Written by Andrew.
An interesting tidbit caught my eye on Facebook this morning; Neil Mitchell, a Melbourne based radio host (and “one of Australia’s most experienced journalists,” claims the website of 3AW Radio) was recently heard on his morning show to decry the Australian Council for the Arts’ decision to issue a grant of 20,000 Australian dollars to Sydney technical death metal act Ouroboros [i]. Ouroboros, whose debut album Glorification of a Myth was released last year, intends to put the grant to use by hiring a symphony orchestra for their next record. The Council of Arts representative Matthew Hindson said of Ouroboros: “They have a degree of technical virtuosity and musicianship. No matter what kind of music you are involved in, that comes through [ii].” Mitchell was none too pleased though; playing a clip from one of the band’s songs on his show, he commented that “it’s awful stuff, and you’re paying for it,” as well as recycling that old chestnut about death metal vocals’ resemblance to those of the Cookie Monster from Sesame Street. Thanks Neil, haven’t heard that one before…
The response from the Australian metal community has been swift thus far. The host of a death metal show on Community radio called in to call Mitchell out in real time, although truth be told, he probably could have represented his chosen sub-genre better than he ended up doing – when Mitchell asked the caller (named Frank) to explain what it was about death metal he liked, Frank couldn’t do much more than stammer out variations on “it’s not for everyone; it’s a matter of opinion,” etc., and admit that he’d actually never heard of Ouroboros before. Dave Higgins from Triple M Distortion came out with a considerably more scathing response shortly thereafter, criticizing Mitchell for his “bigotry” and “intolerance” of a genre he “doesn’t understand [iii].” Ouroboros are preparing to speak to Mitchell themselves at the time of writing (ed.: this interview actually took place while I was writing. Fuckin’ time zones.) [iv]
Here’s the thing; I’m not entirely unsympathetic to Mitchell’s case, even if superimposing an Ouroboros track against one of the Cookie Monster’s songs occurs as pretty damn puerile. Higgins’ accusations of “bigotry” are excessive, although while I don’t think Mitchell is being intolerant, his complaints are definitely coming from a position of ignorance on the subject. His reaction to Ouroboros and his conclusion that the music they play is void of any kind of worth bear the hallmarks of an Old White Man who doesn’t appreciate that death metal is a thing, a thing with millions of fans, thousands of bands, a substantial body of evaluative discourse and all the other features of a proper kind of music. Without that background awareness, Mitchell doesn’t – and indeed, can’t – distinguish between a virtuosic and highly skilled band playing off genre conventions which have accrued over the course of the last quarter-century and four young upstarts who dug their instruments out of a dumpster one day and started banging on them with sticks. The whole affair is faintly reminiscent of that hilarious fiasco a few years back when Akercocke were featured on a live show on BBC Northern Ireland, Jason Mendonca and David Gray looking like deer in headlights as they fended off irate audience members who thought they “looked evil.”
I’m not interested in debating whether death metal fulfills the criteria for the infamously nebulous term “art,” or in explaining why I believe it’s worthy as music (although if Neil Mitchell is interested in the Cliff Notes: it’s dark, it’s visceral, it subverts the mundane and the everyday, it’s intentionally tense, alienating and “other” and in its finest incarnations, it evokes primal, instinctive horror and existential dread). When you get right down to it, Frank was right: it’s not for everyone, live and let live, different strokes for different folks, etc. Just because it’s trite doesn’t make it untrue.
It’s one thing to say “death metal’s not for everyone,” though, but it’s entirely another to say “death metal’s not for everyone, now everyone pay for it.” It’s not that I don’t appreciate Ouroboros; quite the contrary, the samples I’ve listened to make them sound pretty damn good, and actually one of the more accessible tech-death bands out there, in a fit of immaculate irony. It’s just that state funding for the arts is a tricky proposition at the best of times. A grant of $20,000 by itself represents less than a tenth of a cent per member of the Australian population, but it’s not the quantity of money so much as the principle at work. Australia is, after all, a representative democracy, and the ideal circumstance would be for it’s institutions to represent the interests of the majority of its citizenry. Death metal is still a fringe subculture, and death metal bands are unlikely to stimulate the economy or to be enjoyed en masse as much as more accessible acts; hence, a grant for a death metal band is not the optimal economic stimulus that could be achieved with $20,000. So yes, I can see where Mitchell is coming from; it’s not a question of whether or not Ouroboros are any good, it’s a question of the Australian Council of the Arts being accountable to the taxpayer.
This is, of course, a Devil’s Advocacy; you could probably fit what I know about economics on a napkin in 72-point font. Consider the following, though; I came across this piece of news because I’m following the Facebook page of another Australian band, Ne Obliviscaris. I reviewed Ne Obliviscaris’ debut album Portal of I just a few days ago, and I awarded it the first perfect score I’ve given since I started writing for Heathen Harvest. In the interest of full disclosure, the copy of Portal of I that I reviewed wasn’t a promo. I bought it with my own money (roughly 27 Aussie dollars or 18 British pounds) directly from Welkin Records in Australia, the label owned by the band’s violinist and vocalist Tim Charles. Ne Obliviscaris also received a grant from the Australian government, without which the record may well have been postponed several more years, if not outright cancelled. I’m sure there are many Australian fans whom are as grateful for that fact as I am.
Even if Portal of I may not have been the most tangible possible use for the money spent on it, it was still money well spent. Because at the end of the day, government is not business; its primary concern should not be with the optimization of numbers, but with the well-being of its citizenry, and the health of the soul is not outside the remit of politics. Though the needs of the majority may rule in a democracy, that doesn’t mean there’s no room to accommodate for the minority, to cultivate diversity and encourage alternative perspectives. A vibrant and varied cultural landscape facilitates personal growth, and whether or not Neil Mitchell can understand it, there are those whom will hear the music of Ouroboros or a band like them and attain a sense of revelation, validation, fulfillment – a form given to thoughts they didn’t before know how to express, feelings which media intended for the majority did not account for. Isn’t that more valuable than yet another redundant pop starlet or cluster of indie rock dweebs mildly diverting the attention of the radio waves for three weeks, even if a hundred times as many people are being mildly entertained?
Coincidentally, I’ve become increasingly aware these last few months that the Australian metal scene is booming just now. In addition to Ne Obliviscaris seemingly being the prophets of a New Order, you also have long-winded melodic death metal of Be’lakor and the prog grandiosity of Hemina turning the world’s head. Tasmanian stalwarts Psycroptic remain a linchpin in the genre of tech-death. Voyager, Lord and Ilium are tearing up the prog/power metal circuit. Where metal has been monopolized by Scandinavia and mainland Europe for much of the last 15 years, I can see innovation and fresh ideas emerging from the Land Down Under. We live in a world today where “soft-power” is more of a reality than it’s ever been in the past; cultural exports are treated as a viable metric of a country’s success, and heavy metal is no different. Hell, look up Sweden or Norway on Wikipedia and you can find their metal music output listed on the main page! And Australia has the potential for just as much if it’s appropriately nurtured; a new heavy metal competitor on the world stage, more new twists and refinements on old formulas, new lenses through which to think and feel and see the world. Whether or not it’s measurable, the benefit of that is absolutely real. You know, a technical death metal album featuring a full symphony orchestra doesn’t sound like a bad place to start. I’d have been interested in that anyway, so I should probably thank Neil Mitchell for making me aware of it.
And then I should thank the Australian Council for the Arts for making it possible.
i. “Mitchell, Ouroboros make Amends” by 3AW Radio
ii. “Australian Council Recognises Artistic Merits of Death Metal” by Matthew Westwood
iii. “Higgo Defends Grant for Metal Band Ouroboros” by Higgo / Triple M Distortion
iv. MP3 of Ouroboros Drummer David Horgan Defending the Grant