Tuesday, October 4, 2011
Brocas Helm and Cirith Ungol
Let me tell you about Greek metalheads. Greek metalheads are weird but they don't remember. They listen to weird metal and they think it's normal. I'm a Greek metalhead that listens to weird music and tries, once in a while, to remember that its weird. My fascination is not lessened by this realization, if anything it is augmented. I like weird. I do not feel I am like other human beings. Do you? I don't think anyone feels as if they're normal, yet we pretend. There is usefulness in pretending you're normal, socially.
What is normalcy? I suspect it has to do with opinion bias. Let's say you have this tiny opinion, a small thing, no, not an opinion, more an intuition. Let's say your intuition is that Men Are Strong and Women Are Emotional. You're not exactly certain where this intuitive thought comes from. You express it all shy like at first and see how your reality around you deals with it. Unbeknownst to you, that little intuition was planted there by the same society that now will validate it for you. Yes, yes, good boy. You look up to certain individuals, they may be peers or parents or other figures of control and authority. When someone smarter than you confirms one of your small ideas as correct, when they pat you on the ass and send you on your way to plant the seed, you feel wonderful. You no longer have to think about this little thing anymore, since it's verified as true. File under 'solved'. Perhaps you're here on this blog for this same reason. Well I've got nothing normal for you, I spit on your normalcy, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.
So, the construct of normality is based on what a society expects of a society. It feeds itself, it perpetuates reality in order to function. That society-image that is constantly enforced is not necessarily connected with real events, only interpretations of events (certainly, men and women exist, certainly men and women are different. That's as far as any tidy epistemological review of the genders can go. The rest is interpretation). What I'm getting at with my second grade sociophilosophy here is that no matter how many people agree on a conception of the 'real world' and of 'what is normal', their shared fantasy remains a fantasy. There's many different groups with different reality-fantasies, they all consider the out groups as wrong and their psychological well-being hinges on the suppression of the Other. War's always in fashion.
But why would people do something so risky as to interpret reality? Can't we all agree to look at the real reality straight in the eye? Wouldn't that make sense?
There is nothing more terrible as unfiltered reality. The razor of Occam will cut you in half. The Nooumenon, if accessed, will destroy our sense of self, our will will dissipate into aether. When we realize everything we know is wrong, everything we believe is unfounded, nothingness takes the place of somethingness. What is worse than death? Oblivion. You haven't died, you never existed. There is no going back when time hasn't even started.
People need to make sense of reality. Reality is non-sense in its core. People therefore wrestle sense out of non-sense, because non-sense annihilates. People need to agree with each other that the sensical frame they're put all this nonsense in exists, much in the "are you seeing what I'm seeing, g-good, this means I'm not dreaming this" reflex. Domestication of wilderness.
Yes normalcy is a fantasy. We all remember this deep inside. The dread of non-sense, of in-humanity, of non-causality, is at the core of the being. A shadow strikes in the absence of light and molds terror into insanity. Don't go that far out in the darkness, now. At best, take a sideways glance into the wound, let's say from morbid fascination, for higher inspiration. That's what we've got art for.
And from all the arts, oh the weirdest of them all is Heavy Metal! (this is false but go with it). Romantic chaos core yet the product of modernist means. It has a classicist conceit but not half the talent of any b-grade classical composer. It has roots in rock n' roll but there's no swing to it. It's an ape trying to become God through imagination. Heavy Metal is trying, like anything else, to establish a reality, a normalcy, but it's just so misshapen, so ill-wrought that any way you look at it you have to notice it: there's a lot of nonsense in Heavy Metal. There is power in those ambiguous spaces, and so often we try to hide them, we're embarrassed for them.
Greek metalheads. My nom de plume on the internet is 'Helm'. It doesn't come from Brocas Helm, but it also comes from Brocas Helm. I was introduced to Brocas Helm by people who consider them, Omen, Manilla Road, Cirith Ungol, Warlord, Manowar to be Gods. I capitalize because I am literal. Have you heard of the weird fascination of European vinyl collectors with fabled US metal? It's a weird thing, but I've come to a small understanding of it over the years.
You see, Greece in the late '80s and early '90s was a country under American cultural influence. American cinema, American comics, American music, American television. We grew up with Rambo, Batman, Robocop, Conan. I remember my childhood fascination with American entertainment vibrantly. My age and grasp of English wouldn't allow me to understand all of the cultural signifiers inherent to these imported arts. I instead would appropriate their strengths and discard their weaknesses and place them in the same mythical mindspace where artifacts of a higher cultural ethos also wandered. Robocop would and could team up with brave Odysseus, on his long voyage to Ithaka. Hercules was both a character in marvel comics and a demi-god of courage and roid rage. I saw no incongruity to this absolutely weird mix of small gods. The only god that never featured was the Christian one, his essence too mystical and complex for my young mind to ever bother fathoming. What do you mean he's one but he's three, and why did one of his three die to save my soul? No thanks. The only aspect of the christian god my child mind could roll with was that he existed before time. My small Greek child mind saw time as eternal, no beginning, no past, no end. As far as little Helm was concerned, Robocop has existed before time too. I didn't like the part about how God created time though, I though that's bull. Human beings created time, they were the ones telling me I will grow from a child to a man and from a man into a corpse.
In the same way, the early adopters of Heavy Metal music here in Greece, after the initial culture shock of the British innovators, seeked US steel as if it was of inherent higher quality by virtue of it being from the US. It didn't hurt that the US did create amazing metal and in great quantities. In their broken-English understanding they stripped away irony from almost trash-culture influenced US metal vinyl, and with irony together something else shed away: ephemerality. In the strange universe where Conan arm-wrestles Thesseus, these weird little records, product of America's 5 year long fascination-cum-appropriation of the 'next new thing' (Heavy Metal) became much more than they appeared. The US moved on, but Heavy Metal in Greece stood still. It became ancient, timeless and the records they became masterpieces of pathos.
I'm not joking. Brocas Helm and Cirith Ungol are a big deal here for (a lot of) metalheads over 25. Perhaps for the American reader this sounds weird, and that's because it is. However inside Greek cult-and-true metal circles, it's not weird, it is normal. It has become an enforced fantastic-reality, and to be True of Steel and Spirit, you have to swear by Robocop and Apollo both that you find it absolutely normal as well.
I'm not going to deny what I am. I've listened to Cirith Ungol and Brocas Helm for so long they sound normal to me too. I can swear the Oath too, I can converse with my similars. But it's very useful to step outside of one's mindspace once in a while and appreciate how weird all of this is, because there's a power that's often forgotten there. This is what this article is about.
Still on board? Great. So, what's the fuss, why search for strangeness in Brocas Helm? Well, because if Brocas Helm are normal, and if Cirith Ungol are normal, and if Warlord are normal, and if Manowar are normal, that means all these things are the same, and must be appreciated in the same way. This is problematic, and it is how the myth of 'US metal' came to be. These bands couldn't be any more different from each other and nobody should be expected to like Warlord like they like Manowar. The (not so) secret brotherhood of True Metal hinges on the idea that this all makes sense, a linear, masculine sort of sense, brought by Apollo with his thunder perfect mind. But instead these bands are really weird. Queer, one could say. It's worthwhile looking at them from this vantage.
Brocas Helm's first record, 'Into Battle' is my preference, but for the purposes of this text, we shall investigate their second offering, 'Black Death'. A nice anecdote I have to share that makes my case is that a close friend of mine who comes from a black metal background decided to give Brocas Helm a listen at some point. He doesn't have an early start with obscure US steel so he only had second-hand impressions to go with. He listened to the record and told me that found it very interesting how not-at-all-like-US-metal the record sounded. Listening to US metal fans praise Brocas Helm to the heavens, he expected really muscular, tight and complex power metal, but instead he found strange, reverberated psych rock and stop-starty rock and roll and drug folk and a bongo-drum freakout topped by a thrash maelstorm and all sorts of weirdness. When he told me this I put the record on (well, I double clicked on some mp3s) and tried to listen with his ears and he's right. This music is misrepresented. I don't know exactly why yet, but it's a shame it is.
The production makes everything swim in uncertainty what with it's endless reverb waves. Guitar phrases come and go, letting the bass underpin most of the melodic movement in the song. Playful rock and roll licks are elevated into something altogether individual by unorthodox twin-lead harmonies. Songs are short and the energy is fierce. The vocalist sounds like he comes from a bar rock band. There's choruses of twisted chanting midget vocals, reverse-taped keyboard leads, there's medieval-sounding flutes and there's extensive neoclassical solo bass. Lyrics are always short phrases that make less sense the more I read them, their tales of fantasy much less to do with Tolkien and much more with the pulpy writing of... well, the usual suspects. There's a song to give courage to new capitalists joining the fold after the fall of the Iron Curtain. And there's humour. Is this US metal? How the hell did this become integrated into any normalcy, how did liking Brocas Helm become a perquisite for belonging in any masculine subculture?
Hell's Whip is one of my favorite tracks from Brocas Helm. Let's take it as an example and discuss its morphology.
0:00 - 0:12 Intro with a staccato medieval-sounding bass+guitar phrase with cymbal embellishments. This choppy sort of riff characterizes Brocas Helm. It sounds like Greek traditional island music if you ask me.
0:13 - 0:44 Sound effect of thunder. Sound and fury! The verse riff below is a more robust variation of the intro, still staccato and march-like (no groove to speak of) with palm mutes and then singer contradicts the whole thing by hitting a faltering falsetto note at the end of the verse, made even better by the endless reverb wash. Studs and leather! Hell's whip flashing! Coming down on meeeeee heheh
0:44 - 1:15 Open chords underpin the vocal melody here, a common rock trope to strip down the riff to let the singer be, but of course the drummer chooses this spot to put all his fancy fills in. Oh and then the bass guitar pops through the mix completely. It's like the band refuses to commit to a single mood and stick with it all together, there's a discussion between the members as the song goes on. They make the less dense harmonically passage sound the busiest. When you're not paying attention, almost all Brocas Helm songs are achieving the same mood, all the time. When you're paying attention, Brocas Helm songs are achieving many different moods in different combination at all times.
1:15 - 1:32 Of course everything comes to a dead stop and we get the reprise of the intro. Usually after a chorus a metal band will play their awesome power riff to drive the hook deeper, but this is Brocas Helm's idea of an awesome riff. This staccato minstrel melody, you can almost see the wee men dancing around the fire to it.
1:32 - 2:00 ABCABC, there's also a sound effect of what sounds something like howling wind but could also be a jet engine in the background.
2:00 - 2:15 repeat of intro, with a very distant and cavernous guitar harmony somewhere in there, sounds like an afterthought in the mixing stage.
2:15 - 3:41 The band finally lets loose completely outside the ABCABC structure suggested above. Sound effects of breaking class (?) and a barbaric clash of double bended leads and double bass until we enter the solo proper. Of course the solo is underpinned by an amazing riff that other bands would use as the main hook. Has there ever been so many sound effects in a Heavy Metal song?
3:41 - Out of nowhere and with no flow at all we are presented with a final reprise of the intro theme and the song ends. This music is weird as well with the standards of Heavy Metal bands. I love it, and I'm certain those others that love it do so in earnest, but let's remind ourselves how outside even Iron Maiden's concept of song construction (which is weird in itself) even one of the simplest Brocas Helm songs is. If we like this, we like weird music. If we like weird music, let's be sympathetic towards weird human beings. Let's not make a fantasy-normality out of weirdness, let's embrace it. I posit that if there's any lover of strange Heavy Metal like Brocas Helm that also has a problem with minorities of any type, of non-privileged out groups, they need to listen to their music closer.
The rest of 'Black Death' is wonderful and varied (if you're paying attention). In some songs you can barely hear the vocals. In others the lead guitar is obviously and intentionally completely out of harmony. There's a song in there that sounds like everything Venom ever wanted to achieve but better (see if you can guess by the name which it is). There's a high-energy anthem that sounds so anachronistic for *any* Heavy Metal era it surely must have existed outside of time as if the notation for it was found carved on some monolith. There's sword-unsheathing sound effects that are so reverberated that they sound more like octave-shifted toilet flushes. Towards the end you'll start thinking the sound design of this album is perfect and you wouldn't have it any other way, don't worry, that's weird, but it's okay.
And Cirith Ungol. Ooh, Tolkien name, M. Whelan cover of the Albino sorcerer-king, surely this will be more normal sounding proud and powerful US metal, right?
Well, the rhythm guitar sounds like a hoover running at half speed, the bass guitar has a round wet tone that's top in the mix. The drummer's sense of meter is not exactly terrible, but let's instead say that if the drummer went in to record these songs to a click track without accompaniment, this would be a drastically different sounding record. And the singer, oh, the singer. Double-tracked troll screeches (usually in pitch though!) that could not have existed in any other rock n' roll subgenre but in Heavy Metal.
Cirith Ungol are more often talked about as an acquired taste than Brocas Helm, but I do not see the difference. Cirith Ungol play extensive '70s-esque epic compositions, where Brocas Helm alternate between stilted minstrel melodies and storm-and-fury two-minute proto-thrash (though thrash was over by '88 when 'Black Death' was released). Cirith Ungol attempt a famous J.S.Bach composition, Brocas Helm put neoclassical bass runs under rock and roll riffs. Cirith Ungol write about the death of the sun, Brocas Helm throw glasses at the wall for Hell's Whip. Where's the difference? They're both completely unorthodox, and they sound nothing alike.
Cirith Ungol's second record discussed here, named 'King of the Dead' is truly a gem of weird metal. By the time this record had come out, Metallica were setting the bar with 'Master of Puppets'. Ungol's offering could have come out in 1974 instead, though had it come out then people would have exploded. The songs are long and the changes meticulous, there's almost constant guitar harmony and the solos are harmonized even further on top. It sounds like a chamber music quartet of hoovers, playing either carefully planned and composed minor thirds or wild improvised solos in parallel. Some of the songs in here are as perfect as any Heavy Metal I've ever heard. 'Cirith Ungol', 'King of the Dead', 'Master of the Pit'. I wouldn't change a single note here. The tone is uniformly dark and apocalyptic and unlike Brocas Helm, there is no humor at all here. I think in their fantasies, Cirith Ungol were creating a classicist masterpiece here, though the end result owes more to the combination of disparate influences they exhibit than any one overarching tendency.
My suggestion is that you listen to these records. If you've never listened to them before, I envy you. Try to not hold them to preconceptions of what '80s metal should sound like and you will find your definitions enriched by their inspiration. Don't let anyone tell you that their truths are self-evident. They're not, you have to work for it, you have to do your part for their mess to cohere aesthetically. Especially in an age where the 'old school metal revival' seems to mean 'sounding like Iron Maiden', it's worth to keep in mind just how weird metal could get even in the '80s.
If you've been listening to these records for two decades, well, listen again (can't hurt, can it?) and have someone in the room with you while the vinyl spins, preferably an outsider to metal. Let them give you their impressions on say, 'Death of the Sun' when two screeching trolls carve the End in your eardrums in perfect stereo splendor and then the riff goes nowhere, is dropped for another sound-alike riff in a different tempo and feel and then an inexplicable solo swims from left guitar to right guitar. Their vantage will remind you that you're a weird human being, underneath it all and that they're weird as well and we shouldn't be so hard on ourselves that we need to appear as normal to justify our tastes.
Don't play them 'Toccata in D minor' to justify how 'metal music is directly related to classical music, see, see?' though.