Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Conversation: 2016 In Review, Part II

D.M: First things first - I am 1,000,000% with you on The Black Album.  If there was a sin committed, is certainly was not committed by Bob Rock alone.  Not only am I a Black Album defender, but I am an unabashed fan.  Many of the first handful of songs I ever learned on bass were off that album (along with Powerman 5000's "Car Crash," though that's not here nor there,) and it's an encyclopedia on how to make an album with big riffs and staying power.  We may never see that kind of radio domination over that lengthy a period again, which is made especially poignant by the fact that The Black Album arose during the critical mass of grunge, and was still companion to "Nevermind" and "Ten" and "Badmotorfinger."  Nevertheless, fanboy leanings aside, let's lay down a few (possibly controversial) facts; The Black Album is the single most successful metal album ever written.  Whether or not its the most important is up for debate, but it is easily the most successful.  While "Death Magnetic" certainly went great lengths in resurrecting the legacy of Metallica, there is precisely zero chance that Metallica makes the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame without it.  I suppose there are cynics out there who would suggest that their induction in and of itself is irrelevant and little more than a popularity vote among mainstream music press, but while I won't take the time to state any empirical facts as to why (yay, editorials!) that's frankly bullshit.  Anyway, whether or not you like it, the history of metal as a genre, and the apex of its popularity, can't be told without speaking of The Black Album.


Is there where you or I could make a lot of money as the Czar of Common Sense at a record label?  Like, who had the incredible idea to release a Katatonia record in the spring in the first place?  The calendar seems like an easy thing to get right, even as you release albums in parts of the world that might be experiencing different seasons at different times.  Let's be honest, the bulk of the metal community probably lives in the Northern Hemisphere (with all due respect to the large cadre of headbangers in South America who could have single-handedly monetized Iron Maiden for about a decade, never mind the fans around the rest of the world,) so why is this an issue?  I suppose the umbrella question here is whether or not the label's ignorance of the time of year for a release impacts their sales numbers or at least the critical reception that is receives?  I mean, the immediate reaction would be yes, but I suppose the counterpoint is that to release an album early in the year, or late in the year, means sacrificing the lucrative summer concert season, so perhaps the artist or label is damned if they do or don't?  Do Katatonia fans (sorry to keep picking on them, but that's where we started this question,) even leave their house in the summer, or do they wait for the dulled ambers of fall?  Am I overthinking this?

Speaking of album releases, and working backward in the conversation (there will be a quiz later,) let's consider 'older' bands for a moment.  How much of the impetus to release an album is just to have an excuse to hit the road and cash in on the back catalog?  Anecdotally, I went to see Boston this summer (love Boston, everyone can deal with it,) and yeah, they had a new record, but the locus of the tour was the fact that it was the fortieth anniversary of their iconic first album.  Now, I grant you, that's an extenuating circumstance, because that record is an all-timer, but it got me wondering if bands like Slayer punch out another record just so they can play "Raining Blood" some more.  I would like to think there's some artistic integrity that says that's not the case, and that the continual recitations of "Raining Blood," are to appease the gathered masses, but I do wonder.  Conversely, (and now I am definitely overthinking it,) is there a chance that the bands are truly releasing their best effort, but as their fans age they hold more closely on the music of their youth and only want to hear that, thus driving the nostalgia?  I can't tell you the number of people I've encountered who say things like "I used to be into metal, but I grew out of it/don't listen to it anymore." (Parenthetical, that's stupid,)  Let's take King Diamond as an example - sure, he's done a lot of top shelf stuff in the past fifteen years, but how many of his fans 'grew out of it' after "Don't Break the Oath" and now that's all they want to hear live, and it drives the King's decision making?  This is his living, after all.  Okay, now my brain hurts.

I don't know that there's another way for labels to promote these days, though I fundamentally agree with our point.  I think we both agree that the function of the record label in this modern era is to discern and filter out the good music for us, so the question is how best to draw attention to their effort?  With the easy exposure to bands of all stripes and sizes in the social media age, the labels may have no choice but to accommodate the new rules of engagement, so to speak

So, just to mix in our usual questions while these topics continue - what surprised and disappointed you this year?  What met your expectations?  What are you looking forward to in the next year?

Chris C: I'm glad to see some love being given to "The Black Album". It happens to be my favorite Metallica album, which you can take to mean whatever you choose, since I don't particularly love any of the others in full. You bring up an interesting point though, which will depend on where we draw the line between rock and metal. To me, absolutely, it is the most successful metal album of all time. But if you want to take the mainstream's view that bands like Guns N' Roses and AC/DC are actually 'metal', then there's an argument to be made. I don't buy that they are, so I'm with you. Not only is "The Black Album" the most successful metal album of all time, and not only is it indeed responsible for making Metallica the household name that they are, but it's also one of the most important metal albums of all time, but for a far different reason. Like it or not, the success of that record, and the legions of people who weren't fans but were still wearing Metallica shirts, changed the face of metal. 'True' metal bands didn't want any part of that mainstream audience (Megadeth sure as hell did, but that's another story), and they intentionally took metal down less accessible roads. That's a mistake of titanic proportions, I believe, but it's what happened. It makes no sense at all to me that the mainstream face of metal has gone from "The Black Album" to Lamb Of God.

What you deem 'common sense' is actually the intersection of business and art once again. Sure, it seems obvious that albums needing to rely on the darkness of our hearts shouldn't be released when we're sipping lemonade by the pool. However, I don't for a second think that a single fan of a band like Katatonia didn't buy the album because there wasn't three feet of snow on the ground. What I do think happens is that people who hear a song in passing, or pick up the record without being massive fans already, may find themselves having less of a connection to the music, which would only manifest itself in business terms down the line. It's sort of a question of the short-term versus the long game, and the way that business is going, not many can afford to play the long game. Of course, the converse to all of this is what happens if you wait. I know that I, for one, get annoyed if I know that a band has finished a record, only to hear from the label that the release is being pushed back months at a time. If it's done and you don't release it, even if it's not the right time, you lose interest that way as well.

I don't think we even have to ask the question about older bands and new music. The vast majority of those kinds of bands are absolutely only making records for the sake of having an excuse to tour. I don't doubt at all that if those rock and metal bands were bigger, they would give up completely on making records. For an example, let's look at Billy Joel. He hasn't written a song in twenty-two years, and yet he still sells out Madison Square Garden once a month. Do you honestly think that if Slayer could do that, they would still be churning out records even their fans don't care much about? All the evidence we need is to see how they handle the material live. If they play one song from a new record on tour, and then promptly never play any of it again, it's pretty clear that the record meant nothing to them. Like their new stuff or not, but Iron Maiden stands by the music they make. They continue to play their new stuff live, and even took the huge risk of playing "A Matter Of Life And Death" in its entirety. They are the exception.

Yes, we as fans are largely responsible for this. We're the ones who don't buy the new albums like we did the old. We're the ones who pine for the old days because of the memories we attach to them. We're the ones who gripe every time a band tries to play new material in place of the old favorites. After a certain number of records, when the fans are demanding you do nothing but play the same twenty songs for the rest of your career, there's no reason for these bands to care about being creative anymore. We invalidate the creative process when it doesn't fit in the little boxes we make for them. What amuses me is that the live market is where bands make their money these days, but concerts have in a way become like an iPod. Fans go to hear the same songs they've already heard a thousand times, and they want them played exactly the same way. It almost makes you wonder what the point is.

I won't claim to have all the answers. I don't know how labels are supposed to reverse these trends. All I can do, as I have been trained to, is see the flaws and point them out. Whether they can be fixed at all is up for discussion.

What surprised me this year is the amount of material in my Top Ten (no spoilers) that I would never have thought had a chance. There are a couple brand new bands, a couple that have taken multi-album hiatuses from my good graces, and one artist who has never produced a record before that I enjoyed. That upheaval surprised me. I suppose the only thing I was disappointed in was Dream Theater's two-disc abomination, "The Astonishing". Three records ago they made one I really enjoyed. Two records ago they made my album of the year. Their last album was still good. This one is so laughable I couldn't make it through the entire running time even once. It did surprise me that a group of men nearing fifty could write an album and a story as well-developed as an eighth-grader. Naming the nefarious villain of your story "Lord Nafaryus" is astonishing (pardon the pun) in its stupidity.

But the biggest disappointment of the year is the easy one to answer. As you well know, I am a huge Meat Loaf fan. I own more Meat Loaf albums than the average person knows exist, and Jim Steinman would be second or third on my list of musical heroes, depending on the day. I love music largely because of the two of them. So when they combined forces one last time before they hang up their hats, even my cynical nature couldn't have prepared me for how rotten the album would wind up. They took some awful tracks that had never been good enough to record before, tossed in more songs that had already been done or re-used in other songs, and then capped it off with Meat sounding like his voice already had one foot in the grave. If I wasn't a huge fan, I think it would have been a mildly entertaining record. But it was made for the fans, and that only made it worse. It was everything bad about the Meat/Steinman history thrown into one album. And in case you couldn't tell, no, I did not get myself a copy. I'm not a completest, so I have no desire to be reminded of it more than necessary.

As for next year, I'm not looking forward to much of anything at the moment. I don't know of all that many bands I like who are confirmed to be doing anything. There is still the Bad Salad album that was supposed to have come out this year, but I'm also burned out on lengthy concept albums, so we'll see. Otherwise, my horizon is empty. I've given up on saying that "this is the year!" my favorite band is finally going to come out of recording hibernation, although I did hear just before writing this response that Emerson Hart is working on a new solo album. Whether that gets done or not in time remains to be seen, but that's probably at the top of my anticipated list. And I suppose I'm curious to see if Jorn can carry over the mad genius of his Dracula album to his 'normal' music. As far as metal goes, I can't think of anything right now. I don't consider that a good omen for next year.

What about you, and your surprises and disappointments?

D.M: Okay, let me tackle my major disagreement with one thing you said first - the purpose of a concert, as a veteran of a lot of them, is that you want to see the musicians perform in their own element - you want to see what they look like, what they sound like, how they play, what their energy level is.  There's a certain amount of psychology involved, in seeing the manner of a band as they exert their effort into bringing fans their creation up close and personal.  Now, that may not work in necessarily the same vein at an arena show, where fans may be rows and rows of terrible or obstructed view away, but there is a certain kinship in the smaller clubs, a sense of art appreciation, if one can be grandiose about it.  That kinship extends not just to the musicians on stage, but to your fellow fans, particularly in an underground genre like metal where the pervasive feeling 'think about all those squares who haven't discovered this yet.'  It's almost like seeing a Broadway show on video.  Sure, it's nice, but to see it live is to bring to life the emotion and passion of those performing the art.  Recordings, regardless of their peerless digital fidelity, can't replicate that.

It's funny you mention the argument about who is metal and who isn't, because I think I'm the only person who judges this argument on a nebulous and completely arbitrary case by case basis.  Guns 'n' Roses?  Not metal.  AC/DC?  Metal (though I admit there's an arguable point here.)  Deep Purple?  Not metal.  Def Leppard?  Not metal.  Led Zeppelin?  Not metal.  Hair metal of all stripes?  Not metal.  That doesn't mean I don't like the bands I say are not metal, I really love Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin in particular.  It just means that for whatever reason, the rationale that they somehow belong in metal doesn't mean much to me.  That said, even though I would classify AC/DC as metal, I would also say that The Black Album is the most successful metal album ever, despite the overwhelming sales numbers of "Back in Black."  Before you ask, I don't know why.  My life has larger concerns.

Citing Slayer as an example, the counterpoint I would make to your argument about how Billy Joel can still sell out MSG without new material is that Slayer can't do that WITH new material.  The only way Slayer could work a crowd like that is if they were opening for Billy Joel (hilarious.)  But I'm not coming down on Slayer for that, I guess what I'm saying is that Slayer can currently sell out PlayStation Theater in Manhattan (or whatever it's called this week,) while they're on tour for new material, or they can sell it out when they were playing the 20th anniversary tour of "Seasons in the Abyss."  Since Slayer is at that age when their fans, as we seem to agree, largely want to hear their older material, I don't think their ticket sales are all that impacted by the release of a new album.  Perhaps, perhaps, they tour slightly more often, but the overarching question is, if Slayer knows that (and they must,) then what's the impetus to keep working for new music, unless they're actually making enough in album sales to justify it?  (This seems unlikely, but not impossible, given the present marketplace.)  Now, Slayer may be a poor example in this case because it's easy to envision a scenario where a defiantly bitter Kerry King and Tom Araya are dead set on proving that they can still be Slayer without Dave Lombardo and Jeff Hanneman (spoiler - they can't,) and thus the continued push to crank out more music.

Hey, waitaminute.  All this talk about seasonal album listen and atmospheric music, and we haven't taken a single cheap shot at Sunn O)))!  We're off our game!  Didn't they make a yoga remix album?  (Not a joke - pretty sure they made some kind of yoga record in the last year or so.)  I guess Sunn O))) isn't culturally relevant enough to be part of our conversation this time (cheap shot #1!  Take it to the bank!)

The big surprise for me was the album from the Texas Hippie Coalition, not because it was great and I expected it not to be, but because it was great at a different level than we were accustomed to seeing from the band.  I and I think many of their fans thought that THC was an animal we knew, a known commodity.  For their record this year though, they raised their own standard a good deal, now with guitarist Cord Pool fully involved in the writing of material.  After four albums, it was a pleasant and unusual surprise to see the band reinvent themselves (within reason,) to produce their most effective album to date.

Secondly, while it won't make my top ten (spoiler,) I will say I was pleasantly surprised by Surgical Meth Machine.  For an album I expected to take no value from whatsoever based on its teasers and pre-hype, there were some cuts there that pop up occasionally in my playlist.  Well done.

Weird though this may sound, I managed to dodge a lot of potential major disappoints musically this year.  Some of this is that it was a decent year for music as we've already discussed, but I think a lot of it, and this isn't necessarily good for my journalistic integrity, is that anything I was overtly afraid would be disappointing I summarily evaded altogether.  Ignorance, regretfully, appears to be bliss.

I will add these points though - Scorpion Child's follow up to their hugely successful debut was not nearly at the level it could and should have been.  There was none of the pop and virility that characterized their first work, which was a shame.  The other thing I would note, and I'm hesitant because so much of the value of this album, as we discussed at length back in the summer, is tied into the listener's predilections, was Volbeat's "Seal the Deal & Let's Boogie."  I don't want to go too deep down that rabbit hole again, and listen, I totally get that there a lot of people who got exactly what they wanted from this record, but having such affection for "Beyond Hell/Above Heaven" meant that this record didn't deliver on the promise I was anticipating.  Not a bad record, but a letdown for me personally.

Right now, three things (well, four,) I'm looking forward to in 2017.  One, and least germane to our conversation, is the concept of the Raiders might still be playing football in January.  It's been a while.  Other than that, one thing on the radar right now - March is slated to see the release of an album from a band called Crystal Fairy, which is a supergroup of Melvins' Buzz Osborne, Le Butcherettes' Teri Gender Bender and At The Drive-In's Omar Rodriguez-Lopez.  That could be great, and it could be awful, and I can't wait to find out which it is.  Also, Life of Agony is slated for an album in 2017, supposed to come early, but either way, I'm very curious to see how the circuitous route the band took to get here had altered their style, if at all.

Lastly, Paul Ablaze, now of Crimson Shadows, promised me that Blackguard's final album, "Storm" would be released in 2016.  It didn't happen.  So, I'm putting it on the list of things I want to see next year, and I will every year until either it happens or he tells me to shut up about it.

I will give you first crack at final thoughts

CHRIS C: I wasn't taking issue with the live experience. I was only opining about the bands that have played the exact same songs the exact same way for ten or twenty years. I'm not sure I get the appeal of hearing exactly the same thing over and over again if you frequent the same band. That being said, while I have never attended a show that was not a local band, one of the small hopes that I have is that Graveyard managed to have some professional cameras around to film one of their shows. We've both seen footage of them from the European festival circuit, and I for one would love to have a DVD documenting them doing their thing, since they never came close enough to me to even consider seeing them in person.

I don't disagree with your categorizations, except that I don't think AC/DC is particularly metal either. I think all of the bands listed are rock bands. But even if they are metal, the reason "The Black Album" would be the most successful metal album anyway is that it had more of an impact. No bands changed what they were doing because of "Back In Black". Metallica made people pick up instruments, they made metal bands write for the radio, they made the entire idea of The Big Four possible. Like the results or not, but everything about metal in the 90s was a reaction to Metallica.

Honestly, I think what keeps Slayer making records is simply Kerry King's own mouth. He has slagged on so many bands for so long about being nostalgia acts, or not giving the fans enough, that his already tarnished reputation would be shredded if Slayer became a touring nostalgia act. We already know Slayer is only in it for the money at this point, but we can at least pretend they aren't when there's still a new record in the offing (side note: I actually like "Christ Illusion"). If they shut that part down, they would be a business, and no one wants to go see IBM on tour.

I know completely what you mean about avoiding disappointments. There are plenty of albums, including by big names, I didn't even bother checking out this year, simply because I already knew I wasn't going to like them. What would be the point of me listening to another Meshuggah album, when all it's going to do is waste an hour of my life? I think it's perfectly normal that, at our age, we're weary of wasting our time on what is sure to be lackluster material from names we know, when that time could be better spent finding something new and exciting. No shame in that.

We already had the Volbeat discussion. I hold the weird opinion of agreeing in total with you that Volbeat is no longer the band we want them to be, but also finding this new record to be such well-written bubblegum metal that I love it anyway. How's that for cognitive dissonance?

To start wrapping things up, I think what I'm going to remember from 2016 is the profound sense of sadness that it was all about. There are the obvious non-musical reasons, but when you add on Lemmy's death (not that I'm a huge Motorhead fan), Graveyard's breakup, and the lack of truly amazing records, this year doesn't feel like it advanced the ball down the field. It was a bubble screen that got stopped at the line of scrimmage. You might fall forward for a yard, but you're behind the chains.

And yes, this last month or so has had less interesting music than any period I can recall. I'm now realizing just how much the quality of the music makes or breaks this job. I'm hoping that the new year will see more great and terrible records, so I have plenty to talk about. Mediocrity does not command my attention.

So I suppose this is where I say on to 2017, and on to a better year.

D.M: I'm pretty much on the same page here.  The quality of the music we get exposed to certainly outweighs the importance of the quantity of the music we get exposed to (which is considerable and if we're being honest, impossible to digest in its totality.)  I'm thinking next year might be a good year to spend some time in reflection of music for me - we've now spent so long doing this, so much time looking to the horizon for whatever the next thing might be that I know I missed something.  To paraphrase what Master Yoda told Luke, my mind was never on where I was, or what I was doing in the process of this all.  So I think a lot of my focus this coming year will be directed toward re-analyzing the conclusions I had drawn and seeing where there might be patterns that I missed.  Honestly, I'm looking forward to it.

That's all I got.

CHRIS C: On that reflective note, we will end the discussion here. We can think more about where we've already been, and wait for 2017 to surprise us, for a change.

Ever onward!

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