As the singularity approaches, neural network pens black metal album

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Immortal, as photographed by Peter Beste for his book True Norwegian Black Metal

RotM If Coditany of Timeness was released without the high-tech fanfare, no one in the notoriously elitist black metal scene would bat an eyelid. Perhaps popular online US music mag Pitchfork would even give it a "6/10".

The album has everything intrinsic to the sub-genre – tremolo guitars, blasting drums, barked vocals, and total disregard for lamestream songwriting conventions – but humans aren't responsible for this cacophony. At least not directly.

Because the record, as first revealed (here) by The Outline, was written by a computer. More specifically, deep learning software that regurgitates an emulation of whatever music it's fed. In this case, it's the avant-garde black metal act Krallice's 2011 album Diotima.

Black metal 101

If you're new to black metal, let El Reg enlighten you. The style traces its origins to Northern England, Switzerland and Sweden through the bands Venom, Hellhammer and Bathory respectively. But it is the Norwegian scene of the late '80s/early '90s that permanently stamped black metal with infamy. Here are just a couple of snippets from the mythos.

  • Mayhem's first vocalist, Dead, committed suicide. When his bandmates found him, the first thing they did was take pictures, one of which appeared as the cover of an album, Dawn of the Black Hearts (we'd suggest you don't Google this). If that wasn't dark enough for you, guitarist and record label head Euronymous then said he'd collected pieces of Dead's skull and distributed them to friends.
  • Varg Vikernes, of the one-man act Burzum and Mayhem's bassist on De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, was in 1994 sentenced to 21 years imprisonment for several church arsons and the murder of Euronymous, who was stabbed 23 times allegedly following a dispute over Burzum record sale royalties. Vikernes has released a few albums since he was freed and now peddles alt-right nonsense through his YouTube channel from a farm in France.

Fortunately, when you strip away the drama, there's a rich musical heritage and a large number of permutations to enjoy, of which Coditany of Timeness is now (almost) part.

The project, Dadabots, is led by machine-learning boffin Christopher James Carr and music producer Zack Zukowski. The pair are due to present their paper – Generating Black Metal and Math Rock: Beyond Bach, Beethoven, and Beatles (PDF) – to the Neural Information Processing Systems conference in Long Beach, California, this week.

The abstract describes their work thus: "We use a modified SampleRNN architecture to generate music in modern genres such as black metal and math rock. Unlike MIDI and symbolic models, SampleRNN generates raw audio in the time domain. This requirement becomes increasingly important in modern music styles where timbre and space are used compositionally. Long developmental compositions with rapid transitions between sections are possible by increasing the depth of the network beyond the number used for speech datasets. We are delighted by the unique characteristic artifacts of neural synthesis."

The software cut Diotima into audio chunks and fed it through a neural network, which was then asked to guess what comes next. "Correct" suggestions would strengthen and prioritise that particular pathway to eventually make something resembling the source material.

But with such an aggressive origin, it wasn't all plain sailing. "We trained using 5-layer LSTM and GRU models," the paper stated. "The GRUs failed to learn the audio resulting in harsh noise when sampled. The LSTMs were successful in training and sounded like Krallice. We generated 20 sequences with four-minute durations."

The music wasn't the only thing generated by machine. A Markhov chain named the album and each track therein – including such gems as "Timension" and "Wisdom Trippin'" – and the cover art was "created with neural style transfer".

Coditany of Timeness is by no means unlistenable, especially if you're a hardened tr00 kvlt veteran like your correspondent here. It does sound like it was written by a computer but had that not been revealed, it could pass for something bashed out in an edgelord's bedroom. It also sounds like a drunk Krallice, of course.

Krallice isn't the only left-field victim of Dadabot's hack 'n' mash either. The Dillinger Escape Plan's seminal "math metal" debut, Calculating Infinity, was also given the treatment and somehow sounds even more incoherent.

Based on that, AI pop stars are still a fair way off. ®




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