Recently I went out for a live metal triple-bill, with Endon and SUMAC opening for Boris, whom I’ve covered here before (with groovy pix). More pix today, with words on the history and meaning of metal, and how to photograph it.
Endon, the openers, are described as catastrophic noise metal and yeah, they were pretty catastrophic. A little too abstract for me, but sincere and really trying to bring it. Didn’t get any pix.
Here’s my problem: I wholeheartedly love this music, in particular live, and yet I have to acknowledge that it’s sort of, well, ridiculous. The volume is much louder than can be sanely necessary. The choreography is all moves invented around 1970 by Robert Plant or Jon Anderson or someone like that. The musical content is built monomaniacally around a single sound, that of an overdriven guitar amp.
SUMAC (on Bandcamp) are very traditional metallistas; the poses, the riffs, the look, the barked vocals.
Metal is harder to photograph than many other genres, because they like to keep the stage dark, and bathed in subdued reds and blues that stress out the poor sensor. Sometimes you get an incredibly dramatic color treatment, but often the best bet is just to switch to high-contrast B&W.
Analytics · Metal’s not just one thing, there are many linked strands in its fabric. Check out Heavy metal genres over at Wikipedia (part of WikiProject Metal). For more fun, consider the heavy-metal documentaries by Canadian sociologist Sam Dunn. I haven’t seen them all, but I can heartily recommend Metal — A Headbanger’s Journey, his first, which dives deep, deep, deep, on the subject and is also full of heavy guitar riffs. Best played loud.
Dunn points out that while you can argue all you want about the birth of metal, Black Sabbath usually gets the most votes. I’d go further: It helps that I’m old and was thus there at the time. It was in 1970; I was fifteen and we were visiting my cousin who was a couple years older and infinitely cooler. “Come listen to this record” he said, and put on Sabbath’s eponymous Black Sabbath. Go listen (not to the flavorless sample on the Wikipedia page, the real thing’s all over the Internet). It’s all there, and I mean all there in the first 1:08. Portentous thunderstorm noise, church bell, then four repetitions of a beautifully-heavy three-note riff. No vocals, no nothing, just that awesome guitar tone. I hadn’t imagined that such a sound could exist in this world and my life was never the same after.
There’s more to the song, some pretty good singing from Ozzy and of course the explicitly Satanic lyrics. But Heavy Metal is basically about taking those sixty-eight seconds and building a hundred subgenres and a rabid following around them. I don’t think the occult angle was initially necessary; but it was a clever move by Ozzy and Geezer, and got dragged along with that guitar sound in later years.
Enough history and sociology.
Boris · Like I said, the good pictures of Boris are here. On this outing, the lights were darker and the fake-fog flow almost continuous. This time around, they obviously and by design wanted to play behind a curtain of bright red/blue/violet smoke; which as an artistic choice, is nicely harmonious with their music, which itself is nicely harmonious albeit crushingly loud.
Pro tip: When the last opener quits playing, you can almost always snag a great photographers’ spot up near the front of the stage. And then, after the first few songs, it’s polite to turn it over to a fellow fan. On this occasion I was dead center and had the rare experience of live metal in stereo, with Wata’s amps to my left and Atsuo’s to my right. Cool!
Yes, Wata picked up an accordion for a couple tunes. The general sound is remarkably like her guitar, but doesn’t allow for her rare-but-wonderful excursions up the neck into screaming-treble territory.
Damn, I love their music. Wata’s guitar tone is up there with the greats, and the beauty of their crushing melodious drone is not equalled by anyone except maybe Sunn O))); and it’s worth mentioning that the Boris/Sunn O))) collaboration Altar is a very beautiful piece of music.
Why it’s OK to love Metal · I mean, I’m old and completely out of fucks to give about what others think of my tastes. But still…
First of all, Metal is serious music. Given the size of the crowds at this point in the 21st century (small), it’s no road to riches. And the players are completely oblivious to issues of packaging and pandering. And if you actually listen closely past the surface of the roar, the music is constructed with care, and then obviously the result of endless practice and dedication to the craft. It may lack a backbeat and a catchy chorus, but there’s beauty aplenty in there.
I’ve quoted Sasha Frere-Jones, erstwhile New Yorker rock critic, before on this subject, but he said two things that are worth repeating. First, “Get past the novelty, though, and you find a level of passion and an attention to detail that make a number of mere rock bands look lazy.” And “You may eventually find a TV that is sufficiently large that it makes going to a movie theatre pointless, but you are never going to replicate anything like a black-metal show at home, no matter how fancy your stereo is.”.
Metal people · There are very few gatherings in the world at which I feel totally at home. Examples are O’Reilly’s OSCON and an Amazon principal-engineers’ gathering. But a metal concert is another. Here’s the cute end of metal style.
When I was young, I aspired to hair like that, but mine was always too thin and stringy, and now I don’t have much. But the crowd included grizzled hardasses with facial tattoos, a couple of subgroups of Japanese extreme-music culture that I don’t begin to understand, and then a lot of ordinary people off the street who just share the love of this extreme, crazy, deadly-serious art form.
It’s OK to crowd up to the front and stand there like a post. It’s OK to head-bang when the beat picks up. It’s OK to sit motionless in the back row, eyes closed. It’s a perfectly fine thing, in 2017, to be a greybearded metal-head.