Monday, March 30, 2009
Hobbit Prog Part Two: The Metal Years
In Twilight of the Idols, Friedrich Nietzsche expounds upon one of his more interesting concepts: that of “instinct”, and the idea that the highest level of human achievement is to do things with consummate skill and complete unthinking; the notion of the greatest genius being perhaps reflexive in his genius, simply creating by some unknown and unteachable force that shows itself in the seamless beauty of a truly epoch-defining work of art.
Perhaps this is why so much of Prog-influenced Metal is such irredeemable gobshite. For years I wondered why I wanted to hurt babies and urinate on flowers when I heard Yngwie Malmsteen, and I finally decided that it was because his perfection was literally inhuman, that for all the man’s ability to “shred” and pound out hundreds of notes in a single guitar solo, the antiseptic flawlessness of his sound and musical execution (savor the aptness and beauty of the word) marked him as essentially soulless, with the evanescent beauty of a well-pancaked debutante and the ice-cold clarity of a novel by Robbe-Grillet. This is the music of an over-heated artisan, not the insight of a slightly imperfect visionary. Disconcertingly anodyne like a corporate stand-up comic and exuding all the ardor of a Mormon stripper, technically precise music like Malmsteen’s Fantasy-influenced Rising Force or Odyssey are as well-honed and unforgiving as a particularly efficient firing squad. This is Eichmann-rock, too banal to be evil, the work of a slavish bureaucrat who knows his file card system down to the last gassed Jew. Playing with the full chill of the Baroque and none of the delight and whimsy, it is fitting Malmsteen obsessed over Paganini but seemed to have no place in his vast fretting-vocabulary for Mozart. The result is some of the most inhuman music ever made. It is also anti-instinctive, obsessively rational, the exact opposite of the Nietzschean genius for natural improvisation that makes Robert Fripp probably the most interesting guitarist who has ever lived.
Alas, the cold killer Malmsteen is also without question the most influential Metal guitarist of the last 30 years. If only Dream Theater had listened to a little more Zeppelin or Van Halen when they were teens, perhaps they would have learned the art of self-deprecation and not trying to make THE MOST IMPORTANT ALBUM IN THE HISTORY OF FUCKING MUSIC and doing so every goddamn time these pinheads decided to masturbate all over a studio somewhere. I start with Malmsteen because I loathe him, and the whole appalling history of Metal Hobbit Prog would have never existed without the implacable scythe Malmsteen’s Razor; as Solzhenitsyn remarked of the Gulag, “a hand more unrelenting than Death.”
Ghosts, goblins, doom and death litter modern Metal like family secrets after a tornado; you never knew that your neighbor had a massive child pornography collection, that is until a twister came along and vaporized that little shed at the back of his property that he always swore was a “root cellar”. And while a smooth-Cambodian boy obsession can be pretty embarrassing to a church-goin’ type, I can’t imagine it would be any worse than if somebody found out I had the entire King Diamond discography on my IPod. (I don’t; this is simply for illustrative purposes) The Hobbit Prog of the 70’s had a quasi-charm that allowed for mirth even when it was completely ridiculous; the maddeningly violent and astonishingly fascistic “fantasy” Prog that exists to this day is an indictment of Les Paul for ever having the thought of plugging a fucking guitar into an AC outlet.
The problem is that most of the 80’s “Fantasy” metal bands with an obvious Prog influence are just flat out psychopaths who would make great serial killers if only they had the guts to stop their lippin’ and get to slittin’. Of course, like most poseur Mansons, this is not likely to happen, as acts like King Diamond and Cannibal Corpse are obvious put-ons and about as scary as re-runs of Sesame Street. The fact that there is also no musical value to any of this shit is actually a relief; I sure would hate to be a closet admirer of a band whose albums include Eaten Back to Life and Tomb of the Mutilated. Jesus Christ, can you imagine how much better this world would be if every “alienated” teenager who threatened to kill himself after listening to this garbage actually did it? The decline in sales of Windows-based PCs and black eyeliner alone would make this mass self-kill-off a worthy goal.
After the “murder metal” fad ran its course, true Hobbit Prog staged a comeback – unfortunately – and this avalanche of noise is a threat to this very day. Bands got back to their Middle Earth roots, stopped singing about the pleasures of necro-coprophagia, and started making good old fashioned shitty records about Tolkien, armored midgets and imaginary flying reptiles. It’s the simple pleasures that make sure Rock n’ Roll is here to stay, big daddy.
Blind Guardian is a particularly atrocious example of “orc metal”, a bizarre sub-set of Hobbit music and one that must be considered “Prog” due to the ambition of the concept storylines, vaulting overkill of musicianship and general bombast of production which, though rocking like a hurricane, is all Rick Wakeman at heart. There are numerous metal bands who seem to do nothing but write about Hobbits and such; the wonderfully named 3 Inches of Blood (think about the implications of that name for a second – oh, there’s some phallic inferiority demons being vented there, I tell you) has carved a career out of Middle Earth, coming from Canada (of course) and bringing the only challenge to the aforementioned Blind Guardian for the title “Most Ridiculous Orc Metal Band Ever”. Devolved from a common source – all of this stuff is born of kids who listened to too much Ronnie James Dio back in the day – listening to Blind Guardian’s Nightfall in Middle Earth was one of the more painful experiences of this project, and the less said about the anthemic vocals, turgid storyline and general idiocy of the whole mess the better. 3 Inches on the other hand was doing fine until the guy started “singing” – this is a band that was raised on a combination of Slayer and Iron Maiden, and you know there’s really nothing wrong with that. The singer though...no album has gone downhill more quickly with the introduction of a vocal track since my quasi-religious experience with Paul Gaffey’s Mephistopheles (q.v.). I just can’t listen to stuff like this, and with tracks called “Destroy the Orcs”, “Heir to the Chaos Throne” and the final insult, “Balls of Ice” (guess what that one’s about) I’m going to have to beg out of my oath to listen to at least two albums by any artist before I go on with my shattered life.
What is interesting about Guardian is that the music is very “gay”, while at the same time being of that mock-heroic mold that pegs it as pseudo-Wagnerian and, therefore, overtly fascist. As long as the combination of frustrated teenage homosexuality and music that is essentially power-chord updates on the “Horst Wessel Lied” goes on without intervention by parents, teachers, and perhaps the military, Democracy will continue to die as a system of government, Humanism will give way to pagan barbarism, superstition will rise and thwart science, witch burnings will return as a feature of this new proto-Troglodyte world, and the eventual end of Western Civilization will be a mere matter of time. You think I’m kidding. I found this album at a Chilean blog called “AngelsHolocaust666”, and am pleased to note the existence of Dylan Klebolds and Eric Harrises in South America, fueled with overwhelmingly militaristic music and worshipping Old Scratch himself. This album was so relentlessly violent and bloodthirsty I had to put some Dan Fogelberg on afterwards just to cleanse myself of all that Ernst Rohm-testosterone, then settled back and forced myself to think about men in Speedoes, little dogs in carrying bags, brunch, and other somewhat less violent gay outbursts to calm the frenzy all this orc killing had engendered in me.
There’s no point to going on and on with all of this critiquing – it’s fucking heavy metal, of course its mindless and knuckle-draggingly banal – but there is one “wild card” of a band that is both horrible and Prog influenced – and nowhere near fitting the pattern of Metal Hobbit that has reduced me to fits of apoplexy and tears the last few days. This is the overtly Medieval stylings of Glass Hammer and their supremely silly Middle Earth Album. From start to finish, it’s orcs and trolls, dwarves and ballads – and is a uniquely annoying indictment of LARPers and a strenuous argument for enforced eugenics and mandatory abortions. Coy, cloying, faux-bawdy and filled with the supposedly-entertaining antics of a room full of madrigal-singing ye-olde-ale- sippers, this is the one album you want to play in the nursing home over and over again for that one uncle who was always trying to molest you when you were a kid. Because this is the torment of Tantalus crossed with the labors of Sisyphus; and I stopped rolling that fucking rock after about four songs. It has been rare that I have not forced myself to listen to an entire album before dismissing it as trash fit for modernity’s bonfire, but this doggerel-and-pony show of these Renaissance rejects is the one truly interminable album I had to suffer in wading to the very depths of Hobbit Prog. I take no responsibility for any who read this review and then go listen to it, just to “see how bad it is”. Knock yourself out, Proganauts, but the PRHOI is announcing right now it is not responsible for damaged laptops and the self-mutilation that will surely follow a full listening of this album.
We have now covered the quasi-history of Hobbit Prog, and I for one am resolved to never listen to any of this shit again. Remember, here at the Progressive Rock Hall of Infamy, we suffer so you don’t have to – don’t be stupid and not take The Curator’s word on these records. Because this might be the most ridiculous sub-genre of Prog I have ever investigated. - TR