Welcome to the first installment of Stress Position.
This is a column that takes the pleasure of listening to music by forcing writers to abide by two simple rules:
1) Pick an album from a band or genre they hate from the deepest, darkest part of their hearts.
2) Spin that for a minimum of 12 hours. At their desk, on the bus, the shower — the album has to feel closer than a beauty mark.
Every critic approaches their reviews as carefully as possible. They understand the subject of their critique contextually, socially, aesthetically, and do their best to distill meaning — or a lack thereof — by removing any personal bias and treating the artifact almost like a science experiment. A good critic can prove nothing until each of the necessary steps have been tested and confirmed. Reviewing albums is as much an artistic expression as it is an act of logic and reason. It’s like doing your taxes, but with Skrillex playing in the background.
Stress Position’s aim is to take that objectivity and smash it into a million little pieces, burn those pieces into ash, and then blow that dust right into the face of the entire system, man. This is about deliberately not being worried about being objective by avoiding it entirely. This is about conflict and being uncomfortable, about a writer grappling with this cultural creature/construct they’ve always abhorred, fighting tooth and bloody nail to see if meaning or understanding can be discerned or if all those years of vile were valid all this time.
Welcome to the Thunderdome.
And since this is the debut column, it makes sense that I begin with the #1 on my musical black list: metal.
I’ve never liked metal.
Not one bit.
I had a brief, ill-advised interest in Soulfly, but I honestly can say that metal has always been a genre I’ve avoided. I’ve never listened to a full album by Metallica or Slayer or Megadeth, I think the guitar solos are often unnecessary displays of overwrought aggression and technical prowess, and anyone who throws up horns non-ironically is a pencil-necked geek.
I’m sorry, I think metal has as much cultural value and validity as 11th-century Tuvan throat singing.
Let me tell you, it feels amazing to admit that I can’t stand any of the bands or the songs, and that even some of the fans make me wildly uncomfortable. It’s so freeing to admit that I once had a dream where, instead of Disco Sucks rallies, we all gathered at some stadium and burned and destroyed metal albums. Bang your head to that, suckas.
But like any addict — my disgust for metal gives me this weird cultural high — the first step in recovery is acceptance. I don’t think that metal will ever be my favorite genre, and I’ll buy terrible shirts and grow my hair long and whip my neck so hard I could break wooden boards.
But as I approach my 30s, I’m not enjoying the prospect of holding on to my hate and having it blacken my insides any longer. I’m a father (of two wonderful dogs), I’m getting married, and I’ve found a grey hair or two in my beard. I’m starting to think that I might be a happier person if I stopped relishing in my hatred and grew to even mildly appreciate things I’ve hated with glee. Maybe my back will stop hurting sometimes and I can sleep more than seven hours at a time.
Album: Under the Sign of Hell
Release: October 20th, 1997
History: Named after the Mordorian plateau in The Lord of The Rings, Gorgoroth formed in 1992 in Sunnfjord, Sogn og Fjordane, Norway. After releasing their 1993 demo, Sorcery Written in Blood, the band drew the ire of their home country, in what would become the first of many instances where their corpse-paint and visceral images of death became the center of controversy.
By 1996, after just two albums, guitarist/bassist Roger Tiegs, aka Infernus, was the last remaining original member, with subsequent releases featuring an ever-changing lineup with Tiegs as the creative core. In ’97, the band unveiled their third record, Under the Sign of Hell, the first full album with new vocalist Pest, and which eventually landed them a deal with famed German indie label Nuclear Blast.
The album’s a substantial leap forward for the band. While their occult imagery and blistering instrumentation remained intact, reviewers across the metal scene heralded the LP for a well-produced sound that maintained the group’s especially niche blend of concussive black metal.
Since its release, the album has been reissued or re-released in 1999, twice in 2005, 2006, 2007, and was even re-recorded by the band in late 2011 as Under the Sign of Hell 2011.
As far as kicking things off with a bang, I have to give undying praise to my colleague/Aux.Out. editor Jeremy Larson for making sure this gem and I got locked in a steel cage together like we were “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and Vince McMahon at St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. These corpse-paint-wearing Norwegians have crafted a sound that exemplifies everything that I hate about all of metal, from the obscure melodic stuff to a mainstay like Slayer: their vocals are indecipherable, their guitars all sound like revving engines of shitty muscle cars (which I also hate), they talk about God and the devil and Christianity waaaay too much, which makes me feel extra awkward. And I just made a pro-wrestling reference.
But from 7:00 a.m. on Friday, January 25th to 7:00 p.m. that evening, Gorgoroth was the only music I listened to — my sole companion through the day. I let it breathe at various volumes, in various orders, through headphones and across my empty house.
But before I ever heard note one, I had to get an idea of what I was getting into by talking to the most obsessive metal fan I know. Briton Tarter and I attended Northern Arizona University, where we met while both working at the radio station and newspaper. More than wearing his inverted cross on his sleeve, Tarter transformed his love of metal into an academic pursuit. He received his master’s in Applied Communication with a thesis entitled “Heirs to Thievery: Death Metal’s Resistance to Appropriation Through Blast Beats, Gore, and Growls”.
“My masters looked at how death metal and grindcore have characteristics that make them harder to appropriate into popular culture,” he says. “Additionally, the political nature of the lyrics makes them important to look at since the political messages are disguised and as I argue protected from being assimilated into popular culture.”
I may be all for assimilation, but let’s look at this objectively. If metal wants to be taken seriously, then why not take a different approach? Gorgoroth have a song called “Postludium” that’s 90 seconds of barking and growling. Don’t even get me started on “Odeleggelse Og Undergang”, which features 30 seconds of straight burping. The rest of the time, frontman Pest is either shrieking, yelping, or sounding way too much like Gollum.
“Under the Sign of Hell is a record that has a more produced sound than some more traditional black metal records, but it definitely has the scratchy ‘recorded in a basement’ sound,” Tarter says. “A big part of that is to enhance the ‘evil’ sound, some people in black metal believe the atmosphere of a record is best setup in part by the recording sounding shitty. It adds atmosphere and was how the original black-metal bands started recording their music because they didn’t have any money, and it stuck in some forms of black metal. You’ll probably hate it, but you never know.”
And by 9 a.m., I am still in full-on hate mode. But I think about what my metal-loving friend has to say about the whole atmosphere, and the first cracks in my armor begin to show. These guys didn’t have money and they made this whole aesthetic to perpetuate a set of feelings or some larger concept. And while it’s overwhelming and giving me a headache, it gets me thinking about my most beloved genre: punk.
I’ve loved punk since I was a tween, from the shitty pop-punk of Goldfinger all the way back to The Clash. I fell in love with it because it was mine, dudes like me speaking the same language, expressing the same thoughts and doubts and hopes and trying to get through the heaps of bullshit for a little clarity.
But Gorogorth is someone else’s punk. I personally don’t care to embrace the message of a track like “The Devil Is Calling”, which features lines like “Frightened for the sake of your name forever and ever you shall live like a fag you turned away and you follow your god like a dog” hoarsely screamed into my ears. But that is someone’s “London Calling” turned up to the most violent extreme.
“I can only speak for myself, but my love of metal arrived when I was 10-11,” Tarter says. “It came as a way to feel important and different, plus your parents thought it was atrocious. Morbid Angel’s Altars of Madness was the scariest, most obscene, evil record I had ever heard at 11. The mysterious evil sound the record had is what kept me searching for other bands in different metal genres.”
And there we have it: a brethren in testosterone-fueled angst, clawing away at the world to piss off his parents and find the concepts and emotions in the world that meant the most to him. We may do it at different volumes and with varying sizes of smirks and sneers, but we want to change the world in our own image. If that image is in a giant mohawk or satanic facepaint—er, corpse-paint, either way it’s something totally new.
This thought washes over me by 10:15-10:30 a.m., and it makes me feel good. For the first time, I can understand that metal-heads may be my distant musical cousin. I don’t have to see them all the time, but maybe respect is due. And those warm feelings expand suddenly when the sudden guitar explosion in “Krig”, which I’ve heard at least a dozen times by then, reminds me of The Misfits.
I love that band, to the point I still wear a hoodie I got at the age of 15. They may dress like a metal band, but they were the best punk band because they talked about Elvira and impregnating teenage women with such conviction and force of will that it felt like any political speech hurled by a Bad Religion. They took disgusting messages of life’s seamy underbelly and dressed it up with makeup and horror movies, which made it almost sort of fun and quirky even as they talked about dead babies. Then, like that right hook that once knocked out Danzig, it hits me: metal is all about theatrics, so why am I not eating this shit up?
“Theatrics is definitely a big part for some genres, black metal is definitely a part of that,” Tarter explains. “I think a big reason for the theatrics is the lyrical content can be pretty intense. If you write a song about Satan or murder or war atrocities it just doesn’t seem correct to have a laid back approach to the imagery. The reasons why people like metal are pretty diverse, but simplifying it into categories will at least eliminate big chunks. Catharsis through music is probably a big part; I know it was for me.”
It’s officially 11:27 a.m. and I’ve stopped the record for the first time. It makes me feel like I’m cheating, but it’s a necessary break. This goes beyond the whole camaraderie of the punk bit, to the point I feel guilty about not liking metal for the first time in my life. My love of Misfits, not to mention my aforementioned love of pro wrestling and a sincere interest in comics and sci-fi, makes it abundantly clear I am a sad little boy who loves playing pretend. Every other aspect of my cultural existence has centered around creating fantasy as a means to escape and cope, so then why did I not even at least appreciate metal?
It was clear to me that I may never love a track like “Blood Stains the Circle”, but if I break down the parts, it’s pure showmanship. It’s twisted metal guitars and manic drums smashing into each other with the goal of building a ceaseless wave of mutilation. And then it stops and all that’s left is the gentle hush of random wind blowing, a wall of ice-cold air that gets more overbearing with each hill it overtakes.
This is Batman fighting the Joker on top of a blimp, shooting a horde of zombies as they run up a flight of stairs in Left 4 Dead. It’s human emotion expanded wildly and without restraint, and if you can’t even respect that, then you’re denying the importance of being able to escape. As a man who still daydreams regularly, I tip my hat to someone dreaming the grand, intricate construct they’ve pictured in their heads, even if I can’t wrap my own melon round it.
By 1:45 p.m, the dream is over and I’m back to reality. At what I felt is the middle of my 1,000th loop, all the sounds and emotional insights sort of melt away, and all I can focus on is the noise. Every note makes me angry, and at one point I just scream into my speakers that “y’all should try and play some guitars, please!” Of course, they don’t, and that only makes me more angry. That rage continues for an hour or so, with me skipping around with songs and playing it at the quest volume possible that I can hear everything and not just my jaw slowly clicking. Just before three in the afternoon, I wonder why they’re all so mad and if smiling puppies might make a world of difference.
“Once you calm down with the whole ‘I’m so evil and angry’, metal has a wide variety of lyrical topics and some super relaxed bands,” Tarter says. “Some metal albums have the appearance of barbarian aggressiveness on the outside, but the lyrics inside can be forward thinking, political, anti-war, introspective, and highly emotional, etc. Another part is the technicality of some bands is incredible. Bands like Necrophagist, Nevermore, and Death, to only name a few are pretty musically complex and that’s exciting for musicians who are looking for a genre of music that’s challenging and always has room for them to grow.”
I may be getting all sorts of clarity, but I’m also jumping in head first into a raging, Class 5 tide pool here. And as much as I like to think my insights are sharp and keen, I may just be drowning in the music itself. Getting lost under the punishing torrents of lightning-quick guitars and haggard vocals. But by 4:30 p.m., another of Professor Tarter’s brilliant insights pops back up into the old noggin.
“I would say metal might not be accessible for everyone,” he says. “Not many first time listeners will say ‘that Gorgoroth record was legit.’ But on the other hand they might have not found the right metal bands. You develop a taste for more extreme metal after you’ve eaten the meat and potatoes and you want something more complex or strange. If you’re a metal fan, then you’re often a metal fan for life.”
And it’s a great thought, but it’s also horse shit. Part of me, the older, more black and white punk, craves immediacy. If you can’t get into an album right away, then fucking turn it off and listen to something you love and want to push out into the world. But then another part of me thinks that you can appreciate something after several listens, and that can often be the most rewarding experience than any immediate flash of admiration.
It’s gotta be the whole meat-and-potatoes analogy. As much as I might not want to admit it, metal might be unique for one very important characteristic: its structured and layered approach to fandom. Punk is all about getting you moshing in a circle as quickly as can; even genres like EDM or pop are all about hitting you in the sweet spot with little wasted movement. Metal, as I slowly began to understand, is the turtle in the musical race. A song like “Funeral Procession” isn’t going to win over the average listener with its especially grating grunts and rapid-fire guitar antics.
But guys like Tarter, the boys of Gorgoroth, and every other loyal and dedicated metal head out there will love it because first they loved Metallica and they slowly built their way into the obscure shit. To them, a “Funeral Procession” isn’t just a good song, but an ode to their pursuit of the genre, a Rolex for all the hard years of work supporting the scene and pushing their tastes, and by extension the genre, further and further. I never put in the work, so it makes sense for me to just not get it, or even to hate it a little. It’s not so much jealousy, just a little bit of justice for those souls brave enough to wade through even the darkest, loudest swamps.
By 6:56 p.m., I’m feeling exhausted and hungry, so I decided to end this loop early by stopping “The Devil Is Calling” 30 or so seconds early. I start to feel this sharp, tingly sensation, from this slow-growing sense that maybe everything will be OK. What I hate about metal still exists in me, and if anything that’s only more clear. And even those didn’t make me love or even appreciate metal, they made me want to be a better consumer.
“If someone has a preconception about metal fans or the music,” Tarter concludes, “then that’s their business. I believe you’re only hurting yourself if you close something off.” Maybe I haven’t made myself the better music fan and a slightly less angry, hateful person, but I’ve at least opened the door to the possibility of that. And at my age, that’s a more realistic and satisfying victory than anything else. Maybe, just maybe, I can find a metal album that I truly understand and adore in equal parts. Even just that one record, that 30 some odd minutes, is enough after years of burning vitriol.
I’ll just make sure it’s not from anywhere near Norway.