Nov 302013

Photos by me.

I may have mentioned that I’m on vacation. “Active” is not the word for my vacations. More like “slothful”. I sleep like I’m in hibernation, eat a little, drink a lot, and talk with people unlike any I know at home. I swim with fish that make rainbows look drab, stare at turquoise vistas, and photograph dramatic clouds that leave me silent in awe (yes, silent, it’s a miracle!), every vision unlike any other, never to be repeated.

And I read a lot. I’ve read a few things during my trip that made me think about metal, even though I haven’t been listening much since this vacation began. For example, I read this final sentence from a movie review by David Denby:

“It’s a film devoted to inanition, made with considerable artistry, but it’s far from a work of art.”

My first thought was, “What the fuck does ‘inanition’ mean?” But even before finding the answer, I was thinking about whether the statement was relevant to metal. Probably a poor allocation of limited brainpower, because over-analyzing the things you enjoy is usually a mistake. But I decided yes, it might be relevant, perhaps especially at this time of year when people are compiling their Best of 2013 lists.

Some friends of mine who are also NCS fans jab me occasionally with the claim, “You like everything”. I really don’t. I may give that impression by choosing not to write about what I don’t like. Yet there’s a kernel of truth in that jab: I do find, almost every day, something new that puts a smile on my face. Yet I can still appreciate that there’s a difference between albums made with considerable artistry and works of art.

I suppose some people might scoff at the idea that any metal album, much less a single song, could be a work of art. It sounds a little pretentious just to say it. But I think it applies. The kinds of albums that come to mind first are those that are so completely overwhelming on an emotional level that I become immersed in them; the rest of the world just fades away, and imagination holds sway.

Some of those albums are deeply “atmospheric”, to use a common but fairly well-understood word. They create intense feelings of isolation and cold, or heat and disintegration, or corruption and decay, or battle and victory (and loss). Blood is being shed, civilizations torn down, light vanishing in the void. As disembodied spirits, we cross the trails of comets, behold the birth and death of stars, or simply glimpse the sun glinting off icy lakes or frost-covered pines.Or maybe we’re just plunged, wallowing, into a miasma of sickness and despair, or spun out of our minds with drink or drugs.

It could be any of those imaginings, or hundreds of others; the music transports me to a different place or a different frame of mind. I remember the feeling, and I want to have it again.

Every now and then, I’ll come across something that may not be “atmospheric” in the sense just described but is so staggeringly different that it leaves me gap-jawed (correction: more gap-jawed than usual) and shaking my head in wonder. I can’t help but think of albums like that as works of art, because it’s so difficult to create a genuine surprise — and one that really works, one that succeeds (for example) in drawing from many different influences to create an experience that sounds genuinely new and engrossing.

But to be clear, I also think albums that just brilliantly kick out the jams and rock hard (or savagely slash and burn) can also qualify as works of art. Writing and performing a song that physically moves you and also sticks in your head, not just for days but for years — that’s a true art, too. Because think of how rarely that happens.

I wrote that this concept seemed particularly relevant this time of year, but I wonder if it’s possible to proclaim that any album is a work of art in the year of its release. I’m not sure, but maybe it takes the passage of time to make that judgment — the time necessary to discover whether an album will last, whether it has staying power. Is music really a “work of art” if it fades, if it becomes dated, if it loses its hold on your mind? And how will you know if you don’t wait a while?

On the other side of the coin, I think it’s true that an album can be made with “considerable artistry”, yet not be a “work of art”. Some bands are loaded with talent at every station, filled with people who are technically skilled from top to bottom, people whose performances in the recordings are genuinely impressive. And yet the music lacks something that would make it last.

Maybe it sounds a bit too formulaic, maybe the songs give you a rush as they go in one ear but evaporate from your memory as they go out the other. (I have lots of albums that I listen to purely for the adrenaline charge, even though a week later I can barely remember anything specific about the music.) I don’t mean to suggest that such albums are bad, or even mediocre. They might well be good enough to make lots of year-end lists. But the phrase “work of art” somehow doesn’t seem to fit. Maybe this distinction is just another way of separating “good” albums from “great” ones.

As I’ve continued to think about this distinction, I’ve realized that for me there’s a place where the line between music “made with considerable artistry” and music that’s a “work of art” gets very blurry. I’m thinking about bands who aren’t trying to do anything new, and who make no claim that they are, but who succeed in creating something tremendously appealing.

For example, 2013 has produced a lot of fantastic old-school death metal (mainly of the Swedish variety, which is one of my undying loves). These are albums that light me up with a jolt of power, and they often include distinctive songs that I know I’ll be listening to repeatedly in the coming months, and maybe longer. But the bands are using songwriting tropes and production formulas that go back decades, and if they’re putting a new spin on the sound, it’s a subtle one; in fact, it has to be subtle, because if you spin the style too hard, it becomes something else that’s a break with a revered tradition.

I’m not singling out old-school Swedish death metal. It’s just an example. The same observations could be made about current bands who are faithfully embedded in second-wave black metal, or any of a dozen other sub-genres. So what do you call that kind of music? The best of it is more than mere mimicry (mere mimicry doesn’t come close to this line I’m talking about). It may be excellent in every way for what it does, but is it a work of art?

I’m still pondering that question and leaning toward “Yes!”. But to be honest, I’m not going to think about it too hard. I like what I like, whatever label might be applied. And I also have more clouds to capture before they get away forever.

As always, I’d welcome your comments about any of the subjects in this post. Maybe you’ll feel like naming some albums you consider works of art, or others that don’t quite get there but are made with considerable artistry. Or maybe you don’t think about this too hard either.

  20 Responses to “WORKS OF ART”

  1. Copying and pasting a comment by Brent on our FB page, because it made me realize that I should have started this post by exploring what the phrase “work of art” means in the first place:

    “Well, any music can qualify as a work of art. Perspective is everything, and art is as vague a word as Metal. I also think a “work of art” does not make it good. Jackson Pollacks paintings are works of art…doesn’t mean I think they are any good, or that it elevates them above normal status.

    I know ‘work of art’ is an expression used to express the significant quality of something, but in a literal sense it’s just an ambiguous statement with a lot of applications to me.”

  2. Fucking great op-ed, commander.

    I’ve been pondering this situation, quite hard, since i began writing here—I used to do all my year end lists as ‘art’ albums and ‘banger’ albums, and have since dissolved that practice. Perhaps i should bring it back. The problem is, I find too few albums that strike me as truly artistic. A lot of bands aim for that, but i feel very few of them really hit the mark. Worse, many bands hit the mark once and then repeat the gesture—often better, but i think the repetitions do sort of erode the artistry. EG: Blackwater Park is a better album than Still Life, but Still Life was the original work of art, the original ‘statement,’ if you will.

    So what albums are works of art? These albums sprang to my mind: Cobalt – Gin (you know my undying love for this record), Panopticon – Kentucky (ditto here), The Ocean – Precambrian, Shining – Blackjazz, Mastodon – Leviathan.

    Actually, I would also count Crack the Skye, so maybe MAstodon is the only band that springs to mind as having two art albums for me. Hmm..

    • When I wrote this I was thinking of giving examples of relatively recent albums I would put in the “work of art” category. I eventually decided not to, but no lie, two of the ones that came to mind first were “Kentucky” and “Crack the Skye”.

    • Crack the Skye is no doubt a work of art, and I would probably put Leviathan there too. Considering Mastodon’s every-other-album-is-a-bloody-masterpiece pattern, I’m REALLY excited for their next album.

      Maybe it has to do more with the first-exposure-is-the-best phenomenon, but I’ve always preferred Still Life to Blackwater Park (the separation in quality isn’t far, but “The Moor” is the first Opeth song and second death metal song I’d ever heard, and is still my favorite song, Opeth or otherwise).

      The only album I can think of that I immediately knew was a masterful work of art was this year’s Pelagial. It even overcame the phenomenon I listed above, as my first exposure to The Ocean was Anthropocentric, and then Heliocentric. It only trails Still Life and Blackwater Park as my favorite albums ever. Most other albums take years to reveal themselves as works of art. I think that’s why, for example, Decibel requires albums to have been out for at least five years before they are Hall of Fame-eligible.

      As far as some other albums I feel qualify for “work of art” status, Neurosis’s newest one comes to mind, as does Inter Arma’s Sky Burial. Maybe Zatokrev’s newest too. Also, I would put both BTBAM’s Colors and Parallax qualify as works of art too, so they are the third band that comes to mind as having multiple works of art (the second being Opeth [Still Life, BWP, Ghost Reveries, Watershed, maybe MAYH], and maybe Converge too [Jane Doe and probably either Axe To Fall or the new one]).

      I also think that a single song can be a work of art in an album that merely has considerable artistry. The examples that come to mind are Watain’s “They Rode On” and Fleshgod Apocalyspe’s “The Forsaking”; both of those songs are absolute masterpieces on albums that, while fantastic, don’t exactly transport you to another realm like work-of-art albums do.

  3. I agree with the FB commenter, and I think that as my definition of art expanded to include other ideas, I’ve experienced an increased sense of appreciation for all art on some basic level. I used to look at splatter paintings and think “that’s bullshit. You can’t just throw colors at a canvas and call it art!” but after a while I came to the conclusion that if they’re pleasing to the eye (or ear) or evoke any emotion (no matter how obvious or simple) then its art. Even the most blatant thrash with no perceivable nuance or subtle creativity is art… I just don’t have to listen to it all the time, and I probably won’t.

    • As I noted above, I really didn’t think very much about what the phrase “work of art” means (or should mean). I have so much respect for the creative process that I tend to agree that almost all music that evokes an emotional response (other than disgust) is a work of art in a literal sense. I’m sure that the movie reviewer I quoted meant it in a different sense, as a form of high praise. And that’s kind of how I understood it as I wrote the post. Yet I personally enjoy a ton of music (and movies) that I might not anoint in that way just as much as the “works of art” that I think the reviewer had in mind.

  4. those are absolutely gorgeous photos! this is probably over simplifying, but i’ve always thought that a song becomes “art” only after it’s deviated in some way from the standard template. the most common template is the old intro-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-solo-chorus-outro. i’m sure everyone could think of many more song cliches, but this is the one that haunts me the most as a songwriter, it’s the formula i used when i was learning how to write songs and it’s been hard to get away from. but when i finally did write my first song without that template i really felt that i had finally truly created art. that’s my two cents.

    • I don’t know if it’s justified to limit “works of art” to songs that deviate from the standard templates. It probably isn’t, yet I admit that I tend to do the same thing. Re-thinking that mindset is part of what I was hinting at in the post — questioning whether something has to be genuinely innovative to qualify for the pedestal.

      • i see what you’re saying, and i don’t think my perspective is the last word, for sure. i just don’t know if can look at a by-the-numbers song as a “work of art”. that template can still make for a totally awesome song, i listen to albums full of them, everyday. but if you have two completed paint-by-number pictures, one that’s been done with flawless precision and one in which the artist has gone outside the lines thus making something new and unique, which (if either) deserves to be called a “work of art”? and i’m not saying there’s a definitive “right” answer to that.

  5. Whoa, you come up with some heavy shit when you’re on vacation. Funny how some space can do that. I find that idea of needing to wait in order to see if something has durability before it can defined as a ‘work of art’ is quite appealing. Because I think – at least in terms of music – that a true work of art (ignoring for a moment the inherent subjectivity of that phrase) should have staying power.

    I also agree that there are some things, be they works of music or other creative outlets (I’m thinking of a few films, for example), that have all the necessary elements, talented people, creative effort, etc., but still fail to really hit the nail in terms of being ‘art’. It’s like there’s an ephemeral, non-formulaic, aspect of it that just happens, the stars aligning or some shit, that takes it to the next level.

    For this year’s releases, I’d say Mechina’s Empyrean is a real work of art. I can’t understand how few mentions it’s had on the growing 2013 best-of lists post, or across the interweb in general. But there you have it, subjectivity.

    Off the top of my head I’d also put in my ‘works of art’ category from recent years: The Great Mass by Septic Flesh, Traced in Air by Cynic, probably also Crack The Skye, and Chaostar’s ‘The Scarlett Queen’ (been going through my head after reviewing it). But then I’d probably put in other more suprising picks, like Fear Factory’s ‘Obsolete’; I can still enjoy that, and although it’s older, doesn’t feel to me ‘old and outdated’ – in the wake of the NSA/GCHQ scandals, I just felt like cranking Police State 2000, which I guess means it has that elusive durability factor. I don’t know, it’s an interesting question you pose, and I don’t have a definitive answer by any means.

    • I enjoyed your first sentence (and agree with much of what followed it). I don’t know if this qualifies as heavy shit, but it’s definitely true for me (and I bet for most people) that when you break your daily routine for very long at all, sometimes your head turns in different and sometimes more contemplative directions. Or at least when you break the routine in a way that doesn’t just substitute some other kind of din and distraction. I guess that’s why I eventually have come to prefer vacations that involve very little activity and a lot of cloud-gazing. 🙂

      • I think that totally applies. I’ve had the last week off of school, but I’ve been using that time to continue to write college app essays, so I haven’t really stopped thinking in the same way. However, when I go up to Mammoth Lakes for snowboarding trips, for example, I completely get in a different mindset, and I tend to have some interesting thoughts on those vacations. I’ll have to test that theory again when I head up there for New Year’s.

        • Only been in that area once, but it’s truly beautiful. Maybe on one of your trips you will run into Valdur. 🙂

          • You have no idea how much I wish that would happen (at least since I found out them).

            On that note, it seems like mountain resort areas are warming up more and more to metal (the fact that Tahoe gets some tours comes to mind).

            • I still think it’s really odd that a band like Valdur call Mammoth Lakes home. I have no logical reason to think it’s odd, but I do.

              • You have plenty of logical reasons. With the population that is normally there, the only musical groups tha should exist there, if any, are Journey or Lynyrd Skynyrd cover bands.

      • Yeah I’ve definitely had the same thing happen to me while taking a break. Plus, clouds are awesome, there needs to be more time for cloud-gazing. And star gazing if you manage to get away from the city lights. Forget drugs, those star things will blow your fucking brains out 🙂

        • I’m in a place where there are no city lights nearby, but the nights have been overcast enough that I haven’t gotten a good look at the stars — until last night, which was clear. And holy shit.

  6. I think all music is a form of artistry; of which some is highly innovative and only for the acquired taste (many forms of metal fall under this) whilst others are aimed at the liking of a wider adience, perhaps at the expense of ‘quality’ or ‘depth’ if you will (I think this is mostly pop and radio friendly music). But each has is merits and comparing between pieces of artistry aiming for something different is kinda pointless (to prevent the mainstream vs underground debate).

    That said, I do think there are brilliant pieces of musical art out there that really do something new and set the bar for other releases to come in the future. From 2013, I suspect the works of Altar of Plagues, the Ocean and Persefone (amongst others) may prove to be such albums. However, only time will tell of course whether or not this is so.

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