#3 Stick with the Geniuses

My canon-oriented, hierarchical attitude towards metal (indeed, most music) will run contrary to certain strains of modernist metal critique, and I will address that in subsequent posts.  Today, I repeat the U.S. Navy’s refrain to keep it simple, stupid.  If you don’t want to buy C.D.s that you will want to sell later, STICK TO THE GENIUSES.  Some bands have one, some have two or more, quite a few have zero.  Like my description of reading the tea leaves in a previous post, when enough people call something brilliant enough times, it is a good idea to at least investigate it and see if it resonates with you.

That said, I have sometimes fought the brilliance like my life depended on it.

Case Study:  Grindcore

It was Phil Mucci’s video for “The Diplomat” that made me think about Pig Destroyer in the first place.  I had previously dismissed P.D. long ago as “grindcore that isn’t Napalm Death -related”, and I personally only liked N.D. during their mid-90s death metal phase, because, well, I eat, drink, and piss death metal.  Anyway, I was at work and the wind must have been blowing the right way, because I had data reception, and I streamed over an hour of non-stop Pig Destroyer.  Afterwards I went to one of my deathcore-with-good-songs bands, and at that moment I confess that they sounded blandly predictable compared to Scott Hull’s demented riffs. Now, it’s unfair to compare your first full-blown encounter with genius to the 17th or so time you listened to an old stand-by, but the point is that I became a fan that day, not of grindcore generally, or even of Pig Destroyer if I think about it, but of Scott Hull.

The thing is, years ago, I spent nearly a whole day seething with rage because I saw “some grindcore retard” in a list of metal’s greatest guitarists.

You know, I just remembered, there was another factor that made me think of Pig Destroyer that fateful day last week.  I had recently come upon Agoraphobic Nosebleed’s Agorapocalypse album in some music someone gave me a long time ago.  That 2009 album, with its mid-paced “thrashcore” breakdowns, is probably the best gateway grindcore album of all time, like The Black Album of grindcore.  When I learned that Scott Hull was the guitarist for both bands (he is now elevated in my book to “grindcore mastermind”), everything suddenly made sense.

Of course, the br00tal Tr00 Kvlt underground people will complain Agorapocalypse sheds the band’s essence of methed-out insanity.  Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t; that isn’t the point.  If you actually want people to get into grindcore, they need to start somewhere. If you are a good person, you will point budding young metalheads in the right direction, not try to confuse them and make them hate metal so they cry and run back to Miley Cyrus.  My friend had a mind flayer named Cyrus in our D&D campaign back in the early 90s, so we were way ahead of that shit (OP yes, but he got killed anyway).

 

mind_flayer_by_aurori-d5l4win

R.I.P. Cyrus

Personally I’m not that into Cyrus, but sometimes I just feel like blasting some Ke$ha or Chief Keef because I can’t cope with the stupidity of the metal scene for one more day.

So Agorapocalypse.  It’s catchy and it’s funny.  Grindcore that doesn’t have a sense of humor is like an 80s action movie that isn’t funny.  Perhaps ironically, by missing out on the comedy it’s missing out on the one thing that makes it “serious”.  Be it rendered in a manner sympathetic, or callously indifferent, or mentally disturbed, or genuinely evil, the diversity of ways one may enunciate a mocking disdain for the boundary between life and death is only a reflection of how ripe the idea is for exploring.  I would argue that if grindcore has any meaning, it is probably found there; the sort of cosmic absurdity and reckless abandon we associate with The Butthole Surfers crossed with the violence of Pantera or Slayer.

Pig Destroyer is humorous in a more abstract way; I would just stand slack-jawed and point at the twisted, dizzying riffs Scott Hull pours out.  Feeling a swell of excitement at finally being in the mood for grindcore like, after an eternity (actually, for the first time ever), I next busted out an old Nasum C.D.  I promptly felt bored as the clinical, straight-faced Swedes raged in my ears.

I’m sure it’s not easy being a genius.  And alas, sometimes it is not all fun and games being exposed to genius either.  Because after listening to the best music, it makes it kind of hard going back to the utilitarian stuff.

My subsequent disappointment with Nasum reminds me of a recurring theme.  Breakthroughs in music taste occur because you are finally exposed to either the best band(s) of a genre, or at least a voice that speaks uniquely to you. Then most music nerds go nuts exploring the genre, trying, often unsuccessfully, to chase that first high.  To me, this recurring experience is only support for the proposition that it’s the great artists that matter, regardless of style, even if most people have at least one favored genre that they spend most of their time in.

I’ll submit my nominee for musical genius of the decade in my next post.

 

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#2 Review Theory

I could lecture forever about the economics of music taste– indeed, I think there are people who subconsciously seal themselves into narrow musical cells just because they cannot afford being record collectors.  My best buddy from high school got me into metal.  Around the turn of the century he got into nu-metal, and it’s like his music tastes got flash-frozen at that moment.  I doubt it’s because of how great nu-metal is.  I was deep into death metal by then, and my man wouldn’t give it the time of day.  I swear he just didn’t want to buy new C.D.s.

Of course, after more reflection, I suspect that isn’t the real reason he rejected death metal.  He was raised by fairly strict, rural Protestant parents and I think some of DM’s lyricism and imagery may have rubbed him the wrong way.  It’s not that I subscribe to a Marxist perspective on music and religion that sees both as economic effects rather than causes, but the three things are very much linked.

My friend’s questionable music taste– oops, I mean the question of my friend’s music taste– doesn’t address the matter of how some expensive bodily experiences are all but mandatory for breaking through to more exclusive musical terrain.  Finding a gritty inner city warehouse party (or better yet, the Mother of Raves, seen below) and imbibing various magical elixirs (elixirs with a capital “E”) is virtually the only way an initiate will acquire a taste for the electrochymical experience of underground dance music.

Photo: Michael Troutman/www.dmtimaging.com

Photo: Michael Troutman/www.dmtimaging.com

But your socioeconomic status, and whether you stream or steal your music to inflate the amount you are exposed to, should be largely irrelevant to any considered approach to mining the rich veins of metal and rock.  See, the painful reality is that not much of it is actually good, but rather what miners would call “tailings”, the useless rock.  Most of us should be able to build a collection of canonical works even living paycheck-to-paycheck.  To me, this warrants the decades of painstaking research I described in my last post– and even then, I have admitted to occasionally getting lost on my way to the Mother Lode.  But you know what?  I bet every one of you reading this will at least agree that there is not that much great music, at least relative to the total amount of music created since the 50s.

Sometimes, sitting at work, feeling frustrated and impotent, I search for answers to questions that bug me, like–

 How did “clean singing” ever become an accepted vocal style in the 00s?

Why is the heavy metal music press so stupid?

Why do metalheads feel the need to only like one genre of music?

Why does rock suck so bad these days?

No, seriously, I have entered those things as google searches and found some thought-provoking essays and articles.  In relation to the question “why is there no good rock music anymore”, I encountered a gem from the Baltimore City Paper.  The writer paints a familiar scenario:

Where’d all the rock bands go?” your ding-dong of a friend’ll ask you as he pulls the ghost of Jimmy Page’s peen out of his mouth and climbs across the recliner to crank up the stereo and get the Led out a little louder. You’ll put down your vape and answer, patiently, “There’s … {list of bands}

The valiant scribe then touts some bands that recently played or were about to play in his area.  Just trust me when I say that Zep is not in danger of being knocked from their throne.  Nonetheless I loved the article, not least because I immediately recognized myself as the character with Page’s peen in his mouth (a peen is some kind of Page-branded smoking accessory, no?).  Sometimes, watching someone misunderstand a question is infinitely more interesting, from a sociological standpoint, than any answer could be.

If you have ever been young, and out in the country on a summer night, stars and fireflies twinkling, drinking wine and blasting Zep so loud that you rile up every dog in a two mile radius as you stand exalted in the middle of the best love affair of your life, you will understand why listening to Sleater-Kinney is not a satisfying substitute.  “Art” only occurs at that alchemical junction of subject and object. If either subject (you) or object is insufficiently enriched, the art can’t happen.

This brings me to my theory on music reviews.  If I’m not mistaken, most music critics and bloggers have exactly zero musical training, at least in terms of formal music education.  I’m not sure how many even know how to read music.  But you know what?  It’s okay (the critics who are budding musicians themselves are even worse, on account of the hater-aid).

On computer and gaming threads on-line it is customary to list your hardware “rig”  as part of your signature.  This information is helpful, because a lot of problems arise from mismatches between hardware and software.  By knowing what kind of graphics processor someone else is working with, it gives you a better idea of whether she can help you or even relate to your question.

On rock and metal reviews, wouldn’t it be useful to know whether the reviewer listened to the subject album on a real stereo, or if he listened to it on shitty ipod headphones?  How about a list of individual components and speakers as a preface to the review?

And where and when did he listen to the album?  Was he sitting in traffic on his way to work on a dreary December morning, or flying down the highway in June?

How about drugs?  Might it not be relevant to a discourse on the outer reaches of technical death metal to know what drugs the reviewer recommends?  I mean, this may be a no-brainer (weed is almost always going to be the answer anyway), but let me tell you, there are enhancers for the enhancers.  [DISCLAIMER.  KIDS:  stay in school and don’t do drugs, even weed.  Seriously.  You don’t know how good you have it.  Enjoy being a kid.  You literally have the rest of your life to do drugs, and you will have a much better first year of getting high if you wait until after you finish high school and move out.  Trust me, it’s worth the wait.]

Finally, I want to know a little about the reviewer himself.  I want context.  Otherwise, what’s the point?  How old is he?  Has he drunk deeply from the well of life, or is he a reclusive shut-in?  Does he live in the city or the country?  What other kinds of music does he listen to?  And if the reviewer is going to dismiss something without any real justification, let’s see what bands he thinks are good.  Let’s see him put his own favorites on the line.

If you look at metal magazines today, you almost never see the reviewers talking about guitar solos.  It’s like these guys are essentially nu-metal fans that traded their nu-metal for droning shoe-gaze black metal.  I don’t know how you talk about metal without talking about some cock-rocking guitar solos once in a while unless you really hate the genre’s rock & roll origins.  That kind of biographical information would be helpful for the reader.

The very idea of reviewing music is an absurd act (in a good way). Not because music taste is subjective, but because describing music in English is ultimately futile.  Let music criticism be fun and interesting.  Every album review should be an opportunity to discuss sex, drugs, rock & roll, and audiophile nerdery.  Let me see your raw intelligence and creativity shining through your sparkling or provocative writing style.

In fact, in amateur on-line music reviews, we may find a rare example of form truly trumping substance in a fruitful way. Lacking any authority by way of association with an accepted publication, and likely lacking formal education in music theory (and certainly lacking the ability to replicate the actual experience of hearing the music), the author has but one tool– her skill at weaving her own soulful experiences and passion into a belief that the reader can buy into.

#1 Here’s the Thing About Music Critics

As I leave the dreary industrial pit of a city that I work in, I sometimes pick up a metal mag, my sweaty fingers gripping the pages as I rush to the ole train, heart pounding with anticipation (now in all fairness, it must be said that I am currently fighting the weight gain we may as well call the “married fifty”, hence the sweaty sausage fingers; meanwhile, the pulse must be measured relative to my workaday state, which is clinically comatose/deceased).

My favorite part of any metal magazine is the reviews; why, I adore Metal Hammer, which contains so many neat little paragraphs of clever lyricism disguised as music criticism that I could gape in slack-jawed amazement for hours (or is it the other way around?  I don’t know).  Of course there are always one or two reviews that are highly germane to my interests; should one of those reviews fail to make me blow a fuse and thence hurl the rag under the sparking tracks of the great steam locomotive, hoping it (the magazine) to be permanently destroyed, I will then proceed to read all the reviews. Frankly, when I read all those other reviews, I rarely gain even the faintest inclination to check out the subject band.

2GWZE

 

 

Instead, after my slow ride on the trundling iron horse comes to a stop, I hop along like Gollum to my man cave, and thereupon study the remaining reviews like they are tea leaves waiting to be deciphered.  In more metal-friendly imagery, they are splattered entrails that graph hidden mysteries.  Did you know that another archaic form of divination is Scapulimancy, which is observing how an animal’s scapula cracks when heated by fire?

gollum

 

 

Egad, back on track I must take us.  As I was saying, by making connections between the different reviews, and by noting which bands are cited most often as influential, I gain a Gestalt view of the metal landscape, like Adrian Veidt from Watchmen monitoring geopolitics from his secret lair, or like a BMW-driving analyst poring over shifting stock and commodity prices as if his favorite band, BFMV, depended on it.  This has been my practice for well over sixteen years now.

commodity-chart11.jpg

 

 

Speaking of commodities, how many albums are you going to invest in, any given month? I can only afford a couple C.D.s. a month, so all the better if they are not the sonic equivalent of snake oil.  Even in this era of free music streaming I have been known once and again to buy a shitty C.D. from these musical mountebanks and charlatans.  For, by some unlikely alignment of environment, temperament, and bodily humors, I will be hopelessly seduced by a cutting-edge sound.  At such times, I may very well decide to make a purchase without fully thinking out all the implications.  Come to think of it, it reminds me of this girlfriend who used to get me drunk and then take me out shopping for her.

Here’s the thing about our music critics.  Professional music critics are paid to listen to music.  You better believe that affects their judgment.  They probably don’t earn much, but that doesn’t change the fact that they must, to ply their trade, have an excess of open-mindedness.  For how else could they plow through so much mediocre music?

How, you ask, can one have too much open-mindedness?  Easy.  Imagine you had to buy vinyl and not steal music.  You would have to learn to be discriminating or go broke.

Likewise, when an editorial says a band “continues to defy categorization”, I honestly tend to tune out. Valuing experimentation is nice, of course, unless you prize it over songcraft.  Consider the source when you see an editorial about an “experimental” band.  Again, music critics have to listen to a ton of music.  They might not have time to listen to an album twice to enable all the songs and hooks to sink in.  Instead, physically and emotionally drained, staring down the barrel of a deadline, another critic succumbs to the siren song of some “new” sound that tantalizes on first listen.  The result is a critical scene that values form over substance, style over song, and it does the world no favors.

Regardless of music politics and economics, my dear friend, you are a mortal, and will only live so long.  That means you have a finite amount of time to listen to music, and while it is great to support your local bands, a true metal elitist will burn most of his/her time and brain cells listening to the maestros.