Genre Whore

•November 4, 2010 • 1 Comment

King Diamond

Earlier today I was having a text-versation (and subsequent spoken conversation) with Eternal Legacy guitarist Shaun Vanek about how to classify a band like Mercyful Fate. On the one hand, the lyrics are mostly about satanic subject matter, with King Diamond wearing black and white corpse paint; both hallmarks of black metal. On the other hand, musically, Hank Sherman’s riffing is more akin to the powerful rhythms of a band like Judas Priest, and King’s vocals are nothing if unique in metal, with the closest comparison being to the operatic delivery of power metal. Mercyful Fate has been categorized a number of different things by those of the metal community, with the most prominent being the aforementioned black metal, as well as just straight classic metal.

The impetus for the conversation is one I am particularly vocal about. A self-proclaimed genre whore myself, I have a very staunch viewpoint about what attributes allow one band to exist in a particular genre or sub-genre and what disqualifies them from others. I argued that Mercyful Fate was not at all black metal. Sure, King has the corpse paint going and talks about satanic subject matter, but compare the sonic approach of a band like Mercyful Fate to a proper modern black metal act like Mayhem or Emperor and it won’t be hard to hear the difference between the two.

The thrust of this is that lyrical content and stage aesthetic do not a classification make. Take for example two disparate bands: Slayer and Kiss. Slayer speaks predominantly, at least in the earlier days, about satanic topics, and has imagery like pentagrams and demons on their album covers and in their live set, yet they are classified as thrash metal. Kiss wears black and white face paint indistinguishable from corpse paint (aside from the decidedly more tame designs) yet they are known as a rock and roll group. What is the point of comparing these two bands? A common thread exists in that both are classified by their acoustic attributes and not superficial qualities like image or lyrical content.

A band’s style is entirely independent of either its look or its subject matter. A group can wear pirate outfits and sing about science fiction, but play in a death metal style. Does this make the group something silly like “pirate metal”? No, because a death metal band can sing about any topic and still remain a death metal band. This argument applies similarly to asinine taxonomies like “Viking metal” or “Egyptian metal”  (Amon Amarth and Nile, I’m looking at both of you, respectively) because they are predicated on the idea that lyrical content somehow defines a sound. Do most bands tend to match their lyrics and appearance to their musical style? Typically, yes, but correlation does not equal causation. Let me reiterate: genre names are meant to elicit an idea about the acoustic quality of the music, not what the band sings about or looks like.

That’s not to say that these attributes are not valid in supplementing the classification of a band. Let’s take another example in the form of Venom. The band is almost unanimously considered black metal because of their lyrical content and album of the same name. However, we’ve already established that these things are superficial when talking about what a band sounds like. In fact, upon listening to Welcome to Hell or Black Metal, you hear something of a proto-thrash sound, with even some bluesy/shuffle moments thrown in for good measure.

The second point to take away from this is that a band may belong to a movement or scene, yet that scene does not define their sound. Black metal is both a scene and a musical style. Bands like Immortal belong to both the Norwegian black metal scene and play in the style of black metal. Venom and Merycful Fate may arguably belong to the black metal scene due to their aesthetic and topical influence, but do not play in the vein of black metal. Some movements don’t have a concrete sound associated with them, like the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. We can see examples of these points with bands such as Witchfinder General (who belong to the NWoBHM movement, but play doom metal) and Alice in Chains (who belong to the grunge movement, but play something in the vein of heavy metal).

There is something important to be taken out of the aforementioned superficial qualities that may explain our tendency to want to consider them in how we classify bands. Why does someone have a craving to listen to Slayer, Mercyful Fate, and Darkthrone in succession other than that they are all in some form metal? The answer is because all three bands set the same kind of mood and evoke the same kind of imagery; that is: one of evil and darkness.

Ultimately, when we decide what we want to listen to, heavy metal or otherwise, we do so because we want a particular mood to be set. Rarely is it the case that we listen to thrash metal for thrash metal’s sake, for example. More typically, consciously or subconsciously we say to ourselves, “I want something fast and with energy.” We are in the mood for a particular atmosphere, be it conveyed through sound or other means like lyrical content.

This begs the question: Should music continue to be classified by its sonic approach, or the mood it sets? Sometimes the two are linked. More often, we want the two to be linked, which manifests itself as a genre name that tells nothing about the actual sound of the band in question. Ask yourself how you would classify the music in a record store you owned and then get back to me.


The Human Mind as a Means to God

•October 25, 2010 • Comments Off on The Human Mind as a Means to God

Attempting to prove the existence of God, or any deity for that matter, has long been the debate of scholars since perhaps the dawn of mankind. Doing so through empirical means has largely proved a fruitless endeavor contingent on circumstantial evidence and post-firsthand accounts through written texts which have been distorted through time and man’s agenda. It wasn’t until arguably the Enlightenment era that intellectuals were able to begin openly questioning the legitimacy of a higher power without being labeled a heretic and stoned to death, and even then, it had to be done discreetly. David Hume was one such man who, among other subjects, was vocal on using logic to arrive at the existence, or non-existence, of God.

In one of Hume’s works, the Dialogues Concerning the Natural Religion, he personifies the varying approaches to, and viewpoints of, the rationalization of religion through the guise of three characters. Holding something of an atheistic view of religion but presumably desiring his work to be published, Hume presents his beliefs indirectly through a number of dialogues in which he ends up playing the devil’s advocate with himself through each character, never out-rightly condemning religion, but rather, showing the flaws of different approaches through three characters who all claim that God must exist.  Much of the discussion therein takes varying forms of three of the most prevalent theories for the existence of God at the time: the ontological, cosmological, and teleological arguments. However, these arguments and the manner through which the characters Demea, Philo, and Cleanthes arrive at their beliefs leaves something to be desired, the inadequacies of which undermine the points Hume attempts to illustrate.

One of the modes of discourse that permeates the dialogues is that of the analogy. Analogies are a convenient means for abstracting complex or otherwise incomprehensible ideas in a way that our minds can easily digest. This is especially useful as it pertains to wrapping our head around the idea of a god, whose attributes are typically characterized as existing outside the realm of conventional understanding. We see this come up primarily in the argument from design (the teleological argument), wherein the earth and its inhabitants are likened to artifacts, and God, the artificer (a watch and a watchmaker is a typical example).

The weakness of analogies is that there are as many number of ways to find similarities between two entities as there are discrepancies; that is to say: infinite.  As such, it is trivial to tailor any manner of analogs to the point at hand as the needs of the explanation require.  One analogy about the universe, which is made in Dialogue II by Cleanthes, is as follows:

“You will find it to be nothing but one great machine, subdivided into an infinite number of lesser machines, which again admit of subdivisions to a degree beyond what human senses and faculties can trace and explain. All these various machines, and even their most minute parts, are adjusted to each other with an accuracy which ravishes into admiration all men who have ever contemplated them. The curious adapting of means to ends, throughout all nature, resembles exactly, though it much exceeds, the productions of human contrivance; of human designs, thought, wisdom, and intelligence. Since, therefore, the effects resemble each other, we are led to infer, by all the rules of analogy, that the causes also resemble; and that the Author of Nature is somewhat similar to the mind of man, though possessed of much larger faculties, proportioned to the grandeur of the work which he has executed.”

It is just as easy to compare God to the mind of man and the universe to a machine as it is to say that the universe is nothing like a machine because it doesn’t meet the criteria for an automaton of possessing an explicit function for which to take inputs and produce some output. Further, the fact that machines are contained within a universe makes it impossible for the universe to be compared to something it encompasses. The analogies in the dialogues, and they are numerous, do little more than act as a hypothetical stopgap in an attempt to compare something we know nothing about to something we do, which may or may not in actuality be anything at all alike.

Attributing human-like qualities or any other qualities that exist as we understand them to God is problematic.  Doing so works off of the supposition that a deity is anything at all like its creations. This belies the typically-attributed nature of God being omnipotent and omniscient and assumes that he is subject to our universe’s laws, our understanding, or both. Presumably, if God were like humans, then he approaches the fallible nature of humans as well, which brings him further away from the values he is suggested to have. Furthermore, human understanding is admittedly limited, and to suppose that God operates within our narrow understanding of the universe is similarly not copacetic with the concept that a deity is by some significant magnitude more able and powerful than its subjects.

The limited scope of human understranding is not a trivial point. As is evident by mankind’s past erroneous theories which have been subsequently revised, among other reasons, we are very much in a period of knowledge expansion. Not only is our knowledge incomplete and potentially flawed, but the set of truths we can ever hope to know might well be limited to some fractional portion of the whole. The limitations on our capacity for knowledge acquisition manifests itself both physically and logically. Physically, our senses are limited to a finite domain of stimulation, as is evidenced by occurrences such as ultrasonic sound frequencies and light waves that exist outside of the visible spectrum, the existence of which could not have been confirmed without technological aid. Logically, our thought process is constrained by the innate architecture of the mind that lacks the ability to comprehend abstract concepts such as infinity or the fourth dimension. This doesn’t even begin to address the topic of truths that may exist that the human psyche simply lacks the cognitive wherewithal to fathom, much less ever understand, begging the question that the capacity to acquire knowledge might always be limited on virtue of the physiology of the mind itself.

Similarly, if a deity is all powerful, and thus has all knowledge, then it is certainly realistic to expect it to operate outside even the highest bounds our understanding might ever reach. That being said, even the truths we establish are relative only to the subset of knowledge we have obtained at any given point, and thus our understanding and proofs for God are rooted in some kind of approximated projection onto our truth system, in our terms, which may or may not be at all compatible with what the higher power in question actually is.

Despite the continued use of analogies throughout, Hume touches on this with the remark by Demea: “His ways are not our ways. His attributes are perfect, but incomprehensible. And this volume of nature contains a great and inexplicable riddle, more than any intelligible discourse or reasoning.” Essentially, what this boils down to is an entity which I refer to as an “observer agent.” That is, only an agent who has awareness of the entire set of absolute truths about all realities and existences, or at least ones that affect any aspect that the universe in question is contingent upon, can make a confirmatory statement about the truth or falsity of any given aspect of those universes. Even the truths which we esteem to be absolutely irrefutable, such as the laws of physics, are built upon a human construct, in this case the abstraction known as mathematics, and are presented in terms of our own localized and incomplete understanding of the whole system. We have no means of knowing if said laws actually behave as per our model or if their implementation is something different entirely. A deity, by definition of its omniscience is always an observer, but an observer need not be a deity.  Until humankind can consider itself a member of this class of being for our universe, it is impossible to ever consider God with any amount of certainty, the Catch-22 being that one can never know if they have ever reached that point without reaching it.

The example of a child playing a computer game comes to mind. What he sees is cause and effect on the computer monitor and can make guesses about how things might work, but only the software developer who wrote the routines for calculating the game physics or displaying the world landscape can know for certain if those ideas held by the player have any truth. Was calculus used to simulate gravity or was it algebra? Maybe it was something entirely novel and different altogether? In this way, the developer is an observer agent for the game (universe) he created; the actual game world being an abstraction of the implemented algorithms.

If the acceptance of God, then, is so tightly bound to faith rather than the frail and finite knowledge we have, why bother attempting to reach this conclusion through human rationality at all? After all, people who possess said faith require no convincing about the existence of their god, and there is conversely insufficient evidence and human understanding to convince those who don’t otherwise. The problem with the concept of faith is that as soon as it comes into play, there is no longer discourse. Faith is not subject to logic — you either have it or you don’t — which is why most discussion on the topic, philosophical or otherwise, precludes faith by acknowledging that there is nothing up for debate as it pertains to being proof for the existence of a deity. Furthermore, faith acts as an impetus for action on a belief in a way that is not backed by rational reasoning on merit of its immunity to evaluation through logical means.

Since the nature of faith removes it from conjecture or common reason, we are only left with two options: logical discourse based on imperfect knowledge and presumed premises, or no discourse on the subject of God at all. Philo reiterates this sentiment in Dialogue I by saying, “If we distrust human reason, we have now no other principle to lead us into religion.” By this he implies that, despite the shortcomings of human faculties, it is all that we have available, and to not at least attempt to pursue some reasoning through logical means would be tantamount to accepting a God for no reason, or worse: deprive ourselves the means of ever arriving (or not arriving) at God at all.

And so the debate turns from attempting to reason about God through drawing inferences by comparison to things we know a posteriori, to attempting to prove necessarily that God exists a priori. The argument changes from the inductive position of design to a deductive one in the ontological argument, which is felt by Demea to be strongest. The rationale for the ontological argument goes something to the effect of: If something that exists is greater than something that does not exist, and if God is a being than which no greater can be conceived, God must exist. The central idea is that God is a necessary being and it would be inconceivable to believe that he cannot exist. Cleanethes explains his objection in Dialogue IX:

“I shall begin with observing, that there is an evident absurdity in pretending to demonstrate a matter of fact, or to prove it by arguments a priori. Nothing is demonstrable, unless the contrary implies a contradiction. Nothing, that is distinctly conceivable, implies a contradiction. Whatever we conceive as existent, we can also conceive as non-existent. There is no Being, whose existence is demonstrable. I propose this argument as entirely decisive, and am willing to rest the whole controversy upon it.”

The problem with the ontological argument, which Cleanthes points out, is that it is purely rhetorical. That is, it sets its own rules and uses its premises to force a logically valid, but not sound conclusion. By means of the ontological argument, I can logic virtually anything into existence through pure thought games alone.

Additionally, the premises are questionable at best. What does it mean to be “greater” than another being? Why is it inconceivable to imagine God not existing? As Cleanthes states, anything can be conceived not to exist, God included, and therefore, he is not a necessary being.  Something that is impossible involves a contradiction, and anything that can lead to a contradiction is also inconceivable. Thus, what is impossible is also inconceivable.

The resultant reality presents something of a quandary. The conceivability of a universe without God illustrates the a priori proof as lacking, and thus requires us to do empirical investigation. Yet, as talked about earlier, the faculties of the human mind are severely handicapped when it comes to comprehending a being attributed as potentially being outside our realm of understanding entirely. We are thus left with only two options: accept that an omnipotent deity does not exist because it lacks the power to make itself understood in our terms, or continue to obtain knowledge in an effort to approach the full set of an observer agent, assuming we even possess the capacity to achieve that state.

The Vinyl Renaissance

•October 25, 2010 • Comments Off on The Vinyl Renaissance

There has never been a better time to be into listening to music on vinyl than now (okay, maybe the ’60s and ’70s, but let me have my sweeping statement). We are currently in something of a resurgence of vinyl as a widespread medium for music. I’m not even talking about it as a niche market, the way it was in the ’90s and turn of the century, either. I won’t bore you with numbers, but vinyl sales have been rising exponentially each year since about 2006, though admittedly still nowhere near the penetration of the waning compact disc format. But while CD sales are falling, we are seeing subsequent LP versions of many popular records creeping into the shelf space of big-name retailers like Best Buy and FYE.

We’re in an unprecedented era of availability. Back catalogs are getting re-released to modern high quality standards of 180-gram virgin vinyl (compare it to the flimsy 80-gram stuff from your dad’s record collection) and being remastered to leverage today’s technology to offer superb clarity and separation.  On the other end, many new releases are getting multi-format treatment in both CD and vinyl, with the vinyl version usually having incentives like a free digital download,  a poster, or as a part of some deluxe box set package.

I’m not quite sure what has spurred this wax revival. The joking finger might be pointed at wannabe suburban DJs or the hipster counter culture taking place recently, but I think it is something deeper than a few small crowds to create the kinds of sales leaps records have been enjoying lately. With the popularity of MP3 players and digital music as a legitimate medium unto itself, I think people began to start wanting tangible music they can appreciate aesthetically and interact with again. Sure, CDs have fulfilled this criteria almost exclusively for the past fifteen or so years, but they find themselves in an uncomfortable gray area. On the one end, we have digital music as the penultimate in portability and convenience: it can be bought one song at a time, put on all of our digital devices from our laptop, to our car, to our iPod, and is easily searched and organized. On the other, you have records, which while lacking almost any portability or convenience features like track skipping, provide the highest fidelity sound and most immersive physical experience. Compact discs are reasonably portable and are also a physical product that has a printed cover, but are outclassed in either area by its competition. Thus, the CD as an audio format, in my opinion, sees itself on the fast track to obsolescence.

The current trend in vinyl is somewhat analogous to the craft beer movement. While big name record companies like Warner Brothers or Sony put out the occasional re-release of older material that can be found easily at the aforementioned brick-and-mortar retailers, the real joy of collecting records is finding offerings from the small operations who specialize in limited pressing runs. The releases they produce, while costing more than the equivalent mass-retail version, are labors of love, often coming in specialized colors, with super-sturdy jackets, and an attention to detail both in the jacket/insert design as well as sound quality. These outfits realize that there is a dedicated base of enthusiasts who appreciate the attention to detail that they put into their releases, the end product being almost as much a work of art as the music it contains.

For anyone into collecting music, I’d highly recommend you check out some of the following production houses:

Denovali: A production company out of Germany that specializes mostly in post-rock and experimental/avant-garde artists. They distribute all kinds of records that aren’t their on their label, but have deals with a small pool of obscure artists for which they do limited vinyl runs. Their releases are always superb quality, pressed on 180-gram wax with non-typical colors/patterns and heavyweight jackets. Each release is unique and tailored to the aesthetic of the artwork. The prices are a little steep, especially with shipping from Europe, and you have to wait almost five weeks, but the end result is definitely worth it.

Back on Black: Pressing organization from the UK. These guys focus exclusively in reissues of out-of-print or never-released heavy metal and ’70s rock records. All releases are on 180-gram colored vinyl, with thick, Stoughton-style jackets. The interior/rear artwork is occasionally recyled and/or sparse, and may or may not be faithful to the original release. The only downside to the company is that the mixes don’t appear to be done specially for their pressings, and may come from the same source used for recent versions of the CD equivalent, but their catalog breadth and the prospect of getting mint release of long out-of-print/hard-to-find records makes their product very attractive.  Shipping is of course pricey from Europe.

The Mylene Sheath: Similar to Denovali in genre coverage and product quality, The Mylene Sheath is based in the US. Many of TMS’s bands are better known than those on Denovali, predominantly being  of the American post-rock persuasion such as Caspian and If These Trees Could Talk. The packaging is typically elaborate, and the records themselves are all 180-gram, with the occasional 45 RPM release for superior sound at no additional charge. The company seems to be fronted mostly by two people, and judging by their newsletter and artist promotion, they genuinely love the music as much as their customers do.

Music on Vinyl: Music on Vinyl’s spectrum of artists covers almost everything contemporary from rock to jazz to soundtracks. Though based out of the Netherlands, they have distribution through many of the predominant online record vendors and as such, are not expensive to ship.  Their releases are comprised both of reissues and simultaneous releases of new records, and always sound superb due to their being provided the original analog masters. Their packaging is on par with other mass-releases, opting not to use the Stoughton-style gatefolds in favor of a standard single pocket layout. Their records are typically 140-gram standard-weight vinyl unless the pressing is a special run.

Night of the Vinyl Dead:
Italian company similar to Back on Black, with much smaller production runs (around 500)  and a specialization in rare metal that has never been released on the vinyl format. Packaging is custom-made for the release, with the vinyl being heavyweight and in solid colors. Sound quality ranges from poor on picture disks to above-average on standard. Again, shipping from Europe, and difficult to find distributors who sell their releases.

Mighter Than Sword Records: Mostly a one-man label in Brooklyn, NY, with an emphasis on punk and hardcore. Releases come in multiple colors, with the standard black being 180-gram pressings. Jackets are heavyweight gatefold. Due to the small staff, the label has a really DIY ethic and the main proprietor, RJ, personally sends out order confirmations and will take the time to talk with you. They showed great customer service/appreciation by not charging me for a copy of a record when it ended up not being in stock in the color I had ordered.

If any one else has any favorite labels/production companies, feel free to share here!

The Absence – Enemy Unbound

•September 15, 2010 • Comments Off on The Absence – Enemy Unbound

By now, anyone who knows me or is familiar with my written work about metal is aware that I have something of a hard-on for melodic death metal. The Absense, a young band from Tampa, Florida, has been one of my pet favorite bands still practicing the sound in a pure form, with a pair of two previous excellent records. That being said, I had a high level of anticipation for Enemy Unbound, particularly after a pushed-back release date due to their drummer suffering injuries from an unfortunate car accident.

Typically the third record for a band following very strong debut and sophomore releases has the onus of being the album where they “get it all together” and iron out any shortcomings that were previously present; their magnum opus, of sorts. Unfortunately, Enemy Unbound falls short by a considerable margin.

That’s not to say it’s a bad record. But that’s the problem: with the bar set as high as they have, The Absence’s third release reeks of mediocrity. It’s certainly competently played melodic death metal, and has all the hallmarks that the genre, and indeed the band themselves, are known for. But it lacks something extra; some kind of passion that should be exuded and conveyed through the music by a truly inspired band and. Almost none of the songs stick out (sans “Maelstrom” with its “Bark at the Moon”-esque solo) or have any kind of personality to themselves at all. Maybe it was a product of the arduous recording process for this one, but the band feels like they are going through the motions, with the end result definitely coming out as less than the sum of its parts.

It’s strange, because the parts are definitely all their, sonically and stylistically. The production is almost identical to their previous release, and musically, the band doesn’t really break any new ground, with the exception of the use of piano in one song. Hell, even the superficial “metal cred” checklist gets fulfilled: The band continues to use their original logo and even keeps continuity by using the same CD-design-with-complementary-color they have been since their debut; They still have long hair (and beards); They use concise, evocative song titles with some obscure words for good measure; They take themselves lyrically seriously; They have remained on their debut label; And they don’t have breakdowns or other scene elements.

For its generic-qualities, the record could have stood to have stayed around a bit less long (though its running time is admittedly inflated by the several minutes of silence in the latter part of “Triumph” for some kind of ill-attempted “hidden” track). But as it goes to show, the greatness of an album is not measured by the component parts that go into it. Make no mistake; Enemy Unbound is still high-caliber melodic death metal, and is not going to alienate any fans of the sound or the band; it’s just not going to blow any of them away, either.

Heading Eastward: A Metalic Pilgrimage (Pt. V)

•September 13, 2010 • Comments Off on Heading Eastward: A Metalic Pilgrimage (Pt. V)

After reaching the apex of the trip that was Wacken, the rest was, in my view, just an added bonus. That being said, Amsterdam, Holland, certainly had some infamy to live up to, and was definitely a location I was looking forward to.

The night before leaving for Holland, we went back into Hamburg to catch Mob Rules and Stormwarrior at the Headbangers’ Ballroom. I took this occasion to, on a whim, head back to Hotel Stern and see if my forgotten dop kit was still there. It turns out it was, and I was able to put deodorant on for the first time in days; a relief to be sure. Unfortunately,  the hotel’s ATM ate one of my credit cards.

Of the two bands we were seeing, only Stormwarrior interested me, and only because Jason had talked them up so much with comparisons to Iron Savior and the fact that Kai Hansen was said to be performing some Gamma Ray and Helloween tunes with them. Mob Rules was a band who, even at the height of my power metal phase, I was never interested in due to their typical European, ballsless power-prog style. Unfortunately, it ended up being the case that Stormwarrior had to cancel at the last minute due to an injury on the drummer’s part. To add insult to this, we forgot that it was a Sunday and that the buses stopped running at 12AM, resulting in our having to wake up  “Iron” Ingo Stührenberg and have him hall us back to the hotel.

The next morning, true to the rest of the trip before it, we would encounter some travel issues getting out of the country. By this point we were all low on European currency, and the train ticket machines would not take any of our credit cards. Eventually, we went into the train station and had to go through some special procedure to get them to accept American credit cards, and received what we were told was the best route to end up at the main station in Amsterdam.

Once we got on the train, the trip itself wasn’t so bad. Hopping trains was a bit of a pain, but we typically had ample time between transfers. The kick in the pants occurred when we came to the realization that our destination station, despite what the German woman at the Torndesche station prescribed us, was incorrect. After some debate on the best means of getting to our hotel in Amsterdam, we settled on taking the convenience of a cab over wasting more time just to save some money.

The start of our time in Amsterdam for me was agitating, to say the least. As of the last few days, I had been having issues withdrawing money from my bank account. I initially chalked it up to the supposition that some European machines must just not accept my Fifth Third credit card, because Jason had had a similar issue at a bank in Germany with his from the same bank. At this point, however, no ATMs were accepting my card, and I needed money for the remainder of the trip and to repay Shaun for the train tickets and the hotel. Long story short, after calling my bank from our hotel in Amsterdam that was charging me one Euro per minute, I was told that there was a hold on my account due to a twenty-cent fraudulent charge from Houston. I asked if I could remove the hold just long enough to get money from a machine, to which I was initially told I would be liable for any charges during that period. When I agreed, I was put on hold only to be told by the Fifth Third representative’s manager that I no longer had the right to access my own account despite agreeing to take responsibility.  Lucky that Shaun was cool enough to cover me for our time there, or else I could have been trapped in Europe. That’s the last time I’ll be dealing with Fifth Third.

The remainder of the trip was mostly spent in a “space cake”-fueled haze. We leisurely checked out some tourist sites included the Heineken factory, which included drinks in a bar completely made out of ice cubes, and the torture museum, which didn’t end up being such a much. Seeing the town on bicycle was fun and felt appropriately “European.” After our experience in the Reeperbahn in Germany, we neglected to hit up the red light district, however.

And so that was the end of my first trip to Europe. It was something of an overall underwhelming, if occasionally frustrating experience, but I’m definitely glad I did it.

My observations

  • Germany, or at least the places I went, appear to love their pilsners, a variety of beer I don’t particularly enjoy. I think the American craft brew scene is much better.
  • European living facilities are lacking waste baskets in both number and capacity. I assume this is in an effort to promote eco friendliness by encouraging consumption of products that don’t have a lot of extra packaging.
  • Water at restaurants and in bottles is served carbonated instead of from the tap. Apparently, German households are charged a substantial amount for the water they use, discouraging main-line water usage. Again with the eco-friendliness.
  • German shower/bath combinations typically consist of a tub and a sprayer but usually not a shower wall nor a spot high enough to mount the sprayer at standing height. This results in awkwardly taking showers sitting down with only one hand free.
  • Shower controls consist of a horizontal bar with a knob on each end; one for intensity and one for temperature. The direction to turn them to increase/decrease their respective values is unintuitive due to the (apparently American) convention of counter-clockwise meaning “more” not translating well to the ZY plane.
  • Tipping at restaurants is considered rude.
  • Dinner rolls and cold cuts are served with breakfast instead of dinner and lunch (respectively).
  • Common drug stores apparently do not sell mens’ deodorant.
  • In Amsterdam’s coffee shops, you can smoke weed, but not cigarettes.

The New Wave of American Heavy Metal

•September 10, 2010 • Comments Off on The New Wave of American Heavy Metal

Every decade or so has its permutation of metal that emerges as the preeminent sound; that generation’s “scene,” if you will. With the deathcore sound and culture in full swing as this decade’s newest trend in metal, I thought it would be an appropriate time to reflect on last’s: the New Wave of American Heavy Metal.

Some of you may be scratching your heads as to what I am talking about. The term refers to the crop of aggressive metal bands that came up at the turn of the century and undoubtedly takes its inspiration, at least in nomenclature, from the New Wave of British Heavy Metal label used to classify the second wave of metal in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s. Unlike its forbearer, the term has not caught on as ubiquitously as a means to describe its scene and sound. At this point in time, I am unaware who originally coined the term, but it has shown up with some frequency on message boards and web articles, as well as in Metal: A Headbangers’ Journey.

I generally dislike the use of undescriptive labels to categorize bands. However, unlike a genre name, the NWoAHM refers less to a sound and more to a movement and era. Admittedly, there are certain stylistic elements that the classification carries with it, but there is far too much variety among its bands to use it just as a means of speaking sonically.

Enough semantics. So what exactly is the New Wave of American Heavy Metal? The term refers to the second wave of young, purely American bands playing heavy, aggressive metal, with the first wave presumably being the thrash and death acts of the 1980s (Metallica, Slayer, Testament, Possessed, Morbid Angel, and  Death, to name a few).  Following in the extreme metal tradition of its predecessors, the NWoAHM combines the sharp, palm-muted riffs and melodic solos of thrash with the throaty, screamed vocals and breakdown/stomp riff sections of hardcore

The origins of the NWoAHM are murky, as there is some debate whether or not the classification was applied retroactively by metal critics or whether there was an actual established scene and culture during its inception in the same way that there was for previous metal movements like Bay Area thrash or Norwegian black metal. In any event, the bands practicing its work ethic and sound were seen as something of an antithesis to the complacent state of modern rock music during the late ‘90s/turn of the decade, namely: alternative rock and nu-metal.  ‘90s aggressive bands Pantera and Machine Head (whose origins lay in the thrash band Vio-lence) have often been cited as the progenitors of what would become the New Wave of American Heavy Metal aesthetic and sound.

As far as locale is concerned, there wasn’t really a centralized location. The Boston area of Massachusetts produced many noteworthy bands including Shadows Fall, Killswitch Engage, Unearth, and All That Remains, with many members starting off as friends and playing in various less successful projects during the scene’s formative years.  California also was home to such acts as Avenged Sevenfold, As I Lay Dying, and Atreyu. Despite these small pockets, the geographic area was widely dispersed, with bands coming from all over the US.

Superficially, many would term the sound “metalcore,” which is not far off the mark for the majority of the groups in the movement. However, the NWoAHM has its foot planted far enough in the camp of heavy metal to remove it from the sound of the bands of the second wave of metalcore (Hatebreed, Converge, Earth  Crisis). Indeed, many of the bands of the NWoAHM would eventually be classified as “melodic” metalcore, and would be considered the third wave of metalcore in addition to its designation as the NWoAHM.

The adjective “melodic” comes from the NWoAHM’s comparative lack of dissonance to its predecessors, and greater emphasis on hooky guitars and catchy choruses. Once the metalcore practiced by NWoAHM bands began to become more commercially viable circa 2004, the emphasis on cleanly-sung bridge and chorus sections began to increase. The cleanliness of such sections ranges from poppy crooning (Trivium, Killswitch Engage) to more mid-range, on-key shouting (Shadows Fall) approaches, but is a staple of nearly all bands in the movement. Furthermore, many bands would go on to incorporate conventions of the Swedish melodic death metal sound of the ‘90s, utilizing the dual-harmonized leads and tremolo picking of bands such as In Flames and At the Gates. Metal author Garry Sharpe-Young describes its use as a “marriage of European-style riffing and throaty vocals.”

Though many bands would adopt the musical attributes previously spoken of, there have been a few to break out of the mold and separate themselves from the pigeonholing metalcore tag.  Lamb of God for instance, the harshest of the NWoAHM bands, started off as a groove-infused metalcore outfit that has never used sing-songy vocals or melodic leads, eliciting comparisons to Pantera, and has progressed into a full-on modern thrash outfit.  Another example on the other end of the spectrum is Mastodon, who started off as something of a sludgey mathcore band with spastic starts and stops and screamed vocals, who have since matured into a legitimate progressive metal act in their own right.

The subsequent generation of metalcore has taken the extremes of the NWoAHM to new boundaries. The latest trend in extreme music, deathcore uses full-on growled death metal vocals, a high level of technicality, and a lack of the more mainstream-accessible songwriting of what came before it. Though it has effectively brought aggressive metal back into a niche audience of people who have acquired the taste for its brutality, it as commercially popular, if not moreso, than the NWoAHM, appearing in Hot Topics and having its own entrenched scene culture.

The NWoAHM has largely moved away from its more trendy, metalcore roots, with many brands attempting to make their sound more timeless and mature. Most new releases from bands of the movement could be considered something of a neo-thrash sound, albeit separate from the Bay Area-inspired revival happening parallel to it. Either way, the movement is credited almost singlehandedly for bringing riff-centric metal back into the American mainstream post turn of the century.

Noteable Bands

  • Shadows Fall
  • Lamb of God
  • Unearth
  • Trivium
  • As I Lay Dying
  • God Forbid
  • Between the Buried and Me
  • Killswitch Engage
  • The Autumn Offering
  • Atreyu
  • Avenged Sevenfold

Right of Way, Right Away

•September 9, 2010 • Comments Off on Right of Way, Right Away

Earlier this Summer, I was driving down my street and saw a car parked in the opposite lane a few hundred feet down the road. As I neared the parked vehicle, I thought I saw another car coming from behind it in the opposite direction. Typically, when one encounters a parked car in their lane, they proceed with caution before maneuvering around it. That was not the case with this particular person.

Rather, instead of looking to see how close oncoming traffic was, the elderly driver came out from behind the parked vehicle at the exact same time as I approached in the same lane from the opposite direction. It’s bad enough when drivers are too impatient to wait for the other car to pass, but in this case the person left no room at all for me — the driver with the right of way — to get through on my side. I slammed to a halt and put up my hands and made a face as if to say “what are you doing?” Having no choice, I began to back my car up, only to hear an off-hand comment from a neighbor on the street: “Hey buddy, you’ve got to slow down.”

I don’t know who I was more perturbed with: the actual perpetrator of the fault or the ignorant on-looker. Firstly, I was going 30 on a 25 MPH street; a speed that was reasonable for the area. However, what my speed was was mostly a moot point. It amazes how people seem to think that they have the right of way when they are coming from behind some obstruction in their lane. How could it possibly be the case that the driver with the clear lane should yield for the person stopped behind a parked car? As the driver with the free lane, I give you a courtesy by moving all the way over in my lane to allow you to get out from behind the car in yours and enter mine, and that’s after you’ve used enough foresight to make sure that their was any buffer of time for you at all to get out before another car passes.

The other part of the problem is simply that elderly people are completely disrespectful on the road. I don’t know if it’s a sense of entitlement, their own dementia and lack of observation, or what, but the older generation have-to-no regard for traffic courtesy. It’s rare that I’ll see an older person use his turn signal, and common that I will see them drive in multiple lanes simultaneously for an extended amount of time.

Remember kids (and geriatrics, as it were): if your lane is blocked by something, it’s not the responsibility of the guy with the normal, clear lane to look out for you — it’s your’s to accommodate for them and hope they are kind enough to share their space with you.