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New Zealand Metal 101: Filth, Squalor and Noise from the Antipodes

Image (partial) from the award-winning album cover of Beastwars, by Nick Keller (September 2012)

New Zealand has some very pretty scenery, but don't let that fool you, the nation is replete with filth and squalor. In this month's Ragnarök we look at the best of that corruption, with New Zealand Metal 101.

This month's column is dedicated to the memory of my father, Robert Graham Hayes. A man who was no fan of his son's mullet or listening choices, but paid his hard-earned money for my first record player and Twisted Sister album nonetheless. Cheers, Dad.

If you ignored the statistics on abuse, violence, and sexual assault, as well as the methamphetamine epidemic, failing welfare system, joblessness and increasing poverty, you could say New Zealand's not doing too badly these days.

In truth, no matter what those beautiful tracking shots in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit might suggest, NZ has just as many problems as the rest of the world. True, you're never far away from some spectacular scenery, but while picturesque panoramas may nourish the soul, they won't fill your stomach.

I don't want to sound too hard on NZ. I'm often struck by how idyllic it is here, and I'm grateful to call it home. Still, that doesn't take away from the fact that the varying plagues of modernity have greatly affected these fair isles, and those infections construct the outline for this month's column. The offshoots and consequences of those issues have fuelled the fires beneath NZ's angriest musicians, and you'll not find a more livid (or enthusiastically obnoxious) bunch than those lurking in the seething morass of NZ metal.

We like to refer to ourselves in NZ as a nation built on No. 8 wire. If we want anything done, we'll do it ourselves, with whatever we have to hand, and that hardy DIY spirit is ubiquitous throughout NZ's artistic community. It's a trait that has always underscored NZ metal -- a clear determination to never let our remoteness hinder our creativity.

If you bind that attitude with a dry sense of humor, and a rock solid sense of solidarity, you have the NZ metal scene. It’s self-sustaining, with NZ-based labels, promoters, distributors, radio shows, blogs, websites, zines, and plenty of shows bolstered by fervent fans. In recent years, the presence of NZ’s metal netherworld has been increasingly felt internationally -- but of course, it wasn't always that way.

New Zealand Metal History 1970-2013 (abbreviated)

The definitive history of NZ metal has yet to be written, but it's a colorful and delightfully grubby tale -- with a huge cast of interesting characters, both cruel and kind. Endeavoring in a single column such as this to encompass 40 or more years of rock history is fraught with difficulties -- not least because space dictates that some important bands must go unmentioned.

I'll be keeping things as streamlined as possible here, forgoing, in the main, punk, indie and pub rock, and the avant-garde gambols for which NZ is well known. A fuller picture of NZ's rock 'n' roll history, which briefly mentions metal, is available in John Dix's Stranded in Paradise, and NZ's experimental scene is unpacked wonderfully in Erewhon Calling: Experimental Sound in New Zealand. Both are excellent reads.

With due apologies and a reverential hail to absent bands, let's set off.

The '70s

Human Instinct—Stoned Guitar (1970)

NZ has always had a vibrant local music scene. Loudness and grunt have abounded since the late '60s and early '70s, which is where, as in the rest of the world, the story of metal began.

On 13 February 1970, Black Sabbath released its self-titled debut in the UK, setting in motion heavy metal's ascendency. Four months later, NZ quartet Human Instinct released its sophomore LP, Stoned Guitar. Featuring Māori guitar legend Billy TK (NZ's answer to Jimi Hendrix) this album and its follow-up, 1971's Pins in It, were formative albums, helping to sketch a template that eventually became NZ metal.

That template of psychedelic blues and hard rock was soon built upon by bands such as Ticket (with 1972's Awake) and Space Farm (with 1972's acid-soaked self-titled LP). The lysergic fuzz scene was electric in the early '70s. This was fitting, as one of the first albums cited as showing metal promise was Think's 1975 LP We'll Give You a Buzz -- although, to listen to the mellifluous progressive rock now, it's hard to hear why. Further progressive rock bands followed. Albums from Ragnarok (1976's Nooks), and Living Force (1977's self-titled debut), injected technicality into the rockin' and rollin'. With numerous pub bands jamming on the heavier classics of the era -- from Deep Purple, Uriah Heep, Black Sabbath etc. -- NZ found itself with a humming, often tripped-out, heavy rock scene.

Think—Ripoff (1975)

The structures that would eventually become NZ metal's musical framework were initially made from internationally inspired musical brushstrokes -- with a few key local bands adding their sway. However, music aside, NZ society faced huge political and public upheavals as the '70s moved into the '80s, allowing for NZ-specific themes to emerge. Although NZ made great strides in shaping an independent identity, shucking off the last vestiges of its colonial taint, failed economic experiments and societal disruptions left many unsteady.

The '80s

Knightshade—Blood and Money (1986)

As NZ punk had done beforehand, NZ metal eventually drew upon the upheavals within society for inspiration. But it took the arrival of extreme metal in the mid to late '80s for metal to mine those disruptions in any philosophic or sonic sense. As the '80s rolled in, the scene was still heavily inspired by the traditional metal leanings of the US, UK and Europe.

Power metal and New Wave of British Heavy Metal were the mainstays in the early to mid '80s, but it was the decade in which homegrown metal came into its own. Traditional metal bands such as Lionheart, Knightshade, Stormbringer, Strikemaster, Confessor, Tokyo, and Stonehenge gathered large crowds and released numerous EPs and LPs -- many now highly collectable. (If you're curious, an excellent 2011 compilation, No Peace for the Wicked, collects a multitude of those artists.)

Stonehenge—Easy Livin' (1986)

However, while traditional metal was abundant in stores during the early to mid '80s -- racks were filled with Judas Priest, Iron Maiden and any number of classic metal, hard rock and hair-metal acts -- by 1986 things had begun to visibly change in NZ's metal scene.

Like many metal fans of my age around the globe, by the late '80s I had discovered a record store that revealed the metal underground. In the city I lived in at the time, Christchurch, it was Grunt Records, a store run out of a t-shirt shop, with the seemingly indomitable Bruce Rae behind the counter. The store is long gone, and Rae has sadly departed this realm, but what Grunt Records represented for me personally can be extrapolated out to encompass the changes that were afoot for NZ metal.

Grunt Records was my doorway into extreme metal. I spent hours flicking through its record bins, which were stuffed with imported albums. Spending my meager pennies on LPs stacked with Satan, sex, beer and drugs (and a little more Satan) was a life-changing experience. Grunt Records allowed me to connect with the tape-trading circuit, purchase my first Metallica t-shirt, and hear Celtic Frost, Possessed and Slayer for the first time on a shop speaker system. It offered unhindered immersion in independent, underground and unhinged metal.

The changes that were opening my eyes to the possibilities of metal -- thereby forever altering my life -- were simultaneously reshaping the parameters and culture of NZ metal. The period between 1985 and the early 1990s saw a radical altering of NZ's metal landscape, as the weight of extreme metal arrived downunder -- though the full titanic shifts were yet to come.

The early '80s had seen heavier albums from the likes of Motörhead and Venom strike a spark. However, it was nothing like the inferno that occurred in the mid to late '80s, when bands such as Mayhem, Bathory, Exodus, Morbid Angel, Napalm Death and many, many more, hit the record players and tape decks of NZ metal fans and musicians. In the late '80s and early '90s, thrash bands like Shihad, Ultimate, Phobia and Anigma arose, and NZ metal got harder, meaner, and a lot more adventurous.

Shihad—It (live at Grunt Records Awards 1989)

Spurred on by the impetus and extremity of underground rather than classic metal, NZ metal became even more determined to make a great deal of ear-splitting noise. What was impressive was that it sounded confident in its own abilities and, most importantly of all, it was forging its own identity.

The '90s

Shihad—Factory (1993)

NZ metal exploded, with an increase in bands and a hell of a lot more volatility, as the '80s bled into the '90s. The NZ indie rock scene had found much international acclaim in the '80s, but in the early '90s alt-metal band Head Like a Hole (HLAH) was making a big impact at home, and would continue to do so throughout the decade. The debut EP from Shihad, Devolve, and the band's 1993 industrial, thrash-heavy Churn (produced by Killing Joke's Jaz Coleman) were a huge success. Such artists affirmed that NZ metal bands were easily capable of producing work on a par with the rest of the world -- not that hometown fans were in any doubt.

Hard, seedy rock had been given a shot in the arm in the '80s, and glam rocker Push Push was still doing well in the charts in the early '90s. However, like in the rest of the world, the arrival of grunge and alternative rock killed off the glitzier bands, and battered NZ's traditional metal ramparts. Shihad progressively reduced its icier aggression and amplified the 'alt' to go on to even bigger chart success in NZ and Australia, and record labels such as Wildside arose to sign successful hard and alternative rock outfits such as Dead Flowers, Rumblefish, Slim, and Pumpkinhead.

Head Like a Hole—Wet Rubber (1998)

With popular shadings of alt-rock and quasi-metal vying for space on the charts, down in the underground NZ metal was doing what it did best: making a lot of fiercely independent and apoplectic noise.

Throughout the '90s, zines, gigs at parties and clubs, rampant tape trading and lo-fi recordings ruled supreme -- with NZ's underground metal bands exploring every darkened, fetid and malevolent crevice the genre could offer. Demos from the likes of Daemon, Karnage, Haemorrhage, Eviscerate, Molested Entrails, Convulsion, Demise, Chapel of Gristle, and now long-running stalwarts Human and Malevolence, crawled through the sewers of subterranean death metal, grindcore and sludge. The blackened death of Azazel, Enshrine and Sinfeeder fed into Intorment, which, along with the commanding Skuldom and Vassafor, was among the first to reconnoiter the topography of NZ black metal.

Intorment—Grip of the Serpent (1994)

Yet, for all the formative music spewing from the underground in the '90s, nothing came close to Sinistrous Diabolus's 1993 demo, Opus One. This offering of hallowed death and sepulchral doom has been hailed in the halls of NZ and global extreme metal since its release -- and when it was rereleased in 2011 the applause only got louder as a new generation of fans was exposed to its depths. Currently, fans await Sinistrous Diabolus's next move with high expectations. The band has shifted through line-ups, though Kris Stanley has led the pack throughout, and with sparing shows and recordings spread over a number of years, the mystique of Sinistrous Diabolus is entirely apt, as is the murkiness of its material. However, for all the band's mystery, there's nothing unsure about Opus One.The hugely influential and inspirational demo was responsible, in no small part, for the success that underground NZ metal has enjoyed ever since.

Sinistrous Diabolus—Sleep of the Damned (1993)

The '90s were a fertile time for NZ metal, with a plethora of releases, both above and below ground. Demoniac saw its early raw black metal released internationally, to much success. And, in one of metal's strangest metamorphoses, the band eventually transformed into the now hugely popular, flamboyant power metal act Dragonforce. In all, the '90s stoked the flames under NZ metal like never before. In the underground, bands branched out with DIY gusto, leaving behind any notion of traditional or safe metal to tackle every razor-edged, grinding or putrescent sub-genre imaginable. That drive successfully enabled NZ's metal scene to stamp a distinctive boot print, helped enormously by fans as they supported local artists and spread the word far outside NZ's borders.

The '90s were also notable for another significant fact. It was the decade in which NZ metal disseminated its virulence to all points of the national map. Previously, metal bands had been centered in main cities and towns like Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin, but in the '90s bands began to spring up all over -- see New Plymouth and Palmerston North's notorious metallic punk scenes. That DIY disposition flourished, and cacophonous noise was no longer limited to any specific locale.

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