Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Conversation: Wrapping Up 2017

Chris C: Time may be constant and linear, but the way we experience it is not. As we age, each day, week, month, and year becomes a smaller and smaller fragment of the time we have experienced, and much like a snowball rolling downhill that picks up speed as it grows bigger, I have to take a step back and say; "Is the year really over already?" That seems a funny thing to say, in one respect, because the world around us has been so chaotic that it feels like ages ago that things were calm and normal, but it's also come as a shock to me that we've already reached the end of this year. It hasn't felt like a year since we gathered for this task last year, or six months since we made note of where we were in the middle. Time flies, they say, and this year it certainly has seemed to.

As always, there are certain things about 2017 that have stood out, both for good and bad. We had the now requisite deaths (we'll get to Tom Petty, I'm sure), the failure for a new 'it' sound to emerge, and a string of artists trying to stop us from throwing the first shovel of dirt on their career. Plus, a cultural touchstone from the pop world that can unite us all in head-scratching "WTF"-ness.

I'll tackle the second of those first. One of the things that has disappointed me, as a musical anthropologist, is the lack of any development in the scene. We have been here long enough to have seen the thrash revival, the onset of djent, and the bro-ing of the mainstream. But for the last couple of years, there hasn't been anything new for us to sink our teeth into, whether we like it or not. I was never a djent fan, and I absolutely loathe Meshuggah (who birthed it), but it was interesting to see how something new could be absorbed and twisted by bands on all edges of the genre. That hasn't happened at all this year. We've made the point before that at this point, there isn't much left that can be done with traditional instruments, but nearly every record this year can be pegged pretty easily in an old category. That doesn't diminish the quality of many of them, but it does leave everything feeling a bit.... predictable.

That makes it hard to find a particular trend or theme running through the year, but if I have to make such a judgment, I think my theme of the year are the feeble and disappointing releases that came from so many established artists who should have known better. But before I get too far down that rabbit hole, or explain why Slayer and Taylor Swift have much in common these days (I'm serious), I'll let you give your initial impressions of 2017.

D.M:  I agree with you in many regards.  My initial feeling on 2017 is that I have very little in the way of an initial feeling.  To your point, there’s no single aspect that seems to jump out at me as being unique or revolutionary at this juncture.

In some ways, my main take away from the year seems to be that it involved a regression to the mean, or something like it.  I find I only have perhaps seven albums that I really feel strongly about (in a positive sense,) and that the mid-layer, which in the past has been turgid with ‘hey, that was pretty decent’ records is very much emaciated by comparison this year.  This feels, to me, a lot like 2013, which was a year similarly in flux, particularly in terms of my conviction towards the albums I really liked.

Whether that last is a result of the music being of lesser quality, or if it’s a function of my generally decreased attention for things I feel like I’ve heard before, is hard to determine, and probably too subjective evaluate properly.  But there it is.

What I find most interesting about this lack of innovation (which sounds harsh, but it’s what I’ll do with,) is that apart from there being no overarching trend to govern the auspices of the year, there was also no geographical location dictating that shift.  There’s always been, even on a minor scale, a Seattle or a Gothenburg, or even a Montreal, but no locations rose up this year to declare themselves the ‘it’ scene.

I will add this, though.  While I agree that a novel innovation is hard to envision given that the paradigm of guitar, drums and bass seems immobile, but I think the future will be written by those who can creatively mesh the already existing permutations together.  Destrage, although they didn’t release an album this year, is at the forefront of this, and several others are sending probes out into the void to see what resonates.  The One Hundred’s album this year wasn’t the best album out there, but it was an interesting experiment in the possible resurrection and ultimately assimilation of rap metal into this new landscape.

Naturally, we also need to leave room for the perpetual constant that someone who can do the established with great ability will stand out no matter what.  We’ll get into this more later as we talked about what we liked this year, but as an illustrative example – LeBron James didn’t invent or innovate the game of basketball, but it remains enjoyable to watch him play the established game very well.

CHRIS C: You bring up an interesting point that I'm not sure we've really covered much before, and that seldom gets talked about at all; ourselves. I'm as guilty of this as anyone, but when we talk about music, we tend to do so in objective terms, as though the music exists outside the vacuum of our lives. While it would be nice to think that everything we experience doesn't come down to sheer stupid luck, I can't sit here and tell you that my favorite records would still be my favorites if I had heard them at different times, or been in different mental states when I first encountered them. Our lives ebb and flow, and we aren't always going to be as open and receptive to certain things, or anything, as we could otherwise be. When life gets in the way, it can be hard to find the enthusiasm for sifting through all the new music that's out there. I know there have been times when I haven't been jumping with joy that I needed to sit down and absorb the next week's new releases. And when we think about the responsibilities of getting older, combined with the fatiguing nature of the news these days, music does seem to lose a bit of its luster. Even I will say that.

I've been waiting, and I suppose I'm still waiting, for the pendulum to swing, and for America to become a hotbed of activity again. The European scene has been leading the way for so long, it just feels like we're due for someone on this side of the pond to gets things kicked into gear. But when I look around at what's at the top of the rock charts over here, its a rather depressing lineup. We have stagnated in a place where the soupy post-grunge that birthed Nickelback is still the main template. Not only are we not seeing anything new come up, but we're hearing mostly the sound of ten years ago still. It's not pretty.

The one name that has been generating buzz for any hope of a mainstream crossover is Greta Van Fleet, the poorly named band being pushed by everyone from Billboard to Eddie Trunk. While it would be nice to get a rock band back in a position where it could influence popular music at large to shift back a bit in the direction of being more organic, I haven't been able to figure out why these guys are the ones being heralded. If you want to talk about derivative, here you go. Every single time I've heard their name brought up, Led Zeppelin is in the same sentence. It's for good reason. Rock is in trouble if the most hyped young band out there is basically a tribute band to one that has been defunct for over thirty years. Graveyard deserves that attention, since they actually did something fresh with a throwback approach, and sound entirely like themselves. At least we have news that they are headed into the studio soon.

Didn't LeBron innovate? I can't think of anyone before him who basically is all five positions at once. Sure, Magic was a tall point guard, but no one before realized the potential of being everything at the same time. He created the Mack truck version of basketball.

I'll hand this off with two questions for you. 1) What did you most like and dislike this year, and 2) Compared to Tom Petty's death, was the impact of Malcolm Young's passing neutered, in a sense, because the band themselves had already moved on without him?

D.M: Listen, you’ve known me a long time.  As I think about it, a really long time (could college have been that long ago?  Shit, how old am I?)  You know me as someone who, and I admit I am firmly in the minority on this, does not have the usual affiliations between music and the time of ear, or music and my emotional state.  I don’t even have the normal reactions of most people to the music that I like.  I think most people who really enjoy aggressive music do so because they find it energetic or cathartic or in line with their deep-seated anger or whatever the case may be.  By contrast, and maybe this is a product of however many decades of listening, I find that same music to be, if not relaxing, at least comfortable.  It keeps my heart rate stable, relaxes my brain if I’m stressed – in short, it’s almost like a trip home.  I’m weird, I know.

But I said all that nonsense because as odd as my musical variations and attitudes are, you touched on the one thing that I can’t avoid in my musical appreciation.  Life does get in the way.  For a variety of reasons that I won’t bore the readers at home with, 2017 shaped up to be the busiest year quite possibly of my entire life.  Attentive fans may have noted that my contributions to our editorial commentary were much fewer and farther between this year, and that was no accident; the time just wasn’t there.  And to that end, not only did it effect my outgoing product, but it definitely took a toll on my ability to process music and adversely impacted by ability to even ingest music in the same manner.

When we started our preliminary talks about the timing of this conversation, I was surprised to look back and find that I only had six or seven albums I truly felt strong about.  Now some of these I enjoy a great deal, which we’ll get into later, but there is a palpable, weighty feeling like I might not have been paying enough attention, or was too quick to dismiss something simply because I didn’t have the time evaluate it properly.  My patience (or lack thereof,) was mostly limited to bands who were providing me with something different (although I’ve been on that train for a while now,) or something familiar that was immediately and clearly superior to its contemporaries of the genre (perhaps surprisingly, I actually came away with more of the former than the latter.)

So in the end, I feel like I heard an awful lot of records that made me shrug and say ‘well, this is fine, but I’ve heard it before somewhere else, arguably better.’  In previous years, would I have tried to dig deeper and find greater value in that return?  Quite possibly.  Even so, to quickly address Greta Van Fleet, this is where they fall for me.  They’re a fine band, but I’ve heard it before.  It was called Led Zeppelin.  I own all those albums.
But in the process of admitting my failings, let me tie that into your point, and perhaps this becomes the overarching theme of our entire missive.  Particularly from America, but all over the musical spectrum, we’re hearing a lot of sameness.  There seemed to be fewer risk takers this year, which is disappointing.  And I’m with you – as much as it sounds like musical xenophobia, (and I promise it isn’t, as a guy who’s two favorite bands right now are from Finland and Italy,) it would be nice to see a handful of Americans (besides The Sword,) represent the country with some strength.  Even on a wider base than just rock, there was always an assumption that the United States would lead the league in pop music, but since Ed Sheeran seems to own the world these days, we’ve lost that title as well.  So all the US is leading in right now is rap, and outside of Killer Mike there’s not a lot in the mainstream to be excited about there, either.  Yikes.

Quick LeBron aside, since I love to talk basketball – you’re right, he’s a unique player in the history of the game.  Even as a Spurs fan, LeBron is borderline must-see TV.  I have watched a lot of NBA basketball in my life (and yes, I saw Jordan, relax out there,) and I have never seen a basketball player like LeBron.  You’re right on the Mack truck portion of his game, and that’s what makes him unique – because he can get to the rim anytime he wants, everything else in his game blossoms from that aspect.  The passing lanes are open because defenders have to collapse on him.  His jump shot is available to him because every defender has to respect his ability to get into the paint.  He’s unbelievable.  And I don’t know if that makes him better than Jordan, but it does make him equally compelling.

Okay, one more thing – Giannis Antetokounmpo has the potential to be the same kind of player.  But even his game is more built around his agility and length than sheer power.

I do want to get to your questions, but I think I’ve droned on long enough for now.  Take it back!

CHRIS C: We're all weird, just in our own ways. You find metal cathartic, and I'm someone who can't answer the question of who my favorite _____ is. If you ask me about guitarists, despite the fact that I am one, I honestly can't give you an answer. I don't look at music that way. There isn't anyone who has amazed me through sheer force of charisma to the point where I pay attention to everything they do. I'm someone fully immersed on the side of songwriting above all else. Someone like Yngwie Malmsteen is supremely talented when it comes to manipulating the frets, but he writes lame, boring music, so I don't care about him. I would rank many guitar players who struggle to do anything a second-year player couldn't higher than him, because a lot of those people are better able to use their instruments to make music I want to listen to. Look at a guy like Slash. He's got great style, and he's an amazing soloist, but there isn't a single record after "Appetite For Destruction" I ever care to listen to in full again. I'm an instrumentalist without instrumental heroes. Weird, right?

What you're saying about wondering if you had the time to properly invest in records leads me to a point I've debated with other people. I am of the belief that there is only so much music any one of us can listen to and absorb in a given frame of time. I come across people who listen to a thousand albums a year, who can put together a list at the end of the year of at least a hundred they liked. I cannot, for the life of me, fathom how that is possible. To say I truly like or love an album, I need to listen to it repeatedly. I know I love one when I listen to it five times in the first week I get it. If I liked a hundred albums in a year, I would not have the time to do anything but listen to those albums day in and day out. My life would be nothing but making sure I like albums.

That's why I've always felt that people who say such things are disposable fans, if you will. They listen to an album once, say it was good, and then write it down on a list as though they actually have given it any thought. It's no different than seeing someone attractive from across the room. Sure, we can see plenty of people who catch our eye, but how many of them do you actually want to spend (family appropriate) time with? As you mentioned, we've known each other a long time, so you know what I'm talking about. We met plenty of people back in the day who looked good at surface level, and then turned out to be questionable when you dug deeper. We do that with music. We have standards things have to live up to, and it's irresponsible to think that any great percentage of records can do that. As I put it somewhere else; if I were to love roughly half of the albums I listen to, I would therefore be loving music closer to the average. Average shouldn't be good enough for that label, and that's how I treat it. Good is good, but good doesn't mean you get raved about all the way through the year.

I think there's a slight flaw in talking about who rules the pop world; namely that there is no world to rule anymore. This has been the single most dismal year I have ever seen for pop music, but I only know that because I go out of my way to at least read the headlines of what's going on. Pop music doesn't permeate beyond the pop bubble anymore. I heard Taylor Swift's new songs more often as buffer music on Monday Night Football than I did on the radio. Losing the crown doesn't really mean so much when the kingdom is in ruins.

Don't get me started on mumble rap. As a writer, and a lover of words, I find it blatantly offensive. Something I've been saying for a long time is that any singer who is not intelligible cannot be considered to have delivered a good performance. If a song has lyrics, it's your job to deliver them and get the message across. If we can't understand you, you have failed in a major part of your job (Michael Kiske, I'm looking at you).

I get annoyed by the talking heads who say it's an objective fact that Jordan is the best player ever, and no one can ever possibly top him. There's no reason why legitimate arguments can't be made for other players. Myself, I think there's a strong case to be made for Bill Russell. Ultimately, the nature of athletics has changed so much that today's players are actually 'better' than Jordan, in terms of speed, shooting ability, etc. Jordan was amazing relative to his time, but it does seem worth asking if his time was simply one where wing play was so unathletic (Detlef Schrempf anyone?) he had no competition. Patrick Ewing created a flood every time he went to the line back when the game was played so slowly. How many players from that time could survive in the flowing game of today? (This is true of all sports. It's progress moving us closer to the limits of human potential.)

I'll quickly answer one of my own questions, before you get to them. What I liked most about this year was how pretty much nothing that will be appearing on my Top Ten list is anything I would have pegged to be there at the start of the year. Being surprised can be a good thing. What I didn't like about this year was how everything I was anticipating disappointed me to some degree. It was not a good year to look ahead.

D.M: Two points countering your first point (and I’m making a tepid defense at best here.)  First, I’ll stand up for “Use Your Illusion I.”  I don’t like the sequel nearly as much, but UYI1 is a pretty solid record, even if I like their cover of “Live and Let Die” for entirely the wrong reasons.  Second, there is one reason to care about Yngwie, and probably one reason only – he has released a series of the most ludicrous album covers ever seen.  Whether he’s fighting off a dragon with the righteousness of his guitar (“Trilogy,”) summoning ribbons of fire like a rhythmic gymnast (“Fire & Ice,”) seeing literal rainbows in the dark as his ghostly visage looks down upon weary pilgrims (“Inspiration,”) preparing to kiss a camel’s ass in a picture of himself clearly taken twenty years prior like a bad dating profile (“Perpetual Flame,”) or summon a great orgasm of cosmic lightning from his guitar (“Spellbound,”) he can’t resist!

I’m totally with you on the pace of music consumption I’m capable of.  I figure I probably sample four to five hundred records a year, just by virtue of going through the promotional materials we receive.  But the bulk majority of those are scant, one-minute cross sections to see if I want to explore further.  At the peak of my writing power, I could probably truly absorb around a hundred albums a year, maybe as many as 110, which divides out to roughly two a week.  I can’t imagine trying to take in and process more than that.  Which is why, to pop ourselves a little here, I think we do a pretty good job of having discerning taste in our review selection, and also explaining why those albums are even worthy of review (though I am a little remiss here – there will be albums in my top ten that I did not officially review.)  You said it best, average shouldn’t be good enough.

When you talk about people we knew who looked good at surface level, are you talking about that girl who was being forced by the school to take a drug test because of a cocaine violation?  That’s a story for another day….

Allow me also to mount a tepid defense of mumble rap.  As someone who likes a lot of bands with unintelligible vocals, there’s plenty of good music out there where the lyrical message is secondary (which you and I will fundamentally disagree about, which is fine.)  Sometimes, at least in the case of metal, the method of lyrical delivery is as much a part of the meaning as the words themselves.  At least, that’s the thought process.  However, I will cede that in rap, which is predominately a vocal medium, the words carry additional weight.

1) I love that you talk about the flood of Patrick Ewing’s sweat.  2) A brief aside on my grudge against Detlef Schrempf, and it’s really not his fault.  If you had the home version of NBA Jam, the Sonics were composed of Shawn Kemp and Detlef Schrempf.  My brother and I always teamed up.  He always wanted to be the Sonics.  He always wanted to be Shawn Kemp.  I spent a lot of time playing gritty defense and shooting the occasional corner three as Detlef Schrempf.  Which in NBA Jam, is precisely zero fun.

But there’s actually a common theme in the two things we’re talking about.  Real greatness, whether in music or sports, comes from a combination of two factors.  Yes, you have to be incredibly talented, that’s the first one.  You also have to have the wherewithal to recognize how talented you are, and hone that talent to a fine edge with focus and training and the ability to outwork those around you.  All the true, transcendent greats possess both – Jordan, LeBron, Bruce Lee, Jim Brown, Willie Mays, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady (ugh,) Victor Wooten, Les Claypool, Jimi Hendrix, the list goes on.  (A handful of notable exceptions – Bo Jackson and Randy Moss, who were so athletically gifted that they could crush people without trying all that hard, and Wayne Gretzky, who certainly outworked everyone, but was not physically dominant.)

Getting back to the questions you asked which I didn’t answer, there were a handful of things I liked this year.  I liked that bands I though I already knew and liked were able to present me with new versions of themselves.  Twists in their music, changes to their identity (for the better,) blending of new and different sounds.  Galaktikon and Midnight Ghost Train were two, but there were others.  I also liked the depth at the end of the year.  You and I both know that once the summer season ends, the business starts to slow down, and by the time Halloween is over, everybody’s about packed it up for the year.  This fall, all the way through to Thanksgiving, has had some nice releases, which is a pleasant change of pace.  And as much as we complained about the stagnation of American bands, as I whittle my list down to ten, at least four of them are American, with a handful more in the mix.

It’s harder for me to gauge what I didn’t enjoy, because in my limited time, anything I didn’t enjoy was dismissed out of hand.  Maybe that in and of itself is something I didn’t like, that there was still so much material that I either cringed at or shrugged noncommittally.  I remain disappointed that The Oxford Coma isn’t a better band, because I love their name.  I actually am struggling to finish my top ten, not because I have too many entries to whittle down, but because as we discussed, I may not have enough.  Oh, and I still don’t like how good the New England Patriots are (‘don’t like’ is a gross understatement.)

As for Malcolm versus Petty, it’s a little bit apples and oranges.  The Heartbreakers can’t move on without Tom Petty because the band’s full name is “Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.”  AC/DC could function without Malcolm because even at his apex, Malcolm was never the face of AC/DC.  It’s not even the same situation as when The Who kept touring after John Entwistle died.  Entwistle became more important to The Who after the death of Keith Moon by virtue of still being upright and ambulatory.  When they went on without him (and didn’t even cancel the tour they were on,) that was weird.  I love Malcolm Young as much as the next guy, but he’s not at the fore of AC/DC legend.  It was much more bizarre, and much more damaging to the reputation of the band, when they proceeded after forcibly removing Brian Johnson.  Sadly, that sort of writes it for them – as if they weren’t already, they’re now just another touring museum band who wants some cash.

The passing of Chris Cornell affected me much more deeply.  I know grunge hasn’t had the lasting impact that I foresaw, but he was a singular talent who’s reach far exceeded the grasp of his genre.  Vocalists from all over, in every walk, credit him as an influence.  His death also reinforced that sometimes when your friend says he’s alright, he’s not alright.  Be good to your friends, people.

CHRIS C: That pace you describe is pretty much in line with my own. As of this moment, I've listened to 145 albums and EPs this year. I don't keep track of how many I've heard a song from, or a few short samples. That level of engagement is negligible, and takes up no brain power. These 145 for the year are the ones I invested at least half an hour in, and frankly, I don't want to listen to many more than that. We have the good fortune to have access to many more albums than that during a given year, but even if they were all in my wheelhouse, I can't imagine myself listening to more than I am right now. Two a week is more than it sounds like, and any more leaves no time to revisit old favorites. Even the campy "Batman" show only aired twice a week, and that was like visual junk food. If records were new every single day, we'd be living in a jukebox soap opera, and who the heck wants to do that?

You know, I hate to say this, but I can't say for sure we're talking about the same person. I think so, but the details have become fuzzy (it's a good thing I wrote down 30,000 words of memories a long time ago). She did have one of the greatest/worst lines of my life; "Your birthday is my birthday too. We should fuck on it." Higher education at its finest.

You're absolutely right that greatness is a combination of talent and drive. I'll segue over to my sport here for a moment. Is Tiger Woods the most talented golfer to ever play? Heck no he's not. With the amount of times he's rebuilt himself from the ground up, we've watched him will his body to do great things. John Daly is a complete mess of a human being, but I'll be damned if he isn't one of the most naturally gifted players ever. He didn't have to work, or think, or even be sober, and he could hit the cover off a ball. That's one of the problems with music, actually. We have so many bands made up of people who've spent their lives practicing and working on their instruments, who didn't spend that much time training to be songwriters. While neither one of us particularly likes Bruce Springsteen (there's our annual shot at him), I have a lot more respect for him as someone who wrote and wrote and wrote until he could give people songs they wanted, than I do for people in technical bands that use their technical skills to cover up the fact they have nothing to say. Hard work is only meaningful if you're working towards the right goal.

I guess my inquiry about Malcolm Young is getting to the question of just how much we're supposed to be importance on the people who make the music. It struck me as he retired from the band as callous how little the others seemed to care about his 'legacy', and insisted on carrying on as though he didn't matter. They recruited his nephew (who would have looked a lot like him), and had him play Malcolm's rig. They were going out of their way to make it so that nothing changed, when in fact they should have taken the opportunity to get someone different in the mix so we aren't left thinking Malcolm was utterly replaceable. You had plenty of guitarist out there calling him the greatest rhythm player ever upon his death, and the band themselves treated him like KISS makeup; it didn't matter who was playing the part. That's what made it sad. I'm not saying AC/DC needed to end, but they certainly could have acted as though losing Malcolm was a big blow. Actually, between that and Axl Rose now fronting them, they have to be in the running for the saddest end to a once great band.

Speaking of endings, before we wrap this up, let me ask what you're excited about for next year. Myself, I'm working on tempering my expectations. I've been saying I'm excited for the same few things for the last couple of years, which never happen, only to leave me saying them again. I think I'm going to try to go into 2018 without undue anticipation. That said, I am excited for any new music my friends The Spider Accomplice put out, there's a pure pop band called Pale Waves whose debut record could be highly interesting to me, and there's another band who made my 2016 year-end list who have already given me the opportunity to hear their new album before the release strategy is even put in place. That's exciting right there.

And so, having said my piece (I think), I will leave it to you to wrap things up for us.

D.M: I really enjoy the term “jukebox soap opera.”  Though dude, don’t sleep on Victor Newman.  He’s nefarious!

Oh man, I actually don’t think we’re talking about the same person!  Because I know who you’re talking about, and it wasn’t her.  Damn, how many deviants did we know? (Don’t answer that, it would take too long.)

Yeah!  Suck it, Bruce Springsteen!  Glad I’ve managed to turn this into a joint tradition.

It’s an interesting point about songwriting, and something people don’t pay enough attention to.  To continue the parallel between this and our sports conversation, songwriting is like ‘hands’ in a wide receiver.  It’s an underrated quality, but in many ways, is the most important one.  Yeah, being able to play fast or play with intricacy or jump high or run fast are all attractive characteristics, but unless you can actually secure the ball in your hands, or use those skills to weave a musical storyline, all you are is a nice, highly produced tech demonstrations.  One wonders who you would get to teach proper songwriting since it seems to be so rare, but that’s beside the point.  We are, as a musical society, flush with people of style but no substance.  As a matter of fact, that seems to be going around in many societal aspects.  Take from that what you will.

As for what I’m looking forward to, that’s hard to answer for me in music.  I think I would have to knock off several prerequisites first, not limited to finding a better balance between work and career and scraping together larger segments of my meager free time into a cohesive whole.  That said, one of the releases that intrigued me most this year was from The One Hundred.  I was not and am not the greatest advocate for rap metal, but I also think that there’s a place for the genre both now and in the future, one that’s more prominent and properly fitted than either its apex or nadir.  Curious to see if that brings with it a Renaissance of sorts (probably overstating it,) for the style.  I am curious to see if thrash can rebound from a couple sad years and give us something of greater gravitas and import (see the section on songwriting above.)

As I do every year, I’m renewing my call for Blackguard to release their completed but never released album “Storm.”  It stood to be great, and damn it, I want to hear it.  I would like the Mets to add a couple of contact hitters, and the Spurs to win the NBA title.  I think that’s it.

Happy holidays to all.

No comments:

Post a Comment