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I approached fellow blogger Josh Haun (of That’s How Kids Die infamy) a while back because I knew from conversations on Twitter that he and I would likely have drastically different opinions on the new Liturgy record.  I didn’t really care enough about the record either way to do a full-on review, but I still thought there were a lot of issues circulating throughout the metal scene on which it might be interesting to get a dual perspective.  So, obviously this isn’t quite the case of a real, knock-down, drag-out smackdown.  We haven’t called each other names or made rude suggestions regarding the bovine origins of the other’s parents; we’re just two guys with too many opinions about music.

In case you’re not too clear on what we’re talking about in terms of the widespread accusations of hipsterism that get thrown around with this band, may we kindly suggest you watch as much of this interview with the “band” from Scion Rock Fest as you can stomach:

Now you see what we’re up against, right?

I asked Josh to give the album a listen and pass along his immediate reactions as something of an opening statement.  What follows is therefore Josh’s opening thoughts, followed by my opening thoughts, after which point he and I traded emails back and forth to engage in a rather far-flung conversation that touches on everything from Darkthrone to Deathspell Omega, Moby to Beck, negativity to positivity to doofuses to hipsters to jasmine rice…and beyond.  Thanks for reading, and please do let us know where you come down on any and all of these issues.

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Opening thoughts on Liturgy’s Aesthetica:

Josh Haun:  Listening to Liturgy’s Aesthetica after being woefully turned off by the few tracks I’d already heard prior to “obtaining” a copy.  I recently saw a video interview where the singer could barely string a coherent sentence together (it went something like: “Like… um… like, philosophy 101-level bullshit… like, um, um, bullshit attempt to intellectualize black metal… like, um…) [Ed.: See above], so no surprise then that this appears to be black metal written by someone who doesn’t have the first clue about how to structure a song, much less play their instrument competently.  Liturgy fans seem to have it in their head that the only reason anyone could possibly hate this band is because they’re “hipsters” (whatever the fuck that means), or because of how they look, dress, talk etc.  I hate this band because I think the music is complete garbage and I don’t care whether the band is comprised of hipsters or Al Qaeda operatives.  The manifestos and sorry excuses for interviews are just turd icing on a shit cake.

I’m on track three at the moment, and I’m getting images of preschoolers in corpsepaint banging away on Fisher Price instruments.  Actually, preschool black metal would probably be more entertaining than this has been so far.  Oh hang on a second, track 4 sounds like they’re trying something different. This track sounds like crappy, under-produced Meshuggah or something, which isn’t saying much since I don’t really care for Meshuggah.  At least the obnoxious singer seems to have decided to shut the fuck up for this jam.  This track appears to be two minutes and thirty seconds worth of ideas stretched out over seven minutes.  Liturgy aren’t the only band that has this problem though, a lot of newer bands for some reason think a song has to drag on forever.  This is not trance-inducing, this is boring – you can go ahead and end any time now, track 4… shit there’s still like a minute and thirty left.  Well, at least the singer didn’t open his mouth for that entire time.

Aaaaaand we’re back to a piss poor black metal impression after that weird detour into djent-ville.  Track 5 sounds exactly like tracks 1 through 3.  I know this is my first time listening to the album and everything, but it probably isn’t good that I can’t tell the difference between tracks 1,2,3,5 and 6 so far, except on track 6 they added this effect where it sounds like the band is playing down the hall with the door closed for part of it.  Does this band have a bass player?  Do their guitars only have the 3 high strings on them?  Does their singer have testicles?  Track 6 is another one that goes on forever.

Track 7 seems to be from the soundtrack to the world’s most annoying Atari game.  Do you fucking remember Atari?  Did those games even have music?  If they did, it would sound like this steaming pile of pointlessness.  I guess the band threw in these little “curveballs” to break up the monotony of their utterly faceless treble assault.  Wait, what’s this?  Track 9 is actually piquing my interest.  I’m getting a bit of a sludgy, Sabbathy vibe here.  But alas, they don’t seem to be able to take it anywhere and my iTunes tells me they’re gonna drag it out to just shy of 8 minutes.  This band simply does not understand the fundamentals of compelling songwriting.  I know whoever’s reading this probably thinks I came into it already with a chip on my shoulder, but when Dan approached me about doing a hipster black metal throwdown, I really was willing to give Liturgy the benefit of the doubt, in spite of all the nonsense.  Had they blown me away, I would have readily admitted defeat… people who know me and follow THKD know that I’m willing to admit when I’m wrong about something (see: Kvelertak, Ghost, etc).

Track 11 is a chorus of people saying “hey” over and over again.  WHAT IN THE FUCKING FUCK IS THE POINT OF THIS?!?!  I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall when this record was being finished: “Man, this is awesome!”  Man, this is some pretentious horseshit!  3:30 of people saying “hey”.  This must be what people mean by suicidal black metal, because this track is making me want to hang myself.  What a surprise, they end the album with another track that sounds exactly like tracks 1,2,3,5,6,8 and 10.  Playskool’s My First Black Metal Band.  Thankfully, this is over.

Dan Obstkrieg: In preparing these preliminary notes for squaring off with Mr. Haun, I was trying very purposefully to keep my commentary to the music itself, knowing that our subsequent conversations would likely touch on all the extraneous cultural factors relevant to the debate over Liturgy and the potentially broader accusations of hipsters (or whatever) having infiltrated black metal.

Well, first things first: The album is definitely too long.  That having been said, the pacing and sequencing are very well done, with a mid-album break and the occasional odd intro or outro that gives a breather before diving back into the smash-and-burn.  Also on the negative side, those layered vocal-only sections are intensely annoying – the vocals work much better when restricted to a sort of white-out howl whipping around the outskirts of the instrumental maelstrom.  All of this means, of course, that the Krallice comparisons are inevitable.  In fact, if I didn’t have such an aversion to reading or seeing any interviews done by the band’s insufferable mouthpiece, I’d be interested to see if anyone has asked him point-blank about the undeniable Krallice influence.

The chugging, Meshuggah-lite sections are a nice touch, but they can drag on too long – the prime offender here being “Generation,” which has no business being as long as it is.  This technique adds a lot to “High Gold,” and in general, I dig the abrupt starts and stops of many of the songs.  The band is less effective when they try to do more traditional black metal tremolo riffing that isn’t simultaneously supported by their trademark jittery blast and crash.  See the opening of “Sun Of Light,” for example – those melodies are just plain uneventful.  “Veins Of God,” on the other hand, slows things down nicely, but again, there’s absolutely no reason it should go on for eight minutes.  And yeah, seriously, “Glass Earth” is straight-up obnoxious.  Almost painfully so, especially given that I’m already so favorably disposed to this band by this point in the album.  What could possibly compel them to think that this was a good idea?

All of these criticisms and somewhat backhanded compliments aside, I do actually really like this album.  Even though the ’90s alternative rock (play the start of “Tragic Laurel,” and then play the start of Beck’s “Jack-Ass”…) and new school American black metal influences (or ripoffs, depending on your persuasion) are quite clear, it still feels like Liturgy have found an individual approach, and it’s an approach that I find enjoyable.  “Glory Bronze” is honestly one of the best songs I’ve heard all year, full of a legitimately affecting sense of yearning.  Maybe the cardinal sin of Liturgy is that the main dude has tried to actively claim black metal, and therefore in the process repudiated or denigrated what many of us black metal fiends identify as the true, untainted spirit of the form.

Does God hate them all?

The Debate:

Josh Haun:I have absolutely no problem with bands bringing aspects of other genres to black metal.  Just look at bands like Blut Aus Nord and Deathspell Omega.  These bands incorporate tons of outside influences, but they are black metal beyond question and I love them for it.  I guess I just don’t see how this Liturgy is adding anything to black metal, unwanted or otherwise.  The tracks that incorporate other influences, the Meshuggah-esque track and doomy track, for instance, don’t really incorporate any of the black metal influences found throughout the rest of the album.  Relegating them to separate tracks tells me they don’t know how to blend their influences into a cohesive whole, which makes me wonder how they’re two album deep into their career and not still in the demo stage.  Furthermore, the black metal tracks are completely stock, I don’t hear anything even remotely interesting in them, nothing whatsoever that draws you into Liturgy’s world.  Certainly nothing that makes me want to hail them as vanguards or liken them to Bad Brains and David Bowie, as the d-bag that reviewed the album for Pitchfork did.

I don’t understand how anyone with a decent heavy metal knowledge base could find anything of real value in this band.  How is noisy, underproduced black metal innovative in any way whatsoever in 2011?  It’s been done before and done better by the likes of Darkthrone, Ulver, Ildjarn, VON, hell, there’s any number of bands that have made lo-fi black metal more engaging than Liturgy.  You see, the thing about an album like Transilvanian Hunger or Satanic Blood(okay, technically a demo…) is that it creates a world and drags you into it.  It actively engages the listener, pulls you into a world of seething, filthy, brittle distortion and real emotions, real negative energy.  I don’t get that when I hear Liturgy.  I don’t hear someone creating a world.  I hear someone that has studied a particular sound from afar and recreated it without fully immersing themselves in it.  It’s like a bad college thesis on black metal or something, totally dry and academic.Dan, from reading your opening statements, I almost get the feeling you had to convince yourself to like this album.  Was that the case or am I way off base?

Why do you think Liturgy have gotten the level of attention that they have?  Is it all about this ridiculous “hipster” stuff that the media and message board jockeys came up with or does the music really hold that much merit?

Dan Obstkrieg:I can see how you would get the impression that I had to talk myself into enjoying this, but I think that has less to do with the music itself, and more with the self-conscious reflexivity I feel compelled to use when discussing the band due to the intense level of shit-flinging going on all around the Internet.  The fact that I feel compelled to qualify my enjoyment of the music so heavily is frustrating, and I know to some extent that’s just my own issue.  Still, I always get the sense that even when I’m trying to talk with someone about Liturgy’s music, there’s always that nagging irritation of all the non-musical aspects of the band’s existence just lurking unannounced in the background.  Plus, thank God I haven’t read that Pitchfork review – sounds obnoxious as all hell (not that this is surprising, but still…).

So, let me be a bit more straightforward about it: I really like this record, and I really liked the last record, too.  I think this one is more interesting, but will definitely be more polarizing, both because of the heightened profile of the band, and because the band’s sound has become a bit more diversified.  That being said, I definitely don’t think Liturgy are the saviors of metal.  You and I both know metal doesn’t need saving, but more than that, I halfway agree with you that they don’t represent anything paradigmatically new.  Where I disagree with you, though, is in assessing what it is that they are doing.  When I listen to these records, I don’t hear them through the filter of raw, underproduced black metal albums from the likes of Ildjarn, Von, etc.  I hear this album much more through the lens of much more recent developments in U.S. black metal – Weakling, Wolves in the Throne Room, Krallice, though obviously Liturgy only really sounds like the last of those three.  Where you seem to hear raw, underproduction, I hear a different approach to noise – the spindly, occasionally indie-esque guitar tone makes for a much brighter, almost white-hot noise, instead of the murky, bleak darkness of what we might call “real” black metal (whatever the fuck that means).  Apart from that, though, the more I listen to these albums, especially Aesthetica, the more I hear it as a real showcase for the drumming, which has such a fantastic, sprightly, almost jazz/fusion freak-out quality to it.

All of this, I think, is why one of the major problems with the band is, as I suggested earlier, that they are trying to actively claim black metal.  If they weren’t saying, “Ah, we’ve listened to all this black metal, and we’ve decided here’s what’s wrong with it, so now we’re producing a completely new kind of black metal, which is just what the world needs,” it would be much easier to just say either, “Yeah, I dig these songs,” or “Nah, this doesn’t do much for me.”  As for why exactly the band has gotten so much attention, man, it fucking beats me.  I like the music a lot, but if I were trying to give the new album a score, I’d probably call it a 7 or so out of 10.  So, I dig it, but right now it’s not doing much to aim for year-end list status.  I honestly think the fact that they’re from New York has a lot to do with it, given how much more intense scrutiny tends to be focused on whatever explosion of sub-sub-sub-genre is currently happening there.  Beyond that, honestly a lot of it is probably down to the relentless self-aggrandizing nonsense constantly spewing out of Mr. Front Dude’s mouth.

What do you think is the reason for all this focus?  Do you think there’s any legitimate connection between this band and any other more recent not-quite-“real”-for-whatever-reason black metal acts, like Deafheaven, Fell Voices, Ash Borer, etc.?

Also, do you think you would feel any differently about this music if it wasn’t presented as “black metal”?

Hey, you damn kids better get off our lawn(?)

Josh Haun: You make a good point about Liturgy being more in line with the likes of WITTR, Krallice and Weakling than with some of the lo-fi black metal practitioners I named.  In fact I think you can pretty easily draw a line from Weakling to Krallice to Liturgy.  I think Weakling and WITTR can be directly traced back to Burzum, but they each sort of took that sound and did their own thing with it, Americanized it, if you will.  I have a similar problem with Krallice as I do with Liturgy though, to be honest.  Sure, they’re obviously gifted musicians, but I don’t find their music particularly engaging.  To me, a Krallice album is like the musical equivalent of an abstract sculpture or piece of art that you just kind of stare at from afar in a museum whilst stroking your chin, and don’t really have any meaningful interaction with.  Mick Barr has made an entire career out of making music like that.  That said, why is Weakling engaging, but not Krallice or Liturgy?  The short answer is: riffs.  Dead as Dreams is chock full of cool ideas that actual warrant the lengthy songs.

Also, some of our differing perspective undoubtedly comes from differing frames of reference.  I don’t listen to much indie rock, with the exception of some occasional Low, Xiu Xiu and Deerhoof (do those bands even count?), so I wouldn’t have the first clue about any of those influences on Liturgy’s sound.  I will agree with you that their sound is somehow “brighter”, for lack of a better term, than your typical lo-fi black metal.  Unfortunately I stopped being able to take the drumming seriously when I heard the term “burst beat” being thrown around.  Sometimes you can’t help but let the external bullshit get to you.With that said, this band probably wouldn’t even be on my radar if it was presented as anything other than black metal.  I can’t see them being categorized as any other type of metal, and if they had started out on Thrill Jockey and been marketed as indie rock of some sort, I probably never would have heard of Liturgy.  I had never heard of Thrill Jockey until the metal websites lit up with news of this band signing with them.  Obviously, I’m totally ignorant when it comes to that scene. I’ve had some friends/colleagues/etc. who listened to that stuff and tried to turn me on to it, but to me most indie rock sounds like children’s music.  But yeah, the fact that they claim black metal, that the singer wrote a manifesto proclaiming black metal as dead and that his band has created this superior new form of black metal in its wake, it’s just too fucking ridiculous to take.  It’s typical pompous American behavior, though.  Who the fuck is this guy to tell us black metal is dead?  He’s obviously never heard the more recent works of Deathspell Omega, Blut Aus Nord, Inquisition, Aosoth, etc.

I can’t help but feel that Liturgy, Deafheaven, Ash Borer, etc., do have a similar set of influences, namely Weakling and Wolves in the Throne Room.  But I think a band like Deafheaven brings a lot more to the table by incorporating a hefty British shoegaze influence  and Ash Borer is a bit darker and more raw.  In fact, Deafheaven is one of the first bands to combine black metal and shoegaze in a way that I find appealing.  It probably just has to do with the fact that they write dynamic, interesting songs and that they manage to keep things pretty visceral in spite of incorporating those outside influences. [Ed.: Check out Josh’s review of Deafheaven’s Roads to Judah here.]

Do you consider Liturgy a black metal band?  Do you have any set parameters as to what black metal is/should be?  I’m only asking because a lot people (myself included at times) have some pretty narrow ideas about black metal and think that is a big part of why Liturgy and some of these other bands are getting the attention that they are.

Dan Obstkrieg: On your first point, I’m a bit split in my opinion.  Part of me wants to say: Who are you to say that admiring something from an intellectual distance doesn’t count as “meaningful interaction”?  I mean, I listen to plenty of stuff that doesn’t force my body into an immediate bout of relentless headbanging.  Shit, my goddamn neck would be wrecked if I listened to nothing but Celtic Frost all day, y’know?  But then, another part of me agrees: I can’t fucking stand listening to Orthrelm.  So, in that case, I guess the point of contention would be where you and I draw the line differently between acceptably and unacceptably intellectualized (or non-visceral-ized, if I can make up such an abominable term) metal.  On that count, I’m definitely on the side of finding both Krallice and Liturgy striking the right note of direct, physical engagement as well as more abstract, “Hey, fuckers, look what we can do” appreciation.

Shit, I had completely forgotten about that “burst beat” gibberish.  See, this is exactly the problem: Why in the hell is there this need to come up with a new name for something that is not appreciably new?  I just got done praising Liturgy’s drummer for some notably frantic (yet still jazz-inflected, at least every now and again) playing, but I definitely don’t mean to suggest that the dude has, like, invented some brand new technique.  That’s just obnoxious.  Let me compliment it in peace, you consistently bothersome mouth-openers…  But as far as the being influenced by indie or not, and what one’s frame of reference is, I don’t think that should matter too much.  I mean, if we’re on the subject of Deafheaven, I couldn’t really give a shit if I hear more My Bloody Valentine or Rites Of Spring in their sound.  Same goes for Liturgy: it doesn’t much matter to me if they sound like they ate up Sonic Youth and Darkthrone at the same time, so long as what they’re doing in the present speaks to me somehow, which it does.  In fact, earlier this week I was listening to the latest Moby album, Destroyed, and thinking that there was something similar going on with Liturgy.  Here’s what I mean: I know that when I listen to Moby, I’m essentially being toyed with.  For whatever reason, the dude just knows the chord progressions, the synth timbres, or whatever else that tug at the heart strings in just the right, desperate, over-earnest (and therefore cloyingly obnoxious to many) way.  I think that Liturgy ends up doing the same thing a lot of the time, so while I can recognize that melodies and progressions are arranged in such a way to lead to these triumphant meta-musical-narratives, I can’t help but be swept along by them.  Maybe that’s an argument against what I was saying earlier, that I can appreciate an intellectualized take on a particular metal sub-genre.

Here’s a thorny issue, though: You and I are both are jumping up this dude’s ass for trying to actively claim black metal, tell us it’s dead, and that he’s single-handedly saving us from ourselves or fucking whatever.  But isn’t that just the kind of oppositional ethos that a lot of what you and I would both call “real” black metal bands have striven for over the years?  What is it that makes us both recoil from this Silverchair-frontman-look-alike-dipstick, but not necessarily (though we haven’t spoken about this, and my own feelings are a bit conflicted on it) Ihsahn or Fenriz?

But as for your trickier question about whether I consider Liturgy a black metal band, or more broadly, how I conceive of the genre as a whole, again I’m of two minds.  I think that most of the stylistic touches that make up Liturgy’s sound can be linked more closely to black metal than any other of metal’s sub-genres, so yeah, I guess if you forced me to pin them in a genre, I’d call them black metal.  The whole thing about genre tags, though, is that they never name anything other than an imagined community (to make a completely pretentious and inappropriate reference to Benedict Anderson – am I becoming what we both hate?).  What I mean is, genres can be a useful shorthand, but to the extent that they take on a dogmatic life of their own beyond that, they are primarily a detriment.  That being said, some of the artists that I enjoy the most are those that are clearly pushing the boundaries of their respective genres.  Thus, without that shorthand that we carry with us (as listeners just as much as critics), departures from a genre’s standards wouldn’t exactly register as unique.

Beyond that, while I can recognize the value of genre standards as much as the limitations, I don’t find that listening to Liturgy does anything to diminish Venom, Hellhammer, Bathory, Darkthrone, Mayhem, and any and every other foundational black metal band.  Do you see a band like Liturgy actively damaging the legacy of black metal?  If so, what makes them any different from a more widely respected band like Ulver, or Arcturus, or anyone else who abandoned a more traditional black metal beginning for wild experimentation?  What about Dødheimsgard, for example, whose 666 InternationalI know is a very important record to the both of us?

What in the hell does this masterpiece have to do with anything, right?

Josh Haun: I think maybe the problem is that when I listen to metal, I want headbanging, fist raising and thoughts of totally destroying my surroundings, or at the very least a head-nod while I’m doing other more constructive things.  I don’t just want to listen to metal and go “Oh, that’s nice!” or “Wow! These guys sure can play!”  I want the music to involve me physically and/or emotionally.  Certainly there are bands that are good at involving the listener on a more cerebral level, such as Gorguts circa Obscura, but they also know how to tap into those more primal feelings.  Even a band like Sunn O))) manages to draw me in: not in a headbanging way, obviously, but they have have that primitive, gut-level thing going on that comes from the drone, which is one of the oldest musical traditions.  I just don’t get any of these things when I listen to Liturgy.  I think Krallice is getting there though, and Diotimais easily the most engaging thing they’ve ever done. For the most part though I think metal should be a kick in teeth, it should elicit some kind of extreme visceral reaction, not chin-stroking or navel-gazing.You bring up Ulver, Arcturus and Dødheimsgard and I agree with you that these are important black metal bands that took wildly adventurous turns into experimental/progressive territory.  However, I don’t hear anything in Liturgy that puts them in the same category as those bands.  I will concede that Liturgy have made alterations to the the traditional black metal sound, but to say that their body of work is as radical as something like 666 International is ludicrous.  I don’t know if those bands displayed the same kind of bravado/pretentiousness that Liturgy’s frontman has when their respective groundbreaking albums were released, but if they did, then they were certainly able to back it up musically, because albums like 666 International and La Masquerade Infernale are undeniable game changers.  Another part of it is that those bands worked to earn some respect and hone their craft prior to making these dramatic stylistic shifts.  Liturgy on the other hand came right out of the gate claiming that what they were doing was the dawn of a new age, but in reality they sound like should still be making demos in a basement somewhere and getting their shit together.  I do think there is something to be said for challenging the status quo, but I don’t think that a demo-level re-imagining of Nattens Madrigal with occasional left turns into other metal subgenres is the way to go about it.  If you’re going to claim to be inventing a new type of black metal, you better have the chops to back it up, and Liturgy just doesn’t have them.

As for the “are they black metal?” question, I felt like it had to be brought up, because I think a big chunk of why Liturgy are so “controversial” (for lack of a better term) is because a lot of people have such a narrow idea of what black metal is.  I don’t think my own ideas about the genre are particularly closed-minded, but there are certain key aspects I look for in black metal, the main one being negativity.  Dødheimsgard, Deathspell Omega and Blut Aus Nord are all bands that push the boundaries of the genre, all three bands sound nothing alike, and yet all three are unequivocally black metal.  To me, this is because all three create music that is positively crackling with negative energy.  You might argue that all heavy music harnesses negativity to some degree, but there is something different about the way black metal does so, something that is difficult to put a finger on.  I think it has to do with the level of conviction.  There is almost a religious reverence for negativity in black metal that to me is inherent to the genre.  I’m pretty sure I read something where the Liturgy vocalist said something about rejecting black metal’s negativity (please correct me if I’m wrong [Ed.: I would, except I can’t be bothered to track down every damn fool thing that this guy says…] ), but how can you claim black metal if you’re rejecting the very thing that is at the core/heart of the genre?  Black metal started in opposition to death metal, so there is definitely an “oppositional ethos” to the genre’s beginnings, as you said, but I think that ethos began and ended with the original Scandinavian second wave.  Black metal now is just as much a commodity as any other metal subgenre and the people that still ascribe this imagined preciousness to it are just hopelessly out of touch.  If Liturgy wants to “save” black metal or its fans, I’d say they’re about a decade too late.

Dan Obstkrieg: I don’t know, man, when I crank this new Liturgy record up, I sure as hell feel like I’m getting kicked in the teeth.  But again, I’ve got Aura Noir for when I need to get down-and-dirty thrashed, y’know?  Regardless of which camp we put Liturgy in, I’m perfectly happy with metal that invokes aesthetic appreciation rather than compulsory headbanging.  Ideally, though, it does both.  And you’re absolutely right: Liturgy is nowhere near the brilliance of Ulver, Arcturus, or Dødheimsgard.  I only brought them up to stress the point that experimentation with black metal doesn’t diminish what black metal “is,” if it is anything specific in the first place.

As for black metal being about negativity, I’m again half-sympathetic, half-skeptical.  I guess for the most part I find it difficult to take most any type of metal band’s outward aesthetic presentation seriously.  So, yes, of course much of what characterizes black metal is an aesthetic obsession with negativity and darkness – DarkSatanBlackWolfMoonHate.  And sure, maybe what the music’s creators intend to do is usher in a world of pure darkness and negativism, but for the most part I just don’t buy that.  I don’t believe that most of these musicians, even in such extremely serious and fantastic bands as Blut Aus Nord and Deathspell Omega, are honestly lurking around in caves at night thinking constant deep thoughts about the apocalypse and the beast in man.  I think they’re drinking some beers, living in decently-appointed apartments, cooking up a nice shrimp stir-fry with jasmine rice every now and again.  And I’m perfectly fine with that contradiction between the image and the reality, so long as we don’t think that the image imbues the music with some immutable substance that the revelation of a more mundane reality would subsequently destroy.

I’m looking for music that makes me feel empowered, and the very best black metal does that, even though it is, as you say, ruthlessly negative.  Sometimes music does this through the fantastic anthems about metal itself that populated so much of classic 80s metal, sometimes it does so through making me think, “Shit, things may be bad, but at least I don’t feel as bad as Eyehategod sounds like they feel…,” and sometimes it does so by blasting away with minor-keyed melodies and a bunch of skinny white dudes howling about Satan.  If we both agree that black metal is a commodity, then I suppose it’s all down to each of us as consumers to separate the bullshit from the kick-ass, and if we come down on opposite sides of that fence with Liturgy, I’m cool with that.  Plus, I’m pretty sure we can both agree that the dude should just zip his damn mouth and let the music speak for itself.
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If you’re still with us, mazel tov!  Special thanks to Josh for being such a good sport throughout this long-winded back and forth.  If you still haven’t had your fill of Liturgy-related jaw-flapping, my colleagues Jordan Campbell and Jim Brandon did a head-to-head review of Aesthetica over at MetalReview a few weeks ago.  In case you’re in need of a refreshing black punch in the jaw, why don’t we close out the proceedings with what I (not so humbly) determined a while back to be the Greatest Song In All Of Black Metal:

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Ulver, Wars Of The Roses (2011)

Brilliant, as always

My review of the new album from Norwegian dark rock sorcerers is up now at MetalReview.  A preview: Wars Of The Roses is a brilliantly crafted and meticulously detailed album, full of surprisingly catchy hooks and wonderfully non-standard instrumentation and programming.  The first six songs are in some ways a warmup for the emotionally exhausting and sonically exhilarating closer, “Stone Angels,” which is a spoken recitation of a poem by the same name by the American poet Keith Waldrop.  There are plenty of albums that will rock you harder this year than Wars Of The Roses, but perhaps none that will cradle you as gently.  Wars Of The Roses is out now on Jester Records/Kscope Records.

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There are few things more satisfying than a truly excellent split album.  The options are fairly wide open, of course: One can find two bands that play very similar styles, and hope that a friendly spirit of competition will urge each of them to produce exceptionally good songs; one can find two bands whose styles don’t necessarily seem perfectly matched, yet when presented as a complement to the other featured act, make some curious sense together; or, of course, one can find two completely unrelated and bizarre bands to pair, and just revel in the strangeness.  All of these strategies can be used quite effectively.

Here are some of the successful splits I’ve got around the house that first came to mind:

Fen & De Arma


Cough & The Wounded Kings


Horna & Musta Surma


Horna & Behexen (the Finns must be quite good as this, because this is another phenomenal black metal split)

Most of these splits fall into that first category, I suppose, although the Cough & Wounded Kings split seems more like the second category.  Nevertheless, all of these are incredibly delicious splits.  Still, the entire reason I got to thinking about these split albums in the first place was because of a truly world-devouring split that didn’t happen.

Blut Aus Nord – Thematic Emanations Of Archetypal Multiplicity


The Axis Of Perdition – Physical Illucinations From The Sewer Of Xuchilbara (The Red God)


You see, these two EPs were originally intended to be released as a split album, and the more I listen to both of them, the more I am completely devastated that they were not released as such.  Now, I own both of these mini-albums on CD, so of course I can (and do) just play them back-to-back.  But that’s not really the point.  If these two monstrous recordings had been issued on the same disc (or as a split vinyl!!!!), I have little hesitation in saying that they would qualify for the title of BEST SPLIT ALBUM EVER.  Blut Aus Nord dipped into a completely new style of groaning industrial beauty on Thematic Emanations, closer in spirit to Ulver’s Perdition City than anything else in the French mystiques’ catalog (well, perhaps until this year’s mind-blowing 777 – Sect(s), but that’s another story…), while the Axis Of Perdition took the overblown insanity of their debut to new atmospheric and compositional heights.  The bands sound nothing alike, but it’s entirely natural to hear them plying these disturbed sounds in the other’s presence.

So, here’s my question to all of you brave readers out there: What are the most amazing split releases that weren’t?  I’m not actually thinking just of splits that were supposed to happen but didn’t.  I mean, use your imagination.  Think of some of your favorite EPs, and then think whether they could be even better in the context of a split.  Here are a few of my just thought-up dream splits:

Ulver – Vargnatt (demo) & Agalloch – Of Stone, Wind & Pillor (EP):



Gorgeous folk/black metal stirrings from both originators and inspired progeny.  Bonus points if we could convince Ulver circa Shadows Of The Sun to record their own version of Agalloch’s cover of Sol Invictus’s “Kneel to the Cross.”

Destruction – Sentence Of Death (EP) & Sodom – Obsessed By Cruelty (EP)



Two of the rawest, thrashiest, proto-black-iest sets of 20-ish minute madness from Germany in 1984.  Imagine these two slabs of influential metal history as one 38 minute album.  Then, imagine your brain slowly dribbling out your ears, and stupidly gleeful drool rolling down your chin.

Neurosis – Sovereign (EP) & Godspeed You Black Emperor! – Slow Riot For New Zero Kanada (EP)



This one’s a bit more of a stretch, but the corresponding influence of Neurosis on metal and Godspeed on indie and post-rock are similar enough, and the cinematic scope of both bands’ approach to texture and composition dramatic enough that I think fans of either band would find much to enjoy in the other’s output were these two excellent EPs to be smashed into one dreamy eruption of time-stretching bliss.

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Feel free to test out some of these split ideas on your own and let me know how they hold up.  In the meantime, what are your perfect splits that the cruel ravages of history and commerce have forever denied the world?

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For no particular reason other than a few serendipitous songs popping up when I was playing my music on random the other day, I thought I might do a little bit of a country profile here.  Well, scratch that.  I’m not particularly interested in surveying all of Italy, scouring its lacquered boot from thigh to heel for all the heavy metal fit to print.  Instead, I present for your edification and/or casual annoyance a few of my favorite metal albums from the center of history’s most whined-about empire.

The land of Berlusconi is, if the records I’ve chosen to highlight here are any indication, far more than the libidinous Mediterranean caricature and reckless administrative policy would suggest.  By no purposeful design, just about all of these albums tend toward the black-ish side of heavy metal’s family tree.  Perhaps most notably, then, given the genre similarities, is that for the most part, these acts don’t seem to all be coming from one centralized black metal scene* (the way we imagine things do in France, Finland, Mozambique, or wherever).  Chalk it up to the proximity of Vatican City, perhaps, or a lingering fondness for the somewhat corpulent severity of Il Duce.  Who knows.  Something is rotten in the state of Italy, a confused Hamlet might emote (well, not Hamlet himself, of course, but, just fuck along and let me have my wordplay, you ass).
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Spite Extreme Wing, Vltra (2008)

This black metal band first intrigued me with their previous full-length, Non Dvcor, Dvco, but it’s on this, their most recent and, sadly, last album,  that they really shine.  A great dry production lends excellent clarity to the generally straight-ahead black metal within, which is given just enough touches of the avant-garde to keep the listener on her toes.  The tracks are all untitled, though the band slips in both a Misfits and a Beatles cover, which blend in rather better than one might suppose.  Special credit should also be given to that gorgeously evocative cover art.  No need to be tethered to the ol’ black and gray tones forever, black metal chums.
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Stormlord, Mare Nostrum (2008)

This album kicks so many tremendous servings of ass that it really ought to be illegal.  I suppose the best way to describe Stormlord is ‘blackened power metal’, but lest that dreadful word-mash make one think of Children of Bodom or whatever fucking black metal Dragonforce churned out before they were Dragonforce, have no fear.  This is purely epic, regal metal that deserves a far greater audience.
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Void Of Silence, Human Antithesis (2004)

Void of Silence is a somewhat clean-sounding doom/death act from Italy, through which has rotated a number of excellent vocalists.  2004’s Human Antithesis has the distinction of featuring the unparalleled vocal talents of Alan Averill of Primordial fame.  Just earlier this year, the band released a brand new album which is also quite tasty, featuring the vocals of Brooke from The Axis Of Perdition.  His vocals on that new album are something of a revelation, given the bile-flecked delivery of pure caustic rage typical of TAOP; with Void Of Silence he sounds like someone who has just realized he can belt out true epic doom vocals, and wants to wring every last possible speck of emotion from each phrase.  Human Antithesis is probably still the better record, with sounder songwriting and the more stridently confident vocals of Nemtheanga.  Honestly, it’s worth the price of entry just for the title track along, a gargantuan 20 minute journey to the deep, dark recesses of doom, like the crumbling edifices of history so oft-represented in the band’s artwork.
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Absentia Lunae, In Vmbrarvm Imperii Gloria (2006)

Absentia Lunae is probably my favorite band of the ATMF stable, which also includes Melencolia Estatica, Locus Mortis, Urna, Arcana Coelestia, and others.  To be honest, most of those bands share a similar aesthetic and sound, so if you like one of them, chances are you’ll enjoy most (if not all) of the rest; still, Absentia Lunae’s first album ekes out a triumph in my book, for its rather stately take on this much-abused genre.  It has that rather depressive air, without ever veering anywhere near to the abominable pit of mawkishness and repetition known as ‘depressive’ or ‘suicidal black metal’.  Blech.  Go listen to Dio, you fucking mopes.
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Hiems, Worship Or Die (2009)

Side project of dude from Forgotten Tomb, which project, frankly, I couldn’t give two shits about.  I really dug Hiems’ first record Cold Void Journey, but it was really just a perfection of a particular crisp, blasting version of black metal, whereas its follow-up adds a bit of black and roll spite and a touch more experimentalism, to quite headbangingly catchy effect.
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Beatrik, Requiem Of December (2005)


I know, I know.  I’ve just been yelling at you about this album recently.  Thing is, Beatrik’s swansong of an album is so utterly gripping that I feel like it needs to be shared.  Seriously, why aren’t you listening to this album RIGHT NOW?
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HomSelvareg, HomSelvareg (2005)


This band is also broken up now, which is a shame, really.  Their self-titled album (which, in its re-release – pictured above – also features bonus tracks from an earlier demo) is absolutely nothing new in the realm of black metal blasting, but it just feels so right.  The 1990s had the paradigmatic Grieghallen production, with its lofty reverb and wispy clarity; HomSelvareg’s album – rather like Hiems’ Cold Void Journey – has an entirely different way of doing things, and it just touches me in all the right places.  Gross.
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Thee Maldoror Kollective, A Clockwork Highway (2004)


This lot are a bunch of fucking weirdos, that’s for sure.  While the previous album from the Kollective, New Era Viral Order, will probably speak a bit more clearly to one’s blackened inclinations, I prefer A Clockwork Highway, on which the ambient, industrial, soundtrack elements become the actual building blocks of the songs, rather than superficial drapings atop fuzzily elastic-sounding ‘industrial metal’ riffing, as was too much the case on the previous album.  Alongside the strangeness of latter Manes and (maybe) Ulver, this TMK album is a great mood piece, albeit one that will never quite let you fully relegate it to mere background.
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Aborym, Fire Walk With Us! (2001)

Aborym have also just put out a new album – Psychogrotesque, out now on Season Of Mist – but for my money, this remains their best moment.  Fire Walk With Us! is genuinely unsettling music that ripples with a current of untamed electricity.  Yeah, it’s black/industrial, so if that’s not really your thing, I understand the hesitation to fully engage with this.  But, c’mon, it’s got Attila Csihar (of Tormentor, Mayhem, etc., etc.) on vocals, and the album closes out with the great tandem shot of a woozy cover of Burzum’s “Det Som Engang Var” and a seriously disorienting ambient/noise track in “Theta Paranoia.”  This record won’t just raise the hair on your arms; it will turn your arms into robot appendages, which will corrode and rust before your eyes while your gaze is transfixed by album cover’s red moon rising over a technological apocalypse.  Give it a chance – let this album get under your skin.
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This is, of course, ignoring your Bulldozers and your Ephel Duaths and your Abgotts and your, erm, Rhapsodies of Fire.  Exhaustiveness is not the point.  However, finding something new (note that every one of these releases comes from the past decade) from one of Europe’s less prominent extreme metal breeding grounds, well, it’s like picking out a choice figure out of the pandemonium (should that be panangelium?) of the Sistine Chapel.  (This preceding sentence brought to you by the familiar trope in music criticism that Michelangelo’s paintings are an easy analogue to a few dozen angsty young musicians bashing out hymns to the devil.)  Salute!
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*Though such congregations do crop up here and there – see the grouping of artists around the ATMF label/ethos for a prime example of that in action, or, more loosely, the always-intriguing Code666 label.  Always curious to know if a few bands develop, followed by a sympathetic label, or if it goes the other way around.  Case studies abound, assuredly.

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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 which a few thoughts are occasioned by the monumental new Enslaved album, Axioma Ethica Odini (which, if you’ve yet to hear it, is absolutely tremendous.  Mountains quake, the skies weep, the soul straight-up yearns.).
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In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was metal.

Which is to say, for myself, and perhaps for many of you out there, during the initial stages of my exploration of the multifarious wonders of heavy metal, the word ‘metal’ itself was all I required to feel a sense of, if not community, then at least identity.  ‘Metal’ was a strident enough signifier to set this new world apart from previous musical interests (punk, hardcore, jazz, mainstream rock, and whatever else).  No matter the variation between the usual ‘gateway’ suspects (Metallica, Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Pantera, &c.), all that mattered then was their common genesis as metal.

I suspect that most metal fans out there have long since recognized the strength that inheres in feeling yourself part of heavy metal’s community.  No matter if that engagement is a primarily solitary endeavor, one still feels a sense of empowerment by festooning one’s ears with this vast and revelatory music with the zeal of a novitiate.

Clocks spin, years pass, times change.  It’s a natural inclination, the further one gets into exploring the minutiae of heavy metal genres, to begin the unending work of segregation, classification, ghettoization.  These bands go over here, while those bands stay over here.  The world of metal becomes a splintered landscape of conflicting and sometimes feuding tribes.  What was once the unsurpassed breadth of the Roman Empire becomes the fiercely independent fiefdoms of 17th century Europe during the Wars of Religion.  Any subsequent musical Peace of Westphalia would only solidify control over barriers to entry, reproducing in musical terms the political origins of modern state sovereignty.  A Concert of Europe, indeed.

The entire impetus for these here rambling thoughts is nothing more fanciful than my increasing disdain for my own practice of genre labeling in iTunes.  Which is to say, although there was no such thing as iTunes or mp3s when I started listening to metal, I feel confident that had I been importing those Metallica, Sabbath, Priest and Maiden records into iTunes those several years ago, they would have all comfortably been tagged ‘Metal’.  Simple.  Done.

Over time, though, words proliferate.  Adjectives, qualifiers, slashes and hyphens.  More detailed descriptions of musical genres are taken as proof of greater attentiveness, greater sophistication on the part of the o! so cultured listener.  The pure, simple narrative of heavy metal jogs, tangles, snarls.  Roots, branches, impurities.

This is just as much a critique of my own obsessive tendencies as it is of heavy metal in general.  Still, I think the type of personality that is drawn to metal in the first place, and then further drawn to obsess over the micro-fractures between genres and subgenres, is an understandable beast.  Where we move from more or less natural OCD-ism to manufactured opinion and a loss of communal feeling is when record labels, the metal ‘press’ (such as it is), and all manner of scene-policing malcontents buy into these perfectly real and legitimate musical differences not as a matter of the diversity of artistic expression, but as a marketable tool.  Again, this is but an inevitable consequence of the imperatives of capitalism, but it still hurts.

To bring it back to my original inspiration: Enslaved’s new album is a massively impressive monument to the apparently illimitable wells of creativity drawn upon by these Norwegian gentlefolk.  It is equal parts driving and aggressive, nimble and progressive, dense and spacious.  In short, it will kick your ass twelve ways to Sunday.  More to the point, though, rarely in recent times has an album compelled me so absolutely – so maniacally – to dispense altogether with genre classification.

I have other Enslaved albums labeled in iTunes in several combinations of “Viking/prog/psych/black metal.”  Now, I ask you: What in the hell is accomplished by belching into the world such an ugly mouthful of nonsense?  (Alternately, am I really doing myself any favors by labeling various Ulver records everything from ‘Black/Folk’ to ‘Avant-Garde’ to ‘Norwegian Folk’ to ‘Dark Electronica/Avant-Garde’?  Have I ever, in recent memory, been compelled to sort my iTunes library by the urge to listen to nothing but ‘Dark Electronica/Avant-Garde’?  Clearly, no.)  Sure, each of those descriptions has some limited utility in describing various components of Enslaved’s sound, but FUCK.  This new album is just pure metal.  No need to qualify, or hesitate, or second-guess: this music demands only obedience to its mastery.  To be held in its elemental thrall.

More generally, I think the best heavy metal is often that which essentially grabs me by the face, slaps me about and yells, “Hey, asshole, nobody gives a shit about all these words.  This right here is heavy metal, and it is happening NOW.  So shut the fuck up and LISTEN.”

Of course, the irony of only being able to express these ideas about music through words upon desperate words is not lost on me.  But enough words: time for action.  I’m off to blast the new Enslaved record for about the tenth time this week, and maybe go about the business of some serious genre-pruning.  Let’s get out of these ghettos and step back out onto wide plains warmed by the churning, molten sun of heavy metal.

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I know we’ve all got a few of those bands kicking around in the back of our heads; you know, the bands that you absolutely love, just can’t get enough of, and you want the rest of the world to sit and glory in their music.

Allow me, then, to offer you heartiest recommendation of the Finnish band Tenhi.

As far as I’ve seen them discussed, these guys usually get grouped under the genre heading of neofolk*, which is, apart from its sometimes dubiously nationalist leanings, a completely atrocious and vague set of musical, lyrical, and even visual signifiers.  Which is to say, I don’t put too much stock in the name ‘neofolk’, but that shouldn’t prevent you from running out just as quickly as you can and buying up as much music by Tenhi as humanly possible.

The band plays a rich, deep, gorgeously melancholic sort of folk-inspired music that seems to hew perfectly to my own imaginings of the landscape of Finland.  Acoustic guitars, piano, cellos, wonderfully deep male choral vocals and surprisingly muscular (but not aggressive) drums are the key ingredients to Tenhi’s sound, but there is an odd bit of alchemy going on in the songwriting that seems to result in an entrancing sort of melodic and rhythmic magic.

The entire reason I bring this up, really, is to share with you all how excited I am for these dudes to put out their new album, entitled Saivo.  Their last studio album, Maaäet, from 2006, was probably their best yet, and although they have continually tantalized me since then, with the reissue of the much more piano-based Airut: Aamujen and the phenomenal three-disc collector’s piece Folk Aesthetic 1996-2006, I’m more than a little eager to hear new material.

A recent update on their website suggests that the new album will be completed sometime late summer or early fall, but doesn’t yet give much information as to a release date.  Take it as your assignment, in the meantime, to familiarize yourself with the wonder of this brilliant folk music.  For metalheads not quite sure if they’d like to take the plunge, Tenhi will sit quite nicely alongside Ulver’s Kveldssanger, Dornenreich, Agalloch, Empyrium, Wyrd, or any other dark/folk metal act you care to bring to mind.

If you need further convincing, here are a few videos to watch (the first an official Tenhi production, the second a YouTube user’s creation, featuring pitch-perfect photography):

So, what in the hell are you waiting for?

*For the curious, you could do much worse than checking out this astonishingly good (and wide-ranging) compilation, Looking For Europe, released a few years back on Prophecy Productions, who also handle Tenhi’s releases.  Coincidence?

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