Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Understanding Atmospheric Metal

This genre is obsolete now, but as with all pieces of history, by going back and taking a closer look we will understand ourselves in the now better. Atmospheric metal, we all concur, is a ridiculous term. The internal question in it has been answered to the point of cliche: We don't call music atmospheric because all music has the goal to create an atmosphere or another, duh.

That's all well and good and we can feel smart for regurgitating this truism, but only for so long: when it becomes cliche, it behooves us to start investigating the opposite path, as it were. Be contrarian, metalheads!

What was atmospheric metal? It was a term used mostly (if not only, hard to tell) by european metal press to describe a variety of weird extreme metal in the early-to-mid '90s. It is tied with the rise of Norwegian black metal and also of british doom/death. Often thought of as dirge-like, slow death metal with a heavy keyboard presence and female vocals on top as encapsulated by Theatre of Tragedy, it also brought in a host of other outsider influences such as electronic music, gothic rock, neo-folk, martial ambient and industrial.

This definition is meaningless, and it has become more meaningless as time has passed and these formalist innovations have been diffused into the heavy metal corpus completely. There's dirty black n' roll bands with female vocals now, and there's keyboards in grind bands, sludgy industrial metal is now considered a mainstream category and whatnot. No wonder nobody talks about 'atmospheric metal' now.

However, a more useful definition of this genre is to look at how it uses the formalist material of metal music differently than in the subgenres before it. I propose that the innovation of atmospheric metal music was to create heavier juxtaposition of the metal riff and metal rhythm section by posing it against non-metal elements like subdued electronic music, ambient sections, orchestral bits, quiet acoustic music.

Most metal bands of the '80s were very concerned with perfecting their metal sound. This was a commercial issue as metal was popular and finding and keeping a niche was paramount to the career aspirations of many. Their songs were a series of riffs, choruses, solos. Faster than the next band, higher vocals or better solos, but the form was all metal, all the time. There was the keyboard intro here and there, but it was exactly that, a calm before a storm.

Metal in the '90s started deviating from this formula en masse. One reason was purely technological, as more and more it was affordable and viable to experiment in the studio, to have varied instrumentation on multiple tracks, to have a hand at fancy keyboards that once would cost a small fortune. Another reason was Nirvana and their popularization of quiet-loud pop song dynamics. Hidden underneath that base reason there was also the significance of what Nirvana stood for for aggressive music: more abstract, often more or personal thematics called for a wider range of dynamic and texture in the music. Metalheads would have you believe that they detested 'grunge' and would do the absolute opposite of whatever it was about in their metal in the '90s but the opposite is true. We can look at a half-decade of metalhead wandering all over the atmospheric, black metal, romantic doom and progressive metal map as a constant conversation with what Nirvana et al. brought to the table.

What's worth keeping in mind for our purposes is that metal bands started playing less metal (in a New Wave of British Heavy metal sense) in their songs and there was less metal on a long-playing record on the whole. Atmospheric metal in that sense is deliciously false. Atmospheric metal bands used one or two riffs in contrast to a quiet part, or a non-metal orchestral element (synth pads and pianos and violins and what-have-you). They extended intros into their own songs that didn't have any metal orchestration to them at all. They put interludes between songs, sometimes there was a 20 minute ambient piece at the end of an otherwise rough black metal record.

This, above any discussion of extremity is the dividing line a lot of 'true metalheads' will not cross when it comes to their selection of heavy metal. Not whether it's too extreme, if the vocals are screamed or shouted as opposed to clean and sonorous. But whether the band plays metal or if they put some metal in music that would otherwise easily play in an elevator.

In this sense, we can look at 'Atmospheric Metal' as a volatile synergy. Metal != Atmosphere.

But this is a rationalization after the fact. At the time, atmospheric metal contrast contributed in that where the metal was playing, it sounded more effective and forceful. For many then (now, not so much, perhaps) a My Dying Bride record is more savage and effective when they're playing full-on death metal than an Autopsy record, because Autopsy have a narrower palette to work with. All the blood and gore gets samey after a while.

It is useful at this point to listen to Wildhoney by Tiamat, as it was the record that broke atmospheric metal and paved the way for a million variations of this form. A metal riff and a gruff vocal here and there, as a sharp point of definition in a much softer sea of mood and color. It was and still remains a gem of a record. It's worth to keep in mind that Wildhoney came out in 1994, in the midst of the black metal explosion.




Much of what we see as black metal now is in this sense atmospheric metal. Darkthrone never were, as they were preoccupied with serving their one, two, three riffs to their ultimate logical conclusion. In the Woods... (then called 'pagan metal') absolutely were never a black metal band but instead epitomized what I describe, with every record after their debut even more, encapsulating fully the 'metal parts for contrast to something softer' definition in their third record 'Strange in Stereo'. Burzum at their best were an atmospheric metal band more preoccupied with a dream-like trance as also summoned by Dead Can Dance than with blastbeats and tremolo picking.


Food for further thought:

1. The opposite end of 'atmospheric metal' is the most brutal, technical, full-on death metal. Music that never cares to breathe and has no use for silly contrasts. It still serves to create a different, abstract, unfeeling atmosphere, similar to ambient music of certain stripes and some modern composition, so although it has an atmosphere to it, it doesn't have volatile contrasts between atmosphere and metal.

2. Atmospheric metal paved the ways for post-metal in the sense that post-metal also deconstructed the metal form to non-metal ends, but there are differences of both scope and intent. Atmospheric metal, when it actually cared to be heavy metal would be strictly 'correct' about it. Tiamat above were once a sloppy death/black metal band, and they can still write a convincing death metal riff even in Wildhoney and put double bass and brutal vocals over it. Post-metal bands deconstructed the metal form further, using sonic signifiers like distortion, double bass, screams and palm muting, but they didn't actually play - or try to play - metal riffs and metal structures with these tools. Post-metal can be seen as the vestigial evolution of atmospheric metal (a '90s phenomenon) for the '00s. It's no wonder that bands have regressed from that point to self-define as 'metal' again, now that metal music is enjoying a posthumous respect for apparently having rigidly stuck to its guns for 30 years. But the point of this article is to show that metal music has done anything but this, for the last 20 of its history.

3. As we said, full on death-metal is the opposite of atmospheric metal, but then a recent trend of -unlistenable, for this writer- 'cavern-core', as typified by bands like Teitanblood and Portal is all about subverting death metal technique again to create exactly what I describe as atmospheric metal, but without actually introducing flowery instrumentation and vocals. Instead - again an issue of arriving, accessible technology - they manipulate the sound design of otherwise pretty standard death metal form to make it appear distant, alien and indistinct. The use of heavy reverb and unusual equalization makes their death metal a soup of sound, from which once in a while a discernible death metal riff emerges, or a stop-start rhythm or distant clattering of blastbeats. Presumably the appeal is exactly this moment where a half-imagined riff actually peers through the thick fog and the listener achieves clarity. They didn't dream it, it was always in there.

Atmospheric metal returned and nobody noticed. I don't predict a massive interest in cavern-core, in a long historical view of the medium, but it's interesting how even in 2015, straight-up metal musicians are trying to find a way to use metal contrasts to evoke difference and otherness instead of the usual meat and potatoes metal battery.


2 comments:

  1. Fuck-a-mole! You're back. You're still alive. I promise to be a better conversationalist here on POS. I'm just in a focus project right this evening. But fuck, so glad you exist and create. Best!

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    1. Thanks for your interest. My comings or goings have nothing to do with the quality of the comments on my posts.

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