The spirit of metal

July 19, 2014 –

mayhem-live_in_leipzig

The metalcore explosion — djent, math metal, ultra-jocky tech-death, post-black metal, smooth melodeath — pushed itself to the forefront of most American scenes holding the false banner of metal.

Adolf Hitler’s minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels said that “if you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” Rock bands that borrow a few aesthetic metal stylings and graft them on to punk songs can proclaim themselves as metal and tell the press which repeats the Big Lie until it becomes so in the minds of most people. Songs shifted their focus from the mythological-historical narrative of metal and like all other rock, became obsessed with the individual, teenage angst, and narcissism. By this method the genetic coding and spirit of metal was wrecked and replaced with just another commercialized product.

Why? Because the spirit that metal music exemplified didn’t appeal to the self-obsessed mainstream crowd. They do not seek intellectual and spiritual challenge in the music they listen to. They want quick, easy, disposable background music that reflects and validates the one-dimensionality of the personas they have adopted. Most contemporary metal consumers consider metal to be just another form of entertainment like a football game, superhero movie or reality television. Because of the large number of people that hold that sentiment, the message (and the music as a result) suffers and gets confused.

Heavy metal represents a brave and inquisitive spirit diving into the unknown to find meaning and beauty. It challenges dogma and stasis and rejects conformity and inaction. Its very foundations are based in horror, grim Nietzschean realism, darkness, and the occult. Instead of fearing these dark forces metal admires them a necessary aspect of a full and intense life. It de-emphasizes the individual, reminds us of death, and praises the power of the natural world. The unsafe tendencies of the metal spirit forces the mainstream acts who want to assimilate it to pick-and-choose surface styles that would appeal to mainstream audiences (distorted guitars, fast drumming, etc) and incorporate those alone into their style. At its core this new music is the same as rock, pop and television: no structure, all surface appearance.

The spirit of metal gives meaning to music and forces the aspects of its surface appearance to reflect its inner organization. Without that spirit, what metal communicates to the listener is lost and the aesthetic elements that make up metal become meaningless. That meaningless was the goal of those who would assimilate it, because if they take the core out of the metal, they can turn it into a product for their own purposes. Celebrate the metal spirit and keep it alive through supporting or creating quality metal, because its wisdom and dark splendor is eternal.

Mayhem – Esoteric Warfare

June 30, 2014 –

mayhem-esoteric_warfare

Black metal band reformed as nu-metal powerhouse Mayhem released their latest album Esoteric Warfare on June 6, 2014. Much like late-career albums from Triptykon and Massacra, the latest Mayhem shows that as a metal band ages the probability of it becoming Pantera or Southern Fried rock approaches one.

Although the album communicates little to no artistry or depth, it offers a strong example of how to successfully appeal to one’s commercial audience by being both digestible and using lots of hard and heavy sounds the audience recognizes as dangerous… if they came in any other form than a commercial product. Esoteric Warfare creates a blueprint for success by appropriating nu-metal’s populist simplification of the speed metal style of mono-dimensional lower-string muted riffing and sprinkling it with the pixie dust of commercial black metal aesthetics..

The band thus builds its appeal entirely from catchy central riffs which are so reduced in complexity that one is capable of comprehending them on first listen. The rest is garnish: the introductions, acoustic breaks, spoken word sections, black metal fireworks, seemingly random caesuras and even some death metal technique that randomly flares in the midst of the thudding rhythmic hook. This album belongs more to the exoteric, or easily and equally grasped at first contact, than the esoteric like older black metal, which deepened in revelation the more the listener devoted his or her consciousness to exploring it.

With the latest generation, the rock-metal hybrid that industry has always wanted rears its ugly head here. The new innovation is this tendency to break up the monotony with garnish, which allows the monotonic lower register riffs to drone on with strategic breaks to remind the listener that the entirety of an album does not necessarily need to sound indistinguishable however much the band may be seemingly trying to lead it in that direction. Complete sonic pointlessness does not dissolve, but rather mutates into a more friendly and funky exterior, thus allowing the listener an escape from a complete degradation of metal as an art form into a complete degradation of jazz as an art form. Whether that constitutes progress will be left to the view of the reader.

Is all metal speed metal now?

March 15, 2014 –

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Tom G. Warrior is a relentless innovator and amazing composer. As he details in his book Only Death is Real: An Illustrated History of Hellhammer he grew up in an abusive, uncertain environment within a broken home. He also grew up in “perfect” Switzerland, a place that has more rules than people. These events shaped his personality or rather, the limitations that are still imposed upon it.

What happened was that young Tom G’s ego was crushed and doubt was introduced into his mind. Doubt about the purpose of life, or even his own life. Doubt of self-worth. Fear that at any moment he might find himself without a justification for existing, and be truly discarded and alone. That’s a heavy load for a young person to carry, but the sequential success of Hellhammer and then Celtic Frost lifted Tom out of it. It also pushed aside a healing process.

When Celtic Frost evaporated, Tom launched on a series of attempts to find popularity again, but on his own terms. First, his highly inventive industrial music, and later, attempts to be contemporary. The latest two are below, and they are marked by a duality: a great underlying talent, desperately attempting to ingratiate itself with newer metal audiences. Like all things that do not take a clear direction, they are thus lost on both fronts.

This is not a hit piece on Tom G Warrior. Like many metalheads, I hold him in the highest regard. He is one of the great innovators and farseeing minds in metal. However, his tendency to try to adapt to what is current shows what is currently happening in metal: in a dearth of ideas, the genre is recombining past successes that represent the culmination of earlier genres, and is trying to recapture its lead by offering a buffet of different influences. But alas, like the music of Triptykon, these forays are lost causes.

Currently a morass of subgenre names exist. We can call it metalcore, or modern metal, or math metal, or tech-deth, or even djent, but all of it converges on a single goal: to make a form of that great 1980s speed metal — Metallica, Anthrax, Testament, Exodus, Nuclear Assault — that used choppy riffs made up of muted chords to encode complex rhythms into energetic songs. To that, the modern metal bands have added the carnival music tendency to pick entirely unrelated riffs to add variety, the grooves of later speed metal, and the vocals and chord voicings of late hardcore and its transition into emo.

What this represents is not a direction, but lack of one. By combining all known successes from late in these subgenres, modern metal is picking up where the past left off before death metal and black metal blew through and rewrote the book. The problem is that making music that is intense like those underground genres is difficult, and even more, unmarketable. It approaches the issues in life that most of us fear, like mortality and failure in the context of powerlessness and meaninglessness, and thus presents a dark and obscure sound that makes us uncertain about life itself. Like Tom G Warrior living through a shattered marriage of his parents and a society too concerned with order to notice its own boredom and misery, black metal and death metal shatter stability and replace it with alienated existential wandering.

On the other hand, late punk offered ideological certainty and heavy doses of emotion. Late speed metal, which Pantera cooked up out of heaping doses of Exhorder, Prong and Exodus, offers a groove and a sense of a party on the wild side. Inserting bits of death metal, especially its technical parts, and some of the frenetic riffing of Discordance Axis allows these bands to create a new kind of sound. But at its heart, this music is still speed metal. Where death metal played riff Jenga and put it all together in a sense that told a story, modern metal is based in variety and distraction. It exists to jar the mind, explore a thousand directions, and without coming to a conclusion ride out in the comforting emulation of the chaos of society around it.

But at its heart, these bands are speed metal. Like Triptykon who revitalize the E-string noodling and riff texture of more aggressive speed metal bands, with the bounce of Exodus and the groove of Pantera, these bands offer a smorgasbord combined into one. They mix in melodic metal, derived from what Sentenced and later Dissection made popular, to give it a popular edge. However, what they’re really doing is regressing to a mean. This has happened in metal before, when mid-1970s bands recombined Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath into rock-style metal, and in the mid-1980s when glam metal did the same thing but mixed in the gentler sounds of late 1970s guitar rock bands. When metal loses direction, it recombines and comes up with a mellower, less threatening version of itself.

All of this is well and good if we do one single but difficult thing: recognize that what we’re listening to now is a dressed-up version of what metal and punk were doing in the late 1980s. We’re walking backward in history, away from that scary underground death metal and black metal, and looking toward something less disturbing and more fun at parties. It seems no one has come out and said this, so I figured it must be said. Enjoy your weekend.

Sadistic Metal Reviews 02-09-14

February 9, 2014 –

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What are Sadistic Metal Reviews? When people decide that life is worth living, try to make good music. Unless they hope to make a quick buck, in which case they disguise bad music as “innovation.” We separate the good from the bad — with a machete. Come for the misery, stay for the occasional exception…

divine_circles-oblivion_songsDivine Circles – Oblivion Songs

The mainstream assimilation of metal continues. This is basically coffeehouse femme-folk-rock like Jewel would have spun two decades ago when metal was still doing something relevant. Instead, it sounds like a Taylor Swift/Janis Joplin hybrid on piano while someone strums a lightly distorted guitar in the background and some bell-bottomed burnout bangs a cowbell. I can appreciate the similarity to neofolk bands, especially Hekate, or even the folk-rock tradition of the Americas. But it’s most similar to the goddamn crap they play in Starbucks or our local “alternative” (read: clean every other Tuesday) coffee shack. A girl sings about fanciful things, there’s some guitar and a lot of slightly exotic rhythm. But when you leave and drive home, you’re thankful for the silence. This has nothing to do with metal and should go back to the coffee shops.

slipknot-slipknotSlipknot – Slipknot

For people who thought Korn was too musical, Roadrunner has saved the day. ANGRY MAN babbling over death metal riffs reduced 100 levels of complexity, with random vinyl scratching noises and sampling thrown in for…some reason. These riffs were lifted from a White Zombie album which lifted them from a Metallica album which borrowed them from a NWOBHM 7″ which probably borrowed them from the rantings of cavemen etched into sandstone near the local juvenile detention center. To these basic speed metal riffs, they have added abundant bounce and doubling the internal rhythm on the offbeat, which gives the illusion of complexity for about ten seconds, and they’ve wrapped them around rock melodies. Speaking of wrapped, why aren’t we calling this rap/rock? It’s obviously rap music sanitized for the people too uptight for even backpack hip-hop, thus it gets injected into rock and to disguise the obvious lameness of this combination they cover it in heavy metal stylings like melted chocolate poured over a corpse. Lyrics are moronic, riffs are moronic, album art is moronic…is anything in this band appealing to functional humans? If a vengeful god were to rain napalm on America for producing this album, it would be justified.

eva_polgar-sandor_valy-gilgameshÉva Polgár & Sándor Vály – Gilgamesh

Art music faces one ultimate test: will people listen to it on a regular basis, in regular lives? I’m not talking about the heroin and cigarettes crowd in Williamsburg with their postmodern degrees from Brown, but normal people. Thoughtful, intelligent, realistic, well-adjusted people. Do they listen to it? Or is it something they think is neat, maybe would be good in a movie, and then politely clap and never hear it again? Gilgamesh qualifies as some of the better art music I’ve heard. It is an sonic backdrop to the famous tale, rendering in quickly played piano riffs while other instruments fill in background chording. This has more in common with industrial music and avantgarde jazz than rock, but each track creates a series of emotional sensations corresponding to its chapter of the Gilgamesh saga. It is artfully done and powerful but is too abrasive and repetitive for every day primary listening. Further, it is too arty and conceptual to find a place in the balanced life. It would make a killer soundtrack for a silent film however.

fear_of_domination-distorted_delusionsFear of Domination – Distorted Delusions

Music designed to pander to newer listeners is often excruciating. First, it must have an obvious novelty in style that usually defeats common sense. Next, it must appeal to people whose first instinct is essentially disruption and chaos. As part of this, they favor weapons like repetition and garish aesthetics. This album will not disappoint on those points. Mixing clubby techno (itself suspiciously like disco) with metalcore and crowd-positive industrial like Rammstein, Fear of Domination spit out music that is essential keyboard-led but has background guitar and bass which are entirely obliterated by the harsh, chanty and repetitive vocals. There is not a single metal riff on the album. There is also nothing new to people who have experienced even Ministry, but a form with novelty gives this some of the appeal of more austere industrial bands. Still the repetition level and degree of obvious manipulation makes it excruciating for people who have heard more than a dozen albums.

benighted-carnivore_sublimeBenighted – Carnivore Sublime

In the absence of Nu Metal, everyone is rushing to take over the territory of Limp bizkit or Korn. From bling bling tech-core band Despised Icon to recent Napalm Death to streamlined Unique Leader sounding Morbid Angel palm muting riffs, Benighted blend everything that’s hip and br00tal in the scene together as the perfect sonic weapon for the frustrated school kids. This whole album is full of preachy and overreacting jerking noise. The band’s new music video reflect all of these: attending school is bad and teachers are evil, the world is insane, so buying this album is the right way to the first step of revolution. The hilariously out of place cleared-throat howling choruses sound like any metalcore rather than death metal, they make me want to put on the Korn records instead. Nothing from Benighted’s album is remotely exciting to the ear of a longtime metal listener. The volume is louder than Grammy performer Metallica, but the music is just as bland. Benighted and their far relatives Insane Clown Posse and Fleshgod Apocalypse are definitely worth exiling from the metal world.

LP1037_RECHTS_tem_de.pdfFluisteraars – Dromers

What is problematic about post-metal/indie-metal, and rock music itself, is nto that it’s distinctive. Rather, like a good product, it’s created by audience surveys. What do they respond to? — put that in. What got bad response? — take it out. What was neutral? — reduce it. The problem is that you need all the colors of the rainbow to paint a picture, so just because audiences prefer blue over yellow does not mean yellow should be removed. In fact, it aims to create a monotone picture where all of it is the color audiences want in their living room and none is the less favored colors. But art is a communication of a mental journey between two points. It shows us someone emerging from a state to a higher realization and then acting on that for triumph. It reveals a mixture of emotions that signal an ultimate resolution, or at least a clarification in the mind. But what we call “modern metal” — itself a clone of the late hardcore, post-hardcore, emo and indie movements of the late 1980s through middle 1990s (Jawbreaker, Rites of Spring, Fugazi) — is like rock music designed to just be that perfect wallpaper for your life. The right shade of sweater, the right ironic frames for your glasses, the purse that makes you look like a wandering boho hippie who might just happen to have a degree in art history. It’s the cult of the ego, and the ego demands only what serves it in full and denies the experience required to get there. This is because the ego wants nothing to do with the external world, and prefers that which is “human,” namely itself and those it socializes with. Fluisteraars is 2/5 old school black metal like Enslaved and Darkthrone, and the rest the newer material in a dronining long form that uses multiple riffs derived from a single theme, like Pelican. The result is very pleasant to listen to but when it is done nothing has changed in your life. You are back shopping for wallpaper, ignoring anything outside of yourself, and consequently, missing out on anything that can be called soul.

woods_of_desolation-as_the_starsWoods of Desolation – As the Stars

Most of people can’t tell the difference between shallow light-hearted commercial product and art, therefore the conformists can always make some metallic indie rock to troll the underground. Woods of Desolation is the black metal version of Explosions In The Sky; both of them use the highest notes of the guitar chords to outline the weary lie-down-and-die pentatonic melodies while songs build around the sweeping textures. Just like the prototype of this sub-genre Alcest, Woods of Desolation’s music is nice and sweet and flawless, it make one hard to criticize them. But the reality is, three months after the hype, those who praised it like hell initially would throw this album away for these spun sugars annoying them just as the morning wake up cell phone jingles.

towers-iiTowers – II

Post-rock and post-metal generally mean attempts to recreate emo through expanded minimalist sound. Towers takes an approach more like Swans where they build a drone and then layer it with interesting textures. The result is rhythmically motivational, like a march, but ultimately can’t go anywhere because like the notion of “concept music” it can’t go anywhere but to its furthest extreme. Thus what we have is interesting, but not something you’d want to repeatedly listen to except in the background or as part of a movie soundtrack. It is not terrible in any part, and on the whole it is bland and inoffensive once you get past the “extreme” style. Arguably, Towers is the best example so far of how to make post-rock/emo into something that is not terrible. The problem is that listening to it feels like being driven over by Friday 5 pm NYC traffic, and so it’s unlikely that anyone will turn to this for repeated listens that bring out some positive aspect of being alive.

sunn-ulver-terrestrialsSunn O))) and Ulver – Terrestrials

Background drone of distorted guitar vibratto and feedback. Foreground slow chords, standard post-metal. Melody slowly layered, then repeats. It goes on in a big loop. Any given second of it is inoffensive and seems like something cool might be happening, but then, if you listen to the whole thing, you realize its fatal flaw is that it’s boring. Nevermind that Lull and Fripp did this years ago but better. Nevermind that these bands were both wrecking balls to metal’s integrity. Just listen to the music: it’s repetitive, doesn’t development, and basically does nothing but establish a drone and a half of a mood. What would you do with it? Listen to it? No, this is music for you to explain to your friends. The point is that you know something they don’t and you can thus explain how profound it (and you) are. It’s no different than people going to rap concerts to pose at being gangsters or young girls who cry when Shakira sings about her hips. It’s just more pretentious.

tiskoviny 1.cdrDodsferd – The Parasitic Survival of the Human Race

Despite the ideologically-correct title (for black metal), this band shows us the true death of black metal: it has been assimilated by punk music. This sounds, with the exception of a couple black metal open strum riffs, exactly like the same droning hardcore bands were pumping out in the early 1980s. That music was the source of the stagnation that launched underground metal. I’ve listened to this thing three times and it has no negatives. There is nothing wrong with it. There’s also nothing compelling about it; it’s just more void. Technically, it all fits together. It’s just boring and expresses nothing. It is essentially hardcore punk music from the early 1980s with better drumming and production, maybe a black metal riff every seven riffs. But if you already own Discharge and Darkthrone, there’s utterly no reason to listen to this. Even if you don’t, it makes no sense to try to listen to this instead.

gris-a_l_ame_enflamee_l_ame_constelleeGris – À l’Âme Enflammée, l’Äme Constellée…

Oh wow. Titles in French, looks misanthropic, maybe Vlad Tepes has returned! Second coming of Loudblast, even? No, it’s emo. Riddle me this: if emo isn’t like the fat girl addicted with meth that you woke up next to in the basement and felt great shame for the next, why do people keep trying to hide it? This is the same droning yet bittersweet minor-key background noise that Jawbreaker put on their albums and before that, that emo bands kept trying to insert into punk. What is emo, after all, but the very basic tonalities of rock music translated over an upbeat groove into power chords with dissonant voicings? When you look at what can’t be used, you see what is left. In the same way that the blues scale is the classical diatonic major scale with the key-centric notes removed (and a blue note for color-note rhythm comp fudging), emo is what happens when you take all the life out of music and translate it into rules to keep an audience in suspense. It doesn’t ever go anywhere, just shifts between these same few interval progressions. And yet, there it is. And people who apparently know nothing about thinking keep buying it. This is very frilly, dressed-up, entertaining variety, but underneath all the stupid pet tricks and gaudy clothing is the same old tedium. This is the sound of a genre dying.

frost_legion-death_of_mankindFrost Legion – Death of Mankind

Crossing punk and heavy metal styles with a black metal aesthetic of constant high-intensity drumming and droning riffs, Frost Legion make black metal that often sounds like it is assembled from spare parts but tries to keep a focus on the melody and savagery of black metal. Vocals are a constant rasp that varies inflection as little as possible, over active double-bass drumming reminiscent of later Ancient Rites. Riffs are often drifting melodic constellations formed of a few chords which work through permutations of loss and re-acquisition of a root note. Often the riffs are very similar to each other which causes an unsettling loss of orientation, and frequently they bring out melodies which resemble music from the 1930s, but the effect is to create a sense of longing. One thing this band could do better is dynamics; it uses nearly constant intensity most of the time which is exhausting. While song structure is essentially riff-based, these riffs may need to correlate to something else in order to make the composition memorable. The constant melodic riffing is reminiscent of Carcariass and bands of that ilk who are deeply invested in guitar creativity and sometimes lose sight of memorable songs. This is a good start and it will be interesting to see where these guys end up after they’ve had a chance to contemplate the results of listening to this album several dozen times.

demo_tapeAethereal – Faceless Messiah

We walk among you. We are legion and yet can travel unnoticed in the midst of your cities. We are those who try too hard, and many of us ended up in black emtal. Aethereal brings many strengths but suffers from trying too hard. Coming from the wilds of the USA, the amazing thing about this demo is that it attempts to shape the melodic architectures of a European band. It seems caught between a more vicious Behexen-style assault and a traditional melodic metal attack shaped around Sacramentum, Dissection and perhaps even Sentenced. Most would argue this into the black metal camp on vocals alone, but it has aspects of many genres of metal. Technically precise and musically coherent, these longer songs more resemble the ambitious music before the Great Partition in black metal which set the classics in the past and brought a deluge of imitators to attempt to pollute the genre. The first track, “Scornful Skies,” launches from a battering assault of melodic chords resembling rainfall in sheets to a neo-Celtic style intricate lead riff, fading into a Dissection styled mood piece before evaporating into an interlude of gentle strumming without distortion and a return to a contortion of its origins. The second track, “Qliphothic Reflections,” resembles much more of the black metal of the post-initial era, with low use of dynamics and high intensity blasting with transitional melodic riffs leading us through a semi-circular structure. Both tracks show promise if developed. But again, the problem is trying too hard: looking at what all the great songs have, and trying to make your own version without knowing what connects them. If these guys trust their gut instinct and what they like to listen to rather than what they think they should be creating, they would do better. Take it from a guy who tries too hard in his biggest failures as a writer.

asking_alexandria-stand_up_and_screamAsking Alexandria – Stand Up and Scream

If any of you were to discover that your testosterone levels were too high, and your doctor advises you to take estrogen injections: before doing that, consider listening to this album – in approximately 3 minutes, you will feel immediate results. An album like this could be created only by the results of a CIA project designed to make people believe malls are desirable. (Somewhere, Bill Hicks is turning over in his grave.) For the rest of us, upon hearing this we wish that we were in that grave. This band has the uncanny ability to not only make every song sound identical, but also every riff. Then again, most people listening to this are undergoing “spiral learning” – the repetition is something they’re used to. Please don’t listen to this. If you don’t have enough respect for yourself to avoid this, just go all the way: go to Starbucks, pick up a la- oh alright, that joke is overused. This band sucks. That’s all.

Behemoth – The Satanist

February 6, 2014 –

behemoth-the_satanist

I did something I never thought I’d ever do and bought the new Behemoth record today. Was never a big fan of the early stuff (out of ignorance in never really listening to them more than anything) and have associated the 2000s material with 14 year old kids transitioning from Slipknot and Korn into death metal…

Before I even heard a note of the new one I was intrigued. Reading Darksi’s interviews post-leukemia in reference to this album really got me interested in what was in store sonically and lyrically and several reviews seemed to highlight that it was a turning point. Also very stoked on Denis Forkas’ art and Metastazi’s layout (that dude: FUCK) so it seemed quite the package.

I can say without a doubt that this is already a highlight for the year, even given Behemoth’s stature as a ‘celebrity’ death metal band. The production is wholly organic; gone are the vocal effects, clicks, snaps, and pops of their usually very sterile and over-produced sound. ‘The Satanist’ sounds natural and warm, vicious, and inspired. Each track is it’s own tight little opus – every song is memorable without being just a cavalcade of “dude check out this RIFF.”

None of this goes without saying that it does have it’s weaknesses (use of OV, stupid dress-up costumes, Slash guitar solos, and a goddamned Saxophone solo [Y U DO DIS PLEASE STAHP]), but the good far outweighs the bad. For a band to be this reinvigorated and viable on their 10th(!) full length, I have to commend them.

behemoth-the_satanist-cover

What is the underground?

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This issue is about to explode into public discourse because the rise in new-style metal bands has forced this question upon us all.

What is the underground?

Before even reading this article, keep in mind that there are some excellent resources. First, The Heavy Metal FAQ provides a complete answer. Second, Underground Never Dies! is a whole book dedicated to this topic through the eyes of metal bands from the 1980s-1990s underground era.

But we can come up with an even quicker definition.

The 1980s through early 1990s were a different time. Not only was there no internet, but music distribution was fairly strictly defined. Mainstream stores got what the big distributors had from the big labels and a select few smaller labels that pushed their way in. If you wanted a wider selection, you went to an “alternative” music store which stocked smaller labels. Often you bought imports, at a 50% markup. Most stores were completely uninterested in stocking something such as death metal, because it appealed to a small and antisocial niche audience. Why bother with selling a single copy of a Deicide album when you could sell 20 copies of Motley Crue without even trying?

In addition, there were forces of opposition to any metal that was not radio sanitized (which meant speaking on code words, probably encouraging deviant behavior to a greater degree). Very few people now remember when Tipper Gore and her Parents’ Music Resource Center (PMRC) were a powerful lobby for parental warning stickers on questionable albums. In addition, the threat of such people caused record stores to actually card people for buying violent rap or occult metal. You had to be 18 and prove it, or they would not sell to you.

And getting it on radio? There was college radio and also a handful of independent radio stations but these faced the same problem. Why play death metal when you could throw on a few sets of Sonic Youth and Rites of Spring and have 20 times as many listeners? Even among alternative music, death metal was unpopular because it was abrasive and did not have a large social movement behind it which made people like it. NWA was a violent, misogynistic and hilarious rap group that got banned just about everywhere, but there was a large social movement behind their work. It was easier to find that than your average, or even your top-selling, death metal band.

What underground meant back then seemed to be that it was offered through alternative channels. A few record stores, some college radio stations, tiny record labels run on a basically non-profit basis, and photocopied hand-assembled zines made of a pastiche of typed content and tattoo-style margin drawings. How did most people find new music in the early days? They hooked up with pen pals who would mail them cassette tape mixes of new music they found, often dubbed from cassette demos from the bands. Sometimes these tapes were many generations down the line and you could barely hear the band under the crepitant tape noise! But they did the job that mainstream media, record labels and magazines would not.

Toward the middle of the 1990s, this situation relaxed. First, the rise of used CD sales meant that smaller labels were making it into bigger stores via a backdoor. Second, magazines like Spin eventually gave coverage to death metal. Finally, changes in the way music was distributed opened up the middlemen who supplied record stores to the smaller labels. This meant that the traditional split between underground and mainstream was going away. Record labels, scared by the possibility of used CD sales eating up the profits from big mainstream releases, which relied on novelty to sell and interested their audiences for only a few months, started looking toward “niche” sales. But what really blew it out of the water was the notoriety of black metal.

Starting in the mid-1990s, rumors of the black metal movement in Norway and its legacy of violence — church burnings, murders, and stockpiling of military grade weapons — began to leak out through the zines into the magazines. Then the whole drama exploded with the trial of Varg Vikernes, who conveniently also ended the old black metal era with Hvis Lyset Tar Oss, an album so deeply nuanced and impossible to follow that most musicians shrugged and went back to three-chord, “punk style” black metal instead. He raised the bar at the same time bands like Darkthrone codified the genre with Transilvanian Hunger, an album that was difficult to create but easy to mimic. As mentioned in the documentary Until the Light Takes Us, black metal witnessed the decay of an idea. This decay happened through emulation that, because it looked at the outward traits like distortion and blast beats, missed the actual meaning of the genre which caused musicians to make such similar music in the first place.

It’s hard for people to realize now but black metal was initially viewed as slightly touched in the head. Death metalers often hated it violently; almost everyone else seemed to criticize it for its lo-fi approach and almost childish use of blasphemy and antisocial imagery. Many of the albums sounded like they were performed by people who had barely picked up an instrument and might have zero social graces. It was roundly mocked… until it started to become popular. Then the tables were turned. Within five years, black metal was in mainstream record stores (this shift happened in about 1997) and became really popular with a new generation.

After that point, the term “underground” seemed to lose meaning. The internet had come and made music and information about it universally available, and the proliferation of high-powered desktop computers meant that recording an album, running a label or making a zine involved far less labor and looked and sounded a lot better than the DIY labor of the 1980s (or even 1960s-1970s, when proto-punk and punk bands innovated it). At this point, people started going for an “underground sound,” which meant artificial lo-fi, simple three-chord songs, lots of ranting about antisocial topics including the occult, and a deliberately offensive resistance to any positive reinforcement.

You can see the resulting confusion in this artfully assembled article by Laina Dawes:

The other issue that’s sparked controversy is exactly which bands get press — take Deafheaven and fellow shoegaze black metal band Alcest, who both benefited greatly from non-metal-centric coverage in 2013. The idea of using these bands to open of the gates of metal and let readers discover a new musical genre (or actually take it seriously) is a contentious one. One of the issues is the promotion of palatable metal bands that could potentially reach the masses with a sound that isn’t “metal” in the classic sense. Instead, these bands have been referred to as “extreme,” a catch-all, provocative phrase guaranteed to attract listeners who are looking for a more intense metal fix – and to satiate that self-satisfied outsider-metal “cool factor” that insecure metal fans love to laud over the pop-music contingent.

In the years from 1995-1998, the underground basically rehashed itself. It had no ideas, and more importantly, the bar was raised. To be a good death metal band, you had to be at the level of Morbid Angel’s Covenant or Suffocation’s Pierced From Within. To be a black metal band of note, you had to be at the level of Burzum’s Hvis Lyset Tar Oss or Enslaved’s Frost. Not many bands could do that and so an alternative underground built up based on fan-driven metal. Most of this was in emulation of the previous years and took the form of three-chord simplified versions of the more complex originals. The result was that, outside of a small cluster of people hanging around internet forums, this music went nowhere.

Nature abhors a vacuum, so from 1999-2006 or so, metalcore took over. This was also music designed to be easy to make. It took the randomness aesthetic of late hardcore punk and combined it with death metal riffs, making chaotic songs that made no sense but were plenty distracting and extreme. The music industry flogged this dead horse walking (to brutally mix metaphors) for five years before the trend started to die. Then from 2006 through the present, the music industry took a different tack: instead of trying to make a new genre, emulate something that has worked in the past. They found the fertile ground of the post-hardcore years where indie rock, shoegaze and post-rock coexisted in the same sphere of influence. This was generally what was called “alternative rock” before “alternative rock” became a brand for flannel wearing bittersweet droning hard rock bands from Seattle.

deafheaven-band_photo

Deafheaven is a polarizing band becomes it comes from this tradition. Listening to it, it is not clear there is any metal in it at all. But labeling something “metal” or “underground” or “extreme” excites interest, mainly because few people trust the aboveground media. Thus there is a huge financial incentive to classify Deafheaven as metal, and for smaller blogs and magazines to go along with this fiction as well, if they do, they get advertising revenue and possibly a shot at the big time.

This leaves us with a complete quandary: does the term “underground” have meaning anymore at all?

My suggestion with my last article, “In defense of elitism,” was that underground is a misused term. The point is that metal has a spirit which defines it and separates it from everything else. That spirit must be expressed but it is of a nature that does not trust the dominant paradigm. Black Sabbath wrote their music to rain on the hippie parade of love, drugs and pacifism; their point was that altering our perspective does not change reality. Underground metal had a similar message and was unwilling to alter it in order to fit with the expectations of people who would rather hear about the denial fictions of love, drugs and pacifism (underground rap did the same thing in parallel, but with a different set of issues and a different set of denial fictions).

What makes a metal band underground is that it is unwilling to compromise its vision of truth for what people want to believe is true. It is unwilling to compromise its aesthetics for what people believe is comfortable and pleasant. It is committed to the idea that the only legitimacy comes from the art itself, not its popularity or album sales. Some would identify this as the ultimate non-“bourgeois” statement, in that it casts aside comfortable oblivion in favor of a raw blast of cold hard reality. This sense of underground is more fundamental than how the albums are sold or which zines write about them. It is an attitude and discipline. Underground means that which puts truth first and popularity second, which is a dramatic reversal of the way everyone else goes about it.

Metal is not the only genre to have an underground. Punk was originally underground but as it became fashionable in the late 1970s hardcore punk bands started vanishing into squats, playing midnight parties in abandoned foundries, and selling their music on 7″ records out of shirtsleeves. The noise movement in Japan remains underground to this day, with artists like K.K. Null constructing elaborate and beautiful pieces from raw noise, instead of making harsh blasting rebellious stuff like record labels had hoped. Robert Fripp, former guitarist of King Crimson, uses electronics to make his guitar sound like an organ and plays small concerts across the world. Underground is not a term specific to metal, but a term to describe any activity that is not encouraged in society at large yet believes it has ideological, artistic and/or political value.

thelonious_monk-underground

You aren’t going to hear about any of these artists in big media and you may not be able to buy their CDs in regular stores. However, that is the symptom, not the cause. The reason they’re not in regular stores is that they’re not only niche, but also not given to comfortable oblivion. In a time when people can choose the artistic equivalent of a cheeseburger over the more challenging and substantive art, people tend to do so, which marginalizes actual art. As a result, the actual art is alien and threatening to most people, which makes it a terrible product, which means that it ends up in small record stores, small zines, and small labels.

If anything, the internet has exacerbated this tendency. In an age when we can find anything by googling it, the real problem is knowing what to google. Even worse, Google uses a search engine algorithm that moves higher links up the chain, thus burying marginalized results. We have all the information in the world but without a guide to it, none of us know what to do with it. It is for this reason that traditional media has won out on the net and the sites that attract the most eyes are the ones that are promoting essentially mainstream music.

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What Deafheaven represents to a metaler is the triumph of mainstream music. There is nothing in Deafheaven that challenges the listener to even a second of soul-searching or discovery, or whatever it is that art does — that’s a separate debate — in contrast to what death metal and black metal provoked in us. Deafheaven in fact is the listening equivalent of wallpaper, a pleasant series of repeated images that make us think about shopping, perhaps. Whether it is bad music or not is irrelevant. “The medium is the message,” we’re told, and in the case of Deafheaven, the medium is inoffensive pop pretending to be “extreme.”

As BasementGalaxy has revealed, Deafheaven represents aboveground genres invading metal:

Since then, anything “new” and “innovative” done in metal has involved musicians stepping outside the boundaries of the genre more and more. Shoegaze, industrial, post-punk, krautrock, progressive rock, jazz, trance, dubstep. It’s been happening gradually over the past ten years, but Deafheaven’s 2013 album Sunbather just might be the first major splintering that will eventually see “extreme music” separating completely from actual heavy metal. Although my opinion on the album has already been published and will not change, it remains the most critically acclaimed album of 2013, of any genre, marking the first time an album that has occupied that grey area between “metal” and “extreme music” has captured the attention of so many mainstream critics and audiences. Some critics still call Sunbather “metal”, but to do so is to forget what makes heavy metal heavy metal in the first place, merely clutching to the few metallic threads in an otherwise richly varied musical fabric. In reality, Sunbather is a tremendous example of extremity transcending the metal ethos entirely.

In other words, there’s a reason Deafheaven doesn’t sound like Beherit, Demoncy, Imprecation, Blaspherian or any of the other bands which have resurrected the underground sound over the past five years. Deafheaven represents the mixing of mainstream sounds into underground metal, while Beherit represents underground metal growing and developing on its own terms.

If anything, the underground is in a renaissance because it has finally escaped the old standard of lo-fi music sold on cassettes/vinyl through dodgy mail orders and reported on only by small zines. We have gone from alienated from society to accepted (grudgingly) by society, and so now we are “niche” music. But what defines this niche is that it is underground. We face the hidden truths and evoke concealed emotions, and thrust a fist in the face of oblivion. That is what makes us underground, and it’s why the masses chose Deafheaven over Demoncy to report on as a face of extreme music.

An At the Gates career retrospective

January 28, 2014 –

at-the-gates-band-photo

Since the days of being a small child I have been fascinated by how things fall apart. At an early age I could recognize decay, but knew it was separate from the tendency of human efforts to disintegrate once they grew past their initial effort.

A simple example was our veterinarian. He started out with a group of other animal doctors. Then people realized this one guy does great work. He struck out for himself. Soon he had too much work to do. He expanded, hiring more people and getting a new building. Soon he was no longer doing great work and he was more expensive. It took people a decade to find out. Most of them were still telling each other the accepted truth that he was doing great work.

At the Gates have announced their reformation as part of the 2013-inspired wave that saw Gorguts and Carcass return. Unlike the 2009-wave of returning bands, like Asphyx and Beherit, this retro-underground-revival has featured classic bands “modernizing” their sound. It also generally exhibits bands who had already cast aside their metal roots for musical reasons. Where the previous wave was more a sense of bands returning to pick up where they left off, the new wave seems to be about bands participating in the new metal scene and trying to siphon off some of that interest, newsworthiness and cash flow.

At the Gates started from the ashes of Grotesque back in 1990. They quickly released an EP, Gardens of Grief, followed by an LP, The Red in the Sky is Ours. These two works constitute the important artistic output from At the Gates because they were so radical in death metal. First, they incorporated melody as a structural device, where previously it had been used as a technique and worn to death. Next, they showed song development that surpassed what most bands were doing. Finally, their use of single-note picked riffs and spacious drumming produced a greater range of dynamics for death metal. Between At the Gates and other Swedish death metal acts that used melody such as Therion and Carnage, the roots of black metal were laid.

After that, things got confused. With Fear I Kiss the Burning Darkness followed in 1993 but lacked the clarity of the early work, showing a band in conflict over whether it wanted to follow its initial style, or get more power chords and catchy choruses in there. This led to the departure of original member Alf Svensson and regrouping with guitarist Martin Larsson, formerly of House of Usher. At this point, the band reformulated their sound to be more like regular death metal and yet also more like accepted rock music, including displaying the technical chops expected in that field. Now, like countrymen Dissection, At the Gates sounded like a death metal wrapper around a regular rock band, and a good one at that. Interest soared. The band released Slaughter of the Soul to grand acclaim despite the album having more in common with the speed metal of the mid-1980s than the death metal of the 1990s.

After their most popular album ever, the band fragmented when the Björler brothers moved on to form The Haunted. Most metalheads recognize that moment as the ground zero for melodic metalcore, which combined the 1980s speed metal approach to songwriting with the late hardcore tendency to value random riffs stacked together in carnival sideshow music style. However, for a new neurotic generation, this distraction-oriented music was a perfect soundtrack, and The Haunted became a success in its own right. At the Gates put out a few retrospectives and occasionally re-united but basically was dead.

In 2014, it’s hard to imagine the band not making Slaughter of the Soul II. It was their greatest success and introduced themes of self-pity, such as suicide, which are always popular with the youth of narcissistic parents who essentially feel doomed from puberty onward despite living in relative luxury. Slaughter of the Soul was a clear precursor to The Haunted which took the frenetic randomness of bands like Discordance Axis and Human Remains and made it into a new style that, by using the sweet sounds of Iron Maiden-styled harmony, found mass appeal.

At the Gates made the following statement:

We know you are all curious about the new material, and to make a simple explanation of where we are at musically, we would describe it as a perfect mix between early AT THE GATES & ‘Slaughter of the Soul’-era AT THE GATES, trying to maintain the legacy and the history

This leaves us wondering what they consider “early” At the Gates since presumably that’s everything before Slaughter of the Soul, and they did not specifically mention the first EP or LP by name.

Shakira (feat. Wyclef Jean) – “Hips Don’t Lie”

January 9, 2014 –

shakira_feat_wyclef_jean-hips_dont_lie

Every now and then, even the most cynical of metal writers loses a bet.

We who toil in darkness and expect no reward because we consider pop music to be the incoherent rantings of a egomaniac egalitarian society gone amok, despite our misgivings, must sometimes venture to the above-ground world to see what the majority listen to.

It’s first important to note that it’s not clear if the majority actually listen to this. If an album sells ten million copies in the US, it’s considered huge, even though 29 out of 30 people did not buy it. I suppose that’s the problem of pluralities: make enough noise and it seems like everyone agrees with you.

The bet in question involved “the best-selling song of the new century,” which according to group graffiti wall Wikipedia is Shakira (feat. Wyclef Jean) – “Hips Don’t Lie.”

For me, this is a confrontation with a mass culture that I gratefully abandoned years ago and avoid whenever possible. I see it as bringing out the worst in humanity by appealing to our animal impulses and the lowest common denominator thoughts in our minds. It is like a McDonald’s cheeseburger. Or a speeding ticket. It is everything bad, distilled into an appealing package. I shudder at the thought.

Nevertheless, I am ready. Green tea topped off, fully loaded shotgun in the corner, pencils sharpened, and I crank this thing up on the stereo. (It’s too late to contemplate suicide. Besides, people would assume it had been inspired by some emo-indie “depressive black metal.”)

While we listen, follow along with the lyrics. I’ve annotated where structural changes occur and what is basically the song at the heart of this song.

SPOKEN:
Ladies up in here tonight
No fighting, no fighting
We got the refugees up in here
No fighting, no fighting

Shakira, Shakira

MALE SINGING:
I never really knew that she could dance like this
She makes a man wants to speak Spanish
Como se llama (si), bonita (si), mi casa (si, Shakira Shakira), su casa
Shakira, Shakira

FEMALE SINGING:
Oh baby when you talk like that
You make a woman go mad
So be wise and keep on
Reading the signs of my body

And I’m on tonight
You know my hips don’t lie
And I’m starting to feel it’s right
All the attraction, the tension
Don’t you see baby, this is perfection

REGGAE-ISH:
Hey Girl, I can see your body moving
And it’s driving me crazy
And I didn’t have the slightest idea
Until I saw you dancing

And when you walk up on the dance floor
Nobody cannot ignore the way you move your body, girl
And everything so unexpected – the way you right and left it
So you can keep on shaking it

MALE SINGING:
I never really knew that she could dance like this
She makes a man want to speak Spanish
Como se llama (si), bonita (si), mi casa (si, Shakira Shakira), su casa
Shakira, Shakira

FEMALE SINGING:
Oh baby when you talk like that
You make a woman go mad
So be wise and keep on
Reading the signs of my body

And I’m on tonight
You know my hips don’t lie
And I am starting to feel you boy
Come on lets go, real slow
Don’t you see baby asi es perfecto

Oh I know I am on tonight my hips don’t lie
And I am starting to feel it’s right
All the attraction, the tension
Don’t you see baby, this is perfection
Shakira, Shakira

A CAPELLA INTERLUDE:
Oh boy, I can see your body moving
Half animal, half man
I don’t, don’t really know what I’m doing
But you seem to have a plan
My will and self restraint
Have come to fail now, fail now
See, I am doing what I can, but I can’t so you know
That’s a bit too hard to explain

SPANISH MUSIC:
Baila en la calle de noche
Baila en la calle de día

Baila en la calle de noche
Baila en la calle de día

MALE SINGING:
I never really knew that she could dance like this
She makes a man want to speak Spanish
Como se llama (si), bonita (si), mi casa (si, Shakira Shakira), su casa
Shakira, Shakira

Oh baby when you talk like that
You know you got me hypnotized
So be wise and keep on
Reading the signs of my body

FLAMENCO-ISH INTERLUDE:
Senorita, feel the conga, let me see you move like you come from Colombia

Mira en Barranquilla se baila así, say it!
Mira en Barranquilla se baila así

SPOKEN:
Yeah
She’s so sexy every man’s fantasy a refugee like me back with the Fugees from a 3rd world country
I go back like when ‘pac carried crates for Humpty Humpty
I need a whole club dizzy
Why the CIA wanna watch us?
Colombians and Haitians
I ain’t guilty, it’s a musical transaction
No more do we snatch ropes
Refugees run the seas ’cause we own our own boats

FEMALE SINGING:
I’m on tonight, my hips don’t lie
And I’m starting to feel you boy
Come on let’s go, real slow
Baby, like this is perfecto

Oh, you know I am on tonight and my hips don’t lie
And I am starting to feel it’s right
The attraction, the tension
Baby, like this is perfection

SPOKEN:
No fighting
No fighting

The core of this song is the section outlined in dark red, which constitutes either a verse and a chorus or a two-part chorus serving as a verse and a chorus in contrast to the spoken or rhythmic parts of this song. The rapped and spoken parts serve as a foil to this, repeating the essential rhythms that are used to express its melody, but never delivering the final punch of the full hook.

And that’s what it is, in a nutshell: the song is pure hook. The first part of the chorus is a sort of invocation by supplementing the rhythm of the percussion which sets up the phrase for the melody to come; the second half of the chorus delivers the real hook, stepping outside the regular rhythm of the previous half while simultaneously expanding its tonal range, creating a sensation of free fall. Even within this dual melody however the fundamental dichotomy of the song between rhythmic shuffle and vocal melody exists, because both halves end in essentially monochromatic rhythmic expressions that dampen the harmonic expectation created earlier in the phrase.

Twice during the song these choruses are delivered back-to-back in male and female vocals, forming a duet within a song. These occur on either side of the middle break. If I had to call a genre behind this song I’d say Motown, especially in the disconnected melody that plays on its earlier parts with rhythm to dampen and a long drop to intensify, but with deliberate flavorings of Spanish-influenced music. One part of Jean’s performance is a reggae passage that re-uses some notes from the pre-chorus, and much of the rest is rapping — the non-metal world’s equivalent of E-string noodling. The a cappella interlude plays up the heritage of jazz-based music with what is simultaneously a rhythmic breakdown and complement to the earlier reggae-inspired interlude. This allows the song to transition to sampled Spanish/flamenco-ish music, then transfer directly to repetition en route to its finale, which is a reprise of the first duet.

All in all, not as brutally simplistic as most pop, but simplistic in a different way. There isn’t really much going on here other than a repeated duet to which separating passages have been added, and each of those plays on what the vocalist is known for. Further, while the melody grows in an internal dialogue between the two parts of the chorus, the first half is fairly linear and the second gains its power from violating the order set up by the first. This shows the “call-response” pattern of early rock expanded as if it were an ideology, first in the melody, second in the duets, finally in the interplay between two halves of song interrupted each by an interlude. It’s a clever way of folding the song in on itself by adding variation without having to actually develop the melody or rhythm, which remains nearly constant throughout, which would add actual complexity.

Let’s take a look at the live experience next.

What strikes me most about this live event is how they must have a staff of people to pull this off… then again, their vocals do sound awfully well produced. Lip-synced? I don’t know, but it might be the only way to ensure quality control with such a complex production. What gets me is how the event itself is of self-announced importance, and the people in the audience instead of seeing themselves as purchasers see themselves as participants. They dance, they sing the lyrics, they pose like the stars onstage. One young woman even appears to be having an emotional moment. This reconnects to what I fear about mass culture: it appeals through the ego, but turns you into a zombie.

Interesting also is how speech, dance and music are merged in this presentation. Wyclef Jean performs a lengthy rapped/spoken section of the song that appears to introduce political topics, citing some kind of pacifism, refugee status, the CIA and Tupac Shakur not to mention some kind of Colombian-Haitian friendship pact. “Ebony and Ivory” for a new generation? While performer Shakira spends some of this video doing the robot dance she puts far more time into showing off her belly-dancing skills and the kind of dance you might see in an urban club late at night.

The official music video also presents a number of dimensions for analysis. First is that it seems most mainstream songs are not really love songs per se, but attraction songs. This song feels like it’s set in your typical bar, but it’s an idealized interaction where the man and woman are offering up sexual attraction to one another. For his part, the lyrics emphasize conscious desire; for hers, the desire is unconscious and she doesn’t expect to be heard but to have her body movements analyzed. If this were any species but humans we’d call it a mating ritual.

The setting in a club is sort of like the idealized commercial dream of a place where you can buy sex and importance, and the intense focus that this song creates on performance and the people acting out the dream conveys importance more than anything else. It is as if the world were pushed aside, and the significance of these moments to the listener took over. It is like a participation fantasy, designed to create focus through the attention of others and then project the listener into it.

One trope that repeats in the lyrics is that of not being in control. These people are not consciously making decisions; they are drawn to them, pushed into them, and communicate them through unconscious desires and bodily responses. This is like the idea of “falling in love” amplified many times, where people do not make choices but react to impulses. This feeling is echoed in the audience, who are swept up in the impulse, but do not control the choices made ( “my hips don’t lie / And I am starting to feel it’s right” is the ultimate statement of ex post facto decision making). They are living through a vicarious existence, following the script another has concocted, presumably because it delivers what they wish they had in their lives. It is as if the ultimate extension of individualism is to abolish the individual in the mass activity, where snapping your fingers at the same time that everyone else does constitutes self-expression.

And now, thankfully, I can take this thing off the speakers and go back to some death metal. It isn’t relentlessly catchy or sexual like “Hips Don’t Lie,” but it has more internal development and emphasizes a sense of connection to something bigger than the individual. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In addition, of course, it totally rips.

Sadistic Metal Reviews 12-12-13

December 12, 2013 –

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What are Sadistic Metal Reviews? Heavy metal is either art, or like the rest it’s a product to make sad people feel better about their empty and pointless lives. Brutal honesty is all that separates us from that abyss. Remember, tears are a sign that you’ve really reached people…

evereve-seasonsEvereve – Seasons

Nuclear Blast, this is NOT “music to mangle your mind.” This is the AIDS of the music world. Cheap, hokey synths ramble under tepid saccharine guitar melodies while effete whiny crooning that makes Morrissey sound like Tom Warrior radiates in the background. You can just about hear the teenage bedrooms of America, reeking of self-pity and masturbation, where the obese and inbred listen to this. It’s OK, kid, everyone gets turned down by a fleshlight at least once. If you can imagine heavy metal with all of its soul removed, candied like one of those disgusting little fruits in a fruitcake, this would be it. There is nothing here that is metal except under the flimsiest of pretenses. “Evereve” is more like “Summer’s Eve.” Seasons could be a forerunner for HIM. If you ever hear a note of this, you’re going to need hormone replacement therapy.

covenant-nexus_polarisCovenant – Nexus Polaris (also released as The Kovenant – Nexus Polaris)

The cheese of “black metal” circa 1998 is on full display here in this one album. Considering the Dimmu Borgir membership and the touting of a drum performance by Hellhammer circa his “help, I need money and even joined Arcturus” days, you know this will be bad. The vaudevillian sideshow vibe of later Ancient and Cradle of Filth is tricked out to sound like a joyous PG rated sci-fi soundtrack is playing over a rock opera, making this all sound more absurd. Imagine the music from a children’s variety TV show but with some drunk guitarist in the background hammering out heavy metal riffs with black metal stylings as he copulates with close family members while wearing a tutu. If you heard a “black metal” parody in recent times, chances are it sounded like this.

immolation-majesty_and_decayImmolation – Majesty and Decay

This album brings to mind Dogwin’s Law for metal: as a metal band ages, the probability of it reverting to its influences becomes one. Immolation started out as a speed metal band, then detoured into death metal for a few albums, and now is back to heavy metal but in a simplified form using death metal technique. When they did that cover of Mercyful Fate, it shook something loose, and Immolation thought, “Why spend hours fitting twisty riffs into intricate combinations?” Verse, chorus, break, solo — done! Collect check, buy motorcycle parts. This is the metal equivalent of baby food: over-cooked, pre-ground, sweetened and without any difficult parts. Gone are the wildly imaginative riffs and catcomb-like song structures. Instead it’s The Jets covering Bryan Adams put into power chord riffs. Embarrassed by their own non-output, Immolation tries to hide the emptiness by getting emo on the choruses but nothing can save this pile of paint-by-numbers metal. This is metal’s equivalent of Bangerz with some guy howling along in the background about stuff he read on Infowars.com.

morgoth-feel_sorry_for_the_fanaticMorgoth – Feel Sorry for the Fanatic

Another case of mid-90s “evolution,” Morgoth ditch the Death Leprosy worship for a sound more akin to Voivod at their most commercial playing Killing Joke at their poppiest. Vocals sound like a parody of Amebix, lots of mumbling and tuneless sung-shouts. Verse-chorus structures and an industrial rock production suggest this band was attempting to cash in on the industrial/cyber image trend of Ministry, Godflesh, and Fetish 69. With waves of label hype behind it, Feel Sorry for the Fanatic failed as only the falsest of marketing hype can. Creating a neutered album with fringe-accessibility to an audience that didn’t exist the year this album was released left the band to fall on its face in embarrassment and dishonorably disband.

wolves_in_the_throne_room-bbc_session_2011_anno_dominiWolves in the Throne Room – BBC Session 2011 Anno Domini

This band of hippies in denial have improved in the songwriting department, but by so doing reveal the underlying emo to their music. It’s clearer than ever before that Wolves in the Throne Room were never black metal. This two-song release allows the “post-metal” to shine, but musically “post-metal” is identical to emo, a subset of late hardcore/indie rock hybrids of the late 1980s. Musically, nothing has changed since that time, so if you’ve been in a cave since 1984 you might enjoy this band. These two tracks are far less random than previous Wolves in the Throne Room output. While they try to ape black metal with heavy guitar distortion and howled vocals, in harmony and choice of scale this material would fit in on a Jawbreaker or Rites of Spring album more than any black metal album. In fact it’s a complete sham to ever list this band as black metal because it misses out on what they do well, which is a very slow version of emo. Droning emptiness portrayed with slighly dissonant tracks that sound like self-pity incarnate. It evokes a lot of different feelings that boil down to the same state of suspension, in which mixed-emotions and self-pity that brings self-doubt resolve all things to the same. I wouldn’t recommend this for any metal fan or anyone who remembers the late 1980s.

solar_deity-devil_worshipSolar Deity – Devil Worship

If you approached a black metal band as if it were a doom metal band, you might end up with something like Solar Deity. Very musically literate in a way that is reminiscent of Necrophobic, with understated melodic riffs and good rhythm, this band nonetheless suffers from a type of drone syndrome where just not enough changes to keep interest, although there’s nothing offensive. Clearly mostly inspired by the first two Gorgoroth albums, Solar Deity attempt to set up a number of songs to narrate and develop theme, and do a reasonable job of it, but their riffs are rather lukewarm and repetition-intensive as is their usage. The result would be great if designed for doom metal, but as black metal ends up being an abrasive drone and sense of confused purpose within otherwise well-composed music. It might be good background music for repetitive tasks. You know, really feel that tedium as you clean water heaters, file taxes or chase hipsters off your front lawn with a shotgun (aim for the knees).

tribulation-the_formulas_of_deathTribulation – The Formulas of Death

Death metal isn’t hard rock. If it wanted to be hard rock, its members being honest people, it would have elected to simply be that instead. However, there’s a huge market in dressing up regular boring corporate product rock music as something “edgy” like death metal, which still hasn’t been conquered by the civilizing forces of socialization. Like previous Tribulation releases, The Formulas of Death is ambiguously in the death metal realm and in fact treats its death metal elements with ironic scorn. The result is a pretty good hard rock band embedded in a bunch of unnecessary stuff. Get a real vocalist, throw out the token chromatic riffs and d-beats, and re-style this album as something along the lines of early Queensryche or Cinderella and it would be great. This will make just about every “Best of 2013″ because people can’t tell the difference between turd and steak tartare but also because it’s catchy. Simple music for simple minds.

skeletonwitch-serpents_unleashedSkeleton Witch – Serpents Unleashed

If focus groups found a way to slam Sentenced Amok and At the Gates Slaughter of the Soul into a metalcore product that panders to Adult Swim viewers, then Skeleton Witch would be the abomination unleashed. Tired and generic riffs more bound to cliche than tradition power an interchangeable series of mellow-deaf parts stitched into galloping rhythms. Although it appears to be like metal from a distance, I suspect if MC Hammer knew how to play a guitar, he’d come up with something like this. Poppy and bouncy background noise for people who value video games and Comedy Central more than music, Serpents Unleashed might be the sonic equivalent of a middle schooler’s diary: covered in stickers and glitter, but the content within is more than predictable in essence even if not in particulars, and in ten years it will humiliate them if unleashed.

beyond-fatal_power_of_deathBeyond – Fatal Power of Death

The problem with retro works is context. What was once a whole context is broken down into techniques, “moments,” transitions, tempo changes, riff-archetypes and melodic frameworks, and then reconstituted. However, since there’s no motivation except to be retro, there’s no new context except appearance. Thus the bands doing this tend to default to the simplest elements possible, which are either age-independent but average stuff the original genre tried to escape or conventions of the present age. The result is that you get the same stuff, but someone has covered it in retro-feeling-stuff. The end result is like a bison spray-painted with corporate logos, a contextless mishmash that’s oblivious to its own true nature. Beyond make a credible effort but they are trying to fit riffs together, not use riffs like words or colors on a painting, and as a result, nothing is communicated by frenetic energy, doubt and disorganization. Moments of this release are stunning, but the whole does not add up to much because it’s not about anything.