In the latest of what are assured to be profitable sporting events, Metallica will perform their 4th “Metallica Night” at AT&T Park on May 6th, 2016, alongside a baseball game featuring the San Francisco Giants and the Colorado Rockies. This ungainly combination of baseball and metal music is sure to make a lot of money. Now, stadium performances are a pretty common choice for bands of Metallica’s commercial stature, but they’re usually not interleaved between innings of baseball like this. Furthermore, the Giants host an enormous amount of special events to liven up their seasons, so maybe their acquisition of Metallica’s services isn’t so out of the ordinary. In the end, an opportunity for those who like both (they of exquisite taste), and the punchline of a joke that’s yet to be written for everyone on DMU.
“Nothing gold can stay,” Robert Frost famously wrote, referring to the tendency of all things in life to break down and become eroded versions of themselves. In addition to the obvious tendency of aging and death, we moderns have become familiar with the term “entropy” for the proliferation of possible options that then then renders choice almost impossible. Underneath all of this a more virulent tendency lurks, which is the human habit of destroying everything we encounter, including — especially — our own best creations.
In heavy metal we think of this through the decline of bands from excellent and striking to a version of what we already know is popular, like the steady unraveling of Metallica from the band that made Ride the Lightning to a country-fried version of Motley Crue or Led Zeppelin. We see it other places as well. For the last two decades, I have relied on a certain British company that makes teapots as a source of reliable gifts. People friggin’ love a quality teapot. But a few weeks ago, the company was sold, and the MBAs moved in and quickly figured out how to add a stylish handle to the teapots and make them of cheaper material and less of it, translating into fragile and less-effective teapots.
This parallels what happens to interesting movies from Highlander to The Bourne Identity which is that after an interesting premiere, the sequels emerge and they are of not only lower quality, but outright stupidity. The decision-making and leadership choices behind these movies are just of a radically lowered degree, such that if the first movie was a genius the followups have the abilities of a moron who works as a bureaucrat. For example, The Bourne Identity gave us a fast-paced and intricate but interesting script which maintained the emotion of a character lost in a world where he has no roots, but the sequel managed to not only hit every Hollywood cliche but present them in a series of improbable scenes which were clearly derived from better versions in the earlier film, all while creating the emotional flatline that is the result of cardboard characters and nonsensical motivations. We might even target Star Wars which, after an initial foray which mixed humor, sci-fi, religion and a classic quest narrative, dove into the edgy but pointless followup and then threw in the towel and headed for the gift shop and standard Hollywood dreck with the third.
It would be nice to be able to blame Hollywood, whether of the movie or music industry variety, but the grim truth is that this pattern shows up in more than teapots and speed metal. It appears anywhere humans attempt to organize themselves. The large tech companies who were visionaries and rebels a generation ago are now stodgy corporates, albeit with the appearance of being insightful and life-positive, whose products are designed to manipulate us to buy more of their high-margin offerings. Even the most necrotic of underground metal bands fall prey to this syndrome, but for miniscule amounts of money and fame, suggesting that the classic narrative of “selling out” — changing your sound to be more like Motley Crue or Led Zeppelin, both rock/metal hybrids that allow people to purchase edginess of metal within the familiar and non-threatening music of the herd, like jeans or Jack Daniels or other “extreme” products that in fact reflect extreme conformity — is incorrect and money and fame in itself do not explain the motivation for this choice.
Considering the nature of this problem as universal or nearly so, it makes sense to analyze it at a level lower than the reward itself, and instead to look at motivations. People are fundamentally social creatures; we are pack animals, allegedly at a higher level of evolution than the apes but retaining their most fundamental behaviors (and if you disagree, I’ll hurl a turd at you while beating on my chest and howling). We motivate each other with social guilt and shame, but that is only the stick; the carrot is that we offer inclusion to others who do things that please us, and create “heroes” out of those who do what many of us find appealing. This is the underlying mechanism of the sell-out, which is not so much profitable — since it exists as attempt without certainty of reward — as it is sociable.
When Metallica switch from “For Whom the Bell Tolls” to “Nothing Else Matters,” they are offering a simplified version of their edgy sound that more people can understand. This gives everyone the warm fuzzies, since it offers peace through pacification of others, and makes Metallica appear more altruistic and friendly. It also retains the surface appearance of extremity, which lets ordinary conformists play the charade of extraordinary (and possibly visionary) non-conformist without any risk to themselves, since what they are actually doing is buying a product which is just another flavor of the same ordinary rock everyone else litens to. Selling out is offering a product that is designed to please more people by giving to them what they already think they want, and by not challenging them, allows them to confirm their status as having valuable lives without raising the bar and forcing them to exceed their normal, self-interested and self-referential or narcissistic behavior. When you see something good go bad, it is almost always the result of this phenomenon, which consists of self-interested producers expanding their market by lowering the different-ness of their product, and in turn allowing the social group to feel pleasant illusions about its togetherness.
Most metalheads, not being of the commercially-minded type, rarely stop to think about heavy metal as a brand. Media sells a certain image with heavy metal, just like Harley-Davidson motorcycles and Jack Daniels whisky, both of which are highly successful brands. Metal forms more of a meta-brand, symbolizing rebellion and bad boy lawlessness. That image can be used to sell a lot of products, since consumers really hate the idea that they are merely being good sheep by buying whisky and transportation.
In commercials, television and movies, rebellious characters are often introduced with heavy metal in the background. Fight scenes in both football and blockbusters often get the heavy riff treatment, as do superhero epics. Bizarrely, House Hunters — a television program about people choosing which house to buy — uses AC/DC style hard rock riffing in the background to its real estate epics. Anywhere boldness, bravery, rebellion and defiance must be shown, heavy metal is the appropriate soundtrack.
Much of this can be seen through the use of well-known bands in movies. Check out how many soundtracks Slayer has contributed to, for example. The royalties from those might even outpace their album sales. At some point in the future, perhaps metal bands will put out albums and tour so that they can sell their music for commercials, television, movies, sports/MMA and house hunting. Now look at AC/DC. Metallica. Iron Maiden. Pantera. Anthrax. Compare to Morbid Angel and Darkthrone.
Wolf Hoffmann asserts that Accept wrote the first speed metal song ever with “Fast as a Shark” from Restless and Wild way back in 1982. While the debate rages across the internet, now the equivalent of 1980s daytime television, the question can be answered by looking to what speed metal is.
Speed metal — as distinct from thrash a genre popularized by Thrasher magazine devotees and skaters making hardcore/metal crossover such as Dirty Rotten Imbeciles and Cryptic Slaughter — originated in the use of a single technique: the muted strummed downpicked power chord. This technique combined the repetitive downpicking of punk with palm muting, previously used only to emphasize specific notes. Much of its appeal came from the changes in amplification and production since the previous decade which allowed louder music to exist. Much like the 1980s itself, the muted strum conveyed a sound of clashing absolutes and decreased the amount of harmony heard in each chord, making the music more purely percussive like techno and early industrial. Even more, it gained the volume punks had always aspired to with its explosive and uncompromising sound. In the process, it inspired more use of accidentals leading to more chromatic fills, which in the next generation with death metal became a form of riffs themselves, where speed metal relied more on the NWOBHM song form and harmony.
Generally regarded as starting in 1983 with Metallica Kill ‘Em All, speed metal presented a radically new sound which had precursors in extreme (for the time) bands like Motorhead, Judas Priest, Blitzkrieg, Tank and Satan. However, no bands had fully adopted the new technique as the basis of their composition until the early cluster of Metallica, Exodus, Mercyful Fate, Nuclear Assault, Anthrax and Megadeth. During the 1980s these bands were the most extreme metal that most people could find in their local record stores, which were how most people got music back then, with the exception of Slayer which was a speed/death hybrid and Venom which was a punk-influenced form of NWOBHM. Accept does not measure up to this standard on the basis of technique, since its song fits within older heavy metal format and does not use the muted strum.
This statement does not decrease the importance of Accept in the creation of speed metal. A long line of innovations occurred leading to speed metal, starting with the incredibly rough sound of Motorhead in 1976 but aided by progressive bands like King Crimson and Greenslade as well as a chain of punk acts who pushed the envelope such as Discharge, The Exploited, Amebix and the Cro-Mags. Below you can hear “Fast as a Shark” and see this heritage for yourself, contrasted with the archetypal speed metal song, “Creeping Death” from the second Metallica work Ride the Lightning and Blitzkrieg’s self-titled track from their 1981 EP Buried and Alive.
Like many of our American readers, the Hessians around here will be sitting down to eat a huge meal tomorrow and then unceremoniously lose consciousness in a tryptophan coma before rallying for dessert and shooting guns at the moon. But before we can eat, we must cook, which leads to the topic of metal for cooking.
Unlike the average musical genre, heavy metal is very easy to do but very hard to do well. Maybe one in a thousand bands are worth hearing for more than a week, and one in ten of those worth buying. But some albums adapt more than others to playing in the background while a Hessian cooks.
The following are the suggestions endorsed not only for you, but that will be playing in our house as the feast is prepared.
Metallica – Kill ‘Em All
Metallica took the mixture of heavy metal and hard rock with punk spirit that was NWOBHM and re-hybridized it with a new generation of punk. These hardcore punk bands used maximum distortion and as a result could get a chopppy abrasive sound out of their guitars. Metallica applied to this the muted strum technique that other bands used periodically and created from it a genre that used guitars as explosive percussion instruments. Kill ‘Em All uses the classic melodic riffs of NWOBHM, the open chords of an adventurous metal band, and the new speed metal riff style to make an album of high energy and relentless impact. While it sounds ancient now, most ancient things are good, because if it has survived this long, it has more going for it than the flash-in-the-pan stuff that pops up a dime a dozen anytime someone thinks a shekel or dinar can be made from them. The first Metallica album still compels but in the simple-hearted way that teenage ambition wants to conquer and/or destroy the world, but would settle for just raising hell and then passing out early.
Mixes well with: Iron Maiden, Exodus, Cathedral and Godflesh.
Misfits – Static Age
Glenn Danzig reinvented music three times, at least. He started out composing melodic punk music that injected a sense of emotion into a genre that was otherwise close to droning refusal to conform, then turned down a metal path with Samhain and then modified that path to include a bluesy Doors-style hard rock in the mix with Danzig. Having had his fill of music for people who need a constant beat, he turned to soundtrack music but gave it a metal flair, coming out with Black Aria in 1992 and presaging the neofolk and dark ambient movements. Lately he has thrown southern rock into his metal mix but he continues to forge into paths that others did not see before him. On this early Misfits album, Danzig writes songs filled with longing, like a spirit soaring over a world composed of a daylight layer of pleasant lies and a nocturnal substrate of grim violence and bitter alienation. The result is one of the most Romantic statements to come out of punk, but it also produces the perfect environment for churning out turkey, stuffing and sweet potato mash.
Mixes well with: Cro-Mags, Repulsion, Dirty Rotten Imbeciles and Suicidal Tendencies.
Suffocation – Breeding the Spawn
How do you exceed the standard set by an album like Effigy of the Forgotten? Suffocation launched into their second record with large ideas that did not quite form into song, but it came together quickly enough and then ran out of time, plus had a production style that was less nuclear than the previous album. Nonetheless some of the best material from this innovative band, who took the percussive strumming of speed metal and worked it into death metal songs with complex jazz-inspired rhythms, appeared on the second album. This exploratory work sets the perfect mood for fudging your way through that recipe for cranberry sauce that you sort of remember from when Aunt Griselda made it fourteen years ago. It also satiates the palate that craves metal which is willing to throw aside everything that “works” and leap into the great unknown with the intent to reinvent metal as we know it.
Mixes well with: King Crimson, Bathory and Celtic Frost.
Deicide – Once Upon the Cross
After exhausting their artistic energy with the legendary Legion, Deicide had to re-invent themselves as individuals and as a band in order to crank out this release. Written (rumor has it) primarily by drummer Steve Asheim, this album takes a look over past Deicide and strips it down to what it does best: rhythm, structure and even the occasional hint of melody. These songs muscle along with intense power and high energy and make for the perfect kitchen companion to those recipes which require slashing meat, smashing tubers and bashing berries. Not only that, but if you are experiencing guilt for having invited the mother-in-law over even though she is a Jehovah’s Witness, never fear! You will pay back any debt incurred to the gods of blasphemy with the absolute livid hatred of Jesus, Christians, God and the Bible that pulses through this album like the raging heart-rate of a murder suspect pursued by police helicopters through Ferguson, MO. Not only that, but if you are worried about people “backseat driving” during your cooking and they happen to be Christian, this album will guarantee you the kitchen to yourself.
Mixes well with: David Myatt, Ted Kaczynski and Charles Manson. Actually, anything… or nothing.
…and the best for last…
Mercyful Fate – Don’t Break the Oath
There are no bad albums that make good albums to cook with, but there are albums which are bad albums to cook with despite being good albums. In addition to being the best of the King Diamond/Mercyful Fate oeuvre, Don’t Break the Oath represents the furthest into technical speed metal with the least amount of overdone musicality or theatrics. King Diamond and his team achieve the perfect balance of his Alice Cooper dramatics, the guitar pyrotechnics of Hank Sherman and Michael Denner, and the mainstay of this band which has always been their ability to write a song with dramatic changes and hints of melodic but a consistent ability to hit hard and with a sense of grandeur and mystery that is essential to any darkside metal. In particular, the rhythms of this album work really well with sword training, bear wrestling and cooking for the traditional highly critical American extended family. Crush eggs, beat flour, and pulverize tissue to this classic of speed metal with an edge of the dark occult side which gives metal its mystique and aura of the mythological. Not only does the music provide power, but the album as a whole provides a landscape that roughly fits the panicked improvisation at the heart of any good holiday meal.
Mixes well with: Metallica, Slayer, and the tears of your enemies or entrees.
Attitudes toward metal differ between Europe and the United States with the UK in the middle. One thing remains certain: until metal started prettying itself up with accepted genres like lite-jazz and indie rock, and adopting socially cherished “civilized” attitudes, it got nowhere on a big scale.
In vaunted music magazine NME Lars Ulrich (Metallica) attacks the perceived class divide between hard rock/heavy metal fans and the “sophisticated” mainstream rock audience:
In an interview for BBC 6 Music, the Metallica drummer and founding member complained about the media’s attitude to hard rock. He continued: “People have short attention spans in 2014… They like things broken down into easy, digestible sound-bites. It’s like, Metallica at Glastonbury, what’s the sound-bite? ‘Here comes the big bad heavy metal band to our precious little festival.’ I don’t think it’s genuinely like that… but there obviously are people who snub their nose a little bit at hard rock, and look at hard rock as inferior or lower-class, some sort of lower music form or something, and [think] that the people who listen to hard rock are less educated.”
Speaking about the same festival, the Glastonbury pop fest in the UK, Bruce Dickinson (Iron Maiden) voiced a similar viewpoint but more from another angle — mainly an angle of attack:
He said: “In the days when Glasto was an alternative festival it was quite interesting.
“Now it is the most bourgeois thing on the planet. Anywhere Gwyneth Paltrow goes and you can live in an air-conditioned yurt is not for me.
“We’ll leave the middle classes to do Glastonbury and the rest of the great unwashed will decamp to Knebworth and drink lots of beer and have fun.”
American fans are used to this. In movies and books we are portrayed as the blue collar dropouts who work in garages and smoke too much dope to compensate for failure at life. This reveals both a snobbery against blue collar labor that is unconscionable, and the pretense of those making the distinction. They like to think they’re elevated to a higher grade of person because they’ve choked down eight years of education and work in office jobs (and only smoke expensive dope from exotic locales).
This stereotype both serves media interests and belittles metal. It enables the media to have an easy cue for its “bad boy” characters and to sell products based on that “rebel without a clue” image, but it also lets them subtly inform the rest of us that they, the writers and producers, are obviously much higher in the evolutionary chain than us neanderthals.
Indie rock and lite-jazz appeal to such people. The more precious and deliberately weird their music is, the more “educated” they assume they are. In the meantime, it’s metal fans out there who not only keep music from falling into an abyss of self-congratulatory clones, but also keep our infrastructure running. Whether we’re blue collar or something else, we’re realists… and we make sure stuff works while the rest of these clowns are posing.
Speed metal tyrant Dave Mustaine (Metallica, Megadeth) takes to the stage with the San Diego Symphony to play guitar solos in place of violin leads.
He will play along with “Summer” and “Winter” from Antonio Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons,” Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Air,” Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” and Antonín Dvořák’s “New World Symphony.” Mustaine described these pieces as shredding, fast and melodic.
In addition, the guitarist revealed some surprising background to his own music:
Mustaine also talked about Megadeth’s classical influence since its formation.
“On the very first song on our very first record, I actually played piano … Funny thing was, it was a very, very, hacked up version of Beethoven’s Fugue in D Minor and going back and listening to the actual performance of Beethoven, it’s kind of like, ‘Nice try Dave’ because it was close to it, but I mean, I was a gutter kid that grew up on the street and was playing from memory. I was surprised I could even play the piano.”
For the full story, head on over to The Daily Aztec.
Apparently Kirk Hammett’s Fear FestEvil went off without a hitch, bringing together metal fans and horror movie fans in a celebration of movie artifacts, horror movie personalities and metal bands saluting their favorite genre of film.
The festival featured performances by Exodus, Death Angel and Carcass, but also had as guests Kerry King (Slayer), Scott Ian (Anthrax/SOD), Doyle (Mistfits) and of course Hammett (Metallica) himself. In addition, you could meet movie legends like Boris Karloff’s wife and son, the man in the Godzilla suit Haruo Nakajima and a number of a directors and actresses from horror movies over the years.
The most interesting quote of the day however came from Hammett himself, who outlined the reasons for the relationship between metal and horror movies:
“There’s a lot of horror elements that have been used in heavy metal for a long time ago. I mean, Black Sabbath was named after a movie. And that was the amazing thing. I was a horror fan and then I became a music fan and then I discovered hard rock and heavy metal and I’d see all these little pieces of imagery or song titles or lyrics borrowed from horror films throughout all these heavy metal bands. They’re made up of the same ingredients. For me, a good horror movie is fun, dynamic, exciting to watch, peaks and valleys. A good heavy metal song, for me, is the same way — exciting to listen to, peaks and valleys, really fun and energetic.”
This leads to the broader question of the connection between metal and horror movies on an artistic level. While many writers have focused on the economic connections, shared fanbase, or similar aesthetic, few have analyzed the question as Hammett has by showing how the two gesture in artistically similar ways. But this resembles statements made by Black Sabbath about the invention of early metal:
One day I thought that it seemed strange that a lot of people spend so much money to see scary movies. Nobody really wanted to listen to us, so we decided to play slightly scary music. We liked it and, yeah, that’s how it all got started. That’s the story of Black Sabbath.
As many commentators have noted, Black Sabbath came out of the late 1960s when “flower power” was still in full flourish. The band wanted to inject a note of darker reality into the notion that one could simply peace out and all would be well. In the world that Black Sabbath introduced, darkness was preeminent but invisible, much like the threatening characters in horror movies who owing to their supernatural or psychotic states can never be pinned down and isolated.
Over the years, metal has cemented its relationship with horror films with lyrical and topical allusions aplenty. As various other cultural movements run themselves over cliffs like drunken parties touring the countryside, and yet metal (and horror films) endures, it might make sense to wonder if those who see the darkness were correct after all.
Many of those who are involved with music have spoken praise for the 1980s speed metal explosion, which offered a form of music with both intensity and integrity. Until the great wave of commercialization, it simply refused to join the social impulse to all get along and behave like everyone else.
But a recent interview with Dominic West, who accompanied the UK’s Prince Harry to the North Pole, confirms that speed metal may have more going for it than simply being aloof to the great herding instinct. It is the music not only of Royals, but of soldiers:
The royal is addicted to the music of bands including Megadeth, Slayer, Metallica and Anthrax, according to actor Dominic West.
Dominic, 44, said it was the only music that Harry, 29, would listen to on their recent Walking With The Wounded expedition to the South Pole.
He said: “Harry has a terrible selection on his iPod. It is the sort of thing soldiers listen to. Hardcore thrash metal.”
While none of us want to be stuck in the 1980s, and retro-nostalgia is both embarrassing and makes us hate the future, perhaps it is time for metal to look back at what made speed metal so popular.
First, it did not behave. When the teacher said, “Everyone sit down,” it ran around its desk. When the teacher wanted everyone to play nice with each other, it did not. When someone said “Give peace a chance,” speed metal gave them the finger. It was disobedient, lawless, wild and uncontrolled.
Second, it had musical integrity. Please just say no to either (a) droning three-chord “trve kvlt” retro-metal and (b) droning three-chord “innovative and open-minded” post-metal. It’s musical simplisticism. No one seems against minimalism per se, but when it becomes an excuse to dumb it down, it’s time to leave the hall.
Third, it had a sense of imagination and vision — and abandoning those things crushed it. When Metallica were writing songs about Cthulhu, they were interesting; when they turned to social topics, they got less so. Similarly Slayer was awesome when writing about Satan and vampires but faded out when they started writing about serial killers and politics. (All of Anthrax’s best material is about comic books, and Megadeth is best when either full-on into drugs or full-on into Christ.)
Death metal and black metal at least initially carried on these values but over time got closer to the punk rock that had sold-out, standardized itself and caved in before them. When death metal was 300 intricate but occult nihilist riffs per song, it piqued our attention; when it became three riffs in verse-chorus form it made itself into a parody.
Perhaps our new watchword in metal should be to make music that belongs on Prince Harry’s iPod. As a cultural barometer, he provides a better sense of how metal is doing than most other sources we could consult.
For their performance at the Grammy awards, Metallica paired up with Chinese pianist Lang Lang for a performance of their dramatic protest song “One” originally from …And Justice for All.
According to VH1, the bond was formed in just 45 minutes of practice time the day before the performance. As you can see below, the result was smoothly integrated despite this lack of extensive practice.
Metal and classical share a defining trait in that both use narrative composition, or knitting together riffs to develop a theme over the course of a piece. This is in contrast to pop music, which is essentially binary, formed of a verse-chorus pair and a “contrast” via a bridge or turnaround. Thus Metallica’s knotwork of riffs and Lang Lang’s melodic development through structured composition are entirely compatible.
The question remains whether metal will adopt this outlook as anything other than a surface aesthetic. If it does, expect metal songs to get more densely riffy and longer with contorted structures like progressive rock, which derived its song structuring principles from classical as well.