Interview: Ian Christie (metal journalist)

We are fortunate to have Ian Christe, metal journalist and Bazillion Points editor/publisher, to join us for an interview. He has authored literally hundreds of articles on heavy metal music and several books, covering topics from death metal to Van Halen. Much of his writing studies emerging technology and underground cultures, which makes him a fit for the interviewers as well. We were lucky to catch him at the Chatsubo bar in Chiba City, Japan, for a few words about metal and the state of journalism about it.

You’ve been involved in metal and music in multiple ways for some time. How did you get into metal, and how have you been involved — books, zines, bands — with the genre?

I was thinking about this recently — I’m only moderately old now, but because I got into metal when I was extremely young I remember all this truly ancient history. During junior high school, I lived with my mom in Germany, and when I was 11-12 years old I was using my lunch money to buy Iron Maiden singles, Accept, Motorhead, Judas Priest, and Black Sabbath records. To put it in perspective, when I bought Scorpions’ Virgin Killer, with the kinky pedo cover, the high school aged girl in the photo seemed way older than me. We came back to the States in 1983, when I was 13, and I started doing radio shows at WEOS in Geneva, NY, playing Venom, Anvil, Mercyful Fate, Slayer, Voivod, and lots of lost obscure bands like Thrust, Armed Forces, and Witchkiller. That’s way upstate, but Manowar hails from there, and Metallica and Anthrax had just recorded their debut albums in that area. It was definitely a metal hotbed. I got plugged into the underground through that, bought some Nasty Savage and Hirax demos, and advertised my show in ‘zines like the great Kick*Ass Monthly.

We moved to Indiana in 1985, and it was culture shock. I had long hair, wore a bullet belt, and listened to Destruction, and suddenly I was surrounded by kids unaware of anything beyond Motley Crue and Aerosmith. So out of necessity I got into tape trading, and got into intense bands like Voor, Cryptic Slaughter, Genocide/Repulsion, and of course Death. I skipped school in the spring of 1986 to go see Metallica opening for Ozzy Osbourne, the big moment for underground metal going mainstream, and ended up spending the afternoon goofing around with Cliff, Kirk, and James from Metallica, and also everybody in Samhain except Glenn Danzig. Those two factions were a mutual admiration society, and I was supercharged to be in the middle of it all. I was inspired to start a fanzine after that, IAN Mag, which I titled after myself so I could cash the checks. That lasted through 1988.

I don’t mean to ramble on about all this archaic stuff, but everything I’m talking about is the basis for what I’m still doing as a mature, respectable, gone-legit headbanger. I was basically on a metal mission for the entire 1980s. In the 1990s, I got into different things, learned about the world, and developed as a writer by working in DC, New York, and freelancing for magazines like Wired, Spin, and so on. When it came time to write Sound of the Beast, I fused the professional side to the passion for metal. In fact, I remember my proposal for the book came with a stack of clips that started with the New York Times and ended with an old letter from Dave Mustaine.

As far as music goes, I’ve had a string of very fulfilling projects of every kind ranging from bluegrass to Glenn Branca’s guitar army. I’ve toured Europe and South America performing a kind of musique concrete with a modern dance company. So all of that came together in the crazy Dark Noerd the Beholder dark technology metal project — which sounded pretty bizarre and extreme in 1996.

What prompted your move to self-publication with Bazillion points?

Frustration in two forms. Selfishly, after working with two giant publishing houses, I was very discouraged with the corporate approach to making books. You know, it takes three months to get approval for a tiny text change on the cover, and there’s just no sensitivity for how to customize any aspect of production. With Sound of the Beast, at least I was very lucky to have an editor who was only too happy to put me in touch with the art department or promotions. He got the work off his desk, and I got to have some input, which is rare for an author. Then secondly, it’s frustrating that people like Daniel Ekeroth, Jon “Metalion” Kristiansen, or Jeff Wagner, all hugely respected in their areas of expertise, could never have a hope in hell of getting a mainstream book deal. Well, I realized I could stop complaining and do something about it. Viva Bazillion Points!

Would a DIY book publishing house such as yours have been possible 10-15 years ago?

I don’t know, I definitely wasn’t capable of figuring that out. I have to say it was possible, based on the inspiring successes in the early 90s of classic punk imprints like Henry Rollins’ 2.13.61 and Adam Parfrey’s Feral House Books. But I didn’t have the experience. And the rich earth of unpublished metal books needed time to ferment, too!

What segment of the metal audience or population in general have you seen as the most excited to read the types of books you are publishing?

I can’t answer that yet — a wider audience than you’d expect has responded to Daniel’s Swedish Death Metal book. Though the bands are pretty obscure, the experience of getting caught up in a movement he describes is universal. I couldn’t believe that Publishers Weekly gave Swedish Death Metal a starred review, and made the book its web pick of the week. In three months, Andy McCoy’s book will be out, and then I can tell you how death metal books fare compared to gypsy vagabond rock guitarist memoirs. I think the common trait of Bazillion Points books is that while they’re each very specific, they’re also very good, which is pretty exciting in itself.

Do you find metalheads to be an especially literate segment of the general population?

I don’t think metalheads consider themselves bookish, but yes I think out of necessity metalheads are rabid readers. It’s always been that way, because printed media, email, and web sites are the main lines of communication. There’s very little radio and no television exposure for metal, so metalheads end up reading countless pages of text every day to stay in touch. And metalheads can be very curious creatures — if Ulver makes a record based on John Milton’s Paradise Lost, a lot of fans will go read the book. So the end result is yes, so far Bazillion Points is succeeding because metalheads are thoughtful, thorough readers who appreciate high-quality books about things they care about that they can’t get anywhere else.

If there is in fact, a heaven and a hell, all we know for sure is that hell will be a viciously overcrowded version of Phoenix — a clean well lighted place full of sunshine and bromides and fast cars where almost everybody seems vaguely happy, except those who know in their hearts what is missing… And being driven slowly and quietly into the kind of terminal craziness that comes with finally understanding that the one thing you want is not there.

– Hunter S. Thompson, Gonzo Papers, Vol. 2: Generation of Swine: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the ’80s (1988)

The rock biography, as it is most commonly understood, is given more to sensationalism rather than “analysis” or sometimes anything even remotely musical. You’ve taken on these types of bios with Bazillion Points, including the Van Halen book and the upcoming one featuring Hanoi Rocks. Do you feel what you are presenting differs from this description, if it even matters? Is your viewpoint more coherent with how metal music views itself, or in your eyes should be viewed?

With Van Halen I was mostly interested in deconstructing the personalities and breaking down the key events of the band’s story into manageable, human-sized events. If Van Halen in their prime in 1984 seems impossibly gigantic, I wanted to show all the tiny steps and late nights of practicing that led up to that. It’s meant to humanize guys like David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen who are usually viewed on a pedestal. Andy McCoy’s book is different because he wrote it himself, and so you get to see life through his eyes. Very entertaining. And yes, I’d say my viewpoint is pretty consistent with metal’s values at least — honesty above all, fearlessness right behind.

What makes a specific musical personality even worthy of biographical depiction in the first place?

Public fascination — but that’s a chicken or egg answer, isn’t it?

Rock music is generally written about by insiders and ignored by cultural historians, and so tends to have an insular viewpoint. Since metal came from rock, it is analyzed by the same template. How does this work to describe a genre like metal that seems to want to break away from mainstream rock?

I try to have an inside-outside approach. Writing about the nitty-gritty details from the trenches, reaching out to an audience that doesn’t even realize there’s a war going on. I believe metal has universal appeal — it’s not for everybody, but within every family, clan, or social group in the world I guarantee there are people predisposed to be drawn to the flame. It’s a kind of universal elite, I guess.

You have on several occasions lambasted the use of genre-descriptive terms. However, when we speak of genres like death metal and black metal, we could be describing artistic movements that share among themselves values and methods that differ from similar “sounding” genres. Do these subgenre terms have validity in your view, and what are the limits of this validity?

I don’t think genres should be taken too seriously, and I don’t respect bands who strive to be total slaves to a pre-existing genre and its rules. But yes, the genre descriptions themselves are extremely helpful, and I’m proud that metal has spawned and cultivated so many variants over the decades. And for instance on my Sirius Radio show Bloody Roots, I’ve been picking apart different genres every week for almost five years now, so genres are very much a part of how I think about metal. But I’ll also say that with most so-called subgenres, you’re usually talking about attempts to mimic the music of one or two extraordinary bands. Like with black metal, Bathory. With thrash, Exodus. And so on.

Like rock, metal can be insular. Does it have validity as an artistic movement, and what does it contribute to culture at large? Do you view it as counter-cultural, sub-cultural or counter-counter-cultural, or some mix of the above?

Well, that’s a subject for a book in itself. It’s a form of revolution that’s widely available for a few bucks at every Wal*Mart. It’s distrustful of change, but willing to take huge risks. Metal’s fascinating still. I guess I’d consider it a vast subculture, but not really a counter-culture. Like I said in Sound of the Beast, it’s “a quest for truth in a storm of folly.”

In Sound of the Beast you took on the arduous task of compiling nearly 40 years of worldwide music history into a comprehensive volume. How much have you been itching to revisit and update it since then, and what would you like to change?

I started writing in 1999, so I’d like to thicken the 1990s years tremendously, and then explore the rebirth of metal in the 2000s. I’ve also interviewed Ronnie Dio, Rob Halford, Tony Iommi, and the Scorpions about the 1950s and 1960s, and I’d like to get some of that material out. The book is still timely, and not many of my opinions have changed. But there’s so much more ground to cover now.

Was “objectivity” a concern when you were writing Sound of the Beast, or any of your other books for that matter?

Sound of the Beast was very much a work of advocacy, to grab and secure heavy metal’s place on bookstore shelves. I was very conscious of giving a voice to the millions of fans who had supported tens of thousands of bands over dozens of years. Without losing a critical edge, it was very important to me to state the case for why metal matters, and I’m humbled and honored to say that I think the book succeeded in all those aims.

The contemporary American may have failed, like his predecessors, to establish any sort of common life, but the integrating tendencies of modern industrial society have at the same time undermined his ‘isolation.’ Having surrendered most of his technical skills to the corporation, he can no longer provide for his material needs. As the family loses not only its productive functions but many of its reproductive functions as well, men and women no longer manage even to raise their children without the help of certified experts. The atrophy of older traditions of self-help has eroded everyday competence, in one area after another, and has made the individual dependent on the state, the corporation, and other bureaucracies.

Narcissism represents the psychological dimension of this dependence. Notwithstanding his occasional illusions of omnipotence, the narcissist depends on other to validate his self-esteem. He cannot live without an admiring audience, His apparent freedom from family ties and institutional constraints does not free him to stand alone or to glory in his individuality. On the contrary, it contributes to his insecurity, which he can overcome only by seeing his ‘grandiose self’ relfected in the attentions of others, or by attaching himself tot those who radiate celebrity, power and charisma. For the narcissist, the world is a mirror, whereas the rugged individualist saw it as an empty wilderness to be shaped to his own design.

– Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism (1979)

What has been the most common criticism of your writing to date, and to what degree do you take such criticism into account?

The most common criticism of Sound of the Beast is definitely that there’s too Metallica. I needed a central character for the non-initiated readers, and as the biggest metal band ever by far, they became the common thread. But it pisses me off when people falsely claim that Metallica gets a polish job in the book — their missteps are savagely underlined, and I think about halfway through it’s plainly stated that in the 1990s they were no longer a metal band, but a rock band. Plus the one single negative reaction I got from anybody covered in Sound of the Beast was an angry phone call from Jason Newsted, so I guess he wasn’t thrilled with his moment in the sun. Some critics said the book was too positive about metal, but I sure don’t care what metal haters want to see in a metal book.

What is your opinion on the books on metal (and conclusions drawn in them) written by academics/outsiders, particularly sociologists like Deena Weinstein (Heavy Metal: The Music and Its Culture) and Natalie Purcell (Death Metal Music: The Politics and Passion of a Subculture)?

I appreciate the process and legitimacy of Deena Weinstein’s book, but it’s impossible to create a sociological overview of heavy metal as a phenomenon. Heavy metal fans reflect their surroundings, wherever you go. In a blue collar area, you get blue collar fans. In Queens, NY, you get Asians, Latinos, and blacks at shows. In Dubai, you get rich kids. I like what Katherine Ludwig says in Sound of the Beast about these generalizations: how can you classify metalhead teens as cola-chugging NASCAR fans when that basically sounds like a description of the majority of Americans? So I say the function of metal varies by country, region, and many other factors.

You recently appeared in Time Out New York and received a pretty favorable portrayal. How much have you seen metal crossing over into the indie/art scene over the years?

In recent years, I think the indie scene has been completely infected by metal. If Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth is still any kind of bellweather, he’s lately been singing the praises of Beherit — and Daniel’s Swedish Death Metal book! Fair enough, Sonic Youth influenced Napalm Death and Entombed, after all. But yeah, that Time Out profile is extremely favorable. Another humbling indication that Bazillion Points was a good idea.

What does the common characterization of metal as “violent entertainment” (akin to comic books, horror/gore movies, and true crime novels) mean to you? Are there similarities between these genres, and does this point to artistic motivations in common?

As somebody who watches an extremely violent movie pretty much every day, I think there’s a small but important difference. Metal is fascinated with war, murder, nuclear bombs, rabid dogs, and she-demons because these are all things that no society or moral code can fully explain. So all these great metal songs are small meditations on the thrills and fears of the unknown. Movies tend to take those fears and use them against you! Again — this question is another small book in itself, and I’ve already been blabbering for an hour.

How should publishers (rather than authors) be treated where controversial or questionable works are disseminated?

Only as a publisher, I’ve come to fully appreciate how much the United States protects and values freedom of the press. I know the situation is a lot different in Britain and Germany, not to mention Iran — although my friend Mahyar Dean has written books about Death and Testament in Farsi. But so far I’m happy to say I don’t have any experience with controversy. Books with giant upsidedown crosses on the cover filled with stories of underage drinking, mayhem, and teen suicide? No problems here!

You seem to have some intimate experience with New York death metal from back in the day. Have you considered writing a book on that scene similar in scope to the Daniel Ekeroth book you recently released?

No, it’s not true, I moved to New York in 1992 and for the first couple years was more interested in seeing avant garde music like Swans, Naked City, Borbetomagus, Boredoms, Sun City Girls, and Caroliner. But starting in 1994, when metal went back underground, I saw hundreds of amazing shows in New York in tiny venues, some of my best mindblowing experiences. Still, I’ll leave the epic NYDM history for Will Rahmer to write — but I’ll definitely publish it!

The Edge… There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over. The others- the living – are those who pushed their luck as far as they felt they could handle it, and then pulled back, or slowed down, or did whatever they had to when it came time to choose between Now and Later. But the edge is still Out there. Or maybe it’s In. The association of motorcycles with LSD is no accident of publicity. They are both a means to an end, to the place of definitions.

– Hunter S. Thompson, Hell’s Angels (1966)

Visit Ian Christe, his books and the books he publishes at:
www.bazillionpoints.com

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Interview: Daniel Ekeroth (Insision, writer)

When the dust settles on a scene, and its formative years are over, someone needs to chronicle how the people involved got the mental and physical place where they could create that scene. Daniel Ekeroth, bassist of Swedish death metal band Insision, wrote a mighty tome in Swedish Death Metal, a book that appeals to all of us who were ever floored by the founding works of Unleashed, At the Gates, Carnage/Dismember, Nihilist/Entombed, Merciless or Therion.

You bring up the theme of the organic development of (Swedish) death metal a few times in your book, and at one point contrast it directly with the “top-down” method that you assert birthed second-wave black metal. Can you summarize what you see the strengths and weaknesses of these two “approaches” to be with regard to metal/music?

I’m not sure it has much to do with weaknesses or strengths, it’s just different. As something new grows, you never know what will come next. I guess this is kind of exciting, yet it also means that the next direction might not be your personal taste. But the same goes for the opposite situation, where you start with a formula which then transforms into something you might not expect! Even though second wave black metal started with some “set rules”, or whatever, it kind of changed pretty soon as well. And within a few years some of it was VERY far from what bands like Burzum and Darkthrone was doing in the early 90’s. So I guess everything is constantly in change, and you can never tell what will happen. And if something is to prefer over the other, I think is just a matter of taste.

This dichotomy (top-down/bottom-up) is commonly evoked in political and social theory… Do you think any parallels can be drawn between these different approaches in metal and those at broader scales?

You probably could (you can always do that), but I guess the results would be ad-hoc.

Your book has great detail on the development of Swedish death metal as a closed system, but doesn’t touch a lot on external/social stimuli that may have affected it (outside of the mention of the assassination of Olaf Palme). Is there anything else you’ve considered that may have come into play and that you may not have been able to include in the book?

I think it was a very closed system of a few kids trying to have fun, but the system was scattered around the world (South America, Florida, the UK, Finland, Germany). The conditions in the places all over the world was very different, so I don’t think you should draw to big a conclusion about the climate in Sweden. The main thing in Sweden was probably that we had a good economy, and kids could afford instruments and get rehearsal spaces.

Have you ever read any sociologists’ “outsider” accounts (books) about death and black metal? If so, do you think they are just empty academic exercises or can they offer insight?

I’ve read everything I have found, and it is always fun to read such things. Still, the conclusions is doomed to be guesses. My experience is that metal evolves in very different places, around people with very different backgrounds. Just one example: the Stockholm scene was basically made up by working class kids, whereas the Gothenburg scene was based around kids from the upper middle class.

Your editorial choice to give your personal impression of the bands and music is refreshing, as it helps the reader to understand the subject from a perspective of quality and not necessarily popularity. Were most of your assessments fully honest?

Yes. I think this is the only way to make an interesting read. Still, many opinions are of course colored by the mood I was in when I was listening to the music. Also, I might be suffering from nostalgia in a few instances.

The truth is scandalous. But without it, nothing has any worth. An honest and naive vision of the world is already a masterpiece… As you approach the truth, your solitude will increase.

– Michel Houllebecq, To Stay Alive

Most of the insider commentary gives the impression that this was just a ride for a lot of the participants, that they were swept up in a movement bigger than themselves and simply enjoying it moment-for-moment as it came. Anders Schultz’s statements make this very clear, for one. Was this true for most of those involved, in your view?

It was a very small movement, but it was just great fun to find out a few other guys interested in the same music as you. I guess this is true of just about any underground movement of any kind anywhere. People were very young you know, and most didn’t have any clue at all about the world. Anything you did back then was basically for the hell out of it!

In your experience, is it possible to recapture the mood and creative drive (not the exact feeling) of what occurred in Sweden from 1998-1993 in metal anymore?

Certainly so, but not for old geezers like me. Newer generations will find new ways. But maybe it won’t be metal next time, I couldn’t tell.

You never mention Finnish death metal a single time in your book, though they have always had a vibrant and creative death metal “scene” and sound in their own right. How much musical cross-pollination occured between Sweden and Finland?

I think the scenes operated pretty much independently, nobody I interviewed ever mentioned the Finnish scene very much (and I sure did not know anyone from Finland at the time). The Finnish scene deserves a book on its own, bands like Xysma, Demilich and Demigod sure were fantastic.

Every substance is negatively electric to that which stands above it in the chemical tables, positively to that which stands below it. Water dissolves wood and iron and salt; air dissolves water; electric fire dissolves air, but the intellect dissolves fire, gravity, laws, method, and the subtlest unnamed relations of nature in its resistless menstruum. Intellect lies behind genius, which is intellect constructive. Intellect is the simple power anterior to all action or construction. Gladly would I unfold in calm degrees a natural history of the intellect, but what man has yet been able to mark the steps and boundaries of that transparent essence? The first questions are always to be asked, and the wisest doctor is gravelled by the inquisitiveness of a child. How can we speak of the action of the mind under any divisions, as of its knowledge, of its ethics, of its works, and so forth, since it melts will into perception, knowledge into act? Each becomes the other. Itself alone is.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays: First Series

Do you think most people overlook AUTOPSY’s influence on the Swedish death metal sound, or is it overstating things to give them a big role?

They were huge in Sweden at the time, and also the first Death album has that same sludgy feeling that would characterize the original Swedish scene. Dismember would certainly not have sounded the way they do without Autopsy.

What three demo-level bands do you think would have made “history” had they recorded an album? I assume CREMATORY is one…

I would say Mefisto, Morbid and Obscurity. If these bands would have made actual records they would be far more recognized these days. But basically, most of the obscure bands from the 80’s would have been highly regarded had they made an album and gotten some attention.

Besides the emergence of black metal, was there anything else that had a ruinous effect on Swedish death metal’s vibrancy?

Age I would say! You know, people got old and faced problems with apartments, jobs, girlfriends, children and everything else concerning adulthood.

What kind of strange things occured in Sweden at the height of the genre’s popularity along the lines of ENTOMBED being featured on cheesy television programs?

Well, not very much to be honest. The “mainstream” thing has certainly been overstated. Apart from a few interviews and articles in tabloids, and the occasional review in the mainstream press, death metal basically remained underground. Black metal actually got far more attention, and was just everywhere in the mid-90’s.

Is Swedish death metal, and music like it, necessarily a youth-based movement?

Well, not any more is it? I guess today it is a genre for 30-40-year-olds. Still, the best albums have generally been made by youngsters, but this is possibly true about most genres.

Regarding youth, you mentioned multiple times in the book the sentiment that the first demo/album by any band is the best output. The fact that this feeling seems more widespread among people who actually have decent taste is enough to convince me that stereotypes are truth-based memes. Can you name some prominent exceptions to this “rule” (not necessarily limited to Swedish death metal)?

Young bands are usually hungry and use up their best riffs and ideas on their first efforts, but of course there are exceptions. Sweden’s Repugnant went out at their best, and a band like Watain is a million times better today than they were on their debut. Voivod’s third and fourth albums are far superior to their first recordings. And Grotesque’s last recording is by far their best to my ears.

What non-metal influences were most heavily represented in Swedish death metal?

Crust Punk, like Discharge. Especially the Stockholm scene was very rooted in extreme punk.

In what directions may it be possible to extend metal in the future without dismantling the essence of it?

What we need to do is to reclaim the RIFFS! Modern “metal” mainly seems like melodies and harmonies to me, whereas I always thought the riff was the thing that made it metal. Once the riff is back, I guess any direction is open for exploration. Without the riff, I am not sure we can call music metal at all…

Have you seen or read the far more obscure book of similar theme and content that was released after yours (Encyclopedia of Svensk DödsMetall)?

I visited him while he was working on it in Padova, and saw a few segments of it. I also helped him to get in contact with some bands. Still, I have not seen the finished product.

What do you strive to achieve with your own bands? Feel free to promote/summarize your musical history.

I just want to play music that I like, and make me feel good about myself. I played in many punk/progressive bands in the 80’s before I got serious with Diskonto (crust punk) and Dellamorte (death crust) around 1994. Then I joind Insision (death) in 1999, and Tyrant (black) in 2007. Today I am only a part of Tyrant, since I can’t find time for anything else. We actually sound very much like my first band, who only did Sodom and Bathory covers, so I guess my circle is closed!

Delve into the subjects that no one wants to hear about. The other side of the scenery. Insist upon sickness, agony, ugliness. Speak of death, and of oblivion. Of jealousy, of indifference, of frustration, of the absence of love. Be abject, and you will be true.

– Michel Houllebecq, To Stay Alive

Swedish death metal, in part through its sustain-heavy “fat sound” (you did a great video explaining this that showed up recently), emphasized the melodic aspects of death metal, giving a canvas for bands like Dismember and At the Gates to make melodic metal music that wasn’t “melodic” in the sense of heavy metal but interpreted it in a uniquely “death metal” style. Did this influence black metal to develop later in a more melodic direction?

I guess Dissection in particular influenced much of that melodic black metal (and death metal!) – what they did was so great. But also, I guess some of that mid-90’s black metal is so based in harmonies and melodies since the band members didn’t come from metal. They didn’t know about the riff! I am really glad for a band like Nifelheim for bringing back the riff, and that whole 80’s heavy metal touch, back into black metal.

Tusen tack för intervjun! Var snäll och påstå några sluta ord här.

Ok, thank you for your attention! I wish you all the best with all your future work!

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Sadistic Metal Reviews 11-21-08

Deeds of Flesh – Of What’s to Come

While I may not like listening to the outcome 100% of the time, especially given the strikingly moronic introduction, I really like what Deeds of Flesh are doing here. Instead of becoming a generic mix like others, they are mixing technical death metal with progressive metal, coming up with something that sounds like Suffocation, Cynic and Necrophagist thrown into a blender. However, the unique Deeds of Flesh flavor asserts itself as the sinew that ties together these influences — the use of fast scales and melodic playing of the same patterns at different intervals to effect implications of key change is pure Necrophagist, and the abrupt transitions between riffs that only make sense when the next transition occurs is straight out of the “Pierced from Within” playbook, the joy at experimentation with odd rhythms leading through convoluted tempo changes and bizarre chording is Cynic-derived, but the playfulness with which Deeds of Flesh are willing to interrupt a pattern and connect a fast technical riff with inverted chording and then drop into a rushing power chord feast which is pure sensory gratification is purely their own. The quick drops to hummingbird fast transitional riffs which made Path of the Weakening such a metal delight are here as well, as are elaborations on ideas from the past two albums. It’s possible we hear later Gorguts or Neuraxis winking from the sidelines as well. People — myself include — will experience aesthetic revulsion at this because in its panopoly of techniques it includes some cheap shots, although not as many as the overplayed and bombastically bloviatory new Cynic, so each time we hear a rhythmic seizure before continuation on the offbeat, we yawn and think that we are hearing the auditory equivalent of trotting out a villain who kills puppies at an opera. Yet in a time of painfully slick and cancerously insincere indie/metal/punk hybrids that have the hipness of a carny, the glibness of a presidential candidate and the soul of a toaster, this honest and well-planned effort from Deeds of Flesh is worth paying attention to — it may be one of the few intelligent directions metal has been taken in the last decade.

Mouth of the Architect – Quietly

More of this combination shoegaze, emo/punk, and doom/drone metal that they try to pass off as post-metal or post-rock, when really if we’re honest we’ll admit it descends from Fugazi, its genre is indie metalcore, and it’s all roughly the same because it aims for the same general goals. Is this really that different than what Jawbreaker was doing fifteen years ago? A lot like Callisto or Godflesh, it is very much rock music tricked out in the techniques of metal, albeit with greater competence than either genre is accustomed to. Songs develop like indie rock: it seems quirky at first until you realize it’s a thesis-antithesis deviation away from a second chorus that’s going to finish out the whole thing. Chord progressions: emo. Vocals: emo metalcore hybrid. Mood: indie. Lasting impact: none; it’s very much like the rest in this genre despite being more musically adept, and brings nothing new in form or content to the table, even if it does “post-metal” better than others.

Verminous – Impious Sacrilege

A fusion of later Merciless and early Seance, this is high-octane blasting drums and quick phrasal riffs alternating with Suffocation style abrupt staccato bursts. The problem is that these songs go nowhere but into their own cycles which, in order to be self-evident, are based on well-known patterns and so extremely repetitive both in listener experience and in motivic redundancy within each song. I would really like to like this. It could be compared to early Grave in its “go for it” attitude, but achieves nothing much memorable because its songs are so linear.

These Arms Are Snakes – The Swallower and Dove

Post-rock with prog-rock jazz-influenced drumming, this CD uses plenty of dissonant and jangly melodies over which pop pours like warm asphalt, but doesn’t fill the cracks in these spacious tunes. Punk riffs plentiful add to the mix, which has a metal-influenced sensibility of The Epic but as filtered through the garage bands of the 1970s who liked blistering the ear and then pouring vinegar syrup into it as a means of hooking the listener. For those who like post-rock and post-metal, this supple fusion purrs.

Volkmar – Blessed Sin

Combining Gothic post-punk/industrial like Sisters of Mercy with a mainstream version of underground metal, Volkmar create simple but ear-catching music that sounds like Gehenna and Wolfsheim colliding in the midst of their associated influences. You can hear Emperor at the edges of their technique, but there’s a lifetime of riffology here with influences as wide as Ministry and Deicide, although all are softened into music designed to flow rather than abruptly disturb. Riffs are basic and tend to hold space rather than redefine it, metal-style, with phrase shape changes but these riffs nonetheless serve the organ-style keyboards and half-chanted, half-sung vocals quite well. It’s not my thing, but it’s what anyone who thinks Marilyn Manson, White Zombie or the new Misfits are cool should be listening to.

Krallice – Krallice

Someone disguised an emo album — listen to the chord shapes and progressions used — as an underground tr00 kvlt black metal album, which is sort of like mixing safe sex and nuclear war. The result is a droning, mincing work that rips a bunch of black metal riffs from the Impaled Nazarene and Niden Div 187 school of budget riffs and puts them into a saccharine melodic morass like Weakling. As a result, individual riffs sound OK, but when you try to listen to the whole thing, you’re left with a sense of it being inappropriate. The crustcore howled-into-the-wind vocals sound out of place as well. But most damningly, there’s zero dynamic change. This will be forgotten in less than a year.

Lions – No Generation

The Beastie Boys “Ill Communication” gets resurrected: rock, industrial and hip-hop beats meld under blues rock riffs played with the rhythm of metal riffs, either the Motorhead “galloping Harley” rhythm or Black Sabbath formal march pace, while a vocalist intones his words with the alternate whine of alternative rock and deft syllabic tuck of underground hip-hop. They know how to write a good harmony and put together remarkably effective songs. Like the Beastie Boys, I can see Lions — with their panopoly of pop culture metaphors mixed into a language of their own — giving the current generation a font of opinion work with which to pepper both their complaints to parents and politically serious college admissions essays.

Withering – Festum Melancholia

This CD sounds like a hybrid between Amorphis “Tales from the Thousand Lakes” and Sentenced “Amok,” complete with the failing of both, which is an inability to let the voice of their music fly free from its heavy metal origins. The big cheesy heavy metal riffs are in here, as are some expertly executed death metal and black metal parts. The problem is that the idea of throwing a bunch of stuff together and somehow making the hybrid distinctive doesn’t work, as metalcore teaches us. Their strength is the bittersweet melodies that tie this whole thing together, which with more focus paid on finding a direction, could really be a great strength. Watch this band in the future, but perhaps bypass this release.

Gortuary – Manic Thoughts of Perverse Mutilation

This band reminds me of Psychomancer, who were sort of around a few years ago, but without the ability to grasp the core of what they’re expressing in a song and bring it to light. All instrumentation is capable, songwriting technique is good, but songs don’t come together and end up being a chaotic riff salad of contradictory impulses. That they do this in old school death metal aesthetic is at first memorable, until you realize that this CD lacks what made the old school great: the ability to bring a dark, brooding, powerful vision of life alive and make it exciting. Spare us.

Green Carnation – Journey to the End of the Night

Add some indie into your doom metal, throw in female vocals that would make Celtic Frost proud, and then update its heavy metal/hard rock riffery with some recent additions from prog-metal, and you have Green Carnation. This CD maintains an interesting mood, but it’s all the texture of the vocals and the pacing, because as art it doesn’t hold up as more than an interesting variation on a known archetype. One of the more adept bands at the songwriting game, Green Carnation are content to use minimal riffing that nonetheless exerts some demands in keeping track of its wandering harmonic focal point and its somewhat abstruse rhythms. It’s like a version of Skepticism that got bred early in the game with later Enslaved or Borknagar, but the real problem is that it is insipid. Melodic progressions trail off in a direction they never resolve; rhythms and song structures build, then fade away; no point is ever made. Neat ideas, good execution, bad (or no) direction.

Dark Angel – We Have Arrived

Unfortunately for this, I heard it after Destruction, which put it well in its place. So you wanna be in what imbeciles called “thrash” but really was speed metal updated after Slayer, where bands like Rigor Mortis, Destruction, Kreator, Pestilence and Devastation go? Really — this is moron music when it’s done wrong, because it likes to have choruses match the dominant rhythm of their most frequent phrase — and here it’s done wrong. Recycled Slayer patterns, a little technical leaps, influences from Sodom and Metallica, but basically it goes nowhere. Very catchy, which becomes annoying when the vapidity sinks in. My advice: people will tell you about this forgotten gem from the past. Bury it. It doesn’t suck but it’s like a bicycle for fishes — unnecessary.

Past Lives – Strange Symmetry

Dramatic, poised like the wit of a writer of letters to an antiquated editor, this music is rock in the style of later Beatles with diverse influences uptucked and emulsified by its strong sense of its own direction. Songs follow a melody that develops, with quirks, into a conventional pop cycle but gives space to the vocalist whose voice bends, creels, dives and twists like metal in fire. Shot through all of this is a facile study of riffs across all genres prevalent in the last twenty years, with the guitarist enjoying to play “in the shadows,” casting some of his more developed offerings into the offbeats, out of focus, as a means of steeping this album in subtlety.

Sakrefix – In Shadow’s Embrace

It’s like In Flames reincarnated. Heavy metal riffs, updated into speed metal, are played in melodic songs that want to be a harder version of Cradle of Filth, maybe throw in some later At the Gates, but at its heart the same plodding stuff that made heavy metal unbearable in the late 1970s is here. Sure, there’s a lot of death metal technique, and these guys are reasonably educated musicians so a few nifty harmonies emerge in transitions, but because they don’t actually write songs these are stranded amidst unassociated, disorganized data that confuses any meaning with chronological prevalence. Check your brain at the door.

Watain – Sworn to the Dark

A friend whose opinion I respect describes these guys as carrying on the spirit of classic Mayhem. Yet what made Mayhem great wasn’t the consistency, but the variations, and Watain is all about setting up a comfortable pattern of melody diverging into rhythm violence, and then pulling out again. None of the mystery of Mayhem is here, but all of the technique; do we want to define great music solely by technique, or what it expresses? Watain are masters of the melodic aggressive black metal sound but go nowhere else. They also like arpeggios and other forms of linear variation that when overused make the music sound like warning tones from factory machinery. Should this be avoided? More than that: a pogrom should be formed against it, as all things which imitate form and not some unifying principle — idea, content, spirit, vision — should be burned to hell because they’re stupid, deconstructive, granular, dysfunctional crap like McCheeseburgers and robot solicitations over the phone. Everything that made the underground weak so it could be replaced with metalcore is present in this album. Too bad, since the first Watain CD is good and even has spirit. Burn this ruin that does not yet appear ruined.

Bloodbath – The Fathomless Misery

If old school death metal (to you) means (objectively, in a subjective sense) that Pantera riffs should bounce right into fast melodic riffs under which an unrelenting snare doubletimes the pace of ranting vocals, and you like that mixed — metalcore style — in a salad of musical “scenes” borrowing different influences and so, when put together, revealing nothing but the underlying indecision common to all melanges, then by all means go buy this fucking thing. But to my mind this is a clothes dryer into which someone has pitched the best moments of the ten top bands in every metal genre, and hit the mix button, coming back later to string it together with rhythm. Like grunge and nu-metal bands, it is obsessed with “difference” through contrast, so in place of dynamics we get the fast melodic riff then the bouncing rhythm riff, or really fast then really slow, or death metal riffs and then some bouncy hard rock/punk combination that sounds like the soundtrack to an aerobics video for Slipknot fans who got too fat to fit into their parole hearings. This CD reminds me of At the Gates “Slaughter of the Soul” and Hail of Bullets “Of Frost in War,” and is equally insincere and directionless.

Katharsis – 666

When things die, those who want the authenticity they conveyed find a way to convincingly imitate them the way computers can imitate speech. You’ll read a paragraph, and it reads “just like” normal writing, until you realize that the sentences don’t relate to each other in meaning, only in appearance of language. While some might argue our record reviews are the same way (and we do generate them with Perl scripts), this CD ends up being a giant disappointment as your heart lifts at the thought of something Darkthroney and good but your deeper brain keeps reminding you that this is random fragments stitched together without any sense of direction. It’s like a yard sale of true black metal bits, and whatever you can afford you put in a box and drop it on top of a constant, fast drumbeat. Then, when you wake up from the nap you did not intend to take, you can ask yourself what it meant. Avoid!

Hollenthon – Opus Magnum

This music is some of the cheesiest and slickest stuff I’ve heard this year. It tries to blend soundtrack melodrama with identifiable metal riffs, and so we end up with Trans-Siberian Orchestra, the “300” edition. Death metal vocals over industrial rhythms with guitars shadowed exactly by keyboards, varying between heavy metal and rock riffs, and the darker underground metal — but by the nature of how it is constructed it cannot leave behind the syncopated expectation nor use a tremolo strum, making a sound that could have just stepped off the pages of a Hollywood blockbuster about superheroes with dark but really flamingly obvious secrets from their childhood. Like so many things that turn out to be shit, this is well executed, but its lack of having of a soul dooms it to being utterly comical and redundant.

The Giraffes – Prime Motivator

Technically, I suppose, this is “surf metal,” but it’s more accurate to describe it as groove-oriented hard rock with an underpinning of punk and Motorhead-style metal rhythm. At that point, resemblance to metal is over: the riffs are Led Zeppelin, the basslines are Sex Pistols, and the vocals are somewhere between Alice in Chains and Barenaked Ladies. This is probably one of the ultimate bar bands for those who want something loud and storming but without the complex emotions or violence of heavy metal. Some compare it to Fu Manchu, and I think that’s roughly close, but really it reminds me more of a lounge act taking on Led Zeppelin or later Danzig and making it super-catchy, yet giving it the dark undertones of alternative rock and nu-metal so it has some meat on the bones. If you are a metal person, avoid this release. If you’re looking for new directions in hard rock, it’s worth exploring.

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Classical Music for Metal Fans

Underground metal — the more artistic and less crowd-pandering arm of the heavy metal genre — headed downwards in quality simultaneously heading upward in quantity, starting in about 1994. As the old bands got sick of their day jobs and sold out in failing bids to become “professional” musicians like crowd-pandering heavy metal, and the new bands started imitating the effects of older metal without knowing the causes, underground death metal and black metal fans began casting out for something new.

Our choices are bleak. We can try jazz, but it’s not only pompous, repetitive and random, but also the exact contrary spirit to what metal espouses: a charging ahead and saying YES to life by accepting the intolerant and violent aspects of nature as necessary for its beauty. Jazz is socialization music. So is rock, pop, etc. What’s left? We could listen to neofolk, but after about three albums it becomes clear that neofolk is a sham, namely bad rock music that sells because it is controversial and played acoustically sometimes like folk music. Then there’s electronica, which has a few acts but is mostly more party music. Popular music does not offer another genre with the power and sincerity of metal, so instead you get “soul” which means blind compassion and encourages, rather than discourages, submission to conformity.

There is an option but unfortunately for modern listeners, it does not conform to the production values of rock, so you can’t throw it on and have it aggressively grab your head the way loud-mastered, constant syncopated drumming and “soulful” human wailing will. It requires you to clear your desk, empty your mind and listen with your whole attention, and as a result it’s less convenient than the junk they’ll sell you at the record store. It’s not as cheap to produce or promote either, which is why that record store is there — listening to classical is not just bucking a trend, it’s bucking an industry based around trends, and the same industry that afflicts metal and turns good bands into crowd-pandering drek.

For the metalhead looking to get into classical music there is almost no recognition of this effect. The classical fans have no idea how to communicate with metalheads (and generally don’t understand or like metal, conflating Guns and Roses with Demilich, Atheist and Gorguts in the most oblivious way possible) and the classical industry has been sidelined for so long that it has no idea how to explain the beauty of classical or give modern listeners a chance. It operates like a cult, assuming that those who are in the cult belong there and everyone else is crazy — not a horrible assumption, you’ll find after six months of listening to classical, given the wide gulf of quality and brainpower between classical and mainstream music.

To address this problem, we list here some good introductory pieces and recordings for metalheads. Unlike popular music, classical music is written by a composer, shaped by a conductor and performed by an orchestra — and that does not even take into account different recording times, technologies and locations. So there’s another four layers on top of the mind-numbingly-simple “Band Name – Album Name” that we’re accustomed to, thanks to metal’s heritage in rock. These pieces are here because they capture the spirit of metal — a Romanticist transcendental idealism — in a way that eases you into the transition.

  1. Brahms, Johannes – The Four Symphonies

    Pure Romanticism, which is the most beautiful classical genre but also its most easily misled into human emotional confusion. Flowing, diving, surging passages which storm through tyrannical opposition to reach some of the most Zen states ever put to music.

    Four Symphonies by Herbert von Karajan/Berliner Philharmonik Orchestra

  2. Respighi, Ottorino – Pines, Birds, Fountains of Rome

    Italian music is normally inconsequential. This has an ancient feeling, a sense of weight that can only be borne out in an urge to reconquest the present with the past.

    Pines, Birds, Fountains of Rome by Louis Lane/Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

  3. Schubert, Franz – Symphonies 8 & 9

    A sense of power emerging from darkness, and a clarity coming from looking into the halls of eternity, as translated by the facile hand of a composer who wrote many great pieces before dying young.

    Symphonies 8 & 9 by Herbert von Karajan/Berliner Philharmonik Orchestra

  4. Saint-Saens, Camille – Symphony 3

    Like DeBussy, but with a much wider range, this modernist Romantic rediscovers all that is worth living in the most warlike and bleak of circumstances.

    Symphony No. 3 by Eugene Ormandy/Philadelphia Orchestra

  5. Bruckner, Anton – Symphony 4

    Writing symphonic music in the spirit of Wagner, Bruckner makes colossal caverns of sound which evolve to a sense of great spiritual contemplation, the first “heaviness” on record.

    Romantic Symphony by Herbert von Karajan/Berliner Philharmonik Orchestra

  6. Berwald, Franz – Symphony 2

    The passion of Romantic poetry breathes through this light and airy work which turns stormy when it, through a ring composition of motives, seizes a clear statement of theme from its underlying tempest of beauty.

    Symphony No. 2 by David Montgomery/Jena Philharmonic

  7. Paganini, Niccolo – 24 Caprices

    Perhaps the original Hessian, this long-haired virtuoso wore white face paint, had a rumored deal with the devil, and made short often violent pieces that made people question their lives and their churches.

    24 Caprices by James Ehnes

  8. Anner Bylsma and Lambert Orkis – Sonatas by Brahms and Schumann

    We list these by performer because this informal and sprightly interpretation is all their own. Played on period instruments, it captures the beauty and humor of these shorter pieces with the casual knowledge of old friends.

    Brahms: Sonatas for Piano and Cello; Schumann: 5 Stücke im Volkston

Some conductors do an excellent job of certain styles, and so get picked more than others. Herbert von Karajan, in particular, is the original master of the Faustian style of conducting Northern European classical music. Certain performers like Orkis and Bylsma are also preferred for their ability to interpret certain ideas that — like genres have ideas in common and as a result, sounds in common — composers explored as part of their collective membership in certain time periods or recurring ideas, like the Faustian, the Romantic and the reverent/sublime outlook, all of which are shared between metal and classical.

These similarities in composition explain why metal and classical have a lot in common — and this is why the correct interpretors are needed. Rock is harmonic-rhythmic, metal is phrasal-narrative. When making rock music, you pick a rhythm, and then use a standard song form or variation to fit it into a scale, which in turn determines harmony. Rock riffs are not as active or as shaped as metal riffs, because generally they are variations within a scale whose goal is to return to the chord being played; they are based around open chords and lead rhythm playing of the scale. Metal is phrasal, meaning that its riffs take the form of phrases made of power chords, and narrative, which means that metal song structure is determined by content of each song more than by a standard form — that’s the infamous “riff salad” rock musicians bemoan in metal.

Classical music also uses narrative composition. While imbeciles will focus on its fixed forms — sonata, fugue, aria — the more important idea here is that the song follows the poetic content being expressed. This mirrors the epic poetry of ancient European and Indian civilizations, where it was understood that each adventure had stages of ritual, much like we have stages in acceptance of death or change. As a result, there was a need for an overture, a reconsideration, some changes and a recapitulation and synthesis of themes, and these got formalized in the song structures that today imbeciles regard as iron laws. The narrative style however is the common thread in classical music from its beginning to the present.

In rock music, you write to fit the scale to the rhythm, and then melody is added to accentuate that. This is easier work because all of the real variables are defined by the form. Similarly, in jazz, the form is fixed and within it the player riffs off harmony and rhythm, and inserts fragments of melody to that end — this is why most jazz artists make thousands of recordings of a song, and only one or two are considered “the real deal” by collectors: without the artist making it happen, cerebrally, the pieces fit together by random convenience. Classical works by the opposite principle, which is creating or adapting a general form to the poetic needs of a piece — expressing the change in both listener and “actor” within the story or feeling being related — and then designing a combination of rhythm, melody, theme, motif and form to express it well.

Metal is similar, although less schooled in this regard, because it seeks to express a similar worldview — underlying philosophical assumptions about life — to that of classical. Metal is reverent for the sublime; it sees the power and the horror of nature as necessary for its perpetuation, and is like nature intolerant of the oblivious and unrealistic because they create a parasitic slowdown of the exciting experiences in life. It derives much of its thematic development from the pace of horror movies, in which a few “awakened” people realize that they face a supernatural — or invisible pattern underlying all reality — foe against which technology and their oblivious, unrealistic social partners are useless. Finally, metal like classical expresses the Faustian spirit, or a sense of struggling for the rare and inconvenient beauty life offers, and fighting back those who submit to static obedience or dogma; this sense of purity through struggle is called vir, or the virtuous warlike acts of ancient man. These themes repeat throughout classical music, like metal, and while there are exceptions, it’s more than a coincidence that the best among metal and classical use these themes repeatedly.

If you find yourself enjoying the above, we recommend you move on to other classical music that expresses these ideas, and bypass the trendier “new music” and quirky classical that your friends, in an attempt to impress you with how knowledgeable or non-normal they are, will tell you are important. Our attitude is different: build outward from the greats and later get into the novelties like “new music” or Eric Satie, Charles Ives or John Cage, if you decide at that point that you want to explore postmodernism, which is deconstruction of all that metal and classical music desire. In any case, we hope you enjoy the music and can turn on some friends to this treasure of musical beauty that hides in plain sight amongst us.

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Stressful Music Prevents Clogged Arteries

Listening to a cheerful favourite tune has a beneficial effect on blood vessels, widening them and protecting them against heart disease, researchers found.

Stressful or disturbing music, on the other hand, narrows the arteries and may be bad for the heart.

Most participants in the American study found John Denver-style country music the most uplifting, while “heavy metal” rock made them anxious.

Joyful music was thought to trigger the release of endorphins, brain chemicals linked to emotion that are known to induce feelings of well-being.

The Telegraph

We don’t know what “heavy metal rock music” this study used, but my guess is they picked something loud and pointless like Slipknot.

On the other hand, music that shows power and beauty in darkness, like death metal and black metal, is both dark and uplifting.

It keeps the arteries from clogging by both widening and contracting them, if the study above is to be believed.

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How metal makes its way in the world

AC/DC’s new album, “Black Ice,” has not only has topped the charts in more than two dozen countries, but also debuts atop the latest U.S. album chart with sales of more than 780,000 copies.

AP

We knew they were doing well, but check this out:

Gradually, and without getting much media attention, AC/DC has become the most popular currently active rock band in the country, to judge by albums sold. Since 1991, when Nielsen SoundScan started tracking music sales, this Australian band has sold 26.4 million albums, second only to the Beatles, and more than the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin. Over the past five years, as CD sales have cratered, AC/DC albums have sold just as well as or better than ever; the band sold more than 1.3 million CDs in the United States last year, even though it hasn’t put out any new music since 2000.

{ snip }

“They have a purist approach,” said Steve Barnett, the chairman of Columbia Records, a division of Sony Music Entertainment. (He also managed the band from 1982 to 1994.) “Their instinct was always to do the right thing for fans, think long term and not be influenced by financial rewards.”

{ snip }

AC/DC’s insistence on selling albums has almost certainly helped keep its sales from declining. And although many music executives believe that not selling tracks online leads fans to download music illegally, AC/DC’s music is downloaded from file-sharing sites less than that of Led Zeppelin, which does sell music digitally, according to BigChampagne, a company that monitors peer-to-peer services.

NYT

Metal has always defined itself by doing what it believes is right, not following the crowd. Unlike teeny angstbopper music, it does not define itself solely by not being part of the crowd, but by doing what it believes is eternally right.

Like good Romantic poets (Blake, Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth), metal worships the ancient, the powerful and the definitive. It hates the cushy, the Crowd, and the kind of mental illusion designed to make life safe ‘n’ comfy at the expense of its intensity and meaning.

AC/DC, despite being a watered-down version of this, have continued to dominate by showing the world that a strong spirit that says YES to life instead of whining about how unfair, inequitable, painful, fatal, etc. life can be, in the long run, is what the people who keep our civilizations running want.

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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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