The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction

I’ve decided I’m going to try to blog at least once a week about something (hopefully relevant to subscribed readers) even if it isn’t strictly about metal. Blogging is probably somewhat like playing an instrument: less frequent but high quality practice is better than lots of low quality, but you still have to practice with some regularity if you want to maintain a certain quality!

Walter Benjamin was a famous cultural/critical theorist in the early 20th century. One of his most well-known works was called “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” and was published in 1936. I thought I was being clever with my altered title until I just googled it and found that Douglas Davis had already discovered this title in the early ’90′s.

The essay begins by tracing how mechanical reproduction has changed art due to ease and availability of these tools. In ancient times, a work of art took a lot of time and skill to produce and reproduce. Even with books it was clear what the original was and what the copies were, because they had to be copied by hand.

This distinction blurred as reproductions became closer to perfect, but he points out that the original still had some special status by nature of its physical presence in space and time. I’d add at this point that as a society we value the “original copy” even if we haven’t thought through why we do this or if this is even a desirable or reasonable thing to do. For example, we value first edition printings of books and original album pressings higher than subsequent printings or pressings. The artistic content is obviously unchanged, but these “originals” have special status.

Benjamin then moves on to a discussion of the original having an “aura” about it. I’ll skip that discussion, since it isn’t really relevant to the rest of this post. The last bit in the essay I want to bring up is his discussion of exhibition. The exhibition of art used to be much more special. A limited number of people could view a work of art for a limited amount of time. The notion of an “original copy” is particularly problematic for photography, but at least through exhibition there could be an original that had some semblance of specialness.

This problem becomes even harder in the digital age where a struggling musician or writer puts out a digital copy of their work as the only copy. There are no editions or exhibitions in this case to count as a special original. This brings me to the publicity stunt I wanted to talk about. This has been circling standard news outlets, but I haven’t actually seen it come across any metal blogs, so I’m not sure how well-known it is to my readers.

The Wu-Tang Clan has decided to release an album that will only have one copy. In light of the above discussion, the album will have exhibitions all over the world. It will tour so that people can listen to it. They will not be performing it live, but rather people will sit in a room and it will play through once sort of like going to a museum to see an exhibit. The album will then be auctioned off. That one person will own it just like works of art that only have one original are owned by one person.

Is this just a publicity stunt? Maybe, but they really are hitting on the exact issues that Benjamin brought up. That essay has all but disappeared from public conversation, so part of the artistic content of this album is to get us to talk about these types of issues.

Since this is a blog, I guess I’ll give my opinion on the whole thing now. I personally think it is kind of silly. In the age of digital reproduction there seems to be a lot of really important artistic issues like piracy, leaking, pricing, models of distribution, the role of live shows, and lots more. Trying to preserve a notion of an original copy seems kind of low in importance and basically useless. Getting people to talk about the issue is an interesting academic exercise, but it doesn’t seem to go very far. That’s why it seems more like a publicity stunt than a real statement of anything to me.

Twilight’s III: Beneath Trident’s Tomb Reviewed

The dust has finally settled. I hate coming to the blog and making excuses, but March was one of the most stressful months I’ve had in a long time. My school is on the quarter system, so I recently had to grade 320 final exams. I also traveled: WA to NY to CT back to NY to TN back to NY back to WA and this weekend I’m going to NM presenting research at conferences.

I caught some illness in my travels and have been sick all this week. Also, I’m supposed to be finding time to work on my thesis which is being defended soon. I’m also coping with the idea of not being in school for the first time in my memory. Needless to say, I’ve been listening to lots of music, but I just haven’t gotten around to writing about it.

Most of what I’ve been listening I’ve either liked or disliked. The one album that stuck out and has taken a bit of time to figure out what I think about it is Twilight’s new one. I think part of the early confusion had to do with the fact that I really like the beginning and the end, but the middle feels totally different.

The first two tracks are strange. They have a nice steady groove, but on top of that foundation is built something that feels like it is always ready to fall apart. The guitar tone is extremely noisy. They use odd textural noises from the guitar. The chordal and melodic structure is quite different. The vocals have lots of layers that start and stop at different times even though the words seem to be the same.

The effect is quite interesting. It feels messy and tight all at once. These first two tracks have a lot of thought put into them, but they also have a raw and violent edge at times. The second track in particular transitions into some sort of cross between black metal and punk. I can really get into the chaos when they let loose and go all out in these moments.

The middle part of the album slows down into more of a doom or sludge vibe. It isn’t that radical of a change, because they keep the same overall sound which I like. I just sort of lose interest through this part. The tracks feel too long. They just kind of drag on repeating and I lose the really intense feeling from the beginning.

It then comes back for the ending. The last track is the highlight of this album for me. They build up that solid foundation with a really interesting vamp at the beginning. I’m not really sure how to describe it. They use some electronic sounds, some weird picking techniques, but mostly it reminds me of a highly distorted industrial riff. Eventually that gives way to a simpler and even dirtier sound. It becomes hard to pick out any real notes from the mess.

The track feels like some pulsating, living thing with its incessantly pounding heart at the center of it all. The anger in the vocals returns from the earlier tracks giving the whole thing the intensity that such repetition needs to work.

Overall, I think the album is worth a listen. It is pretty short at six tracks. If you are sick of the same old sounding stuff, they are doing something different without being unfamiliar. I’ll give it 8/10. Sorry, I can’t find a sample.

February End-of-the-month Dump

Sorry to keep doing this to you, but it is hard to get motivated to do a high quality post when I spend most of my day writing and editing a huge thesis. Just like last month, I’ll give a bunch of stuff I’ve been listening to and some brief thoughts on it.

Let’s start with the one that’s going to get me into trouble. Behemoth’s The Satanist has rave reviews everywhere. Even my sources that I thought I could trust to tear it down from its pillar did the opposite. I’m not saying it is bad. I think it does a pretty good job at what it does. It even has some good parts.

I just find the thing as a whole so uninteresting. To me, it is mostly stock metal. If you tell someone you like metal, this is the type of generic thing they probably hear in their head. This album actually gets really commercial and poppy at times. Just listen to the last track. It is basically a poppy cover of a Gojira song. I have to stop myself from laughing when the vocals come in. I think the album can be enjoyable when you’re in the mood for something like this, but why the praise?

Next up, Artificial Brain’s Labyrinth Constellation. This is the album I’ve liked the most this month. For the most part it takes a lot of old school death metal ideas and combines them with some more modern ideas. The modern parts remind me a bit of Ulcerate, because they do the same construction of dissonance by moving a second away from their home base pitch. This happens enough to warrant comparison, but not enough to feel as static as Ulcerate.

This album runs through lots of different compositional devices to develop songs. They even have some nice counterpoint ideas that happen in some of the songs (the first track comes to mind). Maybe the production is a little too slick to call it classic death metal, but I think they keep that spirit while still sounding fresh and modern. I’ve been loving this one. Probably 8.5 or 9/10.

Next, Soreption’s Engineering the Void. This is another one that has gotten rave reviews. I don’t really see it. This is a tech-death album, and I think it is really great when it is at its techiest. Strangely, the fast stuff is not that. The fast stuff just sounds like your standard fare, and I forget anything about it soon after the album ends.

The stuff that stays with me are the down tempo parts. These tend to have the most interesting rhythmic complexity which gets executed really well. It is also all audible because of the reasonable speed. These parts tend to be extremely brutal, creative, and all-around worth listening to. Unfortunately, this isn’t most of the album.

Next, Cynic’s Kindly Bent to Free Us. I’m not sure this fits into a metal review list except that it’s Cynic. This is a really solid prog rock album. If you liked Traced in Air, then you’ll probably love this. It sounds to me like a pretty obvious evolution from that sound. I’ve been listening to this when I go running, and it is great feel-good, energetic music for that.

I think you have to review this for what it is. There is the fretless bass and other jazz fusion elements which might turn hardcore metalheads off. As long as I ignore the lyrics, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this one. Honestly, the lyrics might be enough to completely ruin the album though. They make me cringe when I hear them come through.

We get such gems as:
Pop snap crackle and pop
Science fiction memory
Illuminates the heart

Animals are something invented by plants to move seeds around

Last up, Helms Alee’s Sleepwalking Sailors. This is my other favorite of the month. They can’t be easily categorized. It is part sludge, but sometimes the clean, harmonized vocals come in and it sounds more like indie rock or something. The mix sounded awkward to me at first, but after a few times through I started to really like it.

I wouldn’t say they are a “technical” band, but they do a lot of interesting time and harmonic things that you might expect from bands coming from that angle. It is pretty subtle, so it all fits within the context of the song. The songs are mostly through composed, so they keep evolving and changing which makes things stay interesting and fresh, but they stay coherent by keeping some thematic material through the whole thing.

Helms Alee are very difficult to describe, but have also rejuvenated me after being so annoyed at how similar and uninteresting everything has been sounding to me lately. This one is also 8.5 or 9/10. Here’s a sample (I’d also put Artificial Brain here, but I couldn’t find anything except the whole album on youtube):

Jute Gyte’s Vast Chains Reviewed

Everything that I’ve been listening to from this year has seemed so uninteresting so far that I jumped at the chance to start listening to something more experimental when I ran across Jute Gyte’s new album. Jute Gyte is the moniker of Adam Kalmbach, a one-man avant black metal project (I just made that label up, so I’m not sure if he’d agree with it).

One of the most interesting ways to use dissonance is for comic effect. When dissonance is used in sudden and unexpected ways (as opposed to just a really dissonant piece) the surprise can be funny. There is nothing funny about this album, but I found myself laughing the first time through for the above reason. Some of the tonal, microtonal, and chromatic parts are just so unexpected, sudden, and original that the shock initially made me laugh.

In fact, it sounded as if someone was just making the most random, disjointed stuff they could think of for the sole purpose of being different. I was about to write it off as pretentious nonsense (I mean the first track is called “Semen Dried into the Silence of Rocks and Minerals” …), but decided to give it a second listen anyway.

Already on the second listen, the internal logic of the songs started to get revealed. The songs no longer sounded random at all. I couldn’t pinpoint anything concrete about them to say what this logic was, but I started to intuit a lot of structure and repetition that was grounding my listening experience.

This fascinated me, so I started listening to it more and more. As I figured out what was going on, I learned that these songs are composed out of some really concrete ideas that just get embellished in some strange ways. These songs are so out there that I had that initial reaction, but Jute Gyte gets this type of experimentation right in a way I’m not sure I’ve heard before.

He keeps the underlying concept of the song really solid so that the listener has something to grab on to. Although it is hard to say exactly what this is in many of the songs, after three listens I could probably have listened to a random few second clip from a song and identified which track it came from. This is because the ideas had seeped in somehow.

I also have to applaud his use of microtones. I’ve heard this type of use in classical experimental music, but most metal bands that venture into microtonality just use them in pretty uninteresting ways. Here he really treats all 24 notes as separate notes instead of just out-of-tune extensions of the standard 12 notes. He uses them in chordal structures, melodic constructions, and inside of arpeggio patterns.

Instead of using these extra notes for occasional effect, he is using them more as a true 24 note scale, and once you get used to it this isn’t as weird as you might expect. It starts to sound pretty natural in the context in which he uses them.

This album strikes a great balance that I really admire. It has enough experimental elements and just plain unexpected things that I find it really interesting and different to listen to. It has served as nice way to break me out of the funk of everything sounding the same. But it balances these elements with a good amount emotion and intensity coming from building up these underlying structures.

Overall, I really like this album and give it an 8.5/10. My list of albums for the year is already up to 12, and this is almost certainly my favorite so far. Here’s a sample:

Slow Start to 2014

Well, January is ending and I still haven’t said anything about any music that has come out this year so far. I’ve actually listened to a more than my average amount of music that released this month. I just haven’t been very excited about any of it. I’ll do an obligatory end-of-the-month post to say a few words about what I was listening to and what I thought about it.

Let it be known ahead of time that I think every one of the following albums actually has some really great stuff on them. It is just the whole package that doesn’t do it for me.

First up, Warfather – Orchestrating the Apocalypse. This album has a great sound to it. It really brings back the feel and tone of the old school death metal I’ve been listening to recently. Unfortunately, it misses the mark that the old stuff has been hitting. I just don’t find the riffs that interesting, and then they get repeated endlessly.

Each song is really built on basically one idea/pattern, and if you aren’t feeling that idea, then you aren’t going to like the song. Take the first track. It has one arpeggio pattern, and that repeats for basically the whole thing. It lacks depth and development to me.

Then there are the “experimental” elements. These are prominent in only two or three spots. I feel like they could have added a lot to the album if they were fully integrated consistently throughout. Instead, we get these weird moments that stick out and seem to have no purpose other than to “be experimental.” It is really unsuccessful to me.

Anyway, I’ve overall enjoyed listening to the album, but I just wouldn’t give a glowing recommendation for the above reasons.

Next, Tempel – On the Steps of the Temple. I was seeing comparisons to Sunn O))) and Neurosis. I was seeing rave reviews. I listened to it and was underwhelmed. There are some nice moments. There are some heavy moments, but it was just so forgettable. After each listen, I never felt an urge to go back and relisten.

This band is probably really great live. The best moments are where they build out of a soft soundscape and into a loud sludgy sound. I could see the live setting keeping me hooked, but when I’m just listening on headphones I find it hard to keep my attention on the music. Don’t get me wrong, it is enjoyable, and there are some great individual moments. I just don’t see what this offers above the hundreds of other albums that sound like this.

Last up, Murmur – Murmur. Again with the rave reviews. I’ll just reiterate what’s above. Sure there are some really great moments. They even get good enough for long enough stretches on this one that I think I can overlook the bad moments and like this album. Then the boring parts come back. There are long stretches of mathy repetition (really long stretches).

I just don’t understand how this aesthetic fits at all with the rest of the album. They have some dark black metal amazingness happening, and then it drops out into playing a single note in some rhythmic pattern on repeat for several minutes (at least it feels like several minutes). What? I guess they are going for some blended style of black metal/ambient/mathcore or something, but it isn’t working for me at all. Strangely, there is enough material on here that you could cut those parts and have an excellent album. Why didn’t they do this?

Other than these, I was hunting through and checked out a few smaller names not getting any coverage. This usually is a promising way to find interesting stuff. Unfortunately, I kept getting these djenty mathcore things. I had a good laugh at how cliche the sound is. Do people actually play this stuff seriously anymore or have we finally moved on to people ironically doing it to make fun of the people who do it unironically?

Hopefully you’ve found some better releases this month than me.

Retro Reviews Part 1: Altars of Madness

I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to get inside the heads of the people who made early death metal. This is actually a lot harder than it sounds. One could say I’ve been “spoiled” by all the stuff that exists today. Reading Choosing Death has been helpful, because I can read about who influenced who and really focus on hearing that. It is really interesting to hear how the early stuff evolved into what it has become.

The thing that has been hardest for me is to put myself in the position of trying to hear certain things as genuinely original. For example, some of the early Death and Carcass albums I’ve been listening to have songs that would not fly today. They are just too cliche and almost sound like a parody of the genre (though Spiritual Healing has some great stuff on it). This is of course because they were creating a sound that didn’t exist yet and many people would then become copycats of it.

I have to confess that as an exercise this has been fun, but musically I was having a hard time finding something that I found interesting enough to actually write my first retro review about. Then I finally made my way out of what might be called proto-death metal and started listening to Morbid Angel. That brings us to today’s review of Altars of Madness.

The first really noticeable thing about this album is that it still sounds fresh. It has withstood the test of time quite well. Even in terms of recording quality, it seems way ahead of many of the earlier albums like Repulsion’s Horrified (and I’m not accidentally listening to a remastered version or something). There is a remarkable clarity to it. This could also just be a testament to how tight of a band they were even at this early stage.

Before talking about a bunch of smaller things I find interesting, let’s talk about my favorite part of this album: the lead guitar solos. Azagthoth is just crazy on this. The soloing is pure wild abandon. There are times it is highly technical, and there are times when he’s all over the place and almost none of the notes are “real” notes. Instead they are just pitch bent off of the standard notes.

Just listen to the end of “Suffocation,” the second track. Right when you think it can’t get any more wild or intense, it does by dropping into the low range of the guitar. He creates a chaotic almost siren sound that climaxes to the end. Somehow the soloing on almost every track is just as great. The sounds are difficult to even describe in words. They must be experienced to be appreciated.

Now on to some other things. Musically, it seems to me that they snuck in bits and pieces of classic horror movie sounds which really adds to the atmosphere and feel of horror that the lyrics evoke (oh yeah, and did I mention that despite the death metal growls the lyrics are still intelligible?). One example of this is the “synth” parts on “Immortal Rites” and “Chapel of Ghouls” or the repetitive pattern underneath the laughter in the beginning of “Maze of Torment.”

Next is the rhythmic complexity. It’s true that large parts of most songs have pretty straightforward, fast, standard time signatures. But there are lots of places where they change tempos or time signatures cleanly with no warning. This has a really amazing disorienting effect. It actually seems a bit better suited to the intent than straight-up weird mixed meter time signatures. Not that they couldn’t do this, because there are lots of intricate rhythmic things all over the place as well.

I guess I’ll try to summarize why I felt this album would make a good first retro review in contrast to a lot of the other stuff around the same time period that I’ve been listening to. First off, this album is just as extreme and technical as the other stuff, but it succeeds in a different way. The band is much tighter, so that the technical and extreme elements can be appreciated. They also didn’t get caught up in the speed/extremeness wars, and try to become so fast or so noisy that you don’t hear anything and it is meaningless.

They are fast when they want to be and not when they don’t. They stayed true to what they wanted to do. They also added depth to the songs by putting in horror atmosphere and lyrics. The soloing wasn’t all about technical speed, but had an originality to it.

I had listened to this album a couple of times in the past, but over the past two weeks as I really got into it I’ve come to appreciate it a lot more. I now really enjoy it, and I think anyone that is into modern extreme metal should give it a chance. Not only is it an important album historically, but it is also really good.

Ulcerate’s Vermis Reviewed

I promise I’m going to start my retro-reviews series soon. I have one half written, so it should be really soon. In the mean time, I really wanted to review Ulcerate’s Vermis. I’m sad I didn’t get around to listening to this earlier, because it probably would have made my top 10 of the year. The reason I want to review it is that I’m having a really hard time articulating why I like it so much, so this will be a good exercise for me.

I’m not sure how to classify this band. They remind me a bit of Gorguts. I’ve seen them put into the death metal genre, but you should expect some slower tempos, cleaner production, and a bit more sludgy sound than your typical death metal.

To my ears, a lot of this album is about texturing and a certain harmonic technique. I think this is what I like so much about it. The whole album has a very unified feel to it because of the centering around this technique, but they leverage it in such different ways that they end up getting a whole album of really interesting and different sounding songs. Thus it is unified in a non-obvious way, yet still varied. I’ll try to explain.

A song will first establish a root. This is not uncommon in music. In fact, it is the key of the piece. But in this case it is usually not used as such. It really is a place to root the song. It is either a single chord which could be chugging along or more like a single drone note (see the variety already!).

Then levels of texture are added to and removed from this root. The texture usually comes from adding in different amounts of dissonance. This dissonance almost always takes the form of a minor second away from the root. Sometimes the dissonance mounts up fast and the texture is of a brutal nature. This makes a song that sound like more traditional death metal. Other times the dissonance is slight and the texture is gentler. At these times there is a strange beauty to it all.

The opening track even sets the whole thing up nicely. It is a nice slow soundscape intro to the album, and you can already hear this idea. There is the one bass drone, and levels of dissonance and texture are added in. The main dissonance is coming from that minor second shift upwards. It is great stuff. It feels somehow ugly and beautiful at the same time:

It would obviously be ridiculous to reduce the whole album to this style of analysis. Just take the title track. It is hard to even hear this fundamental idea there, because there is so much stuff going on. You can kind of hear it in the beginning, but it is pretty buried by the technical riffs everywhere. The place where it starts to really shine is 50 seconds to 1:10 where it settles into a less chaotic section. There is still a lot of other stuff going on, but you can hear that one root tone throughout and the minor second up periodically coming from the guitar:

At this point I should say that I fell in love with this album before I started thinking about it analytically, because it is pretty much non-stop excitement from beginning to end. It is everything you’d want from this type of album. It is extreme, brutal, ugly, beautiful, technical, thought provoking, ….

Then you dig deeper and find it is extremely well composed. They take small motifs and develop them to make the individual songs. They get a huge variety this way by artistically adding and removing the dissonant textures, but then it is all unified by a common big sound and similar ideas in the motifs. I think I’ll be enjoying this one for quite some time. I give it a 9/10.