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Bullpen Bulletins #2: Is there possible accounting for taste?

After a controversial inaugural column, Slough Feg main man Mike Scalzi returns to address your concerns, and to ask for your insight in understanding extreme metal. Slough Feg’s new album The Animal Spirits comes out today on Profound Lore. – C.L.

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Well, the last piece seems to have stirred things up well enough, so let’s try another. Be sure to keep the comments coming, because that’s sort of the point of this whole thing—–especially in regards to the subject of the current installments. Although I fully intend to continue wearing my heart on my sleeve (even if my remarks are off the cuff….), I greatly appreciate ALL of the comments from the last installment! Some of them were quite poignant—–my favorite comment was the one where someone says I’m “angrier than a kid that dropped his ice cream cone”. Indeed I am!! That’s exactly how I feel!! Like something that was once satisfying and delicious has melted into a pile of formless mush!! And I’m crying out loud!! (If I’m going to be miserable, at least let me enjoy it!! Isn’t that sort of the original premise for Heavy Metal?!)

I do not intend to respond tit-for-tat to all comments, but I will respond to one that that’s been made several times. As far as being “metaler-than-thou”, I’ve made no claims to this effect. I speak as a fan of MUSIC, specifically rock music, of which metal is a subgenre. So perhaps I am guilty of a “musicaler than thou” attitude. In fact I am definitely a MUSICAL SNOB!! How can one not be in today’s musical climate?!

What I was trying to say in the last piece was that subgenres tend to legitimize shitty music. I do not claim that every new band has to be something completely fresh and new to the ear—–but only that a lot of garbage passes for good music when it simply meets the minimum requirements for a particular genre. These “elements” of metal (be it heavy guitars, high-pitched vocals, fast drums, growling etc.) do not make for a good song or band by themselves. But it is often bands who possess nothing more than these surface level indicators of genre that get recognized and praised—–even in underground music, where loyalty to a given sound is all-important. The immediate effect of a song composed with such neglect to form, structure, and content is that it bores the listener (because it just doesn’t rock), like reading an essay consisting of a random series of corollary points with no central theme or statement.

There are current bands that don’t do this, though, and they aren’t all startlingly original or genre-defying. They’re just good. They write songs, and have memorable riffs, and at times even melodies done with honest articulation of an idea. Some examples are: The Lamp of Thoth, Blackholicus, DoomSword, Bible of the Devil, Harbinger, The Devil’s Blood (at least the first demo, which is all I have), Stinking Lizaveta (perhaps not really metal, but great!!), Dawn of Winter, and many more I’m sure that I haven’t heard, but would like to (any suggestions?)

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But to the point of the current rant: If what I say is true, then why do people enjoy writing, playing, and listening to such music? Are “vague indicators and generalities” of heavy metal are enough for some people? Or is it is possible that I’m judging today’s music by yesterday’s standards? That is to say, perhaps the standards, values, criteria I use to judge current metal music are obsolete, or at least limited. Perhaps I am guilty of a heavy metal anachronism. Whether this is true or not, I may never know for sure, steeped as I am in my own taste-forming processes (as we all are, I suppose)—–but if I enlist the readers’ opinions, perhaps we can accomplish what has often been considered impossible: to account for taste. And so I ask you the question: Is there possible accounting for taste?

In order to avoid confusion, let’s call my set of musical values “traditional musical values”, namely: song structure, melody, catchiness (particular to Heavy Metal: memorability of riffs and vocal lines). This set of values is often represented in Folk, Country, Blues, Big Band, American Musicals, Jazz (sometimes), Classical, Rock, Heavy Metal, and Punk and Hardcore music. In heavy metal, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Metallica, Exodus, Venom, St. Vitus, and hardcore bands like Black Flag, Minor Threat, Dr. Know, Bad Brains, C.O.C., Misfits, (bands that perhaps helped to form my musical values) all possessed these values, i.e., they all wrote distinctly recognizable “songs”, distinguished by these “traditional musical values”. In the case of hardcore, there is not as much melody, but there are recognizable riffs and distinct song structures, and vocals with a varied, rhythmic quality, if not some sense of melody.

For an example of music that often lacks these values, let’s take what is, to me, the most obvious example (in “rock music”). Extreme metal: Black Metal, Death Metal, Grindcore, etc. I am no expert on these sounds, but I have heard much of it——-I’ve played shows with countless Death Metal and Grindcore bands, plenty of Black Metal bands, heard countless records and demos of these styles, and have gained little understanding of why people enjoy them. But enjoy them they clearly do. I believe I was even around playing shows at the apparent inception of some of these styles——in the mid-eighties (correct me if I’m wrong). I remembering playing shows with, and also hearing records/tapes by thrash bands that incorporated metal elements with heavy reliance on double bass drums, Satanic and gore lyrics, and extra-scratchy sounding vocals (scratchier than your average hard core screaming).

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Now I am not seeking a sort of rigid heavy metal calculus by which to distinguish “true” or “false” metal here—-I always found that distinction pretty silly and childish. This is more an attempt to account for taste by categorizing sounds according to somewhat “objective” standards. The strange thing to me is that people who do like Black and Death Metal are often surprised that I actually love stuff like Venom and Agnostic Front, Black Flag, C.O.C., etc. They usually expect me, given my opinions on these matters, to be a big fan of Dream Theater, ELP, Yngwie Malmsteen, stuff like that—-but I can’t stand that stuff!! I’m not even into Rush!! I love grimy guitar sounds and guttural vocals—-yet I see a sharp distinction between something like Venom (supposedly one of the precursors to Black Metal), and what has been known as “Black Metal” for the last 15 or 20 years. I see this as more than a difference in degree (of extremity), but rather as a difference in kind (of music). Venom sounds like heavy metal to me. Black metal sounds more like industrial/noise music, and at times even like new age music. And maybe this is the problem: I’m judging extreme metal by antiquated Heavy Metal standards.

To make this distinction between degree and kind clearer, let’s look at a couple examples that don’t involve extreme metal. For instance: I don’t really like UFO. Never did. People have told me for years that they represent all the aspects of hard rock/metal that I like, i.e., they sound just like the stuff I love. True enough. I love the Scorpions, Thin Lizzy, Rainbow, i.e., seventies hard rock/metal. But for some reason, UFO never give me what these other bands give me. Not really sure why, they just don’t “do me”. I don’t like Phil Mogg’s voice, and although I can remember many of the riffs and melodies (i.e., they possess many “traditional music virtues”), they just don’t click with me. They don’t particularly annoy me, I just find them kinda boring, drab, and not-so-great. I see this as, if not a difference in degree, definitely not a difference in kind from these other bands. They bear great similarities to some of my favorites, and I can understand why people like them.

Another example: I don’t like Testament. I like early Metallica. I like early Exodus. Although I don’t think either of these are incredibly original, I love some of their early albums. I just don’t like Testament. They bore me to tears, and annoy me to an extent (mostly because they are so unoriginal, but not solely because of this). But I understand why some people like them. I hear some of the same things in their sound that I hear in other thrash bands, things that I can enjoy. I just don’t enjoy it when they do it, for whatever reason. But again, this is thrash metal, and Testament possess some traditional musical values. Obviously they’re closer to “extreme metal” than UFO, but there is no conundrum here, no bafflement, no “my god, what do you see in this stuff?!?!” on my part. Just another band that sounds painfully derivative in a way that bores me. But no mysteries here.

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Scalzi laments yet another jukebox filled with UFO and Testament

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Then there’s extreme metal. Death Metal, quite frankly, baffles me. People have told me everything from “you’re listening to it wrong” to, of course, “you just haven’t heard the good stuff yet”. Then they play me the “good stuff”, and it sounds just like the other stuff, but often with more technical guitar parts and cleaner-sounding drums, but still no real song quality or interesting “vibe” to me. I just don’t “get it”, and I want to get it. I have some very intelligent, articulate friends who love Black and Death Metal, many of them play in Black and Death Metal bands, and I’ve discussed these things with them, and we never seem to be able to “account” for our difference in taste. The first time I heard “death metal” or “grindcore” was, I think, in the early nineties when I listened to Bolt Thrower. I understood that people were intrigued by it because of its extremity. Sure, it was extreme (and of course, Bolt Thrower is a truly awesome name, in my opinion), but I didn’t understand how one could enjoy listening to it.

Soon after this, I was exposed to more and more of this type of music and begin to recognize it by the name “Death Metal” and the following signature sounds: vocals that sounded like the voice of a cartoon character (which can be a great thing indeed, but only if you could understand what it was saying, and not for an entire album with the same voice!) indecipherable guitar “riffs”, and drums that sounded anything but “brutal” – more like someone pattering on the top of Lincoln Logs can the way I did when I was seven years old trying to play along with The Monkees on TV. Now there obviously are some tremendously talented death metal drummers, no doubt. But that triggered clackety-clack double bass sound can sound so piddly and wimpy, it often defeats the purpose. Soon after hearing Bolt Thrower, I started to witness this kind of music live: vocals that sound like someone joking (and sometimes it is really funny, and I suppose for that reason entertaining—–but not for a whole album or a whole show—–and particularly not when the person doing it is taking it seriously!!!) and guitars that are usually indecipherable. In fact, often you can only tell the guy is soloing by looking at his fingers, because the same static is issuing from his amp that was when he was playing “riffs”. It’s all a big mystery to me, and sounds no more like metal than a lot of “noise” music does. The only difference I see is that the “lyrics” (if you read them) are often about gore, etc., and the guys in the band look like metalheads rather than indie nerds.

Black Metal I find a little more intriguing, but mostly for non-musical reasons. I kind of like the concept of Black Metal a little more—–Satan always makes things a little more interesting, I suppose, and sometimes Black Metal guys look cooler than Death Metal guys, and occasionally do interesting things (like kill each other). I find the vocals slightly more bearable at times because they have less in common with tough guy, Pantera-style vocals, which some Death Metal bands come dangerously close to. Actually, there are a few Black Metal albums that I find somewhat musically interesting, but the vocals always kill it for me. Sometimes I think I’d like some Black Metal if it was instrumental (Bathory, for example, perhaps the first “real Black Metal” band, I would appreciate and enjoy more without the vocals—-the music is riffy and sometimes catchy), since the vocals often sound like they’re totally unrelated to the rest of the music—–as if someone recorded a song and then sampled someone vomiting over top of it. There is a distinct difference between screaming in a rhythmic chant that integrates itself with the music, and a monotone substrate of screams over a seemingly unrelated body of riffage.

Even as background music, I find most Black Metal hard to take. In fact I tried listening to some Black Metal as I started this article, and I found it totally annoying and turned it off. Now is this whole kind of analysis ridiculous? Am I trying to impose form on chaos? Have I listened to it wrong? Do I lack the gene for Black Metal appreciation? Or have I made the mistake of taking it seriously? Is the whole point that extreme metal is supposed to sound terrible, and I just don’t get it?

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The only possible conclusion I can come to is: I am judging extreme metal according to traditional Heavy Metal or traditional musical standards, and they simply don’t apply—i.e., it’s not about catchy songs, memorable riffs, vocal lines, inflections, etc. It’s either about something much more general, much more atmospheric (which is what they say about a lot of “ambient Black Metal”)—-and therefore any effort to break it down into its constituent elements misses the point, and/or it is enjoyed according to a completely different set of standards than Heavy Metal, Thrash Metal, etc. In fact I would not be surprised if someone who listened to a lot of industrial/noise or “new age music” would appreciate Death/Black Metal for reasons totally foreign to me as a metal fan. It seems to me that if you think of extreme metal as an extreme version of Heavy Metal, that is, as the next natural stage in metal evolution after Thrash Metal, that it still sounds ridiculous. If the people in the bands looked more punky and the band names were a little more artsy, perhaps it would not seem so mysterious. Is this the answer? Is extreme metal simply a different type of music altogether, not comparable to metal, but more to the likes of Throbbing Gristle, Einsturzende Neubauten, or even John Zorn?

Now don’t think for a second that the thought hasn’t crossed my mind, ages ago, that perhaps I’m just an old fart whose misunderstanding of “the kids’ music these days” is no different from the old hippie in 1983 who didn’t understand Iron Maiden or Black Flag, or for that matter the old school metalhead who didn’t understand thrash in the mid-eighties. I’ve thought about this for years, and of course, it’s quite possible that my whole problem with extreme metal is reducible to this generational phenomenon. But if it is, that doesn’t change anything. I still want to know what people see in it——and the fact that there are people older and more steeped in “old school” metal and punk than I am who love extreme metal makes me skeptical about this possibility.

So let’s hear from some of you who like Black and/or Death Metal, because this has been a great source of bafflement to me for years now. Can you give a coherent accounting for your taste? Or will any resulting discourse on this matter simply reinforce the old proverb: there’s no accounting for taste?

— Mike Scalzi

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