A good legacy and a promising single can do much to build up expectations for any album. Atom by Atom was shaping up to be a textbook example of this axiom back in September, when I first became aware of it. Having listened to the end result, I can confidently say that the band’s reformation continues to pay dividends to those who pay attention (and/or cash).
The general formula hasn’t changed since Life Sentence – Satan plays the same sort of NWOBHM/early speed metal style that they became famous for, but in a more musically adventurous fashion than they favored 30 years ago. This sort of path leads many a band to neglect the coherence and intelligibility of their songwriting, but that doesn’t turn out to be the case here. The guitarists are particularly inventive here – the melodic and consonant style they perform in belies the wide variety of riff construction techniques they’ve incorporated into these tracks. They’re particularly good at the harmonized ‘dueling leads’ that so many similar bands have adopted; lesser bands would find their musical language shackled by overuse of one mode or otherwise limited.
This power would be strong enough to draw in many a listener, but Satan’s strengths on Atom by Atom go beyond mere creative guitar wizardry, although they are still unified by an emphasis on mastering a subgenre. For instance, the vocals (which are pseudo-operatic in style) remind me somewhat of James Rivera’s contributions to Helstar in their sonority and dynamic range, although Brian Ross sings closer to the guitar lines than many similar vocalists. However, this applies most to the song structures – while Atom by Atom tends towards typical pop verse-chorus structures like so many albums before it, these songs notably don’t rely on any one specific technique to cloak this or elaborate on their musical ideas. It should not escape your notice that in doing this, Satan otherwise consistently sticks to the limits of their musical language; while the way they vary it suggests to me that they could successfully execute a major genre shift if they so desired, I find their success within a genre to be a good outcome as well.
Musically skilled, technically proficient metal may be the norm these days, but Atom by Atom also succeeds on the organizational, structural level that is lacking and often completely ignored in so many of its contemporaries. This makes it a highly worthy acquisition.
Since we quite enjoyed Satan’s previous album (Life Sentence), it only makes sense to give their latest a mention as well. Satan’s musical style is understandably descended from the popular NWOBHM styles of the late ’70s and ’80s, but also showcases some musical techniques that would become influential in the speed and power metal camps, and their most recent albums adopt a similar style with understandably better studio polish. While this followup is not set to officially release for a few weeks, the band has released a track for promotional purposes. “The Devil’s Infantry” changes little if anything from Satan’s recent past, and hopefully the rest of the album will live up to the high standards it and the previous album set for the band.
The basic sonic template for this album is late-model melodic hardcore in the vein of Champion or Verse; that means a melodic base of straightforward four-chord (or less) progressions in a basic minor scale played rhythmically on the guitars, looped for four or eight bars, usually until the progression becomes stale (more common) or the vocals lead to a new riff cycle (less common). Each riff continues until Obisidian see fit (as typical of modern “hardcore”) to abandon the progression altogether and move on to a riff with a completely different feel instead of developing the last riff (through harmonic augmentation rather than plain repetition) and moving toward a new one logically.
Generally, this method of composition would be frowned upon, but in the case of this album, the changes are welcome since the listener is undoubtedly anticipating the next riff with relish since the last one is sure to have become stale after a few cycles. Obsidian avoid this jarring transition sometimes by simply shifting to another rhythmic style (for instance, playing the same (or a similar) chord progression with palm-muted strokes and a half-time drum beat). However, this is not always the case; toward the end of the album, we see some interesting melodic progressions that move forward in the style of black metal without the need for vocal embellishment. For the worse, these sections appear too few and far between.
The saving grace of this album is Obsidian’s ability to throw in NWOBHM style guitar lines which,
although rarely progressing rationally from the last riff, are very cool-sounding and give a boost of energy to each song. However, the riffs feel generally out of place since, once they are over, the next section invariably drops back to cliche modern hardcore dime-a-dozen riffs. Nevertheless, the guitarist(s) display a refined sense exactly how far they can push the hardcore style riffs augmented by vocal rhythm before needing to introduce a more harmonically rich dual guitar segment. Beyond that, the band seems very comfortable when tying off-time (usually switching from a 3/4 to 4/4 beat) rhythms together in a way that avoids the typical metalcore style riff salad style that feels like something you could hear during a tour of a zoo; “And if you look to your left you’ll see our lions as they feed on… oh, look to the right to see the zebras in a galloping herd!”
All in all, the music achieves its purpose as being something that impels the listener to charge their adrenaline and accomplish something physically demanding. It might make good workout music or something that would be great to experience in a live setting. However, a listener (particularly of the metal persuasion) looking for music that describes a series of situations narratively might find themselves bored by melodies that wear out their welcome before being augmented rhythmically, as this album is chockfull of cool riffs that make just as much sense when listened to at random intervals rather than in a riff by riff manner.
Humanity follows this pattern: someone breaks away from doing the same stuff everyone else is doing, does something different and it resonates with smart people, so everyone else starts doing it but they use it as a new flavor for doing the same stuff everyone else is doing. They think this will let them be both new and familiar at the same time, and it attracts an audience who thinks like them, and then the different thing is destroyed.
Heavy metal goes through these bubbles every decade. Black Sabbath set the scene with proto-metal in 1970, but by 1976 most bands had hybridized that with heavy rock like Cream, Led Zeppelin, the Kinks, Deep Purple and and The Who. The result was “heavy metal” the sub-genre of the larger metal genre, and it quickly got so bad that the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) rebelled against it with do-it-yourself (DIY) albums that hit hard but never quite got to the long phrasal riffs that Black Sabbath had innovated, in part in emulation of horror movie soundtracks. In the early 1980s, speed metal, thrash and proto-underground metal emerged to counter the calcified edifice of heavy metal which was currently dominated by glam metal, a Californian crossover between European heavy metal, surf rock and American album-oriented-rock (AOR). By the late 1980s, that bubble too had burst as speed metal bands very publicly sold out, and death metal and later black metal formalized themselves in response. But by 1994, both had spent their momentum and languished in inertia. What came in their place was a rapid succession of bad imitators, war metal, indie-metal, metalcore and finally a breath of fresh air with revitalized speed metal and classic heavy metal merged into power metal.
That was 21 years ago.
Currently, the metal scene languishes. The nu-underground fascinates itself with FMP/NWN bands that resemble three-chord punk translated to metal aesthetics, while the mainstream extreme metal scene uses late hardcore songs with metal riffs in random order. No “greats” have emerged, but there are plenty of favorites, and if you read most review sites, you will see praise heaped on the release of the week without any concern for its actual staying power. However, the audience who surged in to take advantage of the new metal-rock hybrids remains large, and therefore there are profits to be made, creating a “metal bubble”: a zombie genre kept afloat by inertia, lacking any real substance, and worst of all, one that blocks any actual innovation by the sheer popularity of imitation.
Current bands are distinguished by being hipster bands. A hipster is someone who has nothing to believe in, so uses things that might be worth believing in as a way of accessorizing and making himself look interesting. Hipsters love bands that no one else listens to, ironic use of instruments or lyrics, and most of all, anything that sounds like nostalgic indie rock but with new exciting combinations of flavors. Hipsters love pirate metal, jazz-metal, post-metal and other variants of the late punk songs with metal riffs in random order that is metalcore. Witness the hipster:
Ever since the Allies bombed the Axis into submission, Western civilization has had a succession of counter-culture movements that have energetically challenged the status quo. Each successive decade of the post-war era has seen it smash social standards, riot and fight to revolutionize every aspect of music, art, government and civil society.
But after punk was plasticized and hip hop lost its impetus for social change, all of the formerly dominant streams of “counter-culture” have merged together. Now, one mutating, trans-Atlantic melting pot of styles, tastes and behavior has come to define the generally indefinable idea of the “Hipster.”
An artificial appropriation of different styles from different eras, the hipster represents the end of Western civilization – a culture lost in the superficiality of its past and unable to create any new meaning. Not only is it unsustainable, it is suicidal. While previous youth movements have challenged the dysfunction and decadence of their elders, today we have the “hipster” – a youth subculture that mirrors the doomed shallowness of mainstream society.
Hipsters also have their own ideology, called “social justice,” which is their way of one-upping you by being better than you on a level that joins morality and politics. It is like the neighbors who, on hearing you went on vacation, inform you that instead of going on vacation they went to some impoverished country to help the poor. It is the people in the office who make a show of giving lavish gifts to charity. It is politicians kissing babies and making speeches on the site of tragedies. In short, hipster is everything wrong with humanity, and its ideology is not even an ideology; like all things hipster, it is a pose designed to convey that the person making it is morally superior, politically more well-informed, socially more empathetic and compassionate, and most of all just more interesting than you. That is hipsterism in a nutshell.
The point is not that their ideology would be wrong, if it were adopted out of belief, because that is beyond the topic of this article. Their ideology is fake like their bad metal bands which created and maintain the metal bubble. You may be a hipster if you only listen to metal bands with theremin because they are different, or if you collect rare kvlt underground tapes that only 42 other people have because they are obscure, or only listen to bands with “socially conscious” (a more antiquated cliché is hard to find) lyrics because they are more righteous. Most people in metal now are either hipsters or the mainstay of metal’s transient audience, which is suburban kids desperate for some way to rebel against their parents that will not get them in actual trouble, like a school shooting or hacking the local newspaper, among other alienated white kid pastimes.
In the meantime, the metal bubble is popping because of a dearth of bands of actual musical importance, which makes metal just like everything else on television an oversold nostalgia item from previous generations foisted on today’s youth because aging once-hip people in media are desperate for a tangible symbol of rebellion that is simultaneously innocuous enough to sell products for their advertisers. Metal itself has become clich&ecaute;. Think of the big name movies: when a character is introduced as rebellious, they trot out the hackneyed symbols of conformity safe rebellion like heavy metal, motorcycles, tattoos and cigarettes. These things no longer threaten any social order and are generally accepted, so they can be used to sell an image. At the same time, the audience recognizes these tropes to signal rebellion, so they are useful when you want your brand of artisanal organic free-trade rooibos tea to stand out from the rest as being “edgy” and “different.” Cliché is a language that advertisers and consumers speak to one another.
I think the music business itself sucks. It’s turned into a very corporate, materialistic… I mean, even artists are trying to conform to the record industry now. It used to be the artist was for the artist and there was a conflict of interest between the creative artist and the record company wanting to make a lot of money, and eventually they’d sort of work it out. Because then, they used to develop artists, and now it’s just like Top 40 — everybody’s trying to be Top 40. Even heavy metal bands are trying to be Top 40. So it’s not a big turn-on, like it was for me in the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s where it was exciting and there was a sense of rebellion and whatever…And even if you have a good band — you’re talented musicians and songwriters and whatnot — it’s, like, if you don’t have a Top 40 success on your first single, there you’re done. And in order to get a Top 40 success on your first single, you have to make compromises for your material for the record business itself.
And so this thing about the Internet, it’s great to get your music across quickly, it’s very simple to get your music to the world, but it’s very difficult to break through the clutter, break through all of the noise.
While he blames the internet, much as later underground metal musicians would, the question we must ask ourselves is whether the problem is breaking through the clutter or the clutter itself. When a genre is littered with many bands that sound different but offer nothing musically or artistically — a fancy word for the content of their music, what it expresses emotionally and as commentary on life — then quality will not be recognized because people are accustomed to mediocrity. They will buy what they recognize and literally pass over good bands in favor of more of the same old stuff because it is safer and their friends recognize it. Kerry King chimed in with another damning statement:
We were at a festival in South America a few years ago and we were watching a video feed of the band that was playing onstage. I was watching the screen and I just did not get why this band was popular at all. I pulled [EXODUS/SLAYER guitarist] Gary Holt aside. I pointed at the screen, and asked him, ‘Hey, Gary, would you aspire to be these guys?’ He said, ‘Not at all.’ It was because they were the most boring and lethargic guitar players I had ever seen. I would never want to be these guys. I’m looking at a lot of these bands and it looks like it’s the road crew soundchecking to me. There’s no vibe. There’s nothing that gives you aspirations to be awesome.
This sounds like the doldrums for metal. You cannot be a rebel if you are doing what is safe and what affirms the illusions by which most people live. Heavy metal has always been about smashing a single boundary, which is the line of denial that most people have about reality and from which they flee toward “socially accepted” pleasant illusions in fear of the difficult questions of reality itself, and when it fails to do that it fails to live. Its guitar heroes leave, its innovators go to other genres, and worst of all, its best up-and-coming musicians, writers, artists, producers, editors and photographers stay home or get into jazz. With that in mind, here is the latest installment the podcast from anti-censorship/anti-repression movement Metalgate, which hopes to renovate metal by smashing the denial line and popping every bubble it can:
Cult of Endtime play a music that is actually both “melodic” and death metal. Taking the road of modified and expanded verse-chorus-bridge approach to music construction, this mid-paced death metal with a clear aftertaste of traditional metal maintains motific links within songs that ride clear phrasal riffs not unlike the manner of the early but already mature Black Sabbath. Although DMU does not usually hand out stars to shiny, mainstream packages because they usually are just uncreative or mediocre turds hidden under slick production, In Charnel Lights has definitely earned theirs.
A very well-performed and accomplished example of this style, the music stays within the boundaries of its chosen paradigm while introducing a variety of ideas without haphazard changes. This does imply a limited variation, a clutch of its chosen pop-format approach, which supports and defines it but cripples its movement at the same time. The nature of the music, then, reduces In Charnel Lights to a collection of songs. The result is pleasing and solid but can be repetitive in terms of musical ideas and in its adherence to its center it fails to bring enough variety to artistically justify a second half beyond the urge to produce more of the same.
In spite of this, the variation it does introduce is not only used gracefully and properly but is both meaningful and powerful. Each variation of idea or new idea included, each slightly differing approach to a riff was probably very carefully considered and integrated with an attention to detail worthy of praise. Cult of Endtime are extremely consistent in style although they bring different techniques under its umbrella and produce strongly coherent riff-variations with a relatively wide range of character.
Sounding like a Black Sabbath reborn into death metal, Cult of Endtime build their music on phrasal riffs with a basis on heavy-sounding support and featuring melodic passages that emphasize clarity of expression and musicality rather than technique itself, although anyone paying attention to such things would not deny the professional-level musicianship of the band. Probably one of the best, if not the best, we are likely to get out of the mainstream this year, In Charnel Lights is extremely recommended to fans of metal.
Following the example of Kreator in Phantom Antichrist, Scythian unite riffing approaches from different metal subgenres under the banner of traditional heavy metal and growled or barked vocals, with a result along the lines of the so-called melodic death metal. In contrast with the noteworthy release Thy Black Destiny, by Sacramentum, Hubris in Excelsis does not coalesce into a thing of its own but just floats around as the result of spare parts being put together to form an undefined, impersonal and disparate heavy metal record. In this, and its revolving around the vocals it is more akin to the Iron Maiden – inclined heavy metal which sets one foot on hard-rock land, using disconnected riffs only as rhythm and harmony to carry the voice.
We hear doom metal proceedings and textures typical of black metal, but these are usually encapsulated within sections. These sections are used in conventional rock-song functionality. What determines this rock versus metal approach? Basically, the total relationship of riffs and sections to voice and in between themselves. Rock (and hard rock after it) carries the music after the vocal lines (thus we can see the slight influence of hard rock over Slayer in South of Heaven even though it doesn’t fully give in to the tendency to disqualify it as a metal record). The key tell-tale sign after this is the lack or at least a downplay of motif-relation between parts of the song, the support for main melody or vocal line becoming the most important and prominent element. The effect of this often results in something similar but in the end different from metalcore: disparate parts tied loosely by a certain background consistency (usually harmony for rock and rhythms or motifs drowned in an ocean of contrasts for metalcore).
The plentiful references to many different genres extending all the way to cliche-ridden pagan black metal may throw off the attempts of most to nail down what Hubris in Excelsis actually is, what it consists of and what its essence ultimately is. Hubris in Excelsis is indeed a title that reflects this album beyond their intended concept. Hubris, an excess of self-confidence, often at the expense of prudence and seemliness, is placed in a position of glory, giving way to veiled expressions of ego that disregard any sense of coherence and little consistency beyond the most superficial.
The terms bardic or minstrel metal have often been used to describe bands that usually sing in a clear voice and with anthemic overtones, often imitate medievalesque motifs and write lyrics in the manner of romanticized ancient legends. Generally, the metal subgenre most readily associated with bardic expression is power metal because they advertise themselves as modern-day minstrels and theirs is the kind of catchy and upbeat music most people can latch on to most easily. The bardic spirit along with the culture it transmits, however, requires a sturdier medium that is able to etch its runes indelibly without detracting from the importance of their message.
Power metal could be described as a blend of Judas Priest and Iron Maiden mixed with the energy of speed metal. The influence of Ritchie Blackmore cannot be overstated either. In time, they developed their own tropes and particular voices that set them apart from their Briton godfathers. Bands making music in this style are known for an overt expression and presentation that falls just a little short from that of the despicable glam metal. More often than not, these theatrical habits and indulgences overshadow both the content of the music and the words, both of which come close to becoming only an excuse for narcissistic expression. The persona takes precedence over the message.
A sensible division of terms would be advisable here since the words bard and minstrel actually denote two very similar but different traditions. The bard was said to be an itinerant poet who, with the help of music, kept traditions and values alive through stories and legends written in meter. The minstrel made its most significant appearances in courts. Its main job was to entertain the nobility. The latter job’s description often overlaps with that of a jester whose curriculum included clownish acts like juggling. Here is where we find the most apt description for bands like Helloween or Blind Guardian, who willingly and naively took the latter term for themselves.
In lieu of this minstrel metal, a bardic one, with enduring power to carry and transmit the word by giving it the place of honor, is needed. Firstly, any musical tradition with this aim must achieve an optimal balance between being both evocative and submerging yet enveloping the words so that these are propelled forward, emphasized, given contour and colour. Secondly, this is metal. And as proper metal, the riff must lead.
On December 3, 1983, a force of unparalleled musical terror was unleashed upon a more innocent world. Combining the high speed strum detached from percussion used by Discharge with the architectural riffing of Judas Priest and the melodic understructure used by Iron Maiden, Slayer created a new style of heavy metal which exceeded all previous efforts.
While Show No Mercy sounds tame compared to later Slayer effort Reign in Blood (1986), for the time it revolutionized metal and punk alike. Most metal of the era was still recovering from the mid-1970s slump that occurred when Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin were hybridized into a new rock-based style, manifesting after a brief revolution in the NWOBHM as the usual lowest-common-denominator crowd pleaser in acts like Motley Crue. Slayer brought back the longer phrasal riffs used by Black Sabbath and through the tremolo strum added greater flexibility and detached chord changes from the beat of the snare, which allowed the guitar to dominate composition and relegated drums to timekeeping. This in turn gave the band more options for varying riffs within a phrase and escaping the verse-chorus pop radio song format that had infected metal in the previous years.
Even outdoing other hardcore punk/NWOBHM hybrids like speed metal bands (Metallica) and thrash (DRI), Slayer created a fury that could also be beautiful. To this they added a mythological view of humanity and the ongoing collapse of Western civilization, placing us into a mode of viewing it as a conflict between good and evil with the prize being survival more than a spiritual state of obedience. In doing so, Slayer laid the foundation both musically and topically for the future death metal genre, while also spurring speed metal on to greater intensity. Most of what we cover on this site would not have existed when it did without Slayer and contemporaries such as Bathory, Hellhammer and Sodom who opened the gates to this new style.
After Black Sabbath invented proto-metal, people mixed together hard rock like Led Zeppelin and came up with a new hybrid they called heavy metal, but it lacked the intensity of Black Sabbath. The New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) fused the energy of punk and garage rock back into the music to restore the alienated energy, and Witchfinder General numbered among its strongest arguments.
Bands making music of this nature face a challenge: the entire rock community is based on making things sound smooth and grandiose in the kind of narcissistic ecstasy that people who want to be the center of attention for their 15 minutes exhibit, and this clashes with the need to sound like a combat unit taking a break to bash out a few tunes. As the Witchfinder General Live ’83 release shows us, this band had great intensity when they could focus their energies in that fashion.
While Death Penalty features the same excellent songwriting, matching vocal melodies that evoke the ambition without regard for convention that made Ozzy Osbourne the favorite Black Sabbath vocalist, and powerful riffing that expanded beyond the rock vocabulary to the side door of speed metal, the more refined production convinced Witchfinder General to play these songs more slowly and to layer on additional lead guitar and production effects to “enhance” the sound. The result is that much of the energy dissipates into a 1970s rock filter, and the production emphasizes a thin guitar tone to which the band adapts. Other than this disadvantage, Death Penalty shows us Witchfinder General at their most powerful.
Like the best of NWOBHM bands, Witchfinder General used shorter riffs than Black Sabbath and focused more on melodic guitar composition that echoed the previous generation of British heavy guitar rock. In addition, the band injected fast rhythmic riffing using a muted strum, and fast lead fills that allowed more flexibility in riff placement, but also borrowed from many of the progressive bands a more flexible sense of song structure. There will be the verse-chorus cycle, but it often transitions with a break that emphasizes some aspect of the song and allows the band to use variants of riffs for great contrast, before returning to the original cycle. To death metal fans, it may seem tame, but in the day it was a revolution against heavy metal convention, and these songs still stand tall with a power that all those artists who wish to be more polished than pugnacious cannot capture.
Much of the focus of songwriting wraps around the vocals which guide each song ably by taking the high register and infusing just enough melody into these riffs to give each passage a hook. Sometimes this limits what the band could spend its energy on, as we can hear through many of the incidental guitar passages such as the fade-out instrumental break in “Death Penalty,” but it also helps hold together these sounds which are bursting with energy and musical creativity. Much of this album sounds like later Black Sabbath with more caffeinated leads, but that is its voice and not its essence, which is a flexible view of songwriting that never loses the need for a charge of the light brigade in power chords against the pleasant illusions of the average rock fan, then or now.
Version 2.0 of The Heavy Metal FAQ exists within grasp of your browser. This update and addition to the sprawling work that first began in the early 1990s when a group of die-hard metal fans began writing to each other on USENET, first published in full form in 1996, now contains information on the metal years after the turbulent 1990s.
Running over 100 pages of print in length, The Heavy Metal FAQ covers the origins, history, philosophy and artistic purpose of heavy metal and its many sub-genres including death metal, black metal, NWOBHM, thrash, grindcore, speed metal and proto-metal. Its new and more detailed chronicle of the rise and proliferation of heavy metal reveals the development of this genre and its many offshoots.
Written by a former death metal radio presenter and editor of this site, the document aims to address the common questions that readers and listeners have about heavy metal, and then to go one layer deeper so they can see the motivation behind these artists and the social and historical significance of heavy metal. Not for the faint of heart, much like metal itself, The Heavy Metal FAQ could be a gateway to a lifelong habit of heavy metal reading.