Metal museum music: Portrait, In Solitude, Satan’s Host
. . .
Two recent events placed the word "museum" at the forefront of my consciousness.
The first was a meeting at work where a project manager made fun of ColdFusion, a programming language popular in the '90s. He called it "a museum language".
The second was our interview with Melvin Gibbs. He said:
But I always ask myself, "OK, it's 2011. What is jazz now? What does jazz have to offer? What is the idea of jazz?" And you can't say in 2011 that the idea of jazz is some music from 1950 or 1930. I mean, that's nice that you want to go hear museum music, but to me, it's a question of what ideas the guy would be using and how can you apply that now.
[T]he whole point of heavy metal is you're trying to get a certain emotional energy across, and you need to explore a certain set of sounds to get that emotional energy across.
In Gibbs' first quote, you could easily substitute "heavy metal" for "jazz", and "1990" and "1980" for "1950" and "1930". In his second quote, he sets out what heavy metal is: a language. Languages are sets of tools. In spoken languages, the tools are words. Musical languages are called genres, and their tool sets are sounds. These sets are limited. Grindcore will not include gothic singing, and gothic metal will not include fast-moving punk chords.
So the resulting inquiry surrounds that of metal as a museum language. The implication is not a museum of modern art, but of antiquities. In one wing, we have fossils preserved in amber: '80s metal. In another, we have stuffed woolly mammoths: '90s metal. And, finally, Duchamp's toilet: '00s metal. (Half kidding about that one.)
This implication isn't necessarily bad. People will go to museums as long as they have weekends. Maybe they seek education; maybe they seek recreation. Always, they seek a bench to sit on.
But if you transpose across disciplines, the implication is sobering. Are today's "retro" metal bands - whether they rehash '70s doom, or '80s traditional or thrash metal, or '90s black or death metal - the equivalent of modern-day painters copying Donatello or Vermeer? Looks/sounds nice, but is ultimately redundant?
This is not a question of preserving dying artforms. The Internet ensures that practically nothing will ever die. Recordings ensure that music remains audible for generations to come. We are not in an emergency state where knowledge dies out if not handed down. Autopsy albums will be around so long as Blogspot is around.
. . .
But not all fires burn with equal brightness. In the case of Portrait, In Solitude, and Satan's Host, they carry on a torch I thought was previously held by one person (and his bands): King Diamond. No King Diamond, no anything that sounds like King Diamond. That's what I thought until these bands came along.
In the same way that "blackened thrash" bands (Absu, Aura Noir, Audiopain, et al.) helped keep alive a cosmic energy that Slayer lost at the turn of the century, Portrait, In Solitude, and Satan's Host keep the spirit of King Diamond alive at a time when, due to health problems, he has lain low.
What's this spirit like? To put it ungracefully, it's traditional metal with occultic and progressive tendencies, and with a theatrical singer. It's not the usual Iron Maiden rehash or ironic posturing (bandanas, rising-sun graphics, etc.). It's something darker.
. . .
King Diamond's shadow looms heavily over Portrait and In Solitude. Functionally, they're the same: dark but ultimately genteel trad metal with decent singers and occasionally transcendent guitars. I get the same feeling from both bands. Both do their thing - guitars riff, singers sing - but I don't sit up and notice until they overachieve with guitar licks sent from heaven/hell. These hark back to Mercyful Fate's progressive tendencies, and give hope for these bands' futures. I don't want to hear music that sounds like '80s metal; I have '80s metal for that. But I want to hear music that applies the lessons of '80s metal (songwriting, melody, harmony, and, yes, fantasy) towards new paths. I think this is possible.
Satan's Host have taken a big step towards this. They're an unlikely candidate to do so. Before By the Hands of the Devil (Moribund, 2011), they were one of black metal's most mediocre bands. But after original singer Harry Conklin (of Jag Panzer) rejoined the band, Satan's Host became an unholy union of dark atmosphere and over-the-top vocal power - what earned Mercyful Fate the moniker of "black metal" back in the day. Since then, I've heard this combination only once, in Judas Priest's Painkiller. "Painkiller", "Hell Patrol", and "A Touch of Evil" featured a maniacal singer hitting blood-curdling heights over dramatic, expressionist arrangements.
By the Hands of the Devil does just that. Why people aren't losing their shit over it escapes me; then again, people are still discovering Dawnbringer's album from last year, and both records are masterpieces. In a year that's been good for metal with singers - see Twisted Tower Dire, While Heaven Wept, and Argus - Satan's Host stand out. Headbanging, invisible oranges clutching, and deployment as aural caffeine have all resulted from this record. I don't know how this previously crappy band got all this electric energy, but the lord of darkness works in mysterious ways.
. . .
HEAR THESE BANDS
Portrait - "Beast of Fire"
. . .
In Solitude - "Poisoned, Blessed and Burned"
. . .
Satan's Host - "Revival"
. . .
HAIL TO THE KING, BABY
. . .