Toxemia – Ancient Demon

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Underneath the trappings of an underground death metal band, Toxemia create 1970s-style doom metal, formed mainly of heavy metal elements but incorporating stylistic influences from a variety of darker shades of underground metal, most notably Autopsy Mental Funeral.

In chord progressions, song structure and lead guitar, this album most closely resembles what might happen if old Saint Vitus crossed over with a primitive proto-death metal band like Master, albeit at the slower tempi necessary for doom metal. Each song features a riff loop for verse and chorus with discursive riffs and use of both freeform lead guitar and rhythmic lead guitar overlays to distinguish the song. Clear themes emerge and while tonally there are few surprises, the arrangement of these familiar elements in forms that fit the particular worldview of this band makes these tracks interesting. While the underground metal influence can be seen in tremolo technique and layering of drums and guitars around a tempo change in the death metal style, the essence of Ancient Demon remains in the hard rock/heavy metal roots of the first generation of doom metal bands.

Experienced listeners may find some kinship here with the first Varathron album which also took a theatrical approach to traditional heavy metal and created dark atmospheres which both fulfilled expectations of that genre and distorted them into outsider commentary on the conventions themselves. The use of doom-death technique accelerates this band past most of the bands heading backward in time in the doom metal genre, but its spirit remains in that ideal and its execution is both faithful and inventive.

Heavy metal has the most loyal fanbase

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Streaming music service Spotify recently crunched data on its users to determine which fans are the most loyal. Specifically, it looked for users who went back to their favorites over time. The results might astonish outsiders:

To find out, we first identified the “core” artists that, according to The Echo Nest (a part of Spotify), are most central to each genre, starting with the big ones, on a global level. Then we did the same thing with local genres in various countries around the world. To create a measure of genre loyalty, we divided the number of streams each core artist had by their number of listeners. All of the charts are normalized against the genre with the loyalest fans.

The first thing we noticed: Metal fans are the world’s loyalest listeners (we’ll get to the individual countries soon):

To metal fans, however, this is not surprising. Metal has a quality-focused worldview that is also highly internally competitive, and as such it is “winner take all”: bands acknowledged as better than the rest are upheld as highly desired, and everything else fades into the background much like the rest of society to a metalhead. The point is that novelty and personableness take a back-seat to musical power, because metal is music that worships power as a means of making the ugly into the beautiful, and so the quality bands once discovered remain favorites.

Spotify also noted something else:

This doesn’t necessarily mean Metal is “better” than Jazz (metalheads would disagree), but it does tell us that Metal fans are in fact the most hardcore, according to this new measure of genre loyalty.

Metal fans are the most hardcore because to them, the music is not an expression of self but of truth. A metal fan seeks music with power and that can only occur through ability, whether musical or artistic, and so music that is merely friendly or sociable does not meet this standard.

As we watch yet another wave of rock assimilationists assault metal and try to re-form it in the image of rock music with metal “flavoring” or surface touches, it becomes clear why metal is desirable: the audience is highly desirable because their esteem is not lightly given and will last for decades. This challenges rock, which is based in personal music with a high degree of novelty or a message with which the listener agrees. Metal undoes all of that; in metal, the message is in the music and the personal value is in finding the best, which is why metal remains an outlier in the music market.

Corpse Machine – Depths of the Abyss

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Perhaps you hoped that Venom would put out a technical album without losing the energy of its primitive side. Corpse Machine aims for that gap with a heavy metal album dressed up as death/black metal, using mostly old school heavy metal riffs but concluding its songs in the soaring melodic motions which made black metal a favorite of its audience. Like Fester, Dissection and other heavy metal/black metal hybrids, the result has relatively predictable song structures and high doses of repetition but creates emotional tension through melody and makes songs into little worlds where the listener can cycle through a brief contrast in emotions.

While the stylistic aspects of this album will drive away the purist black metal fan, the underlying melodic composition is good: both compelling rhythmically and harmonically, it creates layered spaces of emotion with simple riffing formed in pairs. When Corpse Machine turn up the intensity the result is more energy behind the music but not a fundamental change in mood. The result seems crushed by its decision to straddle two different worlds, as this would make an amazing heavy metal album but ranks as confused for black metal. In many ways, it represents what Venom should have become if it had chosen to stay current with metal technique, and might fit alongside bands like Gehenna and Dodheimsgard which have a similar approach.

For Corpse Machine to rise to the next level, it makes sense for them to clarify this confusion in style and add more internal tension to give the satisfying moments of this release more power and thus to enhance their atmosphere. Depths of the Abyss shows an aptitude for engaging songs but does not rise to the black metal level of intensity despite having a similar approach to melody. Like other experiments in heavy/black like Dissection and Immortal At the Heart of Winter, it has an almost sentimental tint that amplifies its autumnal and post-apocalyptic sensations, but unlike those the darker parts of its composition cannot quite separate themselves from technique. Still there is great promise here that may develop on future works.

Ancient Wind – The Chosen Slain

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Properly belonging to the power metal camp that hybridized heavy metal with death metal technique, Ancient Wind plays fast melodic songs with conventional structure in a style influenced by melodic death metal favorites like At the Gates Slaughter of the Soul but also takes its influence from higher-energy bands in that style like Unanimated Ancient God of Evil and Merciless Unbound.

Within that context, this band is highly competent but it is possible to win the battle and lose the war, and unfortunately by managing their technique so carefully Ancient Wind have created the most unfortunate of all metal mis-steps, which is the album of constant intensity. This same disadvantage plagues bands like Perdition Temple and Fallen Christ with an energy that is so incessant it causes the music to fade into the background because of its invariant nature. That being said, there is some quality riffing here although nothing all that surprising, much of which recycles the 1980s era of heavy metal with a focus on Iron Maiden. Bluesy leads with staggered tonal center shifts complete that part of the picture. With all of that considered, it begs the question whether Ancient Wind should keep up the death metal front at all because with more internal tempo changes and a classic Hetfield-style strong male vocal, they could be on the edge of a speed metal revival which not only is a less crowded field than melodic “death metal” — put in quotations because at its heart this is heavy metal or speed metal with death metal technique but not composition — but more accurately represents the inclinations of this band. Liking classic heavy metal has never been a bad thing, but a modern tribute to that style will have to achieve the same distinction that the original had or it fades into the stylistic background much like constant high intensity and similar song structures causes it to flow past like a faucet on “high.”

The Chosen Slain displays many strong attributes including impeccable musicianship through riffs that demand not just precision siting of chords in the technical heavy metal style, but accurate textural strumming in the death metal method. Clearly a lot of effort went into this release. With more tempo changes, song structures that wait to present conclusions until they culminate tension in the music, and a few stylistic adjustments, this could be a really excellent record. As it is now, it faces a difficult struggle differentiating itself in the melodic death metal field despite being better than most contenders. As this band gains more confidence and listens more to their own material, it is likely these changes will come naturally, and an album which strikes the listener as competent but not memorable like The Chosen Slain will give way to something more like its inspiration in Merciless and Unanimated and less like the immensely popular but saccharine and uninspiring drivel that At the Gates put out after giving up on their own art and wanting metal to be a day job instead.

Deceased completes work on Cadaver Traditions

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Speed/death metal band Deceased has gradually been drifting toward its heavy metal roots over the past two decades. Its personnel went on to create Doomstone and October 31, the former trying death vocals and guitars with traditional heavy metal, and the latter launching full-on into the old school of the old school.

After Doomstone Those Whom Satan Hath Joined appeared as the album that did Deceased better than Deceased, the band reconsidered and began to incorporate traditional heavy metal on albums like Surreal Overdose. Now the band formalizes its past with Cadaver Traditions, a 2CD set of 50 cover songs from the past three decades.

Deceased vocalist/drummer King Fowley noted on social media the progress made: “DECEASED ‘cadaver traditions’ update. i’m finishing the liner notes to it all this week and its going to press. 2 cd set of 50 cover songs from our 30 years together!!! june release as said before; stays right on projected time.”

Those of us who have often wished for an end to the split personality in Deceased look forward to this. Not only will it be many classics re-imagined, but it will show Deceased in the full power of its style which unites past to present and future.

Floating Tomb: Black Metal Theory released

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If you do not assert the truth, idiots come in and talk endlessly about their vision of it, which other idiots accept as truth, and soon a circle jerk starts where just about everyone thinks the lie is the truth. This is what happened to writing about black metal.

As the genre attempts to recapture itself from the theorists who will convert it into an esoteric sub-field of either Marxism or economics, new books emerge such as the Black Metal Theory (BMT) series advanced by the same people behind the symposium Hideous Gnosis. The latest from that group, Floating Tomb: Black Metal Theory, collects writings published on BMT “focusing on mysticism, a domain of thought and experience with deep connections both to the black metal genre and to theory (as theoria, vision, contemplation). More than a topic for BMT, the mystical is here explored in terms of the continuous intersection between black metal and theory, the ‘floating tomb’ wherein black metal is elevated into the intellectual and visionary experience that it already is.”

Tau Cross releases first track “Lazarus” from upcoming album Tau Cross

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All-star metal/punk band Tau Cross — with members Rob “The Baron” Miller from Amebix on bass/vocals, Michel “Away” Langevin on drums, and members of Misery on guitars — has released the first single from its upcoming album Tau Cross. The single, entitled “Lazarus,” shows the style of this new band.

The band describes its sound as “the natural evolution of Miller’s work in Amebix,” and “Lazarus” bears this out — with one important detail that most forget. Amebix continued its evolution recently with Redux, which showed classic Amebix tracks with a Metallica Ride the Lightning treatment paired with atmospheric and ancient tribal sounds. Where Tau Cross picks up however is after Amebix Monolith, which sounded like old Amebix run through a filter of AC/DC and Motorhead. “Lazarus” returns to that point but brings to bear the full technical power and songwriting wisdom of these experienced composers.

Death metal fanatics may be hoping for a version of Amebix No Sanctuary or Arise with more technical instrumentation, but Tau Cross takes a more heavy metal approach but updates it with the high-intensity rhythms of punk and then a unique songwriting approach that can only be described as spirit or intent more than technique: a cosmic metaphysical outlook much like that of Tangerine Dream paired with a Celtic tribal feel that would make Absu drool. The problem that Miller and Away face in their “day job” bands of Amebix and Voivod is that those bands have already made a name for themselves in crust hardcore punk and progressive heavy metal already, and those expectations bestow too much baggage for material in another direction to be released under those names. So far, “Lazarus” is the only track released and it shows only a small slice of what Tau Cross will be, but there is promise in this continuation and outgrowth of the Amebix concept to a new level.

Has heavy metal sold out?

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The Carcass guys, who started out as grindcore but mutated into heavy metal disguised as death metal, gave an interview in which the topic of motivations came up. Frontman Jeff Walker argued that perhaps heavy metal has sold out:

I think if you’re going to play music, your reason for doing that should be solely that you want to be creative and enjoy it. You should be realistic…Too many people are creating bands as a career choice. ‘Should I be a football player? Should I be an actor?’ Everyone wants to be famous but I think your motives have to be pure…Once in a while, you’re going to hear some killer new stuff but it’s getting rarer and rarer. I think people’s motivations for wanting to do this are not purely artistic.

He is referring to the process by which bands change their sound for money or musicians target a certain sound expecting it will make money, which is the reverse of the natural artistic method of having a message to communicate and picking the style that best expresses that message.

Metal bands can both “sell out” and “sell in” by preaching to the converted, such as the flood of war metal bands making essentially soundalike material because they know people will buy it in order to appear “diehard” underground. These people are known by the name of tryhard and they cluster around certain three-letter internet forums.

On the other hand, metal bands can “sell out” by appealing to the pretense in people as well, such as Opeth which has always marketed itself as both “open-minded” and musically difficult, both of which are tempting labels for a low self-confidence fan to slap on himself. The rest of us are closed-minded and simplistic, but with the help of his Opeth-product, he is open-minded and deep.

In the same way, many bands turn toward “social consciousness” lyrics because people recognize these as a signal that the band is deep, even though every band goes into a social consciousness lyrics phase when it runs out of other things to write about. This also is a sell-out because the band knows in advance that the audience will reward more of the same, even if that form of same re-brands itself as “different,” despite almost every band doing it.

Walker may have a point. Over the past twenty years, metal has gone from an outsider to society which speaks unutterable truths in metaphor, to an insider accepted by every level of media. Now the concern is how to use heavy metal as a brand for being “edgy,” and how to use that brand to sell products whose owners hope the audience will buy them in order to be “edgy,” from alcohol to motorcycles to clothing and beyond.

Will heavy metal exist in twenty years, or will it be only a “flavor” applied when in a commercial the edgy product is on screen, like triumphant horns for bargains and girls singing Beatles songs for self-care products? Metal may make itself into a product after all, and selling out while making its musicians superstars will destroy the underlying community by corrupting its ideas.

Experiencing Rush: A Listener’s Companion by Durrell Bowman

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Canada’s Rush keeps its fingers in many worlds, including that of 70s heavy metal, and as a result often attracts metalheads. Durrell Bowman attempts to explain the appeal of this band through perhaps the best method possible, which is to analyze the music itself and only secondarily and sparingly reinforce what is learned with extracts from interviews. Unlike most rock writers, he focuses on the output from the band rather than the discussion or buzz surrounding it, and as a result is able to pull out intention through the band and its reaction to the changes in the experience of its members of the years and how that translates into artistic voicing.

Experiencing Rush: A Listener’s Companion walks through Rush by eras of the band from its early hard rock days to its more progressive-rock influenced middle period to the later middle period of AOR (although this term is not used) very similar to 80s music like Boston, Asia, ZZ Top and the Eagles. In his analysis, Bowman attempts to answer one of the fundamental questions: is Rush a progressive rock band? If not, what are they? And how does this reconcile with their many different internal influences and the many different external styles, including a technologically-hip 90s format, which have cloaked the music of this band? Bowman gives his conclusions in a short introduction and then analyzes the work of the band song by song, divided into albums and the aforementioned eras. The result is a picture slowly emerging of a rock band with many different influences who wanted to play essentially power pop but with a guitar-driven appeal, like later Yes albums such as 90215. Into this, the self-taught musicians mix material from a wide range of influences as part of a philosophy of the band which Bowman slowly peels away during successive chapters: a leftist-libertarian political outlook, a personal individualism, dogmatic atheism and a studied eclecticism to find support for these ideas across different cultures and disciplines. Like their music, their philosophies are a grab-bag of what supports their fundamental worldview, which Bowman reveals as very much localized to and shaped by their experience growing up.

What Experiencing Rush: A Listener’s Companion offers to the world of music is not so much conclusions, however, as critical points for analysis. The entire book functions as an outline of the output of the artist with vital points addressed such as musical techniques used, including juicy details on time signature and scale/harmony, but also rather intelligently looking into the music as a series of patterns and avoiding a deep immersion in music theory. As a result, Bowman compares abstract patterns found in the music to what they symbolize in life, which works well for progressive rock bands who tend to be mimetic in their approach generally, but works doubly well for Rush, who are differentiated from progressive rock (although they incorporate many of its techniques) by their tendency toward music that is more symbolic or defined in human terms rather than imitating the objects or experiences the humans are undergoing. This rather fine distinction highlights why many progressive rock fans find Rush distasteful, and why many Rush fans find progressive rock inscrutable: the two take different approaches, and the Rush approach is closer to that taken by power pop bands than what progressive rock bands attempt. It both makes the music easier to comprehend, because the meaning in the lyrics is “acted out” by the music, and explains how Rush is able to escape its normative AOR format by incorporating so many different styles as if they were brush techniques in a painting, namely that it uses whatever techniques are appropriate for rendering its vision, much like it picks from disparate philosophies, literature and religion bits and pieces which it can use to illustrate its own philosophy and ideology. Through this insight Bowman stands heads above the other writers on this topic.

Turning from the technical arts of the band to the technique of the writer, Experiencing Rush: A Listener’s Companion shows us what rock journalism could be — some of us would say should be — by digging into this band in the only way that honors their efforts, which is to take them seriously as people by investigating their art for what it attempts to express as a communication between artist and fans. DMU has always taken this approach to death metal which has made us a minority in not just a metal underground but a rock scene which would rather write about where a band is from, their ironic personalities, the production of albums, how much the fans love it, or what trend the band belongs to. This treats artists like simpletons and fans like yeast with credit cards (although some might say this accurately portrays humanity anno 2015). Bowman takes the opposite approach, which is to avoid academic-ese and also rock journalist ideo-jive, and instead to look at this band with an intelligent common sense approach by picking apart each song to see what makes it work, both as a communications device and as an experience to enjoy. With the force of Rush fans behind him, hopefully Bowman can convince more of the music world to join him in this approach, which like the scientific method for materials should be the de facto standard for music.

Ravencult – Morbid Blood

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Around a decade ago, the funderground types (NWN/FMP) started a campaign to include Venom as the “first wave of black metal,” even though before that time nearly all sources agreed that Venom were NWOBHM and probably less influential on black metal than Motorhead. But suddenly this huge push existed to bring Venom into black metal; why? Listening to Ravencult, it is clear: so that they could make mediocre heavy metal, speed it up like a punk band and add rasping vocals and call it black metal. This created an instant doubling of product to capture that boom in clued-out kids trying to buy into the black metal hype.

Ravencult drops firmly within this camp. They keep the constant forward rhythm of a war metal band and underneath it re-visit riffs from the 80s and 90s which, despite their chromatic nature, often have a basis in the rhythms and tonal changes of hard rock. The result is something that you want to like but it is too simple-minded and repetitive ultimately to provide anything but a sting of nostalgia and then lots of comforting background noise. It will never motivate anyone to any particular greatness like the old bands used to do. As they say in the funderground, at least it is true… or is that so? It might be better to sever from the past, and create something new instead. Or at least something with the same intensity of death/black metal, instead of trying to make lower intensity versions of the classics so that people can enjoy them like easy listening music or lite jazz, sitting on their comfortable sofas sipping Chivas and “appreciating” black metal.

and of course the unholy genesis of underground metal — Hellhammer, Bathory, Sodom and Slayer —