how not to write about extreme metal, probably

It might seem like ham-strung vaudeville from a media-saturated Western outlook, but this internationalised language of stock rebellion and theatrical posturing clearly resonates for youth in Indonesia, Malaysia or Singapore, and offers comfort and dignity to those still; ambivalent about buying into the post-feudal-/colonial environment that’s being rapidly constructed round them” — Kean Wong on metal in South-East Asia, and how it was interacting with political Islam, ‘Metallic Gleam’, The Wire 110, April 1993

Back in the mid-80s, my NME colleague Dele Fadele and I had a shorthand: ‘Nigerian Heavy Metal’. Of course there’s plenty of African metal around today, and this no longer seems even a faintly counter-intuitive idea – but even though it already existed (so Dele said), there seemed enough of an absurd tinge to this fact for it to seem useful to us. 

Of course the seeming absurdity is in retrospect a tell, which was exactly the point from our POV. It’s a shorthand for a mockery emanating from the critical community and culture both we shared (meaning an NME-type hivemind ): and in different ways – because after all our backgrounds were very different – we’d both intuited that the flow of this mockery was in the process of reversing. As in, if Nigerian Heavy Metal is indeed a thing, then the critical joke will turn out to be on us, pal. As scornful arbiters of what metal is and could be, and as observers (in my case perhaps somewhat wide-eyed) of what African pop was then becoming, and should be — well, everything we’re wrong about, and naive about, and much much too smug about, is out there trolling down the pike towards us. This worry — expressed as a semi-uneasy semi-joke — was what we were expressing, and what we were serious about, back then in the mid-80s.  

Let’s not get into the problems of “African pop” as an idea: an entire continent’s-worth of sound compacted into this-year’s-thing by people unaware of any of it until only months before. Of course within this there was a multiplicity of heritage rich, vibrant and wideflung, which only slackjawed convenience really collapsed into one trendy thing. What interested us, though, was the notion that younger African musicians might be reaching for metal (rather than, say, a music at once locally rooted and self-consciously global-cosmopolitan like Sunny Ade’s [footnote 1]) to make something of it for themselves — much as they already reached for reggae and would soon be reaching for rap. Except (obviously) without the roots one-world vibe of the first and the urban anti-rock militancy of the second. What might metal be bringing to Lagos as a potential world-spanning cultural lingua franca that more ancestral musics were felt to lack? Given the NME dichotomies of that moment, what might rock have been getting right all along, and after all? And what if we could no longer hear why? What if we were now the heart of the problem?  

MULTIVECTORIAL AEONIZATION

So now it’s 2019, and I’m listening to Exodromos by WORMED. Yes, I am. They’re Spanish, their oeuvre is slim and slow-arriving and science-fiction bleak in a way that defeats easy translation [2] – and this is not at all a chore. They’re virtuosos hewing to protocols of technical speed-precision as opaque as the ambition and the intent: crisp tense jabbing riffs and drum-batter exact enough to seem machine-like, especially when some of it is just so very fast. Ridiculously fast, in fact. Plus the grunting gargle of the vocals — there’s something heartening about the way they simultaneously thread their way through earnestness and absurdity, an absolute seriousness of practice married to an absolute daftness of trappings. You can’t read the song-titles and tell me Wormed aren’t aware how they come across. This is deliberately obfuscatory science as bogus as the explanatory dialogue on Star Trek, of course — the bits where Patrick Stewart corpses in the bloopers reels. It’s mood-maker and concept outline — something about the last living human scouring galaxies for a planet humans can thrive on (Earth is dead, obviously) — but it’s also just funny, and very evidently meant to be: ‘Nucleon’, ‘Tautochrone’, ‘Solar Neutrinos’, ‘Stellar Depopulation’, ‘Darkflow Quadrivium’, ‘Techkinox Wormhole’, ‘Xenoverse Discharger’, ‘The Nonlocality Trilemma’, ‘Spacetime Ekleipsis Vorticity’ [3]. He’s called Krighsu and his cryonically frozen brain is jammed with all human knowledge, and he’s tasked with recreating entire peoples and cultures from, well, I’m not sure. Wormed song titles and riffs, maybe, why not? Certainly it’s solar systems distant, in sound and manner, from hard rock’s sexual braggadoccio all those aeons ago, and the adolescent swagger we post-punkers enjoyed looking down on [footnote 4] (though I guess we looked down on Rush also). And as certainly, it makes demands on reviewers as they wrestle with it all… 

Some opt for routine descriptive specifics, song-by-song or player-by-player: “maniacal drumming, guttural pig-noise vocals, breakneck inventive riffing and massive chugging atrocities” — with J.L “Phlegeton” Rey’s retching vomitvocals getting the most pushback (some consider them a bit of a mockery of all Tech Metal is meant to be). Others want to make much of the sub-genre’s name – because this isn’t just Tech Metal, it’s Brutal Tech Metal, and they like to work the word ‘brutal’ as its own validation. There’s bit of cyclic logic here — since ‘brutal’ is the term for what Wormed are good at delivering, it must be the ’brutality’ that makes this record so good etc etc – but to be honest this kind of circularity is endemic to avant-garde thinking (see further down the piece). 

Others still opt for lip-smacking variation of metaphor, assuming in the listener some gleeful kind of (brutal) will to (brutal) self-harm. So this record is a “dark, dizzying, maddening descent” into “mind-melting insanity that is about to melt you like a subatomic bomb[5]. Wormed are an “acquired taste” except for those “who wish to have their spine extracted via their anus.” What comes after needledrop? “Peeling our eyelids, forcing us reflect on our worthlessness… [w]e’re gutted before we’re spaghettified”. These songs “capture the sound of being ripped the fuck apart by physical forces that lie beyond the realm of human understanding.” And so on. These are very bad experiences served up as markers of excellence. What’s going on here exactly?  

PROG as UTOPIA 

In the introduction to A Hidden Landscape, I made two arguments, one centrally and strongly, one much more provisionally. The first was this: that in the years of its highest ascendancy (c.1968-72ish), prog was arguably the truest political form of rock, precisely because it manifested (in form more than lyrical content) its most utopian ideal, the uniting in equality of all the world’s youth culture, as a quilting together of every music from everywhere, at war with everything grown-up and staid and failed, and all glued together with the simple electric blues licks any kid could teach themselves. It was “progressive” because progress in that war-torn global moment meant everyone from anywhere being able perhaps to share the same stage on an equal footing. Rock was the patchwork form the underground collectively listened to: multiple tastes set out (by eight-track technology) as tiny helpings on a single buffet table. The second (less developed in the book because it largely happened after the dates the book covers) is about what happened once rock was no longer the agreed-on centre of the world’s youth culture – at least in one of that culture’s metropolitan centres. As UK pop split into warring niche-market tribes, metal had to be content to be one more refusenik genre among many. But if it was no longer rock’s default mode, it nevertheless retained a surprising amount of youth-culture utopianism [6]. The book makes much of NME’s activist focus on dethroning it – what isn’t covered is the extent to which metal’s core was to coalesce round a scatter of blisteringly extreme forms available, world-wide, as a sound that youth will recognise, and will know has a meaning, and will know as a widely recognised meaning. For all the grunts and wails and wilful opacity, at some level this was all very evidently not opaque at all. The world’s forms and devices are no longer to be absorbed and re-cast, classic prog-style – because a lingua franca has been sedimented out of that classic style. 

To the extreme! 

I guess my unstated theory — which is mine and which (given the spottiness of my knowledge in this area) is very speculative — is that once rock culture’s 60s utopias had been so fiercely dented by punk, metal gravitated towards these various performed “extremes” as a way of demonstrating that these ideals were now best carried in the distilled particularity of a sub-genre form [7]. The horror-mask stuff, the advanced and focused music technique, these must go beyond the simple maximisation of their respective pleasures: mere entertainment never enough (mere entertainment — good hooky riffs! an amazing show! — is “pop”, which is to say it’s tainted and fallen). To set off the desired deeper charge, the niche-seeking need elements that can be contested and graded. Brutal? But how brutal exactly? How fast? How sludge-like? How Satanic? How toad-like is the singing? How corpse-like is the facepaint? And which of these is the more exemplary extremism?  

Except of course to grade is to codify — so that all the various distinguishing elements are now also several decades ritualised, none more so than song topics and lyric styles. For some three decades, the evolution has been a near-forensic burrowing into itself: many small adaptive developments certainly, some of them breathtaking, but no larger sense of motion — certainly none easily grasped by outsiders. If progressive rock is indeed the forebear I’m suggesting, any general sense of countercultural progress has nevertheless vanished, in any discernible direction beyond what’s already been reached. 

But here too we run up against the circular thinking in all avant-gardism that lasts beyond its delirious founding moment The further from the “revolutionary break” you are, the more “making an actual living in the world” is in tension with “getting back to the delirious purity of the original breakpoint” — which is to say, the more the self-appointed radicalism presents as a stubborn conservatism. When challenged by unimpressed outsiders, an avant-garde’s justificatory rhetoric often swerves into the wider cultural sand-baggage and turns over-defensive. You say the ‘brutalism’ can’t be excellent simply because it’s so ‘brutal’? Then its quality rests in its socio-political salience, in transgression as prescient refusal, in the glimpses it affords of a new world in the making, and the ground it breaks that all will soon stand on blah blah blah. 

Over time, the swerve towards woke socio-political generalisation turns conservative because it’s a swerve away from the crabbed particularity. And what’s going on with the particular is often simply “novelty hit that everyone realised they wanted more of” – and sometimes you’d get a clearer idea why they wanted more by keeping tighter into the actual (kliché klaxon) Music Itself. The tale of Krighsu, as Wormed tell it, is after all a drama built on this same rhetorical trope — the glimpses of the new world we all know needs building. But the force of its expression comes from the conflicting elements that play out in the drama (which is to say in the words and the sound): besides the horror and the hope, the mordantly troubled doubts about the realisation of these yearned-for possibilities, and all the ironised self-awareness about the tics and techniques that allow the tale to be told. 

What if what we all sshare is the merely indescribable? 

In the early 70s, rock (all of rock) had set itself up as the trans-national youth lingua franca , and a wing of it (prog) aimed to encompass all human sound and culture. By the 80s, this had broken to bits — and some of rock’s tropes and habits (including the braggadoccio, the overstatement, the tendency to goofy spectacle, even the good-naturedness) were what post-punk considered unserious about it. Hence — perhaps — the excision of metal from the post-punk circle of approval, extirpated for a season because it was associated with all these kinds of foolishness.  

Well, trans-national lingua francas are back, baby — and they’re interesting. It’s interesting that hiphop is one of them, but it’s even more interesting (to me) that extreme metal is another. Hiphop has words you can actually decode and comment on, as well as samples, which are storied. Metal’s elements are often much harder to write about, precisely because they’re musical – the shapes and inner tensile rhythms of riffs, and textures. So many textures: as palpable as the smell in a room but far harder to conjure onto the page. Someone better versed than me in both should set out the multiple virtues and the silliness of each, and fashion a compare-and-contrast Double Helix to Hell. Why do we even need two? What rival ends do they serve?  

We live in times when focused earnestness and authenticity and artistic ambition and rigour are often themselves treated as a kind of foolishness. I like that extreme metal finds ways to play games with all of these; to fashion dramas that can enhance them even as they allow us to laugh at them. In the 70s, adolescent mateyness failed as a value all could grasp and share — because (truth be told) it was bulging out in very date-locked and clammily parochial forms. By contrast, extreme metal’s localism is an aesthetic rather than a geographical localism, and it arrives palpably conflicted: it encompasses multitudes as contradictions, and different people will be drawn to different layers. Maybe this is where the world-spanning appeal comes from. Whatever the reason, there are recognisable versions of it in almost every polity, and that must mean something. 

FOOTNOTES

1: The first show I saw when I moved to London was Sunny Adé at the Hammersmith Odeon, and it was one of the best I ever saw. (The second was the Residents doing the Mole Show at the same venue — and it was boring and bad.)

2: Perhaps incorrectly, I’m assuming that no one can make out the words as sung – or even what language they’re singing in. Of course you can find the lyrics on-line, perhaps translated from Spanish (which I don’t speak) and certainly translated into words. And you can also find fuller summaries of the concept on-line — accurate or not I can’t say, since the translated song-words are by no means intended for simplistic clarity [link]. 

3: As if to jab the point home, the eight track on the follow-up is titled ‘57889330816.1’.  

4: I guess we looked down on Rush also, and Hawkwind — who very much invented this dark-fantasy quit-the-world mode, at once revolutionary and ultra-pessimistic — were not well served by the UK press. 

5: I don’t know how fair or exhaustive the section of reviews I made to study is (I googled “Exodromos review” and clicked down the list). In fact the quality of the writing is variable, as you’d expect: but I didn’t click my way out beyond the psychedelic self-harm mode: “dissonant, mind-bending compositions”; “mind-blowingly unique”; “zapping brain cells since the late 90s” and “formidable drums and complicated chord shifts that truly numb the brain”. (Readers can point me to other critical solutions if they know of them.)  

6: Citation needed? What I have in mind here is an argument I couldn’t cite in the book’s introduction without digression beyond the topic at hand, viz the one Chuck Eddy often makes in Stairway to Hell. 

7: By which I mean, I suppose, developing a form that can adapt to prog’s and punk’s rival versions of 60s utopianism? One parameter here is wild speed superbly played; while another is quasi-nihilist will-to-shock.


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