(Andy Synn wrote this piece. Your comments are welcome, as always.)
Isn’t it funny how when bands sell-out, they also seem to feel the need to denigrate and insult their former fans at the same time? It’s a woefully common phenomenon – a band changes its sound in order to target mainstream success, and then goes to great lengths in interviews to talk about how they’ve “gone beyond” metal, or “grown out of it”, simultaneously insulting the genre wholesale whilst confirming all the worst clichés about it being “childish” or “immature”.
The latest offender to play this game of PR politicking is All That Remains frontman Phil Labonte, who posted the following recently, after announcing that all the tracking for their new album had been completed:
So in the past six months bleeding through called it quits, god forbid called it quits, and just today shadows fall has announced that for all intents and purposes they’re calling it quits. I’m so glad ATR have transcended “metal” and have become “musicians.”
And it inspired me to address the topic, and maybe call Phil out on his bullshit a little.
Let me start by laying my cards on the table a bit. I was at one time a big fan of All That Remains, and I still remain a fan of a lot of their early material. I’m also (as I hope most of you have realized by now) a big fan of clean vocals in metal, whether they’re used exclusively or intermingled with harsh vocals.
But Phil’s use of the word “transcended” (not to mention the sneering way he insults other metal artists by suggesting that All That Remains becoming less metal is somehow indicative of them being better “musicians”) is incredibly loaded with suggestive content and unspoken condescension.
Let’s face it, claiming that the band have “transcended” metal is a desperate attempt to repackage their steady slide towards mainstream mediocrity as an example of artistic growth and development. It’s an ego-defence mechanism designed to both preemptively silence their detractors and present the poppy stylings of their material as somehow “progressive”.
It’s interesting to note that many of the bands who attempt to negate their critics (or “haters” as I believe they like to call them) in this manner often fall back on citing their record sales as proof of their superiority… but then when you point out that, say, Miley Cyrus has sold ten times as many albums, they grow curiously silent… it’s an odd state of denial and delusion that I like to call “The Disturbed Defence”.
It’s probably no coincidence that the band’s aggressive targeting of the mainstream market coincided roughly with Phil’s failed attempt to join Killswitch Engage. I definitely wonder how the rest of the band, who at one point at least were definitely “metal musicians”, feel about Labonte’s concerted focus on simplifying and dumbing down their sound for mass appeal. I mean it’s not like the band were ever Obituary or anything, but at one point they certainly had energy and integrity to spare.
Unfortunately, bit by bit, all the hard edges have been smoothed and softened, making things more formulaic and easier to swallow, while the (incredibly autotuned) vocals and melodies have steadily become poppier and more predictable, coupled with the sort of generic “stand up and fight / I’m so sorry / I miss you so much” lyrics that are about one backing dancer away from being a Beyonce tune. It’s all very empowering and positive and uplifting… and utterly derivative.
A word like “transcended” suggests that the band have gone above and beyond something… it suggests that the very idea of being “metal” is in some way a limitation… and while this can be true for many bands (usually not very good ones), addressing it in this way is essentially the same thing as admitting that you simply weren’t capable of being better at it.
Honestly, there are so many bands out there pushing the limits of what metal can do and what it can be, expanding the definition and boundaries of the genre with creativity and talent, that claiming to have been restricted by the genre comes across as incredibly disingenuous, and rarely reflects positively on the bands making the claim.
If you don’t want to be a metal band any more, that’s perfectly fine. I can’t think of a better example than Anathema when it comes to a band who grew away from being metal, without ever claiming to have “grown out” of it, or in any other way denigrating or insulting where they came from. But changing because you’re not all that good at it, and then having the gall to claim that you’re “better” than all those bands continuing to do great things with the genre, is pretty deplorable.
Now I don’t know whether Labonte really is deluded enough to think that the band’s drift towards an easily digestible, radio-friendly, sound is the same thing as artistic progress, or if he’s merely engaged in a fundamentally cynical PR campaign (which seems most likely), but his comments reminded me strongly of another quote from several years ago, from Oli Sykes of teen-angst tycoons Bring Me The Horizon, claiming that the band “were never just a metal band”.
Now again, that’s just dripping with condescension and disdain, and still makes me want to correct it to “we were never [very good at being] a metal band”, but in his case it’s far more reflective of the generation he comes from, a generation of bands and musicians to whom mass-appeal is the real indicator of success, where being “good enough” at a little bit of everything, is considered more desirable than being “great” or creative in a more focused way.
Again though, as far as musical politics go, this is a great way of attempting to portray the band as a multi-faceted creative entity, but really their success can largely be attributed to a carefully calculated formula mixing together ideas and elements already popularized by others, along with an occasional breakdown to maintain their (questionable) “credibility”.
Heck, the album that broke the band into the mainstream consciousness did so on the back of ideas and styles cribbed from Lostprophets, Biffy Clyro, and Muse – basically a who’s who of the most recent Kerrang magazine cover stars – mixed carefully together with certain easily-accessible elements of the band’s generic Deathcore past, in a remarkably clever manner. Although one that seemed to owe more to market research than to any real creative desire.
To be fair to them, balancing these elements in a way that attracts the attention of large swathes of the music-buying public, without overly offending anyone in the process, is itself a complex task… but it doesn’t exactly reflect the “creativity” the band seem so desperate to claim. Many bands who are “just a metal band” manage to be creative and complex without actively suckling on the mainstream teat. And looking down on them doesn’t make you look any better.
You can see a similar sense of delusion in a lot of the current djent scene, with so many attempting to deny the obvious comparisons with nu-metal even whilst the genre continues to popularize artists based primarily on their ability to cover recent pop hits with extra downtuned guitar… or incorporate RnB-style crooning or rap influences into their malaise… now where have I seen/heard that before I wonder?
There’s even an insidious trend where bands take wholesale influences from pop and claim that it makes them “progressive”. And though it’s often done very well, it’s this tactical dissembling that really grinds my gears. Pop influences in Rock and Metal really are nothing new at all, and you’re deluding yourself if you think so, and there’s nothing “progressive” or original about using them.
Let me elucidate it thusly – if the strongest and most common “pop” melodies and structures are at the centre of the musical landscape (which I think, ignoring commercial issues entirely, you could very well argue that they are), then the various more “alternative” genres, from Rock to Metal to Jazz… even Classical and Blues… are based on the idea of expanding out from this centre. Going further and doing something different. It doesn’t necessarily make them better in any way at all, but it does allow them to explore new areas and arenas of music. Bringing in generic “pop” melodies essentially pulls them backwards, rather than progressing them forwards.
And again, that’s ok. There’s some great, poppy music out there (I’m particularly partial to My Kung-Fu Is Good by Rich Ward of Stuck Mojo fame, as it explores a wealth of summery rock, gospel and pop influences quite different from his usual fare), but please… don’t try and pretend that you’re doing anything new or “progressive” by using blatant pop melodies in your music. You’re not the first one to have that idea, and you won’t be the last.
And as to your superior assertion that incorporating mainstream influences somehow makes you more open-minded and creative… well… isn’t that just the same as being part of the mainstream audience?
So let me finish by saying this – it’s no crime to be poppy. It’s no crime to want to succeed and sell albums. Heck, it’s no crime to “sell-out” as long as you do it well and with integrity. But just don’t lie about it… not to your audience, and definitely not to yourself.
Here’s a little All That Remains song to remind you of when they felt like being “creative” and being “metal” weren’t mutually exclusive. Or at least weren’t deluded enough to claim that!
OK Islander, this is the kind of article on this site that I read all the way through. Just so you know.
First off, I’ve never listened to All That Remains, and out of the bands he mentioned the only one I’ve listened to is Shadows Fall, and I think I heard one of their older records twice before I decided it wasn’t for me. I’ve never even heard of those Kerrang cover stars you mentioned. So I don’t know the specifics of what you’re talking about.
In his defense, I don’t think his statement is necessarily as condescending as you’ve interpreted it. It seems to me he’s just stating that they’ve “transcended” metal and become “musicians” in the sense that they’ve gone beyond the restrictions of a single genre. It sounds like he’s claiming expanded horizons, and that being too narrow in your approach is the negative thing rather than anything about metal specifically.
It seems odd that you call it the “Disturbed defense,” because I thought of Slipknot. I haven’t followed either of them very closely for a long time, but I do remember Corey Taylor referencing their record sales as evidence of their greatness. But he also did it in a way that defended pop music rather than insulting it, saying that it can’t be complete crap if it sells that many copies. So at least when he did it, he was being logically consistent.
But since you bring up Disturbed, I do recall when they called it quits a while ago. (Did they get back together?) Draiman said something about not liking the direction of heavy music at the time . . . like he knows anything about heavy music. He’s the frontman of Disturbed, for fuck’s sake. What kind of credibility does that give him on the topic?
But to your main point, I’m not sure I can name a band that went away from metal with the condescending tone that you’re talking about here. Which is not to say it doesn’t happen, I just can’t name one. I think of Opeth and Baroness as prime examples of bands who struck the right chord (so to speak) when they talked about their more recent output. I usually hear something like, “We’re just tired of doing that all the time after touring and playing it night after night for X years.” But maybe that’s because of the types of bands I follow.
I suppose I should add that this is not an unusual thing for Labonte… he’s pretty infamous for having rather thin skin when it comes to criticism, and his usual response is to lash out and criticise “metal fans” wholesale rather than actually defend his music itself.
And the poppier they get, the louder his protestations grow that it’s all just an “artistic choice”… even as the song structures get simpler, the riffs get softer, and the vocals get more and more vapid and autotuned (I’ll actually credit Metalsucks on this one… their coining of the term “AutoLabonte’d” for those types of uber-processed and corrected vocals in metal definitely hit the nail squarely on the head).
Talking of Disturbed, they would have been a great addition to the piece if I’d remembered the following anecdote in time…
I was reading a piece on… another site (can’t recall which one, though the quote quickly gained traction around the infosphere) around about the time DIsturbed released “Believe” and started to think of themselves as the heirs to Queensryche et al, and REALLY started to blow their own trumpets. Someone was interviewing their guitarist and he claimed, totally without irony, that Disturbed “were having an important influence on other bands” and were basically “responsible for bringing back the guitar solo into metal”, and then namechecked bands like Avenged Sevenfold and Shadows Fall as ones he could see taking influence from Disturbed and turning back towards “real metal”…
And man, that was just so gobsmackingly delusional I had to laugh… both A7X and SF had been going LONGER than Disturbed, and had already released a number of albums packed full of real riffs and big solos… but to Disturbed they only existed once they’d been acknowledged by the mainstream. In this guy’s mind it was as if the idea of an “underground” career simply did not compute, and he assumed that these bands were only seeing success now because of Disturbed… and that has always stuck with me and made me very suspicious about the band, and any band, (Five Finger Death Punch also spring to mind) that seems to have no knowledge of how the underground works… it’s almost as if they were put together for mainstream success alone…
I think that’s a reasonable interpretation of the “transcended/musician” statement, and if that quote was from a reasonable person, there would be room legitimate doubt. HOWEVER, since we’re talking about Phil Labonte, I’d be more inclined toward Andy’s interpretation because the guy has a history of letting jerky and/or dumb things fall out of his Autotune hole.
Well, that’s why I prefaced my statement with “I don’t really know who this guy is.” I’ll take your interpretation as the likely one then.
It’s funny, I really don’t remember Disturbed having guitar solos. I used to listen to that band a lot, but that doesn’t stick out in my mind. So if they did have solos, they’re sure doing a good job at making them memorable.
You know, in a very general sense I get the impression a whole lot of musicians are assholes and morons. Your Akerfeldts aside, of course. (Could he be more likeable? Honestly.) I mean, look at Electric Wizard’s latest Decibel cover story. No matter how hard the writer tried to be neutral and maybe even positive about the Wiz, Jus and his wife came across as complete douches.
Interestingly I originally thought about mentioning Opeth, but didn’t for a couple of reasons. Not only are they going to be used as an example in a future column (probably next week) but Akerfeldt’s press position has swung both ways…
He’s previously made some very similar statements to Labonte’s in regards to people not liking “Heritage”, using the defence that their fans were too closed-minded and only disliked it because it wasn’t Death Metal, which effectively attempted to nullify the more “real” concerns of a lot of their fans (though by no means all of them).
However he’s also been very forthright and honest about the band’s change in style and direction (not that it’s even all that major a shift tbh) in a way that I think is very welcome.
Andy this is a great piece. Good job sir. I’m glad to see someone else besides me call out this boring trend of doing nothing new non prog bands who think they are progressive. The other side to the coin is the numerous websites (who shall remain nameless) that exacerbate this trend. Who do so by labelling and championing whole swaths of djent or djent focused music, as actual prog.
I actually have another column tangentially related to that very issue, which I am hoping to put together shortly. It sort of follows on from this idea of using “PR politics” to delude or bamboozle your potential audience, and deals with the spread of misinformation in that way.
Excellent man! After much pointless arguing with the sites and their writers who do this, I have come to the conclusion that often, its the people with poor definitions of prog who are deluded. Not that they are intentionally trying to delude or misinform. Though that happens all the time as well and I know what you are referring to. Yet now that I think about it you are right. It becomes misinformation at the point that fans and readers follow suit in thinking non prog is prog because thats what they have been told by people and sites they deem credible and or an “authority” on.
I’m of the opinion that “progressive” actually means two completely different things. One, that it’s really hard to play and has a lot of notes. Two, pushing boundaries. My two cents.
I tend to delineate “Prog” as a defined genre, with “Progressive” as a modifier.
I don’t know if that helps.
Or just confuses things further.
I’m of the opinion that opinions don’t matter 🙂
It doesn’t help, IMHO.
I’m sure that some people do make the effort to maintain this distinction, but ‘prog’ is also such a natural simplification of ‘progressive’ that some people will always use it without the implying the difference you suggest. You have to know the writer to know if this is the likely intention, and we can’t really be expected to know all the writers, can we?
But, to employ the terms in context: it’s interesting that Opeth are currently in the throes of an arguably retrograde move from purveying Progressive death metal to playing Prog of a long-established style. Sad but true.
I see the issue, especially in the sense that metal heads who are near or in their 30’s don’t want to be taken as adolescent so stuff like Phil’s statement are doubly offensive no matter what he intended. I don’t enjoy At the Gates or any of the bands Phil mentioned in his post so I will not claim any sort of specific knowledge in that regard. However, just because you enjoyed something in your younger days does not make it by default adolescent and people who think like that have incredibly immature view of maturity.
I used to love this band’s earliest albums. They hit me in the right way at the right time when they came out. But the band HAD to change as time passed. They chose to move in a direction that doesn’t interest me. As you say, that’s fine, but Labonte’s egotistical justification for it is nauseating. After taking heat for the statement you quote in the post, he then posted this comment on his FB:
“Guys, that last post was about ‘metal’ and it wasn’t about the quality of the bands mentioned. It was a reflection on how arbitrary and fickle ‘metal’ fans are. Stop lookin for hate.”
Sorry, that doesn’t make it all better.
There’s definitely a whole heap of cognitive dissonance in that last sentence, as if he’s not fully aware of what he’s saying/trying to say.
I mean, that’s basically him admitting he’s trying to have his cake and eat it too… “ok, we’re not metal anymore, but metal fans don’t like it… and even though we still try and market ourselves to metal fans as well as mainstream fans I am going to get pissy because metal fans don’t like our music anymore… even though we’re not metal anymore… so… etc etc ad nauseum”
Great points in this article.
I agree that there is an inherent condescension to Labonte’s comments – beyond the equally inherent, “Wait, what?” of it all – which angers me and is all too common. But, Andy makes his own unproven claims and steps into it a little bit as well.
I’ll accept accusations of my naivete, but until an artist explicitly states, “We started making our music like this, because we want to be popular, sell lots of records and get on the radio,” any accusation of selling out or courting mainstream appeal is pure speculation. Perhaps I am the blind optimist, but until the artist says otherwise, I give the benefit of the doubt and assume the artist is making the music he/she wants to make, because that is what is artistically satisfying to him/her.
“It’s probably no coincidence that the band’s aggressive targeting of the mainstream market coincided roughly with Phil’s failed attempt to join Killswitch Engage.”
This is the kind of claim I’m referring to. It is an assumption that All That Remains is “agressive(ly) targeting the mainstream market.” That is your interpretation of their music, but this is not provable to me until the band says this is the case. Does it contain “mainstream” elements? That would depend on how you define mainstream, but what I do feel is that there is no concrete evidence that those elements of the sound are there in a targeted, analyzed attempt to be popular.
“Many bands who are ‘just a metal band’ manage to be creative and complex without actively suckling on the mainstream teat.”
Again, these bands are not “suckling on the mainstream teat.” They are writing the music they want to write. Music that sounds good to them. This association with a mainstream aesthetic – and whether that’s a positive or negative (it’s neither) – is your interpretation. You are being condescending to bands which have a sound you interpret as mainstream in no lesser magnitude than Labonte is being condescending to metal. Is it shitty that Labonte somehow thinks the new sound is superior? Absolutely!
This frustration goes back with me to Metallica’s famous (infamous) “progression” into the black album. Not with the change of sound itself, though I didn’t care for it, but with the accusation that for even a second a band is not writing exactly that kind of music it wants to write.
Full Disclosure: I know almost nothing about All That Remains. My experience with them begin and end with playing “Six” on Guitar Hero II.
Not to be too critical of your comment, but:
“We started making our music like this, because we want to be popular, sell lots of records and get on the radio,”
Do you REALLY think any band is going to actively admit to this? That’s why we have to use our reasoning, and the evidence we are presented with, to analyse these things for ourselves. If you want us to just turn off our critical faculties and simply accept whatever a band SAYS, whether it runs counter to what they DO or not, just because you can’t prove intent to 100% certainty… well… it suggests that there’s no real point thinking very much at all, and essentially we should just passively accept whatever we’re offered.
And I don’t think I’m being condescending in the same way at all. As I said, there’s nothing intrinsically WRONG with being mainstream, or changing your sound to be popular, but it’s pretty obvious to me, and to many others, that All That Remains ARE “aggressively targeting the mainstream” while trying to deny that’s exactly what they’re doing. Their desire to be more popular and more appealing MIGHT very well run in tandem with what they truly want to do musically (Avenged Sevenfold I think are a great example of this), but it’s the presentation of it that really sticks in my craw. And I know I’m not alone in that.
I was quite young when the black album came out, and wasn’t even aware of Metallica at the time. I have been told (without independently verifying) that Metallica explicitly stated they hired Bob Rock specifically for the purpose of broadening their appeal to the mainstream. So it’s not impossible.
And didn’t Lemmy say something like, “Of course we’re selling out.” I’m paraphrasing here, but I seem to recall him being perplexed by the very notion of artistic integrity taking precedence over making money. The most metal dude in the universe blesses it, I don’t see what the problem is.
Btw, if I didn’t make it clear earlier, though I disagree with some of the thrust of your comment, it certainly makes some very cogent points about the debate as a whole!
Thanks for that. And no worries. You didn’t offend me or anything. I still love this site, and articles like this one – not to mention the Synn Report – are a big reason why.
I’m with you 100% that the words that manage to dribble out of Labonte’s mouth are consistently ill-advised. As a lifelong metal fan, it irks me to see the genre I love put down in such a backhanded fashion. Labonte doesn’t mean to insult metal or metal musicians, at least I don’t think he does, but that’s almost what makes it worse. He’s not picking a fight, he’s being an oblivious fuck.
I guess to tackle my thoughts another way, and hopefully more quickly, is that it seems problematic to condemn an artist for changing their sound to appeal to mainstream, while praising (or at least letting slide) an artist changing it for any other reason (Opeth, Mastodon, to name the big, recent elephants). An artist is going to be what they’re going to be, and whatever their goal, I’d rather not personally speculate on the intention and instead focus on lambasting what is usually inevitable: the horrible results.
“whatever their goal, I’d rather not personally speculate on the intention and instead focus on lambasting what is usually inevitable: the horrible results.”
Ha! Love it.
Glad to see the quality of writing here at NCS hasn’t dropped down during my hiatus. Fear not my friends! Carrier pigeons has brought news to these far corners of the world about a certain artist called ‘Lorde’ who, apparently, is also in the whole transcending from a genre to another thing. Next year she probably comes out with a death metal album, who knows?!
i used to be a big fan of All That Remains, my son and I saw them in concert twice and they were fantastic. I absolutely hate the term “sell-out”, but i can’t deny that i’ve actually felt embarrassed for the members of this band after hearing the songs they’ve put out over the last couple years. Compared to their previous output it seems like they’ve dumbed down their songwriting. But they’ve sold more albums as a result, and if they’re truly happy with the music they’re making then more power to them. But it doesn’t appeal to me much, anymore.
I admit, I really do TRY not to use the term “sell-out” if I can really help it. It’s a very loaded term, and means something slightly different depending on who you’re speaking to… so can be confusing.
But I thought it made for a nice snappy headline at least.
Like you said, Labonte seems to not take criticism very well… at all. This statement seems like a preemptive strike against everyone who will call out against the degradation of ATR’s music. Of course, none of that really matters considering he’s slowly making his way into the Dave Mustaine Hall of Assholes, right along side Gene Simmons and Ted Nugent. I’ll admit, he’s probably the youngest member of that illustrious club, right now.
As for the term “sell-out”, I’ve never really viewed it as a term for a band making their shift into an easier to access genre, including pop. Sometimes singers just can’t handle the screaming anymore and they have to change. Other times they just want to go in a different direction. All that’s cool. The “sell out” tag usually comes in when a band starts tagging on tripe to everything they do in hopes of getting more fans. Rock bands are incredibly guilty of this, nine times out of ten. They get a taste, and that’s it, they’ve got to have more. It may seem like the same thing, but you nailed it right on the head about him talking it up like he’s reinventing heavy metal by digitizing the shit out of his vocals.
“I’m so glad ATR have transcended “metal” and have become “musicians.”
“I’m so glad ATR have dumbed down “metalcore” and have become “utter shit”.
I love this kind of article. Do you know anywhere else I can find metal opinion pieces and analysis of metal culture?
Most of ours are collected under the category called “Mosh Pit”:
Well I never. I didn’t know this category existed myself!
And is full of my inane ramblings to boot…