Friday, June 28, 2019

The Conversation: Midway Through 2019

CHRIS C: The digital revolution has had many effects, one of the seldom noticed being the acceleration of time. Without having physical calendars we use to mark the days, flipping them with each month or tearing a page every day, it's easier for each solar cycle to blend into each other, creating a blur of time our eyes can never quite focus on. That's the fancy way of saying, "it's the middle of the year already?" We say that every year, it seems.

As I'm looking back at this year, so far, I'm struck by a couple of things; 1) There have been very few 'great' albums to this point, 2) There has been a ton of truly awful music, and 3) The trends of recent years have not yet abated. We are still seeing fake retirements, sequels to albums (as if that's a thing), and attention being funneled upward so that only the already biggest names generate any buzz.

But, for the first time in a decade, we can talk about a new Tool album without it being a running joke. I believe that sentence fully satisfies my eagerness to talk about that subject. Meme culture loses out on one of their old standards (they can go back to Necrophagist, but no one cares about them, right?), but I'm sure they'll recover.

Actually, perhaps the thing I wanted to talk about most has nothing to do with music at all, but rather fashion. Bruce Dickinson answered a question about his now long hair in a snarky way, but it did bring up the old questions about the metal 'look', how it ever started, and why the supposed fans who celebrate individualism are so triggered by a musician's hair deviating from the accepted length. What say you?

D.M: Hello!  Welcome to another summer, and here we go again! 

Working backwards through your points - The whole 'look' argument goes back probably several thousand years without any clear resolution or logical basis.  Really, the only thing that's advanced in the intervening time is that we're better at identifying that the entire "look" thing is generally ridiculous.  And believe me, we haven't improved that much - there are still more cultural circles than not where you and I would be thoroughly castigated (at best) for even suggesting the irrelevancy of look (which I will stop putting in quotes, since we've established it.)  Man, everyone wants to be part of something, while simultaneously wanting to not be part of a whole.  We all wear our brands rather literally on our sleeves - Nike, Brooks Brothers, Harley Davidson, any professional or college sports team of any stripe, Kangol, whatever.  At this point, down in the frightening hipster depths of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NOT wearing labels on your sleeve has become its own label.  So what the hell, the problem is older than us, and will likely outlive us.

That said, let me attempt some manner of rationalization here - the metal look actually predates metal, at least as far at the hair is concerned.  It's a direct extension (no pun intended,) of when the hippies grew their hair out in reaction to a society that rejected their ideals.  Metal picked that up and combined it with a lower-rent, motorcycle gang aesthetic, and made a look that was unique unto its time.  It's a crying shame that the image was usurped by and suffered such indignity at the hands of hair metal, but such seems to be the fate of all counter-culture aesthetics - to be co-opted by somebody who has figured out how to capitalize on it and turn it into a tradable commodity.

Nevertheless, that's not what you asked.  Where do I stand?  I couldn't give a rat's ass about somebody's hairstyle.  Some of this may be bitterness on my part - I am incapable of growing long hair, not because I am balding, but because I am genetically predisposed to hair that grows out rather than down.  Even absent that though, Scott Ian wrote in his autobiography that one of the reasons he cut his hair initially was because he was tired of being chased out of hardcore shows with the epithet "poser," which is a sentiment I'm down with.  I mean, nobody at work expects me to be a dyed-in-the-wool metal fan, mostly because of unfair stereotypes toward metal fans, but c'mon, why can't we all be anything regardless of how we look and dress?  And the exclusionary idea that we must look a certain way to belong in a group is laughable.  P.J. O'Rourke once famously said "There is only one basic human right, the right to do as you damn well please."  Seems easy enough as far as image and fandom is concerned.  We'll get back to this a minute, because I have a question I want to pose to you.

 (The part people conveniently forget and struggle with is the second part of the quote: "And with it comes the only basic human duty, the duty to take the consequences."  We see this second part in the NHL - the league and its players in some ways still think it's 1983, and as a consequence, the league remains a localized and niche sport.)

Let me zero in momentarily on the fake retirement thing for a minute.  I've come to make a weird peace with this.  It's not my place to tell someone when to hang it up, especially when it's far easier to just ignore or otherwise pretend that the new music isn't happening.  I mean, would anyone but the most fanatical devotee argue that Judas Priest hasn't been 'retired' since after "Painkiller" was released?  And I have as much love for JP as the next guy, hell, maybe more, but they've been retreading and repacking nostalgia (much like Bruce Springsteen! Zing!) since before their actual first retirement.  Like Kobe Bryant but worse, the Slayer retirement tour has dragged across multiple years.  That equine is flagellated, gentlemen.  Say goodnight, if you actually intend to say goodnight (I have my doubts.)  Because apparently I'm in a quotable mode today, I remember waaaay back before Deadpool comics were popular, the assassin Bullseye tells 'Pool that the number one cause of death among the elderly is retirement.  So I get it, man.  Do your thing.  (I'm also surreptitiously embarrassed to admit that I thought the Diamond Head album was alright.  It wasn't a world beater, but it didn't suck.)

That said, we discussed this briefly offline, but yikes, Frontiers Records is having a bad year, aren't they?  They usually manage to pump out a couple gems a year from the part of their catalog that isn't collecting Social Security, but man, it's been a rough road for them in the first six months.

And this tails into your first two points, which I am wholly on board with - music this year ain't been great, and I hate to say that because I'm eternally an optimist that I'll find something to love, but the struggle has been real.  I don't even want to talk about what my top three albums of the year are right now, because I like them, but I desperately hope they're not my top three in December.  And yeah, much in the same way that emo and nu-metal filled in the vacuum following the collapse of grunge, we seem to be seeing a lot of acts who want to try and evolve what was working so well a couple years back.  To the point that I'm seeing more and more promos labelled "post-metal."  Can someone, anyone, explain to me what the fuck that's supposed to be?  I am becoming increasingly concerned that I've crossed the threshold where I'm now an old man who doesn't get young people's music, but I am still holding onto the faith that my judgment is not compromised and that the music around me is getting worse.  My taste is admittedly hard to define, but I know it when I hear it, and I haven't been hearing it.

Circling back to the image thing, I was speaking with another friend recently about the culture of metal as a whole and how the scene offers the celebration of an unreality.  We were speaking in broad terms about how fans (and really, it applies to all subcultures,) laud the ideals expressed in their chosen music, but that those ideals offer little connection to their actual lives.  And so you have a group of people who separate their reality into what they want to be, and then what actually is, and in some cases, begin to ostracize the 'real' people they encounter.  I'm probably not communicating the sentiment we were discussing clearly, but I think you see what I'm getting at, and I would be very curious for your interpretation of the phenomenon.  This certainly plays into the 'image' conversation, but I think it runs deeper than superficial wardrobes.

CHRIS C: Obviously, we are the wrong people to be talking about long hair in metal, as neither one of us has ever had such a style. Your sociological analysis is correct, but what amazes me about how it developed is that metal, of all genres, established essentially a uniform that so many people became devoted to. It flies in the face of everything that metal has always said it's supposed to be. I shouldn't be surprised by that, since every group that has an ethos eventually contorts itself to justify what they want, rather than what they have professed. Look no further than certain political strains here in America right now.

It goes beyond metal, of course. We need to look no further than Hulk Hogan. There we have a guy who was clearly bald, but was so committed to the image of long hair being the sign of rocking power (remember he said he auditioned to be Metallica's bassist?) that he grew his donut ring down to his shoulders. Heck, he now wears bandanas with a wig sewn into them to make it look like he still has even that horror show. Look, I know why wrestlers often had long hair (yes, I was a smark), but the only metal musician who *must* have it for that reason is Dave Mustaine. At least his hair obscures that he's barely trying to sing, if the vocals are live at a show at all.

And no, this is not jealousy over the fact that my hair is not luxurious enough anymore to grow out. I never wanted it, and still wouldn't. You're right that we are certainly un-metal in appearance. I have no tattoos, no piercings, no wannabe Viking beard, and most of my clothes have collars (not the S&M kind). The entire concept of the metal image is a big reason why, along with my other ecclectic tastes, I have never once described myself as a 'metalhead'. A group about not fitting in makes me feel like... I don't fit in. *Paging Alanis Morrissette*

Like you, I have no issue with bands carrying on longer than they should, as long as they're honest about it. We both think Slayer should have hung it up after one farewell tour without Jeff, but they have yet to lie to us, so it doesn't bother me that they stuck around. When I start getting upset is when bands make grand pronouncements about the end, and then backtrack on it. If you don't want to retire, don't retire, but don't sell me a crock of shit. I spent a decent portion of my review of the new Candlemass album on this topic, since they promoted the previous one as the last album they would ever make. I treated it as such at the time, so I feel like a fool going back to that well. Scorpions are doing the same thing. Musicians don't owe their fans much. It's art, or it should be, so there are no guarantees that a band is going to make the kind of music we want them to, on the schedule we want them to. That's fine. All that bands owe us is to tell us the truth.

That actually dovetails into the most disgusting story of the year. Manowar guitarist Karl Logan is sitting in jail as I write this, charged with possessing child pornography. The band announced when the story first came to light that he wouldn't be performing with them, but there has never been word he is out of the band officially. Manowar is on tour, they just put out an EP (worst music of the year, by the way), and they can't tell us if a sex offender is still an official member of the band. Of all the things to not be honest with, siding with child victims is as hard to explain as any.

Yes, Frontiers has had a bad first half of the year. Now they're pulling bands out of mothballs that haven't recorded in thirty years, and who weren't popular then. Nostalgia is a drug, apparently. How else can you explain all the bands trying to copy the 80s sound. I remember (barely) when that sound phased out, and we were all happy to see it go. Why do people like it again now?

Post-metal, to me, has always meant post-songwriting. It's an excuse for making drawn-out noise that doesn't bother with things like being interesting, or having riffs and melodies you can remember. It's sort of shoegaze, but for people who hate shoegaze. I've actually wondered the same thing about myself, given the lackluster results so far, but I'm not ready to throw in the towel on new music yet. I am leaning towards the belief no new music will ever be able to make a deep impact, given how crammed my mental jukebox already is. We've reached the point where we've heard so much music, we aren't willing to put up with anything but the best anymore. When I'm looking through my CD pile to find something I want to listen to, there are hundreds of them I wouldn't bother with if they came out today, but back then they were exciting enough to keep around. I don't believe there's any limit on how much great music we can carry, but my back is breaking from mediocrity.

Metal has been 'aspirational' for a long time. The 80s, in particular, were filled with it. The people who were filling stadiums to see hair bands weren't actually partying every night and banging strippers, but they wanted music that gave them hope they could do that one day (maybe another reason I don't like much 80s metal?). People who thought the answers to their problems could be found in sex and drugs gravitated to bands that told them they were right. People who thought the answers were in rejecting the shackles, namely religion, gravitated to the anti-religious message of black and death metal. People who thought the answer was in projecting strength until the lie became real gravitated to things like viking metal, and the historical bands that tell tales of war. We use music not only as an escape, but as a mask to hide when we get stuck. Records become a security blanket, reinforcing whatever beliefs we already hold about the world. They serve as stand-ins for the people we want to be, but don't think we can become. It helps to hear someone telling us we're right, even when we know they're putting on an image as much as we are. It is mob mentality, but why should music be any different than politics?

D.M: I begin by saying that I understand I was the one who lobbed the first stone at Frontiers, but allow me a small hypocrisy in attempting to come to their defense just a little.  From a strictly business standpoint, the people who listened to Ratt back when they were a thing may (and I wouldn't lump everyone in here, but I'm willing to bet it's a sizable percentage,) be listening to Ratt now, or at least in absence of that, are looking for the sound of their youth.  That was what, thirty, thirty-five years ago that the the sound was in heyday?  Isn't it possible, if you're Frontiers, that you've recognized that in the modern music distribution model, that's the only age group that still regularly buys music, rather than stream it from some other source?  I mean, that must have some hand in the process, right?  That these are people you can still sell huge numbers of physical copies to?  Maybe I'm out of my depth.

Addressing your first point, someday, when I have free time and and am independently wealthy, I'll write my doctoral thesis about the things metal is, the things it should be, and the thing it should not be.  You are, of course, correct (we're agreeing and awful lot this year, we should be careful to simply not pat each other on the back.....uh.....the Orioles suck and the designated hitter is stupid!) metal, as the voice of the no ones, the nobodies, the last in line (to steal from Saul Williams, who is NOT metal,) should not have a codified stance on anything, but rather, should be accepting and blending of all underrepresented ideals. 

The reality is, this can't happen, because the genre is just that - a genre.  That's a limiting factor by the very definition of the term, since the sect can proclaim to represent all the misrepresented, but so long as it is bound by the subjective art underneath, it will automatically attract some devotees, and those devotees will, by their human nature, exclude others.  The fact that metal takes this several steps down the line, and has become the single most combative and exclusionary range of fan bases is a separate and more serious issue, but that's not what we're talking about.  To your initial point, there was a brief golden heyday in the late seventies into the early eighties when punk, hardcore, metal, hip-hop and even reggae all ate from the same mutually respective table, but that period was all too brief.

So what happened?  Well, it seems simple, and I'll draw this out to get to my point.  A bunch on visionaries came up with the initial metal sound and image.  The general consensus is that this begins with Black Sabbath, which I agree with, but by the time we've scripted the visuals and the scene has come together as an even semi-united front, we've worked into the late seventies.  There's a proliferation of leather jackets and spikes and torn jeans and mohawks and whatever else (headbands, maybe?) and now we have the prototype 'look.'  Fast forward, and once the visionaries blazed the path, the new- and late-comers enter the fold and adopt the same image, but without adding their own likeness.  Whoever was adopted into the scene after the initial push lacked the creativity to expand upon what already existed, and pretty soon, the initial pattern attains its own self-sustaining momentum that moves from prototype to stereotype. 

I bring all that up to tie together several of my points and hopefully boil down all of our conversations into one grand postulate that I've been chewing on a lot lately, especially when mired in the depths of what we both seem to perceive as a sub-par musical year:

President Harry Truman (here I go again with the quoting,) once opined that "the 'C' students run the world."

Are we simply seeing a manifestation of that treatise?  The whole world is seeded through with C students, why would music be different?  It stands to reason that there are C student record execs, C student A&R people, and that they would contract and endorse C student artists.  That chills my spine with its simple, horrible and crushing inevitability, but I can't escape the idea.  When we first started this musical journey of ours some ten years ago (or thereabouts,) I think we were mired in a fallow period for great, creative music.  Since probably, oh, 2012 or so, I would argue that we've had a pretty good run, and then we started to see the seams last year.  Perhaps we're just regressing to the mean?  I'm normally an optimist about these things, but I'm obsessed with this idea that we can ask all we want for transcendent, imaginative and genre-bending musicians to step up all we want, but maybe there just aren't many out there right now.  Maybe we're sodden with C students while we want for the top scholars to come around to another album cycle?

I have one potential saving-throw of a caveat here, but I'll keep it in my pocket until you've had a chance to address my overbearing pessimism.

CHRIS C: The business model makes sense, of course. Frontiers goes out and signs any 'name' they can get their hands on, knowing there's at least some number of people who will buy a record with that slapped on the front cover. You're right that the older generation are the only ones who regularly buy CDs, so throwing them a bone isn't a bad business move at all. I totally understand why they keep cycling through the same stuff, hoping that the appeal of those nostalgia acts will translate in some part to the new bands they also have on the roster. Again, from the perspective of the bottom line, it makes sense. The problem is on the artistic side of the ledger, because Frontiers has done what other labels have always been afraid to; turned music into a true conveyor belt. There's no way to argue whether or not these are genuine bands and projects coming together to put out more 'great' old-school music when the press releases for half of them outright say they were put together by the head of the label. They have a roster of people who are happy for the payday of spending their time writing as many songs as they can, then giving them to assorted projects to fill out the busy release schedule. That's how we end up with certain singers appearing on three records in a year, or one songwriter having credits on half a dozen records.

And who is to blame? It's the fans. The fans, like the RATT fans you mentioned, are too willing to put up with anything that comes down the pike. Let's take RATT, for an example. That band has broken up and gotten back together, sued each other, shed members who claimed they had to be part of a 'true' version of RATT, and only released one album in twenty years anyone thought was better than utter crap. And yet, RATT still has enough fans to tour and justify a record deal. I'm not going to use the obvious metaphor, for obvious reasons, but fans of those types of bands are too forgiving. When you have been mistreated, and the bands all but admit they're fighting for who gets a bigger cut of your money, there has to come a point where you cut them off. I fear an entire generation, or at least those who haven't given up on music yet, will never do that.

If we don't want to keep agreeing all the time, those examples didn't work. Of course the Orioles suck, and the DH is stupid. I may be a fan, but the only surprise of the last twenty years was those three years the Orioles didn't suck. I was fully ready to say they would never make the playoffs again in my lifetime, given the money in the division. Things have reverted back to the mean. The DH talk doesn't directly have anything to do with it, but I realized I haven't watched a baseball game all year. I remember I used to, and then somewhere along the lines I stopped. In fact, there's a lot of stuff I used to follow more closely that I no longer do, and it isn't because I've simply run out of time. I suppose I prioritized music over some other things.

What you're saying, essentially, is that fashiona and music follow the same trend that we've talked about. In both cases, the originators pulled together wide influences, and those who came after were influenced only by the originators. On more than one occasion, we've talked about how it has been limiting on the potential of genres, but I think this is the first time we've made the connection to the fans' behavior. I do wonder, though, how much of the people following the musicians was natural, and how much was directed by releases such as "Hell Bent For Leather", "No Life Til Leather", and the like. The people were not without their marching orders. I can say, no matter how uncool my (lack of) style might be, it's entirely my own.

I'm not as pessimistic about the C-students as you are, but what you're noticing isn't wrong. Let's be real; the world has always been filled with them. We need look no further than 1977 for this. Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman peddled "Bat Out Of Hell" to every record company under the sun, and they all laughed them out of the offices. The visionary would have seen the potential far earlier. And we can't forget that we look at the past differently. The olden days released a substantial amount of terrible, forgettable music as well, that just so happens to have been forgotten, while today's crap is still fresh in our minds. There's certainly more of it now, but there's more music overall, so I'm not sure the proportion has changed.

If I can take the cynical note for a second, I wouldn't be surprised if the changes in delivery have impacted the music itself. If I was in a band, I could easily see how putting my every effort into making a great record wouldn't be worth it when I'm only getting a few pennies from album royalties. As long as touring, and t-shirt sales, make up the base of income, the music is going to be secondary. Once a band has their two or three songs to pull in the crowd, they can almost go on cruise control from then on. I don't mean to keep shitting on RATT, but even their fans don't care if they ever write another good album. They show up to hear "Round & Round" again. We're at a point where making truly great music is mostly a point of pride, and I think what world politics have shown us the last few years is that a huge number of people have none.

That said, I can't say whether or not it's the reason why the quality has taken a general downturn this last year or so. I'm sure it's a factor, but I also think that we have our own cycles, and they might not be aligned with the industry at the moment. I went through a power metal phase (you remember me playing Edguy in college) that ended, I had that stretch where I was our designated prog guy, but that has cooled off considerably, and I just got through a period where I was much more into hard rock. I'm not sure where I'm headed right now, and that indecision about my own musical identity at the moment must also contribute. Perhaps everything (with a few exceptions) sounds dull to us because we don't know what we want to hear, at least not until we hear it.

Somehow, I think that sounded both bleak and optimistic. How did I become the optimist?

D.M: Let me say unequivocally, for the record, that I have no problem with this becoming a Ratt-bash.  (By the by, are they always spelled with capital letters like that?  Have I been wrong all these years?)  Because we needed a recognizable name to scapegoat, and as much as Whitesnake’s new album was the perfect target, the pre-adolescent in me who didn’t know any better in the middle 90s still has a soft spot for some old Whitesnake tunes (but probably not the ones you think – they cut some stuff with Steve Vai that was legit and doesn’t get talked about at all.)

Also, tossing out one thing quickly – I give you credit for sticking with the O’s as long as you did.  I’ve been a Mets fan forever, and that comes with its own self-flagellations, but with the Mets there’s always the hope that they can pull together the resources to make a run.  They may sign stupid contracts, but at least they sign them.  Baltimore’s ownership group, Albert Belle that one time aside (and now Chris Davis, I suppose,) hasn’t shown the wherewithal to pony up in what is among the toughest divisions in sports.

You make an extremely valid point, one worth repeating and remembering.  That every era has produced piles of crap music, which gets thoroughly forgotten.  It would probably serve me well to remember that I (we) am in a unique position to be exposed to everything that’s out there (or at least, a much greater sample size than the common consumer.)  and thus we are overloaded with material that most people never realize exists. 

I remember all that Edguy, though!  Here’s the thing, though – I remember all that Edguy fondly, even if it was never my particular taste (not that it wasn’t.)  It was quirky and different and popped in all the right places.  By contrast, I am now pretty much done with power metal as a genre, outside of Powerwolf, depending on your opinion of it they qualify as power metal.

As a genre, power metal is about out of ideas (which we’ve discussed before.)  That doesn’t mean it can’t be great again at some point in the future, but right now every band who professes to that title is mired in mediocrity.  Hell, how many times can we listen to Sabaton release the same damn album?  These are the C Students I’m talking about; artists who are content to re-create the same thing over and over again.  This ties into your point about us not necessarily knowing what we want to hear, except to me it proves the opposite.  You and I and many other, svelte, urbane, visionary geniuses may be searching for something and not finding it, but at least we know we’re searching for something.  I think there are whole genres of music right now where fans and musicians and labels alike are convinced that what they have is good enough, and the talent pool is shallow and stagnant.  It’s not malicious on anyone’s part – they’re doing the best job they can, there just isn’t much out there right now.

As perhaps an overly simplified analog to what I’m talking about, I point to the running back position.  For years, we heard about the death of the workhorse running back, that it was a relic of a bygone era that would never return to league.  Fast forward to 2019, and teams are running Todd Gurley and Le’Veon Bell and Leonard Fournette and Saquon Barkley and a host of others who are electric and enjoyable to watch.  Suddenly running back is in vogue again – could it be that all that changed is that a better caliber of player started playing the position.

To come full circle, as a partial side note, you and I, as you say, may not know what we’re searching for except when we stumble across it, but that very fact implies that we’re still growing and evolving as music fans.  We haven’t confined ourselves to a single identity.  WHICH ACTUALLY (by our self-important definition of the ethos,) MAKES US THE MOST METAL OF ALL!

Anyway, I said I had a Dungeons & Dragons saving throw, and I do.  Is it me, or are there a huge number of albums this year where bands want to sound like old Nine Inch Nails?  Now, that’s not a new sound in and of itself, and I’ve been banging on this drum for a long time, but to me, the next frontier of heavy music lies in the continued synthesis of metal and electronic.  The Browning and Fear of Domination and a hundred others are dancing in concentric circles around whatever the evolution will be, and I look forward to hearing something I haven’t heard before.

But what the hell do I know?  The next big thing will probably be Stream of Consciousness Ozark Jazz Metal.


CHRIS C: Since you brought up Whitesnake, can we talk for just a second about how dishonest a percentage (majority?) of music fans are? I listened to that album, and afterwards the main takeaway I had was that Coverdale sounds like a shell of himself. He's not the only one in that boat. Geoff Tate has a new project out this month as well, and I can obviously hear he's a guy who spent two decades smoking and not taking care of his voice. Yet when I hear reaction from fans, they still say those guys sound really good. No. No they don't. They don't sound as bad on record as they do during some live shows, or as bad as they have when they weren't trying hard enough, but they don't sound good either. Forget Tate, since I don't care about his career, but Coverdale used to be a great singer. Those Whitesnake hits from the 80s are still omnipresent because they were good, and because Coverdale had the voice. Now he doesn't, and fans keep pretending it's 1987.

I've got it double bad; though an early O's fan, I adopted the Mets as my NL team once cable started to carry every one of their games up here. I've gone through the phases of hope and realization many times with both of them. I think that's why football has managed to separate itself from every other sport. At least if you follow a terrible NFL team, the salary cap gives you a shot of getting better much faster. There aren't as many decade long stretches of truly horrific, fan-destroying craptitude.

Oh dear god is there a lot of crap we get sent. We've talked about this before, but things got much better once I decided to never listen to anything that says 'death' or 'black' in the description, unless I already know something about them. Beyond that, there are too many albums each year to list that are either too generic to even be generic, or so amateurish it makes me wonder how bad the musicians need to be. I am not a great musician by any means, nor do I have any actual recording equipment, but even I was able to lay down some rock tracks that didn't sound like they were recorded in a wind tunnel. It's not that hard these days to make a record that sounds decent.

Power metal is weird, because there's two completely different styles of it, and neither one is exciting right now. You're thinking about the traditional stuff, and yes, it is beyond stale. Everyone has been copying the same three Helloween songs for thirty years, and it's led to an entire genre that seems to take pride in being retrograde. Edguy are about the only band who started in that realm I still enjoy, and that's because by the time I was bugging you with them, they had moved on and put a lot more rock and classic metal influences in the mix. But there's another variety of power metal you might not be as familiar with. We can call it either modern, or heavy, power metal. In my mind it started with Bloodbound's one-off album, "Tabula Rasa", which was essentially mid-era Soilwork with all clean vocals. There's now a ton of bands aping that instrumental approach, but because they have heavier influences, they miss the melodic part they need.

Powerwolf is absolutely power metal, in that second style. They are also one of the best out there, given the competition. Myself, I've never heard the appeal of Sabaton. They have always struck me as a band that is metal in image only. They wear camo gear, and they sing about war, but their music is almost pop when you break it down. Also, are you as sick as I am of bands singing about military history? There was one album a little while ago that caught me at the wrong time, and it really pissed me off that they were basically singing about the glory of going to another country and killing a bunch of people just because they had political or religious differences. Saying your country was better at creating death doesn't seem like a point of pride to me.

Talking about running backs points me in a different direction; how did athletes become so fragile? Cy Young had 800 decisions in his career, pitched every four days, and looked a bit like a lump. Today's chiseled specimens pitch every six days, throw fewer pitches than ever, and can't make it through a season without getting hurt at least once. RBs can no longer run the ball twenty times a game without breaking down, even though everyone used to do it, and careers for them aren't any longer now than before. NBA players play fewer minutes, get to skip games, and play a season with more off days than ever, yet they still complain they're too tired. Heck, Porzingis said he was tired halfway through his second season, and he was only 20 or 21! Can you imagine if a guitar player today said he/she couldn't play more than one gig a week because their hands are tired? Look, I'm not saying the old days might not have pushed people too far, but today's 'better' athletes make it sound like what we all grew up seeing wasn't even possible.

I wasn't going to say it, but since you did, yes, I am more metal than the 'true, kvlt' metal fans, because I don't care about being metal. It's a riff on Socrates' "the man who knows nothing" paradox. It also is a side-effect of coming up before hyper-genrefication. We were exposed to a little bit of everything, because anything could have been popular back then. We got pop, rock, a little metal, hip-hop, and everything in between. When "TRL" was a thing, it was amazing to see how Korn and The Backstreet Boys could show up on the same countdown day after day. But now, everything is much more siloed, and more fans are trained early to like only one thing. That makes them happy hearing the C-students rehashing yesterday's leftovers, while we have other interests that make second-rate music unappealing. If we were becoming teenagers now, I don't know if I would be able to become a music fan.

Hmm... I'm not sure if there are more bands now trying to bring electronic sounds into the mix, or if they're finally getting better at it. There are certainly bands doing the pure industrial thing (Rammstein is back), bands doing the mix of guitars with electronic pop, and I've heard more than one bringing bits of dubstep into the mix as well. That could very well be the next big trend, especially since it plays into the DIY ethos of not needing a studio and a budget to make records. Simple economics might push us in that direction. That's interesting, now that I think about it.

So, do you have any hopes for the rest of 2019?

D.M: I mean, I think I get it.  People don't want to be honest about Coverdale and Whitesnake (or Danzig, if we're being honest,) because to admit the aging and faltering of their hero is to admit the aging and faltering of themselves.  It's a tough place to find yourself in.

It's funny you mentioned your personal restriction on black and death records.  Some time ago, I had to make my own limitation on what I was willing to listen to, and I ended up drawing a line at bands with bodily functions or derogatory names for anatomy in their title.  So, no more Vomit Fist or Piss Vortex or Maggot Twat for me.  I don't feel as though I've missed out on all that much.

Isn't the history of metal and war themes interesting?  At the advent of the genre, you had bands singing about war as a warning to the young generations - there was a pervasive theme of "please don't reduce us to atoms with an abundance of nuclear weapons."  In this way, as much as genre die hards may never admit it, metal was essentially a heavier alternative to the hippie-powered folk rock that was its contemporary (you know, when the genre wasn't singing about Tolkien novels - looking at you, Cirith Ungol.)  As we moved into metal's golden era in the early '80s, we see a definitive split in the relationship between war and metal.  The thrash pioneers were maintaining their anti-Cold War messaging, while Iron Maiden was concurrently starting to lionize the RAF and other brave souls who had defended Britain against Nazi aggression.  That same thematic dichotomy still exists, though now its division is much more clearly defined by the tenets of sub-genre.  Power metal, as you noted, has gone from celebrating defending heroes to celebrating, in some ways, the glory of the act itself, which is rather unique in the history of human storytelling.  Even the Germanic Epics, while focused on a conquering hero, were still focused on one man, and not on his actions.

As for the fragility of modern athletes, I defer to the expertise of Dr. James Andrews (the three scariest words in sports.)  He suggested, that as far as baseball is concerned, the two worth things to ever happen to the sport are the radar gun and winter league baseball.  The former because it made velocity a prized asset, and eliminated the possibility that a guy could pitch his breaking stuff in the middle innings to relieve pressure on his arm, and the latter because it meant the shoulder and elbow joins of young pitchers never got to rest.  The repeated wear and tear, when combined with the strategy of asking players to go at full velocity all the time, results in athletes with a shorter shelf life.

For the rest of 2019, I'm hopeful in that I know there are six months still to go.  Which is a lot of time left for good things to happen.  Even just in the last few weeks, there have been a couple unexpected gems (I surprisingly really like the Royal Republic album, and the Combichrist cover of "California Uber Alles" is badass,) so the calendar is still in my favor. 

Also, in perhaps the biggest news of the year (or several years, based on my commentary in these semi-annual conversations of ours,) Blackguard has released the first single from their long-shelved album "Storm," with promises to release the full album soon.  My wish may finally come true!

And you?

CHRIS C: We may not want to admit the shortcomings of our heroes, but at some point we need to be honest with ourselves, and not live inside a delusion. Look, if fans still want to enjoy Coverdale, Tate, and Danzig (yes, he sounded truly awful on his last album - the upcoming Danzig sings Elvis album is going to be a disaster), that's great. Go ahead and eat it up, just don't try to sell me that they're still at their peak. Flawed musicians have made plenty of great music, and sometimes the flaws can even enhance the experience. Then again, I don't have deep ties with bands/guitarists/singers, etc. I connect with songs and albums, so I'm looking at it differently.

What I didn't mention the first time is what I call my 'intelligence test'. If a band's name, the album title, or the artwork give me the impression it insults my intelligence, it also gets thrown on the discard pile. All of those bodily function/secretion bands are on the list, for sure. I don't know why 'pornogrind' exists as a genre, but I'm never going to know what it sounds like. Sorry any band that intends to make an album called "Crucifixes For Tampons", you're not welcome here.

Here's what bothers me about the war themes; given what metal so often is, I don't know how much stock to put in them? I mentioned in the first paragraph that I don't have deep ties to bands, and this is a reason why. When we're talking about metal, I get no sense of who the people are. Let's take Sabaton, for an example. I've heard a few of their records, and I don't have a damn clue who they are. Their songs are abstract stories about history, so if I don't have a connection to the battle/person they're singing about, what else is there? I don't even know if they honestly are fascinated by the stuff, or if it's all a gimmick so they don't have to write anything personal. That even gets to Iron Maiden, to a lesser degree. All those songs about history are great, but they aren't songs you're going to hold dear, because they got you through a moment in time. War is inhuman, and in a way, I find singing about it strips the human connection out of the music.

Yeah, the radar gun is a demon. Greg Maddux is the greatest pitcher of the last forty years, and if he was coming up today, he'd never make it out of the minors. Most sports have had the nuance taken out of them. It might make for some more impressive feats, but it also makes for a less enjoyable product, as a spectator. Since The US Open is on as I'm writing this, and I'm going to absorb as much golf coverage as I can, even I will admit the 'bomb and gouge' style of play now, where everyone is hitting everything as far as possible, substituting strength for technology, isn't as fun as it used to be for me. Like the people who set world records by putting as many live squirrels down their pants as possible, something impressive isn't the same as something interesting.

Honestly, I can't say I have much on the horizon I'm looking at. The Frontiers factory is going to have the new one from The Dark Element, featuring the best Nightwish singer, and there's a young pop/hardcore band whose debut could be really good, but either I forget the news as soon as I hear it, or the schedule is a bit bare right now. I'm not won over by the two Volbeat singles, Tool is likely going to bore me, and I never cared about Slipknot at all, so the big names everyone is talking about won't be what I am. There is a new solo album from the leader of my favorite band due sometime before the end of the year. However, he's firmly in middle-age now, and it's supposed to be a reflective story about the cycle of life and aging, so I don't have my hopes up there. And with that cycle only beginning, I've given up on hoping he'll ever put out another record with the band (heck, he now plays occasional shows under the name without the other two).

My wish is for no more bad music to come out. I've already got more than enough competition for the worst of the year. I don't want to have to expand the list, or listen to much more terrible music.

D.M: You know, maybe it's reflexive - maybe the fact that you don't know much about Sabaton after all these albums tells you what you need to know.  The absence of something could in and of itself be something.

Not much in the way of closing thoughts from me.  The one thing I keep coming back to is that for me, 2019 stands on the edge of a musical precipice.  This year could either be the last strong year for a while (which is starting to trend toward,) or could mark the beginning of a new weak, un-creative era in music.  I certainly pine for the former, as that allows for the possibility that 2020, the ultimate hindsight year (sorry, awful joke there,) could carry the torch and be faced with the same dilemma in twelve months' time.  Either way, much as in the immediate aftermath of grunge, it feels like a musical market correction may be in the offing.

But I don't want to be too pessimistic.  As my Dad once told me, the disco era seemed like a never-ending hell while you were living through it, but in retrospect, a lot of memorable records were released during that same time.  So brace for impact, but don't forget to treasure the jewels.

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