Friday, 7 February 2014

Cynic: Kindly Bent to Free Us.

I once read that Gorguts' From Wisdom to Hate should have been the album that came out between The Erosion of Sanity and Obscura. Obscura was such a giant stylistic leap from what had come before that it hardly made sense at the time. In the space of one album they went from a quite good nineties death metal band to something otherworldly, bizarre, a sanity challenging pathos monster. Perhaps they even needed the revisionism of From Wisdom to Hate in order to comprehend the magnitude of their transformation.

Last year, they followed up on Obscura with the amazing Colored Sands. They continued to fill in the (intentional stylistic) gaps at the same time as pushing into new conceptual and musicological territory.

But this is supposed to be a Cynic album review, right?

Kindly Bent to Free Us basically should have been Cynic's first album. It is not really metal in the strict sense. It is actually more of a collision between King Crimson, Rush, Yes, Air Supply (no, really) and... Cynic. Kindly is the pared down framework of the band doing what they have always done best: rhythmically aggressive, driving basslines capable of shifting into exquisite melodies and uniquely arranged harmonic support, drumming that sounds straight ahead yet full of subtle intricacies (should the listener choose to listen for them), the lushly orchestrated guitar and vocals of Masvidal and... technological courage and originality.

Aside from the excellent prog-in-under-four-and-a-half-minute compositions and performances, it is the integration of electronic elements from vocoders to washes, swoops and atmospheric flourishes which really makes this album stand out. And in my opinion is a direct extension of the technological aesthetic of Pestilence's unfairly maligned Spheres.

The approach taken seems to be less of augmentation and layering and more of combination, integration and hybridity. There are obvious moments of glorious synthesiser excess on this album yet it is the subtleties of regular guitar sounds and vocals processed to create specific tones unique to sections within individual songs. In other words, it never sounds like a gimmick.

Cynic's metal album proper, Focus, should have come out after this. Then followed up by the astounding Traced in Air. So get this album, take a trip, time travel to the essence of Cynic, to a safe space before they embraced and were unjustly wounded by metal.

Pestilence: Obsideo

Pestilence comes in three flavours. The Martin Van Drunen Years, The Progressive Phase and Twenty-First Century Revival. I am an unabashed fan of the piggy in the middle. Testimony of the Ancients is a great album but Spheres was the game changer for me. I have written about it elsewhere on this blog. Go read.

A few weeks before I got Obsideo, I was listening to Spheres in my car. It seems as though every time I listen to that album, I am able to unearth new layers of sonic complexity, subtler rhythmic shifts and splendid, original solos wrapped in the (flawed) technological innovation of the time. Spheres, quite simply is a science-fiction synthesiser soundtrack... played entirely on guitar.

As I listened through Spheres both ways to and from work it occurred to me that underneath the synth rich soundtrack to a sci-fi movie never made was some really simple, precise, well composed and executed straight ahead death metal. And I thought: I wonder what this would have sounded like without Roland's midi guitar synth?

Then Obsideo came out. A combination of Twenty-First Century Revival phase muscular production, the urgent savagery of The Martin Van Drunen Years and the melodic and compositional intelligence of The Progressive Phase. Basically a stripped back, stripped down masterpiece released just in time to be spun and forgotten or simply overlooked.

Do yourself, the band and death metal history a service. Listen to this baby.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Skindred - Fight the Power

So while the backlog of articles continues to accrue (including a follow up to “Self Medication Blues” and “State of Innovation”) along comes a new Skindred album…

Skindred’s new LP Kill the Power is the album that should put them in a higher sales bracket. It is the album that should make them a household name. In this day and age of short attention span and publicity by spam, however, it is highly likely that it will be just-anaother-amazing-album-lost-amid-the-noise-in-a-forever-changed-music-industry.

Kill the Power sees Skindred doing what they have always done. Only much, much better. What makes Skindred such an exciting and interesting band - aside from the talented and diverse vocal performances of Benji, the bevy of skillfully integrated electronic production sounds, their tightness live and their ability like Faith No More to fully inhabit genre parameters without losing their identity – is their hybridity.

At their core, Skindred are a post-Bad Brains, crossover reggae act. On their way to this identity they have assimilated the raucous cacophony approach of Public Enemy style hip hop, the bounciness of dumb funk nu-metal, the subdued and sinister crawl of trip hop (woah, blast from the past), dubstep’s mental suffocating menace, trashy garage rock leads and 1980s style arena metal “woah-ohs”. And the best part? Never once does it sound forced or contrived.

Kill the Power opens with the nu-metal lurch of the self titled track. Though familiar sounding, it is the small things, the better written melodies, the transitions between parts and even the production quality is light years ahead of the last album. Playing with the Devil is perhaps my favourite tune on Kill the Power. Starting out like a lost track from Massive Attack’s Blue Lines it warps into a snarling dubstep battery with great vocal hooks. Meanwhile “Ninja” is another aggressive, more up front metal type track that makes excellent use of samples and sample playback (including the cool throwback-primitive rhythmic triggering). “The Kids are Right Now” is a love song to Bon Jovi via reggae and a middle eight that starts out as a dubstep break down but then fires out a so-simple-it’s-cool psyche-rock fuzzed out guitar solo. There is the evocative of U2 pretty melody of ….. and even a duet featuring the tough but smooth vocals of Jenna G.

The most amazing thing about all of this diversity and complexity is that in the quieter moments, when the band employ restraint, the gleaming, well-constructed reggae songs become audible. I haven’t had my mind so twisted by reggae since the early days of Dub Trio. Truly, Skindred have adopted and adapted hybridity and reggae as their own and recalibrated them for the twenty-first century. Kill the Power is original, innovative, interesting and most importantly, it bangs. Easily set to be one of the best albums of the year. Provided it doesn’t get forgotten because of the terrible release window…

 I wonder if they will make it out to Japan… hopefully not on a festival tour.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Metallic Grostequerie: Sequel Interstitial (Between-quel?)

This article has been on the backburner for a while. It had several drafts and has been abandoned as many times. But thanks again to Metalsucks it is back. Well, a version of it anyway. Please note that I am referring to a news article that came out on June 25, 2013.
In my morning RSS feed reader scan (RIP google reader) I came across this week's NSFW version of Sh*t that comes out today (their asterisk, not mine). The NSFW portion of the posting was a single album artwork used just below the heading, Documentaries of Dementia by Necrotic Disgorgement. The album artwork features three naked, white zombie women in various states of mutilation. What makes this cover somewhat different to similar works is that it is photographic. Death metal art is frequently hand painted or more often than not these days digitally created. The controversy surrounding this image arises not from the article itself but from the comments that follow it, in particular an argument in the comments around the implied meanings of tortrure and gender relations.

The thread started by Igottawocket proclaimed:

Can metal, like, collectively agree to cool it with the album covers depicting tortured, naked women? Not really sure if it was ever "cool," but it most certainly isn't now. It kind of begs a lot of questions about what's going on in the heads of the band members, and, frankly, is kind of just fucked all around.

This is a sentiment to which I am mostly in agreement. The key word here is "mostly". As I have previously discussed grotesquerie in metal has a long tradition and is a complex discourse of aesthetics, shock tactics, subversiveness and misogyny. As a result it is difficult for me to condemn this particular (or most other similar) artwork out of hand. After all there are a range of contextual issues that the viewer may not be aware of that influence how the art is to be read. Did the women give consent to be protrayed in this way? Were they paid? Is there an attempt at subversiveness here? Is it an attempt to engage with the horror porn genre?

However, what we can say is that the artwork is clearly part of a broader metal aesthetic tradition in which violence is foregrounded and women are marginalised.

The thread continues with Hair Metal Police, Meh and Snobber McSnob providing fairly typical oppositional, adversarial replies:

So, according to your logic, anybody who directs a splatter film is a psychopath.
I personally don't see a difference between this and the flat-out misogyny of the lyrical content of bands that use picture of dogs eating kibble on their covers. In most cases it's VERY heavy satire.

There is a level of defensiveness in metal which is on one hand admirable, since it shows that metal heads have a passion for defending the genre but on the other hand it is somewhat worrying. When blanket statements incorporating socially accepted memes such including "freedom of expression" and "democracy", I start to worry. What these once subversive discourses do in the present is confine debate to the placard level:

"Naked, beaten women on record covers is bad!"

"Yeah well, opposing freedom of expression creates battered women".

Rinse and repeat all over the internet.

Interestingly, I would contrarily agree with Hair Metal Police's sarcasm in that I believe people who are enjoy creating violent artwork are psychopathic. However, where out opinions diverge is at the point where moral value is automatically accorded to the concept of psychopath. A psychopath need not be evil, nor is s/he required to actually enact/execute her psychopathic tendencies. Indeed as most people with some sort of secret desire, fetish or fantasy are aware, the consummation of the desire frequently results in its deflation, disappointment or even complete dissipation. It is the erotica in the mind, the exploration of taboo without risk to either one self or another party (consenting or in a worst case scenario, non-consenting).

Creating grotesque art can function in the same way especially with the consent of involved agents. It becomes a way for those with “psychopathic” non-vanilla, non-normal and potentially harmful tendencies to achieve a degree of satisfaction or consummation through the physical execution of their unique, personal eccentric world view without inflicting unnecessary, unjust, unethical and unwarranted harm on other, actual human beings.

The user known as Meh claims that it is very heavy satire. While I see a potential for satire even as a lifelong metal head I see very few identifiable clues as to the satirical function of this and many similar artwork in contemporary death metal. I would ask Meh; what exactly is the satire critiquing? 

Similarly there are a number of writers who express opinions along the line of: "Well it's all just make believe, it's not serious". Like this entry by Sion Wyn Jones:

It's just an album cover. It's ingrained in the Death Metal or BDM culture. It's the norm, to depict something horrible and disgusting. Especially if that's what the lyrics are based on as well. And for the artist, their just artist. There's nothing wrong with them, their not actually promoting killing Women or any other person. It's just fiction, something that fits the music style. Dammit OP, don't take this stuff so seriously.

This is actually a fairly common opinion among metal heads. It also happens to be a line of reasoning that is dense with complexity. What I take issue with is "engrained in [...] culture. This is simply conservatism by another name. If the purpose of the cover is to be shocking/provoking/subversive yet is done so in a way consistent with engrained values, how does it actually achieve this purpose? I also wonder about the sentiment relating to the lyrics no "promoting killing women or any other person." The fact is that this is exactly what the lyrics do refer to. Again a key problem as I see it is with the application of default moral positions.

Meanwhile there is Robstermb's reply to Jones:

The largest issue with it, to me, is not that it's sexist or disturbed... but because it's just so done and boring now. It's no longer shocking and it just seems immature and forced now. It's been a long time since Tomb of the Mutilated.

This is consistent with my own thinking. Death metal in particular had a zeitgeist in the post-80s context of thrash and early death metal. There was a legitimate fight against censorship and many groups at the time sought to push the limits of erotic and violent expression. As with most contemporary expressions of a genre it is exceedingly common to see a historical disjunct a kind of hyper aware "today" cannibalising its "yesterday" with barely enough time to consider last week let alone twenty or thirty years ago.

Ultimately my problems with grotesquery and sex in metal can be distilled thus:

1. Shock for its own sake is an extremely limited intellectual framework from which to work these days. As I said in the original article on this topic, true shock/subversiveness should unseat us deeply. It should ask more questions than it answers. It should be unsettling. In the past, grotesquerie in metal achieved this. It rarely does so in the present.

2. Metal offers a space for the exploration of the grotesque, the profane, the ugly and the immoral. However, not all expression within its boundaries is self-reflexive. The failure to connect with the intellectual, ethical and moral frameworks of the past significantly influences the extent to which metal art can be considered legitimately "shocking". Is it just that now we live in an age of perfect, decontextualised appropriation? Personally I believe this to be both true and not. After all, when we underestimate the intelligence of others we underestimate our own. Thoughtful, reflexive people are born out of the strangest events, through effort and sometimes mere coincidence. There is no single, unbroken line that connects present visual aesthetics with the past and furthermore it is the social, cultural perspective of the viewer which plays an important role in determining the context of an artistic work.

3. Metal is still mostly a man's world. The objectification of women within the genre has yet to be fully dealt with. Coupled with the demographic context of metal makers in the west it is highly unlikely that this will change any time soon. However, it is already changing and a number of bands continue to push against, traverse and ignore boundaries. It is interesting to ponder just how acceptable, grotesque or titillating images of men being tortured and raped would be to men, especially given the still prevalent taboo of homosexuality in a lot of metal circles.

El Fuerte: The Anti-Scrub Mechanism

So I main him. So people kick me from lobbies. Then there are the rage quitters and the junior rage quitters (the ones who stop playing once you take them to splash mountain and back… repeatedly). So what is with the El Fuerte hate? Aside from superficial aesthetic protest (maybe his package wrapped in shiny PVC is just too much to handle for teenaged homophobes, and hey, they might just be racist – y’all know how Americans feel about Mexicans, right?) the bitter and salty scream: “He just doesn’t play like Streetfighter” or “Run, Stop, Punch/Fierce (aka the dai-punch loop) is broken” or even my favorite, “Everything you do with him is just a gamble”.

Well, they are mostly right, it is just that their sentiments are on the wrong (lag-free, training) stage? If these folk were not so salty and a little more meditative they would likely come to the same conclusion as myself: that El Fuerte is the greatest thing to have happened to the Street Fighter series. But how can this be so? With no projectile, a weak anti-air game and an easily escapable “vortex” how is possible to call this master chef, “the best thing”?

Simple, it just requires going back in time and looking at the deep underpinning mechanics of the game. Along with Sirlin, one of the most lucid and relevant meditations on Street Fighter out there today is on Tim Rogers’ Insert Credit. In the chapter entitled “Ryu versus Ryu (everything you need to know about fighting games)” Rogers clearly outlines how spacing, reflexes and execution are the building blocks of what is essentially real time, reflex incorporated chess.

What does this have to do with El Fuerte? El Fuerte is perhaps the single most “meta” character of the series (yes, including my beloved Dan). He has access to space on the screen like no other character. His main “special move” is a command resulting in a run. At the end of this run he can execute a special move designed to hit the opponent directly in front, overhead/behind, throw or low. His very existence is like one giant akanbeh to vortex lovers and purists. He lacks powerful combos (outside of the considerably difficult to execute daipunch) and instead, his player has to get inside the opponents mind.

Low level luchadore lunging works against the uninitiated. Indeed, some of the best fun you can have with Mr Strong in this game is the sheer, brazen cheekiness of seeing what you can get away with. Even against the most skilled players. However, high level Elfnanigans require a robust heart, a cool calculating mind and an undeniable understanding of space. El Fuerte is the anti-derp. At high level play he is at a significant disadvantage, the only tools on his side are his speed coupled with what appears to be randomness. “Appears” is correct. The better Elf players require not only a Plan A and a Plan B (heavily dependent on matchup) but Plans A through G running at the same time. This is where things become complex and difficult describe.

Elf appears weak and unassuming. This is to his advantage. His primary tactic is bait, bait, bait again and then switch. Predictable Elfnuts switch between predictable patterns of attack. I do on occasion (yeah, ok, too often) too. But when my brain, eyes and hands are working at the same speed at the same time it becomes possible to rain hell down on the opponent. Raining hell, however, requires significant matchup experience and to reach back to an earlier point, necessitates getting inside the other player’s mind.

El Fuerte teaches you that to play better, you need to play smarter. And that is not always easy, especially if some shoto-wielder has got you locked down and in their zone and a full meter. The upside is that playing a “weak” character allows you to enjoy the taste of losing. A lot. Reflecting on our errors, incompetence and habits is a powerful tool in becoming better players. I guess that makes El Fuerte a type of life coach or counselor?

Finally, Mr Strong gives the social player a useful identity to employ online, giving him/her a chance to communicate with even the nastiest, bitchiest crybabies. Someone cussing you out? Don’t take that sitting down, just tell ‘em your salsa is better than your execution and that with a little more practice you might be able to tortilla into space, amigo!

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Oh Judas! Stop hurting me. Bring me a Priest!

So, what is it?

Tough, tightly produced zeitgeist thrash not unlike that heard on Pantera's Cowboys From Hell?

A 90s update to the old school metal sound of Dio era Black Sabbath, just faster and with Maiden-esque dueling guitars?

Both of the above and an out of left field, all round metal classic?


A Tri(vium)p Ascending the Lane

I remember my return to metal. At the dawn of the torrent age, discrete P2P software was still the norm. Many of the big programs had central servers shut down, moved toward contemporary iTunes style interfaces or just faded out as torrents took over and google plus megaupload, mediafire and rapidshare filled the gap for instant gratification.

This was just around the time of the best-before date of "nu metal" as a mainstream offering of heavy metal. If you can recall, this was the dawn of the age of metalcore, a hardcore resurgence, post-metal (a term whose actual execution never lived up to its potential)  and emo/screamo. Hip-hop was being excoriated from the genre, baggy pants burned, sportswear retired and bands were dropped from labels.

In 2004 Roadrunner released Trivium's debut as a four-piece, Ascendancy. Ascendancy made its presence felt by going back: an extended acoustic guitar piano introduction, grand melodic movements and cool harmonised, dueling leads. The production was crisp, protagonists young and inspired and seemed to represent a simultaneous return to classic metal values and fronting the vanguard of the genre's new forward movement.

At the time, I thought it was great. Then I thought it was not. Then recently on a dark and cold mid-November late night car trip home from work, I finally "got it".

The problem with Trivium is that for whatever reason they never really clicked with a diverse metal audience. Perhaps it was their age, their looks or workingman-esque lack of overt charisma, maybe it was even certain questionable stylistic decisions made around the time  of the crusade. What can be said about Trivium though, is that they are good at what they do even if their latter day execution has yet to live up to the promise of their debut. The Crusade was middling. Shogun was stunning. In Waves had its moments and Vengeance Falls is similar to its predecessor.

Going back to Ascendancy after all these years (and why the hell doesn't it have a current vinyl print?) after all these years makes it possible to discover a few somewhat surprising things. It is a really solid, traditional thrash metal album. Sure, the lyrics are somewhat immature and heart on sleeve but have you ever read thrash or death metal lyrics. So while the subject matter combined with the melodies can move the listener toward cringe worthy emo territory on closer listen it sounds like Heafy is doing his best The Real Thing era Mike Patton. Soaring vocal melodies over weedling guitar and a giant rhythm section sounds great. Furthermore, even though the album came out during the metalcore flood it is actually far less formulaic and with an abundance of solos and old-school thrash arrangements and tension buildings... it's a rock solid classic metal album.

Ascendancy deserves a re-listen or a first listen if you were scared off the first time. Metal!