Wednesday, June 22, 2011
NWN (was it really?), guess which year
Latest, fresh stabs at obscurity (or rather, a potential/reached-for attempt at the same while still communicating) from a group that I was convinced, for a long time, only received wider notice through the diligent research of black metal’s archaeologists after the decay of the Norwegian scene. Deeper and deeper, peeling back “influences”, sifting through dates, rehearsals, fingers thrust out for some gleaming melodic gem that evoked that special…something. A search for origins as metal has always been obsessed with stylistic DNA. A sequence of notes, a lick, a glancing, subtle taste of some reserved “darkness”: there it is, we have a dusty terminus, we can again trace evolution or at least mimic the same. We have meaning! So one has effrontery and what, by now, seems like a national characteristic of Norwegian arrogance, one counters by going further and farther – not Venom, not Bathory, let’s say Sarcofago, say all Greek, say anything else. Let’s take it to anything other than The North. Let others have their pride. If not, a turning away, a dream of never-existing jungle, moist and down-ridden, slum-defying, raised in dirt under the microscope of Imperialism and an almost absolute cultural misunderstanding or ignorance. Desperation of the remove, universes or black and white textbook worlds away from the sensationalist press-created hegemony of frozen cultural narratives, people who don’t even speak Spanish or Portuguese.
Having been around forever, Xibalba understand this conflict so natively, so instinctively, that they feel no need whatsoever to carry it like a banner standard in their music. Why state in obvious terms, blatant references, what is so apparent and obvious that it would be a embarrassing failure to even glance obliquely at it? Something to scorn, to laugh at? It might as well not exist. Better: it doesn’t exist. Let’s not even dream of it, no matter how deeply one sleeps. Not nationalism (itself a cloying reminder of past possible interpretations of black metal, now obsolete) as a mirror reflection of any form of Imperialism, cultural or not, nationalism as a dream world without references or boundaries – eventually, no nationalism at all. Freedom?
Xibalba generate “obscurity”, of course, but also, aligned with that, originality of dark purpose in two manners: what seems at times like an utter disregard for traditional song structures (although they are internally cohesive, so: effective) and a personal, unique, expertly expressive sense of melodicism. The latter comes through mainly in the use of rapid iterations of solo guitar (overdubbed in two sections at least, two voices) over the blazing, ripping structure of the rhythm strings. The guitars are the real focus of this music for me. I could disregard the vocal work (there is a lot going on even with that, and it's nice), the drumming (I can barely hear it) and the bass. If the last is even there often at times it must be posited instead of commented upon. When it swells into attention or focus in times of relatively straightforward riff-building its distortion and deep presence seems to be wriggling like a serpent to aid the leading guitars in their generous, multiform imaginings. However, whatever traditional references to the genre Xibalba throw out into the guitar maelstrom appear and disappear as spokes of a outreaching climb that must be recognized only in order to define the opposite. Mirror planet, again, black and white, the dusk punched through into a new world of rainbow color. In terms of the basic rhythm guitars and the song structures they summon into ladder-being, there are a thousand other bands just like Xibalba. As the leads fly above and establish a true identity as reversal and comment, inverse and novelty, idiom and a private, personal world, there are no other bands on Earth like Xibalba.
UA - 062211
Deathkvlt Records, 2011
After the avant-garde is over, all that there remains is the bitterness of…professionalism? I suppose one could argue that European bands take a certain stylistic delight in such contrasts, the chaos of rebellion and “dark” emotion, a resonating remnant of punk revolt (breaking the earth again in black metal’s ascendance) vs. aesthetic concentration on practiced music being masterfully recorded, reduced to a product and that product, again, being offered as one more slice of a lifestyle still, somehow, against all odds, wedded to confusion, erupting proletariat angst and defiance – reduced to aesthetics and “art” in order to sublimate? Does “professionalism” always equal “product” and can it then be easily dismissed as divorced from its own declared (in such a smooth, sterile, reified manner, danger redacted) intent?
Sect are professional. They absorb the influences one must in order to stand on the world stage and demand a proportion of the listening audience. The familiar as a hook - then the bottoming out and new worlds to discover. At first, going through the first two songs, one hears Craft, Shining, Deathspell Omega at a relaxed pace, with admirable expansiveness. Sect breathe easy, they stretch out, there is no immediacy, no urgency. Here are subtle echoes of other bands as well – if not of the shared language all musicians like this must be fluent in (while offhandedly “denying” so to appear “original”) if they are to be genre-specific. Then it all tears open. The third song features an echoing, eerie, otherworldly motif that seems to fade in and out of the main argument, the core driving communication of the guitars. This is built upon, decoded, torn apart, reconstructed, mentioned as an aside, etc. all the while climaxing to the real breakthrough: the fourth song, a burst of lashing death and grinding speed, a certain desperation which climbs (the entire album is structured as a rising and falling) to a plateau of novel interpretation or creation, one pierces walls and breaches gates. Then: the Russian heritage (or stylistic appeals to/references to the same), a taste of spirit and passion as we move into the last part of the work: a return to quiescence, a lapsing back into a seemingly effortless unfolding of rigid, approved melancholy.
I did not research this band in an adequate manner before writing this review, I know this. I don’t recognize what’s old or new, I don’t know the dates of the compositions, I don’t know their history or how that history is represented on this recording. In one’s mind it seems to start at the ancient, move to the new and daring and then relapse back into the more secure, a dream of possibility. I only have my own emotional responses to the music, what I can see of the structures coalescing from shyly-tossed references to a steel creation of purpose and then decaying, rusting away. Organic, then, to match the nihilistic atmosphere of folklore I hear in almost all Russian music. In the center is the real heart (cliché heaped upon cliché, I apologize) of this band, I feel. One can see it projecting outward to reach even greater evocativeness and eloquence in the future.
UA - 062211
Friday, June 17, 2011
So those of us outside of whatever spiritual journey there is and such flights and escapes presuppose hierarchies in themselves, guides and structures which others will show you or reticently hint at and then glide behind innumerable veils, riding on the razor edge of faith and desire that you (one still believes in such things) will believe in…what? Nothing. But where, before, in our Western, virgin, utterly newborn and ignorant education, Nihilism still carried the unhallowed taint of an eternal fall and the supposed Catholic joy or temptation of the same, the pleasure of the fallen and irredeemable, there was titillation and promised felicity in stroked nerves rendered mute and dusted in a collapsed civilization, each proponent so eager to claim the I, the subjective, the Me, the all important personal experience, the internal, Eternal world, the meaning that escaped Subjectivity to become Objective, the single man becoming singular and thus…everyman?
This is the problem of Evil.
Aosoth do not escape this. They strive to express the power in Evil, they push forward so eagerly (not really, that’s a cliché, a commonplace, they really don’t care at all) – but it’s appearances, apparently that matter (ala Wilde, horrible, tragic commonplace in itself) – they never express Evil or anything near it. They do express Darkness, but that is merely a matter of perception. To someone, I can spout innumerable examples, this will appear strident, noteworthy, something to be noted, examined, perhaps listened to over and over on headphones while escaping others, deep down, hidden in the depths of a creek overhang while parents harangue and throw dishes at each other in a trailer park. Here is Evil, here is Power, here is an escape. I will do this, I will make this, I will escape, I will learn minor chords and slow, tiny variations in chords, moving from fret to fret to limit my own expression (how fenced-in the melodic array of “evil” and “darkness” is in metal!), I will find some literary escape and throw myself into black, horror-ridden dimensions in order to escape into…what? Nothingness. Suicide.
UA - 061711
Wednesday, June 15, 2011
I first started writing about music sometime after high school. I didn't go to college right after high school like most people, I went to work full time and did that whole trip for four years before deciding to get off my ass and go to college. With most of my friends away at school and me left behind, I didn't have shit else to do but sit around and read and listen to music. At that time I was still reading music magazines cover to cover, everything from Rip and Circus to Alternative Press and Rolling Stone (or whichever of those were still around at the time, my memory is bad)… I was (and still am) in the middle of Iowa and was voraciously searching for any and all the information I could find about new music, which was fucking scarce… we still only had dial-up internet and it took about an hour just to download one MP3 and streaming music was out of the question, so I was still relying on mags to steer me in the right direction. I read album reviews obsessively and I don't really remember when it started, but at some point I thought, "Hey, I think I can do this" and I started writing reviews and just e-mailing them to my friends or whatever. I'm not sure any of them cared, but I kept doing it any way, I found it personally satisfying whether anyone else read them or not. At some point me and a friend that I had met through this completely toxic beast of a girl I was dating at the time discussed putting out a zine, and I wrote a bunch of shit for it but the zine never materialized.
Tell us a little about your first introduction to metal, or “outsider” forms of rock in general. What first attracted you to it? What do they continue to mean to you, these forms of music, what do they add to (or subtract from) your life? Any good stories or favorite personal experiences from the past? Do you ever envision a life without this type of music – or without writing about music? I often do. Has the meaning this music had for you changed over the years?
When I was a kid, there was always music on in the house. My mother was always playing records or had MTV on in the background. Also, my uncle was and still is a huge fan of KISS. So as a result I was constantly inundated with music from a young age and took an interest in it. But, I didn't really discover metal until I was a little older. Of course at first it was all the hair bands that MTV showed, like Poison and Motley Crue. Then one day I saw Metallica's video for "One", and that was one of those moments of thinking "this is the sound I've been waiting my whole life to hear". I still think that's a perfect metal song and every time I hear it, I remember it as my introduction to "real" metal. After that I started staying up late on the weekends to catch Headbanger's Ball and buying magazines like Rip. You have to remember that at the time I was living in Iowa and going to Catholic school, so I had no access to any sort of underground. I had a friend who liked the same things and his older brother had some cool stuff like Megadeth, Anthrax and older Manowar. I was also big on Danzig and White Zombie. Around that time I discovered a lot of cool "alternative rock" (for lack of a better term) and punk around that time, stuff like Misfits, Sex Pistols, Ramones, Pixies and that stuff coming out of Seattle that a lot of my readers probably hate, haha. I also listened to a lot of classic rock like the Doors and Led Zeppelin. Hearing the song "Black Sabbath" for the first time on headphones at some point during this era of discovery was also huge for me.
With the proliferation of review sites, blogs, comment sections, message boards, etc. it seems that not only is every listener also a “reviewer” or “critic” these days but that they also seem to feel it is completely within their rights as a listener to criticize openly, condemn, praise, etc. Within this expansion of opinion, the availability of opinions to any reader, what is the purpose of the “official” music critic or reviewer these days, what is the purpose and place of a music journalist? How is his/her judgment and writing privileged? Do you think that this expansion of available opinion and a certain loss of prestige formerly given to the music critic have led to many people leaving the pursuit? Should music writing be completely democratic? Is it simply…a product that certain people sell, often just for prestige?
I think the place of the music journalist is to inspire thoughtful discussion/debate about music. In an age when anyone can google an album and hear it instantly, we don't need someone telling us what an album sounds like, we can hear it for ourselves in five minutes. So the reviewer’ job becomes telling us about what the music does, rather than what the music is. What kinds of thoughts does an album inspire? What sorts of images play out in your mind when you listen to an album? What is your interpretation of this set of lyrics? These are the kinds of things a good review can discuss and in turn (hopefully) inspire other listeners to think about the music in a deeper, more thoughtful way than the lazy "this album/band rules/sucks" rhetoric that goes on.
Monday, May 30, 2011
Sunday, May 29, 2011
Psychic Violence, 2011
The concept of “authenticity” has long been a thorny nexus of contention among metal fans, no matter what genre one primarily follows or considers oneself to speak for. For the last decade, at the very least, I believe this idea and its relation to black metal bands has been the primary locus of stressful argumentation (and hasty or shallow attempts to even define the related questions) in the scene as a whole and it’s not too difficult to understand why. Black metal, from the very beginning of the whatever-wave coming out of Norway in the early ‘90s was supposed to be about primal expression, a certain return to one’s roots, a looking backward to Bathory, Celtic Frost, Hellhammer, etc. for stimulation as the death metal scene at the time grew increasingly cloying, suffocating and shallow beneath the weight of innumerable Swede-death or Florida-death clone bands. Initial freshness and sparkling inspiration from death metal (in itself a reaction against thrash) grew into a sterile boredom and artistic frustration as the entire world was drowned in unoriginality. So, in league with a root-seeking route of escape there existed the ideal of such searches being a method of returning to music that was somehow more authentic – this in the sense of a sound that more accurately reflected what was happening in the musicians’ lives at the time. Instead of playing a form of music that had grown increasingly stylized and flailingly ineffectual, a repetition of single cell music motifs combined in infinite forms (never original, never emotional, losing all atmosphere, losing a direct contact with the experiences and thoughts of the musicians), one must return to the basic building blocks of metal and build upward again on a path of singular, original evolution. That was the ideal at the time, anyway.
As it goes with most forms of music, there were a few strict adherents, a few originators, a few brave players (I’m mainly thinking of Darkthrone, Burzum, early Emperor, early Enslaved, maybe Abigor) and then as the ideas these people produced like mutations of ancient viruses spread, newly virulent, the typical process of proliferation and replication (or simple duplication) again reared its timeless, malignant head. These mechanisms of replication seem to be timeless in art: one originator, a thousand clones “influenced” by the new concepts. If the original theories of the primary expressers are in themselves mutations on timeless (within metal’s history itself – and so, within a certain history, not timeless at all) themes, these memes seek further mutation as they spread to the internal worlds of other musicians. How many musicians have the means to further alter the proliferating memes, however, and what force or process is involved in this reshaping? In my opinion it mainly sources from one primary function: the personal imagination, the original experience and honest, emotional expression of the receiving musician.
If an artist doesn’t reflect his own life and strive to communicate his own emotions in his music do his creations have “value” in relation to musical tropes that relentlessly seek innovation and new mutations through the eye of novel, personal reflection? I don’t believe so. In relation to other concepts, tastes or desires for pleasure in music these creations of course have a different form of “value.” These concepts and tastes are in themselves entirely personal and subjective. This is why arguments about “value” in art are, at least in my opinion, almost completely superfluous as one tries to hint at or play with the seductive forces of what is, for most people, a concrete clarity and direction in a perceived objectivity.
What does any of this have to do with Ash Borer?
A little, at least for me. It’s mainly because in the Northwest United States there has risen a distinct genre of black metal mainly descending, as far as I can tell, from the bands Weakling and Wolves in the Throne Room. A few names exist for this: Pac-NW black metal, Cascadian black metal (because of the exact location of the bands, inhabiting Northern California, Oregon and Washinton state, centered on the Cascade Range of mountains – in itself a romantic ideal and concept, a signifier), etc. These bands have a readily identifiable source sound or initially-inspiring basic cell of musical ideas – mainly condensed around or circling the use of long, droning, slowly moving, melancholy guitar melodies played over rapid drumbeats that don’t often slip into death metal-inspired double bass. Add certain elements from post-rock, doom and a stylistic aesthetic seemingly derived from Discharge and Doom-referring crust punk and anarchist fashion: voila, one has Cascadian black metal. Of course this is a cliché and doesn’t actually define anything, it simply exists as an idea that people can tie other perceptions to and somehow obtain judgments of musical concepts and expression in bizarre aesthetic calculations of “influence” and idiom.
Ash Borer has already been placed in this genre category – perhaps against their will. Why would any honest musician who sees avenues for innovation in his work want to pigeonholed or aesthetically “defined” unless, at the very beginning of one’s work, it allows easy definitions for listeners to latch onto in a process of seeking out new music – a method of “understanding” which can later be shed or altered?
Among most of these bands I tend to mostly gravitate toward Ash Borer because something in my personality responds to their melodies. This is certainly completely subjective, someone else might remain utterly unmoved by their music – hearing nothing in it, feeling nothing because of it. I believe it to be supremely, originally (at least in this genre category) emotive, its melancholy is disseminated in an effective fashion, the melodies don’t overstay their immediacy and fertility even as they are cast outwards and expand through (Burzum-following) repetition and tendencies towards trance. As the music is certainly evocative (building outreaching, immersive atmosphere) and supremely effective in its emotional communication, I can only anticipate, in the minds of its creators, that it directly reflects their own experiences and sentiments. Why? At least for me, it’s because I can locate their melodies in any direct, linear development of tradition. They are combining tried and true (boring) tropes in an effort to influence the emotions of listeners, outside of the structures of linking melodies and genre-defined songwriting. So: authenticity, originality, music worth listening to.
The songwriting displayed here is also worth mentioning. Ash Borer’s previous efforts hinted at a maturity to come but they were still hesitant reachings towards an original sense of melodic expression and structural prowess. On this self-titled debut album I believe the band has mostly obviated these thorny issues (so many bands never escape them – in fact I believe the majority of groups never do). The songwriting is now practiced, adroit, flexible, effective. If one is interested in current trends in American black metal, bands that are displaying these trends while simultaneously attempting to escape them, or simply suggestive, depressive music that rings with a hollowly echoing, yearning grasp towards open freedom of ringing musical reflection, I suppose one could do a lot worse than this Ash Borer release.
UA - 052911