Sunday, June 26, 2016

2016: The Mid Year Conversation

As always, we sit down periodically and discuss where music is, and whatever else comes to mind. This time, we look at the first half of 2016, and use that as a springboard to deeper discussions on the world of music.

Chris C: Time is a fluid construct, and I get reminded of that whenever it comes due for us to have one of these conversations. It doesn't feel at all like we are nearing the halfway point of 2016, but here we are. Like always, this is a good time to take a step back for a moment, and take stock of what the year has given us, before we turn our attention back to what the rest of the year has to offer.

The one thing I have noticed this year, so far, is that it has been primarily centered around the divergent paths of veterans. On the one hand, long-running institutions like Avantasia, Elton John, Zakk Wylde, and Volbeat have come back with a vengeance, putting out some of their best work in many a year. I hadn't given up on Tobias Sammet, but I was concerned that he had burned through so much of his creativity that he may have hit the wall of being able to keep two bands going at such a break-neck pace. But then he unleashes an album like "Ghostlights", which shut me up. I often say that artists become better songwriters as they get older and more experienced, though the lose the initial spark of creativity. So it's refreshing to hear someone who has so many albums under his belt continue to prime the pump.

My comment there applies to Elton John. In his late-career renaissance, he didn't do a single new thing he hadn't done before, but his melodic crafting was so strong that I wouldn't hesitate to say he was a more consistent writer than in his glory days. "Wonderful Crazy Night" is a record that is expertly made, but also safe. It's the problem that veterans have, in that they can't both stay relentlessly creative and deliver what fans expect. You have to choose one or the other, and know you will be disappointing some portion of your fanbase.

The other side of the coin is that we have also had numerous veteran bands who have continued digging their own creative graves. Megadeth is the first to come to mind, for obvious reasons. Dave Mustaine's endless revolving door is like a drill bit, spinning and spinning until it creates a gaping hole. Megadeth hasn't been good for a long time, but it's still a bit surprising each time when you hear just how bad they are. Anthrax was much better than that, but "For All Kings" was a flat, boring record that trades on the good will of "Worship Music". It only took one album for them to revert to writing boring songs that waste the vocal talents they have been lucky enough to have in the band. Oh, and for my own sake, I'll also throw in The Jayhawks here, who made an album that shows the danger in spreading your wings. They tried to reinvent a band that's been around for over twenty years, and failed pretty hard.

And in keeping with the veteran theme, this has also been a terrible year for musician deaths. But I'll let you pick up that theme if you want, because I'm liable to say something I shouldn't.

D.M: Allow me to work backwards, since in between the time you began this conversation and I'm continuing it, Muhammad Ali passed away, thus adding another onto the list of those who went beyond this year.  Now, Ali was not a musician (though he was a self-styled poet, and isn't that the root of lyricism?) but his passing caused me ponder an expansive question - why is it that we treat the passing of musicians different that other famous persons?  Certainly, the reaction to Ali's passing was immense and emotional and reverent, but it felt uniquely different than the passing of Prince or David Bowie or Lemmy, all luminaries roughly equivalent to Ali within their chosen medium (social impact perhaps notwithstanding.) 

The only difference I can come up with after much consideration of the subject relates to a point you perhaps unintentionally made in your first sentence: that time is a fluid construct.  Moreover, time is malleable in relation to the legacy of art, be it paintings or sculpture or music.  Ali's passing humbles us because we know his moments are gone forever - and if we're being honest, had been gone for some time insofar as we cannot relive them - the man himself was the tangible tie between his stature now and his accomplishments then.  Particularly for people of our generation (and in truth, for anyone under the age of perhaps fifty,) we know of Ali only as a historical event, so our personal connection to his career, regardless of how much we admire and respect the man, is tenuous at best.

By contrast, everyone who heard Prince's music or first tracked "Ziggy Stardust" or rocked out to "Ace of Spades" has a personal relationship with it, good or bad, regardless of how old the music is.  It's like how people study and revere The Mona Lisa or Michelangelo's David or Starry Night - those pieces of media are still happening now, can still be observed with fresh eyes in a way that re-watching a sporting event, all while knowing the outcome in advance, can't equal.  Those of more advanced age who saw Ali fight, who gained dignity or conviction from his zeal and principle, they likely feel the sting of his passing much more than those who weren't there.  But everyone can remember the vitality of Prince, for example, as a product of having heard his music in our own times.

Confession time - I didn't listen to Anthrax's new record.  I barely listened to Megadeth's.  Mostly for the exact reasons you already pointed out - I didn't feel like it was going to do me any good.  (Though I did enjoy Megadeth's 360 video - 360 video may just be a hot new fad, but it's an AWESOME hot new fad, so as a production junkie, I'm very much on board.)  I don't mean to be especially cynical or jaded, but both of those books are pretty much closed for me - cherished, and taken off the shelf to re-read and enjoy frequently, but nevertheless closed.  Tangentially, I'm also still a little bitter at Anthrax that they refuse to play any of their John Bush material while on tour, which is a real damn shame, as "Sound of White Noise" remains, to me, their greatest record.

You and I are going to disagree about Volbeat's record as we've already discussed in pieces offline.  While the album does make significant headway in the variety and scope of the band's songwriting, it just wasn't the Volbeat sound I wanted to hear.  And I recognize that you can immediately come back and bludgeon me over the head with your astute argument that bands of a certain age and legacy tend to disappoint one or the other of their fan bases and here I am giving with one hand and taking with the other.  Fair.  I also recognize the latent hypocrisy that I'm criticizing one band for doing something new while lambasting two others of even greater historical importance to the genre for not doing anything new, but whatever.  My counter to that counter is that Megadeth and Anthrax aren't presently doing their old gimmick well, thus not making good music, and isn't that really what it's all about in the grand scheme anyway?

The one nagging truth that seems to be troubling me most thus far into 2016 is the idea that I have yet to really be taken with any single album.  There have been a bevy of very good records, and a couple that I would truly be willing to go to the mat for, but I haven't had a 'wow' moment this year, especially not from a new band.  The discovery of a personally unknown artists is often the greatest reward of what you and I put ourselves through (to be dramatic about it,) and the absence of that moment in 2016 is a point of concern.  I find myself hoping that for all the albums I have enjoyed this year (which we'll probably get into later,) I hope I have not yet heard the one that will be #1 at the end of the year.

 Chris C: You make a good point there. We feel more of an impact at the death of a sports figure or politician, because we know those days are forever gone. Artists, though, never really die away. Each successive generation has their own experiences with art, they get to experience it for the first time the way that we did, and the people before us did. In a way, because the art never dies, it makes the person behind it less important. That's a way of thinking about it that I've never quite put into words before, but it does explain the controversial thing I was fearful of saying; namely that I don't usually care about celebrity deaths. They're sad, yes, but I personally find it hard to get attached to the people behind the moments. That is especially true of people who are artists, because even when they are gone, the art is still there for me to enjoy, so in a way it's as if there wasn't actually a loss suffered.

Your comment about Anthrax brings up an issue that doesn't always get talked about; what bands do when they get new singers. You're absolutely right that it's a shame Anthrax is now pretending that a decade of their existence no longer happened. Van Halen did the same thing when Roth came back. Black Sabbath does it every time they've trotted Ozzy out for a money run. Part of me wants to say that bands are free to do whatever they want, since it's their careers we're talking about, but there's another part of me that finds it incredibly insulting to the fans of their entire careers that they're willing to almost act as if you're stupid for being a fan of the singer no longer there. They were more than happy to take our money for the records, but now that someone else is holding the mic, they act as if those are dreams we concocted after taking too much cold medicine. I suppose it shows that it is truly impossible to please everyone. Half the people are offended when you ignore part of your legacy, and the other half when you play songs from the 'lesser' period. Bands can't win. Not that any of that makes the new Anthrax album any better. It's not, and you shouldn't feel bad for skipping it. At a certain point, bringing back the nostalgic singer winds up turning into pure nostalgia.

Speaking of nostalgia, let me say right now that I am absolutely terrified of the upcoming Meat Loaf album. While the fan in me is thrilled that it will be a Meat/Steinman album, the critic in me also knows that almost all of Steinman's best material has already been recorded. The nostalgia of the pairing will help, but it can't overcome the long odds of the record actually being very good. My curiosity is as morbid as it is excited.

I'm not going to hit you over Volbeat's record, because you're absolutely correct. It doesn't have the sound or the *essence* of what you and I both originally liked Volbeat for. The only difference between us is that where Volbeat has ended up, with their newer, more pop-oriented sound, is right in the heart of the music I first fell in love with. If it didn't happen to scratch that particular itch for me, I would be right there with you. Volbeat was such a unique band that losing that original sound has left a hole in the metal scene that no one else can fill. Even though I am loving the new record, I miss that too.

If history is a trend, I think the roles will flip as the year continues on. You haven't found much that has spoken to you, while I have. I've had a great run through this first half of the year. I have a solid group of records to fill at least half of my top ten list come December, and two records that absolutely blew me away. I'm happy, even if the rest of the year is a bit disappointing. I also agree with you that finding new, exciting artists is the best part of what we do. When I come across someone I've never heard of, particularly one who is a small artist working on the outskirts of the industry, being able to use our little platform to help them, and seeing the appreciation that flows in both directions, it does make it worthwhile to suffer through Megadeth. Sorry, needed to throw a cheap shot in there. That's the one disappointment I have right now, that I haven't found one of those yet this year either, although I'm optimistic I may have just done so.

D.M: The other fun (used jokingly) trend that we sometimes encounter in music is the Guy Who Breaks Away From A Band And Won't Play That Material Anymore On Principle.  Years ago, I saw Michale Graves on tour with Mina Caputo (she was still Keith at the time,) and while Graves was happily content to play acoustic covers of his Misfits material, which a) what else did he have? and b) wasn't anything to write home about, Caputo immediately informed the crowd that there would be no recitation of "River Runs Red."  You could almost feel the air go out of the room.  As a kid, I remember reading a story about how John Fogerty swore he wouldn't play CCR tunes anymore.  Not too long after, he realized people were willing to pay money to see that and wouldn't pay to just see him, and suddenly, "Bad Moon Rising" was rising again.  John Bush (since we cited him earlier, I'll use him as an example,) doesn't seem to do many solo tours, but if he did, I'd be curious to see what he would play.  This of course twists back into the whole 'value of nostalgia' thing, but you know.

So, not to flagellate the Volbeat argument unnecessarily, but this brings up an interesting point - given that the 'metal' sound of Volbeat seems to have been tempered (intentional pun!) does this mean that Volbeat is potentially, should this path continue, a disappointing band?  Are they merely scaling two mountains?  Can you be a hero to most (like Elvis!) but invoke the frowns of others (also like Elvis, if you listen to Public Enemy,) not because of simple dislike but because you changed styles?  Volbeat has a personal history with Metallica, are they simply following the same blueprint to some degree?  More questions than answers!  (I know it's waaay too early to determine a lot of this stuff now, but I'll bring it up to make conversation, and because, as a mutual friend of ours says, 'it would be irresponsible not to speculate.')

Anyway, keep this thing going - who do you love and like and hate so far in 2016?  Who do you look forward to?  To lead off, I have my concert tickets for Prophets of Rage in hand, and if there should be a resulting album, I will be among the first in line.  I have more thoughts, but I'll let you pick up there while I try to think of a cheap shot I can take at Bruce Springsteen before we close this down.

 Chris C: Artists are always in a no-win situation. If they don't play the material fans want, they get looked at as a disappointment. If they play nothing but the material people want, they become a nostalgia act. If they continue playing new material after their best days, everyone complains that they're ignoring what the fans want. Let's boil it down to the basic truth of all of this; fans are impossible to please. We will never be happy, no matter what our favorite artists do.

Which leads back to Volbeat. Are they a disappointing band? Well, I can make the case both ways. It entirely depends on what we want to say a band's job is supposed to be. If we think a band is supposed to appeal to their fans and provide a steady stream of entertainment, then yes, I think Volbeat is a disappointment. They have clearly abandoned the identity that originally made them popular, in much the same way that Metallica did. I don't say it was for impure reasons, but they have absolutely made themselves more palatable for a wider audience. But if we want to say that a band's job is to reach and please as many people as possible, then no, I wouldn't say Volbeat is a disappointment. They might have fewer hardcore fans than they once did, but they have a bigger footprint in the rock world than they ever have before. In terms of turning their love of music into a lucrative career, Volbeat is absolutely successful. We once again reach that dichotomy; music as both art and business. The more I think about it, the harder I think it is to ever achieve both at the same time.

As for the rest of the year, I have to say either I'm falling behind in keeping up with the news, or there isn't much that has been announced I'm looking forward to. The one I know for sure is the sophomore Blues Pills album. An effort as good as the first one will vault them onto the same tier (though still below) of modern day awesomeness as Graveyard. Other than that, the only other thing is the Meat Loaf album I already mentioned, which I'm looking forward to in the same way that your cat looks forward to a vet appointment. You know it's going to be for your benefit, but it's going to hurt.

As for what I loved and hated, the love list is easy. Zakk Wylde, Avantasia, and Nordic Union are all albums that are special, and I'll throw Volbeat in there too. The hate list is pretty much the entirety of the metal world. Whether I liked it or not, there hasn't really been a metal album that has stood up and made everyone take notice. It feels like metal is rather aimless right now, and I'm not sure what is going to rectify that.

So now I'll turn it back to you. What albums have been naughty, and what albums have been nice? And do you know of anything on the horizon that is going to make our mouths water?

D.M: So far, the best part of musical year has been occupied by bands I'm already familiar with, which as we discussed, is a slight disappointment (although I may have discovered something this week that I am very excited about.  I don't want to give it away because, for one, what kind of tease would that be? and two, I need to really digest it further before I go out on a limb for it.)  I will say though, a couple of the bands in questions saw fit to make adjustments and as such reinvent their sound, which is almost like hearing something new.  In particular, The Texas Hippie Coalition and Lacuna Coil both hyped up their new records by calling them 'darker' and 'heavier' which as you and I and everyone reading this knows, are the most overused terms in the history of heavy music.  But!  In this case the labels apply, and damn it, that's worth something.  These are veterans artists who are clearly still willing to challenge themselves and make tweaks, which is a fresh change to the bevy of artists who choose not to challenge themselves and make the same record over and Bruce Springsteen.  (BOOM!  There it is.  Happy with that.)

I've enjoyed Red Eleven and Prong and Blood Ceremony a great deal, plus a smattering of others, but at the risk of sounding pompous, I sort of expected to enjoy those, so that was more a question of living up to expectation rather than exceeding it.  I will say I was pleasantly surprised by large sections of Surgical Meth Machine.  Not that I'm putting that on my shield or anything, but it was much better than I originally anticipated.

It's hard to say what's disappointed me specifically, although it does merit mention that when I read up on Droids Attack before listening to their record, I had hoped for much more than what I got. Maybe Volbeat?  A laudable effort in many ways, but not what I wanted from them.  With that said, this may be too general, but it is fair to say I'm disappointed in metal as a whole?  Of all the records I'm spinning right now from 2016, with the exception of Lacuna Coil, all of them have at least some straight up-and-down rock blood, and Lacuna Coil is famously poppy, so even that doesn't necessarily carry the banner for the genre.  In particular, the heavier forms of the genre haven't come up with anything in particular worth talking about.  Groove metal, death metal (melodic or otherwise), thrash - all disappointments so far this year, either unable or unwilling to contend in the face of the rock-styled revival and industrial resurrection of the past couple years.

I sometimes wonder if some of it is me - as much as we try to stay neutral and block out external factors, 2016 has been, in short, a ridiculous whirlwind of a year for me personally, and I'm perturbed by the notion that it's affecting how I'm absorbing the music, whether my exhaustion is adding to my musical cynicism.  I tell myself it isn't, but it seems impossible that my environment would have no impact on me whatsoever, no matter how resolved I may be to ignore it.  It's possible I've really dismissed some bands that I otherwise would have either taken more time with or given benefit of the doubt in order to unearth a gem.  So my opinions this year may be unavoidably muddied no matter what.

Not too far on the horizon there's some releases I either haven't listened to yet or haven't had a chance to review - Death Angel and Scorpion Child are both pretty good (Death Angel is very good,) though for different reasons, and I'm looking forward to Deadlock and Whitechapel, both of which we recently received.  My allegiance to Whitechapel is a strange thing - I don't know that I've ever really loved any of their records, but their live show is super energetic and very good, so I think I always listen to them in the hopes that 'this'll be the one!'  As for Deadlock, I'm basically expecting more of the same, but I like their same, and that seems to be par for the course this year anyway.  Those things really only get us through July, but hey, one month at a time.  Naturally, because I mention it every six months, it feels normal to bring it up again - I anxiously wait Blackguard's "Storm," which Paul Zinay promised would happen this year.  I will continue to mention it until it happens.

Final thoughts?

 Chris C: As much as we might want to think it is, music is not completely divorced from the circumstances in which we listen to it. What's going on in our lives makes an impact in how we hear music, as does such simple things as the weather. I commented a couple of times when writing about records that the season in which they are released has quite a bit to do with how I take them in. Frankly, I don't understand why a band that plays any sort of dark, depressing music would ever release a record in the Spring or Summer. When they do, and I go to listen to them, I can't find a way of getting myself invested in the music when I look out the window and see bright sunshine. The issue of neutrality comes up in the sense that when that happens to me, I try to make a note of it, so anyone reading can see that I might be particularly biased for or against something.

As for a final thought, I'm going to agree with you that metal has had a tough first half of the year. I'm hoping that there will be a few things popping up on the radar to change that, because I'd rather not have to say that this is the worst year for metal that I can remember. I'm not counting on that rumored Metallica album to reverse the tides though.

Otherwise, it's been a good year so far, and if the second half matches the quality we've already seen, I'm going to be quite happy.

No comments:

Post a Comment