First in Line: Metallica – Kill ‘Em All

metallica-kill_em_allThirty years ago, a struggling band from California unleashed their first album and changed the world of heavy metal forever. The genre that they may not have invented but certainly formalized was speed metal, and it represented the start of heavy metal’s journey away from verse-chorus rock into the dual worlds of hardcore punk intensity and progressive rock song structures.

At first, these changes were less obvious. Kill ‘Em All owes a huge debt to the heavy metal that came before it, and embraces many of the conventions of rock music as well, but it funneled them through a singular filter and achieved a uniformity of sound. In addition, this new style crept in with a number of innovations, like the use of introductions and instrumentals to change song structure, that presaged where this new subgenre would go.

From a casual observer’s position, the first Metallica album isn’t that far removed from its predecessors. The dual influences of UK heavy metal and hardcore punk are clear, as is the distinctive feature of speed metal: the muted strum that produces a choppy explosive sound from percussive lead rhythm guitar, allowing the construction of more complex riffs by making the power chord a building block instead of a place where the riff rests, as open chords are in rock.

Kill ‘Em All showed a new blueprint for metal that developed the extremity of Motorhead with the intricate riffery of Judas Priest and other NWOBHM bands, making for a brainy album that relied on speed to cram all of its power into songs of a normal length. In addition, the speed kicked it up to a new level of complexity in riffing. Speed reveals the sparseness of a riff, and so the one- and two-note riffs of the past would seem immensely repetitive at a faster pace. Thus the riff itself grew with speed metal.

Conceptually, metal grew up with Kill ‘Em All as well, at least partly. Yes, there were some embarrassing songs that sounded like West Side Story retrofitted for violent Northern California speed metal gangs. But more importantly, there was an epic view of existence. Songs about fate, about the fall of civilization, and dark lore that reveals the topics feared by daylight conversation all gave the album a weight beyond its (merely) heavy riffs. Like hardcore punk, this was the howling voice of the apocalypse at our door.

One of Metallica’s most important contributions was to liberate the riff from the drums, hence the “lead rhythm guitar” designation that appeared with many speed metal bands. Following the lead of UK crust punk bands like Discharge, Metallica viewed the drums as a background timekeeper which framed the riff loosely rather than accentuated it, and thus the riff could change without the drums changing. This allowed the riff to change more frequently without forcing tempo changes, although the band delighted in abrupt and surprising tempo changes as well.

Speed metal took this pattern and ran with it. While its antecedents are clear, such as the proto-speed metal of Satan/Blitzkrieg and Motorhead, and the fast-fingered intricate melodic riffs of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, the new speed metal band from California turned up the intensity and pushed aside conventional song structures. This set metal free from the world of rock, and laid the groundwork for the next generation, which would not only inherit the true lawlessness of hardcore punk, but build up complexity to be closer to the world of progressive rock.

13 Comments

Tags: , , ,

The strong link between heavy metal and high intelligence

heavy_metal_high_intelligenceAfter years of society looking down its nose at heavy metal, it appears to be showing up in unusual places: high intelligence occupations, health and academia.

Even though metalheads are still a discriminated-against group, with long hair for men, tattoos, loud music, mentions of Satan and chaos magick banned in many workplaces and government offices, the forces of metal are rising worldwide.

Wired reports on an intelligence-research prodigy in China who, after mastering difficult subjects in a fraction of the time it would require even another gifted person, takes the day off to see a “Satanic heavy metal concert.” Then returns to studying intelligence itself.

Over on the Wall Street Journal, Jon Wiederhorn reminds us that “Metal Music Can Be Good For You,” mentioning among other things that metal can “keep fans that have been scarred by trauma feeling alive and surrounded by family” and that “heavy metal has never faded into obscurity.”

All of this follows an article from a few years ago, “Gifted Students Beat The Blues With Heavy Metal”, which revealed how many who society would consider its best and brightest are turning to metal.

At DeathMetal.org, we don’t find this surprising. Metal is more brainy at the compositional level, meaning how the riffs fit together to develop themes, than rock music or even jazz, which tend to be cyclic. It tackles the big subjects that people would rather forget about, and thus attracts the smarter alienated teens who find the lack of order in life to be appalling.

But best of it, it delivers a punch to life. Like spice in food, combat, sky-diving or a new idea, metal brings out the terrifying and empowering all at once, making us view life with new eyes. That could be the healthiest of all.

8 Comments

Tags: , , ,

Helvete, famous Oslo black metal hangout, returns

helvete_store_oslo_black_metalBack during the golden age of black metal, the shop Helvete was the focal point of the Norwegian black metal movement. Run by Mayhem guitarist Euronymous, the store was the go-to spot for the genre’s elites to spread their music and ideas.

After the first media explosion of black metal occurred, Helvete shut down in response to negative reactions from the community. Shortly after, it became famous after the events surrounding Euronymous’ death and gained mythic status amongst the newer fans to journey to and attempt to understand what had occurred there.

After languishing in other business purposes for over a decade, as of this August the location of the original store will be reclaimed for its 1990s purpose: spreading black metal. Neseblod Records has decided to relocate there and is busy setting up a museum experience to preserve the history of the genre. Featuring classic releases and rare flyers and posters, the project aims to revive interest in what inspired the original black metal musicians to create what they did.

Throughout this endeavor, the project has had the support of Darkthrone‘s Fenriz, who has directly involved himself in the moving process, guiding the presentation to be as realistic and truthful as possible, which can only help increase awareness of both the history of the genre and its future exploits.

In this case, realistic and truthful means making the past come alive once again and remembering those ideals, which are timeless, and carrying them forward into a new time. At least, that’s if they want to avoid nostalgia, which pretty much killed off the souls of Generation X before they even hit their forties. Those interested in seeing documentation of the progress can head over to the Facebook page.

8 Comments

Tags: , , ,

Witches Mark – Witching Metal Ritual

witches_mark-witching_metal_ritualThis affectionate tribute to the days of classic metal, both NWOBHM and its more bombastic American cousin, fits into the same vein as material like Gehennah, Nifelheim or Diamonsnake: it’s catchy, with overemphasis on the flourishes of the past, but can be compelling for its sentimental view of the world that comes off as poetic.

Witching Metal Ritual features motives from the initial heavy metal era but played with the energy and less responsive drumming of hardcore punk, with occasional touches of the speed metal techniques of the early 1980s. However, what drives this recording are its melodic moments and the use of lead guitar as a running commentary to create a sense of detachment.

Vocals are chants with harmonized singing at intervals, and these complement the guitar, but it is the six-string that sustains emotion. If the album has an achilles heel, it is that too much of this guitar is lead which introduces complexity with more variety in riff could have been powerful. Similarly, drums may be a bit too detached for this style, although it creates an interesting effect.

Witches Mark are more creative than most of the bands who attempt this style and forge a unique sound for themselves that seems influenced by some of the more proggish material in the metal world of late, but is based very much in simple heavy metal riffs and grandiloquent moments where a collision by one or more motifs creates the kind of “heaviness” that metal is famous for.

However, much like later Ihsahn, the tendency to fill sparse songs with internal complexity can lead to listener disorientation and often prevents themes from fully developing. However, the faithful rendition of the past, including a vocalist with a wide range and crystal pipes, may over-ride that with a mood that is hard not to like.

3 Comments

Tags: ,

Metal across borders

orphaned_land-band_photo

At a recent concert in Tel Aviv, Israel, a remarkable thing happened: two bands from two different cultures, Jewish and Arab, stood up together and performed a concert.

“We are metal brothers before anything,” Abed Khathout, bass player for Khalas (“enough” in Arabic) said. His comment was underscored by Koby Farhi, Orphaned Land’s lead singer. ” Tonight is the second time we’re playing together — Orphaned Land and Khalas, as Israelis and Arabs. Having a brotherhood, sharing the stage, simply shows that Rock and Roll music is above politics, ” he said.

Farhi added, “The purpose of art is to represent harmony and coexistence in places of disharmony.” This marks the first time the bands were able to do this, after a similar show in Egypt was cancelled in November.

The more pressing question might be whether metal, the music that decidedly is not about peace and harmony, achieves a greater sense of balance by allowing people to speak honestly about their ambitions and desires, instead of hiding behind layers of social pretense.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UF4vfL9JMqs

9 Comments

Tags: ,

Metal and weightlifting: worship of strength

hrmmphIf this world fears anything, it is strength. Most music artists portray themselves as thin, frail and sensitive. Our leaders like to cry in public. Some however recognize that health does not come from preservation, but pushing ourselves to the limits, in both mind and body. Jim Wendler is a powerlifter and out-of-the-closet metalhead who promotes that point of view.

A professional weightlifter, Jim gives advice on how to properly build muscle so that your body is suitably formed. He’s had numerous successes and he published an e-book where he outlines techniques to become BIG. You will not find advice on diets to slim down here, only diets to bulk up, on the assumption that you’re also flinging iron (a type of heavy metal) around on an hourly basis.

Wendler is part of a new breed of heavy metal associated athletes like fellow bodybuilder Jamie Lewis, who believes that having a tiny head is compliment. Like Wendler, Lewis also advocates metal in and out of the gym, as well as crushing posers wherever he finds them.

If you’re interested in building muscle, check out Jim’s website for tips. From the t-shirts he wears and endorsements he makes, we know that Jim works out to Slayer, Cannibal Corpse, Darkthrone and other metal bands both above and below the underground line. Perhaps the music of strength and the behavior of strength have found a balance with each other. Further, he’s in a metal band that makes death-grind that is alternatingly frenetic and doomy.

11 Comments

Tags: ,

Why Hellhammer’s Satanic Rites is possibly the most important metal record ever made

hellhammer-satanic_ritesMost people place the birth of black and death metal somewhere between Venom’s first album Welcome to Hell (1981) and Bathory’s third full-length Under the Sign of the Black Mark (1987). The exact moment of divergence from ancestors depends on the speaker’s level of metal puritanism and their favorite albums are from that era, and can sometimes seem a trivial dichotomy. Moot though it may be, my pick for the first discernible piece of death/black metal music is also, more importantly, the moment at which metal realizes it can be more than just warmed-over rock music.

Tom Warrior and co will forever be canonised in the metal pantheon for the early Hellhammer and Celtic Frost releases, which collectively shaped the sound of metal in a way that is only really matched by Slayer (who were probably influenced by Hellhammer in their change of sound between Show no Mercy and Haunting the Chapel). The first couple of Hellhammer demos however were only really third rate crust punk/Venom rip off played by three young guys who didn’t really know what they were doing. With the third demo and the introduction of Martin Ain to the writing team though, Hellhammer began introducing ideas that weren’t immediately noticed or appreciated by the rest of the world, prompting the band to less than twelve months later reconstitute itself as Celtic Frost and spend most of the next three decades trying to bury the Hellhammer name and the material associated with it.

Many of the tracks on Satanic Rites are in much the same vein as the first two demos, although better played and with greater surety about the morbid chromatic rock riffs. However, with “Buried and Forgotten,” and to a slightly lesser extent “Triumph of Death,” there is a real ‘eureka’ moment. Verse-chorus-verse, single groove writing gives way to longer structures that piece together like musical jigsaw puzzles, reminiscent of the best moments of Black Sabbath made more twisted and involving. The grimmer, more elemental, less blues-rocky riffs of Hellhammer also hint at emergent melodic shapes, whose detail unfurls piecemeal over the course of the track.

“Buried and Forgotten” for a little over two and half minutes builds one riff atop another towards an emotional plateau, each one referencing some element (however small) of the one that preceded it. The rest of the track then recombines and repeats all the material amassed over the course of the opening part, changing the order of and implied relationship between riffs. All except one slightly dodgy contrasting riff towards the end (which stands out by a mile), is built out of the same basic pool of ideas, and so each can be moved about and fit back together again as they are and create a neat, logical song structure.

This streamlined song-writing mentality also filters down quite brilliantly into the track “Messiah,” which is probably the most well-known, heavily covered Hellhammer song, and a borderline genius exercise in metal song-writing fundamentalism. Effectively the entire song is crafted out of one interval (the space between two notes, denoting their relationship to each other): a minor 2nd (or semitone), the smallest interval in regular Western music. Everything from the ponderous two-note verse riff, to the creeping chorus motif of four descending consecutive semitones, to the brief bridge section made up of the same rumbling low E that drives the verse and a major 7th above that (which, deceptively, is just an inversion of a minor 2nd, and so basically the same note relationship as nearly everything that has come before it in the song).

All of a sudden the focus shifted from form (and the resulting dramatic arc it creates) as something that comes from solely juxtaposing contrasting elements, to something that can grow out of only a tiny number of ideas, and through clever variation and development can became something much more journey-like. This makes this music unlike rock, jazz and more recent false-metal, and more like a Beethoven symphony or a Bach fugue. Needless to say, I’m not suggesting for a moment that Hellhammer is equal to the work of Bach. What I am saying however is that both classical music and the more inspired moments of this demo proceed from a similar sort of underlying sense of elegance in developing things methodically out of smaller details into bigger, consistent ideas.

The version of “Triumph of Death” on this demo is inferior to the one on Apocalyptic Raids (which has, surely, one of the greatest metal vocal performances anywhere, ever) and as far as Celtic Frost/Hellhamer goes my favourite work is probably To Mega Therion. Still, it’s hard to understate just how important this demo and the ideas it set in motion are to all of the metal that has followed it. Underground metal not only became scarier, heavier and less po-faced after Hellhammer, but from this demo (and the Celtic Frost/Hellhammer works that followed it) metal inherited a paradigm that enabled the construction of more complex, distinctive songs and would come to define underground metal.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MsJ1I1cL_NY

7 Comments

Tags: , , , , , ,

Why Ozzy Osbourne is wrong about heavy metal

ozzy_osbourne-heavy_metalThis has been a year of reflection and success for Black Sabbath. The band reunited 3/4s of its famous lineup and recorded what probably will be its swansong: 13. Widely acclaimed, the album quickly surged to the top of the charts, an impressive achievement for any heavy metal band but doubly so in the current climate. Our review found it to be worthy of the success it’s been receiving.

Lyrically, much of the album is concerned with the process of change. This theme has been occupying the thoughts of the band members as they look back on decades-long careers now winding down. In a recent interview, Ozzy Osbourne was asked what his views were on heavy metal and how Black Sabbath had shaped the genre:

I have never ever ever been able to attach myself to the word ‘heavy metal’ — it has no musical connotations…If it was heavy rock, I could get that…People come up to me and say, ‘Your Sabbath work was a big influence on me.’ I could go, ‘Oh, yeah, I can see that.’ But other bands … what part of that is inspired by us? Some of it is just angry people screaming down a microphone.

In this author’s opinion; this is an erroneous view, but an interesting statement in that it raises the questions: what makes heavy metal different from heavy rock, and how did Black Sabbath inspire generations of diverse metal genres?

What made Black Sabbath different from the other rock bands at the time was primarily what it was trying to express. The band avoided the flowers and rainbows hippie culture and spoke of darker subjects, but ones that were ultimately more true. Taking a nod from horror movie soundtracks and occultist influences, the band injected their music with a darker style of writing, which scared listeners and threatened the illusion that our society was stable.

From the very beginning of the debut album it became clear that this music was different. It’s not designed to be a product; rather it attempts to express something and allows the song to shape itself through connecting phrases rather than forcing it to adapt to pre-determined and easy-to-digest formulas. Even more, in spirit it’s a call to action, not a lullabye, commercial message or protest song (aren’t they all the same thing?).

Today’s bands which appear dissimilar aesthetically are nevertheless motivated by this same desire. The “screaming down a microphone”, abrasive riffs, and aggressive drumming are stronger methods of explicating something that often goes unsaid in our daily lives amid safety locks and childproof caps.

Death metal and black metal incorporated all the different elements that Black Sabbath first shocked hippies with, though taken to a greater extreme. Making the decision to create art rather than entertainment, the genres invoked contrasting structures and phrases in their composition, creating a modern take on a classical method of writing, wherein lines of melody overlap with each other yet when heard from a distance join together to form a complete whole.

The genres also took the hint of occultism that Black Sabbath contained and brought it to the fore: Satanism and general opposition to Christianity was the norm, though not for the sake of mere shock value, but as a way of communicating that our feel-good churches are not a permanent solution. Extolling the virtues of pre-Christian beliefs, the bands involved brought attention to alternatives to both Christianity and vapid materialism.

Beyond the specific technical influence Black Sabbath had on heavy metal (doom metal), there is an underlying thread that connects all bands that wish to play loud music for reasons beyond getting drunk and violent: somewhere, relatively recently, our society lost its way and has been living on borrowed time in denial. Heavy metal (not hard rock or heavy rock), is our way of finding meaning in the void; and as a result, Black Sabbath is unmistakably part of that.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J5yR5XhCIeg

8 Comments

Tags: , ,

Death metal as art in the media

ramon_cazares-abolishment_of_fleshAs metal continues to grow in popularity, outsiders to the genre find it more appealing. They see it as an unknown region, or an exotic culture, and in comparison their lives seem drab. What is it that makes hordes of people headbang to violent and abrasive music?

This was the question the Amarillo Globe News posed to death metal band Abolishment of Flesh and it received an answer it might not have been expecting.

The band painted a picture of death metal different from what is commonly presented in the media:

“There are a lot of different things going on at the same time,” [guitarist] Cazares said. “It’s very comparable to classical music.”

“We have a lot of weird time signatures and different changes like classical music does,” bass player Chuy Camacho said. “There can be three different things going on in the music at the same time.”

In other words, rather than the circular key-centric two-part composition of rock and pop music, death metal uses chromatic scales to develop an internal dialogue and motif evolution through pattern as opposed to harmony alone, such that notes are relevant more to previous notes and riff shapes than they are to a sense of key or rhythm.

In death metal, notes stream forth in multiple tones and directions, creating a tapestry of sound, similar in goal of a symphony: each part is musically literate on its own, yet when put together creates something that transcends each individual instrument.

When musing on why death metal is not popularly regarded as an art form, the band speculated that the genre has been overtaken by bands that have confused aesthetics with actual content:

“We don’t get taken seriously because other bands make a joke out of it — try to get as perverted and as gory as they can,” Camacho said.

Not content with being a sideshow, the band decided to forge ahead and create music with quality control. Playing old-school style death metal with melodic interludes; the band creates a style of music that appeals to both veteran fans of the genre and newcomers that may discover older classics through discovery of the techniques presented.

And the reason the band plays this type of music?

To Cazares, death metal “talks more about what’s real or what’s going on in life.”

Thus the essence of Death metal described: piercing the veil of deception and beholding reality.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8BH6MM6EEss

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4rmEp4c1LFc

5 Comments

Tags: , ,

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