(Andy Synn wrote the following opinion piece. If we don’t get some comments on this one, I’ll be quite surprised. Andy’s got some questions at the end, and we’d love to hear your answers.)
Here’s a question that’s been on my mind for a while now; what do we do when our heroes let us down? What happens when the bands we love go off the boil, make weird creative decisions, or just simply move away from playing the music for which we fell in love with them?
Music is an intensely emotional topic, and one which promotes a peculiar kind of loyalty to develop in those of us who love it deeply. As metal fans in particular, we seem to embody the very extremes of this trait; treat us well and we will die for you, cross us and our wrath and enmity shall be eternal. Indeed, once a certain line is crossed it’s very common to see a band written off as “dead” by any number of their former fans.
Most recently, however, I’ve been trying to take positive steps when confronted with this situation. Rather than entering into either a) a defensive flame war on behalf of our fallen heroes, or b) seizing on the opportunity in order to heap my own well-earned scorn on the victims of this public derision, I have instead been taking the fall of our chosen heroes to promote potential successors who are ready and waiting to step up and take on the mantle.
This does, however, raise one further issue: to what extent we, as metal fans, are willing to accept our heroes being replaced and (if that is the case) do we actually always have one eye out for the Next Big Thing – not the one who’ll necessarily sell the records and get the airplay, but the one who will step into the well-worn shoes of our heroes once they have gone to the sacred feasting halls of Valhalla?
Now 3 particular albums/events inspired these thoughts recently…
1) Morbid Angel – Ilud Divinum Insanus
The recent shitstorm engendered by the new Morbid Angel record has provided me with ample opportunity to promote several worthy successors to their crown. Interestingly, though, the fall from grace of the mighty Morbid Angel was worsened by their constant attempts to justify their unimpressive return with claims of sonic “experimentalism”, as if adding pseudo-industrial/techno elements was some awe-inspiring revelation handed down from on high, rather than the cack-handed and awkward juxtaposition of styles that it ended up being. What’s most mind-boggling, however, is that the current line-up of MA features one Thor Anders Myhren, also known as Destructhor, from Mykrskog, who have been mixing steamrollering industrial beats with paint-stripping death metal since long before the morbid king’s return to the scene.
Be that as it may, whenever I come across a lost and disillusioned soul whose life has been turned upside down by this seeming betrayal, there is one album that immediately springs to mind — the electrifying, eclectic, and downright esoteric bludgeoning of Triumvirate by The Monolith Deathcult. Unlike Morbid Angel’s most recent offering, this actually fuses a brilliant variety of techno-industrial elements and symphonic excess onto a chassis of pulverising death metal utterly seamlessly, making a whole that is far, far greater than the sum of its parts.
2) Opeth – Heritage
Now Heritage is far from being a bad album, but to my mind it is a remarkably uninteresting one. Before you say it, that’s not due to the lack of death vocals or anything of that sort, as the record has several strong moments which demonstrate unequivocally that Opeth can capture that energy and life without recourse to the use of more stereotypically “extreme” elements. For me, and indeed this seems to be the common consensus amongst many listeners, the issue is that the album just doesn’t go anywhere, seemingly content in being a tribute to its influences without doing anything new with them.
“Prog” as a sub-genre (and progressive music of a certain, general type) has one particular strength, and that is its willingness and ability to indulge in musical expansion and experimentation with a fearless and unbounded spirit. However, this strength can also easily become its greatest weakness, as the gutters are filled with those who became so intoxicated with their own inveterate freedom of expression that they lost themselves in an aimless and directionless haze of self-indulgence.
To my mind, this is precisely the malaise that afflicts the latest Opeth record. In becoming disillusioned with the more metallic elements of their music, the group chose to dive helter-skelter into a more classically seventies sound, embracing it wholeheartedly but allowing themselves to be overwhelmed by this ability to indulge their every whim and impulse. Instead of taking the palette of colours and influences they have been given and painting a new picture, something evocative and filled with life, they seem instead to have taken an almost childlike delight in simply mixing colours together, which unfortunately almost always produces something rather faceless and… brown.
Now Novembers Doom may be less overtly progressive than their Swedish peers (although that perhaps is only by comparison), but their latest record Aphotic is a masterpiece of vibrant colours and deep shadows, evocative light and shade melded in equal measure through a fusion of progressive dynamics, soothing acoustic ambience, and raging death metal fury. As an Opeth successor, it’s a record with big shoes to fill, but the band have big feet with which to do it. If you do miss that doom-laden fire that Opeth have abandoned, then this should definitely fill the hole in your life.
3) Metallica – St. Anger/Death Magnetic/Lulu
Here’s the big one. A band who have fundamentally lost the plot and become at best a nostalgia act, and at worse a fundamental embarrassment. Despite some good moments here and there on both St. Anger and Death Magnetic, it’s becoming increasingly clear that Metallica have lost the sense of identity and energetic drive which they once had in their youth and, in doing so, have tried to regain it or replace it with often terrifically bad results. Their attempts to remain relevant have been half-baked at best, and their efforts at pushing the envelope of their sound, attempting to perhaps reignite that fire through an exploration of other realms, have suffered from a realisation that, as a band, they “could” do something, with little to no consideration of whether they “should” do something.
Most frequently I have been responding to the pained outcries of my metal brethren by recommending that they check out V by Norwegian titans Vreid. Now unlike the previous two situations, this one has been a much harder sell, as it requires the recipient to be at least slightly open to the multi-variate potentials of black metal as a source of creativity and art. Considering Metallica’s ubiquitous and mainstream status these days, that’s often a risky proposition, as you can often never tell what sort of Metallica fan you’ll be dealing with. But for those of a more musical and metallic frame of mind, V melds the best of Metallica’s early years, the speed and energy of Ride The Lightning with the progressive and complex compositional skills of Master Of Puppets, with the ethereal melodies of Norwegian folk influences and the primal ferocity of predatory black metal. If you can handle the harsher vocal style, then just compare their blackened take on ravenous thrash metal dynamics with any of Metallica’s own attempts to recapture their lost youth….
So tell me, who have I missed? Who are the declining divas, aging disgracefully, and who are the unappreciated side-kicks just waiting for their chance to step into the spotlight?
I can’t read this and not think of my own fallen heroes, Amorphis. Admittedly their initial sound was not exactly groundbreaking, but I loved it, and I slavishly bought every album they released. So when they decided to depart from that sound, I felt betrayed. Hadn’t I been loyal? Hadn’t I given them my money because I wanted to hear more? Looking back now I have a better understanding of that desire or need to grow and change as an artist, so my feelings of betrayal and bitterness have mellowed a little…but I still miss ‘old Amorphis’ and jump on anything that reminds me of that sound like a horny jackrabbit. I think part of the problem is that as consumers we aren’t privy to the actual process; what may seem like an obvious progression to the band, from months of studio rehersals or jamming or what have you, is unknown to us. We don’t see/hear the progression and growth; we get “album 1 sounds like this, album 2 sounds like that.” Honestly I don’t know that there’s any solution to that problem. I think recordings of months of rehearsals would only be boring and unmarketable to even the most diehard fans. All I can think is that bands could/should involve their fans more in the process somehow; instead of saying “this is what we’re doing, we hope you like it, but if you don’t oh well we’re going to do it anyway” it should be something more like “this is what we plan to do, we hope you like it, here’s a teaser, tell us what you think.” Now a lot of people might call this ‘pandering’ but come on…when you produce art of any kind you are presupposing an audience for that art, and if you plan to make a living or even grocery money off that art, you need to be aware of your audience. I think a lot of bands would be amazed at how much more support they would get for a change if they involved their fans in the process.
All bands should be forced to put out interim EPs outlining their current growth and writing process, so that the change doesn’t seem as jarring.
I HAVE SPOKEN!!!
No, but seriously there’s no real solution for us as “the fans” that wouldn’t really be creatively stifling for the bands, as far as I can tell from my initial 5 second pondering of the matter.
Interestingly your comment immediately raises the fact that I prefer Amorphis now in the Joutsen-era, as it were. So I don’t feel the betrayal. Unless it’s some sort of weird temporally-retro-active betrayal for how they used to be (which was also brilliant).
Allow me to disagree, slightly. Using Andy’s examples, Opeth, Morbid Angel, and Metallica all gave interviews in advance of their album releases, explaining (albeit sometimes vaguely) what was coming. Now, they didn’t ask fans if they would approve. But what if they had? Is it realistic to think that they would just ditch what they were about to do if they got a volume of scathing comments? And is that really what artists ought to do? Allow consumers to dictate their artistic decisions? I don’t think so, despite the fact that I didn’t like the decisions that any of these 3 bands made in creating their latest albums.
I think in each of these 3 instances, you had bands who were in the top tier of metal popularity, and therefore had the power and creative control to do whatever they wanted, and they used that power to indulge whims, knowing that their fans would probably be aghast — and not caring too much about that. They used their credibility/popularity to be self-indulgent. On the one hand, you could say they earned the right to do that (and I don’t think they or any other artist should be seeking advance fan approval for a course-change). On the other hand, none of the bands deserves a break when it comes to assessing what they did, despite their past achievements. If the music is a let-down (in the case of Opeth) or simply sucks ass (as in the case of the other two bands), then fans are entitled to say so.
By the way, Alex Skolnick (of Testament and the Alex Skolnick trio) has written a very thoughtful, insightful take on very similar issues, using Lulu as his focal point:
Was just going to mention the Skolnick article you linked me. A very interesting take on matters. A little apologetic in some parts, but well worth a read.
As long as it doesn’t overshadow my own brand of prosaic genius.
No chance of that, of course.
That article that Alex Skolnick wrote was spot fucking on. I’m glad you posted that link. I enjoyed the hell out of reading it. It helped me to put the album and Metallica’s choices since And Justice For All in a different, better perspective. It takes some of the sting out of feeling betrayed and turns it into more of a grudging respect that they had the balls and the attitude to say “Fuck it. We want to go in this direction and we are doing it no matter what people say or think or what it does to our career.” I may not agree with the direction or the syle of music that was released, but I am still a fan and respect what they have done.
I’ll grant you that Metallica (for example) have paid their dues and should probably be allowed to indulge their artistic whims…but they got to that lofty position on the backs of their fans. Do I think they should seek fan approval for artistic changes or allow consumers to dictate what they do? No. But I do think they owe the fans some kind of consideration.
Perhaps the cynic in me, but I stopped having expectations of bands. People always ask me what my favorite band is, I think that’s a useless question since few bands have unambiguously released amazing albums. Another reason to love the internet, we now have try before you buy for everything and when a band with big name recognition comes along and releases a turd, I can just move along and spend my money on something I will enjoy.
Exactly… can I interest you in some Monolith Deathcult sir? Just came in, very fresh…
btw – that link above seems broken.
My fault. I found the official video for the song and just added it in place of the first embed.
I think one shouldn’t misconstrue “favorite band” with “who you thik is the best”. The question has great merit. It’s not because judging a person’s musical tastes gauges how they are as people (“how can you listen to those guys, you’re not tr00 metal!”). Rather, when a person relates personal experiences and what certain musical elments mean to him, the how and why he relates to a band, it’s often a great way to see how that person thinks and what makes him tick.
Slight clarification why I dislike the “favorite band(s)” question is because I have none. There is no band out that that I can say is my favorite since I think they’ve all got albums I’m not terribly fond of, which in my book disqualifies them. Now if the question was “what album have you enjoyed lately” I can of course go off at quite length (I even write a yearly blog post about this), which I think would satisfy your interest.
Not being a fan of Morbid Angel or Opeth, the only band that I can comment on is Metallica. I have submitted comments in the past supporting Metallica. I still love them to this day. I haven’t always been happy with what they have done. I have found a few songs on each of their less appealing albums that make it worth my while.
I can never “replace” Metallica. They will always hold a special place in my music heart. I can wish and yearn for them to return to the roots of the music that made me love them. Realistically, it will never happen. Instead, I look for music that gives me the same feeling, but in a different package. Maybe that is considered “replacing”. I don’t think so, because in order to “replace”, you would have to give up the object that is being “replaced”. Since I still listen to Metallica, I don’t consider them being “replaced”
I’d have to site Mastodon for being guilty of this same sort of behavior. “Remission” was a slice of refreshing brutality. “Leviathan” was an amazing progression forward that whatever it lost in brutality, it made up for in exciting new ideas (Bluegrass in metal? Definitely groundbreaking at the time). “Blood Mountain” seemed like a logical step forward, but I found their last two albums were completely lost on me. UM.. what happened to the throat stomping riffs, bro? All that clean singing is making me sleepy too.
well, i’m not into morbid angel, and i’m willing to let my soft corners for led zeppelin, robert plant and 70s proto-metal in general make me go easy on opeth, but i’m checking out “vreid” asap… even if they sing in norwegian
I hope you’ll be glad you did. They’re a great band. More about them (from Andy) here:
well, i truly am glad i did.
their music is the shit, and even the “If you can handle the harsher vocal style” wasn’t much of an issue – i mean, even overkill is a bit of an overkill on the ears initially (pun intended)….. and more importantly: after diamond plate’s ‘generation why’, i’m not going to be able to criticize 99% of any vocals ever again, harsh OR clean ;P (except king diamond, natch)
They sing in English too!
And not at all in Norwegian on “V”.
I’ve come to see albums as entities in and of themselves, not so much as a piece of a bands catalog, if that makes sense. To steal the Mastodon theme: I enjoy Leviathan, but not CTS, or really even Blood Mountain. I don’t look to the band to produce another Leviathan, I just listen to their new albums in a kind of unrelated way; as individual pieces of art. I either like them or I don’t. I don’t get too hung up on the name attached to their creation…Then again this might have a lot to do with the fact that so many bands have released clunkers in my lifetime. haha
I`m going to have to agree with everyone saying favorite album, not favorite band. To be honest, there aren`t very many bands I`ve been disappointed by. The big one, though, was Sonata Arctica. When I was first getting into metal, Sonata Arctica was one of my favorite bands. All their albums were great (in a fondue way). And then they release Urnia (Unia?). It was just…horrible. They`d gotten rid of all the things I`d liked and made an album that sounded rough as metal as Nickelback watching a Justin Beiber concert.
I don`t really mind that bands change and adapt, and I`m glad they do so. I just wish they`d put stickers on their albums saying: “Hey! All that great music we made and you liked, we`re done with it. Enjoy the old albums, though!”
The other thing, though, is that bands are just groups of people making noise together. Change one element of the band, and it`s not really the same band, is it? I mean, the fact that Napalm Death is still a band is something that I find truly bizarre. There are no original members! How is it still the same band?
At this point, the smart people (or at least smarter than me, dur) are pointing out that a band is NOT just a group of people–but a particular sound that they`ve created. So, in that case, the actual members are less important.
So, if band drastically changes their sound, they`re no longer the same band.
International Tentacle Law thus dictates that any drastic sound change between albums not accompanying either a change in band name OR a giant stickers will result in a sound tentacle nose fucking. Sound!!! Do you hear me??? I mean, SOUND!!
Im firmly in the Favorite Band camp on this one. It sounds foolish and fanboyish to say, but in a very real way you kinda grow up with your favorite bands. Now of course, unless you actually know personally the band members, generally you don’t know shit about the people behind the music. However, based on the type of band, their public appearances, live shows, interviews and lyrics, you get a pretty solid Idea of who these people are and what they’re about.
As an example, Sevendust is my non-metal and overall favorite band. They have certain thematic elements in their lyrics I can identify with, and they have well documented real life trials and tribulations which influence their music that any/everyone can relate to (Divorce, fatherhood, losing loved ones to violence.)
When a band changes it’s sound, its expression, I see it very similar to when a close friend who has sudden changes in political or social stances or schools of thought. Or, more commonly, you simply grow apart as you pursue other interests. Will they ever really stop being your best friend? Matter of interpretation I suppose.
However, a lot of times you can rekindle the old flame or experience events that redefine your relationship dynamic. In this specific case, when Clint (the guitarist/ backing vocalist) left the band, I was pretty worried because he played such a huge part. Their following album really turned me off. I stuck with em though, because I wanted to see this thing through (“we’re breaking up”), but instead, they came back on the next record with one of the best albums in their catalog (and one of the best hard rock albums of the decade) and totally reignited the passion.
So, yeah, my point is that I do think the “favorite band” ting is a worthwhile endeavor in which staying with a band when they put out stinkers can ultimately be rewarding and enrich your music listening experience exponentially. What’s a good relationship without a fight every now and then,right? Of course, Its totally on the band to produce some kind of consistency, if not in quality than with theme. And I think just as importantly, it’s important for us as listeners to be willing to expand our horizons a bit and give things a chance. I cant help but think that maybe a joe six pack kinda Metallica fan who heard lulu was at first put off, but then it might have grown on him and maybe make him reconsider his position about “artsy stuff”. If it wasn’t for that magnificent disaster, lulu, he might not have been willing ot expand his musical horizons at all.
Can I just add, for the benefit of anyone still checking this column, that David Vincent’s gob-smacking messiah complex continues to rage unabated.
He’s now saying that fans will eventually “figure it out”…
Dave… there’s nothing to figure out. Stop acting like incorporating industrial and electronic sounds into death metal is like the second coming Jesus, the discovery of fire, or the invention of the internal combustion engine. It’s been done before you tried it and it’s been done better.
Honestly, taking some badly written songs and incorporating some ultimately generic bells and whistles (and doing so badly) is nothing “new”. Thousands of bands before you have done it. They just didn’t try and convince us all that it was a paradigm shift in superior metal and that we, the poor ignorant fans, just didn’t “get it”.
Also, please send Destructhor back to Myrkskog (a band who also incorporated industrial elements long before you did, but did it exceptionally well).