Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Walls of Jericho pt.1 - The Cover

For those not about to scroll, I present to you again:

One of the stupidest Heavy Metal covers that I've ever seen. Really. But it'd take me a long while to understand why it's stupid. It's worth mentioning that I never thought this cover was cool, not even as a 12 year old. It looked too weird and plastic to be scary. The giant destroying the wall looked to me as if he were wearing a mask, that this wasn't his real face. Why else would he have human hands? 

I'm an artist now, I certainly wasn't at twelve, but there's things even a twelve year old sees from an aesthetic standpoint. They just take them at face value instead of criticizing them. It's supposed to look weird. For example, the broken parts of the bulwark that are flying about look like they're made from tinfoil or something. There's just too much highlight and liquidity to the forms, now I realize. I do like (and I liked as a child as well) the bits of storytelling to this cover. There's footsteps in the sand leading up to the scene, so this giant has traveled an epic journey to come smash these walls. And I do think the person flying off at top is kinetically well-done, I do believe he's screaming for his life wondering why his God wouldn't help him. Wait.

So...  yes. As I understand it, this cover, along with the name of the record are a reference (and an intro to “Ride the Sky”) to the biblical tale of the Israelites marching, their trumpets bringing down the walls and all that. I had no knowledge of this story when I got this record, and for some years after, actually. I read the Bible mostly for polemic reasons as a very angry fifteen year old or so. That aspect of this cover, now known to me, only serves to make this cover look even more silly. Helloween are telling us that this monster (which even at twelve I realized from my brother's Iron Maiden covers was an Eddie rip-off) is an agent of God of some sort? Well that's... nice. 12 year old Helm had no idea what white metal was at that point and just how many power metal bands (especially from the U.S). had a crypto-biblical message in their lyrics. Were Helloween a Christian band? Not very much, at this point. They would turn to even more positive Christian-lite apologetic sloganeering with age, and especially with their drastic lineup shifts. The jump from this, their debut to their 'Keeper of the Seven Keys' follow-up is very dramatic, though. This record's got a lot of bite to it, even the cover is violent, at least. 

Other things my 12 year old self noted and I still find funny about this cover: the muppetface spearman running towards us in the bottom right corner. The one chance for the cover artist to inject some human pathos into the situation and it turns out they can't draw faces to save their life. This must have been even worse in the original LP size. The way the artist gave up drawing proper masonry on the far wall, instead sticking to the Chris Achilleo patented solution of 'stick a sporadic brick texture in there and they'll buy it'. Less bad but still kind of funny is the airbrush sunset in the horizon. This technique, now very out of fashion is therefore very obviously dated. Some people have a soft spot of airbrushed Heavy Metal covers. I don't enjoy the muddy result even when I do enjoy the naive motifs.

Other things I liked and continue to like about this cover: There's a real sense of impact to the wall punch, I'll give the artist that. Good parallel action with closer people shocked at the event and further people running for cover. I guess that spear that the main defender is holding up against the monster is very sharply rendered and sticks out even at the tiny CD cover resolution, which is... good? The logo is ace. I love prespective logos and even from early on when I toyed with starting a band, a top priority was to draw its logo-to-be in various prespectives. Prespective rocks! More a problem with the logo is that the symmetry is off. The pumpkin is not in direct middle. And it's maddening because 'Hell' and 'Ween' are the same number of letters. The artist just had to make the two L's take a bit more space each and it'd been... well, something a twelve year old would have dissected less endlessly.

As a Greek I wasn't very aware of what Halloween was, so the pumpkin head in the logo (and other iconography by this band) was more a Helloween thing than a Halloween thing, if you get my meaning. That goes double for the - awful - pun in the name. It's like Halloween you say but it's hellish? It's like, for real, man? Terrible idea for a name, I'm sure the band, later in their success, agrees. I had no idea at twelve it was even a pun. Look, I get that Heavy Metal names have to be inversions. Iron Maiden. Black Sabbath. Judas Priest. I get it. But putting the Hell in Halloween is just kind of stupid and obvious. It's saved for me because Helloween the band are infinitely more important than Halloween the dressing-up american holiday ever came to be. To carry this point further, "Walls of Jericho" is far more important to me than the Walls of Jericho themselves are. In a more depressing note, that monster on the cover is probably more important to me than his daddy, Eddie is.

As to those strange words on the cover. What is a Mini-LP? I sure like how it's Extra-long playing  though! I have this one CD to listen to for a year, good that's there's a lot of sounds on it! I didn't even know that this CD includes the 'Helloween E.P', however. And the cover doesn't mention it either. When I redownloaded a better sounding rip of this than I had made on WMA on my very first personal computer, I was shocked to find that the record starts with "Walls of Jericho", not "Starlight" as I had been used to for a decade and a half. For me that just isn't right, so we're going to talk about the Helloween E.P. both as a part and at odds with the rest of this material, starting with the next post.

Does anybody really need 71:30 of Helloween all in one go? There's record label pressure for you. It would plague Helloween and Gamma Ray for a long time, Noise wanting them to make their next 70 minute opus. As a child I would never put on a record and listen to just half of it, so this was an endeavor to sit through. I still don't like to turn 
songs off, but I have grown a lot more lenient with skipping tracks altogether. That's a practice that dates as far back as my infatuation with this record because let's face it... there's a couple of bad tracks on here. But we'll get to them.

Things I realized about this cover later in life are obvious, I guess. Heavy Metal covers like to have monsters and violence on them, so Helloween half-heartedly followed suit. The monster is an aforementioned Eddie rip-off, because all Heavy Metal bands owe it to their fans to have a mascot to make merchandise of. Little did young Helloween know that their real mascot potential was in silly pumpkin-head comedic caricatures and not in Eddie-son here. Kai Hansen would keep this monster when he would leave Helloween to go start Gamma Ray, for good or worse. I also learned that '80s cover artists like to airbrush and they especially like to do highlights with white airbrush, which looks awful and unnatural. In the same vein I also learned that most of these covers must have been done in a real hurry and without much reference. The latter perhaps is a good thing to make this art individual-looking, the former never is for any art, ever.

Edda and Uwe Karczewski are credited in the booklet for this creation. The idea for the cover goes to guitarist M. Weikath. We are all much obliged.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Walls of Jericho - An Introduction

Helloween's "Walls of Jericho" is a very important Heavy Metal record for many reasons. For one, it arguably is the starting point of the modern definition of power metal. There have been many 'power metals' since the early eighties and there has been even more confusion as to what the genre stands for, especially in contrast to what is now called the 'traditional heavy metal' genre. Helloween, though I'm sure they didn't expect to, helped clear the waters with the release of their debut but even more so with their follow up albums "Keeper of the Seven Keys", part one and two. 

But we'll get to all of that. "Walls of Jericho" is important for metal, but it's really important to me, personally. What I'm going to do in covering this very important item, then, is going to be different. Well, it's not like Poetry of Subculture has so far had a stable approach to discussing records, but in my head I'm deviating even further from my usual deviance here.

You see, this was in a strange way my first real Heavy Metal record. Before it I had only listened to Metallica. When I mean only, I am being very literal. I got into Heavy Metal at age 11 or so by having my father buy me "Master of Puppets". We were in a record shop, shopping for him and my older brother and he urged me to pick something up for myself as well, and I was drawn to the inexplicable malice of the combo of band & record name and that cover.

I didn't even own a CD deck, I just had this little tape player. My brother dubbed the cd on tape and kept the original (like the pack rat he was and still is) and man, I lived on that tape. I learned English to understand that tape (also, for adventure games). The allure of it is difficult to define because it is difficult to access; I no longer feel as I did for "Master of Puppets". You can see that in that it's not even in my Master List of personal HM favorites. But "Walls of Jericho" is.

For the next year and a half or so I managed to accumulate the full Metallica discography, all on tape, through my brother's English teacher. She had been very kind to give me these tapes, which I got in no particular order and rather slowly. I do not know if it was wisdom or just boredom that made her tickle out the dosage on Metallica, but it took close to a full year to get all the stuff from her. If I close my eyes I can still remember her handwritten song lists on the back of the tape. It's due to her that I still can't immediately recognize "Metal Militia" readily, as it didn't fit on the "Kill 'Em All" tape. It's her fault Dyer's Eve ends just after the first verse for similar reasons. Even today the rest of that song sounds so off to me.  Inno – cence! Torn from me with – out a shelteeerr! So off-key and annoying.

"Load" had just come out if you'd like to date this process. It should tell you a lot that I couldn't understand any difference, stylistically, between "Load" and "Master of Puppets". I remember very clearly that I didn't like it as much, but I couldn't tell you why. Boy, I can tell you now, but let's not.

For almost my first two years into metal, I wasn't really listening to metal (and certainly I had no concept of the full range of Heavy Metal out there), I was listening to Metallica. But I did have a taste of adventure and lots of alone time, so I decided to investigate further. I wanted to be a metalhead. I started reading Metal Hammer GR - a magazine of some repute then, mandatory reading for nascent metalheads. Not so much now, I started imagining myself with long hair, you know. I think this is a very common metalhead experience. It's been sixteen years. I turned 28 a few days ago. My hair is real fuckin' long.

My older brother had a friend who was selling "Walls of Jericho" for whatever reason. I think he was getting out of metal, or at least perhaps he didn't like the record. Man, I remember at least two older dudes getting out of metal at around that time. The second guy's story was hilarious. He claimed to have met the devil in his bedroom one night, hovering over his Venom and Obituary cds, which he threw out immediately the next morning. The kicker is that he went and picked them out of the trash later one because he figured, hey, might as well make some drachmas reselling them. God won't mind. I remember feeling equally scared and jealous at this nocturnal meeting with the Daystar. The fear has dissipated over the years, but the allure burns like a black flame.
I must have read something on Metal Hammer about how Helloween were a great band and you know, that's all it took at that point. To help you understand, I bought the Metal Hammer magazines out of a very meager allowance and I always felt guilty bringing it home, what with this King Diamond devilface on the cover and all these photographs inside of clearly villainous personalities. "Master of Puppets", with its rather diversionary cover was one thing, the magazines were another. Later on I would get my dad to buy me new CDs at the record store every few weeks, but early on I felt the type of guilt associated with Heavy Metal that I think is imperative to be acquainted with to understand why this music has such a hold on those that it enthralls. So I read about much, much more than I listened to new Heavy Metal records. Do you see how from there there is a line leading us directly here, me with a blog about Heavy Metal and you reading about it?

I bought the record used, for very little money. The person that sold it later on died of cancer. Unfortunate. I always remember this guy because I always remember "Walls of Jericho" and how I fell in love with it, how I learned what Heavy Metal was and furthermore imagined what it could be through it.

What I'm going to try to do is discuss every single song on the record from two vantages. One is the one of the modern Helm, with all his encyclopedic knowledge of metal music, the one you know from Poetry of Subculture. The other vantage I will try to summon is of the 12 year old Helm, the one who doesn't even know there's a difference between bass guitar and electric, the one who has no idea what 'double bass' is. It's not the only way to service how I feel about "Walls of Jericho", but it's really one of the most interesting ones.
I will start soon and carry on as time allows. Let's grow up together, strong and proud and very lonely, let's become metalheads all over again.  

Friday, May 4, 2012

Saints in Hell is a Perfect Heavy Metal Song

Goddamn it, I love this song. Morphology time.

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This is a very typical '70s Heavy Metal riff, as devised by Sabbath, Zeppelin and perfected by Priest. Its characteristic is its fluctuating between the seventh, the root and the third (with a small variation including the fourth). For those of you that don't speak music theory, these terms are easy to explain in a different yet more verbose way:

Think of the root as the foundational stone of the piece of music. It's usually the first note you hear (though on this song you hear a slide chord from the seventh to the root but Priest are beautifully gay like that) and the one you hear the most. It's the note you subconsciously wish for your ears to return to, it's your safety net and your Ithaca, your dream destination. Music that deprives you of this safe return is in some degree cruel. Music that diverts you from this destination but ultimately arrives there is either toying with you or challenging you (more on how to tell which later). Either way, it is making you feel things. Much of established classical music theory revolves around how to set up a tonal way point first, and how to return (or, 'resolve') to it in an interesting, yet keeping with compositional decree, way. Here's the riff broken down to just the tonal shifts, no embellishments.

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The third used here is a sad one, that is to say, a minor third, characterizing the scale of the song as a minor scale. Were it to be a single fret higher in pitch, you'd get a very different impression of this riff.

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Kind of gross, right? That's not only due to the minor-to-major change of this particular riff but the way any minor riff behaves when literally shifted about like that. I mean to say that a smarter major interpretation would involve moving the three-one and four-three a step higher to four-one and five-four, but let's not too much into that.

The seventh is the last note of the scale before it repeats an octave higher (therefore, an 'octave' note, the eighth, is just the root note one whole repetition of the scale higher). It's a note that makes the listener long for resolution, for a return to the root. Judas Priest aren't modern classical, they return to the root evenly most of the time, but check out how the riff hangs on the fourth instead at the end of each fourth bar. Judas Priest like the tension of unresolved fourths, we'll see it again in the chorus. Also a word about the seventh in this song, it's quite interesting. In the beginning it sounds like a slide from seventh to root but it's really a hammer-on from a 'strange' chord to a full root powerchord. What's the strange chord? It's like a seventh power chord but without the seventh, instead the root. Guitarists can very easily understand this by playing a single finger barre chord at the seventh position like so:


and then hammering in the full powerchord


How is this 'disguised' seventh chord then different from a proper seventh powerchord? Well, it's somewhere in-between the journey, it's even more eager to resolve. It's half-there, the foot's on the shore, so to speak. Judas priest looove this trick. As do early Deep Purple, in fact. Think hard, where have you heard this exact voicing before?


But that's a diversion, isn't it? Guess where Judas Priest really got this from:

The moment you stop hearing this and you hear proper parallel fifth sevenths to roots is the moment NWOBHM breaks out. Iron Maiden do not do this, it's too wimpy for their linear riff-terror. Everything must parallel, forever. It's really a '70s thing. Tool are influenced by Sabbath and Zeppelin, not by Iron Maiden, you see.

All that said, this is a very simple riff. In fact, only AC/DC would conceivably find a way to play this riff with even less 'parts' to it. They'd probably remove the initial hammer from disguised seventh to root as they would remove the in between notes from first to third, cut out the swagger but add groove by involving the up-beat more. Something like this?

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There's also an overall presence of the fifth note of the scale but not as part of the chord progression, but inside the chord voicings themselves. The hammer from seven to one in the beginning also has in there a fifth. The fifth stabilizes, but it also colors the sound as very 'metal'. Wherever you hear something that isn't a single note here, you're listening to parallel fifths (that is, fifths that are perfect to whatever note they're the dominant of) The power chord makes this riff metal. Were this to be played in a minor scale relying on the third more than the fifth, it'd sound something like this:

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Weirdly different, huh? This is more emotional in a way, perhaps, but it's a grand characteristic of Heavy Metal music to *not* be played like this. In fact the moment you hear that sort of harmony in a HM song, you can date it to post 1985 at least. If you take this a step further, you're listening to ISIS, really.

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The weird thing about this riff to me is that it's not very impressive on its own. It only starts to move when the band goes into a groove with it and eventually Rob Halford comes in with his vocal line on top. The emotion that's missing with all the parallel fifths in the chords is serviced beautifully with that violin-esque vocal line. Whereas a modern metal band would try to do both things with the choppy riffs, Judas Priest knew then how to not overplay and let their lead instrument tell the tale.

As to the chorus, I expected it to move to an inverted (that is, an octave down instead of higher in pitch) fifth as is very customary for this sort of early Heavy Metal, but instead it's an inverted fourth, the exact pitch the verse riff hangs on, then. Let's listen to it:

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As you see this riff hangs on its own fourth, that it to the relation of the root, the seventh. Not only is the listener here anticipating the resolution of this verse riff's fourth into the somewhat-established but transient tonal, the return to the verse riff provides true resolution from seventh to root. It's beautiful and tidy.

The other interesting thing about this chorus riff is that it omits a lot of steps in an imaginary chord progression, instead adding in a wobbly tremolo tease. It's a playful chorus line that a lot of latter metal guitarists would instead pack with staccato trills and other flash, something like that perhaps

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But that just doesn't move like the original. That's the sort of arrangement detail that only comes from a full band rehearsing material and being brave with changes. '70s Heavy Metal originators were innovators by virtue that there wasn't a 'script' to stick to to begin with. This sort of vitality is inherent in '70s Priest. No matter how many tight and complex riffs an '80s US Power metal band would later cram in a song, there's an excitement here that was lost in that the '80s US Power band already was well aware of the script that Priest laid down.

From then there's not much guitar to transcribe. There's a pause with just drums. Then there's open root power chords, and then the second guitar starts playing a series of minor third chords in an ascending melody. And then the song erupts.

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From there it's a return to the initial verse riff.

The song structure is the following


Which is generally speaking, a pop song structure. But there are so many little touches in here that are not simply embellishments. They are there to perform a function. The only way to understand that function is to look at the lyric, and where it ties in to the music.

Verse 1:

They laughed at their gods
And fought them in vain
So he turned his back on them
And left them in pain
Now here come the saints
With their banners held high
Each one of them martyrs
Quite willing to die


Wake the dead, the saints are in Hell
Wake the dead, they've come for the bell

Verse 2:

Cover your fists
Razor your spears
It's been our possession
For 8,000 years
Fetch the scream eagles
Unleash the wild cats
Set loose the king cobras
And blood sucking bats


We are saints
In hell
We are saints
In hell
We're going down
Into the fire
We're going down
Into the fire

Break Riff:

The streets run with blood from the mass mutilation
As carnage took toll for the bell

Abattoir, abattoir, mon Dieu quelle horreur
For a time is was like second hell

Saints in Hell

Verse 3:

The battle is over, the saints are alive
How can we all thank you, we felt so despised
Saints in Hell

To understand why this song is so awesome, we have to come to terms with at least a little of what mister Halford is telling us here. As usual with many Judas Priest lyrics, there's a lot of symbolism going on. The song seems to be about one thing, but it may be conveying a divorced sentiment. On the surface level this seems like a cryptic biblical tale, where a squad of saints-to-be (willing to die) descends into hell to recover the bell. I'm not too into Christian theology so I'm not sure what this bell's about, but what I get from the song is that it's a relic of importance for the faithful. So they descend into hell and there is a great battle. Curiously, it is the streets that run with blood from the carnage, our streets (as I do not believe hell is paved by the state) and we are informed it was like 'a second hell'. Hmm. Then, their objective accomplishes, the saints leave, alive (therefore not really saints). And the question hangs, how can we thank them, we felt so despised.

There's a thick layer of irony, I think, to this song. Self-appointed saints that go on a divine quest. Much suffering as a result and they leave as they came. We, the spectators are divorced from their cause, if anything the saints bring us hell.

What I think this song is really about is war. It's about a 'holy empire' going on a crusade against imaginary enemies, resulting in real casualties. It is the war torn felt despised, struck by the thunder of a brainless god.

Judas Priest are a smart band.

The verse singing is standard for '70s Priest. Halford's doing his 'dramatic Opera' soprano, with its beautiful vibrato and repeated phrasing. This voice is the voice of power. In the chorus we get a more rock n' roll extravagant phrasing that is also augmented by a cavernous guitar overdub. '70s Priest were very into theatrical mixing. Halford says 'the saints are descending to hell' and a Tipton hits a reverberating dive-bomb to punctuate the fact. If they were an orchestra, they'd use different instrument timbres to achieve this result, but as they were a Heavy Metal band, all they have are guitars and guitar effects.

In the second verse, where Halford calls for the 'scream eagles', listen to yet more guitar overdubs doing theater. The 'wild cats' are a pick scrape, the cobras a salient hiss and the bats a staccato swoop. How many other bands would go this far to illustrate their lyric? And especially the type of Heavy Metal lyrics by Halford that many were quick to describe as juvenile and throwaway?

In the break where Mr. Halrford informs us that the saints are indeed going down into the fire we get dramatic delay effects. This 'descend' is commented by the ascending melody in the guitars. In fact, the final sound effect before the battle breaks out is what sounds like a missile being launched (though its origin is probably a reversed cymbal crash). And then the tempo picks up dramatically. To me it sounds like superior firepower is in effect, like the battle that is happening is asymmetrical. Self-appointed holy men are reigning destruction down on heathens.

The streets run with blood from the mass mutilation.
Abbatoir, abbatoir mon Dieu quelle horreur.

Oh the irony.

We come back down from the battle high with many self-congratulations. The beautiful thing about the ending of the song, that quivering 'Saints in Hell' that is repeated is this: Mr. Halford puts to use a considerably difficult vocal technique, where he both uses timed tremolo (meaning, the 'period' of the tremolo in his voice is clear eights of the tempo, it's not just whatever tremolo he could muster) and he also slides from a note to another and then down again. Ask any trained singer, this is very difficult to do. He uses this technique to push the ironic message of the song home (for anyone paying attention, at least). All this melodrama is to serve self-appointed saviors. They're patting themselves on the back. We went to hell. We went to hell. We are Saints. They will love us for saving them from themselves.

What I want to keep from this whole discussion is something that I feel is missing from a lot of modern Heavy Metal, and which I would love to see restored. There is a dialog between composition and lyric here. There are meaningful choices being made on every level of this production that are commenting on what the song is about. There aren't just riffs and riffs and a solo (actually this song doesn't even have a solo). This song is very much about a thing, and everything about it is about this thing. It's impossible to study this song and not arrive to a thing, perhaps this thing, but certainly a thing. The thing that this song is about is not the song itself.

A long of great music has a program, as they call it. Heavy Metal used to be About Things. Now it's about Heavy Metal itself. It's about how extreme the music itself it. It's about how technical the players are. It's about self-congratulation. It's as if when you listen to modern extreme metal, you're looking at the self-proclaimed Saints descending to your level to pummel and disembowel you for your own sake. Do you like how our loud double-bass is fucking you? Do you like how my linear myriad of notes is flaying you alive? Do you enjoy being our little masochist? And then the saints leave. We felt so despised. It was a solution, for a time.

I want Heavy Metal to tell me a story that isn't about Heavy Metal itself. I do not love Heavy Metal because it's Heavy Metal, I love it because it's a powerful avenue for expression of higher ideals and lower desires. If Heavy Metal is just talking about itself, it's then merely a different type of hip hop, boasting about its beats per minute and palm muted trills and sweep-picked solos. It should be a challenge to modern metal musicians: if you don't have something of value to say, something you believe in, then find it. Find a thing. Describe the thing to me. Tell me why it's important to you. If you can't talk on the level that Judas Priest are talking - and keep in mind Judas Priest were and are widely mocked for much of their material's apparent vacancy - then, mon Dieu, quelle horreur, you're doing it wrong.