(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?
If I may, I don’t think the problem, in and of itself, is really accessibility. Metal has always had bands that are both well regarded by metal fans, but would be perfectly acceptable to anyone who enjoys your standard radio rock. I think the complaint of “too accessible” generally comes into play when a band that’s known for playing an extreme style begins to soften their sound to a far greater degree than their fans would prefer. It’s the shifting of styles that causes the problem.
Accessibility isn’t the issue facing Arch Enemy though, their problem is that they’re just completely out of ideas. The band has been around for 21 years now, and as of this year they’ve released 11 full lengths. I mean, a new album every two years for that long…that’s an impossible level of production for a band to maintain and still put out quality content, especially when the music writing is pretty much the sole responsibility of Amott. He either needs to take an extended break from making new albums to hopefully recharge or let loose his death grip on the creative side of things. Until one of these things happens (maybe both), this band is going to fall further into mediocrity.
I mean, I thought I said the same thing as your first paragraph in the piece above.
“…it demands a certain amount of calculated compromise and, particularly for Metal bands, the dilution and adulteration of their sound almost beyond recognition.”
As to the second part of your comment though, while I agree with it in general (is it REALLY 11 albums? I hadn’t even realised it was so many…), I’d add that, unfortunately, mediocrity sells. So the more mediocre they get, the more likely they are to keep on doing what they’re doing.
Let’s face it, while success CAN be a straightjacket in itself (the more successful they get, the more they’ll be pressured to keep to the same formula to maintain this success), if the band can be more successful, with LESS effort… well, I can see the temptation.
In fact if they don’t release “Reason to Believe” as a single at some point I’ll be very surprised, since it’s an effective way to introduce their fans (and the world) to the idea that the band are going to be bringing in more clean singing and softening their sound further.
You did in part, but unless I misunderstood (and I may well have), it sounded as though you were saying that it was the accessibility itself that caused an issue among metal fans. I was basically saying that I believe accessibility in a metal band is generally regarded as perfectly fine as long as it doesn’t come with compromise. Iron Maiden is accessible, newer bands like Enforcer are accessible…hell stoner bands like Electric Wizard are accessible, but none of those bands are necessarily diluting or compromising their music.
You’re definitely on point about with that addition to what I said about Arch Enemy though. Beyond a certain point, simplifying music to reach a wider audience isn’t just a choice, it’s a requirement, and unless/until the negatives begin to outweigh the positives, Arch Enemy has nothing to motivate them to try and do better on their following albums
Totally agree with you dude. I was definitely trying to say the same thing there, but this is less about you misunderstanding and more about me not being as clear as I should have been!
“Arch Enemy has nothing to motivate them to try and do better on their following albums” – pretty much.
But, unfortunately, they have a LOT to motivate them to be more mainstream/accessible in the future.
It’s the problem with being “successful” in this way – you have to keep moving forwards, getting more popular, or you’re instantly seen as “failing”, and the press, the industry, etc, will all move on to the next thing.
In regards to clean singing, I’m actually surprised it took them this long to let Alissa throw her clean vocals in. She used them pretty effectively in the Agonist and I never thought of them as a particularly soft band.
Arch Enemy has always had big hooks and those kind of rebellious sing along feel good lyrics. I used to really enjoy them, but I’ve grown tired of the formula. This just a more polished version of Nemesis, which they released 11ish years ago I think.
I don’t know, I never felt that they were inauthentic or anything of the sort. Besides their very early work this has always been what they do and it never seemed less metal to me for it.
Interesting article, but I think, respectfully, you missed the point. The thing with Arch Enemy is that while there may or may not be anything wrong with writing catchy tunes, there certainly is something wrong, from an integrity standpoint, with hiring “attractive,” petite, female vocalists and saying they are the best fit for the band. This is wrong on two levels. One: there are many male vocalists who could do a much better job, as there are many females that could do a better job but just wouldn’t look as “sexy.” I mean, wow, what a coincidence that the two “best fits” for the vocal style of Arch Enemy happen to be petite, thin, attractive females. Give me a break. Two:, even if you say, well the whole point is having an attractive female singer, then you’ve put yourself in the position of having to defend a blatant attempt to sell records at the expense of the best possible music that could have been made with the band. I have nothing at all against women in metal, not one bit, but with this particular band I can see right through what they’re doing and it makes me ill. What also makes me ill is that the band currently has the best guitar player in heavy metal in Jeff Loomis and they don’t utilize him – in fact they don’t even allow him to write songs! Again, Amott knows the music could have been astonishing if he had unleashed Jeff on this record, but he had to keep his style of friendly, easily accessible songs to keep his fans/appeal to new ones instead of the twisted, progressive insane guitars from Jeff. I get that AE has their “style” but honestly, Mike should be open to change and progress. The last 4 or 5 albums have been absolute shit. I really had high hopes for this, thinking the whole time that Jeff and Mike would write together. Talk about a missed opportunity. It’s ridiculous, actually. I can only hope that Jeff leaves soon after what is sure to be a big touring cycle and goes back to Nevermore to work with Dane. Anything Nevermore did absolutely and utterly smokes AE’s best output.
1. It’s presumptuous to say that AE could make better music with a male vocalist. I preferred Johan Liiva for sure, but I’m sure that AE are capable of writing music to the strengths of whichever vocalist they choose to hire
2. I totally agree that not letting Loomis contribute was a shocking waste of talent. Amott’s defence was that Loomis’s style didn’t match, but I’m sure he would be capable of writing within AE’s framework. That said, whilst Nevermore’s output was almost uniformly excellent, I would still would still take any of the first three AE albums over The Obsidian Conspiracy. As a part of Nevermore’s catalogue alone it was bitterly disappointing, and even more so as the band’s swan song
One gripe for me recently has been the inflation of record length. I know this has been well-noted in some places.
Insomnium’s hour long song. Soilwork’s double disc back in 2013. Swallow the Sun’s 3 disc last year. Bell Witch’s newest. Metallica’s last one. Vektor’s 74 min 2016 odyssey. Cobalt’s slow 84 minutes. Harakiri For the Sky’s traumatic 75 minute tome.
I suppose I could go on googling them out.
These are bands in progress (minus Metallica, plainly), who are growing their respective fanbases, but have taken them for granted I think. I like all of these bands, but due to the sheer quantity of material to sift through, I barely listened to these records.
We raise the ‘artistic vision’ onto a pedestal, almost like 70s prog just before it died.
Bands may be weighing ‘their sound’ against appeal. However, I would like to understand why so many have produced the equivalents to 700 page novels, when they were doing 400/450 pages before. This may be an aspect of vanity by accessibility. They could, and so they did. Do many of these acts sustain the quality threshold they held previously? For me, it’s a frustrating purposeful neglect of appeal.
As an average metal fan I have 5 metal records a month I’d be interested in, jostling for position among the other genres I pay attention to. When I could listen to 2 records in place of one, there’s a clear choice here.
It’s agony when a cliche is perfect, but at the moment I feel some bands need to be reminded that less is more.
The length thing is interesting. I’m an old fart so please excuse the old references. All the classic Van Halen albums (read the first 6 with Dave) are around 30 minutes long. When a Different Kind of Truth came out at 50 minutes, I didn’t like it that much. But then, when I removed about 4 songs to get it down to 30-ish minutes, I found it was pretty good. I also thought White Zombie albums were about 15-20 minutes too long.
On the other hand I quite enjoy Vektor’s and HftS’s new albums at the lengths they are.
I can’t speak for the other bands, but Winter’s Gate is a stone cold classic and amongst the best of Insomnium’s albums so ner 😛
Brilliant article Andy!
I think one thing that was skipped is that most folks want to hear familiar music, or at least familiar sounding music. People writing and reading this blog, are definitely, outside of those most folks. I think it is quite unusual to constantly seek out new sounds, to enjoy making your ears uncomfortable.
Just look at how record companies have operated over the years. Nirvana hits it, then the Co’s sign every band that sounds even remotely ‘grunge’. RATM and Korn strike big, then before you know it every nu-metal band under the sun gets a deal.
To a much smaller degree melodeath is running along the same lines. Amon Amarth will keep putting out the same album. Though, damnit, I still like them. although I gotta say my favorite is stuck at Sutur Rising.
What am I saying? I don’t know. Go with the safe sound? The system is self perpetuating? How many times can you listen to Back in Black at a football game? For US bands, I can understand wanting to make enough money to afford things like health care. As for Scandinavian bands, they shouldn’t have the same concern.
I agree with most of what you said and don’t really disagree with anything but there’s one important thing that you didn’t mention and it’s what baffles me the most when it comes to recent AE (last 2 albums with Alissa).
Where is her special touch? The Agonist (Alissa’s previous band) had amazing lyrics, so much better than what AE ever wrote, where is that? The first thing that popped in my mind when I saw that AE signed Alissa is “wow awesome they’re gonna mash the best of both bands and fucking rule”.
Then I heard the first album and I was like “I guess that’s a transition album, they’re not ready to let her change AE too much”. Then I listened to their first single and only hoped it wouldn’t be just that, and then I heard the whole album and kinda lost hope.
The Agonist is not The Agonist anymore, and the hopes of finding that again in AE is pretty much gone.
That being said, I can mourn in peace thinking that some people will discover metal through this new AE. This genre needs some more accessible bands to lure them to the dark side. Once they’re in, they’ll explore and find more, real metal bands. If all we have is the heaviest and most niche music but no one to listen to it because they are not eased into the genre, it wont live for long.
I once was a kid who listened to more pop metal and that brought me to awesome discoveries, today I thank these bands for bringing me to what I currently listen to and I hope many more kids walk this wonderful path, maybe thanks to AE.
“Where is her special touch?”
It’s Amott’s band and he has a death grip on the creative side of things. It’s the same reason a musical talent like Jeff Loomis appears to have had almost no influence on this album either.
“If all we have is the heaviest and most niche music but no one to listen to it because they are not eased into the genre, it wont live for long”
If heavy metal can survive the 90’s, when it was almost completely forced into the underground, without any internet to help it thrive, than it will most likely survive into the future.
Anyway, it’s not as though a bands discography disappears once they are gone. Those early albums by In Flames, Dark Tranquility, Amon Amarth and every other melodeath band that was there before the genre went entirely to shit, will always be there to pull other generations onto heavier styles of metal