Wednesday, November 30, 2011


I'm not gonna pretend to know anything about Jotenheim [sic], but I will save you the Metal Archives search and tell you that they came from Italy and released a self-titled EP in 2005 before breaking up. I find the date mind-blowing, because this shit sounds like it was made in a backwater American town during the 80s. They play "epic heavy metal," a sub-subgenre of 80s US power metal that basically just means "stuff that sounds like Manilla Road." In fact, this track is a Manilla Road cover. But Jotenheim have taken their heroes' sound, cranked it up to 11, and then bludgeoned it into glorious retardation. Think big, stupid power-chord riffs repeated way longer than you'd expect, throughout songs that are way longer than you'd expect, and a gravel-voiced vocalist of dubious technical ability howling in and out of key about Conan fantasy shit like a pissed-off mountain troll. Basically, this is fucking awesome. I commend Jotenheim for creating such willfully irrelevant music, and doing it with such zeal.

If you dig this, also check out my old post on Stormtrooper (US)!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

True Black Metal Part III: The Background to Burzum

Since Noktorn and I have just done several lengthy posts on the spirit of black metal and where it needs to go as a genre, I thought it was high time for another installment in my old "True Black Metal" series. The goal of these posts is to highlight undeservedly forgotten strains of sound from the classic period of the Second Wave, favorite bands of mine that represent what the genre should be all about. In Part I and Part II I focused on what I loosely call the "sturm und drang" school of black metal, bands like Kvist, Sorhin, and Sacramentum that blended Romantic aesthetics with ferocious, high-speed aggression. Now, I'd like to direct your attention to another really cool side of the early Scandinavian underground.

In the pantheon of major Norwegian bands from the early 90s, Burzum stands on its own. While you can trace some of Varg's guitar style to the demos by Thorns, none of the other big names were doing anything similar--Varg emphasized atmosphere over pure power, dense harmonic texture over straight-ahead riffage, steady mid-tempos over charging punk beats and blasting. Over the years Burzum has become synonymous with this "sylvan" approach to black metal, which supplies the soundtrack to solitary wanderings through the woods (and, sometimes, bloody primal warfare).

But while Burzum was the first band working in this style, it was only the best-known of a small family of bands with similar musical and thematic interests. And these other bands were also really cool! Most interesting, none of them really sound like Burzum in the way that legions of pagan, depressive, and NS bands do today. They didn't have the same "sound," but they were certainly on the same brooding, pagan trip. Here are three of them.

Perhaps you've heard of Hades, but you've probably never heard them. They were part of the Inner Circle, so "inner" that songwriter Jorn even joined Varg for at least one of his church-burning raids, but they've largely been written out of the history books. Everything they released is awesome, but this one track sums it up. "Alone Walkyng" may be the definitive mid-tempo black metal song, churning along with uncanny momentum and grim intent. After a brilliant intro, shit gets real at 00:50. Janto's vocals roar in over the drums with animal ferocity. This is the kind of performance that was unique to the early Second Wave--a guy whose every breath is filled with burning hatred, and who really doesn't give a shit what happens to his vocal chords.

But the track's ominous power depends equally on Jorn's songwriting underneath. Hades' mastery of repetition is on par with Burzum's. The song's core riff is the kind of long, elegant, fully-developed musical "sentence" that most bands don't even attempt writing, and everything else springs forth from it with absolute necessity, whether expanding on it or offering a contrast. What else would you put in this song? Pay attention to the inspired lead playing starting at 2:42, which reminds me a lot of early Cure, and to the awesome variation on a classic "epic" riff that they drop at 3:57.

Forgotten Woods were clearly influenced by Burzum, especially in the drawn-out shrieking vocals, but totally did their own thing. Their first album, As The Wolves Gather, is awesome, but I'm even more into the following EP, Sjel Av Natten, where their idiosyncratic sound is more fully realized. "Hvor Winteren Rar" is brilliantly sequenced, a real musical journey to its snarling climax. Just listen to the first three riffs--a majestic melody formed by picked arpeggios, a blasting section featuring their signature descending tremolo riffs, and then a stomping, triumphant mid-tempo groove that sets the pace for most of the rest of the track. In this last riff, especially, it's obvious that Forgotten Woods are really into goth rock and Oi! punk, but instead of wearing those influences on their sleeves for novelty they've completely translated them into somber, savage black metal.

Aeternus are a massive band who are massively underrated, and also stupidly misclassified as black/death or "dark metal." In my book, their early stuff stands alongside the very best black metal ever released. Aeternus rapidly developed a perfect synthesis of ghostly pagan atmosphere and skull-crushing fury, but their Dark Sorcery demo definitely belongs more on the ambient side of things. This track, "Victory," will loom over your consciousness like a solid wall of black clouds. It flows by like a dream, propelled by fuzzed-out guitar harmonics that suggest a pretty strong link to Burzum.

But what's really cool is that it's still heavy as hell. For one thing, the drummer lays down some seriously martial beats, and absolutely slays with those double-bass fills. For another thing, the guitars are downtuned, kind of like early Emperor. I've always wondered why scooped and spiky has become the norm--I find this kind of thing more powerful, and a lot easier to listen to. Ares' growls are the howling of the Lord of The Wind himself, and the backing gang vocals are the wild hunting cries of warrior souls following him through the sky. Hail!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Review: Diagnose: Lebensgefahr - Transformalin

Like probably every other Silencer fan on the face of the planet, I was pretty psyched for Diagnose: Lebensgefahr for reasons that looking back I absolutely can't explain. I'm not exactly sure why I was under the impression that Nattramn alone was going to be able to make a second "Death - Pierce Me" (in whatever form that might take) considering that he didn't, you know, actually write any of the music on that album. But hey, the release of "Transformalin" was heralded in a way usually reserved for returning war heroes; tell me you didn't get hard the first time you visited the project's murkily designed, unspeakably pretentious website, presuming you didn't already previously achieve climax at the very idea of Nattramn's glorious return to the fold. My god we were dumb.

Alongside Obituary's "Xecutioner's Return," "Transformalin" is the other album I acquired for free after winning a contest that I somehow still feel ripped off by. Yep. What a kick to the balls.

Comparing this to Silencer is intrinsically ludicrous simply because it's completely unrelated on a musical level, but considering that the project was pimped out entirely on the strength of Nattramn's name, I don't really feel bad about it. I'm not going to suggest that Diagnose: Lebensgefahr intrinsically demands any more suspension of disbelief than Silencer did, but behind the latter's most overtly idiosyncratic tendencies there was a core of incredibly elegant songwriting which rewarded the patient listener. Diagnose: Lebensgefahr, on the other hand, is actually so vacuous and amateurish that it's difficult to parse on first listen; the raw import the project was given before even a single second of music was available makes it rather hard to believe that the content is just as empty and directionless as it appears at first glance. It's actually a struggle NOT to desperately search for the hidden artistic layers only perceptible to the most learned and studious among us. The unfortunate reality, though, is that "Transformalin" is quite literally no better than (and not substantially different from) every other Audacity-made bedroom dark ambient project that cluttered deserted Myspace pages for the better half of the '00s. It's the sort of marketing triumph that ad execs only dream of.

If the dark ambient/drone/industrial/whatever leaning of the project wasn't enough to cause the first traces of unease to settle in your gut, a cursory listen to even a couple random tracks will reveal all that really needs to be said about it. It's Nattramn playing Nattramn; if the claims of "Transformalin" being a therapeutic treatment for the still-institutionalized star aren't enough to convince you of the "legitimacy" of the music, then perhaps the impressively rote and predictable displays of "darkness" that make up this album will. "Transformalin" is a vague blend of dark ambient, drone, industrial, and whatever other minimalist, low-effort genres could be cobbled together, but less because it features elements of all those genres and more because the end product is so watered down and flat that it lazily sprawls across an entire spectrum of music. There's clearly no way that Nattramn had the creativity or wherewithal to create an entire industrial album, so in lieu of this, he tosses anything sounding vaguely similar together and shoves it out the door.

"Transformalin" is at once very broad and yet exceedingly narrow; broad because it never seems to actually focus on any particular idea or aesthetic vision except for a lowest common denominator interpretation of "creepy" music, and narrow because despite the inherent lack of focus, the album is incredibly tedious, repetitive, and stagnant in mood and style. Time for more Silencer comparison: what made Silencer great was that it was music squarely focused on depression and mental illness but presented in a varied, interesting way. Every track on "Death - Pierce Me" is about self-destruction and misery, but there's an incredible breadth of tone and style even within that narrow spectrum of ideas. From a sort of ecstatic, harrowing, nearly romantic display of overwhelming misery to tumultuous, bitter regret to resignation, weakness, and pitiful suffering, an impressive range of feeling is communicated by the music. This is where Silencer was (and still is) so far ahead of the pack in its examination of depression: it knew that it wasn't a single thing, but a spectrum of thoughts and emotions to explore in a three dimensional space.

Where Diagnose: Lebensgefahr fails isn't in relentlessly focusing on a single idea but seemingly not focusing on anything at all. "Transformalin" deals with many of the same ideas of "Death - Pierce Me," but in the sort of deliberately coquettish way that plagues albums like, say, Cryptopsy's "Once Was Not," where a complete refusal to name names and be aesthetically specific is used to mask the fact that there's actually nothing going on at all. "Transformalin" uses a certain sonic vocabulary that suggests unease, fear, depression, and insanity, but rather than forming complete sentences with them in the manner "Death - Pierce Me" did, just sort of shits them out and smirkingly expects the listener to be gripped and terrified by the words alone. A lyrical comparison of Nattramn's two projects is probably the best point of comparison, considering that it's the only clear point of unity between the two projects. Both albums have nearly identical lyrical subject matter, word choice, and abstract, airy structures, but where "Death - Pierce Me" communicated vivid and evocative ideas and feelings, "Transformalin" just shows Nattramn playing Nattramn without any of the energy that made the older album so great. More than just being mediocre, it seems openly disingenuous and shallow. I've always despised how dark ambient is so often portrayed as a sort of natural successor or evolution to black metal, and "Transformalin" neatly displays why it's a failure time and time again: they're different things with different goals and different ways of going about reaching them, and the twain should rarely meet.

I realize that I've barely spoken about how the music actually sounds, and that's because I'm nearly at a loss to describe it. It's a pointless, shallow mixture of the most predictable elements, completely lacking any sort of goal or development. You might have a pile of distorted, vaguely menacing electronic beats and distorted shouting on one track, layers of static drones and samples on the next, and martial-sounding rhythms with declarative narration on another, which might suggest that the album is varied when in actuality it shows just how artificial Nattramn's understanding of this sort of music is. Each is superficially different but portrayed in a basically identical manner, with a single musical idea per track that gets laboriously dragged out and repeated for an ungodly long time before it abruptly ends with no sense of development or conclusion. Every track ends in exactly the same place it begins; even for this sort of music, it's motionless in a way you rarely ever see. Moreover, it's so emotionally vacuous that even the most obvious stylistic shifts that occur from track to track provoke absolutely no shift in mood because the music HAS no mood to begin with. Anyone with even the most passing acquaintance with dark, minimalist music will instantly see that it's a CliffsNotes retread of the styles it emulates, a series of bullet points dropped at the listener's feet and expected to arrange themselves in some sort of relevant fashion. In black metal, for instance, a blast beat or tremolo riff in and of itself means nothing; they're merely structures and forms that are sculpted into content through songwriting and artistry. "Transformalin" would be like a Wikipedia page on black metal that tells you about its elements but provides no explanation as to their function or result.

Beyond all these deeper issues, though, "Transformalin" also fails on the basics, which in the end torpedoes it more than anything. The sound design is really bad. It's generic and unappealing, with simple saw effects, drum machine beats, and samples making up the bulk of the textures, and the production style is so generally muddy and weirdly quiet that the tracks all blend into a basically indistinguishable mass. None of the songs, barring those with a distinct vocal presence, have any sort of leading element to them, which prevents the listener from focusing on anything and just exacerbates the already stupendous lack of musical motion. Every track feels like glorified background noise, the ambient sounds of a bad Silent Hill knockoff minus the gameplay to guide you. Everything is so featureless and indistinct that making your way through the album is just an incredible chore, and it provokes absolutely none of the thoughts or feelings that it vacantly gestures towards.

While I was massively disappointed when the album first came out, I'm glad to see it's become nothing more than a quickly-skipped footnote in the metal scene. Considering that Diagnose: Lebensgefahr hasn't produced anything in the half decade since "Transformalin"'s release, it's probably safe to say that Nattramn's career has neatly wrapped itself up, albeit in a rather ignominious manner. If there's a silver lining to all this, perhaps it's that with Nattramn finally revealed as nothing more significant than a rather unique black metal vocalist, the metal scene's perspectives of Silencer might finally get beyond his presence on "Death - Pierce Me" and look at some of the deeper aspects of that project's music. Still, that's a backhanded bit of usefulness. The fact is that "Transformalin" is ultimately a catastrophic artistic failure, an embarrassing entry in the black metal/dark ambient relationship, and a moment in metal's history that should be (and, it seems, has been) forgotten.

Buy this album on Amazon

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Get into: Cryptopsy

What everyone forgets about Cryptopsy (and especially "None So Vile") is how musical they are, which sounds dumb for the first fifteen seconds before you really think about it. Insecure metalhead apologists like to talk about how extreme metal is an incredibly erudite, marvelously artistic style of music, conveniently ignoring the fact that Cannibal Corpse is the rule, not the exception- when it comes to big name death metal bands, Cryptopsy is just about the only one that might fit such a desperate claim. Suffocation really only impresses other metalheads and Gorguts comes off like it was rescued from the conservatory, but Cryptopsy you can show the average person and really impress on multiple levels. I've done it plenty of times- "What kind of music do you listen to?"- and they all tend to follow the same trajectory: first they're taken aback by the extremity, then awed by the technicality, but soon after gripped with a more potent, abstract sense of songwriting. Even if you know nothing about music, you can tell that Something Is Going On.

So yeah, Cryptopsy's always been a pretty technical band (Flo Mounier, believe the hype, etc.,) but what's always less appreciated about them are their dizzyingly brilliant arrangements. Other death metal bands write; Cryptopsy composes, crafting staggeringly unique songs that all revolve around an essential stylistic core. Cryptopsy can't be cloned for much the same reason that Burzum can't be properly cloned: they're simply too far off the beaten musical track, and if you manage to get the form right, they're infused with an elegant sense of aesthetics that's basically impossible to replicate. They can be called tech death, but in reality they occupy such an oddly-shaped niche in the death metal scene that it seems to defy such a label. They don't sound anything like Suffocation, Necrophagist, or Immolation, which leaves them in a rather dicey place.

I'd say that Cryptopsy (and if it wasn't clear, throughout this post I'm basically talking about the first two albums) represent a sort of dead-end style of death metal that was never fully explored, but saying that suggests there's a street behind them. Instead, an album like "None So Vile" feels like a sort of island in death metal, with no clear musical precedents or influences marking up the board. The hyperspeed aggression of "Blasphemy Made Flesh" belies hints of grind here and there in its brackish blasting, but "None So Vile" is a work so ornate and so aesthetically divergent from the rest of death metal you can barely retrace its fledgling steps.

While a lot of other tech death bands from around the same time period tried to make cold, mechanically aggressive tracks (Suffocation,) involved, textured, and dissonant soundscapes (Immolation,) or simply cranked up the abstraction and weirdness to eleven (Gorguts,) Cryptopsy seemed much more organic and romantic in nature. Be it the neoclassical soloing (still just about the only solos that I can actually remember on a death metal record) or the rustic, lurid lyrics ("lyrics," see prior,) Cryptopsy's sound seemed to arise from a much more traditionalist sense of songwriting and melodic craftsmanship than many of their contemporaries. This is why I can remember just about every Cryptopsy riff, but none by Suffocation.

Friday, November 25, 2011

What black metal is (and what it isn't)

"What do you wish to hear now? The things that almost all will say? That they are actually normal people and their corpse-painted faces are only artistic attributes? The fact that we cross the street on the traffic lights or visit the post office doesn't mean that we are the members of society."

Khlyst of Lucifugum, 2006

This is the third time I've attempted to start this piece after deleting reams of unfocused, circular commentary about nothing. Let's see if I can make it work this time.

In a response to a comment by regular reader Flemming, I talked about my intrinsic suspicion of black metal subcultural narratives which make the genre out to be a response to something in mainstream culture: Christianity, democracy, egalitarianism, whatever your pet demon of the moment may be. I think the more intellectual sect of the metal scene has gotten way, way ahead of itself when it thinks of black metal as some thought-out pagan retaliation against Judeo-Christian culture. It's not as thought I don't appreciate this sort of perspective on the genre, and it does have (in my opinion) some roots in reality, but it's also way too refined, precise, and conscious for my liking. The origins of black metal are probably not too far from death metal's origins in teenagers from Tampa doing bong rips and drawing skulls in the margins of their high school textbooks: probably not as glamorous and intelligent as we'd like to imagine.

I understand and to some degree agree with Pavel's ruminations on what black metal is, but his summation of things is still a bit more antagonistic than I perceive it. I've never seen black metal as being so necessarily oppositional in nature; this may be because I've never felt like a "black metal guy" so much as one in tune with death and grind (a topic for another writeup.) As a young teenager getting into black metal for the first time, it never sounded to me like the sound of hate, aggression, or violence, as dark and stormy as the music might inherently be. I had death and grind for that sort of emotional catharsis. Black metal had a much more fun, purely aesthetic sort of feeling to me; it was the soundtrack to fantasy novels and daydreams and pretend-fights I had in the woods with my friends as a nine year old. The misanthropy and anti-Christianity never felt very material to me, and even today, I never get a particular sense of ideological fervor while listening to black metal. Instead, the best black metal gives me a sense of invigoration, joy, and quixotic enthusiasm. I don't want to burn down a church; I want to go hiking and take pictures of mountain vistas to make into Vinterriket album covers.

In a nutshell, I agree with Pavel that black metal inherently stands against the egalitarian, permissive dogma of modern society, but where we diverge is in what that stance materially means. While it seems to me that Pavel suggests black metal's ideal form is in a sort of retaliatory, revolutionary gesture against modern culture, I see the ideal form as one that simply dismisses that culture, choosing to isolate itself and create the sort of world it desires, ignoring the pressures and concerns of the mainstream. Why smash Christendom when it's so much more effective and obtainable to simply live a life without it- establish a community in which Jesus is irrelevant. In fact, my very favorite black metal (on a lyrical and ideological level) tends to be the sort where overt commentary on society is wholly absent- Taake, Spite Extreme Wing, Hirilorn- choosing instead to create its own world rather that bother with the content of someone else's.

It occurs to me that where Pavel and I diverge on the nature of black metal is just about the exact place where we diverge politically. Eep. Makes you wonder how your perceptions of art are colored by your experiences, doesn't it.

I suppose all of this works back around to my words on how I feel black metal should reboot its aesthetics- I feel that the style is getting bogged down in an oppositional stance that most of its constituents can't even remember the purpose of. Perhaps paradoxically, I've always seen black metal as perhaps the most positive face of extreme metal; for all its trappings, I see black metal as a much more creative sort of style than a destructive one. While I love Marduk and Dark Funeral as much as the next guy, the black metal bands that resonate with me are the boundless, fervent ones that I connect with on an emotional level rather than an ideological one. "Goat Horns" doesn't impact me or inform my actions to a hundredth of the degree that "Magnificat" does, and for me, the sooner black metal starts defining itself rather than painting itself as merely the opposite of the mainstream, the sooner we'll get back to the fecund creative territory of Norway circa '91 than we will otherwise.

What black metal isn't (and what it is)

I really dig Noktorn's "A Reboot of Black Metal Aesthetics" post. In fact, it seems to have started a conversation that should be continued here, among us TBO writers and you TBO readers. You've heard how much we hate USBM, how we look skeptically at the Deathspell Omegas and Blut Aus Nords of the world, how we refuse to like an album JUST because it has a picture of a giant goat impaling Jesus on the cover, etc. But where should black metal go? Or, what interesting places is it already going? And what was it? This is all stuff our earlier reviews have touched on, but maybe now we can expand on those ideas. Here's a small contribution.

In the comments section of the "Reboot" post, our buddy Willard Flemming said some stuff I happen to really disagree with, and my reply was going to be long so I thought I'd turn it into a post.

Willard wrote:

"On the other, coming from a staunchly secular humanist viewpoint, replacing one religious constellation with a new pantheon of deities (even if it's only for the purpose of generating thematic content) is less desirable, at least for me than, say, lyrical and thematic content based on observable, real world phenomena like conflict, murder, misanthropy, et al."

He later added that he would "welcome a greater usage of more rationalist themes."

Now, from Willard's blog and his comments here it's clear that he knows a ton about the music, and has great taste in it. But I think he sort of misses the point here. A secular humanist black metal is an oxymoron, as is any sort of black metal whose chief aim is a rationalistic portrayal of the "real world."

Above and beyond any particular ideological content, black metal is a call to re-enchant the world. It's about wild, joyful, boyish fantasy, the sort of thing people tell you to stop enjoying once you hit puberty. The myth, the theology, the theater, and the self-aggrandizement aren't peripheral to the genre, they define it. Certainly the music stands on its own, but what black metal music does is brush away prosaic reality like so much useless clutter. Black metal replaces schematics with visions, plans with urges. To lose yourself in a Darkthrone album is to jack into a current of power that is not truly of this world.

That might sound awfully strange and abstract, but it's borne out by the genre's actual history: The social milieu from which most of the best Second Wave bands emerged wasn't originally a militant anti-Christian coven or "just a bunch of wild teenage kids getting their metal kicks." It was a LARP-ing crew. They went into the woods and they fought with sticks and wooden swords and they told stories. But these kids were made of sterner stuff than your usual D and D nerds. Their fantasies were full of hate. Full of hatred for a social order in which danger was criminal and adventure was impossible, and for a plodding monotheist faith that had stripped magic from the world and delegated it all to a petty desert god. They hated a world where fantasy was becoming impossible, where imagination was dying.

Because for black metal, imagination isn't just the power to build self-contained worlds for entertainment. It's alive. Like the ancient myths, fantasy should flow back into the world, permeating it, infusing it with meaning. At the very least, black metal's fantasy is in dialogue with reality, looming over it like an oncoming storm. At most, it comes bursting into the world with a lawless power that covers audiences in blood, burns churches, and leaves a trail of corpses in its wake. Black metal is what happens when traditional metal's indulgence in paperback fantasy collides with punk's rigorous emphasis on social reality. It's the concept of "shock rock" taken to a place undreamed of by kind old Alice Cooper. It's magic enacted. It's the conviction that the unreal can and should and must become real.

And as for humanism, that's just Judaeo-Christianity for atheists. Whether they're talking about universal human rights or a binding obligation to respect the Other, humanists are deeply indebted to Christian thinking, especially the assumptions that power is evil and suffering is a crime. In fact, early black metal was a critique of this tendency. Those bands didn't just rail against God, they railed against social democracy. They saw it for what it is--a secular institution animated by the ghost of Christ. Moreover, secularism itself is conceivable only from within the Christian intellectual tradition--it's the bastard child of Augustine's City of God and privatized Protestant piety.

So, all this is to say that black metal could never be reconciled with rationalism, secularism, or humanism. It is not only distinct from these things, it was created in opposition to them, and continues in that tradition to this day. Bands that attempt to help the genre "progress" by wedding it to humanist concerns (ala Liturgy or the new wave of hippie anarchist bands) or rationalist ones (I'm sure there's some shitty prog-BM band making songs about "science") are making a horrible mistake. Black metal isn't just a "sound," to be wedded to any worldview. It's always been animated by a vengeful, otherworldly spirit.

This is not to say one can't write true black metal songs about the contemporary world. But focus on real places and events that verge on the mythical, or propel us towards fantasy, or suggest another way the world could be. Focus on social criticism from a perspective outside monotheism AND secular humanism. Or perhaps it is possible to write black metal as a negative critique, a hammer-blow against this corrupt reality...


Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Crash/Pavement Roundup part 2

Hoo boy, took a bit more than a day to get this one done, didn't it! In my defense, I did a massive amount of PCP and ended up in jail for the better part of a week. Let's continue.

Burning Inside - Apparition

Burning Inside tend to get a lot of shit from tech death fans, saying that they're just one of the forgettable bands from that style that got churned out in the mid to late '90s, but tech death fans are assholes, universally and without exception. Burning Inside are actually one of the better pure tech death bands out there, despite their woefully underrated status in the scene. Coming across somewhat similar to "From Wisdom to Hate"-era Gorguts with a legitimate sense of jazz influence ala Atheist but with a churning sort of NYDM delivery that helps keep things in motion, the band is sort of a bricolage of various tech death styles, but the music is made with a careful enough hand that it continues to be worthwhile even today. Recommended for fans of, I don't know, Oppressor or something.

The Mandrake - The Burning Horizon at the End of Dawn

A surprisingly excellent melodeath record that now clutters bargain bins, The Mandrake's sophomore LP seems surprisingly nuanced for something on Crash, combining unashamedly poppy, neo-Dark Tranquillity-based riffing styles with clever tempo changes and traces of Peaceville doom influence. The overall effect is an album that's a hell of a lot more broad and well rounded than the typical Gothenburg shovelcore material we're all familiar with. It keeps the death metal in melodeath near at hand and never quite goes to the lowest common denominator, despite how openly saccharine most of the melodic ideas are. Worth a look.

Throne of Nails - Acts of War

Simple, elegant, and to the point, Throne of Nails' only album is a brief, savage little thing that openly clones "Covenant"-era Morbid Angel with just a bit more "normal" death metal to keep things together. It sounds like a prototype of the modern Swedish brutal death sound you'd hear in bands like Aeon or Immersed in Blood with just a tad more oldschool vibe- the brevity and single-mindedness of the album is to its benefit, as the one-dimensional nature of the music works perfectly as a single, crushing haymaker to the sternum, rather than getting bogged down in any pretense of complexity or artistry. Something of a grower- it's hard to fault what this release does when it does it so well and in such a self-aware fashion.

So yeah, Pavement/Crash isn't complete garbage. Dig into the label's discography a bit and you'd be surprised at what you'll find.

Or don't because pretty much everything else is balls.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Interview: Pale Horse Recordings

In the age of downloading and the commodization of subculture, the idea of loyalty to a record label can sometimes seem almost anachronistic. The label as a unified aesthetic vision, with its tendrils being each of its constituent artists, is rarely an archetype appreciated or even seen anymore, with the tiny businesses that make up the metal scene doing all they can to abandon ideology and an absorbing sense of taste in favor of faster, shorter profits from flashy, short-term artists. Pale Horse Recordings is the sort of grumbling, ornery entity that would appear to be the sort of label operating in unobtrusive obscurity since the early '90s- were it not that its first release, a wretched, dismal split between funeral doom black holes Bosque and Senthil, appeared only a half decade ago. Boasting a roster of unique, creative, intensely individual bands from the deepest reaches of the underground, Pale Horse Recordings is one of the few labels remaining who functions in the way a metal label should: with zero concern for anything but its own vision. I asked proprietor Andrew a few questions about his label, the scene, and forgotten cassette releases in hopes that you'll stop listening to Watain today.

Noktorn: So let's get all the self-promotion out of the way immediately. PHR: What is it, how long has it been going on, what's coming out, the usual.

Andrew: PHR publicly began operations in October 2005; however, I put it on hiatus for some time between 2007 and 2008.

I have a few future releases already planned: PHR will be putting out the first LPs for Kthanm and Imynvokad as well as Ophian’s first album. The time-table for these is indeterminable at present, each for a unique reason. There may be another cassette release between now and the vinyls, should something creep up that demands my attention but, for the time being, my schedule is otherwise set.

N: Various forms of doom and black metal take up the bulk of your releases. Intentional decision or just easier genres to arrive at for smaller labels? That's something I experienced with mine: death metal bands tend to shoot for larger, more commercially viable releases while there's many more small, short-run-receptive black and doom bands out there to work with.

A: The existence of the label is an amalgamation of intentional decisions. It may just be chance that my main musical interest is black metal and that the particular genre is so bloated that even talented new bands are willing to work with a smaller entity such as myself.

N: A lot of what you release on your label comes from one or two man projects. While I do love plenty of small-form projects like these, they do most of the time seem more bare bones and less detailed from a songwriting standpoint simply because there's fewer cooks in the kitchen adding the small variations that tend to make more well-rounded songs. Is this a natural problem of working alone or simply indicative of the sort of musicians who do these projects?

A: The vertex between ability, creativity, and vision seems to be elusive and, to borrow your analogy, I find that music often suffers from having too many cooks in the kitchen. While I certainly enjoy many formal bands, I am drawn more readily to those which operate under the creative oversight of an acting dictator or those with the rare ability to unify their vision and sound throughout the intermediates.

N: There's a certain structural similarity to the artists on your label. I notice a few distinct elements which seem to recur in just about all of them: deliberately cloudy but not indistinct production, melodic structures heavily based on odd, jazzy chord phrasings and dissonance, and a sort of sparse, dead atmosphere no matter how busy the music might be. Deliberate choices?

A: Analysis of the corpus of my releases does yield similarities such as those you have listed. Again, I put out what I like to hear and I get bored very quickly with the mundane. Esotericism and conviction rank high with me; consonance and predictability do not.

N: One of the most interesting things about metal to me has always been the geographical variation in sound, and how bands from neighboring cities can sound completely different simply due to how the scene constructs itself. Are there any particular up-and-coming regional scenes you've been exploring? Lately I've been looking a lot into the Argentinians- they have a particularly brackish, angry style of politically-driven metal that tends towards very memorable, violent music.

A: By and large, regional scenes don’t really do anything for me. I may find it interesting to stay current when there is an outpouring of music from a normally quiet area but I cannot buy into hype alone. What I appreciate most in music does not come from geography or other trappings of the terrestrial but from the Spirit of the Devil.

Excluding the unnamed bands included in your Thra’el review, which I believe you described as “incestuous,” the Nidrosian circle in Norway (Kaosritual, Black Majesty, Mare, …) and the bands associated with Ancient Records (Grifteskymfning, Kaos Sacramentum ,…) are really excellent and I definitely encourage those unfamiliar to seek out and purchase these bands’ material.

You're located in San Antonio, Texas, which manages to be both hipster capital of the south as well as the home of a fairly thriving extreme metal scene. The public perception of the area from those outside it is that Texas is practically a Mecca: frequent fests, a strong, unified scene, and solid, uncompromising bands. Of course, I live in Tampa and know how garbage the scene really is here, so these sorts of stories aren't always true. Is it as good as they say or is it an arpeggio and marijuana-fueled wasteland like most other places?

A:We Texans have had our share of large-scale events, most notably the now discontinued annual Sacrifice of Nazarene Child Fest as well as the up-and-coming red giant, Rites of Darkness Fest. Both of these events have, though their respective courses, brought many people and well-reputed bands from around the world to San Antonio, so certainly there is merit in your outside perspective of our scene.

Behind the perception are we in actuality wasteland? Maybe? I have very little need for belonging or identification of myself as part of a larger group so I remain content to observe things from the outskirts when I get it under my skin to venture out into the thick of things.

Is black metal a genre of music where ideology and the projection thereof is a necessary component? Note that I didn't speak of a specific ideology, just any in particular. Black metal, political/religious or not, seems like a pretty propagandistic style of music, and I wondered if you considered that a crucial part of it.

A:I believe an intact ideology that is prevalent throughout the intent and aesthetic is indeed necessary in black metal as well as everything else in life. Propaganda has its place and though I find the overly prevalent, overly forceful use of it tiresome, that approach is far more appreciable than the subtle attempts at persuasion of the arm-chair philosopher popular with the neo-hippie, post-* crowd.

N:What have you been listening to lately that won't be forgotten in two weeks?

A: Belkètre.

N:Any last words?

A:Thanks for the interview and for the continued support you’ve displayed since the birth of PHR.

Thanks to Andrew for taking the time to answer my questions. Anyone reading this should take the time to check out Pale Horse Recordings for its array of releases and excellently priced distro items. Support the true underground and one of its most valuable members.

Monday, November 21, 2011

A reboot of black metal's aesthetics

Black metal is dead- at least according to every black metal musician who's given an interview on Invisible Oranges and is capable of stringing together a sentence (if not a thought.) Frankly, lamenting the death of the style has become as much a part of it as tremolo picking and church burning, so I suppose it's unreasonable that my hackles are raised each new time I hear it. But I can't really help it; it's a bizarre sort of psychological exercise or stylistic statement that's half hipster and half tragic childhood- if black metal is dead and you play black metal, then you have no responsibility for its failure; that was the fault of people long before you.

I've never been much for abdicating your role in the scene. I'm forced to echo Soulja Boy's response to Ice-T's inept criticisms of his music a few years back: if black metal is dying, then save it, nigga.

Of course, anyone with a brainstem knows that black metal isn't dead simply because black metal isn't a discrete "thing" made up of a few musical elements or aesthetic tropes. I've often said that the "classics" are really the worst way to explore any genre of music you're unfamiliar with, because it improperly colors your expectations of the style itself. The majority of kids out there (especially those raised on the internet, where the canons of various styles of music are so rigidly codified) are getting into black metal via "De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas" and "Hvis Lyset Tar Oss"- excellent albums, of course, at the very top of the heap of black metal, but how much do they actually resemble the faceless, generic "black metal" you hear in your mind when you think of the term? Liking albums like those doesn't necessarily mean you like what we know as black metal- they mean you like good music. I love Townes Van Zandt, but I'm not about to claim I'm an aficionado of country. The classics are great because they're so unique, but without a background of a few hundred bullshit Peruvian blast'n'shriek CDs, you don't have a very good perspective of what makes them so fantastic. Thus, a skewed perspective, and a reductivist one that sees every style as basically stillborn even though Darkthrone doesn't really embody what black metal "is" better than Pogrom 1147 does.

While the metal scene frantically jerks itself off, trying to find more and more self-indulgent note arrangements and bizarre compositional techniques in a desperate bid to differentiate one band from another, I think that what's really needed is a revision of aesthetics. Black metal, like any style of music (or art for that matter,) is really a matter of atmosphere: the feeling it creates, the ideas it produces, and the intangible sense of being that the very best works manage to foster in their respective audiences. The musical elements of black metal are just fine as they are- thrash beats and buzzing neoclassical melodies are always going to sound wonderful- but the presentation, I would wager, could use some rejiggering by now.

Despite the relative simplicity of black metal's ideological and atmospheric objectives, I'd like to suggest a few alternatives to the most tried and true tropes of the genre, all of which I'd say need to be shelved for a while before they're as gripping again as they were in '92.

1. Satan

Satan is of course an inherently cool sort of bro, but the sheer saturation and lack of creativity in his unholy presentation is making him seem pretty stale now. A million bands all bleating the same bland interpretation of the black woodsman has reduced the idea to nothing more than a static image; a black metal band reps their brimstone-constructed hood simply because they feel it's a necessity rather than due to a real appreciation. It's unfortunate, but if we could distance ourselves from it for a while, I bet we could get back to him in good time.

Alternative - Occultism

Yeah, the occult seems like a barely visible sideways move from Satan, but hear me out. The concept of occultism is an incredibly broad field, filled to the brim with different permutations begging to be explored- anything from demonology to voodoo to a Woodland Critter Christmas spin on animism would work. What I appreciate most, though, is a rediscovery of witchcraft. Artists like Valhom, instead of presenting Satan and the occult as a destructive, omnipresent force choose to portray the darker edge of the supernatural as a seductive, nocturnal, esoteric sort of power, less concerned with raiding heaven than being a malevolent, romantic trickster on earth. It's a very different paradigm for the music to explore, and one that I really enjoy whenever it pops up.

2. Misanthropy

Much like Satan, the problem with misanthropy as an aesthetic center is more in the way bands portray it than an issue with the idea itself. Metal bands are by and large staffed by the nearly retarded, and so the "I hate everyone" crooning that dominates the portrayal of misanthropy is just as bland and unconvincing as you'd expect. Since misanthropy tends to be used as a comfortable sidestepping of actual ideology rather than an ideology itself- "I hate everyone equally, I'm not a bigot!!1"- it's naturally robbed of any strength or intimidation that it might have otherwise carried. It's never going to leave, but it would be better if bands focused it more.

Alternative - Hermeticism

People who actually hate something rarely endeavor to destroy it- instead, they typically choose to simply withdraw from it. What better alternative could there be to the juvenile resentment inherent to most misanthropy than the weathered, bitter isolationism of an artist like Striborg? The grey, distasteful solitude of hermeticism and its naturally intellectual and indirectly misanthropic bent allows a band to express many of the same ideas of the more outwardly antagonistic black metal artists with a great degree more breadth of tone and style. I suppose some believe that black metal has to be a perpetually forward and destructive force, but I think the lonely and hideous life of the recluse is just as legitimate as its more vigorous and stupid younger brother.

3. Mythology

I know this will probably draw some ire, but sorry guys, I just don't really care about the old gods too much anymore. Like every other metalhead out there, in my youth I feverishly masturbated to the pagan religions of Scandinavia, Egypt, Greece, and others, but too many rounds of Age of Mythology and too many Thyrfing albums later and it's difficult for me to give a shit. While it's fair to say that these sorts of stories are timeless (they are a part of history, after all,) they're also static and don't offer most bands the opportunity to be truly creative. Most references to Valhalla these days feel less like a magnificent, epic journey to a world beyond and more like the product of those too uncreative to invent a Blashyrkh of their own.

Alternative - Dark fantasy

Is there a particular reason the actual aesthetics of the classic black metal albums have been forgotten? Look back on them and you'll find a wealth of fun, exciting, lively ideas to explore, from Mayhem's gothic, vampiric, delightfully Transylvanian tales to Emperor's stories of wizards and cosmic magic. As Varg Vikernes stated, despite modern perspectives of Burzum, the project's primary influences in the days of its intellectual inception were things like Lord of the Rings and childhood daydreams where sticks became swords. It might not be the most overtly grim sort of thing to draw a style from, but beneath all of black metal's angry bluster has always been a curious, youthful vigor for life and its myriad of possibilities- why not channel some of those again and actually get some enjoyment out of things?


It goes without saying that Satan, misanthropy, and mythology are still perfectly valid ideas to use as a springboard for a band's aesthetic- they've simply been oversaturated by uncreative and bland bands across the world. If your particular dumb black metal project has a clever and interesting spin on one of those subjects, don't let a post like this dissuade you- absolutely, bring some new life to those old topics. That being said, though, black metal is rapidly approaching three decades of existence and still the scene is reflexively resistant to anything but the most obvious sorts of expressions. If black metal is dying- or its icons are dying- it's your job to save them by not doing the same thing over again. Ideas are infinite- why choose to use someone else's?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

"seems to me, i could live my life/ a lot better than i think i am"

I think it's pretty funny that a band who drew inspiration from Ayn Rand also wrote a song that perfectly encapsulated Marx's theory of alienation. For real, dudes, "ain't got no time for livin' cause I'm working all the time." The separation of labor from the rest of life-activity, as this thing that's required for your survival but preventing you from really living, is one of the fundamental wrongs of capitalism. Rush fucking nailed it.

I'm posting this because I've basically been doing nothing but work for the last week. Also, consider this another gesture of solidarity to the folks at OWS, who just got attacked again by the bankers' porky pals in blue.

Oh and this song is really heavy. I'm going to sleep now.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Crash/Pavement Roundup part 1

Crash (formerly Pavement) is basically known as the label where taste goes to die; purveyors of all things metal-related more often handled by shovel than hand, it's a label that functions more as an Ebay clearinghouse for incredibly mediocre, easily dismissed albums that wouldn't have seen the light of day elsewhere. Despite this impressive dedication to the most prosaic and unremarkable albums of the metal scene, occasionally an item of striking quality will slip through the cracks and find its way to the printing press. This post will detail a handful of them, just to make you feel better when you drop $50 on 40 discs sometime and come up with 4 you actually ever listen to.

Internal Bleeding - Driven to Conquer

It took these guys three albums to get their shit together, and even then it was hardly something you would call ingenious, but Internal Bleeding actually managed to put together a pretty solid grower of an album in "Driven to Conquer." Coming from an era before slam proper was really defined, this album (and its predecessors, in a sloppier and less enjoyable fashion) brings bands like Dying Fetus or Dyscrasia to mind in its odd, off-kilter combination of NYDM and hardcore. "Driven to Conquer" isn't exceptionally different from the two albums before it, but it seems as though with this one the band really figured out the perfect ratio of Suffocation to 25 Ta Life, resulting in an album which, while definitely occupying more a place of historical fascination than regular listening, stands up even today.

Murder Squad - Unsane, Insane, and Mentally Deranged

An unabashed Autopsy knock-off that even features Chris Reifert doing... stuff (I defy anyone to actually explain what his role on the album is,) "Unsane, Insane, and Mentally Deranged" is without a doubt the best of this surprisingly broad field of releases. An obsessive devotion to the Autopsy style paradoxically results in a surprisingly unique sound, since it's filtered through the playing of a bunch of Swedish kids who didn't grow up in the US in the late '80s. If someone tried to recreate Autopsy while knowing a bit too well what a death/doom/sludge mixture "should" sound like, you'd get something like this. More remarkable than that is that it actually turned out well.

Crowbar - Obedience Thru Suffering

It's Fucking Crowbar You Dicks

Stop by tomorrow for the concluding roundup.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Get into: Havohej

i never 'got' the whole havohej 'thing' until some years ago when i got into another bullshit, fruitless argument with my family and i was driving to my shitty, go-nowhere community college with my schizophrenic girlfriend in the passenger's seat and all at once i realized how awful everything was and how little i was respected by the people around me and how chances were i would never amount to anything in life and how ultimately i was probably doomed to the exact same mind-numbing bullshit day after day and in that horrible moment of perfect, objective clarity this song came on and for a second everything became acceptable.

each lost opportunity - every word unsaid - every promise broken - every chance for something greater - never coming back

"A Milli" - The greatest hip-hop song of the '00s?

At this point in TBO's development, I feel no need to link any discussion of hip-hop to Burzum anymore. It's acceptable to discuss it on its own terms, especially since just about every metalhead these days is frantically downloading Lil B mixtapes alongside One Tail, One Head tapes. Anyway, I'm beginning to consider Lil Wayne's "A Milli" as the ultimate hip-hop song of the '00s (how you'd pronounce that if saying it in regular conversation, I have no idea.) It combines a lot of features of '00s culture into a singular whole: a sort of adorned, self-referential minimalism, irony that goes beyond the standard "we're too cool for this" posturing, and a decided indulgence in excess and Caligulan decadence. Lil Wayne's masterpiece from his third "Carter" entry suddenly becomes the most defining sound of a decade.

Anyone have any better choices for the track of the '00s?



Tuesday, November 8, 2011

So I guess this "Alcest" they're selling is some kind of fancy perfume, huh?

But seriously, this is fucking ridiculous. And so is Alcest. This video is especially funny because it's so faithful to the spirit of their music. Thus far, the whole audiovisual project of Alcest has been an exercise in whimsical kitsch, the kind of pseudo-Romanticism that ended up giving that glorious art movement a bad name. It's the 21st-century musical equivalent of this painting.

Far be it from me, a massive fan of Slowdive and Sigur Ros, to hate on something just because it's delicate, ethereal, and brimming with tender emotion. But for these bands, there's something forceful in even their gentlest moments. Just listen to Slowdive's "Here She Comes" or Sigur Ros' "Staralfur"--the former is a sublime commingling of despair and affirmation, the latter a sugary pop song that swells outward into unguarded, naked love. In both cases, there's a real sense that something is at stake, and that there's risk, danger. Despite its overt accessibility, this is demanding music. It's not always easy to listen to this stuff casually. Of course, not all pretty songs have to induce nervous breakdowns or fits of rapture, but there's gotta be that underlying power.

Alcest, on the other hand, is just plain weak. A bunch of friendly fairies riding sparkly unicorns over a field of pretty flowers. An undifferentiated blur of cooing, mewling vocals over harmonically lifeless guitar work. In most of their songs I've heard, every part is virtually interchangeable with every other part. This lack of formal clarity is a big part of why Alcest is such limp, namby-pamby bullshit. But it's probably just as much a conscious aesthetic choice as a songwriting problem, Neige's (sadly misguided) idea of what it means to be transported by spiritual ecstasy. Like Wolves In The Throne Room, Alcest is all about hitting us over the head with hack emotional cues, the mundane signposts for "moving" and "special" and "beautiful." You hear it in the music, and you see it in the video. Alcest isn't so much a return to Romantic aesthetics as a bungled pastiche of Romanticism 101. It's not magical, it's pedestrian.

Go ahead and make sensitive, understated music. Just don't be such a fucking pussy about it.

Get Into: Livercage

A few years ago, Noktorn and I reviewed a few of Livercage's albums at the Metal-Archives where they were still completely unknown, hoping that the metal community might pick up on this unique and deserving underground band. Well it's 2011 and the metal scene still doesn't seem to care about Livercage at all. Earlier this year they released a new album, Stabbing You to Death at the Gate of Madness, which I only just found out about now, so while I figure out where to order a copy I thought I'd do a write-up of why Livercage is a band you absolutely should be listening to and hopefully this time people might take notice.

For a band whose output would later become very ambitious, it's funny that Livercage started out as a sort of joke band, and I think the band themselves might agree when I say that you can safely dismiss their first five albums as bored dicking around in the home studio. They were all recorded within the span of a year and sound worlds apart from the band they would later become. The fifth of these, while still dismissable, seems to be where they accidentally stumbled upon their sound. With Burned Alive and Killed things got a little more believable and otherworldly, and their cover art would take up a pattern it would continue for years to come, but it was still a lot of goofing around and half-baked ideas.

They pulled a 180 on this completely with their next album and subsequent recordings. What started out sounding like a bored guitarist playing with cubase suddenly became this very serious, fascinating and forboding black-industrial monstrosity that is miles more interesting to listen to than the vast majority of metal/industrial hybrids.

Let's just look at that concept of metal/industrial hybrids for a second. For a combination that should quite easily equal greatness, it sure does churn out a lot of completely uninteresting bands and only rarely do we see anybody fully taking advantage of the potential of such an idea. It should be a lethal combo - taking the twisted, evil and demented riffing and otherwordly atmosphere of the darkest extreme metal and mixing it with the cold, rigid, unflinching clockwork machine-like feel of real industrial should result in something horrific and monumental. It rarely does though. What we usually hear is bouncy, groovy, basically nu-metal riffs with perhaps the odd cheesy melodeath segment, with a vaguely machine-like drum pattern that resembles eurodance more than Skinny Puppy, and of course the obligatory keyboard set to futuristic synth. You're lucky to avoid autotuned or computer-filtered vocals. Usually, industrial/metal hybrids seem like they're made by people that aren't really into either genre very much, or at least have really bad taste in them. Perhaps not a lot of people are deep into industrial or metal enough to properly channel the best elements of both into one cohesive vision.

Perhaps that's why bands like Livercage rarely come around, but when they do, people should embrace their works, not ignore them and leave them dwelling miles below the metal surface. Now in all fairness, I can understand some metalheads not being all that into Livercage if they don't like industrial as that's pretty much the basis of these tracks. Ugly, repetitive, noisy pulsations form the foundation, as the guitar leads the compositions with nasty, deliberately unlikeable riffs, sometimes simplistic and sludgy, sometimes a bit more abstract and freely improvised. There are layers of other sounds introduced though, ambient soundscapes and noises, all sorts of horrific vocals (from fierce black metal shrieks to gore-drenched gurgles to almost spoken word style declarations), although the general theme is that they don't follow any logical patterns, interrupting the track wherever they might feel the most inappropriate.

The cover art is normally made of a cheaply copy-n-pasted picture of medieval torture art, although this music is absolutely not ancient sounding in any way. It instead depicts a horrifying future, of radiation poisoning and children in gas masks, of the human race enslaved by foul, totalitarian alien races and of the Earth finally crumbling under the weight of its own toxic mess. The atmosphere is incredible, you don't necessarily listen to Livercage albums for distinctive riffs or songs (although they do exist) but for the atmosphere of the album as a whole. For the record, Pick Up That Axe and Cut Them Down is their weirdest and most submersive, focused way more on taking you from your own world to a more dreadful place more than the other albums do. Strung Up and Left to Rot is their most conventional, and Impaled and Forgotten and Lord of the Bastard are somewhere in between and probably the best place to start if you're new to their works.

Although I can't speak for their latest, it's definitely their most readily available and could potentially be your best investment - I think the previous album, Lord of the Bastard, was their best yet and there's been a good three year break since then. If you choose to buy it, or any of their works, be sure to let us know what you think. Maybe Noktorn will mirror this with an upload of one of their older albums on Always Unprotected.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Get Into: Grudges

A lot of people bitch and moan about the propagation of subgenres in extreme metal and hardcore, complaining that definite musical parameters are "too restricting" and wondering why people can't just loosen up and enjoy whatever, "cause it's all just heavy metal, you know, man?" I may be in the minority about this, but I disagree. For me, the fertility of the aggressive music scene is closely related to its tendency towards fragmentation--there's something to be gained from bands having very specific ideas about what it is they want to do, and there's much to be lost from treating cross-pollination as an end in itself. But powerful as it is, genre allegiance is certainly a double-edged sword: it encourages tunnel vision. All too often, it never occurs to band X to incorporate riff Y into their music because riff Y has a "sound" associated with another scene, even though that riff would work beautifully in the context of band X's songs.

Grudges don't have this problem, and that's one reason they're fucking sick. They're a fairly new grindcore band on the Brooklyn scene, and my favorite local metalpunk band that isn't All Pigs Must Die. Though they're around my age (early 20s) these dudes are scene vets, and their music encapsulates lifetimes of listening. Loosely speaking, Grudges belong to the lineage of Scandinavian crustgrind, but what they're doing is a far cry from trendy Nasum-worship. What sets them apart from the pack is that they really, really like Hatebreed. Their combination of reckless Swedish propulsion and brainless American stomping is devastating. And this isn't just a cool idea, it sorta took balls--the crust kids and DIY punx who listen to this kind of grind tend to look down on working-class metalcore, damning it as "tough guy bullshit" or laughing it off as a "guilty pleasure."

Grudges clearly don't give a fuck, and their music speaks for itself with deafening volume. Crushing pit riffs and neckbreaking midtempo thrash are central to their songs, working in conjunction with the usual tremolo blasting and d-beating to inflict maximum circle pit damage. On "Net Worth," the third track off this year's demo, Grudges reach deep into their bag of tricks and pull out everything including the kitchen sink. They get nasty from the start with some Converge-esque convulsions, and then at around 00:30 they drop in a chug breakdown at the same as the drummer blasts away beneath it. It's total compression, sound becoming denser even as it strains outwards. The instruments seem to scrape against one another in grotesque tension. I don't think there's a page for this sort of thing in the standard grindcore playbook, but there's only one word for what it does: it fucking grinds.

This blast-chugging gives way into something even more unexpected--a straight-up slam, something out of brutal death metal or deathcore. It's gruesome. And finally, at 1:04, the blasting. But that's not a grind riff! Instead, it's a towering tremolo lead, something that a black/death band might place at the heart of a song. Grudges don't even bother repeating it, they just hurtle headlong into a d-beat that drives the song home. I fucking love this band, and if you love music that makes you want to mosh/fight/set cops on fire then you will love them too.

"Cool it Pavel," you might say, "it sounds like Grudges aren't even a proper grindcore band!" And to that I'd say "Of course they are, you mothar-fucker!" Very few genres and subgenres are actually defined by a "sound"--a certain style of riffing, typical drum patterns, signature vocal delivery, etc. Grindcore certainly isn't one of them. It's a scavenger genre, preying on the stylistic gestures of hardcore and death metal. What it's really about is a particular musical effect--GRINDING--and it uses whatever it can to get the job done. Grudges get it done and then some. So according to my definition*, they're truer to the spirit of grind than the many bands who have "the grindcore sound" but fail to actually do the grindcore thing.

GET. INTO. IT. And buy the demo tape, way cooler than mp3s.

*My definition is always objectively correct.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Heavy metal, perfection, and reality

I saw Drive yesterday. In addition to probably being the best film of 2011, it also got me thinking about art in general- what did I find so immediately, viscerally appealing about the film, and how could that be applied to other things? It occurred to me after some rumination (and drinks) that what made Drive so inspiring and delightful to watch was the heady, deliberate imperfection of its story and execution. I don't use the words "perfect" or "imperfect" here to imply a sort of value judgment; rather, I'm using it to suggest adhering or not adhering to common, enjoyable standards of art and entertainment. I'm talking about symmetry versus asymmetry, closed versus open-ended plots, exposition versus the lack of anything to expose- some of the most typical conflicts between traditional and postmodern art. I got to thinking of how this could apply to metal, and why, exactly, I almost never hear albums that make me think and feel the things that Drive did.

Metal is at its root, as I've said in other posts, a genre of music which fancies itself somewhat post-modern in inspiration but is in actuality quite artistically conservative and traditionalist. Despite the harshness of distorted guitars or growls and shrieks for vocals, metal is musically mostly focused on a rather traditional sense of melodic beauty, and when not, just as often focused on a sort of steroid-infused recreation of rock and roll tropes. The closest that metal comes to really abandoning artistic tradition tends to be in artists who blur genre lines with other scenes: early grind, black/noise, drone, etc. This emphasis on a sort of "perfection" (symmetry, traditionalism, harmonious intermarriage of elements) extends to the more ideological sections of the genre: idealistic treatises on nation, religion, and culture, all with a distinct moral/ethical worldview, a message to preach, and a love of clear-cut, straightforward symbolism.

This is not necessarily a quality that is intrinsic to metal; indeed, it's common to most art forms, musical or not. However, considering metal's supposed history of cultural and artistic iconoclasm, it seems that the lack of a truly post-modern take on the genre is a rather glaring blank in its attendance sheet. This isn't to say that metal must necessarily abandon all the imagery and stylistic elements that define it as a unique and enduring style of music; merely that they can be expanded beyond the often one-dimensional execution that plagues it, and that it may be necessary to ensure its continued relevance in the years to come.

To possibly demonstrate that I'm not talking completely out of my ass, here's some examples:

Gallhammer - Taking the stripped-down ingredients of Hellhammer, early Darkthrone, and oppressive, extreme doom, Gallhammer paints dark, vivid pictures of drug addiction, misery, and gloom without ever needing to resort to played-out imagery of good and evil or obvious shock.

Nuclear Death - Their surrealist depictions of nightmarish psychological trauma combined with the insane, needling, seemingly random music that created such images makes for a band that stands out from the pack in its simultaneously traditional and transgressive qualities.

Enmity - Stripping out everything we think that death metal needs to be death metal, these guys create a horrific sort of post-death metal that feels no need to adhere to the artistic standards of classic artists, instead opting to make grinding, clinically depraved music that's beyond what we consider "music" entirely.

Artists like the above (along with a few notable others) help to push metal in directions that are both congruent with its past and productive for its future. None of these bands abandon what we immediately know as "metal aesthetics"; in fact, they embrace them wholeheartedly. However, with their deft usage of the tools at their disposal, they create music which makes one feel wholly different from just about anything else in the metal scene. Excessive postmodernism becomes trite and played out; a pinch, though, can be a catalyst for great things. What are some other bands you readers out there think would fall into this category?

Friday, November 4, 2011

Review: Arkhon Infaustus - Perdition Insanabilis

Here is the one album where Arkhon Infaustus did everything right. It's the first album I ever heard from them, and after hearing the other three, they just don't stack up to this one. Everything on this album was executed pretty much perfectly, establishing these sick Frenchmen's reputation as one of the most unsettling entries in all of metal. Dread, entropy and a striking sense of wicked perversion are all representative of Arkhon Infaustus' pedigree, and it comes alive best on this, their seminal third full-length, and a personal classic.

In a lot of ways, this album sounds very modern and polished. It's also a rare example of when that works to the album's benefit; covering everything in a dark crystalline production job that creates this sleek sense of darkness and foul spirit. AI are pretty much just a French incarnation of something in the Blasphemy vein. They sound considerably less French than many of their peers, but still carry that ornate sense of craftsmanship in the melodies that give this that recognizable French character. With music that is nearly a cloud which seizes the listener, making them at once suffer and enjoy their way through the album. This album is just enjoyable enough to be invigorating in its might, but also very unwelcoming. There's a certain animosity towards purity and virtue that seems to be commanded intimidatingly well by this album. It's a very sinister piece of work.

AI specialize in the 'all riffs and no tricks' style of writing, but the special thing about this band on this album is how well-paced and developed it seems to be. It never gets boring, despite its relative simplicity, and it always has a new riff to show off - musically proclaiming just how much they can do with power chords and a truly vile style of writing. It's amazing just how damn evil this album is. The riffs practically effervesce with sulfur and death, and you'll love them too, because this band has an uncanny way of really harnessing the power of gripping rhythms. Proper opener "M33 Constellation" might be the highlight here, and then the eerie and dreadful "Six Seals Salvation" shows a similar type of dark aura. The David Koresh samples really work amazingly in that song. Or note the desolate, ebbing feel of "Saturn Motion Theology" - creating a whole world of entropy with just a few slow-paced minor key melodies. Every track offers something different but relative to the others, but it doesn't always necessitate an entire listen of the album. Any couple of tracks here remind us of the staying power of this album. It stays with you, and inclines you to listen again and again. You won't discover anything new after twenty listens, but it will sound about twenty times more powerful on that listen.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Review: Abominant - Unspeakable Horrors

Here's one of the most immediately-appealing death metal albums you're going to find from the 'raw and obscure but still refreshingly developed' slew of 90's death metal. Abominant has shifted sound from album to album and done it well for the most part, but this is their most enduring work if you ask me. A very fresh and exuberant album that replicates the same kind of passionate spirit in legends like Morbid Angel and old Pestilence. Not necessarily any particular sound, but just this very well-crafted and confident playing style that oozes memorability and a sort of spirit that allows the band to somehow carve out a sound that prevails over a lot of other bands. This is that type of album. A debut where all the fresh musical intent is intact and makes for an amazing listen.

Outside of Nuclear Death, this album is perhaps my most listened to release within the league of old Wild Rags bands. There's just something special about it. Evocative by means of strange riffing and a somewhat technical flair, this release straddles the line between death metal and black metal in a unique way. I'd say there's about eight five percent death metal here, with the subtle but effective fifteen percent of black metal influence. In a way this is a lot like what a black/death metal side project of a NYDM band might sound like. Primarily death metal, but using the brutality to go after a more grainy and disembodied sound in a black metal fashion.

This fits right along side with many old-school legends/semi-legends, but still isn't comparable to any of them directly. Deicide songs written by Morpheus Descends with help from Demoncy perhaps? Something like that but not quite? Yes and no. It's easy to pinpoint inspiration but not direct influence when it comes to these bad-ass songs. They just serve up what we all love about both death metal and brutalized black metal in a way so tastefully twisted-together it makes you wonder why nobody talks about this band much. The clear but simple and crude old-school feel is awesomely driven home but the mixing of the instruments. The rugged guitar tone nearly sounds like steel itself and has a lumbering crunch to it that just slaughters. Add the monstrous bass presence comparable only to Rottrevore's Iniquitous and you have a heavy fucking album.

It's pretty much all killer and no filler, but the second half is really where it's at on this one. I think the real highlight is "The Ecstasy of Sufferance"; featuring some stone rolling riffs so kingdom-smashingly heavy you'll fold like an origami tulip in a box crusher. I AM THE DARKNESS YOU FEAR INSIDE, IF YOU BETRAY ME YOU'LL SURELY DIE. I'LL BUILD MY FORTRESS UPON YOUR CRUSHED BODIES - BOUND BY CHAINS OF BITTER BONDAGE. My sweet fuck, and after you hear those flashy sweep leads after the awesome spoken word part, you too, will be playing this shit loud. "Child of the Sky" is another great one, throwing in some eerie melodies amongst the panzer riffs that decimate all. And is it just me or does "Intentionally Accused" sound like old Pestilence writing an Effigy of the Forgotten song while unintentionally churning out a thin sheen of black metal? There's a lot of great elements in this release that make it a unique treasure, and it's an album more rewarding to absorb yourself in than to analyze, so we'll just stop here so you can go listen to it now. Seriously, go do it right now. And if you already love this album, go put it on to remind yourself of just how much ass it kicks.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Get into: Runzelstirn & Gurgelstock

Noise is something I generally take with a grain of salt. There's excellent noise out there, but there's also a whole lot of terrible noise, and the style of music being what it is it's often difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. Of course, I also think the noise scene's constituents are often all too comfortable letting bad noise slide or manufacturing excuses as to why it can't be judged like "normal" music. The result of this overly permissive attitude is a scene that in and of itself can't even decide what's worthwhile, and even if it can, is unable to articulate why it's worthwhile. Merzbow's basically the biggest guy in noise- why? Has anyone articulated why Akita's work is supposed to be so awesome? And why haven't they?

Runzelstirn & Gurgelstock is one of the few very worthwhile noise endeavors out there specifically because it sidesteps a lot of the bullshit that the rest of the noise scene is afflicted with. R&G seems to exist outside and apart from the bulk of the noise scene; you would never lump this project alongside Slogun or what have you. The one-man project (with occasional guests) of a Swiss nuclear-physicist-turned-goat-farmer-turned-something, R&G clearly displays a more articulate sense of musical (and artistic) history than most generic Whitehouse clones manage to cobble together. While stylistically a lot of influence is brought from modern noise and power electronics, spiritually this project's a lot more along the lines of Throbbing Gristle and other dadaist creations of old- interviews with the sole member often feature him talking about the Viennese aktionists, musique concrète, and other such progenitors of modern, provocative art that everyone says they're into but actually know little about.

What makes R&G aren't the recordings (though those are notable in their own right) so much as the live videos of his performances which dot Youtube. The above is what made me fall in love with the project- the performance art aspect is perfectly realized alongside the blasting, grinding, shrieking terror of the noise, tethered together with stretches of dark silence or clipped, desperate-sounding laughter. The perpetual distorted hum of his breath, the wild gesticulations necessary to even create the sounds you're hearing, the sheer animalistic terror of the whole package- my god, it just might be Art.