Is metal “too nihilistic”?

fenrizA non-Hessian friend once pointed out to me that metal music is essentially avoidance. With its nihilistic outlook it seemed to him to be just shuffling meaning around, never really reaching a conclusion or be able to produce a complete artwork.

Faustian? Pah! It may enjoy details of the world’s harsh realities, the death and gore and decay, but only because the transient nature of death allows for constant change, consequently avoiding all meaning. Which means we may contently pull back in some basement, still fearing reality as a whole. That’s what you get with bands obsessed with death.

Classical? Pfft! How could it be? Metal is too sensuous, delving in creepy subjects and gritty riffs without any sense of spirit or abstract idea.

Unsurprisingly, I think this is writing it off too quickly.

Metal is certainly content with the world, but does that make it materialistic? It does not like society perhaps; metal loathes its stale “bourgeois” mentality, yelling “Fake! Fake!”, and it loves the hedonistic.

But metal nevertheless hungers for the epic, a “heavy” greatness and seems to enjoy the game that nature is playing. Metal found that society was materially flourishing, but also found decay in the souls of the bored everyday man, echoing the troubled mind of Fenriz of Darkthrone who loves art that comes from “the exhaustion of easy life”.

To awaken us, metal explored natural decay. But not as a materialist act: needless to say, with their obscure imagery, dark riffs and haunting vocals, metal bands created a mysterious world that seemed more honest, more real than the life in any Western metropolis. Lauren Wise writes:

Heavy metal seemed just like classical music to me: It was ritualistic, accepting of death and change, questioned authority and normalcy, and satisfied that need for an overture or reconsideration. It was as if classical and metal both quenched my need to understand the positive strength and ultimately horrific nature of the world. Metal may be less refined, but it still seeks to express that philosophical assumption about life.

Metal found life in death – initially as a warning, later as full-on Romanticist nature worship – and that beautiful paradox sums up my answer to my friend: Metal seeks essence, it does not avoid it – but it takes no prisoners.

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A Legend Out of Control

Bathory’s relation to the band’s fanbase is an infected story of contradictory interests concerning very human desires for truth and meaning. Oftentimes fans and creator pulled in opposite directions, fighting over whether to leave the Bathory mask on or reveal Bathory’s inner workings.

Debuting in 1984, Bathory’s cult status was rapidly acknowledged in the musical underground. But during a long time a certain air of mystery surrounded the band. It seemed beyond time, beyond space, and even out of national context (to a Swedish person this Stockholm wonder didn’t seem as typically Swedish as many of the later Death Metal bands). In general, main man Quorthon kept to himself, few pictures of the band existed, and there were hardly any live gigs at all, in particular once the music got closer to Wagner than to Motörhead. Bathory took one heavy metal tradition to extremes: it created a mythos out of nothing more than a few cover images and an interview or two. This obscure and ambiguous myth bound people together. They wanted to live out this vision as they found it more appealing than their world. When the fanbase went looking for answers, and found little else but songs of evil, darkness, destruction and conspiracies with Satan, imaginations ran wild and filled in the gaps with what they wanted to see, not what they saw.

People have a desire for continuity in an individual’s past. In this case, that desire was expressed among metal fans by trying to explain Bathory’s music through references to a heavy influence from a band which prior to Bathory was seen as the most extreme: Venom. In several interviews Quorthon himself has denied any Venom influence, but in many biographies the memory of early Bathory as a Venom clone is nevertheless quite persistent. (According to Quorthon, his main influences were Black Sabbath, Motörhead, The Exploited, and GBH, and later on Wagner, Beethoven, and Haydn among others.)

The will to interpret Bathory’s music as a logical continuation of Venom, and accordingly seek out a sense of “eternity” in the genre which these two bands (among others) officially created in the earliest of times, is hardly surprising. A consistent pattern which suggests some sort of intention is simply more attractive than a chaotic mess of a genesis produced by two groups entirely unknown to each other.

It is, however, easy to recognize among the authors of reviews of early Bathory albums an aspiration towards and an acknowledgement of a distinct identity of the band and its founder. Regarding Bathory’s self-titled debut album and its follow-up, a mantra is repeated: these records are the starting point for a whole genre and Quorthon is its first hero. This is, so to speak, the creation myth associated with Bathory.

Repetition of this myth is presumably what makes it go beyond historicity and is what makes it timeless. It’s a way for a metal fan to not only “create” Bathory, but also be a part of the phenomenon. Even repeated listens to Blood Fire Death is a repetition of a mythical Now, which gives us a sort of “vertical anchoring.” If myth is a celebration of life, a summary of the Past in the Now, then this is certainly what Bathory is to the band’s followers.

Quorthon himself seems to have had an enormous respect for the mythical power of Bathory. Referring to his fanbase as “The Bathory Hordes”, he tried to reach out to it in order to receive answers on how to deal with this beast:

[…] send me a letter of what you think, what you would want us to do in the future […] Remember, it is you the fans out there on whom we depend on. […] Stay united and may the northstar shine on you all, keep metal at heart!!

This kind of democratization most likely rendered him unable to control the myth of the band. As Quorthon “grew out” of Satanism, and myths surrounding his persona still insisted on his being a demonic devil worshipper, he wanted to set the record straight. And this is where things get interesting.

In 1996, Bathory released Blood On Ice, a retro album with liner notes containing a lengthy exposition on the band’s early history. Presumably, Quorthon had wished to update his biography and rid it of the misconceptions that according to him were abundant in the metal world, but it was probably also a way to pay tribute to the legend by contributing to it with a few “behind the scenes” stories.

This, however, proved to be a serious miscalculation of what the fans wanted. The unmasking threatened the consistent cultural memory of Bathory. And reactions weren’t long in coming: fans spoke of sacrilege and treachery in the many letters that were sent to Quorthon as a direct reaction to the liner notes. The memory of Bathory was now to a great extent a social concern and no longer only the creation of one man. Quorthon writes:

I realized then more than ever before that BATHORY was surrounded by the same sort of stuff only legends are made from. The element of mystery and suspense was still very important to a lot of die-hard BATHORY fans. [The truth] didn’t suit the image that a lot people had of BATHORY or myself.

Quorthon died in June 2004, but shortly before his death he founded an official Bathory website in which he denies the old image of himself as someone who eats children, drinks blood, and lives in a cage, an image that apparently still needed to be denied. Quorthon tells of an interview many years after he abandoned his satanic image: despite the time that had passed, he was still expected to pose for a photo session with pentagrams, skulls and cobweb.

Ironically, many fans have as of recently noted that Quorthon himself tampered with the truth quite deliberately. The iconic Bathory goat – which has become a sort of identity marker among fans – is, according to Quorthon, a collage created out of bits and pieces “from several horror comic magazines”. In fact, the goat is taken from a finished illustration in a book on witches from 1981. It wasn’t until 2007 that the originator, Joseph A. Smith, got to know that his drawings had been used as subject matter for tattoos and the like all around the world for decades. It also turns out that the lyrics and title to Bathory’s “For All Those Who Died” is more or less stolen from a feminist poem by Erica Jong.

The legacy of Bathory will nevertheless die hard. Quorthon created a legend so powerful neither he nor its fans could control it, an art that hovers above independently of its creator and its receivers. Yet we shouldn’t forget the core quality of its longevity: Quorthon’s compositions. These are what will always create very much alive “elements of mystery and suspense” in the mind of the listener. That’s where the magic happens. Hence the art of Bathory is stronger than both the fans’ myth-making and Quorthon’s myth-busting.

Going through Bathory’s albums again, experiencing the passionate evil melody of “The Return of the Darkness and Evil” or the haunting existential angst of “Twilight of the Gods,” they contain the same everlasting power they ever did and is what makes Bathory eternal. The mask is put back on. Continuity reappears and everything returns.

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If Metal was a Painting

Les_Demoiselles_d'AvignonThe other day I looked up Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. I had seen it before a couple of times and heard it was important. It’s basically some chicks from a brothel with bodies deformed by Pablo’s furious brushstrokes, eyes staring at you uncomfortably and somewhat comically. A painting central to the evolution of Cubism, apparently. The point is that this is where visual art collapsed. The year was 1907; the nightmarish figures of modern art had already been around for decades, but now all traditional assumptions had to be annihilated, paving the way for all modern things to come – for all things post-modern as well. In hindsight, it’s simply the putrefaction of dying tradition doing its job. And we understand you, Pablo; you, the genius, had to show us what this meant, you had to show us the horrors of having no perspective at all. (How do we even start looking at a woman with two and a half arms?) Comedy aside, make no mistake: Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is sheer terror. As such, it suffices, it does what it should – it works. Those disconnected shapes told of all modern art to come, avoiding conformity to the most extreme degree.

But as with all such experiments, it fails to tell a story. It’s easy to point fingers at modern art because of its apparent ugliness, but its real weakness is that it’s a simple cry in the dark. Yes, the modern world leaves quite a few existential challenges for man to take on, but making your art as pointless as you perceive the world will make us all end up in a downward spiral. If you have something to tell the rest of us, then wrap it up properly and share the experience. You can’t do that with a “perspectiveless” experiment. But that is, unfortunately, how modern and much of contemporary art has interpreted the world.

(Now, I’m no expert when it comes to modern art and I have no problem saying that all modern art is not crap. But when you’ve come to understand its overall idea, you don’t have to be an expert to dismiss it. As with jazz, the very idea behind modern art is “faulty”, which is why the probability of finding beauty among the rubbish is very modest.)

Heavy metal music chose a different path. Black Sabbath knew the world was not all beer and skittles when they recorded their first album, but they weren’t crybabies either. They didn’t, like Picasso, make an experiment based on how we have nothing to base things on. Instead, they told a mysterious and intriguing tale of what the world had become. Following in their footsteps, bands like Slayer, Deicide and Emperor put all this ugliness in musical narratives which in themselves were paradoxically beautiful. Not as direct mirrors of our world and society, but as stories with a glimmer of excitement.

This is how metal music rediscovered tradition, a tradition of storytellers who have supported our souls through the ages, from Homer to Bach to Rembrandt to old men by a fire in a small hut in a murky forest. Metal was chaotic, especially at a glance, but underneath it all was a spirit that believed in life. This way metal music created a resonant mythos for people in the postmodern era.

But finding tradition seems a happy coincidence in this case, or, more likely, something which metal music realized only through sheer necessity. Deliberately reinventing tradition in art isn’t always a good idea. It has been tried before, and in my experience the results are actually worse than a cry in the dark. If we go back to the visual modern arts and look across the spectrum from Picasso’s wild experiments to the opposite side, we find (among others) the Academics, like William-Adolphe Bouguereau. This is from the wow-I-can-definitely-see-what-it-depicts-but-it’s-boring-me-to-tears school of art. It has no urgency. Great art is almost by necessity always inspired by personal experience in the world and time we live in. Trying to remove yourself from it will turn the art into stories about virtually nothing. And that’s what we see in Bouguereau. An artist trained in the old school, with all the craft of tradition but none of the spirit gained from experience. That experience doesn’t need to be one of terror, but giving an artwork weight demands an ability to pick up what is going on around you and inside you. And we are not talking socio-political particularities here, but an existential understanding. What does it mean to be human during this time and this place?

One may find it hard to believe that the musicians of the most extreme bands in existence ever thought about this, and perhaps many of them never did. But somehow their instincts have sniffed in the air the feelings of the time, remolded it in their heads and had their guitars resound of what it tells – even if they motivate it by, “Listen to this sound, man, it’s awesome!” The artist is told something about the world, and tells it back to us. Bouguereau in comparison sure makes fancy wallpaper, but it’s anything but awesome – it’s lifeless.

Metal music, then, builds anew in accordance with a tradition that the Academics only very superficially mimicked. It also sees much of the same things Picasso saw, but while he screamed with pathetic terror, metal screams with delight.

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Of Power Metal and Other Tales

1. Introduction
2. The Two Faces of the Genre: European and American Power Metal
3. European Power Metal
4. Power Metal of the United States
(more…)

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Judas Priest – Stained Class

Stylistically and in terms of execution, this is perhaps the most important album that Judas Priest made. Some will argue that the Sad Wings Of Destiny album from 1976 was the record that encapsulated this, though the reviewer picks Stained Class on the basis that it shapes and crafts the periphery of what was yet to come from a still young musical form. The origins of extreme metal are hinted at in pieces such as ‘Exciter’, which elaborates further on the quintet’s advancement towards more aggressive techniques and motifs, heavy on palm muted rhythmic guitar riffs and rapid fire double bass pedals, overlaid with Rob Halford’s banshee-like falsetto and lead guitars which although in terms of patterns and scales are not yet free of the restraints of rock music from previous decades, clearly set a benchmark for the revival of neoclassical technique in the metal genre. This is additionally showcased in both the follow up piece ‘White Heat, Red Hot’  the title track and ‘Saints In Hell’, more adherent to mid-paced tempos though in terms of form, the same development is obvious.

‘Invader’, ‘Savage’, and ‘Better By You, Better Than Me’ are all anthemic, semi-melodic numbers that are more standardized than anything else on this album, and is easily of the quality of the best material that permeated the disappointing predecessor Sin After Sin. As is with much work within earlier NWOBHM, this creates a solid base that allows for the most joyous segments of this album to thrive so well. ‘Beyond The Realms Of Death’ which is by many seen to be a seminal piece for this band, is an excellent piece of balladry, to which a clear lineage of the more subtle, ‘slow burning’ work of Iron Maiden (“Children Of The Damned”), Manowar (“Valhalla”, “Bridge Of Death”), Bathory (“One Rode To Asa Bay”, “Twilight Of The Gods”), Metallica (“Sanitarium”, “Fade To Black”) can trace a root. With the exception of perhaps their triumphant Painkiller opus, this remains their most consistent and advanced work, and shows an act at their most vital and relentless. Metal was forged here.

 -Pearson-

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Therion – Gothic Kabbalah

 

Being dissatisfied with creating what might be called a pinnacle of death metal in Beyond Sanctorum (an undertaking that for all its immersive grandeur and epic legends never felt entirely comfortable within the genre), Therion mastermind Christofer Johnsson embarked upon a massive crusade in pursuit of an album that successfully integrated a symphonic revelry into a metal foundation. While others, including Mr. Johnsson himself, might disagree, it is the opinion of this reviewer that, having toiled for over fifteen years in this particular effort, Therion finally achieved the full extent of its aim in ‘Gothic Kabbalah’, and album that we not only deem to be the single best record of the past record, but also the most inventive, most ingenious accomplishment to emerge from a band no longer affiliated with the original death metal framework.

Once the listener can eventually penetrate the deeper meanings of Gothic Kabbalah, which can require a great deal of time and concentration due to the sheer immensity of its vision, he is likely to be struck by how purposeful the music seems. Every track sets out an individual lyrical theme (all lyrics written by the studious Thomas Karlsson), and the composition as a whole (not merely the vocals) actually reflects the corresponding theme as it should always do. This is where truly excellent music will unfailingly show its quality: the imaginative vision of the artist, whether the intent be conscious or not, is sublimely displayed in the overall thematic unity of the album, in both conceptual and strictly musical dimensions, as well as in an intricate understanding of precisely what the artist wishes to create, and of course of the tools that he is working with.

In Gothic Kabbalah, we are entranced by a composition that sings and dances fluidly in a notable contrast to the relatively plodding movements that characterize some of the earlier records. A full sense of the album’s strong self-awareness is manifested by an easy alliance between some convincing, eccentric vocals, plenty of nimble solos and delicate melodies, and a deeply visceral performance by a devoted rhythm section; taken as a whole, the instrumentation is perfectly charismatic. This does not altogether give the impression of being a fun, careless endeavour to entertain guests around a campfire; the album does, however, address some perennial subjects with a certain seriousness that graces them with an unmistakable aura of authenticity, all the while doing so with a natural easiness that only reinforces the sense of sincerity.

What makes this, Therion’s ninth album, especially remarkable is not that it approaches arcane material in the hope of evoking something real and mystical; previous albums have evidently been produced in this very eagerness. No, what makes Gothic Kabbalah special is that it actually accomplishes the invocation of a strong esoteric presence in a musical fabric that goes far beyond the aesthetical, something which the albums prior could never do. The true moments of greatness on this record are found wherever the shocking light of revelation pierces through the veil of the myth and of the occult; whereas Therion were previously content to simply demonstrate the shapes and the outlines of the old legends, ‘Gothic Kabbalah’ cannot cease until it has transcended them altogether!

Now, it is quite clear that Therion have indeed managed an artistic representation of a wondrous realm in Esoterism, and have made it come alive therein; what is especially remarkable, however, is how the many different mythic strands that the albums touches on are eclipsed by a strong recurrence to the specifically Hellenic idea of the ‘Sophia Perennis’, or of the universal idea of the ‘Eternal Wisdom’. Just as a decidedly bombastic classical music has melded with a more crudely defined death metal background, as well as with other styles besides, so too have the various topics respectful to esoterism conformed to the overriding aim for the beautiful Sophia. So, while the cryptic meaning of the pair of terms Gothic Kabbalah still escapes us, the meaning of this album has not: it is the soulful execution of a vision set squarely upon the sun and the heavens above, and as such it is the perfect transition from a typically death metal perception that stares perpetually into a deep, long, and fiery abyss.

-Xavier-

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Satan – Court in the Act

Hailing from Newcastle, the same turf as fellow Geordies Venom, Satan’s debut album offers a more finely executed and grandiose vision of the NWOBHM, and on Court In The Act they deliver a masterwork that arguably represents the peak of the style. Each composition is defined by intricate rhythm and lead guitar work, and a pacy ryththm section that has all the momentum of an up-tempo take on Stained Class by Judas Priest. A very well tamed vocal retains a mostly mid-range croon throughout songs, unleashing semi-operatic falsettos wherever necessary to give greater punctuality to the conclusions of riff cycles. On repeat listens Court In The Act can bring about various comparisons, with the proto-speed metal gallop of Judas Priest, the melodic noodling of Iron Maiden and an anthemic niche shared by Angel Witch. Witchfinder General also comes to mind, albeit lacking the Black Sabbath influence that informed said act.

Melody and song structure here is flawless, and unlike many albums of the NWOBHM there is no real incohesion or disruption halting the flow of compositional prowess. Quite an archaic use of notation that makes great use of pentatonics, yet moderates the restraints of blues and R&B music, has something more in common with European music of centuries past. If one were to imagine listening and removing the aesthetics of the modern band-set up, and replacing the electrical distortions of the guitars with perhaps harpsichord or sole acoustic guitar in it’s place a bridge can more or less be established as an imaginative transition to a modern form of music. One of the absolute best releases of traditional metal, this is highly overlooked and highly recommended.

Pearson-

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S.U.P. – Room Seven

By the time 1997 rolled around Death Metal had all but returned to the primordial abyss from which it had emerged, and Black Metal had basically committed suicide. As if sensing the demise of extreme metal or unable to overcome the perceived expressive limitations of extreme metal, S.U.P. with an eye to their Heavy Metal and progressive rock influences, release a surprisingly expressive, intelligent and interesting album that could be referred to as industrial progressive death rock. Mid-paced, melancholy, unsettling, dreamlike and enigmatic, the listener of “Room Seven” is submerged into a world of varying and compelling experiences that often times work simultaneously to challenge and lift the listener beyond the simple, linear and emotive reactions that arise from rock and other forms of popular music. Despite some of the heavy metal fist pumping riffs and the common and accessible themes, “Room Seven” does a great job of placing the listener in a relative position of omniscience and thus introducing a position from which to contemplate and apply the wisdom of this release to one’s own life.

Masters at presenting simultaneously varying and subtly different shades of a theme, SUP reminds those who have the ears to listen that life is more than the mere temporal, logical and linear succession of events and experiences. Rather the listener is urged to contemplate life as the compound and expression of various and seemingly disparate elements, working simultaneously to create the complexity of life and its experiences, while remaining fundamentally connected. Vocals themselves, while melodic are emotionally restrained, dreary and often times express a profound fatalism, stoicism or a dissinterested acceptance of the superior forces alluded to above. Although “Room Seven” remains a compelling listen, the heavy metal and rock based themes preclude the possibility of this album reaching the cosmic heights of certain Black Metal and Death Metal classics, nonetheless as a testament to the intricacies of the human experience this album offers satisfying insight.

-TheWaters

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Dantesco – Pagano

The challenge of creating relevant but still traditional Heavy Metal in this current age where even the most commercial face of Metal has been changed by the extremity of the underground seems to be an almost insurmountable task. The most recent efforts of mainstream veterans like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest in continuing the genre provides little in and of themselves to enthrall the masses as they did with their once advanced, Romanticist art. There are also the countless Power and Doom Metal bands that have hijacked the older forms and do so with little to none of the magic that possessed the music of the seventies and eighties. Though the secrets of the grand, old tradition have been apparently condemned to obscurity, they can never be lost and befitting the nature of lost wisdom, have turned up in the least likely of places.

Dantesco hail from the small Latin American island of Puerto Rico and through their music, divulge a rich tradition of Spanish music and highly exoteric and vibrant Catholicism. Although chronicling the triumphant Heathen soul at war with Christendom, ‘Pagano’ conjures the sounds of the immanent culture and possesses it with a bestial inflection, as the vocals of Erico that dominate this album resemble a Latin black mass arranged with the magestic sensibilities of an European opera. Infact, the vocal style is as properly operatic as imagineable in Heavy Metal music, putting the high-pitched aspirations of a Rob Halford or Messiah Marcolin in their places, though still conveying a sense of extreme primality and visceral power rivalled only by the demonic throats of Black Metal vocalists. These sermons are conducted exclusively in the native Spanish tongue, which suits the guitars incredibly well, as the melodicism of the riffs is only supplemented by the Doomy heaviness of Candlemass influence, but really crafted with Spanish classical guitars in mind. This is where the music really comes alive, before there’s any chance of hearing the vocals as just a unique ethnic gimmick to fill space with. The compositions are constantly engaging, commanding narratives the scale of the epic title-track to Iron Maiden’s ‘Seventh Son of a Seventh Son‘ with attention to mood dynamics often passed over in favour of an intentionally one-dimensional wallowing by other bands who play this melodic, traditional and Doomy kind of Metal. All the techniques on show have been long perfected, and more recently, have even found their way into the mallcore slang of pre-teen alternative/hard rock bands (via. Gothenburg), but fortunately, it’s all found an orderly, emotive and inspiring expression in ‘Pagano’. The tight but hyperbolic interplay of vocals and guitar is a feast for those that love to follow several strands of ancient melody at once, as if transforming the old Hispanic anthems of Mexico’s Luzbel into rousing, harmonised hymns, tempered and then unleashed to invoke the spirits of pre-Christian warriors. True Heavy Metal, fit for contemporary ears, giving the current crop of extreme-influenced Pagan and Black Metal bands a serious run for their money.

-ObscuraHessian-

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Becoming a classical listener

For kicks I decided to listen to nothing but classical music for a month. Having bounced around looking for the next genre to capture the power of old school metal, I realized that none were coming close, so skipped the drama and went right for the heavyweight — classical. In specific, I’d found the following frustrations:

  1. Jazz fans tend to praise music for its external traits, like how wild the sounds are, not the composition. This is because jazz composition is either based on pop music from the 1930s, or totally random. Most of the soloing is 80% random or memorized licks used to kill time while the musician tries to think up something good. Jazz fans don’t want to hear this because they listen to jazz to seem profound to their friends, and like talking about how it’s superior to every other form of music, especially country, metal and classical (“those people can’t improvise,” they say of the people who invented and still practice structured improvisation).
  2. I like the idea of noise music and many of the people involved with it. The music itself is fucking boring. It’s a texture study with some dynamic manipulation for effect, which gives them only a few semi-linear song structures they can develop. The result is a focus on the trivial, so that anyone who mikes his colon and samples a tractor engine through it then finds a way to distort it using atmospheric noise and biofuels becomes the Latest Genius, even though the end result sounds about like everything else.
  3. Similarly, I like the idea of industrial music, but it has been swallowed up by dance music and the beat-addicted nature reminds me of all I don’t like about our modern time: spoon-fed, concentration-interrupting, doofus-friendly society. Even stuff like VNV Nation, which is pretty brainy, gets old after a listen or two for this reason.
  4. I like the idea of country, and can enjoy bluegrass and pre-hippie folk, but not all the time. Much of it sounds very similar to my ears which may have to do with its reliance on similar techniques.
  5. I would never listen to metal for metal’s sake. That’s how you make something weak, by being an unquestioning audience. For this reason, other than a handful of releases, I skip out on post-1996 metal. The exceptions are great however.
  6. The “youth culture” aspects of popular music — how it’s a high-ticket item sold on certain assumptions, how millions of people use it as a cause/life/goal substitute, how it’s generally not profound thus people contort to give it extra gravitas — are what doomed metal and doom these other genres. I want to avoid the kiddie marketing and in-group/out-group social club aspects that get in the way of the music.
  7. This “youthiness” to the music means that you are expected to be willing to spend absurd sums of money, waste hours of time poking around magazines and web sites and youth chatter boards, all while becoming a target for the “youth market” of large corporations who realize that you can pander to people while condescending to them. They treat anything “youth” like it’s for morons and still people eat it up. They’re not going to do anything but insult your intelligence and cryptically hide information so someone can be the smartest monkey in the group for having found it.
  8. Popular music is, under the hood, very similar in melody, harmony and rhythm. As a result, dressing it up becomes the most important task. If you take a standard pop song and add a screaming female vocalist, a tuba player and a disco beat, it’s now “edgy.” Take that same pop song, drop the drums and add a chorus of gay penguins, and it’s “innovative.” Or just indulge in camp and mixed-up styles from the past and you’re “ironic.” Does anyone actually fall for this? Well, they know nothing of music theory, have little experience of life, and… here’s the secret: they have low self-esteem, are ordinary, but are trying to socialize by having something in common with others that they can trade around in a transactional basis. So they have rock music and they don’t care as much about the music as the cool.

Because of this, I chucked aside the notion of listening to popular music — at all. Even if it’s underground or indie, if it’s in the popular music format, that’s how it will be perceived and treated, which in turn affects how I’ll have to interact with it and get ahold of it. Specifically, I noted how the greatest artists were straining to escape the kiddie music ghetto, like Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk, Fripp and Eno. Why keep pushing the dead agenda?

Instead I hauled out an already moderate classical collection and went on a shopping spree at Amazon and Joel’s Classical Music, a local shop. My idea was to go the opposite direction for a month and see where it led me. I didn’t do any research because I wanted to emulate the experience of the normal, curious listener who has a job and family and so discovers things by serendipity while the music is playing in the background, over the screaming kids, chattering coworkers, and blaring TV.

What made the transition hardest was the difference in dynamics. Rock music is meant to be a constant pulse; classical music is like a ocean wave, sometimes loud and sometimes inaudible, usually somewhere in the middle. With rock music, you hear the first thirty seconds and set your sound level; with classical, you really have to find the loudest part of the piece because the bulk of it may be softer.

Even more, there’s a textural difference. Where rock is guitars and bass and drums and vocals, classical musicians have a choice of more than a dozen instruments. They use them unevenly because what’s a good effect for one emotion, or part of an emotional journey, doesn’t fit in another. You can be awash in violins one moment, and caught up in bass and brass the next.

Finally, there’s a time difference. Rock music is three-minute songs, with a few exceptions. Classical music has some three-minute songs, but more commonly, longer pieces are composed of several movements. Themes are shared across these movements, like a conversation with question, answer, debate, modification and restatement. You can’t hum a melody knowing that in thirty seconds, after the chorus, it’ll be back.

But I did it: I spent a month listening to nothing but classical, except the unavoidable retro swing-rockabilly at the ‘Bucks and the clinky ringtones of my fellow subway riders. Having fought it through, I have a few recommendations for those wanting to get into classical music.

  1. Stick with the standards. Learn to listen to the music by sticking with the most time-tested successes, namely Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, Schubert, and Wagner. You can branch into baroque later, and modern classical later, as these are reaches. Learn first how to listen to the music.
  2. Don’t find the most obscure, dark and stormy or avant-garde classical you can. Every cretinous idiot who wants to show you how profound he is will come out of the woodwork and recommend you listen to Buttzurski’s Ten Meditations For a Dying, Fly-Covered Child in Marshall McLuhan’s Singularity, but the modern stuff doesn’t meet the challenge of the older and is in fact kind of trivial. Equally idiots will try to get you to listen only to “dark” classical or classical for rock fans. This is always a path to stupidity. Learn to understand the big names and anything else will be easy.
  3. Pick conductor carefully but worry less about orchestra and year. Conductors are like film directors; they interpret the piece and can either ruin it or make it shine. However, the difference between great conductors is minimal, while the difference between a great conductor and a bad one is infinite. Pick some established names, like von Karajan or Harnoncourt.
  4. Don’t shy away from Naxos. Naxos has a simple business model: find inexpensive orchestras in out of the way places to record classical pieces in interpretations based on the greats. It’s part-clone, part-practicality. We can’t all afford the big name conductor box set, but we can afford a $8 Naxos CD that uses a similar approach and unknown, rising musicians.
  5. Support your local classical store. Among other things, the people that work there took that job because they love the music — they’re not getting paid much. They are probably susceptible to polite conversation, almost always open to questions, and if encouraged, will give you a viewpoint you can use to plot your own course through classical music. If you find someone who hates everything you love and loves everything you hate, the value is not lessened — apply the “Rule of 180” and go nuts.
  6. Don’t tell your friends until you are listening to classical music regularly. People are going to try to talk you out of it because they fear that you’re going to see The True Musical Truth of Truthy Truthness, and turn around and treat them like they’d treat you, by saying that their music is the random mutterings of droning peon brains. Even if that’s true — and in my view, it is for most rock and jazz — you don’t want to get into that fight. Don’t act like the jazz fans. Instead, do your thing and when someone asks, tell them the composer name but don’t mention it’s classical. “I’ve been listening to a lot of this Italian guy, Arcangelo Corelli.” If you’re a total deviant like me, you can describe the music as atmospheric narrative instrumental music, and no one is going to think it’s anything other than Autechre with a voice-over.

I found it rewarding to throw out the rules and plunge into the abyss, and leave behind all the safety blankets I had come to know. I still love metal, but I’ve found that classical music listening has sharpened my ear and made it easy for me to throw out the crap metal and keep the best, which means that the metal in my life is stronger in quality not quantity and so it is able to compete well with any other genre. In addition, I’ve found a new musical passion that doesn’t require me to ever hear the term “ironic” again.

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