Thought I’d begin this new year with some intentional distance from my last pair of updates, the much labored over Best of 2013 features, not because there has been a lack of new releases in the interim (quite the opposite actually, I’ll talk about that next time), but mainly due to the information overload I was experiencing in the final days of last year. I’m a nerd for things like best metal of the year listings, features, and analysis and I spent many, many hours pouring over as many of them as possible. It was all too easy to get get worked up over the usual suspects, such as the “big platform” sites/publications (defined by No Clean Singing as “places with large audiences, most of which cover musical genres well beyond metal”) that issued their own best metal of the year lists —- even more so now that Rolling Stone of all magazines had decided to join in the discussion for the first time in their history.
Not surprisingly, nearly all of them placed indie darlings Deafheaven on the top of their lists. I’ll talk about them in a little bit, but first I want to direct everyone’s attention to what I believe was the singular most important piece of metal writing issued in 2013, written by the always great Adrien Begrand (Decibel, Terrorizer, MSN). The introduction to his finalized Best of 2013 feature puts into words my exact sentiments about the state of metal today —- my own thoughts on the subject being often muddled and subject to wild mood swings (ask my co-workers). It’s a great piece and I urge everyone to take a moment and read over it (check out his year end list as well). I don’t always agree with his takes —- for example he listed Therion’s Les Fleurs du Mal as one of 2012’s worst metal releases while it was my album of the year, but he almost always gives me something challenging to think about.
His overall take in my own crude, ungainly decipher is that innovation within metal has plateaued in terms of musical developments solely derived from internal factors. For example, its difficult to imagine a metal style that is more sonically brutal or extreme than black or death metal in its rawest forms. Adrien argues that the last real innovation in metal from a sonic standpoint was heard around the turn of the millennium with math metal. I think he’s right and I’ve long suspected as much myself, although I’ve also felt rather ambivalent about the whole idea. This is mainly because like most of us, I’m a student of metal history and spend as much energy on revisiting past works as I do on checking out new releases. I’m also a lover/defender of subgenres like power metal, which is essentially a revivalist genre at heart (innovative exceptions do exist however).
Like Adrien, I’ve also observed that most of what is being passed off as innovative within metal today and in recent years has been a direct product of infusing a metal style with distinct non-metal influences. So we got the French interpretation of black metal, which began nearly a decade ago with Alcest mixing shoegaze with strains of post-rock and black metal. There was the development of metalcore in America, which merged a palatable form of hardcore with a severe dose of Gothenburg melodic death metal. The apparent trend now is the emergence of noise music as mixing agent with (predominantly) black metal, resulting in reviewers having to graft prefixes onto style descriptors such as post-black metal. Of course nu-metal happened too, a failure of a subgenre in that its influence never extended beyond young bands trying to get signed during the era of its reign. More examples abound, but the point is that in the past twenty years, only electronic music can match the amount of crossover influence that metal has experienced.
I’ll say this here clearly so no one mistakes my meaning: All of that is fine. Metal is popular music’s most malleable genre and that ability to bend, flex, and shoot off in an infinite number of directions has been and will forever be metal’s greatest strength.
So coming back to Deafheaven then, who with Sunbather can lay claim to having 2013’s most critically lauded album (according to Metacritic), Adrien was a lone voice of dissent amongst the top ranks of metal writers/reviewers with his review of the album for MSN. I was inclined to avoid mentioning the band at all on this blog just because I felt that enough was being written about them in general and that any criticism I mentioned would be met with a degree of “this from the power metal guy?”. The truth is that I think Sunbather is an often brilliant album on a musical level; I love the melodies within “Dream House” and particularly the quiet, dreamy instrumental “Irresistible”. Kerry McCoy is obviously the band’s musical core, using layered guitars both as impressionist paintbrushes and as mechanisms for melodic hooks. The aforementioned songs are two that I’ll find myself coming back for, but not everything is as enchanting, there’s a noticeable dip in the second half of the record where I find the hooks lacking. Still, musically speaking Sunbather is unimpeachable.
My main criticism of the album is directed at the atonal, almost tinny vocals of George Clark —- they don’t work for me and I feel that not only do they detract from the great music going on underneath, but that they are simply uninteresting as an instrument in and of itself. I’m not going to assert that Deafheaven would be better suited with Alcest-like dream-pop vocals ala Neige, because that’s seemingly a non-starter of a take, however I will agree with Adrien when he calls into question the need for harsh, extreme vocals with lyrics like “I watched you lay on a towel in grass that exceeded the height of your legs / I gazed into reflective eyes / I cried against an ocean of light”. That awkward dichotomy is an aspect of the album that makes it easy for the band’s detractors to argue that they utilize black metal styled vocals as a bulwark in order to freely name drop Burzum and associate themselves with the mystery of black metal in an unassailable manner.
I recently exchanged emails with a fellow metal fan who stated his belief that Deafheaven’s decision to use pink, minimalist cover art was as cynical a marketing ploy as the most grotesque Cannibal Corpse album sleeve designed to shock parents and thrill teenagers (it certainly did the trick to get them noticed by Apple). The argument being that every aspect of Deafheaven is driven by design to bolster their media profile: black metal associations draw attention from metal fans that would have normally ignored the band, while the usage of soft, pastel colored art with a lack of traditional metal window dressing help to entice the indie-music world. I honestly don’t know where I fall on the topic, but I’m surprised that he didn’t mention that maybe it helps that the band members look an awful lot like the reviewers that love them (not a slight by the way, but I imagine that a Brooklyn based writer can identify easier with members of Deafheaven personally than say, Watain or Carpathian Forest).
The big takeaway for Adrien regarding Sunbather is that it is quite possibly a line of demarcation between extremity and metal. He raises an interesting question: What defines something as metal, given that the term applies to artists that sound as strikingly different from one another such as Gamma Ray, Morbid Angel, Megadeth, Nightwish, Opeth, and Darkthrone? He answers this question with a statement that is all encompassing in it’s simplicity: “Contrary to what some might assume, extremity is not the most important characteristic of heavy metal. Power is.” Adrien’s essay was controversial for his assertion that Sunbather was not a metal album, but I think he’s onto something that everyone writing about metal should take a moment to consider: The logical natural progression of extreme metal that has merged with outside influences is to allow more space for those influences.
Alcest’s new album Shelter comes out this week, courting a lot of discussion due to its complete lack of anything resembling metal. Frontman Neige has gone on record saying the shift away from even minimal black metal elements was completely intentional, a by design move prompted by his lack of interest in the style. No matter how much Deafheaven trumpet Burzum as “the blueprint”, their most obvious influence was the French black metal expansions by Alcest. So where do they go from Sunbather? Short of repeating themselves, I’d expect that the next Deafheaven record will shed more than a few metallic elements. To quote Adrien a final time: “Sunbather is a tremendous example of extremity transcending the metal ethos entirely… And what is becoming apparent as bands like Deafheaven widen their musical breadth is that “extreme music” is the true limitless form of music.” If my prediction comes true, metal sites will still discuss future Deafheaven releases as they are Alcest’s Shelter, much like I still wrote about the recent, unabashedly non-metal releases by once doom-metallers Anathema. Ironic that after all the agitation and debate on Deafheaven’s metal cred, we’ll find ourselves unable to cast them out to the indie wolves. Once you’re in, apparently, you’re in for life.
A few years ago I published an article that drew a bit of controversy for questioning the narrowly scoped metal coverage of many big platform websites/publications. It was an admittedly flawed piece in execution, but my motive behind it was to get answers to what I still feel are unanswered questions: Why are those big platform publications’ year end lists comprised primarily of albums that are defined by their non-metal influences? Why are releases by bands of all metal subgenres that embrace traditionalism and revivalism in all aspects (music, artwork, appearance) more often ignored? Why are traditional metal and power metal ignored altogether, despite their being a significant presence in the listening habits of metal fans worldwide? Maybe a new question for the big platformers needs to be added to that list: What is their definition of metal?
January 23, 2014
If I recall correctly, this very question came up the last time you reviewed an album widely considered the antithesis of metal; namely, Amaranthe’s “The Nexus”. Most metal critics refuse to consider a band like Evanescence (or Amaranthe, as the case was) as metal because the songs are largely pop constructions, built largely upon verse-chorus type affairs that follow very familiar chord progressions. The general consensus is that such bands are merely sheep in wolves’ clothing – they merely borrow the guitars, the screaming, and the double bass drums as more of an aesthetic.
Yet, as I posited then and with your inclusion of Darkthrone and Satyricon on your best of lists, there is a ridiculous double standard within the metal community. Whilst bands like Amaranthe are shamed for creating false metal with copycat songwriting, a band can call itself “black metal” or “technical death”, pick the same two guitar strings over a blastbeat for seven minutes, and bypass any form of mixing on their way to the printer. Neither of the last releases by Darkthrone or Satyricon sound especially big – or powerful, as Begrand puts it – yet the self appointed guardians of good taste wax lyrical about the minimalism and barren atmosphere.
First it was blastbeats, then the rasping vocals, then the crossover with electronic music, and now the coolest game in town is throwing a saxophone into the mix to show how you’re supposedly influenced by jazz. When you suggest the the big platforms have all leaned towards albums exhibiting “non-metal influences”, I would actually counter that with the same argument I use against Darkthrone and Satyricon’s last releases – these releases aren’t lauded for their non metal sections so much as they are for incorporating shrill guitars and death/black vocals into music usually enjoyed by those for whom the soy decaf latte is the drink of choice. Somewhere along the way, someone decided that melody and musical proficiency were less important than pushing the boundaries acceptable (read: going out of your way to sound harsh to the ears).
I’ve actually found my own taste in metal getting softer – or perhaps narrower – over the last few years, and its largely because I’ve grown tired of this constant competition between the new breed of bands to be more extreme – and therefore “metal” – than one another.
January 24, 2014
I had to read through your comment a few times to get a feel for what you were saying, and I think we agree in principle but I’m semi-baffled by your inclusion of Darkthrone and Satyricon’s new albums as examples —- for starters the new Darkthrone album is the least black metal thing they’ve ever done, its more traditional metal than anything else really, with the highest production value Darkthrone have ever purposefully committed to. Anyone giving it props on their year end list was surely discussing it while acknowledging that Darkthrone really don’t play black metal anymore.
Whereas the Satyricon album has been met with about a 50-50 overall reaction, its a real love or hate record, and a lot of Satyricon fans dislike it immensely. I placed the record high on my year end list as well —- not only for a handful of great songs, but because it might be one of the braver records released in 2013, a black metal band releasing an album devoid of the typical aggression that’s expected of them. What the new Satyricon album DID not do however is find itself on to many year end lists, very very few in fact, and most of the big platformers ignored it entirely.
As for saxaphones with metal, I can only assume you’re talking about Ihsahn, but he’s always been avant-garde like that, it was hardly surprising and frankly I wasn’t aware it was ever lauded in the first place. I think we’re both thinking along the same lines, its just that your chosen examples are throwing me off.
January 24, 2014
To quote your reply, if I may:
“…the least black metal they’ve ever done… anyone giving its props was surely discussing it whilst acknowledging that Darkthrone don’t play black metal anymore.” (re Darkthrone)
“… it might be one of the braver records released in 2013, a black metal band releasing an album devoid of the typical aggression that’s expected of them.” (re Satyricon).
So one hand, Deafheaven are are the focus of your essay because – whilst the traditional/power bands we love go largely ignored – the press lauds their latest piece of (supposedly) extreme metal that, when you remove the faux black metal vocals and blastbeats, actually isn’t much to do with metal at all and there is a certain peculiarity, or dare I say injustice, to this.
On the other hand, two bands that spawned from arguably the most inaccessible scene in metal make your own top ten lists with albums that, whilst not as far removed as Sunbather, are the furthest thing away from the aggression and power these band have previously displayed. Begrand and yourself posit that its this very power that should define the genre, yet its the aforementioned non-powerful releases such as Sunbather or Satyricon that have received all the attention for being “extreme” in the metal press (whether the usual suspects, or on the Metal Pigeon).
So what is extreme then? I put it to you again – I really doubt its a case of metal progressing to show more influences from out of the genre, so much as that the metal press has now – to my disgust – accepted the stereotypes. You can thus produce any avant-garde garbage and, as long you remember to throw in the screaming and fuzzy guitars, someone will come along and label it as extreme. The irony is this is exactly what Amaranthe has done and gets lambasted for…
January 26, 2014
Ah, I get where you’re coming from. For me the difference between the Satyricon and Deafheaven albums are precisely in terms of power. Satyricon released an album that attempted experiments with inverting their sonic approach to constructing black metal, where in place of traditional tremolo or black n’roll riffs was more open chord sequences, long sustains, less dense riffing, a usage of space and ambiance with keyboard arrangements. On a handful of songs that meant that the normal teeth baring aggression one would expect were replaced by an almost doom-metal like approach. However the songwriting structures were very much of a metal, even black metal perspective. So all those inverted elements are still building up a very visceral impact, one that is nothing short of powerful. That and they certainly had some feral, teeth baring moments on there (see “Walker Upon the Wind” for example).
Deafheaven’s Sunbather however is pretty, pastoral, and cinematic (all good qualities). And despite the presence of a few metallic elements such as tremolo riffs (albeit in major key), and double kick here and there —- I don’t hear that power I associate with metal when I listen to a song like “Dream House”. Sure its got fast guitars and percussion, but thats just tempo —- and Clarke’s vocal are extreme in that you can’t decipher them and he sings rather fast, but they sound like vocals from a hardcore band. Extreme vocals don’t automatically equate to being a metal element in my book. Now I quite enjoyed “Dream House” and much of the Sunbather record as I discussed in the article, its certainly extreme music, but not necessarily metal to me (I’m sure loads of people will disagree with me there — which is fine).
Power, in itself is more than just heavy riffs or even dark sounding music, we see that because a band like Helloween is considered a metal band, despite the fact that they don’t have the heaviest riffs around, and they often sound quite happy overall.
You mentioned Amaranthe, and you’ll recall that I defended those guys in an earlier article last year: (http://themetalpigeon.com/2013/03/25/perception-and-acceptability-with-amaranthes-the-nexus/). Can Amaranthe be considered an “extreme” variant of metal? I think they can and should, but in the glossary of metal media/press the term “Extreme” applies to music that spawned off the death and black trees. The devil’s advocate argument against applying the term to an “extreme”-ly poppy power metal based crossover act like Amaranthe is that they make music that is far more accessible than say, Darkthrone or even Deafheaven, and as such they don’t need the press or attention that those latter two bands receive from the big platform websites. Personally I disagree with that perspective, but its one that is common throughout online metal media.
The only way a band like Amaranthe will get to be regarded as extreme in their infusions of pure pop with power/melo-death is if metal media can agree on an accepted definition. And the reality is that if guys like Adrien can’t convince his peers, then its never gonna happen. I think in the end this is more a discussion about the motives, perspectives, and perceptions of metal media and their influence on the listening public than the actual music being produced. Boy does my head hurt now!