Nov 072012

(Tyler Lowery has taken maximum advantage of our open invitation for guest posts. This is his latest, and more lie ahead.) 

We as a society have become obsessed with the concept of order. Speaking solely for Americans here, we have countless laws for some of the dumbest things imaginable. We have applications on our phones to tell us when to eat and sleep, and how many calories we’ve burned in the interim. We sort our lives into tidy boxes, always pushing to label and categorize what we like and dislike. It was only a matter of time before this obsession seeped its way into our interest in music as well.

First it started with dividing music into genres. At first they were usually loosely defined and were really a catch-all net that was akin to sorting colors from whites in the wash. Then slowly we began splitting our genres into neater categories, taking common techniques and delivery styles and grouping them into arching subgenres.

Then the net became a cupboard drawer. There was a place for big forks, salad forks, meat forks, serving forks, you get the picture. But even still, there seemed to be a need for continual sub-classification, making the pigeon holes smaller and smaller. Now we are stuck with subgenres and offshoots that sometimes only include one or two bands in each.

While the genre system itself has gotten way out of hand, with its technical ambient jazzcores and neo-progressive black sludges, the level of sincerity and serious aggression included in conversations about whether the new Enslaved can still be called black metal or progressive metal or none of the above has gone to ridiculous extremes. It is nearly impossible to find a video on Youtube without seeing comments loaded with bickering or all out verbal warfare about what tiny, indescribable sub-genre the song is representing. As opposed to critiquing (or hell, even enjoying) the music being played, the audience is too busy spitting vulgarities at one another to even pay attention to the quality (or lack thereof) in the music.

In addition to the insane amounts of butt hurt being passed around over the genre game, bands are getting crucified left and right by “die hard fans” for any attempt at progression or experimentation. The signs are burnt into our retinas by now: “They suck since they went mainstream.”  “Remember when these guys were brootal?” “No clean singing or GTFO!” The sheer lack of imagination in these insults only scratches the surface of the stupid. Now, some critiques are necessary, but the majority seem to be based on some false pretense about what the listener thinks the band should be playing. If a diehards are presented with a progressive release from their favorite band, they toss it under the bus in a flash fire of stubborn ideals. “Go brootal or go home”.

While it is easy to blame the piss and shit playground that is the internet for these transgressions, it’s just as easily our own faults. We listen to albums based on our experience with previously released material or their similarity to other music we enjoy, so it is only natural that there is some baggage left behind.

It’s a complex task to listen to a band’s music without trying to compare apples to apples with their previous outings. While we are listening, we reference the sounds previously heard. If we loved the last album, odds are we are going to be looking for a similar experience with any new music. If a band decides to take a different approach from their previous work, it can be unsettling. However, that doesn’t justify mindless bashing because the vocalist decided to interject emotional cleans into a song that genuinely requires such a touch.

In our current consumer society, we live under the assumption that everything must be hand-tailored to suit our own specifications. Damn any ideas of creativity or growth, we want our McMetal intense with extra large side of “brootal”. What’s often forgotten is that we are participating in a community of art. Therefore, the appearance and presentation of the art is dictated by the artist, not the audience. Given the powers of the internet, we have been given the ability to bitch and moan about how it should have been, but in reality, that is it. This ability has seemed to corrupt our willingness to listen to music in the interest of the music itself.

Instead, we listen to music as a police force, creating public service announcements when a band steps over the invisible lines of a genre that’s been so over-defined it’s lost its own meaning. It has become a sad fact that many of us base our musical interests on a label rather than the music itself. How many people bashed the latest Opeth album because there was little to no metal in it all? It was a fine progressive rock album, but because Akerfeldt decided not to scream, the name Opeth was drug behind the proverbial wagon of many an extreme metal fan. If you’re not into a genre, that’s cool, but don’t assume that the music is horrible just because you don’t agree with its direction.

Our lives have become dog-eared by tags of interest, disgust, and judgment. We fight on a battlefield daily about what we deem is right and wrong. That’s what we do. In our quest for the all-important American dream (at least those of us living in the U.S.), how are we to know it if we can’t label it, right? We take ourselves way too seriously at times, and that is one of our worst qualities. There needs to be a time when we can just sit back, listen to some tunes, and not have to worry if this is post-dubcore or technical surfer pop. Who knows, maybe if we loosen our grip on the reins for a moment we might find ourselves drifting toward something amazing.

 

39 Responses to “GENRE POLICING: A PSA”

  1. madchoons says:

    Hooray!!! Finally a person listening to music. I thought they didn’t exist anymore, along with musical credibility and true artistic freedom….

    • Lord_Farin says:

      Thumbs up from me as well, Tyler. You’re really wording my (and I presume many others’) annoyance and unbelief in this regard. Rather than listening to the music, and contemplating why one does or doesn’t like it, people turn themselves into slaves of their own crippled categorization OCD. I presume that’s because it is easier to shout than to think.

  2. Legion says:

    Remember when there was heavy, thrash, speed, death and black metal? I guess it was too confusing so people had to divide them all into sub sub sub genres to clarify everything…

    As for bands, I think they’re fucked whatever they do: some people will complain if you rehash the same album over and over and some people will complain if you change the sound too much for their taste. As an example, I did like the latest Opeth, not my favorite album from them and I missed Akerfeldt growls but I can hear the quality in the music anyway, Opeth has always been evolving over the years, with every album release, a part of their fans has always been complaining about the changes in their sound, it got even worse since Watershed, when they crossed that invisible line you’re talking about.

    For me, changes are good, I hate bands who release the same album over and over and just change the title. Of course sometimes I don’t appreciate a band’s new direction, that can happens and when it does, I just skip the album. You know, I’m probably one of the few that prefered Darkthrone’s Soulside Journey over all the albums they released after that, but I can appreciate what the band is doing and why they decided to take that direction, doesn’t make them suck in my mind, they just followed what their hearts dictated them back then.

    Anyway, great articles, keep up the good work!

  3. Islander says:

    On the subject of genre classification, I think genre-labeling is a useful shorthand way of communicating something about the style of music. Yes, even when it’s done accurately, labeling does run the risk of deterring some people from checking out music they might actually like. But there’s so much metal out there that it’s impractical for everyone to listen to everything, and they’re going to look for some indication about whether they think particular music is worth their time. I do agree that getting into pissing matches over the finer points of whether one label or another is correct can get ridiculous.

    I think the point about staying open-minded about music when a band have changed their usual style on a particular album is good advice, but sometimes tough to put into practice. Taking Opeth’s “Harvest” as an example: If I didn’t know who had recorded it, I still wouldn’t have cared for it much, because it’s just not the style of rock or metal that appeals very much to me. Having said that, I have to be honest and say that because I knew it was Opeth and I had formed certain expectations about the album because it was Opeth, I have to admit I was kind of pissed off, when I wouldn’t have been if it had been produced by a band I knew nothing about.

    • Sean says:

      I think you make a very fair argument. But let me posture an alternate viewpoint.

      What about the artist and what they want to do? Why is it that if they release an album of a certain style that the audience expects them to keep releasing the same or similar album over and over? To me that seems a bit unfair, especially in a genre where we value the art of music over the product. I don’t think an artist or band should be beholden to past expectations. They should be free to express themselves in any way they deem neccessary. Ulver is a fine example of this in which I actually enjoy their electronic albums as much or more than their black metal albums.

      On that note, artists shouldn’t get all butthurt when their old fans don’t enjoy a drastic change into a genre they may not have a taste for. They should expect some backlash from their old stomping grounds.

    • Tyler Lowery says:

      I can agree that the sheer numbers of bands producing music makes it a staggering task to try to keep everything in check. That being said, having these genres about is a necessary evil. While it makes navigation easier, getting to the consensus about what is or isn’t worthy of a title seems to be the biggest issue, aside from the fact that there are so many choices in the first place. What I don’t feel is necessary is the obsessive nature at which we try to classify and assign label to every aspect of music. I don’t feel that it is the job of the community to spoon feed each other and, in doing so, rob ourselves of the journey from exploration to discovery.

      In addition, I can agree with the feelings of anger that came from “Harvest”. I have only listened to it a small number of times because the music isn’t that appealing to me much at all. I was also upset that the Opeth I previously knew wasn’t the Opeth playing on the album. I think it took me a great while to come to terms with the idea that the band I was hoping for may, in fact, be dead. In consideration to that, I would only find it decent and logical to move on and hope that they come back some day, not piss on the legacy that I’ve enjoyed up until now.

      Thank you for replying. I was eager to know your thoughts on the subject.

    • Omsie says:

      I’m with you there. I personally find genre classifications very helpful, especially once I incorporated them into my large mp3 library! Now: how I classify a band may differ form how you might do so. But the point is, it’s still a helpful cognitive tool. It helps me sort through my library when I don’t know what to listen to, but know what general mood/style I’m looking for (Doom/Death, Thrash, Power, etc.).

      That said, could not agree more with you Tyler: there’s an absolutely neurotic level of bashing that takes place in Metal. However, that’s not unique to Metal. Two factors at play:

      1. It’s a sub-culture of sorts, and by that I mean that most people who listen to Metal (esp. the “extreme” end of it), identify themselves and their scene as being “outside the mainstream.” That’s a defining characteristic. With that comes a level of insularity and of wanting to ensure that the boundaries of this community are well defined and preserved. We don’t want just anyone to call themselves a Metalhead. You must “earn” those stripes. And once you’re in, you’re not leaving without having your stripes removed (not unlike how some gangs/bike clubs will remove your tattoos if you leave). Ironically, despite defining oneself as being edgy and against the grain, there’s a certain level of elitism in all this. And these are dynamics that you can see in just about any group/culture that forms outside of, or against, the norm (Skaters, MMO gamers, Drama clubs, Tea Party, Revolutionaries, etc. etc.)

      2. The online world has made all this bashing, holier-than-thou rhetoric that’s aimed at other metalheads and bands, alike, much much easier. There’s practically no consequences for one to worry about. I can be the biggest asshole here, and no one will trace it back to me. And so, why not use this arena to further boost my ego? I used to game a lot (in World of Warcraft), I was part of that “elite” competitive 1% that played all the end-game in its highest levels of difficulties. Outside of that, I’m a single father in my 30s, finishing my PhD, working in public health, with a pretty decent head on his shoulders. But I can’t tell you the number of times that I too fell into that elitist condescending, belittling, or flat-out hating of other people–you know, the ones in the other guilds, who think they’re all that, who are “epic failures…” Because my skills at clicking a mouse and bashing a keyboard sure make a better person–right?

      Boy did I write too much…
      .O.

      P.s.: Wall of text above you, I thought it better not to warn you beforehand ;)

      • Sean says:

        The crappy part is when the fans and listeners drag the artists into all this. Most bands I know don’t “define” themselves as a member of a genre. They define themselves in their music. The listeners then arrogantly classify a band as a stringent member of a genre the band may want no part in. The listeners shouldn’t be speaking on behalf of bands. Let the bands and their music speak for themselves.

        Maybe we see a band as a death metal band, a prog metal band, or a black metal band, etc. But the artist doesn’t always see things that way. They’re songwriters and music makers, regardless of genre. And sometimes their writing leads them in areas they may have previously undiscovered. Sometimes successfully, other times not so.

        • SurgicalBrute says:

          I gotta disagree here..I cant speak for exactly the style of music you listen to, but outside of prog bands, which tend to have a large number of influences, or the more mainstream “-core” bands, who are usually trying to avoid the negative stigma attached to those names….most bands will readily associate themselves with a particular genre.

          They may not get into the micro-labeling that a lot of fans do, but they’ll happily declare that they play death metal or black metal

          • Sean says:

            Well, bands of signifcance don’t really partake in the genre war. It’s far more abhorrent when it comes to the micro-genres of black metal than it does death. Bands like WITTR, deafheaven, Liturgy, Agalloch, GY!BE etc. Regardless of your thoughts on each particular band, they are ones reaching and pushing beyond the confines of classification. They don’t care about or cater to the genre-obsessed. Whereas the “trve kvlt” bands and the “genre name too long to list” bands that identify themselves as such and fuel the genre war will likely remain secluded in their niche, never really making an impact on anybody outside their own inner circle.

            They’re free to do that and I’m sure there’s an audience for that, but in my experience it’s not an audience worth pandering to. I say write what you’re going to write and don’t let your past material or genre associations hold you back or keep you in a box.

            • SurgicalBrute says:

              Im not sure how you define significant, but most of those bands define themselves as belonging to one genre or another. The fact that a band like Liturgy is calling themselves a black metal band means they are definitely placing themselves into the genre war. WITTR has always defined themselves as an ambient black metal band and Agalloch think of themselves as a prog band…

              Your initial comment was saying that it was the fans who place these bands into these genres, when in fact the bands themselves, even the ones who push the boundaries of the genre, who generally make some attempt to define their sound and place themselves into one genre or another.

              • SurgicalBrute says:

                ..and just to add… No, I dont think a band is necessarily the best judge of their sound. Ive seen too many deathcore bands try to label themselves as “brutal death metal” in an effort to avoid the stigma of being a “-core” band, but they made no attempt to change their sound

                • Sean says:

                  I think we must be reading different interviews than, because every interview I’ve read each of those bands dismiss genre or label as being important to them. WITTR has gone so far as to say they aren’t a black metal band. So I don’t think we’re really going to get anywhere here if we both think we’re right. XD

    • Islander says:

      Um, I see that I called Opeth’s last album Harvest instead of Heritage. I claim this as a victory for myself, because both words begin with H. It could have been worse.

  4. Sean says:

    Love and agree with this article too much to articulate worthy praise other than: “Well said, Tyler.”

    However, I indeed find some irony in all of this. I’m generalizing when I say this, but I think it’s safe to say that a good chunk of metalheads (particularly the extreme metalheads) are liberal in their personal/political lives. And by that I just mean open-minded/progressive to more modern thinking. But metal be damned if a band doesn’t stay true to the “traditional” lines drawn by their past. The amount of metal conservatism is pretty hilarious considering the above generalization. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying bands that stay true, but to go out of your way to suppress, hate on, and discredit bands that try new things that may reach to a broader audience, whether purposefully or inadvertently, is pretty sad to see.

  5. Andy Synn says:

    I didn’t like the Opeth album because it just wasn’t very good.

    • Omsie says:

      Ditto, but Tyler’s point still well taken.
      Whereas Islander was pissed, I on another tried really hard to like the alum because it’s Opeth. I’ve yet to succeed…

      • Tyler Lowery says:

        I’ve yet to find anyone who truly has.

        • Omsie says:

          I took my 3-year old son to the Ghost/Opeth/Mastodon tour stop in Atlanta. The only part of the Opeth concert that caught his attention was the last two, old-school DM songs they performed (I forget which)–none of the Heritage stuff did ;)

          • Islander says:

            I saw that show in Seattle, and though I enjoyed the hell out of Ghost and Mastodon, I was getting depressed and surly through the Opeth set until they played those last two songs — “Demon of the Fall” and “The Grand Conjuration” — and I left with a big fuckin smile on my face. Your 3-year-old has great taste. I wrote about the show (with pics) here:

            http://www.nocleansinging.com/2012/05/02/opeth-mastodon-ghost-in-seattle-4-30-12/

            • Omsie says:

              Hah yeah, the crowd and I had the same reaction in Atlanta.
              Ironically, I’d seen them a few months beforehand with Katatonia. Was an entirely different setting though: indoors, seated, and very intimate. So in that case, the crowd mostly didn’t seem to mind the lack of DM vocals. Granted, they didn’t limit themselves to Heritage, but the sound + indoor atmosphere + coziness made it an amazing concert experience (at least for me). Whereas on the latter tour, playing outdoors, with Atlanta their final stop no less, the set was beyond underwhelming. Though the entire lawn seemed to transform into a dungeon when they launched into “Demon of the Fall.”

              Picking up on your comments in the other (great) review, Michael does indeed apologize a lot for what they play in concert. I experienced that both times. I’ll be interested to see where they go next. A side project for his retro proggy rock would make the most sense, but I’m just not convinced that he has much interest in the heavier/darker sound anymore, not even their old repertoire. In fact, I read their choice of two final songs as essentially a “fuck you” to all the complainers (ourselves included), since those are two of their heaviest and thickest songs ever imho (especially vocally).

              • Islander says:

                That’s an interesting take on the last two songs. I went back and forth on it. I can see how it could be interpreted as a “fuck you”, since it was the very end of a set stuffed with softer material. But on the other hand, why did they play those songs at all if they were going to indulge themselves with the newer 100% prog-rock material the whole rest of the night? And what must they have thought when those two songs got the most boisterous reaction of the night? That we’re all a bunch of knuckle-dragging cretins? Or that they need to get the train back on the rails for the next release?

    • Islander says:

      I’ve hesitated to say that because I feel like I probably should have a better grasp of the style of music they were trying to capture to express something like a “critical” opinion. But yes, with that caveat, I didn’t think it was very good either.

    • Lady Vegan Butcher IV says:

      Completely agree. I also find it frustrating that anytime I don’t like the new direction a band has taken I’m immediately met with the ‘evolution’ argument. Just because an artist did something radically different does not mean I have to like or even respect what they did based on those merits.

  6. KSMASH says:

    Genres can be great for helping listeners find the music they like. What sucks is when it gets to be too much (like right now). There are way too many useless prefixes and suffixes, and they are often used as “dirty words” in the metal community (they hate anything that ends with -core). Finally, what I hate most about the current genre-rape: A LOT of it is superficial. Add raspy vocals = black, add sweep-picking = technical, gauge your ears = something-core. I get so sick of that shit.

  7. SurgicalBrute says:

    I have no problem with genres…I think theyre a quick and easy short hand that help me separate the styles of music I enjoy from the styles I dont. Despite what some people say..No,metal isnt just metal. A band like Slayer dosnt sound like a band like Ahab, and we need something to indicate that. That being said…people need to realize that genres are guides, not hard and fast rules.

    As for a band changing their sound..they have every right to do that..its their music, but Im under no obligation to like it, praise it, or give that band my support if its a direction I dont like. I listen to certain styles of metal because I enjoy the way they sound…If they evolve in a way I dont like, I dont care how skillfully its done, I’ll move along to the next band.

    To put it another way, If Heritage had been a pop album, It wouldnt have mattered how amazing of a pop album it is…thats not the type of music I want to hear

    • I wanted to chime in on this topic, but this sums up my feelings succinctly.

      Except I like Heritage quite a bit.

      • On second thought, I do have one small thing to add. I don’t think anyone discussed this specifically, anyway . . . .

        My observation about how bands self-identify with genres is this: There are bands who say “We play Genre X.” They’re pretty straightforward, not terribly innovative as a rule, and good fun. On the other side, there are bands who say “we just play what we want and don’t identify with any scene.” They tend to come off as pretentious, but not always. The best way is somewhere in between.

        Then there are bands who invent a new genre name, which always, always comes off as silly. E.g., “transcendental black metal” (Liturgy, who don’t mean to sound silly) or “Rocky Mountain hydro-grind” (Cephalic Carnage, who definitely want you to think it’s silly).

    • Methinks the Brute doth protest too much.

      You secretly love Carly Rae Taylor Beiber, don’t you? :-)

  8. Sophus says:

    “Bands like WITTR, deafheaven, Liturgy, Agalloch, GY!BE etc. Regardless of your thoughts on each particular band, they are ones reaching and pushing beyond the confines of classification.”

    I’d argue that just because it takes a small amount of effort to pigeon-hole these bands in a genre doesn’t mean they’re in any way forward thinking. When you say “well what if we took black metal, but then added superficial elements of X other genre?” you are not birthing radical new ideas into the world.

    I like certain things about all the bands in that list, but with the exception of probably Agalloch there is literally nothing boundary-pushing about them. There are however boundary-pushers to be found in Panzer Division Kvlt

    • Islander says:

      Is Panzer Division Kvlt a band or a genre? If the latter, who would you put in there (besides Marduk)? Or was there any unstated smiley face after your comment?

  9. Screw you guys, I love my akiba-gore-porno-grind-penis-metal.

    Seriously though, in as much as genres notify us of the particular tropes a band uses, I appreciate them. And in that I am fond of categories and subcategories, classifying bands can be fun…but ultimately it’s all about the album or song on display…errr …on play. Even the concept of a “band” becomes amorphous if you spend too much time thinking about it instead of headbanging with your pet as you should be doing when listening to metal.

    Unless you have a cat. Then just headbanging for it.

  10. OceanMachine says:

    >”How many people bashed the latest Opeth album because there was little to no metal in it all? It was a fine progressive rock album, ”

    I bashed that album because it was garbage, not because it was Prog Rock.

  11. Islander says:

    For people interested in even more dialogue about Tyler’s post, check this reddit thread:

    http://www.reddit.com/r/Metal/comments/12wrlc/check_out_this_article_on_no_clean_singing/

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