the retro craze of the future

these things go in cycles--it's been proven, if not by science then by repetition. it's probably something that can be blamed on television and, by extension, capitalism, but i'll leave that sort of heavy duty theorizing to greil marcus. for now, it's enough to say that it has become blatantly obvious and leave it at that. in the 70s, everyone was looking to the 50s and the dawn of rock and roll--happy days, if not sha na na, is still in syndication to prove this. in the 80s, they were looking at the flower power generation of the 60s. in the 90s, the disco hits of the 70s (and their attendant fucking horrible fashion sense) captured far more attention than it seems they should have. and now in 2003, we are smack in the middle of a full-scale revival of the bleep bloop weird haircut new wave early 80s. the underground is awash with gang of four and public image ltd knockoff, while others in the mainstream are championing the sound and style of bands like new order and duran duran. the exhumation of whatever was vapid, mindless pop culture 20 years ago continues full throttle as it has every few years since before i or anyone in my generation was even born. we can expect a full-scale glam metal revival by 2008--don't laugh, the stage has been set quite nicely by chuck klosterman's masterful "fargo rock city" and by the media attention garnered by dueling guns n' roses(es) (one being axl and a bunch of out-of-work session guys and past gloryhounds, the other being everyone from the lineup we all knew and loved BUT axl, who are currently looking for a singer to fill the kilt that axl himself probably doesn't even fit into anymore)--the signs are in place, don't be naive enough not to notice them. no doubt a revival of "alternative/buzzbin" music will hit in the beginning of the next decade, and the nu-metal revival will follow 8 or so years later. by 2019, evanescence will sound every bit as dated to the teenagers of what will be my 43rd year on this planet as orchestral manoevres in the dark do to the kids who bop around new york discotheques, thinking unironically (or as unironically as anyone who's part of one of these pop culture revival trends can possibly think of anything) of themselves as "electroclash". "bring me to life" will appear alongside all of the other nu-metal hits of yesteryear by such by-then forgotten bands as saliva and linkin park on cd comps released by rhino and warner archives, their covers festooned with aggressively passe images and designs, hoping to get some cash from kids who want to invest some sort of wider importance into a sound and movement that at the time (which, so that we don't lose too much perspective, is now) was nothing more than a contrived pop fad, a way to sell records, a blatant spate of commercialism.
and it's a shame, really, because if one listens to evanescence's "fallen" in its entirety more than a few times, it becomes obvious that there's a lot more talent lurking here than one could find on almost any other such disposable records released to cash in on this year's trend, such as the new offerings by originators limp bizkit and godsmack, let alone the rest of this year's crop--most accurately represented by such third-tier acts as chevelle, cold, and taproot. to begin with, "bring me to life" is truly an excellent song. it combines the strikingly beautiful female vocals that probably do more on an immediate basis to set this band ahead of the pack with which they are often grouped than any other element of their sound with both anthemic, melodic choruses and crunching metal riffs to produce one of the most immediately catchy and enjoyable tunes to hit top 40 so far this decade. not to mention the fact that the 3-second guitar breakaway between the first chorus and the second verse is probably the first true metal riff that i have ever heard on mainstream, top 40 radio--a facto that generates favor in my eyes even if it is a rather standard metal riff; certainly nothing to write home about in any other circumstance. the only thing that mars what would otherwise be an amazing song is the fred durst-ish male backup vocal on the chorus, which gets a solo turn near the emotional climax of the song. the band's official website is quick to point out that the addition of this extra vocal was the record company's idea, not their own, thereby indicating that they don't like it much more than they assume their fans do.
however, that right there is a prime indicator of what keeps "fallen" from being a truly good album. no matter how much talent went into the composition and performance of these songs, it's obvious that this record is a product first and foremost in the eyes of the people who bankrolled its creation. evanescence are a talented group of young people who saw a chance for money and fame and grabbed at it, without realizing the unfortunate downside to the deal they'd cut, and their record bears the scars of that downside openly and in abundance. the production is computerized and glossed over to the extreme--real guitar riffs that would demand attention if they'd been given the space to are sacrificed every time in favor of another synth wash, more computer textures, that sound that can't be defined any more particularly than by the word "production" sloshed around liberally until the songs are coated in sticky, sugary glops of it. and while in the end the album is definitely spotty, "bring me to life" is not the only song crafted brilliantly enough to shine through the syrupy shit all over the place--"tourniquet" is excellent, an anthem that stands out due to its forward motion and intense chorus and is so obviously the second single that if i don't hear it on the radio in another month, some a & r person is lying down on the job [note: i wrote this review in august and am only now publishing it--the second single was "going under", one of the most uninspired songs on the album. record labels are morons.]. "everybody's fool" is catchy enough to remain in your head after the album is over, "my immortal" is a surprisingly well-done showcase for vocalist amy and her skills at piano, and the part at the end of the album where the last song fades into a dramatic classical overture is a great way to end a record. but the listener has to fight to discover all of this stuff, buried as it is under the computerized sheen that's state of the art now and will sound horribly dated in 20 years. it's always possible that this band will be able to outlast the one-hit wonder status they seem destined for at this juncture--there are other good songs on the album that could be just as successful as "bring me to life", and who knows? their next three albums could all be tremendous advances in songcraft, to the point where no one even thinks of "bring me to life" anymore when they hear the name evanescence in 10 years. after all, it happened to radiohead--really, who thinks of "creep" and nothing else when they hear that name these days? however, no matter where evanescence goes from here, the fact remains that what could have been a far better album has here been sacrificed to the unheeding gods of commercialism. if you're willing to dig through the syrupy production, there are worthwhile moments to be had here, but it is certainly nowhere near what it could have been.

(originally written fall 2003)


Acquiring new converts

1 - Old Business

So I've already learned one lesson about blogging on a regular basis: never make any promises concerning the eventual subject of one's next article. A lot went on while I was out of the country, and even more went on right after I got back. At no point did I ever find myself wanting to write about "shoegaze", the promised topic of this week's entry. So finally, after agonizing about it for several days, I decided the hell with whatever I promised before. Music Blogging Lesson Number One: never promise to write about anything. Wait until it's time to write another entry, and write about what you're thinking about then.
Another thing... I worry that the sheer amount of verbiage pumped out in my previous installment may have set the bar higher than i really want it. The fact is that I am a verbose motherfucker 99% of the time, and most of my entries probably will at least approach that length, but I don't really want to be bound to any such constraints. So this is just to let you all know that I may not always go on at such lengths. I'll write as much as the subject bears, then quit.
Finally, as much as I was proud of what I produced last time, using the longhand rough draft/retype and revise method that got me through a lot of the papers I wrote in college but has been largely absent since (and for the record, I dropped out of college in 1995), and as much as I considered making that method my standard form of blog composition, the work-intensive nature of the whole thing has in the end sent me back to my typical format: type it as I think it, then post it. That's how I'm doing the piece you're reading now, and how I will doubtless continue in the future.
2 - New Business
I intend today to discuss the plight of that oft-forgotten subset of societal misfit, the potential metalhead. As all of us who even halfway care are completely aware, the already-avowed metalhead has much to rejoice about in today's music world. Death metal is going strong (though the New York based Cannibal Corpse-retread school of things is getting a bit stagnant), black metal is ever branching into weirder and weirder realms of influence and therefore keeping things original and interesting (especially now that that hateful development, "National Socialist Black Metal" [overt Nazi-ism, for those keeping score at home] has pretty much died out), and regular no-subgenre-label-needed metal is enjoying its most fruitful renaissance since back when Nirvana singlehandedly took "Headbanger's Ball" off the MTV airwaves (or so it seemed at the time).
Unfortunately, though, the pickings are still slim for those kids who are growing up without knowledge of the inner workings of the metal genre (as, if we're honest, we all must admit to having done at one point ourselves). In the past, it was a lot easier for the pubescent suburban outcasts of middle America to locate true metal when they sought it. At the time I was growing up, hard rock in general, and glam metal in particular, enjoyed enough of a mainstream appeal to get on the radio. The kids of the 80s, who first noticed the type of music to which they'd soon be devoting their lives when the Van Halen and Def Leppard singles that got played on the Top 40 radio station in their local town infiltrated their consciousness at the age of 10, could very easily find out who else they'd be into by picking up such magazines as "Circus", "RIP", and "Metal Edge" at the local convenience store. Those magazines would put bands like Guns N' Roses and Skid Row on the covers, but towards the back pages would slip in interviews and profiles of such legitimately heavy artists as Metallica and Megadeth, tapes by both of which were easy to find in the "Popular" section of the local mall's Sam Goody outlet. Soon, the 10 year old glam metal fans had grown into the 14 year olds who grew their hair to the maximum length that their parents and/or school systems would allow, and bought the new Slayer album the week it came out with accumulated lawn-mowing money.
And those were the good old days, back when every suburban white boy who couldn't see himself in the sitcom stereotypes of the well-adjusted kids around him, but also either wasn't smart enough or had too many social skills to fit in with the unabashed nerd crowd, would inevitably gravitate towards metal. The godlike status of such bands as Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, and Judas Priest was beyond question, and albums by every metal band from Metallica all the way down to Napalm Death could be purchased in every suburban town in the country. Metal's accessibility continued to bring in new fans every year, and the sheer amount of steady fans who could be relied upon kept record labels afloat so that they could keep signing new bands. Without any real radio involvement (and minimal support even from MTV), metal was a self-sustaining community and a valuable emotional support network for a lot of angry, bitter teenagers--regardless of how their parents felt about them taking solace in lyrics about chainsaw murders and demonic possessions.
3 - The New Paradigm
This couldn't last, however, and as we've already briefly mentioned, everything was changed by the arrival of 1992's "alternative" (hereafter used without quotes) explosion. Suddenly, the new version of outcast cool had a lot more to do with flannel-clad exports from Seattle than anything relating to metal, which seemed almost absurd by comparison. Those already into metal didn't leave it behind, but the new crop of potential outcasts were quickly absorbed into the growing ranks of alternative. The inconvenient fact that the alternative subculture had been co-opted entirely by the time of Kurt Cobain's suicide was largely hidden from those enmeshed within it, and soon everyone who cared anything about any sort of cool was alternative. By 1997 or so, the whole thing had metamorphosed into a format now known as "new rock", since the fallacy that there was anything alternative about any of this could no longer be carried off in even the limpest fashion. Meanwhile, metal was pretty much completely gone from the cultural map.
This was, of course, the exact time that some semblance of metal chose to separate itself from the larger "new rock" pack. I'm forced to use the phrase "some semblance", though, as this stuff was hardly befitting of the genre it claimed. It chose to stand with one foot in each of the genres from which it ascended, and this was reflected in the name given to the subgenre: "nu metal". The ridiculousness inherent in the misspelling of "new" as "nu" was carried over into the cartoony images of such bands as Korn and Limp Bizkit, and the music wasn't much more worthwhile than such an image would make it seem. I find it hard to elaborate on such a claim, but if you've somehow managed to avoid songs by the above-mentioned and other groups that were involved in this whole musical movement, suffice it to say that the only thing that really made this stuff "metal" at all was the fact that chunky distortion and low, chugging chords were the order of the day. Beyond that, all was cheesy funk and lousy rap imitations, bad lyrics that reduced Nirvana's nuanced tales of alienation to something about as subtle as the slaps that these bands' bassists invariably dealt to their strings during heavy parts. Nu metal wasn't completely devoid of worth--Slipknot, goofy masks and superfluous drummers aside, produced some legitimately exciting moments, especially on their sophomore effort, "Iowa." Mudvayne, who ironically began with one of the most overtly cartoony visual presentations in all of nu metal, wrote solid riffs and were surprisingly heavy when you quit looking at their album covers and actually listened to them. But that was really about as far as things went. Real metal fans were embarrassed to be associated with nu metal, and nu metal fans rarely made the transition into the actual metal scene, more often graduating to mainstream dreck like Creed.
These days, it seems like nu metal might be dying, and not a moment too soon. Fred Durst's ridiculous celebrityhood has made Limp Bizkit a joke, Staind are such obvious ballad-whores that everyone's quit pretending they have anything to do with metal, and Korn get worse and sell less on each successive record. Even with nu metal around to keep people's minds on such things, there's been a real dearth of accessible metal albums that the longtime metalhead can appreciate, and now it seems like it may only get worse. When we hasten to get our 12-year old cousins and nephews who've started to fall into the whole nu metal thing into better music by passing along mix CDs, we find ourselves leaning on the classics of the past--Slayer, Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, Motorhead. Where will we find a modern band that the younger potential outcasts can use as a stepping stone to legitimate metal, without it being totally embarrassing to those of us already within the scene?
4 - Waking the Fallen
Into this gap steps Avenged Sevenfold, perhaps the most egregious example of a (metaphorical) book being judged by its (metaphorical) cover that I've ever seen, at least within the realm of music. Their roots are in the hardcore scene, as is made obvious by the labels that release their music (the most recent album is on Hopeless, who at one time also featured At the Drive In amongst their roster), and their music is obviously within the realm of metal. However, they are anything but just another metalcore band. In fact, their music is so blatantly different from metalcore that no one is even trying to apply such a term to their music. This doesn't mean that the labeling they typically receive is any more accurate, though. I often hear them termed as some part of the emo scene, or at times even referenced as if they have something to do with the horrible trash being pumped out by such outfits as The Used and My Chemical Romance. Most often, I hear their band name mentioned within the same breath as that of Coheed and Cambria, who share with Avenged Sevenfold the tendencies to write long songs and be totally underrated, and not much else. I can't imagine from whence such completely inaccurate comparisons arise, unless the people making them are seeing the photographs of the band wearing matching black clothes and eye makeup and assuming this means that they don't have to listen to them before forming an opinion. As far as I'm concerned, anyone who would ever criticize a metal band for having an overt, stylized image is a complete philistine with no sense of metal's history. After all, once you start disqualifying a band for wearing costumes, you have to go back and eliminate everyone from Mercyful Fate to Emperor from the ranks of serious metal. This just serves as a reminder to us all that dressing up is fun and in no way precludes quality contributions to metal's landscape.
I was lucky where my own personal judgement of Avenged Sevenfold was concerned--a friend played me "Waking the Fallen" while driving in his car, and the only thing that formed my initial impression of their music was its actual content. And what content it is: the album begins with a mood-setting 90 second intro before plunging headlong into "Unholy Confessions". Show me a metal fan who can listen to this song without enjoying every minute of it and I'll show you a lying metal fan. The song begins with a European-style melodic guitar lead that the two guitarists play not in unison but in harmony. Soon this gives way to a pounding midtempo riff, and the band's vocalist gets a chance to shine, as he does throughout the song and the album. He can do the standard metalcore scream, as well as the standard emo-descended melodic clean vocals, and does both styles well, but most often he sings in a way that is seldom heard these days. The vocals follow a melody instead of just sticking on raw screaming, but they are not clean. Instead they contain a raw grit and remind of nothing so much as Metallica's James Hetfield, circa "Master of Puppets". It'd be easy to criticize this sort of thing as unoriginal if even Hetfield was still doing it, but when you hear him belt out the lyric "I've come here to kill you, won't leave until you die" in this style on the song "Chapter Four", it sounds so amazing, so powerful, so truly metal, that there's no way to deny the brilliance of it all.
And the talent of the vocalist is only a minor part of what makes "Waking the Fallen" so excellent. At 12 songs in 68 minutes, it would be easy for the album to get boring, or collapse under its own weight, but this never happens, even over the 14 minute section that makes up parts one and two of "I Won't See You Tonight." Avenged Sevenfold have an uncannily developed sense of song structure, and are able to throw 15 parts into a 6 minute song with no depreciation in quality. Everything fits together perfectly--this is one band who you'll never hear do the awkward transitions where one part of a song fades out and the next is brought in by a solo guitar playing something that sounds nothing like the earlier part of the song. These guys are locked into the groove at all times.
They also have a tremendous arsenal of techniques at their disposal. Both guitarists are obviously talented enough to play anything they'd ever desire to include in a song--witness the flamenco-style acoustic picking that subtly slides under the chorus of "Remenissions", or the blazing solo that begins "Eternal Rest." By the way, that solo at the beginning of "Eternal Rest" flows so smoothly out of the final riff to "Desecrate Through Reverance" that I'd probably listened to the album three dozen times before I picked up that they were two different songs. Each is over 5 minutes in length, and yet their never seems to be a second wasted. I never find myself thinking, "OK, this song is getting a little long," and am often surprised to look up and realize that the song I'm hearing has already been going for 3 or 4 minutes.
These guys have riffs for miles, and they're not afraid to show it. As I mentioned before, "Unholy Confessions" is chock full of great bits of Euro-style riffing, but that's far from the extent of what these guys do. The main riff of "Desecrate Through Reverance" is the kind of neck-snapping mosh that you hardly ever hear anymore but was common a decade ago when bands like Pantera, Prong, and Sepultura could floor you with such riffs at a second's notice. Meanwhile, the chorus of "Radiant Eclipse" is positively anthemic, and only made more so by the way the vocalist's classic Hetfield-isms combine with the soaring melodic lead and ascending major chords. Unlike a lot of bands working within the metalcore subgenre, Avenged Sevenfold are able to resist the temptation to overuse such melodic breaks--at 6 minutes in length, "Radiant Eclipse"'s chorus still only rolls around twice, and many of the other songs on the album never get anywhere near this overtly anthemic. That's not to say they aren't catchy, either: these are songs that will get in your head for weeks at a time.
The production on the album is perfect, too: I can't help but imagine the band sitting down with their producer before recording began and enumerating all of the lessons they've learned from their 80s metal albums. "OK, first of all, keep it clean and simple. Make all of the instruments audible and clear, but none of them overpowering. Put the emphasis on songwriting--skimp on atmospherics in favor of nuances within the songs. Oh, and remember--'midrange' is just an 8-letter word for 'mud.'" This stuff sounds so great that I wouldn't be surprised to hear it played on the radio. In fact, how this record isn't receiving a lot more attention than it's gotten is mindboggling to me. I was recently gratified by the sight of the video for "Unholy Confessions" during prime time on the Fuse network, and I certainly hope this is only the beginning of the attention that Avenged Sevenfold will receive. They've got everything anyone could possibly want from a confirmed metal record, and yet it's probably the most accessible album that has come out of the metal genre in years.
And in the end, that's what this comes down to--"Waking the Fallen" is the most perfect starter record for the beginning metal fan since "...And Justice For All," while still containing anything a veteran metalhead could possibly want out of an up-and-coming young band. It may be too late to suggest it as a Christmas gift, but if you have any sullen young cousins who have a 13th or 14th birthday coming up, you couldn't go wrong with "Waking the Fallen" as a gift. It'll win you a lot of cool points with your young relatives, and even more comforting for your conscience will be the cosmic justice you do by saving an impressionable youngster from the clutching tendrils of nu metal.
5 - Everything Else
There are certain styles this blog will always gravitate towards, and the two installments that exist so far are a perfect example of what those styles will be. That's not to say that emo and metal (and the places where both intersect with hardcore) are the only things that I listen to or care about, but they tend to dominate my personal perspective. I realize that a lot of indie rockers see such genres as stepchildren at best, and more often as beneath contempt. But this blog doesn't exist to serve the needs of anyone but myself... and I never said I was cool. Hopefully you'll all stick around anyway.
See you next week.