Monday, 26 March 2012

Liturgy and Black Metal

Liturgy are a black metal band from Brooklyn, New York – a place more often associated with hipster indie than extreme metal. The band themselves perform in shirts and jeans, and though frontman Hunter Hunt-Hendrix delivers his vocals with an abrasive wail and drummer Greg Fox batters out incendiary blast beats, Liturgy have divided the metal community. This reaction is at once predictable and confusing. On the one hand I can see why black metal fans may not warm to Liturgy’s unconventional posturing, but on the other, I can’t understand why their progressivism is not more embraced. 

Tellingly, the main objections to the band seem to encompass not necessarily their music, but rather the way they dress, and their unashamedly intellectual ideas – neither of which are seen to be in keeping with true ‘kvlt’ black metal. Granted, Liturgy don’t actually call themselves ‘black metal’ – they prefer the term ‘transcendental black metal’ invented by Hunt-Hendrix. In short, this sound seeks to create an ‘ecstatic’ rather than a nihilistic experience, and implies that the music will go beyond the boundaries of traditional black metal. But the focus on the aesthetic rather than the sonic in criticisms of Liturgy shows primarily that black metal is more than just music; it is an ideology, and secondly, that its ideology is completely static. Liturgy’s second album, insouciantly titled ‘Aesthetica’ in fact seems a knowing challenge to aesthetics-based detractors. 

Transgression and tradition are among the main facets of black metal ideology, and Liturgy’s inversion of these to more positive concepts is seen as an assault on the fundamentals of black metal. But is it really an assault, or is it rather an evolution? Liturgy’s ‘transcendental black metal’ builds on established concepts in the genre to discover new forces and sounds in the music. There’s little doubt that since the mid-80s black metal has largely followed a sonic and aesthetic formula, regardless of whether this was only relevant within a certain timeframe in certain circumstances. This has led to a glut of black metal music, but arguably a dearth in quality. Sounds tend to evolve over time through some sort of dialectic, but because of black metal’s very ideology, change is seen as negative and dialectics are impossible due to black metal needing to remain ‘pure’. Defining the genre in terms of old traditions and transgressive beliefs lent a certain degree of honesty and solidarity to it, but its strength is being systematically pulled apart by identikit groups with no attachment to the circumstances of the genre’s initial genesis – surely a problem of tradition for black metal fans? 

Liturgy on the other hand have taken black metal as a base to explore further possibilities of the sound, and ended up with a more expansive, sonically progressive interpretation. The passion of black metal often came in rage, but Liturgy switch this to ecstasy. In Hunt-Hendrix’s manifesto entitled ‘Transcendental Black Metal: A Vision of Apocalyptic Humanism’, he also argues that nihilism = affirmation, lunar = solar, and purity = penultimacy. Nonetheless, this level of intellectualism is a problem in itself, not just for black metal fans, but for everyone. There is a definite danger of being caught up in ideas and allowing the music to become sterile and vaguely ridiculous. If black metal is to do with raw ‘feeling’, then Liturgy are living evidence of the mind/body problem – where their music is all mind. Some of their tracks sound more like experiments than songs, and this can be alienating whilst also showing inconsistency on Liturgy’s part for preaching about transcendent emotions but making thoroughly cerebral music. 

Nonetheless it sometimes takes a bit of brains to be inventive, and Liturgy’s sound is clearly something new for black metal; taking as much influence from Brahms and Steve Reich as they do from Emperor and Mayhem. Mixing cyclical minimalist structures, Romantic harmony, and black metal heaviness is certainly interesting, if not compelling. Liturgy are trying to distil the power of black metal, and turn it into something new, away from the clich├ęs and stereotypes. The skill and bravery required to do this is considerable, and they should be applauded for at least trying.

(Originally published on SoundShock)

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Friday, 16 March 2012

Protest Music Returns: Plan B's 'iLL Manors'

For me, the problem with music recently has been largely to do with the gulf between what musicians are saying and what's been going on in wider society. Across the globe, 2011 was a year of huge unrest, but as people became more connected through social networking, musicians and artists perversely became more solipsistic and disconnected thanks to the same tools. The internet brings hundreds of millions of people together, but it also allows individuals to indulge themselves, and to work alone - stuck in their own egos, doing music almost selfishly despite the fact that they still upload the results to YouTube and/or Soundcloud for public consumption. This lends much non-mainstream music an out-of-touch quality, more interested in nostalgia or irony, than politics. It was no surprise then that the soundtrack to arguably the biggest set of upheavals since 1968 or 1989 was depressingly forgettable - the same old revolving door of r'n'b/pop collaborations, but also more 'progressive' musicicians who nonetheless had nothing of substance to say about the current situation.

So thank God for Plan B aka Ben Drew, from Forest Gate in North London. His latest single 'iLL Manors' is, with no exaggeration - the most exciting, visceral, and brilliant new track I've heard for years, and most likely the best, most relevant song that will come out in 2012 anywhere. Not only is it musically impressive - melding a hybrid dubstep/drum n' bass beat with a hip-hop inspired string sample from a Shostakovich symphony - but Drew's dextrous rap finally brings politics exploding back into music. 'iLL Manors' is a venomous tirade against the UK's hopeless and hypocritical political situation - using irony and sarcasm superbly well to satirise the offensive discrimination against poor, working-class people peddled by the media, the middle-classes, and politicians.



What Drew has finally - and brilliantly - thrown into the mainstream, is an extension of a series of debates which have been going on for a few years, limited thus far to the pillars of the UK Left; The Guardian and New Statesman, along with certain left-leaning blogs, and important books such as 'Them and Us' by Will Hutton, 'Injustice' by Daniel Dorling, and 'The Spirit Level' by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.

One such book which is directly linked to Drew's point with 'iLL Manors' is Owen Jones' 2011 effort, 'Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Classes'. It presents a quasi-academic study into how so-called 'chavs' (which are a British social phenomenon, named as an acronym for 'Council Housed And Violent', and popularly imagined to wear tacky burberry clothing, cheap bling, live off benefits, and have lots of kids) have become what is essentially an ethnic minority in the UK through repeated stigmatisation by all other social classes, politicians, and the media. The roots of this subculture are to be found in the 1980s with Margaret Thatcher's policy of privatisation and destruction of unions, which has unsurprisingly led to an underclass of effectively disenfranchised, depressed, hopeless, and angry people. This has only been compounded by the aforementioned campaign - especially by the right-wing broadsheets and tabloids - of ritual demonisation. In an interview with BBC Radio 1Xtra Drew articulately explained (in a fantastically uncompromising London accent) his take on the vilification of chavs as follows:

"For me that term is no different from similar terms used to be derogatory towards race and sex, the only difference being that the word 'chav' is used very publicly in the press…When you attack someone because of the way they talk, the way they dress, the music they listen to, or their lack of education, and you do it publicly and it's acceptable to do that, you make them feel alienated. They don't feel like a part of society."

The discussion inevitably leads on to the London riots, which are a major part of 'iLL Manors' - the video being a sort-of recreation of them; interspersing actual footage with staged set-pieces. Interestingly, at one point the infamous video of John Prescott - the former Deputy Prime Minister under Tony Blair - appears where he punches a man who had thrown eggs at him; drawing out an important touch-point of the debate around the riots: Peter Oborne's excellent article 'The moral decay of our society is as bad at the top as the bottom.

Indeed, if a prominent politician is ready to use disproportionate force to beat the shit out of someone, then what example does that set for the rest of us, particularly young people? Equally if bankers and politicians are punished for their immense mistakes with a slap on the wrists, followed by a bailout/pay-rise/bonus, what level of moral decrepitude are they displaying to the rest of the country? Drew is clear in his interview that he does not wish to condone the riots ("It disgusted me. It made me sick"), but he is trying to draw attention to the reasons why they might have happened - the greed and moral bankruptcy which has led to huge unemployment and cuts to social services, casual demonisation of the poor, and continual political hypocrisy. While I don't believe the riots were directly motivated by political concerns, I think they were certainly the natural result of a rotten system. So, it seems, does Drew.

Some of my favourite moments in the song are where Drew points out particular hypocricies of politicians. Consider the argument that the Olympics are going to bring money for businesses. Drew raps: "We got an eco-friendly government/They preserve our natural habitat/Built an entire olympic village/Around where we live without pulling down any flats". He's right - instead of helping the poor of Stratford by renovating their housing and high-streets, Olympic investment has built a huge Westfield super-mall, stuffed with the outlets of multinational corporations, while just over the road lies the untouched 'dark side' of the area, destined it seems, to receive no benefit from the games. Or what about the Tories' idiotic 'hug a hoodie' slogan paired with their belief that the poor are violent welfare scroungers? "Oi look there’s a chav/That means council housed and violent/He’s got a hoodie on give him a hug/On second thoughts don’t you don’t wanna get mugged/Oh shit too late that was kinda dumb/Whose idea was that..? Stupid cunt". Pure acid. Pure catharsis.

Musically, as I've said, the song is great too. The urgent, claustrophobic string sample captures the mania of living in a state - physically and metaphorically - of entrapment, hopelessness, and frustration. Following this though, the chorus blasts out like a bomb with sub-bass warps and the awesome lines "Oi! I said oi! What you looking at, you little rich boy!?" - an unbelievably welcome charge following decades of neoliberal government encapsulated by John Prescott's ignorant statement that "We're all middle-class now." The song could of course be accused of simplifying issues, or of saying nothing new. It even makes a few factual mistakes (there is not really such thing as an 'illegal migrant', and the lines "There's a charge for congestion everybody's gotta pay/Do what Boris does...rob them blind," doesn't make sense since the congestion charge was instituted by Ken Livingstone, as Dorian Lynskey notes) but the sentiment is real - brutally real - and the fact that these points are being brought to people who have thus far felt failed by politicians is excellent. 

Drew is a very successful man. His previous album 'The Defamation of Strickland Banks' was number 1 in the UK charts and went 3x platinum here, and 2x platinum in Europe, but unlike many other artisits, he is not content with retiring to a life of leisure with his money; he is set on saying something important which has been long neglected by musicians and artists. As well as the single, Drew's wider 'iLL Manors' project will comprise of an album, a film, and activist work. Perhaps the album and the movie will be crap, but at least Plan B is trying to bring politics and protest back to music, and perhaps will inspire others to do the same. We need this.

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