Friday, August 16, 2013

Sasha and Spark have a Pint and Chat about Metal

It’s time for Sasha to take a little vacation.  She has friends who live in Scotland, so she decided to spend a week in the capital city of Edinburgh.  While there, Sasha met up with fellow music aficionado Spark MacDubh.

Sasha:  I’m not familiar with many of the beers on tap.  What do you recommend?  I prefer something dark and heavy, kind of like your tastes in music.

Spark: If you want dark and heavy booze, it has to be Guinness.  I’ll grab us a couple o’ pints.  Some advice, though: if you drink more than eight pints o’ Guinness tonight, wear a nappy tomorrow.  That’s a diaper to you, Canadian girl.  Sometimes Guinness’s after-effects take you by surprise, and wi’ no warning.

Sasha:  Oooh, you’re a man after my own heart!  I love stout, and I’ll be sure to stop after seven and a half pints, just in case.  So, we know we have common ground on alcohol; let’s see about music.  As you know, I played drums and sang in a hard rock cover band before giving it up to solve crimes and chase deadbeats, although some would say I’ve got a harder edge as a sleuth than a rocker.  Whatever.  But when it comes to music, methinks your tastes are much harder than mine.  

Spark: My favourite current bands are Amorphis, Insomnium and Wintersun— 

Sasha: Love the names!

Spark:  They all hail from Finland.  That’s no accident.  Per capita, Finland spends more than any other country on musical education.  That’s why it’s the breedin’ ground for heavy metal innovation.  The Scandinavian bands I favour are modern-day composers who aren’t afraid to head into unexplored musical territory.

Sasha:  I’ve actually heard of the first two bands, but not Wintersun.  What’s one of their best songs?

Spark: Death and the Healing.  It’s sublime.

Sasha:  A lot of the metal you listen to is leaps and bounds away from my own tastes, but then our differences may have more to do with labels or categories than anything else.  Seems there are many sub-genres and categories for metal... 

Spark: Don’t get me started on that!  I tore strips off music journalist Buck Fosterman for persistently labellin’ bands.  If musicians accept his labels they end up painted into a corner, robbed o’ their musical freedom.  Once upon a time there was heavy metal.  Most rockers were happy wi’ that term, although my bastard godfather Lemmy was and still is a notable exception.  Lem insists that Motörhead isn’t a heavy metal band, but a rock ‘n’ roll band.  Good on him.  That’s his prerogative.  More than once I’ve seen Lem walk onstage and announce his arrival with the phrase, “We are Motörhead and we play rock ‘n’ roll.”  He mixes up the opening line from gig to gig, though, to keep the element of surprise.  My favourite opener from Lem was when he greeted Glasgow Barrowlands with, “We are Motörhead and we’re gonna clean your clock.”  And they did!

Sasha: I’ve actually seen Motörhead in concert a few times.  They’re a force to be reckoned with, for sure.

Spark:  Aye, they’re special.  So where were we?  Labels!  As metal grew and became more diverse, some folk became confused by the new sounds, so they invented names for these styles.  Each subgenre then developed its own distinct culture and fashion.  One tribe splintered into many.  Some metal factions now hold the elitist view that their metal is the only real metal, sometimes refusin’ to mix or associate wi’ other tribes.

Sasha: That’s ridiculous.  Good music is good music, regardless of whatever damned adjectives are thrown in front of it.

Spark:  I agree.  What was once a unified whole has become divided, though.  I’ve heard clueless eejits talkin’ shit aboot traditional metal, thrash metal, glam metal, power metal, speed metal, trash metal, sleaze metal, nu metal, goth metal, death metal, doom metal, Viking metal, symphonic metal, avant-garde metal, industrial metal, classical metal, black metal, white metal, folk metal, funk metal, pagan metal, everythin’-bar-the-kitchen-sink metal, and – the most idiotic label of all – hair metal.  The man who coined that term should have his bollocks dunked in a fish tank full o’ piranhas.  

Sasha: Funny you should say that.  I was saying the other day that I want to do just that to an ex-boyfriend, except I called ’em nuts instead of bollocks.  

Spark:  Remind me not to piss you off.  Anyhow, these labellers talk as if they’re authorities on metal, but they’re usually just closed-minded folk who think it’s healthier to put up barriers than to remove them.  That’s not the case.  Cross-pollination is healthy.  I like music that’s extremely heavy and beautifully melodic.  Any fud can plug in an electric guitar and make a noise, or scream into a microphone.  The trick is makin’ music that resonates in people’s souls, makes every hair on their bodies stand on end, sends shivers doon their spines, cleans them from the inside.  That happens when amplified music incorporates techniques discovered centuries ago in classical music: key among them are the tritone and the circle of fifths…but don’t get me started on that!

Sasha: Ah, yes, the circle of fifths...  Hmmm.  I tend to prefer older music, classic rock, I guess, like Led Zeppelin and Steppenwolf.  Once upon a time, these were considered very hard, but compared to some current bands, these guys are much lighter, although it seems odd to refer to them as “light”.    

Spark: I love Zep and, to a lesser degree, Steppenwolf.  Had Led Zeppelin not existed, the musical landscape would be less interesting.  We wouldn’t have amazin’ tracks like No Quarter and Immigrant Song to listen to.  Also, think aboot the folk who – inspired by Plant, Page, Jones and Bonham – started bands and followed in Zep’s footsteps.  Thousands of today’s greatest bands wouldn’t exist were it not for Led Zeppelin, as they’d never have been inspired to pick up an instrument.  Steppenwolf deserve universal recognition for creatin’ the term heavy metal.  As you know, they coined the phrase ‘heavy metal thunder’ in their track Born to Be Wild, to describe the sound o’ roarin’ motorcycles.  Blue Öyster Cult producer Sandy Pearlman later used ‘heavy metal’ to describe riff-laden, overdriven music.  Pearlman may have been the first to use those words as a description o’ music, but if he hadn’t first heard the Steppenwolf song those exact words wouldn’t have occurred to him.  The mighty Saxon – Barnsley big teasers and unflinchin’ defenders o’ the metal faith – named a track Heavy Metal Thunder as a tip o’ the hat to Steppenwolf.  So, Your Honour, members o’ the increasingly drunken jury, we see that both Led Zeppelin and Steppenwolf are immortal.  Let’s raise a glass to those feckers!  Shit, mine’s empty.  Two more pints o’ Guinness comin’ up faster than you can skelp a nun’s arse wi’ a banjo.

Sasha: I’m a little rusty on nurse skelping, but if you give me some time to practice... I think I already know the answer to this, but I’ll ask you anyway:  Do you think metal bands today owe a nod of thanks to Zeppelin and others from those days?

Spark: More than a nod.  A vigorous bang o’ the heid.  Metallists also owe classical composers a vast debt.

Sasha: OMG!  I’m so glad you said that!  So many people today overlook or just plain ignore the relationship between classical music and rock!

Spark:   For sure.  Rock stems from the blues, but true metal has more in common wi’ classical compositions.  The heavier the metal, the more this is the case.  Much Scandinavian metal has no musical relationship to the blues or rock ‘n’ roll.  If ‘blues’ is pictured as one geometric set and ‘melodic death metal’ another, there’s no intersection.  So if Paganini were around today, he’d be in a Norwegian black-metal band.  Fact.

Sasha: I don’t disagree.  So, tell me: what do you think of the musicianship of today’s metal masters?  Who are the best guitarists these days?

Spark: I enjoy different aspects o’ each guitarist.  Joe Satriani excels in composition and execution.  Jeff Beck has amazin’ feel.  Angus Young is a heid-bangin’, fretboard-scorchin’ master.  Michael Schenker never wastes a note.  Neal Schon always knows exactly the right note to play.  Paul Gilbert’s playin’ makes my jaw drop.  Yngwie Malmsteen’s a technical wizard but he spends too much time doin’ widdly-diddly, how-many-notes-can-I-cram-into-a-second pish.

Sasha: Yeah, Malmsteen does tend to be a bit of a show off at times, but he is a major talent.

Spark:  My fellow Scot Martin Taylor does guitar techniques that I’m still tryin’ to figure oot…he’s immense.  Juan Martin’s flamenco is superb.  Alexi Laiho is a shredding monster.  I could be here all night listin’ guitarists I respect.  There are thousands.  Last but not least I’ll mention David Gilmour because his solo in Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb is perhaps the most sublime one ever recorded.

Sasha: Gotta ask about drummers, since that’s my instrument of choice.  I’m actually not very good – I just like to hit things.  But for my money, no one can touch Keith Moon.  

Spark: Keith must have been a heck of a dude to meet and hang oot wi’.  Not only could he play drums to an insane level, he was ridiculously entertainin’ to watch: the perfect combination o’ craziness, ability and magnetism.  Didn’t matter what microphone-swingin’ stunts Daltrey was doin’ or which aerobatic manoeuvres Townshend was pullin’ off, they couldn’t take the limelight off Keith.  My eyes were on him when The Who played.  Lookin’ elsewhere was risky, as I might miss one o’ Keith’s crazy facial expressions!  You’ll get no argument from me aboot Keith Moon’s talent, Ms Jackson.  He was a wizard.  What a loss.

Sasha:   Agreed.  No one can touch him when it comes to drumming.  What about song lyrics, especially lyrics in metal songs?  Seems to me that the words in songs by Wintersun, Insomnium and bands like that are much darker.  I’m not saying I wish people were always singing about rainbows and unicorns, but do the lyrics in realllly hard music ever bring you down?

Spark: No.  Quite the opposite.  That shouldn’t surprise you, though.  My surname, MacDubh, means ‘son of the dark’.

Sasha:   Ahh.  I didn’t know that!  Um, this may be a bit personal, but what’s the story behind you making a deal with the Devil?

Spark: That wankstain!  Don’t get me started on him…

Sasha:  A lot of people in the music biz are wankstains, don’t get me started on them!  There are days when I regret leaving the music biz.  And I can remember – in my early days on the Toronto music scene – when I would have given my right arm, a kidney, and my firstborn for a contract with a major record label.  And now, in my life as a P.I. , I see person after person trade off money, favors, or a part of themselves – usually their integrity – to attain whatever is of the utmost importance to them.  

Spark: In your line o’ work, I bet you see it every day.  I’ve seen folk trade their souls, desperate to clamber onto some bandwagon or other.  My thinkin’ on the subject is in line wi’ a piece o’ biblical scripture.  ‘What profiteth a man if he gaineth the whole world and forfeiteth his soul?’  Mark wrote that.  Perhaps the original rhetorical question.  Here’s another question, a non-rhetorical one this time.  Whose round is it?  Yours?  Excellent!  I’ll have a pint o’ snakebite.  Ta very much, Sasha.

For more on Spark MacDubh (and his author Mark Rice) check out Metallic Dreams on AMAZON and follow Mark on Twitter @Metallic_Dreams


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