Featuring a list of bands including Deceased, Thanatos, Crypt Sermon, Dawn of Demise, Wastlander, Undergang, Blood Incantation, Magic Circle and Drug Honkey, the zine promises to be a continuation of the past concept of this hand-produced stapled and Xeroxed zine, which is focus on the music from a fan perspective without the nonsense and trappings of the music industry.
Underground metal zine Codex Obscurum gained an audience for its focus on music of an underground nature without the associated fetishism of image and product obsession that blights most zines no matter how underground. In that sense, it was a regression to the healthier times of the 1990s, when fanzines were fan-oriented instead of label-oriented, and both old and new audiences have delighted in it for five issues.
Contemplating Issue Six of this magazine shows how far it has come and how it has not lost any of the delight in the music that marks a good fanzine. Over the past several issues the focus of the magazine has shifted to interviews and reviews, and this shows in the much wider coverage that Codex Obscurum achieves with Issue Six. More bands see print in this issue and, through greater experience of interviewers, questions cover a wider range. The issue starts with an interview with War Master, whose albums regularly feature in our best-of lists around here. While this interview is short, it provides the vital news that this band is working on a second album and an EP, and talks about touring and general attitude of the band after switching vocalists. After this follows a thoughtful and probing interview with (the New) Mayhem guitarist Teloch, which contains mostly striking revelations about the black metal scene and its relationship to political correctness. For those of us more inclined to avoid newer versions of once-classic bands, this shows insight into the thought process behind the current “scene.” Further interviews with Anatomia, Lantern, Obliteration, Rottrevore, Symptom, Acid Witch, Castle Freak, Impaled Nazarene, Fister, Hecate Enthroned and Ritual Decay. The interviewers in all of these approach the subject with knowledge and tailor their questions to the subject’s personality, which brings out more of the people behind the bands.
One of the bigger changes since the last issue appears in the abundance of reviews that Issue Six has to offer. These take two forms: mid-length descriptive and personalitied reviews, and semi-dismissive Haiku form reviews that often tell more than a few pages of labored, assiduous writing. The descriptive reviews offer a practical assessment of how a metal listener might approach an album in a compact package. Witness the review of Cruxiter Cruxiter:
Cruxiter – S/T (2013 – PrismaticO Records)
Wow, what a surprise this album was. Cruxiter are not a well-known band, as this is their first full-length and they’ve only been around for a couple of years. But it sounds like they’ve been around since the ’80s. In fact, this whole album sounds like it’s from the ’80s. Cruxiter are traditional heavy metal from the wastelands of Texas and will not disappoint one bit. It’s as if early Mercyful Fate had a ménage à trois with Manilla Road and early Iron Maiden, all while listening to ’70s guitar-driven rock. The musicianship on this album is fantastic; each song is a classic metal anthem with soaring vocals and impressive guitar riffs. Miggy Ramirez’s vocals are high-pitched and remain steady throughout — he certainly pulls off the style perfectly. The highlight of the album is “The Devils of Heavy Metal” and is one of the best songs of this style I’ve heard in quite some time. The one thing that may dissuade some listeners (and it’s a shame, at that) is the production of the album. There are no crystal-clear sounds on this album, everything is produced in a way that makes sounds like it was recorded in 1984. It adds to the retro-feel of this album, and is part of what makes this album a great listen. The album is streaming on their bandcamp page, I’d highly recommend you check it out if traditional heavy metal is your thing. Keep an eye out for this band. — James Doyle
Ten pages of reviews of this type help inform the listener on the cutting edge of underground metal, skipping the numu/indie/post gibberish, and then detour into two pages of Haiku form reviews which cut to the core of each album from a listener’s standpoint. While these are more dismissive, oftentimes they utterly nail why an album is irrelevant or why we the audience should look past style and appreciate what makes it great. These offer a counterpoint to the desire for articulation that motivates the descriptive reviews, and give a quick synopsis where that is all that is needed. They are more motivational than merely reporting the facts; this style might be useful in dismissing some of the recent material that labels pump out which requires no more than a few minutes to recognize as an archetype of fail and dismiss.
As has been the trend with the last few issues of Codex Obscurum, the editors struggle to balance a gory old-school art-driven layout with a postmodern format that is easy to read in the age of computers, tablets and whatever “et cetera” will soon encompass. An abundance of great artwork appears throughout Issue Six, with more use of graphics inserted in the text stream or offset to one side. The Acid Witch, Fister and Ritual Decay interviews could fit in either a glossy pro-printed magazine or a contraband underground zine and show an optimization of this layout style. One thing that could improve is the differentiation between interviewer and interviewee, which is currently done with the industry standard of the speaker’s initials at the start of the line. An ideal layout of this format has proved elusive, with some zines bolding the comments by the interviewee, but this like most other solutions burns more page real estate. On this site, we put the interviewer’s comments in bold because that makes them easy to skip, but also requires more paragraph space which is at a premium in a zine that has to render itself to paper instead of the limitless scrolling of modern society’s replacement for daytime television, the internet. An ideal answer may conceal itself on this issue but it is the only area where this zine proved difficult to read at a glance, which is otherwise facilitated by its clean layout with clearly separated art and well-signaled interviews with band logo at the top of each.
Issue Six continues what seems to be becoming a section in Codex Obscurum, which is an unboxing and review of Dungeons & Dragons gaming sets and lines of books. While many in the metal community seek to isolate themselves from the inner nerd inherent to all metal, a more realistic assessment shows that many metalheads are in fact nerds “in the closet” who enjoy many activities which stimulate the imagination and analytical thought process simultaneously much as D&D does. This feature goes beyond the knowledge of the casual attendee at D&D games and could stand on its own in any lifestyle or technical magazine. Among the thoughtful interviews and carefully articulated reviews, the role-playing game material fits hand in glove, and adds to the feeling of this zine as well-rounded in the underground sense, covering music and lifestyle without drifting into the product fetishism that shears mainstream magazines off from the flow of what fulfills people both as metal fans and individuals. Looking forward to seeing this zine continue to grow and develop.
- Codex Obscurum Issue 6 $3 + shipping
Codex Obscurum graces these pages frequently as one of few print zines who uphold the idea of the underground: a focus on music, not popularity, and insight into the motivations and mentation of those who pursue the unholy music of death. Issue Five from this promising zine takes its power to new heights.
Over the preceding issues, Codex Obscurum refined its approach to layout, personality and content and now appears in a fully mature form. Layouts are readable and densely packed with information, interviews dig into the thoughts and emotions of those who are active in the underground, and content selection shows a strong preference for the ancient spirits of obscure music as well as an inclination to pick from current music the few bright lights who understand it in spirit as well as mechanics.
Layout for example shows great evolution. High-contrast pages of black on white or its inverse use sparse but intense images to anchor smoothly-flowing, tightly-packed text. The result proves readable for those in a computer age who wish for a professional layout in a print magazine, and allows the content to pop out at the reader without interference or confusing background. The resulting more efficient use of these pages allows the staff to cram in more interviews, notably more reviews, and features that show a concise but outspoken style.
Issue Five begins with a stream of interviews including most notably Brutal Truth, Krieg and At the Gates. These show the seasoned journalist at work, avoiding most of the standard background questions of mechanics and instead querying the musicians in detail about their compositional and stylistic choices. That approach elicits answers which deepen the connection between band and reader by escaping the surface world of rock and looking at metal as a series of choices united by a shared identity and way of looking at the world.
The At the Gates interview reveals the workings of of legendary band as the questioner probes into the branches of its career and the resulting changes in the music. Focusing also on the upcoming At the Gates album At War With Reality the interviewer knits past and future through the words of the band. A candid Brutal Truth exploration follows with bassist Dan Lilker talking about his approach to music and his history with the second-wave grindcore act, after which a cerebral Krieg interview digs into the questions that metal finds troubling. Witness this exchange:
Where do you see the place of black metal in the greater context of the development of musical styles in human culture?
I don’t see it as culturally important to humanity as a whole, only some countries it’s made a direct effect on their history and even then in the grand scheme of this shit circus it’s about as important as that one time you jerked off that one day that you don’t quite remember but you know that you did. It was engaging for those few minutes but then you finished and went on with your life. That’s how I see it in the big picture. But seeing that we’re Americans and American society places incredible emphasis on solipsism, then for the individual it’s touched it could be the greatest cultural movement of his/her life and for however long that individual is alive it’s the one thing they carry that had the greatest significance possible.
A welcome change comes in the form of the reviews which pack the ending pages of this zine. These take a longer form and look more in-depth at the music and use less rhetoric and judgment than before, which makes them more informative. In this issue, an editorial of a true metal nature follows the reviews and brings up a number of significant points for any thinking metalhead to ponder. This type of fully-developed personality shows the strength of this zine in its second year and fifth issue and promises even greater heights for its future.
- Codex Obscurum – Issue Five $3 + shipping
Codex Obscurum #5 is now available for preorder at the following location and will ship in the last week of may. Preordering helps offset the cost of printing the zine. As previously covered in these pages, Codex Obscurum presents the underground in the form it originally evolved: xeroxed pages, in depth content, and careful choice of featured bands.
Issue #5 contains:
Art by Matt Putrid
At The Gates
The Wakedead Gathering
Many of us old school death metal fans watched the rise of zine Codex Obscurum with growing interest because it, like Glorious Times and Underground Never Dies!, represents an attempt to look back at the underground and figure out what made it as powerful as it was. Part of the answer is selectivity, which is a gentle person’s form of “elitism,” meaning that one selects quality over quantity and vigorously promotes and defends the quality. This is what zines did, what radio shows did, and what labels did, back in the day, by choosing some bands over others. The vague smell of blood in the air is the shadow of long-forgotten predation and natural selection that also shaped us as humans, which means not so much “survival of the fittest” but that all who make a meaningful contribution get kicked upstairs and everyone else is forgotten.
Codex Obscurum represents the best kind of selectivity because it targets bands of note but does so broadly, thus you avoid both the “hey kids, everything’s great!” attitude of the commercial providers and the narrow perceptual slot of the kvlt vndergrovnd. This issue advertises swamp death metal band Autopsy, second-wave crust band Doom, cavernous old school death metal band Blaspherian, multifaceted heavy metal/folk band Primordial, melodic drone metal band Sacriphyx, abrasive occult death metal band Father Befouled, Icelandic modern black metal act Svartidaudi, and several more. While not everyone may like (or admit to liking…) these acts, the spread makes it clear that both broad-minded attention to music itself and a high level of standards apply here. This explains why the editors of such a zine might want to go underground and stay there, where they are not beholden to the ugly cycle of advertising revenues and thus being asked to pimp the latest platter of re-heated Carpenters tunes spray-painted with the vaguest appearance of “metal.” Indeed, Codex Obscurum is funded entirely by user purchase price, which is why for $5 or so this arrives at your door with no ads.
For the uninitiated, this zine presents the old school zine style in every detail, which is both practical and a nice atmospheric touch. The hand-numbered issues, the xeroxed pages complete with copy artifacts, occasional typos and sometimes surly answers to perfectly reasonable questions by bands who clearly have done too much press lately, all factor in to the appeal. Use of cardstock for the cover gives this issue a more permanent feel than older photocopied heap zines had, which shows a positive advance of technology. Similarly, quite a few of these interviews seem to have occurred through email, and the use of office software to lay out the zine makes it more readable. The rest is pure old school, from the writing style which is both personal and projected into the mind of an idealized metalhead, looking for that nearly indefinable quality that makes a metal band distinguish itself as a classic in the making rather than news of the week.
The primary content for Codex Obscurum is provided by its abundant interviews, which are conducted in a familiar yet inquisitive style, like the best of Joan Didion-influenced hip journalism before it forgot the word “investigative” in its title. These questions aren’t all softballs like you would expect in a mainstream magazine, but sometimes force bands to confront their own internal struggles for self-definition. To their credit, most of the bands here rise to the occasion and reveal their thinking and intentions in the actions they have taken. The Doom interview is particularly revelatory as the interviewer walks the band through the past and makes connections to consistent patterns across their career. The Autopsy interview makes for a stunning read since it is Eric Cutler giving a candid and somewhat aggressive portrayal of where the band is and how past events shaped their present outlook. The Svartidaudi interview goes in-depth into how this band is struggling to find its own voice while under onslaught from the many trends of current black metal, despite being inspired by the best of the past (which is different from being inspired by the past alone). One oddity that would be called a “quirk” in any less just-the-music-ma’am magazine is the lengthy interview with the creator of the RPG Cave Evil, which accompanies the amazing artwork from that game with a nearly existential exploration of the purpose of RPGs themselves.
You cannot defile nuns
While wearing sweatpants.
The sizeable block of reviews at the back of Codex Obscurum show where this zine is determined to keep its hand in the current music industry. Any band that is roughly connected to old school death metal and black metal, with a wide spread because of open-mindedness, qualifies for inclusion here. These reviews take a conversational outlook which seems too removed from the music at first except when you realize that it’s gonzo journalism of the first order. When writing about metal, don’t pretend you are not a metalhead; it’s a lie. Further, think of what you like and then extrapolate to what others like. It helps them shop for music. It also avoids troubling pretense and complications as reviewers try to get more “in depth” and end up producing thousand-word inspections that result in no clear conclusions. Here, the conclusions are clear — in fact, one section even puts them in Haiku form — and give roughly the kind of synopsis one would get from an experienced record store owner, label head or producer, issuing forth a rough summary of the band, its importance and its staying power and audience, in about a sentence each.
For the past several issues, Codex Obscurum has reserved its final pages for experimental content. In this case, it is facially an inspection of why a famous metal musician flaked on an interview… and beneath the waves, a deft revelation of the disintegration of the underground into warring self-interested parties while no one keeps their eye on the wheel or the road. That leaves the future of the genre up in the air, since everyone is too busy cashing in to steer, and the results are about as you might expect: all the has-beens in warmed over hardcore, emo and indie rock bands have rushed through the breach and set up shop making parasitic versions of the older material, except nowhere near as good. Codex Obscurum shows a good way to reclaim the past of the underground for the future, namely to start paying attention to the steering again and to be unafraid to be selective and to not give reasons why some bands simply suck. Just be honest. The editors and writers here have given it their best shot and it makes for not only informative and entertaining reading, but a glimpse into the old days without the smarmy fug of solicitous nostalgia for marketing purposes that normally hangs around such ventures.
The recent revival in non-ultra-niche zines for underground metal continues with the success of Codex Obscurum, an old-school style zine that takes advantage of modern technology. Our previous coverage of Codex Obscurum chronicles its development from the early days to mastery of aesthetic and content.
When the underground was new, zines were the way to find information for metalheads in a world that refused to air, play, show or print information about such a tiny and unprofitable genre. With the rise of niche marketing, glossy zines have taken over much of the underground, driving most xeroxed print zines into ultra-niches where they cover topics specific to about 500 people each. Codex Obscurum resurrects the general-purpose underground metal print zine in about 50 xeroxed pages of interviews, reviews, features and reports.
Issue #4 of Codex Obscurum is now available for pre-order at the Codex Obscurum fulfillment site. The zine costs $3 + shipping and handling and will hit the mails at the end of this month. This issue features interviews with Blaspherian, Autopsy and Primordial, a selection which reveals the breadth of coverage that Codex Obscurum delivers.
The third edition of contemporary old school print zine Codex Obscurum brings vast improvements to this already-promising zine. Under the guidance of editor Kevin Ord, Codex Obscurum has improved its readability, positioned its content for an in-depth view of the metal scene, become more consistent about its most important sections and added experimental content that expands what we think of metal zines.
The first thing a reader will notice is that readability is improved. This refers to the visual appearance of the text and how easy it is on our eyes. Since the 1980s, computer and printer technology for the average person have improved (all of this cool stuff was available then, you just couldn’t afford it). As a result, backgrounds and gradients are more likely to be used, as are complex fonts. The problem with that is that when the result is put out through a Xerox-like format, these fancy things can blur together or create contrast differences that apply torque to human optic nerves. This time around, the Codex Obscurum guys dialed back the fonts and went for more computer-y fonts on lighter backgrounds. Their best format remains the one they used for the Summoning, Disma and Nocturnal Deathstrike Records interviews, which is a white page with a border of hand-drawn art. Of course, this is the most expensive to create because it requires a human artist, but I wish the whole zine could be this way. It’s a killer look that is both like the old school and takes advantage of newer layout abilities. I also don’t mind if the whole zine is in Times New Roman and a good sans-serif font. That being said, however, readability is massively improved here and layouts mentioned above are positively gorgeous. It reminds me of the best of the 1980s zines that always seemed like little art books.
In terms of content, Codex Obscurum was never a slouch. Previous issues included high profile acts like Incantation, Skepticism, Morpheus Descends and Rozz Williams. Issue #3 has chats with Saint Vitus, Mortuary Drape, Disma and Summoning among others, raising the Codex Obscurum profile even further. The zine has also stabilized its organization so that the vital content is present and in the roughly expected proportions. There are more record reviews and a solid block of interviews framed by show reports and features. In particular, having a big block of record reviews at the end is useful for the person who picks up a zine to figure out “what’s happening” in the metal world and might have a few minutes to scan for something fun to buy at the end of a long work-week. This “feels” more solid as a zine since the relevant content keeps coming and there’s no filler, with firm boundaries between sections such that none of them seem to be second-class citizens. In addition, Codex Obscurum has added experimental content in the form of stories and reflections. While some of this was indicated in the past, such as the surreal and passionate tribute to Slayer‘s Jeff Hanneman from the second issue, here there’s a crossover more like a bleed-in from a literary zine or chapbook. The result helps the end of the zine not trail off, but offer solid content of variegated types consistently throughout.
The result of all of the above is that the third issue of Codex Obscurum shows this zine picking up where the past left off, and going further. Not only that but it does so with high quality and in a way that gives this zine its own personality and brand. I’m looking forward to seeing more from Codex Obscurum as it races forward into the future …of the past.
There’s a seismic disturbance in the metal world. As the power of the internet winds up, the flood of information has increased to the point where people are searching for ways to reduce the data overload. As a result, they’re turning back toward zines, reviews and edited sites and away from crowd-sourced data and social media.
On the forefront of this change is Codex Obscurum, a formerly small but rising zine from the eastern coast of the United States. Staffed by volunteers, run on a non-profit basis, and dedicated to old school underground metal as well as contemporary developments, Codex Obscurum has won over its share of devotees.
We were fortunate to be able to catch a few words with Editor Kevin Ord, who has taken over the helm. He gave us the lowdown on changes at the zine and its future direction, as well as (at our interviewer’s insistence) some speculation on why zines are surging forward as the rest of media swarms and retreats in confusion.
Can you tell us a little about yourself, and how you got involved in underground metal?
I’m from Worcester, Massachusetts. I have a wife and three cats and I’m a paint contractor during the day and zine publisher at night. Like most kids in the 80s I got into metal through other kids in school with bands like Slayer and Metallica. I can pretty much thank Headbangers Ball for introducing me to underground metal. It was appointment television on Saturday nights. I also remember getting a copy of Pit Magazine in the early 90s and being obsessed with hearing what all of the bands in there sounded like. I was already a huge fan of horror movies so the art grabbed me right away.
I like to be able to hold something physical. I think a lot of people do. I want something that a kid might find in a shoebox in 10 years and say “I remember this; I’m going to reread it.”
What made you want to work with underground zines? Have you been a zine reader for long?
I wanted to work on an underground zine because I was sick of just bitching about stuff on the internet. I wanted to actually create something instead of always just tearing stuff apart. I’ve bought zines randomly for at least the last 20 years. Reading the Slayer Diaries book definitely motivated me to make Codex Obscurum better.
To you, what defines an excellent zine? Were there any favorites of yours from the past that you still turn to as examples of underground metal zine greatness?
I think variety defines an excellent zine. We have 12 different writers for Codex Obscurum and I think that variety of opinions and tastes makes it something everyone can learn something new from. I find out about things from my own zine I didn’t know about just because we have so many writers from different backgrounds. I still turn to the Slayer Diaries like I said. He had the advantage of being in the right time and place. But I think it’s an excellent record of a specific time in metal. Maybe one day Codex will also be a good record of metal in 2013. Who knows?
Are there advantages to the zine format that newfangled ways like Twitter and blogs do not offer?
You can read Codex Obscurum on the toilet a lot easier. I like to be able to hold something physical. I think a lot of people do. I want something that a kid might find in a shoebox in 10 years and say “I remember this; I’m going to reread it.” Stuff like blogs just seem so disposable.
What has changed in the three issues of Codex Obscurum? Have you and your team altered your approach based on this learning?
Our original editor had a substance abuse problem that we weren’t aware was as bad as it was. So he is now in treatment and will not be returning to the zine. So Steve and I have taken over formatting and printing Codex Obscurum. We got a lot of feedback on issue #1 and #2 and changed the zine a lot based on this feedback. The top priority was making the zine a lot more legible and easier to read. I think we achieved that with issue #3. I also wanted to make the zine less random and more focused on music. We tried to pack as much music content into #3 as possible. Getting support from artists like Mark Riddick and podcasts like Hellcast has also motivated us to make the zine better.
The top priority was making the zine a lot more legible and easier to read. I think we achieved that with issue #3. I also wanted to make the zine less random and more focused on music.
What’s the best way for someone to get ahold of Issue #3 of Codex Obscurum? What about for them to support the zine in intangible ways?
If someone wants to get ahold of the zine they can go to codexobscurum.bigcartel.com. The zine is $3 + S/h. If someone wants to submit their album or demo for review the can contact me at email@example.com. If someone wants to support the zine just tell a friend. We like it to be done DIY.
As zines return to importance because the internet has overburdened us with facts and options, but depleted our share of sensible opinions about them, more people are returning to reading zines and buying CDs and vinyl as opposed to a download-happy culture that floods their lives with mediocre music and leaves them with few lasting impressions. Codex Obscurum is part of the wave re-vitalizing the metal zine community.
People thought the golden age of metal zines was over. However, now that the internet has flooded the world with low quality information, including Garage Band musical projects, there’s a new need for zines: to find the good stuff and celebrate it.
When you think about it, almost everything you’re exposed to on a daily basis is a commercial message. Whether it’s some commercial on TV selling you Viagra, someone soliciting “likes” on Facebook, renting your apartment on AirBnB or even a news broadcast, money is changing hands.
How this works is that the person creating the information makes it about a topic on the surface, but in its inner structure, it’s about the sale. Some material works from the opposite direction, and makes its inner structure about the music itself. We call that media “underground.”
Codex Obscurum’s second issue has two dimensions to it. The first is how it looks, and the second in the quality of information inside. As someone who lived through the years of four-track production and grainy xeroxed zines, the former doesn’t influence me much. It’s in the information zone that Codex Obscurum thrives.
The staff behind this magazine have clearly put a lot of effort into acquiring interesting interviews, stories and relevant record reviews. What other zine do you know would contact Burzum mastermind and known church-burning neo-Nazi Varg Vikernes, and only ask him about his new role-playing game? Or would create a Slayer tribute that’s this personal?
In addition to the human interest stories, the bread and butter of this zine is its scene reporting. An interview with Incantation shows more of the band than we’ve seen in a long time, getting into the depths of its motivations and musicality. There’s a killer Morpheus Descends interview and a wad of record reviews that are not only coherent but insightful.
No zine will be perfect in form or content. Some of what goes into this issue of Codex Obscurum struck me as irrelevant to my personal pursuits but it’s hard to argue against inclusion of longstanding local scene veteran bands, and those interviews turned out to be interesting, so it’s a quibble at best.
In form, this zine could improve. Luckily, their error is that they are trying too hard. The editors created a number of different layouts, with different fonts and background colors, to try to liven up the layout. My advice is to stop doing this, and to go back to the whitespace backgrounds of bygone days, but use space more efficiently.
Codex Obscurum could fit in more content by modifying its layouts in this way. Similarly, for record reviews, just use a table grid. You don’t need to come up with something visually arresting in every case because if you’re using the space efficiently, it will be packed with information. Typerwriter font is fine because it copies well, unlike some of the Olde English and Stencil fonts used here.
That being said however I thoroughly enjoyed this zine and its writing style. Unlike the blog-influenced writing of the mainstream media, this zine does not take a few nuggets of information and drown them in a sea of happy social noises. It cuts to the chase, and starts dishing the vital knowledge without a lot of backstory and chatter.
Best of all, this zine understands the underground. Codex Obscurum is written from the perspective that the truth is out there and most people don’t want to see it and refuse to even take hints that it exists. Thus, that which wants to keep its integrity must stay underground, and requires dedicated zines to explain it to others.