Photo by Ben Thomas
In interviews, Fenriz often makes the distinction between “overground” and “underground” sound. (See, for example, here and here.) “Overground” is synonymous with “mainstream,” i.e., clean, modern production. “Underground” is the raw, dirty sound on Nuclear War Now! and Hells Headbangers releases. Fenriz militantly prefers “underground.” On Darkthrone’s Myspace blog, he features a new (and sometimes old) band each week. Invariably, the bands sound like the ’90s never happened. Like Darkthrone now, their albums usually sound like demos. Unlike Fenriz, I don’t want metal to sound like punk — I want it to be massive and sometimes inhuman — but I appreciate what he is doing. He is championing truth in sound.
I wish metalheads were more cognizant of this. We all know that production is important; more than any other kind of rock, sound is essential to metal. But metalheads are too accepting of what labels feed them. The most popular bands usually have slick, hyper-compressed sound. So do up-and-coming bands on big labels. They come billed as the next new thing, but they sound just like the last band produced by Andy Sneap/Jason Suecof/Tue Madsen. I can’t tell these bands apart anymore. Metal production has become such an assembly line that records have no sonic quirks anymore. The basslessness of …And Justice for All; the bassfulness of Severed Survival; the angry, redlined sound of Roots — such idiosyncrasies don’t happen now. Metal, as rock music taken to extremes, is supposed to be a bastion of rebellion. Instead, it has somehow become OK to sand off the edges and embrace homogeneity. I can’t help but feel that the machines have won.
That said, overground sound is not per se bad. Sometimes it is appropriate for the material. Overground music should get overground sound. Underground music should get underground sound. A goth metal band with two guitars, bass, drums, keyboards, female singer, and male growler that no one cares about — that plastic surgery disaster needs more plastic surgery to fix it. Kreator’s last two albums are much more precise and ornate than their primitive early records. Their slick production fits them.
However, one possibility remains under-explored: overground music getting underground sound. (Underground music getting overground sound is metal’s curse right now.) Erik Rutan did a fantastic job giving Goatwhore’s Carving Out the Eyes of God raw, meaty sound. Why couldn’t he have given that sound to Cannibal Corpse’s Evisceration Plague, which sounds sleek and clean? Granted, Cannibal Corpse are much more technical than Goatwhore, but there has to be some sort of happy medium. Kurt Ballou, who normally produces dirty, round-sounding hardcore punk, produced Animosity’s Animal. Animosity were a technical band, yet Ballou made them sound natural, almost live. Then there’s Zao, who actually cut The Fear Is What Keeps Us Here live in Steve Albini’s studio. The sound is alive, urgent, and by far my favorite out of Zao’s discography.
Here are my top ten favorite records this year in terms of sound. (Their music is quite good also.) Jack Endino recorded two of them, 3 Inches of Blood and Skeletonwitch. If you know these records, you can easily discern my taste. I like dry, robust, natural-sounding records.
3 Inches of Blood – Here Waits Thy Doom
Coffinworm – Great Bringer of Night
Complete Failure – Heal No Evil
Converge – Axe to Fall
Goatwhore – Carving Out the Eyes of God
Keelhaul – Triumphant Return to Obscurity
Skeletonwitch – Breathing the Fire
Slayer – World Painted Blood
Slough Feg – Ape Uprising!
Weird Owl – Ever the Silver Cord Be Loosed
What are your sonic preferences, and what records fulfill them?