Editorials

Why So Many Modern Metal Bands Suck

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Z-ITS7_2_1I’ve been a longtime admirer of Sergeant D’s writing. I take him seriously, probably more than many of his readers do. I think he belongs to an elite few critics who write about metal and hardcore in a refreshing and insightful way.

So I obviously read, lol’d, and thought about his latest column for MetalSucks about why metal bands value “musicianship” over writing good songs. As a student of music, as well as in my professional capacity (lol) as senior editor of MetalSucks sister-site, Gear Gods, I thought it was an incisive critique. And as a proprietor of a musicianship and music gear-centric website, I have three excessively nerdy thoughts about how and why what he wrote is the case, so I thought I’d take a “srs” crack at addressing. “pls” respond with your thoughts in the comments section.

1. Nobody cares about taking risks anymore

During the MTV era, as bands became defined, branded, and sold by record labels more and more by how they looked as opposed to what they put on tape, an emphasis on making things look and sound “right” began to take hold. As a consequence of this, fewer bands took the sorts of risks in their music that might deviate from successful templates, simply because the music that received attention and actually made it to record shelves was of a far more streamlined, commercial variety compared to the music of prior generations. During this time, everyone stopped caring about improvised music.

The great rock guitarists of the ’60s and ’70s — guys like Frank Zappa, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Tony Iommi, Richie Blackmore, etc. — improvised when they played live. Some of them had a “technical vocabulary” or understood the underpinning theory of what they were doing, and some just had an innate feeling for music that they expressed through their instrument. Then things changed. I timestamped the following interview with Zappa, but I do recommend the whole thing if you have time:

This effect is further exacerbated in the era of social media. Nowadays, a band has to come out “fully formed” – you can’t get the necessary coverage on websites like Noisey, Pitchfork, and to a certain extent sites like this one (although MetalSucks does far, far more to promote underdeveloped, unsigned bands than their peers) unless your band already looks and sounds the part.

So, to achieve this (consciously and unconsciously), people practice. They practice and practice and practice until they get things “just right” and then they stop there. Guitarists in particular feel a need to prove themselves, as opposed to express themselves, or to take risks. I believe this creeps into the way that musicians write and literally perform music, in terms of how they use their body, and how they interact with their instrument. Young players who look to established record label and publication-supported bands may be unconsciously studying the standards that those bands set on the surface level (I play this scale here, I headbang herethis kind of metal shouldn’t sound like that kind of metal, my band’s Facebook banner needs to look like this, etc), but they quite literally dress the part. That’s not what music is supposed to be about: it’s supposed to be about… music!

Further, we have a culture in metal that dictates that highly-rehearsed, out there music is inherently risk-taking. I have no problem with bands that write and play supremely composed music, per se — some of my favorite groups going today include Gorguts, Dysrythmia, and Revocation, all of whom write intricate, structured compositions. But the issue is that we have fewer and fewer bands that take non-compositional risks, like setting aside passages for improvisation, which have the potential to suck; performing live without co-ordinating lights, stage moves, and “circle pit here” parts; varying up the setlist. Those sorts of things.

There are definitely bands out there who do venture off the track — Converge, Dillinger Escape Plan, Baroness, the Melvins, Oxbow, Aaron Turner’s projects (ISIS, Sumac, Old Man Gloom, etc) and Mastodon come to mind. But for the most part, metal bands just aren’t interested in putting themselves in positions that would compromise their image, brand, or sound. Metal bands want to be cool, and by deviating from the norm of what it means to be a “cool” band in 2015 bands risk not being considered cool.

2. We live in a culture that fetishes virtuosity and youth

From Eddie Van Halen to Ariana Grande to “Watch this 11 year old kid in Japan play Tom Sawyer better than you,” we place an inherent value in physical ability in music, particularly when it’s paired with youth. We also have a tendency to shame players who don’t have that sort of ability (which is a subject that deserves its own article, if not a book). Don’t get me wrong — I don’t think there’s anything wrong with virtuosos — it’s just that we have a tendency to place them in a different category from other musicians. Sort of like what we do with curse words in language, virtuosos belong in a “different” conversation than non-virtuosos in our understanding of music.

For example, most people wouldn’t want to compare Animals as Leaders and Four Year Strong; one band is made up of “real musicians” who play “serious music” and the other is a “pop punk” band that plays verse-chorus-verse rock songs for teenagers. Most critics and fans would shy away from talking about them on an equal playing field; they wouldn’t apply the same critical listening tools to decide whether these bands have actually made something good.

Again, this isn’t specific to metal, but metal is definitely guilty of hypocrisy, as it values itself as “real” music in comparison to glossy pop, while creating this dichotomy between highbrow and lowbrow art within its own genre boundaries. Critics tend to make these distinctions, by the way, in visual art, film, literature, and most every other genre of music, too. Which means that even if Four Year Strong’s new album is better than Animals as Leaders’ last effort (shoot me if you want, but I think it is), nobody really wants to talk about them in the same breath.

This is nothing new in the Western world, of course. The heroic, rock-star virtuoso musician as a public figure dates as far back as 18th century players like the violinist Niccolo Paganini, and I’m sure music historians could even argue that the phenomenon came about even earlier than that. But the subgenre of heavy metal has been on a trajectory since Eddie Van Halen, Steve Vai, Yngwie Malmsteen, etc. that places a higher value on virtuosity than on self-expression.

The problem here is pretty simple: talent and virtuosity are wonderful and all, but to me the point of music is to express something. Let’s say you have a great idea — can you use it to say something? The best “virtuosos” are those who don’t use their talent in and of itself, but apply it to make something moving. For example, Revocation’s Dave Davidson has brought his jazz background and virtuosic skill into a thrash/tech-death setting in a meaningful way:

Dave is a superhuman player for sure, but the difference is that he plays with such feeling, and with a sense of danger (and, not incidentally, humor). I’d like to see more guys of his technical ability embrace those aspects of themselves. It’s hard, I know, and it has far more to do with self-reflection and your own personality than it does your instrumental capacity.

3. People think that musical chops only mean “technicality”

We live in a time where music is misunderstood on a very elementary level. Young players now think that “good” means that you understand and employ convoluted theoretical concepts, and they come to know those concepts separate from their historical context.

In the mid-late 20th century, popular forms of music began experimenting with exotic scales, modes, and new theoretical approaches. Jazz-rock, prog, and fusion groups like King Crimson, Mahavishnu Orchestra, and late-career albums by jazz giants like Miles Davis and John Coltrane were some of the first to go out (of the scale, of the meter, “of this universe,” etc). Those albums had a sizable impact on the heavy metal bands of that generation, in conceptual scope as well as the theoretical nitty-gritty. Suddenly pop music had more and more bands that played songs longer than three minutes, that varied in tempo and time, and that incorporated “alternative” musical concepts.

The problem is that now we have players who study those experiments (repeat: experiments) divorced from the musical history of the people who made them. Miles Davis, John McLaughlin, John Scofield, and all of the other guys who made crazy music in the hard/progressive genres mostly came from musical backgrounds where they worked on the fundamentals of rhythm, harmony, and melody. Frank Zappa, Tony Iommi, and Jimmy Page were all voracious students of the blues.

The Internet created a more accessible, faster version of the library. You can go on YouTube, read forums, or check Wikipedia, and study “correct” music theory by yourself. You can also jump around and follow whatever you find interesting. And people do exactly that; because of the wealth of informational access, musicians have just stopped paying attention to the following fundamentals, which are the grammar of any kind of music:

  • Basic scalular vocabulary (valuing standard major/minor scales over “exotic” ones)
  • Intervals, chordal, key, and structural recognition (a.k.a ear training/close listening)
  • Rhythm, in particular, playing in common time signatures like 4/4, 6/8

Metal bands skip over all of these things and go straight to odd-time signatures, “weird” and exotic scales, and riffs that they wrote with their brains first, ears second.

The truth is the best music, at its core, is simple. Simple melodies, simple rhythms. You can do more with 4/4 time than you know, and there are thousands of ways to play a major scale, way too many to “master” in a life time. Great musicians work at these things, and learn to grapple with music as a language rather than as a set of tools to bank and exploit.

I’m not saying all of these things are bad – I think having information available is amazing and incredibly useful when paired with doing something like taking lessons or playing in a band that challenges you. I’m just saying things are different. I am also saying that overall, the consequences have not been as great as the people who defend the “golden age” of information want them to be. In other words, it’s the application of information in the “golden age” that’s the problem, not the amount of/access to information itself.

In other words, we now have a metric fuckton of music that is highly rehearsed, pristinely polished, that places an intrinsic value on this aforementioned “good” musicianship, and that is primed and ready for insertion into X-media outlet to be consumed like a piece of meat. As opposed to one that values (and creates) people who want to make great art.

Accessible recording technology and the free marketing platforms offered by social media have solved two vintage problems for bands: creating music and getting it into people’s ears. The problem now, which is similar to what young filmmakers are experiencing, is in getting people to care. My theory is that, in the long run, people respond to art which they can tell has love and care put into it, and these are things that someone who makes art either has or doesn’t. You can bury your relationship to your art in layers of irony, cool logos or the support of a blog or zine, but, like a high schooler with a bad excuse, you can’t hide when you haven’t done your homework. Marketing campaigns and brands come and go, but passion is what lasts.

Or, as Devin Townsend once sang, “never fear love.”

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