Interview: Les Evans (Cryptic Slaughter)

Cryptic Slaughter, the quintessential 1980s thrash band, where thrash means crossover music of a simple and effective nature. their music, of short bursts of song with explosive drumming and ragged punkish speedcore riffs, projected a forerunner archetype of what grindcore would soon be. Albums like “convicted” and “money talks” displayed the formative techniques of death metal. But even independent of its historical role, this music crushes with its efficiency and organic texture. Les Evans, guitarist of Cryptic Slaughter, was kind enough to answer some questions for us via email. working on this interview has been one of the high points of the experience of writing about metal, and it is a privilege to interact with a founding mind of a band such as Cryptic Slaughter.

Do you think a generational difference exists between bands, in terms of how the thinking that inspires them to make their music changes?

Sure, and every generation thinks that theirs is the most relevant! Your immediate surroundings, differing time frames included, will always impact your creative output. But music crosses generational, race, and class divisions. So even bands from different eras maintain a common thread. I’m just happy that there are still “thinking” bands out there.

How was music composed in Cryptic Slaughter?

Generally, we wrote songs individually, after which we would present the rough sketches to the rest of the band. We would then tweak arrangements and embellish. Lyrics usually weren’t written until the music was finished. A rare exception was Lowlife. Scott came up with that opening drum riff out of the blue, and I wrote the accompanying guitar part right on the spot. I can’t remember if the rest of the song had already been written or not.

Do you conceive of songs as rhythms, or riff patterns, or abstract ideas or melodies? What has been for you normally the genesis of songwriting?

This will be difficult to put into words. I can’t say that I really have a conscious formula. Usually it’s the melody first, then the rythym. Sometimes I’ll hear music in my head and then try to translate it into something tangible. Or I’ll just play around loosely with the guitar. If something promising comes up, I immediately record it and then attempt all manner of variations on the pattern or riff to see which sounds the best to me. After I come up with something I’m happy with, I’ll put it aside for a few days and then listen to it again. If I still like it upon the second listen, it’s a keeper. When Jimi Hendrix was asked a question similar to yours, he replied that he was like an antenna, or an open channel through which ideas were allowed to flow. In other words, his songs came from somewhere else. And while I would never, ever, try to compare myself to Hendrix, I do understand what he meant. Occasionally, I’ll write music and suddenly, it’s like it’s not me playing. Almost as if I’m outside of myself as an oserver. There’s a great mystery behind art.

Rap (and the synth music that inspired it) seems to be digital-technology-dependent, where other forms of music are less so. How does this affect the viewpoints of the artists?

I embrace the technological advances, but I do believe that any artist that relies too heavily on technology runs the risk of having his music sound like it was written and performed by a computer. But then again, that’s exactly what some bands are after. They want it to sound as cold and inorganic as possible because it evokes a very sinister feel. Whatever yanks your crank.

Of all the thrash guitarists, your work was seemingly the most unabashedly punk in raw dynamics while having a metallish sense of arrangement. In what ways did each genre influence your songwriting?

When I was a kid, I was metal to the core. I turned on to hardcore right when Cryptic was first coming together. Back then, those styles of music were so underground that I automatically gravitated towards anything new I could get my hands on. And I was influenced by everything that was fast and raw. We wanted to do something different to stand out from the crowd. The ultra-speed stuff kind of just evolved without any direct intent. But as we got faster and faster, it definitely necessitated a change in the way I was playing. So what eventually developed as my style was never pre-meditated.

What bands inspired you when you were starting out, pre- and post-Convicted?

Before Cryptic formed, the most important bands to me were Slayer, Metallica, Venom, and Motörhead. Then I started listening to GBH, RKL, Suicidal Tendencies, Discharge, and Minor Threat. I had friends in high school who were into punk, so we would borrow each others records. I think they really wanted to convert me, and I guess it worked. Before Convicted was even recorded, we had taken a definite turn towards hardcore. The earlier songs on that record, Rest in Pain, War to the Knife, & Rage to Kill, were more metal. Whereas M.A.D., State Control, & Nation of Hate reflected our new direction, lyrically as well as musically.

Do you think the metal genre has been obsoleted?

I don’t think any musical genre can be considered obsolete if there is still an active fan base. It’s almost impossible to be original anymore because it seems like everything has been done to death. So hats off to the modern pioneers like Strapping Young Lad, who have brought something new and distinct to the scene.

I could find no reference to Cryptic Slaughter demos anywhere on the web (the net is often useless). Were there any and if so, can you give a brief demography?

There was only one, recorded in May, 1985 entitled “Life in Grave”. Five songs, two of which (R.I.P & War) we re-recorded for Convicted. It was much more metal influenced.

Before us there is certainly left only nothing; but that which struggles against this flowing away into nothing, namely our nature, is indeed just the will-to-live which we ourselves are, just as it is our world. That we abhor nothingness so much is simply another way of saying that we will life so much, and that we are nothing but this will and know nothing but it alone. But we now turn our glance from our own needy and perplexed nature to those who have over-come the world, in whom the will, having reached complete self-knowledge, has found itself again in everything, and then freely denied itself, and who then merely wait to see the last trace of the will vanish with the body that is animated by that trace. Then, instead of the restless pressure and effort; instead of the constant transition from desire to apprehension and from joy to sorrow; instead of the never-satisfied and never-dying hope that constitutes the life-dream of the man who wills, we see that peace that is higher than all reason, that ocean-like calmness of the spirit, that deep tranquility, that unshakable confidence and serenity, whose mere selection in the countenance, as depicted by Raphael and Correggio, is a complete and certain gospel. Only knowledge remains; the will has vanished.

– A. Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation

How have your own musical tastes change through the years?

Mainly they’ve broadened. I still like heavy music, but my CD collection is pretty eclectic. Around 1987, we realized that there was a revolution happening in music that was being led by bands like Jane’s Addiction, Fishbone, Faith No More, the Chili Peppers, Mr. Bungle, Soundgarden, etc. Together with Wehrmacht on tour, we would get everybody from both bands on stage and play “Fight for your right” by Beastie Boys. People tripped on that because it was the last thing they expected.

Do you think the underground exists, still?

I do. It’s just that the underground has much more exposure now than it ever did before the advent of the internet. There is some real irony here. In 1985, it was hard to get any information on new bands outside of the mainstream. Now, there’s so much goddamn information available on every band imaginable, good and bad, that you couldn’t process it all in three lifetimes.

Some would say, as Wagner did, that music is a form of paint one uses to create art (narrative, descriptive or poetic works, normally in structure); others would say that music provides art within itself and has no correspondence to a more generalized “artisticness.”

Both points of view are correct. It all depends on how you define and perceive “art”. And that, of course, is a very personal distinction. Wagner and his contemporaries came from a much more rigid time in music history, which required a very strict adherence to form and theory. Imagine what those guys could have come up with had they been given complete musical freedom.

Do you see Cryptic Slaughter’s lyrics as having more of an aspect of the political, or as being social commentary?

Whenever we addressed a political figure or situation, I think that inherently, it becomes social commentary. For instance, when we bitched about Reagan, it was because he was making decisions that were affecting our lives. Political agendas, no matter how convoluted, eventually have a direct effect on the population. Of course, we were great about complaining, but offered very little in the way of solutions. But what do you expect from four young punks?

You said “Around 1987, we realized that there was a revolution happening in music that was being led by bands like Jane’s Addiction, Fishbone, Faith No More, the Chili Peppers, Mr. Bungle, Soundgarden, etc.” – after some research, I am guessing this means a funk/rap revolution in music. Do you think this revolution is still ongoing?

Actually, I was referring more to the punk ethics employed by those bands. They all have roots in the underground and, against all odds, managed to break into the mainstream with varying degrees of success. Let’s not forget, popular music in the early to mid 80’s was abysmal. It was all about Richard Marx, Kaja Goo Goo, and an endless array of butt rock bands. Jane’s, FNM, etc. were innovators and the driving force behind turning the tide. There was an enormous amount of creativity and risk taking in this respect from 1987-1992. And at the time, it was truly inspiring because it felt like the rest of the world finally got hip, and that meant that anything was possible for the rest of us. I should probably broaden my list by adding some more very influential bands; Ministry, Voi Vod, Primus, Butthole Surfers, Rollins Band, The Pixies, and it goes on and on. It’s also important to note that these bands made their impact on their own terms. They didn’t change for the masses, the masses came to them.

How do you describe the music of Cryptic Slaughter, and do you assign it to any subgenres (thrash, crossover, metalcore)?

I still like the original tag line I came up with in 1985, “Hardcore Thrash”. Pretty good marketing for an eighteen year old. It’s simple, yet it tells the story.

How has this revolution changed our perceptions and expectations of music as a whole?

It effected me greatly, and certainly had an impact on music as a whole, because it was really more than just a fusion of metal/funk/rap/punk and whatever else. A new musical paradigm was created, one in which bands were no longer confined to specific categories. This, in turn, forced a shift in general perception that allowed for much more artistic freedom. The audience came to expect bands to be more multi-faceted and eclectic. It changed music forever.

If you could do it all over again, what would you change about your discography?

Well, I’d like to re-record the first three records. I was never happy with how any of them sounded, especially “Stream of Consciousness.” And there are certain songs that I absolutely can’t listen to, like Hypocrite. I realize that it’s probably sacrilege for me to think these thoughts out loud. We really didn’t know anything about recording or production, so we basically just plugged in and played. Maybe that was part of the charm.

Two rumors: that your albums were to be re-released by a Pennsylvania label, and that the new album will approximate “speedcore” or crustcore – can you tell me anything about these and their degrees of veracity?

The plan at this time is to re-issue the first two individually, both with the original artwork. For bonus tracks, we will include the demo, along with a substantial amount of live and rehearsal material, most of which has never been heard outside of our circle of friends. Regarding the new material, I’m really happy with what we’ve written, but I have no idea which category it will fall into. We were always a band that people could never agree on anyway, in terms of genre, and I don’t expect that to change now. It’s fast, brutal, and angry.

How did the members of Cryptic Slaughter meet and come together?

We all played soccer, and had all been playing for years. That’s the truth. If not for the the American Youth Soccer Association, there would not have been a Cryptic Slaughter. Bill and I went on to both play for the same high school team, although not at the same time. I met Scott and Bill through a guy named Adam Scott who was actually one of the original members of the band. I used to give Adam guitar lessons and he was younger than me by a couple of years. He told me he knew a drummer through soccer. So when we first started jamming in the summer of 84′, I had just turned 17, Adam was 15, and Scott was 14 & 1/2. We stank on ice, but just finding other pepole into the same music back then was so rare that we bonded pretty quickly. Bill, another one of Adam’s soccer buddies, joined up after school started that Fall. We steadily got better, and played a lot of covers. I remeber that we did Ace of Spades, Aggresive Perfector, Welcome to Hell, and City Baby Attacked by Rats fairly well. Adam’s parents, who were both teachers, began to put a lot of pressure on him to quit. They were just looking out for him. but he started to miss rehearsals so we kicked him out and became a three piece. Rob (who was not a soccer player) came into the fold about a year later, two months or so before we recorded Convicted. We didn’t even know him, but it worked out better than any of us could have imagined. Rob’s playing and songwriting had a huge impact on improving our sound.

Do revolutions in music like the one you describe exist until they get mainstreamed, and then somehow get consumed? Or are they ongoing?

Everything gets ruined when too many people find out about it. But you enjoy it while it lasts. Once there’s a “new sound”, every major label tries to jump on the bandwagon. That kind of over-saturation and dumbing down of the music is what kills originality. And what’s worse, you’ve got these copy cat bands that emerge in an attempt to cash in. Remember how many Nirvana wanna-be’s there were? I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with having influences, but when you’re gearing your music towards what you think will be the next big thing, you’ve lost sight of what’s important. Take Faith No More’s example. They had a huge hit with The Real Thing, and then proceeded to turn their backs on commercialism in favor of following their instincts.

Was Stream of Consciousness a live or studio live album, or did it acquire its deliciously noisy production another way?

It was recorded in an abandoned beer vat, previously owned by Pabst Blue Ribbon. No shit. It was basically a wherehouse. That record actually sounded a lot better before it was mastered. My buddy Jason, Cryptic’s only real roadie, recently foud a test pressing for Sream that Rob had given him fourteen years ago. As is typical, it had a blank label with a section for comments. And what Rob had written summed it up with two words; “IT SUCKS”. Don’t get me wrong, I think the songs on that record are by far the best we ever wrote as a band, but none of us were happy with the production. And for all intents and purposes, by the time that record was released, we were already broken up. An interesting footnote, also thanks to Jason; we have a rehearsal tape of those songs that sounds better than the record, including a tune that was never released. We want to have it released with the re-issues.

On the metal history page (http://www.anus.com/metal/about/history.html) metal is grouped into several waves, based on what worldview they had because of historical events current to the time of each wave. Do you see a difference in the musical approach between bands of members born in approx. 1968, 1974, 1982 and 1986?

Oh yeah, people from different eras grew up in different worlds. I came up in the laid back 70’s when pot was decriminalized (thank you, Jimmy Carter) and sex couldn’t kill you. Then, just as I was ready to start having some of that fun, along comes the “Just Say No” Reagan years and AIDS. And this was also when the Cold War got really ugly and the threat of nuclear war loomed large. I was confused as fuck. And pissed. Someone born in 74′ would probably tell you about their fear of being drafted into the Persian Gulf War. But I think another reason for the difference in approach is simply the desire to do something unique. the same thing over and over again gets old, so music has to grow and evolve.

Some musical thinkers claim to be able to visualize music as shapes or patterns, and from there conceptualize the song as an aesthetic object. How do you conceptualize sound, or is it a conscious process at all?

I tend to experience music more in terms of colors, but then again, I’ve eaten more acid than most people! For me, writing music is about intuition. There are no rules or perameters or formulas. It’s either good or it’s not, and you have to be objective enough to tell the difference. Because even the greats have written crap, but were smart enough to recognize it as such.

What do you think of the overall prospects for humanity given the state of our current treatment of our environment and selves?

Well, humanity will be going away, possibly within the next couple of hundred years. I believe that we’re too far gone now to change our ways enough to make a signifigant difference. Some of us will probably take off for another planet so we can begin the cycle all over again. But after we leave, the Earth will eventually heal itself. Throughout the millenia, it’s been through a lot worse than humanity.

What was the best part about being in Cryptic Slaughter during the innovative days of 1980s thrash?

The high point was the many many friends we made. I got to know people from all over the world, and I was lucky enough to experience a lot of great music.

What future directions do you see opening for people wanting to create loud, heavy, violent music? Do you think the ideals that make one wish to make such music have changed, or do you see the impetus as emotional?

Music is accessable in way now that we couldn’t have imagined in 1986. Back then, before the internet and MP3’s, kids in Nebraska had a hell of a time even finding Cryptic records. Even in L.A., I couldn’t find our records half the time. With the software available for home recording, there really are no limits. You just have to be motivated and creative in the art of self promotion. I’m sure the reasons vary depending on the person, but at the core it’s always driven by emotion. That goes for all forms of music.

Was it difficult to start a band and make it successful at such a young age? I believe you were 17 when Money Talks came out.

I had actually just turned twenty when Money Talks was released in July, 87′. Scott, if I recall correctly, was seventeen and a half. It wasn’t difficult at all because we had no idea what we were doing. We didn’t have anyone telling us what to do or what not to do, which is both good and bad. At the time, I don’t know that we necessarily considered ourselves successful. We saw bands like Suicidal Tendencies as being successful. we were just happy to have a an outlet to create.

Do young people today face a different world than young people of previous generations? How will this affect their music and the ideas they associate with the sounds they are making?

Young people most assuredly face a different world, and the world at present seems to be changing more rapidly than ever before. As a result, any feeling of stability that existed previously is now deteriorating. I don’t think anyone can accurately predict how this will affect how music is written and played. It wouldn’t surprise me, however, if it turns out to be pretty fuckin’ grim.

How did you learn to play guitar?

I took guitar lessons for years from the same guy, a studio musician. He was mainly concerned with teaching me advanced rythyms and chord structures that are most closely identified with jazz and music theory.I took music theory in high school and college as well. It’s funny how I put so much energy into learning “the rules” of music, just to turn around and break them all.

From who/where did the idea for the cover of Money Talks originate?

It came primarily from the artist, Jeff Harp, who also played guitar for Final Conflict. We gave him a lot of freedom, and he created quite a statement of the time. That cover got us on Tipper Gore’s list, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the F.B.I. opened a file on us around the same time. They’ve always kept a close eye on politically-minded musicians.

Santa Monica has always seemed to me to be a hyper-accelerated version of America in transition. Did it influence the topics of early Cryptic Slaughter songs?

I’m sure it did, although indirectly. Santa Monica was a pretty ideal setting in which to grow up. I spent a lot of my youth on the beach as well as the soccer field. Much of S.M. is very rich, but I come from a middle class background. No place is perfect, but we had it better than many kids. By the time we started doing Cryptic, we had begun to realize that the world around us left a lot to be desired.

Do you work on music full time? Family?

I wish I could do music full time, but alas, I work 40 hours a week like most people. I’m married and have a son who will be four years old soon. So I can’t afford to be an irresponsible slacker musician anymore. But I guarantee you that I rode that train for as long as I possibly could.

Do people ever beg you for re-releases of the Cryptic Slaughter albums?

Not really, but I guess the fact that people were paying between $100-$200 on Ebay for our early CD’s could be constued as a form of begging.

Now that the band has reformed, what do you aim to create in a different musical scene and perhaps style?

What we’re doing now is pretty over the top in terms of speed and heaviness. I don’t know that we’re breaking any new ground, but we are attempting to improve on what we helped to create way back when. And we’re setting the bar very high for all aspects from song writing to production.

Do you watch television?

I do, but not a whole lot. Through the influence of my son. our TV is usually set on the Cartoon Network. I’m absolutely addicted to the Sopranos and I usually still watch Letterman and Conan. One of my all time favs was Mystery Science Theater 3000, which finally ended it’s run after twelve years.

What do you think will be the effect of mp3 files and file sharing in a music industry controlled by a few titans, but with many smaller labels and distros?

I think that Napster and the like was a good thing for music. But it was especially crucial to the relatively unknown bands because it helped to get their music out there. Back in 1985, what held the underground together was a network of hardcore tape traders. They circulated hundreds of live shows and demos and helped bands like Cryptic get on the map. No record stores would carry a demo, even if you could somehow get it distributed. Many fans obtained our tapes by trading through the mail, and of course didn’t pay us for them. But the free publicity was well worth whatever we lost in short term profits. It got a buzz going, and pretty soon we were getting contacted from bands, labels, and fans who otherwise never would have heard of us. As far as major labels go, they’ve been bending over their bands and the fans for decades now so I’ve got no sympathy whatsoever. And besides, when I was a kid, I always bought the records I really liked and borrowed the rest from my friends and taped them. It’s the same principal. If you want it but don’t want to pay for it, you can always get it somehow.

You said, “What we’re doing now is pretty over the top in terms of speed and heaviness” – how can these things be increased in music? If you could describe more of your new music, that would be great.

I didn’t mean to imply that we’re going to come along and redefine fast and heavy music. I just wanted to get the point across that this is not going to be “Speak Your Peace, Part ll”. Don’t get me wrong, I love that record, but it’s not where we’re at now. Our new stuff combines blast beats with good rythymic structure and it’s not too complicated. It’s paced well with a definite emphasis on speed.

Catch-all “did I miss anything?” and “anything you’d like to add?” question – if there is any information in those categories you would like to see published in this interview, please fill in now.

Thanks to everyone for the continued support and interest after so many years. Please contact us if you want to be on our e-mail list. And thanks to SRP for probably the most comprehensive interview I’ve ever done.

[This] goes for writers and thinkers: if they resist the predominant use of time today, they are not only predestined to disappear, but they must also contribute to the making of a ‘sanitary cordon’ isolating themselves. In the shelter of this cordon, their destruction is supposed to be able to be put off for a while. But they ‘buy’ this brief and vain delay by modifying their way of thinking and writing in such a way that their works become more or less communicable, exchangeable; in a word, commercializable. But the exchange, the buying and selling of ideas and words, does not fail to contribute, contradictorily to the ‘final solution’ of the problem: how to write, how to think? I mean that they contribute to making even more hegemonic the great rule of controlled time. It follows that public space, Öffentlichkeit, in these conditions, stops being the space for experiencing, testing and affirming the state of mind open to the event, and in which the mind seeks to elaborate an idea of that state itself, especially under the sign of the ‘new.’ Public space today is transformed into a market of cultural commodities, in which ‘the new’ has become an additional source of surplus-value.

– J.-F. Lyotard, The Inhuman

Cryptic Slaughter at the Dark Legions Archive.
Interview with Scott Peterson.

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Absu, Krieg, Ouroboros, Black Witchery, Noctuary and Infernal Oak in San Antonio, Texas

Absu, Krieg, Ouroboros, Black Witchery, Noctuary and Infernal Oak
December 1, 2001
Sam’s Burger Joint
San Antonio, Texas

With underground metal lacking an official convention the yearly un- covering of filthy, degraded and intellectually unstable metal bands has to find whatever common ground it can, and this year in San Antonio’s “Sam’s Burger Joint New Music Compound” the hordes gathered with a lineup of epic proportions: Absu, Krieg, Ouroboros, Black Witchery, Noctuary and Infernal Oak among other local bands.

Infernal Oak played earliest and while much of their set became confused after a technical glitch became known, the performance was similar to their first celebrated appearance at the Atomic Cafe in Austin (thanks to Lord Ashteroth for that mini-festival). Covering in stocking caps they marched to the stage and performed dark, rock-n-rollish metal with a rhythmic surge to it like Celtic Frost meeting P-funk. The music needs some work and so does the stage show but in their nascent state both are intriguing enough to cause curiosity about future works from this band.

Noctuary kept their set compact despite its length, jamming songs back to back in order to fit them all in. Their metal while not visionary in concept or aesthetic is reasonable heavy metal in the Iron Maiden style, when the shrieking high black metal vocals and garnishments of extremity are removed. Drummer Rob Alaniz (formerly of Rise) gave a command performance of dexterity and precision, while both guitarists were impressive for middle experience players and are clearly proficient with mainstream styles.

Black Witchery was missed because the reviewer was elsewhere.

Krieg, with a volunteer tribe of luminaries from North American black metal bands to cover instrumental duties, was a revealing performance from Lord Imperial in which both the completely unleashed and irrational power of his screams and the design by which he accents tone in composition with his howls were exhibited. A handful of Krieg songs including the majestic crowd pleaser “Cold Wind Flame” were issued before a Von cover brought out the rage in audience and performers.

Ouroboros are a Canadian trio consisting of Sebazios Diabolus from Lust and two other musicians of his choice, all of whom were surprisingly competent considering how unsteadily they seemingly played. Their music was the most distinctive of the evening, using internal fills with abrupt self-conflicted breaks to balance phrases which used absurdist stalling and twitching motions to conclude. Often of a hidden melodic nature and sometimes random power chords thrown into pointless rhythmic filler, their music encoded all of its motion in texture and stopped as abruptly as it began, although each song seemed to have some unique form of harmonic shape.

Clearly what many were waiting expectantly, eagerly and even timidly for, the original Texas black metal band, Absu, entered the venue suddenly and went quickly to the stage for setup and performance. With a stoic new guitarist and their classic lineup in full form, the black metallers covered a brief sampling of their works from 1994 to the present before retiring after a brief encore. According to Proscriptor (drums) this was the band’s first concert in four and a half years, and follows his successful appearance at last year’s SOTNC with Judas Iscariot.

Absu is one of the most professional metal bands to be witnessed live. Proscriptor’s drumming and vocal performance is nearly unbelievable and guitarists are competent. The spooky bassist handled his parts well when manic depression did not overwhelm him. They are all excellent musicians who are weathering the storm of criticism, internal struggles and the usual constraints of musicianship and monetary need in conflict.

Infernal Oak are similar to hollenthon with less focus on keyboards and samples. There is not much else to say. They are nearly universally disliked among the black metal crowd for being more rock- n-roll and heavy metal in style than black metal, and this is a fair criticism. This band should stop trying to be underground and should market themselves to the same audience that enjoys Hollenthon, Girls Under Glass, later Pitchshifter, Ministry and Godflesh.

After the Absu event, an exhausted crowd fell back on the burgers, beers and soft chairs (and flirting with Dana Duffey of Demonic Christ) and since the hour had passed eleven many including this reviewer dissipated. While this was not the most polished or visible metal festival one could imagine, it was competent and accomplished its goals by bringing together bands in the scene without standardizing their concert appearances.

Bands:
Absu
Krieg
Ouroboros
Black Witchery
Noctuary
Infernal Oak

Promotors:
Sam’s Burger Joint

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Acerbus in Austin, Texas

Acerbus
November 19, 2001
Metro Club
Austin, TX

Acerbus took to the stage tonight preceded and followed by local acts tangentially related to the demanding and asocial sounds of technical death/grind. Inspired by bands such as Suffocation and Pyaemia to instill further intricacy and complexity of communication within extreme metal, Acerbus stand shoulder to shoulder with some of the more recognized bands from United Guttural and Unique Leader labels. Their songs are mostly intricate lead finger patterning stitching brief integrations of harmony into place and driving the unceasing rhythmic variation and pummeling that is their trademark. Characteristically unaffected and professionally self-criticial about their instrumentalism, Acerbus battered their audience with seven originals, including one new song and six older ones played seemingly faster than the demo from which they are taken, culminating with a cover of “Angel of Death” by Slayer for which Doni of Vesperian Sorrow chimed in on vocals. This event was held at one of the nicer clubs to ever have a metal show in Austin, the Metro on 6th street. If you missed it, do I have to be the one to tell you that you screwed up?

Bands:
Acerbus

Promotors:
Metro Club

 

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Until the Light Takes Us

(Audrey Ewell and Aaron Aites, 2008, 93 min, $16)

If we ask why instead of how an event happened, we find out what made the humans behind it do as they did. “Until the Light Takes Us” explores the why of early 1990s Norwegian black metal. Designed for people with no knowledge of that subculture, the film explains the black metal movement while making its actors emotionally accessible so we feel an urge to understand it. In a time of a sudden interest in metal documentaries, this film stands out by exploring the personalities and ideals that made people invent the music; other films look at the facts of how the music was invented but never the why. We don’t need another documentary telling us millions of people worldwide go crazy for heavy metal so it’s OK if we want to as well. We need to figure out what makes people pick this genre over every other. “Until the Light Takes Us” gets into the why of black metal and the church arsons, murder and media circus that followed. Through fragments of media footage, interviews, and footage of black metal musician Fenriz as he prepares to visit an art exhibit about black metal, this film explores the clash between fantasy and utilitarian modernity that sparked the radicalization of heavy metal. At its culmination, the documentary shows past colliding with present, and a fervent ideal of being against the modern world and believing in a mythic life full of fantasy, adventurous violence and conflict. It is both poignant and literal, like black metal a collision of alienated punk gumption and epic dreams. Like black metal, this film is a study of moods, overlapping in translucent layers, which as they are pulled away show us a simple shape of truth. Although some have bemoaned the inclusion of too much Varg or Fenriz, it became clear from other interviews that musicians are not an articulate bunch and the two who get the most screen time do so in part because they can explain themselves coherently. In the case of Varg, he’s easy to watch: he’s funny, sharp, friendly and his logic is lucid. Fenriz is moodier but his dark sense of absurdist humor commands the film. At the core of this genre, Ewell and Aites find a revolution against consumerism, equality, uniformity, utilitarianism and all other modern concepts by 35-year-old teenagers who never gave up on the idea that life should have adventure, constant discovery and a sense of meaning that unites the entire experience. Unlike most people, these individuals are fully aware of what death means, and when contrasted with the robotic plastic surroundings of the modern world, a parallax shift occurs: we go from seeing them as out of place to seeing their surroundings as out of place or perhaps, irrelevant. This film is a cipher, in that it gives us many entry points to a questioning of modern society and exploration of the ideas of black metal. Among other things, it is obsessed with the erasure of memory and culture, an inspection of the culture of convenience and the isolation it brings, and a hint that we should explore what Joseph Campbell calls “mythic imagination” and Varg calls “fantasy.” Without being socially critical, it is an exploration through the eyes of those who made black metal, and then saw it erased as it became a product with the passage of time.

Metal has been crying out for a movie like this for decades. “Until the Light Takes Us” does what even metalheads cannot do most of the time: it takes the genre seriously as an art form, and peers behind the outlandish behavior and image to try to understand what motivates people to cast aside society for evil metal. For this alone this film should be praised, but it very quietly exposes metal like a blueprint, all while showing us the emotions of the people involved. It is compelling. Clearly these filmmakers knew how to ask the right questions and patiently wait for their subjects to articulate their points of view, then snatch the moments of greatest clarity and present them with impact. Scenes of industrial desolation follow the impact of strident words, and fires of ancient churches melt into shots of the memorabilia and essential moments of a developing genre. Each fan will probably have a wishlist for changing this film, but that only shows how much it seizes the imagination. I would enjoy seeing a comparison between black metal and the European Romantic literature, theatre and music of two centuries ago. Others have commented that less Frost (of Satyricon) might accelerate the latter half, but this reviewer was not troubled by either detail. While much of the material in the movie is well-known in the form that leaked out through the media, rediscovering it through this artfully told history is a dream come true. The documentarians hide themselves and let the characters tell their own side of it. What makes it a dream to which we’d like to return is that it explores the why of this music, and in doing so shows us the fans why we found so much hope and possibility in black metal.

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Samhain – Live in 1984 at Stardust Ballroom, Hollywood

(Music Video Distributors, 2004, 48 min, $20)

This hand-filmed, single-camera narrative documents a time when underground music was still struggling to find its path, and while the quality may not be that of a slick professional recording, the delivery of the band is captured in as much detail as is needed. The sound, when it is not cutting out, is good and separation between instruments and vocals can be heard clearly. Glenn Danzig is an energetic vocalist without either the jaded reserve or overindulgent showmanship of later years, and the crowd looks shellshocked and unsure of what they’re seeing, which has the advantage of them doing fewer stupid things to mar enjoyment of the performance. The band are economical with their onstage motions, and tight in their playing, which gives these songs the same power they have coming off of a CD. An enclosed sticker provokes some nostalgia for the time, an age of xeroxed posters and grimly absurd art, of people gathering in long-forgotten clubs to bash out violent performances. For those who like what Samhain were about, this DVD is everything that could be desired from this foundational band.

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The Michael Schenker Group – Live in Tokyo 1997

(Metal Mind Productions, 2004, 236 Min, $14)

Despite the cheesy low-budget titles which preceded the actual performance, this video is quite competent. Video quality is high, color balance is good, and sound is as near to pristine as one can get through this medium. The problem is that it is filmed like a Bon Jovi live set, with too much focus on the vocalist and a total shortage of the crucial closeups of guitar playing that should accompany performances by people renowned for their instrumental ability. Is that rocket science, or what? We get plenty of wide-stage views and frontal closeup of “emotional” moments during the singing, but a fault of tight shots and creative angles. Tastefully the filmmakers avoid too much crowd interaction, which is smart since if one’s best qualification is having bought a ticket, it is probably not a sign that one has much to say/gesture of note. For this reviewer, the music on this DVD was too much of the hard rock variety, but it is clear that the performers are highly talented and it is hoped that with their next video release, there will be more focus on things of interest to musicians or people who simply admire classic guitar playing.

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Metalheads

(Bill Zebub, 2003, 80 Min, $10)

For the first video review to ever grace these pages a film was chosen that is valuable for the conclusions gleaned from its perception, and not necessarily the art of moviemaking exhibited. Following the pattern of most first films, this work starts with a group of characters and mocks them in their ouroboric paths to nowhere. In doing so, it reveals something of the nature of the metal community itself, both through its dominant symbols – drugs, masturbation, anger, fatalism – and through its own fascination and the conclusion it is able to draw. Shot in conveniently sparse videocam, the movie romps through a series of goofy but enjoyable skits and long derangements of the senses synchronized in form to music, giving it the feeling of a music video + home video + low-budget film in one. Of note are musical choices, which showcase a DJ’s eye for context. There is ample T&A of a tame variety and gratifying indulgence in all forms of base humor, including masturbation, fecalism and amusing violence. Highlights include a series of blown-out female characters who are preachy but have the sexual ethics of a Grimoire Girl(tm), a fantastically fascist cop played by Craig Pillard, and several utterly believable stoner/metalhead characters who wander around in a haze of mostly their own creation. Absent is any moralism regarding the world around us; it is nice to escape that moralistic confine in which most contemporary filmic art is launched. Another highlight is “Ox,” who barges his way onto the set and provides one of the most believable character satires of pure rampaging destruction in human form yet found. Toward the beginning and end of the film, when it needs extra impetus, there is booster rocket material from what are now basic digital editing effects, which to the director’s credit are often quite cleverly applied (“making the most of what you have”). Is the movie “good”? No and yes. It’s hard to sit through some of this; the scenes are long and often tediously embarrassing to the degree that sympathy is lost for the characters and even the joke. As a whole, the plot is light, with three or four major devices and a linear narrative based on its precepts. It’s sometimes difficult to watch from a combination of ineptitude and padding. However, it is “good” in that this movie has a large amount of perceptive content for a cut-up laugh fest, and while its methods and often gags are cheap and sometimes predictable, they’re carried out with a  unique flair and nurture for the humor involved. Like any modern comedy, the plot is a container for almost granularized skits woven roughly into the context of the people who drive changes in the action, and this approach works for the scattershot method required to address the diverse complexity of intellectual representation of external reality in this era. The acting isn’t great, but Zebub himself is a high-energy riot of comedic momentum who can be witty in a pinch, or subtly humorous over the length of a scene. His supporting cast perform well compared to many card-carrying actors and, while like in the movie itself we can see rough edges there are imperfections galore, they link up in the film like prisoner sex. While this movie gets a somewhat ambivalent recommendation, the idea of pursuing the next professional offering from Bill Zebub is not at all ambiguous to this reviewer.

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Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey

(Warner Home Entertainment, 2006, 96 Min, $14)

I just saw this at the Alamo Drafthouse, and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. It is probably the most watchable movie on the topic thus far, as it actually has a budget and properly addresses the many subgenres. It stays focused on the more populist bands (Wacken is a prominent setting) but I find that getting into all the underground minutiae bottoms out these days because whether people are motivated by commerce or popularity, the effect on the music is just as deletrious. Sam Dunn, the filmmaker, is a contemporary of the 1980s metal (30-ish, grew up on thrash and death metal, cites Autopsy as one of his favorite bands) so it is worth supporting and good fun. The interview with Gaahl and then Dio repeatedly ripping on Gene Simmons are worth the price of admission.

by David Anzalone

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Heavy: The Story of Metal

(VH1 Productions, 2006, 60 Min)

What is excellent about this documentary is its bonehead simplicity in tracing the history of metal. It focuses on nodal points where single events touched off nascent convergences and caused paradigm shifts. Not all of these are musical events; much of the footage is devoted to showing how changes in history prompted changes in metal. This attitude allows it to peer into the motivation behind metal musicians more than any other documentary extant. The strength of this documentary is its star power in pulling in all of the classic figures in heavy metal for interviews. The big names show up, and get put at ease and asked questions by people whose journalistic intent matches a fascination with rock music as an event. When their answers are put in context, the result is metal history like a scrolling tapestry passing our eyes. The centerpiece of this documentary are the glam years of Hollywood bands from Van Halen to Guns and Roses, and much of it is intended to make them look more sophisticated and intense than their European counterparts who invented the genre. Speed metal gets an offhand mention, and underground metal gets entirely skipped. Its focus is not surprisingly on the kind of metal that makes it to the VH1 video channel and makes pots of money. In its coverage of glam rock, power ballads, bad boy rebels and drug abuse this film is most lucid. Humorously, the glam rockers, twenty years later, look somewhat diseased, while Tommy Lee still looks vile and combat-ready. Even funnier: of all the people interviewed, a remarkably self-confident and unpretentious Sebastian Bach is the most articulate and uncomplicated. Unfortunately, other parts of the film portray metalheads as wounded, out-of-control children who make this horrible, violent music because they’re defective. While these flaws weaken the documentary, and disable it more in post-viewing analysis when the viewer realizes the documentary’s weaknesses stem from a desire to productize one of the last un-zombie’d genres, “Heavy: The Story of Metal” has many positive factors, not least of all the simplest: the people who made it clearly enjoy metal music and wanted to portray it in a positive light, even if their definition of positive was twisted by their pocketbooks.

 

 

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Running with the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music — Robert Walser

Running with the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music
by Robert Walser
254 pages. Wesleyan. $14

Aimed at the most popular examples of heavy metal, this analysis peers into issues of gender and power as ethnographic vectors of impetus toward participation in the metal genre. The interpretations of reasoning and ideologies behind music, while limited to less than self-articulate examples in many cases, are the strength of this book.

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