Riot V – Unleash The Fire

January 28, 2015 –

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Riot founder and guitarist Mark Reale died in 2012 after releasing the consistently engaging Immortal Soul. Under-appreciated for their entire careers, Riot never quite managed to do as well as they should have in the underground credibility sweepstakes. Manilla Road and Virgin Steele have both acquired formidable reputations with the passing of time, and deservedly so too, but Riot has been relegated to a footnote in metal history for the most part.

Like W.A.S.P. and early Manilla Road, Riot spent the early years as a fun-loving hard rock band teetering on the edges of heavy metal, without compromising their knack for tasteful songwriting or acute, insightful storytelling. Greater musical awareness dawned with the classic Thundersteel, no doubt influenced by the heavier, more intense developments in the contemporary metal of the time. Their run since then till the present day contains many undiscovered gems sure to appeal to all lovers of classic heavy metal.

How does one judge an album like Unleash The Fire? Created by those that have survived Reale’s death, and containing no original members, it is a tribute to a fallen comrade whose essence yet permeates all that is contained within it. As opposed to the more extreme strains of metal, everything in this music is geared towards a culmination in the big vocal chorus, new singer Todd Michael Hall recalling the late Guy Speranza’s clean, distilled tones. Riot’s talent, however, has always been to imbue this deterministic course of things with intensely melodic — but never melodramatic — embellishments and minute detours, thus greatly enhancing the overall fabric of songs. A wealth of detail lies hidden within the simplest of chord progressions, allowing the listener to enjoy the moment regardless of general predictability. Picking technique relies on tighter, speed metal chugging for creating and maintaining tension, and conventional, open power chords to convey a sense of epic release. Neoclassical virtuosity finds comfortable home amidst an undeniable individuality that is touched with the harmonic sensitivity of old practitioners like Blue Oyster Cult, Thin Lizzy, and Iron Maiden.

Albums like this are the reason why it is possible to be optimistic for the future health of metal despite much evidence suggesting that the rot has already set from within. There is a naive, guileless innocence to be found here, refreshingly free of the cynicism that reduces the best among us to surly curmudgeons at times. Unleash The Fire is a well spring of inspiration for all real strains of metal, as disparate as they may feel on the surface, if not always through its cosmetics then most definitely in what it aims to represent.

In its spirit, the way forward for metal can be seen much more clearly, by opening the eye at the back of the head, and keeping steady sight of what has gone before. What may appear as anachronistic or overly sentimental are actually the eternal universals; honour, beauty, pride, a respect for the past and, above all else, the debt to oneself to live up to these notions in the best way possible. These ideas may seem to be out of vogue in a transitory world but that doesn’t make them singular; it only means that they lie buried under the detritus of sensory overload and cultural conditioning, most people being unable to detect them or give them sufficient credence, and, if they do, unwilling to act on them due to conflicting interests. Their embers, however, occupy a perpetually smoldering space in all human consciousness, waiting to be stoked into the fullest of fires. As long as this stays true, heavy metal will endure.

#metalgate goes mainstream as Machine Head flails on

January 23, 2015 –

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The SJWs keep up a simple strategy for dealing with #metalgate: pretend it never happened and, if it did happen, it died an early death.

Instead, #metalgate is ramping up as the collision between Political Correctness and heavy metal intensifies. Recently metalcore band All That Remains’ vocalist Phil Labonte made some comments that riled a few basement neckbeards:

In 2005, on the ‘Sounds Of The Underground’ DVD I said, ‘PC is for f–gots.’ That was the first time people went, ‘Whoa, what did he say?’ I have nothing against gay people. It’s just a word. Honestly, I think the only people that have a legit grievance when it comes to any racial slurs is the black community. I know the homosexual community has problems with it and I understand their hurt feelings.

But homosexuals were never property. They’ve had a rough time and I’m not trying to minimize that, but I think the black community has a whole lot more room to be upset about a word than the LGBT community.

Apparently this outraged and upset Rob Flynn of alternative-metal band Machine Head, who seems to spend a lot of time on Facebook. He carefully assembles a series of clichés and strung them together into a post which raged against Labonte:

Where are the god damn protest songs? Where are the “War, What Is It Good For’s”? Where are the “Fight The Power’s”? Where are the white metal bands protesting about Ferguson and Staten Island? Why don’t metal bands stand for anything anymore? When did we reach this point in society where it’s unpatriotic to question our military or our police? Why are so goddamned proud to just fall in line?

Here we see the underlying issue that propelled #metalgate rising to the top: the PC people recognize only certain issues, but metal is in fact fighting back against the actual problem, which is a religious approach to reality denial through secular (but unrealistic) politics. In the PC view, if we just change our thinking, we have changed reality. This is why for SJWs it is essential that everyone think the same way, speak the same way and act the same way regarding political issues. We will be in lock-step like good Nazis/Communists/Christians and since we will all be uniform, no deviation can occur. Problem solved! …right?

The metal point of view takes an entirely different approach. In the metal view, problems do not go away until you find the root and fix it. People do not “just get along.” In fact, the more you push people to publicly affirm an idea, the more they resist it in private. In the metal view, there are no magic bullets like laws, rules, and speech codes that fix problems that have persisted since the dawn of humankind. In the metal view, it seems reckless to — knowing that these problems exist — bring them into our communities by demanding that we “tolerate” the endless clashes that result.

Flynn’s rant is stupid because he refuses to acknowledge that metal has for years endorsed sensible responses, but they are not ones that are politically correct because they do not affirm the public paradigms that everyone else is affirming. Every major corporation, police department, court, Congressperson, media outlet, and metal magazine agrees with Rob Flynn and will enthusiastically say so. They do this because people act as a herd, and while the herd is always wrong, the herd rewards its own. His opinion is not radical, it’s the norm. Metal has resisted the norm and this is why it upsets him. He even admonishes us to be more like Bob Dylan and John Lennon, two hypocrtical Baby Boomer communists who quietly enriched themselves while talking up the working classes.

Let’s face it: in the highly politicized decade in which we live, songs about social justice are the equivalent of love songs in the 1950s. They offend no one. They shock no social norms. They give people something to bond over, which is how terrible gays, lesbians, women, minorities and other groups who should be pitied are treated by the bad white people. Because, see, SJWs are the good white people — and the vast majority of SJWs are college-educated whites who didn’t quite hit the jackpot, the same audience that creates all the hipsters. Being into social justice is their way of showing you that they are “good” (and thus concealing all that is bad about them behind that symbol of goodness) like politicians kissing babies or celebrities giving money to the homeless. SJW metal is like Justin Bieber except instead of using candy pop to sell records, it uses candy opinions and recycled hippie cons to make you think the people behind it are “good” even though you know only one thing they think or do and the rest is concealed.

Metal says that society is illegitimate because it denies reality. Whether that is through its approach to religion, politics or social activity, it is all lies: it would not be popular if it were not a lie. That is not the same as saying “because it is popular, it must be a lie,” because some things are popular for simply being catchy and vapid, and sometimes society is even correct. But it says that only lies or other things which do not threaten the human pretense at the root of our rotting society become popular. Thus, if you see that all the dunces are in confederacy in favor of something, be suspicious.

SJWs have a simple plan. They will censor through guilt. This allows them to avoid using Nazi-style government tactics to enforce speech codes when they can simply make Soviet-style speech codes mandatory by attacking anyone who does not agree. Rob Flynn is the witch-hunter here, the same sort of person who 200 years ago would have burned witches when the crops went bad, hung black people without a trial when a rape happened, or even a generation ago would have banned kids from school for wearing all black. He is the totalitarian. He and the SJWs are using “social justice” as a means to seize power and subjugate the rest of you. Metal — nearly alone, but with a few brave others in #gamergate — is resisting this authoritarian takeover.

The same thing gets tried every generation. Charlie Hebdo was attacked so that all cartoonists and writers would think twice about criticizing Islam. Despite all the protests by people who were at absolutely zero risk, and all the warm fuzzies from media about how free speech will save us, the result of the attacks is more crackdown on people who criticize Islam, both from governments and their insurance companies who do not want to pay out for preventable deaths. The PMRC’s campaign to have record warning labels made law failed, but the legal campaign won because it intimidated record labels into putting the warnings on those records or they could not get them into stores. SJWs will do the same thing by labeling some metal as “verboten” because it did not join their politically correct view of the world, and then it will be unable to be sold openly. That is their goal: censorship. Their method is a 2.0 to book burnings, public executions and other censorship 1.0 techniques, but it aims at the same thing and is more effective.

You can see how Bieber-like it is when you look at this comment on Mr. Flynn’s comments:

You just GAINED one more fan. I don’t even know what you sound like yet.

The SJW outlook is not new. It is not revolutionary. It is what governments of the USA and EU endorse. It is in fact conformity. They however want to convince you that their ideas are “revolutionary” so they sound unique, different and exciting. They want to look like brave outsiders denying the will of shadowy oppressive forces and liberating us all. In fact, they are attempting to enslave us all — wonder who our Al Sharpton will be — and they are every bit as mainstream, ordinary and socially accepted as Justin Bieber. They appeal to the herd by telling it what it already accepts, just like Bieber offers music with absolutely no surprises that resembles every big pop act that went before it. But if you listen to them, they are heroic Christ-like bearers of enlightenment and the rest of us are just idiots in comparison and should be silenced as a result.

Terror Empire – The Empire Strikes Black

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Through the years of scanning endless lists of metal albums one gradually develops an intuition that links band name, album name and artwork to the general nature of what will be heard. Seldom does a tongue-in-cheek name correlate with quality music, since the band designed itself as a stunt. While some serious-sounding names result in pretentious self-important music, most bands with confidence in their ability to produce valuable music choose a straightforward self presentation.

The following question measures heavy metal: what is quality, and how is it measured, including what standard we use? Our answer begins with the often-used but seldom explained (and hence little understood) terms superficial and transcendent as opposite poles in a spectrum. Through the ages philosophers, theorists and artists themselves have made used these terms and in only a handful of instances have they tried to explain them in any way beyong what is deemed self-evident. The young Nietzsche provides us with a useful term and its explanation which can be used to separate the concepts in a way that if not empirical enough at least can be understood as a general concept. The Dionysian, it is said, allows for a connection for the unchanging, eternal oneness. This can mean many things, but guiding ourselves by Nietzsche’s explanation in the context of Greek tragedy and the nature and significance its chorus, we can see that the Dionysian is a subjective measurement requiring the person in question to look beyond the cycles of history and recurring social trends that are a result of the human race constantly altering its surface appearance but not actually “growing” in the sense of improving. Once in touch with this, the artist can represent the essence of things as they always are, not as they appear at this moment in time. On the other hand, being trapped in the temporal interpretation of how something is at this moment, or how it appears to be in its current incarnation is the hallmark of the superficial.

For us to make the distinction between transcendent and superficial in a work of art, we must isolate any insight of human nature that the work expresses. Because all of reality is the same cause, all paths if followed with vigorous examination lead to the same truth. Acquiring the insight that the transcendent artist possess does not mean we ourselves need to have his artistic talents as well. These are abilities of a separate kind altogether. As Nietzsche tells us in the same writing, while the rest of us must use abstractions and complex explanations to arrive at an objective picture of the work of art, in his subjective vision, the artist contemplates the images of his expression clearly and in unexplainable simplicity independently of its degree of superficiality. We can analyze that vision according to what it communicates and whether that address the transcendent, the superficial or the “fake out” of superficial transcendence.

With all this in mind, a first glance at Terror Empire’s album cover and album name is enough to raise some red flags. The cover artwork does not relate to the title. The title further shows a tendency toward cliché and a “cute” manipulation of it. This lack of originality is then reflected in the music itself. The album shows an diversity of approaches ranging from early songs which incorporate related but meaningless constructions with abundant technical acrobatics to late songs which are basically “thrashy” chug-based generic speed metal songs. The former are meaningless in the context that the writers themselves put them in. They make structural premises, but then do not follow them or conclude them structurally. As in many mediocre examples of music, songs end suddenly without being taken to any sort of climax, deviation to a clear point and return. The latter part of the album fails by being an imitation of speed metal (aka “thrash metal”) tropes seen through the modern lenses of retro-thrash.

This book can be judged by its cover, which the band apparently views as attractive to the type of person who will not realize how completely pointless The Empire Strikes Black is as a metal listening experience. Those who seek novelty tend to find it. In the spirit of the master, Bitterman: Vapid. Avoid.

Rachel Barton Pine on the metal-classical connection

January 15, 2015 –

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Rachel Barton Pine, whose metal project Rachel Barton Stringendo has long been in the archives and who also performs with doom metal band Earthen Grave, gave an interview to The Daily Beast in which she described the similarities between metal and classical music:

To the untrained ear, classical music and heavy metal couldn’t be more incongruous, but Pine recognized similarities. In her 20s, she regularly played her own virtuosic interpretation of Led Zeppelin on the radio, hoping to lure metal’s head-banging fans to the symphony.

“In practicing and preparing those songs, I discovered that a lot of the heavy metal I’d been listening to was some of the most sophisticated compositionally of all rock music, and very inspired by classical music,” Pine says. “Then all these people in ripped jeans started coming to my concerts.”

While Pine’s tastes run more to the hard rock side of metal, with Led Zeppelin and Pantera being favorites, she clearly knows her way around the intricacies of a doom metal song with violin accompaniment as well as the classics of the early years of metal. For years, she has pointed out how the thematic complexity of metal shows a kinship to classical music, even if on the surface the two genres appear radically different.

Infernal Manes – Infernal Manes

January 13, 2015 –

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Some things don’t age well, like mayflies or disco. Certain voices in the mainstream rock media have applied the same criticism to traditional heavy metal, claiming that its days have come and gone. Fortunately, they are incorrect as is evident by bands like Infernal Manes who continue to stoke that old flame without being solely a repetition of the older days in celebration of glories departed. But this band has its own very modern take on the ancient art of heavy metal.

Infernal Manes comes to us from the cold coasts of Norway with their self-titled debut LP. These traditional Norsemen have composed an energetic album of melodic heavy metal that tips its hat to Iron Maiden and Mercyful Fate. Songs follow the standard verse-chorus format, but this imaginative album delivers not only heavy metal ancestral nostalgia but highly effective songwriting that knits together compelling riffs into an effective, cohesive format that provides the listeners with a spirited voyage into the days of yore. This band would stand on its own in any age but as we live in the present, it chooses to comment on the long and interesting history of heavy metal.

The only downside to this album is that it occasionally suffers from “Crazy Train Syndrome” — named for an Ozzy Osbourne composition in which an enigmatic chorus riff was paired with a joyous, almost witless bouncy hard rock riff in the verses — in which a few randomly emotionally jarring riffs disrupt the otherwise concise flow of the songs. For the most part however songs fit together well like the fine craftsmanship of a traditional artisan. Infernal Manes deliver exactly what you would expect from an old school heavy metal band, but with a bit more precision and efficiency. Complete with heroic and anthemic passion, Infernal Manes ensures that the old flame remains lit.

Amebix – Redux

January 11, 2015 –

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“You know kid, uhh, usually when someone pulls shit like that my first reaction is I want to punch his fucking lights out. But you know something? You’re all right!” Most re-visions of older works by popular musicians end in tears and terror. This one re-creates three classic Amebix tracks in a form the band suggested was always intended but was not possible owing to the primitive production and living conditions of the day, and Amebix surely knew that their fanbase — who grew up on the versions as they were — would approach this with trepidation and skepticism. But there is no easy review for this disk.

Redux does not fall into the usual trap of making a glamorized and overly-slick version of the past. Instead, Amebix restyle their foundational songs more as if Metallica and Prong had collaborated to emit a dystopian metal album. Double-picked muted downstrumming and faster tremolo strumming all make an appearance, along with approximately half the vocals which are a hybrid of the Amebix style of Motorhead-influenced distorted vocals and the bassier, gnarlier death metal vocals to follow. But what is really surprising here is how these songs work very well given the high intensity treatment, which transitions them from a kind of contemplative and mournful look at our world to a savage Nietzschean attack of those who want to hoist the black flag and slit some throats. There are times when, much as happened on the first Burzum LP, these vocals are simultaneously so vulnerable and savage that they convey a sense of total commitment to desperate acts.

In addition, the more rigid playing of these riffs and uptempo approach gives the entire EP a malevolent vibe. These songs were great in the past, and they would be known as great here as well had this been the past. That being said, it will offend many punk purists and metal purists alike, despite having faithfully upheld the spirit of both genres. Not only that, but the haunting and unsettling sense of peering under the skin of our society and seeing underneath the makeup and credentials a swarming mass of crawling horror remains and may be intensified by this more assertive re-creation. While I liked the album that followed, I would gladly sign up for a full album of Amebix songs in this style as well.

How to make a digital promo kit (DPK) or electronic promo kit (EPK)

January 9, 2015 –

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Bands: if you want to get signed, you will need to send promos. First you will send them to labels, which will sign you eventually. Then you will send them to media, including record reviewers. Labels: you will do the same. Promoters: ditto. So how do you send a promo in this day and age?

The current standard, which thankfully does away with piles of physical promos, is to send an Electronic Press Kit (EPK) or Digital Promotions Kit (DPK) which mean roughly the same thing. Your EPK will be a zip archive containing your release in MP3, photos and a press release/biography. Each of these parts offers its own challenge.

MP3s should be of a decent bitrate, usually 256k or Variable Bit Rate (VBS) equivalent, and should be tagged appropriately with band name, album name and track name correct and consistent. The MP3s themselves should be in a folder within the archive named Band Name – Album Name. This enables writers to extract it completely and view the files as they write. If you are using Exact Audio Copy or a similar program, settings allow you to specific correct tagging by default. I also recommend installing Windows Media Player 11 and using the Fraunhofer MP3 codec which is superior to the LaME codec which tends to make heavily distorted music sound plastic. I use the following naming scheme in EAC:

Individual artist:

%artist%\%artist% - %albumtitle%\%artist% - %tracknr2% - %title%

Various artists:

various\%albumtitle%\%albumtitle% - %tracknr2% - %artist% - %title%

Press releases should fit standard format, which is an entirely different article, and include full contact information for the label and promotions agency. If you include band contact information, people will contact the band; if the band does not reply, do not include this information and have them contact the band through the promotions agency. Include the biography in here, generally a paragraph or two but not more. Also useful to include are all band public sites such as Facebook where the band might post more images or information as needed.

Images should include at least the cover art and a band photo, but many bands include logos as well for use as headers. These pictures should all be large (800px+) and in a format such as JPG or ideally PNG, which is not lossy like JPG.

Once you do all of the above, put the files into a zip archive and make it available to reviewers. Many use services like Haulix to make it easy to limit downloads to specific reviewers, and to embed codes in the work which identify who each package went to in case it gets leaked. In my view, labels should worry less about piracy from this angle because the release will inevitably be pirated and your only real recourse is to DMCA search engines to keep it out of the listings so that people are encouraged to buy it or stream it through a licensed streaming service like Spotify, Pandora or Last.fm. For this reason, lately more labels have simply been linking to their DropBox folders in acknowledgement of the impossibility of stopping all leaks, and it takes just one to spread it everywhere — or someone at a record store who drops the album into a computer for ten minutes to rip and upload it, as seems to happen in Russia and Latin America much to the delight of downloaders worldwide.

The above is written in the hopes of receiving fewer incomplete or botched promo packages. As stated elsewhere, most labels spend little time on getting these right because they want reviewers to spend as little time on the music as possible, and because the people who write the reviews the labels will republish are those who are making a personal connection with staff at the label in hopes of future hiring or collaboration. But for a starting band or label this advice may be helpful.

How music reviews are made

January 5, 2015 –

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If you must (“must”) watch television, probably the best thing on continues to be the Canadian program How It’s Made which shows the process by which everyday objects are manufactured. A similar program for the music industry might attract fewer watchers but be similarly informative.

The basics of the industry are that labels produce records, media write about those records, and artists — a pretentious term for musicians and bands — try to get chosen by either or both. Most records produce almost all of the profit they will create within a relatively short duration of their release. Labels need to constantly produce output so that they stay in the news, and media needs to constantly produce favorites (or drama) to sell news. Artists, on the other hand, are trying to create long-term audiences, but only if the artist believes they can produce quality material for a long period. Otherwise, their goal is to cash in and drop out, so they can go back to being the cool barista in a seaside town known for having put out that edgy metalcore album back in ’06.

When labels send out promotional packages, their goal is to ensure the reviewer spends as little time on the music as possible. They would prefer that the reviewer spend most of her time on the press release and biography, writing about the “unique” background to the band and how their album release is a news event, not a musical event. Ideally, the writer will focus on production and style more than substance, since new variations in production and style are easily produced while quality music is limited to a certain percentage of artists and striving for quality makes artists more valuable and labels/media less valuable.

The gig as a music reviewer is to say as little as possibly that is not blindingly obvious about the music while working in as many details as possible. The most successful reviews talk mostly about the biography, then about production, then style, and only finally in passing about the music itself. By the music itself I mean the composition, such that if you transferred it to midi or kazoo you would still recognize the song(s) but all of the production values from guitar sound through effects would be removed and you would see the composition as it is. If you have ever listened to someone playing acoustic guitar and realized the music sounds familiar, then figured out which song they are playing, you have had the experience of connecting with the music itself. The music itself however is the one part of music as a commodity that cannot be easily quantified and reproduced through systematic means (think of a recipe or instruction book). As a result, the music itself makes no one any money during the short period in which most albums generate profit.

You may see familiar names when you switch between your favorite magazines and your favorite music labels and the promotion companies that service them. The goal of most music reviewers is to get promoted within the industry, either as workers at the labels or writers in the media. They do this by making personal contacts, which generally happens when they are helpful to those people and promote whatever release they are working at the time. Very few people stay in the industry for long because it rewards a certain type of highly sociable person who writes whatever is needed to promote a record. This is why when you read record reviews, they normally take on a breathless tone that borders on praise. The goal of the reviewer is as a marketer, not a writer. Their job is to make you want to buy the album, but in such a way that you think it is your own idea, and so you blame no one when two weeks later you stop listening to it.

Most people are not words-people. They operate by gut feel, which is how their brains make a synopsis of all of the impulses they have in response to something. They tend to respond enthusiastically to new things but as time goes on, they respond less to them. For this reason, very few fans are aware of bad albums versus good ones. They know only that they bought something, they were excited about it, and then… it just sort of faded out of their consciousness. It became less interesting. The methods of art and music are well-known after centuries of exploration and what makes an album stay with us is no mystery. A good album is both musically adept, even if primitive, in that it is organized and produces something pleasing and non-obvious out of what it has to work with, and evocative, or representative of some feeling in ourselves or experience we have had in the world. Very few albums do this, but lots of albums can hit us with the pure physical sensation of listening to them, like acrobatic guitars, intense production, a bizarre or fresh style or even pure sonic intensity. These fascinate for a short while and then fade from our awareness.

As a reader, you must now be thinking this article is somewhat apocalyptic. I have just told you that the music industry has interests contrary to your own; they want to pump out formulaic stuff with new style/production, and you want to listen to music that stretches your time, money and energy by rewarding your listening minutes over many years. Actually I consider myself on the side of the music industry, because without labels to concentrate money that they can invest in production and promotion, good bands would remain unheard and without the budget to bring their promising music to a point where it is both pleasant as composition and pleasant to be heard. Few would listen to Beethoven if the only albums were played on kazoos and recorded on iPhones in subway restrooms. The music industry represents its own worst enemy because whenever something new — a band, an idea, a genre — makes a fan base, industry grows in response to it and produces more stuff “like” it that does not deliver the punch of the original. They thus ride trends for profit and then self-destruct when the trend is over, excepting a few labels who rise above the rest on the basis of having more profit, thus more money to put out new releases. The industry would be healthier if it could stop riding trends and instead focus on what makes bands and labels wealthy, which is the long tail or long-term relationship with fands.

The archetypal long tail band is Metallica. When …And Justice For All broke into the top 200, it brought every previous album of the band with it. During its classic era, when Metallica put out a new album and made a new fan, that fan tended to go out and buy everything else the band did, plus tshirts and concert tickets. It is the same way with massively successful acts in every genre — they cultivate a dedicated fanbase — but metal is a standout in how clearly it is defined in this way. The labels that dominate are the ones who get behind a band that cultivates a long-term audience. However, these bands are few and far between so labels make do with what they have. Unfortunately for them, the market is contracting as online availability of music reduces the power of novelty (“newness” + unique production/style). People can simply listen to the new fascination online for two weeks and then move on without having bought it.

To counter this, I propose a new model for the music industry: licensing. Under this model, bands would retain their copyright in an album and take out a license from the label, which would have the right to retain the album as long as they kept it in print. Big labels would license this content from smaller labels, creating a pyramid where the top reflects the bands with the best long-term audience potential and the bottom reflects new entries who are trying to build that audience. This would put more of a burden on the bands, who would be essentially taking a loan from the labels to produce their albums in exchange for that extensive promotion, but would enable labels to focus on the true breadwinners with their long-tail artists. In addition, because artists would be forced to assume direction of their efforts, there would be less of the kind of childish behavior of superstars in the 1970s and 1980s that caused labels to become strict in how they control their artists. This model also fits with the de facto standard of online music sales as they will become, which is the granting of a license to “own” the music regardless of form to the consumer. When physical form is no longer as important, we switch from a “goods” model to a “services” model, and the sooner labels do this the sooner they escape the overhead of defending a past business model and can move on to the future.

Akashah – Eagna an Marbh

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Akashah starts with Iron Maiden styled heavy metal and mixes in diverse influences ranging from the speed/death metal of Absu, the lengthy melodic passages of Dissection, the grandeur of viking-era Bathory, the odd grooves of 80s Gothic rock and the strange sad simple melodies of neofolk. Add to this choruses that are more infectious than Ebola on a bath house water fountain and you have the fundamental Akashah approach. Songs do not reach for unrealistic symmetry as bad music in the 1990s did, but find a catchy phrase and then expand upon it in a circular way that gratifies all of the emotional potential it has without delivery release.

The music that pours out as a result is sentimental like heavy metal but with the more advanced technique of putting energy into the riffs themselves and using them in a dramatic way. It approximates the narrative stream of newer death metal and black metal as a result, but the band clearly favors emotional moments — and this band is more outright and unconcealedly emotional than most bands on the heavier side of rock — and so goes back to a satisfying verse-chorus pair to hash that out, interrupting this loop to introduce tension with new riffs but not as frequently as might prevent a certain sense of being worn down by the listener. At times it resembles the black metal/heavy metal/doom metal hybrid of early Varathron in its riff phrasing. While the band writes excellent riffs both within known forms and of a nature entirely unique to themselves, songs follow the heavy metal format and so do not vary internal riffs as much, which leads to a loss of inertia on some of these longer songs; in addition, some melodies are too evenly balanced which creates overly-symmetrical phrases paired to repetitive vocal rhythms that are too obvious or too complete, giving the songs a jingle-like nature.

Inevitably, people will compared Akashah to Absu: the same speed metal infusion into heavy metal marks the heavier riffs on this album, as does the reliance on what feels like Celtic or central European melodies with insanely catchy choruses. Moments on Eagna an Marbh compare favorably with the best from black metal and heavy metal, but this album badly needs an edit to keep from feeling repetitive and to develop some of these ideas outside the chorus cycle. Nonetheless, there are riffs on this album that show up nowhere else and many moments of fine songwriting that, if properly channeled, could make for an A-level metal album.

How to kick metal into overdrive

January 1, 2015 –

andres_segovia-shredding

In a saner world, all children approaching the age of purchasing their own music would be given the 2-disc set of Andres Segovia entitled The Art of Segovia and made to listen and understand it before moving on. This collection of songs reveals not just how good music can be, but how to think about music both as technical musicianship and as art.

A collection of songs arranged and performed by Andres Segovia, this set shows instrumental prowess at its best where it seems more controlled. Most of these pieces came from composers who originally wrote either for guitar or small ensembles, and Segovia laid them out so he could play multiple melody lines on guitar over the length of each song. As a result, these songs are dense in a way that most popular music is not, in that each part relates to the previous material in the piece but seeks to not just complement but expand upon what is there. Melodies grow from a few notes to a full-fledged expression and then modify themselves with material from contrasting voices in each song, creating an effect like reading a great book where every character changes over the course of their adventures while simultaneously influencing the course of that journey. What at first sound like fills and turn-arounds are not spurious material but continuation of the song, with every note played serving some purpose and nothing extraneous or for the sake of showing off. This alone puts the lie to technical music of the current time, where a simplistic song if dressed up in recognized “hard” techniques becomes “technical,” even if those adornments contribute nothing to the song itself. The technical art here is in the writing and arrangement of the music in addition to the performance.

In addition, The Art of Segovia forces us to look at what makes a song — one medium among several for the mental process we call “art” — strike us as great instead of simply adequate plus novel. Each of these songs evokes a feeling that is both unique to the song and can be found in life itself, not a subjective sense but more a subjective perception of the objective translated into a form that any logical mind can process. This transcends the limitations of not only the medium but the human mind itself, creating a commonality based on an accurate view of reality that is nonetheless interpretive, instead of pandering to the lowest common denominator that a crowd would find pleasing. All of the tools of art — rhythm, melody, harmony and phrase — apply themselves to revealing the inner essence of a complex experience, not so much distilling it to a simple statement as walking us through its evolution and reaching a moment of clarity, then allowing it to fade away as we absorb what we have sensed.

Very few people who listen to rock, metal, jazz or blues have sat down to listen to a great work, understand it, and understand outside of its medium what makes it great. As with a great book, a great piece of music reveals something in life that we have not discovered or denied. It shows us the truth within, not creating another surface category, and in doing so makes us consider how this experience is universal to those who invest the time in understanding it. Truth meets us halfway between our perspective and the world. Great art lifts us out of the subjective, transforms the objective through not just the power of personality but the insight of talent, and delivers it to us in a form that re-discovers life with freshness through a vividly accurate portrayal that shows the hidden possibility lurking even within the mundane. When we have that level of expectation for art, the trivial novelty and diehard pandering to comfortingly familiar sounds fades away and instead we seek something of greater clarity, power and ultimately meaning. Naturally this is not popular with record labels, for whom discovering a Segovia each month is impossible, but for those who value their time and want to listen to music that shows the best of what humanity can do, The Art of Segovia gives us a yardstick against which all great albums must compare.

Not all of these will be as technical as Segovia’s playing or the writing of the composers he arranges. They do not need to be. If they uphold the same spirit of discovery and revelation that makes this art so profound, they can do so with fewer musical techniques. But if they do not live up to that understanding of what art and by extension music can be, they sound hollow in comparison to Segovia and stand no chance of comparison. The best of metal lives up to this standard and it refuses to be controlled by those who wish to dumb it down so they can sell more of it or use it to push a message. As we go into a new year, and the second half of a dubious decade, demanding metal that live up to this standard ensures that we will have less to listen to, but enjoy it more.