Olivier Messiaen about 1940 at the console of the Cavaillé-Coll-organ St.Trinité in Paris
Famously noted for having claimed that he saw colors when listening to music, Olivier Messiaen was born very early in the 20th century (1908) and was one of the last in a litter of bastard composers to be caught in the crossfire between a lingering romantic spirit and modernist aesthetics. This extremely vivid perception of musical tones and his fondness for birds and their songs were, doubtless, a great influence on his methodical choice for musical language. This includes his own compiled and defined modes of limited transposition. These existed before but he was the first to compile them and examine their boundaries and relationships exhaustively. (more…)
Playing a style of black metal that became more prominent and perhaps common after the turn of the century, S.V.E.S.T.’s “atmospheric” approach is of the sort that creates a fog out of different layers of intsruments playing different notes to form dissonant chords and having the drums by a vehicle for intensity. Although black metal per se has inclinations towards minimalism and ambience, this explicit brand of atmospheric black metal stretches song durations as long as it is necessary to induce the sense of evaporating time and alienating experience they are looking for. While many different bands can claim to be part of this, very few retained an anchor in reality and still building something meaningful. S.V.E.S.T. Urfaust is such an album. (more…)
The slow evolution of Western society (and in consequence of the whole world) into the post-modern paradigm arising inevitably from the purely mechanistic cosmovision of the Enlightment sciences, which in the best of cases allow for a Cartesian separation of the physical and the spiritual, pervade every corner touched by the status quo culture. This results in a relegating of anything which cannot be explained or described in purely mathematical terms to what is referred to as ‘subjective’. Anything that is experienced but cannot (yet) be explained is assumed to be subjective. There would be a certain justice to this if the phenomena that are still unaccounted for by science were squarely placed in a category under a truthful label by the establishment confessing: “We don’t know how to explain this in our terms, but that does not mean it is any less real or without possible objective basis.” What takes place is an arbitrary classification of these into morally-justified beliefs when they are in line with the status quo and into so-called subjective experiences when they are not.
The views held by society must be enforced in every discipline precisely because they are the result of dogma and not actual science (a word unfortunately hijacked by a corrupt establishment lead by weak minds elevated to positions of prestige and power by other weak minds). It follows that dogmatic belief cannot be challenged at any level since any divergence spells out potential intellectual catastrophes and conflicts that are not guaranteed to be won by the powers that be. As a result, not only does education suffer in the form of indoctrination but so do the supposed heroes of objective knowledge that the sciences are said to be comprised of turn into the priests of the temple to whatever the hive believes. It is only to be expected, then, that the humanities and the arts are the most easily and selectively suppressed, limited or made irrelevant, since the processes and phenomena studied by them are even further away from the grasp of mathematical explanations.
In the Western classical music tradition, the tenets of the Common Practice Period have been put into question for a very long time in progressively derisive waves. Very often, revolutionary thinkers that spearheaded such contrarian views had transcendent and elaborate reasons that motivated and justified their moving-beyond. But the hordes of followers understood only a portion of this, often inclined towards its most easily understood materialist explanation. In the case of Beethoven, followers of his defiance of what was expected of music were shielded from degeneration by the very fact that the then contemporary German culture was a very spiritual one, and its artists still acknowledged the magic behind music — occult properties and processes that can only be perceived but not fully explained. Contrastingly, in the age of Anton Webern, his decision based on artistic principle to move away from traditional harmony to work with a self-defined and logical set of rules that he would use without falling into an empty materialism was taken up as fashion — the next “big thing” in classical music development. This directly reflected the way Western society saw the world around it at the beginning of the 20th century: as its playground, where anything “I like” goes and the capricious human will is allowed to do whatever it wants because we are the nihilist masters of the natural world. Gone was the romantic respect of nature and its view of humans as part of it. We must ask ourselves what dissolved the old German mysticism? The simple answer is that they, too, had to change, even if slowly and reluctantly, in order to not be destroyed in a world dominated by French Enlightment and overarching Russian influences — both with primarily materialist tendencies.
Music theory is one such set of occult properties. Yet it is only occult (hidden but observable) because there is no theory developed for the relation between arranged sound frequencies and mental states, especially at increased levels of complexity. Contrary to what scientifically-ignorant artists think, this is neither impossible nor irrational, just difficult. Contrary to the beliefs of Blank Slate – indoctrinated scientists, the study of innate human nature can yield explanations as to why, as a species, certain tastes, visual and sound arrangements and textures have certain effects on the mind (itself rooted in chemical states of the brain). The reason why both groups tend to back away from such ideas is not rooted in reason, but in the fear of not being acknowledged for who they are, which for them translates into what they want, like or prefer to believe to feel validated. In other words, reality is shunned in order to give way to a truth built on the necessities of feable human egos. The ramifications are manifold and most are out of the scope of this article.
Out of the accusations levelled against Common Practice Period theory, one of the most common and often accepted is that it somehow limits the imagination of artists. Presumably, this is because its rules define a perimeter around permissible options in a finite-state machine, thereby prohibiting the random allocation of space and time to music tones selected purely out of gut feeling. And that precisely is one of the defining factors of the post-modern vision of art. At this point, it may seem like I am contradicting my previous statements regarding the possibility of harmony rules being developed and justified on the basis of human nature. If they are, then an artist following only his gut feeling should arrive to at least similar results. First, that these rules are based on human nature does not mean they are free of the constraints of their historical context, including not only cultural implications but also material possibilities for the construction of certain instruments with particular timbres. Second, the rules were developed through collective observations and philosophies over hundreds of years by many different people building on top and beside one another– in the same way that mathematics and modern science were gestated.
While older attitudes were nature-oriented, and tried to keep their understanding of human nature in line with what was then understood of the natural world, the Enlightment sees a rupture between them as a necessary effect of placing human beings over nature as overlords to do as they please with it– thereby setting them beyond judgement within it. It was an ideology-based decision, not a scientific one. As a result, there are those, especially among the post-modernist classical artists, that are not guided by a free search for musical perfection, but by contrarian and politically-charged statements that can only be described as the ultimate incarnation of a hipster’s dreamworld.
The comparison to mathematics is in dire need of further elaboration as it contains the potential to elucidate much about what musical theory is and what it is not. We may start by stating that they are both tools and means to an end. Admiring the organization and arrangement of a music passage on grounds of technique is akin to feeling a sense of wonder when shown a beautifully and clearly derived mathematical formula. But neither of them by themselves attest to the accuracy of the connection of these to reality itself. Both musical and mathematical theory are dependent on premises — they are both arguments developed from a set of assumptions which may reflect conditions and events in the real the world.
Common Practice Period theory arose from organizing tones in the spectrum of perfect consonance to most extreme dissonance as perceived by human beings. Not one human being arbitrarily writing up rules, but scores of audiences reacting to the works of many different composers through lifetimes. Each composer taking notes on the triumphs and blunders of those that came before them and adding their own ideas. It was a veritable scientific effort of occult nature. The fact that the notes were taken not from one society at one point but by the cumulative effort many through many generations also somewhat lends to the tradition a tendency towards the transcendental. Of course, this is completely dependent on a healthy balance between acknowledgement of tradition (whatever that tradition is for the artist) and a continuation of its ideals with a progressive intent.
To round off the metaphor of mathematics, we should stress that no development invalidates or properly subordinates older techniques to newer ones. This fallacy is so pervasive that it is common to hear people referring to the use of newer techniques in themselves as a sign of superior expression. This is related to the malady that is born from the cult of novelty. In truth, when it comes to mathematics, if one person solves a problem using simple algebra yet another fails using calculus, it is obvious that the simple use of a more sophisticated technique is not in itself superior. It may be true that in art and music we do not have the luxury of calling something right and wrong, but the comparison is done in parallel and not on the same plane as mathematics. This is the same as when Newton developed Calculus, he did not ditch arithmetic and algebra developed hundreds of years before he was born, but used them to build this tool that would allow him to develop theories concerning abstract models of the physical world.
Nobody is saying there is a right and wrong dichotomy in music. In fact, this is where it is necessary to part from the analogy. Music is much more comprehensive and complex than mathematics (which only has a cumulative complexity, not a multi-dimensional one). Mathematics is comparable to music theory, the tool, and not to music. Music is the resulting idea crystallized, probably through the use of music theory techniques, the same ways physics derive explanations of the universe by using different techniques from mathematics. By its occult nature, music’s domain being states of mind and evocation, what we do have in music is degrees of esoteric communication through sensory perception. It is a communication at many levels rather than only at the level of reason and goes beyond it and to our instincts and learned behaviors which as a total reflect a unique vision from a unique individual. “Personal taste” advocates need not get too excited as the variation can only be as wide as human minds allow — which scientific research shows is not as much as we like to think. Variation is wide with respect to how we see ourselves, but not that wide when we see the whole spectrum of possibilities. And as an occult discipline guessing at phenomena of the universe (and our mind in it) that we do not understand, music is more liable to wander off more than mathematics in its search for perfection.
Music as the manifestation of experience, as a gateway to purposely changing states of the mind in humans, is something that stands at odds with the idea of absolute music, for which music aesthetics themselves are the goal. This materialist vision based on the fact that current (this is a 19th century idea) scientific limitation of not yet having a mathematical model outside of aesthetics and certain organization cannot accept or encompass the higher-level processes of creation that reach for proportion, balance, direction and movement in an attempt to communicate. Ironically, it is rather this lack of tradition or significance that results in theory and rules being all there is that produces a much more limiting paradigm. The race of stretching aesthetics could only go so far and an artistic compound devoid of transcendental goals quickly gave up as they broke the boundaries of tonality, declaring music as we know it to be dead. Needless to say, this was as short-sighted as limiting literature to the number of “clever” arrangements of words — precisely the dead end of poetry without meaning, or poetry without form, all products of post-modernism. In any case, the disavowal of all meaning leads to music pursued as a sport, for the excitement that its physical acrobatics produce and not from what it communicates in and beyond its forms.
The other branch of a materialist appreciation of music surfaced more clearly in the freedom afforded by the post-modernist world to idiots to call themselves artists and plague us with moronic musical expressions supporting themes of self-pity communicated only through lyrics. Going further, many artists not only took this liberty but openly rejected any sort of tradition or knowledge as being only an obstacle for their expression. Again, ironically, their rejection of it resulted not in a revealing work transcending the ages, but an extremely simple product that even a child banging on the wall and singing with no thought or experience could produce.
This is not to say that you need theory to create good music. As was explained before, theory is only a tool based on cummulative observations over many lifetimes. We do fine geniuses and other people with an outstanding aptitude for music creation who will find ways to create solid music that is often technically rudimentary but complex in communication.
As with any mathematical techniques or grammar in language, theory augments and sharpens the natural talents of the person. But the catch here is that the artistic intent and vision of the artist is often as important as his natural aptitude towards creation. Whereas a Varg Vikernes consistently tries to find an ever-more ephemeral depuration of the essence of his music against the tides of trends in what is fashionable, a Luc Lemay gets lured in by what is chick, his talents wasted on kitsch. Granting a directed vision of music in a clear direction rather than with vague adjectives to justify fashionable aesthetics, the person with average talents can, with appropriate training and dedication, become a Franz Berwald, while the talented may reach the heights of Johannes Brahms.
The importance of following a transcendental route versus a materialist one are exemplified in two products of the 20th century. One followed the mechanistic descriptions of music to the point of absurdity and was hailed as a genius by the hipsters crowding the halls of academia. These were the many frauds of John Cage. Intellectually interesting experiments devoid of the basic dimensions of music: melody, rhythm and harmony. Contrasting the first comes a work that attempts to communicate a sense of wonder in nature without the vulgarity of dissoluting music proper for recordings of nature or other cheap tricks of post-modernism. This is the Fourth Symphony of the romantic Jean Sibelius, reviled by academic theorists and critics looking forward to the mechanistic augmentations of aesthetics and possible transformations rather than for the actual content of music. This was music for the music fan, not the ironic intellectual.
Another day, another pretender. Iskra claim to be black/crust, which is a nonsense genre in itself that insults both of its origins, but in actuality are more like an Angelcorpse style band with occasional flashes of melody and to avoid the un-PC Nietzschean narrative of black metal, lyrics about war and politics.
All of the above presents zero problem if well-executed, but the problem here is that Ruins is a collection of tropes from those genres held together by sheer momentum, which means that at the time of listening it is inoffensive but there is zero reason to pick it up. It is based on previous forms without injecting any essential spirit or direction of its. Like At the Gates Slaughter of the Soul, it is cleverly designed from a commercial perspective, in that underneath the fast tremolo riffs and breathless raspy howl the songs are very convention riff-chorus with one transition between what are essentially identical halves. Its other clever business strategy is realizing that people might enjoy a version of Angelcorpse that like Napalm Death Fear, Emptiness, Despair introduced a bit of melody and broke down the blitzkrieg drive into more recognizable song patterns.
Unlike most of these bands, Iskra do one thing well: they know when to break rhythm and transition tempo to avoid the monolithic wall of sound that war metal bands too often engage in, but they also miss the outsider perspective of crust and the atmosphere of black metal. If you were one of those people who were satisfied with all-ahead-go speed metal bands that did not write their own melodies, you will not be offended by this, but do not be surprised when it has a staying power measured in days and not weeks or years.
Fins rising above his head and arms, the sea creature crept from the briny abyss and mounted the ladder which took him to the dock. There he assumed his stance, threatening and ambiguous, in his nightly role as a disturbed of the peace and scary of nosy observers. But as he stepped forward, something clicked under the loose boards, and a net dropped over his head.
“Now let’s sea who this deep sea terror really is,” said Fred Jones, ripping the plastic mask from the face of the oily monster.
“Mr. Amstel Brouwerij B. V.!” the team exclaimed in unison.
“This must be why he was trying to scare people away,” said Velma, pulling aside a door to show giant vats of sludgy tan goo.
“That’s right, I admit it. I made this costume to scare off passerby. You see, I’ve made quite a profit smuggling in this beer-flavored sludge from Amsterdam, and then mixing it with soda water to make an ultra-low cost beer which I sell to consumers at import prices. And I would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids!”
Once upon a time, Amstel Light was decent beer. Developed by the same brewer that makes Heineken and designed for the American market, it took the fuller flavor of European beer and adapted it to the market demand for lower-calorie beverages. Since it was head and shoulders better than the standard dreck, it got a good name for itself, and so the MBAs at Amstel Brouwerij B. V. realized there was a “profit pocket” — a certain amount of time they could bank on the good name by selling a far cheaper ersatz version and yet the audience would still, with insectlike motions, continue purchasing it at the higher price — and ran the brand into the ground. Amstel Light now resembles an American beer in its water, skunky, quasi-fruity flavor with the distinctly bilgy taste of most pasteurized mass-market beers. You might think that at import prices, this would be better than your average bottled drool, but they have played a bait and switch on you just like with Heineken.
The brainchild of Rex Ebvleb, Abyssum started out as a black metal project in the mid-nineties, resulting in a few demos and finally its sum in Thy Call, 1998. After a little time, the band simply was no more, with Ebvleb carrying on the torch on his own and in a reserved way. Disgusted by the scene that formed in the name of black metal, Ebvleb took Abyssum away, neglecting even to be openly recognized by the tag. Tags being what they are and changing in meaning as history advances for all but the most stout scholars of any given discipline, are put aside by the independent thinkers and outstanding individuals that an inverted society can never recognize. This reborn Abyssum that distances itself from what the crowds of what is now called “black metal” maintains the truly black essence of the genre that goes beyond speech and pretending, and which, as Sammath’s Kruitwagen, Antaeus’ MkM and other underground artists have pointed out in the past, is a way of life and a mindset — not just a music style. (more…)
Descending like a blessing from the sky comes another album by a legendary band which only nine years ago presented us with a masterful album vastly superior to what they had done since their debut.
In Ordeal we find a regression into their middle period while nods to Stormcrowfleet are discernible here and there without actually engaging and setting out on an undistracted trance like the younger band on that album.
Self-referential statements which rely directly on the established style of the band and the reputation it has already acquired makes this sound like one of the second rate bands that followed in their footsteps.
Already a tired band showing no signs of progression or development in style, we perceive a simplification of ideas on top of which a facade that sounds like Skepticism is erected.
Passing and forgettable, we find a Skepticism attempting to be as sparse as Worship, yet finding themselves in foreign territory.
Positioning chord after chord and following them in a slightly rock-like manner reminiscent of lesser “doom metal” acts, the motifs as themes are nowhere to be seen.
One must also ask, what happened to the singer’s voice? Is this on purpose?
Instead of the pictures in poetry and majestic motif colorations of Stormcrowfleet before “doom metal” was a thing, we have a band trying to impersonate itself.
Nobody asks a band like Skepticism to venture forth and put out new material because “it is time,” as if they were some puny mainstream band, but this here is probably the less inspired and most uneventful Skepticism album to date.
Tedious in a way that only a collection of uninspired references to all the different points in their discography could be, if this is a farewell, it is indeed a sad one.
Mannerisms in the guitars seem to be excuses only to keep them doing anything — a lack of worthwhile ideas is apparent.
Estranged from the poetry that they embodied, the repetition in Ordeal is odious rather than transporting.
Nuances are missing, everything that there is to this new release seems to be all placed at one level: that of the presentation.
Most of us now forget how much of the early death metal experience was shaped by the speed metal story arc: starting in 1983 as a rebellion against the glam explosion of hard rock, it re-metalized NWOBHM with more complex riffs using the muted strum to expand rhythm, and then promptly began selling out. Most fans got queasy when Metallica came out with Master of Puppets, but there are other culprits to just as easily finger. The point is that everything sells out in humanity when it gets exposes to the masses because the masses demand the same old crap in new form, instead of new ideas deviating from the same old crap, and that took down speed metal, which caused death metal bands to try to be more aesthetically extreme.
“How would you ever sell out this?” a friend asked once when I was listening to Incantation. My response to him was that aesthetics does not correspond to composition. I can take a Justin Bieber song, translate it to guitar and transpose it to a lower key, then play it with lots of tremolo picking, guitar squeals and crunchy power chords, doubling the tempo and adding distorted vocals. To most people, that will be “death metal.” To a death metal fan, it is a sheep in the clothing of a wolf. Death metal is not its aesthetic traits alone; those exist to aid the composition, which is (1) phrasal with complex song structures to support (2) collective without individual superstars (3) emphasizes cadence and melodic development over off-beat, quirkiness, ironism, etc. Death metal is musically distinct from rock and blues, themselves only a simplification of European music from the past century with a false label of African-American origin added to sell them as “unique” and “different,” which makes it one of the few genres which is not fake in all of popular music. Accept what you know to be true: popular music is just as fake as Big Macs, Cokes or reality TV. It has always been fake because it has always been a product with a conveniently oddball but totally untrue history. If you have heard the music of the African coast, you realize it is far more complex than the limply distilled methods of rock and blues. Similarly, European folk music had much more going for it than country or rock. Death metal threw all of this back in their faces, and their revenge was to sell it out. This does not involve evil indie rock musicians creeping into death metal band studios late at night to covertly record disguised rock themed as death metal; rather, it involves the transmission of social memes and attitudes about what constitutes death metal, which then lowers the bar so “everyone” can participate. At that point, you get the same old crap dressed up as a revolution.
Festering, on an aesthetic level, is perfect for death metal fans. It sounds like Swedish death metal played with the rhythmic precision of speed metal. It has gnarly vocals, great distortion, and uses the right techniques: it layers each new riff, applies tremolo in the right pattern to introduce secondary ideas as new primaries, and drifts into tempi at about the right pace to have cadence. But it also works in the static-style rock riffs, the cheesy color notes as the basis of riffs from the blues, and the constant off-beat that sounds to me like a labrador running with its tongue out of its mouth. Not to mention the constant verse-chorus song structures that remind me of Bruce Springsteen. In short, this band is a well-executed forgery that conceals rock within death metal, and so while I want to like it for aesthetic reasons, the music itself remains unsatisfying and leaves me with a queasy feeling. Good effort that should be avoided by all death metal fans, but rock fans weekending as death metallers should love it.
When we say that metal’s golden era peaked in 1994 and that everything went downhill, it does not mean that there was nothing good after that. By definition, quality after a peak must go downhill in comparison. More importantly, when we say such things, we are referring to a genre-wide average, not to specifics. After all, we have Summoning releasing their classic of classics in 1996 and more great music before and around the turn of the century. The same is true of several black metal bands and a very few death metal ones. In Central America, ever one (or ten or twenty) steps behind in everything as a result of traceable historical processes, what little its reduced population, resources and culture allowed for metal to develop flourished between 1995 and 2000. (more…)
That good music makes its way to the promo stack occasionally is not a huge surprise. We do not expect it to happen in more than one in twenty or thirty occurrences, but sooner or later, something good does come. And then, we expect a great album (not a true classic, but perhaps a highlight in the year) to arrive at an expected rate of about one every two or thee months. What we do not expect is a two-track split in which the first is a modernist piece composed for strings in the manner reminiscent of Górecki’s 3rd String Quartet or Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time.
The second track, “Crossing the Threshold” by Twilight Fauna, is one of those supposedly black metal ambient pieces that amounts to little more than sounds here, noises there, sometimes violated by a heavily distorted guitar that adds nothing to what’s going on. All for the sake of ambience. It falls into the same category of poorly-done but pretentious music like Ulver’s and Sun O))), themselves a parody of what Robert Fripp did much better in The Gates of Paradise or his work with Brian Eno in Evening Star. I’d recommend these guys to study the work of early Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze, the master. If what they want is actually something more black metal, but elongated and that does not sound like some sort of pointless intro, they should check out Paysage d’Hiver’s work. Because the track has not been made public, we can only share their own release earlier this year through bandcamp for reference.
“Sickness Unto Death”, by Jennifer Christensen, is a patient work that I would venture to describe as minimalist. But rather than the circular pop minimalism of Philip Glass, this is more of the religious and dark nature typical of Górecki’s music. Clearly structural in construction but never rushed, motifs pass you by and interleave as passing scenes and a whole flora and fauna of a world evolved from a single primeval cell arise in distinguishable affinity. Now, as much as I not only enjoy but appreciate the higher quality of Ms. Christensen’s work here, I am wondering why would she release this in a split with a dark-ambient-going-on-black-metal band.
If she is somehow planning on turning her efforts in this direction, her classically trained mind and obvious talents for dark minimalist music would be interesting if applied to the whole spectrum of ambient instrumentation. Or even to two guitars, drums and backbone bass — that kind of black metal with a solid musical base would be much appreciated. After listening to her track many times, we know that the attitude and the spirit for this kind of music is definitely not missing. But the question is, does she actually understand the black metal spirit? Independently of this, I am looking forward to listening to more music composed by her, metal or not.