Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Chuck Schuldiner: Ten Years Gone

Go there. Go now. 1990s Florida, extravagance, waste, sunshine, suntans, age, oil, alligators and death metal. What was in the water, the air? Why did the revolution happen there? Why did Long Island, New York guitarist Chuck Schuldiner transform from a pivotal death metal guitarist into a crucial founding father of expanding death metal’s harmonic and melodic palette?

Schuldiner’s contribution to death metal and metal generally cannot be understated. As an individual he was enthusiastic, forward thinking, opinionated and I believe to some extent troubled by his own sexuality. Indeed in this regard both Schuldiner and his family were adamant in ascribing the illness which led to his death as a brain tumour in the face of accusations of AIDS. Now like many Death fans out there, I am saddened to recall his passing. That said one of the burning issues I have had with metal for a long time is sex, gender and sexuality. But since I do not know anything new, is there anything new to say on this matter? Read on.

Several months ago I was chasing leads down rabbit holes and found that when viewed from a distance, this elaborate warren cohered around a number of key points: That Paul Masvidal of Cynic was not only a visionary musician and composer but had spent significant time performing volunteer work with AIDS patients in San Francisco. The implications of these findings point to certain conclusions. When viewing photos of Masvidal, I noticed that not only is he rather handsome but that he dresses well and is not overweight or boorish as is common among metal musicians post-twenties. Finally, I came across an interview in which it was implied but never declared that Masvidal and Cynic drummer Sean Reinert were in all likelihood a couple. On following up some of these leads and examining the lyrics of Masvidal’s other well known project, the indie-rock sounding Aeon Spoke, I came across multiple examples of references to objects of love using the male personal pronoun. As Masvidal is Buddhist and not Christian I am fairly confident that he is not referring to Jesus.

Then there is the tie that binds: Masvidal and Reinert both played on Death’s breakout album, Human. What is interesting here is that Schuldiner had previously sung about mutilating a “faggot” on Death’s debut Scream Bloody Gore and now he was playing with “faggots”. In 1987 Schuldiner was twenty years old and composing music in a hyper-masculine, frequently misogynist and homophobic context. To me in this pre-PC age the use of the term “faggot” is neither particularly surprising or shocking. After all the zeitgeist was about shock value, obscenity and offense. A “faggot” was a widely disliked, foreign and quite probably terrifying identity in metal during the 80s. It was a way of distancing extreme metal genres from hair metal popular at the time. This is not to justify Schuldiner’s homophobia, rather it is to contextualise it. As a youth “faggot” and “gay” were terms of derision that I did not fully understand even as I used them. It was not until much later that I learned of their true potential to cause, spread and maintain harm.

Over time Death came to be less about terror and more about examining and rejecting social concepts and conventions. Schuldiner has even expressed embarrassment over the conceptual and musical superficiality of pre-Human Death. No doubt like the rest of us, as Schuldiner aged he came to reflect on his statements made as a younger man in an age which when compared to our own at present was information poor. Whether or not Schuldiner died from AIDS related complications and/or was homosexual is an internet meme that may well never be proved in the affirmative or negative. The fact is that his collaboration with Masvidal and Reinert (who had been recording Cynic demos in the period 87-91) on Human helped bring about personal and musical changes which led to a four album string of creative, engaging and original death metal quite different to what he made as a younger man.

Truth and myth will live on as we choose to inhabit them, whatever secrets were or were not in Schuldiner’s life may well never be known but at the very least Schuldiner dared to question himself and his worldview in public and transferred this to his music. In this regard, in the face of whatever and any other faults that he bore as a man he had the courage to change. Right on.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Vegetarian Me Part 2 – Nutrition, Tradition and Nonsense

This morning I read an article in the Sydney Morning Herald (yuck, right?) with the title: “Easy on the spuds...” (snipped for brevity). This article draws on a newly released report from the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council entitled: Providing the scientific evidence for healthier Australian diets (again snipped for brevity) which yours truly took himself over to read.

The draft Australian Dietary Guidelines 2011 contains a number of points I would like to unpack a little. First the guidelines have been prepared based on a “whole” food approach. What this means is that it recommends nutrition based on actual foods rather than abstract vitamin and mineral intake values. To me this is a huge step forward from the pseudo-objectivity of RDI tables and fortified/augmented soft drinks.

Second is the concept of “adherence” to guidelines. Although exceptionally and deeply analysed (research was analysed from a wide variety of local and international sources from the period 2003-2009) the information on hand does not really tell us anything we do not already know: in spite of affluence both economic and educational, Australians seem for the most part unable to adequately incorporate sufficient whole foods into their lifestyles. The guidelines go on to report the following harrowing information:

(a) Australian children (2-18 years old) consume 41% of their caloric intake in the form of nutritionally unsound saturated fat sources.

(b) Australians overall consume 35% of their caloric intake in the form of nutritionally unsound sugar sources.

In other words for many Australian children (adults as well), junk food outside of meals constitutes up to a staggering 76% of their daily caloric intake. Even if you were a highly active person, if you were eating 176% of your calories daily you would have your work cut out for you trying not to gain weight. But in our current couch potato age where the caloric intake of a significant proportion of the population likely exceeds this 176%, the answer is weight gain, ill-health and death.

Third, what is especially interesting is the Herald’s misleading article title. It is also a point with which I disagree. Although the guidelines do advocate for a 40% reduction in potato consumption, this reduction is explicitly to do with potato as a “vegetable”. What this means is that within the spectrum of different vegetables required for optimum nutrition, the quantity of potatoes should be reduced. However, I would argue that when considered as a source of calorie rich carbohydrates potatoes function as an excellent option in themselves or as an adjunct to other grains (the quantity of each is adjusted accordingly. Indeed the sweet potato rich traditional diet of Okinawans (southern-most prefecture of Japan) is frequently pointed to as the reason for their longevity (hey, warm weather year round doesn’t exactly hurt either!).

I would go on to say that the Australian diet by and large contains a sizeable hole relative to root vegetables. In Japan, root vegetables are considered integral to the cuisine and range from potatoes, onions and carrots familiar to most Australians to more (so-called yet easily cultivated) exotic roots such as sweet potato (especially purple skinned yellow/white fleshed satsuma and to a lesser extent the purple/red fleshed beni-imo), taro (in the form of sato-imo), burdock (gobo), yam (known locally as yama-imo, which unlike many kinds of yam is non-toxic and is frequently eaten raw), daikon radish, turnip (kabu) and lotus root (renkon which may also be eaten raw). Almost all of these root vegetables could be substituted for potato in order to decrease caloric intake and increase fibre, vitamin and mineral intake. I would argue that the dearth of root-vegetables in Australian diets and the over-reliance on “colourful” and “leafy” vegetables is in need of a serious re-think.

Finally, under the grains section the emphasis is on “whole” grains. This I will leave short and sweet and can fully attest to the veracity and benefit of switching from white to brown. Recently, I received a 10kg bag of genmai (brown/whole Japanese rice) from an uncle who would/could not eat it. Although supplemented from time to time with plain white rice (like making fried rice), every meal at which I eat rice, I eat genmai. Since I started this pattern I not only lost a small amount of weight (a stubborn mini-pot belly) but become clockwork-like regular and felt lighter and more vital as a result!

So what does my opinion have to do with anything? Nothing really, but it is my view that Australians need to take more pride in local agriculture, and let me say that again: local. By actively supporting local agricultural industry in increasing demand, Australians could:

1. Improve health through increased consumption of fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

2. Significantly reduce the environmental burden created by monocropping, over reliance on pesticides and herbicides for both local and export oriented markets.

3. Take pride in an increased national self-sufficiency production rate

4. Encourage the introduction and development of new and new varieties of fruits, vegetables and grains through selective breeding etc.

Or at least that is how it has worked here in Japan. C’mon Aussie, come o-o-o-n!

Church of Misery – Houses of the Unholy (Review)

May we all one day be fortunate enough to come to face doom.

When I was a boy the word “doom” solely referred to the iron masked, green hooded scientist-king of an obscure and fictional central European kingdom. Now to this writer, doom refers to the direct line of ancestors from Black Sabbath, Lord Baltimore, Witchery and to some extent Blue Cheer and Led Zeppelin. While modern doomsters draw liberally from their holy prophets their font of inspiration is the same: a louder, whiter version of the blues.

The blues have long been steeped in the occult. Take a journey down the Mississippi through swamps and out to the delta and you will find that history is sign posted with numerous examples of musicians who sold their souls to Satan, who died before their time and whose lyrics directly and indirectly equally reference murder, dislocation and evil deeds along with laments on love, poverty and longing. A half century later Black Sabbath, doom’s ground zero, reached through time and electrified the blues in a way at once familiar and yet much darker. Thus doom was created.

Over the weekend, I dusted off, put needle to groove and cranked the volume on my copy of Church of Misery’s Houses of the Unholy. I cannot remember the last time I listened to this album yet its excellence in genre mastery still rang out as clear (in spite of an ear infection currently oppressing this writer’s hearing – boo hiss!) as the first time. Houses is the perfect balance of Japanese (they are from Tokyo after all, not that you would know it) and Anglo-American sensibilities. Where Japanese rock and metal can tend towards shrill extremity (think grindcore with the treble maxed), Church of Misery temper this with a fat bottom end groove provided by sole original member and main songwriter, bassist Tatsu Mikami. Everything sounds as though it is on the verge of collapse not unlike the bombast of Blue Cheer flying off the rails in an improvised jam… but it never does thanks to Mikami’s chops.

Church of Misery’s assault on American Christian dominated monotheism differs from many of their peers. Mikami draws on infamous serial killers for inspiration. When asked about the why of drawing inspiration from this source he replied:

Psychedelic "Weed" trip etc.... It's ordinary and our band name "Church Of Misery" expresses it. Church [is a] symbol of Christianity, and Christianity is the base of the western world. Misery.....Church Of Misery means miserable Western world or [the] decline of Western World / sick of America, so I use serial killers as a symbol.

Quote taken from interview found at Metal Chaos

The album as a package is completed by an eight page booklet featuring various famous photos of serial killers referenced throughout. The photos are colourised and overlaid with text that openly refuses to draw a line between the utterings of the protagonists and the album lyrics. If you can find this on vinyl, get it. The booklet at twelve inch scale and the cool band pic which stretches vertically across the gatefold inside are worth the price alone – even for the non-doomster!

May we all one day be fortunate enough to come to face doom.


Stop asking! You can never know: Jazz for Metal Part 1

I have previously referred to the complex and convoluted interrelationship between the blues, jazz, hip hop, reggae and most other musical genres originating from African cultural practices and the mostly white (yet ever increasingly diverse if Metal Hammer’s Planet Metal compilations have any stake in definition) music known as metal. Reflecting on the common roots of these very (extremely) different genres and the paths they have taken through time, space and culture is a frequent personal custom. That said, for every open-minded, musically switched on metal head there seems to be an equivalent cellar-dwelling “tr00-er than you” version. This feature is not about why metal heads should listen to jazz. We tend to listen always with an agenda anyway. Instead I want to take a moment to give respect that the jazz that I have listened to which has recalibrated or otherwise changed my metal ears for the better. In this way I hope to draw more explicit lines of cultural connection that have occurred over time yet been neglected in print. While highly unlikely that I will never be “of” an African American cultural and musical context, I can investigate and connect with the myriad common historical points by better understanding the music. No hard answers, no permanence and no promises.

Miles Davis – On the Corner

Miles Davis was never square and his path quite crooked but his musical talent, his feel for his form was extraordinary, from tribute, to sideman, from interpreter to innovator Davis’ influence looms large over modern, popular expressions of jazz. However, for me, his key album was his least popular and widely disliked On the Corner. Breaking from genre confines and embracing technological advances (a truly cu and paste album if there ever was one) Davis’ 1971 masterpiece takes a very laid back, deep swinging rhythm section and plonks a tough, electrified funk, rock and blaxploitation informed aesthetic right over the top. Though the casual listener might not notice the whole affair was meticulously constructed from a number of samples/loops taken from straight sessions and then arranged for a new aesthetic. An exorbitantly priced 6 CD box set exists out there which contains the original non-edited master takes of the On the Corner sessions. Listening to the unedited versions helps to remind the listener of the classic/traditional grounding of the sound and make the edited versions sound so unique and interesting, demonstrating how cut and paste melodic and harmonic juxtaposition can create something so familiar and yet so strange and new.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Stuff I slept on (hence that “post” in the title)

Every year (every week these days) there is too much music released to hear it all let alone give it the time and energy required to fully appreciate it. Naturally for whatever reasons a number of great releases can fly under one’s personal music radar and remain undiscovered for long periods of time. It is then with true graciousness that the seasonal event of “year end” lists has arrived. As I read through the many lists made by contributors over at Metal Sucks, I kept an eye out diamonds among the rough. While some potential diamonds turned out to be uninteresting to me, the number of actual diamonds was far higher than I had anticipated. Here are some capsule reviews…

Decapitated – Carnival is Forever

I not only slept on this album but have slept on Poland’s Decapitated since always. Their latest album is an extraordinarily confident summation and perfection of death metal from its genre inception to the present. Guitars have girth and precision, the drumming is technical yet creative and restrained and the songs themselves are made up of ferocious riffs, gnarly solos and a plethora of unpredictable turns. An up and coming death metal band could choose far worse role models than these gents to equip them with a template for taking the genre to the next level. Shame on my remiss!

Leviathan – True Traitor, True Whore

I am not quite sure how to take this album. On one hand it is a brilliant update of the contemporary black metal sound with an array of intriguing and at times unsettling timbres. The whole album is somewhat frightening,claustrophobic and eerily misogynist. Yet on the other hand, the real life events surrounding this album including the alleged sexual assault (rape with tattoo tools?) perpetrated by Wrest against his former partner unsettle me in ways rather different to the music. A very important black metal album until context and ethics intrude. And after that? That is a push-pull issue I have yet to resolve.

The Atlas Moth – An Ache for the Distance

It is doom but of the likes never heard before. If it has peers then perhaps Zoroaster, Yob and Om fit the bill. This album sees the band transfer the ethereal atmosphere of black metal and overlay it on the sludge and thump of doom. What this equates to is groovy Sabbathian riffs tempered by frequently two or more additional counter-melodies, drones and rhythmic figures. Vocals are intelligible and at least half of the time melodic/plain sung. How on earth did I miss this release? I know, the demise of Sludge Swamp.

Glorior Belli – The Great Southern Darkness

A while back I wrote about how Americans seem to be trumping Europeans in the black metal originality stakes. In this game, Glorior Belli are not unlike an interception and 99 yard return in NFL. These Frenchmen show how it is done: not only do they incorporate the ill-suited genre aesthetic of Southern Metal into their sound, but they do so in a way which is more American than American. The pairing of southern and black metals sounds so natural, so deep and considered as to trick the listener into thinking it has always been this way. Some southern-ness is more pronounced and at other times subtle and requiring interpretation. This has to be one of the coolest black metal albums of the twenty-first century.

What would Jesus choose?

What follows is the first in a series of questions entitled “What would Jesus do?”. Only tangentially to do with religion, this series asks the hard question: “If you can only choose between A and B, which would you choose”. The first question:

Beneath the Remains or Arise?

As a young metal head it took me years to get around to listening to Sepultura’s Arise. It would be many more years later until I heard Beneath the Remains, and longer still until it “clicked” for me. My Sepulchral inroad was 1994’s Chaos AD. From the loose tribal drumming, propulsive riffing and a spit in the face of the first world defiant swagger, I was hooked. By contrast the seamless death/thrash blend of Arise appeared dated and regressive to a younger me. But after multiple listens, Arise started to gel and I began to appreciate the fine line it walked between two extreme musical genres. Arise’s strong points are its precision and focus, it is a tightly structured, well paced and balanced album, certainly worthy of the praise heaped upon it. So then comes my belated engagement with Beneath the Remains. Where Arise straddled genres, Remains inhabited the interstice between period aesthetics. Maintaining a heft dose of primitive early thrash yet pushing forward towards exacting sonic devastation, Remains functions as a kind of a portal into possible proto-alternative futures for thrash and death metal. Lyrically, Arise is the stronger of the two and likely reflects the length of time after the band’s shift to a North American context. However, while Arise might be stronger and more consistent lyrically, stylistically, Remains takes more risks, sounding like a band still trying to find its sound. This nascent version of the still young band simply doesn’t give a damn one way or the other about external stylistic conventions.

Judgement: I must admit, I have never been a fan of either/or binaries but when presented with one (even if the presenter and presentee are the same) I cannot shy away from participating whether to undermine the prevailing logic or to simply broadcast my terrible taste. As for the question at hand, while I have a lot of affection and a nostalgic soft spot for Arise, it is Beneath the Remains which helps improve this grandpa’s blood flow. Remains holds looseness and unpredictability against Arise’s exacting sounds and that spirit of experimentation is what wins me over to this day.