Sunday, July 9, 2017

The Conversation: 2017, So Far

Chris C: Here we go again. It seems like the blink of an eye, but we already find ourselves at the mid-point of this year, which means it's a good time to take a stp back and try to figure out what the heck just happened. The passage of time isn't a topic up for discussion here, but in a way it also is. The acceleration of each impending sunrise does add more and more momentum onto the release schedule, which makes each trend reverberate even harder, and die out even faster.

To the topic of this year's music; The main takeaway I've had so far is that this has been a unique year in terms of the strata of rankings. I've managed to find a very solid number of great albums that I would have no problem putting on my list at the end of the year, and I've also suffered through more downright terrible albums than I can remember in recent years (and that's without all the extreme metal I don't even sample). What I haven't found are enough of those mid-level albums that give a year depth. To use a sports analogy (since we seem to love them), there are a lot of max-level albums, a lot of veteran-minimum albums, and very few that would bloat the salary cap with their perfectly acceptable performance and salary.

The reason that has been such a focal point for me is that the albums falling on the terrible end of the scale are mostly ones from big name artists who have been among the most hyped. When all that hype sinks in (and I'm not immune from getting my hopes up), and then the album is a crushing disappointment, those hopes make the suffering feel even worse. We're talking about bands like Iced Earth, Pain Of Salvation, and Danzig (Oh, Danzig. Would you like to talk about how far he's fallen?). Talk about those albums was everywhere, and once I heard them, I felt like I was watching a bad CGI movie, and I was the only one who could tell. Is the key to put your fingers in your ears and pretend an album doesn't exist until you actually hit the play button?

Couple that with decent but criminally disappointing albums from favorites of mine like Jorn, Fastball, and House Of Lords, and we get a crowded list of reasons to think 2017 might actually be even worse as a year (in total, not just music) than 2016. And that's a hard feat.

But there has also been plenty of good to talk about, but before I get into that, I'll let you give your impressions.

D.M:   So, I think I agree with you that this year has been strange for rankings purposes, but not necessarily for the same reasons.  Let me add the caveat before I get too far that my personal year has been so full of other major life-altering goings-on that I have to admit I’ve been fairly distracted from making entirely cogent critiques of music and have had the opportunity to really dig into fewer things.  With that, allow me to launch into it.

I admit that to this point I have only found four or five records in total that I am truly willing to go to bat for.  So continuing your apt analogy, there are some max-level players out there (though without spoiling it, if I were to pick an album of the year right now, it would be an instrumental record, which for me is nearly insane to even consider,) but I find that those max-level records are all max for different reasons.  To continue down the analogy rabbit hole, I have a point guard, a shooting guard, a power forward, a small forward (is scoring forward the fashionable term now?) and a center.  So I’m willing to pay them all top dollar, but they all do different things.

And even among that cream of the crop, there’s really only three albums so far that if you caught me on the street at any time and said ‘what albums do you love this year?’ I would think of their names.  (Though, jumping ahead, I did really like the Soen album, though now some months later, I can’t really recall why, so I may have to revisit it.)

I also have found this year that among the lower strata of good albums (talk about a backhanded compliment,) that they are generally intriguing because they either do something new, or try a style I haven’t heard in a long time.  Recently, I’ve been spending some time with The One Hundred’s record, which may or may not be great (and perhaps the fact that I haven’t decided is indication enough,) but I find myself drawn to it because it’s the first attempt at honest, new rap metal I’ve heard in a long time.  Notable mostly because yes, trends in music ebb and flow, but by the end of its short life, rap metal had become so reviled and ridiculed that it seemed the genre would never heal.  And yet, twenty years down the line (shit, I’m getting older, aren’t I?) here we may be again.  Lest someone get the wrong idea, this is not a nostalgia trip for me (outside of Rage and Orange 9mm, me and rap metal never really got along,) but it is refreshing to see a band try to resurrect a genre from my youth that I never thought I would see again.

There’s more I can get into about genres come home to roost, new bands versus old bands and some thoughts on Chris Cornell, but I’ll save it for now and toss it back – what trends are you seeing this year?

CHRIS C: Rap metal, eh? I saw that album come across my desk, but I will readily admit I never even bothered to sample a single song from it. One of the things I've found out over the years is that as I've gotten older, I have less and less tolerance for music that misses what I think are the main points of making music. Rap metal would almost exclusively fit into that category. Or maybe Limp Bizkit just ruined everything for everyone for all of time. I wouldn't put it past them.

I will leave it to you to carry the ball with Chris Cornell's passing, since I was never really into any of his projects, but there is one thing I would like to say. I truly dislike the way that we, as a society, have usurped the word 'tragedy', and turned it into a synonym for 'sad'. They are not the same thing, and it does a disservice to both the memories of the truly tragic, and the push to avoid the sad, to confuse them. Buddy Holly dying in a plane crash was tragic. Chris Cornell's death is terribly sad, but I wouldn't put it in the same category, because calling it a tragedy gives it a connotation of being unavoidable, like an "act of God". It was anything but, and I'm afraid that the misuse of terms is going to make it harder to use his memory to increase awareness and prevention of drug abuse. Now that would be a tragedy.

To be honest, I don't really see any trends that have taken hold this year, other than the increase in really bad albums by artist who should know better. Perhaps we're in an odd time between the death of djent and whatever will come next, but there isn't any one dominant thing out there that has caught my attention. In a way, that lack of a trend is a trend in and of itself. Bands might finally have the opportunity to use that open space to carve out a unique identity for themselves. I've seen that a touch with Creeper, who don't look or sound like anything else going on in the punk/emo scene right now. It's almost a return to horror punk, which would actually be something I would like to see.

You mention Soen, and while they completely dismantle the point I was just making, I too love that record. But what I love about it is how they pretty blatantly take Opeth's "Blackwater Park" sound, strip out the death metal, and streamline it just enough to be different. I know you haven't, but plenty of people have spent thousands of words complaining about how Opeth's evolution has ruined that once great band. What's interesting about Soen right now, at least to me, is that "Lykaia" is actually the exact album people wanted Opeth to make when they started to change. I can't recall many times a band has taken up the sound and essentially replaced another. I find that fascinating.

Actually, there is one trend I've noticed, but it's only for my own sake, since I've been the dissenting voice for a long time now. This year has actually been better for metal than the last few. Sure, there are a few bombs to avoid, but metal might be swinging the pendulum back away from the djent and death metal that has infiltrated the biggest of names. Or maybe we're just lucky and all those bands are off-cycle this year. Either way, it's nice to not be screamed and growled at quite so much.

Let's hear your take on Cornell, and I'll ask you a question I asked myself not long ago; has this year had no giant releases? I can't think of any that, whether you like them or not, EVERYONE felt they had to hear and comment on.

D.M: Rap metal is a finicky thing to judge, because it almost takes the characteristics of rap more than it does of metal, in that who is performing the art defines the art more than the nature of the art itself.  That probably sounds like the most pompous thing anybody's said today, so let me try to re-tread and also add the caveat that this is one lilly-white guy's opinion.  'Metal' as we know it has a number of different subgenres that are defined by their aural principles - too many subgenres, in fact.  And while the quality of any given metal record is still very much defined by who is making it, there are discernible flavors to every genre even if the performers are crappy.  'Rap', by contrast, is entirely dependent on the individual creating the art.  If the MC is somebody of high quality (Chuck D, KRS-One, Rakim,) then the rap is good.  Absent that, rap that is executed by a so-called 'whack' MC is entirely tasteless (meaning without flavor, not meaning offensive or in poor taste,) like a canvas simply painted gray.  Rap metal follows the second trend more than the first.  So when the music is being played by people of skill (Tom Morello, who I know you are more lukewarm on than most,) it is excellent, but when it is left in the hands of hacks (Fred Durst,) the entire banquet suffers (despite the notable talents of Wes Borland, respect where it's due.)

But I told you that story to tell you this one - my brother, who is seven years older than me, was going through high school right in the heart of the early nineties.  And while everyone was singing the praises of grunge, the last days of hair metal and Metallica's Black Album, he had one friend who was listening to a little band from Los Angeles called Rage Against the Machine, and their sound, love it or hate it, was totally revolutionary at the time of inception.  So there is merit to the genre, when done properly.

That said, thanks for Limp Bizkit, the genre is now an object of ridicule, and I can never use the expression 'just one of those days' ever again.

On to more serious matters - the pain of Chris Cornell's death comes in the form of the realization that our understanding of mental health remains woefully inadequate.  This is just another example of a situation where someone we all thought was in perfectly fine shape was actually suffering greatly on the inside, and had simply become adept at hiding his pain.  And it'a a hard thing to think about - because even those trained to look for the signs of mental distress or turmoil may have missed any exhibitions of Cornell's plight, and perhaps even he himself had become accustomed to a feeling of familiarity about the whole thing and didn't understand how deep down the rabbit hole he was.  Man, in layman's terms, it just plain sucks.  It's another talent gone before his time, and moreover, another human life wasted without cause.  My sadness at his passing partially resonates from his influence on me as an artist and performer, but also just comes from the sadness that always accompanies a suicide.  From a life standpoint, before I get accused of speaking way above my pay grade on the issues of mental health, the lesson is to reach out to your friends both if you need help, or suspect that they need help.  We're all in this together.

From a more objective musical standpoint, I think the loss registers most in the sense that grunge was arguably the last of the truly mainstream, broad-sweeping trends, and now many of its major familiar faces are gone.  We had already had to cope with the loss of Cobain, Staley and Wood, but we thought Cornell would stick around, and even if the genre was never to be resurrected to its glory, at least we would share the memory of the important days with him.  But now, (aside from Pearl Jam, who hardly qualified as a grunge band anymore (double parenthesis - and there's nothing wrong with that, it's just a fact,)) the once powerful and tidal force of grunge is figuratively, and perhaps literally, voiceless.

The lack of a trend does make for an interesting trend, because we haven't seen anything like this in recent memory.  Even in the absence of mainstream promote-able trends which have more or less gone the way of the dodo, the underground genres have always been tied to waves from geographical locations, be it Gotherburg or Montreal or Boston or whatever, and those came with their own sound.  Right now, and perhaps for the last two years, there's been no guiding principle in metal that has dictated the pace of the genre's progression.  The only possible addendum one could make to that is that there seems to be a greater emphasis on stoner and more ambient metals, but there's an argument to be made that this has always existed ever since the debut of Black Sabbath, and so may be experiencing a resurgence more than a rebirth.  So, we're seeing still more callbacks to the rock trends of the seventies, from twin guitars on down, which isn't a bad thing.  That said, those trends are popularizing stoner metal, but stoner metal hasn't reached beyond its bounds to influence anyone else yet.  For example, no one expects the upcoming Galaktikon album (which I am immensely excited for, by the by,) to exhibit stoner influences.

So now we've talked about the return of seventies rock trends, rap metal, the-style-Opeth-should-have-had, and if you listen to the new album from the Corroded and obfuscate your hearing just a little, it sounds like someone might be trying to make Rob Zombie-style metal again, which has been all but silent ever since "The Sinister Urge" (and yes, I realize Zombie has released several records since then.)  So if you are a listener with a variety of taste in your palate, this is potentially a golden dawn.  Let me follow up with this, though: why AREN'T we seeing a trend?

As for the lack of a major release, no, there's hasn't been one yet.  But there will be.  I don't know what it's going to be, but metal journalism is nothing if not predictable, and so I say with absolute faith that there will be some album from Mastodon or Behemoth or Ufomammut that everyone will be climbing all over each other to self-importantly bloviate about.  You and I both know that metal loves nothing more than to find some album that people with sense want no part of and then expansively dictate to the audience about why that album is the most important album in a hundred years.  THAT trend, much as we would prefer otherwise, recurs with depressing regularity.

CHRIS C: Your commentary on Chris Cornell was apt, and wise. Mental anguish is, in different terms, one of the thing that has always bothered me about metal, and why I hesitate to call myself a big fan. So much of metal intentionally focuses on the side of life that either causes or results in that kind of mental state. I'm not sure it's healthy for bands or listeners to spend so much time inundating themselves with so much anger and depression. I've mentioned this to you before, but I definitely noticed a difference when I cut much of that kind of music out of my life. In some ways, metal can often find itself a negative reinforcement, which is the last thing most people need.

Grunge is something that, despite living through the time, I don't understand. You just said that Pearl Jam wasn't really a grunge band, and heck, I'm not saying you're wrong. But combine that with the people who say Alice In Chains wasn't really a grunge band (they were metal), nor was Nirvana (pop), I have to ask; who the hell WAS a grunge band? It seems grunge was a word that got thrown out there to describe a fashion choice more than a musical one, and that really it all comes down to who wore unbuttoned flannel shirts. Has a genre ever been dependant on clothes before?

If I can play armchair psychologist here for a minute, I think the reason we aren't seeing a trend ties into the subsequent point about their being a lack of huge releases this year. In order to get a trend going (cynicism alert!), someone needs to demonstrate that there is money to be made selling those kinds of records. Since Ghost came out, I haven't seen anyone trying anything new that has broken through and shown a profit potential. Djent only blew up once Meshuggah and Periphery started raking in decent money. I feel that's what we're going to need before another trend really takes off.

The funny thing about the lack of huge releases is that we've had plenty of albums from what you would think were big enough names. Mastodon put out an album, but they've severely damaged their own brand, to the point they barely registered to a lot of people. Kreator had an album that was well-received, but it was much of the same, and not 'true' enough for many, so they didn't either. Then again, maybe we've just finally hit the point where we are too fractured for any one record to do that across the spectrum. I find it hard to believe that any fan like me can really be intrigued by a black metal record, or those fans by a power metal record. Metal is somewhat meaningless now. Dive a bit deeper, and each sub-group has big releases.

So now that we've gotten that out of the way, let me ask what has surprised you so far (good or bad), and what you're looking forward to for the rest of 2017.

D.M: Let me clarify a little - Pearl Jam certainly used to be a grunge band, but in the intervening years, they've veered away from their root sound.  That's not an insult or strike against them, although that comes with the admission that I more or less lost interest in them after "Vitalogy," when their sound began to evolve and they became pioneers in the cardboard-CD-sleeve march.  Their temperamental shift is likely a result of time as much as anything else; who's to say that if Soundgarden's timeline had remained unbroken, they wouldn't have done the same? 

To address your concern, though, I think grunge, as many underground movements that become popular do, suffers from some brush back by adherents who now find the genre to be overexposed in retrospect.  So, their reaction to trying to hold grunge close to the vest is to attempt to cut off the limbs that people can hold on to.  There's also a geographical element involved in grunge that exists in few other mainstream genres.  I, for one, however pretentious this may be, have never considered Stone Temple Pilots or Smashing Pumpkins part of the grunge movement, since they originated in San Diego and Chicago respectively, not the original Seattle scene (although make no mistake, while I never liked the Pumpkins, I do have an affinity for the first two STP records.)

Corollary to that, grunge can be hard to define because it was comprised mainly of facets from other genres, and was more an amalgam of those sounds than a truly new movement or innovation (which sadly may be what is presently dooming the genre to relative obscurity as newcomers seem to have bypassed the movement for inspiration.)  But grunge was borne of punk, rock, metal, blues, an ambitious use of amplified gain, flannel shirts and teenage ennui.  So, no single identifying marker exists.

For the record though, when I think about the core of 'grunge bands,' these are the club's ranking members (in no order): Soundgarden, Nirvana, Pearl Jam (then,) Alice in Chains, Mudhoney, Green River, Screaming Trees (who will forever be underrated,) Mother Love Bone, Tad, Temple of the Dog, and I know King Buzzo hates it, but the Melvins are inextricably tied to the genre whether or not they matched it musically.  That's pretty much the list.

And in answer to your actual question about genres and clothes - I can't think of one.  Was there a specific shoe tied to shoegaze?

Real quick before I go on, speak of the devil!  Ufomammut just announced pre-orders for their upcoming album.  Let the self-aggrandizement and fatuous preening of the reviewers lining up to fawn begin!  (Members of Ufomammut, if you happen to be reading this, it's not your fault.  We're cool.)

Much to my own surprise, I actually agree with you that 'metal' as a single label has very little meaning now, with the exception that perhaps Rob Zombie or Godsmack or Disturbed fit no other qualifiers and the term 'pop metal' just feels wrong.  That said, I would offer one note of caution about the fractured audience.  You're right, of course, the audience now, in perhaps all genres and not limited to metal, floating away from each other at an alarming rate, but it's been that way for a while now, and then all of a sudden there was Ghost.  So while it happens with less and less frequency, it can still happen.

I think the thing that surprises me most this year actually has to do with me.  Responsibilities in my life have caused me to have less time to monitor the goings-on of music, and even less time to actively review it, as attentive readers have no doubt noticed.  The part that surprises me in all that is that there have been a number of releases by prominent old school artists that I found I just had no interest in.  It felt like a waste of time to even launch the most cursory examination of their product, for I knew that I would either find nothing new, or be disappointed.  As such, I haven't heard the new Mastodon, or the new Kreator.  I didn't listen to Danzig's album.  I didn't even blink at Iced Earth.  And what feels weird is that I don't feel the slightest bit guilty about it.  I think the omission of Danzig from my curiosity is the most shocking, only because I harbor such love for the first three Danzig records, and of course, the Misfits.  But there it is.  There appear to be some bands I'm simply done with.  The rule isn't universal, as I'm very much interested in the upcoming Arch Enemy record and also rushed out to hear the new Dragonforce, but a lot of bands are starting to fall off the cliff for me as my free time just won't allow the indulgence.

As a side note, one other surprise - while I agree with the criticisms in your poignant and thoughtful review, I really did enjoy The Night Flight Orchestra.

So, as we begin to wrap up, what are you looking forward to in the year's back half?

CHRIS C: I will let you have the last word on grunge. I was still off in different musical worlds at the time, so I can't speak with anything but backwards looking knowledge of the scene. I get what you're saying about Pearl Jam. They are certainly more of what you would call 'classic rock' these days. I suppose that brings up a question; does a band's genre change over time as they evolve, or is it locked in place by their formative records?

Was Metallica always a thrash band? Is Opeth still progressive death metal? These are the sorts of things that drive metal nomenclaturists nuts.

Ghost did hit, but even their stunning success needs to be measured. Yes, they have achieved far more than anyone would have thought for a band of their kind, but they haven't come close to the heights that rock and metal bands used to. Aside from one late-night performance, they haven't come close to breaking into 'the mainstream'. Twenty years ago, the buzz they've generated would have led to filling stadiums, and at least one song crossing over to become a minor hit. Today, I'll guarantee you anyone who doesn't actively follow the metal scene would never have even heard their name. And now that there is a legal battle, and the masks have been pulled off, I'm afraid the gimmick might have run its course. I'm not sure the band is nearly as interesting knowing it's Tobias and the studio musicians.

You aren't crazy for how you're thinking. All of those big-names you mentioned weren't releases I was interested in listening to either. They are all bands that have hit the point of diminishing returns. They have either fallen from grace, or released so many albums at this point that another one can't possibly offer up anything new. It's a dilemma that artists face. There comes a certain point where the only way to please your fans is to quit. And let's face it, Iced Earth was kind of boring even at their best. Danzig I only listened to because of how shockingly bad the first single was. I could hardly believe what I was hearing, and needed to see how much the big magazines were paid off to claim it was a good album (answer; a lot).

The Night Flight Orchestra album was very good for what it was. The problem is that it was copying a style of music that never had much great songwriting. There has been so much nostalgia for the 80s lately (and why? I recall everyone younger than a boomer hating the Reagan years), and I'm a bit burned out on the sound.

My surprise of the year, if you're interested, is Harem Scarem. Here's a band that has been cranking out boring melodic rock since reforming, and they come out with an absolutely killer album this year. Bands that have been around twenty-five years aren't supposed to make their best music, but they went and did it. I've lost count of how many times I've listened to it.

As for the rest of the year, there isn't much on the horizon yet that I know of. I'm looking forward to the new Serious Black album, but considering it will be barely a year since the last one came out, I'm quite nervous about this being a rushed pile of leftovers (though Graveyard did the quick turnaround spectacularly, so what do I know?). The other big one is the long-awaited return of Nocturnal Rites. The first single just came out, and it's fantastic. Power/melodic metal might be getting a nice shot in the arm here. At least I hope so.

I'll give you the final word, and ask what you're looking forward to, and what you would like to see, if you were in charge of the world. Myself, my wish is the same one that I've had for several years now. I desperately want to see both Graveyard and Tonic finally get around to releasing DVDs. I don't know what the market for them is anymore, but I for one would love to have a document of a show, since I'm probably never going to get around to actually seeing them. Come on people, help a guy out!

D.M: Interestingly enough regarding Pearl Jam, I have often asked not only that same question, but how often a band suffers the opposite problem - where the band stays the same in sound and tone, but the expectations of their genre change underneath them.  Like, when Bruce Springsteen started, he was rock, but now, he hasn't changed a single iota and his genre has devolved where he's now 'crap.'  (Woohoo!  Checked the 'cheap shot at Springsteen' box!  Just under the wire!)

As for what I am looking forward to the remainder of the year, I just found out that the Offspring have a tour date near me, and while I may well be twenty years too late, I've still never seen them, so the chance to cross them off is exciting.  As for actual album releases, I am interested in both the forthcoming Arch Enemy release, and the upcoming Galaktikon album, the latter more because I'm curious to see if it sounds like Dethklok (which has been hinted,) or Galaktikon (which would be awesome, considering I don't think anyone foresaw a follow-up coming there.)  Because it still hasn't been released yet, I am contractually obligated to mention that I am still awaiting the final Blackguard album, "Storm."  And also, it's been four years since the last Turisas record, so I am now checking their various social media and web accounts about once a fort night to see if there is any progress there.  They keep announcing more concert dates, which is great, but no new music yet.  I await with baited breath.

Chris C: And with your ritual shot at Springsteen now completed, I think that's a wrap for this discussion. It's been an odd year, and we have roughly six more months of it to go. Will it get better, will it stay weird? We'll reconvene in December and figure that all out. Until then, back to the music!

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