Marketing versus descriptive writing

We always talk about how here on ANUS, we try to describe the music as it is, not assess it in some “social” way (that easily lends itself to selling the music to dummies). People doubt us. So here’s a brief comparison:

Marketing

Q: What’s the title of the new Slayer album?

A: World Painted Blood.

Q: What’s it sound like?

A: What on Earth do you think?

Nine studio albums, thousands of live shows and nearly three decades into a career that’s made them one of the biggest and most important metal bands in the world, the members of Slayer know exactly what kind of music they make—brutal but beautiful, punishing yet precise. A fresh Slayer record is a thing of terror but also one of trust: You can depend on what you’re getting—even if you’re unprepared for it.

As guitarist Jeff Hanneman says with a sly little chuckle, “At this point I think a Slayer album pretty much speaks for itself.”

And yet there are some interesting things you should be made aware of regarding World Painted Blood, the highly anticipated follow-up to 2006’s Christ Illusion, which debuted inside the Top 5 of Billboard’s album chart, a career best for Slayer. Let’s start with the fact that its fury, believe it or not, was born out of fun.

“The interaction between all of us on this record was really something special,” says Hanneman of his work with the band’s three other founding members: singer-bassist Tom Araya, guitarist Kerry King and drummer Dave Lombardo. “Rather than trying to get something done,” Hanneman continues, “it felt like we were just having a good time. We were discussing things, giving things a go. The prevailing attitude was, ‘Let’s try it!’ It wasn’t even work, really—it was play.”

For the first time ever, Slayer entered the studio—in this case, The Pass, in Los Angeles—without an entire album’s worth of material already written and rehearsed. They’d booked a preliminary chunk of studio time in October 2008 to see how they liked working with producer Greg Fidelman, who’d been recommended to the band by their longtime pal Rick Rubin after the two worked together on Metallica’s Death Magnetic. “While we were in there recording the couple of songs we had, things were just really clicking with Greg,” says Araya. “So we thought, ‘Why don’t we try to write the rest of the record in the studio?’ We weren’t sure what was gonna happen; we just kind of did it, and the music kept on coming.”

Not only did it keep on coming—first during that initial session, then in a second period of work stretching from January to March 2009—but it came in a way it hadn’t before, driven by a new degree of collaboration. For Slayer’s last several albums, Hanneman would write his songs, King would write his, then the two guitarists would bring their separate material into the studio, where the band would put it to tape. “This time,” says King, “everyone was talking about what we were doing. Everyone had a say and was involved—like, ‘Maybe we should go faster here or stop there or whatever.’ It was cool.”

Hanneman is succinct when asked how or why this cooperative spirit took root. “I have no fucking idea,” he admits. “The chemistry was just good.” The guitarist does note that Slayer “weren’t rushed, and that makes a lot of difference with the music. I don’t like being rushed, and on this record we had plenty of time.”

You can hear the effects of that creative freedom throughout World Painted Blood, which Lombardo says fits in with such classic Slayer slabs as Reign in Blood and Seasons in the Abyss. “The rhythm riffs on this one make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up,” says the drummer, who describes his determination to make his parts sound human and natural, rather than like the product of a machine. “It does it for me the same way those older records did.” King agrees: “I think it has kind of a retro vibe to it,” he says. “It sounds like the stuff we wrote in the ’80s.”

Did this renewed enthusiasm brighten Slayer’s worldview? Not exactly. “We have a tendency to follow a theme, and I think on this record the theme is more apocalyptic than usual,” says Araya, pointing to songs like the title track, a meditation on what the year 2012 has in store for humanity, and “Public Display of Dismemberment,” which King says is about whether or not certain “vulgar but effective” law-enforcement measures might work as well in America as they have elsewhere. “That’s kind of the running concept here,” Araya adds, “but aside from that it’s the usual Slayer topics of death, murder and serial killers.”

Usual, perhaps, but far from ordinary, World Painted Blood is one of Slayer’s most impressive efforts yet—a vicious, uncompromising look at what’s broken in our society and how frighteningly powerless we are to fix it. King says World is “more well-rounded than the last couple of albums.” Lombardo calls it “a speed metal record with emotion.” Anyone with ears will think it’s an accomplishment of a major kind. – Amazon.com Slayer Store

Notice what’s missing: they don’t talk about the music. They talk about the people, how many albums the band sells, how vicious it is, the topic of the lyrics (which is not necessarily the same as the topic of the song), and how shocking it is. In essence, what other people will talk about when they talk about it. Real information? Minimal. Now of course, this piece comes to us from Slayer’s reps via Amazon.com, and is not exceptional in any way. In fact, Slayer resisted doing this shit for decades. Now they’ve got a big label behind them demanding they do it because everyone else does it, and it’s effective, which means that if Slayer doesn’t do it, it’s like fighting with one hand tied behind their backs.

Here’s another:

In junior high, there were three albums whose covers scared the shit out of me, and which I consequently kept in a desk drawer out of immediate view: Reign in Blood, Blessed Are the Sick, and Arise. While the former two remain all-time favorites, at the time, Arise hit the spot best. All three albums are primers on blazing speed coupled with powerful atmosphere, but Arise possessed a stronger melodic quality that never came off as cheesy or compromised. Andreas Kisser’s solos are oases of respite from the Cavalera brothers’ unrelenting, dystopian riffage. As a son of the ’80s and a disciple of films like Brazil, Robocop, and Blade Runner, I really appreciate the post-apocalyptic imagery in Cavalera’s lyrics, an aspect that he’d continue to hone on Chaos A.D.

Speaking of that album, I got shit in an earlier post about saying Chaos A.D. is the album where Sepultura “become men”. I still think that’s true, but paradoxically, I must qualify that Arise presently edges it out as my favorite Sepultura album. Ultimately, it’s a less fully-realized sonic world: the production is flat (what the fuck is wrong with those drums?!), the guitar tones are not layered in any meaningful way, and are almost fatiguingly mid-rangey. While Arise represents Sepultura at their apex as a speed/thrash/death band, Chaos A.D. is them being the band they were always meant to be. You can hear it in the confidence of the songwriting, and you have to hand it to a band when they reach that point in their lifetime; so many don’t.

So why does Arise edge it out? To paraphrase my friend Anson, MY GOD, those riffs. From “Arise” to “Infected Voice”, there’s not a dud in the bunch. It’s also worth noting how deftly they did the speed thing, especially considering they pretty much forsook the blastbeat after this record. It’s the end of an era in Sepultura’s evolution, and they closed it with all guns blazing. Arise still takes me back to a time and place, and that album cover, for all the fear it instilled in me, remains a favorite. Like the riffs, it reminds me of what I love about my favorite superhero comic books: metal, like comics, sometimes functions on more is more. – Invisible Oranges

These are all marketing, because their point is to convince you how cool something is, and not give you a sense of its broader relevance. The individual and the social sphere are the same thing in varying degrees; if something panders to your lower functions, it will do the same for others and thus be popular. Reviews that talk about how popular something is, how influential it is, or how “unique” it is are not commenting on the music — they’re talking about the scene, the fans, the market — and as such as tangential.

Descriptive

Oh look, someone talking about the music.

Pandemic Genocide doesn’t stray too far away from the established Vader/Behemoth territory, although perhaps slightly simplified in execution and with a hint of Immolation mixed in, as well. This is not exactly a problem, in my opinion, as that is prime real estate to explore, and there are 666 metric tons of great, memorable riffs here. To carve out a more unique identity, PG occasionally slows down and gets a little atmospheric, which maybe works the best in the excellent “Arcana Mortem.” These guys also have no problem with faster tempos, as is evidenced in the amazing title track, and really all over the place, with surgical precision. – Metal Curse

Here we have a description of the aesthetics of the music that’s succinct and complete. We know what we need to know about the style. Some assessment of how well it pulls that off, and how the riffs are written and how the song structures work, and most importantly, what sort of artistic content (narrative of moods, progression of ideas) is enclosed, …well, that would be nice. But it’s not going to happen in a one-paragraph review, which is the smart format to do if you’re going to write 5000 reviews like that writer has. He covers every area of metal in a way few can.

And another:

One could have sworn Verhern and fellow label mates Kargvint are the very same band; both sound and musical approach of these otherwise twin bands is almost identical, and even though they do not share any band member between them (Kargvint being a one-man show), Verhern’s self-titled album is so much like Kargvint’s excellent Seelenwerks Fortgang (reviewed on Diabolical Conquest not long ago), it’s uncanny. Verhern, unlike Kargvint, is comprised of three members; the usual classic metal ensemble of a couple of guitars, bass, vocals, a drum set as well as some distant keyboards, buried so deep in the mix, they are ghost-like, hovering above the music occasionally, adding to it an eerie flair, not unlike Burzum’s key work on Filosofem’s opening track Dunkelheit. Again, as was the case with Kargvint’s album, dismissing Verhern’s debut is almost a natural response upon listening to it for the first time; shallow, hollow and derivative, uninspired at best and primitive at the very worst were the first impressions registered by this reviewer who was ready to tear this album apart a second before he actually listened to this musical work carefully, with unbiased ears and clear mind. This is good music in the sense it emanates emotions in abundance; from the heartfelt vocals to the sensual, despairing riffs, the whole creates a thick, relentless atmosphere of pain and sorrow, and a sense of transcendence. The metal of Verhern is fleeting and intuitive, not your usual gut-wrenching heaviness and sonic violence; on the contrary, here the music walks the more humble, insinuative paths, always distant and estranged, touching-not-touching, creating waves of black ambiance and generating almost erotic beauty. – Diabolical Conquest

While this reviewer is almost certainly overpraising this album, he’s making an honest and clear attempt to talk about what’s inside of it. The style is well-known enough that he dismisses it with a sentence or two, then launches into a description of what the music attempts to evoke. For example, Pantera likes to evoke righteous rage and a desire to hump fenceposts. Slayer used to evoke a mythic sense of occult warfare. Opeth evokes a desire to become pacifistic, navel-gazing, sensitive and on bottom during violent gang anal rape scenes. The review contrasts the techniques used in the music to what it attempts to evoke; the only weakness is, perhaps, that the description of emotions is too inclusive and thus vague.

You can see how some people are out there being “successful” by hyping stuff; they’re also not elitists, they’re egalitarians, for the most part. In their view, albums are not good or bad, but “different” and perhaps niche-bound. Other people are more hellbent on describing the music and so, by the natural process forced on them by the writing they do, they’re finding out which music stands above the rest by not being “unique” in some random combination, but by having something interesting to express and expressing it well.