Monday, July 19, 2010

BROMANTIC INTERLUDE #14: The Return of The Revenge of The Son of HELM

You guys know Helm already. And you know of his propensity to discuss pet subjects... AT LENGTH. I will keep my introduction brief, as you will need all your energy to fully digest what you are about to read. The subject is the oft-requested subgenre of Technothrash. Most images (besides custom compilation cover art) are my addition. All text is his. Get comfortable.

- Cobras

Hi, this is Helm again. We talked about Greek black metal and about progressive metal and now we're going to have a go at Technothrash. Techno-thrash. Technical thrash. Flash thrash. Progressive Thrash.

God, you know what this is about, right? You can picture it in your head right now. It has a marble gray cover and the bass is missing in the mix, angry but vague socio-political lyrics, choppy songs with too many interchangeable parts, on the back the band members have their sternest faces on, and yet... there's a humanity there, underneath the guitar clinics and all the rusted machinery ticks a skipping heart.

Metallica's "...And Justice For All" characterizes a brief sideways movement of thrash metal but it's not its spearhead, that is to say, it's a reaction to it than its instigator. If you're interested in 'what could have happened' if thrash had taken a turn towards the technical like in "...And Justice for All" instead of mutating into death metal, then I have good news for you. This happened, only not very many people noticed. Some interpretation of history follows.

The term 'techno-thrash' belongs to Austin Texas quartet, Watchtower

"complex, abstract techno-thrash!"

And I sincerely doubt they ever meant it to become a metal sub-genre in its own right. Keep in mind that in the second part of the '80s, Heavy Metal bands were trying to carve out their own individual niche that secured them some marketing visibility. A lot of what we now consider prescriptive labels like speed metal, power metal, black metal and indeed technothrash were once merely descriptive brands for the individual artists that devised them.

When it comes to black metal or power metal, so so many bands came after - Venom and Helloween respectively - that it's warranted to talk about these genre identifiers without deferring back to the source all the time (which makes Venom's consistent claim that "we are black metal and nobody else is!" all the more the frivolous) but given how few the standout technothrash bands were, it usually all comes back to Watchtower. Well... almost, as we'll see below.

Also a note on "Why technothrash?". Why not use 'progressive thrash' or 'technical thrash' when discussing this in 2010? After all 'technothrash' has a confusing connotation that it might be Detroit techno mixed with Megadeth or something (although that sounds awesome for a few seconds). And as I myself say above, the term was a fabrication by one band that didn't largely catch on to become a subgenre staple. My reasoning is two-fold. First, there's lack of a better choice. Technical thrash means nothing to me because thrash was already technical music, all of metal is largely technical music as compared with rock and roll. Progressive thrash is unhistorical because progressive metal happened after technothrash and as such it's revisionist to apply a tag that was woefully overplayed in the 90's (we had progressive death metal, progressive power metal, progressive black metal, progressive my ass) to something that happened under a different set of circumstances years before. The only reason to do that is to serve some rock journalism warped sense of continuity in naming, as if we're indebted to record stores and have in mind their plastic record tag categorization schemes when we examine the history of music. Nonsense.

The second reason is that technothrash is the only term that was historically used at that period to describe the efforts of at least one band that was trying to do something different in the thrash metal field than copy Exodus or Anthrax. It may be the case that the others that followed were not aware of the term 'technothrash' at all, but it doesn't matter, it describes what they attempted to do just as well as it does describe Watchtower. So yes, it's a fabrication and a largely unpopular one today (searching online for "progressive thrash" as opposed to "techno-thrash" tells the tale) but I'm trying to do my part to return to a terminology that at least has a reference to historical continuity. These are the things that are important to me, good god.

Now, speaking a bit more broadly, technothrash has its roots a couple of other bands besides Watchtower, namely the Canadian outfit, Voivod and the German one, Mekong Delta. An argument could be made that Megadeth (and perhaps Annihilator, Forbidden, Destruction, Kreator) also contribute to the form but that's neither here nor there. The three originators basically characterize three different but similar approaches to teching up thrash that from my own long examination of the genre seem to hit all the bases to the point where extending ownership to satellites like Kreator is not needed to explain the genre to a newcomer. It goes without saying that technothrash bands listened and were influenced by other thrash or Heavy Metal bands or whatever else bands and so should you. You should do exactly what I tell you to.

Watchtower were clearly there first. They mixed the rhythmic sensibility, expansive guitar chords, very prominent and active bass of Rush with the novel thrash metal guitar and drum technique, as innovated by Overkill and popularized by Metallica. On the morphological level, that's all there is to it, really. On the aesthetic side, socio-political paranoia and disaffection reign. If there is a characteristic that makes techno-thrash a strongly modernist and therefore dated movement, is that it blossomed and thrived during the peak years of the Cold War. Imagery of impending nuclear holocaust dominates, FBI conspiracy theories, biochemical warfare and so on. Once the Berlin wall comes down, the clock starts ticking in reverse for techno-thrash and in three years or so, that electrical fire hazard of a genre is quickly extinguished. Metal loses the socio-political mandate and techno-anything readily mutates into death metal and its various grotesque strands. But for now, think Reaganomics, think Red Dawn, think end-of-the-world.

This isn't to say that there was no humor in Watchtower's approach, quite the opposite. Their whole thing seems darkly cynical but strangely playful. The color of their work is one of bright individuals struggling against a dark futile futurity that vastly overtook individual effort: geopolitical trajectories locked on a course of mutually assured destruction. One can only laugh at that, or go insane. That is the feel technothrash captures, what is the thinking being, the self-determined individual (as Neil Peart of Rush had educated the metalheads, the objectivist) to do against forces vastly overpowering them?

Mekong Delta's story is characteristically similar. Originally conceived as a 'secret super-group' by several German thrash/speed metal musicians and under the guidance of producer and bassist Ralph Hubert, their raison d'etre was to take what Metallica did with "Fight Fire With Fire" and push it to a higher level of technical excellence and intensity. I'm not simplifying things here, that's pretty much what happened, straight from the Shoggoth's mouth, as it were. Some time in 1985, Jörg Michael plays said Metallica song for Hubert, whom decides to employ rhythmic technique borrowed from Romanticist classical composers like Igor Stravinsky and Modest Mussorgsky to one-up the - in relation - rudimentary thrash assault of the Americans (worth noting is that when it comes to Mekong Delta, it's one of the few times where claiming metal music has classical inspiration and heritage is largely warranted). They adopt a secretive and obscure image, complete with funny H.P. Lovecraft-inspired nom de plumes and refusals to do interviews or be photographed and put out a series of records that do exactly what advertised: with a characteristically German attitude they sternly augment the Metallica blueprint to the point of becoming neoclassical technothrash. Whether Mekong Delta had heard of Watchtower is debatable, as they certainly had ample time to (Watchtower debut in 1984, Mekong Delta get together in 1985). What's important is that they sound nothing like them, yet they too represent a widely influential technical take on the thrash rudiments.

Aesthetically these Germans had a morbid fixation that spans from the socio-political doom-mongering customary to the genre to much more personal tales of horror that for all intents and purposes seem to be directly indebted to the work of writers as the before mentioned H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith and similar pulp. Although the sonics of Mekong Delta were to be imitated by the whole 'German school' of technothrash, their particular literary fixations were largely not, leaving them a very distinctive and idiosyncratic band to this day.

Voivod are an article in themselves but in the context of technothrash they're not so much important because they were themselves never in this genre with both feet. They're important because nearly any technothrash band in the 1987-1990 period seemed to have an affinity for Voivod chord voicings (say that three times fast) and some even adopted similar brands of weird that characterized the Canadian outfit.

This makes sense because Voivod strongly predate technothrash and had a very established identity before Metallica put out "...And Justice for All", in fact they are contemporaries of that band. Forming somewhere around 1982 and putting out their first - and absolutely crude - demo in 1983, full of Venom, Priest and Motorhead covers, this is in some ways in direct opposition to techno-thrash sophistication.

But Voivod were a characteristically progressively-minded band. No two records of theirs sounded the same and through sheer work they eventually reach a point where their music is certainly technical, and certainly thrash, through through a very different trajectory to the above-named bands. This sense of 'outre' is I believe the defining appeal of Voivod and the reason so many musicians followed their aesthetic blueprint, they seemed outside the metal paradigm, which meant people that enjoyed aspects of Heavy Metal without necessarily subscribing to its subcultural cliche finally had a way in. Weird metal was born.

Voivod are included because of this aspect foremost. Technothrash is on the whole, a genre outside the metal paradigm circa 1988. Thrash, especially American thrash is characterized by a meathead mentality. Crushing beer-cans on the forehead, out to party and slay posers. Think of Paul Baloff of Exodus. The people that love thrash, love it because of this belligerent and irreverent attitude and this is clear to see in the waves of recent retro-thrash outfits that ape those characteristics.

Technothrash however took another page from Rush in that it was music by nerds, for nerds. They were attracted to thrash technique because it was demanding and complex enough to accompany similarly complex ideas (or ideas that seemed so by young adults, let's not get too much into the actual intellectual validity of it all). By the time technothrash arrived to fruition, it was a genre generally opposed to the vanilla thrash archetype. And this is easily felt by sampling the listeners of regular thrash and technothrash and seeing there's a very small overlap in that Venn diagram. Most real thrashers find technothrash boring or pretentious and most technothrashers (all three of them) find endless variations of a slayer riff for no purpose to be nonsensical. Guess where I stand.

So, that's a general interpretation of the historical outline. Below is a mix that includes the foundational bands and then a series of deliberations and variations by lesser known outfits. If you're interested in 'what happened after technothrash?' you should read my Progressive Metal piece.

Click on image to download!


In fine tradition, extensive liner-notes follow!

(General note of warning. The music here is pretty demanding, so it may be best to listen attentively to 3-4 songs at one sitting and then go do something else or put on some ambient music just to cleanse the palate. As with all music that tends to extremes, the edge is dulled from overexposure.)

Watchtower - Meltdown

Although I consider their second and so far final record, "Control & Resistance" their best material, historically this is where a compilation on the technothrash quasi-genre needs to start. This recording features original guitarist Billy White who had at a time a more straightforward style than his eventual replacement, Ron Jarzombek. This sounds like a thrash song, right? But keep in mind that this recording is from 1984. Metallica had just set the bar with "Fight Fire With Fire" and the sharp compositional stop-starts, the frenzied but nuanced guitar phrasing, the hysterical vocals frankly demolish that bar. That muted scale run at 3:52 must have been some of the most intimidating picking you could hear in metal circa 1984. Innovations that we consider now public domain in technical music start here.

Everybody in the Texas metal underground at the time were aware of what Watchtower were doing and if one delves into the archives of that time the influence is clear across the board. There were many lesser technical thrash bands springing up and even reactions to that like doom stalwarts Solitude Aeturnus had extra chops to keep up in that climate. Also, Helstar were peers (from Houston, but still) in that era and Helstar and their Bach... you know. It must have been a pretty heady time to be a metal musician in Texas.

I think if the unaccustomed listener approaches what Watchtower are doing here with an ear to the Rush influence, it'll make more sense, at least as I got into Watchtower slightly before I got into Rush, when I finally put things in order there was a huge 'oh, I see now!' moment for me. The chromatic coda to the verse riff, straight out of La Villa Strangiato (only in ascent instead of descent). The whole middle segment with the riff variations and manic drum fills commenting deliberately on the leitmotif signifies a slight shift in the scope of thrash metal. It moves it from its more punk-derived 'three riffs and we're out' initial conciseness to a premeditated self-examinatory space where the musicians are not only playing frenzied crazy fast metal music but have the desire (and chops) to comment on it playfully and intelligently. I think that was the point of awe that cemented the future trajectory of thrash metal as technical, not just extreme music.

The lyrics are about imminent nuclear plant catastrophe! Two years later Chernobyl happened. Watchtower wrote another song on the subject on their sophomore outing that is resonant even today.

Mekong Delta - Without Honour

This song is terrifying if you're listening along, with the lyric sheet at hand. I don't know what it is, something about the distant reverberated vocals back in the mix while the guitars and drums pound mechanistically in the forefront. This isn't even a 'riff' exactly that Mekong Delta are so fond of (variations of it can be found in every single of their records, really) it's a snippet of Stravinsky crescendo is what it is, repeated over and over the bass drum sixteenths. People go on about how Bolt Thrower capture the sound of warfare and I agree but back in 1987, this must have sounded really shocking in the same way. The lyric is pretty literal, and one of the few cases where the band's choice of name is relevant to their mythos. The cover is very telling of where their priorities lie in terms of aesthetics. Mekong (a soldier) Delta, and above a huge Lovecraftian horror.

The think that's horrifying about the lyric is where it goes 'mutilated limbs, and no one knows from whom they are' and singer Wolfgang Borgmann accents the end of the line with a demented laugh, it really gets me. It gets me because it's not the usual politically correct moralizing of thrash bands like Anthrax, "prejudice, something we all can do without!" that rests so much on the assumption that we shouldn't do bad things because they're impolite, basically. Mekong Delta here, with their German-English and whatever other failings, paint a picture and the horrifying thing is the internal representation of it they force on the listener. You can only laugh at that sort of madness. When art can achieve such a thing inside a receptor, that's more real than anything they see on the outside. The abstract solo creates almost a metaphysical distance from the carnage and it's really impactful for me how the lead melody is repeated two times, book-ended by more chaotic leads and then the second time it's advanced to a conclusion that seems to reach a realization. Of futility? Of hopelessness? The crescendo keeps hammering the picture in the mind's eye.

'Without Honour' isn't the best Mekong Delta song musically by any stretch (seek "Dances of Death" for that) but it's very striking existentially and a clear foundation for the 'socially aware intelligent individual trying to survive a Cold War reality' identity of techno-thrash.

Voivod - Macrosolutions to Megaproblems

A year later, Voivod have found their voice and it's a weird one, at least in the context of what other thrash bands were doing. Lots of open space where Exodus-clones would put constant open-E palm muting, high-pitched and unusual chords that outline the nodes of a melody line the listener is invited to fill in themselves, almost pointillist in a way. Open mix, more relative to a post-punk band than a metal one. Again, Voivod reach their peak for me with next year's "Nothingface" (complete with Deluxe Paint pixel artwork) but for a discussion on technothrash, this is a much more pertinent document.

The thing with Voivod is, they make sense but it's a strange sort of ran-twice-through-babelfish type of sense. The lyric genuinely feels as if it's trying to say something (and I think I get it) but its wording is so incongruous and open-ended that it could just be words in a random order. As the melodies invite filling in and interpretation by the listener, so do the words

"It's gonna be, hostility
Hypothetic is liberty
Anti-being society
As directed reality"

That's why the people that are into Voivod really love them, I think. When I listen to them intentionally, I'm collaborating on what all of this could mean. This is a gentle process which is not often encountered in Heavy Metal, thrash metal much less, where the message, if there is one, is usually ham-fisted and right there. Voivod are instead a strange new language that when internalized, can only lead to peculiar but personal poetry.

For me the best way to get into Voivod is a very roundabout one. Play, if you can, the game 'Captain Blood' on the Atari ST (emulators exist) or just watch a video of it being played.

THIS is Voivod. You think this makes no sense? It makes perfect sense. Once you - I shit you not - learn its own brand of peculiar sign language. I once had, and I could write you little haiku-type primary emotion poems in it. I might not remember the lexicon as well as I could 10 years ago but the emotional-neural connections are still functioning in cryohibernation mode.

Look, I know that I'm telling you that in order to get Voivod you need to parse an even stranger fifteen-year-old French 8-bit cosmic adventure game, but tough, this isn't Anthrax, this is technothrash.

Sieges Even - David

This is some of my absolute favorite music in the genre, stellar, magnificent, still unparalleled. It sounds like a confusing mess at first, right? It did for me although it was attractive even when I didn't understand it because I could tell something tangible was there. After years of inattentive listening and finally, a couple of weeks of attentive listening, I started to map out what's going on in this music and then, I was hooked for life.

Sieges Even were Watchtower clones on this, their debut (from the second record "Steps" and onwards, they were clones of nothing). Watchtower were said to have been informed someone was ripping off their style and were annoyed at this, but this many years later when it's all said and done and there's been so few worthy competitors to Watchtower one kinda wishes more bands would have outright tried to out-Watchtower Watchtower, you know?

Which is what Sieges Even achieve here. However the Watchtower that they're outdoing is the 1984 incarnation, not the concurrent 1989 version that did "Control & Resistance" which was by then, even farther outside the stratosphere. That isn't to say that Sieges Even hadn't heard some of the Watchtower material from what was to be their second, definitive record, as the recording process of that album was much belabored and demos existed for at least a couple of years before release. And okay, Sieges even have a song called "Repression and Resistance" in here, also it's named "Life Cycle" (another Watchtower song is "Life Cycles") so there's isn't much argument as to what an inspiration they were.

But the clone argument is overplayed as this really, once you've come close to it, sounds very little like Watchtower. More thrash, certainly more dense rhythmically, more chopped up (infinite amounts of stop-starts in these songs, perhaps they liked Mekong Delta too, or perhaps it's just Rush again), more chromaticism in the riffs, and due to its German heritage the whole thing comes across as extremely serious. Severely so, perhaps. Humor wasn't in the artistic lexicon. Bertolt Brecht is quoted in the inner sleeve ("he who doesn't know the truth is a stupidhead, he who knows it and tells instead a lie is a criminal"), and this song is about the persecution of the Jews under the Nazi regime (and before and after that also).

Where Anthrax wrote bullshit PC anthems about problems they'd never actually encountered, here Sieges Even come across as very informed, aware and sensitive to the actual core of the issue instead. This isn't the "serious song on the album we can play to our mom to prove we're artists and then back to the moshing and beer drinking" that the hateful Anthrax gave us every second record, the whole record is like this.

"Back in the days of doubt and dissent,
From the soil of Palestine
A wandering began, matchless
In the annals of history and time

Exiled and expelled, trapped in the walls
Of Babylon, only a leg on their way
A consequence unheard-of, dispersion
And pursuance for no rational cause

Symbol of compassion, held in contempt
An endless voyage through time
Prejudice, unreason, contagious seed
Today we shake our heads, can't comprehend

In medieval times the Christian church
Made itself a part of the crime
Conversion and judgment in blind infallibility
Executed upon the Jews
Bigotry and prejudice are persisting
Basic characters of man
As essential feature not to accept dissenters,
It's so easy to judge

But at nightfall of civilization,
When reason fell and fascism prevailed
A malpractice tarnished the world,
Rendered by a subservient mass

Accustomed to misuse and fear
We're looking back insensibly
What happened then won't happen anew,
Close your eyes in arrogance and simply forget

So much injustice and grief
Done unto the star of David
Remind unsound doctrines of an Aryan race,
The concentration camps, the relentless exodus

Some folks say it will never come again,
Are they oblivious? Full of unconcern?
So look at Pretoria and the fascist-like regime
Will man ever listen to reason?"

Scream the last word with them, I always do. Ah, the positivist fantasy where the whole globe has a little sit-down and talks their problems out and sees they're just not rational and so everything is solved. I'm not kidding when I say that as a younger boy my mind was blown by the synergy of lyric and music in songs such as this. They really impressed on me the weight of the social situation in ways that more traditionally instructive sources could not. Heavy Metal taught me how to think, I'll never underplay its influence and that's one of the reasons I can never empathize when people complain Heavy Metal doesn't have good lyrics and lyricists.

Realm - Slay the Oppressor

If you're wondering, the juxtaposition is intentional here. Realm were amazingly technically proficient, but the lyric is as base as that of many metal bands earlier in the decade, in stark contrast to Sieges Even above. But boy, do Realm here let the instruments do the talking.

I'm very drawn to the riffs that include unbalanced triplets over eighth notes as finishes, Psychotic Waltz do that a lot too. Quintessentially thrash triplet-heavy riffs over polka beats married to the playful technical flourish usually found in fusion and jazz playing. And there's a tasteful breakdown as well! The only other entry in this compilation hitting the same cues is the Forced Entry one below. As is clear, the American style of technothrash, post-Watchtower, is much more involved in trying to be both fancy and bludgeoning thrash at the same time. Perhaps Annihilator, Forbidden and Megadeth had an influence in shaping this aspect of the situation.

Medieval Death - Desperate Calls

Here's a Greek oddity that came out in 1989. What I enjoy most about Medieval Death is how they fluidly converge their romantic aesthetic, lyric and vocal style, with the otherwise forceful thrash. You wouldn't expect romantic thrash to work and I don't think there's too many other examples to go from, but Medieval Death will always have a place in my heart for this. "Tomorrow I'll be crucified but I'll just fly away. I'm still alive, I'm still living, I'll fly away".

I feel that thrash metal, barren as it generally was aesthetically (given its punk and hardcore pedigree) left a contribution to Heavy Metal that could best be described as technical and production-relevant. Thrash might have not have been about much but the guitar and drum technique, along with the production approach, but these few things were very impactful on nearly any type of metal that came after it. So it's not so strange to see some Greeks in 1989 writing romantic prose that could perhaps fit well with a gothic sound but furnish it instead with robust thrash styling.

Forced Entry - Bludgeon

Remember how I said that techno-thrash was mostly music by nerds for nerds? Well these guys, taking their page from Forbidden, certainly projected a different feel. Untactful and visceral, almost tough-guy in a way, they take their stop-start odd-meter riffs and hammer them violently. There's still grace and nuance of course, but the end result feels much more low-brow than say, the Sieges Even track above.

That said, I have a soft spot for both Forced Entry records. Can't deny talent I guess. I don't usually go for mosh parts and gang choruses and that sort of pastiche, but there's a lot to redeem it here. The rhythmic acuity, the choice of where to put the vocal line... I know that sounds kinda trite but if one's tried writing complex music with a lot of stop-starts and changes of tempo/feel they'd have probably noticed how difficult it is to make it cohere and even more to make it have a gut impact. So I respect Forced Entry for the highbrow beating, really.

Aspid - Comatose State

Talking about violence, here's a Russian lost offering, recently unearthed and issued on CD by Stigmartyr Records. Absolutely essential addition to a technothrash library even if I have no idea what the Russian lyrics are about. I've heard it enough to have sorta made up my own stories to go with the venomous delivery and the razor-sharp riffs and it's mostly about how pissed off these gents are with everything.

But the best thing about their take on the Cracked-Brain-era Destruction techno-thrash is their touch of Russian class, really. They're such great players and with purposefully idiosyncratic flourish. I can tell the guitarists here know their way around interpreting classical music for the guitar instead of say, having learned how to play by copying Metallica. This is a common feel in a lot of Russian metal, the almost arch sophistication. Also worth checking on that level are Valkyria, Credo, Magnit and so on.

The first few times I heard this, hell let's not lie, even now, I wondered how everyone kept count of the changes here, and screw keeping count, how they all hit the cues so forcefully. I'm aware it's a matter of practice but there's also a degree of innate talent for that sort of thing I believe, otherwise bands such as these would never get to writing more than two songs, given the amount of rehearsal that would go into making those few cohere.

Deathrow - Events in Concealment

Here's another German offering of note from 1988. The story behind it is a bit sad though and perhaps tarnishes its initial impact but a truth is always more interesting than a lie so here it is. Most of the original Deathrow members resent this record somewhat because it's the brainchild of a then-new member and guitar wizard, Uwe Osterlehner, (who also went on to collaborate with certain Psychotic Waltz personnel on a lesser technothrash item 'End Amen'). The rest of the band was given to a more Kreator-type raging thrash idiom and doesn't now feel the more technical approach of the record whence this song comes from (and to a lesser degree of the final record that followed it) represents the ambition of the band. They consider their legacy to be more about their first two albums, and as a person much enthralled with their technothrash period, I don't want to hear that, you know?

There's just so much to love in this record. Again note triplets over eighths in so many riffs, quirky syncopation that accents the claustrophobia inherent in the song theme, unpredictable chord and lead choices in a disharmonious dialogue, perfect. And how tight it all is (barring some drumming issues that become all the more apparent if you play this right after Aspid, heh). The Germans certainly had the technothrash thing down instinctively. And the lyric is very well-done and thoughtful.

In the end I kind of see their point in how this record is derivative of a scene that Deathrow didn't have in their original intention to enter. One can hear it, the one side of the guitar mix (Uwe Osterlehner's, I'd expect) is much more playful than the harmonies on the other side, and the drummer is struggling with some of the changes. But as I said, there's so little great music in this idiom it's often worth paying closer attention to the diamonds in the rough too.

Wolf Spider - Inclined

Here's something from Poland in the same period. Now, Wolf Spider wanted to be part of technothrash very clearly. And I applaud them for taking a difficult road to get there (the one that also involves writing songs, not just playing guitar in a fancy way). The guitarists use some unexpected chord voicings sure and there's so much inventiveness in the relatively few themes presented in the song but perhaps most strikingly, this is one of the catchiest songs in the compilation, due to the quirky vocal melody lines. It's a bit unfortunate that the vocals are mixed so high, but hey, this is Poland in the '80s, I'm glad the guitars sound like guitars, let alone that I can hear the chord shapes through the distortion (a difficult thing even with today's production technology).

There's a very clear Rush feel here, from how they return to the second verse on the up-beat, the various expressive chords and certainly the singer's attempt at Geddy-range (a valiant failure, but charming). The thematics of the song are slightly marred by English-as-a-second language phrasing but the point of it is one worth considering.

"We are so inclined to
Tell these funny lies, stupid lies
Lies exhaust your mind,
Filling you with fear, turning mad

I have killed truths myself
Some of them killed me in turn

Cheated for my tender heart
Nurtured with the kindest evil
I am clad in truthful lies
Falling face down on the drivel"

Again, in light of how much Heavy Metal music is maligned for being lyrically vacuous, I posit a band from Poland in 1988, writing about a subject any sensitive adult will have had to negotiate at many times in their lives, as evidence to the contrary.

Anacrusis - Explained Away

Talking about great lyrics, here's one of the best lyricists in all of Heavy Metal. Kenn Nardi feels like a friend to me. Kenn Nardi has said no lies. I've never met the man nor have I even exchanged a polite e-mail, but his music has been in valuable dialogue with me for a decade now and I've only become a better human for it. Let's look at the whole lyric here

"Donning a sweet contented mask
Acquiring bliss, a grueling task
Adoring a regretful past
Wondering how long it can last

Frequenting a cold empty void
And fearing I am, paranoid
Obeying this despondent way
The crumbling hopes, the price to pay

Contorted veil of false fulfillment
So easily explained away

Nothing changes the future past
Pretending to the very last
Contorted veil of false fulfillment
So easily explained away

Driving onward, must gratify
I'm posing in a satisfied lie
Disregarding this emptiness
And settling, now, for so much less"

This existential issue, of not really being able to tell how I feel about my life, if I'm content (or 'content enough?' what a curious notion) is one I've had to deal with for as long as I've noted I exist and Anacrusis helped in letting me know I'm not the only one, at a formative stage. Not to say I've had to live a difficult life, perhaps exactly because I haven't had to live a very difficult life from an external point of view (I didn't lose a leg to a mine or half-starve to death, for example) it's so hard to navigate these feelings of worthlessness and at the same time, of a hunger for something better. Society tends to mock the middle-class and semi-comfortable for their existential distress, juxtaposing it with the real horrors of the world. Heavy Metal often goes into gruesome detail about death and destruction, but even there I see what Kenn Nardi is saying here much more directly: isn't the fascination with the extremes of experience belying a current discontentment with the middle-ground of everyday existence? That I think drives most of Heavy Metal.

Musically the defining characteristic of Anacrusis is the bi-polarity between the subdued melancholy of their softer passages and the violent energy of their all-out thrash. Some complain this is an unfortunate precursor to the teenage-angst nu metal paradigm. To this I say (somewhat polemically, but Anacrusis are worth it) teenage angst is a very real thing and if nu-metal sounds contrived and annoying to you it is not because it is referencing a set of real emotions that people have, for as long as humanity existed, tried to negotiate through art. The thrash that is always-full-on like Slayer isn't a more honest depiction of the human psyche. Anacrusis tried a very difficult thing and I think they're startlingly successful: making modernist metal bent on describing the human condition in non-contrived, personal terms. I could only wish other metal bands in the future are inspired by them and attempt to cut deeper to the bone.

Coroner - Pale Sister

Alright, truthfully, I have no idea what the lyric is about even after all these years. Perhaps you can help me.

"With wounded knees
And the musty scent
Of incense in her hair
Captured by the barbed hook
Of eternal devotion

Stigma bleeds
In the book that leads
To her final end
Civitas Dei

She lives on your planet
But not in your world
She speaks the same language
But you can't understand

The weight of chastity
Makes her eyes cast down
And the skin of humility
Is white as snow

Stigma bleeds
In the book that leads
To her final end
Civitas Dei

She lives on your planet
But not in your world
She speaks the same language
But you can't understand

Paralyzed she's followin'
The ancient message
It's more much more
Than just belief"

Any of that ring any bells? Civitas Dei means "City of God" if my Latin serve me, and the church bells make me feel there's an ecclesiastical theme going on but otherwise, I'm all out. I get the feeling 'Pale Sister' refers to something literary that would be the key in understanding what got Coroner's attention enough to write a song on.

But this is an awesome display by Coroner, musically. Really, nobody else has ever come close to copying them at any point in their multi-faceted trajectory through and beyond Heavy Metal (well, Aftermath were a Coroner clone, but whatever). Fluid solos and neoclassical leads stacked against harsh and almost atavistic two-chord riffs that stop-start and leave little time to breathe. Listening to Coroner is a disorientating experience for me still, and man, I've listened to Coroner more than is healthy I think sometimes. But they're just so good. It's generally the mark of a great band for me if I change my mind about which record is my favorite every other year. Usually it's "Punishment for Decadence", sometimes "Grin", recently it's "Mental Vortex" from whence this song comes.

Coroner were one of the most convincing power trios in the thrash field. There is never the problem of a band sounding as if they'd be augmented by the inclusion of a second guitarist. And though this is due to double-tracked rhythm guitars in their recorded material, one can check them out live on youtube and be startled at how full they sound.

This is a real oddity from 1989. Little-known Spectral Incursion (what a name!) remain obscure. I've found them through the wonderful Corosseum some years ago and I'm still digesting their two demos and EP with much interest.

The cover art for this is spectacularly horrid/awesome, I simply must share:

This seems kind of 'outside' like Voivod but I can't place what about it makes it so. It's certainly more structured and conservatively melodic than Voivod, no pointillist space, the guitarist is going on pretty much straight through the song. I think it's the joyous over-exposition of melodic ideas that makes this sound not-exactly-metal, in a sense. I feel as if someone's playing a mini-suite for me, he just happened to know how to play metal guitar instead of piano. And yet, unlike piano, as this is a power trio, it sounds so monophonic! Not to say it sounds bare, the guitarist plays enough notes for three guitarists, but it's just so... on-off. Here's half a riff. Here's a scale run for a coda for the riff. Oh, here's something else. All linear, in a row. Well, I lie, there's a guitar solo overdub in the middle but that's the only bit where this sounds like something a different band would play, perhaps.

I sincerely don't know how many listeners would enjoy this sort of music, but for me it hits all the spots that I think some of these ironic-rock-with-lots-of-riffs bands like The Fucking Champs hit for others, and is also delightfully unaware of itself. Oh and if you track down the EP, it's not all instrumentals, I just happen to prefer this cut the best.

Depressive Age - Never Be Blind

We close this examination of a small quasi-genre now forgotten in time with a message that should be timeless.

"I see love and I see hate
I see pleasure and I see disdain
I see hypocrisy and sincerity
I see famine and gluttony

And I will never be, never be blind
I see torture and I see cure
I see patients and freaks very cool
I see mockery and sympathy
I see greed and I see modesty

And I will never be, never be blind

I see yesterday and I see today
I see sunlight and I see dark night
I see meanness and generosity
I see misery and luxury

And I will never be, never be blind"

That's it. Techno-thrash may have traveled into doubtful directions in its guise of progressive metal in the 90's and Heavy Metal on the whole might have lost the onus for existential examination in the last decade. Whatever may happen in the future certainly will happen. Even if we're not prepared to accept it, we must allow ourselves to gaze at its horrid multitude of acts and thoughts and desires and make an interpretation, our reality. At the end we'll count our final score and chisel our initials on a gravestone, let it be written under them, as Jan Lubitzki of Depressive Age would hope, "I was never blind".


Helm said...

Once again, thank you for editing, embellishing, and most of all for having me.

The Thing That Should Not Be said...

Grrrrrreat post there Helm, yer a man after my own heart. I LOVE techno-thrash, pretty much ALL of it. It was ALL I listened to at one point in the late eighties.
Voivod will ALWAYS be my favourite band, and Watchtower aren't far behind 'em. One point though - Watchtower were/are a four piece band, not a trio - sorry to be a pedant. Nice to see Anacrusis getting some love too, VERY underrated band. Once again, Illogical Contraption proves to me that it is THE best blog on the 'net. Thanks again.

The Thing That Should Not Be said...

Oh, and here is a link to the new Watchtower single, The Size Of Matter - - ANy chance of upping the Spectral Incursion demos?

Shelby Cobras said...

The pleasure is all mine, Helm. A thought-provoking and thorough piece, as always. I think the way you describe music makes me listen to it even closer, if that makes sense...? Awesome, awesome, awesome stuff.
Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go MOSH/study...

PS @ Thing: Singers don't count as "musicians", dingus!

Helm said...

Yes, you're right about Watchtower, I was thinking about the instrumentalists, I hope such errors can be excused.

I'm aware about The Size of Matter, it's grown on me some since I heard it first but I wouldn't say it's the best thing Watchtower have done. I was hoping for them to move as far from the Control and Resistance blueprint as that record was far from the debut blueprint.

abdul alhazred said...

Ahhhhhhh, good to see my beloved Mekong Delta getting some proper and extremely thorough respect. Mayhaps I'll go post some...

The Thing That Should Not Be said...

Shelby, yup, I'm a dingus AND a doofus, and quite possibly a wallywick too. Helm, from what i understand, a lot of the material from the upcoming (allegedly) Watchtower LP 'Mathematics' has its origins in material over 10 years old. I suspect that it may take them a while to get back into their stride since they've all been off doing other things. I DEFINITELY wouldn't write 'em off though.

Asa said...

FYI: "Pale Sister" is most likely about a nun. Saw a Mental Vortex-era tour shirt that had a graphic of a nun on it and said the song title in block letters.

Helm said...

Asa: Sure... but what about this nun!

Steven said...

Helm writes the way I talk after a few brews. Half of those bands are already long-time favorites of mine, and I have drunkenly waxed poetic on Coroner, Anacrusis, Forced Entry and Voivod (Now that's a Monsters of Rock tour!) on numerous occasions. I suspect these others will find their way into the pantheon.

mikeyOh said...

awe shit, link limits been reached

Helm said...

What's that bullshit? Uploading to different providers now. Expect updated links in a couple of hours.

Anonymous said...

thanks a lot, Helm! I hadn't heard of most of these bands.

Helm said...

here's a new link.

Cobras' out of town. If any other users with editing privileges want to put the new link in the text above that'd be really appreciated, but if not, I'm sure the interested parties will check the comments too.

Elmo said...

Hey Helm,

you are great. In the limited experience I have gained so far browsing music-blogs, your writing sticks out a long way above everyone else not only because it is very thourough and well-written, but because the topics are comprehensive and sensible in their dimensions.

If the music is anything as good as your descriptions, the next days are going to be great.

Thank you.

Nekromantis said...

"I think the way you describe music makes me listen to it even closer, if that makes sense...?"

Makes perfect sense to me as I feel the same sometimes. For example I had wrote off Sieges Even as a boring Watchtower variation before but now aside from few all time favourites on this "mixtape" David was the song I liked the most. They might be Watchtower clones on their debut but they aren't boring at all. Also I've been meaning to give some attentive listens to Aspid and this really fueled my interest in them a little more.

Nekromantis said...

Also here's a bit about Coroner's Pale Sister that may or may not help you. It's not my interpretation but it appeals to me.

"Coroner's Pale Sister. Shortest on the album, track 6 out of 8, not one of the most promising song titles, must be filler, right? Not at all. It breaks the album's streak of being relatively mid-tempo and wall-of-sound based as a fast thrasher, but does so in a very atypical way. The riffs are stop-start (no bottom fret chugging constancy) yet very fast giving it almost a boogie feeling, further realized by Marquis dropping the typical thrash beat for what feels like an endless wave of jazzy drum fills. What really amazes me is that despite being a song about nuns and overzealous religion instead of some grandiose story of battle or exploration, I still see images from it. The riffing is so tight and changes with such frequency that I can imagine a nun resisting the pitfalls of sin, and as the song builds up so does her frustration. Eventually she is overcome; sounds of Church bells chime over the doom-laden post-chorus, and wash in an evil wall of distortion. Does the following pause signify her end? Decidedly not, when a thoroughly decadent breakdown is given as the final temptation. It's practically ragtime-thrash, with the catchiest and most dance worthy riff in metal I've ever heard. Vetterli breaks out a fantastic equally swingin' guitar solo of likes that could only be enhanced by having Satan play an upright piano with the song's protagonist laying on top, legs seductively crossed towards the listener."

It's not my re

Nekromantis said...

Argh! I should double-check blogspot comments ALWAYS before posting. Just pretend it stops at the final quotation mark.

Anonymous said...

you talk about technothrash and do NOT mention Thought Industry? Bummer.

Helm said...

Well, there are a *lot* of ommissions. An even partial techno-thrash list would have to have the types of Megace, Paralysis, Flaming Anger, Secrecy, lots of artists mentioned. But there was no such list.

Thought Industry put out their first record in 1992 and although there are fragments of thrash in it, and they are certainly technical, I think it's safe to say they're best described as a post-metal band, not even a progressive metal band. The latter definition they resented because in their mind it hearkens back to stuff like Fates Warning (which while correct, they found unflattering and misleading a connotation for Thought Industry) whereas their trajectory through metal and beyond makes the former definition the case. They were always a punk-minded band that had metal chops (but not only), they never subscribed to any metal aesthetic. It could be argued they have ties to Voivod but that's as far as I'd go.

Which isn't to say I don't love their discography (yes, even the sub-Radioheadisms). They're just not relevant to an article about technothrash. I think they'd agree if you asked them.

Nekromantis, that helps a lot! To whom does the comment belong to? His way of describing thematics and song morphology at the same time appeals to me because I tend to do the same.

Elmo, I appreciate your kind words.

Nekromantis said...

Helm, that comment was HamburgerBoy's over Metal-Archives. He posts a little on Corroseum as well I think.

Helm said...

Oh yeah, I remember him, he has the Aspid avatar. This sort of music is his sort of music, yes. I'm glad to see he writes reviews too, because I can read them!

Thanks for the info.

Anonymous said...

helm, I guess you have a point about thought industry-most of their stuff wasn't super thrash-y. However, their demo was a little more "thrash" with the song "the final ballet" and what not. But Yeah, I guess that makes sense.

Helm said...

Yes, the demo is more thrashy, as is the Desacrator demo before it, but I think it's cutting it a bit close to include a demo of a band as technothrash that went on to do 6-7 LPs, most of them at different styles.

I love Thought Industry and more people should know about them, let's just not try to shoehorn them in this idiom :)

Thanks for the dialogue, by the way. I don't generally have the best experiences with internet anonymous, so that's nice.

UA said...

My favorite album in this genre (I guess) is Deathrow's "Deception Ignored." It has really great guitar work on it...

Helm said...

Absolutely. Especially the track "Machinery", does it for me on both musical and lyrical levels.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post, I am of course way into Voivod and Coroner, I like Watchtower but I haven't heard any of the other bands. I started following your replies on Invisible Oranges (the only reason I go to that blog is to read your replies) and I'm glad you're here.

Anonymous said...

Wait a minute...! What about Obliveon??? -sigh- A crime...

warcod said...

still meaningfull. let us not be bind.