WHEN CHER BLEW TRON: THE AUSTERITY PROGRAM’S JUSTIN FOLEY ON THE FREEDOMS AND LIMITATIONS OF TECHNOLOGY IN MUSIC
“It is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” – Abraham Maslow
TL;DR – A software company lets you sound like you can play bitchin’ guitar. Periphery fans may wring their hands, but Brian Eno probably wouldn’t care. Justin thinks it’s fine as a toy but uses the expressed complaints as a way to hate on Autotune. Also, Van Canto is terrible.
Axl tweeted a link to an interesting article the other day from the Heavy Blog is Heavy about a piece of software by 8Dio called “Progressing Metal.” This program makes you to sound like Meshuggah without having to go through the trouble of playing a guitar. Instead, you just plink something into a keyboard, run it through the magic bits and, presto, you’re Fredrik Thordendal. Sorta.
This freaks some people out. The accompanying blog post, for instance, ponders a question: is this just too much? Like, if some guy can sit down at his computer with a whole lot of patience and a software program and, some time later, pop out the next Chaosphere, then… well, something bad, right? Because that seems… unfair?
About the same time I saw that, someone else sent me an article by Brian Eno about odd instruments. The piece is much shorter than I’d like it to be, especially in his discussion about the Telharmonium – an early electronic instrument that weighed up to two-hundred tons, traveled by train, and required a phone connection to hear. But Eno’s point is pretty clear: technology and music creation have always been two sides of the same coin. Reading through it, you’d guess that Eno’s response to the 8Dio software would be “Hmm … cool … hey, slide over a second and let me try something…”.
Any of the folks on the HBIH blog worrying about the sanctity of the music that’s aped by the software don’t have much of an argument. There is no real reason why amplifiers, pedals, seven string guitars, and multitrack recording edits are all just fine, but software that sounds nearly identical is just plain illegitimate. Granted, if I’d paid a few grand a year for lessons, sacrificed a possibility for a social life so that I could practice, and maxxed out six different credit cards on my Forza Quattro rig, I, too, would be pissed to learn that the fourteen year old hacker next door snagged this program from the Pirate Bay and was getting four figure checks from Bandcamp a few months later. But you can sputter all you want about some fantasy of an unsullied musical ideal, and Brian Eno would neatly kick your concerns in the nuts. “Come on, the piano hadn’t been around since the dinosaurs,” he might say. “In fact, it was only a little over a hundred years ago that someone figured out how to make a piano that could play along with an orchestra.” So much for purity.
But just saying technology enables new musical possibilities misses an important point. Allow me to illustrate with an example. My five year old son has recently discovered pop radio, and so we spend some time listening to it in the car. And I can tell you that I am now fully sick of Autotune. It’s not because Autotune sucks per se, although it obviously does suck. It’s because it is currently the fashionable, safe, comfortable composition choice. Maybe ten years ago some shitty producer would have said, “Hmm, Madonna’s sounding a little flat on this ‘American Pie’ redo. Let’s give her a little… magic help.” Nowadays the shitty producer says, “Tell Katie Perry we’re not going to pay for her goddam voice training; we’re going to Autotune the fuck out of that vocal line until she sounds like a Cher blowing Tron. Just like we always do.”
Because the flip side to Eno’s point is a less pleasant reality. It’s the thing that makes me gag when I listen to the sound samples on that Progressive Metal software. And that is – new tools to make music close off some options just as much as they open others. Or, to put it another way: cool stuff fosters laziness much more than it excites creativity.
Everyone from Jay-Z to the band that now rents out Attack Attack!’s old rehearsal space knows that Autotune has a limited shelf life. Ten years from now, people are going to put on the faddish bullshit that’s burning up today’s charts and laugh, saying “Holy crap that T-Pain shit is so vapid and pointless it may as well have just been a commercial for that plug-in.” (Twenty years from now, someone will start using Autotune again in an ironic fashion and then we’ll suffer all over again.) And it’s not just Autotune. For every Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band, there are thousands of forgotten dopesmoking yahoos that mistook running a guitar solo backwards for music that was challenging or innovative or not-forgettable. They were wrong, Katy Perry is wrong, and I’ll bet you that the overwhelming majority of the djentry dropping two-hundred clams on Progressive Metal will be wrong.
As always, I am fully aware that the silly stuff I post about on a site called “MetalSucks” has limited import in a world of starvation, disease and war. So it’s not really a big deal if some group of haircuts figures that bass drops, choreographed moves, Autotune/brutal vox, and software plugins are going to be their band. I’ll just say that the thing that I value most in hearing new music is that it surprises and challenges me at the same time that it’s connecting. When I’m presented with something that is so damn obvious that a software plugin can generate it, it’s uninteresting to the point of being distasteful. And while that result is not guaranteed when you pick up a copy of Progressive Metal, you’re going to have to work awful hard to get it to help you make something of lasting, distinctive value.
There’s a host of interesting related stuff here, so I’d like to hear what you think. Is it obvious to you when someone’s playing it safe by relying on a fad to carry their music? If so, is that really a problem? If you’re a musician, do new pieces of gear get you excited about new sonic possibilities or do you end up disappointed with something that doesn’t remind you of you?
Justin Foley plays guitar and sings for the Austerity Program. Their record Backsliders and Apostates Will Burn is out now. Visit them online at www.austerityprogram.com. All messages about urban bike riding, vegetarian BBQ, and monetary policy will be answered first. You can also get a list of their upcoming tour dates here.