Monday, July 23, 2007

Metal: Why I Listen

I am what some people might call an intellectual, which means - in this case - that I enjoy contemplating ideas and experiences. I also happen to enjoy writing about those contemplations, which is why this blog - and another on a different topic - exist, albeit within the confines of their respective topical spheres. One of the things I think about on a regular basis is why I listen to metal, a line of thinking that I like to think has more in common with "is there a God?" than "am I a meat head for listening to this type of music?" In other words, my motivation stems from natural curiosity about the depths of self than from lack of confidence about my perceptions in the eyes of others.

A couple of weeks ago, when looking for a picture to anoint one particular post, I came across an article entitled "The Philosophy of Heavy Metal," published by the American Nihilist Underground Society. I read the article with interest and do intend to write a response to its ideas at some point in the near future, but today when clicking around the site I came across a passage that struck me. From "History of Heavy Metal Music and the Heavy Metal Subculture":
Its primary distinguishing characteristic is that metal embraces structure more than any other form of popular music; while rock is notorious for its verse-chorus-verse structure and jazz emphasizes a looser version of the same allowing unfetter improvisation, metal emphasizes a motivic, melodic narrative structure in the same way that classical and baroque music do. Each piece may utilize other techniques, but what holds it together is a melodic progression between ideas that do not fit into simple verse-chorus descriptors. Even in 1960s proto-heavy metal, use of motives not repeated as part of the verse-chorus cycle and transitional riffing suggested a poetic form of music in which song structure was derived from what needed to be communicated.
The writing is a little obtuse and the tone more than a little arrogant, but the idea of metal being pop music's answer to classical music jumped out at me and made me wonder if the above paragraph contained the underpinnings of my metalheadom.

It's something I've explored a bit in the past: a love of music is one of the fundamental binders of my mother's family and my parents did their best to inculcate me with the value of classical music from a very young age. Perhaps in response, I did my best to tie my respect for classic music and my love for popular music together into my college thesis (further demonstration of how much time I've spent thinking about these ideas), where I tried to parse the history of progressive metal; i.e., metal in the form where it most apes classical music. Whether or not I succeeded is a question for another time, but looking back I can see the appeal: classical music had practically become part of my genetic material, but all the same, it did not appeal to me on the fundamental, motivational level I craved. Rock music created that motivational drive, but could not answer my need for narrative flow. At its best, metal fulfills both needs and thus I listen.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Entitlement Kills Heroes

I'm catching up on back editions of the Henry Rollins Show on my DVR and just put on the May 25 episode, where Rollins starts off the show by talking about heroes: how we love to set 'em up and how we love to take 'em down. It occurred to me that while the reason humanity needs heroes is something we learn about from the first fairy tale we here, there might be a socio-cultural reason (or two) why reality TV and tabloid news give us as Americans the scandal we all seem to crave so much: our taught-from-birth sense of equality demands it.

We're a country that prides itself on believing (on the surface, at least) that liberty is an alienable right, that anyone can make it big by trying hard enough and everyone is on the exact same level playing field. Our legal system codifies justice based not on our social status or economic wherewithal but on our standing as citizens. Our government promises us all an equal piece of the pie - a pie that our society names to be sweet and juicy with a flaky crust that anyone can enjoy. We learn these values in school along with our ABCs and state capitals and we know, deep inside, we're just as worthy as anyone else to get what we want out of life.

This extreme individualism helped the United States succeed on the global stage. It helped build our way of life. However - and here's my point - with that same individualism we're more than happy to take any of our heroes, no matter how much we need them to guide us, down a peg or two when we can. We even revel in the idea and the execution, taking pride in our judgment as those we once held high are laid low. We do these things, I think, because deep down inside we never want anyone to forget: we don't just want that piece of pie, we don't just need that piece of pie, we deserve that piece of pie. Entitlement kills heroes.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Review: Testament - The Chance Theater, Poughkeepsie, NY - 7/13/07

I don't usually drive two hours out of my way to see a show, but Testament and I have a little history: I was supposed to see them at the exact same theater almost two years ago, prompted by one of the opening bands - I knew the drummer - and ended up not going because the band in question broke up before the show. Stupid reason, I know, but thus are stories made. However, since Testament refuses to tour anywhere closer to New York City and I gotta have me some Chuck Billy and Alex Skolnick, off I went.

The Chance is a charming relic. A remnant of an earlier age - it was originally a movie theater in the 1920s - it's preserved its faded glory character and soldiers on unrestored and with dingy grace as a rock venue. In appearance it reminds me of The Palladium in Worcester, MA and Irving Plaza in NYC, although it has one unique quirk: all of The Chance's useful sitting space sits high above the entrance, accessible through doorways and stairwells hidden by large crowds. Walk in after a show has started, as I did that Friday night and low ceilings, the overhang of the balcony, the blocky shapes of the bar and the soundboard all confront, pushing you inexorably towards the front, towards the built-in pit.

I found myself on the right side of the stage, the stairs to the pit - I know, how civilized - yawning towards me like temptation in wood-and-steel form. 'Come down,' they called to me. 'You don't have your camera, nothing to break - you'll be fine!' With the restraint of saint - and the experience of a man who knows the pit far too well - I shrugged the idea off.

Testament arrived late, taking the stage a good fifteen minutes past their announced starting time of 11:15, but when that blessed moment finally came, everything - the long drive, getting lost in the spread of Poughkeepsie, waiting through Merauder (real NYHC, which seemed to consist of not playing quite fast enough, coupled with a singer who was way too drunk/messed up in general to be on stage) - was worth the wait. Chuck Billy could fill a room with his mere presence alone. Always front and center, striding around the stage that suddenly seemed too small to contain him, Chuck Billy and his microphone stand, a three foot voice-amplifying baton that he carried at all times, were the centerpieces of much of the show. When Chuck Billy wasn't singing into the mic, he was air guitaring the solos on it. When he wasn't recreating the solos, he was using it to conduct, or to pull vocal contributions from the sweaty, eager crowd.

Alex Skolnick, meanwhile, held his own. The band didn't switch positions much, so I didn't get to see Skolnick's fretwork up close, but the sound was more than enough to satisfy as he and the rest of the band tore through a set list that drew mainly from the first three albums. In addition, a treat: "The Afterlife," the first new Testament song in six years, which seemed a worth addition to the catalog and a tantalizing reminder of the new album scheduled to come out next year.

There were some problems, of course: the mix on the first three songs was wretched, as if someone gave the volume knobs on the board an uncorrected spin, pushing the drums over the top and simultaneously alerting me to the previously unknown difficulty of trying to head bang without a guitar rhythm. I don't recommend it. Testament promised us an "eighteen or nineteen song set," a warm up for an upcoming festival appearance in Germany, but either the late start or some sort curfew ended the night, without encore, a few songs early. On the balance though, Testament put on an excellent show more than worth the travel and price of admission.


Currently in rotation on the chronological MP3 list is the Death in Pacaembu bootleg, a soundboard recording done of an Iron Maiden concert done in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in 2004. It's a decent recording, although it could have used some additional mixing in the studio; Bruce's voice tends to overwhelm the rest of the band and the recording does not flatter his high range. Anyway, the reason why I bring it up is the crowd, which sounds like something you hear in TV broadcasts of soccer games in Europe or Latin America: an enormous roaring beast that feeds off of the performers' energy, chews it up and spits it back at twice the size. They chant, they sing along in their thunderous thousands, they make up a presence. It's pretty awesome.

I also have a copy of Scream for Me Brazil, Bruce Dickinson's solo live album, also recorded (if you couldn't tell from the title) in Brazil. As with Death in Pacaembu, the crowd is an element of the performance, a testament to how much better than the original album a live rock show can be. Listening to either selection makes me think that - no matter how difficult it would be to get there and get tickets - the ultimate live Iron Maiden experience might be to see the band play in Brazil, to be a part of a temporary human collective so big and so connected as to overwhelm the individual consciousness. I imagine a bloom of harmony, the product of thousands of souls in momentary concord, flaming up into the night above the stadium like a burning ball of gas.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Apologia: Responding to UN Dispatch

Seth alerted me to this post over at the UN Dispatch that purports to address all of the supposed inaccuracies in the title track of Megadeth's most recent release, United Abominations. Dave Mustaine being Dave Mustaine (boy is that the subject of a whole other post), he's written a long, rambling response that comes down to, "You're right and wrong, but I'm still right. Nyah!" plus some stuff about how the fans love him best anyway. I could hope for something more erudite and incisive from the song's creator, but then I wouldn't feel motivated to write my own response and point out, point by point, all of UN Dispatch's mistakes and really, what's the fun in that? See the original article for full context of quotes and note that I'm only responding to those sections that are either incorrect or seem to miss the song's point. Without further ado:
Last summer, UN Dispatch learned that the heavy metal band Megadeth was recording an album titled United Abominations, which featured cover art depicting a 9-11 style attack on the UN building in New York.
Not to be pedantic, but "9-11 style attack" would be something involving planes or, at the very least, a group of terrorists. The album art, which blogger Mark Leon Goldberg reprinted in a blog he wrote last August - the same post he references in the quote above, by the way - shows what looks like a meteor attack, a group of bloodied angels and Vic Rattlehead looking bad ass and holding a shotgun while glowering at the meteors streaming in from the right of the viewpoint. I think we can all agree that terrorists are as much a source of meteor attacks as Britney Spears is a source of good music.
But not being much of a Megadeth fan, I forgot to pencil the release date into my calender.
Mr. Goldberg will go on to prove how little he knows of Megadeth's music many, many times during this article.
Blaming the UN for 9-11 is a new trope, even for conspiracy mongers--and rightly so.
Actually, the line in question is "[the United Nations] failed to address the most dangerous threats facing the world," not "[the United Nations] failed to prevent 9-11." You'll notice that threats is pluralized, which dovetails with Mustaine's rant about UN lapses at the end of the song. Mustaine's politics aren't always crystal clear, but his lyrics have always been anti-war, starting with Peace Sells...But Who's Buying?, where incidentally, the band chose to depict the UN after a nuclear holocaust in the cover art. Mr. Goldberg also misquotes the lyrics several times in this section, which doesn't add much credibility to his arguments.
Assuming the antecedent to the pronoun "they" refers to the UN Secretariat, lead singer and guitarist Dave Mustaine (whose voice we now hear) seems to be implying that UN staffers are enriching themselves while the poor in their country suffer.
Could be...the meaning of "they," used throughout the entire verse, is so ambiguous that Mustaine could talking about UN employees as thieves, or - especially in the second half the verse - the UN as dupes to President Bush. Also, that's been Mustaine's voice throughout the song.
By warning of 'another mushroom cloud, another smoking gun,' Mustain [sic] seems to be implying that the nuclear threat from Iraq was real, or at least as real as the threat from the United Nations. [emphasis in the original]
Or, once again, Mustaine could be implying that the UN didn't do enough to stop the invasion of Iraq, which would be a message much more consistent with Megadeth's anti-war stance.
This is where things get weird. 'The Locust King' is drawn from the Book of Revelation, Chapter 9. Mustain's [sic] decision to use apocalyptic literature found in Revelation is quite, uh, revealing. He seems to be sympathetic to a fundamentalist doctrine known as pre-millenialism [sic], in which an anti-Christ is said to rule the world during a period of tribulation before the messiah (Christ) returns. Some modern day pre-millenialist [sic] sects believe that the United Nations (or the Secretary General), is either literally the anti-Christ, or is setting the geopolitical conditions in which the anti-Christ will rise. Mustaine seems to believe this lunacy as well.
You know who else is a Christian? President George W. Bush - and he's had no qualms about incorporating his religious beliefs into his governing doctrine. Following the UN-as-dupes theme, Bush could be the Locust King, dragging the United States into a conflict that becomes the war that spawns Armageddon. Knowing Megadeth's song catalog as I do (and as Mr. Goldberg clearly does not), I'd have to say a literary allusion from a guy known for songs about comic books superheros and fictional characters doesn't seem too far off the mark.
Again, Mustaine seems to be ascribing pre-Iraq war intelligence failures to the UN.
As with most of the first verse, there are no proper nouns, so Mr. Goldstein seems to be filling in the blanks by drawing on the title of the song. "The decision to attack/Based on secret intelligence" is an indictment of the lies told by the US government before the Iraq invasion. Added evidence: you can clearly hear Mustaine add "Iran and [North] Korea," which are the other two countries named as the "Axis of Evil" by President Bush in 2002.
At this point, you can hear French spoken in the background. The only thing I could decifer [sic] was, "Nous besoin d'ordre mondial," meaning, "We need global order." This apparently upsets Mustaine, because he launches into a monster guitar solo!
The French speaker in question actually says "we need a new world order" first and then "yes, a new order." It's actually too bad Mr. Goldberg missed this tidbit, as the phrase "a new world order" is a pretty important piece of 20th century history: it started as an expression of optimism for peace after the First and Second World Wars, incorporating the spirit that led to the foundation of the League of Nations in 1919 and then the United Nations in 1945. After the Cold War, the first President Bush co-opted the phrase to build support for the first invasion of Iraq. Look at that: two tie-ins to the song, just by going back and listening closely.
In 1986, Libyan agents bombed a nightclub in Berlin, killing two US servicemen. President Regan retaliated by bombing two sites in Libya. It is hard to see how this episode is somehow an indictment against the United Nations.
To quote the UN Peacekeeping FAQ: "The United Nations was founded, in the words of its Charter, in order “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”." Bombings and counter-bombings by two members of the United Nations on the soil of a third would seem to fly in the face of the organization's charter. In other words: the UN can't even prevent its own member nations from fighting each other.
Facing War without end, looking into the future, there (grunt) was
(grunt) no (grunt) more (grunt) UNNNNNNNN!
Grunt?! Did you listen to this song on a telephone speaker when you transcribed the lyrics? Do you not recognize double-tracked vocals when you hear them? Enough of you, Mark Goldberg, you're done.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Playing the Tongue-in-Cheek

The Onion has it right:

The gentleman they "interviewed" for this piece on the wonderful diversity of heavy metal is spot on - I've spent today listening to Anthrax (Greater of Two Evils), Queensryche (Operation: Mindcrime II), Black Sabbath (The Mob Rules) and - my newest joy - Blind Guardian (Nightfall in Middle Earth and Somewhere Far Beyond) and feel like a better person for having done so. So hats off to you, Curt Webber of Logansport, Indiana; you're a righteous, open-minded dude in my book.

Hold that thought: you're a cretin for liking nu-metal and hating on all rap metal. Sure, a lot of that stuff was crap, but doesn't mean you need to discount Rage, you narrow-minded freak. Fred Durst is ok, but Zack De La Rocha gets no love? What a loser.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Ministry Announces Final Album and Tour

I got an email from a PR agent today announcing the release of Ministry's final album, slated to hit the streets on September 18. Entitled The Last Sucker, it's 11 songs about how much Al Jourgensen dislikes our country's leadership, which seems as good a topic as any. It even claims to be "the third in an unrelenting and uber-critical CD trilogy aimed at exposing the plethora of foils, failures and fabrications perpetrated by the George W. Bush Administration," so I guess Al's got a lot of hate backed up. The tour that follows will usher in the end of Ministry, so if you're into that sort of thing get your wallets ready - Jourgensen prefers to "be behind the console than behind the mic" these days, which I guess translates into a Beatles-eque retirement from the stage.

I wouldn't call myself a huge Ministry fan; I have a tape copy of The Land of Rape and Honey, but that's about as far as I got. I am curious though to see what Ministry does with a cover of "Roadhouse Blues," which might be the most gutsy evil song on The Doors' debut disc and the addition of Burton C. Bell on backing vocals for three tracks should be interesting. This album might be a good excuse to explore another new-to-me classic band.

Power Metal Original on Finnish Idol

Not to belabor the point, but Finland's version of Idol featured the above tune - sung by Ari Koivunen, the same guy who covered The Evil That Men Do in an earlier episode - as Ari's final performance. The same guy just sold 30,000 units of his debut album, making him a platinum artist (smaller population means lower relative numbers for sales, I guess) in Finland. The music in the video isn't particularly interesting (straightforward power metal offering nothing challenging) and I wouldn't call Ari a captivating performer - at least not at this stage of his career - but you better believe the same guy in the US wouldn't get nearly as much respect in American Idol, let alone on the album charts.
Via Latency Issues

Monday, July 02, 2007

Metal Mutability

My wife and I had a party at our apartment this past weeend, which isn't relevant to this blog except that it means lots of cleaning, which in turn means I spend time listening to music and pontificating while my hands get the manual labor done. On Saturday my wife was out for the day, so I had the place to myself while I cleaned up the kitchen. To keep me company, I loaded up the stereo with Black Sabbath's Sabbath Bloody Sabbath and Nirvana's In Utero (in that order) and soon fell to thinking about Sabbath's influence on Nirvana and then - just to make things interesting - metal's mutability.

By mutability, I mean the music's incredible ability to successfully meld with almost any other style of Western music you throw at it, making metal like type O negative blood, the universal music donor. Think about it: how many different types of metal can you describe just by combining metal and some other type of music, like mixing chemicals in a vial? Here's a few I came up with off the top of my head:
  • Thrash: metal and punk rock.
  • Grunge: also metal and punk rock, but Sabbath-style 70s metal instead of 80s style NWOBHM metal.
  • Hair Metal: take metal, glam and pop, mix together, shake vigorously. Serve with a cocaine chaser off the back of a stripper.
  • Rap Metal: mix metal and rap. Spend years ripping off Rage Against the Machine. Be proud of it.
  • Metalcore: metal and hard core. Metal and punk rock mixes tend to be very popular, because punk is almost as diverse as metal.
  • Progressive Metal: metal and classical or jazz, depending on the artists. Not the same as jazz fusion.
  • Industrial Metal: metal and the more hardcore aspects of electronica. Can't see the same thing happening with house music, though.
See, isn't this fun?