Monday, June 29, 2009

On the Edge of the Absurd: A Commentary On The Oeuvre Of Behold… The Arctopus (part 1)

Metal music begins as an intensification of Rock: If rock music is music marked by a great emphasis on rhytmn, Metal music intensified that emphasis, making rhytmn not only the backbone, but also the flesh and blood of the music. Emphasising rhytmn does not necessarily mean playing fast: Black Sabbath’s Iron Man (a metal song, even if one of the first) is not a fast song, but it has a really intense rhytmn. What I’m talking about here is, err… “headbangability”. Headbanging is a result of your body responding to a very intensified rhytmn. If you can’t headbang to an average metal song, it’s probably no good.

However, in order to inovate, musicians must go where other musicians have not been yet. In metal’s case, this means playing faster. And than faster, and faster, and faster… Anyone can see that, if things remained as they were, extreme forms of metal would eventually reach the human limit of speed, and after that metal would end.

Luckily, things turned out a lot better for the style: it received the influences of many other styles of rock music, which helped it develop without the need to always point to the extreme. Perhaps the most important influence metal received came from progressive rock (and jazz, although to a smaller extent, not as important, and with results many times similar to progressive rock inspired metal groups). As early as the second half of the 80’s, metal bands appeared that mixed the intense rhytmn of metal with other elements, such as extremely technical playing, odd time signatures and longer and more complexly structured songs. Bands such as Watchtower, Atheist and Cynic are important in this period. Other more obvious bands could be shown, such as Queensrÿche and Dream Theater, but they are not as important to the analysis being made here.

Thing is, despite these influences, metal did not lose its tendency to the extreme: rhytmns began getting faster, more and more complex, and almost inhumanly technical. Bands like Nile, Necrophagist and Behemoth are bands that I feel represent the most extreme exaggeration (not in a bad way, far from it) of metal’s fundamental aspects. So fast, heavy, complex and agressive that it’s hard to believe such music is made by humans like ourselves (by this I mean: with the same number of arms and fingers).

Perhaps as a reaction to this, metal developed other styles, such as sludge, doom and drone metal, that mantain the emphasis on rhytmn, but turn it upside-down: Now, rhytmn is also the main aspect of the music, but not because it’s so fast: on the contrary, the instensity remains, but the speed is absurdly slow.  This is what makes possible the appearence (in the late 90’s or early 2000’s, I can’t exactly remember right now) of Boris’ Absolutego, a one hour long piece of ridiculously slow and heavy metal music. I’ve no real insterest in going deeper into this side of metal (the “slow” side). All I’ve said so far is to prove, by all means possible, that metal is becoming EXTREME.

And if I chose to talk about Behold… the Arctopus, it is because I believe that, so far, they represent the furthest any band has ever gone down the path of extremely fast, instense, complex and technical metal music, which is saying a fucking lot. They may not be faster than Nile, but I would call them more complex. No band, actually, has songs more complex that theirs, I affirm, and if you disagree, I would love to be proven wrong, even if in this case I don’t think it’s possible. The number of melodic ideas conteined on a song like Exospacial Psionic Aura is superior to the number of such ideas on many albums by a band like, say, AC/DC (obviously not offending AC/DC, their music is simply different). These ideas, however, are 90% of the time extremely complex and technical, and rarely appear twice the same way. The band has a classical music influence that is vital to the understanding of their work. Melodies are developed and rearranged rather than repeated, musical ideas are explored to their full extent rather than remaining the same throught a song. The band members have named Arnold Schoenberg (remember him from a few posts ago???), Luciano Berio and Bela Bartok as influences, but I feel that what appears as most original in the band’s music is the influence of classical music, in a general way, not restricted to specific composers in the compositional method. Of course, with all this, their music makes for a very very difficult listening experience, but it has practically infinite depth and the consequences of such music will, hopefully, be felt in metal for a long time. What I mean is: in the extreme metal aesthetic, Behold… the Arctopus is the greatest point of reference. No one, in the style, has gone further.

The band begins with Colin Marston, a warr-guitarist (pictured right here on the left, with his disgustingly beautiful warr guitar), and Mike Lerner, a guitarist, composing extremely complex songs. Due to the nature of their music, they had a hard time finding a drummer who could play with them. Thus, they released what I believe was a download only ep, containing 2 songs named “we need a drummer” and “we really need a drummer”. They used a drum machine to record them, which must not have been much of a problem since their music is thouroughly written down in sheet form before being played, so they new how the drums should sound. Drummer Charlie Zeleny eventually heard them and joined. The 2 songs on the ep were then rehearsed and re-recorded, now being named “Alcoholocaust” and “You Will Be Reincarnated As An Imperial Attack Space Turtle”, respectively. The ep was then released in CD form, named Arctopocalypse Now… Warmaggedon Later and did gain some attention on the metal and prog (short for progressive metal and rock) underground. The second song, more specificaly, an 8 minute tour de force of enourmous complexity, dropped many jaws.


Another ep followed, this one much more mature and well structured, named Nano-Nucleonic Cyborg Summoning. Containing 3 songs, this ep consolidated the band as the most complex band in the underground metal community. All 3 songs are extremely well composed pieces of music that, in my opinion, should be considered classical music despite the obvious heaviness. The depth and complexity of the compositions calls for an analysis in a classical music context, which I do not feel able to do. Nonetheless, any heavy metal fan who likes it hard and mean will have a fucking ball. The complexity of the music serves to intensify it’s already quite agressive edge, as in all good complex music, and it’s agressiveness makes the complexity sound all the more, uh… complex. The first song, “Exospacial Psionic Aura”, begins with an extremely intense blastbeat (first time listeners be warned) altering measures of 5/4 and 6/4. the song then moves on the a new section in 11/8 before returning to the blastbeat melody, but now in a differente time signature. Eventually, the song’s central melodic idea appears, a five-note call from the guitar which the band answers and that never appears twice the same way. Weird as this may seem, this melodysticks to your head. You remember it, but since it is always different, you end up inventing part of it yourself, which adds an incredible touch of subjectivity and depth to the song. Further describing the song is near impossible, because it takes so many  twists and turns that even after some 50 listens one cannot follow it all the way. It ends on a grandiose chord and gives way to "Estrogen/Pathogen Exchange Program", the second song, this one composed with Arnold Schoenberg’s 12 tone technique (remember???). Anyone who’s ever heard 12 tone music knows what to expect. It starts out very quiet, but about 2 minutes in the band kicks in and the usual compexity returns. One more point worth noting is on the 3rd song, “Sensory Amusia”: a calm, melodic and quite pretty middle section. Warr and guitar play a melody of each other in some very weird time signature, with the drums only keeping time lightly. Their full lenght album’s second song, “Canada”, will feature a similar section, but even better.

Shit, this post turned out absurdly long. I’l leave the 2nd part for later. Do check the comments if you feel curious to hear the most absurd music in the world, and I mean this in an infinitely good way.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Sunn O)))

The release of Sunn O)))’s new album, Monoliths & Dimensions, is a great event in the drone-doom style, a style that has in this band it’s greatest (by far) representant. If the band’s initial releases focused on guitar and bass, with occasional noises, here, acoustic double basses, a few brass instruments and choir are incorporated to their sound. The expansion of Sunn O)))’s sonic palette is not exactly recent: on albums like White 1 and 2, they already started broadening their sound. Stephen O’Malley, perhaps the greatest mind in the drone-doom style, has been involved in a series of other projects as well, such as KTL, in which he created music with many electronic characteristics. All of this culminates in Sunn O)))’s most wide ranging album to date.

The curious thing, however, is: why did this music evolved this way? Why did it expand from it’s initial minimalism of guitar and bass to a much broader instrumentation, and not the other way around? Why did drone-doom start out minimal and then grew? I ask this question because Monoliths & Dimensions seems like SunnO)))’s most realised work to date, not to mention their most thoroughly composed and acessible (as far as it’s possible in this style of music), which made me think that this is where drone metal should have begun. What I mean is: most styles of music establish themselves and are then led to minimalism by the hands of a few bright minds. Why is it different with this particular style?

Tracing the style back to it’s roots, the most obvious band we’ll come across is Earth. In Earth, the drones are extremely minimal. If we accept Earth as the creators of drone-doom, then the style did start out in an extremely stripped-down fashion. But why?

If we were to backtrack as far as possible, I believe that all forms of heavy droning music can be traced back to one SONG: that’s Black Sabbath’s Black Sabbath, from the album Black Sabbath. The fact that it is the first song on the album that many consider to be the first heavy metal album of all time is an argument that point towards the fact that maybe drone, doom, sludge and stoner metal (styles which can be traced back to this song) were the first styles of metal to emerge. The atmosphere of impending doom created by the band on that song was miles away from the direction metal took in it’s initial stages, and it would be at least 10 years before another band took a similar aproach to heavy metal. This song, however, the father of all those metal styles, is not minimallistic. Of course, there is a minimal characteristic to the way the guitar sets an ambience against Ozzy’s disturbed vocals, but, in an overall way, it’s not minimallistic. If this song, being the father of drone metal, is not minimalistic, then where did a band like Earth find it’s minimalism?

I believe there is a social answer to this question. Rather than any music pushing the members of Earth towards minimalism, I think that a certain social mentality, brought about by the punk explosion in the early 80s (such as the DIY attitude and the disregard for technical proficiency) is responsible for drone metal’s initial form, more than any direct musical influence. For this reason, drone metal, an already extreme style of music, starts it’s story on it’s darkest, most extreme side: that of minimal drones, created only by guitar, bass, and occasional analog synths. It gathered a faithful but small cult following, which became wider through the years not only because the style grew older, but also because, since it was impossible (or at least very hard) to progress towards greater minimalism without eventually reaching either silence or white noise, it grew towards acessibility. The evolution of drone metal is so twisted, because of it’s strange birth, that it is a style that, different from possibly all the other styles of music, grows not towards extremes, but towards a more acessible “center”.

In Sunn O)))’s latest album, song structures are more apparent than they’d ever been, the compositions are more conventionally paced, in the sense that the compositions grow steadily, which also serves to better define the song structures, and the overall sound is less extreme than the band’s other albums. All of this reinforces the idea that this is a style of music that is growing towards (an always relative) acessibility, and that should greatly expand it’s fan base, as well as become closer with other metal styles and “cross-polinate” with them, resulting in new forms of music. Certainly, great things can be expected from the future of this musical style!

Remember to look in the comments!

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Some Friends, Vol. 2

The last post came out a little too subjective, I think. I guess I can’t help it, since it was the 1st album I fell in love with. I’ll try to do better this time, talking less about my experiences with the music and more about the music itself

The Church – Forget Yourself

I wouldn’t try to convince anyone that this is the best album the Church ever put out, since 1) I haven’t heard all of them and 2) I don’t think it’s a useful discussion. Each of their albums (at least since Priest = Aura and I think even before that, althought others may argue otherwise) have been very different from each other. Each of them creates a “sound-world” that is unique and in which the album should be analysed.

In the present case, just looking at the cover while listening to the first 30 or so seconds of the album, we are already transported. The Church have always been great at incorporating elements from other genres and twisting them to fit their own, dream-rockish purpose. The entire album seams, indeed, to float in some sort of dreamspace, a feeling the distorted guitar ambience and feedback from the beggining of “Sealine” are greatly responsible for. When the slightly distorted drums come in and the structured part of the song starts, the music has already been lifted to a higher plane of existence. And it will remain their throughout the album, never ever ever coming down until the end of the last track. This is because of the great amount of effects, such as distortion, reverb, phasing, etc… the band uses in the album. The drums frequently have at least some type of processing, the vocals are also processed to fantastic effects and guitarists Marty Willson-Piper and Peter Koppes achieve marvelous tones, that range from delightfully dreamy to agressive and harsh. The fact that some of the songs from this album would later be reworked by the band into acoustic versions, however, attests that the songs themselves, and not the effects used on them, are responsible for the album’s greatness

Despite the great amount of experimenting going on, the band never forgets about melody and structure. This may not be true for “Summer”, the last song here, but there, it is clear that the shear ambience is put in focus, and it complements the lyrics better than any melody or conventional structure possibly could, at least without reducing their meaning. With the exception of that song, however, all the others have “choruses” and each one has at least one melody or section that will stay in your head in the first 2 or 3 listens. Still, further listening will reveal the depth of the songs and bring to the fore melodies and details slightly hidden in the mix. In fact, one can spend years listening to this album and still not claim to know all about each song: they are endless.

Stevn Kilbey, the band’s singer and bass player, delivers lyrics that mantain the level of quality his listeners are used to. They are often misterious, and, coupled with the music, bring to mind a great number of different meanings. It’s hard to pin down the meaning of any given song, and different listenes definitely will have different interpretations, which is what makes these lyrics so wonderful. “Sealine” is probably about drug problems, but it can be seen as a song about any intense negative moment in one’s life. these wonderful misteries are also greatly present in “Telepath”, “See your lights”, “Appalatia” “June”, “Don’t You Fall” and in all the album’s songs actually. The difficulty in pining down the meanings, coupled with the dreamyness of the music, make for an extremely subjective experience.

This subjectiveness is one of the reasons this is such a great album. While the band does use melody, choruses, conventional structures, vocal harmonies and other “normal” pop music resources, they also incorporate an enormous ammount of characteristics from other musical styles, such as droning guitars, a few electronic sounds, huge ammounts of effects, a few well-placed classical instruments such as french horns and strings, etc… The guitar work is also fantastic and helps give each song it’s distinctiveness. There’s good variety in volume, not little enough to make the album same-sounding but not enough to make you change the volume on your player too much. The loudest track is the stormy “Lay Low”, which doesn’t go anywhere near ear-hurting intensity, and the softest “Maya”, which is also far from a whisper. But in terms of variety, there’s more than enough for some 3 or 4 albums. Each song brings ideas and sounds that the previous does not even hint at, and the album surprises the listener until the very end. The band’s sound on this album is extremely wide-ranged, and the performances are inspired and tight. The arrangements are simply marvelous and not one note in the album is wasted or without meaning. Few albums are as tightly-packed and bursting with ideas as this one, and even fewer can arrange these ideas into beautiful and striking musical moments. This album is of an extremely rare quality.



I fear that, having said all this, I might still have been unable to explain what makes this album one of my favorites. Check out the comments on this post and see for yourself. Any open-minded music listener who is willing to spend some time on this album will find much to enjoy and, possibly, music to play in his head as a soundtrack to his life’s great moments.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Some Friends, Vol. 1

I guess after that first post I should get on with actually talking about music then! There’s still a lot more theory I’d like to investigate. What, for example, makes a rock song be a rock song? Where is the essence of rock? I believe this is something that can be found out. But there I go again… I’ll start by talking about some of the music albums that have marked my musical path. They’re not necessarily classics, but they’re the most likely to be on my top 10 at any given time. It changes often, but these seem to stay on it forever. They’re like friends that have a new story to tell you every time you see them, and even if you’ve been away for long, as soon as you start listening again you feel right at home.

Rush – Vapor Trails

Most Rush fans aren’t very fond of this album. I can see why. It’s quite an atipical release for Rush. No guitar solos, relatively few odd meters, pretty straightfoward song structures… At the time I bought this album, however, none of that mattered, because I was 13 and had never heard a single Rush album. All I knew about them was the song “Tom Sawyer”, which I had heard a couple of times on the radio and could barely remember. But this beautiful cover (the picture’s a bit odd. This thing is beautiful in real life) captivated me enough to make me pay some 18 hard earned dollars on it (I’m from Brazil and I’m making a rough convertion… it cost me 36 reais at the time). I don’t believe I’ve spent money better than this in my life.

I had read somewhere that this was a comeback album for Rush. But as soon as “One Little Victory” started, none of that mattered. The music was simply destructive, it demanded attention, it made the entire world dissapear. Each new song made me ore impressed. By the album’s end, not knowing exactly what had hit me, all I could do was listen to it. I believe I spent some 2 or 3 months listening to it every day, at least once. I was floored to know that only 3 guys could make such a huge racket. I refuse to believe that the bass guitar Geddy Lee was playing was the same instrument I had tried to play a few times and had trouble even holding it. The lyrics, some of neil Peart’s most misterious, coupled with the tarot cards from the booklet, made me curious and eager to know everything there was to know about this album. These lyrics, I still know all of them by heart, seven years later.

The mixing of the album was heavily criticized. It was said to be too “loud” and “rough”, a prime example of the Loudness Wars. I disagree. That roughness is a crucial part of the album. The absurd walls of guitar in “Ceiling Unlimited”, “Peaceble Kingdom” “Secret Touch” and “Freeze” are part of what makes these songs and this album so intense and exciting. There’s a real feeling that yopur stereo is about to pop when these loud parts come on, and it’s awesome. Even on the “softer” songs, like “Earthshine” and “The Stars Look Down”, the loudness really makes the sonic imagery more vivid and colorful

I don’t know if I should go song-by-song here, because I’m afraid things would get reeeeeeeally slow paced and boring. But I do feel like it! There’s not one song on this album I can’t say something great about. So I think I’ll do just that: The drums on “One Little Victory”, the flying chorus and amazing bass part of “Ceiling Unlimited”, the touching lyrics and creative drumming on “Ghost Rider”, the heavy walls of guitar and fantastic lyrics of “Peaceble Kingdom” (one of the best 9/11 songs ever made), the misterious ambience and crushing verses of “The Stars Look Down”, the little guitar and clever lyrics in “How It Is”, the arpegiated hook and the fantastic drumming on the title track; “Secret Touch”’s absurdly loud climax, the highly emotive chorus and crushing guitar riff in “Earthshine”, The compact structure and great lyrics in “Sweet Miracle”, the noisy chorus and tribal drumming in “Nocturne”, The odd meter and amazing lyrics in “Freeze” and the excellent way “Out Of The Cradle” closes the album on such a positive note. And that’s only the tip of the tip of the tip of the iceberg.

Do look in the comments if my rambling has made you the slightest bit curious! After all this, al I can do is beg you to give this album a listen if you like rock music at all. Maybe (probably) in the future I’ll talk about it some more, focusing on a few aspects of it, or at least on a few songs.

Monday, June 1, 2009

…but what is music?

Hey! It worked!

This is a blog about music. I will use it to write some of my ideas and opinions on music in a general way. I will do it in english because it’s not my native language, so I can get some practice (please correct any mistakes!)


But before I go on about music, I should answer the question: what is music?


This is a tough one… going back a few centuries, to some time around 1700 or 1800, the “music” that comes to mind is classical music. Famous and important guys like Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and so on… In their time, music was something much easier to define. It was built upon 3 pillars: harmony, melody and rhytmn. To simplify it grossly, you needed to have some nice little tune going on, in a determined tempo, with some diatonical (that’s major, minor, dominant, etc) chords to back it up. Then, you had music.

Howeeeeeeeeeeeeeever, during the end of the 19th and throughout the 20th century, things got a liiiiittle more complicated. Some composers, like Richard Wagner, Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss started to really “stretch” the good old diatonical harmonies to their breaking point. Their music started to shy away from conventional tonality, in order to expand the possibilities of music. It makes a lot of sense, since music had been composed with conventional tonality for some 200 years. The point is, these guys were striking one of the pillars on which “old” music was built upon.

But it is in the 20th century that the shit really hit the fan. The aforementioned composers influenced others to go further and further away from tonality in search of new musical possibilities. A guy named Arnold Schoenberg went so far, but so far, from conventional tonality, that his music, many times, had no tonal center. You know that great big final chord rock bands usually hold for a long time in the end of the song? That chord is the tonic chord, the chord that, in that given song, releases the tension. Well, when you have no tonal center, there’s no tonic chord to return to. This may be hard to imagine, but a lot of Schoenberg’s music after 1910 or so is composed like that. Since he was sailing through uncharted waters, he devised a compositional method to aid him in his search for new sonorities. This is the famous twelve-tone method, which basically consists of creating an order for the 12 pitches that make up an octave and only play the notes in that order. That is, a note never repeats until the whole set is played. Some of the most famous users of this method from that time are two of Schoenberg’s disciplies: Alban Berg and Anton Webern. Both of them took Schoenberg’s method and gave it their own spin, achieving quite interesting results. But the point here is: this “thing” they were creating was still called “music”, despite it’s obvious distance from music made before that time. In other words, good bye conventional harmony!

A while latter, some composers figured: if you’re gonna establish an order for the notes, why stop there? Why not determine an order for de duration of the notes, for what instrument plays, for how the instrument plays, for how loud the instrument plays, etc…? A French guy named Pierre Boulez did just that. Another guy, from the USA, named John Cage, went further: since the 12 tone method is pretty restraining, why not completely alienate the composer from the selection of notes, durations, etc and leave that to, say, the flip of a coin? He did just that. But before that, some guys in France and Germany started messing around with tapes and using them to achieve even more freaked out sounds. Things were getting pretty odd and, in spite of all that, the result was still called music!

By this point, you could say that music didn’t need melody, harmony or whatever; music is just organized sound. So the same John Cage, refusing to give me an easy time, writes a piece of music named 4’33. The piece is scored for piano, but may be adapted to any instrument (or number of instruments). It is composed of three movements, all of which are completely silent. The music consists of the noises heard during the 4 minutes and 33 seconds of the piece’s “execution”. So now, not even “organized sound” is vague enough to define what music is.

I’m keeping to “classical” music in this analysis, but heck, I don’t need to. Nowadays, an electronic musician like the Japanese Aube, who creates music from the electronic processing of sources such as flourescent lamps or crackling fire, is doing something that is completely despised of conventional rhytmn, harmony AND melody. And, still, we call it music.

So now here we are in the 21st century and I’m trying to write about music and I’m having a hard time just defining what exactly is music. I’m not going to try and give a final answer to this discussion, even because I do not believe such answer exists. But I still have to adopt some definition of music, just so we know what exactly is being talked about here. So, here’s the point I’ve been aiming at all along:

For the purpose of this blog, music is defined as being any sound recording, in any format (CD, DVD, limited edition triple 7 inch or even written down in a score), made availible to the public (in any format, even if limited). There, I’ve said it. With this definition, I’m making sure that, whatever it is I’m talking about here, you guys can hear it in some way. If you’ve made sounds of any kind, but did not record them for future reference or do not have any way of describing it exactly (like a musical score), then it’s not music, exclusively because you can’t prove it’s existence (wow, we’re going pretty far here).

So, every time I write about some specific piece of music, I’ll be sure to provide references as to how it was released and how it can be found. Most of the time, though, the music I talk about will  already be wiiiiiiiiiidely availible for purchase or for download in the nearest blog. Mostly, I’ll talk about pop/rock and electronica, mostly recent stuff. My aim is to go reeeeeeeally deep into the albums I talk about. Example? The view of Postmodern society in Iron Maiden’s Brave New World album. These things take some time to properly analyse, but it’s pretty cool. Just hope there’ll be someone around to read it and leave a coment!

By the way, in case you got curious to hear some of the wacky music described up there, some of it (as well as a much better description of some of the technical terms I used) is availible to stream from here

happy listening!


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