Monday, December 12, 2016

The Conversation: 2016 In Review, Part I

Chris C: Another year has passed us by, and with that recognition, we must abide by the ritual and assess where this particular trip 'round the sun has taken us. Since I have been formally tracking every album I listen to as a critic, it had seemed that each year was getting better and better, with more albums coming along each year that I either loved dearly, or at least liked a considerable amount. I have fickle tastes, so what started as a difficult task in finding ten albums at the end of a year I felt strongly enough about to even mention turned into a difficult task in cutting the list down and leaving some unawarded.

That stretch ended this year. For whatever reason, be it a confluence of bands hitting the gap in between albums, or my own personal life leaving me in a place where I was less receptive to new music, 2016 was a weaker year than the last few that we have covered together. There are absolutely those few records at the top of my list that I adore, but once we slide beyond them, the depth of quality simply isn't there. It could be that I have finally hit the point of being jaded to anything but greatness (Does there come a point where we are, for the sake of argument, saturated with music?), but I'm going to choose to stay optimistic and think that it was merely bad luck that the music world didn't deliver more knockouts.

To a degree, we knew this was bound to happen at some point, as the old guard both retires and dies off (which is happening at an alarming rate, it seems). Old bands like Anthrax, Megadeth, In Flames, and plenty more released middling to awful records this year. New bands needed to rise up to fill those spots, and by and large, they haven't managed to gain a foothold as consistent standout performers. I've noticed that over the last few years, there have been any number of great debut releases that have made me say a band was on the verge of doing something exceptional, and every single one of them has failed to live up to my own hype. The only band you and I can agree has done so is Graveyard, and this miserable year has taken them from us.

So I suppose I will start the conversation by asking a simple question; was 2016 a terrible year for music, and if so, what caused it?

D.M: Well, I think 'terrible' is a strong word to use.  As I look back at my 2016 in music, my running list of contenders for album of the year still runs twenty-five or so deep, so I'm definitely not grasping at straws to find ten albums (or eleven, as I usually do,) that have merit, and there have certainly been years when rounding up ten records is hard, so 2016 has that going for it.  I will say this, I agree that this year has fewer albums that I would really shout from the mountain top as being great records that are defensible against any argument.  There are two or three to be certain, but as I start to sketch the presumptive list in my head, albums 5-10(11) I feel are fairly interchangeable, and that's a distinct separation from the previous handful of years.  So I think this year has possessed some level of diminished good relative to its immediate forebears, but I also don't want to leap from precipice and regard diminished good as bad.  And you never know what can happen late - Niche's "Heading East" attached itself to the coattails of my list at the last possible moment for entry, so hey, who know?  There's a new Metallica album today which I haven't heard yet, so maybe there's something there.

Which dovetails nicely into your point about old bands hanging on too long.  I'm with you to an extent - I didn't even listen to the new Megadeth or Anthrax, because I didn't feel like there was any new real estate there for me.  Now, that's not an ageist argument, it's an indictment of those bands' recent works.  For all the nonsense and bullshit that surrounded the release of "Worship Music," second in that ignominious category only to "Chinese Democracy," it wasn't a very strong output.  Same goes for nearly every Megadeth album since "Rust in Peace," though I know I liked parts of "Endgame" and you defend one of the it "Risk?"  Forgive my shoddy memory.  By contrast, I am very interested in the new Metallica album, and let that be a tease for later on, because I want to finish my point before I move on.  There are two 'old' bands, who, spoiler alert, will likely land somewhere in the spectrum of my top albums from the year, Death Angel and Lacuna Coil (is Lacuna Coil old now?  What's the threshold here?  Who decides these things, and how do I get on the council?)  Now, Death Angel has some leeway in the age department because their career took such a prolonged hiatus right in the middle, so hearing new material from them is a little like the cliche of finding a classic, dormant Corvette in perfect working condition in your great-grandfather's garage.  Sure, it's old, but it's been untapped for so long, it literally has a lot of miles still to go.  Lacuna Coil, by contrast, has been working pretty steadily since the turn of the millennium, (sidebar apropos of nothing - we are one of the few lucky generations who will get to use the term 'turn of the millennium' WAY more than 'turn of the century.'  Not to be all John Madden about it, but that literally only happens every thousand years,) and they continue to produce robust content.  So what's making these bands fade?  Are they past their effectiveness, or are they just out of stories to tell, retreading the same old tunes over and over like Bruce Springsteen? (Boom!  Annual Springsteen Dig!  Got it out of the way early!)  Is that functionally the same thing?

I also firmly believe that we may never again see bands that dominate the marketplace, particularly one as fractured and preferential as music, ever again.  It's easy to point the tent poles of metal, but it's happening in nearly all genres.  As those bands age out and fade away, the market just doesn't seem to want to support that kind of singularity again.  There's too much variety that's too readily available, and too much social media targeted directly to narrow tastes to encourage cross-genre expansion or reception (I could write a term paper on why that's a bad thing, but I won't do it here.)  I mean, there's just never going to be another Beatles or Van Halen or Aerosmith.  That era is done.  Which isn't good or bad, but it's true.  I mean, who's even come close in the past twenty years?  Muse?  Coldplay?  Big, sure, successful, yes, but not in that strata, not with that same longevity.

Which brings me to Metallica.  Now, it's unfair to say they resurrected their career with "Death Magnetic," because they weren't suffering for popularity in the first place, but let's at least posit that they regained their street cred (thanks, Rick Rubin!) and were able to shelve much of the unnecessary drama surrounding the apologetically bad "St. Anger."

I am a Metallica fan (not all of their records, but a lot of them.)  Which I admit without shame or reservation.  The haters need to get over it.  Metallica, for better or worse, is the current standard by which all metal is judged, and only Black Sabbath shares that throne.  The other members of metal's Illuminati, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Slayer, whomever you put in there, are all one step below those two.  And I love many of those bands even more than I like Metallica, but it's irrefutable.  I'm not telling you anything you don't know, so don't feel like that's directed at you.  For all that though, there's another reason I'm interested in the Metallica record.

I have a theory (one of too many, let me assure you,) that says if you encountered someone from another planet or whatever, and had to define a band's entire career to that person, you could give them the complete story of that band's musical career in three albums or less.  Works for everybody.  Iron Maiden? "Killers," "Number of the Beast," "Brave New World" (and yes, I am consciously ignoring the Blaze Bayley years, because not to be harsh, but they added nothing to the band's legacy.)  AC/DC?  "Highway to Hell," "Back in Black."  Soundgarden? "Louder Than Love," and a dealer's choice between "Badmotorfinger" and "Superunknown."  Let's take on the Beatles: "Hard Day's Night," The White album, "Let it Be."  The list goes on and on.

Except, weirdly enough, for Metallica.  I grant you, you might not need every album to tell their story - you can probably lump "Kill 'em All" with "Ride the Lightning" and "Load" with "Reload," but other than that, you need every single one of those records, good and bad, to tell the complete story of Metallica and how they got here.  All those records are so different in production, style and reception that it's like a play in an unprecedented seven or eight acts.  To me, this is astonishing.  I can think of no other band who had produced such a different product at every iteration of their career, with predominately the same lineup, where each of every one of those personalities is an integral part of their history.  If Metallica were an article in a peer-reviewed journal, there'd be no point in writing an abstract, because you couldn't condense it.  I can't think of anyone else who fits that bill, you?

Chris C: I might have been a bit over the top when I said this has been a terrible year, but I think we're both saying the same thing here. For whatever reason, 2016 has not had as much cream rising to the top. And even among the solid albums that make up that second level, I would argue that there are fewer albums that are memorable for whatever reason. There is plenty of room to be good, not great, but in a way that you can easily remember long after the album has come and gone from the release cycle. I'm struggling to come up with as many of those kinds of albums. It has been a rather faceless year in music.

We've had this discussion before about old bands. They often don't have a chance when they release new music. First off, there are plenty of those bands whom no one actually cares to listen to new music from. For example, Elton John released a very nice record this year, and practically no one in the world cared in the slightest. I won a copy in a contest, because I was just about the only one who entered. But I think the bigger problem, as evidenced by my feelings on the new Metallica album, are that we can often hear when the bands don't care about making new music. That can largely be attributed to the previous point. Whether it's Slayer making the same record again and again, or Anthrax churning out music with a singer they spent a decade saying they never liked in the first place, or Megadeth using records as an excuse for Mustaine to comment on politics, so much of it is a band going through the motions. When you do hear something from a veteran group that you know is truly inspired and from the heart, which I would say Iron Maiden has been doing (whether you like it or not), it gives you hope. Or at least it gives me hope.

Oh, and while there was a time when I defended "Risk", the Megadeth album I defend whole-heartedly these days is "The System Has Failed". I do legitimately think it's a really good record.

You do bring up an interesting point. Seeing as how we are aging along with the bands, time comes and goes so quickly that it's hard to draw the line when they become 'old', because that means we are as well. This thought has been creeping up on me as I notice more and more of the records that defined my taste have his their twentieth anniversaries. It's hard not to call them old bands, in that case, even if I'm not ready to throw myself into that category. I'll use the easy way out, and say that any band older than my conscious memory qualifies as old. There are precious few of them that are still making worthwhile music. And few from the generation you're referring to either. There comes a certain point where you've heard enough from them that you have to be a hardcore fan to continue wanting to hear more of the same. Myself, I can't imagine many bands I would feel that way about.

No, there will never be a massive band again. Even in the world of pop, we see that the big stars are smaller than they used to be (aside from Adele - and no, that was not a weight joke). It used to be that even if you didn't pay close attention to the charts, you would hear the big hits in enough places that you would at least be casually familiar with them. That will never happen with The Chainsmokers or Rae Sremmurd (The latter being proof metal is not the only place for rampant stupidity. They give the orifice/fluid bands a run for their money. Ear drummers spelled backwards.... ugh). It goddamn better not. The downside to fracturing isn't just that no band can ever become cross-genre huge again, it's that there is a pressing urge to stick within the confines, which will only serve to make each genre increasingly stale. Sadly, other than Foo Fighters, the last band to reach the level of success you're talking about probably would be Oasis. Think about that...

Before Metallica takes over, let me just argue your Beatles example. While I do agree that you can largely cover their territory in three records, I would choose different ones. You can take any of their early records, but then I think you need "Rubber Soul", not just because it's my favorite, but because it exemplifies the shift when they became both drug users and experimental within their own context. Then I would cap it off with "Revolver", which is as diverse as "The White Album", but just a lot better. Point taken, however.

Metallica is where we diverge. While I respect their importance, they have never appealed to me as a fan. There isn't a single Metallica album that I ever want to sit through as a whole. I've never once thought that James and Lars are consistent enough in the quality of work they put out (or in their ability to know when their ideas are terrible and need to be cut). But you are right about one thing; Metallica has undergone as much evolution as any band I can think of during their career. I say band, because I would argue that Elvis Costello might have the most diverse career I've ever seen, but he's a topic for another time. You can view that adaptability however you want. Sometimes it's a virtue, other times it's a sin. What I think it means, at least the way I see it, is that even Metallica themselves don't know exactly what they are.

And that actually leads me to why I seldom like their records. For most of the last two decades, it always seems to me that they're doing what they think someone else wants them to. They made "Load" when they thought the radio was ready for Metallica to rule the airwaves. They made "St. Anger" when they thought they had to return to being as heavy as possible, and now they're making records that sound more like the old days, because the fans have been clamoring for exactly that. Megadeth has done the same thing. Every couple of albums, Mustaine writes a mostly pure thrash record, when the fans make it clear they're sick of whatever else he's trying to do. I find it a bit phony. That's a reason I have to be in a certain mood to listen to either of those bands.

Speaking of moods, we were scheduled to talk about a phenomenon I encountered specifically with Katatonia's record this year. As a depressing album released during the sunny part of the year, it struck me as a good record at first. It was only later on, when I was in a different state of mind, that I was able to wrap my head around the music and appreciate it more fully as the emotional ride it is. It was the clearest example yet of how both the weather and my mood can affect how I hear music. The same album will not have the same impact in the summer as the winter, when I'm optimistic as when I'm depressed. I broached this subject once before, and was met with puzzled looks. So I will ask you, am I alone in being so swayed by the chemicals swirling in my head?

D.M: I just want to touch on something you said at the tail end of your first thought before I venture too much farther down the rabbit hole.  You mentioned the large number of bands who put our debut records that show great promise but then fail to deliver on a follow up.  For me, this actually isn’t all that uncommon, disappointingly so as a matter of fact.  Still though, it is my entirely anecdotal opinion that there’s a perfectly logical explanation for this.  A band, once formed, spends all their best efforts on their first album.  It’s the album that gets them signed, the one they’ve been playing for years, where all their inspiration flows and tweaks and memorizes the minutia.  Once that wave has passed, all of that has to happen again now for a second album, and it’s incredibly difficult to conjure up that same kind of momentum again.

Recently, I had occasion to sift through my entire music collection and edit together a list of the best one hundred albums ever released (naturally, I settled on 101.)  What shocked me as I put the finishing touches on the list wasn’t the number of debut albums on the list, but rather the number of debut albums that were made by bands who either released only more album and then called it quits, or never released a sophomore at all.  I can’t think of analogous phenomenon anywhere else in our cultural experience, where the first effort can be historically great, only to never be followed up on at all.  I’m finally starting to understand those music fans I encounter of a certain age who talk about things like ‘yeah, Led Zeppelin was great, but there were these three other bands that never made it big…’

You mentioned Graveyard – what made Graveyard so interesting both as a fan and as a music academic was that it was their second effort that really showed their growth and potential, not their first.  And that’s sort of the unicorn in music, right?  Those rare bands that have real longevity in the medium are the ones who survive past the first iteration.  Which naturally makes it all the all more shocking and disappointing that the band called it quits at the height of their power.

Anyway, Metallica.  I feel like I say this whenever we have these conversations, but I think we have to be careful not to deny both options of the fork in Metallica’s road.  On one hand, we’ve both excoriated a hundred different bands for failing to adapt at all, and that’s how we come to more or less condemn Slayer at this point (and deservedly so.)  So I think we have to tread carefully in coming down hard on Metallica for going through some fairly dynamic musical changes, made all the more rare by the relative lack of movement in the band’s lineup.  Now, I also see the argument you’re making – that it’s not that Metallica keeps evolving, it’s that they keep evolving into whatever they think people want, rather than what they want, so the tail is wagging the dog, so to speak.  I get that, there’s validity to that argument.  It’s funny how when the band went back to trying to be as heavy as possible, they did so with the producer who made them a rock band and the whole thing spiraled out of control until Rick Rubin took us all back to basics (inside joke: salt is the Rick Rubin of spices, as we all know.)

So, to the question you actually asked – I don’t think you’re at all alone on the nature of your music appreciation being affected by, well, nature.  I think your problem is that you talked about the phenomenon with me, and I’m one of those rare weirdos who doesn’t engage in situational music listening (with the exception of when I’m going to play basketball, where I discovered years ago that if I listen to rap on the way there, I actually play worse, however paradoxical that may seem.)  So really, I’m the minority here.  Now, where I think the divergence may exist is that among the population who listens to music seasonally or emotionally, there’s probably a split between those who listen to music that reinforces their feeling versus those who listen to music to overcome their feeling.  That, as an outside observer, feels like where the Hatfield/McCoy battle lines could be drawn.  So, which are you?  Are you someone who listens to sad music while they’re sad, or happy music while they’re sad (pardon me for oversimplifying your emotional state.)  But let’s hit this deeper – do you think the calendar has an effect on how we receive music when we review it?

Last thought for now, I promise.  As we discuss this year as being of some degree of diminished quality, you mentioned something to me offline about compiling your favorite singles of the year, and that’s when it hit me.  I think some of my malaise about this crop of albums is that I can’t recall a bunch of really remarkable singles like I can in previous years.  As a perfect example, a handful of years ago Battlecross released “War of Wills” and the album was above average as a whole, but the single “Flesh and Bone” was the best song released that year.  Am I alone in this?  Is the problem a lack of singles?

Chris C: Yes, it is absolutely true that one of the main problems any band has is the shortening of the creative period for the second album. I can speak from my limited experience as a creative type, but having the ability to write and cultivate until you have an album's worth of material you have harvested from the mass of your work is certainly going to provide different results than specifically writing an amount of music to fill a record. That being said, there is something to be said for the pressure of writing to a deadline. It can also be a driving factor, if you have the right mindset for it to take hold. And though we may not want to admit it, we also have to factor in that the labels can exert some pressure on these bands to either change things up, or recreate what they have already done, to boost sales. There are any number of factors that could explain a slide in quality for album number two. Plus, I also hold the belief that everyone who is creative, regardless of the medium, only has so many ideas in them. That number will differ for everyone, but if you run through them too quickly, you're left with scarps to continue on with.

As you know, I have done that same project twice before. In fact, it might be time to update the listings once again. [Spoiler: coming to the site in 2017?] Back to the point; one of the things I find interesting is how when making such a list, I notice that's when you can clearly separate albums by even your favorite bands. Very few artists are able to repeatedly chart multiple albums on the hierarchy, no matter how much we otherwise assume their catalog in unimpeachable. At least that's how it works for me. As to the phenomenon you describe, Harper Lee comes to mind. "To Kill A Mockingbird" couldn't possibly have been followed up, which she seemed to know. A total one-and-done.

Most people don't even realize Graveyard had a first album. It was a bit less fleshed out than "Hisingen Blues", but you could tell from it that they had huge potential. You're right about growth. It isn't easy to find bands that are able to grow and expand their horizons and retain their audience. We have to realize that as fans, we don't actually want our bands to grow. When an audience groans as a new song is played at a show, what lesson are we supposed to learn? Slayer gets by because every album is relatively the same, so it doesn't matter to the casual fan which songs they play. It all sounds like Slayer to them, which is all they want.

I don't give Metallica grief because they changed. I give bands of all stripes a hard time when they do change, claim that it's because their heart is taking them in that direction, and then they turn around and ignore that entire chapter of their history. Metallica is a low-level offender. I would put Anthrax much higher on the list. I heard Scott Ian talk for a decade about how much he loves John Bush, never really liked Joey Belladonna, and the music they made in that second act was where they truly wanted to go. And now, they can't run away from that material fast enough. Or you have Testament, who essentially became a death metal band over the years, only to hop on the nostalgia train once they weren't selling tickets any longer. It's hard to take any change as honest when we've been burned so often.

And just to mention "The Black Album". Can we please stop giving Bob Rock hell over it? Metallica wrote every damn note of that record, and they were damn sure powerful enough to have not made that record if they didn't want to. All Bob Rock did was take Metallica's new direction, and make it into one of the best sounding records ever made. If you blame Bob Rock, you're saying Metallica are a bunch of weak-willed people who got pushed over. Does that really sound like them?

I'm not sure how to answer your question, because I don't exactly listen to music based on my mood. I'm one of those people who struggles to understand the appeal of miserable music. I certainly don't get the mechanics of misery making you feel better. When I hear something that is written to evoke the worst of our feelings, I always ask myself the same question; why would I want to put myself through that? It makes no sense to me to intentionally evoke the kinds of feelings that you would normally spend years in therapy trying to get rid of. So for me it isn't about matching my mood, per se. The bigger thing is what you mentioned about time. Yes, I believe the calendar is an underrated factor that labels get wrong all the time. For the sake of the example, let's go back to Katatonia. They made a melancholic album of reflective sorrow. It's both beautiful and emotional. And it came out in May, when the sun is shining and Spring is in full bloom. I'm not sure how I'm supposed to connect with the darkness as life is literally blossoming outside my window. Are Christmas movies as effective in June? Some people still watch them, but there does seem to be a preferable window to consume them.

This is purely speculation on my part, but I think the way music is promoted now has definitely led to a shift in the way it is written. If every band on a decent-sized label knows that there are going to be three or so songs released in video format before the album comes out, there are two realities: 1) They will mostly play to the genre crowd, and 2) No one track is the focus. If there isn't a single track to focus the attention on to hype the record, the bands don't need to hone one track to the point of being able to cross boundaries. They can release three decent tracks that play to the crowd, prove the record is solid, and rely on them to pick up the rest. So it isn't that there's a lack of singles, it's actually that there are too many of them. We're so flooded by pre-release tracks that we don't get true singles anymore.

Oh, and to that point, can I just point how that I hate the way pre-release is done by certain labels? If you're going to put out several tracks, and have it up for pre-order on iTunes for a month, there's no reason to not release the samples of every track on the record. When they don't let me preview them all, it only makes me think they're trying to hide weak material and hope I buy it before I realize the record isn't very good. I know it sounds ridiculous to say, since we both grew up long before there was such a thing as previewing an album before release, but these days it seems like the best way to make people want to buy it. If it's good, I'll be more likely to make the purchase than if you hide it from me.

That was a large amount of text. Your turn.

Check back Wednesday for Part II!

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