Death Metal Underground

“Heavy Metal Music and the Communal Experience” academic conference launches in Puerto Rico

October 12, 2013 –

heavy_metal_and_the_communal_experienceWe use the term “metal community” on a regular basis, but it’s unclear to many what this includes. What is the metal community? Is it defined by boundaries, or a shared ideal?

A conference of academics is meeting in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on March 5, 2014 to analyze this issue by presenting papers and having open discussions on the topic. Hosted by UPR professor and metalhead Nelson Varas Díaz, the conference aims to attract scholars from the Latin America, Europe and the United States.

One of the major themes is one that metalheads have brushed over for years, namely the conflict between individualism and group identity in metal. Both are strong, but individuals finds expression through group identity in metal, seemingly a paradox. In addition, the conference will explore the communal experience in metal and how it can be analyzed.

For more information, haunt the “Heavy Metal Music and the Communal Experience – Academic Conference” page on Facebook or contact Professor Díaz at nvaras@mac.com

Metal Music Studies call for papers for first issue (October 2014)

October 11, 2013 –
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metal_music_studies-issue_1-october_2014The journal Metal Music Studies has issued a call for papers for its first issue, which will be published in October of 2014. The journal focuses on multidisciplinary research and theory in metal music.

Edited by the inimitable Dr. Karl Spracklen, whose hand can be seen in much of the recent research and theory regarding heavy metal, the journal is a production of the International Society for Metal Music Studies, one of academia’s leading investigative teams on the topic of metal.

For more information, visit the International Society for Metal Music Studies Facebook page or the Metal Music Studies journal profile at Intellect books.

This call for papers asks for submissions that are “original papers on metal music” and, in classic heavy metal style, imposes few additional limitations. The CFP adds “the journal will accept and commission shorter pieces from those involved in the metal music industry: journalists, label owners and other industry insiders, managers, musicians and fans.”

For the full text of the call for papers, see the attached PDF file.

Ancient Modernism: An Exhibition of Letter Art and Illustration in Heavy Metal and Beyond

September 2, 2013 –
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ancient_modernismNoted black metal logo designer Christophe Szpajdel is featured in an upcoming exhibit in New Zealand of metal and other illustrators and the logos and embellishments they create.

The exhibit will run simultaneously in Auckland at Nature: Art + Design and in Wellington at The Rogue & Vagabond from September 28 – October 15, 2013, and will feature Szpajdel as well as four New Zealand-based designers.

As underground metal expands its reach and influence, events like Ancient Modernism: An Exhibition of Letter Art and Illustration in Heavy Metal and Beyond will contribute further to understanding the meaning beneath the menacing imagery and sonically terrorizing music.

Heavy metal saved my life

September 1, 2013 –

rabbi_darby_leigh-heavy_metalHow many of you feel that metal music saved your life?

When I was suffering through high school — boring assignments, ludicrously uptight authority figures, absurdly judgmental peers, and crushing ignorance about the world and myself — heavy metal indeed saved my life.

It had several methods that saved me. The first was that it let me escape into a mood that was bigger than my everyday concerns. This helped me establish values, center myself and see day by day stuff in context. The second was that it gave me a sense of belonging to something bigger than myself, which both freed me from the judgments of others and my own tendencies toward self-obsession. Finally, it was a gateway into history and literature, philosophy and art. It was a more exciting entry point to those disciplines than the rote ancient material taught in school.

From others I have heard similar stories. When your parents are dysfunctional, heavy metal is like a window into a much wider world beyond where things can make sense even if they don’t right now. When instability is all around you, “metal never bends” or “true metal it is, or no metal at all” are not just comforting ideas but mission statements.

To some, however, heavy metal has a different mission: it states it’s OK to be different. Witness the words of this heavy metal Rabbi:

Growing up as a Jewish teen in Manhattan, he was drawn to listening to heavy metal bands. Leigh’s body found joy in the chords and musical vibration that emanated from the emphasis on bass and percussion. He also found community and faith when he attended concerts.

“I found God in a mosh pit,” said Leigh, who attended his first concert, a Twisted Sister performance in New York, when he 14. “Heavy metal saved my life. The experience of growing up deaf in the hearing world means that you grow up as a minority. So many of us have the experience growing up where we feel like we don’t fit in, or we don’t fully belong.

“I found in heavy metal a music and a culture that supported individuality and rejection of the social norm. I found a culture that said, ‘you don’t have to be like that. You’re not. It’s OK to be different, it’s OK to be you. And guess what? There’s a whole army of metal heads out here like you, that are “freaks” and don’t fit into normal society.’ And the celebration of that and the outlet for anger and frustration as a teenage adolescent male just totally resonated with me.

Not surprisingly, Leigh has been known to write his sermons while listening to heavy metal.

That commotion you hear is our entire staff converting to Judaism. Leigh has an interesting view of metal, in that it is acceptance for those who don’t fit into society.

Others take it even farther, and see metal as a rejection of society itself. Or rather, the tendency of society to make rules to protect the herd, at the expense of those who actually know something.

If you let social forces predominate in any situation, you’ll get the usual feel-good stuff that we hear in most rock ‘n’ roll music. If you are antisocial and untamed like a metalhead, you get instead a different kind of morality, based on results and passion instead of obedience.

Recently, Erik Danielsson of Watain took some flak for his views on black metal:

If you want to be in a black metal band, you take yourself as an adversary of society, because that’s what black metal is.

An adversary of society. Society means both civilization, and people socialization with each other as a form of civilization order. It refers to the social groups set up that keep a society together.

Historically, black metal has opposed the socialization process. It stands against the “we can all get along” viewpoint, endorses enmity and Darwinistic predation, detests a morality of protecting the weaker and makes itself almost impossible to listen to with bad production and extreme elements. Black metal is antisocial because it sees socializing as an illness.

Traditionally, the genre has identified with the demonic to explain its rejection of social feelings:

Black metal music is music that, in essence, is diabolical and has diabolical energies…we’re talking about the wild, the untamed, ferocious, predatory aspect of it, the tribe within this music.

Perhaps it isn’t as simple as heavy metal validating non-conformity. Perhaps it does that and goes a step further by pointing out that conformity itself, as part of socializing, is what makes our society so unbearable.

Think about everything you know in this life. A new idea, band or place comes about. Few know about it and it’s great. Then others discover it. Soon it accommodates them, and it changes. What made it great is lost.

For all the time that people spend on politics, philosophy, religion and art, it’s possible that the key to the human problem is simpler than we thought. It could be in how we form societies itself, and this explains why no matter what we do we have the same problems.

Even more exciting is the possibility that heavy metal holds the answer: be less social, and less conformist, and more focused on the “wild, the untamed, ferocious, predatory aspect” of our nature instead of our civilized, let’s-all-get-along social training.

Underground Never Dies! by Andrés Padilla to be released by Doomentia Records

August 15, 2013 –

underground_never_dies-andres_padillaUnderground Never Dies!, a book about the underground metal explosion of the 1990s, will address the complex interweaving of bands, fans, zines, promoters, DJs, artists and labels that fostered the underground metal movement and allowed it to expand with maximum flexibility.

The book will include tons of fanzines from all over the world, plus a huge selection of underground flyers, so the book will be not only a narrative of the history of underground metal, but also a massive and interesting menu of diverse viewpoints for all those Death Metal devotes.

Doomentia Press will release/publish/distribute Underground Never Dies!, which will be released with a compilation 12″LP including some of the finest acts exhumed from the 80s, such as Slaughter Lord (Aus), Mutilated (Fra), Incubus (Florida, US), Poison (Ger), Exmortis (US), Fatal (US), Armoros (Can), Mental Decay (Dk), Funeral Nation (US) and Insanity (US) among others. Gatefold format ! Limited to 500 copies. CD + Tape version will include bonus tracks.

The cover art will be done by Mark Riddick. Introductions come from by Ian Christe (Bazillion Points), Chris Reifert (Autopsy), Erik Danielsson (Watain) and Alan Moses (Glorious Times). This celebration of the underground will attempt to make sense of the fertile but chaotic years of its origins.

The origins of music

August 11, 2013 –

This article is a counterpoint to Jon Wild’s
Social functions of heavy metal music
.

the_origins_of_musicThe question of why humans invented music—and continue to be enthralled by it—has long puzzled scholars. While some, including Charles Darwin, have guessed it grew out of a courtship ritual, recent research has focused on its ability to strengthen bonds within a community. Think military marches, or fight songs at a football game.

I disagree. In my view, music is a cognitive hack. It taps into a number of different pre-existing ways that our brain uses to interact with and make sense of the external world, not least our inherent hard wiring for pattern recognition and the (evolutionarily useful) enjoyment of discovery, surprise and invention.

Steven Pinker calls it “auditory cheesecake, an exquisite confection crafted to tickle the sensitive spots of at least six of our mental faculties.” Its ability to harmonize a social group is secondary, or at least in historical terms probably came after the psychological/cognitive side of things. Music’s social functions aren’t the reason for our having music in the first place, but are consequent to its tangible nature and the internal responses it produces in us.

Musicians do well [supposedly] in the evolutionary stakes, not just because music works for humans like feathers do for a peacock: ostentation/display of a purely secondary characteristic that doesn’t really do anything by itself, but communicates “I have so much spare resources to expend I can put effort into this pointless shit and still be walking around in one piece — I must be a worthy mate!”, but more-so because a sensitivity for music demonstrates a mind that’s strong at apprehending pattern and detail; kind of like success in sport demonstrates physical fitness.

Sociological explanations of music almost always confuse causation and correlation, not to mention that the research methods often sound a bit phoned-in; check out this from the study mentioned in the above linked article:

112 adults recruited online filled out a series of surveys. One measured their “need to belong,” asking them to agree or disagree with such statements as “If other people don’t seem to accept me, I don’t let it bother me.” A second measured their emotional reactivity by assessing their agreement with such statements as “I get upset easily.”

A third survey measured their emotional and physical reactions to music. The researchers found their response to music has a “unique predictor” of the need to belong, above and beyond their general emotionality. In short, those who reported a greater need to belong also tended to have more intense involvement with music.”

I don’t doubt the findings (although it’s not unknown for academics to fake research to get the conclusion they want), but I wouldn’t be willing to base a theory of music’s origin on them. This case may boil down to a question of origins within the individual versus the social functions that allowed society to tolerate music. In other words, origins versus utility.

The information seems to paint a pretty narrow picture of music and of certain types of people. Yes, some music is part of a social experience, but some however is a very private pleasure. Many great musicians spend a great deal of their time introverted and happily practicing by themselves, something that simply wouldn’t make sense if this study’s conclusions were more broadly evident.

In a similar way, sociological studies of metal have always missed the mark, because they view the social as primary, rather than seeing that people might listen to a certain type music for, ye know, the music. For some sorts of music — the kind where the actual music doesn’t matter beyond a few simple features (e.g. 4/4 kick drum accent on every beat, easy melody, interchangeable lyrics about partying, sex etc) — the social experience is undoubtedly about all there is to it.

For something like metal, which takes a bit of effort to construct and to get into it’s a different story. In these case people usually get into the music because certain melodic shapes, harmonies, disharmonies, timbres, trigger off a kind of deep rooted psychological semiotics, coupled with some semi-learnt information on musical forms – and the feelings and ideas that these together help communicate appeals to them. The music symbolizes some emotion or idea that they find meaningful.

While that is closest to the idea of social harmonization as proposed by this article, it’s also entirely different in that there is not a central social force causing people to harmonize to it. Rather, there’s an offering, like a flower with bright colors, and bees of their own volition come to take its message (pollen) along with its appeal (nectar).

Looking at some of the most obvious descriptions we tend to attach to metal music: ‘assertive’, ‘violent’, ‘primitive’… Perhaps these descriptors aren’t really all that arbitrary or socially-defined; rather the music really does hearken back to things you could fairly associate with those descriptions.

Imagine the sounds of primates screaming at each other as they bite and tear shreds off one another, the din of battle, etc. These impressions embedded somewhere inside our psychology from generations past are brought to the forefront by metal. If rock ‘n roll is the rhythm of sex, then metal is the rhythm of battle, of running, of methodically tracking then pounding the skulls in of prey.

Add this to the cognitive ‘cheesecake’ delight that music is designed to excite, then metal becomes that feeling of a fight well fought, of victory, of dinner time after a successful hunt, and all the resulting endorphin rushes that all these things would’ve induced in our ancestors. Which takes me back to the cognitive hack: metal sounds like life, but turned up to 11.

Social functions of heavy metal music

August 10, 2013 –

metal_onlyThe origins of human fascination with music remain unknown. A number of hypotheses have arisen throughout the years in an attempt to explain the utility of music to human civilization.

These vary from viewing it as arising as an individual occurrence with unique philosophical implications, to seeing it as a side-effect of language-based communication; a pleasant phenomenon but without any meaning beyond that. Regardless of its cause, the functions music provides are generally easier to identify.

Via the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, newly released academic research into the social implications of music has claimed that music functions as a way of bringing people together within a group. Specifically, the authors claim that music is a vehicle for projecting “information about the group’s shared mental state to a number of individuals at once.”

In this view, music is a type of broadcast that attracts people based on a topic and brings them together in unity of experience. This enables the group to consolidate its knowledge and then distribute it to all of its members, not unlike the social functions of good political science books, novels, speeches, movies or other memetic/viral communications.

As evidence for this new research, multiple studies are presented in which the authors posed questions to a test group designed to determine their emotional need to belong, and then compare it to how strongly they react to music. The findings were that there was a direct connection between this desire and its fulfillment through music. As a corollary, after researchers attempted to break down a group’s sense of belonging, the effect music had on it increased further.

While some metal fans may not wish to admit this, the genre does serve this role for many of its enthusiasts. That’s not to say it’s the primary reason for listening, over the sound itself; but metal as a social component does exist. Regardless of a person’s position within society, those who appreciate metal (therefore excluding those who listen ironically, i.e. hipsters) share something in common.

Alienation of modernity is present within all art forms of metal — whether politically, spiritually, or just plain exasperation at our disposable TV dinner culture — but unlike the solutionless protest music of yore, metal provides a constructive way of overcoming this. It allows a group of people who in some cases may not be able to describe themselves directly, to communicate through an art form.

What makes metal interesting is that it operates on many levels. At the lowest, it is simply exciting music. Higher up, it is complex music that attunes the individual to a certain naturalistic outlook. At the highest, perhaps, it helps metalheads reach others who feel similarly but perhaps never consciously examined their beliefs, and from that build a community around understanding.

The strong link between heavy metal and high intelligence

July 27, 2013 –

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.

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

July 4, 2013 –

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.

Karl Spracklen of the Institute for Metal Music Studies interview

June 19, 2013 –

We’ve covered Prof. Spracklen’s journal, International Journal for Community Music, and interviewed him about the International Society of Metal Music Studies before. Here he is giving a video interview to Intellect Magazine.