Codex Obscurum – Issue Five

August 4, 2014 –

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Codex Obscurum graces these pages frequently as one of few print zines who uphold the idea of the underground: a focus on music, not popularity, and insight into the motivations and mentation of those who pursue the unholy music of death. Issue Five from this promising zine takes its power to new heights.

Over the preceding issues, Codex Obscurum refined its approach to layout, personality and content and now appears in a fully mature form. Layouts are readable and densely packed with information, interviews dig into the thoughts and emotions of those who are active in the underground, and content selection shows a strong preference for the ancient spirits of obscure music as well as an inclination to pick from current music the few bright lights who understand it in spirit as well as mechanics.

Layout for example shows great evolution. High-contrast pages of black on white or its inverse use sparse but intense images to anchor smoothly-flowing, tightly-packed text. The result proves readable for those in a computer age who wish for a professional layout in a print magazine, and allows the content to pop out at the reader without interference or confusing background. The resulting more efficient use of these pages allows the staff to cram in more interviews, notably more reviews, and features that show a concise but outspoken style.

Issue Five begins with a stream of interviews including most notably Brutal Truth, Krieg and At the Gates. These show the seasoned journalist at work, avoiding most of the standard background questions of mechanics and instead querying the musicians in detail about their compositional and stylistic choices. That approach elicits answers which deepen the connection between band and reader by escaping the surface world of rock and looking at metal as a series of choices united by a shared identity and way of looking at the world.

The At the Gates interview reveals the workings of of legendary band as the questioner probes into the branches of its career and the resulting changes in the music. Focusing also on the upcoming At the Gates album At War With Reality the interviewer knits past and future through the words of the band. A candid Brutal Truth exploration follows with bassist Dan Lilker talking about his approach to music and his history with the second-wave grindcore act, after which a cerebral Krieg interview digs into the questions that metal finds troubling. Witness this exchange:

Where do you see the place of black metal in the greater context of the development of musical styles in human culture?

I don’t see it as culturally important to humanity as a whole, only some countries it’s made a direct effect on their history and even then in the grand scheme of this shit circus it’s about as important as that one time you jerked off that one day that you don’t quite remember but you know that you did. It was engaging for those few minutes but then you finished and went on with your life. That’s how I see it in the big picture. But seeing that we’re Americans and American society places incredible emphasis on solipsism, then for the individual it’s touched it could be the greatest cultural movement of his/her life and for however long that individual is alive it’s the one thing they carry that had the greatest significance possible.

A welcome change comes in the form of the reviews which pack the ending pages of this zine. These take a longer form and look more in-depth at the music and use less rhetoric and judgment than before, which makes them more informative. In this issue, an editorial of a true metal nature follows the reviews and brings up a number of significant points for any thinking metalhead to ponder. This type of fully-developed personality shows the strength of this zine in its second year and fifth issue and promises even greater heights for its future.

Codex Obscurum #5 now available

May 8, 2014 –

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Codex Obscurum #5 is now available for preorder at the following location and will ship in the last week of may. Preordering helps offset the cost of printing the zine. As previously covered in these pages, Codex Obscurum presents the underground in the form it originally evolved: xeroxed pages, in depth content, and careful choice of featured bands.

Issue #5 contains:
Art by Matt Putrid
At The Gates
Brutal Truth
Sigh
Dead Congregation
BÖLZER
TrenchRot
Morbus Chron
Krieg
Embalmer
Vastum
Satans Satyrs
The Wakedead Gathering
Crucifier
Church Burn
Aktor
Domains
& More

Why zines are coming back big time

May 5, 2014 –

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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.

Profile: Codex Obscurum editor Kevin Ord

December 3, 2013 –

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Photo: Aaron Pepelis.

There’s a seismic disturbance in the metal world. As the power of the internet winds up, the flood of information has increased to the point where people are searching for ways to reduce the data overload. As a result, they’re turning back toward zines, reviews and edited sites and away from crowd-sourced data and social media.

On the forefront of this change is Codex Obscurum, a formerly small but rising zine from the eastern coast of the United States. Staffed by volunteers, run on a non-profit basis, and dedicated to old school underground metal as well as contemporary developments, Codex Obscurum has won over its share of devotees.

We were fortunate to be able to catch a few words with Editor Kevin Ord, who has taken over the helm. He gave us the lowdown on changes at the zine and its future direction, as well as (at our interviewer’s insistence) some speculation on why zines are surging forward as the rest of media swarms and retreats in confusion.

Can you tell us a little about yourself, and how you got involved in underground metal?

I’m from Worcester, Massachusetts. I have a wife and three cats and I’m a paint contractor during the day and zine publisher at night. Like most kids in the 80s I got into metal through other kids in school with bands like Slayer and Metallica. I can pretty much thank Headbangers Ball for introducing me to underground metal. It was appointment television on Saturday nights. I also remember getting a copy of Pit Magazine in the early 90s and being obsessed with hearing what all of the bands in there sounded like. I was already a huge fan of horror movies so the art grabbed me right away.

I like to be able to hold something physical. I think a lot of people do. I want something that a kid might find in a shoebox in 10 years and say “I remember this; I’m going to reread it.”

What made you want to work with underground zines? Have you been a zine reader for long?

I wanted to work on an underground zine because I was sick of just bitching about stuff on the internet. I wanted to actually create something instead of always just tearing stuff apart. I’ve bought zines randomly for at least the last 20 years. Reading the Slayer Diaries book definitely motivated me to make Codex Obscurum better.

To you, what defines an excellent zine? Were there any favorites of yours from the past that you still turn to as examples of underground metal zine greatness?

I think variety defines an excellent zine. We have 12 different writers for Codex Obscurum and I think that variety of opinions and tastes makes it something everyone can learn something new from. I find out about things from my own zine I didn’t know about just because we have so many writers from different backgrounds. I still turn to the Slayer Diaries like I said. He had the advantage of being in the right time and place. But I think it’s an excellent record of a specific time in metal. Maybe one day Codex will also be a good record of metal in 2013. Who knows?

Are there advantages to the zine format that newfangled ways like Twitter and blogs do not offer?

You can read Codex Obscurum on the toilet a lot easier. I like to be able to hold something physical. I think a lot of people do. I want something that a kid might find in a shoebox in 10 years and say “I remember this; I’m going to reread it.” Stuff like blogs just seem so disposable.

What has changed in the three issues of Codex Obscurum? Have you and your team altered your approach based on this learning?

Our original editor had a substance abuse problem that we weren’t aware was as bad as it was. So he is now in treatment and will not be returning to the zine. So Steve and I have taken over formatting and printing Codex Obscurum. We got a lot of feedback on issue #1 and #2 and changed the zine a lot based on this feedback. The top priority was making the zine a lot more legible and easier to read. I think we achieved that with issue #3. I also wanted to make the zine less random and more focused on music. We tried to pack as much music content into #3 as possible. Getting support from artists like Mark Riddick and podcasts like Hellcast has also motivated us to make the zine better.

The top priority was making the zine a lot more legible and easier to read. I think we achieved that with issue #3. I also wanted to make the zine less random and more focused on music.

What’s the best way for someone to get ahold of Issue #3 of Codex Obscurum? What about for them to support the zine in intangible ways?

If someone wants to get ahold of the zine they can go to codexobscurum.bigcartel.com. The zine is $3 + S/h. If someone wants to submit their album or demo for review the can contact me at codexobscurumzine@gmail.com. If someone wants to support the zine just tell a friend. We like it to be done DIY.

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Codex Obscurum Issue 3

November 1, 2013 –
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codex_obscurum-issue_3The third issue of Codex Obscurum zine is going to print and will be shipping in mid-November.

Currently, Codex Obscurum issue #3 is ready for order. All zines will come with a free sticker. You may remember our interview with the editor and our review of issue #2 of Codex Obscurum.

As zines return to importance because the internet has overburdened us with facts and options, but depleted our share of sensible opinions about them, more people are returning to reading zines and buying CDs and vinyl as opposed to a download-happy culture that floods their lives with mediocre music and leaves them with few lasting impressions. Codex Obscurum is part of the wave re-vitalizing the metal zine community.

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Underground Never Dies! metal fanzine book nears release

October 9, 2013 –

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“Underground Never Dies!” chronicles the underground metal explosion of the mid-1980s through early 1990s when a decentralized volunteer force created a parallel music industry for music that had no commercial appeal, but a fervent sense of truth and opposition to some aspects of post-modern civilization.

With over 500 pages of interviews, photos, excerpts from period fanzines and artwork, “Underground Never Dies!” addresses the complex interweaving of bands, fans, zines, promoters, artists and labels that fostered the underground metal movement and allowed it to expand with maximum flexibility.

Written by Grinder Magazine Editor Andrés Padilla, the book includes fanzines from around the world as well as an extensive selection of underground flyers, so it will be not only a narrative of the history of underground metal, but also a massive and interesting menu of diverse viewpoints for devotees of underground metal genres such as death metal, black metal, grindcore and doom metal.

Doomentia Press will publish and distribute “Underground Never Dies!” which will include a compilation 12″ LP featuring historically important bands exhumed from the 80s, such as Slaughter Lord (Australia), Mutilated (France), Incubus (Florida, USA), Poison (Germany), Exmortis (USA), Fatal (USA), Armoros (Canada), Mental Decay (Denmark), Funeral Nation (USA) and Insanity (USA) among others. Presented in gatefold format, and limited to the first 500 copies of the book, the LP will be followed by CD and tape versions of the same material with added bonus tracks.

Cover art by Mark Riddick accompanies introductions by Ian Christe (Bazillion Points), Chris Reifert (Autopsy), Erik Danielsson (Watain) and Alan Moses (Glorious Times). This celebration of the underground will attempt to make sense of the fertile but chaotic years of its origins.

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See also:

The return of the old underground?

September 30, 2013 –

classic_death_metal_underground_flierChange is easy to spot from afar. You watch a whole continent break loose, or a planet change its orbit. The challenge is being able to spot it when you’re on that continent or planet. Is that rumble your home island floating away, or just too much Taco Bell?

Lately the underground has been changing again, as it has in the past. First, a number of people seem to be recognizing that for the last couple years, something has shifted. The quality of releases is better, and the nu-core/indie/alt-metal/shoe-gaze just doesn’t attract the throngs. I blame Beherit, War Master, Profanatica, Blaspherian, Imprecation, Birth A.D. and others for bringing back old styles with new voices.

Next, there’s renewed interest in older formats of music. Cynics will say this is just hipsters, but it’s too big for that. It’s almost like a generalized reaction to the impermanence of MP3s and the lack of control you have if Amazon or iTunes decides to delete your profile for blasphemy.

Finally, there’s renewed interest in zines. Not only are there promising new zines like Codex Obscurum, but there’s people writing about zines and the effect they can have on the underground. (Many of them are pointing toward our Classic Death Metal Zine Archive and The Heavy Metal FAQTM.)

Like vinyls, zines have an appeal. It’s not that they are somehow more effective than the internet at spreading information. Rather, like vinyl, their saving grace is that they’re less convenient. This creates a big pyramid between bands and fans where multiple people filter the thousands of possibilities down to fifty pages in a zine or 15 LP choices in a distro or record store. They reduce the amount of chaotic information and give you more options, ironically, as a result.

It might be this is all in my head (dead brain cells). But there’s something in the air. It’s not just fall, which we’ll get in Texas in another three months. It’s a sweeping change, what they call a “sea change” in the elite newspapers. After fifteen years of dormancy while the imitations swept in and appropriated what others had created, metal is bouncing back. And it’s bringing back the old ways.

Codex Obscurum – Issue Number 2

August 31, 2013 –

codex_obscurum_zinePeople thought the golden age of metal zines was over. However, now that the internet has flooded the world with low quality information, including Garage Band musical projects, there’s a new need for zines: to find the good stuff and celebrate it.

When you think about it, almost everything you’re exposed to on a daily basis is a commercial message. Whether it’s some commercial on TV selling you Viagra, someone soliciting “likes” on Facebook, renting your apartment on AirBnB or even a news broadcast, money is changing hands.

How this works is that the person creating the information makes it about a topic on the surface, but in its inner structure, it’s about the sale. Some material works from the opposite direction, and makes its inner structure about the music itself. We call that media “underground.”

Codex Obscurum’s second issue has two dimensions to it. The first is how it looks, and the second in the quality of information inside. As someone who lived through the years of four-track production and grainy xeroxed zines, the former doesn’t influence me much. It’s in the information zone that Codex Obscurum thrives.

The staff behind this magazine have clearly put a lot of effort into acquiring interesting interviews, stories and relevant record reviews. What other zine do you know would contact Burzum mastermind and known church-burning neo-Nazi Varg Vikernes, and only ask him about his new role-playing game? Or would create a Slayer tribute that’s this personal?

In addition to the human interest stories, the bread and butter of this zine is its scene reporting. An interview with Incantation shows more of the band than we’ve seen in a long time, getting into the depths of its motivations and musicality. There’s a killer Morpheus Descends interview and a wad of record reviews that are not only coherent but insightful.

No zine will be perfect in form or content. Some of what goes into this issue of Codex Obscurum struck me as irrelevant to my personal pursuits but it’s hard to argue against inclusion of longstanding local scene veteran bands, and those interviews turned out to be interesting, so it’s a quibble at best.

In form, this zine could improve. Luckily, their error is that they are trying too hard. The editors created a number of different layouts, with different fonts and background colors, to try to liven up the layout. My advice is to stop doing this, and to go back to the whitespace backgrounds of bygone days, but use space more efficiently.

Codex Obscurum could fit in more content by modifying its layouts in this way. Similarly, for record reviews, just use a table grid. You don’t need to come up with something visually arresting in every case because if you’re using the space efficiently, it will be packed with information. Typerwriter font is fine because it copies well, unlike some of the Olde English and Stencil fonts used here.

That being said however I thoroughly enjoyed this zine and its writing style. Unlike the blog-influenced writing of the mainstream media, this zine does not take a few nuggets of information and drown them in a sea of happy social noises. It cuts to the chase, and starts dishing the vital knowledge without a lot of backstory and chatter.

Best of all, this zine understands the underground. Codex Obscurum is written from the perspective that the truth is out there and most people don’t want to see it and refuse to even take hints that it exists. Thus, that which wants to keep its integrity must stay underground, and requires dedicated zines to explain it to others.

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