Pariahs And Extremes: Two Books On Heavy Metal Subgenres

Surely the line-blurring and inspired musical richness that has happened to metal, partly thanks to progressive rock’s influence, is occurring in reverse with prog rock. The two black sheep genres have shared commonalities for a long time – it’s only natural that they should be strange and very compatible bedfellows at this stage. – Jeff Wagner, Mean Deviations: Four Decades Of Progressive Heavy Metal (2010), p. 333

Death metal traditionally has been about pushing boundaries and being heavy and dark-sounding with its very own style of usually low pitched vocals. As long as all of the aforementioned are present in the music, it can sagely be categorized as death metal, and remaining true to the style’s origins. – Necrophagist guitarist Muhammed Suicmez, quoted in Albert Mudrian, Choosing Death: The Improbably History of Death Metal & Grind Core, 2d edition, (2016), p. 322

British Death Metal pioneers Carcass in concert

Every once in a while, mostly out of some sense of duty, I’ll try to sit and listen to opera. I suppose just listening to opera isn’t the same as seeing opera. All the same, I’ll give it a go. I always end up in the same place. This is unlistenable. I have nothing against people who enjoy opera. Much like those people for whom Elvis Costello is some master of music, an opinion I don’t share, I accept that there are people who find beauty in opera.

I don’t.

And it’s not because I don’t like orchestral music. Opera doesn’t move me. The sounds aren’t agreeable. The vocal style is ridiculously overwrought. The whole and the parts that make up that whole just aren’t my cup of tea. I don’t consider this a moral failing any more that I believe those who do find much to love in opera are bad or wrong for doing so.

For some reason, people who enjoy styles of music that, for whatever reason, are labeled as pariahs or extreme, get labeled as bad people. There isn’t a single fan, say, of Fates Warning or Cannibal Corpse who would believe for one moment their music has, or at least should have, mass appeal. Those like me who hear in these very different kinds of music something beautiful, something sublime, something energizing aren’t bad people. Nor do we suffer from some kind of egregious lack of taste; on the contrary, fans understand precisely what the music is and what it does for them. Check out any web forum or Facebook page for any band labeled either prog metal or death metal and you’ll probably find lengthy discussions of the music qua music. They get it.

Heavy metal as a musical style has been around since the late-1960’s/early-1970’s. Very early, bands so labeled differed from one another in sound pallet, style, instrumentation, and songs. I cannot imagine two bands more different than Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. Although both are firmly rooted in American blues, there is little that unites them musically. Yet both are called “heavy metal”, although (funny enough) both refuse the label. Adding in bands as varied as Deep Purple, Rainbow, Uriah Heep, and later Motorhead, it became clear very early on that, as a style, heavy metal meant pretty much whatever the person using it wanted it to mean. From the start, then, the basic form – loud, heavily distorted guitars; heavy drumming (Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath points out the only thing “heavy” about Led Zeppelin was John Bomham’s unsubtle drumming); non-traditional subject matter (most heavy metal songs aren’t about the usual boy-meets-girl) – could be used as a launching pad to create a variety of sounds. As malleable as the blues, heavy metal offered both musicians and fans exciting opportunities to experiment, push the envelope, be louder and faster and write songs about anything under the sun, from rage against political folly (Napalm Death) through the horrors of the Holocaust (Slayer’s “Angel of Death”) to a variety of spiritual quests (Morbid Angel’s early flirtations with Satanism; Pain of Salvation’s Be album). Through in a heavy dose of gore and violence (Cannibal Corpse, Carcass) and an overweaning sense of dread and even horror (use of augmented 4th chords, diminished 9ths, and other dissonant chordal structures), combined with impressive musical skill, and Metal and its various sprigs and sprouts offer something for everyone.

As long as you’re willing to pay the entry fee.

The fee includes setting to one side one’s expectations of what the word music means, or should mean. In particular, one needs to set to one side the notion we are dealing with some aberrant form of “pop” music. While rooted in the blues and owing much to rock’s 60’s experimentalisms, heavy metal is as distinct from rock as house music is from rhythm and blues. Another part of the fee is allowing oneself to feel as well as think about what you’re hearing. Prog metal, death metal, black metal – these are musics first and foremost about the feelings they arouse both in musicians and listeners. Whether rage or sublimity, power or serenity, you need to let the music open you up to feeling. At the same time, these various styles of music insist you think about what you’re hearing. While you’re hearing it. There is something that, should you let it, pulls you in and insists that you listen, really listen, to what you’re hearing. Active listening involves considering both the parts and the larger whole they produce.

Finally, probably the biggest hurdle most people who aren’t into these styles of music find impossible to overcome is the vocal style. While many progressive metal bands, from “The Big Three” Queensryche, Fates Warning and Dream Theater, to Sieges Even and Nightwish still use what’s called “clean” singing, part of death metal’s trademark is screamed or deep guttural vocals, epitomized in the impossible-to-understand George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher of Cannibal Corpse. Corpsegrinder’s vocals are more over-the-top than standard issue death metal vocalists. Death’s Chuck Schuldiner, Carcass’s Jeff Walker, Arch Enemy’s Angela Gassow and Alissa White-Gluz, and Opeth’s Michael Akerfeldt, while either screaming or grunting, are still understandable once you accept this is the way the music sounds. Sitting and feeling and listening and thinking pretty quickly makes it clear the vocal style fits the rest of the music exactly. Just as the quasi-operatic singing of Geoff Tate and James LaBrie fits with Prog Metal’s style.

Mean Deviation and Choosing Death are both histories of very different – yet still occasionally overlapping – style of music. Both consider the musics under consideration to have deep histories Mean Deviation takes the roots of Prog Metal back to Black Sabbath’s Sabbath Bloody Sabbath album; Choosing Death, a more narratively-structured work, begins with the proto-grindcore of the pre-Napalm Death band Discharge, with their rejection of punk’s boring sameness in the mid- to late-1980’s. Thorough, encyclopedic without ever losing the reader’s attention, the books offer a journey across rarely-trod musical landscapes. While die-hard fans might quibble about this or that particular band being included while one of their favorites is excluded (one of the oddities of the fandoms of both progressive metal and death metal is the extreme boundary policing they perform, excluding all sorts of bands and music due to arbitrary, often nonsensical, rules). While he receives mention in both books, I have to say I was disappointed avant-garde jazz musician John Zorn and his band Naked City aren’t discussed at all. I also thought the distinction between prog metal as an approach to music and Prog Metal as descriptive of the far-too-many Dream Theater clones (Shadow Gallery and Symphony X are the two most well-known) was important, but took up just a little too much space. Honoring the weirdness of Canada’s Voivod, Texas’s Watchtower, Florida’s Atheist, and Germany’s Sieges Even, however, was more than welcome. Richmond Virginia’s Lamb of God, self-described “pure American Death Metal” isn’t mentioned at all, despite both their popularity and inventiveness.

These are minor quibbles. Both books offer both the die-hard fan, the regular fan, and even someone not at all familiar with either musical style or scenes, comprehensiveness, an openness to the varieties that exist under each heading, while still critical of musical shortcomings. Choosing Death in particular drags along discussions of the labels and the politics of the music industry in its discussion, something that fleshes out the context of Death Metal’s various rises and falls. Both books are written by men who are fans of the music as well as real writers – Jeff Wagner is a rock historian; Albert Mudrian is a rock journalist – so the books are free of the kind of bad writing that might plague others who would attempt something as monumental as chronicling these musical genres. Neither book attempts to defend the music in question (much as I did above). The existence and continued popularity of both prog and death metal speak for themselves; the styles need no defense. This lack of any apologetics might seem to bar the door to the non-fan who might be interested in learning more about these two strange sets of sounds. Or, it might offer a non-fan a chance to learn something without any time wasted trying either to explain or defend the musical choices these bands have made.

As I write this closing paragraph, the song “Vertical” by the Polish progressive death metal band Votum plays on Spotify. Clear vocals and keyboards mix with downtuned guitars over odd rhythms, yet all firmly rooted in the dissonance of odd and minor chord progressions. We’ve reached the point where musics cross-pollinate, offering new and interesting opportunities both for musicians and listeners. It will never be popular; these are musical styles that aren’t supposed to be popular. They are what they are, and these two works offer for the reader willing to set aside prejudice the opportunity to learn not only where they came from, but where they might be headed in years ahead.

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Mortality And Music: Popular Music And The Awareness Of Death by Christopher Partridge

A memorial plaque at the site where T-Rex frontman Marc Bolan was killed in an automobile accident

“[A]ffective space . . . refers to music’s prosthetic ability to manipulate emotion and, thereby, to create internal worlds within which meaning is constructed. . . . In other words, music often contextualizes and gives meaning to situations because of what might be thought of as its “intertexutal” relationship to compositional compositions.” – Christopher Partridge, Mortality And Music: Popular Music And The Awareness Of Death, p.65

In 2015, singer-songwriter Steven Wilson released his fourth studio album, Hand. Cannot. EraseA song-cycle revolving around issues of death and mourning, the album was inspired in part by the story of Joyce Carol Vincent.

Joyce Carol Vincent was only 38 years old when she apparently passed away, and 41 years old when her remains were finally found laying on her living room sofa.  Her body was so badly decomposed that the reason of death could not be determined. She was identified from dental records.

And yet no one checked on her for three whole years.

As the author of the above-linked article asks: “How does a person die without anybody noticing for three years?”

Wilson had already composed albums with his band Porcupine Tree that dealt with death – Deadwing and The Incident – and another dealing with teenage angst, Fear Of A Blank Planet, that concludes with a song about suicide, “Let’s Sleep Together”. This was familiar territory for Wilson, and Hand. Cannot. Erase. is powerful and emotionally moving, the issues central to the album’s concept treated with care and a depth of feeling that isn’t always present in popular music.*

While many might consider the idea of creating music around death, especially one such as Ms. Vincent’s, not just morbid but downright depressing, the truth is popular music has always dealt with matters of death and dying, with suicide and murder, even with decay and decompositiion. While the peculiar circumstances of our emerging post-modern sensibilities offer opportunities to understand such music in new and interesting ways, we should always be careful when we judge the often youthful creators of such music, whether it’s Jimi Hendrix performing the murder ballad, “Hey Joe” or Carcass’s “Exhume To Consume“. We aren’t living in some particularly odd time where (some) musicians find ruminations on death fascinating. ‘Twas ever thus.

If Christopher Partridge’s previous major work, The Lyre of Orpheus: Popular Music, The Sacred, and The Profane, set forth a large theoretical framework within which popular music can be understood, as he says many times, as creating affective spaces within which meaning can be created. then Mortality And Music: Popular Music And The Awareness Of Death is the application of this theory to a particular set of musical and lyrical conventions in contemporary popular music concerning themselves with matters of the uncanny, the Gothic (generalized rather than specifically the Goth scene, although including those), suicide, decay and decomposition. I was glad I reread his previous work before reading this newly released volume, offering me the opportunity to revisit the major themes of liminal communities and communitas, the impure sacred, and other concepts that are at the heart of any study of the treatment of death in popular music.

Partridge uses a combination of a sociology of knowledge and cultural criticism to offer the reader opportunities to understand not just the music that inhabits this set of borderline themes but those who find within such music meaning, the book highlights the many layers of meaning within such disparate genres as early post-punk (Joy Division, PIL), folk (Nick Cave), Industrial, Death and Black Metal (Carcass, Cannibal Corpse), and hip-hop (Tupac Shakur, 50 Cent). Never shying away from the equivocal nature of even the best such musics, he nevertheless treats his subject and those involved with respect and understanding. In many ways, his treatment of the subject matter specifically regarding Death Metal is an improvement upon Michelle Phillipov’s Death Metal And Music Criticism: Analysis At The Limits, which is far more an apologia for some of the lyrical excesses of bands like Cannibal Corpse and Carcass. Limiting understanding to such extremes to an aesthetic of playfulness not only offers more meaning to such excesses than they probably deserve, using Partridge’s theoretical framework situates such extremes within the reality of the intertextuality within which all culture should be understood (although I do wish Partridge had included the fact that some of Carcass’s early lyrical excessiveness was rooted in the band’s militant vegetarianism; their wading knee deep in gore did have a socio-political raison d’ete, although it was certainly aided and abetted by youthful willingness to revel in bad taste).

While the book is insightful and will leave the reader both a greater understanding of the “how” and “why” of such musics and the communities who find meaning and communitas within these extremes, there are two issues that I wish to address. First is an editorial matter. Partridge is a lover both of beginning sentences either with adverbs or long adverbial phrases as well as the passive voice. The repeated appearance of “as has been shown”, sentences beginning with “Hence” or “Indeed” (and yes, I’m guilty of this myself; I, however, only have myself as an editor) started to yank me out of the flow of reading. I suppose this is a minor quibble, in the end, as much a matter of a particular reader’s preferences as anything else.

Second, and far more distracting, was his treatment of hip-hop. Treating it solely within a subsection of the chapter, “Morbidity, Violence, and Suicide”, I found “Living on Death Row” to be surprisingly conventional in both its view of such topics within hip-hop and his agreement with many critics who see the political potential of the genre wasting away with the influx of money and increased commercialization. All musics, as Theodor Adorno reminds us, exist under the shadow of capitalist exploitation; even the most boundary-pushing musical style is available to the general public precisely because it makes money. To criticize hip-hop for being commercially successful makes little sense. While Partridge does speak somewhat of the murders of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G., he doesn’t spend overtime considering the mythologization of both within hip-hop (his last chapter deals with the deification of dead musical performers and only mentions Shakur’s name; in fact, Shakur is the subject of much mythologization, including, like Jim Morrison, the myth that Shakur faked his own death. Finally, his treatment of hip-hop is far too generalized, making generalizations and sweeping statements about the genre that seem not to recognize the varieties of subgenres and subcultures within hip-hop.

And while I’m writing this, it occurs to me that the fascist and anti-Semitic politics of some of Black Metal, both musicians and fans, should be discussed in any consideration of matters of death and popular music. While Partridge does talk about one of the murders, that of Euronymous by his friend and bandmate Varg Vikernes, and the epidemic of church-burnings in Norway when Black Metal first emerged in that country, he doesn’t speak at all of the murders committed by members of other bands (Emperor’s drummer murdered a man who was trying to solicit sex; one serial killer in Germany and the United States found his identity within both Black Metal and German neo-Nazism) as well as the anti-Semitism of Vikernes (who has spoken and written at length of Norway’s WWII-era occupation leader Vidkun Quisling), Gaahl of Gorgoroth, and others. If the misogyny expressed in hip-hop and some death metal is to be taken seriously as being socially and culturally problematic, then the overt associations with violent, reactionary political movements and the many corpses that lay at the feet of Black Metal should be treated with far more seriousness than I found them to be in this volume.

Having said all that, I still found this book an excellent treatment of a subject too often parodied or ignored or treated with a kind of superficial contempt it doesn’t warrant. Like it’s predecessor (which I would strongly advise reading before reading this volume), Mortality and Music is an important contribution to the exploding discussion of popular music and contemporary society and culture. It has much to say that needs to be said, and it says it well. Whether you’re interested in the religious, cultural, social, or even political meaning of the vast catalog of contemporary popular music’s songs of death, this book will speak to readers in a fresh and interesting light, and within a theoretical framework that demands the subject matter be treated with all the seriousness it deserves.

*I think that’s in part because at the time he wrote and recorded the album, Wilson was 48 years old. Age does offer the opportunity for thoughtfulness.

Death Metal And Music Criticism: Analysis At The Limits By Michelle Phillpot – A Review

The listening pleasures of death metal are multiple and complex, and are not well accounted for by an approach which sees pleasure as a diversion from music’s “real work” of political engagement. In assuming that clear lines can be drawn between the “politically god” and “politically bad” text (see Hills 2007, 39), popular music studies has tended to subordinate pleasure to political concerns in ways that evaluate, rather than explain, the meaning and significance of popular music forms. The political implications of music are obviously important, but what else music might be about is equally important. A productive way forward, then, may be one that acknowledges and explores the specificities of musical genres and their listening pleasures, rather than one that evaluates musical genres according to “how political” they are. – Michelle Phillipov, Death Metal And Music Criticism: Analysis At The Limits, p. 133

—–

Oral eruption, rectal extroversion
Your vagus implodes as nausea strikes
Savaging your body in terminal retch
Violent spasms and decaying enzymes

Engulf your throat as you belch
Intestinal disturbance, your ileum turns inside-out
Your duodenum is thrust up towards your mouth
Your pancreas excretes stale septic pus

Your whole digestive system is now a sticky mush
Rectal vomit in your thorax wretch your anal tract
Liquidized esophagus mixes with bloodied excretion
As you pathetically gasp for breath

The stench of hot feces scorch your nose
As you violently vomit to death
Your intestines are rising up towards your throat
Stale bile escaping through your bloodied nose – Carcass, “Vomited Anal Tract”

—–

Cannibal Corpse in concert

Cannibal Corpse in concert

All art offers itself to the world on its own terms. Once free of its creator’s grasp, however, we are free to interrogate it on any number of levels: the aesthetic question is usually, although not necessarily primary; in the west, very often matters of a religious nature rush to the foreground; in recent decades, the “political” – never clearly defined, yet ever-present – has become the favorite entry-point for understanding American pop culture, popular music in particular. It is therefore, perhaps, understandable that a genre of music that seems at odds with traditional notions of beauty; antithetical to the western Christian religious tradition; and in a phrase oft-repeated in Michelle Phillipov’s Death Metal and Music Criticism, “reflexively anti-reflexive” when it comes to political and social questions would therefore be looked at askance by music analysts. Reveling in moral iconoclasm, death metal might well seem the perfect locus for a radical political hermeneutic of pop culture. Precisely because it eschews any of our traditional categories for analyzing and interrogating art, however, most critics dismiss it as either banally or perhaps dangerously apolitical.

Spending the first half of her book on the political hermeneutics of punk, hip-hop, and electronic dance music, Phillipov both correctly questions the primacy of these questions  by critics as well as leave unasked the question that becomes the centerpiece of her analysis of death metal: why are these musics not taken on their own terms, but rather become vehicles for one or another political agenda? Which is not to say that political interrogations of art are irrelevant; on the contrary, they are part of and parcel of how we understand art. Doesn’t a political analysis, say, of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony enhance our listening pleasure? What about the detailed political exegesis done to many of Shastakovich’s works composed under Stalinism? Quite apart from the allegedly simple pleasures of listening to music, political criticism keeps us from being complacent in our listening habits. We become engaged listeners.

All the same, why prioritize a political analysis? Certainly punk and hip-hop invite both listeners and critics to bring up questions of power, race relations, and capitalist and racist exploitation without too much effort. In regards electronic dance music (EDM), it is the communities created by the shared experiences of rave culture and house music and their alternative politics that become the focal point of (largely positive) analysis. Questions of the aesthetics of these musical styles, however, often sit unanswered, however. Why is The Clash far more satisfying to listen to than Green Day? What are the differences and similarities between A Tribe Called Quest and NWA? Are the London underground and Goa beach scene socially effective because the DJs offer socially affective compositions (often enhanced by psychedelics)?

There seems to be a breath of fresh air released when, without ever saying so explicitly, Phillipov places the aesthetic question as the forefront of any analysis of death metal:

[T]he focus on the political implications and effects of metal music and culture has circumscribed opportunities for a more nuanced understanding of the music’s pleasures. What might these pleasures look like, when they are considered outside of the currently dominant frameworks of political criticism? What might metal look like when political questions are no longer foregrounded? . . .

Death metal offers a productive starting point for such analysis, because an approach better attuned to the specificity of death metal will help to expand the critical vocabulary through which musical pleasure is talked about and understood. (p. 73)

The very nature of the style forces matters of aesthetics to the foreground, because before any other questions can be asked, the music calls to be interrogated on its own terms. Loud, abrasive, often disharmonic or using alternate harmonic structures, with a vocal style that denies the normal pleasures of listening to the human voice, and a rhythmic structure that is usually described as “brutal”, death metal invites analysts to come to terms with the musical sounds on their own terms qua possibly pleasurable musical sounds before any other matters can be addressed. It is here that Phillipov answers the challenge by using two among the most extreme bands as the loci of her analysis. Both bands revel in gore, violence, and – in the case of Cannibal Corpse – a complete rejection of the recognizable human voice. Both bands also feature complex musical structures, structures that Phillipov analyzes in detail (including a few transcriptions as aides) toward the end of offering the possibility of a technical enjoyment as part of the pleasure of listening to Death Metal.

Phillipov is cognizant this is an oft-cited element for the style’s popularity among particular groups; critics also note this is also a target of specifically political questions, precisely because reveling in technical mastery foregrounds particular forms of masculine hegemony. That Cannibal Corpse in particular revels in scenes of misogynistic violence (“Entrails Ripped From A Virgin’s Cunt” is an oft-cited song title of theirs), is another important question that is and should be front and center of any analysis of death metal’s extremes. While it certainly helps to consider the human enjoyment of horror and grotesquerie as part of the appeal of Carcass and Cannibal Corpse, I think setting the political questions aside to focus solely on the aesthetic matters of playfulness, the dissolution of the self, and technical proficiency does her larger thesis an injustice, especially since Cannibal Corpse in particular is both relentless in its scenes of misogynist violence and unapologetic about it as well.

Which does not mean her overall thesis, i.e., the need to move beyond political analyses of popular musical styles in order to understand them, is wrong. On the contrary; by offering detailed looks at two extreme examples from death metal and showing how their appeal to particular audiences might be understood apart from political questions, Phillipov offers a much-needed corrective to the now far-too-facile political hermeneutics that too often leaves questions of aesthetic enjoyment secondary, or even tertiary. All the same, while she notes in an addendum at the end of the conclusion of her book the politically volatile nature of support for Cannibal Corpse by female fans during a 2004 tour of Australia, I think it is long past time for fans of various forms of extreme metal, including death metal and black metal, to admit the politically questionable nature of the music itself; the prevalence of rightist and even fascist elements in black metal; the reactionary nature of a music whose primary attraction is its use as a protest among disaffected white youth in the US and in northern Europe; despite the spread of metal beyond the bounds of North America and northern Europe to non-white populations in Africa, the Middle East, and Japan, the nature of the attraction of the music, i.e., as a protest among disaffected youth; all these lend credence to critics who hear in metal (and in death metal in particular) a dangerous form of apolitical reflexive anti-reflection that can lend itself to manipulation by non-progressive political forces.

This is an excellent study overall, and Phillipov is to be commended for forcing critics, again, to face music on its own terms rather than a set of terms that render little if anything of value in understanding the attraction of death metal. It might well perhaps offer new ways to understand punk, hip-hop, and EDM, as well, by asking critics to take the music on its own terms first, i.e., as forms of art prior to any question of the music being a vehicle for political organization or agitation.