The relationship between metal and horror films

October 25, 2013 –

carnival_of_soulsWe all know why we distrust public statements by musicians. To be popular in this world, you first must endorse the lifestyle that most people lead, and this usually means praising something from the “edgy” mainstream so everyone knows you’re controlled (and thus “safe”) just like the rest.

Ironic, isn’t it. A whole group of people wanting to be rebels, but unwilling to go past that line that no rebel dare cross and still have the support of the peanut gallery which is encouraging him to rebellion. Reminds me of why the James Dean character finally offed himself in Rebel Without a Cause.

But Ihsahn, formerly of arch-rebels Emperor, is now a safe rebel and he’s giving some interviews praising stuff that you’d expect, if you watched your TV attentively, that “edgy” characters might like. However, some of the subversive is still left in him, so he sneaked in a few goodies in a recent interview:

The dynamics and emotional impact of soundtracks have been great influences on me and much of the reason I wanted to implement orchestral sounds in my music. Jerry Goldsmith’s work with the Omen movies has been an absolute highlight and still is. Also, his use of non-orchestral sounds in this context is very interesting.

However, this isn’t the first mention of horror movies as an inspiration. Just this week, Warbeast’s Bruce Corbitt opined that most of his work was inspired by horror movies. Entombed used horror film riffs in their own work. Black Sabbath tooktheir name from a horror movie, and wrote music to emulate the scary sense of suspense in the dark films they enjoyed.

At what point do we acknowledge this pervasive musical influence, with its own debt to modernist classical, as perhaps the foundational influence on metal itself?

World metal maps reflect density of metalheads

October 13, 2013 –

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Above you can see a world metal map that shows number of metal heads per capita in the nation-states of the world, originally found on public whiteboard space here. However, one researcher noticed a fatal flaw to this map.

That is, the original map measures by nation-state, but not by populations within those states, such as the independent Quebecers who brought us Voivod, Gorguts, Obliveon and other “Canadian” bands that don’t have much in common with the English-speaking parts of the country. Thus, Dominic Arsenault made his own map, which you can see below, or see on his own his web site.

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This brings to mind a fascinating question: does metal reflect national culture, national circumstance, or is it a “nation-state” issue like political system (for example, rebellion in the Reagan 1980s) or political instability? Our own international metal map shows metal bands by nation-state and reveals that some small countries definitely outperform larger ones on the metal scale.

Ancient Modernism: An Exhibition of Letter Art and Illustration in Heavy Metal and Beyond

September 2, 2013 –
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ancient_modernismNoted black metal logo designer Christophe Szpajdel is featured in an upcoming exhibit in New Zealand of metal and other illustrators and the logos and embellishments they create.

The exhibit will run simultaneously in Auckland at Nature: Art + Design and in Wellington at The Rogue & Vagabond from September 28 – October 15, 2013, and will feature Szpajdel as well as four New Zealand-based designers.

As underground metal expands its reach and influence, events like Ancient Modernism: An Exhibition of Letter Art and Illustration in Heavy Metal and Beyond will contribute further to understanding the meaning beneath the menacing imagery and sonically terrorizing music.

Heavy metal saved my life

September 1, 2013 –

rabbi_darby_leigh-heavy_metalHow many of you feel that metal music saved your life?

When I was suffering through high school — boring assignments, ludicrously uptight authority figures, absurdly judgmental peers, and crushing ignorance about the world and myself — heavy metal indeed saved my life.

It had several methods that saved me. The first was that it let me escape into a mood that was bigger than my everyday concerns. This helped me establish values, center myself and see day by day stuff in context. The second was that it gave me a sense of belonging to something bigger than myself, which both freed me from the judgments of others and my own tendencies toward self-obsession. Finally, it was a gateway into history and literature, philosophy and art. It was a more exciting entry point to those disciplines than the rote ancient material taught in school.

From others I have heard similar stories. When your parents are dysfunctional, heavy metal is like a window into a much wider world beyond where things can make sense even if they don’t right now. When instability is all around you, “metal never bends” or “true metal it is, or no metal at all” are not just comforting ideas but mission statements.

To some, however, heavy metal has a different mission: it states it’s OK to be different. Witness the words of this heavy metal Rabbi:

Growing up as a Jewish teen in Manhattan, he was drawn to listening to heavy metal bands. Leigh’s body found joy in the chords and musical vibration that emanated from the emphasis on bass and percussion. He also found community and faith when he attended concerts.

“I found God in a mosh pit,” said Leigh, who attended his first concert, a Twisted Sister performance in New York, when he 14. “Heavy metal saved my life. The experience of growing up deaf in the hearing world means that you grow up as a minority. So many of us have the experience growing up where we feel like we don’t fit in, or we don’t fully belong.

“I found in heavy metal a music and a culture that supported individuality and rejection of the social norm. I found a culture that said, ‘you don’t have to be like that. You’re not. It’s OK to be different, it’s OK to be you. And guess what? There’s a whole army of metal heads out here like you, that are “freaks” and don’t fit into normal society.’ And the celebration of that and the outlet for anger and frustration as a teenage adolescent male just totally resonated with me.

Not surprisingly, Leigh has been known to write his sermons while listening to heavy metal.

That commotion you hear is our entire staff converting to Judaism. Leigh has an interesting view of metal, in that it is acceptance for those who don’t fit into society.

Others take it even farther, and see metal as a rejection of society itself. Or rather, the tendency of society to make rules to protect the herd, at the expense of those who actually know something.

If you let social forces predominate in any situation, you’ll get the usual feel-good stuff that we hear in most rock ‘n’ roll music. If you are antisocial and untamed like a metalhead, you get instead a different kind of morality, based on results and passion instead of obedience.

Recently, Erik Danielsson of Watain took some flak for his views on black metal:

If you want to be in a black metal band, you take yourself as an adversary of society, because that’s what black metal is.

An adversary of society. Society means both civilization, and people socialization with each other as a form of civilization order. It refers to the social groups set up that keep a society together.

Historically, black metal has opposed the socialization process. It stands against the “we can all get along” viewpoint, endorses enmity and Darwinistic predation, detests a morality of protecting the weaker and makes itself almost impossible to listen to with bad production and extreme elements. Black metal is antisocial because it sees socializing as an illness.

Traditionally, the genre has identified with the demonic to explain its rejection of social feelings:

Black metal music is music that, in essence, is diabolical and has diabolical energies…we’re talking about the wild, the untamed, ferocious, predatory aspect of it, the tribe within this music.

Perhaps it isn’t as simple as heavy metal validating non-conformity. Perhaps it does that and goes a step further by pointing out that conformity itself, as part of socializing, is what makes our society so unbearable.

Think about everything you know in this life. A new idea, band or place comes about. Few know about it and it’s great. Then others discover it. Soon it accommodates them, and it changes. What made it great is lost.

For all the time that people spend on politics, philosophy, religion and art, it’s possible that the key to the human problem is simpler than we thought. It could be in how we form societies itself, and this explains why no matter what we do we have the same problems.

Even more exciting is the possibility that heavy metal holds the answer: be less social, and less conformist, and more focused on the “wild, the untamed, ferocious, predatory aspect” of our nature instead of our civilized, let’s-all-get-along social training.

Dialogue with a reader

August 20, 2013 –

An interested reader wrote in, and so we continue our discussion of whether modern metal is important at all, and whither the future of metal.

So, metal music is over? Or do you that have a big journey to happen?

No, it’s not over. It needs to find new content. Its form is a refinement of its original form, and it can be refined further, but not by hybridizing it with other genres. Jazz-metal is dead, math-metal is dead, blues-metal is dead, indie-metal is dead, alt-metal is dead because these were always old and tired ideas. Alternative rock is punk mixed with 1980s indie rock. It’s self-pity music. Indie metal is emo and Fugazi mixed with d-beat and black metal. Post-metal is just slowed down indie metal. All of this music sounds more like Nirvana, Jawbreaker, Fugazi, Rites of Spring, etc. than metal. All of that stuff was born dead. What’s alive is the metal spirit. From Black Sabbath through Judas Priest through Slayer through Incantation through Immortal, it’s a continuum. Metal has just finally left rock behind with death/black metal and it needs to continue that transformation. It needs to finally become its own musical language entirely separate from everything else.

What is your opinion about mathcore (Botch, Converge)?

It’s an extension of late hardcore. Black Flag “The Process of Weeding Out” is the grandfather, and they ran it through the Fugazi filter. Neurosis was a better direction but the people who’ve cloned that don’t understand what Neurosis was on about. They can imitate the music, not understand the soul.

And what will happen with the black metal genre?

It died in 1996. Since then, with maybe five exceptions, the new bands have been imitators. Their goal is to make music that’s like black metal on the surface, but like regular indie rock underneath, so they can sell it to the kids for weekend rebellion but not so much that it sets them off-course and they can’t return to school, jobs, watching TV and voting for idiots during the week.

What will happen with metal? It’s over? There new things to create?

See the first question. “Big journey” is more true than “over.”

Metal across borders

July 20, 2013 –

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At a recent concert in Tel Aviv, Israel, a remarkable thing happened: two bands from two different cultures, Jewish and Arab, stood up together and performed a concert.

“We are metal brothers before anything,” Abed Khathout, bass player for Khalas (“enough” in Arabic) said. His comment was underscored by Koby Farhi, Orphaned Land’s lead singer. ” Tonight is the second time we’re playing together — Orphaned Land and Khalas, as Israelis and Arabs. Having a brotherhood, sharing the stage, simply shows that Rock and Roll music is above politics, ” he said.

Farhi added, “The purpose of art is to represent harmony and coexistence in places of disharmony.” This marks the first time the bands were able to do this, after a similar show in Egypt was cancelled in November.

The more pressing question might be whether metal, the music that decidedly is not about peace and harmony, achieves a greater sense of balance by allowing people to speak honestly about their ambitions and desires, instead of hiding behind layers of social pretense.

Why Hellhammer’s Satanic Rites is possibly the most important metal record ever made

July 4, 2013 –

hellhammer-satanic_ritesMost people place the birth of black and death metal somewhere between Venom’s first album Welcome to Hell (1981) and Bathory’s third full-length Under the Sign of the Black Mark (1987). The exact moment of divergence from ancestors depends on the speaker’s level of metal puritanism and their favorite albums are from that era, and can sometimes seem a trivial dichotomy. Moot though it may be, my pick for the first discernible piece of death/black metal music is also, more importantly, the moment at which metal realizes it can be more than just warmed-over rock music.

Tom Warrior and co will forever be canonised in the metal pantheon for the early Hellhammer and Celtic Frost releases, which collectively shaped the sound of metal in a way that is only really matched by Slayer (who were probably influenced by Hellhammer in their change of sound between Show no Mercy and Haunting the Chapel). The first couple of Hellhammer demos however were only really third rate crust punk/Venom rip off played by three young guys who didn’t really know what they were doing. With the third demo and the introduction of Martin Ain to the writing team though, Hellhammer began introducing ideas that weren’t immediately noticed or appreciated by the rest of the world, prompting the band to less than twelve months later reconstitute itself as Celtic Frost and spend most of the next three decades trying to bury the Hellhammer name and the material associated with it.

Many of the tracks on Satanic Rites are in much the same vein as the first two demos, although better played and with greater surety about the morbid chromatic rock riffs. However, with “Buried and Forgotten,” and to a slightly lesser extent “Triumph of Death,” there is a real ‘eureka’ moment. Verse-chorus-verse, single groove writing gives way to longer structures that piece together like musical jigsaw puzzles, reminiscent of the best moments of Black Sabbath made more twisted and involving. The grimmer, more elemental, less blues-rocky riffs of Hellhammer also hint at emergent melodic shapes, whose detail unfurls piecemeal over the course of the track.

“Buried and Forgotten” for a little over two and half minutes builds one riff atop another towards an emotional plateau, each one referencing some element (however small) of the one that preceded it. The rest of the track then recombines and repeats all the material amassed over the course of the opening part, changing the order of and implied relationship between riffs. All except one slightly dodgy contrasting riff towards the end (which stands out by a mile), is built out of the same basic pool of ideas, and so each can be moved about and fit back together again as they are and create a neat, logical song structure.

This streamlined song-writing mentality also filters down quite brilliantly into the track “Messiah,” which is probably the most well-known, heavily covered Hellhammer song, and a borderline genius exercise in metal song-writing fundamentalism. Effectively the entire song is crafted out of one interval (the space between two notes, denoting their relationship to each other): a minor 2nd (or semitone), the smallest interval in regular Western music. Everything from the ponderous two-note verse riff, to the creeping chorus motif of four descending consecutive semitones, to the brief bridge section made up of the same rumbling low E that drives the verse and a major 7th above that (which, deceptively, is just an inversion of a minor 2nd, and so basically the same note relationship as nearly everything that has come before it in the song).

All of a sudden the focus shifted from form (and the resulting dramatic arc it creates) as something that comes from solely juxtaposing contrasting elements, to something that can grow out of only a tiny number of ideas, and through clever variation and development can became something much more journey-like. This makes this music unlike rock, jazz and more recent false-metal, and more like a Beethoven symphony or a Bach fugue. Needless to say, I’m not suggesting for a moment that Hellhammer is equal to the work of Bach. What I am saying however is that both classical music and the more inspired moments of this demo proceed from a similar sort of underlying sense of elegance in developing things methodically out of smaller details into bigger, consistent ideas.

The version of “Triumph of Death” on this demo is inferior to the one on Apocalyptic Raids (which has, surely, one of the greatest metal vocal performances anywhere, ever) and as far as Celtic Frost/Hellhamer goes my favourite work is probably To Mega Therion. Still, it’s hard to understate just how important this demo and the ideas it set in motion are to all of the metal that has followed it. Underground metal not only became scarier, heavier and less po-faced after Hellhammer, but from this demo (and the Celtic Frost/Hellhammer works that followed it) metal inherited a paradigm that enabled the construction of more complex, distinctive songs and would come to define underground metal.

The underground realizes it is infested with hipsters… from within

June 30, 2013 –

satan_laughs_as_you_eternally_rotMuch as I love the title From Beyond, I think an altogether scarier title would be “From Within.” The things that really get you are the ones you can’t see because they’re behind your eyes. Metal got blindsided by one of these in the last decade.

What happened was that black metal ran out of ideas, and death metal ran out of energy, in about 1995 or 1998 depending on who you talk to. What came after that was metalcore and nu-metal, which are so close in compositional style — both very much closer to rock than metal — that we group them together as nu-core.

The response of metal was unfortunate. Ignoring the advice of sage elders, the metal fans who remained circled the wagons and insisted on ideological purity. No, not of the kind that excludes stuff incompatible with metal, like rock and rap. But literally, a hell-bent desire to repeat the past nearly exactly as it happened.

It’s like tourism. Charlemagne fought here, so you stand here and take a picture. Leonardo da Vinci sketched here, so you eat pizza here and Instagram it to your colleagues back home. Metal tourism involves pretending you’re Darkthone and it’s 1991 for the first time and you’re being a massive innovator by coming up with a new sound.

Except you’re not. It’s 1999 or 2013 and you’re in a bedroom with garage band, making another recombinant album for another recombinant audience. They’ll praise it to the skies for two weeks, then drift on to something else because basically it’s generic, and then popularity becomes a game of making people like your stuff by being their internet buddies.

This kind of toxic environment gave the Full Moon Productions bulletin board such a bad name the label basically quit. FMPers could be counted on to buy lots of records, but that’s like 1000 per pressing, and since they’re so elite and rare, spend a lot of money on them. Other than that, it was favoritism, infighting, backstabbing, and other pointless activity.

Now, in the unlikeliest of places, Nuclear War Now! productions forum has come to face the same problem — and it’s dawning on metalheads that this isn’t limited to a specific place or time, but is a universal human failing like hipsterism:

From the Devil’s Tomb was pretty good imo, but of course the tryhards will disagree. These fags change taste like underwear. Just look at the recent Wrathprayer thread. Now it is “overrated”, but a year ago these same poseurs were worshipping it like it’s the best thing ever since sex. – Candlemass

The vitriol picked up speed:

I’ve come to understand this board is full of kvltist wanna-be’s who are in fact a bunch of hipsters trying to follow trends to appear “elite”, though only a fractional minority truly “gets it”. Thoth

This post isn’t designed to mock the NWN board, or even the FMP board, or the people involved. They’re important because they’ve been perceptive enough to notice something that’s gone wrong with the metal community: it went within, and in doing so, lost its sense of what made it great. Now it’s the emotional equivalent of burnt-out old men, either repeating the past or cynically making derivative crap because they can sell it.

Our future lies beyond these barriers.

Poisoned

June 29, 2013 –

heavy_metal_anxietyThe best magicians work by making you think what they’re doing in front of you is the action, when in fact something goes on in the background that suddenly changes everything.

We experienced a change like that around 1999 from two factors, both technological. First, the internet arose and made it easy for any dog to appear as a band. Second, the one part of making a record that still wasn’t cheap — the recording process — became a home activity requiring a $400 PC only.

In the 1980s, DIY was radical, just as in the 1970s. Recording meant tape, and tape was expensive. Releasing your music meant getting a master, saving up a bunch of money, and putting it out there. That’s why bands did 7″ and cassette releases. A full LP was too expensive.

At the end of the 1980s, the newer CD pressing plants began offering far cheaper releases. CDs were smaller and cheaper to produce than LPs. This condition didn’t improve much until the mid-1990s, when suddenly everyone could afford a computer that could do (a) desktop publishing, including CD layouts, and (b) some kind of mastering and/or CD burning.

The cost barriers were falling.

Thus, while it was revolutionary to be underground in the 1980s, and while having a rough or dirty sound was somewhat of a stab against an expensive process then, it ceased to be in the mid to late 1990s. When it cost a lot to have a record sound good, throwing that aside was like a revolution. It was a rebellion against the tendency to make everything sound slick and perfect, and thus to overthrow the natural.

Now in the 2010s, we have a different problem. All production is a matter of choice. This is only going to get worse as the software improves. You can have perfect drums, pristine guitars, even autotune your vocals (or if you’re sneaky, your guitars). Thus now, making a dirty and abrasive production has no rebellion value. It’s just another option, like choosing to have a trumpet on the record or not.

What’s happened to metal? Some people decided to stick with repeating the past. They’ve formed a small and insular group that makes old school music. The only problem is that, while this group frequently talks up new releases, over the last ten years we haven’t seen anything great come out of them. “Above average” just isn’t impressive.

There’s another group that has gone commercial by making metal more like the parent genres from which it escaped, rock and punk (or rather, post-hardcore). This group has really improved instrumentalism, has excellent production, but completely hollow music that is distinguished only on the level of technique. It seems to have no content whatsoever except being in a band and knowing music theory.

The point here, I guess, is that we are being poisoned by form. Metal is stagnant because it hasn’t invented a new form that it can work with, or found a way to resurrect the old (mainly because of the parasitic past-repeaters). As a result, it’s left in perpetual limbo, either recycling the past or obliterating itself by becoming its opposition.

As a result, I suggest a new openness to difference in form. Let’s bring the weird back. Only where form and content are united does music make sense; otherwise, it’s either propaganda (content only) or decoration (form only). What will drive our new form is leaving behind the tropes of the past and attacking things that are real to us now.

That isn’t to say that the human condition, or that of art, has changed. It hasn’t. But art must carry the spirit of its age, and interact with its age, and strive for something. It must be a process of becoming. Metal ceased to be that in 1995 and its relevance dropped away, so now it feels like a drunk old man at a retirement home.

Death metal as art in the media

June 26, 2013 –

ramon_cazares-abolishment_of_fleshAs metal continues to grow in popularity, outsiders to the genre find it more appealing. They see it as an unknown region, or an exotic culture, and in comparison their lives seem drab. What is it that makes hordes of people headbang to violent and abrasive music?

This was the question the Amarillo Globe News posed to death metal band Abolishment of Flesh and it received an answer it might not have been expecting.

The band painted a picture of death metal different from what is commonly presented in the media:

“There are a lot of different things going on at the same time,” [guitarist] Cazares said. “It’s very comparable to classical music.”

“We have a lot of weird time signatures and different changes like classical music does,” bass player Chuy Camacho said. “There can be three different things going on in the music at the same time.”

In other words, rather than the circular key-centric two-part composition of rock and pop music, death metal uses chromatic scales to develop an internal dialogue and motif evolution through pattern as opposed to harmony alone, such that notes are relevant more to previous notes and riff shapes than they are to a sense of key or rhythm.

In death metal, notes stream forth in multiple tones and directions, creating a tapestry of sound, similar in goal of a symphony: each part is musically literate on its own, yet when put together creates something that transcends each individual instrument.

When musing on why death metal is not popularly regarded as an art form, the band speculated that the genre has been overtaken by bands that have confused aesthetics with actual content:

“We don’t get taken seriously because other bands make a joke out of it — try to get as perverted and as gory as they can,” Camacho said.

Not content with being a sideshow, the band decided to forge ahead and create music with quality control. Playing old-school style death metal with melodic interludes; the band creates a style of music that appeals to both veteran fans of the genre and newcomers that may discover older classics through discovery of the techniques presented.

And the reason the band plays this type of music?

To Cazares, death metal “talks more about what’s real or what’s going on in life.”

Thus the essence of Death metal described: piercing the veil of deception and beholding reality.