What is the underground?

ancient_texas_tunnel

This issue is about to explode into public discourse because the rise in new-style metal bands has forced this question upon us all.

What is the underground?

Before even reading this article, keep in mind that there are some excellent resources. First, The Heavy Metal FAQ provides a complete answer. Second, Underground Never Dies! is a whole book dedicated to this topic through the eyes of metal bands from the 1980s-1990s underground era.

But we can come up with an even quicker definition.

The 1980s through early 1990s were a different time. Not only was there no internet, but music distribution was fairly strictly defined. Mainstream stores got what the big distributors had from the big labels and a select few smaller labels that pushed their way in. If you wanted a wider selection, you went to an “alternative” music store which stocked smaller labels. Often you bought imports, at a 50% markup. Most stores were completely uninterested in stocking something such as death metal, because it appealed to a small and antisocial niche audience. Why bother with selling a single copy of a Deicide album when you could sell 20 copies of Motley Crue without even trying?

In addition, there were forces of opposition to any metal that was not radio sanitized (which meant speaking on code words, probably encouraging deviant behavior to a greater degree). Very few people now remember when Tipper Gore and her Parents’ Music Resource Center (PMRC) were a powerful lobby for parental warning stickers on questionable albums. In addition, the threat of such people caused record stores to actually card people for buying violent rap or occult metal. You had to be 18 and prove it, or they would not sell to you.

And getting it on radio? There was college radio and also a handful of independent radio stations but these faced the same problem. Why play death metal when you could throw on a few sets of Sonic Youth and Rites of Spring and have 20 times as many listeners? Even among alternative music, death metal was unpopular because it was abrasive and did not have a large social movement behind it which made people like it. NWA was a violent, misogynistic and hilarious rap group that got banned just about everywhere, but there was a large social movement behind their work. It was easier to find that than your average, or even your top-selling, death metal band.

What underground meant back then seemed to be that it was offered through alternative channels. A few record stores, some college radio stations, tiny record labels run on a basically non-profit basis, and photocopied hand-assembled zines made of a pastiche of typed content and tattoo-style margin drawings. How did most people find new music in the early days? They hooked up with pen pals who would mail them cassette tape mixes of new music they found, often dubbed from cassette demos from the bands. Sometimes these tapes were many generations down the line and you could barely hear the band under the crepitant tape noise! But they did the job that mainstream media, record labels and magazines would not.

Toward the middle of the 1990s, this situation relaxed. First, the rise of used CD sales meant that smaller labels were making it into bigger stores via a backdoor. Second, magazines like Spin eventually gave coverage to death metal. Finally, changes in the way music was distributed opened up the middlemen who supplied record stores to the smaller labels. This meant that the traditional split between underground and mainstream was going away. Record labels, scared by the possibility of used CD sales eating up the profits from big mainstream releases, which relied on novelty to sell and interested their audiences for only a few months, started looking toward “niche” sales. But what really blew it out of the water was the notoriety of black metal.

Starting in the mid-1990s, rumors of the black metal movement in Norway and its legacy of violence — church burnings, murders, and stockpiling of military grade weapons — began to leak out through the zines into the magazines. Then the whole drama exploded with the trial of Varg Vikernes, who conveniently also ended the old black metal era with Hvis Lyset Tar Oss, an album so deeply nuanced and impossible to follow that most musicians shrugged and went back to three-chord, “punk style” black metal instead. He raised the bar at the same time bands like Darkthrone codified the genre with Transilvanian Hunger, an album that was difficult to create but easy to mimic. As mentioned in the documentary Until the Light Takes Us, black metal witnessed the decay of an idea. This decay happened through emulation that, because it looked at the outward traits like distortion and blast beats, missed the actual meaning of the genre which caused musicians to make such similar music in the first place.

It’s hard for people to realize now but black metal was initially viewed as slightly touched in the head. Death metalers often hated it violently; almost everyone else seemed to criticize it for its lo-fi approach and almost childish use of blasphemy and antisocial imagery. Many of the albums sounded like they were performed by people who had barely picked up an instrument and might have zero social graces. It was roundly mocked… until it started to become popular. Then the tables were turned. Within five years, black metal was in mainstream record stores (this shift happened in about 1997) and became really popular with a new generation.

After that point, the term “underground” seemed to lose meaning. The internet had come and made music and information about it universally available, and the proliferation of high-powered desktop computers meant that recording an album, running a label or making a zine involved far less labor and looked and sounded a lot better than the DIY labor of the 1980s (or even 1960s-1970s, when proto-punk and punk bands innovated it). At this point, people started going for an “underground sound,” which meant artificial lo-fi, simple three-chord songs, lots of ranting about antisocial topics including the occult, and a deliberately offensive resistance to any positive reinforcement.

You can see the resulting confusion in this artfully assembled article by Laina Dawes:

The other issue that’s sparked controversy is exactly which bands get press — take Deafheaven and fellow shoegaze black metal band Alcest, who both benefited greatly from non-metal-centric coverage in 2013. The idea of using these bands to open of the gates of metal and let readers discover a new musical genre (or actually take it seriously) is a contentious one. One of the issues is the promotion of palatable metal bands that could potentially reach the masses with a sound that isn’t “metal” in the classic sense. Instead, these bands have been referred to as “extreme,” a catch-all, provocative phrase guaranteed to attract listeners who are looking for a more intense metal fix – and to satiate that self-satisfied outsider-metal “cool factor” that insecure metal fans love to laud over the pop-music contingent.

In the years from 1995-1998, the underground basically rehashed itself. It had no ideas, and more importantly, the bar was raised. To be a good death metal band, you had to be at the level of Morbid Angel’s Covenant or Suffocation’s Pierced From Within. To be a black metal band of note, you had to be at the level of Burzum’s Hvis Lyset Tar Oss or Enslaved’s Frost. Not many bands could do that and so an alternative underground built up based on fan-driven metal. Most of this was in emulation of the previous years and took the form of three-chord simplified versions of the more complex originals. The result was that, outside of a small cluster of people hanging around internet forums, this music went nowhere.

Nature abhors a vacuum, so from 1999-2006 or so, metalcore took over. This was also music designed to be easy to make. It took the randomness aesthetic of late hardcore punk and combined it with death metal riffs, making chaotic songs that made no sense but were plenty distracting and extreme. The music industry flogged this dead horse walking (to brutally mix metaphors) for five years before the trend started to die. Then from 2006 through the present, the music industry took a different tack: instead of trying to make a new genre, emulate something that has worked in the past. They found the fertile ground of the post-hardcore years where indie rock, shoegaze and post-rock coexisted in the same sphere of influence. This was generally what was called “alternative rock” before “alternative rock” became a brand for flannel wearing bittersweet droning hard rock bands from Seattle.

deafheaven-band_photo

Deafheaven is a polarizing band becomes it comes from this tradition. Listening to it, it is not clear there is any metal in it at all. But labeling something “metal” or “underground” or “extreme” excites interest, mainly because few people trust the aboveground media. Thus there is a huge financial incentive to classify Deafheaven as metal, and for smaller blogs and magazines to go along with this fiction as well, if they do, they get advertising revenue and possibly a shot at the big time.

This leaves us with a complete quandary: does the term “underground” have meaning anymore at all?

My suggestion with my last article, “In defense of elitism,” was that underground is a misused term. The point is that metal has a spirit which defines it and separates it from everything else. That spirit must be expressed but it is of a nature that does not trust the dominant paradigm. Black Sabbath wrote their music to rain on the hippie parade of love, drugs and pacifism; their point was that altering our perspective does not change reality. Underground metal had a similar message and was unwilling to alter it in order to fit with the expectations of people who would rather hear about the denial fictions of love, drugs and pacifism (underground rap did the same thing in parallel, but with a different set of issues and a different set of denial fictions).

What makes a metal band underground is that it is unwilling to compromise its vision of truth for what people want to believe is true. It is unwilling to compromise its aesthetics for what people believe is comfortable and pleasant. It is committed to the idea that the only legitimacy comes from the art itself, not its popularity or album sales. Some would identify this as the ultimate non-“bourgeois” statement, in that it casts aside comfortable oblivion in favor of a raw blast of cold hard reality. This sense of underground is more fundamental than how the albums are sold or which zines write about them. It is an attitude and discipline. Underground means that which puts truth first and popularity second, which is a dramatic reversal of the way everyone else goes about it.

Metal is not the only genre to have an underground. Punk was originally underground but as it became fashionable in the late 1970s hardcore punk bands started vanishing into squats, playing midnight parties in abandoned foundries, and selling their music on 7″ records out of shirtsleeves. The noise movement in Japan remains underground to this day, with artists like K.K. Null constructing elaborate and beautiful pieces from raw noise, instead of making harsh blasting rebellious stuff like record labels had hoped. Robert Fripp, former guitarist of King Crimson, uses electronics to make his guitar sound like an organ and plays small concerts across the world. Underground is not a term specific to metal, but a term to describe any activity that is not encouraged in society at large yet believes it has ideological, artistic and/or political value.

thelonious_monk-underground

You aren’t going to hear about any of these artists in big media and you may not be able to buy their CDs in regular stores. However, that is the symptom, not the cause. The reason they’re not in regular stores is that they’re not only niche, but also not given to comfortable oblivion. In a time when people can choose the artistic equivalent of a cheeseburger over the more challenging and substantive art, people tend to do so, which marginalizes actual art. As a result, the actual art is alien and threatening to most people, which makes it a terrible product, which means that it ends up in small record stores, small zines, and small labels.

If anything, the internet has exacerbated this tendency. In an age when we can find anything by googling it, the real problem is knowing what to google. Even worse, Google uses a search engine algorithm that moves higher links up the chain, thus burying marginalized results. We have all the information in the world but without a guide to it, none of us know what to do with it. It is for this reason that traditional media has won out on the net and the sites that attract the most eyes are the ones that are promoting essentially mainstream music.

mayhem-dead

What Deafheaven represents to a metaler is the triumph of mainstream music. There is nothing in Deafheaven that challenges the listener to even a second of soul-searching or discovery, or whatever it is that art does — that’s a separate debate — in contrast to what death metal and black metal provoked in us. Deafheaven in fact is the listening equivalent of wallpaper, a pleasant series of repeated images that make us think about shopping, perhaps. Whether it is bad music or not is irrelevant. “The medium is the message,” we’re told, and in the case of Deafheaven, the medium is inoffensive pop pretending to be “extreme.”

As BasementGalaxy has revealed, Deafheaven represents aboveground genres invading metal:

Since then, anything “new” and “innovative” done in metal has involved musicians stepping outside the boundaries of the genre more and more. Shoegaze, industrial, post-punk, krautrock, progressive rock, jazz, trance, dubstep. It’s been happening gradually over the past ten years, but Deafheaven’s 2013 album Sunbather just might be the first major splintering that will eventually see “extreme music” separating completely from actual heavy metal. Although my opinion on the album has already been published and will not change, it remains the most critically acclaimed album of 2013, of any genre, marking the first time an album that has occupied that grey area between “metal” and “extreme music” has captured the attention of so many mainstream critics and audiences. Some critics still call Sunbather “metal”, but to do so is to forget what makes heavy metal heavy metal in the first place, merely clutching to the few metallic threads in an otherwise richly varied musical fabric. In reality, Sunbather is a tremendous example of extremity transcending the metal ethos entirely.

In other words, there’s a reason Deafheaven doesn’t sound like Beherit, Demoncy, Imprecation, Blaspherian or any of the other bands which have resurrected the underground sound over the past five years. Deafheaven represents the mixing of mainstream sounds into underground metal, while Beherit represents underground metal growing and developing on its own terms.

If anything, the underground is in a renaissance because it has finally escaped the old standard of lo-fi music sold on cassettes/vinyl through dodgy mail orders and reported on only by small zines. We have gone from alienated from society to accepted (grudgingly) by society, and so now we are “niche” music. But what defines this niche is that it is underground. We face the hidden truths and evoke concealed emotions, and thrust a fist in the face of oblivion. That is what makes us underground, and it’s why the masses chose Deafheaven over Demoncy to report on as a face of extreme music.

2 Comments

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Oration of Disorder reviews 02-05-14

seance

What’s an oration of disorder? What most people think of as “order” consists in telling other people what they want to hear and then manipulating them. That’s how you sell them products. But the selling of products is the opposite of what art and listeners need, which is a harsh voice to tell us the truth.

apostolum-winds-of-delusionApostolum – Winds of Disillusion

Like Ras Algethi, this is a black-metal-influenced doom metal album that does not rely on detuned guitars to produce a low-end rumble. Instead, Apostolum shape their songs out of repetitive melodies like we might find in a horror movie soundtrack (shades of Damien Thorne) which cycle through repetition with frequent breaks for rhythmic or dynamic changes. The result is like a comforting background noise segmented into long enough pieces to tell a story, on top of riffs which themselves hint at a type of mood. Vocals add layers of lush intonation that flesh out the relatively sparse pieces, but one of the most important instruments here is silence. Riffs are slower but not uniform pace, so often pauses create gravity; pauses between riffs, and the interruptions in sound, create a sense of melody arising within darkness. The only real problem here is that much of what makes metal enjoyable is less present in this music. Its attempt at emotional depth leads it toward melodies that are periodically happy, so that they may be shattered, and the slowness is for lack of a better term not very exciting. I can appreciate this but I don’t think I’d listen to it.

human_infection-curvatures_in_timeHuman Infection – Curvatures in Time

When we say something is “stale” in music, we generally do not mean that it is old. We mean that it is derived from something obvious, like a first step in examining something. The thought process ended early, we think, because we can easily visualize first-level thought from our armchairs in a casual moment. What interests us is when someone takes something in a distinctive direction, which does not mean weird or unexpected so much as it means a direction expressive of something. At some point, riffs either sound like an event from life itself, an emotional event or resemble an idea, and if the riff does not show similarity to one of those but seems to be introductory thought on its own, we discern that it is purposeless. Human Infection have made a grand effort at the technicality required for a death metal release, although the abysmally hollow and loud drum sound may doom this production, but too much of this is death metal for death metal’s sake without real purpose, and too much of it uses first level thought, a/k/a really obvious and played-out (because they’re obvious, they’re frequently used) riff patterns. I appreciate the big doofus aesthetic of this brand of death metal/deathgrind hybrid, but here it goes too far without going anywhere. As with most situations like this, there is too much reliance on the vocals and drums leading the guitars, which creates a sound like repetitive noise with background texture. Give that guitarist more prominence in songwriting and make the riffs lead the song and this could be a powerful band.

amputated-dissect-molest-ingestAmputated – Dissect, Molest, Ingest

What I like about this band is that they preserve the lineage of percussive death metal leading back to early Suffocation. It’s not that they clone riffs; it’s that they understand song conventions used by the originals and thus have to rely less on the post-Suffocation notions of breakdown to transition within the song. Other late model NYDM conventions make it in however including lots of pinch harmonics and sag-groove riffs. Luckily Amputated know how to put together a song so that it moves naturally and avoids lapsing into unrelated and thus pointless detours. At the same time, reliance on a style like this makes it very hard to distinguish songs since they are all similar in technique, rhythm and approach. This is going to be the challenge for Amputated, to distinguish “Skullfuck Lobotomy” from “Toolbox Abortionist” without relying on cheesy appearance tweaks. This band are tight, focused and have a good instinct for rhythm and song so this should not be a huge challenge for them.

esoterica-aseityEsoterica – Aseity

This is the droning wailing type of post-metal. It uses two-note black metal minor key riffs and drones those in a predictable loop while someone rants with an open-throated, slow vocal. It’s like a requiem performed by brain damage victims. The sense of purpose of classic black metal is lost; you could say Ildjarn took the same approach, and it wasn’t that Ildjarn was first, it’s that Ildjarn was good. Good means organized, purposeful, communicates something, and creates an experience the listener can partake in. Esoterica creates drone. If you want a background tone to go with some activity like ironing or fermenting fish guts this might be a good counterpart, but generally as it is without surprises or discernible idea, it fades into the city noises like planes overhead, trains long-hauling, trucks idling, domestic violence and identity theft.

immoral_hazard-convulsionImmoral Hazard – Convulsion

Pantera vocals over Kreator-styled speed metal with worked in touches from American melodic heavy metal bands of the same era. If you can imagine Kreator with metalcore/bro-core vocals except that the chorus riffs were borrowed from a hybrid of Forbidden/Fates Warning, that would be a good approximation of the style here. The vocals are unfortunately impossible to overlook and I wouldn’t want to listen to this in public because listening to bro-core is the equivalent of screaming “Hello, I’m a fucking moron” at the world. These guys know their classic metal and it shows with allusions that are artfully done enough to not be appropriations but subtle tributes. Phil Anselmo, although a great guy to drink with, invented the worst form of metal vocals possible because they channel aggression to the surface and replace depth with an kind of outraged customer slash drunk frat boy outlook. The rage is all one-dimensional however. The riffs have to support these bouncy rap/rock/hXc bro-core vocals and so get dumbed down. If they could hook this vocalist up with some old Rigor Mortis tapes, this band could head to better places and be really good at it.

dux-vintrasDux – Vintras

Working both within the confines of Gallic metal and a mixed bag of influences from the past, Dux create what a metal writer might dub “national tragedy”: music with a strong national sound that nonetheless embraces melancholy on the far edge of despair, and in the almost depression-distracted gaps created fills in space with past influences, exemplifying the chaotic modern approach that is the source of their angst. Very much in the same style of dissonant minor key Solutrean droning, with a sound that resembles the wind flowing past ancient caves if it were given tone, Dux create in the space etched by Celestia and Vlad Tepes. These songs sound like they might come from the distant past and yet, they are new, and exhibit the same exuberant take on the ancient ways offered by bands like Enslaved, albeit with less technicality. When there are gaps, the band fills in with equal parts Slayer-inspired proto-death metal and bits of choppy heavy metal and death metal, but these parts are infrequent and are counterbalanced by more of the delicious flowing melody they do so well. With better study habits, this band could rank in the higher echelons of contemporary black metal, beating out all the people who lack what this band has: a grasp on the emotional and intellectual subject matter, and thus content, of the black metal genre.

snake_eyes-welcome_to_the_snake_pitSnake Eyes – Welcome to the Snake Pit

Covering the territory once ruled by the first couple Motley Crue albums, Snake Eyes create old fashioned heavy metal with an American tinge of sleaze and darkness. It’s heavy on catchy chorus activity and yet picks up the pace on the riffing more than a Sunset Strip band would have. These songs also try for the “epic” sound of European metal, where at some point the elemental pieces of the song clash and resolve in something with a greater affinity for the sense of the song than the original bits. There’s some bleedover speed metal technique at points, mostly use of muted strum and budget riffs for tempo changes. Clear and strong but higher-pitched vocals guide each song, and are often in that half-sung half-chanted style that rides a good rhythm riff. This style of metal has a lot of rock in it, so will not be for everyone. With bonus cover medley from Judas Priest (“Riding the Sentinel into Hell”).

sammal-no_2Sammal – No 2

Finland is boiling over with classic rock acts. They are all reallymusically competent and have a great sense of melody and rhythm. They have more trouble knowing how to pull a song together to make it highly distinctive, but that’s not from lack of ability, more a lack of internal drama. Dysfunctional people make the best rock ‘n’ roll for a reason, which is that they are not hampered by logic and that they have internal gestures of vast theatrical exuberance that make for really distinctive, evocative songs. Sammal do not have that kind of drama going inside of them. What they do have is a reverence for the 1960s-1970s rock and a way of writing good solid tunes that make you feel like you did not waste your time listening and want to think about them for a little bit. I am not sure what the lyrics are, as I think they’re in the voodoo-moonman language that is Finnish, but the songs themselves are quite powerful. Now why aren’t these guys making death metal?

GD30OB2-N.cdrCulted – Oblique to All Paths

No one wants to say all post-metal sounds the same but it is true. This is because post-metal limits itself both to non-phrasal riffing and a certain narrow range of power-chord based ambiguous minor key riffs and arpeggios, and simultaneously imposes on itself the demand the sometimes there be distortion and hoarse vocals. One might ask these bands why they bother with post-metal when obviously they want to play mainstream rock, but no matter what answer they verbalize, the truth is that it is easier to be a big fish in the small pond of a recent trend than to compete on the much broader highway of rock itself. And yet that is a form of cowardice. Why not tackle the audience that they naturally belong to? This band would be a lot more fun if they went Dave Matthews or Barenaked Ladies on stopped trying to cram some superficial aspects of “metal” into an unrelated genre. There is more actual metal on a Taylor Swift album than is present here even though Culted clone riffs from doom, black and death metal past. But seriously, why is this band wasting its time? Better to just become the rock band they want to be than to force themselves to be trendy and not make the cut.

zloslutZloslut – Zloslutni Horizont – Donosilac Prokletstva, Ocaja I Smrti

Part of black metal was its national tradition. Bands wanted to sound like they were from their homelands. This was harder to relate to in places that are more regional, like UK or USA (the “acronym nations”). Zloslut never quit with this idea. They sound like they are not only a band with their own voice, but they bring out some characteristics of national sound. This is not hyper-distinctive as Zloslut compose very much in the classic black metal vein, sounding much like a cross between early Gorgoroth and Immortal. Songs are melodic but not as an effect; they are based around underlying melodies with a distinctive old world flair, internally punctuated by the type of upturn that introduced a huge amount of ambiguity when metal bands first did it. Now it is worked into the melodic sense itself, like the melody is a series of questions exploding into a defiant statement, usually delivered in full toward the end of a song when it can expand into a promenade or march-style rhythm. These songs are designed to fit together like wooden puzzles, meaning that there must be some gap at all times, but the shapes can never be incompatible. The result develops underneath the ears and has subtlety like the original black metal bands. While 80-90% of it may be familiar with those who studied the early 1990s Northern black metal explosion, as with all things in life the distinction is in the details, and there’s a lot to listen to here that shows this band have their own voice and one for their homeland.

4 Comments

Tags: , , , , ,

Resurrection slates March as release date for Soul Descent – March of Death on Old Metal Records

resurrection

Second-wave Tampa, FL blasting death metal outfit Resurrection plans to release its newest work, Soul Descent – March of Death on Old Metal Records this coming March.

The deal will see the release of the band’s first full-length since 2008’s Mistaken for Dead. Due out in March, Soul Descent – March of Death will be released in conjunction with the “March of Death” European Tour, which kicks off on March 14 in Germany and will take Resurrection through Germany, Belgium, Holland, Czech Republic and Poland.

Many will remember Resurrection for their 1990s coda to the Tampa, FL death metal scene, Embalmed Existence, which combined the gritty sound of Florida death metal with percussive speed metal riffing and melodic songwriting. Since that time, many have eagerly awaited the return of Resurrection and look forward to this new release toward that end.

resurrection-soul_descent-march_of_deathRESURRECTION – March of Death European Tour 2014 dates:

  • 3/14 – Hamburg, Germany @ Bambi Galore
  • 3/15 – Weissenfels, Germany @ Schlosskeller
  • 3/16 – Chemnitz, Germany @ La Casa
  • 3/17 – Katowice, Poland @ Korba
  • 3/18 – Poznan, Poland @ U Bazyla
  • 3/19 – Most, Czech Republic @ TBA
  • 3/20 – Berlin, Germany @ TBA
  • 3/21 – Deinze, Belgium @ TBA
  • 3/22 – Amsterdam, Holland @ TBA
  • 3/23 – Aalen, Germany @ TBA
  • 3/24 – Munich, Germany @ TBA

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lOA3YDFrvFs

No Comments

Tags: , , , ,

Lucifers Hammer signs to Destro Records for The Mists of Time MMXIV

lucifers_hammer-the_mists_of_time_mmxiv

Here’s the official word from Destro Records:

US black death metallers Lucifers Hammer have landed a deal with Destro Records to reissue their long out-of-print albums. The first release will be “The Mists of Time MMXIV” album. It will consist of the original 1997 album, “The Mists of Time” untouched and unspoiled, and also include demo bonus tracks. Naturally there will be new artwork, lyrics, commentary and more.

Lucifers Hammer formed in 1986 and their career ended roughly in the early 2000s after releasing a second album. The band are excited to be part of Destro Records, and believe in quality over quantity. “The Mists of Time MMXIV” is slated for a March/April release date.

At the moment the focus for the label is this release and news regarding other material by the band will come shortly.

There will be a bandcamp site launch for Destro Records very soon, physical and digital copies, and other special deal announcements soon.

http://www.facebook.com/officialdestrorecords/

Destro Records is a NY-based label with a long history of producing quality releases, including through the association of its management with their own musical projects such as Ceremonium and Thevetat.

1 Comment

Tags: , , ,

Imprecation tshirts and merchandise

imprecation-shirt-mark_riddick

Crushing old school death metal band Imprecation have unleashed new merchandise upon the world, but it takes a bit of old school engineering to get your hands on it. The new merch is specifically a tshirt designed by notorious underground artist Mark Riddick, a tshirt featuring the cover of last year’s Satanae Tenebris Infinita, and a logo patch for your killcoat or backpack.

imprecation-shirt-satanae_tenebris_infinita

According to the band, these may be acquired by sending PayPal funds to guitarist Milton Luna at meltinmoon@gmail.com. You will need to write first for prices and totals.

imprecation_patch

The band adds: “On that note, thanks for supporting Imprecation.”

No Comments

Tags: , , ,

Pentagram (CL) – The Malefice

pentagram-the_malefice

Imagine you’ve returned to those magic years between 1985 and 1987. Thrash exploded, followed by speed metal and then the nascent proto-death/black bands are emerging. Almost everything is tinged with Metallica since they are looking like the first band of this ilk to make it out of the underground and into mainstream record stores.

Pentagram (CL) comes to us from those formative years but with two different versions of that time. The first is the second disc in the set, which re-records seven classic tracks using modern production and instrumental know-how. The second is the “first” disc in this set, which is thirteen new songs. While both derive from the fertile era of the middle 1980s, they each take different approaches, with the first disc actually showing more of what this band can do.

At their core these songs have not yet transitioned from speed metal to death metal. These are fundamentally based on the rhythmic riff, not the phrasal riff, and are oriented toward using choppy sounds not booming or columnar ones. However, this enables Pentagram (CL) to layer lead guitars over rhythm guitars, vocals over drums, and then to suspend them selectively, creating what is effectively a technique of adding textural depth to regulate intensity. What that requires is a fairly constant rhythm, thus both verse and chorus riffs and their various transitional riffs use very similar patterns. This pattern applies to both discs.

The second disc may be the more anticipated in the underground as these songs never made it out of the demo stages back in the 1980s when they were written. While we like to be production-agnostic as underground metalheads, because the nature of being “underground” is that you cadge production and promotion where you can, not where is optimal, it is often hard to hear what’s going on. These re-produced songs show a gentle hand in keeping their nature intact while playing them as they were always meant to be played, which is with some technical flair amidst the straightforward riffs and aggressive vocals. It is great to hear these songs ride again and to hear them in the context with demos from Possessed, Sepultura, Kreator, Destruction and Rigor Mortis who were at roughly the same time exploring a similar sound.

However, ultimately this reviewer found more to listen to in the first disc. It reminds me of the moments after a party where, the excitement having faded, analysis kicks in — and it’s from that, and not the frenzy of the moment, that emotion really comes. This is a retrospective of the 1980s not in terms of its surface traits but an attempt to get to its root, which is the massive sense of being in transition. These songs deliberately hover on the edge of death metal, and also on the edge of returning to the days of Venom and Motorhead, but also gesture at something else. A sense of suspended belief, the potential for anything to emerge from any moment, and an instability that calls forth primal conflict suffuses these songs. They use styling that may be from the farther side of that 1985-1987 window and apply it in a way that is not “modern” in the sense of metal now, but more fully mature, like the death metal to follow while retaining their speed metal core.

Hearing these two discs together is not the ridiculous time machine sensation of Hollywood movies but more like a re-visitation of the events that made the time so much of what it was. The first disc, showing newer songwriting, has a steadier hand. It would benefit from the tighter assembly which threw out anything too repetitive or tangential shown by the second disc, which has songs stripped down for bear as if played by a rogue guerrilla group wandering in the mountains, pursued by a vastly better equipped army. While these songs use the distorted vocals of underground metal, it is more accurate to see this band in the context of the generation before, when nothing had quite taken form and the bands wanted to make a statement underscoring the wisdom of that principle.

3 Comments

Tags: , , ,

Burial Hordes – Incendium

burial_hordes-incendium

Some modern “black metal” is superior to others; and not all of it is created by flannel-wearing, latte-drinking hipsters (just around 70%). Thankfully, there are some albums around that will not turn the listener androgynous after a single spin.

Greek black metal band Burial Hordes’ recently released album, Incendium, takes a death metal flavored approach to the modern black metal problem. Carrying on the early Incantation/Profanatica and Demoncy single-string riffing style, the band updates it to the millennium’s expectations: production is clean, ambiguous arpeggiated deviations abound, and linear tremolo-picked guitar lines rise above the churning mass below. Vocals have more in common with death metal than any other genre.

Doubtless this album will achieve some measure of success, as it adequately fulfills several niche roles: death metal riffs for “old-school” fans, whilst the newer will be entertained by experiencing a presentation that challenges them while simultaneously remaining in a place safe enough to understand.

Indeed, that last part is the most damaging criticism of this release: it does not attack the listener in the ways the aforementioned bands did; it remains heavy, but essentially pleasant music to listen to. For that reason it remains unclear how long this album (and genre) will endure, as the less dedicated fans will eventually leave to whatever new release is in the press next week, consigning each modern black metal release to a week of interest before being retired to a dark corner on the shelf.

2 Comments

Tags: , , ,

Happy 50th birthday, Jeff Hanneman

rehearsals-jeff_hanneman

Today, Jeff Hanneman would have been fifty years old. The man who helped invent the sound that underlies all of underground death metal did not, as the people around him in the LA suburbs tend to do, waste his life away in repetition. Instead, he forged his own path and we celebrate him for it and the results of it.

Way back in 1983, as now, the holy grail of alienated music was the fusion of any two of its genres: metal, punk and industrial. Specifically there was great interest in using its guitar-based genres to create a new sound. Many people attempted to fuse metal and punk, and many credible sounds came out of it. One path was speed metal, which Metallica unleashed with Kill ‘Em All. Another was thrash, which DRI cut loose with Dirty Rotten LP. But still another was the foundation of death metal and black metal which was introduced by Slayer and refined the following year by Bathory, Hellhammer and Sodom.

Slayer took two things from punk and injected them into the prog-influenced songs structures of NWOBHM: they borrowed the constant tremolo strum, used by punk for drone, and the open drum patterns that allowed guitar to take the lead. Now a new style of music emerged. Rhythm guitar became the lead instrument, rapid-firing changing riffs at the audience while drums framed but did not lead the development. Riffs did not have to perfectly fit the drums which kept going in the background as a kind of timekeeper but not, as in most bands, a way of signaling the guitar to change. Further, riffs became phrasal, building on the longer chord progressions of Black Sabbath to become fully small melodies, developing in response to on another like classical motifs.

Music teachers, who were raised in the rock/jazz idea that drums lead and riffs should emphasize harmonic and a static melodic role, with the primary melodic role and lead instrument (and thus impetus for song “development”) being the voice, found Slayer to be unmusical. The record industry was appalled at this creation that unleashed the demonic side of life in such clarity; they make their money from selling happy illusions, not grim realities translated into elaborately conceived mythologies.

And yet it is this mythological tendency, dating back to “War Pigs,” that saves metal from self-consuming and burning out like hardcore punk. It is not literal; it is imaginative. It turns our focus from ourselves to the nature of power, history, nature and other forces larger than the individual, and then lets us imagine the greatness of participation in those. Where punk turned reality into a protest weapon and source of alienation, metal has turned it into a source of individual desire to do something epic with our lives. Slayer gave that mythological tendency a new voice, not just by singing about demons, vampires and The Holocaust, but by translating the sound of raw power into something you could throw on your bedroom hi-fi and be transported to a different world.

For this reason, Slayer captured the imagination of a generation and continues to enthrall us today. The early albums, which are completely written in horror movie mythology, incite in us a desire to see the hidden possibly occult underpinnings of a society gone insane. The Reign in Blood and afterwards material shows us a more punk-like grasp of all that terrifies us and sends us searching for reasons why, and if not why, how to use such things as war, murder and sadism in some constructive way. Slayer is not protest music; it acknowledges the horror, but doesn’t want to band us together into a drum circle to “stop” these horrors. It recognizes they are eternal. Instead, like the religion it loathed, Slayer drives us to find a way to accept these things as part of life itself, and look for a philosophy that shows us a reason to survive despite all these horrors.

Jeff Hanneman’s influence pervades the Slayer story. He wrote many of the band’s most epic and enduring songs, contributed the mythological outlook, and invented the musical changes described above. While he may be slighted by the Grammy’s, or ignored by a world of people seeking Shakira tunes instead of imaginative but realist metal, to those who can understand his trip — already a naturally elite group — Hanneman’s work is not just a source of wisdom, but of inspiration. In a world asleep, he stayed awake. In a world of imitation, he took his own path. Where most just wanted to participate for reward, he took on life at its most basic level and triumphed. For that reason, we’ll always celebrate his life and work.


Chaos rampant,
An age of distrust.
Confrontations.
Impulsive sabbath.

On and on, south of heaven

4 Comments

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Demilich – 20th Adversary of Emptiness

demilich-20th-adversary-of-emptiness

When too many utterly mindless and pandering bands pile up in the review queue, even life seems washed out and hopeless. At that point, even death metal has lost its power and mystique. When that happens, I throw on Demilich Nespithe and my faith in the genre is restored. This album presents such a creative and yet meaningful interpretation of death metal that it restores faith in a lot more than the genre.

The 20th Adversary of Emptiness reproduces a restored Nespithe complete with original art, adds two songs from the 2006 return of Demilich, and then compiles the demos of this formative band. Svart Records prints these on vinyl and CD formats, with the vinyl option as a box set and the CD for more everyday listening (that way you can have a copy in the car, too). Naturally this adds three areas for study.

The original album remains as powerful as it was back in the 1990s. If any remastering has occurred, it has been slight because the originally subterranean and organic sound has been preserved. There is not much to say about this classic that wasn’t said in the original 1993 review, but for a short introduction, it is a death metal album that uses lead riffing and complex riff-rhythm interaction and development to create an entirely otherworldly sound. Into this it drops doubt, loneliness, and a sense of restoration through imagination. It is from the oldest school of artistry and a work of intensely fine-tuned thinking and musicianship.

Much will be made of the newer tracks. I see these as an attempt to take the classic Demilich sound into the more technical and streamlined death metal of the early 2000s. In fact, two these songs — “of Vanishing” and “of Emptiness” — were written in the early 1990s, while “Faces Right Below the Skin of the Earth” was the only one penned in 2006. The three tracks hold true to the Demilich format but give it more aggression and death metal thrills. “Faces Right Below the Skin of the Earth” starts with a rhythm tear that resembles something Covenant-era Morbid Angel and first album At the Gates might envision if they collaborated, but then drops into a cyclic riff that follows the old Demilich pattern. In developing that riff, the band put it into the more rhythmically challenging format that contemporary metal listeners might desire, but then begin their trademark cyclic polyrhythm while mutating the riff toward a larger pattern. Eventually this becomes the concluding theme and the song drives hard to a conclusion. “of Vanishing” uses a Morbid Angel trope, namely “Immortal Rites,” but gives it the more complex rhythmic and melodic vision of Demilich. This then filters through a full stop and drum roll into Demilich-styled cyclic melodic riffing before returning to theme. Interesting guitar solo on this one. “of Emptiness” uses a throttling melodic riff more like the stuff that Necrovore used to apply, and builds into the most conventional song in this three-track set. It slides into an almost Black Sabbath-styled doomy charging riff and alternates it with lead-picked riffs used to change tempo and add depth, but then returns to its aggressive attack. This track uses a lot of stops and starts and loses some momentum. On the whole, these three tracks show an interesting attempt to modernize Demilich and make it more aggressive, but also show why the band probably did not want to continue going in that direction. Sometimes the past is too distinct to be resurrected as anything but itself, and not everyone may want to do that two decades later.

On to the demos… these are fascinating because they show how deliberate the final Demilich sound really is. These songs are familiar but each has different changes. In particular, different styles of lead guitar were tried as well as attempts to make the riffs fit more into the rhythm styles favored by different subgenres of death metal. The closer demos get to Nespithe chronologically the more they exhibit an intense technicality and unique style, but as one goes back in time they are closer to standard death metal with some unique innovations woven in. As time passes, the weaving becomes more intense and the new style takes over the raw elements. It is fascinating to watch these songs develop and the demo pressing here is entirely worth the price of this album (or even box set). They do not bore and there is always something new to be heard in each of these classic demo tracks.

20th Adversary of Emptiness offers something to just about anyone. If this is your first Demilich experience, stick to the first disk (Nespithe) for a glimpse into classic death metal when it wasn’t afraid to be weird. For dyed-in-the-wool Demilich fans and hardcores, there’s hours of interest to be found in tracking back these older demo pieces and seeing where they go. Both groups will enjoy the three 2006-era tracks which show a more violent and streamlined Demilich. Ultimately, this whole package lives up to its strange title because it is an adversary of emptiness.

This music evokes loneliness and a hollow, achingly empty universe without inherent point, and shows the creation of a mythos within that void that could keep us focused on survival and improvement even through a long and depleting arctic circle winter. Seeing these rare tracks ride again is rewarding as is seeing Nespithe get the credit that it has always deserved but almost missed as people chased death metal trends back in the day. The booklet, featuring both classic art and pictures, comes with a length interview with guitarist Antti Boman and his commentary on each song with lyrics. This is rare and wonderful also. Just make sure you avoid reading the introduction, which is written by some idiot and makes no sense.

7 Comments

Tags: , , ,

An At the Gates career retrospective

at-the-gates-band-photo

Since the days of being a small child I have been fascinated by how things fall apart. At an early age I could recognize decay, but knew it was separate from the tendency of human efforts to disintegrate once they grew past their initial effort.

A simple example was our veterinarian. He started out with a group of other animal doctors. Then people realized this one guy does great work. He struck out for himself. Soon he had too much work to do. He expanded, hiring more people and getting a new building. Soon he was no longer doing great work and he was more expensive. It took people a decade to find out. Most of them were still telling each other the accepted truth that he was doing great work.

At the Gates have announced their reformation as part of the 2013-inspired wave that saw Gorguts and Carcass return. Unlike the 2009-wave of returning bands, like Asphyx and Beherit, this retro-underground-revival has featured classic bands “modernizing” their sound. It also generally exhibits bands who had already cast aside their metal roots for musical reasons. Where the previous wave was more a sense of bands returning to pick up where they left off, the new wave seems to be about bands participating in the new metal scene and trying to siphon off some of that interest, newsworthiness and cash flow.

At the Gates started from the ashes of Grotesque back in 1990. They quickly released an EP, Gardens of Grief, followed by an LP, The Red in the Sky is Ours. These two works constitute the important artistic output from At the Gates because they were so radical in death metal. First, they incorporated melody as a structural device, where previously it had been used as a technique and worn to death. Next, they showed song development that surpassed what most bands were doing. Finally, their use of single-note picked riffs and spacious drumming produced a greater range of dynamics for death metal. Between At the Gates and other Swedish death metal acts that used melody such as Therion and Carnage, the roots of black metal were laid.

After that, things got confused. With Fear I Kiss the Burning Darkness followed in 1993 but lacked the clarity of the early work, showing a band in conflict over whether it wanted to follow its initial style, or get more power chords and catchy choruses in there. This led to the departure of original member Alf Svensson and regrouping with guitarist Martin Larsson, formerly of House of Usher. At this point, the band reformulated their sound to be more like regular death metal and yet also more like accepted rock music, including displaying the technical chops expected in that field. Now, like countrymen Dissection, At the Gates sounded like a death metal wrapper around a regular rock band, and a good one at that. Interest soared. The band released Slaughter of the Soul to grand acclaim despite the album having more in common with the speed metal of the mid-1980s than the death metal of the 1990s.

After their most popular album ever, the band fragmented when the Björler brothers moved on to form The Haunted. Most metalheads recognize that moment as the ground zero for melodic metalcore, which combined the 1980s speed metal approach to songwriting with the late hardcore tendency to value random riffs stacked together in carnival sideshow music style. However, for a new neurotic generation, this distraction-oriented music was a perfect soundtrack, and The Haunted became a success in its own right. At the Gates put out a few retrospectives and occasionally re-united but basically was dead.

In 2014, it’s hard to imagine the band not making Slaughter of the Soul II. It was their greatest success and introduced themes of self-pity, such as suicide, which are always popular with the youth of narcissistic parents who essentially feel doomed from puberty onward despite living in relative luxury. Slaughter of the Soul was a clear precursor to The Haunted which took the frenetic randomness of bands like Discordance Axis and Human Remains and made it into a new style that, by using the sweet sounds of Iron Maiden-styled harmony, found mass appeal.

At the Gates made the following statement:

We know you are all curious about the new material, and to make a simple explanation of where we are at musically, we would describe it as a perfect mix between early AT THE GATES & ‘Slaughter of the Soul’-era AT THE GATES, trying to maintain the legacy and the history

This leaves us wondering what they consider “early” At the Gates since presumably that’s everything before Slaughter of the Soul, and they did not specifically mention the first EP or LP by name.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EFKuR3-G4K0

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mXbwnMCT79w

20 Comments

Tags: , ,

Classic reviews:
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z