Friday, December 18, 2015

The Conversation: 2015 In Review - Part 2

D.M: You know, the inverted Shaq point is an interesting point. It's been a long debate among NBA types of just how good Shaq COULD have been, versus how good he was. It's the same argument that takes place about Wilt Chamberlain - two guys who were so physically gifted that they never had to really try that hard, so the reflexive question is always: imagine what would have happened if they'd really given a shit? But anyway, that's not why we're here....

You're likely right in that Maiden probably still sits on the throne until they choose not to (or at least, they share it with Metallica and maybe Motorhead and a couple others.) Which is sort of a shame in its own right because it means that there are some very deserving artists who will never quite rise to the level of acceptance and influence that they're do, largely as a product of simply being born at the wrong time. Children of Bodom, Soilwork, Soulfly, maybe even Lacuna Coil and a handful of others - they'll carry the torch for the genre, but they'll do it in comparative obscurity, which just isn't fair. I mean, who's left in the metal paradigm that can sell an arena and hasn't been around for thirty years? Disturbed? Five Finger Death Punch? All respect to those bands, they've done some good work, but I think we've seen their glass ceiling. Even if they can (and do) sell out major arenas in large metropolitan areas, I don't see either of them carrying an entire European or South American festival, or selling out a football stadium or whatever.

It's hardly an issue limited to metal, that's simply home base for me. Any genre is currently facing the same issue, absent possibly top-40 pop (ahem, Adele, who seems to be usurping our conversation much like Taylor Swift last year.) Many bands can be the next Led Zeppelin or Who or Muse or White Stripes or whatever from a purely musical standpoint, but who's really the next LED ZEPPELIN, if you take the meaning of my capital letters? Is it possible to ascend that ladder to that great height anymore? Who is the next Public Enemy or Daft Punk or Garth Brooks? You get the idea.

Going backwards, I want to address your point about the passing of musicians, which is especially poignant in these recent days. In between you asking me the question and me answering it, Scott Weiland passed away at the too-young age of 48. When I heard the news my initial reaction, and maybe this makes me a terrible human being, was that I was surprised it had taken so long to happen. And that, to me, is really the saddest part of the whole damn affair, that I think we all knew this was going to be the end for Scott. The mortality rate of the grunge era is revoltingly high as a whole, and given Scott's fairly evident demons, it just always seemed like a question of time. It was the same when Layne Staley passed. Outside of grunge, it was the same when Amy Winehouse passed.

Which I think is important to the nature of your question about the people behind the music and how connected we are or aren't to them. Particularly in the alternative genres there's been a long history of early deaths and unfortunate life choices with dire consequences, so, speaking only for myself, it's hard to get too attached to any single person as an artist because there's always a fear that they may not be around that long. Now certainly, there are musicians I've been lucky enough to call friend or at least acquaintance, but those are few and far between, and those people seem, for lack of a better word, stable relative to the people I mentioned above.

Tantamount to that, it's hard, for me anyway, to really forge an emotional connection with someone I don't truly know. I've read some of Henry Rollins books and seen his spoken word performances and listened to his records and I believe in the man's credibility, conviction and intelligence. I think that in many ways he's a talented man with a literal world of experience who has an admirable work ethic, but I don't know him. We met once, briefly, as he signed memorabilia outside his show and talked for an instant, but we weren't introduced, and it's not like we had dinner conversation or anything. I only know the side of Henry he wants me to know, the public face that he presents, so how could I forge a life-affirming connection to the man?

I think of it like this - musicians have a great passion for music, that's beyond doubt no matter how poor the musician might be. That's actually something I learned from our old pal Wizard, he had a belief in the idea that no matter how bad an album is, no matter how little value we perceive it to have, that album is somebody's labor of love, and it clearly has value to them. So, the takeaway for me is thus: artists who make music aren't really doing it for me. They're may hope the fans love it and want to give back, but they're really doing it for themselves, because it fulfills their desire to make art that makes them happy. At worst, a musician who makes music is doing his/her job, doing what it takes to keep food on his/her plate. So, to answer your question about yourself in a roundabout way, no, I don't think you're too divorced from the humanity of music, because rarely do we really know the humans involved.

As to what you closed with last time, again we are in agreement. Boring! I, too, have tried to steer myself towards stuff that makes me enjoy what I'm listening to, or at the very least is innovative and academically interesting. As mentioned, I stuck to my resolution this year to avoid bodily function music, and I did pretty good! I'm not a 'life is short'-mantra kinda guy, but I am someone who doesn't have a ton of discretionary time on his hands, so when I'm settling into a music listening mode, I would much prefer to enjoy the experience. If you're asking the larger metaphysical question of why there's so much music designed to make us feel crappy and who's possibly listening to that, I don't really have an answer except to refer to my argument about musicians doing their job and their passion above. The Dalai Lama says that no person intentionally makes themselves feel worse - that even those who complain take pleasure in the complaining and thus engage their desires at least a little, so I can only assume that the persons who partake in depressing music must enjoy the melancholy to some degree. But, I am officially talking out of my ass and don't have a better answer than that.

Speaking of enjoyable listening experiences, is this the part were we spent another five hundred or so words gushing about how great Graveyard is? What else did you love this year?

Chris C: My sport, golf, has a similar conversation that pops up. The greatest players of all time (My top three would be, in order, Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Tiger Woods) are the ones who spent the most time grinding on their games. The ones who had the most natural talent, whether a ligitimate great like Sam Snead, or a cautionary tale like John Daly, didn't always measure up. The argument can easily be made that they didn't reach the very top of the mountain, because they believed too much in their own talent.

I think that happens to bands sometimes as well. When you have the kind of musical skill that a player like Yngwie has (he's an egomaniac, but a talented one), or like Jeff Loomis has, it's easy to stop working on your craft. If you can dazzle people and make their jaws drop by playing your sweep arpeggios at 210bpm, and can get your face on every guitar magazine in the world as one of the best players out there, where's the incentive to work harder on writing great songs? I'm not singling them out for any reason other than they came to mind first, but most music that involves technicality falls into that same category. I often wonder what makes musicians who aim to spend their careers playing their own music work their whole life to amass the skill to play impossible runs of notes, and not put that effort into honing their creativity. It strikes me as being a backwards way of approaching music, like a football team that drafts a quarterback who can throw a ball 80 yards, then says "we can teach them to play football" later. It seldom works like that.

To get back to the point, the only 'modern' metal bands that has the potential to fill seats like the old guard is Avenged Sevenfold... and maybe Slipknot. They've been able to do it, while the Stupid Named Death Punches of the world are big for the American rock scene, but are nothing compared to what we're talking about. At least on this side of the pond, no one is going to reach that level for the simple fact that there isn't much of an appetite for rock and metal right now. But even if there was, the bands coming from over here aren't of a high enough quality to grow to that size.

Worldwide, most of those bands you mentioned don't have much of a chance either. While I don't mind Children Of Bodom or Soilwork, their growled vocals are going to keep them from ever being truly huge. Yes, Emperor might have headlined the Wacken festival, but that was a once in a lifetime event where practically every fan with sufficient funds and interest was there. They wouldn't be able to replicate that on a regular basis. Carcass surely can't, and they touched on accessibility with "Heartwork" more than any of them. As far as who could take a leap, we would both love to say Graveyard, but we also realize that it isn't likely to happen. The honest answer is that I really don't know who could do it. There were hopes for Volbeat, but they seem to be running out of gas. I hear a lot of buzz for Gojira, but I don't hear a sound with mass appeal. While I don't think they can ever get arena big, nor would their schtick work in such a setting, Ghost is actually a band with the right sound and songs for the task. If they got a slot opening for a Maiden or Metallica for a while, I think they have more potential for growth than most metal bands do.

To answer your other question, no, I don't think it's possible to be the next LED ZEPPELIN, but not for the reason you might think. There are plenty of bands doing great things out there *cough*Graveyard*cough*, but you can't become the next Zeppelin when Zeppelin won't go away. It's a fact of life now that unlike when the bands of the 80s and 90s came up, today's bands have to compete with every record ever made for attention. When Iron Maiden was selling "Powerslave", they weren't concerned with the older bands anymore, since their music was off the radio by then, and finding copies of the albums meant digging in second-hand bins. But now, with everything available all the time, you not only have to be better than all the bands who are current, but even those who are long since gone, in order to get attention. There is no longer a natural sunset for a band, which doesn't leave room for the next wave to rise up. I don't know if it would boost the touring attendence if all these bands in their 50s and 60s were retired, but it would certainly help younger bands sell records.

Your reaction to Scott Weiland's death is the same one every other person had. I'll take on your 'horrible person' hat for a second. I get annoyed, if not angry, when people describe the deaths of well-known addicts as 'tragic'. They're sad, yes, even avoidable. But there's nothing tragic about someone dying when they voluntarily put a toxic substance in their body. Tragedy is being struck by a stray bullet while getting groceries, not falling victim to your own hand.

But I largely agree with you when it comes to this discussion of how much we really 'know' the people we're talking about. Although we're in the age of social media, we only know the image that they want to project. And even if we get a retweet from someone once, that isn't the kind of connection that SHOULD mean anything to us. It's a reflexive gesture that doesn't hold much, if any, meaning. You know that a couple years ago, I received an incredibly sweet email from my favorite singer in regards to the review I had written. I'm thinking of that right now, and here's what's going through my mind. I have a relationship with her only as it pertains to her music. It means quite a bit to me, but if something we to happen to her, what would have changed? I would still have the music, and I would still feel the same things. If nothing changes, what am I supposed to mourn?

Wizard's advice is usually true, and I stress the word usually. It's the best-case scenario, the one we want to believe in, but let's not be naive here. While most bands are our there making music because they love to, and they feel a need to be creative, we both know that there are also bands out there who go through the motions and continue making records because they know it's a way to maintaining a career. It's not apparent who is in which category, so I try to give them the benefit of the doubt when it comes to their artistic intentions. But when a band is writing every song about patrying and getting in fights, I feel pretty comfortable calling them out for having no artistic merit.

My query was more for us than for the artists. I do understand that channeling your negative feelings into your art can be beneficial. Taking that pain and turning it into something constructive can do a world of good for them, it's a form of therapy. What I don't understand is how listeners can get the same benefit from listening to said music. I hear people say that listening to 'depressive suicidal black metal' (charming, eh?) makes them feel better, and it runs so contrary to every thought I have in my head about how the human minds works, that I struggle to find the words. It can't be a perverse form of schaudenfraude, where we get pleasure from the intense misery poured into those records. It has to be a genuine feeling of relief that there are other people out there who are tormented, but I fail to see how that is comforting. Knowing you aren't along feeling hopeless is not empowering, it does nothing to alleviate your pain. All it does is show just how much misery and sadness exists, which in and of itself is a depressing thing to wrap your head around. I simply don't get it.

Sure, we can talk about what we love about this year. Last year, I noted that much of my favorite music was either strictly pop, or had heavy pop influences. This year, it was much more about good ol' rock. We haven't talked about Graveyard since we reviewed "Innocence & Decadence", but while I do have the CD waiting for me to complete my up-to-date collection, it's actually going to be a bit further down my list than either of us might have expected. It's Graveyard, so it's still great, but I can't help but think I still like the last two records more.

To shuffle the order from what they will appear in on my list, let's start with UFO's shocking return to form with "A Conspiracy Of Stars". They haven't made an interesting record in at least 20 years, and here's one that stands up with anything Michael Schenker touched, and I say it's their best ever. Lunden Reign made a damn good Heart/Zeppelin style record that I've replayed many times. Michael Monroe managed to make a record that reminds me so much of Bad Religion's "The Dissent Of Man", which is this odd fusion of punk, classic rock, and power-pop. I loved that record a lot, and Michael Monroe's is very close. And Nightingale released their best ever record, and one that should be an example of how to properly make a record. I'm not saying the regular mix is bad by any means, but there's a dynamic mix that was available on some versions that is absolutely INCREDIBLE. It's so deep and clear that it's like hearing a completely different record. That is how music is supposed to sound, and finally hearing it again makes it so obvious just how bad the production on almost everything these days really is. "Retribution" in the dynamic mix is the most pleasurable album to listen to I've heard in I don't know how long.

But it's no secret that the album I love the most this year is the same one I've been gushing about since January. Jorn Lande did something I didn't think possible; he not only made the best record he's ever been a part of, but he turned the story of Count Dracula into a cheesy rock opera that just so happens to be f'n amazing. It's still, and stupid, and all year long I haven't been able to shake just how much fun it is. I compared it to Adam West's version of Batman, where you keep telling yourself you shouldn't enjoy it, but you keep coming back for more. I didn't love anything as much as that ridiculous album this year. Not even close.

So I'll turn the tables on you; what did you love about this year? And, looking forward, what are you expecting from 2016?

D.M: You can totally teach them to play football later! Just look at the success of JaMarcus Rus.....nevermind.

Also, whoa, whoa, whoa, slow down for a second - if your putting bands down for songs about partying, I'm going to take a brief stand. Because Andrew W.K will forever be one of my go-tos for when I need music that's uptempo and cheers me up. How could it not? Now, you can question how seriously you're supposed to take him, but he's my guy. There's value there.

I do have one small disagreement with you. I don't (and didn't) know the case of Scott Weiland all that closely, but I felt some sadness after the death of Layne Staley, because that was a guy who was clearly fighting against his addiction and couldn't win. I personally haven't had to take on that struggle, but people I know have, and recovery is a life long quest with too many easy pitfalls waiting for you. I can agree that if someone flagrantly and knowingly disregards their own health, it changes the sorrow from a sorrow over their passing to a disappointment concerning them throwing their lives away without thought of the consequence. But there are cases, Trent Reznor being one side of the coin and Josh Hamilton the other, where you see someone trying like hell to free themselves of the demon, and they, to me, are worthy of compassion over scorn. Layne was in that group - he wanted to be healthy but the addiction was too great, it couldn't be overcome.

I think what we mourn when our favorite artists pass is the idea that there won't be any more creation by that person. That's particular true in the careers of luminaries like Jimi Hendrix (despite the best efforts of Al Hendrix,) where what Jimi could have done remains one of the great unknowns in all of music history. He was a brilliant guitar player, an innovator at least ten years ahead of his time, and the world will never know what would have come next. Yet, you don't have to be Jimi Hendrix for that to be true - this year saw the unfortunate passing of Ryan Shutler, the drummer for Lazarus A.D. I'd met him, seemed like a decent guy. What he was, was a killer drummer. Downright excellent, fun to watch live. The sadness I have over his death comes in two parts. One, that he was so young, which is always sad, and two, that I will never see him drum again, and there won't be any more new recordings of his drumming.

The Volbeat thought is an interesting one. They certainly have the talent and presentation to be the Next Rock Superstar, and the songs are crisp and clean and catchy. This was a quiet year for them, but they have the backing (Metallica) and the chops to maybe burst through. I wouldn't give up just yet.

That's an interesting point about bands going up against old bands for sales. It's true, no matter how good an album you write, "Led Zeppelin II" is still out there. And while recording technology has advanced to make new recordings clearer, it's not like the difference between silent movies and the 'talkies.' It actually ties into a conversation we've had before about expectation and longevity. It seems odd to us when a band can't produce the same caliber of content, or when a musician's voice changes as they age, because it's so easy for us to simply call up the music of their heyday, which remains preserved forever. We talked about this when Judas Priest 'retired.' Rob Halford is still just twenty-nine years old if you listen to "British Steel" and he'll always ben twenty-nine on that record.

Switching topics again, Graveyard. Now, it's here that I have to admit a little bit of hypocrisy. I have spent a lot of time this year talking about trying to hear something new, and yet I so openly praise Graveyard, a band who keeps everything within the tried-and-true tenets of rock dating back some sixty years. So if people want to call me out on that, I accept that that window is open.

Anyway! What I love about Graveyard as a whole, and "Innocence & Decadence" in extension, is that this isn't a band willing to sit on their laurels. They're clearly challenging themselves to some stylistic adjustments, trying out some more psychedelic elements in their music rather than turn out a fourth straight up and down rock album (though those are all great, too.) There are way too many bands who find a formula that worked for them once and then just regurgitate the same non-challenging, lowest-common-denominator albums one after the other, like (wait, here it comes, I can feel it!) Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band (boom! Annual Springsteen dig! Got it in there!) What amazes about Graveyard beyond their ability to test their own boundaries, is that they're fucking great at this new style, too. Everything is organic but practiced, fun but taken seriously, just a wonderful listening experience. (But is it number 1 on my top 11? Tune in later to find out!)

Which I think, not give a short answer, pretty much wraps up what I loved about 2015 in general. Not just Graveyard specifically, but the concept that I heard a lot of bands this year who were willing to examine the boilerplate of their chosen genre and say "well, what if we did this?" It was a year of experimentation within stability, fresh faces on old but good tropes, which was nice to see when metal at large seemed to be spreading thin in bad directions over the last while.

I actually have few expectations for next year. I find that the things I think will happen rarely do, so for next year I'm making it an aim to simply go in without preconception or a mold I'm trying to fit music into and simply see what I take away. There are also no albums that come to mind that I'm waiting on next year, so at the risk of being pithy, I'm feeling very zen about it.


Chris C: I'm not necessarily putting bands down if they write about nothing but partying and fighting, but more often than not I won't be giving them the artistic benefit of the doubt. I have a hard time believing that Limp Bizkit actually had artistic motives for writing "Break Stuff".

I didn't mean to suggest I was callous towards people like Scott Weiland, or that their deaths don't matter. I just don't see how the word 'tragedy' is the right one to apply, in those cases. Tragedies are more than something sad, they are cruel twists of fate that rip people away from their lives at the wrong time, in the wrong way. Regardless of the hardship that addiction entails, the first steps down that path were taken voluntarily, which negates the tragic implications. So while it is sad when we lose anyone too soon, and particularly to something as ugly as addiction, I prefer to save tragedy for cases where it truly applies.

I said that about Volbeat because it seems that they've stalled out. They've had the backing of Metallica, and many others for several years now, but they took all that exposure and have been putting out records that aren't getting any better. If you ask me, and since I have the floor I'm going to assume you are, they peaked with "Guitar Gangsters & Cadillac Blood", and have been slowly going downhill ever since. I don't even remember their last album, to be honest. They stripped away everything that was unique about their blend of thrash meets Elvis, and all that's left now are the unmistakable vocals. Unless they come roaring back to life with a masterpiece, I feel like they've reaches as high as they ever will.

When you mention age, it drives me in a different direction. Halford may forever be 29 on "British Steel", but I'm actually one of those people who thinks that many, many singers get better as they move past the years when their supposed best records are made. There's something about the aging process that smooths out the rough edges of a voice, that gives character in place of raw power. Ronnie James Dio was great when he was fronting Rainbow, but I feel like his voice was even better later in life, when it was deeper, and more capable of expressing the sinister characters he wrote about. Guys like Bruce Dickinson have lost some of their range at the top end, but that comes with a more rounded tone that isn't as shrill. Not to mention, I'm not too keen on ear-piercing screams anyway. Maybe the best example of Ray Alder of Fates Warning and Redemption. His voice now is a shadow of what it used to be, to the point he doesn't sound like the same person, but his new voice has so much more depth and emotion to it that his physical limitations have actually improved him. Sadly, however, it seems that creative peak doesn't often match with the physical one, which means we wind up idolizing a version of someone that might not actually be the complete package of what they could have been.

We've talked enough about Graveyard over the years to know that we agree almost entirely. My very slight qualms with the new album have nothing to do with the new things they try, because like you said, they pull them off. My only issue is that they became too democratic, and didn't realize how much Joakim's voice is an integral part of their sound. As good as the record is, and it's really good, it would have been even better if he didn't hand over the mic for two tracks.

Now why do you put me in the position of having to defend Bruce Springsteen? I'm not much of a fan of his (I loathe and detest "Born In The USA"), but that's not a fair assessment of his career. He's in a bit of a rut right now, but over the years he has put out albums of everything from orchestrated rock, to barren folk, and even a record of sunny 60s pop (which is my favorite album of his, by far). Ok, that's enough defending him.

As for 2016, I'm with you that there isn't that much I can say right now I'm excited about. I've already heard one album from next year, and it's a clear contender to be a favorite at the end. Past that, I'm always game for whatever Tobias Sammet is up to, and the upcoming Avantasia album will be a nice January treat. I'm morbidly curious about the possible Meat Loaf album that has been supposed to come out each of the last two years. I don't think there are any scraps of good Jim Steinman material left for him to record, but he's trying, and I'll be there to listen. Perhaps more than any of that, though, I'm excited about the fact that my favorite album is going to be turning twenty. Aside from that meaning I will be writing an essay about it, I've heard rumblings that the occasion will be marked with some sort of activity from the band. Considering they haven't released a song in what will by then be six years, the possibilities there have me excited.

So, with all we've said, is there anything left to cover? Anything to say to wrap all this up?

D.M: San Demis high school football rules!

Joking aside, that's all I got, the barrels are empty. At the risk of sounding like I'm writing in the back pages of your high school yearbook, have a great holiday and we'll talk next semester!

Chris C: And so ends another year filled with more music than we know what to do with. Stay tuned, because 2016 is sure to be more of the same.

No comments:

Post a Comment