Rings of Drama: The Ocean’s Robin Staps Weighs in on the Ongoing Rings of Saturn Controversy
I have a few thoughts to share on the recent drama around Rings Of Saturn.
First off, for those people only reading half the post, let me point out that this is not meant to be a defense of the band. I feel no particular sympathy for the band or any of its members: we just got off a tour with them (Summer Slaughter), and in more than a month on the road together, I strangely did not exchange a single word with any one of them.
Systematically tricking your fans into believing that you can play stuff you cannot actually play is fucked up. And still: You, MetalSucks, should not have printed the full letter of that ex-drummer, who reveals a painful amount of details which don’t even have anything to do with the questions at stake, and which no one gives fuck about… random, boring tales from the lives of teenagers. He even talks about bringing his girlfriend on tour? Come the fuck on… so Lucas Mann has an ego. Oh my god, no really? Musicians never have egos! That is outrageous!
… the point is, I don’t like it when MetalSucks becomes the Daily Mirror of metal. There is an abundance of magazines and blogs out there dedicated to carefully observing the lives of celebrities and taking pride and pleasure in featuring, and instigating, their public downfalls… usually more than their ascents. And the reason why these publications are so successful is because hearing about the dramas in the lives of their favorite celebs makes their miserable readers feel a little better about the utter boredom and lack of drama in their own shitty lives. We do not need this, and we do not want this in metal.
Now back to the case: there is a band which recorded their album in manipulative ways, and now their credibility is at zero, because everyone thought they are great musicians, and now it turns out that they suck, they cheated, they lied, they made people believe that they are better than they actually are.
We are living in a digital age, where ProTools has become the studio standard across the globe and the options for cheating and making something sound better than it actually does are endless. The question is: what is to be considered normal, acceptable sound modification, and where does cheating begin? And that’s a tough question. Isn’t tweaking an EQ to make your shitty guitar amp sound better than it actually does in the room… isn’t that cheating already? Recording engineers have been doing that for at least 50 years, and we all accept it, and celebrate their magicianship when they cheat like that. It is their job to cheat, to make musicians sound better, on record, than they actually do.
Nowadays, editing audio is a normal part of the recording process. Recording guitars DI and reamping them in the studio is also perfectly legit, and for many bands it is merely a question of budget. Tracking guitar and editing is something that most musicians can do at home these days. Why would you waste hundreds of bucks on studio days spent choosing and editing takes, when you can record everything comfortably at home? With The Ocean, we recorded this way too, DI into the box, simply because we wanted to leave as much control over the guitar sound as possible to Jens Bogren, whom we paid a lot of money to re-amp the guitars at his studio later, and to mix the album. This is merely a matter of approach: I have recorded albums with a mic in front of a cabinet too, but all these approaches are legit.
It is also legit to use technology to produce extreme music on record, which cannot be reproduced live. Arguably, music doesn’t need to be performed live to be credible and powerful; we are living in an age where artists compose beautiful, intense music without the intention to ever perform it. Thinking Ben Sharp, for example, of whose (studio only) work I am a big fan. The bottom line is this: if Rings of Saturn had wanted to create the fastest metal album ever, without the intention to ever perform it live, and if they had openly communicated it that way, no one would have complained.
Essentially, the question it comes down to is this: where does art end, and where does cheating begin?
When you have a metal band that records guitar tracks, and then chops every single note apart and doubles the speed — and when that band leaves their audience in the dark regarding those manipulations — then we all feel that clearly a line is crossed. The line is crossed when you use digital technology to a degree where you cannot reproduce it live, whilst still performing live and faking to be able to play it. It wasn’t until I saw that video of Lucas playing along, or let’s call it faking along, to the sounds of Guitar Pro that I started questioning their integrity. When you don’t tell your fans about the use of manipulative ways to create your art, and when you make them believe that your performance was done in real-time, when it was not, then you deserve the Milli Vanilli shit-storm you will get when truth unfolds.
Is this band really guilty of this? Maybe he just didn’t have an amp at hand when he did that video, who knows. As a matter of fact, we are still not sure, and we will not be until the day when he will eventually post a video of himself playing that same song with the sound of a real amp. And even then, in theory he could still hire someone else to play it who would stand 5 feet away from him and not be on the video, while he himself would fake along to that.
Aside from the quite hilarious debate about the authenticity of Nintendo-style home videos, the real question is: is it even possible to deceive an audience of a couple of hundred people, every night of a tour, by faking along to playback tracks? The video shows that he can obviously play guitar, and maybe his playing is not as clean or as tight as the Guitar Pro sounds you hear on that video. But that would only be desirable, because nobody wants to listen to guitars that are so perfect and clean that they sound like a Nintendo game, right? Is his actual live-playing so sloppy that all that comes out of his amp is random noise? If that was the case then I think the fans, even the non-musicians among them, would eventually notice. People can tell when a band is good on record but chronically sucks live. Our scene usually rids itself naturally of these cases. I have seen Rings Of Saturn live a few times, but I leave it up to others to make their own judgment.
The question behind all this is: in what shitty age do we live, where the paradigm for guitar players has become to play as fast as possible? We seem to have reached a point, at least in a certain niche of metal which is becoming more and more popular, where it is no longer the quality of the music that matters; not its emotional saturation, not its intensity, not its dynamics and attitude of performance… but simply speed.
Metal has become competitive sports – and for the players who cannot live up to the standards set forth in these nerdy olympics of metal, this means that they will no longer get recognition. Naturally, this leads to doping: manipulating your performance in order to persist, or to stand out. And this is what Rings Of Saturn have now been found guilty of: doping.
Personally I don’t enjoy watching a lot of those olympic disciplines. I don’t care if some guy runs 2000 meters in 0.02 seconds less than his follower. I find other disciplines of sport more exciting. I like the drama involved in a basketball or a soccer game; the tension between the players within one team; the beauty of certain moves; the ugliness of fights, rivalry and personal struggles… and this is why I find bands like Crowbar or Old Man Gloom or Terra Tenebrosa much more exciting than a band like Rings of Saturn in the first place. There is too much ‘tech’ in metal these days, and when the ‘tech’ is no longer just a means, but an end in itself, then things like Rings of Saturn happen, and we lose everything we have always loved about metal ever since we got into it.