Saturday, January 29, 2011

Bethlehem - Dictius Te Necare

Released by Red Stream in 1996

Rainer Landfermann : Vocals
Kläus Matton : Guitars
Jürgen Bartsch : Bass
Chris Steinhoff : Drums

Let's say a 'musical instrument' is defined by the sound it makes when manipulated. Where does the sound come from? Though the actual physics of sound are complicated, let's say that the conjured sound that comes from this manipulation does not originate in the human playing the instrument, instead it originates from within the instrument itself. Wherewithin exactly? Let's say it is in the exact center of its mass, in its absolute core. For us humans, that core would be the place you feel that burning, fluttering sensation when you're on the verge of action. Remember that feeling? Right at the edge, the precipice of life? That is the feeling of being alive, and in a carved piece of wood with strings over it, music is the same: a conjuration of life in the inanimate. The first man who hit one piece of wood with another felt as much. From these sounds came thoughts, and the thoughts, as modulated through the pitch of the imagination, became meanings.

Modern electronically-augmented music, in this context, is a misleading. A piece of machinery is manipulated by the human, and the sound is carried to a displaced location through wiring, reproduced and treated by a disembodied signal processor and amplifier. The thing itself, the object in the hands of the musician doesn't produce the end signal, it translates intention as a secondary degree of separation: a conduit of a conduit. Through this muddling of the signal, through this broken telephone, we achieve inspiration. We are used to this now, but please consider the world in a stupider, more primal way for me, just for a second.

I stand to your left and strum my electric guitar. My amplifier far to your right lets forth a resonant, distorted chord. You look at me, and my hands, but the sound comes from somewhere else. Isn't it ridiculous? Let's say the amplifier is at a very low volume, don't I look silly toiling at my mechanical erection only to summon forth those tiny, displaced cricket sounds? There is something there, some would call it dishonesty, some would call it a subversion. Let's consider that now I am attacking my instrument with renewed fervor, I am bending the strings, grinding them on the frets, I am making guitar-player grimaces, I am sweating. We turn the amplifier up until the whole room resonates. What physicality, you think. Yet the sound of my labor doesn't connect to my body, the weight, the violence of it is meta-physical. I am entering your mind, I am burning your soul, and I haven't touched you - I haven't even touched the sound that I am using to do this to you.

Let's now kick me and my amp out of the picture and consider a Heavy Metal song in its entirety, as experienced by the listener in their privacy. The stereo sound space is packed with information, meticulously crafted and placed in the range by a recording engineer and the band. There's often multiple clones of the guitarists playing on the far left and right of the field, some dry and in-your-face, some farther away and dampened by room acoustics of a room that doesn't exist. The drum set, whose physical location in the studio session was centered in a three meter cubicle, now spans the wide stereo range, the toms in a amphitheatrical radius around the listener's brain. Lead guitars appear suddenly, cutting right in the middle, competing with a chorus of singer-clones, or they instead are barely felt tens of meters away, deep in a nearby cave, reverberating ghastly. Keyboards rumbling low in the ground or perhaps instead high in the celestial heavens, black stars in the sky and flashes of bright thunder. What a stage that is, right? Absolutely impossible, improbable, sublime. How little it has to do with how the performers looked when they engaged their conduits-of-a-conduit in the recording session. Sometimes one at a time, playing to a click track. Sometimes their performances replaced in part or in whole by triggered electronics, their inputs stripped bare of nuance and error, only the binary intention left: a note appears here, or else there is silence here. This is how music crosses the Rubicon from the world of the living flesh, to the elysian fields of memory. This is how music dies to become perfect. The memory of its physicality remains an alluring connection to our experience, yet it has become spectral, intangible. It can never again be contained, scrutinized, dissected, like a physical effect. Do you know that even musicians forget how to play their songs some time after they've recorded them?

Heavy Metal is part of a long lineage of electronically augmented musics to embrace this paradox of meta-physicality. Whereas its spirit hearkens back to that primal state of "hitting the instrument so it may channel", its sound design is resolutely modern and programmatic: how can we place these disparate performances in a wholly invented sound field so as to conjure imaginative and inspiring vistas? How can we use the sound pool, the prime material to encourage the listener to tell a story that is more than the sum of the parts of the recording session?

When I listen to Heavy Metal I very rarely imagine a bunch of sweaty dudes in a room playing something, the sound coming from them or even from the instruments in their hands. I do not imagine physical human beings at all. It is therefore very odd to me, often disappointing, when I go to live shows and hear music that I've been intimate with for sometimes decades and I see these people play it out as if it's some kind of song, played on a couple of guitars and a drum kit. The older I get, the more I've been able to pinpoint this source of disappointment, and the more it's keeping me away from live shows. No matter how perfect the performance of the musicians in respect to the recorded material, it can never be perfect enough, for I still see it in front of me performed by musicians. The perfect state of (most, not all) Heavy Metal music is far away from human hands and instruments plugged in to amplifiers and PA systems, the perfect state of Heavy Metal is meta-physical, beyond life, a mirror to death. A bridge between lonely sentience and natural grace. Have you ever wondered why there's so many Heavy Metal album covers where there's a levitating guitar, sometimes set on fire, sometimes struck by lightning, once or twice coming out of an Albion lake, not a handler, a human in sight?

Heavy Metal knows itself, and even as it tries to perfect itself (=to kill itself) it rebels to that same process (it wants to stay alive). It levitates in the middle of the journey, it tries to have it all. That is what is most alluring about it, the headless statue that through chaos probability may magically find its head, the living who is dead. There is the violence of Heavy Metal - it has nothing to do with worldly pursuit of power, it has everything to do with to live and die at once. Breathing corpse. Beautiful & grotesque, morbidly angelic, a dream of death.

What there is to feel in Bethlehem's music can be found in the sound design of "Dictius Te Necare". You've probably heard a million different bands playing their variations of angry rock music by now, but please, return to that stupider, more primal state for a few seconds more and listen as if it's the only thing you've ever listened to. Classify the metaphysics of this with the urgency of survival. Beyond the obvious malice and menace of the screaming head, levitating high and low, laughing, weeping mumbling endlessly, there are other signifiers. Listen behind and around it. Dry, linear tremolo riffs abruptly giving away to open spaces where little happens. Stop thinking about this as entertainment, stop trying to have an opinion, a characterization that will make the incessant screaming head safe. You don't have to like it or dislike it, it isn't art, it isn't made by human beings, it is instead like the the stone, like a tree. It is there and what you do with it is imagine.

Amidst guitars and reverberated battery, the sound of fountain spring, few melancholy notes listlessly linger. The accusation towards Bethlehem of making music that sounds premeditatedly insane is a surface one, for those that can only hear the screaming head and cannot parse what it is saying. There are as many colors and movements here as there are inside any romantic art, though the value and meaning of them is dark. Whenever we most closest to a meaning, the band seemingly gives up, they run away at different directions, leaving behind distant murmurs or perhaps a lonely guitar playing little queen codas to nothing.

I do not know how many songs there are on this record, or what it is that separates one of them from the next. I have never listened to it in part, on purpose, nor do I have any favorite sequences I could point you towards as indicative of the benefits of it as entertainment. My mind rebels at trying to describe it, even. What I can tell you is that it took a long time to accept this music as it is, to look behind the screaming head. This achieved, what I am left with is a space that feels my own and yet alien. Listening to "Dictius Te Necare" for me is a dark walk outside on the inside... is it worth it to describe something so ingressive as if it's not? What would happen then?

Let's return to our smarter, modern, more self-aware mindsets now and see. The scientist has to say from his reductionist outlook and his Aristotelian tool set that this is made from riffs, common song structures, relatively safe minor melodies and common rock beats. There's even parts that sound like Iron Maiden and Scorpions. It is methodically robust, like most extreme metal, it is even conservative in structure. And yet, that screaming head, none of its choices make any sense. Could it be that it didn't make choices? It feels as if the band captured this person from the street, gave them the lyrics sheet and pressed record and this man cut off his head and let all the hateful blood jet out coldly, all at once, no grace or taste in it at all. Here are your “lyrics”, gents. Every word uttered perfectly, yet its all so wrong, the cadences out of time and the rhymes unfinished. This I believe to have been malice against the scientist, intentional and clear. If it is something Bethlehem did not want their music to be, is safe and enjoyable for the reductionist that pacifies everything with knowledge. Wrestling with art, armed with a scissor will always result to its wielder winning, but at what cost? When all the weird has been cut off for logic to add up, we're looking at the hands beating the instrument and saying how beautiful is the sound we have chosen out of it. If it was a matter of choice, there would be no instrument involved, music would be an academic thesis, printed and distributed but never felt in the space beyond space.

But that's not what we do with music. If "Dictius Te Necare" has a meaning, it's difficult to tie down. It's very lonely, but I am not lonely when I listen to it. It is dark, but it does not drive me to depression when I engage it. It is demented but I am saner and my focus more crystallized when I experience it. This is what romantic art does with the ghastliest of sources and it's how it's often misunderstood: the end result is of inspiration and imagination, not of impression and subjugation. What resonates, the quality to seek is not in values and ideals conjured but the space that's left sparse to wander.

Sunday, January 23, 2011


How can you climb a mountain to kill a God?
Why do you cross unknown lands, to kill our Gods?
Why do you build walls to starve our Gods?
Is it for the same reason you blind us?
Is this way you punish our children?
And rape our sisters?
When will we drown?
When will we burn?
Will you die with us? I think so
You are slicing your own wrists
You are tearing your own hearts
And you are drowning your own children
So you can end it... or we will
We are telling them the truth
And revealing all your lies
We do not need to climb a mountain
Or to cross unknown lands
Because we are Gods
And we will drown you
We will burn your homes
We the people, we the spirits, we the Gods

There's this complaint leveled against some Heavy Metal music that it is pretentious. Against actual human beings, it is a very winning strategy because we are all internally unsure of ourselves to various degrees. We assume roles we hope will win us various social benefits and it's a tell that we won't be getting what we need when we are exposed for 'trying too hard'. That's what pretension means, on the inter-personal level: you're trying too hard to act like a grown-up and I can tell, little boy. It's a very cutting critique because everyone is trying too hard. It's like the loser with no life that always jumps at the chance to berate others for being losers with no life. If we focus on the other guy, we're safe for the time being, right? Everybody's playing a game of hide and seek with each other, exposing as little of themselves as they can while still pursuing their social agenda, and always on the lookout to point at and laugh with the next-door emperor with no clothes.

I have problems with the term when used interpersonally not only because it presupposes generally unfair expectations, but because more importantly, it fails in describing the psychodynamics involved in social transactions. Nobody that talks to you is telling you anything real, even if they think it's real anyway. In the space where what they want and what you want interject, there's nothing real there, there's just pleasing congruity. Cries of pretension are a cheap description of something complex and they're used as weapon. However in the context of art it's worse, it becomes a really baffling critique that shows a fundamental misunderstanding on the part of the listener as to the inherent qualities of art.

All art is pretension. The very essence of art-making involves reaching outside the mundane and the expected. If there's a piece of music that has ever touched the reader and inspired them, chances are it wasn't made with any humility. With romantic art (the most naive type of art, perhaps) and Heavy Metal foremost (the naivest of the naive), this centered desire for teliosis, this death fascination, goes well beyond reason and 'realism'. Humility is for the living. It's really baffling that anyone would buy a record with a memento mori skull gazing back at them on the cover and expect anything mundane and humble.

What I get from this critique of metal music is that some listeners go to it thinking that it isn't romantic at all. It's a band, let's say, Mercyful Fate, who perhaps play some cool-ass riffs and have nice singalong songs, they're primarily a bunch of guys making entertainment. So if these guys are pretending to be something else than base level entertainers, then the entity of Mercyful Fate is pretentious, it's trying too hard, it's embarrassing. This is perhaps the mindset of the scene socialite; the social gamer that is trying to play angles to make friends and win status. They will side with the more honest artists whose art they think more realistically depicts their lives because that's who they want to make friends with, these people are the most useful (this is also the reason punk and hardcore scenes are still, and will always remain, the more active). I never wanted to make friends with Mercyful Fate -- as drawn as I am to that entity, I also fear it, I am surprised at what it can do. I feel reverence towards it. I may come to be entertained by their riffs and melodies, but I stay for something else entirely.

That may sound very basic to some of you, you might be baffled by what these people are trying to do to themselves with Heavy Metal. How can today's metal listeners be now leveling critique of pretension towards this type of music? It's because they think they're metalheads but they're really punkers.

Punk rock scenes often operate under the assumption that the musicians are true to a credo of beliefs and that these beliefs will factor into their every action, both artistic and mundane. Using this system, the scene will gage how 'down to earth' and 'real' the musicians are at any time. However, Heavy Metal music is very solipsist, it is impossible to judge the artist's ideology through the movement of the band itself... romantic art doesn't care about you and your friends. The only way for punker to gage Heavy Metal music is for how entertaining it is. Though metal musicians operate inside a society (the low level economics behind putting out records are certainly social) they're doing their hardest on the higher level to disregard those inherent modernist charges. The end result is that although punkers and metalheads, their scenes and their methods are (now, or perhaps always were?) very alike, their artistic product is variable in its resistance to social critique and scrutiny. Punk music (especially hardcore punk of the American variety) goes out of its way to be a transparent conduit to the belief sets of the individuals that make up the band, to be a reflection of 'real life' (whether it achieves that or if this is achievable anyway is a different discussion) whereas metal music goes out of its way to obscure the faulty individuals behind the music, instead to summon an entity as ancient as it is inscrutable with our modern tools of logic and dialectics. To look into a Heavy Metal record and comment on how pretentious is it is akin to looking inside a natural chasm or fountain spring and doing the same. That level of critique does nothing to the art - and it gives no tools for the critic to understand it either. Only disappointment can be found there for the listener. And then the natural question is, what are punk rockers doing in Heavy Metal scenes? Do they need it so much, to be disappointed? Is some existential belief in them hinged on finding pretenders and outing them? "Everyone is a liar", that sort of thing?

I believe the answer may be that after metal music's stab at the mainstream circa 1988-90 and the resulting commercial disaster, it went underground by necessity, to survive. There it met other debris of the same process like punk rock and gothic rock and whatnot, and these scenes cross-polinated with metal-curious punks leaving their ideological mark on (most of all) the then-nascent extreme types of metal. But that's a different post for a different time.

To offer a counterpoint to my position above, however, let's say that calling a piece of romantic art pretentious can also mean that the art is failing in its romantic intent even for the romantically-inclined critic. Though such theoretical entities should know better than to use that language, let's go with it. It is very embarrassing to be exposed to failing romantic art because it's an acute and unflattering reflection on us and how we spend our time to be caught up with such bullshit. So, effectively, when someone positively inclined toward romance, critiques a Heavy Metal record on grounds of pretension, what they might be really saying is "it doesn't capture me, it's transparent and I can see through it, to the people behind it and they're just people after all". Whereas calling something pretentious is a communication shutdown if there ever was one (and tellingly, the best invitation for flames), the above breakdown of the same accusation is perhaps braver and promotes further discussion.

Why do we feel let down when we can see that people are people after all? Is it that the stronger the spell may be, the worse it is when we realize what imperfect beings can temporarily summon such power over us? Is it the inevitable fallout of any masochism to be disenchanted when the one-who-hurts is demystified? Is this why some of us move towards auto-gratification (making our own Heavy Metal) instead?

Friday, January 21, 2011

Atrox - Contentum

Released in 2000 by Season Of Mist

Eivind - guitars
Rune - guitars, samples, sounds
Monika - vocals, synths
Tor Arne - drums
Hingst Hirbel - bass

There's a woman and a man inside every soul. Opposites longing for reconciliation, a lifetime spent to bridge this gap, one fashioned of modern usefulness and reason. Men destroy, women create, a quaint, outmoded line of thinking. Men will spear and kill and women will take the kill and make it into life, what a laughable simplification of the endlessly complicated human condition. A simple existence-for-existence drawing, it has nothing to offer the modern citizen. But this life we mock, invented perhaps, of the Neanderthal, whose memory for one hundred and fifty faces, vocations and uses dictates the span of his tribe, it might put a limit to his anxiety as well. His tribe is is world, his direction, you can see it on the horizon.

Mouths aghast when such words are said, on the faces of the facebook generation with the tens of thousands of faces and no clear vocations and uses, the sentient mind of the world-as-community. You savage, they cry: The tribe has no horizon, it is numberless. There is no space left nor is there function. Our raison d'être is to consume then shit ourselves out in smarter, more compact shapes. Our god is pleased with our invention.

This life is no longer simple. Inside human beings there burn the ancient natural calls for birth & death all the same - that we'll begrudgingly acknowledge. But the ever-longing for functional simplicity, for ease and safety that brought us here in this city -- is the one that represses the darker side, it must be repressed because there is nothing left to hunt, nowhere left to go. So we play video-games, and we watch like Americans sports and we fight bloodlessly with words on the internet and we watch televised renditions of atrocity in some faraway land and our destruction is so petty, our small deaths too small, more a sneeze than an orgasm - not even a dream's worth of sleep. We are now no longer animals. We are no longer men and women, we are ideas, our god is logic and in the eyes of this god, what is shameful must surely not exist, must have never existed.

But I feel it, the pull towards Nothingness and the lust for Everything. I want to die a thousand deaths and I want to create a universe of strange life. The dark magic of Heavy Metal to me is not a reminder of petty ideals and citylogic that your excretory grind-core achieves, it is a melancholy reminder of a landscape I have never visited, angles turned into themselves, ancient obsidian monuments carve the cerulean sky. I feel it so well yet my vision is blurry, like in a dream.

There's a woman and a man in me, I know. This world knows nothing, this world that dies every time I close my eyes, I must be imagining it. I will not trust it. Whatever decree your god has for me, whatever killing light he casts inside this cave to illuminate ideas and ideals, there is always a sharp shadow to hide within and imagine everything, askew, wrong, beautiful. In there, the dark dreaming pool, the carnage is shameless and in the winter of its respite, so is love.

Heavy Metal is masculine and feminine. Its surface description is of the latter form. Linear, pummeling riffs, fascist rhythmic dictation, killing thrust. This violence is what attracts us to it initially. But its core is feminine, because it is creative art, it is a genesis of pure emotion. It takes sounds and events and it makes them into something that would have never otherwise existed. What makes us respond to romantic art is this inner tenderness that one must wound and hurt so much to reach. There is the reconciliation of opposites that - I theorize - earlier man, less sentient and less comfortable, would achieve much more simply than the dualist worldbrain we're part of today allows for.

Atrox are a sister band to The 3rd and the Mortal. Their fascinating reflection to their atmospheric metal is warped; Where The 3rd and the Mortal achieved weightlessness and introspection through a very sanded-down and solemn audio sculpture, Atrox push towards a pluralist direction, awash with sight and sound and curious detours into caricature realms.

I remember buying this record after reading a bewildered review of it in a magazine. The reviewer couldn't parse the goings on in "Contentum", but through his description - which he meant to use as means of dismissal - I could see there would be something there for me. Indeed, on my first few listens it clicked instantly and seamlessly with my aesthetic sense and it is with difficulty now that I try to remove myself from it and look from the outside to describe it to you.

This music, I suppose, in this remote mode, is weird. The record cover is lurid with saturation and formless detail, beings of undefinable purpose and sense belong together in chaotic symmetry. The music inside might be upsetting because the singer tends to dance around the linear riffs wildly, almost maniacally at times. As the bird tries to escape the cage, the cage must grow around it in fractal fascination. Little about "Contentum" is straightforward, but not nothing. There's riffs and songs and metal here, but it's what dresses them that's curious.

Some sense can be forced on this curious record if its predecessor is examined. Of a more standard doom/death form, there the female vocals are used in the sedate & usual "beauty and the beast" mode pioneered by Theatre of Tragedy: a very anguished man is screaming prose and between his gasps, an ethereal female voice swims. This is how metalheads want their womanly presence in their metal: sexless and discrete, being told where to interject and with what geisha anecdote.

On "Contentum" there are no tortured male screams. The other difference is the constant melodic leads on both guitar and keyboards that decorate the muscular riffery underneath. This is a braver way to portray a womanly presence in Heavy Metal, one that is fleshed out, not the impossible idealized shadow of femininity but instead a human entity that travels freely from lower to higher strata, unbridled by laws and expectations, rude and playful as it is gracious and skilled. That female voice to me sounds, as it always sounded, like the voice of pure creation.

It's brave to write metal music like this, not only because there is no precedent for it but also because there's a reason there's not any precedent for it. Metalheads are embarrassed by the feminine aspect of their music even more than they're embarrassed by the maso-homosexual implication of being pummeled by riffs: Atrox conjure a space where their accomplished and directed attack seeks to destroy in familiar and pleasurable ways the listener while an impish female ghost witnesses and laughs. I can see why some metalheads were infuriated at the vocal excursions here, they're not discrete. They demand acknowledgment. This streak of manic assertion makes it an intensely female record, and that makes it even more difficult to present to the army of perpetually teenaged-feeling guys that make up the metal hordes. Atrox can be seen as if they're making fun of muscular metal with their vocal histrionics.

However, they're not. Opposites are reconciled through talent, here. For the extremities this record achieves in places, it very rarely feels as if it's pulling itself apart by going in many different directions at once. There's grace and nuance as to the positioning of voices and density. Atrox know what they're doing.

Also let's consider from the outside another reaction to this music, one not of bewilderment and annoyance, but passé and cynical acceptance. "So it's avant-garde metal with a gimmicky singer, Helm. What's the big deal?" It's true that in the essence of avant-garde often is the invention of a gimmick. A good reason why I contest the usage of the avant-garde term in metal music is exactly because metal music is far too constructed to be truly experimental. For every vocal pyrotechnic here, there are equally brilliant and nuanced rhythmic and melodic offerings on other instruments, the music coheres. Atrox achieves a gestalt that has little to do with 'experimental' music and much to do with carefully and conservatively considered compositional technique. Play the voices of almost any song here on a piano, and then compare that material with actual avant-garde music.

So it's an interesting thing to note that 'avant-garde' in metalhead perspective is a music that to outsiders sounds mostly like other metal music. The range of expression expected (and desired) by metalhead audiences is limited. There is a reason for this, it is that sound is only the gateway to something else for the metalhead, it is not the focus itself. Experimentalists of prime sound do not fascinate if they cannot take us where we long to go, in that place where chaos and order are reconciled, dreams of death assuage the modern scars of logic.

I hold what Atrox have achieved here in great respect, and it's one of the few cases I feel a little disappointment that there's been no merited follow-up to it from them or other hopefuls. The track "Ignoramus" here with its confused power-groove and ill-fitting atmosphere sadly suggests the direction that Atrox would take with every successive release. The balance is ruined. The beautiful is also the scary on "Contentum" - intuitive movement, non-directive, fluttering emotion, prone to exhaustive depths or heights, fragile as is strong - it comes from a woman's psyche. There should be more metal music that isn't afraid to show these colours. Euro-metal with washed out Opera singers doesn't achieve this, nor does extreme metal with women gurgling and screaming, pretending to be one of the boys.

True femininity brings terror to those accustomed to sexuality-as-spectacle for in it are carried a thousand desires, not all of them prepackaged and safe. The gamut of wistful playfulness, wanderlust, dramatic disappointment and ultimate melancholy - the emotional range of a teenager of full heart, before the world breaks them with logic, is here. We all know how our heart beats, but we're ashamed of some of it, most of it. When we're brave and enter Heavy Metal with romance in our eyes, we often yet overextend in the anger of destruction. To deny the equal pull towards creation, is to create lifeless monuments to the Nothing. Stillbirth. The risk must be taken, a smile must be carved on the stone - the playfulness and levity of this music stands important exactly because of how grave and serious its intent is to convey all of the psyche is. Life and death, together.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Heavy Metal Spectacle

Metalheads are easily impressed. The hook of Heavy Metal music on the surface level is the same spectacle that captures the attention of fans of other pop music, i.e. what the artist is wearing in their photo-shoot, what big statement they made in the press, how catchy the first melody of the first song on the record is, so on. On that level, how hard, fast and/or technical a metal band plays serves the same purpose as the new outfit worn by Lady Gaga. Different language, same argumentation.

Most Heavy Metal listeners aren't musicians themselves. I suspect an unquantifiable section of them are failed guitarists, but even so, failed for a reason. It's depressing to see how bands with little meaning to their music are often revered by metalheads as not only important but more important than pop music because they employ technical trickery that impresses the musical illiterate. Nearly everything metal music does on an aesthetic and compositional level is a more technically dense version of what more tame popular music does, only with the conceit that the added chops and technicality can only exist because they serve a higher purpose. Like many sophist arguments, underneath the hood this is a circular argument "Of course my metal is profound, otherwise why would it be so complicated sounding?"

Density doesn't equal complexity and complexity doesn't equal nuance. The more tech-heavy modern metal gets, the less it seems to have anything to say emotionally and the palette in which to say it becomes more and more monochromatic via dictates of loudness wars sound design. Instead modern metal is increasingly base, the basic idea is how most to augment the linear sexuality of the riff, the mechanised sadist thrust of sixteenths over double-bass. Slow metal, fast metal, noodly wanky prog metal and anthemic chorus-laden pop metal, all with the same values, all peaking over the red, all loudly cracking speakers in a simple triangle room. Speaker left, lonely guy, speaker right.

When humans are trying to describe reality, they do so in simple terms, simple stories that make sense, semi-realist fantasies that capture the generalized shape of something deeply confusing to make it safe, to domesticate it. Conspiracy theorists look at geopolitical happenings that are so infinitely complex to unravel and they offer simpler, safer constructs to explain away that feeling of dread inherent in gazing inside an endless machine: the Jews did it. The New World Order. I don't blame conspiracy theorists for reaching that caveman-structural end to their paranoia because 'simple solutions' is an ancient reflex. It got us where we are. It is inherent in the belief in basic language. In the adoration of grammar, as Nietzsche said, we may find the strongest suggestion that the populous is not finished with the concept of God.

Humans like simple things. If you can't explain it simply, it doesn't exist. The curious thing with the fantasies of these simple solutions is that once humans present them in the culture and if they achieve traction and enter the public subconscious, they inform the endlessly complex structures on which they are commenting on. This means that although the Jews are not controlling the world, after widespread conspiracy theorizing as to the opposite, there absolutely must be now influential (or self-considered influential) Jews that are stepping up to that fantasy, they're trying to control the world. They're trying to turn a fantasy into reality because a fantasy is simpler and safer. This effect is the same on all levels. Take how human beings explain away the complex interpersonal interactions between lovers in the model of 'women are from Venus, men from Mars'. Ludicrous as such dualism may be, after it has penetrated the public subconscious, there are now men who are trying to be extra Martian and women so unbearably and artificially pink that it becomes an aggressive, sadistic tactic. God does not exist but we have invented him and look how people flock to deities of all stripes and colors, they cannot all be right, can they? What if they're all right in the simple terms of their simple life story, though? What if the lowest-entry personality cult member is achieving the exact same grace that high-echelon Christians are? What if the biggest pull to simple structure is psychic safety?

Likewise, Heavy Metal music, a complex cultural and artistic phenomenon, has suffered decades of attempted simplifying, its rough edges sanded down for public consumption. Every new metal genre name is a wound in this sense, it is a further codification of what needs no more. And exactly because these tags and genre codes gain traction with the consumer public, this feeds back into the making of metal music on the primary level. Musicians are not trying to make unpredictable, chaotic art that may solidify as it itself desires, they're trying to make "thrash metal". "True death metal". "Orthodox black metal". They're channeling nothing more profound than their own surface expectations. They know beforehand what this music is supposed to be and they're trying to fit their inspiration in a predetermined mold. Modern heavy metal, as all modern art suffers from these expectations-coming-to-life. The more mainstream the metal strand, the clearer the ravages of this feedback loop: it has become what was infuriatingly the cliché outsider view of it was for decades: obnoxiously loud without nuance, subtlety and higher meaning. Deafening, pummeling walls of distortion that decorate either low angst or desire for fucking. It wasn't always so, but once humanity has fantasized a simple solution, outliers will subconsciously feel the pull to cater to the expectation, to belong, to exist.

Humans like simple solutions. They like structure and order. These things are safe, they mean we will not die today. But safety isn't exciting. Exactly because we know we will die someday, we also have a deep pull towards senselessness and chaos. The killing reverie of art is a homage to lust and death. We try to hide it and we pretty it up when we can no longer hide it but a very basic reason we celebrate art-making and art-experiencing is because it is startling to remember we know nothing and we're soon going to be not of this world. Nearing the gates of unfathomable delirium, from the first time ancient man banged a piece of wood and danced around a fire so high it could touch the black stars. Now that's exciting.

Art achieves holistic grace in that it is magic that tempers the forces of life but stands in awe against the uncontrollable chaos of death. It must grace both Apollo and Dionysus, otherwise it's not very good as art. If it's too structured, it becomes a (mainstream) video-game: put in specific data, get other, fancier but completely systematic data at the output, predictable as is may be pleasing. Most of modern metal is a video-game in this way: the consumer knows exactly what they're going to get for what they put in before they press play. Of course, humans cannot help being humans and even in the most predictable modernized vacuous metal records there are elements of chaotic death-reverie, startling jolts, no matter how brief and underachieved that remind of that other aspect of art, the dark reflection in the mirror pool: for you to live you must die a little.

Metalheads are easily impressed and they're self-conscious and of low self-esteem. They celebrate the tamest, the most video-game aspects of their beloved music in public conversation. How hard this band plays, how ripping the sound design of this band is, how many beats per minute this drummer can achieve, how many notes in this solo, how much this song sounds like that other song. Or even most insidiously, how sad this song makes one, how deep this band is, how far out the atmosphere of this record. Yet these things are expected, they knew they'd get that before they pressed play. What they got was pleasing melody, conservative, safe structure and a relatively good time. Metalheads often dress up those experiences common with any popular music fan throughout the world as something higher, more important, hidden behind the Heavy Metal ghost, the power of hi-gain distortion and double bass.

If someone is getting more out of their art than this, they must be startled, fundamentally shocked by it, even years after first contact. They struggle with words when called to explain the deepest core of what art does to them and most importantly, when pressed to find these words, they non-standard, they weird, like poetry perhaps. They moved to introspection because of art, they alter themselves in their ingress?

For most music listeners around the world there just isn't enough time and inclination for this. Metalheads aren't any different. The spectacle of art is a tyranny of safety. Much of our identity is defined by what we consume and we are listlessly reminded that our prime directive is to seek comfort and safety in things and services. The information of this way of life on art is captured on our syntax and grammar, subject, verb, object, a God a desire and a product.

Perhaps you've noticed that although I'm talking about music which means the most for me on this blog, I don't reach for hyperbole often. Aside from considerations of taste that inform my writing approach, there's a deeper reason for this. Frenzied praise common to most music reviews (and at the altera pars, cynical deconstruction) I believe are reflexes of self-obfuscation. They focus the reading on the supposedly valiant feats/grave evils the music is impacting on its own, cutting out the perception and life experience of the writer. This is the way to market to one and all. What I am trying to do with this blog is not to domesticate the art in this way, it is to connect disparate personal experiences, aesthetic charges semi-inherent in the form and reaching theory into a whole that is more exuberant and startling in its chaotic non-clarity than any riff or song on itself can accomplish in its disconnected safety. There's nothing to be impressed with in the guts of metal as a music, just melodies harmonies and rhythm like all before and after it and I tire of those that try so far to convince otherwise, to build a simple but grandiose metal machine to hide their persons behind. The parts of a music, the melodies, harmonies and rhythm are put together by people and they who listen to it are people too. To understand the true beauty of art in all its horror and grace is to understand them foremost.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

As to 'best of' lists, in case it wasn't clear...

Ask me again ten years from now if I'm still listening to anything that came out in 2010.