Death Metal Underground

As the music industry contracts niche genres will rise

July 17, 2014 –

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Being a squeaky clean pop country starlet has its advantages. Taylor Swift launched her own critique of the music industry by suggesting recently that customers will buy albums that “hit them like an arrow through the heart.” This implies by converse that they will buy only albums that hit this raised standard.

Her statement echoes what underground musicians have said for years: mass pop becomes popular more for being a phenomenon than for any music quality or profundity as art. People buzz around it because, like most hive mind activities, popular music gives them a space to socialize. Its popularity is its attraction, for those who feel happiest when they are doing what a million other people are doing at the same time.

Underground music on the other hand derives its authenticity from its artistic representation of reality as people prefer not to see it. Whether that is Slayer showing us the dark and seemingly demonic motivations behind history and social decay, or Burzum attempting to inspire in us a vision of a “Dungeons and Dragons” style medieval revival, underground metal peels back the layers of gloss and warm fuzzy feelings and shows us the bare reality underneath the patina of appearance. Its power is not only the revelation of reality but an emotional drive to make us want to accept this situation and make something greater out of it.

The music industry has been in a cycle of contraction or getting smaller as the mass audience drops out. When pop music provides a passing phenomenon that fascinates people for only a few weeks, the point of paying for it is lost on most. Its status more resembles that of television shows or movies than pieces of sonic art to be taken out of the rack and enjoyed for years on end. The phenomenon defines the music: its novelty and popularity make it, like other fads and trends, a temporary distraction from the pressures of life but not a sustaining or interest-stirring event.

For a half-century the music industry made fortunes by finding roughly interchangeable bands, shaping them around some unique appearance, and selling basically the same music time and again to an audience who outgrew the music rapidly and eventually stopped buying. Its business plan emerged from producing lots of new hits and hyping them to attract an audience, rather than building some kind of lasting relationship between artists and fans. When people said that the music industry was bad for artists in the long run, this is what they had in mind. Temporary and dramatic mediocrity was rewarded and talent marginalized.

The Recording Industry Association of America tracks music industry statistics. Where industry revenue totaled $15 billion in 2003, by 2013 it had fallen to only $7 billion. Even digital sales are in decline as people turn to other options. With the falling prices in movies through Red Box, Netflix and other on-demand services, music also falls. As a result the artists who inspire their fans to a longer term relationship are the ones who prevail.

As a music industry source cited in the above article says:

“What we’ve seen is fans will pay for stuff whether it’s Jack White’s record club or Nine Inch Nails doing limited releases,” remarked Light. “Albums at this point need to be souvenirs. They need to be experiental. We see it now with the phenomenon around ‘Frozen.’ This is selling albums through the roof because kids want to retain that relationship, sing the songs over and over, have that souvenir.”

When the music industry shrinks, the pop trends that crowd out quality music decline and artists benefit as a result. The demand for quality now outpaces that for quantity, and the future of the industry becomes not only niche genres like underground metal, but the artists within them who attract lifelong audiences. Although we had to hear this from the mouth of a cowboy diva, this alert to the profound change in the industry heralds a brighter future for metal, or at least metal which hits its fans “like an arrow through the heart.”

Death Metal Underground blocked in UK

July 16, 2014 –

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According to Blocked!, an Open Rights Group keeping track of content filtering in the United Kingdom, one of the bigger UK national ISPs blocks deathmetal.org. We’re not sure if this is for our embrace of openly Satanic bands, our bad language, the Profanatica picture or our utter flippancy toward society in general.

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Either way, it goes to show you that metal — despite acceptance of its tamer forms — has a long way to go before it is accepted as it is by society at large. We’re contacting Sky to see if they have any comment on the matter.

New “Hanneman-class” metal stars discovered

July 6, 2014 –

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According to a recent survey, one in ten thousand stars may be made of metal. This information was derived by examining the process of star formation.

Those of who are metalheads may find it relevant to suggest a new name for these stars: Hanneman-class stars. For if anything was ever made completely of metal, it was his mind and music.

No news yet on where to agitate for the adoption of this name.

Metallica’s Lars Ulrich identifies perceived metal class divide

June 24, 2014 –

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Attitudes toward metal differ between Europe and the United States with the UK in the middle. One thing remains certain: until metal started prettying itself up with accepted genres like lite-jazz and indie rock, and adopting socially cherished “civilized” attitudes, it got nowhere on a big scale.

In vaunted music magazine NME Lars Ulrich (Metallica) attacks the perceived class divide between hard rock/heavy metal fans and the “sophisticated” mainstream rock audience:

In an interview for BBC 6 Music, the Metallica drummer and founding member complained about the media’s attitude to hard rock. He continued: “People have short attention spans in 2014… They like things broken down into easy, digestible sound-bites. It’s like, Metallica at Glastonbury, what’s the sound-bite? ‘Here comes the big bad heavy metal band to our precious little festival.’ I don’t think it’s genuinely like that… but there obviously are people who snub their nose a little bit at hard rock, and look at hard rock as inferior or lower-class, some sort of lower music form or something, and [think] that the people who listen to hard rock are less educated.”

Speaking about the same festival, the Glastonbury pop fest in the UK, Bruce Dickinson (Iron Maiden) voiced a similar viewpoint but more from another angle — mainly an angle of attack:

He said: “In the days when Glasto was an alternative festival it was quite interesting.

“Now it is the most bourgeois thing on the planet. Anywhere Gwyneth Paltrow goes and you can live in an air-conditioned yurt is not for me.

“We’ll leave the middle classes to do Glastonbury and the rest of the great unwashed will decamp to Knebworth and drink lots of beer and have fun.”

American fans are used to this. In movies and books we are portrayed as the blue collar dropouts who work in garages and smoke too much dope to compensate for failure at life. This reveals both a snobbery against blue collar labor that is unconscionable, and the pretense of those making the distinction. They like to think they’re elevated to a higher grade of person because they’ve choked down eight years of education and work in office jobs (and only smoke expensive dope from exotic locales).

This stereotype both serves media interests and belittles metal. It enables the media to have an easy cue for its “bad boy” characters and to sell products based on that “rebel without a clue” image, but it also lets them subtly inform the rest of us that they, the writers and producers, are obviously much higher in the evolutionary chain than us neanderthals.

Indie rock and lite-jazz appeal to such people. The more precious and deliberately weird their music is, the more “educated” they assume they are. In the meantime, it’s metal fans out there who not only keep music from falling into an abyss of self-congratulatory clones, but also keep our infrastructure running. Whether we’re blue collar or something else, we’re realists… and we make sure stuff works while the rest of these clowns are posing.

Listening single-mindedly is the only way to appreciate metal

June 6, 2014 –

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Metal worth listening to is worth listening to properly. You listen properly by listening single-mindedly. This means that you set aside everything else and put your focus on the music. Although our society places a false premium on time, this is even more important when you have little time: make the most of your time by making your listening experience the most intense one possible. Since attention spans are on the decline, actual listening is rare. Instead, there’s a hearing of background noise while doing something else. The rise of YouTube has exacerbated the issue.

Ideal listening conditions require one to keep all distractions out of reach and out of earshot, allowing as little other sensory input as possible. This means no distractions, no facebooking, no chitchat, no multitasking — leave that to the kitchen while preparing multiple dishes — and listening to entire albums from start to finish. This is most important and cannot be stressed enough. Create a ritual aspect through the act of listening.

Immersing oneself in the depth of an album, one senses the ebb and flow of momentum, the pacing and construction. Also audible are characteristics — you get to see which are effective and why — and one is able to consider the album as a whole, rather than as a collection of similar sounding songs in the same style. Even an average band sequences songs on an album in a particular way for a reason, even if they have not mastered use of theme and leitmotif. The truly great ones lead you on a journey, enable epiphanies, and insights that go beyond music.

When listened to single-mindedly, In the Nightside Eclipse elevates the spirit into the farthest cosmic realms; Farseeing the Paranormal Abysm plays out like a vision of the coming battle before the fact and a return to genesis with clearer, wiser eyes not unlike the role played by the “Bhagavad Gita” in the Mahabharata. Great metal at its best attempts to communicate facets of the ineffable: the vastness and timelessness of the universe, the pervasive nature of the primal life force.

To even begin to experience this, one needs to make a concerted effort at listening. This effort and immersion also reveals which music is timeless, which albums have almost everything in the right place but do not ascend into the pantheon and which are to be hung on a wall for the “collectors” only. A realization dawns about the elements that make albums great, beyond a purely musical value. Superficialities and externalities go out the window. You see into structure, or how all the parts fit together to make a greater whole.

On the other hand, it has become a common tendency to stream a song on YouTube while doodling on Facebook, watching video and playing video games all at once. The best you can hope for there is to pay random attention to how it “sounds,” maybe notice a few hooks or sudden, jarring changes make themselves felt, and declare it a gem. Then jump to the next song on the list of suggestions, repeat procedure. It is no surprise that so many record reviews now are breathless and full of praise yet notice nothing but surface traits of an album.

Casual listening can aid in the initial discovery of bands like you skim a novel you pick up in a bookstore as you decide whether to buy it (or put it on a mental list for later to get from the library). While distracted listening can aid in initial discovery of bands, prolonged reiteration of the same obliterates your ability to distinguish an exceptional album from a merely acceptable one. Listening habits decay and quality of metal declines in parallel. If your time is precious, reward it by listening to only the very best and giving all of yourself to the experience.

Documentary film The Distorted Island: Heavy Metal Music and Community in Puerto Rico nears release, reveals artwork

June 4, 2014 –

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Artwork for a new documentary about Puerto Rico’s metal scene by the Puerto Rico Heavy Metal Studies Group, The Distorted Island: Heavy Metal Music and Community in Puerto Rico, makes its appearance today and in this blog. According to the creators of the film:

This upcoming documentary explores the emergence and maintenance of a metal scene in the Caribbean island. The documentary explores how local bands have survived for 30 years via strong community ties, while also highlighting the cultural and historical challenges faced along the way. Local artist Kadriel Betsen, a digital artist and guitarist for the extreme metal band Humanist, developed the artwork. Nelson Varas-Díaz, Osvaldo González, Eliut Segarra and Sigrid Mendoza compose the research and filmmaking team. Dr. Nelson Varas-Díaz is a metal fan and Associate Professor at the University of Puerto Rico who has led the team carrying out a research study on the local scene. The documentary will see its full release by the end of 2014.

When asked about the artwork for the movie poster, local artist Kadriel Betsen said the following: “This artwork attempts to capture the very essence of Puerto Rico’s Heavy Metal scene. A scene where a particular musical taste influences the way we perceive and express our culture, and where our culture enriches and influences the way we create music. These two powerful factors gave birth to the Distorted Island…”

For more information, see the Puerto Rico Heavy Metal Studies Group‘s Faceplant page.

Call for contributions to a new edited volume Black Shabbes: Jews & Metal edited by Shamma Boyarin and Keith Kahn-Harris

May 20, 2014 –

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When the guitarist Marty Friedman auditioned for Megadeth, singer Dave Mustaine loved his playing but told his manager to get Friedman to change his name because Jews were ‘not metal’

Can Jews ‘be metal’?

Certainly, crude stereotypes of the Jewish male – weak, bookish, awkward, hypochondriac – and crude stereotypes of the metal male – sexually promiscuous, loud and tough – seem to be in conflict. Yet not only do these stereotypes hide the considerable diversity amongst both Jews and metallers (to say nothing of their gendered nature), there is a significant history of Jewish involvement in metal culture.

Jews have featured prominently in significant numbers of prominent metal bands, including Kiss, Anthrax, Biohazard, Death and Guns N Roses. Moreover, in at least some cases, the Jewish backgrounds of metal musicians has impacted on their careers, as in the networks of communal and family support that Anvil drew on during their long commercial decline. Further, there have also been metal bands that have drawn on Jewish sources and themes, including Israeli acts such as Orphaned Land and Salem and a number of more obscure artists in the US.

Yet whilst there has been a more than nominal Jewish involvement in metal, the significance and impact of this involvement is much less clear. What might looking at metal through a Jewish lens and Jewishness through a metal lens bring to light? A sustained consideration of the relationship between Jews and metal will illuminate this hidden history while at the same time raising wider issues in the nature of Jewish and metal identity and culture.

We invite contributions from academics, critics, writers musicians and others, for a volume dedicated to explore the connection between metal and Jews from a number of different perspectives. We welcome both non-fiction and fiction.

Themes can include:

  • The history of the Jewish presence in metal.
  • The use of Jewish themes in metal
  • Israeli metal scenes
  • The relationship between Satanism, anti-Semitism and Judaism as explored in metal
  • Anti-semitism within metal scenes
  • Reading/hearing metal through a Jewish lens – is a Jewish metal criticism possible?
  • Jewish community attitudes to metal

Please submit abstracts of 200-250 words (by September 30 2014), and inquiries to:

Shamma Boyarin sboyarin@uvic.ca
Keith Kahn-Harris keith@kahn-harris.org

“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.

Oppression – Sociopathie & Glorie

March 25, 2014 –

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Punk music, in all of its myriad strains, was an integral foundation of black metal. The sense of strong alienation coupled with a conflicted youthful exuberance towards the future was shared between both genres, in addition to technical specificities. As black metal burned through its trajectory and splintered into its various initiatory parts, it became clear that a punk foundation to the genre would be a logical ground for renewal.

It’s here that we find French-Canadian band Oppression. Merging Oi!-style punk with some enhancements from black metal, tracks are short (2-3 minute) affairs. Melodies are catchy, yet wistful lines grounded in simple guitar and bass riffs, with vocal alternating between manic shrieks and an idiosyncratic, youthful attempt at melodic singing. Using the more linear style composition of punk, as opposed to the riff-stacking song construction used by much of black metal, each song contributes a sense of motion that builds the album up over successive tracks. Production values are what one would expect for this style of music; clear enough to make out each instrument, but raw enough to preserve low-budget ethos.

This is a release that is not attempting to invent a new genre, but rather one which seeks to renew genres that had collapsed under their own entropy. This is a solid debut, which bodes well for the band as they refine their craft into the future. The strange aesthetics may be off-putting to some, but if those can be sublimated into the spirit of this album, a refreshingly honest work will open itself for enjoyment.

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.