Abominant’s Napalm Reign: Does all metal warrant release?

Why does a band like Abominant keep on with practically no recognition from the mainstream or the underground? Napalm Reign is this band’s eleventh full-length album in twenty years, but never once in all that time have I known them to be anything but a discount bin attraction in internet distros. With good reason, too, if one is to judge them on merit alone; though put together from authentic enough metal aesthetics, ranging the gamut from traditional metal to death metal and black metal, and not without the occasional element of pathos, either, Abominant will still only register in history as a poor man’s Arghoslent.

Abominant, much like Destroyer 666, are obviously a band reared on old heavy metal. Unlike D666, however, Abominant have never imbibed the art of the heavy metal hook and how to sustain it for just the appropriate amount of time, at least not in the context of their heavy metal-extreme metal hybrids. Melodic and fleetingly-dissonant phrases enter and exit in a state of near breathlessness but with none of the narrative nous or all-around gravitas symbolic of the Australian band’s best work.

To drag the analogy between the two bands further, Napalm Reign is to Abominant what Wildfire has turned out to be Destroyer 666; in the twilight of their careers, both bands have decided to give their more traditional influences free rein on separate, fully self-contained heavy metal songs, with just about the same awkward, disjointed effect. No one begrudged Destroyer 666 for their cross-pollination of styles for the better part of fifteen years; fans empathized with the band’s motives, appreciated that they led to a metal of heightened emotion, treasured it like no other, until it became hard to justify the bleedover into bouncy British Steel-like pap. Which is not a knock on British Steel itself! One can enjoy British Steel for what it is without ascribing unnecessarily nobler ideals to it, but a band like Destroyer 666, and Abominant, rising out of the underground, ought to have better awareness of the many gradations that have made them who they are.

Whatever happened to the concept of an album united and whole? Why unthinkingly insert incompatible, mood-despoiling aspects into what one otherwise expects to be a relatively serious and cohesive experience? Why this reduction of the idea of an underground metal album to that of the “single” of popular imagination?

I’m not so cynical as to suggest that Abominant are attempting some kind of play at acceptance through these maneuvers; quite obviously, they are only a band out to have fun with the limited repertoire at their disposal. But does fun outrank substance and intent? Why exactly have Abominant made this album? Does all creation deserve to be heaped upon the world’s collective head at a price? Granted, Abominant‘s commitment is to themselves and no one else, but as admirable a sentiment as that is, do the rest of us have to be privy to it as well? Of course, there is choice involved here, on both the artist’s and the buying listener’s part, but surely there is some consideration and introspection beholden of the artist before that transaction occurs, too?

 

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Oscar Wilde on the critic as artist

The Critic As Artist is the most comprehensive picture of Oscar Wilde’s aesthetic philosophy. Here, using the form of the Socratic dialogue, Wilde contrasts the role of artist with that of the art critic, and comes away with the conclusion that the critic, though commenting only on someone else’s work, still plays a more pivotal part in shaping culture and thought than the original creator of that work.

It is a somewhat presumptuous perspective and not a little hubristic. One should also bear in mind before applying Wilde’s ideas wholesale to heavy metal – musically or critically – that metal as an artform works inside a framework different from all others, and therefore may not be fully compatible with some of Wilde’s more hedonistic assertions:

“If we consider tradition as conforming to the accumulated wisdom of ages past, and modernism as the questioning and frequent renouncing of that same wisdom, then it becomes self-evident that heavy metal occupies a strange, chameleon-like, shape-shifting position between the two. On the one hand is metal’s emphatic rejection of social and political tradition, yet, paradoxically, on the other hand is metal’s stubborn orthodoxy. Which leads me to believe that metal weaves its own unique tradition around itself as a cocoon. This tradition may be inimical to the contemporary climate at first, iconoclastic even, basing itself on a foundation of abstract ideals, but once this tradition is established, metal changes mode from a revolutionary idiom to a conservative one. Metal creates its own narrative and then makes a virtue out of adherence to that narrative”

In Wilde’s thought, the difference between art and critic is entirely arbitrary. Common consensus may state that the process of creation poses more challenges and therefore is far nobler than that of merely talking about the end product; but, then, is there really a difference between art and criticism? What else does the artist do if not critique nature itself, either outside of him or within, leaving certain details out, including others, all to meet his individual propensities in that pocket of space and time? Seen in this light, the critic then occupies the same position with respect to a work of art that the artist occupies with respect to nature.

But if that is the case, then surely what the critic attempts to do is only an interpretation of an interpretation and, as such, several levels lower than the process of creating art. What possible purpose can this self-indulgent nitpicking over someone else’s expression serve? Shouldn’t art retain something of the ephemeral about it, instead of being ravaged to shreds by blowhards who never managed to bring anything new into the world themselves? Doesn’t art lose something of the ineffable when it is fleshed out and reasoned apart?

In Wilde’s view, however, art actually exists for the singular purpose of being criticized; and that should not be taken to imply an insult to art, either. After all, if a tree falls in a forest but no one is around to hear it fall, does it make a sound? The critic only uses a work of art as a touchstone and a launchpad to bring various other subjects tangentially related to the work of art at hand into contrast. In other words, where the artist uses nature for inspiration, the critic uses the artist’s creation as the clay with which he shapes his own work of art.

This shouldn’t be seen so much an act of scavenging as it is of enhancing the original work of art with an altogether fresh view which may have been occluded to the artist at the time of conception. Art and true criticism therefore exist in a mutually reinforcing loop; the former may claim that it exists for itself and no other reason, but without a perceptive audience, it would be as good as nullified. Criticism, on the other hand, obviously cannot exist without a justifiable premise, but once provided, can, in the right hands, add something legitimate to the original work of art.

The critic’s real responsibility is to cultivate an air of magic around that which he criticizes, which in turn can pull others into that sphere of experience; yes, on occasion, he can attempt dissecting the work of art on an objective basis, discussing form, technique, and such, but in Wilde’s scheme of things, objectivity ranks a poor and distant second to the subjective interpretation. Wilde says that the true critic is, by necessity, subjective, irrational, and unfair. We are objective about only those things which don’t capture our whole and soul. But when great art truly captivates us, there is an element of madness about us in its presence; there is awe, there is humility, and there is recognition on some subliminal level of being exposed in that moment to some higher ideal which previously was the reserve of the mind only. In such circumstances, pretense to objectivity, rationality, fairness, and other such presumed, secular virtues becomes disingenuous.

Wilde draws on Plato’s theories to suggest that the ideal critic is bred through an appreciation and understanding of aesthetics, and by the discipline of solitary contemplation. He has to be a man comfortable in his own company, too, and courageous enough to endure interminable bouts of silence. Action may be the credo of society, but Wilde rates it inferior to the power of introspection. Action rushes forward headlong towards its climax in a succession of instants, but contemplation and soliloquy assimilate and assemble experience into a steadfast foundation on which one can anchor himself as a man of conviction. As Wilde quips, the standard inquiry in an enlightened society would be “What are you thinking?” rather than “What are you doing?

I have noted these twin themes before albeit in slightly varying contexts and certainly with far less effect. The death of aesthetic is self-evident in the overt garishness of modern living, where form, manner, and poise, in thought foremost but in deed too, have come to be such scarce commodities, buried under the rubble of timid political correctness. The true critic, however, should be fiercely devoted to the worship of aesthetic, or beauty, above all else, as precarious as the places it is found in might be. And on the occasions when he experiences that beauty, he should have the unprepossessed will to capture the moment for as long as it takes that beauty to become some elemental part of his constitution.

But ultimately, Wilde posits the critic as the indispensable link in making the world a better place to live in. By simply appreciating what is beautiful in life, by being a time-traveling reservoir of informed feeling, and by engendering a culture of honest-to-self thought and discussion, Wilde is optimistic that we can overcome the material restraints that divide us and establish a universal brotherhood of thought.

 

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What does veganism have to do with metal?

(1) The advent of social justice in heavy metal and ignorance of metal philosophy

Thrash metal, speed metal, whatever one chooses to call it, did a profound ideological disservice to metal at large by introducing politically charged themes from the converging punk and hardcore movements. Traditional metal till that point had been vehement to be sure, but never self-righteous. Death metal and black metal would come around later to define metal philosophy as fundamentally nihilistic. Come to think of it, even most thrash/speed bands working away from the glare of the mainstream didn’t obsess over social grievances, but the heavy hitters dabbled in soapbox antics from time to time, and in turn influenced an entire generation of simple-minded listeners to view metal as a crusade for justice. Fans with a broader perspective on the genre will vouch for it being anything but.

The singer/guitarist of a certain one-time black metal band, previously written of here in not unkind terms, has over the recent past experienced a vegan epiphany and not long thereafter embarked on a proselytizing spree of some obnoxiousness. I have known this personage in life for a long time, have called him friend even, and am therefore familiar than most with his penchant for sensationalism. In other circumstances, I would wistfully shake my head at his behavior, move on, and probably share a drink with him somewhere down the road; but this time in his zeal to convert and gather cheap applause, he has managed to subvert an entirely unrelated musical philosophy to cater to his new agenda. You see, he now preaches the gospel of compassion towards livestock and good health, and vents his disenchantment with metalheads from whom he expects these fair virtues but who so abjectly let him down by having the temerity to enjoy their steaks.

This pattern repeats, time and again. Be it the clowns writing for American websites that don’t deserve to be named, front men like Barney Greenway (who, to his credit, at least plays in a genre which expects him to be a shill for the Left), ridiculous virtue signalers like Rob Flynn, or my Satan-worshipping friend in the one-time black metal band, the convention now seems to be to think of metal as an ideology of love, peace, and the brotherhood of man, instead of what it truly is: meta, descriptive, observational, not moral, not immoral, but amoral at heart.

(2) What is veganism?

Veganism at its core is a movement against the exploitation of animals for human consumption. Its polemics are broadly directed towards a trifecta of issues: the impact of animal husbandry on ecology, the fatal effects meat-eating has on human health, and, most importantly, the moral angle involved in using animals for human purposes.

These by themselves are not insignificant questions to be asked of our current mode of living and deserve to be discussed with some seriousness. Nobody can deny the detrimental effect that mass animal farming has on the environment. Similarly, the widely-prevalent use of hormone treatments in rearing livestock, as well as the “pressure-cooker” environments in which these animals are raised, can’t be doing many favors to those who choose to eat them.

Few sane people will argue against some form of regulation to be enacted against these practices. Massive demand implemented through capitalist, assembly-line models of production may render any such talk dead on arrival but, for the sake of argument, let us assume one is even in favor of introducing a humane, meat-rationing system of a kind, where animals are killed as painlessly as current medicine allows for and meat-coupons are distributed on a periodic basis. Surely, that ought to mitigate the severity of these two issues, health and ecology,  as well as soothing the concern over cruel treatment of animals, to a great degree.

(3) Duplicitous vegan reasoning

But it’s obvious that such a humane, meat-rationing system won’t be the endgame for veganism. In a movement notorious for shifting linguistic and philosophical goalposts as and when it pleases, the argument would then undoubtedly move in to the moral dimension, and it is here where “militant” vegans like my friend display breathtaking intellectual dishonesty. Veganism as an idea is founded on the self-serving non-sequitur of “speciesism”, or the discrimination of different animal species by human beings because those animal species are, in fact, different from human beings!

For instance, how can you eat a stack of ribs, they say, while cuddling up to your dog? Never mind if the farm pig’s only reason to exist is to end up on a dish alongside a cob of corn; quite literally, and may all accusations of playing God be dismissed with a flick of the wrist. Never mind that, but if you condone the one, why not endorse the dog-eaters in China, too? Why this bias for one species over another? If you call yourself an animal lover then shouldn’t you be equally up in arms against both dog-eating and pig-farming?

To be frank, I feel little else than anthropological interest in the phenomenon of Yulin; it is after all curious why certain pockets of the civilized world never developed an appreciation for the symbiotic, mutually affectionate relationship that has existed elsewhere between humans and dogs for thousands of years. But my personal distaste for a foreign culture’s dietary inclinations does not figure in making a moral judgement on the constitution of that culture.

More pertinently, what vegans accomplish through this line of reasoning is to conflate genera and species. All animals are not dogs. Just because I admire a dog does not automatically imply I have to love a pig. I go as far as to say that I even reserve the right to discriminate between different pedigrees of dogs, nay, between different members belonging to the same pedigree itself! In exercising my powers of judicious bias, I, in fact, am imbuing animals with a far greater degree of individuation than overzealous vegans who would have all animals resemble the same indistinguishable mass of flesh and bone.

Illustrating this striation found in nature further, in the wake of Cecil The Lion being shot by an American dentist, vegans wasted no time in making memes displaying various livestock – a chicken, most notably – miserably proclaiming, “Je suis Cecil!” I wished more than once that someone would come up with a counter-meme saying, “No, you’re a fucking chicken.” We call a courageous warrior lion-like, because we derive an analogy for his courage from the ferocity of spirit seen naturally occurring in a lion. No prizes for guessing which animal/bird a coward is compared to most often. Endless forms most beautiful, yes, but not all built the same.

Building on this spurious foundation of “speciesism”, vegans proceed further to commit one false equivalence greater than another. Foremost among these is a somewhat embarrassing, Cartoon Network-style anthropomorphism, in which animals are invested with all the attributes that define human beings. Once one becomes comfortable with this sleight of mind, all terminology and jurisprudence designed for human interaction with other humans can be conveniently transferred to the animal world under the aegis of a shared sentience.

For example, a cow is raped, a chicken is murdered, and a goat is enslaved. Human genocides pale into insignificance when compared with the holocaust perpetrated against animals through history. Intersectionality, or the attempt at linking human-centered movements with the experience of animals, is trumpeted: for instance, one cannot be a feminist unless they are also against the dairy industry. Cows are females, after all, and cows are forcibly impregnated and their milk stolen, ergo cows ought to be represented within the spectrum of the feminist movement, too. Though there may be considerable similarity between feminists and bovines with shit-smeared rumps urinating in the middle of traffic, generally speaking, the possibilities for animal exaltation and human denigration – but, insidiously, self-aggrandizement by arrogating all moral agency to oneself alone, too – become limitless through this brand of casuistry.

One might argue that denying this “transmigration” of human qualities to animals is only pedantic at best. Whether they are humans or not, to the naked human eye cows are “raped”, chickens are “murdered”, and goats are “enslaved”, and that neither humans nor animals actively seek out these traumatic experiences is as close to an axiomatic truth as any. Does it not then become our moral imperative to extend the same empathy that we do to our fellow humans to animals also?

But man’s moral imperative is based on his will and how he discharges that will within the society in which he exists. When a man says he wills so and so thing, the intent to do that thing can be centered either in the moment, influenced by biological impulse or reason. Or, crucially, that intent can also be realized in the distant future, being interconnected with multiple such wills counteracting on each other over time and through the sole agency of reason. The latter, in particular, when taken to an abstract extreme, separates us from animals.

But regardless of whether that moral imperative is channeled through biological impulse or concerted force of reason, in the instant or over extended spans of time, its validity in all cases is predicated upon a certain degree of appreciation and reciprocation between the actors. Naturally, the further one gets from one’s species, the more attenuated this degree of mutual reinforcement becomes. Occasionally, we as a society decide by consensus to accord certain rights to animals, perhaps with a view towards preservation. Sometimes, study reveals, as in the case of cetaceans and primates, indisputably higher states of consciousness, in which case we reevaluate our stance and tentatively bring those species into the ambit of human morality. But in all cases, our moral imperative is enjoined first and foremost on our fellow humans; call it the primacy of the biological imperative over the moral imperative, if you will, but to extend the latter to everything that walks, burrows, swims, or flies, on the basis of some Eden-style utopian pipe dream is to be estranged from reality itself.

(4) SJW shaming was the cure?

Once upon a time, A.N.U.S. (American Nihilist Underground Society) and the Dark Legions Archives famously mocked Chuck Schuldiner for  dying of AIDS, supposedly contracted through homosexual intercourse. Legend has it that letters to the effect were sent to Schuldiner’s mother after his death, in an attempt at trolling which I will confess I found somewhat distasteful at the time. Presumably, the motives were to cut Schuldiner fanboy adulation down to size as well as to vent against Schuldiner himself for watering down his music and, most importantly, for subverting and publicly disowning death metal ideology (inverted cross turning around, preachy lyrics, etc) to meet his increasingly docile views on life.

With due fairness, Chuck Schuldiner was never a “SJW” in the way the term has come to be recognized today. My Satan-worshipping friend in the one-time black metal band, however, most emphatically is, at least one fringe variant of the breed anyway. He may not be dying of AIDS, yet, and I wish he never does, but I would sincerely advise him all the same to give up playing black metal and consider a career in making sappy jingles for Bollywood, instead.

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Retrospective: Morbid Angel’s Gateways to Annihilation (2000)

I demand to know the light of a promised land
I demand to see this corrosion wiped away

– Morbid Angel, ‘Summoning Redemption’

Morbid Angel evolved without pause until Heretic, developing technique and songwriting in a manner that had no previous parallel in the genre. It is easy to overlook the breadth of this feverish innovative activity in the wake of the many bands that have adopted various facets from Morbid Angel‘s first six full-length albums. Admittedly, this endeavor wasn’t always an unqualified success; Domination has been written off by most fans, and with good reason, as an oversimplification of past triumphs. Unfortunately, the same accusation has been frequently leveled at Gateways to Annihilation, too, but for my money, this album remains one of the essential representations of Lovecraftian death metal to have seen release in the genre’s heyday (death metal, unlike black metal, in my opinion has never become completely redundant, but more on this at a later date).

The predominant theme in H.P. Lovecraft’s writing was the fragile and circumscribed nature of human reason in the face of beings many orders of magnitude more advanced than us. After all, as ants are to us, so must we be to them. Different species are separated from each other by irreconcilable degrees of intelligence and morphology contrary to our dearest anthropomorphic illusions. Empathy may be a moral device made from need and convenience but it can never be elevated to the status of cosmic law.

Working in the pulp age as he did, Lovecraft didn’t exactly overwhelm the varmints of his stories with distinctive personality traits, but neither did he leave room for ambiguity concerning their outward appearance and the monuments of their civilization. His human protagonists would routinely be driven to the brink of madness when confronted with the supernatural aspect of these creatures and their relics; radial body symmetries like those of critters crawling on the floor of the world’s oceans, reproductive systems derived from both animal and plant kingdoms, architecture defying the laws of Euclidean geometry, and music composed of no harmonic convention that we know of, would all contribute to embellish these macabre tales with a dreamlike but palpable other-worldliness.

Morbid Angel in the first half of their career had based their themes around Lovecraftian lore, but the music, whilst firmly laying the template for much death metal to follow, never quite achieved the degree of granulation needed to link song and theme. The idea of musical granulation was previously expressed here as follows:

To create music evocative of places – or any other idea external to the music in general – is an altogether different process from the one of receiving it. It calls on artistry and a level of musical granulation not commonly accessed by the large majority of metal bands. Musical granulation with respect to an idea is the attention paid to ensuring that each individual musical component corresponds to an appropriate sliver of the idea at hand. It then follows that the extent of musical granulation will be large or small depending on the musician’s commitment to the idea, and then – perhaps even more importantly – the tools available at his disposal to realize that idea.

Nobody will accuse Trey Azagthoth and company of lacking the requisite musical granulation, but glimpses of this phenomenon in action were few leaving aside the odd, overt instrumental. It wasn’t until the closing song on Covenant, ‘God of Emptiness‘, that Morbid Angel created a monolithic blueprint for what would come to be on Gateways to Annihilation. ‘God of Emptiness‘ itself exchanged the subject of the Old Ones for the biblical legend of original sin, perhaps even drawing inspiration from Goethe’s Prometheus:

Here sit I, forming mortals
After my image;
A race resembling me,
To suffer, to weep,
To enjoy, to be glad,
And thee to scorn,
As I!

But more pertinently for later developments, ‘God of Emptiness‘ slowed the tempo down to a crawl, and focused almost exclusively on slow-moving dissonant chords played on newly-incorporated seven strings lending even greater sonic depth. These tweaks in turn pushed the vocal and narrative aspect to the forefront, but without sacrificing whatsoever the development of the song proper itself. Morbid Angel, and most death metal bands from the old guard, were intensely song-oriented, never ones to shy away from repeating motifs and choruses in spite of their generally progressive inclinations, a point of note increasingly obscured by the shapeless nature of modern death metal; the style heard on ‘God of Emptiness‘ simply gave the band more room to render its lyrical-thematic imagery with the desired level of musical granulation.

Formulas Fatal to the Flesh further refined this approach but only intermittently, being still heavily dependent on the recursively brutal riffcraft of Covenant as it was. But with Gateways to Annihilation, the band delivered the most concerted statement of their mythos-obsessed manifesto till then. Azagthoth, either through Steve Tucker’s growing confidence, or of his own introspection, reined in much of the gratuitous waste that plagued the older album. His guitar solos retained all of their newfound atonal-yet-intensely melodic prowess, but their ire was now channeled in service of the underlying composition. And it must be said with the benefit of hindsight that the songs on Gateways to Annihilation are some of the band’s best compositions ever.

That is a controversial opinion to be sure, but there is an organically seamless and self-assured quality about these songs, undersold to casual acquaintance only by their winding lengths and the lack of the once-ubiquitous fast movement. To be sure, there is a huge contrast between the Morbid Angel before Covenant and the one which culminated in this album; not just songwriting-wise but at the level of core musical texture itself; and for all intents and purposes, the two eras can be seen as belonging to two separate bands albeit arising of the same mental perspective at different points of the time continuum.

But hear these songs, most crucially at their points of divergence, when the band breaks ranks from the repeating pattern that has gone before, and that parting logic becomes fiercely inseparable from and indispensable to the overall premise. Put more simply, there is definite a-melodic continuity to be heard here which, like all preceding entries in the Morbid Angel catalog, makes for memorable repeat listens.

“A subject that often comes up for discussion with a dear friend is that of the Morbid Angel of the second half of the 90s and the small scene that came about inspired by the styles seen on Formulas Fatal To The Flesh and Gateways To Abomination. Though not without their individual flaws, bands like Hate Eternal, Internecine, and Mithras carried a certain aura with them that just felt like death metal. This was serious music, technically accomplished to a razor sharp level, that captured a specific pocket of the genre, empowering, martial, and mystical without being self-referential.”

Isn’t that the lasting appeal of this album? Gateways to Annihilation is serious death metal, with no points of levity, the kind which makes you proud to wear its art on your chest in hundred degree weather. All it asks of the once-dismissive fan is to approach with a suitably recalibrated outlook. Easier said than done, granted, it being only human to hold the present to the standards of the past. But Gateways to Annihilation, while not being an outright repudiation of the band’s past, captures them at just the optimum concentric limit of their niche, where the lines between music and theme bled into complete unity.

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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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