A Little Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing

31/07/2011 § Leave a comment

Nothing is worse than active ignorance – Goethe

Up till a few days ago I was working in a medical clinic in South-East London. One of those ‘up and coming’ areas, each road flanked by dowdy, breeze-blocked hutches with the odd new bar sandwiched in between. I blame bars and gastro-pubs for the economic crisis of 2009. Too many of the damn things sprung up all over the place, and of course the new managers had to get their money from somewhere in order to pay back their loans. What better way to solve the problem of funding your middle-class dream than to charge godly sums of cash for even the most meagre of comestibles to go with your German lager, I even remember one bar in Muswell Hill asking £4 for a packet of crisps. Not just any crisps of course, but natural, organic root vegetable slivers in a small tube. Instead of a Pringle-esque strongman, some hand-drawn sketch of a couple of parsnips and a carrot adorned the front, probably with a rural farmer in the background looking on proudly at his crop and reminiscing on the large amounts of money he wouldn’t be ceding from getting up at 4.30am every morning in order to feed the glossed lips of the well-to-do North Londonites in N10. From Gable To Table, the slogan should have read. Bless those funny folk and their tramsheds, customers would muse as they twizzled their G&T stirrers.

The people near the clinic were altogether something else, a real mix of misfits who would come in for the most pitiful of ailments. As someone who would hardly go to the GP for a rapidly increasing heartrate should I worry the ECG monitor, I was making space for the doubled-up hobbits of the vicinity to rush in at even the excitement of seeing a bee on a cold day.

The locals are questionable where I live too, SE8 is a hive of working-class activity or inactivity depending on what the weather chooses to be doing. The Brits are disgustingly affected by the hot weather. Summer, ‘Season of Yellow Awfulness’ as Jonathan Meades called it. 22 degrees is generally the Rubicon, above which everyone streams out of their houses like children into a theme park, invading the local area with all manner of noise – music noise, football noise, screaming noise, ice-cream-van noise, riant noise, noisy noise. The call of the idiots, the summer-zombies. They probably have digital barometers on their walls with an alarm set to 22C, at which point Coronation Street goes off, they throw on the ballerina pumps and belt out of their UPVC doorways while the local pubs run around looking for the connector cables to the public televisions. That’s what people do in hot weather, after all. They go to pubs. They move from drinking and watching football in their living rooms to drinking and watching football down the road for three times the price.

We had this work experience child in the clinic, this well-spoken, well-dressed but slightly awkward teenager who’d sit at reception and do little else but make pyramids out of plastic cups for two weeks, giving a less than ideal impression of time-management and usefulness to the good citizens of South London. He would talk about music to me, as would a couple of other people on reception who, in their “real lives” were very much involved in their respective chosen music scenes. After this kid left and rotated back to his existence in a hardened Christian upbringing with weekly reproaches through overly-strict parenting, more new work experience kids entered. I remember one of them, a rakish, tall, hipster-looking something with awful, swishy Lego-man hair sitting behind reception on my arrival, waiting indifferently for something to happen. Wearing earphones, white ones at that. I mused over our incidental dialogue for when I would show him round the clinic later that morning, “so, what were you listening to there?” “Oh, nothing, just some indie music…”, “indie eh… well, I bet you were listening to Gang Gang Dance or Iceage or Grizzly Bear or Mumford… haha, isn’t Pitchfork great?”

For a moment I was serious about the idea. I then realised how desperately sad I sounded, and how so many music fans think they’re experts. Whether they admit it openly or hold it in silently.

The same was true of myself years ago. At the start of 2002 I was thrown into a state of bewilderment and wonder at the sound of After Forever over Shoutcast radio. This, I felt, was my calling. And I must let absolutely everybody know about it. I should let everybody see that I not only had a newer, developed taste in music, but that I ostensibly had a new identity. I was… this newer person that listened to metal. And such a person dresses differently, listens to loads of depressing music, I even considered dropping my normal speaking voice a few tones in order to sound more ‘dark’ [and I know some people who actually went ahead and did it]. I had actually been listening to metal on and off since 1995, but something about this really grabbed me and inspired me to make a sea-change in my life, one which I’m very thankful for. And, given my obsessive nature, I had to know absolutely everything about it. I had to become an ‘authority’.

I don’t think that this is a particularly exceptional move. It’s common lore that the more obscure bands you now, the more knowledgeable about your particular area you are. There are even people who will go out of their way to listen to bands with below 200 listeners on Last FM, avoiding the horror of turning into something too mainstream, whatever the mainstream counts for now. The mainstream isn’t something to be detested and ridiculed, any more than a Twix bar should be detested for being bad food. Sure, there are charlatans masquerading as talented artists, but so there are in Covent Garden market. Just walk past and hold onto your change.

I’m realising more and more that this whole thing is more of a learning experience than a teaching experience. By talking about the music we have dug up from the post-industrial underground, we should not only be talking about what we know, but exploring what we’d like it to be. In a thriving underground scene saturated with artist upon artist of samey, innovation-less slobber, we should take more notice of where we’re going rather than where we are and where we’ve been. We are not special because we are specialised: everyone feels that their own interests are worth something, whether they be death metal and extreme fetishisms or Su Doku and package holidays to Majorca.

The bane of the underground music scene is not only arrogant fans, but arrogant musicians, and I’ve seen my fair share of both. A one-second realisation in that South London clinic put any remaining shred of my attitude into perspective, possibly because right there I saw what I had been years ago. Without there being room for what we don’t know, there is no more space for learning, no more space for discovery and no more space for experience. We should see as much value in our knowledge gaps as the content surrounding them.

So how to go about this? The main idea is to think outside our sphere of reference, a very difficult thing to do. We all move in and out of a routine which we don’t always realise, whether it be in our working days or in our music listening. As with many examples of successfully breaking routines, the chief way is to go to places you wouldn’t normally go to. Visit websites which seem uncomfortably different; look around; explore; improvise. Don’t be one of those people who spam the Recommendations board at Metal Archives, urgently seeking something overspecific like grindcore with female vocals, synths, viola interludes and references to cheese culturing. If you’re looking to introduce variety to your music listening through such wild criteria, you’re already lost.

The most surprising results come from experimentation, a tiring exercise indeed, but most of the time the consequences will be worth it just when you’re ready to give up. The more we search, the harder it is to be self-important. The sheer volume of material out there is grander, bigger and more daunting than one can ever triumph over. When I was younger I thought I was enlightened because I knew more than my peers. But when your peers feature the musical underground as a whole, it’s a very humbling perspective.

Dark Passion Fray

01/05/2008 § Leave a comment

I pity the individual forced to live within the dystopia of Birmingham. Its raison d’être is to visually and emotionally affront. Driving down to see Nightwish a couple of days ago, I couldn’t help feeling that the band were playing in one of the country’s most contaminated pores. It’s not just the structural design of the place that’s dislikeable, but the essence. Wretchedness lurks round every corner, leaping onto the backs of the natives who unthinkingly dress in blue and white as if it’s part of the uniform.

It probably is. At least, it is if you don’t want to get several shades of waste matter booted out of you. To live in Birmingham you have to have your class receptors detuned – wealth, style, opinion, chic, they’re all outmoded concepts here; either that or they were driven brusquely from the spaghetti junctions at the sign of the first Poundstore. Even finding a restaurant on the parade is impossible, or certainly one where the organic matter isn’t compressed inside a bun. The people in Birmingham have taken on the features of the culinary material they ingest – spherical, doughy and with absolutely no taste.

Places like these exist all over the world but it’s hard not to feel some level of empathy for those who have been punished by karma to live there. Dante would have given such cities an entry below the Eighth Ring of Hell, Traitors and the Fraudulent being banished to Lichfield or Moseley. Kowloon’s Walled City could have taken linear notes from their physical and social architecture. They hum with a sense of threat and uneasiness, their inhabitants being little more than symptoms of their own disease, microbes that can be eradicated in the name of solving the greater problem.

But not everyone is at its mercy. The younger generation attending the Nightwish gig clearly didn’t suffer from the same affliction of boredom, bitterness and torpor as the older townsfolk. Giving out promotional CDs to the queue of beaming teenygoths was a surprisingly enjoyable experience whereas in London, the offer of free music was met with disdain and disbelief, the queue members eyeing me up with suspicion, left hands resting on the emergency dial keys of their mobile phones. People would actually refuse the free CDs, as if by accepting them they were part or party to some seedy network of underground salesmen attempting to palm off their samples at any opportunity. For the Birmingham lot, the offer was accepted with rapture. People were excited, interested, intrigued and glad to see something new coming their way. The free music generation can’t get enough of the stuff, whereas quite a few of the older, jaded Londoners looked down their noses in disparagement.

The situation was the same inside the Birmingham venue. It was a strange place – a two-tiered warren with rooms off rooms, dimly lit and painted black on every surface. The wheelchair crowd had been shunted to the front of the second tier, looking almost apprehensive of the event about to take place. Putting them in direct view of the audience of a thousand energetic, functioning teenagers is surely rubbing salt into the wound. If I were one of the poor unfortunates on the second floor, bound to a cattle grid on wheels for eternity, watching the rippling, seething mass of youthful bodies below me I’d want to roll my last. No wonder crowd surfing was banned in the venue.

Nudging my way downstairs I managed to get a semi-decent position behind some girl who was so short it was a shame that she hasn’t been forced into the circus. She was lucky to see anything over everyone’s heads, so she attempted to remedy this by jumping up every few seconds in an effort to glimpse whatever was happening on stage. With every fresh bounce I could feel myself getting more irritated and overcome with the need to pull her to the side and explain the pointlessness of her ineffective endeavours, as if a half-second glance at some fuzzy characters on stage justified the effort it required or her position as an audience member. However, when the lights went down and the intro tape started, something very strange happened. Everyone got excited – very excited. This, for me, was a long-forgotten experience. I’m used to people getting eager and animated at gigs, but it’s been a long time since I was in an audience that felt a genuine thrill to be there. It was clear that for so many this was not just another gig but a very special event, and for once it was the spectators creating the atmosphere at the beginning of the show rather than the band.

The more gigs you go to, the more bands fill your database. The more exposure you have to whatever scene is your passion, the more desensitised you become. I remember my first ever gig at the Brixton Academy in 1995 felt similarly incredible. To be able to see a band who I extolled play live – the actual band members onstage, the light show, the songs I loved – was a totally enveloping high. But the more bands you see, the less special it becomes. You turn into that person who, rather than jostling close to the front of the stage and singing every syllable of the lyrics, stands near the back picking holes in the performance many heartbeats ahead. Passion for your chosen genre turns you into someone more fastidious, more finicky, until only the very best by your own terms will have a chance of recreating the wonder you originally felt.

As far as female-fronted metal goes, the job was even easier before the scene exploded. Even in 2003 it wasn’t a quarter as popular as it is now, and now it isn’t as popular as it will continue to be. However, as more carbon copy Gothic metal bands emerge, it will take more to imbue the same sense of zeal and revelry within the long-term fan. The popularity of Gothic metal has ended up mercilessly redefining it as anything with clean female vocals that isn’t progressive, folk or doom. It has ceased to be an entity in its own right, but has ended up as the reject bin, the fallout category for anything the other subgenres are not. And as this continues, a lot of the older fans will get more and more cynical.

I’m probably one of the most guilty of such an accusation, and while being so has its merits, Birmingham helped me to remember the appeal of the live act and the awe of the occasion. Exposure to anything for too long can gag your emotions, deadening the neurons and axons that fizzed when the first dream band took stage in front of you. If we could remain a little more openminded, it could be possible to snatch some of this back from the part of us that primarily removed it. Birmingham demonstrated two things – that there is far more to it than the grey, breeze-blocked mediocrity that comprises its unimaginative structures, and that it really is the fans that make a band, not just the music.

Share and Share Alike

05/05/2007 § Leave a comment

“Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination”
– Oscar Wilde

Few purchasing options are open to you as a 13 year old. I remember as the hormonally-fuelled germ-stack that I was in my early teens, one thing that I didn’t have a great deal of was money. Of course there was a lot of everything else – libido, frustration, attitude, irritability – but I starkly remember never having enough cash to do what I wanted. It changes when you’re older though, much older, when you’ve nothing to do with the money you’ve hoarded away as a pensioner apart from divvy it out to family members who strain at the thought of spending five minutes on the phone with you. You have to be nice to your elders after all. You’re told you have to be. And I know that when my younger relatives call me in thirty, forty years’ time it won’t be out of genuine interest for talking to me, to finding out how the eight hundredth day of my senility is going, but to appease some nagging parent telling them that they have to call me at this time of year and only then they can go back to their Play Station XII. It’s all I’ll be able to do to move over to the phone, thankful that someone has called me, knowing too well that the youthful imp at the other end can’t wait to be rid of me within seconds of hearing the elderly croak of my larynx as I, locked in some kind of self-absorbed aged loop, revel and drag on my only single conversation of the week.

Having no cash meant it was hard to get things that you wanted. Impress people. Buy records or tapes, it was difficult. But once you’d managed to get hold of your album – your only listen of the month – the poor thing would be played to death. Because you’d never have any idea of what it sounded like in its entirety before you bought it, if you didn’t like it when you took it home, then bad luck. I would listen to the weaker tracks intently, praying that I’d be able to prise some hook or relatable cadence out of them so my purchase didn‘t seem like a waste. I’d never take anything back though. I was still intent on maintaining a collection, partly because of my fascination with amassing these kinds of things and, partly because I’d imagine random people coming into my house, poring over the racks of popular and slightly obscure plastic oblongs and reeling at the informed and musically enlightened soul I was. Possibly wanting to have sex with me. Anything seems to lead back to that at some point.

Opportunities changed in a big way at the end of the 90s. People started maintaining Hotmail accounts, email was a fascinating novelty and no-one dreamed of criticising Windows 98’s instability or its failure to handle new hardware natively. With the added popularity of Windows 95 and 98 came Napster and the avaricious, decentralised peer to peer generation. It became less necessary to go and buy records when you could pinch the music instantly off someone else’s PC. The one or two album a month principle became jettisoned in favour of the one of two hundred album a month principle, losing the music industry thousands of pounds per month for one listener, those brought up in the early 90s having little to no cognisance of how the corporate mechanisms of the decades before operated.

Have I been guilty of this? Of course. I’m sure most kids with a passing interest in music have succumbed, and the situation is made worse by how easy it is to do. Downloading and installing programs is insultingly easy and any half-witted child can find similar artists to bulk up their collection and decide in one spin whether they like them or not. We live in a dissuasive age where people want microwave quick actions, reactions and reviews and there seems to be little time taken to enjoy the music. The effects on the bands are demeaning. People think that’s it’s easy to get acquainted with the sound of an entire subgenre through very little research or knowledge, so artists have to find increasingly innovative ways of getting through to people and being original. I get sick when I see people seeding discographies, posting links to albums on forums and websites. There seems to be no respect for the bands themselves, only an interest in poaching a product as quickly as possible. Ironically, at a time when it’s been easier than ever to have direct contact with bands, with sites like MySpace and Last FM going a long way to remove the barrier of elitism and untouchableness between artist and fan base, people still see musicians as little else but factories churning out produce which they have a right to seize without paying for.

Femme metal suffers as much as any small genre does. There’s not a huge amount of money being passed around especially at the lower end of the tree, with some bands not having a label at all and having to self finance and distribute their records themselves. Some of the bands are victims of circumstance, with some of the larger groups, especially in Holland, seeing little to no cash at all from the sales of the records – the money goes into to the industry, rather than to the artists directly. The anarchists’ reaction to this is that their downloading and seeding of such material is therefore justified. If the artists who make the music aren’t getting paid for it, then why pump your money into the rest of the industry. But those who are committing any kind of misdemeanour will generally find ways to validate what it is they’re doing. The truth is that most bands in the scene don’t get a lot of money for what they do, it’s only when you get to the level of Nightwish, Within Temptation and Lacuna Coil that things definitely start changing Any other band is still getting peanuts for playing headline slots, and even less than that in support.

It’s hard to do anything to stop the onslaught of the downloaders. Music producers have thought of various ways to stop people ripping CDs and promos to their computers, ranging from anti copy software to splitting tracks up. In the end it’s just a deterrent, there’s little you can really do to stop these things from leaking. A few months ago Nuclear Blast announced that it was going to be watermarking each track on its promos, so that if they leaked onto the internet prior to the album’s release they would be able to see who the leak came from. Of course Dimmu Borgir’s album and the latest After Forever both managed to leak before their release date. I imagine – I hope – that someone at Nuclear Blast is feeling ridiculed by this, purely because it was a preposterous idea to think it could work in the first place. If you give out CDs, they will end up on the internet, there is an unstoppable flow of bytes out there and it just takes one person to crack the software and everyone has the album.

Psychonaut, The Gathering’s own label, thought of a different alternative to this, letting the album be streamed from the press area of their website while saying that they wouldn’t be sending out any physical copies. However, physical copies were sent out and soon enough Home ended up on the internet too. Promo CDs are integral to promotion of any new album – reviews need to be written and songs have to be aired in order for people to get some kind of idea of what it is they’re going to part with their money for. That is, if they part with their money at all for it. A lot of bands and labels have no real idea of how many people are listening to their records, they only have a clue through sales figures. Exactly who is playing the stuff at home is something that no-one can be definite about.

This doesn’t mean that everyone knows file-sharing is wrong. In 2003 reporters burst into the home of Brianna LaHara, a 12 year old girl from Los Angeles as she was helping her brother with her homework. She was told that the Recording Industry Association of America was going to file a lawsuit against her for copyright infringement through sharing music on the p2p network KaZaa. Threatened with having to pay $150,000 per song, she eventually settled at $2 per song, paying a grand total of $2,000 in fees for her wrongdoings. “We’re trying to send a strong message that you are not anonymous when you participate in peer-to-peer file-sharing and that the illegal distribution of copyrighted music has consequences” said the RIAA in a sanctimonious statement.. Brianna, possibly like thousands of other people, had little idea that what they were doing was immoral, let alone illegal. However, the law loves strict liability. Didn’t know what you were doing was criminal? Doesn’t matter, you’re culpable anyway, though the RIAA made an infamously poor call with this one. The difficultly being that if so many people don’t know that what they’re doing is wrong – or don’t believe it – it becomes more difficult to do anything about it.

If there’s one positive thing that downloading albums can do though, it’s spreading the news of bands and their music to gain wider audiences and appreciation. And if those that hear it like it, then it will be spread further. This, in a sense, is free promotion and to a far greater number of people that could be consciously engineered from inside the industry. Now a lot of people are turning to the internet to try products before they get hold of the hard copy – something they could never do before. Trying to close down the networks, suing 12 year olds, Grokster and Limewire may get money back into the industry but it’s the people who are using the programs who are to blame. The enthusiasts and those who love and care about the bands will buy the CDs regardless, in fact, people will buy the CDs who would never have come across the artists otherwise. In a way it’s a shame that we have to resort to stealing music in order that people can hear it worldwide, but it’s a relentless juggernaut that few in the industry can do anything about. Sharing music gains bands a wider audience and a worldwide fan base, it‘s an indisputable fact. No one would care about the scene half as much otherwise.

2006 – The Year In Review

25/03/2007 § Leave a comment

It’s not strictly fair to call the femme metal scene uninventive. If any noteworthy phenomenon came about in 2006, it was that while the top end of the genre continued to churn out middle-of-the-road money-spinners, something altogether more interesting was happening under the hood. If you weren’t au fait with how things were even starting to develop, you would have missed a whole host of interesting occurrences. Down in the busied guts of the femme metal machine, a multitude of bands were putting out some ingenious albums and it was refreshing to see a musical genus that was beginning to look somewhat like a wheezing, asthmatic emphysema patient getting a dose of well-needed oxygen. 2006 was the year when the femme metal scene started to get innovative, progressive, experimental and avant-garde, and after two years of semi-interesting drivel, it was great to see such life being breathed into it.

As is always the way, the top of the pyramid was where the most user-friendly and easily-digestible music was fermenting. Though whether every listener of LACUNA COIL’s new effort would agree with its being ‘user-friendly’ is debateable. The band, after four years of incessant touring and hard work, put out their long-awaiting Karmacode album in April. The main concept behind the album was to retain a sizeable range of the old fanbase but more than anything it. was to gather new younger fans. The band, already being fans of Korn, decided with their label that the best way of garnering further interest was to slap in as many chuggy riffs as possible with some basic yet catchy melodies riding the top. The idea didn’t so much shunt them forward as propel them much faster in the direction they were already going. Yes, a lot of fans hated the album but Karmacode did exactly what it was supposed to do, reap sales and get them well-known in the USA. Karmacode sold over 300,000 copies before its first year was out, whereas Comalies did not even manage an eighth of that figure twelve months into its release.

Another band to put out a long-awaited album was the empress of the Gothic rock scene EVANESCENCE. September’s The Open Door was in many ways a difficult album for the band to make. The departure of main songwriter Ben Moody along with immense pressure to make a successful follow-up to the hugely popular Fallen resulted in an album which managed to retain a lot of the vibe of its predecessor though not introducing any new elements. The Open Door is certainly a perfect reflections of Evanescence’s sound though it’s hard to see just how they will be able to top Fallen in terms of popularity and notoriety. In spite of this the album sold very respectably, managing to shift 3 million copies within the first six months of its release and going Platinum in over ten countries.

A step down from the mainstream, THEATRE OF TRAGEDY also had a lot to live up to by releasing their Storm album with THE CREST singer Nell on vocals. In spite of having some half-decent numbers in the form of Fade and Begin And End, Storm ended up sounding very much like another Crest album with no vast difference between the two bands’ styles. For no known reason to man or beast Raymond still insisted on using his trademark style of ‘vocals’ with a lot of people remaining unimpressed overall, especially since the band maintained that the album would be another Aegis. ANGTORIA and DELAIN released two similar Gothic metal/rock albums, both debuts which, though welcomed at the more popular end of the spectrum, were let-downs to those more aware of what femme metal could offer. Their adherence to routine, typical formulae became predictable and unoriginal after a couple of listens, with neither having any kind of reputable lasting appeal.

Slightly more interesting were the new releases by Belgians SENGIR and the French group THE LAST EMBRACE. Both bands put out respectable offerings with some appealing songs and competent vocals. MORTAL LOVE completed their album trilogy with Forever Will Be Gone – a good album but not quite as strong as its predecessor, and SILENTIUM put out a much better album then expected with the marvellous Seducia. This was indeed an album of two halves since though the female-only tracks were very good, the male vocals almost totally ruined each song they were integrated in. This was a big shame indeed since without them this would undoubtedly have been one of my albums of the year.

Poland, though normally one of the more productive countries with regard to the rawer side of Gothic metal, didn’t produce too much of interest. With bands like NAAMAH and DESDEMONA not releasing anything it was down to MOONLIGHT to bear the standard along with ARTROSIS, whose Con Trust album was less synth-based than others and though it had one or two notable tracks, it was nothing like the quality of the band’s previous releases. Artrosis really need to release a strong album next since Con Trust did little, in my mind at least, to consider them worthy contemporary competitors inside the genre. For those luckier to get on the larger labels, DELIGHT was still working on its Breaking Ground album, without a doubt its most accessible release yet. Short songs with punchy, think guitars and bags of reverb on the vocals made the album bearable to listen to in pieces, though very sickly and samey should you try it all in one go.

For the softer and slower albums on the metal side, there are two which definitely deserve a mention. THE GATHERING put out one of the best of their career with the fantastic Home – an excellent offering featuring great inventive songs and outstanding vocals. Home very much became what Souvenirs and even How To Measure A Planet hinted at, with the band finally sharpening and honing their trip rock round to a perfect point. The band had certainly made a rounded, complete and confident album: locking themselves away in a church for a week obviously did them some good. Another album that springs to mind at the same time if the marvellous AVA INFERI whose debut humbly crept on the market under Seasons of Mist. Even though the album has had few mentions in the press, it is a light, shimmering and warm offering of doom metal with mesmerising vocals and tons of atmosphere. For those who thought that the femme metal genre couldn’t produce original doom, Ava Inferi were the exception.

However, it was at the more progressive side that things really took off. It’s hard for me to think of a year in which there was so much good and imaginative music in the more creative side of the genre. MADDER MORTEM and THE PROVENANCE both put out excellent albums, Red Flags being arguably the best thing that The Provenance have done. In spite of its lack of growls the songs were far more pacey and energised, and there was much there to suggest that the best from the band was yet to come. HAMMERS OF MISFORTUNE, who don’t generally seem to be mentioned all that often in the femme metal scene, put out the fantastic The Locust Years. One of the reasons why this band doesn’t get lumped into the category of other femme metal is because they sound so different from it. Hammers Of Misfortune seem to harbour an old school progressive metal influence, and since the genre only took off in the 21st century it’s not surprising that they’re not massed together with the rest of the femme metal mob. AGHORA released their first full-length album for six years and it’s a very good piece of work indeed. Highly progressive, jazzy in places, very heavy guitars and the almost ethereal vocals of Dianna Serra. All these albums alone made 2006 very worthwhile musically.

There were a few very noteworthy debuts in the progressive side of the genre too, with the highly talented TO-MERA releasing their debut with Julie Kiss on vocals. The band took nearly all their influences from male vocal bands which gave their sound a more complex, heavy and refined air than a lot of other femme metal, and the album was very well received. Another astoundingly good debut was that from DIABLO SWING ORCHESTRO whose novel and inimitable The Butcher’s Ballroom brought them much acclaim due to its use of excellent operatic vocals, varied songs and high originality. DISTORTED from Israel also brought out their debut with its influences from Nevermore/Opeth and Miri’s beautiful singing holding a heavy middle-eastern slant. Its uncompromising style of progressive death metal was remarkably good, and for me, unexpected, whereas UNEXPECT’s In a Flesh Aquarium was an immature and ostentatious contribution to the avant-garde side. The same could certainly not be said for STOLEN BABIES whose debut There Be Squabbles Ahead with its fine use of excellent clean vocals and screams, jaunty songs and rhythmic, slick basslines made it certainly one of the best albums of the year.

There’s already much in 2007 to get absorbed in and it does seem that the femme metal scene is righting itself. In the past couple of years it mostly seemed to be about standard metal riffs and acceptable rock, though as it now roots itself more sturdily under the metal umbrella it has become more aware of what it can do. Though the first half of 2006 wasn’t much to write home about, the second warranted a meaty tome. It’s great to see such good things happening in femme metal, and with so many more inventive bands around, it will be intriguing to see just how far we’ve come in another twelve months.

Bands to watch in 2007:

Epica [Netherlands]

After Forever [Netherlands]

Night wish [Finland]

Tristania [Norway]

Lumsk [Noway]

Akin [France]

Xandria [Germany]

The Project Hate [Sweden]

Penumbra [France]

Madder Mortem [Norway]

Virgin Black [Australia]

Soul grind [Sweden]

Nemesea [Netherlands]

Catafalque [Turkey]

Diluvium [Serbia]

Dylath-Leen [France]

Asrai [Netherlands]

Shadow play [Ermmm somewhere]

No Sex Please, We’re Femme Metal

01/09/2006 § Leave a comment

Man is and remains an animal. Here a beast of prey, there a house pet, but always an animal. – Joseph Goebbels

You can give up your whole week, you work and you go home and you have dinner and you do other stuff, but the only thing you’re thinking about is f***ing something on the weekends. – Peter Sotos

It’s an unsurprising fact that obesity in men and women in the UK is rising. 28% of men before age 24 are obese, which, when you think about it, this is a staggeringly huge amount. It’s almost a third of the entire sex that is packing too much worm-meat, and it’s not like there is a shortage of opportunities to do it. In the USA the statistics are higher, with a stunning 65% being overweight or obese, nearly two-thirds of the entire population.

Bad food is everywhere. Advertised on the radio, on the TV, billboard signs, offers in magazines. This is the stuff that beckons the lazy pedestrian in with vivid shop signs and bright colours, promising of quick food at cheap prices. You never see advertisements on television for vegetables though. No company ‘owns’ carrots or potatoes and no-one, after a heavy night out on the town, suggests that everyone should get together for some butternut squash. It’s only at three in the morning, waiting for buses in the dim, thick light of Tottenham Court Road that you see people heaving Burger King boluses back onto the payment; kebab shreds mixing with beer, passing through nicotine-coated oesophaguses.

We’re really not doing overselves any favours. For many, the promise of a productive night out consists of chugging back as many pints as possible. It doesn’t matter where you do it, hopping from bar to bar and from trend to trend is all about the next place to consume beer. In a sense it hardly matters about the environment it is done in, the bars with the neon strip lighting, fast music, breaded snacks and plush interiors are all presentation cases for the alcohol being poured inside. Without it, no-one’s going to call on these places. They’re visited as a forum for escapism where you spend the money you’ve worked all week for on beverages which will help you forget what it was you did to earn money in the first place. There are social brownie points to be had by making a complete and utter pratt of yourself of an evening. For a reason that a lot of people can’t work out, if you’ve drunk too much, picked a fight with someone, touched up someone else’s girlfriend, thrown up on a bus, fallen asleep on the pavement but still managed to make it home at some point, it is deemed to have been a ‘good night‘. As a youth, we are all so sadly and shamefully unoriginal.

This is just the skin of the scene though, the very tip of a lurid and seedy iceberg. Sex and alcoholism go well together, both are forms of vice and both indulge very basic needs and desires. In a sense we want it all, the ability to have as much food and drink as we want and to be able to gratify our lusts. And we can, as long as money is involved.

A few years ago, after a particularly depressing time in my current living situation I found myself down at one of the more ’upmarket’ strip joints in Central London, a place that I’d never heard of but then I was hardly very much into the ’scene’. If you’ve never done it before it’s unusual to walk into a large room and see lots of female bodies writhing solely for the pleasure of those there. In a sense it’s quite surreal. Over the next few months I spent more time at similar places in London as a student. The girls were all incredibly friendly and nice, never English but mostly Eastern European or South American. They’d chat for a bit about whatever you wanted, then they’d remove their clothes for you and bugger off. In the meantime you could drink beer and talk to whoever you had arrived with [if you’d arrived with anyone] though these were not the sort of places that you came to for conversation. Literally every two minutes a new girl would come up and sit next to you and sometimes you had to usher them away until it became a bit annoying. The amazing thing about it was how utterly pointless the whole experience is. You walk out having paid twenty pounds for each three minute dance and leaving with nothing. You didn’t even spend enough to get drunk. You looked at girls for a bit, gave them some cash to do hardly anything and that was that. I know people who spent hundred of pounds every night at these kinds of places. You can leave feeling almost dejected and lonely at the end of a night.

You’re not allowed to touch either. Though you can go in other places and they’ll let you, and you can go in a few more places and they’ll let you do even more. There is no end to the kinds of fetishes that you can indulge in in a city like London. It’s pretty sick in one way, but even sicker that it’s looked down upon by some people. The attitude in Europe, however, is very different to the attitude in the USA. A bare breast in a film in the USA will probably mean the MPAA slap a PG-13 or R rating on a film whereas you only have to walk down the streets in France and every other advert has got breasts everywhere. Go to the beaches in France, Spain and Italy and you’ll see the same thing. For some reason it has become necessary for the censors to shield us, or at least the younger among us, from one of the most natural things that any creature can experience. Carnal and natural desires have had taboos attached to them for as long as anyone can remember. Those poor girls, having to do that. Forced into it by chauvinism and sexism. It’s thoroughly degrading and disrespectful. OK, don’t be proud of the power of sexuality. Women are not the weaker sex, nor have they ever been. Men want sex all the time, it’s a given, but it is women who choose whether to give it to them or not. It doesn’t take much to coax a man into bed. Pornography, especially softcore, is the ultimate in enticement and empowerment and the ultimate in reminding men that women have everything every man wants, but only when they choose to give it to them.

I find it amazing that not more of the press have picked up on the pull of sexuality for female fronted metal, especially when the covers of so many male-fronted metal albums feature photographs, illustrations and images of women in all levels of undress. Many bands have realised the power of this, sometimes to make records more sellable and sometimes to up the anti. Male-fronted metal is very much aware of its sexuality, or at least its need for sexuality. Female-fronted metal has a whole different attitude towards sex. In fact, female-fronted metal is a very asexual beast. There are no lyrics about screwing, no lyrics about indulging in rampaging bestial desires and no depictions of eroticised women apart from maybe the odd angel, and there is no subgenre where the depiction of angels is more tiringly prevalent.

There are so many beautiful girls in the world of femme metal but they are never marketed as sex objects. Presumably the primary reason for this is that many of these bands do not have massive labels behind them. Napalm and Century Media may be large labels in their own rights but none of these companies are pushing the females to portray themselves in any kind of a sexual manner, certainly not in the overt ways that we are used to seeing when turning on Saturday morning television or MTV and watching the pop acts who seem more keen to sell through sex than music. Any why not? Sex and some types of music go very well together, but maybe sex and femme metal do not. Maybe femme metal is too much of a delicate creature to involve itself in such nefarious thoughts and practises or maybe the concentration is about the music too much to sell itself out.

One band in the femme metal scene which has been accused of selling itself out more than any other is Lacuna Coil. For the past few years the band have very much been trying to break the USA and have done so admirably. They put an awful lot of work into touring and changing their sound to make it more accessible. Karmacode, their latest album released this year will no doubt be their biggest seller to date, much to the glee of Century Media. Cristina Scabbia is a very attractive front woman and I’m a little surprised that she hasn’t been portrayed more sexually in order to sell the band further to the teen crowd, to the hormonal, grubby 16 year olds who will salivate and do God knows what else over her pictures, and to the females who will admire her and emulate her. Not too long ago she posed for the cover of Stuff magazine in what was clearly her most titillating shoot to date, and though it caused a mild stir in the metal crowd, it was not a patch on some of the photoshoots that female pop bands and artists are doing.

If you take a look at some of the outfits worn by the other singers, Sharon Del Adel, Tarja Turunen, Simone Simons and Floor Jansen, there is never a time when sexuality is really a strong element in their portrayal of the music. Simone Simons was allegedly offered a spread in the Dutch playboy to which she declined and Helena Michaelsen from Imperia was interviewed in Penthouse but the shoot was nothing particularly racy. A lot of the time, femme metal gets such little coverage in the press anyway so that when an artist from the more popular end of the scale starts to promote the music in this way it is thought of as misrepresenting the scene and that a lot of people, knowing nothing about femme metal, will tar all bands with the same brush.

At the end of the day there is nothing sexy about femme metal, but for the fans, this is another thing that gives it its edge over other musical forms. Femme metal bands are not concerned about sexuality, sex or eroticism in their music, it is the music itself that counts and any detraction from this is seen as an exercise in falsity and ingenuineness. As a musician, it’s only possible to do one thing at a time. To sing – and to sing well – shows ability, but to do so with other intents puts the whole objective into question.

Seventh Subgenre of a Seventh Subgenre

16/06/2006 § Leave a comment

I don’t know anything about music. In my line you don’t have to.
– Elvis Presley

As female-fronted metal becomes increasingly diverse, fanatics are creating more and more genre titles to describe it. I remember a few years ago when I first started getting into Gothic metal, the term ‘Gothic metal’ itself seemed rather a ludicrous proposition. In fact, as much as I love the style, I find the idea that any kind of music can be described as ‘Gothic’ to be rather amusing.

The term ‘Gothic’ itself seems to have derived from an interview in 1978 when the British broadcaster and record label owner Anthony H. Wilson was asked to describe the kind of music made by one of his bands, Joy Division, to which he replied it was more Gothic than poppie. For me, such a tag conjures up all kinds of unusual imagery. Gothic, in its historical sense, refers to a people, an art form and an architectural style, but Wilson bastardised the term to describe the kind of music that his band made. But did he use it inaccurately? Well, not altogether, since what he had tapped into was the essence of Gothic to describe a musical approach. Many people have since tried to elaborate on what the term ‘Gothic’ means with relation to music and the majority of them have not succeeded. This either means that it’s hard to define the style of Gothic music at all or that the word Gothic is a poor choice in the first place.

For me, it’s not a matter of which came first, the chicken or the egg. As soon as Gothic become a popular term for music in the 80s, and subsequently spawned various cliques and fashions, many bands were going out of their way to produce Gothic music specifically rather than adapting the term to describe the music that they were already making. What Wilson had managed to do, irrelevant of whether these bands were using the term correctly or not, was understand that something Gothic was dark, lush and extravagant, and also had the air of being mystical and foreboding. Gothic – in its accepted sense – never had been about evil, but about dark romanticism, and that meaning holds even today, in spite of the other sub-definitions that have sprouted up through its more mainstream popularity.

Even in the 18th and 19th centuries when Gothic literature was becoming popular through the works of Henry Walpole, Anne Radcliff and Matthew Lewis, the term ‘Gothic’ itself described the style of writing perfectly. All these authors wrote about very romantic situations but in an extravagant, dark and grandiose style. Sometimes the novels would have touches of mysticism and even horror. Edgar Allen Poe, for his part, is still considered one of the greatest Gothic writers, though he only started writing after the movement was thought dead in Europe; the last true Gothic work being Charles Maturin’s Melmoth The Wanderer in 1820. Poe took the more sinister and horrific aspects of Gothicism and mixed them with stories told in an extremely flamboyant but sometimes prolix fashion. In fact, his style is generally defined as being part of a new wave of American Gothic, which had a different colour altogether to the movement which ended in Europe not thirty years previously.

Similarly, the kind of Gothic music that was being made in the 1980s is very different to the kind of Gothic music being made in the 21st century. It would be hard for anyone new to the scene to describe some of the material produced by bands such as X-Mal Deutschland, Sisters Of Mercy and Siouxsie And The Banshees as ‘Gothic’ when measured against more recent bands since the musical styles have changed greatly over twenty years. In fact, 80s Gothic and present Gothic share little else but a nominal link. The post-punk wave of rock music at the end of the 70s created a following and a style of music which, though dark, rocky and angsty for the period, is almost incomparable to the neat Gothic music made by bands such as London After Midnight, Bloody Mary, Entwine, Switchblade Symphony and Diva Destruction. Gothic music in the 90s – and Gothic acts – became more pretentious in an attempt to validate and further justify their involvement in the scene, taking the genuineness out of the music and inserting more of a focussed and trend-dependent feel. What was once an observation on a musical evolution had now become an all too self-conscious effort to sustain something alternative and underground.

But it wasn’t until 1995 that metal and Gothic music became properly fused with the release of The Gathering’s Mandylion. Even though the 3rd and The Mortal had released Tears Laid In Earth the year before, which was still unlike many things that had been heard up till that point, it was The Gathering, an already established death metal act, that decided to fuse the warm and sumptuous vocals of Anneke van Giersbergen with their own heavy and rhythmic guitars. It wasn’t by any means an instant hit. Many listeners considered this a betrayal to The Gathering’s earlier sound – a sentiment which is further felt by some fans since How To Measure A Planet? – and many thought that the inclusion of female vocals wasn’t right with the metal rhythms and distortion. The trend was cemented in 1997 when Tristania put out Widows Weeds, a verdant soundscape of Gothic splendour. This was Gothic metal as it truly should have been defined and Tristania gleefully took the reins of something which The Gathering had already opened the stable door to. Unknown to most people, the Polish acts Moonlight, Undish and Artrosis had already done similar things by 1997, releasing albums which also contained heavy guitars with female vocals. This helped the movement of the Gothic metal scene aboard and established Poland, as well as the Netherlands and Norway as the main countries producing the Gothic metal sound.

2002 saw the release of Evanescence’s Fallen and the Gothic metal scene almost became concussed from the battering of the mainstream and major record labels. So many other metal bands were materialising in their wake that the term ‘Gothic metal’ not only become too restrictive to describe the sounds of the new bands but it also became misused as a description of any metal act with female vocals regardless of whether they retained the original tone of the earlier Tristania-era bands. If any digression from the accepted Gothic form crept in, another sub-genre would be created, leading to the terms female-fronted folk metal, doom metal and progressive metal all being used.

The problem was that as soon as too many terms were employed to describe musical form factors, female-fronted metal became bogged down with tags, descriptions and labels, some of which were ludicrously inaccurate. As a result, some bands became dubbed with a particular genre title purely because it was fashionable rather than a true reflection of their sound. In the last couple of years this has become so absurd that a whole new sub-genre can be created just to describe the sound of one particular band, a problem that Orphaned Land found after being labelled Oriental Metal even though their music was death metal with middle-eastern and progressive influences. Just because one band take elements of style from other places does not justify the initiation of an entirely new subgenre. Many bands already use some oriental themes in their music such as Penumbra and Therion but these are clearly either defined as Gothic or Symphonic rather than just creating new genre titles on a whim.

The problem with creating multiple genres is that instead of being more descriptive and useful for listeners, it actually becomes less useful, more disruptive and divisive since it is harder to make comparisons outside the sub-genres. If one band is described as progressive metal and if another is described as folk metal, this might deter fans of either one from fans of the other when really the two bands in question could be very similar in style. I have heard artists such as Distorted described as doom metal by some factions and death metal by others. After a while bands become labelled not merely on the style of music they produce but on how the individual listener wants them to sound or wants them to appear, indicating the interest in such music is not for the music itself, but for the fashion.

Unfortunately the unhelpful ad nauseam labelling of bands is unlikely just to stop there. At the end of the day it is the aficionados who care the least about how the music is labelled and those who are newer to the scene who care the most. Some labelling can be useful since it can point us in the right direction of what we’d like to hear but it can also be a deterrent to those unaware of the differences in a scene which is not that diverse in the first place. Just because one band employs folk or oriental elements does not make their sound new as long as they are under the umbrella of female-fronted metal. We seem to be forgetting that as long as the music is dark, heavy, extravagant and lushly vocalled, we are likely to enjoy it anyway. Only the idiotic would snub good music in favour of music which is more fashionably portrayed.

Gothic Metal – A Fading Tale

20/04/2006 § Leave a comment

2006 has already proved an important year. After the musical wasteland of 2005 it’s been reassuring to see some of the bigger names releasing long-awaited albums and some of those albums have not only been long-awaited, but needed, demanded, craved and pined for by a whole host of Gothic Metal fanatics all over the world.

At the beginning of the year, with Lacuna Coil out of the spotlight since 2002 and with Nightwish having jettisoned their vocalist in favour of someone with an ego not quite as large as the next WTC conspiracy theory it almost felt as if the Gothic Metal genre had been unintentionally orphaned and that it was up to Within Temptation and a number of smaller bands to take up the parenthood and make us all feel that everything wasn’t going to go to hell in a chickenbasket.

Though why should any of us have been worried at all anyway? Are we really that fickle and pernickety that as soon as one of the keystones drops out temporarily we’ll all be shaking our heads, commenting that everything’s gone dry and that the luscious, verdant plateau of musical ecstasy we were once all frolicking in has become a barren vacuum of hopelessness? Well, yes and no. Tristania did try to reassure us all that they still had it in them with their mediocre Ashes, and Epica’s Consign To oblivion didn’t quite live up to the standard of its predecessor, however, After Forever did manage to convince us of their worthiness with Remagine, even though it was starkly different from the Gothic loveliness of their earlier works. And there lies the rub: the problem exists in the fact that most of us got into Gothic metal in the first place through the sounds of early Tristania, LC and Theatre Of Tragedy whose offerings are now almost disparate from what they used to be. The goalposts have well and truly shifted in favour of success and commercialism, and now that a slightly different sound is expected of bands in order to sell records, the likelihood of things changing back to their original order is slim.

Nevertheless, this is how musical genres, bands and styles develop and it’s clear to see that femme-fronted Gothic Metal in the late 90s is no longer the inventive nightling it used to be. The main albums of 2006 have been now put out by some of the most important bands around – The Gathering, Theatre Of Tragedy and Lacuna Coil – bands that have shaped the very foundations of the music which subsequent artists such as Xandria, Elis, Evanescence and Bloodflowerz now practise. However, in order for things to really go with a bang for Mr Label Magnate and his minions – the emphasis in Gothic metal really has to be in the ‘metal’ rather than Gothic. What does Gothic mean for the genre anymore but just the inclusion of female vocals and the odd choir sample thrown in? Maybe we’re all becoming too easy to please and a little too indiscriminate. It seems that the original Gothic essence is being lost in favour of what the majority of people really want and since Gothic metal didn’t sell enough of its own back, the labels have to bring in the cavalry in the shape of chunkier, bouncy riffs and songs which are as easily forgotten as you can say ‘MTV2’.

There is always another way to relieve the pressure of the tide of corporate condition though. The most discriminate band of the original bunch would be The Gathering who released one of the most impressive albums that I’ve heard for a long time this month. My faith for the band had been slowly spiralling downwards for the last few years but Home has beautifully righted the balance. The Gathering were a band who, one album after releasing their much-acclaimed seminal Gothic metal album, did a bit of a Radiohead manoeuvre [and it’s no coincidence that this is one of the bands which they respect the most] and instead of trying to top what they had already written, they went in a totally different direction in 1998 and have been honing their sound and whittling it to perfection over since. Home deserves to stand proud above the rest of Gothic metal though it is, in a sense, not Gothic at all. Backing away from Century Media really gave the band the chance to explore what avenues of interest they wanted to, and listening to Home serves as a reminder that these people have risen above the genre which they created rather than have their music contorted into something user-friendly, bitesize, colourful and sugary which a lot of other bands do. The choice was theirs – go your own way or go with a major label and have your music altered in order to make your albums fly off the shelves with greater ease.

One band who are guilty of this, now more than before, are the ever-inventive Lacuna Coil. Inventive, that is, in creating less and less complex songs, saying less and less likeable things about the genre that spawned their success and becoming less and less agreeable people. Is this what happens to bands when they become successful? Maybe for some, though I would have thought that LC would have risen above such an attitude. However, the evidence is there, horrible for all to see and though Karmacode isn’t terrible as an album, it is but a carcass of the kind of music they used to produce – a rotting shell with only a semblance of similarity to the music they were making five years ago, such is the draw and pull of the recording industry when it sinks its fangs into you. Of course the new – and younger – fans will lap it up like it’s the best thing their little ears have come ever across and oh how popular they will in the forums discussing it. Then there are the new experts who will have managed to quickly purchase all LC’s other albums on the back of this one so they can say how diverse the band used to be but Karmacode is far and away their best effort.

Still, once can’t really blame the band for taking this tack. When presented with the option of making a living out of your life’s love of music or earning a hell of a lot less money but still having freedom to do what you want with your sound, most of us would probably choose the former option. Are we really going to blame LC over The Gathering when people were also saying three years ago that Souvenirs was a total betrayal to their earlier music? The answer is simple – you can’t please all of the people all of the time, but you can at least ensure that the majority of your fanbase retains respect for you. In this way, The Gathering show themselves to be more innovative than one might initially think since by being individuals rather than pieces of the machine they can still garner respect from their fans to the point where people will buy their music having not heard it since they know they will be in for an interesting and challenging listen whenever they buy a Gathering record. That’s an experience which hardly any of the LC fanbase can admit to sharing. And that, for the serious music fan, is a risk that many of us are willing to take.

It’s a bit of shame that just over ten years down the line since female-fronted Gothic metal came into its own, that many of us would plead for a back-to-basics approach to the genre, reigniting the torch that carried it this far before commercialism got its hold. On the other hand, ten years in the land of rock and metal is a very long time with fads and genres being created and falling away left, right and centre. Creativity is about using what tools you have open to you and allowing only as much influence in as you can control. In another ten years time The Gathering are far more likely to stick around than Lacuna Coil. By then, the moguls will have filled their pockets, the kiddies will be into something else but the older and more respected bands will have grown in strength. Maturity isn’t always counted in years. It is primarily – and musically – a state of mind.

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