Misfits – Earth A.D.

September 11, 2014 –

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The average person likely thinks of punk music as associated with the anarchist punks interested in politics which are the prevailing stereotype of the genre. He may also consider the pacifistic music emanating from the pop punk style. It is rarer to find someone who mentions the ugly, mythology-drenched anthem to horror present in the legendary Earth A.D from the Misfits.

Punk music was already in the midst of a paradigm shift set in motion most notably by Discharge from the UK who introduced a more violent and apocalyptic sound and lyrical path. When other punk bands wrote about the injustices of politicians, Misfits took a much more morbid route, injecting the destructive spirit of Discharge and wrote lyrics about horror movies, demons, and murder. The result is a dark and churning offering of horror punk, a style pioneered by the Misfits themselves which verges close to the metal sense of a mythological view of history as a means of interpreting the personal.

Though still relatively footed in rock music, Earth A.D. is most definitely the Misfits album with the most prevalent metal influence: pulsing rhythms carried under the wings of the riffs that flail in constant motion. Bracing levels of distortion and dissonant tones make this album both memorable through its hooks and blistering in its impact. Where most punk wanted to sound like a protest calling for pity, Earth A.D. delivers a short, biting, and menacing experience from an era that would change music forever.

Hardcore, Punk, and Other Junk: Aggressive Sounds in Contemporary Music edited by Eric James Abbey and Colin Helb

August 10, 2014 –

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Metalheads tend to distrust academia. We distrust the machine in all of its forms, and since the machine accepts academia, we believe the voice of academia is tainted by interest toward social acceptance. Academia also has a habit of finding ways to cram reality into its theories rather than the other way around. However, some academics make insightful contributions to the study of metal and Hardcore, Punk, and Other Junk: Aggressive Sounds in Contemporary Music provides an example of the best of this process.

This collection of essays looks at extreme music in general and extends this to metal, hardcore punk and punk rock communities. Sadly many authors make the mistake many do of incorporating recent pseudo-metal hybrids as some form of legitimate metal, which spams their results with some nonsense. The balance of results however turns out for the best because these academics look at detail-level reproducible phenomena and so are able to avoid the kind of craziness that would happen if they took “modern death metal” to be a legitimate form of the genre. Since metal and hardcore punk share a heritage both influencing and as influences of one another, the multiple pieces on that topic serve to bolster the understanding of metal.

Ross Hagen‘s piece “No Fun: Noise Music, Avant-garde expression and Sonic Punishment” ventures into the world of noise as music and explores a number of theories of its appeal. His most tantalizing riff zeroes in on the idea that society attempts to control noise and categorize it by the containers used to sample it, thus the tendency of irregular acoustic noise is to overthrow the social control imposed for the convenience of society having categorical dominance. While this piece does not seem to be directly on point to metal, it explores the same sonic space that metal uses and suggests reasons for it that may overlap with the psychology of metalheads.

Nelson Varas-Diaz contributes writing that analyzes Puerto Rico as a metal scene and the historical antecedents for appreciation of metal in this unique context. While his research involves statistical analysis, the best part of it may be the narrative aspect where he explains the history of metal in Puerto Rico as a type of struggle to be heard. In this piece also can be found extensive information about founding and contemporary Puerto Rican metal bands.

While it is beyond the scope of this review to cover every piece in the book, several others merit immediate attention by the wandering metalhead. Mika Elovaara looks into the meaning of metal lyrics and finds something akin to the mythical-historical view expounded upon in these digital pages. As if clarifying Lords of Chaos, one of his research subjects from Norway opines:

I feel that it is important that people understand why they have been born and that other people fought for our well-being and to preserve our culture and society. Our cultural heritage is going to die because people ignore it or do not even realize its significance. Viking and Norse mythology have been described as something evil and distant, but in reality, it is close to home and not necessarily evil at all. That it is not Christian does not mean it is evil. I use the mythology to describe situations in the world and politics, actual topics that were part of our lives a thousand years ago just as they are today. One can be proud of one’s heritage and identity without any racist or nationalistic tendencies. And Satanism is quite outside of this.

His extensive interviews bring up other similar flirtations with the taboo which makes sense as metal is “edge music” that exists to push social standards beyond what they normally accept. He probes the filaments of metal’s obsession with the evil and dark, and yet finds a certain kind of benevolence. “They mean critical thinking and encourage independent thinking,” said one fan about metal lyrics. The entire study is too complex to summarize here but at a minimum provides food for thought about what metal is attempting to communicate.

Another metal-related piece by Marcus Erbe looks into the science of producing death metal vocals and what that type of sound might mean in the unconscious and shared experience of being human. He finds that human vocals universally split between a melodic voice and a textural voice, with the latter expressing “monstrous” sensations. He then explores the nature of the monstrous in psychology and finds that it includes both the other and our fears for what is within us. This thought-provoking essay fuels further the question about what it is in metal that is really socially unacceptable, its rejection of social mores or its seeing through them.

Other articles explore more specific topics. On the whole, the book shows a new face for academia in looking into metal that is less afraid of certain areas of metal that are alien to what academia customarily writes about and may reject attitudes held by the majority of academics. The insight offered into the mechanics of metal and the associated symbols that it invokes also suggests new areas for academics and thinkers to pry into this interesting genre. Hardcore, Punk, and Other Junk: Aggressive Sounds in Contemporary Music lives up to its title and presents a window into the troubling questions that most would ignore raised by these dissident genres.

The difference between metal and punk, rock: it’s not literal

April 10, 2014 –

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As author of The Heavy Metal FAQ, I have wrestled with the question of how to define metal over the years. Since it uses the same techniques as any other form of music, but used in different proportions and combinations, I have always focused on the idea that unites these uses which makes metal so obviously distinct from rock, punk and other forms of music.

To this I’d like to add another idea: metal is not literal. That is, metal tends to view the world through a symbolic or mythological lens. It does so to reflect our inward sensations about what is going on, plus a historical viewpoint which requires a more high-level view. The details don’t matter as much as the form, in metal, and we pay attention to the form and then put it in a folk-wisdom format.

Archetypal examples of this can be found in classic metal like “War Pigs” (Black Sabbath), “Hardening of the Arteries” (Slayer), “Painkiller” (Judas Priest) and “My Journey to the Stars” (Burzum). In these songs, mythological forces clash to reveal a truth of everyday life. They inform us about our time and put us into a symbolic and emotional framework with it in which we want to fight it out, fix it, struggle and win.

In contrast, most music is either sensuality-based or protest music. Sensuality-based music is exemplified by stuff like Shakira. Protest music really exploded in the 1960s, but reformed itself with punk, which took a more abstract and yet earthy view. Where the 60s bands sang about politics, punks sang about everyday life and the insanity of existence. This finally culminated in thrash, which used hints of metal’s mythology to make the personal into the universal, as in “Give My Taxes Back” (DRI), “M.A.D.” (Cryptic Slaughter), “Minds are Controlled” (COC) and “Man Unkind” (DRI).

Metal does go wrong sometimes and get literal. The worst of these are the ego-based songs, as in Pantera, or the songs about being metal and going to shows and the like, which are generally just dumb. It is not surprising that these are not favorites of the genre because they drop away from that 30,000-foot view and instead become more personal drama like the rest of our society, which explains why its institutions don’t function and its ideas are corrupt.

Interestingly, other genres are not literal either. Progressive rock was famous for songs about weird adventures in fantasy worlds that had striking parallels to our own (compare to JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis). Classical music tends toward fantastic descriptions from literature and history. These are genres of the weighty and impersonal, not the direct and immediate and personal. They have a different scope and internal language.

Jazz is the outlier. When sung, it tends toward protest and sensual lyrics. When instrumental, the sound of it suggests a combination of the two: a kind of secular (no meaning greater than the material and immediate) version of imagination, but applied to literal experience, such that it forms a kind of texture without a unifying core. It communicates the loneliness of modern isolation and a retreat into the personal complexity of the mind.

Where metal stands out among modern genres is that it still embraces this viewpoint, or at least did until the nu/mod-metal started appearing. Part of what makes such a viewpoint necessary is that metal, despite being about killer riffs, is not about the riff. It’s about many riffs stitched together to make an experience so that when the killer riff comes out, it has a meaning in context that makes it heavy. No song is heavy from just one riff. It’s heavy because when you get to that super-heavy riff, everything else has set it up to resonate.

This in part explains the audience of metal. Mythology, historical significance and topics of philosophy do not inspire the honor students, who are busy working on their careers (and the obedience-profitability nexus that these entail), or the average student, who is busy in a world of his/her own pleasures and delights. They do however appeal to the outliers, the dreamers and dissidents, who might find class boring because they find society boring and purposeless, and instead turn toward fantasy and a bigger, more abstract realism to express themselves.

Oppression – Sociopathie & Glorie

March 25, 2014 –

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Punk music, in all of its myriad strains, was an integral foundation of black metal. The sense of strong alienation coupled with a conflicted youthful exuberance towards the future was shared between both genres, in addition to technical specificities. As black metal burned through its trajectory and splintered into its various initiatory parts, it became clear that a punk foundation to the genre would be a logical ground for renewal.

It’s here that we find French-Canadian band Oppression. Merging Oi!-style punk with some enhancements from black metal, tracks are short (2-3 minute) affairs. Melodies are catchy, yet wistful lines grounded in simple guitar and bass riffs, with vocal alternating between manic shrieks and an idiosyncratic, youthful attempt at melodic singing. Using the more linear style composition of punk, as opposed to the riff-stacking song construction used by much of black metal, each song contributes a sense of motion that builds the album up over successive tracks. Production values are what one would expect for this style of music; clear enough to make out each instrument, but raw enough to preserve low-budget ethos.

This is a release that is not attempting to invent a new genre, but rather one which seeks to renew genres that had collapsed under their own entropy. This is a solid debut, which bodes well for the band as they refine their craft into the future. The strange aesthetics may be off-putting to some, but if those can be sublimated into the spirit of this album, a refreshingly honest work will open itself for enjoyment.

Happy 50th birthday, Jeff Hanneman

January 31, 2014 –

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Today, Jeff Hanneman would have been fifty years old. The man who helped invent the sound that underlies all of underground death metal did not, as the people around him in the LA suburbs tend to do, waste his life away in repetition. Instead, he forged his own path and we celebrate him for it and the results of it.

Way back in 1983, as now, the holy grail of alienated music was the fusion of any two of its genres: metal, punk and industrial. Specifically there was great interest in using its guitar-based genres to create a new sound. Many people attempted to fuse metal and punk, and many credible sounds came out of it. One path was speed metal, which Metallica unleashed with Kill ‘Em All. Another was thrash, which DRI cut loose with Dirty Rotten LP. But still another was the foundation of death metal and black metal which was introduced by Slayer and refined the following year by Bathory, Hellhammer and Sodom.

Slayer took two things from punk and injected them into the prog-influenced songs structures of NWOBHM: they borrowed the constant tremolo strum, used by punk for drone, and the open drum patterns that allowed guitar to take the lead. Now a new style of music emerged. Rhythm guitar became the lead instrument, rapid-firing changing riffs at the audience while drums framed but did not lead the development. Riffs did not have to perfectly fit the drums which kept going in the background as a kind of timekeeper but not, as in most bands, a way of signaling the guitar to change. Further, riffs became phrasal, building on the longer chord progressions of Black Sabbath to become fully small melodies, developing in response to on another like classical motifs.

Music teachers, who were raised in the rock/jazz idea that drums lead and riffs should emphasize harmonic and a static melodic role, with the primary melodic role and lead instrument (and thus impetus for song “development”) being the voice, found Slayer to be unmusical. The record industry was appalled at this creation that unleashed the demonic side of life in such clarity; they make their money from selling happy illusions, not grim realities translated into elaborately conceived mythologies.

And yet it is this mythological tendency, dating back to “War Pigs,” that saves metal from self-consuming and burning out like hardcore punk. It is not literal; it is imaginative. It turns our focus from ourselves to the nature of power, history, nature and other forces larger than the individual, and then lets us imagine the greatness of participation in those. Where punk turned reality into a protest weapon and source of alienation, metal has turned it into a source of individual desire to do something epic with our lives. Slayer gave that mythological tendency a new voice, not just by singing about demons, vampires and The Holocaust, but by translating the sound of raw power into something you could throw on your bedroom hi-fi and be transported to a different world.

For this reason, Slayer captured the imagination of a generation and continues to enthrall us today. The early albums, which are completely written in horror movie mythology, incite in us a desire to see the hidden possibly occult underpinnings of a society gone insane. The Reign in Blood and afterwards material shows us a more punk-like grasp of all that terrifies us and sends us searching for reasons why, and if not why, how to use such things as war, murder and sadism in some constructive way. Slayer is not protest music; it acknowledges the horror, but doesn’t want to band us together into a drum circle to “stop” these horrors. It recognizes they are eternal. Instead, like the religion it loathed, Slayer drives us to find a way to accept these things as part of life itself, and look for a philosophy that shows us a reason to survive despite all these horrors.

Jeff Hanneman’s influence pervades the Slayer story. He wrote many of the band’s most epic and enduring songs, contributed the mythological outlook, and invented the musical changes described above. While he may be slighted by the Grammy’s, or ignored by a world of people seeking Shakira tunes instead of imaginative but realist metal, to those who can understand his trip — already a naturally elite group — Hanneman’s work is not just a source of wisdom, but of inspiration. In a world asleep, he stayed awake. In a world of imitation, he took his own path. Where most just wanted to participate for reward, he took on life at its most basic level and triumphed. For that reason, we’ll always celebrate his life and work.


Chaos rampant,
An age of distrust.
Confrontations.
Impulsive sabbath.

On and on, south of heaven

Hank3 – A Fiendish Threat

December 4, 2013 –

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Generation X faced betrayal of the worst kind. Arguably the most intelligent generation produced since WWII, they were aware from early in life that their society was doomed. Even more, they knew why, and were children of parents who were militantly in denial of this fact and shamed and mocked their children for noticing the obvious. As a result, when you see a Generation Xer giving you the eye, don’t be fooled: it’s wary, paranoid and alienated. They are probably wondering to what degree you know you are doomed.

Hank Williams III comes from the dead heart of this generation, having been born in 1972 to the line of Hank Williams, which is as close as you get to musical royalty in the New World. Hank I was famous for simple yet poetic hymns which resembled folk songs with subtle melodic development. His material was far above the rest; Hank III, who facially resembles his grandfather, is trying to survive that legacy and thus made the sensible decision to stop the comparison and move his skills to hellbilly: a combination of punk, metal, rockabilly, 1950s rock and Gothic music.

Hank3’s A Fiendish Threat reminds me of the Misfits. It plays with 1950s rock tropes, inverting them to show the rottenness underneath social assumptions and customer service good graces. It is totally cynical and paranoid, seeing the death of hope creeping in through every vector, but still captures a cryptic sentiment of hope for a glimpse of the beautiful, even if the beautiful doomed, among the rotten industrial edifices that replaced the open fields of yore.

Wan – Enjoy the Filth

October 26, 2013 –

wan-enjoy_the_filthGenres aren’t arbitrary things. They have certain ideals and certain boundaries, like all ideas or practices. Some people find that constraining and want things to fit in certain genres just because they say so.

Such must be the case with Wan, which is labeled as black metal and has been repeatedly introduced as such. It isn’t. This is a great late hardcore record, and thoroughly enjoyable as that, but it isn’t black metal. Not only that, it would be a total failure at black metal, so it’s unwise to list it as such.

Calling to mind Impaled Nazarene’s Latex Cult, which arose when that band decided black metal was out of possibilities for the time being, Wan Enjoy the Filth is bounding, high-energy hardcore riffs and simple verse-chorus songs. This one comes out of the gate rockin’ hard with riffs that seem inspired by Discharge, Terveet Kadet, the Exploited and GBH. Others might point out late-1990s punk like Driller Killer and Disfear, Dischange, etc.

Most of these songs are based on bottom two-string power chord riffs in the hardcore style, which means they’re less built around phrase and more around droning interrupted by a catchy rhythm. Drums keep up a d-beat or a similar “background” rhythm while vocals belt out a series of ambitious lyrics involving war, evil and hatred.

If you want to compare this band to anything, the aforementioned Impaled Nazarene is the closest link to “black metal,” but it has more in line with the late-1980s hardcore like Sick of It All, albeit in a more European-descended form. It’s quite enjoyable to listen to, and probably won’t stick around for too long, but it’s certainly not black metal.

Stray Bullets Kill – Sons of Southern Darkness

October 25, 2013 –

stray_bullets_kill-sons_of_southern_darknessImmediately from the first note, this release captures attention. It begins with a focused and powerful assault that is refreshing in its youthful vigor. Unsubtle, it shamelessly bashes ahead with simple yet engaging song structures that are well suited for live performance.

Compositionally an intersection of punk and metal, Sons of Southern Darkness features the linear powerchord riffs of punk combined with transitional single-string motifs reminiscent of speed metal. Songs are short three or four minute affairs, typically verse-chorus with new riffs materializing in the second half in order to provide differentiation. Vocals are low pitched shouts; in their best moments primordial battle cries fully materialized, however at times sound a bit strained and evoke the “angry man in a phone booth” mentality. Drums are present without being overbearing; the drummer is adept at knowing when to follow the guitars and when to differentiate, providing an added layer of nuance.

Aesthetically, this a release that straddles decades. Its core is from the 80s and 90s, however from its production and overall consistency it is decidedly a modern release. This allows the band to avoid entropy by being yet another “retro” tribute band and move their form in a unique fashion, providing an intriguing foundation for those interested in seeing the current generation strive for the art of the old without wallowing in nostalgia. However, those that compare it to its progenitors will probably find it lacking.

Sons of Southern Darkness can be picked up via the Stray Bullets Kill Bandcamp page for £2 (around $3.25).

Speedwolf – Ride With Death

October 20, 2013 –
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speedwolf-ride_with_deathThe assault of the form-over-function bands continues. You hear a song, and it lights up all those fat neural pathways in your brain made to appreciate the originals. Nostalgia surges in: you can smell the smoke, taste the beer, hear the laughter of a girl you were with. But like Cinderella’s carriage, at mid-album the illusion goes poof and you are left with an emptiness.

Thus it is with Speedwolf Ride with Death. Here is what — and this i the sum total — you need to know: they named this album to convey what they hope to deliver, which is Motorhead-styled antics plus some indie rock guitar band noodling. What you get instead is alarming close to a later punk band doing a night of Motorhead covers. These songs sound metallish, sure, but they’re built on punk frames. As a result, the album resembles less a collection of songs than a stream of Motorheadness coming from a server in the sky.

What starts as a catchy and promising album fades quickly when you realize that all that’s behind this album is the desire to be a punkier Motorhead with more heavy metal flash. Other than that, it’s riff practice. You will have heard most of these before in the 1975-1985 era, but here they’re flattened out and made rhythmically simpler to keep up the drone. It could be that Speedwolf is trying to artistically emulate the sound of a motorcycle on a highway, and if so, they’ve succeeded. But otherwise, they’re pushing an awful lot of airtime with no payoff except nostalgia.

The origin of all underground metal

September 5, 2013 –

discharge-hear_nothing_see_nothing_say_nothingSuppose that you’re a dying society (“the human race was dying out / no one left to scream and shout” – the Doors) and that you decide to give it one last hurrah. To try honesty instead of manipulation.

You might come up with punk music. It strips out everything that reeks of manipulation. The good production, gone; the complex chords, gone; any pretense of musicianship, out the window.

But then people realize that you’re going about it backward. You can’t change your methods to change your goal. You have to change your goal. That means you’re thinking about composing music in a new way, not just how you’re going to play differently with something rather familiar.

This lets loose the dogs of war.

No longer is music carved from a known pattern; the song is the pattern, and it obeys no rule other than its content. Face value is made secondary to internal value. Like it is in human, whether we have souls or not.

This is what Discharge did to the world of punk — and later, to metal:

Musically, punk’s first wave hadn’t been all that far removed from regular rock’n’roll. “God Save the Queen,” with its hummable melody and simplistic chord changes, is clearly a relation, albeit distant, of Chuck Berry and the Rolling Stones. The difference is in the attitude, in Johnny Rotten’s adenoidal snarl.

Discharge’s revamped version of punk bore little resemblance to anything that had come before. It was faster, harsher, and often almost entirely lacking in melody. The riffs were generally three-chord affairs, but they were played at warp speed, accompanied by a rumbling bass and a merciless, galloping drumbeat. The songs rarely topped the two-minute mark. As Garry Maloney, who drummed on some of the band’s best recordings, explained to a ‘zine called Trakmarx, “We just embraced speed—the concept—not the drug—took it to its logical limit.”

Away went the blues scale, playing in uniform musical measures, and having pop song format work for you. Instead, the new vision was the lawless chromatic scale, a lack of key and thus of soaring bridge and chorus, or even any fixed song format. It was repetition made into its own undoing, a type of ambient music made from noise.

Rock ‘n’ roll died with Discharge. Others, like Amebix and The Exploited, followed. On US shores the Cro-Mags and thrash (DRI, COC, Cryptic Slaughter, Dead Horse, Fearless Iranians From Hell) further put metal into punk. With metal’s phrasal riffs and punk’s lack of structure, music got closer to ancient times.

Suddenly, the melody determined the song, and since the songs were topical, the melody was determined by the idea. Like ancient Greek dramas, where the chorus sang poetry as the story was acted out on stage, the new punk-metal hybrid entered the world of motifs and mimetic meaning, where art imitates life to tell the story of a journey or adventure and how it changed those who sallied forth.

The end of the second song, nearly eight minutes in, elicited a weak cheer, a few claps, and a robust chant of “D.R.I.”—a local thrash band on the rise, which had played earlier that night.

This was the new legion, thrash and underground metal (death metal and black metal), and it ushered in a new era. Where music was plain-spoken like punk, but mythological like metal. Where it took metal’s criticism of human behavior and used that to explain punk’s extreme political dissidence. Where people started looking at what they’d die for instead of what they’d live for.

Since that time, metal and punk have both gone through many generations. None have gotten very far from those originals who broke free however. They had to destroy before they could create and, when the dust of destruction and subsequent self-destruction finally settles, creation will begin anew.