Flowing black metal band Graveland will play its first live dates ever in August of this year. Composer, guitarist and vocalist Robert Fudali announced his intent to play live on Facebook with the tantalizing detail that most of the set will be older songs with several new ones thrown in the mix, “more or less.”
To longtime underground metal aficionados, this represents a sort of holy grail as like many early black metal acts, Graveland never played live. Formed of a hybrid between grinding Oi and melodic black metal, Graveland distinguished itself early on for its landscape-like melodies and ambient atmosphere, but has since developed its sound to be more like movie soundtracks with layers of instrumentation and composition inspired by ancient traditions in European music, as well as epic soundtracks such as those from the Conan movies by Vangelis. To hear the full evolution in a single show would be of great interest to most black metal fans.
I was listening to Antaeus’ Cut Your Flesh and Worship Satan the other day and found myself thinking “This is pretty awesome metal coming from France!”. After all, France is not a very metal country, so the surprise is not, itself, surprising. At best, that country has produced a few flukes like giants Massacra and obscure Mutiilation, a product of Les Légions Noires’ elite circle. It is my contention that true metal art loci arise in such elite circles in very particular conditions and in reaction (metal is, to a certain point, what detractors of realism in a deluded society call “contrarian”) to different but at some level similar kinds of environments in which strong and perceptive minds fight an intellectual battle against a modern, peaceful yet poisonous complacency. Therefore, we may also clarify that metal proper is not a protest music. Protest belongs to a class warfare, while metal abstracts itself from both the futility of human rejection of reality and the petty strife caused by ignorance and incomprehension of our relative place in an uncaring universe. Not an evil universe as some fairy tales say, but an indifferent universe that could only care about humans as much as we care about a microbe that dies on the surface of our skin without ever even registering in our conscience in any way.
What does it take to be infused with the primordial essence of metal? Individual paths to a certain illumination over which we do not have total control? Metal is, after all, not made of the same matter as intellectually and experimentally-driven traditions such as classical music. We may learn certain methodologies that will better focus inspiration and drive, but the metal way is the way of the mystic, the way of spiritual transcendence. As with any opposition to esoteric affairs, there will be outcries against the allusions to an ultra-physical dimension in the wording, perhaps pointing out that metal has traditionally been strictly realist to the point of nihilism. But for those who understand what it means, mystic references will carry the point home without there being any suspicion of a contradiction. The mystic way is the use of images as passageways to vantage points that are unreachable through common language and from which we can see behind the frontispiece of human constructions.
Simple statistical scans of data from bands in different countries and at different times that it is also not a the healthy “scene” that brings about excellence. Scenes bring about scenesters and poseurs, not better music. For the better part of this last week, I had been on a mission to try and discover lost gems from among Central American bands (that means Guatemala down to Panama, for the geographically impaired). The task is not so easy, but I thought I might cover a lot of ground by first heading to Metal Archives (a very useful resource worked tirelessly by the plebeian masses of metal underlings that think any third-rate metal band around the corner is worth documenting) and looking at the entries of lists by country. Although the number of entries per country varied wildly in relation to their sizes (from 30+ in Nicaragua to almost 200 in Costa Rica), after scanning the lists and listening to songs from each of the bands in the lists, one finds out that only a similar number of bands from each country would pass the high-level standards of metal we espouse here. That our “judgement” is suitable or not is not the point and is irrelevant to this point. The point is that a comparatively huge scene like Costa Rica’s did not yield more quality music in terms of composition than the meager offerings of Nicaragua or Honduras. Costa Rica’s larger scene, in great part fomented by a larger population and improved economic conditions, boasts of many albums with European-level metal production, abundant professional musicianship and and more gifted performers. All that is for nothing, at the end of the day.
This is also true for classical music, but it will not be discussed here for it requires a little more research about its particular condition to assert anything further. Metal flourishes not from fully-formed scenes, but rather from individuals in intellectually-challenging or adverse landscapes that choose not to fight social convention or status quo as such from within, but seek to escape it altogether after recognizing how nonsensical it is to submit to human imagination is if it were reality. Our minds are innately equipped with the machinery to see things in terms of illusions, essences and constructions. In the end, it is unavoidable. But it is in the individual to decide whether the illusion will dominate him or he will use it as a tool to carve his path through the uncertainty of chaos. Scenes, as human social circles that promote tolerance for the mediocre, are completely unfit to give birth or nurture creators — only perhaps shadows of them that bring more of the same or complete nonsense that does not amount to music.
Does this mean that we should stop trying to make metal as individual artists if we do not consider ourselves to be chosen? Not at all. Those we could consider somehow chosen (the patriarch Iommi, Hanneman, Quorthon, Warrior, Vikernes — frankly, I do not think death metal produced any such luminaries) were not self-referential assholes who believed themselves to be some sort of Messiah. Rather, they worked single-mindedly at their craft. While they were immersed in that and that goal remained the sole focus of their efforts, their music grew and expanded, building ever higher towers whose tops penetrated and seared the stratosphere in spite of scorching winds and burning ice. Experimentalists, retro-acts and self-professed proggers with no direction, on the other hand, kept running around in circles chasing their tails in a puddle of filth. Besting the destructive cyclones of hail that make short work of feeble-minded, the true leaders crossed boundaries and opened doors that were locked. But these accomplishments are built on two equally important pillars. The first is the struggle in the midst of intellectual adversity. The second is tradition.
Much like Darkthrone’s Under a Funeral Moon preceding Transilvanian Hunger or Immolation’s Herein After before Failures for Gods and Close to a World Below, Burzum’s Det Som Engang Var(roughly translatable as “What Once Was”) before Hvis Lyset Tar Oss(“If the Light Takes Us) puts on display all of Varg Vikernes’ faculties as a composer in a way that is still relatively easy for a listener to make out the different things he is doing, unlike the next album where a convergence and purification that only a minority are able to grasp in all its excellence and magnificence. As Brett Stevens commented not so long ago in reference to Immolation’s Close to a World Below, some bands make the same album again and again until they are able to solidify their vision in a magnum opus.
Many metalheads who respect this album may do so out of a respect for how influential it is, without truly understanding that even if this album came out today, after all the others they are said to have influenced, it would still be as impressive and worthy of high praise — but perhaps it would not be noticed by the same people who today profess to appreciate it. Contrary to common belief, its worth is musical, not historical only. This is not very different from people who “enjoy” Black Sabbath or Celtic Frost, but fail to see the monument that works like Master of Reality and To Mega Therion are. In great part this error lies in associating or equating technical prowess on the instrument and an apparent “complexity” of notes with a complexity of thought and excellence in composition. These albums display an astounding clarity resulting from the exquisitely fused elements of music (harmony, melody, rhythm…) in a way that may strike the unaware as “simple”. Confusing intelligibility with limitation/blandness/simplicity is the greatest sin one can commit against masterworks of music, because the greatest works all share this as a common trait.. While this is even more true of Hvis Lyset Tar Oss, it bears bringing into question the undue musical disrespect of which Burzum in general is the victim.
The album contains tracks that make use of abrasive and extremely dissonant intervals, very consonant and relaxed harmonizations of melodies, synths as support and synths as the main instrument in ambient tracks all together and mixed in different ways and given the spotlight in different tracks. It is, perhaps, this up-front “complexity” of having so many distinct colors that at least attracts the attention of and mention by even those who do not understand black metal. The composition itself is technically nuanced but like any proper work of art, comes off as intelligible to the point of being confused with “simplicity” in its negative connotation. The complexity of the works like Burzum lies in the seamless unfolding of a story, a masterfully woven tapestry blending all sorts of disparaged puzzles and meanings within its frames not unlike Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. The importance of discussing Det Som Engang Var is that it is here that his thinking is most easily and obviously seen. Without understanding this album, monumental works like Hvis Lyset Tar Oss and Burzum’s stepping-into ambient(or as he described it, Anti-Black Metal) territory, Filosofem, can never be truly appreciated.
Regarding its little-mentioned lyrical topics that are actually worth mentioning in any integral metal work, they consist on a mixture of melancholy and longing for a grand and fantastic past that exists more in the mind of a romantic than in historical reality (but which makes the values and traditions it longs for no less meaningful or real), and an existentialist questioning of the self’s position in a world of men that makes little sense and which launches the brave man in search of truth behind, or rather past, human constructions. In addition to that, the tendency towards nature worship and an attraction towards the forest as the archetypal home of homes, a safeguard from the evil of men and their perversions motivated by greed and thirst for power, is ever present in Varg Vikernes’ language and allusions. These have also been the target of cynical contempt by the petty minds of postmodernists who are unable to make a connection with nature and are rather too fond of themselves as creatures of a decadent society, leading them to denounce anyone pointing at obvious truths about its breaking-apart.
Restoring the pride and respect that Det Som EngangVar has never had in truth, just as Burzum hearkens to a grand past that has never existed here on Earth but that through an evocation of opposites rather points to an idealist future, so we attempt here to find a direction for future metal to grow in undreamed of ways that do not diverge from the essence of metal and that stand on the firm example of the greats that did exist but have never been duly studied.
Occult-themed black metal that emphasizes its theme/ideology as its guiding light (as opposed to nu-black metal projects who can hardly be said to actually incorporate the ceremonial aspect into their music in any way besides their post-metal meanderings attempts at creating “atmosphere”) often fail for a variety of reasons. More often than not it is because they lose sight of what music is, and thinking only about their meta-presentation and try to justify poorly constructed music with the excuse that the goal lies outside music. In truth, good music is the goal itself, as a medium and experience. Rather than a gateway, it is the vehicle.
Necromantic Worship incorporates a very simple and almost rock-like repetitive black metal played with guitars that are barely set to override (not even truly distorted) and mix this with ambient-like passages that include the use of piano and synths, prayer exclamations and tremolo melodies. The best aspect of this three-song release is the latter. The simple and rock-like sections barely hold up musically, repeating for too-long with the only purpose of supporting the vocal track, itself only the medium for words. The verses that contain rapid-changing tremolo-picked melodies and soft blast beats are the only sections containing “singing” voice that can be rescued.
The sections that musically embrace the occult right and mix ambient and black metal are worthwhile and should be focused on by this artist in the future as his method has huge potential in its progressive bent. An alternative suggestion would be to learn motif-form variations in the black metal style from Varg Vikernes’ work with early Burzum. This, combined with a guitar tone that actually fills in the frequency spectrum of the audio would improve the overall experience.
Colorful and dynamic, Adversarial’s brand of nu-black metal has many compelling moments and even long stretches of song, but overall falls prey to a combination of high-level meandering in search of an “atmosphere” while loose reign is given to the drums to fill in gaps with flare without any substantiation. In their defense, most of the instruments seem to work in a very directed manner, a direct result of the simplicity of the music, although this integration and interplay is not as clearly done or focused on a full musical-conceptual balance like Kaeck’s Stormkult.
Ultimately, the most compelling aspect of Death, Endless Nothing and the Black Knife of Nihilism is its delicious production. Everything is both pristine in the dirty and powerful way that violent death and black metal are mandated to be heard. Unfortunately, when one pays close attention to the development of whole songs, it is easy to notice that the songwriting does not rise above the level of, say, Peruan black metal band Goat Semen. In fact, given that Adversarial are more prone to that modern atmospheric meandering that is vaguely reminiscent of post-modern chord-hanging, I would rather listen to the forward moving and still related riff progressions of Goat Semen, although these also, in the end, do not amount to a clear picture of anything except the violence they produce outright.
While these will delight metal listeners that lie on the heavy and consistent pleasure-seeking spectrum, those in search of a balanced unification of images and respectable music construction will find nothing here.
Beginning with an interesting melodic progression, picked on an acoustic guitar and accompanied by background noises of synthesized chords and muffled mechanical noises, the title track and introduction to Le Triomphe du Charnier suggests a world of underlying mystery and danger. After a noisy segue into the second track, we find that, not surprisingly, the music of Funeste is hardly acoustic guitar-oriented. Dual-guitar distorted riffs are constructed like a highway for heavy traffic, as one guitar militantly plugs away at a rhythm and sticks to one chord while the second guitar plays a melody that races along the foundation of the first guitar, taking twists and turns in cycles before switching to a new course once the harmonic tension is exhausted and the low-register rhythm guitar changes chords and opens up new paths for the flightier second guitar to navigate. This “lead guitar over rhythm guitar” approach is hardly a novel one for metal or rock music but Funeste pulls it off elegantly and with a very natural (rather than formulaic and unimaginative) feel, as the best of the classic black metal acts (Emperor and Immortal come to mind) have done. Vocals appear at the proper moment, reverb-laden and rather indistinct phonetically-speaking, but serving a purpose (through the stretched-out screams that decay slowly) as each vocal line connects riffs either from beginning-to-end or through transitions, from end-to-beginning.
During the second track which is the first fully proper song, Funeste displays an adroit sense of how to piece together their songs smoothly without relying on any uniform structure. The first really outstanding riff involves a downward chromatic drop that loops a handful of times before giving in to a less-disorienting melodic progression. After the lyrics have been vocalized, the progression then reiterates the downward drop once more before charging into the “outro”, the riffs that lead the song to its conclusion. This method of structuring a song is also traditional of great black metal; play a riff (A) that leads into a harmonically related riff (B), eventually looping back to the original riff (A) before boldly rushing into a new melodic territory altogether with a new riff (C).
Funeste still make a handful of strange choices that may be chalked up to oversight on their part due to inexperience, or the choices may be conscious and intended to disorient the listener. Either way, there are some awkward transitions like a “bridge” near the end of the third track, Le Passager Invisible, which is made of strange background noises and a slowly plucked guitar melody with minimal percussive intervention. The band meanders lethargically through this segment for a while before abruptly breaking into a high-speed tremolo-picked riff that closes out the song. This is likely to disorient the listener since smooth transitions have been the norm up to this point, and something like a steady increase in tension would be expected as the band moved from a slow, clean-sounding section to a high-speed aggressive-sounding section. Instead, we as listeners are lead delicately along a cliff edge, allowed to take cautious glances over the side and, then, before getting a chance to really let the danger of our predicament sink in, booted clean off the ledge and dropped into freefall. While the effect is intense, it is not congruous with the smoothly-flowing nature of the rest of the song and serves as a “magic breaker” that snaps us out of our imagination and reminds us that we are only listening to a song, not experiencing a journey.
Further, there is a tendency for the musicians (in particular, the drummer) to suffocate the gripping melodies of the guitars with redundant ornamentation. The drums were apparently played by someone with a love of hip-hop-style grooves and amphetamines. While there is nothing inherently wrong with enhancing your drumming skills with amphetamines, this guy’s style often detracts from rather than enhances the melodies because he overplays the two drums that have the sharpest percussive attack – the snare and kick drum – in flailing, jolting beats that sometimes resemble overlong fills that draw most of the listener’s attention and end up leading nowhere. This is an unforgivable sin as it achieves the opposite effect of emphasizing the most important part of the music – the melody – by obfuscating the note changes. Imagine reading an engaging story, written with carefully-chosen words, but sprinkled randomly with periods, semicolons, parentheses, and ellipses. That is akin to the experience of listening to well-written music with intrusive drums. Still annoying but to a lesser degree, a guitar will sometimes break into a nonsensical stream of artificial harmonics or other obnoxious noise, but these fits are few and far between and don’t detract so much from melody as just add some uncalled-for ornamentation.
Beyond musicianship alone, Funeste have added too many background “found sounds” or just strange digitally-manipulated noises that add nothing to the “atmosphere”, which I assume was the reasoning behind adding these extra layers. There are two reasons why this is bad:
1. The riffs that are more harmonically sparse lose their dynamic capacity from being drenched in washes of amelodic background noise, and begin to sound even denser than the full-on blasting sections.
2. It makes the band seem underconfident in their ability to let the melody carry itself and express emotion, mood, thought, sense, experience, which the melody is perfectly capable of doing if just given some breathing room.
Much of the time, new bands (particularly those trying to play black metal) try to get away with being so simplistic that they sound like a really stoned punk band that can’t count how many measures they’ve been through and end up making ten-minute songs out of the same two chord progressions. Others focus so much on “technicality” that they end up playing something like etudes for guitar wankers. Funeste is special for committing neither sin; they have given us some good melody-focused work here that will benefit from having the extraneous elements removed.
Funeste play black metal with a tendency to emphasize atmosphere through the creation of spaces, voids within the music in a treatment of the style that is very modern. In Le Triomphe du Charnier
one is able to identify great potential, as some of the elements in the music are very well-written, solid and balanced musically, consistent while not forgetting to create the movement necessary to give life. On the other hand, there are also more regrettable decisions here that can lead a fan of the old school to cringe. What the reader needs to understand is that those who understand the old school have this sort of reactions to many methods of the “new school” because the latter tends to lack a center, favoring whims that border on an experimentalism that is little more than ignorance of composition in its complete sense (and not just attending to its most basic and superficial necessities like playing in a key or using a particular mode).
On Le Triomphe du Charnier, Funeste often use arrangements in which three guitars playing distinct parts may be recognized. Sometimes there are only two or even as little as one guitar present. The transitions between these are reasonably smooth although sometimes tend to verge towards the modern tendency of lazy contrast excused as surprise. When the guitars are treated like melody lines, sometimes collaborating, sometimes providing accompaniment and counter-melody, sometimes just forming a mega-riff, Funeste show us the amazing arrangements that can be applied to metal guitar styles without having to sound superficially “neo-classic” or to resort to jazz-mongering.
There is a particular element on this album that stands out as the rotten apple in the barrel: the drumming. While in the three-part guitar sections a guitar may sometimes engage in some indulging and completely unjustified (musically unjustified, that is, not connected to the rest of the music very clearly, but just floating as an extra appendage) decoration takes place, the drumming patterns seem disconnected from the music most of the time. It is not enough that the drums play in the correct tempo and time signature, but this instrument also has to blend in with the rest of the music in a way that subordinates it to the whole and not as a self-important and self-agrandizing member. I am sorry if the traditional metal’s balance consisting on having the drums play a supporting role hurts the ego of drummers but mindful and reserved composition should come before anything else.
Neo-metalists of recent times take this to be a kind of close-minded imposition on their creativity and will try to release drumming from its subservient role and let it run around unchecked, affirming its presence and new-found freedom as a child who’s been chastized for the least of things throughout his life and grows up to suddenly find himself free of limitations and now runs amok performing actions of painfully self-referential significance. So it is that we find the drumming in this album attempting to take over dominance, fighting it out with the rest of the music, and accounting for the unnecessarily busy feeling of the music that is taken by neo-metallers as “creative complexity”. In truth, this is no more than lazy self-indulgence, this so-called complexity being no more than an increased quantity of notes. The drums should work from within the nature of the movement of melody and harmony to enhance the whole, adding to it not as something else occurring besides the rest of the instruments but as an indispensable breathing apparatus.
Here the main thing was to understand the combination and opposition of the three great factors in music- rhythm, melody and harmony; to understand, for example, that the cadence that is harmonically and melodically perfect will have a weaker effect if it does not occur simultaneously with the rhythmic cadence
— Johannes Brahms
Commending Funeste on its overall music-organization and especially on its very promising and mostly controlled guitar arrangements is in order. The band’s drummer is more than obviously technically gifted and definitely has talent but he or she must make decision here and now: will you write music as a “musician” looking for technical performance perfection or as a “creator” — a composer trying to give birth to an artistic expression? As a black metal drummer trying to achieve balance, it is recommended that one should first study the work of Fenriz in the albums released with Darkthrone around Transilvanian Hunger, trying to understand how and why he plays what he plays. After that a hard and long look at Adrian Erlandsson’s work in At the Gates’ The Red in the Sky is Ours will prove to be an invaluable lesson of drumming giving life to music in creative, varied yet reserved manner as well. Even though to simple minds it might seem that he is just being limited, others might understand his intention towards affording music with the necessary percussion while retaining proportion and a semblance that does not diverge too greatly from the intended concept.
Humanity follows this pattern: someone breaks away from doing the same stuff everyone else is doing, does something different and it resonates with smart people, so everyone else starts doing it but they use it as a new flavor for doing the same stuff everyone else is doing. They think this will let them be both new and familiar at the same time, and it attracts an audience who thinks like them, and then the different thing is destroyed.
Heavy metal goes through these bubbles every decade. Black Sabbath set the scene with proto-metal in 1970, but by 1976 most bands had hybridized that with heavy rock like Cream, Led Zeppelin, the Kinks, Deep Purple and and The Who. The result was “heavy metal” the sub-genre of the larger metal genre, and it quickly got so bad that the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) rebelled against it with do-it-yourself (DIY) albums that hit hard but never quite got to the long phrasal riffs that Black Sabbath had innovated, in part in emulation of horror movie soundtracks. In the early 1980s, speed metal, thrash and proto-underground metal emerged to counter the calcified edifice of heavy metal which was currently dominated by glam metal, a Californian crossover between European heavy metal, surf rock and American album-oriented-rock (AOR). By the late 1980s, that bubble too had burst as speed metal bands very publicly sold out, and death metal and later black metal formalized themselves in response. But by 1994, both had spent their momentum and languished in inertia. What came in their place was a rapid succession of bad imitators, war metal, indie-metal, metalcore and finally a breath of fresh air with revitalized speed metal and classic heavy metal merged into power metal.
That was 21 years ago.
Currently, the metal scene languishes. The nu-underground fascinates itself with FMP/NWN bands that resemble three-chord punk translated to metal aesthetics, while the mainstream extreme metal scene uses late hardcore songs with metal riffs in random order. No “greats” have emerged, but there are plenty of favorites, and if you read most review sites, you will see praise heaped on the release of the week without any concern for its actual staying power. However, the audience who surged in to take advantage of the new metal-rock hybrids remains large, and therefore there are profits to be made, creating a “metal bubble”: a zombie genre kept afloat by inertia, lacking any real substance, and worst of all, one that blocks any actual innovation by the sheer popularity of imitation.
Current bands are distinguished by being hipster bands. A hipster is someone who has nothing to believe in, so uses things that might be worth believing in as a way of accessorizing and making himself look interesting. Hipsters love bands that no one else listens to, ironic use of instruments or lyrics, and most of all, anything that sounds like nostalgic indie rock but with new exciting combinations of flavors. Hipsters love pirate metal, jazz-metal, post-metal and other variants of the late punk songs with metal riffs in random order that is metalcore. Witness the hipster:
Ever since the Allies bombed the Axis into submission, Western civilization has had a succession of counter-culture movements that have energetically challenged the status quo. Each successive decade of the post-war era has seen it smash social standards, riot and fight to revolutionize every aspect of music, art, government and civil society.
But after punk was plasticized and hip hop lost its impetus for social change, all of the formerly dominant streams of “counter-culture” have merged together. Now, one mutating, trans-Atlantic melting pot of styles, tastes and behavior has come to define the generally indefinable idea of the “Hipster.”
An artificial appropriation of different styles from different eras, the hipster represents the end of Western civilization – a culture lost in the superficiality of its past and unable to create any new meaning. Not only is it unsustainable, it is suicidal. While previous youth movements have challenged the dysfunction and decadence of their elders, today we have the “hipster” – a youth subculture that mirrors the doomed shallowness of mainstream society.
Hipsters also have their own ideology, called “social justice,” which is their way of one-upping you by being better than you on a level that joins morality and politics. It is like the neighbors who, on hearing you went on vacation, inform you that instead of going on vacation they went to some impoverished country to help the poor. It is the people in the office who make a show of giving lavish gifts to charity. It is politicians kissing babies and making speeches on the site of tragedies. In short, hipster is everything wrong with humanity, and its ideology is not even an ideology; like all things hipster, it is a pose designed to convey that the person making it is morally superior, politically more well-informed, socially more empathetic and compassionate, and most of all just more interesting than you. That is hipsterism in a nutshell.
The point is not that their ideology would be wrong, if it were adopted out of belief, because that is beyond the topic of this article. Their ideology is fake like their bad metal bands which created and maintain the metal bubble. You may be a hipster if you only listen to metal bands with theremin because they are different, or if you collect rare kvlt underground tapes that only 42 other people have because they are obscure, or only listen to bands with “socially conscious” (a more antiquated cliché is hard to find) lyrics because they are more righteous. Most people in metal now are either hipsters or the mainstay of metal’s transient audience, which is suburban kids desperate for some way to rebel against their parents that will not get them in actual trouble, like a school shooting or hacking the local newspaper, among other alienated white kid pastimes.
In the meantime, the metal bubble is popping because of a dearth of bands of actual musical importance, which makes metal just like everything else on television an oversold nostalgia item from previous generations foisted on today’s youth because aging once-hip people in media are desperate for a tangible symbol of rebellion that is simultaneously innocuous enough to sell products for their advertisers. Metal itself has become clich&ecaute;. Think of the big name movies: when a character is introduced as rebellious, they trot out the hackneyed symbols of conformity safe rebellion like heavy metal, motorcycles, tattoos and cigarettes. These things no longer threaten any social order and are generally accepted, so they can be used to sell an image. At the same time, the audience recognizes these tropes to signal rebellion, so they are useful when you want your brand of artisanal organic free-trade rooibos tea to stand out from the rest as being “edgy” and “different.” Cliché is a language that advertisers and consumers speak to one another.
I think the music business itself sucks. It’s turned into a very corporate, materialistic… I mean, even artists are trying to conform to the record industry now. It used to be the artist was for the artist and there was a conflict of interest between the creative artist and the record company wanting to make a lot of money, and eventually they’d sort of work it out. Because then, they used to develop artists, and now it’s just like Top 40 — everybody’s trying to be Top 40. Even heavy metal bands are trying to be Top 40. So it’s not a big turn-on, like it was for me in the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s where it was exciting and there was a sense of rebellion and whatever…And even if you have a good band — you’re talented musicians and songwriters and whatnot — it’s, like, if you don’t have a Top 40 success on your first single, there you’re done. And in order to get a Top 40 success on your first single, you have to make compromises for your material for the record business itself.
And so this thing about the Internet, it’s great to get your music across quickly, it’s very simple to get your music to the world, but it’s very difficult to break through the clutter, break through all of the noise.
While he blames the internet, much as later underground metal musicians would, the question we must ask ourselves is whether the problem is breaking through the clutter or the clutter itself. When a genre is littered with many bands that sound different but offer nothing musically or artistically — a fancy word for the content of their music, what it expresses emotionally and as commentary on life — then quality will not be recognized because people are accustomed to mediocrity. They will buy what they recognize and literally pass over good bands in favor of more of the same old stuff because it is safer and their friends recognize it. Kerry King chimed in with another damning statement:
We were at a festival in South America a few years ago and we were watching a video feed of the band that was playing onstage. I was watching the screen and I just did not get why this band was popular at all. I pulled [EXODUS/SLAYER guitarist] Gary Holt aside. I pointed at the screen, and asked him, ‘Hey, Gary, would you aspire to be these guys?’ He said, ‘Not at all.’ It was because they were the most boring and lethargic guitar players I had ever seen. I would never want to be these guys. I’m looking at a lot of these bands and it looks like it’s the road crew soundchecking to me. There’s no vibe. There’s nothing that gives you aspirations to be awesome.
This sounds like the doldrums for metal. You cannot be a rebel if you are doing what is safe and what affirms the illusions by which most people live. Heavy metal has always been about smashing a single boundary, which is the line of denial that most people have about reality and from which they flee toward “socially accepted” pleasant illusions in fear of the difficult questions of reality itself, and when it fails to do that it fails to live. Its guitar heroes leave, its innovators go to other genres, and worst of all, its best up-and-coming musicians, writers, artists, producers, editors and photographers stay home or get into jazz. With that in mind, here is the latest installment the podcast from anti-censorship/anti-repression movement Metalgate, which hopes to renovate metal by smashing the denial line and popping every bubble it can:
Following up on Brett Steven’s review of Kaeck’s Stormkult, the present review starts off where he left off: the fusion of styles in Stormkult that are brought together under one unifying banner. The truth is that trying to split this album into its influences is almost pointless as it broke them down to such atomic and almost indivisible parts to build something that is completely their own. We may hear a trace of what Sammath or Kjeld sounds like almost only because we were told that members from these bands participate here. Otherwise, we would be hard pressed to find concrete influences.The previously mentioned review does a very good job at describing the album both in an evocative way, as in describing a picture and by summoning the presence of other bands as to give the reader some idea of how Kaeck goes about building their music, but in no moment does this imply that Kaeck actually sounds like any of them (except, of course, for the fact that they are all black metal).
Kaeck’s “sound” can be broken down into the layered functions that the instruments fill. First we have the drums at the bottom. These are used more like a heartbeat rather than a metronome. A typical background black metal drum pattern will keep the beat with standard beats, but here the drum patterns are reduced in such an intentional manner to something that can only be described as primitive battle drums whose sole function is to drive deep and resounding vibrations in the martial host’s body. Guitars distorted to the poing of disfugurement provide the thickness of the sound, notes and chords themselves being barely recognizable through the fuzz and chaos of frequencies bent to the whims of an unfathomable will. Riding the maelstrom of riffs comes a coarse voice which simultaneously commands us out of lethargic inaction and commends us to embrace the defying and righteous — though heretical — mission of the Angel of Light. A luminescence that, contrary to what the waylayer Paul would have us believe, is in all truth the true essence of that entity shrouded in damned robes of exhile. A garb worn as camouflage to avoid the tyrannical embrace that paralyzes thought from within in exchange for blissful mental atrophy. Echoing across the catacombs that serve as an imaginable setting for Stormkult we can hear a keyboard that outlines short melodic motifs counterpointing and delineating the whole in a loop, only changing with the tempestuous guitar and arising from within its bowels only to go back to them as a lost, desperate soul attempting to escape imminent destiny only be pulled back by a reality that admits no denial.
What we have now, is a static picture of Kaeck. But the enduring power of Stormkult resides in the living movement through temporal dimension that music is. Affirming dominance over the elements of music, bending them in an abuse characteristic of a necromancer trespassing the bounds set by divine order, we hear the violent plight of Godless Arrogance coming to fruition in the reining in of a beast of unnatural origin. The experience through which Kaeck hauls our terrified soul appears at first as an indistinguishable blur. It is only after our eyes have time to adjust in the dim light pushed into corners by an overpowering darkness that we see a pattern emerge in the frescoes on the walls splattered by blood old and new. And from the synchronized layers of sound we hear subtle transformations that a moment ago seemed to comprise only one motif in repetition. Once we latch on to the combat-inciting beats, and the voice guides us over the patterns of the riffs as the melodies produced in the keyboard and a soloing guitar move in and out of our field of view, we start to envisage this humble temple in all the dimensions conceived by its creator: the evolving motifs on the timeline as well as the entities represented in the melodies existing as reflections of the riff itself on parallel worlds.
While any music can rightfully pronounce themselves as comprising all necessary dimensions, seldom do creators actually think fully in all of them. It is usually the case that the whole is forgone to give prominence to one of the elements, no matter what is claimed. When the goal is the whole, all the parts are cared for in an obsessive manner in attention to how they affect the whole and not according to how they stand on their own which often leads to an imbalance in the relation of the parts that obstructs communication, for what is intended by the whole is either distorted or fades into the background to give way to the prominence of egos. These considerations must include the temporal relations of things, it is not just how the instruments in the present riff interact, but how they interact with different parts throughout the song. Balance, then, does not imply a static situation where everything is still as a result of equating forces pulling in different directions, rather, a stable condition is attained without which a clear direction would be very difficult to follow. And although one should also keep in mind that there is no one singular formula to approach composition, each tradition has its guidelines based on conventions without which music would only be what modern popular music wants it to be: personalized pleasure fountains.
Kaeck approach this ideal of balance in all dimensions from the particular filter of minimalist and raging black metal. In Stormkult the tempered voices of the outward chaos of late Sammath and the adventurous impulse of Kjeld are not just channeled but fused and distilled to the point where only the most basic of essentials remains. This is why although we cannot actually hear Sammath or Kjeld in the music (apart from predictable superficial observations like “the vocalist is the same” or “it’s also aggressive black metal”), their approaches to music construction — from the naturalistic violence of Sammath that defines consistent yet distinct riff-writing to the refined delicacy of movement of Kjeld provided by a melding of sections through simple yet perspicacious rhythmic and melodic devices that makes such changes almost imperceptible, Stormkult is the titan born of a god and a primordial monster.
Kaeck — a collaboration between members of Sammath, Kjeld and Noordelingen — introduces itself to black metal at a time when the genre has lost the momentum of two decades ago and replaced it with primitive but mostly uninspired, very similar music. Of that music, the clear forerunner is war metal, which takes the extremity of black metal to new heights but simultaneously reduces it to sawing high-speed chromatic riffs like later hardcore punk. Gone are the epic melodies and entrancing adaptive song structures. Through this, the techniques of black metal outlive the genre.
Combining the raw intensity of black metal, the odd vocals of pagan metal, and the melodic understructure of early 1990s black metal, Kaeck produces a high-intensity blast that resembles a more technical version of Blasphemy fused with early Immortal and Isengard. Where Zyklon-B created high-intensity black metal around simple melodies, and Dawn used constant melody over raging war-drums, or even Impaled Nazarene shaped songs from simple riffs rounding out into melodies over high-powered percussion, Kaeck keeps the melodic center to songs and uses it as a flavoring to otherwise savage riffs, but lets songs structure themselves to fit the melody. On top of this, vocalist Oovenmeester layers epic vocals that resemble those of Isengard, Storm or Mayhem “Life Eternal,” using these to produce both texture and melody to complement the raging guitars and resonant melody.
With that as the basis of its style, Kaeck varies the formula across the album, with each song being its own chapter with a different approach, but crafted admirably within the same consistent style to give the band a unified voice. Fast mid-range power chord melodies over blasting drums, in the Immortal Pure Holocaust style, give Stormkult an otherworldly feel that quickly descends into untamed rushing chaos and then emerges on the other side as a complementary melody. Keeping energy high, and using bass and guitars as a lead phrasal instrument over drums which frame them with less chaos than Immortal but a more flexible structure than most black metal bands short of Sarcófago can handle, Kaeck slashes out anthems of the abyss with a silver lining which suggests a divinity of thought in animalistic, irrational and feral assertion of the nature within. The result takes the best from war metal and fuses it with the best of classic black metal, creating the album we might have wished for when desiring Zyklon-B to be more complex or Dawn to be less drenched in melody as a technique.
Coming from a merger of the New Wave of Dutch Black Metal bands such as Kjeld, whose Skym roared up the black metal charts but features less internal variation in the style of Dawn with more varied riffing, and Sammath whose Godless Arrogance paid tribute to both Immortal and the most savage members of the black and death metal pantheon, this approach develops a consistent sound for these bands: old world melody, new world violence, and a fusion of the two that delivers both emotional and visceral satisfaction. Stormkult creates a world of its own and then soars above it like an avenging spirit crossing through the clouds before the sun, then allows its inner being to expand without indulging in any extraneous material. With this approach, and songwriting that taps into the melancholic rage and alienation coupled with a warlike desire to set the world right that defined early black metal, Kaeck stands poised to conquer much of the black metal world.