Join guest writer Fangorn as he attempts to trace the main progression of extreme metal and the controversial conclusions he reaches.
Foreword: Personally, I think music reviews are a form of marketing, except for the serious(musical notation) music field. Marketing(or we can call it sharing) about one’s idea, perspective and experience of music. There is no absolute objective point of view. People always understand and communicate based on the perspective of something, personal preferences, uphold some beliefs, or they want to be as neutral and objective as possible, but they are still limited by cognition / experience or hormone / brain state. But now I’m going to invite you to my marketing show, peeping into the nude of my spiritual / ideology.
In contemporary music, all kinds of modern music styles and categories that people usually find to listen to in their lives(which means non “academic” music), most of them can be explained by the framework of rock or jazz music. And even then we can say that rock should be in jazz. We can hear all kinds of styles of American pop music at the end of the last century, standard process pop star songs of now, or any other less popular / indie style blablabla, in fact, they all can be explained in the framework of modern impromptu music. Although the origin of all this is blues music, but we can broadly use “jazz” to represent all kinds of modern impromptu music.
But, perhaps the extreme underground metal was an exception.
Metal originated from the combination of the structure of progressive rock and the feeling of horror films, with the theme of short phrase(riff) as the leading center, this kind of music has been continuously developing new consecutive passages, constantly injecting new impetus into the music. And, compared with easy and comfortable pop music, it has more crisis and is more adventurous. It became the keynote of heavy metal music.
Its prototype is based on rock, It’s like the blues scale in Black Sabbath; the voice melody is above the guitar accompaniment like pop song / homophony form in Iron Maiden. But we can still easily and intuitively listen to the difference between rock and metal at the initial stage. As musicians in that era increasingly developed this kind of music style in the direction of heavier, and more extreme lyrical themes, extreme underground metal gradually formed. Slayer’s 1983 debut album Show No Mercy can be regarded as a classic representation of the origin of extreme metal.
We can hear the influence of Iron Maiden and Motörhead, the combination of heavy metal rhythm and hardcore from Slayer. All the musical elements in this album define extreme metal. “Die by the sword” probably is the best song in this album. We can hear that riffs here has lost the melody line, becomes obscured, but at the same time, the changes in these riffs become the dominant music, but not harmony(or melody, actually they are the same thing). That meaning, it completely abandoned the creation of rock music mode, and replaced by the riff-maze / riff-salad.
The repetition of riffs is like a scene in the progression, and its development or variation is like the changing of scenes. Listening to this kind of music makes people feel like climbing a mountain. What it stimulates is the corresponding hormone. Constantly facing danger and moving forward by overcoming.
And the most important point is to break away from the rock music mode, which is why extreme metal may not be able to be explained by the “jazz” framework, like other modern music styles. In fact, it is very difficult to discuss metal music without its cultural ideology. To a large extent, extreme metal is almost completely “heteronomy music”, it means is needed to explain and understand it through something other than music(musical note/sound itself).
The ideology and cultural spirit of extreme metal, it’s based on “fuck-everyting/anti-intellectualism” from punk. But as it evolved, sublimated it to the spirit pursuit of primitivism, mysticism and romanticism. Also, we can say that this kind of music is very postmodern.
If we look at a single riff from the death/black metal songs, it’s to be seen as a stupid, low-level piece of musical composition. The development of classical music into the 18/19th and modern/contemporary serious music from 20/21th, as well as modern impromptu music. There are so many music systems under our human civilization but if we understand the musical aesthetics under the extreme metal ideology, we can understand the charm and significance of this style.
We have to mention the common anti-christ complex in extreme metal, which is actually contrary to mainstream Western values. Be indolent, we can completely use Nietzsche’s idea and his superman-philosophy into extreme metal, which is completely consistent. Compared with punk, the themes of extreme metal are not only political and realistic. It is about the primitive and pure spiritual pursuit of self-existence, without all the mechanisms of modern social operation. As the internet celebrity historian Yuval Noah Harari mentioned in his book
It’s easy to associate this ideology with the right wing, like people mistakenly associate Nietzsche with Hitler. Politics is facing reality, while art is facing spirit. Facing the reality, we should choose the most economical and effective operation mode of this group as the standard. But any thought and spirit under human civilization should be absolutely free to thinking, any castration is a crime against humanity. And the art is contains all kinds of spiritual pursuits for us.
In the final analysis, the formation of extreme metal, its core, has always been the marginal subculture of the anti-modern world.
In terms of musicality, be honestly, it may have not any musicality worth to make a profound study. Just the development mode which is continuously inject new “energy” into the song, under the lateral-structure, and the riffcraft, I think we can use contextualism in postmodernism to treat it. You can only understand it from itself, it is only itself. The creation of the monophony of short phrases, it’s difficult to explain it from the theoretical framework of harmony, or from any theoretical framework, and we can say that there is no meaning to explain it. This is what Harari said about the unique human ability, the imagination, which is why art can be born. We can find meaning in anything. Why does some good music make us feel shock or male us act? The music itself is just sound waves, but we humans can stimulate hormone activity, hear different meanings and emotions from the music, while other animals may only regard it as a sound. We can feel different meanings / emotions, stimulate different hormonal activities in our body from the music, but for other animals, music is just sound. So a lot of music for human, sometime it can’t be complete ‘autonomy’, it always contains something other than the musical note / sound itself. On the cultural / spiritual, which is our different beliefs and emotions; On the biological level, which is our differentl hormones and brain nerve activity. In fact, everything in this universe, is all about physics – mathematics, there is no “meaning”. This is also the Stoic philosophy in the extreme metal ideology, we should facing our reality life from the perspective of the universe.
In ordinary mainstream culture, or some other near mainstream culture, people are able to produce intuitively identification or understanding in that context. But extreme metal, it’s obviously a kind of marginal subculture that contradicts the mainstream. Only when you put yourself in its context, you can understand and even recognize its. In the situation of this relatively simple contextualism, it’s also the reason why the ideology of metal advocates small group cooperation networks(compared with modern society). Because the globalization(in culture / spirit) makes all contexts meaningless. Everything can be right and wrong, everyone has their own interests, opinions and contexts. Globalization makes all meanings generalized and vulnerable. That’s why a lot of oldschool metalheads will think it’s a good thing to “build the walls”, this seems to will make people return to relatively smaller groups , and build the smaller group imagine, which will help them more simply to find a sense of meaning and belonging. But personally, I will say, when the philosophy, art and spiritual act on reality, the process in between is very delicate and complex, and needs careful consideration, because the world and reality is not 2D and static. The unique truth does not exist, and the contextualism is saves this dilemma.
Well, back to the music. The reason why I write this article, is that now we can find so many kinds of metal styles that have become more popular and curry flavour by claptrap, it just close to the extreme bloody cartoon song or adolescent electronic game music. That’s not what we’ve been talking about in this article.
Now, let me sort out some of the best albums in the history of underground extreme metal:
*First, we can say Slayer – Show No Mercy(1983) is the origin of extreme metal, and the second album Hell Awaits(1985) was the first evolution. For example, the imagery of the opening song of the album, the riff-development of pushing forward, and like a soundtrack switching the plot scene of a movie, which is the differently feeling riff cutting-in. These elements, lay the foundation for a more mature death/black metal band. The best example would be “At Dawn They Sleep”. And the band’s third and fourth albums may be more popular with fans. It’s probably because of the recording production. The third sounds fiercer, heavier and faster, and the fourth is stronger and cleaner. But these two albums seem to be more mediocre, compared with the bold attempts to innovate in metal-aesthetic at that time of first two albums.
*At the same time, there were many half speed metal and half death metal creations bands, Sepultura – Morbid Visions(1985) is the great one of them. It combines the phrase style of Slayer and Celtic Frost, and is more unconventional in the riff-maze craft. We should call it Slayer 1.5. And the real evolution become Slayer 2.0, more mature, with death metal aggressive music-language, which is Morbid Angel and Deicide.
*Morbid Angel – Altars of Madness(1989), including a demo collection in 86 before the release of the official debut album. They’ve evolved Slayer’s dark style into a more bizarre breakaway from the speed metal riff style. In the second album Blessed Are The Sick released in 91, made a further bold attempt, blatantly creating the riffcraft of ugly and eccentric music. At that time, the style had never appeared in guitar music.
In the category of obscurity / dark death metal opened up by Morbid Angel, we can see a lot of derivatives:
Incantation – Onward to Golgotha (1992)
Demilich – Nespithe (1993)
Immolation – Here In After (1996)
(Immolation is one of the few bands that have explored the aesthetics in the first six every albums, and it’s all classic. Most of the bands began to deteriorate after 1-3 albums. )
These 3 albums are all the best of death metal. If you want to experience the creation of the great riff-maze craft, check them.
*Deicide – Legion(1992) can be compared with the dark style of Morbid Angel. Deicide creates a stronger, thundering, hale and hearty riff style, there also have many derivatives. One of the most typical and well-known is Suffocation.
*The above bands are all from the USA (except demilich from Finland), their unity characterized is obscure and semitone style in riff. At the same time, European bands had more minor melodies, and the throwback to heavy metal style. Although they are still meaningless in terms of harmony, but at least for a lot of people who haven’t been exposed to extreme metal, these bands are have more melodic and heavy metal rhythmic type.
I think the best are:
At the Gates – Gardens of Grief
At the Gates – The Red in the Sky is Ours
Dismember – Like an Ever-Flowing Stream…
Therion – Of Darkness
(ALL FROM SWEDEN IN 1991)
*And the Norwegian black metal, they developed music which is different from the dark style of speed metal. Along with the mysticism of Mayhem, and the primitivism of Burzum, black metal has a further spiritual pursuit than death metal. In terms of musicality, black metal gives up the constant permutations of heavy riffs, making more continuous movement. Instead, adopting large repeating long lines of melodyies and broken chords, making the music more “spatial”. Further, like Burzum’s third & fourth album, Beherit – Drawing Down the Moon(1993) and Summoning works, making black metal develop towards more ambient music, less like “band music”.
Also, I want to discuss death metal and groove metal. Rhythm has always been the musical foundation of extreme metal, which to a great extent has no tonality, melody line and harmony. But it is still easy to tell the difference between the riff-maze craft, and the hordes of Pantera / Korn bands. The latter is just to play rhythm as the core, to create a sense of swing, but not the musical narrative, these bands betrayed metal as a marginal subculture music, turn it into mindless entertainment after opposing everything. The best Djent band Kadinja, including all metalcore things, is pop/rock consisting of heavy guitar; 99.5% brutal death metal is the fast guitar etude in groove metal. All these “neo / progressive” styles, are just a return of pop, rock and jazz, all shitting on metal culture. It’s about honesty, they use the aesthetics of extreme metal to bluff, the “core” thing is the worst, and most false. Djent is relatively honest pop culture music, at least they know that their music is for entertainment, for fun, not to pretend to be serious.
*When it comes to the technical, instrumental and avant-garde parts of metal, there are actually many very good albums worth recommending:
Atheist –Unquestionable Presence (1991)
Gorguts – Obscura (1998) / From Wisdom to Hate (2001)
Blotted Science – TheAnimation of Entomology (2011)
Atheist, even if it’s a combination of jazz texture and rhythm, they are still a great death metal band, they didn’t change into rock like other bands. Atheist is proof that metal can fuse any other elements, in an honest way.
I would like to highlight Blotted Science. Its creator Ron jarzombek, inspired by sequentialism in the 20th century serious music and modern impromptu jazz theory, arranges 12 notes into different sequences, each sequence can be composed of several consecutive notes into a chord , and creates music materials on this basis.
Even the popular star project Conquering Dystopia has the continuous development of death metal, and adventurous spirit of heavy metal, instead of falling into the background music of adolescent video games.
*While a large number of bands are emerging in the 21st century, there are still a few bands that maintain the traditional way of creation. I also share the best according to my own subjective opinion:
Averse Sefira – Advent Parallax (2008)
Blaspherian – Infernal Warriors of Death (2011)
Sammath – Godless Arrogance (2014)
Dead Congregation – Promulgation of the Fall (2014)
And the Québec cold primitive metal project Sorcier des Glaces as a style with its own flavor.
But to be honest, there is no more traditional underground extreme metal album that deserves my attention in the past few years. With the dissolution of Slayer, is underground metal dead? Just like the contemporary composers have not shown any significance and necessity since having written Classicism, Romanticism, Impressionism, Sequentialism or created according to the spectrum principle of early electronic music composition. And it’s also meaningless to repeat the traditional taste of death / black metal creation, which may not be better than those classic albums?
I don’t think that the so-called “neo type” should not appear. But the connection between technique, style and connotation, I think it’s a tough aesthetic problem that needs us to think about it. Whether metal needs to be fixed in the creation form of the monophonic riffcraft, to be so-called “pure and true” enough? Or whether it can generate more different styles, not just the death/black metal derived by Slayer?
In contemporary serious music academia, human’s subjectivity is usually no longer at the center, they try to research and create sound itself as an object, or the structure between notes. What they are exploring is how to create more advanced technology to organize sounds. But at the same time of technology exploration, new aesthetics ,style and music connotation are born with it. It was the exploration of serious music in the 20th century that gave birth to “weird” music, “weird” aesthetic, that’s why we have different kinds of horror movie soundtracks, extreme metal or any other music now. The same example of progressive rock, those bands fusion of jazz and various musical styles, making rock music more innovative and unconventional. The emergence of more technologies makes the possibility of expression more selective.
Neo-Burzum(2013 / 2014) become ambient music, there’s no more fighting and no terrifying feeling. But as a real fans of traditional metal, this extension should be followed more than any extreme-cartoon heavy or evil cosplay music without mysticism and primitivism. The content of music here is obvious, it also represents the ideology of Varg and part of metal.
Celestite(2014) is an unexpectedly good album by emotional melody rock band Wolves in the Throne Room. If you can’t accept some kind of contemporary serious symphony music, Celestite provides a distinctive template. Through the tone and ripple of synthesizer, as the texture of music, WITTR brought the organic theme creation on “sound symphony”. Even though the band has a history of mediocre, and this album uses very digital tones, aginst the “metal spirit”. But we can’t be preconceived, Celestite creates a space of spiritual imagination, which is transpersonal and fantasy, like exploring the unknown in the universe, consciousness or any micro / macro world. This is one of my personal favorite pieces of music in this decade.
In addition to the development of black metal to ambient music. We have also seen the development of extreme metal to a more instrumental form, more exquisite and complex riffcraft. Different from other adolescent and cartoonish music, led by neo-Gorguts(2013 / 2016) and Deathspell Omega(2016 / 2019) to created a neo type of extreme metal. Even though most of the bands under their influence should be called deaf metal.
Gorguts was a great oldschool death metal band, their first two albums, respectively, created the Floridian style of death metal, one’s more “doom”, one’s near more “technical”. They’re showing real excellent riffcraft, like the classic albums of Morbid Angel and Deicide, proved that death metal musicians are not all deaf without musical talent. In the next two albums, they created a whole new kind of riff-language, and guitar sound. Obscura(1998) just like a valuable book opened a bizarre world, twelve works with compact structure and creativity. The pattern of phrase is more fluid, and use of dissonant chords also brings different colors to music. On this basis, From Wisdom to Hate(2001) has evolved again, more representative is the second half of the album. Along with Immolation – Close To A World Below(2000), this two band triggered a shadowy atmosphere style of death metal, but on two ways.
After a silence of more than ten years, Colored Sands(2013) and Pleiades’ Dust(2016) bring a more advanced style, but less characteristic of death metal. We can hear that the music here should be included in modern impromptu / jazz theory, it’s not the wild and primitive underground extreme metal anymore. But I don’t believe that this is bad music. For example, the “Enemies of Compassion” of Colored Sands, some will say it’s metalcore, because it’s composed of rhythm and chord, not phrase, it’s not death metal. But this song has furthened the use a dominant theme to compose the whole work more than any oldschool works. The rhythm theme at the beginning, is almost development all the material in this song, just like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Even if there are many deficiencies, there’s more composed thought here. I would say the last 10 minutes of Pleiades’ dust, is the best metal creation in the world to now. The structure of continuous rhythmic pattern switching, is exactly what makes death metal songs sound so powerful, just like Incantation – Onward to Golgotha(1992). Gorguts completed it in a more advanced riff-language in this 10 minutes.
Deathspell Omega have a failed past, an unfortunate childhood. Paracletus(2010) is emo metalcore, it explains the essence of fake black metal as rock music. Based on its reputation, DSO might be the most hypocritical extreme metal band in this world, before the release of The Synarchy of Molten Bones(2016), this album is a convert. Still dominated by dissonant chords and rhythms, sometimes switching paragraphs incoherently. Yet in another sense, like Gorguts, DSO use them own advanced riff-language, creating a dynamic form of riffcraft. And the structure of the album is exquisitely designed, they are very good at presenting some compelling themes to stabilize the music structure which actually lacks unity in its mess. Even though there are a lot of breakdown here, but it’s not metalcore anymore. Gorguts and DSO represent the most remarkable existence in the evolution of metal in the 21st century, they found a whole new language for serious extreme metal. Well, with the change of technique, the music content is no longer oldschool, but I think that content is not too cheap, superficial and hypocritical (I’m not talking about lyrics). The Furnaces of Palingenesia(2019) compared with the previous album, it’s returned back to the tradition a little bit, and better, the second half is typical. It’s not some compelling themes stand out in a bunch of rhythm patterns anymore, the riffcraft is now even more outstanding.
When listening DSO, I think the part of fighting, crisis and suffering is reduced. Like the offspring of devil, has a strong dark power and temperament as the capital of its narcissism, but it doesn’t know where these forces come from. This is maybe its aesthetic problem, and why people associate it with metalcore or any fake extreme metal. But undeniable, in the evolution of extreme metal, the part of the instrumental way, Gorguts and DSO is the best for now, they have meritorious service, they represent a part of extreme metal like neo-Burzum or Celestite. Even it’s not what the oldschool fans like.
In order not to confuse people who have no talent, I think should give a criterion for real deaf metal: Any similar band except Gorguts and DSO, especially Ulcerate, are deaf.
Ulcerate combine Immolation and Gorguts style, but it’s a pity that they are immersed in hypocrisy of disharmony and the rhythm of math rock, for nothing. Chaotic recordings can’t disguise their creation without any content. They can create some theme but not a complete song or album. Everything Is Fire(2009) may be their best work.
The most fashionable will be Départe – Failure, Subside(2016). This band combines post-rock, sludge metal, deaf metal, electronic music and aleatory music. There’s almost no consistent riff connection in this album, using lots of lousy black metal, deaf metal and post-rock emotion to make up the feeling of atmosphere, for fear that people won’t be able to learn about their sexuality and poor artistic talent from music.I Mention this band because there are still parts of their creation that should be noticed. The introduction actually is great, they make the sound wall from polyphonic guitar lines, the theme show up with layers of superposition just like electronic music mode. “Wither” it the only coherent track, I would say this is a great doom song. The ending of “Grief Echoes”(from 4:10), and “Vessel”(3:20 – 4:20), the drumbeats into a loop mode, just like Kraftwerk inspired electronic music. And it’s used in metal, making the music more atmospheric, closer to the ambient. Even though this whole album is unbearably terrible, I think these pieces are what we can learn from, to build more advanced neo-type of extreme metal style.
There are infinite ways to evaluate music. In fact, “better” technology is not existence, but exploration should not be put on hold. At the same time, where are the roots of different kinds of music. This may be a dilemma, but also the significance of artistic creation.
Today our numbers have immensely grown mostly due to the industrial revolution and the procession of technology. Our capacity for fending off death has become more efficient, as people are living longer and resources are readily available to keep us going. We’ve lost touch with what has made us special. This has a backlash of course, as modernity is exemplified in its ingredients without recipe; with our having purpose other that merely exciting, at least on a broad scale. We’ve squandered our world and our species by breeding out of control. The next plague won’t be attributed to a disease nor natural catastrophe.
Our Plague, Which is thriving today, is merely our reckless existence.