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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Analyze it to Life: Black Sabbath – Master of Reality

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The resurgence of Black Sabbath following the success of their new album 13 presents an ironic success when compared with the more substantial legacy of their earlier work. Without the first five albums, metal as we now know it would not exist. And on one album in particular, Black Sabbath laid the groundwork for three subgenres — stoner metal, thrash metal and doom metal — such that future generations could pick up the hint and fully develop these new alloys of the raw metal that Black Sabbath forged forty years ago.

Black Sabbath is widely acknowledged by critics and fans as the beginning of heavy metal. From the eerie tri-tone chills of “Black Sabbath” to the menacing crawl of “Electric Funeral,” from the sludge of “Cornucopia” to the pop sensibility of “Killing Yourself to Live,” the black stamp of Black Sabbath radiates forward into the future, culminating in a reprise of their career (including post-Ozzy line-ups) in 13. Ranking the first five Black Sabbath works on a scale of one to five, a convincing argument could be made for either chronological sequence going from best to least. It’s a toss-up for fans and critics alike. Paranoid garners most of the nods as the most influential album from all corners, and many fans cite Vol. 4 as their favorite. Numerous others consider Sabbath Bloody Sabbath the salvation of Black Sabbath, bringing a newer sound to the band

But whichever direction you go, Master of Reality stands in the center. It is the first, and maybe the last, Black Sabbath album from the Ozzy-era (and perhaps from the entire canon) to purge extraneous elements and render a pure metal, so pure that other alloys — especially stoner metal, thrash metal, and doom metal –- would not exist without it. While seeds of different genres surely exist on the other four albums mentioned, I will be arguing that Master of Reality not only undergirds these three subgenres of heavy metal but may well be the finest classic Black Sabbath album.

From start to finish, Master of Reality casts a dark, heavy, menacing, and philosophical spell on the listener. Perhaps “uncompromising” describes it best. As an artifact judged solely on its own composition and delivery, Master of Reality may be the first metal album conceived of as a metal album. While the first two Black Sabbath albums undeniably forge many elements of heavy metal, each deviates at certain points. Black Sabbath has numerous forays into jazz and blues. It’s heavy when it’s heavy, but an almost exploratory vibe pervades about one-third of the album. Paranoid, while certainly heavier overall and much more consistent than Black Sabbath, retains blues and jazz elements that do not appear on Master of Reality. The first two albums stand as classics of the genre, and valid arguments for their status as primordial metal albums absolutely exist. However, the unity and purposefulness of Master of Reality indicate that these albums were like drafts of an essay, brimming with good ideas and clever phrases but ultimately collections of elements rather than unified wholes. Master of Reality starts heavy, grows heavier, and finishes heaviest. As the analysis below will demonstrate, the thematic consistency of this album far exceeds that of its predecessors. The lyrical expression of the themes reflects a deeper and more reasoned understanding of the issues involved. Musically, the songs are tighter and more direct. While the free-form jams of the first two albums are quite interesting and in my opinion as good as anything of the era, they reflect yet again a collection of elements. Master of Reality offers much more stylistic consistency, indicating a more holistic approach to the project.

The opening track, “Sweet Leaf” stands as a blueprint for stoner metal. The lyrics celebrate marijuana as a window to another dimension only the enlightened perceive: “Straight people don’t know what you’re about / They put you down and shut you out / You gave to me a new belief / And soon the world will love you sweet leaf.” The plodding riff that dominates the song permeates the descendant genre. Then the break from around 2:35-3:25 shifts into a proto-thrash mode (especially evident in Bill Ward’s drumming) that will show up again and again on this record. The song concludes with the stoner plodding that begins it.

“After Forever” and “Children of the Grave” carry the proto-thrash elements to the next level. While many critics have begun to agree that “Symptom of the Universe” off Sabotage inaugurates proto-thrash, one hearing of Master of Reality should be adequate evidence that the thrash style was being perfected, not invented, by the time “Symptom” was pressed into vinyl. Taking on religion (and ironically deciding in its favor, saying “They should realize before they criticize / That God is the only way to love”), the shouted lyrics of “After Forever” offer a direct exploration of the question of the soul versus the institutionalized mechanisms that supposedly provide for its sustenance. Both of these themes persist into thrash metal. The up-tempo opening and subsequent power chord extravaganza stand as a stark contrast with the opening track. “Children of the Grave” is pure thrash. Again featuring a shouted vocal, the song amplifies lyrics that challenge war and societal manipulation with verses like “Show the world that love is still alive you must be brave / Or your children of today are children of the grave.” The lyrics of this song presage two of the most prominent themes in thrash metal. Like “Paranoid” before it, “Children of the Grave” chugs forward, adding sustained chord progressions above it. The break from 2:10-2:20 proves itself worthy thrash to this day. Bill Ward’s work heralds the prominence of drums in thrash. Taken together, these two songs form the blueprint for thrash metal.

“Lord of this World,” “Solitude,” and “Into the Void” constitute a “doom suite.” As Osbourne’s plaintive wail pierces our eardrums, evil, demonic possession, psychological instability, and societal collapse penetrate our consciousness like a needle pushing a drug under the skin. The lyrics reflect a pessimism only hinted at in the preceding songs. The song titles themselves indicate a doom ethos. Try to imagine a darker or doomier final song than “Into the Void.” With the exception of a break in “Into the Void,” the tempos, riffs, and rhythms slow to a sometimes mechanistic, sometimes mournful, sometimes throbbing, always menacing procession of deliberate despair. The churning “Lord of this World” offers a view of demonic influence based not on Satan’s assiduity but human apathy: “You made me master of the world where you exist / The soul I took from you was not even missed.” The naysayers vilified in “After Forever” have won, and the dim hope that “God is the only way to love” offered in “After Forever” is snuffed out like a candle after a mass. “Solitude,” a slower, softer song expresses the ennui of a person suffering from self-directed pessimism. Ostensibly about a woman, the lyrics also sustain an interpretation of addiction or perhaps depression: “Crying and thinking is all that I do / Memories I have remind me of you.” The theme of hopelessness would become a staple of doom metal. “Into the Void” comprises interesting movements and perhaps one of the best introductory and main body riffs in all of Black Sabbath. The theme of contradictory practices, probably based on the co-occurrence of the Apollo missions and the Vietnam War, ultimately rests on the fact that hope is an illusion and the only peace that exists comes from journeying into the void — not on a rocket ship but in a grave on a planet “left to Satan and his slaves.” Again, the hope expressed in “After Forever” falls to the psychological manipulation of the children of the grave. The thematic consistency across the album is summarized and re-presented as a void that ultimately becomes the only option: a dark, heavy, menacing, and philosophical elaboration of the pessimism that will come to characterize heavy metal.

Master of Reality presents an overall coherence and depth reflective of a band that has realized its vision. Working out the details during the production of their first two records, Black Sabbath tempered that vision with experience. The musical, lyrical, and thematic sophistication of this album leads to an even heavier sound than had existed before. While it may be that down-tuning contributed to a darker sound, the beauty of this album emerges not from lower notes but from higher understanding. Some may suggest that Vol. 4 goes the next step further, but I would argue that it is the first step down-less consistent, less profound (although of Vol. 4 possesses a rather remarkable lyrical finesse). Sabbath Bloody Sabbath seems in the main a different enterprise than the first four albums (though it does elaborate some of the elements started on Vol. 4.) Some may suggest that Black Sabbath was an almost miraculous first outing, therefore making it best. I would agree that it laid the foundation for the genre but lacks the unity and purpose of Master of Reality, which is the album that confirmed the genre. Some may suggest the commercial success and exposure of Paranoid makes it the best expression of Black Sabbath’s ethos. Paranoid ranks as one of the greatest albums in the Sabbath canon, and many arguments could be made about the songs on Paranoid being their best work. But this analysis seeks to determine the best album. And Paranoid lacks the lyrical, thematic, and musical consistency of Master of Reality. In fact, from my perspective this level of excellence does not reappear until Heaven and Hell. But that album resulted from a new line-up and a new vision. In the end, I have to choose Master of Reality over Heaven and Hell.

A true testament to the importance of this album appears in the track list for 1997’s live collection Reunion. If we accept the postulate that Black Sabbath intended this collection to be a compendium representing the legacy of the Ozzy era as it stood at that time, the importance of Master of Reality becomes clear. Only four songs from the final five albums of the era are included. Only three are chosen from the eponymous first album. That leaves five songs each from Paranoid and Master of Reality (I’ll concede that “Orchid” is less important than any of the songs from Paranoid, yet there it is). With many fine tunes available from the final five albums, Black Sabbath included two-thirds of Master of Reality (four of six full-length songs). Surely they would not have featured so much of this album (and so little of the final five) if they did not want it to represent their legacy.

At the very least, Master of Reality caps the most important three-album sequence in the history of heavy metal. Although the first two albums present fierce, fatalistic, and fear-laden songs, songs with symphonic sensibilities and fusion-based energy, Master of Reality far exceeds both of them as a holistic project. The musical consistency and thematic pessimism of this album refines the ethos and aesthetic of the first two albums into a tighter work of art, at once more controlled and more innovative, perhaps because of the greater degree of precision and planning. Further, the variety of styles and increasing darkness of the themes and lyrics as the album progresses create the design signatures for the stoner, thrash, and doom metal of today, making it more influential than a cursory understanding would indicate. As a result Master of Reality reigns as the finest Black Sabbath album.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xRKGKXL1seE

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Sadistic Metal Reviews 12-12-13

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What are Sadistic Metal Reviews? Heavy metal is either art, or like the rest it’s a product to make sad people feel better about their empty and pointless lives. Brutal honesty is all that separates us from that abyss. Remember, tears are a sign that you’ve really reached people…

evereve-seasonsEvereve – Seasons

Nuclear Blast, this is NOT “music to mangle your mind.” This is the AIDS of the music world. Cheap, hokey synths ramble under tepid saccharine guitar melodies while effete whiny crooning that makes Morrissey sound like Tom Warrior radiates in the background. You can just about hear the teenage bedrooms of America, reeking of self-pity and masturbation, where the obese and inbred listen to this. It’s OK, kid, everyone gets turned down by a fleshlight at least once. If you can imagine heavy metal with all of its soul removed, candied like one of those disgusting little fruits in a fruitcake, this would be it. There is nothing here that is metal except under the flimsiest of pretenses. “Evereve” is more like “Summer’s Eve.” Seasons could be a forerunner for HIM. If you ever hear a note of this, you’re going to need hormone replacement therapy.

covenant-nexus_polarisCovenant – Nexus Polaris (also released as The Kovenant – Nexus Polaris)

The cheese of “black metal” circa 1998 is on full display here in this one album. Considering the Dimmu Borgir membership and the touting of a drum performance by Hellhammer circa his “help, I need money and even joined Arcturus” days, you know this will be bad. The vaudevillian sideshow vibe of later Ancient and Cradle of Filth is tricked out to sound like a joyous PG rated sci-fi soundtrack is playing over a rock opera, making this all sound more absurd. Imagine the music from a children’s variety TV show but with some drunk guitarist in the background hammering out heavy metal riffs with black metal stylings as he copulates with close family members while wearing a tutu. If you heard a “black metal” parody in recent times, chances are it sounded like this.

immolation-majesty_and_decayImmolation – Majesty and Decay

This album brings to mind Dogwin’s Law for metal: as a metal band ages, the probability of it reverting to its influences becomes one. Immolation started out as a speed metal band, then detoured into death metal for a few albums, and now is back to heavy metal but in a simplified form using death metal technique. When they did that cover of Mercyful Fate, it shook something loose, and Immolation thought, “Why spend hours fitting twisty riffs into intricate combinations?” Verse, chorus, break, solo — done! Collect check, buy motorcycle parts. This is the metal equivalent of baby food: over-cooked, pre-ground, sweetened and without any difficult parts. Gone are the wildly imaginative riffs and catcomb-like song structures. Instead it’s The Jets covering Bryan Adams put into power chord riffs. Embarrassed by their own non-output, Immolation tries to hide the emptiness by getting emo on the choruses but nothing can save this pile of paint-by-numbers metal. This is metal’s equivalent of Bangerz with some guy howling along in the background about stuff he read on Infowars.com.

morgoth-feel_sorry_for_the_fanaticMorgoth – Feel Sorry for the Fanatic

Another case of mid-90s “evolution,” Morgoth ditch the Death Leprosy worship for a sound more akin to Voivod at their most commercial playing Killing Joke at their poppiest. Vocals sound like a parody of Amebix, lots of mumbling and tuneless sung-shouts. Verse-chorus structures and an industrial rock production suggest this band was attempting to cash in on the industrial/cyber image trend of Ministry, Godflesh, and Fetish 69. With waves of label hype behind it, Feel Sorry for the Fanatic failed as only the falsest of marketing hype can. Creating a neutered album with fringe-accessibility to an audience that didn’t exist the year this album was released left the band to fall on its face in embarrassment and dishonorably disband.

wolves_in_the_throne_room-bbc_session_2011_anno_dominiWolves in the Throne Room – BBC Session 2011 Anno Domini

This band of hippies in denial have improved in the songwriting department, but by so doing reveal the underlying emo to their music. It’s clearer than ever before that Wolves in the Throne Room were never black metal. This two-song release allows the “post-metal” to shine, but musically “post-metal” is identical to emo, a subset of late hardcore/indie rock hybrids of the late 1980s. Musically, nothing has changed since that time, so if you’ve been in a cave since 1984 you might enjoy this band. These two tracks are far less random than previous Wolves in the Throne Room output. While they try to ape black metal with heavy guitar distortion and howled vocals, in harmony and choice of scale this material would fit in on a Jawbreaker or Rites of Spring album more than any black metal album. In fact it’s a complete sham to ever list this band as black metal because it misses out on what they do well, which is a very slow version of emo. Droning emptiness portrayed with slighly dissonant tracks that sound like self-pity incarnate. It evokes a lot of different feelings that boil down to the same state of suspension, in which mixed-emotions and self-pity that brings self-doubt resolve all things to the same. I wouldn’t recommend this for any metal fan or anyone who remembers the late 1980s.

solar_deity-devil_worshipSolar Deity – Devil Worship

If you approached a black metal band as if it were a doom metal band, you might end up with something like Solar Deity. Very musically literate in a way that is reminiscent of Necrophobic, with understated melodic riffs and good rhythm, this band nonetheless suffers from a type of drone syndrome where just not enough changes to keep interest, although there’s nothing offensive. Clearly mostly inspired by the first two Gorgoroth albums, Solar Deity attempt to set up a number of songs to narrate and develop theme, and do a reasonable job of it, but their riffs are rather lukewarm and repetition-intensive as is their usage. The result would be great if designed for doom metal, but as black metal ends up being an abrasive drone and sense of confused purpose within otherwise well-composed music. It might be good background music for repetitive tasks. You know, really feel that tedium as you clean water heaters, file taxes or chase hipsters off your front lawn with a shotgun (aim for the knees).

tribulation-the_formulas_of_deathTribulation – The Formulas of Death

Death metal isn’t hard rock. If it wanted to be hard rock, its members being honest people, it would have elected to simply be that instead. However, there’s a huge market in dressing up regular boring corporate product rock music as something “edgy” like death metal, which still hasn’t been conquered by the civilizing forces of socialization. Like previous Tribulation releases, The Formulas of Death is ambiguously in the death metal realm and in fact treats its death metal elements with ironic scorn. The result is a pretty good hard rock band embedded in a bunch of unnecessary stuff. Get a real vocalist, throw out the token chromatic riffs and d-beats, and re-style this album as something along the lines of early Queensryche or Cinderella and it would be great. This will make just about every “Best of 2013” because people can’t tell the difference between turd and steak tartare but also because it’s catchy. Simple music for simple minds.

skeletonwitch-serpents_unleashedSkeleton Witch – Serpents Unleashed

If focus groups found a way to slam Sentenced Amok and At the Gates Slaughter of the Soul into a metalcore product that panders to Adult Swim viewers, then Skeleton Witch would be the abomination unleashed. Tired and generic riffs more bound to cliche than tradition power an interchangeable series of mellow-deaf parts stitched into galloping rhythms. Although it appears to be like metal from a distance, I suspect if MC Hammer knew how to play a guitar, he’d come up with something like this. Poppy and bouncy background noise for people who value video games and Comedy Central more than music, Serpents Unleashed might be the sonic equivalent of a middle schooler’s diary: covered in stickers and glitter, but the content within is more than predictable in essence even if not in particulars, and in ten years it will humiliate them if unleashed.

beyond-fatal_power_of_deathBeyond – Fatal Power of Death

The problem with retro works is context. What was once a whole context is broken down into techniques, “moments,” transitions, tempo changes, riff-archetypes and melodic frameworks, and then reconstituted. However, since there’s no motivation except to be retro, there’s no new context except appearance. Thus the bands doing this tend to default to the simplest elements possible, which are either age-independent but average stuff the original genre tried to escape or conventions of the present age. The result is that you get the same stuff, but someone has covered it in retro-feeling-stuff. The end result is like a bison spray-painted with corporate logos, a contextless mishmash that’s oblivious to its own true nature. Beyond make a credible effort but they are trying to fit riffs together, not use riffs like words or colors on a painting, and as a result, nothing is communicated by frenetic energy, doubt and disorganization. Moments of this release are stunning, but the whole does not add up to much because it’s not about anything.

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The Black Moriah – Casket Prospects

the_black_moriah-casket_prospectsAn ex-Absu member in this band means that comparisons to Absu will be inevitable. However, Absu is basically a death metal band (Barathrum V.I.T.R.I.O.L.) who morphed into a Mercyful Fate-styled heavy metal band with black metal vocals and technical death metal drumming and vocals. The Black Moriah evokes the best of that style by bringing us a more Americanized version of the underlying speed metal that Mercyful Fate made famous (Don’t Break the Oath being its classic) with modern black metal vocals and straightforward death metald drumming.

What is great about The Black Moriah is that these songs preserve what has always separated heavy metal from the rest, which is its ability to tie riffs together and then reduce them to an entirely new statement through a concluding riff. Most of the riffs that form the body of each song are umptempo tremolo-strummed shorter riffs etching out brief melodies suspended in chromatic fills, but these set up each song for concluding material that transforms similar melodies and creates a radical shift in context. The result brings out what death metal did best, which was like H.P. Lovecraft stories evoke new worlds out of the mundane.

Casket Prospects shows us the basis of this band’s vision and where it can improve. Its unfortunate choice of name will lead most people to think The Black Moriah is a metalcore act; further, its similarity to Absu will be appreciated by many but also puts The Black Moriah in a difficult competitive position as an underdog. Also, what The Black Moriah is trying to do is in general a hard sell, since the speed/heavy metal audience has differentiated out into power metal which has driven the death metal audience further apart. However their style evolves, this band have shown a strength in songwriting that will take them far if they can get the aesthetic elements in line.

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