Dave Mustaine explores classical-metal hybrid

April 8, 2014 –

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Speed metal tyrant Dave Mustaine (Metallica, Megadeth) takes to the stage with the San Diego Symphony to play guitar solos in place of violin leads.

He will play along with “Summer” and “Winter” from Antonio Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons,” Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Air,” Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” and Antonín Dvořák’s “New World Symphony.” Mustaine described these pieces as shredding, fast and melodic.

In addition, the guitarist revealed some surprising background to his own music:

Mustaine also talked about Megadeth’s classical influence since its formation.

“On the very first song on our very first record, I actually played piano … Funny thing was, it was a very, very, hacked up version of Beethoven’s Fugue in D Minor and going back and listening to the actual performance of Beethoven, it’s kind of like, ‘Nice try Dave’ because it was close to it, but I mean, I was a gutter kid that grew up on the street and was playing from memory. I was surprised I could even play the piano.”

For the full story, head on over to The Daily Aztec.

Why metal will never be understood, and never wants to be

April 3, 2014 –

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We live in a land of confusion. Most people here have trouble differentiating between a conclusion and a method used to reach a conclusion.

Take for example the phrase, “That’s logical.” To most people, this conjures up a list of things that are accepted as having a basis in logic. When you ask them to parse something new, which involves applying a method to each sequential detail in order to find out how they fit together. That’s difficult; tracking conclusions and having a whitelist/blacklist of accepted ideas is easier.

If you want to know how metal calcifies itself, it is through these conclusions. Darkthrone ended up sounding the way they did as a result of their method, putting together all the pieces and coming up with a bigger direction. When bands imitate Darkthrone, none of this happens, and thus none of the music is nearly as good. They know how to imitate it from the surface inward, but they don’t know why it came about it and thus, how to charge it with the meaning the original had.

Especially threatening to popular music is the process of calcification by which the method of the past generation becomes the conclusions of the next. Darkthrone makes a great album; everyone imitates it; as a result, that sound becomes stale and disassociated from the meaning it once had.

It was once common for metalheads to complain about being misunderstood, and their music not being understood and accepted. Now it is accepted, and it has rendered it harmless. What did that rendering was all the metal bands ripping each other off, churning the original ideas into a mush of imitation. In fact, the problem is that metal when understood is in fact misunderstood, and keeping it not-understood is what is required for people to go back to method instead of just trusting its conclusions as gospel and repeating them in recombined form.

Metal is in fact like a snake consuming itself. As soon as orthodoxy is established, it is destroyed and its destroyer rises only to be in turn consumed itself. Parallels can be drawn to ocean waves cresting and then self-destructing, the need for forest fires, how predation ensures that prey animals get smarter, or other natural metaphors. What it fears is the calcification and a related process known as social acceptance. When a group of people encounters a new idea, it mocks it, then tries to destroy it, and finally accepts it. But once the idea is accepted, the process of calcification happens as society assimilates the idea as conclusion and throws out the methods, but even worse, the nature of having the idea accepted means a process of compromise which shaves off the parts of that idea that offend various segments of society (think of a PTA meeting: can’t move the parking spaces, or you upset either the church ladies, the teachers’ union, or the parking authority). Social acceptance destroys ideas through imitation and compromise.

This process goes back to metal’s birth. The members of Black Sabbath couldn’t get on board with the happy hippie world around them, so they made their own music which destroyed that illusion with powerful sound. They were reacting to the acceptance of conclusions from the past period, the 1950s, in which people were fed on Dale Carnegie style salesmanship as a means to success. As a result, society stopped being truth-oriented and started being feelings-oriented. Happy feelings meant a sale. Ten years later, happy feelings meant social success. Salespeople knew that acceptance and inclusiveness made sales, so they made their advertising as innocuous as possible. The hippie movement imitated this but used politics instead of profit (at first) as their guide.

The problem was that the hippie portion was just as fake as the 1950s salesmanship portion. Similarly, the current imitation of the 1990s black metal scene or worse, the 1980s emo and shoegaze scene, is completely fake. The fifteenth Blasphemy clone is as burnt out as the fifteenth Beatles clone or fifteenth Dale Carnegie graduate. All of it is emulation of the past through its surface, which fundamentally disturbs the metal outlook. For underground metal, all that is left is to seek total nihilism or negation of values, or to pick values that cannot be compromised and thus cannot be assimilated by society. If you want to know why metal has been drifting toward extremes lately, this might explain it.

All of this is a rather long path to saying what every teenage music fan does not want to face: it’s time to stop talking about how you are misunderstood. You don’t want to be understood. Even more, being understood would destroy your chance for growth and turn you into an identical suit-wearing conformist droid marching off to do the same stuff the last generation did, and we can see them drinking themselves to sleep every night. When people obviously don’t get what you’re about, thank them. They’re helping you grow, just like they’re helping metal grow every time they run into a WTF moment and toss it out in the dustbin.

Tony Iommi – Iron Man: My Journey Through Heaven & Hell with Black Sabbath

April 1, 2014 –

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When Black Sabbath shifted from trying to be a hard rock band to trying to make a horror movie sound appear in guitar music, they opened a new world. It was not a world that would resist opening for long anyway, since if you mix Iggy and the Stooges with the prog rock of the same era like Jethro Tull and King Crimson, you get something a lot like Black Sabbath.

But guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler, vocalist Ozzy Osbourne and drummer Bill Ward did it first, and during the first decade of their career fought through the enduring questions of the genre in prototype form. While Black Sabbath gets classed by most as “proto-metal,” or not quite yet metal, it is also clearly not quite still rock ‘n’ roll. In this perpetual liminal state Black Sabbath, like metal itself would a generation removed, rediscovers itself again and again as a way of outracing the calcification and corruption of message that is common in modern life.

In Iron Man: My Journey Through Heaven & Hell with Black Sabbath, Tony Iommi writes his memoirs for a book that is both everything and Black Sabbath fan could want, and not enough. He writes about everything important and brings out some moments of great clarity, but then at some point the book expands like a drunken conversation and spills too much ink on the less important later Black Sabbath works. Iommi also has an offhand and conversational way of explaining things from his point of view that does not flesh out the details and background enough to let people know what was really going on. However, the juicy stories of rock ‘n’ roll excess, and most of the potent decision points in the Black Sabbath career, are not missed.

Those first songs are often described as scary. I liked horror films and so did Geezer. We used to go to the cinema across the street from our rehearsal place to see them, so maybe it was something that subconsciously directed us to that sort of thing. I know there is a Boris Karloff movie called Black Sabbath, but we never saw it at that time. Geezer came up with the name Black Sabbath and it just sounded like a good one to use. (54)

The narrative starts out fairly crisply and over time slouches into many unresolved threads the way most retrospectives do. The early days were clarity, but after that chaos reigns. Sensibly, Iommi does not spend too long on the days before Black Sabbath, but does set enough of the scene to get the narrative rolling. After that, very little detail is given, and the conversational takes over. Iommi will say that they went to a house or studio somewhere and mention no other detail, but he does spend a lot of time on human relationships. He describes people and their patterns. He also talks a good deal about relationships in the bands and the states of mind of the various players as albums were released.

It may be that a Black Sabbath fanbase wants to hear more about the mechanics behind the later Black Sabbath albums, solos and side projects, but to this writer much of this material was redundant. Not that it was mentioned at all, but that it was internally duplicative and went through similar patterns without identifying them. Like a night at the bar, the description of events begins with a clear context, direction and development of events, but devolves into a description of personalities and factual data that seems to focus on complexities.

I hope it is not insulting to say this, but people are not as interested in the later Black Sabbath works as they are the earlier ones. We would have preferred the same crispness, detail and narrative integration of the first three chapters be applied to the middle three, with the later ones giving less detail and more of a linear narrative. The reason for this is that the formation of those early albums and the Black Sabbath sound is what defined this band for eternity and will make it forever important. The later stuff shows us four guys out of their depth reacting to the changes in their lives.

We used one of Ronnie’s ideas in its entirety, which was ‘Atom and Evil’, the first track on the album. And we used bits of each other idea. Some of Geezer’s riffs would come halfway through, or some of mine. We just swapped them around, building songs. It was a great way of working. INstead of having to come up with everything myself, everybody was completely involved in it from day one, and that helped me immensely. We wrote about six songs this way. (352)

Details such as the above provide meaning to the listener because we are curious about such things. What made some albums more listenable or more interesting than others? In the compositional process, and the formation of decisions, we can see how they are distinct. Sometimes too much focus on personality and politics not only obscures the narrative, but is a substitute for discussing how decisions were made. Buried throughout are nuggets of clarity such as the above. These make the book not only memorable but poignant, as you can see why so much attachment occurs between these musicians, and how their knowledge of each other was more than practical, but a deep appreciation.

Iron Man: My Journey Through Heaven & Hell with Black Sabbath will stay on the shelves because of its subject’s importance to rock music and heavy metal. It will also provide much fodder for others to discuss, as it touches on everything once. While some of us might prefer a two-volume set, with Volume I for the Black Sabbath albums from 1970-1976 and all of the depth of narrative that makes the creative decisions made during that time relevant still, as a quick read and overlook of the Black Sabbath experience Iron Man: My Journey Through Heaven & Hell with Black Sabbath succeeds and also gives us rare if erratic insights into the story behind the band.

“Hacker Metal” by Brett Stevens on Perfect Sound Forever

March 30, 2014 –

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I wrote an article about the cross-influence between hacking and heavy metal. It covers the use of alternative media, like BBS and AE lines, to convey a hidden truth that is shared between metalheads and hackers. The article is entitled “Hacker Metal” and it is published in Perfect Sound Forever webzine.

For those who remember the early web, Perfect Sound Forever is an e-zine that started in 1993 and has run continuously since. It derived its name from an early Sony/Philips ad designed to convince people to switch to compact disks, and covers all forms of music including a fair amount of metal.

Interview with metal academic Ross Hagen

March 21, 2014 –

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As part of our exploration of academia in metal, we meet all sorts of interesting academics with different relationships to metal. Some are more on the academic side, some on the musical, and some in-between. Ross Hagen straddles both extremes by being both a musician and an academic with a focus on teaching metal. As a result, he brings both personal experience and delight in the genre to the otherwise more abstract academic view. We were lucky to get in a few questions with this interesting person and teacher.


You’ve got two degrees in music and one in musicology. What launched you along this direction? Did you intend to become an academic, or did the music lead you there?

I think this career path resulted from my love of music coupled with the fact that I didn’t really have the discipline for seriously practicing a musical instrument so I could play professionally. I’d much rather spend six hours a day in the library. Graduate school was also a nice way to extend my adolescence and avoid adult responsibilities for a few years after college. But when I think about it, I suppose that academia was always an intention of mine, whether I thought about it consciously or not. Both of my parents were educators, so I guess I’m something of a poster child for following the path laid out by my upbringing.


What got you involved with heavy metal? Were you a fan before you studied it? What appeals about it to you, both as a research subject and as a personal listening experience?

I was definitely a fan before I began pursuing it as a topic of study. My father was a college professor and his students would occasionally loan him tapes and CDs so I was listening to a lot of college rock and industrial music (well, NIN anyway) in my early teens. At one point he had a student who loaned him some of the early albums by Amorphis, Samael, Tiamat, and My Dying Bride and I dug them a lot. It wasn’t until college that I found other people who liked that kind of stuff and expanded my listening though. I feel like I’m still playing catch-up on a lot of older material from the 70s and 80s especially. I also got into musicology as an undergraduate and began including metal in my studies there.

…blast beats and tremolo picking seem to suspend rhythmic momentum and time in black metal when coupled with more slowly changing harmonies and hazy-sounding production. I also related the use of full chord voicings and the use of parallel minor 3rds and 6ths (in Emperor’s music especially) to an interest in chaotic sorts of sounds…

From a personal standpoint, I suppose I find it empowering in some respects, but I also like that black metal especially is a style where it’s easy to just get lost in the sound. As a bassist and composer I like that metal is challenging to perform and that it’s a style that is quite malleable in some respects even as its fundamental ingredients remain relatively stable. I think that’s part of what I like about it as a researcher as well; the tension between the metal’s core attributes and its desire to evolve and change.


You’ve contributed a piece, “Musical Style, Ideology, and Mythology in Norwegian Black Metal,” in the compilation Metal Rules the Globe. Can you tell us about this writing, and what your thesis generally was?

This was a version of my 2005 Master’s degree thesis where I wrote about some of the key elements of the “second wave” black metal musical style and related them to the genre’s interest in the supernatural and mythical. In particular I looked into the way that blast beats and tremolo picking seem to suspend rhythmic momentum and time in black metal when coupled with more slowly changing harmonies and hazy-sounding production.

I also related the use of full chord voicings and the use of parallel minor 3rds and 6ths (in Emperor’s music especially) to an interest in chaotic sorts of sounds since those types of chords are much less focused and resonant than the typical metal power chord when played with lots of distortion. I considered these musical conventions as evocations of trance experiences because they create a sense of stasis and timelessness (in a literal sense) by obscuring rhythmic propulsion and harmonic clarity.

I was at the time interested in connecting these musical devices to the sort of Norse revivalist rhetoric that was regularly coming from people like Varg Vikernes and that also underpins Michael Moynihan’s Lords of Chaos, especially mythical figures like the berserker…that black metal seems to reward an ideal of virtuosity based on physical endurance rather than dexterity and nimbleness, things like that. I do think that there was a certain aesthetic affinity with these mythical ideals for some black metallers, that they envisioned themselves as warriors or as part of a charivari tradition trying to bring back a romanticized ideal of pre-modern Europe. However, I think that the chapter’s main contribution is the articulation of the musical style…or at least when I go back and read it those are the parts that I think hold up the best.


You teach courses on popular music, music appreciation, and music history at Utah Valley University. Does this include metal? How do students respond to it? Does their response change depending on whether they are metalheads or not?

Most of them seem to respond fairly positively to it when I do teach it, which usually only happens in the course specifically centered around popular music. I do include bits of Eddie Van Halen and Yngwie Malmsteen in my schtick on musical virtuosity in the music appreciation classes, but more as a side comparison. Students in the popular music courses seem to respond well to it even if they aren’t fans, since by the time we get into it most of the students understand that “liking” a genre of music is not a prerequisite for investigating its musical style and influence. Metalheads or former metalheads (I actually hear that a lot here…metal is something they used to like as teenagers) tend get a little more into it, but I’m often pleasantly surprised as well when students who have no personal affinity with the style offer thoughtful considerations of it.


I find it interesting that you’ve composed music for the production of two ancient Greek plays at UVU. Are these going to be released? Is there any overlap between ancient Greco-Roman music and heavy metal?

Actually only one of them (Antigone) was an ancient Greek play. The other one, Eurydice, was a modern play by Sarah Ruhl that is built around the myth but definitely takes its own path (and was directed by my very talented and lovely wife Lisa). Oddly enough, my music cues for Eurydice actually did include a bit of Rammstein-ish heavy metal…the script called for it when the Lord of the Underworld enters dressed like a child and riding a tricycle.

I’m not planning to release recordings of Eurydice‘s music cues themselves since they wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense on their own (15 seconds of heavy metal, 45 seconds of lounge music, etc.) but I did put together a suite of sorts called gravity is very compelling out of the soundscapes from Eurydice. The Antigone score is likewise kind of boring out of context, but I’ve repurposed parts of it in other works here and there.

Regarding ancient Greek and Roman music, I can say with some certainty (even though ancient music isn’t a specialty of mine) that there’s not any overlap with heavy metal in terms of musical content. A lot of the theoretical ideas and writings helped lay the foundations for the European art music tradition in the medieval period, though. Plato’s famous concerns about the dangerous moral and social effects of “disordered” music also echo through the centuries to inform the various moral panics around heavy metal and other musical styles.


According to your biography, you’ve participated in more than a dozen album releases on various American and European labels, and perform in the ambient bands encomiast and Schrei aus Stein as well as two local metal bands. Can you tell us a bit about your musical history?

I started making ambient music with encomiast in the late 1990s, when I had access to a proper electronic music studio at college. That sort of whetted my appetite for it and I’ve continued recording stuff like it ever since, often drawing my friends into the mix as well. Most of the catalog from that project is available at encomiast.bandcamp.com, although I think my favorite is the 139 Nevada 2xCD that grew out of an attempt to record ghostly voices at a haunted theater. I started Schrei aus Stein when I wanted to do something that mixed drones and noise with more of a black metal aesthetic. Beyond those projects, in the last decade I’ve played in the absurdist metal duo Spawn of the Matriarch, the stoner metal band Governors, a krautrock/free jazz trio, a one-off Mortician-worship solo project named Immensite, and a couple of cover bands.

Currently I play bass in Burn Your World, a band that mixes extreme metal styles with some hardcore punk influence. We also have a side project called Curseworship in which I play bass and compose a lot of harsh noise and analog synth freakouts. Both of those bands have recordings coming out soonish.


What do you think is the role of music? Is it to communicate ideas, express emotions, or make an aesthetic object for others to appreciate? Or none of the above?

I’d probably say it’s more like all of the above in my view, depending on the context and the person who is experiencing it. Your last role (aesthetic object) is probably closest to the way I think about the music I create — I tend to think structurally rather than in emotional or rhetorical terms.


Do you think metal is a subject that should be taught in schools? There’s two viewpoints to this: from academia’s point of view, and from metal’s point of view.

I think that from an academic point of view it’s as valid a subject as any, and to my mind it provides a rich musical and cultural well for all sorts of areas of study. I’d also be lying if I denied that it gives me a lot of pleasure to teach and write about music I love, so there’s a selfish end too I guess! I certainly also understand why some metalheads might not appreciate it because sometimes it does seem like once something has the stamp of approval from the ivory tower it loses a lot of its countercultural credentials.

Some might see it (possibly correctly!) as a misguided attempt to validate metal as an art form…or perhaps to validate academia by borrowing some of metal’s coolness. I personally try to avoid giving that impression in my classes, but my position as an academic may make it impossible for me dodge those bullets entirely. So I suppose my ultimate answer is “yes,” but with acknowledgement of some pitfalls.


You taught a couple of metal-centric classes at CU-Boulder while you were finishing your degree. What were these like? How did you “teach metal”?

One of them was a single Saturday course done through Continuing Education that was sort of a quick trip through some various issues (musical style, censorship, etc.). The longer course was a version of a course on Rock Music that I team-taught with Joel Burcham. In that one my idea was to use metal as a way to explore various aspects of popular music, including recording, performance, fandom, authenticity, etc. My goal was less to teach metal and more to allow metal to teach us, if that makes sense.


You’re an ethnomusicologist; those seem like a cross between music historian and music analyst. How does understanding metal at a musical level help you understand it at a culture level? Are there correlations between the two dimensions of metal?

I sometimes feel like the primary thing my musical training provides me with is a vocabulary with which to work. I do find it helpful in terms of articulating aspects of metal music and production that encourage particular responses and experiences among listeners. As I mentioned in my summary of the “Metal Rules the Globe” article, I do think that some musical ideas can evoke particular experiences and reflect certain values. I would stop short of saying that they necessarily correspond to the values of the performer and the audience though. Sometimes that might certainly be the case, but I’ve come to be skeptical of sweeping correlations, mostly because I want to avoid misrepresenting the culture of metal as a monolithic entity. The more time I spend with metal and with other metalheads, the more I appreciate the diversity of experience within it.


One of your research interests is ritualism. Are there ritual aspects to heavy metal, especially the black metal variety?

I tend to think that almost every musical activity has some sort of a ritual component to it, using the term broadly. With black metal, though, I’m particularly interested in the deployment of Ritual “with a capital R” as a conscious effort to connect the music and performance with some archaic imagined past. In some respects, I think the past black metal invokes is the past of black metal itself, a retro recycling and recreation that is common to all music in some degree, but which has perhaps increased lately (Simon Reynold’s recent book deals with this better than I).

Rather than celebrating the protean side of 21st century identity, metal seems to demand a higher level of “identity essentialism” in that respect. It promises some measure of stability.

Invoking ritual also feels like an appeal to an authoritative kind of authenticity, an assertion that black metal is not entertainment or theater, but instead that it is a stable and “timeless” tradition and (importantly) not beholden to the vagaries of taste or fashion. The use of a fairly standard and narrow set of musical gestures and sounds, deindividualizing costumes and pseudonyms, and staged evocations of sacrificial death all work to this end. Of course, the “appeal to ritual” is also in some ways merely a marketing term and a performance conceit. It might go hand-in-hand with the increased visibility of black metal over the past decade or so.

I’m currently working with these ideas as part of a research project on musical ritualism as an authenticating tactic in popular music…possibly with a parallel trajectory in musical representations of monstrosity and supernatural forces. I’m still gathering my dogs together to see if they hunt though.


How important do you think heavy metal is as a cultural indicator? What does it tell us about our society?

I think it certainly has a role there, although I think that what it says varies a lot depending on who is involved in it. Actually, I think that if we look at metal around the globe, I might consider a lack of metal in a society to be more significant. It seems to be an almost ubiquitous presence, even under circumstances of war and deprivation.

I do think that the value so much metal discourse seems to place on trueness and authenticity is perhaps symptomatic of a larger sense of uprootedness in (American?) society. Rather than celebrating the protean side of 21st century identity, metal seems to demand a higher level of “identity essentialism” in that respect. It promises some measure of stability.


In your view, why is metal such a distinctive genre, with such strong rules and boundaries (trueness, cultness)?

It seems that being embattled or marginalized is an integral part of the way metal views itself, even if in some cases we might consider that metalheads doth protest too much. This sense of being outside the mainstream probably creates this sense of cohesion and belonging, as well as a bit of suspicion and distrust of outsiders and “un-metal” musical influences.

I think that the boundaries have actually gotten more stringent over the past decade or so in underground metal, although it’s probably more likely that I’ve just become more aware of them. I might suggest that as the artifacts and symbols of insider-ness in metal have become more readily available, the concern with maintaining boundaries has risen accordingly. As it becomes easier and easier to amass knowledge about the most obscure bands, along with their recordings, that obscurity loses its power.

Patch jackets don’t seem to carry the same weight if you can purchase a whole collection of rare kvlt “merit badges” in 20 minutes on eBay. This situation makes metal’s system of cultural signifiers less trustworthy in terms of judging someone’s commitment to the genre, so it seems like the boundaries need more strict enforcement. It’s only exacerbated in cyberspace. But of course the best way to be kvlt is to deny that it matters if you’re kvlt or not…it’s square to be hip, right?


You’re on the editorial board of the journal Metal Music Studies. How has metal in academia expanded during the time you’ve been observing, and where do you see it going in the future?

To be totally accurate, I’m actually just on the editorial advisory board, which just means I’ll be on-call as a peer reviewer once we’re totally underway. I hope to continue my involvement in the future, however.

When I first began writing about heavy metal as a graduate student in the early/mid 2000s, it seemed that there was precious little academic writing about metal beyond Walser, Weinstein, and sociological studies beating the dead horse connecting metal and crime/delinquency. Over the following decade it’s just blossomed as a field of study, and I think it’s impressively diverse. I mean, we’ve got people from sociology, ethnomusicology, historical musicology, fan studies, philosophy, and interested practitioners all in the mix. I’ve been trying (and failing) to keep up with all the publications. It’s an exciting and inspiring field.

I think that we’re going to see more studies that question the conceptions of locality and place in metal, since the increasing digital networks around the world are making physical geography less relevant in some respects. I know some scholars are working on the exoticism in metal, which seems especially interesting because it binds together questions of intent (patriotism? parody?) with issues of reception. It also seems that Metal Studies has focused a lot on the more extreme and underground subgenres, so I hope we might see more people begin to explore the intersections between metal and mainstream pop culture, both currently and in the past.

Society views heavy metal as a symbol

February 22, 2014 –

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If you’ve suffered through even a few years of big media, you’re probably aware how it functions through symbols. Where literature might describe something, big media trots out a handy symbol that might be described uncharitably as a cliche. Drinking = troubled. Strip bar = edgy. Slow dance = love. Motorcycle = rebel.

This follows the primitive superstition of simple people interpreting religion. When something is bad, put a demon on it. When it’s good, it gets angel wings. The world falls into rigid categories based not on what people do, but what category they belong to as assigned by the cult. This type of cult religion is most commonly seen in mass entertainment, corporate culture, fanboyism, politics and sometimes, even religion itself.

Metal is a useful marketing tool for big media. It enables them to label something as rebellious, “edgy” and dark without it actually being a threat. The albums are available in any store or Amazon. It’s not like joining the Thugees or Cosa Nostra. Like the motorcycle, it’s a cheap way to describe a character without having to actually think about it. And that character will be as much of a cliche as everything else in mass media because it’s designed for the lowest common denominator.

Expanding upon this, Michael Robbins notes how this is true in print as well in “Heavy metal music finds a place in fiction”:

Black metal’s most familiar tropes are Satanism and painting your face to look like a clown. I mean a corpse. But every black metal fan I’ve ever met is, like me, friendly to animals and disinclined to perform human sacrifice. It would’ve been more interesting if Nevill had played against stereotype and made the evil children big Pet Shop Boys fans. As tiresome as Bret Easton Ellis is, at least Patrick Bateman in “American Psycho” listens to Huey Lewis and Genesis.

This is how metal often functions in genre fiction: a lazy signifier of a character’s darkness, alienation and instability. In Elizabeth Hand’s “Available Dark” (2012), a girl describes someone obsessed with serial killers: “He’s creepy. He was into death metal, then black metal. Mayhem and Vidar and Darkthrone, bands like that.” Note the progression: death metal, a gateway drug, is less evil than black metal, but it still indicates that something’s not quite right: Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander listens to death metal. This is one reason it’s funny when two characters in Thomas Pynchon’s “Bleeding Edge” meet cute by learning that they share a love of “Norwegian Black Metal artists such as Burzum and Mayhem.” (Burzum is the musical project of Varg Vikernes, who also played bass in Mayhem until he murdered the guitarist.)

These examples show us the place metal has taken in the culture of mainstream society.

It is a certain kind of riskiness, a certain darkness, and a certain commitment to alienation. People who bond over liking black metal are people who have receded from society at large and are trying to go their own way. But with that truth, there is also the realization that metal forms a handy symbol, like the word “edgy” once did, for what the mainstream considers safe alienation.

It is alienated, true, but the fans aren’t the ones burning churches and murdering people. They are just spectators. It is for this reason that the music industry keeps trying to create “safe” versions of this music, so that people can feel like symbolic rebels but never venture beyond the safety of being obedient little cogs.

Black Sabbath – Tyr

February 20, 2014 –

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If I ever have to declare a field of study — and I hope I never must — I will declare my intention to study transitional material. It is the most fascinating by far, and Black Sabbath Tyr demonstrates why.

Emerging in the final days of the 1980s and the first days of the new decade, Tyr shows Black Sabbath trying to keep one foot in what succeeded in the previous era while gesturing at inventing the next. The band is not bold enough to simply invent it, since they are too invested in being an industry in themselves. That puts them in the position of defending what they have by incorporating the current, not by redefining it and trying to become something new.

The 80s influences are most painful in the vocals, which bring back flashbacks to Miami Vice and War Games. The 1980s were above all a sentimental time: the late 60s had changed the nation, and now we were in the grips of a Cold War that threatened to eliminate us all in the absolute erasure of kill zone radius extermination. People sought emotion, a fleeting sense of beauty and hope in the night, before the coming darkness swallowed all. It was really a prolonged version of what Berlin must have been like in 1945, but no one could recognize it. They buried themselves in things: in work, in religion, in warfare or in ideology. And so the 1980s sound is that of the lover glimpsed on a passing train, a moment of hope in the doom, a taste of what could have been, drowned out in mechanical rumblings and coalescent submerging blackness.

While the elements of the proto-metal/prog fusion that Black Sabbath pioneered by adopting the longer phrase moveable melodies of modernist classical influenced Italian horror movie soundtracks are still present, the majority of the riffing on this album resembles 1970s hard rock emulating the electronic rhythms of 1980s pop. It’s not surprising that Ministry may have borrowed a few rhythm/riff-idea combinations from this album, given the raw creativity put into them and their mutual inspiration in the basis of 1980s “industrial” music through electronic body music (EBM). Black Sabbath balance the shorter, more mechanical hard rock riffs with their usual spanning chord progressions that give the sense of the camera pulling back to reveal a vista.

The result is highly melodic and merges with the vocals which sound like they’re right off a Mike & The Mechanics or Red7 record. The result neuters Sabbath to an uncomfortable degree because the focus is on vocals and synths and the guitar takes a rhythm role that supports those from the background. That has not stopped guitarist Tony Iommi from coming up with some rather odd and noisy variations on the riff that he uses to add uncertainty and a sense of being lost in a windswept plain to the otherwise more straightforward compositions.

Where Black Sabbath reach toward the future is in the layout of these songs and album. They are deliberately expanded structures with more variation between them, like scenes in a movie or different rooms in a house in a pursuit dream. This both reflects the influence of MTV and the increasingly technological nature of music which allowed radical changes in instrumentation, thus musicians could stick in entirely radical dynamic changes and have them work as more than a distraction. The album follows the same thought process, beginning with an acoustic introduction with semi-chanted vocals, as if invoking the Druids and giving the entire production a visual leadoff. The album itself moves like a conversation, starting with its most obvious big points and indulging in all the conventions of its decade, but then gradually bringing those back to roots and then expanding them with the final tracks, notably “Heaven in Black,” where hints of a more metal-oriented Sabbath emerge (especially in its recapitulation of the riff-idea for “Symptom of the Universe,” which as my colleague Martin Jacobsen writes, precapitulates the muted-strum technique used by all speed metal bands). Much of this anticipates the more epic conceptual and structural layout of both songs and albums that black metal and death metal would popularize; it is unclear whether Black Sabbath heard early prototypes of this notion, such as Bathory Blood Fire Death, but the similarities are great as they are to later Judas Priest like Sin After Sin and Iron Maiden’s epic 1980s material such as Seventh Son of a Seventh Son. Interesting also is the choice of Odinist thematic matter wrapped in Celtic imagery, as if questing for a new identity for metal that united its past with future.

Tyr shows Black Sabbath twenty years into their career. They are less innovators than standard-bearers and so their tendency is to absorb outside influences and translate them into heavy metal to give their genre relevance in the wider world. There are also other influences from within the metal world, such as a notable increase in Iron Maiden-styled galloping riffs and broader themes. As one reviewer once said, some albums are more interesting than good for listening to, and thus are more compelling to write about; Tyr may be too 1980s for me to listen to again, and I remember chucking it across the resale counter at a used CD shop over a decade ago for that reason. However, it shows us a nodal point for heavy metal in its evolution and anticipation of the next era.

Interview: Ray López of Thrash Corner Records

February 15, 2014 –

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Regular DMU readers may have noticed that Puerto Rico has been on this site’s radar since Brett Stevens interviewed José “Chewy” Correa of Organic last year, and for good reason. The “Island of Enchantment” is more than just beaches, bikinis and piña coladas; it’s also home to one of the most active and diverse metal scenes that you’ve probably never heard of.

So what’s going on in this little-known metal outpost in the Caribbean? More and more international bands play here every year. Local bands are touring and inking deals overseas. There’s an online metal radio station broadcasting live shows every week. An international academic conference on heavy metal will be held at the University of Puerto Rico in March. We even have a biannual metal flea market where metaleros from all corners of the island gather to buy, sell and trade metal merch while local bands provide the live soundtrack. And this is only a short list; there’s a lot more happening here.

Cultural idiosyncrasies aside, all national and regional metal scenes are built with the same three human components: the bands, the fans and the people who have the initiative to organize and execute the business and logistics of the scene, otherwise known as “the people who make things happen.” These men and women of action don’t often get the recognition they deserve, yet they continue to work behind the scenes to bring your favorite bands to a venue near you. (Kreator didn’t play their first show in PR last year just because people “liked” their Facebook page; someone had to organize and execute a plan and all the logistics involved.)

Some of these men of action, such as Ray López of Thrash Corner Records, have also managed to actually make a living in the metal music world — not to mention help build and shape Puerto Rico’s metal scene — while balancing the responsibilities of a dedicated family man. (In fact, I didn’t know that Thrash Corner was his livelihood until I asked him what his day job was in a followup email.) So is he lucky that he’s living a “metalhead’s dream” or is it his work ethic that makes things happen?

Ray López was kind enough to take time from his busy schedule to answer some questions about his label, Puerto Rico’s metal scene and his most ambitious project to date, the first Metal Expo Convention of Puerto Rico.

You’ve been active in metal for over 20 years, so let’s start with your label, Thrash Corner Records. What motivated you to start your own label?

I’ve been a metalhead since 1980, and my label has 20+ years in business. The story is kind of weird. One day I just got up and said, “I’m tired of going to the store (never finding what I wanted) and ordering by mail (waiting sometimes up to two months to get my goodies).” An idea came to my mind. What if I call a distributor (those days it was Caroline Records and RED Distribution) and tell them that I opened a store and want to buy wholesale? So I just got the numbers and decided to call, and to my surprise they just opened an account for me and I started buying from those companies.

I said to myself, “that was very easy,” then another idea came to my mind. Let’s say I call Relapse Records, Century Media, Metal Blade and many others. Can they sell to me direct? But then I had to remind myself that I was in Puerto Rico and most of the people in the mainland don’t know the status of what we are. Most of them don’t know we are a territory of the US, so I took advantage of that and also started buying direct from them. Then I got deeper and deeper into the underground and saw how things were moving with the small labels (everything was about trading productions between each other), so I just jumped on the wagon and Thrash Corner Records was born.

What were some the most significant challenges in those first few years?

To be honest, everything was happening so fast that I was surprised with what I had accomplished in just the first year. If I have to mention something, the first thing that comes to my mind was trading with the other labels outside the US. Back then with no Internet, setting up a trade sometimes took up to 4 months (all the communication was via letters).

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What are some of the highlights and gratifying milestones up to this point?

Those are many and I don’t want to bore you with that, so I will just mention a few:

Traveling to different places, meeting with bands, hanging out with them and sometimes becoming friends (the ultimate metalhead dream come true).

As a label, signing bands from other countries, getting distribution across the US and other countries (and that is more gratifying knowing that you were the first one to do that and in some cases the only one to accomplish that).

I understand that Thrash Corner has had distribution deals with US bands such as Hirax and Deceased. What are some of the other bands on your roster, and are there any upcoming releases we should be looking forward to?

Yes, Deceased released one album with us called As the Weird Travel On, considered by many an underground masterpiece. With Hirax there is a licensing deal and we did their complete catalog (the only title we don’t have will be the new one, SPV is the one releasing it). Now that Hirax signed with SPV, we feel very proud because we worked very hard with them as a team to get the attention they deserve and finally it pays. We also worked with both Asesino re-issues (Corridos de Muerte and Cristo Satánico). Those were out of print for many years, but now you can find them. Right now we are working with the death/thrash band from Florida, Solstice, doing our own version of the album The Dust (their 2009 full length). We decided to do that one because it had a limited distribution and we want all the fans to own this piece of art.

From our chat prior to this interview, I got an unequivocal impression that you’re a firm believer in the old saying: if you want something done right, do it yourself. Is Thrash Corner Records a one-man operation? If so, how important is it to have total control of your business and freedom to do things your way?

You are totally right: Thrash Corner Records is just one guy doing everything. It is hard work but it is worth it. You control everything and you make the decisions, right or wrong (no one to blame, just myself, but I can live with that, hahaha!!!).

I can say without conceit that I work in metal 100% and I’m the only one making a living from it here. It hasn’t been easy, but if you strive for your goals you can achieve them. My normal job is the label, selling retail and wholesale on eBay, my website and Amazon!!!

During that chat you also mentioned that you were born in the US and that English was your first language. How old were you, and were you a metal fan already when you moved to PR?

Yes, I was born in New York, but moved to PR when I was 5 years old. I wish a was metalhead at the time, but the concept of heavy metal was not invented yet, hahahaha!!

The good, the bad, and the ugly: Can you tell us what the overall situation was like for independent record distros, promoters and bands in PR back when you started Thrash Corner? How does it compare to the situation today?

Back in the old days of my label and distro, it was hard in some aspects and easy with others. Right now there are a few more distros and labels, but back then I was the only one. As for promoters, I was involved in 90% of the shows here, one way or the other. Now there are more promoters and they found the formula to do shows without my help. I don’t mean that in bad way, back then I had a lot of contacts because of the distro and the label and I was the only bridge that they had. Now with modern technology you can find bands with the click of a button. And about the bands, basically most of them are in the same situation now as they were back then (let me make a BIG NOTE: we had a few bands doing things the right way, but I can say we have more now than back in the days).

How did the idea for the Metal Expo come about? Did you formulate it and then presented a plan to people who could help you make it a reality, or did you discuss the idea and sketched it out over time with input from friends and associates?

I was crafting this idea for a while (let’s say the main concept is mine), but now that we have a team everybody is bringing ideas to the table!!! That’s why we had to change it to two days (in the beginning it was going to be a one-day event).

Was an event like the Metal Expo imaginable 20, 10 or even 5 years ago? What are the “pieces of the puzzle,” as you put it, that make this event possible today?

20 years ago – impossible.

10 years ago – maybe.

5 years ago – yes (but some pieces were missing).

About the pieces of the puzzle, I prefer to keep them to myself (this topic is too sensitive, so I prefer to make no comments)!!

There are quite a few underground metal promoters here in PR (some might say an unusually high number for such a small place). Why did you choose to join forces with your co-organizer, Paul Martínez of Bloodstained World Entertainment? Can you tell us a bit more about him?

For me this is the biggest thing that I’ve ever assembled. I needed a person that I can trust 100%. We have a perfect communication and we have known each other for more than 30 years. When I started Thrash Corner, he was one of the first people to give me a hand. (The story is too long, we leave that for another day!!) Paul has been into metal his whole life, so he was perfect for the job. I know that if he was the one with the idea for the Expo, I would be the first one to be invited to participate!!!

As co-organizers, what exactly are your responsibilities in the Expo, and what is Paul’s role?

This is a 50%-50% responsibility, that means that we are sharing everything, we both brought ideas and we are working together with the other part of the team!!!

Can you tell us about the other local promoters involved and what their roles are in the Expo?

The Shownet Group just joined us over a month ago. We are very happy that they joined us. Now it is a three-way split of responsibilities!!!

You were going to start announcing one confirmed artist per day at some point back in December. Why did you choose such an evil way to build suspense?

Initially that was the idea, but some information leaked and we had to announce what we had earlier than planned. For now we have:

Local Bands:

International Bands:

  • Anger as Art
  • Thrash or Die
  • Solstice
  • Warbringer
  • Blood Feast
  • Raven
  • Six Feet Under

Is the bill already full or is there still room for interested bands to sign up? What about exhibitors and vendors?

The bill is done for live acts. We are negotiating with the exhibitors and vendors. If you want to know everything, all the information will be announced on the official website. Visit us and click “like” to get all the updates.

One of your stated goals for the Expo is to bring worldwide attention to Puerto Rico’s metal scene. Why not do the typical two-day metal fest with just music instead? Should metal festivals offer more than just music?

If we do a festival we will never get the attention (they will see it like a big show). With the Expo you can add so many different things to get more attention. Just say the name of the event, “METAL EXPO CONVENTION” and tell me if you’re not curious and want to know what it’s all about???

The Metal Expo follows hot on the heels of another important event: the academic conference dealing with the topic of heavy metal music as a communal experience. Do you think it’s a positive thing that scholars have decided to study heavy metal, not only as a music genre, but as a cultural phenomenon? Some see that as “infiltration from outsiders.” What’s your take on the issue?

I think it is a positive thing that they decided to study heavy metal as cultural thing (metal has been around for nearly 40 years). That kind of exposure for us is perfect, specially in Puerto Rico. It will help our scene in many ways!!! We have the privilege that the person who is studying our scene is also a metalhead (Prof. Nelson Varas and the crew of Puerto Rico Heavy Metal Studies), so we have an ally. I was just investigating and I noticed that most of the professors of the International Society of Metal Music Studies are into heavy metal music, so there is no infiltration or outsiders. They are part of us and they just found a way to contribute to our movement with their profession.

At first I thought that the Expo would be held at a stadium or convention center, but it will be held at La Respuesta, which is the venue where most of the visiting underground metal acts play. Was that venue choice a conservative decision to keep things manageable? Tell us about the venue and the setup for the Expo.

La Respuesta opened their doors to heavy metal a few years ago, and it’s the official venue for most of the metal shows in Puerto Rico. We wanted to keep the Expo there for a few reasons: most of the metalheads know the venue and feel comfortable there, it has perfect spacing for this event (we’ve been running the Metal Market there five times and it runs smoothly) and we prefer to spend the money on the bands and not on a big venue. We want to give the fans the best experience they can get.

The island’s metal fans are expected to show in full force at the Expo, but in addition to them, do you expect to draw international visitors?

The response of the scene here has been great and we already started working with the promotion and invitation for visitors from outside PR!!! With this interview and some other notes that came out in other websites it will draw some attention to visitors from outside.

Internationally speaking, do you think that the island’s metal has flown under the radar? Are we at a flash point where Puerto Rican metal will conquer foreign shores? What bands do you think will lead this charge?

Yes, the island is getting some attention. These last few years we had so many more international acts here than we had in the last 20 years. Those bands are spreading the word when they go back to their countries, and all the promoters are getting more messages from international acts that want to play here. Years ago Puerto Rico had attention with bands like Puya, Cardinal Sin and Ankla, then there was a gap and now we have a few bands making some noise outside: Dantesco, Pit Fight Demolition, Zafakon and Severe Mutilation.

From what I’ve heard so far, most of the major metal genres are represented by various underground bands in PR. What do you think makes Puerto Rican bands different from other international scenes? Is it a combination of our mixed ethnic traditions, our socio-political situation, and the simultaneous identity pull/friction of being both a Latin American country and a US territory?

Like other countries, we have most metal sub-genres represented. The difference here is that our bands don’t sound alike, even if they are from the same metal sub-genre. Take two local black metal bands, like Argyle and Humanist. They are the same sub-genre, but they don’t sound alike. In other countries, bands within a sub-genre tend to sound alike and sometimes you can tell what country they are from just by listening.

Why is this? In my opinion, it is a little of everything you mention in the question, but in the end it’s hard to tell.

Ray, I know you’re a very busy man, so I want to thank you for your time. I’ll let you have the last word to all of our readers around the world.

I just want to thank you guys for the interest in the event and the interview. Just make sure to visit the official website for the event, Thrash Corner Records and our new division Retro-Merch.

Death metal horror film Deathgasm wins funding

February 13, 2014 –
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You may have read our previous coverage of Deathgasm, the metal-themed horror film that independent producer Jason Lei Howden of New Zealand intends to make. The film, which focuses on the story of two teenage boys who unwittingly summon an ancient evil entity known as The Blind One, will begin shooting in another eight to ten weeks.

Deathgasm is able to be produced because its producers won funding from the Make My Horror Movie competition designed to foster higher quality independent horror films. “With some of the most inventive and shocking gore ever captured, Deathgasm will gush bodily fluids, rain limbs and tickle your funny bone, before tearing it out and giving you a stiff beating with it,” the film’s prospectus promised.

Funds in the form of $200,000 will enable the filmmakers to create the final movie. The film idea beat out 400 other entries and will be funded by Make My Movie, the NZ Film Commission, MPI Media USA and nzherald.co.nz. Director Jason Lei Howden is currently seeking death metal bands who would be willing to allow their songs to be used on the soundtrack, with a preference for underground acts.

Defending metal before the internet

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The Internet grew out of 1960s DARPA projects and has been with us a long time. Most of us however only began to explore it after September 1993 when AOL began mailing out all those free disks that allowed anyone (and they meant, Satan help us, literally anyone) to get on the internet. After that, the Internet became public property.

But before those times, in the days of the late 1970s through early 1990s, the BBS was king. Someone would set up a home computer on a second phone line, install and configure (or hand-code) some software, and then send out the word to others friends on their own BBSs. People traded files and wrote messages to one another, both private (email) and public (forums).

During the later days of that phenomenon, a user named Starmaster opted to defend heavy metal against accusations laid against it in a text-file known as Heavy Metal: The Untold Truth, translated here from the raw text file:

Intro:

They say it is devil music. They say it is Satanic. They also mention it being the source of many teen-age suicides. Why, do you ask? Well, this file is hopefully going to bring that point to light. Finally, just when you thought everyone was against you, you have found the truth in Heavy Metal: The Untold Truth.

We, the listeners of heavy metal, have been called many a thing. Metalheads, headbangers, pieces of scum. But, why do people continually call us that? Is it because we are a minority among other listeners of music? Is it because they think we deserve it, because we refuse to listen to “their” music? Whatever the reason, for two decades now, people are still believing that everyone who listens to heavy metal is Satanic or something along that line. Have psychologists proven that striking a chord on a guitar with distortion causes the mind to turn into an uncontrollable atmosphere of evil thoughts? I think not, and the reason many think they way they do is because of the lyrics to the songs.

The lyrics are often portrayed as the root of the evil in heavy metal. One might call it is the root of all evil is in the music that the children listen to. The lyrics themselves do not imply anything such as Satan worshiping or suicide. More times than not, the lyrics sing about the cold harsh reality that befalls us all in this world. Destruction, corruption, and many things pertaining to the real-time life of people are what cause these rumors of heavy metal. Megadeth for example sing about the destruction of the planet and the corruption and manipulation of a person’s mind. Why would “normal” people listen to the horrors of real-life, when they can live in a fantasy world created by Debbie Gibson?

The harsh reality portrayed in Metallica’s tape And Justice for All is another example of the manipulation and corruption of a politician’s mind. The lyrics often speak of revolution also, such as in Queenryche’s tape Operation: Mindcrime. They imply, “Why should we have to live in a world ruled by those who can afford it, when we could be living in a much better place?” If you have read any of Metallica’s, Megadeth’s or Queensryche’s lyrics, you’ll know where I am coming from.

Another coincidence that is often blamed on heavy metal is suicide. Think about it this way. When real-time life hits you through a song, and you’re not prepared for it, you might just say fuck it, and go off the deep end. People need to be more prepared to face reality when they turn on Megadeth or Nuclear Assault.

The music itself is often and crunching to the mind. One might call it noise, but to those of us who understand it as music, it often resembles the lyrics in many ways. A good example of this is in And Justice for All. When listening to this tape, the music often prepares the listener for a cold and harsh representation of life. Such as in “One,” the intro with the helicopter puts the listener in Vietnam. The music then turns from a sad, painful melody into a hard, cold, highly distorted melody that depicts the character’s hatred toward life. This is a remarkable example of what the music part of the songs is all about. It is to set the mood. Want to live in fantasy? Go listen to Milli Vanilli. Set to take a first class ticket tour through real life? Listen to Metallica.

Slower music sets a nice pace for the slower, less knowledgeable minds. One might call a headbanger “dumb,” but nine times out of ten, the guy will survive the onslaught of political mindgames better than the smartest “normal” person would. It is much harder for a “headbanger” to be brainwashed by politicians because of the music he or she has listened to for years.

If you are a metalhead, read carefully the last few paragraphs. It is the true reason heavy metal, acid rock or whatever you call it, came around. To make people aware and to keep people from being brainwashed into mindless cyborgs that revolve around one who can afford the company. Believe me when I tell you that heavy metal is not all the noise that it seems to be; it is much more than that. It is a way of life to many.

From: Starmaster… To keep those who want to be knowledgeable full of knowledge. And to keep the pricks, pricking.

While this piece may have been written by a non-professional and inexperienced writer, he or she makes some good points. Let’s look at some of the highlights:

  • The lyrics sing about the cold harsh reality that befalls us all in this world. This is not protest music, where people complain, or idealistic music, where they sing about what might be. It is descriptive music that portrays the world in a way people cannot see through the fog of consumerism, politics and socialization.
  • The lyrics ask, “Why should we live in a world ruled by commerce, when we could be living in a much better place?” This paraphrase cuts to the core of the underground metal argument: as soon as money shows up, our priorities shift from reality to money and bad results come of that.
  • [The music] often resembles the lyrics. He makes a good point here. Metal’s harsh riffs are often shaped into song by the lyrics, and the two work together. It is as if the music is a delivery system for the lyrics, like ancient Greek theatre where music and drama were used to convey essentially philosophical messages.
  • [A headbanger] will survive the onslaught of political mindgames better than the smartest “normal” person would. This is the actual theme of the piece: politicians/money preach obliviousness and most people choose that path because they’re afraid. Metal is for those who want to go beyond and result the false world created by politics, money and popularity.
  • And to keep the pricks, pricking. This one is up for grabs. If you have a plausible interpretation, post it in the comments.

For what it was, a single text file uploaded onto a BBS somewhere in 1990s America, this document covers a wide range of topics and has a fairly depth-seeking thesis. Perhaps metal was stronger when more people thought like this.