Weathering the Storm as a Republican Metalhead

November 8th, 2016.  Manhattan, NY.  Election night.  I was there.

Wading back and forth between a crowd of suits and red hats gathered outside the Fox News building on 6th ave and a similar group gathered a few blocks north outside the Hilton hotel where the soon-to-be President-Elect was present, I celebrated ecstatically as electoral college results came in showing my favorite politician on the cusp of capturing the presidency.  All of us were over the moon with excitement and bliss, particularly because New York City had seldom presented a place where support of the man the media branded as Hitler 2.0 could be expressed openly.

While walking home and passing virtually every media truck parked for a mile along the road where America’s next President prepared his victory speech, a young NPR reporter excitedly rushed over to me with her microphone and cameraman after seeing the ridiculous “Trump 2020” pins on my shirt.  I agreed to her request for interview and explained why I thought Trump’s non-interventionist foreign policy and realist economic objectives would benefit the country’s middle and working classes.  Admitting her surprise to learn that I was a compliance director working near Wall St. and not the basic redneck Trump voter the media had branded us as, she asked if I was excited about the likelihood of supporting Trump being more socially acceptable now that he was president.  “Yeah” I said “It finally won’t be taboo now!”

We could not have been more wrong.
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Dark Horizons: Upcoming Metal for 02/09/2018

As we predicted at the close of last year, a storm of power metal is coming at last and replacing the soon to be dead genre of post-metal.  With beta-male hipsters turning toward retro rehashes of classic metal they are at last abandoning the pretentious nasalings of post metal.  Let us rejoice in the death of post-black metal!

With Fridays becoming the new Tuesdays for metal releases (for reasons unbeknownst), let’s turn our attention to the next meaty drop of 2018 extreme metal.
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Portal – Ion

Newer metal bands in the mid-2000s went one of few ways: the competition among users of extreme techniques caused a degree of one-upmanship that obscured the message of the music of “technical” bands, while the desire to get the audience to move caused the compositions of -core bands to be infiltrated by danceable open-note rhythms, and those left outside these groups grew more and more abstract in execution as if to rebel against conventional songwriting.  The issue here is that all three avenues, despite the latter being the most declarative, require an aesthetic sleight-of-hand to mask the lack of authoritative message in composition while the music is steered with the effects on the listener in mind rather than coming from the innate desire of a composer to communicate.  Portal, along with Ulcerate and Deathspell Omega, ushered in a style of metal that is entirely rooted in audience manipulation through a reliance on discordance that borders on desperation.  A challenge in viewing bands like this objectively is that it is difficult to fully understand whether the intent is holistically realized or if the sound and execution is the result of having no spirit of communication beyond purely aesthetic virtues.  Perhaps the evolution in sound was the understanding that metal did need to progress, and although there were surely undiscovered ways to do so, an analysis of all prior compositions reveal that metal was comprised of a multitude of expressions utilizing the same symbols: songs needed intros, various types of phrases that build tension, bridges, climaxes, and resolutions, and the catalog of conventional music that we have is constructed of various shufflings of these elements.  So, although a new act could in theory have a unique approach to music, they were essentially draping a new skin on a tired skeleton.  Metal, and music in general, had to go somewhere and it had to be led by someone that had a clear vision of something to communicate. And most importantly, it had to be done so without a reliance on the tropes that human nature has formulated with respect to the idea of song; ultimately, it needed to cripple it from within.

Is Portal the band to breach these waters, or are the efforts of the band a reflection of a lack of having anything to say intrinsically while still being able to coast on a formulaic command of discordant textures where fully realized phrases once guided the listener through a narrative journey?

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Pestilence Attempts Comeback But Forgets What Makes Death Metal Great

Listen to a track from the upcoming Hadeon from longstanding Dutch band Pestilence, one is immediately struck by the similarity to late-1990s Morbid Angel: the riffs are there, albeit a bit impatient and tightly circular, but the whole experience is not. What is missing? To understand this, we must go to the core of what made death metal what it is.

If you wanted to explain to a normal person what death metal is, looking at the core of its spirit, you might haul out Slayer Hell Awaits, Hellhammer Apocalyptic Raids, and Bathory The Return… because these influenced the techniques, composition, and spirit of death metal. From Hellhammer and Slayer, it got its song structure and aesthetics; from Bathory its themes and riff technique.

Death metal took the original idea of metal, formed when Black Sabbath and others began using power chords to make phrasal riffs instead of harmony-oriented open chord riffs, and developed it further. This is different than doing something “new” or “progressing” because it means undertaking the much harder task of developing an idea further at a structural level instead of just changing aesthetics.

With the rise of underground metal, death metal adopted chromatic riffing and made the interplay between riffs form a narrative to each song. This abolished typical rock song structure and, because the guitar served as a melodic instrument instead of a harmonic one, forced vocals, bass and drums into a background role. How well the riffs fit together and portrayed an atmosphere, idea, or sensation defined the quality of the music.

Pestilence came from a solid death metal background with Consuming Impulse but showed a speed metal styled approach on Malleus Maleficarum, and this tension has stayed with the band for its entire career. The speed metal style of verse and chorus built on a singular theme that is present in the music is easier to jam on and use harmony to complement, where death metal rarely explicitly states its theme, only silhouetting it in the interaction between its many riffs. With speed metal, bands can set up a chord progression and develop it in layers of internal commentary like jazz, and this puts vocals back in position number one among the lead instruments.

“Non-Physical Existent” is a two-riff song with both based on the same note progression. It creates its intensity through the clash between a ripping circular high speed riff and a slower chromatic riff that uses odd harmony to distinguish notes in an otherwise linear theme. The song breaks into a solo section over one of the riffs, and has a type of turnaround the drops into the faster riff as a return. But there is no real interplay nor any narrative.

From the riffs themselves, this is a good song, but unfortunately, it is not death metal. Nor will it last because essentially it is a closed-circuit video of itself, a riff commented on by another, without resembling any particular experience or emotion, therefore being a null journey, more like stasis in space while riffs loop. It is better than not bad, but still not of real interest to the death metal fan.

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Defeated Sanity – Disposal of the Dead Dharmata

This band from Germany has been around in one form or another since the 90s.  Besides having a reputation as an under-rated act, they actively tour and record.  They are considered technical/brutal death metal.  I would probably count them as old school death metal.  Several releases are available, and it feels somewhat unfair to look at just one release and judge, but lets try.
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SHAARIMOTH Temple of the Adversarial Fire

Well crafted and nicely produced, Temple of the Adversarial Fire by Shaarimoth , appears to be a nice mixture of 90s black metal fun.  This is more in the epic vein, rather than underground sounding.  Lets face it: the first two songs are great.  There is a nice mixture of riffs and beats, with short phrasing.  It is a bit heavy on vocals. They can get tiring at points.  Bands I hear as influences here include Emperor, Morbid Angel, early My Dying Bride, and Bal Saggoth. Making my way through the album, song 3 leads with annoying vocals (minus 1 star), over a slower heavier riff.  In song 4, am waiting for the album to get its mojo back. It does, with a European blast beat that has a sick lower grinded guitar counterpart. A fun, evil Samael style rock riff emerges from that. Some of the vocals still are iffy, but the guitar playing is growing on me. Why is the album so choppy though?

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Last Sacrament – Enantiodromia (2013)

Florida’s Last Sacrament are one of the rare contemporary bands that successfully captures the essence of old school death metal while developing a voice of their own in the process. While initial full length Enantiodromia has a few juvenile kinks to work out — the members are shockingly young — the record as a whole is a striking, confident foray through classic metal.

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Gorguts – Pleiades’ Dust (2016)

Gorguts is a band that for a majority of its career has resembled an act that is at war with itself artistically.  After a serviceable debut comprised of purely death metal notions and peaking with its most dense and progressive release in The Erosion of Sanity, the band chose to scale back its arrangements while imbuing its approach with a discordance that may have laterally trespassed its prior unsullied metal constructs but at the same time gave Gorguts an identity all their own.  With regards to their contemporaries, you cannot currently say a band “sounds like Gorguts” without indirectly focusing on the sound created on Obscura, and the band’s own knowledge of that most likely has controlled their writing ever since — to the detriment of their overall intents in each record from then on…

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