#16 The Only Band That Matters

When The Clash’s PR people called them “the only band that matters”, it actually stuck, and there are reasons for that.  Joe Strummer and Co. could straddle the line between rebellious punk and timeless rock in a time when synths and tape loops were taking over the world.  I wasn’t listening to music at the time, being about three years old, but The Clash would later represent a bridge between my favorite rock of the 70s and my favorite rock of the 90s.

Pantera was the metal band I grew up with in high school.  Much later, in an airport in Australia, I picked up my copy of Getcha Pull!, which is a Pantera tribute curated by Metal Hammer magazine.  I usually save it for special occasions, but the other day was an exception.  It was most definitely not a special occasion, but I needed something to get me through work, and those covers really gave me some fuel. That’s what a superlative band like Pantera can do.  The collection starts out with a rendition of “Suicide Note Pt. 1” that should be fucking famous.  I have had a lot of breakthrough moments with big bands in the last year, and when I was listening to Zakk Wyld’s guitar solo, I suddenly felt like I was stoned, doped-up, and cumming like a horse.  Wow.  Of course, I may have gotten into the zone even better on account of the fact I had just snuck off to the bathroom at work and shoveled down a heaping tablespoon of green powder– high-grade kratom– a few minutes earlier (man, I really underestimate that shit sometimes.  Good-for-shit federal government made it illegal at the beginning of this month).

metal-hammer-getcha-pull

Hearing the songs remade on Getcha Pull!, I am reminded of a couple things. First, wow!  It’s easy to not even notice how versatile those guys were, and the variety of musical styles they worked with.  Like The Clash, who famously threw every rock & roll style under the sun on their London Calling album (and later branched heavily into dub and reggae), Pantera albums had everything from classic metal (“Cemetery Gates”), thrash burners (“Fucking Hostile”, “Rise”) to their inimitable groove pieces (“Walk”, “A New Level”, “Yesterday Don’t Mean Shit”), to demi-death (“Slaughtered”, “13 Steps to Nowhere”).  It’s the geniuses that matter in music, that much is demonstrated by Dime, Phil & co.

The great bands– the musical geniuses– do two things.

FIRST, they do defy easy characterization, not because they throw accepted musical forms out the window, but because they deftly meld disparate influences into a new whole– and then recast the alloy as a batch of bang-up new songs.  For example, sitting at the complete opposite end of the metal spectrum from Pantera is the whole genre of classic metal, with bands like Avenged Sevenfold and Huntress existing as the current exemplars of the style.

On City of Evil, Avenged Sevenfold shed its barbaric metalcore roots and united rock & roll swagger with speed metal velocity and energy.  The band’s raw musical skill is so immense that on their self-titled album and subsequent releases, they successfully incorporated country music and show tunes into their repertoire.

Huntress couples the star-powered voice of Jill Janus with stripped-down thrash & roll rhythms and precision guitars that cut like glass.  Static’s “Mania” even shows that Huntress can play a song in the perennially popular doom mold.  Best classified simply as metal, what matters most are the actual songs.

SECOND, the great bands play to their strengths.

 

Strength Beyond Strength

Here’s a question for you.  How is it that at one point in the 90s, death metal became bigger than thrash in the metal underground?  Well, I will tell you, it’s because DM plays to its strength.  DM is there for when you want pure extremity, something visceral or visual– death metal is the state-of-the-art music developed for that.  If you are someone who “sees” the music (synesthesia), nothing matches the brutal shape and rugged grooves of a good death metal composition.

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Visual inspiration for death metal

Thrash on the other hand, wasn’t born fully armed and armored like Athena bursting from Zeus’s skull.  Rather, its evolution towards greater and greater heaviness unfurled like an exaggerated reflection of rock & roll’s own voyage from pop structures in the 50s to the galloping hard rock of the 70s.  People don’t call thrash “extreme metal” until they are talking about a death-thrash band.  No one is ever going to call Morbid Angel “rock & roll”.  On the other hand thrash, when it has songwriters going for “songs” in the traditional sense, peppering in some melody and harmony– well then it is a form of rock & roll.  Amped up rock & roll.

Metallica, Megadeth, and to a lesser extent Anthrax thrive on melody.  Out of the super-huge thrash bands, only Slayer and the German bands (and to a lesser extent Exodus and Overkill) truly focus strictly on speed and intensity.  Of course, Slayer is also angry as hell; that’s something distinct from both death metal and the more rock & roll strains of thrash.  Death metal is opposed to human emotion, whereas Metallica and Megadeth are about that manic, flying-down-the-highway emotion.

 

metal-branchMy point is that when you have a band that plays in the thrash style, you have to make a choice– you can go the Slayer route of angry, death-thrash intensity, or you can go the Megadeth and Metallica direction of having good songs in the more traditional sense.  If you take the latter path of actual SONGS, you can’t just rely on structurally-interesting compositions; you need some melody.  One of the reasons why bands like Huntress, Avenged Sevenfold, and Pepper-era Corrosion of Conformity are so rare, is that they play with the Metallica or Judas Priest blueprint for metal, which is basically thrash that has catchy songs and simple rhythmic elements, and they do it well.  At the end of the day, bands like that live and die on how well they infuse melody with raw energy.  Very few bands can do it.

Then there’s Pantera– metal that has good riffs in the hardcore metal style, metal that you listen to when you are lifting weights that just gets you pumped as hell; like Slayer it’s angry, and can drop jaws just on account of its sheer destructive power.  But in the Pantera school, only one “modern” disciple has come close to doing it as well as them– Slipknot– and I’m not sure another band will get as close if people are on this planet for another thousand years.  I would love to see it, believe me.  And the metal alloy forged by Slipknot is not as unbreakable as Pantera. Shoveling more dirty and disparate elements into the blast furnace, Slipknot is smelted from Far Beyond Driven -groove metal, schizoid tribal scat-rock (i.e. nu metal), grunge and occasional death metal blasts.

SURE, you get a few bands like Killswitch Engage that write amazingly good riffs, but that band obviously made a conscious decision to take a vocal route that doesn’t really work for most of us metalheads… that emo-pandering vocal style.  That’s like having half of a really brilliant band, which is about as useful to me as half a horse is to a cowboy.  In the Pantera mold you have early Fear Factory (before the cheesier emo-laced vocal melodies, which first reared their head on Archetype), Chaos A.D. / Roots -era Sepultura, Domination -era Morbid Angel, late-era Bolt Thrower, early Meshuggah, Slipknot, Undisputed Attitude and Diabolus In Musica -era Slayer, LOG, the better nu metal bands like Soulfly, and the better deathcore bands (All Shall Perish, Through the Eyes of the Dead circa Malice and Skepsis, Suicide Silence, Whitechapel, early BMTH et al).  If you like Machine Head (i.e. you can tolerate Robb Flynn), well I guess you can throw them in there too.  Predating and probably influencing the Pantera mold are thrash and other classic death metal albums (presumably ones by Cannibal Corpse, Suffocation, Obituary, and Entombed).

Listen to “Infecting the Crypts” at 3:30 and tell me the vocal pattern doesn’t remind you of “Slaughtered” by Pantera at the latter song’s 0:30 mark:

“Slaughtered” remains one of my favorite Pantera songs anyway.

The last decade started out rough but ended strong.  If you take A7X as an exception (in the classic school), the early 00s were really about Slipknot (and to a lesser degree, LOG) teaching people an object lesson in the Pantera school of abject brutality.  As melogoth metalcore gained influence, things started to look grim for those of us who don’t like their music watered down.  But the decade was redeemed when, seemingly out of nowhere, the aforementioned deathcore giants launched a vicious counterstrike and for the most part, wiped metalcore off the face of the planet.

Well, in a perfect world they did.

But what about today?  Is there anything new that is shockingly good?  Yes, there is.  But Avenged Sevenfold, Slipknot, Lamb of God and all the good deathcore bands rose to power in the previous decade, which is to say, oh you know, roughly the time period around 2000 through 2009.  WTF?!  Kids, listen to me, when you get old, you start to lose track of time.  Indeed, by the time I finally managed to convince one metalhead friend to relinquish the clean singing and embrace the death(core), I looked back and realized the deathcore scene was all laying dead on the ground behind me.

TO BE CONTINUED…
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#15 Why Metal Must Adopt Rock; or, “Why Ghost are Metal”

illusion

One Divides into Two

The expression has many meanings and might appear circular: Zhang says that this is because difference has, within itself, an identity that becomes difference.  Is this an infinite evolution of these internal “seeds”?  In this case, do the new arrive since everything is entirely continuous with its antecedent dialectic?

The Rational Kernel of the Hegelian Dialectic, Alain Badiou, Joël Bellassen, Louis Mossot, p. 60 (re.press 2011)(originally published 1978)

Indefatigable foe of ignorance, Grulog, recently wrote an article on how genre labels and subgenre language add precision to the way we talk about music. This is true. Like binary fission, this is the concept of One Divides into Two. As a genre gets bigger and its exponents begin to test the genre’s limits, the inevitable result is that a new genre or subgenre breaks away from its parent. Most people think of metal as a subgenre of rock.

I also accept the value of subgenre labels. For the majority of the last 17-18 years, death metal has been my go-to genre.  During any given week I might have a sudden burst of interest in say, narco-doom (sometime I’ll explain why I use that term) or thrash, and all I want to listen to that week is music that explores the parameters of that genre. X number of subgenres comprise metal: One divides into two.

But in the last year or so, I have become increasingly concerned with what we might call the inverse concept; Two Unites into One. Why?

 

O LORD, heal me; for my bones are vexed    

Anyone who cares about rock & roll also fears deeply for its health.  Look, no, this is not about me getting old and going softcore.  I am confident that every year I will continue to have at least one phase where I will burn through almost every Cannibal Corpse album in a bout of intense musical concentration.  Indeed, metal has been one of the constants in my life despite all the changes that have occurred since high school.  But in contrast to Grulog, I don’t have a sharp concern that the integrity of the metal underground might be compromised.  Maybe it’s because I am spoiled— as the blog metal stuff says, the scene’s insular habits and native population of metal elitists serve as an effective deterrent to corporate meddling.  I’m thankful for that, truly.  Part of what I am going to say could be interpreted as a vindication of Grulog’s focus on the purity and integrity of the metal scene.

Nonetheless, I’m still arguing that the metal underground needs to be more generous in bestowing the coveted mantle of “metal”. Look, the metal underground will continue to flourish like mutant cockroaches even if everything else is destroyed.  That’s a compliment.  I know it, I wouldn’t change it.  My concern is not at all that metal’s borders should be more porous and accept more influences.  In fact, my concern is not rooted in issues of aesthetics at all per se.  Rather, I believe that metal needs to (re)adopt rock & roll whole horse, essentially as a noble act of charity to the bands that straddle the line.  Metal needs to gracefully allow hard rock to live under its tent for cultural reasons that are specific to our times.

 

If Not Us, Who?  If Not Now, When?

Anecdote 1.  Do you remember the hellscape that was the ‘00s music scene?  Back 10 or 15 years ago, I dreamed of what the music landscape might look like TODAY in 2016.  Here was what I reasoned:  a great rock music revolution occurred in the time between ’68 and ’76.  I reaped its fruits, albeit more than twenty years after the fact.

And yet amazingly, I lived through an equally great electric guitar revolution that transpired between ’88-‘96 or so.  Therefore, I reasoned that maybe, if we prayed a lot or got lucky or the gods smiled upon us, another generation of genius musicians might still magically arrive, notwithstanding cultural and technological changes, after another 20 year cycle– starting in, oh, say ’08 or so.  They would then go on to pick up steam through the first half of the ‘10s.  If I was really lucky, I might even be young of spirit enough to recognize these new rockers for the geniuses they would be(come).

Now I can already see some of the metal purists out there groaning or not exactly harmonizing with me on the subject of the two great past eras of rock.  In the town of 800 people where I went to high school, the legit metalheads loved Nirvana and Alice In Chains also.  Let’s just agree to disagree, and remember that I am allowed to like– no, live– both rock and metal.

Anecdote 2.  D&B and jungle.

I got into the rave scene towards the tail end of the 90s.  It was great until Mayor Daley waged a war against raves in the city and ruined it (Daley and Chi-town’s finest were pulling that shit way before 2001 btw).  Here was a subculture annihilated before my eyes. Years later, I would ask burner friends (that’s a great article on another scene, by the way) their opinion on what killed off the Chicago rave scene.  I’ve always been kind of perplexed by the variety of answers I’ve been given. Some people claim that there was a defection to the club scene– which doesn’t really add up in my opinion.  Others cite some sort of artistic burnout after the scene reached its critical mass.  FALSE.  It’s because cops started rolling up on every other party, drumming nightsticks, and when you’re rolling balls, those fuckers look like giant armored stag beetles with fascist intent spilling out of them like inky black clouds.

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Alighting on the moon to evade the flying pigs: ’09 BM Camp.  Photo:  Tom Christiansen

Oh wait, I didn’t bring this up to discuss the systematic governmental dismantling of a genuine subculture, or police suppression of peaceful public gatherings.  My point was that before techno marvels like dubstep and trap, my preferred form of electronic music was drum & bass.  In the 90s, it was by far the darkest, hardest form of rave music (hardcore techno is to drum & bass what grindcore is to death metal).

It always irked me that flyers would tout the presence of “drum & bass and jungle” at a party.  THEY ARE THE SAME THING.  It’s like saying there is going to be timber and wood at Menards.  In electronic music the subgenres are defined by the type of beat that is involved, and there is no technical distinction between a “jungle” beat and a “drum & bass” beat.  “Jungle” was the name for a beat that was popular during an earlier part of the 90s rave era, and “drum & bass” was the name that got popular for essentially the same beat later in the 90s.  Of course, slightly different production techniques became associated with the two names, corresponding to the production techniques that were in vogue during the respective time periods (if you want to see an old blog from when I was in a dubstep mood in early 2008, click away– but I’m not making any apologies for the cheesiness.  Now on the other hand, if you want a contemporary shot of the best thing you could possibly listen to while rolling balls, hit up Oh My Darling (Don’t Cry) and make sure you can feel the bass in your chest).

 

Rock is now a subgenre of metal

The pairing of the words “hard rock and metal” is a totally different story.  They are obviously different things.  And I believe that it is great when magazines like Revolver and Metal Hammer use the words together.  Look, I don’t need to be a metal elitist.  I can be the resident “hard rock and metal” elitist.  The world needs someone who understands what makes Avenged Sevenfold infinitely better than Disturbed, and who at the same time understands what makes Cryptopsy better than Kataklysm.

As we get older, our parents also get older.  Sometimes, our parents even move into our houses because they can’t be on their own.  They used to take care of you, and now you are taking care of them!  How fucked up is that?

Why must metal adopt rock?  Why should metalheads be generous with what they allow to fall under the “metal” umbrella?  BECAUSE NO ONE ELSE GIVES A DAMN ABOUT HARD ROCK!!!  Rolling Stone is for Beyoncé fans, and AP is for emo fans.  Are you going to watch callously as hard rock dies alone in a ditch clutching a cigarette butt it found on the ground?  Modern market forces and genre diversification have sundered “rock & roll” into two wildly different continents– metal on one side and indie rock on the other– and that makes it essential that we claim Ghost as a metal band.  After all, who else will take them in?  The mall kids?  Well maybe that is a bad example.  Everyone seems to be embracing Ghost.  But a good musician plays to his or her muse.  And a lot of artists bristle at being labeled, no matter how much we like handing out labels.

Therefore, we shouldn’t take the mainstream’s problem with being stupid out on the good hard rock bands that, against all odds, do materialize today.

Here’s another thing.  I understand that Blabbermouth and Loudwire embrace both metal and rock and are useful resources for metal news.  But what the hell is up with all these meat & potatoes pop rock bar bands?  What is “Pop Evil”?  I know I am going to sound close-minded here, but that band doesn’t sound like something I would like. Papa Roach?  Look at Loudwire’s best-of-rock list from 2015.  Look at their metal list.

Now let me ask you a question.  Where is Night Creeper by Uncle Acid?  It’s not on the rock list.  Ahhh, must be on the metal list.  Oh wait, NOPE. Where is Valley of the Snake by Ruby the Hatchet?  Nowhere to be found.  Where is Static by Huntress?  Same scenario.  WHERE IS THE ARK WORK BY LITURGY?  Hell, where is Pitworthy by XII Boar?

Instead we get Five Finger Death Punch in the rock category and some hipster shit in the metal category.  By the way, does Nile or Malevolent Creation get in?  NOPE.

Let’s look at 2014 according to Loudwire, maybe it will be better.  NOPE.  One of the best rock albums of the century, The Eldritch Dark by Blood Ceremony, was ignored (so was Sunset on the Golden Age by Alestorm.  As the band’s name suggests, they are great for getting wasted to– which is the whole point of rock music!).  Guess what did make it on?  Godsmack and Chevelle.  It reminds me of being at a junk yard with my dad and how he explained that there is a big difference between a Corvette and a Chevette.

Those year end lists perfectly illustrate the problem– the popular metal is too rocky and the rock is too metallic.  Watered down, in other words.  There is too much bleed through, I would argue.

In this context I can fully see Grulog’s point about how metal’s ideals and barriers to entry have enabled it to stay a relevant and respectable force in the world– while meanwhile, “hard rock” has died out as a commercial and cultural force.  At least metal has magazines and web pages that are not completely bought and sold.

Nonetheless, hard rock is good for metalheads, and I say, “let the rockers into the metal tent”.  When metalheads don’t inoculate themselves with an occasional dose of pure rock & roll, they tend to start listening to these weird things that are too soft to be metal and too hard to be rock.  And above all, do you want some kid’s “gateway” bands to be Disturbed, Godsmack, and 5FDP?  Or would you rather that their gateway bands are Blood Ceremony, Uncle Acid, and Ghost?  Both sets have equally catchy music.  If you picked the former bunch, let me ask you something.  How do you live with yourself?  (By kid I mean someone 19 or 20, not high schoolers.  High school kids are a totally different problem/challenge, which is perhaps where the former set fits into the equation.)

I already told the story of how, when I first started getting stoned and really listening to good music, I was drawn to the heavy 90s rock bands (AIC, Nirvana).  When I used up all five or so bands that ruled the genre, I turned to Fear Factory and Sepultura and high school favorites Pantera, and later to the Corpse and Morbid Angel.  Now that is a healthy progression (I can’t speak for going from All That Remains to modern In Flames). Finally, if you haven’t agreed with me on a single thing I’ve said in this whole post, let me ask you a final rhetorical question:  what is up with all these “stoner doom” bands beloved by the metal media?  Technically speaking, most are straight-up swinging rock & roll. Looks like metal is already taking the high road, taking the good rock under its wing– and if we are lucky, metal will keep it a separate subgenre with high walls and minimal bleed-through.

Metal is composed of X subgenres.  Two Unites into One.