The Avant Garde And How To Swing It
The Avant Garde And How To Swing It
Ethan "Insineratehymn" Mittel
Ethan "Insineratehymn" Mittel
After the success of my Metal Storm article, "The Categorization of Death Metal," I decided to start work on a new article dealing with avant garde metal. This, unfortunately, was delayed due to my procrastination and playing too much World Of Warcraft. Eventually, I took charge and began work again.
The creation of this article consisted of a great deal of research spanning across several websites, and listening to the music of many bands, all of which I downloaded off of peer to peer programs. At the end of the article there will be a reference section, where you can learn more about the genre should you ever want to perform your own research. We will be covering the characteristics of avant garde metal, and also important bands, albums, and people of the genre.
Be forewarned: this article may contain bits and pieces of sarcasm along with poetic metaphors that you probably might not understand. Also be aware that it might contain bits and pieces of pretentiousness scattered throughout, so don't think that I am better than you or any other superiority accusation such as that.
Part 1: Intro; Characteristics of Avant Garde Metal
Avant garde metal, as defined by Wikipedia, is a cross-genre reference to metal bands characterized by large amounts of experimentation and by non-standard sounds, instruments, and song structures. This means that avant garde metal is about allowing thought and creativity flow more freely within the music, and encouraging the bands to "think outside the box." This greater flow of creativity and thinking abstractly yields results in the form of strange arrangements and abnormal song structures.
One common mistake that is made by people is that they often get confused between avant garde metal and the genre of progressive metal, and often intermix them. I'll show you the key differences between each to make sure that you do not make the same mistake. Progressive metal is moreover about producing complex rhythms and song structures, while sticking to a traditional instrumentation. An easy way to remember this is through the phrase, "they produce art while following a very strict rule book." Avant garde metal, on the other hand, focuses on unusual sounds and melodies, which are not bound by strict guidelines. You can remember this through the phrase, "they throw the rule book out the window, and let their imagination run wild."
If the quotes don't help you remember, then I have created a clever analogy. Let's say there are two architects. For the sake of this discussion, their names are John Petrucci, who represents progressive metal, and Mike Patton, who represents avant garde metal. They are each trying to create a large mansion using their prior knowledge. Petrucci breaks out his rulebook and follows every guideline all the way down to the punctuation marks. Mike Patton, on the other hand, tosses the rulebook in the trash, and lets his imagination guide him through the construction. At the end of the day, both mansions are complete. John Petrucci has built a massive, elaborate mansion with winding corridors, but has a more traditional architecture. Mike Patton's mansion looks more like something from a Dr. Seuss book. There are eccentrically-shaped doors, rounded edges, decor of every form, and a great collection of other oddball detailing. Put simply, progressive metal and avant garde metal are about as different from each other as Earth is different from Venus.
I am creating this article mostly to serve as a starter's guide for someone who is oblivious to avant garde metal, and wants to get into the genre. It's "Avant Garde Metal For Dummies," so to speak. If the reader wishes to find out more about the genre, I have included a references and sources section at the bottom, so they can perform their own research. It took me an untold amount of time to get around and write this, what with procrastination and all, so I hope you enjoy it.
Part 2: Important Bands, People, And Albums
Before I discuss about the influential bands, people, and albums of the genre, I must tell you that avant garde metal, like all other metal genres, is like a mountain range; some mountains are higher than others, and therefore, stand out more easily. I will be talking about the more influential and interesting bands, giving a short (about a 12 or more sentence paragraph, possibly more) explanation for each, including specific musical traits that make them so special if it's a band, and reasons why you should check them out, so that you have a place to continue exploring the genre. Without further ado, let's start the show, shall we?
We cannot talk about avant garde metal without first talking about Mike Patton. He is an all-inspiring figure within avant garde metal. One might even say that the genre began with him. He is so important, in fact, that the government has made it mandatory that students learn about his life and accomplishments. Therefore, you have no choice when it comes to learning about him or not! But I digress. The biggest reason why he is greatly revered within the genre is not for his immensely remarkable song writing and composition skills, but for his diverse vocal talents. The vocal styles he is capable of performing include, but are not limited to: airy falsetto passages, Sinatra-esque lounge crooning, death metal grunts, Medieval-style chanting, and a variety of authentic-sounding vocal emulations of things such as flowing water, a train, or a computer voice.
His career started off with Mr. Bungle in 1985, releasing a couple of demos and gaining a local following. In 1989, he joined Faith No More, and released The Real Thing album later in the same year. With the help of MTV, the album reached the top 10 charts through the rapid circulation of their hit song, Epic. This song was a hit not just for its catchy melody and sing-along chorus, but because it mixed heavy metal, hip-hop, funk, and R&B to create a brilliant musical formula that would innovate both the genres of rap and nu-metal. After a slew of other popular releases - namely Angel Dust, Album Of The Year, and King For A Day... Fool For A Lifetime - Faith No More disbanded, forever leaving a shining impression on music as a whole.
While in Faith No More, he continued to contribute to his original band, Mr. Bungle. Mr. Bungle's sound can best be described as sporadic, spontaneous, and wild. They are well-known for cycling through different styles of music, often within the course of one song, and fusing completely different styles together. The number of musical genres that they combine would be too numerous to list, but the most common ones they use include heavy metal, rock, ska, jazz, punk, reggae, pop, and even video game and cartoon music. Their self-titled debut was produced with the help of jazz experimentalist John Zorn, and was very hard to pin down in terms of genre definition, as the structure and musical style on any track can drastically change at any random point within the song. Their second release, Disco Volante, is by far their most experimental, as the music ventures into more complex and formal territory, with extreme shifts in musical style constantly occurring throughout the entire album. While the previous release focused on mixing the styles of metal, rap, and funk, this release includes influences from classical music, electronica, jazz, and European film music. By doing so, it made the album an excellent representation of the seamless fusion of both high culture and pop culture. The band's final album, California, is the most accessible of the trilogy. The genre shifts are still present, but they occur less frequently, therefore giving the album more stability. This album combined all of the aspects of the previous releases, but it now has a much lighter, more uplifting atmosphere.
The final Mike Patton band that we shall discuss is the enigmatic Fantômas. You've probably seen the band's name before. This is likely because the legendary Dave Lombardo of Slayer is their drummer! When compared with Mike Patton's previous projects, this is by far his strangest. The band is rooted in heavy metal, but the music reaches across many different genres. Their songs contain no lyrics. Instead, the vocals are improvised by Mike scat-singing. Even the album concepts are twisted and abstract. Their self-titled debut was based on science fiction books, with the title of each song simply given a page number (for example, Page 1, Page 2, etc). This gave you the feeling that you were reading a comic book or a novel while listening to the album. Their second release, The Director's Cut, was a series of reinterpretations of popular motion picture theme songs. Some of the remixes were rather loyal to the original, while others dish up radical new takes on the music. Their third endeavor, Delirium Cordia, was one long song - clocking in at precisely 1 hour, 14 minutes, and 17 seconds - about surgery with no anesthesia. Their last album, Suspended Animation, revolves around twisted cartoon music and acts as a tribute to the month of April, with each track named after a day in the month of April in the year 2005 (for example 04/01/05 Friday, etc).
Where is Mike Patton now? He is currently working with other artists. Working, planning, composing and creating new music that may just shake the foundations of the musical world once again. We might not know. What we do know is that he will continue to innovate and keep music interesting for everyone.
Avant Garde Black/Death/Thrash Metal
I shall now teach to you about Tom Warrior and his band, Celtic Frost. Tom started off his musical career in 1982, when he formed Hellhammer. This band was one of the very first extreme metal bands. In May 1984, Hellhammer changed their name to Celtic Frost, and released the Morbid Tales LP, which became an instant hit in the metal underground. In 1985, they released To Mega Therion, which was more successful than their first release. Their most influential album, however, is Into The Pandemonium, released in 1987. This was a pivotal underground released, as it showed variety in the sound. On this album, they added classical orchestral instruments, opera vocals and sampling, and more experimentations in the genres of thrash, death, and black metal. These strings of innovation have led many metal fans and musical critics to label Celtic Frost as avant garde metal. I could go on, but I know nothing further about this band, the reason for this being that I am not really a big fan of Celtic Frost. If you want to know more, I suggest performing some DIY research.
Avant Garde Death Metal
Canada has been known as a pantheon of technical death metal, with great bands such as Cryptopsy and Martyr making this land their coven. Among these bands who use the classical instrumentation and traditional song structure, however, there is one band which is out of the ordinary, an oddball of the bunch. Like all of the other bands we shall discuss, they disregard traditionalism and prefer a more creative approach. This group of pioneers is called Gorguts. Gorguts is a band whose sound mystifies all speculation, baffles the mind, and thunders away upon your senses. Although they started off as pure death metal on their first two albums (Considered Dead and The Erosion Of Sanity), the album we are discussing is Obscura. Why? It shows the progression of a band's sound from an otherwise simple genre to a genre of abnormal ideas and abstract thoughts. Put in another way, it's like how a normal geometric figure transforms into a massive blob of unstable matter, devoid of any determinate shape.
Their album, Obscura, is true to its name; the sound is unearthly, the harmonies are dissonant and chaotic, and the interludes are insane. The first thing that the listener may notice is that the riffs are LONG. So long, in fact, that the riffing patterns are near impossible to identify upon first listen. Combine that with the fact that the chords have the schizophrenic trait of jumping all over the place, and you end up lost in a cloud of impossibly eccentric riffs. Think of the Great Wall of China, as it twists and bends while stretching out for four thousand miles into the horizon. You will also find that the rhythm is highly irregular, and even the drums follow their own direction. Even the bass and vocals are highly disjointed, as the layers and layers of weird song structures keep piling up to the sky. I am experiencing a shortage of similes and metaphors deciphering this myriad of odd music, so now I suggest that you find the album and listen to it yourself.
This band was one of a kind, an establisher of their own standards, a shining tower in an otherwise dark and predictable genre; but unfortunately, this train of ingenuity came to a crashing halt when drummer Steve Macdonald committed suicide in 2002, leading to the eventual band breakup in 2005. This has left so much great work uncreated, as we will never hear new work from these brilliant minds.
Avant Garde Death/Grind
It has always been known that the Czech Republic produces some of the world's strangest metal bands. But if there was any band that was far weirder than the rest, it would have to be !T.O.O.H.!
The band is an enigma to describe. They are similar to the technical death/grind band Lykathea Aflame, except unlike Lykathea Aflame, !T.O.O.H.! is not bound by the heavy chain known as musical self-restraint. Think of Lykathea Aflame as a normal, intelligent human being, and !T.O.O.H.! being its heavily mutated clone, still holding the intelligence and skills of the original, but now with a strange exterior. If you have spent as much time listening to the songs as much as I have, then you will realize that the songs never get boring. A hypothetical explanation for this may be that in every song, there is either a catchy drumbeat or an interestingly complex riff that always seems to spark the interest of the listener, thus making the listener come back to it and feeling like it's a new song with every listen.
They combine multiple elements of death metal, grindcore, jazz, folk music, and even progressive metal. Also interesting to know is that the band even broke the grindcore stereotype by composing the 10 minute epic instrumental, "Ja Je Proto Proti." It is so frustrating to describe !T.O.O.H.! that the only way one can delineate their sound is through analogy. Our very own Herzebeth described them as "Pink Floyd if they played grindcore." Necro-Tron, from the metal review website Teufel's Tomb put it in a more sarcastic way: "Imagine you cloned an army of the Marquis de Sade, threw those pompous Victorian formal wigs on them, mounted the army of de Sade clones upon legions of pygmy ponies, began a march unto Eastern Europe with a jazz band tied and dragged at the back of said army, and had a morbidly obese 400 pound 12 year-old suspended by helium balloons trailing behind the pony-dragged jazz band and throwing fish at them. Now give at least two of the de Sade clones guitars and drums. Imagine that sound."
Both reviewers were of course speaking of Pod Vladou Bice, one of the most innovative metal albums of 2003. I am trying to put to words how the album sounds, but unfortunately, even I am having a difficult time describing their music in a vernacular way. It is one of those very rare albums where you have listen to it firsthand in order to comprehend it. Therefore, I have been reduced to using poetic metaphors. I apologize in advance.
!T.O.O.H.! is a hurricane of abnormal death/grind, screaming across the ocean of the avant garde at breakneck speed. As the catchy and chaotic drumbeats power its trip across the seas, it consumes the islands of jazz, fusion, folk, and progressive metal. Eventually, it comes to the mainland and strikes the seaside cities with full force, the cities being your senses. I doubt if that literary verse served any use to describe what the album sounds like, but if you were able to understand it, I congratulate you. If you did not, I have no idea what I can do for you.
Avant Garde Power/Death/Comedy Metal
Vulgar name aside, Crotchduster, hailing from the death metal nexus called Florida, is probably the most comically entertaining of the bands we are discussing. They are the side-project of guitarist/vocalist, Jason Suecof of Capharnaum, a technical death metal band. Like all of the other bands in this article, Crotchduster are doing the things that Suecof's primary band, Capharnaum, could not: they are intentionally breaking the guidelines set by musical traditionalism, and walking down the road not yet traveled. In the case of Crotchduster, it's riding an inter-dimensional dump truck into an alternate universe known as "Williamsburgland."
Now you might ask me how they sound. They are influenced by Mr. Bungle in that they change styles frequently, but unlike Mr. Bungle, Crotchduster has a far looser grip on their sanity. Where Mr. Bungle changes styles once every minute, Crotchduster changes styles once every 15 seconds. With this, think of Crotchduster as Mr. Bungle if they had A.D.D., had a severe case of schizophrenia, and did 200 grams of cocaine on a daily basis.
With all joking finally out of our system, let's highlight their musical aspects and discuss their groundbreaking debut album, Big Fat Box Of Shit (yes, that's the title of the album). Although I have labeled these guys as avant garde power/death/comedy metal, they are far more confusing in terms of what styles they implement. They combine nearly every form of metal known to humans with classic rock, blues, soul, grindcore, rap, jazz, techno, a cappella and many other musical forms. In the first song alone, they journey across 7 different styles of music. Not only are they technically adept musicians who can write brilliant but catchy music, but they combine their compositional knowledge and prowess with nonsensical and absurd lyrics. Most of the time, the lyrics deal with either perverse sexual acts, complete and irredeemable nonsense, misanthropic rants, or a wild combination of the three. Nowhere is this more present than on their 14 minute epic song, Crotchopus. They parody the styles of Megadeth, Iron Maiden, Slayer, and Obituary, and takes stabs at Korn (on Cain Sings The Blues), hair metal-type vocals (on Mr. Indignant Erection), and Glenn Danzig. They do all of this, and still have the time to read hate mail. There is even a guest appearance by Richard Christy (former Death and Iced Earth drummer, current Howard Stern Show personality) on the song Star's Ingenious Cooter.
If there was one album I had to recommend to everyone I know, it would be Big Fat Box Of Shit. If Crotchduster's debut album is at a record in your area, go there and buy it NOW. If you can't find it in your town, order it off the internet. Or, if you're a cheapskate such as I, download it off a peer-to-peer network. I don't care how you get the album, just get it. Believe me, you will be satisfied with what you hear.
Avant Garde Ambient/Black Metal
Ulver means "wolf" in Norwegian, as back in their early years, they played pure black metal, and were raw, primitive, and savage. As the years passed, they slowly began to drift away from metal, and began to incorporate elements of the experimental. As of now, their raw black metal properties are a thing of the past, as they have now become a sophisticated, musically brilliant avant garde metal band. Their sound has now become civilized, and is deeper in thought than their earlier years. How can a band which was once so savage become so urbane?
The reasons for this can be traced back to their first three albums, often referred to as the "Black Metal Trilogy." These albums were all black metal, but they did manage to add elements of folk music as well. The first album, Bergtatt, was traditional black metal with acoustic passages and clean vocals. The second release, Kveldssanger, featured black metal with acoustic guitars, cello, and chamber chants. Their third effort, Nattens Madrigal, was harsh, under-produced black metal, in the vein of Darkthrone's Transylvanian Hunger. It is listener-unfriendly even by black metal standards, so it is suggested that you have plenty of experience listening to black metal before giving this album a spin.
In 1998, the band begins to experiment with their sound, with the release of the album Themes from William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven And Hell. On this release, they began to move away from the archetypal black metal sound, and started to create original, groundbreaking work. They blended in the sounds of electronica, industrial, progressive metal, classical folk music, and ambient passages to create this album which would both alienate their older fans while gaining new ones. Sometimes, one has to make sacrifices in order for innovation to march forward.
Their next two releases, the Metamorphosis EP and Perdition City, took the band's experimentation even farther, as it continued to move farther away from rock and metal and proceeding further into electronica. They then followed up this two releases with the minimalistic efforts, Silence Teaches You How To Sing and Silencing The Singing, released together as Teachings In Silence. This release featured ultra-simplistic melodies and unnatural ambient sounds. This is often considered, by far, their strangest release to date.
In 2003, Ulver was hired to write the music for the film, Svidd Neger. They would soon release this material as the aptly titled, Svidd Neger. All traces of black metal have disappeared, and gone are the minimalism, industrial and electronica sounds. This album showed Ulver at their full maturity, as the music is now similar to classical orchestra played at its finest. It is true that they have shown quite clearly that you do not need to be confined to metal in order to write great music. Throughout the band's entire lifespan, they have been striving to create some of the best, most innovative music in not only the metal genre, but music as a whole, and with the release of this album, they have finally succeeded.
Avant Garde Black/Thrash Metal
The final band that we shall go over on this literary endeavor is Sigh, a four-man band hailing from beautiful Tokyo, Japan. They have quite a few innovations under their belt, the first being that they were one of the original Japanese black metal bands, nay, one of the original far eastern black metal bands, back in a time when most black metal was imported from Scandinavia. They were also the first far eastern band to be signed to Euronymous' Deathlike Silence Productions record company. This contract would not last long, however, as Euronymous would soon die just before the band would release their debut, Scorn Defeat, in 1993. Over the course of the band's career, they gradually progressed from black/thrash metal to a more experimental avant garde metal style, their best album being Hail Horror Hail, which is the album from them we shall discuss.
First, I must give a word of warning in that this album is not for those who are obsessed with being "tr00" and "kvlt," or for those who would rather stick to convention. This album takes experimentation to a whole new level, and expand the boundaries of musical thought to points beyond all horizons. The question as to how this album sounds is explained more poetically by the notice label on the back of the album cover: "This album is way beyond the conceived notion of how metal, or music, should be. In Essence it is a movie without pictures; a celluloid phantasmagoria. Accordingly, the film jumps, and another scene, seemingly unconnected with the previous context, is suddenly inserted in between frames. Every sound on this album is deliberate, and if you find that some parts of this album are strange, it isn't because the music is in itself strange, but because your conscious self is ill-equipped to comprehend the sounds produced on this recording."
This notice explains the album perfectly. Listen to the album and you will see that it truly defines what music is supposed to be: a movie without words. The quote "...the film jumps, and another scene, seemingly unconnected with the previous context, is suddenly inserted in between frames..." is a reference to the music abruptly changing styles, meaning that one minute they are playing a classic black metal rhythm, and the next they are playing folk music. As we can see from this, they even include influences from Frank Zappa and Mike Patton. Every song is superbly crafted and is a must-have for every serious metal fan. Truly it is an album for a new era.
Other Bands Worth Checking Out
The bands discussed in detail in this article are actually my favorite bands of the genre. After being told by a few of my friends to give a few more recommendations, I'll give you a few more good bands apart from those I have given more detail. You must of course know that there are massive amounts of bands out there and it is humanly impossible to describe them all, so I shall leave you with the names of the bands as well as the styles they play. Arcturus: avant garde black metal, Dodheimsgard: avant garde black/industrial metal, Ved Buens Ende: avant garde black metal, Peccatum: avant garde black/gothic/industrial metal, and Pan.Thy.Monium: avant garde death metal.
References And Sources
My mother always told me to cite my sources whenever I do a paper. Considering this, I am doing just that. The information included in my article came from these websites. Should you ever want to do some research on your own, feel free to browse the links below.
http://www.metalstorm.ee/ Metal Storm, best metal web-zine in the world
http://www.metal-archives.com/ Metal Archives
http://home.carolina.rr.com/dweeb/SloneDefinitions.html Metal Genre Descriptions by James Slone
http://www.allmusic.com/ All Music
http://www.teufelstomb.com/ Teufel's Tomb
http://www.bnrmetal.com/ The BNR Metal Pages
Guest article disclaimer:
This is a guest article, which means it does not necessarily represent the point of view of the MS Staff.
This is a guest article, which means it does not necessarily represent the point of view of the MS Staff.
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