Friday, December 31, 2010

A - nd what's left

Since I'm almost done with the letter A (only Atrox left and I'm having some trouble writing that review because I don't want to repeat what was said in The 3rd And The Mortal review -- but I'll get it eventually) I figured I'd post mini-explanations of why I didn't include other exemplary records in my collection from the first letter of the alphabet in the final top100.

Autopsy - Mental Funeral

Archetypal death metal band from California, wildly influential in both their home country and abroad (especially in Sweden) with their superficially sloppy and rude but fundamentally composed and impactful attack. "Mental Funeral" is their second record, from 1991 and the one I find most effective as a long-runner, though I often listen to their best-of just as happily. Autopsy didn't write many bad songs and the worst they offer is some disposable punky side-waste they're excused for as far as I'm concerned. At their best they are very effective in channeling this morbid fascination with the dead and dying that oftentimes comes hand in hand with erections in puberty. They are most effective because they colour their death paeans with a sloppy, almost sexual sense of movement. Furthermore, of all the sound design approaches in metal music, Autopsy's has the most body to it, pungent and horrid as it may be.

However I do not include their otherwise excellent music in my top 100 because their many variations of

Stiff and cold
In your box
To decay

strike me as a rudimentary instrument with which to peel back the layers of meaning inherent in the sentience/mortality conundrum. More a shovel, less a scalpel. Their slower (for Autopsy only seem to have two modes, very slow and very fast) compositional aspect was parallelized by the British doom/death
bands like Paradise Lost whose odes to not only existentialist despair but also ancient beauty, strike closer to the core of my interests.

Artillery - By Inheritance

Thrash metal band from Denmark. Wild guitar gesticulations but very melodic, often close to the Megadeth approach to technothrash. I used to listen to a couple of their records a lot, and "By Inheritance" is the one I'd keep if I had more space in my heart. However over the years and with a stronger appreciation for the history of Heavy Metal music, I've realized that what Artillery achieve in 1990 with 'By Inheritance' has been preempted by a width of dutiful thrash acts, most of them American as is the usual. Though it's hard to find fault with the inventive and convincing riffery explored throughout this LP, after all it is hard to get excited about it too after you've found its well of inspiration to be more vital and innocent. Even their lyrics are a pastiche of thrash 'issues of the day', well after the expiration date of their poignancy. Small things like that pile up and so, sadly leave Artillery only barely under the limit of first-rate Heavy Metal.

Arcturus - La Masquerade Infernale

On the other hand this is not second-rate at all. Norwegian theatric & atmospheric metal with roots in the - then - vital black metal scene. This record has been a companion over many years but I no longer listen to it with any regularity. It seems to be one of these unfortunate cases where the aesthetic space that could be said to have been first colonized by Arcturus around that time, was later explored more successfully by bands of lesser ambition but more honed vision. The influence of Arcturus is expansive not in that there are Arcturus clones (and if there were I wouldn't prefer them to the real thing) but in that Arcturus and some co-aligned bands of their time made it okay for their scene of extreme metal to attempt left-field experiments. As is the thing with experiments, they're hit-and-miss. Much of the wandering on "La Masquerade Infernale" depends on novelty to carry it, but novelty passes and what is left is songs with less inherent meaning that expected, sometimes they feel under-composed or (less flatteringly for the writer of this critique) perhaps all that is really missing is a plethora of solid hooks and ear-candy.

This record enjoys a sterling reputation, though I suspect it is not often put to the test for it. It's something like an elitist achievement that I think certain Arcturus members would find ironically enjoyable, to be so widely respected yet so rarely enjoyed.

Angra - Holy Land

Brazilian europower, highly prized as saviors of that certain brand in what was in the mid '90s a very difficult era for the more traditional types of metal music. Led by a very charismatic vocalist & guitarist duo. This, their second release was part of the soundtrack of my youth and initiation to the mysteries of steel, along with other Teutonic power metal bands like Running Wild, Helloween and Blind Guardian.

The love didn't stick for Holy Land however because I started to feel the tensions between the more faux-classical/progressive/wimpy aspects of the band (spearheaded by their singer, Andre Matos) and their down-and-dirty speed metal ripping the cohesion of their music apart. It became uncomfortable to listen to something standing with one leg in metal, especially at such a formative age where being 'true' was very important. By the time 'Fireworks', their next record came out in 1998, it was abundantly clear Angra were saviors of nothing.

My Heavy Metal interests by that time were beginning to widen, I had accepted strains of extremity that I wouldn't be caught dead listening to only a year earlier, Angra, even at this, their best, seemed passé. This is unfair because, on revisitation, the material is mostly solid, however such weight of memories and expectations is almost impossible to shake off. And if I were to attempt to remedy such biases, it'd be for something with a more idiosyncratic taste than what remains, at the end of the day, another europower band.

Angel Witch - s/t

Seminal New Wave of British Heavy Metal record, sadly not the whole of it keeps up with two of its more well-known songs. Charmingly earnest like a lot of NWOBHM and very catchy, however uneven. The second best thing Angel Witch had going for them was the imagery that their name conjures. Probably my favorite metal-inversion name after 'Dream Death'. The strength of naming in Heavy Metal cannot be underestimated. I cannot listen to a band named 'Pigfuk' or perhaps worse, 'Lesbian', no matter how good their music might be, as the name conjures nothing grand in my mind. Sadly most of the great names seem to have been taken, which is to be expected with forty years of Heavy Metal history behind us.

I might be selling Angel Witch a bit short here, it does say something that I can play the title-track in my mind right now from beginning to end and enjoy myself for it, doesn't it? Sometimes when caught in public transportation without an mp3 player, I do this, meaning I play back Heavy Metal favorites in my brain, I can't be the only one? Well, "Angel Witch" is in the NWOBHM best-of for sure, even if the rest of the record doesn't achieve such high atmospheres. If you ever meet a metalhead who can't sing at least the chorus to that song, on the spot, they're possibly deluding themselves as to their subcultural identity.

Aftermath - Eyes of Tomorrow

Even a band like Coroner can have something of a clone, it seems. Well, that's selling Chicago's Aftermath short, actually, as they do some pretty inventive things with the "Mental Vortex" formula here, although much too late (1994) for it to be historically significant. Though I enjoy a couple of songs off of this often, listening to a whole record in one sitting proves tiring. The material is too homogeneous, though thrash metal's done worse in this respect. There are some pretty interesting lyrics here too "he has visions, he has premonitions / he can see, he knows / eyes of tomorrow / predictions have been made / throughout the course of history / the future can be seen" A heavy metal song about predestination, what do you know? The biggest reason I do not include this in my top 100 is that I have not yet had the fortitude to sit the whole record through, and I've had it for years and years. Though this certainly says something, I'm open to amending my position in the future, who knows what tomorrow'll show -- wait

Adramlech - Irae Melanox

Italian power/progressive metal which often is referenced as being similar to early Fates Warning. Low-rent guitar production cuts initial excitement short, though one gets used to many things when they're search for gems in the underground. It even becomes something of a curious merit of the record to be able to hear the bass and drums so clearly to the expense of the tinny guitars. Furthermore the trebly tone suits the tendency of the guitarists for dual leads and other harmonizations, because, though their two chosen tones are terrible, they are substantially different and complement each other well.

This record opens strong with 'Fearful Visions' and 'Zephyrus', both excellent tracks in which, even through his clumsy Italian-English, their talented singer manages to tap into potent lyrical symbols. The rest of the record is almost as good. I'm not including this in my top 100 due to lack of familiarization, as I've only been exposed to them for a couple of years.

Acid Bath - When the Kite String Pops

From the record cover down to the last note, Louisiana's Acid Bath are interested in juxtaposing the ugly with the uglier side of life. Their very talented frontman, Dax Riggs (who went on to a diverse career after this) is preoccupied with stories of drug abuse, social alienation and resultant psychic and physical violence. Acid Bath are excellent at this, at pushing real-life horror in the forefront while the listener is at the edge of the high that only well-written and performed metal music can achieve. However a certain air of falseness permeates this recording. I'm not saying that Acid Bath were strangers to the ugly side of life when they made this record, quite the opposite, it's an issue of aspiration, not inspiration. All Heavy Metal music is a pretension in that it reaches to something beyond one's experience, it is a leap of faith. It is relevant aesthetic sense and destination that dictates the direction of this leap. Given that all Heavy Metal music essentially hopes for something without evidence, I'd rather hope for something beautiful than find it beautiful to pretend to be hopeless. Hence, though I sometimes return to this record, it is always from the vantage of the alienated observer.

Abraxas - Future World & Shattered by a Terrible Prediction

I have fond memories of their "Shattered by a Terrible Prediction" EP as it was one of the first things that a dear friend of mine played me on his turntable when early into my Heavy Metal initiation. I remember he was impressed by how the lyric to the main song referenced the image on the cover of the record. Meaning augmenting meaning. I had forgotten about Abraxas for a long time between then and when I tracked that record down again some five years ago, online. The music of it, besides its obvious sentimental value to me, felt overly familiar (in both good and bad ways) and amateurish (only in bad ways). A more sloppy take on Helloween-styled speed metal, an almost lifted chorus section, double-bass and palm muted major melody. Though an interesting curio, I would never include it in a best-of list of any kind perhaps save of "...Other Teutonic speed metal you might have missed out on" along the likes of Scanner and Not Fragile.

However the shame here is that I took my sweet time to ever get to their belated follow-up "Future World" due to the somewhat underwhelming experience with the EP. Also that there is Helloween song named that, certainly didn't help.

In reality their "Future World" has little relation to Helloween, or their past sound in general. They play an ambitious form of power/progressive metal, augmented by startling dual-guitar fluency, beautiful melodies and tirelessly dynamic composition. I play the record often now that I have began to uncover its many graces but it'll be a few years before I'm ready to say if it belongs in the pantheon.

Angus - Track of Doom

Angus are a strange band. They're something of a throwback, playing a simple and derivative type of Heavy Metal that could be said to be passé even by its 1986 year of release. The songs of this Dutch quartet are mostly similar yet the music doesn't become boring. I guess Angus are a little like my AC/DC, which makes their choice of name apt. Their singer has a clear and imposing voice that I can't get enough of, strikes a similar feel to Dio's more mythological excursions. In a certain mindset, Angus become The Best Band That Ever Where, however in other mindsets its almost impossible to listen to them without spotting their lack of forward vision. Very earnest, driving stuff, but not as spiritually elevating as it'd have to be to be in my top100.

Agent Steel - Unstoppable Force

Talking about speed metal, here's the prime candidate, really. Paranoiac futurist/alien conspiracy speed metal at that. And therein lies the problem: though I enjoy this record to the point where I think my first whiplash-related injury that I remember was during the high note of the same-titled track, I really am not enamored with the concept of alien intelligence as the thematic focus of a Heavy Metal record. At least not in that literal sense,

"From the walls of the ocean
From the waters they rise
Share their wings they will take us
Hundred light years in minutes

Split through the cosmos
The universe is falling
Earth base II the city underwater

See Atlantis is rising
Watch the skeptic is sinking
From atop of the Andes
Stands our city of gold


(the capitalization reproduced as found on, as it best conveys the excitement on that chorus)

I mean, I feel slightly robbed when I am made to bang my head like there's no tomorrow for some space aliens that are coming from the air and it's too late to stop them. So what? I'm sure John Cyriis, singer and lyricist for the band at that time (and it turns out, he has returned to the fold for however briefly, in the present) takes the possibility of aliens amongst us and conspiracy theories much more seriously. I find it difficult to do the same.

At the Gates - The Red in the Sky Is Ours

Swedish fractured black/death metal with folkish influences and a very idiosyncratic idea on parallel guitar riffing that approaches what I sometimes call 'metalhead counterpoint'. Written by what we now know were gifted teenagers, it captures very lucidly (but not succinctly, as this music is rambling) the disparate psychological pulls of the introvert, talented adolescent. Teliosis and suicide, self-mutilation and hate for the outer. Right up my alley as it were, however not strong enough to be top100 material because of a lack of variety. Given their compositional approach, it's easy to take a part from one song and put it in another, or perhaps worse, to take a part of one song and have it be of no decreased quality for its loss. These are errors, so to speak, that make sense for At The Gates's early approach to music writing. When they went to correct them they ended up with commercialized and straightforward music that doesn't appeal to me, so it seems like a damned if they do and if they don't damned kind of situation. As a composer of fractured music of many parts, I have sympathy for At The Gates, but it's nonetheless a very taxing experience to follow this record through its many twists and turns down what at the end becomes a very well-trodden labyrinth, and though the emotional returns are perhaps worthwhile, there are other bands in my top100 which hit those beats just as well or better and also achieve other goals in the span of their record.

Amorphis - Tuonela

This artifact from the '90s by the Finnish once-death metal band Amorphis has been widely celebrated as a bridge between atmospheric metal and what was once briefly called alternative metal. The songs are very catchy, succinct and the sound design of them is obviously labored upon. The melancholy that characterizes the beautiful lyrics is then coated in a laminated sheen, it's easy to be impressed by that record but more difficult to feel close to it. Such was the fate of many '90's bands trying to become something more than Heavy Metal. Amorphis gave an interview to british magazine Terrorizer once from where I remember a very telling quote. When asked about their influences and music likes, they said "certainly nothing from the dreadful '80s". As the '80s where the apex of Heavy Metal music, this says a lot. Tuonela offers '70s art (and not progressive) rock trappings in an approachable '90s sleek mainstream metal veneer. The quality of the songs here overcomes the inherent weaknesses of that combo, not not enough for this to be something I can outright profess to love eternally.

Aarni - Bathos

Confounding Finnish experimental doom music. Has a humorous quality to it which is completely outside of how other metal bands have approached humor (usually awful Monty Python impressions by Germans is what we get, or worse, faux socially poignant didactic finger-wiggling by thrash bands) in that the joke here is that nothing makes tidy sense and whatever expectations the listener is trying to build through listening to the record are upset gently but certainly two minutes later. I suspect the point of this music is a celebration of quantum uncertainty as an end in itself, akin to reading Robert Anton Smith. To effectively hold no views, to have no identity, to be swallowed in potentiality. This goal I detect (and I'm glad to accept that I might have misunderstood Aar-- haha haha hahahah) is a high one, however the music is let down by a degree of amateurism in sound design and recording. Now, I am sure the personae involved in Aarni have a good (and cruelly humorous) explanation for sound shortcomings and how that may or may not fit into their meta-concept, but for me those explainations will not fix the problems with the recording here.

All this isn't to say that Aarni are a joke band. The record doesn't make tidy sense but it certainly achieves a (messy) mood and there is a worthwhile construct to revisit here. I just feel that the Aarni entity has it in them to make this record again, better.

Ageless Wisdom - demo

Greek Manilla Road-esque Heavy Metal worship with a tender heart and the force of steel. As much as I love these two songs (and I love them fierily) they're just two songs. Get over it, Helm.

Annon Vin - A New Gate

Voivodesque progressive metal (with roots in technothrash, as it were) with overdone vocal harmonies on top. One of many German bands enamored with that type of music, they congregated around Mekong Delta like most. Their vocal harmonies are distinct and rare enough in metal music (not to mention, thrash metal) that they have a little page in HM history just to themselves. The quirky Nothingface-esque guitar playing and the active and inventive bass lines carry the songs just as well as the alien metal Beach Boys thing their singer has going for himself (as it is, unlike the Beach Boys, one person singing all the harmony parts on multitrack recording here). However problems persist. Being out of key in one voice is problem enough, harmony vocals that quiver around their intended note is sometimes too much. The material however is very promising and I might get over my small issues with this record and find a place for it in the pantheon.

Aspid - Extravastation

Raging Russian technothrash in the vein of Destruction's "Cracked Brain", only more accomplished in that particular metal idiom. I listen to this a lot and constantly find new things to love. However it's far too soon to tell if it's top100 material. Check back with me five years or more from now.

Abstract Algebra - s/t

Post-modern power/progressive project by Candlemass's Leif Edling. Much of interest to be found here, great range and variety that Edling would never reattempt. The sound design is modern and robust, the music deceptively simple for what it attempts to convey. At one time many thought the future of metal music might be found in outings such as these, however for good or worse it wasn't to be.

Not every song holds up to scrutiny and even a few that do outstay their welcome with an extra chorus or whatnot. Minor faults for a minor classic whose main reason of exclusion to my top100 list isn't that it's not good enough musically, but what it means, what it stands for.

Angel Corpse - Exterminate

Raging death/black metal. The graces of this record are compositional and aesthetic, not just of blunt force as many exclaim. Their singer has taken the time to craft the rhythmics of his vocal delivery in such a way that, although his range is limited, whenever he rips through his verses and choruses, the music flows onward. Most death/black vocals are throwaway rasps ("well, someone has to sing something, this isn't Cynic for goat's sake!"), or timekeepers at best. The riffery is of high quality as well, warped and adventurous it underlines the feeling of triumph and transmogrification that the whole of this achieves. I rarely listen to this genre because its exact problem is lack of flow and cohesion between parts, as well as aesthetic dullness. Angel Corpse are sharp. They achieve a strange sense of beauty with their death/thrash that would be envied by high caliber progressive metal bands. Part of it is that the beats they hit are few and work well together (for example, the tempo is usually fast or faster -- easier to write music that flows when there aren't many meter shifts) but the talent, forethought and hard work that went into this record cannot be denied.

All that said, I do not have a strong like for blasphemy and iconoclasm as an end in itself and this is the concept in which Angel Corpse at this stage in their career were working within. There is no shock for me nor is there any empowerment at christmaiming lyrics. It is a small shame because seriously, these are some of the best Heavy Metal lyrics written from a technical and aesthetic standpoint. Eloquent and well-considered as rhythmic devices that capture attention. I can feel that the singer and lyricist here (I deny the possibility that they are two different people) spent a long amount of time just shifting words back and forth, finding synonyms for words that lend to a better cadence and so on.

At the end of the day this music screams 'Assertion of Will on the Weak' to me and the question begged is what the one asserting is obfuscating in their own psyche that compels them to this demagoguery. These questions are not acknowledged, much less answered here and that's what I would have liked of Angel Corpse to consider this a perfect record. Am I asking too much? I think that in that this record compels me to rise my expectations of what a christraping black/death record can do you may glean how impressed I am with its quality.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Totalitarianism in Heavy Metal

Heavy Metal music has been often accused of promoting such naughty ideals. I've briefly touched on why Heavy Metal as ideology and ideology in Heavy Metal are problematic, but this is of a slightly different focus. Let's say Heavy Metal indeed can carry the weight of an ideological system and communicate it succinctly and attractively to the impressionable public, like propaganda. Does Heavy Metal promote Fascism, Nazism or other Totalitarian-regime ideas?

Heavy Metal indeed speaks often of willpower and personal triumph. Misconstruing slightly Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophical output, most of (especially '80s) Heavy Metal seems to promote a 'Noble Savage' ideal, where a man may achieve grace unhindered by the moral dictum of society, somehow inside it (sometimes) but above it (always). Heavy Metal loathes the idea that society must be obeyed, that the Other should be the master. One should burn themselves pure and strong as steel and withstand the outside forces of the world. Anyone introverted enough, and anyone with romance beating in their hearts finds that conception pleasing on some level regardless of its practical impossibility.

Yes, Heavy Metal, in its ignorance, crowns willpower as the prime mover of history. The strong individuals do, the weak are crushed, the world keeps on turning. This is very close to the practical center of many totalitarian social regimes where the privileged classes profit and the underprivileged one suffers. However most Heavy Metal music doesn't go into detail on where will this mysterious willpower come from that will push the strong to be strong and is curiously lacking in the weak that are to be crushed. This is key in understanding the appeal of Fascism and Nazism. The magic organon that explains willpower in those systems is pure blood and biological predestination. You are strong because you are a true German, not an inferior mudblood. And the true Germans must come together and create a society where the weak shall be in the service of the strong, forever. The favoured class of citizen is stroked by this premise because they do not have to do anything to be the chosen ones. They were such just by being born with a specific of genes.

Heavy Metal scoffs at the idea of society and predestination. Heavy Metal sees teliosis as the product of intense hard work. The reader will find very little of this music (especially in the naive '80s) promoting socialism of any sort, Communism or Fascism, wide-set social change and organized movement. For all its talk of internal willpower and becoming strong and defeating weakness, it doesn't get to how that would change and reshape society and how class-based society would take these ubermen, were they to exist. Nor does it explain where this willpower come from, it presupposes that the listener will conjure it somehow out of thin air. This is both the draw of HM music for teenagers, who feel perpetually powerless, and also the explanation on why its listeners are a curious breed of masochists.

The center of Heavy Metal's fascination with power is not relevant to the actual, real-life practical applications of power. Heavy Metal loves the psychological idea of power, the premise of external control being the mirror of internal control. Heavy Metal loves power because the people that write Heavy Metal are not powerful. It is an ode to a god, so to speak. When Heavy Metal goes on about being strong and crushing the weak, it is not describing the reality of the world's strongest men, it's not metal made for Conglomerate super-Companies and world leaders. It is instead negotiating a method for purging internal weakness and achieving total control, for the small fries that are enamored with the idea of self-actualization.

However, as I've gone on about before, total internal control can be actualized only in death; for one to be perfect, they must be ended. The psychological weight of this realization is what pushes Heavy Metal music to conceptualize its inner ambition as outer force: since we do not want to kill our own selves to be in absolute control, we shall slay the Other, pacify the plains and with a commanding gaze, survey all that is around us as static, ended, complete. The death of the outer to appease the fear of inner death, hail satan! In this way, Heavy Metal appears scary to the outsider. However the theater is easily exposed when the outsider realizes that the only action the small fry enamored with Heavy Metal usually takes towards that 'death of the outer', is to print a fanzine, make a small record label or record its own Heavy Metal.

Furthermore the hopelessness of the idea that for one to be complete they must die is what causes revolt, the draw towards chaos, improbability and randomness. Perhaps if we were to turn our gazes away from the headless, perfect statue, given that all is possible in quantum probability, we may turn our gaze on it again and chaos will have altered reality, given it back its head. A way to have everything and still exist, Heavy Metal pulls towards the impossible. That pull is creative however and also feeds back into the creation of more Heavy Metal artifacts. Every record made with this intent is a small chaos probability field, a magical grimoire that may or may not give life in death.

Heavy Metal has endured a brief cultural heyday in the end run of the '80s that brought it to the attention of teenagers of every stripe. Jocks listened to Judas Priest and beat up the nerds in school that Judas Priest's music was intended for. At that curious peak of its popularity, perhaps it had under its wings believers of every sort of ideology who then fervently tried to bend metal to support them (and this explains progressive metal and its modernist/humanist conception as well). However soon after this sort of music was forgotten for other more pliable forms of pop and the demagogues and ideologues fled, those that remained with it (and still remain) are the wimps and nerds and shy introverts (with sometimes big internet mouths) who harbor said desires for control and self-actualization. They are harmless. At worst they shall concoct further dark magic of world destruction that will manifest itself with... yet another black metal cd. Heavy Metal doesn't lead anyone to congregate with like-minded bigots and go on rampages against the weak. The skinheads and other neo-nazis that do that sort of thing and also listen to metal music would do it without metal music as well. Hitler would look at the National Socialist Black Metal bigots screaming in the woods about a 'purer race' and send them panda face-first into the crematoriums.

Heavy Metal is psychotherapy for introverted teenagers, it's not a means for social change. It holds its own dangers and rewards for the individual. Those that are afraid or hostile towards Heavy Metal for ideological issues misunderstand it, either due to not being familiarized with it or willingly doing so, and with some directed malice at that. It is especially curious how proponents of other musical subcultures like indie rock and punk are so scathing in their critique of Heavy Metal as ideology while at the same time are so enamored with its sonic attack, which they have in recent years thoroughly appropriated. There is now a great plethora of post-metal releases in which there is no exaltation towards willpower, no individualism, no romantic poetry of any kind. Instead they are characterized by either oblique and sometimes completely obfuscated lyrics coupled with natural-neutral iconography and aesthetics, or straight-up teenage anger and angst without any higher direction. If Heavy Metal music is socially relatively harmless as I suggest, then these post-metal mixed strands of it are instead safe for it. Heavy Metal music has had its kitty claws removed and those that are the most upset from this are fashioning their scathing retorts to society in the form of jewel cases and cds, with which you cannot seriously wound or maim anyone, as far as I know. The intended audience doesn't care. Instead eager metalhead masochists lap up these odes to world destruction are the proverbial converted choir and the cacophonous feedback-choral that is their aggregate quantity is what we call 'the underground'.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Jeff Wagner's "Mean Deviation: Four Decades of Progressive Heavy Metal"

Bazillion Points add to their astounding track record with this extensive review of one of the more misunderstood metal sub-genres by Jeff Wagner. I picked it up a week ago and it arrived yesterday. I read it in a day, which isn't to suggest that it's a sparse volume. At 364 pages, it's actually pretty thorough examination of the origins of the form and the various global 'scenes' of progressive metal that occurred during the late '80s and '90s. It avoids the usual pitfall of devolving in an A to Z buyer/collector's guide, however this leads to its chief flaw.

Jeff Wagner's very serious about his examination of this sub-genre. His one interview with John Arch of Fates Warning (which still can be found on I think) was the first piece of Heavy Metal journalism I looked up to. He has an understanding and a love for "Awaken the Guardian" that touched me. I learned a lot from that interview and held Jeff Wagner in high regard since. The problem is that the book doesn't tackle what progressive metal is in social and cultural terms. It's a bit closed up in the introspective metalhead box, talking to the initiated. It doesn't aknowledge the outside forces that pushed Heavy Metal music towards embracing modernism and humanism for that brief period. I would have considered that aspect perhaps outside the bounds of the book if it was more of the familiar A to Z collector mold, but as a thorough treatise on the essence of progressive metal it is sadly spent on quotes from the musicians themselves that fail to express what exactly progressive music might be. Which is to be expected because most musicians are engaged in the art of making art, not in the practice of musicology and the study of culture from an outside point of view. I have had similar concerns with the documentary "Metal: A Headbanger's Journey" also.

I don't know what that tells about myself or Jeff, but I didn't learn much new about bands I might have overlooked from this book (aside from Xysma and Hieronymus Bosch that is!). Perhaps this suggests the field of progressive metal has mostly been explored, save for the furthest reaches of the obscurantist underground. The useful distinction that the book draws between 'Progressive' and 'progressive' types of music (the capitalized form being the name of an established and conservative genre and the latter being music that embodies the spirit of progress) is explored to some degree but I wanted more, heh. These are small shames as I doubt there'll ever be a follow-up benefiting by such rigorous research on this subject, it's too niche.

If I'm making it sound like it's a bad book, it is not. It's a great introduction to a misunderstood genre. There are valuable positions and information throughout. As I went through it I underlined certain passages, positive and negative reminders. It probably says something that I do not do this even when I tackle philosophical texts but I did it for a book on something as niche and progressive metal. In the possibility that Jeff ever finds this blog post (I place a reasonable amount of trust in that people engaged in public creative pursuits will google themselves occasionally), here's the few of the underlined passages with nitpicky commentary from someone very close to the center of his target audience.

Last page of prologue: "There doesn't seem to be much bad taste, excess or bombast in a band like Pain of Salvation, yet they're decidedly progressive, and metal enough to earn the title".

I realize this is a matter of opinion and not fact, but I think even close friends of the band would agree that the majority of their music is bombastic. I'll add that the way they treat a lot of their 'heavy' subject matter is epidermic and riddled with Americanized lingual cliche ran through a Swedifier and therefore tasteless, but taste isn't a high priority in art-making so that's of lesser significance.

Chapter Invention / Reinvention, page 5: "Art rock was song-oriented yet avoided the disposability of the pop formula by virtue of quirk and intelligence."

I found this to be a very astute contrasting definition of art rock.

Chapter Passing the Threshold, on Queensryche's "Operation: Mindcrime" : "While many concept albums are mired in messy, cliched or overcomplicated storytelling, this story of prostitute-turned-nun Mary, junkie Nikki, and the manipulative Dr. X flowed persuasively from beginning to end".

Prostitute-turned-nun is exactly a cliche, as is the devious 'Dr.X' and so on. The story is sadly contrived but I will agree it's convincing due to Geoff Tate's talent for the dramatic and the theatrical. The concept of the album has a beginning middle and end but that's not the same as being understandable and well-done: "Operation: Mindcrime" is not a badly written story, but it's a very confused one. Geoff Tate seems to me to have given up on the sociopolitical commentary of the work early on and instead focused on soap opera interpersonal conflict to carry through. It is critical for an examination of progressive metal, of which Queensryche were a big part of early on, to assess "Operation: Mindcrime" in a less forgiving light, seeing as it inspired a big part of US progressive/power metal scene to follow in its confused humanist/political footsteps, and ultimately contributed to the creative stagnation of the genre. Reading something like this shows how much metalheads bought into the half-assed politics of "Operation: Mindcrime". It diverted the focus of metal music at its commercial peak, from romantic fantasy and esoterica to sappy drama masquerading as social critique.

This isn't to say that I don't like the record. I do, quite a bit. But we must be strict with the things we love.

Same chapter, page 59

"Alder had fantastic power and control, and probably a wider range than Arch".

A wider range is probable, but surfaced demo and live material with Alder handling not only John Arch pieces but also his own (circa No Exit) show him to be a 'studio singer' in that he sorta hits the notes but he wavers in and out of the safe space and is out of breath a lot in a live situation. It's difficult for the audience to appreciate the exactness of pitch control on very high notes, they tend to sound the same. Alder hid behind that when he was trying to match the US power metal singer zeitgeist and it was a good choice for him to slow down.

Chapter 6, Killed by Tech

Although 'tech metal' is a wider term that perhaps captures the modern range of this sort of music better, it's worthwhile to remember that that brief movement that starts with Watchtower and ends at the onset of 'tech death' was mainly a thrash sub-genre. Therefore, techno-thrash (it says "complex, abstract techno-thrash" on the featured flier). Thoughout the chapter, this term is found once and the slightly historical revisionist term of 'tech metal' is found plenty more. I realize that 'techno-thrash' was a buzz word more with European journalists (especially, it seems, with German ones who had an affinity for this sort of music) and that it outlived its usefulness once industrial metal came about but it's worth mentioning anyway.

On page two, "Tech metal uses disorienting time signatures, 5/8ths and 51/32nds flying everywhere..."

Is this a typo or perhaps humor? 51/32 is a very improbable signature, I don't think any techno-thrash or progressive metal band messed about with anything so exact perhaps Ron Jarzombek on "Headache and a sixtyfourth".

On Sieges Even ripping off Watchtower, thank you for getting both sides of the story on this, it's been a long-time open question for me.

"Dream Theater have become essentially the Grateful Dead of prog metal"

Excellently put.

The connection between Cynic's robot voice and Dead Brain Cells was interesting as well.

The photo of Allan Holdsworth explaining his chart to Ron Jarzombek is a great find, absolutely hilarious.

On chapter Swedish Oddballs, "Quorthon pointed to composer Richard Wagner and the most epic Manowar material..."

I thought Quorthon, in a fit of self-importance had gone on record saying that he had never listened to Manowar before long into his epic metal phase?

Next page when discussing Leif Edling's adventurous Candlemass related projects, "Dactylis Glomerata showed Edling had no interest in writing to formula, even if it brought him a healthier paycheck" and at the end of the paragraph, "Edling returned to Candlemass's more recognizable style for future albums, and to more familiar lineups."

I have here an annoyed pencil note by the underline saying "why not connect the dots?". I love Candlemass too but we must be strict with, well, you know. I felt as if the book was trying to keep away from reporting controversy and 'dirt' so much that it became slightly anodyne.

That Gonin-Ish started as a tribute band to Anekdoten blew my mind.

The "Still Moving Pictures" gag is very funny.

That's it. That I went through the trouble of keeping notes and writing this probably is the strongest recommendation I can give for the book. It engaged me even when I disagreed with it. It's pretty exhaustive and due to this I will not play the game "you left out _____ band". The important and influential bands are here and even some obscure ones for the more adventurous. I recommend this book to people that like reading about the history of Heavy Metal music and especially the cross-section of that category with that of those who were put off of progressive metal after just listening to a bit of Dream Theater or some Queensryche. There's a lot of beauty under the surface.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Atheist - Unquestionable Presence

1991 Metal Blade

Kelly Shaefer - Vocals, Guitar
Rand Burkey - Guitar
Tony Choy - Bass
Steve Flynn - Drums

Unquestionable Presence is a pop record. That's how it always sounded to me. I came to it as a fifteen-year-old fully prepared to be blown away by its density and excess. Watchtower's "Control and Resistance" was on steady rotation and I had been informed by elder metalheads (back before the days of the internet -- well, before my days on the internet) that these particular Florida upstarts were of similar cut. Dizzying composition, disregard for metal convention and instrumental prowess heavily on display was what I expected.

What I got instead was a collection of airy and beautiful songs. Sure, I guess Atheist sound vaguely angry to the uninitiated but for anyone with a metal education, they're just so catchy they become joyous, in a weird way. At some point when one writes a very beautiful composition, no matter the aesthetic conceit that colors it, it's life-affirming just by being beautiful. "Unquestionable Presence" indeed flew in the face of what death metal music stood for in this way. It's so highly composed and tightly performed that it can't help but make me happy to listen to. I wouldn't admit to this impression back when I was sixteen (I think I pretended this was 'difficult, dark music' for a while, like everybody else) but now, being honest and without fear to express my own opinion, this music is not difficult, it is beautiful in its force. The songs are non-standard, sure, but they're not convoluted as an end in itself, there's no real excess to be found here. If anything the guitars underplay, leaving breathing space for the fluid bass lines that often carry the changes. Yeah, the drums are flashy and choppy like Watchtower and the vestigial remains of Florida-school death metal can be traced in the serrated vocals of Kelly Shaefer, but what defines this music is not the constant pressure and aesthetic inhumanity that typifies death metal but, curiously enough, a certain grace, almost a weightlessness that I would associate with natural, organic beauty.

Yes, calling this music 'pop' is asinine. Perhaps in my imaginary Helmworld, music such as this would deserve the interest of the wider public but back when this material was released it famously was met with a gamut ranging from incomprehension to outright derision and it all ultimately amounted to neglect. Even dedicated metalheads, or perhaps it's more telling to say. *precisely* dedicated metalheads ignored them.

Many latter-day Atheist fanboys opine that the reason for this negative reaction was that what the band had achieved with their second release was ahead of its time. The implication is that this music was too advanced, complicated, cerebral for the metalheads of 1991. However the reality is less flattering. After all, by 1991 it seems most of metal was bent on achieving some sort of egotist self-satisfaction via clinical technicality, and for a brief time it even seemed like this approach would be metal music's gateway into some sort of mainstream acceptance. "Sure they're angry, but listen to how they play!". Every thrash and death metal band under the sun (and they were legion by 1991) were in the process of adding 'tech' to their genre tags. As mentioned, Watchtower scaled dizzying heights by 1989, Psychotic Waltz not far behind. Hell, even Atrocity had put out a crazy-complicated and dissonant debut "Hallucinations" by 1990. Closer to home, brutish, satanic-shocker Slayer-worshipers Deicide put out their second record, "Legion" mere months after "Unquestionable Presence" came out and their effort was much more front-face complicated than anything Atheist had to offer. Even if Deicide's palette remained limited under the dropped beats and added syncopation, death metal fans lapped it up. Why were Atheist shunned? Because Atheist were wimpy. Not complicated, airy. Not savage, contemplative. Not even metal.

Metal music is masculine in its thundering linearity. A riff is a repeated melodic phrase, a left-to-right phrase struck down by a barking typewriter. The drums that punctuate the rhythms of that melody are in tight lock-step to its design. Bass drums pound pummeling sixteenth patterns and hard snare hits dictate the even pace. The head-bobbing (or "head banging" if you prefer) that the steady rock n' roll pulse summons, never before so augmented as it is with the above metal sonics, is also akin to the thrust and ebb of fucking. Metal music, a battering ram is breaking down your door, entering your soul, it is burning your mind. From Judas Priest to Cannibal Corpse, in this respect, little has changed. The speed of the act and the severity of the pendulum motion might have been exaggerated over decades to match the cultural zeitgeist of increasingly desperate times, but the masculine, penetrative sexual intent of it is unchanged.

Most of metal music is macho in this exact respect with its linear staccato melodies and jackhammer beats. The bands that hit the stage and come out striking the hammer feel like metal gods, you better believe it. There's an immense libido-based satisfaction in sending out these brutish sound waves that push heads back and in the silence between the beats magnetize them forward to bang against the stage until metal takes its price. Aficionados of this sort of music are masochists in that they derive a pleasure out of being punished so by their masculine heroes, whom, like any fetishist, they're not ever allowed to touch (or in the implied context, be intimate with on a human being to human being level). Imagine being in a weird outfit that plays like Atheist and having to follow a live act by one of these macho linear death metal bands, what with your empty space and oblique melodies that go every which way. Can't rape anyone with spaghetti.

Harmony is vertical, it has no forward motion. The many notes that make up a complicated chord achieve a nuanced, combinatorial emotion. The listener may have to focus on different aspects of the chord at different times, they have to be pro-active in selecting the direction of the journey. Pauses between harmonic centers also beg for interpretation, like a pointillist painting the gaps need to be filled for the art to make sense. This is like a conversation, yes? Lush vertical spaces full of multi-faceted emotions and then rests in between waiting for the listener's response. This is conversation, it is birth, it is inherently feminine. Metal music is traditionally sparse of harmony, distortion and blunt force render 'fancy chords' nigh-inaudible, for most, useless. Though there are exceptions, metal music is not feminine, it doesn't have something to *discuss* with you, it has something to tell your face as it melts it. The metal listener that wrestles conversation and ambiguity out of punishingly linear metal is doing so at the cost of physical fatigue and some sanity. Metal music is war and who comes out of war unaltered, unscarred?

Many of these more feminine-minded metal bands of the late '80s and early '90s, inspired by Rush and other progressive rock acts attempted to bring more harmony and dynamics into their metal. Atheist's first record is a much more head-on, linear and thrashy affair and it was met with a degree of acceptance. Here on their second album, they (mostly, there's a few ragers still) were deemed too wimpy for fan ears hungering for death metal cruelty. Although their later fans (and also, the band, judging from their interviews) remain convinced that their musical genius was ahead of its time, I suspect the real reason they were shunned was that there's too much ambiguous space between phrases here and too much harmony. Not enough linearity, double-bass and palm-muted chugging. I suspect that if they had arranged all of the songs here to sound more like "The Formative Years", they'd have achieved some success.

But I'm glad they didn't. As is the weird metal pattern, Atheist turn their apparent weakness into strength. All the better that Atheist are a wimpy take on death metal, it's not like the masculine archetype is in short supply. The material here is, once digested and interpreted, rife with symbolic space that matches the tempo of the somewhat oblique and introspective lyric. For the life of me I couldn't tell you exactly what many of these songs are about and I've been listening closely for over a decade now. But I can tell you what the conversations I've had with this music were about. From the first harmonized (of course) fifths of Mother Man that open the album, it's not a race and it's not a beating, it's a dance. Of course metalheads found it embarrassing, do you know any of them that like to dance?

Unquestionable Presence has an overarching theme to it, the gentility with which it states it notwithstanding. The feeling I always get when I listen to this is one of epistemological concern. Epistemology, the study of knowledge itself, it seems to me like Atheist tackle the concept of knowledge (and self-professed knowledge-holders) from different vantages on many of the numbers here. Figures of authority and systems of belief are constantly referenced and in a way the playful music takes a mocking tone. Atheist is indeed Heavy Metal music exactly because the beauty of the music they devised seems a testament to the potency of their individual viewpoint, as hazy as it may often be. In an epistemologically bereft modern world, it falls to art to rise to the magical standard: this is the Word and the Word is True, as long as I believe it to be so.

The song "Brains" especially captures me in this vein

Retrieve all that flows with memory
Obtain all you know with sensories
Approaching every act with contemplation
Attacking every vision with indecision
Conditioning is a routine of minds
Recruiting all the intellect it finds
Insecurity is merely your fear
Of maybe the outside hearing what you hear
Can't let 'em see,
Don't let 'em hear
Projecting like an airplane in flight

I dream of things
That just aren't quite right
A projector shines on the back of my eyes
So my position of perception can rise

So, although nobody much cared to understand Atheist at the time, it seems they picked up a cult following over the years. I would bargain that Atheist brought into metal music much population that wouldn't otherwise bother. Nerds and outcasts, overthinkers and other epistemologically curious beings that weren't into it so much for being allegorically raped by jackhammer beats and linear yells but instead for the polite company and conversation. In their strange way, Atheist achieved a legacy that had little to do with their technical excellence in itself and much more with how technical excellence can vindicate an outside take on metal music. Much of the extreme metal world of the last two decades was shaped by the realization that you can be a bit queer in metal music if you've got the balls for it. And although we've had a lot of queer metal as a result, not much of it has had as much songwriting grace as found here. And perhaps more importantly, the aesthetic open space for the listener to feel the need to contribute to a conversation with the art. There still isn't much out there that achieves what "Unquestionable Presence" does, nothing as sublimely wimpy and ultimately beautiful.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Annihilator - Never, Neverland

Roadrunner, 1990

Coburn Pharr - Vocals
Jeff Waters - Guitar
Dave Scott Davis - Guitar
Wayne Darley - Bass
Ray Hartmann - Drums

I had written about a specific track off of this album on my regular blog back in February. I feel that that text, now significantly amended, stands well as an encapsulation of the merits of the record on the whole.

Metal music conjures potent images in the mind's eye. Most often these images are vague and not directly informed by the specifics of the lyrical material. Instead they are more like abstract, dream-like scapes in washes of violent warm colors. I think this happens because for metal bands the riff-writing is a separate act to the writing of lyrics. I'm willing to bet that the vast majority of angry rock or metal bands write the music first and it doesn't later change much or at all to contend for the feel and meaning of the lyrics. In fact when we're talking about metal, the writing of riffs (of which there are many) is simply addressed separate from the writing of coherent compositions (of which there are few and far between). The former are self-contained situations, repeated for impact and then discarded in favour of linear movement. The latter is a holistic attempt to make the broader movement achieve a lateral coherency, not the forte of metalheads, generally.

It is then a small wonder when a thrash metal (of all the metal styles, the one most obsessed with riff construction) band, ends up conjuring very relevant images to the lyrics that dress them. Annihilator are such a band.

It's worth noting Schopenhauer's position on the purposes of music here.

Music is thus by no means like the other arts, the copy of the Ideas, but the copy of the will itself, whose objectivity these Ideas are. This is why the effect of music is much more powerful and penetrating than that of the other arts, for they speak only of shadows, but it speaks of the thing itself. "Music does not express this or that particular and definite joy, this or that sorrow, or pain, or horror, or delight, or merriment, or peace of mind; but joy, sorrow, pain, horror, delight, merriment, peace of mind themselves, to a certain extent in the abstract, their essential nature, without accessories, and therefore without their motives. Yet we completely understand them in this extracted quintessence. Hence it arises that our imagination is so easily excited by music, and now seeks to give form to that invisible yet actively moved spirit world which speaks to us directly, and to clothe it with flesh and blood, i. e. to embody it in an analogous example. This is the origin of the song with words, and finally of the opera, the text of which should therefore never forsake that subordinate position in order to make itself the chief thing and the music the mere means of expressing it, which is a great misconception and a piece of utter perversity; for music always expresses only the quintessence of life and its events, and never these themselves, and therefore their differences do not always affect it. It is precisely this universality, which belongs exclusively to it, together with the greatest determinateness, [364] that gives music the high worth which it has as the panacea for all our woes. Thus if music is too closely united to words, and tries to form itself according to the events, it is striving to speak a language which is not its own."

This smart man here explains - as I understand it at least - that the reason music is a universally loved and potent art is in that it doesn't (or shouldn't) seek to describe specific emotional phenomena but instead to tap into archetypal emotions that all of life's particular scenes are derived from. In that sense metal bands might approach this definition of 'high music art' and comfortably consider their three chord riff-based abstractions to be a link to the primordial and be done with it. They'd often be right about this, too. Aside from Schopenhauer's different standard of composition, to which most metal music probably falls short of, there's a different reason I'm sceptical of leaving it there when it comes to music's capacity for emotional specificity.

I think that this concept of music as a gateway to emotional universality has been hijacked by post-modernists with a consumerist agenda. How often do you hear, when trying to discuss the aesthetics and meanings of music, the offering of "Relax bro, it's just music"? I'm not sure Schopenhauer would be particularly proud of getting anyone to 'relax'. His sentiments can and have easily been appropriated (by degrees of separation, of course) by salesmen who would exclaim that since the music expresses universal emotions, then every one of us should buy all of it. If we look at popular music we see just that: distillation and abstraction of very broad emotional beats. In both form and effect it is simple music that sells best. So no offense to this smart man, but let's try to see what slightly different approaches offer us.

Annihilator above were not a band of very lofty ideals really. They were a thrash metal band and as the zeitgeist of that movement dictated, they diluted their romantic metal fantasy with prima facie 'socially aware' aesthetics and lyrics. Circa 1990, this is how metal music was trying to negotiate an unprecedented height of public interest. A lot of thrash music lyric reads painfully like a social study essay buy an introverted teenager that has only a rudimentary understanding of how and why society operates. It's painful to read because it's true.

The song posted doesn't have a high concept, then; It is in the plentiful abilities of main guitarist and composer, Jeff Waters that the composition of 'Road to Ruin' and indeed of most songs on their first two albums, had become more involved than the average AC/DC song. He sounds like he has ADD and hyperactively crams in as many licks as he can but - unlike a lot of technical metal bands - has the good sense to compare what he's adding to what the song is achieving for it. Very rarely does he leave in a phrase in that is at odds with the thrust of the song. Jeff Waters can do what Annihilator do, then, because he's both extremely able on his instrument but also because he has the good sense to let the song's voice dictate what he (over)plays, where. This is a virtue that is becoming increasingly rare in the world of modern metal.

In contrast with a capable classical instrumentalist, most metal (and rock) musicians struggle with a limited ability in shaping their voice. It is often a climb to express even a basic abstract concept in the confines of such otherwise highly structured music. Does this riff sound sad to you, or perhaps maudlin? What is the difference? Perhaps this riff just sounds like a riff, instead? This sort of confusion pushes metal musicians to throw their hands in the air and just play riffs from the gut and not worry about what emotions they're hitting. Sure, a lot of them play very fast or very precise, but what they play is often very limited and derivative. It might startle some knowledgeable Heavy Metal people to say for example that Autopsy (in the minds of most people a sloppy rude death metal band) are more erudite with their music than Meshuggah (a highly technical post-thrash band). The former simply have a larger musical and emotional lexicon. Most bands do not employ their hard-earned speed and fretboard mobility to achieve nuance and grace but instead bludgeoning force and constant pressure. You get used to beatings and you get used to pressure and when the tolerance level has shifted all that's pretty boring, however.

Not being a virtuoso is a blessing as well as a curse. When one has barely 5 riffs in them, they tend to make them count. They speak of the grandest emotions not by cerebral design but 'by accident of being human'. Put all your skill into crafting a riff and it may sing of despair and hope, of horror and awe. This is the main characteristic of Heavy Metal, really and it also explains why a lot of absolutely incredible bands often had just one great album in them, some even just a few great songs. That said, it's a pleasing variation and I feel, a worthy introduction to outsiders, to consider a minority of more skillful and considerate players that paint with a finer brush.

The lyrics set the stage here:

No control tonight, the lights are going dim
The floor begins to tilt, it's blurring to a spin
Just let me find my keys, look down below
Fresh air is all I need, then I'll go

Leading up the road to ruin
You're full of alcoholic speed
Leading up the road to ruin
No last chance, don't bother to plead

High, over the limit, got to take it slow
Concentrate, kill the radio
It's not the first time, it'll be the last
I've said that before, in the past

Speed, I've got to make it home

Not too far to go, you're getting near
Just down the block, there's nothing left to fear
Carefree, on top of the world, feeling power
Impaired security at ninety miles an hour

Somebody's driving drunk, it doesn't end well.

The beauty of the thing is how the choices in riffs and voicings by Waters, along with the clean and tight lockstep of the capable rhythm section underline and amplify the sense of barely controlled chaos of the situation. Nearly every section of the song for me augments the picture, it supports the otherwise pretty simple broad strokes with nuance and detail.

Note the natural harmonics lick at the end of the theme at 00:30 and how even before the plot is introduced a sense of instability and fragmentation hints of it in an otherwise straight ahead speed metal riff. Speed is the thing here but also blurriness, incoherency, confusion. These are the emotional elements that Waters's guitar pyrotechnics are most suited for.

In fact, for the duration of the verse, pay attention to how the regular palm muted riff is commented upon by a variation of different end licks, most of them choppy or syncopated, almost never repeating themselves, offering the listener no sense of security. Have you ever had manic thoughts that seem to dissolve before you're able to make them cohere to a larger structure, only to reappear and taunt you to try again? Have you ever gotten blindingly drunk?

The chorus, with its more austere and controlled rhythmics speaks in the second person. You're leading up the road of ruin, you're full of alcoholic speed. Look how effectively Waters shifts perspectives without any confusion just by musical cues. The unstable, chaotic riffery belongs to the protagonist of the tale, the slower and regimented responses belong to an objective authority, a beholder. The listener feels compelled to empathize with both: id and superego together, schizophrenia. This is the overarching theme of Annihilator's early output.

Not to say that the song doesn't default to the familiar trappings of rock music, with its melody, verse, bridge, chorus, solo and repeat. This is because Annihilator did not consider themselves purveyors of modern classical composition or anything, they probably had not heard of Schopenhauer. nor did they enjoy programmatic music. They were writing hooky pop songs, but their inner ambitions overpowered the form. This is the basic definition of Heavy Metal in relation to its bordering musical genres, actually. The positives of the skeletal remnants of the basic pop song composition under this song are that the themes are reaffirmed and the listener is put to a hot-cold alteration between musical coherency and safety and then the wild chromatic deviations of Water that constantly upset.

In the artier side of modern metal, much is made of super-structural music that is meant to be 'experienced' but not enjoyed per se; Deathspell Omega with their heady metaphysic thematics and austere aesthetics are a commonly cited example of this. I do not disbelieve proponents of this approach are gratified by it (you get a lot out of a piece of art if you put a lot of effort in making it work for you), nor am I saying 'Relax bro, it's just music'. Modern art made a big deal about not being enjoyable or beautiful but instead a commentary on psychological and sociological situations, starting almost a hundred years ago. It took a while for metal music to be informed by that approach, but here it is. A distracting game happens however when proponents of either school of thought clash. Modernists attempt to shoehorn modernity in the primary space of enjoyment that most simple art is taken. It's that depressing situation where the communist is trying to explain to a layman why his beloved social realism is 'just as good as real art'.

Broadly, I think it's a distracting lingual argument to dance around terms until we can make something ugly appear 'beautiful to us' and make something very unenjoyable appear 'enjoyable because I am involved with it'. Most of the time people cannot accurately gage how they feel, this shit is not making it any easier. The more nuanced the emotion the more at a loss we are at self-reflecting on it. Being graced by beauty and feeling inspired are some of the clearest emotional states that music can achieve for us (Schopenhauer makes a roundabout return) and Heavy Metal often achieves those peaks. It's a disservice to that achievement to try to fit ugly music that is meant to shock and confuse us in that category too. Ugly art is potent and powerful in its own right. Confusion is an emotion too, dissociation is an emotion. If people seek these emotions, good for them, they'll certainly lead somewhere. But people that like songs that they enjoy instead of semi-incoherent experiences that they traverse are not dumb either. Annihilator here make masterful songs that anyone would recognize as such (which is why I think they're a good entry point for outsiders). They reach through riff artifice to beauty that overcomes their pedestrian lyric and this approach should never be considered outmoded because it's briefly culturally passe at the time being.

Check out the abrupt stop-starts under the first solo voice how they comment on its almost sonorous and hopeful tone (the driver hopes that he's going to make it home) but the second solo comes in mockingly, bending, rolling, laughing with this hope. It is appropriate that the most 'rock and roll' sounding part of the song is the voice of a higher fate, it's as if Annihilator are saying 'you're gonna crash and burn and let the devils dance in the flames'. This is in its own way as metaphysical as Deathspell Omega ever get, the big difference is that the music is meant to be enjoyed, not witnessed.

After a third chorus, the main riff is punctuated by sharp turns, futile floor breaks and finally the winding guitars signal the inevitable sounds of a crash. Every time I listen to this song I hum for hours after it not just the chorus or some melody but three or four parts in a row. I get hooked on a emotionally involving composition. I really love early Annihilator.

As a personal anecdote though, I really hate early Annihilator too. If you are, like me, a guitarist of meager skill and at that crucial juncture in your teenager years - where you had ample free time - were pulled in many different directions instead of studying with your guitar for 8 hours a day, this stuff will be hard to play. I can sorta hit the beats in the first two songs but the cleanness and tightness of them elude me. It's perhaps the more convincing argument on the merit of this record that I still like it as much as I do, after connecting it so thoroughly with a reminder of my own shortcomings.

Not every song here is so rich in musical imagery, but most are. The most enjoyable ones actually are those written to lyrics of mental instability, Annihilator's forte, they let Jeff Waters go, appropriately, a little nuts. Always a light band however, they're an easy way to get new listeners to appreciate Heavy Metal in other ways than just as a primal force that paints bluntly only the basest of scenes, screaming and growling and bludgeoning what is in effect existential ennui. The strength of Annihilator is that unlike many of their peers, they achieve beauty here and are far more graceful about it than their lowbrow American thrash culture signifiers might initially suggest.

Friday, November 19, 2010

"I Hate Keyboards in Metal"

"Can't stand growly vocals". "All this doom stuff is too slow, it's boring". "Power metal is cheesy". Statements like that are so broad as to be nearly meaningless as actual qualifications of taste.

With so much metal music out there, it's near-certain that there is a band somewhere out there that has devised a permutation of the form that utilizes whatever stylistics one might consider awful in such a way that they're convincing and engaging, beautiful. The more you dig (especially in the underground) the more you find beautiful exceptions to any rule. Saying "I haven't heard a lot of Heavy Metal music in which keyboards played a significant role" is a much safer statement for example, but one that very rarely substitutes its more extreme variant. Why do people refuse to dig in a music they profess to love and why do they prefer this broad and useless pontification?

Such statements are useful for turning ignorance into a strength; The person behind the statement probably hasn't had enough close experience with that they dislike (which is generally understandable, do you spend a lot of time with art that irritates you?) so they take their limited phenomenological data and with it fashion a categorical statement that seems final and complete. Seen this, done with it, on with the next artifact of culture that needs codification. Progress!

The person who is receiving such a statement might be impressed by how airtight it is. I know something concrete about them, I know where to stand with them when it comes to Keyboards & Metal. I know I can turn to this piece of data when I want them to agree with me and reinforce our relationship. Since I'm so impressed, I might adopt this position, also. This is how conservative minds work, they enjoy clean-cut positions and they're always on the lookout for new such statements that fit their preconceptions and opinion bias. Effectively, when a person is making such a statement, they're trying to a) create controversy, that means, put attention on themselves, and b) appeal to conservative like-minded folks. All this with as little personal risk as possible: after all, they're not putting out there a revealing personal opinion, they're just spouting clichés, which are anonymous and endless.

I do not consider the conservative impulse to be necessarily 'evil'. It's certainly one of the psychological traits that has kept us alive in very strenuous evolutionary situations in the past. Not every member of the caveman tribe should feel compelled to put their hands in the fire to test out if it 'really hurts' like the village elder told them, nor should a second hunter-gatherer go up to pet the rhino next to the pulverized remains of the first one.

However connecting the dots from that tangent to our initial subject, why do people treat culture identification with the same reflexes that they treat survival situations like those above? The telling answer is that social gaming (where 'taste' and 'art knowledge' are usually tested) can be just as scary as a rhino charge. It brings up all sorts of insecurities and hang-ups, dirty laundry that the individual feels much compelled to fashion into some sort of kingly dress and hope nobody notices the stink. The more self-conscious and insecure the music nerd, the more hardened their armor.

Most of the categorical statements I'm talking about here have evolved (de-volved?) into clichés in metal communities. Behind every cliché like that there is a big fat ugly truth: lack of profound intimate experience is substituted for communally-bulwarked identification, group-think that tries to pass off ignorance for self-assuredness. Unless one has a very thorough experience with metal music, their general opinions have little to do with the music and much more with themselves structuring a useful identity. Even if they do know more about Heavy Metal than most, broad categorical statements are so loaded with the charges of social gaming that even when meant honestly and innocently, they tend to derail any argument into polemics.

For example, in my little chronological chart of metal here, I note 'post-metal, metalcore and other irrelevancies' which is exactly such a statement. I did not mean this as an attack on these sorts of musics, more that regardless of how good such music might be, whatever is metal in it has been so inverted or diluted so as to put the music beyond the scope of this website (though not of my interest in general, I keep up with post-metal due to social fascination). I should not have written that, then, because it diverts interest from the information presented (the chronology) to this guy Helm who doesn't like post-metal. On the most essential level, what bands or styles of metal I like are absolutely irrelevant to what I'm trying to accomplish with this website.

One should then not expect that thorough experience of the art form would lead to a more permissive stance and less categorical damnation of this and that. Knowledge doesn't necessarily lead to less hard opinions. Most of the people I know who are metal encyclopaedias (myself included) engage in this self-identification as well, though perhaps their opinions might be less broad and more nuanced here and there. It seems much of what drives an impulsive information cataloger is an addiction to the social gaming applications of their knowledge. Poor Socrates who knew too much yet professed to know too little, not a sterling example for most.

So when you come across metalheads or other music nerds who speak in an endless torrent of broad categorical statements, condemning genres and styles of music left and right, keep in mind you're in the presence of somebody who really doesn't have the music at heart when they speak but instead they're furiously gaming you and any other onlooker, trying to either annoy you or get you on their side. Their greatest defeat is if you completely overlook their efforts and have no opinion on them whatsoever. If you do not notice them, you do not include them in your life. If you don't include them in your life, they don't exist. They feel this acutely.

Is this a cruel thing to do? Initially I think so, there is some sadism and revenge for every time we've been ignored, when we ignore somebody else. However, when ignored once too many an individual might feel compelled to reconfigure their social approach and create a persona that is less dependent on external validation. This is healthier for them and healthier for the social dialogue over art. Or anything else, for that matter: as you might have noticed a lot of the broader critique on this blog could easily have its subcultural identifiers switched for those of another clique; I'm looking at the world at large through the narrow scope of Heavy Metal.

The type of statement on Heavy Metal that is useful for the culture and useful for the individual, in my opinion, is that which is qualified not with vague group-think mandates such as "Keyboards suck" but with exposition of actual personal experience. The risk involved in saying why one thinks this is so, is bound to humanize the statement (human beings, if allowed, cannot help but be human beings) and since we're all made of the same meats but in startlingly different permutations, clichés are weakened by this personalized exposition. The downside is that people can't do this in snappy, highly stylized pieces of snark in which the internet usually likes to converse, they'd have to write more in-depth and more at length. Well... that's a downside for twitter users mostly!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Anathema - Serenades

Peaceville, 1993

Darren White - Vocals
Daniel Cavanagh - Guitar
Vincent Cavanagh - Guitar
Duncan Patterson - Bass
John Douglas - Drums
Ruth - Additional vocals

I can hear the laughter already. Early Anathema are a hard band to like in current metal circles. As mentioned in past articles, the 'atmospheric metal' experiment in which English romantic doom/death metal tentatively contributed to, was a way out of the canon for many musicians. It had many ties to punk rock (defocus on technicality, at the same time when the rest of metal music was becoming hyper-technical), dark wave (morose subject matter, fixation on darkness) and indie rock (enduring dissaffection) it's no wonder that after a couple of Heavy Metal records most of the collectives involved moved on to different pastures, and even less wonder that the form doesn't enjoy a positive reputation with metalheads today.

Now, this is a strange situation: when a metal band breaks away from the mothership they usually try to get a different target audience. It's a very risky endeavor and it usually ends in failure, but the few bands that achieve that keep everything but the name, effectively. They change their whole aesthetic to suit the demands of their new followers. 'Atmospheric metal' bands that go off in non-metal territories however are naive in a special way: they keep their surface aesthetic signifiers but they just do away with the heavy guitars and growly vocals. They are trying to become indie, electronic or gothic rock outfits while they're still earnest - though moribund - metalheads at heart. They didn't get the memo you can't play metal without the metal and expect it to still work.

This creates special situations. Most of these bands, Anathema foremost, retained some of their metalhead audience (lost some hardcore doom/death fans, got some mainstream metalheads, perhaps) and gained little to no broader fans to justify their switch of style. The metalheads that retain their interest in them are those that either are a) open-minded to the point where their brains leak out when they tilt their heads or b) feel guilt over being metalheads and try to camouflage the hard liquor with a false front of more palatable tastes. It is oddly fitting, after all, the most self-loathing type of Heavy Metal to have the most self-loathing metalhead fan-base.

It might be difficult to understand in the current climate where metal music's coolness is judged on a crazy 'purity' two-end scale where on the far left is how extreme you can be on your instrument and on the far right is how conservatively you connote your aesthetic concept, but in the early to mid '90s - where this Atmospheric metal business came to a rise and fall - metal music listeners were constantly bombarded with outsider communication on how the music they were raised on - Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Manowar et al. - was now considered dreadfully passé. But they still wanted to listen to metal music and new metal music to boot. The self-loathing of that era was channeled into mainly two psychologically parallel paths: black metal and doom/death (and eventually 'atmospheric metal' as it were). The former cried denial of the modern and a return to the - mostly retroactively invented by teenagers with shallow historic appreciation but sensitive instincts - aesthetic origins of the form. "So what if what we play is passé? It is more than that, it isancient! We haven't died, we never existed" they cried in a shrill womanly voice, blastbeats and tremolo clattering in their mists. The other path was of doom/death where the conceit was subtly different, diversionary. "No no, we are not passe. We are instead, misunderstood" they murmured and moaned. Aren't you misunderstood too? Some tragedy marks your life as well? Join the club. More akin to the gravitas and self-awareness of gothic rock, they said. A type of music that had survived its own brief stint with public awareness and hadn't died away. Would someone accuse Joy Division, theurgically sealed in everlasting public reverence by suffocation, of being passé? I think not.

But the metalhead take on gothic rock was still Heavy Metal music for a simple reason: what draws people to Heavy Metal, then and now and forever, is the promise of beauty, romance, hope and imagination. Gothic rock was - and is, last time I checked - a far more facetious type of music, where irony and double-talk are grimly celebrated as extracts of modernity. "I dare you to be real" wasn't a real dare. Bela Lugosi's an actor that played Dracula, not Dracula himself. Dark wave fundamentally remains post punk in this way. One cannot get too excited about an ironic type of music. The goths, for all their frilly embroidery, are very obvious about their dress-up being an exploration of a character in a play. This self-awareness was lost on the metalheads that turned their metals of doom and death to 'atmospheric metal'. Their romance was earnest to the degree that it was required for their Heavy Metal to strike true.

What is more powerful than death? Is there a truth more real than death? Will anyone survive it and come back to tell us of its falseness? There is no reply to death. Death is forever, he shall never die.

Yet, what is more painless than death? Will anyone suffer it and come back to tell us of its horrid torment? Will any of us truly be there to die? Or will our faculties breathe last a moment before death comes certifiably? Death is unknowable, he will never have a face.

What a perfect combination that is then, for reclusive introverts that seek the most powerful symbol with which to adorn their ordinary, middle-class existences, yet do not have it in us to go through the fullest hardship to achieve it. For one to love death they must be alive. Heavy Metal is a music fundamentally based on this attraction to death. No sub-genre captures the drama (and melodrama) of this than doom/death. The most embarrassing type of metal, how I love it. Well, some of it!

Anathema here come late to the doom/death mope party, and they have distilled the lessons of their forerunners to a great degree. They aren't concerned with appearing super-metal, there isn't a slayer riff to be found here. They get their credibility by appearing super-sad instead. It's all slow, all the time. This doesn't mean that 'Serenades' is a focused album, it is in fact, very torn between what it is and what else it briefly entertains being instead. However when it is on, it is beautiful and touching.

'Serenades' is a difficult record to like. The vocals of Darren White are very weak as death metal vocals (from whence they definitely trace their pedigree). Whereas most death metal vocalists of the era endeavored to sound as inhuman - and therefore extra-terrestrially powerful - as possible, he sounds short of breath and winded. Shallow lung moans and whimpers, a human in anguish. Whereas death metal inspires violence, this doom/death vocal style suggests the outcomes of violence. The beauty of this approach is only made apparent to those that spend time with the lyric here. What could possess a human being to voice such language

All tears restrained for years
Their grief is confined
And destroys my mind

An ode to their plight is this dirge

Some yearn for lugubrious silence
Serenity in the image of coffins

Shall life renew these bodies of a truth?
All death will he annul, all tears assuage?
Fill the void veins of life, again with youth
And wash with an immortal water, age

They die

In tones so wretched and foul? In this dynamic is the strength of Heavy Metal. It will take all that society taught us is useless and bad and ugly and with the sharpest edges it will chisel a monument to everlasting beauty. The vocal of Darren White here is sublime, the entity summoned, that 'Anathema', the voice of the disembodied, rotting head. Its mouth aghast and between the stinking humors and bile has grown a flower.

In fields where
Grass grows tall
Golden carpets swell
And whisper
Autumn trees
Will weep

Dawn breaks open
Like a wound that bleeds afresh
In bleak misery
The lifeless lie in squandor

Love has left me
Fled from me
Fragrant lust waits beside
And dies

Like flowers that wilt
Without refreshment
In midday sun I sit
And bide time

Adorning me
A lovelorn rhapsody

The only death left from death metal here is in the pulse and rhythm of the songs. Shambling, see death walking, death alive. Oft stop-starts, while a vocal punctuates, as if the corpse is struggling to do more than two things at once. It's a wretched sight, this slow-motion re-animation and yet, beautiful because reanimation implies sorcery - power, will. Music such as this is misunderstood as a consumer product (like which is undoubtedly reached the listener's possession) because it doesn't seek to entertain in a surface way - in fact those that are entertained by 'depressing music' misunderstand this the most. This is not music to cry over, it is not music that inspires sadness. It is a celebration of magic. Our bodies may die but look what beauty comes from the knowledge of the end. Your sadness is ours, we take it and fashion with it a flag, a tapestry, a cloak, a shield. Very few casual listeners that dabble in with fringe tastes of the metal multiverse get to the core of this.

The beauty of this world is shown in the guitar interplay of the Cavanagh brothers. For all the ridicule that their future career as 'Radiohead for metalheads' has brought them, their debut album finds them in perfect sync with each other. One guitar will start a voice and let it linger mid-way, only for the other channel's guitar to pick it up and give it conclusion and rest. This game between brothers touching and yes, harmonious and joyful. There is no death-lust in the mental image of two brothers playing their instruments together, reaching agreement. I have been enchanted by their conversation on their early material before and long since I could realize similar musicality in my own multi-part composition. Though the brothers here connote this record has come from common grief (a family loss is alluded to directly in the liner notes of the record via a commemoration) I hear in their guitar stereo compositions, joy and lust and desire for something beautiful.

It is in that dynamic that is record can be found to be inconsistent. Though the lyrical material is uniform in its melancholy, the music strays from the mourn path often. For a fundamentally doom metal record, there is much here that puzzles the new listener. One example is the third song, 'J'Ai Fait Une Promesse'. An acoustic and vocal piece of relative simplicity that has a medieval feel to it. The promise being that the woman singing will 'pledge herself unto us' is repeated in French and English. Regardless of the success of the song in melodic or thematic terms, it's easy to get the vibe from the song that this is someone's girlfriend that is being asked to participate in this record they're making. Although this is a metal faux pas if there ever was one (no girlfriends allowed), the end result - curiously due to the still tones of the voice, no vibratto at all - sounds lifeless and distant. More a sculpture of a girl than a girl herself.

Anathema succeed in their excursion from metal in spite of themselves.

There are more examples to this (besides the obvious up-beat 'Sleepless' that everyone loves to hate). The end track 'Dreaming: The Romance' appears to be the perfect storm of kitsch at first. Pretentious title, obvious overstatement and a 23 minute synth pad ambient track that sounds like an outtake from a Tangerine Dream record. And yet, it works. It works as the bookend to the high drama of the record, it's a gentle wash to a shore outside, shallow consciousness, almost dreaming. Though the heights the record reaches are artificially pushed (as in most metal records - how often does your life make you scream in guttural tones about the death of everything?), the long stretches of melancholy are very human and real - Heavy Metal fantasy peaks and long stretches of gentle melancholy. 'Dreaming: The Romance' serves this notion. Anathema succeed in their ambient excursion in spite of themselves again.

The clearer and most focused Anathema are here is on the fourth track "They Die", a reworking of their own earlier composition. The lyric and music are in perfect synchronization. The brothers complete each other's sentences while Darren White gives his weakest (as in, best) performance to his most beautiful and poignant lyric. Is it a wonder that by the end of its length the doom/death dirge rises to a symphonic, hopeful end?

Anathema would oust Darren White from the fold an (brilliant, yet also uneven) EP later. They would go on to slowly mutate into an alt-rock/mope rock outfit without him. For the fans this would gain them they also suffered nigh-universal derision from other quarters that saw them to be escape artists. It is difficult to like old Anathema and make a case for them as I am here because so much of what they achieved seems to happen almost by mistake, and is foreshadowed by their tendency to wander outside the form. But then again, the form of doom/death (and 'atmospheric metal' as a whole) proved to be a limited one, exsanguinated for all that was potent in a mere five years. So although I do not enjoy later Anathema material, I do not participate in the hate towards them. I take from their long career a full-length and two EPs worth of enduring art. Sadness is marred by hope like a crack on the funeral monument, yet through the crack often senseless, joyful flora grows, the artifact of grief is as beautiful as what it inspires.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Social gaming in metal communities.

There was a discussion in the previous post in the comment section over metal lyrics, ideology and listening to bands that might be singing about concepts that do not align with ones own beliefs. Those opinion fragments got me thinking on the subject enough to inform with it a broader point of view which I now present for discussion.

I do not go to Heavy Metal to get answers to my questions, I do not go to it to make friends (real or imaginary) and I do not go to it to figure out what to vote. That doesn't mean I have not made friends through my interest in Heavy Metal, nor does it mean my sense of reality is not informed on all levels its aesthetics and themes. Those things are the gentle byproducts of an interest whose primary focus is more difficult to define. I listen to, play, and write about Heavy Metal in the way that I do now, because it engages my imagination and has a lot of ambiguous space for interpretation. I find in there, a distant, perfect self that calls me forward. It is not other, yet it is not I. A son and a father, a ghost and a god. The characteristics of that entity, though they fascinate me, I do not want to figure out and tie them down. I want to figure me out through that reflection.

However I remember puberty. Like most people, I also wanted to belong to a subculture then. I wasn't a huge joiner so I stayed (or was made to stay, depends on the point of view) on the fringes of my chosen subculture of metal. This meant that though I had ample vantage to inspect and interact with its various specimens, I never counted myself as one of them nor was I included too often in broader excursions. I never belonged to a large circle of metalheads, I never was a groupie or supporter for any local band, I never went to too many shows. These things never interested me enough to pursue. I instead wanted to find more about the music, experience more of it, form my own band and reach my ideal of its capacity.

Proponents of the metal scene however are very anxious to 'get' what metal music is for social reasons: They need to understand it to have an opinion on it and use those opinions to form a social profile. With this profile they'll approach other metalheads (or listeners of extreme music, as it were in modern lingo) and test out interactions, iterate their profile and test again. Their concern is to come out on top, make allegiances, be considered knowledgeable and interesting. Men build bridges and go to the moon for the same reasons, that's how you get - eventually and hopefully - laid. (And in the case of the super obscure metalhead elite that discusses amongst its almost-all-male body in hidden recesses of the internet, the case is of simple intimacy transference: discussing about vinyl is like getting laid without all the messy repercussions of actually getting laid).

Nothing wrong with wanting to get laid (possibly plenty wrong with intimacy transfer but who is the guy with the Heavy Metal blog to judge). However, those that are trying to 'understand' metal to get a social profile going reach for shortcuts, because there's nothing to understand in it. There's only something there to inspire, to trigger awe and hope. However talking to girls about your Heavy Metal hopes and aspirations is a risky deal (and here the guy with the Heavy Metal blog can have an opinion). Instead then, the eager scenesters (try to hear me saying this word with the minimum amount of judgment: in the abstract, a scene and its actors is what we are discussing) latch on to surface concerns about metal -or extreme- music and understand, form opinions, discuss, fight and hopefully get laid over those. Think of a popular music forum for a minute, here.

The easiest way to arouse interest on one's own person is to draw a dividing line between themselves and other people, and paint their side in flattering colors. The easiest way for metal aficionados to do this is to say band x sucks (which is much stronger than saying 'band x rules' which is an inclusive statement). Then someone who perceives themselves as being put on the other side of the line in the sand will challenge the opposition to qualify why band x sucks. This is a four hand game that can go on for much longer. The third hand is then that the instigator will qualify his statement in as impersonal a way possible. Band x sucks because of their image, because they're boring, because of the ideology they endorse, because they sold out, because they're old, or young, pretty or ugly. These qualifications must sound like facts although they're not. The person behind them is shielding themselves from scrutiny by phrasing his critique in such a way that it is impossible to reach them through it. The fourth hand is then either a personal insult (trying to circumvent the loop - the game ends, people get wound up, drama explodes, the point of the game has been reached) or idle discussion on the merits of the opinions expressed (in which case the game goes on until someone insults someone). The latter loop can go on forever, people discussing their 'music taste' (though taste is very rarely brought up, accounted for, or examined in any rigorous fashion) in lieu of actual intimacy. Onlookers rate the participants with their opinion bias (: whether or not they agreed with the abstract 'band x sucks' to begin with) and with how entertaining they found the method of argumentation. Even when the game doesn't reach a satisfactory conclusion, it serves as a secondary determinant in opinion forming for the outsiders. It is not uncommon for real-life friends to play this game online without any malice or stake against each other directly, yet reach hysterical drama for the benefit of the audience. Today the one guy will win, tomorrow the other guy. Time is structured, sociality achieved, intimacy circumvented.

The easiest way to get noticed on the internet is to be a contrarian, and entertaining about it. This is a game I call, 'This Band Sucks'.

As you've noticed, although I'm talking about a lot of bands here, I've generally kept from making damning statements about them because I'm avoiding playing this game. I'm terribly good at it and it's easy to fall into a loop. Instead I'm talking about albums (and not bands) that I love and I go to great lengths to make my love clear for what it is: personal and inspirational to my life. I do not want to be rated by some reader for my good taste, I want to engage with them, get to know them and what they love and especially what their love inspires in them to create in return.

But 'This Band Sucks' is a very popular game on the internet, and so it has become very sophisticated through repetition. What once was a crude two-hand game of '-Metallica are better than Iron Maiden!' '-But Metallica cut their hair!' now has become an elaborate construct where band affiliations, ideological conceits and crucially, concerns of integrity are commonly employed.

So, let's say I love this record by the band 'Carnivore'. It has clearly misogynistic, misanthropic and chauvinist lyrics. Would it be a surprise to you that most mentions of Carnivore on internet message boards would quickly degenerate to games of 'This Band Sucks' over these prominent surface qualities?

People want to have an opinion on metal to get laid in their metal subcultures so they must judge how they feel about Carnivore singing about misogynistic, anti-humanist and racist topics. Their opinion, whatever it may end up being, will serve to draw a line, some will be with them on the matter, some against them. They'll try to be savvy and manipulate their opinion in such a way so they end up close to the people they want to befriend or have sex with through this process, that really has nothing to do with Carnivore, or the ideological concerns themselves. It's a game. Often participants will have wildly contrasting tastes: they like this band but hate another sound-alike of it because the former one has a conceit of ideology that suits their social needs better. Outsiders to this game could feel baffled by the near-randomness of the choices of the participants until they understand that there isn't a compositional merit or melodic quality that distinguishes good bands from bad bands for them.

It is exactly because I do not play this game that I do not judge art on surface qualities. I take them into account and keep them in heart and mind while I experience it at a different depth. When I first listened to Carnivore, I was shocked and felt kinda bad over parts of it. A year later, still listening to Carnivore, I thought the shock material was mostly meant as a joke, but the music was very compelling. A year later still, I was certain that Carnivore were trying to reach out to people through their shock antics because they were depressed or paranoid, but my love for the music grew. A year later I believed Carnivore meant every word they sang and when I listened to them, I meant every word they sang too. And a year later still, I now know that all these states are valid, they occur simultaneously, the quantum state of probabilities is determined by the capacity of the onlooker for risk. Art is not a game, it is cruel magic. Those that dabble with magic risk altering the inner and the outer.

One thing's for sure, Carnivore were worth dabbling in, for me. The things I found out about myself through that process did not get me laid (and/or did not get me high fives by racist morons), nor did they have any other social effect, but they were extremely useful in building character and exciting imagination.

So, when you see someone play 'This Band Sucks', because of their ideological subject matter or image or whatever else, know that they're not really interested in the music primarily, they're interested in playing a game with you. If you want to play this game, fine. Just know you're not primarily interested in the music right then either.

Does this mean that I'll listen to anything? Yes, it does. It doesn't mean I'll keep listening to it but I'll give it a chance and if there's enough beauty in there I will stomach even the worst connections it can make to human misery and ugliness. At the end of a certain time I'll know whether I should keep this art close or not.

Most of the Nazi metal I've heard has been awful not because it's nazi metal, but because it's all it is. 'This Band Sucks' is such a popular game now that people are actively forming bands just so they can have them be the subject of the game. It's sloppy and mediocre, empty metal that annoys me most, not metal that flirts with horrid imagery and notion.

And the type of metal that is most empty is that which proclaims to be all about fun and good times. A variant of the 'This Band Sucks' game is then 'Relax Bro, it's Just Music'. The instigator there is playing (or participating) in a game of 'This Band Sucks' and is watching out for anyone that is trying to turn the discussion towards ideological merit. They reply to that with 'Relax Bro, it's Just Music'. Which is meant to connote that there isn't any deeper significance to art and that the other person is undoubtedly problematic for having divined depth in a puddle, or -perhaps- even worse, is gullible and simple for having fallen for the 'image' of the band instead of its musical merit. This game is also very popular, to the point where aggressively anti-intellectual takes on a type of music that has been customarily meaningful have surfaced, and are enjoying ironic appreciation by scenesters internet-wide.

I'd take a few nazi metal bands over this, for example. The former at least has the capacity for beauty, the latter has nothing.