About a decade ago, the trend of flash fiction or micro-stories seized the literary world by storm. The reasoning was that as people did more of their reading via phones and portable computers, they would want shorter, harder-hitting fiction.
Of course, metal was there first.
Heavy metal has a long tradition of making short and fast songs that derive intensity by compressing an idea and then unleashing it like a jack-in-the-box with razor blades for teeth. This tradition spans multiple metal genres and decades.
Generally three and a half minutes is considered the ideal length for a pop song, give or take a half-minute. Many bands, especially in more “serious” genres like AOR, progressive rock, jazz and metal, tend to write five minute or longer songs. Micro-songs on the other hand clock in well under two minutes, often under one.
According to many bands, writing a short song is harder than writing a long one. When the song goes by quickly, song structure is more transparent. There aren’t comforting layers of conventions, like guitar solos and ballady choruses, that can be used to disguise an emptiness within.
It’s just the songwriter versus the void.
Here’s a (brief) run through of heavy metal (and hybrids) who made flash-audio or micro-songs.
Much as we all admire the ex-Emperor axeslinger, he’s fallen into the pit of what happens to musicians once they’ve blasted out their most vital creative material: they become masters of interesting details, but this means that they fit into the dominant paradigm. In this case, Ihsahn is basically progressive indie rock with a tendency to launch off on flights of fancy that sometimes involve metally riffs. But for the most part, he’s playing with the same pieces and riding in the same channel that everyone else has been cruising for the last 70 years. This doesn’t showcase the legendary creativity that propels this artist toward his best work, and also doesn’t make for great listening, since it’s a collection of mixed moods that never really pick up a direction anywhere but into themselves.
Falkenbach – Asa
Folk metal isn’t a genre; it’s an approach to any number of genres. Falkenbach is heavy metal with some black metal influences but is approached in a “folk” way that resembles jaunty pirate and epic Viking songs from Hollywood movies, thus continuing metal’s infatuation with the soundtrack. The music isn’t bad, but cycles verse-chorus and develops very marginally so there’s not much of a vertiginous sense of revelation. Further, either this dude has a sinus infection or they autotuned these vocals, which is somewhat repellent if your music is naturalistic. Thus this gets filed in the pile of stuff I’d like to like, but can’t have faith in, and find aesthetically irritating.
Beastmilk – Climax
When we run out of ideas, we run to the past. So it is with Beastmilk, who resurrect 1980s indie rock with a slightly more intense guitar focus, like R.E.M. crossed with Dave Mathews and grafted into Journey. This isn’t bad, but not so exceptional we must cover it on a death metal site.
Inferno – Omniabsence Filled by His Greatness
Strongly reminiscent of early Dark Funeral with lower tuning, Inferno provide charging black metal with strong concluding themes and high energy. None of these riffs will really strike you as all that unusual, but they knit together well into songs. To flesh things out, Inferno use fills of sweeps or lead picking between the rushing power chord riffs. This release really doesn’t have enough character to distinguish itself for the ages, but is more refreshingly clear about what it likes than most of the kvltists or hybrid-bands that wander through our review stack these days.
Blizaro – Strange Doorways
Sometimes we confuse having a lot of material with having something epic. This 2CD is a fusion of doom metal in the style of Confessor/Candlemass and a lot of random 70s influences from Hawkwind to Yes. These guys like to jam, and this music seems like someone recorded jams for a year, patched ’em up so they stuck together as songs, and worked them into an epic format. They’d do better to distill this to an EP of their best thoughts.
Polluted Inheritance – Betrayed
When Polluted Inheritance play death metal, they create a type of very familiar and nocturnal music that feels like moving through a darkened battlefield. This is broken up by speed metal riffs and lead-ups which sometimes have Pantera-style roundabout vocals circling the end of each phrase, causing a sense of this battlefield being broken up by machinery. In addition, Polluted Inheritance like to drop in sporadic progressive riffing or extremely noodly guitar, often accompanying some of the speed metal riffs. Reminiscent in many ways of later Adramelech, the band thus “comes into its own” less frequently that it would if some hard stylistic decisions were made and individual members had less freedom to indulge musicianship for musicianship’s sake. It is gratifying however to find a release that actually wants to be metal, and can execute moments of insight in riff form that evoke the best moments of classic death metal.
Boal – Infinite Deprivation
Although from the deathgrind genre, this album represents an attempt to use old school approaches to melody and riff with the “modern technical metal” style of static or harmony-based (sweep) riffs. These riffs are designed to contrast each other toward resolution in the old school way, but ultimately are too linear and rhythmic to develop enough phrase. However, the deathgrind portion of Infinite Deprivation is a breath of fresh air, incorporating groove in a subversive and unnerving way and building up to honest culminations. Obviously it’s too much to ask this band to go all old-school but they’re the closest thing to interesting in deathgrind.
Root – Viginti Quinque Annis In Scaena
This album sounds like Venom covering Cream. It’s basically hard rock and the generation before it, sped up with more precise playing and some hefty fellow bellowing over the top. While none of it is is particularly badly executed, it also sounds dated, like a flashback into the late 1960s which is being resurrected for purposes of nostalgia. The homebrew nature of this band would be appealing if the songs stretched beyond an emulation of that past state in time, but although heavily influenced by the Hellhammer-Bathory first wave of black metal, this music remains in part of that cluster of material that belongs to a time before the underground.
Circle – Incarnation
This seems like “sludge metal,” which is really just slow metalcore, with throw in influences from indie and black metal. Mostly disorganized, it fails from inability to make a point, although there are no other deficits. Like most music in this style, which seems to be people who want doom metal with aggressive open intervals instead of minor key ones, the modus operandi of the listener is to experience drone and forget where he is in the piece, then notice periodic interesting bits before descending again into a rumble of confusion.
Toxic Holocaust – Chemistry of Consciousness
The whole of the human condition is revealed by this album: it is well-executed on the surface, but its independent spirit is bound up in pleasing others with what they already know, in order to get power. As a result, it is a fun listen until you start thinking about hearing it a dozen times. It’s more instrumentally competent than your average retro-thrash band, but strays mostly into speed metal territory, mix and matching riffs from 1980s speed metal bands so that verse and chorus riffs each resemble well-known types but they don’t appear together as in the original song. Most of these songs are repetitive verse-chorus with a break to provide contrast before the reprise. Oddly, the vocals are whispered and distorted like a black metal band but using the rhythms of a late 1980s band like Sodom or Kreator. This is well-executed but I wouldn’t want to hear it again, especially as I heard all of these ideas the first time around — back in the 1980s.
Back in the 1990s, most people couldn’t stand Ildjarn and side-project Sort Vokter. These bands were seen as too simple, primitive, nihilistic, raw and amoral for even black metal.
One web site — our direct ancestor — praised the releases to the skies, claimed they were brilliant, and aggressively advocated them, culminating in an interview with the mastermind behind Ildjarn himself. We were ridiculed, mocked, scourged, spit upon, etc. until suddenly people woke up and realized the brilliance of Ildjarn.
Ildjarn mocks deconstruction. Modern people love to deconstruct things into tiny little statements that are true but also incomplete; Ildjarn took many tiny states, and using them like spatter-paint making a silhouette on canvas, used them to create a vision of a much broader and pervasive truth, as exemplified in the phrase “Forest Poetry.” Ildjarn is naturalism that does not retreat to happy Disney Land where all the animals are fuzzy and cute. Ildjarn is feral reality coming back through the (poetic) beast within.
Many years later, label Seasons of Mist has opted to re-release the classic of the Ildjarn era with new artwork and hopefully minimal remastering if any. These releases are already available for pre-order in the Seasons of Mist online shop.
We encourage all people who have not experienced Ildjarn to listen and revel in the simple coordinated profundity of this primal black metal band. These mighty slabs of minimalist metal will be available on August 16, 2013.
Barbaric Softworks has signed a licensing agreement with Austin, TX-based continuation thrash band Birth A.D. to use Birth A.D. songs in Barbaric Softworks’ newest title, Blocks of Explosive Dismemberment.
Unlike most video games, Blocks of Explosive Dismemberment has no winners. You just lose a little less, and survive a little longer. American and European ratings authorities will have a field day with this violent game notorious for its irreverent mockery of death, suffering and humanity’s pretense of individuality.
In a similar vein, Birth A.D. has rocked the house with mockery on its latest opus, I Blame You. Recalling the golden days of DRI and SOD, this band nonetheless forges on in a continuation of what those bands created and does not rehash the past like the retro bands who are so thoughtless that it is tempting to lace their Capri Sun with antifreeze.
The combination of Birth A.D. and Blocks of Explosive Dismemberment should thrill even the most dour metal fan with its high splatter and body count, and the corresponding middle finger to all values that society holds dear. The game is due out in a later quarter of 2013.
(To get the full effect, hit “play” on both videos at the same time.)
Back in the early 1980s, before the teenage metal magazines got a grip on the term, there was a genre called thrash because it was invented by thrashers, that is, people who got around on skateboards and were as dropped out of society as the hackers and anarchists. In fact, there was a lot of overlap.
In the thrash genre, there are three big names who simultaneously invented this style of putting metal riffs in punk songs without losing the integrity of either genre, and those were DRI, COC, and Cryptic Slaughter. They crafted short songs out of 2-3 riffs and creative re-stylings of those riffs in the punk style, but using chord progressions and phrase-oriented riffs like metal bands. The result was a genre all on its own that was neither metal nor punk and literally invented a category for itself. Of those, COC had the most feeling of a classic punk band and got closer to what Suicidal Tendencies and MDC were doing, which was to make punk songs with a metal edge and play them faster than anyone else had ever done before.
For most of us, the only COC we could afford was the Caroline records issue of Eye for an Eye + Six Songs with Mike Singing on CD, since all we had before that were fifteenth-generation tape dubs from someone’s brother’s girlfriend’s uncle’s drinking buddy’s vinyl dubbed in a basement next to a rack of molotov cocktails and homegrown indo. These songs are brief punches of angst and insight, opening with pure outrage at the ongoing failure of humanity and transitioning to an energetic desire to do something about it, much like a mosh pit itself. Over them, gruff vocals are almost totally incoherent and drums mostly keep time but diverge when they want to for added emphasis.
Eye for an Eye + Six Songs with Mike Singing won most of us over for its raw creativity. It lifts some material, including a bass riff from Yes and at least a couple riffs from Black Sabbath, but that’s immaterial; the point is that each of these songs is a small story, and although circular one that mimics its topic matter and thus, each song is distinctive and yet within the same style so that the album holds together like a wartime journal and yet has enough variety to be heard time and again. Thrash lives with this re-release that brings the original material back to life for a new generation who may need a guidepost beyond the pre-packaged categories of music product.
Success in life often comes down to timing. Some of metal’s best bands, by virtue of being ahead of the curve, simply get there too fast and go too far to be as noticed as the others who plod along and thus are right about where their audience expects them to be, thus understands them and thus can appreciate them.
It reminds me of the friend of mine who wrote an English paper in high school that the teacher dismissed as nonsense; when he handed it in at college, he got an A. He was just too far out ahead of the curve. In the same way, Houston’s Dead Horse were just too ahead in too many ways at once for most people to grasp. Thrash is a hybrid between punk songs and metal riffs, so named because of its popularity with thrashers or skaters. Thrash bands like DRI (also from Houston), COC, Cryptic Slaughter, MDC and Fearless Iranians From Hell (from San Antonio) were famous for short intense songs of social commentary that was more existential and practical than political. Dead Horse took it even further to a nearly literary level.
After producing a series of demos that were well-received in the underground and even among “normals,” Dead Horse recorded and self-released their first album, Horsecore: An Unrelated Story That’s Time Consuming. After that, they gigged like maniacs and finally got on a larger label to release their second album, Peaceful Death and Pretty Flowers, at which time a death metal and progressive metal influence was flowering in their music. But after that, they never really got a handle on things again, despite releasing a pair of well-received EPs. As often happens in Texas, the local scene swallowed them, in equal parts of taking them for granted and resenting them for rising so far so fast.
Fast-forward to last year. Most of Dead Horse is now gallivanting around in Pasadena Napalm Division, while original frontman Mike Haaga makes his living making oddball soundtracks and performing live. Like many talented people in metal, he left it behind, probably outraged at the simple inability of metalheads to unite to do anything, a self-defeating practice that delights their detractors (what’s better than an opponent who commits suicide?). But the other band members have continued on and played a show in Houston which was memorialized in their Making a Dead Horse Live DVD.
The problem with success is that it can become a cage: you get known for doing something that meant a lot to you at the time, but time goes on. You want new horizons. It’s hard to express them, and you see others succeed for doing a lot less.
Suicidal Tendencies launches 13 into a time where metal and punk have both decided to commit suicide by melding so extensively with other genres as to lose their own identities. Melding itself isn’t bad, but when a whole genre does it, it essentially obliterates its unique voice and makes itself another flavor of rock music.
13 escapes Suicidal Tendencies’ past by mixing in a number of alternative, improvisational and extrinsic styles. In particular, you’ll hear island-based world music, Rage Againsst the Machine, and even the keg-party reggae-influenced rock of bands like Sublime, all mixed into what’s essentially a punk band playing metal. The locus of the action has changed: where the original Suicidal Tendencies want to make a point with its songs, these songs want to set up a convivial atmosphere and into that speak some ideas with lyrics. The original songs resembled their content; these songs are a mixture of fun and diverse elements, and expression occurs in the lyrics.
With this album, Suicidal Tendencies demonstrate how an album can be quite good and not satisfy its original audience. I think this will be a huge hit among the alt-rock and nu-metal crowds because it’s more musically interesting than most of the kiddie music. It’s based on firm grooves, catchy melodic vocal hooks, and an insanely over-the-top constant lead guitar jam that gives this music a breadth that is rarely found in music you hear on the radio.
However, for metal fans this one is going to be a failure. It has lost the metal spirit, and it essentially party rock with some metal riffs. The cool guitar work and occasional shredding give this some power, but it doesn’t switch it to the viewpoint a metal fan will appreciate.