Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Understanding Atmospheric Metal

This genre is obsolete now, but as with all pieces of history, by going back and taking a closer look we will understand ourselves in the now better. Atmospheric metal, we all concur, is a ridiculous term. The internal question in it has been answered to the point of cliche: We don't call music atmospheric because all music has the goal to create an atmosphere or another, duh.

That's all well and good and we can feel smart for regurgitating this truism, but only for so long: when it becomes cliche, it behooves us to start investigating the opposite path, as it were. Be contrarian, metalheads!

What was atmospheric metal? It was a term used mostly (if not only, hard to tell) by european metal press to describe a variety of weird extreme metal in the early-to-mid '90s. It is tied with the rise of Norwegian black metal and also of british doom/death. Often thought of as dirge-like, slow death metal with a heavy keyboard presence and female vocals on top as encapsulated by Theatre of Tragedy, it also brought in a host of other outsider influences such as electronic music, gothic rock, neo-folk, martial ambient and industrial.

This definition is meaningless, and it has become more meaningless as time has passed and these formalist innovations have been diffused into the heavy metal corpus completely. There's dirty black n' roll bands with female vocals now, and there's keyboards in grind bands, sludgy industrial metal is now considered a mainstream category and whatnot. No wonder nobody talks about 'atmospheric metal' now.

However, a more useful definition of this genre is to look at how it uses the formalist material of metal music differently than in the subgenres before it. I propose that the innovation of atmospheric metal music was to create heavier juxtaposition of the metal riff and metal rhythm section by posing it against non-metal elements like subdued electronic music, ambient sections, orchestral bits, quiet acoustic music.

Most metal bands of the '80s were very concerned with perfecting their metal sound. This was a commercial issue as metal was popular and finding and keeping a niche was paramount to the career aspirations of many. Their songs were a series of riffs, choruses, solos. Faster than the next band, higher vocals or better solos, but the form was all metal, all the time. There was the keyboard intro here and there, but it was exactly that, a calm before a storm.

Metal in the '90s started deviating from this formula en masse. One reason was purely technological, as more and more it was affordable and viable to experiment in the studio, to have varied instrumentation on multiple tracks, to have a hand at fancy keyboards that once would cost a small fortune. Another reason was Nirvana and their popularization of quiet-loud pop song dynamics. Hidden underneath that base reason there was also the significance of what Nirvana stood for for aggressive music: more abstract, often more or personal thematics called for a wider range of dynamic and texture in the music. Metalheads would have you believe that they detested 'grunge' and would do the absolute opposite of whatever it was about in their metal in the '90s but the opposite is true. We can look at a half-decade of metalhead wandering all over the atmospheric, black metal, romantic doom and progressive metal map as a constant conversation with what Nirvana et al. brought to the table.

What's worth keeping in mind for our purposes is that metal bands started playing less metal (in a New Wave of British Heavy metal sense) in their songs and there was less metal on a long-playing record on the whole. Atmospheric metal in that sense is deliciously false. Atmospheric metal bands used one or two riffs in contrast to a quiet part, or a non-metal orchestral element (synth pads and pianos and violins and what-have-you). They extended intros into their own songs that didn't have any metal orchestration to them at all. They put interludes between songs, sometimes there was a 20 minute ambient piece at the end of an otherwise rough black metal record.

This, above any discussion of extremity is the dividing line a lot of 'true metalheads' will not cross when it comes to their selection of heavy metal. Not whether it's too extreme, if the vocals are screamed or shouted as opposed to clean and sonorous. But whether the band plays metal or if they put some metal in music that would otherwise easily play in an elevator.

In this sense, we can look at 'Atmospheric Metal' as a volatile synergy. Metal != Atmosphere.

But this is a rationalization after the fact. At the time, atmospheric metal contrast contributed in that where the metal was playing, it sounded more effective and forceful. For many then (now, not so much, perhaps) a My Dying Bride record is more savage and effective when they're playing full-on death metal than an Autopsy record, because Autopsy have a narrower palette to work with. All the blood and gore gets samey after a while.

It is useful at this point to listen to Wildhoney by Tiamat, as it was the record that broke atmospheric metal and paved the way for a million variations of this form. A metal riff and a gruff vocal here and there, as a sharp point of definition in a much softer sea of mood and color. It was and still remains a gem of a record. It's worth to keep in mind that Wildhoney came out in 1994, in the midst of the black metal explosion.

Much of what we see as black metal now is in this sense atmospheric metal. Darkthrone never were, as they were preoccupied with serving their one, two, three riffs to their ultimate logical conclusion. In the Woods... (then called 'pagan metal') absolutely were never a black metal band but instead epitomized what I describe, with every record after their debut even more, encapsulating fully the 'metal parts for contrast to something softer' definition in their third record 'Strange in Stereo'. Burzum at their best were an atmospheric metal band more preoccupied with a dream-like trance as also summoned by Dead Can Dance than with blastbeats and tremolo picking.

Food for further thought:

1. The opposite end of 'atmospheric metal' is the most brutal, technical, full-on death metal. Music that never cares to breathe and has no use for silly contrasts. It still serves to create a different, abstract, unfeeling atmosphere, similar to ambient music of certain stripes and some modern composition, so although it has an atmosphere to it, it doesn't have volatile contrasts between atmosphere and metal.

2. Atmospheric metal paved the ways for post-metal in the sense that post-metal also deconstructed the metal form to non-metal ends, but there are differences of both scope and intent. Atmospheric metal, when it actually cared to be heavy metal would be strictly 'correct' about it. Tiamat above were once a sloppy death/black metal band, and they can still write a convincing death metal riff even in Wildhoney and put double bass and brutal vocals over it. Post-metal bands deconstructed the metal form further, using sonic signifiers like distortion, double bass, screams and palm muting, but they didn't actually play - or try to play - metal riffs and metal structures with these tools. Post-metal can be seen as the vestigial evolution of atmospheric metal (a '90s phenomenon) for the '00s. It's no wonder that bands have regressed from that point to self-define as 'metal' again, now that metal music is enjoying a posthumous respect for apparently having rigidly stuck to its guns for 30 years. But the point of this article is to show that metal music has done anything but this, for the last 20 of its history.

3. As we said, full on death-metal is the opposite of atmospheric metal, but then a recent trend of -unlistenable, for this writer- 'cavern-core', as typified by bands like Teitanblood and Portal is all about subverting death metal technique again to create exactly what I describe as atmospheric metal, but without actually introducing flowery instrumentation and vocals. Instead - again an issue of arriving, accessible technology - they manipulate the sound design of otherwise pretty standard death metal form to make it appear distant, alien and indistinct. The use of heavy reverb and unusual equalization makes their death metal a soup of sound, from which once in a while a discernible death metal riff emerges, or a stop-start rhythm or distant clattering of blastbeats. Presumably the appeal is exactly this moment where a half-imagined riff actually peers through the thick fog and the listener achieves clarity. They didn't dream it, it was always in there.

Atmospheric metal returned and nobody noticed. I don't predict a massive interest in cavern-core, in a long historical view of the medium, but it's interesting how even in 2015, straight-up metal musicians are trying to find a way to use metal contrasts to evoke difference and otherness instead of the usual meat and potatoes metal battery.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Riffs are not Enough: Understanding Riff Ambiguity

I like a great riff. Here's one:

Pretty ripping, right?

More than any one riff in Heavy Metal, I like instead a wonderful riff that is followed by another wonderful riff. Here's an example of that:

Two minutes in. The malignant majesty of the two parts that would seem to never need end.

I never studied composition formally, but I know what I like, right? We can all be idiots with a cliche. We all know what we all like. But do we know what we love?

Once I started appreciating small sequences in riffs, I could never be satisfied with a band that just finds one good riff and hammers on it per song (or sometimes per record). It felt dumb, to me, one-sided. This is the process of one's taste being refined.

The one-two sequence that Cirith Ungol milk on the song above is not multi-sided in a conventional sense, it's not soft/loud like a post-grunge pop song, it's not minor/major like a Simon & Garfunkel tune and it sure as hell is not switching it up emotionally, opening up with some contrast in lyrics, singing style or orchestration like a proper composer would.

So it's marginally less dumb that one riff, but yet effective. Effective in a way that I haven't yet described, and I couldn't know how to describe for many years.

I like a riff, but I prefer a small sequence of riffs, oscillating back and forth. What I found I loved even more is a larger sequence of riffs and passages that created a larger structure that seemed to support itself and reach for something higher. The one song that explains this best, for me, as a huge Fates Warning appreciator, is The Apparition. Have a listen if you're not that familiar with the song:

Much can - and should - be written about the beauty of this song, but I don't want to wax poetic about Fates Warning right now. Just pay attention to the structure of this song. It has its verse-chorus structure, although with an extended intro, but it does settle in a 'rock song' format for some time. Then it has an adventurous middle section where the music, spurred by the culmination of the lyrical theme, takes over in a series of less riff-based and more movement-based sequences. Then, once the point is made, the original form of verse/chorus is reprised for the ending.

This is a very common rock songwriting formula, but no rock subgenre loved it more than Heavy Metal. Though I first took notice of it with Fates Warning, it is by much more well-known and celebrated bands that it was established. Case in point:

(though here, without a reprise of the main themes at the end)

(here completely - and perfectly - reprised)

God, I have such a hard-on right now. I am expending sizable effort not to veer this article right off of the Judas-Priest-Are-Better-Than-You cliff. I'm trying to make a point. Let me just calm down a little bit.

Black Sabbath and Judas Priest are what Fates Warning are made out of, nobody would disagree.

Most of Heavy Metal is made out of Black Sabbath and Judas Priest.

This is made out of Black Sabbath and Judas Priest too:

Led Zeppelin also did this shtick all the time. Rip off an old blues song, stick a weird part in the middle.

I like a riff. I like a couple of riffs. But I love a weird middle part. But why? What is it about a weird middle part that strengthens the whole?

I have my theories, and by following their natural conclusions to their logical endpoints, I came full-circle in re-understanding the dumb building block of all of this, the singular riff as well.

This is where this gets a bit complicated.

Heavy Metal is misunderstood, by outsiders but by its proponents as well. It wants to present itself as if it has figured itself out. It wants to be masculine, linear, to just pummel listeners with riff after riff. And it has achieved its desire to be viewed in this simple-minded fashion. This is, now, the popular conception of extreme metal. Just an endless circle of blast beats, ripping solos, machine-gun riffs and growly manbears.

But Heavy Metal is confused and in its confusion lies its power. I've written a lot on this blog about how Heavy Metal is weird and how the weirdness shows more in the 70s to 90s than in does in the last two decades, be it because of inexperience, lack of funds, silly recording techniques, but also sometimes due to clarity of vision.

Mercyful Fate didn't have a lot of money and their first record does sound underproduced. But nobody held a gun to King Diamond's head to get out like this.

The weirdness in Heavy Metal is close to its soul. Don't trust Heavy Metal that isn't weird. Though its pretending to be tough, masculine, old, hell, beyond old, eternal. It's also a weird lonely teenager trying to figure shit out.

When you pick up a guitar and you're a weird kid, you're going to play some weird shit. You're going to play some nice shit as well (hopefully), but you're bound to come up with off-the-wall noises that other people, pretending to be normal, wanting to fit in normal society, would quickly discard and hone on the material that does sound good in any context.

The Heavy Metal music I like thrived on collecting the weird material and juxtaposing it with more normal riffs and sequences, because although it didn't have a direct, academic language for it, what it was really trying to do was to create ambiguous moral spaces where ugly and beauty could meet, a dim-lit mindspace where such a dialogue could happen and there is no light, no god and no parent that can step in and say it's wrong.

That 'symphonic' quality of middle sections of Heavy Metal music that I extolled above with the Priest and Helloween and other examples is not symphonic in a classical music sense and it's such a tragedy to let whatever half-baked neoclassical aspirations the Heavy Metal mutants might have had obfuscate a much more useful reading of what was going on. Instead what's attempted - I not only theorize but practice myself in my own music - is a creation of compositional ambiguity and in turn a space for internal, ontological and moral exploration.

Great Heavy Metal takes off in the sense that it 'goes inside'. The journey appears to take lift, but instead ingresses. Voivod would play weird shit not just because it sounded weird, but because it created a space were their own weirdness could be considered alright, not even just that, but good. Needed. Wanted.

In the same sense, the weird middle part in Heavy Metal I feel upsets the concise masculine roleplay of the rock song, it creates a discussion between its phallogocentric rigidity and much less clear-cut concepts. The balance of these elements ends up not just describing the long structure of a song (verse, chorus, weird shit in the middle, verse, chorus) but also - and here's the kicker - the relationship of the inner parts of a good riff with themselves.

Go back and listen to the very first riff on display, here, Death's Crystal Mountain. Have you ever wondered why the composer of that riff doesn't just repeat the first bars of it over and over, but instead provides a second coda to the very same riff, bouncing them off of each other, A-B-A-B? That riff has its own 'weird middle part' written inside of it. And it's quite fruity, if you don't mind me saying. Surely the first bars of the riff are more punishing on their own..... aaaaand endlessly they've been reproduced, on their own, by other bands that are trying to fool you by saying that's what metal is.

So look at it from micro to macro, as a fractalized desire to set and then upset an expectation. This is what I find the most beautiful in Heavy Metal, and it accurately describes which albums and songs I enjoy and the reason I usually do not enjoy the other albums and songs out there that are still categorized as some sort of Heavy Metal music. I either haven't come to find and appreciate how they upset their own set-up, from every micro-riff element up to the overall construct of the song, or they simply do not do this at all and there's nothing there for me to find.

If a song is making a single statement (let's go with "THIS IS EXTREME"), then this is a declaration. A declaration is short and violent, and if it's drawn out it just becomes normalized, it fights itself, a loud continuous noise eventually fades into the background.

If, instead, a song is having a conversation with itself and the composer is on that sweet spot where they don't really know what they're doing in a traditional sense but they've fashioned their own makeshift musical language in order to have this conversation, what you're left is with a mainstream statement, and various points of compositional derivation, dissension and discourse all encapsulated from building block (riff) to structure (song).

This is difficult to do and exactly because it's not done perfectly, it's vague. The vagueness is a feature. Much like listening to the neighbours having a spirited quarrel through an apartment wall that may or may not end up with reconciliation sex, you can't make up every single statement and how it follows the others, you can only get tone of voice, a few words here and there, silences. It's so alluring that we end up filling the blanks, and creating a narrative to make it all make sense.

As an exercise, link me to metal music that has this internal ambiguity, especially if it's created by set-upset not only of riffs in themselves but by larger compositional choices.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

A Demon with a Frowny Face

I believe in tragedies / I believe in desecration

This is black metal's contribution to pop culture. The emphasis is not on the existence of events that could be deemed tragic and the horror that comes with them is not meant to be scrutinized, understood or analysed. The emphasis is on imagining tragedy and desecration, on calling it out with willpower, on doing the opposite of understanding it - instead worshiping it as unknowable and illogical. Natura fabricatus.

To the point where the tragic entity overrides the contour of the worshiper, it conceals them completely, it swallows them (think again to certain events of the early '90s). The 'why' in all of this demands attention. Young adult white males would choose to fantasize about tragedy and call it upon themselves, different discussion. In the preamble of that discussion, ponder on the difference between power and tragedy.

Brief point: think of any black metal band that talks about anything real, anything that occurred in this world and was put on the record of history, and you're probably thinking of a black metal band that has misunderstood the construct that it is appropriating. It's not the end of the world, but it certainly is humorous to think about, in a certain dim light.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Time and Archive

Heavy Metal's pretty big on inhumanity. A fantasy uninhibited by the limits of flesh, of weaknesses and passions, unbounded by place, indeed seeking a certain type of placelessness. Almost timelessness.

But only almost. There is one function of time that Heavy Metal is in love with. It is not the eternal now, nor is it a week ago or two years ago and of course it is not a tomorrow. If there's one thing Heavy Metal spits on, it's tomorrow.

Heavy Metal instead, lusts for History. History means 'the past', but it also means 'an archive'. The past has power because it is necessary to invent it, and therefore infuse it with our fantasies - that is how we can justify to ourselves that what we want is not just want, but truth. Willpower is not enough to shape a History, we also need an order to the narrative, a painstaking, thorough codification of parts and how they come together. A simple story that we can teach. That is what an archive is, a science, a memorized blueprint for a terrible weapon.

History is power.

I started this blog pursuing this end. Creating an archive of what-happened-when-and-why, understanding what Heavy Metal did to me by harnessing the power of history (personal or otherwise makes no difference). I was, and remain, equipped to do this because I know things, I've put in the work, I have suspicions of language, I can feel it when a conclusion is near.

And yet, this blog will not conclude. It will not reach a logical endpoint. I will never create this archive of one hundred examinations of great Heavy Metal records. Is it because I don't want to, anymore? I couldn't say, until recently. Obviously, I had noticed I was diverging from my initial mission statement but at no point had I realized I wouldn't eventually get back to it.

I realize now that in my desire to understand Heavy Metal and what it did to me, I have constructed a framework that prescribes its own limitations. They are borne from and tainted by a pursuit of power that is aside. Erecting an archive might get me hard, but, increasingly, that's all it can do. And it's been useful and interesting, but at least now I realize why I can't keep doing it and I'm going from one derivé to another, circling around my point.

This circling, this ambiguity, this scattershot approach suits me much more. As far as I'm concerned, the 100 records thing, I've proven my point. Anyone can read the reviews that are there and extrapolate further on matters of taste and 'should I listen to this record or not?'. If you've found what I've written so far useful, then yes, you will gain much from filling in the blanks with the master list.

I am - and will continue to - step aside from expectations in how I deal with Heavy Metal in this blog. I will discuss records and songs and moments and whatnot, but not towards a glorified History. There will never be a lush opening of the museum. I want there to be ambiguous spaces, holes of meaning and challenges in a narrative which was becoming more and more air-tight. Heavy Metal remains dead, a decomposing corpse upon the altar of History. We achieved all we ever wanted and the price we paid was an endless masculine performance, a reenactment of an imagined glorious past. We were never teenagers, we were men. We came into being as men, before that we never even existed.

To gain anything useful if that is not a satisfying conclusion, we must learn to forget a little.

In practical terms, you may not even notice a difference, but don't be alarmed if you find yourselves much more reluctant to believe anything I have to say in the future.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Let's Try to Understand Progressive Metal, Part 26.5

Hello! I have less time these days so let's get to it right fast.

Listen to this a few times.

Lemur voice were a progressive metal band from the Netherlands, quite late to a very uncomfortable, girls over there/boys over here and nobody's dancing party. They released their debut in 1996, well after Dream Theater had already achieved massive success with their sophomore effort "Images and Words" and instructed the B-list of how to play modern prog. Another influence here is Psychotic Waltz, yet it will not be obvious unless you're very familiar and I put it into your head that some of their stuff is in here, deep inside. Possibly, Watchtower's density might also be an inspiration, but that could be cycled through Dream Theater for all I know. Let's not get into history and genealogy too much. Instead, we will look at the form of this music and what it's attempting to achieve.

Before we even get to the lyric, we are treated with an instrumental section that wants to communicate a few things to the listener. Try to put yourself in a 1996 mood, here, if you were alive and sentient at the time. Or even if not, can you imagine a time before you were alive? Have you ever felt nostalgia towards events that never occurred?

We open with keyboards, and not just a synth wash, but the main melodic phrase of the song. A lot of people would tune off at exactly this point, because Heavy Metal and Keyboards, you know. Those that do stay, have been self-selected as progressive metal listeners of some stripe. This is important, because back in 1996 people believed in progressive metal, and there was such a thing as the progressive metal snob that thought other forms of metal were outmoded and this is the vital voice now, a busy keyboard salvo in your face meant you were part of the club. There is very little accommodation for a death metal or thrash listener, here. Perhaps (and that's a big 'perhaps') an unsteady bridge exists between this music and what was called "atmospheric metal" by the euro press at the time. I leave this door open because that's how I went through the other way around (from power and progressive towards extreme metal) so, surely going the right way through a door would also work?

Anyway, you're in the progressive metal ponytail club now. What's this place about? Well, complications.

Literally, it's about being complex. Right after the keyboards, we get slashing distorted guitars and drums in unison, in a syncopated pattern. The keyboard part is in 7, and the slashes are on the up-beat, down-beat, up-beat, they do their little cadence into the song proper. What does this mean?

Again, this means you are not listening to thrash (or even techno-thrash) anymore. This guitar technique comes from there (playing a lead theme and then having the rhythm cut through towards the verse) but it's mutated, it's altered, it's at once softened by lead keyboards and it's made even more complicated because that's compensation for the aggression of thrash that's lost. Progressive metal can be seen as an enduring effort to tell a different story using macho heavy metal methods, and at the same time trying to retain its aggressive, macho essence by introducing even more density and virtuosity on top. There's tension here.

The intro rhythm slash would take 2 bars in an Exodus song, here it takes double because... compensation. You might have expected the verse part to be double-time (if you're thinking in 1996 terms and you're coming off of thrash and death metal) but instead you get harmonic chords and omitted rhythm in between, at a leisurely pace. This sounds like - you guessed it (or did you?) - Rush. And therefore like Dream Theater of the same era.

Another staple of the time is that this is trying, somehow, to groove. This is another masculine compensation introduced by Dream Theater on their second record, by way of incorporating half-thrash riffs a lá Pantera. Nearly all of the contemporaneous progressive metal scene listened. They started stripping down the more aggressive thrash riffs into half-thrash grooves because 1. this allowed the music to breathe so you can put more keyboards and vocal melodies on top and 2. it retained some sense of 'metallicness', but not too much, friends, can't headbang with glasses on.

Speaking of vocal melodies, this is where Gregoor van der Loo, makes his entrance. Let's examine the first verse and chorus.

Gusts of color, senses of energy enter the realm of intuition. 
The question of validity is rhetorical in presence of Nature's purity 
A child's honesty, strength through vulnerability 
Yet feel the overwhelming beauty of intuition 

By concentrating on positive energy flows 

That emerge in your aura 
Stop confining yourself, open up 
Stop confining yourself, open up

The delivery is not at all aggressive, nor is it attempting some high lyrical drama. It's actually a bit flat, emotionless, though technically sound for the most part. The vocal lines are quirky, they're unexpected, off the wall. That's the Psychotic Waltz influence, I theorize. Keeping yourself in a 1996 frame of mind, consider that the first three words this record has uttered to you have been "Gusts of color". Can you remember any Heavy Metal before 1995 or so opening up like this?

The New Age vibe continues. "The question of validity is rhetorical in presence of Nature's purity" takes a bit of decoding, as a philosophical statement. If it is a moral issue, as in, valid means morally correct, then Lemur Voice are making a naturalist assertion that there is no right and wrong when we look at (and presumably follow) natural order. This natural order is further described as spiritual, not biodeterministic. It's useful to note that although this New Age thing is new to metal at the time, it is still a conservative position, politically. When people make claims of self-evidency of knowledge (or "common sense"), of a return to an imagined state of purity and Nature, they're still well within the right-hand of the political realm. This is in keeping with the history of Heavy Metal where even Rush (a very occasionally metallic band, really) were ardent objectivists and individualists in their message, never socialist.

The symbol of a child being powerless but having oneness, the overwhelming beauty of intuition. This is what this song is about. Not thinking but instead, being. The second verse is about meditation, opening up. Again, keep in a 1996 presence of mind. You just bought a compact disk from some foreign mail-order service, that looks like this:

The structure may be ruined, but here come the well-dressed progressive metal brigades to renovate!

Whose group photo is this:
The singer's beauty fits his performance. Formal, distant, serene.

And they're talking to you about meditation over Pantera riffs.

The important thing here is what they're doing, musically, while they're talking about mediation. This cerebral, very orchestrated and complex interplay is happening between every instrument on almost every bar, and yet the singer, in a dispassionate, floating voice, is talking to you about opening up your energy.

Is the music off-message? Is this contrast destructive, or constructive for this sort of music? Is the libidinal tension between the remnants of thrash in the music, the masculine performance of virtuosity (any virtuosity, really) and the conceit of spirituality adding or subtracting from this? In your answer to this question, you know where you stand towards progressive metal. The choices of reply to this challenge can be the following:
  • You understand the tensions and welcome them. Again, keep in a 1996 frame of mind. You think this is the future of the form and finally Heavy Metal has something new to offer (in a modernist sense), and hopefully to a larger section of people than angsty teenagers. Perhaps stale musings on meditation come first, and then something more radical? You are a tragic figure because you were in the tiniest minority of listeners, and history proved you wrong.

  • You understand the tensions, but you are willingly choosing to frame how you listen to this music in an old-Heavy Metal way, by focusing on the density and technicality and the masculinity that's left in there and overcompensated for, so as to pretend this is, like, ripping, man. LISTEN TO THAT SOLO, DUDE! You see the higher conceit as yet another bullet-point of superiority for progressive metal, but you don't access what it means. You are a poser, and you're also in the majority of progressive metal fans, both in 1996 and today.

  • You misunderstand the music and do as above, yet not willingly, just because you lack the tools to access what's going on.You are not a poser, you just listen to progressive metal for half of what it is because that's as far as you can get with it. Possibly because you were there when this stuff was happening and that's what was new and you were in the scene. Your interest will be passing. Even if you loudly proclaim your interest is still all there, you are instead performing it to keep in touch with your 1996 self.

  • You doing like any of this emasculating energy and aura talk one bit. Back to anti-modernism, dragons and visions of the holocaust for you.

A revealing point in the music, and actually the most beautiful thing in this song for me is in the chorus, when Lemur Voice say "feel the overwhelming beauty of intuition", there's a series of major chords that end on a dramatic minor when "intuition" is uttered. By some conspiracy of the unrelated fact that this band is not natively singing in English, they pronounce the word as "intrusion" instead. The effect is very noticeable because intrusion fits the musical cadence better (3 syllables). Think about "(happy)The overwhelming beauty of (sinister) Intrusion" for a moment. That little Freudian slip perfectly encapsulates the accidental strength of progressive metal (especially in the many B-lister bands from all around the world that were inspired by Fates Warning, Queensryche and Dream Theater) in that they were trying to serve a high concept they were ill-equipped to tackle and possibly misunderstood themselves. Beautiful ambiguity and un-comfort results. That is the legacy of progressive metal and that's where it historically is indeed tied into the grander heavy metal scheme. Anything beautiful that happened in this genre happened in a moment of Icarus-like hybris. Someone a bit stupid or ill-informed tried to write a grand symphony with drums, guitar, bass and now obviously very 90's sounding synths. The scenes have long since disintegrated, but the art remains eternally.

Note that on the reprise of the major -> minor chorus, what falls in place of intuition/intrusion is instead the lyric of "open up", and there is no minor shift, instead there is a playful scale by the vocalist, which is on-message for what opening up would entail for a metalhead. I can see the furious leather and denim clad hordes saying ".........nope" right there, I love it.


True appreciation of faith
Openness without fear
Devotion  from the heart
And crystal clear consciousness

Can you dig it? In the mid 90's, that's what we were looking at as the future of Heavy Metal, all the while, the raging maelstrom of machismo, anti-modern, nationalist, neo-romantic alienation of black metal was exploding sensuously over yellowed newspaper front-pages. Could you guess in 1996 which role would be assigned to heavy metal for the next 15 years or so? Would it be talk of auras and openness, or would it be the Sturm und Drang of an imagined third world war? Hmmm....

Saturday, December 14, 2013

What's Heavy Metal still around for?

Retro-thrash, True Death Metal,  NWOBHM worship, so much god-darned black metal. For every record that you ever loved, that ever sounded vital and important to you there are now 20 clone bands that will play the same thing, dress it up in the same way and perform and produce it better. To match your expectations, no, to match your inflated recollection of how it sounded at the time. Yet, curiously empty a feeling when the music is actually played.

I finally get it. The reason these bands exist is not to cynically make money or to be famous or to get respect by their peers or anything like that (well, not primarily, at least). The reason these bands exist is because they're trying to protect metal music. They're trying to protect a tender part inside of them that resonates to it. A youthful, teen-aged part of themselves. From Watain to Municipal Waste, there's no more perfect way to explain why they're here. It's not to overcome the past or to take a tangential path outside of it for its own sake. They're here to protect a memory.

The access point of memory is in performance. To be more exact, if memory is an internal process - the reminiscing or recollecting of something - the externalization of the forces that are triggered by that memory must be a gesture, a movement, a symbolic action, in order to awaken a similar memory in others. Heavy Metal people lack the tools to make this performance radical and it is only due to their youth and the cultural zeitgeist that they ever did anything radical back in the '80s and '90s. This is clear, aside from the experience with the thing-in-itself, also from countless interviews where famed metal musicians exhibit a startling intellectual and spiritual vacuousness. Were these people really the ones making these amazing records? No. It was the time and place conspiring just as much as any one person's talent that made these records.

Ingrained in the tradition of Heavy Metal as we understand it now are none of the political or philosophical tools required to overcome the power of history itself, as nobody put them in there. The era is passed and without it the necessary analytical tools to re-contextualize the inherent pathos and rebellion of Heavy Metal are gone. Heavy Metal is now ingrained in culture as something eternal. Isn't that what we always wanted? Well... eternity's getting pretty old, you know? Olddd. It has a lawn and a mortgage.

It's a bitter thing that progressive metal, the closest we ever got to iconoclasm, is now normalized as just one more evolutionary path in the great benevolent tree of Heavy Metal where all genres like each other and the savvy metalhead picks their favorite fruit from any equal branch.

So, a performance to protect something tender inside the soul of a lonely person. The way to protect is by shielding the perimeter. Take a music that is inherently contradictory, sometimes ambiguous, vague, sometimes outright nonsensical and surgically remove all these aspects to its form and content, leave only the strong, the firm, the muscular tone, the terror of its texture. I dare you: nearly every record you love from the classic Heavy Metal pantheon has something to it that you would get embarrassed about. Tinny production. Off-key vocals. Bad drumming. Nasty solos. Idiotic cover. Questionable lyrics. Awful outfits.

New Heavy Metal music has been made robust, it has been made something to be proud of only in retrospect, only via retconning. The masculine performance that we desired our teenage years to have been, now magically is here. We can pretend that's how it always was. It's Kenn Nardi overcompressing the hell out of a weird record that was of a place and time. Of course that's how it always was, otherwise we must have been confused teenagers lost in ourselves, clutching at something, anything in the darkness sharp enough to carve a hole in our chest.

Romance is a black stone. It sits at the bottom of the mirror pool. A lying reflection of the moon that many a beautiful (and some not so much) youth followed to their drowned end. Strike the stone and blood will pour out, a river of blood that streams forever. That red mistress demands one thing of youth: "Destroy yourself, so that you may live forever".

Tall order! We can't do that! We hear the call. We're not 30, 40, 50 years old. We remember the call. But we can't do that. So we will hide this wound that will not close, we will build walls just as endless, dams infinitely big to hold the blood within. Nobody will get to our hearts if these walls are just perfect.

So, here's to occult black metal. Here's  to Incantation-clones up the wazoo. Here's to a million thrash bands playing the Exodus riff. Here's to more tenor power metal that any stomach could stomach. Here's to a million doom bands playing the same morose pentatonic riff. No weirdness. No nonsense. No ambiguity. No answer to the unanswerable question. No hubris. No exit. No point.

Modern Heavy Metal is here to make us feel better.

Sunday, December 8, 2013


Running down the memories
Wrapped up in desire

Oh, where to start. Where to begin.

Was it when you rejected me? Was it when you told me lies? No, before that, before anything. Was it when I realized I am alone, that I'm not an appendix to mother/father? Was it when I was born?

In the early '90s Heavy Metal had gone through three formal transformations. It went from a grassroots, do-it-yourself movement in the UK, inspired by (and often interchanged with) punk to an integrated marketing item during the glam/thrash years and finally it tried to negotiate (with itself, within itself) what it means to be successful and what it will mean for now, towards the future, when the eye of the public will move on to the new trend. What will Heavy Metal be now that it can no longer be innocent?

Because that is what it was in the early '80s, it was spontaneous and more than a little bit silly. Guys with bad guitars and drums and bad voices cutting a 7 inch vinyl record about the Castle of Some Wizard. Let's say that was the period of a little boy playing with their toys alone.

Let's then say that success in the mid to late '80s is mother/father finally taking note of the elaborate constructions, dioramas and vistas their gifted-if-a-little-weird child has created in solitude. Acknowledgement and function warp the form. The difference between a toy and a game is that the toy has a masturbatory function. A game is to be won or lost, instead.

And Heavy Metal lost. How could it not? Mother/father demanded too much. The potency inside the little boy's reconfigured toys was ambiguous by subconscious design, disaligned with Reason and Truth. Mother/father demanded that the insane pathos therein be transformed somehow in an understandable patron design, to be reproduced and enjoyed by adults that live in the Real World, only, responsibly so, perhaps on the weekends, perhaps on a rowdy night out, then back to the office.

Heavy Metal became a fully formalist pursuit circa 1990, with the gravestone being - of course - Metallica's Black Album. Finally, a Heavy Metal record that a marketing executive could enjoy without feeling bad about themselves.

So the teenager Heavy Metal, at the time, tried to appease mother/father. But then they had a second child (grunge and indie rock, whatever you want to call it) and *they* were illogical and impulsive and their toys where ambiguous again and mother/father had a new problem child to solve.

Heavy Metal entered its most volatile, disgruntled teenage phase. It said FUCK YOU MOM/DAD, but it didn't really mean it. It went back to playing with its toys, but when it thought nobody was watching, it took hidden glances towards what mother/father were up to, hoping they were looking back. Not too much, but at least once in a while, to let him know if the grown-up world was outraged/pleased with how the game was shaping up. Either could do.

1. In the '90s, Heavy Metal tried to kill itself to live forever. A norwegian young adult was murdered by another. Churches were burnt down. To assuage the gods, the ablation will be blood. Boys and their toys, oh what will they do for mother/father to pay attention to them again? It's very boring being a teenager, you know.

2. In the '90s, Heavy Metal also tried to stop being Heavy Metal. It tried to become Something Else Metal. Atmospheric metal with gothic touches, industrial noises and new-romantic pop frilly shirts. Or Progressive metal, modernist, abstract, ambiguous like a cubist painting, fey and fleeting. Hang me in a museum.

There was never a time where Heavy Metal overextended itself so much as during the '90s. Toys became games, games became enterprises, big dreams were crushed and unexpected success came for many that had hoped for self-destruction instead.

There was a German band, once, called Secrecy. They started out as a thrash band, like a great many others, slightly late to the party in 1987. Germany in 1987 was not a fun time, kids grew up fast, even if they wanted to play Heavy Metal. As was the paradigm for many German thrash acts of the time and place, Secrecy played a very precise and well-designed type of thrash, one possibly inspired by the then just released "And Justice For All..." by Metallica. As evidenced in Secrecy's first demo "Like Burning One's Boats", Secrecy were trying to take that techno-thrash mold and push it even further in a emotive direction. As far as I've noticed, they were the first to do so, and even now in 2013, ones of the very few to ever attempt this.

In that rapidly reforming state that Heavy Metal was in circa 1990, Secrecy very quickly shed the remnants of their thrash past and quickly assumed a fully progressive metal attire. They got signed to Noise Records, the place to be for their sort of music. They were smart people because thrash was indeed dead in 1990. If you wanted to go the savage route, you would have to play death (or if you were really forward thinking, black metal) at that time. If you wanted to pursue more human topics like those first touched upon in techno-thrash, you would have to become even more melodic, more artistic, more grown-up. Secrecy put their money in that direction.

As early as on their first record, "Art in Motion", Secrecy had created a masterpiece of modernist Heavy Metal. The band is now largely forgotten, and they have not been influential even in underground circles. There are no Secrecy clone bands, there is nobody trying to play progressive metal like this that I know of. It is worth our time to discuss why I consider their material so successful and also why then, would such a successful effort not reach a wider audience.

Secrecy's thing on their first record (and to some extent to its follow-up) is that they play very muscular, well-defined music, very rich in harmonies and with melodies that extend and complete themselves beautifully. The rhythm guitar playing here fills every verse space with sharp triplets, but takes care to open up for the choruses to breathe. When the drummer does a drum roll, the guitarists will palm mute its approximation. They always take care that even if a melody goes through unexpected directions it will resolve itself in a clear manner. Unlike many other progressive metal bands, they are not complicated for complication's sake. There's very little formal abstraction in this music - I can envisage it performed by a string quartet or small orchestra without major alterations. Sure, there is aggression - in fact I would say that on the first demo and on a few cuts from the debut they reach proper thrash metal band levels of push. But even their aggressive parts are always considered as means to create contrast with their more emotive melodic themes. Now, this was a new thing for Heavy Metal.  Take Watchtower, techno-thrash and progressive metal stalwarts. Their music was much busier than Secrecy's, and it was, for the most part, always so. There were dynamics, but usually the contrast achieved (and desired) was one between abstract, fluid chromatic solos over bright clean guitar arpeggios and then, their full-on, compact, over-composed, every instrument independent, on the brink of collapse style that made them notorious. Watchtower were not an emotional band. Secrecy were very much about conveying emotions and they used the shell of thrash and Heavy Metal to do so.

Could then Secrecy then best be understood as a post-thrash band? I do not think so. I think a staple of post- anything bands is that they appropriate surface formal characteristics of the music they're about to turn inside out, and then they create art that is dialectically opposed to the function of the original music. So far, so good, that's exactly what Secrecy are doing. But here's the problem: post-x music cannot be appreciated as an object belonging to x genre de rigueur.  SunnO))) appropriate black metal tropes and can be seen as a post-metal endeavour, but they cannot be enjoyed as a black metal band. There's simply not enough there, there's only surface textural characteristics of metal (or black metal). There's no depth to the content, when looked at as metal music.

This is a common issue with post-modern art, I'm not pretending I've made a startling realization here when examining Secrecy's music. The case is that Secrecy's riffs and songs are too well constructed as thrash or Heavy Metal music to be seen as post-metal anything. In fact, were the listener to be selectively deaf to the vocals of Secrecy and a few select musical passages in their debut, they could place the record historically, in the Bay Area circa 1987 without much trouble. Anthrax were often as melodic, for example.

So if Secrecy know their Heavy Metal inside-out and they can compose 10 Accept hit songs in their sleep (I am not exaggerating, this is the caliber of the composers in Secrecy) then we have to beg the question. Why are they juxtaposing harsh, muscular thrash edge with this meek, teenager voice and why is their lyrical subject matter so decidedly teenaged?

The answer I've come up with is actually pretty simple and that's a big part of why I think it's the correct one. Secrecy were playing a gambit. They looked at Heavy Metal circa 1990 and they tried to think which of the then nascent 'exit-points' would become the most popular. Would it be romantic, nationalistic and often reactionary returns to blood, guts and sorcery? Or would it be humanist, modernist Heavy Metal-for-every-thinking-being? Secrecy thought the latter, bless their hearts, and set out to create one possible patron of that ideal.

This isn't to say that they did not believe in that direction, I don't think it was a calculated, cynical affair. I would bet that Secrecy - or at least the chief lyricist, pulling the rest of an uncertain band along? - really believed in themselves in all of this.

The lyrical material on Secrecy's debut is not well-written. This further mystifies subject matter that is ambiguous to begin. What I've gathered - and perhaps most importantly the function I use it for, the type of emotion I want to have when I listen to them - is that Secrecy are recounting the various existential wounds of teenager and young adult life. There's a real sense of hurt to this music. An accusatory tone that turns outward and inward at the drop of a dime. It is remarkably successful how just keywords, and the singer's singing voice are capable to evoke such an emotional response in me. In the past I've rambled about one of my first failed love affairs while Secrecy played (I will not reproduce the text as it is in Greek) and I just can't help but summon those uncomfortable feelings of alienation, loneliness and mistrust of my own teenager experience when I listen to them.

It's extremely potent to put these feelings not on top of some mope rock or gothic pastiche, but instead over crystallized Heavy Metal power. It is not just a good tool of vengeance, it is life-affirming. Secrecy take the shittiest parts of being a teenager, the shittiest part of being under the thumb of mother/father, or that of the school system, or being pressured this or that way by your peer group and they place it on top of a towering artifice, kaleidoscopic in its beauty and seemingly eternal. It will stand upright forever, and the most tender and wounded part of a child's heart will be there, on the top, for all to see. Defiant and beautiful. No Secret.

Secrecy were wrong, we know now. They succeeded completely in creating the avatar of emotional, warm, complex, prickly on the surface yet still tender-hearted Heavy Metal. Their songs are a joy to listen to purely on a 'whee, Heavy Metal!' fun way. But they're very deep and thoroughly composed. The voice employed is the voice of someone's childhood. It is so brave to put this voice, singing these words, on top of their quasi-thrash. It is, in fact, too revealing of their intentions. I can imagine a rowdy, denim and leather clad beer-guzzling hesher saying "turn that shit off" if you played them Secrecy, because it would make them uncomfortable. Secrecy are uncomfortable to idiot metalheads exactly how a homosexual person would be uncomfortable in their midsts. Playing Prostitute Disfigurement for them, that would be fine, it wouldn't make them uncomfortable at all. But Secrecy? A fey teenager girl voice whining on top of muscular, compact and composed thrash? Filth, just filth.

This is the triumph of Secrecy, that you have to confront a soft attack. You have to learn something about yourself to understand them. You might find yourself lacking. There's no two ways about Secrecy. If you like Heavy Metal, it's impossible not to like their SONGS. If you're trapped in some perpetual masculine performance, it's imposible to like their tone and their message. Secrecy will let you know that. They have truly taken a thesis, an antithesis, and structured a synthesis out of the parts - how Marxist of them. There is such internal tension in Secrecy's music but there is no disagreement in it. It is What It Is. A remarkable achievement.

I bet people couldn't stand them - I bet they ran as fast as they could back to their Destructions and Sodoms, to their comfortable fantasy escape, to the occultating mists of mysticism. Back to their toys. Eyeing mother/father, are they paying attention? What use is Heavy Metal if it illuminates the most tender core of the teenager heart?

Well, a lot of use, it turns out, now in 2013, that Heavy Metal is spent and over, now that it is a civil war reenactment, now that there are a million bands whose sole raison d'etre is 'to be one of a million bands'. I look at Secrecy's brief two-album trajectory and I am humbled by what is achieved in such a brief time. More than that, I am inspired.  The clarity of intent, the musicality of the songs, the emotional capacity of the awkwardly written, yes, lyrics. I want there to be more of this type of Heavy Metal, because it is most needed than ever before, unlike, oh, 99% of the other, oversaturated metal genres. The tender heart still beats because how could it not? History has ended, capitalism has won, but injustice is still here, injustice is still experienced daily, the wound is there. How will we address it?

Naturally, on their second record, "Raging Romance", Secrecy have an answer. They are mostly preoccupied with their faith in God. Did you ever doubt that this would be the end-point of their story? Angsty teenagers against everyone, rebelling against Reason and Logic as much as they were to nonsensical posture and bravado in the metal scene, what would be left to them but the ultimate alienation of their peer group? Christianity it is, then.

There have been many "white metal" bands over the years, many of them playing to their home crowd (christian communities that liked the form of Heavy Metal but detested its message, easy to market to, right?) but there has been no other band like Secrecy, who used finding-God as the ultimate punchline against everything that Heavy Metal stood for, and did it with such panache. As you would expect, there was no third record.

The band is rumored to be back together again, and unlike most reunions, I am half-looking forward to another record by them in 2013. If there's a band that can push forward from their past glories and become vital, upsetting and offer something new in 2013, it's Secrecy. But it's equally possible that they will be trapped by self-conscious issues, their 'legacy' as a band, and create "Raging Romance pt. 2". It would be such a shame, as the music would be good, I bet - nay, stellar, possibly - but it can't be about God. Not in 2013. I refuse to believe that the tender heart of Secrecy resonates to the calling of God. It can either be charred and withered by now, 45 to 50 years old, conservative and slavish to authority, or it has to have forsaken the lord, it has to be irreverent, impossible, brighter than the sun.