Genre stagnation, and a possible antidote.
The person who made this point was right about one thing that was said during the discussion: there are no wrong opinions. I certainly agree with that statement. However, there is a fair bit of distance between my respecting my critic’s right to hold a differing opinion from my own, and my agreeing with my critic’s opinion. I did not, and do not, agree. Artists start out their careers in a position of complete obscurity, and when they begin creating their art, they have no way of knowing who it will appeal to. It is a pure artistic expression at that point–it’s what they want to present to the world. If said presentation is successful, and the artist gains notoriety, it taints their future artistic output if they then begin to consider first what their audience wants from them, rather than continuing to consider what they want to present to the audience. People throw the term "sellout" around a lot, and it can have a million different definitions, depending on who you ask. As far as I’m concerned, though, the real definition of "sellout" is someone who modifies their art in order to please an audience. This is always, on some level, an attempt to get paid, and whether it happens within a tiny, marginalized subculture, or on a massive scale, it’s always an artistically bankrupt thing to do.
None of this is to say that Fall Out Boy sold out by covering one song instead of another on an acoustic EP that was released just to keep fans sated until their new album is released later this year. In fact, as I discussed in my review, they are taking more risks with their sound on their new songs than they did on the album that brought them fame in the first place. I have no reason to think that they are going for a sellout move, and good reason to think just the opposite. The fact remains, though, that the sort of half-assed, lazy thinking that led to this cover version is never going to be something of which I approve. And if some of my readers think that bands should be allowed to engage in that sort of thing just because of some stereotypical assessment of a band’s audience, then said readers will just have to content themselves with the knowledge that I will never agree with them, and will never write from that perspective. Besides, if I’m writing about a band at all, then obviously I listen to them, and I certainly don’t fit the stereotype of the ignorant young fan.
The sort of lazy thinking that I worry may have momentarily affected Fall Out Boy has become a veritable plague upon the genre known as metalcore. Many more discriminating music fans curl their lip in disgust at the mere mention of this genre, and I regret to say that this trend doesn’t surprise me. I am not so quick to reject this entire musical movement, but I definitely recognize that it’s been in decline for quite a while now.
It’s a shame, too, because when it first began to define itself as a phenomenon independent from regular hardcore, I was quite a fan. It started out as an undercurrent within the chaotic hardcore scene of the early 90s (which I discussed in detail in my Funeral Diner review last week); a lot of bands within that scene were branching out from hardcore by exploring melody, but a significant minority just got heavier and heavier, incorporating blastbeats, metal leads, and pounding mosh riffs that were heavier than anything the mainstream of hardcore had to offer at the time. Some of the pioneering bands involved were derided by purists who referred to them as "death metal" (as if there’s anything wrong with death metal... but that’s another post), but the music spoke for itself, and soon this sound had grown into a movement of its own, gaining strength around the time that the original chaotic hardcore sound began losing momentum.
In the late 90s, when this sound was enjoying a renaissance, it seemed like every week a new band was coming out of nowhere to blow everyone away. They came from Boston, Kansas City, Seattle, Toronto, small towns in North Carolina, Florida and California, even from Germany and Belgium. I eagerly awaited new issues of fanzines like "Inside Front" and "Second Nature", and checked out every new release on labels like Great American Steak Religion, Edison, and Hydra Head. Anything I heard referred to as metalcore was something I absolutely had to get. I discovered so many great bands during this time: Jesuit, Converge, Union of Uranus, Canephora, Dillinger Escape Plan, Creation Is Crucifixion, Unruh, Acrid, The Swarm, Coalesce, His Hero Is Gone, Catharsis, Gehenna, Acme, Morser, Liar, Botch, Suicide Nation... all quite different from each other, but all united by an unspoken and hard-to-define aesthetic sense. And of course, all amazing.
Boston’s Cave-In took things to a new level when they appeared on the scene in 1997. Guitarist Steve Brodsky would occasionally step up to the microphone and sing a section of a song–and he’d really sing, which was unheard of in metalcore, where every vocalist had their own distinctive tortured shriek. Cave-In’s vocal innovation added hints of power metal and progressive rock to their sound. Brodsky became their full-time vocalist on their breakthrough second album, "Until Your Heart Stops", and the progressive metal quotient of their sound increased exponentially as a result. The album was brilliant, though, so no one thought of this as an ominous development.
Drowningman took things a step further on their 2000 EP, "How They Light Cigarettes In Prison." The opening track, "Black Tie Knife Fight", contained a powerful musical moment that would stand the entire metalcore genre on its ear. 90 seconds in, at a point when the band was in full-bore scream and seemed to be driving towards something (a mosh part would have been the most likely expectation), the entire song stopped for a second. When it started again, the music had completely changed. Vocalist Simon Brody was singing cleanly and well, and the band was playing a perfect emo-pop riff of the sort that would become Taking Back Sunday’s bread and butter (though no one could have known that then). This section lasted around 30 seconds, built to a melodic crescendo, and then slammed right back into ferocious high-speed metal riffs. It was breathtaking in its brilliance, and it polarized everyone who heard it: either they thought it was the most amazing thing ever, or they totally hated it. But no one could fail to have an opinion.
Soon, it seemed that this particular stylistic choice (which became a regular weapon in Drowningman’s arsenal, though they never used it quite that effectively again) had inspired an entire wave of new metalcore bands. This was really the beginning of the end; Drowningman had made the transition between styles seem effortless, but what a lot of people who heard it seemed to miss was that it took a huge amount of talent, of a completely different kind than most metalcore bands had. Whereas Simon Brody had an excellent clean singing voice as well as a great screaming voice, many of the metalcore vocalists who tried this new trick suffered from a crucial lack of the former. Nonetheless, "clean vocal parts" quickly became de rigeur in the world of metalcore, and a lot of guys who would have been excellent vocalists if all they ever did was scream were made to look really bad.
This wasn’t the only problem metalcore had. Washington, DC’s Darkest Hour had found a great deal of success in their particular brand of black metal-influenced hardcore. By introducing Swedish-style melodic riffing into the scene, they’d also seemingly inspired a million bands. While Darkest Hour’s heavily At The Gates-inspired sound worked well for them (though they drew their share of detractors, whose main complaint was always how unoriginal they were), what quickly became apparent from the sheer number of bands doing the Swedish riff thing that sprung up all over the scene was just how much harder it was to write single-note-based melodic runs than it seemed. North Carolina’s Prayer For Cleansing came up with something somewhat interesting by interspersing these riffs with brutal, pounding mosh breakdowns, but of course, those were even easier to imitate, and even more bands appeared with the intention of doing just that.
Having had several intervening years in which these trends could metastasize, today’s metalcore scene has become a veritable cesspool of trend-following and lazy thinking. It’s not just the Swedish-style riffs mixed with breakdowns and the (often cringe-inducing) emo-pop clean vocal interludes that have polluted the sound, either. I’m not sure where it started, but at some point the trend became for vocalists to change pitch between or even during lines. Singers start out screaming in a normal human tone, then cycle through deep death-metal growls and high pitched shrieks, only to arrive back at the original human sound by two lines later. And the cycling back and forth continues for the rest of the song. I guess people think this sounds intense when they decide to do it, but it doesn’t. It sounds calculating and self-conscious, like something that was planned out in advance instead of a spontaneous expression of sincere emotion. I’m not saying that all music has to feel honest and sincere in order to be good, but metalcore grew out of hardcore, and if there was one thing hardcore set out to convey, it was sincerity. The newer metalcore bands are all far too wrapped up in image to ever come across that way.
Witness the fashions of modern metalcore, which took a turn for the weird a few years ago and have only grown in ridiculousness since. I’m not sure whether it was certain bands, such as the notorious Eighteen Visions, or some outside influence that started it, but a metalcore uniform has evolved over the last couple of years that tends to appall both outsiders to the scene and many hardcore kids outside of the metalcore subgenre. Today’s metalcore boy wears tight jeans, usually pairs that had been originally made for girls; black eyeliner, and sometimes other forms of makeup, including lipgloss and nail polish; exquisitely done hair, usually dyed black and cut short in the back, with floppy bangs hanging over one eye; and quite often accessorizes this outfit with a brightly colored bandana hanging from a back pocket. It’s the virtual opposite of how hardcore fashion started out. In the early days of hardcore, the bands and the kids involved didn’t pay that much attention to how their clothes looked; they wore what was comfortable and easy to come by. Sometimes this meant thrift store fashions, while at other times it gravitated more towards athletic wear, but it was never an aesthetic that emphasized fashion for its own sake. Metalcore, on the other hand, draws kids who look like they spent two hours getting ready before they came to the show.
All of these fashion notes would be irrelevant, though, if the music being turned out by today’s metalcore scene was still as good as it was seven years ago. As it is, the uniformity and shallowness of metalcore fashions is just a symptom of a greater problem. The problem is that metalcore has become a closed circle The young bands coming into it now, rather than having to draw influence from several different outside sources and combine them all in order to forge their musical vision, are able to draw all of their influence from other metalcore bands. If there is a surer recipe for scene-wide musical stagnation, I don’t know it. On the rare occasion that a new idea is brought into the closed circle, it gets latched onto and used up so quickly that it seems tired as soon as a year later. The New Jersey band Shattered Realm released their debut full length, "Broken Ties Spoken Lies", in late 2002. On that album, they unleashed a particularly effective trick–playing mosh breakdowns that started out brutal enough, but then slowed down as they went on, ratcheting up the intensity. Within a year, it seemed like every new band from the northeast had ripped this trick off from Shattered Realm, and by early 2004, even "Broken Ties Spoken Lies" sounded played out, despite the fact that this album had pioneered the technique.
Indeed, it can sometimes feel like unoriginality is a goal with new bands. Seeing up-and-coming bands of the past few years, such as Poison the Well and Killswitch Engage, get signed to major labels and end up with high-profile tours and videos on MTV, has made younger bands more ambitious where financial success is concerned. This, of course, has made those same bands far less adventurous where their actual music is concerned. Clean vocal parts, already proliferating due to sheer trendiness, are seen as necessary for radio play, and therefore become the greatest part of a band’s sound. All sense of danger and threat gets bled out of any band’s music once they start to seek airplay (see my review of the second A Static Lullaby CD), and stagnation becomes expected, even encouraged. With so little of any real worth arising in recent years, it has started to seem like metalcore, as a viable subgenre of music, is dead.
It was at this point of complete lack of hope that I was first made aware of The Esoteric. They came to my attention due to a quirky ex-member factor. Coalesce guitarist and notorious recluse Jes Steineger (if anyone can be described as the Brian Wilson of metalcore, it’s him) had refused at the last minute to do the reunion tour that they had planned for 2002, and Esoteric guitarist Cory White stepped in, learned all of Coalesce’s songs in two weeks, and did the entire tour. This gave The Esoteric leeway to claim that they were ex-Coalesce, though it wasn’t actually true in the way most fans would understand the statement. Either way, it was enough to get me to check them out. I was blown away by their then-current release, 2004's "1336" EP. The resemblance to Coalesce was undeniable–evidently, playing those riffs had had an effect on White’s guitar playing. The Esoteric weren’t a Coalesce copy by any stretch, though. Sean Ingram’s unique guttural roaring vocal style had been a defining factor of Coalesce’s sound, while Esoteric vocalist Steve Cruz favored a straightforward, human-sounding scream. Also, while The Esoteric’s riffing was technical, it was nowhere near as complex as that of Coalesce, who were sometimes off-putting due to the sheer complexity of their songwriting. Usually, a new Coalesce record required multiple listenings before their daunting walls of noise would resolve themselves into clearly understood structures. The Esoteric, while dabbling in a touch of Coalesce’s notorious time-signature experimentation, were still much simpler in their song structures, and therefore their songs seemed catchy even upon first listen. In particular, the song "Make Fine Dreams" stood out to me, with its solid midtempo groove and strange guitar riff that seemed to double back on itself halfway through. My only real complaints with "1336" were that the production seemed somewhat lacking in clarity, and that the four songs present on the EP were too stylistically similar. I enjoyed the EP for what it was, but I feared that their sound would get boring over the course of a full-length.
This didn’t stop me from purchasing their new album, "With The Sureness of Sleepwalking", when it was released last month. The potential for a letdown was there, but I felt like the potential to be blown away was much higher, and worth the risk. My risk paid off quite nicely: "With the Sureness of Sleepwalking" is an amazing CD, a vast improvement on the EP’s already considerable promise. The production is louder and clearer, smoothing out any rough edges that were present on "1336" and helping to demonstrate that The Esoteric are nowhere near as one-dimensional as they may previously have seemed. All four songs from that EP are rerecorded for the full-length, and while this sometimes can leave a listener feeling ripped off, such is not the case here. The songs are so vastly improved by the superior production that entire layers of songwriting, buried in the haze of their previous version’s production, come to the fore here, making the listener feel like s/he is hearing an entirely new song. "Make Fine Dreams" is still powerful and intense, but in addition to the sinuous riffing of the original version, there is a melodic undercurrent on this new version that changes the feel of the last minute of the song completely. The lyrics, as with most of the songs on this album, are obscurely constructed and sometimes unclear in meaning. However, the melodic guitar arpeggios on the bridge of this song bring a new poignance to lines like, "With each breath, beside me is death to remind me what’s left. To make happen, to take action before it takes you." The song, it seems, is about taking advantage of the opportunities life gives you, in order to make the best life possible. This new version of "Make Fine Dreams" is particularly enhanced by the instrumental coda, "To Keep Truth To Oneself," that fades in at the conclusion of the track, continuing an ambient version of the melody from the song over echoing percussion that eventually leads into the next song.
Melody is very much a presence on this entire album. A particular highlight where this is concerned is the second track, "Ram-Faced Boy." In fact, this song is the most melodic on the entire album, and seems to be the perfect candidate for a single. Interestingly enough, an early version of it appeared for download on a popular metal review website, and included a fair amount of clean vocals. However, by the time of the album’s release, these sections had been changed back to screaming, and there are in fact no clean vocals anywhere on "With the Sureness of Sleepwalking." I can’t help but applaud this artistic decision, especially where "Ram-Faced Boy" is concerned. The lyrics concern a common subject for metalcore–unrequited love. Unlike a lot of metalcore lyricists, though, Cruz does not use the song as a platform for cheap revenge fantasies. Instead, both parties in this doomed relationship are depicted as at fault to some extent, complicit in their own misery. The title character, the ram-faced boy, is "caught inside of a dream that screams her name," but he invites his own torture, screaming, "Haunt me, do it again." The girl, for her part, feels some sympathy for his plight, but at the same time feels powerless to give him what he wants. "Keep your distance," she tells him, as he pleads with her: "What am I good for?" His question ends the song, going unanswered. Towards the end of the song, as the narrator tells us, "It’s never over. This is endless," a melodic lead fades in, dramatically underscoring Cruz’s screamed vocals and describing the pain caused by the end of a relationship with music as well as words. It’s the sound of being pulled in two completely opposing directions at once, knowing that neither direction will provide you with what you want. It’s the sound of a heart breaking.
It’s also an unexpected decision from a purely musical standpoint, especially with clean vocals being as emphasized in the current metalcore scene as they are. Looking back at Drowningman and Cave-In’s decisions to use clean vocals, it seems pretty obvious that the only reason they worked so well is that no one at the time would have expected such a thing from a metalcore band. It was assumed that no band of that style would ever use an overtly melodic riff. These days, though, it’s become so standard that everyone knows exactly what’s coming the second a band even hints at such a thing. And of course, once the novelty of the melodic riff wore off, the clean vocals that accompanied such a thing became extremely predictable. Such a riff, divorced from its context within a metal song, would obviously feature clean vocals. At this point, the only way to use such riffs within the context of metalcore and still keep it interesting is to integrate melody into heavy riffs and scream overtop of them. The Esoteric have figured this out, and apply the lesson to great effect.
I have to admit, though, that the more I listen to "With the Sureness of Sleepwalking," the less it seems like The Esoteric are specifically attempting to buck trends in metalcore, or even that they’re considering them. They may inadvertently be providing a contrast to such trends, and proving my point by doing so, but I can’t imagine that that’s what they set out to do. The Esoteric are just five creative, talented musicians with a reasonably unique vision, one they have brought to fruition here. Witness "Somnambulist," a song that starts out with over two minutes of melodic yet distorted riffing that doesn’t easily lend itself to characterization as clean or heavy. It’s not very easy to describe it, let alone plug it into any theories about the current state of metalcore. And that’s before the song completely changes two and a half minutes in into an intense midtempo groove that resembles the feel of a lot of Coalesce records while at the same time being a riff that Coalesce themselves would never write. And then there’s "Disappearing," an intense track which opens the album with a blastbeat–fooling you with a technique they do not return to for the rest of the CD. The Esoteric have stripped the past five-plus years of excess buildup away from metalcore, and created an album that is every bit as adventurous, original, and career-defining as the early full-lengths by Botch, Converge, and Coalesce ended up being. This is especially welcome at a time when every new band sounds just like the other 100 new bands releasing records in any given month. To describe "With The Sureness of Sleepwalking" as merely a reaction to a stagnant scene is doing this CD and this band a disservice. Not only are The Esoteric on a completely different level than the metalcore scene at large, they are ruling it.