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Exploring the Brains behind the Noise

We Expected Something: A Conversation With Tom Berninger

Last year saw the release of Mistaken for Strangers, a film that for all its hilarity and meta-narrative, gave full disclosure to the dynamic of family and fandom. Tom Berninger's documentary of sorts is a kind of sideways glance at the interrelationships that exist not only between himself and his brother Matt Berninger, vocalist for the critically acclaimed indie rock band The National, but perhaps more importantly the connectivity that ultimately comes with any type of music fandom, regardless of genre. While the film deliberately plays up the fact that Tom is an unabashed metalhead and the near complete antithesis of his older brother, it also shows the congruence we all share as fans of music culture and the sort of sanctity, albeit oftentimes hilarious sanctity, that makes our tastes so uniquely and utterly our own. SfB recently spoke with Tom about the film’s impact on his own life, why he loves metal, and what’s changed about his relationship with his older brother. 

The fact that you’re a metalhead is one of the underlying themes of Mistaken for Strangers, Tom, and I’m curious to know where that fandom first started for you. Was there a specific moment for you where you realized how special this music was to you?

You know, it’s always hard to pinpoint because unbelievably our parents were not really people that listened to music all the time. So I don’t really quite remember the first time I heard a song and liked it or especially like metal. I think, and I’ve kind of pinpointed this because I love movies as well, but my love of metal and my love of songs that are aggressive and ugly and weird and maybe sung by monsters goes back to that I loved Little Shop of Horrors, the Rick Moranis movie version, when I was a little kid.

And I remember getting that tape, my parents gave me the soundtrack, and I just listened to Steve Martin, the sadomasochistic dentist singing about poisoning puppies and bashing cats’ heads in, and then the last song where the big monster plant sings “I’m just a mean green mother from outer space, and I’m bad,” and it has the word “shit” and other curse words in it. I remember as a little kid just loving that album. I honestly think I’ve loved horror ever since I was a little kid just because I was interested in movies.

It scared me, but I knew it wasn’t real, and I just wanted to know how they made that guy’s head get cut off. I know that guy really didn’t die, but I wanted to know how they did it, and I loved special effects. I loved the gore, and I loved Fangoria Magazine and Gorezone. So, I think I’ve always had this infatuation with monsters and gore and special effects, and then Little Shop of Horrors was the thing that brought music into it.

That was my first album or soundtrack that I ever truly loved and would listen to where I know all the words to all the songs. I used to imagine me sitting at the lunch table, and I wasn’t ever a nerd or anything like that, but I always hated the people that picked on the other guys, and I always imagined Audrey II being my friend at the lunch table and eating all the kids I hated. I would be in control of him, and we’d both be singing that song at the lunch table. [Laughs] I think that was my first love, though.

 

That relationship between the visual and the auditory has always been a key point for heavy metal just given the fact that so many fans come to the genre by way of being drawn into the album artwork or even band names that kind of call back to that horror fascination. Was that relationship something that worked to sort of bring you to filmmaking?

Yeah, I think so. Definitely. That was the beginning. I just liked music that made me feel more powerful than I really did in my every day life. Not aggressive music necessarily, but heavy music, loud music, music that scares other people – I just started liking it and obviously liking something that most other people didn’t or don’t is almost all of the appeal to all metal fans early on. It’s like you’re in a club.

My brother is nine years older than me and he would occasionally come visit me, but he was away in college when I was like twelve, so I had other sets of friends and my own influences, and I loved video games like Doom and Doom 2 and when Nine Inch Nails did the soundtrack for Quake I got totally into Nine Inch Nails. I just remember that I surrounded myself with violent video games and then from Nine Inch Nails my friend got really into Aphex Twin and that one song “Come to Daddy,” and I was like “Who is this? This is the coolest thing!”

I never had MTV. I just had a VCR, but my friends had MTV and there was just this whole world that opened up, and it scared me a little bit. I was one of those kids with the Internet early on, because my parents were like “We should get a computer for Tom,” but of course all I did was buy and play video games, and then I used a little bit of the Internet to explore music. I think at the same time, before the radio stuff, I liked early AC/DC. From there I was like “Who else is like AC/DC,” and then I got into Deep Purple and then Judas Priest and then from there it was Slayer because they covered “Dissident Aggressor”. 

And then after Slayer it was Sepultura and it just compounded. It wasn’t really a heavy metal genre, but my friends were into things like Aphex Twin, and that just opened my world to a different type of music, and I liked being a part of that club. Especially because I have worries and anxieties and I felt pretty timid in my everyday life, and I felt like I was tough when I listened to my music.

 

It’s pretty amazing how quickly that kind of transformation can come. One day you’re watching Steve Martin sing with a plant and the next day you’re wearing all black and scrawling “Roots Bloody Roots” across the front of your Trapper Keeper.

[Laughs] I kind of hid it pretty well. Still to this day I don’t shove it on anybody. I have very few friends who also like metal, so I still kind of keep it to myself. I went to a private all-male Catholic high school and luckily I had an art teacher who was totally cool as hell, so in art class I drew my zombies and whatever else. And also, I must say, I love art and am an artist as well, and what kid doesn’t wanna draw the Iron Maiden covers? I remember I had Iron Maiden posters and Megadeth posters on my wall way before I ever knew what they were. This was when I was eight. I would go to my Catholic parish festivals, and I lived in a totally Catholic Midwestern neighborhood.

But they would have these festivals and they would hire out these conscripts that would bring in these rides and whatever attractions that would make money. They’d have little carney rides and stuff, but they’d also have these booths, and they don’t do it anymore, but they’d have these booths where you’d throw a dart at a balloon, and you’d get these little tiny mirrors or a poster. It was back in the mid-80s so you’d get either Freddie Kreuger or Iron Maiden posters or all these other awful posters. So I got all the Iron Maiden posters because I thought they were really cool as hell, and I wanted to draw all those things.

 

It all goes back to the visual for you and that ties into my next question, Tom. What was the background for you deciding to make Mistaken for Strangers? It’s an incredibly fascinating film at least partly because there’s a sense that the viewer is deliberately being left out of a very elaborate inside joke between you and your brother, Matt. Was there a discussion with Matt about the idea initially, or was it something you just kind of let grow organically from the experiences that we see on the film?

It was both of our ideas. You’re right about thinking “What is this thing?” It’s a movie, and it is the truth, and it is me and my brother, and it is our relationship, but it’s an exaggeration of our relationship. At the time I was kind of figuring out what the next step in my life was. I was in my late 20s, and I was thinking  “OK, I gotta figure out something,” and it just happened to be, and I’m gonna be totally honest with you, but my brother was like “I’m gonna be going on tour for my High Violet album. Why don’t you come along? You can be a roadie and also just bring your camera, and we’ll make some cool stuff.” He was thinking like some goofball stuff for their website or whatever, and that’s how it originally started.

By no means did I think I was gonna be making a movie and absolutely by no means did I think I was gonna be making a movie about myself, but it became kind of clear halfway through that there was something really funny about Matt’s younger brother Tom, who was like the only brother not in the band, and who liked heavy metal, and who was kind of chubby, and who in some ways is kind of the opposite of what The National has made as their kind of image. The image of The National is so not me, and it was all funny to the whole band and hilarious to them that I’m holding a camera in front of their faces and asking them questions, and it’s like I have no business doing this, and that’s where the idea started. But it is true. A lot of the stuff is real. All of it’s real, but it’s just exaggerated.

 

It’s funny because it gives a pretty accurate depiction of that weird relationship, especially now, that exists between indie music and heavy metal. Sites like NPR and Pitchfork are giving as much credit to a band like Pallbearer as they are a band like The National, and it’s awesome because then you have crossover with fanbases who might not otherwise come across these bands. It is funny, though, because there’s like this myth of disparity that exists with those two worlds like they can’t coexist when it’s obvious that they totally do. I think the film captures that in a hilarious way. Was that a dynamic you had in mind while making the film or that you saw while filming?

Yeah. I knew and we all knew that, yeah, there is this weird thing happening with metal where it’s obviously becoming much more acceptable or cool. I mean, it’s always been cool, but it’s becoming more accepted and bands are blurring the lines. It’s breaking down barriers about what music is, and that’s awesome. I think some people that like extreme music that think a band is selling out because they’re on Pitchfork or NPR or Stereogum are just ridiculous. Those writers are young writers. Those people aren’t categorizing themselves.

With the film there was kind of a freedom for me. In some ways I thought I added a bit of cool credibility to The National, and then also I hoped The National could give a cool credibility to metal because, to be perfectly honest, I don’t really listen to my brother’s music that much, but they sing some dark stuff. My brother screams a lot. It’s not dainty music, The National. They play some pretty heavy stuff. Sure, they play slow songs, but it’s not dance pop. The National is probably the furthest thing from dance pop.

In fact, The National is probably closer to metal than they are dance pop. If you listen to “Lit Up” or “Mr. November,” Matt screams. Their live shows are crazy and intense and ugly, and he’s breaking wine bottles. It’s punk almost. There’s a bit of a hardcore edge. I felt when I was making the thing there was obviously humor in there. I play the more humorous side of metal a little more in the movie than I really do like. I mean, I play Halford’s Christmas song at the end. But I really was wasted on the bus and no one else was on the bus, and I’m like “I’m gonna be drinking on the bus all night, because everybody else is sleeping in the hotel room. I’m gonna sleep in the bus! I’m gonna get wasted and listen to my music!”

And at that time, Halford came out with a Christmas album, and I was thinking “This is actually really good,” and I’m a big Priest fan. I love the fact that extreme music is obviously crossing over. Even though I do say, and it’s kind of a running joke, that I don’t listen to my brother’s music or any indie rock, it’s kind of true. I don’t like super light and poppy stuff. I can listen to it over at a friend’s house, or I can go to a show with a friend, but as far as what I put in my headphones, I’m not listening to light stuff that people wanna dance and party to while saying “I hope you have a good time!”

I just feel like that’s false. To me, I get that playing video games or when I watch comedy. When I listen to music, it’s something completely different for me. I don’t listen to it every day, but when I listen to music it’s something different. In some ways I wanna escape, but in some ways I just want to feel powerful. I don’t want to just dance and have fun. I wanna feel the energy when I listen to music. That’s why I don’t understand why people put music on in the background. What the fuck is that? Why are you putting music on anyways if it’s just gonna be in the fucking background? I wanna listen to it.

 

And that’s just the thing you see with Mistaken for Strangers. It takes something that’s seen by so many as being this very serious topic of taste and just shows it as the hilarious thing that it really is. I think the film is important in many ways because it captures what can often be one of the most ridiculous aspects of fandom or even music criticism.

This movie has been very strange for me. I think it’s starting to slowly sink in that I’m in the movie and the movie is actually about me and what I had been going through. It really touches me that people watch it and connect to it and it’s inspiring to them. It goes back to the type of music that The National play and the fact that there’s something about it that people like who wanna travel to the dark side a little bit. It’s hard to explain. I don’t really know what The National fans think. The one thing I do think my brother’s music is is incredibly cinematic. The way they write their songs with these weird crescendos and things, they’re great songs where you can relate a lot of your life into them.

I must say, and I don’t think it’s true of all metal, but a lot of metal is the same way like Agalloch, for example – their music is very cinematic. In some ways, I think metal and extreme music, for me especially, is the most direct form of expression. It’s another thing where I think you see crossover with my brother’s band. Both with metal and my brother’s lyrics, they’re talking about things and they don’t shy away from topics and subject matter that a lot of people don’t wanna listen to or think about but that we all feel. It’s what I love about extreme music. Sometimes it’s a celebration and not of hostility or evil or whatever, but I mean, think about it.

We all have days where we feel like we want to strangle somebody. I feel like so much other music and forms of artistic expression, they don’t explore that where metal does. It doesn’t shy away from these feelings that we all get – these feelings of aggression and anger and depression and frustration. They bring those out. Everybody feels those things every day of their lives. Some more than others. Obviously maybe metalheads more than others that feel lonely and lost. Metal and extreme music just gives it to you. They’re not afraid to show the darkness a little bit.

 

Did you see your relationship with Matt change as a result of the film?

The movie has definitely brought us together. Not only are we physically close together in a tour bus, but we finished the movie, and we worked on it, and I think my brother definitely sees me differently. He was never totally forcing stuff on me, but he did it for a long time. We weren’t very close for a long time, and he didn’t quite understand me, and I obviously didn’t understand him. He understands now that I totally live my life to the beat of a different drum. That’s the best way I can put it. [Laughs] But I’m just obviously a totally different person in many ways.

After making this movie and after working so hard on it, and of course I had help, but I opened myself up in the movie and he saw that I have many, many skills that he kind of took for granted, but he sees me and respects me now as a totally different person. He’s stopped giving me advice unless I ask for it. And I mean, I see him as much more of a person and not as a rock star now. I saw bad shows, and I saw him struggle, and I saw how hard he works on a fucking song. They spent two years writing, and I see the amount of work he puts into it.

And nobody’s a genius in The National. Very few people are geniuses, and so success is just a lot of hard work. People say it all the time, but it was just so refreshing to see. I now know that High on Fire and these other bands, they’re probably just a bunch of nerds when it comes to making an album. They work their asses off. Metalheads probably don’t think about the amount of intelligent conversations that went into making some of their favorite metal records.

They don’t like to think about it because it sounds lame. They just think these bands get drunk and fucked up and rock out, and that’s not how great albums are made. Very, very few. Maybe a couple were, but it’s mainly just really, really hard work. I imagine Slayer with Reign in Blood, they had Rick Rubin there just cracking the whip. [Laughs] That’s how it happens, and I just realized that. Great things and important things, they depend on how much work you put into them, and you really have to pour your heart and soul into it. 

Thanks to Tom for his time.

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Panopticon: Roads to the North

Panopticon: Roads to the North

(Bindrune/Nordvis)

by Craig Hayes

The cast of characters featured in black metal’s history has made for a damn entertaining tale over the years. However, I’ve always thought that tale should come with a little prelude too. In the early 80s, landmark releases from UK punk band Discharge, including their Why? and Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing LPs, were not only milestones in the annals of punk rock, but also hugely influential in extreme metal’s birth too. Plenty of formative black metal bands have certainly cited Discharge’s stripped-back, über-incensed sound as inspiring, before Discharge had to go and ruin their early promise by actually trying to play heavy metal.

Still, we’re not here to talk about Discharge’s mistakes, we all make those, what really matters is that Discharge provided black metal with a dose of incandescent rage. In fact, if you took Discharge out of black metal’s family tree, you’d be missing a crucial link, but for all their musical influence, the majority of black metal bands weren’t remotely interested in Discharge’s political objectives. Black metal might have been hellbent on critiquing modernity on some level, but most black metal bands held very different views to the Discharge’s anarchist stance.

Anarchism was really explored by crusty, grindcore, and d-beat bands at first. However, as we all know, in recent times, punk-informed principles are routinely wrapped around black metal. Bands like Falls of Rauros, Martyrdöd, Iskra, Skagos, Wheels Within Wheels, Wolves in the Throne Room, and Merkaba all explore philosophies which can be directly or obliquely linked to radical politics and issues like environmentalism, the rights of indigenous peoples, or the disadvantaged in society. Admittedly, some of those bands wouldn’t necessarily identify with the Red and Anarchist black metal movement that has arisen over the years at all, but their focus is still a far cry from the misanthropy and elitism more commonly associated with black metal.

It’s at that point, where black metal is less interested in hatemongering, and more interested in connecting with notions of community and nature, that you’ll find multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Austin Lunn’s celebrated band, Panopticon. I have no idea if Lunn listens to Discharge, or has ever drawn anything from the band, and it’s not like the US is short of anarchic bands that helped stoked the fires under extreme metal either. However, there is a clear connection between Panopticon and Discharge, one that links back to the creative spark of black metal’s very earliest years, where rules were made to be broken.

These days, there’s an endless supply black metal bands indulging in the same hackneyed circle-jerks, but with Panopticon there is no adherence to the rulebook, and no doctrinal stagnation. The band’s nonconformity is right there in Panopticon’s lyrical thread, but it’s evident in the band’s musical diversity. Lunn hasn’t been afraid to blend acoustic instrumentation, washed-out post-rock, ambient passages, doom, melancholic and hooky melodies, and field recordings and samples into his take on black metal. Split releases over the years, with bands such as Lake of Blood, Vestiges, Wheels Within Wheels,  When Bitter Spring Sleeps, Falls of Rauros, and Skagos have seen Panopticon follow varying avenues of musical exploration. Some of those releases have seen Panopticon set off down vitriolic pathways, with plenty of brutal buzzsaw fury, while others have been more reflective and meditative strolls. However, as great as many of those split releases have been, it’s on Panopticon’s full-length releases that Lunn has obviously been able to fully express what his vision of black metal entails.

Earlier works, like Panopticon’s 2008 self-titled debut, found orthodox, crustier, and more progressive black metal battling it out over the album’s epic tracks. In 2009, Panopticon’s second full-length, Collapse, brought a huge leap in compositional strength. Lunn told a tale, informed by his Pagan beliefs, where society was in ruins, and the will to survive was tested. Collapse brought plenty of acidic riffs and blasting percussion, but woven through the album were passages of folk, and huge majestic melodies, and it all hinted at something even more adventurous in the works.

 

That arrived in 2011, with Panopticon’s first masterpiece, Social Disservices. As much as black metal has always sought to conjure up the supernatural nastiness, that’s nothing compared to the real world horrors we can inflict on each other, and Social Disservices dealt with that fact. The album tackled the failings of mental health services to care for vulnerable children, and Social Disservices’ four songs laid out a gut-punch narrative. Everything about the album’s exploration of loss, abuse, and hopelessness was reflected in the intensity of the music. Black metal’s menace ratcheted up the pain, and deeply emotional passages of post rock and ambient doom were there to capture the sorrowfulness. No black metal album has come close to exposing a human tragedy like Social Disservices, but then, no black metal band has released anything quite like what Panopticon did next.

In 2012, Panopticon returned with Kentucky, which focused on the costs of the coal mining industry. Lunn honored workers solidarity and struggles, and the landscapes of Kentucky’s back hills, but, musically, Kentucky was an unexpected surprise. Lunn had drawn from folk and country beforehand, but the traditional Appalachian folk and bluegrass set amongst cascading torrents of black metal on the album certainly raised eyebrows. Kentucky’s juxtaposition of musical styles further underscored that Panopticon was never going to be enslaved by genre restrictions, and in hindsight we shouldn’t have been surprised at all, given oppression in any form is something Lunn has always fought against. For the many who recognised that Kentucky was a bona fide masterwork, the second in a row for Panopticon, there was a huge amount of admiration for Lunn’s determination to be so wilfully disobedient, because that crucial element tied the album’s themes, music, and Lunn’s own artistic courage, together.

Which brings us to Panopticon’s latest release, Roads to the North. Once again, Lunn’s expressive songwriting means black metal provides a lot of the structure here, but there’s plenty of other additions to the framework too. Opener, “The Echoes of a Disharmonic Evensong” finds a string arrangement hunkering down amongst a chaotic storm of percussion, echoing vocals, and shredding, razor-blade guitars. The song is one Panopticon’s best, and most aggressive, yet, and it’s followed by, “Where Mountains Pierce the Sky”, which sees the folk return for a melodic introduction, before the fittingly giant riffs arise.

Roads to the North’s centrepiece is the three-part suite, “The Long Road”. The mammoth song grants Lunn plenty of room to play with a range of moods and instrumentation. Homespun folk appears in the first passage, a cyclone of black and melodic death metal in the next, and the track ends with a psychedelic post-rock amble, which descends into a maelstrom. Roads to the North’s latter half continues with that same volatile temper. “Norwegian Nights” features a mournful acoustic guitar, and clean vocals, making for a gorgeously wistful song. But then, “In Silence” follows on, only to ramp things back up, with a battering collision of death and black metal. Final track, “Chase the Grain”, covers virtually all the terrain that Panopticon’s traversed on Roads to the North. Bluegrass, folk, post-rock, and doom, death, and black metal are run through the mill, with giant ascending melodies emerging on a song that’s gripping, commanding, and always enthralling.

Joining Lunn on Roads to the North are a host of guests, including allies from Waldgefluster, Celestiial, Obsequiae, and Altar of Plagues, and the album has been superbly produced by Colin Marston. The crusty hooks on Roads to the North are perfectly jagged, and the folk reeks of campfires, and nights under the stars. There’s a far heavier presence of melodic death metal here too, with a similar timbre to one of Lunn’s other magnificent projects, Seidr. However, it’s that darkly atmospheric metal that sees Lunn constantly crossing the boundaries, rearranging those black metal elements where he sees fit, and ignoring any and all rules; as he has always done.

What Roads to the North brings most, is the sense of an artist searching for meaning in a world given to superficial distractions. That’s not an unfamiliar feel for Panopticon, and like all of the band’s releases so far, Roads to the North doesn’t feature any throwaway moments or lightweight diversions. The album is filled with lengthy, and often highly intricate songs. You need to make time to step outside the mundane, to pause, and listen. The reward for doing that isn’t simply enjoying some phenomenal music, although there’s plenty of that on Roads to the North. Ultimately, it’s about accompanying Lunn, as he connects the soul-stirring reward that comes from music that explores what it means to be present, in an often indifferent and cruel world.

There’s a great deal of emotional power in that connection, and Panopticon matches that with equally powerful music. However, and this is key, it’s a power that’s shared. Lunn might be howling about injustice, screaming with sorrow, or hailing the glories of reconnecting with nature, but with every Panopticon release he’s always made clear that we’re all welcome to participate in the journey. There’s no isolation here, no sense of Lunn limiting anyone from seeking the answers to life’s myriad problems, and if that sits in defiance of black metal’s exclusivity, then thank fucking Odin for that.

Panopticon doesn’t deal in hollow symbolism, and run-of-the-mill preening and posturing. This is honest music, which challenges convention, and that’s what marks Roads to the North as just as rebellious as any of Panopticon’s previous releases. That renegade spirit is what bands like Discharge handed over to metal; that drive to subvert, with a jolt of revolutionary energy. Roads to the North brings exactly that, providing more evidence of Panopticon’s innovative and insurrectionist heart. Once again, Lunn shows us what it means to be brave, bold, and truly creative. If only more metal bands did the same.  

Stream Roads to the North now on NPR’s First Listen.

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Saor: Aura

Saor: Aura

(Northern Silence Productions)

by Craig Hayes

We’ve probably all got a complicated relationship with some branch of metal’s family tree, and personally, it’s that black/folk limb that’s proved to be the most troublesome for me over the years. I mean, there are bands that I love from that sphere, because they take you on such scenic journeys with their hymns to nature and their forebears. Bands like Árstíðir Lífsins, Skogen, Moonsorrow, or Falkenbach create powerfully evocative music, in that regard, but then there’s a host of other bands that just throw every traditional instrument into the mix, and wildly wave a sword around, all with the hope that something authentic is going to magically arise.

Of course, it doesn’t. If you don’t have an astute sense of compositional balance, and you don’t measure the folk and metal out carefully, you just end up with overly busy songs that obscure all the scenery. No amount of photoshoots with your taxidermy and antler collection is going to sell the authenticity of your music. It might make for a tankard-crashing or

jaunty distraction, but it’s not going to evoke a genuine sense of hearth and home. Albums that manage to do that are still rare treasures, and Saor’s latest full-length, Aura, is a stunning example of one of gems.

Saor is a one-man Scottish band, with Andy Marshall at the helm, and the band released a rightly applauded debut, Roots, in 2013. Marshall draws inspiration from his Scottish heritage and Scotland’s landscapes for Saor’s musical and lyrical aesthetic, and instruments like bodhrán, tin whistle, and bagpipes add the Celtic flavour to Saor’s atmospheric black metal and misty post-rock. All of those elements find perfect equilibrium on Aura, and the album, rather wonderfully, captures a clear sense of time and place.

Aura whisks you away for a tour of the glens and Highlands of Saor’s homeland, with heroic songs, like “Aura” and “Pillars of the Earth”, mixing bloodthirsty riffing with haunting acoustic passages to conjure a deep respect for days of yore. Catchy folk melodies and hurtling riffs are interwoven through “The Awakening”, and phenomenal album opener, “Children of the Mist” too, and you’ll hear echoes of that same counterpoising of the old-world with the new-world that makes songs from bands like Winterfylleth, Primordial, Fen, or Wodensthrone so appealing.

There’s plenty of aggressive guitars and percussion on Aura, and that brings a lot of clashing of steel. But, there’s also a great deal of reverential folk, which avoids dipping into hackneyed theatrics. Aura feels vibrant, and impassioned, but never melodramatic; and in that respect, Panopticon springs to mind when listening. Saor’s interweaving of traditional folk, black metal, and post-rock mirrors the successful use of the same in Panopticon’s songs; albeit with each obviously having different historical and geographic influences. It’s no surprise to find that Panopticon founder Austin Lunn guests on Aura too, because he and Marshall certainly share an affinity for writing lengthy, multi-layered songs that never lose sight of their core intimacy. 

Saor captures that sense of intimacy exceptionally well. Marshall’s vocals provide rousing battle cries, lamentations, and more meditative strolls through the heather; but, in each case, he never overplays his hand. There’s a lot of impressive musicianship on Aura too, but the album doesn’t simply derive its power from its heaviest, frenzied sections. It’s all about that aforementioned balance, where calmer moments transform into soaring sections, and those tides of history, and all those landscapes, come sweeping into view. 

There’s been a lot of talk about Aura being a contender for a very high placing on all those expected end of year lists in late 2014. That praise is entirely deserved, but not just because Aura happens to be a sterling example of how folk metal done right can paint such vivid portraits. The fact is, folk metal can also be hackneyed, overwrought, and, as mentioned, far too busy for its own good. However, Aura features as much full-blown rage as it does subtlety, and there’s real emotional connections to be made here. Certainly, if you’ve been put off by folk metal that only concentrates on overexcited chest-beating, then Saor’s engaging and unfolding storytelling might well be the album to bring you back into the fold.  

There’s a lot of words you can use describe Aura; like poetic, majestic, and breathtaking, for a start. However, it’s beautiful that works best of all. Aura is a beautiful blend of past and present, and a beautiful mix of reflective and impassioned music too. Most of all, Aura is an album with a beautiful sense of an artist pouring their heart into their work, and it’s a beautiful example of when all that passion reaches out, unimpeded, to touch the heart of the listener too.

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Midnight: No Mercy for Mayhem

MidnightNo Mercy for Mayhem

(Hells Headbangers)

 by John Serba

Midnight’s formula, agenda, modus operandi and philosophy can be summed up thusly: fuck you. Its compositions consist of a half-dozen chords played by loose wrists, gangland choruses shouting outrageous nonsense lyrics and arrangements stripped down to either the skin, because nudity is fucking awesome, or the bones, because skeletons are fucking cool. The band is the perfect Motörhead/Venom hybrid, welding the former’s greasy, lubricated OTT-speedball rock to the latter’s great and dreadful dumbass slop. You can picture any palm-muted chug-riff brought to Midnight’s rehearsal space being immediately hung, drawn and quartered and fed to the rats. Its sound is also smeared with the grime of shitty punk rock - just enough to make it good, since punk rock sucks and is boring in execution, but needs to exist so it can influence things that are better than it, e.g., Midnight. I honestly believe stuff this amazing and filthy and crass could only be played by guys from Cleveland. In fact, Midnight sounds exactly how those of us from outside Cleveland think a band from Cleveland should sound: loud, pissed off, aggressive, mean and stupid as hell. 

Midnight is essentially Athenar - real name: Jamie Walters - who plays all instruments on studio recordings, and trots out some literally hooded stooges to back him up for its raucous, fist-pumping live gigs. No Mercy for Mayhem is Midnight’s second full-length in a discography apparently inspired by those similar in slop and fury, Japan’s Sabbat, or fellow dwellers in America’s Armpit, Nunslaughter: lotsa 7-inches, splits, demos, EPs and bullshit live albums. (Go ahead and try to collect ‘em all, asshole.) Debut album Satanic Royalty released eight years after Midnight’s inception, is a front-to-back ripper, 10 songs, every one of them nasty and hook-laden, ugly verses wedded to sticky choruses in unholy matrimony. It’s the perfect communion of Ace of Spades and Black Metal, a collection of concise cuts, no filler, no dicking around. No Mercy for Mayhem is the sister record to Satanic Royalty, which is a nice way of saying it’s the same shit, different album cover. This is not a bad thing. Not in the least. Motörhead’s zero-percent sonic progression over 40 years is an insane achievement in steel-headed stubbornness, and they’re revered for it, deservingly so. They have about six different song templates, if you give enough of a shit to split that hair under the electron microscope - and while you’re peering through the eyepiece, you’ll notice some microscopic refinement of the formula, so the songs are catchier, beefier, punchier, more effective and impactful.Midnight is on a similar track, and obviously, doing as Lemmy does means you’re doing things right.

After a couple dozen compulsive repeat listens, No Mercy for Mayhem shows the slightest hint of NWOBHM influence, not immediately present on its predecessor. Otherwise, it’s just hammers pounding nails into holes, and if that’s a sloppy analogy, it’s absolutely in the spirit of the record’s lyrical content, which is far beyond metaphor, far beyond civility, far beyond sense. “Evil Like a Knife,” “Try Suicide” and the anthemic title track are lethal spikes on the bat, superb combinations of hook and riff, their profoundly stoopid werds transcending commonality to become idiot poetry, a higgledy-piggledy tossed salad of heavy metal cliches strung together, as if Cleveland has its own colloquial usage of terms such as death, curse, evil, leather, destruction, darkness, apocalypse. Other standouts are “Prowling Leather” (leather doesn’t prowl unless it’s still attached to the animal from whence it derived), “Aggressive Crucifixion” (when is crucifixion ever non-aggressive?) and closer/CD-only bonus track “Destroy Tsunami’s Power” (beware, only madness dwells here). “Whiplash Disaster” is the buried classic, a one-chord Motörhead battery with a soaring and melodic extended bridge and solo - as soaring and melodic as brash, gutter-trash metal from Cleveland gets, anyway. Without exception, every track is efficient and powerful, and the irony is, one of the grittiest, nastiest acts in the American underground displays serious pop sensibilities in its songwriting. Blasphemy? Fuck you.

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