The Wire

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In Writing

The Wire 300: Joe Stannard tracks Metal’s journey from the mosh-pit to the art house

February 2013

Previously unpublished essay commissioned for The Wire's online 300th issue celebrations

When The Wire published its first issue in 1982, it is doubtful that founders Anthony Wood and Chrissie Murray foresaw a future in which Heavy Metal – then derided in 'serious' music circles as an emotionally retarded, mongrel form of popular music – would share space in its pages alongside jazz, free improvisation and contemporary composition. After all, this was some time before the genre would begin its association with the 'avant' tag, and any dalliances with electronica, Ambient or musique concrète, though they certainly did take place, were not recognised as such by the post-punk firebrands of the music press.

1982 was, however, a damn good year for Metal. Iron Maiden's The Number Of The Beast, Judas Priest's Screaming For Vengeance, Manowar's Battle Hymns and, of course, Tank's Filth Hounds Of Hades all saw release, as did an album that would impact upon coverage of Metal in The Wire, 26 years and 300 issues later: Venom's Black Metal.

With their unholy, primitivist racket, bargain-bin diabolism and contempt for anything that wasn't loud and deeply unpleasant, Venom were reviled by the Metal establishment yet unwittingly effected three major shifts in Metal's landscape. Venom's influence led to the emergence of thrash Metal, death metal and black Metal, three subgenres which would not only revitalise the genre as a whole, but would pique the interest of those seeking unfamiliar extremes. If the Geordie trio of Cronos, Mantas and Abaddon hadn't subjected Metal to a severe noise injection, it's probable that the international tape trading network would have remained focused on hardcore punk rather than emerging new styles of extreme Metal, and unlikely that readers of The Wire would ever have come into direct contact with Sunn O))), Khanate or OM. 

It is arguable that Heavy Metal has always been an avant garde form of pop music, a bastardisation of blues, jazz and soul idioms, ravaged by extreme distortion and addled by the mind-mangling detours of the psychedelic 60s. The genre's originators, Black Sabbath, did not succeed by slavishly adhering to the template of what rock 'n' roll should sound like; they were unschooled innovators attempting to mirror their mood in music, and only the thickest, deepest and heaviest of sonorities would do. But the longer they stuck around, the more they found themselves aping their more respectable peers, resulting in the recruitment in 1980 of ex-Rainbow vocalist Ronnie James Dio to replace departed frontman (and future reality TV idol) Ozzy Osbourne. By 1982, despite retaining its popularity and filling arenas, Metal was decidedly flabby around the middle. East London's Iron Maiden offered a possible way forward, an updated, streamlined model fuelled by strong songwriting and nifty musicianship; Venom on the other hand, wanted to burn everything to the ground, and in putting a torch to Metal traditionalism, they laid the foundations for the rebirth of the genre.

Under the distant tutelage of Venom, Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, Slayer and their ilk ushered in the era of thrash, faster and snottier than traditional Metal and notionally influenced by the speed and attitude of US hardcore punk. There were already signs that Metal was stretching out; Megadeth's wrongfooting time signatures and superior chops echoed the breakneck grandstanding of Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return To Forever, albeit within a blood 'n' guts context ideal for alienating one's elders; while Voivod, a French-Canadian quartet who began as Venom copyists, quickly developed into a consistently imaginative outfit as likely to evoke King Crimson, Van Der Graaf Generator, Bauhaus and Die Kreuzen as they were Sabbath and Priest. Another band whose initial aesthetic was formed by exposure to Venom was the Swiss trio Hellhammer, who evolved into one of the most ambitious and influential bands in Metal history, Celtic Frost.
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Of all the early thrash bands, California's Slayer remain the most beloved of non-Metal fans. Their 1986 album Reign In Blood, a 28 minute sprint through hell produced by hiphop doyen Rick Rubin and released on Def Jam, is justly revered as an extreme Metal classic, featuring the still-unsettling meditation on Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele, "Angel Of Death" - promptly sampled by The Bomb Squad for Public Enemy's "(She Watch) Channel Zero". As if to further underline the band's cross-genre appeal, as well as their iconic status in the world of the avant garde, drummer Dave Lombardo would go on to collaborate with DJ Spooky, Public Enemy's Chuck D and John Zorn.

Death Metal emerged as a subgenre roughly contemporaneously. The term was allegedly coined by Oakland band Possessed but the subgenre found its kingpin in the late Chuck Schuldiner, guitarist of Florida's Death. Yet the greatest – and weirdest – death Metal outfit is surely Morbid Angel. Initially dealing in Satanic tales with a Lovecraftian twist, guitarist Trey Azagthoth would later become obsessed with the teachings of Deepak Chopra, the music evolving from basic beginnings to a vertiginous, disorientating cacophony chiefly characterised by Azagthoth's unique guitar style and sound, which gave the impression that the band were being sucked backwards into a vortex at terrifying velocity.

'Black Metal' had been in use as a term for this new wave of aggressive young bands since Venom's debut, but cohered into a recognisable style with the arrival of Sweden's Bathory, whose Satanic orientation, trebly, hyperspeed riffing and shrieked vocals were to prove hugely influential on Norwegian bands such as Darkthrone, Emperor, Mayhem, Immortal and Burzum, who defined the subgenre in the early 90s. Along with doom Metal – which curiously began as a backlash against thrash in the early 80s – black Metal currently shapes the Metal landscape familiar to current readers of The Wire. The media attention afforded black Metal is due in no small part to the series of criminal acts perpetrated by members of the Norwegian scene in the 90s. Murders and church burnings, not to mention the far right agenda espoused by some scenesters, ensured that, for many, black Metal represented Metal's ultimate extreme. Since then, the scene has been pronounced dead by its disciples several times, yet it continues to throw up new hybrids, its abrasive, frostbitten surfaces proving unexpectedly malleable; today, a black Metal band may be found experimenting with Ambient textures, strings, electronica, drone, even jazz.

Running parallel to all of this was the development in the UK of grindcore. A John Peel-approved super-fast hybrid of hardcore and Metal epitomised by Brummie outfit Napalm Death, grindcore rapidly fragmented into a series of groups who, while identifiably Metallic, had more in common with the NY abjection of Swans than the Olympian pomp of Deep Purple. Napalm Death, Godflesh, Scorn and OLD all emerged from the Earache records stable, and key players such as Justin Broadrick (Godflesh/Jesu/Final), Mick Harris (Napalm Death/Scorn/Lull) and James Plotkin (OLD/Khanate) would later become key figures in avant rock circles.

It was Sunn O))), however, who effected the final breakthrough of Metal into avant garde circles. Initially formed in homage to Seattle band Earth, who in turn were inspired by their Aberdeen/Montesano neighbours The Melvins, Sunn O))) pioneered a strange, postmodern brew of Metal classicism (the group's abiding devotion to the Riff and predilection for 'dark' imagery and themes) and radicalism (two-guitar line-up, tortuously long, slow songs, piercing feedback, drones). With their second album White1, Stephen O'Malley and Greg Anderson attracted an audience that would never previously have considered picking up a Burzum CD or exploring the back catalogue of US doom legends St Vitus, and in applying the lessons of LaMonte Young and Tony Conrad to metal (and vice versa) Sunn O))) provided the catalyst for Metal's artistic evolution. Meanwhile, Anderson's Southern Lord label offered a vital Def Jam-like focal point for the unnamed global scene, with labels such as Hydra Head, Profound Lore and Crucial Blast flourishing in its wake.

Ultimately though, if you really want someone to blame for the presence of Metal bands in a forward-thinking journal likeThe Wire... blame Venom.

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