Why listen to metal when all it gets you is funny looks

August 19, 2014 –

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Every metal fan knows it: the look of incredulity on someone’s face when halfway through a conversation you mention that you listen to heavy metal. It’s a look that says, “Hmm… He seemed otherwise sane and cultured when we were just talking… Didn’t notice he had any problems understanding society’s unspoken rules on personal space or (sniff) hygiene… Why would he listen to that neanderthal drivel?”

That look presupposes a tired old trope of modern culture which is that the enlightened listen only to sensitive indie bands who sing about either love or “social issues.” These bands sing softly and semi-ironically about real world things like love, heartache, drugs or the quest for world peace. In contrast, metal embraces comically violent and magical subjects fit only for basement-dwelling neckbeards who play D&D on Saturday nights and rednecks who wear kitschy looking t-shirts with pictures of wolves howling at the moon on them. This “enlightened” mentality is similar to the trendy outlook that presumes all smart people should care about the same fashionable political causes.

I listen to metal music with its fantastic lyrics and imagery — rather than music with lyrics about real world stuff or political fashions — because it’s an escape. After I’m done hearing about the dramas of my friends, co-workers and families the last thing I want to do on my own time is listen to someone else croon about all their problems. Real world subjects are depressing to hear about precisely because they’re so commonplace and everyday. This includes the political, because the only reason people talk, sing or demonstrate about political issues is to make themselves look cool, which is a way to get new girlfriends, meet drug connections and gather around a social group.

Metal to me is anything but escapist. It is metaphorically accurate where the idea that human drama describes the universe is solipsistic. Nature is mercilessly hostile to human life, which can be snuffed out at any minute and one day inevitably will be. I spend much of my time contemplating the finality of death and the implications it has for our everyday choices and morality. Metal music by focusing on the bigger things — and by having an often ruthlessly dark sense of humour about human frailty — reminds me of the bigger questions in life and reflects the topics I think are really worth talking about.

Even more, metal gives a certain hope by expanding our view of the world beyond personal drama and political fashion. In a society where secularism and scientific rationalism have all but won out, it’s nearly impossible to believe there is anything magical or esoteric about the world. Whilst I am quite happy we live in a time when backwoods superstitions are not the basis of our science and medicine, there is something nonetheless dispiriting knowing there’s no such thing as miracles, no demons or sorcery, and no great cosmic quest to set ourselves to, just the weekday commute and a beer in front of the TV whilst watching sports on the weekend. That we live in a universe ordered by mathematics and the office timesheet. I think most metalheads recognise this and secretly yearn for an excuse to be able to see their world in terms of something grand and magical, whether that be through the prism of The Lord of the Rings style epics or by believing that reality is all ultimately a battle of wills between God and Satan.

H.P. Lovecraft, who is not surprisingly the biggest influence on metal lyrics in literature, articulated this kind of feeling about the modern rational age better than anyone else. A fervent advocate of the secular and scientific way of thinking as the only way to understand our universe, Lovecraft nonetheless posed his fiction as a great cosmic gambit: what if we’re wrong and the universe is in fact populated by powerful forces and beings beyond our control and far beyond the possibility of our comprehension? In other words, what if what we think is “rational” is in fact our own human projection and nothing else, and we will not find out until something dark and unseen attacks? Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn!

For me, what begins as a question of why someone would listen to Ildjarn and not The Smiths ultimately boils down to how one views the world: either to see everything as knowable and within the grasp of human understanding, if we only figure out the maths behind it; or through the metal lens which views humans as tiny, arrogant and probably doomed. The former to me seems painfully dull and conformist, whilst the latter is dangerous but leaves plenty of possibilities open and ready to be explored. This is not a dichotomy between science and religion, because metalheads accept science, but a question of forward decisions: looking to what is important, what paths we should explore, and what might inspire us to be “better,” instead of merely safe, logical and inoffensive as science can advise us to be.

This conflict exists between a worldview that is hubristic about the capabilities of humanity (“Peace, science and John Lennon CDs will save the world!”) and a worldview that is more suspicious of straight and narrow paths. This second worldview that thinks there is always an undiscovered frontier over the next hill, always a need to veer off the well-trodden path, always going to be a reason to have to get your hands dirty. A worldview that embraces the inconveniences, imperfections and overall strangeness of being alive as actually part of the beauty of it. It rediscovers humanity by escaping our notion of humanity as perfect and instead looks to a universe of perpetual conflict and destruction for meaning. This is the world of metal and it is more real than your safe and trendy indie rock will ever pretend to be.

Twilight – III: Beneath Trident’s Tomb

March 18, 2014 –

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Commercial black metal. Oh dear.

Advertising agencies would like us to believe that Twilight is a “black metal supergroup”; but looking at the list of musicians involved, there isn’t much to do with black metal, let alone a noteworthy record within that genre. If there was a desire to be accurate, the band would be billed as “a group of musicians without much in common, to whom we rented a studio and told them to make something that we could promote”. It’s here the band succeeds…but not anywhere else.

The only thing (fit for print) in my mind while listening to this was: “How long does it take for something experimental to become established and lethargic?” Really, there is nothing new on this album. Noise rock was done in the 80s, stoner rock spawned as well, caveman moshcore flourished in the 90s, and linear, monotonous, American “black metal” has insulted eardrums for over a decade. We all know what these genres sound like. Mashing them together and adding constipated vocals does not constitute a new art form. It is not experimental or new. Nor is it worth releasing.

The most disheartening aspect of this release is that most of the musicians involved are talented to above-average degrees. Unfortunately, none of it comes through on this release. They (and us) would be better served heightening their unique take on their own art form, instead of limply moving to this unremarkable, bland middle-ground…but that doesn’t pay the bills.

Strangelight – 9 Days

September 24, 2013 –

strangelight-9_daysThe spin on this one is that it was recorded in nine days, so they gave it the mentally catchy title. Sounds very indie rock, no? That’s exactly what this is. Strangelight sounds like a more technical cross between Mudhoney and Sonic Youth.

In fact, I’m baffled as to how this made it into a metal distribution list. It’s indie rock. There’s not even appreciably more distortion. It’s nicely done, with reasonable guitar melodies and vocal support, but it’s highly repetitive.

9 Days also illustrates another problem with indie rock which is that all of it expresses a single mood, which is a kind of depression mixed with wistfulness. I guess it seems profound to Tori Amos fans, but to me it just sounds like people who haven’t yet learned to approach life like they’re alive.

Strangelight do have some interesting influences. In particular, there seems to be an affinity for both British electro-pop and the stream of guitar bands from the 1970s that predated the hard rock and metal explosion. Nothing here is bad, just not particularly relevant.

The Ocean – Pelagial

May 13, 2013 –
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the_ocean-pelagialThe Ocean are usually described as “post-metal,” but a musical analysis shows that it’s from another tradition: progressive punk.

Remember that explosive trend from the middle 1990s? It’s back, just with more metal-styled riffs, but it’s very far from metal and calling it “post-metal” would only make sense if its origins were in metal. Progressive punk realized the limits of minimalism and so expanded the genre with more complex song structures, more use of harmony and key, and in other words, imported a lot of stuff from rock and the rising indie rock scene. In this way, post-hardcore, progressive punk, early metalcore, indie rock and even shoegaze were linked together by a common origin.

Pelagial resembles an instrumental jam between Led Zeppelin, Fugazi, Jawbreaker and later King Crimson thrown together in a musical blender. It’s jazzy, for the most part light and open, and when it gets dark, it’s dark through repetition of minor key phrases in the type of dissonant drone favored by indie bands. It builds intensity like an alternative rock band with melodies collapsing on themselves, layer in opposition. Like post-hardcore bands, The Ocean delights in putting jarringly different phrases together in the same key, which creates the “carnival music” effect for which metalcore and tech-deth are known.

The cool thing about this album is that its concept shows in the music. The ocean is designed in layers, so why not design an album in layers, getting heavier as you go deeper in the virtual ocean in your mind? That part is kind of cool, sort of like the Mastodon idea to ape Moby-Dick or some of the other nifty conceptual stuff to come out of alternative metal lately. It doesn’t get heavier per se as much as more active and more droning, with lots of use of “emo chords” to create a sense of constant suspense grinding against the narrow intervals used for the progressions.

Compare this to some progressive punk, and then its originator:

Notice the similarity of chord voicings and how they’re used in progressions, and how many of those progressions use similar melodies, and how those tend to fit together in exactly the same way. It’s a more complex, newer generation of the older, which is represented here in its 1990s and 1980s forms, respectively.

To the experienced listener, this will sound like Pelican or Kyuss with a bit more imagination applied, but it’s basically indie rock with a few metalisms thrown in. That’s not bad, at all, and in fact this is above average indie rock with far above average instrumental skills, but there’s nothing here to appeal to a metal fan.