Sunday, September 26, 2010

Glossary pt.2

As requested,


The telltale sign that you're listening to not just metal but extreme metal in particular, is a certain busy drum rhythm that aficionados call the blastbeat. Metal adopted the technique from hardcore punk initially and not without some internal friction has it become a metal music staple. To understand the blastbeat one has to first understand the polka beat, and to understand the polka beat one has to know a few things about rock and roll in general.

Rock rhythm is usually in 4/4 at moderate pace, with accents on the first and third beat (kick and snare, respectively), divisors being hits on every count on the hi-hat. Go on, play that in your head. You're playing the backbone of sixty plus years of music right there. This is a very simple beat which allows for a lot of personal interpretation, variation and humanization. Many rock drummers enjoy playing slightly in front or behind the beat to suit the feel of the music. Feel, generally, is more applicable in slower tempos. The faster music gets, the more important it becomes for the divisions to occur clearly.

Early metal music added a lot of propulsion to the rock drum formula by adding syncopated kicks between the snare on the third beat, or straight up eighth notes on them throughout and other such slight alterations. However, the faster the rock beat became (and as noted before, metal music tends to the extremes) the more it becomes simplified to the 2/4 basic beat of polka music by necessity. To clarify, polka music and culture have nothing to do with metal music, it's just a common name for a certain technique: Kick - snare with no divisors between the two accents, just a hi-hat or other cymbal on the beat. This beat became predominant in metal during the heyday of thrash and somewhat earlier chronologically for punk music. The difference between the two schools of drumming is mostly one of rigor: metal drummers obsess over metronome efficiency at high speeds whereas hardcore punk drummers were fine with being sloppy if the end result connoted immediacy and panic. In either case, the polka beat has a very driving pace, perhaps physiologically it could be likened to running, one foot after the other with equal accent on both (drummer skill and sound design allowing).

Now, extreme music being what it is, the polka beat was eventually pushed to its extreme too, especially within the confines of hardcore punk, a type of music not very concerned with constant clarity like comparatively virtuoso metal music. The polka beat pushed until the distinction between the first and second accents is unclear, is a blastbeat. To the uninitiated, watching a drummer play a blastbeat seems as if he's hitting everything in unison on every accent, hence 'blasting'. However as the ears become accustomed to the flurry, the one-two division can still be felt. Blastbeats were introduced in metal music largely by Napalm Death and perhaps made a more distinctive impression in the work of one of the early death metal band, Morbid Angel. They were used by them usually in brief statements and embellishments. Being a hardcore punk staple, they were initially seen with some suspicion in the metal world, but in the end the need for speed won over the argument for debatable musical merit. Double-bass drumming and the capacity for an even blastbeat at high speeds are the bare perquisite skills for modern day metal drummers by result.

Blastbeats have become increasingly faster too, pushing speeds of 250 bpm (to get a grasp of that number, it's about four hits per second). Athletic and dexterous metal drummers now employ a host of specialized techniques to keep up at this pace, and those with such ability are highly sought after in the extreme metal world. This explains - to a degree - why drummers tend to belong to a plethora of bands and side-projects at the same time. I will not venture an extensive guess as to what other psychological and educational forces at are play that contribute to this, suffice to say that extreme metal drummers might enjoy putting most of the emphasis on the 'extreme' part of the equation: if I get to bash more stuff/faster, yes I will play for your band.

Blastbeats became common in two main genres of metal music: death metal and black metal. They are employed in these contrasting types of extreme music in subtly different ways. My opinion is that the biggest telling on whether you're listening to death metal or black metal is not aesthetics and lyrics and vocal styles, but the manner in which blastbeats are employed.

The blastbeat is a curious thing. It was borne out of the need for speed, as explained, yet it doesn't capture propulsion in the way its cousin, the polka beat does. Even that, in turn, lacks something a brisk rock beat has. Namely, divisors.

As mentioned, a rock beat has a suspended hi-hat hit on two and four of the 4/4 pulse. This serves as a dividing agent that tells the listener "this is one part of the linear progression of the rhythm, and this is the other". We thus learn to follow the kick and the snare as primary directional forces, they dictate a marching pace and purpose.

The polka beat, because it is faster and it becomes increasingly difficult to shove divisors in there, omits the hi-hat between the accents and only retains the hits that occur simultaneously with the kick and snare which are therefore, somewhat masked by their clamor. The result is a faster pulse but not necessarily faster pace. The polka beat in thrash metal instead depends on palm-muted rhythm guitar parts to act as divisors. Meticulously sound-designed to stand out in the mix, they dictate the in-between pace, and therefore thrash music sounds propulsive and linear as well.

However, the blastbeat, being as fast as it is, usually occurs in unison with the smallest element of guitar rhythm. And if it's not (there are some fast guitarists out there) the issue becomes one of clarity of sound design. And even if the sound is dry and crisp and properly mixed, then it is an issue of brain capacity: there's only so much processing the brain can make of disparate musical events before they all sound like a blurred soup. Extreme metal listeners have been training their brains for decades to keep up with that pace of information, but for new listeners, current top metal drummers might sound unimpressive in any other metric than that of decibels.

Music set to blastbeats then tends to not actively sound fast like a runner, it just sounds rapid, like a stream. Death metal, a production of thrash and therefore very concerned with conveying speed, used to deal with this problem by using the blastbeat sparingly. In the context of surrounding polka beats, straight rock and roll beats and double-bass rock beats, the sense of propulsion could be retained. Morbid Angel on their seminal debut, employ this technique. Blastbeats are sparingly used and even then their beginnings and endings are very prominently accented so the listener is always clued in as to the where and why of the composition.

However a slew of latter day death metal bands pursued extremism for its sake and their music is often described as a blastfest. The end result sounds barely controlled, or often outright chaotic. This is used to positive effect by some crafty musicians, however.

Black metal music, which came into prominence in direct contradiction to the popular death metal paradigm of the time, consciously employs long streams of blastbeats in a different way. They slow them down so that their bareness and simplicity is audible and they do not often accent the beginnings of bars. The end result is active but curiously still. Propulsion is sacrificed for constant and equally applied force. Furthermore the usual sound design of black metal is that of obfuscation in washes of distant-sounding reverb. It is in this way that black metal music strives to achieve a sense of trance, much like certain types of electronic music. The kick drum especially is of much less priority in black metal, to the effect that sometimes it seems one is listening to a sea of snares.

Black metal's trajectory towards trance and hypnosis lead to the logical conclusion of rhythms built on drum machines, which can play completely evenly and for as long a time as required and never quit your band to go join someone else's more successful outfit. This ties in with how much black metal is made by solitary individuals handling all instrument, vocal and programming duties, and goes some way to explain why there is so much black metal out there.

More terms to be dissected as they come up.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Wait, what? Comments?

I said in the Preemptively Answered Questions post that after externalization, the secondary point of the blog is for communication on the topic of Heavy Metal. Blogger defaults new blogs to open comment mode, which means comments get posted as people post them without any managing by me. So I had made a few posts here, with many many hours of toil behind them and I was under the impression I had not gotten any comments. I was going to keep going on, hoping that people would comment later on perhaps, but it was a bit disappointing nonetheless.

However I now realize people have been commenting all along. Please don't think I am above replying, I just didn't notice. I have replied to most comments in past posts below and will endeavor to engage with interesting thoughts posted here for as long as the blog goes on.

I'm switching comment notification on, now.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A simple graph

Click to enlarge. Don't mind some simplifications, it is meant as a guide to newcomers. Every single entry to the timeline deserves posts and posts disambiguating it, but for that stuff you can go to wikipedia, right?

Monday, September 20, 2010

Absu - Tara

Released in 2001 by Osmose Productions

Sir Proscriptor McGovern - Vocals, Drums, Keyboards
Shaftiel - Vocals, Guitars
Equitant Ifernain - Bass

"With warriors like these, he won victories wherever he went. . . the heroes of a legend never really die, and a hundred years was neither here nor there for the Celts. Their champions remained unfettered by logic and could even be reborn through the transmigration of souls."
- Jean Markale

An occult belief system hinges on willpower; What is in binding effect in life - according to such doctrine - is not a physical reality governed by positivist axioms, but a shared communal dream-vision which is mutable according to what our will makes manifest. Therefore, eschewing Aristotelian concepts of causality, the occultist chooses to believe in their cosmology not because it has been enduringly proven and tested in external reality (or indeed, because anyone else tells them they also believe) but because they seek to make it manifest through willpower. Believe in the bridge and the bridge may hold you.

As a thoroughly atheistic being, I've always approached the religious or occult aspect of metal with a grain of salt. I believed my nascent quasi-ideologies as a teenager to be informed by reality and I only trusted them insofar as I could see they were the result of what is loosely considered by leftists to be 'historical necessity'. It's a dry mind-world, that, in which believing in nonsense was merely believing in nonsense. Heavy Metal shaped me extensively, but I only acknowledged its influence on my gradual adoption what I now realize is 'magical thinking' very much later.

Occult metal itself is difficult to parse unless the listener follows a similar path and is familiar with the semiotics that are constantly referenced. As I have never involved myself in any sort of occult study, I never could. However I came to appreciate it through, curiously, Heavy Metal that I considered to be much different to it and free of occult ties. This Heavy Metal, I realized slowly, is informed by the same basic existential concerns that occult metal is and as such it proved a stepping stone in acquainting myself with the latter.

Metal music on the whole is preoccupied with internal/external tensions. The cognitive dissonance between what one feels inside and what the world tries to violently convince them really is. They tell you you go to heaven after you die but you feel inside that after death there is only worm-food left. They tell you to work hard and be humble to get ahead but you feel inside that this world should be yours and work is for fools. Metal music glorifies the individual and trusts on their high functions to see them through the perils of community. At the same time, it is very aware of the low animal drives in the human and glorifies them as well. Anything inside you is sacred. Anything the world tells you should be inside you is suspect. Metal music belongs to nerds and outcasts and introverts exactly because of its awareness of this duality. Whom amongst them has not, at an early age, felt the pull towards higher ontology as an escape from the perils of the flesh? Some read sci-fi and fantasize about a life amongst the stars (and very far away from the flesh). Others get into role-playing games where they explore their desires safely away from the flesh. Others get into occultism and summon intangible forces of lust and power. Others listen to Heavy Metal and dream of a world where willpower dominates, where those that suffer less, and therefore are equipped less to manifest their will, subordinate to their domination of the Grand Maligned.

Heavy Metal is one of many ways for those that fear intimacy to justify it to themselves. Fear of intimacy, self-loathing and unfulfillment are the world-wide symptoms of humanity. Metal offers a bottleneck through which to safely explore some aspects of an otherwise overwhelming reality. It educates on interpersonal relationships with fantastic inner constructs of 'the other'. If this is all starting to sound like occultry, well... All Heavy Metal is in effect, occult metal. The music album is, when profound beauty is captured, a small ritual meant to suspend belief in communal truth and glorify the inner desire of the listener. The metal musician is not giving the listener a gift with the album. In fact, any beauty that the listener may capture from the monument to another person's narcissism, has to be violently wrestled away from the source. Metal musicians make metal music for themselves and they seek to take energy from their audience. The audience that manages to instead take energy for themselves through the ritual of listening, are not friends or compatriots to the musician at all. They should instead graduate to making their own art eventually because the channelling is much more exact in this fashion. The progress through the ages of Heavy Metal can thus me illustrated: series of independent, slightly insane alchemists, publicising the results of their latest project as if to say “I have done it, fools! See what you can chip away from this monument, what you can wrestle away from this Gordian knot, if you can”. Those that drink the concoctions are not consumers (with friendly consumer rights and other such nonsense) they are victims. This is why owning 5,000 LPs doesn't necessarily make one a valuable source of wisdom on music. What they have absorbed and what they're confident to speak about because of their time with music, does. A collector anxiety doesn't necessarily lead to that. Metal artists secretly (or not so secretly) loathe the consumerist mindset and it's the source of much anguish that the more successful they become, the more they're tied to the whims of consumers. When you hear a metal musician say things like "We do it for the fans", nine times out of ten you should run as far away as possible.

People don't easily get over Heavy Metal once they get really into it, and those that never did will never understand them. One can listen to metal music just for the catchy melodies and rhythms for all their lives and not get it. Or one may listen to metal music for years without acknowledging the spell that is weaved when they get really into it. They might scoff at the ignorant manchildren that have taken metal to be something akin to a religion for them. And it is detestable on some level, to see grown men worship the artifacts of the self-discovery of other, bigger men.

But is it the worship of the artifact, or what it could mean that ensnares listeners? Heavy Metal doesn't make tidy sense. There's lots of unexplored corners in it. It creates an ambiguous space, open to interpretation but very catalytic to an expression of personal fantasy, desire, will. It's like a conduit. All Heavy Metal is what some mockingly call 80's metal "Dungeons & Dragons metal". It serves the exact same function as sci-fi literature and role-playing and all that: let's pretend my willpower shaped reality. What kind of world would that be? Those that graduate from listening to other people's metal to making their own are those that are the most affected by the power of this process. They told you you couldn't do anything of value in this life, but this music allows you to shape a world. Not 'the' world, but then, they never mentioned there are more than one worlds...

Modern living scoffs of one's desire to tyrannically shape 'the' world by willpower and force and for good reason. However it is the duty of the individual to the individual to realize that while his community will never accept his Quixotic fantasies, he must treasure them, glorify them, take them to their logical conclusion, inside. This is the only way for the fantasist to remain alive. Tearing out your fantasies is the same as cutting off your own head. This is why people turn to the arts, a pure creation space in which they may manifest in as tyrannical or gentle terms they desire, their own reality. All art is narcissistic and all human beings have a beautiful narcissus in their hearts, gazing at their warped reflection in the mirror pool. Listening to Heavy Metal is much more interactive than listening to pop music because the metal listener needs to wrestle anything beautiful away from the creator of the music, to make the entity the creator summons, their own entity. The telltale mark of this process is when the listener graduates to being a creator of worlds themselves.

I don't believe in free will. I do not think there is some metaphysical force tied to the physical body that I call 'Helm' which makes pure choices about my future. I believe completely and thoroughly that everything 'I' have done so far is the result of all the inner and outer forces that are applied on me, on which I have no metaphysical control. And given that these forces remain the same if we were to rewind time, the exact same sequence of events would have played out - and if not, it would be due to quantum irregularity, not because of my Helmghost living in my brain or my tummy or wherever. I don't seriously believe in the concept of self, even. Yet, I listen to and create Heavy Metal, a music that glorifies will even at the face of destruction.

It has taken me a long time to parse why. It seems what I believe and what I do are asynchronous but after all they're not. I do not have any choice but to find beauty in the idea that I have a choice. This realization has helped me immensely to realize that ideological systems are very petty things to which we retreat to out of fear borne of a challenged inner-reality. Neither is my positivist/humanist/leftist ideology nor my determinist bent in conflict with the high romance of Heavy Metal. After all, my fundamental existential beliefs, that things will be alright in the end, that my story will make sense and perhaps a contentment will be achieved before I die, are as irrational and fabricated like any the axioms of any occult belief system. I may have no god, but I have hope, and hope is always a thing of human sentience and magic.

As said before and will be said many times again: Romantic art does not lead to romantic act, I will never slay and conquer for my heart's love to thrive. I will instead, live communally as a member of a community. Inwardly I shal be, through art and word, what my lust desires me to be. Those that feel cheated by romance because it didn't make them into a god should readdress what it means a god to be. Heavy Metal is not a self-help book, it will not get you chicks and success in the workplace. If it is anything to do with other people, you've misunderstood it. They've got their own inner struggle going on, what about you? Heavy Metal defies you to tear from it any meaning you can. And like all art, it is a sort of therapy for it. Heavy Metal stabilizes higher belief (“try to find meaning in this”) while leaving the lower turmoil to rage (“fight me and slay me to achieve this meaning of yours”). Real life doesn't allow this, it tells you that your low impulses are ugly and you should always hide them. But the only way for the human to entertain high concepts is if their animal lust and desire that provides them the fuel for living, is glorified, is seen in all its endless beauty and horror. The narcissus longs to fall inside the dark mirror pool.

Today, I am callous
Tomorrow, I am king
Immortal, strong, exultant, and conquering

My song and my word are iniquitous
Gathering assemblies in days gone by

Fire burns with the Pillars of Mercy
My chariot races through saw-toothed hills,
And hurls through every valley and mere

Pillars of Mercy
Watchtowers collapse before the lift of the twilight,
I am swift in battle
My voice is heard

And Absu, oh, Absu are floating down there in the bottom of the pool. The vehicle of a Texan that has taken the name 'Proscriptor McGovern', they explore beautifully embroidered semi-invented mythologies which feed into their Occult belief system. Absu is a manifestation of an entity which Proscriptor both owns and belongs to, both worships and subjugates. That tension is volatile. Often Absu sound out of touch with any external reality, at other times they ride the serrated edge of demagogy (as in, I want to believe what they believe because it is so fervently expressed, not because it sounds correct - again, consider occultry) and at all times they are absolutely manic, raging in their self-worship. Imagine the dance around the ancient stone monument, the fever-pitch that it reaches, that is “Tara”. Are they dancing for their god anymore, or are they dancing for they've become gods? That fleeting impression is what Absu try to capture and prolong as long as possible, a cosmic masturbation beyond and above the concept of time and history.

Their vehicle is a curious middle point between old-school forms of Heavy Metal, full of power chords, palm mutes and ABCABCA riff structures, the linear drawn out melodies and screechy vocals that characterize the second wave of black metal and the infectious rhythmic backdrop of thrash metal. What does this all mean to the uninitiated? It means Absu on "Tara" hit the trifecta: the hooks are parsable and joyous but not to the expense of the romantic journey, and the savagery, it is endless and beautiful. A blooming, violent internal world to explore. Truly, very few metal records I've heard come close to the virtual expanse of Tara's landscape.

Blazing to their pikes
Turning to dust
Gusting with the wind
They dream of an older delusion

Reigning, raining
Dampening the empire
Their excursion burns with the ashes

Calm lakes mirrored
Glistening everywhere
They rove through the waters and fires

Silent seas paused
Enlightening low light
Their visions for imperishability

The weakened flesh
Expecting downfall
Their ashes spread through lightless, starless skies

The Eminence
Not expecting wind
They now think of a newer illusion

How did this happen? The morphology of this record is fascinating. The initial impression, as far as I can recall it from almost seven years ago, is that this record sounds thin, the drums too up-front at the expense of the guitars and the drum sound isn't that robust to boot. Also the singer had a lot to say. At the time I was coming from a mainstream metal background more or less and I had grown used to the uniform, sanded down and over-compressed sound of metal, so this took a few years of readjustment. But once it did I found a lot of joy in the jagged edges, for isn't a joyous life, brimming with violence and lust, a conception full of unexplained and unexplored edges?

"Tara" turns its seeming weaknesses in deep strengths: That the drums are high in the mix became justified once I started to realize just how much nuance there is to the drum tracks here (whereas the riffs are finely crafted but their form static). Proscriptor is not only the singer but the drummer and his choices on how to support the stellar riffing on display are worth much study. What this black/thrash mixture achieves, that neither ingredient on its own can, is a constant sense of propulsion through extended melodies. Black metal has the extended melodies, but it often relies on a rhythmic drone to underpin and mesmerize. Black metal of this type is a morphine drip journey downwards, through small deaths. Here instead Absu switch up the beat underneath the riff very often and always to the effect of something fast seemingly going faster, a tried and tested thrash metal technique. Where Absu show their brilliance and grace is in making their compositions - which are inherently riff-salad, there's not much harmonic movement here - cohere and seem linear enough to allow for fantasy and travel. A lot of thrash metal, in hardcore punk fashion, indulges on this or that riff for only a brief moment and then either starts again with a new one or ends the song. The sound of angst and discontent, to make an emotional parallel. Here Absu switch through great many riffs too but very rarely do I get the feel that they're stopping something, and starting something else. The deluge flows, and every aspect of the instrumentation contributes to this. The constant singing, which I once thought overdone, helps in this, and that the guitarists prefer the tremolo-riffed railroad melodies instead of more thrashy choppy guitar parts also lends linearity. There is very little empty space here and this record goes on and on, with no filler to be found.

That is the only criticism I have for this record really, it's too good to be this long. The senses are dazed after twenty-twenty five minutes of this assault. The second side of the record might not get the attention it deserves. I solve this by listening to the second part independently often, as well as generally listening to music in the way music is meant to be listened to.

The rest of my initial impression had to do with just how much the singer had to say in the course of the songs, and how much of it was impenetrable by my young mind. Well, I'm 26 years old now and I still can't say I've got a comprehensive grasp of the mythology here, exactly because it's so intertwined with what I guess to be Proscriptor's belief system. But it no longer matters to me to literally capture the intent, otherwise I'd be missing the point of this music. Tara is a record that most of all in my collection captures this feeling of a fantastic dream-world made manifest through sheer joyous willpower. And much like how in Dungeons & Dragons I do not want to be railroaded by the Dungeon Master into this or that path, I let my willpower dictate what this all will mean, what journey I will take. I do this in full knowledge of how Tara might not always let me do what I want (indeed the sound of battle and conflict is a defining aspect of "Tara") and that at all times, the journey will be finite, but for a time, believing in this bridge may make the bridge hold me.

I have made, for myself, a space within Time
I mutely descend to the cavity of my Cell
I am the furtive seeker ensnared Underneath

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Just went through the glossary post

...editing out many instances of 'often' and 'sometimes' and 'almost'. I tried way too much to allow for exceptions in my descriptions of usual metal tropes that it became counterproductive. I'll be describing the exceptions in a case-by-case basis anyway so there's no point to try to cover my ass when I speak in generalities. This brief post here will serve as a reminder to not do that in the future.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Glossary pt.1

Here's is the first part of a handy glossary of useful terms. It is meant for the metal initiate but even if you've decades of metal music behind you, you could do worse than fast-reading through. If you'd like to mention other confusing terms relevant to metal, go ahead and I'll be sure to address them in the second part.

The Riff

A riff is the foundation of metal music, but it's not its invention. It's usually just a short melodic or rhythmic motif as found in nearly all popular music. What makes it a riff and not just one of many themes musicians might employ in the course of a song is that it is incessantly repeated, both many times in a row and then returned to later in the structure. Its purpose is to be catchy, hook the listener. In pop music, the return to the main theme of a song is usually through harmonic progression and other means so as to be a climactic event. Often in metal music is it instead obfuscated by a great number of additional riffs of equal strength. This is called a riff salad type of composition. The term is pejorative generally, though there are many bands that achieve peculiarly successful results by feeling their way through a composition with endless riffs.

Riffs are usually guitar phrases in metal, but they do not differ fundamentally from vocal or keyboard hooks in other pop music. Metalheads like to draw a sharp distinction between their stuff and pop, usually by mentioning the surface similarities between the former and classical music. In truth, the vast majority of metal is usually less or equally composed to pop music (and certainly less composed than any classical music piece) because it is too strongly anchored to the middle-structure of the riff. Micro-structure (nuance and change within the phrases) and the higher structure (the flow of the whole composition) are usually neglected or left to occur completely reflexively.

The definitive statement on the progression of mainstream metal from the '70s onwards is that the riffs got plentiful and more complicated as the genre grew and harmonic sensibility (once inherited from both folk music and Beatlesque rock n' roll) took the back seat. Metal songs from the '90s may have more riffs than whole albums from the '70s. Yet this doesn't mean the riffs cohere to an overall composition with flow and movement. Exactly because metal focuses on the riff structure, tonal shifts are neglected in metal, as is supporting harmony. Most metal songs either keep to a single key throughout or are all over the place in a chaotic flurry of riffs upon riffs that move around the neck seemingly at the whim of the performers hands. The usual harmonic support of most metal riffs is the power chord.

The Power chord

A simple two or three finger chord on the guitar where there is a root note, its fifth and optionally the octave. This is the foundational sound of metal (and punk) rhythm guitar. Often riffs are made out of melodies that are then played with power chords in parallel, that is where the fifth in the chord is never diminished or augmented to fit the scale the music is in. For the metal musician "fifths always sound right". It's useful to keep in mind that metal music, no matter how ambitious it is in scope, is predominantly made by musically semi-literate artists. To understand the compulsion of riffing, one needs to just pick up a guitar and play the riff of 'Smoke on the Water'. Addictive, isn't it? Metal music is the result of masses of self-taught and/or music-theory deprived musicians toiling in private to perfect the riffs that come to them through improvisation around short forms. This explains why harmonic movement is limited (because harmony needs more rigorous study to be understood). However, this is also one of metal music's greatest strengths because through the unorthodox obsession with the riff, musicians arrive to novel solutions to compositional issues. The end result might not have the usual grace of thoroughly composed music, but it has its own quirky beauty for what it is. Constant Power chords following the melody destabilize it by not providing a colorful chord progression that foreshadows resolution. Indeed, often metal melodies resolve in unorthodox ways, or do not resolve at all. This, along with the constant fifths makes them sound equally forceful and driving at all the points of them, yet slightly confused. Odd, but full of character. Dynamic nuance is traded in for force. To convey accent and direction to the melody, power chords are often alternated with palm muted single picked notes, usually on the top two strings.

Palm muting

The practice of resting the cut of one's hand on the guitar bridge, partly muting the strings and then striking them. The muffled sound sacrifices tonal clarity for punch. Usually employed as a rhythmic fill-in between nodes of the melody, though some bands like to compose in that space as well. The playing of palm muted triplets is very characteristic of metal. Introduced by Black Sabbath and endorsed heavily by Iron Maiden, often called the 'gallop' riff, like in Rossini's William Tell overture. Or to make a more telling reference, the Lone Ranger opening theme song. A mid-'80s development on palm muted rhythm guitar playing occurred with the rise to prominence of American thrash metal. Since then, palm mute chops are rated highly in the metal world and we've come to the point where no matter how distanced the sub-genre a mainstream band belongs to is from thrash metal, it's a given that they'll have post-thrash technical rhythm guitar chops in there somewhere.

The solo & the lead

The practice of one of the instrumentalists taking anything from one to sixteen or more bars of time to perform virtuso feats on their instrument. In metal music it is most often the guitarists who take solos, unlike in jazz where usually the whole ensemble takes turns improvising before returning to the theme. Unlike jazz again, metal solos are usually composed beforehand, perhaps with some interpretative space somewhere in the middle. Sometimes metal solos are harmonized between two or more guitars. Again, the trend from the inception of the genre towards today has always been on showcasing increasing technique and speed. Guitar solos in metal music sometimes offer more compositional interest than the song they belong to but sadly, it's more often the case that, characterized by the frustration of the self-taught metal musician, once the time for a solo is up, almost anything goes even at the detriment of the mood of the rest of the composition. Metalheads easily accept intrusive solos in their music and celebrate their highest virtuosos with a sense of vicarious pride.

The lead is a more nebulous term. I tend to use it to describe distinctive guitar melodies that occur in metal music and do not belong structurally, to a solo bit. Often it's used interchangeably with the term solo. Many atmospheric metal bands employ almost constant dirgeful lead guitar that wouldn't be done justice to if they were called solos. The distinctions are blurred once the leads become technical and busy enough to sound like the typical metal solo, or when lead guitar work bridges into the solo structure proper.


Taking an instrument tone and running it through an amplifier, overdriving it so much that the waveform peaks and rumbles in an aggressive manner. It is extremely characteristic of metal that it took what was once considered an unwelcome byproduct of amplification, and made its most enduring banner. Something ugly into something beautiful.

Guitar tone in metal is over-distorted, that is to say its dynamic range is flattened. Metal guitars are often schizophrenic: either very loud or completely silent. Metal guitar playing technique rests on this default that less manual force is required to play an overdriven instrument than a clean toned one. Many would be surprised on how softly modern metal guitarists play if they could hear their pre-distortion clean channel. Metal music compensates for the lack of dynamic range of its distorted lead instruments by applying distinctive sound design principles. Guitars are overdubbed extensively and panned around to create a space that the original rehearsal room in which the performance was captured, is very unlike. Guitar solos/leads are overlaid in higher or lower volume than the guitar initially outputted. The end result is strangely Baroque: dynamics are more a matter of introducing or removing extra voices and/or making the existent voices busier, than they are the result of the performers hitting their instruments softer or louder. As you might have come to expect, the trend from the '70s to today is to make guitar distortion more robust, equalized and over-compressed. Modern metal bands often sound inhuman and sterile.

Killer double-bass

One of the clearest signs that you're listening to metal music is the metronome-like clicky-clicky sound in the background (or in some cases, right in the foreground). That's the drummer kicking one bass drum with each leg, or the same bass drum with a double-pedal, at sixteenths over tempos going as high as 230 beats per minute. Much is made out of a metal drummer's athletic ability to maintain constant battery of this type for long durations and at high tempo. In extreme metal in particular, this skill is valued over traditional strengths of drummers like solid meter and creative feel.

The reality of it is that often the end result is much unlike the sound captured in the rehearsal room. The natural sound of the kick drum is much flatter than what ends up on the mastering tape, where equalizing and compressing of the signal is employed to make it punchy and clicky enough for the constant sixteenths to register as they do. Often the kick serves only as a trigger for a sound of a digitally treated drum sample to come in and replace in the final mix. Finally, uneven double-bass triggered kicks are easily quantified in the mixing stage to become metronome-perfect. The trend of metal music from its inception onwards is to remove human blemishes on recording takes by any means necessary. The attraction to this sort of battery is the masculinity of linearity: Machine-gun like, rigid and martial, double-bass anchors the rhythmics of metal and propels the music in a single direction. Doubled with metal post-thrash rhythm guitar, their thundering unison is the sound of modern metal.

This is like, extreme, dude!

Along with 'brutality', one of the terms metalheads enjoy employing the most when discussing their favorite music. Extremity is a culturally flexible label. Metal music was once considered extreme on the whole as compared to blues and hippie rock, as they were once considered extreme compared to what came before them. Many of the early incarnations of metal are now considered tame enough to be placed next to other 'classic rock' acts that dads might listen to.

Adverse to this fossilization, aficionados of extremity are always looking for the next band that will play faster or slower, harsher or meaner, more sterile or sloppier than everyone else, yet still retain musically discernible structure. Extreme music as a concept has almost eclipsed metal music. It's one of many genres such as drone, ambient, metal-core (a combination of metal sonics and hardcore punk aesthetics/ethics) or industrial, under the same banner. Listeners interested in metal are expected, in a modern cultural climate, to be interested in all these other cultural artifacts as well.

In every case, extremity is judged by how expertly an individual band hones on one of the aspects of their sound design. The fastest or heaviest or slowest band wins. The effect of this is that many of the so-called extreme bands are anything but. Because their scope is so narrow, the resulting music becomes normalized, boring, inoffensive. Furthermore, it seems we might have reached the limits of sound. How much faster or tighter can a band perform before the result crumbles in incoherency? Will 10 miliseconds make the difference between last year's most extreme band and the next years?

The counterpoint

A very strict method of composition where many melodic voices are overlaid at the same time, devised by J.S. Bach. The particular composer is loved by many for the natural beauty of his work and the almost mathematical depth to his process.

In metalhead terms, the much less structured attempt at overlaying three or more independent leads at the same time. The difference is one of rigor. It is very telling however, that untrained musicians such as metalheads often indulge in this sort of composition in a trial-and-error way. Composing every little bit by asking 'does it sound good? If so, keep it, if not, move the fingers around on the fretboard a little'. What could it be driving the ill equipped towards such grandeur?

There's dissonance

A word many extreme music record reviewers love to throw around. When two notes are struck at the same time, there is a melodic space between them that characterizes their relationship. Hitting a piano key that we consider the root note, and the key right next to it, is a second interval, for example. The power chord is made of the root note, the fifth interval and the eighth interval, as mentioned.

Some intervals carry inherent connotations for us. The minor third is often tragic, the major third hopeful. The fifth sounds, well... perfect. There are evolutionary theories on why we have such strong primary reactions to frequencies but for the purpose of understanding dissonance, just keep in mind that specific intervals sound inherently uncomfortable to most listeners. The minor second interval is the most distinctive example. Metal bands that employ these intervals (and stack them, that is to say, play many such intervals together at once) are said to be "caustic, dissonant". This effect is considered pleasant in its unpleasantness for many. The theme of masochism in metal music listening is one we will be returning to often, as it ties in with the romantic ideal of pain as purpose.

...and consonance

A word not many extreme music record reviewers seem to throw around.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The 3rd and the Mortal - Painting on Glass

Released in 1996 by Voices of Wonder

Ann-Mari Edvardsen - Vocals, Keyboards
Finn-Olav Holthe - Guitar, Keyboards
Trond Engum - Guitar
Geir Nilsen - Guitar, Keyboards
Bernt Rundberget - Bass
Rune Hoemsnes - Drums

Many additional musicians helped in this recording.

The 3rd and the Mortal were a Norwegian group. Their origins were in the 'doom/death' metal genre and from there they moved towards an amalgamation of such with ambient and electronic music. Their shift from here to there is documented in their four full-length albums and two EPs between 1992 and 2002. "Painting on Glass" is their second album, released in 1996, which straddles the apex of that evolutionary curve.

Doom metal is simultaneously the oldest kind of metal, as its characteristics (ponderous pace, extended song lengths, rhythmic austerity (no 'groove') and relentlessly dark lyrical and aesthetic subject matter, often concerned with personal anguish and existential futility) were those defining the first metal band, Black Sabbath, and one of the youngest as it has been formalized as a genre and cloned extensively only by the late '80s. Black Sabbath's early '70s material was not considered doom metal when it was first released as the term did not yet exist. In fact at the time, there were no metal sub-genres. 'Heavy metal' was a term coined to describe vaguely clumsy and loud rock and roll acts and it was an initially pejorative term at that. The co-opting of it and the further specialization in smaller sub-strands was the result of its rising popularity during the market heyday of metal, in the late '80s. In any case, any and all doom metal bands since adopt some their characteristics from Black Sabbath's palette. Other aspects of Black Sabbath -as interpreted often through Judas Priest or Iron Maiden - were extrapolated upon to give rise to almost all the other sub-genres of metal.

Death metal is a late development, occurring in tandem with the resurgence of doom metal in the late '80s. It is instead fast and visceral, it takes its morphology from thrash metal and hardcore punk and pushes the mix to a chaotic extreme. The most defining characteristics of death metal are the growled, inhuman vocals and its morbid fascination with depictions of death, disease and decay.

Doom/death is a British invention, typified by the band Paradise Lost and furthered by many in the early '90s. It takes from doom metal the sound design and dark lyrical matter and marries it to death metal's vocal extremity and bipolar tendency towards extreme speed. Their anemic progeny is dressed in frilly garments romantic and wept for extensively. Doom/death is really more than the sum of its parts, though it's unfortunate it never got a better moniker than the exact sum of them. It is unlike death metal in that it is entirely humorless. Death metal, concerned as it was with the nonsensical and random risk of mortality, carries a 'horror show' aspect, as if there's nothing to do when you see a horrible car crash but laugh. Consider also how some watch splatter films in a jovial manner - these are the people that at the time started death metal bands. Doom/death however services its morbid existential concerns with a framework that closely mirrors Romanticist notions and ontology. The car crash is not just the result of life's design, but a monument to its deepest principles, it is as beautiful as it is horrific. The implication is - as in 'The Birth of Tragedy' - that the purpose of drama is the affirmation of life, the re-appreciation of the here and now. It is often said that those that speak often about death and their desire of it are the ones that are safest from actually committing suicide - it's those that silently ponder death that reach for it. Likewise doom/death's morbid fascination seems to dispel the magnetic pull towards death, it instead incorporates it into life and so makes weakness into strength.

The 3rd and the Mortal did not employ any growled vocals in their records, nor are there any excursions into choppy thrash-inspired supersonics. However they were obviously influenced by the those romantic metal foundations laid by aforementioned British bands. They instead employed female operatic vocals and varied extra-instrumentation to broaden their palette. They were accompanied in this evolution by a great number of other graduates of doom/death in many countries around the world in the early '90s. This sub-strand of a sub-strand was later defined by some predominantly European journalists as 'atmospheric metal' and would become much more popular for a time than the genres it spawned from, before collapsing in and on itself. An unfortunate term, for what sort of useful music lacks an atmosphere? Nonetheless, one that clearly describes the direction metal music was taking in the early to mid '90s.

"Painting on Glass" sounds very much like ambient music, also. It it mostly gentle in textures and rhythmics and welcomes the listener in its introspective space. It could be used as background music, like ambient music is intended for and yet it takes a wholly different shape when listened to with undivided attention. Each piece is built upon few riffs yet has a progression to it and more importantly the succession of the pieces conveys a storytelling arc that could be lost on the inattentive listener. The material alternates between a mid-tempo pulse that seems largely the same for all the pieces that have it and weightless floating for the intermediate instrumentals that surround. There are only a few pieces that have distorted guitar chords as their backbone - an otherwise definitive aspect of metal music. More showcase delicate acoustic arpeggios along with extended & sustained guitar lead work on top. For long-time listeners of metal music, it must have been baffling at the time, to hear so many trappings of metal music (riffs, robust percussion, shimmering lead guitar) divorced from their common surface qualities (distortion, dry mix). This tendency was thoroughly explored in that decade of metal to the point where the definition of metal itself in the minds of many, drifted to include any rock-based music that is vaguely loud and imposing. It is something modern appreciators of metal music generally do not know: their tastes that now cradle anything from industrialized dance music to sloppy stoner rock to shapeless drone ambient to lowbrow hardcore punk as being metal, are the result of uncoordinated and unintentional efforts of now forgotten 'atmospheric metal' bands in the '90s.

The sound design of the album is remarkable. For most metal bands the performance captured in the studio is the absolute guide to the sound design. That is to say, an engineer is employed to augment and stylize the physical quality of the playing captured. The staccato bursts of activity, the sharpness of the stops and the pummeling drive of the rhythms. Here The 3rd and the Mortal take a very different approach. The mix is very even, every layer can be heard and no voice floats many decibels above the foundation. Dynamics are conveyed not by fluctuation in volume of individual parts, but by introducing or removing voices from the whole, almost like a baroque approach to mixing. Guitar leads hit accents as soft as the acoustic instruments that riff the context, the bass drums do not cut through as they usually do on metal records. Everything is washed in delay and reverb like on gothic rock album, perhaps. There is little treble to the whole, middle frequencies dominate and sand off the edges of the stone.

It is in this sound design then that The 3rd and the Mortal approach the idea of 'ambient metal' most of all. Their gentleness is of a wave, the continued flow and ebb and implied pulse is what characterizes this album. Even the silence between (or sometimes inside) songs seems to bid farewell to past and introduce future riffs seamlessly. That said, there are builds that lead to violent crescendos, but the peaks also slope back into the great plateaus that characterize the majority of the album's length. The vocals are layered and wet with reverb as well, giving them a spectral quality. There is no exerted passion to them, they carry sombre melodies like suspended lights flickering in the mist. And what do they sing about?

I am bound to past
And stagnant presence
Sallow faces, seducers
Seize my threads of mind

To suscipe pre animabus illis
Quarum hodie memoriam facimus

Common experiences for human beings are few. Hope and hopelessness, a sense of unreality, the passing of time. The rest which we pretend to be public domain is not. Each of us feels complex emotions differently and our language is only a tool for facilitating the friction between our subjective lives. Language, when employed to describe how we are alike in any other way than the fundamental, is a weapon meant to convince others of their sameness.

People make small-talk of the weather, isn't it funny? Seasons are primary and universal. Cold, warm, blooming, humid. "Painting on Glass" is an autumnal record. Not because I listen to it more at that time of the year but because whenever I listen to it, it conjures the feelings of Autumn in itself. That is generally, the power of great art, not to augment the daily lives of those that peruse it, but to manifest with force its own rule and dare the recipient to engage it. To survive it. "Painting on Glass" wages war with gentility, but a war it is, still. Who survives a war unscathed? Art that leaves one unscarred is only a plaything.

Autumn is often defined by memories of overcast skies, falling leaves and of rain. But a defining autumnal experience is also that of the new day after the rain, the smell of the earth opening up and the vibrant, almost unreal clarity of the atmosphere. In emotional parallel, "Painting on Glass" travels from a sense of sorrow, loss and resigned torment, to that of a solace, quiet and respite. The pendulum levitates weightlessly at the extremes but quickly returns to the long travel in the middle. This is also how The 3rd and the Mortal sounds, persistent and fleeting, never touching on extremes for more than a short moment. It is a circle that inspires both ugliness and beauty, mixed and varied in value but conserved in its palette.

I gave you my word
And the shafts of light
Opened the sky

But as your shadow rise
Passing colours in your mind
I bow down silently

I gave you my love
As the rusting trees
Sprinkled blades on the ground

And as your shadow rise
Passing colours in your mind
I bow down silently
Creeping frost pits my skin
Crystal orchids blooming

It often feels as if this music wants there to be no end to this back and forth. The romantic impulse is essentially narcissistic: I suffer therefore I am. I can tell of beauty because of pain. Those that do not suffer cannot appreciate true beauty. This is the terror of the pendulum motion, the endless sway that marries extremes to each other. But as the pendulum eventually comes to a rest without external force to fuel it, so here we do not truly run in a circle, but up a spiral fueled by human hope. Painting on Glass obfuscates its hope with the many beautiful flowers of hopelessness. behind its trajectory a guiding hope of teliosis. Not to say that this is a fantastic vacation in a horror sideshow meant to titillate and educate and once one leaves and returns to their normal life they can gloat over their brief stint with depression. Hope is hidden deep, here. Exit from the seeming circle of "Painting on Glass" is difficult, the record is long and not many will be attentive when it delivers.

The pulsation of my blood
The pressure splits my skin
Magma floats
Burns feeble flesh into ashes
Sulphurous screams in my head
In a petrified soul

Romantic music is inspired by terror but arrives to hope. There is awe in terror, there is awe in internalizing violence but violence is ends to different means: desire. This is why Romantic art will never be outmoded. As long as humans live, they will desire. And the desire of something greater, of something purer and clearer, is hope. We are trained in docility, but hope still burns hidden, shameful, inside us. Ultimately the desire is of theosis. Of immortality and absolute control of the inner and the outer. In Greek, the word for perfect is 'telios', whose root is 'telos', the final end. This is how hope feeds back into terror. To be perfect, you must not be. To live forever, you must die. To understand Heavy Metal, think of how these concepts resonate not in you the adult with your embroidered dress of common sense, but instead on you the shy, introverted teenager, feeling like an alien being inside your own skin, misunderstood and directionless, waiting for life to arrive. Is it a wonder that the premise of absolute control achieved only through self-flagellation and misery is attractive to the teenage psyche?

Heavy Metal is informed of this path, of birth, life and death. It is heavy exactly because of the weight of this realization. It is metal because it revolts to the path, it wildly gesticulates alternatives in full knowledge of their futility. It is intensely tragic, hope. This is a life in itself, that state of mind where beauty is eternally married to horror. The grace of such art is not easy to quantify but it is easy to feel. Romantic art does not inspire romantic act; We shall never conquer life through death, never destroy the old world to give birth to the new. Romantic art, taken literally and especially when looked upon with the eyes trained in modernity, is ridiculous. But what else is ridiculous is any true desire one feels in their heart and this is why we do not show each other our hearts easily. We are trained to scoff at romance in favor of some cynical, intellectually and emotionally bankrupt sense of 'realism' to which I am certain no human being alive truly adheres to. There is no real, but there are advantages to claiming otherwise.

Heavy Metal inspires one to abandon some of these advantages of participating in the play. Like a peculiar form of self-inflicted social autism, it asks naively, "Why be ashamed, what's there to lose but everything?". It pleads to unravel the romance in our hearts. Heavy Metal is an embarrassing thing and it's no wonder that, for those whose dalliance with it was limited, a need to put distance between themselves and that period, is a priority. As if to atone for their brief amour with romance itself. "I was momentarily deluded in my youth to think my youth would last forever, but I am older now and hear your voice clearly, outside."

The 3rd and the Mortal are very heavy here, but they are not crushing. Oftentimes, metal music is concerned with conveying weight and pressure with every element of its sound. Extreme shifts from fast to slow, lurching and uncoordinated to a machine-like unison crush, extremely loud to louder, all the while overflowing with minute surface information. The 3rd and the Mortal here are instead like anti-gravity. Airy and open to the point where one feels themselves suspend upwards, through the atmosphere and towards the greater darkness. It is there where nothing's left, where the boundaries between an external and internal journey are blurred. Like a sensory deprivation tank, the endless distance leaves only the inside for examination. "Painting on Glass" is a monument to the self-discovery that occurs in vacuum.

I want to inhale you like fresh air
But slowly you spin a cocoon and disappear
Let me open your seals and enter your garden
Let me seek to find your well
Then I'll sit down by the source
And wait for the deep secrets to reveal

I change with you
I extricate some threads
And make a place for you
Then I become you
And you become me

A useful lesson here for those that seek to make their own romantic art, especially Heavy Metal, is that the form is not as important as it might seem. What is important is the content and the intention it serves. It is too often that metal purists, disgusted as they exclaim to be with the state of modern metal, will revert their own stylistic efforts to some approximation of the genre tropes circa 1980. That music often succeeds or fails as Heavy Metal, but not because of its retro-conservative form but on whether it really has intentionally crafted aesthetic, philosophical and emotional impact as romantic art. Some people can only feel comfortable to explore romance when they're clad in denim and leather and spikes. Others - like The 3rd and the Mortal - do away with that dress code. At the time of their release, albums such as these were tagged as being 'avant garde' because they didn't fit in the existing metal canon. With the benefit of hindsight however, it is easy to trace a direct lineage from the aesthetics and concerns of Black Sabbath to them. There is nothing really 'avant garde' in the content of this album and it only serves to confuse the meaning of Heavy Metal itself to call anything that doesn't ape only its surface characteristics, something else.

That said, it is worthwhile to consider how The 3rd and the Mortal's trajectory through the arts did take them far away from metal in the end. In their next two albums (and in further offerings by resultant project 'The Soundbyte') the sonics slowly abandoned the riff as the morphological foundation and the lyrics became concerned increasingly with modern sociality and inevitably, reflections of life through the broken shards of post-modernity. There is a lot of merit in those recordings, but it goes to show that indeed it takes very little for something to become, or leave behind, metal. Romance and riffs, distortion and arrogance. The horror of loneliness and the salvation in individuality, the vilification of lust and the glorification of desire, order to chaos and order through chaos. Damnation and his beautiful sister. these are the ways to tell what Heavy Metal is. Once one knows what it inspires, they know what they desire.

Behind your door
Your name carved into a stone
Water in your hands

The Master List

Below rests restlessly a list of records. It will be amended often because I haven't made up my mind completely.

Updated Jan 2. 2011

The 3rd and the Mortal - Painting on Glass


Absu - Tara
Agnes Vein - of Chaos & Law
Anacrusis - Manic Impressions
Anathema - Pentecost III (did 'Serenades' instead)
Annihilator - Never Neverland
Atheist - Unquestionable Presence
Atrox - Contentum
Autopsy - Mental Funeral (this one's out)


Bethlehem - Dictius Te Necare
Black Sabbath - Black Sabbath
Blind Guardian - Somewhere Far Beyond
Bolt Thrower - For Those Once Loyal
Brocas Helm - Into Battle
Burzum - Hvis Lyset Tar Oss
Candlemass - Epicus Doomicus Metallicus
Carnivore - Carnivore
Cirith Ungol - King of the Dead
Confessor - Unravelled
Coroner - Punishment for Decadence
Dark Quarterer - Dark Quarterer
Deaf Dealer - Journey into Fear
Deathrow - Deception Ignored
Demilich - Nespithe
Depressive Age - First Depression
dISEMBOWELMENT - Transcendence into the Peripheral
Esoteric - Subconscious Dissolution into the Continuum
Evereve - Seasons
Forsaken - Dominaeon
Fleurety - Min tid Skal Komme
Fates Warning - Spectre Within
Fates Warning - Awaken the Guardian
Gorguts - Obscura
Heir Apparent - Graceful Inheritance
Helloween - Walls of Jericho / Helloween EP
Horrified - In the Garden of the Unearthly Delights
In the Woods... - HEart of the Ages
Iron Maiden - Iron Maiden
Jag Panzer - The Fourth Judgment
Jester's March - Beyond
John Arch - A Twist of Fate
Judas Priest - Sad Wings of Destiny
Kinetic Dissent - I Will Fight No More Forever
Kingsbane - Kingsbane
Kruiz - Kruiz
Legend - From the Fjords
Litany - Aphesis: The Sapience of Dying
Lordian Guard - Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God
Manilla Road - Crystal Logic
Master's Hammer - Ritual
Maudlin of the Well - Bath / Leaving Your Body Map
Mayfair - Behind
Mayhem - De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas
Megadeth - Rust in Peace
Mekong Delta - Dances of Death
Memory Garden - Tides
Mercury Rising - Building Rome
Mercyful Fate - Melissa
Metallica - Ride the Lightning
Moahni Moahna - Why
Morbid Angel - Blessed are the Sick
Morgion - Solinari
Mortuary Drape - Into the Drape
Motorhead - Bomber
My Dying Bride - Trinity
Negura Bunget - Om
Neurosis - Times of Grace
Nevermore - The Politics of Ecstasy
Nigro Mantia - Poetry of Subculture
O.S.I. - Office of Strategic Influence
Obituary - Cause of Death
Omen - Battlecry
Orphaned Land - Mabool
Paradise Lost - Icon
Pik - The Heritage of Past Gods
Primordial - To the Nameless Dead
Psychotic Waltz - A Social Grace
Queensryche - Rage for Order
Riot - Thundersteel
Rosicrucian - No Cause for Celebration
Rotting Christ - Passage to Arcturo
Sabbat - Dreamweaver
Sacrosanct - Tragic Intense
Sanctuary - Into the Mirror Black
Savatage - Hall of the Mountain King
Saviour Machine - I
Scald - Will of the Gods is Great Power
Secrecy - Raging Romance
Septic Flesh - Esoptron
Shadow Gallery - Carved in Stone
Sieges Even - Life Cycles
Skepticism - Lead & Aether
Slauter Xstroyes - Winter Kill
Spiral Architect - A Skeptic's Universe
Tiamat - Astral Sleep
Titan Force - Titan Force
Tyrant - Too Late to Pray
Unholy - Second Ring of Power
Varathron - Genesis of Apocryphal Desire
Virgin Steele - Invictus
The Vision Bleak - Carpathia
Voivod - Nothingface
Warlord - Deliver Us
Warning - From a Distance
Watchtower - Control and Resistance
Windham Hell - Reflective Depths Imbibe
Xerxes - Falling Leaves
Zephyrous - A Caress of War & Wisdom
Zen - Gaze Into the Light

Preemptively Answered Questions

What is this?

This is a website dedicated to the thorough critical examination of one hundred Heavy Metal albums that have had a lasting positive influence in my life as well as the assorted general musings that they may inspire. We must test the things we love in this life.

And who are you?

You'll know more that matters about me after reading through this site than you'd ever from a couple of paragraphs worth of a bio. My name is Telemachus Stavropoulos. I am Greek, 26 years old. On the Internet I go by the handle 'Helm'.

So this is a review site?

Yes and no. There will be in-depth examination of certain albums. Their sound design will be described in some detail and some theories on their social context and possible impact at large might be offered. The gist of it will have to do with my personal experiences with the material, which are unashamedly subjective. All these qualities are often encountered in various mixes in music review sites. However there is baggage that comes with the term 'review' I wish to avoid. This is not intended as a buyer's guide. Nor do I write to enjoy the status of the tastemaker. The music discussed, offspring of an already fringe permutation of rock and roll, is irrelevant to the world at large. But it's important to me. Important enough that I approach it slowly and draw my conclusions slower still. There will be no attempt to keep current with the various metal trends on display in 2010 and the purpose of this site is not to support itself indefinitely.

So why are you doing this?

Self-expression is an end in itself. I seek to engage in meaningful dialog with readers over the subject of Heavy Metal, secondarily. As I have internalized these select pieces of music for a long time, I feel there comes a time when externalization is not only therapeutic but also makes for the foundations of dialog of a certain caliber that the usual chit-chat over ephemeral pop culture artifacts doesn't reach for. Metal music especially seldom enjoys such dialog. It is instead serviced by fanciful writing by professional tastemakers whose brief infatuations with whatever is new this week may divert from a more in-depth assessment of what this music means for lifelong lovers of this art. I don't begrudge them their role but I am not serviced by it so here we are.

It's worth mentioning that English is my second language. When one borrows a language, they adopt a host of cliches along with it. This is the nature of imitation (and will be a recurring topic when discussing the history of metal elsewhere on this site). Though I've been trying to prune my English from this unfortunate effect, that it is my second language guarantees I'll never get them all because I cannot spot the cultural baggage of each and every expression that comes to me. This, combined with various grammar or syntax errors, means I do not classify as a good writer. The dubious upside is that you will not find 'beautiful writing about beautiful writing' here. The envelope is not the message.

So this is about metal, right?

Not exactly. Metal music is pretty bad. I've listened to a lot of it and the vast majority of it I'm sad to say is completely beneath notice, like with the products of any other pop cultural stream. When one is neck-deep in metal however, they begin to find positive aspects to largely throwaway records. And the reviewer especially is prone to talking about the little they find that is worthwhile for as long as they can milk it. That is called, I understand, a career in music journalism. This website stands in opposition to that effect of media oversaturation and instead seeks to underline only the necessary and essential in this music. To take from the 'metal' only the Heavy Metal.


For as long as I've been discussing with other metalheads on the internet about our shared interest, I've had to play an allegorical game of tug-of-war with them over the definition of metal music. The problem, I realized, was not that we disagreed on the dry description of the metal sonics, it was instead in what implied meaning either party prescribed as necessary to the art before it could be called such. My point of view often was that for music to deserve to be called metal (note the prescriptive categorical), riffs and catchy melodies would not be enough. It would have to engage with the listener on a higher aesthetic and philosophical level, and there it would strike romanticist cords. It would have to deal with the existentialist question of death, of the draws of of lust and desire, of the horror and hope of sentience, of the struggle between the internal and the external, of the violence between individual and society. Others often found such restrictions before the word 'metal' could be uttered, needlessly narrow.

Over the last few years I've became slowly aware that most people that are, let's say, philosophically allergic to romanticism yet still listen to loud music for other reasons, would tend to strip Heavy Metal, of its adjective. It is my understanding that the common implication to doing so has nothing to do with brevity and everything to do with modernization of the concept. Heavy Metal is old and banal and metal is the music of the now. The reasons for this line of thinking are many and will be discussed indirectly many times. What followed this realization however, was my aversion to the idea that (post)modernity has anything to offer to Heavy Metal by stripping it of its qualifiers, leaving it vague and open-ended. Regardless of the intellectual validity of that stance, “Some metals are weak” I theorized half-jokingly, and regressed to qualifying all 'metal', with 'heavy', antagonistically. I would go on to quarrel with many about romanticism versus post-modernism using the symbols of metal versus Heavy Metal, all the while unaware that we could disentangle our thoughts by segregating our contrasting definitions. As is often the case, no-one is right, which is to say, everyone is wrong; Words are only as useful as we can agree they are and in this spirit I've adopted the following terminology when discussing this music:

Metal, or 'metal music', belongs to everybody. It can mean whatever anyone wants it to mean and most often when discussed on this level it means 'loud guitar music, lots of distortion and pummeling drums, shouts or growls, extended guitar solos'. Any statement I make on 'metal' will be most often descriptive, such as “metal music came into prominence during the early seventies”. I do not pretend such statements are facts, but they are intended as neutral and descriptive and they are grounded in commonly accepted history to the best of my knowledge. There is no ideology implied nor is the term secretly pejorative. I've become desensitized to that everyone can say anything and there's no point to argue about it over the internet. There's lots of merit in discussing about it, however, hence the value judgment-free term offered here.

Heavy Metal, in full-form and capitalized, talks of something close to my heart instead. Though I am open to the possibility that there are others with a similar sense of Heavy Metal in their hearts (I think I've met some of them over the years), I doubt such strongly internalized symbols are ever the exact same. Therefore when I talk of Heavy Metal here, most often my statements will be self-aware in their prescriptive qualities. In a sense I am not talking about something outer, I am talking about something strongly ingressive, and as such I am not afraid to attempt to capture it with strong words. It is, of course, safe from my attempts because human feelings are much more potent than the ideas that are inspired by them. It is exactly because I do not think the Heavy Metal in my heart has anything to fear from all my rationalizations that I regularly test it with words. We must test the things we love.

A statement like “Heavy Metal is about the glory of the continued structured existence against the natural state of the world, that of senselessness and chaos” or perhaps “Heavy Metal is about the celebration of inner chaos and senselessness against the external forces of social stabilization” will be found often in this website. Where between statements one finds contradiction they will in time see juxtaposition and hopefully in the end, uniting order.

There will be no clean-cut definition of Heavy Metal here, because this life is difficult and I am not here to make it any easier. If one wants to know what Heavy Metal means they'll have to read the whole project. If they want a simple answer instead what I take from that is that they don't want an answer that means anything after all. Anything that is worth exploring, is worth exploring to some extreme.

However I write this so the sensitive reader can rest assured, every time I rant on how their favorite metal bands are “not Heavy Metal”, I am not denying them their right to self-identify as being metal, whatever that might be. I am only presenting a dialectic between the 'whatever it may be' and my inner certainties, with which the reader may become aquainted over reading this site. Light casts shadows and shapes can thus be traced. It is irrelevant (though not insignificant – I'd appreciate to hear from you) if the reader agrees with me in my axioms to enjoy the process.

Is this intended for metal buffs?

It is not strictly intended, but I expect it will find an audience amongst them. After all people tend to read about what they already like because otherwise they're taking a big risk. Investing time into strange things often doesn't pay out. Perhaps it's worth mentioning that the texts will be written with the 'metal-curious' also in mind. Those that feel some attraction to their idea of what Heavy Metal could be but have been thus far reticent to check things out. Or more often for those that have listened to some music peers told them were good examples of metal and were unimpressed.

In any case, I expect the interested reader will be proactive. My descriptions of the sonic qualities of the records will be brief, where I will linger is on what I've learned from these records on an aesthetic, compositional or philosophical level. It is implied that the reader either has prior familiarization with the music or can go find it and experience it for themselves before continuing with the texts. This process is easy on the internet. It will pay for the reader to consider this project as being more akin to literary critique (minus the academic background, though) and less like brief record reviews meant to entice a sale. This is if anything, the opposite of brief and a lot of the items are out of print.

I will make a concerned effort to minimize the 'metal jargon' when discussing these records so the initiate or even distanced layman can follow. There will be a minimal amount of cross-referencing (“x band sounds like y band”) because I tend to think it contributes little to the discussion and the merits of the individual work. Most metal bands directly reference Black Sabbath, Judas Priest and Iron Maiden anyway. They will mostly (that is, aside of any talk of cultural context and lasting influence) be examined on their own merit. Every record will be approached as if it's the only record that has ever existed and deserves to exist because that's what it makes me feel when I listen to it. This approach has two-pronged intent: on one hand I want to disassociate my effort from the endless 'insider talk' of metalheads, who spend so many words to say what basically amounts to “I like this, you like this, other people don't get it, we're awesome!”. On the other, I sincerely believe that one doesn't need to know the whole story to appreciate great Heavy Metal. They don't need to have listened to four thousand awful records to appreciate the hundred gems I'll be talking about here. They just need to have a general evolutionary outline in mind and the rest is just... music, very immediate and striking. I can provide the basic vantage through the writing, in fact, that may be my only obligation to the reader.

How will you do this?

Methodically. I've assembled a list of hundred records out of many thousands I've been exposed to. I'll be going through them alphabetically. There will be no rating or grade system involved in this process at all as it is already implied these records are worthwhile by the premise of the project. Also worth mentioning is that such rating systems make a travesty of critique and only serve as a communicative crutch for 'buyer's guide' type of reviews at best, or a point for fan-boys to rant and rave for or against at worst. They sabotage any merit the text itself could have, perhaps not fatally so, but I'd rather not confuse the issue with mixed signals here. No numbers, only words.

A historic approach would be to tackle these by order of release, but I make no pretensions of this being anything but a strictly personal recount of my time with Heavy Metal. Instead perhaps I should tackle this list by order of exposure, but I no longer remember clearly when I've heard this record or that and which one comes first. Indeed it feels like I've been listening to most of these my whole life, which is sort of the point.

So what is left is the cruel alphabet. It offers me the chance to just jump in and explain as I go.

That's it?

Basically. I will be amending this post as more explanations are deemed required.

Listen here mister!

If you've got a question or statement, comment. Worthwhile exchanges will be made into posts in themselves.

If you're given to phrase statements as questions, don't expect me to answer. And if you consider double-talk, sarcasm and mockery as your main weapons in discourse, don't expect your comments to make it on the site at all. Seek that type of entertainment elsewhere.