Incantation‘s debut and best work, Onward to Golgotha, remains the deepest death metal album I have ever experienced a quarter century after its release as of today. With material (“Unholy Massacre” and “Profanation”) dating back to the initial founding of Incantation by guitarist John McEntee and drummer Paul Ledney, Onward to Golgotha was a record influenced as much by Bathory and Beherit as it was Morbid Angel and Autopsy.
Sepultura‘s Morbid Visions is my favorite thirty year old album. Released in Brazil on November 10th, 1986, Morbid Visions saw Sepultura slither past the primitive Hellhammer, Celtic Frost, and Sodom worship of their initial Bestial Devastation extended play (included as a bonus on almost all CD versions of Morbid Visions) and into ultraviolent, progressive but still primitive, death and black metal.
Death metal had been well established for years by the early 90s. The genre was rapidly becoming an arms race of technicality with many bands attempting to use studio trickery to make records far beyond their musical ability in attempt to compete with their best contemporaries, e.g. Morbid Angel. Many brought in hired shredder studio musicians like James Murphy with drum tracks copy and pasted together onto tape from drum samples and “played” live with triggers activating those same pre-recorded samples at the slightest touch. At the same time, good grindcore bands were turning into second-rate death metal ones or worse, lame “melodic hardcore” which turned hardcore punk aesthetics into slit your wrists whine pop.
Lee Dorrian, vocalist of Napalm Death on the b-side of Scum and From Enslavement to Obliteration, was disgusted by Napalm Death writing material incorporating the worst, bouncy hit people aspects of death metal in an attempt to reach a wider audience and quit the band in 1989. He soon formed Cathedral with Gaz Jennings and Mark Griffiths over a shared love of older heavy metal bands such as Black Sabbath, Candlemass, and Witchfinder General. Demos and an album on Dorrian’s old label Earache quickly followed.
Article by Johan P continuing Death Metal Underground’s progressive rock coverage.
Morte Macabre is a collaboration between members of the Swedish prog revivalist groups Landberk and Anekdoten, who joined forces to create progressive rock that is equal parts beautiful and disturbing. Their only album – Symphonic Holocaust – is a real treat for those who enjoy creepy music in general, especially 1970s Italian horror movie soundtracks. It is a tribute to the darker side of 70s progressive rock, with reference to Italian groups and composers like Celeste, Goblin, Museo Rosenbach, Fabio Frizzi and Riz Ortolani. An explicit Red-era King Crimson influence permeates the album as well.
Article by Johan P.
The stylistically inclusive nature of progressive rock allows quite a lot of stretching of the genre’s musical boundaries. This part of Death Metal Underground’s 1970s Progressive Rock for Hessians series looks into the early, classic period of the English group Hawkwind – a group of sonic shaman-warriors who transgressed more than one genre border right from their inception. Well, almost. Their unconvincing 1970 self-titled debut album can rightfully be dismissed as a failed attempt at improvisational psychedelic folk rock, with songs that sound too much like flawed byproducts of the flower power era. Luckily, the following years saw the band re-forge their sound on In Search of Space (1971), articulate it on Doremi Fasol Latido (1972) and finally push their newfound style to its limits on Space Ritual (1973).
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.