Saturday, 31 March 2012
At the end of February, I was invited to go on a ten day cruise to Guam and Saipan. To be honest, neither cruises nor Pacific islands are my thing. This has less to do with destinations and means of transportation than it does the concepts of travel and tourism. Nevertheless, at the end of March I found myself on the large ship Asuka II, lazily skidding across the Pacific, enjoying buffet breakfasts and specially prepared, elegant, if not a little unadventurous (special order) vegetarian dinners.
On Sunday we arrived in Guam. If Hawaii is a distant seaside play space for America, then Guam is a more inaka, more bimbo version of Hawaii. Just further away. Let me clear up some terms here, inaka is a great Japanese word which loosely translates as "country/suburban/not cool". It is a great word because it embodies both admiration and fear. Bimbo then means poor or impoverished. However, unlike in English it does not carry the same class connotations. In Japanese, it is quite possible to be poor and also have class. Being poor is recognised as a way of being on a sliding scale, it is relative, proportionate and not forever.
It can be said then that Guam is both inaka and bimbo. The following day found me in Saipan, which was quite similar to its slightly more southern cousin but exhibited a number of interesting differences. First there was an abundance of "poker" clubs, next less general wear and tear on the buildings in the CBD and finally a near ubiquitous signage proclaiming acceptance of food stampsas currency for groceries. What this suggests to this amateur anthropologist is that the divide between rich and poor is more deeply engrained in Saipan than it is in Guam. In other words, where Guam appears more rough and ready and somewhat poor on the surface, it is so universally, whereas in Saipan the division is more strongly regionalism. Pacific readers feel free to correct/inform me if I am too far off the mark. Or just flat out wrong.
Meanwhile although both places are somewhat far from mainland USA, and their basic flavour somewhat spiced with local cultural and ethnic influences, they nevertheless feel like America. What I mean is that in terms of shopping, eating and leisure there is an unmistakable emphasis on excess. Everything is BIG. Portions are big, prices are big, and this is all supposed to provide satisfaction. But why don't I feel satisfied when participating in this environment? Why is there a lack of attention to subtlety, elegance and grace? I find a similar situation in Australia, it is almost as though the energy taken in the original colonial impetus exhausted the desire for refinement. Another way of saying this would be that conquering lands and peoples is enough. That conquest itself is the ultimate feat of culture. But is this so, in this post colonial world being recolonised, redrawn and reconfigured along new emerging economic paradigms and practices located primarily in and around China?
So what will be left once the conquering colonising titans of previous centuries and the makers of today's world have been replaced? What will their cultural legacy be? How will they be remembered once their dominance has subsided? What aspects of their culture will be celebrated, fondly recalled and made objects of nostalgia by the new, dominant elite? Time will tell.
Meanwhile, in the above mentioned interview with Wobble, two points in particular piqued my interest. The first was the reality of a disenfranchised generation whose awareness of their disenchantment was very different to the interviewee’s own. This struck me as profoundly prescient, as latter generations including my own would arrive at very different formations of belonging and identity mediated by a social flattening via technology. Dissatisfaction with status quo certainly still exists but the level of access to certain types of material goods and technological levels has, in my opinion, created a very different perception of the connection, of self identity, society and the state wherein helplessness has been reconfigured as inevitability. Transgression of this new state requires technological transgression/fleeing and in this age of technological dominance in everyday life, performing such a break can be source of great pain and alienation.
Frankly, I believe that the current overreliance on contemporary methods of communication are in themselves a form of alienation. Though their potential in actualising a level of connection between peoples cannot be denied, their function requires excision from the physical/natural world. This is more than just about a rehash of analog versus digital but rather a reimagining identity that gives more weight to its cyberspace articulation than its realworld counterpart. To break with technology now is to break with the forward momentum of modern society. Scary stuff.
The second point of interest in the Wobble interview was on the appearance of culturally different influences in music. He referred to when Stockhausen went to Japan and returned utilising Japanese influences in his compositions. Or so people said. To which Stockhausen replied, “I am not influenced by Japanese music, I simply found the Japanese in me”. Wobble extends this further with regard to his own context as I do now with my own.
I have written in the past, a number of times about blues, jazz and metal and always tried to understand just what attracts me to it. Thanks to Wobble, I believe I may well have opened a door onto the beginning of such an understanding.
As a child of mixed ethnic heritage, descendents of colonisers and post World War Two European refugees, I grew up in the rural outskirts of Australia and felt an intimate connection to the landscape. Being poor put me in a context where I was alienated from my ethnic roots and connected with a “non-ethnic” white meanstream but mixed up too with an indigenous context. This three pronged ethnic environment engaged European roots, colonial duration in foreign landscapes and the great despair and pride of the displaced and abused indigenous. It is now as I write that I begin to see where my affinity for jazz and the blues comes from. It has been about finding the pain and joy of the colonial within.
Wednesday, 21 March 2012
Earlier this week I started writing an article entitled Death Metal: Grotesquery, Fetish, Misogyny. In this article I considered the predominance of misogynist representation in grotesque death metal and contemplated it in relation to the feminist (Kristeva, Butler) concept of the abject. As I wrote and thought it naturally occurred to me that people have likely thought about this before me. And I was right, Keith Kahn-Harris has in the past engaged with death metal, scenes, ethics of representation and moral boundaries. Apart from momentarily taking the wind out of my sails, Kahn-Harris’ work actually helped crystallise something that has been bothering me intellectually for a while now: the concept of the scene.
Kahn-Harris’ scholarship is squarely positioned within the hybrid terrain between sociology and Birmingham cultural studies. It is a skilful engagement with sociology methodology (taking a youth subculture as the subject) and in my opinion an incomplete yet valuable articulation cultural studies. As far as subculture studies go, Kahn-Harris’ work is top notch, well researched and engaged with the actual community on which it reflects. My only real critique of his research (aside from subculture theory, which must be forgiven due to the temporal positioning of his research) would be that the author’s own identity as a metal head or something else remains incompletely articulated. I kept asking myself: “This dude knows his stuff, but his identity as a metal head is unclear... is that a methodological technique for objectivity? What if he’s just a poser?”.
This is not an attempt to stain his credibility but rather an attempt to address a critical post-cultural studies question: if the technology and techniques for artistic creation are as widely accessible as they are now in the present, what then becomes of the distinction between the artist and the critic? In other words, through the increasing use of social networking technologies such as Facebook, twitter, and more musically, bandcamp, music is now created in a highly information rich environment in which the creators of the information about music are now capable of almost instantly creating and publishing their own music as a form of critical response. What I am describing here is an empowering of the critic to transition to artist in a post-music business music marketplace. Naturally, not all critics are musically capable, yet the distance between them and their object of critique has significantly shrunk in the last decade. The role of reviews, analyses and critiques has changed drastically now that every other person is able to write a blog, post status updates or have their voice expressed in a comments area. Similarly, the speed at which information is created and disseminated has seen a movement away from carefully considered opinion and instead toward a more visceral, instant gratification of a “gut reaction” (witness the “reaction” video craze on Youtube a few years back).
Meanwhile, back to Kahn-Harris, my unfinished article and the concept of scene. To me the concept of “scene”, as in a “death metal scene”, is obsolete and only relevant insofar as it is an intellectual curiosity. Certainly subcultures exist and take pride in their identities, however, the means to more fully express the complexity of personal identity simply demonstrate the porosity between conceptual borders. Homosexual identity, while still an ethical problematic in metal occupies a space unimaginable in earlier decades. The same can be said for ethnic and religious identity, metal, once a white working class phenomenon has spread from the UK to India, Iran, Argentina and beyond. Similarly, as metal has spread across formations of identities and been reconfigured in different demographics, once rife traditional snobberies (“I liked Metallica until they released their first album” etc) are becoming less relevant as people adapt the genre to different standards, approaches and aesthetics (see my article on djent). Further, since scenes can exist in largely disembodied spaces thanks to social networking, many of the traditional markers of metal such as fashion (long hair, spikes, leather, denim) are becoming less necessary to a core image of what it means to be a metal head.
With regard to this last point, metal fashion is alive and kicking, as a fashion and its relevance to self-identification is increasingly determined by individual participation rather than top down, “scene” imposition. While it can signify legitimacy or authenticity it is not required to do so.
Just this morning I was reading “Being a Metalhead Today” over at the once wonderful Invisible Oranges. Back in the day, original ruler of transparent citrus, Cosmo Lee articulated an original, reflexive and nuanced perspective on heavy metal music. In Cosmo’s absence, his replacements continue to write about metal from a variety of perspectives but seldom match his level of perspicacity. Nevertheless Invisible Oranges remains a site in which sustained discussion of a relatively high quality can occur. Scab Casserole’s article falls into the trap set by sociology and articulated by Kahn-Harris over a decade ago even as it tries to move beyond this paradigm: it limits its construction of a metal head to a consumer within scene boundaries. This is something picked up on by many of the site’s readers who are keen to point out the persistent diversity running through metal even during the halcyon days which a certain generation chooses to fossilise, encase in nostalgia and worship. Just as with cars, rock, literature and family values, according to this perspective, it was all better in the old days. Indeed, the most interesting point about this article is the discussion it spawned which reflects much of what I have said here already. I suppose my only contribution is to return to the point I made earlier. I believe it is about time that given the technological level of the societies in which we currently live, metal heads as critics, consumers and observers articulate their contributions via what matters in metal the most, music. There is still a role for metal writing and I believe Invisible Oranges functions as a possible site. There are many others too, but it would be fascinating to see a situation in which metal heads acted like jazz musicians and commented on the melodies, rhythms and “brutal-ness” of their peers by way of musical articulation. You did that melody that way? I hear you and I raise you this way... etc.
This is likely the most difficult article on metal I have written. Let me declare from the start that my position is definitely not impartial. I love the full spectrum of death metal aesthetics, musical, visual and thematic. From a young age, possibly due to the influence of intimate experience with the terror of mental illness in my family and in the broader community, I felt an affinity for the macabre. Horror stories, movies, album artwork had me in their thrall. I still cannot claim to fully understand this resonance although I do know that it helps me conceptualise and live with death as an integral part of living. On the other hand, there are certain trends within death metal, particularly a lingering misogyny which disturb me. To be completely rational, misogyny is certainly not confined to extreme metal, yet amid the violent, horrifying imagery, when it occurs, its effects are amplified.
What I mean by “amplification” is that misogynist violence occurring in death metal is both hyperreal and too real.
The former to me is where the thematic content exceeds itself, where it is so obviously extreme that the consciousness/reflexivity of its creation cannot be denied. In other words, it is a conceptual lexicon specifically designed to shock and disturb popular morals and raise ethical questions. In this way it becomes possible to argue that misogyny in death metal functions as a full realisation of misogyny as it is embedded, latent and executed in “normal” social and cultural communities. It says what cannot be said in polite company, it goes to the cognitive and emotional conclusions that can only be found in the darkest, unkempt depths of the mind and libido (as if the two are separate anyway).
When misogyny in death metal is evaluated out of context it can be considered too real. To victims of sexual violence and sexual abuse, there can be no doubt that implicit/explicit misogynist themes are traumatic and terrorise the viewer/listener in unintended and unpleasant ways. It functions as an echo of their experience, a repetition of trauma freely available as a result of freedom of artistic expression.
What I want to do in this article (indeed, it may well become a series, oh, is that my hibernating PhD being reconfigured as it hibernates?) is touch on the ways in which the disturbing sex(uality) practices of death metal can be unpacked as a visceral yet constructive force in confronting the intimate shitstorm that is sex, sexuality, power and violence. Before doing so, some clarification regarding death metal.
What is death metal about?
I have in the past discussed musicological elements and genre conventions of death metal. Now, however, I want to turn my attention to theme and concept.
There is no counter-argument, death metal is about the body. This statement, on reflection, is potentially redundant. After all, what music is not about the body? Music must be played and it must be heard for it to exist as such. Thus without bodies and without cognitive precedent there is no music. Meanwhile, death metal, arising as it does out of rock is a deliberate extension of the corporeal viscera initiated by the blues and later jazz. Though it has diverged somewhat from this lineage musicologically, thematically, it is as concerned with the body, pleasure and pain as its forebears ever were.
Take the lyrics of Skip James’ 1931 recording, “22-20” (later made famous as “32-20” by Robert Johnson):
If I send for my baby and she don't come
If I send for my baby and she don't come
All the doctors in Wisconsin, they won't help her none
And if she gets unruly and gets so she don't wanna do
My baby gets unruly and she don't wanna do
I'll take my .32-20, I'll cut her half in two
You're talkin' about your .44-40, buddy, it'll do very well
Talkin' about your .44-40, it'll do very well
But my .22-20, Lord, it's a burnin' hell
I had a .38 Special, buddy, it's most too light
Aw, that .38 Special, buddy, it's most too light
But my .22-20 make the caps alright
Entwined within these traditional blues refrains is a narrative of power, potency and sex. Disobedience is to be punished and death be that punishment. You got something to say? You think you’re a man? Then I’ll shoot you down too.
Although a world away from the extremely graphic lyrics that can be found on Cannibal Corpse’s Tomb of the Mutilated (and for that matter, most of their albums) such as in “Entrails ripped from a virgin’s cunt” the similarities are clear:
A relapse of my body
Sends my mind into multiple seizures
Psychologically a new human being
One that has never been
Cursed by the shamen
his voodoo spell has my soul
I can't control my own thought
Are his now
his evil consuming me
ever telling me
begin the clit carving
Slowly turning me, into a flesh eating zombie
Knowing this spell can only be broken
by the vaginal skins of young women
I proceed to find the meat
their bleeding cunts will set me free
I can't control my own thought
I can't control my own thoughts
Warmth seeping from this
After I sucked the blood from her ass
I feel more alive
more alive than I've ever been
Even though now I'm dead within
My mouth drools
As I slice your perinium
My body smeared
With the guts I've extracted
through her hole, came swollen organs
cunnilingus with the mutilated
My spirit returned from the dead
Released by the priest
but I felt more real
when I was dead
The curse is broken
I have a dependence on vaginal skin
It's become my sexual addiction
I must slit, the twitching clit
Rotted cavity hold the juice
Between the legs, I love to carve
My cock is dripping with her blood
The knowingness of two sexually potent male protagonists revelling in damnation and taking pleasure in sexually deconstructing bodies even while separated by more than half a decade and a culture of sensationalised serial killers is the same. The vocabulary may differ according to era but the root is the same: sex and violence (or love and blood if your disposition is mild). In saying this, I am not attempting to normalise the extreme violence of the kind of sexual imaginary found in death metal. Rather, I am explicitly connecting it with a consistent and enduring theme throughout popular music of the late twentieth and early twentieth century popular musics.
It is important to remember, however, that death metal, in spite of any primitiveness attributed to it by those outside of the metal context, is not static. Certainly, there are a large number of bands who have taken the misogynist imagery of early Autopsy and Cannibal Corpse and continue to repeat it, almost verbatim. What is most interesting about this phenomenon is that many of these bands are made up of teenagers still coming to terms with the physicality of sexualities and the intertwined and inescapable power relations tied to gender and identity as they transition to adulthood. Cannibal Corpse, as genre leaders meanwhile, have largely moved on from overt misogyny. Indeed, their compositions (From Vile, through to this year’s Torture) after the departure of original vocalist Chris Barnes, feature lyrics in which explicitly female identified victims are almost completely absent. When female characters do appear in these later narratives they are as frequently protagonists capable of sexual and violent depravity as they are of being victims. This suggests that in spite of repeated assertions otherwise, death metal is not simply knuckle-dragging throwback music for bullies, and criminal psychopaths. Thematic evolution is far from universal, however, and questionable conceptual choices ranging from the misogyny identified above to homophobia still occur. What I wonder though is there a different way of viewing these conceptual events that goes beyond opposition through a politics of revulsion/disgust and moves instead toward creating a fuller more nuanced appreciation of the whole spectrum of human sexuality, power and death.
So, avenues for future exploration and discussion?
*Politics of disgust, perversion and revulsion
*Masculinity and non-hetero sexual representation
*Quantitative and qualitative review of female representation
*Extremity and excess
*Sex, power, violence(s)
Any readers out there with more ideas? Let me know in the comments.
Thursday, 8 March 2012
Looking back at the earliest entries on this blog, I realise that there was a focus on reviews, particularly music. Recently, my writing has turned more towards social commentary, which is to be expected, since a quick traverse of a mere modicum of sites I would consider relevant tend to yield results conducive to outrage. I am going to honour my pledge and stay away from commentary about Japan and return once again to one of my great loves, music.
I have written about the undeniable radness of metal before. In fact, some of this entry will run close to treading the same ground. Nevertheless, as a listener of metal, as a metal head, I believe my ability to appreciate and comprehend metal increases over time and repetition. This is true of any music, the more times you listen, the more you learn to listen for and once you have found that it becomes possible to find the next hidden element.
I want to extend this dialog of discovery to the particular context of death metal and more specifically, technical death metal. First of all, some background.
The concept of extreme metal coheres around three broad genres: death metal, black metal and grindcore. These genres are not mutually exclusive and border-crossing and cross-pollination occur as frequently as they are opposed by genre purists. What they have in common is an origin in thrash. What separates them is their reaction to each other. In other words, where as death metal begins as an extremity of thrash, incorporating explicitly macabre themes, frightening textures and low pitched vocals it eventually moves toward technicality, melodic/harmonic sophistication and a broader palette of lyrical themes. Black metal sounds at first closer to thrash in that it rejects the technicality and the brutal theatricality of death metal in favour of higher pitched sounds and a general timbre of misanthropy. Later it incorporates anguish and isolation and a broad range of themes frequently stemming from identity and belonging at the margins of society as sonic and lyrical concerns and becomes increasingly technical, layered and textural. Grindcore meanwhile, as the genre name suggests takes metal down a noisy route aligned equally with punk, free jazz and noise rock as much as metal. The subject matter ranges from the grotesque to political and social commentary, its distance from other metal gauged by its adherence to non-metal musical tropes when creating musical extremity. Even so, metallic influences in grindcore have increased over time and even melody has been foregrounded in some instances.
What all three genres have in common, however, aside from distorted guitars, non-traditional vocals and prominent rhythm sections is the capacity to deconstruct stubborn musical concepts in the mind of the listener. In my opinion, extreme metal owes a far greater debt to jazz than it does rock. After all, it was jazz which decoupled harmony from rhythmic limitations imposed by European thought.
Before diving into a musicological direction, I want to briefly discuss one of the major stumbling blocks the casual music listener faces when coming to extreme metal – the vocals. For most people the vocals in a composition are the focus of listening. After all, most of us have voices, we use them everyday for speaking. Some of us sing better than others and some of us believe we can sing better than we do. Voices are used to communicate love, give directions and convey information, they are intimate and integral. A raised voice indicates anger and a hushed implies danger, secrecy or affection. With this in mind when listening to extreme metal for the first time common reactions include revulsion, confusion, anger and even fear. The fact is that voices in metal have also been used to attain specific thematic and aural effects: the deep growl of early death metal invokes hell-spawned denizens, the shrieks of black metal signify the tortured antipathy of human turned wraith and the shouting of grindcore contributes to a wall of white noise to shatter and break-down conceptual limitations. What is difficult for the new listener to grasp is both the musicological and theatrical function of these kind of vocals.
Extreme metal vocals have become a point of contention, even among the biggest fans the various genres. Some critiques posit that extreme vocals are now obsolete, especially since their co-option by more mainstream, less forward thinking musical genres. In a sense, it is possible to argue that extreme vocals have become a cliché. On the other hand it is vital to recognise their musicological value. To achieve this the listener must begin by experimenting with active listening. Once a vocal style has been decoupled from everyday logic of vocal use it can then be more accurately assessed as a musical element and not only as a voice. In other words, if we take the guitar as an example, we could say that it was never “meant” to be electrified. Early on, distorted electric tones were undesirable and considered noise, yet now they make up (along with distortion itself) a part of contemporary musical expression. Similarly, as jazz proved, tritones do not have to sound “evil”, wrong or inharmonic and that in fact when harmonic theory is decoupled from specific rhythmic and metric restraints whole new vistas of musical expression become possible. To put it most simply, it is only the limitations of the individual’s cognitive-aural conceptual framework that prevent her/him from comprehending radically “different” or inventive forms of music such as extreme metal. Using this as a starting point I now want to jump to rhythm and harmony.
If the blues and later, jazz, provided a stable and recognisable yet nevertheless radical departure from western musicological thought, extreme metal has caused a cognitive-aural explosion on par with the conceptual revolution caused by the posts (modernism, structuralism, colonialism) in literature. Unlike similarly extreme music such as found at the outer edges of the jazz world, the extreme metal musician/composer has an equal possibility of being either fully musically illiterate or in the possession of the highest level of music theory. This is what makes it so compelling. But what is it about extreme metal that allows such a level playing field? The simple answer is chromaticism coupled with rhythmic density. Divided into single coloured semi-tomes, the guitar readily lends itself to chromatic exploration. What is more, standard tuning of the strings puts a range of intervals at the hands of the guitarist which would be unlikely on a keyboard instrument. Further, with only a little practice slurring of notes (bending, glissando) as well as tremolo and vibrato are techniques easily utilised in a variety of different contexts. Add to this a range of incidental sounds such as natural and artificial harmonics, light to heavy muting and easily switchable timbres (changing pick ups, volume or tone on the fly) and the electrified guitar is an instrument virtually custom built for musicological deconstruction.
Meanwhile, thanks to jazz, extreme metal drumming is not limited to the traditional one-TWO, three-FOUR of the rock music it is descended from. Once we move into the extreme realm there is no reason why a bossa rhythm cannot cohabitate with rock as well as the off-kilter metric practices of free jazz and still remain consistent with genre conventions. Meshuggah have demonstrated numerous times just how a rhythm can sound “simple” yet in fact be incredibly complex when listened to in its full articulation. In other words a seemingly basic common time beat is frequently nestled within a larger, self-contained multi-bar rhythm which once again is given further depth and complexity when listened to as an entire cycle. This is not “easy” listening but it is rewarding and deeply life changing.
Extreme metal encourages the listener, musician or otherwise to attain a degree of musical literacy in conjunction or simply coincident with formal musical theory. Its melodies reject the sense of traditional cadences and point to new aural experiences. Harmony takes on new roles and is no longer limited to major/minor, happy/sad. Then the devastating rhythms allow listeners to stretch attention spans and cognitive possibilities to their natural limits. This complete and utter destruction, deconstruction can then be utilised in order to increase the listening pleasure of more conventional musics since the listener is now capable perceiving the context around standard rhythmic, melodic and harmonic articulations.
And that friends, is why metal rules!