Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Annihilator - Never, Neverland

Roadrunner, 1990

Coburn Pharr - Vocals
Jeff Waters - Guitar
Dave Scott Davis - Guitar
Wayne Darley - Bass
Ray Hartmann - Drums

I had written about a specific track off of this album on my regular blog back in February. I feel that that text, now significantly amended, stands well as an encapsulation of the merits of the record on the whole.

Metal music conjures potent images in the mind's eye. Most often these images are vague and not directly informed by the specifics of the lyrical material. Instead they are more like abstract, dream-like scapes in washes of violent warm colors. I think this happens because for metal bands the riff-writing is a separate act to the writing of lyrics. I'm willing to bet that the vast majority of angry rock or metal bands write the music first and it doesn't later change much or at all to contend for the feel and meaning of the lyrics. In fact when we're talking about metal, the writing of riffs (of which there are many) is simply addressed separate from the writing of coherent compositions (of which there are few and far between). The former are self-contained situations, repeated for impact and then discarded in favour of linear movement. The latter is a holistic attempt to make the broader movement achieve a lateral coherency, not the forte of metalheads, generally.

It is then a small wonder when a thrash metal (of all the metal styles, the one most obsessed with riff construction) band, ends up conjuring very relevant images to the lyrics that dress them. Annihilator are such a band.

It's worth noting Schopenhauer's position on the purposes of music here.

Music is thus by no means like the other arts, the copy of the Ideas, but the copy of the will itself, whose objectivity these Ideas are. This is why the effect of music is much more powerful and penetrating than that of the other arts, for they speak only of shadows, but it speaks of the thing itself. "Music does not express this or that particular and definite joy, this or that sorrow, or pain, or horror, or delight, or merriment, or peace of mind; but joy, sorrow, pain, horror, delight, merriment, peace of mind themselves, to a certain extent in the abstract, their essential nature, without accessories, and therefore without their motives. Yet we completely understand them in this extracted quintessence. Hence it arises that our imagination is so easily excited by music, and now seeks to give form to that invisible yet actively moved spirit world which speaks to us directly, and to clothe it with flesh and blood, i. e. to embody it in an analogous example. This is the origin of the song with words, and finally of the opera, the text of which should therefore never forsake that subordinate position in order to make itself the chief thing and the music the mere means of expressing it, which is a great misconception and a piece of utter perversity; for music always expresses only the quintessence of life and its events, and never these themselves, and therefore their differences do not always affect it. It is precisely this universality, which belongs exclusively to it, together with the greatest determinateness, [364] that gives music the high worth which it has as the panacea for all our woes. Thus if music is too closely united to words, and tries to form itself according to the events, it is striving to speak a language which is not its own."

This smart man here explains - as I understand it at least - that the reason music is a universally loved and potent art is in that it doesn't (or shouldn't) seek to describe specific emotional phenomena but instead to tap into archetypal emotions that all of life's particular scenes are derived from. In that sense metal bands might approach this definition of 'high music art' and comfortably consider their three chord riff-based abstractions to be a link to the primordial and be done with it. They'd often be right about this, too. Aside from Schopenhauer's different standard of composition, to which most metal music probably falls short of, there's a different reason I'm sceptical of leaving it there when it comes to music's capacity for emotional specificity.

I think that this concept of music as a gateway to emotional universality has been hijacked by post-modernists with a consumerist agenda. How often do you hear, when trying to discuss the aesthetics and meanings of music, the offering of "Relax bro, it's just music"? I'm not sure Schopenhauer would be particularly proud of getting anyone to 'relax'. His sentiments can and have easily been appropriated (by degrees of separation, of course) by salesmen who would exclaim that since the music expresses universal emotions, then every one of us should buy all of it. If we look at popular music we see just that: distillation and abstraction of very broad emotional beats. In both form and effect it is simple music that sells best. So no offense to this smart man, but let's try to see what slightly different approaches offer us.

Annihilator above were not a band of very lofty ideals really. They were a thrash metal band and as the zeitgeist of that movement dictated, they diluted their romantic metal fantasy with prima facie 'socially aware' aesthetics and lyrics. Circa 1990, this is how metal music was trying to negotiate an unprecedented height of public interest. A lot of thrash music lyric reads painfully like a social study essay buy an introverted teenager that has only a rudimentary understanding of how and why society operates. It's painful to read because it's true.

The song posted doesn't have a high concept, then; It is in the plentiful abilities of main guitarist and composer, Jeff Waters that the composition of 'Road to Ruin' and indeed of most songs on their first two albums, had become more involved than the average AC/DC song. He sounds like he has ADD and hyperactively crams in as many licks as he can but - unlike a lot of technical metal bands - has the good sense to compare what he's adding to what the song is achieving for it. Very rarely does he leave in a phrase in that is at odds with the thrust of the song. Jeff Waters can do what Annihilator do, then, because he's both extremely able on his instrument but also because he has the good sense to let the song's voice dictate what he (over)plays, where. This is a virtue that is becoming increasingly rare in the world of modern metal.

In contrast with a capable classical instrumentalist, most metal (and rock) musicians struggle with a limited ability in shaping their voice. It is often a climb to express even a basic abstract concept in the confines of such otherwise highly structured music. Does this riff sound sad to you, or perhaps maudlin? What is the difference? Perhaps this riff just sounds like a riff, instead? This sort of confusion pushes metal musicians to throw their hands in the air and just play riffs from the gut and not worry about what emotions they're hitting. Sure, a lot of them play very fast or very precise, but what they play is often very limited and derivative. It might startle some knowledgeable Heavy Metal people to say for example that Autopsy (in the minds of most people a sloppy rude death metal band) are more erudite with their music than Meshuggah (a highly technical post-thrash band). The former simply have a larger musical and emotional lexicon. Most bands do not employ their hard-earned speed and fretboard mobility to achieve nuance and grace but instead bludgeoning force and constant pressure. You get used to beatings and you get used to pressure and when the tolerance level has shifted all that's pretty boring, however.

Not being a virtuoso is a blessing as well as a curse. When one has barely 5 riffs in them, they tend to make them count. They speak of the grandest emotions not by cerebral design but 'by accident of being human'. Put all your skill into crafting a riff and it may sing of despair and hope, of horror and awe. This is the main characteristic of Heavy Metal, really and it also explains why a lot of absolutely incredible bands often had just one great album in them, some even just a few great songs. That said, it's a pleasing variation and I feel, a worthy introduction to outsiders, to consider a minority of more skillful and considerate players that paint with a finer brush.

The lyrics set the stage here:

No control tonight, the lights are going dim
The floor begins to tilt, it's blurring to a spin
Just let me find my keys, look down below
Fresh air is all I need, then I'll go

Leading up the road to ruin
You're full of alcoholic speed
Leading up the road to ruin
No last chance, don't bother to plead

High, over the limit, got to take it slow
Concentrate, kill the radio
It's not the first time, it'll be the last
I've said that before, in the past

Speed, I've got to make it home

Not too far to go, you're getting near
Just down the block, there's nothing left to fear
Carefree, on top of the world, feeling power
Impaired security at ninety miles an hour

Somebody's driving drunk, it doesn't end well.

The beauty of the thing is how the choices in riffs and voicings by Waters, along with the clean and tight lockstep of the capable rhythm section underline and amplify the sense of barely controlled chaos of the situation. Nearly every section of the song for me augments the picture, it supports the otherwise pretty simple broad strokes with nuance and detail.

Note the natural harmonics lick at the end of the theme at 00:30 and how even before the plot is introduced a sense of instability and fragmentation hints of it in an otherwise straight ahead speed metal riff. Speed is the thing here but also blurriness, incoherency, confusion. These are the emotional elements that Waters's guitar pyrotechnics are most suited for.

In fact, for the duration of the verse, pay attention to how the regular palm muted riff is commented upon by a variation of different end licks, most of them choppy or syncopated, almost never repeating themselves, offering the listener no sense of security. Have you ever had manic thoughts that seem to dissolve before you're able to make them cohere to a larger structure, only to reappear and taunt you to try again? Have you ever gotten blindingly drunk?

The chorus, with its more austere and controlled rhythmics speaks in the second person. You're leading up the road of ruin, you're full of alcoholic speed. Look how effectively Waters shifts perspectives without any confusion just by musical cues. The unstable, chaotic riffery belongs to the protagonist of the tale, the slower and regimented responses belong to an objective authority, a beholder. The listener feels compelled to empathize with both: id and superego together, schizophrenia. This is the overarching theme of Annihilator's early output.

Not to say that the song doesn't default to the familiar trappings of rock music, with its melody, verse, bridge, chorus, solo and repeat. This is because Annihilator did not consider themselves purveyors of modern classical composition or anything, they probably had not heard of Schopenhauer. nor did they enjoy programmatic music. They were writing hooky pop songs, but their inner ambitions overpowered the form. This is the basic definition of Heavy Metal in relation to its bordering musical genres, actually. The positives of the skeletal remnants of the basic pop song composition under this song are that the themes are reaffirmed and the listener is put to a hot-cold alteration between musical coherency and safety and then the wild chromatic deviations of Water that constantly upset.

In the artier side of modern metal, much is made of super-structural music that is meant to be 'experienced' but not enjoyed per se; Deathspell Omega with their heady metaphysic thematics and austere aesthetics are a commonly cited example of this. I do not disbelieve proponents of this approach are gratified by it (you get a lot out of a piece of art if you put a lot of effort in making it work for you), nor am I saying 'Relax bro, it's just music'. Modern art made a big deal about not being enjoyable or beautiful but instead a commentary on psychological and sociological situations, starting almost a hundred years ago. It took a while for metal music to be informed by that approach, but here it is. A distracting game happens however when proponents of either school of thought clash. Modernists attempt to shoehorn modernity in the primary space of enjoyment that most simple art is taken. It's that depressing situation where the communist is trying to explain to a layman why his beloved social realism is 'just as good as real art'.

Broadly, I think it's a distracting lingual argument to dance around terms until we can make something ugly appear 'beautiful to us' and make something very unenjoyable appear 'enjoyable because I am involved with it'. Most of the time people cannot accurately gage how they feel, this shit is not making it any easier. The more nuanced the emotion the more at a loss we are at self-reflecting on it. Being graced by beauty and feeling inspired are some of the clearest emotional states that music can achieve for us (Schopenhauer makes a roundabout return) and Heavy Metal often achieves those peaks. It's a disservice to that achievement to try to fit ugly music that is meant to shock and confuse us in that category too. Ugly art is potent and powerful in its own right. Confusion is an emotion too, dissociation is an emotion. If people seek these emotions, good for them, they'll certainly lead somewhere. But people that like songs that they enjoy instead of semi-incoherent experiences that they traverse are not dumb either. Annihilator here make masterful songs that anyone would recognize as such (which is why I think they're a good entry point for outsiders). They reach through riff artifice to beauty that overcomes their pedestrian lyric and this approach should never be considered outmoded because it's briefly culturally passe at the time being.

Check out the abrupt stop-starts under the first solo voice how they comment on its almost sonorous and hopeful tone (the driver hopes that he's going to make it home) but the second solo comes in mockingly, bending, rolling, laughing with this hope. It is appropriate that the most 'rock and roll' sounding part of the song is the voice of a higher fate, it's as if Annihilator are saying 'you're gonna crash and burn and let the devils dance in the flames'. This is in its own way as metaphysical as Deathspell Omega ever get, the big difference is that the music is meant to be enjoyed, not witnessed.

After a third chorus, the main riff is punctuated by sharp turns, futile floor breaks and finally the winding guitars signal the inevitable sounds of a crash. Every time I listen to this song I hum for hours after it not just the chorus or some melody but three or four parts in a row. I get hooked on a emotionally involving composition. I really love early Annihilator.

As a personal anecdote though, I really hate early Annihilator too. If you are, like me, a guitarist of meager skill and at that crucial juncture in your teenager years - where you had ample free time - were pulled in many different directions instead of studying with your guitar for 8 hours a day, this stuff will be hard to play. I can sorta hit the beats in the first two songs but the cleanness and tightness of them elude me. It's perhaps the more convincing argument on the merit of this record that I still like it as much as I do, after connecting it so thoroughly with a reminder of my own shortcomings.

Not every song here is so rich in musical imagery, but most are. The most enjoyable ones actually are those written to lyrics of mental instability, Annihilator's forte, they let Jeff Waters go, appropriately, a little nuts. Always a light band however, they're an easy way to get new listeners to appreciate Heavy Metal in other ways than just as a primal force that paints bluntly only the basest of scenes, screaming and growling and bludgeoning what is in effect existential ennui. The strength of Annihilator is that unlike many of their peers, they achieve beauty here and are far more graceful about it than their lowbrow American thrash culture signifiers might initially suggest.

Friday, November 19, 2010

"I Hate Keyboards in Metal"

"Can't stand growly vocals". "All this doom stuff is too slow, it's boring". "Power metal is cheesy". Statements like that are so broad as to be nearly meaningless as actual qualifications of taste.

With so much metal music out there, it's near-certain that there is a band somewhere out there that has devised a permutation of the form that utilizes whatever stylistics one might consider awful in such a way that they're convincing and engaging, beautiful. The more you dig (especially in the underground) the more you find beautiful exceptions to any rule. Saying "I haven't heard a lot of Heavy Metal music in which keyboards played a significant role" is a much safer statement for example, but one that very rarely substitutes its more extreme variant. Why do people refuse to dig in a music they profess to love and why do they prefer this broad and useless pontification?

Such statements are useful for turning ignorance into a strength; The person behind the statement probably hasn't had enough close experience with that they dislike (which is generally understandable, do you spend a lot of time with art that irritates you?) so they take their limited phenomenological data and with it fashion a categorical statement that seems final and complete. Seen this, done with it, on with the next artifact of culture that needs codification. Progress!

The person who is receiving such a statement might be impressed by how airtight it is. I know something concrete about them, I know where to stand with them when it comes to Keyboards & Metal. I know I can turn to this piece of data when I want them to agree with me and reinforce our relationship. Since I'm so impressed, I might adopt this position, also. This is how conservative minds work, they enjoy clean-cut positions and they're always on the lookout for new such statements that fit their preconceptions and opinion bias. Effectively, when a person is making such a statement, they're trying to a) create controversy, that means, put attention on themselves, and b) appeal to conservative like-minded folks. All this with as little personal risk as possible: after all, they're not putting out there a revealing personal opinion, they're just spouting clichés, which are anonymous and endless.

I do not consider the conservative impulse to be necessarily 'evil'. It's certainly one of the psychological traits that has kept us alive in very strenuous evolutionary situations in the past. Not every member of the caveman tribe should feel compelled to put their hands in the fire to test out if it 'really hurts' like the village elder told them, nor should a second hunter-gatherer go up to pet the rhino next to the pulverized remains of the first one.

However connecting the dots from that tangent to our initial subject, why do people treat culture identification with the same reflexes that they treat survival situations like those above? The telling answer is that social gaming (where 'taste' and 'art knowledge' are usually tested) can be just as scary as a rhino charge. It brings up all sorts of insecurities and hang-ups, dirty laundry that the individual feels much compelled to fashion into some sort of kingly dress and hope nobody notices the stink. The more self-conscious and insecure the music nerd, the more hardened their armor.

Most of the categorical statements I'm talking about here have evolved (de-volved?) into clichés in metal communities. Behind every cliché like that there is a big fat ugly truth: lack of profound intimate experience is substituted for communally-bulwarked identification, group-think that tries to pass off ignorance for self-assuredness. Unless one has a very thorough experience with metal music, their general opinions have little to do with the music and much more with themselves structuring a useful identity. Even if they do know more about Heavy Metal than most, broad categorical statements are so loaded with the charges of social gaming that even when meant honestly and innocently, they tend to derail any argument into polemics.

For example, in my little chronological chart of metal here, I note 'post-metal, metalcore and other irrelevancies' which is exactly such a statement. I did not mean this as an attack on these sorts of musics, more that regardless of how good such music might be, whatever is metal in it has been so inverted or diluted so as to put the music beyond the scope of this website (though not of my interest in general, I keep up with post-metal due to social fascination). I should not have written that, then, because it diverts interest from the information presented (the chronology) to this guy Helm who doesn't like post-metal. On the most essential level, what bands or styles of metal I like are absolutely irrelevant to what I'm trying to accomplish with this website.

One should then not expect that thorough experience of the art form would lead to a more permissive stance and less categorical damnation of this and that. Knowledge doesn't necessarily lead to less hard opinions. Most of the people I know who are metal encyclopaedias (myself included) engage in this self-identification as well, though perhaps their opinions might be less broad and more nuanced here and there. It seems much of what drives an impulsive information cataloger is an addiction to the social gaming applications of their knowledge. Poor Socrates who knew too much yet professed to know too little, not a sterling example for most.

So when you come across metalheads or other music nerds who speak in an endless torrent of broad categorical statements, condemning genres and styles of music left and right, keep in mind you're in the presence of somebody who really doesn't have the music at heart when they speak but instead they're furiously gaming you and any other onlooker, trying to either annoy you or get you on their side. Their greatest defeat is if you completely overlook their efforts and have no opinion on them whatsoever. If you do not notice them, you do not include them in your life. If you don't include them in your life, they don't exist. They feel this acutely.

Is this a cruel thing to do? Initially I think so, there is some sadism and revenge for every time we've been ignored, when we ignore somebody else. However, when ignored once too many an individual might feel compelled to reconfigure their social approach and create a persona that is less dependent on external validation. This is healthier for them and healthier for the social dialogue over art. Or anything else, for that matter: as you might have noticed a lot of the broader critique on this blog could easily have its subcultural identifiers switched for those of another clique; I'm looking at the world at large through the narrow scope of Heavy Metal.

The type of statement on Heavy Metal that is useful for the culture and useful for the individual, in my opinion, is that which is qualified not with vague group-think mandates such as "Keyboards suck" but with exposition of actual personal experience. The risk involved in saying why one thinks this is so, is bound to humanize the statement (human beings, if allowed, cannot help but be human beings) and since we're all made of the same meats but in startlingly different permutations, clichés are weakened by this personalized exposition. The downside is that people can't do this in snappy, highly stylized pieces of snark in which the internet usually likes to converse, they'd have to write more in-depth and more at length. Well... that's a downside for twitter users mostly!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Anathema - Serenades

Peaceville, 1993

Darren White - Vocals
Daniel Cavanagh - Guitar
Vincent Cavanagh - Guitar
Duncan Patterson - Bass
John Douglas - Drums
Ruth - Additional vocals

I can hear the laughter already. Early Anathema are a hard band to like in current metal circles. As mentioned in past articles, the 'atmospheric metal' experiment in which English romantic doom/death metal tentatively contributed to, was a way out of the canon for many musicians. It had many ties to punk rock (defocus on technicality, at the same time when the rest of metal music was becoming hyper-technical), dark wave (morose subject matter, fixation on darkness) and indie rock (enduring dissaffection) it's no wonder that after a couple of Heavy Metal records most of the collectives involved moved on to different pastures, and even less wonder that the form doesn't enjoy a positive reputation with metalheads today.

Now, this is a strange situation: when a metal band breaks away from the mothership they usually try to get a different target audience. It's a very risky endeavor and it usually ends in failure, but the few bands that achieve that keep everything but the name, effectively. They change their whole aesthetic to suit the demands of their new followers. 'Atmospheric metal' bands that go off in non-metal territories however are naive in a special way: they keep their surface aesthetic signifiers but they just do away with the heavy guitars and growly vocals. They are trying to become indie, electronic or gothic rock outfits while they're still earnest - though moribund - metalheads at heart. They didn't get the memo you can't play metal without the metal and expect it to still work.

This creates special situations. Most of these bands, Anathema foremost, retained some of their metalhead audience (lost some hardcore doom/death fans, got some mainstream metalheads, perhaps) and gained little to no broader fans to justify their switch of style. The metalheads that retain their interest in them are those that either are a) open-minded to the point where their brains leak out when they tilt their heads or b) feel guilt over being metalheads and try to camouflage the hard liquor with a false front of more palatable tastes. It is oddly fitting, after all, the most self-loathing type of Heavy Metal to have the most self-loathing metalhead fan-base.

It might be difficult to understand in the current climate where metal music's coolness is judged on a crazy 'purity' two-end scale where on the far left is how extreme you can be on your instrument and on the far right is how conservatively you connote your aesthetic concept, but in the early to mid '90s - where this Atmospheric metal business came to a rise and fall - metal music listeners were constantly bombarded with outsider communication on how the music they were raised on - Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Manowar et al. - was now considered dreadfully passé. But they still wanted to listen to metal music and new metal music to boot. The self-loathing of that era was channeled into mainly two psychologically parallel paths: black metal and doom/death (and eventually 'atmospheric metal' as it were). The former cried denial of the modern and a return to the - mostly retroactively invented by teenagers with shallow historic appreciation but sensitive instincts - aesthetic origins of the form. "So what if what we play is passé? It is more than that, it isancient! We haven't died, we never existed" they cried in a shrill womanly voice, blastbeats and tremolo clattering in their mists. The other path was of doom/death where the conceit was subtly different, diversionary. "No no, we are not passe. We are instead, misunderstood" they murmured and moaned. Aren't you misunderstood too? Some tragedy marks your life as well? Join the club. More akin to the gravitas and self-awareness of gothic rock, they said. A type of music that had survived its own brief stint with public awareness and hadn't died away. Would someone accuse Joy Division, theurgically sealed in everlasting public reverence by suffocation, of being passé? I think not.

But the metalhead take on gothic rock was still Heavy Metal music for a simple reason: what draws people to Heavy Metal, then and now and forever, is the promise of beauty, romance, hope and imagination. Gothic rock was - and is, last time I checked - a far more facetious type of music, where irony and double-talk are grimly celebrated as extracts of modernity. "I dare you to be real" wasn't a real dare. Bela Lugosi's an actor that played Dracula, not Dracula himself. Dark wave fundamentally remains post punk in this way. One cannot get too excited about an ironic type of music. The goths, for all their frilly embroidery, are very obvious about their dress-up being an exploration of a character in a play. This self-awareness was lost on the metalheads that turned their metals of doom and death to 'atmospheric metal'. Their romance was earnest to the degree that it was required for their Heavy Metal to strike true.

What is more powerful than death? Is there a truth more real than death? Will anyone survive it and come back to tell us of its falseness? There is no reply to death. Death is forever, he shall never die.

Yet, what is more painless than death? Will anyone suffer it and come back to tell us of its horrid torment? Will any of us truly be there to die? Or will our faculties breathe last a moment before death comes certifiably? Death is unknowable, he will never have a face.

What a perfect combination that is then, for reclusive introverts that seek the most powerful symbol with which to adorn their ordinary, middle-class existences, yet do not have it in us to go through the fullest hardship to achieve it. For one to love death they must be alive. Heavy Metal is a music fundamentally based on this attraction to death. No sub-genre captures the drama (and melodrama) of this than doom/death. The most embarrassing type of metal, how I love it. Well, some of it!

Anathema here come late to the doom/death mope party, and they have distilled the lessons of their forerunners to a great degree. They aren't concerned with appearing super-metal, there isn't a slayer riff to be found here. They get their credibility by appearing super-sad instead. It's all slow, all the time. This doesn't mean that 'Serenades' is a focused album, it is in fact, very torn between what it is and what else it briefly entertains being instead. However when it is on, it is beautiful and touching.

'Serenades' is a difficult record to like. The vocals of Darren White are very weak as death metal vocals (from whence they definitely trace their pedigree). Whereas most death metal vocalists of the era endeavored to sound as inhuman - and therefore extra-terrestrially powerful - as possible, he sounds short of breath and winded. Shallow lung moans and whimpers, a human in anguish. Whereas death metal inspires violence, this doom/death vocal style suggests the outcomes of violence. The beauty of this approach is only made apparent to those that spend time with the lyric here. What could possess a human being to voice such language

All tears restrained for years
Their grief is confined
And destroys my mind

An ode to their plight is this dirge

Some yearn for lugubrious silence
Serenity in the image of coffins

Shall life renew these bodies of a truth?
All death will he annul, all tears assuage?
Fill the void veins of life, again with youth
And wash with an immortal water, age

They die

In tones so wretched and foul? In this dynamic is the strength of Heavy Metal. It will take all that society taught us is useless and bad and ugly and with the sharpest edges it will chisel a monument to everlasting beauty. The vocal of Darren White here is sublime, the entity summoned, that 'Anathema', the voice of the disembodied, rotting head. Its mouth aghast and between the stinking humors and bile has grown a flower.

In fields where
Grass grows tall
Golden carpets swell
And whisper
Autumn trees
Will weep

Dawn breaks open
Like a wound that bleeds afresh
In bleak misery
The lifeless lie in squandor

Love has left me
Fled from me
Fragrant lust waits beside
And dies

Like flowers that wilt
Without refreshment
In midday sun I sit
And bide time

Adorning me
A lovelorn rhapsody

The only death left from death metal here is in the pulse and rhythm of the songs. Shambling, see death walking, death alive. Oft stop-starts, while a vocal punctuates, as if the corpse is struggling to do more than two things at once. It's a wretched sight, this slow-motion re-animation and yet, beautiful because reanimation implies sorcery - power, will. Music such as this is misunderstood as a consumer product (like which is undoubtedly reached the listener's possession) because it doesn't seek to entertain in a surface way - in fact those that are entertained by 'depressing music' misunderstand this the most. This is not music to cry over, it is not music that inspires sadness. It is a celebration of magic. Our bodies may die but look what beauty comes from the knowledge of the end. Your sadness is ours, we take it and fashion with it a flag, a tapestry, a cloak, a shield. Very few casual listeners that dabble in with fringe tastes of the metal multiverse get to the core of this.

The beauty of this world is shown in the guitar interplay of the Cavanagh brothers. For all the ridicule that their future career as 'Radiohead for metalheads' has brought them, their debut album finds them in perfect sync with each other. One guitar will start a voice and let it linger mid-way, only for the other channel's guitar to pick it up and give it conclusion and rest. This game between brothers touching and yes, harmonious and joyful. There is no death-lust in the mental image of two brothers playing their instruments together, reaching agreement. I have been enchanted by their conversation on their early material before and long since I could realize similar musicality in my own multi-part composition. Though the brothers here connote this record has come from common grief (a family loss is alluded to directly in the liner notes of the record via a commemoration) I hear in their guitar stereo compositions, joy and lust and desire for something beautiful.

It is in that dynamic that is record can be found to be inconsistent. Though the lyrical material is uniform in its melancholy, the music strays from the mourn path often. For a fundamentally doom metal record, there is much here that puzzles the new listener. One example is the third song, 'J'Ai Fait Une Promesse'. An acoustic and vocal piece of relative simplicity that has a medieval feel to it. The promise being that the woman singing will 'pledge herself unto us' is repeated in French and English. Regardless of the success of the song in melodic or thematic terms, it's easy to get the vibe from the song that this is someone's girlfriend that is being asked to participate in this record they're making. Although this is a metal faux pas if there ever was one (no girlfriends allowed), the end result - curiously due to the still tones of the voice, no vibratto at all - sounds lifeless and distant. More a sculpture of a girl than a girl herself.

Anathema succeed in their excursion from metal in spite of themselves.

There are more examples to this (besides the obvious up-beat 'Sleepless' that everyone loves to hate). The end track 'Dreaming: The Romance' appears to be the perfect storm of kitsch at first. Pretentious title, obvious overstatement and a 23 minute synth pad ambient track that sounds like an outtake from a Tangerine Dream record. And yet, it works. It works as the bookend to the high drama of the record, it's a gentle wash to a shore outside, shallow consciousness, almost dreaming. Though the heights the record reaches are artificially pushed (as in most metal records - how often does your life make you scream in guttural tones about the death of everything?), the long stretches of melancholy are very human and real - Heavy Metal fantasy peaks and long stretches of gentle melancholy. 'Dreaming: The Romance' serves this notion. Anathema succeed in their ambient excursion in spite of themselves again.

The clearer and most focused Anathema are here is on the fourth track "They Die", a reworking of their own earlier composition. The lyric and music are in perfect synchronization. The brothers complete each other's sentences while Darren White gives his weakest (as in, best) performance to his most beautiful and poignant lyric. Is it a wonder that by the end of its length the doom/death dirge rises to a symphonic, hopeful end?

Anathema would oust Darren White from the fold an (brilliant, yet also uneven) EP later. They would go on to slowly mutate into an alt-rock/mope rock outfit without him. For the fans this would gain them they also suffered nigh-universal derision from other quarters that saw them to be escape artists. It is difficult to like old Anathema and make a case for them as I am here because so much of what they achieved seems to happen almost by mistake, and is foreshadowed by their tendency to wander outside the form. But then again, the form of doom/death (and 'atmospheric metal' as a whole) proved to be a limited one, exsanguinated for all that was potent in a mere five years. So although I do not enjoy later Anathema material, I do not participate in the hate towards them. I take from their long career a full-length and two EPs worth of enduring art. Sadness is marred by hope like a crack on the funeral monument, yet through the crack often senseless, joyful flora grows, the artifact of grief is as beautiful as what it inspires.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Social gaming in metal communities.

There was a discussion in the previous post in the comment section over metal lyrics, ideology and listening to bands that might be singing about concepts that do not align with ones own beliefs. Those opinion fragments got me thinking on the subject enough to inform with it a broader point of view which I now present for discussion.

I do not go to Heavy Metal to get answers to my questions, I do not go to it to make friends (real or imaginary) and I do not go to it to figure out what to vote. That doesn't mean I have not made friends through my interest in Heavy Metal, nor does it mean my sense of reality is not informed on all levels its aesthetics and themes. Those things are the gentle byproducts of an interest whose primary focus is more difficult to define. I listen to, play, and write about Heavy Metal in the way that I do now, because it engages my imagination and has a lot of ambiguous space for interpretation. I find in there, a distant, perfect self that calls me forward. It is not other, yet it is not I. A son and a father, a ghost and a god. The characteristics of that entity, though they fascinate me, I do not want to figure out and tie them down. I want to figure me out through that reflection.

However I remember puberty. Like most people, I also wanted to belong to a subculture then. I wasn't a huge joiner so I stayed (or was made to stay, depends on the point of view) on the fringes of my chosen subculture of metal. This meant that though I had ample vantage to inspect and interact with its various specimens, I never counted myself as one of them nor was I included too often in broader excursions. I never belonged to a large circle of metalheads, I never was a groupie or supporter for any local band, I never went to too many shows. These things never interested me enough to pursue. I instead wanted to find more about the music, experience more of it, form my own band and reach my ideal of its capacity.

Proponents of the metal scene however are very anxious to 'get' what metal music is for social reasons: They need to understand it to have an opinion on it and use those opinions to form a social profile. With this profile they'll approach other metalheads (or listeners of extreme music, as it were in modern lingo) and test out interactions, iterate their profile and test again. Their concern is to come out on top, make allegiances, be considered knowledgeable and interesting. Men build bridges and go to the moon for the same reasons, that's how you get - eventually and hopefully - laid. (And in the case of the super obscure metalhead elite that discusses amongst its almost-all-male body in hidden recesses of the internet, the case is of simple intimacy transference: discussing about vinyl is like getting laid without all the messy repercussions of actually getting laid).

Nothing wrong with wanting to get laid (possibly plenty wrong with intimacy transfer but who is the guy with the Heavy Metal blog to judge). However, those that are trying to 'understand' metal to get a social profile going reach for shortcuts, because there's nothing to understand in it. There's only something there to inspire, to trigger awe and hope. However talking to girls about your Heavy Metal hopes and aspirations is a risky deal (and here the guy with the Heavy Metal blog can have an opinion). Instead then, the eager scenesters (try to hear me saying this word with the minimum amount of judgment: in the abstract, a scene and its actors is what we are discussing) latch on to surface concerns about metal -or extreme- music and understand, form opinions, discuss, fight and hopefully get laid over those. Think of a popular music forum for a minute, here.

The easiest way to arouse interest on one's own person is to draw a dividing line between themselves and other people, and paint their side in flattering colors. The easiest way for metal aficionados to do this is to say band x sucks (which is much stronger than saying 'band x rules' which is an inclusive statement). Then someone who perceives themselves as being put on the other side of the line in the sand will challenge the opposition to qualify why band x sucks. This is a four hand game that can go on for much longer. The third hand is then that the instigator will qualify his statement in as impersonal a way possible. Band x sucks because of their image, because they're boring, because of the ideology they endorse, because they sold out, because they're old, or young, pretty or ugly. These qualifications must sound like facts although they're not. The person behind them is shielding themselves from scrutiny by phrasing his critique in such a way that it is impossible to reach them through it. The fourth hand is then either a personal insult (trying to circumvent the loop - the game ends, people get wound up, drama explodes, the point of the game has been reached) or idle discussion on the merits of the opinions expressed (in which case the game goes on until someone insults someone). The latter loop can go on forever, people discussing their 'music taste' (though taste is very rarely brought up, accounted for, or examined in any rigorous fashion) in lieu of actual intimacy. Onlookers rate the participants with their opinion bias (: whether or not they agreed with the abstract 'band x sucks' to begin with) and with how entertaining they found the method of argumentation. Even when the game doesn't reach a satisfactory conclusion, it serves as a secondary determinant in opinion forming for the outsiders. It is not uncommon for real-life friends to play this game online without any malice or stake against each other directly, yet reach hysterical drama for the benefit of the audience. Today the one guy will win, tomorrow the other guy. Time is structured, sociality achieved, intimacy circumvented.

The easiest way to get noticed on the internet is to be a contrarian, and entertaining about it. This is a game I call, 'This Band Sucks'.

As you've noticed, although I'm talking about a lot of bands here, I've generally kept from making damning statements about them because I'm avoiding playing this game. I'm terribly good at it and it's easy to fall into a loop. Instead I'm talking about albums (and not bands) that I love and I go to great lengths to make my love clear for what it is: personal and inspirational to my life. I do not want to be rated by some reader for my good taste, I want to engage with them, get to know them and what they love and especially what their love inspires in them to create in return.

But 'This Band Sucks' is a very popular game on the internet, and so it has become very sophisticated through repetition. What once was a crude two-hand game of '-Metallica are better than Iron Maiden!' '-But Metallica cut their hair!' now has become an elaborate construct where band affiliations, ideological conceits and crucially, concerns of integrity are commonly employed.

So, let's say I love this record by the band 'Carnivore'. It has clearly misogynistic, misanthropic and chauvinist lyrics. Would it be a surprise to you that most mentions of Carnivore on internet message boards would quickly degenerate to games of 'This Band Sucks' over these prominent surface qualities?

People want to have an opinion on metal to get laid in their metal subcultures so they must judge how they feel about Carnivore singing about misogynistic, anti-humanist and racist topics. Their opinion, whatever it may end up being, will serve to draw a line, some will be with them on the matter, some against them. They'll try to be savvy and manipulate their opinion in such a way so they end up close to the people they want to befriend or have sex with through this process, that really has nothing to do with Carnivore, or the ideological concerns themselves. It's a game. Often participants will have wildly contrasting tastes: they like this band but hate another sound-alike of it because the former one has a conceit of ideology that suits their social needs better. Outsiders to this game could feel baffled by the near-randomness of the choices of the participants until they understand that there isn't a compositional merit or melodic quality that distinguishes good bands from bad bands for them.

It is exactly because I do not play this game that I do not judge art on surface qualities. I take them into account and keep them in heart and mind while I experience it at a different depth. When I first listened to Carnivore, I was shocked and felt kinda bad over parts of it. A year later, still listening to Carnivore, I thought the shock material was mostly meant as a joke, but the music was very compelling. A year later still, I was certain that Carnivore were trying to reach out to people through their shock antics because they were depressed or paranoid, but my love for the music grew. A year later I believed Carnivore meant every word they sang and when I listened to them, I meant every word they sang too. And a year later still, I now know that all these states are valid, they occur simultaneously, the quantum state of probabilities is determined by the capacity of the onlooker for risk. Art is not a game, it is cruel magic. Those that dabble with magic risk altering the inner and the outer.

One thing's for sure, Carnivore were worth dabbling in, for me. The things I found out about myself through that process did not get me laid (and/or did not get me high fives by racist morons), nor did they have any other social effect, but they were extremely useful in building character and exciting imagination.

So, when you see someone play 'This Band Sucks', because of their ideological subject matter or image or whatever else, know that they're not really interested in the music primarily, they're interested in playing a game with you. If you want to play this game, fine. Just know you're not primarily interested in the music right then either.

Does this mean that I'll listen to anything? Yes, it does. It doesn't mean I'll keep listening to it but I'll give it a chance and if there's enough beauty in there I will stomach even the worst connections it can make to human misery and ugliness. At the end of a certain time I'll know whether I should keep this art close or not.

Most of the Nazi metal I've heard has been awful not because it's nazi metal, but because it's all it is. 'This Band Sucks' is such a popular game now that people are actively forming bands just so they can have them be the subject of the game. It's sloppy and mediocre, empty metal that annoys me most, not metal that flirts with horrid imagery and notion.

And the type of metal that is most empty is that which proclaims to be all about fun and good times. A variant of the 'This Band Sucks' game is then 'Relax Bro, it's Just Music'. The instigator there is playing (or participating) in a game of 'This Band Sucks' and is watching out for anyone that is trying to turn the discussion towards ideological merit. They reply to that with 'Relax Bro, it's Just Music'. Which is meant to connote that there isn't any deeper significance to art and that the other person is undoubtedly problematic for having divined depth in a puddle, or -perhaps- even worse, is gullible and simple for having fallen for the 'image' of the band instead of its musical merit. This game is also very popular, to the point where aggressively anti-intellectual takes on a type of music that has been customarily meaningful have surfaced, and are enjoying ironic appreciation by scenesters internet-wide.

I'd take a few nazi metal bands over this, for example. The former at least has the capacity for beauty, the latter has nothing.