M. DREW: I'm still not entirely sure what to make of 2013 as it winds down, except to say that I think it was an excellent year for metal overall. Yet, the complication arises in that I can't pinpoint one single facet that was better or worse than the others. As I look back at the albums we covered (and the ones we didn't,) I feel like the metal offering this year was a mile wide and an inch deep. Even as I contemplate my own top ten (-ish) albums of the year, I find that they were produced by at least four or five different splinter genres.
I can't draw a certifiable conclusion from all this, as I can see this metal spread offense, if you'll allow the term, going in two directions. Either the genre will splinter even further, making it impossible to pinpoint artists who are in the same family (cynics would suggest this has already happened,) or this could be the early vanguard of metal's great comeback into the principle fore. Perhaps the genre is showing its versatility and re-dedication to songwriting in this new millennium.
But back to the first point, that being the overall fine year that metal experienced. As 2013 wended along, I felt like it was going to be banner year, making it nigh impossible for me to choose only ten albums worthy of recommendation at year's end. Yet, I ended up with the same rough number of contestants (around forty or so,) and finalists (about fifteen,) that I always do, which makes me reconsider my earlier position. If the ceiling wasn't raised, perhaps the floor still was, which is a different kind of progress, but progress nonetheless. To put it in simpler terms, I feel like there was less stuff that I really truly hated.
There's a million different points I want to get to, but I'll let that stand as my opening salvo and pass the question to you: what did you see this year?
CHRIS: More than anything else, this year was, for me, a complete dichotomy. In one respect, it was as good as year as there has been since I started keeping track. My own list of favorites is deeper than usual, and features several albums I would consider not just my favorites of the year, but potential favorites of all time once the dust is settled. From top to bottom, I agree with you that the biggest takeaway from this year has been the depth shown across the board. In genres I both love and am luke-warm towards, there were more solid albums, and fewer I hated, than I can remember in any other year.
Putting together my list was more difficult than ever, as for the first time I actually felt guilty about leaving a few off, which is unheard of for me. I've been accused many times of hating just about everything, but this year was a virtual love-fest radiating from me. Even death metal, a genre I enjoy far more on an intellectual basis than I do by actually listening to it, produced more than one album I was able to appreciate. That by itself is quite a statement of what kind of year it was.
But I said this year has been a dichotomy, and here's why: as great a year as 2013 has been for me, it hasn't been a great year for metal. In looking over not just my top ten albums, but everything I heard this year and enjoyed, far less of it is metal than I would have anticipated. For as much as the guitar player in me loves cranked amps and big riffs, metal didn't offer up nearly as much for me as a few other genres did.
I considered it a stunning surprise when I declared last year the 'year of prog', and have to say I'm even more surprised to find that trend has continued right on through. The largest number of albums I've loved this year have been progressive in one form or another. I'm not exactly one for displays of technical prowess or long instrumental passages, so this turn of events required some investigating.
After thinking long and hard about the subject, I came to an odd conclusion; the mainstream of metal is no longer a place for mainstream tastes. By that I mean to say that the way metal has evolved, there is no longer room for bands to embrace the love of melody and *gasp* pop sensibilities that once made it a crossover genre (not coincidentally, the only time metal had big record sales). Progressive music is now the only avenue left where people like me, who grew up with strongly melodic music but also love heavy guitars, are able to find an outlet.
I wish I didn't have to say that, but it's the biggest takeaway I have from being a metal fan these days. So much of the very identity of what it means to be metal has been tied up in being heavier than whatever bands came before you that we've all but lost the connection to the mainstream that allowed us to at one point bridge the gap. There are no more casual metal fans, because to be a metal fan means to give up on everything that exists in the mainstream.
Progressive music, perhaps because it's made by people who are more interested in pleasing their own artistic itch, is the last bastion of strong melody and big vocal hooks. For people like me, it's a lifeline in a sea of faceless, 'rhythm is the only thing' bands that have never written a true song in their lives.
I haven't abandoned metal, it has seemingly abandoned me.
M. DREW: Your coda reminds me of Emily Dickinson: "Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me." Which in and of itself should be a metal album title, but that serves as a fine bridge. I suppose the reactionary question a metal fan has to ask upon self-examination is whether or not the conventions of metal are static, or is it merely the individual fan's perception that remains so? Although, I am generally inclined to agree with your assertion that what was once mainstream in metal has been pushed to the fringe as old news or, even more foolishly, as too commercially acceptable.
Your claim that metal hasn't had a great 2013 versus my opinion that it did dovetails nicely into what I think will be a principle theme of this discussion; what is the current definition of metal? You and I have already had several conversations about a band like Graveyard and where they really fit, and from a revisionist history standpoint that wants to call Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple metal, Graveyard is absolutely in. Yet common sense tells us that in the face of releases from other contemporary metal artists such as Death Angel or Soilwork, that Graveyard and their ilk can't possibly exist in the metalsphere (which is a term I just made up.)
So where does that borderline get mapped? The first band that immediately springs to mind for me is Volbeat. Is Volbeat a metal band by contemporary definition? Has metal finally splintered enough that it shuns all blanket definitions and the term 'metal' itself is rendered useless? (As a side note, many would suggest that to defy label and stand by oneself is paradoxically the most 'metal' attitude of all.) Whether or not metal had a great year in 2013 is largely predicated on where that line is drawn. But allow me to extrapolate further.
Those who know me have known that since my high school days about a dozen years ago (Lord, I turned thirty this year, where does the time go?) I have been trumpeting to anyone who will listen that I believed that 2011 through roughly 2015 would be a great era in rock and metal music, as the cycle of rock's generation turned fresh again. For those catching up, my prevailing theory was that the grunge artists of the '90s all took influence from the classic rock of the '70s, who in turn looked to the blues rock of the '50s, who lastly were all listening to Robert Johnson. I thought for certain that the hallmarks of grunge would make a heady comeback and ultimately an evolution in the first part of this decade, but I find I was both right and wrong. Right in that the musical cycle has turned again and the blues have found greater foothold in rock and metal, but wrong because this new wave has not been an expansion of grunge, but rather a direct and precise homage to the classic rock that so helped shape metal in the mid-to-late '70s. Blues-based doom (Noctum) and blues-based space-y rock (Mothership, Scorpion Child, et al) have become a resurgent wave crashing onto the metal shore. Does this wave then, supported and marketed by all the major metal record labels, become the new definition of metal? Do we have to shift our metric to match? This has happened before - it's much tougher now to sell a band like Cirith Ungol or even Judas Priest as metal than it was in 1981.
Secondarily, to your point about prog being the bastion of melody and tune, is it possible that prog is also simply reaping the benefits of '70s sensibilities returned? Are prog artists now listening to more YES and King Crimson than they are Queensryche?
There's any number of extruded tangents we can go on from there, including a thorough examination of why grunge was passed over in the evolutionary chain and what that means for its lasting cultural impact, but that's not germane to what we're actually talking about, which is the living, breathing lifeline of metal and the shape it's taken in this new millennium.
The dichotomy I experienced in 2013 as it relates to this revival deals with the divergent face of metal as we see it progress. On the one hand, we have a clear picture of this new cadre of blues-based rock and metal revivalists, who seem based on empirical evidence and common sense to possess a certain measure of staying power. Yet, equally as regarded in the metal scene (although not in self-styled 'true' metal circles,) is this burgeoning mass of made-up glam metal like Escape the Fate or Black Veil Brides or Falling in Reverse, who don't seem to be going away. Steve Souza suggested to me that those bands have no shelf life - that they'll be a blip on the timeline in fifteen years' time and all my experience and instinct agreed with him instantly. But, when I asked myself if I agreed with him because I could objectively prove his point or much more simply, because I wanted him to be right, the answer becomes more muddied. The worst part of all this is that it's still too soon to see who survives in the long run and if both sides can find a way to coexist. Could it be that we're faced with the possible emergence of a separate genre of metal which I'll loosely coin as 'alternative glam metal?' I feel like the suffix –core belongs in there somewhere too, because why not. In any case, I'm not sure the conventional metal public is ready for that.
I have a bunch more thoughts about genre classification and the growth of metal to get to, but that's a lot to swallow as it is and I want to hear your perspective on all of it first.
CHRIS: You hit upon a very important question, and one whose answer is going to be different for everyone; what is metal?
Watching the evolution of heavy music, we have essentially hit upon a time where the very idea of what it is we're listening to has become an existential expression. Both the changing of the guard, and the reinvention of the past, has led us to a place where metal is as much a catch-all as pop music has become. Basically, anything that features a guitar can find someone to classify it as metal, and there lacks a voice with sufficient power to make a final declaration (I hereby nominate myself for one of the seats on my hypothetical new Supreme Metal Court.), which is how we ended up in this quagmire.
Taking the discussion all the way back to Zeppelin does underscore what a mess we, as fans, have made of our own nomenclature. Metal was barely a notion in the minds of outcasts at the time, which makes our retrograde assignments rather dubious. The heaviest bands of an era do not necessarily have to be the metal bands of the day. Chuck Berry was playing music comparably heavy for the time, but I don't think anyone would dare call him a metal artist, so I'm not sure there's enough of an argument to be made that even Zeppelin or Deep Purple fit the bill.
We both think Graveyard may just be the most important band of the last decade, but the thought of them being a metal band has never crossed my mind. If they were to fall into that category, I'm not sure how we would exclude any band that didn't feature a Disney star among their ranks.
Having declared myself an arbiter of all things metal, I will lay down the law on your Volbeat question. They absolutely are a metal band when they want to be. Their first two albums in particular are virtually undeniable as such, and I'm not about to revoke their credentials because of a deliberate emphasis of other elements of their sound.
But your larger point is still valid. Metal means so many different things these days that it almost seems necessary to divide the whole into more manageable pieces. When you have entire sites devoted to 'no clean singing' as a way of life, metal cannot exist in the way that you and I grew up with. It's my opinion that we would all be better off creating a new term for the bands that follow the old-school mold, leaving metal and all its connotations for whatever is the extreme flavor of the month. Classic rock started out as a group of bands from the same time period, but it's become a genre all to itself. Maybe the answer is to call bands like Volbeat 'classic metal', and formalize the divorce.
As to your theory, I do believe I understand why the resurrection of the 90's has never happened. Both through the proliferation of the original bands of the sound, and the erosion of nostalgia among the youth, we've realized that the vast majority of bands that fit the grunge and post-grunge mold were terrible. There isn't a clamor for bands that sound like them, because no one misses their sound. To a degree, if you listen to mainstream rock radio, it never went away. It's hard to be nostalgic for what has always been with you. But even if such a cycle was to start, would we know it? Any new bands would be drawing their influence from the best of our generation, and those bands were the ones that were most heavily indebted to classic rock anyway, which would blur the lines of inspiration. The iTunes generation has an advantage we could have never seen coming; they can be nostalgic for the same music their elders are. Video killed the radio star, and iTunes has killed the legacy of grunge.
I wouldn't say that prog has reverted back to the old sound. While bands in the djent mold have staked claim to being progressive, the true progressive sound never went away. Even in the dark ages of the 90s, prog had prominent bands like Spock's Beard and The Flower Kings keeping the traditional sound at the forefront of our attention. I think the relatively obscure nature of prog insulated it enough from trends that it has endured better than metal has. While both have added new elements from the fringes into what can qualify, the heart of prog hasn't changed nearly as much as metal has. From my experience, the attitude of the fans is a huge part of the discussion as well. Prog fans can be self-satisfied and deluded in their dedication to 'intelligent' music, but they demand a level of quality to the music they listen to that doesn't allow for the sugar rush that comes from trend-hopping. Metal fans, on the other hand, far too often carry that ugly strain of machismo that has turned the music into a competition of heaviness. The fact that a prominent site ran an article honestly arguing that metal bands don't need vocalists, tells me everything I need to know.
M. DREW: Okay, now you've done it. Now you've distracted me with the concept of a Heavy Metal Supreme Court and who would be on it. Believe me when I was say I spent an hour on this. At work. Anyway, giving careful consideration to variety of genre, popularity, era and nationality to ensure that the Metal Supreme Court is a balanced representation of the genre in the past and present, these are my nine justices: Me, you (natch, we're the foremost authority, clearly,) Ozzy Osbourne, Brian Slagel, Scott Ian, Oderus Urungus (Dave Brockie), Rick Rubin, Dr. Know and King Diamond. That covers the gamut, from the seventies until now and should incorporate thrash, doom, hardcore, rap metal, thrash, death, black and the underground. Plus, a couple guys on the business side of things. I was going to put Yngwie on there (pardon me, Yngwie J Malmsteen, as I assume he demands to be called,) but he's sort of a douche. As for other obvious omissions, Dio has passed away and Lemmy has always self-identified with rock and roll more than metal. So there, that's my Metal Supreme Court. With that out of the way, let's get back to it.
Anyway, I want to address your points in reverse order. What you talked about at the end with the article concerning why metal bands don't need vocalists is the very reason why I distrust so many metal-centric websites. We've talked before about the too-insular nature of the metal community, an attitude borne out of popular rejection and fierce possessiveness. It's a caustic combination and before too long, the tail wags the dog and you start to believe your own dogma, eventually coming to the far-fetched but conceivable end where simply because music doesn't sound like music, it must be metal. I've studied just enough modern classical music to understand that the absence of music, no matter how much you try to fool people into thinking it's avant garde, is still just the absence of music (I'm looking at you, John Cage, with your "4'33"" 'symphony.') At that point, the art (in this case metal,) becomes much more about the sell job and what you can convince people it is, rather than what your art may or may not contain. With metal, it becomes shooting fish in a barrel, since by preaching 'no one wants to listen to this' to the converted, that congregation is damn near guaranteed to see what you're talking about. Not to sound too cynical, but PT Barnum might well be proud. I'd like to think (and here comes my annual chance to sing our own praises,) that as people who like metal but come from diverse musical backgrounds, you and I have a more acute ability to determine the viability of whatever albums we come across.
Of course, before we get too far down the rabbit hole, there are plenty of metal journalists I respect a great deal and even if I disagree with their opinion, I believe that they're still coming from a place of intelligence. The Obelisk website is one and despite a leadership change a couple years back, Invisible Oranges remains another. Even a giant like Metal Underground, while I find them occasionally too dismissive, makes sure to take the time and actually respect the product good or bad. In all honesty, I think the reviewing culture got more intelligent this year, as I found reviews that were more illuminating than simply stating 'this is great' or 'this sucks.' Maybe I'm just optimistic, who knows, but in either case it's one of the factors that led to my conclusion that 2013 was a pretty good musical year overall. The fact that the music was pretty good and the population seemed to want to hear it suggests that perhaps the appetite for quality music always existed and the supply had simply run low until now.
I had never considered the possibility you raise about the access to digital music and the generational gaps it can close. So often we think of digital technology as a young person's domain, but in this particular case it truly bridges the span between the vinyl LP and the mp3. It actually plays into something I wrote about briefly in my requiem for Judas Priest however long ago - that we as fans have a hard time thinking of Rob Halford as retirement age because of the unintentional deception that on "British Steel" he's twenty-nine years old and always will be. Let's take it one farther - if Halford or Dickinson or Hetfield or particularly Ozzy were singing about issues that related well to the young audience then, is there any reason to believe that those same issues wouldn't resonate now? It seems doubtful that the human condition would have changed so radically that those emotions weren't applicable to today's youth. The counter argument here is that grunge (or Nirvana, anyway) was predicated around the ennui and restlessness of youth, but by your argument, that gained traction because it was disseminated via the radio, and digital distribution didn't exist in 1991. Given that context, it's a suddenly very heavy social question to ask whether grunge would have caught on if the internet and equal access existed then as it does now? Personally I still think it would have only because the music was so different that it would have remained academically interesting, but even that statement sort of cedes that I don't think grunge would have had any kind of emotional upper hand, it would have played on the level. With all that said though, one underlying question still remains - how have these glam metal bands in recent years caught on and shared success alongside the resurrection of older musical styles?
I sometimes wonder if the word 'metal' will become very much like the word 'alternative' or 'indie'; that it essentially will become a catch-all term for any wide range of non-commercialized music and completely lack a single defining characteristic of its own except that, as you say, it will have some guitar.
Yet, for all that hyper-genrification (another term I made up,) I'm also starting to wonder if perhaps the resultant shattering of the mold for 'metal' isn't at least partially a good thing. Perhaps if the labels becomes meaningless, or at least highly malleable, it will allow artists who wish to expand their musical repertoire the freedom to do so without fear of reprisal. In recent years, both Turisas and Soilwork have taken flak from 'hardcore' fans who proclaim that each band was a much better band when they were constricted to the style of their debut. These fans reject the artist's new direction and focus based solely on the principle that this new material isn't what it used to be. I utterly fail to understand this reactionary limiting. It's one thing to come down on an artist for doing something terribly out of character that just doesn't work out (fair or not, "Lulu" comes to mind,) but if a band can incorporate new and creative elements into their arsenal with talent and aplomb, why don't we let them? There are so many bands out there, some of them great, who simply are what they are and will never be anything else. Motorhead, AC/DC, Fear Factory, even Children of Bodom - all great bands in varying degrees, but all very much a product of their mold. If a band like Turisas has the chance to be that once-in-a-generation group of musicians who can transcend the conventions of genre to become something lasting and greater, why do we resist? You studied philosophy, explain this to me, because I just plain don't get it.
CHRIS: Yngwie would also be disqualified from serving on our Court, because, in addition to being a douche, he freely admits to not listening to anything but himself and classical music. The only thing he's an authority on is himself. The rest of your roster sounds like a fine panel. Now when do I get my robe?
There are two separate strains of metal journalism these days. The places that consider themselves as such, and know a little bit about how the field is supposed to work, do indeed do a good job most of the time. There have been countless reviews and articles that have been genuinely insightful, and have underscored the ways in which metal can be used as a barometer of the social milieu. On the other hand, there are then the places (which seem more numerous than ever) run by people who are clearly fans before they are critics. It's when people don't understand that people are actually paying attention to their half-formed opinions that we reach the state of decay you used to find in the Blabbermouth commentary section. I'm not saying you need to have a degree in journalism to do the job (we sure as hell don't), but a little bit of perspective would be a nice requirement. There are enough of those sites around, and they carry enough sway with the fan-base in general, that group-think has replaced criticism. Saying negative things about a favored band is heresy, and daring to question the need for the next move further down the road to all-out noise is to admit weakness.
In that respect, there is a parallel to be drawn between the metal community and the locker room community, as evidenced by the recent scandal in the NFL. I know from my own experience, there is a pervasive trend among many metal fans to ridicule anyone who hasn't kept moving further and further into the extremes as they age. If you don't like death metal vocals, you don't like metal. If you don't like buzz-saw black metal that sounds like it was recorded on a wax cylinder in 1927, you don't like metal. If you care about anything but flying double-bass drums and guitars tuned down to Drop Ass-Flat, you don't like metal. Somewhere along the way, manhood got confused with stupidity. I wouldn't put all the blame on him, but Zakk Wylde bears some of the responsibility for this, with his injection of biker culture into our little domain. There's less room than ever for the olden days metal nerd.
I would say your point has already been proven. The fact that the audiences for Sabbath, Priest and Maiden are filled with people our age and younger shows that the music is absolutely timeless, and can speak across generations. The general attitude of youth is never going to change, so there will always be an audience hungry for music that tells them what they're feeling isn't wrong. Granted, I'm the wrong person to be making this point, but songs like "Breaking The Law" will work until the day there is no more law to break. A simple declaration of rebellion is the very heart of what metal used to be, and the only thing I can see stopping it is if our generation becomes too intent on pushing it upon our own children. But even in that case, they will eventually find their way to it, just as we found our way to the classic rock we would have tuned out when we were younger. Grunge, though, I'm not so sure would have worked if it didn't come along at the exact time it did. It did tap into the general ennui of youth, as you so well put it, but it also tapped into a generational shift away from the Reagan/Yuppie 80s in a way that we, being a bit too young, couldn't understand at the time. Grunge would have worked in other eras, but I struggle to believe it would have exploded the way it did without that particular cultural touchstone.
My take on the questionable return of glam metal is that they're a bit like Colorforms; it's a peel-and-stick way of leeching the image and attitude of metal without needing to actually like any of it. It's metal for people who want to like metal, not for people who actually do. The most upsetting part of it, to me, is how little of the original ethos they manage to get right. The image is easy to co-opt, but they forget that those glam bands were able to fairly ably fuse metal and AOR, while these current bands are fusing one glam band with another. They're a second generation copy, which always sounds worse than the original.
You have asked the age old question; to change or to stay the same? Philosophically, it comes down to a question of artistry. If you are an artist who cares only about art, you will follow the muse wherever she takes you, while if you're an artist who still cares about giving people what they want, you're going to be very careful how you tread. Essentially, it's a question of whether you write music primarily for yourself or for your listeners. But I think it's really more a question of psychology than philosophy. We, as listeners, have to measure our aversion to risk. Those of us who are cautious, or who feel like a favorite band is like an old friend, are going to resist change, because it could lead to a separation. We like the familiar, because it's what we know, and it reinforces the feelings we already have. In that respect, it's a bit like eating comfort food. But then there are those of us who are in music for the music, who are in it for the next great discovery. We would look at a band changing as an exciting opportunity to hear something new and life-changing yet again. We don't need to hear our favorite album done over again, because we already have it. We want to find our next favorite album.
Of course, there's one more point to that. I only speak for myself, but I don't get attached to bands and musicians as people. I don't feel any sort of relationship between me as a listener and them as artists other than me enjoying their music. If they make an album I don't like, I don't get offended that they're in a different place than I am, nor have I ever said a band 'owed' me anything. But I know that isn't the case for a lot of people, they really do feel intensely close to these abstractions. I would guess that the degree to which you feel that pull would have a lot to do with how accepting you will be of a band you love taking chances with their music.
First, glam metal - At the time, glam metal was the heaviest thing going for most listeners. It pushed the boundaries of good taste and societal norms of the ultra-conservative Reagan era. Quiet Riot and Motley Crue were pretty earth shaking at the time as was RATT, WASP, Autograph and Dokken. So, I feel Chris is correct when he says modern glam misses the point. They are co-opting an image from a discarded copy of Metal Edge magazine and forgetting about the origins and evolution.
Continuing the evolution, the heaviest heavy metal came in the form of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest (although where I came from it was one or the other - not both). Bands like Accept and Venom existed but were inaccessible by most people. Metallica was still underground. Mainstream music of the time consisted of Duran Duran, Power Station and Culture Club. The only way we could get our hands on the more obscure albums was to be pen-pals with someone who had access to the records and have them mail a cassette copy to you. Even then, you'd see guys with Iron Maiden and Aerosmith written on the cover of the same notebook! Within a couple of years, the factions split into "true" metal-heads (the ones with Metallica and Slayer patches on their denim jacket) and "posers", those who continued to listen to glam which now included Bon Jovi, Poison and the like.
Regarding the resurgence of glam metal, I can only speculate that it's part hipster mentality (it's so not cool, it's cool) and part kids going through mom and dad's old record collection. Around 1986 we had a Monkees resurgence, for chrissake. For the record, the Monkees are TERRIBLE. If you're not familiar, they were assembled by a record industry focus group to cash in on some of that sweet Beatles money. Plus, glam metal hearkens back to a time that was seemingly simpler. Guys dressed up as women singing songs about partying and having a good time so I can understand the allure.
Eventually, glam metal became a parody of itself. Albums had a specific formula which was 8-10 songs and at least one had to be a "power ballad" for which a slow motion video of a live show would be created. It was ridiculous. Motley Crue fans were calling Poison fans posers. Bands like Warrant, Britny Fox, Trixter, Sleez Beez, Shotgun Messiah and countless others made up the second and third wave of the glam movement. Guns n Roses tried to shake things up but arrogance and over-indulgence put them in the same boat as the rest. It was time for a change and that's where grunge came in.
Much like the punk movement of the 70s was a rebellion against arena rock, grunge was a rebellion against glam. The reason it took hold with such fervor, I believe, is simply because it was different. The cold war was over and so was the reason to party. We were no longer at risk of nuclear annihilation and we were bored. By the way, it's interesting that Metallica's most commercially successful album was a complete departure from their previous works. A song like "Blackened", which dealt with the end of the world, became songs that focused more on internal struggle, similar to grunge.
So, to answer a previous question about whether grunge would have caught on if the internet were around at the time - no, I do not believe there would have been a "grunge movement". Some of the bands certainly would have made some waves but would there have been a wholesale marketing of every band from Seattle, seas of flannel and combat boots? Probably not. The internet has allowed us to splinter our musical tastes into a thousand directions depending on how the mood strikes us. That ability doesn't seem to lend itself to creating an all-encompassing musical/social movement like grunge.
THAT'S WHERE WE'LL PICK IT UP TOMORROW!