Tau Cross forms with Voivod, Amebix members

tau_cross-logo

Members of Amebix and Voivod have joined with other experienced underground musicians to launch Tau Cross, a new project already signed to Relapse Records and planning to release its debut album in 2015.

Recorded in three different countries over several months in 2014, the Tau Cross album will see release in spring. According to the official press release, Tau Cross formed in 2013.

Rob Miller (Amebix) spoke of the new band: “The music that evolved over this time is difficult to categorize, as there is clearly a lot of Amebix in the songwriting as well as some elements of gothic, Joy Division, Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath, Industrial and hard fucking old-school punk rock. This is an entirely original work that is the organic fusion of four unique people. We decided to let the songs form themselves around the original demos and allow people to bring themselves into the mix, to allow the bark to grow around the tree.”

Line-up:

  • Rob ‘The Baron’ Miller – Bass and Vocals (Amebix)
  • Michel ‘Away’ Langevin – Drums (Voivod)
  • Andy Lefton – Guitar (War//Plague)
  • Jon Misery – Guitar (Misery)
1 Comment

Tags: , , , , ,

Gorguts re-issues Obscura and From Wisdom to Hate on Century Media

gorguts-reissues_of_obscura_and_from_wisdom_to_hate

Death metal band turned prog-core act Gorguts has re-issued the latter two albums from its classic period, Gorguts and From Wisdom to Hate, on industry powerhouse Century Media Records. The re-issues — on jewelcase CD, 2LP and limited edition 2LP — will be available in pre-order starting March 9, 2015.

Says guitarist/composer Luc Lemay: “I’m proud to announce that our 1998 record Obscura and 2001’s From Wisdom To Hate will finally be re-released! …For this re-issue, I decided to include liner notes that tell the story behind each record. How we got together as musicians, what was the composition process that made this sound possible and that made us grow as artists…I decided to change the logo because, with a step back, I realized that I never really like the original one on Obscura and I wanted to give the record a fresh look. I kept the same logo for From Wisdom To Hate, because it was created for this record…Thanks again to all our fans for their unconditional support through all those years.”

The re-issues see official release on April 6, 2015 in Europe and April 7, 2015 in North America. Both are dedicated to the memory of former members Steeve Hurdle (R.I.P. 2012) and Steve MacDonald (R.I.P. 2002). While Gorguts has deviated into progressive-themed *core territory with their latest, Colored Sands, this band helped forge the sound of technical death metal back when that term simply referred to death metal which required technical ability to play. While Obscura has often been imitated in style, those who have tried to imitate it have generally done so on the basis of style alone and missed the sublime composition within which made this album a classic independent of style.

6 Comments

Tags: , , , ,

Vader to re-issue early demos “Morbid Reich,” “Necrolust” and “Live in Decay”

vader-band_photo

Ripping death metal band Vader, who gained stature in the field of Morbid Angel/Slayer-influenced fast tremolo death metal, plan to re-issue three early demos on CD, cassette and LP via Witching Hour Records starting on April 3, 2015.

The three demos — “Live in Decay” (1986), “Necrolust” (1989), adn “Morbid Reich” (1990) — will see separate releases unlike the last collection of Vader demo material, 1996’s Reborn in Chaos which remains a sought-after release for its Pavement Records version which contains better sound than other variants. These capture the transition of Vader from aspiring speed metal/death metal hybrid to catching on to the new death metal style and picking a fast but explosive style that graced their first album, The Ultimate Incantation and subsequent albums De Profundis and Sothis EP.

As Vader continue to release material in a fast although simplified and more hookish style, these retrospectives may provide insight into the origins of this band back in the days of the Soviet bloc. It will be interesting to see what bonus tracks, if any, Witching Hour Records adds to pad these releases up to full-length duration.

vader-demo_reissues

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K7lnCQMtwHk

8 Comments

Tags: , ,

Carbonized – For the Security re-issue

carbonized-for_the_security

Vic Records plans to issue the first album from Stockholm death/grind experimentalists Carbonized, For the Security. The album will be re-issued on LP and CD on Vic Records, early 2015 including its original artwork, liner notes from Christoffer Johansson (Therion) and Piotr Wawrzeniuk (Therion) and two bonus tracks.

Carbonized was formed in 1988 by Lars Rosenberg as an early death metal band from Sweden. Many musicians to later go on to fame in the Swedish death metal underground participated at various times in Carbonized, including Matti Karki (Dismember / Carnage), Richard Cabeza (Unanimated / Dismember). Carbonized recorded two demos and one EP from 1989-1990. Shortly before recording its debut album, the band finalized the lineup that would last for all three albums: Lars Rosenberg (Entombed / Therion), Piotr Wawrzeniuk (Therion) and Christoffer Johansson (Therion).

For the Security was recorded at famous Sunlight Studios with Tomas Skogsberg but features more of a primitive angular grindcore sound, like Blood or Terrorizer, than the flowing and often too rock ‘n rolly for its own good Swedish death metal to follow. A classic of the early underground metal years, this album was previously re-issued on Nuclear Hell but without its iconic artwork and follows the Carbonized demos collection that came out two years ago.

2 Comments

Tags: , ,

Desecresy – Arches of Entropy

desecresy-arches_of_entropy

Unlike many bands, Desecresy — the product of experienced musicians a decade after their first entry into the scene — formed with a full concept that manifests on the first album as a slow form of death metal. Peeling back the layers, influences can be seen at many levels here, but the most prominent are Bolt Thrower for the sense of rhythm, Carnage for riff transitions, Therion for use of synchronized strumming to adjust rhythm, and Paradise Lost for the use of lead-picked melodies evoking harmony in the riff below for a resonant, haunting sound. The result more approximates the moods and sensations to the listener of a funeral doom metal band, but at varieties of middle pace instead of extremes, creating the feeling of a descent into a subterranean world populated by non-verbal creatures.

The important distinction between death metal and doom metal that appears in this work is the tendency of death metal toward wonder, and a Lovecraftian obsession with the workings of the universe, where doom metal focuses on a despairing, passive and self-focused mood that makes no such commentary and in fact symbolizes fatalism. Desecresy keeps that outlook, and shears from it any sense of real-world issues such as the crusade against Christianity or need for social justice, replacing those with a mythological view of existence in which darkness is not self-pity but an outlook reflecting the red in tooth and claw essence of nature, itself a logical response to the need to avoid stagnation and mediocrity. Like Bolt Thrower, Desecresy envisions a world of constant warfare, but in this case the warfare emerges from the clashes of biological and mystical entities rather than modern political forces. All of this emerges from the music itself — the lyrics could as well be ingredients written on soup cans — which uses its riffs in a constant grinding which slowly grows into articulation of dual principles, ending without resolution into a singularity but a fragmentation followed by evolution which more reflects the state of nature in which conflict creates speciation instead of singularity. Riffs start as two chords colliding, then through the slowly equalizing rhythms of downstroked chords reach equilibrium, at which point they mutate into something else. The intense similarity of many of these riffs, built of the same few chords, puts emphasis on their form and its mutation and development from a microbial state to that of full of organism.

Over this flow the type of chanted vocals that adorned the first Therion album, using the death shout not as a rhythm to impart urgency to the guitars, but in a timekeeping role that counterbalances that of the drums which serve more as a texture of rhythm to allow internal motion to have reference points. In the midst of this sonic landscape the reverb heavy lead picking of melody creates a sheet of sound against which the power chorded rhythm guitars can develop, allowing songs to slide forward under this cover and develop what are essentially background riffs into rhythms that pick up additional internal variation and thus command more complex riffs. Desecresy generally keep it simple and grinding in the style of middle-period Bolt Thrower, but at crucial moments intervene with complex riffs and elegant transitions. This completes the cycle of this album, moving from serene but conflicted stability to complex and ambiguous change, a repeating pattern which creates the impression of lawless growth and beauty appearing from nothingness that lingers in the mind of a listener like a nearly-forgotten hope.

5 Comments

Tags: ,

Perdition Temple – The Tempter’s Victorious

perdition_temple-the_tempters_victorious

Perdition Temple’s sophomore album is one of riffs written and dispersed as discrete packages. These are sewn together into short, explosive bundles extremely dense in content but not always boasting the smoothest of transitions.

Often the tonal shift between adjoining bars is far too drastic to convey any sense of uniform texture, giving the impression of an album constructed from a granular, low-level perspective rather than a more holistic, top-down approach. Meaning that the band came up with a whole bunch of riffs first, before cobbling them together into songs. Performed at near-always breakneck speed, songs pass by in a whirlwind of intense activity that isn’t always easy to discern. This is blistering and warring death metal displaying none of the stalling tactics practiced by modern death metal bands, and for that much it deserves credit.

There is interesting micro-play within individual parts but the whole doesn’t foster or even attempt to put much store in memorability. The addition of Bill Taylor as guitar foil has given Gene Palubicki free rein to indulge himself as he never had chance to on past efforts in Angelcorpse or even the Perdition Temple debut. The role of rhythm is sometimes completely dispensed with, the two guitars intertwining like Hermes’ serpents about a support of hyperactive drumming, sniping and spitting out angular phrases that, in surface aspect, wouldn’t be unseemly on a tech-death album. But this act’s pedigree being firmly rooted in death metal, the constant barrage of information never loses its essence of violence. A return to themes familiar from older works, primarily through the use of groove as introductory and relaxation device, is in greater evidence during the second half of the album.

As always, incendiary solos faithfully modeled after Trey Azagthoth find space on a Palubicki album. Azagthoth’s best work was unparalleled, however, because it was the original extension of its creator’s will and personality, much like the eternal consciousness standing outside of time and space, before the birth of time and space, that Eastern monism proposes, willing all creation into existence from within itself. Palubicki’s solos are the finest replicas of Trey Azagthoth that death metal has seen but ultimately they fall on, and should be judged by, the sword of rote inspiration that created them in the first place.

7 Comments

Tags: , , , , ,

Burzum releases new track “Mythic Dawn”

myfarog-cover

Burzum mastermind Varg Vikernes demonstrates a long history of crossing over between worlds. With Burzum, he crossed black metal with the cosmic space ambient music (RIP Edgar Froese) that defined the best of the previous decade, and now with his newer folk/ambient work he crosses over between the world of role-playing games, philosophies that get bast the postmodern thought-loop which has stalled humanity for the past century, and the inspiration in warfare, wizardry and medievalism that distinguished the aesthetics of his black metal.

In releasing the new track “Mythic Dawn,” Vikernes shows us a work in progress with a somewhat sparse but distinct track in the style of the second half of The Ways of Yore, specifically “Autumn Leaves” for the shimmery distorted background guitar effect and “The Lady of the Lake” for the plodding slightly offtime loop of neo-tribal drums over a simple bidirectional chord progression. As a work in progress, the new track is naturally sparser, but the chord progression seems very basic and song structure less integrated with its own purpose, which suggests this is a very early conceptualization of this track without the traditional Burzum “magic” being added. As musicians age, they often retreat into the realm of techniques and textures such as specific samples or types of melody, and this can adulterate the material that in their younger years they would have agonized over until all of it had an intensity of its own and none fit within a template, even if of their own making. With some luck and gumption Burzum will not avoid that fate.

As part of the video, Vikernes reveals pages of his Myfarog role-playing game (similar to Dungeons and Dragons, usually abbreviated “D&D”) and in the text on the background image of the video describes its appeal to those who, like Vikernes, have rejected modernity not just as an experience but as a concept entirely and seek alternatives outside of the realm of what modernity can describe. The game looks complex, and the song is promising for its initial stages although it looks like it will require some work, and so the audience looks on with interest at this evolving event and hopes for more.

Codex Obscurum – Issue Six

codex_obscurum-issue_six

Underground metal zine Codex Obscurum gained an audience for its focus on music of an underground nature without the associated fetishism of image and product obsession that blights most zines no matter how underground. In that sense, it was a regression to the healthier times of the 1990s, when fanzines were fan-oriented instead of label-oriented, and both old and new audiences have delighted in it for five issues.

Contemplating Issue Six of this magazine shows how far it has come and how it has not lost any of the delight in the music that marks a good fanzine. Over the past several issues the focus of the magazine has shifted to interviews and reviews, and this shows in the much wider coverage that Codex Obscurum achieves with Issue Six. More bands see print in this issue and, through greater experience of interviewers, questions cover a wider range. The issue starts with an interview with War Master, whose albums regularly feature in our best-of lists around here. While this interview is short, it provides the vital news that this band is working on a second album and an EP, and talks about touring and general attitude of the band after switching vocalists. After this follows a thoughtful and probing interview with (the New) Mayhem guitarist Teloch, which contains mostly striking revelations about the black metal scene and its relationship to political correctness. For those of us more inclined to avoid newer versions of once-classic bands, this shows insight into the thought process behind the current “scene.” Further interviews with Anatomia, Lantern, Obliteration, Rottrevore, Symptom, Acid Witch, Castle Freak, Impaled Nazarene, Fister, Hecate Enthroned and Ritual Decay. The interviewers in all of these approach the subject with knowledge and tailor their questions to the subject’s personality, which brings out more of the people behind the bands.

One of the bigger changes since the last issue appears in the abundance of reviews that Issue Six has to offer. These take two forms: mid-length descriptive and personalitied reviews, and semi-dismissive Haiku form reviews that often tell more than a few pages of labored, assiduous writing. The descriptive reviews offer a practical assessment of how a metal listener might approach an album in a compact package. Witness the review of Cruxiter Cruxiter:

Cruxiter – S/T (2013 – PrismaticO Records)

Wow, what a surprise this album was. Cruxiter are not a well-known band, as this is their first full-length and they’ve only been around for a couple of years. But it sounds like they’ve been around since the ’80s. In fact, this whole album sounds like it’s from the ’80s. Cruxiter are traditional heavy metal from the wastelands of Texas and will not disappoint one bit. It’s as if early Mercyful Fate had a ménage à trois with Manilla Road and early Iron Maiden, all while listening to ’70s guitar-driven rock. The musicianship on this album is fantastic; each song is a classic metal anthem with soaring vocals and impressive guitar riffs. Miggy Ramirez’s vocals are high-pitched and remain steady throughout — he certainly pulls off the style perfectly. The highlight of the album is “The Devils of Heavy Metal” and is one of the best songs of this style I’ve heard in quite some time. The one thing that may dissuade some listeners (and it’s a shame, at that) is the production of the album. There are no crystal-clear sounds on this album, everything is produced in a way that makes sounds like it was recorded in 1984. It adds to the retro-feel of this album, and is part of what makes this album a great listen. The album is streaming on their bandcamp page, I’d highly recommend you check it out if traditional heavy metal is your thing. Keep an eye out for this band. — James Doyle

Ten pages of reviews of this type help inform the listener on the cutting edge of underground metal, skipping the numu/indie/post gibberish, and then detour into two pages of Haiku form reviews which cut to the core of each album from a listener’s standpoint. While these are more dismissive, oftentimes they utterly nail why an album is irrelevant or why we the audience should look past style and appreciate what makes it great. These offer a counterpoint to the desire for articulation that motivates the descriptive reviews, and give a quick synopsis where that is all that is needed. They are more motivational than merely reporting the facts; this style might be useful in dismissing some of the recent material that labels pump out which requires no more than a few minutes to recognize as an archetype of fail and dismiss.

As has been the trend with the last few issues of Codex Obscurum, the editors struggle to balance a gory old-school art-driven layout with a postmodern format that is easy to read in the age of computers, tablets and whatever “et cetera” will soon encompass. An abundance of great artwork appears throughout Issue Six, with more use of graphics inserted in the text stream or offset to one side. The Acid Witch, Fister and Ritual Decay interviews could fit in either a glossy pro-printed magazine or a contraband underground zine and show an optimization of this layout style. One thing that could improve is the differentiation between interviewer and interviewee, which is currently done with the industry standard of the speaker’s initials at the start of the line. An ideal layout of this format has proved elusive, with some zines bolding the comments by the interviewee, but this like most other solutions burns more page real estate. On this site, we put the interviewer’s comments in bold because that makes them easy to skip, but also requires more paragraph space which is at a premium in a zine that has to render itself to paper instead of the limitless scrolling of modern society’s replacement for daytime television, the internet. An ideal answer may conceal itself on this issue but it is the only area where this zine proved difficult to read at a glance, which is otherwise facilitated by its clean layout with clearly separated art and well-signaled interviews with band logo at the top of each.

Issue Six continues what seems to be becoming a section in Codex Obscurum, which is an unboxing and review of Dungeons & Dragons gaming sets and lines of books. While many in the metal community seek to isolate themselves from the inner nerd inherent to all metal, a more realistic assessment shows that many metalheads are in fact nerds “in the closet” who enjoy many activities which stimulate the imagination and analytical thought process simultaneously much as D&D does. This feature goes beyond the knowledge of the casual attendee at D&D games and could stand on its own in any lifestyle or technical magazine. Among the thoughtful interviews and carefully articulated reviews, the role-playing game material fits hand in glove, and adds to the feeling of this zine as well-rounded in the underground sense, covering music and lifestyle without drifting into the product fetishism that shears mainstream magazines off from the flow of what fulfills people both as metal fans and individuals. Looking forward to seeing this zine continue to grow and develop.

5 Comments

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Interview: Bruce Lamont of Led Zeppelin 2, Corrections House and Yakuza

led_zeppelin_2

Some time ago, musicians from the Chicago area gathered to form a tribute to Led Zeppelin. Instead of creating a new band to imitate the sound, they created a stage show called “Led Zeppelin 2” and tour with it playing the songs of classic Led Zeppelin, which along with the UK heavy guitar rock (The Who, Cream, The Kinks) who predated it was an influence on the early days of metal both through progressive bands like King Crimson and Jethro Tull, and directly on Black Sabbath, a contemporary.

Vocalist Bruce Lamont, who also performs with Corrections House and Yakuza, was kind enough to give us some time to ask him questions about his musical past and the influence Led Zeppelin had and continues to have on heavy metal and heavy music in general. Take it away, Bruce…

You’re currently touring with Led Zeppelin 2. How’s that going? Is this harder than touring with Yakuza, Corrections House, Bloodiest or any of the other bands you’ve been in? What’s different?

Led Zeppelin 2 is a more of a musical theater production: a stage show with costumes, lighting and musical actors. It’s not harder than touring with the other bands, just different. So far 2015 has been going well for the Zep2 show. We have had some good crowds and folks seem to be enjoying themselves.

You’re known for a modern metal background and yet here you are lending your talents to 1970s songs. Have Led Zeppelin always been an influence for you? How did that influence show up in your music?

Led Zeppelin has been in and out of my life since the days of WLS radio here in Chicago. They played Zep tunes long before I even knew who Led Zeppelin was. As far as a creative influence, I appreciate all the musical corners they have touched. From blistering hard rock, to blues-influenced songs, to the acoustic numbers and even dabbling in synth music in the later years. The willingness to push themselves to the extent they did is what I took from them.

In your view, what musical style or genre are bands like Yakuza and Corrections House? What would you say were the primary musical influences on those bands? Do you think they’re closer to metal or hardcore?

I am never one to settle comfortably into any type of label when describing the music from any of the bands i play in. Is their some metal elements to both bands mentioned? Yes. Hardcore? Somewhat. But also many other definable and indefinable sounds come to mind.

What do you think has changed in metal, on a musical and not aesthetic (production, vocal tone, guitar sound, distortion type) level, since the 1970s? Since the early 1990s?

Musically, 70s metal was more recognizably derived from, say, electric blues or the pop rock n roll formula with a little touch of the psychedelic (with just had a harder, heavier edge). This evolved rather quickly even by the end of the 70s with punk rock coming at the same time the name of the game became “speed.” This evolution excelled rapidly through the 1980s.

By the 90s that blues structure from the early 70s could barely be heard, but the speed, intensity and the heavy went into the most extreme ether. I mean compare Suffocation to Budgie. Wow, what a leap ha! As far as modern metal goes, many of the sub-genres that were firmly established in the 90s still exist (even some from the 70s have been brought back around and there are hybrids of both etc., etc.) and by all indications we are at a time where the lines are being blurred now more than ever.

Bands today are bringing in elements from all over the sonic map, keeping the heavy but embracing styles and sounds generally found outside of the metal world and from that many bands have a more realized sound that’s all their own. I like it.

How did you get into music, and what inspired you to take the path that led to Yakuza and Corrections House? Does this inspiration also lead to being in Led Zeppelin 2?

In a nutshell…I listened to the radio quite a bit as a young kid (as I mentioned Zeppelin was one of my favorites). I asked my mother for a guitar but instead was enrolled in school music programs. I first played the viola, then started on the tenor saxophone at age 9. I became a metal junkie in my early teens; got a guitar and played a bit. I started working at an independent record store during my junior year of high school. This opened my world up and I began listening to all sorts of music.

After high school I started playing in bands. In the mid 90s I picked the saxophone back up and went to a ton of jazz/improvisational shows at the Empty Bottle in Chicago. At the same time I heard bands like Neurosis and Meshuggah and wanted to get into something that was heavy but had room to reach beyond the heavy. I joined Yakuza in 2000. Within a year I played my first show with what would become Led Zeppelin 2. There ya have it. Full Circle.

How was the Houston show? I’m told Houston is a flat, hot, humid city filled with Californians who think the houses are cheap and are willing to overlook the roaches, snakes and mosquitoes for 2300 calorie diner plates. What as your impression of Houston?

Houston is huge for us. It was one of the first places we played outside of Chicago and has always been great. Killer crowds, killer energy. Gotta love that.

2 Comments

Tags: , , ,

Developmental variation and underground metal

jean_sibelius

What is developmental variation?

The term developmental variation was coined by Arnold Schoenberg as a name for the principle which governed his compositional technique, which he claimed to have inherited from the music of the great Germanic composers such as Haydn, Beethoven and, in particular, Brahms. The technique consists of generating development in a piece through variation of an initial idea. Each new slice of content is developed from, and naturally connected to, the previous one, so that the whole piece is an elaboration of an initial idea. This provides unity and logic within dramatic movement and variety.

Why developmental variation?

Since the end of black metal around 1996, underground metal has found itself in a rut. As if struck dumb by the dizzy heights achieved by its greatest practitioners, most underground metal bands have veered into three equally fruitless directions:

  1. Blatant imitation of a specific set of bands from the past (New wave of old school death metal, Thrash revival, Darkthrone clones, etc.)
  2. Commercialization of the aesthetic, achieved through simplification of lyrical themes and musical structure (In Flames, Dimmu Borgir, deathcore, etc.)
  3. Experimentation in texture and instrumentation, fusion genres (Norwegian avant-garde, Djent, etc.)

One would assume that the practitioners of this third path feel, at least, the anxiety that naturally comes with working beneath the shadows of giants. Their response, however, betrays that anxiety to an excessive degree, as they scramble madly to distance themselves from those past greats, usually through the most immediately striking means they can find. Often with releases of this variety one is left with the sensation that they could be truly great works of art if they stopped hovering uncomfortably around the ghost of metal, and simply embraced their external tendencies. In other words, the solution most of these artists seem to find to the problem posed by the intimidating canon is to escape metal altogether, as many of them ultimately do.

This is not, however, because of any inherent flaw in the style, or any linear finality implied by the greatness of the canon. There is no denying that, in a sense, underground metal is a restrictive style. There are strict boundaries regarding instrumentation, tonality, and even lyrical themes (that old Euronymous joke about carrots notwithstanding). Though these may at times be somewhat malleable, when they remain blatantly unobserved the music simply stops sounding like underground metal. It is largely the imposing presence of these boundaries that has scared many promising musicians away from metal, and into the realm of the often masturbatory and self-referential pseudo avant-garde.

What this ultimately means is not that there is no room for growth within heavy metal, but that said room is to be found in a less immediately evident, but ultimately more significant element of musical construction; structure. Underground metal’s unpitched vocals allow it freedom from many structural conventions of popular music in which vocals are the lead instrument. Its literary and historical inclinations give it plenty of places from which to draw extra-musical influences. Heavy metal titans Iron Maiden have successfully done this in the past, shaping their more structurally ambitious and musically exciting pieces around the contours of literary or historical subjects.

The aforementioned underground metal greats have already exploited these natural tendencies. Albums such as Altars of Madness and Far Away From the Sun have expanded rock’s traditional strophic structures through the use of expansive melodies and conflicting themes, creating instrumental sections of great intensity, which modify the meaning and intention of the strophic recurrences. Greater variety in the stricter tenets of instrumentation and mood has been justified within the framework of a modified structural thought-process, for example in the Burzum albums Det som engang var and Hvis lyset tar oss. There are countless other examples of individual structural voices developed by bands in order to best fit their particular path or concept, from the intensely concentrated minimalism of Beherit and Skepticism to the outwardly chaotic narrative intricacy of Demilich and early At The Gates.

However, this was underground metal at its youthful best, when it was still discovering what it was and what it could do, and many of its greatest achievements were at least partially the product of amateurish accident. Metal is no longer a young musical style, and perhaps in order to age gracefully bands will need to sacrifice some spontaneity and be more strict about inwardly articulating their goals, the structure that will best fit these goals and the compositional process that will get them there.

Underground metal is a genre with entirely unique thematic concerns, which prizes the ability to create works of musical individuality that are still ultimately works of underground metal. Developmental variation is the perfect technique for this situation, as it allows content to organically generate form, which would not only allow for individual songs and albums to craft an individual perspective without resorting to surface gimmicks, but also lead to a deeper level of thematic coherence. In a style whose fans expect recordings to hold up on repeated listens, not for weeks or months but for years, the increased layered complexity of musical relationships created by this technique would heighten, not obscure, the expressive power of a particular song or album.

It is not enough for underground metal to simply lift structural arrangements from sources more sophisticated than rock and pop music, such as European classical music. Though this could work individual songs or albums planned around the idea, as it did for Fanisk on their debut Die and Become, it is not a suitable long-term direction. This is because at the end of the day, the practice is not too distant from the simple lifting of vocabulary from other sources, a practice whose short-lived capacity to produce quality content the underground has already witnessed.

However, there is a lot to be learned from the music of the Common Practice Period. There is a tendency to view classical forms as being set in stone, but this could not be further from the truth. The image of Beethoven stressing over whether or not theme B of his sonata form modulated to the bloody dominant or not is silly enough to dispel the notion. The truth is that these structures developed organically throughout the lives of many composers, growing around the type of thematic material and harmonic conventions of their time and style, until they became intuitively standardized elements of musical grammar. It is only much later, once their development had been completed, that theorists could attempt codifications.

Attempting to imitate such a process of could prove fruitful for underground metal bands. The idea would be for bands to create their own structural grammar, not by adhering to a new set of rules, or worse, an old one belonging to a different tradition, but by developing a new, more sophisticated intuition. It is this author’s belief that the technique of developmental variation could be extremely helpful towards this development. It will of course always be important to have a good idea first; no technique will write good music for you.

In the interest of getting all of this across to the reader’s musical instincts, as opposed to getting it across merely to his or her understanding, where it is useless, we will now undertake a case study of how this technique worked for the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius in his early tone poem, En saga. Sibelius faced a dilemma similar to that of the young Hessian today, standing in the shadow of a beautiful but intimidating tradition. By molding the structure of his piece around his material, through the technique of developmental variation, Sibelius managed to find a powerful individual voice for his piece, without resorting to gimmicks, or leaving the tradition he loved behind.

En saga: a case study in developmental variation

En saga is an orchestral tone poem, meaning that it is an entirely instrumental piece meant to describe or depict something outside of itself. The piece’s title translates simply to ‘a saga,’ and throughout his life Sibelius never specified whether it was based on any particular one. This clever bit of ambiguous programming presents Sibelius with a very malleable structural mold that nevertheless presents a general framework within which to work.

Sibelius builds nearly 20 minutes of music around four simple themes. All but the last of these has a length of four measures or less, and all of them keep the melodic action centered around a perfect fourth or fifth, emphasizing stepwise motion. The reader may have already noticed that this description could fit many metal riffs like a glove, and this proximity of thematic character to underground metal is one of the reasons why this piece is particularly relevant to our interests.

en_saga-theme_i

en_saga-theme_ii

en_saga-theme_iii

en_saga-theme_iv

The relationship between themes I and III is evident: they have the same range and an identical ending, being distinguished from each other by slight rhythmic variation and harmonic context. Though theme II might initially seem out of place, its ‘justification’ comes with the introduction of theme IV, a majestic melody that combines rhythmic and melodic elements from themes II and I-III. It also emphasizes the motivic element that unites all four of them; the repeated insistence on the starting pitch. This characteristic in particular is the one that betrays the tight relationship between the themes, allowing us to comfortably refer to them as variations on the same idea. The imaginative reader will begin to see how the relationships and conflicts between these four simple themes begin to lay out sketches of a large-scale work, or, in other words, how developmental variation suggests not only material, but also structure.

The piece starts off with a short introduction that leads into the uncomfortable minor seconds of the first theme (0:17), establishing the tension that drives the whole work. The theme is then pitted against wave-like arpeggio figures in increasingly tense juxtapositions, which seem to be leading towards an explosive climax, but then simmer away into an uncomfortable silence. The way this opening minute mirrors the structure of the entire piece, like an eerie premonition, is an indicator of the piece’s impressive unity, and a perfect example of the way relationships between related themes can be the basis for entire compositions, an idea we will return to later.

I said that I admired its (the symphony) style and severity of form, and the profound logic that created an inner connection between all of the motives. — Sibelius, conversation with Gustav Mahler, Helsinki, 1907.

This silence is broken by the sudden introduction of theme II (1:08) by the bassoons, in a tonal center very distant from that with which the piece began. However, the reappearance of the insisting note motive makes its appearance seem like a natural response in a conversation. After the statement, the conflict of the piece is laid out for the listener and the piece unravels with absolute naturality. Theme II passes around the orchestra, competing with increasingly dissonant response passages until its motives flower into a wonderful heroic melody in the double basses. This initiates a dialogue in the string section that spells out the conflict between the two main theme groups with great clarity.

Sibelius then goes on to present themes III (in the violas at 4:09) and IV (in the strings at 5:07) in a similar way, declaiming them lyrically throughout the orchestra and pitting them against transitional passages, often arpeggiated. The seeming culmination to which the piece comes after the presentation of triumphant theme IV is suddenly interrupted by a short bridge passage (5:44), tellingly outlining a fifth, which leads into a section centered around permutations of theme III and a flowing legato response idea that begins to overpower the theme itself. Theme IV’s conquest remains unattained.

Then, suddenly, the momentum collapses and we are led into the second part of the piece. This second section consists of a series of crescendos, in which particular themes seem poised to triumph and reveal themselves as ‘the’ theme. Yet, time and again these crescendos collapse in on themselves, eerily, almost unnervingly. Until, at the very last of these peaks, a response figure once again takes over the climax. Yet the fanfare quickly dissipates, and the piece ends with an extremely quiet and nearly uncomfortable uncertainty.

This second section appears to be what the themes themselves initially suggested, thanks to their close “variation” relationship: a conflict in which one of them emerged triumphant. In order to get a more intuitive sense for the depth of this relationship and its importance, notice how after a few listens of the piece the themes will be stuck in your head almost interchangeably, to the point where it is sometimes hard to tell which one you’re humming to yourself. This is the sort of conflict that arises naturally when material is created through developmental variation, and it is what makes it such an effective technique for the composition for styles that thrive on dramatic tension.

Now, Sibelius’ choice to make none of the themes triumph and to end the piece the way he does is not something intrinsically suggested by the themes. As a matter of fact, if we are allowed a guess, this was probably the narrative idea that Sibelius started out with. However, once he had his material, he had a pretty good outline for a conflict, as themes I-III and theme II clearly converge and culminate on theme IV. However, as previously noted, the first triumphant statement of theme IV is quickly negated by the aforementioned bridge passage, a dissonant entry of the theme and then the shifting of focus back to theme III.

The series of increasingly chaotic and dramatic anti-climaxes that constitute the second portion of the piece are the ones that outline the thematic conflict proper, along with the ultimate failure of any of the themes to impose themselves, even as they alternate and hybridize. However, in order for this section to make any sense, especially given the piece’s light programmatic tinge, the opening section in which the themes are presented becomes absolutely necessary. In order to establish the tension that rules the piece and give it coherence, the strange introductory section dominated by theme I becomes necessary.

This introduction mirrors the development of the whole piece, with its agonizing rising and falling motions, which eventually dissipate into a tense silence. Sibelius found his large-scale structure through his themes, and then constructed every other sub-section around the same general curve. This creates an immersive fractal effect, potent evidence of Sibelius’ developing genius despite the orchestration failings and occasionally meandering quality of the still young composer. A dramatic idea and four simple, closely related, themes allowed Sibelius to reach heights of structural ambition that, though not yet fully realized, would become the germ for his future masterpieces.

Closing words

I am by no means suggesting, of course, that is ‘the’ path metal must follow in the future. This is a suggestion, and idea, and more so than it hopes to be accepted, or even fully understood, it hopes to ignite some spark of creativity. Metal does not necessarily need developmental variation in order to escape it relative stagnation, but it does need to look at itself more seriously and its surroundings more seriously, and ask itself musical questions in a more articulate manner. Hopefully this article will be of some help to that end.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VyDRWw_g2xU

11 Comments

Tags: , , , , , ,

Classic reviews:
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z