overground scene


On reviewing albums

Getting angry at album reviews has been a past-time activity since my early teenage years. It is almost a masochistic fascination. I remember looking forward to reading the album reviews section on the Greek Metal Hammer, even though I knew that I was going to be pissed off. Over the years it became obvious to me that musical tastes are to a large extent subjective. Still that realisation did not stop me from getting angry at those reviewers who had a different opinion to mine. I eventually realised that the reason I would get angry was twofold. Firstly, I was angry with the fact that reviewers with a different opinion to mine received exposure by virtue of being in a mainstream magazine, which endowed them with the power to shape tastes. Secondly, I was angry because of the language they used. They would talk as if they stated an indisputable, objective fact, rather than a subjective opinion.

The times of print magazines and their monopoly in shaping public opinion are over. But the practice of authoritatively expressing opinions as if they were facts persists. The Metal Archives, also known as Encyclopaedia Metallum, is an amazing initiative and one I resort to almost daily. I mainly use it to look up connections between bands and information on discographies. But another feature of this resource is its album reviews written by registered users of the website. I almost never read those reviews, given that I know that I will disagree with the reviewers anyway. But from time to time I will come across an album rating (the average of all the ratings given by reviewers) that I will find so surprising that will make me want to read the reviewers’ rationale.

Recently I came across some terrible disparaging reviews of albums that I adore. Some of those reviewers are so deluded that they somehow think that they have cultural authority to judge what is good and what is bad. One of them had the nerve of telling the audience not to buy an album that the reviewer disliked! Here are five albums that I love but were reviewed in extremely unfair and ridiculous ways. As opposed to what I usually do, which is only giving my opinion on albums that I have carefully evaluated and discovered positive things about, I will respond to those reviews using their own disparaging language.

1. Scanner – Mental reservation (62% on Metal Archives)

One of the most obnoxious cases is Scanner’s absolute masterpiece from 1995, Mental reservation. This is an album that is clearly different from their first two albums. The latter were your average 1980s power metal albums, with awkward singers, and straightforward song structures sticking for most of the time to the popular music canon. I still like those albums, but comparing them to masterpieces like Mental reservation or Ball of the damned (1997) would be a crime. The album in question is amongst the best albums ever recorded. Leo Szpigiel is one of the most exciting singers in the German power metal scene, a truly genius singer and composer. The song structures are rarely straightforward. Each song has mood changes, beautiful chord progressions as well as verse-bridge-chorus progressions, musical intervals, perfect and more riffs that entire albums by other bands. Axel’s riffing is on an all time high on this album (listen to the mouth-watering verse-riff on “Upright liar“, or the triplet goodness of “Rubberman“). Each song has an awesomely crafted and memorable chorus. The lyrics and the story are beautiful. I cannot believe how anyone could listen to this album and not fall in love with it. There’s no point picking out favorite songs because each single song is a remarkable masterpiece. 100%

2. Sinister – Savage or grace (55% on Metal Archives)

The problem with some ratings on Metal Archives is that even if certain reviewers have actually made an effort to do a decent review of an album, a number (I’m using the word “number” here as in “I am not a number, I’m a free man”) might come along and destroy the overall rating. This is the case with Sinister’s Savage or grace. The horrid 55% rating is due to one reviewer who gave the album a 5%. Now, this reviewer admits that this was the first Sinister album they had ever heard. If that is the case why rush to publish an utterly rubbish review? Why judge a band whose history or style you are completely unaware of? I think it would be much more interesting if people shared their opinions about albums they make an effort to understand. I would not review a recent Arch Enemy album because I stopped following them 20 years ago, and I know that they play a type of music I haven’t made an effort to understand. I would not review a Nightwish album either, because they play a type of music I haven’t bothered with, so it is likely that I will not appreciate what they have to offer. So, the reviewer of Savage or grace should not have bothered writing a bunch of crap about Aad, Rachel, and one of the most genius guitarists in the planet, Ron van de Polder, who composed this album. An album that indeed suffers from a poor production, but every single song is a small orgasmic masterpiece. More vile reviews have been written about two other masterpieces by Sinister, Aggressive measures (1998) and Creative killings (2001), but I’ll get to that another time. 94%

3. Gamma Ray – Sign no more (63% on Metal Archives)

Gamma Ray’s Sigh no more might be my all-time favourite album by them. It is their last album featuring genius (and greatly missed from other GR releases) bassist Uwe Wessel, who wrote or co-wrote some of the best songs in Gamma Ray’s career, including “Changes“, “Start running” and “The spirit“. It is also the only album featuring the talents of Uli Kusch, a truly awesome drummer and arranger (listen to some awesome chops on “As time goes by“). This is one of the last power metal albums where the genre was going forward with new fresh ideas. Scheepers is giving some of his best performances ever. The first reviewer on top at least explicitly mentions her/his standpoint; s/he learned about Gamma Ray through No world order, an album I cannot listen to even if someone paid me. It makes sense if someone likes that version of Gamma Ray to not necessarily like the old Gamma Ray. But don’t fucking characterise their old masterpieces as “weak and overblown” for fucks sake! Another heavy metal authority who also likes No world order (my condolences) gave the album a 15%. Another reviewer who gave the album a 34% has some extremely laughable opinions (presented as facts) about the album’s “constant rock beat”, “laughable lyrics” and, last but not least, the profound “there is little value whatsoever here”. To use the same kind of eloquent language, this album is fucken awesome! 93%

4. Slayer – Repentless (48% on Metal Archives)

Slayer is a band famous for many things, including having some of the most fanatic and committed non-admirers. I can understand why someone might feel the need to slag off a band that is almost universally admired and recognised for its contributions to popular music. A band held to such high regard might be a bit too much for someone who does not agree with this recognition, who thinks that the band in question does not deserve it. Of course, that does not make the person in question any less a whinny little brat. If you don’t like a band just do what the rest of us do and don’t listen to it. The second reviewer gave the album a 30% had the nerve of admitting that s/he “listened to this thing twice full though”. An album that has taken a band ages to put together can surely be appreciated after two “full through” listens. What a number. Anyway, I am not going to repeat how much and why I liked this album, you can read my review here. Slayer are gods, they have over the years mastered the art of song-writing, and they became famous for their ability to compose songs like they do. In this album, Jeff or no Jeff, they did the same. 92%

5. Rage – Seasons of the black (69% on Metal Archives)

Rage’s new album is a great example of what is wrong with some of these reviews. The album just came out, yet a bunch of people, without taking some time to listen to the album a few times, re-evaluate their initial response, allow themselves to discover new things, rushed into making a negative judgement in a public platform. What gets to me is how some people, with regard to Rage, seem to completely ignore the band’s rich history and take as a given that Smolski was the best thing that happened to Rage. To these people I have to say that there was a worldwide following in the late 1980s and 1990s that loved Rage and who don’t give a shit about Smolski and his self-involved guitar playing and deaf-tone “melodies”. With regard to Rage’s new album, which I’ve been listening to non-stop for a month now, I have to say that it is almost perfect. Beautiful choruses, awesome riffs, awesome drumming, mindbogglingly beautiful melodies and song-structures. It’s an album full of catchy, inventive songs, and this is what old-school Rage fans like. 90%

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Propagandhi, intertextuality, and YouTube.

Propagandhi is one of my all-time favourite hardcore-punk bands, a band that constantly develops its style instead of resting on its laurels. They have proved themselves time and time again over their 25 years-long career. One of the things I really like about Propagandhi is that lyrically their songs are quite obscure. In some cases I find their lyrics relatively straightforward, but mostly I experience them as labyrinths of signifiers very difficult to navigate.

A classification I like, although I do find problematic at the same time, is the distinction between “readerly” and “writerly” texts. Barthes (1990) defines readerly texts as those that are there for passive consumption, whilst writerly texts are those meant for active consumption. The reason I am critical of the concept is because I am aware that lyrics I unproblematically decode are not “objectively” more straightforward, reactive, but rather deal with issues with which I happen to be familiar.

Nevertheless, I still think that the distinction between readerly and writerly texts is valuable. To the extent that there are forms and traditions that can be considered mainstream or hegemonic, and others that are counter-hegemonic, those two concepts have heuristic value. It could be argued that most of Propagandhi’s songs are writerly texts; their meanings are not immediately and unproblematically decipherable because they often deal with counter-hegemonic or non-mainstream topics. For this reason, they require dedication and cultural labour on behalf of the listener.

Indeed, I was recently reading the lyrics of “Rock for sustainable Capitalism” off their masterpiece titled Potemkin city limits (2005). It is clearly a song about the appropriation of underground protest music by the Capitalist music industry. The beginning of the song, however, eluded me completely; I had no idea what it was referring to. The same goes for another awesome song whose lyrics I happened to be reading one day, the song “Potemkin city limits” off Supporting caste (2009). The lyrics tell a story of oppression, escape, capture, and death, but the specifics of the story always eluded me.

Recently I found myself listening to “Rock for sustainable Capitalism” on YouTube. At some point I hovered over the comments section, and I came across a discussion that focused on the beginning of the song. Through this discussion I discovered that the song actually refers to Lars Frederiksen and the Bastards‘ song “To have and have not“. This discovery allowed me to appreciate the Propagandhi song even more, although I’ve been listening to it for 12 years. For the first time I appreciated the comedic element of Chris’s lyrics, and even now I find it hard to listen to the song without cracking up. I then looked for “Potemkin city limits” on YouTube. In this case, too, the mystery of the lyrics was quickly solved by reading the comments. The sad story of oppression and murder was about a pig that briefly escaped death in the abattoir and roamed free for months in the countryside, before it was eventually captured.

The YouTube user Tommy Lindberget informed the audience about Francis the pig.

“Rock for sustainable Capitalism” and “Potemkin city limits” are intertextual; they refer to other texts, and knowing those other texts reveals hidden meanings. One of the texts the former references is the Lars Frederiksen video clip. One of the texts “Potemkin city limits” references is a real-life text/urban legend of animal liberation, torture and murder. YouTube and music fans, in this case, work in unison forming an intertextual enabler (Fiske, 1991); YouTube gives the platform to music fans to produce commentary that reveals those hidden meanings that, in my case, were lying dormant in the song lyrics, waiting to be discovered.

References

Barthes, R. (1990) S/Z. London: Blackwell.

Fiske, J. (1991) ‘Moments of television: neither the text nor the audience’, in: Seiter, E. et al. (eds) Remote control: television, audiences and cultural power, London: Routledge, pp.56-78.



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.

der3

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).

der2

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]



Heavy metal news websites: why is “Ratt” newsworthy?

A similar question to the one in the title of this post, is one I used to ask myself quite often when I first started reading Blabbermouth many years ago. Why are news-feeds full of news stories about completely irrelevant bands? Why do hasbeens from the 1980s still populate Heavy metal news? The aim of this post is to reflect critically upon the character of mainstream Heavy metal journalism as exemplified by news websites such as Blabbermouth and MetalSucks.

In my opinion, there are three factors that need to be taken into account when thinking about the content of Heavy metal news websites: First, the imperative of profit in journalism, second, the effects of digitisation on journalism, and, third, the relative power of bands and record companies to act as news sources.

Mainstream Heavy metal websites such as Blabbermouth and MetalSucks aim to generate revenue through selling audiences to brands. Blabbermouth commands the attention of a wide audience around the world, and that is its selling point. The text that follows is taken from Blabbermouth’s “ADVERTISE” page:

Get backstage access to millions of hard rock & heavy metal fans from around the world via a broad range of campaign options; display, video, social, custom executions, and more.

Request the Blabbermouth.net Media Kit to learn more about available campaign bundles, demographics, and pricing. Or simply touch base directly to receive a customized proposal based on your objectives, budget, and timeline. (Source: Advertise – Blabbermouth)

A similar text can be found in the “Advertising” page of MetalSucks (see below). A further enquiry into Blastbeat, the company that manages – among others – MetalSucks’s advertising strategy, provides further information on the variety of brands to which heavy metal fan audiences are sold as commodities (these brands include 20th Century Fox, Orange, Peavy, Epic, Nuclear Blast, Relapse, and many more).

MetalSucks is represented for advertising by the Blast Beat Network of heavy metal sites, which also includes Metal Injection, Lambgoat, The PRP, Decibel and several other of the world’s top metal properties and reaches 14 million unique viewers monthly.

Blast Beat has worked with both Fortune 500 companies and unsigned bands; no advertising request is too big or too small. We have a variety of ad placements available to suit your needs, whatever they may be. (Source: Advertise on MetalSucks)

Heavy metal fans who read Blabbermouth and MetalSucks are exposed to various music and non-music related products that advertisers pay Blabbermouth to promote. Of course, the brands that are most likely to benefit from appearing on a music news website are bands. So, it would not be far-fetched to hypothesise that the readers of Blabbermouth are also packaged as an audience commodity (Fuchs 2014) and sold to the bands themselves. Because of Blabbermouth’s imperative to make profit, it treats its audience (the heavy metal fans) as a commodity that is sold to brands and bands from around the world.

The second factor I want to explore is the effects of digitisation on heavy metal journalism. News websites differ from traditional news media in that they are not static. Websites are dynamic, news are constantly updated, and new stories can be reported in almost real-time. This affordance of web 2.0 (see, Flew 2002) defines the rules of competition in online journalism, which can be summarised in the expression “you snooze, you lose”. If a news website wants to maintain the attention of its audience it has to generate news constantly, or else the audience will switch to a competing website. If a news website loses its audience it also loses its source of revenue, because it no longer has something to offer to advertisers (various brands, as well as record companies). Blabbermouth and MetalSucks need to churn out news stories constantly. This creates the following problem: how do we keep the flow of content (almost) uninterrupted? This problem can be addressed in two ways. First, the website could employ many journalists that investigate and produce new stories. This option is costly. Second, the website could rely primarily on stories generated by others. Which brings me to my next point.

If Heavy metal news websites depend on existing stories to populate their news-feed, then the relative power of bands and record companies to act as news sources should also be considered. Record companies act as news sources by publishing press releases (on the relationship between news and public relations, see Cottle 2003; McCullagh 2002; Reich 2010) or arranging interviews with bands.  A press release is a very convenient source of news for a website like Blabbermouth or MetalSucks, because it is written by someone else, it is easily accessible, and it is easily reproducible. It is a practice that serves the record company (which advertises its bands indirectly without having to pay proper advertising fees) and the news website alike (which has access to content for “free”). It follows that the record companies and musicians that are more capable of constantly generating press releases, are those more likely to end up dominating attention on websites like Blabbermouth and MetalSucks.

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Sensational news on Blabbermouth and MetalSucks.

A final point I want to make, related to attracting audiences, is the journalistic practice of creating sensational news stories. If a news story is sensational it is expected to attract more attention. To understand why “the sensational” sells, we should consider the sad reality of alienation in capitalist societies and people’s fascination with idle talk (Gunkel and Taylor 2014, p. 39). Sites like Blabbermouth and MetalSucks excel in constructing sensational stories. Even if a news story is not essentially sensational, these websites often deploy practices in order to give stories a scandalous appearance. One practice is the generation of misleading and evasive titles known as clickbait. Another practice is the framing of stories through selecting and emphasising aspects of a story that are more sensational than others (De Vreese 2005).

So, maybe the reason why we are constantly exposed to news stories about bands like Skid Row, and Ratt, and Motley Crue, and a bunch of other hasbeens and their embarrassing intrigues and sad lives, is that websites like Blabbermouth and MetalSucks need to link audiences to advertisers, and in order to do that they need to attract and maintain the attention of audiences by providing a constant stream of news stories. Bands that are more likely to afford constantly generating (sensational) news stories are those posers that became millionaires during the 1980s as well as contemporary posers and hipsters who are already famous, or whose record companies and themselves aspire to become famous.

In any case I think it would be interesting if the hypotheses I put forward in this post were tested more rigorously. It would be interesting to measure, for example, the presence on Blabbermouth of successful record companies like Nuclear Blast compared to that of smaller companies. Maybe I’ll do that when I find the time. For the time being enjoy a song dedicated to all those posers that dominate our attention on Heavy metal news-sites.

References

Cottle, S. (ed) (2003) News, public relations and power. London: Sage.

De Vreese, C.H. (2005) ‘News framing: theory and typology’, Information design journal and document design, 13 (1) pp. 51-62. 

Flew, T. (2002) New media: an introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fuchs, C. (2014) Social media: a critical introduction. London: Sage.

Gunkel, D.J. and Taylor, P.A. (2014) Heidegger and the media. UK: Polity.

McCullagh, C. (2002) Media power: a sociological introduction. London: Palgrave.

Reich, Z. (2010) ‘Measuring the impact of PR on published news in increasingly fragmented news environment: a multifaceted approach’, Journalism Studies, 11(6) pp. 799-816.

 



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.



Metallica in Glastonbury: Ethics and popular music

A few hours ago an extraordinary campaign for the world of popular music started taking place, a campaign to ban Metallica from playing in Glastonbury festival. The official reason behind this campaign is Hetfield’s indeed appalling hobby of bear hunting. Although I agree with the basic premise, I disagree with the conclusion.

Practices of musicians, promoters and audiences alike, that have a moral dimension are not a new thing. In fact, they are an everyday phenomenon. Every time that a fan of Malevolent Creation – who likes their music but hates their politics – does not attend one of their gigs, this fan makes a morally informed decision. It could also be said that all those fans who attend the concert also make a moral decision, either with their approval or with their acquiescence. Jello Biafra’s decision to not appear with his band in Israel has a moral dimension, as well as the practices of all those other bands that do appear in Israel.

What it all comes down to is, should we reduce the identities of musicians down to their capacity to create music or should we take into account all other aspects of their identities? Musicians are people whom most of us have decided to judge based on the music they create rather than all their other personal and social practices. However, the advent of the internet and the tendency of even alternative media to treat musicians as celebrities have opened a window to musician’s personal lives. I personally lost respect for many of my music heroes over the years.  I sometimes think that I would prefer not knowing about musicians’ personal lives. On the other hand, I would not like to support fascist bands. It appears that enjoying music regardless of musicians’ politics and staying true to one’s values are two things that are very difficult to be reconciled.

The heavy metal genre had working class origins within which very specific discourses operate. Based on the context within which heavy metal was born, it would be very unlikely for sexism, for example, to not be present. A moral stance that punishes all musicians who are sexist would mean the dismissal of the heavy metal genre in its entirety. Of course, social actors based on their different biographies have differential degrees of agency within any structure. Accordingly, heavy metal musicians can be sexist to different degrees or even be critical of sexism. In any case, the social, cultural and economic contexts in which music happens should be taken into account, without this meaning that we should absolve musicians and forgive their shortcomings.

Now, there are two reasons why I find the reaction to Metallica’s appearance a bit hypocritical. The organisers of the campaign argue that removing Metallica is important because:

"This is a cruel and abhorrent thing to do. 
Killing animals for food is one thing. 
But killing for so called sport is wrong.

They have thus arbitrarily decided that killing animals for sport is wrong, but killing them for food is ok, which I find problematic. The other interesting thing about Metallica‘s headlining appearance in Glastonbury is that when it was first announced, I witnessed some negative reactions in various online forums. The reason seemed to be that the audience associated with Glastonbury has not been a heavy metal audience historically. One of the things that I read was that people who had already bought tickets before the headlining act was revealed would definitely be disappointed.

This is the basic reason I have to question the motives behind the campaign against Metallica. Metallica’s appearance would disappoint lots of people who have bought tickets and would have preferred another headlining act. Additionally, all the douchebags who buy a bunch of tickets in advance and then sell them back in super-inflated prices to people who did not manage to secure a ticket, would also be disappointed. Who says that the campaign was not started, or, if not started, supported, by some of those people?

Would Glastonbury’s audience accept Dave’s Megadeth to appear in the festival? Dave has written the song “Countdown to extinction”, a song explicitly critical to practices such as bear-baiting. Yet, Dave also has some pretty radical right-wing views. I personally think that what it comes down to is probably musical taste and opportunism. Nevertheless, this development raises interesting questions with regard to the changing relationship between artists and their audiences, the role of social media in the democratisation of decision making, or corporate responsibility and the role of the public, among other things.



An imagined open letter from Trey Azagthoth

I understand that I do not represent the average Metal music-fan because such a thing does not exist. This is a statement whose truth would be challenged by most people on online fora such as Blabbermouth, who talk with authority as if music taste is the most objective thing on earth. And with this certainty comes the conviction that we Metal music fans value the same things and generally should know what is good and what not. And that extends to other types of music too.

The average metal music fan does not exist because each person builds their own reality. This reality is shaped by our various subjective experiences and it helps us make sense of the world. For too long, and with great persistence, the image of Death Metal that I formed was associated with notions such as freedom, innovativeness, art and resistance. The notions of commercialism, conformity and work could not exist on the same page as Death Metal.

One of the unfortunate results of the internet is the opportunity to look into artists’ lives. That has led to the slow crumbling of the noble idea of death metal (and metal) I used to have. Through the internet the rock star attitudes and the petty views of musicians are exposed. I will use this post first and foremost to say what death metal means to me and, secondly, to once again defend Morbid Angel‘s latest work. This is what I would want Trey Azagthoth to say to all those saying that they sold out, that they don’t play death metal, that they released the worst death metal album of all time, etc. I have no idea if any of the following are real, but I would sure like them to be.

“Dear people who had something to say about the new album and Morbid Angel,

I would like to start by saying that I am an artist. This means that I use the means available to me, such as my music skills, to express what I feel inside me. This is my motivation. To take parts of my reality and translate them into music. I appreciate that throughout all these years some of you have appreciated this personal journey that I set out to make and supported me. However, I did not do it for you. You just happened to like it for one reason or the other. I may have not put too much thought on how the music industry may appropriate this journey to make money because I am mainly interested in art. Of course, my involvement in the music industry has allowed me to live a decent life through playng music. Rather than wasting my money, like the Rock stars whose attitude I opposed all these years since I started my journey, I used them with prudence. So today I am in the pleasant position to continue creating what I like without caring what others think.

I understand that you feel disappointed with our current choices of artistic expression, some of you would not even call art. However, there is nothing I can do about it. I would certainly not consider doing anything that is against my artistic vision just to please someone else. Also, some of you argue that if I want to stop playing pure death metal I should do it under a different name, not Morbid Angel. Again this is an unreasonable request. Morbid Angel represents my artistic vision and one’s artistic vision is by definition dynamic. Your vision may be one thing one day and something completely different the next one because you see things differently every day. So, the idea that a band name should be associated with a specific recipee is wrong to begin with and should be discarded.

Finally, if the new record sets the foundations for our fan-base to become smaller or to be reconfigured, I will welcome this change. Death metal was never meant to be a music for the masses, because the masses are too alienated. Today’s death metal is for the masses and I would prefer not to be a part of it. The fact that death metal is successful today says something about the state of this type of music.”