Friday, December 26, 2014

More Metal

I've been on a metal kick as of late, especially black metal. Partially because I've discovered that it is good music for commuting on BART in that it allows me to drown out the other passengers and still be able to read, and partially because I've gotten into the way the music can do interesting things with guitar textures. I've always been a sucker for the My Bloody Valentine wall of guitar, and there are a lot of metal bands that do this well. Also, metal tends to be a little goofier and less "real" than punk and post-punk. I love Unwound and Fucked Up, but their music sometimes hits a little too close to home. Listening to someone I have nothing in common with growl about Satan or whatever is like reading scifi: it's removed from my day to day life and thus a form of escape. In fact, the key to appreciating both sci-fi/fantasy and metal, at least from my perspective, is embracing the genres' goofiness. The first time I read "Game of Thrones," I was put off by how silly the made up names and made up places were. Then I learned to embrace it, and now I'm an avid fantasy fan. The first time I listened to Deafheaven, I thought the screeching vocals were the silliest things in the world, but you get used to it.

 Tombs' "Savage Gold" is one of my favorite albums of the year, so I've been investigating their back catalog. As in , downloading all of it. When I was in Houston in November, I bought CDs by Deathspell Omega, a French doom/black metal band who are an influence of Tombs, Blut Aus Nord, and Lair of the Minotaur. I've also downloaded albums by NYC black metal band Krallice, as well as seminal Norwegian black metal albums by Mayhem, Emperor and Darkthrone.

Let's talk about the Norwegian stuff first. I have some serious issues with Norwegian black metal, both musically and philosophically. Philosophically, some of it is rooted in nationalism, racism, homophobia, severe anti-social behavior, and Satanism. I deeply dislike all of those things. Listening to the early Norwegian black metal is like listening to Compton's Most Wanted or Lil' Boosie, gangsta rap records made by people with actual criminal records who were rapping about and doing terrible things. It's hard to do with a clean conscience. Sonically, the Norwegian black metal albums (with the exception of Darkthrone) don't usually have the same punk/crust influence that many American black metal acts have. As a result I find it less to my taste. They also have same guttural screeching vocals that Deafheaven share, which I find pretty annoying after ten minutes. I enjoy Darkthrone the most out of the three I've listened to, mostly because it basically has the sound and production values of a crusty punk record.

"Transylvania Hunger" is a an example of what the music can do. It has a melodic quality that you don't find in most extreme music, and yet the growled vocals keep it firmly extreme. The lyrics are still Satanic and possibly latently racist (having been written by Vlag Varkeness of Burzum), but they are almost all in Norwegian so it is hard to say.

I also got Mayhem's "De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas," another seminal black metal album that while good, is so friggin creepy that I have a hard time listening to it. I also downloaded Emperor's "In the Nightside Eclipse," which has a more epic scope than Darkthrone or Mayhem. Emperor were one of the seminal and notorious black metal bands, since the singer was a church-burner and their drummer killed a man who came on to him. So, you know, kind of assholes. They incorporate synthesizers and have a more "metal" feel than Mayhem or Darkthrone. It's interesting, but feels a little like a D&D aficionado who is way too into collecting swords.

I'm more into the American stuff, especially what I guess would be disparagingly referenced as hipster black metal. Deafheaven and Liturgy are the most obvious examples, but I've also gotten into a New York band called Krallice, who do a highly technical version of black metal. Listening to "Dimensional Bleedthrough," you understand that there is a droning quality to the music that isn't totally unlike electronic music. The songs are almost always long, often stretching past the 10 minute mark, and there is an element of composition to them that you don't get in most pop music. A 10 minute black metal song isn't that different from a 10 minute Burial or Andy Stott song, only they are using different sounds and going for a different emotion. The contemplative, repetitive nature of the music is similar, though.

I'm especially into Panopticon's new album, "The Roads to the North." Panopticon are a one-man band who mixe bluegrass with black metal, leading to something powerful and very different. It's sort of like the Pogues if they were from the Bluegrass State, and were into black metal and not punk. In other words, nothing like the Pogues.

Panopticon and Krallice, like Deafheaven and Liturgy, don't share Scandanavian black metal's love of Satan or whatever. Panopticon is allegedly leftist, but I can't understand a word he says so I'm not sure.

Finally, there is French band Blut Aus Nord. I checked them out after Pitchfork compared them to Aphex Twin. They've been around for years, and are basically a one man band with a backing band. Their latest album Memoria Vetusta III: Saturnian Poetry, is more melodic than other stuff I've heard from them (which at times veered towards industrial). I'm into it.

I've struggled to try to understand why music nerds are so into black metal as opposed to other forms of extreme music. Why doesn't Pitchfork review hardcore bands or crusty punk bands? I think the answer is that there is more room for experimentation in black metal. It's music built around textures rather than chords and choruses, so there is more room to get weird. The music inspires artists to do these grand, ambitious projects. Blut Aus Nord did a three-album "Memoria Vetusta" series, and in between that released three albums in the "777" trilogy. Fellow French black metallers Deathspell Omega similarly did a trilogy of music about Satan or whatever. Panopticon have done several concept albums, including one about coal miners.

I don't know that black metal is destined to be my favorite music, but it's interesting and I've enjoyed getting back into louder music. What does it say about me though that I am forty and listening to this?

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