Monthly Archives: May 2012

Green Metal

If there’s one trend that can be relied on to unite some of the ugliest, most hate-filled bands in metal, from sludgy apocalyptic bastards to black metal straight from the darkest, wettest Norwegian forests, it’s the environment. Even the most misanthropic of bands appear to view man’s mistreatment of nature as a source of outrage. What is it about mother nature that turns snarling nihilists into advocates of peace, love and harmony?

Well, first off, there are very few true nihilists making music, let alone metal. To make something artistic you have to be passionate about it — if you are angry about the absence of meaning in one thing, then you are comparing it to the presence of meaning in something elsewhere, in some capacity. Metal is full of anger.

Mmm-bop by Hanson was a nihilist masterpiece. Grey by Emperor, by way of contrast, has real passion. Metalheads are very rarely true nihilists, even if some claim that they are in magazine articles and the like.

There’s no reason why metal shouldn’t be environmentally conscious, then, any more than other music, but that doesn’t explain why metal is so very conscious of the destruction of nature.

Part of the explanation is probably a certain degree of misanthropy, for some bands. Varg Vikernes especially is an incredibly hate-filled individual, and his hate for humanity makes it easier for him to identify with movements that seek to downplay the impact of humanity.

His solution is probably over-the-top, to say the least. I believe the gist of it was “Systematically eradicate 99% of the human race”, the 99% being his figure. He’s not alone, though, there are many bands who despise the industry of humankind, some of whom hold fringe political beliefs, some of whom do not. Black metal bands often arrive at this praise-nature-hate-man attitude through a number of routes, but the main influencing factors are, in my opinion, depression and self-hatred, externally directed hatred, nationalism and localism,and shamanic mysticism.

Another reason, linking to the shamanic mysticism I just mentioned, is that some metal bands are fond of certain herbal remedies. This, for some reason, tends to lend many people into a deep appreciation of nature, as there’s some degree of cross-over with certain elements of hippy culture. I’ve definitely heard fans of sludgy stoner metal band Electric Wizard describe themselves as the “anti-hippies”, and there’s a fair amount of similarity between the two groups.

The appeal of apocalypse further adds to the likelihood that metal bands will be, to an extent, green. Whether zombies, mutants, nukes or aliens, almost every apocalyptic parable tends to have a message of “you reap what you sow”. The grisly and immediate impact of the end of the world, and the frustrated anger that comes with it, is great fodder for a typical metal band.

The most substantial reason, though, in my view, is that metal bands are traditionally political, and that green, environmental issues are implicit every time we make a decision about how we change the space we live in, whether as individuals or as a society, whatever decision you choose to make. This means that environmental issues are hugely important political issues to most people in their every-day life.

It explains why groove-laden death metal band Gojira focus almost entirely on eco-issues a lot more, that’s for sure — long before it was the done thing to up the brutality and tech, early death metal bands like, well, Death, were focussing on social and political issues.

A predisposition of angry music towards politics is also what lies behind most of the reasons black metal bands often embrace eco-consciousness so fully (nationalism, elitism, etc.), while thrash metal bands, far from the cartoonishly over-the-top image the mainstream might have of them, have always been involved in politics in some way. Megadeth are only the most visible exponent of political thrash metal.

All-in-all, it strikes me as odd that I’ve never, or only very rarely, seen commentary on just how damn green metal is before. From Alcest to Burzum, from death metal lyrics like “I still don’t get the point, what’s worth destroying all the world,” to alt metal lyrics like “Eating seeds is a past time activity,” environmental consciousness is a rare unifying theme in metal, to the point where it begins to get a little unnerving.

Flametalco.

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Triple-A Games

I’ve never really been blown away by triple-A games, and I think I’ve just worked out why, thanks to Diablo III, which should in theory have me stupidly over-excited. It looks great, as far as I can tell the combat system looks fun and balanced, the graphics exceeded my expectations for the series. Also, an epic and apocalyptic storyline, huge fuck-off bosses to fight, and a fairly detailed library of mystic lore to wade through.

Furthermore, I tend to be pretty accepting of annoying control quirks, bizarre difficulty levels or learning curves, and generic heroes. As a gamer I’m pretty easy to please.

What actually irritates me, in a typically contrarian fashion, is when gameplay flows too well, when it integrates too perfectly with the environment of the game, and when it’s too intuitive.

Part of the appeal of gaming, for me, has always been mastering an unfamiliar system. Clunky old controls that clearly delineate actions and results (you can only go north, south, east or west; if you go north, you will be eaten by something altogether gruesome), those represent something unfamiliar, something more rigid than daily life, something to be understood and beaten.

This is part of why Dwarf Fortress really grabbed me a while back, and wouldn’t let me go until it had broken my laptop. Contrary to the trend for immersive gameplay to be considered synonymous with good gameplay, I enjoy games that are sort of clumsy. Why? Because they are different to real life. They’re a fun system to be mastered, and you can get a sense of achievement from completing goals within them.

I suspect this lies behind a lot of the prejudices a certain type of gamer has about triple-A titles versus indie or retro games, as well.

So, that’s why I’m not really that excited about Diablo III. As far as I’m concerned, it just looks a little too good to be worth my time. See a trailer embedded below, if you must.

You’re right, this post makes very little sense. I really don’t care.

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An Elegant System Of Magic

The Lord of the Rings is now so synonymous with the ‘mainstream’ fantasy genres that its originality and importance has been all-but-forgotten.

Hi, I’m some internet douchebag, and I’ll be spouting my opinions for the next thousand-words-odd.

Some internet douchebag.

This is not actually me, but it might as well be. Look at that douchebag smile, eh? Image by Victor1558

The Lord of the Rings films especially have contributed to people forgetting about one of the trilogy’s most significant defining features.

The treatment of magic in Lord of the Rings was truly incredible, given how the culture of the time treated the idea. At the time, popular ideas of magic divided broadly into some sort of ethereal stuff that pervaded everything (yo, new-agers!), Satanic powers derived from dark rites (yo, teenagers!), and complex mathematical & pseudo-scientific systems that were intended to form a complete philosophy (different kinds of new-agers!).

This is hugely simplified, but I think that most mainstream belief in magic at the time fell into one of these groups.

So, we had Magic As Fifth Element, Magic As Demonic Power, and Magic As Science — essentially the spiritual successor to alchemy. There was some overlap between them, but that’s not the point.

The point is that The Lord of the Rings was, in large part, based around Tolkien’s rediscovery of an alternate type of magic, Magic As Words. I say rediscovery rather than invention, because although largely forgotten by the English-speaking world, words were still magic in the folk traditions preserved by the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic.

This epic forms a vital link to the Scandinavian epics of the more distant past, which also recognised the world-altering power of words and cunning. These are probably why we still think of ‘runes as power’ magic ‘spells’ and wizards as scholarly, old, grey-bearded individuals.

Wizard, Crystal Ball

This picture is so awesome I feel bad about using it in my blog post. Image by Sean McGrath, some rights reserved.

So what does this mean?

Rather than a mystic idea of innate control over fire, earth, air and water, magic was the preserve of people who were good at persuading others. Magic was in the words of great leaders, poets, visionary seers and desperate pleas of protection etched into keepsakes and talismans.

This idea pervades the novels of The Lord of the Rings, keeping the magic more earthy and real-seeming. These novels in turn kickstarted the fantasy genre as a whole, and managed to influence how genre magic systems worked for a long time. I feel very strongly that this approach to magic was a Good Thing.

Over time, though, the power of words decayed, leaving only the ‘power’ part behind.

Dictionary definition

Words words words. Image by Dustin Askins.

Excellent writers began to talk of tapping into mystic forces that ‘existed’ in some way outside the known Universe (chaos, law, light, dark, ether — Magic As Fifth Element), awful writers whose lawyer-happy legacy-holders I’d never dream of crossing wrote of bizarre and stupid pseudo-scientific magic systems (Magic As Science — obviously), and vampires, demons, daemons and devils began to creep back into mainstream depictions of magic (Magic As Demonic Power).

These writers weren’t and aren’t linguists, as Tolkien was, and therefore couldn’t create such intricate systems to highlight the mysterious, subtle, but ubiquitous power of language. So they used powers that were just as mysterious and ubiquitous, but less subtle. In my opinion, this is a Bad Thing for fantasy, making its worlds too arbitrary in construction and inherently prone to goatse-scale plot holes.

Of course, when non-linguists do genuinely try to create word-based magic systems, you end up with stuff like Wingardium fucking Leviosa, but that’s a kids’ series so I can’t really get too worked up about that.

I guess.

There was recently a brief revival of Words As Magic due to the popularity of roguelikes, which allowed words and strings of characters (runes?) to retain the subtle power they once had, rewarding scholarship and intelligence with useful items and punishing the random use of scrolls and magic with an inevitable death. Even roguelikes seem to be primarily focussed on blowing shit up, now, though, or at least the ones that are widely available are.

Rogue Death Screen Amiga

This is what playing Rogue would look like 99% of the time. Image by Blake Patterson.

I bring all this up because I’ve just started reading a best-selling fantasy novel that is incredibly enjoyable. It’s dumb as hell, but enjoyable.

This vastly enjoyable novel embodies the loss that fantasy novels have undergone.

Without the solid grounding in linguistics, and I’m not kidding here, we have ended up with a main character named F’ryan. Unfortunately, his second name isn’t Pan, but as far as I’m concerned it might as well be.

The magic in the novel is invoked by vague wishes, and it is explicitly stated that it is a force which suffuses everything. This is barely even Magic As Fifth Element. Magic is just something there, unexplained, that means that the rules of the universe can be broken and formed by the author more-or-less at will.

In short, there has been no attempt to pay any attention to the value of words at all, and this in a novel of all things.

I admit that this is a wishy-washy sort of criticism, probably born of the fact that I really like words and get frustrated that some people don’t.

Lobster phone.

Ring ring ring ring, ring ring ring ring, belobstered-phone. Image by Milestoned.

Let me make it more concrete: The reason this is specifically bad for fantasy is that it makes the world of the story seem a mere abstraction. A character can wish for a giant lobsterphone as easily as to vanish, and with just as little emotional connection to the reader. I say ‘seem’, because there are generally secondary rules governing magic. Unlike a tabletop RPG, though, having to explain the rules of the game before you can read a book is almost always clunky and poorly-done.

Words in fantasy should be important.

Won’t someone please write something that makes this clear?

If you don’t, I guess I might have a go, and you don’t want that, trust me…

There are some cool pseudo-scientific things in literature, such as in Perdido Street Station and The Weavers of Saramyr, in which the ideas of superstring theory seem to be invoked — increasingly, magic is seen as playing with the ‘threads of reality’ in some way, which is deeply cool. I just think, you know, that words can play with the threads of reality already. Why not combine the two things? Why not?

Buy all the Moonsorrow please.

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