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Jeff Wagner – Mean Deviation: Four Decades of Progressive Heavy Metal

October 16, 2011 –

Human progress will forever be linked to those most primal memories of our species, wherein there emerged that intrepid curiosity that formed the crux on which history could be built. Moreso than the will to merely survive and subsist, it was the will to forsake the paradise of safety and pursue instead the harsh, untamed dusklands of the unknown, where intense tribulation could reveal the fiercest potentials of the few that could overcome. Within the realm of music — that most iconically Romantic of arts — this sentiment persists as a striving to expand the capacities of willful expression into an all-encompassing whole, swelling into symphonic full bloom during the 19th Century. But now, in the dreary modernity that constitutes post-World War II planet Earth, Metal music has proven to be an improbable successor to this upward-climbing composing ethos, and its 40-year history itself resembles less some linear development than it does the genealogy of a warrior race: evolving as one from troglodytic Rock origins, but then splintering into variegate subdivisions as established kingdoms become ever stiflingly overpopulated. If it is those most radical of subdivisions commanded by wildcat eccentrics, hermitic technicians, and sadistic savants that best define the nebulous label that is “progressive metal”, then ‘Mean Deviation‘ — the new and exotic pet project of Metal Maniacs veteran Jeff Wagner — is the one book ambitious enough to fasten a historical yoke around such a chaotically polymorphous Metal strain.

It’s a ridiculously exacting task to try and chronicle the entirety of a musical subgenre that isn’t really a subgenre, and whose content cannot be readily identified by formal analysis alone. And yet Wagner, being the dauntless historian that he is, enters the Nocturnus Time Machine® with naught but the earnest objective of highlighting whichever works were exceptionally bizarre, brainy, or both. Placing his starting coordinates in the late 1960′s when progressive rock and early ambient music had already begun to explore more neoclassical avenues, Wagner narrates the concomitant emergence of heavy metal, and oversees its unprecedentedly rapid appropriation of prog complexities. The most non-canonical, wildly erratic career choices of Black SabbathKing Crimson, and especially Rush receive extensive coverage, and upon this foundation of classic radio giants, Wagner uncovers many of the grandiose intellectual motivations that would plant the seeds of ambition in the burgeoning ’80s underground — an explosive era that Wagner veritably lived and breathed throughout.

From this point is of course where the bulk of the book begins and where divergent paths are most numerous and dramatic, starting with an initial divide between what is now commonly known as Progressive Metal proper — Fates Warning, Queensrÿche, Crimson Glory, and [must we mention them?] Dream Theater as examples — and the more abrasively progressive styles that were set in motion by speed metal aberrants WatchtowerVoivodCeltic FrostCoroner, and a small conglomerate of other leaders whose names consistently haunt the chapters further on. The subsequent outgrowth of extreme metal within the following decade then takes the spotlight for what seems like a third of the book, and the magnitude of its proliferation logically finds Wagner having to document deviance on a steady, region-by-region basis. But in this manner, he is as remarkably thorough in his examinations of familiar prog-extremists as he is with some of the more impossibly obscure names, reliably identifying which recordings showed noteworthy marks of ingenuity. A study of Finland, for instance, seizes Demilich by the tentacles and takes special interest in Beherit‘s darkwave transmogrification. Norway’s chapter highlights Mayhem‘s early adoration of Swedish prog band Änglagård and of course German synthpop and kosmische musik, and goes on to investigate the growth of Manes, Burzum, Enslaved, and Neptune Towers. Continental Europe reveals a constellation of luminaries ranging from Supuration to Atrocity, whilst the melting pot frontiers of the Americas yield regional anomalies as diverse as Gorguts and Obliveon up in Québec to Atheist and Hellwitch down in Florida. And, wherever possible, Wagner takes great efforts to cite any intellectual influences or achievements on the bands’ parts; tellingly, Classical and ambient music is a frequent subject here, as are academic degrees in a surprising array of fields.

It is surely impossible to write a “progressive metal” book that will be accepted in all circles of the culture, as controversy and even widespread disapprobation seem to be taken for granted in the music itself. But for the particular minority who identify themselves as hessians, it is certain that many will lose interest as the final hundred pages close in, simply because almost all of the so-called cutting edge Metal bands of the late ’90s and onwards fail to contribute anything significant to the genre; but in Wagner’s defense, there are many instances where he does bring attention to the growing problem of entropy. The more philosophical among us may further object to the very grounds for Wagner’s criteria for “progressive-ness” — that is, how much the work in question defies convention and expectations. To build from an early example, Wagner argues that Voivod’s ‘Angel Rat‘ — an album widely lambasted as a sell-out for its regression to verse-chorus, consonant indie stylings — is in fact a progressive step for the band because it was so utterly unlike any of the albums that preceded, or anything else in the scene at the time. But this is nothing if not the most prostrate kind of optimism, which accepts an undesirable antithesis — in this case, total artistic decline into meaninglessness — as a necessary part of a dubious process towards some ideal of absolute artistic freedom or whatever. It’s true that to speak of “progress” we need to postulate an objective or end of some sort to move towards, but externalities like novelty and individuality alone are insufficient; something more intrinsic to Metal’s being must be identified, otherwise you allow for a flood of the same self-obsessed, irrelevant music-as-product to garner the association simply because it’s clever enough to imitate the distorted aesthetic. Therefore it is best to assert as an axiom that for the subject to be Metal, it must have as its essence that visceral if rather elusive-to-define spirit of vir, whose amorally creative will to power is partially outlined in the introduction to this review. From here, determining progression in Metal is only a contextual (and decidedly more limited) matter of whether the subject meaningfully transmits its central motivation using methods previously unexplored, for any number of nuanced reasons ranging from technical breakthroughs to conceptual maturation to ingenious angles of arrangement; of course, the ironic consequence to progressive forms is that they are often seized upon by the majority and ossified into standard forms over time. So, based on these tenets, you would have to re-evaluate progressive-labelled, impostor Metal bands like Opeth as actually not effectively progressive as a band like Morbid Angel, who were significant not only for innovative technique, but for using their talents towards representing death metal philosophy with hitherto unheard-of imagination and perspicuity. Take this same critical hammer to the “progressive eras” of Enslaved, Amorphis, Death, and all related corrupted prodigies who allowed themselves to be domesticated into entertainers, and suddenly ‘Mean Deviation’ is chiseled down from a bloated tome to a slim pamphlet.

Now it’s apparent that ‘Mean Deviation’ surely has its points of contention, but then again the book’s stated aim isn’t to illustrate a concrete and ontologically-sound definition of what progressive metal is, nor is it out to namedrop every single band that may have garnered the label through whatever happenstances of popular delusion. Essentially, the book’s aim really is as simple as what its title conveys: to reevaluate the Metal timeline with a specific interest in whatever was outstandingly highbrow and/or shunned by the hypothetical average headbanger. It is a scholarly, well-referenced, yet personable inquiry of metallurgical innovation, which harbors aspirations towards objectivity and acceptance amongst society’s intellectual elite, but never mistakenly reduces the art to a mere science. Rest assured that trivia in abundance is here to tantalize the reader’s inner nerd; just remember to take it all in with a sizable grain of sodium chloride.

Written by Thanatotron

Tom Gabriel Fischer – Only Death is Real: An Illustrated History of Hellhammer and Early Celtic Frost 1981-1985

September 28, 2010 –

As death approaches, documentation increases. As a circle closes, individuals are given an oppurtunity to reflect on, track and document the meandering course that a society, individual or movement took and assess and re-evaluate this course to determine both its moments of strength and those of weakness. One consequence of this tracking and documentation is that the diligent and astute student of life is provided with an opportunity to discover those behavioural patterns that have been forged in the fires of history and are therefore conducive to success. The intelligent will reflect upon these lessons and apply them to their own worldview, life, ideology or movement and increase the quality, although not necessarily quantity of those lives. Therefore, we serious Hessians take the outpouring of heavy metal documentation rather serious, as it contains for the discerning, the lessons upon which the ideological, and perhaps spiritual foundation of a new spring, a new dawn and a new beginning for our culture may rest.

Heavy metal documentation has progressively reached new heights in this age of mass media as rabid fans, bands, and sociologists alike are taking it upon themselves to exploit available media outlets in order to document the rise and fall of extreme metal, an alienated cultural phenomenon, that unsurprisingly late is being treated with respect outside of the insular metal community. Along with the ideological documentation of Black Metal in the excellent documentary, Until the Light Takes Us, and the chronological presentation and thus preservation of the history of Swedish Death Metal in Daniel Ekeroth’s book of the same name, Hessians world wide are now being treated to an outpouring of band and album documentation in the form of DVD’s and texts exclusively dealing with important bands such as Asphyx and At the Gates, and seminal albums such as Reign in Blood.

To date, “Only Death is Real” by Tom Gabriel Fischer represents the apex of extreme metal texts. Appropriately prefaced, most notably by Darkthrone’s Nocturno Culto, this near-perfectly laid out, hardcover text book, is full of historical relevance for the aspiring and established Hessian and includes a bounty of interesting photos that shed light on the enigmatic and sometimes adolescently awkward manifestations of both Hellhammer and early Celtic Frost. The strategically arranged photos, intriguing and aptly chosen, are unsurprisingly monochromatic, and this combined with the enclosed paper quality, reveals a sense of aesthetic class and attention to detail becoming of the fastidious and perhaps benevolently pedantic, eccentric and inspiring personality of the authour. Additionally, the book contains a plethora of interviews with previous members of Hellhammer and Celtic Frost, which at various junctures provide strange as well as enlightening anecdotes that augment the history of the band(s), and provide an otherwise unattainable depth to Fischer’s account. Given this, it seems somewhat surprising that this history reads as well as it does, as Fischer’s narrative, although periodically interrupted to include these interviews, remains clear.

As for the historical documentation itself, “Only Death is Real” retains a genuinely human tone that while undeniably revelatory does not diminish the mystical aura that surrounds both Hellhammer and Celtic Frost. In fact, throughout the text one senses an undeniable theme of mythic struggle as Fischer recounts the vast amount of turmoil, characteristically determined by some unforeseen variable, which plagued the establishment and development of both Hellhammer and Celtic Frost. We read with growing interest as the seeming omnipotent forces of dissolution strive to subdue and shackle the steely will of Fischer and his desire to create. Perhaps slightly melodramatic, the testaments of Fischer and others remain inspiring in the face of what Hellhammer and Celtic Frost would undoubtedly accomplish.

“Only Death is Real” is consequently rich in history and provides a level of historical depth perhaps unmatched in extreme metal literature. Developing chronologically from an account of Fischer’s childhood and his musical inspirations, to the establishment of his first band Grave Hill and beyond, readers are also provided with enlightening expositions on a variety of pertinent subjects. Such subjects include but are not limited to, the realities of Hessian life in Switzerland during the early 80’s, the meaning and inspiration for the name Celtic Frost and the conceptual considerations that went into the development of the band, Fischer and Eric Ain’s relationship with the works of H.R. Giger, and the critical and undeniable influence of Martin Eric Ain in the development and maturation of Hellhammer and Celtic Frost.

Fans are also provided with a chronologically precise account of the sometimes dizzying array of Hellhammer and early Celtic Frost releases, including exact track listings, facsimile demo and EP sleeves, the intriguing history surrounding the development of each release, and verbatim and oft-times hilariously slanderous copies of reviews of these releases. Obsessive fans can also rejoice as Fischer has included a complete visual account of the evolution of both the Celtic Frost and Helllhammer moniker, including copies of hand drawn rejections completed by band members themselves.

Overall, this history proves itself essential reading for anyone who takes extreme metal seriously. Fans can rejoice as we are provided with a comprehensive history of two bands that became cornerstones in the development of extreme metal. Any Hessian neophyte would do well to take this text seriously as it provides a great introduction to the personalities and music of a band whose clarity of vision, will and capacity to inspire, has left an indelible mark on countless bands and individuals. Perhaps now, in the midst of what appears to be a bourgeoning extreme metal renaissance, fans and musicians would do well to look back, find inspiration in, and relentlessly devour the lessons of our forefathers. In so doing we may overcome the progressive deterioration of extreme metal, usher in a new epoch and raise the flag of Hessiandom to new and unparalleled heights.

Written by TheWaters

Virgil – The Aeneid

July 28, 2009 –

Among the superb examples of classic literature produced by the once rich and productive european culture; amidst the works of a fecund civilization that have left a permanent mark on the subsequent generations, proving their relevance in all eras of human history; touching topics that are so eternal and defining of our humanity, such as the neverending strife for life on all levels; among all those works, very few pieces of writing (and art) can reach the heights of Virgil’s masterwork, the culmination of a lifetime of work and self-improving in the field of the written word.

The intention with this review, less than providing a synthesis of the book’s argument, which can be found anywhere else on the Internet, is to give the reader what we believe is the central message of such a story in a short and concise manner so you can pick the book and explore the depths of its message for yourself.

The main subject of the story is the overcoming of difficulties and the strife for better conditions of living, or a better future. In the example of a group of survivors from the destruction of the legendary Troy, them lead by the fearless and noble warrior Aeneas, as they go through a series of awful calamities one after the other, with nothing but the promise of a bright future that the mentioned group of people won’t even see for themselves, but which will be enjoyed by their descendants, the future patricians that would build the greatest civilization known to man, Virgil gives us the best example of the glory and the rewards of reaching new heights by conquering difficulties.

It is this argument that best reflects that condition of human life that modern people try so hard to hide or run away from: the unescapable fact that, if we want the good things in life, we need to make some effort to get them. Not just some meager effort, but a serious one, since calamities, the only sure things in life, and the ones that come most easily, will get in the way of our dreams. Such calamities may come in many forms: the death of a close one, the sabotage made on us by envious people, the crash of the financial market, or a meteor falling through your roof and into your room – it doesn’t matter. They are as real as the air you breath (“only death is real”, indeed) and you will need to face and go through many of them if you want to get some of the sweet fruits that the tree of life offers.

Despite the universality of its message, I feel this book applies specially to hessians and the hard path in life they choose to take. As modern warriors, wandering as misunderstood entities in the maelstrom of modern life, the analogy with the wandering trojans is self-evident. So, even thought this story doesn’t depict long haired dudes with beer guts, it fits the metalhead persona like a glove.

Grab this and learn the joy of surviving the brutal game of life, the hessian way.

New book declares that Metal should be recognized as a significant cultural movement

April 24, 2009 –

Despite its distracting academic jargon, Steve Waksman’s This Ain’t the Summer of Love: Conflict and Crossover in Heavy Metal and Punk (University of California Press) pinpoints an underappreciated truth: While elite critics have championed punk as the vanguard of pop cultural revolution, “the emergence of metal has never been treated as a historically significant event.” Punk struck the intellectuals as properly conceptual and arty; metal just seemed like brutal noise for brutes.

Waksman, who teaches music and American studies at Smith College, retells the history of pop music from 1970 to the present. His topics range from the depth and richness of Motörhead’s pioneering thrash to the genre- (and gender-) bending theatricality of Alice Cooper and David Lee Roth. The two quick-and-noisy musical arts communities, separated by the critics, have mingled and cross-pollinated on their own, helping to create today’s dynamic and delightful world of self-chosen, mix-and-match subcultures and musical identities.

- Radley Balko, Reason: The Phony War between Punk and Metal

Punk, despite its abrasive nature, was a genre that stayed within the margins of popular music and so it got quickly recognized as a revolution in popular culture. Metal, on the other hand, and despite using templates from pop music, such as its instrumentation, was outside the frame of modern culture from day one, both sonically and ideologically. As its concepts and musicality are simply too “out there” for most modern people to understand, it remains a misunderstood child of its time.

Not for long, though. For Metal, it will take more time than it took for punk to get proper credit as a true artform, but eventually recognition will take place, as its historical importance as the first true counterculture movement of the modern times is too strong to be denied, naysayers be damned.