12 July 2011

Simon Reynolds's Retromania & ... Extreme Metal!?

Well thanks to the recent Napalm Death gig I have been picking out many of my Metal CDs to spin: besides the Napalm Death albums which span across their long career from late 1980s till today, I am re-digging many early Grindcore and Death Metal albums from mainly the Earache Records, namely Carcass, Morbid Angel, Brutal Truth, Terrorizer and sludge garage metal act, Fudge Tunnel (their 1991 opus, Hate Songs In E Minor, is still an underrated classic in both the Metal and avant rock pantheon).

Then one thing leading to the others, I started digging out the more experimental titles from my collection like Cobalt and their 2 outstanding albums, Eater of Birds and Gin, Akercocke, Celtic Frost recent masterpiece, Monotheist and more importantly, the albums from French Black Metal bands like Blut Aus Nord, Deathspell Omega and Antaeus. In more than one instance I have read about Metal undergoing its "modernist" phase" in recent years, which witnesses an explosion of not just new sub-genres within the already established ones but also the quest for experimentalism or simply doing things differently in the previously fixed templates of the various sub-genres of Metal. This is of course countered by many others of the growing horde of "hipster" metal bands and fans who jump into the bandwagon not for the "trueness" of Metal but more as a result of Metal's recent hipness in the alternative and avantgarde circles on the Internet and the music press. All these happened within the span of a decade, i.e. the first decade of the 21st century, which make me draw this to a book which I have just finished reading - Simon Reynolds' s Retromania.

Reynolds's book deals with many interesting and relevant issues which have been plaguing the musical press for the past few years - the non-progress of musical innovation and the dearth of exciting musical genres while throwing back to embrace all things retro and past to the point of fetishistic and then some. Frankly speaking my personal stand is a half way house of his and those who disagree with him (many considered him penning a mid-life crisis book or jaded or... you get the drift). In the realm of most pop and rock music, with the onslaught of reunions, retrospectives, archival releases and reissues, etc, things do look pretty tired and misty-eyed. However it depends on one's point of view about innovation and being "new": the argument inevitably goes back to the issue of "is there anything new under the sun". Yes and no, at least to me. Being human is a unique set of paradigm, regardless of the advancement of science and technology. The innovation that we often speak of has a lot to do with our sensual input, cognitive reception and processing as well as our expanse/limit to make sense of our creations, our environment and our existence. We cannot break away from certain basic things like listening to sound waves which are beyond our audial capability and thus the point I am trying to make is, yes, to us humans, there are certain limitations to how much we can soar forward and break-on through to the other side, bio-physiologically.

However given these constraints, we can still quite a bit of things: we always crave for novelty and some of us genuinely hope that some of these novelties will turn into trends, ideas and products which have deeper meanings and longer lasting impact which will contribute to the (modernist) notion of the surge forward. So to say that the psychedelic late 60s and the rave late 1980s/1990s produced sounds which were unheard of in the first place is a bit stretching it. The 60s psych sounds have their roots/borrowing from Indian modal music, free jazz, country, folk, rock n' roll, musique concrete and etc while the electronic music revolution of the late 1980s would not have come about if not for precedents in Krautrock, hip-hop, synth-pop, disco and etc.

Basically I am arguing for the case that whether there is still a future for music is that yes; but we cannot expect total newness as, to me, it does not really exist in the first place, and secondly, there are still new exciting sounds out there now. This might sound a bit biased but the modernist phase of extreme metal this past decade has been a very fruitful one with Sunn0))) pushing the envelope of doom and drone metal; with French Black Metal throwing their hands up to embrace transcendentalism and cosmic mysticism and many others. Int he field of Noise, I have always want to trace a possible historical narrative through its myriad influences and input and today we still see interesting variants via Noise Wall and Aktionist noise replacing Japanese Noise and Power Electronics-infused sounds of the early to mid 2000s. The fact that one may draw Tony Conrad's Four Violins with Vomir is a case of picking up from a point in history which noone or few had picked up from and today, doing something exciting about.

At the end of the day, to paraphrase from Simon Reynolds at the end of his book, I too see a future.

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