Friday, March 11, 2011

At the Gates- The Red in the Sky is Ours (1992)

I know this post is about 10 years late--i.e. 10 years after "sounds like At the Gates" was a ubiquitous descriptor for every American emo and hardcore and metal act, when every bearded, drug-dealing bike-messaging cruster was raising their fists in the metal sky to the Slaughter of the Soul album... even a few years after their cash-in reunion in 2007. (At which time knuckle-dragging "metal fans" among my acquaintance were shocked at my lack of enthusiasm: "Y-y-you don't... g-g-uh.. like Slaughter of the Soul? But it fucking slaaaays, man!")

I confess, though, that Slaughter of the Soul made a huge impression on me when I first heard it in 2001: they made it sound so easy! And the narrative going around at that time was that, yes, At the Gates had other albums, but they were basically a prelude to this, their masterpiece. One listen to their earlier music confirmed this: uncatchy, full of diverging parts, badly-recorded, and lacking everything that made Slaughter of the Soul such a landmark: twin-guitar hooks, compelling choruses and audible lyrics, a style combining basically Iron Maiden and Slayer... Of course, you could squint and imagine that the earlier riffs were somehow aiming at the same thing, picking out a few seconds in a 6 minute song that "foreshadowed their later genius."

How wrong-headed this all seems now! Nothing has been more driven into the ground than the Slaughter of the Soul sound--its worst incarnation being in Victory Records screamo and metalcore appropriations--so that perhaps even someday we shall want to revisit *this* album as deserving and merely overshadowed by its influence. Still, it is a ludicrously front-loaded and monotonous record, far too easy to overplay.

On the other hand, At the Gates' debut, under consideration here, is positively fecund with inspiration, overflowing with cool parts, labyrinthine structures, and a precocious grasp of "technicality" in death metal (this was 1992!), while managing to avoid almost every trap of "sweetness" and pandering to be found in, say, Swedish compatriots Dark Tranquility.

Still, this record's reputation is in need of some burnishing! Here is the review:

Here's what Sweden's At the Gates told us with their first album, The Red in the Sky is Ours: they were from, er, Sweden; they were very upset about something -- probably their parents; they played extremely fast and furious; and they pretty much sounded like a "baby" Entombed, offering little in the way of innovation to the booming Gothenburg death metal scene. And that's pretty much it. Later on, their contributions would rank among the best death metal around, but, for now, only the title track and latter-day concert favorite "Kingdom Gone" show any inspiration. Everything else will barely interest even hardcore fans.

My response:
  • Doesn't sound like Entombed (except maybe the one song cited).
  • Erroneously perceived as a "entry" in "the booming Gothenburg scene," where in fact the album precedes the debuts of Dark Tranquility and In Flames.
  • Even assuming by "Gothenburg scene," the reviewer means unrelated bands such as Dismember, Entombed, Carnage, Grave, etc., At the Gates here are light years beyond those bands (still largely tied to a Discharge/crust influence); the ideas here still sound inventive and eccentric, not tied to an early 90s "scene."
  • If anything, one can read here a hidden influence on Norsecore, especially on Dark Funeral.
  • In any case, this is the worst kind of historical interpretation, deeming the album irrelevant only because it does not fall in with the development of the reviewer's favorite style.
The Red in the Sky is Ours, far from being "melodic" in the sense of ring-tone melodies and warmed-over Iron Maiden influence, is melodic in the true sense: the songs unfold according to a melodic understanding or logic. Instead of being a simple phrase or hook, melody here is the entire song's working-through. Add to this a bubbling technicality, a permeating but eccentric emotionality (so far from U.S. death metal's tone!), the occasional crazy use of a violin, and you have the exact opposite of Slaughter of the Soul: a record almost so overcharged with ideas as to pay off almost unlimited relistening.

My only criticism of this record, which is the flipside to its virtues: it is incredibly dense, and almost lacking dynamics. Many of the songs have the same feel.

Here is an album you can really get lost in; on the other hand, one almost has to do so, to get the most out of its depths. The surface is not pretty or easily approached.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Crown- Deathrace King (2000)

Here is a problem with my aesthetic: I am consistently criticizing music that is just monotone grinding away at a style, or the lifeless technical reproduction of some cultural flavor or historical "sound,"-- and valorizing music that "jumps out of the speakers" at you, that is immediately catchy and memorable. In extreme metal, this is a convenient way to edit out and expel 90% of grinding, monotonous, merely extreme albums: death or black metal that never rises above the teenage thrill of grossing out parents and grunting. It is also a good way to approach power pop or hardcore punk: the tendency of this music to merely go through the motions without even crossing into consciousness always = total failure.

What then to do with a band like The Crown? Because the Crown are catchy, memorable, replete with moments that jump out at you, etc. So, why aren't they my favorite band? (The short answer is that I don't love Faith Hill or Sting, either, who are obviously more poppy and catchy by any standard than, say, Cryptopsy. But people sometimes forget that I'm not an idiot and that this ("poppiness") might not be what I mean.)

This can only be done by contrasts. Let's take a song I love: "Deicide" by Deicide.

A lot of this "technology" seems clunky in 2011; the different voices, the over-the-top intro, the rapped breakdown, the "I am evil" lyrics, the utterly predictable set-up for the guitar solo, the divebombs in the solo itself, the somewhat ponderous tempo...

But to say all of these things about how dated "Deicide" sounds, if we agree that it's a great song, is the same as to say, "Today, we could never get away with being so obvious." I get the same feeling when I think of Beethoven's 5th Symphony and its famous opening. But this assumes--what is obviously false--that everyone today is on the verge of writing the 5th Symphony...and is only being stopped by their tastefulness! The same thing can be said about Deicide: these dated techniques can be rephrased as Deicide's "drama," their embrace of the absurd, pompous, and theatrical. Because, damn it! the band is named Deicide! If ever there was an aesthetic motivation for this kind of flare, does one not find it in Milton's Satan? Is "tasteful restraint" the name of the game here? Deicide know that it is not. It is not that this acknowledged super-classic is (for some technical reason) sonically inimitable; it is rather that death metal has become scared of its own shadow. A failing of spirit!

Anyways! "Deicide" is not, for all that, a 3-chord, verse-chorus-verse pop song. Rather than being repetitive, it has a narrative unity ("what happens next?"); there are no hints of the "melodic death metal"--it is resolutely ugly music. The immediacy, the catchiness, and the richness of the song are in fact particular to metal: it gets you headbanging. I can't say it any other way. But then the structure is nimble, instead of "ritualistic" or whatever people use to describe boring metal nowadays. Deicide doesn't stick around to milk the hooks, or drill them into your head: every bit of the song is incorporated into its "push." This won't be everyone's idea of "catchy," since it isn't tuneful, but on the other hand, this headbanging catchiness is what death metal does best, what other music only stumbles upon by accident and can't hold onto.

So, The Crown. Like Witchery, or Nifelheim, (and, to be fair, all-time genius Bathory), this is verse-chorus-verse-chorus extreme metal. There are plenty of rockin', consonant guitar solos and trills, big emotional moments (like I enjoy so much in Metallica), single-note melodies that are easy to follow, etc.

But the bottom of this bag of tricks is reached quite quickly. The guitar solos are ONLY "rockin'"--they aren't interesting or beautiful, or relevant to the song. The catchy choruses, when all is said and done, are not as catchy as Venom or Kreator or even Morbid Angel. The supposed death-metal underpinning of everything, in the end, is warmed-over thrash metal riffs.

How to tell THIS kind of unsatisfying obviousness from genuine catchiness? I want to say something like, "Try to have your first listen through the (imagined) ears of a twentieth listen." For example, a lot of times, I have put on an album and someone in the room has exclaimed, "WAAAH this music is insane!!" But, honestly, what serious person pulls out a beloved record from their collection and throws it on the turntable simply to be baffled by it? And yet this is always a risk when a death metal fan approaches an album.

Not, however, a risk that The Crown run. The name of their game is not technical brutality but big choruses and rock flair. The idea, I think, is that they are going to be a "guilty pleasure" for serious metallers, pure ear candy... But while I may feel guilty (about not writing my dissertation instead of this review), I am not melting in pleasure.

There's nothing to say to someone who WANTS to like something, who has a Crown-shaped hole in their musical desires (and will soon have a Crown-shaped hole in their wallet!!). But all of our record collections are littered with these records. The record that was "exactly what I'm looking for" that day. Now, on any given occasion, my skepticism could be wrong: what sounds to me like "obviousness" could be a rich and rewarding, catchy album with little parts that will be enjoyed for a lifetime. But the evidence is all on the side of resisting a band's presentation of itself, of resisting hype, of waiting out the internet chat, of doubting the validity of comparisons (I like Deicide, but I do not like bands that tell me they "sound like Deicide").

I can easily imagine the listener who indignantly responds, "The Crown ARE catchy. They DO rock. Who are you to speak with the Voice of Eternity?" And these things aren't subject to some quantitative proof. My only response can be: my life is littered with these albums. I try to pick up on what lasts in music, what holds my interest for years of listening. The world exists to tell us that The Crown rock, and that Deicide are cheesy. But this doxa is worth precisely nothing.

Conclusion: what "jumps out at me" here is the feeling of "jumping out at me." I'm not a phenomenologist, but this seems to me a conceptual analogue (no pun intended) to the loudness war in CD-mastering.