Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Ten of the best metal albums of all time - Part VII: Samael - Worship Him

There's a very small, perhaps very, very slowly growing movement within the extreme community which seems to promote the idea that for an expression within extreme metal to be valid, it must be some sort of "true art" or whatever, on par with the great composers or painters or writers of the 18th or 19th century. There is considerable effort put into creating a narrative in which bands like Incantation are supposedly on the same level as Beethoven or Mozart in compositional skill, creativity, vision and impact, and for some reason these people are able to take themselves seriously and do not seem to feel ridiculous about their claims at all. It seems to function on a footing similar to those of people who in all seriousness discuss what type of reptile hybrid Barack Obama's secret service agent transformed into in that video that was briefly popular on the internet some time ago. People can believe just about anything, in any artificially created reality they just need to tell themselves as truth often enough.

What leads me to the previous particular opening paragraph for this particular album I'm reviewing is a desire to return to the roots of what drew people into extreme metal in the first place, and being honest to oneself and others about what the extreme forms of metal's core appeals are. Shall we exhibit this required level of honesty and simply admit to ourselves that, whatever artistic depth we have discovered in the style subsequently aside, what pulled us in originally, what we were looking for originally, was how vile, how disgusting, how nihilistic, how morbid, and how evil everything in extreme metal was? This overwhelming quality of overstepping all boundaries to create a force so dark and destructive, so unlike everything created before. An unholy union of qualities you wouldn't have found in any other extreme genre at the time. Sure, extreme grindcore like Anal Cunt or extreme noise like Masonna will have sounded vile and disgusting back around the time most of us discovered extreme metal, but metal didn't stop at vile and disgusting and added a lot more extreme qualities, like extremely dark atmosphere, extremely dense structure and extremely morbid riffing.

There are a number of albums from around the late 80s to early 90s that symbolised this amalgamation of extreme qualities quite perfectly, some have been or will be covered in other parts of this series. One that stands out in particular, though, when thinking of vile, disgusting, nihilistic, morbid, evil, and so forth, is Samael's debut album Worship Him. It has a sound of such pure, unadulterated darkness and such primitive brutality that only the beginnings of extreme metal (if you still count the late 80s as such) are capable of. Suffocating riffing meets an atmosphere from the depths of hell, played with such irreverence for pleasantness and mass compatibility that it was truly shocking for the context of the time of its release.

The riff writing at the core of this album sounds sort of like a cross between what would happen if you sucked any and all trace of NWOBHM out of early Venom and left only the morbidly antagonistic audial devil worship, and the life-drenching doom and gloom of Samael's unforgettable compatriots Hellhammer (and traces of early Celtic Frost.) Both Venom and Hellhammer are similarly defined by a "bulldozing" quality of their assaults on the senses, though accomplishing that sound by greatly different approaches. One relying more of the power of its riffs, the other more on sound and rhythm. Samael have decided to continue that quality and combine both approaches, while at the same time removing anything remotely positivistic or upbeat. Worship Him is not an album to have fun to. Any and all "party music" qualities of its progenitors have been mercilessly extinguished. What's left is a core of riffs that definitely harkens back to the earliest days of extreme metal, but is unforgivingly dark and evil. Exactly the type of stuff anyone who can relate to this review's first two paragraphs was looking for when first getting into extreme metal.

It isn't just the core of riffs that is so brutal and morbid in its primitivity. Both the whole songwriting process and the production process seem to follow the singular goal of sucking anything life-affirming and beautiful out of what had been in extreme metal before. Riffs are arranged in a very simple fashion, but one efficient at its destructiveness. The percussion at the same time reminds of ancient war drums and whips the listener into a frenzy of worship of the dark and evil. It helps create a certain passion that the music otherwise might have lacked, even if the lack of passion would be minimal considering the unhinged brutality of the riffs. The vocals themselves add a charme of irreverence few extreme metal vocalists could provide. The combination of all instruments drips of blasphemy, and it is irresistable to succumb to it. The rough but sharp nature of the production puts it on perfect footing to do its deed. Cutting the air like a razorblade, but foul enough to simultanously drench the atmosphere in utter darkness, it puts the extreme nature of the performance in the perfect frame to achieve its maximum efficiency. Simply perfect for this album.

As we all know, the band only maintained its level of brilliance briefly, releasing one more album that while being slightly weaker by nature of experimenting with higher levels of accessibility, still maintained many of the enduring qualities of this debut, before quickly deteriorating into some sort of circus act through the inclusion of one ill-advised idea after another, eventually packing entire albums to the brim with them. It is always a shame to see such a magnificent band lose its relevance in such a short time, but what remains is a debut album that personifies extreme metal like few others, and is an absolute masterpiece in the field.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Ten of the best metal albums of all time - Part VI: Revenant - Prophecies of a Dying World

If I was going to attempt to recreate the atmosphere of the writings of H. P. Lovecraft in music I would probably go for some sort of blackened sludge metal with really downtuned guitars and a really slow tempo, with Portal-like guitar-bend swirls and an array of growls, snarls, hisses and moans for that slimey, tentacle-y sort of feel. And it would probably be godawful and completely miss the mark. But luckily that wouldn't be necessary, because the Lovecraft kind of atmosphere has already been captured perfectly in metal all the way back in 1991 by a "simple" death/thrash band with no need for any such gimmicks as the ones my often wandering mind concocted in the opening sentence.

This album is another fine example of a band doing everything right. I don't know how much creating a metal soundtrack to Lovecraft's stories is actually something the band set out to do, or how much this idea was attached to them in hindsight due to the nature of their lyrics and their art. However, whether it was the ultimate goal or a side-effect of the songwriting process, the band succeeded perfectly at creating the perfect kind of atmosphere for the subject matter. This is indeed accomplished not through the use of atmospheric gimmicks many modern bands would likely go for (and I know a few bands that do), but with beautiful subtlety. The focus is on creating an intense and riff-heavy death/thrash album, steamrolling it with atmospheric elements would only take away from that. Instead, the dark feel is interwoven into the structures with the utmost care and intricacy.

Even without the immersing atmosphere, Prophecies of a Dying World stands as a masterpiece in itself. The Revenant approach to death/thrash metal is one of a kind, even while using ingredients common around the time it was created. In its ferocity and aggression, as well as its darkness, a lot of parallels to death/thrash pioneers Possessed come to mind. There's a certain dedication to relentless force common to both artists. Pummeling rhythm guitars buzzsaw away over blisteringly fast-paced percussion while razor-sharp lead guitars perform the audial equivalent of cutting through flesh. All this is maintained at a very high level of quality of riffwriting. There's not a single weak spot in the riff department throughout the entirety of the album, everything maintains a maximum level of ferocity, aggression, darkness, but also catchiness as well as intelligence. Especially the latter two are rarely combined so seamlessly, with the vast majority of bands choosing to sacrifice one in favour of the other. The riffing on this album is about as top notch as you can get in the style of death/thrash metal, but it doesn't end there.

All-obliterating Possessed-like qualities are only one major element at work here. Another is an emphasis on dynamics that was popularised in thrash metal in the late 80s by many of the most famous bands, such as Slayer (on South of Heaven) or Metallica (on ...And Justice for All). And it is a common rule is metal that what works for more mainstream artists, more underground artists will hone to perfection. Revenant on this album are pretty much as close to perfection in the field of dynamics in thrash as anyone can be. And this is really what sets them apart from more "regular", Possessed-style of death/thrash. It doesn't just bludgeon the listener. It takes the listener on a journey through a dark, multi-layered, multi-faceted world, through constant changes in riffs, tempos and arrangements. All this without losing coherency for a second. They don't just go berserk, it is more akin to following a berserker through the numerous points in time and space and ups and downs of his life. Except in Revenant's case the berserker is not literally a Norse warrior on psychoactive drugs, but some bizarre, dark, slimey, unspeakable Lovecraftian creature from one of the higher dimensions of horror.

The subtle but intense otherworldly atmosphere comes in part from the perfect combination of pummeling Possessed-style ferocity with a sense of narrative dynamics approaching progressive forms of music. But on top of this backbone, the remaining ingredients really drive the point home, really define this music as something you would hear inside your head if you ended up inside an H. P. Lovecraft story. The vocals certainly are a big factor in aiding this type of atmosphere that just does not seem right in this world. They, too, bear resemblences to Possessed, but have a much darker quality to them, as if teleported into our dimension from a world in which fear is the only reality. It is really hard to describe on paper, it is a unique sense of paranoia they carry with them the more you immerse yourself in them. The spoken parts are the icing on a cake of subterranean sludge here. Simply perfect in the context of this album's atmosphere. But what drives both styles of vocals to maximum efficiency is the sheer quality of the lyrics. Analysing poetry was never my strongest points, and I advise you to simply read, or much better hear, them for yourself. There's simply such a schizophrenic, otherworldly quality to them that they suck you straight out of our world, our normal world, into a world of absolute fear and paranoia. It's humbling, even terrifying, but also absolutely satisfying for any connoisseur of dark literature.

All in all this is album is magnificent, and absolutely essential for the collection of anyone who appreciates extreme metal - and metal in general - and H. P. Lovecraft and similar authors. It's relentlessly immersive, and suffocatingly dark, while at the same time invigoratingly catchy. One of the most perfect metal albums of all time.

Pills against the ageless ills - Part I: Introduction and the state of affairs

You probably saw this one coming miles away, didn't you? So many posts about mental health-related themes, it was only a matter of time until the subject of meds would come up. And yeah, in the field of mental health - or the field of mental illness, whether you want to name it by its glass-half-full or its glass-half-empty term - you can't go a spit's distance without running into its pharmaceutical component. It's both good and bad. Good that there's a multi-pronged approach to tackling your problems, bad that you basically become a walking test lab for chemists, being experimented on with all sorts of poorly understood and potentially hazardous substances.

Over the years I've amassed quite the experience with a wide array of psychoactive medications, having been through a good number of changes. There's no grand conspiracy theory about the many changes, no evil pharmaceutical company reptile Illuminati plotting the destruction of my body and/or mind. The changes were purely practical. Something either had no effect whatsoever, or had unacceptable side-effects, so it was taken out, and something new was tried. You see, for those of you with no experience in the field, it's actually very, very rare to start out with a medication and it works for you perfectly and you stick with it. This isn't a case of doctors clearly identifying an illness, and having something that is guaranteed to work, like it is for many physical ailments. Unless you are willing to have a cerebral vivisection, I suppose, finding the root of your problem(s) is actually mostly guesswork, which is the first of two reasons things are more complicated. The second reason is that psychoactive meds don't have the same effect on different people, because every brain is different and works differently. So basically doctors tell you "not sure what the issue is, take this, not sure what it will do." They package it differently, of course, with more confidence in their knowledge and skills.

I will eventually devote a number of posts to things I have taken in the past, with some juicy details as to why I discontinued them. You're gonna love it, you know which part of the male body psychoactive meds like to negatively affect the most. I will also devote a post to the darkest chapter of psychoactive meds: Physical dependency. Anyone with anxiety or sleeping disorders will have at least scraped the surface of that particular subject. For this first post of the new series, however, I'd like to talk about the type of meds that are the most rare, and that you are the least likely to come across: The ones that actually have a positive effect on you.

Chlorprothixene is something many of you from various corners of the world will never have heard of because to my knowledge it is only licensed in certain European countries, Germany included. Why that is I have no idea, I have never had any adverse effects from it or heard of someone who has. Officially an antipsychotic, it has very little potency in actually treating psychosis or any symptoms thereof, which is why it is never used for that purpose. What it does have potency in is in its sedative effect, which is why it is used almost exclusively as a sleeping aid, sometimes as an anxiolytic. Now I can't say much for its supposed anxiolytic properties, it may have such for some people, but for me it has absolutely no effect on anxiety. But damn, did it change my life as a sleeping aid.  I used to have massive difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep, and it messed up pretty much every aspect of my life. Couldn't plan my days at all because I wouldn't have any idea when I'd fall asleep and when I'd wake up, and how rested and therefore functional I would be. 50mg of chlorprothixene a night, and the issue itself and all associated issues were solved. Take the pill and two hours later I'm asleep, and stay that way the whole night, and wake up well-rested. And there isn't any addictive potential like there would be in traditional sleeping aids, so it's a win-win situation for me. Been taking it for about two years now, and it's a major improvement to finally have a properly set sleep rhythm.

The other medication I am currently taking and have nothing but positive feelings about is ziprasidone (Geodon/Zeldox). Been taking it since early this year, replacing that godawful olanzapine (Zyprexa), and damn has my life made a change for the better. Also an antipsychotic, like the olanzapine it replaced, I don't actually know how well it works in treating psychosis, since I don't suffer from any. I am taking it for its anxiolytic off-label use, and benefit from a few more of its side-effects, like that it helps organise thoughts and feelings when they are a mess, and it even has some antidepressive effect on me. This is a marked difference from olanzapine, which also somewhat worked as an anxiolytic, but had no other positive effect on the mess in my head in general, and contrary to ziprasidone it also depressed the hell out of me. Basically, since the switch, I went from spending all day moping and yawning, generally feeling like doing nothing, ever, to actively living my life, trying new things, doing all the stuff I like to do but never had the motivation for, and with a much increased ability to focus and keep my attention. It's quite a change. The anxiolytic effect remained the same, which means I still struggle with background-level anxiety as I did before, but it also didn't get worse. And with all the positive effects I got in addition, it was very much well worth it.

Those are the two medications I am currently taking, and so far the only psychoactive medications I have had in my life that I am happy with. I take 20mg of ziprasidone in the morning, another 20mg at night, along with 50mg of chlorprothixene, and it's by far the best med regiment I have had in almost six years of psychiatric treatment. There's room for improvement, which may or may not come, but for now I am doing well. And it certainly beats some of the crap I've had to deal with in the past, which I will address in the next post of this new series.