Calling #metalgate what it is

December 13, 2014 –

nu-metalhead_hipster

We all went to high school. #MetalGate reminds me of those dark days when there were cool kids and un-cool kids, and if you weren’t in the former group you were just nobody.

Growing up with a single Mom who kept our budget tight, I never had the cool clothes. Since I worked after school and then did homework until bedtime, I didn’t know the cool stuff on TV or in movies. Not having been raised around the cool kids, or having a parent with the time or energy to show me how to be “cool,” it never occurred to me to try. And suddenly people were pointing and laughing and then my head was getting bashed into a locker.

When one of these people approached me and started making fun of me, my instinct was to cower away and assume that they knew something I should know which gave them some kind of “authority” in the high school social scene. Over time I realized that this “something” was nothing important, and their real goal was savor the Schadenfreude of making someone else miserable for being who they were. I learned that there is one way to stand up to such people: do not apologize, do not back down, but go straight to the biggest one and hit him as hard as you can. They usually backed down and often apologized after that. I let the matter drop at that point since most of these bullies came from troubled homes: Dad drank too much, Mom ran around with the neighborhood used-car salesman, or there were money troubles. Some of them ended up being lifelong friends, after we settled our differences on the schoolyard.

When I look at #MetalGate, I see a whole industry cowering before these people who want to make metal “socially conscious” and politically correct. We, as metalheads, have refused to call these people what they are, so I will: bullies. They are bullies whose weapon is guilt. In high school, it was guilt for not being “cool.” In the hipster-nerd infested metal scene, it’s guilt for not having the “right” opinions. Haven’t we all matured past this?

Bullies always have a clique. This clique agrees that they are right and everyone else is just not cool enough. They need an excuse that other people will accept for their bullying, so they come up with a reason that sounds good. They do not care if it is true. They just want to rally other people around them who will agree that you deserved getting your head pounded into that locker. Like all cliques, their little group works by every member validating every other. It is the worst aspect of humanity which we saw at the Salem witch trials, at Nuremburg, even in lynch mobs hanging African-Americans. This is the psychology of prejudice, and bullies struggle to conceal their prejudice by arguing that they are defending their ingroup against an outgroup:

What Tajfel discovered is that groups formed on the basis of almost any distinction are prone to ingroup bias. Within minutes of being divided into groups, people tend to see their own group as superior to other groups, and they will frequently seek to maintain an advantage over other groups. – The Psychology of Prejudice, Professor Scott Plous, Wesleyan University

In other words, if you group people together by any arbitrary means they will quickly act like a tribe and enforce their rules on others. This is how bullies operate: they gather together people, offer them entry into an ingroup, but the price for that entry is that they must join in the bullying of the outgroup… and so kids get heads slammed into their lockers for wearing cardigan sweaters (hey, it was a hand-me-down) which is totally uncool.

The #MetalGate people, who I am told call themselves “Social Justice Warriors” or SJWs, are bullies of this type. They will claim they are against prejudice, but really what this means is that they are using that argument to conceal their own prejudice. They just want someone to bully. The reason is probably the same as with the high school bullies, which is that their lives are miserable and they want to take out their frustration and anger on others. This pattern occurs time and again, with the most famous being the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC):

On August 19, 1985, the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee of the United States Senate opened public hearings intended to gather expert testimony on “the content of certain sound recordings and suggestions that recording packages be labeled to provide a warning to prospective purchasers of sexually explicit or other potentially offensive content.” Widely known as “The PMRC Hearings” after the acronym of an independent group—the Parents Music Resource Council—advocating for the “voluntary” adoption of warning stickers on record albums whose lyrics it deemed to be offensive, the hearings did not, in fact, end up leading to any kind of legislative action.

This group also wanted to bully metal because they were looking for a scapegoat for what they saw as a decline in public morality. They figured they could pick on metalheads because we are not the wives of Senators, we may not have education and money, and we are prone to be silent when society bullies us. But metalheads stood up against them, whopped them in the nose, and refused to take it. Another group of bullies back in the 1980s were the Dead Kennedys fans who decided that Slayer was really, really bad for singing (with clear disapproval) about Auschwitz and the horrors of the Holocaust. “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” was their theme song and they used this as an excuse to beat on random fans wearing Slayer tshirts. Punk had just gone through its own #PunkGate at that point, I guess, and the politically correct people came out on top.

There are plenty of groups of bullies in metal today. The pretentious hipsters who think you are unenlightened if you do not “appreciate” Deafheaven are one, and so are the people who think that if you are not a full-on SJW you are a bad person. So are the “tryhards” who insist they support diehard underground music but use that as an excuse to troll anyone who does not exclusively listen to three-chord Blasphemy or Incantation clones. In each group, the solution is the same: tell them where they can shove their pretense and guilt because you know their secret, which is that they are just bullies.

The difference with SJWs is that they act like they are revolutionaries who are re-educating us in important topics. But guess what, guys: you are not disenfranchised anymore. You get positive press and in fact most of you work in the press. The US government agrees with you, as does the UN. Your ideas are not revolutionary because they are the norm. Like most bullies, you are cloaking yourselves in the ideals of the mainstream in order to punish us outliers. This is no different than what happened in the Soviet Union or Nazi regime, where people who “thought differently” got shot at dawn. You are the new Nazis.

Metal should fight back because metal should not become a vehicle for the control agenda of any group. Metal is its own group, and people police this because we know that many other groups would like to assimilate us and use us for their own purposes. It has been tried before, with hard rock in the 1970s, punk in the 1980s, and now post-punk in the 2000s. Like all bullies, they want to stop us from being different and make us more like them, which is to say the bog-standard generic mainstream. Their bands are all second-rate and their ideas warmed over slogans from the 1960s. Metalheads should feel no guilt about acting in our own self-interest, which is to keep our music away from this group of bullies and refuse to let them dominate us.

Excel – Split Image

December 8, 2014 –

excel-split_image

Now that our society has fallen apart further, the 1980s like simple and honest like the 1950s did to people exhausted of modern society in the 1980s. A better outlook might be that however our fallen time, it is a more fallen version of the 1980s, with the same pitfalls and failures. Those who lived through it can tell you how much a time of terror it was, with nuclear warfare and social collapse at every turn, and how this propelled some artists to put their most sacred hopes and fears into music. Excel was not one of them.

Excel created this “crossover thrash” back in the 1980s but really, this album belongs in with the Pantera/Biohazard school of bouncy hard rock in punk form with some added metal riffs. The problem with hard rock is that it relies on a simple mentality behind its riffs and that it aims to attract, so it is the equivalent of carnival music or a dinner theater side-show, which is really obvious music that gratifies really basic desires. That keeps the interest less than something articulated and involved like DRI, which offers its own riff style that obviously derives influence from many places, but does not parrot them. The only hidden influence here would be a more pronounced version of the Orange County surf-rock sound that incorporates novelty and party music into basic rock and projects it onto whatever genre can serve as canvas, in this case the basic punk of Excel. The tendency toward riffs based on playing a consistent trope, then interrupting it so the audience can get excited for it to return, while a technique to some degree in most music here becomes a staple in the most basic, drunk football fan throwing feces at the stage way.

The “crossover” part here consists of faster punk riffs that pick up after the chunky bounce-metal riffs and grandstanding hard rock riffs run out. Over this, a vocalist essentially speaks his lines and ends them on a melodic uptake, and although he deserves some note for periodically sounding like Snake from Voivod, these vocals bring out nothing in the music and mostly try to draw attention to themselves with the rest of the music as background atmosphere. Drums sound like a jogger trying to keep up with the vocals and far too often fall into the same syncopated beat that adds nothing but background noise, since the guitar and vocal hooks are nearly in unison and provide all the rhythm we need. While from a distance this album will appear to be no different than DRI, Cryptic Slaughter and Suicidal Tendencies, it lacks the fundamental spirit toward the expression itself as something distinct from and not pandering to the crowd. There is too much pander in Excel, and it dumbs down the music.

Wömit Angel – Holy Goatse

December 5, 2014 –

woemit_angel-holy_goatse

Does anyone remember Driller Killer? Wömit Angel joins the tradition of metal bands making novelty releases on the society-hating side. Obviously inspired by Impaled Nazarene, Wömit Angel serves up fast hardcore riffs with a heavy dose of hard rock on the choruses.

And that is about all you must know.

This release makes for pleasant listening in that obviously these guys have been in metal bands for some time and know all the ways to give a song power. There are no random wanderings like one finds with inexperienced bands; everything fits together like a puzzle. The problem is that each puzzle is based around a melodic hook per song, with a corresponding rhythmic hook in vocals, and then nothing really interesting happens even when they inject a bit of riff salad. What fails to hold these songs together is internal, at a conceptual level lower than music. They are all variations of the same idea which is fun background music to hate society and self-destruct to.

Driller Killer was similar but of 1999 or so vintage. It was fast hardcore with melodic undertones but the heavier emphasis on chorus vocal rhythm common to German speed/death metal bands (we’re looking at you, Destruction). It was catchy. No part of it was incompetent. But like Holy Goatse, the Driller Killer album was temporary, transient and quickly forgotten. Music is best when it evokes a feel from life and observes something poetic about it. If that feeling is living on Euro-welfare, drinking $9 beers and hating society — with no motivation to find a reason why — the result will be a nostalgia-tinged journey through influences and convenient songwriting.

Thus rises the epitaph of Wömit Angel. If you found this at a yard sale, it would hold your attention for a couple weeks, but mostly for the novelty of the name and cover. Then you would put it in a box and ten years later drop it off somewhere where it would again end up as a yard sale item. Music must have meaning or it becomes universal pop which is like elevator music at this point: always there, always cheap, and rarely lasting more than an instant.

A brief retrospective of Slayer

September 13, 2014 –

slayer-classic

Slayer blasted their way into the underground metal scene in 1983. Metal had just shifted; the genre of Black Sabbath got taken over by the Led Zeppelin fans, resulting in glam and arena rock, and was just being taken back by a DIY movement via speed metal. Inspired by that speed metal movement, Slayer took their music in a slightly different direction.

“Heavy metal and British punk, that’s what we are.” The four young men from Southern California shaped their music by instinct, applying the techniques of punk to the most intense moments of heavy metal. Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Motorhead, Angel Witch, GBH and Discharge. It all went into the blender and the result emerged more vicious than ever before.

Woodstock – Los Angeles, CA – March 28, 1983

The Keystone – Berkeley, CA – January 27, 1984

The Country Club – Reseda, CA – September 1, 1984

Heavy Sound Festival – Poperinge, Belgium – May 26, 1985

Dynamo Club – Eindhoven, Netherlands – May 28, 1985

The Ritz – New York City – June 12, 1986

Felt Forum – New York City – August 31, 1988

Clash of the Titans – Genk, Belgium September 22, 1990

Show No Mercy reflected more of a heavy metal bias, still hanging on to the grandeur of the 1970s. By Hell Awaits, Slayer forged their own style, inspired in part by the minimalism of the Haunting the Chapel EP. Even more, the band discovered a mythology in Satanic rebellion against a world where the term “good” meant obedient, oblivious and zombie-like in pursuit of individual pleasure at the expense of realism. They hated this world, and branded it with an inverted cross in rage at its existence. This outlook was healthier than the pleading resentment of the protest rock bands and less dead-end apathetic than what punk became. Metal had a new voice.

With the next album, Reign in Blood, Slayer pulled out all stops and most melody to create the ultimate hardcore album. The metal elements infused riff structure and song structure but its energy was pure hardcore punk, the raging album that The Exploited and Black Flag always had wanted to birth. In the 1980s, endorsing Satan and singing about the dark underbelly lurking beneath our happy commercial Utopia was in itself a life sentence of exclusion. Slayer wore it with pride and as people caught on to the new music, the most extreme band in underground metal headed toward the dead center of the genre.

In response, Slayer did what few bands have the guts to do: they backtracked from their nihilistic extreme and made a melodic album, but kept the melody constrained to a sense of dark atmosphere that would not be revisited until black metal exploded four years later. South of Heaven immersed the listener in pure mood and then manipulated it to create an unnerving experience of getting in touch with emotion by leaving behind all that is human. This was the peak of Slayer and represented the end of their emotional involvement with their own music, thus afterwards they pursued ideas that others had made popular and successful, hoping to make their own form of the alien.

Misfits – Earth A.D.

September 11, 2014 –

misfits-earth_ad

The average person likely thinks of punk music as associated with the anarchist punks interested in politics which are the prevailing stereotype of the genre. He may also consider the pacifistic music emanating from the pop punk style. It is rarer to find someone who mentions the ugly, mythology-drenched anthem to horror present in the legendary Earth A.D from the Misfits.

Punk music was already in the midst of a paradigm shift set in motion most notably by Discharge from the UK who introduced a more violent and apocalyptic sound and lyrical path. When other punk bands wrote about the injustices of politicians, Misfits took a much more morbid route, injecting the destructive spirit of Discharge and wrote lyrics about horror movies, demons, and murder. The result is a dark and churning offering of horror punk, a style pioneered by the Misfits themselves which verges close to the metal sense of a mythological view of history as a means of interpreting the personal.

Though still relatively footed in rock music, Earth A.D. is most definitely the Misfits album with the most prevalent metal influence: pulsing rhythms carried under the wings of the riffs that flail in constant motion. Bracing levels of distortion and dissonant tones make this album both memorable through its hooks and blistering in its impact. Where most punk wanted to sound like a protest calling for pity, Earth A.D. delivers a short, biting, and menacing experience from an era that would change music forever.

Hardcore, Punk, and Other Junk: Aggressive Sounds in Contemporary Music edited by Eric James Abbey and Colin Helb

August 10, 2014 –

eric_james_abbey-colin_helb-hardcore_punk_and_other_junk.

Metalheads tend to distrust academia. We distrust the machine in all of its forms, and since the machine accepts academia, we believe the voice of academia is tainted by interest toward social acceptance. Academia also has a habit of finding ways to cram reality into its theories rather than the other way around. However, some academics make insightful contributions to the study of metal and Hardcore, Punk, and Other Junk: Aggressive Sounds in Contemporary Music provides an example of the best of this process.

This collection of essays looks at extreme music in general and extends this to metal, hardcore punk and punk rock communities. Sadly many authors make the mistake many do of incorporating recent pseudo-metal hybrids as some form of legitimate metal, which spams their results with some nonsense. The balance of results however turns out for the best because these academics look at detail-level reproducible phenomena and so are able to avoid the kind of craziness that would happen if they took “modern death metal” to be a legitimate form of the genre. Since metal and hardcore punk share a heritage both influencing and as influences of one another, the multiple pieces on that topic serve to bolster the understanding of metal.

Ross Hagen‘s piece “No Fun: Noise Music, Avant-garde expression and Sonic Punishment” ventures into the world of noise as music and explores a number of theories of its appeal. His most tantalizing riff zeroes in on the idea that society attempts to control noise and categorize it by the containers used to sample it, thus the tendency of irregular acoustic noise is to overthrow the social control imposed for the convenience of society having categorical dominance. While this piece does not seem to be directly on point to metal, it explores the same sonic space that metal uses and suggests reasons for it that may overlap with the psychology of metalheads.

Nelson Varas-Diaz contributes writing that analyzes Puerto Rico as a metal scene and the historical antecedents for appreciation of metal in this unique context. While his research involves statistical analysis, the best part of it may be the narrative aspect where he explains the history of metal in Puerto Rico as a type of struggle to be heard. In this piece also can be found extensive information about founding and contemporary Puerto Rican metal bands.

While it is beyond the scope of this review to cover every piece in the book, several others merit immediate attention by the wandering metalhead. Mika Elovaara looks into the meaning of metal lyrics and finds something akin to the mythical-historical view expounded upon in these digital pages. As if clarifying Lords of Chaos, one of his research subjects from Norway opines:

I feel that it is important that people understand why they have been born and that other people fought for our well-being and to preserve our culture and society. Our cultural heritage is going to die because people ignore it or do not even realize its significance. Viking and Norse mythology have been described as something evil and distant, but in reality, it is close to home and not necessarily evil at all. That it is not Christian does not mean it is evil. I use the mythology to describe situations in the world and politics, actual topics that were part of our lives a thousand years ago just as they are today. One can be proud of one’s heritage and identity without any racist or nationalistic tendencies. And Satanism is quite outside of this.

His extensive interviews bring up other similar flirtations with the taboo which makes sense as metal is “edge music” that exists to push social standards beyond what they normally accept. He probes the filaments of metal’s obsession with the evil and dark, and yet finds a certain kind of benevolence. “They mean critical thinking and encourage independent thinking,” said one fan about metal lyrics. The entire study is too complex to summarize here but at a minimum provides food for thought about what metal is attempting to communicate.

Another metal-related piece by Marcus Erbe looks into the science of producing death metal vocals and what that type of sound might mean in the unconscious and shared experience of being human. He finds that human vocals universally split between a melodic voice and a textural voice, with the latter expressing “monstrous” sensations. He then explores the nature of the monstrous in psychology and finds that it includes both the other and our fears for what is within us. This thought-provoking essay fuels further the question about what it is in metal that is really socially unacceptable, its rejection of social mores or its seeing through them.

Other articles explore more specific topics. On the whole, the book shows a new face for academia in looking into metal that is less afraid of certain areas of metal that are alien to what academia customarily writes about and may reject attitudes held by the majority of academics. The insight offered into the mechanics of metal and the associated symbols that it invokes also suggests new areas for academics and thinkers to pry into this interesting genre. Hardcore, Punk, and Other Junk: Aggressive Sounds in Contemporary Music lives up to its title and presents a window into the troubling questions that most would ignore raised by these dissident genres.

Interview: Personal Device

July 25, 2014 –

personal_device-band_photo

We reviewed Personal Device Microorganismos del Mal in Sadistic Metal Reviews 05-19-14 and found this to be an excellent late thrash album inspired by some of the more technical hardcore punk out there. At that point, we wanted to learn more, so wrote to the band with a short interview some months later. They were generous with their time and able to share their answers about music, life, micro-organisms, thrash and world destruction.

When did Personal Device start, and what bands or ideas inspired you at the time? What does the name “Personal Device” signify?

We go way back as a band.

We started up in 2006 as UNHEILBAR (German: incurable), playing what you may call “classic thrash.” At that point we were looking up to the Bay Area scene, trying to mix it up with some German influences: we were trying to capture the essence of such bands as Metallica, Anthrax, Exodus, Slayer, Sacred Reich, Testament, and so on. Then, circa 2009, we started exploring a fresher sound with crossover: Suicidal Tendencies, Nuclear Assault, Ratos de Porao, Billy Milano’s S.O.D and M.O.D. At that point, we made a switch from a purely thrash project to a more comprehensible one: mixing both old school thrash with some 80s hardcore punk (Minor Threat, Black Flag, Bad Brains, Batallion of Saints). With this new approach came along our changing the name of the band to Personal Device in 2013. To us it means the constant struggle to find oneself, one’s tools to get by. Plus, it sounds like something about to explode.

Are you a metal band? A punk band? A crossover thrash band?

Our music is based on Metal but we incorporate elements of hardcore punk sounds, which kinda makes us a crossover thrash band. We often refer to ourselves as thrash-punk, but we don’t care much about labeling us in a certain way. We are comfortable being refered to as a Thrash Band. If you want to Mosh, if you are looking forward to heavy riff-orientated, fast pace, songs, then Personal Device is for you.

Much of your sound seems like a better-played vision of what people were doing in the 1980s. What made you pick up this banner? Have you added anything to it that’s new? What have you added that’s all your own?

While it’s true that we draw heavy influences from the so called old-school 80s scenes of thrash and punk, we don’t consider Personal Device to be a mere “revival band.” You could that we are not nostalgic, we aim to produce our own sound, though we can’t deny our great debt to the old school. Even so, we also like the New Wave of Thrash Metal bands, it’s just that we find it somehow pointless if your entire music is devoted to yell BRING 80s THRASH BACK.

What inspires your lyrics, and is this important in the style of music that you’re making?

Our lyrics deal with the condition of modern circumstances, living in big dehumanized cities. Nonetheless, you may find some sporadic nonesense as well as constant references to Colombia. We also have one or two jams dedicated to thrash music, a couple of thrash-party anthems if you will.

Where did you record Microorganismos del Mal, and were these new songs or a collection of songs? Did you use any special techniques to get the very crisp sound on the recording?

After signing with our friends at the independent label Gomorrah Records, we went to the 4Cuartos studio in Bogotá D.C. We recorded our first full-length album Microorganismos del Mal (Spanish for Microorganisms of Evil) which is the consecration of eight years worth of work. There are 10 tracks in it: five of them are re-recordings of songs we had already recorded as Unheilbar, the other five are original compositions. The recording was pretty standard for a heavy metal band; we worked with two great sound engineers, Juan Carlos Bravo and Alejandro Veloza.

Can you tell us something about the concept behind the album?

The concept behind Microorganismos del Mal deals with our city, Bogotá, and with the meaning of Thrash and Punk.: a reflection on how important it is for us to live the whole experience of making music.

When did you sign to Gomorrah Records, and what made you choose this label?

We signed with Gomorrah around November 2013, and it was not much of a deal at the time of doing it since there was, and still there is, a friendship in between. So they just told us that they wanted us to release an album produced by them and we never doubted it.

Are you going to go on tour now, record more material, or both?

For sure we are planning to go on tour. There is the possibility to self manage a tour around the US more specifically in Florida. And also we have been looking for rock venues around South America where we could play. All this under a “do it yourself” philosophy. About new recordings, right now we are working on new material, and some of those songs were recorded in collaboration with sound engineering and visual arts students, with the idea of launching a live session

Do you think it’s hard for a band to get recognized in the underground now? How do you think people will find you?

It is definitely hard to get recognition when you play Thrash. Especially when you live in Colombia, but we think it is a matter of time and hard work. We have been playing together for around eight years and you can see how things start to happen when you are consistent. So in this moment the best way to be recognized its playing and having approaches with different people and all the movements that are concerned about music and keeping the scene alive.

What’s the most important aspect of a song for you, lyrics, riffs, structure or imagery?

For us, all those aspects are important. We like to come up with songs that have coherence between sound and lyrics, and that involves off course, structure and imagery.

If people want to learn more about Personal Device, how can they do so?

There is no doubt the best way to learn about a band is going to their concerts, buying their albums, reading the interviews, reviews and all that stuff. So taking into account we are a band…well people just can start by doing it. A good place to go first would be our bandcamp page, personaldevice.bandcamp.com.

5 thrash albums that you must hear

July 11, 2014 –

thrasher-backyard_issue-1983
Image from Thrasher Magazine.

Thrasher music deserves its own category. It spans three genres and gave its name to one. It also plays by entirely distinct rules that place it in both metal and punk camps, but not exclusively in either. Despite the attempts of both genres to claim it, it has weaseled free by refusing to fully adopt the conventions of either. It’s too punk for punk and too metal to be metal, but it lives on to this day through those who want a different path.

Hop on your board and skate back into 1985. Heart of the Reagan years, themselves a recovery period from the turbulent 1960s and somewhat crass and vapid 1970s. The suburbs had finally outpaced the city as everyone who could escape fled, which left millions of teenagers stranded in planned communities that were essentially marooned on anonymous patches of land connected by freeways. Divorce and latch-key kids were at epidemic height and most people barely had anything to call a family. To make things worse, Soviet missiles threatened the homeland and spread a kind of daily paranoia that people both accepted and in their quietest moments, feared to confront. No one knew if tomorrow would even come and if it did, whether it would be worth it.

Kids did what just about anyone would do: get out of the house, escape the conformist collective-consciousness zombie robot schools, avoid the television, and produce culture. Skateboards started as a fad but became a lifestyle because they provided a means of getting around, an activity, and most importantly, a type of place the activity could occur. Even more vitally they gave kids an identity and purpose outside of mainstream culture which as far as anyone could tell was a vapid disaster. Cyndi Lauper? Madonna? Bruce Springsteen? Music connected this culture but it evolved to fit it instead of the other way around. Thrasher music took its attributes from the thrasher lifestyle.

The one sin in thrasher culture was to fall into mainstream thinking. It defined itself in opposition to that entire vein of thought. Thrashers made the assumption that if someone with a position in society validated an idea, the idea was manipulation. This paranoia arose from disciplinarian schools, crafty public image creation by parents during divorces, and distrust of the kind of promises that advertised the suburbs. “Come to Shady Acres,” the sign would say, and you would find a house that was on nothing as big as an acre with no shade because all the trees had been planted during the last week when construction finished. And then your parents who spent too much time at their jobs would make all sorts of great promises about how school would be great, other kids would be great, and then those parents would disappear into jobs, divorces, swingers’ clubs, you name it, and you would be left alone. With nothing but your skateboard. Jump on and roll away… and never trust anything like those promises again.

Thrasher culture shaped the lyrics of its music. They show most of all a critique of a society that does not function. Imagine a broken microwave: you turn it on, and it flickers and makes noise but doesn’t really heat your food, or burns it to a crisp within ten seconds, or roasts the center and leaves the outside cold. This was the impression thrasher kids had of the society around them. It was on, but it was not working in the sense designed. Even worse, parents were oblivious and drugged on religion and money and social prestige and refused to notice at all when society didn’t work. Kids had to re-invent politics, society and philosophy from the ground up, and it had to fit between turns on the half-pipe.

While arguably the first music adopted by thrashers was punk, including a latent influence from the surf rock that may have inspired punk, and bands like Iron Maiden were perpetual favorites, the fusion of the three burst forth in the early 1980s as a genre called thrash. Avoiding dramatic titles like “5 thrash bands you must hear before you die,” where “die” could be defined as feeling that your job is more important than your soul, here are five thrash bands you must experience simply because they are amazing:

dirty_rotten_imbeciles(dri)-dealing_with_it

1. Dirty Rotten Imbeciles (DRI) – Dealing With It

This album despite being the second release by DRI defined the archetypal thrash sound. Short songs used punk tempi and metal riffs, fit their song structures around the words to the song, worked in some oi/surf rock lead guitars, but mostly focused on raging bursts of concise energy. DRI packed a bookshelf worth of ideas into a single album which meant that if you were a kid with a skateboard and ten bucks a week to your name, this was the album you saved up for. In addition, DRI expanded the lyrical oeuvre of thrash to include not just “socially conscious” lyrics but lyrics critical of society itself, including the process of socializing with other people. These lyrics struck out for the lone Nietzschean person isolated from the herd by the complete vapidity and deceitfulness of mainstream tastes. In addition, DRI rebelled — using metal bands such as Iron Maiden as its guide — against the punk tendency to destroy melody. Both vocals and guitars carry an actual tune which combined with the unique rhythms and song structures makes each song stand out but also, makes the whole album work together. Some songs had nothing more to offer than 18 seconds of fury, others stitch a mood, and the whole of Dealing With It thus becomes a map of the emotions of a skater trying to survive the 1980s while observing that society was in a state of advanced collapse and headed for the end.

cryptic_slaughter-convicted

2. Cryptic Slaughter – Convicted

Convicted got less attention than it should have because of its rough production and refusal to stick to any one template. Riffs on this album range from raw punk to death metal, which is sort of difficult because that genre was barely in formation itself in 1985 when this was released. Songs follow more of a punk template and vary structure less often which makes this band shy over toward punk, but use of vocal rhythms and inventive riffing distinguishes each. Many of the concepts of the next decade of death metal came from this album as well as most of grindcore. The ragged intensity of its vocal and guitar assault made Cryptic Slaughter the fastest band on the planet, and while it leaned toward punk, its ability to make metal-style riffs that thundered with finality pushed it into the thrash genre.

corrosion_of_conformity-eye_for_an_eye_plus_six_songs_with_mike_singing

3. Corrosion of Conformity (COC) – Eye for an Eye + Six Songs With Mike Singing

Arguably the most popular band in thrash, Corrosion of Conformity combined Black Sabbath and hardcore punk and came up with short attacks of creative songwriting that used traditional pieces from both heavy metal and hardcore punk genres. Every thrasher back in the day owned the tshirt with the COC alien skull on it and combined with DRI, this band essentially defined the genre. Songs are tiny atmosphere pieces that use punk energy and abrupt delivery to sneak in metal riffs and bounding punk choruses. Unlike punks however COC strayed into the minor key and chromatic world of metal where energy is crushed and turned into dark opposition instead of keeping the last aspects of rock ‘n’ roll’s happy-go-lucky “good times” sound. Inside of the anthemic punk with metal riffing on this album lurks a deep inner despair for society and self that made Eye for an Eye the more melancholic and existential side of thrash.

fearless_iranians_from_hell-die_for_allah

4. Fearless Iranians From Hell – Die For Allah

Not as many people heard of this band because in the 1980s, when Beirut embassies exploded and the Iranian hostage situation was fresh in many minds, adopting even a satyrical pro-Iranian position struck most people as going too far, like endorsing Hitler or Stalin. Combining this potent imagery with marijuana humor and cynicism about the American war and money machine, Fearless Iranians From Hell bashed out fast punkish songs with metallic riffing that emphasized a constant turbulent, restless energy. In that way, this band put their finger on the utter abyss fermenting beneath the world of laws, dollars, numbers and hard data. This revealed the conflict between a culture of goody two-shoes and the underlying desire to put things right according to some absolute law not based in what suburban parents used to allay their fears. The humorous aspect of this band caused many to neglect the fusion of late hardcore and indie metal that powered this band.

dead_horse-horsecore_an_unrelated_story_thats_time_consuming

5. Dead Horse – Horsecore

Another band that at first got little airplay, Dead Horse emerged in the late 1980s and got enmired in the Texas metal scene which tended to reward those who scratched everyone else’s back even if their bands were forgettable. The band finally broke out with their second album Peaceful Death and Pretty Flowers in 1991 which turned more toward a progressive death metal direction alongside other acts of a similar nature like Disharmonic Orchestra and Demilich. The earlier material of this band used the same song structures shaped around the content of each song that DRI did but added more vicious, metal-infused riffs that had the hallmark of soundtrack style epic figurative melodies. Where other bands relied on humor of absurdity, Dead Horse fused its own internal language and riffed off that, pushing together a cynicism toward the adult world with a sense of breakaway culture.

suicidal_tendencies-suicidal_tendencies

6. Suicidal Tendencies – Suicidal Tendencies

The title says five albums, not six. Yes: official numbers lie. Suicidal Tendencies perfected a style of thrash that invoked more of the guitar traditions of 1970s metal and overlaid its longer songs with extensive lead guitar, including bluesy and melodic sections. It also adopted the habit of using slower sections to build up to the explosion of faster raging riffing, which gave the album space from which sudden attacks became even more powerful. Outright references to skateboarding and life as a suburban teenager colored the lyrics and outlook of this self-titled release which won over many fans for its essentially punk nature with the interesting instrumentalism of metal. That and its self-mocking and self-distrusting humor which saw the world exclusively from the experience of the individual lost within it made this release a cross-over between skaters, punks and metalheads.

Thrash created a generation of music that turned up the intensity of metal and gave punk new room to grow in. This drew extensive influence from later hardcore of the Discharge, Black Flag, Minor Threat, GBH, the Exploited and Cro-Mags variety and in turn influenced the first generation of grindcore such as Repulsion Horrified, Napalm Death Scum, Carcass Reek of Putrefaction and Blood Impulse to Destroy. Thrashers also took heavy influence from melodic punk bands like Misfits and eccentric acts such as the Minutemen, all the way through pop-punk like Descendents and Dayglo Abortions. With the rise of thrash, punk and metal both felt pressure to turn up the intensity, which drove metal into the cryptic realms of death metal and punk into its progressive years.

The difference between metal and punk, rock: it’s not literal

April 10, 2014 –

woodstock

As author of The Heavy Metal FAQ, I have wrestled with the question of how to define metal over the years. Since it uses the same techniques as any other form of music, but used in different proportions and combinations, I have always focused on the idea that unites these uses which makes metal so obviously distinct from rock, punk and other forms of music.

To this I’d like to add another idea: metal is not literal. That is, metal tends to view the world through a symbolic or mythological lens. It does so to reflect our inward sensations about what is going on, plus a historical viewpoint which requires a more high-level view. The details don’t matter as much as the form, in metal, and we pay attention to the form and then put it in a folk-wisdom format.

Archetypal examples of this can be found in classic metal like “War Pigs” (Black Sabbath), “Hardening of the Arteries” (Slayer), “Painkiller” (Judas Priest) and “My Journey to the Stars” (Burzum). In these songs, mythological forces clash to reveal a truth of everyday life. They inform us about our time and put us into a symbolic and emotional framework with it in which we want to fight it out, fix it, struggle and win.

In contrast, most music is either sensuality-based or protest music. Sensuality-based music is exemplified by stuff like Shakira. Protest music really exploded in the 1960s, but reformed itself with punk, which took a more abstract and yet earthy view. Where the 60s bands sang about politics, punks sang about everyday life and the insanity of existence. This finally culminated in thrash, which used hints of metal’s mythology to make the personal into the universal, as in “Give My Taxes Back” (DRI), “M.A.D.” (Cryptic Slaughter), “Minds are Controlled” (COC) and “Man Unkind” (DRI).

Metal does go wrong sometimes and get literal. The worst of these are the ego-based songs, as in Pantera, or the songs about being metal and going to shows and the like, which are generally just dumb. It is not surprising that these are not favorites of the genre because they drop away from that 30,000-foot view and instead become more personal drama like the rest of our society, which explains why its institutions don’t function and its ideas are corrupt.

Interestingly, other genres are not literal either. Progressive rock was famous for songs about weird adventures in fantasy worlds that had striking parallels to our own (compare to JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis). Classical music tends toward fantastic descriptions from literature and history. These are genres of the weighty and impersonal, not the direct and immediate and personal. They have a different scope and internal language.

Jazz is the outlier. When sung, it tends toward protest and sensual lyrics. When instrumental, the sound of it suggests a combination of the two: a kind of secular (no meaning greater than the material and immediate) version of imagination, but applied to literal experience, such that it forms a kind of texture without a unifying core. It communicates the loneliness of modern isolation and a retreat into the personal complexity of the mind.

Where metal stands out among modern genres is that it still embraces this viewpoint, or at least did until the nu/mod-metal started appearing. Part of what makes such a viewpoint necessary is that metal, despite being about killer riffs, is not about the riff. It’s about many riffs stitched together to make an experience so that when the killer riff comes out, it has a meaning in context that makes it heavy. No song is heavy from just one riff. It’s heavy because when you get to that super-heavy riff, everything else has set it up to resonate.

This in part explains the audience of metal. Mythology, historical significance and topics of philosophy do not inspire the honor students, who are busy working on their careers (and the obedience-profitability nexus that these entail), or the average student, who is busy in a world of his/her own pleasures and delights. They do however appeal to the outliers, the dreamers and dissidents, who might find class boring because they find society boring and purposeless, and instead turn toward fantasy and a bigger, more abstract realism to express themselves.

Repo Man re-issued on Blu Ray

March 6, 2013 –


Repo Man
dir. Alex Cox
92 minutes, Criterion, $28 (Blu Ray)

alex_cox-repo_man_blu_rayImagine yourself in 1984. No, not the anti-totalitarian novel 1984, but the year. Ronald Reagan is president; the economy is struggling. It’s uncertain whether at any minute the US and USSR will exchange nuclear weapons with one another, annihilating life on earth.

They’ve stopped doing the nuclear drills in schools because even the dimwitted teachers have finally realized what ICBM means. Intercontinental Ballistic Missile: it gets here so fast they won’t tell you it’s coming. There will be no warning, only an artificial sun eating your cities, evaporating your friends and family, obliterating your memories.

Even more, American society is in free-fall. 1968 brought a huge upheaval and now it’s hippies versus people in suits every day but the hippies are more popular. The media generally takes their side; industry sides with the suits. Average people are squeezed in the middle, just trying to find food and lodging in a world that now thanks to technology demands more of them and costs more just to survive.

Those are the obvious challenges. Underneath the skin, there’s a great deal of doubt. We fought wars to end wars; we got a Cold War. Society seems to be falling apart. People in general seem to lack a reason to live except a fear of poverty and death. As a result, the nervousness grows and people become more slavelike to jobs, ideologies, religions, drugs, sex, alcohol, corporations and lifestyle justifications. It’s a Nietzschean feast of schadenfreude and a vast fear and trembling.

Into this mess explodes the hardcore and thrash movements. The formative elements of hardcore punk floated around in the late 1970s between Motorhead, the Sex Pistols, and thousands of nameless two-chord bands, but the genre really blew up in the early 1980s with Discharge, the Exploited, and Amebix in the UK and Black Flag, the Cro-Mags, and Minor Threat in the USA. Riding that wave came the punk rock bands, like Circle Jerks and Dead Kennedys, who offered a softer and funnier version of the same. Following as well were the thrash bands, like Suicidal Tendencies and DRI, who mixed hardcore songs with metal riffs to make short fast bursts of fury and discontent with society.

The best way to chronicle this punk scene would not be to focus on the music, because then you end with a standard rockumentary in which musicians reveal that, if articulating things were their real skill, they wouldn’t be musicians. Instead they express themselves through sound, which is generally more reliable in that it’s harder to cleverly re-define its root terms and subvert it. To chronicle this scene, you have to show what they see, and then play the music so that the two join in the middle.

If any movie showed hardcore for what it was, and also explained the era to those who were not aware of it, Repo Man is that movie. Like its inspiration Naked Lunch, it is a collage of nihilism and post-modern boredom, mixed with the terror of a new kind of totalitarian society based on consumer choice (more like 1984‘s inspiration, Brave New World). The fundamental vapidity of the people around you is what dooms you to conform yourself, or be smashed beneath the grinding wheels of the industrial apparatus. It is a paranoid, unstable time. Repo Man shows us this world through the eyes of a teenage Otto, who is an everyman of the era in that he has connected to fundamentally nothing. His parents are aliens, jobs are pointless and ruled by petty tyrants, school was a blow-out, and even his fellow punks let him down with their selfishness and lack of vision. Adrift, he wanders through the rusted mechanical ruins of L.A. until he is rescued by a mercenary-minded repossessor.

“Repossessor” was a dirty world back then, much like we might view organ harvesters now. Repo men were the people who took your car when you couldn’t afford the payments, and this happened to a good number of people. It could happen in front of your friends and family, announcing to the world your failure. In a society basing itself on capitalism as a means of differentiating itself from the socialist East, this type of failure was emotionally crushing. As you can imagine, a repo man was not the sort of person anyone looked up to. Society’s lepers, they fed off the scraps in the dump of society’s excesses. You can imagine how for most people, a transition to repo man is like living death. But to a punk, society is already a dead man walking and existing in it is already offensively zombie-like. So what’s to lose?

Otto joins the repo team with his mentor, Bud, who is outwardly selfish but ultimately more dedicated to expression of his own frustrated emotions. Together, they raid the L.A. basin for overdue car notes and in the process, encounter a prize beyond their wildest dreams — a car worth $20,000 (now probably $80k). Like the white whale in Moby-Dick, or the holy grail, this car divides people against one another and reveals what characters are really made of. In a world dedicated to self-interest, the question is whether self-interest will win out, or whether a higher (or lower) principle will be found to save the day.

Splashed throughout with energetic punk music from Suicidal Tendencies, the Circle Jerks, The Plugz, Black Flag and Iggy Pop, Repo Man brings punk culture to a wider audience by showing us the absurdity of our time and the helplessness of the characters within it, so long as they adopt its values and behave in the ways it teaches them to. Disturbing, funny, nuanced and accurate in its portrayal of a society that has lost the path to health, Repo Man will explain to you why you walk on the other side of the street from mainstream society, and suggest an esoteric path that will lead you all of the way away.