#9 Dabblers and Perfectors
To simply say a band like Huntress is an updated Judas Priest is massively missing the point and unduly reductionist. First, it is putting form over substance. What do people like about the Judas Priest “formula”? The speeding anthems for the open road? The magnetic frontman? The searing guitar work? Of course, any one of those three things is transcendent when done right, almost by definition. When done right, those things cannot be “like” anything else. No, such reductionism is akin to saying that because Judas Priest has lightning-powered, rollicking songs led by a charismatic singer, they are a Led Zeppelin clone.
This also brings into focus the concept of songs. What do we love about, say, catchy Metallica songs? That they are good? That they are original? An original song is not reducible to anything. An original song is a thing in itself; a unique musical map. If it can be reduced to anything, it is sheet music. The particular stylistic characteristics are secondary, which is why other artists in entirely different genres can cover a good song, or why an artist can render an acoustic version of a good metal song or even a good electronic song.
Finally, a brilliant performer can be imitated, but never copied. No other person on the planet has Jill Janus’s voice. Even if we cloned her in a vat, it is dubious that her clone would contain such a righteous soul, a prerequisite to truly nuanced and impassioned vocal performances.
Falling head over heels in love with “genres” is what gets us into trouble and leads to us having C.D.s that need reselling. Since bands with singular performers and good songwriting are so rare, it is understandable that us music fans from time to time succumb to the magician’s trick of technicality, and are seduced by subpar music in the process. We can all bear reminding, if you are enjoying the technical parameters of a genre that is all well and good, but do not get so befuddled in the process that you can’t recognize a truly great artist when he/she arrives. A corollary is that I am guilty of listening to some music that can only be truly understood when a person is extremely high, but if I can’t even sit through the whole album sober, it probably isn’t truly good.
As metal became more specialized, the need for songs diminished, if you can follow me. There is really no such thing as truly good NWOBHM metal that doesn’t have good songs. As the thrash drama unfolded, the music became more and more defined by blazing speed and complex compositions. In defiance of convention, you really can have good extreme metal that doesn’t have good songs. When you are stoned higher than the clouds, does a song need to make sense in the traditional sense? No. If the track’s Byzantine unfolding “looks” cool projected on your third eye, it is good.
You know though, thinking back to my original point about Judas Priest– the more I think about it, the more I doubt that any critic in the history of rock has ever seriously dismissed a band by just saying “they are like Judas Priest”. When would-be critics dismiss something in that manner, it’s not them being serious, I think it’s just because they’re tired and lazy and don’t want to actually listen to something and then come up with something thoughtful to say.
But sometimes lazy ideas catch on even if they are devoid of reason. Sometimes truth is not intuitive or apparent on the surface. Other times, a pack of painfully literal thinkers will have a loud voice and gain an early and unfortunate chunk of the popular opinion on a subject.
Take, for example, the idea of musical trailblazers in the context of the current musical climate. It is, in fact, a greater prize to find a band today than it was to find a band back in 1975, or 1995. This should be obvious– look how hard it is to find good bands these days– but for some reason it isn’t. To say that Huntress is as good, for instance, as Accept, or Manowar, might be controversial to some people. If for no other reason, some will rebel against the idea on the basis that Accept did their brand of speed metal decades earlier, and ergo, were trailblazers. The easy, unthinking conclusion people make when two bands play in a similar style, is that the older band is automatically better. But that is illogical and denies the primacy of good songcraft. Moreover, anyone who knows musicians or has a handful of favorite metal or rock bands from the last decade knows at least one thing– line-up changes are a near constant. The music economy has degenerated to the point that it is generally accepted these days that bands can only survive by touring, and that record deals are far less lucrative than they were a generation or two ago. Perhaps most devastating of all, the kingdom has decreed forthwith, that no rock & roll band, no matter how good, shall ever again gain artistic leverage or zen inspiration in the riches, drugs, and groupies that, like sandy atolls, once lined the warm seas of rock & roll success. The argument can be made, then, that it takes a better band to survive and release multiple albums these days.
Another reason why the “trailblazer” band is not automatically better than a subsequent “perfector” is that many so-called trailblazer bands (especially in rock) are more preoccupied with form over substance. Now on the other hand, I despise a melody or rhythm that “reminds me of something else” when I hear it, and uniqueness is often a natural extension of musical talent. But by the same token, is it not harder and harder every year to unearth a vein of originality, of “novelty”? If it is so hard to find a “new chord progression” or groove, is it not possible that some of the new bands (the ones that buck the odds and come up with original songs, that is) are actually better than the trailblazers? It borders on paradoxical. But one thing I know for sure is that when I was a stoned college student, there were these ultra-weird grad students with pallid complexions who thought The Pixies were better than Nirvana. Man, being aged a mere quarter-generation longer was all it took for them to be so damn wrong. You almost have to feel bad for them.
This reminds me of a conversation I had with a co-worker last Summer. It turned out that he liked some metal, and I mentioned that I regard Avenged Sevenfold as leading the pack. His response stupefied me. He said, “aren’t they just kind of a re-hash of Metallica?”