The Elusive Sound

Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

While it may appear pandering to many that we constantly bring certain albums to the forefront of our discussion, the reason for doing this is that the state of maturity which metal as a whole attained was only able to knock on the door of the mysterious experience transmitted through music. Different albums discovered different doorways, uncovered overgrown pathways, and scaled mountains. Ildjarn found contemplation of the absolute in the eye of stormy rage through elated freneticism. At the Gates reached hitherto unmatched heights of craft and musicality. All rasping and scratching while blindfolded,  a crossing of the threshold by different means and interpretations. Fewer still are the music albums, metal or otherwise, which struck at a purity of sound that needed no interpretation.
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Crushing the sacred idols – Transylvanian Hunger (1994)

transilvanian hunger

Article by Lance Viggiano, read the more positive DLA review here

1993’s Under a Funeral Moon displays Darkthrone at their peak of creativity with a depth of vision that is initially challenging and abrasive yet contains a high degree of musically which constructs an experience out of relatively simple components and nuance whose reward is inexhaustible. Many place the decline of the band somewhere between 1995’s Panzerfaust and its follow up Total Death; in truth, Darkthrone as a creative force reached its nadir on 1994’s Transilvanian Hunger.

Unlike its predecessor, this record lacks in subtly and nuance. Gone is the inventive call and response of “To Walk the Infernal Fields”. The listener is mistreated by being deprived of the atonal, uncomfortable but highly inventive melody of “Natassja in Eternal Sleep”. Within the first minute, one will have gotten the gist of each track as the songs remain in a static pulse of two or ideas with a third idea serving as a bridge back to the initial thoughts, an interjection or an outro. Any relationship to an underlying narrative is tenuous to the charitable and absent to the honest. This is not a call for novelty in music as over time nothing remains novel; rather, it reveals a lack of dynamic character which offers no reward in a full listening of any track here; especially after the initial novelty fades with repeated listening.

As a piece of minimalism, this record fails abjectly. What is found in the successful minimalism of Eno, Reich – or perhaps Kraftwerk in moments – is the layering of simple ideas composed for multiple instruments in which absolute simplicity is woven together to create evocative if not complex art. Darkthrone instead chose to compose only for the guitar. The bass follows root notes of the guitar in a paltry attempt to give body while the drums meander near ceaselessly on a blastbeat which is only occasionally broken by an uninspired fill or a canned metal pattern. Their inclusion is questionable and unworthy of discussion or serious consideration. Their merit is valuable only to a critic as a display of the artists’ lack of confidence in leaving behind genre tropes to achieve a full realization.

Where the album finds success is by pandering to the overly sentimental via – admittedly – effective melodies and well executed aesthetics. Neither excuse the sheer laziness of construction nor the complete dearth of rhythmic variance and supportive content to fill out the body of the music. Instead what is presented is weightless and immediate music whose significance can only rely on memory of time and place; a sense of nostalgia for the first experience. It is thus difficult to discuss the emotional qualities of this music due to the near loss of artistry on part of its creator(s) which robs the record of any vitality and spirit. The music is heartfelt and bittersweet – with varying degrees of success – but ultimately it exists, at best, as audible candy for the melancholic.

Transilvanian Hunger‘s inability to grow with the listener over time and its misapplication of minimalism, despite containing a strong melodic component, places the record just a slight cut above the bargain bin. 2/10

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Det Som Engang Var: Significance and Merit

Burzum-Det_Som_Engang_Var-Frontal

Much like Darkthrone’s Under a Funeral Moon preceding Transilvanian Hunger or Immolation’s Herein After before Failures for Gods and Close to a World Below, Burzum’s Det Som Engang Var(roughly translatable as “What Once Was”) before Hvis Lyset Tar Oss(“If the Light Takes Us) puts on display all of Varg Vikernes’ faculties as a composer in a way that is still relatively easy for a listener to make out the different things he is doing, unlike the next album where a convergence and purification that only a minority are able to grasp in all its excellence and magnificence. As Brett Stevens commented not so long ago in reference to Immolation’s Close to a World Below, some bands make the same album again and again until they are able to solidify their vision in a magnum opus.

Many metalheads who respect this album may do so out of a respect for how influential it is, without truly understanding that even if this album came out today, after all the others they are said to have influenced, it would still be as impressive and worthy of high praise — but perhaps it would not be noticed by the same people who today profess to appreciate it. Contrary to common belief, its worth is musical, not historical only. This is not very different from people who “enjoy” Black Sabbath or Celtic Frost, but fail to see the monument that works like Master of Reality and To Mega Therion are. In great part this error lies in associating or equating technical prowess on the instrument and an apparent “complexity” of notes with  a complexity of thought and excellence in composition. These albums display an astounding clarity resulting from the exquisitely fused elements of music (harmony, melody, rhythm…) in a way that may strike the unaware as “simple”. Confusing intelligibility with limitation/blandness/simplicity is the greatest sin one can commit against masterworks of music, because the greatest works all share this as a common trait.. While this is even more true of Hvis Lyset Tar Oss, it bears bringing into question the undue musical disrespect of which Burzum in general is the victim.

The album contains tracks that make use of abrasive and extremely dissonant intervals, very consonant and relaxed harmonizations of melodies, synths as support and synths as the main instrument in ambient tracks all together and mixed in different ways and given the spotlight in different tracks. It is, perhaps, this up-front “complexity” of having so many distinct colors that at least attracts the attention of and mention by even those who do not understand black metal. The composition itself is technically nuanced but like any proper work of art, comes off as intelligible to the point of being confused with “simplicity” in its negative connotation. The complexity of the works like Burzum lies in the seamless unfolding of a story, a masterfully woven tapestry blending all sorts of disparaged puzzles and meanings within its frames not unlike Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. The importance of discussing Det Som Engang Var is that it is here that his thinking  is most easily and obviously seen. Without understanding this album, monumental works like Hvis Lyset Tar Oss and Burzum’s stepping-into ambient(or as he described it, Anti-Black Metal) territory, Filosofem, can never be truly appreciated.

Regarding its little-mentioned lyrical topics that are actually worth mentioning in any integral metal work, they consist on a mixture of melancholy and longing for a grand and fantastic past that exists more in the mind of a romantic than in historical reality (but which makes the values and traditions it longs for no less meaningful or real), and an existentialist questioning of the self’s position in a world of men that makes little sense and which launches the brave man in search of truth behind, or rather past, human constructions. In addition to that, the tendency towards nature worship and an attraction towards the forest as the archetypal home of homes, a safeguard from the evil of men and their perversions motivated by greed and thirst for power, is ever present in Varg Vikernes’ language and allusions. These have also been the target of cynical contempt by the petty minds of postmodernists who are unable to make a connection with nature and are rather too fond of themselves as creatures of a decadent society, leading them to denounce anyone pointing at obvious truths about its breaking-apart.

Restoring the pride and respect that Det Som Engang Var has never had in truth, just as Burzum hearkens to a grand past that has never existed here on Earth but that through an evocation of opposites rather points to an idealist future, so we attempt here to find a direction for future metal to grow in undreamed of ways that do not diverge from the essence of metal and that stand on the firm example of the greats that did exist but have never been duly studied.

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Funeste – Le Triomphe du Charnier (2015)

funestetriomphe

Funeste play black metal with a tendency to emphasize atmosphere through the creation of spaces, voids within the music in a treatment of the style that is very modern. In Le Triomphe du Charnier
one is able to identify great potential, as some of the elements in the music are very well-written, solid and balanced musically, consistent while not forgetting to create the movement necessary to give life. On the other hand, there are also more regrettable decisions here that can lead a fan of the old school to cringe. What the reader needs to understand is that those who understand the old school have this sort of reactions to many methods of the “new school” because the latter tends to lack a center, favoring whims that border on an experimentalism that is little more than ignorance of composition in its complete sense (and not just attending to its most basic and superficial necessities like playing in a key or using a particular mode).

On Le Triomphe du Charnier, Funeste often use arrangements in which three guitars playing distinct parts may be recognized. Sometimes there are only two or even as little as one guitar present. The transitions between these are reasonably smooth although sometimes tend to verge towards the modern tendency of lazy contrast excused as surprise. When the guitars are treated like melody lines, sometimes collaborating, sometimes providing accompaniment and counter-melody, sometimes just forming a mega-riff, Funeste show us the amazing arrangements that can be applied to metal guitar styles without having to sound superficially “neo-classic” or to resort to jazz-mongering.

There is a particular element on this album that stands out as the rotten apple in the barrel: the drumming. While in the three-part guitar sections a guitar may sometimes engage in some indulging and completely unjustified (musically unjustified, that is, not connected to the rest of the music very clearly, but just floating as an extra appendage) decoration takes place, the drumming patterns seem disconnected from the music most of the time. It is not enough that the drums play in the correct tempo and time signature, but this instrument also has to blend in with the rest of the music in a way that subordinates it to the whole and not as a self-important and self-agrandizing member. I am sorry if the traditional metal’s balance consisting on having the drums play a supporting role hurts the ego of drummers but mindful and reserved composition should come before anything else.

Neo-metalists of recent times take this to be a kind of close-minded imposition on their creativity and will try to release drumming from its subservient role and let it run around unchecked, affirming its presence and new-found freedom as a child who’s been chastized for the least of things throughout his life and grows up to suddenly find himself free of limitations and now runs amok performing actions of painfully self-referential significance. So it is that we find the drumming in this album attempting to take over dominance, fighting it out with the rest of the music, and accounting for the unnecessarily busy feeling of the music that is taken by neo-metallers as “creative complexity”. In truth, this is no more than lazy self-indulgence, this so-called complexity being no more than an increased quantity of notes. The drums should work from within the nature of the movement of melody and harmony to enhance the whole, adding to it not as something else occurring besides the rest of the instruments but as an indispensable breathing apparatus.

Here the main thing was to understand the combination and opposition of the three great factors in music- rhythm, melody and harmony; to understand, for example, that the cadence that is harmonically and melodically perfect will have a weaker effect if it does not occur simultaneously with the rhythmic cadence
— Johannes Brahms

Commending Funeste on its overall music-organization and especially on its very promising and mostly controlled guitar arrangements is in order. The band’s drummer is more than obviously technically gifted and definitely has talent but he or she must make decision here and now: will you write music as a “musician” looking for technical performance perfection or as a “creator” — a composer trying to give birth to an artistic expression? As a black metal drummer trying to achieve balance, it is recommended that one should first study the work of Fenriz in the albums released with Darkthrone around Transilvanian Hunger, trying to understand how and why he plays what he plays. After that a hard and long look at Adrian Erlandsson’s work in At the Gates’ The Red in the Sky is Ours will prove to be an invaluable lesson of drumming giving life to music in creative, varied yet reserved manner as well. Even though to simple minds it might seem that he is just being limited, others might understand his intention towards affording music with the necessary percussion while retaining proportion and a semblance that does not diverge too greatly from the intended concept.

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On Appreciating Music and Reverse Engineering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mh3c0eys-8o

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

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ewd0z6fJbR4

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

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

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kXpnR695uj4

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

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Q3LeWKYyCQ

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Album covers: Transilvanian Hunger

[AllCDCovers]_darkthrone_transilvanian_hunger_1994_retail_cd-front

With the arrival of A Blaze in the Northern Sky, Darkthrone presented a new musical evil with the help of a new visual evil. The first four of Darkthrone’s black metal albums depicted a sole band member in a state of aggression, triumph and/or despair, in black-and-white photos stripped of all decoration, reflecting the intentionally unaesthetic music of the band.

live_in_leipzigThis minimalist approach culminated both visually and musically with Transilvanian Hunger, showing a photocopied, grainy picture of Fenriz dehumanized beyond recognition, holding a candelabrum and presumably screaming his lungs out in the night. Some of its appeal lies in its ambiguity; feelings of futility, anger and power are intermixed, widening its significance.

Although Darkthrone’s visual idea was immediately inspired by Mayhem’s Live in Leipzig, its monochromatic, Xeroxed quality also has an eerie resemblance to Black Sabbath’s Vol. 4 from twenty years earlier and its anguished enigmatic quality to Edvard Munch’s The Scream even further back in history. The parallel is not entirely farfetched: it echoes the troubled mind of Fenriz himself, who reportedly loves art that comes from “the exhaustion of easy life”. To black metal fans the Transilvanian Hunger cover is presumably the one archetypical image of what “necro” signifies, much like The Scream is still very much considered the face of existential anguish.

Various_Artists_-_Peaceville_Vol._4The “necro” imagery, however, may have been unintentional: In Precious Metal: Decibel Presents the Stories Behind 25 Extreme Metal Masterpieces, Fenriz asserts that mere photocopies from the TH photo session were the only thing he could find at the time to send to Peaceville Records, implying that the same picture could have been reproduced in a more polished fashion. But it doesn’t seem entirely unlikely that the use of a photocopy was inspired by Peaceville’s 1992 compilation album, Peaceville Volume 4, spoofing both cover art and title of the famous Black Sabbath album mentioned above and containing one of Darkthrone’s pre-TH songs, implying that the use was deliberate after all. (Rabid speculation is any fan’s right, right?)

In any case, the cover of Transilvanian Hunger effectively summarized its music by a single iconic image and was later emulated by hordes of lesser bands and is to this day worn on t-shirts by serious music lovers and the occasional hipster alike.

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