Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Programmatic Ruin

Some metal music conjures potent images in the mind's eye of the listener. Most often these images are vague and not directly informed by the lyrical material of the songs they belong to, more abstract dream-like scapes in washes of violent warm colors. I think this happens mostly because for metal bands the riff-writing is a separate art to the writing of lyrics. I'm willing to bet that the vast majority of angry rock or metal bands write the music first and it doesn't later change much or at all to contend for the feel and meaning of the lyrics. In fact when we're talking about metal, the writing of riffs (of which there are many) is simply addressed separate from the writing of coherent compositions (of which there are few and far between) but that's a topic for another time.

It is then a small wonder when a HM band that for all intents and purposes writes exactly like this, ends up conjuring very relevant images to the lyrics. Annihilator are such a band.

It's worth noting Schopenhauer's position on the purposes of music here.

Music is thus by no means like the other arts, the copy of the Ideas, but the copy of the will itself, whose objectivity these Ideas are. This is why the effect of music is much more powerful and penetrating than that of the other arts, for they speak only of shadows, but it speaks of the thing itself. "Music does not express this or that particular and definite joy, this or that sorrow, or pain, or horror, or delight, or merriment, or peace of mind; but joy, sorrow, pain, horror, delight, merriment, peace of mind themselves, to a certain extent in the abstract, their essential nature, without accessories, and therefore without their motives. Yet we completely understand them in this extracted quintessence. Hence it arises that our imagination is so easily excited by music, and now seeks to give form to that invisible yet actively moved spirit world which speaks to us directly, and to clothe it with flesh and blood, i. e. to embody it in an analogous example. This is the origin of the song with words, and finally of the opera, the text of which should therefore never forsake that subordinate position in order to make itself the chief thing and the music the mere means of expressing it, which is a great misconception and a piece of utter perversity; for music always expresses only the quintessence of life and its events, and never these themselves, and therefore their differences do not always affect it. It is precisely this universality, which belongs exclusively to it, together with the greatest determinateness, [364] that gives music the high worth which it has as the panacea for all our woes. Thus if music is too closely united to words, and tries to form itself according to the events, it is striving to speak a language which is not its own."

This smart man here explains, as I understand it, that the reason music is a universally loved and potent art is in that it doesn't (or shouldn't) seek to describe specific phenomena, but to be describe the archetypal expressions that all particulars spring from. In that sense metal bands might appropriate this definition of 'high music art' and comfortably consider their three chord riff-based abstractions to be a link to the primordial and be done with it. They are often right too. However I believe that Schopenhauer above had a far different standard of composition in mind to which most metal falls startlingly short of, not for their music being too linked to their lyrics to achieve universality, but by not being anything much on every level to begin with.

Secondly I think that abstraction has been hijacked by post-modernists with a consumerist agenda. How often do you hear, when trying to discuss the aesthetics and meanings of music, the offering of "dude, shut up, music is just music, man". I'm not sure Schopenhauer would be particularly proud. His sentiments can and have easily been appropriated by salesmen and vendors who would exclaim that since the music expresses universal emotions, then every one of us should buy all of it. If we look at popular music that is the distillation of abstraction in form and effect we see that it's working. So no offense to this smart man, but let's try to see what slightly different approaches offer us.

Annihilator above were not a band of very lofty ideals really, and the song posted doesn't have a high concept per se; It is in the plentiful abilities of main guitarist and composer, Jeff Waters that the composition of 'Road to Ruin' and indeed of most songs on their first two LPs, had become more involved than an average AC/DC song. He sounds like he has ADD, hyperactive, likes to cram in as many licks as he can but - unlike a lot of technical metal bands - has the good sense to compare what he's adding to what the song is achieving and rarely leaves a phrase in that is at odds. Jeff Waters can do what Annihilator do then because he's both extremely able on his instrument but also because he has the good sense to let the song's voice dictate what he (over)plays where.

In contrast, most metal (and rock) musicians struggle with a limited ability in their lead voice instruments, it is often a climb to express even an abstract concept. Sure, a lot of them play very fast or very precise, but what they play is often very limited and derivative. It might startle some knowledgeable Heavy Metal people to say for example that Autopsy (in the minds of most people a sloppy rude death metal band) are more erudite with their music than Meshuggah (a highly technical post-thrash band). The former simply have a larger musical lexicon. Most bands do not enjoy the mobility that great chops allow for to offer impressions of minutiae however. And those that work hard to get these chops usually masturbate with them predictable scale runs and basic syncopations over and over, impressive to laymen but ultimately one-note.

Not being a virtuoso is a blessing and a curse however. When one has barely 5 riffs in them, they tend to make them count and speak with them of encompassing emotions, namely despair and hope. This is the main characteristic of Heavy Metal really and it also explains why a lot of absolutely incredible bands often had just one great album in them, some even just a few great songs. That said, it's a pleasing variation and I feel, a worthy introduction to outsiders, to consider the minority of more skillful and considerate players that can strike with more precision once in a while.

The lyrics set the stage here:

No control tonight, the lights are going dim
The floor begins to tilt, it's blurring to a spin
Just let me find my keys, look down below
Fresh air is all I need, then I'll go

Leading up the road to ruin
You're full of alcoholic speed
Leading up the road to ruin
No last chance, don't bother to plead

High, over the limit, got to take it slow
Concentrate, kill the radio
It's not the first time, it'll be the last
I've said that before, in the past

Speed, I've got to make it home

Not too far to go, you're getting near
Just down the block, there's nothing left to fear
Carefree, on top of the world, feeling power
Impaired security at ninety miles an hour

Somebody's driving drunk, it doesn't end well.

The beauty of the thing is how the choices in riffs and voicings by Waters, along with the clean and tight lockstep of the capable rhythm section underline and amplify the sense of barely controlled chaos of the situation. Nearly every section of the song for me augments the picture, it supports an otherwise pretty stereotypical narrative.

Check out the natural harmonics lick at the end of the theme at 00:30 and how even before the plot is introduced a sense of instability and fragmentation hints of it in an otherwise straight ahead speed metal riff. Speed is the thing here but also blurriness, incoherency, confusion. These are the emotional elements that Waters' guitar pyrotechnics are most suited for.

In fact, for the duration of the verse, pay attention to how the regular palm muted riff is commented upon by a variation of different end licks, most of them choppy or syncopated, almost never repeating themselves, offering the listener no sense of security. Have you ever had manic thoughts that seem to dissolve before you're able to make them cohere to a larger structure, only to reappear and taunt you to try again? Have you ever been drunk?

The chorus with it's more austere and controlled rhythmics speaks in the second person. You're leading up the road of ruin, you're full of alcoholic speed. Look how effectively Waters shifts perspectives without any confusion just by musical cues. The unstable chaotic riffery belongs to the protagonist of the tale, the slower and regimented responses belong to a higher authority, a beholder. The listener feels compelled to empathize with both: id and superego together, schizophrenia. This is the overarching theme of Annihilator's early output.

Not to say that the song doesn't default to the familiar trappings of rock music, with its melody, verse, bridge, chorus and repeat. This is because Annihilator did not consider themselves purveyors of modern classical composition or anything, they probably had not heard of Schopenhauer not did enjoy programmatic music. They were writing hooky pop songs, but their inner ambitions overpowered the form. This is the basic definition of Heavy Metal in relation to its bordering musical genres, actually. The positives of the skeletal remnants of the basic pop song composition under this song are that the themes are reaffirmed and the listener is put to a hot-cold alteration between musical coherency and safety and then the wild chromatic deviations of Water that constantly upset. It's a potent dualism that fuels a lot of great Heavy Metal.

Check out the abrupt stop-starts under the first solo voice how they comment on its almost sonorous and hopeful tone (the driver hopes that he's going to make it home) but the second solo comes in mockingly, bending, rolling, laughing with this hope. It is appropriate that the most 'rock and roll' sounding part of the song is the voice of a higher fate, it's as if Annihilator are saying 'you're gonna crash and burn and let the devils dance in the flames'.

After a third chorus, the main riff is punctuated by sharp turns, futile floor breaks and finally the winding guitars signal the inevitable sounds of a crash. Every time I listen to this song I hum for hours after it not just the chorus or some melody but three or four parts in a row. I get hooked on a emotionally involving composition. I really love early Annihilator.

Not every song by them is so rich in imagery but most are. The most enjoyable ones actually are those written to lyrics of mental instability, Annihilator's forte, they let Jeff Waters' guitar go really crazy. Always a light band however, they're an easy way to get new listeners to appreciate Heavy Metal in other ways than just as a primal force that paints bluntly only the basest of scenes, screaming and growling and bludgeoning what is in effect existential ennui.


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