(Andy Synn wrote the following opinion piece.)
The initial title for this column was “The Law of the Average”, as its overall focus was initially supposed to be on how easy it is for bands to settle for just being average… often without even realizing it.
But, as I was writing it — and, as usual, my thoughts were racing ahead of my typing — I realized that although my musings on the curse of being merely “average” was definitely still a big part of the piece, the main focus had shifted somewhat. I was no longer writing about how it must feel to realize (or, even more frequently, not realize) that your band may not ever rise above being simply “average” in the grand scheme of things… I was writing about how and about why I think this happens. Which is a subtle but important distinction.
And, ultimately, I decided (though I don’t really know if “decided” is the right word) to zero in on one fact in particular.
The importance of influences and how they shape you, as a band, as a musician, and as a person in general.
Let’s be clear from the offset that there are many reasons, often interrelated, why the majority of bands are just “average”. Life is a bell-curve and most of us reside squarely in the middle. But taking issues of skill/talent and questions of drive/motivation out of the equation (after all, if you’re simply not good enough, or can’t be bothered to put the effort in, then you’re unlikely to ever really get anywhere), it seems to me that it’s often the way a band uses (or abuses) their influences which serves to dictate whether they stand out from the crowd.
Unfortunately what tends to happen, more often than not, is that bands take a look at their influences and see them as a way of reaching a bigger, wider audience. They want to appeal to fans of Bands A, B, and C… but they also want to appeal to bands X, Y, and Z, and so they start looking at ways to fit them together, so that they can appeal to everyone without ever going too far in one direction or the other.
But the harsh reality is that, for most bands, fitting their influences together means sanding down all the sharp edges. Removing all the interesting idiosyncrasies and defining features that made Band A, B, or C special in the first place.
And adding more and more bands doesn’t help. In fact, paradoxically, this can make things even worse. Because adding more influences just means you have to work even harder to get them all to blend. And the only way to make sure your music appeals to everyone is to make it as bland and as inoffensive as possible. You can’t use the spiciest, the sharpest, or the strangest ingredients, because you don’t want things to clash in the final recipe.
And that’s a recipe for mediocrity. Averaging out the most common elements of the influences is why so many bands end up sounding exactly the same, no matter who they are or where they’re from.
Case in point, I received a promo a few months back that promised to be “a breath of fresh air in a stagnant Metal scene” (or something to that effect)… but then went on to list the band’s influences as:
Lamb of God
Now, if you’re anything like me, alarm bells should already be ringing. That’s probably one of the most predictable and generic lists of influences I’ve ever seen. And even though I like some of those bands myself, and they’ve all been successful in their own way, it’s not exactly promising when a band lists only big, well-known names as their primary inspirations.
And, unfortunately, my initial concerns were thoroughly validated when I listened to the music, which was – at best – a well-executed exercise in calculated mediocrity.
There was the occasional riff that sounded like a xerox of something Arch Enemy would have rejected from Anthems of Rebellion for being too simplistic, or that might have made for a forgettable Machine Head b-side circa …Ashes of Empires. There were some solidly unremarkable grooves that sounded exactly as if they’d been written by someone who only name-checks the singles as their favourite Lamb of God songs. And then there was the rote addition of clean-sung choruses to maximise the potential mainstream appeal of every track, which ultimately only served to kill any momentum that the band had built stone dead.
It was almost aggressively average, as if it had been purpose built in a laboratory solely to appeal to people who only discover new music through their subscription to Metal Hammer.
But it perfectly illustrates my point. You can claim all the influences and inspirations you want (and, let’s be honest, what the band was really trying to say with their list was “here’s a bunch of bands we’d like you to compare us to so we look/sound good to your readers”), but it’s HOW you put them together that matters.
And most bands tend to settle for the exact same configurations, because they just don’t have the wherewithal to find any new ones.
Which is why most bands are happy just being “average”, and happy to be less than the sum of their parts… even if they don’t know it.