Distant calling and the musical soul

A feeling, more a sense of awe-struck bewilderment, that I have never been able to shake off while listening to some of my favorite metal is just how can such an abrasive form of music be at times so innocent and absent of guile. The people who made this music often lived rough lives; frequently their opinions did not dovetail neatly with our own, to the point where there now has arisen a concerted movement to shame and blacklist them. And yet through their music, they revealed what I can only think of as the soul in its purest element. It is not conceivable for me to imagine that at that precise point of expression, the forces framing that expression could have been capable of malice, however vehement the mode of expression itself may have been. How we respond to music may be fiercely subjective, but the fact that music can elicit a spontaneous and visceral reaction in the listener implies that a mirror image, the one original, true cause, of that reaction must have necessarily existed to a lesser or greater degree once in the music’s creator also. I know what I feel, when I listen to metal, to be happily lacking in all ulterior, materialistic motive, therefore he who created this music must have partaken in that same selfless communion at one time, too, however diluted his subsequent endeavors may have become.

Mark Shelton once said that love of life gives us metal and so it has remained ever since. Beauty, at its fount, always springs from the noblest that humankind has to offer. An ugly soul cannot make beautiful things, because it has lost the ability to truly marvel at the magic of existence. Levity and bitterness are handed out in a relatively proportionate manner to all lives, even though the latter because of its inherent intensity always seems to weigh down far more oppressively on us than light-winged happiness. The difference, however, between the good and the ugly soul is to what extent each allows the bitterness to overwhelm and mar that which still holds promise and good cheer.

In metal, I catch a glimpse of that embattled soul still striving to break through life’s troubles to breathe freely once more, like how it must have before experience assumed graver undercurrents. Not rarely have I found myself overwhelmed with emotion in the middle of a song, not because the band obsequiously tugged at the heart strings like a common mendicant, but because real beauty, found in the unlikeliest of circumstances though it may be, above all else always wants to communicate and make itself be known. In that moment of rapturous congress, I can suspend all peripheral judgement and soak in the realization that a thing so precious can even exist, becoming in itself an unceasing cause for celebration and a spur to continue putting one foot in front of the other.

Advertisements
Posted in Heavy Metal, Thoughts | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Am I evil? Are you good?

Someone somewhere said to his flock in perfectly self-serious tones that bad folks aren’t taking a break from making the world a worse place, therefore neither should they, implication naturally being that they and only they are good and on the right side of history. But didn’t someone else across the undulating stream of time once say let he who is without sin cast the first stone? I wonder to myself, then, what kind of man, if not inexperienced or an utter fool, deals in simple moral binaries? Who doesn’t have enough dirt in their closet to not do a double take before making grandiose assertions of their moral probity? And how dull an existence must it be to reduce everything to a convenient division of black and white?

It is a cunning social maneuver alright. You set yourself up as a paragon of virtue from the very beginning by appealing to mass sentimentality, you make your stance unassailable by dint of sheer noise, so that you now have the moral higher ground to vilify your opponents and their views as something less than human. Once you have gained this stronghold, you feel at rights visiting the same abuses on your opponents that you once accused them of. The tables keep turning, the roles keep getting reassigned, but the only constant that remains is the quest for power. Power like wealth – and wealth is power, too – is without color and knows no ideology; all it cares for is preservation and perpetuation.

If you fall outside the pale of these machinations and are any kind of individual, it is but natural to be intimidated by the tide of public opinion bearing down on you, to even catch yourself doubting the very sanctity of your convictions. The trick is to see through what’s at play, to not let yourself be cowed or swayed by childish appeals to whatever passes for the moral standard of the day, especially when those appeals become steadily more vitriolic in tone in the face of dissent; to realize, in fact, that this situation is not the same as a natural and personal inspection and reevaluation of values, but rather a petty power-play that considers with great cynicism, and paternalism, even the subjects it claims to be fighting for as little more than pawns without real agency, pawns that have to be animated and imbued with a purpose from outside. There is nothing noble in any of this and the person not hankering after power should see the ruse for what it is and continue to follow his own mind’s calling.

Posted in Thoughts | Leave a comment

Consume The Forsaken, a tour de force of brutality

Having talked about brutal death metal in less than glowing terms previously, I am now about to plump for what is widely considered as the quintessential brutal death metal band. Disgorge from California pushed the Suffocation template to its extreme, stripping away whatever melody may have been concealed in the interstices of that pioneering band’s music and doubling down on grinding brutality. Liberally thrown in, at least on the assortment of demos known as Cranial Impalement and then to a lesser extent on the She Lay Gutted full-length, were the sort of elephantine grooves that have come to be the hallmark of much American brutal death and especially its bastard derivative slam. These sections in Disgorge music however never seemed like a piss-take geared towards the dancing, half-peeled banana man regularly witnessed at Obscene Extreme; much like Suffocation themselves, Disgorge simply happened upon these irruptions in rhythm in the course of writing riffs rather than making them the centerpiece of the song. That same riff-writing ethos otherwise shared far more in common with dark American death metal, abidingly violent and transgressive, and an experiment in just how rhythmically expressive death metal can possibly be.

Consume The Forsaken, the band’s third album, generally sees a divided fanbase. There are those who lament the departure of Matti Way and his impossibly low take on the death metal belch; nor is this camp overly enthused with the less catchy nature of Consume The Forsaken. Gone is any obvious allusion to the crushing groove that made the band its name; Consume the Forsaken is almost impenetrable upon first encounter, such is its densely clustered mien and that at near-constant blasting tempos. But that same inaccessibility also makes this album something of an apotheosis for abstract, instinctive, hyperaggressive death metal. Few records seem more apt for repeat listening than this, and by that I mean really concentrated, obsessive listening; which is curious indeed considering the almost total absence of identifiable songwriting tropes and the overwhelming brutality on offer. And yet, through that mist of violence, Consume The Forsaken initially tantalizes and eventually mesmerizes, subliminally hinting at something a little more substantial at play under its uncompromising exterior, compelling the listener to return time and again, and giving up its secrets under only the most willing submission.

This strange dance of opposites goes further. A.J. Magana’s vocal delivery is a percussive instrument in its own right, but it is not designed for clear enunciation of the deviously blasphemous lyrics written by Ricky Myers for Consume The Forsaken. By chance, the listener reads the lyrics sheet and discovers a concept of sorts: “I have no son and no mortal being shall ever be worshipped by the theft of my name“. The jealous God of the Old Testament concocts a plan to arrogate all privilege over creation to Himself, by destroying His own misbegotten son, usurper to Godhood and middle link of the Holy Trinity. He turns Christ’s apostles against their savior, nay, not turns but plants them in his presence from the beginning as veritable cat’s paws, convincing them that they are doing the bidding of an imagined adversary, when in fact He who is the store of all potentialities, from whom both good and evil arise, who has indeed created blasphemy, now actively orchestrates it.

Magana does not make any of this lucid through his efforts, but he doesn’t have to, you see; once the listener has grasped the delicious irony in Myers’ perversion of the Bible story, everything – Magana’s grunts, the brutal symphony accompanying it, and lyrics – comes together to achieve a gestalt effect, and Consume The Forsaken transforms verily into every bit the oppressive equal of more noted anti-Christian genre landmarks like Dawn of Possession, Legion, and Onward to Golgotha. Of course, this runs counter to the notion of absolute metal; music should not have to depend on the written word and vice versa, but once done isn’t to be shunned, and who can be curmudgeon enough to detract in the name of misplaced idealism from an altogether more potent experience?

Guitarist Diego Sanchez has some of the most malleable wrists in death metal; his transitions are breathtakingly fast, but more pertinently have this vaguely fluid quality where riffs practically fall into one another, seemingly speeding up at the fag end in self-immolating anticipation of the next change around the corner. Illusion or not, this I reckon can be thought of as the guitarist’s version of the drummer’s swing, and therefore has an innate understanding of rhythm built into it, but it becomes even more impressive considering the intensely syncopated and offbeat nature of this music. Then again, syncopation might be integral to this playing technique; a spinning coin inevitably loses energy and slows down because of friction, but it appears to gather an illusory momentum all the same in its death spiral to the horizontal. Taking the analogy further, what then is syncopation if not friction, induced by both picking and fretting hand, when juxtaposed against conventionally smoother tremolo picking?

Dave Mustaine used to claim proprietorship over the spider chord technique that allowed him to transition between closely grouped power chords seamlessly at fast speeds. In addition to conventional power chord fingering, the spider chord also calls into service the middle finger and pinky. With the requisite dexterity, the two fingerings can be alternated to play power chord movements with next to no “drag”. One wonders whether Sanchez uses something similar, because it is inconceivable that power chords have ever segued into each other in such a blaze, or in such intricate combinations, before or since. He goes over and above the role of the power chord as placeholder in death metal; to him it is that but also virtually anything else he can will it to be. To the extent of exercising that free will, broken riff sequences as first heard on Legion are found in abundance; this means that any two successive bars of a riff have equal likelihood of mutating in texture or playing technique from the previous run. The result is restless and palpitating but not without a sly logic of its own after the manner of the best percussive, structural death metal.

Consume The Forsaken is brutal death metal alright, hence sometimes automatically consigned to being called dated. This niche sub-genre gradually took a turn towards a direction that while being no less fast certainly became less nihilistic and lost itself in technical-melodic excess and frivolous party-grind. Consume The Forsaken, however, still works because it reminds us of what death metal, above every other impulse to intellectual masturbation, should have always been: dark and terrorizing, and complete with internal quality checks to keep at bay the kind of crowd now ruining metal at large.

Posted in Death Metal | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Death Metal Battle Royale Round 2: Sinister’s Cross The Styx vs Deicide’s Legion

 

This Round 2 battle pitches two albums similarly intense in death metal rhythm guitar playing. Sinister, and Dutch death metal in general, were inspired by genre developments in North america, and perhaps in no small portion by Deicide themselves. However, where Sinister would go on to release albums of similar or, as considered in certain quarters, even better quality, Legion is Deicide‘s indisputable pinnacle never rivaled again in the genre. How do these death metal cousins fare against each other?

1. Riff Logic and Cohesion
Cross The Styx:
A bass string in perpetual motion provides the backdrop against which Sinister play out much of their heavily syncopated dark death metal. Cross The Styx is an album of riffs tightly stitched together: an automaton-like picking hand shatters with tremendous violence any semblance of a longer narrative into finely delineated staccato phrases that drift through a groove part Suffocation and part ‘Sacrificial Suicide‘. Then, with equal calculation and instinct, like a rock climber looking for the next foothold from which to stage his ascent, the band mutates each isolated phrase into a slightly skewed variant on its predecessor. Songs themselves are recursive, composed neatly of two or three cycles of the same set of riffs, with occasional provision for lead guitar and symphonic overtures, but this predictable writing style of evolution by micro-increments, done in a tonal palette empty of all optimism and levity, otherwise fosters a persistent tension and atmosphere throughout Cross The Styx. (Points awarded: +1)

Legion: Legion gives lie to the dogmatic assertion that death metal has to be completely absent of verse chorus structure and speed metal influence to be considered effective. Both are a big part of what makes this album such a force of nature, thus proving that more so than actual techniques themselves, it is their intelligent application that makes for memorable metal. The Hoffmans harmonize almost exclusively in jagged half phrases, but also in their arsenal is a method that has never been replicated in the genre to the best of my knowledge: when not playing the same riff, one guitar frequently switches to a black metal-like tremolo picked melody supplementing the palm muted staccato phrases coming out of the other channel. Thus, short-form, atonal explosiveness is simultaneously leavened with a dark, Gothic musicality (for the kind of melody I’m referring to, hear ‘Revocate The Agitator‘ and play C2-C#2-D#2-C2 on this tool), a brilliantly intuitive writing trope not nearly enough attributed to the band or explored within the genre at large. (Points awarded: +1)

2. Melodic Contiguity
Cross The Styx:
Cross The Styx occupies a niche in the midst of speed metal, purely structural death metal (Deeds of Flesh, Suffocation), and melodically ambitious European death metal. The latter of these attributes is sometimes overwhelmed by the ever-present percussive bludgeoning, but it is a subtle component in the band’s craft, shifting songs almost imperceptibly on their axis, as if by power of suggestion. Also, despite using abundant speed metal techniques, Sinister avoid the major caveat of all speed metal, the preponderance of static filler: there is neither shortage of chugging grooves on Cross The Styx, nor does the band shy away from the occasional sharp break in chord/color progression, atonal as it may be, but it never translates to wasted energy; a consistently pendulating musical drama infiltrates these songs, a constant resizing up and down the dark musical register, and yet more proof that death metal can be a theatrically explosive genre in the purest sense, without resorting to conventionally theatrical bells and whistles. (Points awarded: +1)

Legion: On Legion, melodic contiguity, or the indispensability of any one section, however small, of a song, is intimately tied to the rhythms played by Steve Asheim. Therefore, any two successive parts, even when they don’t appear to share a logical melodic relationship, may actually share a rhythmic relationship instead, bolstering the other’s momentum and overall impact. Hear how, for example, on ‘In Hell I Burn‘, the tremolo picked melody feeds into the Iron Maiden-on-speed gallop for no outwardly discernible reason; in reality, however, the tremolo-picked melody does a few dry runs at first, always interrupted by Asheim’s fills at the very end, until finally it launches into the chorus. Under the hood, there is delayed release of tension and a building of momentum at play, an example of broken-riff sequences frequently heard on the album. (Points awarded: +1)

3. Role of percussion
Cross The Styx: Sinister drumming is some of the most pulverizing in all death metal, swinging wildly between red hot blastbeats, riding the groove, and a thrashier battery. Admittedly, it does not vary at all outside of these techniques, and is somewhat reactive to the riff as dog-whistle, but Cross The Styx is not the sort of death metal album of large spaces to call for inventive drumming; it is tightly-knit, fast and violent, and the drumming lives up to that end of the bargain. (Points awarded: +1)

Legion: Steve Asheim was officially disclosed as the main songwriter in Deicide long after their seminal work, but in the light of that revelation, his performance on Legion assumes even greater significance. Unlike Aad Kloosterwad on Cross The Styx, mostly content to follow the lead of the guitars in predictable patterns, Asheim conducts these songs on a granular level, with extreme stamina and ambidexterity, “timing each drum hit to the guitar strum” in a deluge of offbeat time signatures, and perhaps even solving the perennial conundrum of the drummer-songwriter in death metal: when riffs are of a chopped and percussive nature, and the drumming underneath a near mirror image, it is more than likely that the drummer has a pivotal say in overall musical direction. (Points awarded: +1)

4. Progressive aspiration
Cross The Styx: What is progression? Is it the riff constantly evolving to form a song of diverse parts working in harmony? Is it static-monolithic riff sets that work in tandem to create a narrative? Or is musical progression a non-analytical quality that leaves the listener in a different mental space from where he began? The riffs on Cross The Styx are anything but static-monolithic, but as mentioned earlier, and not without a sense of irony, these riffs, virulently alive though they may be, are boxed together, in the same order, into two or three neatly parceled cycles. The result is a bit of an antinomy: Cross The Styx is progressive at a lower level, but songs ultimately only recapitulate previous highs.

Edit: I’m generally undecided on this, and seeing as how my personal bias won out in favor of Legion in a similar situation, I will give Cross The Styx a bye too. (Points awarded: 1)

Legion: Legion is guided by Glen Benton’s massive roar and as with the debut actively uses choruses to sink its hooks in. At times, there are breakaway sections as bridge or to end a song, but despite the brutality on offer here, Deicide were very consciously making death metal anthems. Is that enough to label Legion not progressive? By my own definition, probably, and yet there is such perfect balance to this instrumental cacophony, such spontaneous yet visionary mixing of harsh and not-as-harsh (but still fucking harsh!) textures that I cannot begrudge it its progressive stripes. (Points awarded: +1)

5. Success as an album of songs
Cross The Styx: There are few albums in death metal as consistently punishing or just plain hellish as Cross The Styx. It is more expressive in a lateral sense than Legion, with higher tuned guitars and a wider range of tones. One could even say that Cross The Styx is a more scenic album than Legion; scenes of ash and brimstone, granted, but which even the occasional glimpse of speed metal influence cannot detract from. (Points awarded: +1)

Legion: Legion belongs to a cadre of early death metal albums written explicitly to be memorable and song-oriented. Which should not be construed as pandering in any way, but rather that these musicians grew up with vastly different music than what they ended up playing, and that they were able to translate the accessibility – to a certain attuned mindset, obviously – and musicality of those styles into an almost incomprehensibly brutal paradigm. Legion is chock full of death metal classics singable in an almost vulgarly-gratifying way, and yet there is not a second to cause cognitive dissonance in the listener. This truly is serious death metal for the serious death metal fan. (Points awarded: +1)

6. Ideological/Philosophical significance as death metal
Cross The Styx: A demonic album in sound and word, the very musical depiction of Clive Barker’s Books of Blood and The Hellbound Heart/Hellraiser in particular, Cross The Styx makes one wonder what prompts young people in the prime of life to make music so obsessed with pain and suffering, so empty of even the vaguest compassion. Young rebellion, sure; a desire to exceed the standard of brutality expected of the genre, definitely. But can that be the catch-all reasoning to explain the spiteful and unequivocal rejection of mass anodyne culture on display here? No whiff of political grandstanding, no maudlin sentimentality, nothing but lovingly detailed tableaus of tormented flesh from some interdimensional nightmare, and still as powerfully captivating and intimidating as upon release. Has death metal ever needed to be anything else? (Points awarded: +1)

Legion: Legion is more anti-God than pro-Satan, and though Glen Benton’s ire is almost exclusively directed at Christian dogma, it is impossible to listen to this album without being stirred in a similarly adversarial spirit, regardless of religious denomination. It is a spectre that has haunted extreme metal for the longest time, a whisper rising from dark corners to mock viciously at whatever compartmentalization allows one to enjoy this music at one time yet kneel in supplication, for reasons of faith or political expediency, before some deity at another. It is perhaps inevitable that the thinking individual becomes more conservative with age, but I admit to being not a little confused when I see some metalheads aligning themselves with orthodox religion in their fight to preserve the culture of their lands. Their position itself is perfectly tenable from the perspective of nationalist politics; after all, religion shares a strong anthropological connection with culture. But at least I, as yet, have been unable to reconcile this convenient, mealy-mouthed dichotomy with the fiercely individualist quality of a Legion. It does not even matter whether the religion is Semitic or of the Orient; there might be more chaff to eliminate in one belief system than another, but there’s generally some wisdom to be gleaned from all. But once you move out beyond academic-ontological curiosity or any other cynical use you may have for religion, you are confronted with the reductionist dilemma of God, a consciousness fundamentally and immeasurably greater than you, and sentient in an all-encompassing way too, and this formulation and the necessary subservience that comes with it is inherently at odds with Legion‘s philosophy. Is this materialist thinking? Perhaps, at the very apex, but I prefer to think of it as a form of positive egoism perfectly in sync with the metalhead’s lot to be caught between spaces, to willingly enter the slipstream, to test the waters, and then wanting nothing more than to swim against it and out of it. (Points awarded: +1)

7. Emotional resonance
Cross The Styx: Keeping this album’s hateful stature in mind, then, how can one consider it in terms of emotional resonance? Assuming musical quality of a high order and a general theme are already established, the best way to do this is to let the music paint mental pictures for you. Drawing from your repository of experience and memory, without resorting to blatant nostalgia, goes a long way in fleshing out initially obscure outlines and bringing these pictures to life. Christian doctrine informs us that the difference between purgatory and hell is the same as that between the light at the end of the tunnel, and complete and utter resignation. If this be so, then Cross The Styx most vehemently takes place in a hell carrying none of the romantic notions attached to Satan as tragic antihero. Here, whips crack, flames rise, and flesh sizzles, in what can only be a condemnation of man’s fundamentally irredeemable nature. (Points awarded: +1)

Legion: An alternate reading of what this album means to me can be found on the Round 1 post. Legion can never be anything but a personal record to me and so deciphering it in sterile language feels insincere. But words are only so much wasted breath, and therefore I will simply say that in its presence I can still transform into someone I may not always want to be, but someone I am most comfortable being. (Points awarded: +1))

Verdict: Cross The Styx is one of the true great death metal albums, but it is its bad luck to be paired against what might be the greatest. Maybe hearing it before Legion was a bad choice, because there are few records that can open for that album and stand their ground. In any case, the voting seems to overwhelmingly agree in favour of Legion. Legion goes through.

Current tournament bracket

Posted in Death Metal, Death Metal Battle Royale | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ugra Karma – Mountain Grinders (2015)

Ugra Karma – Mountain Grinders

This brief EP from foundational Nepalese death metal band Ugra Karma is so elementary as to seem out of place in the current time. That might read like an inconsistent statement; after all, a good chunk of death metal bands today make it their lives’ calling to be retro. But the accustomed ear can invariably detect a thread of self-referentialism in these attempts, where the entire reasoning behind the music is to be a faithful rendition of something else. Through this, a constant comparative relationship is established between new and old; the new justifies its existence based on the old but in the process also loses nearly all semblance of meaning and expression for itself.

Ugra Karma come from a time in Southeast Asia when death metal was still a frightful apparition, subversive and alluring to those already on the fringes of the musical counterculture. Since the internet had not yet become ubiquitous, a standard platter of speed metal and death metal – with a near-fanatical devotion to Slayer and Cannibal Corpse – became sacrosanct to the most intrepid fans; however, unlike the West, where so much of this music developed organically as a natural response to what had gone before, where fans had had time to absorb and process the many textures seeped into their awareness and then tentatively build a new musical philosophy around themselves, there was no real gestation period in these parts. Budding listeners were hurled overnight as it were from Guns N’ Roses to Iron Maiden to Deicide, and this sudden shock to an insular mindset shows in the first attempts at writing original music by death metal bands from this time. Subtlety and narrative heft are rarely found, but a sentiment to be as brutal as possible pervades all.

In this limited ambition, Mountain Grinders is distilled enough to become uncriticizable. Rhythm sections – there is no lead guitar on these songs – are carved out violently from three chief influences: the galloping near-grind of Into The Grave, the slightly more elaborate hacking of Butchered At Birth, and the apocalyptic groove of Once Upon The Cross. And yet those references are just that; the vocabulary of these musicians is too small to permit clever asides and flags in the muck proclaiming renovation of an old paradigm. That is no insult: what you hear here is what Ugra Karma understand death metal to be, primal, uncompromising, and a blow to the skull. No, Mountain Grinders, though a few decades after the fact, is the old paradigm itself, its spirit assuredly the same that inspired this music in the first place. It can’t be faked, it can’t be manufactured in a studio, it is not something to be self-consciously desired even; it is nothing less than a gift to be accepted, where and when you find it, without greed or complaint.

Posted in Death Metal | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Zealotry – At the Nexus of All Stillborn Worlds (2018)

Zealotry‘s first two albums are fine case studies in modern, technical death metal. The Charnel Expanse combined influences from Demilich and Immolation in groove and chord shape without being as firmly rooted in the concise song format of either band. That is, though the individual riff retained its substance, there was little by way of bookends or obvious motival suggestion, with songs for the most part writhing and evolving in entirely organic ways. The Last Witness began to chip away at the substantiality of that individual riff, so that while still in tact in outline and still greatly directing the song’s general color, it was now looser on the interior. This development naturally suited the  blown-outwards character of The Last Witness, while also giving free rein to the complex interplay of guitar voices so integral to the album’s progressive aspirations. Lost in the process was some of The Charnel Expanse‘s aggression, but this would prove to be a fair trade for the greater goal at stake here: to make a dark, concept-driven “death” metal album united in theme and texture.

With this history in mind, nobody would expect Zealotry to stop pushing the envelope on their third full length, but perhaps there is such a thing as consolidating one’s gains? The gradually thinning riff definition of the previous two albums is now near-evanescent. At the Nexus of All Stillborn Worlds is crammed with non-stop turnover of phrases, the purported intention here being representing a riff as a composite of separate voices, and yet, despite the occasional emergence of discernible melody around the edges, some of which voices have to be considered gratuitous. At any given time, one of these voices fulfills the role of mere harmonic abutment, or, when things become really hectic, a fully-fleshed out strand of expression in its own right. A side-effect of this hyperactivity is that groove as a device to alleviate tension, in the manner used by the band’s formative influences themselves, is almost completely dispensed with, thus increasing the total dissonance on offer.

There is novelty in deciphering if and how these things interact of themselves, but rarely can these effects be extrapolated to mean anything at the level of the song. For that, the band still relies on traditional swathes of big chord changes, so one is justified in wondering what purpose these abstract convulsions serve, whether they are intimately tied with the album’s theme, or if they are an end in themselves. In so much as that theme is fragmented states of consciousness, Zealotry‘s jagged, multi-faceted composition style could have a viable leg to stand on, but the latter is the rabbit hole that so many technically-skilled bands go down. To make the listener treat death metal as calculus is to deprive it of its spontaneity, and that, regardless of sincerest claims to advancing a stale genre, does not seem like a desirable outcome.

 

Posted in Death Metal | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Abigor – Höllenzwang: Chronicles of Perdition (2018)

On Höllenzwang, Abigor continue to dabble on the fringes of experimental dark metal while also making a conscious effort at including references to traditional black metal aesthetic. The result is an uneasy alliance and an exhausting listen, where mood and impression frequently overshadow structure. But one gets the feeling that this is a sly and willful obfuscation, and a musical microcosm of the world shifting on its axis, from the old into the new. Höllenzwang may or may not be the finished article of this vision, but it is not without a gravitas of its own, either as resurgent atavism in a post-modern context or as its purported objective declares in more blatant terms, to be hymns of devotion unto the dark adversary of the Semitic religions.

Dissonance without contrast tends to swallow a song’s identity. Abigor don’t shy away from using such as the predominant tool in their arsenal, but theirs is a polyphonic dissonance where different voices, some jarring and others of a more harmonious nature, clash together without pause. This causes very real sensory overload in the listener, not mitigated by overloud drums and underlying chord progressions resembling a vague wash of sound, but conscious effort spent on the interplay of this dark-light dichotomy in the music eventually begins to pay dividends. In all likelihood, again, this is an intentionally subliminal obscuring, for it is inconceivable that these musicians, so formidable in physical execution and grasp of harmony, can remain oblivious to such peripheral aspects of delivery and production. Höllenzwang is loaded to the gills with detail, time signatures, and different modes of articulation, some of which may seem surplus to requirement: it is easy to forgive the band this indulgence when there is even the barest insinuation of connecting melody in the background, perhaps it even points the way forward for black metal, but harder to reconcile for a more conservative mindset are extended passages of what can only be termed abstract textural experimentation.

In this, it is clear that Abigor are toying with listener expectations; they can still break into the kind of sweeping phrases synonymous with the second wave, but playing to the galleries obviously doesn’t much concern the band at this juncture. Höllenzwang carries an unquestionably composed, symphonic spirit, but it is fragmented through and through, and filtered through a lens looking outside the norm for much of the time. Perhaps the meandering musical soliloquy aspect, comprising a good chunk of the album, could be dialed down, but even that appears at one with the technical yet somehow earthy emanation that is the rest of this effort.

Posted in Black Metal | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Jack London’s Sea Wolf and the Luciferian spirit

Here at least
We shall be free; the Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy; will not drive us hence;
Here we may reign secure; and in my choice
To reign is worth ambition, though in hell:
Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.

-Paradise Lost, Milton

At the heart of Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf is a juxtaposition between the moral and the unmoral. Morality is commonly accepted as the individual’s internalized sense of right and wrong, some of which is inherited knowledge, the rest what he progressively carves out for himself over a lifetime of experience. But perhaps because we belong to the same species, just as how we expect one person’s interpretation of the color yellow to be near-identical to another’s, we have also come to expect a generic, one size fits all definition of morality. In doing so, we have not only implicitly violated the individual’s sovereignty but we have also conflated morality with ethics, the latter being little more than the rules of conduct without which society cannot reasonably function. Ethics, however, are an artificial construct, imposed from outside and devised through consensus, and therefore lie some ways distant from an individual’s core constitution when compared to morality which is, or ought to be anyway, developed organically. And yet we never lag in denouncing behavior falling outside the framework of this paradoxical morality instructed through convention by calling it immoral, when in fact the correct term in most cases would be unethical. Or, in the case of The Sea-Wolf‘s Wolf Larsen, unmoral.

The Sea-Wolf was written to be a bildungsroman, a coming of age story for its once-soft narrator Humphrey van Weyden. His extraordinary circumstances also provide London with the pretext for celebrating the eventual, to him inevitable, triumph of altruism and shared labour over dog-eat-dog Darwinism. Shipwrecked and rescued by a sealing ship off the coast of San Francisco, he is thrust from a sedentary life of high culture into unimaginably rough surroundings. The ship’s crew envies and jeers at him by turn, finding him unsuited for the predominantly physical work of sailing and detesting him for his privileged upbringing, but compounding matters for all concerned aboard is the presence of the captain, Larsen, a veritable force of nature, no less than any demigod, and treated with fear and loathing by all as such. He is van Weyden’s adversary and mental foil in this tale, their dialogues and verbal fencing fleshing out opposing personal philosophies in fine detail. Larsen is not a man to like, his deeds becoming increasingly difficult to justify as the narrative wears on, but he is a man to be reckoned with and one that all other men, reluctant as they may be to admit it, can’t help admiring in some dark corner of their primeval souls.

To Wolf Larsen, all life is chaos, into which we are upended without warning at birth as it were, but once alive, the greatest responsibility devolves upon us to continue living. Life is a lottery, never had before and never to be won again, and though you may share it with others, it is still your life alone and therefore to be treasured and preserved above all else as the great gift that it is. He likens it to “a ferment of yeast”, an inglorious pit of organisms constantly churning and striving against each other for survival on account of an elementary impulse to live. Van Weyden quizzes him whether that impulse is the soul and if so what of its claim to immortality, but to Larsen, there is no such thing as a soul; that impulse is consciousness itself, animating otherwise dead hunks of meat. As long as consciousness remains, thought remains and with thought, the lofty intellectual formulations such as the possibility of a soul and its immortality, but once consciousness and thought blink out, we go back into the slime without realizing our demise or that we ever existed in the first place.

Van Weyden makes the observation that the captain has devised his own code of right and wrong, ruled solely by what is in his direct interest, and lets no ulterior considerations deviate him from that path. In doing so, he is unfailingly committed to his conception of morality, and therefore he is as moral in his own way as the most upstanding and unimpeachable character in civilized society. Which but only begs the question whether society can function cohesively if each member adopted such an uncompromising, self-serving outlook towards life? Larsen’s situation is unique in that he plies his trade and lives his life on the open seas amidst coarse company, where he can be a law unto himself, where his brute strength aided to acute intelligence can settle nearly all contentious issues. How viable would such an attitude be among “refined” society with its layers of diplomacy and dissimulation? And will not those in society who view him as an outlier and a threat band together to destroy him the way they would to drive out a man-eater on the fringes of human settlement?

London certainly seems to think so. Larsen’s ship is almost always in a state of near-mutiny, and van Weyden himself consistently stands up to him despite his innate meek nature and eventually makes good his escape by working in tandem with a close companion. The author’s inference is clear, that man needs his fellow man to survive and thrive, that the bonds that join can beat the overbearing lash, and that pride always goes before the fall. As indomitable as Larsen seems on the outside, well-established and iron-clad though his convictions appear, there still is a deeply cut melancholy to him, an unsaid, perhaps even unadmitted, longing to rejoin the rest of the species and partake in their simple pleasures. But he knows it is too late for him and so he redoubles his commitment to his bleak philosophy. His end is pitiable and tragic for so great a figure, a gradual diminishing by degrees that bears mockingly accurate testimony to his view of life, that the essential impulse remains even as the cage of flesh around it wastes away. In all ways, he is the embodiment of the proud, rebellious Luciferian spirit, as van Weyden muses at another time in the book with Larsen resoundingly thundering in the foreground:

“He led a lost cause, and he was not afraid of God’s thunderbolts,” Wolf Larsen was saying.  “Hurled into hell, he was unbeaten.  A third of God’s angels he had led with him, and straightway he incited man to rebel against God, and gained for himself and hell the major portion of all the generations of man.  Why was he beaten out of heaven?  Because he was less brave than God? less proud? less aspiring?  No!  A thousand times no!  God was more powerful, as he said, Whom thunder hath made greater.  But Lucifer was a free spirit.  To serve was to suffocate.  He preferred suffering in freedom to all the happiness of a comfortable servility.  He did not care to serve God.  He cared to serve nothing.  He was no figure-head.  He stood on his own legs.  He was an individual.”

 

 

Posted in Books, Thoughts | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Why *not* take metal seriously?

In Hindu esoteric thought, Avishkara – a word which in regular parlance indicates invention – is used to describe the process through which a spirit, be it deity or another form of ethereal being, takes up residence inside a foreign object. The foreign object most commonly used is the idol of Hindu temples; however, it is not the idol in its base form that is worshipped; that by itself is mere hunk of stone. Rather, by intensely concentrating on and projecting a certain aspect of divinity onto inanimate matter, through fervent prayer, desire, and mantra, the idol itself becomes a loci for that divine aspect to enter the material plane and interact with those that have summoned it. A yet more extreme type of Avishkara is that in which the human body itself becomes a vessel for spirits trapped in the karmic cycle of birth and rebirth; a trained sadhu strikes a spiritual bargain with such a spirit and then cajoles it to enter the individual person of his choosing. Preparing an appropriate environment for the spirit to feel comfortable in is an integral part of this process: how he dressed while alive, what he ate and drank, the manner of address he was accustomed to, the music he listened to, all go a long way in simulating the conditions the spirit may have been used to during his time inside mortal flesh. If there is an audience gathered for consultation with the spirit, it is imperative that they buy into the phenomenon in play, because any loss of faith or skepticism on their part is liable to induce existential disorientation in the spirit.

Whether this is to be taken literally or as a manifestation of various psychological archetypes or indeed a mysterious confluence of both simultaneously is up to the individual practitioner, and truly known only by the wise adept. The present however is a time of constant scientific deconstruction, where incredulity is the norm, and empiricism and its instruments alone dictate what is real and what is delusion. Recently, Minnesota-based black metal band Teratism offered their justification for not playing a show with a joke band; in the main, Teratism‘s position was that their performance would only attain full potency in a setting positively orientated towards the themes in their music. To share the stage with a joke band, knowing beforehand the dubious standard of audience said joke band would bring in, would inevitably compromise the effectiveness of their delivery. In line with esoteric traditions around the world and certainly with every significant black metal band that has come before, Teratism earnestly believe their music to be a conduit to usher in a particular state of mind in performer and listener. To take a principled stand to preserve the sanctity of that vision is a noble endeavor and one that every metal band worth a damn should undertake.

No one has to scream this from the rooftops. We who are steeped in this music’s – our music’s – lore accept it as self-evident truth. We willingly submit to the anachronistic demands implicit in it, despite all our conditioning to the contrary, because time and again it has raised us out of the mundane into the sublime. This much “seriousness” and gravitas we expect of ourselves, of those who claim to love metal, and those that claim to play it before us with sincerity. Hence why to see Teratism lambasted and ridiculed for their grasp of this innate truism by people who support the joke band – whose founder incidentally is of the opinion that black metal is little more than “dorky entertainment” – and claim to love black metal in the same breath, ought to enrage any metalhead with half a pint of hot blood in his veins.

Why they do it is simple enough to understand. There has to be some festering ugliness at the center of these people’s lives for them to chime in one after the other, like so many lemmings jumping off a cliff, with their memes and their irreverence, to bring down someone expressing a greater sentiment. A coward hates nothing more than a mirror shone upon his inadequacies and a hipster can’t stand to be excluded from the very thing he has co-opted to compensate for his lack of identity, but still, what self-defeating fatalism to sabotage the very foundation on which you try to build your credibility! To not take what you claim to love seriously is to not take yourself seriously. Even worse, it is to actively hate yourself; your disfigured ego chides you for persisting in a charade, it curses you for this dissonance you’ve contrived inside the mind; the object of your affection – which really is only a ticket to the validation you crave every living minute (ha! ha! clever boy made a funny caption, see how he walks that edge all day long, well done, move along now, that’s a good lad!) – reveals itself to be something more than what *you* need it to be. So, like some fungus rotting wood out from the inside, you react against it with spite and irony and do your best to tear the whole edifice down. It is truly dysfunctional behavior, and unsurprisingly complemented with a panoply of neuroses (gender disphoria, body dysmorphia, morbid obesity, take your pick), as even a casual look through the comments section on the Teratism page would attest to.

Yet, a fatuous “battle of the bands” mentality persists: Teratism are consistently asked to play regardless and blow all comers off stage and in the process win new converts over to their side. Converts, indeed! Any metalhead worth his salt would rather spend the evening with a congregation of lepers than fraternize with this crowd. No, Teratism‘s stand is solid through and through; if anything, they could’ve been far more dismissive, as should every metalhead whose misfortune it is to deal with these rodents. And perchance they accuse you of harboring whatever political tendencies happen to be their bugbear at that moment, as they invariably will, then bear that coat of arms proudly too. On the sliding scale of preferences, declare in no uncertain terms just how repulsive you find them and their incessant machinations, and that you will always side with whatever breeds exclusivity and quality over quantity.

Posted in Thoughts | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Thy Feeble Saviour – And Darkness Fell (2018)

Texan death metal represents the most uncompromising face of the genre today. Dark, gritty, and relentlessly confrontational, this is not music for those perpetually seeking new thrills or those satisfied with shapelessness masquerading as innovation. Rather, a band like Thy Feeble Saviour chooses a small palette of tones influenced by Incantation, Profanatica/Havohej, and Imprecation, but within that restricted range develops themes more expansively and expressively than heard in bands with a more explicitly progressive agenda. Far too often, mood and impression are elevated above structure, but for metal to be metal, mood always has to arise from structure. Texan bands over time have grasped this subtle balance, that composition has to achieve complete primacy when note choices are viewed with extreme asceticism, not to bolster some mealy-mouthed claim to minimalism, but to serve with tunnel vision the higher ideal of violent death metal. 

Those that don’t understand this higher ideal will be liable to mock it, scoff at it, and move on to something else, but for the rest of us, Thy Feeble Saviour‘s style of death metal mirrors a very peculiar psychological constitution we find in ourselves. In its presence, we feel safe, even obliged on behalf of sacred duty, to shed the skin of pretense we otherwise wear in daily life, and to present ourselves as we are, naked and unrestrained. Convictions become even more sharply defined to the point where we could almost kill or die on their account. It is a psychic transformation, berzerker-like in its ferocity, that I have experienced on many an occasion, and I always marvel, and not without a little trepidation, at its potency in the aftermath. It is no simple case of an adrenaline overdrive either; there is that, obviously, but more pertinently I believe this style of death metal to be a receptacle and a crucible for our values – or more accurately, whatever is the raw soup from which values coalesce – in their most primal element, unshaped and completely wild.

Like Finnish band Sickness, Thy Feeble Saviour capture this essence of violence in pocket-sized songs never greater than three minutes in length. But where Sickness play Altars of Madness styled ripping death metal, Thy Feeble Saviour‘s oeuvre traditionally revolves around an interplay between tempos; that the band eschews the outright dirges of mid-latter period Incantation without resorting to the stripped-down ethos of a Profanatica, and still comes away with organically alive songs is to their credit. This awareness alone sets them apart from the many Incantation clones, but by reaching back even further into the great band’s catalog for inspiration, by taking the lessons of Onward to Golgotha no less to heart, Thy Feeble Saviour establish themselves among the elite pursuing this style of death metal today.

Posted in Death Metal | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment