Incantation – Profane Nexus (2017)

Perhaps the most significant thing about Profane Nexus is the presence of ‘The Rites of the Locust‘. Here, Incantation take aim at the global pestilence of Islam, thus becoming one of the few established underground bands to avoid the honey trap of political correctness. Never a band for sensationalist haranguing outside of their distaste for Christendom, Incantation seem to have realized that the world today is a vastly different place from that of thirty years ago. Europe is mired in policies which pay scant heed to the tide of history; but why only Europe? even my country of birth, with its almost millennium-long record of persecution under the scimitar, contains a class only too happy to sidestep reality, instead choosing to sing paeans to Urdu and the tandoori kabab. The wolf has been welcomed to the hearth, his depredations patronized with a strange mixture of guilt, ignorance, and self-mutilating sophistry. Any awakening to come, if it comes at all, will in all likelihood have come much too late. May these charlatans’ womenfolk be the first to be made to don the niqab when that glorious day arrives.

How does Profane Nexus fare as a new Incantation album in 2017? The question is a loaded one, because of how hard it is for this band to diversify with purpose at this late date. With due fairness, they try; they have been trying ever since Primordial Domination with its shorter song forms and subtle references to Autopsy. Goreaphobia‘s Alex Bouks brought a heightened speed metal aesthetic and a very real sense of melody to Vanquish In Vengeance; these developments found even more pronounced space on Dirges of Elysium, the band’s most conscious attempt at innovation since their 90s heyday. The experiment wasn’t always consistent, but as a work in progress it could be treated on its own terms.

Profane Nexus occupies a niche between Vanquish in Vengeance and Dirges of Elysium. Bouks has departed since, but his lessons haven’t been forgotten; rather Profane Nexus integrates those techniques within its fold whilst reasserting a more trenchant identity. On either side of the tempo spectrum, this album contains some of the most extreme music the band has ever written; that is not a comment on quality, simply an observation. Incantation‘s slow parts have always verged on sludgy, Esoteric-style funeral doom and that tendency is taken to its conclusion here; on the other hand, a couple of songs in the middle bring to mind the simple-minded bludgeoning ferocity of death/grind like Embalmer. The band has ever teetered on such precipices; Profane Nexus is a culmination of those violent tendencies.

The primary complaints leveled against modern Incantation are an overt dependency on speed metal-style chugging between chords, and a general rambling shapelessness that has crept into the songwriting. The latter still manifests itself during the dedicated slow songs; however, the speed metal aspect, if one is inclined to view it as a negative, is reined in greatly. At all events, there is more than enough evidence here to suggest neither of these issues are chronic in nature; Incantation still retain the bulk of their angularity and harmonic intricacy, features that set them apart from virtually every other band plying these waters.

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Death Metal Battle Royale Round 2: Demigod’s Slumber of Sullen Eyes vs The Chasm’s Deathcult for Eternity: The Triumph

   

The first match of Round 2 pairs the death metal connoisseur’s ultimate album in Slumber of Sullen Eyes from 1992 against The Chasm‘s Deathcult for Eternity from 1998. The following list of criteria are used to evaluate them:

1. Riff Logic and Cohesion
Slumber of Sullen Eyes: An album containing some of the most sublime yet succulent interplay between note intervals, Slumber of Sullen Eyes lives inside the interstices of the song. The riff here is a fully-realized microcosm, not revealing its hand until the desired level of roundedness and resolution have been achieved. A riff is mistakenly assumed to be any free-floating phrase, but Demigod give lie to this fallacy. A riff in their hands is not only split into a call-answer aesthetic – where the first half poses a question and the second palpably responds – but it also goes on for multiple iterations, frequently with subtle harmonic displacement, till the listener’s musical senses are at first aroused and then well sated. (Points awarded: +1)

Deathcult for Eternity: The Triumph: As often as not, The Chasm don’t write riffs in the conventional sense; they compose passages which may or may not have the instant resolution one expects, but instead are always arranged with an eye towards future developments inside the song. It is an ambitious and fundamentally different approach to songwriting, more discursive and dialectical than call-answer, but it also means that every now and then a premise falls through the cracks without being duly acknowledged, and therefore has to be considered lost potential.
(Points awarded: 0)

2. Melodic Contiguity
Slumber of Sullen Eyes: Death metal’s great achievement was to break free from the tonal shackles of preceding speed metal. Demigod‘s exclusive dependence on the chromatic scale to form the stuff of their riffwork brings the entirety of musical space into play, making the band masters of their own whim and logic. And still, within this atonal architecture lies buried discipline as well as great and pensive melody, realized chiefly through the twin implements of: (1) singly-plucked, minor key excursions, used as both lead break and oblique harmony, and (2) a lingering deliberation on the contrast offered by couplet notes separated by half a step. This expert balancing of clashing musical philosophies ensures that Slumber of Sullen Eyes drips with portent and gravitas, with no jarring inconsistencies in sight.

The relevance of this criterion is to judge what the song’s contour would be like if one were to sever any given fiber from its total tapestry; and the answer in this case should be unequivocal: the songs on Slumber of Sullen Eyes are consummate, living, breathing wholes, chopping which would amount to little less than musical murder.
(Points awarded: +1)

Deathcult for Eternity: The Triumph: At their best, The Chasm make tonally-harmonically unique and consistent death metal. Melodies revolve around the natural minor scale to which foreign notes from the immediate vicinity are added for the purposes of continuity and/or tension. The Chasm center their sound around the arpeggio; arranged in inverted configuration and encompassing multiple octave spans, this device conveys a  melancholy peculiar to this band.

On Deathcult for Eternity, The Chasm write riffs that individually far surpass anything Demigod do; but as poignant and stirring as many of these motifs are – and it must be stressed that the band wrote their most war-like material here – the album still betrays an occasionally disjointed nature when it transitions from its idiosyncratic take on melody to a faster death metal by the numbers. The Chasm are influenced by German speed metal and first wave death metal in equal parts. Speed metal by nature is a music of islands, where the bridge to get from one melodic landmass to another is necessarily nondescript. First wave death metal like Possessed, Master, and Death, may have gone some way towards making the music less discrete and more phrasal, but there still is a sense of gratuitous waste about it. The Chasm on occasion drift without purpose, seemingly lost in the beauty and violence of the sounds they’ve conjured; it is a tendency which they would repair on future albums, albeit at the price of some of the urgency found here, but such is the give-and-take that all artists have to consider.
(Points awarded: 0)

3. Role of percussion
Slumber of Sullen Eyes: European death metal was not renowned for particularly innovative drumming, and Slumber of Sullen Eyes is no exception. Drums do what is needed with competence, but are predominantly restricted to mirroring the tendencies of the riff.
(Points awarded: 0)

Deathcult for Eternity: The Triumph: In some ways, the drummer in metal is bound to the riff and can only be subject to its direction. Original member Antonio Leon is provided with a wide, almost panoramic, musical canvas to embellish; he does so with taste, never overbearing but supplementing this music of emotion with deft work on the rides and controlled double bass, a textbook showcase of virile speed/death drumming.
(Points awarded: +1)

4. Progressive aspiration
Slumber of Sullen Eyes: There is nothing remotely approaching a standard verse-chorus structure on Slumber of Sullen Eyes. As time has gone by, most of the true underground has come to regard this album as the one pinnacle of progressive songwriting in the old death metal mold. Demigod righteously own the phrase “developmental variation” coined by Arnold Schoenberg; and what coincidence that Demigod subscribe to the composer’s ideas on atonality, if not in theory then at least in spirit. Slumber of Sullen Eyes is progressive in the most elegant and understated manner, but without compromising a whit of its death metal ferocity.
(Points awarded: +1)

Deathcult for Eternity: The Triumph: The Chasm approach progression from a slightly different perspective; like Demigod, they enhance a premise, but theirs is a narrative and textural progression. The small field of notes available to Demigod by necessity makes them a structurally conscious band, constantly, painstakingly, tinkering around with note relationships like one would with the beads of an ABACUS scale; but The Chasm don’t shun melody or use it only as contrasting device; they embrace it wholeheartedly and therefore can populate their music with a diverse set of characters in the manner of the best progressive rock.
(Points awarded: +1)

5. Success as an album of songs
Slumber of Sullen Eyes: The real hallmark of a great album is how it hangs together as a suite of songs. It doesn’t have to be  anything as pretentious as a “concept album”. The binding concept if any is to be found inside the music itself, and it is here that Slumber of Sullen Eyes excels as grand musical vision. Admittedly, its tonal ambiguity plays in its favor, but this is by no means a flavorless album; the more blatantly consonant parts help with identity, to be sure, but still it is no mean feat to sustain an album from start to finish with an undisturbed musical language.
(Points awarded: +1)

Deathcult for Eternity: The Triumph: The Chasm‘s unique melodic palette, along with their integrity as musicians, ensures that songs on any album retain a binding character. The inconsistencies in cohesion and transition don’t manage to damage this aspect on Deathcult for Eternity; certain themes reappear through the running length; that it is never entirely evident whether those themes are heard on the same song or at another point on the album is a telltale sign of a deeper thread at work.
(Points awarded: +1)

6. Ideological/Philosophical significance as death metal
Slumber of Sullen Eyes: A celebration of Nietzschean nihilism and the death of God (as we are shadows in this dismal mist/we shall hear the moan of our gods/cloak of darkness, the lord of all/upon this valley of utter nothingness), a paean to the anti-hero of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and a vehement assertion of self in the face of social stigma, Slumber of Sullen Eyes touches on all the themes that have fascinated death metal bands through time. That it renounces life for death should not be taken to imply an act of surrender; renunciation as Demigod see it isn’t accompanied by self-pity, but is rather brought on by a distaste for the status quo. By favoring the next life over this one, Demigod seek to correct the wrongs of the present time whilst serving due recompense to those who have made it such a den of iniquity.
(Points awarded: +1)

Deathcult for Eternity: The Triumph: Daniel Corchado’s lyrical themes have always revolved around true grit: grace and power in the wake of personal and civilizational tragedy, evinced not just through the nature of this somber music but in how the band have conducted themselves over two decades. As death metal musicians and as metalheads, The Chasm prove specimens par excellence and an ideal for the underground to embrace.
(Points awarded: +1)

7. Emotional resonance
Slumber of Sullen Eyes: It is a futile exercise to elaborate on what emotional resonance is, for it means different things to different people, but this much can be said about Slumber of Sullen Eyes: it is hugely admirable for its integrity and its intelligence, but its cold beauty seems incapable of fostering a truly personal connection with the listener.  (Points awarded: 0)

Deathcult for Eternity: The Triumph: The Chasm are far more overt in how they express; explicit melody undoubtedly makes communication easier, but The Chasm‘s use of it is anything but bawdy; though cosmic and ascetic like Slumber of Sullen Eyes, The Chasm‘s style is just a lot more human, privy to all the failings attributed to humanity but in rare moments of insight also capable of taking breathtaking flight.
(Points awarded: +1)

Final score:
Demigod’s Slumber of Sullen Eyes: 5
The Chasm’s Deathcult for Eternity: 5

Verdict: An honorable tied result between two albums that are more alike than initially apparent, using strikingly different techniques to achieve similarly expansive ambitions. I was leaning towards Slumber of Sullen Eyes despite my bias for The Chasm. The poll agrees, Demigod go through.

Current tournament bracket

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Blue Öyster Cult: The early albums

Rarely does one find dyed-in-the-wool metalheads making concessions in the direction of Blue Öyster Cult as a seminal proto-metal band. Their reluctance is understandable; beyond the radio hits (‘Don’t Fear The Reaper‘, ‘Burnin For You‘, and maybe a few songs off Spectres and Fire Of Unknown Origin), the Cult’s early catalog remains largely neglected among hardcore metal circles. And if one looks outside of those first three albums, then the band’s output becomes a little too saccharine, a little too 80s – if not without a certain delicious sense of dread – for ears reared on more caustic fare. Buck Dharma is patronized as a terrific guitar player, instead of being held as one of the most tasteful musicians in rock n roll history, the band is routinely saddled with platitudes like “the thinking man’s rock ensemble”, and there it usually ends.

But it oughtn’t be so. The self-titled debut, Tyranny And Mutation, and Secret Treaties, represent some of the most adventurous, humorous, poignant, and, yes, intense, encapsulations of rock verging on metal for the time. That two classic songs from this era have been covered by bands as pivotal as the Minutemen (‘The Red And The Black‘) and Metallica (‘Astronomy‘) in ways both frenzied and epic, as befitting the originals, should make curious minds curiouser; this was a musicians’ band, utterly unique, and far from deserving of the dinosaur rock gallery that posterity has unfortunately consigned it to.

Blue Öyster Cult history is the stuff of legend and can be read on many a dedicated website. Formed in New York as Soft White Underbelly by chemical engineering students Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser and Albert Bouchard on drums, the band line-up eventually consolidated into its most stable and well known version with the advent of Joe Bouchard on bass, Allen Lanier on keyboards, and Eric Bloom on vocals. In the background lurked manager, poet-lyricist, rock-critic and producer Sandy Pearlman, assisted duly in his acid-fueled outre musings by Richard Meltzer. From Pearlman’s fantasy writings entitled The Soft Doctrines Of Imaginos came the band’s name and many a lyrical shard scattered throughout these albums. In the pipeline were also plans to make a full-fledged trilogy based on the Imaginos concept, only one-third of which plan was ever realized, through Albert Bouchard’s demo tapes and then their eventual, “official” reworking after Bouchard’s departure by Roeser and Bloom in ’88, but more on the minutiae of that convoluted transaction at a later date.

The band’s trajectory on the first three albums charts from the bluesy, boogeying West coast psychedelia of the debut, through the spastic speed-drenched terrain of Tyranny And Mutation, finally coming to settle at the completely self-assured tempo of Secret Treaties. The persistent references to older forms of rock n roll in the chord and choral voicings may be distracting for the modern listener of heavy metal; there is a jauntiness to these songs so typical of the 60s, but that seeming “naivete” isn’t naivete at all, for it exists in an uneasy truce with the maliciousness of a quirky nature, borne out in both wordplay and actual riffcraft. Black Sabbath may have been suffocatingly dark (though not without frequent excursions into flowery, God-fearing orthodoxy), Led Zeppelin overbearingly pompous imitations of ancient bluesmen, and Deep Purple streetsmart Romeos with classical predilections, but none, save Frank Zappa, perhaps, matched the sheer playful twistedness of the Blue Öyster Cult of this time.

And it is a progressive twistedness at that. Most impressions of progressive rock from the 70s make allowances for lush, expansive, ambient soundscapes, where songs are led by the nose through a gamut of developmental variations and interactions. This is the natural and proper definition of the term “progressive”, too, but Blue Öyster Cult achieved this effect on a smaller scale, at almost-always breakneck speeds, in much the same manner as speed metal bands in the 80s; intricate, focused bursts of activity – not always within conventional metal parameters – where progression is evident more on a component-by-component level, where individual riffsets build with deliberation to a crescendo before ushering in the next big movement within the song, where narrative and musical lyricism are married in near-perfect union; these are trademarks of the first three albums, markers that most heavy metal fans can identify with, if not always in sound, then certainly in spirit.

But early Blue Öyster Cult can be enjoyed well enough without making tenuous connections to heavy metal, too. Truth be told, it is indeed hard rock captured in its purest, most thrilling essence; and what of it? It carries much the same attitude and spirit as The Stooges and roadhouse-era Motörhead, evoking a gruff biker ethos and the seedy alleyways where it thrives; under that swagger simultaneously lies concealed a consummate intelligence; wit, sarcasm, and innuendo abound, gently kissed by a higher sentimentality that would find greater space in ensuing works.

But the careful planning and more erudite story-telling of those albums, all too enjoyable in its own right, would have to wait. These first albums are fevered, with hardly a stagger in the sound spectrum, where angular phrases are caught constantly jostling with and over each other for equal representation in a schizoid dance of harmony. Shepherded by Dharma’s virtuoso guitar and the Bouchards’ bustling rhythm section, they are timeless instances of American rock craftsmanship, explosive in how they gratify yet replete with a wealth of relevant musical information.

 

 

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Music is amoral in essence

The debate over the musician’s social responsibility is moot. Music is an aesthetic phenomenon and should be judged on that ground alone. To pollute the experience with political consideration is to bring it just that much farther out of the transcendental sphere that is its rightful station. A creator may be inspired by certain causes; he may channel the reasoning behind those causes into the framework of musical expression of his choosing (metal, punk, pop, etc); but the transfer from idea to expression isn’t without a certain amount of redaction, intentional or otherwise; by the time the original impetus has found physical form in the manner of a riff, a movement, a song, it has lost much of its definition. For example, a band denounced as racist may start the composition process with clearly delineated extra-musical ideas, but the translation of those ideas into actual music necessarily erodes away at the sheer virulent detail of the original “grand” idea. How could it not? The process of actual composition is far more dependent on actual musicianship and adherence to genre norms than any political prejudice; the latter may be an inspiration in the beginning and perhaps even throughout the process of composition and arrangement, but it remains in the background, a far and away second to the musical event itself.

To overcome this inevitable erosion of the original premise, musicians supplement their music with words and images. Music remains open to interpretation, but words are a rigid formulation of the first principle that has become obscured over the process of composition. They allow musicians to convey to the listener that which may not be self-evident in the music as finished article. In fact, a case can be made that words are an afterthought and an embellishment, shoehorned on to the music yet entirely separate from it, in order to ease the listener’s navigation; this indeed is the case for the many metal bands where the singer is not necessarily an integral part of the songwriting, and comes into his own only to lay down a lyric and sing it out.

The ancients regarded music as the most ineffable and hallowed of art forms, the one most in touch with the harmony in nature, for precisely these reasons. Modern popular music riddled with words – political or apolitical – is stripped of this vital quality and therefore downgrades its lofty heritage to a strangely commingled one, in line with more “blatant” modes of expression like prose, poetry, painting, and sculpture. In the context of our music and the politically-vitiated climate it finds itself in, this makes the desire for an absolute metal even more pressing, a desire which will soon be realized with full effect by The Chasm. But broadly speaking, listeners ought to acknowledge to themselves that if they truly admire a piece of music, it is for its virtues as a piece of music alone and not for any external associations that may be made, through words and images, with its creators. They may choose to not support the musicians financially because they have somehow managed to trace the music back to its first principles, principles which they find sufficiently repellent to their personal beliefs, but neither should they lose sight of the large leap of regression, from the abstract now (music) to the actual then (idea), that they have just made.

It is cliche to say that music should possess and be played with conviction, but how many of us realize that this supposed conviction is a perfectly amoral, colorless quantity? Causes, both “good” and “bad”, can be invested with the same amount of conviction; fine, we can say so and so cause is good, and such and such, bad, based chiefly on the impact they have on society as a stable, functioning organism, but what testing framework are we to devise to call one expression of that same underlying conviction legitimate and another dangerous?

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Undergrind 2017 featuring Vader (September 24, Vapour Pub, Bangalore)

While every other purportedly metal concert in the country has been overrun by effete poseurs in sunglasses and patch-infested evening denim-wear, sold out by a whorish desire to appeal to the widest possible audience in chase of greater ROI, and diluted with strict rules of conduct more becoming of a Jagjit Singh ghazal evening than an underground metal show, the Undergrind remains – and has remained for more than ten years – the only gig in town worthy of the epithet “underground”. Year 2017 sees Polish death metal institution Vader descend on Vapour Pub, Bangalore City, a more intimate setting which should be conducive to the band’s crushing and muscular brand of death metal.

The Undergrind series of concerts have provided the only dedicated channel for grindcore, goregrind, and power violence in the country. Supporting Vader this year will be goregrind band Anorectal Ulceration (reviewed here), grind/mince project Nauseate, spazz-grind loons Grossty, and power-violence band xRepeatx. Audiences can expect dense cloudbursts of noise and grind, next to no melody, and limbs flying about, so if you’re one of that rare breed bringing your precious girlfriend to the gig dressed to the nines in her ball gown for a night out on the town, you’d do well to have her positioned out of harm’s way. It isn’t chauvinism, it is common fucking sense. Learn it.

Undergrind 2017 is a joint collaboration between Infinite Dreams Entertainment (of Bangalore Open Air fame) and Undergrind Productions.

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Of Deceased and Robert Frost

“I told her to cherish the spirit
 She just sat and cried at the grave”

– Deceased, A Very Familiar Stranger

Who doesn’t love a good ghost story? Many things change as we grow older and colored by the vagaries of life; suspension of disbelief becomes increasingly harder to achieve, much like how being scandalized by extreme metal becomes a thing of wistful reminiscences. I remember reading Jay Anson’s Amityville Horror from my father’s paperback stack as a seven-year old; I was not allowed to, so I would skulk in bed with the book concealed behind an innocuous comic. There was a particular scene where the red eyes of a pig in the dark stare in through the window at one of the children. The bed on which I read the book was itself located by the window sill, behind which loomed a large banyan tree; at that fanciful age, I couldn’t help turning around every other minute to see if there were malevolent pig eyes staring intently at me, too.

But though we may lose that delicious youthful naivete with time, we compensate for it by consciously looking for craftsmanship and sincerity instead. A good ghost story is eternal because it jolts us out of the mundane and into the realm of the numinous, if only for a while. It confronts us with our species’ most primal fears, the fear of the dark and of the unknown, and to be reacquainted with that raw sentiment for even the most fleeting of moments in this mechanized and brightly-lit age is a feeling that deserves to be preserved and savored for all its worth.

W.B. Yeats once said, “The hour of the waning of love has beset us, and weary and worn are our sad souls now“. Robert Frost’s The Witch Of Coos follows in much the same spirit; it is a witty but ultimately melancholic poetry on the alienating complacency that haunts so many domestic lives. It is a ghost story at heart, heavy with metaphor, relayed through the voices of a witch and her son, and recorded for posterity by the author. On a winter night some forty years prior, while her husband sleeps in the draughty bedroom upstairs, the witch idles away in the kitchen, presumably to escape his amorous attentions. Suddenly, she hears a rustling, dragging noise coming from the cellar. She knows them to be the bones, buried bones behind whom lies a secret long buried, too.

They hoist themselves up to the landing behind the cellar door. Unable to resist herself, she throws the door open and sees the skeleton, “so much like a chandelier”, flames licking out from its sockets. It tries to grope her, “much like the way he did in life once”, but she escapes its grasp and runs up to her husband. Terrified, they lie waiting in bed, as the bones pull themselves up through the kitchen and on to the stairwell leading up to the bedroom. Gathering their wits, somehow, they conspire to trap it in the attic, and nail the door shut with the bed’s headrest; there the bones remain to this day, and not infrequent is the occasion when you can still hear them knocking against the attic door, befuddled at their incarceration.

Deceased‘s ‘A Very Familiar Stranger‘ off their album Supernatural Addiction is one of my very favorite metal songs, a perfect molotov cocktail of fun, aggression, and surprising poignancy. If I remember correctly, the story is based off an old episode of The Twilight Zone; it is a relatively straightforward hitchhiker ghost story, and doesn’t carry the subtext of Frost’s poem, but that doesn’t make it any less gut-wrenching, especially when in the throes of some of the most heartfelt riffs and solos the band has ever written. People like us loathe the middle ground; if you’re capable of one extreme, then it is but natural for you to be susceptible to the other, too, else you would be living an imbalanced life. This applies to everything we do, the way in which we love and the way in which he hate. Many are the times I have not been able to contain the rapid palpitation of my heart when the arpeggiated bridge to the solo begins; many are the times when I have not been able to hold back a gently-shed wetness at the corner of my eyes, either, when the final bend in that solo is sustained for just that extra second longer. It is a curious feeling and a priceless moment, that leaves you spent but also with the strongest of reaffirmation. It is why we listen to this music, after all.

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A thought on bands using Incantation and Immolation as template

Frequent commenter neutronhammer left the following on a Phrenelith review:

I want to like this, but there is something about this album that is a bit off.
Quite a few jarring, decontextualized start-stops. Songs which resemble a pastiche of riffs and simply lacking in direction and drama. There is a lot of sameness but without any real memorability unlike the best works of incantation and immolation.

Leaving aside the merits-demerits of Desolate Endscape as a piece of music, this is an opinion that holds for much of death metal today. It also raises a question as to why so many bands rush headlong into the niche carved out by the two giants. Immolation and Incantation, between them, are responsible for at least a solid 20% of the genetic stuff of death metal, being some of the first instances of the genre isolating itself from preceding speed/thrash/punk, so it is but natural for bands to identify their surface aesthetic with what death metal is supposed to be. A long time ago when I would toy around with making death metal songs of my own, Incantation-Immolation constituted the overwhelming portion of ideas manifested; in terms of phrasing, note choices, and exclamatory punctuation, these two bands are the veritable Bible for the person interested in writing dark, imposing death metal.

In some ways, this is also so because it is just easier to sound like Incantation and Immolation (and Incantation far more more than Immolation). The kind of dissonant, atonal framework within which these bands work makes the song construction process that much more amenable to even the relative novice. Of course, this assertion is confined only to an approximation of either band’s sound; few if any modern bands have managed to approach the compositional heft of their prime work. But compare the sheer numbers of bands in the Incantation camp with, say, those that sound like Morbid Angel on Blessed Are The Sick or Atrocity on Hallucinations/Longing For Death or Gorguts on Erosion Of Sanity or Deceased on Luck Of The Corpse, and one can’t help but be convinced of this as something of a truism.

Incantoclone bands are often disparaged and rightfully so, but the reasonable part of my mind says that few bands set out with delusions of grandeur while pursuing such a harsh form of music, at least not in the initial stages. The death metal fan should have nothing innately against a band sounding like Incantation or Immolation if the song writing shows some element of craft and consideration; in fact, sounding overtly like a Demilich, or any of the above mentioned classics, reeks far more of pathetic servility to me. Here’s the thing about individuality; Incantation and Immolation were certainly fiercely idiosyncratic in their time, and it was only their complete command over the budding musical lexicon germane to death metal in the abstract that has made them so appealing to ensuing generations. But a band like Demilich is far too unique to base an entire genre musicology around; in isolation, brilliant, but dissected and adopted by every band around? Not quite as much.

The desire for novelty or originality is entirely understandable, especially as the genre proceeds into middle age and beyond but if one is to think of death metal as a medium of communication and, by relation, a way of life, that has to persist into the distant future, then it requires a sustainable language, too; Incantation and Immolation‘s great service has been, first, to realize the contours of death metal as a musical-philosophical form with greater clarity, and then, in the process, to bless it with just the language needed for its dialectic.

 

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The curse of blanket assumptions

Blood overcomes flesh
Sulphur overcomes silver
Strictness kills mercy,
And fire overcomes earth
And when the sun sets,
It’s red, you see
An Omen for when the final dusk comes

-Condemner, Omens of Perdition

Sometimes, generalizations are made to serve a greater purpose and help us cut to the chase by eliminating from a contention that which is obvious. In doing so, we arrive closer to the essence of the contention, to the real difference between two things set in contrast; we separate the wheat from the chaff. For example, I may assert that traditionally mercantile communities rarely indulge unpredicatedly, with any degree of true passion, in vocations pleasing to the higher intellect. My justification would be that if one is raised in an environment where material concern forms the overwhelming bulk of one’s idea of a happy life, then it stands to reason that that part of the thinking faculty stimulated by art and other subtle, idealistic musings will remain in an obscured state.

Generalization, though a statistically-oriented exercise, is ultimately speculative in nature, and therefore prone to the odd anomaly. But in this case, the anomaly, rather than upending the original generalization, ends up reinforcing it; in common parlance, this means that the exception proves the rule. If one out of ten people is homosexually inclined, then, leaving out all debate about freedom of choice, the homosexual individual still represents a natural aberration in that sample demographic. Any attempt at converting this state of being into an example of normative behavior, however charitable the reasoning behind it may be, is self-serving and a distortion of reality.

Generalizations or blanket statements can be extended to all sorts of phenomena, including heavy metal, provided the intention behind them is pure and based on accumulated experience. Unfortunately, blanket assumptions are often made because their prosecutor is too lazy to refer to that bank of experience; more damnedly, he might not even have gathered the requisite experience to make said generalization. In such a case, the generalization is an easy way for its prosecutor to leap to a premeditated and, in all likelihood, prejudiced conclusion. This does nobody any favors; not only is it dishonest behavior, but it also dilutes any element of truth that may have perchance existed in the premise behind the original generalization.

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It is good to be human

A strange thing to say on a metal blog, very Biblical in its “…go forth, replenish and multiply, and establish thy dominion over all the fish of the water and the fowl of the air and everything that creepeth over the earth…” stance, but I’ve never held much sympathy for the existential nihilistic point of view. It’s become a fashion among people happily ensconced in their miserable middle class lives to advocate antinatalism and to wish the annihilation of the human species for all the harm it causes the earth and its other animal inhabitants. The harm done is indisputable, but the comic irony in that formulation is that only we humans are in a position to quantify that harm done. To everything else that breathes around us, shit simply happens. Their descendants don’t go on holding grudges and planning bloody coups against us, they don’t incur any collective, cross-generational scarring (though I read somewhere that crows have photographic memories and can come peck at you as late as twenty years after you may have caused them or theirs injury). Unless they happen to go extinct, in which case some human scribe laments their passing.

I believe Kurt Vonnegut said, in either Cat’s Cradle or Breakfast of Champions, and I paraphrase him, that the world as it is, is the only way it could possibly exist; the street urchin begging at the traffic light, genocide, a beautiful piece of music, and random acts of cruelty or munificence, are all co-dependent parts of the larger equation. While this may seem a fatalistic perspective to adopt on life, it is in fact a recognition of the fact that everything we see around us, good and bad, is equally necessary to our innate condition. We have a tendency to relate only positive connotations to the word “human”, but the word, and its subject, when viewed from the bird’s eye, are inherently unfeeling to moral grandstanding.

It is good to be human despite the frequent fuckups it entails. I wouldn’t want to be anything else. I won’t conceal the pathological urge to witness a super-cosmic act of destruction, an instant-acting Extinction Level Event up close, but I’m not praying all night to the seven heavens to make it happen. Neither am I averse to visiting unabridged incidents of bloodshed on stupid people; the way to solve most of the world’s problems is not by stopping all human reproduction, but by preventing stupid people from reproducing, either by sterilization or extermination if need be. Yet another reason to actively campaign for the right to die; if you think your life is so innately worthless as to not warrant existence, live up to your word and kill yourself. Stop trying to “improve” the world by going vegan and riding bicycles and getting your tubes tied; cast your mind however many-billions of years into the future as a giant sun is about to eat up a toasted Earth, realize the futility of it all, and kill yourself.

A human life affords a breadth of experience and introspection that is inaccessible to anything else on the planet; it is a reasonably well-endowed, all-round spectrum of knowledge that makes that life precious to itself over its duration. Until we are supplanted by a more intelligent species, this is how it is. It makes sense to derive your sense of self-worth from an appreciation of this fundamental truth, not by choosing a cause, be it wildlife conservation or Black Lives Matter. The first belongs to the natural order of things and gives you the requisite humility in light of your special position and your duty as a human being in that order; the second comes from inadequate or ill-affected personal-psychological development, where one goes out to fill the hole in their lives with a borrowed identity. The person subscribing to the first line of thought always calls himself an individual above all else, the second prefers to hide under labels and then gloats as he dissembles.

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Retrospective: Horrified, Chemical Exposure, Altars of Madness, and I.N.R.I.

A fine test of whether you take yourself altogether too seriously is to stay locked up in a room and play the four titles mentioned in this post’s header. If you can’t contain yourself from running around with mad abandon at the risk of serious whiplash a few hours later, you’re good to go. And to live. Don’t let the child inside grow up may seem too trite a cliche; it may even appear inappropriate for music as innately “negative” as this. But hold on, is this music really negative? Is it cynical? After all, it does shine a mirror on the ugly face of reality; Horrified and Chemical Exposure/Illusions recount graphically the aftermath of nuclear fallout and the very frail nature of human life, so easily dismembered and strewn about like inanimate hunks of meat. Altars of Madness and I.N.R.I., on the other hand, carry a Biblical sense of proportion about them, conjuring the perennial conflict between good and evil in death/black metal form.

This is heady, heavy subject matter to be sure, deserving of serious contemplation for after-hours; to the neutral bystander it must seem silly that we spend so much time conjecturing and philosophizing over music so brash and abrasive. My old landlord, a journalist of some repute, once read an entry on this blog and told me – without guile, I must add in his defense – he never knew you could get so much out of this music. His opinion is one you can ascribe to virtually everybody unhessian around you, and it is a perfectly understandable sentiment, too; it comes from a fundamental inability or unwillingness to connect sign with signified. Music is the sign, what it aims to express is the signified; most popular music is overloaded symbolically but criminally neglects to cultivate a world-view, instead relying on lyrical-consonant manipulation to build ultimately only an ephemeral state of mind. Metal, however, insinuates, it uses music of a suitably dark and virile character to suggest the germ of an idea, an idea of strength, confrontation, triumph, but, above all else, honesty. The truth is always beautiful but it is rarely pretty; real metal understands this profound shading, and strives to approximate it, always.

The four albums mentioned all play by different rules, too. Altars of Madness is of course the most technically and compositionally nuanced of the lot, one of the finest representations of the call-response dialectic in metal. Morbid Angel‘s great skill in their early period was in painting startlingly realized musical images; this achievement becomes all the more astounding considering the breakneck, instinctive nature of Altars of Madness. Many of these songs had been in gestation for years before official release on record, and therefore must have seen forethought in terms of arrangement, but the vibe for these forty minutes is still one of emanation and fulfillment of raw will in the moment, almost omnipotent in its implication: they thought and therefore it was.

Sarcofago‘s I.N.R.I. brought together nascent grindcore with the primitive rumblings of compatriots Sepultura, and created the template for much black metal and what would come to be called war metal. Sarcofago being a band rooted in the 80s, I.N.R.I. also carries the dark melodic sensibility of a Melissa and genre forerunners Bulldozer. Often slighted for its lack of narrative pretension, I.N.R.I. in fact excels in that very department by building ascending cycles of intensity, a songwriting trope which would soon become the trademark of an entire sub-genre.

Illusions, or Chemical Exposure, as rechristened by Roadrunner, is speed/thrash metal (take your pick as you please. I think I’ll call this thrash today) through and through. It’s unfortunate that that genre denomination has become a bit of a cuss word in recent times; one can only try something on what it purports to achieve. Metallica on Ride The Lightning aimed for scope and grandeur, and they succeeded beyond all compare despite the label of speed metal they carried. Mustaine cared more about getting his and that viciousness knives through Killing Is My Business…to this day, long after both parties to the conflict have become shriveled versions of their young selves. Swallowed In Black would see Sadus evolve their craft, ever so imperceptibly, into something verging on the lateral, narrative dexterity of death metal, but on their debut, Sadus had one and one mission only: Death To Posers (D.T.P.)

The eldest of these four albums (song-wise, a toss-up between the Morbid Angel demos and the Genocide version of Repulsion) is still the most exhilarating, more than thirty years after its release. Death metal would not exist, not the way it does, without Repulsion and Horrified. It’s really as simple as that. Horrified is traditionally accepted as the greatest grindcore album ever; it’s hard to dispute this, but a more nuanced interpretation reveals Horrified to be composed out of metal riffs arranged in grindcore fashion. In other words, instead of letting those riffs branch out and develop in the manner of death metal or black metal, Repulsion rein them in like a frothing-at-the-mouth Cerberus, and inject them with unparalleled amounts of speed and conviction. Frighteningly tunnel-visioned and entirely life-affirming, Horrified remains in a class of its own, a true touchstone for genuine extreme music cutting across all partisan divides.

That life-affirming bit…I’m sure I’ve used that term before and it brings me back to the premise phrased in the opening of this post. Such rough, abrasive music, articulating such a pessimistic view of the world, what can possibly be life-affirming about it? I don’t know if there’s a ready answer to this; I do know that I never feel as alive as when I hear it, the rush of blood it actuates is almost on par with great sex, and what greater life force exists? I also know that the mental extension it facilitates is a powerful and enriching stimulant in itself. Maybe in achieving this psychosomatic union, it overcomes an artificial mind vs body dichotomy, and makes us more complete human beings.

 

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