February 16, 2012
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Cass Neary, the protagonist of Elizabeth Hand's 2007 novel, Generation Loss, has lurked in my memory over the years like few other literary characters. In this sequel, Hand once again proves her literary skills with a dark, fast-pace thriller.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Hand has described Cass Neary, the protagonist of 2007's Generation Loss, as "your prototypical amoral speedfreak crankhead kleptomaniac murderous rage-filled alcoholic bisexual heavily tattooed American female photographer." It's to the author’s credit that Neary, who almost makes Lisbeth Salander seem like a model of mental stability, engages rather than repels in this stunning sequel."
For Available Dark, I gave myself a crash course in true Norwegian black metal, helped by friends who knew a lot more than I did (and do) about it, in particular David Shaw. I was struck by two things: how much of the more orchestral BM sounds like classic 1970s prog rock, and how the best black metal tremolo guitar echoes that of the great Dick Dale, King of the Surf Guitar. Black metal demands a lot from first-time listeners, but if you can get past the Scary Cookie Monster vocals and the fact that there's virtually no bass, you'll hear some remarkable guitar and drum work. Classic black metal utilizes tremolo guitar and blast beat drumming, both of which require immense skill on the part of musicians, and often feature repetitive musical sequences. In some ways it's evocative of modern jazz or the work of composers like Steve Reich.
My taste runs to the more proggy, symphonic, ambient side of black metal. So there's no Mayhem here, because I (mostly) focused on older bands, and no work by great contemporary groups like Sunn 0))) or Wolves in the Throne Room. Bang the head slowly and give these a listen.
"Midnight Sun" The Strawbs
Definitely not black metal, this song from the Strawbs' classic, dark, neo-Goth album Hero and Heroine segues surprisingly well into the more orchestral strain of the genre.
"Alsvartr" (The Oath), and "I Am the Black Wizards" (sic) Emperor
Emperor's lead guitarist and vocalist Ihsahn was a teenage prodigy when the band's eponymous debut was released in 1993. (He'd earlier recorded demos with other lineups). Emperor's In the Nightside Eclipse and Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk are two of the genre's most iconic albums, and the first to feature the orchestral effects that became know as symphonic black metal. In terms of name recognition, popularity, and immediately recognizable guitar riffs, "I Am The Black Wizards" is kind of the black metal equivalent of "Free Bird."
"793 (Slaget Om Lindisfarne)", Enslaved
For my money ,this is the single best black metal song ever recorded, and perhaps the only black metal song you ever need to hear. At over 16 minutes, this epic will give you a taste of nearly everything the genre has to offer: tremolo guitar, blast beat drumming, atmospheric orchestral interludes, larynx-shredding vocals. 793 was the year of the Viking invasion of the monastery on the English island of Lindisfarne, and the title translates as "The Battle of Lindisfarne." I still get goosebumps when the electric guitars kick in at 3:44. The monks didn't stand a chance.
"Hours of Wealth," Opeth
Opeth is a Swedish band whose music veers between classic supercharged black metal (lots of hoarse vocals) and songs that feature gorgeous, dreamy acoustic guitar and (male) singing that wouldn't be out of place on a Fairport album. Compare this to the Strawb's "Midnight Sun."
"In the Center of the Black Hall," Vulvark
Vulvark is a one-man-show from Germany, featuring vocals and instruments by Nihilaz, whose mother probably did not name him that. I only know this one song, but it's a keeper, from a great compilation CD that was bundled into Terrorizer Magazine's Secrets of Black Metal special issue. Back to Barad-dur with this one.
"Oath (Fides Resurrection)," Nazxul
From Iconoclast, the second album by Australian band Nazxul. There are a lot of oaths in black metal, just as there are in the ancient sagas and The Lord of the Rings. I'm pretty sure these guys are not pledging fealty to Elrond.
"A Gruesome Relic of Death and Decay," Primitive Graven Image
Great title, great drums, great guitar by brothers Rob and Luke Lehane, aka Dokkalfur and Ljosalfur, who hail not from Niflheim but Buckinghamshire (and hey, doesn't that sound kinda like "Aqualung" there near the song's beginning?). Compare the guitar work to Dick Dale's on "Misirlou."
"Misirlou," Dick Dale and the Del-Tones
I'll say it again: I'll kick the chair out from under anyone who doesn't think Dale is the best guitarist alive. "Misirlou" is his best-known song, the one he cut his fingers on after hearing his Lebanese uncle play it on the oud. Probably my favorite scene in Available Dark is when Galdur and Petur jam out there in the Icelandic wilderness. They're not playing "Misirlou," but that's the song I listened to obsessively while writing the scene. The Bobby Fuller Four also do a pretty kickass live version. Dale's rendition is one of my all-time top ten songs.
"Queen Among Rats," Secrets of the Moon
Another German outfit with a knack for catchy song titles. This proggy number's from their 2009 album Privilegivm.
"Essence," Lucinda Williams
A great, spooky song that equates erotic obsession with heroin addiction. Williams sounds so messed up here, it's like she's channeling Cass Neary. This is what's on the stereo when Cass and Quinn fall into bed for the first time in thirty-odd years.
"Verderganningen" (Vengeance), Garmarna
Garmrna is a Swedish folk group whose work draws on traditional Scandinavian ballads. Haunting vocals; the translated lyrics tell a story of witchcraft and revenge reminiscent of ancient English folk songs like "Lord Randall" and "The Twa Corbies."
"Svefn-g-englar" (Sleepwalkers), Sigur Ros
I've visited Iceland twice so far, listened to a ton of great music there but heard very little black metal. (Or met any serial killers — Iceland has one of the lowest homicide rates in the world.) And while it's become a cliche, Sigur Ros's music really does summon the spirit of the landscape of this amazing, indescribably beautiful and eerie country. This is probably the band's best-known song, its success cemented by the remarkable 1999 video shot by August Jacobsson, and Jonsi's otherworldly vocals. Sublime.
Elizabeth Hand and Available Dark links:
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Generation Loss
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Illyria
Maine Crime Writers interview with the author
The Week essay by the author (her six favorite books)
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists