Saturday, December 14, 2013

What's Heavy Metal still around for?

Retro-thrash, True Death Metal,  NWOBHM worship, so much god-darned black metal. For every record that you ever loved, that ever sounded vital and important to you there are now 20 clone bands that will play the same thing, dress it up in the same way and perform and produce it better. To match your expectations, no, to match your inflated recollection of how it sounded at the time. Yet, curiously empty a feeling when the music is actually played.

I finally get it. The reason these bands exist is not to cynically make money or to be famous or to get respect by their peers or anything like that (well, not primarily, at least). The reason these bands exist is because they're trying to protect metal music. They're trying to protect a tender part inside of them that resonates to it. A youthful, teen-aged part of themselves. From Watain to Municipal Waste, there's no more perfect way to explain why they're here. It's not to overcome the past or to take a tangential path outside of it for its own sake. They're here to protect a memory.

The access point of memory is in performance. To be more exact, if memory is an internal process - the reminiscing or recollecting of something - the externalization of the forces that are triggered by that memory must be a gesture, a movement, a symbolic action, in order to awaken a similar memory in others. Heavy Metal people lack the tools to make this performance radical and it is only due to their youth and the cultural zeitgeist that they ever did anything radical back in the '80s and '90s. This is clear, aside from the experience with the thing-in-itself, also from countless interviews where famed metal musicians exhibit a startling intellectual and spiritual vacuousness. Were these people really the ones making these amazing records? No. It was the time and place conspiring just as much as any one person's talent that made these records.

Ingrained in the tradition of Heavy Metal as we understand it now are none of the political or philosophical tools required to overcome the power of history itself, as nobody put them in there. The era is passed and without it the necessary analytical tools to re-contextualize the inherent pathos and rebellion of Heavy Metal are gone. Heavy Metal is now ingrained in culture as something eternal. Isn't that what we always wanted? Well... eternity's getting pretty old, you know? Olddd. It has a lawn and a mortgage.

It's a bitter thing that progressive metal, the closest we ever got to iconoclasm, is now normalized as just one more evolutionary path in the great benevolent tree of Heavy Metal where all genres like each other and the savvy metalhead picks their favorite fruit from any equal branch.

So, a performance to protect something tender inside the soul of a lonely person. The way to protect is by shielding the perimeter. Take a music that is inherently contradictory, sometimes ambiguous, vague, sometimes outright nonsensical and surgically remove all these aspects to its form and content, leave only the strong, the firm, the muscular tone, the terror of its texture. I dare you: nearly every record you love from the classic Heavy Metal pantheon has something to it that you would get embarrassed about. Tinny production. Off-key vocals. Bad drumming. Nasty solos. Idiotic cover. Questionable lyrics. Awful outfits.

New Heavy Metal music has been made robust, it has been made something to be proud of only in retrospect, only via retconning. The masculine performance that we desired our teenage years to have been, now magically is here. We can pretend that's how it always was. It's Kenn Nardi overcompressing the hell out of a weird record that was of a place and time. Of course that's how it always was, otherwise we must have been confused teenagers lost in ourselves, clutching at something, anything in the darkness sharp enough to carve a hole in our chest.

Romance is a black stone. It sits at the bottom of the mirror pool. A lying reflection of the moon that many a beautiful (and some not so much) youth followed to their drowned end. Strike the stone and blood will pour out, a river of blood that streams forever. That red mistress demands one thing of youth: "Destroy yourself, so that you may live forever".

Tall order! We can't do that! We hear the call. We're not 30, 40, 50 years old. We remember the call. But we can't do that. So we will hide this wound that will not close, we will build walls just as endless, dams infinitely big to hold the blood within. Nobody will get to our hearts if these walls are just perfect.

So, here's to occult black metal. Here's  to Incantation-clones up the wazoo. Here's to a million thrash bands playing the Exodus riff. Here's to more tenor power metal that any stomach could stomach. Here's to a million doom bands playing the same morose pentatonic riff. No weirdness. No nonsense. No ambiguity. No answer to the unanswerable question. No hubris. No exit. No point.

Modern Heavy Metal is here to make us feel better.

Sunday, December 8, 2013


Running down the memories
Wrapped up in desire

Oh, where to start. Where to begin.

Was it when you rejected me? Was it when you told me lies? No, before that, before anything. Was it when I realized I am alone, that I'm not an appendix to mother/father? Was it when I was born?

In the early '90s Heavy Metal had gone through three formal transformations. It went from a grassroots, do-it-yourself movement in the UK, inspired by (and often interchanged with) punk to an integrated marketing item during the glam/thrash years and finally it tried to negotiate (with itself, within itself) what it means to be successful and what it will mean for now, towards the future, when the eye of the public will move on to the new trend. What will Heavy Metal be now that it can no longer be innocent?

Because that is what it was in the early '80s, it was spontaneous and more than a little bit silly. Guys with bad guitars and drums and bad voices cutting a 7 inch vinyl record about the Castle of Some Wizard. Let's say that was the period of a little boy playing with their toys alone.

Let's then say that success in the mid to late '80s is mother/father finally taking note of the elaborate constructions, dioramas and vistas their gifted-if-a-little-weird child has created in solitude. Acknowledgement and function warp the form. The difference between a toy and a game is that the toy has a masturbatory function. A game is to be won or lost, instead.

And Heavy Metal lost. How could it not? Mother/father demanded too much. The potency inside the little boy's reconfigured toys was ambiguous by subconscious design, disaligned with Reason and Truth. Mother/father demanded that the insane pathos therein be transformed somehow in an understandable patron design, to be reproduced and enjoyed by adults that live in the Real World, only, responsibly so, perhaps on the weekends, perhaps on a rowdy night out, then back to the office.

Heavy Metal became a fully formalist pursuit circa 1990, with the gravestone being - of course - Metallica's Black Album. Finally, a Heavy Metal record that a marketing executive could enjoy without feeling bad about themselves.

So the teenager Heavy Metal, at the time, tried to appease mother/father. But then they had a second child (grunge and indie rock, whatever you want to call it) and *they* were illogical and impulsive and their toys where ambiguous again and mother/father had a new problem child to solve.

Heavy Metal entered its most volatile, disgruntled teenage phase. It said FUCK YOU MOM/DAD, but it didn't really mean it. It went back to playing with its toys, but when it thought nobody was watching, it took hidden glances towards what mother/father were up to, hoping they were looking back. Not too much, but at least once in a while, to let him know if the grown-up world was outraged/pleased with how the game was shaping up. Either could do.

1. In the '90s, Heavy Metal tried to kill itself to live forever. A norwegian young adult was murdered by another. Churches were burnt down. To assuage the gods, the ablation will be blood. Boys and their toys, oh what will they do for mother/father to pay attention to them again? It's very boring being a teenager, you know.

2. In the '90s, Heavy Metal also tried to stop being Heavy Metal. It tried to become Something Else Metal. Atmospheric metal with gothic touches, industrial noises and new-romantic pop frilly shirts. Or Progressive metal, modernist, abstract, ambiguous like a cubist painting, fey and fleeting. Hang me in a museum.

There was never a time where Heavy Metal overextended itself so much as during the '90s. Toys became games, games became enterprises, big dreams were crushed and unexpected success came for many that had hoped for self-destruction instead.

There was a German band, once, called Secrecy. They started out as a thrash band, like a great many others, slightly late to the party in 1987. Germany in 1987 was not a fun time, kids grew up fast, even if they wanted to play Heavy Metal. As was the paradigm for many German thrash acts of the time and place, Secrecy played a very precise and well-designed type of thrash, one possibly inspired by the then just released "And Justice For All..." by Metallica. As evidenced in Secrecy's first demo "Like Burning One's Boats", Secrecy were trying to take that techno-thrash mold and push it even further in a emotive direction. As far as I've noticed, they were the first to do so, and even now in 2013, ones of the very few to ever attempt this.

In that rapidly reforming state that Heavy Metal was in circa 1990, Secrecy very quickly shed the remnants of their thrash past and quickly assumed a fully progressive metal attire. They got signed to Noise Records, the place to be for their sort of music. They were smart people because thrash was indeed dead in 1990. If you wanted to go the savage route, you would have to play death (or if you were really forward thinking, black metal) at that time. If you wanted to pursue more human topics like those first touched upon in techno-thrash, you would have to become even more melodic, more artistic, more grown-up. Secrecy put their money in that direction.

As early as on their first record, "Art in Motion", Secrecy had created a masterpiece of modernist Heavy Metal. The band is now largely forgotten, and they have not been influential even in underground circles. There are no Secrecy clone bands, there is nobody trying to play progressive metal like this that I know of. It is worth our time to discuss why I consider their material so successful and also why then, would such a successful effort not reach a wider audience.

Secrecy's thing on their first record (and to some extent to its follow-up) is that they play very muscular, well-defined music, very rich in harmonies and with melodies that extend and complete themselves beautifully. The rhythm guitar playing here fills every verse space with sharp triplets, but takes care to open up for the choruses to breathe. When the drummer does a drum roll, the guitarists will palm mute its approximation. They always take care that even if a melody goes through unexpected directions it will resolve itself in a clear manner. Unlike many other progressive metal bands, they are not complicated for complication's sake. There's very little formal abstraction in this music - I can envisage it performed by a string quartet or small orchestra without major alterations. Sure, there is aggression - in fact I would say that on the first demo and on a few cuts from the debut they reach proper thrash metal band levels of push. But even their aggressive parts are always considered as means to create contrast with their more emotive melodic themes. Now, this was a new thing for Heavy Metal.  Take Watchtower, techno-thrash and progressive metal stalwarts. Their music was much busier than Secrecy's, and it was, for the most part, always so. There were dynamics, but usually the contrast achieved (and desired) was one between abstract, fluid chromatic solos over bright clean guitar arpeggios and then, their full-on, compact, over-composed, every instrument independent, on the brink of collapse style that made them notorious. Watchtower were not an emotional band. Secrecy were very much about conveying emotions and they used the shell of thrash and Heavy Metal to do so.

Could then Secrecy then best be understood as a post-thrash band? I do not think so. I think a staple of post- anything bands is that they appropriate surface formal characteristics of the music they're about to turn inside out, and then they create art that is dialectically opposed to the function of the original music. So far, so good, that's exactly what Secrecy are doing. But here's the problem: post-x music cannot be appreciated as an object belonging to x genre de rigueur.  SunnO))) appropriate black metal tropes and can be seen as a post-metal endeavour, but they cannot be enjoyed as a black metal band. There's simply not enough there, there's only surface textural characteristics of metal (or black metal). There's no depth to the content, when looked at as metal music.

This is a common issue with post-modern art, I'm not pretending I've made a startling realization here when examining Secrecy's music. The case is that Secrecy's riffs and songs are too well constructed as thrash or Heavy Metal music to be seen as post-metal anything. In fact, were the listener to be selectively deaf to the vocals of Secrecy and a few select musical passages in their debut, they could place the record historically, in the Bay Area circa 1987 without much trouble. Anthrax were often as melodic, for example.

So if Secrecy know their Heavy Metal inside-out and they can compose 10 Accept hit songs in their sleep (I am not exaggerating, this is the caliber of the composers in Secrecy) then we have to beg the question. Why are they juxtaposing harsh, muscular thrash edge with this meek, teenager voice and why is their lyrical subject matter so decidedly teenaged?

The answer I've come up with is actually pretty simple and that's a big part of why I think it's the correct one. Secrecy were playing a gambit. They looked at Heavy Metal circa 1990 and they tried to think which of the then nascent 'exit-points' would become the most popular. Would it be romantic, nationalistic and often reactionary returns to blood, guts and sorcery? Or would it be humanist, modernist Heavy Metal-for-every-thinking-being? Secrecy thought the latter, bless their hearts, and set out to create one possible patron of that ideal.

This isn't to say that they did not believe in that direction, I don't think it was a calculated, cynical affair. I would bet that Secrecy - or at least the chief lyricist, pulling the rest of an uncertain band along? - really believed in themselves in all of this.

The lyrical material on Secrecy's debut is not well-written. This further mystifies subject matter that is ambiguous to begin. What I've gathered - and perhaps most importantly the function I use it for, the type of emotion I want to have when I listen to them - is that Secrecy are recounting the various existential wounds of teenager and young adult life. There's a real sense of hurt to this music. An accusatory tone that turns outward and inward at the drop of a dime. It is remarkably successful how just keywords, and the singer's singing voice are capable to evoke such an emotional response in me. In the past I've rambled about one of my first failed love affairs while Secrecy played (I will not reproduce the text as it is in Greek) and I just can't help but summon those uncomfortable feelings of alienation, loneliness and mistrust of my own teenager experience when I listen to them.

It's extremely potent to put these feelings not on top of some mope rock or gothic pastiche, but instead over crystallized Heavy Metal power. It is not just a good tool of vengeance, it is life-affirming. Secrecy take the shittiest parts of being a teenager, the shittiest part of being under the thumb of mother/father, or that of the school system, or being pressured this or that way by your peer group and they place it on top of a towering artifice, kaleidoscopic in its beauty and seemingly eternal. It will stand upright forever, and the most tender and wounded part of a child's heart will be there, on the top, for all to see. Defiant and beautiful. No Secret.

Secrecy were wrong, we know now. They succeeded completely in creating the avatar of emotional, warm, complex, prickly on the surface yet still tender-hearted Heavy Metal. Their songs are a joy to listen to purely on a 'whee, Heavy Metal!' fun way. But they're very deep and thoroughly composed. The voice employed is the voice of someone's childhood. It is so brave to put this voice, singing these words, on top of their quasi-thrash. It is, in fact, too revealing of their intentions. I can imagine a rowdy, denim and leather clad beer-guzzling hesher saying "turn that shit off" if you played them Secrecy, because it would make them uncomfortable. Secrecy are uncomfortable to idiot metalheads exactly how a homosexual person would be uncomfortable in their midsts. Playing Prostitute Disfigurement for them, that would be fine, it wouldn't make them uncomfortable at all. But Secrecy? A fey teenager girl voice whining on top of muscular, compact and composed thrash? Filth, just filth.

This is the triumph of Secrecy, that you have to confront a soft attack. You have to learn something about yourself to understand them. You might find yourself lacking. There's no two ways about Secrecy. If you like Heavy Metal, it's impossible not to like their SONGS. If you're trapped in some perpetual masculine performance, it's imposible to like their tone and their message. Secrecy will let you know that. They have truly taken a thesis, an antithesis, and structured a synthesis out of the parts - how Marxist of them. There is such internal tension in Secrecy's music but there is no disagreement in it. It is What It Is. A remarkable achievement.

I bet people couldn't stand them - I bet they ran as fast as they could back to their Destructions and Sodoms, to their comfortable fantasy escape, to the occultating mists of mysticism. Back to their toys. Eyeing mother/father, are they paying attention? What use is Heavy Metal if it illuminates the most tender core of the teenager heart?

Well, a lot of use, it turns out, now in 2013, that Heavy Metal is spent and over, now that it is a civil war reenactment, now that there are a million bands whose sole raison d'etre is 'to be one of a million bands'. I look at Secrecy's brief two-album trajectory and I am humbled by what is achieved in such a brief time. More than that, I am inspired.  The clarity of intent, the musicality of the songs, the emotional capacity of the awkwardly written, yes, lyrics. I want there to be more of this type of Heavy Metal, because it is most needed than ever before, unlike, oh, 99% of the other, oversaturated metal genres. The tender heart still beats because how could it not? History has ended, capitalism has won, but injustice is still here, injustice is still experienced daily, the wound is there. How will we address it?

Naturally, on their second record, "Raging Romance", Secrecy have an answer. They are mostly preoccupied with their faith in God. Did you ever doubt that this would be the end-point of their story? Angsty teenagers against everyone, rebelling against Reason and Logic as much as they were to nonsensical posture and bravado in the metal scene, what would be left to them but the ultimate alienation of their peer group? Christianity it is, then.

There have been many "white metal" bands over the years, many of them playing to their home crowd (christian communities that liked the form of Heavy Metal but detested its message, easy to market to, right?) but there has been no other band like Secrecy, who used finding-God as the ultimate punchline against everything that Heavy Metal stood for, and did it with such panache. As you would expect, there was no third record.

The band is rumored to be back together again, and unlike most reunions, I am half-looking forward to another record by them in 2013. If there's a band that can push forward from their past glories and become vital, upsetting and offer something new in 2013, it's Secrecy. But it's equally possible that they will be trapped by self-conscious issues, their 'legacy' as a band, and create "Raging Romance pt. 2". It would be such a shame, as the music would be good, I bet - nay, stellar, possibly - but it can't be about God. Not in 2013. I refuse to believe that the tender heart of Secrecy resonates to the calling of God. It can either be charred and withered by now, 45 to 50 years old, conservative and slavish to authority, or it has to have forsaken the lord, it has to be irreverent, impossible, brighter than the sun.