In praise of plugs

Images courtesy of StLuisRey.

Images courtesy of StLuisRey.

Modern society is addicted to convenience. Let me expand on that: over time, as anything succeeds, its challenges decrease and it focuses on absolute convenience so it can bore itself to death. Old companies, stale friend groups, even churches and heavy metal bands fall prey to this. At some point, everything becomes easy and everyone becomes bored, and quality plummets. Life is an existential process after all that benefits from the search for pleasure, adventure and intensity (“a repo man is always intense”) more than stability, convenience and the other stuff that goes into Excel spreadsheets when users answer surveys.

For pure convenience, nothing beats the cigarette. Buy a pack and a lighter, then throw them out when consumed. The more intrepid seek a greater intensity of flavor from cigars and pipes which burn cooler and are absorbed through the cheeks instead of the lungs, so require a bit of a slower pace. Even with those fields a variety of conveniences exist. Some cigars are designed to burn evenly over any other factor, and many pipe tobaccos are meant to target the holy trinity of easy lighting, mild flavor and cool burning. For those who seek to push past all barriers, and to exceed past sensations, the more difficult realm of flakes, twists and plugs awaits. These were traditionally tobaccos for those who smoked pipes as away of avoiding expensive cigarettes, and who were busy with their hands and bodies and so were not sitting comfortably in an easy chair sipping on a pipe. They smoked all day, and they liked tobacco like their lives: rough, durable and strong. Coincidentally they usually had at least one pocketknife on their persons and were accustomed to using manual dexterity at a moment’s notice. For such a person, dragging an aged twist from an inner pocket, brushing off the lint and slicing it into shreds was a matter of course.

In our current time, convenience (and entropy) has just about won out, as has the belief that jobs which involve sitting inside cubicles in the glow of multiple screens are the desired lifestyle. When we can smoke, it is in our homes away from the prying eyes of society and the databases of law enforcement and health insurance (many of us smoke with our rifles and tricorner hats close at hand for this reason). Tobacco blends have kept up with this and now come mostly in tins with elegant labels and fine cuts. While those have their place as well, and are very enjoyable, many of us are turning toward the older forms of twists and plugs for the power of that form. Not only are they stronger, reminding us that smoking like life is a struggle against the forces of nature, but they bring back the ritual of an older time. The focus, dexterity and precision are as much a part of this as any other aspect. Slicing layers of pressed tobacco, then rubbing it into strips, and packing a pipe not for an armchair smoke but for walking around in the world, interacting with it and moving with purpose, this provides a different sort of enjoyment.

Take for instance the Peterson Peterson’s Perfect Plug. Easily available across North America and Europe, it is relatively low-cost owing to the predominance of the Peterson brand, which is currently manufactured by Mac Baren. This makes it a great plug to start with since it is neither exotic nor unduly expensive and in its abundance, allows enough material to experiment with. The plug comes in a tin, beneath a layer of cardboard surrounded by a ruff of tissue paper, and is then sealed inside a plastic bag. Slicing apart the bag and tossing the cardboard, one finds a brick of pressed tobacco leaf which resembles a very dense brownie. Since the tobacco is layered, the plug is sliced in thin flakes from the end, much as flake tobacco is made with much larger plugs at the factory. You control the width of this flake and that is where some of the magic of plugs originates:

  • Slice it thin for a lighter and shorter smoke with more sweetness. If you cut to the width of a postcard or narrower, the soft feathers of tobacco rub out into something closer to a shag which burns quickly, delivering predominantly the notes of sweeter tobaccos with more natural sugar like Virginias.
  • Cut it thicker for a dense-burning long smoke that emphasizes the savory flavors. This lets it smoulder and melds the nuttier flavors of the Burley with the denser flavors of Virginias that come out with aging and slow burning.
  • If you want to experience the toppings alongside the slower flavors, since this plug is lightly flavored with a fruit and anise mixture, cut thick flakes and then cut them the opposite direction into 1/4 inch cubes. Rub those slightly, let them dry and pile them in the pipe for a long-burning melange of flavors.

It is my feeling that the original smokers of plugs used them in each one of these different ways. They sliced thin for the first smoke of the day to wake themselves up, and cut rough during the day for hourlong pipes while they worked on whatever they did, and may have done a variation on the two or a cube-cut on weekends and after work to wind down. The versatility of the plug enabled it to be many tobaccos at once by emphasizing different flavors, speeds and volume of smoke. Being familiar with mechanics and some chemistry, the original smokers of the plug naturally adapted to this usage, in addition to enjoying a hardy piece of tobacco that could be tucked in a pocket alongside a knife for a no-frills but slightly inconvenient use.

Thanks to the resurrection of pipe smoking by the internet and its ability to join scattered people into groups, pipe smoking has experienced a revival and with it many old blends have returned as new ones have sprouted like the flowers of spring. This audience rewards intensity as it is united not by the convenience of the local tobacco store and friends to smoke with, but interest in something that is more than a hobby and less than an addiction. It is both a fascination and a lifestyle choice, a relaxation and intensification of life at the same time it is a way of dispensing with modern habits to gain appreciation for the timeless. One way to spin it faster is to go back to the revered and cherished form of pipe tobacco, the plug. Naturally, that adventure goes best with the music of open frontiers and wars in the heavens, Celtic Frost.

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Rolling your own cigars

Guest post by Brian Parker.

Guest post by Brian Parker.

For those of you that enjoy a cigar now and then, probably never tried to roll your own. It’s fun, inexpensive, and you learn a lot about the craftsmanship that goes into the cigars you buy at your local cigar shop. I was lucky enough to have a friend drop off a bunch of cigar tobacco to me that he had ordered from LeafOnly.com (see also Whole Leaf Tobacco).

I was very eager to roll a cigar, but when I first opened the box to check out the tobacco leaves, I noticed the leaves were very dry. I thought maybe they were too dry to work with, and then I read online that that’s how they are shipped. They must be re-hydrated, stretched out and trimmed. Below is a step-by-step guide to rolling your own cigars.

Supplies needed:

  • Fruit pectin (found in the canning/baking section of grocery store, used for glue)
  • Scissors
  • Spray Bottle of distilled water
  • String (optional, I use dental floss)
  • Flat surface (I use a cutting board)
  • Sponge (optional, I just use my hand)
  • Whole leaf tobacco (filler, binder and wrapper leaves)

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Making the cigar glue. In a shot glass, add 1tsp of pectin and then add ¼ tsp of distilled water. Stir with a table knife and keep adding ¼ tsp of water until it’s nearly clear and sticks to the knife.

Step 1: Hydrate

Pick out about three leaves of filler, 1 binder leaf, and 1 wrapper leaf. On the wrapper leaf, be sure to find one with minimal tears and holes. Start with the filler leaves and spray each side lightly with water and set aside. Just one easy spray on each side will due. We just want the filler leaves wet enough that they don’t crumble apart when we bend them. The binder and wrapper leaves you want to get a bit more wet. Once you have both sides of the binder and wrapper leaves wet, put them aside and wait about ten minutes for the leaves to absorb the water.

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Step 2: Stretch and Examine Leaves

After you’ve waited ten minutes, gently grab the binder leaf, and slowly stretch it out. Be sure not to crack it; if it’s too resistant, give it another spray of water. You may have to do this a few times. Slowly fan it out until it starts looking like a full leaf. Do the same with the wrapper leaf. On the wrapper leaf, keep an eye out for holes and tears. If both the right, and left sides of the wrapper leaf have tears, use another wrapper leaf.

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Step 3: De-vein and Trim Leaves

We don’t want that big, single vein that runs down the middle of the leaf. It can cause uneven burning and looks bad. With the filler leaves, fold the leaf in half, then grab the vein near the top, and pull it to the stem. You should be left with two halves of the leaf. With the binder and wrapper leaves, cut from the bottom to the top of the leaves, leaving some of the thick parts of the veins aside.

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Step 4: Rolling the Binder

Gather up your filler and with both hands, roll and squeeze them into a general cigar shape. This does not need to be neat, or tight, just need the general shape. It should be about two fists long. Next, break them in half by simply tearing them with both hands. Next, combine them both into one, and try to make them even, so that they feel like they would make an even gauge cigar. Now lay out a binder half, with the veins facing up. Add a bit of the glue to the end of the binder by dipping your finger in the glue, and wiping it on the leaf.

Be liberal; you can even spread it down the leaf. Grab the bunch of filler and place it over the wrap diagonally so you can roll forward. Gently spread out the wrap, while rolling the wrap around the filler. Do not roll too tight. You still want some give when you squeeze it. A cigar that is too tightly rolled will give you a bad draw. It doesn’t have to look great at this point. Once you are close to the end, add more glue to the binder so it holds together.

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Step 5: Wrap, Cut, and Wrap Again

Since I am new to this hobby, I like to have two wraps on my cigars. I tend to have small tears or holes in my wraps, so to make it look nicer, I use two wraps. This means I am using both halves of a single wrapper leaf. Make sure your wraps are trimmed, and stretched out as much as possible. First use the wrapper half that may have a little more damage than the other, and start with that one. Do the same as you did with the binder. Veins up, add glue to the end, and roll.

While you roll, use one hand to roll, use the other to spread out the leaf. The wrap is made to look nice, so we want it to be as smooth, and wrinkle free as possible. Once you have it wrapped nicely and are ready for the second wrap, trim both ends with a cigar cutter or sharp knife. This is to give it that cigar shape. On your second wrapper leaf, leave some extra hanging off both ends. Add lots of glue to this one as we don’t want any bubbles or it to come apart. Roll it up tightly, careful not to tear the wrapper.

When you get near the bottom, add lots of glue and with the remaining wrapper, twist it and add some glue to the outside. It’s OK if it looks a little messy on the end, that part will be cut off before smoking. If you don’t have enough wrap left to leave the twist, use your string to tie a knot around the cigar to hold it in place. You can attempt to make a true cap, but I am not good enough to attempt that.

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The second wrap will cover up that crack.

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Step 6: Smooth, Dry, Trim

Now you are left with what looks like a cigar. In order to make it better looking, lay the cigar on a flat surface, and gently roll a flat object over it. In the picture below, you can see I used a DVD case. This helps smooth the wrapper and push veins down. You can do this a few times a day. Let the cigar dry. Don’t put it in your humidor or a Ziploc bag. Leave it out for at most 2-5 days, depending on how wet you got your leaves. If they feel damp, let it sit. Finally, trim off any excess tobacco from the foot of the cigar (the part you light).

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Step 7: Cut, Light, Enjoy!

Use a cigar cutter, or a sharp knife, to cut off the end. Just cut off about ⅛ of an inch. I like to light using a torch lighter, but not let the direct flame come in contact with the cigar. Instead, let the heat of the flame slowly heat up the cigar, while slowly spinning the cigar to get an even burn. I also recommend pairing with a nice single malt scotch whisky. I am really fond of Glenmorangie 12 right now and is sweet and mild enough to not override the cigar.

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Brian Parker has been a metalhead for over two decades and has created and nurtured the San Diego Metal Swap Meet since 2009.

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American Snuff Company – Cotton Boll Twist

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Many (but not all) pipe smokers claim that they smoke for the flavor, not the nicotine. This is on par with wine drinkers talking about the “aura” and “palate” of a wine as they approach the end of the second bottle and begin slurring their words. For most of us, the pipe is a complete experience: taste, smell, feel, activity and yes, nicotine.

Why? Because Nicotine is a god among stimulants, providing cognitive benefits as well as relaxation. Because it helps us see our dead ancestors. Because it is fun. Pick one or more of the above, but be honest in recognizing that for many of us, nicotine is part of the trip. Accordingly, many smokers seek out a nicotine “holy grail”: the most intense nicotine blast that one can experience in a pipe.

A number of candidates arise, most from the Gawith Hoggarth stable, but rumored to be beyond even that in intensity are twists. These are nearly raw tobacco, taken from curing and wrapped in a distinctive shape, then allowed to age so the sugars in the leaf ferment and that dead vegetation flavor leaves. Twists are normally designed to be chewed and then placed against the cheek where nicotine absorption occurs through the membrane, but since the dawn of recorded history on the topic, smokers have been known to hack off bits of them and smoke them for a cosmic Nicotine experience.

You can get twists a number of places. Here’s a semi-comprehensive list:

These contenders for the holy grail of mind-blowing Nicotine trips are generally not all that expensive, in keeping with their functional origins in agricultural work. They do not have fancy flavors or extensive steps taken to reduce their rougher edges. But they do offer a staggering dose of the magic lady.

In my search for pipe smoking’s holy grail, I acquired an American Snuff Company Cotton Boll Twist, rumored to be one of the stronger twists. It arrived in a plastic bag, looking very much like a roughly dried leaf. Upon slitting the bag and removing it, I noticed a scent of old leaf, perhaps with undertones of oil, and felt how dry the twist was in my hands. But I noticed the hands were shaking.

Pipe smokers are famous for their lore, and while much of it is not strictly speaking factually true, almost all of it has metaphorical meaning, like religion or Texans telling tales where the fish keeps getting bigger or the boar gets meaner. It was entirely possible that this thing would kill me. They would find me, tense body twisted into an impossible pose in my comfortable share, surrounded by ashes flung aside during my final convulsions. The M.E. would shake his head sadly and proclaim death by misadventure, and I would be buried in a simple grave with the marker reading only HERE LIES AN IDIOT. This fear gripped me as I turned the twist over in my hands.

Being a somewhat intrepid sort, at least with my own life, I put it on the cutting block and hacked off an inch, then sliced it vertically and again, horizontally, to create small cubes. Because the leaf was dry and unpressed, these quickly expanded to tiny flakes — approximating the size of rough cut tobacco — of dry, slightly greasy vegetation. Figuring that here went nothing, I loaded up my favorite author style pipe and set match to tobacco, then waited for death to swoop down from the clouds and seize me in a spasm of final agonies.

Nothing of the sort happened.

First, I recoiled from the flavor. Almost no tobacco is actually “raw,” since you sort of have to dump something on it to help with the aging process and rehydrate it after drying. But this is as raw as it gets and it has a flavor that resembles, well, dried leaves. It burns quickly too, making me rehydrate the second batch. But for that first bowl, I lit, tamped, gagged and then lit again. After a few more puffs — slightly sour like the first notes of a newly-lit cigar — I found the flavor to improve. The nutty broad flavor of Burley replaced the raw taste of flame. Then a slight sweetness, very light, drifted to the surface. The more it burned, the better it tasted, although an oily undertone like old butter from an all-night restaurant persisted, and sometimes there was the slightly bitter “green” taste of minimally cured plant matter. But by the end of the first third of the bowl, I was thoroughly enjoying myself.

And then… it hit.

Like a serpentine form uncoiling in darkness, Nicotine wound its way through the smoke into my brain. My jaw dropped and cold sweat broke out on my forehead. I could see my fingers twitching like insects in the spastic repetition of instinctual motions. Sounds receded, and I could no longer speak. I could feel every hair like a finely-tuned instrument, detect even the slightest breeze brushing over my skin. “Unholy mackerel,” I thought, “This may indeed be the end.”

But I survived. And I hung on, chopping up another half-inch and adding the collected leaf-bits to a small bowl over which I draped a hot damp towel. I waited. And then I reloaded, lit, tamped and blazed. The same bitterness struck, the oily smoke curling around my head, but then the rancid butter and cut grass flavors faded and the nuttiness returned. The faint sweetness emerged as well, as did the Samurai warrior that is Nicotine. But this time, I rode the dragon. I felt myself pass into the shadow realms, and like the mythical Jenkem users of central Africa, I spoke to my dead ancestors. I enjoyed every minute of it.

In terms of raw strength, this tobacco is not more excessive than Samuel Gawith 1792 Flake or the infamous Gawith Hoggarth “Happy” Brown Bogie. It has some strength on those, but does not leap to another cosmic level. However, like a tropical storm it attacks quickly and holds you with an iron grip. In this case, it is pleasurable. Subsequent bowls revealed that this tobacco mixes extremely well, and even a pinch of an English mixture mutes its flavor extremes. Its heavy Burley takes the flavor of whatever it is mixed with, making this an even more enjoyable experience. But that power — the raw, infernal power — remains.

The stronger ropes from UK tobacco makers, or even some of the home-grown Perique mixes that the Americans concoct, most likely match this in strength. Part of its reputation comes from the fact that as a dry tobacco, it burns quickly and thus injects more smoke into the mouth (this is the same reason people like flake tobacco; the compressed flake burns a lot more leaf at any given instant than loose tobacco blends). But part of it is a sensible recognition of the dark forces at work within this demon of a twist. I paired it with Incantation Onward to Golgotha in recognition of its infernal strength, and sipped green tea to keep me anchored in the world of reality. This may not be the holy grail of Nicotine abuse, but it is one of them. And I am glad I found it.

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Metalhead pipesmokers unite!

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The old saying goes that those who love to use tobacco smoke cigarettes, and those who love tobacco smoke cigars and pipes. The cigarettes give you a quicker hit because the lungs, with their much vaster absorption area, deliver nicotine to the brain within about three seconds. The cigarette ends within three to seven minutes and the craving subsides momentarily. With pipes and cigars, the nicotine slowly oozes in through the mucus membranes in the mouth, tongue and (sometimes) throat, creating a stronger dose of nicotine but without the sudden “falling off a cliff” sensation. Many metalheads smoke cigarettes, but more are branching out to pipes and cigars for the flavors, more intense dosage and less damage to the body.

Please do not read this as an anti-cigarette rant. They are wonderful, in their own right, and much less work than cigars or pipes. However, burning any leaves and inhaling them directly into your lungs 10-20 times a day would cause some kind of long term health problem as gunk — tar, ash and irritants — builds up on the alveoli. On top of that, our industry and lawmakers have decided to mandate all sorts of processing of the tobacco, so who knows what else is being inhaled. If you would not mind going into a fast food joint, taking home their lettuce, dehydrating it and sitting next to a giant pile of it burning all day, cigarettes might not bother you. And keep in mind that there are brain-boosting benefits to nicotine in addition to resistance to neurodegenerative disorders, an effect which you do not get with the charred salad.

Cigars are beyond the scope of this article, but pipes are its focus. Pipes are essentially little wooden, stone or clay cups for burning tobacco with an inhalation tube attached. The smoker fills the pipe loosely with tobacco, then ignites it with some of the many means available to us ex-hominids, inhaling the smoke into his mouth and savoring it before blowing it outward into the personal space of those around him. While the topic of smoking pipes merits a full book, this article provides an introduction to pipe smoking designed to be as simple and low-cost as possible.

***

To get started, you will need:

  • A pipe. Generally between $35-$65 for a good starter pipe. Look for 0.7inch diameter bowls and filterless stems. This tool may help.
  • Tobacco. This comes in tins and bulk, usually found at Brick and Mortar (B&M) shops, and Over the Counter (OTC) usually found at drugstores and supermarkets.
  • Pipe cleaners. Each time you smoke, you will want to clean your pipe. Pipe cleaners have two ends, so that is two smokes per cleaner. It is not a terrible habit to include a bundle or package of these each time you buy tobacco.
  • A pipe nail. Demystifying this tool: it can be as simple as a key. You use one end to cut up tobacco, allowing it to collapse into an ember, and the other to tamp it after you light it for the first time. Tobacco rises like a demon unleashed when touched with fire, but compressing it allows it to smoulder so you can sip the pipe.
  • Fire. I favor the compressed cardboard matches in matchbooks, but you can use anything. For some, lighters and zippos taste horrible, so they prefer the match. The only trick is to burn off the tip before lighting.

To avoid the usual drama, let us launch into the process of smoking:

You go to some place with little wind, but some air circulation, where you have a comfortable chair. Sitting in it, you take out your tobacco. Holding the pipe over the tobacco container, let the shreds of tobacco fall into the pipe. When it is half-full, gently tamp with a finger. When it reaches the top, pinch from the center to one side and then the other, compressing the tobacco and letting it fall back into place. (Much has been written on this topic, usually under the unfortunate appellation of packing a pipe, when the correct word to use is fill: put tobacco into the pipe so there are no fully empty spaces, but fall short of compacting it so air — necessary for fire and smoke — can flow through. Ignore all other advice.)

Put the pipe in your mouth, holding it gently with teeth and firmly with lips. Light a match, and hold it vertically at a slight angle so the flame climbs the stalk of the match, then when the head has burned off, move the match over the tobacco in slow circles while inhaling. Take the smoke into your mouth and the top part of your throat if you wish, but try to avoid it leaking further down toward the lungs. You can compress it by gently blowing out the air from the front of your mouth, which draws in smoke from the pipe. The best way to inhale that I have found involves flaring the nose and drawing in air slowly but steadily.

My favorite cycle runs in seven second increments. For bigger mouthfuls, draw in your smoke, then keep it in your mouth for three seconds, then exhale and wait another four seconds. For slower sips, take one for about a half-second, then wait at least three seconds before the next. It helps to have a slight background circulation of air to keep the pipe oxygenated and smouldering well.

Many smokers do a “char and light” where they torch the top layer of tobacco, then tamp it lightly because it has risen up as it burned, and then light again to get the resulting compressed tobacco to blaze. At two-thirds through the bowl, it may be helpful to use a poker or the pointy end of your pipe nail to chop up the resulting ember and set it ablaze again. The lighting requirements vary between tobacco types, which will be addressed below.

When no more smoke comes out of the pipe, and you sense that the tobacco has been converted mostly to ash, tap it out into convenient bushes or a metal trash receptacle without a plastic bag. The ash will be hot and melt plastic. To tap out, hold the pipe in your hand and swing it downward to shake the ash out of the bowl. You may have to stir it with poker or nail beforehand.

Then comes the most important part of the ritual. If your pipe lacks a filter, run a pipe cleaner from the mouthpiece into the pipe and leave it there for a few minutes to absorb both direct and ambient moisture. This will keep your pipe fresh-tasting for its next use.

Pipe smokers vary. Some are hard-hitters who blaze through a bowl quickly, where others are sippers who have a pipe going all day for an hour at a time. If you re-light too frequently, or smoke too fast, the pipe may get hot; if this happens enough and to a great enough extreme, it may cause a condition known as “burnout” where the material of the pipe chars and cracks. To help avoid this, smoke on the seven-second method and also, allow some nice thick gunky tar to line the bowl, especially on the bottom. I always smoke some OTC aromatics, which are full of sugary flavoring that bonds together the goo and forms a kind of tar cement, down to the bottom of the bowl to layer it with a nice thick coating of glop. This glop chars over time and becomes a sort of pipe creosote that insulates against extremes.

***

Tobacco originates as leafy plant in the genus Nicotiana, which when cured, dried, pressed and shredded becomes a delicious flammable method of nicotine delivery. The great variations in what are called generically tobaccos occur in the different strains of tobacco plants, and the different methods used to grow, cure, dry, press, and cut the leaves.

That process produces a number of tobacco types, which are then combined in varying amounts into different blends, which you might think of as “tobacco recipes” because they achieve a unique flavor through the ingredients — different types of tobacco — mixed within them. These blends are also distinguished by their cut or how they are sliced, which is related to the flavor and tobacco characteristics in each blend. Many blends are then coated in flavoring known as “aromatic”; if the primary flavor to the smoking blend is the flavoring and not the underlying tobacco, the blend is referred to as an aromatic tobacco.

For the end user, tobacco is then shaped by another force — the consumer market — and placed into the following silos:

  1. Over-the-Counter (OTC). OTC tobaccos are designed for convenience. They are usually either aromatics or a type of shag-cut tobacco that is also used for Roll Your Own (RYO) cigarettes. These burn most easily, cost about $2 an ounce, and are generally mild in both flavor and nicotine level.
  2. Luxury. Like most things in our society, the good stuff only starts when you step off the mainstream and pony up some more cash. You would not buy Budweiser to drink, nor Marlboro to smoke, so you will choose a pipe tobacco made under the brand name of an established firm. A handful of producers make these tobaccos now, but they tend to be stronger and rely more on the flavor of natural tobacco, although many are also aromatics but with a wider variety of flavors than OTC.
  3. Boutique. A cottage industry has sprung up in making this variety of luxury tobacco which aims for unique and intense flavors, sometimes combining aromatic and unflavored tobaccos. These are more expensive than “regular” luxury and are made by a handful of blenders who also own mail-order tobacco shops.
  4. Vintage. In the past, everything was better. People have been saying that for generations, and apparently each were correct: the tobaccos of only 20 years ago were stronger and more flavorful. Luxury tobaccos, once considered regular tobacco, have been stored in sealed tins (if you buy one on eBay, make sure it is also “unopened” as opposed to re-sealed) and are now much sought-after.

I recommend starting with a solid OTC like Carter Hall, Prince Albert, Captain Black, Five Brothers or even Drum. These are the easiest to learn to pipe with, and give you a feeling for what mild levels of nicotine and flavor are like. In addition, they are low-cost so you will not howl and scream if you accidentally ruin a bowl or spill some.

You may find that these are pleasing enough for you and that you are content to smoke them for life. There is nothing wrong with this; many have done so and it provides the least fetishistic and complex smoking experience. Five Brothers stands out from most of these because it does not use aromatic flavoring or propylene glycol (PG), a moisturizing agent added to many OTC tobaccos. If your OTC tobacco comes out of the can or pouch and seems damp, it probably has a good dose of PG. Many aromatics, including those sold at the luxury level, also have this treatment.

From that point, the next stop is an entry-level luxury tobacco. I suggest going with a Dunhill blend because they are widely available, not overly flavored, and tend to be sliced for easy burning. You can generally get a tin of 50g/1.76oz for about $9 online or $15 in the real world, if you are in the United States; this will vary with local tobacco taxes. You may notice that you are paying quite a bit in taxes throughout this whole process, and wonder if that is in fact the impetus for the whole societal jihad against tobacco. Keep wondering. In places like Canada and Europe, they pay multiples of what you pay here. Scary.

At this point, I would stop moving up the ladder. Boutique blends are a variety of luxury blend that costs more and has more unique, ironic, oddball, quirky, and otherwise off-the-beaten path blends. However, it tends to be lower in nicotine content and it is unclear whether these weird little blends are actually that distinct from their archetypes. There are only so many types of tobacco and while many different combinations can be made, most of them resemble a few fundamental types. I have never ventured into Vintage tins and can say that, while undoubtedly these older blends were of a finer quality, that may not have been preserved over the years. Nicotine levels especially degrade. To my mind, the piping experience cannot be separated into “taste” or effect but must include both, and so the fetishism with flavor — even if grounded in science and experience — strikes me as perhaps being a mistake.

Tobacco comes in several cuts which reflect how the leaves are presented:

  • Shag. Cut laterally across the leaf, leaving an interlocked mess like peat moss that loads easily and burns well.
  • Ribbon. “Normal.” Thicker slices that seem to be vertically up and down the leaf.
  • Flake -> Ready Rubbed. Flake occurs when tobacco is pressed in blocks and then sliced; Ready Rubbed is the result of “rubbing out” those slices.
  • Plug. Tobacco is pressed together and allowed to mature that way, then cut into little pucks.
  • Cake. Like a plug, but loosely packed, resulting in a crumbly “coffee cake” style.
  • Cube. Cross-slicing the tobacco produces tiny cubes; sometimes hard to keep lit.
  • Twist -> Slices. Tobacco is twisted in plugs or flake is re-twisted in tubes, then cut into little “coin” shaped bits called slices.

The above simplifies a fairly complex process. You might also enjoy these viewpoints from P&C blender Russ Ouellette and Lane Limited manager Leonard Wortzel.

Multiple types of tobacco dot the landscape. These refer to the strain of tobacco plant and how it was cured and prepared. These are:

  • Burley. Think cigar leaves. This air-cured tobacco has a nutty flavor and higher nicotine and oil than most others. It is used to complement other tobaccos in blends, and is known for its tongue “bite” from high alkalinity.
  • Virginia. High sugar content and sweet natural taste make this type a favorite in many blends. Although this tobacco comes in many colors, its flavor stays within the mild range and makes it the basis of many blends.
  • Cavendish. This term applies to any tobacco that has been aged and cured with a heating process that brings out a fuller taste.
  • Latakia. This is Oriental tobacco which has been cured with smoke from burning oak, pine, juniper and yew wood to give it a bittersweet taste.
  • Oriental/Turkish. Sweet and low in nicotine, this is tobacco grown using the Eastern method of low soil nutrients and plenty of sun, which produces its fragrance and flavor.
  • Perique. Fermentation in its own juices after Burley tobacco is pressed into barrels gives Perique a spicy-sweet flavor. This is generally an additive to other blends to give them some spark
  • Dark Fired. Leaves are cured with smoke under carefully managed heat and humidity, producing a blend both strong in nicotine and flavor. It is used as an additive more than a main ingredient because of its intensity.

For more information, check out Russ Ouellette’s descriptions.

These are used in the following blends:

  • English. Mostly Virginia, with Latakia for body and Oriental tobaccos to provide spice.
  • Scottish. Similar to an English blend, the Scottish blend uses less Latakia and more Virginia, with little or no Orientals.
  • Balkan. Strong in Orientals and Latakia, this tobacco blend uses Virginia to balance those dominant flavors.
  • American. Although there are some similarities to the English, the American blend uses more Virginia with possible Cavendish or Kentucky style tobaccos.
  • Danish. These resemble the English, but with a deeper flavor and less spice, using more Burley and Cavendish but emphasizing stronger, more balanced flavors.

You will probably find yourself shopping by blend, which could be a substitute term for flavor. What type of smoke do you wish to taste tonight? There are several indexes for ranking different blends:

  • Harshness. How much acridity and bite there is. Strong smoke can be hard on the smoker, and “bite” is created by the alkalinity of the tobacco, which raises the pH and increases absorption of nicotine but may also cause a tangy burning sensation on the tongue.
  • Strength. You are smoking a nicotine-bearing plant. How much nicotine is delivered? A tobacco with high nicotine may be worth pounds of low-nic fruity aromatics.
  • Note. This refers to the smell left behind after the tobacco is burned. This influences both your taste of the tobacco, and what your friends, family and coworkers experience.

The de facto standard for tobacco assessments is Tobacco Reviews. Like other crowd-sourced sites such as Wikipedia and Metal-Archives, or reviews on Amazon, it is good for basic factual information and opinions from people whose judgment you have verified and who — as a result — you trust. It is not good for randomly reading reviews because most of them are written by twitchy, bitchy and queeny internet consumers who complain about all the wrong things, like all the irrelevant, and miss the point. Some of the tobaccos rated highly by this site’s users are excellent, but others are simply quirky hipster fodder. Tread carefully, and consider using the various pipe forums out there: Puff, Pipes, Smokers Forum, and Tamp and Puff. The private reviews at this location have endured because they are frequently strikingly accurate. The main point is: find someone whose opinions you respect and tastes who align with yours, even if the exact opposite of yours, and you can figure out what you will like.

***

A word on lighting pipes: some prefer magnifying glasses and sun, others coals from the fire, still others matches and apparently, most like either butane lighters or Zippos. As a diehard match user, I can say that matches fail in the wind, and there is more wind that you might think, but that they seem to create the least influence on taste. Perhaps a laser is appropriate.

The pipe world is full of both facts and lore. Lore refers to anything passed on by groups of humans in social circumstances; the idea is that if it survives a dozen generations, it might be true. In the meantime, you will be wading through mountains of nonsense and worst of all, unnecessary complexity added by people who wish to seem profound or wise. Pipe-smoking is simple: you are lighting dried leaves in a tube and inhaling. The rest is mere adjustment.

The following resources may be helpful for those seeking to know more:

Here are some good places to go shopping for pipes and luxury tobacco:

Places to buy OTC tobacco, which online is sold in bulk:

Resources for those who wish to grow or blend their own tobacco:

Tobacco blenders and brands:

If you do not see your favorite blend, it is probably an imprint licensed to and manufactured by a larger group, or a boutique variety manufactured by one of the tobacco shops linked above.

For kicks, here is a list of famous pipe smokers. You can add me on there when I get famous, but be sure to mention I detest wimpy tobacco and think it should leave the hall.

Finally, the best metal for pipe smoking…

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Sadistic Metal Reviews 01-24-14

manatees
The Manatee: nature’s most useful animal.

What are Sadistic Metal Reviews? It’s when we decide that good things should happen to good people and bad things should happen to boring music. Most music is either imitating a trend, or totally without purpose or content, and that makes it boring. We can find trends and purposeless noise anywhere, for free. We are cruel to the stupid, and periodically, find something worthwhile to hold up above the river of feces…

adrenaline-mob-_-men-of-honorAdrenaline Mob – Men of Honor

It’s grandad’s heavy metal, kids, but with a rhythmic kick and Alice in Chains vocals. A Pantera influence in the bouncy riffing represents a modern retrospective on glam and heavy metal from the 1970s. Droning diminished scale choruses and a similar riffs stacked in a way that is both not random and not song development fleshes out the mix. Songwriting emphasizes the Big Pop Industry tendencies toward hooky choruses and distracting, somewhat aggressive verses with emphasis on stitching out the chorus rhythm in as many forms as possible, so in case you missed it the previous sixty times it will pop up again to remind you that you’re listening to “music.” People have made heavy metal version of power pop before (like Yes’ 90125) but they aimed for quality; this aims for conformity with someone snapping their fingers and being ironic behind the scenes. Warmed-over 1970s riffs 1990s influences make this a classic record company attempt to make the present generations worship the cast-offs of the past. Despite attempts to be edgy, this is a museum piece from the Hall of Boredom.

disfiguring-the-goddess-depriveDisfiguring the Goddess – Deprive

There’s no death metal to be found on this supposedly “brutal death metal” release, nor any concept of songwriting. Choppy, percussive riffs are thrown next to nu-mu thudding in random sequences that do nothing but “groove.” It comes off as variations of rhythm guitar picking exercises played on an 8-string guitar and stitched together in ProTools. Like most of these rhythms, it’s only a matter of time before the “out there” becomes the predictable, so there’s no promise in these flights of fancy, only a return to something as mundane as the cycling rhythm of a diesel truck engine with a loose belt. Occasionally, an actual riff gets played for almost three seconds before more inconsequential rhythm chugging comes in to pacify the indie/Hot Topic demographic who use this stuff as a surrogate to nurture relationships with other idiots by sharing an interest in “wacky muzak” that makes them “different and unique”, but under the surface, is Korn with tremolo picking.

alehammer-barmageddonAlehammer – Barmageddon

Life is an IQ test. Your choices determine really how smart you are. If you picked this band, you failed. These guys should hang up the electrics, strap on acoustics and do children’s television. This is sing-song music for people without direction in life. Even when I was a clueless 14-year-old buying his first albums with grubby pennies I would not have considered this dung-heap of bad musical stereotypes. It sounds like the kind of stuff that characters at Disneyland would sing, or maybe a bad world music band from the background of a car commercial. It’s catchy vocal rhythms over guitars that basically serve as slaves to pounding out the catchy vocal rhythm, but it’s repetitive catchiness. It’s all hook to the degree that there’s no sweet spot, only cloying repetition. Most bands of this nature are basically bad heavy metal with jingle music at its core. Barmageddon is basically a grindcore take on the kind of simplistic fare that got called “Pirate Metal” recently. I propose a new name: Headshot Metal. If you get caught listening to this, you should be shot through the face with a high-powered rifle. It’s an insult to anyone in the genre who tries to get anything right.

lamb-of-god-_-new-american-gospelLamb of God – New American Gospel

Upon viewing this title, the prospective listener might be intrigued to ask “what is this new gospel?” Answer: the gospel of insincere mediocrity. Half-assed guitar riffs combine the worst elements of a moron’s interpretation of hardcore (autistic caveman rhythms) and speed metal (obvious riff sequences) with a fruity veneer of constipated teenager vocals. Tracks start nowhere and lead nowhere, with nothing connecting one moment to the next; a stream of irrelevance. Expect plenty of repetition which Lamb of God, like all metalcore bands, tries to disguise by being as random as possible. You know who else uses that strategy? Nu-metal bands. This is basically a kissing cousin to nu-metal anyway. It’s music designed for distracted teenagers to distract themselves further until it’s time for a lifetime career in something brainless to match their braindead approach to life. How anybody with above a single-digit IQ could enjoy this escapes me. Sadly for all of us, this title is accurate: the future of America is a populace that considers this a valuable piece of music.

Anal Blasphemy / Forbidden Eye – The Perverse Worship of Satanic Sins

Anal blasphemy starts off with three tracks of simple death metal with a strong melodic hook. It is however rather straightforward in structure which leaves creates a sense of uniformity. Riffs are very similar. The final track uses a melodic lead-picked counter-riff which adds some depth but ultimately these songs are one step removed from their beginnings, so despite the compelling rhythm and melodic hooks they might not survive repeated listens. Forbidden Eye produces a more lush approach to melodic metal which is clearly in the droning black metal camp, but avoids the pure sugar-coated repetition common to the Eastern European variant. Its weakness is that there is not much in the way of a unique voice; we’ve heard these tropes before and recognize the song patterns well. If you can imagine a Dawn or Naglfar approach with more intensive drumming that is roughly what you’ll get here, well-executed but undistinctive both melodically and stylistically.

descend-witherDescend – Wither

The rock ‘n’ roll industry is a successful industry that attracts players who are highly professional. They know what the product is, and how to do do the minimum to achieve it; this practice, otherwise known as shaving margins, is based on the idea that the other guy will cut his costs to the minimum too in order to both lower price to make the product more competitive and maximize his own profit. If two guys make a widget, and one does it for five bucks less, that’s pure profit. In the same way, rock ‘n’ roll is based on fast turnover and following current trends so you can catch the media wave. I hear death metal is big now, like trendy. This album attempts a facial similarity to death metal with the whispery vocals of Unique Leader bands and lots of runaway blast beats followed by metalcore riffs, but after a while, they drop this and out come to the jazzy riffs based on a scale bent to a series of offbeats of offbeats in a complex pattern, and the soft-strummed ballad chord progressions and melodic hooks. The problem is that the guitar rhythms, like those of the vocals in hip-hop, are based on subdividing a rhythm and thus rapidly become highly repetitive, both internally and between songs. The result is that it all all fades into the background, as should this rather unambitious and directionless release.

reciprocal-new-order-of-the-agesReciprocal – New Order of the Ages

A “thinking man” band name written in a sterile font and a “politically informed” album cover. Is this more metalcore in death metal clothing? You bet. While this band is claiming influence from Deeds of Flesh and other Unique Leader bands for legitimacy, this has more in common with Necrophagist or The Black Dahlia Murder. Mechanical groove riffs are “spiced up” with sweep arpeggios and generic Slaughter of the Soul riffs appear over blast beats for the “brutality”. This is boring music with nothing to offer. Perhaps musicians this good need a better concept to work with than shouting out Alex Jones podcasts over Guitar World lessons from metalcore guitarists played at 220 bpm. I couldn’t tell the difference between this album and any other modern tek-deaf release. If these guys were to spend less time on conspiracy websites and more time thinking about why people still turn to their old Morbid Angel and Immolation albums instead of these tek-deaf bands (or how to structure their music to not be a series of discontinuous parts), maybe they could create something useful. Otherwise, this is Origin with propaganda attached looking to steal some time from metal fans while keeping Xanax addled brofist D&B homeys (Rings of Saturn fans) satisfied with more inconsequential ADHD music which will be forgotten a week later.

caliban-ghost-empireCaliban – Ghost Empire

Occasionally I’m amazed that something actually got signed because it’s so terrible and then later I see it on the bestseller list. The taste of the herd will never fail to shock and amaze, mainly because what they like is simple: (1) the same old stuff but (2) in some radical new format that’s easy to see through so they can appreciate the sameness of it. Modern society is about anonymity and personal convenience, so why not music that you can project yourself upon, that requires you to know or feel absolutely nothing except the most transient of emotions? Caliban have it for. Ranty Pantera verses over djent-inspired harmonically-immobile riffs lead to sung alt-rock style choruses with lots of hook and lengthy vocalizations, but essentially no melodic development. As a result this is super-repetitive in that its song structure is circular to the point of linearity and the songs at their core consist of two-note clusters in riffs stacked up against four-note chorus vocal lines. Every now and then they get tricky and play rhythm games with riffs that were well-known before Metallica formed. The main factor that kills me is the repetition. It’s as if the whole album is a conspiracy of details designed to hide the fact that it’s basically the words of a drunk, repeating himself unsteadily and then doubling his volume and saying the same thing. This might be good music to listen while doing laundry or some other task that numbs the brain because the effect of this music is to validate tedium, repetition and simplistic pounding. Unless your brain fell out long ago, avoid this reeking turd.

blutkult-die-letzen-wahren-deutschen-ritterBlutkult – Die letzten deutschen Ritter

I always wondered what would happen to the formal nationalists in metal. We knew that founding bands like Bathory, Darkthrone, Burzum, Mayhem, Immortal, et al were nationalistic in the sense of national pride and perhaps more. But it’s a leap from that to connect with the organized far-right parties and mentality, and for a long time, NSBM seemed like it would remain in that world. Then hipsters started like Arghoslent and Burzum and so now being a Nazi is a “lifestyle choice” like being vegan or buying a Prius… the hardcore nationalist music has changed too, as this album from Blutkult shows us. It’s a three-way split between the old Skrewdriver-styled sentimental punk music, Renaissance Faire styled Celtic-y noodly melodic music, and the droning of punk-influenced black metal such as Absurd. As someone of profoundly anti-racist and egalitarian character, I find this to be alarmingly catchy and emotional. Die letzten deutschen Ritter brings out feelings of hope in me, and I don’t like it. It’s like a surge of elegance and an old world emerging from the ruins of this one. But that makes me uneasy, as do the Wehrmacht soldiers on the cover, the black suns and the vocal samples that sound like the man with the funny moustache himself. Regardless, this is where Graveland and Absurd have been trying to go for years. If they got rid of the stupid spoken intros and just focused on letting the music rip, this might be a really compelling release.

amoral-wound-creationsAmoral – Wound Creations

While their current output is being lambasted for being radio friendly rock/metal, this “technical death metal” debut album is given unwarranted praise for being some kind of masterwork. Too bad this is just metalcore. Chugging groove riffs played in mechanical stop-start sequences make room for AOR “extreme” stadium metal melodies like Soilwork, and little else. While the playing is adept, the music is annoying and makes their latest album sound favorable by comparison for being honest commercial radio muzak that’s not congested with unnecessary ornamentation and fake aggression. If Nevermore made a mash up between Soilwork at it’s most commercial and Meshuggah at it’s most mechanical while Chimaira make MTV edits out of the recordings, you might end up with an album like this: sub-par music, but at least they know how to play. Too bad they sound like any other generic metalcore band signed to Century Media circa the 2000s with growl vocals (done in the metalcore faux-aggressive style). A terrible excuse for metal that without a doubt brings great shame to Finland.

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Interview with Dom from MetalRecusants.com

paradiselost6
Photo: Paradise Lost from a MetalRecusants.com article, by Vivien Varga.

Online resources for metal pose a problem. On one hand, smaller entities tend to dry up and blow away as their members move on in life and get tired of paying hosting. On the other, large centralized resources are quickly gamed by industry and dominating by small in-groups. Thus the post-modern metalhead always has an eye out for new resources.

A recent entrant in this field is Metal Recusants, a semi-unorthodox site known for its wise-ass reviews and scathing commentary on the metal scene. We were fortunate to be able to get in some words with Dom, head reviewer and site founder, on his activity and the appeal of Metal Recusants in a time of increasing metal information overload.

What’s a “recusant,” why did you pick the term, and how does it describe what you do?

“Recusant,” similarly to “non-conformist,” is a term taken from English history. Recusants were Catholics in England who did not convert to the new Anglican religion. I thought of this term because I was looking for something similar to non-conformism. As you wrote on your site, metalheads do not conform easily and that is the message I want to pass on with this name. I think it fits in perfectly with our mission to promote less-known “underground” music but also in describing the “underground” way we write in and organise ourselves.

Our aim is to not only feature the most obscure metal band that no one knows about but also to provide a balance of the less-known acts with the better-known ones. Additionally, there are many opinions, different tastes and different writing styles that people have. I aim to highlight this with our site by not having strict writing guidelines. Apart from the way our articles are formatted I do not ask our writers to write in a certain style. I do not want MetalRecusants to become the next fruitless mainstream metal magazine in which you cannot easily tell the difference between reviews apart from the album name and the rating.

In many cases they are all written in the same way, most commonly in the third person the writer distances himself/herself from the music and gives an authoritative opinion of the music… Therefore, I do not ask our writers to write in the first or third person, I do not tell them to write in British or American English, I do not ask them to write “death metal” in capitals or small letters. Moreover, I do not ignore genres or sub-genres which I may not like. For instance, I hate metalcore but you can see that we have featured that sub-genre quite a few times. There is no one single music taste which is superior or better, we all have different styles whether it is the way we write or the music we choose to listen to. No one on this planet is a “metal guru” who tells you what you should listen to. We write our opinions in our own way and we let you decide whether you want to check that band out or ignore it.

“Recusant” is also an obscure term, a word not used in everyday language, and, hence, whether someone remembers the word correctly or not, he or she will remember that that is the site with the weird name – which is actually the majority of people, haha!

Apparently MetalRecusants.com started after you’d been writing other reviews. Where did you write, and what was the reaction?

I did not have any experience writing for other websites or magazines prior to starting this site. I have only been writing personal reviews on my last.fm journal after attending gigs and discovering new music. Therefore, the audience was usually my family and friends as well as the odd last.fm user who would stumble upon my writing. The reaction from my family and friends was great, everyone supported me, especially my parents and siblings. I always have the urge to share the stuff I discover if not by writing articles then by sending out emails or messages. On some occasions some friends and family learnt about new bands through me while on other I was just being a nuisance by filling their inboxes with messages.

Do you consider yourselves “elitists”? What is an elitist? How is that different from a snob, poseur, scenester and hipster?

Not at all. As I mentioned before, even though I am the one taking most of the big decisions for MetalRecusants, I still feature music which I may not like but my writers like and want to write about. Since my aim is to feature all kinds of metal (and non-metal with our “31 Flavors” series) music and I do not decide what music is featured by just looking at how the band dresses or if they are labelled as metalcore or black metal, I can safely say that I do not consider MetalRecusants as elitist.

What is an elitist? In metal, the most common term I came across of an elitist person is someone who listens to only the most obscure underground metal – usually death and black – and hates anything else unless it is an old band which had an impact on the metal scene.

I think elitists have many parallels with snobs, poseurs, scenesters and hipsters. They certainly tend to follow a certain limited type of music while ignoring other types. However, poseurs, snobs, scenesters and hipsters may be doing it more in order to show off and fit into a scene. This happens a lot in metal as well but I think the “elitism”, “hipsterism” and “scenesterism” in metal is much more than just showing off. It is a community in which you share the music you listen to with like-minded people.

That is why going to small club metal shows is my favourite activity because the atmosphere is very intimate and makes you feel like at home. Wherever you may find a metalhead, you straight away have something to talk about – you may not have the same tastes and opinions but who does? Metalheads may seem to be elitist but I think it happens in many cases because they have found what they like, they learnt which labels, magazines and venues they can rely on. They feel comfortable with that and I think that is perfectly healthy as long as you keep your mind open of course and do not start following blindly these institutions – something which unfortunately is happening in metal. Sometimes I think commercialism is taking over and some people are becoming victims of it by following things blindly. Sorry, I am straying away from the main topic so I will just stop here!

Do you treat other genres with the same outlook? Is heavy metal different from other genres, with — dare I say it — heavy metal “exceptionalism” such that it merits different treatment?

I always used to (and still do) compare heavy metal to classical music. I do that because when I was crazily into Iron Maiden at the age of 12-13, I would compare their three guitars and all the layers of their music to an orchestra. Being brought up with a variety of music, going to music school in the afternoons almost every day, caused me to draw parallels with classical music. The more I listened to stuff like Beethoven, Mozart or Chopin (which is playing almost constantly in my parents’ living room), the more I could compare it to metal music. Since this was happening in my early teens, it made me into a kvlt (or elitist) metalhead with easy justifications that metal is the only “just” genre in popular music because it has such serious and historical roots!

You could say I matured a bit now as in the same day you can see me listening to stuff such as Vader, ABBA, Beethoven, The Doors, Pearl Jam or Immortal. Anything goes really. It’s all music in the end. To answer your question, I do not think metal should be treated differently than other genres but I do think it is as much of a serious genre as classical music and it has a rich and fruitful history. Heavy metal is already not treated the same way as all the other genres, therefore, I believe, the greater society should start treating heavy metal seriously and not as just some teenager’s rebellious phase.

Is metal an art form, entertainment, both or does it straddle the line? Is there a difference between Beethoven’s Fifth or “Journey to the End of the Night” and Miley Cyrus (“Bangerz”) or “Game of Thrones”?

In most cases, I see metal more as an art form rather than entertainment. The fact that the majority of metal musicians create the music first for themselves, they make music based on how they are inspired, makes it art. They do not care how it is received by the greater public. If you start caring how your music is received by the average person, then that means you are not creating art anymore, you are trying to sell a product to a certain audience.

Metal is not all about entertaining people, however, metal creates great music to rock out to on a night out, right?! I know this has been talked about in all documentaries and interviews and it sounds like a cliché but the following is true: metal music is always there with you and for you. It can make you smile, laugh, cry, feel depressed or be there just as a great soundtrack to getting drunk (or whatever else you might want to poison yourself with). You can only understand this if you truly get into heavy metal by listening to the albums, reading about the bands’ history and going to the shows.

What do you look for in a band that makes you think favorably of them and possibly write a favorable review? Do you treat demo and first album bands differently from established acts on major labels?

There are various things to look out for but I am always up for surprises. Actually, if I listen to a band expecting something totally different and I end up loving it then we have a winner. Nonetheless, for a band to receive a favourable review from me, the music has to reach out to me emotionally and bring me into a certain state of mind. There is no mathematical equation for this really. Some piece of music can reach out more to you than me or the other way around. And here I am talking about myself – I can’t speak for the other writers on our team. They may disagree with me.

Everyone is treated the same by us. Of course, I love to listen to demos and new bands – recently I discovered Dismemberment and we streamed Thunderwar’s debut EP The Birth of Thunder. Because we receive LOADS of requests every week, we end up picking randomly the music we feature. There is only so much we can do since this is not a full-time job for us. Therefore, I would like to aim this to any bands or record labels which got in touch with us and never heard back or did not see their music on our site: please keep getting in touch with us, maybe in a few months we will feature you.

About how many people come through MetalRecusants every day (or month)? Has this gone up over the past year?

The numbers keep increasing every couple months or so. At the moment we have on average 4,000 unique visitors per month. If I remember correctly, half way through or towards the end of 2012, we had some 1,000 visitors, so yeah, the numbers are going up all the time. It is overwhelming when I think that I had literally zero people coming in when I started this as a blog in 2011. The more writers we got, the more bands we featured then the numbers kept going up.

Can you give us your (Dom) background in writing, music and theory? Does your day job/school overlap with your metal identity and life? Do the people in your daytime world understand your nighttime world (metal) or are the two incompatible?

I was brought up with all kinds of music in my family and I went to music school until the age of 19 where I did music theory, history and learnt to play piano and guitar (both classical and electric). My background in writing? I am a History student at the University of Essex in the UK – and currently as an exchange at Purdue University in Indiana, USA – so I guess I get to do a lot of writing like most students do! I think having this website and being a humanities student benefits me both ways because I am now used to writing all the time but it is also improving my writing style.

So far, I did not have to “sacrifice” my metal way of life for my university studies and social life. On the contrary, I will be writing a dissertation about heavy metal behind the Iron Curtain and I have met some wonderful metal (and non-metal as well) people while at university. At Essex there is a Metal Society of which I was an “executive” last year. We did – and they still keep doing – loads of awesome stuff; from organising simple socials at the bar to hosting our own metal nights on campus. I had an amazing time with those people and I am looking forward to going back in June and seeing all of them again as well as meeting any new faces!

MetalRecusants does not rate (assign a numerical value to) a band. Can you go into depth about why you don’t like this method?

That is correct! So people actually notice this? Haha! I always found album ratings ridiculous and especially the ones with decimal points. I mean, seriously, 98.6% or 5.5/10?! Focus on more how the music on the disc in front of you communicates with you, what do you feel when you listen to it? Does it make you smile, laugh or cry? Be creative, let us know how you feel instead of coming up with a weird ranking table. I actually talked about this with the great guys from Cattle Decapitation, we had some laughs about some of the Metal-Archives reviewers.

Music, in most cases, for me is an art form. I do not understand how I can give a numerical value to an album. An album/band rating is misleading, in my opinion, because if someone sees a 3/10 rating, he or she will most probably disregard that album. That person would not have noticed that there might have been something in that album that he/she might have enjoyed. However, if there is no rating, that person can read a balanced and detailed review of the music and come across elements of the music that he/she might have not learnt by looking at the rating. I just find album ratings to be limiting one’s imagination.

Do you think there’s a hazard to over-simplifying ideas expressed in written form? What makes an effective review/article for you?

It can be a hazard but all you have to do is choose the right words. To be honest, sometimes I can’t be bothered to read through a 1,000 word article. Therefore, it is nice to see articles with embedded music players or videos. We have a rule of at least 300 words per article (excluding news posts) on MR which equates to a longer paragraph, which is not that much. As long as the review/article goes into depth about the aforementioned qualities of the music (that we are told whether the writer felt anything while listening to the music) and also given a brief background about the band’s history then it doesn’t matter whether it is a 300 or 2,000 word article.

Can you give us a bit of background on MetalRecusants, i.e. what year it began, how it has grown, and where it’s going in the future?

I started MetalRecusants in March 2011 during my last year of high school on the small Mediterranean island of Cyprus. I somehow started getting more and more familiar and associated with the Cypriot metal scene. A German black metal band, Ctulu, got in touch with me about playing on the island and doing an interview so I gave them the contact details of all the promoters I knew and also contacted them myself to get them to the island – guess what? They played on the island twice so far and I’m now good friends with them, we keep meeting at Wacken Open Air almost every year. Regarding the interview, I decided – after being convinced by members of Cypriot death metal act Vomitile – to start a blog with my friend from school, Christian, since there were no proper active zines in Cyprus; there was only a forum (Cy-Metal) and zines from Greece, nothing truly Cypriot though. As you can see though, I did not make this site into a site about the Cypriot metal scene; I wanted something more than that, haha! There are many great bands in Cyprus though.

As I wrote before, the site has grown because we kept on writing and writing and getting more contributors. It works on a word of mouth basis really. We write a review, a band shares it on their pages, people like it or dislike it and we get recognised. It is important that bands and record label share these reviews – especially at the early stages.

What does the future hold for us? Well, I want to keep on carrying the flame and continue what we are doing as long as possible. I would like one day to start paying all my writers for their hard work but that’s the future. One thing which will definitely not change is that we will keep on writing honest articles and we will never rate releases!!!

Do you think the metal industry has changed over the past few years? Have any genres waned? What seems to be “happening” now?

I actually ask a similar question in some of my band interviews. I like older bands to compare the times when they were starting out to now. I think I came to an agreement with Jonas Renkse of Katatonia/Bloodbath that the metal scene has become more “professional” over the years, it turned into this proper metal music industry which lost that “underground” spirit which was more evident in the 70s, 80s and 90s. I was not really present in the scene (or alive) back then so I can’t really tell. However, I can agree that the metal industry is “professional” at the moment.

There are more people taking care of the bands’ tours, the record labels, the public relations with the press and promoters. Nowadays if you don’t have a PR, you’re less likely to be recognised outside of your own local scene. There are so many bands nowadays that it is very hard for a band to break through on its own. I don’t think any genres have waned over the past few years. On the contrary, every genre seems to have many bands – whether it is new bands forming or older ones creating new material. How many “comeback” albums did we have in 2013?! I am not the one to follow what is “happening” now and I hate editors or journalists who think they are someone and tell the world what is “in” or “out”. Of course, it is great to tell the world what you think is “in” or “the next big thing” but stating such opinions in an authoritative way is rubbish. Nonetheless, there seems to be some kind of stoner/doom/old-school 70s type of revival with loads of such rock ‘n’ roll bands forming which I don’t mind at all!

Do you use subgenre terms, like “death metal” or “discogrind”? How would these be useful to a metal fan?

I usually use the basic subgenre terms like “death metal”, “thrash metal”, “black metal”, “glam metal” and “doom metal”. I have come across a lot of weird terms like the one you mention “discogrind” or “trance death metal”. These terms might be good sometimes to label some piece of music very briefly and might come handy for a review. I am, however, not a big fan of labelling. I prefer to use the basic terms and if I see that there are other styles in the band’s music then I will point out that it is a mix of thrash and death or doom and black.

Finally, the hardest question of all: what is heavy metal? What makes a band heavy metal? How do we tell the difference between a band that is hard rock, industrial, etc. and heavy metal, death metal, grindcore, etc?

That is a good question and a hard one indeed! I guess it is rather hard to define heavy metal nowadays because of how much the genre has evolved. Everyone likes mixing their metal with everything now; there’s jazz metal, discogrind, trance metal, psychedelic/progressive, operatic, orchestral, there’s literally everything you can imagine. For me, heavy metal is something that really rocks, really moves you and fills you with emotions. I will borrow our writer’s, David Halbe, phrase here: “if something rocks, it rocks!”

In the famous documentary Heavy Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, Deena Weinstein defined metal with a deep bass, distorted guitars and masculine leather-wearing men. That could have been applied in the 80s but cannot be applied anymore in the 21st Century because the genre has expanded so much musically but also visually – you see a lot of bands not wearing the “traditional” black uniform with band T-shirts but still a lot of these bands do play very good metal. Winterfylleth comes to mind straight away.

If someone wants to learn to tell the difference between traditional heavy metal, death metal, thrash metal, grindcore, black metal and all that, then I would suggest going on a listening history trip back to the late 60s and make your way up through to the early 90s. There you can see the traditional evolution of these sub-genres and learn what are their basic differences and even come up with your own description/formula.

Keith Kahn-Harris, a UK-based academic who writes about metal, has recently opined that there’s a glut of metal and it has become impossible to tell good from crap, thus the genre’s stagnating. Does this type of thinking factor into your reviewing choices at all? What about your purchasing choices?

I actually did not know Keith Kahn-Harris’ work before – although I have seen that book on extreme metal on Amazon somewhere – but I checked it out right now and he does have a lot of interesting things to say. He is right that the scene is overflowing with a crazy amount of bands, especially now with the Internet. But I can’t really compare to how it was before when there was no Internet and your only choice was to copy a tape or trade. I was born into the Internet age and I’m used to having everything ready for immediate download either legally or illegally… I discover most of the bands that I listen to either through the Internet or from relatives/friends. And now thanks to MetalRecusants my e-mail inbox is a never ending discovery lane of new and old bands which is something I’m very lucky to have.

Anyways, to answer your questions, I do not think that it has become impossible to tell good from crap – obviously here everyone has their own definition of “good” and “crap”. You know, I think that the more you learn about the metal scene, the more you research and listen, you find your own personal satisfactory source of new music whether it is a few record labels you trust, a website/blog or a magazine. Metalheads are a very opinionated bunch of people and they can definitely tell what is good or crap for them. So, to give you some definite answer out of this brainstorming session, yes it can be sometime chaotic with the reviewing choices; what to assign to our writers, which band should we focus on more and interview, which show to attend. All of this can get frustrating at times but as I said before we choose what we review randomly; sometime because we like the music from first listen and want to learn more about the bands with interviews and sometimes because we want a bit of a challenge in writing about something new.

As for the purchasing choices, yes, I sometimes do end up having a headache as I want to buy too much stuff. That’s why I limit myself to purchasing music at concerts and record shops. I rarely order online nowadays – maybe if it’s a pre-order which I can’t wait for or if it is something which I know I won’t be able to find at my local record shop or I won’t be able to see the band in concert in the near future. I do not like purchasing digital downloads because it feels like buying air. If I am going to spend money, I’d rather have the whole package.

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Sadistic Metal Reviews: Retro Metal: Swedish death metal edition

Sadistic Metal Reviews started sometime in the early 00s in tribute to the reviews of fanzines from earlier eras, in which a single sentence correctly categorized a band as the type of useless filler it was and dispatched it to the cut-out sale bins of history.

The grim fact is that as in nature, in heavy metal there are a few winners, and everyone else fails. This isn’t because they are fated to do so, but because they made the wrong choices. Usually, they have no actual artistic motivation, and so are imitating other successful acts for chicks, beer, prestige, an excuse for being stoned in the basement for a decade, whatever.

A band may have spent years learning its instruments, rehearsed for months, hired a good studio, taken all the right notes and had all the right parts, but something didn’t add up. This band had nothing to say, and so no one should listen.

The guiding principle of Sadistic Metal Reviews is that no amount of surface aesthetic can cover up a lack of conviction, content and motivation within. No one can paint-by-numbers imitate, or its cousin the recombining of known styles, and hope to get anything but a polite nod and “It’s OK, I guess, if you like that kind of thing.”

With this edition, SMR takes on the retro phenomenon. Every seven years like clockwork the great factory of wannabes runs out of “new” (usually basic math, like adding two genres together and getting a mystery) ideas and decides that ripping off the past is the safest path to fame and riches.

Hence these imitators are on the altar of sacrifice, awaiting our Sadistic Metal Writers for today’s edition of SMR, which tackles possibly the worst form of retro ever… the wannabe be 1991 Swedish death metal retro.

sadistic_metal_reviews_writers

Our writers, from left to right: Daniel Rodriguez, Cory van der Pol, Max Bloodworth and Jon Wild.

repugnant-epitome_of_darknessRepugnant – Epitome of Darkness

Despite being disguised in every “Swedish death metal” cliche known to man, Repugnant appears to be a retro-thrash band that re-purposes early Entombed lyrics for ironic comic book appeal. This vapid gimmickry with a glossy coat betrays the similarity between this band and Ghost, with whom it shares personnel. Why not try the same shallow stunt, but dress it up as old Entombed for extra clueless metal tourist nu-fan dollars?

entrails-tales_from_the_morgueEntrails – Raging Death

This album of Carnage riffs played backward between stolen Nihilist d-beats feels like a flowchart experiment in paint-by-numbers Swedish death metal cliches, with added groove so that even lobotomy patients can tap their feet to it. Entrails lay claim to the early Swe-death scene, but even a blatant clone band can be aim for higher than almost passable. If you take away the buzz-saw distortion, these are just old Saxon tunes sped up with more howling.

evocation-illusions_of_grandeurEvocation – Illusions of Grandeur

Why do bands constantly recreate Slaughter of the Soul? Perhaps because it’s so easy to do. Evocation make forgettable muzak by giving laundry detergent commercial jingles the mid-90s Swe-death post-Deliverance-style rape treatment. This pop muzak sounds every bit as bittersweet as a sad Blink 182 song but in disguise as mid 90s Scandinavian metal to allow Century Media to market it to metalcore kids on Youtube. More “another day at the office” unremarkable mellow-deaf who are given more legitimacy than the other bands for being around in the early 90s. It’s still butt rock with polka drumming and laryngitis vocals.

nominon-monumentombNominon – Monumentomb

What most people got out of Swedish death metal was a certain guitar tone and vocal delivery. Complex riff arrangements, time signatures, melodies? Over their heads. So why burden the little dears with something they can’t understand? Instead, take the same music that bad Exodus clones were making in 1987 and dress it up in a “Sexy Swedish Slut Death Metal” Halloween costume. The only people who fall asleep when listening are the smart ones, and we should probably shoot them anyway.

hail_of_bullets-on_divine_windsHail of Bullets – On Divine Winds

Classic death metal is hard. What’s easy? Metalcore, which is any variation of metal where you use hardcore songwriting with metal riffs. Don’t worry about making the riffs make sense, just have the song go from one ludicrous riff to the next as if they were connected. Then have a mosh part. Hail of Bullets is aggressive like old school death metal turned up to ten, but disorganized so you hear mostly noise.

kaamos-kaamosKaamos – Kaamos

Remember all those Swedish bands who were almost up there with Entombed, but then dropped out? They dropped out because “not good enough” doesn’t mean you missed good by a hair, but a mile. Kaamos is reconstituted from also-rans in the Swedish scene and it sounds like it. These two chord riffs have zero personality mainly because their creators are obsessed with sounding Swedish. If this band were honest, Samba music would come out of the speakers instead.

tribulation-the_horrorTribulation – The Horror

What happens if you dress up Def Leppard in Swedish buzz-saw distortion and death metal tempo? I don’t know, because this isn’t as good as Def Leppard. It is however candy heavy metal with every third riff an AOR melodic transition but put into typical Swe-deth(tm) packaging, including Sunlight Studios (Boss Heavy Metal pedal dimed) production, wacky energetic drumming, and barfing pit bull vocals. But once you look below the surface, it’s a power ballad.

bloodbath-the_fathomless_masteryBloodbath – The Fathomless Mastery

Bloodbath is just a bunch of jaded guys from whine rock bands (Katatonia and Opeth) making a parody out of death metal by throwing backwards Dismember riffs into a blender alongside Pantera groove metal riffs. For credibility they add the tremolo riff from Morbid Angel’s “Dawn of the Angry” to be a sufficiently quirky lifestyle product for people who ironically wear Entombed trucker hats and talk wistfully of the early 1990s, when they were four.

death_breath-stinking_up_the_nightDeath Breath – Stinking Up the Night

This all-star band with Scott Carlsson (Repulsion) and Nicke Andersson (Entombed) applies the Clandestine model of pairing up horror movie motifs on guitar with d-beats. Using a rhythmic approach that alternates between Repulsion’s high-intensity riding blast and a Motorhead-derived groove, this band is competent but formulaic. It escapes the rancor derived at its genre-mates for being what seems like something closer to an honest effort.

morbus_chron-sleepers_in_the_rfitMorbus Chron – Sleepers In The Rift

Morbus Chron suffers from flowchart death metal syndrome: play d-beat punk played on down-tuned guitars like the old school bands, toss in a stolen Sabbath riffs to remind people of the obligatory Autopsy influence, then maybe inject a zany Demilich/Cadaver “wacky sounding” riff to come off as “outside the box” and “original.” It feels like Entombed met up with a focus group who accidentally purchased a bunch of Oxycontin and tried to replicate Autopsy’s Acts of the Unspeakable.

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Interview: Professor Josef Hanson

josef_hanson-university_of_rochesterAcademia’s recent acceptance of metal comes in several prongs. One prong is the study and publication of theories about metal; another at a more fundamental level is the teaching of metal and analysis of metal to a new generation.

Professor Josef Hanson of the University of Rochester teaches “High Voltage—Heavy Metal Music and its History,” a class which studies metal as music from a theory point of view, in addition to studies of musicology and lyrics as literature. While most music studies have focused on classical or popular music, increasing recognition of the similarity between classical and metal has driven wider acceptance.

Hanson’s class focuses on the music itself, its history and its significance. He was generous enough to grant us some of his time, and to allow us to interrogate him about his teaching, modes of study and most importantly, how he views heavy metal and why it’s important.

As I understand it, you teach at the Institute for Popular Music at the University of Rochester, and you teach “High Voltage—Heavy Metal Music and its History.” Is this more of a history class, anthropology class, sociology class or art class?

Thanks for taking the time to reach out to me! I offer High Voltage through the Department of Music at the University of Rochester, where I also teach music theory, basic conducting, and direct a brass ensemble. The Institute for Popular Music is a recently formed entity at UR that packages and promotes all of our courses in popular music and also sponsors a lecture series, performances, and fellowships for those pursuing research in popular music. I like to think of High Voltage as, first and foremost, a music class, but I also incorporate elements of sociology and modern history, since it would be foolish to omit the historical and socio-cultural factors that helped forge metal. So, I suppose you could say that the course attempts to be all of those things…but the music always comes first.

How long have you been teaching this class?

I am currently completing the second iteration of High Voltage. We try to offer it every other year. In actuality, the idea started with a summer version of the course I created in 2008 called “Bang Your Head!,” which I still offer every July through the Rochester Scholars pre-college program for high school students. I think we had five or six students sign up that first summer, but it gradually gained popularity, and now I have nearly 50 undergraduates enrolled in “High Voltage.”

Generally, what do you cover?

Historically speaking, we start in the 1960s with the collapse of the psychedelic movement and progress through the decades until we reach the present day. I spend every other week on one of the major “eras”: Sabbath and early metal, NWOBHM, thrash, black metal, death, etc. In between these stops on the chronological timeline, I spend time covering broader issues like the influence of classical virtuosity and the blues, censorship, iconography, and gender. So, generally speaking, I alternate between a week of chronological history and a week focused on philosophical issues, back and forth, for the 15-week duration of the course.

What’s the typical student like who takes this class? How has student response been, so far?

The student response has been very positive thus far. I attribute this partly to the subject matter itself, and partly to the design of the course, which is highly dependent on the students identifying their interests and then pursuing them through a variety of volitional learning activities. I don’t give a lot of exams that require rote memorization or trivia-style guessing…kids today can look things up on their smartphones in the time it takes most of us to recall an album release date or obscure song title! The makeup of the class can be quite interesting. I’d say 50% of the class is comprised of die-hard fans, complete with Iron Maiden t-shirts and studded belts. But the other 50% are new to the genre, and are taking the course because they know me from another class or because they want to try something that is completely new and different for them. I really enjoy witnessing the interactions that this combination creates.

You speak of heavy metal having “an impressive history of censorship, rebellion, and redemption.” Can you give examples of each of these events?

We spend a lot of time on the PMRC witch hunt of 1985, and the rebellious response of musicians like Dee Snider and Frank Zappa. But rebellion, in a broad sense, is one of the signature features of this music, so I also ask the students to critically analyze how metal artists’ refusal to obey a host of authorities permeates their tonal and rhythmic choices, their song lyrics, and the visual and behavioral aspects of what they do. And redemption…well, there are certainly plenty of instances of something resembling redemption in metal lore, starting with Tony Iommi overcoming the metal shop injury to his fingers, thus spawning the downtuned sonic landscape that still exists today. I think redemption is one of the signature messages of the course. Heavy metal music has been reinvented, and therefore, redeemed, over and over again. You just can’t kill it. There is nothing else like it in the history of popular music.

Your syllabus says you teach “both the musical structure and the fascinating social/cultural history of hard rock.” What sort of musical structures do you have in mind? Do these correspond in any way to the social/cultural events of the time?

That line in the syllabus is meant to convey the multifaceted nature of the course: equal emphasis on the music itself AND the context in which it was/is created. In addition to reading and discussing the history of the music, the students spend time learning about the scales, modes, harmonies, rhythms, and song forms common to metal. For example, the tritone, or flatted fifth scale degree, plays a prominent role in the sound of most metal artists, from Black Sabbath to Metallica to King Diamond and beyond. So, I make sure that the students can recognize that interval both aurally and visually. And yes, the musical structure is sometimes influenced by the context of its creation, but the progressive nature of metal from a formal/structural standpoint is probably more the result of musicians simply trying to push the genre to new extremes, as the music is passed down from one generation to the next. Whether or not the pursuit of purely musical innovation corresponds directly to social/cultural events is subject to debate, but my feeling is that a connection does indeed exist on some level.

You state that students should be able to “define the separation between ‘rock,’ ‘hard rock,’ and ‘heavy metal,’ and aurally differentiate between the various subgenres within these classifications.” How do you see these different genres as being musically and culturally different? Is there a purpose to their difference? What is the role of subgenre, and why in your view is it important to distinguish between them?

Labels are a curious thing. “Rock” has become an all-encompassing term to many, and therefore, has lost its value as a label for music. The line between “hard rock” and “heavy metal” is very subjective, so what I do is simply provide the students with numerous (often conflicting) sources that attempt to draw that line. Some people claim that Led Zeppelin is the “first heavy metal band,” while others (myself included) feel that Black Sabbath is the obvious choice. My role as instructor and “tour guide” for my students is not to force feed these judgment calls; I want to help the students understand that many smart people have produced intelligent yet conflicting arguments regarding what constitutes “hard rock” and what constitutes “heavy metal.” Then, I ask my students to compose an essay outlining their own opinions and hand it in, and I am always blown away by the depth of thought they display when considering these issues. Subgenres…well, that’s another story. The seemingly endless array of subgenres in metal is incredibly unique — I’ve never seen anything like it in music. While I do feel that it is important for those who engage with this music to know what I refer to as the “core competencies” (hardcore, metalcore, grindcore, deathcore, etc.), I’m ultimately not that concerned about labels. There are many shades of grey in between one subgenre and another, in my opinion. What’s important from my perspective is whether or not the students can tease apart the various elements of each subgenre, so that they can intelligently communicate what they are hearing even if they don’t know how to label it.

The syllabus speaks of metal lyrics as existing between the opposite poles of chaos and ecstasy. What are these poles? Do they explain the appeal of heavy metal despite its enduring negativity?

In her landmark book Heavy Metal: A Cultural Sociology, Deena Weinstein introduced this chaos/ecstasy duality, and I have found it to be a very effective way of establishing a continuum for students to use as they come to terms with the lyrics they are hearing. That being said, it is also easy to make too big a deal about the meaning of metal lyrics, which are (often simultaneously) metaphorical, intentionally inflammatory, absurdist, and unintelligible. In my class, we have identified themes of apocalypse, warfare, death and dying, and political unrest as inhabitants of the chaos pole. On the other end of the continuum, you have mostly glam and “lite” metal lyrics about alcohol consumption, sex, and generally having a good time. And more recently, extreme metal artists have written lyrics that paradoxically combine the two. So I don’t know if I would agree that there is an “enduring negativity” that defines metal lyrics…this is going to sound corny, but perhaps Danny Lilker helped coin the best phrase to describe the appeal of metal — a “Brutal Truth.” Now that’s a succinct and enduring description of the metal worldview!

You mention “myriad political/social/economic/cultural factors that forged heavy metal.” What are these, and how do you answer those who think music has no connection to phenomena outside of the music itself?

I can’t imagine a single effective argument positing that music has no connection to outside influences. Just look at the cultural melting pot that was New Orleans in the early 20 th century, or the effects of the Russian Revolution on composers like Shostakovich and Prokofiev. Metal, too, has been shaped by outside forces. There are many examples—the end of the counterculture movement and Altamont, the PMRC, Reaganomics, MTV, various wars and politicians. But the best example is the terrible economic conditions in Birmingham, England at the end of the 1960s, which undoubtedly played a role in the development of Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, and other early metal acts. In the Journal of Social History, there is a fantastic article on this very topic by Leigh Harrison entitled “Factory Music: How the Industrial Geography and Working-Class Environment of Post-War Birmingham Fostered the Birth of Heavy Metal.”

You use both Ian Christe’s Sound of the Beast: The Headbanging History of Heavy Metal and Albert Mudrian’s Choosing Death: The improbable history of death metal and grindcore (in addition to about a dozen other books!). What do you like about each of these books? Why do you use both (what does each lack)?

Ian’s book is the main text for the class, and I use it because it is engaging and well-written, hits most of the highlights required for a thorough understanding of the music, and frankly, because it is also inexpensive (the average cost of a semester’s load of books these days is over $500!). I then supplement with book chapters, scholarly articles, films, web sites, or anything else I can find. The point is to give the students a holistic view of the genre, not just one person’s perspective. Actually, part of the fun is finding the points of disagreement among several authors and debating those issues in class.

Apparently, you assign your students listening for each class period. How many songs do you assign them, and how do you select these songs? Can you show us an example playlist?

Roughly every other week, I assign a playlist of 15-20 songs (sometimes less than that). The makeup of the playlist is directly related to the era(s) we are studying and the philosophical issues we are debating. So, we might have a few thrash songs, a few early black metal songs, a few hair metal songs, and, if we are discussing gender, a few examples of misogyny in metal or a few tunes by all-female bands or bands with female lead singers. I also give my infamous “riff quiz” at the beginning of the semester, a drop-the-needle test of students’ knowledge of 30 classic metal guitar riffs.

    THRASH

  • “Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying?” Megadeth (1986 from Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying?)
  • “I Am The Law” Anthrax (1987 from Among The Living)
  • “Raining Blood” Slayer (1986 from Reign in Blood)
  • “Creeping Death” Metallica (1984 from Ride the Lightning)
  • DEATH METAL

  • “Infernal Death” Death (1987 from Scream Bloody Gore)
  • “Hammer Smashed Face” Cannibal Corpse (1992 from Tomb of the Mutilated)
  • CHRISTIAN METAL

  • “Calling on You” Stryper (1986 from To Hell With The Devil)
  • “Live to Die” Bride (1988 from Live to Die)
  • EXAMPLES FROM THE “FILTHY FIFTEEN”

  • “Eat Me Alive” Judas Priest (1984 from Defenders of the Faith)
  • “Into the Coven” Mercyful Fate (1983 from Melissa)
  • “Animal (Fuck Like A Beast)” W.A.S.P. (1984 from W.A.S.P.)
  • WOMEN/AFRICAN-AMERICANS

  • “Spit” Kittie (1999 from Spit)
  • “Blood Pigs” Otep (2002 from Sevas Tra)
  • “Night of the Living Death” Black Death (1984 from Black Death)
  • “Black Veil” Straight Line Stitch (2008 from When Skies Wash Ashore)

I interviewed Martin Jacobsen, who teaches a class at West Texas A&M University about metal lyrics and their significance as literature. Do you analyze metal lyrics, or do you view them as secondary to the music itself (guitars, bass, drums, vocal rhythms/textures)? If you do analyze lyrics, how do you do it?

Metal lyrics are incredibly interesting and certainly qualify as a form of literature, in my opinion. We do a bit of lyrical analysis in class, and we could probably do more. I certainly don’t view the lyrics as secondary; I’m just more adept at discussing the tonal and rhythmic materials of a song because my background and training is in music. Students in my class who find themselves drawn to the lyrical aspect of the genre often engage in lyrical analysis as a large-scale final project.

Do you think metal lyrics are metaphorical to the political/social/economic/cultural (PSEC) factors you mentioned in the syllabus?

Yes and no. While metaphor and symbolism are certainly at home in the metal lyricist’s toolbox, so too are honesty and bluntness. One of the refreshing elements of certain metal lyricists is their ability to cut through the typical songwriting blather and get to the truth. Bands like Slayer may, at times, court controversy, but they speak what is on their mind in ways that U2 and Bob Dylan never could and never will.

If heavy metal has a message, or some contribution to the history of art, what do you suppose it is? Can it be handily summarized, or is it a messy categorization, like the list of attributes of Romantic poetry that ends up being more of a laundry list than a central topic statement or mandate?

Funny, I was just grading my students’ mid-term exam, which consisted of one question: “What is heavy metal?” They could choose to answer it any way they like. And the prevailing thought was that heavy metal is the disturbance of what is considered normal, polite, or acceptable, whether musically, visually, behaviorally, or in the direction of chaos and/or ecstasy. It’s hard to encapsulate in a single sentence. Although it is incredibly subjective, I think the message ends up looking like a collection of things, a nexus of truth, rebellion, perseverance, and power.

Your syllabus mentions having guest speakers and musicians. Anyone that the larger metal audience would recognize?

Here in Rochester, we are well-positioned in terms of connections to heavy metal. Metallica recorded Kill ‘Em All in downtown Rochester (at what is now known as Blackdog Studios), and I have taken students there on a pilgrimage of sorts, since the layout of the studio is basically the same as it was in 1983. We’ve got Manowar to the east of us and Dio hailing from a little further beyond that. In terms of actual guests, I have been very fortunate to get to know Danny Lilker (who lives in Rochester), and I have asked him to visit on multiple occasions. You should see the looks on the faces of the students when six- and-a-half feet of pure metal walk through the door! Danny is extremely generous and entertaining, and his visit is always a highlight of the class. Chris Arp (Arpmandude) of PsyOpus is also local, and he is incredibly intelligent and energetic in the classroom. He came and played for us a few weeks back and just blew everybody away. I have been in contact with other metal “celebrities,” but our schedules haven’t lined up well enough to facilitate a visit. I do host other speakers and musicians, either fellow professors or members of local bands, and I am very fortunate to have some extremely talented up-and-coming metal musicians enrolled in the class, most notably, Cody McConnell of Goemagot.

How much of the underground metal (death metal, black metal, grindcore) do you teach? Do you see it as a recognizable extension of earlier metal, or has it gone to an entirely new place?

I feel I must include the more extreme or underground subgenres of metal in order to tell the story effectively. Everything is connected musically in some way, even if just through the use of power chords or the tritone. Considered more broadly, any underground scene is normally the result of the continuous rebirth of metal that has defined the genre’s existence; indeed, it is this “diversification” that has given the genre its incredible staying power. Thrash bands wanted to push the boundaries established by the NWOBHM, early metalcore bands wanted to push the boundaries of thrash, and it goes on and on. It is a never-ending process of creative destruction and reinvention, so the newer and more extreme tangents of metal are just as central to the story as the classic material. Besides, if I skipped Grindcore, how would I find a way to include “You Suffer” by Napalm Death?

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Geezer Butler attacks sadistic food

geezer_butler.jgBlack Sabbath bassist Geezer Butler threw his support behind PETA’s campaign against Foie Gras, a fatty liver paté made by force-feeding ducks and geese.

“I’m not afraid to make some noise, especially when it comes to issues of cruelty to animals,” said Mr. Butler in a press release supporting the animal rights group and calling on UK grocery Fortnum & Mason to cease selling the delicacy.

This is not the first time that metal musicians have stood up for nature. In addition to all of black metal, which praises nature over humanity and expresses disdain for human ecocidal practices, metal has endorsed care for animals and avoidance of ecocide through many songs and albums over the years. A few highlights:

  • Testament – “Environmental Holocaust,” “Nobody’s Fault” (Aerosmith cover), “Greenhouse Effect”
  • Nuclear Assault – “Game Over”
  • DRI – “I Want My Taxes Back”
  • Obituary – World Demise

This is in addition to many songs about nuclear war, the shallowness of humanity, the endless race for consumer products and self-importance, and many songs in praise of nature and the natural, including its “scary” attributes like disease, predation and violence.

Foie Gras (pronounced PHUA GRA), according to StopForceFeeding.org, is created by the following charming process:

Two to three times a day, a worker grabs each bird, shoves a long, thick metal tube all the way down his throat, and an air pump shoots up to two pounds of corn mush into his esophagus. The industry always refers to the dry weight of the feed, which is about one pound per feeding. Adding oil and water doubles this weight, making it 20-30% of the bird’s healthy body weight. Picture 30 one pound boxes of dry pasta and then add water. This is proportionally how much a 150 pound human would be force fed using this formula.

A duck’s liver naturally weighs around 50 grams. However, to qualify as foie gras, the industry’s own regulations require ducks’ livers to weigh an absolute minimum of 300 grams.

The vast amounts of feed pumped down the ducks’ throats causes enormous internal pressure, and the pipe sometimes punctures the esophagus, causing many to die from choking on the blood that fills their lungs. Some birds literally burst, choke to death on their own vomit, or become so weak that they are unable to fend off rats from eating them alive.

This description sounds like something straight out of a Carcass song, or an apocalyptic death metal anthem. It even reminds us of Quorthon’s warning about the Ragnarok lurking inside of modern society:

In this age of utter madness
We maintain we are in control
And ending life before deliverance
While countries are both bought and sold

Holy writtings hokus-pokus
Blaze of glory and crucifix
Prepried costly credit salvations
TV-preachers and dirty tricks

Don’t trust nobody
It will cost you much too much
Beware of the dagger
It caress you at first touch
O, all small creatures
It is the twilight if the gods

While most people seem to focus on how annoying PETA is presumed to be, we’re going to focus on the metal angle: death is real, and failure is real, and most people are in denial of both. It’s easy to ignore the consequences of our actions and instead live in a bubble world of happy thoughts, advertising, political speeches and documentaries.

In reality, what we do has consequences and for these small creatures, those are very real. We should consider what being aware of these cruelties and doing nothing about them does to our souls, because ultimately, we all must face the reaper and have him sit in judgment over us — even if only in our own minds.

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Terrorizer “Hordes of Zombies”

The first thing people say, almost like a spell to ward off mistaken appreciation, is that this band is not the same band who cranked out “Fear of Napalm” and “Corporation Pull-In.”

That’s true — and it’s a good thing.

While the old material is as classic as a castle on the Rhine, and will inspire grind-heads for many generations into the future, times have changed and grindcore is trying to adapt to a modern (post-1994) era of metal.

Most options for this are bad as they are limited by strict genre constructions. For example, one can try to be “tr00” kvlt d-beat, or even blurcore, if not falling into the randomness trap that produces carnival music like metalcore, in which no part resembles the others and no sense is made; you’re supposed to appreciate it like the sample platter at your local seafood place. But it’s not fulfilling.

The new Terrorizer album instead wisely takes after Napalm Death’s Fear, Emptiness and Despair, which acknowledges the maturation of the genre by streamlining it and thus giving it a bit more room to grow. It reduces the genre to a minimum but with clear boundaries so that experimentation, not of the surface kind that consists in adding jazz solos and a bassoon and playing the album live on a basketball court, but of the inner kind where melody and form are explored as an emulation of the sounds and emotion of life.

Intelligently, this Terrorizer aims to be a blast of energy that rivals any 5-hour stim supp or purple drank you can find. It’s pure pulsing percussion kinesis, driving forward like the pumping of a panicked heart transitioning to ‘kill’ mode during combat, but without the darkness or cruelty of intent of death metal or black metal. Instead it’s like punk crossed with techno, using the mixture of crust and death metal riffing that has always made grindcore easy to grasp but hard to appreciate in depth.

Within this framework, there’s a lot of variation, including a fair number of melodic hooks that provide emotional content. Anthony Rezhawk’s rasping voice is back in monotone mode, where he sounds impatient and dismissive, as is appropriate for an album about the zombiefication of the human species slowly destroying the planet (whether that’s metaphor or not awaits a detailed reading of the lyrics). Pete Sandoval provides excellent percussion, and under the guidance of these two seasoned songcrafters, the raw power of the new bassist & guitarist is shaped into compelling songs.

This will be one of the best of 2012. People are unwilling to admit this fact now because that requires bucking a social convention in that, (a) “it’s not the old Terrorizer” and (b) it’s rather “pop” in its own sense of not attempting depth, or jagged self-drama, but instead making songs to stand on their own as objects of revelation of the world. The old Terrorizer could not exist now because its members have moved on but also because the world has moved on, in circumstance and in music, and this new album rises to incorporate those changes and make of them an interesting and paranoid tale.

1. Intro
2. Hordes of Zombies

3. Ignorance and Apathy

4. Subterfuge

5. Evolving Era

6. Radiation Syndrome

7. Flesh to Dust

8. Generation Chaos

9. Broken Mirrors

10. Prospect of Oblivion

11. Malevolent Ghosts

12. Forward to Annihilation

13. State of Mind

14. A Dying Breed

15. Wretched (bonus track)

16. Hordes of Zombies (demo)

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