Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Conversation: 2015 In Review - Part 1

Chris C: Every year, when we sit down to recap the year in music, there's a through-line that helps us define what it is we've just experienced. It might not always be clear, but by the time we're done, I feel that we've managed to sort through our thoughts and figure out how to put everything in context.

For me, this year's main theme couldn't be more clear; surprises.

This year was full of them, and in more ways than one. First, there was the obvious surprise that led us to leaving our former home, and starting up this venture. After years of what I had assumed was success, having to scrap that and start from (not quite) scratch was certainly an unexpected development. I hate the cliche that 'everything happens for a reason', but it does ring true this time. I can't compare our reach to where we were, but it was a positive move, in my eyes, since we are now unencumbered by anything but our own imaginations. I have enjoyed the freedom to be able to pursue all of my musical tastes, as well as being able to talk about subjects beyond simply reviewing albums. The move was a shock, but it was a good one.

Likewise, the music itself this year was full of surprises. Looking through the list of my favorite and least favorite albums, hardly any are where I would have expected them. A few records that I had penciled in as contenders for Album Of The Year, namely the albums from Halestorm and The Neal Morse Band, fizzled and didn't even sniff list consideration, while bands I had long since written off surged towards the top, and some things I laughed at turned out to be among the year's highlights. Those will be revealed when I list my top albums. And then on top of that, we got Adele coming up and surprising everyone by breaking a sales record that I had assumed was going to be an unassailable relic of the past.

But that's not to say everything was unpredictable. Nothing is more clockwork these days than Slayer, which might be the most insulting thing that's ever been said about them. Slayer has gone from being the most extreme band to ever make it out of the underground, to now being a corporate entity that churns out the expected so they can continue turning the gears of the machine. Even if you haven't heard "Repentless", you've heard "Repentless". That's quite sad.

So I begin with two questions for you. 1) What surprised you about this year? and 2) How amazing is it that Iron Maiden is still the most vital band in metal?

D.M: Whoa, whoa, first of all, let’s deal with your last point first. First of all, I think you’re purposefully baiting me by saying that. Second, I am totally taking the bait, and that’s entirely my own fault. Third, you, sir, are a master baiter (sorry, the temptation was too great and it was sitting right there.)

Now before we begin, let's get the mandatory disclaimer out of the way, lest the reactionary internet brand me a heretic: I love Iron Maiden. I own many Iron Maiden albums and have attended Iron Maiden concerts. I own Iron Maiden merchandise. I have defended Iron Maiden in public and attempted to turn others into Iron Maiden fans. God, why do I feel like I'm making the compulsory apology that an A-lister makes when he/she utters a racial slur?

I think you largely have to qualify your use of the word “vital.” Most energetic? Most creative? Most important? Around the longest? Given that the members of Black Sabbath appear to be collectively ambulatory (at least long enough for ‘The End,’) I’m not sure Maiden can lay definitive claim to any of those qualifiers. And I liked "Book of Souls!" A lot! But, it's no "Number of the Beast." And no, I am not trying to be one of those Iron Maiden fans, but I mean that from an experiential level. "Number of the Beast" changed the way metal was looked at, listened to, marketed: it irrevocably altered the standard for metal, pulling it into the light as a (passably) mature form of musical art. "Book of Souls" won't do that. Because it's already been done. Before. By Iron Maiden. Now, if you want to have a separate conversation about whether it's even possible for an album in this new age to have that kind of genre-defining impact, let's have that conversation. Because I would have said no, until, as you mentioned, Adele's sales numbers were posted.

I am perfectly willing to grant that many of the bands I trumpeted four or five years ago as the new vanguard of metal have fizzled or experienced some hardships (Warbringer, Lazarus A.D, Blackguard,) but there are plenty of up-and-comers who still deserve high praise and can be trusted with carrying the banner for the genre into the future. The Sword, this year’s…interesting…album notwithstanding, still have a complete grip on what makes metal great and can blow away hundreds of also-rans with nary a thought.
Not to mention Turisas (woot!), who was quiet this year, but from a musical standpoint, might be the foremost standard-bearer for metal in Maiden’s style, with a perfect understanding of instrumentation, arrangement, drama and atmosphere. Red Eleven, A Pale Horse Named Death, Destrage, Powerwolf, the list goes on!
Now, let’s go a nerdier level. If you play enough video game RPGs, you know that the ‘vitality’ stat is most often a measure of hit points – your ability to absorb/withstand/reflect damages. But here’s the rub – who’s still throwing punches at Iron Maiden? Yeah, sure, they have their fans who think they never should have changed styles, but those people still identify as fans, as Maiden has the clout and resources to completely ignore those people if they so choose. Their rabid following easily trumps their detractors, so Maiden is living high on the hog with very little in the way of tribulation to overcome (physical health at this age notwithstanding.) So what it Maiden's true vitality now that they've ascended the throne and are 'made men' in a manner of speaking? Am I asking how many hit points Maiden has? I think I might be.
So what exactly are we talking about here?
In the meantime, so long as I’m on the soapbox, might as well take full advantage and bloviate until I run out of column inches! Things that surprised me in 2015 were many and mostly minor (more on this in a moment,) but the thing I keep coming back to is: can someone please explain to me why the hell Sunn O))) is such a big damn deal? What am I missing here? Is this something I should give a damn about? It’s barely music! It’s a weird, tuneless droning with no melody! I’m getting (musically) older and I don’t understand these damn kids and their rap music and their make-out parties! Yelling at clouds!

But wait, there's more! Slayer. Can I admit something horrible as a 'journalist?' I have not yet listened to most of "Repentless." Again, repeat my disclaimer above, but with "Slayer," in place of "Iron Maiden." "Seasons in the Abyss" is a top-five album for me all-time. Yet, "Repentless" sits on my computer, unloved and still in the figurative packaging. Why? I'm not really sure, but I think it comes down to me subconsiously trying to avoid a Hobson's Choice. Either "Replentless" is the album that I think it is, an album of material that's a pale imitation of what Slayer used to be, or it's worse than that. I will listen to it at some point as the year winds down and the releases slow to a trickle. But I'm in no rush.

And yes! Here we are in our new home. The furniture may be a little less cushy, but it's home. And I'm glad to be here, again. And if there's a surprise in that (besides our unceremonious departure from our previous home,) it's that I am both surprised and incredibly humbled at the continued support we've been offered by promoters, record labels and bands of all stripes. People like us, Chris, they really do. Not to overuse the word, but that's enormously humbling.

I have more surprises (including a commentary on electronic influence and the power of last year,) but I've ranted enough for now and I need to get my blood pressure down. Go!

Chris C: Like you, I will start with your last point. It has indeed been incredibly humbling to see that the people we work with have stuck by us through our time of transition, in such a way that I firmly believe many of those relationships are stronger now than they were before. I've said it before, but it's worth repeating. While I was writing down my opinion of albums even before being brought on board the legitimacy train by you, the most rewarding part of this endeavor has been in seeing that there are people out there who genuinely appreciate and respect a thoughtful opinion. Not to make light of the YouTube critics, because there are some I watch and consider truly good at what they do, but there's an elegance to a well-written thought that transcends videotape. We might not hit that level all the time, but it is the aim.

You took that Iron Maiden discussion in several directions, but none necessarily the one I was pointing towards. You are right that Iron Maiden is no longer defining the very nature of heavy metal, nor are they as hungry as a young band that hasn't had their voice heard yet. What I was trying to say is that Iron Maiden is still the most important band at this moment in metal, because they are the biggest name that is still pounding the pavement and making people excited about metal. Black Sabbath is (rightfully) saying good-bye, Metallica is practically metal's version of a touring art exhibit at this point, and Judas Priest is only relevant in that they aren't embarrassing themselves anymore. There isn't another band on the scene right now that is as big as Iron Maiden, who is still making music that has an impact on the scene. Sabbath is Kobe Bryant, who is limping towards his rocking chair, Priest is Bartolo Colon, and Iron Maiden is Tim Duncan; a superstar who is every bit as good as they ever were, but does something just a bit different now.

For all the talk of the bands that have come up as the next big thing, none of them can move the needle a faction as much as Iron Maiden still can. They are all either in niche genres that will never matter to metal as a whole (Meshuggah, hello), or they're so bland that they will never last as being important (Lamb Of God, anyone?). I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that not only is Iron Maiden possibly the biggest metal band in the world, they're still the bar most are being judged by. Just look at "Book Of Souls". It was covered everywhere, by everyone, and was nearly universally praised. Having that kind of power is important, and I can't think of anyone else who wields it like they do.

I can't help you when it comes to Sun O))). They are one of the many bands that I can't wrap my head around either. The only time I have appreciated them at all was in their collaboration with Scott Walker, and that was only because they were reduced to background music. Keep in mind, that record is terrible for its own reasons, but it hit on a troubling point. That kind of music is background music. It's the metal equivalent of muzak, and belongs in an elevator, not my speakers.

You have no reason to feel bad about not listening to "Repentless". If I'm being honest, had I not felt an obligation for us to say something about the record, I doubt I would have listened to the entire thing either. All bands we have grown tired of fall into this category to a degree, but Slayer is even a special case, what with the existential issue of whether they are even still Slayer.

That actually segues into a point I wanted to write about, but never got around to. As the old guard of metal ages, and members inevitably pass away, exactly how much am I supposed to be saddened by the losses? On one level, it's always sad when someone passes, and especially when that means the end of a career you have enjoyed. But on another level, I don't understand the emotional attachment people have with their favorite musicians and/or celebrities. I fail to, except in rare circumstances, connect with the people behind the music I listen to. I may be odd, it's certainly not out of the question, but it strikes me as being foolish to equate the person and the music. Even in the age of social media, we don't have real relationships with these artists, so when one does pass away, I struggle to figure out exactly how I should feel. The outpourings of wet-eyed sorrow make me uneasy. Am I too divorced from the humanity of music?

I will reserve my comments on the strength of 2014 until you make your case, but I have a feeling we will come to a similar conclusion.

D.M: Okay, I think I see what you're getting at about Iron Maiden. Then, let's have a separate discussion, one where Maiden just happens to be the classic band at the center, rather than the sole subject of the question. Switch Maiden with a present-day band of similar ilk. Now, not just any slacker can be Maiden, so take someone with real talent. We've already talked about Turisas, so let's just use them again, rather than introduce another party. If Turisas releases "Stand Up and Fight" in 1982 and Maiden releases "Number of the Beast" in 2011, are we talking about those bands in reverse? I agree that Maiden moves the needle more than most (Metallica still probably being top dog, particularly with rumors of another record on the way,) but do they move the needle now because of what they did then? That's not an insult to Iron Maiden, it's a larger question about segmentation of audience and popular radio and digital, direct-to-consumer distribution and all of that stuff. If Maiden were new and Turisas veteran, would their roles be switched? I'm not phrasing the question well, but I think you see what I'm getting at. And it's not an argumentative point, mostly because I believe that a) Iron Maiden is a great band in any context and b) there isn't really a knowable answer since the past is the past. I guess I'm trying to quantify the value of 'back then' to Maiden's Q rating now. This works for a thousand other hypotheticals as well - Transatlantic and King Crimson, Lamb of God and Pantera, Clutch and Black Sabbath, whatever.

I am so incredibly glad that you (unknowingly) played into my wheelhouse with Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant. While we're here:

*deep breath* Tim Duncan is a better basketball player and has had a better career than Kobe Bryant, absent whatever happens from here on out, and even ignoring whatever caliber of human being you believe Kobe Bryant to be. (Sidebar: I know you agree with this argument, so this isn't directed at you.) They have the same number of rings, and Duncan has more regular season MVP awards (2 to 1) and Finals MVP awards (3 to 2.) Their All-star appearances are roughly equal, All-NBA nods roughly equal, and Duncan is killing it in the All-NBA defensive team nods. Kobe's sole award advantage lies in his two Olympic gold medals, to Duncan't none, but Duncan comes back with a nod as Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year. Let me continue - I despise the argument 'but Duncan only had to deal with one coach and one system.' How much of the acrimony surrounding Kobe's coaching situation, never mind his teammates, was a product of Kobe himself? It wasn't Mitch Kupchak that wanted to get rid of Shaq. Nor was it Mitch who made Phil Jackson want to retire (again.) Duncan, by contrast, was The Man on three of his five championship teams, and you could easily argue that he was in 2007 as well, where Kobe was only The Man on two, and perhaps a third (the last one with Shaq.) Duncan! All day. And I reason I bring this up is because I am frustrated that Tim Duncan's eventual retirement will not move the needle like Kobe's. But we all know who was the best player of that generation.

Which dovetails nicely into a discussion of surprises! You also mentioned Bartolo Colon, so let me chuck the Mets out there first. Holy crap the Mets! I know they lost in the Series (and didn't play especially well...) but still, I'm pretty happy. They've ranged between bad and wretched for most of my life, so it was nice to see a change.

Anyway, back to music. I remain surprised at EDM. Not in its popularity, which I'm certain is cyclical as so many things in music are, but at the limits of its invasion. I expected there to be a grand revival of industrial in 2015, and I think it's fair to say that happened; but I thought there would be more. Not that I had the foggiest clue what shape it would take - techno-thrash? techno doom? - but I thought we would see a lot of electronics in the main for metal as a whole, and that didn't happen. Pop has been so overcome with the influence of computerized music (some would say they've been in bed together for more than thirty years,) that I expected that barrier to eventually fall. Are alternative musicians simply digging in their heels against it, taking some kind of principled stand against the musical robot revolution? We do seem to be experiencing a turn back toward live recording, which we both like, but seems a reaction to current trends more than a new trend.

Which tangentially brings be back to Sunn O))). (God, I hate just typing that.) I agree with your assessment completely - this is elevator music for metal, which itself should be a contradiction in terms. I mean, for Chrissake, did you see that promo we got for the album of atmospheric black metal that you were supposed to practice yoga to? For lack of a more eloquent argument, what the fuck? Stealing a line from a guy who used to write about sports; this is the kind of thing that never would have happened if Lemmy were alive. I'm all for expanding musical boundaries, and I have espoused many times that sometimes not being 'metal' is the most 'metal' thing of all, but there is a bar, people. If I'm going to meditate and open my chakras, I don't need a bunch of yahoos in cloaks groaning their anti-music to help me out. Vince Lombardi said it best: "what the hell is going on around here?" Fans I'm sure will roll their eyes at me and say 'you just don't get it,' but that's not an insult to me! You're right! I don't get it! I don't think there's anything to get!

Now, you brought up some bands which you expect to fade into irrelevancy, and I don't disagree with you on any of them, which begs a larger question - what of the current trends in metal (or music as a whole,) that you see fading into oblivion? Sometimes, every now and again, you can discern a feeling from a trend you're hearing and know it won't last. We seem to be emerging from the 'no more solos' era quicker than I thought, and metalcore seems to be coming back, which I didn't anticipate. But, I think we all knew that rap metal had a shelf life (more on that in a minute) and it wasn't that long ago that you and I were in college and auto-tune was all the rage, which seems like a dim, bad memory now.

Looping back to rap metal, I spent a good chunk of the calendar this year with some Rage Against the Machine records, mostly because I desperately wanted to hear something different, and Rage can be accused of many things, but their status as a new sound is somewhat unassailable. I think I had this urge because while there many great records in 2015, there were few that sounded 'new' or 'novel.' The Great Game's record might not crack my top ten, but it stands as the poster child for 'different' for me in 2015, which was a refreshing change-of-pace relative to usual regurgitation of sounds. Now, I will say this in defense of 2015 - it continued 2014's trend of having less utter crap in it (though I admit, I made a New Year's resolution to avoid bands with bodily functions in the title, which may have spared me some of the worst,) and I suppose that as a benchmark of music's overall climate, 'meh' is still better than 'shit.' Regardless, I don't think a lot of musicians told bold chances this year (The Sword being a notable exception.)

Which finally brings me to my argument about the staying power of 2014. There are probably eight records from last year that I still listen to with regularity. Red Eleven, Destrage, Anti-Mortem, John 5, Emigrate, Nim Vind, Red Dragon Cartel and Kontrust. And while I like the list of my top ten for 2015, I find that there are only three or four records that I would truly go to the mat for. I think it all ties together for me - because this year didn't do a ton that was new, I find myself reverting to the stuff that was new, or at least fresh, last year. There's a little bit of leeway in that 2014 seems to have been an outlier in terms of high quality records, but I don't think the whole thing can be attributed to one influx of new music. At the end of 2015, it's still albums from 2014 that really come to mind for me. You?

I will address your question about musical losses next time, but I'm out of steam for right now. Take it!

Chris C: We have touched on this subject before, but suffice it to say, I do think that we would look very differently at these bands if they had come out at a different time. I've long been of the belief that most of the so-called classic records aren't anywhere nearly as good as they're made out to be, but have become self-fulfilling products of momentum and nostalgia. I'm not as bullish on saying that Turisas would have been more popular back in the day, since they are a quirky band, but there's absolutely no doubt that Iron Maiden would only be a fraction as popular if they were to arrive on the scene today. I don't see how that can even be debated. Most of that is just the simple fact that music is so much more fractured than it used to be, and even a mainstream band has trouble finding a large audience. Back in the 80s, you didn't have the option of being a fan of nothing but extreme metal. So when I said that Iron Maiden is the most vital band in metal still, it was largely an admission that there is no logistical chance of anyone else usurping them until their retirement.

I'll take the sports detour for a second here. We have always been in agreement that Duncan is better than Kobe, and is the best player of his generation. The one place where I give Kobe more credit than most is when it comes to Shaq. The argument is always made that Kobe didn't win as much without Shaq to carry the load. So why doesn't anyone ever hold it against Shaq that he could only win titles when he had another Hall Of Famer to do a lot of the heavy lifting? Only seems fair to hold them to the same standard. Then again, I find it frustrating how people have shut down any conversation that Michael Jordan might not be head and shoulders the greatest player ever (Bill Russell deserves to be in that conversation, no matter what the Jordan worshipers say), so what do I know about basketball? I probably should have used a golf analogy.

Electronics have taken a prominent role in metal, just not in the way you were expecting. If you were waiting for industrial to make a comeback, I'm not sure if that's ever going to happen, both because metal isn't as drum-based as we sometimes think, and because it does veer too close to the contemporary pop sound. But there's plenty of computerization going on, mostly in the recording process. These days, it's almost impossible to figure out when we're listening to a record whether or not anything we hear is actually real. Producers have been programming drums and replacing the sounds with pre-recordings forever, but now a large percentage of the guitars we hear are created not with amps, but with computers. I've done it myself, so I know how easy it is. When you're listening to anything wearing the tag 'modern', it's massively electronic and computerized. Metal right now just isn't quite ready to be unashamed of it.

I have my issues with anything that doesn't seem to have a point. Yes, I come from a background where I love big poppy choruses, but I don't need to have that in my music. But when the albums I listen to don't seem to have any point, when there isn't something about the music that aims to be memorable, I wonder what the point of it all is. Why would a band waste the time writing, recording, and releasing an album if the songs aren't supposed to be enjoyable, and aren't supposed to stick with you? You can't even compare it to the modern artists who would hang a blank canvas, or put a toilet in the middle of a gallery. Like it or not, at least those things were unforgettable. A band like Sun O))) is a white noise machine with a better PR agent.

First and foremost, djent will die off. It's such a bland and lifeless style of music that it has no other choice. People will get sick of hearing music that may as well have been composed on a computer (actually, the newest Leprous album was). That kind of sterile delivery reminds me of when The Twilight Zone shot a season on videotape instead of film. Sure, it was good enough, but it was just wrong. I also think we'll stop seeing such a blatant attempt at recreating 1974, or at least I hoep so. What we need to see is a realization that it wasn't a particular sound we're missing, but instead it's bands being natural. I would love it if every band would record live on the floor of the studio, simply sounding like themselves. We're seeing more of it, but many of those bands are still trying to borrow the actual sound of an early Zeppelin record. When they let themselves be themselves, we'll be in better shape. And the one thing I don't think is going anywhere is the proliferation of technical music. Since the rise of YouTube, when every song by every band could get videos, technical music got the best gift it ever could. Instead of hearing a lot of notes, and only realizing that it sounds terrible, we can now watch the players dexterity as they flaunt their talent. It's music that only works in video form, which sadly I don't see us regressing from.

I had been doing similar thinking to you, and I agree with your assessment of 2014, even though we had nearly nothing in common. This year has had more depth when it comes to releases that are wholly enjoyable to listen to, but last year had the kind of depth at the top of the list that I've never seen before. I recently updated my personal list of my fifty favorite albums, and it dawned on me that four from last year made their way onto that list, and there were another three I felt nearly as strongly about. Even the tenth album on last year's list would have found its way near the top three this year. I haven't listened to Transatlantic's "Kaleidoscope" all that often this year, but it still floors me when I do. Likewise, Neal Morse's pop album, and Emerson Hart's solo albums are still fantastic. And nothing in power metal has made me as happy as Allen/Lande did last year. But the biggest shock is the staying power I've seen from Edward O'Connell and his album, "Vanishing Act". It was #4 on my list last year, which I would bump up if I redid that, but I've found myself still listening to it at least once a fortnight (pretentious, but a word I wanted to use). I'm a big Elvis Costello fan, and it is not just the best Elvis album he never made, I enjoy listening to it more than even my favorites of his. That kind of repeat strength is what makes a truly remarkable record, and I have yet to get even the slightest bit tired with it.

You might be right about there being less innovation, or new sounding records this year. I'm not the right person to make that judgment, since I don't really give much thought to that. Getting more of the same has never bothered me, as long as it's still high quality. But I do find myself asking to what degree those feelings are defined by two things; 1) the lack of room to innovate, and 2) the amount of music we've heard. By this point, someone out there has tried mixing nearly every combination of sounds, so there isn't much left that will sound original. And couple that with the amount of music we've heard, and it could simply be that we've become numb to the most orthodox albums. I worry about being burnt out quite often, but every year I've been finding as many, if not more, albums to love, so I've been able to put those thoughts aside. I would find it much more dire if I was concerned with how off-center my music was.

I have absolutely shifted my thinking to emphasize the fun and enjoyment of listening above all else. I am sick and tired of listening to music that tries to put me in a bad mood, and since I've consciously cut back on how much of that I even sample, I've seen improvements across the board. I'd like to hear your thoughts on that.

 Come back tomorrow for Part 2 of our conversation.

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