Interview with Joe Gonzalez (Cruxiter)

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To those who have watched metal for some time, it presents a paradox. To the public, it seems like a railroad, where a line of cars stops and then we see what is in each, one at a time. To an experienced watcher, it more resembles an ocean, with currents swirling below and influenced by air above, and periodically the crest of a wave emerges before being dragged down by the rest, obliterated and recycled.

One of the warmer undercurrents in the metal ocean is “true metal,” which is that which stays true to the solid line of evolution leading from metal’s origin. As part of this movement, bands across the globe are continuing to make music that we associate with earlier decades, except that it’s newly created and generated from a contemporary impulse if not contemporary influences. Cruxiter, a Texas heavy metal/guitar rock band, is part of this movement.

We first reviewed Cruxiter’s self-titled first album in these pages a few scant weeks ago, but already the band’s spirit and dedication to its style have piqued interest with our worldwide readership. To go more in-depth, we interrogated vocalist Joe Gonzalez at length via a very modern iPhone yet with classic heavy metal spirit.

You formerly played in Hammer Whore, a death metally band. What prompted the switch to a heavy metal style versus a death metal one?

HammerWhore was a big mix of a lot of metal genres; because each band member comes from different eras and has their own taste in metal music we had to compromise and we created an album that contained a bit from every sub genre. In 2007 HammerWhore broke up because of personal differences, so I kept some of the songs I wrote and started a new band that was more hard rock/heavy metal. In 2009 Miggy Ramirez and Rick Ortiz joined the band and this is really when we started to develop our sound. Then in 2010 we had personnel issues again losing our bassist, drummer, and guitar player. This is when we recruited the rest of the old HammerWhore line up to help us out. The “switch” to heavy metal just came naturally after spitting from HammerWhore and working with such a great group of musicians. I’m doing exactly what I’ve always wanted to do, and that’s sing in and front a heavy metal band!

What is the Cruxiter? Is it a concept underlying all of your work?

The Cruxiter is a fictional alien computer that works through touch, connecting to the users nervous system and to the mind. The thing is, it doesn’t quite work with human biology and drives anyone who attempts to use it insane, but the Cruxiter is only a small part of the Cruxiter universe. It’s one of the few artifacts that we have here on earth from the faraway alien planet that is the subject of most of our music. So far we have not made contact with these extraterrestrials on our first album. First contact will be made on “Madness of the Void,” a track that will be released on our next full length. A look at this faraway world is probably similar to seeing ourselves in the distant future where technological advances have only made life more complicated with longer life spans and more inventive ways to kill each other.

This is a two part question: (a) what are your influences, musical and otherwise, in Cruxiter? (b) what bands do you think sound closest to Cruxiter?

I cannot speak for the rest of the band because each of us is very different when it come to the style of music we listen to. But for me it’s a combination of classic AOR, NWOBHM, eighties thrash and early seventies prog. Styx, Judas Priest, Lizzy Borden, Torch, Agent Steel, and Overkill were some of the first bands to really get me excited to pick up a guitar and sing. Really every time I hear a metal vocalist hit a high note or a guitar lead it really gets me going. As far as individual artists its Jon Oliva, Tommy Shaw & Dennis DeYoung, David Byron & Mick Box, Schmier, Tom Angelripper, Don Dokken, and Joey Tempest are all on the top of a very long list of talent that inspires me to play music.

The second part of your question is very hard to answer because we are trying to create something different but not straying from what we love. In my personal opinion I would say it’s a mix between early King Diamond, early 90s Mercyful fate, Uriah Heep, Stryper, Judas Priest, Di’Anno era Maiden. We still have a lot of material that we are working on that I think is more advanced and widens the spectrum even more.

Do you think the “true metal” genres like classic heavy metal and old school death metal and black metal are making a return? Or did death metal and black metal get lost in the shuffle?

“Making a return” destroys the true metal genres and spawns craploads of bands that really don’t know where the music comes from, then they make everyone look cheesy and people move on, which has already happened to thrash metal twice. All true metal genres have and always will thrive in the local and underground scenes. What genre is “in” at any given time is determined by what the “cool kids” are listening to, It’s very political, and it will never change.

Cruxiter is a classic heavy metal band, but you incorporate a lot of elements from what I’m calling “guitar rock.” How hard is it to combine the two?

It’s actually pretty accurate for some parts of our music because we are very heavily influenced by progressive music and classic rock but we really try hard to mix it up and make the music we write contain all aspects of rock and metal music. With the tempo changes and melodies of classic prog, guitar riffing from rock and metal, and AOR style choruses, even trying to add a bit of glam to it all.

But each song we write is different and has its own massage so it’s hard for me to explain it all without breaking down each song. Combining all these styles of music happens during the writing process… letting the song pretty much write itself, and allowing the changes to happen. It’s the vocals and solos that are dominant, and take full control during the writing of the music. We do work hard on the proper flow of the song making sure it’s chaotic and complex, keeps the listeners attention, and is pleasant to the ears. We also try to keep the music from being too heavy and noisy, down tuning and excessive kick drum is great for other bands but we like our listeners to hear without trouble how the guitars, vocals, drums, and bass interact musically.

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You’ve just released your first and self-titled album. How did you record it, and where? What were the biggest challenges of recording?

We recorded this album at our home studio in a ranch house in Jim Wells County just outside Alice, Texas. Every aspect of recording was a challenge since we really had no experience. I had to watch all kinds of how to videos on YouTube about mic’ing vocals, drums and guitar cabinets, it was a lot of trial and error. The best part of recording was reworking the songs after playback adding harmonies, fills, and leads. But we learned a lot from recording this album and we are currently in the studio again and everything is running smoothly. Our next album is going to sound a lot better for sure and we are pretty excited about it.

If you had to identify the most important element in what makes a good song, what might it be? Do you think it’s energy, passion, emotion, content or some combination of the above?

A great song perfectly portrays a complex clash of emotions of a single moment in time with the appropriate energy pulsing and fluctuating between emotional highs and lows. It also needs guitar and vocal melodies that engrave themselves into the mind and the message and words find a spot to reside in listeners mind. Honesty goes along way when it come to reaching people through music.

What’s next for Cruxiter? Are you going to do small tours through Texas cities, or record more, or go national?

Right now, we are back in the studio recording new music for a second album. Now that we have some experience it should move very smoothly and we will get an even better product. We should be releasing a few demo songs on YouTube and maybe a short demo tape soon. They will not be the album versions of the songs just demos before fine tuning the structure, vocal melodies, and fills. We have already released “Under The Moon” demo on YouTube.

We will probably not be playing very many shows this year since we will be trying to complete our work in the studio. But we are playing in Houston February 8th at the White Swan for our good friend Angel’s B-day (bassist for Owl Witch). It’s going to be a really killer show. Houston is the top place to play metal music in Texas the scene has always been very strong and diverse. I’m alway excited to play in Houston.

Are there any challenges to being a metal band in Texas, with the local scenes being what they are and the distances between towns often being great?

It is pretty hard here in Texas especially since we don’t live anywhere near any of the major city. Corpus Christi is closest but they have no local metal scene and what’s hitting there now is grind and crust which is great but we don’t fit the bill. It’s a struggle for us to be a part of the scene in texas since we are so far and can’t participate in playing or attending shows very often. Playing gigs always means travel for us but its just part of the gig. Texas as a whole is full of die hard metal heads and familiar faces friends that will be playing music and supporting local shows till they die.

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Interview with Dr. Martin Jacobsen who teaches “Heavy Metal as a Literary Genre”

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Over the four decades that heavy metal has been with us, people in responsible positions in society have gradually become more accepting of it as an art form and a message from its fanbase.

Such acceptance could not exist without people like Dr. Martin Jacobsen, who by teaching a class on heavy metal as literature has introduced academics to the depth and richness of this genre.

For the past semester, Dr. Jacobsen has been teaching “Heavy Metal as a Literary Genre” at WTAMU, where he introduces students to the literary and artistic aspects of heavy metal. In addition, he writes for Death Metal Underground and is a world-recognized expert in death metal who is active in his local death metal scene.

Jacobsen has returned to teach another semester of the class, which seems to be attracting more students as word of it spreads. We were able to follow up on our first interview with Professor Jacobsen to get a feel for what has changed between the years.

This is the second time you’re offering your class on heavy metal, “Heavy Metal as a Literary Genre.” Was the last time a success?

It was beyond successful. Our local paper did a story on us that went viral — ultimately being translated into 7 or 8 languages, and garnering a spot on Brazilian TV and an Canadian Public Radio. Our 15 minutes of fame. DMU was the first to pick up the story, and we are very grateful for your support of our class.

How have you changed the class? Is the class format the same?

It’ll be a discussion class with lots of music-about 50-50. I have added a lecture devoted to death metal, and I plan to add others about other forms. I’m going to require more writing and much more stringent guidelines for that writing. I’ve also invited local recording and performing artists speak about the lifestyle, the recording process, touring.

What is a typical class period like?

We will begin each day with a student presentation of a song . There will be a required PowerPoint slide with it to show the group, album, lyrics, and so on, in proper style-sheet format. It’s a quantity/quality thing. That will be the first 10 minutes or so. There we will have a lesson in which a sub-genre, group, musician or other germane idea is presented in a standard format: Premises, basically the context behind the thesis; thesis, the point of the lecture; and evidence, documented proof of the point and sample songs to let the students hear it for themselves. I am hoping that we will have a Metal God Profile or two, and if we run across something important as we listen and discuss, we will go with it. We will also, I’m hoping, have guest speakers, and I do plan to bring my guitar in to define certain musical structures and so on.

What disciplines does HMLG touch on? It’s a literature class about music; does that influence what you teach?

We will treat music as if it were literature, looking at its structures, motifs, themes. We will identify the features of heavy metal and how those features are altered to signify different sub-genres. There will be a strong trans-historical structure to the class. I like to think of the history of heavy metal as dominoes standing up. Black Sabbath kicked off the genre and their early albums really set the dominoes in motion. But rather than falling, the dominoes rose like headstones.

You were recently quoted in the Amarillo Globe-News with a definition of death metal:

“Death Metal is an extreme form of metal that tends to privilege growled vocals, blast-beat drumming and virtuosic guitar work. Death metal often uses lengthy compositions featuring minor keys and multiple tempo changes. Thematically, death metal often focuses on violence and gore, but themes of all kinds are interrogated by death metal bands, usually reflecting a pessimistic, even hopeless, outlook. Multiple subgenres exist under the banner of death metal.”

Do you teach such things in the class? Do you realize how totally awesome it is to be quoted in your local newspaper as a death metal expert?

We do work with definitions. And it’s damned cool to be quoted as an expert.

You have become a proficient guitarist over the last few months. What has this taught you about metal?

It is sophisticated music. It’s pushing the edges most of the time. In so many ways, it’s like classical music. It uses tempo changes, it’s riff-driven, it features instrumental virtuosity. Learning how to play again has given me a hands-on, ears-on ability to both understand and interrogate elements that would have been only something I’d have talked about before. I’m thinking about taking my guitar to class for some illustrative lessons. Last term, I had students who didn’t know what a riff is. And amp in the room will quickly solve that. Anyway, It’s given me the musical part of the class in a way no other practice could. Knowing a solo or riff enhances my ability to articulate the ways that such elements differentiate or sustain a genre.

This recent guitar-playing is following up on a youthful musical career. Can you tell us about that? What groups were you in, and what styles did they play?

Career is a bit of an overstatement, but I did play in a couple of local groups. One comprised classmates of mine, and we played mostly pop. I was lead guitarist. The other band was a metal band. I played rhythm guitar. We did mostly well-known metal of the early 1980s-Dio, Def Leppard, Scorpions, AC/DC. It was kid stuff in many ways.

What forms of music do you listen to, when you have no agenda at hand? Does this correspond to what was current when you were of high school – college age?

My tastes have gotten heavier as I’ve gotten older. I didn’t listen to anything really heavy in high school. I started metal as a young adult. I returned to it about ten years ago. I like classic metal best. I’m starting to like death metal bands that end up progressive bands, like Opeth. But I like heavy music. Black Sabbath is my favorite group.

I also listen to a lot of prog, Yes and Kansas being my favorites. I like the Flying Colors supergroup. I like some southern rock, but I don’t have a systematic understanding of it in the same way as I do about metal.

What is heavy metal? Is it distinct from rock music? Is death metal distinct from other forms of heavy metal?

We actually sought to define heavy metal as a a group last time. We ended up with this: “Heavy metal is a form of rock music with a heavy, distorted, menacing sound and concerned with dark, disturbing, and pessimistic themes.”

Death Metal is distinct from other forms. It’s often more thematically disturbing than other forms, but in many instances beside the obviously shock-based bands and motifs, it’s disturbing because it’s asking the questions other forms of art — or even metal — do not ask. I’m also really taken with instrumental virtuosity. Death metal tends to privilege excellent playing. It’s a boundary extension thing. And the structures of good death metal are frequently quite elaborate, even symphonic. I think it’s also interesting that some death metal masterminds, say Schuldiner or Åkerfeldt-become proggy later. It’s another type of boundary testing. As I say so often, metal is in so many ways similar to classical music. It’s not surprising that death metal sometimes veers into other genres. Compare that with black metal, which so often seems to have simplicity and even homogeneity as elements of its ethos.

You have said, in the past that much of heavy metal’s content is similar to Romanticism. What was Romanticism? Does it still walk among us?

It totally does. I think of Romanticism as applied Platonic philosophy. Metal at its best offers a way of thinking about music and thinking that breaks the boundaries and lays before us the larger patterns of musical and thematic expression. It’s the boundaries that are interesting to me. And the Romantics did that. They looked at classical sources and wrote (or expressed via many art forms) about their own experiences within that frame.

Has heavy metal changed the way you look at literature?

I think so. I think all art sharpens perceptions and adds ways of experiencing other forms. I’ve taken up the guitar again after a very long time. And while my playing is a work-in-progress, playing again sharpens my listening and adds a critical lens I didn’t have last time. I’m not sure this is a very good answer to your question. I think the way metal expresses itself is literary in its basic constructions, so engaging that enhances how I think. Analyzing lyrics is literary analysis, so from that standpoint I am definitely applying my training to the process and gaining from doing so. And metal also has other ethos-building elements that any humanities scholar would find interesting.

Contact with your students has deepened your own experience of metal apparently. Can you tell us about this?

I have bonded with several students from the earlier class, and I’ve actually met some of my future students at shows. Some of my former students play in local bands. I think it’s incumbent upon me to know my local scene. But the local scene here has become much more to me than metalheads I know. They’ve become my community.

Do you think the administration at WTAMU have become more open to heavy metal thanks to the first semester of this class and the response to it?

Yes. It’s a permanent addition to our course offerings in an era when core classes are evaporating.

Do you think or have experience that this class has made students more motivated to check out more literature?

Yes. I was able to get them to think about books and to read closely for class discussion. Again, it’s a humanities class and the title is a little misleading. We are embracing other forms. But in identifying the literary influences in metal, I have been able to get students to try literature they may not otherwise have tried.

You’re now one of the foremost instructors using metal in classes in the world. What advice do you have for other educators along these lines?

Well, thank you. That’s very kind. The advice I’d give is to proceed only if you have the freedom to do it right. My department and university totally backed me. I’ll also say that you should tap into student knowledge. This is a class where the students may know as much or more about “their” metal as I do about mine. It’s a bit of a partnership. A Facebook page is a good idea too. It takes the learning into their lives where metal is a constant and collects their experiences for the class.

Will there be a open course / distance learning version of the class? Have you considered packaging it as videos like the classes on Coursera or MIT’s open courseware?

We can do it. And the idea of podcasts has been bandied about.

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Mortuary Drape – All The Witches Dance

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Mortuary Drape resembles Emperor in its focus on the more bombastic elements of black metal. Mortuary Drape takes a more heavy metal flavored take on the genre, similar to Root or Master’s Hammer.

The speed metal influenced riffing which dominates most of this album lends further credence to that comparison. The mix is unusual for the time as well, in that it de­emphasizes the guitars in favor of the bass and vocals. Guitars are still present, but thinner than one would expect from speed metal and not trebly enough to make one think of black metal.

Church bells, a pipe organ, female vocals, and other unconventional elements are implemented, but not for the sake of these things; Mortuary Drape attempt to weave these elements into their music honestly. For the most part it works, though sometimes there are confused sections which are blatant (building/releasing tension at awkward times, staying on a particular riff a bit too long, the intro “My Soul” which goes on for a minute or so more than it should)….then again this album derives some of its charm for those very reasons.

An interesting influence appears to be movies such as Susperia when listening to the orchestral intros and interludes. This contrasts well with the theatrical atmosphere of the songs, giving the feeling of a sort of morbid operetta. Though not as essential as the Norwegian classics, this is still a strong, if not somewhat peculiar, album that while sometimes shaky is a good choice for those interested in the different angles of second wave black metal.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CuKmGAK0U48

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Cruxiter – Cruxiter

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Cruxiter hail from both Texas in 2013 and a mystical land where it is always the early years of classic heavy metal. Heavily influenced by the first two Iron Maiden and Mercyful Fate albums, but incorporating a diverse range of influences in technique and songwriting, Cruxiter on their self-titled debut take us back to the days of nascent speed metal.

Approaching their music from a classic metal sensibility, Cruxiter also carry over a melodic influence from the 1960s-1970s period of guitar rock, thus injecting a wide range of variation in lead guitars and riff fills. The result has a buoyant tendency that counterbalances the nimble riffing, creating like impressionistic painting a sensation that is best observed from a distance. When this music is playing across a room, the listener identifies the tune first, and gradually tunes in to the beat of the riffs, then can hear the individual riff textures when drawing closer to the speakers.

Coating these classic metal anthems are higher intoned but adroit vocals that like a fencer quickly change position to take the best vantage of each adjustment in underlying riff or song. The result moves along quickly but, owing to its guitar-heavy rock heritage, develops the solo to complement the song and the vocals, giving it a harmonic depth in addition to the intertwined guitar and vocal melodies. Like all of the techniques Cruxiter keeps on hand, these are applied with different emphasis on each track, keeping songs distinctive and thus energy high from beginning to end of this promising debut.

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Interview with Janne Stark, author of The Heaviest Encyclopedia of Swedish Hard Rock and Heavy Metal Ever!

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As far as books about metal go, there’s nothing more hardcore than an encyclopedic reference because by nature these attempt to include everything. Janne Stark wrote The Heaviest Encyclopedia of Swedish Hard Rock and Heavy Metal Ever! to keep track of the Swedish hard rock / heavy rock / metal scene, but we found it even harder to keep track of him.

For example, Stark is listed as participating in three dozens, including Overdrive, Overheat, Faith, M.O.B., Flash, TNT, Alyson Avenue, Sir Lord Baltimore, Thalamus, Chris Catena, Audiovision, Vii Gates, Narnia, Grand Design, Blinded Colony, Spearfish, Audiovision, Tower Of Stone, Teenage Rampage, From Behind, Planet Alliance, Balls, Constancia, Locomotive Breath, Mountain Of Power, Zello, Nicky Moore Blues Corporation. This is only a small slice of his participation in music, however, as he’s also a music journalist and author.

Stark was good enough to give us the time for a mid-length interview, which was conducted over coffee in the fashionable Swedish borough of Östermalm. Err… we wish. Stark was good enough to conduct this interview through old-fashioned 7-bit email, but we got some interesting answers.

Sweden has fewer people than the city I live in, yet produces more quality heavy rock, hard rock and metal bands. Is there something in the Swedish outlook that is responsible for this disparity?

I’ve had that question a lot of times. I think it has to do with several different things. Music has always been important in Sweden, folk music, singing in choirs etc. ABBA came along in the seventies showing Swedish musicians it was actually possible to break through on a big scale outside of our borders. We also have a really good (and cheap/free) tradition of music schools and the ability to learn an instrument in school. We also have the possibility to start a study circle, within a band, where you can get free/cheap rehearsal space, the possibility to record and even arrange gigs. I also think Swedish bands in general are about the music and learning to play, that getting an image and just pose.

Sweden may have partially invented death metal and black metal through Bathory. Are there are other contributions on the road towards death metal that you found interesting?

Yes, Bathory were definitely the forefathers of primitive sounding early black metal in Sweden. Later on there’s of course also the Gothenburg sound and bands like In Flames, Dark Tranquillity and At The Gates, where they started mixing more melodic and traditional metal influences with the traditional death metal sound. Swedish bands have always looked to the UK or US for influences, but I think a lot of the bands have managed to put a slightly different twist on it. Take for instance progressive bands like A.C.T or Pain Of Salvation, and then you have classic heavy metal bands like Hammerfall and Wolf who have mixed the German and UK styles of metal with a Swedish twist to it.

There’s something about the way Swedish bands write music that seems to lend itself to heavy metal, and it’s broader than the legendary Swedish melodic sense. Do you get the feeling such a thing exists?

I think it’s basically that we borrow a lot of influences from outside and blend it with the quite traditional Swedish folk touch that is in our mothers milk, whether we know/like it or not. On another note, it’s also quite interesting how several Swedish hard rock/metal musicians have become very successful in writing for pop and dance acts. People like Thomas G:son (Masquerade), Peter Carlsson (Bedlam), Anders Wickström (Treat) and not least Max Martin (It’s Alive) and Johan “Shellback” Schüster (Blinded Colony) have all become highly acclaimed pop composers who have written hits for N’Sync, Britney Spears, Pink, Lady Gaga etc.

You refer to this book as “the heaviest” encyclopedia of Swedish heavy rock and metal, and it definitely is heavy in two senses, both content and the physical weight of the book. How long did it take you to compile this monster?

It’s the heaviest in many senses. It’s definitely the heaviest when it comes to its sheer weight, 3.7 kilos (8.5 lbs) and the amount of bands featured in it (3,600), but it was also the heaviest one to get out of my system, to decide when it was time to wrap it up and get it out. When the second book was released in 2002, I simply continued compiling information. Not detailed information, but more like making notes to check this band out, check this site out, I made continuous notes of special releases and such. Then, a little more than three and a half years ago I decided ­ Now it’s time. Then I started following up all the leads, compiling all info of the bands, took all the info from the first two books, updated and corrected and all the stuff I had noted about these bands. I made one document for each letter and just started all over again, from A to Z (well, actually the last letter is Ö in the Swedish alphabet). When I felt I was finished I started doing layout, but waited with the band pics etc until last as I was still adding last minute information and bands. I then had three people proof read it, an Englishman and a music nerd friend, plus my wife (also a hard rock nerd). In September 2013, I sent in the final PDF files to the publisher and it was off to the printers, and nothing more I could do. Sheer agony at that point!

What kind of research resources were available to you? Is there much printed information on rock music in Sweden, or did you have to spend most of your time interviewing people?

When I did the first book in 1996, there was no Internet and it was all phone calls, contacting bands, music clubs, record stores etc. Now the information is all over the place, the problem is to collect, find and sort out what is the CORRECT information. Anybody can write anything on sites like Wikipedia etc. and suddenly it’s the truth. It’s been as much about checking and double-checking this time around. I’ve listed the sources I’ve used in the book, but it’s anything from www.metal-archives.com, www.musikon.se and www.rockdetector.com, to Ebay, Tradera, Discogs and bands/labels sites to find all catalogue numbers, different pressings etc. There’s a couple of metal magazines and webzines here as well, plus books and websites covering local scenes, where I’ve found some additional information. I’ve also contacted a lot of people through Facebook etc. I’ve tried to get in touch with as many bands as possible.

From the looks of this massive book, you got every heavy band that Sweden has ever produced. Did you miss any? How did you find out?

I’m sure I’ve missed some, even though I do think I’ve covered 95% this time. There’s always going to be the local metal band that printed 250 copies of a single, sold it to some friends, tucked the remaining copies away in an attic and went on with life. These things pop up now and then, still! Plus some bands, especially when it comes to black metal, are intentionally secretive and only sell their limited vinyl release to “true” fans. But, that’s the beauty of it. Trying to find those hidden gems!

Swedish death metal won me over the minute I heard it. Do you normally listen to death metal? Did the sounds of Swedish death metal tempt you to go over to “the dark side”?

The thing is, when I wrote the previous books I wasn’t into death or black metal at all. But, for this book I’ve listened to ALL bands in it, and there’s a LOT of death and black metal. As a result I’ve actually come to like a lot of these bands, the more melodic stuff like Soilwork, The Haunted, Sterbhaus, In Flames and Unleashed, but also stuff like Watain I’ve come to like. My first choice of music is however still seventies influenced heavy rock/metal and bands like Spiritual Beggars, Mojobone, Grand Magus etc.

Can you tell us about your background as a writer and in music? This obviously isn’t your first project.

I got into music very early on and started playing guitar around the age of nine, made my first demo with the band TNT back in 1977, recorded my first single with the band Paradize in 1979 and formed Overdrive in 1980, with whom I’ve made a bunch of records. I also started doing some reviews for a local zine in 1982-83. My writing got more serious in 1989, when I started writing and reviewing for Backstage Magazine and since then I’ve written for a lot of magazines such as Hard Roxx, Kool Kat News, Sweden Rock Magazine, FUZZ Magazine etc. I did my first encyclopedia in 1996 and the second one in 2002. At the same time I’ve also made records with bands like Locomotive Breath, Mountain Of Power, Zello, Planet Alliance, Constancia etc. I still play in Overdrive, Constancia and Grand Design.

How did you get the confidence to tackle such a massive work? (It can’t all come from the writer’s famous “courage in a can” — coffee — itself, can it?)

Well, to be honest, it’s a combination of sincere interest for Swedish metal, being a music nerd and, yes, lots of strong, fine Swedish coffee. Besides beer and booze, it’s the only “drug” I’ve ever touched!

If you had to select five heavy and/or metal acts from Sweden to convince a newcomer that this scene is vital and worth investigating, what would they be?

As there are such a variety of styles within the Swedish scene I’d pick accordingly, so to check out the melodic death metal scene go for Soilwork, get some classic heavy metal with Grand Magus, some high class AOR with Eclipse, doom with Avatarium and progressive rock with A.C.T. To start with.

What’s next for you? Will you continue music journalism? Where do readers go to find out more about your work?

I still write and review for FUZZ, Metal Central and Metal Covenant when time allows it. I also have my own reviews blog and I’m now working on my next book entitled The History of Swedish Hard Rock and Heavy Metal, which will be as the title says, a more history-based book on the Swedish metal scene from the late 60s and until today with stories, interviews with prominent Swedish bands etc. Not sure when it will be finished, but I’m working on it. I’m currently also working on two new albums by Constancia and Grand Design for release in 2014. We’ve got lots of gigs booked for Grand Design as well as Overdrive. High Roller Records are also re-issuing the first Overdrive album on vinyl with an entire bonus LP of demos. No rest for the wicked!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y4avfZnEDyQ

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Bolivian metal band mixes native instruments, modern technique

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Photo: New York Times.

One of the better developments during the past decade is that it’s now acceptable to talk about heavy metal in the mainstream press as something other than entertainment. It might even have, you know, artistic or cultural value and stuff.

A recent attempt looks at the heavy metal of Bolivia, which combines native instruments with modern underground metal technique:

The band members wore black. The lead singer screamed into his microphone and whipped his long, black hair around. The guitarists clawed at their instruments. The drummer pounded with fury. And then the panpipe player took his solo, and the fans packed into the mosh pit went into a frenzy…those songs, characterized by the use of the panpipe, known as the zampoña, and a wooden flute called a quena, have a special impact among fans.

The article makes the point that the hybrid style is more accepted among many of the people there, and that it directly references Incan cultural ideas including the ancient moral code that still lives on today in Bolivia.

Our question is: if it’s art, culture and morality there, why isn’t it art, culture and morality here?

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Instrumental metal: an idea whose time has come

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When Burzum released Hvis Lyset Tar Oss in 1994, underground metal was forever split. This album featured longer songs where concept was closely intertwined with song structure, and riff shape defined by mood. It both made undone past paradigms and raised the bar.

After that point, black metal and death metal deflated. The initial rise of ideas created in reaction to outrage at a dying civilization was gone, and nothing else propelled the genre forward, so it fell into self-imitation based on outward traits. Further, few bands could handle the raised bar, so it was “explained away” in social circles and the music tended toward the more primitive, not less.

Thus is the problem with raising the bar. Once you have done it, people either rise to the challenge and forge ahead in the new language, or have to hide the fact that they’re here for the gravy train which means they want to make the same dumbass music they would make in rock, pop, punk or blues, but use some distortion and call it “black metal.” That leads to high margins: the product is cheap to make because it’s a well-known type, but it has a higher markup due to novelty.

However, unless you’re deaf, you’ve noticed that the output of underground metal has seriously flagged in quality since the mid-1990s. Not so in quantity, of course, where we have more bands than ever before who have better production, are better instrumentalists, and generally more savvy at the music industry. Unfortunately the music they produce is not as good as what a few lonely intelligent outcasts did in the early 1990s.

This leads us back to a question of metal’s growth. Do we keep up with the raised bar? Style is not substance, but the two are related. Without enough substance, style never evolves; without the right style, substance often gets lost. Artists tend to visualize the two at the same time as part of the same articulation of an idea that they are communicating through mood, or the sensation of perceiving something and wanting to engage with it. In theory, metal could continue with what it has, using the same styles but writing new music, and many bands have succeeded in that. But keeping up with the raised bar has some advantages.

First, instrumental metal would be difficult and this would draw a line between metal and the pop, rock, blues and rap and place us closer to ambient and classical in the respect scale. Take for example this quote from educator Liam Malloy:

“In the past, heavy metal has not been taken seriously and is seen as lacking academic credibility when compared with other genres such as jazz and classical music. But that’s just a cultural construction.”

Second, this change would get rid of the vocal problem in metal. We know what death/black metal vocals are, but the shock has worn off as they’ve been appropriated by other genres. They are not extreme anymore, and overused by those who like them because a plausible imitation is easy to pull off. On the other hand, shouting vocals (Pantera) are annoying, most male singing sounds like drunk guys brawling, and the high pitched “operatic” vocals divide an audience. No vocals, no worries.

Third, this would make it easier to tell real metal bands from the weekenders. Real bands can put together long pieces that make sense, where the weekends just want the appearance thereof. Contrast real progressive rock like Yes to the somewhat paltry substitute in Opeth. Opeth have nailed the aesthetic, but not the underlying musical depth or density. When you hear the two together, it’s clear they are from different genres.

Fourth, instrumental metal would enable greater riffiness in metal. Already there’s a storm of protest when “riff salad” songs emerge, even if the riff makes sense. Much of death metal was an end run around using constant verse-chorus vocals, thus liberating guitars to create more interplay between riffs. Without vocals to keep bringing the song back to repetition, riffs could have greater leeway and repetition would exist not out of standard song form, but to emphasize parts of the song that need repeating for the sake of atmosphere.

Many people out there want metal to go instrumental. While it loses the masculine and terrifying aspect of the vocals, it encourages a competition among metal bands to not only preserve that but make it more extreme among their instrumentals. And if anything, that’s closer to the spirit of metal itself.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MJf3PEFqh3k

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=czi5rbl0Ghw

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Heaviness, the epic and masculinity

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In conversation with Martin Jacobsen, the topic of “heaviness” came up. What is heavy? Why is the term applied to metal? This question in many ways defines why it’s so hard to understand what metal is, much less describe it.

From my experience, metal is a spirit that leads to an approach. It’s not dissimilar to classical, where a certain attitude toward life, spirituality and culture leads to a form of music complete with its complexity and techniques. Nor is it all that different from martial arts, where a specific outlook leads to some near-universal shared characteristics.

Coming at metal from a literary/philosophy background, this isn’t surprising. Artistic movements tend to share traits they develop independently. They do this because they approach their art with a similar feeling, sentiment or belief system, and as a result no matter where they start, they end up in similar places. This is analogous to how just about every culture on earth has invented something like a chair, with most designs being very similar.

Jack Fischl over at PolyMic has another take on metal with his article ‘”That’s So Metal” Might As Well Mean “That’s So Masculine”‘ — it’s a bastion of alternative masculine thought:

According to the book Running with the Devil by Robert Walser, heavy metal imagery, music, style, and lyrics offer the illusion of power to a group (young men) that simultaneously lacks traditional forms of power (money, social standing) and is constantly barraged with cultural messages that inforce the importance of those forms of power. Listening to the music, especially by going to a concert, allows low-power young men to escape and live vicariously through metal’s imagery, the way one might live through books, movies, or TV shows.

Whereas pop music tends to portray (or at least address) your classical “manly” man, metal more often ties into elements of fantasy and science fiction — two other bastions of alternative masculine escape. Any given metal song likely depicts a man or male entity (spirit, creature) struggling with something — his place in the world, a woman, his own emotions. In other words, a typical song involves guys dealing with normal guy issues from a guy’s perspective.

He does have a point. The modern world does not exactly relish the hyper-masculine, but it gives it voice in rock music through the intense sexuality of the sound. However, metal takes this a degree higher. Where rock is about individual sexual power, metal is about power itself, and transcends the sexual per se in favor of an overall masculine intensity. This is the epic nature of metal; it is not based in the individual, but all that the individual cannot control.

Some might say this world, by being so obsessed with the safety of each and every person and ensuring that we all get along, is against the kind of conflict-driven Nietzschean masculinity that metal seems to espouse with its lyrics on war, death, violence and destruction.

For many of us however metal is more than masculinity. It is a worship of power itself. When you wield death and conquest, you are the power that society denies. This unites metal’s outsider status with its realistic ideals and returns us to a definition of “heavy.” In a time of stoned flower children worrying about nothing more than their next hook-up, “heavy” encompassed all the thoughts that this worldview could not tolerate. It was all that we fear and want to suppress, including mortality and fear of loss.

What made Black Sabbath “heavy” was not a specific technique but a tendency to gravitate toward these dark thoughts and the reality that society denies. This neatly coupled metal with hardcore punk, which saw a society out of control and in denial of basic facts of life. Together these ideas brought metal to its underground state where it is completely alienated from the values and behaviors of most of civilization.

What is “heavy”? It is that which we cannot define because it is beyond the instruments of our culture — such as it is — to discuss. It is the thoughts that grip us at four in the morning and shock us awake. It is what stalks us in dreams. And it is our primal past, reaching past our modern technology and enforced civility, awakening the beast within.

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The return of reviews and opinion in metal

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The problem with dreams is that when they are achieved, the dream is no more. Life is about the chase, not the catch. This doubly applies to metal once it got social acceptance.

During the 1980s and 1990s in everywhere but Scandinavia, to be metal was to identify yourself as a kind of social reject. It was equal parts nerdly and menacingly rootless at a time when stable suburban living and office jobs were the only acceptable future.

Sometime in the late 1990s however metal was discovered as a form of natural resource. This resource is not renewable and hard to locate. It is hipness: a combination of authenticity, rebellion, transgression and the kind of personality that makes a character in a novel appealing.

At that point metal exploded. TV shows used its iconography, the media reported on it, and “kinder, gentler” forms of metal were produced for the audience that resulted. During this time, metalcore, post-metal/emo, indie-metal, alternative metal and atmospheric metal went ballistic.

The problem for us at this very moment, as Keith Kahn-Harris pointed out, is that we’re still drowning in an abundance of heavy metal. There are too many bands for fans to make meaningful choices. There are too many big blogs and news sites reporting the same news. All of us are drowning in digital downloads.

As Brian Pattison of Glorious Times opined in an interview:

The internet has made some things easier and perhaps better, but it has also done a lot of damage. Almost all of the personal relationships that happened back in the day don’t happen now. Kids today will visit a myspace page and download songs so they don’t get to build relationships with bands like we did way back before the internet. I still have letters from bands from back then, will kids today save their emails and myspace messages to look back upon in 20 years — I don’t think so.

In other words, convenience makes a product out of the music. With ease comes insincerity and disposability. Kevin Ord, editor of Codex Obscurum, points to the advantages of physical media in eliminating this problem:

I like to be able to hold something physical. I think a lot of people do. I want something that a kid might find in a shoebox in 10 years and say “I remember this; I’m going to reread it.” Stuff like blogs just seem so disposable.

As predicted here before, underground metal is turning back toward physicality to avoid the information overload of the digital age.

Fans and zines are asking themselves variants of this question: What use are 10,000 bands when no one can hear them all, and thus good quality does not get bumped up the line above the rest? A genre dies when it becomes so flooded that it has no quality control. Everyone gets to participate that way, sure, but the lack of leaders means that participation alone soon becomes pointless.

Where this is interesting is the nexus of intersection between metal’s concept of “heavy” and this return to primal methods.

“Heavy” is a beatnik word referring to concepts and knowledge that invoke existential and other concerns. In general, heavy is a confrontation with the dark and final side of life, like death or loss. If socialization and happiness are “light,” heavy is the opposite. In social talk, everyone wins; in heavy talk, it is clear that some win and some lose, including lose their lives to war, disease, violence and cruelty. “Heavy” is everything we fear as individuals and refuse to talk about in polite conversation.

When Black Sabbath emerged in the late 1960s, they distinguished themselves thematically from other bands by being heavy. Everyone else was singing about how the Age of Aquarius was going to bring Enlightenment and peace to everyone; Black Sabbath was singing about the collapse of the world, the failure of hope, and the doom awaiting us all.

In the same way, the Internet boom of the late 1990s was based upon a Utopian vision. Our old worries were over; a new society based on information and knowledge was here! But as the years went on, it became clear that in all areas most of this information was commercial spam or otherwise manipulative, and that the effect of “information liberation” was to drown us in irrelevance.

People crave what the old offered: strong opinions in record reviews and writing, and zines that were willing to push better bands on top of the rest. They want a death of the commercial spam that our media have become, and to be able to pick five winners out of those 10,000 bands to become the basis of the next generation in a genre.

Thus heavy returns. Darkness and evil return. A rejection of peace, harmony, happiness and enlightenment of the new age is replaced with a reliance on primal truths, pagan fears and ancient impulses. Instinct overtakes rationality. Practicality replaces morality. The beast within rises again.

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Interview: Argus

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As recent writings from Keith Kahn-Harris and others indicate, metal may be suffering from too much: too many bands, too huge an information flow, too many blogs, too much focus on surface aesthetics.

Contrasting this flood of “too much” is a true metal movement designed to emphasize what metal has always done well, but done anew by new generations. One member of this movement is Argus, whose album Beyond the Martyrs caught our attention for its NWOBHM/Candlemass classic metal fusion.

Luckily, frontman Butch Balich was available to answer a few profile questions and some existential ones via email. His answers strike me as relatively without contrivance, and show us this band both as it presents itself and as it is likely to be experienced.

Can you tell us how Argus formed? Did you come together on a mutual love of existing music, or a desire to create something that didn’t exist at the time?

The band was put together by Erik and Kevin out of friendship and a desire to jam and play some tunes. I don’t think it was ever envisioned it would become what it has. Our goal has always been simply to write great songs. We don’t concern ourselves with whether or not we are forging new paths or treading well worn ones. Its all about playing music we love and infusing our personality into it.

What is a “working class metal sound” (from your official biography)? Do the members of Argus identify with working-class or blue-collar roots?

Those guys grew up here in Western, PA and I think definitely identify with a working-class, blue-collar set of roots. We see ourselves as hard working and our music as fairly straightforward — what you hear is what you get — we aren’t overly complex and fancy in either our writing or our performance yet both are powerful. So I think we meant to portray the band as a straight up true metal band that works hard and is not pretentious in any way.

What would you identify as your primary and enduring influences?

We’re all over the map really. If you separated us and asked each of us you’d hear everything from Sabbath to Slayer, KISS to The Beatles, Maiden to NOFX, Marvin Gaye to Slough Feg. Collectively I think we draw from a common pool of Maiden, Thin Lizzy, some doom like Candlemass, old Metallica… We know what we want the band to sound like though so you’ll hear big riffs, great harmonies… sometimes the bands that those things remind of are coincidental, for instance “The Ladder” from Boldly Stride the Doomed has a real Solitude Aeturnus vibe even though I’m probably the one guy in the band who loves them. We are also influenced/pushed by bands like Slough Feg or Valkyrie.

You’ve picked an amalgamation of older styles for your music, instead of trying to keep up with the cutting edge or invent something. Why did you make this choice? Is there anything new under the sun, musically?

Let’s be honest — there really aren’t any combinations of riffs or notes that haven’t been used. There is NO ONE reinventing the wheel musically anymore. SO, our goal is to write great songs that we love — it is the goal of any good band. Our goal has never been to create something wholly unique as that is impossible. We draw from what we love about the music we listen to and enjoy playing and hopefully our personality comes across enough — and that is what makes us special. The notes/riffs/melodies may not always be something unheard of but we each have way of playing our instruments that adds up to ARGUS sounding like ARGUS instead of a mere rate retro metal knockoff.

Do you think the style you play selects the audience you receive, and that some audiences are more supportive than others?

I think any fan of true metal would like the band. We are neither overly refined or simplistic. I think our music has the ability to appeal to folks across different spectrums as it mixes bits and pieces of things and has strong melodies. I do think we’ve been most accepted by true metal and doom crowds so far. So far every audience we’ve played for has been pretty damn supportive to be honest. I do feel there is a niche market for what we do even though it has the potential to grow larger. If you play the style we play you do need to be prepared to accept that the fanbase is fairly limited and it will take a great amount of touring, perseverance and luck to advance beyond cult level.

There has been a movement in metal over the past four or five years called “True Metal,” in which people are less interested in outward-looking hybrids and more in an inward-looking, metal-centric attempt to continue the spirit of classic bands, although not necessarily the details. Have you seen this? Would it apply to Argus?

There is a segment of folks who aren’t interested so much in modernism and would prefer new bands to play in the old style. This is me to extent though I prefer bands not to be complete ripoffs of a specific band. I prefer bands like Slough Feg, Pharaoh, Twisted Tower Dire, Enforcer who have obvious influences but whose own personality comes through and who don’t consign themselves to 80s production values 24-7. I think Argus fits in with a retro tag though I have to say I think we manage to sound modern without sounding modern (if that makes sense). Like we don’t sound dated even though we’re playing metal based on the classic metal and hard rock bands.

This is your third album, after an EP and a demo. How has your sound changed during this time? Do you see it going in another direction as time goes on?

I don’t see that our sound has changed so much as streamlined a bit. We’re trying to capture the vibe and point of each song without belaboring the point in endless repetitions of the same riff. Why take ten minutes to say what can be said in six? I think it’s been a gradual transition. We’ve definitely become better songwriters over 7 years. Stylistically though we’ve been fairly constant. Maybe less doomy but no less moody.

Why do you think heavy metal remains popular after forty years of existence?

Because it is powerful, honest, hits-you-in-the-gut music. Because lyrically it provides escape. It provides understanding. It’s a very gut level thing… metal. There is an energy to it that few other forms of music capture — …and power, volume… I also think metal is also where you will find musicians whose level of integrity and devotion to their fans is high as opposed to more throwaway styles of music where musicians are chasing dollars exclusively rather than the art.

What’s next for Argus? Are you going to tour, or write more material?

We’re about to start writing for album 4. We hope to get over to Europe again the Summer of 2014. We have a festival appearance booked at the Ragnarokkr Festival in Chicago the weekend of April 4-5, 2014. Other than that we’re looking at some possible US dates… we’ll see what happens. Are discussing plans for small releases like a possible 7″, an EP and maybe a split.

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