21st century metal

 

© Nuclear Blast

 

Such has been the fanfare recently over the return of Swedish 1970s pop darlings Abba, with a new ten-song album and a supposed ‘virtual concert’ where ‘digital avatars’ will perform in the shoes of the band’s now somewhat long-in-the-tooth members, that I’ve wondered if I’m the only person in the world who doesn’t actually like Abba.

 

Okay, ‘doesn’t like’ is a bit strong.  A more accurate verb-phrase would be ‘is totally indifferent to’.

 

There are a couple of Abba songs that get me tapping my foot in a vague, mindless way, like Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! or Money, Money, Money (both 1979) or the song with which they won the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest, Waterloo – which, come to think of it, was an appropriation of the breezy, sax-laden sound of Roy Wood’s glam-rock band Wizzard.  But unlike, say, the entire population of Australia, a country that’s given us such Abba-obsessed cultural phenomena as the cover band Bjorn Again and the movies Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Muriel’s Wedding (both 1994), I don’t worship the ground that the shiny, 1970s, high-heeled boots of Agnetha, Anni-Frid, Benny and Bjorn have walked on.

 

However, while the planet’s airwaves turn into the equivalent of the soundtrack of Mamma Mia! (2008), though thankfully without the pained, raspy sound of Pierce Brosnan attempting to sing, I will seek solace in the one type of music that truly matters… heavy metal.

 

Here’s a quick guide to the heavy metal bands, all of whom have become prominent since the beginning of the new millennium, that I’ve been listening to lately.

 

Al-Namrood

As this 2015 feature in the magazine Vice noted, “Al-Namrood have never played a live show, because it could result in the entire band being executed.”  That’s because the band Al-Namrood (a) play black metal and (b) are Saudi Arabian, two concepts that go together about as harmoniously as serpents and mongooses. According to their guitarist and bassist Mephisto, who, like all the band’s members, has never revealed his real name for his own safety, “Al-Namrood is the Arabic name of the Babylonian king Nimrood, who was a mighty tyrannical king who ruled Babylon with blood and defied the ruler of the universe.”  Yes, those sound like pretty black metal things to do.  It’s a shame that the band has had to operate so far off the grid because the music by them I’ve heard, its growling vocals and relentlessly thunderous guitars and drums laced with delicious Arabic folk stylings, I’ve found irresistible.

 

Behemoth

Polish black metal and death metal band Behemoth are similarly unloved by their country’s political and religious establishment.  And though the repercussions obviously won’t be as serious as those risked by Al-Namrood in Saudi Arabia, Behemoth’s frontman Adam ‘Nergal’ Darski has recently been convicted of blasphemy and could face imprisonment in the increasingly authoritarian Poland of Andrzej Duda. Actually, politically, Nergal has proved to be a bit of a knobhead in the past and once gained notoriety for wearing a ‘black metal against Antifa’ T-shirt, so it’s ironic he’s become a martyr in the struggle against the forces of extreme, right-wing knobhead-dom.

 

Behemoth first caught my attention when I listened to their 2018 album I Loved You at Your Darkest, which begins with a choir of creepy children chanting, “I shall not forgive… Jesus Christ… I forgive thee not…”  Thereafter, the album is a brilliantly Wagnerian parade of tunes with such titles as God = Dog, Ecclesia Diabolica Catholica and If Crucifixion Was Not Enough.  Can’t imagine why those pious Polish politicians don’t like them.

 

© Earache Records

 

Cult of Luna

Proof that, musically, Sweden has considerably more to offer than just Abba, Swedish doom metal band Cult of Luna serve up tunes where big, booming slabs of guitar lumber ominously along, accompanied by hollering and shrieking vocals, creating a sound that suggests a world teetering on the brink of collapse while simultaneously being strangely exhilarating and even uplifting.  The earliest album of theirs I’ve heard is 2003’s The Beyond, the most recent one 2021’s The Raging River.  Though there’s evidence of development and exploration between the two, the basic template is reassuringly the same.

 

Electric Wizard

Hailing from County Dorset, England, the original members of Electric Wizard bonded in the 1990s over a shared love of horror films, the writings of H.P. Lovecraft and the music of legendary Brummie metal band Black Sabbath.  It was from the titles of two Sabbath songs, Electric Funeral and The Wizard (both 1970), that they devised their band’s name.  For me, they just seem to get better and better – from early albums like Dopethrone (2000) and Let Us Prey (2002) to their most recent opus, Wizard Bloody Wizard (2017), which contains the deliriously catchy track Necromania.

 

In fact, someone has stuck a fan video for Necromania on YouTube, its visuals stitched together from such lovable old horror-movie schlock-fests as The Dunwich Horror (1969), Le Frisson des Vampires (1971), Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971), All the Colours of the Dark (1972), Baron Blood (1972), Dracula AD 1972 (1972) and The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973). It captures the essence of Electric Wizard perfectly.

 

© Roadrunner

 

Gojira

Several bands have named themselves after Godzilla, Japan’s favourite, radioactive-breathed, city-destroying kaiju, including Godzilla in the Kitchen and Bongzilla.  In my opinion, the best of the bunch is the one using the giant reptile’s original Japanese moniker, Gojira.  This French death / progressive metal outfit combines shrieking vocals, wailing guitars and thunderous drums – courtesy of drummer Mario Duplantier, whose sound suggests the footfall of the giant lizard itself – with a surprising degree of melody.  Well, the melodiousness is perhaps not so surprising, giving that the bandmembers cite Led Zeppelin as a key influence.  The 2012 album L’Enfant Sauvage made me fall in love with Gojira, although their most recent one, Fortitude (2021), is pretty good too.

 

Melechesh

I first heard of the band Melechesh through the artist John Coulthart, whose blog I read regularly and who’s designed the covers for their albums, including 2015’s album Enki.  Soon afterwards, I saw Enki on sale in a record shop and bought it out of curiosity.  It’s a great album, its storming metallic sound embroidered with such eastern-Mediterranean and Middle Eastern instruments as the sitar, bouzouki, saz and bendir.  Melechesh, it transpires, are the propagators of ‘Mesopotamian metal’ which, according to their Wikipedia entry, aims to “create a type of black metal incorporating extensive Middle Eastern influences mainly based on Assyrian and occult themes.”  They formed in Jerusalem in 1993 but later relocated to Europe.  In the mid-1990s, the city authorities in Jerusalem accused them of ‘dark cult activities’, which probably didn’t encourage them to hang around in Israel.

 

© Nuclear Blast

 

Orchid

One afternoon I was in the FOPP record shop on Edinburgh’s Rose Street and the guy behind the counter decided to play a heavy metal album over the store’s PA system.  “What’s this?” I demanded, intoxicated by the album’s old-school sound – although as this was Rose Street, I may have been slightly intoxicated already. “It’s The Mouths of Madness,” he replied, “by Orchid!”  Then he produced another copy of the album, recorded in 2013, which I bought on the spot.  I would have remarked: “ORCHID – obviously stands for OZZY Osbourne / RAINBOW / the CULT / Rob HALFORD / IRON Maiden / Ronnie James DIO!”  But I wasn’t able to think that fast.

 

As I’ve suggested, San Francisco metallers Orchid wear their influences on their sleeves, but especially the influence of Black Sabbath.  Now while Black Sabbath, with their doomy sound and the occult preoccupations of their song-titles and lyrics, have been a huge influence on heavy metal generally, later bands have taken that sound and those preoccupations and made them more extreme and exaggerated. But Orchid are reminiscent of Black Sabbath as they were, in a purer, simpler form. I don’t mean that they copy the original band’s songs. Orchid sound like Black Sabbath in their early 1970s prime, if they ‘d existed in a parallel universe where they’d been able to churn out a few extra albums. Similar riffs, but not the same riffs.

 

© Sinister Figure

 

Reverend Bizarre

As far as I can tell, quaintly-named doom-metal outfit Reverend Bizarre are the only band on this list who no longer exist. They disbanded in 2007, having produced three albums during the noughties.  I own two of those, the excellent In the Rectory of the Reverend Bizarre (2002) and II: Crush the Insects (2005).  Sounding like  a sludgier, more primordial version of Electric Wizard, this Finnish band was notable for, among other things, its vocalist, the also quaintly-named Albert Witchfinder.  He eschewed modish doom-metal growling and shrieking and mainly just crooned forebodingly.

 

Wolves in the Throne Room

Their name may conjure up images of Game of Thrones, but Wolves in the Throne Room come from the relatively un-sword-and-sorcerous environs of Washington State in the northwestern USA.  One of their objectives (to quote Wikipedia again) is “channeling the ‘energies of the Pacific Northwest’s landscape’ into musical form.”  Thus, their song titles contain such words as ‘fields’, ‘fog’, ‘lightning’, ‘rain’, ‘rainbow’, ‘stars’, ‘storm’ and ‘woodland’ and their sound has been described as ‘atmospheric black metal’ or ‘ambient black metal’.  But there’s still enough ‘black metal’ present in Wolves in the Throne Room’s formula to prevent them sounding serene and bucolic.  I have three of their albums – 2006’s Diadem of 12 Stars, 2009’s Black Cascade and 2011’s Celestial Lineage – and think they’re all blisteringly brilliant.

 

Having finished writing this blog-entry, I now feel an urge to listen to the above nine bands’ albums again, at maximum volume.  I’ll probably be deaf afterwards, but at least then there’s no danger of me hearing the new Abba album.

 

© Southern Lord

Rab Foster gets theatrical

 

© Aphelion Webzine

 

I’m pleased to announce that my 13,000-word story The Theatregoers has been published in the July 2021 edition of the webzine AphelionThe Theatregoers is a sword-and-sorcery story in, I hope, the tradition of such revered pulp writers as Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith and C.L. Moore and, as usual with my fantasy fiction, I have published it under the pen-name Rab Foster.

 

On this blog I’m not normally presumptuous enough to offer other writers, or aspiring writers, advice on how they should go about creating stories.  On this occasion, though, I’ll suggest two strategies that helped me to put The Theatregoers together.

 

Firstly, when you have an idea for a story, get that idea written down as quickly as you can before it flits from your memory again.  (At my age, things flit from my memory with terrifying speed.)  I have a 17-page-long document on my computer hard drive containing more than 400 ideas I’ve had for stories over the years and I’m constantly adding to it.

 

Admittedly, many of those ideas will probably never see the light of day as stories and, to be honest, looking at some of the ideas I wrote down long ago thinking they were bolts of divine genius, I don’t think the world will be missing anything if they don’t.  I doubt if anyone really wants to read a story about the notoriously bad Dundonian poet William McGonagall building a time machine in order to travel back in time to prevent the Tay Bridge Disaster from happening; or about a Sri Lankan tuk-tuk driver who’s secretly a superhero; or about ‘a fashion show for serial killers’, where the dresses have been fashioned out of…  Well, you can probably guess what they’re made of.

 

The other writing strategy I’d suggest is to keep reviewing your list of ideas and particularly think about how two or more ideas can be incorporated into one story.  In other words, don’t see each idea as a single seed from which a single story is grown.  Many times, I’ve had an idea that’s looked good on paper but that has resolutely refused to develop into a story – until it’s occurred to me to try splicing it together with another, seemingly totally different idea elsewhere on the list.

 

In fact, with The Theatregoers, I ended up throwing no fewer than four disparate ideas from my 17-page list into the creative blender.  I’d always wanted to write: (1) a story set in an abandoned city out in the middle of some inhospitable desert (similar to the setting of the 1921 H.P. Lovecraft story The Nameless City); (2) a story set in a theatre, where the characters would have adventures falling through trapdoors, scrabbling down stage curtains, flying about on wires above the stage, running through storerooms full of assorted props, and so on; (3) a story about vampire-like creatures that don’t drain their victims of blood but of moisture; and (4) a story about a tattooed person whose tattoos aren’t as inanimate as you’d expect, reminiscent of the title character in the classic Ray Bradbury collection The Illustrated Man (1951).  Somehow, I came up with a single, hopefully coherent narrative.

 

© Panther Books

 

For the next few weeks, the main page of the July 2021 edition of Aphelion can be accessed here, while The Theatregoers itself can be accessed here.

Manly stuff

 

© Paizo Inc

 

Ahead of Halloween, here’s another reposting of something I wrote about a writer of spooky stories whom I like a lot.  This time it’s Manly Wade Wellman, author of the ‘Silver John’ stories.  This piece first appeared on this blog in 2016.

 

I’d heard the name of writer Manly Wade Wellman before.  He was, for instance, one of the people to whom Stephen King dedicated his non-fiction book Dance Macabre back in 1982.  But I was unfamiliar with his work until recently when I picked up a collection of his fantasy-horror fiction called Who Fears the Devil?, published in 2010, 24 years after Wellman’s death.

 

The short stories in Who Fears the Devil? are set in the Appalachian Mountains.  Wellman evokes their wilderness areas and remote human settlements as vividly as, say, H.P. Lovecraft evokes the towns, woods and hills of New England that form a frequent backdrop to his tales, or Ray Bradbury evokes those neighbourly mid-western small towns, all porches and picket fences, that feature prominently in his work.

 

Wellman, a prolific writer of pulp detective, science fiction, horror and western fiction who also spent his later decades teaching at the University of North Carolina, captures the stark grandeur of this environment – dizzying mountains, mysterious forests, secluded valleys, frothing brooks and tumultuous waterfalls.  He also nails the character of its human inhabitants.  Their innocence and good-naturedness conveyed in the cadences of their speech.  Practically every page of Wellman’s Appalachian stories seems to ring with unpretentious but pleasingly musical dialogue.  His mountain characters trade such utterances as: “Do my possible best…”, “Won’t be no better singing and dancing the day these young ones marry up…”, “I’ve known men kill them themselves because she’d put her heart back in her pocket on them…”, “I’m right sorry…” and “I hear that somebody around here took a shot at my great-grandboy…”  (There isn’t much innocence or good-naturedness conveyed in that last utterance, admittedly.)

 

Roaming these mountains, valleys and forests is Wellman’s most famous creation, Silver John, who earns a crust here and there as an itinerant singer and musician.  John, who made his first appearance in 1951 in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, is no simple-minded hick.  Like many American men of his generation, he’s travelled – albeit in an unplanned manner, doing military service for Uncle Sam during World War II.  He’s also well-read and learned, able to discuss Freud and Sir James Hopkins Jeans’ The Mysterious Universe (1930) when the need arises.  And he’s similarly well-informed about the fields of folklore, superstition and the paranormal.  This is just as well, because wherever he wanders, he seems to encounter trouble in the form of supernatural deities, mythical monsters and havoc-wreaking human dabblers in the occult.

 

Basically, Wellman’s Silver John stories are the adventures of a psychic investigator discovering, battling and defeating the forces of darkness, which come in different guises in each instalment.  In effect, the John stories are The X-Files (1993-2018) without the FBI, the suits or the torturous alien / UFO conspiracy plot, or Scooby Doo (1969-present) without the meddling kids, the Scooby snacks or the Mystery Machine.  Instead, they’ve got hillbillies, dungarees and lots of Appalachian folk songs and balladry.

 

There’s something supernatural about John himself.  For one thing, whatever song he finds himself performing at the start of each story usually, spookily, prefigures or comments on the supernatural events that come later.  Thus, when he sings Little Black Train (a song popularised in real life by Woody Guthrie) early on in a story of the same name, it’s no surprise that an appearance is soon made by a phantom, death-dealing black train: “The little black train is rolling in / To call for you tonight…”

 

John’s nickname, incidentally, comes from the strings on his guitar, which are made of silver.  Supernatural creatures are known for not liking silver – silver bullets are the main way to kill a werewolf, for example.  Thus, John is able on more than one occasion to ward off evil using his music.  In the story O Ugly Bird! he even resorts to using his silver-stringed guitar as a club and just clobbers the monster with it.

 

There’s a bewildering variety of strange and creepy things going on in these stories.  With its theme of unspeakable beings from other universes, One Other comes close to the science-fictional horrors of H.P. Lovecraft.  Walk Like a Mountain deals with a giant who claims lineage from Biblical figures like Goliath and who’s also in the mould of John Henry, the super-strong railroad worker from 19th-century American folklore.  On cue, Silver John starts playing a John Henry folksong on his guitar: “The mountain was high, the sun was low / John he laid down his hammer and died…”

 

Both Call Me from the Valley and Trill Coaster’s Burden feature old mountain customs and practices.  Call Me includes a ‘dumb supper’, which is a midnight ritual enacted by young women as a way of conjuring up the image of the person they are destined to marry.  And Trill is about ‘sin-eating’, which Silver John explains thus: “Somebody dies after a bad life, and a friend or paid person agrees that the sin will be his, not the dead one’s.  It’s still done here and there, far back off from towns and main roads.”

 

Nobody Ever Goes There is an account of a weird, remote town divided in two by a river, where one half is populated and one half is deserted and where for some unspoken reason nobody from the populated half of town ever crosses the bridge to the unpopulated half.  It’s worthy of an episode of The Twilight Zone (1959-64).  Most outré of all, though, is The Desrick on Yandro, which postulates a whole ecosystem of undiscovered mythological creatures living on a remote North Carolina mountain: the Bammat, “something hairy-like, with big ears and a long wiggly nose and twisty white teeth sticking out of its mouth”, the Behinder, which can’t be described “for it’s always behind the man or woman it wants to grab,” the Skim, which just “kites through the air” and the Culverin, “that can shoot pebbles with its mouth.”  Alas, once these fabulous beasties have done their turn in The Desrick on Yandro, they don’t reappear and aren’t mentioned again in Wellman’s stories.

 

Manly Wade Wellman’s writings about Silver John are richly imagined, utterly charming, hard to forget and unlike anything else I’ve read.  Actually, they’re so rich and peculiar that it’s difficult to digest more than one or two of them in one sitting.  It’s best to treat Who Fears the Devil? like a box of chocolates – not to be gorged on but to be dipped into occasionally, so that you have sufficient time to savour each of its treats.

 

From wikipedia.org / Wonder Stories

The uncanny May Sinclair

 

© Wordsworth Editions

 

Halloween is just ten days away.  In the spirit of the season, I thought I’d repost some old entries about my favourite writers of spooky stories.  I’ll begin with the impeccable May Sinclair, about whom I wrote this piece back in 2014.

 

I’ve just spent a few days reading Uncanny Stories, a collection of supernatural short stories by May Sinclair, a writer, poetess, literary critic and feminist who lived from 1863 to 1946.  During her life, Sinclair was also a suffragette, a volunteer with an ambulance corps that helped wounded soldiers in Flanders during World War I and a member of the Society of Psychical Research.  She was also the first person to use the term ‘stream of consciousness’ when describing the literary device made famous in James Joyce’s Ulysses.  Tragically, her literary career ended in the late 1920s, thanks to the onset of Parkinson’s disease.  By the time of her death a decade-and-a-half later she’d been forgotten by the literary lights she’d once fraternised with, who included the poet Ezra Pound.

 

Uncanny Stories was first published in 1923, a time when the most famous writer of ghost stories in British literature, Montague Rhodes James, was still alive.  I’m a fan of M.R. James, but it annoys me when mainstream literary critics applaud James’s ghostly short stories for their ‘subtlety’ and ‘delicacy’ and ‘understatement’.  If, for example, you’ve read James’s story Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to you my Lad, whose climax sees a mysterious, primordial thing taking physical form in the linen of the spare bed in the hero’s hotel room, like a self-assembling mummy, you’ll know it isn’t that subtle, delicate or understated.  The story ends with an image that’s terrifyingly in-your-face.  Much of the time, James doesn’t imply his supernatural terrors, as those critics claim he does.  He shows them.

 

However, if you want proper subtlety, delicacy and understatment in your ghost stories, you should read the examples of the genre that May Sinclair pens in this collection.

 

There are ghosts in many of the tales in Uncanny Stories, but usually those ghosts serve to cast light on the psychology of the tales’ living protagonists.   In The Token, the ghost is of a gentle, devoted woman who manifests herself only for as long as it takes her repressed, uptight husband to admit to something he never admitted while she was alive – that he loved her.  Amusingly, Sinclair blames the husband’s problems on his Scottishness.  He “suffers from being Scottish, so that if he has a feeling, he makes it a point of honour to pretend that he hasn’t it.”

 

A dead wife also figures in The Nature of the Evidence, wherein the widowed husband – “one of those bigoted materialists of the nineteenth-century type who believe that consciousness is a purely physiological function, and that when you’re dead, you’re dead” – remarries, not out of love but because he cold-bloodedly recognises his own sexual needs and resolves to satisfy them: “It’s a physical necessity…  I shan’t marry the sort of woman who’ll expect anything more.”  Needless to say, when the ghost of his first wife inconveniently manifests herself, Marston’s rationalism, and his second marriage, take an unexpected hit.

 

In If the Dead Knew the supernatural and psychological tension revolves around a mother-son relationship rather than a husband-wife one.  Meanwhile, The Victim seems for much of its length to be a more traditional story wherein a servant murders his master and then becomes increasingly tormented by the murdered man’s spectre.  But while the ghost in a conventional story would be out for revenge, the ghost here has more complex motives, as are revealed in the story’s unexpected denouement.

 

The Intercessor is the final and most impressive story in the collection, recounting a haunting by a child’s ghost that, gradually, leads the narrator to understand the emotional circumstances of the child’s still-living parents.  The story’s intensity and the unforgiving wildness of its setting – the parents live beyond a field where “(a) wild plum tree stood half-naked on a hillock and pointed at the house”, and the house itself has “a bald gable-end pitched among the ash trees.  It was black grey, like ash bark drenched with rain” – are worthy of Emily Bronte.

 

Not all these tales are about ghosts.  Where their Fire is not Quenched and The Finding of the Absolute both speculate on what the after-life might be like.  In one story the after-life is an idealistic one and in the other it’s positively hideous.  The Flaw in the Crystal is about a female telepath who quietly uses her powers to cure other people of depression and instability.  She’s horrified to discover that the suicidal madness of one of her ‘patients’ is leaking into her own mind and threatening to infect those other people she’s psychically linked with.  The Flaw in the Crystal is the story I found hardest to get through, mainly because of its length.  It’s 50 pages long but could’ve had the same impact with 20 pages less.  Nonetheless, it contains some excellent writing and the scene where the madness begins to corrupt the heroine’s perceptions of the world around her is worthy of H.P. Lovecraft.  The standard of the prose is considerably higher than Lovecraft’s, though.

 

A sad fact of life – and death – is that when people die, they usually leave unfinished business with those around them.  The supernatural aspects of the stories here allow their protagonists, living and dead, a second chance to resolve their business with one another.  Subtle rather than frightening, and not hell-bent on wreaking revenge, the worst that can be said about May Sinclair’s phantoms is that they’re unnerving in their determination to sort things out.

 

From wikipedia.org