Hans Graf and the Houston Symphony Orchestra perform Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8 in Houston, Texas

Hans Graf / Houston Symphony Orchestra
January 13, 2007
615 Louisiana St
Houston, Texas 77002

Saturday brings crowds to the record stores, looking for the experience of being around music. Yet as relaxed fingernails trail down the spines of thousands of CDs in the Used rack, it might occur to us how transparent these ruses have been for the past four decades. Rock music succeeds where it panders to expectations without revealing the manipulation that so resembles parents and high school teachers. But to one iota of that is the comfortable anarchy zone of “if it feels good, do it” that makes rock millionaires.

This image lingered in the mind for the long passage through the winding freeways of downtown Houston, through the parking lot where newsprint stained thumbs are licked to separate change for a twenty, and into the dark cavernous quiet of Jones Hall to hear Hans Graf conduct Anton Bruckner. Opening the piece with a chorus singing Bruckner’s “Ave Maria” from the lobby, Graf paused briefly and then raised his wand, to which a synchronized rising of instruments announced the descent from our world of tangible objects into the abstraction of music had become. The concert began from a silence in which the echoes of human voices still faded.

Since we live in a time that has produced almost no classical music of note for several generations, we are burdened with interpretations, as if the truth passed us once and now we are bickering over the details. As if a mirror of our political and social systems, there are two extremes in the history of Bruckner performances, namely Eugene Jochum and Herbert von Karajan; others, like Carlo Maria Giulini take a more emotive and earthy approach. Jochum and von Karajan however are the yardsticks by which Bruckner performances are assessed, and if von Karajan is the stormy “Beethoven” approach, Jochum is the more “Brahms”: an organic wave of emotion that approaches Bruckner less as a logician than a channeling of an inherent spirit, a will toward a spiritual view of existence.

Into this difficult environment Graf descends with little more than an exuberant love of Bruckner on his side, but it seems enough. Of all things that could be said about this performance, it is most important to state that Graf appreciated the juncture between personality and intellectual direction that defines Bruckner. We know him as a simpleton in political matters, but a humble genius who preferred simple pleasures and intangible spiritual ecstasy to the normalcy of function. Graf captures these traits in the gestalt of his conducting, yet also adapts his technique to be fertile to this unification of ten thousand nearly inobservable details. He is the interpretation of Jochum applied to the methods of von Karajan, with the kind of technical eye for modernism that an experienced interpreter of that era such as Esa-Pekka Salonen can provide.

Graf’s interpretation of perhaps the most challenging Bruckner symphony not just to conduct but to introduce to a public, despite being very much organic, targets the logician in Bruckner as well. Graf has his orchestra play individual phrases and themes with a bouncy old-world air, as if Haydn-izing Bruckner for the sake of appealing to his ancient soul. He places these suddenly humanized phrases into the dynamic delivery of a von Karajan, but dynamism sensu Graf is more aware of how too many dissonant phrases rising into clarity before expanding into vast harmony of unison can tire an audience. He is selective and if von Karajan is a stormy genius and Jochum a religious contemplative, Graf remains a humble observer of nature. His Bruckner is looser, without the regularity of rhythm that makes it machinelike, and yet descends to earth for its spiritualism. Motives are presented less in an apocalyptic storm than a natural evolution from their simpler origins.

As noted in the program guide, Bruckner composes “prismatically,” so that there is little linear or formulaic repetition, but so that each meme is repeated as a reintroduction of theme like familiar symbols in poems. This creates a labyrinthine navigation between known points and a form of internal discussion that relates them to both similar and dissimilar themes, meaning that musicians must both play the work accurately and never lose sight of its narrative. The Houston Symphony, known for quietly performing undernoticed masterpieces when it is not distracted with more populist classical fare, performed diligently in this intermissionless marathon. A few glitches in the brass section stood out momentarily, as did an unintended dissonance in the strings, but these were minutiae compared to the whole of a not only solid but energetic and powerful performance.

Graf never flagged, perched deftly on his stand and attacking the score with an inner vitality that showed not only dedication but interest. The intensity was compelling, as was the response of an orchestra that navigated a circuitous pattern of overlapping motives with alacrity and grace. For almost eighty minutes, the audience was bathed in a hush of concentration brought on by the abject sensation of beauty and inner mental silence this piece triggers in its listeners. Whether history will record this grand performance, or even last long enough to notice, becomes academic for those who were there to be thrust into the existential colonnade which in classic Brucknerian style unified the ambient and the linear to become immersive, revealing space within itself in the best definition “prismatic” can offer, and from that point of contemplation unleashing a profound stillness and re-introduction to life as majesty and divinity.

Those who were there were changed, unless numb as cut wood, and in this transformation glimpsed a chance for a life on earth that aspires to the organization and beauty of the celestial, much as humble heavens-gazer Bruckner must once have done in creating it. As the transcendental onslaught ceased, and those who listened were drawn back into the world of rustling concert programs and strange winter clothing exuding odors of the still air of closets, it was clear this was not the same audience who had entered the concert hall with their thoughts divided like panicked insects. These were people who had been brought to the point of realization by a musical experience, and the inherited wisdom showed on their faces of calm concentration.

Outside Jones Hall the streets pulsed with a cold wind from the north as people hurried home, or to the warmed bars for a drink before braving the solitude of sleep. A few miles away the record store slept in the abrasive hum of its security lights, the titles of several generations of rock aspirants slowly relinquishing their fascination with the here and now and sensual in steady decay, bombarded by space-traveling particles from before Bruckner was born. Industrial machinery rose over the landscape, awaiting the dawn light that would begin its own process of breakdown, and the ghettoes and suburbs alike rocked with discontent, hidden in one case behind doors and polite words. But to seize that moment when the culmination of intricate virii of phrase wrapped themselves into a final peace, a state of mind both stormy and compassionate for life itself, that was to leave all of this behind — and perhaps to determine in the inner world each person carries where an impetus to change might begin.

Composer:
Anton Bruckner

Performers:
Houston Symphony

No Comments

The Mythology of Death Metal

Death metal arose in the early 1980s, when the children of the post-WWII generation matured in the West (USA, Europe). These individuals grew up during an era when the capitalist/democratic West pitted itself against the communist/totalitarian Eurasian and Asian states, in the shadow of the second world war which established this division.

This was an era when the constant threat of nuclear conflict or invasion of Europe by the Soviet Union was perceived to be not only real but likely, a shade short of inevitable. The Baby Boomers, born 1944-1953, hoped for a prosperous future without the threat of Nazi Germany, but faced instead a “Cold War” in which six minutes of warning could announce total nuclear annihilation.

Most popular music took a populist approach and warned against the increasing conservative powers of the West, but death metal eschewed the political for the philosophical. It portrayed a world of death, disease, and occult torment hidden behind a smokescreen of technology, religion and politics. Its lyrics, dripping with references to horrible ways to die or decay, and frequently referencing Nietzschean concepts as well as a strong anti-Christian bias, referred to a side of life not seen in the media or political dialogue of the time.

To most, this was baffling — in a political, economic or social context, how does one understand “Only death is real”? It seemed a reminder that beneath all of our social constructs, containers of consensual reality, we were missing something. In this it was not entirely divorced from the post-Nietzschean fascination with deconstruction, exhibited in the literature of 1959-1976 as “postmodernism,” or a sense that our definition of the “real world” was illusory and leading us astray. Somehow, we had lost sight of the actual world — reality — and were living in a dream turning rapidly to a nightmare, as all illusions do when they confront reality. Reminders of mortality, of an occult religion where no morality of good/evil existed, and visions of decay rather than an abrupt apocalyptic end marked the lyrical and imagic differences between death metal and the speed metal, heavy metal and hardcore punk (ancestors contributed its hybrid genetic material) before it.

Where death metal was most influential however was its style of composition. Where rock bands put together a verse and chorus loop united by harmony, death metal borrowed from the classical, progressive rock and electronic music (the latter two genres being influenced by classical music most profoundly of mainstream styles) to create a synthesis between the theatrics of opera and the melodic phrasal composition of classical. This led to a “narrative” composition, or a journey through many riffs and motifs which changed the listener between start and finish; this contrasted rock and jazz, which in their simple loops with embellishments of improvisation crafted a single state of mind in which the precepts were fulfilled by the conclusion. Death metal, in this sense, was both structuralist or a study of how events connect as a whole, and Romanticist, in that it emphasized change in experience over solid assumptions.

Having learned from the speed metal and heavy metal and hardcore punk experiences, in which new genres rapidly became absorbed by the same groupthink they attempted to evade, death metal deliberately styled itself as unlistenable. Heavy, bassy distortion created an angry and violent sound, as did the intense rhythms and howling, hoarse, screaming, shouting, rasping vocals it utilized. This was outsider music, not another product to fit into a functional modern life as an aesthetic complement to expensive decor and an entertainment system.

When all of these traits are analyzed, it is clear what death metal brought as art to the West: the idea that our modern life was an illusion based on a shallowness similar to the categorical division of life into good and evil, right and wrong, us and them. We had lost sight of reality through these illusory divisions, and the result was an apocalyptic confrontation that threatened all life — and while most wanted to evade this realization, death metal wanted to reinforce reality instead.

Twenty years later, no radical changes in this outlook have occurred, although black metal formed to address (in part) the shift from conservative to liberal politics in the West in the 1990s. Death metal is as relevant as it was in the 1980s, with black metal as an added commentary. Its physical presence as a genre has been mostly assimilated by groupthinkers who want an “authentic, radical” perspective, but the original music remains.

To see its relevance as art, and a more intensely artistic form of underground genre is hard to find, it is important we turn to philosophy. Kant saw us as living in a time of “radical evil” when our mundane actions of survival constituted a great future downfall; T.S. Eliot, interpreting Nietzsche, saw the modern time as a triumph of the taste and judgment of the masses absorbing the better wisdom of actual thinkers. Death metal, with its allusions to hollow men (Entombed) and Nietzschean topics as well as its perception of a pervasive occult evil, explored and explained these ideas.

How does a death metal artist or fan think about the world? As a slow suicide. These individuals grew up in a time when masses of credulous voters and buyers could be swayed from trend to trend, and easily duped by political lies of the basest quality. Death metal saw this mass of undifferentiated people as the sustaining force of our public illusion, and injected a dose of grim reality to counter the tendency toward pleasant illusion denying actual dangers. Death metal is the revealing force of our modern dread as we are slowly dragged toward a grisly doom by a popular opinion that resentfully denies any who assert reality.

Interestingly, despite all that has been written about death metal, very few thinkers touch on these points. They are not popular. They are dangerous ideas, and difficult to prove because they are stated in metaphor. Much like death metal itself, they are outsider perspectives which will never be accepted by the crowd, which speaks both for their accuracy and urgency as the slow suicide continues.

1 Comment

Appreciating Deicide’s Legion

Sometimes an album requires 15 years of examination before it can be addressed adequately. Deicide released their second album Legion in the summer of 1992, and it proved to be the apex of their career. It was long in coming, delayed three times by Roadrunner, and I was obsessed with obtaining it.

I was fifteen going on sixteen, and for almost six months I hardly cared about anything else. Girls? What are those? Can they get me the new Deicide album? No? Then forget it. My mania began when Deicide had come to town on a week’s notice the previous winter. They had never before played Texas, and a whole state’s worth of hessians had been clamoring to see them since their eponymous release over a year before. The show itself was a revelation. The band was tight, proficient, ferocious, and surprisingly charismatic. They tore through the entirety of their sole album which only a few breaks for frontman Glen Benton to praise and incite the crowd, as well as an intermission while the security team hastily nailed the wooden stage barrier back together after we smashed it to pieces in our fervency. Once the band had exhausted their catalog my friends and I caught our breaths, and started to walk towards the exit. That was all the songs they had to play, after all.

Suddenly a voice boomed at our backs- “We got a couple of new ones for you!” Glen and company had taken the stage once more. “This is from our upcoming album Legion! In Hell I Burn!” The room ignited. We rushed back to the front of the stage and joined the crushing wave of bodies. The new song was chaotic and technical, and Deicide were clearly excited about their new material as they played it to the hilt. “Holy Deception” followed with the same inflammatory delivery, and then the band stood down and left us to sort out our tangled hair, soggy shirts, and missing shoes.

And he asked him, What is thy name?
And he answered, saying,
My name is Legion: for we are many.

Mark 5:9, KJV

I was bewitched. Deicide was already my favorite band and the brief taste of new songs further tightened their grip upon me. As Legion continued to be delayed (as it happens, it was announced before the band had even completed it) my anticipation became feverish. One Friday my friend Chris, with whom I’d attended the show, came to my house to “show me something”. It was a new album but he wouldn’t let me see it and instead just put it in my CD player. A droning roar and cacophony of bleating sheep drifted out of my speakers. What could it be? Legion was finally to come out on Tuesday, and I had already planned to devote the whole day to buying and listening to it. The first notes of the opening song struck abruptly and I was still confused. What WAS it? Then a familiar death-preacher voice cut through the tangle of guitars and blast beats; Chris grinned as he pulled the CD longbox out of the bag, and there was a full-sized photo of Deicide in all their Satanic glory. Glen’s bottomless black eyes stared back at us as the songs hammered the room. The record store had gotten the CDs early and decided to put them on the shelves for the weekend. And for all the build-up, for all the anticipation and impatience, every note of the album was worth the wait. Chris and I finished listening to it in disbelief, then immediately started it again. It was a good day to be a Deicide worshipper.

Almost two decades later I have listened to this album literally thousands of times. At 29 minutes it is very easy to set the CD on repeat and feel my brain cells become awash in hellish audio napalm again and again. It never loses its impact. I know every note by heart, and I have studied it and dissected it by every available means (the Hoffman brothers hard panned their guitars, so adjusting the balance switch will yield new and enlightening information about the song arrangements). Many people didn’t understand Legion upon its initial release. The preceding album was a collection of intense but highly musical anthems about the occult, godkilling, and Satanic suicide. The songs were brilliant and infectiously mnemonic, and they allowed Deicide to rise to a status second only to Morbid Angel in the Death Metal movement.

Legion, however, was a headlong dive into the abyss; a feral and fractured deconstruction of the band’s first outing that transformed their established sound into a berserker rage of sonic violence. The arrangements were twisted and jarring, the production was ear-shattering, and the message was more focused and dire than ever. This was not just an album, it was a mission statement. Glen Benton had already repeatedly decreed his own suicide at age 33, and this deadline seemed to serve as the impetus of abandon with which the band attacked each song. Legion was an affirmation of the Great Beyond, albeit one that promised eternal torment and pain, as well as an utter rejection of life, comfort, and the mundanity of daily existence that reduces people to craven weaklings.

Accordingly, the less cerebral portion of the Death Metal fanbase was alienated by such a challenging offering and it could be argued that the backlash to Deicide’s audacity was a large contributor towards the mainstream success of bands like Cannibal Corpse. Nevertheless, time inevitably bears out the merit of all great efforts and as such Legion is now widely regarded as a groundbreaking classic. Virtually all Death Metal releases in the following five years bear the marks of its influence, most notably in regard to increased attack and tempo. Despite its impact, no band has ever managed to truly recapture the nature of this release. This is true for even Deicide themselves, who ultimately reversed course with Once Upon the Cross, and then degenerated into the same low-grade Death Metal drudgery that they had once endeavored to dismantle. In fairness, there could not really be a Legion II and to their credit the band declined to attempt one.

The tragedy of Deicide and their legacy is that a whole generation of hessians know the band as a blunt, inelegant, and jock-brained outfit that write thudding tunes with a weak grasp of Satanism and even weaker sense of songcraft. This is not the band I remember, the band that fired my imagination and made me want to take up arms and scourge the Christian vermin. To me, Glen Benton died at 33 because the man he has become is a man long dead. A white hot rage is one that will consume a soul rapidly, and Deicide’s brand of rage was enough to consume them all. Still, I refuse to allow their transgressions to negate their contributions.

Legion will always be one of the best albums ever, no matter what Glen and his current line-up of mercenary Christians do next. It no longer belongs to them; it belongs to the fans and the people who still listen to that album year after year without surrender. If you haven’t listened to it in a while or avoided it because of the band’s recent output, challenge yourself to embrace this masterwork in all its caustic, quixotic glory. You will become a believer. You will become Legion.

by David Anzalone

4 Comments

Tags: ,

Averse Sefira and Vex in Austin, Texas

Averse Sefira, Vex, and six completely worthless bands
October 28, 2006
Redrum, Austin, TX

The Texas metal scene is potentially at a turning point. Its star band, Averse Sefira, has signed to a large label (Candlelight), and it has a few other worthy bands (namely Crimson Massacre, Ayasoltec, and Images of Violence), as well as some with potential (namely Vex). However, currently it is hopelessly swamped by its lower impulses- inclusion of many worthless bands for the sake of “the scene” (read: the social scene), and its turning of shows into parties with some live music, rather than the music- and the meaning of the music- being the focus. This nights show saw six — yes, that’s right, six ± worthless backing bands that will never go anywhere nor create anything of worth play before Vex and Averse Sefira hit the stage. Furthermore, the entire show was apparently designed to be something of a Halloween party, complete with costumes and candy. This author posits the question: why? Why attract morons into the “scene” who simply socialize and leave before the good bands come on? Why alienate the intelligent people who are there by making them sit through six shit bands before the artists that they came to see play? And with this “why?”, comes a “why not?”. Why not let concerts stand on their own merit, rather than advertising as and transforming them into parties? The total number of bodies through the door might be smaller, but surely those people who did come would be ones who actually wanted to experience a live art performance, and would give more support to the bands, and perhaps even stay around for the best ones. Why not feature only a few bands, thus giving the lesser known ones a chance to play a reasonable set and allow the crowd to come to know their art, while making the show shorter, thus ensuring that people have more energy for the headliners? To this author, it is no wonder that at least one person there stated that he had no desire to be associated with this currently empty-headed scene.

Vex

To this reviewer, Vex was both a welcome relief and a source of frustration. The band was the first of the night that was able to craft something remotely interestingly musically, which was appreciated by this reviewer on a night that had henceforth been filled with emo-core, nu metal, and third-rate Pantera rip-offs pretending to be extreme metal. However, according to one who was present at the concert, in their seven years of existence, Vex has rehearsed as a complete band maybe once or twice- and it shows. Technical problems plagued the set, the members all seemed to want to go in different directions, and the vocalist provided too much chatting between songs, which killed all intensity. Musically, Vex is reminiscent of middle period works from The Chasm- a fusion of traditional metal styles into death and black metal, but unlike most lesser bands that attempt this, who merely simplify extreme metal into the same old pentatonic patters, Vex combines the imagination and sense of harmony of classic Iron Maiden into a potent extreme metal base. If the band members manage to unify themselves into one entity, it will be a force to reckon with.

Averse Sefira

Predictably, shortly before the best band to play this night took the stage, all of the scenesters and whores who were populating the venue left, leaving only a few die-hards left. In this almost empty venue, Averse Sefira blasted out an intense set that would have been completely lost on the untermenschen anyways. The band opened with Plagabraha, and after finishing that and quickly dealing with some sound issues (Sanguine’s vocals were inaudible in this first song), they tore into the rest of the set, made alive by tiny improvations- a pick scrape here, an accented vocal line there, used in master-planned material, combining the best of spontaneous energy and emotion with studied composition. Multiple generations of metal combined in a fiery explosion of energy, tempered by the emotional wisdom of the Norse greats, in a celebration of coming conflict and death acting as the smith’s forge, melting and reshaping a world made weak through entropy. Militantism prevailed, both in sound through the march battery of The Carcass, in physical presence, with Sanguine and Wrath in full regalia, wielding instruments as weapons, conducting themselves as field marshals on the front lines, and in words, through the lyrics of the songs. Highlights of the set were the awesome renditions of “Helix in Audience” and “The Nascent Ones (The Age of Geburah)”, and “Homecomings March”, the latter of which was vastly improved through the band’s use of dissonant and inverted chords in line with their newer material, which helped ease some of the saccharine that the original version had, as well as through a more adept, if more subtle, use of dynamics, and truly inspired vocal performances.

Setlist:
Plagabraha
Sonance Inumberate
Hierophant Disgorging
Homecoming’s March
Transitive Annihilation
Condemned to Glory
Argument Obscura
Decapitation of Sigils
Helix in Audience
The Nascent Ones (The Age of Geburah)
Detonation

– Written by Cynical

Bands:
Averse Sefira
Vex

Promoters:
Extreme Texas Metal

 

No Comments

Metalocalypse: Hipsters Slandering Hessians

Ironic, “unique” show celebrates metal as a genre for failures

In the last decade metal music, once more or less exclusive to a community of dedicated Hessians and at worst a more removed group of transient but still fervent supporters, has fallen victim to a superficial co-opting by hipster culture. That is, they wear Slayer or Iron Maiden shirts not because they genuinely enjoy the music but because these bands are “kooky” or “crazy” and associating oneself with them is the defining statement of hip irony in the 21st century. Tolerating this trend is annoying enough, as it brings the dedication of Hessians into question: “So, do you really like Slayer, or are you just wearing that for fun?” but the problem has become epidemic as hipster-focused media is produced en masse for outlets like Cartoon Network’s “Adult Swim”. Even in this arena, metal no longer safe.

Twenty years ago, most people had a hyperbolic and absurd idea of heavy metal and the bands creating it, thanks to the oft-quoted (and increasingly tiresome) film “Spinal Tap”. However, it was clear that the writer/actors of this movie actually had a degree of affection for the music they aped, and it was reflected in the way they managed to address many truisms of the continuous collisions between metal’s fantastic elements and the inflexible realities of the layman’s world in which the music must struggle to be understood. This degree of sympathy and insight is strictly absent from the new animated feature “Metalocalypse”, which basically takes the “Beavis and Butthead” premise of Hessian daily life and elevates it to an insulting degree.

The show offers the premise of a fictional metal band called “Deathklok”, and the creators reveal their weak grasp of the material by first portraying the band as literally one of the richest and most powerful entities on earth (a feat that not even Metallica has accomplished), and then making their music sound wholly ambiguous- we hear three-note trudges and growls ala Six Feet Under combined with keyboards and guitar wankery more befitting of Demons & Wizards. While some may be quick to point out that the show is a parody and as such is not obligated to follow “the rules”, this reviewer believes that such decisions reflect broad generalizations about metal and its subgenres and bring the intent of the show into question.

More damning, however, are the characterizations of the band members. The writers attempt to place a death metal vocalist, a speed metal guitarist, two “European” power metal guitarists, and a nu-metal drummer into the same band, presumably in the interest of painting the entire genre with the same brush. All the members are portrayed as rock-stupid, and the shrill and unintelligible voice acting is no help. A joke can only go so far if absolutely nothing said is understood. The band is portrayed as savants who can play music to millions of people at a time but cannot grasp the idea of purchasing food at a grocery store. It seems like a more consistent idea would be to portray a relatively unsuccessful band doing everything in life unsuccessfully, or a successful band doing things in the wild excess that their lifestyle affords them, but to cram two half-baked ideas together only goes further toward ensuring that the cartoon serves as a mocking affront rather than a sly parody. The only real thing that gives the show a chance at holding interest is the random and prolific violence, though it does contributes little more than an opportunity for a very cheap laugh.

The real problem is that “Metalocalypse” (this is the last time I’m typing that stupid fucking name) is not designed to entertain Hessians, but rather it is there to give hipsters a false insight into a world they cannot or do not wish to understand in genuine terms. The show is made by outsiders looking in, and it shows on every level. Never mind the fact that the dialogue, when intelligible, is stilted and inane, the comic timing is non-existent, the plots are ambiguous, and the animation is lazy and sub-par. Metal is one of the only art forms on earth that must tolerate this kind of insult, in part because it advocates goals and means that threaten the status quo, but it is nevertheless a valid endeavor that deserves respect and legitimacy. It goes without saying that any serious Hessian should ignore this cartoon, but it wouldn’t hurt to encourage others to do the same. If someone at your school or place of business sees you wearing the shirt of your favorite band and starts talking about metal hipsterism with you, set them straight. Explain why they have got the wrong idea, and see if you can steer them in the right direction (i.e. “Have you ever listened to Show No Mercy”?). Maybe they won’t become converts, but then again maybe they won’t make their decisions about an entire genre of music and its culture based on a half-assed joke show either.

by David Anzalone

No Comments

What makes some music better than the rest

Although the “art” of music, as an intangible creation expressed best as an abstraction translated through that pattern into its creation, cannot be sold in any true sense of the word, all art must have a conveyance and if it is not live informally, that is a product whether recorded CD, MP3 or concert. For this reason, the music market affects how metal music is able to propagate(tm) its sinister meme through the stupefacted masses of modern humanity.

The record industry, which is what we call the support structure for the expensive prospect of selling music, is reeling under the dual assault of MP3s and a fragmenting culture. The former allow people to download full albums and have them free, with no obligation except legal to buy the CD. The latter, cultural fragmentation, means that instead of a single dominant genre that sells massively there are now many niches that have to sell consistently to break even. Business plans are shifting.

What this means for metal, which sells few of any one CD but many CDs over time, and has the highest rate of people buying all the albums of an artist if they like one, can be discerned from the black metal experience. The average fan seems to download a few gigabytes a week of black metal, and they listen to it while IMing and watching TV, and then they either delete most of it or keep it in elaborate collections that are magically not restored after the hard drive crashes.

We can describe this hoarding behavior as what might happen if people were able to listen to any radio program from any time in history, and could bookmark them. There would be thousands of bookmarks on each computer. Since any music of reasonable complexity requires more than one listen to grasp its basic intention and structure, people would listen, be either perplexed or enticed, and would bookmark, then not return — except to those few incidences that seemed so perfectly complete or historically important that they could not be ignored.

For the first time in its career, black metal attracts fans who behave like pop fans. They are accustomed to music being cheap, meaning used everywhere in commercial messages and enticements to purchase it, and they saturate themselves in it for a few teenage and early 20s years before their jobs and televisions take their souls.

Black metal, which really picked up momentum in 1993 and collapsed in 1996 with the foundational bands spent and the hipster imitators coming in with inferior duplicates, has spent the last dozen years in a state of suspended animation, with people trying to like what is current but returning to the classics and a handful of bands out of thousands who are not only better than average, but are able to put together a complete package: music, lyrics, symbols, artistic vision, sane public statements and each part complementing the others and showing enough artistry to seem complete. Whole.

In this we see what will prevail in the time of MP3s and cultural fragmentation. It is not enough to have an album, and to have it be pretty good. It must be complete in the way the best albums are. Vision and voice, concept and execution come together like the interface to a warplane, or an elite computer program, or the echoing profundity of a well-constructed argument or theory. The albums that will be bought, as opposed to being downloaded and forgotten, are those that will ring true in this sense.

Through this lens we approach the most difficult question of human music, which is: if music alone communicates, why is it that one album in the same style is better than another? What motivates many of us to recognize this choice and make it simultaneously? It is the quality of the album as a whole product. Mathematically, it shows a higher degree of organization; artistically, whether we agree with it or not (or “like” it) it shows a willingness to tackle some idea which is neither dogmatic nor carelessly milktoast. It is whole.

Bands and labels wonder how to sell in a time of free music. The answer is simple: make concept albums, or maybe we should call them demi-concept albums, because they do not need overblown “conceptualization” that ends up with song titles like Ragn-Thor Attacking the Climate Control Apparatus of Zoroaster. We need albums that are whole. More work and thought must go into them. It is not a question of style. The style from 1992 will do. But an album that is whole will not sound like anything else, even though it’s in the same style.

The dummy writers sit out there wondering why people go wild over Sorcier des Glaces, Averse Sefira, Avzhia or Profanatica when there are 8,000 bands that “sound like” those bands, in style. The answer is that music can be a means to only one end, and that is enjoyment of a journey which involves a change in state. It cannot be manipulated through its form alone. That form must match something it is communicating, and that communication must be highly organized.

Record labels got by for years slapping together pop music “about nothing” — songs about sex, loss, anger, and material desire — and relied on their greater production power and the mechanical task of songwriting, or keeping songs in harmony with enough melodic expectation to deliver a quenchingly satisfying chorus. Bands in black metal got by from 1994-2007 by slapping together a composite of past successful riffs, bloviating on overworn topics, and putting a pentagram, swastika or Horus on the cover.

These times have changed. In fact, if we think carefully, those times of easy fat were themselves anomaly, because in them the music itself became a product — it was a means to an end of selling musical conveyances, like CDs. But now, the music is no longer rare. What is rare is someone who can put together patterns in such a way to fit nearly perfectly, and in that fit, to express something words and images alone cannot.

It’s natural selection for black metal, as for all music, and it will dovetail with the rise in cost of consumer products as cheaply drillable oil tapers off (about 2013). Suddenly, the hard years — that metaphorical frost of the elders of black metal — will return, and it will shape music to be a more precious commodity, more carefully thought out like the last missive of a dying man in prison.

Through pressures of the tangible, the focus will return to the intangible, and metal will rise in power as it leaves both hipsters and corporate behemoths — and aren’t they the same mentality, which is to manipulate others for their own social power — behind.

No Comments

Isolation: Why (Some) Smart People Suicide

Jon Nödtveidt opted out of an insane world

Jon Nödtveidt is dead and the response to his suicide diagnoses why he did it. As an acquaintance of mine said, “I’m of higher than average intelligence — two standard deviations. This society is not designed for people of higher intelligence. We see things the others don’t, such as how inefficient or self-destructive the way this society works is. And since they don’t see it, they crowd out our opinions and leave us with no voice. It’s a lonely side of life.”

For the child born with intelligence, the invisible world becomes clear: the connection between ideas and consequences both immediate and long term. This has to be trained by experience, but it emerges over time (one great lament of humanity is that it takes almost four decades for wisdom to emerge in most). Such a child will literally “see” things that do not exist but which will exist because he or she understands the connection between design (our thoughts, plans, goals) and their consequences.

The higher intelligence gives this person the ability to see multiple levels of consequence. Where a dumb person can realize that setting a blaze in a living room will burn the house down, and an average person will recognize the blaze may spread to a neighborhood, the reasonably above average person weighs the dryness of the season, the amount of loose timber in the neighborhood, prevailing winds and many other factors and can see how if the situation is right this fire could torch a large section of the surrounding city.

Of course, it’s an impossible task to explain this to an angry mob wanting to torch the house of a perceived enemy; they see only the immediate and tangible, which is their desire. Their brains lack the circuits to see broader implications, so even if these are painstakingly explained, they shout out their contrarian “opinions” which are as uninformed as they are blind to the question itself. They will not care about what they do not understand, and they understand little more than a single house ablaze.

In our modern time this tendency is amplified. The masses see only that they can afford things they want and with the tendency of all crowds, confuse pleasure/comfort/stability with doing what is right to provide for the future. In fact, they don’t consider the future; most people have a consciousness span of about two weeks and beyond that are lost to consequence as well as memory. For someone with a greater span of prediction and recall speaking to such people is like shouting into the wind at someone speaking a foreign language.

The intelligent people among us have warned us for some time: there are too many people empowered by technology (Kaczynski); the cruder and dumber masses have seized political control from the more intelligent and through a policy of revenge will destroy all intelligent things (Nietzsche); the vast masses will pursue pleasure and create a sterile but safe world (Huxley); the interconnectedness of all things, including design, is blindness in most people and thus they confuse symbol with reality (Schopenhauer); people misdiagnose their problem as existential when it is instead a lack of commitment to loving consciousness itself (Mary Shelley); most people confuse preference with consequence (Plato); people commonly misunderstand good relative to a bad goal as good relative to the question of survival with grace (Aristotle); people confuse wealth with nobility (Fitzgerald); people confuse personal power with an enduring connection to their world through heroism (Hemingway); the masses mistake “progress” in the physical world for rising above its privations (Faulkner). The list would actually extend far past the length of this essay if each great thinker in history was enumerated.

Let us return to the case of Jon Nodtveidt. Smarter than most, he produced a groundbreaking heavy metal album, “The Somberlain,” while still in his teenage years. While he made mistakes after that regarding the direction of his art, he never let the quality slip, and returned with a somewhat insubstantial but musically beautiful album, “Reinkaos.” Clearly he lost philosophical direction, but the experiences of the past decade might well have injected confusion into his worldview. Whether or not he found a personal direction, he could not purge his knowledge of the invisible world from his mind.

The invisible world facing humanity is this: taking advantage of the ideological and religious confusion of the past two millennia, the group of people that Michael Crichton calls “thin intelligences” — able to perform tasks requiring intelligence but blind to the implications and development of those ideas — seized power. Their implements of control: the use of money alone to determine the fitness of an idea; the use of popularity to determine culture; the use of democracy to let the broadest segment of the population outshout the smarter ones. The consequences of their control is a ship without a captain, or more accurately, a captain who tells the passengers what they want to hear regardless of the truth.

The result will be disastrous. Since every piece of land (with less than 5% of the world’s open space excepted by governments who can later rescind those decisions) for sale, and no check on human expansion except the relatively low cost of breeding, humanity will spread like poured cement into every available space. Fences go up, and this kills off the native species of the forest that need to roam; food needs mean the oceans will soon be depleted of edible fish, the land denuded with agriculture, and high concentrations of pesticides and industrial pollutants will enter the environment.

Culture, for sale, will become cosmopolitan, and people from all over the world will flood into every city and mix with the people there, producing a cultureless heritageless grey race who speak whatever language is most popular. High art dies and is replaced by popular “art” (Britney Spears) and boutique art, which pretends to be high art so those who need novelty can purchase something “unique” (Turbonegro). Jobs that reward smart people are replaced by those where the workers are interchangeable parts controlled by huge networks of rules and deskbound bureaucrats. Freedom will be spoken of widely, but will not exist as the high cost of living will tie people to jobs of which speaking an offensive truth might cause deprivation.

This is the future, unless something changes. This is the future where the average intelligences rule over the above average. Someone like Jon Nödtveidt is likely to give this kind of world a shot for awhile, but to always love the thought of escape as it means no longer having to live the lie of riding an apocalypse-bound train with no engineer. For the intelligent, the doom to our existence is always visible, while it is invisible to the average person, and it should not surprise us that so many take their lives instead of passively accepting the inevitable failure of humanity.

No Comments

Tags: , ,

Demilich and Deathbound in Kuopio, Finland

Demilich and Deathbound
July 22, 2006
Henry’s Pub, Kuopio, Finland

Every band is eventually confronted with the time when it is the best to quit as the objective has already been achieved, and continuing wouldn’t bring anything new or fresh to the world, while the remaining memory is being diluted by surplus effort. It is then better to focus to create the keenest edge and to refine the artistic monolith as impressive as possible, so that the world itself could be protruded in, like a monolith ascends towards the vast skies and its heights.

The venue, Henry’s Pub in Kuopio, Finland, was a rather homely and roomy enough little pub, which had space for both the more restrained members of the crowd as well as those who take music enthusiastically and physically: those who gather in front of the stage. The bar was obviously directed to older people before, as aged exceptions stood out here and there among the mostly dark clothed people. Some people wandered in amidst the bar, stopping to wonder at their surroundings without a clear aim, and slipped away as seemingly absent-minded as they were at their arrival; like zombies who return to the places familiar to them from memories of their previous life, but have no clue where to go, being just parts of mechanical formulae. The mood was calm, and speakers tinted the atmosphere filled with the quiet churn of wait with some metal, which however didn’t attract attention and ended up lilting in the background, filling the corners. Senses woke up when Deathbound climbed to the stage for soundcheck at about 10 PM, and after a while of noodling there, they launched their own furious set, which was meant to warm up the crowd for the main performer of the evening, Demilich.

Deathbound

Deathbound, whose members hail from here and there from Finland, presented a hefty serving of grindcore by their raw bursts of sound. Songs were concise and angry, and were intent upon blindly charging onto emptiness, which doesn’t really bow to social norms but rather, indiscriminately appears where it wishes to. After breaching this boundary they didn’t go further, however, but assured their position in a way and didn’t venture ahead, or show their theme from several different angles, giving clarity to the whole; the word “No” radiated from the flood of sound generated by the instruments at a steady pace. The last song, “I God”, was a potent manifesto, the last nail and confirmation; the end of one frenzied assault and the beginning of another journey, to which this band decently warmed up the audience.

Demilich

It didn’t take too long until Demilich stepped on the stage, and briskly started their set with the song “When the Sun Drank the Weight of the Water”, which possessed the crowd with the very first notes. The performance of the bassist Corpse (of Deathchain) was the most visual of the lot, while others remained mostly professionally calm. Song after song, in the order of the album “Nespithe” and a few other works thrown in, they executed with apparent joy and skill, presumably satisfied with the decision to bury Demilich at the top. The audience was understandably thankful of this act, and when the combination of three guitars, a bass, drums and the subterranean growling of Mr. Boman, all of them laced with passion and love for their craft, brought these works painted with precision and creative brush before the minds of people, they fully relished it: the tunes of the world’s mechanics were absorbed in moshing heads, and bewitched some to trance-like dancing, as well.

The music of Demilich: The drummer crafted abstract patterns, which were in their honesty the actual essence and structure of the monolith, in all its immensity and incomprehensibility; the rumbling bass gave it form, a surface existing similarly to a waving dream, which stretched the boundaries of reason as the eyes of our minds focused greedily on this apparition. Guitars cast the ultimate alluring texture and revealed the various strings of the fabric with their plunges and static swarms and quiverings of movement, as Boman’s voice of faceless depths dragged minds ever closer to Nothingness, into the crystal chambers of the World’s soul by every verse born, emerging from matter.

Mighty were their performances, and your reviewer was grateful for being able to witness a most excellent farewell concert, and as the streams of “Raped Embalmed Beauty Sleep” lapsed into space and coalesced with the atmosphere, clock 00:09 AM it was over: Demilich was no more. Although energy isn’t channeled to this celestial body anymore, in memories it will continue on the course which it was honed to travel. It is better this way than if it had been forcibly hanged on, as it is now a monolith of its own in the orbit, proud and brilliant among its kind, many of which are being grinded on until they are but a formless clump of confused dreams, set adrift on wastelands littered with the wind-beaten husks of similar failures, with oblivion and extinction as their fate.

Bands:
Demilich
Deathbound

Promoters:
Henry’s Pub, Kuopio

No Comments

Demilich and Averse Sefira in Texas

Demilich, Averse Sefira, Biolich, Abythos, Sothis, To Scale the Throne and Spliteye
June 3-4, 2006
The Backroom, Austin, Texas
Walter’s on Washington, Houston, Texas

To love something is to love the world enough to believe in love, and to sacrifice all future delights which could prove an obstacle to the beloved. Underground metal — or rather the artistic music within that genre which seeks to expand knowledge and experience instead of pleasing the Crowd with novel interpretations of what they already know — is a work of love. The Demilich/Averse Sefira shows in Texas were such a heroic undertaking.

With minimal funds for promotion, and a style that can both be recognized as technical yet does not fit into the “technical” vibe of jazzy death/prog rock, both bands undertook a journey of reconstructing an underground where the label underground has come to mean something as typecast and invariant as mainstream pop music. Because most people in metal are already invested in this predictable cycle of purchase impulse and reward, many of those already in the “underground” not only ignored but actively opposed this attempt to resurrect the better values of black and death metal’s vital years.

AUSTIN

Spliteye took the stage early and, entirely professionally, banged out their blend of old school death metal and nu-metal hitch beats to a few stalwarts. They were followed by Texas black metal band Abythos, who made wholly derivative sound that was musically competent but expressed nothing but the desire to be in a band, and California act Sothis, who fused Dimmu Borgir and Cradle of Filth in a rock style. Sothis brought a trailer of equipment including extra amplifiers, three keyboards, guitar processors, and the like, which naturally blew the power system and shortened their set to three songs. After them came New York avant-grind band Biolich, who apparently began life as a Demilich cover band but now creates songs that hybridize Napalm Death, Neurosis, Godflesh and indie/avantgarde rock.

After a prolonged and somewhat futile sound check (the Backroom is built on an ancient Indian burial ground whose time/space distortion renders any sound system incomprehensible), Averse Sefira smashed out a set of five songs from Tetragrammatical Astygmata and three from their first two albums. Facing a tough re-integration for their first show of the Texas mini-tour, the band became cohesive on the third song but played a looser, noisier set that was reminiscent of early Voivod covering Immortal. Averse Sefira played nearly nonstop, the stage rattling with the pulse of their drummer’s battery, and provoked an excited crowd response. The looser rhythms gave the band a chance to work its stage presence, pushing the warriors in full regalia (spikes, leather, bullet belts, corpsepaint) nearly into the crowd. Among those who could understand compound sentences response was favorable.

Local luminaries from Masochism, Cthonian Appanage, Acerbus and Vex appeared during the Averse Sefira set, as did promoters from Extreme Texas Metal and Morbid Thoughts Records. There was a biker conference in town so several of these showed up determined to demonstrate that bikers are just as stupid as the rest of the population and thus worthy of assimilation into mainstream culture. Members of the crowd who were fond of one or another of the opening bands, adhering to the cognitive dissonance that supposes that bigger bands oppress smaller bands and that is the only reason smaller bands are openers and not headliners, stood back with disgruntled faces and drank $4 beers. No one noticed the whining, and by the time most observed the above, Demilich were doing their sound check and taking the stage.

Two things are immediately observable from Demilich live: the integral synchronization of five musicians through difficult material, and the sleepy-eyed offhandedly casual presence of frontman Antti Boman, who burped and gurgled like a demonic frog throughout the performance. Although Boman unites the action, the martial presence that leads it is the industrial/jazz hybrid drumming of Mikko Virnes. Although original bassist Ville Koistinen was absent, the low-end complement of Corpse (his day job is in Deathchain) thrust the music forward with the pulsing, visually dramatic attack found in bands like Motorhead or Suffocation, which enhanced the abstract tendencies of this music with an earthy, sensual grounding. It drove forward like metal, cycled in on its harmonies like jazz, and migrated between ideas like classical. This aspect of the music of Demilich suggests not only the potential seen by original death metal musicians, but calls to mind a time when most death metal bands were distinctive not because they sought a way to “be different” but because each had its own concept of reality and had crafted a musical style to express it. At the end of the set, diehard Demilich fans were satiatedly exhausted and the Crowd at the bar remained baffled and unsure of socially approved response. Thumbs up from this reviewer.

HOUSTON

The nation’s fourth-largest city is known for its Los Angeles-style layout, having grown entirely after the advent of the personal car and the warehouse-style suburbs that boxily fringe the rotted core of unskilled labor that is the inner city. Consequently, any event requires travel, and to unite Hessians from the city wide requires good publicity, yet there’s no agency for such things. With the demise of the independent record store thanks to a shrinking profit margin and rising Internet file-sharing, there are few places to post fliers where metalheads will see them, and the magazine Rivethead is no longer in print so there’s no news source. Our L.A. Weekly-themed paper, the Houston Press, is expensive advertising for underground shows. And local bands? William Burroughs noted that “itinerant short con and carny hipsters have burned down the croakers of Texas,” and it’s not much different in metal: our scenes are cannibalistic. Each band self-promotes so aggressively that its only sense of community is as a means to that end, and thus plenty of lip service to “scene unity” occurs but no one takes the simple step of supporting only bands of quality. It’s either all or nothing. Because of this intense Balkanization of fans, each local band has its cadre of people who can be conned into coming to the show and for this reason each metal show in Houston has more bands than a compilation and the same 83 grubby people attend. The venue treated this performance like a local show, called the usual people, opened the bar and left it at that, so attendance was poor. To their credit, both headlining bands performed as if they were at Carnegie Hall and ignored the fact that this giant city produced only a few attendees.

The lineup was much the same as in Austin except with the addition of To Scale the Throne, a local band who throw in pieces of Emperor, Satyricon, Grand Belial’s Key and Cradle of Filth but play music that fits the patterns of punk hardcore: verse, chorus, breakdown, reprise. It wasn’t good; it wasn’t bad: it wasn’t important. This reviewer caught Biolich in Houston. Their performance was professional. The music can be described as modern hardcore with infusions of indie rock, early grindcore and drone. Two major factors influence appreciation of this performance. First, one cannot take a technique-oriented approach to producing art, because art is a communication between artist and audience in a way that is both entertaining and profound; the artist must have something to say, and use technique to that end, because making art on the basis of technique alone produces a uniform texture of affect on the audience. Next, one must realize that when emo and hardcore merged, they created a style of music based on skipping the path to a destination for cyclic demonstration of that destination’s importance, resulting in music without suspense or adventure. Ultimately, it drifted into “safe” territory both ideologically and musically, and reduced its own importance. With this in mind, it is clear that while Biolich are musically adept and have pushed many boundaries of technique, their songs remain unconvincing. The suspended rhythmic hook of progressive hardcore rapidly starts to resemble the bounce of nu-metal, and the jumble of styles creates a neurosis of inspecific contextual framing. Elements of this music were quite good, including the crisp but jubilant drumming and experimentation beyond obvious harmonics extending to Godflesh-like implied melodies via drone. If this reviewer had any advice, it’s this: stop trying to shock or stimulate, chuck all the grindcore parts, and finish the songs you started on the indie parts, because that is where this music really shines. As it was presented, the music seemed promising but insubstantial although the professionalism of band and stage show were appreciated.

Since the venue was in a Beirut-style urban meltdown area of Houston and the audience paltry, this show felt entirely like an underground chamber music event during the Inquisition. A city oblivious went on watching overtime repeat “Friends” episodes and buying furniture at Ikea while an exceptional and artistic performance graced its sonic topography and one of the most amazing metal performances to ever grace the city tore apart the night. Averse Sefira took to the stage first without pretense and lanced ears with a fast, accurate and yet impassioned version of their setlist from the previous night, with the addition of “Detonation” in the middle. Touches of improvisation in vocals and stringed instruments created an organic specificity to the music which belonged to that night alone, and the energy level remained high as the music moved between different moods. What distinguishes this band is their willingness to write passionate melodies and put them in songs that uphold all of the savagery and feral wisdom of heavy metal, and this came through in a mesmerizing forty-five minutes of complex but intuition-friendly music. Those who were present exchanged glances as if to say “How did we get this lucky?” and several longtime observers commented on how effective this band is in a smaller setting. If you missed it, punch yourself in the face.

Demilich assembled onstage and, exchanging a glance, launched into their set like a machine firing in the mist and frost of a neglected morning. Utilizing three guitarists, their brand of technical death metal relies on complement more than a continued layer technique, with each instrument presenting a different view of the whole and then achieving synchronization over the course of songs. Stringed voices peel off and converge, then take on parts of the whole much as earth and sky are required for a horizon. One guitarist, sds, plays chords underlying the melodic lead riffing which is exchanged between two lead rhythm guitars harmonizing while Boman’s belching underscores the rigid yet engaging percussion. The setlist was the same except for a new song (title unknown) which veered between peaks and valleys of tone with sweetened acid melodic differential between riffs, producing an aura of instability yet deliberation. The lead rhythm guitar of Aki Hytönen was as exactingly precise as it was freespirited, and often melted off into solos both chaotic and commenting on the sonic landscape beneath. Like evolution viewed through geographic time, the band fell off and reunited with a depth of harmony that caused the entire club to resonate with the distinctive symbolism of geometry. A drained audience filtered into humid darkness after a set demanding of both listener and band; it was probably the most technically impressive performance of mainstream music this reviewer has seen (jazz itself, while requiring one basic skill, does so at the expense of reasoned composition, and soon approximates a mean without dramatic fluctuation in intensity). Did you miss it? Punch self in face.

Luminaries from abroad and local dotted the crowd: Cynicalkontinual, Keltic Myth, g0sp-hell, Gestalt, Lyle from Brooklyn and one guy from Hellwitch who demonstrated the importance of having a video camera where Children of Bodom is concerned. There was a sense of privilege and fortunate accident for all who witnessed this unique performance, and an unsettling feeling that perhaps Houston has some inner fracture which prevents its metalheads from recognizing the musical (but not “scene points”) importance of such a gathering.

OBSERVATIONS

As metal is a hybrid, made half of ancient belief and filled in with modern popular art, its artists are suspended between getting the attention of “the community” and expressing something of that which is eternally metal, namely the worship of raw power and realism in a human world of sentiment which avoids it. Most of its artists convert this into a sterile emotion which like the receptacle tip of a condomn catches anger and neutralizes it, but the best escape this mould. However, repetition does not enhance a genre but makes it prone to erosion, since repeated structures fall in a row when the same force is applied to them. Ask all the hardcore punk fans who, after “equalizing” the genre into a participation-fest, were stunned when it evaporated overnight because no one could any longer tell the difference between bands. “The community” is its own worst enemy, and far from being manipulated by a twisted controller, it is driven by the desires of individuals who, when enough join in, drown out any clear voices with the distorted murmur of a mass.

Thus for those who seek quality music, it is more important to assess the music itself than to care about the most popular pundits, because these people are walking brainstems who repeat in “unique” ways what others have said and quickly run the genre into uniformity. This form of informational entropy seems important when it’s new, and is hard to distinguish because the bands in question will probably be able to play their instruments just fine, but have nothing to say. The musics that exemplify the opposite tendency, which is for the few realistic and yet imaginative artists to create works which will be praised years on by listeners baffled as to why more people did not “get it,” are ignored — for now. Yet we are all familiar with the old refrain that it was better back in the formative years, and all of the bands now lack something the founding bands did not. They are more distinctive in using different instruments, mixing in different styles, or having “unique” appearances, and they’re musically far more competent, but there’s a question as to what the music means. Interestingly, this blight is shared across literature and music and visual art at this time, suggesting that a combination of populist “entertainment” and a lack of comprehension of meaning itself among artists, has obliterated not only quality but the valuable tenet of having something to express in art among these contemporaries. Self-importance of the artist, and preaching to the converted through “safe” ideologies, has produced music that repeats its own premises instead of discovering not new but experience-laden ground; these songs and stories tell us nothing other than to sit quietly and imbibe the cliches and commonly-held truths of a culture that, lacking an integral component, derives its knowledge from paid entertainment that appeals to the broadest possible group. Could it be a sign of the decline?

It is no surprise then that it is neutral art, whether we call it bourgeois or suburban or plebeian, because we learn nothing from it except a unique combination of aesthetic values. Paintings do not touch our souls, but they match our towels and perhaps are calibrated according to the paint colors for sale at our local malls. Music is background to television watching or work, and cannot be unsettling or educational or evocative or provocative, no matter how many obscene or blasphemous elements it uses. How many of those kids chanting “Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me” along with Rage Against the Machine actually did anything about it? It’s false art, propaganda and degenerates rapidly. Art like the actual underground nurtures what is true and denigrates the false through a representation of experience and wisdom, and never comes full circle to its premise like postmodern art. It takes one through a wandering route to a new place that is also familiar with the old, with its origin… we can only praise those who are slowly but embitteredly learning that there are no new truths, only new statements of eternal truths, and that our entire detour into “progress” in music has been on the surface/aesthetic level and has resulted in empty, pointless, interchangeable “art.”

Bands:
Demilich
Averse Sefira

Promoters:
Morbid Thoughts
Extreme Texas Metal

No Comments

Black Metal is Art

What makes music connect with your soul

Phenomenal leaps have occurred in the skill level in the black metal genre. Where black metal drummers used to be a source of amusement for anyone past the first handful of percussion lessons, now it is easy to bump into a qualified candidate at any show. The guitar work is precise in ways the founders of the genre could not have imagined, and new degrees of technique in tremelo picking, sweeps and arpeggios dwarfs the old ways.

Even in the simplistic bands great advancements have occurred. The song structures are well-known in all of their variants, and bands now are so proficient in this area they can tell from a single glance what type of song must be built around a riff to complement it. Everything’s less awkward; we know the best tempos to carry the audience, and what paces from them we can leap without causing abrupt disconnects. There are ratios for melodic riffs to blasting atonality, codices for when the keyboards come in and percussion layers boil off, tables for the use of dual vocals… black metal is almost a science, now.

Aesthetically, there is much less confusion and far fewer missteps. No band today would put out that awkward video that the Immortal guys did, or screw up like Burzum did and make those very earthy and not very black metal flyers. No self-respecting 2006 black metal band would be caught with the mishmash of gear these guys attempted to use at first, the wrong string guages and pick widths, the wrong amplifiers and pedals, even drumsets all mis-arrayed for the task ahead… no, we’ve got a much better grip on the craft of black metal, these days.

We’ve got the whole thing so much farther advanced than the founders of this genre that it’s doubtful they’d get a second listen today. Just hearing those sloppy riffs, the un-slick arrangements of keyboard, seeing the awkward band photos and hearing their very-far-from-pro sound, well, they’d probably not make it. We’ve come so far that we probably don’t even need Immortal, Burzum, Gorgoroth, Enslaved, Mayhem, Emperor, Varathron or Bathory; we’ve got bands that are so much better at what they do.

There is one crucial difference, though — the recent Summoning CD pointed out beyond doubt that black metal which preserves the epic feeling of past grandeur, and the sense of lawless abandon in the night which frees our souls from the preemptive frustration of morality and profit ethics, could still be written. What was the difference? Summoning don’t appear to have varied equipment or technique since 1993 or so. The answer is simple: it’s in the composition.

After all, each work of music has two parts: inside and outside. The outside is how it sounds, including what speeds you play it at, what instruments you use, and how the vocals sound and the production works. The inside is the notes and the ratios which determine their timing, and the structure of the song, that is to say which musical phrase goes into the next and how they carry you from a beginning state to a different mindset at the end of the song or symphony. A truly articulate piece of music is recognizable when played at half-speed on a kazoo, double speed on a Casio keyboard, or when transposed on an acoustic guitar, even if it was originally created by a metal band.

The greatest bands in metal’s history created songs that were that distinctive, and what made these songs distinctive was not random and unpredictable permutations, but that all of their parts made sense according to a certain order designed to communicate something specific. The goal was to make the audience appreciate an experience, and music was the method; because the artists approached the problem from this angle, they ended up creating works that are not only recognizable out of thousands of others but capture our imagination to this day. “That song expresses what it’s like to –” we say, and then relate some part of life we had to undergo and might again. Sometimes it’s an emotion, sometimes a condition: frustration, loss, fatalism, exuberance.

It is the inner part — the composition — of music that makes the difference between art and entertainment. Entertainment is catchy and easy to tap your foot to, maybe to sing along, and you might even remember it — but did it say something to your soul? Did it take you through an experience to the other side so that you can say you learned something from that song or symphony? Art goes deeper within than entertainment and explores the existential core of our survival, that is the delicate balance of choices by which we make the decisions that determine how we spend our lives.

Entertainment is the same base function by which we buy things, pay taxes, endure jobs, use prostitutes and clean our hindquarters. Art is heroism in battle, art is a love that lasts a lifetime, art is the joy of discovery, the force behind our personalities and wills — Art is all of that which makes life not just bearable but of a higher state of mind, a “transcendence” by which we gain a spiritual sense of meaning to life without relying on the crutches of imaginary gods in the sky, demons in hell, etc.

When I think of metal, I think of the best, because I don’t want to waste my time listening to anything but the best. This is less from some elitism, or perception of my own position as important enough to require the best, than it is from a sense of taking my time seriously. I don’t get as much time as I could fill. Unlike most people, I don’t need television because I don’t normally have hours on end when I have no idea what to do with myself. There’s more here that I want to do than I can in this lifetime. So why fill hours with less than the best art? It only makes sense if you don’t value your time, or have no idea how to amuse yourself, or no higher purpose in life than to consume (and to those people, I always ask: why bother with metal, when rock music is easier and there’s more variation?).

We should aim high in our listening, unless we’re so fascinated by the activity of being involved in music that the music itself doesn’t matter because any music will give us an excuse to be involved, but those who think that way tend to be hobbyists who “get involved” for a handful of years and then drop the whole thing just as quickly but more quietly so they can find another diversion. They aren’t serious about metal as art, so to compensate these people are “serious” about all sorts of accessories: clothing, symbols, behavior, social groups, intoxicants, porn, horror movies — it doesn’t matter what, so long as there’s enough of it to keep them busy.

Unlike entertainment or functional products (porn), art requires us to look inward and to realize what makes a composition great is its ability to communicate a journey: art isn’t like an essay, which communicates by showing us a series of logical thoughts, but it communicates nonetheless by taking us on a tour of the experience that represents the idea it wishes to convey. For example, in The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald shows us the ambition of Americans and how it causes us to contort appearances to hide our souls, which we cannot confront without realizing too much about ourselves and losing our will to live.

Black metal brought us into a dark mood and showed us meaning within it, leading us from outsidership to being comfortable enough with that mood to understand it, and then showing us how it sustained our souls in ways that our society could not. There was a sense of magic, of letting the daylight existence fall away and having an invisible nocturanl world rise up among us, a world of meaning and not the external forms which show clearly in the sunlight so they may be judged as equal or given a dollar value… our daytime world is one of products and moral judgments based on headcounts, of bureaucracy and utilitarianism, of individual morality and ownership; the nighttime world has none of those rules and liberates us to act out the stuff of dreams, the visions of grandeur that come alongside anything important enough to touch our souls, our sense of why we are alive. — that is the art of black metal.

Those who make black metal now are (with a handful of exceptions) making an obsolete genre because while they have more than successfully imitated the appearance and sound of the original black metal bands, they cannot duplicate the inside — the composition, the actual songwriting that makes music sound just as good on an acoustic guitar as on a professionally-recorded CD — which was what made the original bands amazing and started off the whole genre. It’s worth noting that we remember the great bands, and are content to let also-rans like Forgotten Wolves and Ritual and Goatlord fall by the side; they were simply errata.

In the future, whatever metal inherits from black will need a more detailed exploration of the nocturnal world of inside emotions and lightless perceptions, because while the original obsession in black metal was portraying the difference between worlds of light (utilitarian, based on external forms) and dark (things invisible in daylight but unleashed at night, based on internal qualities like emotions and intellect) there now must be a greater depth in exploration. We know the other world exists; we need to see its details and its breadth, and to again find its inspiration in ways that we might bring back to the daylight world. Escapism is not enough, and merely dividing dark from light is not enough; the lushly descending forays of Emperor, or the dark cavernous wanderlust of Burzum, or the ancestral worship of Enslaved, can be brought again to full understanding, but our goal is not longer to show the world we want but to flesh it out.

It is a Romantic spirit, a Gothic spirit, a dark sense of what goes on when the eyes of control in the current world go to sleep; night is liberation from function, because most people are busily preparing for their next empty day of work, school or retirement. In the night one can discover the reasons one is alive, and inevitably, they are linked to the potential death and meaninglessness all around us; much as darkness shows us light in contrast, nothingness shows us what we value. If enemy tanks roll down your street, who or what will you try to save?

Black metal now is a slick product because those who could invent the world inside have mostly gone away, and no one has written new songs showing us the beauty and power of the mystical world black metal created; unlike propaganda, those songs existed first as sensual experience, an adventure, but for this journey to capture our imagination it must delve into the dark regions of our subscious which knows the natural world better than our daylight, socially-conditioned selves — but this mindset of black metal includes many things we hoped to deny, including the medievalism of black metal, its amoralism and nationalism and transcendental mysticism and violence.

For now, people still fear these dangerous grounds; they have, however, perfected the art of aping black metal. We can now make Britney Spears sound like Immortal from our computer desks! But it is an age of nothing for black metal, an inversion of its fundamental belief in the inner world and rejection of the outside world; today’s black metal is like a modern product or forms designed to be processed by machine, because it focuses on external form and permutations of known successful formulas of sounds invented over a decade ago. It is stagnant because it can only re-arrange the externals, and shies away from the spirit or meaning behind the music… the fans no longer need to buy Darkthrone, or Immortal, because these are no longer relevant. They understand the myth of black metal as it would appear on a movie scene, but do they understand how the ideas behind it would be lived, and could give meaning to life?

When this state of mind changes, quality metal will return, and whether it’s in a new form or old form is immaterial. It would not make sense to abandon the flexible lexicon developed through the death and black metal years, because it’s the best adaptation of artistic voice for metal music yet found, but what matters more is what it is used to say. Not just the melodies, but what they represent… the landscapes to which they take us, the nocturnal forays on which they impel us. Art is more than that which conveys it; art is the adventure on which it launches us, and when our spirits once again accept that sacred task of nurturing imagination, metal will once again have the strength it did 1990-1995.

1 Comment