Stuck in my head this morning, after a long spell of waking up with a head cluttered with thoughts of moving or cleaning or unpacking or working: “Vampira” from Synchestra by The Devin Townsend Band. I had a little Devin Townsend festival last week while I was finishing up the onerous process of packing up and cleaning my old apartment, from which I was moving after 13 years of continuous occupation. It was a lot of work, but now all 5,500+ CDs and 3,000+ books have been relocated to my new place, where I will spend the next 30 years gradually unpacking them all.
Listening to random Belgian musique concrete will only get you so far when there’s serious scrubbing to be done; sometimes I need to bust out something with little jabs of adrenaline to it, and in those situations, Townsend is my man. His twitchy, neurotic attention to detail and unparalleled command of the vocabulary of extreme metal and 80s cheese balladry are a dynamite combination when there is work to be done. His songs are cascading floods of melody and hooks and sparkly bits of cleverness that catch the ear and engage the brain: cf. ref “Vampira” popping up unbidden, over a week after I last heard it (and with much music in between).
Townsend is one of the most unregulated forces in music, a twitchy, prolific, undaunted, Canadian heavy metal version of Kevin Shields (who, it must be said, has now dragged My Bloody Valentine out of the wilderness; I have tickets to this fall’s show in San Francisco, and am feeling an uneasy mixture of nostalgia, fascination and dread about the whole thing); he seems to constantly be bouncing between furious gouts of precise, perfectionist activity and exhausted burnout. After the first two Strapping Young Lad albums (which are among the best heavy metal albums ever made) and his astounding, magnificent, endlessly creative first few solo albums (in particular Infinity, which I consider a genuine work of sui generis heavy metal genius) he had an actual nervous breakdown, in the wake of which he briefly institutionalized himself. That impulse to ride the ragged edge of ability and endurance clearly manifests itself in his work: I’m listening Physicist right now, and it is an album that lives on the redline, occupying some impossible hyperspace between Ministry, Def Leppard (there’s more than a little Mutt Lange in Townsend’s production style) and the Neverending Story soundtrack. It is cartoonishly, freakishly oversized in its ambition, and I absolutely love it, as I (very obviously) love all of Townsend’s work.
Townsend’s recently calmed down a lot: he and his wife Tracy have a kid, and a lot of the mania that drove him has abated over the years (or has been brought under control through meds and therapy – his intensity was pretty obviously eating him alive). He shut down Strapping Young Lad, feeling that he’d pretty much done everything he could with that style of aggressively obnoxious songwriting, and he’s cut loose the rest of the Devin Townsend band for now. That said, his first proper solo album from a year or two ago, Ziltoid the Omniscient, is a completely deranged pulp sf puppet-show prog rock opera about the importance of good coffee, and it is both totally bonkers and deeply engaged in a discourse with his previous work, with melodies and lyrical snippets liberally quoted from his old work.
I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be possible to scale back Devin’s ambitions without killing him, but I’m also pretty sure that I like his ambitions just fine the way they are. He fits in the line of irrepressible geniuses in rock, like Frank Zappa and his old mentor Steve Vai, who just need to be left alone to do their own thing. I hope he keeps doing his thing for a long time.
I’m so metal that instead of being out tonight getting shithammered (y’know, like I usually do), I’m sitting at home listening to Korpiklaani sing Finnish drinking songs while I rip the Black Sabbath box set (found a cheap copy of it used, as well as picking up the new Meshuggah and
Sir Richard Bishop’s While My Guitar Violently Bleeds at Amoeba) and randomly sticking Bjork’s name into Bonnie Tyler lyrics. It’s a party, y’all!
The first time I ever ran across Swarm of the Lotus, I thought they had a really stupid name.
The first time I actually heard Swarm of the Lotus’s When White Becomes Black, I thought it was tune-free noise.
Now I think it’s one of the heaviest, loudest hardcore records I own, with all kinds of tricky riffs buried in the mix and a brutally tight rhythm section. It’s like they took the excruciating crux of Neurosis’s “Locust Star” (probably Neurosis’s most oppressive song) and turned it into an entire album, only noisier, faster and meaner. For sheer raw aggression and out-of-control sonic violence, it gives Converge’s Jane Doe a run for its money. It’s also extremely catchy, but you have to approach it on its own terms, because it takes no prisoners and isn’t really big on providing an easy way in, and the songs are a lot more complex than they seem at first. If you like loud, mean, fast music, though, the time spent with it is well-rewarded. I think of this record as a lost classic.
They did have a really dumb name, though.
Sometimes the nicest surprises are the ones that come attached to no expectations. Every so often I’ll throw something on my iPod just because it looks sort of intriguing and end up liking it a lot more than I would with music I’ve been looking forward to a lot longer. Such is the case with Swallow the Sun and their engaging and thoroughly enjoyable Hope. They’re a metal band who have been around for a while, apparently (for as much as I love metal, you could write a couple fat encyclopedias about what I don’t know), and they have a varied sound that draws from death metal, doom metal, hardcore, and the increasingly ill-defined “metalcore” / “post-hardcore” continuum. They remind me a lot of the Ocean collective, in that they move between clean, gruff and shouted vocals as best suits the mood of the music, they know how to move between loud and soft parts of a song with actual dynamics, and they have a nice balance between melody, low-end chug and more prog notions of extended composition and weird sounds. They’re maybe not as ambitious as The Ocean, but I don’t get the sense they’re trying to be.
If you’ve ever heard a doom metal or death metal record, there’s nothing really surprising here, and folks looking for especially raw or harsh sounds should probably look elsewhere. In the unhurried way in which they play their songs and the confidence with which they do so, they remind me of Opeth, without succumbing to Opeth’s sometimes over-precious songwriting (but also without Opeth’s sometimes stunning grasp of structure). The only thing really unusual about them is their easy confidence and the grace with which they put their compositions together, but that’s a pretty big deal in my world. It’s often a goal but rarely realized. I’m going to have to seek out more of their work.
If I had to choose a single word to describe Anaal Nathrakh’s style of heavy metal, it might be “unyielding”. Another good choice would be “totalizing”. From the very start, their music has been dense, noisy, seamless, enamored of production tricks that saturate the sound field. Whether it’s driving every single channel on the mixing board into the red or expanding and compressing the masters so whispers are at the same volumes as shouts, they don’t miss a trick to make their albums into massive stone walls of aggressive, violent noise. There are even a couple moments on Domine non es Dignus where a trailing sibilant in one of the vocalists’ words completely blows out the rest of the music, the compression’s amped up so far.
What this does is provide a Procrustean sonic frame into which Anaal Nathrakh can stretch the rest of their hyper-extreme music without you noticing how many different things they’re doing at once. They’re sonic magpies (or should I say stormcrows?), scavenging elements and tropes of just about every form of extreme music out there to create something that is both sophisticated and ineluctably British.
“Sophisticated” is not a word that immediately suggests itself when it comes to Anaal Nathrakh; the only time you can clearly understand the vocalists – when they break out into the declamatory tones of operatic power metal – the lyrics become clear in all their blunt misanthropic eschatology and pessimism. Consider narrative song titles like “Between Piss and Shit We Are Born” and “When Fire Rains Down from the Sky Mankind will Reap as it has Sown”. And the compression and unyielding sonic attack of their songs can make listening through entire albums a bit of a slog if you’re in anything other than the most amped-up frames of mind. The blown-out volumes create a sustained noise assault that erases any notion of narration, that creates an eternal suspended Now where a time before or after you were hearing Anaal Nathrakh did not exist.
However, when one of their albums comes up on my iPod, I tend to end up listening to the rest immediately thereafter. Part of it is that all of their albums have at least a couple songs that are brilliant at evoking precisely the frame of mind that makes their music sound good – they’re catchy and get you pumped. An important part of it, though, is that their magpie approach makes listening to any of their three most recent albums – Domine non es Dignus, Eschaton and Hell is Empty, and All the Devils are Here – akin to hearing a kind of greatest hits of extreme metal for the last 20 years. There’s a great deal of variety buried within the churn.
Considering the way they join chromatic, atonal death metal guitar solos (reminiscent of later Carcass) to overdriven drum machine blast beats (redolent of Brutal Truth), for instance, points to the fact that grindcore was just death metal with a punk attitude and a fascination with pathology textbooks. Or the way a soaring, epic power metal vocal (a lá Ulver at their most soaring) immediately followed by hoarse death metal growls (along the lines of Deicide) makes clear the dialectic between the majestic and the abject throughout metal. It’s pointless to try and hang a specific genre around Anaal Nathrakh’s neck: each album builds on ideas from the album that preceded it, and they move fluidly between styles within the same phrase, much less between songs.
What makes this all a very British phenomenon is the way a dour pragmatism seeps out from the edges of the frame: while there are frequent stabs at the epic in Anaal Nathrakh’s composition, they seem categorically incapable of pomposity. This is the main thing that separates their newer albums from the progressive metal madness of the last two Emperor albums (IX Equilibrium and Prometheus: The Discipline Of Fire & Demise): those records are full of fantastic compositions and heroic playing by some of the most talented musicians heavy metal has ever seen, but the whole enterprise is fatally undercut by Ihsahn’s irrepressible need to portray himself as the omphalos of Creation. By contrast, Anaal Nathrakh’s songwriting, production and musicianship, while not quite as accomplished, have a lived-in quality that evoke Blake’s 7 or Warren Ellis’s recent portrayal of the Battle of Crécy. Heavy metal as medieval trench warfare: a metaphor I think Anaal Nathrakh could appreciate.
What Anaal Nathrakh remind me of most, though, is something that is also deeply British, and probably close to the hearts of quite a few of Anaal Nathrakh’s English fans: their relentless downbeat cynicism, pessimism, and misanthropy-as-ideology reminds me of nothing so much as the miniatures-based wargame Warhammer 40,000, a game that impresses me more for its ambitious envisioning of a universe of eternal dæmonic conflict than the reality of the game itself. Warhammer subsumes the pan-dimensional evil and intergalactic deicide of HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos into a world of Roman prætors and legionnaires, and it’s easy to read Anaal Nathrakh’s eschatological death-lust as a soundtrack to neverending, metaphysically fraught strife.
For me, and I suspect a lot of other people, Viking metal is musical comfort food: not too challenging, not especially good for me, but very satisfying. While there are exceptions (on the progressive end, Enslaved; on the wanky end, Moonsorrow), most Viking metal follows a standard template: growled death metal vocals, loads of subdued keyboards, occasional clean classical guitar breaks, folk melodies and instruments (penny whistle, bagpipes, concertina, Jew’s harp), and lots of the broadly consonant, epic chord progressions and harmonies that are viewed with suspicion in most mainstream metal. Viking metal really owes more to NWOBHM bands like Iron Maiden or Judas Priest than it does to folk music.
Though it gets very little coverage in the English-speaking metal mainstream (such as it is) this stuff is very popular in Scandinavia and Central Europe. Every time a reviewer says something bad about Ensiferum or Windir on the web, a horde of angry young men materialize out of nowhere to heap scorn and threats of bloody, fiery death on the offender, generally in grammatically correct, stiff English. It’s sort of endearing in the same way that the apocryphal old stories of mobs of Scandinavian teens throwing bottles and bricks at Cradle of Filth’s tour van are: it’s nice to know that the kids care.
Thyrfing are a decidedly middle of the road band, and Urkraft is a thoroughly average album. The production sounds like the band pressed the “TÄGTGREN” button on their mixing console: meaty, chugging guitars, taut drum sounds (maybe triggered, maybe not), and a nice, clean mix that emphasizes the guitars without obscuring the vocals and the keyboards. For all its midrange chug and growled vocals, this music is essentially ambient task music: it’s music for drinking beers with friends, or playing role-playing games, or hacking out code, or reading Raymond E. Feist novels. If Thyrfing were making black metal they’d be Dark Funeral, and if they were making thrash they’d be Machine Head circa The Burning Red – there’s nothing here that’s going to blow your mind, but it’s eminently enjoyable for what it is.