Mar 052014

I would guess that established metal bands face a quandary every time they begin work on a new album. By “established metal bands” I mean those who have put out enough records over a long enough period of time that they have a well-defined sound and, by metal standards, a large and relatively devoted fan base. I’m guessing, because I’m not in an established metal band and don’t know anyone who is. Fortunately, lack of first-hand knowledge has never held me back from expressing opinions.

Here’s the quandary: You can continue to do the same kind of thing you’ve done before. This is the safe route. You know you will probably please the die-hard fans, because you’re giving them what they’ve liked in the past. You’ll please your record label, because whatever pleases your established fan base most likely means predictable sales. And because it’s the same kind of music you’ve done in the past with success, you can be reasonably confident that you won’t fuck it up.

But maybe it’s not so safe. Because there’s a difference between writing good new songs that are recognizably YOU and… coasting. Coasting is risky, and I would guess (see above re my complete lack of personal knowledge) that it’s also boring for the people in the band. And when people in a band start to get bored, they’re on the brink of a death spiral.

“Coasting” is another word for “mailing it in”. Another synonym would be “formulaic”. You know the elements of that recognizable sound, and you repeat and reproduce. To be clear, I couldn’t do this, and you probably couldn’t either. It still requires talent to write and record a new song that is appealing, even if it sounds remarkably similar to songs you’ve written and recorded in the past. That kind of talent doesn’t grow on trees, but it’s still a talent with an expiration date.

The problem is that even dedicated fans can tell (eventually) when you’re coasting. And the really nerdy metal fans who write for magazines and big web sites that actually have some influence on opinion and buying habits, they’re not dedicated enough to give you a pass if you’re coasting. They’ll call you on it (unless they’re shameless whores), and a big pile of ho-hum reviews eventually take their toll.

Coasting happens when the creative spark has died, or is dying, or when laziness has set in, or when egoism has deluded you into thinking that you can do no wrong even when you’re really not exerting yourself — or when you reached the pinnacle of your talent long ago, like the high school jock who was the center of attention at 18 but has been tumbling downhill ever since. Or maybe you just like the paychecks and don’t want to jeopardize them.

Some people aren’t content to coast, and actually have the talent and drive to avoid it. Maybe those people feel a kind of shame or guilt at the thought of turning art into commerce. Or maybe they’ve just realized the great truth that when life becomes boring and predictable, you’re on the path to depression, followed by alcoholism, obesity, loss of sex drive, and forgetting to file your tax returns (and to be clear, I’m guessing again).

But what do you do to avoid coasting? You could take a sharp left turn away from your “established sound”, but that’s as risky as coasting. You could wind up with something called Lulu or Illud Divinum Insanus. Or, like a certain Swedish band whose name begins with “O”, you could cause a storm of butthurt among your fan base, even if what you did isn’t terrible.

Or you could evolve, and evolve successfully. My NCS comrade Andy Synn wrote a piece recently (here) about bands who have changed organically — using their “established sound” as a foundation and an anchor point for expanding outward. Some bands have succeeded in pushing the envelope of their established sound in creative ways — they still sound like who they have always been, but they succeed in also sounding reinvigorated and fresh, doing what they’ve done before, but doing it really, really well. I think, for example, that Soilwork did that on The Living Infinite.

Ironically, the bands who are most creatively free may be the ones who aren’t “established” in the sense I defined at the outset. They aren’t hostages to their own success because “success” isn’t something they have, or expect. They can’t make a living playing music, but they can’t live without it either. They do what they feel like doing, and they either don’t give a fuck about the consequences or they care but have no control over the consequences.

The quality of the music they make may be terrible, because being creatively unhindered and being talented are two very different things, or it may be remarkable. And in the latter cases, sometimes no one notices, and sometimes listeners wake up and realize what they’ve been missing; I think, for example, about Inquisition’s Obscure Verses For the Multiverse.

And sometimes the only thing “established” about a band’s sound is that you really don’t know for sure what their next album will sound like, because they’re constantly experimenting and exploring, with more hits than misses — and that in itself is the main draw. Blut Aus Nord comes to mind, but there are others.

You may wonder what prompted me to write these musings, and I’ll tell you. The not so subtle clue is in the image at the top of this post: Arch Enemy have announced that their next album, entitled War Eternal, will be released this coming June. It’s currently being mixed by Jens Bogren at Fascination Street in Sweden. Guitarist Michael Amott is quoted about the title of the album as follows:

“A lot of times life is a struggle, a war against what I like to call ‘mental chains’ in society that try to prevent you from living life the way you want, that try to stop you from making your dreams come true. I have always resented that and I always will.”

I’ve been a long-time fan of Arch Enemy, but they’re also one of those bands who I fear are on the verge of coasting. On the other hand, I thought the same thing about Soilwork before The Living Infinite. So we’ll see. Sometimes the mental chains you put on yourself are harder to break than the ones “society” puts in place.

  12 Responses to “COASTING”

  1. Classic example of coasting? AC/DC
    Modern example? Amon Amarth.
    Arch Enemy? I can accept that. Not a lot of surprises album to album.

  2. AE have been on the verge of coasting for a long while now…

    Wages of Sin and Rise of the Tyrant both sounded vital and invigorated (for different reasons), but the albums between (and after) were pretty stale (albeit with some great tunes here and there!)

    Taking bets now that one of the new songs will be entitled “Mental Chains”.

  3. ..Ive found that Arch Enemy has long since reached the pinnacle of their talent. In fact I think they did that way back on “Wages of Sin”.

    I think another big problem that leads to coasting is releasing albums too frequently. Obviously waiting too long isnt a great idea either, but Arch Enemy has 9 going on 10 full lengths in 18 years. One new release every 2 years is probably good for the pocket book, but it dosnt do wonders for recharging your creative batteries. You get stuck in a rut because youre in a hurry to drop your next release and it dosnt allow time for new ideas or new influences to show up.

    Id argue that youre starting to see the same thing in Amon Amarth right now, and it probably wont be too long before Autopsy runs into the same problem if they dont slow down their release cycle

    • I wonder how much of these kinds of release cycles are driven by label contracts. I bet that’s a big part of it.

      • It would have to be, and I also think that a band like Arch Enemy, whose been with Century Media for such a long time, probably agrees to it because of some kind monetary or other perk when they could probably negotiate an easier release cycle.

        I just wonder how creative can a band really be when theyve got that kind pressure hanging over them to produce something in such a short amount of time

  4. I think it boils down more almost to an image dissonance thing. AC/DC and Motörhead have been making the same album for decades, but no one seems to mind; it’s more the bands who gain the reputation for being innovative and progressive, and then fall back on imitation and coasting (see: Heritage) that garner the most ire.

  5. I am quite excited about this album. Khaos Legions and Tyrant were really great and full of life to me. Anthems of Rebellion was their weakest album but I still consider that a good album and by no means is bad, just a bit lackluster when compared to other albums.

    I haven’t got the impression that Arch Enemy were coasting, I thought Rise of the Tyrant hit with a ton of momentum and had amazing tracks start to finish, same with Khaos Legions, so if anything I still feel they have the capability to do another great album.

    Michael Amott also strikes me as a guy whose not afraid to say “it’s done” when it needs to be said, same goes with Gossow, who strikes me as a person who felt if AE had reached it’s peak and had done it’s best she would gracefully move on to whatever she wanted to do next.

    • Khaos Legions was incredibly inconsistent… and even at its best wasn’t much of a patch on their previous stuff. A couple of good songs does not a good album make .

      And much as I like both Gossow and Amott, their media persona of “No Gods, No Masters” (great song btw) doesn’t necessarily gel with their actions sometimes. Personally I think they’ve very aware that AE is their meal ticket and will continue to do it until it’s simply no longer viable.

  6. Arch Enemy taking some time off and having Nick Cordle in the ranks (at the moment, no idea if he’s still active) gives me some high hopes for the new disc. I thought Khaos Legions was a little weak but enjoyed Rise Of The Tyrant. Then again, maybe it’s just me hoping because it seems like a lot of my old favorites put out some really good work over the last year.

  7. i’m totally guilty of not wanting my favorite bands to experiment or change. i love Slayer the way they are and could care less if they coasted for what is left of their career.
    but at the same time, i’ve been writing and recording songs for nearly 30 years. i’ve never had a record contract and i was in multiple bands over the years. my musical style has changed so much and so often in these three decades you might not even believe it was same person that recorded all of these songs. with that in mind, what if i had gotten signed in my early twenties and had huge success with that first album. i would have had to have stuck to style of music (or very close to it) ever since. i would be fucking miserable by now, because the music i’m writing now sounds absolutely nothing at all like what i wrote back then. and i’m ridiculously proud and in love with the stuff i’m writing today. but it took years and years of growing, learning and experimenting to finally reach this point.
    so i’m conflicted about this topic, because obviously i couldn’t “coast”, but i really, kinda sort of want my favorite bands to totally do it.

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