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Posts Tagged ‘Slayer’

This discussion might be somewhat mooted by the widespread availability of a band’s entire catalog online at the click of a few .zip links, but it used to be the case that if you wanted to dig into the work of a artist that was new to you, you had to just out and buy the record.  Couple that with this particular writer’s having gotten into metal without the influence of friends, or older siblings, or tape trading or ‘zines or anything else that might have given some pointers on the best albums with which to dive into an unknown band’s vast oeuvre, and you wind up with what look like, in retrospect, some pretty fucking wacky starting points.

Allow me to illustrate:

Yup, my copy's even got that stupid wrinkled-looking cover sleeve

The first Megadeth record I bought and listened to was 1997’s Cryptic Writings, a widely-panned shitstorm of wimped-out radio-friendly “thrash”-rock.  Okay, so maybe it’s not the complete disaster of Risk, but it’s really a fairly awful album.  The first couple of singles for the album received heavy radio play, though, and my teenaged self thought, “Hey, this sounds pretty alright.”  I got the record, didn’t play it too much, and probably wound up selling it years later.  The miracle is, then, that I ever managed to get into Megadeth “for real.”  I think I eventually stumbled on a used copy of Countdown to Extinction, which rekindled my interest in the band, and as my appetite for metal compelled into more research, I inevitably found my way into the band’s first four classic albums.

So, there are actually two points in my mind about that: Number one, how shitty is it if you stumble upon a band just at the time that they happen to release one of their all-time poorest showings?  What if I had never recovered from the bland shock of Cryptic Writings?  “Hangar 18” could still be sitting out there in the distance, far outside my realm of awareness, screaming and thrashing and raging for all the world to be heard, but to no avail.  Second, though: What if your first encounter with a band is with their far and away best album?  To stick with the Megadeth example, what if your first Megadeth album was Rust In Peace?  (I know metaldom’s opinion is somewhat split as to the extent by which RIP outstrips Peace Sells, Killing…, So Far…, etc., but to these ears it’s not even a close competition – Rust In Peace smokes everything else Mustaine et al put to wax by a wide country mile.)  From that point on, everything’s going to be a letdown.  You can dig into the band’s past to trace the roots of that miraculous album, and you can follow where its success took the band, and even where its dulcet tones stoked the fires for other bands, but that initial, revelatory experience is essentially never to be reclaimed.

(On a short aside, I’m pretty certain that my first Metallica album was Load.  By most counts, that would be a fairly disastrous starting point for Metallica’s discography, but since Metallica seems to be the one actual metal band that gets a free pass on most hard rock radio, I grew up hearing enough of the band’s real baroque thrash output that I could recognize Load for the stylistic turn for the worse that it certainly was.  Therefore, I wasn’t turned off, and quickly acquired Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets, and everything else.)

It doesn’t always work that way, though.  Even though Reign In Blood is generally accepted as Slayer’s finest hour (though I think there’s probably a case to be made for South Of Heaven as the better record; still, it’s tough to dispute RIB’s historic status), I don’t think someone getting into Slayer with RIB would necessarily be at the same disadvantage as someone getting into Megadeth with RIP.  Thing is, I’m hard-pressed to figure out exactly why that is.  I suppose it’s probably because I don’t see as huge a gap in terms of quality between Hell AwaitsReign In BloodSouth Of Heaven as I do between So Far…Rust In PeaceCountdown to Extinction.  That having been said, my first Slayer album was actually Divine Intervention, which is kind of a weird spot to drop into the discography, but not as confusing as, say, Undisputed Attitude or God Hates Us All would be.

On that same note, the first albums that I acquired by Opeth, Darkthrone, and Dream Theater were Blackwater Park, A Blaze In The Northern Sky, and Scenes From A Memory, respectively.  None of those three albums necessarily has a consensus as to being the band’s all-time greatest, but there’s enough critical praise behind each one that they could have been potentially standard-setting albums.  And in fact, each one likely remains my favorite album by each band.  Nevertheless, I have subsequently acquired every single album by all three bands, and haven’t felt the same sense of inevitable resignation that I think I would have felt had I stumbled across Rust In Peace before Cryptic Writings.

I wonder if the extent to which one experiences these weird starting points is mostly dependent on whether the band in question has produced any truly oddball albums.  Like, this whole conversation doesn’t make much sense if we’re talking about Motörhead or, to take a fairly timely example, Amon Amarth.  You can hate or love the band, and you can certainly make distinctions in quality between albums by each band, but neither band has produced any albums that are so radically different from the rest of its canon that a listener stumbling across them would be fed an entirely wrong perception of other albums.

On the other hand, a band like Boris or the Melvins would seem to buck this trend for precisely the opposite reason: both bands do enough experimentation and total stylistic shifts (more so with Boris than the Melvins, to be sure) that neither band necessarily has any good or bad starting points.  Instead, most starting points are probably equally strange, or at least sit reasonably well at odds with the bulk of the band’s other albums.

That having been said, here are just a couple of other strange discographic starting points in which I’ve found myself embroiled:

Don't care what you say; Cradle's never come up with a better pun

At the time, I had never heard of Cradle Of Filth, so I’m not even entirely sure what motivated me to pick up this album (I assume it wasn’t the horrifically garish cover art).  More importantly, though, I had no idea that this was a completely strange stop-gap release between albums, comprised of a few new tunes, a couple of new ambient/classical interludes, a Sisters of Mercy cover, and some rerecorded songs from Cradle’s debut album, The Principle of Evil Made Flesh.  I enjoyed this release enough, though, to continue on and work both backwards and forwards, and Cradle Of Filth remains an entirely guilt-free guilty pleasure to this day.

Who thought this cover was a good idea?

So, yeah, that album art is a nasty ol’ piece of shit.  The album’s actually pretty good, though, but if you’ve heard it and any of Septic Flesh’s other material, you know it’s an odd spot at which to first dip one’s toes in the Greek metallers’ waters.  It’s a strange hybrid electro-death metal trip, and the band has never really delved in the same dirges again.  Seems like this would be a band that you’d either get into from the earliest black metal albums and follow them through, or else you’d be better served starting off with Sumerian Daemons and just working on from there.

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So, what about you?  Have you had any similar experiences, either with getting into a band with a completely fucked-up, non-representative album, or with getting into a band with their far and away best album?  Or, more generally, when you know you want to investigate a band that’s new to you, do you have a particular strategy?  Do you start with the most recent album and work backward?  Do you start from the beginning and move to the present?  Do you first reach to the most widely-acclaimed album to see if it does anything for you, and only after that point reach both forward and backward if you like what you hear?

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Alright, folks, this is the first in a five volume series that is primarily about house-cleaning, but is also an attempt to keep myself honest.  Think of this, I don’t know, maybe like the ultra-shitty demo takes and ill-conceived Slayer cover a moderately-established band might tack on to a “deluxe” reissue of a debut album.  These early words about sounds from yours truly are, essentially, the reason the phrase “warts ‘n all” was made.

For the sake of journalistic integrity (quit laughing, that’s, like, a real thing), I have only made cosmetic alterations to these reviews, as found buried deep in the recesses of an external hard drive from seven years ago.

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Pig Destroyer, Terrifyer (2004)

Still terrifying after all these years

Grindcore has never been known for subtlety, and indeed, most of its purveyors would have it no other way.  With Terrifyer, however, the twisted nihilists in Pig Destroyer have provided an utterly convincing proof of grindcore’s continuing relevance and professionalism.  Building from the groundwork laid by 2001’s excellent Prowler in the Yard, Terrifyer lunges out of the speakers with confrontational intensity to grab the listener by the throat.

There is method to this madness, however – more so than ever before, as this savage trio has figured out how to incorporate into the speed and overall extremity of grindcore a plethora of muscular, memorable riffs.  Despite the fact that each song flows seamlessly to the next throughout the album’s 32 minutes of fury, what saves Terrifyer from being simply an exercise in brutal virtuosity is the conviction, precision, and feeling with which it is realized.  For as much as this album thrashes about with its grinding blitzkrieg, it just as easily falls into thunderous grooves, most notably on highlights such as “Thumbsucker,” “Sourheart,” and “Gravedancer,” the latter of which bursts out of the gates with a perfectly evil Southern rock n’ roll lick.  This diversity, coupled with the band’s obvious commitment to total aural destruction, results in an incredibly fresh sounding grindcore record.

On top of that, Terrifyer boasts a second disc which contains the single track “Natasha,” mixed as a DVD-Audio track in either Stereo or 5.1 Surround Sound.  Throughout its 37-minutes, Pig Destroyer alternates between brooding ambient passages with whispered vocals and various samples, and crushing sludge rock, at times bordering on doom.  This second disc, while staying true to Pig Destroyer’s monstrous spirit, further displays their desire (and more importantly, their ability) to broaden their swath of mayhem.  Add to all of this some appropriately disturbing artwork and vocalist JR Hayes’ equally brutal and beautiful lyrics (perhaps similar to what one might expect if Hannibal Lecter decided to front a grindcore unit), and it amounts to one brilliantly conceived and realized album.

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Rough.  Generic.  I know.  Stay tuned for more of these queasing shenanigans.

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A few months back, I wrote up this post in which I challenged myself to identify metal songs played on a random playlist.  As you may recall, I didn’t do so hot (5 out of 10).  Well, I figured I might as well give it another go here.  The basic motivation for this, of course, is that it’s pretty fun for me to do.  At a slightly (very slightly) deeper level, though, I think that going through this exercise helps me to think about what exactly it is that helps us differentiate and recognize extreme metal.  As you’ll see, in many cases, I would wait around until I heard the vocals to either a) guess what band it was, or b) narrow things down so that I could guess a black metal versus a death metal band.  Production is also a pretty good cue, as is guitar tone, and so forth.

Rules are simple: I put into a music player a playlist of all the metal albums that I own (meaning that I’ve excluded both all other genres and all metal for which I do not own an actual, physical product), put the damn thing on ‘random’, and start it up.  I respond to the first ten songs that play in the stream-of-consciousness fashion you see below.  After the fact, then, I run back through the list and post what the song actually was.  I suppose you have only my word to go on that I didn’t skip embarrassing songs or take a peek every now and again.  If you’re willing to trust a stranger on the internet, though, this is how it went down…
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1. This is some fairly clearly-articulated black/thrash-y stuff.  Vocals are sounding very familiar, but I can’t quite place them right now.  Is it an old Absu track?  Nice clean solo bit here with that classic Slayer-esque bass drum and ride cymbal only break.  I think it might be Absu, maybe from that Mythologickal Occult Metal compilation.

[It was: Saros, “Devouring Conscience,” from Acrid Plains.  Ouch.  I suppose maybe it’s a compliment, thinking Leila Abdul-Rauf’s vocals are a dead ringer for Proscriptor’s?  Not off to a great start, friends.]

2. This tune kicks straight in with some melodic black metal riffage and standard blastbeats.  A bunch of pinch harmonics.  Again, these vocals make me think I should really know who it is.  Is this old Behemoth?  I guess it sounds kinda like Nergal.  I’m going with Behemoth, maybe circa Satanica or Pandemonic Incantations.

[It was: Behemoth, “From the Pagan Vastlands.”  Hidden track on Thelema.6.  Pretty close, though.]

3. Ah, easy enough.  My Dying Bride.  Totally recognizable doom chug, and the unmistakable vocals of Aaron Stainthorpe.  A pretty recent track, for sure.  I’m going to say it’s from one of their last two records.  That’d be, what, A Line Of Deathless Kings and For Lies I Sire.  I’ll play it through a little more to see if I can get the song title.  Hmm, the more this runs on, I think it might actually be from the Songs Of Darkness… album.  Ah, those searing clean guitar sections, laid over their own echo – one of my favorite aspects of this band.  Great clean chorus from Mr. Stainthorpe, but I’ll be damned if I can think of the name.  I’m thinking it’s from that Songs Of Darkness album after all…

[It was: My Dying Bride, “The Blue Lotus.”  From Songs Of Darkness, Words Of Light.  Ba-zing!]

4. Whoa, major treble attack.  The fuck is this?  Obviously some pervertedly raw black metal.  What the hell do I own that sounds this shitty?  The blizzard-esque quality almost suggests Paysage d’Hiver or Darkspace, but the songwriting isn’t as ambient as all that.  Sounds like straight-up classic third wave black metal songwriting.  Is this the Satyricon side of that split with Enslaved?  That’s my best guess.

[It was: Demoncy, “In Winter’s Ancient Slumber,” from Within The Sylvan Realms of Frost.  Wrong side of the Atlantic.  Sorry folks.  Good goddamn if that isn’t some of the most thinly-recorded black metal I’ve heard in a while.  Too bad, because the song, while horribly derivative, has that nice melancholy groove to it.]

5. Great stomping death/doom groove to start off this next song.  No fucking around.  Dodgy recording quality makes me think it’s a bit old.  Could be Coffins, but probably not.  Nope, definitely not, but it’s got that chaotic, churning old school (or new old school) death metal vibe, with Incantation-worship dripping from the corners.  What was that record Profound Lore put out last year…  Impetuous Ritual.  Maybe it’s them.

[It was: Teitanblood, “The Origin of Death,” from Seven Chalices.  Same ballpark, at least.]

6. Hmm, now this sounds like Satyricon again, but I’m second-guessing myself all over the place.  Ah, thanks Satyr, for enunciating a little bit.  This is the title track from Nemesis Divina, which, despite The Shadowthrone’s greatness, is probably still my favorite Satyricon record.  I mean, who can deny “Mother North”?  Plus, the grand piano breakdown in whatever the fuck that song is called (I’ll look it up in a bit, but don’t want to fuck with the supposed purity of this little exercise).  Great stuff.

[It was: Satyricon, “Nemesis Divina.”  [Ed: “Forhekset” was the tune I was thinking about with the piano break.]]

7. Nothing automatic off the bat here.  Thick guitar tone, too-tight snare, plus the classic 6/8-that-doesn’t-quite-feel-like-6/8-if-it’s-quick-enough meter.  Thick bass tone, too, especially for this style.  Vocals aren’t helping me out too much here.  Damn, I’m kinda floundering with this one.  Nary an educated guess in sight.  Sounds like something that would be on Moribund.  Don’t know if that helps much.  Maybe from Finland.  I don’t think it’s Sargeist.  Too thick for Behexen.  Hmm.  I also don’t think it’s Horned Almighty, since it doesn’t quite have enough rock and roll, though the thick, rattling bass might point that way.  Shit, whatever.  I’ll guess Horned Almighty.  From the only album of theirs I have, The Devil’s Music.

[It was: Well, fuck, what do you know?  Horned Almighty, “To Despise the Life,” from The Devil’s Music.  I ought to give myself more credit every now and again.  Don’t think that one’s on Moribund, though.]

8. Well, this is a live track.  That might give it away if there’s any crowd banter.  Goofy carnival synths suggest Cradle Of Filth.  Let’s give it a chance, though, shall we?  Seeing as how I don’t think there are any live Dimmu Borgir albums out there, I’m feeling pretty good that this is Cradle Of Filth.  Let’s see if it kicks into metal mode at all, or if it’s only the taped tune that introduces the band at the outset of a gig.  Come on, assholes, I’m impatient.  Ah, there you are, Dani, you cad.  Lord knows what song this is.  It’s probably called “Charles Baudelaire Takes A Shit And Then Feels Badly About It.”

[It was: Cradle Of Filth, “Dirge Inferno (Live),” from the bonus disc of the deluxe edition of Godspeed On The Devil’s Thunder.  Suppose I could’ve waited ‘til the chorus to get the title, but whatev.  I’m a busy man (ha).]

9. All acoustic attack.  Immediately I think Agalloch.  Hmm.  Dual all acoustic attack.  Ulver’s Kveldssanger?  C’mon Haughm or Garm, give it to me straight.  These flamenco runs are gorgeous, but not helping that much.  I suppose if it quits in another minute or so, it’s got to be from that Ulver folk record.  Alright, folks, we have metal touchdown.  This from Pale Folklore?  Will I be voted out of Heavy Metal for asking such daft, potentially heretical questions?  Now that this is wearing on, I’m even doubting whether it’s Agalloch.  That synth is a curiosity.  In The Woods…, maybe?  Come on, vocals, I’m hurting here.  Oh, there you are, hello.  Son of a bitch, why am I not getting this?  I don’t think Haughm’s harsh vocals sound like this.  Ugh, I don’t feel really great about this, but since the sound is a bit spotty, I’m going to guess that it’s In The Woods…, playing one of their early tracks on that live album they put out.  But fuck, if this turns out to be Hate Forest or some shit, I’m going to flip my lid.

[It was: Aeternus, “Warrior Of The Crescent Moon,” from …And So The Night Became.  Goddamnit, Aeternus, I feel like you did this to me last time, too.  So, apparently, Aeternus: Most Owned But Least Listened To At Spinal Tapdance HQ.  Sorry guys.  This really is a killer tune, honest.]

10. Alright, this next track makes ten, right?  I’m not sure how much more embarrassment my flabby, much-abused ego can take.  Okay, this is a bit of a change up.  We’ve got some stuttery, then later crazy shit.  Strapping Young Lad’s my first guess.  Seeming pretty likely.  C’mon, Devin, justify my confidence.  Sounds like Devin Townsend howling there, presumably with the generous drum-bashing of a certain Gene Hoglan.  Yeah, this has got to be Strapping Young Lad.  What album, though?  Pretty sure this is from something later than City.  Haven’t hit any major hook or chorus yet, though, which sure would be nice, friends.  Oh, was that “Rape Song”?  Can’t remember which album that’s from, but I’m going to guess the song was “Rape Song” by Strapping Young Lad, which I think is either from the SYL album or The New Black.

[It was: Strapping Young Lad, “Rape Song,” which is from the Strapping Young Lad album.  Nice to close out on a high note, eh?]

(11. As I was typing out that last paragraph on SYL, the next track came on, and compelled me to try and guess it as well.  It’s some slow, sludgey doom with female vocals.  Can’t recall if Salome’s self-titled album/EP featured any clean vocals.  Maybe not.  Could it be Monarch?  Damn, I’m just going to be embarrassing myself again.  You’d think that since female vocals are a rarer commodity in these styles of metal I’d be tripping over myself with the right answer.  Doesn’t quite sound like Julie Christmas, but I suppose it could be some of her more understated style.  Shit.  Battle Of Mice, maybe?  Well, whatever, I’m leaving it with those question marks, since I’ve already done my official ten.  It was: Jucifer, “She Tides The Deep,” from If Thine Enemy Hunger.  Fuuuuuuuuck.)
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Okay, so how did I do?  Because I’ve had generally piss-poor results with this, I’m going to count as a win any song in which I correctly identified the artist.  I know, maybe it’s a too-large target, but I still don’t think I’ll be impressing anyone.

Result: 6 correct out of 10. Shit, I’m pretty sure that’s better than last time, right?  Anything tipping me past the halfway point is just gravy by me.  Still can’t believe Aeternus fucked me over again, but I guess it serves me right for being an inattentive dipshit.

So, folks: Know your metal as well as you think you do?

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In addition to my regular dose of all things vile and extreme in metal, I’ve been listening to quite a bit of jazz lately.  A few weeks back I was spinning Miles Davis’ record My Funny Valentine, which is a live concert recorded at the Philharmonic Hall in New York in early 1964.  One of the great pleasures of listening to live music, but especially to jazz, is following the back and forth of communication between the band members.  The particular track which stopped me dead in my tracks was the quintet’s run-through of the Cole Porter jazz standard “All Of You.”

This is a band set to 'slow burn'

Here is the audio (in two parts) of that same quintet playing “All Of You” in July of 1963, which appears on the album Miles Davis in Europe.  I couldn’t track down easily accessible online audio of the version which appears on My Funny Valentine, which is unfortunate, but this rendition still gives great insight into the near-telepathy of the band – especially the astonishing rhythm section of Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Tony Williams on drums.

Tony Williams is an incredibly active, almost aggressive drummer here; check out his ability to highlight Miles’ most strenuous phrases without stepping on them (from about 3:00 to 4:15 on the first half of the track).  But what really gets me hooked listening to the band play this tune is the lightning-fast communication between Carter on bass and Williams on drums while Hancock is laying down his piano solo (this is the majority of the second half of the track, all the way until Miles comes back in for the chorus around 5:30 or so).


If you’ve got yourself a copy of My Funny Valentine at hand, I prefer the version on there, but both versions demonstrate the single-mindedness of the ensemble.  All of this got me to thinking, though, that the type of collective improvisation on display with Miles’ quintet is an exceeding rarity in heavy metal.

Of course, improvisation plays a fairly large role in many types of heavy metal.  The most obvious example of this is the guitar solo.  We know, too, however, that not all guitar solos are improvised – if you see Metallica playing “Fade to Black” or Slayer playing “Raining Blood,” I think there’s an expectation on the part of the fans that the solos, which may at one point have been largely improvisational (though I have my doubts about that), will be played more or less true to the way they have been burned into their brains through years’ worth of listening.

Still, the guitar or other instrumental solo break is the most obvious example of improvisation in heavy metal.  In the classic structure, the guitar solo is a type of compositional break, used much in the way a pre-chorus or bridge is used to transition from one part of a song to another.  A solo will often occur on top of a basic riff structure which has already been introduced in a verse or some other section of the song.  It serves, in this way, to introduce novelty within an already-recognized framework.  The essential structure of the song would be unchanged by the removal of the solo, in most cases.

Then, of course, you get into all sorts of avant-garde stuff, with manipulated feedback, distortion, and the detritus of found-sounds and other oddities.  I don’t think most people going to see Merzbow or Skullflower, for example, have exactly the expectation of hearing recognizable “songs” from these groups/dudes.  In these cases, then, improvisation is less a decorative addition to a predetermined structure (as Hammett’s whammy-fondling is to a Metallica jam), and actually becomes the basis of composition.

Both of these models, however, are entirely separate from what goes on with Miles Davis’ group from 40-odd years back.  Certainly, there is a basic structure to the piece.  The melody of the original tune serves as the most skeletal reference, but the essential building blocks of the song are the tempo and the chord changes.  Beyond that, however, as you can hear in this recording, pretty much anything goes.  Sure, there’s a design in the order of solos – Miles introduces the theme, then launches off into a fantastic deconstruction of it, before it gets handed off to Coleman on the tenor saxophone.  After the tenor break, Herbie Hancock takes over on piano, before Miles comes back in at the end to revisit the melodic theme and bring the piece to a close.  By that description, then, it would seem that this follows the first model of improvisation, where there is a predetermined structure upon which soloing sits as a purely decorative flourish.

But to interpret the collective improvisation of Miles’ group here as a rote reading of a standard tune with traded riffs on the theme would be to do them a great disservice.  The crucial thing to follow in this live recording is the absolute vibrancy of the communication between all of the different members.  I find it easiest to pick out when following the interplay of the rhythm section – bass, drums, and piano – which is especially vital during Hancock’s solo break.  See, whereas the Metallica tune would be played exactly the same way without the solo included, if you remove any one of these three lines from “All Of You,” you would miss out on how these three guys are structuring and restructuring the rhythm and melodic texture of the song as they play it.  When they slip into a half-time swing beat for just a few measures, and then seamlessly back into the regular tempo, you have to wonder: If one of those components were absent, would it have the same impact?

The crucial element of the improvisation which goes on in “All Of You” is precisely that it is a collective improvisation.  There are five guys up on stage, and they are essentially having a conversation with each other.  Miles brings up the topic and swishes it around in his mouth for a while to see how it feels, but then he opens up the floor for comments.  Coleman agrees with Miles, for the most part, but elaborates on a few points.  It goes on like this.  The timing of Williams’ cymbal hits is dependent on what he hears Carter playing on the bass, or how he imagines Hancock will shake up his rhythm in the next two bars.  Carter walks his bass along quite amiably, but listens for Williams’ emphasis, and tracks along with him when it feels right.  If you take away one of these speakers, the conversation crumbles.  Balance is lost.  The nays have it.

To extend this somewhat-tenuous metaphor further, most guitar (and other) solos in heavy metal are basically like some guy yelling while everyone else carries on a conversation.  Take out the dude’s yelling, and the conversation continues apace.  You might be getting the impression, by the way, that I don’t at all care for guitar solos, which is not actually my point.  I think guitar solos can be pretty rad, and I enjoy a face-melting shredfest just as much as the next metal fan.  What I’m trying to stress, though, is that heavy metal might find itself expanded in interesting ways if it made room for this type of collective improvisation that one is likely to find in good jazz.

If I had to take a stab at figuring out why this is the case, I suspect it has something to do with the aesthetic of transgression and personal triumph which is so widespread in heavy metal.  The lyrics and topical concerns of much heavy metal are about strength, overcoming adversity, having the courage to be different, and so forth.  Obviously, these themes are expressed in vastly different ways, whether we’re talking about the hardcore youth gang pep talks of Hatebreed, or the motif of Nietzschean haughtiness and individual superiority common in black metal.  When it comes to expressing these ideas musically rather than textually, a fairly obvious way to do so is by highlighting the virtuosity of individual musicians.

Jamey Jasta's Seven Habits for Highly Effective Backstabber Overcomers

For the most part, the closest one might come in heavy metal to collective improvisation is with dueling guitar solos (or dueling guitar-keyboard, guitar-bass, or whatever else).  The problem is, these flights of multi-musician fancy don’t typically involve the same type of musical conversation as in jazz.  Instead, if you see Dream Theater live, for example, you will find John Petrucci doing a back-and-forth with Jordan Rudess on keyboards, where they trade off several bars, each trying to out-play the other.  There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that sort of coupled soloing; in fact, it tends to be quite entertaining.  Still, the model remains that of the individual virtuoso (or of two individual virtuosos, in which case the number ‘1’ remains a more important signifier than the number ‘2’), struggling heroically against all odds to emerge victorious, having slayed all rivals with the intensity and sincerity of her skill.

As a sidebar, I don’t mean to play too much into the hands of those who believe that heavy metal is about nothing but virtuosity.  I think that’s far from the truth, and that’s actually one of the main problems I had with the otherwise quite interesting book by musicologist Robert Walser, entitled Running with the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music.  Apart from seeming quite dated now (it was originally published in 1993), I think Walser relies too heavily on the notion that the primary mode of transgression in heavy metal arises from instrumental prowess.  Still, it’s an interesting book, and one of the (very) few academic books on the subject of heavy metal, and may well be worth your time to wade through some of the overwrought passages to discover the musicological and critical theoretical insights.  It’s available here from Amazon, and certainly plenty of other places, too.

Sorry for not giving a shit about Van Halen

Well, I’ve definitely banged on about this too much already, so I’ll try to wrap things up.  I think where Walser has it wrong, and why I don’t want to overemphasize this highly atomized, individualistic reading of heavy metal as sheer virtuoso performance, is that there are plenty of metal bands out there that succeed precisely because they avoid emphasizing one musician’s skill above that of another, and instead focus on working as an entity.  Neurosis comes to mind first, primarily because I’ve been rocking their new album Live at Roadburn 2007 recently.  Here is a band, though, which seems less like a collection of individual voices, and more like a collective, through which different voices occasionally speak.  That model is all fine and good, and obviously the amount of reverence shown a band like Neurosis is an indication that I’m not the only one who thinks this way.

What remains un- (or at least under-) explored in heavy metal, though, is exactly this kind of collective improvisation, this quickly-shifting musical conversation between members of the band that I find so thrillingly present in these live recordings of Miles Davis and his band.  I’d like to see metal bands able to move from these two poles of either playing completely as a pulsating organism (the ‘Neurosis Model’, say) or as a preconceived structure atop which the Nietzschean Over-Man dazzles with his unfathomable mastery (the ‘Metallica Model’, say – I’m not claiming that Kirk Hammett is the pinnacle of guitar wizardry, it’s just the example already in play).  Instead, there remains this tantalizing third way, in which a band locks in the skeleton of a song structure – a set tempo, maybe, or a flash of half a guitar riff – and then launches into an actual conversation between equals.

This is, for the most part, far less flashy than a Steve Vai guitargasm, and requires more patience and closer listening than the monolithic heft of Neurosian song-mountains.  It’s as much about listening as it is about speaking, but if the bands can learn to listen, and we listeners can learn to listen to the ongoing conversation, heavy metal can yet achieve a more intimate sense of community; a community not just of fans who listen to the same music, nor of individuals who gain access to community by virtue of technical merit.  A community always in the process of creating itself; an improvised community.

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