Article by David Rosales. These three brief reviews continue Death Metal Underground’s journey into seventies progressive rock.
By Johan P, with the amiable assistance of David Rosales. This review continues Death Metal Underground’s 1970s Progressive Rock for Hessians series.
In this part of the article series “1970s Progressive Rock for Hessians”, I have chosen to take on the English group Yes‘ fourth album Fragile from 1971. While their fifth effort, Close to the Edge, is generally regarded as their creative peak and definite statement, Fragile was more important for the development of the nascent progressive rock genre, and perhaps a more suitable entry point for someone who is getting into prog rock from a metal background. There is definitely a sense of power in the works of Yes even if it takes on a different form than what we are used to in metal music. Where early metal bands like Black Sabbath expressed a gritty, doom-laden heaviness through guitar-centered power chord riffing, Yes opted to build momentum through a more instrumentally integrated approach. That is not to say that there are no heavy guitar parts on ‘Fragile’, but here the guitars assume a somewhat different role than in metal.
Article by David Rosales.
I. The Myth of Progress
Each epoch in human history is affected by the myths that define its own attitude; myths that could be defined as foundational illusions on which the dogmas of the time are based. For us, that myth is progress itself and the consequent air of superiority that comes with it. Having arrived at a postmodernist stage, this criticism of modernity is nothing new, but at the same time, nothing has been done about it so that we still suffer the same symptoms. This is one of the maladies of postmodernism: an even greater contempt for other epochs in its supposed abstraction from prejudices, which creates an illusory special place whence a new prejudice against everything and all is provisioned, whence nothing is actually properly addressed or solved only haphazardly patched over.
We call it the myth of progress not because we believe that improvement is impossible, but because the word has become so much a staple of modernity that it is assumed that our “progress” applies to many more areas than it actually does. The only clear advantage we have over humanity in the past is our clear technological advantage, summarized in more precise knowledge of scientific mechanics1. We have a bigger sword in hand and know how to use it.
The average, modern man also considers we have a moral advantage over the barbarism and superstition of the past. He does not consider his own moral assumptions as spurious. That is always reserved for the other. This contradiction is especially obvious in the secular humanist values that currently dominate the sphere of Western politics and popular opinion. Religion (by which they are usually referring to Christianity and sometimes to Islam if the critics themselves be Christian) is vilified as leading to a dulling of the senses; Catch phrases originally belonging to the Marxist left (“opium of the masses”) are embedded into popular consciousness.
Both the left and right base their ideologies on different interpretations of the modern myth of progress and the false sense of moral superiority thereof. The humanist values that both presume to uphold were born out of Christian Reformist philosophy. Consequently Aristotelianism (philosophy for those not philosophically inclined) plays a prominent role in modernist attitudes, contributing a materialist kind of Naturalism. All this is patched up with some apparently arbitrary morality (actually completely arising from popular Judeo-Christian thought) designed to make individuals feel safe and good about themselves independently of reality. This is secular humanism.
II. Predestination and Inevitability
What we may take from this realization is that no matter how much we learn, possess or discover, we are still products of the most recent past. We are the result of the uninterrupted flow of historical events, from a hypothetical primordial cause or an infinite set of cycles, to the present. The degree and the nature of success of independent enterprise of any kind is wholly dependent on the variable states at that point in time within the cosmic flow of events due to the immensity of the world with respect to a single human being and the fact that individual wills reside within individuals only.
The degree of success obviously refers to the magnitude of the same: its overall effect throughout the course of time. The nature of success depends on how success is defined. Whether you judge it by its popular acceptance, its practical application by the rulers irrespective of the opinion of the masses, by its effects correlation with the original goals of the enterprise. Quantization of success leads to lossy reductionism so an integral assessment of degree of success is based on relatively arbitrary judgements. In parallel, the judgement of the nature of success is based on ideology, itself dependent on how individuals choose to interpret reality and to what degree that interpretation follows logically from that reality. This interpretation is applied to a perception of reality, not to reality itself. This is a distinction too few make, unfortunately leading to grave misconceptions where perception and interpretation are confounded
Words may provide false solace in that colloquial language expressions seldom express what we mean precisely. Words are misleading. The statement “We are products of our past” may be taken far more lightly than it ought to be. Many take it to mean that our present physical conditions result from the decisions of our predecessors, which is true. However, a popular belief is that our minds may roam completely free and that our freedom of choice and thought (supposedly superior that of animals) grants us the power to change the current tide of events. What is not often mentioned is that the force necessary to break this tide of social developments is proportional to the degree of change to be implemented.
This struggle between established flow and forced change occurs not only on the physical plane but on the mental one as well. The state of thoughts and conceived possibilities are wholly dependent on both social exposure (all-around learning) and genetic proclivity2. Our thoughts are dependent on the past and subject to it. In opposition to this naturalist point of view stands the idea of our minds arising from an immortal spirit emanating from a divine source standing outside the universe. Modernism is against anything supernatural, so it arrives silently this contradiction only to casually avert its eyes from it.
III. Innovation and Establishment in Metal
Most of us understand metal as a non-complacent artistic movement that tends towards innovation in order to reformulate itself so that it is never trapped by convention. This reluctance the genre displays to entrapment by academic stiffness has worked miracles and produced true masterpieces of contemporary art, unrecognized as such by the public at large and masturbatory academia. Nevertheless we must be on guard, since that same rebelliousness may hinder the movement and ground it in something that is more of a childish rejection of discipline. Childish as Metal has moved well beyond its birth rites and is now rather well-defined in its limits, even though these cannot be formulated in a scientific manner.
The impetus towards forward movement coupled with an ignorance of true artistic relevance results in an exaggerated attention toward overtly “progressive” outfits and a dismissal of those which seem aesthetically grounded in tradition. Logic plays little role in this ideological and emotional thought process. While it should be easy to conclude that traditional aesthetics are surer to produce higher quality results given the collectively accumulated experience they embody, there is a tendency to think that what is of the past belongs to the past and that today needs an “updated” version. There is an Apple product consumerism applied to the general expectation of artistic expression here.
Metalheads arbitrarily select contradictory dogmas by which to shape their judgement of the art, reflecting the values of the modern and post-modernist contexts up-to-date headbangers inhabit. According to these “progressive” revisionists, genre guidelines and ideology must evolve and evolution means progress. Progress must lead to secular value. Music, furthermore, must reflect this openness and disavowal of encumbering tradition. In opposition to them stand the masses of staunch metalheads that may not complicate themselves with artsy wordiness, but who are intuitively connected to the deeper nature of metal, and defend its traditions through emotion.
IV. The Value of Well-Established Genres
As previously mentioned, the value of tradition is the collective experiences it represents. It is the result of trial and error, the remembrance of individual illumination, and the time-tested efficiency of its connection to human nature3. Tradition is a powerful weapon on which greatness is built but it is also only wealth and potential. Each generation and individual must utilize it to manifested their energy in motion.
That genres and movements decay is not an effect of tradition, but of what Prozak likes to call “crowdism“. In attacking tradition and glorifying the scene, we would only be achieving exactly the opposite effect of what we presume to. This follows directly from a reluctance to place responsibility on individuals and instead blame abstract concepts such as institutions, ideologies, and traditions. Tradition blossoms into works of great beauty when well-tended and lovingly nurtured, showcasing a wondrously creative fecundity possible only at higher levels of development.
The quality in fertility of worthy traditions may be obfuscated from common understanding as to understand higher-level concepts and representations, one has to have grasped the basics. Most people do not have the disposition towards investing effort to perceive and appropriately receive these higher qualities. Instead, they opt for superficial variations of what they can already understand. Artists that have been forgotten given such a short-sighted mentality include classical and romantic Nordic composers such as Franz Berwald, whose emotionally-stirring symphonies are virtually unmatched in their compact efficiency and inconspicuously thorough treatment of emotions.
In metal, the false dichotomy between traditional stagnation and innovative flare has wreaked havoc: only a handful of people seem to appreciate quality and creativity irrespective of the degree of adherence to traditional aesthetics. Tradition is best appreciated as a more abstract concept that can be traced from the aesthetics. Judgement of quality should not be independent of either, but flexible in taking account of an overall context. The following are a few albums whose adherence to a traditionalist but creative paradigm has won them little love from the masses. These have remained in relative obscurity despite their meaningful contributions to metal:
Serpent Ascending – The Enigma Unsettled (2011)
Atlantean Kodex – The Golden Bough (2010)
Written on the morning of the 22nd, April 2016, close to the land where the sun rises, while listening to Iron Maiden’s ‘Somewhere in Time’.
1 Theories on the origin and underlying nature of reality in physics and chemistry continue to remain metaphysical even if supported and represented in equations. This is an important point towards realizing the limitations of quantification-based science and the illogical idea that if one cannot measure something visually with a ruler then it isn’t relevant.
2 The idea of genetically-based mental faculties is ignored and frowned upon by modern dogma. It is detested and rejected despite severely inconclusive experimental data demonstrating natural differences, not a lack of them. An emotional vilification ensues because the idea of inherent (and therefore beyond our control) differences in capacity does not bide well with the religious commandment that “All men are created equal.” This same idea has been upheld by pseduo-scientific theories produced under both democracy and communism, political paradigms that are themselves entirely dependent on the truthfulness of this concept. It is difficult to avoid seeing a clear conflict of interests here; an out-of-hand scientific protectionism of dogma through sponsored and biased logistic and political support is the rule.
3 The perception of patterns and the effects of music through their interaction with our biological make-up in the ever-moving sequence of its unique states in time.
Article by Johan P.
The creation of this brief introduction to some of the more prominent bands of 70s progressive rock was directly inspired by David Rosales’ shooting down of late-60s/early-70s Pink Floyd. My article should not be viewed as a polemic against the conclusions drawn from ”A Sadistic Dissection of Classic Pink Floyd”. On the contrary, many of Floyd’s recordings – not least in a prog rock for hessians context – fall short in several respects compared to fellow prog rock groups of that era. The first section of my article (”Background”) serves as a necessary bridge between David’s article and what will follow below.
To keep the potential reader in mind, Pink Floyd might not be the most compatible progressive rock band for someone whose tastes run along the lines of the music promoted by the Death Metal Underground. Therefore, I will in this series offer a brief introductory piece on the genre, followed by a presentation of classics of progressive rock in an attempt to light a spark of interest among metal enthusiasts may become acquainted with this genre that developed in parallel with heavy metal. The focus will inevitably be on artists with British heritage, since most of the more prolific bands were English. Of course this doesn’t mean that prog rock was solely a UK phenomenon. There were loads of bands hailing from all over the globe; many good enough to reach the heights of the established British bands.
Before moving on to the presentation mentioned above, it might be a good idea to study the music of Pink Floyd with the purpose to discover why this band may not be the best entry point to the genre. There are at least three major reasons that could cause disappointment when listening to even the “best” (that is, the records closest to the more adventurous and ambitious side of prog rock and metal music) of Pink Floyd: shortcomings and discrepancies regarding song structuring, musical style and concept:
First, although some Floyd tracks (e.g. “Echoes”, one of their better numbers) features extended song structures or long compositions of an episodic character, they often lack the coherent narrative present in some of the more accomplished epics of progressive rock. For example, a composition featuring an “extended song structure” could be an ordinary rock song built around the usual verse/chorus/bridge components with the addition of one or more elongated parts that are to varying degrees connected to the main song. With “compositions of an episodic character” I refer to songs that are made up of several discrete musical events that are joined into one composition. Extended song structures is more frequently used by Pink Floyd than episodic compositions, although the latter method is very common in progressive rock in general (side note: an example of episodic song structuring gone wrong in metal is Satyricon’s first album, Dark Medieval Times). Quite a few Pink Floyd songs are long alright, but they are often built around roughly three extended song structure sections: first an introduction where the band presents a main theme, followed by a middle section with (often instrumental) excursions and some experimentation (creating atmosphere through electronic effects, guitar solos which builds up tension followed by a potential release, juxtaposition of found sounds, etc.), and finally a closing part, where the main theme returns. Or, if a long Floyd track follow the episodic song template, the compositional method appears to be taking several unrelated songs/ideas and forcing them together into one piece. This last method seems to be applied most carelessly on a larger scale in whole Pink Floyd albums as well. Several of their albums contain contrasting songs placed in an apparently random order, resulting in the works at large sounding both irrational and inconsistent.
The song writing procedure described above doesn’t necessarily count as a bad compositional method, but one of the bigger pitfalls of which the Floyd succumbs to all too often is that if done without enough finesse and thoroughness, these compositions end up with not much development or connection between the different parts. In many cases not just isolated to Pink Floyd, songs of this type end up being flawed by an arbitrary and fragmentary character. It could be the case that Pink Floyd did not have any sort of epic narrative, lyrical or musical, in mind when writing many of their longer tracks – or maybe they did, but just couldn’t pull it through. But why then did they chose to record such long, meandering songs then? Maybe it was more a question of shady conceptual ideas. Parts of the psychedelic/progressive rock ideology appears to have gravitated more towards the whimsical, escapist side of romantic art. Such an outlook shouldn’t be completely dismissed as inappropriate for a progressive rock band but it can pose problems if this attitude to romanticism isn’t backed up by adequate ideas of making a coherent statement. Especially in their earlier years, Pink Floyd made several peculiar attempts at playful and dreamlike tunes, which more than once failed because they turned out to possess an unfinished and pointless character. The reason these songs didn’t turn out so well is that they suffer from a lack of adequate compositional ideas suitable for creating the intended moods and visions.
When it comes to style, Pink Floyd were an early bird among late 60s prog rockers, even pioneering some techniques in a rock music context (experimental use of synthesizers), exploring multisensorial experiences through psychedelic music, live light-shows, and drugs. As Rosales’s Pink Floyd article correctly points out, it often led to nothing but “interesting”, fragmentary, and meaningless ideas. While the band members’ lack of virtuosity doesn’t necessarily pose a problem, it’s a disadvantage that throughout their career they never dared to step too much outside the boundaries of the blues-derived rock style like so many other progressive bands did.
The confused, fragmentary, and unfinished nature of many Pink Floyd songs stems from lack of conceptual substance. Many of their compositions leave the listener with promising impressions left unfulfilled or worse bored with the bads subtly ironic stance working as a defense against such accusations. Few were probably surprised to watch the band (especially band dictator Roger Waters) growing more and more cynical in relation to their own work, their fans, and the music industry as the years passed after their massive public and critical success with Dark Side Of The Moon.
However it would be unfortunate to end the story of progressive rock here. Even Pink Floyd managed to put worthwhile compositions together once in a while. I have a soft spot for the space-rocking live concert part of the double LP Ummagumma, where, surprisingly, there is less trace of whimsy. These compositions are allowed to breathe and linger on to reach the conclusions missing on less adventurous Floyd records. The four tracks on the first disc of Ummagumma are actually live re-workings of older songs performed with a possibly more refined sense of dynamics and texture than in their original studio forms.
If you take a look at the more established narratives of rock history, you will learn of a horrible aberration of 70s rock called “Progressive Rock”. Presented by many rock critics as a genre made up of spoiled middle-class kids trying to impress others of the same ilk with their pseudo-high-art, when all they really produced was kitsch. These musicians’ attempts to become accepted as members of the cultural elite (or the cultural underground for that matter) were, according to “rock history”, crushed with the arrival of punk in the mid-70s. After a dark century of both stadium spectacle and general pretentiousness, people could resume enjoying down to earth authentic rock once more. Some of this might sound reasonable but in several respects, this tale doesn’t live up to reality.
First, although the creative momentum of the original movement had started to wane considerably by the mid-70s, progressive rock bands were more popular than ever among the public in this period. This is an indicator of the survival of progressive music in the aftermath of punk’s simplicity. Furthermore, as the 1980s dawned, a new generation of underground progressive groups set about revitalizing the genre. Although I would say that not much prog rock produced post-1970s can compete with the original wave, the assumption that Sex Pistols and their ilk obliterated progressive music is plain ignorant. The legacy and influence of the progressive old guard may be heard and seen in much contemporary popular music, including metal.
Critics pointing at the corporate selling out and stadium rock syndrome of the bigger progressive groups but a defense may be raised for the accused. Progressive rock interestingly differs in one important respect from most rock music. With prog it is not just a matter of smaller, more worthy bands getting overshadowed by the larger established ones, even if this surely happened. Some of the biggest bands of the genre,somehow managed to perform grand stage productions that still carried meaningful art. The established critical narrative may be a result of the situation of the music industry at the time: record labels, fat and rich thanks to the decades of explosive growth in post-war media consumption, were convinced that obscure groups playing this new form of rock music were highly marketable. Parallels may be drawn to the various metal sub-genres. Those lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time could get considerable production budgets, granting a creative freedom never experienced before in the music business.
Pinning down the characteristics of progressive rock (or any musical genre for that matter) is not the most grateful of task. Neither is this the purpose of this series. Instead, it will contain rather brief background information and descriptions of the featured bands, giving more space to the musical and conceptual content of the selected albums. Hopefully this approach will make sense and awaken an interest of discovery of a genre that I believe has a lot to offer, not least for fans of extreme metal. Some sort of framework might be needed so let’s go back to the infancy of the movement to see where it started off.
Like hard rock and heavy metal, progressive rock stems largely from the late 1960s psychedelic milieu. This was a time of experimentation with not only drugs and alternative lifestyles, but new sounds, musical ideas and approaches. With the aid of mind-altering substances, younger artists took pleasure in finding new meaning in pushing the frontiers of the staling and commodified art forms of rock ‘n’ roll and jazz. These psychedelic explorers (primarily males of European descent from an upper middle-class background, although counterexamples abound) founded groups that in the late 1960s lingered ever closer to becoming progressive rock. In addition to rock and jazz, they also brought into their bands an interest in classical, choral and folk music. However as with any historical narrative, there are of course other factors that could be addressed as well as contradictory and arbitrary information. Take Yes for example, one of the most prominent prog bands to promote virtuosic musicianship and toss classical music topes into the stew. Contrary to common assumption, their guitarist Steve Howe is a self-thought musician who never bothered with learning notes or formal music theory while their ethereal singer Jon Anderson came from a working class background.
There is another facet of progressive rock with a notable parallel in heavy metal music and culture that needs to be addressed: it’s relation to the Romantic Era. This connection is thoroughly stressed and analyzed by Edward Macan in his excellent book on progressive rock, Rocking the Classics: English Progressive Rock and the Counterculture. Macan explores not only the ideological roots of progressive rock, but manages to highlight the more crucial musical influences that helped create and crystallize the genre. He shows progressive rock’s origin in late 1960s psychedelia and what caused the music to take its particular form. As a tribute to Macan’s groundbreaking work, I will conclude this introduction with two interwove quotes from the aforementioned book:
Anyone who has even a passing familiarity with progressive rock is usually aware that it represents an attempt to harness classical forms into a rock framework, to combine the classical tradition’s sense of space and monumental scope with rock’s raw power and energy. Understanding the role classical forms have played in progressive rock, then, is essential to understanding the genre as a musical style.
For musicians of the late 1960s who wished to continue with instrumental music – and these were increasingly drawn to the emerging progressive rock, jazz-rock, and heavy metal styles – the question became how to bring a sense of organization, variety, and climax to the music without completely destroying the spontaneity and sense of timelessness which characterized the best psychedelic jams.
The musicians who pioneered progressive rock found their answer in limiting the role of improvisation to one or two sections of a piece, and carefully organizing the rest of the material along the lines of nineteenth-century symphonic forms. […] Nineteenth-century music and psychedelic music are both Romantic in the fullest sense of the word, sharing the same cosmic outlook, the same preoccupation with the infinite and otherwordly, the same fondness for monumental statement (often conveyed through very long pieces), and the concern with expressing epic conflicts.
Stay tuned to this series for the successive revelation and discussion of some of the best and genre defining albums of progressive rock!
Diamond Head were who Metallica and Megadeth desperately wanted to be. A seventeen-year-old Lars Urlich famously flew to London to see them play after buying their debut from a magazine ad. Celtic Frost owed their career to the Holst-opened classic “Am I Evil?” Lightning to the Nations, is the “the missing link” between the early New Wave of British Heavy Metal and later speed metal.
The guitarwork and songwriting are excellent throughout. Driving Motorhead-style rhythm riffs served by pounding pickup beats and groovy bass lines progress power chords into solos that Blackmore and Tipton wish they had written. These extended leads serve not only as climaxes but continue building tension, alleviated only when the original verse riff (or a variation thereof) returns. Clever variations in the extended riff phrasing enable verses to wind and flow freely around catchy choruses, continuing effectively long after lesser groups would have ran them their course.
Yes, Lightning to the Nations is bluesy with many influences from the riff-based hard rock of the seventies. The vocalist even multi-tracked himself on “Sucking My Love” in imitation of Robert Plant. None of these rock roots serve to lessen the force and creativity present in the music. The atrocious keyboards and reverb mixed into the 1993 Metal Blade reissue do. Stick with the original LP and the 2011 “Deluxe Edition” CD remaster from the original tapes.
Blood Urn is a death metal project whose approach to the genre is one that can reinvigorate it while being very traditional. Superficially, a listener who only glances over the surface of …Of Sorcery and Death may incorrectly say this is an old school album, a modern euphemism for retro-acts or merely those who do not play the metalcore-based so-called technical death metal. It is true that this is an old school release, but only in the sense that it upholds the same ideals of the best of that era, including certain preferences in aesthetics as a reflection of an inner attitude — an idea that stands in contrast with the superficial selection of genres and expressions of modern bands that wear style as a change of clothes to pose as something they are not.
If we made the mistake of approaching this distinction like most clueless people do, that is, with a shopping list of the aesthetic characteristics that usually accompany a genre in order to identify it, we would definitely arrive at the same conclusions. That is why premises are as important as having good logic. Wrong premises and good logic only lead you safely to wrong conclusions. But if we start with the premise that those aesthetic characteristics are only the reflection of a spirit which is much more than intention or purpose but also crystallized significance, we will recognize that the shopping-list approach is at best a collection of hints and not a concrete definition.
Blood Urn …Of Sorcery and Death is a death metal (‘old school’ death metal is the only one, with various regional styles) album in the truest sense. A death metal at heart and in representation. The expressions that seem typical of death metal are used here in what can be accurately described as progressive without incurring in the fallacy that all disparate appending of music qualifies as such. In accordance with death metal tradition, music builds up through structural devices: mainly through variation and manipulation of theme with a climax and a clear musical goal in mind for an end. By musical goal we mean one as defined by traditional classical theory, not by the “good intentions” of the music writer. Intention and realization are two different and distinguishable things, something relativists and individualists would do well to keep in mind.
While varied in expression, Blood Urn manages to remain fairly coherent, choosing to tie different textures in a mix that also incorporates the riff-salad approach. In this, it is somewhat similar to the way Horgkomostropus Lúgubre Resurrección builds in a very typical death metal push and pull between structural theme-play and variation and contrasting ideas that are brought gradually into the fold, first as a splash of cold water to the listener and then in gradual integration through interleaving and recombination of sections and themes. It is important to say that in good death metal fashion, the limit of the contrasting ideas does not break away from the chosen style, which is the sin of many a pseudo-prog outfit. This conjoined approach of dealing structural development from a theme with one and then riff-salad with the other only to increasingly interleave them and sometimes ultimately fuse them into altogether different endings can be referenced in masterful albums such as At the Gates’ The Red in the Sky is Ours and is also the approach of Blood Urn to music composition, albeit with a much more humble and less-layered result.
Metal act Triguna release their first official music video for their debut record Embryonic Forms. Over the course of the next year they will release one a month. When all songs in the record have been released in individual takes, the band will collect them in a video compilation. Along with it, live footage as well as pre and post show footage will be released in The Embryonic DVD.
The video for the first song, “Rage”, has already been published on youtube.
Despite claims to being some sort of doom death with black metal influences, Creeping’s music is a progressive sort of rock music with little trace of the influence of metal apart from the most superficial traits. These traits can be briefly summarized in distorted guitars and vox, and rock and metal drum techniques. Creeping’s music in Revenant could be described as being through-composed with a minimalist touch to them. Once you remove this from sight and you look through them, it is evident this is not metal music. In general, their work here displays a very keen sense on smooth transitions and mood-capturing that only the most sensitive musicians are able to put together. What Creeping seems to be at a loss for is an organizing agent that condensates these living shapes into meaningful statements with heads and tails or at least a direction. As it stands, Revenant is only a sequence of related vague feelings without enough organization to convey a concrete meaning — a direct consequence of both being mostly empty of musical formations and missing the point that music and art in general are communication.
The most revealing moment when listening to Creeping is when one reaches the ending of a song and everything is put into perspective. Endings are reached uneventfully. They simply just end. The finishing sections as a group are indistinguishable from those at the beginning. In fact, they could be interchanged and it would make little difference as they do not carry any connotation. Not only are true endings missing but what we would physically try to locate as development sections of any sort (not necessarily Beethovenian) are also flat-out indistinguishable from sections at the beginning or ending. The clue here is not to look at the sections or groups of sections themselves only but also in relation to one another. How is the idea carried forward? What changed from this moment to two minutes in the future? How and why is the idea left behind towards the end? Is the idea actually changed towards the end? There is no answer to this questions in the context of this album, because none of that seems to ever have been in the mind of Creeping when writing these songs. Each section is a progression of chords with “powerful” drum beats. They took care that adjacent sections were related in character and texture (all the album uses the same texture and album) but nothing else. The album is a homogeneous creeping mass sliding down a hill like lava from an erupting mountain. It is an event, it is motion, but it is without life or purpose.
Creeping’s Revenant is one of those albums that will carry the flag of the mainstream in their incursions to try and conquer the underground by taking a depressive-sounding rock outfit and trying to make it look and sound like a convincing metal act. The fastest and most obvious way of doing this is by copying the traits that help identify underground metal through its superficial appearances. This is the second issue we take this album: that of pretending to be metal. Somewhat resembling post-metal, Creeping distinguishes itself from metal music in that it builds its music following chord progressions mainly, not phrases. What tells us that Creeping is rock music and not post-metal, though, is that it constantly follows actually-moving chord circles, effectively creating movement through that most basic device in Western music derived from the Common Practice Period classical music. Post-metal, on the other hand tends to stagnate in one harmony and try to play it in many different ways and with different decorations, usually ceding the task of promoting movement in the music solely to the drums. While there are parts where a melody can be heard, this is often just a decoration for an implied chord progression. The music in Creeping’s Revenant is utterly dependent on them, something underground metal distinguished itself from through years of rethinking itself and distancing itself from rock music in order to attain greater power of expression.
Given the way the songs in Revenant evolve and the atmosphere they seem to want to evoke in part as per the claims made that this band’s music adds a hint of black metal to their music, a comparison to Burzum’s Hvis Lyset Tar Oss is appropriate in order to dispel the former’s false claims and to put into perspective their more limited ability for communication. Creeping’s work and procedures have been described in some detail earlier here, so let’s proceed to take a look at Burzum. At a glance, there are many similarities between both. Songs in Hvis Lyset Tar Oss emphasize a smoothness of transition between sections whose borders are blurred out, except when there are major breaks in the music. Texture also consists of drums that change slightly independently of the rest of the music while still working with it, a strong bass, chord-strumming guitar and a rasping/growling vocal. Burzum’s music is further clarified by the use of a synth and another guitar that may outline melodies, phrases and themes. And themes are the key to Burzum’s music in this period (or any other, for that matter…). The discerning listener will notice that chords and progressions in the Norwegian’s music are only harmonic filling-outs of motifs in the bass line, oftentimes enhanced by a slight deviation in the soprano line. Chords are subsumed under motifs. Songs are defined by themes. In addition to that, and addressing the issue of whole-song structure and purpose, the first three songs in Burzum’s album do the same thing with visibly different approaches: present an idea, condense it into a solid and clear expression, introduce development, extend and come to an affirming closing idea smoothed through repetition rather than asserted in vainglorious expression typical of traditional metal. As a whole, and as a reflection of a cosmos that is contained in its smallest particles, Hvis Lyset Tar Oss follows that same pattern as an album. From its slowly building opening track, “Det Som Engang Var” to the more menacing and alienating expressions of the title track and the first half of “Inn in Slottet Fra Drømmen” which marks the climax of the album in frenetic expression only to dissipate into its second half, leading to the crystal-clear conclusion that is the ambient track, “Tomhet”.
In conclusion, Revenant ends up sounding like the indecipherable ramblings of an illuminated idiot. You can hear that there is, perhaps, a wisdom behind the sequence of misty phrases and bursts of adjective-noun pairs blurted out as if in poetic rapture, but there is not enough involvement of a conscience to even start to make sense of these. This is an album for the moment-oriented, people with short attention spans looking for prolonged sequences of singular atmospheric pictures, fans of masturbatory emotional neediness looking only for a cold shower of pleasure with no significance.
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.
Most metal journalism has a knack for identifying two particular things as “progressive”, none of which really are that. The first is incredibly messy music that obfuscates itself so much as to become an illegible carnival-fest of styles. The second is bands with tracks any longer than 3 minutes that deviates from pop format. My Hollow’s On Borrowed Time is a deathcore album that is experiencing the second of these two, using a strict rhythmic concordance as a restrictive chain that allows the rest of the musical dimensions to wander with a carefree liberty.
In deathcore, a heavily rhythm-based genre, the break-down-like passages lose their original meaning completely in a context that uses them for a completely different purpose than their original context intended them for. In the best moments in On Borrowed Time, My Hollow oddly attains a coherence through maintaining this rhythmic emphasis between different sections that can be either riff-oriented, melody oriented or pure-rhythm-oriented sections, successfully tying together otherwise disparate textures. This strict rhythmic concordance that becomes unbearable in most deathcore is used as an anchoring device that allows My Hollow to lash out with dangerously varied expression variety in the rest of the parameters that borders on the inconsistent.
When this strict rhythmic link is broken, the album degrades into a completely obscure incoherence all-too-common in this genre for pleasure-seekers with no attention span to speak of. When kept in check, the limitation it forces upon itself in its rhythmic component condemns the song to be a series of themes in wildly different landscapes akin to a collage of scenes with corresponding elements but no chronology or elaboration beyond the juxtaposition. Coherent tracks and spans of sections are unfortunately in the minority of On Borrowed Time, most of it descending into chaotic tough-guy feel-good nonsense.