Calling #metalgate what it is

December 13, 2014 –

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We all went to high school. #MetalGate reminds me of those dark days when there were cool kids and un-cool kids, and if you weren’t in the former group you were just nobody.

Growing up with a single Mom who kept our budget tight, I never had the cool clothes. Since I worked after school and then did homework until bedtime, I didn’t know the cool stuff on TV or in movies. Not having been raised around the cool kids, or having a parent with the time or energy to show me how to be “cool,” it never occurred to me to try. And suddenly people were pointing and laughing and then my head was getting bashed into a locker.

When one of these people approached me and started making fun of me, my instinct was to cower away and assume that they knew something I should know which gave them some kind of “authority” in the high school social scene. Over time I realized that this “something” was nothing important, and their real goal was savor the Schadenfreude of making someone else miserable for being who they were. I learned that there is one way to stand up to such people: do not apologize, do not back down, but go straight to the biggest one and hit him as hard as you can. They usually backed down and often apologized after that. I let the matter drop at that point since most of these bullies came from troubled homes: Dad drank too much, Mom ran around with the neighborhood used-car salesman, or there were money troubles. Some of them ended up being lifelong friends, after we settled our differences on the schoolyard.

When I look at #MetalGate, I see a whole industry cowering before these people who want to make metal “socially conscious” and politically correct. We, as metalheads, have refused to call these people what they are, so I will: bullies. They are bullies whose weapon is guilt. In high school, it was guilt for not being “cool.” In the hipster-nerd infested metal scene, it’s guilt for not having the “right” opinions. Haven’t we all matured past this?

Bullies always have a clique. This clique agrees that they are right and everyone else is just not cool enough. They need an excuse that other people will accept for their bullying, so they come up with a reason that sounds good. They do not care if it is true. They just want to rally other people around them who will agree that you deserved getting your head pounded into that locker. Like all cliques, their little group works by every member validating every other. It is the worst aspect of humanity which we saw at the Salem witch trials, at Nuremburg, even in lynch mobs hanging African-Americans. This is the psychology of prejudice, and bullies struggle to conceal their prejudice by arguing that they are defending their ingroup against an outgroup:

What Tajfel discovered is that groups formed on the basis of almost any distinction are prone to ingroup bias. Within minutes of being divided into groups, people tend to see their own group as superior to other groups, and they will frequently seek to maintain an advantage over other groups. – The Psychology of Prejudice, Professor Scott Plous, Wesleyan University

In other words, if you group people together by any arbitrary means they will quickly act like a tribe and enforce their rules on others. This is how bullies operate: they gather together people, offer them entry into an ingroup, but the price for that entry is that they must join in the bullying of the outgroup… and so kids get heads slammed into their lockers for wearing cardigan sweaters (hey, it was a hand-me-down) which is totally uncool.

The #MetalGate people, who I am told call themselves “Social Justice Warriors” or SJWs, are bullies of this type. They will claim they are against prejudice, but really what this means is that they are using that argument to conceal their own prejudice. They just want someone to bully. The reason is probably the same as with the high school bullies, which is that their lives are miserable and they want to take out their frustration and anger on others. This pattern occurs time and again, with the most famous being the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC):

On August 19, 1985, the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee of the United States Senate opened public hearings intended to gather expert testimony on “the content of certain sound recordings and suggestions that recording packages be labeled to provide a warning to prospective purchasers of sexually explicit or other potentially offensive content.” Widely known as “The PMRC Hearings” after the acronym of an independent group—the Parents Music Resource Council—advocating for the “voluntary” adoption of warning stickers on record albums whose lyrics it deemed to be offensive, the hearings did not, in fact, end up leading to any kind of legislative action.

This group also wanted to bully metal because they were looking for a scapegoat for what they saw as a decline in public morality. They figured they could pick on metalheads because we are not the wives of Senators, we may not have education and money, and we are prone to be silent when society bullies us. But metalheads stood up against them, whopped them in the nose, and refused to take it. Another group of bullies back in the 1980s were the Dead Kennedys fans who decided that Slayer was really, really bad for singing (with clear disapproval) about Auschwitz and the horrors of the Holocaust. “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” was their theme song and they used this as an excuse to beat on random fans wearing Slayer tshirts. Punk had just gone through its own #PunkGate at that point, I guess, and the politically correct people came out on top.

There are plenty of groups of bullies in metal today. The pretentious hipsters who think you are unenlightened if you do not “appreciate” Deafheaven are one, and so are the people who think that if you are not a full-on SJW you are a bad person. So are the “tryhards” who insist they support diehard underground music but use that as an excuse to troll anyone who does not exclusively listen to three-chord Blasphemy or Incantation clones. In each group, the solution is the same: tell them where they can shove their pretense and guilt because you know their secret, which is that they are just bullies.

The difference with SJWs is that they act like they are revolutionaries who are re-educating us in important topics. But guess what, guys: you are not disenfranchised anymore. You get positive press and in fact most of you work in the press. The US government agrees with you, as does the UN. Your ideas are not revolutionary because they are the norm. Like most bullies, you are cloaking yourselves in the ideals of the mainstream in order to punish us outliers. This is no different than what happened in the Soviet Union or Nazi regime, where people who “thought differently” got shot at dawn. You are the new Nazis.

Metal should fight back because metal should not become a vehicle for the control agenda of any group. Metal is its own group, and people police this because we know that many other groups would like to assimilate us and use us for their own purposes. It has been tried before, with hard rock in the 1970s, punk in the 1980s, and now post-punk in the 2000s. Like all bullies, they want to stop us from being different and make us more like them, which is to say the bog-standard generic mainstream. Their bands are all second-rate and their ideas warmed over slogans from the 1960s. Metalheads should feel no guilt about acting in our own self-interest, which is to keep our music away from this group of bullies and refuse to let them dominate us.

Excel – Split Image

December 8, 2014 –

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Now that our society has fallen apart further, the 1980s like simple and honest like the 1950s did to people exhausted of modern society in the 1980s. A better outlook might be that however our fallen time, it is a more fallen version of the 1980s, with the same pitfalls and failures. Those who lived through it can tell you how much a time of terror it was, with nuclear warfare and social collapse at every turn, and how this propelled some artists to put their most sacred hopes and fears into music. Excel was not one of them.

Excel created this “crossover thrash” back in the 1980s but really, this album belongs in with the Pantera/Biohazard school of bouncy hard rock in punk form with some added metal riffs. The problem with hard rock is that it relies on a simple mentality behind its riffs and that it aims to attract, so it is the equivalent of carnival music or a dinner theater side-show, which is really obvious music that gratifies really basic desires. That keeps the interest less than something articulated and involved like DRI, which offers its own riff style that obviously derives influence from many places, but does not parrot them. The only hidden influence here would be a more pronounced version of the Orange County surf-rock sound that incorporates novelty and party music into basic rock and projects it onto whatever genre can serve as canvas, in this case the basic punk of Excel. The tendency toward riffs based on playing a consistent trope, then interrupting it so the audience can get excited for it to return, while a technique to some degree in most music here becomes a staple in the most basic, drunk football fan throwing feces at the stage way.

The “crossover” part here consists of faster punk riffs that pick up after the chunky bounce-metal riffs and grandstanding hard rock riffs run out. Over this, a vocalist essentially speaks his lines and ends them on a melodic uptake, and although he deserves some note for periodically sounding like Snake from Voivod, these vocals bring out nothing in the music and mostly try to draw attention to themselves with the rest of the music as background atmosphere. Drums sound like a jogger trying to keep up with the vocals and far too often fall into the same syncopated beat that adds nothing but background noise, since the guitar and vocal hooks are nearly in unison and provide all the rhythm we need. While from a distance this album will appear to be no different than DRI, Cryptic Slaughter and Suicidal Tendencies, it lacks the fundamental spirit toward the expression itself as something distinct from and not pandering to the crowd. There is too much pander in Excel, and it dumbs down the music.

Sadistic Metal Reviews 10-18-14

October 18, 2014 –

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What are Sadistic Metal Reviews? As you lie on your deathbed and look over life, you will divide everything you know into things you will miss and things you have forgotten already. Some metal is worth remembering, but the vast majority is just background noise. We hail the former and smite the latter, salting their wounds with our sardonic laughter…

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Internal Bleeding – Imperium

After Suffocation got big in the mid-90s as the next big direction for death metal, lots of bands took the Cannibal Corpse hint and started imitating the easier parts of the Suffocation percussive death metal approach. Unfortunately, doing so creates music that is dumber than malformed concrete, and Internal Bleeding quickly distinguished itself as the death metal version of Pantera: brocore for bros who like to you know drink beer and punch their heads into walls. Checking in with them 19 years later, it seems little has changed. These songs are hook-laden and not fully random, but the hook relies on the most basic of rhythms and their expectation, sort of like watching a chihuahua chase its tail. The band tries to compensate for their basic and unexciting music with really active vocals and occasional melodic touches on guitar, but nothing changes the fact that these songs are based around extremely basic patterns designed to numb and erode the mind. The famous breakdowns are back and serve to break up some of the constant muted-strum chugging and ranting vocals that shadow the rhythm of the guitar riff, but even if they dropped occasional symphonic parts into this Internal Bleeding could not hide the fact that most of this music is designed to destroy brain cells or appeal to those who have already voluntarily obliterated their own minds.

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Oppression – Sociopathie & Gloire

This band will be overlooked by many because the production on this album makes it hard to hear anything but bass, vocals and metals (cymbals and high-hat). However, what lies beneath the obscurity is a quality melodic punk album that verges on Oi and shows us what emo could have been in the hands of quality songwriters; you could compare this to the Descendents and the Misfits because this band write quality vocal melodies over melodically hookish riffs and rhythms, producing a sense of familiarity and yet a sense of weight like that of history or topics that pop up in every life no matter what age. Vocals alternate between a black metal-ish rasp and sung punk vocals, with the latter being more convincing. As with Misfits, the composition of these vocal melodies defines the song, combining old world melodic intensity with a casual punk sense that favors the simple and almost childlike. Touches of metal technique accentuate the harmonic space created by these rather open melodies, but generally, what you hear is punk that sounds as much like Blitz or Reagan Youth as something more recent. The result brings together the best of punk in its attempts to combine its energy with depth, and provides for a good listen, if the listener is able to hear past the abysmal production.

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Steve Hackett – Genesis Revisited: Live at Royal Albert Hall

Among the 1970s progressive rock bands, Genesis is frequently mentioned but often forgotten. It seems to me that the reason is that its vocalist, not its guitar-keyboard duo, dominated the composition and thus it drifted closer to the regular-rock tinged Pink Floyd style of “light” progressive rock, without getting as populist and compact as Pink Floyd or Rush did. However, it would be a mistake to overlook the first few Genesis albums which were ambitious although steeped in a self-righteousness which seems more pretentious than the usual self-indulgent musically masturbatory egoism of progressive rock. On this live recording, Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett revisits the older Genesis material with the benefit of an extensive solo career and an entirely different band. The result makes Genesis sound more pastoral, with greater emphasis on vocals and mood in the style of later-1970s big radio rock bands, but also brings out some of the more aggressive guitar that got buried under keyboards and vocals on the originals. Vocalist Nad Sylvan manages a more soulful and less starchily self-referential voice than the original, and all accompanying musicians are excellent including a cast of highly talented players who, while not fully noticed by name in the mainstream, have demonstrated their abilities in complement to larger acts in the past. While all of this shines, the fundamental problem with Genesis remains the “oil on water” feel when it switches between something that sounds like Queen and a sort of extended figurative structured jam. While highly musical, Genesis often seems atopical and thus lost between its rock drama and its progressive underpinnings, and in many ways, having Hackett reinforce the role of guitar both reduces this gap and highlights what is left. For Genesis fans who wondered what this band might have been like with a different internal balance of power, these re-envisioned tracks will provide hours of exploration.

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Wolf – Devil Seed

This album takes the speed and intensity of a speed metal album, adds in Accept-style power metal vocals, but underneath the skin is something more like a hybrid between the first albums from Motley Crue and Queensryche. The result is… well, there’s no nice way to say this, but: annoying. Highly skilled and highly repetitive, vocally demonstrative and vocally over-dramatic, catchy and infectious and yet cloying, it hammers out the earworm qualities of glam metal at the pace of speed metal with the production and sound of power metal. If this is your first album from this style, it might be interesting to own, but probably difficult to listen to on a regular basis because of the similarity of the tracks and the consistently high levels of sentiment and bounding energy. The 1980s varied moods of glam metal have been replaced with the aesthetics of techno or punk, and it just keeps going and eventually even drowns itself out. Musically, nothing here ventures outside of the camp of what has worked before and become established, although a few adept variations give greater power to the framework. As with most metal/rock hybrids, what brings it down is the need for vocals to lead which crowds out other instruments, in turn squeezing the space available for song development. While the vocals are impressive, when they become too predominant like this they lose some of their power; Halford or Dickinson (or Di’Anno) would have been more selective in the use of their full-bore intensity and emotional depth.

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Vardan – Enjoy of Deep Sadness

This band combines “suicidal black metal” with the shoegaze/emo/indie variant that specialized in certain minor key chord progressions turning upward at the end of each phrase to convey a sense of misplaced “hope,” much in the way early 1990s emo-punk bands did. The result is merely a new aesthetic slapped on top of very ancient and pointless music, since the “mixed emotions” sensation has been popular in rock music since the 1960s and produces the type of emotions one might want in the background of a movie about losing your favorite race car, but apply not at all to any life with depth, where the emotions are more than mixed but intertwined in some way more than a balance of sadness/joy that seems like it came off a greeting card. This isn’t bad in execution; it’s soulless in intent. While the former is forgivable, the latter renders this music irrelevant to anyone who is here to live for the purpose of living, because to such a person confused self-pity and weepy “hope” is completely non-applicable. In the same way it is entirely possible to listen to this entire EP, nod once, and then read a book on database administration and be more thoroughly moved by its depth and emotion than anything Vardan will ever record.

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Savn – Savn

Anyone else remember The Gathering? They had a female vocalist, a quite good one name Anneke something-impossible-in-Dutch, and she was not only adorable but also could sing. But that’s the distraction. The question of whether a metal band can have a female vocalist is never asked when the female vocalist goes the route of Doro or another high performer. It’s when the presence of a female vocalist changes the sound of the band that people start wanting to talk about that instead of the music. And Savn cleverly starts out with very black metal sounds, then the keyboards kick in, and then very pretty female vocals intrude. Excellent production. There’s even a harmonica, for the sake of Zuul. The whole nine yards. But if you stop hearing the distortion for a moment, you realize you’re hearing standard folk rock that has been 100% consistent from the 1960s through the present day. It fits the female vocal and range but even more, it fits the needs of people in boutique shops that sell crystals to feel vaguely empowered, slightly sad and yet charged with some kind of great Meaning that has lifted up their insignificant lives of watching television and answering phones at work to the focal point of some vast collision between human emotions that form the basis of the cosmos itself. You can imagine Jewel belting out this album, or Linda Rondstadt, or even Taylor Swift. Savn would do better to just run Doris Day vocals over old Burzum albums. I do not contest the assertion that they are talented, good players, imaginative, and that the production here is amazing. I just question what it has to convey. The answer is feeling good while you shop and pretend that the universe is not a cold empty place, and that somehow your emotions derived from pop music are totally relevant and might even determine the future. On an emotional and artistic level, this release is poisonous; on any other level, it is simply a product that doubtless will sell many crystals, possibly cube cars and haircuts too.

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Provocator – Antikristus

Joining on the primitive black metal thread which bands like Von thrust to the forefront, Provocator crafts simple sawing black metal based on extremely rudimentary chord progressions that are nonetheless not pure chromatic, giving it a more accessible base of tones to expand upon. Like Acheron or Ungod, these riffs rely on building momentum and then redirecting it with quick rotational motion, but the repetition of this technique wears thin. Extensive demonic vocals crowd over the top but instead of giving this depth, simply distract from both the underlying guitar and the effect of the vocals to the point where it sounds like trying to listen to a portable radio in a busy train station. Nothing on this is terrible or misplaced, but it also provides no particularly compelling content and no reason to revive this style as a result. While it plays, the comfortingly familiar Sarcofago-style drone and chaos at the right BPM will make most black metal fans accept it without a further thought, but the real question with any release is whether you will seek it out again. In this case, nothing is offered that cannot be found elsewhere in a less repetitive form. Although this is no reason to choose an album, the blasphemous song titles and Blasphemy-style prison escape vocals add to some enjoyment but cannot compensate for the fact that this is like listening to a throttle test on a ’78 Camaro.

Sadistic Metal Reviews 10-13-14

October 13, 2014 –

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What are Sadistic Metal Reviews? The first metal album that you really connect with should be a magic experience, one that transforms your life. But a large group of people want you to apply that same feeling to their album so they can take your money, but their music is mediocre. SMR is the dividing line between the greatness and the forgettable, and we exult in the tears of the latter, for they are the sweetest of wines…

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Solace of Requiem – Casting Ruin

A new epidemic trend grips metal, following war metal, which is the tendency to Angelcorpse — yes, that’s being used as a verb — a mixture of metal influences and tie the mess together with loud vocals. Fast guitars and overactive drums work for Angelcorpse, who clearly came along in the Fallen Christ vein of blasting streamlined death metal, but metal bands now are using that style like a tortilla to dump everything else into, wrap up the ends and make a metal burrito. While some bands that make burrito metal are able to keep interest, the problem with this style and the carnival music high contrast (read: randomness) aesthetic of bands like Behemoth that rose in parallel is that by turning the volume up to 11 for everything, it creates a constant flow of essentially invariant sound that possesses no dynamic and no real progression. It is thus easier to write; songs require no real internal contrast, and songwriters can stack bits of whatever they have on hand and stitch it up with some technicality. I find Solace of Requiem to be unlistenable for this reason. It is a barrage of noise that, if someone were to take any part of it and break it out into parts divided by its internal tension and then make a song of it, might work. But the whole burrito does not. The Solace of Requiem burrito includes more lead guitar and melody and some NYDM style technicality and sweeps borrowed from metalcore, but that does not differentiate its essential approach from all the other Behemoth/Angelcorpse hybrids. Like Taco Bell, it goes down quickly, is easily forgotten and leaves an unpleasant odor lingering in its wake.

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Wombbath – Internal Caustic Torments

This is one of those bands that makes plodding rhythms catchy to the point that a listener will fall into the groove and not mind, but also will not seek it out repeatedly because of the sheer repetition without much of a direction. These riffs came straight out of hard rock, got detuned and had some quick fills added, but remain as predictable as listening to AC/DC covers at the local karaoke bar. The result is that Wombbath batters your brain until it gives up, then pours a layer of relatively obvious material over it, including songs that complete an arc but without any real doubt or tension in the middle, such that like the riffs, the structure of the songs themselves is duplicative and numbing. Nothing is done poorly and this band clearly shows mastery of the old school style, but what it lacks is a reason for a listener who is aware of the best of old school death metal to embrace this. Internal Caustic Torments expresses in many ways the worst of old school death metal and the tendency that caused the genre to collapse on itself, which was nailing the style and then using it to hammer out repetition like propaganda. This album could be improved overnight by introducing actual tension between the first and second riffs, then seeing where that leads and using it to reorganize these songs, because many of the raw elements are there.

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Pilgrim – II: Void Worship

Stoner doom metal happened when 1970s jam music swallowed up doom metal and remains basically stuck in the 1970s, Slacker, That 70s Show, etc. mentality. In other words, it aims to dig out wonder in the smallest of things, much as stoners can find a universe in their toenails. In this case, it is not the “doom” aspect that is problematic, but the fact that this music seems designed to find the fascinating and earth-shattering in simple chord progressions that remind us of Foreigner and Journey releases but without the strong sense of harmony. Instead, it’s every stoner’s dream: just start plodding along, then jam over that until some sort of magic emerges. When you think about it, that is what the Grateful Dead did for decades, blarting out never-ending tuneless solos that incorporated every technique in the book but to no end, because there was no point, only a desire to keep the jam going for as long as possible so the audience and band could take more drugs, be more groovy, pose more in front of the flower-painted school bus and other activities for people who have voids in their souls and no purpose to their lives. Pilgrim are more musically adept than most bands which cross this desk, but they take it nowhere. Songs jam, build up, trail off. Solos and fills drop in competently but express nothing. The album has a big concept somewhere if you read the theory about it that they include with all releases nowadays — I never do — but it is not expressed in the music. Much like a recent failed indie-metal album about whales, the putative topic is not the subject matter, but a cover story for playing the same crap. Really, just go get the first Def Leppard album because it does everything that happens here but with a purpose. A vapid purpose, but no purpose is more vapid than no purpose itself. Flee.

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Midnight – No Mercy for Mayhem

Warmed over NWOBHM with American glam metal glitz under a glaze of alt-death bands like Nifelheim or Gehennah. Remember when that stuff came out? It was 1998 and black metal had officially shot its wad, following death metal the dubious status of having a fully developed form but having expressed all of its relevant content three years or more prior. Thus bands thought, “Well, we have this new technology in the death metal and black metal styles, why not mix them and use them to encode the same old crap that bands were talking about in the 1970s?” You know, the safe stuff: alcohol, sex, partying and pissing off your parents. No one in a modern liberal democracy will argue with you for such an assertion of individualism and defiance of The Establishment. Thus it’s about as challenging and volatile as tap water, as controversial as feeding pigeons in a park, and the perfect product because it takes almost zero effort to make a few catchy hard rock songs with heavier vocals and more intense drums. Anyone can do it! Those were the words they used in the dying years of punk, also, which meant that anyone and everyone did do it, which ensured that the music became boring because it wasn’t about anything. Midnight isn’t about anything either. Its members are fixated only on being in a band and making some tunes that people like. That’s sort of like a chef deciding that he wants to make Big Macs instead of Filet Mignon because “people like it.” Like a Big Mac, No Mercy For Mayhem is soft and uniform in consistency and slightly sweet with a tangy sauce of rebellious high school rock. But it resembles an average of every burger ever made with the never-fail treatment of adding fat, salt and sugar, thus there is no growth, learning or evolution in it. It is simply an object, a product. And like all soulless things, it can only occupy your time, not enhance it, which means you stagnate, and you know what they say about stagnation.

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Cemetery Lust – Orgies of Abomination

I suppose this is intended to sound like Autopsy, but it more sounds like the bad SOD and DRI clones of the late 1980s: really simple sing-song two-point riffs driven by the vocals to keep the rhythmic hook alive because that is basically all the song does. Rhythms are very similar to old DRI, COC and SOD as well. Lots of downpicking. Nothing is poorly done and yet this style, like all rap music, is just too simple to express much of anything especially with these entirely standard song structures. Each song consists of two related riffs, a vocal hook, and support from other instruments. The result is not exciting unless people playing stuff faster than normal excites you. Lots of tropes from middle-1980s speed metal and early death metal, but the songs never really get any momentum going and sound about thirty years old, out of date and without personality. Some things belong in the past and should be buried next to all the bands who didn’t make it because they sounded like watered-down versions of their influences. This band can join them.

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Rippikoulu – Ulvaja

Funeral doom metal with death metal touches in the vein of Skepticism, Rippikoulu on this release create a convincing atmosphere that relies too much on texture of vocals and instrumentation but nonetheless is convincing. These songs begin with simple riffs and expand both depth and tonality, moving from minor-key intervals to more open intervals much like Ancient used to on its longer tracks, creating a sense of a moving target on a lengthy journey. Use of piano, strings and female vocals both soften the abrasive distortion and force more spacious dynamics, allowing other themes more room to move. While these songs clearly focus on atmosphere, the more important idea here is the change of moods like seasons, which gives them a grace and makes the distorted guitar seem actually jarring by way of contrast. Although this release is an EP and thus short, the mood created by this musical approach could be, like Summoning Nightshade Forests, the basis for a short escape from reality that reveals more about existence than direct confrontation ever could.

Sadistic Metal Reviews 10-08-14

October 8, 2014 –

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What are Sadistic Metal Reviews? When fans, writers, radio presenters and musicians get fed up with the exhausting flood of imitators and demand that music have a purpose, because only music that has content can express something of beauty or horror about reality and thus be relevant to our lives, because unlike the herd that seeks escape, we seek a means of understanding and glorifying life. Death to the imitators, drowning in a sea of angsty tears.

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Edge of Paradise – Immortal Waltz

This jaunty take on a cross between burlesque music and hard rock with symphonic overtones seems designed to showcase the talents of vocalist Margarita, who layers her vocals in waves that create, along with the carnival horror show keyboards, a sense of being in some oddity of a dream. But this band really invites comparison to bands like Genitorturers and Marilyn Manson more than heavy metal; these songs are vehicles for the vocals and are designed to create a sensation of spectatorship more than have the music itself inundate the mind. Aesthetically, this will strike underground fans as cheesy; while not terrible musically, it also derives much of its compositional direction from riffing off known archetypes of the type of music it cites. That and the way songs are entirely driven by vocals places this outside the range of most expecting riff-based music, and the simplicity of its delivery ensures that it will sound like children’s music to most death metal fans. If this is symphonic metal, it is clearly not for me, but if you like the Marilyn Manson style spectacle and ironic deconstruction of cultural tokens, it might appeal.

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Krieg – Transient

Krieg started as purely chaotic improvisational black metal, then organized itself into a ripping war metal variety, and finally detoured into indie/shoegaze. With Transient, the band returns to roots with a primitive type of death metal fused with a heavy amount of punk and garnished with varieties of its previous influences. The shoegaze influence is still here as are some classic black metal riffs but they are suspended in a gelatinous mass of punkish simple death metal riffs which keep an energetic uptempo charge. While it sculpts atmosphere with agreeable verve, most of modern Krieg consists of transitions into moods and then riding of those moods, which interrupts the frenetic energy this band once conveyed while simultaneously not building up to its transitions with enough groundwork to give them power beyond their own attributes. Black metal works its atmospheric magic by manipulating context and showing a progression between events like a battle scene, but this new style is more like visiting different rooms in a spooky hotel. That being said, Krieg is stronger in riff-writing and understanding of the dimensions of harmony and how to navigate them with a riff than other American black metal bands, and also beats the hell out of Sonic Youth.

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English Dogs – The Thing With Two Heads

This punk band uses a lot of metal riffs and rhythms in that it likes to interrupt continuity with abrupt internal collisions in its music, and uses the muted strum in a style spanning the spectrum from speed metal to Meshuggah. Unfortunately, it also mates this with a rock style of offbeat leading phrases that make this music bounce just like rock or hip-hop, which kills any gravitas or building of intensity. There are some great speed metal riffs on here and some moments of pure punk energy but the whole is torn apart by musical discontinuities which result in what sounds like a train crash between the 1980s and early 2000s that never resolves itself into a voice that can express anything. If this band dropped half the riffs and focused on making songs that generate momentum and then channel it somewhere, it would hit like a ton of bricks but as it is now, it sounds like something that should be on in the background during an LMN late-night movie about kids hanging with the wrong crowd and ending up in an organ harvesting gang.

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Horrified – Descent Into Putridity

This album shows a great deal of initial promise in its attempt to resurrect the old underground. It gets beyond the two-point riffs that hammer a rhythm and then answer it and go nowhere, preferring longer riffs that lead on to different points and at times in the Deathspell Omega way extend themselves into wandering melodies. Its combination of Swedish death metal and Autopsy power death metal worship works on the surface. But the nu-underground has never understood the purpose of death metal riffing which is to create subterranean structures that mirror what goes on in our subconsious minds; death metal is about looking beneath the surface to reveal structure and a subtext of motivation. Horrified in contrast has one layer, which is some riffy music on the surface that fits together nicely, but lacks a core of something which cuts between the mental state and the music. Thus over time this wears thin and repetitive at about the same time the listener starts noticing how many riffs are anchored with doubled downpicking and how few of these riffs, despite growing in their own right, amplify the subject matter of the song. Horrified come closer to the original than any others attempting this style recently but still miss the root of what makes the underground what it is, and so verge closer to the much more “face value” work of speed metal bands, at which point the repetition creates bad flashbacks of late 1980s metal and the repetition PTSD kicks in.

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Xerath – III

The horror, the horror. Symphonic metal must be done gracefully but with aggression and force; Xerath approach it like hard rock and use it as a vehicle for over-dramatic vocals. This hurts to listen to because the keyboards drift, the riffs sound like a heavier version of Def Leppard, and the metal gets forgotten. Synthesizing two disparate things only works when a common ground and thus basis for a common voice is found, and otherwise what emerges is the oil-on-water effect that produces carnival music where random patterns contrast one another as if they were designed to accompany a cartoon and its wacky action. Xerath goes down all of these rabbit trails and comes out at a comical level. Distraction, deflection, recursion, confusion. Like Behemoth and other bands in this newer style, Xerath does great work at the level of detail, but when you add it up the only picture that emerges is confusion and haste resulting in an entirely random platter of stuff that is recognizable as metal but by depriving itself of continuity and context, entirely lacks the punch. It compensates for that lack by hammering extra hard on pounding rhythms and blasting passages which do nothing but highlight the sense of On Through the Night colliding with a roadside minstrel show on its way to play the outer reaches of Alaska and hope its luck changes there.

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