Sunday, October 24, 2010
Anacrusis - Manic Impressions
Metal blade, 1991
Kenn Nardi - Vocals, guitars
Kevin Heidbreder - Guitars
John Emery - Bass
Chad Smith - Drums
Here's a dividing line between Heavy Metal and extreme music in general: the former is a tribute to beauty. Metal music is loud and abrasive and the subject matter is sometimes horrifying but the internal aspiration of the musicians that toil in their bedrooms to construct those baroque riff structures is that of reverence towards beauty. Effort is required, but is not indicative of beauty. A grindcore band might have to work very hard to get to the point where they are fast enough to play their material, or tight enough as a unit to make it cohere, but that effort doesn't necessarily contribute towards the pursue of beauty; I may be the fastest guitarist alive but if all I find in myself to play are chromatic power chord variations on the first four frets, then I'm metaphorically drawing one of Pollock's action paintings, let's say.
There isn't only one beauty, much the opposite. But there is, and can be detected in the work of many artists, the personal intent to reach ones vision of beauty, or ones vision of ugliness. The art world has been concerned with this divide for the last fifty years. Post-modern theory applied to the visual arts for example, dictated that the pursue for beauty in the modern world is best left to illustrators and marketers that shall employ their skills to make pretty shit to dress ugly shit to sell to consumers. Real artists, was the modern decree, should look beyond surface beauty and invariably, to inner ugliness. On this command, if you'd care to visit an art gallery you'll see much modern & strikingly ugly monument to strikingly ugly & modern living.
A recent semi-movement towards a return to beauty has been brewing in art scenes around the world. They argue that the pursuit of natural beauty - and the skills to achieve their representation - are not throwaway and shouldn't be defaulted as commercial by use of marketers. They want to get pictures of beautiful people, landscapes and scenes back in the art galleries. The merit of both sides of the argument is debatable, I only bring it up to make a parallel with Heavy Metal's history.
Metal music has been straddling the middle space between modern art and ancient art since its inception. As a cultural movement it is resolutely modern and could not have happened in any other climate. Just the concept of young disaffected youth picking up costly electric musical instruments, recording in high-tech studios to put out vinyl that is to be distributed around the world, it is easy to see why this is a modern thing. However the high intent for the art produced was and is - as is the thesis of this website - mostly romantic, looking towards beauty and tragedy. Romance is anti-modern. Its concerns are not phased by the solipsism of knowlessness that has afflicted us of late, indeed it is sometimes something of a cure to it. Blood and death, passion and lust are a lexicon of a primal language, for whom do they not resonate?
So we have then the curious case of 'cyber cave men'. Expressing something ancient and eternal with the tools and methods of a future that not only has no use for instinctual imperative, primordial lust and romance, but resolutely pretends that these things do not exist, they never existed. Internal tensions, combustion, self-destruction. The curators of modernity mock the earnestness with which metalheads reach, ill-equipped as they are, for the grace of god, yet at the same time they're intrigued by their fervor.
A lot of confusion between listeners of metal music comes then, by their focus on either the modernist or the romanticist aspects of it. Many listeners are taken with the high concept of metal and approach its modern guise as a necessary evil. These people usually do not care for their metal to be super-well produced and cutting edge, they like idiosyncrasy and a bit of rustic autism in the sound design. They're interested in the ancient feeling inside the riff structures, the entity that is summoned.
However other metalheads prefer their metal-product to betray its modern world trappings primarily and consider its romanticist conceit as a vestigial leftover. "Metal bands sing about dragons, whatever. But check out that double bass!". This latter type of listener is interested in metal foremost because of its sonic impact, the gut level physiological reaction to audio battery. The pain, they figure, is similar. The ugliness is similar. They've known it before. They listen to a lot of metal as they listen to a lot of extreme music, because that is the sound of the modern world and it taps into something ugly inside, an undeniable reaction to the ugly outside.
Though I fall mostly in the former archetype as I grow older, I do remember, and can appreciate the latter type of fascination with ugly, harsh sound. I do not condemn the Other for being false, I seek to merely highlight the lexicon through which we may come to communication and understanding over our differences. Metal music, as I've said before, belongs to everyone. However Heavy Metal is in my heart and I wish to communicate its many graces with the outside world, I wish to entertain existence through effect.
The ugly in metal music has always come from punk rock. The influence of that on metal is undeniable and deep. The modern structures that spread the New Wave of British Heavy Metal far and wide are rooted on the do-it-yourself punk ethos. Without the punk renaissance, Heavy Metal would have been a dalliance of rock acts that would have ended in the late '70's. But with the impulse to get your friends and cut a gnarly seven-inch validated by the punk experiment, comes the baggage of ugliness. Cheap and commodified is the modern world, and so shall be its art. Contrast this "four ugly dudes cut a gnarly seven-inch" process with the fantasy of the high art wizard, carefully structuring his art in his ivory tower, investors and patrons knocking on his door constantly, begging, imploring the art wizard to choose them as his financial backing. They promise the world for the beauty the wizard is privately concocting. Heavy metal has this progressive rock fantasy of how art works in its mind, but at the same time is impatient, it's going to cut that seven-inch right now and the investors will come later, right? Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't. The young wizards now older and cynical, retreat to the underground. They still speak of beauty but they remember the ugliness too. History married with modernity. The past marred by the future.
Thrash metal was one of America's interpretations of this gruff & pimpled, young & old, New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Power/speed metal was the other, and hair metal was another yet. A country of shallow history, with ties to the old world that it feels ambivalent about, is excited and inspired to make their own beautiful and ugly metal. Much is made in underground circles of the US Power/Speed metal sound. Some of my favorite albums come from this substrand of American metal, certainly. In listening to them through the lens presented by this article, it is easy to see what the appeal of it is. As an American reinterpretation of something European, it is a 'trash culture' take on romance. If Black Sabbath sounded baroque and horrifying, if Rainbow sounded arch and lush, then Jag Panzer sound pulpy sci-fi, hysterical, bi-polar, savant geniuses. American metalheads, shameful for their lack of deep history chose to amp up metal in a different way, play more riffs, make more complicated songs, throw in more extravagant solos, sing higher than ever before. The lyrical material takes a back seat. Sure it's still fantasy, but where Dio sings of wizards and their fantastical towers, Jag Panzer shall sing of post apocalyptic gangs clashing for street dominance. Feel the spikes in my baseball bat. Ugliness found a back door to metal and through clandestine passages, comes to the forefront.
US Power/Speed metal is fascinating for its combustible mixture of ancient romance and American consumer culture ugliness. Slauter Xstroyes sing of their 'need to survive' yet wear quasi-kabuki face paint and road warrior shoulder pads on stage. Thrash metal, US Power and Speed's younger cousin, has a slightly different mixture of the same. Eschewing romance almost completely (only approaching it through second-degree pulp novel affections) it instead hones in on a critique of modern living much like American punk rock did, though unlike it, from the vantage of the lone individual. Hardcore Punk approached Marxist ideology and communality mostly as a shocking mechanism for middle America, but metal music was shocking enough without the great red ghost, so it did without.
The trajectory of thrash metal can be seen on the rise of Metallica. On their first record "Kill 'em All", Metallica sing of metalheads, partying, bringing the metal to you, phantom lords, leather and chains, banging your head against the stage 'till metal takes its place. Then they start to see success and the world is looking at them. On their second record, Metallica sing of capital punishment, of ensuing nuclear holocaust, of feeling dejected and on the fringe of culture. Modernism and humanism have entered metal in full force. Write us an essay, Heavy Metal, tell us about world hunger.
Everyone would take a page from Metallica after their success. So many thrash metal bands concerned with real-life topics and with a very punk rock 'street cred' pretension to their image would spring up. It's tempting to call this material metal only in sound design and punk in thematics, but the truth is more complicated. And here let's talk about Anacrusis, and their 1991 release, 'Manic Impressions'.
Anacrusis formed late in 1986 and they went through the usual trajectory of 'Judas Priest is awesome!... oh wait, what the hell is this Metallica band doing?' that typifies the thrash boom, only in fast-forward. By 1988 they had their debut, 'Suffering Hour' which is an extremely competent thrash record. But by 1988, thrash metal was already played out, its strength diluted by the many Metallica followers that latched on the formula. As the underground was concocting its new, death metal sound, many thrash metal bands - now inspired by Metallica inspired by Watchtower - went in the far edge of modernism, making their sound less visceral and headbangable and more cerebral, cold and intellectual. Techno-thrash came into brief prominence. Anacrusis made their jump towards this vague sub-category of metal with their second album, aptly titled "Reason", and perfected their take on their third, and subject of this examination, "Manic Impressions".
The sound of Anacrusis here is fascinating. The rhythm guitars have their middle frequencies scooped extensively, and the distortion tone is very jagged and sharp. This sound identity makes the guitar melodies distinctive, but overall low in the mix. Drums and bass dominate and offer propulsion with the usual thrash graces of polka beats and Slayeresque sixteenth tom rolls. The vocals alternate between a reverberated moan, perhaps reminiscent of goth punk outfits of the time, and a serrated, inhuman scream that cuts through the mix. The complete thing sounds sterile and curiously - for a thrash record - empty. Anacrusis main man Kenn Nardi would later seek to amend this by remixing the record in his privacy in 2006. What he did was raise the guitar levels some, re-equalize them and apply a lot of signal compression on the whole mix. I theorize he thought this is a better sound for the record as it fits the modern metal archetype. However his new mix is very destructive in its compression and contributes to nothing but ear fatigue for the listener that is very familiar with the material from its original pressing. As such, whereas I will not disregard the impulse for the remix (in fact, I consider it very important and telling, as I'll explain below), I will be drawing from my experience with the original mix.
The material here is mostly fast paced, with lots of choppy stop-starts, changes of theme and harmonic derivations. Anacrusis retain their raging thrash edge from their earlier approach, but increasingly a melancholic aspect is brought to the front by the use of chorused and reverberated clean guitars. The juxtaposition is very relevant to the lyrical themes at hand. Anacrusis here deal almost exclusively with feelings of despondency, guilt, the burden of existence, the search of something real. These thematics are the full truth of modern ugliness. If there ever was a type of metal that captures modernism, techno-thrash is certainly it.
Modern extreme music listeners, especially coming from a hardcore punk or metalcore background, are probably very familiar with the idea of a band playing raging extreme music, their singer screaming his lungs off about lyrical matter that is very oblique, inexact, personal, existential and morose. Anacrusis were at the forefront of what only retroactively can be seen as an improvised movement that introduced this type of approach to thrash metal in the start of the 90's. The fascinating thing here is that - unlike a lot of metalcore - the end mixture of sterile thrash, melancholic interludes with moaned and screamed vocals over tremendous teenage guilt achieves a synergy that is very potent. The difference is one of class and subtlety.
Anacrusis have captured on this record, the sound of teenage rebellion, self-doubt and indeed, the irony of early resignation, young men feeling like they're two hundred years old. There isn't much hope to be found in the lyrics of this record. Even in the follow-up to this, "Screams and Whispers", the only hopeful note on the whole thing is the question mark that serves as its bookend. Yet, there is something here that is hidden, something that redeems the angst and pain.
This must have been a difficult album to make in 1991, where metal was still concerned either with appearing tough and macho to outsiders to alienate them, or scrambling for something high-brow to say to appear intelligent for them. Here's a band that had shown considerable capacity for metalhead-pleasing savagery on their debut, putting aside that approach for bearing their personal baggage. This might be old hat in extreme music today but I'm sure the response to Anacrusis at the time was not encouraging. I believe it is exactly because of those embarrassing memories that Anacrusis would choose to remix this record to make it sound tougher for today's climate. I am thinking of a young Kurt Cobain at the brink of world-wide success, still trying to get his close friend to score steroids for him so as to improve his weakling frame. That feeling never goes away. Taking my volume knob away from my won't make it go away either.
This record should sound exactly as it sounds. Spacious as a young empty soul, a void of paranoia, let down by religion, by institution and society. The story here is in the riffs. These riffs, composed so meticulously, harmonized in discordant parallels that mock traditional orchestration, alternated between compact muted linears and delicate vertical arpeggios, here is the cure to the ills of Anacrusis, in full display, can you see it? Heavy metal, even the most punk-infused versions of it like thrash metal, still retains its romantic heart in how riffs and structures are meticulously constructed to point to something higher. Anacrusis here have no words of hope for us, but they have music. Towering monuments, metallic scaffolding that pushes through the modern atmosphere and onto weightlessness and void. Where one is left alone, where there is nowhere to go but inside. There are no answers, but at least now there is a space, an insulated space in which to work it out, completely alone. This is the most fascinating thing about Anacrusis, that they summon not an entity with answers and ideology, but a space in which the useless nothing of modern society, the introverted teenager, is allowed to stretch a wingspan they didn't know they had. To be given back what one always possessed, that is what Heavy Metal is. Romance is a language, but even in lack of language, the broken, battered, beating heart of Heavy Metal beats the same. In the machinery, the clash of deterministic gears with free-willed steel. Look at the blood-red sparks, here is your beauty.
Let's listen to one of the tracks on this album closely. The aesthetic choices here are rife with ambiguous space on which to assign personal meaning. This interaction makes this record intimate, pushing aside the jagged shards of personality that inspired it. I chose the song "Still Black" because it speaks to me the most but the morphological notes here apply to the whole of the album. There is no filler.
0:00 - 0:11 : Tuned a fret low, Anacrusis introduce the main theme of the song, which is chromatic. Sixth, Augmented fifth, perfect fifth, diminished fifth, this is the sound of direction-less anxiety. There is no third to paint this sad or hopeful, there is no movement forwards or backwards. The by then customary thrash frill of punctuating the start of each bar before coming in in unison is upset on bar two, the phrase left to stand on its own. Doesn't it sound weak, almost comical with the hollow sound design, on some level? Now think of when you were a teenager, locked in an argument with figures of authority, how shrill and powerless you sounded.
0:20 - This is that voice, coupled with the second guitar harmonizing the stacked diminished fifths, the sound has more power but sounds askew. Combustion, propulsion, impulse, but no certainty, where will this take us?
0:21 - Stop-start, a heartbeat's worth of breath, and the lyric comes:
"My touch means nothing
It's just a sympathetic mock embrace
This pity for you leaves nothing
But a bitter taste
Persistent lies, nothing
But useless words of waste
Your voice seems harmless through
These softened tones of grey
But grey is still black"
Remember when you were young and compromise, middle-ground and half-measures seemed so alien and confusing? How 'good enough' was still bad? The way 'grey is still black' is voiced by Anacrusis here rings true to me, every time.
On the second verse, as irritation rises, the last word of each line is screamed, voice cracking.
"Your face is nothing
But a transparent fixture
Perception is nothing
But a distorted picture
Expectations are taking in
The deceptive mixture
Your substance is nothing
But a lightened shade of grey
But grey is still black "
Here is the guilt. Perception is nothing, nobody is right, we all hope but we all fear, and it doesn't stop hurting.
1:21 Note how melancholic it sounds, the verse of
"A carousel of vanity
Apparently persuading me
Still all the while evading me
Accepting all, believing none
Always pretending we are one
Being played on top of thrash metal gallops and palm-muted riffs. The theater of metal is falling apart, the gleam of virtual armor is betraying the human flesh inside. Note how the vocal comes in and out of the mix - no doubt due to bad recording at the time, but how apt it is. This isn't something to fix in a remaster.
1:39 As 'so meaningless' is called - and here is the startling beauty of it all - the most refined and complex theme of the song is introduced, it unfolds like a flower and in
2:03 the form dissipates into the liquid arpeggio of the mangled power chord that is the spine of the song. Polka beat harshly punctuates. Listen to how little there is left to the song at this point, beautiful fragility. Of course Anacrusis are glorifying emotional distress here, but this is at least, turning pain into a tool, using it to put oneself back together.
"Intentions mean nothing,
It's only for the one inside
Carried on the truthless tide
Cold breath, mistaken,
Whispers with a senseless pride
Your front is nothing,
Nothing but misted cloud of grey
But grey is still black "
Note how at the labored vocalization of 'grey' that marks the beginning of the chorus, stop-starts are employed with a degree of triumph, as if the argument is coming to a head and at least the argument is dynamic, vital, it arrives to an emotional externalization. This point is made again and again on this record, when the right words are finally let out, the music stops to commemorate.
4:09 Note the wonderful switch-up under the melody. The polka beat went from snare first to kick first, propelling the return of the fragile theme towards a subtly different emotional end. I tend to feel snare first polka beat as battery, violence, a series of body strikes, whereas kick first feels for me like someone moving - away or towards - something. Something positive has come from this argument after all. Hidden beauty, hidden hope.
I am not advocating that Kenn Nardi and the rest of Anacrusis composed this piece of music with these clear conscious signifiers in mind. I think instead that a lot of great art is understood in the analysis of the subconsciousness of the artist, as betrayed in the art object. It is not imperative for these aesthetic intuitions I present to be validated by the artist or by the public at large. That they are inspired, that the music makes me feel and think and try to put these two things together, is enough.
And after all this a guitar lead is allowed to comment on the main themes of the song. It is melancholic but active, searching for different accents and punctuations to the arguments at hand. It holds a high note for its exit, an idea that lingers, the original idea restated in a final verse and chorus repeat, vocals more savage than ever, words are fading, only the emotion remains.
On 5:42 - a moaned, distended scream. Gray is still black.