Steve Wilson of Porcupine Tree recently conducted an interview with Metal Wani. In the linked second part, he suggested an aesthetic reason for the backlash against the swarm of “progressive” metal acts – according to him, there are too many progressive metal bands that are overusing the “metal guitar sound”, to the point that such loses its impact. In the mean time, Wilson is trying to explore dark and melancholic themes outside of metal, most notably in his collaboration with Mikael Akerfeldt in Storm Corrosion. This is obviously a different perspective than our usual narrative here at DMU – if you ask us, your pseudo-progressive band failed not because metal guitar is a cliched sound (which doesn’t eliminate the possibility), but more likely because your songwriting either took the form of modern pop in disguise or incoherent nonsense.
Everyone has at least one person in their network who is obsessed with “smart” music; your local government will provide you with a complimentary one if you have any doubts. You can tell music is “smart” by the fact it’s either instrumentally complex, aesthetically gimmicky, or even merely composed of band members who agree with some of your socialpolitical opinions. V is not the first to the best of my knowledge, but its ties to the djent and “progressive metal” scenes give Scale the Summit a built in audience full of such people. The relatively clean guitar tones and otherwise frequent moments of gentle strumming make me question the metal label, but I’m not yet the type to judge music solely by its genre. It does mean, however, that I’ve mentally shelved this on the progressive rock shelves along with acts like Camel and Yes, which admittedly are radically different in overall approach, but at least give this album some stern competition which it desperately needs.
V is actually a collection of jazz fusion instrumentals that presumably took some time to practice and learn even for the band’s technically skilled musicians. Much has been written on the idea of jazz-metal fusions, but Scale the Summit seems quite archetypal in that regard, relying on thorough-composed songwriting with distinct sections over improvisation, but favoring lighter, cleaner tones and sounds even at their most intense. One thing that divides me is how rigidly and academically the band approaches song structure – tracks here are full of obvious “We’re going to vary the song by modulating to another key or changing the drum pattern” type moments that probably look well-planned if you consult the corresponding tablature, but don’t work out in practice for being too jarring or too frequently followed by an obvious pause. This might be something to expect from such a rhythm-heavy style, but it still strikes me as a notable weakness, and one that makes some of these songs so self-conscious that it interferes with their overall memorability and impact.
Ultimately, I find Scale the Summit to be aesthetically pleasing, and I can derive some intellectual satisfaction from piecing together the theoretical level of their music, which is more than I can say for a lot of so-called progressive metal. I can’t guarantee that I won’t plunder V for some of these technical ideas. Employing this prowess towards more interesting and less obvious (less formulaic) songwriting is going to be quite a challenge, though. I can’t guarantee you that Scale the Summit will do the same, since they seem pretty content with their current technically proficient but otherwise ephemeral style.
Vod is the one-man project of bassist Dave Trembley. Announced as an indescribable anomaly, a blend of interesting ideas in astounding ways, this is a actually a fairly clear mixture of influences that never coalesces into an original voice. Dancing and jumping between general ambient, post rock, and the break-down metal of Meshuggah (mostly in derivative and simplified Djentish manner, for groove more than for percussion wankery). The whole album is nonetheless covered by a recognizable blanket, although it is not a distinct expression but only a consistency in the use of the same collection of styles.
Rather than establish a mood and submerge the listener in it, or take us into a spiraling well of moments to build atmosphere, Vod simply gives us cool-vibe-inducing moments gathered from the aforementioned genres. Heavily relying on the most primal effects of both ambient and Djent, Tuurngait will often fall into a simple ambient drone or into the simplest and easiest to catch syncopated modern groove. Careful and smooth in taking the songs from a whisper to a full-on groove-party, this music is good conversation material as it is easy to digest.
Tom G. Warrior is a relentless innovator and amazing composer. As he details in his book Only Death is Real: An Illustrated History of Hellhammer he grew up in an abusive, uncertain environment within a broken home. He also grew up in “perfect” Switzerland, a place that has more rules than people. These events shaped his personality or rather, the limitations that are still imposed upon it.
What happened was that young Tom G’s ego was crushed and doubt was introduced into his mind. Doubt about the purpose of life, or even his own life. Doubt of self-worth. Fear that at any moment he might find himself without a justification for existing, and be truly discarded and alone. That’s a heavy load for a young person to carry, but the sequential success of Hellhammer and then Celtic Frost lifted Tom out of it. It also pushed aside a healing process.
When Celtic Frost evaporated, Tom launched on a series of attempts to find popularity again, but on his own terms. First, his highly inventive industrial music, and later, attempts to be contemporary. The latest two are below, and they are marked by a duality: a great underlying talent, desperately attempting to ingratiate itself with newer metal audiences. Like all things that do not take a clear direction, they are thus lost on both fronts.
This is not a hit piece on Tom G Warrior. Like many metalheads, I hold him in the highest regard. He is one of the great innovators and farseeing minds in metal. However, his tendency to try to adapt to what is current shows what is currently happening in metal: in a dearth of ideas, the genre is recombining past successes that represent the culmination of earlier genres, and is trying to recapture its lead by offering a buffet of different influences. But alas, like the music of Triptykon, these forays are lost causes.
Currently a morass of subgenre names exist. We can call it metalcore, or modern metal, or math metal, or tech-deth, or even djent, but all of it converges on a single goal: to make a form of that great 1980s speed metal — Metallica, Anthrax, Testament, Exodus, Nuclear Assault — that used choppy riffs made up of muted chords to encode complex rhythms into energetic songs. To that, the modern metal bands have added the carnival music tendency to pick entirely unrelated riffs to add variety, the grooves of later speed metal, and the vocals and chord voicings of late hardcore and its transition into emo.
What this represents is not a direction, but lack of one. By combining all known successes from late in these subgenres, modern metal is picking up where the past left off before death metal and black metal blew through and rewrote the book. The problem is that making music that is intense like those underground genres is difficult, and even more, unmarketable. It approaches the issues in life that most of us fear, like mortality and failure in the context of powerlessness and meaninglessness, and thus presents a dark and obscure sound that makes us uncertain about life itself. Like Tom G Warrior living through a shattered marriage of his parents and a society too concerned with order to notice its own boredom and misery, black metal and death metal shatter stability and replace it with alienated existential wandering.
On the other hand, late punk offered ideological certainty and heavy doses of emotion. Late speed metal, which Pantera cooked up out of heaping doses of Exhorder, Prong and Exodus, offers a groove and a sense of a party on the wild side. Inserting bits of death metal, especially its technical parts, and some of the frenetic riffing of Discordance Axis allows these bands to create a new kind of sound. But at its heart, this music is still speed metal. Where death metal played riff Jenga and put it all together in a sense that told a story, modern metal is based in variety and distraction. It exists to jar the mind, explore a thousand directions, and without coming to a conclusion ride out in the comforting emulation of the chaos of society around it.
But at its heart, these bands are speed metal. Like Triptykon who revitalize the E-string noodling and riff texture of more aggressive speed metal bands, with the bounce of Exodus and the groove of Pantera, these bands offer a smorgasbord combined into one. They mix in melodic metal, derived from what Sentenced and later Dissection made popular, to give it a popular edge. However, what they’re really doing is regressing to a mean. This has happened in metal before, when mid-1970s bands recombined Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath into rock-style metal, and in the mid-1980s when glam metal did the same thing but mixed in the gentler sounds of late 1970s guitar rock bands. When metal loses direction, it recombines and comes up with a mellower, less threatening version of itself.
All of this is well and good if we do one single but difficult thing: recognize that what we’re listening to now is a dressed-up version of what metal and punk were doing in the late 1980s. We’re walking backward in history, away from that scary underground death metal and black metal, and looking toward something less disturbing and more fun at parties. It seems no one has come out and said this, so I figured it must be said. Enjoy your weekend.