Heavy metal is a temple erected in worship of riffs, which are repetitive melodic or rhythmic figures played on guitar. The greatest bands wield them like mystic incantations: songs like Metallica’s “Orion” and Dark Angel’s “Black Prophecies” have such deep, complex, and interesting guitar work that I hope they’ll never end when I listen to them. But it’s possible to overemphasize the riff, and some fans have an almost fascistic relationship with the guitar’s fretboard, with the “trueness” of metal subgenres increasing linearly with how many riffs they have. Dark Angel’s final album famously came with a sticker advertising 246 riffs, like an ad for a cable TV package, and some “cult” bands (Vio-Lence comes to mind) are like laboratory exercises in having riffs and nothing else, with vocals, songwriting, production, and so on being left deliberately casual.
But the riff religion has lukewarm worshippers as well as zealots and fanatics. It also has exploiters (I don’t mean that in a bad sense), and flower metal/melodic power metal bands like Sonata Artica are among them. They’re nominally heavy metal, but they simply don’t care about riffs at all, and metal ideals of “trueness” mean nothing to them. I guess you can’t have a temple – musical or literal – without attracting merchants and moneylenders.
Flower metal first emerged in the early 1990s. Right from the start it didn’t fit in – it was centered around a couple of trailblazing bands (most famously Finland’s Stratovarius and Italy’s Rhapsody) rather than a “scene” as such, and took inspiration more from Yngwie Malmsteen, Ritchie Blackmore, and Johann Sebastian Bach than from Black Sabbath. It achieved a degree of commercial popularity (flower metal is extremely catchy, almost comically so) but it was never respectable, either inside or outside the metal genre. After all, it had no riffs.
Sonata Arctica’s Ecliptica is an album I would have mocked 10 years ago, called “Disney metal”, or whatever. Now, I can appreciate what it’s doing. It’s not perfect, but it’s exemplary. If someone’s not sure what melodic power metal sounds like, show them this. It’s very intense, very catchy, not particularly heavy, and is unembarrassed and exuberant about what it is: a wintry storm of consonance and melody.
Fast songs like “Blank File”, “The 8th Commandment”, and “Picturing the Past” are like being in the path of a VTOL jet’s booster engines – they’re just a nonstop blur of notes, propelled by Tommy Portimo’s 16th note double bass drumming (this had already become a flower metal cliche). “Blank File” is probably the best; Tony Kakko would later regret pitching the key that high: he had tremendous trouble hitting those notes live.
“Kingdom for a Heart” and “My Land” are catchy uptempo rockers, anchored by Tony Kakko’s emotional (sometimes histrionic) vocals and loud/soft dynamics. “My Land” has a great moment where a staccato guitar riff cleaves through in the verse, proving that although Sonata Arctica were heresiarchs, they weren’t above occasionally genuflecting to the riff god. Deeper in the album we get “Full Moon”, which has a degree of lyrical storytelling about lycanthropy. This would cement the wolf as Sonata Arctica’s mascot, as much as the pumpkin is Helloween’s and the dragon is Rhapsody’s.
There’s a couple of ballads, which are overripe and hard to listen to. The band was still learning. They barely had any business playing heavy metal to begin with – their earliest demos (under the name Tricky Beans) reveal a kind of new wave sounding pop band. But their singer, Tony Kakko, discovered Stratovarius, and became briefly obsessed: Ecliptica is a forty seven minute Stratovarius tribute album that actually upstages the band he’s paying tribute to. Stratovarius is fast and virtuostic, but stiff and dead. I like some of their songs, but a lot of it just comes off as slabs of glittering plastic. Sonata Arctica has more life and color.
The album tapers off a little at the end, with “Unopened” and “Mary Lou” sounding like rearrangements of “Kingdom for a Heart”, and “Destruction Preventer” doesn’t have the songwriting to carry it to seven plus minutes. It’s as awkward and unengaging as its title. Nice scream, though.
At least 75% of the album is good to great, which – then and now – is an amazing batting average for melodic power metal. It’s an exhausting style to listen to, and an equally exhausting one to play. Many power metal bands eventually burn out or change styles: Edguy became a glam metal band, Nightwish pushed increasingly into film score and folk music, and Helloween became a dollar-store version of the Beatles for a couple of years. But Sonata Arctica changed styles further (and worse) than most, delving into prog rock, glam, ambient, and even quasi metalcore at points. I don’t like them at all now, and for me Ecliptica is one of the saddest things in music: an early peak.
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Imagine waking up, and you’re not alone. There’s a thing with you, very close. You can’t see it or touch it. It’s in your head.
With dawning horror, you become conscious of the pulsating wormlike mass twisted right through the center of your brain. It’s infesting you like a cordyceps parasiting a spider – running man-in-the-middle attacks on all your senses and limbic network. It’s intimately a part of you. You sense intelligence, and malevolence, and tension, as though its a coiled spring, ready to discharge kinetic energy.
What are you? You ask the presence, although there is no answer. Just snuffling breath, hot and excited.
You go about your day with this alien thing inside you, itching like a tangled pile of wet hair. At the day’s end, the mass seems heavier, denser, more substantial. You are incubating it. You’re a shell. It’s larvae.
The parasite doesn’t affect your behavior, but you are nevertheless worried. What does it want? Why won’t it talk? It’s just there: staring at the world through your eyes, as if seeking some sign, some augury. It knows its time will soon come.
* * *
In 1969, German artist Sigmar Polke (13 February 1941 – 10 June 2010) produced a painting titled Higher beings commanded: paint the top right corner black!
The impact of black on white is cataclysmic. The light and dark collide with ringing force. While the piece applies some schoolbook ideas about art (notably the rule of thirds), it appears unsettled and unbalanced, with the black and black basically at war. The white could be an icecube, losing itself to heat and chaos (I’m reminded of how icecubes always melt at a slant, even on a flat surface) Or maybe it’s the reverse: the black is a body of water freezing solid, losing ground to ice, becoming imprisoned in covalent bonds.
The text underneath reads like an excuse. I’m not responsible for this disaster. I was just following orders. This is the infamous Nuremberg defense, so-called because it’s what the Nazi death camp guards said at their trials.
Sigmar Polke was an interesting and diverse artist, who worked in and incorporated stylistic influence from many schools and traditions. He painted with arsenic, meteor dust, smoke, uranium rays, lavender, cinnabar and a purple pigment from the mucous excreted by snails. Higher beings commanded: paint the top right corner black! is actually part of a sequence of similar paintings, including geometric shapes, birds, and more. Many of them are striking works. All were commanded into existence by mysterious “higher beings”, and all share the same exculpatory denial: It is not me.
What were these higher beings?
That’s the thing: there weren’t any. Artists often describe their creative impulses as something external – a muse, or an inspiration – and sometimes they almost attribute conscious agency to these things. They’re like possessing demons.
But in reality, everything an artist does comes from the artist (minus aleatory methods like those of the Oulipo school, or the Oblique Strategies, use of which is itself a choice). There aren’t any outside forces controlling: or, if they are, they interact with your brain in a way that’s distinctly personal to you.
JK Rowling claims that the character of Harry Potter just fell into her head. It may have felt that way to her, but it’s not true. Harry Potter didn’t fall from anywhere. He was invented by JK Rowling. If she hadn’t existed, Harry Potter wouldn’t have fallen into another woman’s head. He would have never existed at all. She is his mother.
Sometimes, this comes off as a way of ducking responsibility. If the artwork is successful, the artist takes full credit. If not…well, the muse wasn’t speaking that day.
Non-artists play this game, too. The 20th century Indian mathematical prodigy Srinivasa Ramanujan was given to crediting his insights to dreams and visions.
The mathematical genius made substantial contributions to analytical theory of numbers, elliptical functions, continued fractions, and infinite series, and proved more than 3,000 mathematical theorems in his lifetime. Ramanujan stated that the insight for his work came to him in his dreams on many occasions.
Ramanujan said that, throughout his life, he repeatedly dreamed of a Hindu goddess known as Namakkal. She presented him with complex mathematical formulas over and over, which he could then test and verify upon waking. Once such example was the infinite series for Pi:
Describing one of his many insightful math dreams, Ramanujan said:
“While asleep I had an unusual experience. There was a red screen formed by flowing blood as it were. I was observing it. Suddenly a hand began to write on the screen. I became all attention. That hand wrote a number of results in elliptic integrals. They stuck to my mind. As soon as I woke up, I committed them to writing…”
– The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan, 1991, Robert Kanigel, Charles Scribner’s Sons
These were valid results, and I don’t disbelieve Ramanujan. He probably did dream (and intuit) some mathematical things…But suppose they’d proven to be bunk? His defense writes itself. “What do you expect, from a dream?”
Polke is either referencing or mocking the artistic conceit that ideas exist outside artists. Again, this is only true in a weak sense (both Imre Kertész and Elie Wiesel were influenced by the “idea” of the Holocaust, which was external to them), and not in the sense that people aren’t pure, agnostic transmission devices for ideas and impulses.
There are no higher beings who want you to paint the corner black. If you paint the corner black, it’s because you wanted it to be black. Not a demon. Not someone else.
* * *
It finally happens one day.
A shadow crosses the sun. Your tongue is suddenly dry, sticks inside your mouth. The skin papering your body feels alien and wrong, like it doesn’t belong on you. Like it’s too large or too tight or too moist or too dry. The world has stopped moving – you almost hear the thunk of vast gears – and then it starts again. Everything is different.
There is a child on the footpath ahead of you. Shaven head. White judogi uniform. Could be eight or ten. He’s waiting for a bus to take him to class or waiting for a bus to take him home from class but he’ll never wait again. A feeling of power overtakes you, and you grasp a handful of his hair and pull him toward you.
He loses his feet, and you wrap your other arm around him. His thrashing limbs are bony, insectlike, fragile twigs burning in a fire. He does not escape your grasp.
You don’t relax your hold on his head when you drive him face-first into the wall. It happens over and over. Flesh against brick. The thuds became crunches as things start to break inside his face. Teeth at first, then the structure underpinning his face. The human skull has fourteen bones. You pull him back by his hair, and slam him forward. Smash. Fourteen bones. Smash. Fourteen. You imagine them floating freely in his head now, like disassembled puzzle pieces in a blood-filled bag.
You let the child fall away from the wall. There’s a red starburst on the wall where his face was obliterated to ruin. The body lands mercifully face-down, rivers of red sewing stitches through his judogi uniform. His limbs are jittering. Then they don’t.
You stand there, panting, not understanding. The murderous impulse has passed. Your hands no longer conduct vast power. They conduct tremulous shakes and shudders.
The thing in your head is still there, but it’s no longer wound tight with tension. It has discharged its purpose, done what it was meant to do.
You are arrested, tried, and convicted. You tell them about the parasite in your brain, and how it temporarily controlled your actions. This defense goes poorly.
Now you will have a long time to reflect and think. Cast a searchlight inward through your emotional landscape. There is confusion. Shame. Guilt. But at least you know you weren’t to blame. The thing inside your head did it.
But then it does something it has never done before: speak.
“I did nothing, and am nothing. You have imagined me.”
“The impulse to kill was always with you, and you sublimated it. But now you have something better. An excuse. A reason not to feel the way you feel. But make no mistake, I am and was always a part of you.”
No. You are possessed.”
“Possessed by what? Yourself. Only yourself.”
And then it goes away, leaving a near silence like the rustling of leaves.
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The Castle of Otranto was meant as a love letter to the past; instead, it inspired the future.
The book’s setting – an ancient castle full of sinister deeds, depraved nobles, and mysterious happenings – proved astonishingly popular, inspiring the Gothic literary movement and all its works. Books as diverse as Frankenstein, Titus Groan, The Turn of the Screw, Dracula, Northanger Abbey, A Rebours, Interview with the Vampire, the House of Leaves, and Harry Potter all bear the mark of Otranto, and its haunted visions of stone and stain-glass.
Its historical setting is loose: despite his interest in the period, Walpole knew little about the High Middle Ages. He guessed at (or invented) a lot of stuff, and Otranto has as many anachronisms as its castle has ghosts. His characters duel with fencing sabres, which wouldn’t be invented for hundreds of years. The confrontation between Manfred and Theodore is interrupted by the arrival of the “Marquis of Vicenza“, but the title of marquis/marquess/marchese was not used in Italy until the 14th century.
In one sense, Walpole lived closer to the Middle Ages than we do. In another sense, he lived further away. Modern medievalists have access to thousands of primary sources, scanned and translated and annotated, but 18th century Walpole was limited to whatever books he had in his personal library (or that of Cambridge University, where he studied). Technology acts as a high-powered telescope back to the past; a telescope Walpole lacked. He himself was given to complain at the poor tools antiquarians of the time had. “…the original evidence is wondrous slender.”
But if Otranto never echoes the Middle Ages very strongly, this became a Gothic hallmark, too. The genre has a grand, dislocated effect – part history, part myth, part fairytale, part nightmare – that seems to float outside history, never settling on one period of time. It’s as frenzied and hot as an opium dream, as cold and marmoreal as a gargoyle statue. 20th century authors like MR James, Shirley Jackson, and so on were not above turning out minimally-updated variants of the Otranto formula: terse and fraught tales of things that go bump in the night.
The story: despotic tyrant Manfred loses his son in a tragic and absurd accident, on the day the boy was to marry the princess of a neighboring kingdom. He attempts to marry the girl himself, and consummate their nuptials on the spot (perhaps he was motivated by more than desire to preserve his bloodline), but she escapes, leading him on a chase through the vaults of Castle Otranto. He sees things that are not real, hears creaking sounds when nobody’s around. Hanging over this is an ancient prophecy; “”that the castle and lordship of Otranto should pass from the present family, whenever the real owner should be grown too large to inhabit it””. Manfred is doomed. The past – represented by the ancient Otranto castle – is reaching towards him, to take him everything he has.
This is a popular and perhaps central Gothic idea: that all houses, even ancient and grand ones, eventually die. Throw a ball in the air, and it will fall. Throw a cathedral spire into the air, and it will fall. Even if it’s anchored atop a mighty sky-spanning construct of arches, gables, tympanums, archivolts, balustrades, and buttresses, even if it’s sanctified by prayers and blood and bones of saints, it will still fall. That’s the way of things: they come crashing down. Gravity is inescapable, and the only certainty is dust.
Walpole is modern in his outlook. He plays metafictional games, framing the book as a “lost work” that he is the translator of (needless to say, several of his contemporaries thought this was true). Amusingly, he takes time to throw brickbats at his own work.
“It is natural for a translator to be prejudiced in favour of his adopted work. More impartial readers may not be so much struck with the beauties of this piece as I was. Yet I am not blind to my author’s defects. I could wish he had grounded his plan on a more useful moral than this: that “the sins of fathers are visited on their children to the third and fourth generation.” I doubt whether, in his time, any more than at present, ambition curbed its appetite of dominion from the dread of so remote a punishment. And yet this moral is weakened by that less direct insinuation, that even such anathema may be diverted by devotion to St. Nicholas. Here the interest of the Monk plainly gets the better of the judgment of the author. However, with all its faults, I have no doubt but the English reader will be pleased with a sight of this performance.”
The story is funny – when and why did Gothic horror decide to be grim and humorless? The scenes where Manfred upbraids his slow-witted castle guards are almost out of Blackadder, and elsewhere Walpole is nearly as pithy and quotable as Oscar Wilde. “A bystander often sees more of the game than those that play”. Again, he appears to be taking the piss out of himself. The “translator” notes that the story contains “no bombast, no similes, flowers, digressions, or unnecessary descriptions.” This is the same story that has hilarious Romantic camp like “The gentle maid, whose hapless tale / these melancholy pages speak; / say, gracious lady, shall she fail / To draw the tear a down from thy cheek?”
Most literary fads are associated with eras, intellectuals, social movements, and locations. Gothicism is somewhat unique in that’s associated with architecture. Although Gothic books can be set anywhere (the memorable Vathek by William Beckford has a middle-eastern locale), the genre’s most at home in huge, ornate, castles.
Why castles? Firstly, they’re creepy. Second, they’re useful for a writerly logistics. A castle can plausibly contain secret passages, hidden vaults, deathtraps, dungeons, and other things useful to the plot. Thirdly, they’re isolated. That’s the important thing: the sense that there’s no escape. Castles are built with high walls to resist attack, but those walls can also seem like prisons. The BBC comedy Fawlty Towers derived much of its humor from the gathering tension of these people stuck inside a hotel. It’s a pressure cooker that you know is going to explode. Likewise, the best gothic novels induce a feeling of suffocating tension. And it’s all because of of the castles. It’s like you’re falling into a pit while wearing a stiff suit of armor, unable to move or see or breathe.
It’s pointless asking you to read Otranto. It’s one of those books that’s inescapable. It looms across the literary horizon like the titular castle: figuratively and literally monolithic. You’ve already read most of it in the form of its countless spiritual descendants.
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