Your hands, and what they tell the world about your metalness

December 8, 2008

Diane,

Hands can be used for good and ill alike.  They can dispense massages, but they can also give out punches or stabbings.  They can make a fine deep-dish pizza, or slip somebody a mickey.  They can write a good blog post, like you might find somewhere else, or churn out some crap like this.  You see?  A, B.  X, Y.  Black, white.  “Lost,” “Heroes.”

Well, they can also communicate to a band’s listening public exactly how metal that band is… or isn’t.  So here are some handy guidelines for metal bands looking to appear metal.  Stick to the first five, and avoid the second five – it’s just that simple.

TOP FIVE METAL THINGS TO DO WITH YOUR HANDS

1. Make devil horns. 

immortal

Devil horns are the universally-acknowledged symbol of metal.  You’d think their sheer ubiquity (even your grandma has probably thrown horns some time this year) would ruin their cache in the metal underground, but somehow, the ol’ horns soldier on.  Proper headbanging practically requires injudicious use of the horns, and I have it on good authority that finger-tapping as a guitar technique was invented to free up the pick hand for horn-hurling.  As a metal asset, there is none greater.

2. Do the “Metal Hands.”

sadistic

I don’t know what this is actually called, so I’m just calling it Metal Hands.  Five million metal bands (statistic courtesy of my ass) have done this exact thing with their hands in band pics.  (I’m referring here to the left and middle guys in this picture, not the emo girl on the right who is apparently very distraught about her boyfriend dumping her.)  It communicates an assortment of very metal sentiments: “I want to claw at things,” “I may have rigor mortis even as we speak,” “This happened because I masturbate too much,” etc.  It’s important to note, however, that even the considerable power of Metal Hands can be overwhelmed by great lameness in other areas, as shown here:

december-fog

3. Adorn them with, and use them to display, knuckle tattoos.

ozzy-tat

This is quite simple: 1. Black Sabbath created metal.  2. Ozzy was a key ingredient of Black Sabbath.  3. Ozzy has the world’s most famous knuckle tattoo.  4. Therefore, knuckle tattoos are completely fucking metal. 

If you need further convincing, a gentlemen calling himself “HeadOvMetal” on Flickr has the final word in this discussion:

headovmetal-on-flickr

Now that might be the metalliest thing I’ve ever seen.

4. Play a flying V with them.

mustaine

Dave Mustaine is so metal that he’s made it acceptable to convert to Christianity, refuse to play shows with bands that have Satanic lyrics, and even sell out and release a bunch of shitty albums that are much, much worse than “Peace Sells.”  So – listen to Mustaine, and bask in the glory of that picture of him destroying the world with the most metal guitar there is.

5. Clutch an inverted cross.

old-funeral

The Norwegians in Old Funeral show off their inverted cross-clutching AND Metal Hands skills.  Clearly, this is a band not to be trifled with.

TOP FIVE NON-METAL THINGS NOT TO DO WITH YOUR HANDS

1. Point at the camera.

emperor

Anyone can point, man.  Frankly I’m a little scared that the members of Emperor today all look like they should be in a jazz-fusion group.  Or “The Matrix.”  Anyway, take a lesson from Ozzy: if you must point at something, point at your knuckle tattoo. 

2. Hold a candelabra.

drape

We at the field office are always willing to court controversy, and here is this week’s flirtation with infamy.  I don’t care if Dead from Mayhem did it, or Fenriz from Darkthrone, or the incredibly weird creeps from the awesome Mortuary Drape as in the picture above: holding a candelabra can’t be all that metal when they are most associated with church, weddings, and Hannukah.  At best, this activity is metal-neutral.  Now if you inverted the candelabra – and especially if you somehow kept it alight while doing so – I’d be open to discussion on it.  I will concede, though, that Dead looks pretty great in this famous album cover:

mayhem1

But my argument is that the darkness, corpsepaint, and band logo are working for him way more than the symbol of yuletide cheer is.

3. Make devil horns (wife and kids variant).

hetfield-family

It’s totally great that James Hetfield is happy and all that, but… Jesus H. Satan, what the fuck IS this picture?  You’re lucky that “Death Magnetic” doesn’t totally blow, Het, or I’d hunt you down and give you a severe tongue-lashing.  Probably also confiscate your flying Vs and whatnot.

4. Restrain your band from fighting.

dimmu

I can only imagine this shot preceded a Michael-Jackson-in-the-“Beat It”-video-style confrontation.  Perhaps with the members of Cradle of Filth.

5. Use them to take money out of your wallet and buy a bunch of lousy crap from the Halloween store; then subsequently bedeck yourself with said crap, and on top of it, wield a giant plastic axe for your official publicity photo.

damien-storm

He calls himself Damien Storm, and you really should hear the music he makes.  If I could review it in a word, that word would be “blaaarrrrrrgggh.”  This is the same word I use during flu season when I’m in the bathroom, kneeling in front of the toilet and making Metal Hands.


Sympathy for the devil

September 11, 2008

Diane,

Satan has been much on my mind of late.  Given my hard-won and rock-solid atheism, that might surprise you. 

Well, what can I say?  Listening to heavy metal and watching horror movies will do that to a guy.  Even THIS guy.

I’m on the home stretch of a book called “Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground,” and it’s been a fascinating read.  Generally the subject is the goings-on in the Norwegian black metal scene circa the early 90s – I refer here to church burnings, heathenism, racialism, Satanism, and most especially the murder of Euronymous (né Øystein Aarseth) by Count Grishnakh (né Kristian Vikernes, but more commonly known as Varg), in which the former was stabbed repeatedly by the latter, including once, and with great finality, right through the forehead.  With crazy antics and bizarre pseudonyms like that, how could this subject NOT be interesting?

The thing that has been dawning on me through the late pages of this book is that we’ve lost him.  The devil, that is.  The darkest and most dangerous thing imaginable in a Christian society has been swept under a rug and replaced by boring, real world shit: terrorism, sexual predators, teen pregnancy, Republicans.  O how dull and lifeless.  I practically flat-line just thinking about it.  Wherefore art thou, our love and loathing of the occult?

The devil in music

First there were those bluesmen and their legendary relationship with the horned one.  Robert Johnson is the most notorious example – the man who sold his soul at the fabled crossroads so he could play guitar like nobody’s business.  Interestingly, the devil also gave Johnson the ability to write sinister lyrics like these:

Hot tamales and they’re red hot, yes she got ’em for sale
I got a girl, say she long and tall
She sleeps in the kitchen with her feets in the hall

(…wha?)

Next up was rock ‘n roll – blues-inspired, and true music of evil.  The Stones and Led Zeppelin dabbled in occult rituals, flirted with the actual Church of Satan (more on which momentarily), and wrote paeans to all sorts of subterranean shenanigans.  Zep was lyrically subtle when it came to Satanism – which is to say, they threw a few Satanic ingredients into their incomprehensible stew of Tolkien, blues-derivative sexual innuendos, and drugged hippie babble – but they liked to drop a lot of hints, including the seeming fallen angel of their famous logo and the Zoso sign on their fourth album cover.  (Zoso, if you’re not in the know, is supposed to be a stylized rendering of 666, or at least some kind of crazy occult/demon-raising thingymabob.  For a tiny smidge of extra info and a lot of belly laughs, visit this hilarious site.)  The Stones were, um, not as subtle.  They wrote “Sympathy for the Devil.”  They titled one of their albums “Their Satanic Majesties Request,” and another “Goats Head Soup.”  Hell yeah, boys – now that’s what I’m talkin’ ’bout.  By about 1970 that red guy was front and center in the public consciousness – especially here in America, where we fear the lord in one way and fear everything else in quite another.  The stage was set.

Fallen angel, zoso

Fallen angel, zoso

The devil in film

And on to that stage paraded a bunch of moralistic, uptight movie directors (with one exception, soon to be mentioned).  These guys nevertheless managed to crank out some Satanic classics.  William Friedkin adapted William Peter Blatty’s novel “The Exorcist” in 1973, and even though the moral was pretty much “be on guard, that nasty devil is everywhere!” a lot of people were very taken aback by all the crucifix masturbation and pea soup vomiting.  “The Omen” followed suit in 1976, presenting an extremely Christian vision of the son of Satan coming to Earth to try to engineer the end of days.  The storyline and lesson that followed in the trilogy was ham-fisted and conservative, but hey: it was at least pretty great when Damien’s nanny flung herself off the roof.  Even the great Hammer Studios rode the demonic winds with a pair of Dennis Wheatley adaptations: “The Devil Rides Out” in 1968, and “To The Devil A Daughter” in 1976. 

The best and most subversive of all of them was probably the earliest – Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby,” which offers no clear lesson, allows evil to triumph in the end, and even presents that evil as a rather banal, urban lifestyle choice.  Out of any of these pictures, “Rosemary’s Baby” was the closest to wandering the left hand path.  (This point would be underscored many years later when Polanski made “The Ninth Gate,” which went even further in allowing the forces of darkness to prevail and offering no judgement upon their actions; unfortunately, the movie was a little too weird and erratic for its own good.)

The Exorcist

Famous promo image for "The Exorcist"

The devil in basically everything else

So with all that background, it should come as no surprise that Dungeons & Dragons emerged from the primordial soup in 1974, and created a huge superstitious and moralistic panic throughout the 80s.  If you had a 20 sided die and a bottle of Mountain Dew, you were probably secretly worshipping the devil through your Monster Manual (and particularly your Deities & Demigods book).  TV and radio simmered with panicked reports of D&D-inspired murder, infant sacrifice, and dark backwoods spell-casting.  Awesomely, during the exact same time frame (1983-1985), Dungeons & Dragons ran as a Saturday morning cartoon, warping my fragile little mind with images of beholders and Tiamat.  They were heady, dangerous, confusing-ass times.

If that was the extremity of fake and laughable Satanism, Anton LaVey’s infamous Church of Satan surely represented the other end of the spectrum.  Except that, y’know, LaVey didn’t believe in God OR Satan, really.  LaVey declared the founding of his church in 1966 on Walpurgisnacht, and it wasn’t long before he had some high-profile rock bands and seemingly half of Hollywood in his pocket.  The glory years of the Church were fleeting, but LaVey at least had the dictinction of introducing a Satanism that had little to do with an actual horned guy presiding over fiery pits and torture chambers.  LaVey took Aleister Crowley’s idea of the Left Hand Path and made it another thing altogether – a path away from theism, a path toward worship and satiation of the self.  LaVey’s Satanists were in fact atheists and hedonists, and little more; they just had a knack for terminology and imagery that really pissed off the Christian Right. 

So in that respect, at least, they were pretty great.

LaVey was only an intellectual threat (if that) to Christianity, although many were confused on this point because of his use of the name of the devil.  (Many Christians still today have no idea what the Church of Satan actually believes in, and probably assume it involves hair- and demon-raising rituals right out of the lamest Lovecraft stories.)  There was a lot of blabbity-blab in Christian churches about practitioners of magic and the popular Ouija board game/netherworld communication device – I distinctly remember a weird sermon one week that focused on people who can call forth ectoplasm, like “Ghostbusters” but not funny – but it was fearmongering based on almost no real events or persons.  Actual Satanists who actually worshipped the literal Satan of the Bible were hard to come by.  So…

The devil in music, for real this time

…naturally someone had to step into that void.  And who better than disenfranchised, cold, surly teenagers from Norway?  Throughout the 80s heavy metal, as pioneered and designed by Black Sabbath and others, had evolved into true extremity, and with that came the sneering face of Christian evil.  Sabbath toyed with Satanic images (in fact, the lyrics all tend to be reactionary and anti-Satanic when read closely… or at all); but it was up to the bands at the dawn of extreme metal to really ally themselves with darkness. 

Slayer put out their first album in 1983.  By 1985’s “Hell Awaits” the band was trading in full-on devil worship in musical/lyrical form.  The same year, Celtic Frost released “To Mega Therion” with a cover image of the devil using Jesus as a slingshot (no kidding), and Possessed put out their seminal “Seven Churches.”  The latter album was a classic, a twisted slab of electrifying guitar riffs and lyrics such as

Holy Hell, death to us
Satan’s fell, unholy lust
Devil’s water starts to flood
God is slaughtered, drink his blood

Alright, it ain’t exactly great poetry – in fact it barely hangs together as English – but it sounds pretty fucking good when Jeff Becerra howls it over Larry Lalonde (yes, the guy from Primus!)’s crazy guitar lines. 

A flood of Satanic albums (most of the faux- variety) followed in the wake of these influential examples.  Five years later, the Swedes in Entombed released their debut album under the name “Left Hand Path.”  The devil wasn’t just in the details – he was in everything.  No wonder my parents’ panties were all in a wad every time I brought home a Queensryche tape or a character sheet (my characters always had high Dexterity – you can’t fuck with Armor Class bonuses, yo).

Left Hand Path and Seven Churches

"Left Hand Path" and "Seven Churches"

So it was high time that the dark one achieved critical mass.  Which he did, when Burzum and Mayhem started releasing albums, burning down churches, and murdering each other.

Mayhem’s first album title from 1994, “De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas,” roughly translates to “Lord Satan’s Secret Rites” (a full breakdown of what it really means can be found here).  Here in all their glory are the lyrics from the title track:

Welcome!
To the elder ruins again
The wind whispers beside the deep forest
Darkness will show us the way
Heic Noenum Pax, Here is no peace
The sky has darkened thirteen as
We are collected woeful around a book
Made of human flesh
De Grandae Vus Antiquus Mulum Tristis
Arcanas Mysteria Scriptum
The books blood written pages open
Invoco Crentus Domini De Daemonium
We follow with our white eyes
The ceremonial proceeding
Heic Noenum Pax, Bring us the goat
Rex Sacriticulus Mortifer
In the circle of stone coffins
We are standing with our black robes on
Holding the bowl with unholy water

Psychomantum Et Precr Exito Annos Major
Ferus Netandus Sacerdos Magus Mortem Animalium

I imagine I would have been locked in my room for a week and then shuttled off to a religious private school if I’d brought home anything with lyrics like those.  Notably, the CD came out shortly after Euronymous of Mayhem was murdered – with publicity like that, who needs an advertising budget?  Black metal took over the metal underground around this time, and Satan had finally reached the forefront of public consciousness as a threat to the souls of ourselves and our children.

Except this was 1994 – two years after Nirvana dropped “Nevermind,” a year or so after we stopped giving a shit about hair metal, and almost exactly the point that we collectively became 50% more ironic and 50% less interested in God.  You can see where things were heading.  We had simultaneously built things up as far as they could possibly go, and also started turning a corner into a much more enlightened age.

So naturally, when a few years and five thousand black metal bands came and went, we all kind of shrugged and said, “Hey, we’re over this.”

Post-devil

We don’t care about the devil any more.  A lot of Norwegian-style black metal bands still scream his unholy name on their highly limited albums and seven inch singles, but now that they’ve stopped killing people and whatnot, we don’t really pay attention.  Horror movies have gone through various phases – slasher movies, J-horror, torture porn, remake-o-rama – but the devil hasn’t made much of a re-appearance as of yet.  The closest we’ve come to it were remakes of “The Amityville Horror” and “The Omen,” and both of those whizzed through the public sphere like the translucent nothings they were.  “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” enjoyed a brief spurt of popularity, I guess, but nothing like the furor and excitement generated by the original “Exorcist.”  We used to really fear the devil, and from that fear sprang true titillation; now we pleasantly and absent-mindedly engage with the devil, the same as we might enjoy a retro monster movie (e.g. “Cloverfield”) or western (e.g. “3:10 to Yuma”) on a sleepy summer afternoon.  In effect, Satan has been sucked into our post-modern, soulless entertainment machine, and delivered back to us as packaged pap.  Where’s the danger in that?  Where, even, is the FUN?

I’m thinking, Diane, that I miss the old guy a little bit, even though LaVey still seems too reactionary to me, and I’ve long since disposed of any belief or interest in the spirit world and the occult.  Perhaps this Halloween – or next Walpurgisnacht – we should gather ’round in our black cloaks, with knives and burning candles and a squalling infant, and do a little sacrificin’ to the evil one.  Frankly, I don’t know what else would inspire us all to care again.  But if that’s pushing things a little too far, might I suggest that we all watch “Rosemary’s Baby” and listen to “Seven Churches” and enjoy a little nostalgia for better, darker time-gone-by?

"To Mega Therion"


A band that’s worth your time

March 28, 2008

Diane,

I rarely use these communications to pimp one particular album, band, movie, director, actor, author, etc.  It just seems like a blandly straightforward thing to do, and this FBI agent would rather zigzag a bit.  Today, however, I am going to make an exception.  And fittingly, it’s being made on behalf of a band that has a serious zigzagging addiction.

I found out about Ulver (the name is Norwegian for “wolves”) during my heavy metal explorations of the last couple years.  The easiest metal for me to comprehend is low, rumbling, full-throttle stuff.  The hardest is melodic, screechy, and tinny – what is known to the metal community as orthodox black metal.  For a long time I thought that’s what black metal was all about (also sub-Kiss makeup and spiky armbands) so I just steered clear of it.  Eventually my curiosity got the better of me, and I started asking the old-timers if there was any black metal that someone who’s more into Slayer and Dismember (slay! dismember! no commands are more metal!) might appreciate.  They chewed it up and came back to me with lists.  I got some recommendations.  I got some Ulver.

Ulver’s long discography starts in 1994 with the release of “Bergtatt,” which is now my favorite black metal album, and the best argument I can make in favor of the genre.  It’s an eerily beautiful piece of work, with long and meandering melodies and clear, ghostly vocal harmonies.  That’s right – actual singing.  There is a little extreme metal growling throughout, but the predominant vocal flavor is closer to Scandinavian folk music or Gregorian chant.  “Bergtatt” rarely tries to go faster or be more eeeevil than its contemporaries from the likes of Immortal and Darkthrone; it’s content to lull you into feeling like you’re in a forest, dreaming.  Or dreaming of being in a forest.  Or something foresty and dreamy.  In any event, it’s a remarkable album that completely defied my expectations.

After “Bergtatt,” Ulver got weird.  First they released “Kveldssanger,” an all-acoustic, all-not-metal album of lovely folk tunes.  It maintains some of the dark and haunting aspects of “Bergtatt” but doesn’t even remotely try to ROCK.  Quite a bit of the album is nothing but chiming acoustic guitars supporting a dark, sonorous cello.  For a “metal” band this was a hell of a twist – but nothing like what was to come.  More on that momentarily.  Ulver followed up their folk album with “Nattens Madrigal,” a leap into utterly orthodox black metal.  It’s fast, it’s shrieky, it’s extremely poorly produced – it’s the Ulver album I have the least interest in, though to many black metallers it’s the high point of their discography.  Its biggest problem, in my opinion, is that it preserves so little of the loveliness of its two predecessors.  There are melodies in the guitar lines but they are playing too quickly and sound like they’re coming out of seriously overdriven 1-inch speakers.  And the band does away entirely with clean, melodic singing, which proved both before and after this release to be one of their best weapons.

In any event, after “Nattens Madrigal” is where Ulver started really throwing curveballs.

For one thing, they gave up on being a metal band.  They went from their most metal release to one of their least.  “Themes From William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” is some sort of dark ambient/electronic/gothic music, utterly sans distorted guitars and rock drumming.  In place of those things, Ulver used – well, let me refer to the musician credits: “Programming.”  “Generation.”  “Cables, wires, & sounds.”  “Vinyl scratching”?!?  “Say it ain’t so, Ulver!” was the reaction from their fanbase, and I can only conjecture that Ulver’s general reaction was, “Sorry, dudes.  It is so.”  In fact, their entire subsequent output has restated and underscored this sentiment repeatedly.

Post-“Nattens Madrigal,” Ulver has turned out six full length albums and a handful of EPs.  Among the albums, three were soundtracks for films (“Themes from…” was the first of these).  Most of these releases were heavily electronic; many were slow or completely ambient, and a couple were completely instrumental.  “Lyckantropen Themes” is an excellent example of this – a voiceless electronic/ambient voyage through auditory shadows.  On the other hand, their second-most-recent album “Blood Inside” is a brash avant garde-pop-rock-electronica affair with clear but “difficult” melodies and a notable kinship to the work of Mr. Bungle and Mike Patton’s other releases.  It has heavier drumming, brass sections, and at least one sudden veer into jazz that sounds like early Sun Ra.  I can only imagine that anyone who had heard only “Nattens Madrigal” and then jumped straight to “Blood Inside” would suffer from rapid-onset cranial explosionism. 

Their latest release is “Shadows of the Sun,” another change of direction from the noisy, complicated “Blood Inside.”  “Shadows” is a smeary, semi-ambient album of vocal chamber music.  Deep, dark vocal harmonies sing lyrics like, “The sun is far away/It goes in circles/Someone dies/Someone lives,” over a minimalistic bed of piano and synth washes.  No drums, no driving synthetic bleeps and blips – this is nearly New Age Ulver.  Except it’s a whole lot more melancholy than anything Windham Hill ever put out.

If you want to hear the gamut of Ulver, try these two MySpace pages: black metal-era Ulver; the rest of Ulver.  The first has two songs each from “Bergtatt” and “Nattens Madrigal.”  I can’t recommend the latter album but the former I think is kind of brilliant.  The second is a sampling of different, later albums, including the track that convinced me to buy “Shadows of the Sun,” called “Funebre.”  Also check out “In the Red” from “Blood Inside,” which might be the single best taste of how strange Ulver can be.


Opinionated art

July 12, 2007

Diane,

A friend of mine recently told me the story of how he logged into his neighbor’s network through their unprotected wireless router.  He found their music library, an oddly assorted collection of Britney Spears pop and Burzum black metal and all points in between (which I guess is all the points there are).  Browsing over the black metal, he found a lot of so-called NSBM (national socialist black metal), which basically means racist Satanists from Norway.  He may or may not have deleted some of it.

This is interesting to me because of my recent insider/outsider status in the online metal community.  I occasionally post on a couple different forums, mainly to gather death metal recommendations from people who’ve been listening to the stuff for two decades more than I have.  On that front I’ve done extremely well.  I don’t listen to black metal*, but one can’t participate in that kind of forum without at least skimming over some of the black metal-oriented conversations.

Now, there is definitely such a thing as racist death metal.  Arghoslent is probably the best-known proponent of growly singing about flogging a particular kind of now-illegal cargo.**  But they don’t represent a very large trend.  NSBM, on the other hand, is widespread enough to have earned itself a genre name, albeit one that rarely appears in Rolling Stone or Entertainment Weekly’s music section. 

The people who listen to this music are in some unmeasurable percentage not racists, though, and that is what fascinates me.  If you ask them about it, the general theory goes like this:

1. It doesn’t really matter what they’re singing about if the music is good.

2. Besides, you can’t understand them most of the time anyway.

3. I have a black friend.

4. Wagner hated Jews, so, y’know, wtf.

I haven’t had to indulge in this exact rationalization myself, because I don’t listen to NSBM.  I don’t listen to black metal in general – most of it strikes me as juvenile, talentless, and ridiculous.  If death metal is a cousin to good horror movies (as I’ve argued previously), most black metal reminds me of those Italian cannibal movies where they stage gruesome scenes designed to look like no-budget snuff flicks, and sprinkle on some actual animal killing for flavor.  I don’t watch Italian cannibal movies from the seventies, and I don’t listen to black metal.  And even if I was going to listen to black metal, I doubt I’d be deep enough into it to have exhausted all the good bands and need to move on to shitty racist ones.

But the basic concepts here should be familiar to fans of several other kinds of music – most notably hip hop and dancehall.  And indeed, Diane, I listen to both. 

Hip hop ran into a lot of trouble in its early days by damning homosexuals (Brand Nubian, 2Pac, lots of other guys) and Jews (Public Enemy’s Prof. Griff, Ice Cube).  After a few public relations disasters, it seems like most rap artists – or maybe their record labels – learned not to cross those lines.  You still can hear some homophobic and anti-Semitic rants on hip hop records, but they’re buried a little deeper and scattered a little wider.  Certainly not a lot of major label releases are going out with this kind of rhetoric embedded in them.  Where they still venture though (and problematically for the enlightened listener) is into the dark waters of misogyny, as well as anti-white racism.  The former is more common – so common, in fact, that I think the average gangsta rap listener long ago stopped being shocked or surprised by songs that refer to bitches and hos, and in what capacity said bitches and hos are best used.***  Anti-white racism is fading out, especially now that MC Ren is off the scene and Ice Cube is making kiddie movies in exchange for what must be fifty zillion dollars and all the free handjobs he wants, but it still carries an aura of acceptability.  In fact, most white listeners I’ve spoken with about this type of lyric have shrugged and said, “Yeah, I guess that’s fair.”  The spectre of slavery and segregation have created a free pass for this kind of subject matter.  You’re more likely to get in trouble in the media for a gay slur in your rap song than for calling whites “devils” or talking about shooting up a white suburb.  (To be honest, if anybody wants to go shoot up Carmel, IN this weekend, I’m available and would be happy to drive.)

Dancehall has an even bigger PR problem than hip hop nowadays.  To give some background, Jamaica is a pretty homophobic island.  Homophobia is deeply ingrained in both the culture and the most well-known (though far from statistically dominant) religion, Rastafarianism.  A lot of Jamaicans in general are prejudiced against gays, and an even larger proportion of rastas are.  I don’t know for sure, but it would not surprise me if the likes of Bob Marley and Winston Rodney (a.k.a. Burning Spear) were homophobic to some degree.  However, they didn’t sing about it.+  But as reggae has evolved into the more aggressive digital styles of ragga and dancehall, homophobia has jumped to the forefront.

Roots reggae was always infused with rasta spirituality – one love and all that.  As such there was a certain amount of anti-Babylon polemicism, a degree of condemnation of us American sodomites (not necessarily meaning “one who practices sodomy,” but rather a latter-day resident of a metaphorical Sodom and Gomorrah).  Dancehall has evolved that into a full-on battle against homosexuality.  Slack artistes++ like Bounty Killer will use some unfortunate gay slurs and insult an opponent by saying he’s homosexual, but it’s really the rastas in dancehall who sling the most anti-gay fire.  Capleton and Sizzla, two singers whose music I enjoy, have been banned from performing in certain venues (and even whole countries) because of some of their lyrics.  Partly this is because the rasta way of speaking sounds more violent than it is.  A singer condemning the gay lifestyle will “bun [burn] it out” or throw “fire pon dem,” which is not intended to describe a literal torching of gay people, but rather a spiritual fire that cleanses sin.  In the same manner, for instance, a rasta would sing about burning down Babylon, which just means me and most of my friends (small comfort, eh? Enjoy another day of sin, fellow Babylonian).  Where the trouble comes in is in the more literal violence of songs like Buju Banton’s notorious “Boom Bye Bye,” or Sizzla’s “Gunshot.”  It may be a lot of big talk or it may not – Banton was recently charged with attacking some men who were believed to be homosexual – but either way it’s a troubling tendency.  More difficult for the listener is that your average Capleton or Sizzla album tends more toward roots reggae and milder lyrical themes; it’s usually on the single-only, aggressive dancehall tracks that they cut loose and really burn out the sodomites (this time meaning exactly “one who practices sodomy”).  So if I buy the latest by one of these guys, am I supporting their hidden agenda?  Should I wait for them to stop releasing anti-gay singles before I spend money on their gay-neutral (or non-gay-mentioning) albums?

I don’t have a good answer for this; it’s just a dilemma I have been thinking about.  My conscience is clear when it comes to NSBM and Arghoslent, because I don’t like either one.  But I do buy a lot of hip hop and dancehall, and I’m sure some of the artists I’m supporting are harboring some not-really-concealed homophobic and misogynistic and possibly racist agendas.  (Note: just to pre-empt any accusations of racism on MY part, I am going to point out that I also own three Eminem albums, and he is square in the center of this discussion as well, considering tracks like the infamous “97 Bonnie and Clyde” and his pre-Elton John lyrics about gays.  Intolerance and prejudice is by no means a black or Jamaican province; I just happen to listen to a lot of black and Jamaican music.)  Am I obligated as a consumer to only support artists whose politics and opinions I agree with?  Or at least not support the ones whose politics and opinions I strongly DISAGREE with?

Would I buy a Ku Klux Klan monthly calendar?  Even if it had Jessica Alba in various stages of partial nakedness on every page?  No, I wouldn’t.  (Uh, probably.)  So maybe I shouldn’t be buying music by anyone who sings about hitting women or gays.  There is one difference, though, which is that the Klan primarily exist to further prejudice; artists primarily exist to create art.  Even politicized art is mainly intended to entertain and stimulate the mind+++, which is very different from an organization holding racist rallies and trying to get affirmative action laws overturned.  And unlike your standard skinhead punk band, most of the artists we’re discussing here sing about things other than their unfortunate prejudices.  Eminem rapped about killing his bitch wife (a few times) – but mostly he raps about killing everybody else, plus doing drugs, trading letters with Stan, and losing himself in the moment.  I don’t feel like the money I give to Eminem is going into his “Kill All The Bitches legislation” fund.  I’m guessing (hoping) he doesn’t have one.  More likely it’s funding his pot-buying and his next “Rocky” remake.  Mostly it allows him to continue to exist as an artist.

The difficulty re-enters here though: if an artist is encouraging people who aren’t very good at thinking for themselves to have intolerant, prejudiced attitudes, should I oppose the art?  A lot of Eminem fans are young and stupid.  They absorb anything you put in front of them – and then spit it back out like parrots.  And regardless of the fact that Eminem hasn’t made me cut your head off and stuff you in my trunk, Diane, it’s possible that he might be gently enticing some other dumbass out there to do so.

It’s a question that I’m not going to answer now.  I’ve babbled on for far too long already, and besides, it should be obvious to you that at this point I don’t really have an answer.  It’s just something for all us hip hop, dancehall, national socialist black metal, and racist polka fans to consider.  And to my friend browsing his neighbor’s music collection: don’t delete their shitty black metal collection.  Maybe eventually they’ll decide to do that on their own.  Maybe not.  Or maybe they’re actually a bunch of racist assbags – but hey, even racists are entitled to their bizarre, completely wrong-headed opinions, and their Britney Spears albums.

* For those of you out there wondering, death metal and black metal are not the same thing – no matter what allmusic.com tells you.  Death metal is an outgrowth of thrash (e.g. Metallica, Slayer) that places a high value on technical skill, and utilizes a lot of twisted guitar riffs, low-pitched vocals, and precise drumming to get its point across.  Lyrics can be about almost anything (though mostly they are about mortality and sub-horror movie gore descriptions).  Black metal is defined as much by ideology (“we love Satan!”) as music (“we like singing in a high-pitched rasp that sounds eeeeevil… to high school students!”).

** Meaning slaves.  Seriously, they have a song called “Flogging The Cargo,” and that’s exactly what it’s about.  They also titled one of their albums “Incorrigibly Bigotry.”  For some reason, these guys get a lot of hate mail.  For some other reason that is a lot less clear, the metal community is generally accepting and borderline-worshipful of this band.  Maybe they’re just stunned that a bunch of racist dickwipes playing metal don’t sound like a pig with its foot in a blender.  I’ve spoken with a guy who describes himself as mixed Puerto Rican and Spanish; he listens to Arghoslent, and commented that he didn’t feel bad about listening to them because he’s “not a jew and not a full spic.”

*** Sperm receptacle, punching bag.

+ Burning Spear is actually still alive and active in reggae, but sorting out the tense changes in these two sentences was too irritating to finish.  My apologies to Mr. Spear.

++ Being “slack” in Jamaica is the equivalent of being a gangsta thug in America; slackness is the same as hooliganism, but the word is a lot less hilarious.  “Artiste” is how they refer to musical artists – I wasn’t just spelling it that way to be annoying.

+++ This is what differentiates art from propaganda, and “Birth Of A Nation” from “Triumph Of The Will.”


Into the grave

June 5, 2007

Diane,

I suppose you’ve been wondering about this recent death metal obsession of mine. 

I have too.

For most people in my social and intellectual strata (a.k.a. “my friends”), death metal – like all heavy metal – is the province of burnouts, dropouts, jerkoffs and ne’er-do-wells.  To that Motley Crue I would add semi-delusional, pretentious dorks of a particular stripe that made them lifelong outcasts from most cliques; disillusioned punk rockers who realized it’s OK to know how to play your instrument; seemingly every Swede and Finn; and Jim Carrey*.  Which of these categories I fall in, you can figure out on your own.  But I freely admit to being a former Dungeons & Dragons addict who uses words like “meta” and “meme” a lot, if that helps.

Oh, and I’m not Swedish or Finnish.

What really brought me into the death metal fold was a jones for extremity.  In college I embraced punk rock and industrial metal as outlets for aggression.  If it’s possible to vent aggression passively (I swear there’s a term for that), listening to loud, fast music has to be one of the best available methods.  But I quickly discovered that punk was a little too happy-go-lucky, a little too feel good, for me.  I don’t know why that is.  Everything but the hardest hardcore strikes me as driving-around-fast-in-the-summer music.  The Pistols sing about how they are anarchy and the abortion horror stories of “Bodies,” and it makes me smile.  Can’t help it.  On the other side, I got tired of industrial metal when I realized the whole genre boiled down to Ministry and Godflesh, and which of those two all the other bands decide to imitate.  (The ratio is 65% Godflesh, 35% Ministry… surprising, right?  I guess Godflesh is a bit easier.)

Like a lot of punk enthusiasts before me, I found grindcore.  If you didn’t already know, grindcore is an extension of punk, not metal.  The early grind bands (Napalm Death, Repulsion) were following in the footsteps of pure punk outfits like Siege and Discharge.  It was sped-up hardcore with lunatic werewolf vocals.  And if that sounds like it would also lose its novelty value quickly… it does.  You can only hear so many 2 or 10 or 26-second songs with inaudible guitar and blasting drums and a guy going “grroooAAAARRRR REEEEEEEE!” before you realize your copies of “From Enslavement to Obliteration” and the first Terrorizer album are the beginning and end of the genre, artistically speaking.  With all due respect to Pig Destroyer, I’ve lost my love for grind. 

And that is where death metal steps in – both historically and artistically.  Death metal was both an evolution of thrash and a response in the metal community to grindcore.  They absorbed the faster tempos and shorter songs and immediately it became …And Blastbeats For All.  But like metal always does, they brought a lot more to the table.  Solos, for one.  Melody and harmony and complex song structures, for another.  Lyrics about the cosmos and the fragility of life and nihilism and meaninglessness.

Oh, and Satan and skinning girls alive.  Thank you, Dismember.

Obviously I don’t take this stuff very seriously.  I kind of feel bad for the people that do.  This is the major obstacle that prevents me from liking black metal, at all.  The whole genre is predicated on the idea that it’s soooo dark and sooooo evil… hail the dark lord and all that shit.  They wear black-and-white “The Crow” makeup.  And they call it corpsepaint (really).  They rasp away like Gollum with a sore throat and play ten minute epic songs with bad keyboard patches meant to sound like soaring trumpets, which soar over a wall of guitar that gives the impression that a $90 Peavey practice amp constituted the entire session budget.  Yeah, black metal’s particular brand of pretentious, laughable fury is not for me.

Death metal’s different.  I’m sure there are a lot of the musicians and fans that are dead serious about it, so to speak, but it doesn’t seem like you HAVE to be.  That’s the difference.  I enjoy it, in part, the same way I enjoy horror movies.  When the blood is flying and the girls are screaming and running around in their panties, the good times are a-rollin’.  “Re-animator” and Obituary are on the same playing field in my mind.  Possessed is pretty much the musical version of “The Exorcist.”  (Not least because they open “Seven Churches” with a reworking of “Tubular Bells.”)

And the other part is the unmitigated aggression.  What grindcore got right was all that hammering-away-madly.  They actually accomplished their goal in that music, which is a real rarity in any art: it was indeed the last word on aural extremity.  At least as can be created by four guys with regular instruments.  Death metal trades in a bit of that aggression for tightness, cohesion, and structure.  And in the ultimate ironic twist, this makes the music come off as MORE aggressive.  I’m not sure how that works, but playing a little slower and more on rhythm, and mixing the guitars higher so you can actually hear them, and using some modes and scales instead of complete atonality, produces a darker and heavier effect.  The best death metal (meaning: The Chasm, Entombed, Pentacle, Grave, and some others) is the stuff that really makes me feel like I’m spilling blood in the end times.  If punk has become my summer music, death metal is my late autumn into the cold black of winter.  Or to strip away the ridiculousness of these metaphors, it’s the music I want to be listening to when I finally go apeshit and start throwing rocks at my neighbor’s dog that WILL NOT STOP BARKING, EVER.

Hail the power of death, Diane.

* Apparently he is a big death metal and grindcore fan, and was the guy responsible for Cannibal Corpse showing up in “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.”  See the very readable book “Choosing Death” for details.