The “metal bubble” bursts

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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.

Yet the signs appear on the wall. Guns ‘n’ Roses guitarist Slash spoke out on the pop trend in heavy metal:

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.

This followed commentary toward the same effect by Kerry King of Slayer and Rob Halford of Judas Priest. Halford made the damning statement that the metal community is essentially spamming itself and blocking the rise of quality bands:

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:

Iron Kingdom – Ride for Glory (2015)

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Sounding like an Iron Maiden with the annoying voice from Queensryche’s vocalist from back in the day, Iron Kingdom make melodic heavy metal with the flexibility and propriety of conscious progressive rock. A very clear image of the character, lyrical theme and direction of the music arises through discrete but carefully-considered decisions to express the next clause with a literal musical change to match its change in words.

While the music could be described as progressive upon first impression, the result is closer to an extended and twisted pop-song format in which the pieces and functions are maintained but considerable variety is introduced. While some would object to this description, this is precisely what a progressive music arising from verse-chorus-bridge music should sound like: music that evolves to underpin the lyrical events taking place in the story being told. The vocals are kept within the framework of the music in a unified way through a composition of the melody line that strictly adheres to the moving harmony under it, rather than flying around in opera-like expression that takes a slow-moving support harmony as licence and liberty to stand out on its own. In here, the voice is a melodic instrument working in between the guitars and riding them (see Ozzy Obourne), not jumping on them as if they were trampolines (see Bruce Dickinson, Ronny James Dio).

Succeeding over the grandpa metal with progressive pretensions of post-2000 Iron Maiden by injecting a dose of proper progressive music with the influence of Queensryche, Iron Kingdom give us songs that actually progress and not just long, over-drawn affairs with over-extended bridge sections. While Ride for Glory is undeniably a song collection, the amount of content, its purpose within each song and their consistency track after track in all aspects while giving a distinctive-enough identity to each song give the album a chapters-in-a-story-like feeling of succession that while not altogether literal, can be felt from the music. Obviously an experienced band, Iron Kingdom know exactly what they are doing and more importantly the music is full with purpose, giving Ride for Glory a strong feeling of meaningfulness.

https://www.facebook.com/ironkingdom

Atreides –Cosmos (2015)

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So, Atreides, another power metal band. Why review a mediocre power metal band? To warn the newbies and upcoming artists against possible blunders. To show in which these blunders are built, how they are constituted and why is it that they suck so much. Playing according to a tradition in any subgenre of metal is not a sin itself, it is blind copying of ideas without any noticeable voice to set you apart what represents an insult to metal.

Atreides embodies everything that is wrong with most metal from Spain and Latin America: self referential music that is more concerned with appearances than with musical development.  This is not limited to heavy and power metal, although these are the two most violated subgenres in those countries, but can even be applied to death and black metal from the same areas as well. The songs end up being paper-thin collections of tropes belonging to the subgenres they claim to adhere to. Despite their almost transparent epic metal guise, Atreides’ Cosmos has more in common with glam metal than it does with Candlemass or Iron Maiden.

Warbringer announce 2015 South American tour and 2016 North American tour

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Speed-power metal band Warbringer have announced their North American tour with Enforcer and South American tour with Nervo Chaos and Hateful Murder.

Frontman John Kevill said this about their 2016 North American tour:

We are excited to announce the return of Warbringer to the road across North America. It looks to be a completely excellent lineup, with heavy metal warriors Enforcer and Cauldron, and longtime friends/total shredders Exmortus. Looking forward to firing up the engines again and getting back out there on the warpath, hell, it’s about time!

North American tour dates

  • 1/5/16 – Gramercy Theatre – New York, NY
  • 1/6/16 – Championship – Trenton, NJ
  • 1/7/16 – Trickshots – Clifton Park, NY
  • 1/8/16 – Webster Theatre – Hartford, CT
  • 1/9/16 – Palladium – Worcester, MA
  • 1/10/16 – Foufounes – Montreal, QU
  • 1/11/16 – Salle Multi – Quebec City, QU
  • 1/12/16 – Ritual – Ottawa, ON
  • 1/13/16 – Hard Luck – Toronto, ON
  • 1/14/16 – The Apk – London, ON
  • 1/15/16 – Montage Music Hall – Rochester, NY
  • 1/16/16 – Agora – Cleveland, OH
  • 1/17/16 – Altar Bar – Pittsburgh, PA
  • 1/18/16 – Ace of Cups – Columbus, OH
  • 1/20/16 – Token Lounge – Westland, MI
  • 1/21/16 – Fubar – St. Louis, MO
  • 1/22/16 – Mojoes – Joliet, IL
  • 1/23/16 – The Metal Grill – Cudahy, WI
  • 1/24/16 – Triple Rock – Minneapolis, MN
  • 1/25/16 – Zoo Cabaret – Winnipeg, MB
  • 1/27/16 – Nite Owl – Calgary, AL
  • 1/28/16 – Pawn Shop – Edmonton, AL
  • 1/30/16 – Rickshaw – Vancouver, BC
  • 1/31/16 – Studio Seven – Seattle, WA
  • 2/1/16 – Hawthorne Theatre – Portland, OR
  • 2/2/16 – Thee Parkside – San Francisco, CA
  • 2/3/16 – Whisky – W. Hollywood, CA
  • 2/4/16 – Brick By Brick – San Diego, CA
  • 2/5/16 – Club Red – Tempe, AZ
  • 2/6/16 – LVCS – Las Vegas, NV
  • 2/8/16 – In the Venue – Salt Lake City, UT
  • 2/9/16 – Bluebird Theatre – Denver, CO
  • 2/10/16 – Aftershock – Merrriam, KS
  • 2/11/16 – Red 7 – Austin, TX
  • 2/12/16 – 210 Kapones – San Antonio, TX
  • 2/13/16 – Scout Bar – Houston, TX
  • 2/14/16 – Trees – Dallas, TX
  • 2/15/16 – Siberia – New Orleans, LA
  • 2/16/16 – Orpheum – Tampa, FL
  • 2/17/16 – Haven – Orlando, FL
  • 2/18/16 – Masquerade – Atlanta, GA
  • 2/19/16 – Expo Five – Louisville, KY
  • 2/20/16 – Canal Club – Richmond, VA

Regarding their upcoming South American tour, Kevill said:

We are excited to venture forth on our first-ever full South American tour. We are covering a lot of new ground here, and we can’t wait to go down there and wreck some people. Let’s see which country can mosh the hardest! Cheers!

South American tour dates

  • 7/16/15 – Mistika – Lima, Peru
  • 7/17/15 – Monolith Festival – La Paz, Bolivia
  • 7/18/15 – tba – Bogota, Colombia
  • 7/19/15 – Cuerdas de Acero Open Air – Cali, Colombia
  • 7/22/15 – Encuentro Gutural – Quito, Ecuador
  • 7/23/15 – tba – Santiago, Chile
  • 7/24/15 – Asbury Club – Buenos Aires, Argentina
  • 7/25/15 – Circle of Infinity Fest 3 – Limeira, Brazil
  • 7/26/15 – Circulo Operario do Cruzeiro – Brasilia, Brazil
  • 7/27/15 – Aristos Pub – Caxias do Sul, Brazil
  • 7/30/15 – Let’s Go Rock Pub – Forteleza, Brazil
  • 7/31/15 – Estelita – Recife, Brazil
  • 8/1/15 – Che Pesticaria- Areceju, Brazil
  • 8/2/15 – Baba da Amizade – Paulo Afonso, Brazil

Luca Turilli’s Rhapsody reveals first single

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After parting ways with Rhapsody of Fire, legendary mastermind Luca Turilli started his own project officially called “Luca Turilli’s Rhapsody”. The style of this new Rhapsody echoed the style that Turilli was recognized for in his own solo projects.

 

The project saw its first release in 2012 with Ascending to Infinity. Luca Turilli’s Rhapsody is now set to release a second album on June 19th.

 

https://www.facebook.com/ltrhapsody?fref=ts

 

Blind Guardian – Beyond the Red Mirror (2015)

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Compiling gestures from throughout legendary band Blind Guardian’s discography, Beyond the Red Mirror shows us a synthesis of their journey, bringing in their late 1980s style along with updates in the power and so-called symphonic metal up to the present state of affairs in said genres.  As such, this album’s strongest uniting element is the band’s own style, which lies in great part in the vocal approach of Hansi Kürsch. Apart from that, there is an evident diversity in the songwriting that ranges from the mediocre, to the best power metal from any period can offer. But it should be stressed that the consistency in style is still very strong and this along with the sober and talented songwriting skills of Blind Guardian lend a coherence to the music that set it on another level completely apart from the distracted music the vast majority of bands of its kind display. This is also something the band has improved on compared to its earlier albums where the anxiety to insert interludes bordered on gimmick instead of having them moderately and carefully contribute to the aura of the album.

 

Despite bringing a mature and experienced offering in Beyond the Red Mirror, Blind Guardian is not immune to the pitfalls of the power and “symphonic” metal subgenres. Some of the tracks still fall into simple catchy grooves with little thematic substance and straight-up pop structures. Some may raise their hands against this last comment, but in the context of the nature of power metal, a genre driven by standard chord progressions and simple, catchy tunes, having a strong theme is very important since the music is almost all about this. This is why choruses are so important in power metal as well (that and the fact that it is essentially pop music going on metal). The clearest example of this in the album is the fifth track, “Ashes of Eternity”, which is unabashedly a pop, pseudo symphonic metal track that relies almost entirely on groove, which indicates an empty song.

 

As for the highlights,  the band has some truly outstanding features in the album like very smooth tonicizations that elongate sections or connect two different sections smoothly in away that does not break up the melody but rather transforms the song, giving it the aforementioned variety within consistent style and coherent expression. I would like to point the audience in the direction of the fourth track (which is taken from their previous album), “At the Edge of Time” , for a remarkable example of this. This track contains all the cliche elements of modern power metal. The spoken word, the beginning without drums and only guitar melodies, the heavy synth “orchestration”.  But here they point strongly in a direction, they all seem to be working together for the concept, and actually carrying the song forward surely and decidedly through passages, ravines, forests that take your breath away through the power of expectation, prolongation and the shifting of the harmonic goal so that the moment you are almost there, a new vista is revealed. Each a vital support for the leading vocal melody, the different ideas in the smoothly connected sections build on and connect strongly with each other here, an exemplary lesson for metal composition of any kind.

 

The appropriate, technically efficient and inspiring guitar solos come when expected and do not steal the show. This in itself should be a lesson for power metal bands. Blind Guardian have also finally reached a point (which they have been approaching throughout their discography) where the music does not seem to be entirely about the saccharine expression of the vocals or screechy guitar melodies that do not add anything to the construction of the music except superficial flare. This is a mature band that has released in Beyond the Red Mirror one of the best records this genre can offer, which is admittedly very limited by its very nature. In spite of this, and contrary to personal preference complaints (the overdubbing of the vocals this guy always does is beyond irritating), I have to say that if you absolutely have to listen to this sort of music, then listen to Blind Guardian.

Encyrcle to release new album

encyrcleDanish Power-Speed Metal band Encyrcle will be releasing their new album on June 2. You can listen to a preview of the album on Soundcloud.

While the label and the media would have you believe the band is playing some innovative form of mixture of genres, this is a laughable marketing attempt at disguising what is just a band playing a refined and expertly played Speed Metal in the vein of Epic Power Metal full of hooks.

 

 

Mistweaver – Nocturnal Bloodshed

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Labeled under the very loose term melodic death metal, Spanish band Mistweaver write a versatile power metal with mainstream sensibilities and growling vocals. An experienced band sharing the stage with many prominent acts such as Suffocation, Enslaved, Exodus, Grave and Sodom, Mistweaver is onto their 5th full-length album.

The versatility in style mentioned earlier refers to a range in riffing that oscillates between straight up heavy metal to heavy-doom to acoustic passages that come out of nowhere topped with typical folk melodies ala Wintersun. But these guys are more accessible than the black-touched Wintersun, making heavier use of headbanging chugs and simple melodies. The use of keyboards is similar to the role given to them in In the Nightside Eclipse. Some sections touch on the more opera rock – oriented brand of power metal, the so-called symphonic power metal.

Mistweaver is the sort of band that has stayed on top of their game by doing everything that is expected of them. They have been active and playing with big names, they have put out an average of one album every three years (long enough for the judicious fan not to fall for a fast and cheap album, but not so long so that said fan does not conclude that the band has gone rusty), and their music has every single trait a fan of the general power metal and related genres might wish to find in an album of this kind.

A Comment on Bardic Tradition in metal

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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.