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Editor’s Choice: Killing The Canon

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We’re still a few months away from lists dominating every inch of music coverage on the Internet, but that hasn’t stopped a few seasonal outliers from stirring the pot of online conversation. Here are three that I’ve been thinking about lately, in a miniature list of their own:

1. NPR’s Top 150 Albums Made By Women
2. Noisey’s Kim Kelly’s Top 150 Metal Albums Made By Women
3. Treble Zine’s 66.6 Best Metal Albums Of The Millennium

At a glance these three lists form a Venn Diagram. Numbers one and two are lists about women in music; numbers two and three are lists about metal. One and three otherwise appear to have nothing in common outside of being lists about music. Further inspection reveals a deeper similarity: all three lists are correctives to what came before them, reconfiguring the canon for new perspectives.

The staff at NPR made this aim explicit, prefacing their list with an essay from Ann Powers that frames the “Turning The Tables” project as necessary counterbalance to the male-centric understanding of music history. “The point is to offer a view of popular music history with women’s work at the center.” Powers explains, “The list does not represent an ‘alternate history.’ It stands for music history, touching upon every significant trend, social issue, set of sonic innovations, and new avenue for self-expression that popular music has intersected in the past fifty years.”

An admirable goal, and one that the 50 writers tasked with creating the list tackle with gusto. Over the course of the project, they catalog music from all over the world, in a multitude of languages and music styles: Afro-pop beside pop country, and Diamanda Galas rubbing shoulders with Destiny’s Child. For anyone looking for new music, or an excuse to revisit old favorites, NPR have compiled a treasure trove. Their deliberate focus on women has a pragmatic benefit in addition to a political one, opening up the list for additions that normally would get crowded out the sheer number of dudes in other similar articles. The writing itself is high quality, treating each record with the attention it deserves without spilling into hyperbole. Despite the best intentions, and mostly superb execution, NPR didn’t quite reach achieve their goal of covering every sonic innovation. This is where Kim Kelly enters the frame.

Shortly after the NPR list was published, Kelly (who, full disclosure, used to write for Invisible Oranges) took to Twitter to offer a corrective of her own, steadily providing example after example of women making heavy metal music. If the NPR list benefited by clearing space of overexposed albums made by men, Kelly’s list was even more liberated by its focus. After blitzing through the obvious choices (Arch Enemy, Boris, SubRosa), Kelly digs deep into obscure releases from every era and style of metal’s history. While it is a shame that metal remains on the outs of an otherwise inclusive and boundry-smashing list, Kelly’s compilation is a fantastic resource for anyone looking to expand their understanding of metal history outside of the canonized icons.

What fascinates me most about these two lists is that they don’t just exist as monoliths meant to be taken as scripture, but are instead part of a larger conversation. They are statements, but their also arguments, presenting a case for women at the center of music history and for the validity of heavy metal and the women who make it, respectively. By doing so, they call into question the validity of there being a canon in the first place. Their existence encourages further corrections and additions, further arguments splintering off into thousands of lists that each establish their own history and canon. 150 Metal Albums Made By Women In Japan. 150 Records From Chile. 150 Best Albums That Defy Genre And The Gender Binary. The more specific these lists, the wider the world of music becomes. The canon is demolished, opening the floodgates to innumerable viewpoints and experiences, each as valid as the last.

By comparison, Treblezine’s goal of summarizing the 21st century’s best metal albums is relatively modest. Selecting only 66 records from 17 years is a thankless task, and inevitably results in a great deal of good music getting overlooked (which the site has acknowledged via updating the list with some the snubs), but as a basic overview of millennial metal taste the list works pretty well. As a terrible Twitter-addicted millennial myself, most of my complaints with the list are a matter of album selection rather than artist selection (anyone who thinks that Ire Works is better than Option Paralysis is being silly). Whether you agree with the site’s choices or not, and I imagine plenty of you fall into the latter category, I’m glad that this list exists because it provides the basis for a response. Like any of the lists discussed here, or any of the lists posted on this very site, Treblezine have put forth an argument that can be agreed with or disputed, challenged, or upheld. Maybe one of them will inspire you to make a list of your own and to put your own spin on music history.

Here are some new tracks that might get you started:

Long live metal saxophone. It’s hardly a new concept in 2017, but lately bands that add a dash of sax have been hitting the spot for me. The instrument is surprisingly flexible. It fits just as well over raunchy instrumental experimentation as it does against emotional black metal. For the best application of sax in metal however, we must look to the psychedelic side of the genre. Cosmic Reef Temple, an instrumental act from Santa Cruz, California, use the saxophone as their pied piper, leading unsuspecting metalheads beyond the infinite. Like any psychedelic record, Age of the Spaceborn relies a great deal on repetition and woozy approach to harmony. More “heady” than heavy, Cosmic Reef Temple have as much in common with krautrock as they do doom metal. The record’s 20-minute finale “Inverted Desert Worship (Part III)” (this band really does have a gift for ridiculous titles) in particular is an evocation of both fear and excitement, its rhythms twisting like snakes under an ambient haze.

On the minimal side of mind-bending, there’s Sum of R’s video for “Cobalt Powder.” Both the video, and the music that scores it, are simple enough on paper. Two test cars crash into each other repeatedly, in sync with booming drums, sparse electric piano, and a Lynchian “whoosh.” “Cobalt Powder”’s strength comes entirely from its execution, the way its reversed cymbals swoon in time with the blue-toned fades in the footage, or the way the reverb on the drums echos like metal bouncing off concrete. Tension builds for nearly two minutes before the cars crunch into each other, but once that line has been crossed, the violence recurs with unsettling frequency. The images become desensitized the more unsettling the music becomes. Nothing settles quite right, leaving a hollow, restless feeling in the song’s wake.

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If those last two tracks were a bit too abstract for you, here’s something more tangible. Terria, the songwriting project of bassist Rahsaan Lacey, wear their technical wizardry, and their hearts, on their sleeves. Lacey, along with a rotating cast of guitarists, makes progressive metal that will appeal to the last remaining djent-heads out there but far exceeds the kitsch of that subgenre. This is “playthrough” music for sure, and will likely send some readers back to their practice amps and metronomes. Maybe it’s because of Lacey’s chosen instrument, but Horizons’s logical harmonic movement makes it easier to swallow the record’s ornate sense of rhythm and spiraling guitar leads. The sample from Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator might be a bit on the nose, but once you make it past that, the album comes alive, delivering musicians’ comfort food at just the right temperature. Check out that dizzying synth/guitar unison in the middle of “Water’s Edge” to get a taste of the album at its best.

There’s that sax again! This time providing support for another, more moody, progressive metal track. “Luminous” from Naeramarth begins as a Rhodes and electronic drum-supported ballad, moving to a righteous instrumental workout backed by organ, all before vocal harmonies soar in and lift the song to the heavens. Meanwhile, Jørgen Munkeby weaves in and out, sometimes supporting the melody, other times playing against it. This kind of music can be so naked in its emotional intention, and so over-the-top in its realization, that it can be hard to take seriously without feeling a bit self-conscious. If you take it at face value however, and treat its excess as sincerity, it’s easy to get swept up in the way it paints human emotions on a cosmic scale.

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I mentioned during my Nachblut premiere earlier this month that goth season is upon us. While goth metal is all well and good for the more extravagant “Castlevania villain” vibes, for more tasteful all-black needs, synth-pop is always the better choice. Why futz around with knockoffs when you can go to the original designer, you know? After releasing a morbid duo of covers in early 2017, Azar Swan have returned with another two track single on “The Golden Age Of Hate.” These two songs, the title track and its companion “Passages,” are even more downcast than Azar Swan’s usual style. The first perpetually threatens to drop into a more gut-heavy beat, but hangs on a tense minimalism instead. “On the knife’s edge / In the golden age of hate,” vocalist Zohra Atash sings in a near whisper. The song never opens up for a moment of release or catharsis, the threat is constant and chilling. “Passages” is just as icy, but by dropping a thrumming low-end into its chorus, it’s the more accessible of the two by default. Even then, this is far from the feeling good hit of the fall, ending on a haunting repetition of the word “drowning.”

Sometimes, though, all you really need is death metal. Straight-up, no nonsense, no subgenres, nothing fancy. A cold beer. A good PB&J. Thank god for Cannibal Corpse, a band so consistent you can set your watch to them. I have never — not once — clicked play and not received exactly what I expected from them. They don’t ask much of me, I don’t ask much of them, and they deliver every single time. They sum up that arrangement pretty on their new song “Code Of The Slasher,” when singer George Fisher bellows “Accept the violence.” Gladly, George.

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