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An auto-biography of gig attendance #2: Cannibal Corpse, 1998

Each time someone poses the question “which one is your all time favourite gig?” my response is usually, “Cannibal Corpse”. I saw Cannibal Corpse in Woodstock Club, Peristeri (Greece) on the 25th of October 1998. The venue was small and claustrophobic, and would serve as the site for many other awesome gigs in the years to come. I was with two of my best friends (and one not that close friend), all of us big Cannibal Corpse fans. Cannibal Corpse shared the bill with Dark Funeral and Infernal Majesty. Although Gallery of suicide had just been released, we had already learned most of the lyrics by heart. My friends also liked Dark Funeral (one of them was obsessed with Vobiscum Satanas) but I didn’t. Infernal Majesty had just released Unholier than thou, a great album, and even though I wasn’t a big fan (I hadn’t even listened to None shall defy) I was somewhat excited to see them.

We arrived at the venue all pumped-up and with our tickets carefully bent near the bottom so that they could be smoothly ripped at the door, rather than being totally destroyed. It turned out that the people at the door did not tear up the tickets, hence the white line on the ticket on top of the date (see ticket above). I have absolutely no recollection of Dark Funeral playing. I remember seeing Masse Broberg in full leather and spikes, towering over me on his way to the stage. I also remember Chris Bailey, Infernal Majesty’s singer, in the crowd before they played, and I approached him, welcomed him and asked whether they would play “Roman song” off their latest album. I cannot remember his reply but I think they did play it after all. Again, although I remember enjoying Infernal Majesty, I don’t have any recollections as I was burning with anticipation for the headliner.

The year 1998 was a time when exposure to death metal videos in Greece was rare, so, speaking for myself, I didn’t know what to expect from a Cannibal Corpse gig. When the band started playing I could not believe my eyes. I was at the front of the stage, at arm’s length from Jack Owen, and I saw all the mind-blowing fret-work in all its splendour. I had never seen something similar in my life, and, suffice it to say, it changed my appreciation of death metal in terms of musicianship. Webster’s face was hidden behind his hair during the entire gig, and his stage presence was imposing. The band visited all the stops in its, already by that point, long and impressive career. At least one song was played by each one of their six albums. The awesome set-list included (not in order played): Skull full of maggots, Covered with sores, Meathook sodomy, I cum blood, Hammer smashed face, Starring through the eyes of the dead, Fucked with a knife, Striped, raped and strangled, Devoured by vermin, Perverse suffering, Puncture wound massacre, I will kill you, Disposal of the body, Gallery of suicide, Dismembered and molested, Headless (and I’m pretty sure they also played “Sentenced to burn”, although I haven’t written on the back of my ticket). The sound was perfect and the performance was immaculate. Every single moment was an amazing experience.

After the end of the concert we went outside to get some fresh air and catch our breaths. Soon after Corpsegrinder came out, and my friends and I surrounded him. He was in a good mood, and really nice to us. I mentioned his pierced tongue – which I had noticed during his performance – and he did some grimaces for us exhibiting his piercing. He signed our tickets. We then asked one of our friends who had a disposable camera to take a group picture of us with Corpsegrinder. We struck a pose and when he tried to take the picture he realised that he had used up all the film during the concert. So, we started swearing at him in Greek, and, of course, Corpsegrinder picked up the word “malaka” (wanker), and started repeating it in his funny, distinctive voice – a performance which brought about laughter from everyone in the vicinity. Owen also came out of the venue but he was quite withdrawn and walked around on his own. We approached him and asked for an autograph, which he gave, but he seemed almost sad. He quietly signed our tickets and walked away humming some kind of bluesy tune. After a while we got into a taxi-cab and headed home. The taxi-driver asked us if we were in a rock concert, and we said that we were. He was a middle-aged man, and had a macho-attitude typical for Greek taxi-drivers. After a brief period of silence, he addressed all of us with the question, “So…do you guys fuck a lot?”. We instantly burst out laughing, but I have no recollection of how we addressed his question. He then went off on a tangent telling us about his various “hot, young” girlfriends. He dropped us off, and we ended the night making fun of him in raspy voices, the result of our tormented vocal cords.

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An auto-biography of gig attendance #1: Rock Of Gods, 1996

Some of my ticket-stubs.

Many years ago I wrote a post about how music gigs are the best form of entertainment. Having reconsidered, I decided that music gigs used to be an amazing form of entertainment when I was young, when I hadn’t seen many bands live, and when I had like-minded friends to go to gigs with. Attending concerts has lost its appeal for me in more recent years. A few weeks ago my mother sent me some old ticket-stubs and rekindled all those memories of gig attendance of my youth. A few days later I learned that Immolation are coming to Brighton, UK, as part of Mammothfest. Immolation is one of my all-time favourite death metal bands, and in terms of consistency, endurance, and creativity, the best death metal band of all times, in my opinion. In anticipation of this gig and in remembrance of the music gigs of my youth I decided to start a new series of posts where I will share with readers some of my favourite moments of gig-attendance throughout the years. I will start with the first heavy metal gig I ever attended: the Rock of Gods festival in Piraeus, Greece, on July 12 1996.

The news of the Rock of Gods festival hit during a summer English course that some of my friends and I were taking. The line-up included Slayer (a band that I worshiped and still do), Blind Guardian (another favourite among certain members of our group back then, myself included), Motorhead (not a favourite at the time, but, still, exciting), Rage (hadn’t listened to them at the time), Nightfall (Greek black metal band), and Fatal Morgana (Greek progressive metal band). At the time I was 15 years old. Although I wasn’t particularly young, my parents were negatively disposed to heavy metal music and the wider subculture. Yet, the congruence of several factors around Rock of Gods allowed me to convince my parents to permit me to go: it was a summer festival (so we didn’t have school-related responsibilities), it was taking place close to our home-town (Piraeus), and several of my friends would accompany me (among whom a friend my mother considered the “ideal student”). So, I bought a ticket.

Most of my memories are of peripheral things around the concert rather than the bands themselves. My friends and I (a group of five) met with some older kids from school in a public square, and together we took the bus to Piraeus. The fan credentials of those older kids were much better than ours; they had long hair, they wore cool old t-shirts, they knew all the bands, and they were doing drugs. Savvas, one of the older kids, grabbed me by my Iron Maiden t-shirt (Fear of the dark) and, half-jokingly, told me “when Rage come out on stage, I will kill you!”. I laughed, but I was also a bit worried. In any case I made a mental note not to be near him when Rage would come out.

The bus dropped us off and then we had to walk for a bit in order to get to dock 3 where the festival was taking place. Our group was walking alongside hordes of heavy metal fans with smiles in their faces. On the way to dock 3, I remember seeing the following slogan written in spray on walls: “Αγαπάς το Rock; 7χίλιαρο!” (“Do you love rock? Pay 7.000 drachmas!”). Although I remember getting the anti-commercial message of the slogan, I was also confused. I was not sure whether the slogan was directed to fans (that were seen as passive dupes of capitalism), music promoters (that were seen as exploiting the fans), bands (criticised for not playing for free), or the broader system including all those actors together (the culture industry). That was a festival that cost money to organise, with an international bill consisting of several awesome and successful bands, so I couldn’t see how the price would be an issue. Upon reflection, I guess it was meant as commentary on the culture industry; a system whereby heavy metal music is mass produced and marketed as a commodity. The slogan was trying to point out that “if you love rock music you are forced into market exchange relations”. The contradiction in this message is that rock music itself, as we know and love, is the product of the capitalist economy; an economy that is producing albums, and has allowed relatively affluent kids from around the world to own instruments and make bands like Slayer and Blind Guardian, that are eventually recruited by the music industry. I still think that rock music as a commodity should be critiqued, but that slogan did not offer any meaningful critique.

Inside the festival area the atmosphere was beautiful. I had never seen so many heavy metal fans at the same place. I remember feeling quite awkward and slightly scared, so I made sure I stayed close to my friends. Before any of the bands started playing, I spotted Thomen, Blind Guardian’s original drummer, in the crowd. The feeling of seeing one of my music heroes up-close was unique, so without much thought I went to get an autograph. Thomen was very friendly and happy to sign our ticket-stubs. I thought about my friend, Nick, who couldn’t attend the concert because he was away on holiday, so I found a piece of paper and asked Thomen to sign it for him. I gave it to Nick when he came back from holidays and the bastard couldn’t care less. Around that time, we heard the disappointing news that Motorhead were replaced by Saxon…

My memories of the actual bands are extremely blurry. I think I was over-stimulated, by the crowd, the bands, and the newness of the experience of a heavy metal festival, so being attentive of the actual music-listening experience was hard. One of the things I remember clearly is the asphyxiating atmosphere at the front of the stage. Especially when Slayer came out, kicking off with “South of heaven”, the heat combined with the the crowd crushing on me, made me feel faint. I was next to my friend Mark, and when the first notes of “South of heaven” came out of the amps we looked at each other with surprise and started screaming like the little fanboys that we were. Mark then asked me “which song is this!?”, to which I replied “Dead skin mask!”, a mistake that I eventually corrected a few seconds later. I have no other recollection of Slayer that night, apart from the fact that they played quite a few of the punk covers off Undisputed Attitude (1996), and, if I remember correctly, Jeff’s guitar with all the punk stickers. Similarly, I have almost no recollection of Blind Guardian, apart from “The bard’s song”. This is really peculiar, especially since I was dying to see them, and Imaginations from the other side (1995) was (and still is) one of my favourite albums of all time. Although I was not listening to Rage at the time (I fell in love with them after the concert) I vividly remember Peavy at the front of the stage singing “Alive but dead”. Under different technosocial circumstances, a recording of this concert would be widely available, and I would love to be able to experience it again. The only thing I could find online was the YouTube video below, of an audio track from Blind Guardian’s performance on that evening, 21 years ago.



An auto-ethnography of vinyl consumption

In the early 21st century vinyl has been making a comeback (Savage, 2017). After more than a decade, between the late 1980s and early 2000s, during which the music industry put its faith on CDs, and in the midst of the digital revolution, the few remaining record stores left are full of vinyl records once again. Overpriced vinyl issues of new releases, reissues of old albums, vinyl pressings of albums never released on vinyl before, vinyl pressings of bands’ obscure demo tapes, limited editions, limited editions that are more limited than the previous limited edition of the same album (but less limited than the one yet to come), and so on. Enough cultural commodities for vinyl junkies and trend-followers that would make king Solomon blush.

get-yours-todayBehind the resurgence of the vinyl market are many factors, including the music industry’s imperative to survive, opportunism, but also pure fan passion. The music industry sees in vinyl an opportunity to impose artificial scarcity (Hesmondhalgh, 2007); it is a medium for music dissemination that does not lend itself to expropriation by fans. The reason behind this is not some kind of “objective” quality linked to the medium; it is rather that “vinyl” has been situated in a discourse appropriated and actively reproduced by the music industry that fetishises (not in the Marxist sense) the physical object (i.e. manufactured paper and plastic) rather than the immaterial content (i.e. songs). In other words, the fan buys a vinyl record because they believe that there is inherent and exclusive value in the physical artefact itself. The value might be exactly that not everyone can own one, as opposed to mp3s, so it gives the fan a sense of distinctiveness. The value might be that the vinyl collector is a category that has been invested (partially by the music industry itself) with the meaning of the expert, or the “true fan”, or that listening to vinyl is seen as the “proper way” to consume music. This is a slightly different discourse to the one produced by the music industry in the 1990s whereby CDs derived their value from being on the cutting edge of technology, as well as the effectiveness (better sound) and efficiency (more space) associated with digitisation.

Of course, the activity of vinyl consumption cannot be reduced to the record industry’s imperative for profit and audience exploitation. Consuming vinyl means different things to each different person. Nobody can deny that music fans are at the mercy of the music industry. Almost every single aspect of our music consumption – from the existence of bands, the mass production of music so we can access it around the world, production values, to the existence of genres – is contingent on the existence of the music industry. Nevertheless, as Michel De Certeau (1984) or John Fiske (1989) would say, as consumers we make do and we make with those primary materials provided to us by the music industry. This post is about what I make with those cultural commodities.

I have talked in more detail about my history with vinyl consumption in a previous post. Here I will focus more on my rituals of vinyl consumption, using as an example the most recent album I bought, Deranged‘s Struck by a murderous siege (2016). This post is based on an article I have written and will be published in early 2018 in the Metal Music Studies journal (Zenerian, 2018).

I listened to Deranged’s new album a couple of months before I bought a physical copy of it. I first listened to a song that the record company (Agonia Records) released in the form of a YouTube lyric video to promote the album. After the album was officially released I downloaded it for free and listened to it on my computer and mp3 player. I then decided that I liked it enough to buy a physical copy of it. The purchase took place online. This is a process that involves very different thoughts and feelings to the pre-online shopping record purchasing experience. Entering a shop and searching the record stalls involves an element of excitement that cannot be replicated online. Buying a physical copy from a physical record store means that I own it from the moment I have paid for it. There is a sense of finality that in the case of online shopping is postponed until the moment the record is delivered, which can be several weeks after the purchase. Hence, buying online is always stressful for me.

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When the album arrived, the first thing I did was to examine the jacket and vinyl to make sure they are not damaged. I was happy to find it in perfect condition. I spent some time investigating the cover art. Struck by a murderous siege has an awesome albeit cheesy cover. It is awesome because it is pretty detailed, so there is a lot to be discovered. I try to work out if the cover tells a story. The album title works as a caption, the linguistic message that offers guidance on how the image should be read (Barthes, 1984). In this case, the iconic message stands in a relation of complementarity to the linguistic message. The title of the album works as a relay. There is a murderer loose wreaking havoc in a big city. His threatening figure looming over the city connotes that the city is under siege. The police are after him, and they also look for his victims, which we can seen dumped in the sea by the city. I pay attention to all the details; the rotting corpses in the sea, the crow preying on one of the victims, I am looking for signs on the city buildings that could give me information of the identity of the city. I spend quite some time gazing at Deranged’s logo, and I think that it is one of the best logos ever designed.

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I then remove the lyric sheet from the album. I am happy to see that all the lyrics are printed therein, there is information on writing credits, and photos of the band members. Sadly, there is no Thanx List. I look at the band members photos and then I go to the writing credits of each song to see who wrote what. I discover that all the music is composed by Thomas Ahlgren, who has been with the band for almost a decade. Rikard Wermen (the only original member) was involved in all the arrangements, keeping the trademark “Deranged sound” alive. Lyric credits are shared between Wermen and the bassist, Anders Johansson, and there are also lyrics based on letters by various serial killers such as the Son of Sam, the B.T.K killer, and the Toy-box killer. The band has also allocated vocal patterns credits (shared between Wermen and Johansson), in the style of Cannibal Corpse (see Gallery of suicide, 1998).

I then remove the vinyl from its sleeve. I smell the inside of the jacket, a habit I have had since high-school, searching for the distinct musty odor of cardboard that old records have to no avail. I look at the grooves and investigate the label. I then check to see if there are any interesting engravings around the label. There is none other than mundane pressing-related information. Back in the day I loved when I would discover messages such as “WATCH OUT FOR TERRORIZER” (Morbid Angel, Altars of madness, 1989), or “IS NICK HOLMES THE NEW ANDREW ELDRITCH?” (Paradise Lost, Gothic, 1991).

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I put the album on the turntable, position the stylus and sit comfortably on my chair with the lyric-sheet in my hands. The opener “The frail illusion of osteology” is one of my favourite songs on the album. While I am listening to the second song, whose lyrics are based on the Son of Sam, I start thinking that no band will ever be able to write a better song than Benediction on this topic (“Jumping at shadows”, 1991). I then wonder whether the murdered figure on the album cover was inspired by the Son of Sam. I put the lyrics on the side and go on Wikipedia and read a bit about the Son of Sam, the B.T.K. killer, and the Toy-box killer. The lyric-sheet has pictures of all three of them. I then go back to the album cover and try to see if the figure resembles any of the murderers addressed in the songs. I notice no apparent resemblance.

I then go back to the lyrics and keep listening and reading. During the third song – one of the very best on the album – I begin to evaluate Johansson’s lyrics next to Wermen’s lyrics, and I think that Wermen’s are much weirder and chaotic, while Johansson’s are more structured and catchier. The first song on side B is another great song, about the B.T.K. killer. B.T.K. stands for “Bind, Torture, Kill”, which reminds me of the Suffocation song of the same title. The song inspired by the Toy-box killer (“Toy-box torture chamber”) has the most disturbing lyrics, matching the disturbing nature of the crimes. The song is sung in the first person which makes the depraved and misogynistic character of the lyrics even more disturbing to read (I won’t be reading the lyrics of this song again). I continue listening to the album, occasionally air-drumming and playing air-guitar, until it is over.

What I described is an experience of vinyl consumption that cannot be reduced to commodity fetishism, following music industry trends, or seeking to improve fan credentials. Listening to an album can be an auditory, visual, olfactic, and tactile experience, that brings people in connection with their personal biography (past experiences, old habits, childhood memories) and the broader culture (links with other bands, cultural events, the transformation of culture).

References

Barthes, R. (1984) Image, music, text. London: Fontana Press.

De Certeau, M. (1984) The practice of everyday life. Berkley: University of California Press.

Fiske, J. (1989) Understanding popular culture. London: Unwin Hyman.

Savage, M. (2017) “UK vinyl sales reach 25-year high”, (Online: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-38487837)

Zenerian, E. (2018) “‘Doing-Listening with Deranged’s ‘Struck by a murderous siege’: An auto-ethnography of death metal vinyl consumption”, Metal Music Studies, 4:1 [Forthcoming]



Perfect bonus songs, imperfect albums, and the internetisation of popular music

Music ownership these days, in terms of paying for music and owning the medium that carries the music, is not as relevant as it used to be before the digitisation and internetisation of music. As many have pointed out, today it is more about access rather than ownership; people access music on Spotify, YouTube, Bandcamp, and so forth, rather than owning it. Of course even with digitisation/internetisation there are ways of owning music, through the practice of downloading and storing music on different types of digital repositories. Still, this type of ownership feels quite different to the thing I am used to, that is, owning physical copies in the form of LPs, CDs, and Cassette tapes. One of the ways in which it is different is in terms of the “unity and autonomy” of the cultural product. This is what this post is about.

By “unity and autonomy” I refer to the things that make a cultural product distinct from other cultural products as well as a unified whole. It concerns the age-old question “what are the limits of a distinct body of works”? When does an artist decide that a specific number of songs constitutes an “album”? There are different actors and processes that have conspired to offer practical answers to these questions. The subjection of music to the logic and the laws of the capitalist market is one process, and tradition is another. Most recording artists don’t rely on the record company to tell them that they need something between 8-12 songs to have a”proper” album, they already know this is the case because they are familiar with popular music conventions. In turn, the popular music industry is partially responsible for those conventions.

What crystallises a body of works as distinct is its subjection to the manufacturing process and its reification, its transformation into a product such as an LP or a CD. First of all, there is a physical medium that contains a limited number of songs. Both CDs and LPs secure autonomy by including the chosen number of songs and excluding all other songs. Then there is a cover artwork that symbolically unifies the songs included in the CD or LP in question. Beyond those two important elements there are other things like a consistent production style and a specific band configuration, that construct a given body of works as unified and autonomous. The person who bought Gutter ballet (1989) and Power of the night (1985) by Savatage on CDs knows that whenever she listens to “When the crowds are gone” she listens to a song off Gutter ballet (1989) by Savatage, but when she listens to “In the dream” she knows that she listens to a song off Power of the night (1985) by Savatage.

How do things change with digitisation/internetisation? In a way things are not much different. Songs on online music platforms or downloadable songs are usually organised in traditional album formats. I could search for the Gutter ballet album by Savatage on Spotify, and I could access it independently from the rest of their albums. I could also download the same album and keep it in a distinct folder, separated from all other songs that can also be found in my computer. The folder as well as the information potentially embedded in the mp3 track (e.g. artist, album title, year of release) contribute towards the unification and autonomisation of the product. However, a key difference is that I could delete any of the songs from that folder. I could, for example, delete “Of rage and war” because the lyrics piss me off. I could also “cut” all the Savatage songs from three different albums I have neatly organised in distinct folders and “paste” them all together in one distinct folder titled “Savatage”. That wouldn’t change, of course, the information inscribed on those songs that ascribe them to distinct bodies of works, but still digitisation offers unique opportunities in challenging the unified and autonomous character of music industry products. Other unifying elements, such as cover artwork, lose their effectiveness as well. Of course, someone could say that in the past people would make mix-tapes, and, in that sense, blank cassette tapes and CDs offered opportunities for manipulation, but that didn’t have an effect on the “original” products, the CDs and LPs that were used to make the mix-tape. More things could be said about digitisation and convergence, such as how they effect modes of listening that are less demanding than, for example, sitting in your living room and handling big and sensitive media such as LPs and turntables, and the effect this has on perceiving an album as unified and autonomous.

The thing that prompted these thoughts was listening to Dark Tranquillity‘s excellent song “Exposure”. I first listened to this song during the summer of 1999 when a friend of mine bought the digipak version of the newly released Projector album. By that time I had gotten over Swedish melodic death metal, and I was more into brutal death metal such as Immolation, Broken Hope, Sinister, and Vader. But even by Swedish melodeath standards, I found that album extremely disappointing, and to this day it’s my least favourite DT album. However, in the end of the album there was a hidden track that we played non-stop for days. That song was “Exposure” and it was excluded from the regular versions of the album.

That fact made me reflect on how annoyed I was every time I bought an album and I realised that there was another version that included songs that my version of the album did not include. I then thought that this wouldn’t be much of a problem in the contemporary world, where some listeners are less loyal to physical cultural commodities. For one thing, the folder on one’s computer titled “Dark Tranquillity – Projector” is probably not as meaningful a unit as a CD or an LP. Moreover, the bonus track can be found and downloaded and subsequently added to the folder. Due to the resistant to modification character of CDs and LPs, an artifact without the bonus tracks was for ever condemned to be without. In the present historical period in advanced hyper-consumerist capitalist societies do “special editions” with bonus songs have the same appeal that they used to in the 1980s or 1990s, and for those people who exclusively use the internet to access music do concepts such as “bonus track” or “album” have any meaning?

In most cases, I think that bonus tracks are not on par with the rest of the songs on an album, but in some cases they are amazing. I will now finish this post with five examples of extraordinary bonus tracks that in some cases are better than all the songs in their respective albums.

projector_album_cover1. Dark Tranquillity – Exposure (Projector)

“Exposure” is hands down my favourite song off Projector (1999). The only other song that comes close is “On your time”, which has an unbelievable ending. The change that DT underwent during that period, and which to a large extent defined their style, did not go down very well with me, especially the extensive use of clean vocals and keyboards, and the slowing down of pace. “Exposure” is a song that could have easily been on The mind’s I (1997), an album that I’ve loved non-stop since it came out. It is fast, it has a perfect main riff and melodies, and Anders’ drumming is mindboggling.

slayer-diabolus-in-musica2. Slayer – Unguarded instinct (Diabolus in musica)

Diabolus in musica (1998) and God hates us all (2001) are my two least favourite Slayer albums, but if I had to choose one that I like better I would go with Diabolus. There are some awesome songs on this one, including “Perversions of pain”, “Screaming from the sky”, “Scrum” and “Bitter peace”. However, the Japanese edition of the album includes “Unguarded instinct”, the hands down masterpiece and best song on the album, in my opinion. This song has some of the best riffs and one of the best choruses Slayer ever came up with, and Bostaph’s performance is phenomenal. At least the version that I own includes another bonus track which is also quite awesome, the dark and menacing “Wicked”.

05_the_code_is_red_long_live_the_code3. Napalm Death – Losers (The code is red…long live the code)

Napalm Death have always released special editions of their albums with bonus songs unavailable in regular editions. Most of those bonus songs are awesome, because ND is awesome, but usually they don’t stand out. However, on this specific case I think that it was a shame the song “Losers” was not included in regular editions of The code is red… as it is an extremely powerful and memorable track, from the catchy drum intro, to the driving beat and the various tempo changes. This song was included on the digipak version, but unfortunately not on the limited edition LP version.

r-3402905-1329030970-jpeg4. Eldritch – Nebula surface (El nino)

El nino was the album that introduced me to Eldritch back in 1998, a band that I respect a lot although I don’t like all of their albums. Still, their powerful take on progressive-power metal always impressed me, and to this day I don’t think I have listened many other bands that manage to combine more conventional melodies with aggressive song-writing (another band that comes to mind is Rage) as effectively as Eldritch. The limited edition CD I own has this hidden track in the end right after the monumental homonymous song, and it is among my favourite songs on this album.

1239265840_large5. Vader – Anamnesis (Black to the blind)

Black to the blind (1997) is in my opinion the last great Vader album. When it first came out me and my friends were driven to insanity during endless hours of listening to the album back-to-back and headbanging violently. Unfortunately, the song “Anamnesis” is missing from our version of this great album, but is included in the Japanese version. At least it was included in the Kingdom E.P. too. This song is characterised by sheer intensity, phenomenal drumming courtesy of Doc (a death metal innovator), and an awesome start. Without a doubt it’s one of the very best songs on the album.



Triarchy of the lost lovers: 20 years on

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I find it hard to believe that it’s been 20 years since the release of Rotting Christ‘s masterpiece Triarchy of the lost lovers (1996). Reminiscing upon the release of this album, my initial engagement with it, and the different ways in which it has been implicated in my life, the vast polysemic position that this album occupies in my biography is revealed. In this post I share some personal stories around what I personally consider one of the most beautiful albums of all time.

1198Rotting Christ occupy a prolific position in my personal biography as a fan of extreme metal. The very first album that induced me to the more underground facets of metal was a compilation cassette tape by Unisound Records, a Greek metal label. The title of this cassette tape was Into the catacthonium (released in 1994 if I remember correctly). I distinctly remember my friend Nick bringing the cassette tape to my house. Through this tape I was exposed for the first time to extreme metal, through the song “Primordial” by Mortuary Drape. I cannot remember for sure if that was the compilation’s opening song, but that was the one that I first listened to. While both of us thought that the singer’s screams sounded funny, I think it irrevocably infected us with the extreme metal virus. Two were the songs that I remember listening to from that tape; one was “Primordial” and the other “Saturn unlock Avey’s son” by Rotting Christ, off the album Non serviam (1994). Similarly, the initial contact with Rotting Christ was not one of unabridged enthusiasm and unconditional surrender. The music was indeed captivating, but the singer’s voice combined with his accent, especially the way he pronounced ‘volcanic explosion’, were hilarious.

Nevertheless, a big change had definitely taken place. Extreme metal did not go down very well with us, but it had our attention. The fact that Rotting Christ was a Greek band was also part of the excitement. Back then I was totally unaware of other Greek metal bands, so the idea that an extreme band was local, so to speak, was exciting. In hindsight, that was an illusion and an excellent example of how national identity works. The excitement that I would feel back in those days reflected a nationalist sentiment, the fantasy that there is a bond between me and a group of people who I would probably never meet and with whom I had very little in common.

The very little I did end up having in common with Rotting Christ would be taste in music. Of course, metal fandom is itself a whole different “imagined community”. Indeed, over the years I have come to realise that the majority of “metal fans” I have met throughout my life have completely different tastes than me, and relate to music differently than I do. In any case, to return to my previous point, even though “greekness” was in the realm of fantasy, I did share with Rotting Christ love for their music (assuming they were fans of their own music). My friend Mark bought “Triarchy of the lost lovers” in 1996, a few months after it came out. He brought the CD to our English lesson and we used my portable CD player to listen to it. If I remember correctly, he must have instructed me to skip the first couple of songs and listen to “Archon” straight away, the fastest cut from this album. By that time we were already listening to death metal and we were primarily intrigued by speed and intensity. I was instantly hooked and soon afterwards I too bought the CD.

1199Triarchy of the lost lovers is one of those rare albums completely devoid of mediocre moments. Every song is an instant classic. In contrast to most extreme metal, which is loquacious and dense, Triarchy is laconic. It has big openings that give the listener room to breathe and reflect on what they experience. Each musical sentence is a clearly articulated statement and it stands out. I would not use the term “riff” to describe this music; that would be reductionist. Only rarely Sakis (the composer) resorts to the short single-layered patterns that we often identify as riffs in metal music. Although laconic, his musical rhetoric is fascinating; each pattern consists of several layers that involve harmonisations, and a dialogue between primary and secondary melodies. The guitar solos are not ephemeral improvisations either; far from it, they are thought-through compositions in their own right (listen to the solo of “A dynasty from the ice“). Jim’s poems about mythical themes, epic tragedies, and uncanny horror stories, were an essential ingredient in Rotting Christ’s unique style of songwriting.

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From left to right: Sakis, Jim, and Themis circa 1996

Back in the mid-1990s one of the best metal record stores in Athens was Metal Era, a shop owned by Jim “Mutilator” Patsouris, original bassist of Rotting Christ. Anyone into metal that grew up in Athens in the mid 1990s knew who the owner of Metal Era was. Over the years I saw many metalheads swarm around him, usually kids who saw him as a rock star. Back then me and my friends often wondered whether some of those fanboys were actually working in the shop for free. In any case, I was not far from being a fanboy myself, because in all honesty I did look up to Jim; he was part of an important chapter of extreme metal history. I too often used to hang out in the shop pestering him to play new releases. Some of the fresh releases or promo versions of albums I listened there over the years include Hypocrisy‘s Final chapter (1997) and Hypocrisy (1999), Hate Eternal‘s Conquering the throne (1999), Broken Hope‘s Loathing (1997), and Dismember‘s Hate campaign (2000). At some point in the late 1990s, after he had quit the band, we ended up talking about Rotting Christ and I told him that Triarchy was my favourite album by them and one of my all-time favourite albums overall. I remember that he was surprised, in a very humble way, and told me that it was his favourite Rotting Christ album too.

But the significance of this album goes beyond simple fascination with the songs. This album is the primary material of many fond memories over the years, one including my younger brother. For a brief period around ’96-97 my brother became interested in the music that his older brother (me) was listening to. One of the songs he used to love was “Snowing still” off Triarchy. Near the end of that song there is an atmospheric passage during which the singer narrates in Greek. This part of the lyrics was omitted from the lyrics in the booklet, and the even more annoying thing was that neither me nor my friends could make out what was being said. My brother wanted to know the lyrics, as it was one of his favourite songs, so I asked Jim to jot down the lyrics on a piece of paper and write a dedication to my brother. Jim was very gracious and indeed wrote down the lyrics in a piece of paper that I’ve kept inside the booklet since.

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“Black swans bring tears over his dead body – by dawn they’ll be lying dead together” – Dedicated to our friend Anthony (Jim Mutilator)

Triarchy is undisputedly an extreme metal album, yet it is very difficult to classify it. I personally think that it singularly occupies its own category. Over the summer holidays of 1997, I decided that this album stands out as one of the very few albums where each single second is characterised by sheer perfection. I used to think back then that any band would kill to have even one of the “riffs” on that album. Its melodic dimension anchors it to traditional metal, which was my great love, but also to other styles, such as popular and folk Greek music, that resonated with my habitus. Twenty years have passed since I first listened to it, and today I simply confirm what I had already thought 10 or 15 years ago: Triarchy of the lost lovers is a timeless masterpiece whose significance will only increase with time. Every day that goes by is and will be a reminder that what this band achieved in terms of aesthetic expression and inventiveness cannot be repeated, so this unique example will be admired and treasured.



An ode to Blind Guardian

The term “ode” is of course used catachrestically here, as I do not aim to compose an actual ode. The intention of this post is to simply praise what might be the greatest metal band of all times: Blind Guardian. Of course this is a personal opinion and would be naive to assume it is anything more than that. However, I would like the readers of this post who have not heard of, or have not paid attention to, Blind Guardian, to give them a chance and, by doing so, potentially enrich their lives in the most beautiful of ways.

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As it sometimes happens in similar occasions, I will mobilise my personal career as a metal fan in an effort to invest my opinion with authority. I have been passionately listening to metal for 20 years. I first became obsessed with traditional heavy metal. Iron Maiden, Accept, Savatage and Dio were the first bands that I listened to and, with the exception of Accept, I quickly fell in love with them. Around the same time, by the end of 1995, I was exposed to power metal, starting with Helloween‘s Keeper of the seven keys parts 1 and 2,  and then to the newly released Blind Guardian and Gamma Ray albums Imaginations from the other side, and Land of the free, respectively. Soon after that I got addicted to Slayer and I would spend my days and nights listening to Reign in blood and Divine Intervention, over and over again, as well as to Kreator and Sodom. Not before long, a cassette started circulating in our metal circle with the relatively recently released Slaughter of the soul and The dreams you dread albums, by At The Gates and Benediction, respectively. These two albums opened up the floodgates to the genre that I love the most to this day: death metal. Soon I would be all over bands like Dismember, Unleashed, Entombed, Grave, Napalm Death, Sarcofago, Massacra, Death, etc. Although this is a very sketchy account of my personal metal history, it is meant to suggest that I was carefully nurtured to the different metal sub-genres and I have always had a broad appreciation of the metal spectrum.

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From left to right: Thomas, Marcus, Andre, Hansi circa 1988.

As it also happens with metal fans sometimes, my move from a less to a more “extreme” metal sub-genre usually meant a relative depreciation of the former. This was particularly pronounced when I started listening to death metal and I suddenly lost all interest in traditional heavy metal and power metal. Indeed, even today if someone asks me which the albums that I have consistently considered to be the most godly over the years are, I would reply with albums like Symbolic (Death), Clandestine (Entombed), Indecent and Obscene (Dismember), With fear I kiss the burning darkness (At the Gates), Heartwork (Carcass), Legion (Deicide), without a second thought. These are, without kidding, what I just thought! Yet, now on second thought, I would also include a number of albums by Maiden, Dio, Slayer, Rage, and others. However, there is also one album, that I excluded in the above list on purpose, that I would also include without second thought. That would be Blind Guardian’s Imaginations…. In my mind both traditional metal albums and death metal albums can be monumental, yet the former clearly belong to a different class to the latter. I have always considered death metal much more interesting, inventive, even critical, compared to traditional metal sub-genres. Blind Guardian is probably the only band that reconciles the creativity, aggression, criticality of death metal, and the fantasy, musicality and entertaining component of traditional metal.

bg2One of the most noteworthy things about Blind Guardian is their stamina. Over the years, I have witnessed – these are all personal opinions of course – countless once brilliant bands of the same scene, like Helloween (post 2000), Gamma Ray (post 1995) and Rage (post 2002), deteriorating on a downward spiral to becoming embarrassing shadows of their former selves. Yet, Blind Guardian managed to reinvent themselves over the years and constantly develop their unique style, leading to the release of an unprecedented masterpiece (what could easily be their best album ever) three months ago. No band that has been active for so long can claim to have achieved this.

BG circa early 90sBlind Guardian quickly released three albums between 1988 and 1990 that had pretty much the same style; fast power metal that combined elements of the quintessential German power metal band at the time, Helloween, and traditional English heavy metal. These influences are quite obvious. “Run for the night“, one of the standout tracks off their debut, sounds quite similar to “Starlight” off Helloween’s debut EP. Kai Hansen, the co-leader of Helloween made guest appearances in all first four Blind Guardian albums. With regard to their British metal influence, on their second album they covered the song “Don’t break the circle” off Demon‘s great second album The unexpected guest. Moreover, the even not so trained listener will be able to distinguish the NWOBHM influence in Blind Guardian’s early work, especially in the twin guitar harmonies. The twin guitar harmonies on “Majesty” (around 2:30), another classic from their debut, remind a lot the melody and overall approach of White Spirit on songs like “Fool for the gods” (at 4:25). Common element in those three releases is the epic atmosphere and speed. Although the style in their first three releases is somewhat constant, their third album shows signs of refinement and broadening of scope, exemplified on the track “Lord of the rings”.

The big change happened in 1992, with the release of their fourth masterpiece Somewhere far beyond. While the most obvious changes include the more ambitious orchestration and the complication of songwriting in general, I think the biggest change is Hansi’s singing, which evolved from an accompanying to a leading instrument. At that point Hansi’s melodies became the factor that took Andre’s music to new unreachable heights. The riffing as well explored new territories and embraced all the different techniques in the metal world, opening up new expressive avenues to the band. Triplet riffs that go back to the opening notes of Deep Purple‘s “Highway star“, and taken to new heights by thrash bands like Exodus (“Piranha“, “Deranged“), Metallica (“Damage inc”), Kreator (“No reason to exist” among many others), Sodom (“Shellfire defence“), and of course, Iced Earth (“Iced earth“), assumed new life in the competent hands of Marcus and Andre. I personally think that the influence of Manowar should not be underplayed either at this stage of Blind Guardian’s evolution. Songs like “Holy war” I consider to be blueprints for Blind Guardian’s sound.

The ultimate musical masterpiece. Whoever disagrees can go fuck themselves.

The ultimate musical masterpiece. Whoever disagrees can go fuck themselves.

Since then Blind Guardian committed to providing excellent musical narratives that enchant and cultivate the listener. I honestly discover new things whenever I listen to Imaginations… even though I have been listening to it non-stop for 20 years (and the same goes for all Blind Guardian albums). Another big change occurred with the release of Nightfall in middle earth (1998), in which the band slowed down its rampant pace considerably. Just like with the case of Somewhere far beyond that took the band to a new direction, Nightfall… was the album that would pave the way for the new Blind Guardian that, probably, looked for inspiration more to Savatage and progressive rock than thrash and speed metal. I would also postulate that the experimentation of their peers, Rage with an orchestra on Lingua Mortis (1996) must have had an effect on what Blind Guardian envisioned for the future. A night at the opera (2002) is an unprecedented progressive metal masterpiece, to this day probably my second favorite Blind Guardian album. This is an extremely thickly textured album, suffering from a not-particularly-good production. Despite that its brilliance is unquestionable. This album was the second major break with the band’s speed metal past, having just one song that is reminiscent of the speed metal days (i.e. “Punishment divine“). When this album was released I was going through a period of cynicism with regard to the metal genre and I remember being totally disappointed with the absence of fast songs. I remember that the biggest metal record store in Athens (Rock City) opened on a Sunday (all stores are closed on Sundays) just to sell the then-newly-released Blind Guardian album. Blind Guardian fans were a bit restless so they pushed their way through the entrance and, although I still don’t know exactly what happened, the glass doors shattered to the ground.

In A twist in the myth (2006) the band continued down the progressive path it had taken in the previous two albums, albeit with a much less ambitious orchestration and song structures in general. I consider it one of their most accessible albums. I also consider it to be in many ways the pinnacle of their songwriting, and if it ended with “Lionheart” it could easily be my second favorite BG album. “Otherland“, “Another stranger me“, “Carry the blessed home” are absolute masterpieces. The album that followed (At the edge of time, 2010), on the one hand, looked nostalgically in the past, with songs like “A voice in the dark” and “Tanelorn“. On the other hand, it also explored new territory for the band with the symphonic “Sacred worlds” and the long epic “Wheel of time“.

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From left to right: Andre, Hansi, Marcus, Frederik circa 2014

Which brings us to 2015, when after almost 30 years of astounding musical offerings Blind Guardian manage to release what could be their most beautiful, inventive and ambitious masterpiece yet. It’s been more than three months since I bought Beyond the red mirror and I still can’t believe my ears. My only problem with the album, which irritated me a lot at first, is that the rhythm guitars – an important ingredient in BG’s sound – are way too low in the mix. Other than that, the album’s brilliance is indescribable. I will save the more elaborate review for the Best off list at the end of the year. Until then do yourselves a favour and listen to Blind Guardian, probably the best band of all time.



Guilty pleasures #1

What is the definition of a guilty pleasure? I would say that a guilty pleasure has two parameters: firstly, it is when one derives pleasure from something which contradicts or is inconsistent with one’s tastes, and, secondly, it is when this inconsistency causes one to feel both personal (the “I” of the self) or/and social (the “me” of the self) embarrassment. A guilty pleasure implies that we have particular aesthetic standards that exclude the derivation of pleasure from cultural artifacts that fall outside these aesthetic standards. However, if we actually like something that falls outside of these standards doesn’t it mean that they were wider than we thought, to begin with, and that we should re-evaluate them? That would not make it a guilty pleasure though; it would just make it a surprising pleasure, at first, followed by the cognitive stage of being accepted as a new pleasure in line with our newly reconsidered aesthetic standards. That rarely happens though; the pleasure inconsistent with the aesthetic standards with which we want to identify remains a guilty pleasure. The reason behind our unwillingness to admit to different aesthetic standards – where embarrassment lies – can be found in the meanings that are attached to different aesthetics as well as in the degree to which our identity is depended on our cultural tastes.

When I was younger, back in Greece, I was part of a small group of friends whose cultural practices revolved around metal music. Therein, I felt the peer pressure to some degree to conform to what the group considered “true” or “serious” metal. As I have described in a previous post, what constituted true metal was the result of interaction and negotiation with the Greek metal press, older well-respected metalheads from around our town, and each other. So, people whom we admired lent legitimacy to the bands that they listened to. People whom we did not know, however, and we did not know whether they were “true”, were judged on the basis of our already held perceptions of what “serious” is. Our group set some blurry subcultural boundaries early on, that somewhat determined the parameters of negotiation. These boundaries reflected the typical heteronormative hegemonic masculinity that we all performed. An appearance that signified femininity was frowned upon, so hair-metal bands were doomed from the start. Bands with fantasy lyrics were also frowned upon, because they were admired by people whom we considered nerds. High-pitched vocals were accepted on the condition that the music and overall style was serious, usually meaning being devoid of happy melodies and major chord progressions. After a certain point all power metal bands were made fun of.

Sarcofago on the back-cover of the inimitable The laws of scourge

Sarcofago on the back-cover of the inimitable The laws of scourge

Still, bands like Crimson Glory were initially accepted, although we would make our disapproval of their looks known by calling them “Crimson Floroi” (i.e. Crimson sissies). Sarcofago, a band we always admired, was also made fun of due to the BDSM aesthetics they had during the Laws of scourge period. Another classic negotiation would concern bands like Manowar. Manowar was considered a ridiculous band among the people in the group, yet because we could not resist the brilliance of songs like “Black wind, fire and steel”, “Carry on”, “Heart of steel” and “Kingdom come”, we would still listen to them among ourselves but we would never admit to liking Manowar outside our group. A public admittance would position us – or so we thought because we imposed our interpretation of what serious metal is to the gaze of others – to the “poser” category.

This is aimed as the introduction to a series of posts in which I will discuss my guilty musical pleasures. In future posts I will demonstrate, using personal experiences, how guilty pleasures do not exist independently of the social situation in which one finds themselves and the position one occupies in such a social situation.