Article by David Rosales, 4th installment of a 7 part series.
When it comes to making music, people in general (including both audience and artists) tend to sum things up in “feeling”, or ways of looking at the world. That is all well, but it does not necessarily imply the way in which music is made, nor if this “feeling” of theirs reveals any worthwhile quality. What’s even more problematic is that although everybody may deduce from common sense that music operates at two primary areas, namely form and intuition, it is assumed that these are disconnected and that whatever the original feeling that produced them, the audience is free to interpret whatever they want from it, since music is completely free and completely subjective.
Be that as it may, the truth is that intention-feeling-intuition and the musical form that is produced by the artist are intertwined in a complex relationship. Most composers would describe their creation process as one in which they jump between abstract and concrete modes. The beauty of music is that there is no one-to-one relation between conscious thought and organically produced result, but there is, indeed, a causal relation that can be traced and generally pointed at with some experience and powers of observation.
We may start by defining two modes of creation, one in which the exterior, that is, the form, the sound, the pitch, etc.generates an idea, perhaps at the same level, or inciting a thought. This mode is akin to what the audience goes through when they listen to the music. The second one is one in which an idea, a thought or a general feeling moves the artist to find a chord, a sound, a texture or a structure that corresponds to what he is looking for to some degree (depending on talent, availability of resources, etc). While we can safely say that most creators will invariably switch between these two modes, the importance and weight they assign to each varies. This very way in which they think is crucial to the nature and character of the result.
This must not be confused with the methods of composition such as improvisation and strict arrangement, which are also usually used in combination by composers throughout the creation process at some level or another. Generally speaking, though, careless composers tend to improvise much more than arrange strictly, and superficial ones tend to follow an outside-to-inside stimulation predominantly, allowing the raw impressions of the music to guide it.
Those who err on the side of caution keep improvisation on a short leash and brainstorming carefully directed and observed, channeling it and augmenting it through strict composition. On a parallel line, the composer who follows an inside-to-outside thought process keeps the externalization of a consistent logic line in check so that they make sense as much as words, statements and sections in an essay do. It is no mystery both kinds of arrangements, verbal/written and musical, are called compositions.
Article by David Rosales, 3rd installment of a 7 part series
The word “artificial” denotes anything that is made by man, and which would not otherwise occur in the natural world. Likewise, anything that is “natural” is something that belongs to nature, not a conscious product of human design. Art itself is artificial, as its name suggests, and this very definition has lead modernist artists to trip catastrophically into the pitfall of abstract thought: confusing reality with its verbal definition.
The premise of modernist art is that since all art is artificial, then it should not matter how far away from natural human perception we take the art. The idea appears to be logical, at least on the surface, but it has mislead generations of artists who ending producing worthless (but “interesting”) garbage. Alas, logic is not enough to make an idea compatible with reality, and incorrect or incomplete premises and assumptions will invariably lead to flawed conclusions. The mistake here lies in ignoring the premise that while everything that is produced by humans is artificial, the consumer is only a natural organism, which only has natural means of achieving this consumption or utilization. This can be said of anything that our species makes use of: chairs are made so that our bodies are comfortable, food is prepared in all sorts of way but it must have a degree of compatibility with our body lest it be inedible, etc. Everything that an organism will consume, utilize or interact with must have a certain degree of natural compatibility with the organism in question.
This can be said about more things than the most obviously physical. The mind itself must arise from the same “physical” universe, albeit at a different level of differentiation which science only partially understands. The human mind itself has its own tendencies and limitations that are independent of nurture, and in turn the input faculties also lie within a particular range. Furthermore, not only is there a limited degree in which they are useful at all, there are degrees to which each of these is beneficial or detrimental to the healthy growth of mind and body, which are two sides of the same coin.
Now, if sensory limitations were the only obstacles, then the second line of modernist arguments would be triumphant; they argue that one needs only be repeatedly exposed to the experience of modernist art so that the ear gets used to it and accepts it. This is admittedly true, since the human body can accept all sorts of torture. It can even take pleasure in things which are unwholesome or detrimental to it when they are designed to interact with natural receptors. Modernist art goes the other way and avoids these natural receptors, thereby coming up with an altogether incompatible interface.
The mind, the subconscious, however, has its own nature (by which is meant that it is made for a very specific range of activities and consists of a very specific range of abilities: pattern recognition, narrative, etc), and brain plasticity is not infinite. We are products of this world, and as such our mind naturally reacts to certain input in a certain way. Hence, art that attempts to be unnatural is not truly appreciable or perceivable as spiritual, as traditional art would. It can only be interpreted in a cerebral manner and perceived in waves of shock.
Western classical art has traditionally been about the connection of the human being with the divine: his own higher nature as an extension of the natural order of the universe in which it becomes an individual for a single cosmological moment only to return to the whole. Modernism, then, is not a classical art. Modernist music is not classical music. It is not because it rejects natural avenues and instead argues for an ultra-natural, ultra-sensory experience that produces rationalizations.
To close this topic, we can liken this distinction between classical and modernist art to the difference between the traditional esoterism of the ancients in which multiple meanings were layered in symbols and rituals aimed at revealing actual information to the thelemic magick of Aleister Crowley, which placed value on the experience rather than the actual content. The classical is holistic and self-contained, the modernist takes needs arguments and justifications to appear to have any value at all.
Article by David Rosales, 2nd installment of a 7 part series; read the first part here
Most people with no formal training regard pop as a subset of the many kinds of music genres they can possibly listen to that are not considered “classical”. This implies a delimited genre that is easy to listen to, particularly repetitive, and with a strong emphasis on catchy choruses that form the whole of the content. It’s considered superficial even by those who profess to love it, who do so in a tongue-in-cheek manner. It’s all about the fun, they say. Classical music actually has two definitions, but the popular take on it is that it’s boring and long-winded music written and performed by some old men and nerds at school.
Modern academia unofficially defines “popular music” simply as “everything that is not what we do”. Sadly, they impress upon this broader group the same restrictions that non-academics would on their particular “pop” genre. It is obvious to anyone who explores so-called popular music beyond The Beatles or Michael Jackson that this definition is more of a belligerent and dismissive gesture than a sincere attempt at distinguishing what is a much richer well of music. In short, it is an indirect way to claim the irrelevance of anything that is not academic music.
When confronted with this reality, either through accidental exposition (such as a music teacher dealing with the musical tastes of a classroom with varied musical backgrounds) or as a result of a casual debate, it is not uncommon to see academics jump through hoops to justify an out of hand prejudice or a forced humanist humility that will accept the most vulgar and banal musics as a valid expression of the soul. In either case, real discernment is sorely missing. Also, that the musical academic establishment hilariously wants to keep calling itself “classical tradition” when they have abandoned all but the most materialistic of the original precepts is a sign of their arbitrary and lazy attitude towards music that is not spoon-fed to them (oddly, a reflection of the same attitude of most mundane popular music listeners).
When we accept that music goes beyond mere forms, beyond parts and consists not only of the instruments, or the notes, or the intentions but is truly an entity completely apart born from these elements, we tacitly acknowledge that the terms used to describe genres most also go beyond the surface and take into account holistic considerations. For this, both current uses of the terms “popular” and “classical” music are not only unsuitable, but defined unevenly. While pop music is defined in very narrow and simplistic terms, classical music is considered this vast and unrestricted attitude that is only tied together “objectively” through the most superficial and politically-motivated arguments.
Those with a serious background in academic music would readily accept that correct distinctions have to lie at a metaphysical level, even though we must necessarily judge them through concrete notes and forms. It is here that the average person becomes bewildered, at a loss since he is no longer able to make universal egalitarian statements. The key to untangling this moral conundrum is to be truly scientific about the matter and take into account the context at several different levels, in which music develops. The distinction between the broad groups distinguished through our new “classical” and “pop” (to avoid using the noun) terms take on a much more abstract though still nebulous character.
That it is abstract does not mean that it cannot be decided or that concrete music analysis cannot be applied. It simply means that strong contextualization is a must, and that the fact that art can never be objective, because the whole of the human experience is itself necessarily subjective. This in no moment means that standards should be lowered, but that standards should be understood not at a superficial level of complexity, but in the interplay between intention and realization in proper context. For this, the concepts of natural and artificial, inner and outer, as well as transcendence need be discussed and understood.
Article by David Rosales, 1st installment of a 7 part series
The terms pop and classical get thrown around pretty carelessly, with little regard as to what they actually mean as foreign meanings are imposed on them. It can be shown that most of these distinctions are quite arbitrary, even if they are meaningful indeed. What we should be asking ourselves is which of the definitions may provide a useful distinction that goes beyond the plain appearances or superficial glances at structure.
Music works at so many more levels than bare form (which is only the means and not the music itself) that the analysis typical of academia which focuses on either what I would call brute-force complexity or what they may deem “innovative” is problematic. Music history has proved that mere innovation, which more often than not is little more than momentary novelty, does not bring about long-standing results in itself. It may certainly result in long-standing popularity, but one may see that in these cases the “novelty” in question, as a concept, antecedes any natural reactions and feelings people may have to it.
A good example of this is The Rite of Spring, by Stravinsky. Its fans are usually music majors, more often than not, or amateur posers who are merely shocked by its reputation and how strange it sounds – how “different” it makes them feel. In each of the cases, the most immediate arguments for the greatness of this music will come in the form of cold musical analyses that point out its innovations in rhythm, or how “shocking” the character is. Basically, bombast and syncopated hip movements.
The same is true of metal or any other genre. Innovations and novelty come and go, the former being absorbed into the background as useful processes to express the metaphysical concerns that the particular music has, while the latter makes an impression and is left behind. As we recognize this universal rule of human-made music, or art in general, we come to understand that we cannot base definitions strictly on whether or not innovation is taking place as this also tends to be confused with novelty. Only time — and long spans at that — can truly prove the difference.
Finally, the biggest preconception we must get rid off to properly start this discussion is that the terms we mentioned before are actually defined. There is no complete consensus regarding what “popular music” strictly consists of. Furthermore, the term “classical” seems to be used as meaning both a period in Western traditional music, and what is actually modern academic activity which appropriates the former for itself as if some kind of crowning ceremony had taken place in which Beethoven bestowed power upon Wagner, who in turn anointed the likes of Schönberg. Let’s get rid of all such popular (ha!) assertions and try to arrive at useful terms.
For 20+ years, first with the Dark Legions Archive and next with the Death Metal Underground, the writers behind this site have encouraged comparison with heavy metal and two things: European Romanticism in art, music, and literature; and European classical music, which overlapped with Romanticism both in a specific time period and in themes it revisits even to this day. The similarities are abundant and apparent but offensive to those who want to believe the blues-rock spectrum was part of an authentic tradition, when in fact it was a commercial product simplifying earlier styles, and that — of course — metalheads cannot have any associations more profound than the sacred indie rock and its origins in 1960s protest music.
Now, others are taking up the call. Perfect Sound Forever, one of the oldest e-zines on the net, addresses the metal-classical linkage in an article in its current edition:
I’m here to show you that rock and roll and classical are very much relatives in an, albeit, diverse musical family. First off, the sort of person who enjoys classical music is the same sort of person who would enjoy metal or heavy rock music. Research by scientists at Heriot-Watt University has found that not only are peoples’ personalities linked to their taste in music – classical and heavy metal listeners often have very similar dispositions.
“The general public has held a stereotype of heavy metal fans being suicidally depressed and a danger to themselves and society in general,” explained Adrian North, the professor who led the study. “But they are quite delicate things. Metal fans, like classical listeners, tend to be creative, gentle people, at ease with themselves. We think the answer is that both types of music, classical and heavy metal, have something of the spiritual about them — they’re very dramatic — a lot happens. ”
Perhaps more will be known about not only the similarities between these genres, but — because every cause has an effect — what similar ideas or emotions motivated artists to make such similar music centuries apart.
Olivier Messiaen about 1940 at the console of the Cavaillé-Coll-organ St.Trinité in Paris
Famously noted for having claimed that he saw colors when listening to music, Olivier Messiaen was born very early in the 20th century (1908) and was one of the last in a bastard’s litter of composers to be caught in the crossfire between a lingering romantic spirit and modernist aesthetics. This extremely vivid perception of musical tones and his fondness for birds and their songs were, doubtless, a great influence on his methodical choice for musical language. This includes his own compiled and defined modes of limited transposition. These existed before but he was the first to compile them and examine their boundaries and relationships exhaustively.
Hanging in an interesting intersection of the concentrated meditations of Ildjarn Landscapes, Tangerine Dream’s and Klaus Schulze’s early improvisation-like soundscapes and the latter’s methodic motific constructions, Messiaen’s organworks such as Les Corps Glorieux anticipates them all and brings them together in a very personal language. Appart from that, we find passages that could be taken from the most bizarre organ fantasias dreamed of by Baroque or Romantic composers. What is special about these works is the convincing power with which he brings all this together without falling into the modern tendency of classical music to twist around and transform ideas so quickly the listener barely has time to be submerged in them.
In contrast, his music lingers in the ecstatic wonder that we might guess was induced by an appreciation of nature and its patterns as the grand work of the Judeo-Christian god as per his Roman Catholic beliefs. The exact source of it is not important, but the state of mind achieved in silent and inner introspection and outwardly-projected contemplation is transmitted in these organworks through a plethora of distinct techniques that Messiaen manipulate without incurring in an overcrowding of any particular piece. But even when a comparison between movements is done, the nature of the whole work is not disrupted, all come under an intent, even though each of these is an idea of its own. While any can lump compositions and songs in an album or title and call it a day, in Messiaen’s different organworks we find the perfect example of works as expressions of ideas in episodes. Integral works that divide individual ideas into self-contained movements.
The recordings of 1956 are said to suffer from audo-technical problems even for the recording technology of the time. A hiss is present here and there, and not all tones are captured in the pristine way that classical music audiophiles fantasize about. In addition to that, the way Olivier Messiaen himself plays his works on the organ is criticized heavily by some, arguing that he is not a real organist. This is quite a statement given that he held a post as an organist at a church for decades. The third condition that affects the recording is that the organ is said to be out of tune, with some pipes diverging slightly from how they should sound. In my personal opinion, given the nature and character of Messiaen’s music, and the fact that he wrote the pieces for that precise organ, the imperfect condition of the instrument is perfect for the performance. His talents are more than enough, as he composed and feels the music he gave birth to, filling it with expression in rubato and more as it flows through and out of him. The subpar recording and defects in hiss and what not only add to the eery atmosphere of mixed wonder and dread that probably represents the Christian fear of God. Love and admiration and extreme fear mixed together in irreconcilable battle for primacy in an endless cycle that fades into eternity.
The following is a three-part series of articles discussing this performance and contain links to horribly-tagged mp3 files of the 1956 performance of the composer’s works by himself:
“While he was instrumental in the academic exploration of his techniques (he compiled two treatises: the later one in five volumes was substantially complete when he died and was published posthumously), and was himself a master of music analysis, he considered the development and study of techniques to be a means to intellectual, aesthetic and emotional ends. Thus Messiaen maintained that a musical composition must be measured against three separate criteria: it must be interesting, beautiful to listen to, and it must touch the listener.”
The slow evolution of Western society (and in consequence of the whole world) into the post-modern paradigm arising inevitably from the purely mechanistic cosmovision of the Enlightment sciences, which in the best of cases allow for a Cartesian separation of the physical and the spiritual, pervade every corner touched by the status quo culture. This results in a relegating of anything which cannot be explained or described in purely mathematical terms to what is referred to as ‘subjective’. Anything that is experienced but cannot (yet) be explained is assumed to be subjective. There would be a certain justice to this if the phenomena that are still unaccounted for by science were squarely placed in a category under a truthful label by the establishment confessing: “We don’t know how to explain this in our terms, but that does not mean it is any less real or without possible objective basis.” What takes place is an arbitrary classification of these into morally-justified beliefs when they are in line with the status quo and into so-called subjective experiences when they are not.
The views held by society must be enforced in every discipline precisely because they are the result of dogma and not actual science (a word unfortunately hijacked by a corrupt establishment lead by weak minds elevated to positions of prestige and power by other weak minds). It follows that dogmatic belief cannot be challenged at any level since any divergence spells out potential intellectual catastrophes and conflicts that are not guaranteed to be won by the powers that be. As a result, not only does education suffer in the form of indoctrination but so do the supposed heroes of objective knowledge that the sciences are said to be comprised of turn into the priests of the temple to whatever the hive believes. It is only to be expected, then, that the humanities and the arts are the most easily and selectively suppressed, limited or made irrelevant, since the processes and phenomena studied by them are even further away from the grasp of mathematical explanations.
In the Western classical music tradition, the tenets of the Common Practice Period have been put into question for a very long time in progressively derisive waves. Very often, revolutionary thinkers that spearheaded such contrarian views had transcendent and elaborate reasons that motivated and justified their moving-beyond. But the hordes of followers understood only a portion of this, often inclined towards its most easily understood materialist explanation. In the case of Beethoven, followers of his defiance of what was expected of music were shielded from degeneration by the very fact that the then contemporary German culture was a very spiritual one, and its artists still acknowledged the magic behind music — occult properties and processes that can only be perceived but not fully explained. Contrastingly, in the age of Anton Webern, his decision based on artistic principle to move away from traditional harmony to work with a self-defined and logical set of rules that he would use without falling into an empty materialism was taken up as fashion — the next “big thing” in classical music development. This directly reflected the way Western society saw the world around it at the beginning of the 20th century: as its playground, where anything “I like” goes and the capricious human will is allowed to do whatever it wants because we are the nihilist masters of the natural world. Gone was the romantic respect of nature and its view of humans as part of it. We must ask ourselves what dissolved the old German mysticism? The simple answer is that they, too, had to change, even if slowly and reluctantly, in order to not be destroyed in a world dominated by French Enlightment and overarching Russian influences — both with primarily materialist tendencies.
Music theory is one such set of occult properties. Yet it is only occult (hidden but observable) because there is no theory developed for the relation between arranged sound frequencies and mental states, especially at increased levels of complexity. Contrary to what scientifically-ignorant artists think, this is neither impossible nor irrational, just difficult. Contrary to the beliefs of Blank Slate – indoctrinated scientists, the study of innate human nature can yield explanations as to why, as a species, certain tastes, visual and sound arrangements and textures have certain effects on the mind (itself rooted in chemical states of the brain). The reason why both groups tend to back away from such ideas is not rooted in reason, but in the fear of not being acknowledged for who they are, which for them translates into what they want, like or prefer to believe to feel validated. In other words, reality is shunned in order to give way to a truth built on the necessities of feable human egos. The ramifications are manifold and most are out of the scope of this article.
Out of the accusations levelled against Common Practice Period theory, one of the most common and often accepted is that it somehow limits the imagination of artists. Presumably, this is because its rules define a perimeter around permissible options in a finite-state machine, thereby prohibiting the random allocation of space and time to music tones selected purely out of gut feeling. And that precisely is one of the defining factors of the post-modern vision of art. At this point, it may seem like I am contradicting my previous statements regarding the possibility of harmony rules being developed and justified on the basis of human nature. If they are, then an artist following only his gut feeling should arrive to at least similar results. First, that these rules are based on human nature does not mean they are free of the constraints of their historical context, including not only cultural implications but also material possibilities for the construction of certain instruments with particular timbres. Second, the rules were developed through collective observations and philosophies over hundreds of years by many different people building on top and beside one another– in the same way that mathematics and modern science were gestated.
While older attitudes were nature-oriented, and tried to keep their understanding of human nature in line with what was then understood of the natural world, the Enlightment sees a rupture between them as a necessary effect of placing human beings over nature as overlords to do as they please with it– thereby setting them beyond judgement within it. It was an ideology-based decision, not a scientific one. As a result, there are those, especially among the post-modernist classical artists, that are not guided by a free search for musical perfection, but by contrarian and politically-charged statements that can only be described as the ultimate incarnation of a hipster’s dreamworld.
The comparison to mathematics is in dire need of further elaboration as it contains the potential to elucidate much about what musical theory is and what it is not. We may start by stating that they are both tools and means to an end. Admiring the organization and arrangement of a music passage on grounds of technique is akin to feeling a sense of wonder when shown a beautifully and clearly derived mathematical formula. But neither of them by themselves attest to the accuracy of the connection of these to reality itself. Both musical and mathematical theory are dependent on premises — they are both arguments developed from a set of assumptions which may reflect conditions and events in the real the world.
Common Practice Period theory arose from organizing tones in the spectrum of perfect consonance to most extreme dissonance as perceived by human beings. Not one human being arbitrarily writing up rules, but scores of audiences reacting to the works of many different composers through lifetimes. Each composer taking notes on the triumphs and blunders of those that came before them and adding their own ideas. It was a veritable scientific effort of occult nature. The fact that the notes were taken not from one society at one point but by the cumulative effort many through many generations also somewhat lends to the tradition a tendency towards the transcendental. Of course, this is completely dependent on a healthy balance between acknowledgement of tradition (whatever that tradition is for the artist) and a continuation of its ideals with a progressive intent.
To round off the metaphor of mathematics, we should stress that no development invalidates or properly subordinates older techniques to newer ones. This fallacy is so pervasive that it is common to hear people referring to the use of newer techniques in themselves as a sign of superior expression. This is related to the malady that is born from the cult of novelty. In truth, when it comes to mathematics, if one person solves a problem using simple algebra yet another fails using calculus, it is obvious that the simple use of a more sophisticated technique is not in itself superior. It may be true that in art and music we do not have the luxury of calling something right and wrong, but the comparison is done in parallel and not on the same plane as mathematics. This is the same as when Newton developed Calculus, he did not ditch arithmetic and algebra developed hundreds of years before he was born, but used them to build this tool that would allow him to develop theories concerning abstract models of the physical world.
Nobody is saying there is a right and wrong dichotomy in music. In fact, this is where it is necessary to part from the analogy. Music is much more comprehensive and complex than mathematics (which only has a cumulative complexity, not a multi-dimensional one). Mathematics is comparable to music theory, the tool, and not to music. Music is the resulting idea crystallized, probably through the use of music theory techniques, the same ways physics derive explanations of the universe by using different techniques from mathematics. By its occult nature, music’s domain being states of mind and evocation, what we do have in music is degrees of esoteric communication through sensory perception. It is a communication at many levels rather than only at the level of reason and goes beyond it and to our instincts and learned behaviors which as a total reflect a unique vision from a unique individual. “Personal taste” advocates need not get too excited as the variation can only be as wide as human minds allow — which scientific research shows is not as much as we like to think. Variation is wide with respect to how we see ourselves, but not that wide when we see the whole spectrum of possibilities. And as an occult discipline guessing at phenomena of the universe (and our mind in it) that we do not understand, music is more liable to wander off more than mathematics in its search for perfection.
Music as the manifestation of experience, as a gateway to purposely changing states of the mind in humans, is something that stands at odds with the idea of absolute music, for which music aesthetics themselves are the goal. This materialist vision based on the fact that current (this is a 19th century idea) scientific limitation of not yet having a mathematical model outside of aesthetics and certain organization cannot accept or encompass the higher-level processes of creation that reach for proportion, balance, direction and movement in an attempt to communicate. Ironically, it is rather this lack of tradition or significance that results in theory and rules being all there is that produces a much more limiting paradigm. The race of stretching aesthetics could only go so far and an artistic compound devoid of transcendental goals quickly gave up as they broke the boundaries of tonality, declaring music as we know it to be dead. Needless to say, this was as short-sighted as limiting literature to the number of “clever” arrangements of words — precisely the dead end of poetry without meaning, or poetry without form, all products of post-modernism. In any case, the disavowal of all meaning leads to music pursued as a sport, for the excitement that its physical acrobatics produce and not from what it communicates in and beyond its forms.
The other branch of a materialist appreciation of music surfaced more clearly in the freedom afforded by the post-modernist world to idiots to call themselves artists and plague us with moronic musical expressions supporting themes of self-pity communicated only through lyrics. Going further, many artists not only took this liberty but openly rejected any sort of tradition or knowledge as being only an obstacle for their expression. Again, ironically, their rejection of it resulted not in a revealing work transcending the ages, but an extremely simple product that even a child banging on the wall and singing with no thought or experience could produce.
This is not to say that you need theory to create good music. As was explained before, theory is only a tool based on cummulative observations over many lifetimes. We do fine geniuses and other people with an outstanding aptitude for music creation who will find ways to create solid music that is often technically rudimentary but complex in communication.
As with any mathematical techniques or grammar in language, theory augments and sharpens the natural talents of the person. But the catch here is that the artistic intent and vision of the artist is often as important as his natural aptitude towards creation. Whereas a Varg Vikernes consistently tries to find an ever-more ephemeral depuration of the essence of his music against the tides of trends in what is fashionable, a Luc Lemay gets lured in by what is chick, his talents wasted on kitsch. Granting a directed vision of music in a clear direction rather than with vague adjectives to justify fashionable aesthetics, the person with average talents can, with appropriate training and dedication, become a Franz Berwald, while the talented may reach the heights of Johannes Brahms.
The importance of following a transcendental route versus a materialist one are exemplified in two products of the 20th century. One followed the mechanistic descriptions of music to the point of absurdity and was hailed as a genius by the hipsters crowding the halls of academia. These were the many frauds of John Cage. Intellectually interesting experiments devoid of the basic dimensions of music: melody, rhythm and harmony. Contrasting the first comes a work that attempts to communicate a sense of wonder in nature without the vulgarity of dissoluting music proper for recordings of nature or other cheap tricks of post-modernism. This is the Fourth Symphony of the romantic Jean Sibelius, reviled by academic theorists and critics looking forward to the mechanistic augmentations of aesthetics and possible transformations rather than for the actual content of music. This was music for the music fan, not the ironic intellectual.
An experienced music listener who is new to black metal asked for a doorway into the genre. This raises the question of how to appreciate black metal, which like most things in life is mostly mental preparation. Without context, black metal seems like any other loud genre, and it becomes harder to distinguish the newer tryhard junk from the original.
The best way to gain context is to walk through the history of the genre from oldest to newest. This approach, common in art, literature and philosophy, allows people to see what developed from what and what the reasoning for that was and therefore, what the reasoning is behind what is here now.
The result of this query was a simple list to urge people to explore this genre further. This list originates in the history of black metal music, but also in influences that can be identified among the bands as immediately relevant. Toward the end it extends more into general conjecture based on what shows up later in highly different form among the black metal works of relevance listed above it.
I. Proto- Metal
Bathory – The Return
Slayer – Hell Awaits
Hellhammer – Apocalyptic Raids
Sodom – Persecution Mania
Sarcofago – INRI
Merciless – The Awakening
Blasphemy – Fallen Angel of Doom
Von – Satanic Blood
III. Black metal
Immortal – Diabolical Full Moon Mysticism
Mayhem – De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas
Burzum – Burzum/Aske
Emperor/Enslaved – Split
Darkthrone – Under a Funeral Moon
Beherit – Drawing Down the Moon
Varathron – His Majesty in the Swamp
Havohej – Dethrone the Son of God
Impaled Nazarene – Ugra-Karma
Samael – Worship Him
IV. Second Wave
Gorgoroth – Antichrist
Graveland – The Celtic Winter
Ancient – Svartalvheim
Sacramentum – Far Away From the Sun
Ildjarn – Forest Poetry
Summoning – Dol Guldur
Zyklon-B – Blood Must Be Shed
Gehenna – First Spell
Behemoth – From the Pagan Vastlands
V. Extended Contemporary
Demoncy – Joined in Darkness
Sammath – Godless Arrogance
Mutiilation – Remains of a Ruined, Cursed, Dead Soul
Absurd – Asgardsrei
For immediate death metal background to black metal:
At the Gates – The Red in the Sky is Ours
Carnage – Dark Recollections
Godflesh – Streetcleaner
For heavy metal background to black metal:
Mercyful Fate – Don’t Break the Oath
Venom – Possessed
Angel Witch – Angel Witch
Destruction/Tormentor – Demos
For hardcore punk background to all metal:
Discharge – Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing
Amebix – No Sanctuary
The Exploited – Death Before Dishonour
Cro-Mags – Age of Quarrel
For electronic music background to underground metal:
As author of The Heavy Metal FAQ, I have wrestled with the question of how to define metal over the years. Since it uses the same techniques as any other form of music, but used in different proportions and combinations, I have always focused on the idea that unites these uses which makes metal so obviously distinct from rock, punk and other forms of music.
To this I’d like to add another idea: metal is not literal. That is, metal tends to view the world through a symbolic or mythological lens. It does so to reflect our inward sensations about what is going on, plus a historical viewpoint which requires a more high-level view. The details don’t matter as much as the form, in metal, and we pay attention to the form and then put it in a folk-wisdom format.
Archetypal examples of this can be found in classic metal like “War Pigs” (Black Sabbath), “Hardening of the Arteries” (Slayer), “Painkiller” (Judas Priest) and “My Journey to the Stars” (Burzum). In these songs, mythological forces clash to reveal a truth of everyday life. They inform us about our time and put us into a symbolic and emotional framework with it in which we want to fight it out, fix it, struggle and win.
In contrast, most music is either sensuality-based or protest music. Sensuality-based music is exemplified by stuff like Shakira. Protest music really exploded in the 1960s, but reformed itself with punk, which took a more abstract and yet earthy view. Where the 60s bands sang about politics, punks sang about everyday life and the insanity of existence. This finally culminated in thrash, which used hints of metal’s mythology to make the personal into the universal, as in “Give My Taxes Back” (DRI), “M.A.D.” (Cryptic Slaughter), “Minds are Controlled” (COC) and “Man Unkind” (DRI).
Metal does go wrong sometimes and get literal. The worst of these are the ego-based songs, as in Pantera, or the songs about being metal and going to shows and the like, which are generally just dumb. It is not surprising that these are not favorites of the genre because they drop away from that 30,000-foot view and instead become more personal drama like the rest of our society, which explains why its institutions don’t function and its ideas are corrupt.
Interestingly, other genres are not literal either. Progressive rock was famous for songs about weird adventures in fantasy worlds that had striking parallels to our own (compare to JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis). Classical music tends toward fantastic descriptions from literature and history. These are genres of the weighty and impersonal, not the direct and immediate and personal. They have a different scope and internal language.
Jazz is the outlier. When sung, it tends toward protest and sensual lyrics. When instrumental, the sound of it suggests a combination of the two: a kind of secular (no meaning greater than the material and immediate) version of imagination, but applied to literal experience, such that it forms a kind of texture without a unifying core. It communicates the loneliness of modern isolation and a retreat into the personal complexity of the mind.
Where metal stands out among modern genres is that it still embraces this viewpoint, or at least did until the nu/mod-metal started appearing. Part of what makes such a viewpoint necessary is that metal, despite being about killer riffs, is not about the riff. It’s about many riffs stitched together to make an experience so that when the killer riff comes out, it has a meaning in context that makes it heavy. No song is heavy from just one riff. It’s heavy because when you get to that super-heavy riff, everything else has set it up to resonate.
This in part explains the audience of metal. Mythology, historical significance and topics of philosophy do not inspire the honor students, who are busy working on their careers (and the obedience-profitability nexus that these entail), or the average student, who is busy in a world of his/her own pleasures and delights. They do however appeal to the outliers, the dreamers and dissidents, who might find class boring because they find society boring and purposeless, and instead turn toward fantasy and a bigger, more abstract realism to express themselves.
Speed metal tyrant Dave Mustaine (Metallica, Megadeth) takes to the stage with the San Diego Symphony to play guitar solos in place of violin leads.
He will play along with “Summer” and “Winter” from Antonio Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons,” Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Air,” Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” and Antonín Dvořák’s “New World Symphony.” Mustaine described these pieces as shredding, fast and melodic.
In addition, the guitarist revealed some surprising background to his own music:
Mustaine also talked about Megadeth’s classical influence since its formation.
“On the very first song on our very first record, I actually played piano … Funny thing was, it was a very, very, hacked up version of Beethoven’s Fugue in D Minor and going back and listening to the actual performance of Beethoven, it’s kind of like, ‘Nice try Dave’ because it was close to it, but I mean, I was a gutter kid that grew up on the street and was playing from memory. I was surprised I could even play the piano.”