Wednesday, June 30, 2010

July 2010 Metal Preview

I thought I'd take today to discuss some upcoming metal releases and what I think about them before they're in my hands.

Out July 2 in Europe and July 13 in the US, melodic death metal superstars Soilwork give us The Panic Broadcast. This is one of the very first death metal groups I got into (partly because they're so accessible, as death metal goes), and they're still one of my favorites. In an interview, returning guitarist Peter Wichers stated, "I think that we're probably going to try to do stuff that might be a little more technical. We want to keep the element of the catchy chorus but at the same time maybe have bit more guitar solos than on Sworn to a Great Divide . . . ." I can't even tell you how much I want this album.

Jørn Lande will be releasing a tribute to the late, great Ronnie James Dio, called Dio. It comes out on the 2nd in Europe and the 27th in the US. It's not as if he's capitalizing on Dio's death or anything (nobody could record and release an album that fast). In fact, it's been in the works for over a year. It includes covers of Dio's Sabbath, solo, and Rainbow work, as well as one original song. I'm really looking forward to this one, though I'm not sure how much even a great singer like Jørn can add to the greatness of Dio.

Korn III - Remember Who You AreJuly 13 is when Korn III: Remember Who You Are lands. I was extremely disappointed with their untitled album, but other than that I have been a fan for a very long time. I find the chatter about it to be promising, and the title seems to be an attempt to pretend everything from Follow the Leader to the present never happened. That older stuff is certainly their best, so I'm going to hope for the best.

Christian deathcore band Impending Doom is releasing their third on the 20th, There Will Be Violence. I already had last year's The Serpent Servant, and this is really good stuff. I'm aware that deathcore is a bit of a fad right now, but these guys are near the top of the game.

Avenged Sevenfold is coming out with a new one. I could not possibly care any less. Their musicianship is good, and at least they're driven by a strong lead guitar, but I can't stand the vocals or the songs (outside of some of the leads). This one is strictly for teenagers.

Ah, Gloria Morti. They're an obscure blackened melodic death metal band from Finland. You read that right. Normally, when you mix black and death, you just get the more straightforward blackened death metal, like Behemoth. But these guys make stuff that is brutal and beautiful. Their 2004 debut Lifestream Corrosion proves that, I can attest, thought I don't yet have Eryx from 2008. Anthems of Annihilation comes out on the 30th, and I can't wait.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010


You can read a well-stated and rational opinion on Burzum's Varg Vikernes here. Most people seem to miss the real point.

Ikuinen Kaamos: Fall of Icons (2010) Review

Ikuinen Kaamos is a progressive death metal band from Finland. I picked up their 2010 release Fall of Icons not too long ago.

Their name translates roughly as "never-ending uncanny," and while some people would think their epic song lengths (7:46 to 16:43) are never-ending, the sound is not all that uncanny. That is, unless "uncanny" is meant to say that they sound uncannily like Opeth. The resemblance is not just in their vocal style and guitar tones, but even in their riffs and solos. They're not complete ripoffs, though, as the clean vocals are different and they also include some black metal style vocals. Well, that's really the only way they distinguished themselves from the Swedish greats.

They don't live up to the standard set by Opeth, as you might expect. Many people deride progressive metal because, they claim, it puts the progressive elements before compelling songwriting. If you've ever thought that yourself, this album is probably not for you. A side-by-side comparison to any Opeth album will obviously show that those Swedes can do both, but these Finns suffer in the songwriting category.

The songwriting problem is not so much in the riffs themselves, but in the progression of the songs. Any given riff is interesting enough, but the way they get from that riff to the next one is forgettable, and there are no overarching themes to unify the song into a cohesive whole.

The Verdict: Like I said, it sounds mostly like an Opeth ripoff. That might not be such a bad thing. But because they constantly make you think about that similarity, it constantly reminds you of how it doesn't live up to the excellence of that band. Just the same, even a bad version of Opeth isn't all that bad. I give the album 2 out of 5 stars.

You'll probably want to check out their 2008 EP Closure before you decide to buy this one--it's FREE on their web site.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Dirtfedd: The American Nightmare (2009) Review

I mentioned Dirtfedd a while back as I was first researching metal bands from my home state of Nebraska. They are from Lincoln, and I've lived in Lincoln or within 30 miles of it for the last decade--but I don't really do the whole "scene" thing, so I hadn't heard them until recently.

They are a metalcore band with some industrial influences, the use of a keyboard slightly setting them apart from the droves of other groups in the genre (I understand a lot of them are trying this now, but this is the first I've heard it). I'd say the music is mostly a combination of Hatebreed and Slipknot, but influences from other mainstream hard rock/metal groups like Disturbed and Avenged Sevenfold are there too. They are as heavy, angry, and hardcore-influenced as Hatebreed, but have a lot more musicality to their sound, so it doesn't end up idiotic like Hatebreed.

The album starts out fairly strong, and mostly in the Hatebreed vein, with "Salute". The chorus "Drink! Fight! F***! Salute!" should tell you the attitude there. The next few tracks are also decent, and more musical. They take a bad turn on tracks 6, 7, and 8 ("Tonight", "Here I Am", and "Shotgun Romance"), which are way too A7X-sounding for me; I've had enough of modern rock radio, thank you. The album finishes a bit stronger after that, though, so they make up for it a little.

The Verdict: Their style is sometimes better than your average mainstream metalcore, but there's also a lot of crap on the album. I give it 2 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Defining Metal

Is AC/DC a metal band? Is Slipknot? What about Alice in Chains?

There has been no shortage of discussion over the topic of what heavy metal is, and what it isn't, and which band is or is not metal. Spurred in part by a lively discussion at Metallattorney, I will attempt to define metal music.

If scientists can argue over whether two animal populations are the same species, or whether Pluto should be a planet, then it should come as no surprise that an artistic endeavor will fail to have a comprehensive, objective classification system. But that's fine; some gray area is to be expected, and blurring the lines will often lead to evolution of the genre. Without evolution there is only stagnation and eventual demise.

I will propose two basic characteristics which define metal, and explore each of them in some detail, before taking on certain controversial topics within this ongoing argument.

The First Criterion

To explore the definition of metal, we must go to its roots. At some point, people decided the term "hard rock" was not adequate to describe certain new music. A few will argue Steppenwolf was the first heavy metal band, in 1968, being the first group to use the words "heavy metal" in a hard rock song. A few more will argue it was Deep Purple in 1968, or Led Zeppelin in 1969. But only a metal outsider would claim any of those is metal.

Black Sabbath Any metalhead with a lick of intelligence and an even rudimentary grasp on music history will tell you the genre was born in 1970 with Black Sabbath. The sound was born from a combination of blues and psychedelic rock. It had nothing at all to do with hard rock until shortly later, when Deep Purple began to incorporate Sabbath influence into their hard rock.

With two albums released in 1970, Black Sabbath created something different. This new thing was heavy metal, a genre named from the lyrics of a hard rock song.

The next band which is universally identified as a metal band is Judas Priest. They had the same producer as Black Sabbath (Rodger Bain), who also produced the mostly-forgotten Budgie, which is in fact the second metal band (releasing their debut in 1971).

Other styles of music were exploring similar territory during this period. Of course, there was already hard rock, but punk sprang up in the mid-1970's. Neither of these is metal (though the boundaries can be crossed). On the other hand, hard rock of any period seemingly has more in common with these early metal bands than, say, the death metal of Nile. So, why is Nile metal, when it has so little in common with Sabbath, while ZZ Top is not metal, when it has much more in common (superficially) with Sabbath?

This brings us to our first criterion: To be metal, it must have historical ties to the sound of Black Sabbath.

In other words, it must be able to trace its lineage to the original metal band. For example, death metal grew out of thrash metal, which in turn grew out of speed metal and punk, and speed metal in turn grew out of the early heavy metal sound. A while ago, I made this chart to demonstrate the stylistic origins of various heavy metal genres:

As you can see, no variety of metal sprang up on its own. If it springs up independently, it's not metal.

The Second Criterion

Having a historical tie to the origins of metal is only a threshold issue. Some things with origins in metal are not, such as crust punk or dark ambient.

Why aren't these things metal? This brings us to our second criterion: To be metal, it must sound like metal.

Unfortunately, I can't give you a bright line test to determine whether something sounds like metal. This is one of those fuzzy balancing tests we lawyers are somewhat infamous for. You could just rely on your gut to tell you the answer, but I'll lay out some factors to consider. No one of them is necessarily controlling, and it's not a matter of how many of the factors it meets, but to what extent it meets each factor. And I don't assert that I've laid out every possible one.

1. Metal has that fuzzy, distorted sound, most often achieved by using gain on guitar amps.
2. Metal is heavy, requiring a certain amount of bass and relying extensively on minor chords rather than major chords. (This is the most obvious distinction between metal and punk.)
3. Metal is musical, using both rhythm (usually emphatic) and melody (often using power chords, but simply meaning that it can't be the same note/chord repeated ad infinitum). (This distinguishes it from certain varieties of noise music.)
4. Metal is usually riff-based.
5. A metal band is usually comprised of a vocalist, bassist, drummer, and one or two guitarists.
6. Instrumental proficiency is important, and is often demonstrated by extended solos (particularly on guitar).
7. Metal vocals are generally characterized by overt emotion.
8. Metal deals with the darker side of human experience (without necessarily promoting the negative, but addressing it), such as anger, violence, madness, death, depression, and the occult. This is often reflected both lyrically and in the mood of the music.
9. Metal lyrics generally do not overtly address personal topics, instead dealing with such topics as fantasy, mythology, religion, philosophy, history, horror, and epic stories, or may be abstract or nonsensical. They only rarely deal with politics, and sex is a subject addressed rarely.
10. Metal is an outsider genre; it does not intentionally cater to a wider audience. This is not to say that having major label backing or achieving widespread success necessarily disqualifies a band as metal, but instead the focus should be on whether the band intentionally crafts their music to appeal to a wider audience.

I tend to take an expansive view of what qualifies as metal. Some would insist true metal has to meet all 10 factors perfectly, disqualifying such genres as post-metal (due to lessened focus on riffs) and folk metal (because of the added instrumentation and folk-based writing). Some people would even go so far as to say Black Sabbath is not metal because it doesn't meet their own personal definition; such a point of view ignores the history of metal and is, in any case, a lunatic fringe opinion.

Controversial Examples

People with only a passing interest in the genre are probably shocked by the assertion sex is an uncommon topic for metal lyrics. The Wikipedia article states, "Deriving from the genre's roots in blues music, sex is another important topic—a thread running from Led Zeppelin's suggestive lyrics to the more explicit references of glam and nu metal bands." Any metalhead clearly sees the problem with this statement: All of those are on the fringes of metal, and are not considered metal by many fans of the genre. The emphasis on sex (which is a symptom of employing more personal lyrics and, in some cases, catering to a wider audience) is only one of the reasons.

Glam Metal Noize 1983-1990Glam metal is a perfect example of a genre which may or may not be metal, and no definitive answer can be given. It meets the first seven factors above, but not the last three. Nu metal is another such example, because of the lyrical content, a perceived intent to cater to a wider audience, and because it has lesser emphasis on instrumental proficiency (notably, solos are usually dropped altogether). Nu metal is also derided for incorporating excessive influence from hip hop and rap.

It's hard to tell whether glam metal roots are really in metal, or in hard rock, though they do seem to borrow a lot from Judas Priest. On balance, I think glam metal is in fact metal, but just barely. Given specific examples, such as Mötley Crüe, Twisted Sister, or Warrant, I may come down on one side of the fence or the other on different days. Given that these groups only meet 7 factors at all, it comes down to the question of factor 2, how heavy it is, as these groups aren't particularly heavy. They often fall into the hard rock category.

Nu metal is also metal. It grew out of metal origins and other influences (like many other subgenres). It doesn't seem to appeal to the core fans of hip hop or rap, and people in my generation (myself included) often became fans of the genre due in part to early exposure to nu metal. In contrast, I've never heard anyone say they got into rap because they listened to Korn.

Highway to Hell (Dlx) AC/DC is almost always cited as a metal band by non-metalheads. Most metalheads, on the other hand, do not count them among the metal pantheon. They aren't very heavy, and though they do have solos their music is very simplistic. In my opinion, they straddle the line between metal and hard rock. In that sense, I'm not really answering the question. The same would go for Godsmack.

Alice in Chains is another troubling band to classify. They came out of the same Seattle music scene as grunge, which has its roots in punk and hard rock. But metal fans tend to claim them as metal, with several groups (such as Opeth) having covered them. They are much heavier than the typical grunge bands, and much darker, so I think on balance they end up in the metal camp.

Slipknot is a highly controversial topic among metal circles. Many claim they are not metal, though I've never heard a cogent argument to support that statement. It basically boils down to, "They have metal parts, but it's not really metal." There's never an explanation for what, exactly, is not metal. They have their roots in metal, and meet every metal sound factor I laid out above, with the exception that they also have a few extra band members. The extra percussionists seem to make it even more metal-like, though the DJ and sampler tend to bring in some non-metal sounds (but that's no different from an industrial metal band). They do have some nu metal influence, mostly on their debut, but the extreme metal far outweighs the nu.

Finally, I posit that Apocalyptica is, in fact, a metal band. They clearly trace their style to the origins of metal. They use cellos instead of guitar and bass; nonetheless, they achieve that fuzzy, distorted sound, and the heaviness, and otherwise meet the other factors for sounding like metal. Many people probably will not agree, but I think they're metal.


I believe I have laid down the most comprehensive definition of metal that can be given. It requires two things: 1, it has its roots in the Black Sabbath tradition, and 2, it sounds like metal. Any more restrictive definition would not adequately describe the genre, and any looser definition would include much non-metal. I've also shown how to analyze whether a particular genre or band is metal by using a few concrete examples.

I'll close with some Dream Evil lyrics:
Some twenty years ago, the gods put down their feet,
So firmly into the ground that no man of sword nor pen,
could ever change the rules upon which
The very fundament of metal was made.

Read all about it, in the book of heavy metal
Read all about it, in the manual
Read all about it, in the book of heavy metal
Read all about it