Earl Scruggs, the father of bluegrass-style 5-string banjo, passed away a few hours ago.
Mr. Scruggs single-handedly defined the rolling style of banjo playing usually heard in bluegrass music, and was most well-known among general audiences for his recordings of “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” and “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” both essential repertoire for all bluegrass musicians.
Metal is usually a marriage of musicianship and spectacle — powerful music, often masterfully performed, coupled with theatrical presentation. But the Norwegians have a tradition of blurring theatrics with reality. Black metal represents the darkest possible contingent within metal.
The black metal image is engineered to shock and provoke. Whereas death metal musicians wrote songs about corpses, black metal musicians strive to look like corpses. Some black groups routinely decorate their stages with pig and goat heads. In black metal, metal’s detached fascination with gore and tragedy crosses the fourth wall.
Musically, black metal is close to death metal in its use of blast beats and tremolo-picked riffs, but the singers screech rather than growl, and there is less variation in song forms. Black metal can easily sound like a wall of noise from start to finish; but some black groups temper their hyper-noisy arrangements with keyboards, and a sub-class of black metal called Viking metal hearkens to ancient Norse folk music.
Norway is a nation in religious turmoil. Although it is home to a higher percentage of atheists and agnostics than most other countries, it retains vestiges of a theocracy founded after the Reformation. The royal family is required to be Lutheran, and at least one half of the state government must belong to the state church. Some idealistic youth are offended by Christianity’s encroachment on indigenous pagan traditions. Many of these youth are integral to the black metal scene. Some have become notorious for engaging in a church-burning campaign. For them, black metal is protest music. To the rest of us, this is a bit too intense — a situation best left to run its course. Classic shock-rocker Alice Cooper, on the other hand, claims to see through the menacing exterior:
The closest thing to black metal in my collection is the album Demigod, by Behemoth. These are not strictly a black band, but cross the line between death and black, inspiring the highly specific tag “blackened death.” This sort of hair-splitting is quite common in modern parlance.
During the 1990′s, grunge replaced pop metal as the predominant hard rock style on the radio; but metal’s fan base remained as strong as ever, albeit back in the underground. Still, some groups popped into the collective conscious, as token ambassadors of metal. Among them were a small but significant contingent of post-thrash artists whose music bounced more than it thrashed, and encouraged head-bobbing over head-banging.
This was a decade of eclecticism. Hip-hop artists De La Soul and Arrested Development adopted elements of alternative pop. Beck infused folk with rap. Ex-Sugarcubes singer Björk migrated from avant-garde indie rock to an exotic blend of electronica and world music. Likewise, some of the most visible metal acts were incorporating rhythms drawn from non-metal sources. The Brazilian group Sepultura, for instance, expressed national pride by incorporating ideas from local indigenous music on their now-classic album, Roots. And one can often sense the influence of funk and hip-hop in the rhythms of a Texan band called Pantera, who would single-handedly define a genre:
The members of Pantera called their music “power groove,” which today is referred to simply as “groove.” Earlier, I compared thrash to hard bop, explaining that just as hard bop defines the modern jazz sound, thrash is the basis for most modern metal. We can carry the metaphor further: As the “funky jazz” of hard bop artists Kenny Dorham and Horace Silver is to jazz, groove is to metal. Groove expands on the classic thrash sound by making it more — dare I say “danceable?”
This is a small sub-genre; it’s difficult to find a lot of artists who fit the description. But it is as important to the metal timeline as any. Its influence can be heard in Slayer’s God Hates Us All, a groovy departure from an otherwise dyed-in-the-wool thrash band.
Pantera were a welcome counterbalance to their grungy contemporaries. Alice in Chains found their strength in songcraft; but with Pantera, the riff was still king. And this is some surprisingly aggressive stuff for having enjoyed airplay. Singer Phil Anselmo claimed that their intent in recording Far Beyond Driven was to produce the heaviest sounding album ever. With near-amelodic vocals and Dimebag Darrell’s ultra-crunchy guitar, Pantera delivered satisfaction to those listeners whose preferences lay on the heavier side, while paving the way for the next decade’s metalcore explosion.
If any group exists today whose music might be considered groove metal, it’s Lamb of God. Their vocal style is completely void of melody, and therefore akin to the death growl, but their riffs and rhythms do not resemble death in the slightest. This is the new face of groove:
“Alternative” was a buzzword during the 90′s, signifying pretty much anything that didn’t sound like dance-pop. But it was during the 80′s that so-called alternative music took root, in groups like the B-52′s and R.E.M. The eclectic sounds of rock’s fringe would inevitably contain traces of metal.
During the late 80′s and early 90′s, artists like Red Hot Chili Peppers, Fishbone, and Primus, who you might not consider metal, borrowed enough ideas from metal to generate significant crossover appeal.
Primus had especially close ties with metal. They originated in California, where bassist and founder Les Claypool and eventual Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett were schoolmates. When Metallica’s bassist Cliff Burton died, Claypool was briefly considered as a replacement, but, as James Hetfield put it, was rejected for being “too good.” Primus’s classic lineup would also include guitarist Larry LaLonde, who previously appeared on Possessed’s Seven Churches. In spite of their metal connections, Primus crafted a sound that remains entirely their own.
The opening bars of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” have been treated by entertainment journalists as the critical strike that felled Metal. Throughout the early 90′s, a new style of hard rock, dubbed “Grunge,” dominated the airwaves. Songsmanship took priority over virtuosity, explorations in texture over sheer heaviness. The trend was so hot that labels scrambled to sign any act that came out of Seattle, good or bad. Pop metal’s superficiality had grown tiresome, and more genuine forms of metal were once again pushed into the underground, with rare exceptions — Metallica, Ozzy, and Pantera, among others — maintaining a high degree of visibility.
In hindsight, I realize that grunge was not the “anti-metal” we once perceived it to be, but rather a more subtle expression of metal. Some groups began their careers in metal, but were only rebranded as grunge. Soundgarden unashamedly carried Black Sabbath’s torch. Alice in Chains, in singer Layne Staley’s words, “dressed in drag and played speed metal,” before growing into an immensely successful crossover act. And as far as I am concerned, Stone Temple Pilots’sCore is a straight-up metal album.
Here are Alice in Chains at their finest:
Punk and alternative weren’t the only styles into which metal artists crossed over. Throughout the 80′s and 90′s, there was also an ongoing flirtation with funk and soul. Extreme, Living Colour, King’s X, and Faith No More are often designated as “funk metal.” Living Colour were particularly convincing as both an R&B group and a metal group.
At times, Faith No More’s early material sounds like a thrash band pretending to know how to play other styles. But their sound matured with each release, until — a rarity in the music world — they peaked with their final album. The appropriately titled Album of the Year is a sure masterwork, thanks in part to tracks like this: