Never has there been a word in metal as misunderstood as atonal, allowing all kinds of ridiculous claims since most individuals confuse atonality with dissonance and chromatism.
There are two ways to define atonality, one being the complete lack of tonal character and being reduced to noise like some of Kerry King’s solos or the works of Merzbow. The other definition that interests us here is the complete lack of functional harmony. In simpler terms that implies not having the root note that commands a certain melody. Without a root note, the notes in an atonal melody are not connected by scales, modes or chords.
Listen to a track from the upcoming Hadeon from longstanding Dutch band Pestilence, one is immediately struck by the similarity to late-1990s Morbid Angel: the riffs are there, albeit a bit impatient and tightly circular, but the whole experience is not. What is missing? To understand this, we must go to the core of what made death metal what it is.
If you wanted to explain to a normal person what death metal is, looking at the core of its spirit, you might haul out Slayer Hell Awaits, Hellhammer Apocalyptic Raids, and Bathory The Return… because these influenced the techniques, composition, and spirit of death metal. From Hellhammer and Slayer, it got its song structure and aesthetics; from Bathory its themes and riff technique.
Death metal took the original idea of metal, formed when Black Sabbath and others began using power chords to make phrasal riffs instead of harmony-oriented open chord riffs, and developed it further. This is different than doing something “new” or “progressing” because it means undertaking the much harder task of developing an idea further at a structural level instead of just changing aesthetics.
With the rise of underground metal, death metal adopted chromatic riffing and made the interplay between riffs form a narrative to each song. This abolished typical rock song structure and, because the guitar served as a melodic instrument instead of a harmonic one, forced vocals, bass and drums into a background role. How well the riffs fit together and portrayed an atmosphere, idea, or sensation defined the quality of the music.
Pestilence came from a solid death metal background with Consuming Impulse but showed a speed metal styled approach on Malleus Maleficarum, and this tension has stayed with the band for its entire career. The speed metal style of verse and chorus built on a singular theme that is present in the music is easier to jam on and use harmony to complement, where death metal rarely explicitly states its theme, only silhouetting it in the interaction between its many riffs. With speed metal, bands can set up a chord progression and develop it in layers of internal commentary like jazz, and this puts vocals back in position number one among the lead instruments.
“Non-Physical Existent” is a two-riff song with both based on the same note progression. It creates its intensity through the clash between a ripping circular high speed riff and a slower chromatic riff that uses odd harmony to distinguish notes in an otherwise linear theme. The song breaks into a solo section over one of the riffs, and has a type of turnaround the drops into the faster riff as a return. But there is no real interplay nor any narrative.
From the riffs themselves, this is a good song, but unfortunately, it is not death metal. Nor will it last because essentially it is a closed-circuit video of itself, a riff commented on by another, without resembling any particular experience or emotion, therefore being a null journey, more like stasis in space while riffs loop. It is better than not bad, but still not of real interest to the death metal fan.
At the truest heart of metal lies a voice embodied, somewhat childishly, somewhat ineptly, but no less clearly and latent with potential, by Mayhem’s Deathcrush. The re-inversion of all values that metal enacts starts with the embracing of what modernity would see as its sickness unto death. The despair and sin of sickness unto death become vital active elements in the morbid minds of those who would vanquish dogmatic preconceptions in the Sky God Religions and their secular humanist counterparts. Being, in essence a way of connecting back to itself, the ideological blockages set up by this dead-end society had to be faced head on. Herein lies the relevance and meaning of the present album. Despair is converted into pure energy, the rules disavowed, the road of sin is tread fanatically as a method of purification —a negative unity of evil towards the beyond, away from human-ness in its modern form, away from mundanity. For the burgeoning underground, as seen from Mayhem’s perspective, primacy would placed on being and its dark discovery of self, against the presumption of knowing, and the oppressive, futile impositions from above. All knowing, all value of music, would come from this ‘being’, from a dark exploration of the soul possessed by a cosmic force of destruction.
Satyricon were always a band to live in the shadow of better bands and thus it is only fitting for their farewell U.S. tour to suffer the same fate. The band announced their last trip to the United States just hours before Slayer’s shocking announcement that they will soon cease to exist. Understandably, this caused the Satyricon “news” to be buried deep under a pile of apathy. Feels bad, man.
Counting among the longest running US black metal institutions to date, Black Funeral has given birth to a motley collection of musical works over the last twenty-five years, spanning regional adaptions of Northern European black metal, over dark ambient and archaic/industrial drones, through the Les Legions Noires-styled raw melodic approach of later years.
Immortal is back! Well… sort of. Halfway there. Right? In name at least?
You see, Demonaz- Immortal’s original guitarist during the 90’s, lyricist during the 2000’s, and now vocalist/guitarist and lyricist in the 2010s- is back with drummer-on-some-albums skinsman Horgh. Wait, actually, the two have only played together on one album (out of twelve) so can they really “be back?” Anyway, Demonaz and Horgh have out-lawyered the band’s drugged out drunken cornerstone musician Abbath, who played every instrument except for guitar when Demonaz was in the band and then played guitar over 9000 times better than Demonaz once the latter got a case of tendentious. With the name locked down and a healthy Nuclear Blast Records budget, the duo get ready to make a seriously play for the wallets of misguided fans.
But wait, the tendentious that crippled him for a decade is suddenly gone? Can he still pick at the rediculous guitar tempos of Blizzard Beasts? Can he even play at all? There’s a lot to unpack in this one, so let’s get trolling as we recap the story of the band who turned black metal’s creepy aesthetics into the hair metal of the 90s… (more…)
The thankfully short lived Canadian metal scene was another low in the attempt to blend death metal with tough-guy hardcore. Through a gross cocktail of taking a technical death metal template, squeezing all of the feeling and memorability from the riffs, breakdowns, and linear “riff salad” song structures with no repetition or thematic continuity, the Canadian metal scene gave us the foundation for the horrendous abomination that was deathcore- the ugliest perversion of death metal the genre had seen since Six Feet Under collaborated with Ice-T. Ultimately, we remember Canadian metal as the musical version of a shit post- something so autistic and obnoxious that it made everyone around the world quickly realize that Canadian metal bands were something to be mocked and avoided. (more…)
Records praised as “innovative” have a first-mover advantage: we all take that assessment at face value, not having heard the album, and then can only see through it after a half-dozen listens, at which point the record stands revealed. These iconoclastic pioneers usually tend to be the opposite, wielding piecemeal structuring as a cudgel to mask songwriting pitfalls or a lack of overall message in general, and Trance of Death manages to dupe the listener on both counts at first. (more…)