When Black Sabbath shifted from trying to be a hard rock band to trying to make a horror movie sound appear in guitar music, they opened a new world. It was not a world that would resist opening for long anyway, since if you mix Iggy and the Stooges with the prog rock of the same era like Jethro Tull and King Crimson, you get something a lot like Black Sabbath.
But guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler, vocalist Ozzy Osbourne and drummer Bill Ward did it first, and during the first decade of their career fought through the enduring questions of the genre in prototype form. While Black Sabbath gets classed by most as “proto-metal,” or not quite yet metal, it is also clearly not quite still rock ‘n’ roll. In this perpetual liminal state Black Sabbath, like metal itself would a generation removed, rediscovers itself again and again as a way of outracing the calcification and corruption of message that is common in modern life.
In Iron Man: My Journey Through Heaven & Hell with Black Sabbath, Tony Iommi writes his memoirs for a book that is both everything and Black Sabbath fan could want, and not enough. He writes about everything important and brings out some moments of great clarity, but then at some point the book expands like a drunken conversation and spills too much ink on the less important later Black Sabbath works. Iommi also has an offhand and conversational way of explaining things from his point of view that does not flesh out the details and background enough to let people know what was really going on. However, the juicy stories of rock ‘n’ roll excess, and most of the potent decision points in the Black Sabbath career, are not missed.
Those first songs are often described as scary. I liked horror films and so did Geezer. We used to go to the cinema across the street from our rehearsal place to see them, so maybe it was something that subconsciously directed us to that sort of thing. I know there is a Boris Karloff movie called Black Sabbath, but we never saw it at that time. Geezer came up with the name Black Sabbath and it just sounded like a good one to use. (54)
The narrative starts out fairly crisply and over time slouches into many unresolved threads the way most retrospectives do. The early days were clarity, but after that chaos reigns. Sensibly, Iommi does not spend too long on the days before Black Sabbath, but does set enough of the scene to get the narrative rolling. After that, very little detail is given, and the conversational takes over. Iommi will say that they went to a house or studio somewhere and mention no other detail, but he does spend a lot of time on human relationships. He describes people and their patterns. He also talks a good deal about relationships in the bands and the states of mind of the various players as albums were released.
It may be that a Black Sabbath fanbase wants to hear more about the mechanics behind the later Black Sabbath albums, solos and side projects, but to this writer much of this material was redundant. Not that it was mentioned at all, but that it was internally duplicative and went through similar patterns without identifying them. Like a night at the bar, the description of events begins with a clear context, direction and development of events, but devolves into a description of personalities and factual data that seems to focus on complexities.
I hope it is not insulting to say this, but people are not as interested in the later Black Sabbath works as they are the earlier ones. We would have preferred the same crispness, detail and narrative integration of the first three chapters be applied to the middle three, with the later ones giving less detail and more of a linear narrative. The reason for this is that the formation of those early albums and the Black Sabbath sound is what defined this band for eternity and will make it forever important. The later stuff shows us four guys out of their depth reacting to the changes in their lives.
We used one of Ronnie’s ideas in its entirety, which was ‘Atom and Evil’, the first track on the album. And we used bits of each other idea. Some of Geezer’s riffs would come halfway through, or some of mine. We just swapped them around, building songs. It was a great way of working. INstead of having to come up with everything myself, everybody was completely involved in it from day one, and that helped me immensely. We wrote about six songs this way. (352)
Details such as the above provide meaning to the listener because we are curious about such things. What made some albums more listenable or more interesting than others? In the compositional process, and the formation of decisions, we can see how they are distinct. Sometimes too much focus on personality and politics not only obscures the narrative, but is a substitute for discussing how decisions were made. Buried throughout are nuggets of clarity such as the above. These make the book not only memorable but poignant, as you can see why so much attachment occurs between these musicians, and how their knowledge of each other was more than practical, but a deep appreciation.
Iron Man: My Journey Through Heaven & Hell with Black Sabbath will stay on the shelves because of its subject’s importance to rock music and heavy metal. It will also provide much fodder for others to discuss, as it touches on everything once. While some of us might prefer a two-volume set, with Volume I for the Black Sabbath albums from 1970-1976 and all of the depth of narrative that makes the creative decisions made during that time relevant still, as a quick read and overlook of the Black Sabbath experience Iron Man: My Journey Through Heaven & Hell with Black Sabbath succeeds and also gives us rare if erratic insights into the story behind the band.
A group of academics and metal fans called Puerto Rico Heavy Metal Studies spends its time working on a documentary about heavy metal in Puerto Rico named The Distorted Island: Heavy Metal music and community in Puerto Rico. The first trailer, seen below, from this project has been released as of yesterday.
Nelson Varas-Díaz, Osvaldo González, Eliut Segarra and Sigrid Mendoza comprise the research and filmmaking team. Dr. Nelson Varas-Díaz is Associate Professor at the University of Puerto Rico and a lifelong metal fan who has led the team in carrying out a research study on the local scene.
Heavy metal music is a global phenomenon composed of distinctive smaller communities throughout the world. In this upcoming documentary the glance is turned on Puerto Rico, a Caribbean island whose scene has been active for 30 years in almost complete underground status. The documentary film addresses how local bands have survived for such a long period of time through strong community ties while also highlighting the cultural and historical challenges faced along the way.
Varas-Díaz said: “The film is a tribute to the local metal scene who has survived against all odds for three decades in a cultural space that is either unaware of them, or considers them culturally unimportant. Nevertheless they continue to push forward, and while doing so, reflect on issues of local importance like religion, colonial politics, gender, and violence, among other subjects that most individuals on the Island wish to avoid.”
Technical death metal band Ayasoltec, formed by ex-Masochism shredder Juan Torres, plays a free show tonight at the Lucky Lounge in Austin, Texas. Ayasoltec builds on the heritage of death metal with a strong jazz-fusion (YellowJackets, Al DiMeola) basis with a Latin American influence on the rhythm section, mixing shredder metal riffs with extensive solo-like passages building the mood in each song.
Lyrically, the band uses primarily Mayan and Aztec mythologies of life and death as a canvas for its explorations, employing a bi-ingual approach in which the English and Spanish languages are used to match the underlying music. The result takes the sound we expect from “technical death metal” (really, jazz/metal/punk fusion) and gives it more breadth musically while expanding the role metal can serve in delivering recognizable songs.
Torres’ previous band Masochism gained fame in Texas and beyond for its tight compositions and complex, aggressive guitar solos. Since 2006, he has played exclusively in Ayasoltec, which by combining ancient imagery with modern fusion hybrids creates an atmosphere unmatched by most bands attempting the post-death-metal styles. They are accompanied tonight by Immerse and Knights of Darkness.
I wrote an article about the cross-influence between hacking and heavy metal. It covers the use of alternative media, like BBS and AE lines, to convey a hidden truth that is shared between metalheads and hackers. The article is entitled “Hacker Metal” and it is published in Perfect Sound Forever webzine.
For those who remember the early web, Perfect Sound Forever is an e-zine that started in 1993 and has run continuously since. It derived its name from an early Sony/Philips ad designed to convince people to switch to compact disks, and covers all forms of music including a fair amount of metal.
Finnish band Agonized got the break last year that they wanted two decades ago: a horde of people interested in their only demo, “Gods…,” which was subsequently and sequentially released on CD-R, vinyl, CD and tape.
Created in the old school style of primitive rumbling death metal somewhere between Belial and Demigod, “Gods…” comprised four tracks (and an intro) of disturbing inhuman noise shaped into musical form. Since metal has not produced any style more compelling than old school death metal, interest in such material has accelerated over the recent years.
We were fortunate to get in a few words with Jari from Agonized about “Gods…” and the circumstances of its creation, and how and why it endures today…
Was there a “Finnish sound” to death metal, or multiple Finnish sounds? It seems to be popular to group bands like Funebre, Demilich, Xysma, and Demigod together and proclaim a similarity to them. Does this sound exist? Is Agonized part of the group that uses this sound?
I think there was. There was a similar sound to bands of that era. Like there was, or still is “Swedish sound.” It might be pure coincidence that bands played like that. In our case, we listened to Xysma, Abhorrence and Disgrace in 90s so those really had a big influence on our music. Of course every band sounded like their own style, doing their own mix of influences through the “Finnish” filter. You simply cannot say all Finnish bands sounded the same. They just had some Finnish trademark on their sound. I cannot define that better. I am not a musician haha.
What drew you personally to death metal back in the late 80s and early 90s? Did you have any connection to metal before death metal? Do you know if the other members of Agonized had a similar experience?
Three of us grew up together. Me, Janne (bass) and Mauno (drums) were childhood friends and have known each other since we were something like seven years old. We started like any other young kid those days. First there was Iron Maiden, W.A.S.P. and Kiss. I remember I bought my first W.A.S.P. record when I was ten years old. After that we just tried to find more and more extreme and heavy stuff. Then we started to find out heavier stuff like Slayer, Bathory and Destruction to name a few. I think this has been the way many of today’s death metal fans have started. Also I had some sort of punk era in between.
After Napalm Death released From Enslavement to Obliteration we read about them from Finnish music magazines and were like, “Whoa, that must be some cool shit.” At that time only way to get your hands on Napalm Death records was to travel to Helsinki from Lahti by train and buy them.
When I found that Napalm Death LP in Helsinki, at the same time I saw Carcass’s Reek of Putrefaction LP and Bolt Thrower Realm of Chaos. When I got home from Helsinki and put on the first notes of the Napalm Death LP, I could say my head exploded. What an absolute annihilation after listening years of thrash and speed metal. After that I got into the next LP, Carcass… yeah, right… Another deadly hit. Rest is history. I have never survived that actually. So I am still on that road.
When did Agonized form, and what were your inspirations and influences at that time? Did you have any non-musical influences, like literature or other forms of art or culture?
Agonized was formed in 1990 if I remember correctly. Janne, Mauno and I wanted to play some death metal after hardcore/grind experiments but it was really hard to find anyone skilled enough to play guitars. We put an advert on a Finnish music magazine that we are searching some guitarists to play death metal. We got contacted by two dudes (Antti and Mika) from Vantaa and went to see if it would work out. We had a nice playing session and everyone thought let’s play something together. We gathered few times, in Vantaa and Lahti, to play together.
As we were arranging concerts in Lahti for underground bands we played few shows on those events. Agonized had big influences from Bolt Thrower, Carcass and Xysma. Those must have been the most influential bands on Agonized, at least for me. I don’t remember any non-musical influences. No, I don’t think there was any non-musical influences. Agonized was mostly for just having fun playing the music we wanted to hear.
The band put out one demo, “Gods…” Can you tell us how this demo came about? When did you write the songs, and how did you record it?
After few shows we decided to record those tracks we played to tape. Songs on this tape are all Agonized ever managed to come by. Our shows contained only those tracks and I remember we played those twice to play even a decent length of set. All songs was born at those rehearsals we had together. We just started playing and decided that “hey, that sounded cool” and continued to another one.
“Gods…” was recorded in a local studio, we got two or three hours of free use of it with the guy who mixes the tape. Guy behind the desk did not have any idea what to do with this kind of music. I doubt he had never even mixed any metal band. We just listened the results and said “do this, do that…”. Guitars and drums were recorded first. After that we recorded vocals and last bass. Janne had some issues in his life and did not manage to recording session, so Mika played also bass on “Gods…”
Whole thing was ready in those two or three hours we got to be in the studio for free. We could have done it better with more, but were totally broke as we were just a bunch of kids who spent all their money the previous evening getting wasted. So we had to accept the fact that we did not have any money for more studio time.
Apparently the band members went separate ways after the recording of this demo. Do you know why this was? Did you personally want to keep going as Agonized?
After recording, I remember some got bored playing death metal and wanted to play something else. I myself was bored with my whole life and started some sort of seven year period of self destruction with substance abuse and techno haha. So I kind of departed from the whole scene to a completely different world. Couldn’t care less about Agonized or the whole scene. Of course I still listened to some bands but was completely away from the scene for years.
Looking back, what do you think of the demo, and the potential that the band had?
I have always thought it is a good demo. Still we could have done it better. But maybe if we would have done it with more time, it might have lost its primitive approach and become shit. Maybe, just maybe, it was done in the best possible way. Without thinking too much of the final result. Band definitely had potential, if we had just continued playing.
But due to personal problems and interests that just was not possible.
Several former Agonized members reunited in Cadavericmutilator, which as far as I know has never released a demo. What was Cadavericmutilator like?
Actually it was other way around. Cadavericmutilator was before Agonized. It was a noise/grindcore band including Janne, Mauno, me and several various members playing guitars. We made few shows and actually recorded one demo, which was not spread anywhere. It was just pure chaos. Just blasting with some noisy guitars playing whatever and two vocalists screaming with shitloads of effects on them. That demo would have been nice to hear today, unfortunately it was destroyed as I shot holes through the master tape when I was being a bit paranoid years ago hahaha. Well, it was quite crap anyways. So no big loss.
Some reviewers have mentioned that Agonized, while using the classic Finnish death metal ™ style, had more of the pace of Autopsy and the grinding presence of Carcass. Did any of these bands factor into your listening? How do you describe the music of Agonized?
I would describe music of Agonized as a hybrid of American and Finnish death metal. It is just like Bolt Thrower and Carcass mixed with Xysma. At least I think so. Some have compared it to Mortician, but I must admit that any of us did not even know what Mortician was back in the days we were active. So I cannot compare us to them.
I thought it was a stroke of genius how the band (or you alone?) managed to first release a CD-R of the demos, build interest, then get a 7″ released, build more interest, and finally get the CD re-release on Aphelion records. Can you tell us how each of these steps came about, and roughly how many copies of “Gods…” are out there as a result?
Actually this re-release fuzz is completely my fault. I wanted to just have a personal copy on CD-R, but due to high popular interest I decided to release 140 copies of CD-R so that people who want it can have it. Very soon after I did that, Emptiness released a 7″ that was limited to 500 copies. Patches were made at the same time to include with some of the copies. Also Aphelion released a CD version quite soon after this, limited to 1000 copies.
Latest news is that there is coming a tape version that has limitation of 100 copies. This will be released by Dunkelheit. Tape version is a bit different one. After all these other releases I found a nice copy of “Gods…” tape from Mexico (thanks Agata) and tape version uses that as a source. So it sounds a bit different than other versions that use Mr. Moyen’s tape as a source.
What have you done since the days of Agonized? Are you still active in the death metal community? What about the other members?
After Agonized I was away from this world for seven years with my substace abuse problems I defined earlier on this interview. For 15 years I have now been sober and have four great little kids and a wife and a daily job. Sounds boring eh? So I do not have time to be very active in anything. I do collect CDs and mainly they are death metal. New and old. There are excellent new albums and bands popping up every week. But it’s not like I am being active, just listening to same kind of music as when I was a kid. I do not know about other members. I suppose some of them do have some music related projects but no idea what kind of.
Are there any plans to get Agonized back together and write more material? If not, why? If so, what can we expect?
There was some discussion of this with other members. But as for now, at least I think this would not be so good idea. At least not under the name Agonized. I think reunions are not a very good idea after over 20 years of silence. When “Gods…” was released we were 16 year old angry young metal heads with great passion to do what we do. How in the hell that same can be achieved now, when we are like 40 year old dudes with families. I could do vocals, but I doubt it will be the same anymore. I’m not saying that when you are 40 you can’t play death metal, but for sure it won’t be the same band as it was over 20 years ago. It would be completely different story. But… Never say never.
Do you think death metal and underground metal are still relevant? Why do you think people are still drawn to this art form?
Absolutely. Seems to be very alive and kicking. Death metal is here to stay, where would it go. People like me like to listen to it. What would I listen if not death metal? I have grown with it. It is a tool to get away from this every day life for just a while. People want to release their anger by playing it and why not. It gives youth of today a good alternative on all the shit this world hits at you from every side.
Underground metal is a honest form of music and way to express yourself. Not the crap you stumble across everyday to make you dumb. I also do admire bands that have been around since the beginning. That is one hell of an achievement to play this kind of music 20-30 years active, touring and recording. Now that is something.
Most metalheads know the name Dallas Toler-Wade from Nile, the modern metal band that dropped static riffing and late-1970s guitar rock structures into death metal and paved the way for a new generation of hybrids and mythological themes in metal. However, before Nile, Toler-Wade created music with his cohorts in the band that has become Narcotic Wasteland.
Narcotic Wasteland, which just released its self-titled debut album, picks up with an even more modern style which resembles the deathcore/percussive death metal mix that Suffocation shifted to around the turn of the millennium. Its emphasis is more on memorable songs than spurious guitarplay. We talked to Toler-Wade to find out more.
You’ve just launched an entirely new project, Narcotic Wasteland. How does the style of this band differ from the band you are quite well-known for, Nile?
This band musically is getting back to the things I was writing before I joined Nile. Now you will here some similarities in some of the musical ideas, but that’s part of the reason I was interested in trying out for Nile back in 1997 to begin with.
Do you think death metal is still relevant in a time of modern metal?
I think that all music that comes from the heart with the intention of connecting to other people will always be relevant to like minded people.
What spurred you on to create Narcotic Wasteland, and how did you choose your fellow musicians?
I had these ideas brewing for quite some time. When I am home one of the things I do most is record ideas. As far as the lyrical ideas for Narcotic Wasteland I really had some things to get off my chest. I have lost a lot of friends over the years to hard drugs, and I just had this confusion, anger, and sadness boiling in my stomach that I needed to purge. But not all of the songs are about this. I don’t think any band should be limited to just one subject. they should be able to do whatever they want.
As far as the musicians that make up Narcotic Wasteland I knew I really wanted to jam with my long time friend Edwin Rhone again. We worked very well together in the past, and the sound of our hands are very similar. Edwin is a great songwriter and player as well. Edwin recommended Chris Dupre for bass and vocals. Chris is very creative, and he totally fits the sound of the music. It was really hard to find a drummer with the right style. it took a couple years, but George Kollias recommended Erik Schultek for the drums, and once again the style really fit great.
All of the guys are super cool, super talented, hard working musicians. I really think the next release with all of our heads together will make an even better record.
It sounds like you’ve gone for a more explosive production sound. How did you achieve this, and how happy were you with how the album as a whole turned out, production-wise?
I am very happy with the way this record came out. I did not want it too polished, just tight and clear with not too much flash. I did not want to put just another squeaky metal album out there. I wanted it to have attitude, and sometimes things get so clean the aggression gets mixed right out. After all it’s metal as long as you can hear everything then people will be able to hear the ideas.
Is Narcotic Wasteland a conceptual band? Or is this first album conceptual, and will you be doing something unlike that for other albums?
I really feel we have created something kind of different. I think we will only expand on what we have already created.
Every time I see the Narcotic Wasteland logo (of some intoxicating white powder cut into the letters of the name) I am both stunned and intrigued. Why did you go with this logo, as opposed to a “traditional” death metal style logo? Did you make it yourselves with physical powder?
I wanted the logo readable for sure. There are too many bands out there with non-readable logos. I thought it would be something heavy and real that deals with real topics. It’s death metal, and when you look at that logo it’s like looking death in the eye.
Heavy metal has always been somewhat apocalyptic. Does your music address a collapse in process (as society or at least parts of it devolve into narcotic wastelands) or are you speaking from after the collapse, telling us how to rebuild, or something else?
I think that we are living in a Narcoitc Wasteland, and yes it is causing people not only death, but financial ruin, and also people with addiction problems cause anguish for their friends and family.
Your songs are technical but not extraneously so. What guided you in composing these tracks? What effect did you hope to have on the listener?
No matter what kind of song I’m writing I really just want to connect with the listener. I have gotten messages from lots of people saying that it really hit them in the heart. For me that’s what it’s all about, and metal has always been strong emotionally.
You’ve got your debut album out and seem to be selling it at a fast clip from the website. What’s next? Are you seeking more label interest, touring, or composing new material?
We would love to play shows. As far as labels — sure why not? — but we really want to see how far we can push it on our own steam for now. The more work we do ourselves the less anyone else will need to do. So far we have done everything in house from the recording, songs, video, and website. I think it’s very important for a band to be as hands-on as they can with everything. And yes we are already working on the next release.
According to your biography, Narcotic Wasteland seems like a continuation of a musical partnership that began before you joined Nile. How does it feel to be back, and how has your music changed in the intervening years?
It is great to be working with Edwin Rhone again. I always thought we made a great guitar team. I think we have all grown musically over the years. And music will almost always change as long as you keep learning the craft. I just want to be a better writer and player for any band I am part of.
Northern wanderlust black metal band Sorcier des Glaces announces its fifth album, Ritual of the End, to become available shortly through Galy Records. This Quebecois act made a name for itself in the internally collapsing underground by crafting lengthy melodies in windswept melancholic formations, despite the trends of the time which it rebuked.
According to the band, “Sorcier des Glaces strikes back with a fifth full-length album, featuring seven rituals of ice and darkness. Seven blackened hymns of Cold Primitive Metal from the northern desolate landscapes of Quebec. Old school to the bone, yet melodic, powered by a crushing metallic production. Ritual of the End features a cover of the mighty Samael, rightfully chosen from their 1992 album Blood Ritual.”
For those who like metal in the spirit of the past, which in black metal is the triumph of the pragmatism of nature over the mental fog of human social good intentions, Sorcier des Glaces offers the spirit of the past without rehashing specific acts or, worse, forming a lowest common denominator out of the aesthetic of the classics to imitate and flog to death. Instead, the band write naturalistic melodies which expand into lengthy songs capturing the dark, solitary, empty and feral mindset of black metal as opposes the neurotic chattering self-obsessed brain of the normal person today. Like past Sorcier des Glaces albums, Ritual of the End will most likely be artistically controversial in that most will flee it, but for those who desire the old school mentality it will be a rare delight.
01. Under The Moonlight
02. Morbid Ritual
04. The Frozen Sword of Midnight
05. The Sign of the End
06. Macabre Operetta
07. Slumbering in the Dark
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.
Codex Obscurum represents the best kind of selectivity because it targets bands of note but does so broadly, thus you avoid both the “hey kids, everything’s great!” attitude of the commercial providers and the narrow perceptual slot of the kvlt vndergrovnd. This issue advertises swamp death metal band Autopsy, second-wave crust band Doom, cavernous old school death metal band Blaspherian, multifaceted heavy metal/folk band Primordial, melodic drone metal band Sacriphyx, abrasive occult death metal band Father Befouled, Icelandic modern black metal act Svartidaudi, and several more. While not everyone may like (or admit to liking…) these acts, the spread makes it clear that both broad-minded attention to music itself and a high level of standards apply here. This explains why the editors of such a zine might want to go underground and stay there, where they are not beholden to the ugly cycle of advertising revenues and thus being asked to pimp the latest platter of re-heated Carpenters tunes spray-painted with the vaguest appearance of “metal.” Indeed, Codex Obscurum is funded entirely by user purchase price, which is why for $5 or so this arrives at your door with no ads.
For the uninitiated, this zine presents the old school zine style in every detail, which is both practical and a nice atmospheric touch. The hand-numbered issues, the xeroxed pages complete with copy artifacts, occasional typos and sometimes surly answers to perfectly reasonable questions by bands who clearly have done too much press lately, all factor in to the appeal. Use of cardstock for the cover gives this issue a more permanent feel than older photocopied heap zines had, which shows a positive advance of technology. Similarly, quite a few of these interviews seem to have occurred through email, and the use of office software to lay out the zine makes it more readable. The rest is pure old school, from the writing style which is both personal and projected into the mind of an idealized metalhead, looking for that nearly indefinable quality that makes a metal band distinguish itself as a classic in the making rather than news of the week.
The primary content for Codex Obscurum is provided by its abundant interviews, which are conducted in a familiar yet inquisitive style, like the best of Joan Didion-influenced hip journalism before it forgot the word “investigative” in its title. These questions aren’t all softballs like you would expect in a mainstream magazine, but sometimes force bands to confront their own internal struggles for self-definition. To their credit, most of the bands here rise to the occasion and reveal their thinking and intentions in the actions they have taken. The Doom interview is particularly revelatory as the interviewer walks the band through the past and makes connections to consistent patterns across their career. The Autopsy interview makes for a stunning read since it is Eric Cutler giving a candid and somewhat aggressive portrayal of where the band is and how past events shaped their present outlook. The Svartidaudi interview goes in-depth into how this band is struggling to find its own voice while under onslaught from the many trends of current black metal, despite being inspired by the best of the past (which is different from being inspired by the past alone). One oddity that would be called a “quirk” in any less just-the-music-ma’am magazine is the lengthy interview with the creator of the RPG Cave Evil, which accompanies the amazing artwork from that game with a nearly existential exploration of the purpose of RPGs themselves.
Profanatica “Thy Kingdom Cum” (Hell’s Headbangers)
You cannot defile nuns
While wearing sweatpants.
The sizeable block of reviews at the back of Codex Obscurum show where this zine is determined to keep its hand in the current music industry. Any band that is roughly connected to old school death metal and black metal, with a wide spread because of open-mindedness, qualifies for inclusion here. These reviews take a conversational outlook which seems too removed from the music at first except when you realize that it’s gonzo journalism of the first order. When writing about metal, don’t pretend you are not a metalhead; it’s a lie. Further, think of what you like and then extrapolate to what others like. It helps them shop for music. It also avoids troubling pretense and complications as reviewers try to get more “in depth” and end up producing thousand-word inspections that result in no clear conclusions. Here, the conclusions are clear — in fact, one section even puts them in Haiku form — and give roughly the kind of synopsis one would get from an experienced record store owner, label head or producer, issuing forth a rough summary of the band, its importance and its staying power and audience, in about a sentence each.
For the past several issues, Codex Obscurum has reserved its final pages for experimental content. In this case, it is facially an inspection of why a famous metal musician flaked on an interview… and beneath the waves, a deft revelation of the disintegration of the underground into warring self-interested parties while no one keeps their eye on the wheel or the road. That leaves the future of the genre up in the air, since everyone is too busy cashing in to steer, and the results are about as you might expect: all the has-beens in warmed over hardcore, emo and indie rock bands have rushed through the breach and set up shop making parasitic versions of the older material, except nowhere near as good. Codex Obscurum shows a good way to reclaim the past of the underground for the future, namely to start paying attention to the steering again and to be unafraid to be selective and to not give reasons why some bands simply suck. Just be honest. The editors and writers here have given it their best shot and it makes for not only informative and entertaining reading, but a glimpse into the old days without the smarmy fug of solicitous nostalgia for marketing purposes that normally hangs around such ventures.
As part of our exploration of academia in metal, we meet all sorts of interesting academics with different relationships to metal. Some are more on the academic side, some on the musical, and some in-between. Ross Hagen straddles both extremes by being both a musician and an academic with a focus on teaching metal. As a result, he brings both personal experience and delight in the genre to the otherwise more abstract academic view. We were lucky to get in a few questions with this interesting person and teacher.
You’ve got two degrees in music and one in musicology. What launched you along this direction? Did you intend to become an academic, or did the music lead you there?
I think this career path resulted from my love of music coupled with the fact that I didn’t really have the discipline for seriously practicing a musical instrument so I could play professionally. I’d much rather spend six hours a day in the library. Graduate school was also a nice way to extend my adolescence and avoid adult responsibilities for a few years after college. But when I think about it, I suppose that academia was always an intention of mine, whether I thought about it consciously or not. Both of my parents were educators, so I guess I’m something of a poster child for following the path laid out by my upbringing.
What got you involved with heavy metal? Were you a fan before you studied it? What appeals about it to you, both as a research subject and as a personal listening experience?
I was definitely a fan before I began pursuing it as a topic of study. My father was a college professor and his students would occasionally loan him tapes and CDs so I was listening to a lot of college rock and industrial music (well, NIN anyway) in my early teens. At one point he had a student who loaned him some of the early albums by Amorphis, Samael, Tiamat, and My Dying Bride and I dug them a lot. It wasn’t until college that I found other people who liked that kind of stuff and expanded my listening though. I feel like I’m still playing catch-up on a lot of older material from the 70s and 80s especially. I also got into musicology as an undergraduate and began including metal in my studies there.
…blast beats and tremolo picking seem to suspend rhythmic momentum and time in black metal when coupled with more slowly changing harmonies and hazy-sounding production. I also related the use of full chord voicings and the use of parallel minor 3rds and 6ths (in Emperor’s music especially) to an interest in chaotic sorts of sounds…
From a personal standpoint, I suppose I find it empowering in some respects, but I also like that black metal especially is a style where it’s easy to just get lost in the sound. As a bassist and composer I like that metal is challenging to perform and that it’s a style that is quite malleable in some respects even as its fundamental ingredients remain relatively stable. I think that’s part of what I like about it as a researcher as well; the tension between the metal’s core attributes and its desire to evolve and change.
You’ve contributed a piece, “Musical Style, Ideology, and Mythology in Norwegian Black Metal,” in the compilation Metal Rules the Globe. Can you tell us about this writing, and what your thesis generally was?
This was a version of my 2005 Master’s degree thesis where I wrote about some of the key elements of the “second wave” black metal musical style and related them to the genre’s interest in the supernatural and mythical. In particular I looked into the way that blast beats and tremolo picking seem to suspend rhythmic momentum and time in black metal when coupled with more slowly changing harmonies and hazy-sounding production.
I also related the use of full chord voicings and the use of parallel minor 3rds and 6ths (in Emperor’s music especially) to an interest in chaotic sorts of sounds since those types of chords are much less focused and resonant than the typical metal power chord when played with lots of distortion. I considered these musical conventions as evocations of trance experiences because they create a sense of stasis and timelessness (in a literal sense) by obscuring rhythmic propulsion and harmonic clarity.
I was at the time interested in connecting these musical devices to the sort of Norse revivalist rhetoric that was regularly coming from people like Varg Vikernes and that also underpins Michael Moynihan’s Lords of Chaos, especially mythical figures like the berserker…that black metal seems to reward an ideal of virtuosity based on physical endurance rather than dexterity and nimbleness, things like that. I do think that there was a certain aesthetic affinity with these mythical ideals for some black metallers, that they envisioned themselves as warriors or as part of a charivari tradition trying to bring back a romanticized ideal of pre-modern Europe. However, I think that the chapter’s main contribution is the articulation of the musical style…or at least when I go back and read it those are the parts that I think hold up the best.
You teach courses on popular music, music appreciation, and music history at Utah Valley University. Does this include metal? How do students respond to it? Does their response change depending on whether they are metalheads or not?
Most of them seem to respond fairly positively to it when I do teach it, which usually only happens in the course specifically centered around popular music. I do include bits of Eddie Van Halen and Yngwie Malmsteen in my schtick on musical virtuosity in the music appreciation classes, but more as a side comparison. Students in the popular music courses seem to respond well to it even if they aren’t fans, since by the time we get into it most of the students understand that “liking” a genre of music is not a prerequisite for investigating its musical style and influence. Metalheads or former metalheads (I actually hear that a lot here…metal is something they used to like as teenagers) tend get a little more into it, but I’m often pleasantly surprised as well when students who have no personal affinity with the style offer thoughtful considerations of it.
I find it interesting that you’ve composed music for the production of two ancient Greek plays at UVU. Are these going to be released? Is there any overlap between ancient Greco-Roman music and heavy metal?
Actually only one of them (Antigone) was an ancient Greek play. The other one, Eurydice, was a modern play by Sarah Ruhl that is built around the myth but definitely takes its own path (and was directed by my very talented and lovely wife Lisa). Oddly enough, my music cues for Eurydice actually did include a bit of Rammstein-ish heavy metal…the script called for it when the Lord of the Underworld enters dressed like a child and riding a tricycle.
I’m not planning to release recordings of Eurydice‘s music cues themselves since they wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense on their own (15 seconds of heavy metal, 45 seconds of lounge music, etc.) but I did put together a suite of sorts called gravity is very compelling out of the soundscapes from Eurydice. The Antigone score is likewise kind of boring out of context, but I’ve repurposed parts of it in other works here and there.
Regarding ancient Greek and Roman music, I can say with some certainty (even though ancient music isn’t a specialty of mine) that there’s not any overlap with heavy metal in terms of musical content. A lot of the theoretical ideas and writings helped lay the foundations for the European art music tradition in the medieval period, though. Plato’s famous concerns about the dangerous moral and social effects of “disordered” music also echo through the centuries to inform the various moral panics around heavy metal and other musical styles.
According to your biography, you’ve participated in more than a dozen album releases on various American and European labels, and perform in the ambient bands encomiast and Schrei aus Stein as well as two local metal bands. Can you tell us a bit about your musical history?
I started making ambient music with encomiast in the late 1990s, when I had access to a proper electronic music studio at college. That sort of whetted my appetite for it and I’ve continued recording stuff like it ever since, often drawing my friends into the mix as well. Most of the catalog from that project is available at encomiast.bandcamp.com, although I think my favorite is the 139 Nevada 2xCD that grew out of an attempt to record ghostly voices at a haunted theater. I started Schrei aus Stein when I wanted to do something that mixed drones and noise with more of a black metal aesthetic. Beyond those projects, in the last decade I’ve played in the absurdist metal duo Spawn of the Matriarch, the stoner metal band Governors, a krautrock/free jazz trio, a one-off Mortician-worship solo project named Immensite, and a couple of cover bands.
Currently I play bass in Burn Your World, a band that mixes extreme metal styles with some hardcore punk influence. We also have a side project called Curseworship in which I play bass and compose a lot of harsh noise and analog synth freakouts. Both of those bands have recordings coming out soonish.
What do you think is the role of music? Is it to communicate ideas, express emotions, or make an aesthetic object for others to appreciate? Or none of the above?
I’d probably say it’s more like all of the above in my view, depending on the context and the person who is experiencing it. Your last role (aesthetic object) is probably closest to the way I think about the music I create — I tend to think structurally rather than in emotional or rhetorical terms.
Do you think metal is a subject that should be taught in schools? There’s two viewpoints to this: from academia’s point of view, and from metal’s point of view.
I think that from an academic point of view it’s as valid a subject as any, and to my mind it provides a rich musical and cultural well for all sorts of areas of study. I’d also be lying if I denied that it gives me a lot of pleasure to teach and write about music I love, so there’s a selfish end too I guess! I certainly also understand why some metalheads might not appreciate it because sometimes it does seem like once something has the stamp of approval from the ivory tower it loses a lot of its countercultural credentials.
Some might see it (possibly correctly!) as a misguided attempt to validate metal as an art form…or perhaps to validate academia by borrowing some of metal’s coolness. I personally try to avoid giving that impression in my classes, but my position as an academic may make it impossible for me dodge those bullets entirely. So I suppose my ultimate answer is “yes,” but with acknowledgement of some pitfalls.
You taught a couple of metal-centric classes at CU-Boulder while you were finishing your degree. What were these like? How did you “teach metal”?
One of them was a single Saturday course done through Continuing Education that was sort of a quick trip through some various issues (musical style, censorship, etc.). The longer course was a version of a course on Rock Music that I team-taught with Joel Burcham. In that one my idea was to use metal as a way to explore various aspects of popular music, including recording, performance, fandom, authenticity, etc. My goal was less to teach metal and more to allow metal to teach us, if that makes sense.
You’re an ethnomusicologist; those seem like a cross between music historian and music analyst. How does understanding metal at a musical level help you understand it at a culture level? Are there correlations between the two dimensions of metal?
I sometimes feel like the primary thing my musical training provides me with is a vocabulary with which to work. I do find it helpful in terms of articulating aspects of metal music and production that encourage particular responses and experiences among listeners. As I mentioned in my summary of the “Metal Rules the Globe” article, I do think that some musical ideas can evoke particular experiences and reflect certain values. I would stop short of saying that they necessarily correspond to the values of the performer and the audience though. Sometimes that might certainly be the case, but I’ve come to be skeptical of sweeping correlations, mostly because I want to avoid misrepresenting the culture of metal as a monolithic entity. The more time I spend with metal and with other metalheads, the more I appreciate the diversity of experience within it.
One of your research interests is ritualism. Are there ritual aspects to heavy metal, especially the black metal variety?
I tend to think that almost every musical activity has some sort of a ritual component to it, using the term broadly. With black metal, though, I’m particularly interested in the deployment of Ritual “with a capital R” as a conscious effort to connect the music and performance with some archaic imagined past. In some respects, I think the past black metal invokes is the past of black metal itself, a retro recycling and recreation that is common to all music in some degree, but which has perhaps increased lately (Simon Reynold’s recent book deals with this better than I).
Rather than celebrating the protean side of 21st century identity, metal seems to demand a higher level of “identity essentialism” in that respect. It promises some measure of stability.
Invoking ritual also feels like an appeal to an authoritative kind of authenticity, an assertion that black metal is not entertainment or theater, but instead that it is a stable and “timeless” tradition and (importantly) not beholden to the vagaries of taste or fashion. The use of a fairly standard and narrow set of musical gestures and sounds, deindividualizing costumes and pseudonyms, and staged evocations of sacrificial death all work to this end. Of course, the “appeal to ritual” is also in some ways merely a marketing term and a performance conceit. It might go hand-in-hand with the increased visibility of black metal over the past decade or so.
I’m currently working with these ideas as part of a research project on musical ritualism as an authenticating tactic in popular music…possibly with a parallel trajectory in musical representations of monstrosity and supernatural forces. I’m still gathering my dogs together to see if they hunt though.
How important do you think heavy metal is as a cultural indicator? What does it tell us about our society?
I think it certainly has a role there, although I think that what it says varies a lot depending on who is involved in it. Actually, I think that if we look at metal around the globe, I might consider a lack of metal in a society to be more significant. It seems to be an almost ubiquitous presence, even under circumstances of war and deprivation.
I do think that the value so much metal discourse seems to place on trueness and authenticity is perhaps symptomatic of a larger sense of uprootedness in (American?) society. Rather than celebrating the protean side of 21st century identity, metal seems to demand a higher level of “identity essentialism” in that respect. It promises some measure of stability.
In your view, why is metal such a distinctive genre, with such strong rules and boundaries (trueness, cultness)?
It seems that being embattled or marginalized is an integral part of the way metal views itself, even if in some cases we might consider that metalheads doth protest too much. This sense of being outside the mainstream probably creates this sense of cohesion and belonging, as well as a bit of suspicion and distrust of outsiders and “un-metal” musical influences.
I think that the boundaries have actually gotten more stringent over the past decade or so in underground metal, although it’s probably more likely that I’ve just become more aware of them. I might suggest that as the artifacts and symbols of insider-ness in metal have become more readily available, the concern with maintaining boundaries has risen accordingly. As it becomes easier and easier to amass knowledge about the most obscure bands, along with their recordings, that obscurity loses its power.
Patch jackets don’t seem to carry the same weight if you can purchase a whole collection of rare kvlt “merit badges” in 20 minutes on eBay. This situation makes metal’s system of cultural signifiers less trustworthy in terms of judging someone’s commitment to the genre, so it seems like the boundaries need more strict enforcement. It’s only exacerbated in cyberspace. But of course the best way to be kvlt is to deny that it matters if you’re kvlt or not…it’s square to be hip, right?
You’re on the editorial board of the journal Metal Music Studies. How has metal in academia expanded during the time you’ve been observing, and where do you see it going in the future?
To be totally accurate, I’m actually just on the editorial advisory board, which just means I’ll be on-call as a peer reviewer once we’re totally underway. I hope to continue my involvement in the future, however.
When I first began writing about heavy metal as a graduate student in the early/mid 2000s, it seemed that there was precious little academic writing about metal beyond Walser, Weinstein, and sociological studies beating the dead horse connecting metal and crime/delinquency. Over the following decade it’s just blossomed as a field of study, and I think it’s impressively diverse. I mean, we’ve got people from sociology, ethnomusicology, historical musicology, fan studies, philosophy, and interested practitioners all in the mix. I’ve been trying (and failing) to keep up with all the publications. It’s an exciting and inspiring field.
I think that we’re going to see more studies that question the conceptions of locality and place in metal, since the increasing digital networks around the world are making physical geography less relevant in some respects. I know some scholars are working on the exoticism in metal, which seems especially interesting because it binds together questions of intent (patriotism? parody?) with issues of reception. It also seems that Metal Studies has focused a lot on the more extreme and underground subgenres, so I hope we might see more people begin to explore the intersections between metal and mainstream pop culture, both currently and in the past.