Tag Archives: black metal

Sigh- Graveward

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I recently came across a Youtube video that helped me to articulate why it is that, ten years after its release, Metal Gear Solid 3 is still one of my favourite videogames ever, not just because it’s fun to play but because of its story and how it’s told. In it, the host explains how the game is a great example of camp entertainment, which earnestly attempts to convey an emotionally complex narrative and provoke thought about political questions, but also embraces the conventions of cheesy 60s spy flicks, and pits you against a man who shoots bees out of his mouth. It avoids the sometimes po-faced air of its predecessors, but the realistic and the ridiculous aspects are both presented equally straight-faced. We go in expecting mindless fun, and we get that in spades, but the game’s emotional moments are also more affecting because of the contrast with its sillier moments, and especially because the latter are treated with the same care, attention and seriousness as the former, not just tossed off as little “aren’t we clever” jokes.

What does all this have to do with veteran avant-garde metallers Sigh, then? Just like MGS3, the band’s music works as camp entertainment that is still genuinely enjoyable. They’re not deliberately trying to make you laugh with their over-the-top symphonic arrangements, or think “what the fuck is this?” when they take a bizarre detour into some unexpected genre, but for all their technical skill and conviction, their latest album Graveward does all of those things. Like other great metal bands, though, the camp factor is not a drawback, but a virtue. Whether you can take it seriously or not, the album sweeps you along for a ride that combines all the extremity of death and black metal with a strong melodic centre*. For all the occasionally comical vocal deliveries, its thematic obsession with death and the terror it inspires draws the listener in to actually listen to the lyrics and consider what they mean. For someone like me, who generally focuses more on metal’s wicked sick riffs than its often unintelligible vocals, that’s no mean feat. I would argue that, similarly to MGS3, Sigh use camp not to make audiences laugh, but to disarm their expectations about what heavy metal is and should sound like, so that the emotional and thematic content they want to convey has more of an impact.

Of course, labelling this music “camp” carries the implication of incompetence on some level, which is neither fair nor accurate. Sigh have always been tremendously skilled musicians, and ringleader Mirai Kawashima in particular has a gift for composition that few in extreme metal can match. I normally can’t stand power metal or the symphonic end of black metal at all, and yet when Sigh fold these influences into their sound it’s somehow irresistible. It’s not that the band make these touchstones sound less cheesy or ridiculous- they still are those things, they’re just welded to such strong melodies that they sound exuberant rather than pompous or laboured. Across the album Kawashima crafts songs that take you on a journey from dizzying symphonic highs to quiet, contemplative lows, the latter giving you space to breathe and prepare for the next burst of activity. The bridge halfway through the title track is a great example, building up from soft, spooky synths and somehow making subtle use of double-bass drumming before guitars come in to drag us back into the fray.

Speaking of guitars, special mention should be made of recent recruit You Oshima. Any wariness fans might have felt about some upstart replacing founding guitarist Shinichi Ishikawa has thankfully been proven unnecessary; Oshima fits perfectly into the Sigh milieu. From the very start of opener “Kaedit Non Pestis”, his shredding ability is on full display, and he proves equally adept at the melodic leads and chunky riffs littering every track, branching out beyond archetypal metal guitar sounds with a variety of tones to keep things fresh. More important than mere ability, however, is that he plays like he’s on a Sigh album, serving the needs of the song as opposed to just showing off. It’ll be interesting to see how his role in the band develops on future albums, but he’s definitely off to an assured start here.

Regardless of the band’s enviable pool of talent, Sigh has always been Mirai Kawashima’s baby: like any good bandleader, he knows how to make best use of his players, but the group’s vision is unquestionably his own. And what a gloomy vision it is. Sigh albums have long been fixated on death, but beginning with its title, Graveward seems especially so. If metal subgenres were defined by lyrical focus rather than increasingly rigid sonic identifiers, his work would be death metal through and through, and far more evocative of the terror of dying than a thousand gore-obsessed tryhards. Which is not to suggest that he treats the subject with more subtlety than others. “The Forlorn” is an especially morbid tale, with the narrator’s increasingly panicked proclamations that “I am not dead” attempting to deny an obvious truth as much as convince those around him. The track’s howls, wails and sobs are only the hammiest of many hammy vocal deliveries, and yet this camp treatment of the subject is, again, more affecting than death metal clichés of zombies, dismemberment or full-scale armageddon. The theatrics might suggest that we’re in parody territory, but this first-person horror is delivered without irony, no wink to the audience; the juxtaposition of seriousness and silliness is what makes it work so well. And while it might be Kawashima’s show, he’s not the only voice on display. Across the album, he’s offset by an increased use of vocalist/saxophonist Dr Mikannibal’s quasi-operatic singing, handling the high notes while he growls away. Her delivery might be something of an acquired taste, but it certainly fits the orchestral surroundings, and helps contrast Kawashima’s somewhat more typically metal vocals.

In terms of pacing, the album is a noticeable improvement on 2012’s In Somniphobia. That album featured a couple of the most concise and exciting songs of the band’s entire career, but was somewhat dragged down by a seven-song suite that, for all its strengths, got somewhat exhausting by the end of its 40-plus minutes. Graveward is lean by comparison, with most songs staying just over or under five minutes and only one exceeding seven. The sprawl is reduced, but not the scope- there’s still a lot going on in those shorter running times, with the same amount of bombast and excess as Somniphobia compressed into a more immediate form. Rather than stacking fast-paced thrashers one after the other, the pacing is more deliberate, with slower, moodier pieces and transitions to let us catch our breath before something like “Out of the Grave” takes it away again. The aforementioned breathing space in each song is represented on a macro as well as a micro level; the flow from song to song is reflected within the songs themselves. (The only real pacing issue, and the  only place Graveward fails compared to its predecessor is the abrupt ending to final track “Dwellers in Dreams”, which closes the affair not with a bang or a whimper, but a confused “huh?”)

Every review of Graveward I’ve seen has commented on its idiosyncratic production, and it seems important to do so here as well, since it does have the potential to affect your enjoyment quite a lot depending on how much it distracts you. There’s more dynamic range on display than a metal listener might be used to when the current emphasis seems to be on making everything as loud as possible. That seems like it should be a good thing, but at times it sounds as though the volume levels on different instruments are being mixed more or less at random, and the many, many layers of synths sometimes threaten to drown out everything else. There’a a wealth of musical riches to be found here, but they might not be evident on the first, second or third listen while you acclimatise yourself to the aural landscape.

If you’re not already a fan of the band’s funhouse-mirror version of extreme metal, Graveward is not going to be the album to change your mind, particularly if the production puts you off. For those of us strangely drawn to the camp, theatrical musical world they create though, all of that is what makes them so compelling. For better or worse, no one else sounds like Sigh.

Graveward is out now on Candlelight Records. Watch the video for “Out of the Grave” below.

 

                           

* After struggling for a while to come up with an appropriate description for Sigh’s particular microgenre, I’ve ending up settling on “videogame metal”. Since bringing more and more outre elements into their original, traditionally black metal sound with every album, they now recall nothing more than the soundtrack to a Final Fantasy game from an alternate universe where that series hasn’t descended into self-parody.

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Bölzer, the swastika and ill-advised reclamation

Like most things in life, I caught on late to Bölzer, the Swiss death/black metal duo whose music has been received rapturously by metal critics over the last year or so. But having listened to a track off their soon-to-be-released Soma EP, I quickly came to the conclusion that the hype was justified. With a teeming, overwhelming sound for a two-piece, aided by refreshingly naturalistic, analogue production, both of the band’s short releases to date show a lot of promise, at times bringing to mind a version of Blut Aus Nord that favours direct bursts of aggression over long-form experimentation. It’s little wonder that these recordings, and a smattering of well-received live shows, have metal sites the world over eagerly awaiting a full album.

But, given recent events involving other underground bands who turned out to hold extremist views, a part of me was cautious about becoming too enthusiastic. What if this group, too, had some skeletons in their closet? In an extreme metal world that more often than not fails to adequately defend against the infiltration of dangerous far right ideology, this caution is not always excessive.

And then, last night, I came across an interview with the band on Stereogum that seemed as though it might confirm some of these fears. Among various other topics, interviewer Kim Kelly questioned guitarist/singer Okoi Jones (aka KzR) about tattoos of his depicting swastikas, as well as other symbols used by ancient religions. I have excerpted the relevant passages below:

STEREOGUM: I have one more question. I wanted to talk about your tattoos, specifically the swastikas and sunwheels. I know you and I know what you’re about, but not everyone who sees you play has that background. I want to just get it all out there before anyone sees a picture of you and makes assumptions. So. What’s up with the swastikas?

KzR: Please, I’m very happy you asked me because only a few people have asked me in interviews and I’m more than happy to tell people because I don’t want to be misunderstood. My sunwheels, my swastikas, my whatever you call them, it’s an ancient symbol used by basically every culture on this planet at some time or another for more or less the same reason, to express their adoration for the sun, the solar power. Most of them were sun-worshipping peoples, or held respect for the balance of the sun. It’s also a lunar symbol in itself for the sun cultures. Its right or left form reversed is a lunar symbol, too, and it’s a female as well as a male symbol; it represents a lot of different energies. It’s a continuum, it can be a destructive force, it takes a lot of natural philosophies into one. If you read about it, it’s really fascinating.

(…)

STEREOGUM: It also recently dawned on me that the title of your much-loved song “Entranced By The Wolfshook” is actually referencing the wolf’s hook symbol, which has got a very heavy history of usage by the Nazis as well as in Hermann Löns’ book Der Wehrwolf and by forestry workers in Germany. You even incorporate the wolf’s hook into the Bölzer logo itself. Can you tell me why you decided to highlight that particular symbol?

KzR: Indeed, man’s lusting for power is as a wolf’s for meat … often leading to self destruction. For us the wolf’s hook, or Wolfsangel, is one of the many symbols of antiquity to become caustically stigmatized as a result of their usage within a fascist-era Europe, something we are soberingly aware of but do not condone. Enough systematic cultural lobotomization has taken place in the past to make any such further demonization of values and symbolism acceptable within a modern and supposedly tolerant society. We promote the growth and enlightenment of the individual, the last thing on our agenda would be to glorify the implements of power involved in the collective enslavement of a people and their individualism. Fascism and racism in that sense are pretty unattractive for us.

Given my previous writing on another band’s association with Nazism and related imagery, some readers might expect that I would be quick to similarly label Jones a neo-Nazi as well. In this case, however, I am not entirely sure that this is so- at least, not yet. It is true that a white person with tattoos of a symbol that has come to be associated with perhaps the world’s most infamous fascist regime is extremely suspicious. The dig at “modern and supposedly tolerant society” also rings at least a couple of alarm bells- it does not seem to come from a position critiquing the hypocrisy of modern capitalist societies which preach the rhetoric of tolerance while still remaining fundamentally unequal and white supremacist in nature. And despite Jones’ proclamation that his band favours individualism over the collectivism of fascist ideologies, and the implication that they are therefore opposed to Nazism, this could be merely a cover for the truth. As contradictory as it seems, the rhetoric of individualism is not always incompatible with fascism, as can be seen in the phenomenon of libertarian types allying or forging ideological links with far-right movements. Certainly, his explanation comes off better than the infamously incoherent equivocation offered by Inquisition’s Jason Weirbach when asked whether he was a neo-Nazi– it would be hard to come up with something worse. But this could simply indicate that Jones is better at hiding his true beliefs than Weirbach.

Nonetheless, I do not think there is conclusive evidence here to declare with reasonable certainty that Okoi Jones is a white supremacist or a neo-Nazi. While there was at least one eyewitness account of the fascist views of Inquisition’s members to add to the evidence of Nazi and anti-semitic imagery and allusions in that band and its associated side projects, nothing similar has yet appeared in relation to Bölzer, at least as far as I am aware. As such, the possibility remains that the band’s leader may be “merely” extremely ignorant of the swastika’s impact, and genuinely (if misguidedly) attempting to “reclaim” the symbol’s older meaning. While I remain skeptical of Jones’ explanation and half-expect to hear more questionable statements in future, I am not yet prepared to suggest that we shun the band immediately.

This does not mean, however, that the best case scenario- that Jones is extremely misguided, rather than an outright fascist- is a harmless one. The fact remains that, in spite of its thousands of years of use in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, as well as in ancient Europe, the swastika is mostly associated in present-day Europe and North America with Nazism and other fascist and far-right movements. It is extremely unlikely that its appearance in a tattoo on a white person will be taken as anything other than support for those movements and their associated violence against marginalised peoples, given the white supremacist views that lurk in such circles.  The Third Reich’s heinous crimes are not even a century old; it seems impossible to hope that isolated efforts to detoxify or reclaim the symbol they appropriated will have any effect after such a short time. And if such a reclamation were to be attempted, it seems far more appropriate that it would be spearheaded by the religious movements who used it in the past* than by people in a musical subculture which has a frankly shameful record in terms of combating the sort of ideology that corrupted the symbol’s meaning in the first place.

As such, regardless of whatever Jones’ intentions are, his usage of an ancient symbol tainted by fascist ideology and its accompanying brutality cannot hope to achieve what he seems to want them to. His championing of individualism in the Stereogum interview leads me to believe that he would fervently disagree with this view, perhaps claiming that his personal motives and interpretations of the symbols should override what others would assume based on what they see (and I’ve no doubt that commenters on this piece will offer similar defences). Unfortunately, I am not swayed by these arguments, which seem to imply a person’s intentions have the magical ability to erase any harm that might arise from their actions. Like it or not, when used in the form of a tattoo on a person who looks like Jones, the swastika is likely to mean only one thing to a survivor of the Holocaust, or to a member of any group targeted by contemporary fascists. Even if his intentions genuinely are to use this symbol in a way entirely unrelated to fascism, history looms larger than our individual desires.


* The swastika is, of course, still frequently used throughout Asia, where its association with the region’s religions is stronger than the taint of Nazism. It should go without saying that this cultural context is vastly different from the situation in Europe, and that any talk of reclamation applies primarily to areas where the symbol is still a reminder of a horrific regime and the crimes it committed.

Mortals- Cursed to See the Future

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Back in the earliest days of heavy music, little or no attention was paid to exact genre classification. “Heavy metal” wasn’t really self-applied as a descriptor by bands until well into the 70s; the terms was used more or less interchangeably with “hard rock” and others to describe a wide variety of groups from Bad Company to Black Sabbath. In an era of intense internet debates over whether a group plays blackened death metal or deathened black metal, this application of blanket terminology seems quaint. And yet, five decades in, the rich, divergent history of metal subgenres is being amalgamated and hybridised, with previously impermeable lines of classification being blurred. More and more groups take influence from so many different areas of the metal map that precise classification seems pointless; it’s easier to throw up your hands and say “it’s just metal“.

Into this category I would place the New York trio Mortals, whose second full-length Cursed to See the Future boils down decades of metal history into a potent, distilled form. An easy, if somewhat lazy, description of the band might be as a kind of black metal version of High on Fire, where that group’s blend of sludgy, Celtic Frost-inspired riffs is augmented by the addition of blastbeats, tremolo picking and shrieked vocals. But that undersells the wide variety of terrain their latest release covers. The majority of these songs stretch out to eight or nine minutes, packing in innumerable riffs but pacing them with space to breathe as well. “Epochryphal Gloom” is a prime example, building slowly from deliberately-paced, portentous bass, the tempo and intensity climbing gradually until all hell breaks loose. Here and on other jams, the breakneck sprints are separated with lurching doom stomps and swinging half-time breaks, the pace constantly shifting but always remaining under masterful control. Drummer Caryn Havlik skilfully alternates between blastbeats and patterns which almost recall hardcore. Singer/bassist Lesley Wolf’s playing isn’t particularly prominent in the mix, but her hoarse, rasping vocals are delivered with 100% conviction, and fit their musical backdrop perfectly. Guitarist Elizabeth Cline steers clear of flashy soloing in order to instead punctuate the riffage with melodic leads- the outro of final track “Anchored in Time”, in particular, brings to mind a swaggering 80s metal riff filtered through the Mortals lens. It’s not exactly a triumphant, soaring finale, but it does offer a brief respite from the otherwise dark mood of the rest of the record, piercing the gloom with a ray of light.

You could argue, not inaccurately, that Mortals aren’t really doing anything new here. It takes skill and effort to blend so many influences into a coherent whole, and to perform the result with energy and passion, but it’s not exactly the same thing as creating something entirely original. This seems like nit-picking, though, when this innovation deficit is felt throughout the metal world, and when the band’s output is this much fun to listen to. Cursed to See the Future might not going to change your world, but it’s near-impossible to listen to without banging your head, throwing the horns and offering the invisible oranges to the gods.

Cursed to See the Future is released on the 8th of July through Relapse Records. Check out Mortals’ Bandcamp here, or listen to the album’s first track “View From a Tower” below.


Inquisition and black metal’s fascism problem: clarification and follow-up

UPDATE 05/05/2014- added link to Daniel Gallant’s interview in Decibel to footnotes

Since the piece I published on Monday, in which I supported claims that the band Inquisition are neo-Nazis, has received the most response out of any of article I’ve written on this blog*, I figured it deserved a follow-up. I’d like to discuss some of the fallout, and clarify some things I feel I didn’t articulate well enough in the original post.

First, readers who’ve not already seen it will probably be interested in Inquisition singer/guitarist Dagon (aka Jason Weirbach)’s response to the claims in this piece by Decibel. I have to wonder if Decibel seriously thought Dagon would answer the question “are you a Nazi?” by saying “yes, yes I am. Buy all of our albums and merchandise!”, but either way it gives you a chance to hear the accused’s side of events. It probably goes without saying that I treat his explanation with extreme scepticism. In a statement on the band’s Facebook page prior to this article’s release, Dagon tried to claim that his ethnic heritage means he can’t be a white supremacist (“I have half latin roots so use common sense”), and in the Decibel piece claims that Antichrist Kramer, the head of the Satanic Skinhead Propaganda label that is infamous for releasing music by openly anti-Semitic or white supremacist bands, can’t be a white supremacist himself because he has worked with a Mexican band. This argument, a close cousin of the “but I have black friends!” defence against racism, was also proposed in the comments to my initial blog, and I’ve already responded to it there, but felt I should do so again here.

I think it is dangerously limited to conceive of white supremacists as Dagon does in the Decibel piece, as “a person who views their race—white—as supreme, and will not associate, absolutely, with no other race of any kind, other than his own race, which in this case would be white.” This is an historically inaccurate view that allows existing racists off the hook. As Daniel Gallant, the former white supremacist who I quoted in the previous piece, puts it: “Right wing extremists who are neo-Nazi do often have non-white alliances with others who share anti-Semitic beliefs and views. This was also true for the German WWII regime, who had non-Aryan alliances. There is a public misconception about what right wing extremist and or terrorists are, and what they are not.”** It would be extremely difficult for a bigot to avoid any dealings with people they consider inferior to them; there are many cases where bigots have friendships with members of the groups they generally despise, either for show to “prove” their lack of bigotry, or if they feel that person is “one of the good ones”. Tactical alliances with those who share their views are also not uncommon: I doubt the Third Reich thought much of the non-Aryan government of Imperial Japan, but it did not stop them allying together in World War II. It is all too common for members of marginalised groups to buy into prejudice against other groups, or to accept the white supremacist views that still linger in the unconscious as a result of colonialism. Anti-semitism among South American black metal bands, for instance, is not unheard of. White supremacists such as Kramer may well be willing to ally with people they consider inferior to them, if they share ideological similarities.

I’d also like to address the various responses to my original article that accused me of being self-righteous, a member of the PC leftist social justice thought police, or even a bigger fascist than the neo-Nazis and white supremacists I discussed, because I suggested people avoid listening to a band if they are suspected of ascribing to dangerous, hate-fuelled ideologies. (It’s odd that so many responders seemed so confused on what a fascist actually is when I provided a link to Umberto Eco’s concise set of defining characteristics.) I already explained in the original piece why I consider fascism and white supremacist ideology especially dangerous, so I’m not going to repeat myself here. I do think I could have articulated my position on this better though, so I’ll attempt to do so.

I personally chose to stop listening to Inquisition’s music when I came to the conclusion they were likely neo-Nazis. Because I consider it a bad idea to give financial support to fascists, white supremacists etc, I advised readers of the previous blog on this subject to stop paying for the band’s albums, T-shirts and other merchandise. However, I realise that even people who hate fascism will not all want to stop listening to a band they enjoy if the musicians responsible might be involved with fascism. I cannot police what people listen to, and despite what several commenters asserted, I don’t wish to. So if people continue to listen to Inquisition via downloads or streaming services, I’m not going to tell them not to do this, or give them shit for it. Looking back at the original blog post, I realise I may not have articulated this clearly enough, and given the impression that I expected everyone to make the same choice about Inquisition’s music that I did.

I can’t entirely deny that my position is a self-righteous one. I did make the choice to stop listening partly out of shame at having praised and supported a band with an ideology I consider harmful. It is on some level an attempt to absolve myself. But it’s a personal choice, and not one I expect others to make as well. There are those who I suspect realise this on some level, and have an intensely hostile reflex against anything they interpret as telling them to limit their intake of art that others consider offensive or harmful. I suspect it’s that reflex that led them to label me the thought police, a “PC SJW fascist” or whatever else. But my suggestion is only made in the context of fascist, Nazi and white supremacist artists, who I consider to be dangerous enough that I don’t want to support them in any way. If you don’t believe that Inquisition are neo-Nazis, or if you don’t believe that fascist ideologies are harmful, then I will likely not be able to convince you otherwise. If that is the case, my suggestions don’t apply to you, and you’re welcome to ignore them. Just don’t expect me to take your position seriously, or to respond to your arguments in the comments section. Since you don’t take my argument seriously, that seems entirely fair to me.

                                 

*Seriously, where were all of you when I wrote about how metal could benefit from engaging with intersectional feminism? There’s like 10,000 words on that subject, there’s bound to be something there for you to get irate about and call me a PC thought police fascist for!

** Gallant has told me that Decibel have offered to interview him about this issue as well, and that he has agreed to do so. If this interview does materialise I will edit this article to link to it. UPDATE 05/05/2014: the Decibel interview with Gallant can be read here. I think he sets out his point very well- I could quote half of what he says, but this line in particular resonates with me: The metal that I used to listen to is about challenging the system and the powers that be – not becoming more like them. We don’t want to become abusers or oppressors. I never thought that was the point of metal.” Given that we still live in a society that is institutionally racist (even if very few are outright, open white supremacists), how exactly is it rebellious or challenging the status quo to tolerate music made by white supremacists?

Inquisition and black metal’s fascism problem

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It was only at the end of last year that I became aware of US black metal band Inquisition, thanks to the appearance of their latest album Obscure Verses for the Multiverse on numerous critics’ end-of-year lists. Upon first listening, the main things that struck me included the oddly croaky, reptilian voice of singer/guitarist Jason Weirbach (aka Dagon), as well as the fact that all the songs sounded quite samey, given the ubiquity of their monolithic assemblage of thick riffs and relentless blastbeats. Quickly though, I grew to appreciate the band’s unique sound, and delved further into their back catalogue. This did lead me to develop some concerns about their material, the song “Crush the Jewish Prophet” from Magnificent Glorification of Lucifer being the most obvious example. If the song was an anti-Christian critique in the black metal tradition, as it appeared to be based on its lyrics, why was it necessary to centre Jesus’ ethnicity in the title, unless the band felt this too was something to criticise? But, caught up in the music, I didn’t worry too much about this.

Until, that is, I saw a thread concerning the band on a friend’s Facebook page earlier this month. It was here that a man named Daniel Gallant, formerly a white supremacist himself, called Inquisition’s members (Weirbach and drummer Thomas Stevens, aka Incubus) out as Nazis. When asked to elaborate on this, he stated the following:

“I was a white supremacist for many years. I have been out for twelve years. I drove the bus for an Inquisition tour. When I suspected they were white power, because I was driving for my friends band Gyibaaw, a First Nations band, I decided to prove it.

I pulled off my t shirt and there it was…my giant swastika for them all to see…they clapped and cheered…Inquisition (both Tom and Jason) were thrilled.

They boasted about their admiration for Hitler, how they loved the white power movement, and had many friends from South America and Everett, Washington…turns out we had mutual acquaintances. Tom used to hang out with the World Church of the Creator and still boasts his admiration for the church. Jason boldly stated he loves imagining living in the Nazi era and wished that would happen in America. They ranted until I shut them down.

The band Gyibaaw were grossly offended to the point of backing away from the black metal scene because of it.”

I realise that not all readers will be convinced by the personal testimony of one individual. It is a known fact, however, that the band has associated with the white supremacist Antichrist Kramer, commissioning him to create artwork for the 2010 reissue of their first full length album Into the Infernal Regions of the Ancient Cult. Kramer has been deeply involved in the National Socialist black metal movement, putting out music by openly white supremacist and/or anti-Semitic groups on his label Satanic Skinhead Propaganda (as documented in this article). It seems unlikely that Inquisition’s members would be unaware of his leanings, or that they would associate with him unless they were sympathetic to his beliefs*.

Sadly, this kind of ideological association is not unheard of within metal, especially black metal. The subgenre has long been a hotbed for reactionary political viewpoints, perhaps because of the anti-modern standpoint many of its bands employ, its reverence for “paganism” and other traditionally-minded cultural trends that have also been co-opted by fascists, and the reactionary nature of not only its ideological position but also its musical form. The Second Wave of black metal started, after all, as a reaction against death metal, with many bands deliberately hearkening back to earlier forms of metal and forsaking technique and polished production in favour of a “primitive” sound. It’s not surprising that this inclination would also create room for fascist ideology to spread- both spring from a reaction against modernity, as elucidated in point 2 of Umberto Eco’s analysis of the uniting ideology of fascist movements here.

Despite knowing about this trend within black metal, however, it was still an unpleasant shock to discover that a band I enjoyed subscribed to fascism. My immediate reaction was a feeling of shame, and anger at myself for not having investigated the group’s background. In the past I had made it a point to avoid music created by neo-Nazis or white supremacists, even in cases like Burzum where people insisted the music was good even if band leader Varg Vikernes was a virulent bigot. I smugly stuck to the position that I wouldn’t listen to Nazis’ music because it was shit anyway, the product of idiotic skinheads who could barely string two chords together. But this was confounded by Inquisition’s technically adept, well-written and well-recorded output. I had been simplifying reality to fit my own preconceptions.

More than anger at my self, though, I felt angry that the band’s fascist leanings were not more widely known. This is a group that has gained increasing media attention in recent years, their latest album having been reviewed in mainstream publications such as Pitchfork, but as far as I can tell metal journalists have yet to seriously question Inquisition on their views or their links to open white supremacists like Antichrist Kramer. How hard would it have been for the interviewer in this Invisible Oranges article, for example, to seriously interrogate Weirbach about the message of “Crush the Jewish Prophet”, instead of just accepting his equivocation? Do these writers not care about the expression of bigoted views, as long as they like the music? It’s hard to escape the conclusion that they don’t.

Even though I hadn’t paid for any of their music,  I didn’t want to support Inquisition in any way after finding out about their Nazi sympathies. I eventually decided to delete them from my music library and stop listening to them entirely. I do still find myself asking whether this was necessary. Fascist or white supremacist rhetoric is not central to their message or lyrics, which tend instead to focus on the conventional black metal concern of Satanism as expressed through astrological and cosmological imagery. Perhaps the band is canny enough to realise that openly expressing their views would limit their appeal or get them into trouble; perhaps they ascribe to the wider metal world’s liberal conviction that music is no place for politics. In any case, I usually hold to the idea that it’s OK to enjoy art and media with problematic elements, or which has been created by objectionable or even bigoted artists, as long as we acknowledge those problems and don’t shut down criticism of them. But for me, personally, a line has to be drawn somewhere. Art created by Nazis, fascists and/or white supremacists is on the side of the line I do not wish to set foot in.

This is not what I would consider a hypocritical position. Fascist ideology- insofar as it is a coherent ideology- is inherently violent in a way other political alignments are not, rooted in the rhetoric of destroying any element of society deemed undesirable. As Eco notes, diversity is conceptualised in fascism as a symptom of modernist decadence; and since fascism worships action for action’s sake and violent struggle as an inherent part of life, Nazi or white supremacist movements are ideologically driven to commit violence against members of any group outside their own. While the rhetoric of neo-Nazis and/or white supremacists within black metal is often mainly focused against Jewish people, it is naive to think that violence will be used solely against one group if this rhetoric is tolerated, especially when hatred of marginalised groups such as people of colour, LGBT people and disabled people is accepted even within mainstream society. Even a band like Inquisition that doesn’t openly espouse fascist rhetoric can still cause harm to members of persecuted groups. Gallant’s story shows how Weirbach and Stevens’ open expression of admiration for the Nazis led to the First Nations band Gyibaaw turning away from black metal, closing the door on an opportunity for that group to counter the genre’s overwhelmingly white demographic and tendency to champion or tolerate extreme right views. If we give our money to musicians with fascist leanings, we don’t just support them financially, we send a message to them that their extreme views will not cause them to be criticised, that their views are therefore acceptable. The same act also sends the message to minority groups that we care more about music than about making sure that fascist and white supremacist ideologies are not tolerated or allowed to spread. In a sense, we choose our own enjoyment over people’s safety, over their right to live free from fear of ideologies that call for their destruction.

I urge anyone who cares about making metal a space which is open to and safe for marginalised groups of people to, at the very least, abstain from paying for Inquisition’s albums or live shows. I wouldn’t want to force anyone to stop listening to the band’s music entirely as I have done; this is obviously a matter of personal choice. But please do consider whether it is worth it to add to the popularity of a band that holds these views- not just Inquisition, but any band in black metal or the wider genre who subscribes to fascist, white supremacist or Nazi standpoints. There’s enough excellent music out there being made by musicians who do not align themselves with dangerous, hate-fuelled ideologies.

                                       

* It is also worth noting that Inquisition’s Jason Weirbach runs a side project titled 88MM. In the simple alphanumeric cypher that passes for a secret code among neo-Nazi groups, this number represents the letters HH, or “Heil Hitler”.

Dawa Drolma- XI MMXIII

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As I mentioned in my last post, most of my prior reviews here have focused on fairly mainstream releases (as much as there is a “mainstream” in extreme metal). I thought I’d start to redress that balance by highlighting the latest, extremely limited release from an artist I’ve had the good fortune to become acquainted with in recent weeks: Portland, Oregon musician Zareen Katherine Price.

Working under the pseudonym Dawa Drolma, Price has unleashed a slew of splits, demos and EPs over the past year. Mostly released on extremely small runs of cassette tapes (though also available via Bandcamp), these projects have covered a wide swath of the extreme musical spectrum, while also incorporating more reflective, melodic influences; the pensive acoustic collection Chasms, under the project name Complin, is one of my favourites in the latter vein.

With the latest entry in her MMXIII series of cassettes, though, Price focuses more on crushing listeners under foot. XI showcases one song each by her heavy projects Gulag (death metal or “war metal”, a genre tag I’m still unsure as to the meaning of) and Cronesmoon (avant-garde black metal). These divergent strands of extremity allow Price to show off her versatility and musical prowess to the fullest (she performs everything bar drums on both pieces). The vocals for each song are perhaps the biggest point of difference: the bottom-of-the-throat growls on Gulag’s “Icosahedral Keys to the Fleshly Gate” and the howling rasp of Cronesmoon’s “Sister Tongues of Rain” are both deployed with equal aplomb. The former employs halting, stop-start dynamics, building up a head of steam through barrelling riffs only to come to a sudden halt, to ratchet up the listener’s unease and tension. Cronesmoon employs similar dynamics when switching between passages, but the focus here is more on high-register tremolo-picked figures, separated by an anxious-sounding bridge about a minute and a half in.

There’s continuity, though, in the lo-fi production on both pieces, which enhances the menacing, dark feeling without descending into unlistenability. The Cronesmoon song is particularly well-done, with raw and stripped-down guitars that are nonetheless much fuller than the thin, needling sound often associated with underground black metal. The elliptical lyrics Price wrote for each song also share the same poetic sensibility. Nothing is spelled out, and nothing needs to be- the point is to draw your own conclusions from enigmatic metaphors like “My word is erased/with spit and stone/Hollowed and cleaned/like an egg emptied of yolk” (“Icosahedral”) and “the sky speaks to me through the earth/rolling her tongues across my skin” (“Sister Tongues of Rain”). As fun as Death Metal English can be at times, it’s refreshing to hear words that revel in ambiguity welded to musical extremity.

XI is just one of the many strong, forward-thinking releases put out under the Dawa Drolma name this year. Even if you’re unable to obtain one of the extremely limited physical copies of this series, I’d urge my readers to at least check it out in digital form, and consider supporting an underground artist who deserves much, much more attention.

Check out the XI MMXIII release here, or visit the Dawa Drolma Bandcamp page to listen to more of Zareen’s work. 

Skeletonwitch- Serpents Unleashed

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In my first post for this blog, I briefly touched on the retro thrash revival of the mid-2000s, in the context of discussing a backwards-looking tendency in metal that seems more focussed on honouring the genre’s roots than in forging new paths for it to explore. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with bands like Municipal Waste updating the music they loved as teenagers with a shot of humour and good-time party attitude. It’s just that, for me personally, it’s more satisfying to hear bands that can meld more than one foundational sound. If it’s not entirely original, at least constructing these hybrids involves a bit more creativity than simply emulating your old favourites.

Athens, Ohio titans Skeletonwitch fit firmly into the latter category. As ably demonstrated on their latest album Serpents Unleashed, they are fully capable of blending elements from across the metal spectrum into an entirely satisfying whole. There are echoes of thrash in the hook-laden riffs and zippy tempos; flashes of black metal, most notably in Chance Garnette’s rasped vocals and the blastbeats that accentuate the faster passages; and even flashes to early 80s NWOBHM in the melodic solos and twin guitar harmonies.

By this point in the band’s career everybody’s playing is beyond tight. Guitarists Nate Garnette and Scott Hedrick are as comfortable with chugging rhythm lines as with their flashy, but always catchy leads. Dustin Boltjes pounds the skins with aplomb, never dominating the sound or getting overly technical, but still showing off his speed and chops where appropriate. And considering that bass is still all too often neglected by thrash and black metal groups, it’s a delight to hear four-stringer Evan Linger’s fluid, melodic runs prominently in the mix. Check out the solo in “Burned From Bone”, posted below, for an especially skilled example of how the low end can complement guitar heroics without muddying the sound.

While this is a strong release all round, further distilling Skeletonwitch’s signature sound into another 30-minute banger, you could nitpick that it’s far from a quantum leap over the band’s previous output. Things are perhaps sharper, more focused than prior releases, but it’s still well within the sonic parameters the band established for themselves early on. Every song fits into the three-minute rager category, bar a hushed intro to the closer “More Cruel Than Weak” before all hell breaks loose.

It might seem odd given my earlier comments on traditionalism and bands stepping outside their comfort zone, but I’m OK with all of that. Not every metal band has to do the revolutionary work of mapping out the genre’s future. If Skeletonwitch are content to keep cranking out variations on their well-honed, razor-sharp thrash/black hybrid, I’m content to listen to them. If you’re going to stick to what you know best, you may as well be in complete mastery of that formula. On Serpents Unleashed, the band prove their mastery is still unquestionable.

“Serpents Unleashed” is released October 29th on Prosthetic Records.