Sadistic Metal Reviews 11-07-08

AC/DC – Black Ice: This has to be my pick of this batch. It lacks any pretense toward being anything but what it is, which is high octane rock music with a diverse set of influences on its lead guitar and total mastery of rhythm and songwriting. Each of these songs rolls off the mind as if buttered, lingering just long enough, composed to fit pentatonic scales but not in a brainless way. Melodies are mostly of the guitar nature because of the ashen-voice monotone in which they are mostly sung. The throbbing bass drives them, drumming keeps a pocket moving, and the rhythm riffs are inventive and topped by guitar that is more like a singing voice than fireworks, although it’s technically advanced. There’s a bit too much of three chord and turnaround songwriting formula for this to really endure in any meaningful sense, but for a band to be in the world this long and still so consistently listenable is impressive. No song will fully insult your intelligence although each will put it on hold, especially if you try to listen to the drunken babble that is the lyrics. AC/DC has gotten more Led Zeppelin over the years, with a few lifts here and there, and continues to incorporate a gnarly blues influence that reminds me of Eric Clapton working with punchier rhythms. Still, hard work shows in how well these pieces fit together like finely planed wood, and how each song keeps its mood with power and lacks any fat and confusion. There are not as many truly distinctive moments as there were on say, Back in Black, but none of these songs fade into the woodwork entirely either. Even if we pre-postmodern metalheads may not dig the motivations, one has to respect the craft at work here.

Disfear – Live the Storm: Motorhead with a D-beat and metalcore choruses and breakdowns, aspiring to the kind of melodic songwriting that made both Led Zeppelin and U2 household favorites. Unfortunately, the technique used reduce this to blurring noise interrupted by hookish choruses. Gone is the energetic punk of the past and now this band is falling into the worst habit of any act, which is to try to pander to your audience and so to incorporate enough of what has worked for others to drown out whatever might work for you. Vocals are underutilized, because this vocalist is clearly capable of some range and melody, but he’s afraid to open up and be sensitive in a meaningful way so we get the omnidirectional, pointless, nullifying Pantera-style rage. Musically this is derivative; artistically it is as hollow as corporate advertising. “Soul Scars” is a masterpiece. “Live the Storm” is a pretentious wannabe. Avoid.

Kataklysm – Prevail: this is pure chant cadence, repetition ad nauseam, with some death metal/hardcore hybrid riffs. Composition is stronger than most metalcore, but it’s also much simpler, which allows them to work out a couple really good riff patterns in interaction and then have the rest be something so repetitive it would even make Phil Anselmo nod off. It reminds me of Deicide’s “Once Upon the Cross” but even more sing-song, in a riot chorus kind of way. It’s not bad but I couldn’t listen to this. It’s like hearing someone each day come home from work and tell you exactly what went wrong, every single detail. First the copier was busted. Then I had to get paper from upstairs. Then I took a dump and it hurt. There were no sandwiches at lunch. It’s like a complaint anthem that pounds your head until you basically submit to apathy with a smile. same creepy mix of melodic and heavy chugging that alternates like linkin park between acoustic and distorted; really fucking basic.

Cynic – Traced in Air: When death metal was born, people said that death metal was incompetent musicianship and crass subject matter. The second generation of death metal, led by Pestilence and Atheist, tried to disprove that with technical music that incorporated the influences of progressive rock, jazz and classical. Since that time, progressive metal has become a big hit with people who want to think they’re musically educated. Most of it leans toward the jazz side, because this requires less of an ability to plan into the future and make a unique structure; you add a jam session to metal, which is easy and fun, so musicians love it and fans have something to be pompous about. “Traced in Air” plays into the worst of this tendency. Cynic has genericized themselves by pandering to an audience they know drools more over technicality than songwriting, and so have taken their technique from focus, mixed it up with generic jazz-prog-death, and have overplayed every single aspect of it so the CD is literally dripping with “prog moments” — but like a stew, the more stuff you toss in, the less distinctive the flavor is. We now have generic jazz prog-metal, complete with cliches. Drums are ridiculously overplayed; subtlety is dead, but you’ll spot that technique even if you’re dumb as a lichen. These musicians seem less interested in writing metal than in playing jazz under the guise of metal. You can hear the conversation now: “They went nuts over the last album, and now the market is finally huge! Let’s make it big with this next album, just make it jazzier and stuff it full of hot licks and drum fills.” I think people will listen to this for six weeks, then six months later be unsure when they stopped listening to it and why, yet not want to pick it up again. What a disappointment.

Speirling – The Piper: This reminds me of Ulver crossed with Satyricon with huge elements of a bombastic heavy metal doom metal hybrid like The Obsessed. Broad superstructure riffs crash into each other, recharging from their difference in conflict, and then drain to the ocean through a nice linear atmospheric riff. Repeat x 7. If you got into metal music so that you could find a way to dress up rock music as something rebellious, like a Priest in tranny French maid prostitute outfits, then this is great. Otherwise, why bother.

Apollyon Sun – Sub: Tom G. Warrior of Celtic Frost does Nine Inch Nails with an EBM/Industrial record that lets vocals guide its developments, which is a shame when contrasted to the power of industrial without a vocal lead, like Beherit’s Electric Doom Synthesis or Scorn’s “Evanescence.” As Warrior prepares to move past Celtic Frost and its triumphant return with Monotheist, his past work — this CD came out in 2000 — shows us much of where he might move. It’s much more rock, gothic and sleaze than Celtic Frost, more sardonic in melody, and the faster riff style is more triumphant and powerful. Above all else, it is catchy and follows modified pop and techno song structures, which means it’s both easy to remember and has a few surprises here and there. The vinegar vocals are less than listenable but not as terrible as much of Nine Inch Nails.

The Funeral Pyre – Wounds: Someone tries to resurrect classic At the Gates, but mixes in a little too much The Haunted. Melodic riffs reconnoiter after driving pure rhythm, a lot like Slaughter Lord, and the melodic riffs have more in common with “Slaughter of the Soul” or Niden Div 187 than early At the Gates. This gets a solid alright, especially for the periodic later Gorgoroth technique, but the melodies are too basic to really go anywhere. Lyrics sound like Dead Infection crossed with Neurosis, with DRI in the wings. It’s salady enough to be modern death/black, a/k/a metalcore. like The Abyss hybridized with Slaughter of the Soul, like Watain but better, still a lot of the indie/metalcore influence which makes it kind of simplistic.

Bilskirnir – Hyperborea: This is a very clever EP. Hybridize the Infernum style Iron Maiden/Graveland mix with the more Burzumy black metal clones, and you have something that sounds OK and bounces a long a lot like indie rock, not particularly distinguished unless the image, words or scene-significance gives you a reason to like it. If this is your first black metal, you will dig it, especially since it is very heavy metal. But over time, you will wonder why you bother.

Demonizer – Triumphator: So class, what’s black/death? Answer: when we run out of ideas, make speed metal and dress it up as black/death hybrid. I don’t see the point. Just make your Slayer/Metal Church tribute band and tell everyone you play fast because you love meth. This is like a simpler version of Sweden’s Merciless or Triumphator, with fast chromatic riffs leading into melodic chorus riffs. It’s pretty well done, actually, but in a style that makes even retarded kids bored after a few minutes. Clap your flippers and bob your heads.

Scott Kelly – The Wake: This Neurosis member also wants to make an acoustic album, and makes an intriguing one — is this a reference to Finnegans Wake, or just a wake? Because it sounds like one. Droning acoustic songs are blocky like hardcore, without much change or dynamic, but they plod on until they ingratiate themselves and have a primitive sincerity to them. The sensation is like the stunned moment after an impact when you’re not sure if your bones hurt or if the air around you is doing the hurting, and you just feel it. It will be interesting to see where he develops this style.

Devourment – 1.3.8: It’s hard not to like this at first because it is so relentlessly hookish in the weird way death metal bands lure you in with a cadence, and then make expectation of its fulfillment an ongoing necessary event in order to make sense of the otherwise overwhelming barrage of noise. Devourment switch between slow and chugging riffs and blasting mayhem religiously, downshifting with “breakdowns,” or deconstruction of a tempo by using internal attributes of a drum pattern to play off one another and slow it down, and upshifting with leaps in tempo that build up like a walk up stairs carrying a heavy automatic weapon. Much of it resembles the work of Suffocation, Malevolent Creation, Deicide, Deeds of Flesh and others who have worked within the percussive model of death metal, which inherits the palm-muted technique of speed metal and adds density of complexity. Here complexity and variation are necessary for this music to have staying power; its production is awful and tinny, and its songwriting is very similar between songs, which creates an onslaught of monolithic sound that few listeners will distinguish over time. Varying the technique and types of tempo changes would greatly improve this otherwise engaging, satisfyingly destructive band.

Agent Orange – Living in Darkness: Dug this out of the classics closet and have to say I like it. It’s melodic vocal punk like the Descendents, lots of bouncy stop-rhythms to guitar riffs and wandering, emo-style vocals that manage enough melody to keep themselves going. Would I listen to this stuff over Kraftwerk? No, but like the Descendents, the Minutemen, etc. it’s a part of the heritage of this music, and it’s a billion times better than punk now.

Diapsiquir – Virus S.T.N.: Say, what if Deathspell Omega were a lot simpler and incorporated the collage-of-garbage sound approach that WAR used? And maybe if they used lots of bouncy riffs and harmonized vocals? This sounds like a metal dog that has been kicked in the ribs singing how beautiful its death would be. Every clique and novelty possible has been employed to keep you from seeing that this band and this album slap themselves with limp wrists, gurgle and poo themselves.

Gridlink – Amber Gray: Containing ex-Discordance Axis personnel, this band aims to continue the fast-fingered assault of riffs that fit together like Tetris pieces and create a whole that, while like hardcore and grindcore is predictable in song structure, delivers the thrills with raw speed and dynamic phrase change like sigils flashing by in a mirror. Luckily this band has the wisdom to keep its work simple and to focus on what it does well, which is blasting slightly melodic versions of classic riffs. What I like about it is that it recalls the power violence and crossover music of the past which wanted to saturate us in insane energy as a motivic force, and with this CD, it works. Clocking in at 11 minutes it is nonetheless a full-length, albeit one that passes before you can recognize it. This CD has much more spirit than other CDs and while it claims to be grindcore, that’s grindcore like later Napalm Death with lots of metal influences in the formation of riffs and very punk song structures, except more jagged in this case which makes it tastier.

Shape of Despair – Shades Of…: Let’s make a Burzum clone but shape it into a doom band a lot like Skepticism, except even more entrenched in the vestiges of heavy metal? We’ll add a twist: play a rhythm lead, very simple, on a keyboard over the strobing riffs sound it sounds like a movie soundtrack to the proles. Fully competent, this band goes nowhere that Paradise Lost didn’t, and not only is less catchy, but depends on boring you into a stupor with Burzum-cum-Pelican drone technique that leaves most of us hoping to flatulate in harmony for variation. The most annoying parts are the rock rhythm, based on expectation like jazz or funk, so very bouncy and reliant upon us to care whether the returning rhythm catches the outgoing one. In fact, there are many good techniques throughout, but it’s basically verse-chorus music — with the simpleminded catchiness of a lullabye — that occasionally goes into extended overtime.

Equilibrium – Sagas: This album is simultaneously one of the better things I’ve heard this year, and one of the most completely ludicrous things I’ve heard. It vamps like a polka, bouncing with keyboards and guitars hitting together just before the beat, giving it a carnival atmosphere. Plenty of quality guitar work and overactive but competent keyboards, and songs with nice but very rock-ish two part melodic development, and hoarse death metal style vocals come together in a stew of confusion that has however very tasty bits. For strict songwriting assessment, this band is on par with later Iron Maiden and makes good songs. Aesthetically… if anyone heard me listening to this, I’d die of shame.

Soulfly – Conquer: This CD is Spinoza Ray Prozak musical hell. Every terrible idea in metal, recycled into a smoothly-written but directionless series of songs, has been offered up here in very loud production with a very angrily clueless vocalist. This is worse than shit. Feces at least decomposes in silence. Soulfly offer up generic Meshuggah/Pantera angry bounce-riffing, where any single impact is doubled so you expect its syncopated response, and the band hopes the catchy vocal ranting and bounce will lead you to care what happens next. It is battering, not heavy. It is a mile wide and an inch deep, with production that clearly cost a ton of money. I thought the whole idea of being revolutionaries was to be DIY and have the truth on your side. This album is propaganda for (a) Cavalera’s politics and (b) a vapid distillation of speed metal, death metal and punk hardcore into the most generic form of pointless angry music you can imagine. I use this CD to drive rats out of the attic but only the smarter rats leave.

Fullmoon – United Aryan Evil: While I generally detest neo-Nazi bands on principle, just like I refuse to listen to boilerplate leftist propaganda like The Dead Kennedys, looking for good metal these days means you run into bands who interpret the Romanticist Nationalism inherent to all good black metal as a narrow political ideal. It’s not much different than how punk bands translate being against mechanistic society into braindead liberalism. It’s hard to hate this band, but equally hard to listen again. They make paint-by-the-numbers melodic droning NSBM, and then interrupt it with slower melodic transitions, but the repetition waxes painful and the technique is a clearly lifted hybrid of Darkthrone, Graveland and Burzum. It reminds me of music for children, except that this tries to sound as deliberately blown out as possible, which with the tools available at this point is an obvious contrivance like Ulver’s “Nattens Madrigal.” When your best riffs sound like Burzum classics with one or two notes changed, something else must be done.

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When To Stop Listening

If the motive is to pander, not find adventure, the music will be worthless

If you’re faced with a problem, you fix it through the scientific method. You come up with a number of possible solutions, test them against reality, pick the ones that succeed — looping through a few times to refine them so they’re accurate — and use those. You throw away the ones that did not work.

Our universe is mathematically stable because it has something (reality) to test solutions against, and because it allows the discarding of bad solutions. This avoids a state of entropy, or a condition where every solution possible has about the same effectiveness. Entropy afflicts everything we do through a type of organizational decay, but when it becomes the state of a situation, all motion and change ceases. Heat death, or the lack of motion to energy and hence its dissipation, occurs.

This information logic to our world underlies natural selection just as much as it describes how our brains work. Imagine multiple ideas; pick the ones that converge; throw out the rest. In the case of heavy metal music, we strengthen the genre when we as fans pick only the best bands and albums. We weaken it when we tolerate mediocre metal, because then being mediocre is just about as important as being good, so people stop trying to be good — heat death.

While heat death is comforting because it enables us to avoid challenging ourselves, and to feel like we’re heroes and geniuses for recording any metal music, it means that we no longer have great metal music — the kind that makes you sit up, pay attention, and rediscover life through a worship of power, saying a kind of cosmic yes (in the James Joyce sense) to accepting life as constant conflict for a few rare, beautiful possible outcomes.

For those who still have red blood coursing through their veins and so aren’t so afraid of failure that they’re unwilling to try, it’s imperative to pick good metal music. This means not making the categorical mistake of buying an album just because the band that made it was good once, or because that band is trendy, has some novel implementation like flutes and tubas, or because you know the people in the band and you want to make them happy. It’s important to know when to stop listening and throw out the bad ideas.

What makes music bad?

Bad music is all the same. Most bands record music that is competent but fails to articulate anything that makes us sit up and take notice, because they’re either repeating the past or suggesting something unrealistic, which means we cannot feel that sense of the music being vital to our lives because we have to live in reality. At least 99% of music falls into this category, but perhaps more, because out of tens of thousands of metal bands, only a few hundred stand the test of time.

In that mindset, we can see that what makes “bad metal” is not that it’s unmusical, or stupid, except in a few cases. In most cases, it is simply unremarkable because it hasn’t challenged itself to find meaning in life and sing about it. This is why almost all reviews of albums that are destined to fail go like this:

This CD recombines past methods that worked, without knowledge of the reasons why they worked. Quirky as a result, it is a unique collage of instruments and techniques. Yet it is without direction because it imitates the effects of the past without knowing the causes, like someone looking into the genre from outside. Therefore, it’s not bad, but not great, and so we’ll forget it soon because time is valuable and this CD is not going to make us feel a sense of connection to life through power.

In other words, the CD is bringing us to a state of entropy. It isn’t bad, it isn’t good, which means by default that it’s not good. You will see this review format on many metal sites. It usually looks like this:

I don’t normally like ultra-brutal death metal, but this CD combines ultra-brutal death metal with hardcore vocals and black metal riffs. I have never before heard a flute used to make brutal riffs come slamming home. Guitar solos are like fire in the veins of a poisoned dragon. Although it’s really brutal, parts of this CD are riff salad where they get confused about whether they are black metal or death metal. But the end result isn’t bad, even if it won’t make my top ten for this year. If you really like brutal death metal with flutes, get this CD.

That’s a review done by a fan, a zine, or another band. What does it look like when we combine the art of making people think they should buy something — marketing — with this review type?

Brutal death metal fans have waited too long for a real masterpiece, but [ name redacted ] is going to change all that. With pummeling brutal riffs, you might think this band were closed-minded, but they have a full-time flute player who brings a progressive, liberal touch to the old and musty genre of brutal death metal. This groundbreaking act goes where no metal band has gone before! Don’t expect mercy from these powerful slamming riffs. This CD is brutal and it’ll tear your fuckin head off!

In the above, you will see something all smart marketers do. They find an audience for something, and then try to convince them that a product is better than others. If you can’t sell it on “better,” you sell it on novelty. It’s unique. It does something others don’t do. What you really want to do is avoid mentioning whether or not this is important. For example, who cares if a band uses a flute if their music is just as boring as if they did not?

What is pandering?

Most people will recognize, after hearing enough music, that while good music is made to be bought, it isn’t designed so that it will make the most money by offering the least challenging listen. If you’re not listening to radio pop, it’s because you got tired of melodic hooks and three-minute songs using verse-chorus structures. The riffs in such songs may be good, but since they achieve a state and cycle in it, but don’t really change, it’s hard to call them art — or claim they’ll inspire our lives. They’re like pretty wallpaper or television shows: background noise to make life pleasant, not give it meaning.

What separates good music from bad music is what separates scientific information from marketing: marketing is designed to appeal to a need that’s already there, and exploit it as a way of making money. Where good music/art is designed to make life more meaningful by showing us a new vision of it, marketing is designed to affirm our current vision of life so we can fit a product into it. Marketing panders. Art doesn’t.

Pandering – We use the panda image to suggest that music panders, and so has not only suspect motivations but minimal joy in listening. You may think this is sorta neat for a couple weeks, but then you’ll forget it. In the meantime, the band and others like them will start making more of this crap, so that instead of getting albums you can listen to for years, you’ll get lots of new albums you have to buy that won’t really satisfy you.

Selling Out – When a band goes from having made quality music to a state of extreme pandering, we realize that a psychological change has occurred in the artists. Instead of trying to make good music so that they can make money, they bypass the middle step and make music that makes money not because it’s good, but because it panders. We use the tombstone image to suggest that this band has left the reservation and headed for pop territory, so we’re not going to bother reviewing any of their other stuff until this changes.

Why so judgmental? — you are trained to ask. Why not just write about the music as it is? The answer is that mediocre music far outnumbers good music, and we are interested in preserving the good, and so instead of leaving you wondering about why we stopped reviewing a band, we’re just going to point out that they have changed motivation and results. It’s no different from reviewing every metal album ever made, and writing the generic review above 99% of the time and not telling you that there’s something all bad albums have in common.

You’re also trained to ask: Who made you the judge? Who are you to decide? — these questions are illogical. In a relative universe, we all decide, and our value is decided by the decisions we make, although it takes someone who has a clue to see that. Who made you the judge to decide we’re not the judge? Who are you to decide who is to decide? These questions make light of how ridiculous those common questions are.

If you want to know why a band’s CD or performance is referred to this page, it is because the above is the best that can be said about it, and we do not wish to be ironic or condescending to you, our reader. We are here to praise the art in the genre and its best incarnations, and we treat you and the artists with greater respect by having such reverence for the art.

What Makes Good Metal?

Metal is Romantic art, much as the novel Frankenstein or the opera Parsifal are: discovery of transcendent meaning in life by embracing its struggle and suffering as means to a higher end, an idea beyond material satisfaction or fear. To those who see the greatness of this idea, it is a worldview and a life-philosophy, and metal is one of its voices.

When we say metal expresses this idea, we are speaking only secondarily of imagery and lyrics (which mainstream academics prefer to study because they’re easy). We speak of the music and the spirit it evokes. Much like songs can convey sadness, fear, anger or hope, like the leitmotifs of Wagner different impulses are encoded in metal music that together suggest a Romantic worldview.

As art, heavy metal music is unique among popular genres for this viewpoint. What makes sonic art “metal” is its expression of this spirit more than any dogma or musical conceits; after all, other bands have appropriated metal riffs for years but without grasping this idea, much like innumerable Hollywood soundtracks have borrowed from Wagner without capturing his ideal.

When a metal band ceases to make Romantic art and becomes another voice for the easy, non-transcendent answers of life — material comfort, self-satiation, revengeful morality or simply self-obsession — it is no longer metal, but an imitation of metal, much like advertising jingles often “sound like” a genre without having its artistry or ideas.

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Sadistic CD Reviews, 10-30-08

Fester – Winter of Sin: As you venture through the underground, Sadhu, you will find that many of those described by others as the Ancients are in fact the regurgitated accumulation of techniques, ideas, and poses outworn long ago, and used by those who have not prospered to justify their position as Those Who Swallow What Society Spurts. Fester is one such offering. It’s a pungent mezcla of hard rock, heavy metal, proto-death metal and punk riffs, without direction or real organization. As a result it’s like stepping into a sauna: suddenly you’re warm, and at some point it ends, and you can’t really identify any particular points in the time you sat there, alone in the dark, probably bored and sweaty. Except for the sweaty part, unless you’re excited by tedium, this is that experience. Yet the black metal kiddees talk about how goddamn cult it is. Cult like Eddie Cochran but not as good by a million billion miles.

Lugubrum – Winterstones: During the halcyon years — in relative metal quality — of the mid-1990s, I picked up this CD and heard it and thought, “Aha, a Burzum clone.” At that point I wasn’t desperate for something to fill the void of quality metal. Now desperate, I groped for it again. What do I find? Mix Burzum technique with the simple-hearted and obvious songwriting of the average indie rock band. All of the familiar “Burzumy riffs” are there, from the trudge to the plod to the prismatic cycle, but they end in slight variations of the known pattern and then drop into song structures of minimal variation from a standard Motorhead or later black metal song. You will want to like this because you want Burzum. It will not deliver.

Steve von Till – A Grave is A Grim Horse: When you’ve reached the top of the innovation curve as a punk musician, your tendency is inevitably to ask: what’s more alienated, more extreme, and gives us a better explanation of where we are in history and how we got here? The inherent politics of punk is rejection of society; the emergent next step is going back to roots and making a folk album. Fusing the aggro-folk rock hybrid of Tom Waits or Roky Erickson with an almost Danzig-style verve, Steve von Till brings us an acoustic, gentle and dark album that is like the stories of a grandfather at the hearth. They aren’t all good stories, but in persistence through darkness, there’s a sexiness to morbidity and a delight in the struggle. The real superstar here is von Till’s voice, which like a Johnny Cash hummed mutter carries the dust and weight of trails both imagined and real. If you’ve got to go cowboy after your society smashing days in Neurosis, this is a good option, and my hope is that the folk-punk-country-necro indie volks don’t deny it.

Emancer – Twilight and Randomness: A lot like France’s S.U.P. except that Emancer choose the Pantera-style choppy riff arrangements amongst which they scatter odd phrase conclusions, dissonant chords and progressive metal melodic lead rhythm riffing. Influences from alternative metal, metalcore, progressive rock and indie abound, which makes this a stew more than a distinguishable, deliberate meal. Some good ideas get lost in the muddle, because these songs are so self-referential they forget about reality and the listener.

Strid – Strid: Some bloviation commends this band as inventor of the “depressive black metal” sub-sub-genre, but that’s where genre names get ridiculous. Instead, it’s appropriate to say that this band very carefully apes early Ancient while using the Paradise Lost technique of layering a melody on top of repetitive music, augmented with Burzum technique of strobing strum. Like so many other bands that followed the first wave, it has that melange tendency which suggests an imitation of end result and not the ideas that can launch a parallel result that’s as good. Some will compare to Ras Algethi or Gehenna, but where those had a spirit motivating their semi-random choices that turned out to work together, this lacks randomness and the same spark, so is lukewarm in reception and effect. Note the rip of Graveland’s “Gates the Kingdom of Darkness” on the third track. This CD is a compilation of demos in the above style, with the first being closest to Ancient, the second closest to early Bathory, and the third like a three-note version of Gorgoroth.

Grey Daturas – Return to Disruption: Did we ever leave disruption behind? Powerviolence mates with emo while smoking crack; the fetus is occasionally much more brilliant than either, but without a direction in life, relapses into playing Wii on the couch with Papa John’s on fast dial. Noise interludes mar driving emo-chorded passages, and long silences let us know when we’re supposed to be assimilating, but it’s unclear what the message is. Disruption? You want disruption? My advice to you is to make like an L.A. gangbanger during the riots and set fifteen fires across the city, then take potshots at cops, emergency personnel and news reporters. The chaos will far surpass this, which sounds a lot like guitar practice and not much like anything with shape. They’re trying for Pelican-style drone and they succeed at it, but transitions into that drone and between different riffs are tortured, and the howling wheezing creeling background noise doesn’t do much to change that. There is promise here, but only if they pony up and start writing real songs.

Black Altar – Death Fanaticism: This is the album Metallica wish they wrote instead of Death Magnetic: it’s bounding, bombastic, cheesy and hides its heavy elements well behind a whole Return To What’s True aesthetic. Even more, there is no continuity between riff changes, so it’s like a bundle of abrupt leaps to nowhere. Vocals fit the exact rhythm of guitar chords, which makes it sounds like kids music. Halfway through the third track — a pile of cliches, dated death metal riffs, and Cradle of Filthisms played more aggressively so not to reveal their deeply lisping side — Windows Explorer crashed, and for a few minutes I thought I would be unable to get this off my speakers. Suicide was considered. Not bad, not good.

Satanic Warmaster – Black Metal Kommando / Gas Chamber: This compilation does nothing to disguise the surly disgust the underground feels for Satanic Warmaster, otherwise known as “the Nargaroth of Finland.” Like other black metal vultures, they feature all the external aspects of controversy without the amazing music that made people other than the desperate metalheads notice: chiaroscuro Neo-Nazi overtones, adherence to trueness, novelty, catchy hooky songs that go nowhere, lots of talk about keeping it real, yo. When you boil it down, just about anyone can make a thrashing riff from a known archetype and then drop to kick-beat, shrilly screaming until the collapse, without having songs that go anywhere. In their favor, these are pleasant Motorhead-y songs that bounce along well if you don’t want any conclusion to ambiguous elements raised. If this band could heed any advice, it would be to ditch the black metal stylings and the pretense by implication, and just make Motorhead style rock-metal. They’re due to retire soon anyway, so we’ll need a successor, and that seems more the headspace in which this band composes.

Guapo – Elixirs: This is what could legitimately be called dub jazz, being light jazz played in layers with the intention of creating a drone or ambient effect. Keyboards and clean guitars interplay with percussion reminiscent of the third Atheist album, combining found sounds and unusual implementations of familiar ones in a style like that of Vas Deferens or other collage atmosphere projects. The second track quotes from a Fripp/Eno piece and despite bad hippie vocals later on the disc, it maintains a heritage of prog and jazz that provides interesting playing that seeks to find a mood, immerse in it, and then depart unnoticed. Sometimes I hear overtones of Thule in this. Like anything venturing in this style, it provides excellent music but not exciting music because it cannot take a direction; it’s like the Rothko chapel in that it intends to suspend you in a place like the space between dream and reality, but goes nowhere from that state.

Old Wainds – Death Nord Kult: You can tell the corpse of black metal is warming in the sun, eructating and oozing adipocere, when something like this counts as a major release among those who seem to know their stuff. It’s half speed-metal/death metal mixed in with droning black metal in the Eurasian style, with over-the-top vocals ranting counter-rhythms in a style like early Impaled Nazarene. Chord progressions are obvious, song structures undeveloped, and the rest is a riff salad of the past 25 years of metal with an emphasis on crowd pleasers. They love to try to keep that Mayhem feel alive but end up sounding more like Niden Div 187 merged with Drudkh and Nifelheim.

Testament – The Formation of Damnation: A 1980s speed metal band keeps updating itself, and ends up with a cumulative style not unlike what is in vogue among current metalcore-influenced bands: riding rhythms and harmonizing pre-choruses like a faster Iron Maiden, big heavy metal choruses with broad slow chords, the melodic leads of metalcore, and solos that imitate Kirk Hammet during his most excessive noodling on pentatonic leads. Vio-lence style hardcore influenced volley choruses and churning, chanting death metal verses add some power but don’t give it direction. You could almost sleep to it except for the constant pounding and “quirky” changes that sound like a messenger ran into the studio with a note saying, “Add that thing Deeds of Flesh do when they get bored, except slower” or “Maybe you really need to rehash that Overkill riff from The Years of Decay here.” Vocalist sounds like he worships recent Metallica.

Abdicate – Relinquish the Throne: Cut from the Cannibal Corpse mold, this CD of old-school inspired death metal sounds like a hybrid between the heavy muffled chording with blasts of Blood and the racing power chord streams of later Malevolent Creation, rendering a demonic-sounding and fast-attacking music that stands head and shoulders above others. Like all good death metal, its specialty is dynamism, or radical change between phrase form, tempo, texture, you name it, that later makes sense when the piece is considered as a whole. Songwriting here is simpler than classic death metal and less tonally-conventional but more interesting than Cannibal Corpse. As this band gets more confident, they may weave more complexity into their songs and it should end up making this a very compelling listen. For those who do not like the alternatingly bouncy and cadenced old school death metal sound, this may give you a headache, but from among the recent variations of the genre this is a good choice.

Xantotol – Liber Diabolus: Despite the alleged dates in the title, I find myself keeping this one at arm’s length. It is like a hybrid of Varathron and Ungod, in that it has the luciphagous rhythms of Varathron and the same steady progression of songs into descent, and the awkward riffing of Ungod that has two endings and then an ungainly turnaround. However, what it does not have is compositional form: songs are about the same general idea because they are composed outward from the aesthetic, and never generated a poetry (narrative) which met that aesthetic halfway toward full conception. I keep listening but so far am not knocked out of my chair by anything but distraction.

Enslaved – Vertebrae: The former gods of Nordic folk black metal have reincarnated in their new form as a rock band. Was there a word missing in that sentence? Oh, you expected me to say “progressive,” but there’s nothing progressive about this. Song structures are very straightforward. Riffs use more than power chords, but are based around writing melodic hooks and repeated them with a few breaks for ambience. There are jam parts… really… and over what chord progressions? Fairly easy ones. Songs loop and go nowhere. This isn’t progressive rock, it’s a flavor that “sounds like” progressive rock but really is the same old ear-easy singalong stuff. Barf.

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Watain, Withered, Ritual Killer and Sarcolytic in Austin, Texas

Watain, Withered, Ritual Killer and Sarcolytic
October 25, 2008
Red 7
611 E. 7th Street
Austin, Texas 78701

Austin has come by its current status as Texas’ metal capital somewhat disingenuously; San Antonio, once a world-famous metal mecca, has continued to fail the genre with a dearth of viable venues or solid attendance. The irony is that most notable Austin shows have an audience with San Antonians comprising nearly one-half, along with a considerable supplement of Houston visitors. Nevertheless, Austin has the advantage with an endless supply of mediocre but metal-receptive venues combined with its centralized location, so legitimate or not it is now the city for Texas hessians to go for shows. Red 7 itself is at least spacious with a semi-decent PA, though its current lack of air conditioning made the room sticky and uncomfortable. Vex was the first act but this reviewer chose to stand out on the street due to the aforementioned conditions, but also because the band itself is so stylistically confused they are virtually unlistenable. Local death metal stalwarts Sacrolytic came next and delivered a solid set that was sadly compromised by its muddy sound. The band presents as a convincing Suffocation variant complete with BC Rich guitars and a storm of hair from the front line, but their live shows would definitely benefit from a personal sound engineer.

Ritual Killer

Ritual Killer is a side project of Goatwhore axeman Sammy Duet, though few people are aware of this so the band was obligated to stand on its own merits. They attacked a set of songs that were one part Hellhammer and two parts Blasphemy, and while the band delivered a competent show (the dreadlocked and visibly disturbed vocalist added an enigmatic touch to the proceedings) the songs quickly ran together and monotony set in. However, they seemed aware of the limited range of their material and the thirty minute set prevented them from overstaying their welcome. They were not bad by any means, but also not nuanced enough to make any lasting impact. If the band ever moves out of side project status they may end up with more to offer. Once again this reviewer stepped outside to breathe dry air and to avoid Book of Black Earth, a band who describes themselves as “death grunge” and may quickly realize that this label reads to most people as, “ignore us, we’re not credible”. This is precisely what happened; there was no reason for this band to be on the tour.

Withered

Withered came next and drew most everyone back into the room in the process. They play a brand of driving Swedish-style death metal that invokes early Amon Amarth but with an injected dissonance and feedback manipulation that recalls “Souls at Zero”-era Neurosis. This hybridization is more effective than it may sound, as Withered succeeded in creating atmosphere with a well-rehearsed application of various effects pedals and thoughtful interchanges between guitar, bass, and drums. Vocals were standard variations of screams and growls, but the vocalists proved to be savvy in knowing when to back off and let the music speak for itself. Even more impressive was the performance of the unit’s powerhouse drummer who displayed flair and blinding velocity on a very minimal kit; his triplet blast-beats with no sign of cheating or fatigue garnered many cheers throughout the set. The band as a whole executed their songs in a manner that reflected intelligence, conviction, and an almost idealistic brightness rarely seen in the metal underground circa 2007, and for that they should be commended.

Watain

Watain was preceded by the orange funk of carrion that was hung on iron poles around the stage like some kind of perverse holiday display. A synth-orchestrated introduction brought them to an enthusiastic crowd, and then the band voraciously tore into their set. The sound was a bit anemic and the band’s musical dynamic was stripped down due to their regular second guitarist being barred from entering the US, but it was a solid execution of material predominantly from “Sworn to the Dark” with tracks from “Casus Luciferi” and a single number from “Rabid Death’s Curse” to mollify the purists. Vocalist and de facto bassist E. Watain was appropriately the center of attention with his deranged and snake-eyed countenance that is just as charismatic as it is confrontational. He is not a large man so it is always impressive to hear a such gigantic voice rising out of him. He also seemed to be speaking in tongues or perhaps reciting incantations while not on the microphone, and it helped further the sense of madness on the stage. Watain’s latest album has been derided by some as too polished and too accessible, and while these charges aren’t wholly unfair it should be noted that the band has refused to give way to brevity in their compositions; most of the songs clock in at around six minutes and as such they are allowed to build and breathe to greater effect. One of the highlights was their rendition of “I Am the Earth”, which best summarizes Watain as a whole. Grandeur, violence, and passion are all equally present in this song, and the only thing that comes close to touching it is the current album’s “Stellarvore”, which also made its massive presence known this night. Ultimately, the Swedish quartet succeeded in their mission by living up to their infamous reputation along with creating many new converts to their cause. Music aside, they deliver some of the most dangerous showmanship since an odd young man named Per Ohlin took up with a death metal band from Oslo.

– Written by David Anzalone

Bands:
Watain
Withered
Ritual Killer
Sarcolytic

Promoters:
Red 7

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On Writing Metal Reviews

99% of metal reviews can use this template:

Recombination of past methods, without knowledge of the reasons why. Quirky as a result, unique collage of instruments/techniques. Yet without direction because it imitates from outside-in, bottom-up. Therefore, not bad, but not great, and on the bad side of good because time is valuable.

People who are incorrect — usually a combination of confusion, inexperience, drug-addled minds and in some cases congenital stupidity — come to us with their latest bands and tell us something “hypothetical,” as Kant would say, or avoiding the real question, which is — is it good? “Dude, you’ve got to check out Colonic Bloviator. They’ve got a million riffs a song!” Notice he says nothing about it being good.

Or check out this ancient hipster con: “Dude, you’ve got to check out Hobbiton Dowel 66.59E1, they’re not like all those single-genre bands, they combine bluegrass, metal and television jingles!” Again, we talk about the external traits, not whether they add up to a hill of beans.

People your whole life are gonna come up to you and tell you to pay attention to how something appears, and not how it functions in the context of life itself. Ask yourself: do I really care about having some band that mixes genres? Answer: only if it does so well — and by the nature of combining dissimilar things, it brings itself closer to the norm than farther away from it because greater variance requires greater compromise. Ask yourself: do I really care how many riffs they use? If they have a female vocalist, or a kazoo, or assemble their guitar solos entirely from digestion noises? No — I do not.

This is why most metal reviews can be written this way. The bands aren’t looking at reality; they’re asking the hypothetical question “How do we draw attention to ourselves?” Answer: consume blood and feces at concerts while playing boring music. Or trick out your boring music turntables, a flute, maybe some circus elephants. Then when they record, the PR flaks and hipsters are gonna tell you how unique the record is. “Does it good?” gets blank looks.

The goal of a reviewer is to bring us back to reality: is this record art, meaning aesthetics organized in a way that communicates meaning and brings beauty to life, even if beauty in darkness? If it’s not, the thought comes to mind that since our lives are limited, and we are what we consume, there’s no point wasting time on the boring when there’s beautiful silence or many good things to listen to. So you get the distillation of the review template above: “Not bad, not good enough.”

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I Write to the Christians

Scanning around the web for death metal-related information (a favorite passtime) I found some Christian folks who seemed rather irate about death metal. Although I started life as a radical Christian hater, I now view Christianity as one means through which philosophies can be expressed. Specifically, if we express Romanticism — transcendental naturalistic idealism with vir as its underlying heroic principle — in any form, that form becomes Romanticism and becomes very useful for any society that wants to rise above being posted on FAILBLOG.

When I think of this kind of Christian, I see how these are the utter minority, like metalheads are in American society at least, and they usually get persecuted by the rest. Guys like Johannes Eckhart, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Paul Woodruff and Arthur Schopenhauer come to mind. I would want to live in a society they ran; the other kind of Christian, the kind that treats “God” as a product-welfare-media-icon-sports-team, need to have zero political power — they’re unstable people in fear of death and looking for a schizoid, externalized, easy solution.

The good kind of Christian are “deists”: basically atheists who believe that “God” is a handy way to describe nature, and that meditation on this God will free us from obsession with ourselves, with material comfort, with status and other things that do us no good (metalcore). They’re inherently transcendentalists, which makes them very black metal, and they tended to — like ancient Hindus — disregard human life in favor of the accomplishment of ideals, which makes them very death metal.

Here’s the letter:

Howdy,

I came upon your article about death metal, and wanted to offer some alternate viewpoints. I think you will find after reading this that death metal has more in common with your viewpoint than in conflict with it, despite appearances.

I am not sure death metal should be considered rock music. It is composed differently. While rock music is about repeating rhythmic chord playing over a changing beat, death metal uses “power chords” to make melodic phrases that change in a narrative structure like classical music.

Further, I would suggest that “the blues” itself has its roots in Anglo-Germanic folk music, later called “country” in the USA, and that this music is basically what rock is — rock music just had more marketing behind it, and a few aesthetic changes like more aggressive drumming.

While I do not suggest that death metal is not obsessed with the occult, I think its approach mirrors this statement:

“God is dead, and we have killed him.” – Friedrich W. Nietzsche

His point is that a lack of ability to believe in anything other than (a) the individual and (b) externalized knowledge has killed the personal process of coming to know God or gods through mythic imagination. Death metal, like black metal, restores mythic imagination.

If there is blasphemy in death metal, I believe its ultimate goal is strengthening the bond of mythic imagination, and therefore creating more religiosity in an increasingly leftist, socialist, self-centered, “scientic,” atheistic population.

You may want to separate grindcore (punk derived, all leftist) bands like Napalm Death, Extreme Noise Terror, and Carcass, from death metal bands (structuralist, Romanticist, some right-wing) like Obituary, Unleashed, Entombed, Dismember, Morbid Angel and Deicide. It is also useful to separate black metal (Romanticism, naturalist, all right-wing) bands such as Darkthrone and Burzum from these other two genres.

I am a writer for the death metal website The Dark Legions Archive, which supports any form of transcendental idealism including the positive Christianity of Arthur Schopenhauer, Johannes Eckhart and Ralph Waldo Emerson. We would like to interview you by email about you relationship to popular music, and beliefs, especially as touch on what death metal has wrought.

Thank you for reading,
Vijay Prozak

With luck, he or she will respond and let us set up an interview to talk about death metal, because there’s nothing better in life than death metal, if you ask me.

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New Reviews: Dead Can Dance, Cro-Mags, Discharge

We have been busy, but not slack. Adding some important pieces of metal history even though these aren’t of the metal genre, and a fanastically articulate interview from China’s Kaiser Kuo, a musician who played in the original Chinese metal band Tang Dynasty and now graces the stage with Chunqiu. Look for more from this intelligent, driven individual in the future.

October 21, 2008 – Dead Can Dance Dead Can Dance

October 20, 2008 – Discharge Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing

October 17, 2008 – Kaiser Kuo (Chunqiu, Tang Dynasty) interview

October 14, 2008 – Cro-Mags the Age of Quarrel and Best Wishes

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diSEMBOWELMENT – Transcendence into the Peripheral

diSEMBOWELMENT – Transcendence into the Peripheral
Review by Alexis

While the doom metal genre during the early ’90s in general followed the melodic style of bands like Candlemass, Australian Disembowelment pushed the genre forward by concentrating its topics into esoteric territory, in an attempt to re-discover the abstract language behind metal. Traditionally seen as one of the main innovators of the death/doom crossover, this band fused grindcore influences with the technical patterns of death metal, distilled in epic-long compositions.

Transcendence into the Peripheral from 1993 is their only full-length album and marks the height of the band’s career. The first compositions roughly follow a sonata form, with melodic introductions accentuating the main theme, long passages of structural improvisation, and ending with a repetition of the introductory theme, sometimes fading into technical percussive patterns, hailing its death metal language roots.

Often pending between fast paced moments and longer, intricate passages where the symphonic and droning riffs melt in with the cathedral-like sound production, this band adopts the staggering, epic phrases of Black Sabbath, discarding melody in favour of a rhythmic-harmonic aesthetic. This gives the music its spiritual, ritualistic aesthetic, setting this band apart from most other doom metal bands at the time. The droning sound of the bass and guitars, melting with the drums that pound like gigantic timbales for a funeral ceremony, invokes a sound picture of huge reverb, letting each sound slowly die away like space dust in the universe.

The second half of the album somewhat loses the sonata intention and instead builds up 9+ minute improvisational compositions, where the structural changes in the music require full attention from the listener. Not dissimilar from a mental ritual, the language of Disembowelment is both hopelessly beautiful and heroically assertive, expressing in both content and form the Sumerian concept of the tree of life and death, stretching from the ocean of eternal truth (Abzu) to the divine heaven (Anu).

Although lacking in the department of melodic development, and despite a compositional coherence that could have tied the intricate riff salads together into more central harmony from the lead guitarist, Transcendence into the Peripheral stands apart from the rest of the metal clones to date through its direction into the abstract foundation of metal language. Macabre, stylistic, technical and emotionally heavy, this is a musical manual into personal development–and during its heights, transcendence beyond the mundane world of humans.

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Interview: Kaiser Kuo (Chunqiu, Tang Dynasty)

Kaiser Kuo is a Chinese metal pioneer (Tang Dynasty and Chunqiu), blogger and columnist, who currently lives in Beijing. Having grown up in the United States, he was kind enough to offer his rare perspective to our questions on metal, media, and China.

First, we would appreciate it if you would kindly describe a bit about yourself for the benefit of our readers. Since this is a metal site, a brief history of your involvement with the genre would be helpful as well (as would some forgiveness from you for the metal-relatedness of many of the questions).

My pleasure, and thanks much for reaching out. I’m very happy to talk to you guys about what’s going on in the Metal scene in China. It’s something that the popular media doesn’t pay much attention to, and in the West, when stories get written about the Chinese rock scene, they tend to dwell on the punks and ignore the very vibrant and extremely creative Metal scene here. There’s also a lot of popular misunderstanding about what Metal means in the Chinese context, and this is a great forum to help clear some of that up I hope.

I get credited a lot for having been an early, if not the earliest, “Metal missionary” in China. I was born in the U.S. and from junior high on was really into two genres of music, Metal and Progressive Rock. I was one of those rare kids who was listening not just to Judas Priest, early Scorpions, and NWOBHM bads, but also to Yes and ELP. Rush was the band that, for me, wedded the two genres and I was a complete Rush fanatic all through high school and college and I owe them a tremendous debt for inspiring me in my early years as a musician. During college I played in a Prog Rock band, and through a fluke connection of my father’s — he was doing business in China — we were invited to come to China and play. It never happened, but that was because we couldn’t get it together on our end. Meanwhile I had this burning urge to go to China and see what I could make happen in music. So as soon as I graduated in 1988, I headed to Beijing ostensibly as a student of Mandarin, but really my goal was to hook up with the local musicians. I co-founded Tang Dynasty with a very talented guitarist/singer named Ding Wu and a bassist named Zhang Ju in early 1989. I went back to the States later that year, returning to China only for a few months at a time in the early 90s, and moving back to China to rejoin the band in 1996. I left the band in 1999, and in early 2001 co-founded the band I’ve been with since, Chunqiu, which people describe as a traditional Heavy Metal band with very distinct ethnic Chinese influences.

I know very little about metal in China, but I’ve read that Tang Dynasty is often considered a leader of the “movement.” How do you view your personal role in shaping the music?

I don’t think there’s anyone who doubts that Tang Dynasty was where Metal really got started in China. I certainly had a part in it: I introduced the other guys in the band to much of the music that would influence them (bands like Queensryche, for example), and I did come up with the name of the band. But they changed me as much as I changed them. Playing with Tang Dynasty I really found that the fusion of traditional Chinese music and Western Metal works: it’s not something I ever tinkered with before co-founding Tang Dynasty. A lot of credit is due not just to Ding Wu, the band’s singer and rhythm guitar player; but also to our first producer, Landy Chang from Rock Records in Taiwan, who saw the potential in the band and really helped shape the direction of the music.

And mutual fear brings Peace,
Till the selfish loves increase;
Then Cruelty knits a snare,
And spreads his baits with care.

– William Blake, Songs of Experience: The Human Abstract

If you had never lived in the US, do you feel metal in China would have effectively been stunted until much more recently?

I have no doubt that it would have taken off, but it might have been a bit later and there might not have been quite such a home-grown success story, Tang Dynasty, to look up to for young Metal players. Tang Dynasty gave Chinese players and fans their first Chinese guitar hero, Lao Wu (Liu Yijun), and showed them that Metal despite its clearly western origins could be recognizably Chinese and still really authentically ass-kicking. I think if I hadn’t started proselytizing in the late 80s, by the early 90s there were enough other American musicians coming to China and exposing people to Metal that there would have been a kernel to the scene anyway, and it would have snowballed like it did with the availability of cheap pirated discs in the mid-90s and Internet MP3 downloads and sharing by 2002/2003 all the same.

What has caused more run-ins with Chinese officials (if any): playing metal or having a well-regarded Internet presence?

There really haven’t been “run-ins” at all, either for me personally or for the Metal genre in China as a whole. The worst that will happen is a bit of censorship of lyrics, but it’s not really onerous. Unfortunately Metal is still just too marginal in China to really catch the attention, for better or worse, of Chinese officials. They have much bigger things to worry about. And certainly the kind of stuff I do and say on the Internet isn’t something that’s going to get Chinese authorities breathing down my neck. It’s all pretty innocuous.

Having experienced both extensively, is there anything you prefer about life in the “liberal, bourgeois West” to life in China (during any time)?

Sure, there are things about the West that I still really enjoy whenever I’m back there. The air quality comes to mind! It’s always a thrill to go to record stores; I like owning CDs and not just having digital music on my iPod, so that’s one thing I miss. There aren’t any world-class record stores in China. And even though there’s a great live scene here, it’s still rare that major international acts come to Beijing, let alone smaller, more interesting acts. But for 99% of what I want out of life, China either meets or exceeds my needs. There’s a dynamism and buoyancy to life here that comes from living in a place where life just gets better pretty much every day. It’s a really exciting place to live still, and I’ve been able to play the kind of role here that I simply wouldn’t have been able to play had I never come to China.

How do you feel heavy metal fits into this general Western cultural current; is it drastically different from rock music in itself?

Like rock itself, Metal has subdivided into so many subgenres that it’s really impossible to make generalizations about how it fits into Western culture anymore. There are attitudes, habits of mind, behavioral and even ideological tendencies that correlate pretty strongly to every subgenre, so that Deathcore fans are really, really different than people who like, say, Progressive Metal like Symphony X or Dream Theater. You have everything from misanthropic nihilists to just plain music geeks who might be really mainstream in other ways. Once upon a time you could make generalizations, but not any more.

Is there any more or less differentiation between rock and metal in a more information-tight society?

I don’t think that in the last 30 years, deliberate information control in China has had ANYTHING to do with either the development of rock and metal or differentiation between and among all the different genres and subgenres of music. The simple truth is that musical tastes in China are mainly dictated by marketing and by cultural aesthetic preferences. The former, when it comes to music, tends to favor the kind of candy-ass Mandopop and Cantopop (which sometimes has the nerve to call itself rock!), and the latter — the cultural aesthetic preference — is still relatively unsophisticated outside of the fringe scenes in a handful of cities. Sad, really, but in this case I don’t honestly think it’s the government’s fault in any meaningful way.

Along those lines, there have been stories recently in mainstream press covering the “rise” of heavy metal in Islamic nations. Do you think there is any parallel in this to metal’s gaining in popularity in China?

I think Metal faces a whole lot more difficulty in Islamic societies, particularly in really theocratic or heavily religious polities. In China there are occasional flare-ups of anti-western sentiment, but they’ve never in my memory had a cultural dimension. They’re always political. You see self-described punks rockers or Metalheads in China — people who clearly have close cultural affinities to the West — take part in these sometimes. There’s a decoupling of politics and culture. I don’t think that’s so true in Islamic societies. If Metal has failed to gain popularity in China it has nothing to do with either religion or state controls.

Metal lends itself to lyrics of a “blasphemous” nature as well as anything, but there are plenty of other genres that are just as noisy and iconoclastic that could seemingly have a similar effect when directed at the status quo. Are punk/hardcore and related genres gaining in popularity in China as well?

Metal lyrics in China don’t tend to be “blasphemous,” in part because there’s nothing that really stands in for Judeo-Christian dogma to blaspheme against. The state hasn’t made an enemy of Metal, and so Metal doesn’t make an enemy of the state here. I have strong suspicions that other genres, like punk (and to a much lesser extent, hardcore, which isn’t well represented in China that I know of) tend to write more iconoclastic lyrics — defiant, anti-authoritarian, even politically critical — out of a cynical knowledge that doing so gets the noticed by the western media, which laps that kind of shit up.

I can’t read Tang Dynasty’s lyrics… I’m wondering if you could please comment on some of the general themes they cover, and from where you drew influence for them.

First of all, I’ve never had a hand in writing lyrics either for Tang Dynasty or Chunqiu. Tang Dynasty drew lyrical influences from the Chinese poetic tradition (which really reached a peak in the eponymous dynasty, 618-907 A.D.), and like Chinese poetry, the lyrics are highly imagistic and even pretty sentimental. There are a lot of themes of heroism, romanticism, that sort of thing. There’s also quite a bit of Buddhist influence, especially in the lyrics for some of the songs on the second album, Epic. Chunqiu also goes in for the imagistic approach, and also draws on timelessly Chinese poetic themes, as well as mythological, heroic, historical, and philosophical themes in it.

In your view, is “protest music” a limiting term, and does it apply to heavy metal in any way?

I don’t think “protest music” is genre-specific, and I don’t think there are many genres of music that either abjure it altogether. So there are Metal bands who do it, and those who don’t. In China, to the extent that protest applies to Metal, it’s really a protest against social conformity and slavishness to mainstream pop music tastes, not political protest. I’ve never really gone in for the latter through music, but that’s just me. I figure that if I have something I feel strongly about politically or socially, I can offer more nuance and substance in an essay than in a song with rhymed verses ad a repeating chorus. I’m not into slogans. I know that at least in China, the country’s had too much by way of slogans already.

In a recent article, you touched on the “virtues of piracy” and called for a general openness in China to Western media. Can you please elaborate on what benefit to China you see coming from this openness, particularly in regard to entertainment media?

I think piracy — physical disk piracy, file sharing, MP3 downloads and all that — helped to really create an appetite for and knowledge of western entertainment media. There’s a point at which it goes too far, of course, and I’m inclined to think we’re at or past that right now, but there’s no doubt in my mind that the availability of western entertainment media at prices Chinese consumers could afford is during the 90s and the earlier part of this decade built a market that the same companies grumbling so loudly now will be able to tap into in a very lucrative way down the road.

In the West there was (was — I would call it gone now), of course, a substantial “underground” for heavy metal tape trading well up until digital media democratized the creation and distribution of music in general. Can any difference be discerned between something like this and piracy such as in China?

There was certainly a whole lot of tape trading in China in the early days, but back then we were talking about a fan base so small that and so geographically confined — just to Beijing, really — that it wasn’t substantial. What happens now with the easy distribution of digital music is the same thing but on a much more massive scale, practically without cost and frictionless to boot. It’s something that has upended the music industry as we know it, and if I really knew the way forward out of this I’d be a rich mother by now.

See too, I said, the forgiving spirit of democracy, and the ‘don’t care’ about trifles, and the disregard which she shows of all the fine principles which we solemnly laid down at the foundation of the city–as when we said that, except in the case of some rarely gifted nature, there never will be a good man who has not from his childhood been used to play amid things of beauty and make of them a joy and a study–how grandly does she trample all these fine notions of ours under her feet, never giving a thought to the pursuits which make a statesman, and promoting to honour any one who professes to be the people’s friend.

Yes, she is of a noble spirit.

These and other kindred characteristics are proper to democracy, which is a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequals alike.

– Plato, The Republic

To what degree have you seen ethnic nationalism used as a reactionary measure in China recently, particularly within heavy metal music (where it has often been made a component over the years, though a controversial one)?

I don’t think I’ve seen instances of “ethnic nationalism” in Chinese Metal. The few instances I’ve seen where Han Chinese musical or visual elements — or, for that matter, elements drawn from minority nationalities of China — it’s never been reactionary in any sense of the word I’m aware of. That’s not to say that it hasn’t been misinterpreted in that way. A lot of people assumed that Tang Dynasty, or even Chunqiu, was some cipher for anti-modernism and a desire to go back to some mythic golden age, but that was never the case: The name of the band in the case of Tang Dynasty was meant to evoke the age’s cosmopolitan nature, and its embrace of things foreign. This was really the source of that dynasty’s legendary greatness. It’s not “nationalistic” in any sense. Quite the contrary. I think using a genre like Metal, which is unarguably western in origin, to assert Chinese nationalism would be a complete contradiction and wouldn’t convince anyone in their right mind.

Is heavy metal malleable enough to act in multiple ways at once — say, both against “democracy” but for freedom in different instances and in different places — or are there more “correct” interpretations of its basic impetus?

Yes, I think it possesses that malleability but I haven’t really seen it employed to ends like you describe. I think only in rare instances is it harnessed for political ends at all. But in China it’s definitely used to vent the same sorts of emotions as in the west — things we’re all familiar with.

What conceivable event might make you move from China at this point?

Right now, it’d be pretty hard to think of something that would compel me to move short of massive civil unrest — something I rate as extremely unlikely — or a conflagration involving the U.S. triggered by a precipitous move toward independence by Taiwan that Washington unwisely decided to intervene in. Other than that, I do plan at some point to go back to the U.S. when my (now four-year-old) daughter starts college eventually. But that’s what, 13 years off, so who knows what’ll happen between now and then?

What will (or what does) an open China provide to the world that an open West has not already provided?

An open China has clearly already provided the world with inexpensive consumer goods and is moving up the value chain to become, within our lifetimes, a major force in innovation. By that I don’t just mean tech innovation, though that will doubtless be an important part of it; I also mean cultural innovation, plumbing the depths of traditional Chinese culture to give the world a taste of, among other things, a rich literary tradition of which the world now knows very little.

Being heavily involved with digital media, what drawbacks can you envision for children fully entrenched in the digital age in China? In the United States?

It’s the same in China as it is in the U.S., or perhaps even worse because there’s such a lack of compelling entertainment alternatives. Don’t get me wrong: The Internet’s the greatest thing ever, and it’s been a tremendous force for good wherever it’s seen wide adoption. But kids spend way too much time playing online games, and that’s just plain unhealthy when you’re playing for days straight and skipping meals, not sleeping, and screwing up in school. The Internet promotes too much of a sedentary lifestyle. I should know: I need to spend way less time in front of my Mac and way more time in the gym. Other than that, there are the usually dangers of digital stalkers and sex offenders — not as bad of an issue in China, to be sure — plus various scammers.

Thank you very much for the interview; parting words/shots, etc. can go here.

Thanks for having me! I’ve been on a mission to get people around the world aware of the really great Metal scene in China, which has dozens and dozens of talented acts and a few real stand-outs, like Kungfu Voodoo, Suffocated, and of course Chunqiu. You can download our stuff on iTunes. Unfortunately we don’t have other distribution outside of China currently.

Who looks upon a river in a meditative hour, and is not reminded of the flux of all things? Throw a stone into the stream, and the circles that propagate themselves are the beautiful type of all influence. Man is conscious of a universal soul within or behind his individual life, wherein, as in a firmament, the natures of Justice, Truth, Love, Freedom, arise and shine. This universal soul, he calls Reason: it is not mine, or thine, or his, but we are its; we are its property and men. And the blue sky in which the private earth is buried, the sky with its eternal calm, and full of everlasting orbs, is the type of Reason. That which, intellectually considered, we call Reason, considered in relation to nature, we call Spirit. Spirit is the Creator. Spirit hath life in itself. And man in all ages and countries, embodies it in his language, as the FATHER.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature (1836)

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Affirmed: Averse Sefira shows are worth attending

Averse Sefira
October 11th, 2008
Room 710
Austin, TX
$10

Setlist:
Vomitorium Angelis
Plagabraha
Heirophant Disgorging
Viral Kinesis
Serpent Recoil
A Shower of Idols
Detonation
Helix in Audience

While perusing the DLA review section, one will notice that there are already 10 live reviews for Averse Sefira. One begins to wonder why such favoritism is displayed for one band. Another very likely thought to emerge will be to question what more could be said about this band’s live performances.

Very little black metal of merit has come from the United States. Out of those bands, Averse Sefira is one of the few that still performs regularly. We in south Texas are very fortunate that they just happen to reside down here, so we are able to see them perform frequently. The only favoritism shown is that yes, we like Averse Sefira and will see them as often as possible. If other bands of quality played our area as often, you’d likely see just as many reviews here for them.

Despite residing in south Texas for some years, the October 11th show was this reviewer’s first time seeing Averse Sefira live. Anticipation was high. We arrived late, as the band preceding Averse Sefira was concluding their final song. After the standard intermission, Averse Sefira took the stage and proceeded to put on an excellent set of scathing, high energy music. They maintain a stage presence and technical ability few can match. Admittedly, the crowd was a bit sparse, but Texas metal shows are always a mixed bag. Small, loyal crowds are better than large, disinterested ones.

This review has been written as an affirmation that Averse Sefira continues to put on great shows and remains a band worth seeing live should they grace your locality. If you are looking to escape the tedium of the average death or black metal
bands, Averse Sefira is well worth your while. If you’re just looking for a good metal show, then you can’t go wrong Averse Sefira. You will get your money’s worth for this band alone, regardless of lineup.

by Lance Bateman

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