On The Underrating of Recognized Classics

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Two of the most pervasive topics in metal are the “underrating” and the “overrating” of a band or album. Given that most people are prone to confuse their emotional attachment to music with a sign of its quality, most of these claims are specious complaints that reflect the need for acknowledgement from other people as a fan more than anything else. Claims of “underratement” usually occur in regards to cult bands, and less often, to personal favorites that should be recognized by each fan as a mere guilty pleasure. Statements of “overrating”, then, comprehensibly come about when a disgruntled fan wants to bash any band that does not appeal to him, independently of the reason.

 

However, when leveled as a result of balanced, informed and insightful judgement, these observations become meaningful in that they have solid foundation and a motivation outside selfish emotional need for attention. Contrary to popular opinion, these arguments only need to be based on objective observations but need not be objective in the full sense of the word themselves. The reason for this is that the concepts of objectivity and subjectivity represent a false dichotomy inapplicable in the context of art appreciation. Appreciation rests outside any single preference, it always lies outside the emotional reaction of any one person, but is nonetheless attached to a social group’s set of principles. And principles are a human construct, not tangible, objective reality. In other words, it entails the individual perception through the lenses of convention of objectively observed qualities.

 

Art appreciation can be reduced to the appreciation of beauty. The concept of beauty has always been a complicated one, and like anything complicated, it gets reduced to the absurd by small minds that feel the need to fool themselves into believing they have everything under control. A sense of what is beautiful rests on what is considered to be good taste. The nature of both beauty and taste is neither objective nor subjective. If it were objective, beauty would be a hard, flat fact measurable by scientific instruments, and not the esoteric – perhaps mystical – sign existing completely and individually in meaning, perception and medium but also in the whole of an object, all at the same time. A divine omnia in omnibus, as it were, perceptible to the unconscious but only vaguely grasped by the conscious as an ethereal idea. The duality that implies being human of having one eye in time and the other on eternity. On the other hand, if it were subjective, it would be completely pointless to talk about beauty or taste, as these would be demoted to euphemisms for what is simply our personal preference.

 

It is therefore, unsurprising that beauty is sometimes linked to the presence of the divine, and therefore of that which is natural, full of meaning and in balance. Again, simplified misconceptions come to distort each of these and in an increasingly individualist society that is just so for the sake of individualism itself, renders them powerless, trapped in small containers as catchwords for egotistical affectations. In other words, beauty has indeed been stripped from its cosmic framework and taste has become personal rather than communal. Both have lost any of the usefulness they had for communication of hermetic meaning.

 

This egotistical individualism is deeply entrenched in group-oriented thinking, paradoxically self-indulging as it is unoriginal and lacking in personal identity. This is to be expected since unthinking compliance to the system goes hand in hand with a deep-rooted cowardice of the mind. So, taking refuge in the rise of science, humanism and tacit nihilism, our brave new world does away with meaning as it has forgotten why man created it in the first place. Our modern society, contemptibly lacking in any courage to face reality and the pressing matters of our times, turns away from an understanding of the transcendent in favor of self-validation.

 

Art and its appreciation suffer first in this headlong plunge into the shadows. The reason for this is that art (artificial) arises entirely from man-given meaning. The greatest art has always had the power to communicate and bring forth an awareness of enduring meaning through individually-perceived universal truths of the human condition. Forsaking the use of any actual meaning in beauty, and consequently in art, music becomes a vulgar tool for individual satisfaction.

 

While quiet deference is directed towards names like Yes, King Crimson, Black Sabbath, Slayer, Bathory or Morbid Angel, my experience tells me that most fans who hold these bands in some kind of respect do not understand half of the reasons why these bands are great. The case of directly disrespected and underrated but equally excellent art like that of selected works of Burzum or early At the Gates is a different although related matter into which I will not go here. In the meantime, let’s turn our attention to canonical works of the metal underground.

 

It seems rather unfortunate that after achieving canonical status in any genre, a classic work is condemned to be defiled in two stages. The first is one in which the cause and effect relationship between being a classic and achieving canonical status is not inverted but flattened, the popular conception of the relationship between the terms being one of equality and interchangeability. Something then happens as a direct consequence of this misunderstanding along with an ignorance of the nature of classical works at several levels. In this second stage the distorted image of what being a canonical work implies is rightly questioned, resulting in an at least partial repudiation of their validity. The term classic is then also demoted into a euphemism for “what many/most people like”. Equating popularity with quality in art is a direct consequence of the loss of meaning discussed earlier.

 

This is why it is important to clarify what is originally meant by classical. It is closest to the condition of being an epitome, except that this latter term is neutral and can signify an accurate representation of the qualities of a group or classification. Classical refers to the highest degree of excellence in regards to quality, which implies distinction, perfect balance and adequacy in a work within its genre. Disquieting as the perversion of this concept is, simple and effective education coupled with the audience’s willingness to let go of their ego would be enough to remedy this situation. As with many things, it is easier said than done.

 

An additional third stage also bears mentioning which can then be appended to the steps in the process of decay in the perception of classic works. After the flattening and disavowal of the aforementioned terms has taken place in the collective mind, a confusion ensues which brings forth the nominating of undeserving artists or works into what used to be a pantheon of the gods. As I see it, there are two main ways in which this happens. The first was already mentioned, very popular works are inserted into the lists by virtue of their popularity itself. The other is the result of the backlash classic works receive from the lack of understanding towards their classic status. The original and true classics are reduced by a narrow-minded audience with a lack of depth perception to a collection of tropes to be imitated. A collateral effect of this in metal is that after a certain amount of time, since the audience cannot understand what a classic actually is, seniority is equated with relevance and quality, and then novelty is equally mistaken for innovation.

 

Without control or awareness, these things happened lightning-fast in progressive rock and metal, accounting for the extremely fast evolution of metal genres running away from the mainstream limelight and into increasingly obscure territories. Giants like King Crimson, Yes, Emerson Lake & Palmer and Genesis were then piled up with second-raters from all over the world. Nowadays it is customary to see Rush, Camel or Jethro Tull mentioned besides the first. Childish and musically wanting works belonging to the catalogues of Schuldiner’s Death and Cannibal Corpse even take precedence over the monumental early Morbid Angel. A closer and more knowledgeable and perceptive look into the qualities of their works reveals an enormous chasm in musical excellence and refinement separates them. They belong to completely different worlds.

 

Metal is encumbered by an additional hindrance: a recurrent appeal to cavemanish foolishness by the audience. This is the belief that as an essentially underground movement, metal is a blue-collar music which needs to be kept rough, dirty, mean and, well, ignorant. It is a combination of something similar to communism’s appeal to the true sense of the young masses and the testosterone posturing of a macho Homer Simpson. This idiotic claim basically consists in the stereotype that metal’s nature resides in young and unlearned spirit which yearns for adventure, rebellion and hedonism.  They do not realize that these are closer to the hippie ideals than to the true metal spirit which actually resides in a warrior’s mysticism that stares reality in the face without losing sight of the transcendent.

 

While metal needs to grow up and continue in its journey towards higher peaks, it must do so through a profound understanding of its roots and thereby a correct appreciation of its own classics and an embracing of its core and true ideals. The mainstream would have metal become a compliant rock music in disguise, an edgy but safe expression of castrated dissent. Absorbing or becoming other genres is not progress, it is only regression or distraction. This must be rejected at all costs and a unique path into the maturity of the genre must take place in a truly forward-looking but conservative manner. Metal has always made its most significant strides in those albums which on the surface seemed orthodox but which brought meaningful innovation at the level of musical thinking, information and communication. It was not the experimentalists who revel in the strange, the unexpected and the new. But the disciplined adherents to the tenets of metal who were looking for their own voice while keeping the spirit of Vir at the heart of the music.

On Obscura and metal albums as song collections

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Arising from modern popular music, underground metal has retained many vestigial traits that several artists have consciously tried to erase and that some observers have started to question as detrimental to the effective expression of the genre. As the title of this article reveals, the case in point is the matter of albums as song collections. A good example of this becoming a hindrance to the message of the music is Gorguts’ Obscura.

Clocking in at one hour, Obscura consists of twelve songs, a little over the typical ten tracks of metal albums since the mid 1970s. The number ten has traditionally been associated with wholeness or completeness. In the most mainstream heavy metal circles it is considered only right to fill that exact number. No more, no less. A lot of death and black metal albums have veered slightly away from this rule and tend close their albums with eight or twelve tracks. Grindcore degenerates have never let numbers stand in their way and have completely given the finger to this rule as Repulsion, Napalm Death and Blood have shown us with their two-digit track lists.

The reason why more original and progressive-minded artists pay no attention to these unofficial guidelines is because whatever the artist has to say in an album should not be restricted by too many tracks. Even worse than being limited by the number of tracks is having to fill up tracks in order to reach the required number. This is precisely how we get the albums with “filler” tracks. Tracks nobody cares for but which make the album more “meaty” for those who care about such things.

More important than the adherence to a particular number of songs or tracks in an album is the fact that most bands produce precisely that: individual tracks bundled up in collections. This is Gorguts’ worse enemy even on their classic of classics. Every one of the songs up to the sixth track, Clouded, expresses a very distinct message in its method. After that, we basically get more of the same. The songs aren’t bad at all, but they do not add anything more to the album except extra minutes and more good songs whose essence is not any different from the ones before them. It’s basically thesaurus recitation.

Some propose that metal needs to look beyond the number, both as a rule and as a kind of indulgence. Just because that you have more songs does not mean you have to put them in the album. Just because you have more riffs does not mean they need a song to contain them. It is suggested that the album format in underground metal be exchanged for the classical opus format, where we have movements belonging to a coherent whole work, in which saying the same thing again and again is unnecessary and highly discouraged but in which consistency in style and voice is required to a healthy but not over-restrictive degree. Metal is not young anymore, the time to consciously take the step to the next level has come.

Unaussprechlichen Kulten – Baphomet Pan Shub-Niggurath

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Named after a fictional work of occult literature in the Cthulhu mythos by H.P. Lovecraft, the “nameless cults” give their name also to this band who create modern death metal that remains true to the death metal style. Like Immolation circa 2000, carefully tuned guitars and use of odd diminished melodies create a suspension of reality that a rhythmic approach like that of the Deathspell Omega era “progressive” black metal complements and expands.

Baphomet Pan Shub-Niggurath cites from fully four generations of metal, mixing speed metal riffs with modern black metal and the aforementioned dissonant and complex death metal, but sometimes slides in old school death metal riffs and transitions reminiscent of the hybrid era of underground metal in the early 1980s. The tendency to offset rhythms to insert additional riffs comes from the newer style of black metal, which permits groove so long as it is disturbingly detached from consistent expectations, but the core of this album comes from the streamlining of death metal in the early years of this century that brought different chord shapes and dramatic conclusions to the genre.

Other influences work their way in here including a use of plodding cadences that would have fit onto a God Macabre or Afflicted album. Songs work riffs into a circular pattern that always returns to familiar themes for choruses but splits verses across multiple riffs using a Slayer-inspired pattern of working in a precursor riff, then changing riff, and then altering its texture and tempo with layers of drums, bass and vocals. Then the song culminates much like later black metal in a kind of revelation which melts down into the soup of primordial riff ideas that earlier served to introduce or complement themes.

For contemporary metal, Baphomet Pan Shub-Niggurath keeps its focus more firmly in the continuance of past traditions into the future than bands like Immolation managed. It does carry the tendency to be too emotive on its surface like Deathspell Omega, which leads to technique replacing content, but keeps this in line. This work impresses with the first couple listens and while it will undoubtedly socket itself into the secondary tier of death metal bands, crushes most of its contemporaries handily and displays a blueprint for death metal to get out of the metalcore funk and back to a newer version of its roots.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z15bfUxUEn0

5 albums that invented underground metal

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Before there were names for styles like death metal and black metal, and before anyone beyond a handful of people knew of these genres, pioneers created the groundwork for both genres and influences on several others. They had little at their disposal besides primitive recording and photocopied zines, but somehow these founders established the basis of new styles.

The media eventually adopted the term “extreme metal” but originally this music went by the appellation “underground metal” because you could not find it in stores, magazines, on TV or in academia. Eventually the genres within underground metal gained recognition and you could find them in record stores starting in 1997 when the distribution model changed.

But years before that the groundwork was laid by a few dissident artists. Let us look at the albums that set up the groundwork for both styles of underground metal, death metal and black metal:

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1. Discharge – Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing

By the time Discharge emerged, punk and metal both had large followings. Discharge birthed itself from within the movement called “hardcore punk” that assembled itself when punk fans felt like their music had been co-opted by the very radio industry it hoped to alienate. Hardcore punk bands lived in squats, recorded with whatever was handy, and promoted themselves with zines and 45 RPM singles (the origin of today’s 7″ records). They made their music deliberately abrasive and their themes beyond anarchistic into pure nihilism and rejection of all social thinking so that radio could not co-opt them. For the most part, they were successful, but then the genre became inundated with imitators who saw the simplicity of the music and the power of the social scene and entered for their own purposes, like marketers and advertisers would do years later. Discharge struck back with the ultimate anti-rock album. Drums did not coordinate with guitars, instead keeping time while streams of power chords flowed over them and changed at will. Vocals repeated short cryptic koans that entirely rejected the idea of society itself. Taking a cue from Motorhead, Discharge also added organic distortion to the vocals, creating a sound like an unearthly howl from a place collapsing into hell. Released in 1982, Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing launched a wave of others who used these techniques, including all of underground metal.

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2. Hellhammer – Apocalyptic Raids

In sunny, peaceful and socially engineered to perfection Switzerland, discontent arose with this occult and anti-social release. Turning up the intensity on distorted vocals, drawing influence from both Venom and Motorhead, Hellhammer wrote slower riffs than Discharge but added in the sense of dark finality that bands like Black Sabbath successfully captured a decade before. In addition, Hellhammer contributed a style of songwriting that probably derived from progressive rock records, who themselves borrowed it from classical: song structure followed the content of the song and not a standard song format. This caused the band to spend a great deal of energy matching up riffs so that they “talked” to one another with a type of internal dialogue. Heard best on the epic 9-minute “Triumph of Death,” this technique allowed Hellhammer to fuse the alienation of punk with the dramatic theological imagery of Black Sabbath into a mini-Wagnerian opus. These techniques came to live on in radically different forms in both the rising death metal and black metal genres.

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3. Bathory – The Return…

An entirely homebrew project, Bathory took what metal bands were doing to its logical conclusion and starting in 1984 recorded a series of albums using heavy distortion, occult themes, distorted vocals and fast chromatic riffs. While much of this material stuck closer to standard song format, quite a bit deviated with inventive songwriting that suggested a power of theater in the presentation of metal riffs. “The Return Of Darkness and Evil,” the title track from the second Bathory LP, demonstrated this power with its soundtrack-like thematic composition. Although this band derived no influence from Venom, its distorted vocals took a higher path toward a harsh shriek like one might find in a horror movie soundtrack. As a result, not only death metal but all black metal bands derived influence from this founding act.

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4. Slayer – Hell Awaits

Starting the year after the release of the Discharge album, Slayer crafted a new kind of heavy metal using the chaotic rhythms and chromatic composition of hardcore punk but the elegant and theatrical structures of heavy metal. The result shifted from social awareness lyrics to mythology that revealed a dark future for humanity, and stitched together songs of multiple contrasting riffs which shifted to support content instead of content supporting song form as most pop bands did. This created albums in which listeners could lose themselves entirely and made Slayer one of the biggest and most respected metal bands in history. The tremolo-picking used to create fast flowing riffs that kept energy high, unlike the muted-picking used by most speed metal bands of the time, formed the basis of the technique used by all death metal and black metal bands since. If a band falls within the underground umbrella, it undoubtedly takes influence from the first four Slayer records and most likely has at least one die-hard Slayer fan among its members.

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5. Sodom – Obsessed by Cruelty

Inspired by Venom, Sodom combined the energy of hardcore punk and the new techniques of Slayer and speed metal bands to come up with its own primitive version of this new style. These shorter songs resembled the thrash which was rising as a style at the time but instead picked dark and morbid occult topics. Despite the basic instrumentation, Sodom gave its songs serious themes and pulled off epic melodies which fit an archetypal pattern much like those of horror soundtracks do. The resulting concentrated bursts of fury gave rise to much of the viciousness of underground metal as well as its twilight atmosphere and fiery sense of destruction for all that occupied positions of social acceptance. While many of these songs fit standard song format, Sodom interrupted that to present concluding material in a style like that of Black Sabbath. As time went on, this band verged closer to death metal but kept the searing emptiness which lived on in black metal.

Why zines are coming back big time

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People say what they hope will be true and the grand visions printed about the internet back in the 90s are no exception. While most of us were hoping for Neuromancer on our home computers, more “mature” people saw the internet as an emerging market. They cynically promised as a new age where anyone could publish to the internet. It would be a new age free of domination by big media and a marketplace of ideas, they said.

Fast-forward to the time when those predictions would have come true and we see a far different reality. Information overload renders the internet mostly useless. With so many sites dumping information on the masses, the ones that succeed are the ones who get mentioned in the traditional media. Thus in metal media, the big internet sites are dependent on label money. Labels advertise, sites repeat, then that gets quoted in advertising and the audience, figuring the site must be a big deal, flocks to it.

This means that the big metal sites have exactly the same problems big media did back in the 1980s. If a band is good but not popular with a huge spectrum of people and thus high-margin profitable, it doesn’t get mentioned. We’re right back where we were before the internet, except information overload makes it even harder to find the information of real importance, which is focus on the good metal bands whether vastly popular or not.

As I observed in a review of a rising zine, the days of big internet media are giving way to the return of zines:

Many of us old school death metal fans watched the rise of zine Codex Obscurum with growing interest because it, like Glorious Times and Underground Never Dies!, represents an attempt to look back at the underground and figure out what made it as powerful as it was. Part of the answer is selectivity, which is a gentle person’s form of “elitism,” meaning that one selects quality over quantity and vigorously promotes and defends the quality. This is what zines did, what radio shows did, and what labels did, back in the day, by choosing some bands over others. The vague smell of blood in the air is the shadow of long-forgotten predation and natural selection that also shaped us as humans, which means not so much “survival of the fittest” but that all who make a meaningful contribution get kicked upstairs and everyone else is forgotten.

Most people had a problem with this. After all, it’s one lone guy screaming at the last 20 years of media consultant wisdom. But sometimes nature favors the brave (and correct) and so this idea is gaining traction. Witness this recent piece by Marc Andreesen, one of the authors of NCSA Mosaic (Mozilla Firefox’s great-grandfather) and now a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley:

On the Internet, there’s no limit to the number of outlets or voices in the news chorus. So quality can easily coexist with crap. All can thrive in their respective markets—and there’s a market for garbage, too. The good news is this: The more noise, confusion and crap, the more the need for trusted guides, respected experts and quality brands.

The vital sentence there is: The more noise, confusion and crap, the more the need for trusted guides, respected experts and quality brands.

  • The “noise, confusion and crap” applies to the broken ecosystem where blogs depend on label publicity for support and thus the only blogs that rise to the top are the ones who run the party line. The bigger internet sites are useless unless you want label propaganda. This includes Wikipedia and Metal-Archives, who insist on “verified” information which means a predisposition to believe the press releases over actuality.
  • The “trusted guides, respected experts and quality brands” describe those who make a name for themselves by knowing good from bad. Trusted guides are like reviewers at your favorite zine; respected experts are book authors, radio DJs and other people with intense knowledge of metal history; quality brands are labels that “can do no wrong,” much like Osmose Productions during the early days of black metal or Drowned Records back int he death metal days.

What this points to is a resurgence in zines and niche/specialty websites that are not sponsored by labels or media. Those represent the true promise of both the internet and the DIY publishing revolution that launched zines back in the 60s and 70s. Even more, it points to a “singularity” where the internet is recognized as not being what it was sold as, and consumers retreat except for a relatively small group of people who inhabit the net like nerds (4chan, NWN/FMP, Facebook).

After all, the internet is in trouble because time is revealing its advertising model to be bogus metrics based on warm bodies instead of actual attention by people with the ability to buy. More than half of online video ads are not seen, and A small group of people account for most of the activity on the internet which means that advertising is pitching to this group, not buyers, which is one reason why internet advertising continues to have dubious results. Users hate it and it’s easy to ignore.

One possibility is that like many industries before it, the metal industry is flush with cash and has more coming in if it just keeps shipping product regardless of quality. Thus a bubble has been created where money is going toward strategies that don’t actually work or only work with a limited or captive audience. This bubble produces a disconnect between the audience the labels and blogs see, and the larger audience of real-life (“IRL”) people who actually enjoy this music and will buy it — if someone points them to the quality stuff, not just whatever crap the labels are pushing this week.

All of this means that zines have an expanding audience before them. People want experts. Metal zines that are writing consistent reviews that sort good from bad on the basis of the music alone, and that don’t follow the underground trends that are the parallel equivalent of the big label propaganda, will be in high demand. My guess is that they will abandon most of the “underground-style” aesthetic and streamline it into something more reproducible, and focus on more issues at lower cost rather than big ornate rarities.

For metal, this means great opportunity. Metal thrives where it is highly selective. This is because it is easy to make metal, but hard to make good metal. Further, unlike “pure music” genres like jazz and fusion, metal is highly content-driven. This means that songs must imitate and explicate some phenomenon found in the world or in our minds, and thus must be more poetic than the simple jams of other bands. All of this means that we need more of those “trusted guides” in metal than are currently being offered.

Interview with Brett Stevens at MetalRecusants.com

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Adventurous metal site Metal Recusants published an interview with myself that hopefully will not bore any of you too much. Metal Recusants is one of the more interesting sites out there as you found out when you read our profile of Editor Dom and his team a few months back. Be sure to poke around for their commentary and reviews, interviews, and other forays into the world of extreme metal.

Don’t support the scene

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After death metal and black metal had made their meaningful contributions, a cry rang out: support the scene!

By that it was meant that you should go to local shows, buy records, and otherwise give monetary subsistence and publicity to local bands.

They left off a key detail: which local bands?

Actually, they don’t want you to ask that question. All local bands, they hope. That way, even if their bands are talentless, they’ll be able to sell merch and music because, y’know be cool man, support the scene!

In fact, what “support the scene” really means is “abolish quality control.” Forget trying to have good metal bands, let’s just have a lot. That way everyone can play at this neat game called being as cool as Euronymous or Azagthoth.

I have a different philosophy: support the good bands, and ignore the bad. This idea is often called “natural selection.” It means that if you want a strong scene, you only support the strong candidates, and let the weak ones die out.

Post-1994 people have no idea how cruel, judgmental and intolerant the older scene was — or how much this worked to its benefit. People shunned bands that weren’t the complete package: music, lyrics, name, imagery, music, production, visual art, and personalities. The scene was more elitist than these faux-elitist hipsters could ever dream of being.

It was downright hostile to people who didn’t “get it,” where “it” was a complex and insular culture so alienated from the mainstream it saw anyone who believed society had a future to be a mental failure. It saw society itself to be insane, and headed for doom. It realized how modern life was constructed of very many ancient lies, fluffed up and re-covered to look shiny and new.

The underground is not a place for joiners. It’s not a place for me-tooers. It’s not a place for the extra people of humanity who, having nothing they really care about, go casting around for an “identity” they can manufacture out of things they buy and activities they attend.

Don’t support the scene. The scene is a parasite. Support the good metal bands, and death to the rest.

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What is the underground?

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This issue is about to explode into public discourse because the rise in new-style metal bands has forced this question upon us all.

What is the underground?

Before even reading this article, keep in mind that there are some excellent resources. First, The Heavy Metal FAQ provides a complete answer. Second, Underground Never Dies! is a whole book dedicated to this topic through the eyes of metal bands from the 1980s-1990s underground era.

But we can come up with an even quicker definition.

The 1980s through early 1990s were a different time. Not only was there no internet, but music distribution was fairly strictly defined. Mainstream stores got what the big distributors had from the big labels and a select few smaller labels that pushed their way in. If you wanted a wider selection, you went to an “alternative” music store which stocked smaller labels. Often you bought imports, at a 50% markup. Most stores were completely uninterested in stocking something such as death metal, because it appealed to a small and antisocial niche audience. Why bother with selling a single copy of a Deicide album when you could sell 20 copies of Motley Crue without even trying?

In addition, there were forces of opposition to any metal that was not radio sanitized (which meant speaking on code words, probably encouraging deviant behavior to a greater degree). Very few people now remember when Tipper Gore and her Parents’ Music Resource Center (PMRC) were a powerful lobby for parental warning stickers on questionable albums. In addition, the threat of such people caused record stores to actually card people for buying violent rap or occult metal. You had to be 18 and prove it, or they would not sell to you.

And getting it on radio? There was college radio and also a handful of independent radio stations but these faced the same problem. Why play death metal when you could throw on a few sets of Sonic Youth and Rites of Spring and have 20 times as many listeners? Even among alternative music, death metal was unpopular because it was abrasive and did not have a large social movement behind it which made people like it. NWA was a violent, misogynistic and hilarious rap group that got banned just about everywhere, but there was a large social movement behind their work. It was easier to find that than your average, or even your top-selling, death metal band.

What underground meant back then seemed to be that it was offered through alternative channels. A few record stores, some college radio stations, tiny record labels run on a basically non-profit basis, and photocopied hand-assembled zines made of a pastiche of typed content and tattoo-style margin drawings. How did most people find new music in the early days? They hooked up with pen pals who would mail them cassette tape mixes of new music they found, often dubbed from cassette demos from the bands. Sometimes these tapes were many generations down the line and you could barely hear the band under the crepitant tape noise! But they did the job that mainstream media, record labels and magazines would not.

Toward the middle of the 1990s, this situation relaxed. First, the rise of used CD sales meant that smaller labels were making it into bigger stores via a backdoor. Second, magazines like Spin eventually gave coverage to death metal. Finally, changes in the way music was distributed opened up the middlemen who supplied record stores to the smaller labels. This meant that the traditional split between underground and mainstream was going away. Record labels, scared by the possibility of used CD sales eating up the profits from big mainstream releases, which relied on novelty to sell and interested their audiences for only a few months, started looking toward “niche” sales. But what really blew it out of the water was the notoriety of black metal.

Starting in the mid-1990s, rumors of the black metal movement in Norway and its legacy of violence — church burnings, murders, and stockpiling of military grade weapons — began to leak out through the zines into the magazines. Then the whole drama exploded with the trial of Varg Vikernes, who conveniently also ended the old black metal era with Hvis Lyset Tar Oss, an album so deeply nuanced and impossible to follow that most musicians shrugged and went back to three-chord, “punk style” black metal instead. He raised the bar at the same time bands like Darkthrone codified the genre with Transilvanian Hunger, an album that was difficult to create but easy to mimic. As mentioned in the documentary Until the Light Takes Us, black metal witnessed the decay of an idea. This decay happened through emulation that, because it looked at the outward traits like distortion and blast beats, missed the actual meaning of the genre which caused musicians to make such similar music in the first place.

It’s hard for people to realize now but black metal was initially viewed as slightly touched in the head. Death metalers often hated it violently; almost everyone else seemed to criticize it for its lo-fi approach and almost childish use of blasphemy and antisocial imagery. Many of the albums sounded like they were performed by people who had barely picked up an instrument and might have zero social graces. It was roundly mocked… until it started to become popular. Then the tables were turned. Within five years, black metal was in mainstream record stores (this shift happened in about 1997) and became really popular with a new generation.

After that point, the term “underground” seemed to lose meaning. The internet had come and made music and information about it universally available, and the proliferation of high-powered desktop computers meant that recording an album, running a label or making a zine involved far less labor and looked and sounded a lot better than the DIY labor of the 1980s (or even 1960s-1970s, when proto-punk and punk bands innovated it). At this point, people started going for an “underground sound,” which meant artificial lo-fi, simple three-chord songs, lots of ranting about antisocial topics including the occult, and a deliberately offensive resistance to any positive reinforcement.

You can see the resulting confusion in this artfully assembled article by Laina Dawes:

The other issue that’s sparked controversy is exactly which bands get press — take Deafheaven and fellow shoegaze black metal band Alcest, who both benefited greatly from non-metal-centric coverage in 2013. The idea of using these bands to open of the gates of metal and let readers discover a new musical genre (or actually take it seriously) is a contentious one. One of the issues is the promotion of palatable metal bands that could potentially reach the masses with a sound that isn’t “metal” in the classic sense. Instead, these bands have been referred to as “extreme,” a catch-all, provocative phrase guaranteed to attract listeners who are looking for a more intense metal fix – and to satiate that self-satisfied outsider-metal “cool factor” that insecure metal fans love to laud over the pop-music contingent.

In the years from 1995-1998, the underground basically rehashed itself. It had no ideas, and more importantly, the bar was raised. To be a good death metal band, you had to be at the level of Morbid Angel’s Covenant or Suffocation’s Pierced From Within. To be a black metal band of note, you had to be at the level of Burzum’s Hvis Lyset Tar Oss or Enslaved’s Frost. Not many bands could do that and so an alternative underground built up based on fan-driven metal. Most of this was in emulation of the previous years and took the form of three-chord simplified versions of the more complex originals. The result was that, outside of a small cluster of people hanging around internet forums, this music went nowhere.

Nature abhors a vacuum, so from 1999-2006 or so, metalcore took over. This was also music designed to be easy to make. It took the randomness aesthetic of late hardcore punk and combined it with death metal riffs, making chaotic songs that made no sense but were plenty distracting and extreme. The music industry flogged this dead horse walking (to brutally mix metaphors) for five years before the trend started to die. Then from 2006 through the present, the music industry took a different tack: instead of trying to make a new genre, emulate something that has worked in the past. They found the fertile ground of the post-hardcore years where indie rock, shoegaze and post-rock coexisted in the same sphere of influence. This was generally what was called “alternative rock” before “alternative rock” became a brand for flannel wearing bittersweet droning hard rock bands from Seattle.

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Deafheaven is a polarizing band becomes it comes from this tradition. Listening to it, it is not clear there is any metal in it at all. But labeling something “metal” or “underground” or “extreme” excites interest, mainly because few people trust the aboveground media. Thus there is a huge financial incentive to classify Deafheaven as metal, and for smaller blogs and magazines to go along with this fiction as well, if they do, they get advertising revenue and possibly a shot at the big time.

This leaves us with a complete quandary: does the term “underground” have meaning anymore at all?

My suggestion with my last article, “In defense of elitism,” was that underground is a misused term. The point is that metal has a spirit which defines it and separates it from everything else. That spirit must be expressed but it is of a nature that does not trust the dominant paradigm. Black Sabbath wrote their music to rain on the hippie parade of love, drugs and pacifism; their point was that altering our perspective does not change reality. Underground metal had a similar message and was unwilling to alter it in order to fit with the expectations of people who would rather hear about the denial fictions of love, drugs and pacifism (underground rap did the same thing in parallel, but with a different set of issues and a different set of denial fictions).

What makes a metal band underground is that it is unwilling to compromise its vision of truth for what people want to believe is true. It is unwilling to compromise its aesthetics for what people believe is comfortable and pleasant. It is committed to the idea that the only legitimacy comes from the art itself, not its popularity or album sales. Some would identify this as the ultimate non-“bourgeois” statement, in that it casts aside comfortable oblivion in favor of a raw blast of cold hard reality. This sense of underground is more fundamental than how the albums are sold or which zines write about them. It is an attitude and discipline. Underground means that which puts truth first and popularity second, which is a dramatic reversal of the way everyone else goes about it.

Metal is not the only genre to have an underground. Punk was originally underground but as it became fashionable in the late 1970s hardcore punk bands started vanishing into squats, playing midnight parties in abandoned foundries, and selling their music on 7″ records out of shirtsleeves. The noise movement in Japan remains underground to this day, with artists like K.K. Null constructing elaborate and beautiful pieces from raw noise, instead of making harsh blasting rebellious stuff like record labels had hoped. Robert Fripp, former guitarist of King Crimson, uses electronics to make his guitar sound like an organ and plays small concerts across the world. Underground is not a term specific to metal, but a term to describe any activity that is not encouraged in society at large yet believes it has ideological, artistic and/or political value.

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You aren’t going to hear about any of these artists in big media and you may not be able to buy their CDs in regular stores. However, that is the symptom, not the cause. The reason they’re not in regular stores is that they’re not only niche, but also not given to comfortable oblivion. In a time when people can choose the artistic equivalent of a cheeseburger over the more challenging and substantive art, people tend to do so, which marginalizes actual art. As a result, the actual art is alien and threatening to most people, which makes it a terrible product, which means that it ends up in small record stores, small zines, and small labels.

If anything, the internet has exacerbated this tendency. In an age when we can find anything by googling it, the real problem is knowing what to google. Even worse, Google uses a search engine algorithm that moves higher links up the chain, thus burying marginalized results. We have all the information in the world but without a guide to it, none of us know what to do with it. It is for this reason that traditional media has won out on the net and the sites that attract the most eyes are the ones that are promoting essentially mainstream music.

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What Deafheaven represents to a metaler is the triumph of mainstream music. There is nothing in Deafheaven that challenges the listener to even a second of soul-searching or discovery, or whatever it is that art does — that’s a separate debate — in contrast to what death metal and black metal provoked in us. Deafheaven in fact is the listening equivalent of wallpaper, a pleasant series of repeated images that make us think about shopping, perhaps. Whether it is bad music or not is irrelevant. “The medium is the message,” we’re told, and in the case of Deafheaven, the medium is inoffensive pop pretending to be “extreme.”

As BasementGalaxy has revealed, Deafheaven represents aboveground genres invading metal:

Since then, anything “new” and “innovative” done in metal has involved musicians stepping outside the boundaries of the genre more and more. Shoegaze, industrial, post-punk, krautrock, progressive rock, jazz, trance, dubstep. It’s been happening gradually over the past ten years, but Deafheaven’s 2013 album Sunbather just might be the first major splintering that will eventually see “extreme music” separating completely from actual heavy metal. Although my opinion on the album has already been published and will not change, it remains the most critically acclaimed album of 2013, of any genre, marking the first time an album that has occupied that grey area between “metal” and “extreme music” has captured the attention of so many mainstream critics and audiences. Some critics still call Sunbather “metal”, but to do so is to forget what makes heavy metal heavy metal in the first place, merely clutching to the few metallic threads in an otherwise richly varied musical fabric. In reality, Sunbather is a tremendous example of extremity transcending the metal ethos entirely.

In other words, there’s a reason Deafheaven doesn’t sound like Beherit, Demoncy, Imprecation, Blaspherian or any of the other bands which have resurrected the underground sound over the past five years. Deafheaven represents the mixing of mainstream sounds into underground metal, while Beherit represents underground metal growing and developing on its own terms.

If anything, the underground is in a renaissance because it has finally escaped the old standard of lo-fi music sold on cassettes/vinyl through dodgy mail orders and reported on only by small zines. We have gone from alienated from society to accepted (grudgingly) by society, and so now we are “niche” music. But what defines this niche is that it is underground. We face the hidden truths and evoke concealed emotions, and thrust a fist in the face of oblivion. That is what makes us underground, and it’s why the masses chose Deafheaven over Demoncy to report on as a face of extreme music.

Happy 50th birthday, Jeff Hanneman

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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