I made a comment online several months ago that the term “post-metal” should be replaced with “Neu!-metal.” I would like to take this opportunity to apologize for the pun. Apparently I’ve stooped to the point of making cultural critiques in the form of lame dad jokes. My bad.
As if the comment wasn’t unfunny enough, I would like to now undergo the painful process of completely sapping any humor from it by analyzing the joke, both for the sake of readers that aren’t aficionados of metal and krautrock and for initiating a discussion of the excellent new album by Finland’s Pharaoh Overlord. Let’s start with the explanation: most post-metal bands are helmed by musicians wanting to demonstrate their awareness of other types of music besides Slayer and the first three (okay, maybe four) Metallica records. It’s “post”-metal because it’s trying to do something beyond the typical loud, angry framework. It tries to be “heady”. It wants to take you on a journey. And since so much of the genre is built on repetition, groove, elaborating on a phrase over the course of an extended period of time, and a greater sense of nuance than the output of their gauntlet-clad compatriots, it stands to reason that most of the major players in the genre probably have a passion for the music-geek staples, including Germany’s motorik masters Neu!
The joke, of course, is that “neu” is German for “new.” See, it’s like nu-metal. It’s, like, the exact opposite of music nerdiness!
In my defense, the point of the comment was to bag on genre labeling. Led Zeppelin weren’t “post-blues,” even though they kinda were. Music critics and audiences alike knew where Led Zeppelin were getting their ideas from, but they also recognized that they were creating something new. The band didn’t live in cultural isolation, but their identity wasn’t hinged on their relationship to the past. The whole “post-“ thing is obnoxious because all music follows in the wake of some other, older music form; everything is “post-“ something. The label inadvertently implies that all the rules were established several decades ago. Post-rock, post-punk, post-hardcore… all just retreads of the past with a few modern touches.
I realize that this sounds like your token, generic “don’t pigeonhole me with your labels, maaaan” musician’s gripe. Guilty as charged. But there is something frustratingly strange about our current obsession with categorizing art by its lineage. It’s as if we’re too aware of the history of our favorite musical icons, too aware of how we’ll reflect back on this day and age in ten, fifteen, twenty years. It insinuates that the previous generation’s musicians were pioneers operating without a roadmap, and contemporary acts just tinker with the past. Don’t think that it’s an exclusively “rock” phenomenon, either. Dubstep, chillwave, and witch house all reference early musical niches in their titles. As one of the characters in David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King notes,
“In today’s world, boundaries are fixed, and most significant facts have been generated. Gentlemen, the heroic frontier now lies in the ordering and deployment of those facts. Classification, organization, presentation. To put it another way, the pie has been made—the contest is now in the slicing.”The character was trumpeting the mundane job of accounting, but his words work as jaded commentary on our culture as a whole. There are no more musical frontiers, only new ways of classifying, reorganizing, and presenting the old ideas. The “post-“ phenomenon only strengthens that argument.
Finland’s Pharaoh Overlord gets filed under post-metal by the lazier contingent of heavy-music fans. But with Lunar Jetman, critics might as well start taking this whole “Neu!-metal” tag semi-seriously. There’s definitely a strong element of Neu!’s repetitive, protracted, mid-tempo, mechanical instrumental groove. The six songs sprawl across nearly the entire sides of the record’s two LPs. At the same time, the band employs metal tonalities: big distorted guitars, dirty growling bass, those kinds of drum sounds you can only get by really laying into the set with a lot of force. The debt owed to metal should come as no surprise considering Jussi Lehtisalo—the man behind cult Finnish art-metal heroes Circle—heads Pharaoh Overlord. The opening song “Rodent” kicks in with a lurching Sabbath-inspired bass line, but instead of bulldozing into big, bottom-heavy synchronicity, the guitars open up into a repeating pattern of delay-washed leads. Over the course of ten minutes, the band strays further and further away from the riffing suggested in the first few measures and into an expansive, psychedelic jam. Clocking in at over 11 minutes, second song “Palmyra Cali” veers even further away from metal territories with loops of clean guitar and drum patterns locked in on a kind of reserved propulsion. “Black Horse” rides on one mean riff for the majority of its sixteen-minute duration. Yet despite this repetition, the shape-shifting atmospheric guitar and a dramatic push-pull in tempo keeps the song compelling. Album closer “Cave of Hair (pt. 2)” hints at heaviness for almost its entire fifteen-minute duration. Sparse, fragmented drumming and ethereal free-form guitars ebb and flow around a two-chord, palm-muted riff that sounds like something off of Melvins' Bullhead. Only at the closing of the song, and the closing of the record, does the band acknowledge the riff and deliver its implied power.
Even though the tag makes some sense, branding Pharaoh Overlord as Neu!-metal is—aside from a lame joke—a total misnomer. As with any musical act in history, we can see the line of inspiration and deduce the creative impetus behind their music. But Pharaoh Overlord’s ultimate goal isn’t to ride some krautrock nostalgia wave, summon Neu!’s cool, collected grooves, or channel traditional metal’s aggression. Neither do they seem particularly interested in playing with post-metal’s brooding quiet/loud dynamic. There’s a whole world of ideas going on within Lunar Jetman, and condensing them into a two-word genre tag seems awfully dismissive of the band’s full scope.