Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Of Wolves & Vibrancy

I read this at a conference in Seattle in 2007 on a panel that included Erik Davis. Erik is some sort of friggin' genius. Then Mike McGonigal put it in his Yeti magazine. Which is a great magazine. But you knew that already. Then it was included in a book called Pop When The World Falls Apart. That book has some rad stuff in it if you see a cheap copy somewhere. I read this over and didn't cringe too much, so I decided to post it here. 

 Of Wolves and Vibrancy

A brief exploration of the marriage made in hell between folk music, dead cultures, myth, and highly technical modern extreme metal

by Scott Seward

In my capacity as a custodian at a small island hospital off of the coast of New England, I have a host of duties to fulfill and I wear many hats. Many of these hats can be fairly smelly, and—given that I usually work by myself, and that the work itself tends to be somewhat mechanical and entirely physical—I find that I can be taken over and nearly overwhelmed at times by certain Proustian reveries triggered by the site-specific odors I come into contact with on a regular basis. Blood, urine, vomit, shit, freshly-mown grass, the salt-water spray from the harbor across the street, the oppressive, on hot days almost visible cloud surrounding the water-treatment plant out back, the cleansers and waxes, the iodine and ammonia, the food from the cafeteria, and even the thick, oil-streaked coffee that my Brazilian co-workers brew nightly in the break room far from prying eyes.
            All of these smells, separately and in conjunction, have the power to intoxicate me, eliciting primal, nearly forgotten memories that go back as far as the cradle. And of course it’s not just the smells. The sights and sounds of birth, death, and the various bodily humiliations visited upon us in between those two milestones, to which my position affords me a unique all-access pass, can fill my head with all manner of disorienting thoughts and connections that sometimes force sobering reflections about my own life and mortality upon me.
            And then there are days when I simply dream of pie. Hot cherry pie.    
            It might sound a little too cute if I were to say that all of this near-constant—occasionally alarming—stimulation provides inspirational and creative fodder for the writing about heavy metal I do every month for a metal magazine. But it would be true. And it might be a bit morbid if I were to say that a blood-streaked floor sometimes reminded me of what I love about metal. But that would be true too. I have an immediate, visceral reaction to the sounds of metal, as I do to the sight of blood, and both serve to connect me to the past via experience and memory and to the present via . . . what exactly?
            With metal, I think it’s that sense of immediacy and vitality that even mediocre examples of the genre can conjure up simply by virtue of hyperbole and that striving to be the most of something. The most base, or debased, or most grandiose, or most gloomy, or most triumphant. I respond strongly to unashamed displays of the will to power in most genres of any art. At the very least, I admire those who feel as if the infinite is within their grasp. No matter how misguided their central premise. Believing you are a bad-ass is half the battle when it comes to creating something compelling.
            And as far as my reactions to blood . . . well, blood is blood. It’s freaky and mysterious and hard to get out of carpets. Even a drop can send me swooning down the rabbit hole of scabby, incandescent childhood filth and fury.
            If metal is the music that most accurately reflects my physical and mental reactions to my surroundings, then the metal I find myself attracted to, for reasons of empathy, sympathy, and love of moss-covered rocks in dark forests, is metal that makes the most of the past—the long ago and forgotten past, the past of myth, the past of runes, ruins, and revelry—and incorporates that past into a wholly modern form. I might say the same about rock music in general (I am a rockhead and love all its myriad guises), but modern extreme metal—the hard to grasp stuff, the nasty stuff, the stuff that doesn’t reach out to include you, the stuff that lives in its own world away from the crowds, and that doesn’t try too soothe even in its beauty—reminds me more of jazz or rap or tricky modern classical music, which demand that you crack codes before they will break bread with you and thus are more intriguing and captivating to a devourer of sound such as myself.
            Rap and metal are close cousins. They rarely kiss, and when they do people often turn their heads away in embarrassment. And that’s because they aren’t third cousins—they live two houses down from one another and know each other well. They both have secret languages, worlds built from words and visions and fiery art filled with transcendent repetitions, monster beats, and often dour and dire predictions of harm and mishap. This, in a more general way, was jazz, too, once upon a time—dangerous, noisy, demanding, whispered about. Adored by underground Swedish hordes.
Metal and rap are still the danger sounds today, in a way that traditional and even alternative rock and roll—ever smarter, ever more bloodless and odorless—hardly ever is. There is ferment and experiment and the dedicated plowing of fertile fields in metal.
            Of course, it’s possible that my personality is simply better suited to the worlds that metal creates than those of other popular genres: tense, prone to delusions of grandeur, brooding storm clouds, fond of Vikings.

As I write this, I am on fire watch. The alarms are out in Wing Three and it is my job to spend the night at the hospital after my shift and search empty offices every hour for the sight of flames softly licking ’round bare wires or the acrid stench of smoke. For insurance purposes. I’ve set up camp on a couch in Acute Care. It’s four a.m. and I’m blasting Orphaned Land’s 2004 album Mabool on my headphones. I am hallucinating slightly as a result of the long day now turned to night.
            Orphaned Land are from Israel and are beloved by Arabs and Jews alike. They combine their metal—which is already a combination of mid-tempo death metal and orthodox doom—with aching lyrical passages and harmonies (think of a combination of Fiddler on the Roof and Jesus Christ Superstar, if you dare), and high-spirited traditional Arabic and Israeli acoustic instrumentation, as well as a smattering of Yemenite chant and your general Old Testament-based vibe and charm.
            Mabool is quite a ride. Like most compact discs, it’s about twenty minutes too long, but even so, it’s a striking artistic statement, and one that took all of seven years to make in between bouts of homeland insecurity and spilled blood and treasure. The acoustic folk elements are soldered seamlessly onto the electric metal chassis. Orphaned Land’s metal tends to be fairly middle of the road, and even their death grunts are amiable. Not for them the extreme speed and aggression of, say, American death metal band Nile, the Ancient Egypt-obsessed brutes who leaven their bombastic pleas to Atum or Osiris with period-appropriate serpentine constructions played on Middle Eastern instruments. Nile’s self-described “ithyphallic” metal shares some of the same mythological territory as extreme archeologists and Mesopotamia/Sumeria metal champs Melechesh and Absu, as well.
            Even given Orphaned Land’s relative placidness, though, Mabool is still an album you must give in to. Sink in to. When it comes to metal, it can be hard for literal-minded music fans to turn off their minds and float downstream. The social conditioning, the stigmas and stereotypes are so strong. I take heart in the fact that more people probably hate opera than metal (which is also a shame, and also partially vocal-based). Then there are the people who can never look beyond the juvenile and cartoonish aspects of some metal; to them the music will forever be monolithic, stupid, not worth bothering with.
            The truth is, metal needs its puerile and unsavory elements to be as strong a form as it is. If you exclude the bad and the ugly from art and only focus on the good, then you are truly living in fairyland. Also, you are your grandmother. A song entitled “Strangled By Intestines” will not be to everyone’s taste, but dig a little deeper and you will learn that its author, Joe Wolfe (of the group Heinous Killings), is revered by hundreds as one of the greatest low-tone goregrind vocalists of all time!
            Orphaned Land has stopped whirling, and I am playing some Magane. Still no sign of fire in the building. The only thing I smell is the overripe scent of dying flowers in a vase of fetid yellow water, left on the table next to me by long-gone wishers of well. Magane are from Japan and make what they like to call Yomi metal. It is a blend of blackened death metal played with punkish zeal plus evocative strains of Gagaku (ancient Japanese court music) and Shinto chants and recitations. The band draws lyrical inspiration from the sacred Kojiki text when they’re not shrieking about killing Christian pigs and drinking themselves to death. Shintoism!
            Many camps of folk-metal lay great emphasis on the pre-everything world. Pre-Christian, pre-Roman, the supposedly anarchic wonderland of ice and snow before the invaders showed up. Metal has always been a great place for people who don’t feel they belong in the world. And metal artists go to great lengths to create a home, a place, a life, a philosophy, a religion, out of the tools of their art. Or they go out of their way to trumpet the merits of their own small patch of soil.(Again with the rap comparisons. Speaking of which, you have no idea how members of the California Latino-American thrash-metal revival movement feel about the wrong people wearing high-top Reeboks. It ain’t pretty.)
            I can dig the sentiment. In the 1980s, I was a big admirer of British anarcho-punks like Crass and Flux Of Pink Indians, and the idea that some of these groups had punk-rock communes seemed so cool to me. In the states there was the Dischord house and the Better Youth Organization. Punk boy scouts, really. I would have looked for a like-minded place or cult myself at the time, but I’ve never been fond of gardening. Other than on an aesthetic basis, I can’t say that I’m all that interested in Germanic neo-paganism, Odinism, heathenry, mysticism, Satanism, Celtic neo-Druidism, animism, shamanism, or ritual-based Asatru worship practices, but I admire their practitioners’ pep and hand-crafted leatherware—and their music, of course.
            To be honest, I’m not a huge fan of the real deal ancient folke consorts that dot the landscape of music festivals and renaissance faires. Too often they lack the fierceness and meatiness of music born from blood and fire and plague. Metal bagpipers usually trump the historically accurate but noticeably timid players in the traditional music camps. One listen to Finland’s Korpiklaani, who rage like the Pogues after several years of weight-training,  sends me instantly back to a time when trolls ruled the woods, in a way that all the progressive, well-meaning Breton flute toodlers in the world could never manage.
            I also appreciate how modern Korpiklaani and other folk-metal artists are. They dream of the past, but they live in the here and now and make music that reflects that. The Viking folk-metal of Falkenbach, Tyr, Moonsorrow, Ensiferum, and Einherjer re-creates old Norse and Celtic battle rhythms and hymns with great liveliness and invention—they can also all play their heathen butts off—but they also never fail to bring new ideas to the world of metal and music through their deft use of modern recording techniques. Not unlike the brave—and oft derided—’70s progressive-rock titans of yore.
            Tyr are from the remote Faroe Islands, equidistant between Iceland and Norway, whose fishing communities have never entirely lost the love or feel for their Viking and Celtic heritage. Tyr even sing some of their songs in Faroese, a language based on Old Norse and once outlawed by their Danish masters (the islands are now an “autonomous region” of Denmark).
            Which brings me to my next point. The nationalism, neo-nationalism, and even national socialism of some modern metal bands is obviously problematic, though less so when you’re listening to solo music for lute and are told that the artist is “Aryan-identified” . . . If you say so. Luckily, most of the best artists in the folk-metal and even current neo-folk world are simply avid tree-huggers, and while I might not want to ask some of them their views on immigration or rap music, that would probably also be the case with more than one of my favorite country performers.
            Even a cursory glance through the interview section of The Convivial Hermit magazine—an excellent chronicle and repository for the wit and wisdom of scores of kindred spirits in the metal underground—will reveal more evidence of a longing to be left alone to create in peace than of overarching theories regarding the superiority of any one race. They are all like-minded souls who appreciate the efforts of others around the world and, through their art and fandom, probably have more contact with far-flung corners of the metal omniverse, and thus everywhere, than most provincial citizens ever will, myself included.
            Being of the shut-in persuasion, I can appreciate the yokelism involved in writing impassioned opuses about the mountains and terrain right outside your door. I am all for forest-identified performers. Local color artists who may not stray far from the black and white paint on their palette, but who explore the possibilities of their limited repertoire to its fullest extent. I confess it can even make me a bit wistful. Or envious. My family has lived in New England for over four hundred years and I can’t say that I know the land very well. Or that I feel I have a claim on it, or am a part of it. On the island I now call home, the pinkletink is supposedly the herald that announces the arrival of spring in our region. I’m still not sure whether the pinkletink is a bird, a flower, or a frog. 
            There is a tradition being passed down to young Nordic and Slavic and Asian and Russian misanthropes who are also one-man bands; they are honoring that tradition in  their way and making something new and exciting out of it and learning about what makes their home unique. There is a freshness in even the most fumbling attempts to extract meaning from words and sounds and instruments that are, in some cases, thousands of years old. There is bravery in turning your back on modernity, even if only in song, and taking a walk in the woods.    

I am currently writing this in Newton, Massachusetts. Don’t ask me how I got here. I’m not a fan of the traffic patterns in the area, and the sprawl makes me grit my teeth. Familial warmth makes up for this, however. Not far from here is Brook Farm, that grand, doomed experiment in highbrow communal living where my great-great grandfather, as a boy, learned to use a printing press and be Transcendental in every little way. In America, too—where dissatisfaction with modern life runs neck and neck with our ability to create new and often useless things to fill our lives with—there is purple mountain majestic metal that thrives on the arcane—and, apparently, bird-watching. One-man forest rangers such as Sapthuran, Blood of the Black Owl, and Celestiial.
            Celestiial’s debut, Desolate North, on the tiny Bindrune label, is a psychedelic mélange of ambient forest hush, bird sounds, gently strummed guitar, and muffled, tortured cries. It’s a beautiful and unsettling journey. It would be practically New Age if it weren’t for the whole tortured cry thing.
            Blood of the Black Owl’s main man—when he isn’t harnessing masculine forest energy through funeral doom and wolf howls—has another group devoted to ritualistic drone-based pagan hypnotism. Ruhr Hunter celebrated its tenth anniversary with an elaborate box set that contains, along with a compact disc, moss and soil from the Pacific Northwest, ocean stones, crow feathers, mink bones and teeth, insects, branches, and white birch bark from the state of Maine! You know you want one.
            And what did you do to commemorate Ruhr Hunter’s tenth anniversary, hmmm? Plant a tree? Skin a mink?
            So many of these bands and artists have been digging the nature scene for so long; they have years and years of sorrow, beauty, and brutality under their belts and are content for the most part to be ignored by everyone except the metal faithful.     
            None of this music is new, of course. Just new twists on old designs. And, in my eyes anyway, a certain perfection of a form. It must also be understood that most of the new music I am so thrilled about is based on newer metal sub-genres such as technical death metal, funeral doom, black metal, and the like. Subgenres that came of age in the ’90s. There is an all-encompassing synthesis occurring today in music that blurs the line between what is metal and what is . . . art-rock, prog, folk. All manner of genres are being assaulted by musicians who made their name with metal, but who are expanding their sounds so fast and furiously that new labels are being created daily by trainspotting weirdos working feverishly to keep up with new developments. It is a heady age.

So far I’ve avoided any discussion of the extremely popular and densely populated power metal/symphonic metal/progressive fantasy metal genres that have likewise been experiencing boom times in recent years.. This is not because of any distaste on my part for these hirsute, virtuoso, Beowulf-gobbling, steed-riding proponents of all that is metal. Nay, it is only that these sons and daughters of the almighty Iron Maiden deserve their own lengthy scrolls to record their many deeds of valor. Germany alone counts more minions devoted to the exploits of Hammerfall, Blind Guardian, and Iced Earth than you could shake a hobbit’s walking stick at. God bless their obsessively melodramatic, triumphant hearts.
            Have you heard the new Therion album? Gothic Kabbalah? It’s a double-disc set devoted to the life and work of 17th-century mystic and runic scholar, Johannes Bureus. Yowza! Now we’re talking. But as ineffably righteous as all that swordplay is, the art that truly stirs my senses lies closer to earth. And is of this earth, in its own weird way. Not that it doesn’t also pay homage to what came before in the metallic realm. That is the honor and pleasure of all future metal musicians. Numerous folk-metal bands were inspired by the industrial neo-folk movement of the 1980s that involved people like Current 93, Death In June, Laibach, and Boyd Rice. Some of them, like morbid teens looking to shock, played with the totems and imagery of fascism and brown-shirt martialism.
            The influence of industrial noise-rockers Swans, in their head trauma–inducing youth as well as their later apocalyptic folk-music-to-end-all-folk-music phase, can never be underestimated. But the roots of folk and fantasy and cryptic messages from beyond in metal are as old as metal itself. Even older. Born of comic books; sci-fi; horror movies; sword & sorcery epics; Poe; Lovecraft (especially Lovecraft); the British invasion of Kinks, Who, Them, Stones, Pretty Things, Beatles, Yardbirds; the garage rock that followed; ersatz-mystical sitar psychedelia; “Nights In White Satin”; “A Whiter Shade Of Pale”; fairytale psych; blues myth appropriations and misappropriations; Coven; Black Widow; Black Sabbath’s iron man and wizard, and drug-dream fairies wearing boots (as a kid I was so perplexed by this song—a fairie wearing boots? How is that scary? What am I missing?); the folk revival; hippie folk; the folk-rock explosion; the progressive hard rock of High Tide, Hawkwind, and a thousand unwashed others from Magna Carta to Caravan to Gentle Giant to the Nice to Status Quo to Atomic Rooster to Jethro Tull to Lucifer’s Friend.
            And not least, of course, Led Zeppelin, who probably could have managed the whole “future of metal” thing by themselves (well, with a little help from Black Sabbath). Their unholy mix of hard proto-metal and exquisite UK folk is pretty much unmatched to this day. (That and their tight grooves and swing—two things that many people bemoan the lack of in current hard-ass bands).
            Which brings us to the ’80s and what would become the dominant sounds of today’s modern extreme metal. The new wave of British heavy metal, second generation UK punk, American hardcore punk, Venom, Trouble, Bathory, Slayer, Hellhammer, Celtic Frost, Metallica, Sodom, Kreator, Mercyful Fate, Voivod, and others would invent the future of black metal, death metal, grindcore, and doom—and they did it with a smile.
All of which brings us, lastly, to wolves. The early ’90s Norwegian explosion of black metal, that disharmonic din that tranformed a frosty, responsible nation seemingly overnight into a dark den for blasphemous church-burning nihilists, opened up the floodgates of creativity for a small group of outcasts and the metal world has never been the same. It certainly seemed as if death metal, which came into its own in the late ’80s, would be metal’s evolutionary success story for the ’90s as well.
            But black metal, so singlehandedly furious, more akin to the sounds of some avant-garde classical experiment in dissonant repetition and not so concerned at the time with death metal’s extreme levels of technical prowess, would prove to be a do-it-yourself catalyst for many who had the fever but who lacked the flavor. Norway’s Ulver were an early favorite, apart from the unholy trio of Darkthrone,  Mayhem, and Emperor.
            Ulver is the Norwegian word for “wolves,” and the band’s first three albums were a trilogy devoted to the concept of the wolf in man. Millions of people are at least subliminally aware of Ulver, since the poster for their lo-fi black-metal masterwork, Nattens Madrigal, was displayed for years on the wall of Anthony Soprano Jr’s bedroom on the popular HBO drama The Sopranos. Pretty tricky of whoever put it there. The wolf in man, get it?
            Ulver continue to confound and beguile audiences with everything from IDM and trip-hop-based soundtrack work, massively ambitious art rock, and other forays into the nether regions of experimental sound and vision. After the initial black metal albums they made their name with, they truly turned heads with a double-disc art-metal salute to William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. They are quirky, to say the least.
For our purposes it is the second album in their trilogy that is most important here. 1995’s Kveldssanger is a neo-classical work of plainsong, cello, and guitar, and has enriched everyone it touches to this day. It seems like half or more of the tender spirits involved in the making of modern folk-metal—in whatever way, shape, or form that music comes in—have been possessed by Ulver’s singular creation. And wolves have abounded ever since. Wolves, and woods, and ice, and snow, and more snow, and mountains, and blood, and wind, and gods, and even funny little trolls who drink too much beer in the Finnish forests. What a strange bunch. And yet how confident they are in their torment and fury and doubt and pride and growth and love of land and primitive ghosts.
            I leave the last words to Ulver, from their 1999 Metamorphosis EP, an experiment in techno-derived wooziness with words by Rimbaud and wolves ever on the mind, naturally.

"Note: Ulver is obviously not a black metal band and does not wish to be stigmatized as such. We acknowledge the relation of part I & III of the trilogie (Bergtatt & Nattens Madrigal) to this culture, but stress that these endeavors were written as stepping stones rather than conclusions. We are proud of our former instincts, but wish to liken our association with said genre to that of the snake with Eve. An incentive to further frolic only. If this discourages you in any way, please have the courtesy to refrain from voicing superficial remarks regarding our music and/or personae. We are as unknown to you as we always were."


Blogger j. sot said...

Thanks for this, Scott. Reading it posittively made my night where I thought I was just gonna sit here and stare at my walls in the darkness. Was it originally published in Decibel (or elsewhere)?

12:37 PM  
Blogger j. sot said...

OK, just reread your intro (duh). So never mind about the question.

12:40 PM  
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