The metalcore explosion — djent, math metal, ultra-jocky tech-death, post-black metal, smooth melodeath — pushed itself to the forefront of most American scenes holding the false banner of metal.
Adolf Hitler’s minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels said that “if you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” Rock bands that borrow a few aesthetic metal stylings and graft them on to punk songs can proclaim themselves as metal and tell the press which repeats the Big Lie until it becomes so in the minds of most people. Songs shifted their focus from the mythological-historical narrative of metal and like all other rock, became obsessed with the individual, teenage angst, and narcissism. By this method the genetic coding and spirit of metal was wrecked and replaced with just another commercialized product.
Why? Because the spirit that metal music exemplified didn’t appeal to the self-obsessed mainstream crowd. They do not seek intellectual and spiritual challenge in the music they listen to. They want quick, easy, disposable background music that reflects and validates the one-dimensionality of the personas they have adopted. Most contemporary metal consumers consider metal to be just another form of entertainment like a football game, superhero movie or reality television. Because of the large number of people that hold that sentiment, the message (and the music as a result) suffers and gets confused.
Heavy metal represents a brave and inquisitive spirit diving into the unknown to find meaning and beauty. It challenges dogma and stasis and rejects conformity and inaction. Its very foundations are based in horror, grim Nietzschean realism, darkness, and the occult. Instead of fearing these dark forces metal admires them a necessary aspect of a full and intense life. It de-emphasizes the individual, reminds us of death, and praises the power of the natural world. The unsafe tendencies of the metal spirit forces the mainstream acts who want to assimilate it to pick-and-choose surface styles that would appeal to mainstream audiences (distorted guitars, fast drumming, etc) and incorporate those alone into their style. At its core this new music is the same as rock, pop and television: no structure, all surface appearance.
The spirit of metal gives meaning to music and forces the aspects of its surface appearance to reflect its inner organization. Without that spirit, what metal communicates to the listener is lost and the aesthetic elements that make up metal become meaningless. That meaningless was the goal of those who would assimilate it, because if they take the core out of the metal, they can turn it into a product for their own purposes. Celebrate the metal spirit and keep it alive through supporting or creating quality metal, because its wisdom and dark splendor is eternal.
As recent writings from Keith Kahn-Harris and others indicate, metal may be suffering from too much: too many bands, too huge an information flow, too many blogs, too much focus on surface aesthetics.
Contrasting this flood of “too much” is a true metal movement designed to emphasize what metal has always done well, but done anew by new generations. One member of this movement is Argus, whose album Beyond the Martyrs caught our attention for its NWOBHM/Candlemass classic metal fusion.
Luckily, frontman Butch Balich was available to answer a few profile questions and some existential ones via email. His answers strike me as relatively without contrivance, and show us this band both as it presents itself and as it is likely to be experienced.
Can you tell us how Argus formed? Did you come together on a mutual love of existing music, or a desire to create something that didn’t exist at the time?
The band was put together by Erik and Kevin out of friendship and a desire to jam and play some tunes. I don’t think it was ever envisioned it would become what it has. Our goal has always been simply to write great songs. We don’t concern ourselves with whether or not we are forging new paths or treading well worn ones. Its all about playing music we love and infusing our personality into it.
What is a “working class metal sound” (from your official biography)? Do the members of Argus identify with working-class or blue-collar roots?
Those guys grew up here in Western, PA and I think definitely identify with a working-class, blue-collar set of roots. We see ourselves as hard working and our music as fairly straightforward — what you hear is what you get — we aren’t overly complex and fancy in either our writing or our performance yet both are powerful. So I think we meant to portray the band as a straight up true metal band that works hard and is not pretentious in any way.
What would you identify as your primary and enduring influences?
We’re all over the map really. If you separated us and asked each of us you’d hear everything from Sabbath to Slayer, KISS to The Beatles, Maiden to NOFX, Marvin Gaye to Slough Feg. Collectively I think we draw from a common pool of Maiden, Thin Lizzy, some doom like Candlemass, old Metallica… We know what we want the band to sound like though so you’ll hear big riffs, great harmonies… sometimes the bands that those things remind of are coincidental, for instance “The Ladder” from Boldly Stride the Doomed has a real Solitude Aeturnus vibe even though I’m probably the one guy in the band who loves them. We are also influenced/pushed by bands like Slough Feg or Valkyrie.
You’ve picked an amalgamation of older styles for your music, instead of trying to keep up with the cutting edge or invent something. Why did you make this choice? Is there anything new under the sun, musically?
Let’s be honest — there really aren’t any combinations of riffs or notes that haven’t been used. There is NO ONE reinventing the wheel musically anymore. SO, our goal is to write great songs that we love — it is the goal of any good band. Our goal has never been to create something wholly unique as that is impossible. We draw from what we love about the music we listen to and enjoy playing and hopefully our personality comes across enough — and that is what makes us special. The notes/riffs/melodies may not always be something unheard of but we each have way of playing our instruments that adds up to ARGUS sounding like ARGUS instead of a mere rate retro metal knockoff.
Do you think the style you play selects the audience you receive, and that some audiences are more supportive than others?
I think any fan of true metal would like the band. We are neither overly refined or simplistic. I think our music has the ability to appeal to folks across different spectrums as it mixes bits and pieces of things and has strong melodies. I do think we’ve been most accepted by true metal and doom crowds so far. So far every audience we’ve played for has been pretty damn supportive to be honest. I do feel there is a niche market for what we do even though it has the potential to grow larger. If you play the style we play you do need to be prepared to accept that the fanbase is fairly limited and it will take a great amount of touring, perseverance and luck to advance beyond cult level.
There has been a movement in metal over the past four or five years called “True Metal,” in which people are less interested in outward-looking hybrids and more in an inward-looking, metal-centric attempt to continue the spirit of classic bands, although not necessarily the details. Have you seen this? Would it apply to Argus?
There is a segment of folks who aren’t interested so much in modernism and would prefer new bands to play in the old style. This is me to extent though I prefer bands not to be complete ripoffs of a specific band. I prefer bands like Slough Feg, Pharaoh, Twisted Tower Dire, Enforcer who have obvious influences but whose own personality comes through and who don’t consign themselves to 80s production values 24-7. I think Argus fits in with a retro tag though I have to say I think we manage to sound modern without sounding modern (if that makes sense). Like we don’t sound dated even though we’re playing metal based on the classic metal and hard rock bands.
This is your third album, after an EP and a demo. How has your sound changed during this time? Do you see it going in another direction as time goes on?
I don’t see that our sound has changed so much as streamlined a bit. We’re trying to capture the vibe and point of each song without belaboring the point in endless repetitions of the same riff. Why take ten minutes to say what can be said in six? I think it’s been a gradual transition. We’ve definitely become better songwriters over 7 years. Stylistically though we’ve been fairly constant. Maybe less doomy but no less moody.
Why do you think heavy metal remains popular after forty years of existence?
Because it is powerful, honest, hits-you-in-the-gut music. Because lyrically it provides escape. It provides understanding. It’s a very gut level thing… metal. There is an energy to it that few other forms of music capture — …and power, volume… I also think metal is also where you will find musicians whose level of integrity and devotion to their fans is high as opposed to more throwaway styles of music where musicians are chasing dollars exclusively rather than the art.
What’s next for Argus? Are you going to tour, or write more material?
We’re about to start writing for album 4. We hope to get over to Europe again the Summer of 2014. We have a festival appearance booked at the Ragnarokkr Festival in Chicago the weekend of April 4-5, 2014. Other than that we’re looking at some possible US dates… we’ll see what happens. Are discussing plans for small releases like a possible 7″, an EP and maybe a split.