On The Underrating of Recognized Classics

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Two of the most pervasive topics in metal are the “underrating” and the “overrating” of a band or album. Given that most people are prone to confuse their emotional attachment to music with a sign of its quality, most of these claims are specious complaints that reflect the need for acknowledgement from other people as a fan more than anything else. Claims of “underratement” usually occur in regards to cult bands, and less often, to personal favorites that should be recognized by each fan as a mere guilty pleasure. Statements of “overrating”, then, comprehensibly come about when a disgruntled fan wants to bash any band that does not appeal to him, independently of the reason.

 

However, when leveled as a result of balanced, informed and insightful judgement, these observations become meaningful in that they have solid foundation and a motivation outside selfish emotional need for attention. Contrary to popular opinion, these arguments only need to be based on objective observations but need not be objective in the full sense of the word themselves. The reason for this is that the concepts of objectivity and subjectivity represent a false dichotomy inapplicable in the context of art appreciation. Appreciation rests outside any single preference, it always lies outside the emotional reaction of any one person, but is nonetheless attached to a social group’s set of principles. And principles are a human construct, not tangible, objective reality. In other words, it entails the individual perception through the lenses of convention of objectively observed qualities.

 

Art appreciation can be reduced to the appreciation of beauty. The concept of beauty has always been a complicated one, and like anything complicated, it gets reduced to the absurd by small minds that feel the need to fool themselves into believing they have everything under control. A sense of what is beautiful rests on what is considered to be good taste. The nature of both beauty and taste is neither objective nor subjective. If it were objective, beauty would be a hard, flat fact measurable by scientific instruments, and not the esoteric – perhaps mystical – sign existing completely and individually in meaning, perception and medium but also in the whole of an object, all at the same time. A divine omnia in omnibus, as it were, perceptible to the unconscious but only vaguely grasped by the conscious as an ethereal idea. The duality that implies being human,  having one eye on time and the other on eternity. On the other hand, if it were subjective, it would be completely pointless to talk about beauty or taste, as these would be demoted to euphemisms for what is simply our personal preference.

 

It is therefore, unsurprising that beauty is sometimes linked to the presence of the divine, and therefore of that which is natural, full of meaning and in balance. Again, simplified misconceptions come to distort each of these and in an increasingly individualist society that is just so for the sake of individualism itself, renders them powerless, trapped in small containers as catchwords for egotistical affectations. In other words, beauty has indeed been stripped from its cosmic framework and taste has become personal rather than communal. Both have lost any of the usefulness they had for communication of hermetic meaning.

 

This egotistical individualism is deeply entrenched in group-oriented thinking, paradoxically self-indulging as it is unoriginal and lacking in personal identity. This is to be expected since unthinking compliance to the system goes hand in hand with a deep-rooted cowardice of the mind. So, taking refuge in the rise of science, humanism and tacit nihilism, our brave new world does away with meaning as it has forgotten why man created it in the first place. Our modern society, contemptibly lacking in any courage to face reality and the pressing matters of our times, turns away from an understanding of the transcendent in favor of self-validation.

 

Art and its appreciation suffer first in this headlong plunge into the shadows. The reason for this is that art (artificial) arises entirely from man-given meaning. The greatest art has always had the power to communicate and bring forth an awareness of enduring meaning through individually-perceived universal truths of the human condition. Forsaking the use of any actual meaning in beauty, and consequently in art, music becomes a vulgar tool for individual satisfaction.

 

While quiet deference is directed towards names like Yes, King Crimson, Black Sabbath, Slayer, Bathory or Morbid Angel, my experience tells me that most fans who hold these bands in some kind of respect do not understand half of the reasons why these bands are great. The case of directly disrespected and underrated but equally excellent art like that of selected works of Burzum or early At the Gates is a different although related matter into which I will not go here. In the meantime, let’s turn our attention to canonical works of the metal underground.

 

It seems rather unfortunate that after achieving canonical status in any genre, a classic work is condemned to be defiled in two stages. The first is one in which the cause and effect relationship between being a classic and achieving canonical status is not inverted but flattened, the popular conception of the relationship between the terms being one of equality and interchangeability. Something then happens as a direct consequence of this misunderstanding along with an ignorance of the nature of classical works at several levels. In this second stage the distorted image of what being a canonical work implies is rightly questioned, resulting in an at least partial repudiation of their validity. The term classic is then also demoted into a euphemism for “what many/most people like”. Equating popularity with quality in art is a direct consequence of the loss of meaning discussed earlier.

 

This is why it is important to clarify what is originally meant by classical. It is closest to the condition of being an epitome, except that this latter term is neutral and can signify an accurate representation of the qualities of a group or classification. Classical refers to the highest degree of excellence in regards to quality, which implies distinction, perfect balance and adequacy in a work within its genre. Disquieting as the perversion of this concept is, simple and effective education coupled with the audience’s willingness to let go of their ego would be enough to remedy this situation. As with many things, it is easier said than done.

 

An additional third stage also bears mentioning which can then be appended to the steps in the process of decay in the perception of classic works. After the flattening and disavowal of the aforementioned terms has taken place in the collective mind, a confusion ensues which brings forth the nominating of undeserving artists or works into what used to be a pantheon of the gods. As I see it, there are two main ways in which this happens. The first was already mentioned, very popular works are inserted into the lists by virtue of their popularity itself. The other is the result of the backlash classic works receive from the lack of understanding towards their classic status. The original and true classics are reduced by a narrow-minded audience with a lack of depth perception to a collection of tropes to be imitated. A collateral effect of this in metal is that after a certain amount of time, since the audience cannot understand what a classic actually is, seniority is equated with relevance and quality, and then novelty is equally mistaken for innovation.

 

Without control or awareness, these things happened lightning-fast in progressive rock and metal, accounting for the extremely fast evolution of metal genres running away from the mainstream limelight and into increasingly obscure territories. Giants like King Crimson, Yes, Emerson Lake & Palmer and Genesis were then piled up with second-raters from all over the world. Nowadays it is customary to see Rush, Camel or Jethro Tull mentioned besides the first. Childish and musically wanting works belonging to the catalogues of Schuldiner’s Death and Cannibal Corpse even take precedence over the monumental early Morbid Angel. A closer and more knowledgeable and perceptive look into the qualities of their works reveals an enormous chasm in musical excellence and refinement separates them. They belong to completely different worlds.

 

Metal is encumbered by an additional hindrance: a recurrent appeal to cavemanish foolishness by the audience. This is the belief that as an essentially underground movement, metal is a blue-collar music which needs to be kept rough, dirty, mean and, well, ignorant. It is a combination of something similar to communism’s appeal to the true sense of the young masses and the testosterone posturing of a macho Homer Simpson. This idiotic claim basically consists in the stereotype that metal’s nature resides in young and unlearned spirit which yearns for adventure, rebellion and hedonism.  They do not realize that these are closer to the hippie ideals than to the true metal spirit which actually resides in a warrior’s mysticism that stares reality in the face without losing sight of the transcendent.

 

While metal needs to grow up and continue in its journey towards higher peaks, it must do so through a profound understanding of its roots and thereby a correct appreciation of its own classics and an embracing of its core and true ideals. The mainstream would have metal become a compliant rock music in disguise, an edgy but safe expression of castrated dissent. Absorbing or becoming other genres is not progress, it is only regression or distraction. This must be rejected at all costs and a unique path into the maturity of the genre must take place in a truly forward-looking but conservative manner. Metal has always made its most significant strides in those albums which on the surface seemed orthodox but which brought meaningful innovation at the level of musical thinking, information and communication. It was not the experimentalists who revel in the strange, the unexpected and the new, but the disciplined adherents to the tenets of metal who look for their own voice while keeping the spirit of Vir at the heart of the music who move metal forward.

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Idiocracy (2006)

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Some say the role of art is to show us what is in the future by amplifying what we refuse to notice about the present. Idiocracy takes on this task by showing us what happens to a egalitarian, sex-obsessed, entertainment-besotted and distraction-oriented culture over five centuries.

Set in 2505, Idiocracy follows the story of two people chosen for a crionics experiment because they are average in intelligence, physical ability and motivation. Absolutely expendable in the present time, they spend a half-millennium in cryostasis and emerge into a changed world.

Following the long tradition of hyperbolic absurdist comedy, Idiocracy portrays the world in broad brush strokes and basic colors. It does this because if it got any subtler, we would recognize America 2015 A.D. in this mess. In the future, the Dunning-Kruger effect — by which the stupid are arrogantly confident and the intelligent timorously hesitant — leads to a population of morons.

In the future world, society is ruled by entertainment of the most Beavis and Butthead variety, constant sexual and masturbatory stimulus, and the type of consumer hell that was imagined by 1980s thrash bands. People are not only brick stupid, but hopelessly vapid, living in a constant flood of distractions while their world crumbles around them. Idiocracy amplifies present problems to their maximum: pollution, corruption, incompetence and apathy have become not just commonplace, but dominant.

The film shadows past stories on this topic, notably Brave New World. In that novel, eugenics — the science of managing the intelligence of offspring — was controlled by government to produce leaders, artisans and drones. In the idiocratic world all eugenics has been abandoned and people survive through the buildup of technology which manages the world for them, having grown too stupid to do more than press buttons. As in Demolition Man, which alludes to the Huxley book, future authorities depend on maintaining the appearance of order through the absence of conflict. Citizens are threatened by insane police, bribed with sex and money, and kept distracted by Roman empire style circuses with a technological edge.

What this film does well is to show us a vision of hell. It keeps this vision on the line between what we recognize and what we can imagine, but the allusions to our present world are too close to be ignored. The future culture represents a cross between pro-wrestling, redneck culture, barrio living and urban lifestyles. Consistently the lowest common denominator is revealed in everything. The future population seems to be mostly Hispanic and white, with relatively few African-Americans but a health number of people of indeterminate mixed origins. This fits the theme of this movie, which is taking America A.D. 2005 and exaggerating it to reveal the natural end result of the path it is on.

In the intervening decade, the gap between reality and Idiocracy has narrowed to an alarming degree. What cannot be denied is that the future, like the present, is insufferable. People are fools, but if anyone smarter than they are arrives, they call him an idiot and metaphorically crucify him for their own entertainment. Arguing with them is like talking to people on the internet who cite Wikipedia and big media articles, but do not understand them, creating a kind of circular debate where the only people who understand it are in the minority and as a result are ignored. People lack awareness of anything more than their immediate needs in their immediate future, and have not only a lack of empathy but something worse than apathy, which is total obliviousness toward all consequences which cannot be immediately visualized. In Idiocracy, ignorance wins out over knowledge and intelligence every time, and the only way to get anything done is to lie to people and play to their superstitions and ignorance. It is a cynical and yet strikingly accurate view of the future.

Where this movie becomes difficult is that it is a cross between political polemic and cartoon, although it is not animated. There is no subtlety, no depth of character other than vague goodwill, and every scene exists to prove a point on the outline of an essay which might be titled Too Much of a Good Thing: How Humanity Won All Challenges and Atrophied Into Mental Retardation. The underlying pro-eugenics theme does not focus, as most of them do or movies such as Gattaca flirt with, on the production of superior beings so much as on the proliferation of average ones, and how that in turn induces average to consistently lower itself to avoid excluding anyone. The most crushing scene occurs when lead character Joe Bauers attempts to explain simple reality to a group of future-idiots, and is mocked for his trouble by those who rely on supposed “superior” knowledge.

I doubt this movie will find any fans in our established elites, for whom the idiots of this hypothetical — and it is best to put a big fat question mark next to that word — future seem like ideal constituents. Nor will it find many political supporters, since it avoids taking a side and instead points numbly and ardently at the elephant in the room. It is however most effective as a type of conditioning, in that after watching this movie the traits of people around in stand revealed in their full selfishness/narcissism, denial and manipulative distraction. For that reason, it fits within the metal worldview of seeing our society as a hugbox of denial of its own decline, and the rot coming from within and being masked by — not helped by — the rhetoric of peace, love, equality, subsidy and happiness which is the opiate of our fellow citizens as they zone out and wait to become idiots of the future.

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Demolition Man (1993)

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Cult movies must take on an attitude similar to heavy metal and horror films: as outsiders looking in at a society whose institutions and ideals are entirely corrupted by what humans wish were true, and populated by humans who refuse to see the obvious because of their socially-defined rules and ideals which deny reality. Every good horror film involves people fighting an evil or mortal threat, but first they must fight themselves and purge from within the assumptions that make them useless, then get their war faces on and conquer the enemy or perish.

In that respect, Demolition Man is more like sci-fi horror cloaked beneath an action film. The plot is simple: ballbusting cop John “Demolition Man” Spartan (Sylvester Stallone) is convicted of mass murder for an arrest gone awry and imprisoned in a cryostasis facility. Forty years later, the vile criminal Simon Phoenix — portrayed with humor and energy by the engaging Wesley Snipes — is thawed by what looks like a computer error. Phoenix emerges into a new world: under a utopian system of government, people have become equal parts politically correct and 1980s “have a nice day” posi-culture, rendering them utterly useless against any real threat. The criminal rages across the land and in helpless confusion, the neutered future denizens thaw Spartan and send him out to get the bad guy in a decision summarized as “it takes a maniac to catch a maniac.” The movie follows Spartan as he tries to both capture Phoenix and deal with the shadowy forces that threaten revolution in this future paradise that may not be as paradisic as it claims to be. Aiding him is officer Lenina Huxley (Sandra Bullock) who although she accepts her future world as perfect, also grates against its insipid pacifism and the boredom created by its regimentation of all activity into simple steps with almost no consequences.

The underlying influence on this movie is Brave New World, alluded to not only by the use of both Vladimir Lenin and Brave New World author Aldous Huxley to construct the name of the heroine, but also revealed in the type of hell into which Spartan falls: a society dedicated to avoiding conflict and maintaining safety that has eliminated all risk, adventure, masculinity and fun. Demolition Man shows us the horror of a society that we design based on our fears. This future world has no purpose except the negative purpose of avoiding bad vibes, risk and conflict. As officer Huxley discovers, this makes for not only a boring society, but a docile one which is manipulated by leaders who are not corrupt in the ordinary sense of accepting bribes, but in a moral and spiritual sense in that they wish to stamp out all defects and create a kind of varied uniformity that resembles the hipster scene in AD 2015. John Spartan, like heavy metal, represents the primal id of humanity which desires intense experience more than it wants safety like the neurotic ego. Simon Phoenix represents the lurking psychic shadow of such a civilization, motivated only to destroy because he rightfully detests the precious snowflake-world he finds himself in, and also because as someone entirely devoid of soul his only pleasures are found through dominating others. His addiction to victimization of others makes him a menace in any age, but the future world is entirely unprepared to deal with him because it has made is own emptiness a positive value. This conflict plays out throughout the film as Spartan finds himself caught between docile social engineers and anarchic revolutionaries.

Naturally with Stallone in this movie it requires high levels of carefully choreographed violence, but these are brainier — taking advantage of the anticipated “cult” audience — than those in big blockbusters like The Expendables which converge on the moronic. Bullock, known best for romantic comedy roles, performs convincingly as a character who is blithely indoctrinated in her new world order on the surface, but covertly hoping for something of significance to distinguish her days from one another. In particular, her comedic timing is exceptional. Stallone also reveals why action films favor him through his ability to deliver absurd lines which are both masochistic-masculinist and cryptically insightful. As the film progresses, these characters converge on a middle ground and understand each other, which brings out one of the themes of the movie: while designing utopia is a terrible idea, the anarchic void also threatens, and people are desperate for a middle zone where they are both not living in fear of random violence and also not managed like slaughterhouse animals.

Demolition Man deserves every bit of its cult movie credential. Some of these scenes are painful to watch because of the high ingenue factor of people in the future, but like other movies in this vein such as Idiocracy, the pain is necessary to reveal the full absurdity of the type of goal that our politicians, entertainers and corporate overlords routinely announce as desirable. Although this movie is hammy, it is not ham-handed in that a viewer can appreciate it as a simple story without worrying about its implications, but that layer of interpretation lurks beneath the surface and brings out an emotional depth that action films normally do not have. In this satirical treatment the crisis of humanity’s attempt to manage itself becomes painfully clear, and while these characters represent broad positions in that battle, these roles occur within the spectrum of this question and allow the allegory to work without being reduced to the level of pure personal drama. Movies such as this make us fear our wishful thinking and realize that perhaps our best intentions — with which the road to hell is paved as folklore informs us — will create a prison for our souls that only raw animal violence and blind will to crush what is empty can resolve.

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