Neocaesar – 11:11 (2017)

Year 2017 presents an interesting clash between former cohorts in death metal. Sinister, containing only Aad Kloosterwaard from the original lineup, have released Syncretism; Neocaesar, on the other hand, are a band formed from some of the most significant personnel to have participated in Sinister‘s glory run of the 90s. To the avid fan, that time can be broadly classified into three stages: (1) Cross the Styx, where the band bred thunderous rhythmic complexity with speed and progression, (2) Diabolical Summoning, where a greater preponderance on percussion after the manner of North American brutal death metal became evident, and finally (3) Hate, in which was realized a marriage between the previous two facets and an understated Gothic sensibility.

The members of Neocaesar have not forgotten their past exploits; the first minutes of 11:11, and sporadic intervals thereafter, feel like a visit from a cherished friend, but subsequent exposure reveals that this is an album of broader swathes and somewhat reduced epic scope. The contours of playing technique haven’t changed much, this is still the original Sinister sound in the main, and it is still death metal, too, but the components making up that sound are simplified and come with the added caveat of occasional melodic and structural accessibility. A hallmark of past work was an unpredictability that was organic in nature; Sinister would pounce upon the opportunity for implanting dark melody and adrenaline-galvanizing elements into otherwise uncompromisingly dissonant songs, but this was more a case of a band being alive to possibilities than any blatant play at mass appeal. That unpredictable opportunism is rarely heard here, and though it would be disingenuous to call 11:11 by-the-numbers, greater linearity in writing combined with over-dependence on the lingering but essentially second-hand motif renders it something less than the heaving mass of skull-pounding, switchback death metal which the longtime fan might rightfully expect.

 

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On suicide

There is one school of thought which deems suicide to be the ultimate display of cowardice. No one is excused from the troubles of life, as disparate and unjust as the degrees to which they are inflicted on various people may seem. But if one takes the long view, it stands to reason, and to probability, that everybody gets to experience some elemental aspect of that great sadness during their time on earth. Courage, they say, lies in fighting through these downswings by hedging one’s bets and believing that there most likely will be a better time somewhere down the road.

One’s own person ought to be the ultimate symbol of property and ownership. Surely, then, willfully terminating its existence on the material plane should be an individual prerogative, too; and who is someone that doesn’t share that body and consciousness to criticize its unnatural and untimely destruction? But critics say that once man by his nature chooses to live in society and comes to form intimate bonds of blood, emotion, and obligation with members within that society, he signs away some aspect of that freedom with which he is born and with which he can die. Suicide by its abrupt and fatal nature unmakes that bond, and leaves a gaping hole in the social fabric before society has become acquainted with such a possibility and its repercussions. The victim of a suicide is never the person killing himself, but those with whom he had formed those intimate bonds in life. Seen in such a light, suicide becomes an act of paramount selfishness and disregard for one’s commitments to others.

Few reasonable people will express opposition to these sentiments, even while acknowledging that the phenomenon itself is in most cases a symbol of a greatly disturbed mental state, deserving of medical and humanistic consideration. An unsentimental and extremist position would call the event a periodic cleansing of the gene pool; that a person unappreciative enough of the chance at life – the immense biological lottery that it is – to end it so recklessly, is to be wished good riddance and not an instant too soon.

I endorse both stances at different times, depending chiefly on what the individual was about up till that fateful juncture. Accordingly, there is either indifference, or melancholy accompanied with relief for a troubled soul. But, in all cases, I also hold a grudging respect for the person committing suicide. Yes, there is cowardice and abdication of responsibility inherent in the act when one projects it out on to those contingent on the individual, but leave aside social considerations, and there is an almost incomprehensible bravery to be found in it, too. The unformed unknown remains our species’ greatest fear, and what is more unknown – but, paradoxically, also something which we’re familiar with throughout our life – than death itself? To chance ultimate dissolution, as a result of bad judgement or otherwise, deserves some credit when viewed from a dispassionate perspective. For even those who commit suicide for apparently pathetic reasons, with no lofty philosophical insight, do so with the innate knowledge that the act is a point of no return and that therein lies its true potency.

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What is the essence of metal? Part I

British philosopher John Locke in his seminal Essay Concerning Human Understanding wrote at length on the subject of essence or that which is immanent in an idea. To give the briefest of primers, ideas, according to Locke, can be classified as simple ideas, complex ideas, and mixed modes. Simple ideas are constituted by what our senses perceive about them in our immediate environment. For example, the idea of something tasting sweet as opposed to bitter is elementary in premise, meaning it cannot be broken down any further. It is atomic of nature, permitting of no constituent parts. Simple ideas such as taste, heat, cold, motion, distance, etc. have a grounding in reality as experienced by us; our mind simply brings its powers of understanding to bear on the information provided to it by the senses, and presents us with an as-is, literal interpretation.

Complex ideas, on the other hand, are a coagulation of multiple simple ideas which the mind makes use of to arrive at a definition of a substance found in nature. To quote Locke’s oft-used example of gold: the simple ideas of weight, the color yellow, lustre, fusibility, malleability, ductility, its solvency in aqua regia, and ultimately its value as currency, constitute to us the complex idea of of gold as substance in the main. Of course, to someone like a chemist, even these simple ideas could be striated into degrees, not to mention the chemist can also be attributed with awareness of a few other qualities usually obscured to the lay observer, but the chief point here is this: take away any one of these qualities from the complex idea of gold, and that idea itself becomes sullied and a little distant from its purest possible conception.

Mixed modes, finally, are those abstract ideas which originate entirely inside the mind as a result of its internal meditations. Mixed modes as such have no direct reference to anything found in nature (see Platonic forms). Take the concept of justice, for example. There is no external stimuli in nature which presents us with a ready and irrefutable instance of this idea, but use the term in daily conversation and its meaning – both hinted and explicit – becomes impossible to miss. Consider this chain of events: A man is robbed. The thief employs his loot towards some unavoidable, even unfortunate circumstance. Or maybe he blows it off during a night of excess. Whatever it be, eventually, the thief is apprehended. The thief is not financially solvent any more to repair the victim’s damages. The society in which both thief and victim live sees fit to punish him in a manner deemed commensurate with the severity of his crime.

Justice duly served, would be the natural reaction of most rational people in the civilized world to this episode. Evidently, then, justice as a mixed mode is an intricate latticework of both simple ideas and other complex ideas. An example of a group of simple ideas in this case would be the recording of evidence, perhaps even the assembling of it in chronological succession as the logical faculty dictates. However, the simple quotient in the formulation of this sum idea of justice is only static or passive or supplementary in nature; justice as a mixed mode hinges on various other complicated factors like intent and culpability, social-cultural norms, the degree of damage caused, etc, perhaps arrived at, at various other times, under varying circumstances. Both simple ideas and complex ideas then combine together to form our complex, composite idea of justice.

But the chain of events described above has not occasioned the discovery of the concept of justice; to the contrary, this mixed mode is already contained inside our mind as a result of our ruminations over time, as individuals and as a species of social, thinking creatures. We merely choose to impose justice as an idea upon those happenings around us which threaten to disrupt the foundation of our social existence.

The essence of any idea, according to Locke, is that which forms the idea’s identity. Or in other words, that which being subtracted from the idea reduces the idea to less than what it originally was. So, the essence of gold in the previous example would be the collection of properties viz. fusibility, malleability, the color yellow, etc. forming the mental picture of gold proper. But to Locke, this was only the nominal essence of gold, as opposed to its real essence, the latter which remains permanently unknown and unknowable to us. To elaborate further on the difference between the real and the nominal would be to digress in unwieldy directions but, in Locke’s theory, it is always the nominal essence of a substance that we refer to in daily discourse, and not the real.

Ironically, the empiricism which Locke prided himself on has made great strides in lockstep with scientific advances in the ensuing three hundred years; we now are a lot closer to deciphering the real essences implied by Locke than was thought possible in the past. But for the purposes of this post and especially its application to art, the distinction between nominal and real will do and even serves a useful purpose in fleshing out the material and the ineffable.

In art, in music, and, what matters to us the most, in heavy metal, the source of confusion between sound and meaning can be traced back to the general human miscomprehension of real essences and nominal essences. Moreover, we are unsure whether art is a substance found occurring naturally, which our senses acting as conduit feed in to our mind for further contemplation. Or might it be a mixed mode that we create entirely inside the confines of the mind?

Art is unique in that it can be demonstrated as a real, physical, sensible object, and therefore is liable to be misconstrued as a substance, much like gold, with tangible, equivalent qualities or, which is to say the same thing, nominal essences. Black metal comes to be defined by such signifiers as violent percussion, rasping vocals, incessant tremolo picking, blaspheming lyrics, and so on. What else is death metal but growling vocals, themes of blood and death, choppy rhythms, and technical playing? Facile denominations of this kind can be applied to every sub-strain of heavy metal, but that is ignoring the complexity of the issue at hand. Well, perhaps facile is the wrong word to use in this context; styles of metal are defined by how they sound, after all, but only that and nothing else?

Other mixed modes like religion, politics, and the foregoing justice, don’t find such ready representation in the physical space. At most, we have the chance to apply their principles to extant situations, and the outcome can be held up as an exemplary demonstration of the concerned mixed mode. But there is no vestige of that mixed mode left behind in nature, except for what is inside our mind, and what we attempt to capture on paper. It can only be witnessed in action when the next event warranting its application comes around.

But complex art, coming out of diverse influences gathered across space and time, still finds its ultimate representation in physically sensible form. Art, then, is a singular instance of a mixed mode, creating as it does a dynamic and interactive relationship between the mind and the natural environment. It certainly cannot evolve in a vacuum; it can’t help but be shaped by what the mind experiences, but neither is it something which can be ranked alongside substances of the natural variety. Art is therefore a mixed mode sui generis and unto its own.

I described the nominal essences which we commonly prescribe to heavy metal. Theme and style of delivery and their many calibrations form the bulk of these. But surely there is a real essence underlying these which we apprehend on a deeper level? John Locke may have considered the real essences of substances to be unknowable, but mixed modes are fabricated inside the mind and are therefore subject only to the mind’s framework of laws. If heavy metal is a special kind of mixed mode, then shouldn’t it be possible to arrive at a closer definition of its real essence, seeing as how most of it is conceived inside the mind, albeit by also taking inspiration from its surroundings?

[To be continued…]

 

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My take on elitism

This blog at times has been accused of promoting mediocre music. If such has been the case, then that would lie at cross purposes with the many vituperative posts previously published here, ranting against the rot plaguing the metal scene, in my country of birth and, by the looks of things, worldwide as well. For what right do I have of raging against the ills of the genre if I can’t be relied on for commenting on only the very best when it matters?

But for what it’s worth, I have never considered myself an authority on metal or musicology. I know my way around the guitar but I never became very good at it, like so many other things in life, and I use this abridged vocabulary along with my intuition and common sense to write about metal. I don’t subscribe to labels for promos and I try to maintain a negligible online footprint, so my exposure to current trends is extremely limited. I hear what I can, when I can, and if it connects with me on some level, I write about it. The decision I try to make while hearing and writing about a new album is whether the intent behind the music is sincere, and if the people behind that music seem familiar and in love with its tradition. I will be the first to admit that a good chunk of albums which I have written favorably about can’t hold a candle to the classics of yesteryear, but which new albums really can? As much of a curmudgeon as I at times find myself to be, I can’t for the life of me, today, see the point of pissing down the stump of worthless bands; or, worse yet, callously dismissing bands of blooming promise and honest motives. I understand that some might look upon this as a yeoman’s endeavor – and I have indulged in it myself on occasion – but I genuinely feel no interest anymore in saving some misguided cunt’s soul. Often mentioned around these parts, you don’t find the music, the music finds you: it is a rule of thumb which I have put great faith into, and as time goes by, I find it to be the only true, trustworthy measure of quality control.

To some, elitism is the endorsement of only the very best. To others, it might be the possession of an encyclopedic knowledge of the genre at large, be it chronologies and assorted trivia, or burgeoning record collections. I won’t frown upon either interpretation, because I have partook of such things to varying degrees for a long time myself. But what interests me far more and what constitutes my idea of elitism is whether I conduct myself in life in accordance with the ideals I have extracted from heavy metal. And in this regard, I don’t mind being arrogant enough to claim that I understand what heavy metal is “meant” to be. I have always maintained that the underground is a state of mind; despite modern living encroaching upon the very edges of our being with its garish hawking, the final choice of whether to let it in and be consumed by it still rests with us. By this I don’t imply disowning all but the most obscure of products like some seventeen-year old, gloomy-faced clown; but there is an internal flag that ought to be raised when you find yourself acting in ways entirely at odds with those ideals derived from heavy metal. What those ideals are is best left for the person concerned to judge for themselves, but if you truly believe that heavy metal is a safe haven for you from the world like you profess vehemently, then why the fuck would you compromise its sanctity for whatever transitory satisfaction you hope to achieve?

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Solstice – To Sol a Thane (Demo, 2016)

It is a fool’s gold that makes rich a man now
and your truth will buy you only the lonely walk
to our hungry gallows

– Solstice, ‘White Horse Hill’

For those in the know, Solstice have been one of the finest doom/heavy metal bands of the last twenty-five years. To Sol a Thane sees the band honing chops one last time before presumably recording their third full-length, and their first since 1998’s classic New Dark Age. In a band that has always been blessed with exceptional singers, Paul Kearns has now taken over duties from the inimitable Morris Ingram, and immediately makes the band’s sound his own. The new songs are less medieval, for lack of a better word, than those on New Dark Age, and have a not insignificant aspect of Americana about them; some of the quieter moments bring to mind the Appalachian strains of an obscure but perennial personal favorite, The Handsome Family‘s Through the Trees.

Doom metal broadly operates on two scales, the personal and the cosmic. Noteworthy exponents at the more extreme end of the style like Thergothon and Skepticism lean towards the latter, creating swathes of atmosphere through slow motion and a distorted delivery, eschewing all direct appeal to the ego, and in the process rendering an almost-meditative air to the music.

Of more earthly preoccupations are renowned names of the canon like My Dying Bride and Paradise Lost. These bands care about form , presentation, and embellishment, and incorporate an element of gothic theater in their music. The result is overwrought, in which emotion becomes a commodity to be peddled album after album because that pathos and that alone has now come to define the band’s sound.

Solstice have traditionally achieved the most exquisite balance between these two objects. These are true craftsmen at work, and their labor shows in every facet of the finished article. Lyrics are elegant and without guile, resembling much the same ode to European prehistory which Atlantean Kodex excel at. And that is not the only comparison between the two bands; the younger band, after all, accepts Solstice with pride as one of its primary influences. The deduction, as in The White Goddess, is inescapable; To Sol a Thane is wistful in demeanor but it is a sadness filtered through optimism and, ultimately, the futility of that optimism. History may come alive in books and insulate us from reality, but a time past is a time lost forever; for how long then does one miserably hanker for something that will never be again?

Songs are alternately driven by lead guitar lines and Paul Kearns’ immaculate sense of placement and sustain. Never boring, never repetitive, despite having vocal reminiscences and minor hooks embedded throughout, these songs and the words that support them are true stories of metal, and, together with their proteges, represent the finest that this artform has to offer today.

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Where dead angels lie

Destiny calls
To leave these walls
For only the fleece
Can bring us peace

I am to rule
A king not a fool
The prophecy I will defend
And sail to the worlds end

[Chorus]
Fear the children slain of the hydra
For they will seek to kill upon command
None can escape the teeth of the hydra
From the teeth of the hydra
Come the children of the Damned

Many have tried
And many have died
So it is told
In search of the ram of gold

And guarding the prize
With death in its eyes
Lies a seven-headed serpent
In shadows awaiting the bold

We, have not come here to kill
But for the fleece
Be it the gods will
We, same as the legend
The prophecy will be fulfilled in the end

Our battle has come
And I fear to run
But with my blade of steel
The serpent is done

From his teeth on the ground
With an evil sound
Grow skeletons of death
Wanting my soul

– Omen, ‘Teeth of the Hydra’

\m/

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Do Skonu – Hell (2016)

What is it that one means when they use a geographical association to describe a piece of music? North American death metal and its subsets, Norwegian black metal as opposed to Finnish black metal, and then further beyond that ambit, South American black metal. And so on. Regional denominations are a convenient way of bracketing styles within the greater genre. Originators react to their environment and their inner impulse, and lay down a template which, for better or worse, is adhered to with diligence by successors. Over time, whole regions come to be represented by a peculiar sound, and the relationship between the material and the immaterial becomes ossified. Naturally, there are outliers during this process, personalities incapable of conforming to what everyone else around them is doing, but even so, these islands of individuality and protest lie few and far between. And even they can’t help betraying to some minor degree the artifacts of the place they come from.

There is something palpably Slavic about Do Skonu‘s Hell, what with regular black metal tropes frequently tailing off into slivers from the Eastern folk tradition. The foregoing postulation in this case would imply this band’s sound to be influenced by regional torchbearers like Root, Master’s Hammer, Graveland, and Nokturnal Mortum. Tempos are uniformly magisterial, not dissimilar to what countrymen Khors achieved on their first two albums. Thematically rich, single lines of melody dance against an insinuative wash of rhythm, dramatized with the kind of showmanship which has long been the hallmark of Root. Savagery as generally understood may be in scarce supply here, but a certain narrative calculation and coldness certainly isn’t. Do Skonu achieve a lot in a short running time, and it is a testament to their composing prowess that their unassuming template presents and develops ideas with such clarity, conviction, and consistency.

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Iron Maiden and plagiarism

Mark my words my soul lives on
Please don’t worry cause I’ve have gone
I’ve gone beyond to see the truth
When your time is close at hand
Maybe then you’ll understand
Life down there is just a strange illusion

– Beckett, ‘Life’s Shadow’ (1974)

The greatest heavy metal band of all time is currently embroiled in a plagiarism dispute with Mr. Brian Quinn of 70s progressive rock band Beckett. Iron Maiden, for those who come in late, lifted lyrics and an entire instrumental section from the Beckett song ‘Life’s Shadow‘,  co-written by Quinn and one Bob Barton, and put them to fine use on classics ‘Hallowed Be Thy Name‘ – in my opinion, the greatest heavy metal song ever – and ‘Nomad‘, respectively. Nothing remotely subtle about this act of skulduggery; as much as it hurts to admit, Maiden committed outright theft and should be rightfully held to task by their fans and the law. The gory details can be read here.

This blog has previously dealt with the topic of plagiarism in heavy metal, and how much is too much to be pardoned. For what it’s worth, the song ‘Life’s Shadow‘ is a fine workout after the manner of the 70s. It is eerie to hear words and motifs that have been a mainstay for so many years suddenly inhabited, and legitimately at that, inside another skin. It is a different song than ‘Nomad‘ too, exchanging Maiden‘s in-your-face orientalisms for a far more understated delivery.

Trust is a frail commodity which once disturbed sleeks away diffidently into the shadows. I don’t believe Iron Maiden have become as big as they have by perpetually stealing ideas from other people; that would be disingenuous conspiracy-mongering. But never having had much interest in trivia, this disclosure comes as revelation to me. My gut tells me that Harris & Co. were simply offering tribute to an influence from their formative years, but thought themselves too big, and Beckett too obscure, to care about such small fry as permissions and credits. The band has since then come to a settlement with the other half of the song’s creators, Bob Barton, but poor Quinn has been left in the lurch despite professing to be the dominant contributor.

This in no way dilutes my enjoyment of the music of Iron Maiden, but it does leave room for a small nagging seed to be planted in insidious soil. How does one ever really wash clean the stench of perfidy? If they could have done it here once, and so unabashedly, they might have done it elsewhere again. It is a truly vast body of work that Maiden carries with them; for a band which has always been about the single, distinctive thread of melody among standard chord progressions, the possibility of further unsavory discoveries suddenly doesn’t seem as outlandish as it once may have.

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Horn – Turm am Hang (2017)

At this point in time, Horn is an identity unto itself, heedless of whatever genre constraints one wants to impose on it. Unabashedly melodic but in all the right ways, unafraid to refer to styles on the peripheries of black metal proper like punk/RAC and new wave, this project when on song succeeds brilliantly in evoking the musty detritus of eras past. Far too often is it said by the callous and the flippant that metal is all about being free and doing as you please. It may be that too within certain non-negotiable parameters which escape this crowd, but what Horn demonstrates so stalwartly is that regardless of technique, there is only one true insurmountable feeling common to all real metal, and that is the feeling of being in the presence of something ineffably awesome and humbling, even when you are in fact in the midst of the depressing urban sprawl. No other modern, popular form of music concerns itself so obsessively with subjects that reach across and beyond the meager dominion of human comprehension. Horn, and all real metal, at least try, and in that lies the great spiritual philosophy of our music.

Turm am Hang sees Nerrath refine the songwriting style which he has been developing since Konflikt. Where earlier albums represented an abstract take on the beauty found in the untamed wild , the material since Konflikt has been far more cohesive in vision and execution. History, by all appearances, has taken the place of impersonal nature in Nerrath’s affections; the change of theme has been accompanied with a more direct and interactive style of delivery. The listener is no longer insulated from the goings-on; the curtain between artist and audience is lifted and the latter is now an active agent in the lush images painted by the music; at one time a soldier bedraggled, at another a serf returning home after the day’s toil, the effect is palpable and ripe with a sad kind of empathy.

Like previous albums, Turm am Hang initially feels too straightforward to a listening sensibility used to more extreme music. Neoclassical and folk implements, upbeat changes in tempo, and clean singing are liberally used, but if the listener persists, he can’t fail to realize the iron-bound writing logic underlying these “accessible” maneuvers. As mentioned in earlier reviews, Nerrath is a singer-songwriter at heart, albeit working within the metal paradigm. The label may raise a few eyebrows, but it is the truest, purest description of Horn‘s music that I can make.

 

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Clandestine Blaze – City of Slaughter (2017)

Mikko Aspa’s Clandestine Blaze remains one of the more undersung projects in black metal. On initial listens little more than a homage to Darkthrone‘s trilogy of classics, there is a gravitas and a seriousness which emanates from all of this band’s recorded output. It is hard to put a finger on just what it is that Aspa does differently; City of Slaughter has a more pronounced melodic slant compared with its immediate predecessors, varying with subtlety between the long-chain, tremolo-focused battery of Transilvanian Hunger and the Hellhammer-isms of A Blaze in the Northern Sky. Increasing notice is now also taken of Aspa’s other, far more renowned project, Deathspell Omega; City of Slaughter goes back to the last conventional album released by that band, Si Monumentum Requiris Circumspice, and incorporates its penchant for well-articulated melodic phrases into the fold. The result, however, isn’t mired in the orthodox eschatology that preoccupies DsO. Aspa’s work in Clandestine Blaze is not only potent and emotional but it is also unremittingly dark, of tone and theme, and a direct extension in musical form of a genre connoisseur’s perspective on life, death, and the things we build around and in between these bookends.

Routinely accused of harboring national socialist and anti-semitic leanings, Aspa’s apparent riposte to his prosecutors – and this is only my interpretation of his words, on this album and in the odd interview I’ve read – is a resounding “Yes! And so what?” The man of intelligence and conviction – and isn’t it a shame how often the two aren’t naturally allied? – measures the depth of his audience and responds accordingly. What value then in attempting to save face before one’s intellectual inferiors? If the rabble would make a devil of you, then so be it: be the devil, spread your wings, and take flight. No thinking man is beholden to subscribe blindly to the fashions and dogmas of his age; by this I don’t mean a blanket rejection of tradition, which after all is yet another dogma of the present age. Tradition accumulates over large stretches of time through trial-and-error of what works for “us” as a people, while what passes as de rigeur today is usually fickle, ill-reasoned of nature, and frequently not without something of the manipulative in it. As Aspa alludes to in this fine interview, common sense is not that common, not even in circles which we believe ourselves closely associated with, so why waste time and risk frustration searching for it in places where it never took root to begin with?

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