I blame Venom.
I may well be wrong—it’s happened before—but for me, Venom is where the decline began. Back in 1985 or ‘84, I bought Venom’s album At War with Satan. I bought it without knowing a thing about it; I bought it because they were metal, and I was a metalhead, which at the time meant that I listened to AC/DC and Black Sabbath, Judas Priest and Iron Maiden. Bands, in other words, that employed plenty of loud distorted guitars and histrionic shrieking vocals, but which still remained recognizably rock and roll.
The first sign that Venom was different came even before placing the album on the turntable. There, on the bottom of the record sleeve, was the famous anti-home-taping logo that the recording industry was hoping would deter consumers, and illegal copiers, of music. Beneath a cassette tape lay a pair of crossed bones, Jolly Roger-style, with the dire warning: “Home taping is killing music. And it’s illegal.”
Except that Venom’s warning was different. Theirs read: “Home taping is killing music. So are Venom.”
Sure I laughed. Who wouldn’t laugh? Then I put on the record, which was my first experience with what would soon be called death metal, or doom metal, or thrash metal of whatever it is now. To be entirely honest, I haven’t made much effort to keep up with metal’s subsequent ever-more-incremental splintering. (Though I will admit to curiosity about things like “symphonic Viking technical death metal” and so on.)
Anyway, this was my first experience with music that was so intentionally grim, and it’s why I blame Venom for what so much of what metal would devolve into: the record album as endurance test. Unpleasantness as artistic design. Gloomy-gloom lyrics. Music as a fun-removal tool. Call it sulk ‘n’ roll. It was the first record I heard that made me think: Hey, maybe my parents are right. This really is just noise. I was twenty-one.
So what does any of this have to do with Andy Winter’s new album, Incomprehensible? On the face of it, not much. Maybe it’s a connection that only I can see. After all, Incomprehensible isn’t a death metal album, nor is it doom metal, or thrash or sludge or technical death or… well, it’s hardly metal at all, really.
Which is odd. Winter, who is known for his work with Norwegian metal bands like Winds, assembled numerous guest musicians and recorded a series of tracks over several years. With different vocalists on each track, the prevailing thread is his dextrous guitar playing. He is a skilled technician and he knows his way around a fretboard.
This is not to say that the songs are particularly interesting, however, and I can and do draw a line straight back from this record all the way to that Venom album back in the ‘80s. For starters, the songs here share that adolescent preoccupation with gloom and existential angst that passes for profundity among much of the metal world these days, although it eschews Satanism. “I feel I’m getting closer to being insane”, sings Paul Kuhr in “The Transversal Conjecture”, “after all I’m only human, not humane.” Clever, sure. Get back to me when you’ve listened to an hour of it.
More egregiously, this music utterly fails to tap any sort of verve or momentum; hell, it fails to rock, which is odd, given the musical credentials on display. Tune after tune just sort of mopes along, reveling in complex time signatures, slow tempos and dreary faux-angst. It’s more prog or, hell, jazz than anything else. There’s a drummer back there, tapping out intricate polyrhythmic patterns on tunes like “My Illusions Are My Own” and “Back to Square Two”, but after a while you just want to shake him into pounding out a simple 4:4 beat with a little fucking groove to it.
The same is true with the guitar: there’s a lot of busyness here but hardly any riffs. Call me old fashioned, call me a dinosaur, say I’m stuck in the [insert decade here], but a metal album without riffs is a… well, it’s a head-scratcher, really.
With guest musicians like Agnete M. Kirkevaag of Madder Mortem, who contributes vocals on the engaging opener “Reversed Psychological Patterns”—the best song here—and other input from members of Agalloch and The Devin Townsend Project among others, there is presumably a ready audience for this material. It remains a mystery to me as to why, though. But then, there are so many things I don’t understand, like why anybody ever listened to Venom, or why so many other people tried to copy them. Or even why other people who aren’t trying to copy them, like this crew here, are nonetheless so hell-bent on taking all the fun out of heavy music.