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....