The economics of metal evolution

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The DLA/DMU has taken flak over the years for being unwilling to embrace new trends, but this criticism forgets that we also avoided endorsing older bad ideas. Our writers have generally avoided jumping on the bandwagon for the “trve kvlt” just as much as the new, millennial-friendly indie-rock version of metal. The reason we can do this is that we apply a simple quality standard instead of using the consensus of others to determine truth.

Despite having many editors, each of whom had somewhat varied opinions on the process, if viewed on the large scale the site has kept a generally consistent opinion. That is: some of the so-called classics are good, and few of the new school releases are good, but the determination is not made by category, but by analyzing each release on its own merits. This leads to sudden shock for some who expected us to be cheerleaders for anything that seems to “uphold the true spirit of the underground,” and dismay for those who like the newer material as release after release fails our test.

Metal is in a slump and has been since 1994, in quality. Correspondingly, it has been in a boom in terms of quantity of fans. We have more “metalheads” (cough) now than ever before. However, anyone who is not in denial — and most are — can tell you that quality has fallen off dramatically. The music has lost its energy, its nerve and its insight and been buried under a wave of bands that are either obedient and docile system products, or slaves to the underground record-collecting audience that does not care about quality so long as the aesthetics of previous generations are preserved. Both groups unfortunately are useful idiots for industry, which can keep producing low-cost clone bands and reaping the profits.

We discard bands for two reasons: not being metal, and not being good. The bands that are simply not good tend to have the most fans, ironically. Who among us can claim that, for example, Blazebirth Hall bands and Drudkh offered anything musical or artistic to metal? They cloned Graveland in a light and breezy melodic form that is essentially music for children. In the same way we refuse to celebrate underground “favorites” that consist of ranting and disorganized music like Sepulchral Aura, or avantgarde prog fanboy-bait like Fanisk and Deathspell Omega.

In addition, we discard that which does not uphold the artistic, intellectual and philosophical spirit of metal. There is quite a bit of overlap here with “not being good.” We would not endorse Cradle of Filth; nor would we endorse Opeth, back in the day, or Cannibal Corpse, on the basis that they were essentially rock bands trying to assimilate metal and thus produced a moronic mindset. Similarly Pantera and to a lesser degree, Anthrax. Back in the day we thought SOD was inferior to Cryptic Slaughter, DRI, and Corrosion of Conformity. We refused to endorse Wolves in the Throne Room, Animals as Leaders, Gojira, Mastodon and other indie-rock pretending to be metal. We ignore Pelican and all stoner doom bands because they are boring and terrible. This music is distraction from metal, not metal, but its fans make a big show of being “very metal,” which tells you exactly what they are hiding and deflecting your attention from.

This approach wins us zero friends in the short term, but trusted readers in the long term. People — especially those who lead purposeful lives and do not have lots of time, nor enjoy, combing through catalogs and blogs trying to figure out which 1% of the reviews are not lies — like getting the low-down on quality metal. They enjoy that moment of discovery when they find something really good, something they can listen to not just this week and six months or a year from now, but for future decades. That is ultimately the standard by which any music fan operates; they like music, so they veer toward the best, not just at a level of mechanics (technicality) but artistically, or its relevance to the ongoing philosophical and moral maturation of humankind. Most of humanity likes mediocrity or at least convinces itself that it likes those bands. After all, Third Eye Blind has sold more records than most segments of the metal genre. But popularity — whether among credulous hipsters or gormless mass media fans — has never determined quality. Consensus is not reality. Only reality is reality, and we make our best stab at it.

With that in mind, you may ask: why write negative reviews? The answer may surprise you. We seek to give music fans the intellectual tools they need to fight back the onslaught of Opeth, Pantera, Ulver, Cradle of Filth, Meshuggah, Vattnet Viskar, Cannibal Corpse and Deathspell Omega styled bands. We use both positive and negative examples to illustrate, to the best of our ability, what metal is and which approaches to it have produced the quality level necessary for prolonged listening. This puts us at odds with most metal journalists, for whom writing is a day job and as a result, is interpreted as endless enthusiasm for whatever is new and exciting because the consensus likes it. They are essentially advertisers because they are writing ad copy about these bands, not a look into what makes their music function. It is designed to make you buy music, because journalists who can sell music get famous and become editors. You will notice that major publications run almost no negative reviews. Why is that, you might ask? Because their job is to sell music, not review it, even if they call it “review.”

In all human endeavors our social impulses, which because we are selfish beings are actually self-interested impulses translated to altruism to flatter and manipulate others, override any sense of quality or purpose. The task ceases to become the task and becomes the process of creating the appearance of results instead of results; bands stop trying to be good, and focus on replicating what has worked before in new forms. The “best” (by consensus) bands “sound” different on the surface, but musically are extremely similar, because that formula has worked in the past. That is a social impulse: make what people like because it does not challenge them and makes them feel smart, profound or at least “with the crowd” to be listening to it. This social impulse has ruined metal since 1994.

Metal thrives — as it did during the mid-70s, early 80s and early 90s — under two factors: (1) it is ignored by most people, so it is free from the manipulations of those who want to sell rebellion-flavored rock to morons, and (2) it has some truly great artists to kickstart it and establish a standard. The former is self-evident, but the latter can be explained as follows. When early Norse black metal came out, it set a standard of quality and allowed fans, by simply choosing to spend their money on what was more rewarding, to exclude bands that did not meet that standard. Why would you buy Forgotten Wolves when you can get Darkthrone? Why would you pick up another speed metal clone when you can have top-quality death metal? Metal thrived when it was elitist, closed-minded and viciously competitive. Now that it has become a group hug, quality has suffered and no one seems to have noticed. Except us — and we are watching.

Media “autoerotic circle” confirms own bias against metal

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We are all familiar with the term: a group of males in a circle, each masturbating, with the collective approval of the act protecting the individual from criticism by others. In theory, this act originated in the days when masturbation was taboo and boys wanted to ensure that others would not inform on them, so got together a gang to self-stimulate together and attack any informers as a group.

For the purposes of this article, such events will be referred to as “autoerotic circles.”

Most metalheads pay no attention to the Grammy awards but for some unknown reason, much of the population seems to attend to these with regularity despite their being the result of a few hundred insiders and their opinions about what we should buy, not what is actually good. Watching the Grammys is like turning on your television to watch a 30-minute commercial (except that many infomercials were actually interesting in comparison).

For decades the Grammys have slighted heavy metal. This is because the media elites do not want you to like or purchase heavy metal. Heavy metal does not play by the rules, which is that every band must make basically the same music but differ in production and surface aspects, so that the great money circle can continue. The record industry makes its money by pumping out the same stuff again and again, having its lapdog “journalists” praise it, and then the clueless audience buy it because it is new and exciting on the surface. Then repeat. Watch money show up like spring rains. The “autoerotic circle” of media and industry became self-referential long ago, approving whatever was put out as a jobs program for journalists, studios, labels, promotions, and bands themselves. Just keep the money flowing, keep the scam going, don’t tell the secret.

Heavy metal breaks this model. It is riff-based, and requires bands to come up with not just killer riffs but the song structures to support them. It does not follow the denialist trend in lyrics, which has two prongs: a “protest song” prong that demands we pursue surrogate activities in lieu of noticing our society is decaying, and a “bohemian” prong which suggests ignoring all problems and focusing on your own pleasure, importance and drama at this one moment. Heavy metal tries to be heavy, both in lyrics and music, which is everything the music industry finds both unprofitable and threatening to its business model.

As a result, the music media elites view the Grammys as a chance to bash metal by mis-identifying it, putting non-metal bands in the category every time. As VH1 notes:

Yesterday in our breakdown of what’s right and wrong about this year’s ‘Best Metal Performance’ Grammy nominees we said musical comedy duo Tenacious D would win. Not should, but would. Why? Because since 1989, the first year they recognized the genre and Jethro Tull infamously beat Metallica, the Grammys have shown time and time again they have no clue and one can only assume little respect for heavy metal music. Nothing against The D, who are without a doubt talented, funny and truly love hard rock and metal, but to award them for ‘Best Metal Performance’ is to fundamentally misunderstand the genre and what makes it great.

Things seemed to have started well enough, as legendary hard rockers AC/DC began the festivities with their high decibel opening performance. But that’s only because most people didn’t know about Tenacious D’s win, since the Grammys don’t even feel the award merits inclusion in their primetime telecast. As word spread of their victory, outrage traveled throughout the metal community. Veterans however reacted with ambivalence, as the slight is just the latest in a history of heavy metal Grammy fails.

Hint to metalheads: the music industry hates you and always has. It tried to replace you with hard rock, then with rap-rock, and now with indie/shoegaze. It is your enemy. This is why metal went underground in the first place, and why it should not only never rely on mainstream media like the Grammys, but also actively reject them. It is not that we do not need these media elite awards, but that they are pretenders to the throne and should be torn down and sent back to the world of hipster posing where they belong.

The destruction of metal has not gone unnoticed. As Guitar World‘s Will Wallner notes, heavy metal is not heavy metal any longer because it has become rock music. Rock music assimilates anything in its path, adopting it first as a “new” style and then dumbing it down until it fits within the rock paradigm, at which point in its neutered form it becomes normed.

Heavy metal has lost all form of legitimacy as musical genre.

I believe it has evolved, or devolved, to the point where it has become something so different from what it once was, that it now is a different genre all together.

People could argue that music trends change constantly with new generations that influence what is popular. However, jazz is still jazz, blues is still blues, but metal is no longer metal. Traditional forms of music such as the ones I mentioned have changed over time, but not as quickly or as drastically as metal. In fact, the only other genre that seems to change so often and with such extremes is pop music.

While the rest of his post makes some assumptions that over-simplify metal, his point is essentially thus: the drive for jazz/progressive overtones in metal has abolished the genre itself, leaving in its place an aggregate of styles that ends up creating an average of them all. The more different elements you put in the pot, the more the result tastes like just plain stew, because the radical extremes balance each other out to the point of negation. If you melt all of your crayons together, you get a grayish-brown. When you dump every trendy music style into metal, you end up with rock that has a few metal riffs.

The music industry has been trying very hard since the 1970s to replace metal with rock. Rock pretends to be rebellious, but its secret is that it is easily controlled. It is all very musically similar, so new favorites can be quickly produced, and while none of them are as good as the founding acts of the genre, the audience cannot tell the difference. And they keep buying and buying. But with metal, the bar is raised and the domination of rock over the airwaves is threatened. That upsets the old hippies, media barons and neurotic journalists who make up the music industry elite, and they will always try to destroy metal for this original sin.

Is rock ‘n’ roll assimilating metal?

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Metal interviews are like connecting violent minds to an amplifier. The musician is given a chance to speak plainly, and rewarded for saying something outlandish enough to make a headline. It’s like pouring gasoline on a fire.

Much as “in vino veritas” describes how drunk people often accidentally blurt out the truth, interviews often get the essential thoughts out of musicians. Tired, often doing multiple interviews in a day, musicians are apt to cut to the chase. Further, since they’ve been working that part of the brain that makes language, they’re often at their clearest several interviews into the process.

Thus it’s not sensible to either discount interviews, or to wholly accept them without being critical. But recent comments by Nominon drummer Per Karlsson highlight why metal interviews will always be popular — the offhanded, casual and yet direct blurting of truth:

I’d say that black and death metal pretty much go hand in hand, but that’s just my opinion. I am a bit worried though, since more or less all death/black metal of today has turned into rock ’n’ roll or something, all the new bands seems to be more into retro-rock, either that or looking/sounding like Ghost. I am ashamed of what this has turned into, it makes me sick.

Score one for the surly musician. First it makes sense to discard is the “that’s just my opinion” which is a passive-aggressive way of saying that some opinions coincide with truth where others do not. Then to analyze his main point, which is basically that rock music is assimilating metal.

For a brief historical re-cap, metal is a breakaway genre from rock, itself a breakaway genre from blues, itself a breakaway genre from folk. Rock music represents a distillation of many traditions down to the simplest transmissible commercial product. It was always a simpler option to the popular music of the time, and then at some point in the 1960s it took over not just music but popular culture. Much of this has to do with how our commercial society worships whatever seems popular at the moment.

Metal never wanted to be rock. If it had, it would have stayed in the rock camp. It also didn’t fully want to be blues. The influences on Black Sabbath were not only previous rock and heavy blues, but progressive rock and horror movie soundtracks (these inherited heavily from modernist classical, notably Wagner). With metal, rock’s rather static textural riffing evolved into the power chord phrase, which is closer to the horror movie music than what rock was doing at the time.

This upset the existing order.

Rock music saw itself as the bad boy and rebel, the counterculture upsetting civilization. Now there was a counter-culture to the counter-culture. Where the rock boys were singing about flowers, love, peace and our bright future, metal brought in the harsh discordant notes of realism: idealism is poppycock, death is ever-present, and the obliviousness of the average person (see “War Pigs”) is what brings evil into the world. Where the rock guys thought you could fight evil with love, metal counter-posited that you can only fight evil with vigilance, and eyes-wide-open awareness of life, warts and all. That shocked the rock community.

Since that time, metal has been the go-to imagery for advertising firms, movies, books and other entertainment products to symbolize “rebellion.” They also try with punk. Metal and punk are the two drop-out genres that consciously elect to be outsiders, and to avoid just doing what other rock bands doing and, by following that trend, to choose “success.” Popular music is fairly simple: find a unique version of doing what everyone else is doing so your audience both recognizes what you’re doing, and has some unique “mental handle” that causes them to single you out. It’s basic memetics.

This means that entertainment products have both a core and a surface. The core is the actual musical content; the surface is the aesthetics, the quirk, the irony, the imagery, and so forth. Metal has rebellion both in its core and its surface. However, if that metal surface could be transferred to rock, the ideal product would result. The band that came closest was Guns n’ Roses who managed rock song format with later Black Sabbath-styled riffs and bluesy leads. If someone were able to make hard rock that felt like metal, the market would roll over and beg for them.

As a result, the primary threat to metal is bands that “look like” (surface) metal but are actually the same old stuff. A number of bands are indicted under this banner, including Opeth and all nu-metal (which under the skin is “rap/rock”). Recently this process has picked up more steam in the underground. “Post-metal” — which is basically late 1980s post-hardcore, emo or indie rock — has begun to be sold as black metal. Nu-metal with late hardcore stylings has been sold as death metal. The result is fans unable to tell the difference between metal and rock.

This advertiser’s dream will backfire. The more metal gets like rock, the more it loses its outsider status. The more metal shows up in “legitimate” publications and entertainment, the less it is consciously outside of the mainstream world. Like punk, it will end up a “flavor” of rock that is used to sell certain products like motorcycles, cologne, hot dogs and chain saws. This is what Karlsson is warning us against, and it’s a good thing we heed him.

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Distorting the medium

hipster_black_metal_flavored_alternative_rock_fanBy 1992, the metal underground was flirting with mainstream visibility to some degree; whether it was Slayer headlining an arena tour, death metal albums being distributed by Sony, news reports, or metal music videos on MTV.

An emerging horde of people saw how awesome death metal looked and leaped at the opportunity to be a part of a new movement and start their own bands. The problem was, these were the people weaned on The Black Album who wanted to be the next Kurt Cobain, so they chose the newest, edgiest method possible: extreme metal.

Every suburban nobody with a guitar thought if they dressed up their uneventful, radio friendly rock in a different way, they would be seen as unique, offering something new to the world that wasn’t there before. When these people make extreme metal, they keep the surface traits and miss the core. The down tuned guitar rhythms, guttural vocals and fast drums are easily cloned, but underneath the aesthetic of death metal lies something that is not too different from what the corporate rock that Metallica and Nirvana were shipping out at this time were expressing.

Some of these abominations might be in your album collection as well because, as they saw the horde forming, many established bands began imitating the imitators in a pathetic attempt to draw a new audience and get rich enough to quit their coffee shop jobs. Borrowing the rhythm guitar techniques from Bolt Thrower and Celtic Frost is no challenge, and bands like Gorefest and Obituary realized they too could make it big if they dressed up what the major labels were shipping out at this time. Thus, began the dumbing down of underground metal. Gorefest masked their rock bounce as death metal and Obituary thought reinforcing a Biohazard album with memes on rotting would lead them to success. It worked.

The hipsters of olde saw that it appeared different, but sounded similar enough to their radio fodder that they can add something derived from a morbid subculture into their “unique” fashion derived personality without threatening their social sphere. Eventually acts like Fear Factory would capitalize on this, finding much success by combining the sounds of Earache records popular Napalm Death and Godflesh into verse-chorus heavy-soft proto nu-metal. They were not using this music as a platform for artistry, but for label attention that they would use to springboard themselves into a radio rock career. They would fool their ‘death metal fans’ who were never able to discover the styles true potential into “maturing” with the artist, unaware that they were being used as another sales number until the band name became a corporate brand.

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While most people blame bands like Opeth for dumbing down metal into corporate rock, others are the blame for this process that started long before Opeth noticed it and decided to profit from it. The false ones who have been allowed into the halls of the underground have been going unchecked for too long. They might have fooled you at one point. If it’s not honest thoughts turned into music, you can be guaranteed it’s a gimmicky pose or well-disguised radio fodder meant to take as much money from as many wallets as possible. It should be no surprise that around half a decade later they all drop the aesthetic and unleash something like this upon the world:

Slayer

jeff_hanneman-slayerAnd so, after a long time of thinking he was immortal, we have to say goodbye to Jeff Hanneman and hope that all the doubters are wrong and there’s some metal Valhalla where he’s drinking Heineken and exploring all those solos that he did not have the energy on earth to discover.

In the traditions from which I come, the way we handle death — which we handle badly, if at all — is to describe the meaning of the life. This enables us to get away from the person, who is either nothingness or eternity per the rules of logic, and instead look at what they fought for.

In other words, what drove them to engage with life and reach out every day, which are things most people don’t do. Most of us just “attend” to things, like jobs and families, and hope for the best. The giants among us are driven onward by some belief in something larger than themselves or than the social group at large. They are animated by ideas.

For Jeff Hanneman, the idea was both musical and a vision of what that music should represent. He peered into the dystopia of modern times with one eye in the anarchistic zone of the punks, and the other in the swords ‘n’ sorcery vision of a metalhead. When he put the two together, he came up with something that makes Blade Runner and Neuromancer seem gentle.

Having seen this, he came back.

“I have seen the darkened depths of Hell,” the chorus begins. For Hanneman, his sin was too much sight. He saw the failings of his present time, like a punk; he saw how this fit into the broader concept of history, like a metalhead. Putting the two together, he saw darkness on the horizon encroaching and assimilating all it touched.

To fight back, he created music for people such as himself, youth adrift among the ruins of a dying empire. He created music that made people not only want to accept the darkness, but to get in there and fight. Not fight back necessarily, but fight to survive. He helped us peel away social pretense and reveal our inner animals which have no pretense about predation and self-defense, unlike civilized people. Hanneman prepared us for the time after society, politeness and rule of law fail.

This was, in addition to the shredding tunes, his gift to the world: a vision of ourselves continuing when all that we previously relied on has ended. Like all visionaries, he was before his time, and like many, did not live to see his vision realized. However, for millions of us, he gave us hope.

It is also worth noting that Slayer renovated heavy metal in such a way to set its highest standard. In any age, Reign in Blood, South of Heaven and Hell Awaits will be a high point for a genre. They fought back against the tendency of metal to become more like the rock ‘n’ roll on the radio, and to lose its unique and entirely different soul. Hanneman and his team pushed forward the frontier for metal, and pushed back the assimilation by rock music.

In the wake of Hanneman’s death, we are without a king, so to speak. The elder statesman role passes to a new generation, and they must find in their souls the bravery and fury to create much as Jeff Hanneman did, a standard and a culture based in a vision that surpasses what everyone else is slopping through. We are poorer for the loss of Jeff Hanneman, but our best response is to redouble his efforts, and push ourselves forward toward a goal he would respect.