike many classical composers: every symphony of Beethoven has a moment in which you feel he has bitten off more than he can chew, and this is true of almost every classical composer for orchestra except maybe Liszt and later Sibelius.

        What you call the transcendental approach is by no means limited to classical music. Sure, it can be found there more often than in other genres, and we can learn from those particular pieces and composers, but idealizing classical music and holding it up as music’s only beacon of light is not constructive. Metal has a lot in common with classical music (particularly its sense of musical grammar and its general seriousness about itself as art), but a lot of what makes it great is also quite different to classical music, and also needs to be preserved. I agree with you in one thing, there’s an attitude that underlines all good music, but I wouldn’t call it the “classical” attitude, because it’s the same attitude that underlines all great art, and it’s old as fucking dust. In fact I rather prefer your own word, “transcendental.” The answer is in preserving this spirit, living and creating through it, not in emulating anyone or anything in particular.

        Reply
        1. fenrir

          I admit that I may have sounded like saying that the classical tradition is the only beacon of light. That is something that I myself do not believe. But I believe it is a good inspiration and learning source. It itself lacks an ideological center besides the free pursuit of excellence in composition. This is because, as I said before, it is not a genre… The direction to choose is our own, what it gives is a body of knowledge and a learning system.

          Besides, we all start emulating something or someone. Nobody starts with a real blank sheet. None of the music You have heard or prefer started out this way. All I am saying is that if we are going to choose a starting point, we should choose the most excellent one.

          Earlier this week I quoted the famous line about needing to learn the rules to study music and then break the rules to make music. The thing is, I believe in standing on the shoulders of those who came before us.
          Personally, I appreciate Sepultura’s Morbid Visions, I enjoy it too. Same with early Celtic Frost. But I do hope for something far more developed. And usually that requires a combination of not only vision and dedication, but also knowledge. What? you are waiting for a genius to come and reinvent the whole wheel?
          Give me a list of incredibly outstanding albums in metal whose creators have nothing to do (they never mentioned it among their inspirations or studied it or listened to it) with classical influence or whose music shares no obvious similarities with it. Go on, please.

          Classical music is all piano music? Really? Then you are listening to a very limited set from the classical repertoire. Again, classical as in the whole tradition from Rennaissance music to post-modernist music. Classical music as such is not a genre and is not limited to aesthetic definitions as popular music is. You are thinking of the music characteristic to that produced in Vienna from the time which we tag as CLASSICAL PERIOD. Try to reduce John Cage’s compositions to piano, please, go ahead. Not that I like post-modernist music, actually I find it banal and superficial, but you should see my point. I do not know if I could call Arvo Part’s such as Tabula Rasa an enhanced piano music. I think Paganini’s violin caprices are obviously not that either. Even Beethoven (the great pianist) made string quartets toward the end of his life which, from my point of view, escaped this piano-based sounding music from the Classical Period. Being a great pianist, he did reduce some of these TO piano, not the other way around, my friend.

          Do Beethoven’s piano sonatas all sound like marching music? Not even the famous, ill-named ‘Moonlight’ Sonata is a good example of piano music that does not sound like a march at all. I assume that Chinese composer just listened to a lot of Marches, maybe he listened to too much Tchaikovsky, I don’t know. Did he ever listen to Bach? The Great Offering sounds like a March?

          “The answer is in preserving this spirit, living and creating through it, not in emulating anyone or anything in particular.” — Yes and NO. It’s impossible not to emulate anyone unless you purposely AVOID sounding like anything you’ve ever heard. But I think your own voice should come out and you should eventually carve your own path as an artist. I think Burzum is probably one of the greatest in this. Again, Obscura comes to mind of a good effort to find a unique voice.

          Btw, do share Chinese music with me. I would be very interested to explore it if I had a good parting point. I do not like westernized Chinese “classical” music.

          Reply
          1. Dionysus

            First of all relax Dave, this isn’t a presidential debate, it’s a (hopefully) friendly discussion on the internet.

            You are right in your main criticism of my point: it is impossible not to emulate one, and I realize how I may have overstated my case. Of course emulation will happen, and learning from classical music could very well be a positive thing for metal! What I oppose is the conscious, single-minded attitude that seems to be breeding around these parts that says “consciously emulating classical music is the only way for metal to be great again,” a premise I strongly disagree with but may not be your actual point.

            What I meant to say was that composers of the Common Practice Period mostly thought “in piano,” if that makes any sense. It’s kind of like how Varg is clearly thinking “in guitar” even on his albums that have no guitar on them, something that is both creatively fertile and somewhat limiting. Part doesn’t come into this because he does not belong to the Common Practice period, which is what I was referring to. And what the Chinese composer meant by “all Western music sounds like march music” refers to our subdivisions of time, our focus on the phrase on the dance phrase, stronger-weak-strong-weaker beat divisions, etc. These things are all over every work of music from the High Baroque all the way to Liszt, with few exceptions for individual pieces along the way. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, the reason I mentioned it was to bring up something like “classical music has limitations too, let’s not mythologize it.” Plus, an outsider’s perspective may help us deconstruct and understand our Western tradition more thoroughly and put its elements to better us when composing.

            I think the main point I’m groping at here is the following: yes, standing on the shoulders of giants is necessary. Nothing strengthens music like tradition. If to our own metal tradition we add the classical one, hell, great! But, the starting point for music must never be other music, otherwise you get new Darkthrone. An individual idea bred from the correct attitude and spirit, that’s what comes first, the emulation second, and only insofar as the idea demands it. The main thing I think to learn from classical music (which means ONLY the Common Practice Period, I refuse to bend on this issue) is the sheer willpower it exudes. The greatest works of the period are truly “arrows of longing towards the other shore.” THIS is what we need to absorb, more than any particular techniques or methods. However, techniques and methods naturally come with it, and each artist must scrutinize and decide what he will use, as opposed to just accepting it because “it’s classical,” which I’m sure isn’t what you’re advocating. Hell, 90% of our disagreement is probably etymological.

            As far as the Chinese music, I’m honestly not a connoisseur, sorry, but I do know a few performers whose renditions of traditional works have blown me away, namely Liu Mingyuan and Wu Zhaoji.

            P.d. I refuse to call John Cage’s idiotic shit “classical,” in fact I refuse to call it anything but “idiotic shit” :)

            Reply
            1. fenrir

              “90% of our disagreement is probably etymological.”

              It seems so.

              Excuse me if I came off as too anxious or aggressive. I do take it as a friendly debate. I did take a little offense when you said derogatory and generalized things about Classical music. I’ll try to think more about it next time before answering, but I do think it needed some clarification.

              ” The greatest works of the period are truly “arrows of longing towards the other shore.” THIS is what we need to absorb, more than any particular techniques or methods. However, techniques and methods naturally come with it, and each artist must scrutinize and decide what he will use, as opposed to just accepting it because “it’s classical,” which I’m sure isn’t what you’re advocating. ”

              Yes, thank you for reading me correctly.

              So, Common Practice Period… and how do we suggest we call the bulk of the academic tradition that traces a line from Baroque to Post-Modernism?
              And again what exactly is Common Practice Period? The era defined by Haydn – Mozart – Beethoven, or from Baroque to mid Romantic ?

              Reply
              1. Dionysus

                Well, I think that same line stretches all the way back to Gregorian Chant, and can simply be called Western Art Music. Common Practice Period refers to the period of this tradition that can be analyzed with Bach-based harmonic rules. Loosely it goes from 1700 (Bach and Handel establish these rules, as a modification and expansion of the previous Palestrina-based ones) to 1900 (Strauss, Mahler and cohorts bend them to the extreme, setting the stage for the Second Viennese School).

                Reply
        2. fenrir

          Btw, I do believe in limiting ourselves to a set of rules for our own music in order to create a directed and conscious path for ourselves when creating art. But I do not think we should impose a limited standard on EVERYONE, because each one of us has a different way of finding expression.
          Again, Hvis Lyset Tar Oss limited to Obscura’s language? or visce versa? I think not…

          Reply
    1. Richard Head

      Just out of curiosity, how do you quantify the deadliness of a tool, and what are the top ten in your ranking?

      Personally I would consider both the hammer and screwdriver more deadly overall than a chainsaw. First, neither of them require power other than muscle. A hammer blow to the skull is plenty to critically debilitate or kill a person. A screwdriver driven deep enough into the eye socket causes immediate death as well (usually).

      Beyond that, you have the shovel, which is less practical than the first two tools mentioned because of its heft and inability to be concealed beneath a jacket or in a pocket. However, with a reasonably sharpened blade, the shovel can sever arteries as efficiently as a chainsaw, but without the noise or clumsiness. Furthermore, should severing an artery with a precise blow be impractical, the sheer mass of the shovel makes it an effective bludgeoning tool, and will likely cripple most any body part in one blow.

      From a purely practical perspective, it would seem that the chainsaw ranks low overall in deadliness.

      Reply
      1. shoko asahara

        The chainsaw has the audio factor going for it, but, truth be told your fists are capable of extreme violence. Palm strike to the nose or fingers in the eye will usually render an attacker (victim?) harmless. Then run for the hills!

        Reply
        1. Richard Head

          This is true, and another reason why screwdrivers and hammers are highly effective at killing a victim. You still have use of your fists, only the handle of the tool offers more support to your hand. Also, “hammerfist” techniques become much more vicious with a screwdriver blade!

          Reply
        1. Richard Head

          While an amusing and brutal read, that article does not pertain to what I was talking about. Forbes ranks those power tools not by their deadliness but by the likelihood of some retard hurting himself with one.

          Reply
  • Malay

    You guys ever heard of Deafheaven? If ever a band was the ULTIMATE sign of the truth of the above article. With these sons-of-yuppies we don’t just have a band that has normed black metal aesthetics into something digestible for the herd, we have a band that has infiltrated the indiesphere and has the hordes of pretentious Starbucks dilettantes (who are the new mainstream rockers — pretentious wimps who think redneck rock music is an “artform”) thinking that black metal is THEIR rebellion music. I’m attaching a link where the trustfundians of this band talk about how much they love Drake.

    http://pitchfork.com/features/guest-lists/9299-deafheaven/

    Reply
  • 1349

    Much as “in vino veritas” describes how drunk people often accidentally blurt out the truth

    “In vino veritas” describes how it is difficult to tell lies and/or keep your mouth shut when you’re drunk.

    Reply
    1. EDS

      Sort of like the guy in college who threw his boot threw the glass door. When the cops showed up and caught him, he drunkenly slurred out, “That ain’t my boot man” despite the fact that he had one boot on and it was indeed the same Doc Marten as was the offending boot chucked through the glass.

      Reply
  • Sentenced

    Inside the power cage
    I can feel the music of my age
    It’s paranoid…first degree
    Tellin’ me that I’m not free

    I’ve got Heavy Metal music in my blood
    And I’d like to give it to you if I could

    As I lie in the shroud of darkness
    The wings of light remove the veil
    It’s Heavy, Heavy, Heavy
    Heavy Metal Mania all the way
    Rock ‘n roll…far too slow
    So the adrenaline just doesn’t flow
    Where is the power, where is the glory?
    Heavy Metal is my story

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QWPX2U2FzO8

    Reply

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