On Appreciating Music and Reverse Engineering

04 Apr 2012, Athens, Greece --- April 4, 2012 - Athens, Greece - The famous ''Antikythera Mechanism'' is the earliest preserved portable astronomical calculator.The ''Antikythera Shipwreck'' exhibition takes place at National Archaeological museum in Athens. All antiquities recovered in 1900-1901 and 1976 from the legendary shipwreck off the islet of Antikythera, South of the Peloponnese will be presented for the first time in a temporary exhibition. The recovery of the shipwreck itself was the first major underwater archaeological expedition. It was undertaken by sponge divers with the assistance of the Greek Royal navy(1900-1901). The wreck is dated aproximately in 60-50 BC. (Credit Image: © Aristidis Vafeiadakis) --- Image by © Aristidis Vafeiadakis/ZUMA Press/Corbis

Music analysis and judgement (of any of its attributes or as a whole) can be done from different vantage points and with different emphases. Generally speaking, there are a few main approaches that are common in pop and metal reviews. Some judge it by its production qualities and its popularity, that is, mainly as a marketable commercial product. Others that are inclined to “feeling” the music will base their reviews on technically uninformed emotional impressions of the music. Others with a limited but comprehensive understanding of the technical will judge music as if it were a contraption, even being able to separate emotional impressions from material achievements of music. These are broad categories but individual reviewers usually fall in grey areas in between them with stronger tendencies towards one or another.

DMU’s approach has traditionally been one of judging music as romantic-era (19th century) literary and music critics would: an attention to evocative results as a function of technical means with a holistic emphasis. What this means is that what is most important is the final and total result and not the individual merits.  Additionally, we focus on the lasting evocative power arising from a layered and technically (at the composition level) competent work that moves beyond the technicality itself while not disregarding the musical balance it provides. In music we see the construction of Gothic cathedrals and not modern skyscrapers.

A useful analogy can be made between detailed music appreciation and reverse engineering in software engineering. Some might jump at the thought of comparing the two since “music is not a computer program” but these are nonsensically reductionist complaints. Anyone who truly understands how an analogy works knows that the source of its power arises from the insurmountable distance between the two obviously disparate objects being placed beside each other. The distance and disparity only serves to bring to the fore and underscore the characteristics we are interested in, achieving greater clarity by a negation of the irrelevant. The objects are not equated, they are superimposed. More precisely the main object under analysis is transposed into the space of the second one being used as an analogy.

To understand reverse engineering we must understand the order and direction of original construction. A vague idea is conceived usually behind a foggy screen since the builders have not yet figured out the details of how they will bring this into reality. Then, a step a time and usually with deviations from the original concept, the “material” shape of the concept comes into being. At the other end, when we are presented with a piece of software to reverse engineer, that is to say, to analyze and understand in terms of its parts, what we can see is the materialized concept only. The first step is to understand what this piece of software exactly does as we do not know how it was built. We get to understand what it does by categorizing input and output relations, which direct us towards an understanding its behavior in different situations — different contexts. The result of  a successfully reverse-engineered software program is a piece of code whose compiled object behaves the same as the original one in every conceivable way possible. This code is most probably different from the original one, but this is irrelevant since the importance of this code is the understanding and reproducing of the final piece of software. Original software building moves from details and into the solidification of a vision. Reverse engineering moves from the solidified vision and into the details.

In other words, what matters most is the total end result (as in music or software engineering) and not the judging of parts for their own sake (but only in relation as to how they affect that end result). This is why it is important as an analyst to move in a backward manner. But for this to be valuable, the person must understand this holistic result first, and this is only achieved through study and knowledge. This is comparable to the analyst of software who needs to not only see the input and output relations but understand higher-level concepts and probabilistic tendencies derivable from those. In the same way the analyst of music must through his own lenses and knowledge grasp a picture of the whole in its relations between harmony, rhythm and melody derive a map of sequences of movements and balances.

Going from the general to the specific enables us to keep a holistic view in focus. It helps us place the sum of the parts over the individual parts themselves. Trying to pick out the traits first and then judging the whole by making a recapitulation of these is not only obfuscating the whole which some with a more limited understanding judge to be impossible to put in objective terms but can be deceiving of just what the true quality of this work actually is.

To illustrate this point we can observe how appreciation of many so-called progressive acts is carried out. The positive reviews of these usually entail a shopping list of traits to be filled. Tempo changes, signature changes, contrasting moods, variety of instrumentation, instrumental competence, catchy and captivating melodies perhaps, too. An album like Dream Theater’s Images and Words fits these requirements to the letter and yet the result is a messy carnival train wreck that expresses nothing in particular precisely because there is no view of the whole in mind as a musically-balanced entity, but only as a sequence of cool moments.

This phenomenon can also occur through ignorance of what music constitutes. This happens in pop and the so-called symphonic metal, which I will re-baptize with a more honest name: metal-like pop, or just metal pop. In this vein, an album like Nightwish’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful is received by its fans and judged primarily in terms of how catchy it is. How effective its hooks are and how much they will like its melodies. Arguably a more musically honest affair than the pseudo prog of Dream Theater, this reduces music to only one of its many aspects and judges the whole by its effectiveness.

Finally, I would like to mention the often mis-appreciated Obscura by Gorguts. Ignorant and pretentious journalist twats like Anthony Fantano spewing almost nonsensical and musically irrelevant descriptions such as “intense technicality”, “noisy surprises” and “dizzying structures” of Gorguts’ music in Coloured Sands represent the epitome of the post-modernist hipster’s appreciation of the band’s music. While popular arguments in favor of Obscura include how “technical” it is (while most fans barely even grasp what this actually entails, they think it has to do with how difficult it is to play or hear), how foreboding its atmosphere is while remaining “brutal” (an obviously superficial judgement of quality) or even worse, how “original” (by which they mean different) it is. They’ve basically reduced a masterpiece to “difficult to play and listen to, brutal and quite different from most stuff out there”.

The merits of Obscura are far more subtle than that, as are any real merits resulting from true excellence. The degree to which it sounds superficially different comes from a use of the riff that I would call mystical. That is to say, the riffs and their harmony here no longer represent what they traditionally do, but they remain significant in terms of the operations they build in the context of their neighboring riffs. They stop being translucent symbols that show the way into a harmonic and melodic conclusion and they become opaque, acquiring new meaning — a specific musical function dictated by their author– determined by their positions at different moments that instead causes the mind to reach that conclusion on its own through coherent indirection and dissimilitude of expression within a consistent language. In this, Obscura is the death metal counterpart to Darkthrone’s Transilvanian Hunger.

Stepping away from the dynamic picture that music is and listening for the total results and relations in the big picture enable us to know exactly what to look for as explanations for these. In a way it implies focusing on an interplay between the subjective (our impressions of the whole) and the objective (the music structures themselves) to locate music — itself an expression of beauty, to which the dichotomy of objective and subjective is inapplicable — somewhere in between.

Enslaved – In Times (2015)

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Watching the greats fall is always painful. But watching Darkthrone go from Transilvanian Hunger to The Underground Resistance is not half as painful as seeing how Enslaved defile their name in a pseudo-prog mainstream pop metal album like In Times after knowing they were capable of something like Vikingligr Veldi. Even without drawing a comparison, the contrast-oriented sequence of scenes posited by the modern metal of In Times as an excuse for music is in itself enough to throw this out the window.

The sort of failure that an album like this represents is one of the most pervasive maladies that afflicts modern metal, but it was born long before the metal itself developed. The pseudo-prog musical fallacy of either stitching unrelated sections with disparate characters and contrasting ideas  or merely repeating riffs and similar ideas with no subtlety was born as soon as progressive rock became a “thing” and paper-thin rednecks like Camel and Rush were confused with the real-deal bands like Yes and King Crimson which require much more subtlety to appreciate. This is a sickness that metal has to overcome if it is to have an artistic future and if the absorption into mainstream pop music is to be staved off.

This absorption is always taking place, and there are always pockets of resistance. Enslaved is showing us the most dangerous example of this watering down. It is the most dangerous because it gives the superficial appearance of attaining greater complexity. But it is a trivial complexity. It is no real musical complexity as it only consists in stacking elements that sound appealing in passing much in the way Michael’s Pink Frothy AIDS constructs for the intellectual, sensitive hipsters. This music is painful to listen to for any discerning listener looking for coherence and meaning in art and should be avoided by any fan or musician looking for excellence except as an example of a common pitfall of the pseudo-intellectual metal movement.

Supuration releases “Suffocate Through Asphyxia” from Reveries of a Bloated Cadaver

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Back in the early 1990s, Supuration grew from a gore-oriented grindcore band into a death metal band, and then infused the mix with brainy indie/alternative rock of a progressive nature, carrying forward all three influences in varying degrees of balance.

Two decades later, the band plans to release Reveries of a Bloated Cadaver, a modern recording and high-value re-envisioning of the earlier songs with more technical playing, better production and improved cover art. To tease the fans, Supuration released a video for “Suffocate Through Asphyxia” that shows the direction this album will take.

Interestingly, the band preserve the underground metal focus of this material and take it in the proficient but still intensely violent and alienated direction that bands like Autopsy and Entombed embarked upon toward the mid-1990s. Improved playing and more adept tempo changes distinguish the original material of these songs, which appears somewhat reorganized to present itself more distinctively, and place it into a fully modern death metal sound.

It will be interesting to see what they do with other tracks that had more of a grindcore or alternative rock orientation back in the day. Supuration was the original alternative rock/metal crossover, but was ignored by the media because it retained its metal-ness instead of making metal-flavored Fugazi clones like the recent spate of media darlings. Maybe the band will reclaim its position in history with this upcoming release.

Tau Cross releases first track “Lazarus” from upcoming album Tau Cross

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All-star metal/punk band Tau Cross — with members Rob “The Baron” Miller from Amebix on bass/vocals, Michel “Away” Langevin on drums, and members of Misery on guitars — has released the first single from its upcoming album Tau Cross. The single, entitled “Lazarus,” shows the style of this new band.

The band describes its sound as “the natural evolution of Miller’s work in Amebix,” and “Lazarus” bears this out — with one important detail that most forget. Amebix continued its evolution recently with Redux, which showed classic Amebix tracks with a Metallica Ride the Lightning treatment paired with atmospheric and ancient tribal sounds. Where Tau Cross picks up however is after Amebix Monolith, which sounded like old Amebix run through a filter of AC/DC and Motorhead. “Lazarus” returns to that point but brings to bear the full technical power and songwriting wisdom of these experienced composers.

Death metal fanatics may be hoping for a version of Amebix No Sanctuary or Arise with more technical instrumentation, but Tau Cross takes a more heavy metal approach but updates it with the high-intensity rhythms of punk and then a unique songwriting approach that can only be described as spirit or intent more than technique: a cosmic metaphysical outlook much like that of Tangerine Dream paired with a Celtic tribal feel that would make Absu drool. The problem that Miller and Away face in their “day job” bands of Amebix and Voivod is that those bands have already made a name for themselves in crust hardcore punk and progressive heavy metal already, and those expectations bestow too much baggage for material in another direction to be released under those names. So far, “Lazarus” is the only track released and it shows only a small slice of what Tau Cross will be, but there is promise in this continuation and outgrowth of the Amebix concept to a new level.

Supuration releases cover image for Reveries…

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French progressive rock/death metal hybrid Supuration have released the cover for their upcoming album, Reveries…. Created by famed underground metal artist Dan Seagrave, the cover image displays classic death metal symbology in its gnarled and organic textures in a mythological setting.

Reveries… will see release via Listenable Records on May 29, 2015. Mastered by Dawn Swano (Edge of Sanity), the album “is a re_recording of old songs written during the 90s” according to the band. Perhaps the combination of their newer more aggressive technique, classic death metal imagery and their inventive songwriting will forge a new classic.

Martyr – Extracting the Core: Live 2001

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Coming from the French-Canadian progressive metal powerhouse that later loaned members to Gorguts, Extracting the Core shows us Martyr playing a live set of their classic works. Before you wince: this is one of the better-produced live albums available such that it is indiscernible from a good but not excellent studio job; all instruments are clear and mixed in a way that fits expectations of studio recordings, and crowd noise is minimal. As a live album, it preserves everything you might want to hear from a band on record or live with a bit of extra energy in the vocals as musicians trying to cram ten thousand notes into six-minute songs howl at the audience with a high rate of exertion. The real question regards the style of this musically-erudite band, which brings up the question of poetry versus burritos.

A burrito, as you may know, is one of nature’s most perfect foods. A wrap of flour and lard encloses ingredients ranging from guacamole, pico de gallo, and carne asada to Spanish rice, sour cream and refried beans, and the whole thing is then consumed with the aid of delicious picante and verde sauces. What makes a burrito excellent is that instead of choosing what to have for dinner, you have everything, but in a form more convenient even than a sandwich. One cannot praise this Mexican-Spanish-Texican-Californian dish enough. But when composing metal, it becomes a brutal force. As Socrates tells us, all events have causes. What is the cause of a song? One either intends it to tell a story, or assembles a few musical theories into contrasting elements and makes a burrito of it. As with the burrito, uniqueness is lost in favor of a kind of sameness of differentness, where each song has everything and the kitchen sink, but over time — much like the constant pounding brutality of early Napalm Death or later Suffocation-inspired bands — it all starts to become the same, different variants of essentially an identical idea. With a poem, the form of the song and techniques used reflect the content; with a burrito, the content of the song reflects the need to include many different things in the form. You can analogize to variety shows, pluralism, unitarianism, and even Christianity itself — a compilation of a dozen religions, mostly Greek, Hindu, Jewish, Nordic, Babylonian and Egyptian — if you feel the need. But the point is that while the burrito pleases everyone, it does not achieve the distinctive expression that makes a song evocative of experience, thought or perception, which is what makes a poem or song stand out. It feels like something you have encountered, or something you wish to, and more than creating a solid impression it creates a space of balanced parts ambiguity and clarity, which makes you want to launch into it and battle for the beautiful to win out over the mundane, boring, pointless, directionless and entropic. In a burrito, this space does not exist because it is being used to hold all those delicious ingredients together.

Extracting the Core overflows with delicious ingredients. Head shredder Daniel Mongrain may be one of the most interesting guitarists in popular music. His jazz-influenced leads — this means dialing back the simplicity of rock music and accepting more complex harmony and corresponding technique — both display impressive technique and the ability to write a melodic solo with multiple emotions. All instruments show great proficiency, from the adept technical drumming that avoids overshadowing other instruments, to a subtle but present bass and complex riffing with difficult time signatures all nailed perfectly. The problem is the means by which this band composes: requiring a burrito means that a band must default to, at the core of each song, the simplest possible construction which can include all of its elements. When the randomness is removed, what remains is a simple speed metal song, with Meshuggah-style abrupt off-beat (as opposed to cadenced, like Metallica) speed metal riffing that alternates with hard rock and thinly-disguised jazz fusion riffs.

Essentially, this album is Pantera after music graduate school, much as Meshuggah simplified Suffocation and Exhorder and then amplified the degree of texture at oddball timings to produce their overrated material. While it is mournful to admit this, it kills the album and makes the listening experience one of tuning out the over-dramatic and busy riffing to get to the solos. In addition, in order to support the burrito, Martyr adopt many different voices of composition, from Supuration-style alternative-progressive metal to nearly hardcore, and the result injects further randomness. It would be better, as Gorguts did, to give this band a song template varied enough to tempt them but purposeful enough to channel these energies toward more musical profundity through instantial contrast in a prolonged and developing narrative.

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At the Gates releases teaser for At War With Reality

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Something lurks in humanity that afflicts all of our best efforts. When we create something, and then start seeing it as a tool or means to an end, the principle of its greatness is lost. It seems to occur because when the object is directed at humanity, it attends to what we think and wish were true instead of what is. Thus metal bands go from creating vast fantasy to creating ludicrous self-prostituting visions of excess to make their audience feel important, and the beauty of the music itself is lost.

This gauntlet looms over every death metal band that makes a “comeback” album two decades on and claims it is returning to the old style. Recently At the Gates made such a claim, and in face of public skepticism and vast anticipation, released a teaser. This contains about 45 seconds of music amidst the visuals and branding, so any assessment of it speaks only to that portion. The album could vary from it, although smart money says that such a turn would be anomalistic given that this snippet is what the band chose to promote the album. Nonetheless, this tiny window into the soul of At the Gates may tell us what to expect, and showcases the phenomenal production and art direction this record has received. Clearly Century Media intend to make this the metal event of the year and have every chance of succeeding.

The excerpt provided shows us At the Gates using the type of melodies they used on Terminal Spirit Disease and the second half of With Fear I Kiss the Burning Darkness which would be at home on a 1970s jazz-infused stadium rock album but in power chords take on a more sinister mood. However, these are presented with the type of frenetic riffing using internal texture to bolster the otherwise sparse melodic pattern that we see on Slaughter of the Soul and the first album from The Haunted. The result suggests some promise but lacks the developmental depth of Terminal Spirit Disease due to the intensified speed and desire to keep phrases short and hookish in a conventional manner as was used on Slaughter of the Soul.

As noted above, this track shows us only part of the album but it reveals the part that the band, label and management likely think will most appeal to the audience they are targeting. It seems that their attempt is to make a version of Slaughter of the Soul which embraces the rhythmic frenzy of The Haunted and the slightly more musical approach of mid-period At the Gates, which taps into both metalcore and Opeth audiences and should produce a best-seller for this band.

Classical and metal experiencing same paradigm shift

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Over the past decade, metal and related genres have shifted toward a highly technical perspective on instrumentalism. Where earlier genres valued the primitive and passionate, bands now tend to begin with a grounding in jazz and progressive rock theory and expand into metal.

This raises the bar for entry into the genre, but on the level of mechanics only. Corresponding, creativity seems to have declined in the genre, perhaps because artists with something to communicate — a.k.a. “content” — now face an uphill path toward technical perfection before that content will be accepted in the genre.

A similar phenomenon occurred in the classical genre as well. Like metal, this niche genre struggles to keep existing fans while making new ones and not becoming “dumbed-down” like everything else in popular culture. As a result, it has become perfectionist on a technical level, perhaps to the detriment of content, notes an article on the evolution in classical music.

Today’s classical musicians are rarely given this choice between expression and perfection. As David Taylor, assistant concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, recently told the Los Angeles Times, “Today, perfection is a requirement. You must have flawless intonation, you must be a machine.” A single missed note or halting phrase could be a musician’s downfall: the end of a job interview, perhaps the end of a career.

This perfectionist culture can crush young musicians’ creativity: they’re too afraid of messing up to take risks. As Thor Eckert Jr. wrote for the Christian Post back in 1982, “the very qualities that made Rubinstein unique have been abandoned in the music world today. Rather than emotion, we now have technical prowess, rather than expressivity and poetry we have accuracy, rather than individuality, we have a bland sameness.”

The article goes on to discuss the impact that technology has had on classical music, namely a lowering of concert attendance and less of a tendency to purchase albums in favor of individual songs. This development threatens the mainstay income of classical musicians, and has driven them toward entrepreneurial ventures including pop music hybrids. While this particular source feels this is a positive development, many of us are not so sure.

When commerce takes over any given form, whether art or music or writing, it tends to increase the tangible factors of quality while decreasing the intangible ones, like content or profundity. This in turn drives artists toward increasing degrees of triviality and novelty in an effort to distinguish themselves, with the result that few focus on quality of expression beyond the technical at all.

Simultaneously, the knowledge of technical precision becomes democratized or spread widely at low cost, which means that soon the genre floods with highly proficient players who may have no ability to compose, improvise or otherwise contribute anything but “new” recombined versions of what previously existed. In metal, this has been a death knell; let us hope that for classical it is not the same.

Is all metal speed metal now?

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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.

Marquis Marky leaving Coroner at end of February

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Coroner occupy a unique place in metal history. Coming from the speed metal camp, they injected their music with technicality and a high art sense that placed them alongside Voivod and Prong as some of the 1980s oddities.

As power metal grew popular in the 2000s, Coroner came back into focus because so much of what they did presaged what power metal would become. As a result, the band re-united and began to play live again.

However, today drummer Marquis Marky announced on Facebook that he will be leaving the band at the end of February:

I think we have played more than enough reunion shows and now it’s time to either stop doing reunion shows or to move on with a new album. For me it was clear from the start that I didn’t want to record another album. I love the sound of Coroner but for me it’s the moment to explore new sounds without the weight of the past on my shoulders.

Ron, Tommy and I agreed that Coroner should continue with another drummer.

As with many situations, strength is also weakness. To be in Coroner is to be weighted down by Coroner, and to thus long for the green grass on the other side of that fence. Thus his departure is understandable; it has been 30 years since Coroner started out, and presumably a musician might change world-outlook and thus musical style during that time.