If there is anything impressive about the music Dream Theater have been releasing for the past decade or so, it is the fact that just when one thinks they have reached a new nadir in pointless asinine cringe, they somehow manage to sink down to even further depths of banality with no apparent end in sight.
When all the bands that were terrible fifteen years ago still release music, there is no way that the desperation and attention whoring won’t come out in the music. Here are some of the worst songs to curse metal not only in these times but since the birth of the genre itself.
Dream Theater are commonly mistaken to be a “progressive” metal band. Their fans love to brag about how “progressive” the band is as it makes them feel smarter than the typical rock and mainstream Maiden and Metallica metal fans. This is the same sort of intellectual smugness that pretentious urban leftists and the communist-infiltrated ivory tower have about the working class, those who do not shout whatever their currently favored political slogans in the street are like Mao’s Red Guards, or whoever openly dislikes the latest pretentious socialist realist film awarded a trophy by the liberal media shills to promote their Marxist agenda.
Dream Theater will be presenting themselves in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, at the Teatro Minascentro. This event adds to one more high-grade theater venue being defiled by the conformist pop this bands sells out to insecure young adults, and ex-Motley Crue fans going through middle life crisis.
Brazil, like Japan, is one of the go-to countries for any mainstream band seeking international recognition. The metal fandom there is as unoriginal and undescerning in their tastes as in the metal the artists produce. This is why it is not surprising to find 1/10000 bands worth listening to occasionally arising from such geographic locations.
Dream Theater never ceases to surprise you; not in a good way, but in how they can always reach the next level of selling out. Not that they were ever produced honest music, though one might excuse their progressive speed hard rock debut (When Dream and Day Unite), at least a little, I guess. Their brand of messy and random stitching of unrelated ideas in a mixture of hard rock and outright Disney pop has gone through a long series of transformations; a move to fool audiences with the typical “constantly reinventing ourselves” excuse that allows them to keep being random. (more…)
Dream Theater’s upcoming album is certainly high concept, although I don’t foresee the results being anything other than the usual technically accomplished vaguely progressive power metal they always put out. As part of the buildup to the scheduled 2016 release of The Astonishing, the band has released a ton of visual and conceptual material, and most recently put up the tracklisting for the album. Other commentators throughout the internet are being psychically assaulted by the sheer 34-ness of the amount of tracks listed; when they recover they often end up claiming that the album will either be excellent or a colossal trainwreck. I’m personally expecting something in the middle, although visual art fans might at least find something of interest in these supplementary materials.
Music analysis and judgement (of any of its attributes or as a whole) can be done from different vantage points and with different emphases. Generally speaking, there are a few main approaches that are common in pop and metal reviews. Some judge it by its production qualities and its popularity, that is, mainly as a marketable commercial product. Others that are inclined to “feeling” the music will base their reviews on technically uninformed emotional impressions of the music. Others with a limited but comprehensive understanding of the technical will judge music as if it were a contraption, even being able to separate emotional impressions from material achievements of music. These are broad categories but individual reviewers usually fall in grey areas in between them with stronger tendencies towards one or another.
DMU’s approach has traditionally been one of judging music as romantic-era (19th century) literary and music critics would: an attention to evocative results as a function of technical means with a holistic emphasis. What this means is that what is most important is the final and total result and not the individual merits. Additionally, we focus on the lasting evocative power arising from a layered and technically (at the composition level) competent work that moves beyond the technicality itself while not disregarding the musical balance it provides. In music we see the construction of Gothic cathedrals and not modern skyscrapers.
A useful analogy can be made between detailed music appreciation and reverse engineering in software engineering. Some might jump at the thought of comparing the two since “music is not a computer program” but these are nonsensically reductionist complaints. Anyone who truly understands how an analogy works knows that the source of its power arises from the insurmountable distance between the two obviously disparate objects being placed beside each other. The distance and disparity only serves to bring to the fore and underscore the characteristics we are interested in, achieving greater clarity by a negation of the irrelevant. The objects are not equated, they are superimposed. More precisely the main object under analysis is transposed into the space of the second one being used as an analogy.
To understand reverse engineering we must understand the order and direction of original construction. A vague idea is conceived usually behind a foggy screen since the builders have not yet figured out the details of how they will bring this into reality. Then, a step a time and usually with deviations from the original concept, the “material” shape of the concept comes into being. At the other end, when we are presented with a piece of software to reverse engineer, that is to say, to analyze and understand in terms of its parts, what we can see is the materialized concept only. The first step is to understand what this piece of software exactly does as we do not know how it was built. We get to understand what it does by categorizing input and output relations, which direct us towards an understanding its behavior in different situations — different contexts. The result of a successfully reverse-engineered software program is a piece of code whose compiled object behaves the same as the original one in every conceivable way possible. This code is most probably different from the original one, but this is irrelevant since the importance of this code is the understanding and reproducing of the final piece of software. Original software building moves from details and into the solidification of a vision. Reverse engineering moves from the solidified vision and into the details.
In other words, what matters most is the total end result (as in music or software engineering) and not the judging of parts for their own sake (but only in relation as to how they affect that end result). This is why it is important as an analyst to move in a backward manner. But for this to be valuable, the person must understand this holistic result first, and this is only achieved through study and knowledge. This is comparable to the analyst of software who needs to not only see the input and output relations but understand higher-level concepts and probabilistic tendencies derivable from those. In the same way the analyst of music must through his own lenses and knowledge grasp a picture of the whole in its relations between harmony, rhythm and melody derive a map of sequences of movements and balances.
Going from the general to the specific enables us to keep a holistic view in focus. It helps us place the sum of the parts over the individual parts themselves. Trying to pick out the traits first and then judging the whole by making a recapitulation of these is not only obfuscating the whole which some with a more limited understanding judge to be impossible to put in objective terms but can be deceiving of just what the true quality of this work actually is.
To illustrate this point we can observe how appreciation of many so-called progressive acts is carried out. The positive reviews of these usually entail a shopping list of traits to be filled. Tempo changes, signature changes, contrasting moods, variety of instrumentation, instrumental competence, catchy and captivating melodies perhaps, too. An album like Dream Theater’s Images and Words fits these requirements to the letter and yet the result is a messy carnival train wreck that expresses nothing in particular precisely because there is no view of the whole in mind as a musically-balanced entity, but only as a sequence of cool moments.
This phenomenon can also occur through ignorance of what music constitutes. This happens in pop and the so-called symphonic metal, which I will re-baptize with a more honest name: metal-like pop, or just metal pop. In this vein, an album like Nightwish’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful is received by its fans and judged primarily in terms of how catchy it is. How effective its hooks are and how much they will like its melodies. Arguably a more musically honest affair than the pseudo prog of Dream Theater, this reduces music to only one of its many aspects and judges the whole by its effectiveness.
Finally, I would like to mention the often mis-appreciated Obscura by Gorguts. Ignorant and pretentious journalist twats like Anthony Fantano spewing almost nonsensical and musically irrelevant descriptions such as “intense technicality”, “noisy surprises” and “dizzying structures” of Gorguts’ music in Coloured Sands represent the epitome of the post-modernist hipster’s appreciation of the band’s music. While popular arguments in favor of Obscura include how “technical” it is (while most fans barely even grasp what this actually entails, they think it has to do with how difficult it is to play or hear), how foreboding its atmosphere is while remaining “brutal” (an obviously superficial judgement of quality) or even worse, how “original” (by which they mean different) it is. They’ve basically reduced a masterpiece to “difficult to play and listen to, brutal and quite different from most stuff out there”.
The merits of Obscura are far more subtle than that, as are any real merits resulting from true excellence. The degree to which it sounds superficially different comes from a use of the riff that I would call mystical. That is to say, the riffs and their harmony here no longer represent what they traditionally do, but they remain significant in terms of the operations they build in the context of their neighboring riffs. They stop being translucent symbols that show the way into a harmonic and melodic conclusion and they become opaque, acquiring new meaning — a specific musical function dictated by their author– determined by their positions at different moments that instead causes the mind to reach that conclusion on its own through coherent indirection and dissimilitude of expression within a consistent language. In this, Obscura is the death metal counterpart to Darkthrone’s Transilvanian Hunger.
Stepping away from the dynamic picture that music is and listening for the total results and relations in the big picture enable us to know exactly what to look for as explanations for these. In a way it implies focusing on an interplay between the subjective (our impressions of the whole) and the objective (the music structures themselves) to locate music — itself an expression of beauty, to which the dichotomy of objective and subjective is inapplicable — somewhere in between.
Xendra was a heavy metal project from the Central American country, Honduras. Rumor has it that their only album was recorded within one week around the turn of the century. The simplicity of the production would never put this into doubt as it is just barely satisfies the requirements of the music to be listenable.
As Brett Stevens said in a previous article, one could make the experiment of imagining music played through a primitive or simple device or format like a midi output and then see how interesting the music becomes then as a measure of the actual resulting power of the composition. It is in this respect that the barely satisfactory production in this album becomes a test for the music. Despite the production, the compositions’ musical qualities shine through, modest as they admittedly are in the very-large scale of music appreciation.
Xendra’s brand of late heavy metal also takes on speed metal characteristics with melodic tendencies. This is a typical 1990s mid-paced, simple melodic heavy/speed amalgam that is exemplified today by Cruxiter. Most of the most iconic and prominent Central American metal bands played in this style. Its raw yet singable character being particularly apt to work as a channel for a kind of urban folk style. I often use a word callejero(“of the street”) to describe the particular brand of heavy metal that developed in Central and northern South America. It is a folk heavy metal not because it makes use of old aboriginal melodies for motifs, but rather because it is the language of the young people in touch with the crudest reality of their modern countries. As such it tends to be be full of socio-political protest, prone to melancholic bouts and occult visionary prophecies. We should stress that the latter is appropriate and perhaps even mandatory for any respectable underground metal genre. As a kind of folk music, a few simpler songs in verse chorus manner are sparkled throughout the sixteen tracks of the album. These do not sound pandering as indulging themselves or the singer but are veritable laments voiced impersonally.
Claiming to be influenced from the more mainstream rock and hard rock progressive outfits like Rush and Dream Theater, someone listening in a slightly distracted manner would miss where and how Xendra makes these influences manifest. While we hear Dream Theater making technical acrobatics and the contrasts from one section of the music to the next the main point of the music, a more sensible and humble band like Xendra uses them in key points as tools towards smooth expansion or creative and beautiful articulation between sections. The rendition of the heavy metal callejero as presented in 2000’s Xendra is one of the best of its kind. Displaying elegant songwriting, subtlety and the restraint of talented instrumentalists using their technical abilities where the music needs them, rather than when their ego fancies it.
I got thinking about this while reading through some of the stuff on The Gabriel Construct’s webpage. He said he wants to make progressive metal progressive again. After thinking about this, I realized that this really strikes a chord with me. It is probably one of the reasons I’ve felt so uninspired by the stuff I’ve been listening to.
Let’s take as a case study: HeavyBlog’s top 12 of 2013 so far list (restricting to 2013 will not influence this discussion at all, since the best prog of 2012 falls into the same tropes) and pull the albums that can be labelled as “prog.” I actually like a lot of prog metal. You should remember this, because it is going to sound like a post in which I slam prog metal. Instead, this should be read as a sadness that such a promising genre has hit a stasis.
This is going to get hairy with putting bands into certain boxes, but as I see it the list is Tesseract (should djent actually count as a form of prog?), Persefone (is symphonic metal a form of prog?), Coheed and Cambria, Intronaut, Extol (OK, I haven’t actually listened to this one, but the list says it’s prog), Leprous, and The Ocean.
What do these bands have in common that makes them prog? They tend to have technical playing with technique that derives from classical skills of fast arpeggios and scale patterns than more traditional metal/rock techniques. The chord progressions tend to be less straightforward. This can mean jazz influenced or excessive chromaticism. The time signatures tend to be less straightforward and can even involve alternating time signatures and metric modulations. Lastly, the songs tend to be longer and more thoroughly developed and tied together with a common theme.
So what’s the problem? Well, at one point in time doing these things within metal was a progressive thing to do. They weren’t being done. It was interesting and new. It was moving the genre forward. Now it seems that these things that define the genre have become tropes. You have to have x number of time changes, y number of chromatic patterns, and z number of songs over 8 minutes long. Oh yeah, and we’ll praise you mindlessly if you make these numbers without actually doing anything original.
Instead of being truly progressive and trying to bring in new influences to make interesting and new music, it all ends up sounding similar. Just because you came up with a way to arpeggiate faster, using a “new” pattern, and you do more chromatic steps doesn’t mean you’re “more progressive” or even more interesting. It is more of the same pretending to be different.
Maybe I’m reacting to an over-saturation of prog lately, and I won’t feel this way after a break from it, but sometimes when listening to prog it sounds like a joke. It sounds like the band is stringing together a bunch of tropes in mockery of how derivative it all has become. Scale the Summit is unfortunately going to get my wrath, but I can’t listen that new album. It has such high praise all over the place, but I’m so bored by it. I mean listen to this. It is pretty, and quite impressive technically at parts, but how many times have you heard this?
No offense to Scale the Summit, I could have picked something off literally any of the bands listed above and some of those albums might even make my top 10 of the year. It is just a feature of the current prog scene. It has become static. There are the occasional minor details that are new, but overall, it isn’t progressing.
Progressive metal can become progressive again. To some people it may seem shocking. What more do I want? They are already employing all of the complexity you would find in any fully trained classical composer. I’d reply, well, yes, any trained composer through the 19th century. But this stuff is more than a century old now. You could incorporate tons of modern developments. You don’t have to write atonally, but you can incorporate interesting post-tonal techniques to make something progressive without losing your band’s characteristic sound.
Other than tonality, there have been tons of other innovations from play style (stop with the incessant arpeggios, please), to modern electronic filtering of sound in new ways, to how your band layers together its pieces texturally, to instruments used (thank you Hybrid for showing us clarinet can be used in metal), to more original genre crossover, and on and on. You shouldn’t have to be an Animals as Leaders or Dream Theater clone to be prog. I bet I could write a fugue a la Hindemith that would sound really good by a metal band. How about someone tries that for originality?
I know there are actually lots of bands out there doing this, but they immediately get labelled as avant garde and pushed out of the prog scene. As I pointed out last time, this term should probably be reserved for the really, really out there stuff. Incorporating these techniques subtly into your standard prog sound should still count as prog metal. We should embrace more experimentation to finally get out of this stasis.