Left: Comets on Fire at the Arthurfest,
Los Angeles, 2005.
Bassoons, flamenco, monks’ cowls…
welcome to the new rock underground
Julian Cope explains why heavy metal, so often maligned, is at the heart of today’s rock avant-garde
Friday August 18, 2006
IN APRIL THIS YEAR, after my half-hour stint as a guest vocalist for the US doom metal band SunnO))), I left the stage at Brussels’ Domino festival and removed my burka. Backstage, I remarked to the band’s biographer, Seldon Hunt, how open-minded heavy metallers had become: they were accepting, as festival headliners, a band without a drummer, a bass player or guitars, and with every bearded, long-haired musician among them clad in the habit of a Christian monk. Percipiently, Seldon commented that because the support acts had contained all of those ingredients (except the habits), SunnO))) considered it their duty to reject every metal cliche, replacing each of the archetypal rock instruments with Moog synthesizers, downtuned enough to bring the plaster off the theatre’s ceiling.
SunnO))) are taking metal to places you never imagined. Their music inhabits the territory that once was the preserve of meditative, ambient and experimental music alone. And they are doing it through the most critically reviled music of all. More remarkably, they are not alone. Across the world, underground scenes are using the shell of heavy metal—the volume, the grinding riffs, the imagery, the nomenclature—to test rock’n’roll perceptions and explore boundaries, all the while shamelessly subsuming other vastly different musical styles into their own work.
In a worldwide underground music scene that encompasses artists playing improvisatory music, folk, psychedelic and free jazz, metal is the common thread. You don’t hear much about this music in the mainstream press, especially in Britain, where the kingmakers of the music press have inadvertently created generations of musical whores, all doing their utmost to produce what they think the NME will want, rather than the music they want to make. But why is metal the link? Because the avant-garde musicians in the vanguard of today’s experimental underground scene grew up on it. They spent their late childhoods/early teens playing noisy computer games, watching 24-hour news of the first Gulf war and listening to grunge and metal. As they are mostly in their late 20s and early 30s, their strongest cultural landmarks are the suicide of Kurt Cobain in 1994, and, before it, the overwhelmingly loud sludge of Slayer, Megadeth and Metallica. Therefore the “inner soundtracks” of the new avant gardists are informed by grinding metal bands, just as the sound of the Velvet Underground’s Sister Ray informed that of my own punk generation. Older readers who equate the term heavy metal with the brash, stupefying 1980s anthems of Def Leppard and Bon Jovi will do well to remember that these bands are long out of the equation, having been at their height over 20 years ago.
Let’s go furthest away from metal first in our tour of the new underground, to acoustic music. In northern Portugal, the Galician separatists Sangre Cavallum accompany their often improvised songs of national identity with traditional instruments such as bagpipes, lyres, Iberian flutes and chanters, each song sung with an aching and a longing more reminiscent of Sardinia’s traditional Tenores music than anything current. We move closer to metal’s metaphor with the drum and hunting horn-led Saxon acoustic folk of Waldteufel, which conjures up an ancient atmosphere of Woden’s wild hunt careering through a dark-age forest. But the hand of metal is clear by the time we get to Wolfmangler, from Germany. Their album art may look like every other Germanic death metal trudge-o-thon, but the music of their latest record, Dwelling in a Dead Raven for the Glory of Crucified Wolves, features a six-piece line-up replete with trombonist, bassoonist, flautist and two bass players.
As slow and brooding as compost with a grudge, Wolfmangler are the bridge between pure ritual and “death folk”, a hybrid music whose best representatives are probably Austria’s Cadaverous Condition. This band began as a black metal act way back when, but have, in recent times, brought forth a delightful acoustic side that no one could have been prepared for. Indeed, the only surviving black metal element in Cadaverous Condition’s current performances is the Cookie Monster vocals of singer Wolfgang, whose delivery is performed with such a straight edge that it demands we take him entirely seriously. Once past the initial smirk of discomfort, we find ourselves a party to the hopes, fears and shattered dreams of a loathsome troll destined to live out his days under a haunted bridge awaiting the occasional victim, and singing to himself of how he dreads their piteous cries as he gnaws at their bones.
But the clear leaders on the acoustic side are an American band, Ben Chasny’s ensemble Six Organs of Admittance, who record incredibly dark gnostic meditations. Propelled by Chasny’s masterful acoustic guitar, the tumultuous clamour of Six Organs of Admittance inhabits a heathen netherworld reminiscent of the Lucifer Rising soundtrack recorded by Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, their 20-minute mantras never once falling into the cod-raga of so much so-called 1960s-informed folk music.
America’s underground leads this immense musical experiment. Its gargantuan land mass and the localised nature of its media ensure that no musician can rise beyond their local throng without having first paid their dues. And it is American bands of the past—not necessarily underground bands—that inspire many of the underground artists elsewhere. In Spain, for example, Viaje A800 take inspiration from America’s biggest live act of the early 1970s, Grand Funk Railroad, as well as the proto-metal group Blue Cheer, to play a brooding, soul-based slow metal. They bring their own origins to bear by having the singer always employ his own, unique Spanish style (and taking an age in the process). Another band, the trio Orthodox, take the Spanish angle on metal even further. They have recontextualised the doom metal sound associated with the Nordic nations, and the methods of SunnO))), by dressing in the Ku Klux Klan-like cowls of the Easter parade in their home city of Seville (complete with ropes around their necks). They perform extremely long, arduous pieces accompanied by a female flamenco dancer, and separate themselves from the Wodenist, pagan traditions of the Nordic bands by appearing in press shots hailing brightly enamelled statues of the Virgin and child.
Second after America, probably, comes Japan, whose underground has inspired America’s own. (The Yoshimi of the Flaming Lips’ album Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots is a former member of the Boredoms, and now has a group called OOIOO). Here, too, metal is at the heart of things. The prolific Acid Mothers Temple commune/band rose from the ashes of proto-metal bands such as Mainliner and High Rise. Their international success has, in turn, inspired Japan’s psychedelic ritual cult act Death Comes Along, whose free-fuzz sonic avalanches take such titles as Psychedelic Inferno, Children of the Death and Death Death Death. Led by the mysterious Crow, Death Comes Along have also modelled themselves on earlier, more politically motivated 1960s commune bands, such as Berlin’s Amon Düül—who shared living space with the Baader-Meinhof gang—and the communist agitators Les Rallizes Denudes, whose own career was forced underground after their bass player hijacked a JAL airliner and took it to North Korea in March 1970.
Politics informs much of this underground music, especially that made by musicians working in repressive social conditions. My travels through southern Armenia in 2003 put me in touch with Iran’s progressive trio Kahtmayan, whose violent marriage of krautrock, the French Zeuhl music of Magma, and early Metallica contains samples of US pilots’ radio communiqués as they prepared to attack northern Iraq. Recent pictures of these guys show them making signs of the horned god, and images of Tehran’s business centres sprayed with Kahtmayan’s own heavy metal graffiti—which all inclines me to believe the rumour that one member was recently murdered by Iran’s secret police. But I digress…
The journey from acoustic to electric brings us back to Ben Chasny, who is not just the leader of Six Organs of Admittance. He’s also the guitar player in the Santa Cruz psychedelic band Comets on Fire. Even without a real songwriter among the lot of them, Comets remain the rising stars of the underground scene—they are signed to a big independent label, Sub Pop, and even manage to get reviewed in papers like this one. They are the real thing, for shit damn sure. Commencing their career as a radical mix of Creedence Clearwater Revival, 13th Floor Elevators and Slade, they just got better. You didn’t know what they were singing about—which was possibly nothing, but what an electrifying nothing. This euphoric noise got the band signed to Sub Pop, where someone told the band’s yawping, howling singer Ethan Miller that he had to write some songs. He couldn’t, but maybe he thought he could. Mercifully for us, and luckily for Comets on Fire’s career, Ethan spewed out these efforts as a side project entitled Howlin’ Rain.
Which brings us to the brand new Comets album, Avatar. In Comets terms, it’s been an age coming, but compared to your average English rock underachiever, it’s way ahead of schedule. The production sucks, but then so does mine. Ethan’s not singing enough, but then he never did. Avatar‘s only great crime is the “everything playing at once” lack of dynamics that Jim Morrison always accused Jefferson Airplane of having. Once their flavour-of-the-month status has passed, however, Comets on Fire’s continuity will return and we can look forward to 30 years of classic barbarian space travel barfed out every nine months. Lovely.
The underground is in better shape than it’s been for years—and greedy for the prizes. Today’s underground collective chant would probably go something like: “Where are we going?” “Everywhere!” “When are we going?” “Now!”
Avatar by Comets on Fire is out now on Sub Pop. You can read Julian Cope’s writings about the rock underground at www.headheritage.com