Reasons to Be Cheerful (Just Three)

If 2006's musical slate seems bleak, just look to the occasionally goofy but still exhilarating extremes

Burial, #89 album
photo: Georgina Cook

Mastadon, Blood Mountain, #44
Boris, Pink, #76
Burial, #89
Wolf Eyes, Human Animal, #297

This year it felt like everyone I knew—people of widely divergent musical persuasions—were for once strangely united. We thought 2006 was a lousy year for music, with no new movements or developments, genres stagnant or at best just stolidly holding steady, the picture brightened (as always) only by isolated flickers of maverick genius. Running into one rock-crit friend (usually a poptimistic sort) and finding him even more bummed out than me, I blogged that here was conclusive proof that verily, all was shite. Only to find me and my buddy called out for our "pure laziness" by another journo-blogger, Phil Freeman, who contended that "barge-loads of fantastic music" were happening beneath the critical radar, most of it "METAL." As the end-of-year polls started coming through, it seemed that the only folk feeling positive about the State of Music were the über-hipsters, those nonlazy fiends who dedicate every waking hour to hunting down edition-of-200 hand-decorated cassettes and lathe-cut vinyl. Said fiends touted three reasons to be cheerful in 2006: noise, dubstep, and yes, metal.

What's striking about all these genres is that they're not just unpop, they're anti-pop. Rejecting the pop principles of accessibility and instantness, they're hard to find and hard to get into. Noise, dubstep, and extreme metal are also hard sounding, mixing varying degrees of aggression and abstraction, physical impact and structural convolution. Ideologically, they are ultra-rockist, cherishing a trinity of interlocking values—difficulty, danger, darkness—and fervently upholding the ideal of underground versus mainstream.

Pazz's electorate tilt more toward generalists than genre-rists, so this dark 'n' hard shift hasn't registered as seismically as it has elsewhere. But something is going on when "hipster metal" faves Mastodon enter the Top 50 out of nowhere, while the hugely acclaimed debut by dubstepper Burial makes it to 89 as an import. Beyond this poll, you can see the shift in everything, from the sales figures for doom-metal gods Boris (they've already sold twice as many of 2006's Pink as of 2005's Akuman No Uta, while their label, Southern Lord, enjoyed its best year yet) to the fact that Manhattan hipster temple Mondo Kim's now has a metal section, albeit cunningly rebranded as "aggressive." Noise remains some ways below the generalist critic's radar (Wolf Eyes' Human Animal just cracked the Pazz Top 300, despite being on Sub Pop), but the excitement around that scene continues to build.

One reason these underground scenes are gaining ground could be that they are all "reality-based communities." We live in cold, dark times, and these genres register that coldness and darkness—seldom in a directly politicized way, but more often through allegory or abstract sonic atmospheres. The most hipster-favored style of metal is doom, as purveyed by Boris, Electric Wizard, Om, and Sunn O))), a genre founded on the down-tuned riffs and depressive vibes of Black Sabbath, whose "War Pigs" has horribly renewed applicability today. Dubstep, crudely defined as a slowed-down descendant of drum'n'bass, is plastered all over the soundtrack to Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón's dystopian movie set in London 20 years in the future (but like all science fiction, a displaced version of contemporary anxieties). Strangely, noise—for all its harrowing din and album titles like Black Vomit—is the most cheery of the three undergrounds. Shedding its industrial past, it's no longer so much about a "truthful" depiction of reality (as unremitting horror) as pure sensory overload and Dionysian mayhem. This de-industrialized noise has started to overlap with metal, a shift captured by Wolf Eyes' self-description as "it's noise, but it's rock" and by the U.K. noise mag Rock-A-Rolla —a title surely more suited to a French fanzine for leather-pants-wearing Stooges fans.

Another anti-pop aspect to these netherworlds of hard 'n' dark is the sheer physicality of the sounds. All low-frequency drone and trudge-tempo sludge, doom metal is a sort of visceral mood music, midway between assault and ambience. Dubstep's sub-bass impacts your viscera (there's actually a subgenre nicknamed wobble-step after its tremolo basslines), and noise immerses the listener in a hideously voluptuous sound-bath. All three styles are heard at their utmost in live performance or (with dubstep) DJ'd through a mighty sound system. A good stereo cranked high in a lights-off living room (bong optional) makes for a poor second best. It's pretty pointless hearing this stuff through your computer speakers, let alone an iPod. Modern pop production is mixed to work with the thin-bodied sound of MP3s and is often seemingly composed to end up as ringtones; "placeshifting"—the portability and import-ability of music—is the dominant paradigm. But noise, dubstep, and metal all resist this notion of consumer empowerment that only serves to disempower Art.

Did I mention weed? Dubstep, with its links to reggae's sound-system culture, its ponderous "half-step" rhythms, and sheer bass-weight, is obviously a stoner scene, while doom metal signposts its pot penchant with titles like Electric Wizard's Dopethrone. Both genres use trance-inducing repetition and ascetic minimalism to create a meditational vibe often described by fans as spiritual. (It seems telling that one member of doom pioneers Sleep, the precursor group to Om, left to enter a monastery.) In true burnout style, nobody in these scenes bothers too much with appearance: The doom dudes tend to be bearded fuglies, the noiseniks often look like they crawled out of a sewer, and dubsteppers are mostly whey-faced British boys in nondescript street wear. Nobody even knows what Burial looks like (except his label, Hyperdub). These underground sound-boys and noise-girls reject modern pop's subordination to the visual, its iconographic culture oriented around photo shoots and videogenic charisma.

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