Saturday, August 2, 2014

Riffs are not Enough: Understanding Riff Ambiguity

I like a great riff. Here's one:

Pretty ripping, right?

More than any one riff in Heavy Metal, I like instead a wonderful riff that is followed by another wonderful riff. Here's an example of that:

Two minutes in. The malignant majesty of the two parts that would seem to never need end.

I never studied composition formally, but I know what I like, right? We can all be idiots with a cliche. We all know what we all like. But do we know what we love?

Once I started appreciating small sequences in riffs, I could never be satisfied with a band that just finds one good riff and hammers on it per song (or sometimes per record). It felt dumb, to me, one-sided. This is the process of one's taste being refined.

The one-two sequence that Cirith Ungol milk on the song above is not multi-sided in a conventional sense, it's not soft/loud like a post-grunge pop song, it's not minor/major like a Simon & Garfunkel tune and it sure as hell is not switching it up emotionally, opening up with some contrast in lyrics, singing style or orchestration like a proper composer would.

So it's marginally less dumb that one riff, but yet effective. Effective in a way that I haven't yet described, and I couldn't know how to describe for many years.

I like a riff, but I prefer a small sequence of riffs, oscillating back and forth. What I found I loved even more is a larger sequence of riffs and passages that created a larger structure that seemed to support itself and reach for something higher. The one song that explains this best, for me, as a huge Fates Warning appreciator, is The Apparition. Have a listen if you're not that familiar with the song:

Much can - and should - be written about the beauty of this song, but I don't want to wax poetic about Fates Warning right now. Just pay attention to the structure of this song. It has its verse-chorus structure, although with an extended intro, but it does settle in a 'rock song' format for some time. Then it has an adventurous middle section where the music, spurred by the culmination of the lyrical theme, takes over in a series of less riff-based and more movement-based sequences. Then, once the point is made, the original form of verse/chorus is reprised for the ending.

This is a very common rock songwriting formula, but no rock subgenre loved it more than Heavy Metal. Though I first took notice of it with Fates Warning, it is by much more well-known and celebrated bands that it was established. Case in point:

(though here, without a reprise of the main themes at the end)

(here completely - and perfectly - reprised)

God, I have such a hard-on right now. I am expending sizable effort not to veer this article right off of the Judas-Priest-Are-Better-Than-You cliff. I'm trying to make a point. Let me just calm down a little bit.

Black Sabbath and Judas Priest are what Fates Warning are made out of, nobody would disagree.

Most of Heavy Metal is made out of Black Sabbath and Judas Priest.

This is made out of Black Sabbath and Judas Priest too:

Led Zeppelin also did this shtick all the time. Rip off an old blues song, stick a weird part in the middle.

I like a riff. I like a couple of riffs. But I love a weird middle part. But why? What is it about a weird middle part that strengthens the whole?

I have my theories, and by following their natural conclusions to their logical endpoints, I came full-circle in re-understanding the dumb building block of all of this, the singular riff as well.

This is where this gets a bit complicated.

Heavy Metal is misunderstood, by outsiders but by its proponents as well. It wants to present itself as if it has figured itself out. It wants to be masculine, linear, to just pummel listeners with riff after riff. And it has achieved its desire to be viewed in this simple-minded fashion. This is, now, the popular conception of extreme metal. Just an endless circle of blast beats, ripping solos, machine-gun riffs and growly manbears.

But Heavy Metal is confused and in its confusion lies its power. I've written a lot on this blog about how Heavy Metal is weird and how the weirdness shows more in the 70s to 90s than in does in the last two decades, be it because of inexperience, lack of funds, silly recording techniques, but also sometimes due to clarity of vision.

Mercyful Fate didn't have a lot of money and their first record does sound underproduced. But nobody held a gun to King Diamond's head to get out like this.

The weirdness in Heavy Metal is close to its soul. Don't trust Heavy Metal that isn't weird. Though its pretending to be tough, masculine, old, hell, beyond old, eternal. It's also a weird lonely teenager trying to figure shit out.

When you pick up a guitar and you're a weird kid, you're going to play some weird shit. You're going to play some nice shit as well (hopefully), but you're bound to come up with off-the-wall noises that other people, pretending to be normal, wanting to fit in normal society, would quickly discard and hone on the material that does sound good in any context.

The Heavy Metal music I like thrived on collecting the weird material and juxtaposing it with more normal riffs and sequences, because although it didn't have a direct, academic language for it, what it was really trying to do was to create ambiguous moral spaces where ugly and beauty could meet, a dim-lit mindspace where such a dialogue could happen and there is no light, no god and no parent that can step in and say it's wrong.

That 'symphonic' quality of middle sections of Heavy Metal music that I extolled above with the Priest and Helloween and other examples is not symphonic in a classical music sense and it's such a tragedy to let whatever half-baked neoclassical aspirations the Heavy Metal mutants might have had obfuscate a much more useful reading of what was going on. Instead what's attempted - I not only theorize but practice myself in my own music - is a creation of compositional ambiguity and in turn a space for internal, ontological and moral exploration.

Great Heavy Metal takes off in the sense that it 'goes inside'. The journey appears to take lift, but instead ingresses. Voivod would play weird shit not just because it sounded weird, but because it created a space were their own weirdness could be considered alright, not even just that, but good. Needed. Wanted.

In the same sense, the weird middle part in Heavy Metal I feel upsets the concise masculine roleplay of the rock song, it creates a discussion between its phallogocentric rigidity and much less clear-cut concepts. The balance of these elements ends up not just describing the long structure of a song (verse, chorus, weird shit in the middle, verse, chorus) but also - and here's the kicker - the relationship of the inner parts of a good riff with themselves.

Go back and listen to the very first riff on display, here, Death's Crystal Mountain. Have you ever wondered why the composer of that riff doesn't just repeat the first bars of it over and over, but instead provides a second coda to the very same riff, bouncing them off of each other, A-B-A-B? That riff has its own 'weird middle part' written inside of it. And it's quite fruity, if you don't mind me saying. Surely the first bars of the riff are more punishing on their own..... aaaaand endlessly they've been reproduced, on their own, by other bands that are trying to fool you by saying that's what metal is.

So look at it from micro to macro, as a fractalized desire to set and then upset an expectation. This is what I find the most beautiful in Heavy Metal, and it accurately describes which albums and songs I enjoy and the reason I usually do not enjoy the other albums and songs out there that are still categorized as some sort of Heavy Metal music. I either haven't come to find and appreciate how they upset their own set-up, from every micro-riff element up to the overall construct of the song, or they simply do not do this at all and there's nothing there for me to find.

If a song is making a single statement (let's go with "THIS IS EXTREME"), then this is a declaration. A declaration is short and violent, and if it's drawn out it just becomes normalized, it fights itself, a loud continuous noise eventually fades into the background.

If, instead, a song is having a conversation with itself and the composer is on that sweet spot where they don't really know what they're doing in a traditional sense but they've fashioned their own makeshift musical language in order to have this conversation, what you're left is with a mainstream statement, and various points of compositional derivation, dissension and discourse all encapsulated from building block (riff) to structure (song).

This is difficult to do and exactly because it's not done perfectly, it's vague. The vagueness is a feature. Much like listening to the neighbours having a spirited quarrel through an apartment wall that may or may not end up with reconciliation sex, you can't make up every single statement and how it follows the others, you can only get tone of voice, a few words here and there, silences. It's so alluring that we end up filling the blanks, and creating a narrative to make it all make sense.

As an exercise, link me to metal music that has this internal ambiguity, especially if it's created by set-upset not only of riffs in themselves but by larger compositional choices.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

A Demon with a Frowny Face

I believe in tragedies / I believe in desecration

This is black metal's contribution to pop culture. The emphasis is not on the existence of events that could be deemed tragic and the horror that comes with them is not meant to be scrutinized, understood or analysed. The emphasis is on imagining tragedy and desecration, on calling it out with willpower, on doing the opposite of understanding it - instead worshiping it as unknowable and illogical. Natura fabricatus.

To the point where the tragic entity overrides the contour of the worshiper, it conceals them completely, it swallows them (think again to certain events of the early '90s). The 'why' in all of this demands attention. Young adult white males would choose to fantasize about tragedy and call it upon themselves, different discussion. In the preamble of that discussion, ponder on the difference between power and tragedy.

Brief point: think of any black metal band that talks about anything real, anything that occurred in this world and was put on the record of history, and you're probably thinking of a black metal band that has misunderstood the construct that it is appropriating. It's not the end of the world, but it certainly is humorous to think about, in a certain dim light.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Time and Archive

Heavy Metal's pretty big on inhumanity. A fantasy uninhibited by the limits of flesh, of weaknesses and passions, unbounded by place, indeed seeking a certain type of placelessness. Almost timelessness.

But only almost. There is one function of time that Heavy Metal is in love with. It is not the eternal now, nor is it a week ago or two years ago and of course it is not a tomorrow. If there's one thing Heavy Metal spits on, it's tomorrow.

Heavy Metal instead, lusts for History. History means 'the past', but it also means 'an archive'. The past has power because it is necessary to invent it, and therefore infuse it with our fantasies - that is how we can justify to ourselves that what we want is not just want, but truth. Willpower is not enough to shape a History, we also need an order to the narrative, a painstaking, thorough codification of parts and how they come together. A simple story that we can teach. That is what an archive is, a science, a memorized blueprint for a terrible weapon.

History is power.

I started this blog pursuing this end. Creating an archive of what-happened-when-and-why, understanding what Heavy Metal did to me by harnessing the power of history (personal or otherwise makes no difference). I was, and remain, equipped to do this because I know things, I've put in the work, I have suspicions of language, I can feel it when a conclusion is near.

And yet, this blog will not conclude. It will not reach a logical endpoint. I will never create this archive of one hundred examinations of great Heavy Metal records. Is it because I don't want to, anymore? I couldn't say, until recently. Obviously, I had noticed I was diverging from my initial mission statement but at no point had I realized I wouldn't eventually get back to it.

I realize now that in my desire to understand Heavy Metal and what it did to me, I have constructed a framework that prescribes its own limitations. They are borne from and tainted by a pursuit of power that is aside. Erecting an archive might get me hard, but, increasingly, that's all it can do. And it's been useful and interesting, but at least now I realize why I can't keep doing it and I'm going from one derivé to another, circling around my point.

This circling, this ambiguity, this scattershot approach suits me much more. As far as I'm concerned, the 100 records thing, I've proven my point. Anyone can read the reviews that are there and extrapolate further on matters of taste and 'should I listen to this record or not?'. If you've found what I've written so far useful, then yes, you will gain much from filling in the blanks with the master list.

I am - and will continue to - step aside from expectations in how I deal with Heavy Metal in this blog. I will discuss records and songs and moments and whatnot, but not towards a glorified History. There will never be a lush opening of the museum. I want there to be ambiguous spaces, holes of meaning and challenges in a narrative which was becoming more and more air-tight. Heavy Metal remains dead, a decomposing corpse upon the altar of History. We achieved all we ever wanted and the price we paid was an endless masculine performance, a reenactment of an imagined glorious past. We were never teenagers, we were men. We came into being as men, before that we never even existed.

To gain anything useful if that is not a satisfying conclusion, we must learn to forget a little.

In practical terms, you may not even notice a difference, but don't be alarmed if you find yourselves much more reluctant to believe anything I have to say in the future.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Let's Try to Understand Progressive Metal, Part 26.5

Hello! I have less time these days so let's get to it right fast.

Listen to this a few times.

Lemur voice were a progressive metal band from the Netherlands, quite late to a very uncomfortable, girls over there/boys over here and nobody's dancing party. They released their debut in 1996, well after Dream Theater had already achieved massive success with their sophomore effort "Images and Words" and instructed the B-list of how to play modern prog. Another influence here is Psychotic Waltz, yet it will not be obvious unless you're very familiar and I put it into your head that some of their stuff is in here, deep inside. Possibly, Watchtower's density might also be an inspiration, but that could be cycled through Dream Theater for all I know. Let's not get into history and genealogy too much. Instead, we will look at the form of this music and what it's attempting to achieve.

Before we even get to the lyric, we are treated with an instrumental section that wants to communicate a few things to the listener. Try to put yourself in a 1996 mood, here, if you were alive and sentient at the time. Or even if not, can you imagine a time before you were alive? Have you ever felt nostalgia towards events that never occurred?

We open with keyboards, and not just a synth wash, but the main melodic phrase of the song. A lot of people would tune off at exactly this point, because Heavy Metal and Keyboards, you know. Those that do stay, have been self-selected as progressive metal listeners of some stripe. This is important, because back in 1996 people believed in progressive metal, and there was such a thing as the progressive metal snob that thought other forms of metal were outmoded and this is the vital voice now, a busy keyboard salvo in your face meant you were part of the club. There is very little accommodation for a death metal or thrash listener, here. Perhaps (and that's a big 'perhaps') an unsteady bridge exists between this music and what was called "atmospheric metal" by the euro press at the time. I leave this door open because that's how I went through the other way around (from power and progressive towards extreme metal) so, surely going the right way through a door would also work?

Anyway, you're in the progressive metal ponytail club now. What's this place about? Well, complications.

Literally, it's about being complex. Right after the keyboards, we get slashing distorted guitars and drums in unison, in a syncopated pattern. The keyboard part is in 7, and the slashes are on the up-beat, down-beat, up-beat, they do their little cadence into the song proper. What does this mean?

Again, this means you are not listening to thrash (or even techno-thrash) anymore. This guitar technique comes from there (playing a lead theme and then having the rhythm cut through towards the verse) but it's mutated, it's altered, it's at once softened by lead keyboards and it's made even more complicated because that's compensation for the aggression of thrash that's lost. Progressive metal can be seen as an enduring effort to tell a different story using macho heavy metal methods, and at the same time trying to retain its aggressive, macho essence by introducing even more density and virtuosity on top. There's tension here.

The intro rhythm slash would take 2 bars in an Exodus song, here it takes double because... compensation. You might have expected the verse part to be double-time (if you're thinking in 1996 terms and you're coming off of thrash and death metal) but instead you get harmonic chords and omitted rhythm in between, at a leisurely pace. This sounds like - you guessed it (or did you?) - Rush. And therefore like Dream Theater of the same era.

Another staple of the time is that this is trying, somehow, to groove. This is another masculine compensation introduced by Dream Theater on their second record, by way of incorporating half-thrash riffs a lá Pantera. Nearly all of the contemporaneous progressive metal scene listened. They started stripping down the more aggressive thrash riffs into half-thrash grooves because 1. this allowed the music to breathe so you can put more keyboards and vocal melodies on top and 2. it retained some sense of 'metallicness', but not too much, friends, can't headbang with glasses on.

Speaking of vocal melodies, this is where Gregoor van der Loo, makes his entrance. Let's examine the first verse and chorus.

Gusts of color, senses of energy enter the realm of intuition. 
The question of validity is rhetorical in presence of Nature's purity 
A child's honesty, strength through vulnerability 
Yet feel the overwhelming beauty of intuition 

By concentrating on positive energy flows 

That emerge in your aura 
Stop confining yourself, open up 
Stop confining yourself, open up

The delivery is not at all aggressive, nor is it attempting some high lyrical drama. It's actually a bit flat, emotionless, though technically sound for the most part. The vocal lines are quirky, they're unexpected, off the wall. That's the Psychotic Waltz influence, I theorize. Keeping yourself in a 1996 frame of mind, consider that the first three words this record has uttered to you have been "Gusts of color". Can you remember any Heavy Metal before 1995 or so opening up like this?

The New Age vibe continues. "The question of validity is rhetorical in presence of Nature's purity" takes a bit of decoding, as a philosophical statement. If it is a moral issue, as in, valid means morally correct, then Lemur Voice are making a naturalist assertion that there is no right and wrong when we look at (and presumably follow) natural order. This natural order is further described as spiritual, not biodeterministic. It's useful to note that although this New Age thing is new to metal at the time, it is still a conservative position, politically. When people make claims of self-evidency of knowledge (or "common sense"), of a return to an imagined state of purity and Nature, they're still well within the right-hand of the political realm. This is in keeping with the history of Heavy Metal where even Rush (a very occasionally metallic band, really) were ardent objectivists and individualists in their message, never socialist.

The symbol of a child being powerless but having oneness, the overwhelming beauty of intuition. This is what this song is about. Not thinking but instead, being. The second verse is about meditation, opening up. Again, keep in a 1996 presence of mind. You just bought a compact disk from some foreign mail-order service, that looks like this:

The structure may be ruined, but here come the well-dressed progressive metal brigades to renovate!

Whose group photo is this:
The singer's beauty fits his performance. Formal, distant, serene.

And they're talking to you about meditation over Pantera riffs.

The important thing here is what they're doing, musically, while they're talking about mediation. This cerebral, very orchestrated and complex interplay is happening between every instrument on almost every bar, and yet the singer, in a dispassionate, floating voice, is talking to you about opening up your energy.

Is the music off-message? Is this contrast destructive, or constructive for this sort of music? Is the libidinal tension between the remnants of thrash in the music, the masculine performance of virtuosity (any virtuosity, really) and the conceit of spirituality adding or subtracting from this? In your answer to this question, you know where you stand towards progressive metal. The choices of reply to this challenge can be the following:
  • You understand the tensions and welcome them. Again, keep in a 1996 frame of mind. You think this is the future of the form and finally Heavy Metal has something new to offer (in a modernist sense), and hopefully to a larger section of people than angsty teenagers. Perhaps stale musings on meditation come first, and then something more radical? You are a tragic figure because you were in the tiniest minority of listeners, and history proved you wrong.

  • You understand the tensions, but you are willingly choosing to frame how you listen to this music in an old-Heavy Metal way, by focusing on the density and technicality and the masculinity that's left in there and overcompensated for, so as to pretend this is, like, ripping, man. LISTEN TO THAT SOLO, DUDE! You see the higher conceit as yet another bullet-point of superiority for progressive metal, but you don't access what it means. You are a poser, and you're also in the majority of progressive metal fans, both in 1996 and today.

  • You misunderstand the music and do as above, yet not willingly, just because you lack the tools to access what's going on.You are not a poser, you just listen to progressive metal for half of what it is because that's as far as you can get with it. Possibly because you were there when this stuff was happening and that's what was new and you were in the scene. Your interest will be passing. Even if you loudly proclaim your interest is still all there, you are instead performing it to keep in touch with your 1996 self.

  • You doing like any of this emasculating energy and aura talk one bit. Back to anti-modernism, dragons and visions of the holocaust for you.

A revealing point in the music, and actually the most beautiful thing in this song for me is in the chorus, when Lemur Voice say "feel the overwhelming beauty of intuition", there's a series of major chords that end on a dramatic minor when "intuition" is uttered. By some conspiracy of the unrelated fact that this band is not natively singing in English, they pronounce the word as "intrusion" instead. The effect is very noticeable because intrusion fits the musical cadence better (3 syllables). Think about "(happy)The overwhelming beauty of (sinister) Intrusion" for a moment. That little Freudian slip perfectly encapsulates the accidental strength of progressive metal (especially in the many B-lister bands from all around the world that were inspired by Fates Warning, Queensryche and Dream Theater) in that they were trying to serve a high concept they were ill-equipped to tackle and possibly misunderstood themselves. Beautiful ambiguity and un-comfort results. That is the legacy of progressive metal and that's where it historically is indeed tied into the grander heavy metal scheme. Anything beautiful that happened in this genre happened in a moment of Icarus-like hybris. Someone a bit stupid or ill-informed tried to write a grand symphony with drums, guitar, bass and now obviously very 90's sounding synths. The scenes have long since disintegrated, but the art remains eternally.

Note that on the reprise of the major -> minor chorus, what falls in place of intuition/intrusion is instead the lyric of "open up", and there is no minor shift, instead there is a playful scale by the vocalist, which is on-message for what opening up would entail for a metalhead. I can see the furious leather and denim clad hordes saying ".........nope" right there, I love it.


True appreciation of faith
Openness without fear
Devotion  from the heart
And crystal clear consciousness

Can you dig it? In the mid 90's, that's what we were looking at as the future of Heavy Metal, all the while, the raging maelstrom of machismo, anti-modern, nationalist, neo-romantic alienation of black metal was exploding sensuously over yellowed newspaper front-pages. Could you guess in 1996 which role would be assigned to heavy metal for the next 15 years or so? Would it be talk of auras and openness, or would it be the Sturm und Drang of an imagined third world war? Hmmm....