(After a six-month absence, guest writer Tyler Lowery is back with some thoughts that I suspect will draw some disagreement.)
I’m going to start by referencing a band that may or may not be appreciated in these hallowed halls. Recently, EDM titans Daft Punk released their highly anticipated follow-up to 2005’s Human After All, titled Random Access Memories. The album opens with a phenomenal song called “Give Life Back to Music.” At first listen it sounds like what you would normally expect from Daft Punk, but as you go along, you notice that everything sounds a bit crisper, more organic. The entire album is performed on live instruments, using no loops, programming, or anything of the such. Now, I promise this isn’t an attempt to slip an album review in here, so just bear with me. In a recent interview, Daft Punk stated that they believe music has no soul anymore. I think that “Give Life Back to Music” is a plea not only to the realm of EDM, but to all genres of music…including metal.
Now I can honestly say that metal music has so many excellent releases each and every year that it’s hard to conceive the idea of it becoming a dying genre, but there are signs in the tea leaves everywhere. Metal, much like EDM, is subject to fads that spread like wildfire. Once something comes along that is remotely successful, countless bands, both new and established bands, latch on and quickly drive it into the ground. Sometimes it’s for the better, but that may not always be the case. In addition, once a band finds something that worked for them, many of them assume that they can settle down and crank out just that, until they’re fat enough to retire happy. Again, sometimes this weeds out a number of false starts from the get-go, but more than a couple of bands come to mind who had a good idea but let it ruin them in the end.
These trends of following audio fashion statements and refusing to progress as musicians are scary when looking at the big picture. When you consider jazz musicians, classical composers, and even early heavy metal bands, progress wasn’t the exception, it was the rule. As Leonardo da Vinci wrote, “Iron rusts from disuse; water loses its purity from stagnation… even so does inaction sap the vigor of the mind.” What does it mean for this genre, or music as a whole, when the majority of the tours and labels are filled with bands who sound exactly alike or haven’t changed their sound in over a decade?
Now, for each rule, there are of course the exceptions, and in this genre, there are plenty. But what happens when these bands reach their expiration date? Will they be replaced by a new breed of trailblazers or instead by a lackluster troupe of trendsetters who set the wrong trends? This has happened in a number of genres already: Pop was left in the hands of Britney Spears…now we have Lady Gaga running around rampant. Rock music, which was once in pretty capable hands, now rests on the shoulders of bands like Nickelback, Adelita’s Way, and Three Days Grace. Should we be focusing on finding the next titans to carry heavy metal through this golden age of copy-and-paste riffs, or am I just being a little too paranoid here?
For that matter, should we as a community be worried when bands like Lamb of God and Ghost are playing before bands like Papa Roach and Korn at Rock on the Range? Now granted, I understand that this site caters more to extreme metal fans, so there might not be as many Lamb of God fans here as on other sites, but I’m sure it burns up plenty of people that there was hardly any good representation of the extreme metal community at the New England Metal and Hardcore Festival this year. Sure, if you’re in Europe, you are swimming in amazing festivals, but that isn’t the case on this side of the pond. Is it possible that the fate of music is no longer in the hands of the musician? That’s the question. Right there.
Now, I’m sure plenty of people are still jamming on the new Arsis and The Ocean albums who aren’t worried about the apocalypse in the distant future, but here’s something to consider: When was the last time you listened to something that was so incredible that it gave you chills? I’m not talking about the “Oh, that was so sick” chills. I’m talking about that feeling when you first heard that defining album, the overwhelming feeling of amazement that something so big could be held on a CD (or cassette even). When’s the last time you listened to an album that changed the game for you? Shouldn’t we be looking for these albums at all times?
Again, I understand that this may be like trying to talk a high-schooler into opening a savings account, but the more and more I listen to music, the more and more I agree with the good gents in Daft Punk. Music as a whole is slowly hollowing itself out into something that will inevitably be uninhabitable. There will certainly be more great music in the future, but why shouldn’t we be working on making all music into great music? What would the world be like if we held our musicians to the standards to which Davis and Coltrane were held, or hell, even Beethoven and Mozart? I’m not insinuating that we should come to feel entitled to the music, but what if we expected more? Just what if?
Styles of music come and go, creative musicians will always exist even when their is a lot of soulless drivel out there. I still get chills down my spine and a smile on my face when I hear something new that is special, and go as far as (I will admit) crying to music that is beautiful such as The Cloud Atlas Soundtrack from 2012. Forward-thinking music has not and will not stop happening, even if the scene as a whole does not embrace it readily. I think part of what you’re referring to is the human tendency to nostalgia-ize and say the best is behind us when the future is different but not worst, in fact I would venture to say there is more good metal coming out then ever before.
Great piece, and one I strongly agree with. Obviously the business side of things has some blame in this; Nickelback sells more records/singles/downloads than Lamb of God, so they get to be on the radio, simple as that. Which is why I think the internet and live shows will always be the driving force of extreme metal, and really any other genre that isn’t commercialized. People have to support the bands they hear about and enjoy, because there’s unfortunately no way to call radio stations and request a Howl/Ghost/whomever song to the point where it’s played twice an hour ad nauseum like Adele or Lady GaGa. Which in a different light makes this music even more special, because it has to be found; it’s not rammed down your throat all the time.
That said, I just watched Kanye West’s performances on SNL last night… goosebumps. They were there. Whole album-wise? Kongh’s “Sole Creation” and Altar of Plagues “Teethed Glory and Injury” hit that sweet, moist spot inside my stone casing.
I think we just became best friends.
“Sole Creation” and “Teethed Glory and Injury” are two my favorite albums of 2013. Chill inducing, indeed.
As a long time metal fan I’ve seen so many trends come and go while the underground slowly progresses the genre that I’m not too worried about it. I do fear a little for rock though.
What you said about the playing order of bands at some shows is a good point. I always have to remind myself that the playing order is based more on popularity than quality. I still get pissed though.
Also, I’m a Lamb of God fan and just saw them Friday night. I must admit that I wasn’t expecting them to blow Decapitated away like they did.
Guys like byrd36 have been metal fans longer than I have, but I’ve been a fan of other kinds of music for a long time, much of it not in the mainstream. What you’re describing doesn’t seem like a change to me, or a reason to be concerned.
In every genre of music, and in every art form beyond music, there are some artists who are geniuses, people who revolutionize the art form. Some achieve popular success, many don’t. And then there are the vast majority of artists who range from awful to very good. Many of those in the latter category aren’t intentionally being less than great — they simply aren’t capable of doing what the geniuses do, no matter how hard they try. Hasn’t it always been this way? Hasn’t it always been true in music that there are ground-breakers and trend-followers? And hasn’t it always been true that popular success often has nothing to do with quality?
The internet and DIY recording technology have certainly made it possible for everyone and their dog to get music out into the world, and maybe that has meant that a higher percentage of new metal is dreck than perhaps was once true, but it has also made it possible for really talented people to find an audience who in an earlier era never could have done that.
I’m not worried about the future of extreme metal. Every year, new gems are created. If anything, I think the array of quality metal is growing . . . though today (to mix my metaphors) it may take more searching to find the needles in the haystack, because the haystack has become so large.
The last album that really blew my mine was Spawn of Possession’s Incurso.
That blew my mind, too. I’m still trying to find it. My mind, that is.
austin, I think you have kind of hit it pretty good when you said I was being a bit nostalgic. Something that really hit the idea was the realization that prog. rock has almost fallen off the radar altogether. There are only a very small handful of bands that stand behind the label of progressive rock and represent it. It used to be so huge, and now it seems to be just a handful of people still trying to grasp at the straws of an outdated genre. Granted, there are still bands playing prog rock, but the albums aren’t as monumental as they were when King Crimson and Yes were putting them out.
I completely agree with Islander in that there are plenty of great metal albums coming out each year, but what has become worrisome is the potential for the next landmark album being buried under a slush pile.
Wow. I’m surprised at the lack of people taking this personally in some sort of knee-jerk reaction.
Give it time though, I’m sure there’ll be some people out there just waiting to condescend to you about how wrong you are, and how much there is wrong with you.
Well, we did get one comment on our Facebook page that told Tyler to shut up. That counts, doesn’t it?
Oh good. The balance is restored.
The last album that gave me transcendental chills? Pelagial. I first got it a little over a week ago, and I’ve already listened to the vocalized version seven times and the instrumental version twice. Each time, it grows on me, and becomes even more emotionally enveloping and riveting. So while I agree that there is a lot more derivative, unoriginal music out there, that is simply because more people have the tools to make music. The only difference between then and now is that you have to look a little harder to find the truly great and revolutionary bands and albums, and that makes the discovery all the more sweeter, if you ask me.
I’ve been thinking about this subject of the slow atrophy of certain genres of art for a rather long time. Pitchfork also posted an article like this talking about the irrelevance of rock. Their argument was that rock music (indie rock in their case) has become a bunch of people writing songs about being in a band and have nothing to say about contemporary society. In this way, metal actually has staked claim on a couple of areas that make it instantly relevant. First, metal is more than happy to wrestle with religion, which is rather relevant given the myriad of fundamentalisms that seem to be affecting every country in some way or another wether it be Christian fundamentalism in American political life or Mulsim fundamentalism in the MIddle East. Second, metal has an extreme anti-authoritarian streak that calls people out to think for themselves, which is a huge point in a bland-media-saturated post-industrial world. Third, metal’s obsession with negative and dark moments is even more potent in a world that is paralyzed by fear — Much of metal’s message is that the light and the dark are always together and to exclude risk by excluding the hard, brutal, frightening parts of the world is to also avoid the true intensity of real life. So at the very least, much of the territory metal has staked out for itself is at least relevant/potent.
However, given that metal seems to be a world of blindly followed tropes and hyper-genre-specialization, I tend to agree that it seems like metal feels a bit stagnent right now. However, just having seen the amazing Has Ritcher show at LACMA I was reminded that artistic growth and renewal always happens at the shadowy edges of art. That is, game changing artistic moves in any genre always the weird outliers, genre-jumpers, signal-mixers, code-switchers, and otherwise hard to categorize stuff that pushes the edges to that place where you as a listener get the chills. Most of the metal that has gotten me excited is like that, even if they are now conventional, it was really avant in it’s day. The reason this is important is that the way that internet searching works, it makes finding these fuzzy, indescribable artistic visions indefinitely harder than finding things that are similar to what you already know. It’s really hard to search Google for something you don’t know you want to find.
So why is this relevant to your conversation? Because I have found bands and albums that have blown my mind recently. Dozens of them. But I’ve not found them by browsing things similar to what I usually like; instead I mostly found them by trusting other people. By finding a record store I trust, by going to see opening bands, by listening to all the stuff my musician friends post to Twitter/Facebook. But most of the amazing music I’ve been exposed too in the metal side of things has been from awesome independent record labels like Blood Music, Handmade Birds, and Utech Records that are taking huge risks by releasing records from bands that are unclassifiable at the moment, but will be tomorrow’s awesome “metal” once everyone catches up. The Hans Richter show reminded me that along with chills from discovering a new amazing art, so too that process is also discomforting as a viewer/listener. Metal has done so much to shape and change music that I don’t worry that it will continue to have amazing impact on music in some form. I only worry if I’ll have the courage to cast off my limited definitions of metal and embrace the wild future music that, in good metal fashion, smashes our comfortable conventions and changes our perception of the world.
Man, thanks for this great comment — a worthy essay in itself. You’ve put your finger on an incisive point — the difficulty of finding potentially ground-breaking new music because “it’s hard to search for something you don’t know you want to find”. Finding innovative, risk-taking labels and paying attention to their releases is certainly one way of doing that. I second your thoughts about Blood Music and Handmade Birds (and it sounds like Utech is one I need to get to know).
i remember in my thirties worrying that i was going to settle into that kind of musical complacency that i saw in so many people older than myself. they seemed to latch onto bands and styles from a certain block of time, generally their late teens to late twenties, and refused to sample anything outside of those self imposed perimeters.
thankfully as i approach my mid forties i’ve found that i’m actually more open minded and musically adventurous than at any other time in my life. and with sites like Amazon, Soundcloud and Bandcamp making audio samples and digital downloads easy to find and very affordable, my external terabyte hard drive is filling up quickly with albums by young new bands.
for me personally the metal scene is just as alive and exciting as when i was 15 and falling in love with bands like Slayer and Exodus.
The one point I’d quibble with is the idea that other genres don’t suffer from the same issues. For every Coltrane and Davis in jazz, there are tons of copycats making soulless dreck.
A couple of points Id like to make: First…its very rare, if not impossible, to re-create that feeling of amazement you get the first time a band really blows your mind. That has less to to do with music being stagnant and far more to do with how we as humans get used to things we are exposed to constantly. No matter how good the band youre listening to is,..how innovative…you will never re-create that buzz you felt when you were first discovering metal (or any genre)
Second, truly innovative musicians..and Im talking about the people who really re-invent things, dont come along all that often. Its easy to look back and point to bands like Zeppelin and Sabbath (or to use your example Coltrane and Davis) and talk about how bands used to always be breaking new ground, but we forget about all the copycats and hanger-ons that popped up with them. As someone up above said..thats just looking back with rose-colored glasses.
Finally, while metal certainly follows trends and even becomes stagnant at times..It, as well as similar, smaller music genres, will never become hollowed out as long as there are people out there who play simply for the love of the music. Innovation isnt going to come from the top, its going to come from the underground just like it always has.
..and no, I dont think for a second that a truly innovative album is going to be buried in the slush pile of bands. If word of mouth was enough for people to discover things back in the dark days of the 80’s and 90’s, then in this day and age theres no way a really ground-breaking album would stay unknown for long
“Innovation isnt going to come from the top, its going to come from the underground just like it always has.” No doubt. I also tend to agree that word of mouth CAN be effective in spreading the word about truly innovative albums. But you have to know where to put your ear to hear the word. So many of the larger media outlets stay focused on the tried and true — they give people what people already know they want to hear.
True, larger media tends to be reactive rather than proactive, but these things do work their way to the top given enough time. The reason trends even get to the larger media outlets is because there’s enough buzz going that they start to notice.
For example…by the time bigger media had caught onto Ghost word of mouth had already been spreading for months in the underground scene. Now everyone and their brother is jumping onto the retro-rock/stoner doom bandwagon.
Good albums may not catch peoples attention..even really good albums may not get noticed, but if something is truly ground-breaking enough…its not going to get buried. I dont even think its possible at this point. The people who know where to look will catch on, and they will pass the name around to one another enough that someone is bound notice
Phew! I think i dont need to make any statement. Both the article and the comment section are informative enough.
that said, i need to start listening to daft punk