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.