Monday, December 31, 2012

Oh Lord, No.

I have a soft spot for what in the '90s we called 'White Metal'. You might know it also as 'Christian metal' but I do find a distinction between bands that are outright preaching on What Would Jesus Do (like Messiah, Tyrant or Stryper) and those that are taken with concerns of faith and morality on some higher level (like Manilla Road, Saviour Machine or Secrecy). Many bands make clear and frank references to moral systems in Heavy Metal, Jesus isn't the first choice but a choice he is. The appeal is in that they are not writing about nonsense and Heavy Metal always is best when it's not about nonsense.

The fervour of belief is akin to that of passion. It goes well with Heavy Metal if you ask me. And White Metal was the sort of thing you would go to if you agreed, that is, before the 'orthodox black metal' boom of the late '10s. Orthodox Black Metal is like the hipster listening to Manowar with an ironic veneer about it all, testing the waters before - and if he ever - comes out as an actual, honest-to-Thor brother of metal. Orthodox Black Metal people should just go join a Gnostic church and stop playing around with 'evil inversions' of a very understandable tradition of faith that predates all their superficial concerns by thousands of years.

Most Heavy Metal listeners have a knee-jerk reaction to Christian metal. Perhaps some of them have no real reason to, besides peer pressure, but I am willing to accept that some of them really feel a sense of unbelonging permeating some of the typical Christian metal offerings.

I won't be examining the whole spectrum of White Metal, not at this time (though I'm willing to, if there's enough interest. You'd be surprised how wide the range of metal there is with some Jesus in it). No, this post is about something at once much narrower and somehow broader. I was listening to this song on shuffle:

And I paid attention to the lyrics. Yep, it's a Bruce Dickinson sound-alike telling me how abortion equals murder. I got somewhat upset about the ideology this band is selling and it got me thinking on how this happened. Who opened the door for evangelical ideology in Heavy Metal? There's bands that sing about what they believe in, sure. And then there's strictly manufactured American metal of the type of Barren Cross, made as an alternative to secular metal to sell in Christian-controlled communities. Surely this is an american invention, right? It has to be!


Black Sabbath. Fucking Master of Reality. Right there.

I almost never listen to Black Sabbath after the debut and before Dio so this doesn't readily come to mind, but this is where the Christians came in. Black Sabbath left the door open, it's pretty astounding. Listen to the lyrics closely, it doesn't get more preachy than this. "I really believe it was people like you that crucified Christ". Sheesh, as if Ozzy didn't sound enough like a grandmother.

Now, I'm no Black Sabbath scholar so I'd like you, dear readers to help me. Who is to blame in the band for this? As far as I know the band at this juncture were super high on bad drugs. who had the time to be a practising Christian? Or are they faking it? Is it the old story where Ward had some supernatural scares with his necronomicon or satanic bible or whatever it was and wrote these things for penance so the dark Lord wouldn't claim his immortal soul? Did it work? How does the band feel about this tripe now? Are Black Sabbath Christians in their old age? Were they always Christians and if so how do they reconcile the devilry of the first record with it all, much less the drugs and fornication? In any case, perhaps most of you already knew, but I just made the connection: We've got Black Sabbath to thank/blame for one more thing.

Obviously Candlemass doing their little pastoral turn circa Nightfall were following after Black Sabbath but they were much more solemn and austere about it because - clearly - they were doing it for effect, not because of true faith. They were tapping into the power of belief sans belief and this is one of the (various) failings of post Epicus Doomicus Metallicus Candlemass. Does "After Forever" explain the enduring fascination of doom metal with Jesus?

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

In Music Do the Passions Most Enjoy Themselves

Let's take the line of thinking introduced in the 'They Say Rage is a Brief Madness' post further. Here are the main genres of metal music. Let's use our pop-psychological skills to understand why they came to be, why they're not interchangeable and which of them have bridges to others while others are mutually exclusive. Have you ever wondered why nobody really has tried happy flower hippy death metal or europower about being a weakling nobody that is going to cut their wrists?

A rough chronology:

'70s Heavy Metal

New Wave of British Heavy Metal

Doom Metal

Speed metal

Power Metal

Epic Metal

Thrash Metal

Death Metal

Progressive Metal

Black Metal

Post Metal

'70s Heavy Metal and NWOBHM go together because I've yet to meet a metalhead into one but not the other : I think the main pull of the original Heavy Metal phenomenon was surprisingly non-pathologic. Teenagers actively wanting to rebel against conservative forces that predefined their path. If that's a pathology then the world can go fuck itself. There's a beautiful naivety in that era of 'angry music' that I, for one, do not feel comfortable pathologising. This begs a question and in trying to find an answer this exercise is already useful: Could it be the case that new music trends become a vessel for pathology once they have been codified, monetized and regurgitated through popular culture? When you're looking for music to slit your wrists to, you go to a genre called 'suicidal black metal'. But if you were a weird kid back in 1991 in Oslo, it probably took guts and other sublimated qualities to enter into such a vague and unorthodox subculture. If it's easy to buy and take home alone, it's probably bad for you!

In this way, I do not think a kid in the '70s was expressing pathological emotions when they got into Judas Priest, but a fifty year old today still into Judas Priest might suffer from a number of things.

So let's talk about today's listeners of 'Classic metal', or 'traditional metal' or what have you. I think the main pull there is nostalgia, not in itself a pathological emotion but certainly tied to such. What once was can only be accessed through artifacts and so on. The more treacherous feeling I could attach to the oldies is that their appreciators have a 'holier than thou' attitude, often. But that's kind of mundane in Heavy Metal circles, where most sub-subcultures have that going.

The worrying sign I've noticed is a fetish for objects. Perhaps this is a Greek-obscure-metal thing, you international readers can verify, but does it feel, sometimes alarmingly so, that 'classic metal' listeners collect vinyl and patches and whatnot in the same way they could be collecting '80s sticker sets or cereal boxes? There seems to be no differentiation of value, it's just old stuff that made an impression. I've noticed this and I'm not sure what it means yet, but it's very distressing when Manowar and Thundercats are pretty much the same thing in the minds of increasingly balding metalheads.

Doom Metal: That's an easy one, isn't it? Depression, self-loathing, solitude. Nobody understands me and I want a girlfriend/boyfriend that wears black fishnet. If there's a saving grace in this genre (psychologically speaking) is that it so triumphantly declares that it is about these things that it ends up not being so much about them but about the triumphant declaration. There's too much power in Candlemass to get really morose to. For this genre to become truly maudlin it'd take an injection from death metal, that nihilistic, meat-is-meat psychosis discussed before. Then it starts to ring true, oh the sound of the knell, the pathetic stench of dying children! But again, as long as there are violent explosions of force it can't truly be music to slit your wrists to. Play The Cure's 'Pornography' and then listen to My Dying Bride. There's really a very significant difference.

It's fascinating that Doom metal has ties to both Epic Metal and to Death/black metal. The latter is mostly understandable, it's just a more romantic take on "Pain and suffering, but why?!". But Epic metal? It would help to note that people that listen to Epic Doom Metal proper very rarely listen to doom/death counterparts and vise versa. It's almost as if there's two different genres only coincidentially both named 'Doom Metal'. But is this really how it is? I do not think so.

Doom metal as we know it today is the reinterpretation of Black Sabbath, by Candlemass in their debut Epicus Doomicus Metallicus. And although that record self-identifies as, well, you can guess what, its first track is 'Solitude' which is positively morose. Paradise Lost, Anathema and My Dying Bride would take that aspect of Candlemass and put some Slayer or Sodom in there, but it's not such a huge stretch once the influences have been identified.

I am still at some loss as to how actually sad the people who listen to doom metal are. I tend to project my own experiences as this genre can be said to be my 'home', more or less. This doesn't really reflect in my Master List, as there simply are not enough doom metal masterpieces out there. But those few records in the genre I'm into, I simply adore and always reference. So I tend to think that most doom metal listeners have followed a similar trajectory to my own. Perhaps I should leave the psychopathology of doom metal to someone else.

Speed Metal: if there ever was a nebulous genre of metal, this would be it. Not yet as robust as Power Metal, not as choppy and punkish as Thrash. Are there Speed metal enthusiasts out there, truly? I'd love to hear from you.

Listen, I've tried to fly the flag for Speed Metal. I think I know what it is and I can make at least two different cases that would be fairly convincing. But what does it say that I am almost 30 years old, I've listened to Heavy Metal for more than half my life and I have an encyclopedic knowledge of it and I'm still torn between two different narratives on what speed metal is? There's something weird going on there.

If there's a pathology here it probably has to do with those that want to appropriate this nebulous genre to their own ends, a la . I am hesitant to surrender fuckin' Exciter and Agent Steel to them, but perhaps that's not such a terrible loss to call these bands Thrash. Otherwise, the people into this stuff are usually also the same obscure metal guys I've addressed before.

Power Metal: in its europower incarnation I think there's little pathologic in there at all. We could make the case for arrested development, but truly, it's just happy pop music, sometimes genuinely uplifting. I can find no fault in this. It's not really Heavy Metal anymore, but that's a different class of argument. Go on, europower-lovers, keep listening to simple, bright, childish music! If you're over 20, I hope you have a sense of humor about yourselves, at least! I'm probably wrong. Check the comments section.

It can get darker if someone is really, really into this stuff along with role playing games, computer games, superhero comics, reddit and men's rights activism but there we would be branching off of in a broader 'psychopathology of the internet' and that is too daunting a swamp to wade into.

The US Power side of Power Metal is dominated by the syndromes common to obscure metal collectors and whatnot. A weird sense I get often from them is that they have a non-taste. They choose music based on extra-musical criteria, yet they sometimes land on a gem and can appreciate it as marginally different from their Medieval Steels and Killens but not by much. The more technical the US Power gets, the more it bridges into the delusions of grandeur common to progressive metal proper. We'll get to that later on.

Epic Metal: Here's where it gets ugly, though. Although tangentially connected to power, epic metal is not about speed and singalongs foremost. Epic metal can be slow or fast, pompous or savage, ethereal or blunt. Its core, defining characteristic is pathologic in itself. It thinks it's better than everything else. Avarice to the highest degree, worse than the excesses of progressive metal, its delusions of grandeur are this toxic because it doesn't have to qualify its claim to be better than anything else. Progressive metal goes 'listen to all these notes we're playing, this is hard, right? So we're better'. And black metal says 'listen to this romantic art, it strikes a real chord, doesn't it? So we're better.' But epic metal just says 'we're better than everyone else and if you don't agree then you're obviously not epic metal at heart'. Fan the sparks of will, be your own disciple!

Manowar have a lot to answer for. A band of meager talents, with about 10 amazing songs to their name, truly individual, for good or worse, have staked a territory in Heavy Metal that is unassailable by any outsider by virtue of being an outsider. There will never be a dialogue between epic metal and other genres, much like there is very little between epic metal fans and anyone else.

The toll for such avarice is high. With every decade, the epic metaller grows more despondent and frayed by the cognitive dissonance. If he's the best, then why does his belly grow this much with every beer? If he's the best, why does he fail to maintain a healthy relationship? If he's the best, why haven't Manowar put out a great album in the last 20 years? There are no answers, friend, there's only bad choices you have made!

Thrash metal: Well, there's a degree of delusion there. Thrash thinks it's 'grown-up' metal, but it's just dumber punk with more palm mutes. At least it has a dionysian core so some thrashers are having fun. The most physical of the genres of metal, it's connected with skating, moshing and being an adolescent. I guess arrested development here too. But I'd say thrash is pretty harmless and most of all a phase for most listeners. A thrasher in their fifties might truly be a sad sight, though.

Death metal and Black Metal we've covered before. A note on 'Suicidal Black Metal' though, as it's a startling Reality moment in heavy metal when they came up with that. ALL Heavy Metal demands holocaust, it is a cruel mistress. You must die to live forever. Is it surprising that the genre named 'Suicidal Black Metal' sounds exactly like the prelude of hysteria that culminates in self-harm? Keep it under control, lonely boy or girl. Things will not be getting better, but the way, though dim, will become slightly clearer with time. You can make it.

Progressive Metal is pretty bad. Delusions of grandeur, solipsism, loneliness, the works. Never before have music fans been so certain of their own superiority for having done not much more than listen to music with lots of notes. Perhaps jazz fans are more obnoxious. The worst aspect of progressive metal fandom is that it can carry on in later age (I speak as a person very much interested in progressive metal). Unlike thrash, it lacks in physicality, it's not a body release. Its modernist/humanist dream carries on, uninformed by the ontological disintegration of these movements in the hands of capitalism. The most important characteristic of progressive metal is that of self-importance. Do me a favor and ponder on the name of this blog for a moment. Right?

There is an even worse bridge between progressive metal and death metal, where we get 'brutal technical death metal'. If there's ever been a music for emotional disconnection, here it is. The blunt trauma of blastbeats and chroma further peppered with shards of scale debris, who would subject themselves to this and for what purpose? Incomprehensible, rhythmic vocals either singing about gutting that whore or exploring the cold cosmos (is there really much difference?), I really wouldn't know what to talk about with fans of this genre. Well, we could find some common ground on how good the first two Cryptopsy records are, I guess.

I am half prepared to understand 'djent' as a variation of 'brutal technical death metal', from this vantage. Their listeners are similar.

Post Metal: oh, the tortured apostates, Why are you're still trying to understand non-metal music through your heavy metal experience and aesthetical tools? For how much longer will you link jangly indie post-hardcore ambient noise bands of the week and claim they are 'crushing the earth' and 'raping half of your (mine) record collection'? Yes, Russian Circles really are the new Manowar. Such dissonance between object and impression I can only expect leads to chronic grumpiness of the highest order. Irony, waves and waves of churning irony are employed to convey a distance between esthetic information and pure 'enjoyment of music, brah' that simply isn't there. A complete lack of useful equipment to understand where post metal came from and how its (meager) offerings are best utilized.  Does post metal sound deep? In the same way a person can appear intelligent by speaking very little. All that will be left from post metal will be a few neurosis, isis and pelican records.

There's strands I didn't touch, like power groove, hair metal and despicable sludge (if it is a type of metal at all, I doubt it) because I do not have enough experience with them and am not eager to amend that gnostic gap. Oh, and I forgot Grindcore because it is forgettable.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Helloween - Victim of Fate

Do you hear the thunder crack, readers?

Destiny is split asunder. The hero's tale can be rewritten, destiny shall die, willpower cradles the hilt, hope is the blade!

This is it. This is where Helloween become something more than a Teutonic speed metal band, this is where the formalist vantage will stop proving fruitful for us and we shall have instead to get in touch with the Eternal Return, teenager pathos. We shall have to... feel. I know it is difficult, lonely men, women and cyborgs out there, but we must and we shall!

Every time I listen to this song, I get so pumped, I'm not going to cut and paste these lyrics from some website, I am going to type them out while headbanging to the song. There shall be no spell checking!



I was born in the rotten part of the town
The biggest trap I've seen
Wherever you go wherever you get to
Evil's all around

My mother's a bitch my fathere's a killer
Getting paid for murder
Fight in the front in the ???
The only way to survive

Wanted for murder they'll never catch me
I'd much rather die in this bloody war

Fly high, touch the sky
Never know the reason why it ends

Fly high, touch the sky
Never know the

I had to kill people to save my own life
I don't wnat to go to hell
I started at the bottom
I'm headed for the top

I'll never return I'll never go back
to that god-damn part of the town
Headhunters won't get me 'cuz I'm not stupid
But this ain't the life that I dreamt of

Wanted for murder they'll never get me
I'd much rather die in this bloody war

Fly high, touch the sky
NEver known the reason why it ends

Fly high, touch the sky,
Never know the reason why it ends

What now lonely man,
Who is standing in the shadows of the streets
YOu're left alone with no helping hand beside you

You hide from the daylight
Living in darkness
You've got no friends
You can trust nobody except from yourself

The only shape stands beside you
It's the shape of Lucifer
Laughing with a satanic smile

And his friend death
Sharpens his shickle

You don't want to die, do you?
But you will!

You will burn in hell.


Fly high, touch the sky
NEver known the reason why it ends

Fly high, touch the sky,
Never know the reason why it ends



The second 'wild' solo is full of power. My soul doth elevate.

And finally:


And yet,
I feel about ten years younger after listening to this.

I am not dead. Though I will die, eventually, I have now for a moment completely forgotten. The lyric of this song is at odds with its musical presentation because Helloween are on a trajectory, perhaps unbeknownst to them as well. They are not a cynical speed band with morbid tales for us. They are a power metal band, and their music gives hope, it points to the light.

The thema of this song is close to that of those that followed it on the first part of this record. Imagined - probably extrapolated from teenager experiences - difficult life, having to do sinful acts to survive. Pursued by carriers of nemesis (hilariously, headhunters. I am imagining Charles Bronson in Deathwish), there seems to be no way out, death is certain.

And then, out of the blue, this chorus. What does it say? "Fly high, touch the sky. Never know the reason why it ends". This is not the sound of tragedy, it is, instead that of triumph. Focus especially on "never know the reason why it ends". This is such a human, naive look at the face of death. This music takes that simple line, which in other contexts could exist in some morose existentialist poem and makes of it in a totality-of-the-real inversion, a deposition of faith, a decree: It will not end, it doesn't end. It never ends.

The tension between this chorus and the lyrics and the musical motifs of the verses (which are again, speed-thrash of that era) was not lost on the band. The middle slow atmosphere building section deepens the disparity of emotion. This song is a wild ride. It was for twelve year old Helm and it still is. A masterpiece. There are rough edges, sure, but they also helped to break a specific mold (That of the Judas Priest / Iron Maiden multi-part quasi-mythological epic, to be exact). Helloween needed those edges to push them towards hyperbole, and through that to the palace of wisdom, the road to awe.

The second solo section, it's just the final statement of what I am describing. At first ordered and lamenting, then wild chaos breaks loose. Fly high. Touch the sky. You will not die.

Fuck it, we're not stopping. Let's talk about 'Cry for Freedom' as well because this is a trajectory nearing its end and I don't want to wait four months to reach my own metaphorical ejaculation either (and I wonder at what position does that put you, dear readers).


This is a beautiful, ferocious power metal song. It is the perfect ending to a record that starts from solipsism and the terror of the I and ends with a social critique of injustice in its most blatant form. There is no exact political regime named in this song and therefore all are targeted. The structure of  totalitarianism is targeted.

The intro to this song seems like something Judas Priest would do, only and blatantly without the pipes of one mr. Halford to grace it, it becomes a different thing. Halford knew well of the theatric capacity of metal music and his stories, many of them centering on the 'we're not going to take it anymore' theme, were as much performance as say, that slice of Victorian melodrama, "The Ripper". This isn't to say that Halford didn't get into it but as any performing artist will tell you, their training is not to immitate, it is to inhabit. But it is still a performance. That the young audience of Judas Priest elevated their songs to true anthems of the oppressed (or imaginably oppressed, as it were) stands as a monument more to them than Judas Priest. Other bands, with their rugged edges and more meager talents would cut much closer to bone, the theater would become much more secondary to the message. Other bands, simply, did it better than Judas Priest.

Helloween, for example. Kai Hansen is, at this point, a very rough voice. Nasal and without great control of his vibrato, very accented and sometimes tonally shaky. This stops a lot of listeners from getting into this era of Helloween which is a shame because with the arrival of their full time singer, Michael Kiske, the said theatricality came with full force. There's a punkish vitality with Hansen on the vocals that is sacrificed. As I've said before, Kai Hansen is inviting to sing with (not over, his voice is still much more powerful than most). He knows he's no Pavarotti but he's going to hit that high note anyway. Sing with him.

This is the lyric of the calm before the storm. It's truly touching if you destroy the distance.

"Freedom, the cry of all slaves will be heard.
And the tyrants will feel the steel of our sword

The chains will be broken by all slaves on the earth
Forever to be free from their load"

This flows dramatically into a lead section that winds down with such grace that puts the violence that follows in even starker relief. This is truly savage. Death metal can eat it, The contrast between beauty and force shakes me in such a fundamental way that tales of gore and guts never have and never will.

"Time has run out for all you tyrants on earth
The slaves are heeding the call
Making an end to all this terror and pain
An end to your lies and your law

Taking away all your gold and your money
'Cause dead men don't need it anymore
Much too long we've felt the slash of your whips
So now you will feel our swords

Freedom, the eternal cry will echo high in the sky

The day will come when all power has been broken
Your blood will flow down to the gates of Hell
Satan will wait for your souls
Pray to your god, he won't help you, he's dead
He won't fool our minds and our souls

(I'll overlook the lamentable choice of allegory what with loads and being free of them, I didn't get that as a child and I'm sure Helloween didn't either.)

This is a fast song, but with such compositional nuance. First of all, the reverbated chorus of oohs after the first verse. This is OUR voice, we are meant to join in. This is a song for all of us, we are included, in such a vital way. Helloween can't do it alone, we can't overthrow tyranny unless we understand ourselves as part of a 'we'. This is a core characteristic of Heavy Metal that turns to the light. Those given to solipsistic pursuits will forever understand themselves in isolation. The light will only serve to blind them. It is in the shade that their objects of desire can best be understood, their subtle nuances in texture and form. Simpler forms, closer to black and white, in light and darkness, those inherent to the language any collective understands, as common currency to communicate and consecutively carry on as a cohesive core. The dangers of such maneuvers are recorded in history as a startling remembrance of atrocity and horror. Yet Helloween, closer to such horror than you and I are now, in 2012, still rally to the call of 'Freedom', for all slaves on this earth. Do you join in on the song?

Here's an interesting experiment. There's a very specific part of this song where you might feel compelled to sing back to mr. Hansen (aside from the 'ooh' vocal chorus section). It's when he goes "The day will come when all power has been broken" and we reply "Your blood will flow down to the gates of Hell". Do you feel it? The cadence of the lyrics there give a huge opening for a second voice to say that line (it sounds like it is two different takes in studio as well). Listen to this song and if you feel it inside you to resonate any truth, do kindly sing along to that line there. Give it your best growly angry shouty voice if you don't have a proper range. What do you feel? Did your hand curl up as if tracing the contours of some invisible orange? Did your eyes open wide, did you scare your cat? That little tiny bit of dark power, the essence of all magic, it truly exists and can be summoned with such remarkably low-brow art that sometimes it scares me that society has worked out at all. We can be so easily swayed into a malignant, total fantasy that I am not even directly concerned with when that fantasy becomes action. That the fantasy exists inside us and can be brought to the surface by such a compositionally simple trick astounds me. Here's Helloween and then, think about a Richard Wagner.

This is powerful music, hence, power metal. It is not a formalist definition. Double bass and palm muted riffs do not make power metal. Achieving that sense of fantastical power and assigning that strength to the service of listener agency makes it power metal. The birth of this genre has little to do with how many major keys or singalongs there are in the piece and everything to do with coming up from the darkness into light, acknowledging a sense of belonging (even if the group one chooses to belong to is entirely fabricated, as in "metal brothers") and achieving a sense of positive motion by harnessing beauty.

Helloween would go on to become more beautiful, more inclusive and more refined in their approach, gaining a large following. Even the months between this EP and the "Walls of Jericho" record proper mark a difference, though not such a sizable one as with the records that followed with their new Bruce Dickinson-esque singer. The themes they will expand upon in the next few songs are those of the last few of the EP, as if they understood there's something more to what they only glimpsed at. The opener of "Walls of Jericho" is a monumental creation and it serves as an inspiration to anyone who has ever composed anything to see a band go from grasping at the vague structure of a concept in point A to mastering the perfect sculpture of it six months later in point B. But let's discuss that next time.


Tuesday, December 11, 2012

They Say Rage is a Brief Madness

Alternatively: "On the topic of death metal, black metal and why death/black is (mostly) a sham."

For those of you that haven't managed to penetrate into the aesthetic of the more extreme genres of Heavy Metal, this piece might serve as a key. For those that are well versed in and enjoy these genres, it might help to further illuminate why there's such a sizable disparity between them though they appear on the surface to be easily interchangeable.

To get anywhere with this I will provide a semi-historical definition of genres that are, on the whole, more nebulous that I make them appear. I say this to preempt notions that there is black and death metal quite outside the modern paradigm. I know. But in that there exists a paradigm to begin with should provide enough basis to examine it. This world is the best world there is by the virtue that it is the only world that exists and so forth.

Death metal, as examined here is of the American mold (though not necessarily from the US). Muscular, very compressed and given to violent swifts in tempo. Dense composition, usually very chromatic and emphasizing chaos more than velocity. There is no respite. Melodic sections are easily throwaway if the band feels like it. There is no center or showpiece. The vocals are usually deep and growled as with Suffocation and Immolation, or in middle, menacing drawn-out and unintelligible grunt as with Obituary or Autopsy.

Black metal, as examined here is of the early '90s Scandinavian type, as typified by Dark Throne, Burzum and Mayhem. It grows in reaction to the death metal described above. It appropriates some of its technique (indeed, the teenagers that pioneered black metal's second wave mostly played in 'trendy' death metal bands before that - when they were twelve). Its characteristic remains a return to the romantic core of Heavy Metal of old, or a further romanticized understanding of it by Norwegian teenagers, as it were. Long tremolo phrases in minor keys, with a restrained and normative use of disharmony (malformation versus beauty). Repetition and drone, a floating atmosphere. The vocals are predominantly raspy or screamed.

Let's also peruse two audio examples before we move forward.

In popular perception, this is what 'Death Metal' summons:

 In popular perception, this is what 'Black metal' summons:

Death metal has ill intent towards you, dear listener. Were it a psychic force capable of manifesting physically as in some '80s b-movie, it would gut you and devour your entrails. It would symbolically make you into a womb to enter once again, and eat back out of from the inside. Its malice is that of the sociopath. It doesn't understand you and it has no interest to. If it has a fascination with you, it is to make your 'inside' come to the outside so that you, the hypocrite that you are, that is so taken with the idea of any metaphysic quality or spirit residing inside you, will finally concede the point that 'only meat is real' with your passing. No, not death. Death is not real, it is no more real than life is. There are no metaphysics when the worms eat your flesh. What there is is nonsense and pain.

Death metal is for the socially impaired. Manchildren, neckbeards and other nerds that do not know how to talk to a girl. Their gateway into understanding comes through shock treatment. They imagine a vicarious violence not because they desire to inflict it but because it is at least quantifiable. Why? Because it's funny. How? Painfully. They empathize with the victim-as-victim, not the victim-as-human. The bitch was asking for it. These people are mostly harmless for what they do best is write otherwise. Those you should fear are those that haven't written a word and are just smiling at you, ever-smiling, fitting in. There is a sociopath in your workplace. Someone in your family has tortured small animals for fun.

The cookie monster vocals that the genre favors bring into stark relief the truth of the genre. It is a man trying to appear inhuman by lowering the pitch of their growl. When was the last time you've heard a person, consumed by a murdering rage, growl like a demon in a film that they will kill someone? That's right, never. That voice is not normative, it is how a social introvert imagines rage to manifest. They will never test their growly voice in the highschool cafe-- excuse me, while they "gut that prostitute". This is how the social critique against the questionable subject matter of death metal is explained away by its audience: never tested. Pure fantasy. Leave us alone. Boys only in this tree-house.

The monster in death metal is a monster of sociopathy, of loneliness and stress, of delusions of grandeur. It is very life-affirming to play with the symbol of death and alienation. To make it as clear as possible, Death metal is the imagination a serial killer, as perceived by a mostly-normal introverted teenager.

Black metal has ill intent towards your world, dear listener. Were it a psychic force capable of manifesting physically it would be your ruthless philosopher autocrat, cruelly sentencing you to darkness and imprisonment while all the while explaining to you why it must be done. And you would agree. It would strip you of your humanly characteristics because you do not deserve them. In that it can imagine these characteristics it follows that they exist and they are of value. It, then, understands you, or at least has tried enough to exist besides you. It knows of no other way to contribute to this world, it has never felt the transcendental value of offering something to the world with no wish to see returns, besides perhaps its new black metal CD (in hand-numbered copies, to be sure).

The piercing scream of black metal is that moment when that entity gives up on your world, and the resulting triumph in its minor-key dirge is that of autonomy, of being unchained from your conventions. Metaphysics are all that exist. The flesh is a nuisance, in fact it might be there expressly to not be touched. To be resisted, as all temptations besides the call of death. Many of these teenagers wrote their peans to dark gods and spirits before having felt a man or woman's sexual touch. Most that listen to it certainly can attest to what thrill came first, that of the Awe of Death or the Cry of Passion.

Black metal is for the socially impaired. Pale-faced peter pans and outcasts, the 'weirdos'. Their gateway into self-actualization (or fantasy thereof) is through the triumph of will, through the blood-red flowing romance inherent in Heavy Metal. Any violence they imagine has no real external object, it is not about you; It is self-inflicted. The 'depressive black metal' trend was the final, crass (and of course American) realization of what all black metal ever was. The mistress has a high price, she demands holocaust. The voice of black metal, the piercing shriek or grating rasp are the manifestations of hysteria. A hysterical person might end up killing you, but only because they didn't manage to destroy themselves first.

The monster in black metal is the ultimate representation of social alienation. It is the capitalist Atom-person, outside social context, its burning romance without avenue to offer to the world. It is not a careless automation, all blades and pincers, mangling all flesh, living and otherwise in its path like death metal is. It is a painted scowl on rosy cheeks, a constant dialectic between life, the value of life and the tragedy of mortality. Black metal doesn't want to die, but it will if it has to in order to live forever.

From the above point of view it can be easily extrapolated why it is almost impossible to have effective and convincing black/death metal. Furthermore, it is very clear why black metal had to come out of death metal, and why black metal bands that in later age return to death metal were, and are, mostly laughable for it. Choose a side, lonely man.

Or at least, so I posit. I welcome contradiction, discussion and examples.

The gardens of this Subculture will be watered with some regularity again.

Monday, August 6, 2012

How people listen to Heavy Metal

Oh let me count the ways.

Listening for hooks

This is the standard mode of listening for most. Heavy Metal started as a pop music genre. The benefit of fishing for hooks is that the Heavy Metal that delivers is inherently... well... fun. Hooks are exciting, they make a piece of music vibrant and they urge the listener to revisit. Songs with a single solid hook even sometimes become timeless. More often they become audio evil, inflicting through pavlovian means the illness of 'humming that stupid melody' on unsuspecting listeners.

There are drawbacks to listening to music for the hooks. Chief amongst them that those that do so usually listen *only* for hooks. If there are hooks, they like it. This may come as a shock to those less musically inclined in the readership, but coming up with a solid hook is not rocket science (coming up with thirty different ones takes a certain kind of genious, though). There is a lot of interchangable pop music that relies solely on the ear worm, nothing else aesthetically or lyrically to recommend it. Heavy Metal moved away from being pop in this way exactly because it has an internal conceit of being 'meaningful music', for good or worse. There was a long time in the late '90s where what little metal music was still around was painfully hook-shy. We are seeing a return to melody and therefore to hooks, however.

Modern listeners find modern Heavy Metal (especially the more extreme type) to be either completely hookless and a jumbled mess of noise, or too packed with hooks to the point where one hook is hurting another. The song is over and like a sugar rush, what is left is a headache. Those that endure learn the songs eventually and can appreciate each hook on its own. Mainstream listeners stand a chance to be captured by modern metal music of the latter type, but there's little to no chance that the hookless noise variety will provide anything but a brief infatuation for them, if even that. There are those who like listening to noise, however.

Favourite genres: power metal, traditional metal, AOR

Listening for Atmosphere

Talking about listening to noise. A smaller section of listeners are not drawn to music because it has charming pop hooks or even if it does, they do not stay because of the hooks. They're interested in the aesthetic presentation and formalist aspects of the whole. They more 'see' the music than listen to it. They're the types that cannot tell you which the good songs are in  Joy Division's "Closer" album, but they can tell you about the singer's tragic death, or where the record cover comes from. A peculiar type of 'bad taste hidden inside good taste', it's a very unsettling experience to listen to music next to them (if you have any sort of empathy) when you might realize they're not actually listening to it at all. They're waiting. Is it a surprise they're the worst offenders when it comes to skipping on a song in the middle?

Interestingly enough, often they actually scoff at hooks and exclaim they hurt the experience. “What do they think they are? A rock band?”. Imagine listening to Heavy Metal as if it's some sort of avant garde experiment and you're not far off.

This type of listener that is drawn to Heavy Metal is not looking for riffs and double bass arranged in fanciful combinations per se, they're look for aural violence and the feelings of alienation and dejection that come with being submitted to such. A peculiar form of masochism, they'll often go on about how this record by that band is particularily opressive and how various elements of their presentation (musical and extramusical) contribute to this effect. Or they might go on and on about how they listen to this record while they fall asleep and what kind of dreams it gave them. If metal music was meant to be listened to while falling asleep, then it'd be considerably quieter!

The people that listen to metal thusly are usually either music deaf (which is not the same as musically illiterate) to the point where they're unable to even be captured by a hook or they're hipsters. Possibly both. Their tastes usually drift, and they get their fix elsewhere soon enough, always looking for a purer distillization of what are inherently vague atmospheres.

Or, perhaps most perversely, some of them are hardened scene veterans, usually record collectors for whom the said atmosphere doesn't come from jacket and lyric even, but from old, crusty, smelly jacket or a seventh generation tape dub of a french black metal demo where the now disceased singer had carved inverted crosses on the plastic. They will swear up and down they love the music most of all, but somehow all the artifacts they've surrounded themselves with warn of some other drive behind their actions.

Favourite genres: depressive black metal, drone, brutal death metal, druggy stoner doom, doom/death, obscure & cult metal

Listening for Flashy Technique 

A peculiarily widespread breed of metal fans that obsess over the linear density and/or complexity of the music. Almost always guitar or drum nerds (even if they don't play these instruments), they understand music microscopically. A tasteless record cover means nothing to them as long as the music inside is packed. They can appreciate a hook but they're not here for it, they're here for the arpeggios. They will endlessly defend a shredder's right to shred, exclaiming that the void of emotion that their opposition levels against their heroes is irrelevant as there are other graces to their favourite music. To the extent to which they are correct in this we would also be correct to assume that they suffer from what is becoming increasingly visible as a mild form of autism called Asperger's syndrome.

Anyone that has ever known a hardcore nerd may have known an 'aspie' as they're often called. Their desire for cataloguing and enumerating and typifying is related with their incapacity for empathy and emotional communication. They like things that can be put on a scale because they can reach dependable conclusions and trust their data. Metrics are safety. Metal nerds of this sort can easily by identified by that they're almost never *just* metal nerds. Usually a propensity for role playing games, video games or genre film come right along with the metal, and they're also discussed with equal attention paid to enumeration.

They have no problem listening to a band called "Prostitute Ovary Puncher" as long as the notes come like a warm shower. If there's something to recommend their approach to metal listening is that there truly is a point to 'more is more'. There are few experiences similar to listening to a certain Cryptopsy record at full blast while trying to follow the time changes and the drum fills at the same time. Information overload of this sort is useful training for a future that promises to be filterless.
Favourite genres: shrapnel records catalogue, 'prog metal', technical death metal

Listening for Composition

Eternally misunderstood to be the aforementioned shred geeks, those that come to Heavy Metal because they love a well-structured piece of music often have it hardest. Mostly because Heavy Metal is ambitious, but also quite dumb. This is not classical music, don't let them tell you otherwise. There aren't very many metal bands that can actually write a well considered composition. The difference to the above's love for linearity is that a lover of composition also appreciates and desires a degree of harmonic quality, some adventurousness in tonality. Sadly these are harder to come by.

Curiously, many listeners have it in their minds that they are of this sort but they're misunderstanding themselves because the music they present as exemplary, is not. Often extreme metal that is willfully obscure and is making occult promises about the wisdom hidden in the shadows is enthusiastically picked up by faux-composition nerds as the next great thing. Over the years the excitement fades and suddenly Portal or Deathspell Omega sound less like Stravinsky and more like mosquitoes amplified through a vacuum tube. A composition can't be all secrets, alas. Perhaps composition-nerd + music deafness = another sort of atmosphere nerd?

Favourite genres: classic metal, progressive metal, black metal

Hmm.. I'm sure there's more. Any suggestions? Also, what are you? I find myself to be a little bit of most but more strongly about hooks and composition, with some atmospheric desires usually aimed at non-metal music.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Helloween - Warrior


This is a thrash song, see? Yes, the main riff is in a major key but can you really call it happy? Given the subject matter, it instead sounds ironic, like the triumphant martial pattern of the army falling at the battle of Waterloo.

Listen to how the sections are clearly segmented, the riff does this, the bridge that, the chorus is shouty. Just one song before, Helloween were starting to break down these chunks of song into smaller orchestral configurations. But this song is grim and linear. Lots of galloping guitar triplets. Mr. Kai Hansen is getting this sort of song out of his system as it's one of the very last straightforward bangers on record. Markus Grosskopf (bighead? That's the extent of my German) can't resist throwing in more melodic bass licks around the staccato rhythm guitar figures but that's pretty much it as far as flavour for this song. The three-part solo is remarkably uninteresting, mainly due to the weak switch-up in the rhythm pattern between part two and three. Helloween will do so much better at this sort of thing. Very soon.

Had this been the direction this band pursued, Helloween would have been remembered by obscurantist enthusiasts as an interesting second-tier speed metal band that contributed a variation to a form that, by 1987 would be considered charmingly outmoded while the death metal bands and the technothrash bands upped the ante. Like Pyracanda, perhaps.

The lyric is interesting for a few reasons.

Blackened sky a final flash
Death is in the air
Warriors without a face
Destruction everywhere

Silent falls the hammer
Noone hears the cries
No escaping from this hell
Your prayers won't be die

Brainless cruel commanders
Sending death and pain
Soldiers only robots
Fight for their life in vain

Die, now! die, warrior!

Somewhere in the shelter sit the men
Who hold your fate in hands
Playing chess and you're the loser
You're a small pawn in their game

Somewhere in the shelter sit the men
And they don't realise
A war without survivors is a fight
That's never won
So die!

Barren land desolate waste
Destruction is complete
Survivors creeping thru the ruins
Decaying flesh and meat

Somewhere in a shelter
Some pigs are still alive
And still they play the game
They don't give a damn

This is a very stereotypical view of war by teenagers and that's why the song still is resonant for me. It's not a politically informed thesis, it is instead a sideways look into a common wound. How much do you know about war? Do you understand the geopolitical confluence of events that led to the second World War? Why are some wars called 'humane' while others are considered unjust in the eyes of history? Do you understand the functionality of war? How supply lines work, what trench warfare is? Well, Helloween did not. They had an open heart and open hearts are also open sores. The colour of the lyric is existential, as expressed by someone you had no first-hand experience with the philosophical movement. War is seen as senseless and alienating. The motives of it are misunderstood; Powerful men playing a sadistic game. Mom and Dad are engaging in tactics that little Helm and little Helloween are ill-equipped to understand. Again, the dark beauty of oblivion turns the teenager towards a morbid fascination. "Decaying flesh and meat... they don't give a damn... SO DIE".

It could be said that much of Heavy Metal's fascination can be traced back to these two words. Wielding death as a weapon. Darkness descends.

Understanding why Heavy Metal of darkness is a dead-end requires the understanding of what wielding death entails. The final command is self-destruction. Outward devastation, internal desolation. Letting light in is as much a choice as continuing to exist can be said to be a choice.

Helloween are dabbling with death, it's fascinating. Song by song they're shedding skin. Even by the next song to this, the light will begin shining through the mists of oblivion. Are there better weapons to wield than the cruel scythe of death? Helloween will make their case. But for young Helm, and for young Helloween, up to now this record has had to say this to us: Drugs are bad. Society misunderstands me. My parents quarrel. Nobody gives a damn about me so I'll teach them all by dying tragically!

Friday, July 6, 2012


Excuse lack of posts
I landed a second job
Days turn to weeks fast

Now, pay attention to Murderer. From the intro, they're trying to do something outside the thrash paradigm. One guitar starts hacking away at a palm muted, E. Business as usual so far, it could be a slightly faster Judas Priest. Then the stereo guitar enters at a minor third, and then the bass at a fifth, and a snare fill takes the place of the octave. Go, Helloween-mini-orchestra, go!

The riff is introduced, an E - D is placed in the background and we're off to the verse. Tightly integrated to the movement of the vocal are mini guitar hooks. This is where power metal starts, really. In density. The main connective force between US power metal and the Teutonic counterpart is in this density. In putting thirty Judas Priest hooks into a single song. There is more considered melodic information in the verse switchup on 'Murderer' than in most individual Heavy Metal songs that came out up to 1985 in their entirety. Why is this? Were Helloween possessing some genius that their inspirations, say, Iron Maiden lacked? Of course not. Mr. Harris could write you his awkard Heavy Metal suite as well. The difference is not in capacity, it is in quantity. Helloween, along with a slew of NWOBHM-inspired Heavy Metal bands, are in a hurry to impress. Every song must be packed. Whereas America's Jag Panzer would go to a length even further and throw contrasting parts that do not seem to cohere at all in a sequence and hope their sci-fi power metal would stand on its whole merit at the end, Helloween are very concerned with both density and flow. Starlight showed this on the solo section, but Murderer goes at it throughout.

(As an aside, this density is why little Helm had a difficult time going from his power metal introduction to appreciating 'classic' Heavy Metal from the originators. Songs too slow. Too few parts. Not enough speed! Took a good decade and a very roundabout journey to see the brilliance of using less to achieve less)

Thematically, the lyrics to this song are kind of ridiculous on the surface level. They come to me often because I sang it to death as a teenager. The initial verse/bridge/chorus in particular 

He said get out of here 
Nobody wants you here 
You smashed his head
And the man died

And there's a murmur going 'round
For the appearing crowd
Searching for motives 
and reasons why

Now take a look at yourself and you'll see
What you are in the eyes of the world
You didn't want it but now he is dead
And you're on the run from the law

Murderer - in every crowd
Murderer - to the whole world
Murderer - you're on the run
Murderer - you'll have to kill

Let's look at the subtext here however. The first strong theme is alienation. The reason for the murder is not because the protagonist wanted to steal something or even because they were sadistic as in a death metal song. The reason is because the protagonist, before he even became a murderer, was undesirable to society. They wanted him out, he lashed out and it's a downward spiral from there.

People try to understand why this happened and blame the protagonist for being out of control. "And like an animal which escaped from the cage, they're hunting off of their holy land" they go on. There is a strong christian morality substrand to this whole thing, especially with how sin leads to sin leads to sin. The protagonist will have to kill again, it's the only way to survive now that he's done it once. In effect, he is inhuman. Yet, the shocking power of this 'you'll have to kill again' is ambiguous in tone in the song itself. Power metal is about conveying the sense of will of the protagonist. This is the invention of Helloween more than anyone elses, this is their contribution. I am not sure they meant it to be so (we will discuss this on the next song, "Warrior" and finally on "Victim of Fate" to have a clearer picture) but this dreadful subject matter is elevated through the power of the song to the point where I did as a restless child - and still do as a well-manned, thoroughly docile and harmless adult - a surge of dark power at the end of that chorus. "So be it, then!" goes little Helm "a murderer by accident, a murderer by intent!". Stepping outside of Christian morality only to get air in one's lungs means one is a Christian pretending not to be one. As a result, they'd be wracked by guilt. One can only imagine what life would be in the shadow of the horns by pretending to be in-human. No gray zones, no middle grounds. If you've taken a life, you're a monster. Suddenly, the flirtation with Carpenterish campy horror movies makes a bit more sense, as they too, were completely Christian. The killer in Halloween is, we are told, directly to the camera by the psychiatrist in the film, beyond salvation, completely inhuman. A monster. Words no real physician of any kind would endorse.

So, I think mr. Kai Hansen was taking some air with songs like this, as he's definitely returned to the light triumphantly with further offerings. But that doesn't mean this music is incincere. In fact isn't it more sincere, this vague storytelling of a man's downward spiral as means of roleplay, than pretending to be, for example, a serious 100% goat-worshipping, blood-drinking, nun-defiling satanist when you're not?

Music doesn't need to be real. If art is anything, it is the opposite of real. Music doesn't need to be ideology to be imposing. There needs to be a passionate driving force behind what is expressed, and there needs to be ethos in the execution, certainly. But the text can be as little as 'Murderer' has to offer and still resonate. People do not really think in nuanced terms. They struggle to keep up with their own thoughts, and they put them in order in text (likeso) and with constant reviews until a higher structure seems, for a second, to crystallize. This is how philosophy is written. Philosophy is not written in art, in song, there is no such desire, I am certain of this. A lot of bands could stand to augment their art a lot be being stupider about it, by having less clever things to say, meta-conceptually, about their own art. A lot of art needs a lot less definition to be powerful.

Helloween didn't need anyone in 2012 to tell them any of this, they were in a big hurry to lay down these tracks. I am sure the lyrics to this song didn't take more than ten minutes to put down. I killed a man. I have to kill again. My rest comes in my own death. I've had this thought when I was twelve, as most of you kind readers did also. Why didn't you write a Heavy Metal song about it and yet Helloween did? This is a question that doesn't request an answer, a rhetoric device, if you will. What it insinuates is that the business of doing and the business of explaining are often divorced, and for good reason. There's nothing more crippling than the business of explaining when you should be in the business of doing. This is why I haven't posted here in a while, because I've had to make a whole lot, very fast.

Helloween were on the fast track too. The Helloween EP landing in '85, the full LP in '86, along with Judas. A good corpus of work, very fast, very dumb, yet reaching with mad ambition as far as composition goes. Soon we'll talk about the interesting brother track to Murderer, called, well... Warrior. From gazing inwards (Murderer) to gazing outwards (Warrior) and ultimately to gazing upwards (Victim of Fate). Don't hold your breath, gentle reader. God is far away.

Friday, June 1, 2012


As I reflect on it all, I realize more and more that I initially came to Heavy Metal for light, not darkness. My best friend Nick would describe to me his early metal experiences and they were not like my own. Whereas he would listen to 'Fight Fire With Fire' and feel like setting his dad's pickup truck on fire for sweet revenge, I never felt like that exactly. Heavy Metal felt mystical, instead. Like a portal to somewhere not exactly inwards... more like turning oneself outside out. More like retreating, back turned, towards the exit. Does it become an entrance, then?

Sure, the primal forces of this bludgeoning sort of music had some effect on me (it takes a certain kind of masochist to put their ear to so many decibels, but that's a different piece I always mean to write) and yes, I have headbanged alone in my room as a youth as much as anyone – or more? I remember denting my head against a heating body by mistake. Metal took its place, right? Anyway, it always felt like it was leading to something, even as early as twelve years old, I was looking for something more than a sore neck in all of this. This explains why I moved quickly from what turned out to be thrash to power metal at that age. I didn't know of course what these things were yet, but after picking up on Helloween and that whole Teutonic sound, I didn't look back into the darkness for at least three or four years.

Well... the Starlight's dim, frankly. A strange song for twelve year old Helm. Now I understand where it comes from much more. There's an intro before the song proper, it's a sound collage and we must spend a moment with each sound that comes in because, let me tell you, some of these signifiers here really left child Helm baffled.

The intro starts with someone snoring. They they wake up and – of course have their morning beer. Then a song comes on, on the tv, on the radio? Not clear. The song clearly says 'Happy happy Halloween', even at twelve I caught as much. Then... silver sheppard? That doesn't make sense. Silver shamrock, it turns out. Years later, with the benefit of our most-powerful Gnostic demiurge in play (that is Google) I found out that this song comes from a peculiar source:

Halloween 3? Pulpy slasher films? In my Power Metal of Light? Oh shit. The blood-curdling scream by Mr. Kai Hansen is not very power metal at all, is it? The implication is that the freshly woken up person in the intro has become a victim to molten steel, of course. Listen to Death growl like the primordial entity of terror that he is while his skeleton crew revs up the mixed metaphore. Mean and sloppy, muddy with reverb and filth Death is. And what's this riff now? Well, it's thrash, of course. Or 'speed metal', hilariously. Do you remember that Helloween debuted in the Noise compilation named “Death metal” just few months earlier than when the Helloween E.P. came out?

I wouldn't know it at twelve but what I was introduced to by friends and metal press as 'Germanic power metal' didn't come directly from Judas Priest and Iron Maiden. It wasn't a self-conscious invention by Helloween to start a new genre. Not yet. It's very clear here they were listening to Bay Area bands as much as the more classy European bands that usually get connected directly as power metal inspirations. But at twelve these weren't concerns, I could hardly tell how this enormous racket was produced, much less have an opinion on discerning thrash and speed and power metal.

The equal measures of pomp and filth here can be sampled clearly in the intro switch-up from glam rock chords while Mr Death here goes 'whoo hoo! Alright!' after the scream and the absurd polka tempo change that introduces the shape of the verses. It's so clear to me now that just like I, in the late '90s, were listening to two very different Heavy Metal bands at once and mixing their aesthetics up and thinking 'this is all Heavy Metal', Helloween were a product of a similar aesthetic mix of what was for a pre-fall of the Soviet Union, a largely foreign music. This is important. You cannot understand how Heavy Metal was shaped in countries under Soviet influence if you're judging from an American or British standard. Most of us, even people older than me, they didn't get the full story. They didn't follow Heavy Metal from its birth in the seventies through its resurgence in the eighties, the progression wasn't clear. They listened to whatever they got their hands on and if it was distorted, then it was good. If it was from 'the Western world', it was good. If it had anything to do with Robocop and Conan, it was good. I can imagine, now, Kai Hansen and co. at age sixteen, madly hunting for records from the USA and being just as happy with returning home with a Dokken record if a Metallica vinyl could not be found. Or, more to the point, with a Van Der Graaf Generator record. It's got distortion and it's not disco, it must be worthwhile, right?

It's a testament to the strength of this record (as we will see further on) that the band is more than an aesthetically muddy mix of “Heavy Metal as we see it in Hamburg, 1984”. It seems Helloween very, very quickly became more than the sum of their parts. But not on “Starlight”.

I know this song by heart, of course. I learned English with this record, more or less. The lyrics are obviously written by a non-native speaker and that suit me just fine as I was Рand now remain - as non-native as it gets. I had a talent for learning English and I picked up a lot at that crucial age from music, computer games and television/cinema from the US. I would say I picked up too much, actually. Enamored with your decadent entertainment, at some point I handled English (at least written English, my accent was always clearly Рand once embarrassingly - Greek) as if I was a cast-member for F.R.I.E.N.D.S. Later on, as I began to reevaluate those cultural influences, I began to purge my English from slang and more importantly, from the lingual clich̩ that comes with them. What is left is hopefully and obviously, Foreigner English. It is because I find this fitting and correct that I can read these lyrics by Helloween now and look at them kindly and embrace where they're coming from.

You're hangin' around and got nothin' to do

You wanna get out some pills in front of you
You fly on invisible wings
Be careful my friend for too many can kill
You say that the meaning of life's in those pills
You forget all earthly things

You swallow your pill you wanna feel free
A trip to a world made of games
You do it again yet it's never the same
But a junkie's not something to be

Starlight fallin' in deep through your eyes
Starlight shinnin' down for your soul to rise

Now there's a needle lying in front of you
I'm frightened of those things
But I know what you'll do
You need it to escape from the night

You ride on through heaven you don't feel no pain
You ride on and ride on again and again
On the needle that brings you the light
You feel the mind-blowin' stuff
Flow through your veins
You take off and fly to the sun
But when you get too near your wings will be burnt
You'll die in the flames and you'll fall

Thematically this is a “Winners Don't Use Drugs” screed. Or is it? We'll talk about the overarching theme later on, but I have to say that child Helm was totally on board because I was – and remain for the most part – phobic about drug use in general and and recreational drug taking in particular. Preach it, Helloween. I don't need those pills to find the meaning of life. I just need the metal. Right? Right?

Anyway, the nascent beauty of Helloween can be noticed in the bridge (“You swallow your pill and you wanna feel free...”). That's the European influence coming in, as Metallica wouldn't do that, and if the did in order to emulate their NWOBHM gods, they would chop it up into smaller, more staccato phrases and repeat it endlessly to show us how smart their little off-kilter melody is. Like a retarded Mercyful Fate, perhaps. Well, like a retarded Mercyful Fate with a Cliff Burton desperately trying to re-orchestrate the mess, let's say. Instead, Helloween's sense of melody overflows. They've got so much they tack it on to ends of prases everywhere. They try to play thrash here and can't keep it straight, their inner Scorpion longs to get out and play us a rock symphony. Wherever one guitarist plays palm muted single string backup, the harmony guitarist (usually Mr. Weikath) would elaborate (and NOT improvise) these long flowing melodies on top. Sometimes connecting with the vocal melody, sometimes countering it. Often, these melodies would be, ghasp! Shock! Quelel Horreur! Major in key. Hetfield is frowning and giving you the finger.

Truly, there's something magnetic for me, still, at the juxtaposition between the rough vocal delivery and the confident vocal melody here. I still sing along to this record whenever I play it and it's not because I've got this fucking range but because the rough delivery is inviting for us lessers to join in. This is key. Likewise, the rough, punkish basic riffing here and the overlaid melodies, well, I don't try to play along to them but I still have this erroneous feeling that if I tried, I could. Power metal wasn't always this cold thing that Stratovarious-and-onwards bands make it sound like. This is rough and diy-ish in the best NWOBHM tradition, still. Sure, the solos soar with a potency that cannot easily be matched even by the most willing air-guitarist, but it's not the technique that's on display, it's anearnest desire to use these machines to elevate the listener. We NEED all these notes. We NEED to play this fast. Why? Because we're reaching for somewhere where you can only go when you think, bereft of any irony or knowingness, that “more is more” instead of whatever that crutch of a cliché would have most believe.

This is not the best song in this record, by far (it's not the worst either) but what can still be gleaned is that there's a new statement about Heavy Metal here. Perhaps not fully formed, but something's going on. The extensive solo section that doesn't just lick and lick lazily over one established past riff but instead builds “new parts as needed” to extend towards a direction is testament. Sure, even in the '70s some great bands would build these elaborate solo sections (Wishbone Ash comes to mind) but it wasn't all the time, and it certainly was a point into itself. Here Helloween can barely contain themselves, there's not a single song in this record that doesn't, when given an opportunity to solo, become an elaborate mock-orchestra suit for a moment. Even the punky opener. The light is getting brighter. Mr. Hansen and Mr. Weikath arrogantly trade solos, they want me to know whom is playing which, as my soul is washed by their inspiration's light. Seriously, in the booklet it clearly spells what personnel is performing what lead section. And after all these years, I can tell just by listening to their particular tones and inflections which is which.

Starlight ends quickly because Helloween didn't yet know how to write an epic, or know that they could if they tried. But put it next to openers by other metal bands of the time (especially thrash metal bands, don't forget this is 1985, most of what was vital in thrash metal had already occurred) and see how there's a different focus to that stuff. We'll talk about this more, as there truly is only one thematic point to the whole album, repeated again and again. And that point is integral to this record's enduring potency.  

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Walls of Jericho pt.1 - The Cover

For those not about to scroll, I present to you again:

One of the stupidest Heavy Metal covers that I've ever seen. Really. But it'd take me a long while to understand why it's stupid. It's worth mentioning that I never thought this cover was cool, not even as a 12 year old. It looked too weird and plastic to be scary. The giant destroying the wall looked to me as if he were wearing a mask, that this wasn't his real face. Why else would he have human hands? 

I'm an artist now, I certainly wasn't at twelve, but there's things even a twelve year old sees from an aesthetic standpoint. They just take them at face value instead of criticizing them. It's supposed to look weird. For example, the broken parts of the bulwark that are flying about look like they're made from tinfoil or something. There's just too much highlight and liquidity to the forms, now I realize. I do like (and I liked as a child as well) the bits of storytelling to this cover. There's footsteps in the sand leading up to the scene, so this giant has traveled an epic journey to come smash these walls. And I do think the person flying off at top is kinetically well-done, I do believe he's screaming for his life wondering why his God wouldn't help him. Wait.

So...  yes. As I understand it, this cover, along with the name of the record are a reference (and an intro to “Ride the Sky”) to the biblical tale of the Israelites marching, their trumpets bringing down the walls and all that. I had no knowledge of this story when I got this record, and for some years after, actually. I read the Bible mostly for polemic reasons as a very angry fifteen year old or so. That aspect of this cover, now known to me, only serves to make this cover look even more silly. Helloween are telling us that this monster (which even at twelve I realized from my brother's Iron Maiden covers was an Eddie rip-off) is an agent of God of some sort? Well that's... nice. 12 year old Helm had no idea what white metal was at that point and just how many power metal bands (especially from the U.S). had a crypto-biblical message in their lyrics. Were Helloween a Christian band? Not very much, at this point. They would turn to even more positive Christian-lite apologetic sloganeering with age, and especially with their drastic lineup shifts. The jump from this, their debut to their 'Keeper of the Seven Keys' follow-up is very dramatic, though. This record's got a lot of bite to it, even the cover is violent, at least. 

Other things my 12 year old self noted and I still find funny about this cover: the muppetface spearman running towards us in the bottom right corner. The one chance for the cover artist to inject some human pathos into the situation and it turns out they can't draw faces to save their life. This must have been even worse in the original LP size. The way the artist gave up drawing proper masonry on the far wall, instead sticking to the Chris Achilleo patented solution of 'stick a sporadic brick texture in there and they'll buy it'. Less bad but still kind of funny is the airbrush sunset in the horizon. This technique, now very out of fashion is therefore very obviously dated. Some people have a soft spot of airbrushed Heavy Metal covers. I don't enjoy the muddy result even when I do enjoy the naive motifs.

Other things I liked and continue to like about this cover: There's a real sense of impact to the wall punch, I'll give the artist that. Good parallel action with closer people shocked at the event and further people running for cover. I guess that spear that the main defender is holding up against the monster is very sharply rendered and sticks out even at the tiny CD cover resolution, which is... good? The logo is ace. I love prespective logos and even from early on when I toyed with starting a band, a top priority was to draw its logo-to-be in various prespectives. Prespective rocks! More a problem with the logo is that the symmetry is off. The pumpkin is not in direct middle. And it's maddening because 'Hell' and 'Ween' are the same number of letters. The artist just had to make the two L's take a bit more space each and it'd been... well, something a twelve year old would have dissected less endlessly.

As a Greek I wasn't very aware of what Halloween was, so the pumpkin head in the logo (and other iconography by this band) was more a Helloween thing than a Halloween thing, if you get my meaning. That goes double for the - awful - pun in the name. It's like Halloween you say but it's hellish? It's like, for real, man? Terrible idea for a name, I'm sure the band, later in their success, agrees. I had no idea at twelve it was even a pun. Look, I get that Heavy Metal names have to be inversions. Iron Maiden. Black Sabbath. Judas Priest. I get it. But putting the Hell in Halloween is just kind of stupid and obvious. It's saved for me because Helloween the band are infinitely more important than Halloween the dressing-up american holiday ever came to be. To carry this point further, "Walls of Jericho" is far more important to me than the Walls of Jericho themselves are. In a more depressing note, that monster on the cover is probably more important to me than his daddy, Eddie is.

As to those strange words on the cover. What is a Mini-LP? I sure like how it's Extra-long playing  though! I have this one CD to listen to for a year, good that's there's a lot of sounds on it! I didn't even know that this CD includes the 'Helloween E.P', however. And the cover doesn't mention it either. When I redownloaded a better sounding rip of this than I had made on WMA on my very first personal computer, I was shocked to find that the record starts with "Walls of Jericho", not "Starlight" as I had been used to for a decade and a half. For me that just isn't right, so we're going to talk about the Helloween E.P. both as a part and at odds with the rest of this material, starting with the next post.

Does anybody really need 71:30 of Helloween all in one go? There's record label pressure for you. It would plague Helloween and Gamma Ray for a long time, Noise wanting them to make their next 70 minute opus. As a child I would never put on a record and listen to just half of it, so this was an endeavor to sit through. I still don't like to turn 
songs off, but I have grown a lot more lenient with skipping tracks altogether. That's a practice that dates as far back as my infatuation with this record because let's face it... there's a couple of bad tracks on here. But we'll get to them.

Things I realized about this cover later in life are obvious, I guess. Heavy Metal covers like to have monsters and violence on them, so Helloween half-heartedly followed suit. The monster is an aforementioned Eddie rip-off, because all Heavy Metal bands owe it to their fans to have a mascot to make merchandise of. Little did young Helloween know that their real mascot potential was in silly pumpkin-head comedic caricatures and not in Eddie-son here. Kai Hansen would keep this monster when he would leave Helloween to go start Gamma Ray, for good or worse. I also learned that '80s cover artists like to airbrush and they especially like to do highlights with white airbrush, which looks awful and unnatural. In the same vein I also learned that most of these covers must have been done in a real hurry and without much reference. The latter perhaps is a good thing to make this art individual-looking, the former never is for any art, ever.

Edda and Uwe Karczewski are credited in the booklet for this creation. The idea for the cover goes to guitarist M. Weikath. We are all much obliged.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Walls of Jericho - An Introduction

Helloween's "Walls of Jericho" is a very important Heavy Metal record for many reasons. For one, it arguably is the starting point of the modern definition of power metal. There have been many 'power metals' since the early eighties and there has been even more confusion as to what the genre stands for, especially in contrast to what is now called the 'traditional heavy metal' genre. Helloween, though I'm sure they didn't expect to, helped clear the waters with the release of their debut but even more so with their follow up albums "Keeper of the Seven Keys", part one and two. 

But we'll get to all of that. "Walls of Jericho" is important for metal, but it's really important to me, personally. What I'm going to do in covering this very important item, then, is going to be different. Well, it's not like Poetry of Subculture has so far had a stable approach to discussing records, but in my head I'm deviating even further from my usual deviance here.

You see, this was in a strange way my first real Heavy Metal record. Before it I had only listened to Metallica. When I mean only, I am being very literal. I got into Heavy Metal at age 11 or so by having my father buy me "Master of Puppets". We were in a record shop, shopping for him and my older brother and he urged me to pick something up for myself as well, and I was drawn to the inexplicable malice of the combo of band & record name and that cover.

I didn't even own a CD deck, I just had this little tape player. My brother dubbed the cd on tape and kept the original (like the pack rat he was and still is) and man, I lived on that tape. I learned English to understand that tape (also, for adventure games). The allure of it is difficult to define because it is difficult to access; I no longer feel as I did for "Master of Puppets". You can see that in that it's not even in my Master List of personal HM favorites. But "Walls of Jericho" is.

For the next year and a half or so I managed to accumulate the full Metallica discography, all on tape, through my brother's English teacher. She had been very kind to give me these tapes, which I got in no particular order and rather slowly. I do not know if it was wisdom or just boredom that made her tickle out the dosage on Metallica, but it took close to a full year to get all the stuff from her. If I close my eyes I can still remember her handwritten song lists on the back of the tape. It's due to her that I still can't immediately recognize "Metal Militia" readily, as it didn't fit on the "Kill 'Em All" tape. It's her fault Dyer's Eve ends just after the first verse for similar reasons. Even today the rest of that song sounds so off to me.  Inno – cence! Torn from me with – out a shelteeerr! So off-key and annoying.

"Load" had just come out if you'd like to date this process. It should tell you a lot that I couldn't understand any difference, stylistically, between "Load" and "Master of Puppets". I remember very clearly that I didn't like it as much, but I couldn't tell you why. Boy, I can tell you now, but let's not.

For almost my first two years into metal, I wasn't really listening to metal (and certainly I had no concept of the full range of Heavy Metal out there), I was listening to Metallica. But I did have a taste of adventure and lots of alone time, so I decided to investigate further. I wanted to be a metalhead. I started reading Metal Hammer GR - a magazine of some repute then, mandatory reading for nascent metalheads. Not so much now, I started imagining myself with long hair, you know. I think this is a very common metalhead experience. It's been sixteen years. I turned 28 a few days ago. My hair is real fuckin' long.

My older brother had a friend who was selling "Walls of Jericho" for whatever reason. I think he was getting out of metal, or at least perhaps he didn't like the record. Man, I remember at least two older dudes getting out of metal at around that time. The second guy's story was hilarious. He claimed to have met the devil in his bedroom one night, hovering over his Venom and Obituary cds, which he threw out immediately the next morning. The kicker is that he went and picked them out of the trash later one because he figured, hey, might as well make some drachmas reselling them. God won't mind. I remember feeling equally scared and jealous at this nocturnal meeting with the Daystar. The fear has dissipated over the years, but the allure burns like a black flame.
I must have read something on Metal Hammer about how Helloween were a great band and you know, that's all it took at that point. To help you understand, I bought the Metal Hammer magazines out of a very meager allowance and I always felt guilty bringing it home, what with this King Diamond devilface on the cover and all these photographs inside of clearly villainous personalities. "Master of Puppets", with its rather diversionary cover was one thing, the magazines were another. Later on I would get my dad to buy me new CDs at the record store every few weeks, but early on I felt the type of guilt associated with Heavy Metal that I think is imperative to be acquainted with to understand why this music has such a hold on those that it enthralls. So I read about much, much more than I listened to new Heavy Metal records. Do you see how from there there is a line leading us directly here, me with a blog about Heavy Metal and you reading about it?

I bought the record used, for very little money. The person that sold it later on died of cancer. Unfortunate. I always remember this guy because I always remember "Walls of Jericho" and how I fell in love with it, how I learned what Heavy Metal was and furthermore imagined what it could be through it.

What I'm going to try to do is discuss every single song on the record from two vantages. One is the one of the modern Helm, with all his encyclopedic knowledge of metal music, the one you know from Poetry of Subculture. The other vantage I will try to summon is of the 12 year old Helm, the one who doesn't even know there's a difference between bass guitar and electric, the one who has no idea what 'double bass' is. It's not the only way to service how I feel about "Walls of Jericho", but it's really one of the most interesting ones.
I will start soon and carry on as time allows. Let's grow up together, strong and proud and very lonely, let's become metalheads all over again.