Mischaracterising the Cold War’s end as the end of history has since morphed into an amusing theoretical anecdote; a historical touchstone for our own turbulent age; as if desperately exploring every aspect of the early 1990s will provide clues to our future. For underground metal however, a case can be made for our history’s end lying somewhere between 1990 and the turn of the century. The radical changes brought on by the internet are still chronologically too close to construct a long term historical analysis. One that explores the internet’s effects on the natural evolution of musical styles. Or to put it another way; stuff is still happening (new bands forming, new releases, decent music), but the stories we use to understand said stuff have collapsed into analytical irrelevance.
The alumni of Napalm Death is as good a lens to explore this through as any. With their early output rooted firmly in hardcore punk and eventually grindcore, at this time they were highly influential in extreme metal yet also peripheral. Their lyrics focused on social justice and their early offerings denied music a narrative structure of any kind, preferring collages of noise and experimentation than through-composed sonic tales. Both things at odds with metal’s lofty Nietzschean ambitions. It’s no wonder that of the many projects Napalm Death’s past members joined or formed, few were fully fledged metal in style or image.
New York’s Painkiller is a classic example of this. This project saw former Napalm Ddeath drummer Mick Harris team up with saxophonist John Zorn and bassist Bill Laswell to form an avant-garde-grindcore-noise outfit in 1991. The very fact that I have to tie so many words together to approximate their sound lends credence to this ‘end of history’ theory I’m cooking up here. This is a metal band only insofar as their sound was just as abrasive and extreme as grindcore of the time, and the fact that Mick Harris made his name in Napalm Death. But these musicians did not want to be segmented into yet another subgenre of metal both in sound and image. Their second offering ‘Buried Secrets’ from 1992 is not music in the traditional sense of the word, so we must refer to unfortunate phrases like ‘experimental’ or ‘avant-garde’ to talk about it.
The bulk of ’Buried Secrets’ is made up of Zorn doing things to a saxophone I’m pretty sure it was not designed for, screeching at the very limits of human hearing, underpinned by drums which blast and smash their way through the feedback, in turn complemented by distorted bass and occasional guitars, which provide rhythmic emphasis in support of the drums primarily, any notes being a mere afterthought. Mick Harris’ drumming follows a simple yet effective philosophy: stop/start. Cymbals crash then disappear beneath feedback and screeching saxophone, only to rematerialize as a blast beat, then a heavy industrial groove, rinse, and repeat. The heavy rhythmic passages call to mind Godflesh, and indeed Justin Broadrick made contributions to some of the tracks on here.
When the saxophone does offer a melody we are reminded of late night jazz bars, a welcome if jarring relief from abrasion and feedback. Vocals are a strained screech or pained groan, aping the music in their sheer random violence and aggression. Although this music has its roots in Swans as much as Napalm Death, its links to the grindcore scene both in style and in personnel lent it much interest in the metal community. But its lack of structure and the intentionally directionless noise of ‘Buried Secrets’ alienated the more traditionally minded metal fan. But the fact that such left-of-centre music was even uttered in the same sentence as ‘metal’ represented a distinct narrative break with the past, one that proved impossible to reverse.
Those firmly on the inside of the global metal scene also contributed to narrative decay. Stockholm’s Abruptum started life as what could loosely be described as death metal with their debut EP ‘Evil’ in 1991. But then things took a turn for the freeform with the release of ‘Obscuritatem Advoco Amplectere Me’. Originally a duo made up of founding members ‘IT’ and ‘All’, the latter bowed out due to alcoholism. ‘IT’ then recruited ‘Evil’ *sigh* from up and coming black metallers Marduk. By the release of ‘Obscuritatem Advoco Amplectere Me’ in 1993 Abruptum had devolved into a power noise project with black metal aesthetics. ‘IT’ daubed the obligatory corpse paint for photoshoots, and headed up The Satanic Black Circle, the Swedish equivalent of Norway’s Black Circle, but he later made the decision to leave the scene entirely after threats on his and his family’s life. This – and the rumour that OAAM featured recordings of the band members self-harming – probably lent undue fame to this work.
‘Obscuritatem Advoco Amplectere Me’ is made up of two tracks, each around twenty five minutes in length, each feature a distorted, droning guitar, drums heavily laced with reverb, a keyboard locked on a synth/string sound with the pitch-bender stuck in a state of flux, and agonised vocals. They are all playing separate pieces of….sound, and over the course of the fifty minute runtime they sometimes sync up to what could be described as coherent music. Of the actual sound nothing more can be said. So we are left to endlessly debate the legitimacy of this as art, and whether it deserves an audience. This recording was not supposed to be enjoyed, it is not background music even by our standards, nor is it (once the novelty has worn off) engaging enough to sit and follow as one would a well written piece of music. And something tells me its appeal as a late night soundtrack to occult rituals is limited.
So what’s it for? Few metalheads give it much credit in this day and age. However, I am sceptical of dismissing it as worthless noise outright. I have listened to this album a few times now, and each time my expectations are slightly different, and each time this affects the experience I am likely to have. For instance, if I go in expecting free form noise of varying intensity, I am surprised by how many and how long the passages are that could pass as coherent music…of sorts. It set a new precedent for where the boundary between really noisy metal and ‘noise’ proper should sit. Has it revolutionised extreme music? No, but it remains an interesting cultural artefact nonetheless. A reminder that even in the early 1990s metal was flirting with some pretty off the chain ideas long before Brooklyn hipsters shat their art theory all over black metal. Don’t write Abruptum off entirely however, Evil’s later solo ambient work with the name is worth a spin, as is 1995’s compilation of their early material ‘Evil Genius’.
So why give Painkiller’s ‘Buried Secrets’ a pass and not ‘Obscuritatem Advoco Amplectere Me’? Both releases struggle to be more than the sum of their parts. The emotional and intellectual range it invokes in the listener does not extend much beyond ‘…urgh’; for that reason I must revert to the principles of musicianship and structure. ‘Buried Secrets’ offers far more of this than OAAM. If extreme art is to make an impact, it has to contextualise itself in the familiar, i.e. the ‘not extreme’. Painkiller offer rhythms and melodies that we recognise as such before removing them and delivering unadulterated abrasion.
Abruptum on the other hand, despite playing soft and hard, never vary the atmosphere or intent, whether pummelling or creepy, we are given very little ‘normal’ musical context to understand that what we experiencing is horrible beyond redemption. In short, we are left emotionally numb, and not in a My Dying Bride kinda way, but in a way that leaves no lasting impact on the listener after the album has played itself out. The fact that this goes on for fifty plus minutes adds to the obnoxiousness. It’s the equivalent of placing a 10ft by 15ft green square on a wall in the Tate Modern as opposed to a post-it sized green square. No more or less complex, but more demanding of our attention cos it’s like…made bigger….or like…recorded for longer. Nevertheless, give both ‘Buried Secrets’ and OAAM a listen, they are interesting deviations in metal’s history; maybe not the end of it, but certainly signposts to metal’s post-modernity.