(Andy Synn is the author of this thought piece, and as always, we welcome your own thoughts in the Comments.)
I/we recently received a pair of promos here at NCS that couldn’t have been more diametrically opposed in style, Deus Salutis Meae by Blut Aus Nord and Will to Power by Arch Enemy.
The former is a return to the oppressive, industrialised soundscapes of The Work Which Transforms God and Mort, whose purposefully unsettling nature practically epitomises the idea of “art for art’s sake”, while the latter is a collection of shamelessly catchy, if predictably formulaic, tunes, designed with one eye firmly on increasing the band’s popularity and mainstream (in Metal terms at least) appeal.
And though the two bands/albums have very little in common on the purely musical side of things, their very nature means they can still be compared as representing the two polar extremes of the modern-day Metal spectrum.
As I’m sure you’re aware, there’s a certain tendency (particularly in more “niche” genres like this) to look down on anything which is considered “accessible” as inherently lacking in creativity and artistic value.
But while there’s certainly some measure of truth to this assessment in a lot of cases (possibly even most of them, depending on how jaded/cynical you’re feeling about the whole affair) producing music that’s easy to digest and appreciate, and which has obvious mainstream-friendly appeal, doesn’t necessarily make for a bad record.
After all, there’s a certain art to penning a catchy tune – one which frequently goes unacknowledged and uncelebrated in more “extreme” musical circles – and Michael Amott has long demonstrated an impressive knack for writing big hooks and infectious, instantly memorable melodies, and is more than happy with giving his audience exactly what they want, again and again.
And that, in itself, is a talent. Even if it’s one which is frequently misused.
Of course, I’m not saying that Will to Power is a great album – truth be told, it’s an overly slick and rather generic affair, clearly calculated to maximise the band’s crossover appeal.
The band know what the majority of their audience want these days, and are more than happy to deliver exactly that, resulting in a record made up of largely interchangeable, chorus-heavy crowd-pleasers, loaded with pseudo-rebellious, vaguely “empowering” lyrics and sweetly saccharine melodies, with one or two “heavier” tracks thrown in as a panacea for the album’s surprisingly pop-friendly vibe.
Now, if you’re a fan of the band (and I’ll admit that I enjoy quite a few of their albums myself) please don’t get your underwear of choice in a proverbial twist over my use of the term “pop friendly” – Arch Enemy haven’t suddenly turned into a Taylor Perry/Katy Swift clone (although there’s a moment in “The World Is Yours” which comes a little too close to comfort).
All I’m saying is that the band’s ever-increasing focus on straightforward, verse-chorus song structures, and big, easily digested vocal hooks position them firmly on the more easily accessible end of the scale.
But here’s my point – and the overarching point of this particular piece of writing – being accessible isn’t, in itself, a bad thing.
You see, while it’s often easier to praise something that’s purposefully niche in nature, I think it’s important to acknowledge that there’s a certain amount of skill involved in crafting something with wide-appeal too.
After all, it’s easy to cling to your principles, to posture and preen and act all high and mighty when your band, by definition, has little to no mainstream appeal and is unlikely to ever be in a position to “sell out”. There’s very little chance of Blut Aus Nord writing a radio-friendly single or crossover hit any time soon.
But what do you do if, through no fault of your own, you happen to have an ear for melody and an innate talent for writing big, catchy hooks?
Now I know what you’re thinking – “pop music sucks… it’s all style and no substance… it has no artistic merit… etc, etc…” – and I wouldn’t entirely disagree with you.
Mainstream pop music is, most of the time at least, more about marketing and money than it is about real emotion. It panders to its target audience by providing them with a facsimile of feeling that’s barely skin deep, usually aided and abetted by vapid lyrics that offer about as much insight and nuance as your average horoscope.
It’s what I like to call “Pavlovian Pop”. Music stripped of any actual substance or deeper meaning. Where all the edges have been filed off, and no real connection is being made. It’s all just about getting a preconditioned response which, in turn, leads to more sales/clicks/likes/pokes… or whatever it is that determines “success” these days.
But saying that ALL pop music (or all music which becomes popular) is like that is just as bad as saying that ALL Metal is as dumb as your average Five Finger Death Punch song.
For a more pertinent example of how to do “good” (and I realise that term is relative) pop music, you only have to look at artists like Steven Wilson, Trent Reznor, Ulver, etc… all of whom have demonstrated an ability to meld both style and substance and seem to have no issue putting together accessible music which could still be considered “art”.
Ultimately the main problem with music designed to appeal to the mainstream – especially coming from bands who have, up to a point, existed outside of it – is that it demands a certain amount of calculated compromise and, particularly for Metal bands, the dilution and adulteration of their sound almost beyond recognition.
But even though history has told us about the inherent risks of trying to “break” the mainstream – you’re more likely to end up alienating your existing fanbase than you are to become “the next big thing” – there will always be bands tempted to do so.
And while it would be foolish for me to tell them, to tell anyone really, what to do (or what not to do) I can at least say this – being successful doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice your artistic integrity in the process.
So if you are going to “sell out”, to go for that brass ring… don’t just half-arse it. Put the same effort in as you would for an underground album. Don’t coast. Don’t rely solely on slick tricks and generic song structures. Don’t assume that your audience is dumber than they are.
And, if you have him, maybe let Jeff Loomis contribute to the writing a bit?