Its Strings Gathered From Torments
84 · 5 September 96
Cannibal Corpse: Vile
It didn't used to be this hard to be a heavy metal band. A big amp, some booming drums, a few mildly Satanic lyrics, some overall dire winds-of-war ambience, and a name that lent itself to logo treatment on the covers of fourteen-year-old's math books, that was about all it used to take. The heavy metal of Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden and Judas Priest was the musical correlate of superhero comic books and those little plastic cans of Slime, a deliberately stylized art form of escapism through rigorous hyperbole, and if, to the uninformed observer, there seemed to be something more disturbing about "Fairies Wear Boots" and "Lips in the Hills" than Metropolis and whatever it was that made Bill Bixby strategically rupture his clothes, then as kids we took this as clear demonstration of the music's superiority, even if the exact basis for and substance of this mass-parental resistance wasn't always totally clear to us. When in doubt, anything somebody's parents hate is bound to be cool. Conversely, when parents cease to care or even know about something, you can be pretty sure it has ceded its claim upon the minds and attitudes of their children. And although I haven't done a dedicated PTA tour to confirm this impression, my guess is that you'd be hard-pressed to find a parent who'd ever even heard of any of this week's bands, unless they themselves happened to be the family's fan.
Heavy metal's fall from disgrace over the last decade and a half seems to me, in retrospect, to be explained by five related developments. The first of these, ironically, seemed at first like one of the most excessive and frightening developments in metal: the Speed Wars. Speed Metal, a subgenre invented in the mid-Eighties by Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax and a few others, had all the hallmarks of the apocalypse. It went beyond brooding, which was metal's traditional forte, into what appeared to be actual physical violence, barely channeled into nominally musical form. It was a massively underground movement, which meant that it appeared to parents a lot like a good viral plague appeared to pre-scientific physicians, namely that one day everything was fine and the next day everybody in your village seemed to be bleeding from the ears. The band names, particularly Megadeth and Slayer, were gene-tailored to trigger parental censorship enzymes, and the lyrics, to the extent that you could ever make them out, added an acrid sheen of raw panic over the whole situation. What the Speed Wars also did, though, was introduce escalation into heavy metal. They took a relatively static genre, whose single-mindedness helped to lend it persistence and gravity, and turned it into an arena that valued acceleration over mass, and thus one that couldn't help but tear itself apart from the inside. In their thrashing attempts to outdo each other, speed metal bands cannibalized their own prehistory, churning generations into the fossil layer at a pace that suggested that it was the only paving material they could think of to drive their tour vans over. And before long the speed movement hit its terminal velocity, everybody seized up with carpal tunnel syndrome, and that was the end of it.
The second and third things that happened came along at about the same time. One was the co-opting of metal's vocabulary and idioms by other genres. Between grunge's reinterpretation of metal as an extension of punk, and the incorporation of it via sampling into rap and subsequent hybrids thereof, metal was pulled, pale and blinking, into the brighter lights of bigger genres, and this further fragmented a genre already beset with internal instabilities. The other development was that all genres, especially grunge and rap, suddenly found themselves more visible by an order of magnitude or two, as both the industry charts and MTV realigned themselves to the polarities of the real market. The half-life of insular subgenres has now been radically shortened. A good underground movement that could have simmered for years in the Seventies, collecting acolytes and warping minds, has now got about two months of underground childhood, which it either spends in a mad push to be the next commercial explosion, or else it dies a quick death. The results of this are both that the music business moves too quickly for parental resistance to focus on any particular genre, and your parents' fears cease to be helpful to you in determining what to listen to, and also, more seriously, that the dilution of a genre by label opportunists and superficial imitators happens so quickly that it often has already taken place by the time you discover the style yourself.
The fourth thing, which follows directly from things two and three, was the supersession of metal as the music of defiance, by both "punk", in its new form, and variants of hip-hop, both of which were vastly better suited to the quick product cycles the business demands, as they require minimal technical skills to produce, and mount little in the way of principled objection to their own disposability. These are musical styles ideally suited to short-lived cassettes jammed into walkmen, and thus perfect complements to a youth culture whose defining icons are coming to be the beeper and conversations conducted entirely in slang that was invented only moments ago. Metal, born of endless hours locked in your bedroom watching the light from a glow-in-the-dark frisbee flicker across the spinning grooves of Paranoid, is a formal anachronism. Backmasking, the defining myth of metal as a subversive cult, doesn't even work with CDs or cassettes. The commercialization of youth music has bled it of all mystery, and thus left mystery no informed audience.
And the death blow, perhaps, which is in many ways an inevitable result of the other developments, is the defection of metal's last stalwart defenders. Metallica and Anthrax, the original kings of speed, are now hard rock bands, not fundamentally very different from Aerosmith. Queensryche and Soundgarden are writing pop songs. Slayer is doing hardcore covers. Sabbath and Iron Maiden are forgotten and irrelevant. Blue Öyster Cult is playing the summer circuit with Molly Hatchet. The genre has dispersed, and there is no such thing as a crowd without people.
All this means that the few bands who find themselves wanting to participate in this lost genre are in a rather difficult predicament. They have about three options. They can ally themselves to metal tradition, heedless of the fact that only historians will appreciate their efforts; they can ally themselves, at least nominally, to some more current movement, and use metal as their variation on that movement's themes; or they can try to recreate metal itself, by finding some way to make music that is even more disturbing than anything metal has been before. Cannibal Corpse tries this third approach. On paper, it looks like a sensible idea. It is possible, if only just, to play faster than Slayer and Anthrax ever did. Vocals can be a little gruffer and more tuneless, still. The lyrics can be even more grotesque and explicit. "This recording is dedicated to all those who stayed brutal!!!!!", Vile's liner explains, and other than quibbling with the number of exclamation points, it's hard to argue with the sincerity of this dedication. Cannibal Corpse are brutal. Every element of this record has been carefully constructed to replicate the aesthetic experience of being jammed into a rock grinder. The problem, I think, is that being jammed into a rock grinder is a much less interesting experience than it sounds. There is a very loud noise, and then all your bones break and you are summarily pulped, and then it's over and you've got to go wait in line for another hour and a half to do it again. Cannibal Corpse is a lot like this. Everybody is playing too fast, or croaking too hoarsely, to introduce any dynamic range into the music, and so everything comes out as a featureless roar, and no matter how far I turn this up, it never sounds loud. The songs are different from each other, in some technical sense, but only in the way that no two bursts of raw static are ever exactly identical. The lyrics are gruesome, but to no particular end; after you've heard (or read, if you actually intend to make out what's being said) "Devoured by Vermin", you will not find "Mummified in Barbed Wire", "Puncture Wound Massacre", "Relentless Beating", "Eaten From Inside" or "Orgasm Through Torture" particularly shocking. Actually, to be fair, the denouement of "Orgasm Through Torture" is a little more repulsive than the others, but that's less a testament to its accomplishment than a reflection of the odd reticence toward explicit genital mutilation on the other songs. Of the eleven songs here, only one does not mention blood, and "gushing" occurs with about the same regularity as "girl" on Night Ranger records. And has about the same intellectual significance, too.
Despite a similar-sounding name and approximately the same noteless vocal style, Carcass introduces two key variations from Cannibal Corpse's strict formula that, for me, change the experience completely. First, they avoid Cannibal Corpse's wearying Altzheimer's-ish tendency to write the same song over and over, and this is true both musically and lyrically. Actually, I initially thought they had a sense of humor, but "Keep on Rotting in the Free World", as hilariously perfect a title as it is for this genre's version of an anthem, turns out to be the exception. Most of the songs here are serious and concerned, grim on a more social level than Cannibal Corpse's flesh-eating rodents. In good Dave Mustaine form, their favorite themes are the sad state of the world ("Keep on Rotting in the Free World", "Tomorrow Belongs to Nobody", "Child's Play", "Generation Hexed" and "R**k the Vote") and their personal frustrations with it ("Room 101", "Polarised", "Firmhand", "Don't Believe a Word" and "Go To Hell"), and they toss in a little poetic ornament ("Black Star") as a bonus. They aren't going to run Noam Chomsky out of the social meta-criticism business, but at least their songs don't sound like a disembowelment-fixated mental patient's stream-of-consciousness muttering.
The more important detail is that they slow down enough that guitarists Bill Steer and Carlo Regadas can actually shape their streams of notes into vaguely musical form. The hints of melody in the instrumentation, then, allow the percussive vocals to function as a rhythmic element, rather than a melodic one. If you can't take this kind of singing, you're still going to hate this album, but I find personally that as long as there's a melody in there somewhere, I'm not dogmatic about which part produces it, and the novelty of having the singing contribute none of it is intriguing enough to carry at least one album. The overall arrangements are not as complicated as they would be on a Fates Warning or Dream Theater record, but the constant forward motion of the guitar parts is similar, and there are particular flourishes here that remind me of Fates Warning vividly, particularly the legato modulations on "Black Star" and "Child's Play". "Child's Play"'s rumbling bass and urban-decay lyrics also remind me of Metal Church, another of my favorite metal holdouts; the bouncy riff on "Generation Hexed" could almost be from a Gamma Ray song, though Gamma Ray would have bolstered it with keyboards and some extra soloing, I feel sure; the lurching progressions in "R**k the Vote" remind me a little of later Voivod. I think this album may be just a bit too European in flavor to make much headway here in the US, but for me it strikes a nice balance between songwriting and assault.
As of their last album, 1994's Tales From the Thousand Lakes, Finland's Amorphis were pretty much a poster band for the the crypto-Scandanavian wing of extreme metal. Vocalist Tomi Koivusaari sounded like a blustering troll with emphysema, the music was dense to nearly the point of impenetrability, and the band hadn't quite grasped the difference between a song and a song-length solo. Still, they made interesting use of keyboards, and I can't help admiring a metal band who takes all their lyrics from the Kalevala, so the week I found myself buying all these metal records I figured I'd give them another chance and get their new one, Elegy.
And, pleasingly, this turns out to be an enormously improved album in every aspect I can think of. The most obvious change is that the band has acquired a lead vocalist, Pasi Koskinen, who actually sings, and who they use in addition to, not in place of, Koivusaari. The tension between the two voices, often within songs, holds my attention much better than either would by itself, and this goes a long way towards redeeming Koivusaari's especially monochromatic rasp. The songs are still awesomely intricate and obsessively detailed, and choruses and verses in the usual senses are still not much in evidence, but this time around the songs seem to me to progress, rather than meander, sounding much less like the erratic middle sections of discarded fugue variations, and more like Mussorgsky at quadruple speed. How much of this is due to the influence of wizardly new keyboardist Kim Rantala and new drummer Pekka Kasari, and how much is just the three original members getting better at this, I don't know exactly, but the improvement in production quality, even though the band again produces themselves, suggests that everybody is involved. There is more instrumental variety here, too. Tales From the Thousand Lakes had a couple of murky piano interludes, but this one has acoustic guitars, atmospheric synthesizer textures, piano integrated into songs rather than merely interposed between them, and even a startling momentary mid-song digression into techno. The guitar parts, both rhythm and lead, are vastly more legible, and seem to have clearer senses of purpose. The lyrics this time are taken from the Kanteletar, another traditional Finnish text, and where the Kalevala excerpts cleaved to a stilted and archaic sort of "O you mistress of Northland" nationalism, the Kanteletar verses find their subjects actually living their lives, and this turns out to convey their nature and strength of spirit, I think, far better than any direct claims about it could, inspiring patriotism instead of just invoking it. "The kantele was fashioned by a god / Out of a great pike's shoulders". "The farmer...marries off his sons, / Hands out his daughters, / In boots clogged with clay, / In fancy mittens". "For no horse can draw / No iron-shod jerk / Without the shaft-bow shaking off / The cares of this skinny one, / The sorrows of this black bird". Or, more concisely, "The ptarmigans babble". Where it is tempting to conclude from Tales From the Thousand Lakes that things are just different in Finland, Elegy captures and communicates what seems to me to be an unmistakably heroic national grandeur, which is a much more impressive artistic achievement than most metal albums ever aspire to, and which tempts me to violate my general (and wise) policy of never recommending metal albums to non-metal audiences. But only momentarily.
Solitude Aeturnus: Downfall
As of their last album, Through the Darkest Hour, Solitude Aeturnus was one of the most retrograde heavy metal bands in operation, acolytes of the otherwise thoroughly forgotten art of making dark, slow, oppressive heavy metal, the kind you actually might play while conducting arcane midnight rituals, rather than practicing injurious skateboard maneuvers off the dumpsters outside the nearest 7-Eleven. Downfall is a logical next installment in their ongoing imaginary history of what metal might have become if the Speed Wars had never happened. Beyond the Crimson Horizon and Through the Darkest Hour both now seem to me to have been necessary groundwork in establishing the central premise that metal could have gotten substantially heavier without getting any faster. The two albums explore tempo almost exclusively, trying not to vary the other elements any more than necessary, so as not to obscure the point. After Through the Darkest Hour, though, I'm inclined to consider the axiom asserted, and so Downfall is their first record which I experience more for its contents than its concept, and seems to me to be their first album that is free to explore not the basic characteristics of this postulated imaginary past, but what, if it had actually transpired, Solitude Aeturnus' individual style within it might have been.
For one thing, this new admission of possibilities allows the band to write some of the new lyrics without using the Macabre Motif mad-lib generator. Almost all of these songs are still familiar heaven/hell fare (except for "Midnight Dreams", an odd first-person portrait of lycanthropy, which is certainly a related subject), but the sentences in them have conjunctions and pronouns and things, and so feel like coherent thoughts, and not like the guy with the pen kept saying "okay, I got that, what's another good word?" In parts, perhaps inevitably, this album is actually quite a bit faster and brighter than the others. In a slow metal world, it would have been possible to create dramatic relative effects at much lower absolute note rates, and songs here like the square, charging "Phantoms", the surging, cascading "These Are the Nameless" and the lean, muscular throb of "Deathwish" all take advantage of this fact. Other parts of the album, unsurprisingly, make exactly the sort of music that would have defined slow metal as a genre. The ghostly voices on "Only This (And Nothing More)" drift over waves of undulating guitar noise. "Midnight Dreams" sounds to me like "Rainbow in the Dark" at half-tempo. "Together and Wither" trudges from one booming bass note to another with the unhurried deliberation of a baggage elephant on its day off. "Elysium" is a swirling, experimental sound-effects piece that makes "E5150" sound, by comparison, a bit like "Axel F". "Chapel of Burning"'s long piano introduction and eerie vocal harmonies help set up the transition when it lurches into motion as the chorus comes around. And "Concern", the finale, pulses thickly, a distant guitar solo spinning across its face like a crack traversing the surface of a frozen lake. If this were a genre, and you liked it, Downfall would be one of the albums in it you'd want.
Fear Factory: Demanufacture
The much more common approach to metal these days, though, is to treat it as an offshoot of something else. Fear Factory are, I think, at heart a speed metal band, combining the aggression of Slayer and Machine Head with the sprinting kick drums and guitar bursts of Metallica and Megadeth, vocalist Burton C. Bell (who also appeared on Geezer Butler's g//z/r album) switching back and forth between death-metal growl and his menacing singing voice. There are enough sequence-heavy synthesizer parts and dialog samples here, though, not to mention the explicitly industrial remixes of "New Breed" and "Replica" added to my copy as bonus tracks, that you can imagine, if you need to, that somebody only had the idea to play this way after listening to a bunch of Ministry and Front Line Assembly records. Indeed, Fear Factory and FLA share a label, an engineer and a cover artist, and FLA's Rhys Fulber provides keyboard assistance personally. So, too, especially as Bell barks out the opening lines of "Replica", can you think of this as a stiffer-cadenced derivative of Rage Against the Machine. Or a Faith No More that sounds less like Porno for Pyros or the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
But those of us who still believe, know. We read "Dry Lung Vocal Martyr" and "Maximum Effective Pulse Generator" in the credits, and think of Voivod's "Throat, Insults, Screaming Mike Torture" and "Blower Bass". We listen to the razor-sharp stop-starts and think of Master of Puppets and So Far, So Good ... So What!. We wonder, if we transposed "A Therapy for Pain" up three octaves, if Bell would turn out to be Geoff Tate with a vocoder. We expect "Your Mistake" to segue straight into Anthrax's version of "Got the Time". We hear Bell shout and we keep thinking we're hearing the start of the theme music to Headbanger's Ball. We keep hoping that, if we just play "Resistancia!" loud enough, that heavy metal, in every guise we ever loved, will come back.