Thursday, January 23, 2014

My thoughts on the old school death metal revival

First off, let me state right away that I am not going to name any bands in this post. There will be no list of who does what and who does it best, I am reviewing the movement as a whole and do not see the need to namedrop particular examples for what I think of which ideas and directions. If you want recommendations for which bands to seek out and which ones to avoid, go to any metal forum and start a thread asking for directions, it's not what this post is for.

What is commonly referred to as the "old school death metal revival" is a recent phenomenon in the death metal subgenre, which, as you can gather from its name, revives the sound of what death metal was like in its early days before it crystallised into its numerous shapes we know today, when bands started to play with influences of thrash metal and grindcore and began crafting a sound that was more to the point and less fiddling than the former and more elaborate and - for lack of a better phrase - with more "meat" than the latter. There were a number of different varieties, of which the most well-known are the Florida scene, the New York (state) scene, the Swedish scene, and many other notable acts from all over the planet.

Those who were around at the time - I was not, I only got into death metal in the mid-90s - know that this was a short-lived phenomenon quickly destroyed in the early 90s once record labels discovered people were into this new type of metal and signed just about anyone who had ever looked at a guitar in a catalogue and put out trillions of pointless albums, completely drowning the market in feces and killing the desire to hear any more of this type of music in just about anyone on the planet.  The majority of these bands broke up once they discovered they had inadvertently maneuvered themselves into a sewer, a good number of the others moved on to completely other forms of music, some achieving global fame playing gothic metal or somesuch (I know of a German band that was playing pop punk shortly after), while the rest developed new forms of death metal that quickly gathered a cult following or even developed into successful and widely respected entities - brutal death metal and technical death metal being main examples.

As for old school death metal, yeah, there were still a few who were doing it, but no one cared about them anymore. The shock and trauma of that style's great death in the early 90s was deep and disillusioning, and it didn't help that certain events in Scandinavia helped cement black metal as the leading force in extreme metal around that time. Those who were still devoted to death metal moved on to the aforementioned brutal and/or technical varieties, and old school death metal was essentially a dead and forgotten force.

Not too long ago, around the mid-to-late 2000s, people began to remember. Most people, myself included, had not been around in the late 1980s to early 1990s when the style was at its peak, most people only knew of the style through the very, very few bands that still played something along the lines of old school death metal but didn't have any deeper understanding of anything below the surface. I don't know how it happened, and I don't know who started it, even if I were to name bands as I said I wouldn't, I couldn't point out which band was the first, or which label was the first to put out such music again, but suddenly there it was. Maybe people were tired of retro thrash, or maybe the time was just right, but there it was, all of a sudden everyone was listening to old school death metal, seeking out more old school death metal, talking about old school death metal and forming old school death metal bands.

Of course labels were once again jumping on it, putting out every new band's half-baked stuff from every corner of the planet while pumping out compilations of forgotten albums and demos of bands from the late 80s to early 90s by the trillion. But this time it did not lead to a catastrophic collapse, because today people have internet connections and are able to listen to bands on YouTube, Bandcamp, Soundcloud, Last.fm, et cetera and decide whether they want to pay money for it rather than purchasing blindly, and are thereby not swamped by all sorts of crap and quickly disillusioned with the whole thing. I guess that's the beauty of the internet age, bands that obviously suck no longer get by on good cover arts leading to as many blind purchases, people are no longer bogged down with a collection of which 95% is crap and which cost them hundreds or thousands nonetheless, disillusion is thereby drastically reduced, and only quality material is promoted.

It sounds so perfect, but unfortunately it does not work that way. I am not going to talk about the shitty bands, because they do not need to be talked about. They make up the vast majority of every genre, and thanks to what I described in the previous paragraph nobody needs to give them the time of day. It's the supposedly "good" bands that give me a headache. Here is where my opinion differs from that of the vast majority of old school death metal fans.

When I tried to find a way to put into words my feelings on why the supposedly good bands of the old school death metal revival leave me unfazed, the first thing that came to mind was an analogy to another passion of mine. If you have ever talked to me on- or offline, you know that I love football - the sport you Americans know as soccer. In many other popular sports such as handball or basketball, if you play a good move, you score a point. In football you need a little more: You need a series of good moves culminating in one outstanding and/or genius move, with a bit of luck on top, only then you score a point. Most of the time when you watch a football match, you see chains of good moves, some very good, but the final punch is missing, and so usually no goal is scored. Yes, it is great to watch these chains of good moves, otherwise I wouldn't be into the sport. I love it when they play these one-two combinations back and forth, dribbling around defending players, passing and receiving the ball in a manner that takes many years to master, it is a beautiful sight for every fan of the sport to see these guys play on a professional level that leaves you continuously entertained and at times astonished. But, once the game is over, the spectators do not bask in the memory of the good moves they have seen, no, they look at scoreboard, at the result, because in the end that is really what counts.

This is really what I consider to be the matter with the so-called good bands of the old school death metal revival. They play really well, they show you some of their best moves that took them years to master, and they leave you entertained for the period of time you are listening to the record or watching the live show, but once it's over, you look at the scoreboard and what does it say? No goal. You spent forty minutes listening to an entertaining diversion, but the final result is not something you feel like celebrating. There was never any sense of urgency, nothing compelling, nothing that leaves you with a good feeling for a week. You have witnessed a group of people who may not be on the same level of professionalism as a top league football player, but to carry on the analogy, you just watched them doing spectacular dribbling and passing displays that looked great, but didn't lead to any desired result on the scoreboard. To carry the analogy further, the German national football team of today is, in its technical abilities, quite a few levels above the team that won the world cup in 1990, but Germany has not won a world cup since then. What do you think people in Germany remember? The current team playing brilliantly but dropping out in the semifinals or the 1990 playing less brilliantly but winning the title? The same goes for old school death metal: What do you think I would rather listen to? A technically flawless but non-compelling album from 2012 or an album from 1990 that may have minor technical flaws but is absolutely compelling and captivating?

For me, the choice is clear. Death metal is supposed to be a form of art, and it requires a spark of genius to make something that appears simple into a masterpiece. Yes, craftsmanship plays a part, they wouldn't have the means to create said masterpiece if they didn't have the theoretical and practical abilities to do so, but a death metal album cannot rely on craftsmanship alone. You can spend years studying the very best of the early old school death metal albums and hone your ability to craft something that is very much the same stylistically, but without that spark of genius it will always be no more than a product, never a work of art. And this spark, unfortunately, is exactly what is missing from the new bands.

2 comments:

  1. it's 2014, the German national team finally won the WC and there has been some excellent releases in OSDM this year such as Execration and Morbus Chron. ready to revise your analogy? (I'm just taking a piss ^^)

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    1. They ruined my perfect argument! Fuck you, Mario Götze!!! :P

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