Extreme metal in itself is a meaningless term. It merely signifies the degree to which a piece of music you’re listening to is “metal” (another word so rich in connotations, musically speaking, that it eludes meaning). But if we agree that all noises euphoric, angry, bone-crunching and skull-crushing can be categorised as metal, then extreme metal becomes a superlative expression of an already over-the-top form. No surprises, then, that extreme metal doesn’t make for easy listening. Evangelical metalheads would say to you what once upon a time was said of Bach or Stravinsky: it’s an acquired taste. So how about trying to acquire this taste, and appreciate this unashamedly baroque form, by giving some of the recent extreme metal albums a spin?
Infernus by Hate Eternal
Since heavy metal was never heavy enough, the world needed alternatives. And so it was that bass players started drop-tuning their E-strings and vocalists began growling instead of screeching into microphones. Sounds awfully morbid, but that’s the whole point of death metal. Amateurs still think of Cannibal Corpse when the phrase is mentioned (actually they’re thinking of that Jim Carrey’s Ace Ventura that featured the band). But the death metal fraternity (that’s what it is; very few women in it) has come a long way since the ’90s. Florida-based band Hate Eternal, for instance, is now doing the unthinkable — by underground standards — after the release of their new album Infernus: selling their albums in record stores for $9.99 and preparing for a countrywide tour.
Infernus is a riot of noises. Its opening track, Locust Swarm, sounds exactly like what it says on the label. After listening to the 10th and final song of the album — the Biblically-titled O Majestic Being Hear My Call — you’ll have to check for nosebleeds, or irreparably damaged ear drums. Hatred is a recurring, or some would say the only, motif in death metal, and how does one make hate sweet sounding? Members of Hate Eternal, thankfully, haven’t bothered with such effete questions. I assume that rather than have you listen to their music, Hate Eternal would prefer to actually, i.e. physically, beat you up. Songs like Pathogenic Apathy on the new album are a testament to how much Hate Eternal hates everyone, including its fans, which, according to the death-metal mores, is a good (bad) thing.
The joke begins before even the music does: Hatebeak has two men on guitars and drums, Blake Harrison and Mark Sloan; and the vocalist is... wait for it... a 21-year-old Congo African Grey parrot named Waldo.
M by Myrkur
Since its inception, black metal has remained clichéd and gimmicky. There are certain givens — corpse paint, inverted crucifix, and at least one murder conviction — that a black metal musician absolutely must fulfil. We can’t talk of black metal and not think of that famed bunch of unimaginative Norwegian goons — like Varg Vikernes of a band called Burzum, who was responsible for burning churches and accused of killing a rival black-metaller, for which he did jail time. This is a genre that is waiting to be redefined and rediscovered. And bands like Myrkur are doing just that. Myrkur is a breaker of black-metal stereotypes. First of all, it isn’t based in Norway but in Denmark, although it was founded in the United States. Second, it isn’t a band at all, but a musical project piloted by a lone musician. Third, and most crucially, that lone musician is a woman — a significant detail in the misogynistic chronicles of rock and roll where a woman was always a groupie. Amalie Bruun only recently performed live in her debut show in Denmark, and M is the first full-length studio album of her black-metal project Myrkur.
What black metal did, and this is to the musicians’ credit, was open up the sonic space of other conventional forms of metal (just like death metal provided it more depth). So the sound here becomes operatic. And Bruun’s sound is as open and operatic as the Scandinavian landscape. The word Myrkur is Icelandic for darkness, and the mood of the new album is indeed dark. But Bruun’s originality of approach is still worth noting. She shuns all the shibboleths of black metal, even the stylistic ones. Thus, the dominant sound on the album is not of distorted bass and guitars but that of a cleanly-played piano. Her vocal range itself covers both the clean and distorted (growly) sounds, giving the music a melodious edge that is otherwise lacking, or only incidental, in most black metal songs.
Number of the Beak by Hatebeak
With Hatebeak we’re back to hate again, and, appropriately, back to death metal. The problem with most metalheads, including the musicians, is that they sometimes tend to get too serious about the music. This, even when most of it is so patently silly (another reason why Cannibal Corpse didn’t at all seem out of place with Jim Carrey head-banging in the same frame). The best of extreme metal musicians are parodists. Listen, for instance, to Devin Townsend’s great, and hilarious, album Ziltoid the Omniscient. The idea is, if you want to create an extreme metal parody, you have to push parody itself to its extremes. Hatebeak, a three-member death-metal act, has done just that. The joke begins before even the music does: the band has two men on guitars and drums, Blake Harrison and Mark Sloan; and the vocalist is... wait for it... a 21-year-old Congo African Grey parrot named Waldo.
Number of the Beak, a play on the famous Iron Maiden album Number of the Beast, can be construed as something more powerful than a parody — it’s a satire on extreme metal. We hear tightly-produced guitar and drum tracks and Waldo squawking in the background. Play these to an unsuspecting metalhead, and he wouldn’t ever know that the songs he just heard were part of an extended little birdsong.