Sticky labels

Posted in Indulgence, music stats on July 22nd, 2010 by Alex

Metalheads do like to label stuff. The proliferation of metal subgenres is nothing sort of staggering. According to the Encyclopedia Metallum – The Discordance (basically a big old database of metal based information mined from the Encyclopedia Metallum – thanks to Cosmo at Invisible Oranges for publicizing this fascinating site):

There are almost 5500 “genres” attributed in [Encyclopedia Metallum]. 5000+ of these have fewer than 10 bands each. Almost 4000 of them are assigned to exactly 1 band. But this chaos of descriptors is actually constructed of a fairly small set of significant terms, rearranged in more or less every possible permutation and assembly.

Metal band count by genre

When describing music it’s essential to have a lexicon of descriptive terms to work with. Conveying the essence of a song, sound or style in words is not easy, so saying “X sounds like Y” is an essential mechanism. When certain styles repeat often enough we create classifications for them, usually described as genres. Most types of music have a pretty discrete set of genres supported by a range of other related terms to help qualify and further refine one’s description. So if we take an Indie band, for example Elbow, we could describe them as “British prog inflected melancholic indie rock”. This not a genre in itself – most people, on hearing the music would simply call it “Indie”, or “Alternative” or maybe just “Rock”, those words are just one person’s description. However, in the metal world, Tombs are not simply described as “blackened hardcore”, to metal fans the are Blackened Hardcore. It’s not enough to say that At the Gates are Death Metal, they are Melodic Death Metal. Melodic Death Metal may be a sub-genre of Death Metal, but they are not the same thing. Most other genres don’t suffer from this genre proliferation. We have shoegaze indie (and shoegaze metal lately!) and Happy Hardcore is a sub-genre of dance, old-school Hip-hop, Alt-Country, Prog Rock, but it usually stops at a single sub-strata rather than branching endlessly as sometimes happens in metal. So we have:

Metal ->

Death ->

Progressive Death

Brutal Death

Gore Metal

Deathcore

Melodic Death

Death/Doom

Technical Death

Blackened Death

We see this to an extent in other genres, but it it somehow seldom manages to stick in the same way (eg. Big Beat, Nu-rave, and Acid Jazz were all pretty short lived. That said NWOAHM and Pirate Metal are unlikely to stand the test of time).

In metal, it gets more baffling still when you look at the lexical topography of the metal genre spectrum. At first glance it would appear to be broadly taxonomical – that is, there is a rigid hierarchy of genres and sub-genres, and any given band fits somewhere. We start at the top with Metal (itself a subset of Rock), and below we have the mainline sub-genres, eg. Thrash, Death, Black, Hardcore…hold on, isn’t Hardcore a sub-genre of Punk? But its influence on metal (not mention the influence of Punk in general on metal) is huge. So here we hit our first problem – Metal isn’t pure, it’s an amalgam, and strictly taxonomical structures will not easily apply. If we gloss over that we hit other issues. For example, Deathcore would probably considered a subgenre of Death Metal, whereas Mathcore is most definitely a subgenre of hardcore. So although the *cores are (somewhat dubiously) afforded a common heritage, they are taxonomically fragmented. Then we have the issue of genre bleedthrough – Alcest are both Black Metal and Shoegaze. Neurosis could variously be described as Post-hardcore, Sludge, Doom, Post-rock etc. etc. And what of Sludge? A sub-genre of Doom or Punk? And try even classifying Baroness, SYL, Cobalt, Om, Earth

(Incidentally an attempt has been made to establish a taxonomy of musical genres in an attempt to make sense of the burgeoning availability of music in the digital era. Read about it here.)

The ‘structure’ is perhaps more ontological (in the more modern sense of the word), where genres are related to each other in a more semantic sense. So Symphonic Metal, a sub-genre of Power Metal, is like Symphonic Black Metal even though they’re from a pretty distinct lineage. Some genres are grouped geographically – Swedish Death metal was very much a style of its own, NWOBHM (and the various other perversions of that acronym that we’ve been subjected to since). NWOBHM could also be taken to denote a period in time and only bands from that period (late 70′s to early 80′s) could belong to this genre – bands practising this type of music these days would probably be described as Classic Metal. Death Metal derives (to a significant extent) from Thrash, but is not a subgenre of Thrash. Thrash in turn borrows from hardcore although it largely derives from NWOBHM and proto-BM.

Some genres are stylistically ridiculously broad – Folk Metal (which encompasses some pretty disparate regional influences), Post-Hardcore (this one pretty much defies any meaningful definition and probably doesn’t exist at all). On the other hand some descriptors and sub-strata are pretty definitive, and a genre of 1 (or very few) is a very real concept. The Black Metal fraternity are particularly proficient at this, being so pathologically tribal. So there’s really only a couple of Orthodox Black Metal bands, and post-BM and Depressive-BM are pretty sparse. I think this gives us a suggestion of what all this genre chaos is about – loyalty, belonging, pride.

The bewildering array of sub-genres is as constraining as it is helpful, and many bands balk at the being pigeon-holed, but still journalists, record labels, bands and fans alike create and perpetuate these labels. Metallers are often outsiders, and tend to cluster in cliques of similar minds. The different genres attract different types of metalheads, and the genre label acts like a badge, drawing people to it and each other – something more tangible to take pride in and remain loyal to. I also think metalheads are often shameless geeks – like stamp collectors they collect and group and organise, like train spotters they note sightings.

Interestingly, genre labels are often synonymous with feelings of quality. So labelling something Nu-Metal is generally derogatory, whereas calling something ‘Progressive’ is generally considered good (despite the link with the overtly indulgent and un-cool  70′s prog scene). These days the *cores are often seen as bad, mainly by the metal snoberatti and hardcore purists. Black Metal kvltists are notoriously defensive of their beloved genre to the extent of attempting to ‘unclassify’ bands that don’t suit their view of what the genre represents, despite clear lineage (Cradle of Filth, Dimmu Bogir). There’s actually a report in The Discordance that claims to quantify this (see it here).

Perhaps the most compelling reason for metal genre proliferation is simply the diversity of the metal genre. When both Steel Panther and Sunn O))) coexist under the metal banner which derives influence from Hip-hop, Folk, Classical, Dance and even Country some serious descriptors are needed just so we can get a feel for what stuff might suit our particular taste. The ‘metal’ genre itself comes with much baggage and preconceptions particularly with outsiders whom I find often have a narrow view of what that tag represents. Simply calling a band ‘metal’ does little convey what the bands represent (unless perhaps you’re talking about archetypes like Judas Priest or Iron Maiden) so a more specific definition would seem appropriate – shame they often mean nothing to anyone not pretty well acquainted with the genre!

It’s a fascinating subject, and you could probably write a whole book on the variations, nuances, idiocies and inconsistencies contained within the metal subgenre spectrum. At the end of the day, call it what you want – if it sounds good then stop talking about it and concentrate of listening to it!

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Interview – Griftegård

Posted in Interviews on July 18th, 2010 by Alex

griftegard

Griftegård’s album Solemn.Sacred.Severe was one of my favourite releases last year. Saurated in religeous imagary and existential gloom, it sets a new standard for the Doom genre. Griftegård are the real deal. Musically, they are both cinematic and claustrophobic  whilst being oppressively dark, lyrically and thematically they are learned, complex and cryptic. I’m not usually that motivated by lyrics, and it takes something pretty singular to get my attention, and lyrically Solemn.Sacred.Severe intrigued and absorbed me from the first listen. As an exploration of theology, Christian dogma and the nature of existence it stands out as philosophical tome in its own right. It’s these lyrical themes that I was most interested in when compiling these interview questions. Some of these themes were covered in an ealier interview with lyricist/guitarist Ola Blomkvist conducted by German blog Burn Your Ears (read it here. Google translate makes a pretty decent job of the translation) but it left me with more questions than answers. So I was honoured when Ola agreed to answer some more questions. I recommend reading the Burn Your Ears interview first, as this uses that as a springboard.

Your apostasy from the Jehovah’s Witness faith from upbringing seems to dominate your lyrics and apparent worldview. Do you consider Griftegård’s music a type of ‘rebellion’?

No, the music/lyrics of Griftegård are not about rebellion against my upbringing, nor against the JW’s or any other religion in general. Focusing on the lyrics of SSS only, I would say they are more of a mirroring of the dialectics deriving from the experiences I have had with religion. Losing faith and filling the subsequent void is a lifelong process and the album accounts for this process up till the release of the album.

You quote Albert Camus as an influence who was an exponent of the Absurdist branch of the existentialist movement which suggests that it’s pointless (absurd) to look for meaning in the universe, yet your lyrics suggest that you continue to do so. Do you expect to find some sort of meaning in this universe?

Just because I mention Camus and his writing as a source of inspiration doesn’t mean I stand behind all aspects of his philosophy. I think he is a very insightful, yet very cynical, man with great knowledge of the human psyche, and also he has a great, and bleak, sense of humour which I appreciate a lot. There are other authors, philosophers and personalities I look up to that have had more impact on my world of thought than Camus though. Also, just like any reading and reflecting person (I imagine) I go through phases during which a certain theme/author interests me more and lately, for example, I have been absorbed by Huxley and Orwell and their utterly revealing writings.

I do not expect to find meaning for myself in this universe, at least not in a revelatory way hitting me in a bolt-of-lightning fashion, granting me instant and everlasting illumination/salvation. Nor do I believe in an absolute meaning true to all people since an absolute meaning can only be determined if one is able to observe the all objectively, and this perspective is needless to say denied everyone but the creator of the all. So in a way I can subscribe to the absurdist stance: for us humans to search for, and expecting to find, meaning (as described above) is absurd.

On the other hand I believe we humans can, and must, create our own subjective meanings (or, perhaps overtly cynically put, we need to weave our own self deceiving illusions) and maybe the simple answer lay in here: (for me) the meaning is to create. And to be. At least this is where I am now. To be creative and to be in the created. I have big problems with applying this “insight” though, cause just like all creative souls I am restless and cannot sit back arms crossed and just take in what I have achieved, I have to go on towards new realisations or I feel trapped and anxious. Of course one could extend this reasoning and go religious over it and say that every creatures meaning (in life) is to simply “be in creation honouring the creator, reflecting his greatness and light and passing it onwards”, but let us not go there cause I could go on forever on the subject and I have too many thoughts on the meaning of life to list and discuss them all here, too many theories that no one but God can confirm or deny, and up till now he has chosen to sit back and laugh in silence at me.

Ultimately you seem to revile human behaviour. In that respect, do you consider yourself puritanical?

I loathe the vulnerability and weakness of the human condition and all our needs and lusts, yes. The notion that we are more than flesh and that there might be a possibility to achieve freedom from it triggers frustration in me. I guess I have some distance to travel yet before I am able to accept the duality of spirit and body – meanwhile I will continue making songs in which I whine about it… I guess I am puritanical also in the sense that I feel offended by what has been done to the spirit of man by the powers that rule this realm. This realm truly is hell, and on so many levels a non divine comedy. I am developing some of my thoughts on this last subject on our coming album.

There is a sense in your lyrics that religion is both the damnation and saviour of humanity? Do you agree with this interpretation and if so how do you account for this apparent paradox?

I agree, and as for accounting for this paradox I refer to my answer regarding the meaning (of life) in this universe. My lyrics are often paradoxical as I do not want to close the door to any possibility permanently. The fear of static hinders me as it is equal to mental and spiritual death (blindness and self deceit).

Your style of using religious themes and language to describe a bleak and misanthropic worldviewis in some ways similar to that of Orthodox Satanist Black Metal bands like Deathspell Omega. Do you feel any affinity with such bands or philosophies?

To us, and to some of these bands, music and lyrics create a whole that is much more than the sum of its different parts, unlike so much of the contemporary trivia/entertainment that passes for music. This is the strongest link between us. We definitely feel an affinity towards acts like Funeral Mist, Ofermod, Watain, The Devil’s Blood and Necros Christos as we do with all bands that transmit “the right” atmosphere and feeling and walk the talk.

Do you intend to carry a message to people with your music, or is it purely for your own ends?

Griftegård can be perceived as an embodiment of spiritual/philosophical evolution set to music and lyrics, one that contains insight and doubt, triumph and defeat, in short Griftegård mirror a struggle (for knowledge). It is definitely for our own ends as a collective that we do what we do. But if we by sharing (what we feel is true) can make people start to think about things that really matter in the end we have served a purpose. We have no illusions of changing the world or its people in general though, we are too realistic and too old for such naive aspirations.

When writing , which comes first, music or lyrics?

In Griftegård music and lyrics are equally important and are developed simultaneously, and often separately. The reason for this might be that I often write the lyrics like poems, because I want the text to be able to stand on its own, without the music. This is also what we as a collective try to achieve with the music, to grant is such density that it could stand on its own and deliver the right atmosphere even without lyrics. When both kinds of expression have reached the highest degree of fulfilment we are able to give them they are put together and the necessary adaptations are made. Usually this is a rather painless process – often when we try a certain text against a particular piece of music it is as if the lyrics just have been waiting to marry with the music through Thomas (Eriksson, singer), who has a great ear and an even greater intuition for what a certain song demands in terms of vocal channelling.

To what extent is your choice of musical genre (Doom Metal) reflected by your lyrical themes? Could you see your ideas and lyrics mapping to other genres?

Doom Metal, as I see it, is the perfect medium for the kind of themes we deal with. The solemnity, the gravity, the pace, all furthers an atmosphere that creates a perfect room for ponderings of an eternal nature. There was never any question in our minds whether Griftegård would be a Doom band or not when we formed the band. Also I personally find it hard to compose anything else as this is what my heart is full of. As for the ideas of Griftegård mapping over to other genres: I could picture myself doing something aching to Apocalyptic Folk in the Sol Invictus vein at some point, using ideas that would fit Griftegård as well.

Both your music and lyrics are introspective and downbeat. Do you consider yourself a negative or pessimistic person?

I would not say I am negative and pessimistic by nature, but realistic. If you ask those near to me you might receive a different answer though. The less you learn about how the world is made up and the more you know of what really is going on the more resigned you become. There is no hope for this world as it stands now, it is clear for all to see, and only a massive turnover of the powers that be can save “us”.

Which other bands out there today that you consider your lyrical or musical contemporary?

To be honest (blasé & boring) I have lost contact a bit with the Doom scene the last couple of years so I don’t really know if there has surfaced any new acts that play it similar to Griftegård. I have still not heard of anyone but us writing lyrics from an apostate Jehovah’s Witness perspective though, but if there are any I strongly urge them to get in touch. Certainly there are acts out there that move in the same area as we do though, be it thematically/philosophically, atmospherically or purely musically. Even though Warning has quit them and we have a lot in common when it comes to feeling and pace, I sense this and apparently many others do as well (which is an honour for us) judging by reviews. While Heaven Wept must be mentioned in this context as well, for obvious reasons (even though Vast Ocean’s is the fastest WHW platter this far), and so must Forsaken. The current act that I feel is closest to Griftegård thematically and, to a certain point, musically though is Count Raven, whom we are making a split 7” release with, due out sometime in August through Ván. Dan’s lyrics are perhaps more direct than mine but we think very much along the same lines and there is a religious longing to his expression that I can relate to. I have a feeling that he, just like me, identify with The Bible’s Job to a certain extent, however much hubris this might be from my side.

In addition we feel a kinship with non metal acts like 16 HP, Michael Gira, Diamanda Galás and, perhaps surprising to some, Scott Walker, whose three latest albums are all dark, heavy and introspective masterpieces if there ever was any.

Are you currently working on new material?

Yes we are working on three new songs, which are in different stages of fulfilment, titles being A Beam InThe Eye Of The Lord, A Deathbed For All Holy and The Last Song Of The End (A Final Time). There are plenty of other ideas that are waiting to be realised as well but these are the ones we concentrate on at the time of writing (2010-07-16).

Any plans to play in the UK in the near future?

We are playing the Dublin Doom Day on the 18th of September 2010, which we look forward to a lot. We would jump at any chance of playing Britain but up till now nothing has been possible to arrange.

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