Monthly Archives: December 2011

Everyone Is A Critic

Negative feedback is one of the best things a writer of any calibre can receive. If we seem ungrateful as we pound our fists into your soft, pudgy, yielding flesh, why, we’re only showing you how it feels, you ungrateful bastard. How dare you reject our many and wonderful gifts?

As you may have deduced from the above, it is also a slightly painful experience. Whenever you throw something personal out into the world, having people tell you it’s not good enough hurts — even if you knew it was not good enough yourself, even if you really wanted to know what was wrong with it, even if you disagree with the feedback. Sometimes, all writers really want (deep down) is a pat on the back and a shiny gold sticker to paper over those enormous plot holes.

There was one thing, though, which, until recently, I believed I could count on. One type of individual that would always offer uncritical appreciation and praise of everything I ever wrote. When the real world left me bruised and confused, shouts about indistinct things such as poor characterisation and immature word choices ringing in my ears, I always fled back to the warm, comforting, greasy embrace of one familiar figure.

Planked Spam Advert

(Planked) Spambots

Recently, however, I got a whole string of spambot comments which purported to illustrate flaws in my writing. Attempts at planking them proved futile, and broke my laptop. It is possible I will never understand exactly what “planked” means. Eventually, I simply gave up and read the pointless things.

There are several questions that these comments raised in my mind, but the first (and only relevant question) was “Why did they think anyone would approve these comments?” Feedback is one thing, but these comments were just mean. Mean, and fairly stupid.

“Wow! Why did I waste my time reading that? When I could! have been reading/watching on these site?”

“Hey, whos with me, we should stop reading poorly spelled websites and head over to [removed] to play poker?”

“This site is kinda cool [Why thank you] but if you want real informations about motorbike maintenance and handling care [what] you should click here [removed, it was a link to an adult site]. This site sucks anyway [But spambot! I thought we were friends].”

This is just a small selection of the increasingly critical and incoherent spam comments I’ve been getting lately. They have left me a little bemused, to be honest.

I thought I’d just ask if anyone else has been getting these comments, whether they’ve approved them out of curiosity/bloody-mindedness/other, and whether anyone has any idea what exactly these spammers are hoping to achieve with this campaign?

Surely they must be getting results, or they would have stopped by now — right?

Just curlin’ my burl.

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“It’s Just Noise” – The Sliver Of Truth Behind Metal’s Greatest Slander – Part 3

In Parts 1 and 2, I looked at harsh vocals and a general aural assault. Here I’m going to examine the process of disorientation and alienation in metal.

If you need a quick guide to any genre terms I use here, or just want to know a little more about metal, especially extreme metal, check out my “Quick ‘n’ Dirty Introduction To Metal. I promise this is the last in the series of rants, thanks for sticking with me!

Harsh vocals and LOUD are probably the most noticeable feature of extreme metal to people who don’t listen to metal a great deal. Once you’ve started listening to metal more than other types of music, though, it tends to become unnoticeable. You even start to understand what they’re saying after a while (I promise!). It’s just another part of the music.

Sure, they happen to have chosen a particular style, but that’s no more something to comment on in and of itself than the distorted guitar in mainstream rock music. This is significant, as it means metal fans don’t tend to think of harsh vocals as noise — at least, not in the same way as ‘normal’ music fans do.

This last week we come to another thing which differentiates metal from other genres: a deliberate disorientation of the listener.

This is a much more unarguably ‘noisy’ part of metal. It doesn’t matter so much if there are loud noises, or if there is a strange intensity to the tone of the music, if someone is creating patterns with sound, then you can easily claim that it is music. This appears to be the primary function in music, in fact. Our minds appreciate nice, simple melodies that we can predict easily. They get a little buzz from doing their job well. It makes sense — a layperson could easily start speculating about all kinds of linguistic applications for that skill.

If someone is making something that’s not just patternless though — like white noise, brown noise, pink noise etc. — but actually deliberately encourages you to think there’s a pattern coming, only to swerve away at the last minute, now that is disturbing.

Death and black metal do this by using scales that very few other genres of music employ. Death metal tends to use a combination of exotic scales in weird permutations and unusual contexts, while traditional Black metal goes more for chromatic scales.

Then progressive extreme metal, which tends, a little ironically, to sound closer to mainstream metal than normal extreme metal, takes this one step further. The melodies which metalheads are now expecting to hear from their favourite band are subverted further. Instead of rejecting melodious guitar lines, the guitarist sketches around the outsides of traditional melodies. It’s really cool to hear, and very disorientating. Here’s something I consider to be a good example of this sort of metal:

Ihsahn – Unhealer

You also get odd rhythmic sections combined with these bizarre melodies in the genre called Djent, a type of progressive metal. In Djent (and in a lot of other metal genres too, but most noticeably in Djent), we get things called “polyrhythms”, which happen when multiple rhythms layer on top of each other, and “cross-rhythms”, which are a type of polyrhythm designed to give a misleading impression of where the beat is. Again, here is a good example of the sort of thing I’m talking about:

Animals As Leaders – “CAFO”

Then again, sometimes you get stuff that is just really weird. No semi-bullcrap technical explanations, it’s just music that is consistently and completely weird. This is a pretty full and diverse type of metal, with artists from Devin Townsend to Mudvayne to Zu having produced nearly inexplicable songs.

Here is a song chosen at random from Mike Patton’s vast back-catalogue of odd things, including Mr. Bungle. This is Tomahawk doing a funk-filled, jagged, rage-filled number, with Patton singing through a gas mask.

Tomahawk – God Hates A Coward

We have now established that some metal songs are freaky, often on purpose. Truly this was a wonderful use of all of our time.

But why?

My own half-baked theory is that metal works in a different way to many traditional forms of music. Where much traditional music encourages a meditative, dopamine-fuelled high based on pattern recognition, metal brings you firmly into your body with a spitting, snarling, confusing burst of adrenaline.

It confuses and disorientates until a point is reached where the confusion becomes an irrelevance and the disorientation is exhilarating. Recently the stupendously popular wordy weblog Hyperbole And A Half did a brilliant post entitled Adventures in Depression.  In my view, metal is like a cheat code which skips you straight to the end point, the feelgood ending to that post — not feeling like you give the slightest shit about anything anyone thinks about you. That’s probably just me though.

The sliver of truth behind the accusation that metal is “just noise” lies here, in my opinion, in the stranger side of metal.  Many, if not most, metal songs actively defy conventional aesthetics in a search of a kick, a hit of the alien and otherworldly, which I believe brings listeners fully into the moment.

By rejecting or subverting musical patterns, both rhythmic and melodic, metal at its best encourages a very un-intellectual response to rather intellectual thoughts and musical theory. As progressive metal band Tool said once, overthinking,// overanalysing// separates the body from the mind, while coming across something that we cannot instantly explain can unite them.

This is not quite noise, not noise in the sense that white noise is. It’s too ordered for that. Equally, I don’t believe that it functions in the same way as traditional melody and music does, not in the slightest.

If I had to give it a name? If you really forced my hand?

I’d probably call it ‘Metal‘.

Oh yeah! Bam! What an ending. With copy like this, you’ll make the front pa- oh, what? Was I asleep again? Dammit.

Watch this if you have poor impulse control and have to watch any song you start watching all the way to the end.

^Totally not a trap.

I do not endorse or condone any of the political views expressed by any members of Nokturnal Mortum, especially Knjaz Varggoth.

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“It’s Just Noise” – The Sliver Of Truth Behind Metal’s Greatest Slander – Part 2

In Part 1, I mostly looked at harsh vocals, here I’m going to take a closer look at the importance of LOUD in metal.

If you need a quick guide to any genre terms I use here, or just want to know a little more about metal, especially extreme metal, check out my “Quick ‘n’ Dirty Introduction To Metal.

Part 2. Metal Deafens

“Why does metal have to be so loud?” is generally the next item on people’s (long) list of complaints about metal. Well, to be honest, it’s not that loud. There’s a limit to how far up you can turn an amp or PA system, and then you have to start buying special equipment.

So on a local level, your average ska punk band is likely to be as loud as your average death metal band. The loudest bands in the world have tended to be big, mainstream hard rock and heavy metal bands, rather than the extreme metal bands who never really have the budget to compete.

I’ve been in clubs that put some smaller metal venues to shame, what with their wetly belching bass noise and those damned tiny skirts and trousers and the Happy Hard Corps Marching Band and get off my damned lawn, kids, I’m old.

There’s two ways metal gets played louder. One is in massive arena, festival and stadium tours, and the other is metalheads playing the albums as loud as they bloody well can. The first is not something that non-metalheads are ever likely to encounter, and the second is pretty rare as well.

What is usually meant by “loud” is that metal tends towards an unrelenting assault, while mainstream music has more ebb and flow. This applies especially strongly the closer you get to the ‘pure’ extremes of metal, while even progressive, experimental and more mainstream metal bands tend to go for a LOUDquietLOUD song structure if they’re playing about with a song’s dynamics (cf. Opeth — yeah, now you guys know what I’m talking about! Right?).

Even this doesn’t apply to doom metal bands, who often let individual notes fade into an icy static background. So the only thing we can really apply to most metal bands, when we’re talking about decibels, is that they are crushingly intense, or that they are fierce, or brutal, not that they are really all that much louder than other sorts of music.

This involves a few factors; technical excellence, unusual tuning (whether unusually high, as in some black metal or unusually low, as in most other extreme bands), unusual speed (again, high or low), and genuine emotion.

Metal fans can tell when a band is ‘faking it’, and they do not like it one little bit.

Here are a few bands that exemplify what I am thinking of here. Of course, your own speakers and setup will affect how you hear them, but giving them a listen won’t hurt. Probably.

Warning: Opinions Ahead!

Nile – The Eye Of Ra

Nile are an incredible band. They are not the most technical band, and they are not the most brutal band, but they reach what feels like a perfect balance between the aspects of technical skill, speed, brutality, and genuine passion and feeling.

Technically incredible bands like Brain Drill simply cannot match Nile’s atmosphere, musical skill and adventurous spirit at the same time as they demonstrate their technical prowess.

Nile maintain an unremitting assault on all fronts, and as such are one of the most intense experiences in the world.

As with the other bands in this post, you can play their songs at a low volume and still feel blown away by their power.

Electric Wizard – We Hate You

Hate and pain drips from every word in this song. That in itself is nothing special to metal. There are blues songs, jazz standards, country classics and even musicals which attempt this, with varying degrees of success (protip: Musicals are not the winners).

What are special to metal are We Hate You‘s riffs. With spiky and acidic guitar rising over a dismal murk of bass and drums, they don’t let you get comfortable even for a second. The intensity of the music is there to make it clear that this is more than just an act.

It’s a song written by disenfranchised and disenchanted people. They might acknowledge that it’s not your fault, or they might not.

But you leave this song knowing that they hate you.

Samael – Baphomet’s Throne

Really not that much to add here. It’s another gut-wrenching, raw, intense track that achieves an eerily hypnotic energy, this time with a minimalist touch that Philip Glass might envy.

The riffs are simple, but seem to be just that little bit longer than is comfortable.

The vocals add to the sense of an impenetrable, inevitable wall of sound, but once more it’s not that loud.

So black metal, death metal and doom metal all have their representatives in the above list.

Hopefully you tried listening to them with the volume down, and hopefully you also agree with me that their intensity, what is initially perceived as their “loudness”, persists even when the volume is lowered. If you disagree, for whatever reason, I’d love to hear from you in the comments section.

Well, if you disagree with anything I say I’d like to hear your comments.

Or if you agree.

Please…please comment.

I’m just…so lonely.

I reserve the right to change or invent the meaning of any and all words, reference points and skawbs in the event of a difficult philosophical or aesthetic debate.  Also to go back on any and all of my words if none of the above are possible. I HAVE THE INTEGRITY AND CLEANLINESS OF A PRISON FLANNEL.

I used up all the good songs. Here is an entertaining piece of flim-flammery.

Yes, all of them.

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“It’s Just Noise” – The Sliver Of Truth Behind Metal’s Greatest Slander – Part 1

If you need a quick guide to any genre terms I use here, or just want to know a little more about metal, especially extreme metal, check out my “Quick ‘n’ Dirty Introduction To Metal.

At some point, almost everyone I know who doesn’t like metal as much as I do turns to me while we’re listening to my favourite songs, and says something along the lines of “This just sounds like noise to me.”

Sometimes they say it as we hurtle down the motorway at almost fifty-five miles an hour, at other times when we’re just partying it up with a couple of smoothies and some tinny laptop speakers. They almost invariably add a self-deprecating shrug or moue, and a comment along the lines of “Oh God, I can’t believe I sound so old/like my parents/like a philistine incapable of appreciating true art even when it’s right in front of my face.”

Cannibal Corpse - Eaten Back To Life

True art.

And it’s bullshit.

Of course it’s bullshit, evidently it’s bullshit. How could anyone possibly dismiss an entire genre of music with a simple “It’s just noise”?

Probably because it’s actually pretty true.

Not completely true, and never the whole truth, but noise is a big part of metal’s heart, and a big part of its appeal. For some bands, being described as just noise could be the greatest compliment they’ve ever been paid.

I’m not talking about what we might call ‘melodic metal’, metal which tends to have harmonious and even quite beautiful, usually epic guitar lines — gothic metal, power metal, alternative metal, melodic death metal to an extent, symphonic black metal, all that malarkey.  That’s evidently as valid an art-form as any other, and each piece has to be judged on its own individual merits.

I’m talking about the metal where, to the uninitiated, it sounds as though the guitar fades into the drums which fade into the vocals which fade into the bass which you can barely hear anyway because the guitars are so damn loud and everyone is screaming in about three different ways.

There’s a few main types of metal that get dismissed as ‘just noise’, and here are the reasons why yes they bloody are and noise is awesome.

Part 1. Metal With Harsh Vocals

Screaming and shouted vocals are probably two of the biggest barriers people face to getting into metal in a big way. They’re found in all extreme metal, from doom to thrash to certain progressive metal bands, and although they go in and out of fashion, it really looks as though they’re here to stay.

Harsh vocals can sound ridiculous. Sometimes bands, especially bands who cram a lot of lyrics into three or four-minute songs (metalcore and deathcore bands often do this) can sound like they’re just doing it for the sake of it — to be shocking, or confrontational. They are often accused of not being able to sing.

Last things first, singing is much easier than screaming or bellowing at full volume without accidentally tearing out your lungs and propelling them across the crowd like a pair of sloppy red bagpipes. And some bands certainly do use harsh vocals to give themselves an edge they would otherwise lack. There are, though, three different examples I think of when people complain about harsh vocals that, in my mind, explain the phenomenon.

Amesoeurs – Heurt

This is one of the borderline metal songs which I recommend most frequently to people who are not usually interested in metal. Many of the most prominent elements of metal — the raucous guitars, unrelenting drumming, and harsh vocals — are present and correct, but there is a softness and accessibility to the song which is extremely rare.

It is the scream, though, the harsh vocals at around the 2:30 mark, which really gives emotional substance and depth to the song. What people sometimes miss about other metal tracks is the light and shade that is present in Heurt; but really there is nothing much to differentiate the intensity of Celtic Frost and Emperor from the intensity of those brief few seconds.

The only difference is that the passion of more extreme bands is generally sustained over the entire course of the song, and for most listeners this is draining, confusing and alienating, when you listen to it as most newcomers to metal do — not amid the heat, noise and sweat of a live gig, where every sense is heightened to its fullest, but at home, in comfort. In this context, it can be hard to understand how they can sustain such fury, or pain, or hatred over the course of an entire song. Songs like Heurt can give you part of the answer.

White Zombie – Black Sunshine

Like most kids, I first heard Black Sunshine on Guitar Hero. For me, it was the first song that bridged the mental gap between spoken word and the screams and shouts I was just starting to hear in other metal songs at the time (mostly Gojira and Opeth).

Spoken word has had a long and illustrious career in mainstream music, but it seems as though making the move from spoken to shouted is too large a leap for most people to contemplate. Black Sunshine encouraged me to question why this was.

Meshuggah – Bleed

This was the final piece in the puzzle for me. Hearing Meshuggah finally allowed me to hear harsh vocals, not as an obstructive thing that got in the way of the music, but as an integral part of the percussion of metal. The noise is necessary in this particular kind of metal, because it functions not as melody but as a marker for the beat, as percussion.

All of these metal tracks have aided me in my understanding of why I like harsh vocals, and why they work in some songs (and don’t in others), but they didn’t trigger my affection for them. I already liked harsh vocals the first time I heard them, on a visceral level. It seemed to suit what I was feeling at the time, and it seemed to suit the music that accompanied them.

So if you don’t like harsh vocals, I didn’t write this post to convince you that they’re somehow objectively good, and it’s not going to suddenly change your mind on the whole topic. I just wrote it to explain why I, and many other metal fans, enjoy these vocals. We’re not just doing it to piss you guys off, or to be special little flowers.

We like ’em because we like ’em, and we’ve all got our own valid reasons for that.

And we like ’em on because they’re not music. They’re just noise.

Part 2 coming next week. Oh yes, I can see you are on the edge of your seats already.

Grumpy.

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5 Of The Best Game Soundtracks

Computer game soundtracks have some of the most underappreciated composers and artists working in music today. Sure, extremely well-paid and happy composers and artists, but wouldn’t you rather have that precious hipster credibility than silly things like money and job satisfaction?

No?

Oh. Well then, you probably don’t have that much sympathy for them. Still, discovering or remembering countless wonderful game soundtracks, and finding out that they hardly get any respect out there in the real world (even the ones that gamers really love), can get a little weird over time.

These five computer game soundtracks, my own personal favourites, haven’t been chosen on nostalgia value — so, no Zelda or Mario, great though their music was. Nor have they been chosen according to whether they stand well on their own. Gaming soundtracks are completely tied in to the experience of playing the game, in a way that even film soundtracks are not.

Oh, and if you think of a soundtrack that really should have made the list, feel free to leave a comment. Naturally.

5. Final Fantasy X – PS2

The quality of the music in the Final Fantasy series is legendary. Even Final Fantasy I and II had iconic tunes, especially the battle music. Final Fantasy X is special, though.

Final Fantasy X is special because it had the balls to go from lovely tinkly piano ballads, soppy love songs, and garbled plainsong-like shenanigans to, well, this:

It’s pretty standard these days to have a mid-paced, vaguely heavy rock song in the middle of a game. Almost any meat-headed shooter will have something that sounds kinda similar to this. At the time FFX was released, though, I’d never heard anything remotely like the song Otherworld, and it seemed genuinely revolutionary. Another thing I’d never heard before at the time was harsh vocals, and I have still not once heard spoken word pulled off as successfully as it is here — I mean, come on. Go, into the sand and dust in the sky…

Besides, it really does rock so damn much.

4. Neverhood – PC

Neverhood’s soundtrack is awesome. It’s gently amusing, witty and fun at the same time as sounding like really earthy, bluesy rock music. It’s like somebody, some mad genius, was able to hear exactly what rock and soul music sounds like to kids, and managed to triple-distill that sound to total perfection. Triple-distilled is pretty appropriate here, too, as everything sounds like it’s being played by a drunk and depressed one-man band, just one sip of Wild Turkey away from the gutter. Dum Da Dum Doi Doi is one of the most joyful celebrations of stupidity I have ever heard, but my favourite song from the soundtrack is Skat Radio, which not only keeps Terry S. Taylor’s bizarre drunken rambling style, but adds skat to the mix, too.

That’s right, he took skat and made it sound epic.

3. Ecco The Dolphin – Sega Mega Drive/Genesis

Ecco The Dolphin was a computer game for the Sega Mega Drive (Genesis in some other parts of the world), in which you helped a dolphin defeat time-travelling aliens as you swam about a vast and deadly ocean full of jellyfish, sharks, lone air pockets, delicious fish and the very best music you could get out of the technology of the day.

I said no nostalgia was involved, and no nostalgia is involved here. If it had been, not only would this have been the number one entry on the list, but I would be curled around my old Mega Drive controllers right this second, sobbing with joy and making little “SQUARK!” noises to myself. This is just great music. Ominous, deep, and vast, it captured the feel of the game perfectly.

I don’t think the series ever quite lived up to that first game again, but why should it? That first game’s strength was how strange it was, how completely a one-off it was. Every part of it was carefully crafted, and the music was no exception. Here is the rest of the soundtrack, thank youtube user explod2A03 for uploading it.

Thaaaaank hiiiiiiiim!

2. Super Meat Boy – XBox 360, PC

Oh wow. I have never really felt comfortable saying this word, so imagine myself screwing up my face, raising a scornful eyebrow and squirming uncomfortably in my seat as I say it, for it is the only word that can adequately describe Super Meat Boy’s soundtrack.

Are you ready?

I’m going to say it now.

Funky.

Ugh, I feel dirty.

There’s no particular stand-out track from Super Meat Boy, but it all just sounds so good. The temptation with such a difficult game is to go into ultra fast techno extravaganza land, which is admittedly a fun place to stay, but Super Meat Boy’s music took the more challenging route, and the result is a soundtrack which is genuinely enjoyable to listen to, with a subtle sense of urgency and a great bassline.

Forest Funk, The Battle Of Little SluggerBetus Blues,  C.H.A.D.’s Broken Wind, Can o’ Salt

If you want more, you can go from there…

1. Bastion – XBox 360, PC

Bastion’s soundtrack has been pretty much everywhere in the gaming media recently, and with good cause. It sounds like no other gaming soundtrack before or since, with a hauntingly melancholic melodic strain running through the songs, and a sense of cohesion, continuity and coherence that I have never seen before in a game OST.

Let me do you a favour: play that song, and at the same time, load up rainymood.com. You’ll thank me later.

If you disagree with any of my personal choices, I don’t really care, but you can talk about it if you want. I guess. If you liked any of the soundtracks please support the developer and musicians by buying the official soundtrack!

Can’t believe I left off Rabbids Go Home! Joy in a – BWAAAH!

Oh yeah, and I completed National Novel Writing Month on Wednesday. Overjoyed!

Funny post due next week (maybe).

Haha, turns out it was my least funny post yet. Looks like the YOLK was on you! No I don’t know stop looking at me.

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