#17 Only Band That Matters Pt. II

Oh boy a lot has happened since my last post.  Alas, I feel I must finish coughing up the last several years’ sundry thoughts that have accumulated, like so many dust mites in a pillow– for only then might I finally cleanse myself of bygones and be ready to tackle the true Zeitgeist.  So let’s finish kicking up the mummy dust and sweep away the blown grit so we can get down to finding the real secrets.

As I have mentioned elsewhere in this blog, I often place palatable rock & roll above metal in my personal hierarchy of needs.  To me, “palatable” in rock usually means it has some reek of the forgotten, cobwebbed corridors of the subconscious– the kind of thing that 20 years ago, I would have listened to stoned, and which at that time awoke visions of surreal twilit vistas and archetypal shapes from my dreams (“dream fragments falling across the sky of my consciousness like shooting stars” I once so described them; “cool memories” from another life).  Nirvana, Alice In Chains, Smashing Pumpkins, Danzig, and TOOL, in a nutshell.  If you can hear “Come As You Are” and not get what I mean about the dream-thing, we are not speaking the same language (one friend from high school simply described Nirvana as, I paraphrase, “music that sounds like you are stoned”).  And if you don’t see how the aforementioned bands are different from Stone Temple Pilots (they would be on the glam side, which is okay but different) and Pearl Jam (on the meat & potatoes, bar rock side, like an alternative Chicago or Journey, which is okay but different), you also don’t get it.

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Today, the same indelible recordings serve as my drinking music when the best experience I can muster up is to sit home drunk alone and wax sentimental for a more romantic time.  That’s not a dig on music or myself– sentimentality is wonderful.

I’ve long thought that a memory is at its sweetest when fermented, for which the optimal time has varied over the years, but which for me usually is a period of around 1-4 years.  Too new a memory hasn’t been distilled through the filter of nostalgia.  And after too many years, a memory begins to gather dust and lose potency.

When my own Glory Days began to fade into obscurity in the mid 00s, I listened to a lot of crappy music (or for a more positive spin, you can say I explored more electronic and urban music).  But I got lucky– I managed to pull a Glory Days II in my late 20s, and of course, subsequently enjoyed a resurgence of nostalgia in the years that followed.  The second Glory Days where marked by a sequence of more hipster-ish girls who brought some indie rock to the table.  Many of those bands have wonderful one hit wonders (some day I’ll make you a playlist on spotty-potty and prove it to you).  But for “album” experiences, I still turned to my old favorites, and then found a gold mine of classic metal that at that point I hadn’t thoroughly rummaged through (Judas Priest et al.).  My second run of glory years covered approximately ’06 – ’10 and you better believe I utilized Screaming for Vengeance and all that classic metal I skipped past in the 90s.

Now, to help focus on the problem of music from the 00s, let me ask you a question.  Do you know a metalhead who has really random taste in non-metal music?  So do I.  Ask me who the best rock bands of that 00s decade are.  Easy man.  Avenged Sevenfold and Franz Ferdinand get my vote.  (Note, that decision was made even easier because I unilaterally opted to categorize Audioslave and QOTSA as continuations from the 90s; that methodology is certainly up for critical evaluation.)

Don’t like my picks?  Hmm.  Now look, I know a lot of metalheads have really corny taste in rock & roll.  For example, see my best buddy from high school, who at one point in time only professed a love for two classic rock artists– John Fogerty, and then the band America (“Horse with no Name”).  I love John Fogerty and CCR (I have seen the former in concert), and like my buddy, I have always had a sweet spot for “Horse With No Name”.  BUT WHY THOSE TWO BANDS AND ONLY THEM?!  LOLZ.  No really.  Seriously, so random.  In the 00s, that same guy’s brother (the guitarist in their band– my buddy was the lead singer), insisted that Modest Mouse was the best 00s rock band.  Again– LOLZ!  Not because there is anything wrong with Modest Mouse (I own one of their albums and have seen them in concert a couple times, so there), but because JESUS.  How arbitrary can you be?  Then there’s Lars Ulrich inviting the Arctic Monkeys to play.  Don’t get me wrong, great band.  But still.  Random.

Then you have little old me loving Franz Ferdinand, especially their third album.  I hope that my love for Franz Ferdinand will be rewarded by the gods of objectivity in some glass-walled heaven of rational thought, but perhaps it won’t.  It’s no secret there has been a worldwide “failure” of consensus on rock since the glory days of grunge waned.

I probably sound like an old marm from the 90s complaining how bad the music from the 80s was.  That said, my Franz Ferdinand and A7X fandom presents two irksome conflicts.  A first world problem called cognitive dissonance.

The first is that Franz Ferdinand clearly doesn’t fit nicely into my preexisting framework for rock & roll excellence. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love Talking Heads and Eurythmics.  But the whole disco rock genre is so different to my ideal of hard rock– the gritty and at once otherworldly kind that effortlessly bounds between angst and ecstasy– i.e. rock from Zeppelin to Nirvana.

 

LET’S THINK

Okay, I got this one.  I get over that aforesaid conflict by remembering that there were a lot of things we called “rock” and loved in the 90s that didn’t fit a mold, too:  say, Sublime (reggae influences), Tori Amos (singer-songwriter, folk influences), Tricky (trip-hop), Pulp (disco rock), and Godflesh (industrial).  And then just saying “fuck you” to the need for a mold.

The other irksome dichotomy (if you will allow me to abuse that term) is that A7X, like the NWOBHM classics, is a metal band that, by virtue of its energy and passion, “transcends metal” to become a rock & roll band also.  It’s adrenalized music for the highway, or for going to a strip club in the Quad Cities with the boys.  A7X doesn’t fit my mold for the surrealist dream merchant a la Nirvana any better than Franz Ferdinand does.  Simultaneously, A7X don’t fit in with the brutal metal gang a la Pantera and Cannibal Corpse.  But you know what?  That too is okay.  No firing squad needed here. BREAK THE MOLD!!

But seriously, only two bands, some indie-pop playlists, and some really heavy metal like Slipknot and deathcore that is definitively not rock?  That’s all I got from the 00s?  Well maybe the new decade will be better (yeah, this decade is new to me.  Maybe I am a brain-damaged amnesiac.  Maybe half this was written five years ago.  Don’t judge).

 

The “New” Decade

The dichotomies from the 00s that I just described have in some ways been resolved in the current decade.  Say hello to the The Hard Occult Rock Revolution (THORR!).  This thing is as big as The Beatles and has revitalized a stagnant music industry (see John Darnielle‘s South Pole Dispatch from the back end of Decibel #145 for proof– that guy writes like a metal Harlan Ellison).

Of course, fewer of the metal hipsters favor Ghost these days, not only because the band has achieved unprecedented popularity for a 21st century metal band (it took me five years to stop hating on them), but also because they continue to carry the retro 70s tag, which itself is losing currency with the hipsters (but for the amaranthine “doom” fetish).  Now there are retro bands, who try to capitalize on someone else’s sound for lack of any good ideas and songs of their own.  But when you use the tag “retro” to mean any “rock & roll”, you’re just a damn fool and are misusing the word.  Hard rock is not itself “retro”– some of us even cling to a desperate belief that it will someday enjoy a resurgence.

Or maybe, just maybe, that has already happened!!

The current decade sees The Return of the Melody, with Ghost leading the pack in popularity.  Like Blood Ceremony, Ghost is a rock band, and only “metal” in spirit.  That they have “retro” inspiration only means that they draw from a wide palette of classic metal and rock influences.  Blood Ceremony and Ghost, like Huntress and Uncle Acid, are perfectly aligned with the occult rock Zeitgeist– and as such, completely of this time, i.e. “modern.”

 

End

At one time in the late 70s, The Clash may have been “the only band that matters”. For me in high school, Pantera was the only thing I wanted to listen to. During my stoner years all I wanted to do was to find one more Alice in Chains or Nirvana (a quixotic mission).  But for most of the last 20 years, rarely has there been a time when it even made sense to elect one (or even two or three) band(s) to truly rule over them all.  In 2017 we again have a case where there is a handful of perfectly primed bands; bands that are so far ahead of the competition that they redefine what good rock music is.

Who do you think that band is? Huntress?  Ghost?  Some tinkly indie pop band?  A new brutal death outfit?  In my next post I will further my exposition on what I believe is the answer.

 

 

#16 The Only Band That Matters

When The Clash’s PR people called them “the only band that matters”, it actually stuck, and there are reasons for that.  Joe Strummer and Co. could straddle the line between rebellious punk and timeless rock in a time when synths and tape loops were taking over the world.  I wasn’t listening to music at the time, being about three years old, but The Clash would later represent a bridge between my favorite rock of the 70s and my favorite rock of the 90s.

Pantera was the metal band I grew up with in high school.  Much later, in an airport in Australia, I picked up my copy of Getcha Pull!, which is a Pantera tribute curated by Metal Hammer magazine.  I usually save it for special occasions, but the other day was an exception.  It was most definitely not a special occasion, but I needed something to get me through work, and those covers really gave me some fuel. That’s what a superlative band like Pantera can do.  The collection starts out with a rendition of “Suicide Note Pt. 1” that should be fucking famous.  I have had a lot of breakthrough moments with big bands in the last year, and when I was listening to Zakk Wyld’s guitar solo, I suddenly felt like I was stoned, doped-up, and cumming like a horse.  Wow.  Of course, I may have gotten into the zone even better on account of the fact I had just snuck off to the bathroom at work and shoveled down a heaping tablespoon of green powder– high-grade kratom– a few minutes earlier (man, I really underestimate that shit sometimes.  Good-for-shit federal government made it illegal at the beginning of this month).

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Hearing the songs remade on Getcha Pull!, I am reminded of a couple things. First, wow!  It’s easy to not even notice how versatile those guys were, and the variety of musical styles they worked with.  Like The Clash, who famously threw every rock & roll style under the sun on their London Calling album (and later branched heavily into dub and reggae), Pantera albums had everything from classic metal (“Cemetery Gates”), thrash burners (“Fucking Hostile”, “Rise”) to their inimitable groove pieces (“Walk”, “A New Level”, “Yesterday Don’t Mean Shit”), to demi-death (“Slaughtered”, “13 Steps to Nowhere”).  It’s the geniuses that matter in music, that much is demonstrated by Dime, Phil & co.

The great bands– the musical geniuses– do two things.

FIRST, they do defy easy characterization, not because they throw accepted musical forms out the window, but because they deftly meld disparate influences into a new whole– and then recast the alloy as a batch of bang-up new songs.  For example, sitting at the complete opposite end of the metal spectrum from Pantera is the whole genre of classic metal, with bands like Avenged Sevenfold and Huntress existing as the current exemplars of the style.

On City of Evil, Avenged Sevenfold shed its barbaric metalcore roots and united rock & roll swagger with speed metal velocity and energy.  The band’s raw musical skill is so immense that on their self-titled album and subsequent releases, they successfully incorporated country music and show tunes into their repertoire.

Huntress couples the star-powered voice of Jill Janus with stripped-down thrash & roll rhythms and precision guitars that cut like glass.  Static’s “Mania” even shows that Huntress can play a song in the perennially popular doom mold.  Best classified simply as metal, what matters most are the actual songs.

SECOND, the great bands play to their strengths.

 

Strength Beyond Strength

Here’s a question for you.  How is it that at one point in the 90s, death metal became bigger than thrash in the metal underground?  Well, I will tell you, it’s because DM plays to its strength.  DM is there for when you want pure extremity, something visceral or visual– death metal is the state-of-the-art music developed for that.  If you are someone who “sees” the music (synesthesia), nothing matches the brutal shape and rugged grooves of a good death metal composition.

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Visual inspiration for death metal

Thrash on the other hand, wasn’t born fully armed and armored like Athena bursting from Zeus’s skull.  Rather, its evolution towards greater and greater heaviness unfurled like an exaggerated reflection of rock & roll’s own voyage from pop structures in the 50s to the galloping hard rock of the 70s.  People don’t call thrash “extreme metal” until they are talking about a death-thrash band.  No one is ever going to call Morbid Angel “rock & roll”.  On the other hand thrash, when it has songwriters going for “songs” in the traditional sense, peppering in some melody and harmony– well then it is a form of rock & roll.  Amped up rock & roll.

Metallica, Megadeth, and to a lesser extent Anthrax thrive on melody.  Out of the super-huge thrash bands, only Slayer and the German bands (and to a lesser extent Exodus and Overkill) truly focus strictly on speed and intensity.  Of course, Slayer is also angry as hell; that’s something distinct from both death metal and the more rock & roll strains of thrash.  Death metal is opposed to human emotion, whereas Metallica and Megadeth are about that manic, flying-down-the-highway emotion.

 

metal-branchMy point is that when you have a band that plays in the thrash style, you have to make a choice– you can go the Slayer route of angry, death-thrash intensity, or you can go the Megadeth and Metallica direction of having good songs in the more traditional sense.  If you take the latter path of actual SONGS, you can’t just rely on structurally-interesting compositions; you need some melody.  One of the reasons why bands like Huntress, Avenged Sevenfold, and Pepper-era Corrosion of Conformity are so rare, is that they play with the Metallica or Judas Priest blueprint for metal, which is basically thrash that has catchy songs and simple rhythmic elements, and they do it well.  At the end of the day, bands like that live and die on how well they infuse melody with raw energy.  Very few bands can do it.

Then there’s Pantera– metal that has good riffs in the hardcore metal style, metal that you listen to when you are lifting weights that just gets you pumped as hell; like Slayer it’s angry, and can drop jaws just on account of its sheer destructive power.  But in the Pantera school, only one “modern” disciple has come close to doing it as well as them– Slipknot– and I’m not sure another band will get as close if people are on this planet for another thousand years.  I would love to see it, believe me.  And the metal alloy forged by Slipknot is not as unbreakable as Pantera. Shoveling more dirty and disparate elements into the blast furnace, Slipknot is smelted from Far Beyond Driven -groove metal, schizoid tribal scat-rock (i.e. nu metal), grunge and occasional death metal blasts.

SURE, you get a few bands like Killswitch Engage that write amazingly good riffs, but that band obviously made a conscious decision to take a vocal route that doesn’t really work for most of us metalheads… that emo-pandering vocal style.  That’s like having half of a really brilliant band, which is about as useful to me as half a horse is to a cowboy.  In the Pantera mold you have early Fear Factory (before the cheesier emo-laced vocal melodies, which first reared their head on Archetype), Chaos A.D. / Roots -era Sepultura, Domination -era Morbid Angel, late-era Bolt Thrower, early Meshuggah, Slipknot, Undisputed Attitude and Diabolus In Musica -era Slayer, LOG, the better nu metal bands like Soulfly, and the better deathcore bands (All Shall Perish, Through the Eyes of the Dead circa Malice and Skepsis, Suicide Silence, Whitechapel, early BMTH et al).  If you like Machine Head (i.e. you can tolerate Robb Flynn), well I guess you can throw them in there too.  Predating and probably influencing the Pantera mold are thrash and other classic death metal albums (presumably ones by Cannibal Corpse, Suffocation, Obituary, and Entombed).

Listen to “Infecting the Crypts” at 3:30 and tell me the vocal pattern doesn’t remind you of “Slaughtered” by Pantera at the latter song’s 0:30 mark:

“Slaughtered” remains one of my favorite Pantera songs anyway.

The last decade started out rough but ended strong.  If you take A7X as an exception (in the classic school), the early 00s were really about Slipknot (and to a lesser degree, LOG) teaching people an object lesson in the Pantera school of abject brutality.  As melogoth metalcore gained influence, things started to look grim for those of us who don’t like their music watered down.  But the decade was redeemed when, seemingly out of nowhere, the aforementioned deathcore giants launched a vicious counterstrike and for the most part, wiped metalcore off the face of the planet.

Well, in a perfect world they did.

But what about today?  Is there anything new that is shockingly good?  Yes, there is.  But Avenged Sevenfold, Slipknot, Lamb of God and all the good deathcore bands rose to power in the previous decade, which is to say, oh you know, roughly the time period around 2000 through 2009.  WTF?!  Kids, listen to me, when you get old, you start to lose track of time.  Indeed, by the time I finally managed to convince one metalhead friend to relinquish the clean singing and embrace the death(core), I looked back and realized the deathcore scene was all laying dead on the ground behind me.

TO BE CONTINUED…

#15 Why Metal Must Adopt Rock; or, “Why Ghost are Metal”

illusion

One Divides into Two

The expression has many meanings and might appear circular: Zhang says that this is because difference has, within itself, an identity that becomes difference.  Is this an infinite evolution of these internal “seeds”?  In this case, do the new arrive since everything is entirely continuous with its antecedent dialectic?

The Rational Kernel of the Hegelian Dialectic, Alain Badiou, Joël Bellassen, Louis Mossot, p. 60 (re.press 2011)(originally published 1978)

Indefatigable foe of ignorance, Grulog, recently wrote an article on how genre labels and subgenre language add precision to the way we talk about music. This is true. Like binary fission, this is the concept of One Divides into Two. As a genre gets bigger and its exponents begin to test the genre’s limits, the inevitable result is that a new genre or subgenre breaks away from its parent. Most people think of metal as a subgenre of rock.

I also accept the value of subgenre labels. For the majority of the last 17-18 years, death metal has been my go-to genre.  During any given week I might have a sudden burst of interest in say, narco-doom (sometime I’ll explain why I use that term) or thrash, and all I want to listen to that week is music that explores the parameters of that genre. X number of subgenres comprise metal: One divides into two.

But in the last year or so, I have become increasingly concerned with what we might call the inverse concept; Two Unites into One. Why?

 

O LORD, heal me; for my bones are vexed    

Anyone who cares about rock & roll also fears deeply for its health.  Look, no, this is not about me getting old and going softcore.  I am confident that every year I will continue to have at least one phase where I will burn through almost every Cannibal Corpse album in a bout of intense musical concentration.  Indeed, metal has been one of the constants in my life despite all the changes that have occurred since high school.  But in contrast to Grulog, I don’t have a sharp concern that the integrity of the metal underground might be compromised.  Maybe it’s because I am spoiled— as the blog metal stuff says, the scene’s insular habits and native population of metal elitists serve as an effective deterrent to corporate meddling.  I’m thankful for that, truly.  Part of what I am going to say could be interpreted as a vindication of Grulog’s focus on the purity and integrity of the metal scene.

Nonetheless, I’m still arguing that the metal underground needs to be more generous in bestowing the coveted mantle of “metal”. Look, the metal underground will continue to flourish like mutant cockroaches even if everything else is destroyed.  That’s a compliment.  I know it, I wouldn’t change it.  My concern is not at all that metal’s borders should be more porous and accept more influences.  In fact, my concern is not rooted in issues of aesthetics at all per se.  Rather, I believe that metal needs to (re)adopt rock & roll whole horse, essentially as a noble act of charity to the bands that straddle the line.  Metal needs to gracefully allow hard rock to live under its tent for cultural reasons that are specific to our times.

 

If Not Us, Who?  If Not Now, When?

Anecdote 1.  Do you remember the hellscape that was the ‘00s music scene?  Back 10 or 15 years ago, I dreamed of what the music landscape might look like TODAY in 2016.  Here was what I reasoned:  a great rock music revolution occurred in the time between ’68 and ’76.  I reaped its fruits, albeit more than twenty years after the fact.

And yet amazingly, I lived through an equally great electric guitar revolution that transpired between ’88-‘96 or so.  Therefore, I reasoned that maybe, if we prayed a lot or got lucky or the gods smiled upon us, another generation of genius musicians might still magically arrive, notwithstanding cultural and technological changes, after another 20 year cycle– starting in, oh, say ’08 or so.  They would then go on to pick up steam through the first half of the ‘10s.  If I was really lucky, I might even be young of spirit enough to recognize these new rockers for the geniuses they would be(come).

Now I can already see some of the metal purists out there groaning or not exactly harmonizing with me on the subject of the two great past eras of rock.  In the town of 800 people where I went to high school, the legit metalheads loved Nirvana and Alice In Chains also.  Let’s just agree to disagree, and remember that I am allowed to like– no, live– both rock and metal.

Anecdote 2.  D&B and jungle.

I got into the rave scene towards the tail end of the 90s.  It was great until Mayor Daley waged a war against raves in the city and ruined it (Daley and Chi-town’s finest were pulling that shit way before 2001 btw).  Here was a subculture annihilated before my eyes. Years later, I would ask burner friends (that’s a great article on another scene, by the way) their opinion on what killed off the Chicago rave scene.  I’ve always been kind of perplexed by the variety of answers I’ve been given. Some people claim that there was a defection to the club scene– which doesn’t really add up in my opinion.  Others cite some sort of artistic burnout after the scene reached its critical mass.  FALSE.  It’s because cops started rolling up on every other party, drumming nightsticks, and when you’re rolling balls, those fuckers look like giant armored stag beetles with fascist intent spilling out of them like inky black clouds.

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Alighting on the moon to evade the flying pigs: ’09 BM Camp.  Photo:  Tom Christiansen

Oh wait, I didn’t bring this up to discuss the systematic governmental dismantling of a genuine subculture, or police suppression of peaceful public gatherings.  My point was that before techno marvels like dubstep and trap, my preferred form of electronic music was drum & bass.  In the 90s, it was by far the darkest, hardest form of rave music (hardcore techno is to drum & bass what grindcore is to death metal).

It always irked me that flyers would tout the presence of “drum & bass and jungle” at a party.  THEY ARE THE SAME THING.  It’s like saying there is going to be timber and wood at Menards.  In electronic music the subgenres are defined by the type of beat that is involved, and there is no technical distinction between a “jungle” beat and a “drum & bass” beat.  “Jungle” was the name for a beat that was popular during an earlier part of the 90s rave era, and “drum & bass” was the name that got popular for essentially the same beat later in the 90s.  Of course, slightly different production techniques became associated with the two names, corresponding to the production techniques that were in vogue during the respective time periods (if you want to see an old blog from when I was in a dubstep mood in early 2008, click away– but I’m not making any apologies for the cheesiness.  Now on the other hand, if you want a contemporary shot of the best thing you could possibly listen to while rolling balls, hit up Oh My Darling (Don’t Cry) and make sure you can feel the bass in your chest).

 

Rock is now a subgenre of metal

The pairing of the words “hard rock and metal” is a totally different story.  They are obviously different things.  And I believe that it is great when magazines like Revolver and Metal Hammer use the words together.  Look, I don’t need to be a metal elitist.  I can be the resident “hard rock and metal” elitist.  The world needs someone who understands what makes Avenged Sevenfold infinitely better than Disturbed, and who at the same time understands what makes Cryptopsy better than Kataklysm.

As we get older, our parents also get older.  Sometimes, our parents even move into our houses because they can’t be on their own.  They used to take care of you, and now you are taking care of them!  How fucked up is that?

Why must metal adopt rock?  Why should metalheads be generous with what they allow to fall under the “metal” umbrella?  BECAUSE NO ONE ELSE GIVES A DAMN ABOUT HARD ROCK!!!  Rolling Stone is for Beyoncé fans, and AP is for emo fans.  Are you going to watch callously as hard rock dies alone in a ditch clutching a cigarette butt it found on the ground?  Modern market forces and genre diversification have sundered “rock & roll” into two wildly different continents– metal on one side and indie rock on the other– and that makes it essential that we claim Ghost as a metal band.  After all, who else will take them in?  The mall kids?  Well maybe that is a bad example.  Everyone seems to be embracing Ghost.  But a good musician plays to his or her muse.  And a lot of artists bristle at being labeled, no matter how much we like handing out labels.

Therefore, we shouldn’t take the mainstream’s problem with being stupid out on the good hard rock bands that, against all odds, do materialize today.

Here’s another thing.  I understand that Blabbermouth and Loudwire embrace both metal and rock and are useful resources for metal news.  But what the hell is up with all these meat & potatoes pop rock bar bands?  What is “Pop Evil”?  I know I am going to sound close-minded here, but that band doesn’t sound like something I would like. Papa Roach?  Look at Loudwire’s best-of-rock list from 2015.  Look at their metal list.

Now let me ask you a question.  Where is Night Creeper by Uncle Acid?  It’s not on the rock list.  Ahhh, must be on the metal list.  Oh wait, NOPE. Where is Valley of the Snake by Ruby the Hatchet?  Nowhere to be found.  Where is Static by Huntress?  Same scenario.  WHERE IS THE ARK WORK BY LITURGY?  Hell, where is Pitworthy by XII Boar?

Instead we get Five Finger Death Punch in the rock category and some hipster shit in the metal category.  By the way, does Nile or Malevolent Creation get in?  NOPE.

Let’s look at 2014 according to Loudwire, maybe it will be better.  NOPE.  One of the best rock albums of the century, The Eldritch Dark by Blood Ceremony, was ignored (so was Sunset on the Golden Age by Alestorm.  As the band’s name suggests, they are great for getting wasted to– which is the whole point of rock music!).  Guess what did make it on?  Godsmack and Chevelle.  It reminds me of being at a junk yard with my dad and how he explained that there is a big difference between a Corvette and a Chevette.

Those year end lists perfectly illustrate the problem– the popular metal is too rocky and the rock is too metallic.  Watered down, in other words.  There is too much bleed through, I would argue.

In this context I can fully see Grulog’s point about how metal’s ideals and barriers to entry have enabled it to stay a relevant and respectable force in the world– while meanwhile, “hard rock” has died out as a commercial and cultural force.  At least metal has magazines and web pages that are not completely bought and sold.

Nonetheless, hard rock is good for metalheads, and I say, “let the rockers into the metal tent”.  When metalheads don’t inoculate themselves with an occasional dose of pure rock & roll, they tend to start listening to these weird things that are too soft to be metal and too hard to be rock.  And above all, do you want some kid’s “gateway” bands to be Disturbed, Godsmack, and 5FDP?  Or would you rather that their gateway bands are Blood Ceremony, Uncle Acid, and Ghost?  Both sets have equally catchy music.  If you picked the former bunch, let me ask you something.  How do you live with yourself?  (By kid I mean someone 19 or 20, not high schoolers.  High school kids are a totally different problem/challenge, which is perhaps where the former set fits into the equation.)

I already told the story of how, when I first started getting stoned and really listening to good music, I was drawn to the heavy 90s rock bands (AIC, Nirvana).  When I used up all five or so bands that ruled the genre, I turned to Fear Factory and Sepultura and high school favorites Pantera, and later to the Corpse and Morbid Angel.  Now that is a healthy progression (I can’t speak for going from All That Remains to modern In Flames). Finally, if you haven’t agreed with me on a single thing I’ve said in this whole post, let me ask you a final rhetorical question:  what is up with all these “stoner doom” bands beloved by the metal media?  Technically speaking, most are straight-up swinging rock & roll. Looks like metal is already taking the high road, taking the good rock under its wing– and if we are lucky, metal will keep it a separate subgenre with high walls and minimal bleed-through.

Metal is composed of X subgenres.  Two Unites into One.

#14 The Occult Cauldron Boils Pt. III

“In the pragmatist, streetwise climate of advanced postmodern capitalism, with its scepticism of big pictures and grand narratives, its hard-nosed disenchantment with the metaphysical, ‘life’ is one among a whole series of discredited totalities. We are invited to think small rather than big – ironically, at just the point when some of those out to destroy Western civilization are doing exactly the opposite. In the conflict between Western capitalism and radical Islam, a paucity of belief squares up to an excess of it. The West finds itself faced with a full-blooded metaphysical onslaught at just the historical point that it has, so to speak, philosophically disarmed. As far as belief goes, postmodernism prefers to travel light: it has beliefs, to be sure, but it does not have faith.”

― Terry EagletonThe Meaning of Life

We live in a secular world.  It is hard to live a spiritual life in this age when every household is helmed by a pair of worn-out “dual wage-earners” who bleed themselves dry every day just to keep on living. Does art make it all worth it?  Or is it just a distraction as we wait to expire?

A Nameless Ghoul explains the title of Ghost’s third album Meliora:

“I think that the super-correct translation [from Latin] is ‘for the pursuit of something better,’ or ‘all things better,’ or something like that. It is actually more thematical with the lyrical content and the backdrop that we wanted to paint … a super-urban, metropolitan, pre-apocalyptic, dystopic futuristic thing. The title is more implying, ironically, this zenith that we think that we have reached. We’re always building higher, and we’re always getting a little bit faster, and everybody keeps earning a little bit more money, and everybody gets a little bit taller and a little bit tighter and a little bit… It’s a constant improvement that we’re hysterically trying to achieve.” (Blabbermouth)(parenthetical comment in original)

But the name ‘Ghost’ is also a clear reference to the Holy Spirit, and it is here that the ascension of Ghost and Huntress dovetails perfectly.

There is a Huntress song called “Aradia” on the first album, and one day I looked up the name.  Lore on the net is scarce, but I found a few scattered references to the Italian witch of yore, and at least one reverent tribute. I know no more of the latter’s author, Raven Grimassi, than a wiki will yield, but he seems to be a published authority on witchcraft.  In contemplating Millennial social progress and a new Age receptive to a less monolithic Christian god, Grimassi mentions a Catholic mystic named Joachim of Fiore who existed in the Twelfth century.  I would love to ground the thoughts here with a footnote to some kind of original source material, but I have neither Joachim’s texts nor Latin at my disposal.  Yet, when playing in the realm of myth and archetype, perhaps it is not always necessary to ground every idea with a footnote, but to let the archetype speak for itself.

joachim_of_flora

It turns out that this Catholic mystic, Joachim, predicted a third Age, a new Age of Reason, when the Age of the Son would give way to the Age of the Holy Spirit.  In this new era organized religion would become redundant, as God’s children would learn to see beyond the literal words of scripture.  Around 1300 A.D., Joachim’s prophecy inspired a cult.  In rather bold contravention of the patriarchal rules of the day, the cult held a lady, one Guglielma of Milan, to be the incarnation of the Holy Spirit.  It also anointed one of its members the female Pope (more on that below).  This sect, Grimassi says, laid the groundwork for the resurgence of the goddess Diana as an object of worship in Italy– and also for the rise of the witch Aradia in the Fourteenth century.

In keeping with this fine millenialist tradition, I would suggest that we do live in The Age of the Holy Spirit, or Joachim’s Age of Reason.  But the emblems of Reason are not the physical fruits of the intellect, the bombs, factories, planes, trains, and automobiles that threaten to hasten our demise on a global level.

Perhaps true Reason owes a debt for the free time rendered possible by those machines of industrialization, and also for the printing press and interlinked computers and the attendant widespread accessibility of knowledge enjoyed by the common man– all which renders possible a level of self-reflection and self-mythologizing that was not readily available to our forefathers.   I might complain about having to work a lot, but I still have an unprecedented power to gather intelligence through all these square portals.

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In a very conditional way, The New Age man of reason also owes a debt to the hard sciences that, in their merciless assault on Western religion, have made it quite easy for many of us to decouple ourselves from traditional religious dogma.

Joachim of Flora describes the “experience of illumination given after mental striving in terms of the city seen intermittently by the approaching pilgrim, or of the spirit breaking through the hard rind of the letter” [of scripture](Britannica).  Unfortunately, a lot of people seem to be badly missing the point.

It can be surmised that Joachim, were he among us today, would see the common man’s victory over literal scriptural interpretation to be a boon of our Age.  But on the other hand, Joachim would surely throw down the gauntlet before giving one inch to physicalism, determinism, and cultural relativism, those unfortunate dogmas of our age that are gobbled up as gospel by the Western masses.  Rather, the true hallmarks of the Age of Reason are a collection of more liberating, self-replicating programs for self-actualization:  start with the para-romanticist,  para-millenialist 18th/19th century German metaphysical idealists:  Kant, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel.***

*** (Why do I invoke those well-nigh impenetrable maestros?  Just to be obscurantist and pretentious?  No.  I don’t care how smart or how dumb you are, getting through “classics” like the Critique of Pure Reason or Phenomenology of Spirit is something that is humanly possible– but the will must be there, and the time, and you need to be willing to watch a lot of lectures on-line– and download yet more lectures to listen to on your commute– and invest a little in secondary sources and guides, and finally, actually lose sleep as your brain feverishly tries to solve problems that your  waking mind thought it had abandoned for the night.  But more to the point, those guys represent a major turning point in the history of thought– the watershed being Kant’s own version of the “Copernican Revolution”, wherein the locus of reality was moved out of the “thing” and into the “observer”.  People who find the Copernican metaphor oddly inverted may be taking the metaphor too literally[compare to Heliocentrism, in which any subject we are likely to care about is the one that revolves around the fixed object] —  I think the point of the metaphor is to accentuate the importance of the observer’s position, or alternatively, to signify a massive shift of perspective.  I never actually read the full Critique until this last summer– but “dabbling” in philosophy over the last 20 years has enriched my life.)

Pair the aforesaid with science of a fine vintage.  In the hundred years after Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit was published in 1807, science was busy with the discovery of cathode rays, black-body radiation, and in 1877, discrete energy states. That wave culminated in Albert Einstein’s 1905 explanation of the photo-electric effect, then the theory of Relativity (which was virtually predicted by Kant), and finally, the advent of quantum physics.  While contemporary philosophy and mathematics are only beginning to understand the depth of their interrelationship (see the n lab), I believe that Hegel’s version of natural science and logic is much more compelling in the light of Quantenmechanik.

pinnacle

To this feast add a final course, its name coined by the great psychiatrist Dr. Carl Jung– SYNCHRONICITY (Paul Levy’s note on synchronicity is as inspiring and as good as any).  As Maynard J. Keenan said in an interview around the time Ænima came out:

You literally have a third eye in your head… It’s your pineal gland and it is an eye. It focuses light. People talk about dolphins and whales being more evolved, because they have a better breathing element. If you do meditation, you understand the idea of the Prana, breathing in light through the pineal gland. In mythology, there’s talk about how people used to breathe that way, but over time, they began to breathe more through the mouth. That’s the connection that we’ve forgotten … Your consciousness is like a radio frequency. If you turn the dial, all those radio stations are there simultaneously. You can dial in to hear what station you want to hear. Consciousness is the same way. Through meditation, you can alter that, you can come upon an alternate reality. Drugs is a shortcut to that. The trick is to really understand the medium you used to get there.

Read More: 19 Years Ago: Tool Conjure Spirituality + Anger With ‘Ænima’

I don’t know if the pineal gland really is a “mind/body” nexus– that’s been a debate since René Descartes.  (Is there anyone out there who is still a Dualist anyway?)  What I do know is that synchronicity works, and it’s not selective perception.  It’s about harmonizing the radio station in your mind with the radio station in your external reality.  Normally, it’s not a power we can actively harness, but a passive phenomenon.  A sign, a gift from the Gods, a startling coincidence.  But by becoming more in tune with yourself– whatever that means– you can sharpen your receptivity to it.    Those patterns enable you and me to discover sense in the comet-size chunk of competing particle-ideas that hurtle through us, and to weave from its tail a meaningful self.  The Kingdom of the Holy Spirit is a sum of souls connected by a higher plane.  Let’s agree on that.  Whether it is necessary to define souls as “bodies” and higher planes as “constructs of language” is up to you.  Let’s also agree that what we need on this rather sad local region of the spacetime continuum named Earth is leaders, spiritual and otherwise, that are in tune with that higher plane.

About twenty years ago, when I was first truly opening my mind to the higher planes (the shortcut mentioned by Keenan played a prominent role), my favorite bands were Alice In Chains and Nirvana.  If “synchronicity” was just a matter of selective perception and wish fulfillment, I feel like those two bands would have figured more prominently in my experiences of synchronicity.  But for some reason, I consistently had experiences of synchronicity that involved TOOL and The Smashing Pumpkins.  I think that might be because the leaders of the latter bands are especially open to synchronicity and magick.  Today my favorite band is Huntress, and I am having music-related experiences of synchronicity again after a very long drought.  Why don’t I have synchronicity involving Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats, or Ghost, who I also love?  I think the answer is obvious.  On Easter of 1300, a band of heretics in Milan declared Maifreda Visconti da Pirovano their Pope.  Let’s just say their efforts were a little premature.  But our Age is ready for a female pope, and this time her followers won’t all be burned at the stake.

 

 

#13 The Occult Cauldron Boils Pt. II

“Ancillary”:  1.  providing necessary support to the primary activities or operation of an organization, institution, industry, or system. (google)(my emphasis)

It is one of my primary theses in this blog that reviewing lyrics and focusing on album art and music videos can provide almost essential hints to fully apprehending the music.  “Support to the primary activity” of listening to the music itself.

I’ve only listened to Ghost for one year, after hating on them five times as long (I thought they were typical over-hyped Swedish bearers of retro mediocrity; indeed, I ignored that scene so vehemently that I didn’t even realize that the “non guttural male vocals” bore no relationship to the blighted “clean singing” of ’00s emo and metalcore).

I don’t have the answer to the ways that Ghost can be employed for spiritual gain, other than for the strictly “rock & roll” -style Dionysian sentimentality and nostalgia I already mentioned (invoking this Dionysian sentimentality is one of the highest arts, very close to the highest when done right– so mind you I am not marginalizing that meaning).  I do know that we could gain a lot from paying attention to the lyrics.   If you do a  search for the phrase “the meaning and interpretation of the band Ghost”, you’ll get some thought-provoking hits.  In response to a question about the lyrics “I was carried on a wolf’s back / Here to corrupt humanity / I will pummel it with opulence / With corpulence and greed / In god you trust” (“Mummy Dust”), one person pointed out:

Thomas Aquinas (Dominican Priest in the 13th century) described the son of greed (avarice) as “Mammon being carried up from Hell by a wolf, coming to inflame the human heart with Greed”  (Reddit)

Other commentators described how “mummy dust” is a term akin to “snake oil”, something of illusory value, and relate the idea to the entire enterprise of Catholicism, or the stock market.  I prefer the simpler, deconstructed explanation in the Reddit blurb above– it’s about cash money.  Make it rain at the belly dancing club, and sniff up all that mummy dust, because those nice linens aren’t coming with you to the next life.

I was quite impressed with the erudition of my fellow Ghost fans.  I myself don’t have any such insights into the meaning of Ghost lyrics to add, though I will interpret one theme.  Like Huntress, Ghost released a “trilogy” of sorts.  Both bands released the second installment of their respective trilogies in 2013 and third in 2015.  I would refer you to a 2013 interview with Pitchfork:

Pitchfork: How does the new album connect to the last one? Can you discuss the title and the other Latin phrases?

Papa: The first album was about an impending doom, whereas the new album is about the presence of the Devil. The title, Infestissumam, means “the biggest threat” and refers literally to the arrival of the Antichrist, but what it is also is about is what man has traditionally regarded as diabolical presence– namely female form and swagger.

Pitchfork: You say that the first record is kind of building up to the Antichrist in a way and then the new record is the Antichrist or Satan in the every day. Is that the idea?

NG: Yes. That’s basically what I’m talking about. Everything on the first record was about a coming darkness, an impending doom. Whereas the new record is about something present, and literally, the new record deals with the presence of the Anti-Christ, the Devil. But subliminally, the meaning of it is more how mankind– predominantly men– what they have deemed to be the presence of the Devil, throughout history and even nowadays. And that’s why the record is so fueled with sexual themes and females. That’s basically it, the Inquisition was basically men accusing women of being the Devil just because they had a hard-on for them. That was basically that.

http://pitchfork.com/features/show-no-mercy/9107-ghost-bc/

So there you have it.  On their second album, Ghost references the Goddess through the lens of scared Christian hordes who would vilify Her as the Anti-Christ.  We could argue that someone like the lead singer of Huntress, on the other hand– with her long legs and sharp claws– very well is that Goddess.  In that capacity, Ghost ushers out the old with hymns of reminiscence, while Huntress heralds a new way of seeing things.  Huntress is a band embedding passion, ancient wisdom and beauty into musical notes like never before.  Mainlining raw punk energy and idealism, they are utterly in the present; the obverse of the Popestars’ nostalgia.

If you take the Anti-Christ in Ghost as a representation of anima/yin/feminine power, then the Jill-Janus-as-Rockstar entity is that figurative Anti-Christ.  On the other hand, if you take the Goddess as a supernatural entity, well, one might still argue that Jill is the literal embodiment of that entity.

Admittedly there are other perspectives.  I do believe that certain key members of the Decibel and maybe Terrorizer camp (representing an entire metalhead demographic) are in love with bands that are genuinely Satanic in a more traditional sense.  Maybe that’s why The Devil’s Blood were held in higher esteem by those publications than the pagan Blood Ceremony.  Since both bands are amazing, I used to assume that a seemingly nonsensical bias like that could only be  explained by some personal connection between artist and journalist that would disqualify any claim to objectivity.  But a couple years later, and after the whole Ghost hysteria, I think it is something different.  I think it really is about ideas. That would also go a long way towards explaining the obsession with the most musically-irredeemable strains of black metal.  After all, that “we are completely fucked” is not a totally unreasonable conclusion to arrive at– maybe some people really believe that anything human or sentimental at all is a distraction from the task at hand.    [EDIT, 10/4/16.  I re-wrote this paragraph after the brilliance of The Devil’s Blood revealed itself to me one very late night.  I had previously marginalized the band.  See upcoming post “I Am An Idiot”, and also “The Dialectical Process”.]

I don’t know if there are members of Ghost who visualize themselves as reciting invocations to some actual otherworldly entity.  What is an otherworldly entity?  What does the word “is” even mean?    Are prayers to an absent deity sometimes intercepted by other entities?  Old Ones, new ones?  Do our thoughts and external reality form a feedback loop that defies explanation by Newtonian physics?  And is there a separate world beyond the sevenfold veil of color that our human eyes are attuned to?

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That’s a discussion for another day.  What matters is that there isn’t a label on the album that says “Satan Music”.  The fact of the matter is that I really don’t know what is held in the hearts of the performers, and that may be the point.  Ghost tip-toes around invocations of both the juvenile and the frighteningly real variety.  In the meantime, by way of legerdemain and raw skill, they entertain us with the “good” (and societally-approved) kind of devil worship:  the worship of individuality and freedom.

 

#12 The Occult Cauldron Boils

We live in a secular world.  The official religion of our country offers nothing but insult added to injury, its adherents most often found worshiping hollow idols and names (like the very word “christian” which is bandied about like a clothing label).

If you truly are christian, don’t go and name yourself that, for the love of Jesus. It is not any man’s place to name himself after the God.  Naming your cat or dog after a member of the pantheon is okay though.

But seriously, sometimes it seems that metal picks on Christianity a little too much. After all, what is the greater evil today, Fundamentalism or unfettered Capitalism? Blind adherence to the latter is frankly more certain to lead our world to a slow, strangulated death as inexorable as the horrific conclusion to Phil Mucci’s Heavy Metal Magazine -inspired video for Torche’s “Annihilation Affair”.

It is reasonable to ask, why is metal so obsessed with religion?
I am not sure I would say metal is a religion, but it is very much about religion– be that religion a flawed masterpiece like Christianity, or dogmatic atheism, or paganism, or just the religion of the open road.  Also, religion serves as a very effective stand-in for politics:  unless you are a punk or hardcore band, or Rage Against The Machine, The Clash, or maybe All Shall Perish, talking about politics in music is usually anathema, i.e. mad cheesy.

That there is more than one sort of religion that can be celebrated or reviled by way of rock should offer hints as to why some bands might appeal to me and not to you and vice versa. In other words, music is not purely entertainment; there is substance and culture embedded in it.  No wonder we get so violent about our opinions.

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Heck, I was totally unaware of this controversy when it was happening, but the lead singer of Liturgy was nearly lynched by black metal metalherds after he dared to mention philosophy in relation to music (Pitchfork).  Seriously, are we are talking about a scene that is beyond stupid and utterly dysfunctional, or am I missing something?

One bright Saturday morning, last winter, I sat with my coffee and my phone (which I use as a Dictaphone during the week).  Meliora by Ghost was booming in my mancave, and I wondered:  are there other people out there who go through this, who try to actually write seriously about hard rock and metal?

Magazine writers and MetalSucks “reporters” seem content to organize interviews and haphazard little paragraphs called reviews.  But what seems to be missing is an instructor– not a dry academic, nor an iconoclast, but a guide down the deeper paths– pathways that are deep but also known and mapped (unlike the iconoclast’s hermetic chambers).  Pathways that are nonetheless all too often forgotten by each new generation and sub-generation.  My parents smoked weed with me as we blasted Zeppelin, and taught me the shot-to-bong-hit ratio.  But not everyone is so fortunate.

“Music critic” might be a vapid concept, right?  But some contemporary bands represent ideas that warrant some exploration, so I want do my part as a music historian and a spiritual technician and explore those ideas.

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Well let’s get on with it.  The message of Ghost’s Meliora, at its most basic, unadorned level, is twofold (I realize that the band’s oeuvre contains social commentary on organized religion, but it is my theory that the specific religious critiques can be deconstructed as window dressing).  On the one hand there is the essentially Zen statement that to find joy or achieve spiritual absolution you must release yourself, to surrender (abandonment- which might be extended to reckless abandon) and accept yourself as you are.  This message, whenever adequately conveyed, is a genuinely beautiful thing.  For the act of surrendering to the inevitable is a liberating act, but it is just that– an act– which is to say it is a one-time event occurring in the temporal plane and which must be repeated continuously for as long as we breathe.  This is why religious arts are forever relevant– just as philosophical works facilitate the unending work of (the world’s) self-reflection, this kind of art facilitates our unending work of losing ourselves, of accepting the Universe as it is, a standard third eye chakra mantra.  The message of Meliora, anyway, is that you can forgive yourself– and when someone absolves you of your sins, it is a powerful thing.

The other message of Meliora— at the surface level– is really only the flipside of the first message, which is an advisement to appreciate the things and people in your life that matter while you still can.  The message is pure, mainlined nostalgia.  I love rock & roll, and I am starting to love Ghost (even though sometimes the lyrics do shock me, as in “Deus in Absentia”).  Quite simply, this is rock & roll that does its job– to foster a sentimental heart.  Now I understand that everyone will have their own messages, but this is the one that I find most salient.  This form of rock often rises above metal qua metal in meaning and importance, if for no other reason than its rarity.  Not many bands can tug on my heartstrings in other words, at least not for the runtime of a whole album.

As I sit down to write today, in my mind are not only the sentimental ghouls of Ghost, but a few forces of metal and rock that are highly resistant to any form of deconstruction.  The last year or so, I have been influenced by Jill Janus, Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, Maynard James Keenan (once again), and– during my New Years Day stoning– a surprise guest in the form of Zach de la Rocha whose verse on Run the Jewels’ “Close Your Eyes” hit hard on my most recent listen– and reminded me that both El-P’s crew and de la Rocha and are still forces to be reckoned with.  Especially as a result of the younger stars above, I am inspired to seek out the thoughts ancillary to certain artists’ actual bodies of work.

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Back in the day, when I lived life too fully to be distracted by “extraneous” material, I avoided such things.  But I now realize that I probably missed out on a lot of mystical wisdom by not reading the lore on myth-creation provided by artists like Marilyn Manson, and I realize that this sort of extracurricular activity is not extraneous, but integral:  a dichotomy which I will return to.

In fact, “ancillary” is the correct word here.  I just looked up the word, because I thought maybe I was misapprehending its proper application, and indeed, in some ways I was.  I have often used the word “ancillary” as if it simply meant “associated” and implied a contingent relationship.  But the word implies an absolutely essential relationship.  More on that next.

 

#11 The Dialectical Process

The fourth song on Puscifer’s Money $hot album is called “Simultaneous”, and contains a mysterious character whose monologue concludes with the words “We will never know world peace, until three people can simultaneously look each other straight in the eye.”  At genius.com, a site that seems to have an active community of Tool and Maynard James Keenan fans, an interpretation has been posited of a mandate that mankind must collectively open its third eye if it would survive and flourish (click on the relevant lyrics at genius to see the annotations people have added).  I agree with that as an acceptable interpretation (another commentator says the phrase simply means peace is impossible.  That interpretation warrants consideration, but nonetheless reminds me of the people who will insist, until the day they die, that the entirety of the album Ænima is about butts).  I interpret the words in “Simultaneous” as a virtually explicit endorsement of dialectical logic.  One scholar tries to shed light on the dialectic as a form of logic:

What makes dialectical thinking so difficult to explain is that it can only be seen in practice. It is not a “method” or a set of principles, like Aristotle’s, which can be simply stated and then applied to whatever subject-matter one chooses.

Hegel for Beginners, by Llyod Spencer and Andrzej Krauze, Published by Icon Books

(I’m going to cite internet sources specifically because that is the only way most people will have a chance to look at them.)  And:

Reading Hegel gives one a sense that the movement of thought will coincide with a vision of harmony that awaits us at the end of the whole process. Every serious reader of Hegel can bear witness to the intoxication of such moments.

Id.  The interpretation of “Simultaneous” is bolstered by a comment Keenan made to Rolling Stone, where he comments on the state of the world generally:

I feel like any problems that are coming up nowadays can easily be navigated with logic, a sense of responsibility and coming from a position where maybe you’re wrong — “What did I do to provoke this? What can I do to make this better?”

As a young mystic I was greatly influenced by both the writings of G.W.F. Hegel and the fractal meanings of M. J. Keenan’s music, so I want to say right at the get-go that I believe very much in the value of dialectical thought.  What does this mean in practice?  Well, as the first quote above says, knowledge is a process, just as philosophers often say philosophy is more like a verb than a noun– it is something “you do”, not something “you have.”  I bring this up because I have changed my views on many thing over the course of my life, and in some cases I have only fully understood the truth of something because at one prior point I possessed an entirely opposite belief.  This is a long way of saying that I wish for you, my dear reader, to not feel insulted if I criticize or marginalize some art or music you enjoy.  I have been wrong many times in my life and will be again, all to my eventual advantage and wisdom (for example, I owe the world a post on the narco-doom scene, e.g. Electric Wizard and Uncle Acid, to make amends for my previous inability to fully revel in their brilliance).

I will summarize with a quote from a University of Chicago media scholar (forgive my inclusion of the triadic synthesis as an effort to make more overt the connection to the Puscifer quote above):

Roughly speaking, Hegel’s dialectic involves the reconciliation of ostensible paradoxes to arrive at absolute truth. The general formulation of Hegel’s dialectic is a three-step process comprising the movement from thesis to antithesis to synthesis. One begins with a static, clearly delineated concept (or thesis), then moves to its opposite (or antithesis), which represents any contradictions derived from a consideration of the rigidly defined thesis. The thesis and antithesis are yoked and resolved to form the embracing resolution, or synthesis.

 Kim O’Connor (2003).  The triadic synthesis is clinched in the song “Simultaneous” when the exchange with the mysterious character is described thusly: “Every third inquiry was met with, you know, an eloquent but unusual response, and, you know, the subsequent exchange, it kinda warranted continuing the conversation“.  I will quote O’Connor again:

Succinctly put, the dialectic “actualizes itself by alienating itself, and restores its self-unity by recognizing this alienation as nothing other than its own free expression or manifestation” (Bottomore 122). This formula is infinitely renewable; Hegel contended it would only terminate upon the world’s end. Each time synthesis is achieved it “generate[s] new internal contradictions, and then a further resolution” (Macey 96). It is also teleological because “each later stage of dialectic contains all the earlier stages, as it were in solution; none of them is wholly superceded, but is given its proper place as a moment in the whole” (Russell 731). The infinite character of the dialectic reflects Hegel’s notion of holistic truth and his optimistic belief in progress.

Dialectic permeated Hegel’s philosophy, but his dialectical model of subjectivity as the interpenetration between subject and object probably holds the most relevance for us today. In The Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel described subjectivity as “a being-for-self which is for itself only through another” (115). In other words, I can never define myself purely in relation to myself; it is through my interaction with the external world that I become aware of my self-consciousness. The subject only exists through its relationship with others: “Self-consciousness exists in and for itself when, and by the fact that, it so exists for another; that is, it exists only in being acknowledged” (111).

Id. (cites in original text).  Relevant to this music blog is a subsequent paragraph in which O’Connor draws the dialectic into relation with media studies:

Generally speaking, dialectic can be a useful way to conceptualize subject/object relationships in any number of contexts, particularly artistic contexts. Dialectic allows us to break down the bifurcated model of spectator/artwork so that, for example, it becomes possible for both the reader and writer to create meaning in a poem, and for an abstract painting to reveal something intrinsic to both artwork and beholder.

Id.  A long time ago raver kids realized that a “concert” or party was more fun if the DJ reacted to the crowd instead of the crowd simply reacting to the DJ.  And we have all heard the argument that lyrical interpretation is best handled by the individual listener, not just the artist.

This subject/object dichotomy is not just a handy way to explain and ground the collective creation of meaning, but for some us, a virtual key to explaining how the universe exists in the first place.  But you do not need to follow me all the way down that rabbit hole.  In order to appreciate my subsequent posts, I only ask you to concentrate on how myth and meaning is created “socially”, and specifically, how it pertains to music (even if you are a diehard anti-social iconoclast, you still need to acknowledge that your thoughts are usually subject to grammar and syntax, and language is “social” even if you are sitting alone in a closet; finally, music is a “language”).

g86qe

I don’t care whether you are dead set on believing the world is inert matter, or whether you think the Earth is suspended on the back of a giant tortoise who glides over a sea of phlogiston.  Indeed, that is the strength of the dialectical method– it is the enemy of crude dogmatism.

 

 

#10 Emotions– not that many

The other day I was trying to get my Saturday morning started properly, drinking coffee, playing with my kittens, and thinking about writing (writing = more like watching porn while procrastinating, amirite?).  Then reality set in, and the wife started demanding breakfast.  She works some Saturdays.  “Oh boy, I am an indentured servant to these cats and this woman”, I thought to myself.  If I am honest, it was probably my stomach that demanded food, and I just projected that experience onto the rest of the family.

Once the malt-o-meal was ready to rock, I could not escape the gravity of the couch, where my wife taps on her laptop and occasionally calls a client, and where she had already arrayed everything for us to watch some dumb Pixar abomination.  I had already lodged my protests, my Saturday morning doesn’t last forever– but it was futile.  Now listen, I have a measure of distaste for Pixar because they are ruining animation.  If I could bang one famous cartoon character it would be someone from the era of true, organic animation– the original Cinderella.  Next in line would be Sleeping Beauty, whatever her name is (not to be confused with Snow White), followed by, oh I don’t know, someone with Bella’s face and Ariel’s hair color maybe.  Oh and yes, my wife gave me a Tinker Bell ornament as a Christmas present a week ago– Tink is my all-time favorite but getting down with a tiny pixie is a stretch of the imagination.

Evidently my dad once told my wife, behind my back, that I have Peter Pan syndrome.

But Pixar is about ideas, not pretty animation, and let’s face it, sometimes it can be entertaining no matter how appalling the visuals are.  Pixar is like a fiercely intelligent romantic partner who is unattractive as shit.  So this morning I had to watch Inside Out.  The main character is a cute girl– my wife wants to spawn these things, and it’s the depiction of everyday life in playful movies like Inside Out that makes the idea of children slightly less scary to me. As I watched the main girl’s emotions become personified by cartoon characters in a control room, I thought about how metalheads could really learn a lot from this.

 

Personality states vs emotions

People are relentless in talking about emotions in music.  What these emotions are is less clear. Also, what people are less prone to speak of is the fact that humans experience emotion by way of a set of tendencies towards discreet personality states, which themselves have been constructed over time as means of both integrating and interfacing with long-term memory.  According to at least one psychologist, Inside Out is fairly accurate, and the reason Pixar movies make people so emotional is that they usually hit a home run depicting the commonalities of human life.

 

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A traumatic life experience causes the main character in Inside Out to suffer a change in the stability and predictability of her personality states.  The trauma in the movie involved a move to a new city when the main character is 11.  Myself?  I had an idyllic childhood playing in fields of wildflowers, so I couldn’t relate to the moving thing.  But I thought of my own major turning points– moving away from home to go to college (and during college, changing from “good kid” identity to “drug-slamming burnout” identity); surrendering my youthful ambitions to a boring office job; and finally, much later, getting married.  Each of these stages reflected a veritable destruction of what constituted my personality up to that point.

 

Music

I maintain that most of the time, we listen to music because it is entertaining or makes us happy.  Setting aside, for this experiment, the subject of listening to Pantera or Six Feet Under for catharsis, I want to think about the music experience as something that is directly pleasurable.

Among the metal-as-instrumental-voyage people, claims are made that individual passages in a composition invoke different feelings– one might be sorrow, another ecstasy.  However, this seems patently dishonest to me.

The musician may have felt a certain way– and the music may sound like the corresponding emotion– but I don’t think many listeners experience the music as a succession of actual subjective moods themselves.  When listening to folk metal (or 00s melodi-core, for that matter) do your own subjective states fluctuate every minute or so between frothy rage and sublime bliss?  No; I daresay that if you were constituted of such a hair-trigger emotional makeup you would avoid such “dynamic” music like the plague.

  DescentIntoMadness

For most of us, the experience is in fact both more basic and more abstract.  It’s basic, because the difference between a moody passage and a harsh passage is really little more than a change of timbre.  It’s interesting because variation is interesting in and of itself.

The experience is abstract because the different musical “moods” make us think of what different moods symbolize or mean to us.  But thinking about something is all together different from actually experiencing the mood firsthand.

Right now I am pointing mainly at various forms of metalcore, folk metal, experimental black metal, “post-metal”, and progressive rock that interpolate passages of light and shade.  Sure, the first time I listen to a folk metal album I may be tricked into falling into a genuine nostalgic emotional state during the opening section of peaceful acoustic strumming and babbling brook sound effects.  But then, when the primitive black metal section kicks in, it’s not like I suddenly become filled with rage and hopelessness.  No.  I just experience irritation at being yanked out of the preceding peaceful reverie.  Now you can say that reaction is the point, but at the end of the day that is a pretty cheap trick, and one I am going to learn from quickly.

We learn to hear music based on associations and expectations and life experiences.  After learning that every single folk metal album in existence is going to thrash its melodic opening into oblivion a minute later, I will quickly stop letting the intro sequences of such albums lull me into having an emotional reaction.  Part of my critique of the, shall we say “less thematically-consistent” forms of music, then, is that they rely chiefly on cheap parlor tricks that lose their potency the first time you hear anything from the whole genre (yes, I understand that there are folk metal exceptions that are thematically consistent, like Agalloch’s The White).  Now I do recognize that there is one functional justification for folk metal’s interposing of acoustic strumming with irruptions of black metal screeching– it makes for interesting experiences if you fall asleep to it.

But generally speaking a real band will never resort to such clichéd parlor tricks.  For example, there are some moments of genuine musical darkness scattered across Static by Huntress.  The song “Mania” borders on doom metal and captures the fear of losing oneself.  However, the music of “Mania” does not interrupt the genuine aura of ecstatic energy that suffuses the album.  Instead, the darker textures add tension and dynamics.  In other words, instead of altering the wild mood of the album, the menacing parts actually brighten and highlight the overall theme of joyous, reckless abandon.  Also, we’re talking emotional contrast across the level of the album here, not the individual song.  The goal is not to achieve two different contradictory emotional states in one song, it’s about fueling one emotional state across the course of an album until it blows you through the roof.  We all recognize that, it’s called contrast and album flow.  On the other hand, slamming two completely disparate styles together, essentially putting two songs together in denial of all songwriting logic– that is called shit songwriting.  The most extreme example is also the most ubiquitous– the harsh verse / saccharine clean singing chorus / breakdown hybrid– though I suppose you could argue that bands like Eskimo Callboy and IWrestledABearOnce take it to such an absurd place that it transcends any critique.

Metalcore is so easy to tear apart that it isn’t even funny, and besides, it’s like beating a dead horse.  My real critique of thematically-inconsistent music is the concept of what I call micro-emotions, prevalent in the dark progressive rock beloved by the metal hipsters (e.g. Intronaut, Arcturus, modern Enslaved, Rosetta, modern Paradise Lost, and dozens of nameless ones that only appear on Decibel and MetalSucks year-end lists).  These micro-emotions are emotions that are alleged to exist and correspond to certain passages in an album, but in fact are mere phantasms.

In truth, there is not a different emotional state correlated with each different note that exists.  For one thing, there are not enough human emotions.  We each have a handful of emotional states that we tend to slide into.  On the happy side, there is the ecstasy of freedom, of falling in love, of conquest, of discovery, of adventure.  Then there is nostalgia related to memories of those aforementioned sources of ecstasy, together with sentimentality about familial and fraternal love.  On the unhappy side we have anger and sadness.  Any one of these states besides anger– ecstasy, nostalgia/sentimentality, and sadness– can be infinitely sublime.  However, someone who is emotionally stunted, or doesn’t possess the requisite life experience, might not relate to those big emotions.

Emotions, blank

Music that denies the basic, “big”, potentially sublime emotions– and instead posits the existence of tiny, tinny, nuanced, subtle micro-emotion– is both dishonest and unfulfilling (usually hipster music).  The sublime is nearly the opposite of subtle.  Sublime emotions, be they made of infinitely subtle ingredients or not, are beautiful and possibly overwhelming:  people don’t cry tears of joy because they are experiencing a “subtle” emotion.

You know my opinion– if you’re a musician and can’t do big emotion, then just go for rhythmic/structural sophistication a la death metal.

But hey, what do I know.  Maybe I simply have not discovered the nuanced emotional palette that enables a person to skip from jumping with joy to weeping all in one composition.

One time when I was nine or so I said I hated music, probably because I was mad that I didn’t get it.  A decade later, when I learned that Led Zeppelin went hand in hand with falling in love and getting high and getting off, I had a very different attitude.  I’m not even saying that musical meaning is socially constructed.  In fact I would argue against that hypothesis.  Hell, if you want to know the truth I think the godly music is discovered pre-existing in the Akashic field or whatever, left for us by the Gods, and can convey powerful emotions and complex ideas.  But you have to live life a little to unlock the secrets to hearing it.

#9 Dabblers and Perfectors

To simply say a band like Huntress is an updated Judas Priest is massively missing the point and unduly reductionist.  First, it is putting form over substance.  What do people like about the Judas Priest “formula”?  The speeding anthems for the open road?  The magnetic frontman?  The searing guitar work?  Of course, any one of those three things is transcendent when done right, almost by definition.  When done right, those things cannot be “like” anything else.  No, such reductionism is akin to saying that because Judas Priest has lightning-powered, rollicking songs led by a charismatic singer, they are a Led Zeppelin clone.

This also brings into focus the concept of songs.  What do we love about, say, catchy Metallica songs?  That they are good?  That they are original?  An original song is not reducible to anything.  An original song is a thing in itself; a unique musical map.  If it can be reduced to anything, it is sheet music.  The particular stylistic characteristics are secondary, which is why other artists in entirely different genres can cover a good song, or why an artist can render an acoustic version of a good metal song or even a good electronic song.

Finally, a brilliant performer can be imitated, but never copied.  No other person on the planet has Jill Janus’s voice.  Even if we cloned her in a vat, it is dubious that her clone would contain such a righteous soul, a prerequisite to truly nuanced and impassioned vocal performances.

Falling head over heels in love with “genres” is what gets us into trouble and leads to us having C.D.s that need reselling.  Since bands with singular performers and good songwriting are so rare, it is understandable that us music fans from time to time succumb to the magician’s trick of technicality, and are seduced by subpar music in the process.  We can all bear reminding, if you are enjoying the technical parameters of a genre that is all well and good, but do not get so befuddled in the process that you can’t recognize a truly great artist when he/she arrives.  A corollary is that I am guilty of listening to some music that can only be truly understood when a person is extremely high, but if I can’t even sit through the whole album sober, it probably isn’t truly good.

As metal became more specialized, the need for songs diminished, if you can follow me.  There is really no such thing as truly good NWOBHM  metal that doesn’t have good songs.  As the thrash drama unfolded, the music became more and more defined by blazing speed and complex compositions.  In defiance of convention, you really can have good extreme metal that doesn’t have good songs.  When you are stoned higher than the clouds, does a song need to make sense in the traditional sense?  No.  If the track’s Byzantine unfolding “looks” cool projected on your third eye, it is good.

You know though, thinking back to my original point about Judas Priest–  the more I think about it, the more I doubt that any critic in the history of rock has ever seriously dismissed a band by just saying “they are like Judas Priest”.  When would-be critics dismiss something in that manner, it’s not them being serious, I think it’s just because they’re tired and lazy and don’t want to actually listen to something and then come up with something thoughtful to say.

 

Modern Music

But sometimes lazy ideas catch on even if they are devoid of reason.  Sometimes truth is not intuitive or apparent on the surface.  Other times, a pack of painfully literal thinkers will have a loud voice and gain an early and unfortunate chunk of the popular opinion on a subject.

Take, for example, the idea of musical trailblazers in the context of the current musical climate.  It is, in fact, a greater prize to find a band today than it was to find a band back in 1975, or 1995.  This should be obvious–  look how hard it is to find good bands these days– but for some reason it isn’t. To say that Huntress is as good, for instance, as Accept, or Manowar, might be controversial to some people. If for no other reason, some will rebel against the idea on the basis that Accept did their brand of speed metal decades earlier, and ergo, were trailblazers.  The easy, unthinking conclusion people make when two bands play in a similar style, is that the older band is automatically better.  But that is illogical and denies the primacy of good songcraft.  Moreover, anyone who knows musicians or has a handful of favorite metal or rock bands from the last decade knows at least one thing– line-up changes are a near constant.  The music economy has degenerated to the point that it is generally accepted these days that bands can only survive by touring, and that record deals are far less lucrative than they were a generation or two ago.  Perhaps most devastating of all, the kingdom has decreed forthwith, that no rock & roll band, no matter how good, shall ever again gain artistic leverage or zen inspiration in the riches, drugs, and groupies that, like sandy atolls, once lined the warm seas of rock & roll success.  The argument can be made, then, that it takes a better band to survive and release multiple albums these days.

Another reason why the “trailblazer” band is not automatically better than a subsequent “perfector” is that many so-called trailblazer bands (especially in rock) are more preoccupied with form over substance.  Now on the other hand, I despise a melody or rhythm that “reminds me of something else” when I hear it, and uniqueness is often a natural extension of musical talent.  But by the same token, is it not harder and harder every year to unearth a vein of originality, of “novelty”?  If it is so hard to find a “new chord progression” or groove, is it not possible that some of the new bands (the ones that buck the odds and come up with original songs, that is) are actually better than the trailblazers?  It borders on paradoxical.  But one thing I know for sure is that when I was a stoned college student, there were these ultra-weird grad students with pallid complexions who thought The Pixies were better than Nirvana.  Man, being aged a mere quarter-generation longer was all it took for them to be so damn wrong.  You almost have to feel bad for them.

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This reminds me of a conversation I had with a co-worker last Summer.  It turned out that he liked some metal, and I mentioned that I regard Avenged Sevenfold as leading the pack.  His response stupefied me.  He said, “aren’t they just kind of a re-hash of Metallica?”

WUT.

#8 Tearing Down the Curtains

The metal-herd isn’t into the wild & crazy lifestyle I talked about in my last post.  Maybe they are like my wife (if my calculations are correct, she is Lawful in alignment, using Dungeons & Dragons terms, with a distaste for genuine chaos).  Or maybe the metal-herds are– well, let’s not sugarcoat it.  Most are sweet, virginal, oh so jealous haters.

Certain Decibelite critics face a genuine challenge with Huntress, Blood Ceremony, Avenged Sevenfold, the most popular albums from Corrosion of Conformity, AC/DC, Metallica, and Megadeth, and can even balk at Municipal Waste.  Not to mention ALL ROCK & ROLL.  They pay lip service to Rob Halford only because it is metal law to do so.

For the stoic who doesn’t welcome the intrusion, hearing the diamond-sharp voice of Jill Janus is like looking at the sun.  It is a call to live life.  The euphoric guitar solos of Avenged Sevenfold threaten to tear the drapes down and blast light on the shoe-gazing stoics and bedroom skeptics.  Municipal Waste embody a larger-than-life spirit from the past that awakens uncomfortable feelings– of having missed out on something fun.

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The oppressed modern metalhead now finds his gaze fixed on the visage of a being very different from himself.  A newcomer like Jill Janus or M. Shadows is strangely familiar, shielded in the brawny invulnerability of classic metal, truly evoking what He-Man would look like, if that archetypal hero meant to us now what he did when we were children.

For some folk it sounds paradoxical, but to the extent Manowar is absurd, or that Judas Priest or Huntress occasionally borders on camp (e.g. the awesome “Sorrow” video, with lyrics penned by the 17 year old Jill), it is made more serious in exactly equal proportion– as only a madman or true hero literally laughs in the face of death.  As Udo would say, “I’m living for tonight.”

But leaving behind a world of hooded mystics and noble savages, heroes and dragons, not to mention wine, women & song, modern metal has pulled its tail all the way through the wormhole, and now resides in the desolate realm of the cold machine god.

The reclusive metalhead worries that to fully acknowledge a band like Huntress, a traveller outside of time, as legitimate and an equal would be tantamount to admitting that metal has made no structural progress, that at the end of the day, the rock & rollers were right, all that matters are songs.

But to dismiss the traveller for being “retro” is equally devastating, for now the poor modern metaller is making an admission that his own contemporary precious metal heroes will be irrelevant in a decade or two– which is indeed tantamount to denying the existence of any canon or way of ordering the world.

A few might posit that to be truly epic, you need to be both cutting edge and have great songs. But “cutting edge” is  a concept that is even more subjective than what constitutes a good song.  It’s not just the underground metaller who knows almost all his indie metal bands would be annihilated by such a stringent two-pronged test of greatness (to be crystal clear, I do not believe that the concepts of “technical innovation” or “cutting edge” compose a definable/valid prong on any such test.  If anything, greatness is a function of pure songwriting ability combined with raw conviction– when that alchemical combination occurs, the result is unique / “innovative” by definition every time).  Lacking any articulable argument, the worst of the Decibelite / MetalSucks crowd chooses to reject the occult maestros of Huntress and Blood Ceremony (mysteriously, he may accept Ghost), but cooks up a reason immune to accusations of sexism or hipster/nerd technical obsessions– he just makes the bald faced lie that the bands are average.

But such a lie is easy to see through.  In at least one parallel dimension Huntress are the biggest metal band on the planet.  Starbound Beast and Static sound like long-lost greatest hits albums curated for the impoverished denizens of our world by an old and loving portal-hopping wizard (this mysterious benefactor could be the same character depicted in Black Sabbath’s song “The Wizard”).

the wizard card