Sunday, May 16, 2010

Looking to the Past - The Retro Movement

There is a lot in the retro movement - bands that are trying to bring back the 'spirit' of German metal from the mid-to-late '80s - that will seem completely superfluous to listeners who first started listening to metal only recently. Even to me a lot of these bands seem to find fulfillment in blindly copying their idols, and do not go past that or seek to progress. But is any kind of progression possible in a retro movement? And what makes these bands viable today? What exactly is this 'spirit of metal' that they are trying to rediscover with their music?

Listening now to Kreator, Sodom, Destruction, Deathrow, and bands of that sort no longer leads me to believe that I am hearing the progenitors of the music that is spread today - and that is the point of this whole argument. Is there a definable progression to metal music in the '80s, leading to the styles of the first death metal bands, or can the music of the thrash bands of the late '80s be taken and isolated outside of their existence as constant influences?

Even though I first started listening to metal when these bands were at their height, in about 1986, I never (even at that time) felt that I was hearing bands that were contemporary in sound. Why? It is hard to explain. There is a quality in their music that is almost completely elusive, but which leads me to feel that their inspiration is completely taken from the past and that their music is evocative of past times in history outside of their conscious effort to push their instrumental progression as far as it could go. This is a constant for me, both in the realm of the music and the feelings that the music lends itself to, and in the lyrics. Of course, as far as the messages that these bands were spreading, the lyrics are easily dissected to reveal the source of this feeling: there is almost always a concentration on the past, on medieval times or other periods in history. The subject matter that these bands wanted to tap for their inspiration almost always follows in the pattern that heavy metal has aligned itself along since Black Sabbath: the occult, medieval or 'fantasy' topics, war, religious hypocrisy, and narcotics. This is tradition, and metal is very conservative when it comes to lyrics.

But what is it in the music, outside of the countless verses of all these bands, that makes me feel as if I am being taken back in time? Ultimately, I think, I won't be able to pinpoint this feeling (or intuition) or define it in any way, or for that matter trace its source. My immediate personal theory is that this feeling is a constant companion of the music because of the mindset of all these musicians taken as a whole. If music is an abstraction, and claims powers that place it beyond the efficacy of language to label or categorize, then couldn't it be true that at on a certain level there exists a sort of telepathic transference in music - where the thoughts of the composer are transmitted to the listener without the medium of language and without the conscious effort of the musician, but as a hidden message in the music itself? Doesn't music have the power to render language itself superfluous - including langauge's ability to describe it?

Ultimately it can be said that music is the art of emotional manipulation, among many other things - and music acts on our emotions through the powers of suggestion, communication, memory, and similarity. When I say 'similarity' I mean the ability for music to mimic, in an abstract series of tones, the events or images that it is trying to communicate or describe. This may be an obscure or confusing definition, but the effect or power of music in this aspect is probably very familiar to you. Why is it that certain music reminds you of certain scenes or images or leads you to certain thoughts and feelings? Suggestion - in that music leads you to a crisis of thought where emotions conflict and a point (political or otherwise) is made. Communication - the ability to convey emotional textures and values. Finally memory - the ability music has to remind you of events or thoughts in your own past. All these are facets of music's evocative nature.

All music is manipulative in that it is constantly striving to create an effect at the same time that it is maintaining or building a certain structure of communication. In the metal scene, if not in all musical genres, the values of this structure are also efficient methods of communication as well - they make up the style of the music played. The metal scene is very particular about categorizing styles, and a band's style, for example, says much more about them that it would in another music scene. A band's style is almost always linked to their politics - if not their aesthetic judgements on the music that has come before.

So what is it in the style of these German bands that's deliberately evocative of the past? Is it what I was trying to say above, that since all the musicians were intent on the past, their concentration of inspiration comes through the music as an abstraction - as something almost transcendental beneath or above the music itself? Or is something much simpler?

At a later date, of course, I could never listen to these bands without having the thought somewhere in the background of my consciousness that what I was listening to was just the beginning of a style that I was now much more familiar with: death metal. And so, consequently, I always listened to music from this period through a sort of filter of the understanding, one that colored the music I was hearing, making it seem 'primitive' in aspect even though it was in no way inferior or negatively antecedent in order of influence to what I thought was contemporary. If I tried I could remove that filter, and hear the '80s music as it was meant to be heard: as contemporary in its own time. Did this mean that I found it to be even more relevant to this time outside of its source as an influence on 'modern' bands? I don't think so. Once again, even when listening to it as a 'contemporary statement' it still seemed to evoke feelings that choked me with the dust of the past. Even so, this is the way I listen to it today - I refuse to think of the German bands are existing only to influence their successors.

So is there something unique to this style that allows room still in this day and age for further progression? If you define 'style' absolutely and list the various values that these bands possess (all that goes into the 'retro' form): the guitar sound, the song structures, the melodic concentration, the lyrical slant, the ways that the riffs are built and taken apart again, the imagery, etc. then you will see that the only way to remain a progressive retro band as a contemporary entity is to constantly lay claim to your influences (through musical allusions) while at the same time moving past those old paradigms in an original way. A band such Aura Noir, for example, are masters at this: half of the melodic thrust or aesthetic intent of the band lays claim to what has come before, the other half looks to the future. This approach, of course, puts them squarely in the contemporary scene - a fundamental irony, and an important paradox. It is not that they strictly follow the guidelines of composition that the older bands disseminated through their music, it is the fact that metal music writing has now reached a stage of flexibility (through the successive impacts of different genres widening the range of a composer's allowances) where one can simultaneously evoke the past while searching for a future - that is, allow some of the music to harmonize with what has come before, and evoke those paradigms, while in fact pressing for a resolution of all the stress that a conflict between musical genres brings into being.

So this 'old spirit' of metal is exactly this, as far as I can determine: the willingness to admit certain constants as part of the conservative program of metal composition, but to always be seeking for ways out of that constraint and the compositional dilemmas it creates. This stress of constantly trying to make progress while looking over your shoulder at what has come before is what summons the requisite energy or drive found in these bands: the aggressive viciousness, the constant chomping-at-the-bit, the eyes straining forwards to see through the gloom of the future. And as a secondary effect, the overwhelming pride a musician takes in this awareness of his own conservative nature - the will to solidarity, the recognizing of his place in the tradition of heavy metal. It is this 'pride', this 'spirit' that the older bands had in abundance, and that the groups of today try in vain to rediscover.

U. Amtey
November 24, 1999