Reasons to Be Cheerful (Just Three)


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.

A few years ago hipsters of the sort now rocking Kode 9 and Corrupted enjoyed flirting with mainstream pop, putting a Justin Timberlake or Tweet album, a “Toxic” or a “Yeah,” in their Top 10s. But the palpable shift back to undergroundist values has been facilitated by the fact that overground pop is not coming up with the goods at the moment. Oh, you still get lone loonies claiming merit for Paris Hilton’s CD while conscientious generalists urge us to check out modern country, but overall there’s been a return to a default-mode rockism that prizes substance, complexity, edge. If TV on the Radio and Joanna Newsom represent the beguiling, easy-on-the-ear version of those values, those looking for a harder hit are turning to metal, dubstep, noise.

And there’s much to admire about those renegade genres: the seriousness, the earnest aspiration to innovate and overwhelm, the sheer strenuousness and commitment entailed in being a fan. Yet personally I’m ambivalent about all three. (Most of my 2006 faves have a pop tinge: Scritti, Hot Chip, Lady Sovereign.) Noise in particular seems suspect to me, its belief in absolute states of intensity often leading to a sort of aesthetic fascism. Occasionally its impulse to shock and offend leads to puerile flirtations with the political sort, too. To be fair, such dodgy provocations are rarer these days, with noise operators like Yellow Swans and Sunroof more often seeing what they do in terms of chaos worship and ecstatic abstraction. Still, even this equation of lack-of-structure with freedom seems slightly pat and old hat. Dubstep really ought to be right up my exiled-Londoner’s street, being the latest product of the city’s pirate radio culture. But too much of what I loved about its post-rave precursors has been subtracted: jungle’s frenzy, 2step’s slinky sensuality, the personality of grime.

And then there’s metal. There’s a tiny part of me that can’t help thinking that if hipsters are looking here for nourishment, things have gotten really desperate. Then I remember I actually have liked some metal myself. As a Sabbath lover and fan of the original doom crew Saint Vitus, it’s the slow-and-low end of the current spectrum that hits me: Om’s mystical and incantatory Conference of the Birds (like Saint Vitus meets Black Sun Ensemble maybe) and Boris—the latter especially when they don’t sound like yet another Japanese homage to Blue Cheer but go into ambient mode, as with much of Altar, their 2006 collaboration with Sunn O))). Other doom exponents tend to sound a bit like Saint Vitus screwed-and-chopped. Beyond the low-frequency quagmire, Pelican seem overly fussy, while Mastodon, consummate in their way, are hardly pushing the metal genre beyond itself.

As a post-punk kid who lived through the blithering idiocy of the new wave of British heavy metal (Iron Maiden, et al), it’s hard to shake one’s ingrained prejudices completely. Yet it’s also true that if the ideals of post-punk live anywhere today, it’s in metal. Just check out the world of “real metal,” which overlaps and subsumes “hipster metal,” but is much vaster and much dafter. The bands featured in magazines like Terrorizer and Decibel
are conceptualist and progression-oriented to nutty degrees, at times so serious they’re hard to take seriously. The premium set on formal innovation has resulted in sub-generic splintering that surpasses even the hair-splitting neologists and taxonomists of electronic dance culture: goregrind, tech-grind, prog-grind, sludge, drone, crust, brutal death metal (as opposed to technical death metal and melodic death metal), and power metal, and we haven’t even touched on the dozen flavors of doom (including funereal doom, stoner doom, gothic doom, and my favorite, retro doom). Extreme metal is a world where 42-minute tracks (often devolving into long stretches of ambient noise) are just standard business, where bands compose concept albums about the Black Death or embark on bizarre postmodern projects of meta-metal that entail cloning Carcass’s pioneering sound by studying the group’s riff structures with Talmudic intensity. All this fervent experimentalism and genre-splicing makes the overtly post-punk-aligned revivalists of the last several years look like the lightweights they truly are. Of them all, only Liars could qualify for a feature in Terrorizer.

Metal’s rise to the forefront of hipster consciousness seems symbolic. If all art aspires to the condition of music, then you might say that all art-music vanguards now aspire to the condition of metal. Recruiting a fresh crop of “soldiers of darkness” each year, metal represents a model of subcultural stamina over the long haul (while also holding the possibility of erupting into the mainstream every seven years or so). If noise and dubstep don’t envy metal’s infrastructural stability and the fanatical loyalty it commands, they should.