On Appreciating Music and Reverse Engineering

04 Apr 2012, Athens, Greece --- April 4, 2012 - Athens, Greece - The famous ''Antikythera Mechanism'' is the earliest preserved portable astronomical calculator.The ''Antikythera Shipwreck'' exhibition takes place at National Archaeological museum in Athens. All antiquities recovered in 1900-1901 and 1976 from the legendary shipwreck off the islet of Antikythera, South of the Peloponnese will be presented for the first time in a temporary exhibition. The recovery of the shipwreck itself was the first major underwater archaeological expedition. It was undertaken by sponge divers with the assistance of the Greek Royal navy(1900-1901). The wreck is dated aproximately in 60-50 BC. (Credit Image: © Aristidis Vafeiadakis) --- Image by © Aristidis Vafeiadakis/ZUMA Press/Corbis

Music analysis and judgement (of any of its attributes or as a whole) can be done from different vantage points and with different emphases. Generally speaking, there are a few main approaches that are common in pop and metal reviews. Some judge it by its production qualities and its popularity, that is, mainly as a marketable commercial product. Others that are inclined to “feeling” the music will base their reviews on technically uninformed emotional impressions of the music. Others with a limited but comprehensive understanding of the technical will judge music as if it were a contraption, even being able to separate emotional impressions from material achievements of music. These are broad categories but individual reviewers usually fall in grey areas in between them with stronger tendencies towards one or another.

DMU’s approach has traditionally been one of judging music as romantic-era (19th century) literary and music critics would: an attention to evocative results as a function of technical means with a holistic emphasis. What this means is that what is most important is the final and total result and not the individual merits.  Additionally, we focus on the lasting evocative power arising from a layered and technically (at the composition level) competent work that moves beyond the technicality itself while not disregarding the musical balance it provides. In music we see the construction of Gothic cathedrals and not modern skyscrapers.

A useful analogy can be made between detailed music appreciation and reverse engineering in software engineering. Some might jump at the thought of comparing the two since “music is not a computer program” but these are nonsensically reductionist complaints. Anyone who truly understands how an analogy works knows that the source of its power arises from the insurmountable distance between the two obviously disparate objects being placed beside each other. The distance and disparity only serves to bring to the fore and underscore the characteristics we are interested in, achieving greater clarity by a negation of the irrelevant. The objects are not equated, they are superimposed. More precisely the main object under analysis is transposed into the space of the second one being used as an analogy.

To understand reverse engineering we must understand the order and direction of original construction. A vague idea is conceived usually behind a foggy screen since the builders have not yet figured out the details of how they will bring this into reality. Then, a step a time and usually with deviations from the original concept, the “material” shape of the concept comes into being. At the other end, when we are presented with a piece of software to reverse engineer, that is to say, to analyze and understand in terms of its parts, what we can see is the materialized concept only. The first step is to understand what this piece of software exactly does as we do not know how it was built. We get to understand what it does by categorizing input and output relations, which direct us towards an understanding its behavior in different situations — different contexts. The result of  a successfully reverse-engineered software program is a piece of code whose compiled object behaves the same as the original one in every conceivable way possible. This code is most probably different from the original one, but this is irrelevant since the importance of this code is the understanding and reproducing of the final piece of software. Original software building moves from details and into the solidification of a vision. Reverse engineering moves from the solidified vision and into the details.

In other words, what matters most is the total end result (as in music or software engineering) and not the judging of parts for their own sake (but only in relation as to how they affect that end result). This is why it is important as an analyst to move in a backward manner. But for this to be valuable, the person must understand this holistic result first, and this is only achieved through study and knowledge. This is comparable to the analyst of software who needs to not only see the input and output relations but understand higher-level concepts and probabilistic tendencies derivable from those. In the same way the analyst of music must through his own lenses and knowledge grasp a picture of the whole in its relations between harmony, rhythm and melody derive a map of sequences of movements and balances.

Going from the general to the specific enables us to keep a holistic view in focus. It helps us place the sum of the parts over the individual parts themselves. Trying to pick out the traits first and then judging the whole by making a recapitulation of these is not only obfuscating the whole which some with a more limited understanding judge to be impossible to put in objective terms but can be deceiving of just what the true quality of this work actually is.

To illustrate this point we can observe how appreciation of many so-called progressive acts is carried out. The positive reviews of these usually entail a shopping list of traits to be filled. Tempo changes, signature changes, contrasting moods, variety of instrumentation, instrumental competence, catchy and captivating melodies perhaps, too. An album like Dream Theater’s Images and Words fits these requirements to the letter and yet the result is a messy carnival train wreck that expresses nothing in particular precisely because there is no view of the whole in mind as a musically-balanced entity, but only as a sequence of cool moments.

This phenomenon can also occur through ignorance of what music constitutes. This happens in pop and the so-called symphonic metal, which I will re-baptize with a more honest name: metal-like pop, or just metal pop. In this vein, an album like Nightwish’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful is received by its fans and judged primarily in terms of how catchy it is. How effective its hooks are and how much they will like its melodies. Arguably a more musically honest affair than the pseudo prog of Dream Theater, this reduces music to only one of its many aspects and judges the whole by its effectiveness.

Finally, I would like to mention the often mis-appreciated Obscura by Gorguts. Ignorant and pretentious journalist twats like Anthony Fantano spewing almost nonsensical and musically irrelevant descriptions such as “intense technicality”, “noisy surprises” and “dizzying structures” of Gorguts’ music in Coloured Sands represent the epitome of the post-modernist hipster’s appreciation of the band’s music. While popular arguments in favor of Obscura include how “technical” it is (while most fans barely even grasp what this actually entails, they think it has to do with how difficult it is to play or hear), how foreboding its atmosphere is while remaining “brutal” (an obviously superficial judgement of quality) or even worse, how “original” (by which they mean different) it is. They’ve basically reduced a masterpiece to “difficult to play and listen to, brutal and quite different from most stuff out there”.

The merits of Obscura are far more subtle than that, as are any real merits resulting from true excellence. The degree to which it sounds superficially different comes from a use of the riff that I would call mystical. That is to say, the riffs and their harmony here no longer represent what they traditionally do, but they remain significant in terms of the operations they build in the context of their neighboring riffs. They stop being translucent symbols that show the way into a harmonic and melodic conclusion and they become opaque, acquiring new meaning — a specific musical function dictated by their author– determined by their positions at different moments that instead causes the mind to reach that conclusion on its own through coherent indirection and dissimilitude of expression within a consistent language. In this, Obscura is the death metal counterpart to Darkthrone’s Transilvanian Hunger.

Stepping away from the dynamic picture that music is and listening for the total results and relations in the big picture enable us to know exactly what to look for as explanations for these. In a way it implies focusing on an interplay between the subjective (our impressions of the whole) and the objective (the music structures themselves) to locate music — itself an expression of beauty, to which the dichotomy of objective and subjective is inapplicable — somewhere in between.

Heavy metal as a brand

slayer_ad_2015_lineup

Most metalheads, not being of the commercially-minded type, rarely stop to think about heavy metal as a brand. Media sells a certain image with heavy metal, just like Harley-Davidson motorcycles and Jack Daniels whisky, both of which are highly successful brands. Metal forms more of a meta-brand, symbolizing rebellion and bad boy lawlessness. That image can be used to sell a lot of products, since consumers really hate the idea that they are merely being good sheep by buying whisky and transportation.

In commercials, television and movies, rebellious characters are often introduced with heavy metal in the background. Fight scenes in both football and blockbusters often get the heavy riff treatment, as do superhero epics. Bizarrely, House Hunters — a television program about people choosing which house to buy — uses AC/DC style hard rock riffing in the background to its real estate epics. Anywhere boldness, bravery, rebellion and defiance must be shown, heavy metal is the appropriate soundtrack.

Much of this can be seen through the use of well-known bands in movies. Check out how many soundtracks Slayer has contributed to, for example. The royalties from those might even outpace their album sales. At some point in the future, perhaps metal bands will put out albums and tour so that they can sell their music for commercials, television, movies, sports/MMA and house hunting. Now look at AC/DC. Metallica. Iron Maiden. Pantera. Anthrax. Compare to Morbid Angel and Darkthrone.

A hidden influence on neoambient

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The movement that some are calling “neoambient” — a fusion of dark ambient, Conan soundtracks, and neofolk — generally arose out of the metal community. The classics of the genre converge on Lord Wind (Graveland), Burzum and Black Aria (Glenn Danzig). In addition, metal bands contributed to related forms of epic ambient, like Beherit (Electric Doom Synthesis) and Neptune Towers (Darkthrone). Newer entrants like Winglord and Hammemit explore different paths along similar directions.

But how do we trace the influences and evolution of this genre? Glenn Danzig (Misfits, Samhain, Danzig) launched a partial revolution in 1992 with his Conan-inspired Black Aria. Several years later, Burzum followed this with Daudi Baldrs and Hlidskjalf, both of which used Dead Can Dance-themed ancient world music to frame the epic nature of its compositions, giving it a feel not just of Conan-styled epic conflict, but of a cultural basis.

There’s another influence lurking just a few years before Danzig — affirmed by Rob Darken as an influence on his music in Lord Wind — which was the music of Clannad as used in the BBC series Robin of Sherwood:

Darkthrone announces release of Black, Death and Beyond anthology

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Former black metal, now heavy metal band Darkthrone have announced the upcoming release of a triptych analog release via Peaceville, featuring a retrospective from each stage of the band’s career. Entitled Black, Death, and Beyond, the tracklist is as follows:

Death:

Side 1:

1. Snowfall
2. Sunrise over Locus Mortis
3. Soulside Journey
4. Neptune Towers
5. Nor the Silent Whispers

Side 2:

1. Iconoclasm Sweeps Cappadocia (NRK version)
2. Sadomasochistic Rites
3. In his Lovely Kingdom
4. Black Daimon
5. Paragon Belial

Black:

Side 1:

1. In the Shadow of the Horns
2. Inn I De Dype Skogers Favn
3. Under a Funeral Moon
4. I en Hall Med Flesk og Mjod

Side 2:

1. The Hordes of Nebulah
2. The Claws of Time
3. Fucked Up & Ready to Die
4. Hate is the Law
5. The Cult of Goliath

Beyond:

Side 1:

1. Graveyard Slut
2. Forebyggende Krig
3. These Shores are Damned
4. Pervertor of the 7 Gates
5. Wisdom of the Dead

Side 2:

1. The Winds they called the Dungeon Shaker
2. Grizzly Trade
3. Those Treasures Will Never Befall You
4. Stylized Corpse
5. The Ones You Left Behind

Additionally, the release will be accompanied by a book detailing the history of the band’s career, with input from Fenriz, Nocturno Culto, and former bassist Dag Nilsen, in addition to archival photos and commentary from associated artists and conspirators.

On choosing which tracks to be included on the release, Fenriz described his method, which he calls the “Fenrizolator”:

I never quit my day job; one of the reasons being that I can listen to music on headphones there all the time. To the extent that I rarely listen to music at home anymore, and if I do it’s like I can’t hear it PROPERLY. At work with headphones is where the details reveal themselves and also which songs I can and can’t use in compilations or dj’ing appear quite clearly.

Every time I get/buy a cassette or vinyl I have to transfer them to wav files via a computer programme, then I write a little note to accompany the final burnt disc. But the note first swings by my workplace where I can rate the various songs with a clever underlining-system called THE FENRIZOLATOR. And so passes the days.

He went on to state that following his system, Hans Siste Vinter was the band’s worst track, and The Cult is Alive received the highest score.

Precious Metal: Decibel Presents the Stories Behind 25 Extreme Metal Masterpieces, by Albert Mudrian


Precious Metal:
Decibel Presents the Stories Behind 25 Extreme Metal Masterpieces
edited by Albert Mudrian
365 pages, Da Capo Press, $14

The 25 Masterpieces
Black Sabbath – Heaven and Hell
Diamond Head – Lightning to the Nations
Celtic Frost – Morbid Tales
Slayer – Reign in Blood
Napalm Death – Scum
Repulsion – Horrified
Morbid Angel – Altars of Madness
Obituary – Cause of Death
Entombed – Left Hand Path
Paradise Lost – Gothic
Carcass – Necroticism — Descanting the Insalubrious
Cannibal Corpse – Tomb of the Mutilated
Darkthrone – Transilvanian Hunger
Kyuss – Welcome to Sky Valley
Meshuggah – Destroy Erase Improve
Monster Magnet – Dopes to Infinity
At the Gates – Slaughter of the Soul
Opeth – Orchid
Down – NOLA
Emperor – In the Nightside Eclipse
Sleep – Jerusalem
The Dillinger Escape Plan – Calculating Infinity
Botch – We Are the Romans
Converge – Jane Doe
Eyehategod – Take as Needed for Pain

 

albert_mudrian-precious_metal_decibel_presents_the_stories_behind_25_extreme_metal_masterpiecesRock journalism challenges even the bravest writer. Musicians are not known for being articulate, nor is it easy to pin them down, and lore snowballs in that vacuum. For this reason it’s great to see the series of in-depth explorations that have come about recently regarding many classic events of metal. As musicians age, given that musicians have a shorter life-span than average, this is also a race against time in many cases.

Albert Mudrian’s Precious Metal: Decibel Presents the Stories Behind 25 Extreme Metal Masterpieces presents a welcome addition to the genre of historical metal journalism. Combing through archives, the writers of each piece compiled band statements about the album and put them together in linear form, like a conversation. The result is a whole lot of information delivered in a very digestible form, with the extraneous confusion of live interviews edited right out of the picture. It’s a good starting point for anyone looking into these historical nodal points in the evolution of metal.

Mudrian seems aware how easily a book like this could become repetitive. Not just in the answers, where musicians might make roughly similar statements about touring, band formation, the troubles of collaboration and so forth, but in the similarity of bands. If for example he added another three Swedish death metal bands, it might start to get a little bit stuffy in the virtual room he’s created. Instead, he gives us space between acts and a wide variety of acts, but avoids the really awful nu-metal and tek-deth. However, the price of that spaciousness is that he includes bands like Monster Magnet and Kyuss which really aren’t metal at all.

There are some shockers in content, too. Some of these bands, despite their professions of various depraved behaviors, are insanely business-like in how they go about getting recorded and published. Sleep, Cannibal Corpse, Dillinger Escape Plan, Botch and Converge really had their act together. For a few moments, it was more like reading Forbes than Decibel, but it’s really gratifying to see this side of the business portrayed honestly. If you want your music heard, there’s a certain amount of business activity that must precede that event.

On the whole, these chapters are extremely well edited including the choice of material. They are in question-answer form, where the questions are usually prompts about historical events or general questions applied to specific moments or activities. When an incidental or minor character is cited, he or she speaks up for a few questions and then fades out. The bulk of the material favors the most articulate band members and major actors, but the writers shoehorn in as many diverse perspectives as they can. This makes reading Precious Metal: Decibel Presents the Stories Behind 25 Extreme Metal Masterpieces feel like being in a comfortable pub with these bands, on a rainy day, with a tape recorder next to the ashtray.

Each chapter corresponds to a classic album and comes with an intro paragraph. If anything, here’s where the book could benefit from some uniformity and toning down the “rock journalism” aspects. Perhaps not a just-the-facts-ma’am approach, but more of an assessment of where the band fits into history and why people like them, and leave it at that. Some of these were over the top for the actual function they serve. However, among the bombast is a lot of good information.

At that point the interview(s) compiled into a single form take over. Most of Precious Metal: Decibel Presents the Stories Behind 25 Extreme Metal Masterpieces is the bands speaking, and that is the power of Mudrian’s editing and the work of his colleagues. They’ve trimmed out the transient stuff, the window dressing and repetition, and left us with clear statements from the bands that show them in their own voices and approaching the situation at their own angle. This also helps create an epic feel to the epic interviews because it’s a compilation of the best moments of the band commenting on this album, put into one form that flows naturally.

Was the intro, “Human,” something you had conceived of before you went into the studio?
Ain: Yes, we had the idea before we went into the studio — we wanted to loop a scream and make it perpetual. We also wanted to use it as an intro for the live shows. A regular human scream would never last that long, so we wanted to loop it and make it sound like a scream from hell, like how you would scream if the pain was everlasting.
Warrior: We had talked about it, but we were basically still laymen, so we had no idea how we could put it together. So we told Horst what we wanted to do, and he proposed how to do it. But as I said, we only had six days to do everything. If one thing failed, we would’ve gone over budget or had to go home. So, in hindsight, it’s a miracle that tracks like “Human” or “Danse Macabre” came out the way we wanted them to. We couldn’t rehearse some of those parts, you know? I have no idea how we did that in just a few days, especially given our lack of experience. But therein lies one of the strengths of Celtic Frost to this day: Martin and I usually visualize certain pieces of music down to the last detail without even touching an instrument.

This excerpt reveals the power of Precious Metal: Decibel Presents the Stories Behind 25 Extreme Metal Masterpieces. In the midst of the mundane description of studio struggles, Tom Warrior articulates part of the essence of his band. Many such moments of insight, casually and offhandedly mentioned in describing some rather ordinary thing, flesh out this book and make it more than a fan’s quest but a resource for musicians and anyone else curious about the origins and process of creating extreme metal.

Not everyone will agree on certain aspects of this book and naturally any choices made along these lines are divisive. However, the book has enough to offer just about anyone who loves metal so that the purchase will not be regretted, even if there are chapters you skipped. In fact, I recommend skipping those chapters and approaching this book as a buffet. No matter what sub-genres you adore, you’re going to have at least five you’re dying to read, another five you’re very excited to read, and another five you’re curious about, and the rest will be uncertain but you might find some interesting information there, as I did.

It is impossible to find just 25 to represent metal. Some of these choices are nods to the music industry and mainstream fanbase, like Dillinger Escape Plan, or to history, like Botch, who were the vanguard of the metalcore movement. Some are near-misses like the apologetic At the Gates treatment of their best-seller, but this interview also confirms a lot that reviewers said about this album, namely that it was retro to the past generation of metal and somewhat hasty. Some others, like Converge and Eyehategod, seem marginal in that these bands spent a lot of time disclaiming metal back in the day.

On the whole however Precious Metal: Decibel Presents the Stories Behind 25 Extreme Metal Masterpieces offers a good pan-and-scan perspective of what was going on in metal at the time, and by showing us the fly-over accumulation of variety, Mudrian and Decibel show us not only what these bands were doing, but the forces against which they were struggling to define themselves. The result is a treasure hunt of a book, bristling with secrets and previously undiscovered pathways, for those who enjoy extreme heavy metal.

Nocturno Culto’s Gift of Gods to release Receive

gift_of_gods-receiveNocturno Culto, who forms one-half of the nefarious duo known as Darkthrone, has a long history of side projects. Among other contributions, he worked out the intricate riffcraft behind Satyricon’s Nemesis Divina, making it a favorite in that band’s catalog.

Now he has embarked on a new side project which is a pure traditional heavy metal band called Gift of Gods. Gift of Gods will release its debut mini-album Receive on Peaceville Records on November 5, 2013.

Commented Nocturno Culto, “Finally, the mini-album is done. Gift Of Gods has been a great ride for me. I don’t want this to end now, so I will most likely work on new material. Thanks to my partner in crime, K.A. Hubred, we got to rehearse during the last two years. What to expect? I have no idea how to describe this, but it’s metal for sure.”

Receive was performed and recorded by Culto and Hubred at Culto’s home studio, and mixed and mastered by Jack Control at Enormous Door, who recently worked with Nocturno on Darkthrone’s The Underground Resistance.

So far the only reports tell us this will be traditional heavy metal with a wide range of influences and that it will lead toward the melodic side of things. This EP/mini-album will be a half-hour of material including a cover of “Looking For an Answer” originally by obscure Swedish 80s band Universe.

  1. Intro
  2. Enlightning Strikes
  3. Receive
  4. Looking For An Answer
  5. Last Solstice
  6. Outro

Helvete, famous Oslo black metal hangout, returns

helvete_store_oslo_black_metalBack during the golden age of black metal, the shop Helvete was the focal point of the Norwegian black metal movement. Run by Mayhem guitarist Euronymous, the store was the go-to spot for the genre’s elites to spread their music and ideas.

After the first media explosion of black metal occurred, Helvete shut down in response to negative reactions from the community. Shortly after, it became famous after the events surrounding Euronymous’ death and gained mythic status amongst the newer fans to journey to and attempt to understand what had occurred there.

After languishing in other business purposes for over a decade, as of this August the location of the original store will be reclaimed for its 1990s purpose: spreading black metal. Neseblod Records has decided to relocate there and is busy setting up a museum experience to preserve the history of the genre. Featuring classic releases and rare flyers and posters, the project aims to revive interest in what inspired the original black metal musicians to create what they did.

Throughout this endeavor, the project has had the support of Darkthrone‘s Fenriz, who has directly involved himself in the moving process, guiding the presentation to be as realistic and truthful as possible, which can only help increase awareness of both the history of the genre and its future exploits.

In this case, realistic and truthful means making the past come alive once again and remembering those ideals, which are timeless, and carrying them forward into a new time. At least, that’s if they want to avoid nostalgia, which pretty much killed off the souls of Generation X before they even hit their forties. Those interested in seeing documentation of the progress can head over to the Facebook page.

Darkthrone members participate in Saga, a film about Viking biker zombies

saga-a_black_metal_viking_film_with_zombiesNocturno Culto’s next project has been announced…and it may not be what you’re expecting. The legendary musician has decided to try his hand at acting, playing the lead role in photographer Jørn Steen‘s first attempt at movie production, with a decidedly unorthodox plot:

Ted “Nocturno Culto” Skjellum team(s) up with writer, producer, director and photographer Jorn Steen to make this future cult movie about a Metalmusic videodirector, Culto, who escalades to making a feature Viking-movie based upon the northern classic Eyrbyggja Saga. Actually a zombie story, the film picks up when a dead Viking breaks out of his tomb and terrorizes the locals. Culto rides a Moto Guzzi, and he gets his Biker friends to help him as extras in this Metafilm about making a Viking-feature.”

As may be expected, the film is not going to have the support of Hollywood studios, so the crew has decided to turn to the community for help in making this underground movie. Their goal is to raise 40,000€ before shooting begins in June. Those interested can visit the site for more information.

http://vimeo.com/65259330

Album covers: Transilvanian Hunger

[AllCDCovers]_darkthrone_transilvanian_hunger_1994_retail_cd-front

With the arrival of A Blaze in the Northern Sky, Darkthrone presented a new musical evil with the help of a new visual evil. The first four of Darkthrone’s black metal albums depicted a sole band member in a state of aggression, triumph and/or despair, in black-and-white photos stripped of all decoration, reflecting the intentionally unaesthetic music of the band.

live_in_leipzigThis minimalist approach culminated both visually and musically with Transilvanian Hunger, showing a photocopied, grainy picture of Fenriz dehumanized beyond recognition, holding a candelabrum and presumably screaming his lungs out in the night. Some of its appeal lies in its ambiguity; feelings of futility, anger and power are intermixed, widening its significance.

Although Darkthrone’s visual idea was immediately inspired by Mayhem’s Live in Leipzig, its monochromatic, Xeroxed quality also has an eerie resemblance to Black Sabbath’s Vol. 4 from twenty years earlier and its anguished enigmatic quality to Edvard Munch’s The Scream even further back in history. The parallel is not entirely farfetched: it echoes the troubled mind of Fenriz himself, who reportedly loves art that comes from “the exhaustion of easy life”. To black metal fans the Transilvanian Hunger cover is presumably the one archetypical image of what “necro” signifies, much like The Scream is still very much considered the face of existential anguish.

Various_Artists_-_Peaceville_Vol._4The “necro” imagery, however, may have been unintentional: In Precious Metal: Decibel Presents the Stories Behind 25 Extreme Metal Masterpieces, Fenriz asserts that mere photocopies from the TH photo session were the only thing he could find at the time to send to Peaceville Records, implying that the same picture could have been reproduced in a more polished fashion. But it doesn’t seem entirely unlikely that the use of a photocopy was inspired by Peaceville’s 1992 compilation album, Peaceville Volume 4, spoofing both cover art and title of the famous Black Sabbath album mentioned above and containing one of Darkthrone’s pre-TH songs, implying that the use was deliberate after all. (Rabid speculation is any fan’s right, right?)

In any case, the cover of Transilvanian Hunger effectively summarized its music by a single iconic image and was later emulated by hordes of lesser bands and is to this day worn on t-shirts by serious music lovers and the occasional hipster alike.