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Editor’s Choice: August 2017

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A solar eclipse is unlikely, but not inexplicable. Unless your brain has been completely rotted by flat earth theories, the mechanics that explain the moon temporarily blocking of the sun are fairly simple. Despite being much smaller than the sun, the moon is significantly closer to the earth. Thus, when its orbit brings it between the sun and Earth, it appears to be roughly the same size. This prevents the sun’s light from reaching Earth. Easy enough. You can could recreate this geometry with a penny and a ceiling light to get the same effect.

Well, not exactly the same effect.

Even outside of the path of totality, a solar eclipse is something to behold. You can understand intuitively what you’re witnessing, but at that moment it’s hard not to be taken aback. The sun — as much of a constant as you can ask for in life — is suddenly inverted into a hole in the sky. A black mark on the face of the natural order. Even if looking directly at it didn’t ruin your eyesight (tough luck, Joey Bada$$), an eclipse would still feel like a vaguely Lovecraftian event, something that would permanently leave an imprint on your mind if you gazed into it for too long.

It’s hard to blame earlier cultures for associating solar eclipses with ominous upheaval. Some imagined that a massive predator was devouring the sun only to spit it back out. Others just took it as a sign that their rulers were in deep shit. As Sam Kris laid out in his article about sungazing, the sun has been symbolically linked to authority figures throughout history. The moon’s sudden, attention-grabbing interruption is a coup. For a brief moment, the king is dead; the subjects are left blinded and bewildered. Then the usurper regurgitates its victim and order is restored.

Of course, in a vacuum the eclipse doesn’t necessarily mean any of this. It’s just a natural phenomenon, an event that would happen with or without human involvement. We are involved, however, and that means that we’re going to spin myth and meaning out of the world around us, whether the sun likes it or not. What those myths contain will always say more about us than the sun itself. For example: I see the solar eclipse as a metaphor for rebellion against an established order — this may mean that I have unresolved issues with authority and a general distrust of the powers that be. I doubt I’m the only one.

Heavy metal doesn’t exist in a vacuum either. When you get down to the bottom of it, a sequence of notes played through a distorted guitar (absent any other context) is apolitical and signifies nothing other than itself. The problem is that zero heavy metal songs exist without context. Like the myths that we tell about the solar eclipse, music is a way for us to explain how we see the world. It is the vehicle for the stories we want to tell about our communities, an expression of our values and grievances.

So what do we want to say about ourselves? What stories do we want to send out to the world?

This week, Matt Harvey of Exhumed wrote an article for Decibel magazine defending Hells Headbanger’s right to sell music made by white supremacists. All this following an open letter posted on MetalSucks asking the label to drop Nazi releases in the wake of the events of Charlottesville. The essential point of Harvey’s argument is that heavy metal isn’t guided by any single ideology but is unified by a spirit of lawlessness and disregard for social mores. Because of this, Harvey claims that actively attempting to prevent racists from having a platform would be antithetical to metal’s “fuck the rules” ethos, and is tantamount to censorship. Doug Moore already addressed many of the problems with this essay over at Stereogum better than I could, so I won’t waste your time hasing out each and every point.

There is one thread that I can’t leave untouched, however: the claim that heavy metal has no rules is ludicrous. Metal exists under a form of governance, just like every culture has its “rules,” even if they aren’t strictly enforced. There is a customary style of dress; there are patterns of speech, slang, memes; there are loose aesthetic guidelines to music and art; there is always crowd mentality at shows. These are all driven by rules — though many of these rules are gladly bent. Thus, in order for metal to be anything, it has to actively not be other things. Harvey quotes a relevant Sarcofago lyric: “If you are a false don’t entry.” The thing is: we get to decide what false means. Is it that outlandish to ask that Nazis get barred at the gates?

When I listen to heavy metal, I am looking for something similar to what I experienced staring up at the eclipse. I am looking to be awed, and to be simultaneously humbled and invigorated. To have my place in the universe affirmed by a phenomenon that challenges all of my assumptions. Like the eclipse, heavy metal can and should be terrifying, but that doesn’t mean we should let into our lives the parts of it that are unambiguously harmful without at least considering the possibility of long-term damage.

After all of that, I would be remiss not to promote music by metal bands that actively take a stand against racism. Black Metal Alliance, a loose conglomerate of bands ranging from drone to stoner metal to just about every variety of black metal imaginable, released Crushing Intolerance Vol. 5 in August. All proceeds from the mammoth, 21-song collection go to the Indigenous Environmental Network, a grassroots environmental justice organization. I can’t in good faith say that you’re going to enjoy every song here — simply because there are so many of them — and they vary so greatly in style and production quality. But that same variety means you’re likely to find at least one or two tracks to hit the spot. Personally, I’m a fan of Arktheron Thodol’s melancholic and acoustic tinged “Spiritum Viridis” and Kosmogyr’s heavy-as-all-get-out “Quiescent.”

Don’t worry, not all of my recommendations this month are tree-hugging “save the animals” types. On the other end of the spectrum, we have Owlcrusher. I don’t know why you would ever want to crush an owl. What the fuck have owls ever done to you, except dispose valuable wisdom and do cool-as-hell Linda Blair impressions? What, did you accidentally press A too fast and get stuck in one of Kaepora Gaebora’s endless dialogue prisons in Legend of Zelda? Did you see one too many O RLY memes back in the ytmnd days and declare war on an entire species?

Whatever set them off, this Irish doom metal band is not toying around. Generally, when it comes to agonizingly slow doom, I tend to gravitate toward bands with a more psychedelic or spiritual edge. Think YOB and Usnea and their ilk. Owlcrusher moves at a similar speed, and their guitars aim for the same bowel-shifting frequency. However, their music doesn’t inspire transcendance. This is doom as crushing realism. No escape, no mercy.

Alright, let’s pick up the pace a bit. Common War continue the grand hardcore tradition of turning metal subgenres — in this case, black metal — into brolic mosh anthems. Possess Yourself is dressed in the antichristian veneer of black metal and uses some of its harsh minor harmony… but that’s just seasoning. The real meat of the record is crowd-killing, gym-playlist-ready hardcore. Check out “Lower The Casket,” a song that satisfies the graveward glance of any longhair but delivers that message with the physicality of an elevator with its cables cut.

This is less of a recommendation than an observation, but in a month that featured an increased risk of nuclear warfare between North Korea and the United States, two moody rock bands released songs that used the detonation of Fat Man and Little Boy on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a metaphor for unhealthy relationships. The first, “Be My Hiroshima” by Grave Pleasures, is a catchy death-rock tune that gets a lot of mileage out of some good guitar arrangement and a hooky chorus, but it suffers from a verse melody that leans just an inch too Count Chocula for me. The second, Brand New’s “137,” is about as overwrought as you’d imagine a Brand New song that involves nuclear armageddon would be, but the Iron Maiden-ish lead during the song’s climax is inarguably rad.

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Idylls’s “No Virility” is a perfect storm of acquired tastes. Noise rock. Saxophone solos. Australian accents. The song is the purest distillation of skronk imaginable. Perpetually off-kilter and seething with unarticulated rage, “No Virility” is the sound of someone working themselves into a frenzy while pacing back and forth. Like the best noise rock, even the song’s most accessible moments feel like a sardonic joke at the listener’s expense. Just when you least expect it, Idylls switch to a herky-jerky midtempo groove straight of out the most hellish version of “My Sharona” imaginable to bring the song to a close. If you’re reading this after a particularly fun night out, I’d steer clear. This track is liable to extend your hangover well into next week.

If that last song is too caustic for your taste, try Capture The Sun instead. Terra Firma, the group’s second full length, is a sumptuous progressive metal record that demonstrates that openly flashy music can still be a soothing listen. The mostly instrumental band, barring a handful of vocal cameos, aren’t afraid to show off their chops, but their meter changes and fretboard acrobatics are the vehicle for a gorgeous harmonic language. Think world map music played with boss battle intensity.

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