The metal genre has been through an accelerated evolution through the course of 45 years in which it has seen itself renewed once and again. Each reincarnation representing a distillation of its essence. This process of stripping down rock-genre influences and following the path laid down by Black Sabbath in terms of spirit and methodology in composition hit rock bottom with black metal in or around 1994 (a precise date cannot be pinpointed, but this is a good marker). The meaning of this is not that black metal is superior to the rest of the metal genres (or subgenres, whatever you want to call them), this would be incurring in the mistake in appreciation we are here, in part, trying to correct and a misunderstanding of what evolution means. The ideal black metal shows little trace of having had any connection to rock at any level apart from its general instrumentation. This is similar to how rock music uses almost exactly the same instrumentation as jazz but we would never lump the two together. Thus, metal established itself as a completely differentiated genre.
What followed was a constant attempt at superficially injecting doses of alleged boundary-pushing elements that only resulted in either hardcore or rock outfits adopting metal riffs and vocals, or in avant-garde-isms that did away with what makes metal what it is and often did not build something of their own but just made an embarrassing disaster out of the music (see later Deathspell Omega). In part, this has come from a desperate and hopeless allegiance to the Cult of Novelty which comes from a misappreciation of the growth process of metal from Black Sabbath’s debut to the different branches into which it is said to have evolved. It is because in general this evolution is seen as a branching out in which each separate style is guided by a so-called innovation or separation (which in most cases was only a superficial distinction) that it has not been made clear that in fact metal’s real development has been an almost straight line towards death and black metal. Incorrectly including Led Zeppelin and AC/DC in the metal canon is also a grave mistake that leads to a misunderstanding of metal, in fact it is precisely this that leads to the loose definition that metal is a “loud music genre that uses distorted electric guitars and drums to sing about shocking topics”. To move on, we must first do away with such contemptible attempts at construing the genre and look towards deeper and more complex definitions as metal is not, as many seem to believe, undefinable, as it is said of love and hate.
What metal needs is to come into maturity. Contrary to what many still believe, that metal should keep playing the game of trying to present something new, the retro camp got something right in their lazy pessimism: everything has already been done, every riff, every melody, every variation. Well, not right, but it hints to a truth. The truth that there is only so much variation you can achieve through thinking superficially, thinking in terms of making something “interesting” in the sense of being “different” or “catchy”, which in disguise is what even nu-underground bands like Blaze of Perdition are doing. Under it all, there is a very simple backbone to a messy presentation and deplorable organization with non-existing clarity. Rather than concentrating on being “different”, “novel” or “interesting”, metal needs to concentrate completely on composition as a means to communication. Modern bands with some knowledge of theory will say they know this, that they are completely aware of it and that they keep it in mind, although their music tells another story, showing only a basic application of advanced techniques — a superficial understanding. This attitude is often accompanied by a “I know what I am doing, fuck off” implied (or sometimes explicitely expressed) statement that could reflect inferiority complexes that should be properly addressed. Rather than self-indulging and posturing, maturity leads to humbly facing your weaknesses — a looking up and learning from your betters.
But what does this maturing entail, precisely? First and foremost an accepting of metal for what it is through an integral understanding of its nature. Once this is achieved, the notion of bringing avant guarde (in metal, merely a euphemism for careless “experimentation”) into the picture will seem not only outlandish but utterly unnecessary. Second, find approaches to the development of metal that preserve it not only in spirit but in the full musical sense. Honorable efforts faithful to metal can be found in the work of Manilla Road and The Chasm, but both of these lack the ideal bringing-together of techniques and ideas in a clear direction. But a more excellent example lies in progressive and monolithic albums like Incantation’s Onward to Golgotha. Third, and equally important, is the abandonment of this hit-and-miss (miss, more often than not) philosophy as a method to achieve excellence. This, both at the level of a single band and of the metal world as a whole. Stop telling kids that making metal music means performing in any dirty hole and trying to get a deal with a label. That is not how you make music. That is definitely not how you make art. Besides, the Internet alongside improved hardware and tools for personal computers have rendered labels virtually obsolete — you do not need them to get your music out there.
Metal also has a big brother it can look up to not only as a source of experience of both dead ends and disasters to avoid but also of pathways to heavenly abodes. This is the quasi-defunct classical music tradition. Classical music bestows upon the modern composer a vast resource of more than a thousand years of rich tradition in composition, analyses and philosophy of music. It would be foolish, to say the least, to ignore it. Metalheads need to get this through their thick skulls: tradition does not mean stagnation, it means experience. Most metal is like an untended 12-year-old kid with boogers coming out of his nose playing at being a knight with a wooden sword, classical music up to the Second Viennese School is then like a veteran crusader returning home from fighting the Saracens. After that, most classical music, apart from a few exceptions, falls prey to post-modernism, just as metal did after 1994. Fortunately, there is a spark of hope for metal, it lies in those bands that have parallels in classical music to 20th century composers with a naturalistic and spiritual orientation like Jean Sibelius and Arvo Pärt. Such an orientation, when paired with trained composition and a high-level view of its applications, helps the composer (classical and metal alike) keep everything in perspective. But like them, these bands are a miniscule minority in an ocean of incompetence and pretension; an overwhelming number of other time-wasting projects that only come in to serve as more fodder for the distraction of clueless consumers.
There is a way to channel the abundant energy and willingness of metalheads from all walks of life. It also comes as a hint from the classical music world. This is the separation of roles according to aptitudes and interests. The first myth I want to bring down is that if you are a metal ‘musician’ then you must publish music. With today’s much more effective communication and far more accessible recording, this leads to an excessive overload of subpar material, even including the great majority of what is professionally-produced. Among the heaps of embarrassingly poorly-written music we find the talent of many technically-gifted musicians, even virtuosos in their respective instruments (see Hannes Grossmann). They are virtuosos because they spent countless hours through years of toil honing their skills on their instrument. In classical music they are called performers and are placed in a completely separate category from composers, who ideally should be proficient at some instrument but spent most of their effort and time in composition. In their world, performers are given as much respect as proper composers. This is also true of music scholars who are usually proficient musicians with deep knowledge of composition as well. This differentiation of roles would benefit metal greatly.
This has several immediate implications. One of them is that each project/band’s music should be the brainchild of a single person, with possible advice from second parties. Statistically, this has produced most of the best metal there is (Burzum, Bathory, early At the Gates, etc), so we have direct evidence in our own camp for the truth of this. Also, performer-bands can be formed that trains in particular styles, and specialize in the outstanding performance of certain kinds of metal works (both past and current). It must be clear that this concept is completely separate from the so-called professional “cover bands” we have today, which are identity-less imitators of a single famous band (see The Iron Maidens, Nemesis). This is not to say that the would-be metal composers cannot be part of the performing ensemble, but that the two functions should be separated for greater efficiency. As a direct result, we can avoid having musicians (performers) wasting their time (and torturing our ears) with music they aren’t prepared to make. If you spent your time learning how to express passages, become faster, improvising but very little on formal, controlled writing, your talents will consequently be lopsided towards the performance area. Composers can be amazingly gifted performers (see Beethoven), but these are rare cases of people who devoted every single moment of their waking lives (and probably their sleeping dreams as well) to music as an art. Modern metal technicality is more of a sport, although, we need not kid ourselves, wanking is nothing new in the world (see the young Liszt, Paganini). In the same manner, this also would allow the metal composer to focus on his composition instead of thinking of “the gig” itself, or worrying that his sweeping arpeggios are not heard clearly enough through the distortion. What we would have is a dialogue between metal composers and metal performers, with permissible and welcome overlappings. Last comes the category of true metal scholars. These should be as versed in history, philosophy and composition as composers, and should have a proficient grasp on performance of some kind. The metal scholar would come to correct the verbal debauchery and banality of the metal journalist, giving the audience a proper and well-deserved look and guidance in appreciation of metal works.
The road is clear for those with a clear mind to see. It is either this or destruction. The bands actually carrying metal forward without degrading it are already doing precisely what is suggested here. Specific methodologies are only possibilities and variations in the general direction. Remember, metal is not a kid anymore, it is time to grow up. This means embracing what metal is (and not adopting politically-correct discourse or becoming rock or jazz), recognizing the boundaries of the genre and great power that comes with the keeping of a clear direction.
Tags: 2015, Classical, depuration, metal, metal composer, metal performer
31 thoughts on “Towards a Depuration of Metal”
Thoroughly great piece! As someone who is neither composer, performer or scholar, merely a patron (read: semi-intelligent consumer) of the metal arts; I believe spending money on a single persons compositions is much more meaningful for both the artist and audience. If a great stable of metal musicians would be humble enough to solely act as performers than presumably a great composer could have his pick from album to album as to whose talents fit the needs of the work. I am sure there are some inherent flaws, but it certainly is a system that I hope intrigues some of the better talents in Metal.
Also, tiny little jabs at ol’ Manilla Road hurt the feelings of my inner 14 year old. Singing “Necropolis” very loudly while having a shit is the only clear solution.
Interesting how Ross Dolan from Immolation in a 1996 interview echoes the sentiment of the author of this post in this interview:
Burzum and Hipocrisy videos make it one of the best episodes too.
Other acceptable funny responses include: “Ne-crap-polis” “Manilla Dirt Road” “Crystal LOG-gic” and “…I feel like, I’m shitting…inside a DreeeEEEaaammm!”
In other words: Manilla Road word play > an orgy with members of Raven, Anvil and Sortilege.
I agree . This article is incredibly comprehensive, substantive, and very well- written .
Hey David Rosales, do you wear self printed Cóndor t-shirts?
No, but I tatooed the names of the main songwriters on either buttcheek. ;)
noice! several steps ahead of me then haha
No back piece of the bands’ faces?
looking forward to see those buttcheeks !
Brilliant. The second to the last paragraph calls the question of metal survival. Art must displace sport.
Onward to Golgotha is unique in that the was a collaborative effort with everyone on the same page. You can hear the obvious contributions from former members like Paul Ledney and everything gels. Is there another great album like this? This is in sharp contrast to most great metal bands where everything is structured around a primary songwriter (almost always one of the guitarists) who might have good synergy with another band member (usually the other guitarist or drummer) with everyone else just along for the ride.
An inversion of this were the Swedes in Entombed and Dismember where the drummers (Nicke Andersson and Fred Estby) were the primary songwriters and composers of the rhythm guitar parts which were realized and further developed by more technically proficient guitarist writing partners in Uffe and Blomqvist.
I wasn’t puting Onward to Golgotha as an example of an album that is the brainchild of one person. I was using it to exemplify something else :)
Yes I know but it’s an interesting exception to the norm
Did Azagthoth and Vincent write together? Or did Vincent just write lyrics?
Vincent is credited with co-writing the music for “The Lion’s Den”, but other than that he mainly contributed lyrics AFAIK.
I hope the co-writing in that song was him saying “how about I just growl ‘whips crack’ over double bass with no other music playing?”
The first two Deicide albums are another sterling example of “3/4ths of the band as ‘primary’ songwriters”.
It’s great to see somebody actually having constructive ideas about how to revitalise metal instead of just lamenting the decay. But I really don’t think this is the solution.
Can you really imagine a performance-only band adding much to Burzum’s material? Metal, even the most technically difficult to play, is probably about grade-4 level instrumental difficulty. Most black metal could be played by somebody with grade 2 classical guitar. There is no analogy with classical music even imaginable. There the greatest performers are the greatest interpreters. Metal is just too simple to admit such levels of interpretation, unless we get into the realms of improvisation. Watch Barenboim’s masterclasses on Beethoven’s piano sonatas and seriously ask yourself could you imagine many metal songs were such minute variations of phrasing would add much to what we already have on all the great metal albums. The idea of somebody interpreting bands like Mayhem or Ildjarn is laughable.
And, like you hinted at, most great metal has been ‘composed’, if that’s the right word, by people with little formal training. Maybe 1 or 2 great albums (Obscura?) has probably been composed in the manner you propose. Now, if the greatest bands had had more formal training would they have wrote better albums than they did? It’s interesting to speculate and I rather think in SOME cases they would have, as long as they didn’t fall into the tech-deth trap of making showing-off familiarity with theory an end in itself.
I’ve always felt the fact that such sublime music has been ‘written’ by artists with little/no formal training shows just how much NATURAL talent they must have. If they had more techniques at their disposal we may have had albums even better composed than Far Away from the Sun. But on the other hand would a classically trained musician ever write Under A Funeral Moon?
Some good ideas but it’s certainly not ‘either this or destruction’. Nevertheless, I congratulate you on continuing the great tradition of this site in taking metal seriously as Art.
“Can you really imagine a performance-only band adding much to Burzum’s material? ”
But the formula would work better for future music. That is the main point.
But I am also all for fomenting bands to cover the classics more, in fact, that was my intended extension of this article.
“‘composed’, if that’s the right word”
That is, in fact, the right word. Not sure why you would say it isn’t. Just because metal musicians do not write down on a five-lined staff? ha!
Composition itself pre-dates any formality!
“I’ve always felt the fact that such sublime music has been ‘written’ by artists with little/no formal training shows just how much NATURAL talent they must have.”
this was attacked here too. Metal has not matured enough that those who have formal training actually channel it like the ones with natural talent like Varg. But there are exceptions…CONDOR
It is matter of mindset. Also, many of those with technical talents for instrument performance would be most useful as the tools of someone with deep vision but who doesn’t have the time to practice his instrument all day long. (Zealotry is supposedly going to do this in the future)
“But on the other hand would a classically trained musician ever write Under A Funeral Moon?”
I’ll go out on a limb and say it is possible.
How much are you acquainted with music such as Arvo Part’s?
I did realise that your piece was clearly making suggestions for future improvements as opposed to reinterpreting old works. But I feel if all the best works we have have been produced without this method then it’s probably not of much use to metal, certainly not ‘either this or destruction’.
Your reply mentioned ‘by musicians who don’t have time to practice all day’ so that would really only be applicable to any future music that is extremely instrumentally technical. What I was getting at was that most of masterworks we already have could be played by almost anybody.
Also, if, as you suggest, such future music was too complex to be played by its composer then it would surely need to be written down first, at least as tab. The only other way would be if the composer actually demonstrated it on the guitar for the players. But then that implies he would be capable of playing it himself – so he wouldn’t really need the players.
I’m also just not convinced that the metal fans who attend gigs today would really have much passion going to a concert where they knew the players hadn’t written the music themselves. The element of awe from knowing that the band we were seeing actually wrote the material we were hearing would be gone. It would just feel like watching a covers band.
And no, I’ve never heard of Arvo Part? Why, what type of music does he write?
Either way, like I said, it’s good to hear any suggestions for revitalising metal. My own opinion is that death and black metal have no futures in the sense that we will never have any albums BETTER than the ’88-96 classics. I feel the restrictions of the form of those genres make it impossible to top what we’ve got. Anything that deviated compositionally too far from them wouldn’t sound like DM/BM anymore. So we may get albums that are compositionally as good as Burzum/Aske and Pure Holocaust but they wouldn’t be as GREAT as those works in our eyes as they would lack the originals originality. That’s why all the new DM/BM albums just sound like variations on themes already heard,
However, metal in general – meaning loud music played with distorted guitars but with all-so-necessary spirit that really defines it – may still have a future.
Do you have any of your own compositions I could listen to, by the way? I understand that you write? If you’ve not recorded yet I’d still be interested to hear about your compositional method.
“But I feel if all the best works we have have been produced without this method then it’s probably not of much use to metal, certainly not ‘either this or destruction’.”
The question is, how many years has it been since the alternative has produced mostly (99.9%) bullshit? I think that’s 20 years already.
The point is that genres that are alive evolve. Keeping a childish, 100% spontaneous modality can only get you so far. If you don’t agree, what modality would you prefer? do you think the genre will just heal itself “naturally” without any action?
“So we may get albums that are compositionally as good as Burzum/Aske and Pure Holocaust but they wouldn’t be as GREAT as those works in our eyes as they would lack the originals originality. ”
But the point is not to make the same albums with lack of originality. haha! This is what the current formula has been doing. The goal is to escape that.
I gave my answer to whether the genre would heal itself naturally in the third-to-last paragraph: the genre, if we mean DM/BM, will not. It’s dead forever. It’s quite ironic that lovers of a genre that revels in accepting death as a part of life can’t accept that.
As for making new albums that have originality you’ve took what I was saying slightly differently to how I meant it. I was saying that the dm/bm form was restrictive enough as to make any more albums in the genre NECESSARILY unoriginal. Of course it’s possible to compose music that’s superior to Burzum but I was arguing that the only way to do so would involve making music that no longer sounded like anything that could be described as black metal.
A good indicator that I’m correct is that nobody HAS done so in the past 20 years. In ’92 there were about 20-30 people making BM. Since then there have been thousands. Now, it would be statistically unimaginably unlikely that there wouldn’t be many, many more people of greater natural musical talent than the genre’s progenitors amongst those hordes of people making music since then. But we don’t class any of their music as equal to that of the founders’. The reason we don’t class any of the newer work as classic is because the paradigm the newer bands have been working within is too restrictive to allow music to be written that is as compositionally original as black metal was compared to the rest of metal in 92. Many newer bands have tried to make original music and ‘sounds’ but when they deviate too far we end up with, for example, folk black metal which musically is really just a different genre altogether – it’s just that the bands class themselves as black metal because they use rasping vocals etc and use misanthropic lyrical themese etc.
Hence why I said in my second to last paragraph that there may still be a chance for future greatness in metal in the most general sense. But death metal and black metal are dead – no work has surpassed the founders’ in 20 years and it never will. But that isn’t to say no METAL will ever surpass it.
This is a great piece. Recognize a problem, propose solution to the problem, and detail how solution can be actualized. Spot-on. Many moons ago I tried being in a band and writing music with a like-minded close friend, but as soon as others were brought into the fray it got diluted with delusions of “making it”, “branding”, and a push to do Top 40 covers in a “metal” style while they’re still “hot”. This type of attitude from virtually all “metal” musicians around my area is discouraging to say the least, and your single party with advice from select few others idea is a damn fine solution to that.
The problem with being a young metal musician is that it is hard to get people to care or know you even exist without having a live act that can garner and maintain some interest. The internet is great for basically storing your content until a breakthrough happens, but I am sure everyone on this site has passed over a million young bands just for sake of time alone.
The more I think about it, the more it seems like the composer/performer solution for Metal can really only work for established musicians within the underground community.
But can a new, singular voice hope to even get a solid foothold in such a cluttered musical landscape? Hopefully, but until then, a young composer almost has no choice but to get together a group of amatuer talents that may dilute his total vision in order to establish any sort of vehicle for his art in a specific community.
I harp on this a lot, but as primarily a consumer of metal, I love supporting worthy talent with my extra scratch. Local, national, live, internet-only, or whatever. But fuck, I gotta find out the artist exists first. Maybe that is just the nature of all true and worthy artistic endeavors, or maybe I am missing something.
Or maybe being a young artist is always just difficult as a motherfucker, no matter what.
I’m not really in favor of over-formalizing metal. Composers who can make coherent pieces of music are deeply needed, but does metal really necessitate purely virtuosos to play it or even only be able to played by virtuosos? If this truly is the case, then I would assume the band format and instrumentation woul be too limiting and the whole ordeal would turn into something other than metal.
It’s not about over-formalizing. I think some people got an extreme idea about it. It is not either A or B. But a wealth of possibilities in the middle. What is suggested is that people should not be forced to “Create” in order to participate in metal, for instance, when there is another kind of role they would be more useful in.
also, this is to foment a growth in metal that the current formula is definitely not providing. percentage-wise, there is far more garbage now than there was in 1990.
Most of today’s death metal bands make even Benediction sound most fulfilling in comparison.
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