Friday, June 12, 2009

Another semi-relevant bit of coursework for you.


Madness (Is All in the Mind): Is This Really England?

“But I've got one question to ask you. Do you consider yourself English, or Jamaican?”

A seemingly simple query, directed at a young Jamaican-born skinhead by the name of Milky by an elder statesman of the gang, comes spring-loaded with decades of hatred and resentment. Unbeknownst to Milky, his very life may hinge upon his response; luckily for him, he answered “correctly,” identifying himself as “English.” Now then, one must ask: what does that mean? No one really seems to know for sure. Ask anyone walking down the streets of London whether they consider themselves to be British, English, or something else altogether, and you’re sure to get a different response every time. Is Englishness imbued in any individual who happened to be born on this particular island in this particular sea, and a force in his character from the first breath he takes? Is it learned? Assumed? Chosen? Technically, a third-generation Bangladeshi who lives on Brick Lane is as English as Adam Walker, but which of them is more likely to see it as a source of pride? It’s a complex situation, and one the bears examination. Director Shane Meadows, one of England’s rising stars, explored the issue in his landmark film This is England, touching upon some of the very uncomfortable stereotypes and issues that plague English society in the process.
Milky, his gang of affable skinhead mates, and their adopted mascot, young Shaun, are the central characters in the gritty semi-biographical drama, which takes place in the English Midlands. Its protagonist, a scruffy social outcast by the name of Shaun, lives in a dingy little house with his mother and wakes up to a photo of his late father, a casualty of the Falklands War, each morning. One afternoon, on his way from a particularly rough day at school, Shaun stumbles across a bunch of good-natured skinheads, led by the charismatic Woody, who immediately take him under their wing and welcome him into their group. A freshly shaved head, brand-new Ben Sherman shirt, oxblood Docs, cuffed denims, braces, and an attitude adjustment – with a haircut, a trip to the shop, and a couple cans of lager, Shaun is transformed, and suddenly, he’s found himself a place in the world. He even gets a girlfriend – the unfortunately nicknamed Smell, an older punk/new-wave type, who shows him genuine, if slightly bemused, affection. Newly empowered by his army of benevolent, though slightly rough, companions, and armed with his mother’s blessing, Shaun enters the happiest period of his life. Everything changes, though, once Combo comes to town. Racism, violence, radical politics, intimidation, confusion, and bloodshed enter young Shaun’s life, eventually leaving him shaken, disillusioned, and, once again, alone.
The film paints a grim picture of working-class England in the early eighties. July 1983 was an unhappy time to be English; unemployment had risen well past the two million mark, the country was nursing still-fresh war wounds, and its people were struggling to scrape by and eke out a living under the iron fist of Margaret Thatcher. The relative success of the Falklands War brought reelection for the Iron Lady, and a surge of patriotic feelings swept the nation. Unfortunately, a healthy sense of national pride was twisted by some into something much harsher, and much more dangerous. This increase in British nationalism and the problems it caused were represented by the character of Combo – a bitter, racist, violent fascist who returns to the fold following a sting in prison, and rapidly becomes a surrogate father figure to Shaun. The young boy looks up to him as a strong masculine figure, and latches onto his ideals in an effort to please him and prevent him from leaving the way Shaun’s real father did. Preaching intolerance thinly disguised as patriotism, he forces Woody’s gang to chose sides, effectively separating the skinheads into rival factions that eventually found it nearly impossible to coexist.
It’s important to note that This is England is set in 1983 - one year after the New National Front and a faction of the British Movement merged to form the new British National Party. Combo brings Shaun and several other young skins to a BNP rally, where they are exposed to the party’s radically nationalist doctrines. The BNP plays a pivotal role in the film’s development, imprinting its ideology into young Shaun’s psyche and molding him into its own xenophobic image. The change in the boy is immediately noticeable, and made most glaringly obvious during a violent, Comno-aided encounter with Mr. Sandhu, the Pakistani shopkeeper with whom Shaun had had minor tussles before.
As the film progresses, Combo cultivates an unlikely friendship with Milky, (a nickname which in itself distinguishes him as something “different” – inadvertently pulled between two cultures by his own best friends). One scene shows the two bonding over marijuana and reggae, a situation that alludes to the hand ska and reggae played in uniting the white skinheads and black Jamaicans of the era. The pleasant atmosphere evaporates as Combo beings asking Milky about the boy’ family; during the course of the next few minutes, the friendly questions turn into a hard-edged interrogation, and eventually end in violence. Milky’s warm stories about his family and the rejection Combo had recently suffered from his former love, Lol, combined to trigger something in the man’s own dark past and damaged psyche. Combo’s savage beating of Milky and the old skin’s ensuing emotional breakdown have a profound impact on Shaun, who saw everything. Suddenly, the tough little skinhead sheds his tough outer shell and once again becomes the scared little boy that all the boots and all the braces braces in the world could not hide.
The closing scene – when Shaun throws the St. George’s Cross flag into the sea – is poignant on several levels. On one, it shows him rejecting his surrogate father and his teachings. One could also take it to mean that Shaun was disowning his English heritage altogether, after seeing it tainted and twisted so terribly by a person he trusted. The St. George’s Cross is still a bone of contention amongst English folk today; while some try to claim it for their own, to celebrate their own unique brand of Englishness, others still see it as a dangerous symbol of nationalism, one that should be kept under wraps and supplanted by the broader-minded Union Jack. It’s anybody’s guess which side will ultimately prevail, and what exactly was meant by Shaun’s parting gesture, but such is the beauty of This is England – much like real life, it leaves the ending up to you.

Maybe I'll update this more often now that I'm done with classes.

Until that pans out, here's an essay I wrote for my British Culture class about the effect of British heavy metal on the American metal scene.


COME TO THE SABBATH: The Lasting Effects of British Heavy Metal

In the beginning, there were the blues. They came howling out of the muddy waters of the Mississippi, bearing the still-beating heart of Robert Johnson in their tobacco-stained fingertips, and stopping, briefly, at the crossroads, to see a demon about a soul. Once the blues calmed down a little and branched out a bit, there was skiffle. This half-grown redheaded stepchild bridged the gap between the past and the future with its jug band aesthetic and pub-ready mishmash of blues, country, folk, and jazz, and spawned a generation of soon-to-be-legends. Skiffle paved the way for the first primal stirrings of British rock’n’roll, and served as a crucial jumping-off point for the Beatles, Mick Jagger, Jimmy Page, and Van Morrison . The frenetic tempos and laid-back attitudes of the skiffle players paved the way for the sweaty, upbeat urgency of British rock’n’roll, which slowly but surely stole across the nation once the Swingin’ Sixties took hold. Brit rock rolled in at the tail end of the ‘50s and dominated the UK charts for many years after as countless British teenagers, all revved up on boogie woogie American blues and the slicked-back cool of Elvis, picked up a twelve-string and started their own bands. Of course, it is impossible to write about British rock’n’roll without making mention of the world’s most famous Liverpudlians – those wisecracking moppets that made it bigger than Jesus – the Beatles. They stormed onto the British music scene in 1962, and didn’t stop ‘til they’d changed the world a few times over. Their influence was felt ‘round the world, especially in the United States and in their own nation. The Beatles were, for a brief period, the biggest, best, and most beloved band in the world – everyone wanted to be them, or at least, sound like them. Their invention of and forays deeper into drugs, paisley, and psychedelia inspired a host of new bands, including Pink Floyd, who themselves became a massive inspiration on generations of drug- and riff-enthusiasts for decades afterwards. Their album, “Dark Side of the Moon” is hailed as a milestone of progressive rock, a musician-friendly genre that sprang up in the late sixties and drew upon extended song structures, jazz fusion, and classical music to enthrall and perplex their audiences. The jazzy excess and convoluted concepts of bands like King Crimson, Genesis, Yes, Jethro Tull, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer exemplified the best and worst aspects of prog rock, but their focus on musicality provided inspiration for other bands, who took the idea and ran with it – in the opposite direction. Legions of British bands came strutting out of the woodwork during the early 70’s; Steppenwolf, The Kinks, The Who, Cream, and the Yardbirds kick-started the hard rock movement, then Thin Lizzy gave it its soul.Hard rock and proto-metal, pioneered by bands like Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Blue Cheer, and Iron Butterfly, took the bluesy stomp of rock’n’roll, toughened it up with the distortion and electric guitar squeals of acid rock, and somewhere in between blowing ganja smoke over the water and climbing the stairway to heaven, accidentally laid the groundwork for heavier things to come. Hard rock had grit, it had riffs, and it had just enough danger to mythologize some of its leading men, but there was still something missing. And then…there was Sabbath.
Black Sabbath were the first heavy metal band, and they are from England. In the simplest possible terms, this means that heavy metal comes from England, which in turn means that every single country in the world and millions of headbangers owe their lives to those four lads from Birmingham. The debate rages on to this day, pitting ‘Sabbath against hard rock heavyweights like Led Zeppelin and Blue Cheer, but the outcome is clear. It’s all in the fingertips.
In 1970, a great roar came rumbling down from the blackened hills of Birmingham. It was loud, it was slow, and most of all, it was heavy. It was a bone-shattering homage to sonic excess and the evil that men do. It crawled along at a crippled pace as a cackling ghoul of a singer with a voice like a banshee invoked dire images of demons, witches, and impending doom. Soaked in distortion and draped with an occult atmosphere ripped straight out of Crowley’s boudoir and held down on the lowest of the low end by a man in black, this new sound was borne of hard rock and working-class blues, of alienation, depression, and the smog-filled air of an industrial wasteland. This was 1970, which, after Black Sabbath’s eponymous debut hit the scene like an atomic bomb, would forever be known as “the year that heavy metal was born.”
Black Sabbath’s career has spanned three decades, and their influence has reached to every corner of the globe. Alongside fellow Brits Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath form the most important and legendary trifecta, the Unholy Trinity, of what has become known as “traditional heavy metal,” and gone on to inspire literally every metal band that has formed from then on out. Their influence has been felt particularly strongly in the States, largely in part to the New Wave of British Heavy Metal phenomenon that swept the country in the late seventies. This group of bands incorporated the faster tempos, chunky power chords, and rough attitude of punk rock into their Sabbath-inflected savagery, and pioneered the now familiar metal “look” of long hair, denim, leather, boots, and bullet belts.
The NWOBHM bands that had the greatest impact on American music scene were those that provided a foundation for the more extreme metal subgenres that were to develop in the coming years. Motorhead, Venom, Diamond Head, Saxon, Girlschool, Def Leppard, Angel Witch, and Iron Maiden are the most commonly cited influences for American bands of both that era and more recent times. While lesser-known bands faded quietly into obscurity, the heavy hitters carried on and have made an indelible mark upon the international metal scene. The easiest way to comprehend just how important these British bands and the ones that predate them were to the development of heavy metal in the States and abroad is to trace the evolutions of the various subgenres and styles that they either directly or indirectly inspired.
Together, NWOBHM and the traditional heavy metal forebears that predated it single-handedly kick-started the development of power metal and thrash metal, two of the main branches of the heavy metal tree.
The most full-blooded offspring of the NWOBHM, power metal, remains one of the purest forms of metal, given its similarities to Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, and the original NWOBHM bands. The hallmarks of power metal include soaring male vocals, fast upbeat tempos, blazing guitar solos, melodic elements, and fantasy or mythology-related imagery and concepts, which were, of course, found in the vast majority of the NWOBHM. It must be noted that power metal is much more popular in Europe than it is in the United States; the biggest fanbase and most well-known bands are found in Germany (Helloween, HammerFall), though two of the most popular power metal bands in recent memory, Kamelot and Manowar, both hail from the USA.
The offshoots of thrash metal span far and wide, encompassing several strains of black metal, a good deal of punk rock crossover bands, a variety of modern commercially-oriented bands, and death metal as a whole. Thrash metal as it is known today began in the early eighties, after the NWOBHM had run its course and left a swath of shellshocked new metal fans in its wake. One of the biggest American metal bands of all time, Bay area thrashers turned arena-rock superstars Metallica, openly acknowledge the huge debt they owe to Diamond Head, Motorhead, and Blitzkrieg and have covered a number of NWOBHM songs throughout the course of their career. Metallica were the first of the Big Four of American thrash metal to form, and were swiftly joined by Southern California’s Slayer, New York City’s Anthrax, and fellow Bay Area locals Megadeth, which featured Metallica’s original, and now former, guitarist, Dave Mustaine. Elements of the NWOBHM sound are apparent in each band’s early recordings, though most of them, and especially Slayer, eventually strayed from the melodic past and embraced a more extreme sound. Drawing heavily upon Judas Priest’s quicksilver guitars and Motorhead’s rough, punk-influenced riffage, thrash metal’s main focus is on speed, aggression, gruff vocals, the “shredding” guitar style, and manic, high-register guitar solos, and was one of the first styles of metal to openly discuss sociopolitical issues and the darker recesses of humanity – war, death, and isolation. The Teutonic thrash scene, which was itself heavily influenced by the NWOBHM bands, provided a rawer, more violent approach, made famous by the ominously monikered, leather-clad Germans in Sodom, Kreator, and Destruction. American bands like Testament, Death Angel, Overkill, Vio-Lence, and Sadus joined the bloodthirsty Brazilians of Sepultura and Sarcofago and the technicality-obsessed Canadians in Annihilator and Voivod in spearheading the worldwide thrash metal scene. England had her own thrash brigade (Onslaught, Sabbath, Acid Reign) but, for the first time, was outstripped by the Americans’ stronger and more widespread scene. In recent times, however, a resurgence of interest in traditional, or “retro,” thrash has yielded a crop of new British bands (Gama Bomb, Evile, Savage Messiah, a reformed Onslaught), whose popularity has increased drastically in both the States and on their home turf, thanks to a massive push from established British extreme metal label, Earache Records.
Once thrash metal became more popular and accepted amongst the mainstream, metal fans began to search for something new – harder, heavier, more extreme. The next logical step in the evolution of extreme metal was, of course, death metal. Death metal was fast, it was technical, it was aggressive, and its vocalists employed painful-sounding, deep-throated growls to share their gory, masochistic lyrics with their fiercely dedicated audiences.Heavily influenced by the faster and more occult-focused thrash bands like Slayer, Kreator, and Switzerland’s Celtic Frost, the first death metal bands came from the States – Death, Possessed, and Morbid Angel. Death metal is the most uniquely American of all the metal subgenres, but its roots run deep beneath British soil, and the aforementioned British label Earache Records was instrumental in the genres expansion. The most important British contributions to the international death metal scene came from Carcass, who themselves pioneered the goregrind and melodic death metal scenes, and Bolt Thrower, who are best known for their talented female bassist and enduring obsession with warfare. Other British bands like the “Peaceville Three” (Paradise Lost, My Dying Bride, and Katatonia) started out in a death metal vein, gradually incorporating more elements of doom metal throughout the year before giving rise to an entirely new, very British sound - gothic metal, which is now one of the most commercially successful strains of heavy metal in the world.
England is renowned for its doom metal bands, and rightly so – it has given rise to some of the most important and best-loved doom bands of all time. Doom, which borrows heavily from Tony Iommi’s playbook, focuses on slow, heavy, amplified riffs and exceedingly long song structures, and is the closest modern counterpart to Black Sabbath’s original sound. Electric Wizard, Orange Goblin, Witchfinder General, Cathedral, and Iron Monkey are veritable institutions as far as modern doom metal is concerned, and they are joined by their younger countrymen in Ramesses, Moss, Esoteric, and Warning, who are making waves in the international scene themselves. These hugely influential bands inspired thousands of longhaired Americans to stop spinning the first Black Sabbath record long enough to learn a few basslines and plug into an amp; the American doom metal scene is quite strong, but cannot hold a candle to the original British riff masters.
The British record label, Peaceville Records, were also instrumental in the early British anarcho/crust scene, and released influential recordings by Doom, Electro Hippies, Axegrinder, Agathocles, and Deviated Instinct. In 1981, England’s punk rock roots, combined with the foreign fury of death metal with the disaffection and anti-government sentiments of early anarcho-punks Crass and Amebix, gave birth to the particularly nasty subgenre of grindcore. Extreme Noise Terror and Napalm Death were the first true grindcore bands, and their furious live shows, incredibly fast and short songs, and sociopolitical rants gained them international recognition and respect within the extreme music community. Grindcore has splintered into a dozen smaller sub-subgenres, such as noisegrind, powerviolence, and deathgrind, but purveyors of the original style still exist, and the two original British grind bands are still touring and releasing records.
One particular subgenre owes its entire aesthetic, down to its very title, to one NWOBHM band from Newcastle upon Tyne, England. The intentionally primitive, overtly theatrical and gleefully blasphemous Venom went on to start and christen an entirely new subgenre of their own called black metal, which remains one of the most musically adventurous and ideologically extreme styles of heavy music. Venom were a direct influence on the First Wave of black metal, which included groups like Bathory, and Hellhammer, who in turn influenced the Second Wave – Darkthrone, Burzum, Mayhem, and Emperor . Black metal is characterized by its emphasis on atmosphere and rawness, with buzzing guitar tones, low production values, and shrieked or howled vocals, and is associated with strong misanthropic, anti-religious/Satanic sentiments, and in some cases, with fascism, and violence. Until recent times, England has been bereft of notable black metal acts, but in recent years, has witnessed a renewed interest in the style. Commercial acts like Cradle of Filth and Hecate Enthoned headline major festivals while folk-influenced groups like Forefather and Winterfylleth and avant-garde extremists like Anaal Nathrakh, Code, and Axis of Perdition continue to push the aural envelope and keep British black metal on the map. If there had been no Venom, there would be no black metal, and the thriving global black metal scene would not exist.
The intent of this essay is to show just how intricately connected the metal scenes of England and the States are, and just how incredibly important England’s contributions to heavy music and rock have been. This is only a very brief overview of the evolution of a very long-running, infinitely multi-faceted style of music that has a profound effect on millions of people of every nationality. From a common template of Delta blues to skiffle, then on to rock’n’roll – for Beatlemania, for psychedelia, past the “Dark Side of the Moon,” from Genesis to Motorhead, from Electro Hippies to Cradle of Filth, and far beyond into the future, we have England to thank for all it.
Black Sabbath invented heavy metal, Judas Priest fueled it with fire and gave it its edge, and Iron Maiden brought complexity, fantasy, and a degree of intellectualism to the table. All three bands are still active, still releasing records, and still hitting the road every so often. Thirty-odd years later, the old guard have yet to falter, and serve as fresh inspiration for legions of new fans and allies. There are countless routes that a young band can take in order to achieve the particular sound and aesthetic that appeals to them, but in the end, all roads lead back to Birmingham.