What the heck is metalcore?

fugazi_flyerDuring the late 1990s, a different style of metal emerged in the death metal camp. Starting with bands like Dillinger Escape Plan, Killswitch Engage, Misery Index, The Haunted, Human remains, Ulcerate, Meshuggah and Discordance Axis, this new style was given many names at first.

It’s math-metal, they said. No, it’s technical death metal (later shortened to “tech-deth” to keep people from expecting something like what Pestilence did on Spheres). Finally someone came up with “modern metal,” which many of us use like a catch-all.

The record companies were excited. Musically it was different. This style is accessible to more musicians, in addition to more fans, than the old style. It’s easier to make a reasonable impression of it, at least.

Thematically it was different. It’s everything that rock ‘n’ roll has always been. It’s loud, angry, and chaotic; perfect to disturb parents, which sells albums. Finally, unlike metal, it doesn’t stray into truly dangerous areas of thought. It is more likely to be written from an individual perspective, and less likely to glorify war, disease and death than protest them. Socially, it’s much “safer.”

What made it new was that it wasn’t like the extreme metal before it. However, it shared many techniques in common not just with that generation, but the generation before it. Specifically, many of the composition aspects are similar to those from post-hardcore bands like Fugazi, Rites of Spring, and Botch. These differences distinguished it from death metal in the following ways:

  1. Vocal rhythms. Death metal vocals are more like speed metal, which is to chant out the rhythm of the main riff or chorus phrase. Modern metal vocals are much like hardcore, which uses regularity of intervals between syllables to form a sound of protest. Death metal also prefers monotonic delivery with variant timbre, where hardcore vocals prefer more melodic vocal delivery with invariant timbre.
  2. Riffing. Death metal riffs are phrasal, or written as a flow of power chords forming a phrase or melody, and these fit together to form a narrative with poetic form, meaning that it takes the song from an initial place to a final place with a much different outlook. Modern metal riffs are inherently designed toward circular song constructions, like hardcore, and are based upon radical contrast between each other to suggestdeconstruction, like hardcore. Metal riffs form a synthesis through contrast; hardcore riffs deconstruct through contrast and reject synthesis.
  3. Drumming. Death metal drumming tends to follow the riff changes; modern metal drumming tends to lead the riff changes, anticipating them. In death metal, instruments tend to act in unison. In metalcore, they tend to each work separately and overlap as convenient.
  4. Style. Death metal aims toward unison of all instruments and riffs fitting together to make a larger narrative so as to maintain mood; modern metal, like hardcore before it, seeks to interrupt mood as if a form of protest music.

Critics of the terms “metalcore” and “modern metal” correctly note that these terms are being used as a catch-all. That’s correct, but it’s only part of the story. These terms are being used to describe something that’s not new, but existed before death metal and black metal reached their modern form. It’s an alternate branch of metal’s evolution, upgraded with death metal technique.

For students of metal history, this isn’t surprising. Genres tend to lie dormant in alternating generations, and then pick up on whatever was done well by the intervening generation. For example, power metal is what happens when speed metal and glam metal bands integrate death metal technique. Grindcore occurs when hardcore adopts crust and death metal technique. Speed metal occurs when metal adopts punk technique. By the same token, metalcore is what happens when you mix Fugazi with death metal technique.

This is not an argument against metalcore. If we’re going to like metal, we should understand it; if we’re going to understand it, we should study it; if we study it, we should organize our categories and language so as not to mislead each other. By this analysis, metalcore is an extension not of metal, but of the post-hardcore movement using metal technique, and thus it should be analyzed as more like hardcore instead of having us project our metal expectations upon it.

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Interview: Ara

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Music is never in stasis. It is composed of two parts, a form and a content. The two are related; in the best of situations, content causes the musician to innovate a new form. When the content changes, the old form is not relevant. However, some things are timeless and those forms persist.

Such questions emerge at the front of the mind when we look at Wisconsin’s Ara and their latest album, The Blessed Sleep. Whatever the changes that have been wrought in metal over the past 20 years, Ara roll back some of the tendencies toward excessive form and pointless technicality, and return the focus to songwriting. (See our review of The Blessed Sleep.)

Ara presents a challenge to what metal has become and to what many conceive of as metal. We figured we would go deeper for the whole story, and were fortunate to speak with guitarist and band cofounder Jerry Hauppa, who helped clarify the situation and told us about the inspiration and musical vision behind Ara’s latest, The Blessed Sleep.

You approach metalcore/tech-deth with a stripped-down style that focuses more on songwriting. What made you decide to do this, against the conventions of the genre?

None of us are really thrilled by the theatrics of sweeped scales masquerading as riffs in extreme metal nowadays. To the casual fan this can superficially be interpreted as sounding crazy and chaotic but we all come from older metal backgrounds where the riffs and arrangements had to have creativity and personality in order to express deviation between songs and moods. Cluttering up a song with a ton of parts can be an effective way to display chaos at times but we are trying to make sure each part serves the song well enough where nothing seems to be either filler or extraneous.

What do you think separates “modern metal” (metalcore, tech-deth, indie metal) from the older extreme metal like death metal and black metal?

The Blessed Sleep seems to have indirectly caused quite the argument about this in the comments section of your review for the record, but in my defense of death metal I clearly differ from the opinion of your readers in terms of what I feel falls under its umbrella. I think that “modern metal” is less a genre and more a statement that tries to separate any current take on the genre that threatens the ethos created in the early 90s. I agree that most of what I hear nowadays doesn’t resonate with me, but I’m not going to invalidate it by claiming it isn’t death metal or black metal because I’m afraid of what that means for me as a listener.

What I will say, is that I feel I have an uncanny ability to hear motive in music, and what I think you are getting at with the title “modern metal” is the unfortunate actions of -core acts that clearly resemble marketing ploys and the inhibiting crutches present in their writing, which throw at the listener a sense of immediate gratification through the aforementioned sweeps and of course, breakdowns. What we are trying to do is not throw the listener a bone so I feel we have more in common with the rebellious aspects of the early death metal movement than what people are considering to be “modern.”

In your view, what are the founding acts that influenced this style? What influences do you as a band have in addition to these?

The style shown on the record, or in modern metal? As for the latter, I have no idea really. I know that it seems many young bands don’t understand the history of metal and are trying to emulate a band that has emulated another band and so on, and that’s a shame with the ease of resources we have nowadays.

I guess as for the aspect of a more chaotic form of death metal, you could probably say that Cryptopsy’s Whisper Supremacy took the idea of a metal song arrangement and turned it upside down- at least for me, when I heard it, nothing really sounded like it. Today’s bands probably are really far removed from that record but the bands they ripped off might be familiar, I don’t know.

As for the influences of the band, for me, I’ve always been drawn to more complex music because I like to hear something new in a song each time I hear it. I’d say Gorguts, Anata and Cryptopsy are definite influences, as well as Theory in Practice and maybe the early explosion of Unique Leader bands. As far as how the record sounds, I could probably say I was drawn to the feel of Sinister’s Aggressive Measures record in terms of their atonal leanings and not having the guitars be tuned super low. The rest of the guys in the band have a huge list of influences, but I can say I know Erik worships Discordance Axis, Adam loves stuff like Fleshgod Apocalypse and Jim listens to everything under the sun.

How did you get the crisp sound on The Blessed Sleep? It sounds like you played it live, but somehow got a nice digital snap to each track. Where was it recorded?

We recorded with Shane Hochstetler at Howl Street Studios, and we are extremely happy with the sound. We have recorded there numerous times with other projects and he is a blast to work with and everything he does sounds amazing. I don’t really care for the sterile production of modern metal bands and really wanted this record to sound tight yet savage, so we deliberately left it without too much polish to give it its own atmosphere. As for how we got the sound, I know there are tons of guitar tracks going on all the time so it has a wall of sound that gives it the heaviness that I think a lot of technical bands are lacking.

What prompted you to found Ara, in the style you’ve chosen, and what additions do you hope to make to the genre?

I always wanted to do my take on death metal since I was a teenager, and only now am I lucky enough to be around the musicians that can make it happen. The style is I suppose an amalgamation of all of my influences in extreme metal, but as I get better at writing music I really feel as though the compositions are inherently mine and don’t directly emulate any particular band.

As far as the second half of your question, I don’t have any lofty goals where I think we can be flagbearers for any kind of genre movement, I just hope people check out the record and like it. If I had any wish that we could influence anything, I do hope the riff can come back. I miss and mourn for the riff.

Where do you want to go after The Blessed Sleep? It seems like you’ve reached a peak within this genre; are you going to grow in a new direction, or refine?

As of today I have written 11 songs for a full length and am really excited to see how the new material will shape up. The rest of the guys know four of the new songs and I would say it is decidedly different from The Blessed Sleep. There is a much greater focus on melody but not in the At the Gates way, probably more in an Anata way. I am trying to make the songs complex but with very few themes explored per song because I want each song to be its own entity. You can hear one of the new songs in the live set on the youtube video you posted, it’s the last one we played. I’m trying to balance melody with discordance in each song. Some of the newer stuff is way faster than anything we’ve done and we have some doomier stuff as well. If you like The Blessed Sleep I think you’ll be excited for the progression. Also, we are very much hoping for label support for future recordings.

What do you think draws people to your music?

The band is very new so I don’t really know yet. People like speed and we have and love lots of blast beats. We also try to be atypical so I assume people that like weird metal will hopefully like it. Time will tell.

If fans wanted to explore your music, where do you recommend they start, and what should they do next?

You can stream the whole record at arawi.bandcamp.com, so there you go. Then I suppose you should follow us on Facebook to find out what we’re up to and where we’re playing.

Will you be touring for this album? Will we see you in Texas?

I absolutely want to get on the road for this record and hopefully we can do so later in the year. Erik and I play in another band called Northless that is in the studio next month so after that is wrapped up we can get our scheduling straight and play outside our home town. We would love to play in Texas if everything works out and if so we will definitely let you know! Thanks for your time and the support!

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Standard Whore (Demilich)

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Continuing our series of metalcore bands, a brief look at Standard Whore shows us an exceptional version of the modern metal style combined with a guitar rock outlook.

From the mastermind guitarist and drummer of Demilich, this style in post-Gorguts Obscura era metal hybrids uses the post-hardcore tendency to string together surprising and alarming riff combinations with a stoner rock or guitar rock tendency to stitch it all into a big jam session. One thing’s for sure: if you’re looking for metal, look elsewhere.

The same quirky riffing that made Demilich distinct is here but with more groove, less complexity, and its weirdness has been redirected to a sense of catch and hooky sounds. The result is really easy to listen to, and joins other mostly-instrumental projects like Blotted Science in trying to forge a new late model of the old influences.

Boman’s guitar is the organization voice here and gives to this style a new dimension into which it could expand, which is to remove the pretense of deconstruction and allow a jam to bleed itself together out of these spacy riffs and tortuous tempi.

Somehow I missed this back in 2010, but it’s good to give it some air and light now. These songs are from a live rehearsal session featuring material written 2008-2010.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IzBwprczDm4&feature=related

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XjyyKaOw3sI&feature=related

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dimd6hqsaDk&feature=related

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pThtiIE3RKE&feature=related

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6OhS5JSFLCs&feature=related

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KBa6i9aE1kc&feature=related

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Ara – The Blessed Sleep

During the past decade, a number of bands have tried to reign in the genre from its Necrophagist-style peak of unrelated technical fireworks to more of the songwriting that made bands like Botch, Human Remains and Rites of Spring influential founders of the genre.

With The Blessed Sleep, Ara steps up to the plate by streamlining the genre and removing the unrelated parts, which keeps a focus on songwriting like Harkonin or Neurosis. This eliminates the biggest problem, but for those who don’t like metalcore, it leaves the tendency to scream out lyrics in a trope of regularity and a fascination with “different” riffs and surprise twists that often leads toward a predictability of being unpredictable. (Imagine a general on the battlefield who maintains an advantage by being unpredictable. After a while, it becomes random, and easier to respond to because there is no expectation otherwise.)

The Blessed Sleep attempts to work around these challenges to the genre by varying tempo and the texture of riffing, stacking subtly melodic arpeggios up against chromatic chugging riffing, and by not using any single technique constantly (except the angry-man-in-a-phone-booth vocals). The result is far more listenable and develops actual songs that, although based on jarring contrast, are able to return to a single pair of themes and develop variation there.

Although Ara are touted by many as technical, nothing here is particularly technical as in specific skills, but putting these songs together without them falling apart and playing them on the nose will be difficult for any but a professional and experienced band. The streamlined songwriting, topicality and focus make The Blessed Sleep one of the more intense tech-deth albums to emerge in recent years.

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Monsterworks – Album of Man

monsterworks-album_of_manThe job of a reviewer is to describe music, not judge it. Assessment ultimately becomes obvious from the context of expectation created by the reviewer which shows where all things must fit in the bigger pattern.

Monsterworks resembles a mixture of things and prefers to stay that way. The majority of the structural parts of songs are like Led Zeppelin mixed with Southern Rock and early doom metal, using metalcore style rasp vocals, so that most of what you hear is very guitar-rock styled heavy metal. This is a welcome change from the less organic metalcore of late.

If you like guitar playing that is bluesy, varied and emotional, this album will pique your interest. While the vocals rant, guitars hit all the right rhythms and then work in leads with the fills, slowly building up intensity until the song explodes in sound. If you can imagine Led Zeppelin and Ion Dissonance collaborating on a stoner doom album, this might be about it.

Monsterworks create very much in the 1970s style, and yet with its vocals and aesthetics, very much in the 2010s style as well. The result is both deeply engaged and like newer metal hybrids, incessant in its peak intensity, which can make it meld together indistinctly. It often detours into “different” arenas, like progressive rock, tech-deth, and straight up hardcore, as if a variety show.

Album of Man reforms the anti-technical side of post-metal and metalcore however by using the guitar as a voice of its own, and breaking up the strident extremity with old fashioned instrumentalism. This both brings rock and metal back to their core and renews the intensity of the vocals. By doing so, it takes newer metal to a better place and makes for a more satisfying listen.

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The war on hipsters is accelerating

Taylor Swift

Many don’t see this as a metal topic, but as Cianide would say, “Metal never bends!” What does bend, to trends? The hipster and all other people who think a surface-level view of life is important.

A hipster is someone who leverages all aspects of their personality, art and social group for the kind of invisible magic karma points that “popularity” and “notoriety” confer upon the narcissistic personality. Like cultists, hipsters have shattered self-esteem and seek to compensate by knowing things that other people don’t know, specifically traded in artistic and cultural artifacts that are special — like the hipsters themselves — for being unique, odd, “different,” unconventional, distinctive, etc.

Notice what’s missing in there: realistic, accurate, informative and/or useful.

Hipsters originally shunned metal because metal is by nature a warlike genre. We look past the surface level of life’s drama, expressed dually by individual narcissism and social group zombie hive mind thinking, and instead pay attention to the situation beyond the individual. The heavy stuff: war, death, metaphysics, infinity, disease, history, the occult and the esoteric.

In 2008, Adbusters magazine blew the lid off the rising millennial hipster epidemic by proclaiming hipsters the dead end of Western civilization. An excerpt:

Ever since the Allies bombed the Axis into submission, Western civilization has had a succession of counter-culture movements that have energetically challenged the status quo. Each successive decade of the post-war era has seen it smash social standards, riot and fight to revolutionize every aspect of music, art, government and civil society.

But after punk was plasticized and hip hop lost its impetus for social change, all of the formerly dominant streams of “counter-culture” have merged together. Now, one mutating, trans-Atlantic melting pot of styles, tastes and behavior has come to define the generally indefinable idea of the “Hipster.”

An artificial appropriation of different styles from different eras, the hipster represents the end of Western civilization – a culture lost in the superficiality of its past and unable to create any new meaning. Not only is it unsustainable, it is suicidal. While previous youth movements have challenged the dysfunction and decadence of their elders, today we have the “hipster” – a youth subculture that mirrors the doomed shallowness of mainstream society.

Since that time, the hipster epidemic has only become more pervasive. Famous for being ironic, in order to be unconventional and different, hipsters wander through life making art out of garbage, Instagraming their oddball tastes in food, liveblogging their personal drama, treating their children like press agents for themselves, and generally making society more vapid, plastic, superficial, oblivious, trivial and vain.

Luckily, world leaders and authority figures are stepping in to help out.

First, North Korea is helping by threatening immediate war. But this isn’t a war on the USA. It’s a war on hipsters:

Some Texans, however, suggested the path in fact led 95 miles south to Austin, the state’s capital, and speculated that Mr Kim had taken against the liberal enclave’s young “hipster” population.

North Korea probably doesn’t get a lot of US papers. They probably don’t get too many Americans over there who aren’t credulous tourists or formal State Department types. However, they do get the internet. To them, America is an unending stream of Pinterest, Facebook, Reddit and FourSquare. From their point of view, the US = hipsters. So they’re taking out the real hipster capital of this place, and hope that will kill our culture like an ant mound poisoned with cianide.

From a completely different angle, Taylor Swift is mocking hipsters with her new single, including Instagram-style photographs, ironic hipster classes, and bittersweet lyrics that are poignant through indecision. She is hoping to curry her fanbase, composed of legions of young women with disposable income, to wage war on the hipster. This might succeed even better than Kim Jong-un’s nuclear attack.

And covering the domestic front, Boston’s police department are cracking down on hipster house parties featuring boring two-note pop punk bands with ironic themes about getting lost on life’s highway. Apparently, the officers are impersonating trendy hipsters in order to figure out where the hip ones are congregating in suburban houses, where they and their bad bands and PBR make noise until 4 am, prompting not one but many homeowners to open fire with rusty old weapons from the last real war.

While by themselves none of these seem significant, when added up these commonalities point to one thing: a world-wide backlash against the hipster and its superficial, ironic and selfish ways. As the hipster falls, metal rises, so we’re glad to see this development.

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Integrity – Those Who Fear Tomorrow

integrity-those_who_fear_tomorrowIn the early 1980s, punks had a wary attitude toward metal because they saw it as commercializing their music. As I finally get around to hearing Integrity’s Those Who Fear Tomorrow, I see their point, although it’s not an important one.

Merging punk and metal, Integrity add faster riffing and more complex song structures, as well as lead guitar noodling and a vocal attack that sounds like it is designed to be a more extreme version of the “Age of Quarrel” vocals from the Cro-Mags. It ends up sounding like something Phillip Anselmo could have used as his blueprint for his vocals with Pantera, in that it adds more of the confrontational shouted and chanted vocals and de-emphasizes anything like singing.

Staccato riffing with the choppy-edged sound of muted strum down-picking in the style of speed metal rounds out the package. Integrity likes to add broad spaces in their songs, such they hit with a riff and vocal attack, then pull back vocals and downplay instrumentation so there’s a pocket that draws in our attention. It is catchy but its repeated use lessens its effectiveness.

While there is probably nothing to be feared from commercialization here, as it makes for songs with more hook and polish, it is also in a genre different from punk and metal. These songs mostly follow pop song format, are mostly hook, and lose the total alienation of punk and the transcendental imagination of metal. For a hard rock or pop punk listen however, it’s a channel of rage that many will find appealing.

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Metal Orthodoxy

You may have noticed a metal orthodoxy forming over the years, but especially 1998 to the present. This orthodoxy emphasizes “trueness” to the concept (as well as the trappings, aesthetic, style, etc) of the original bands, and is paranoid wary of newcomers who do not embrace it.

Now that the official hipster central of the internet, The Onion, has published a metal list, we can demonstrate why metal orthodoxy exists: it’s designed to keep metal from being assimilated, or taken on by the larger genre of popular music as a style without ideas of its own.

Keeping it simple:
Ideas -> music -> genre of its own = metal orthodoxy
Just a style, any ideas = rock ‘n roll

See why there’s a distinct movement to metal orthodoxy? No one in a genre that is unique wants to be assimilated by what’s not unique, and in fact is the average of everything it has so far consumed. Rock music is like a large corporation, eating up small brands and removing what makes them unique, turning them into a label that can be stuck on just about any product in order to sell it.

Here’s The Onion’s list:

  • Agoraphobic Nosebleed, Frozen Corpse Stuffed With Dope (2002)
  • Amon Amarth, Twilight Of The Thunder God (2008)
  • Anaal Nathrakh, The Codex Necro (2001)
  • Baroness, Blue Record (2009)
  • Blut Aus Nord, The Work Which Transforms God (2003)
  • Boris, Pink (2005)
  • Converge, Jane Doe (2001)
  • Deftones, White Pony (2000)
  • The Dillinger Escape Plan, Ire Works (2007)
  • Earthless, Rhythms From A Cosmic Sky (2007)
  • Electric Wizard, Dopethrone (2000)
  • Goatwhore, Carving Out The Eyes Of God (2009)
  • Harvey Milk, Life… The Best Game In Town (2008)
  • High On Fire, Blessed Black Wings (2005)
  • Isis, Oceanic (2002)
  • The Mars Volta, Frances The Mute (2005)
  • Mastodon, Leviathan (2004)
  • Melechesh, Djinn (2001)
  • The Melvins, (A) Senile Animal (2006)
  • Meshuggah, Catch Thirtythree (2005)
  • Opeth, Watershed (2008)
  • Orthrelm, OV (2005)
  • Pelican, The Fire In Our Throats Will Beckon The Thaw (2005)
  • Pig Destroyer, Phantom Limb (2007)
  • Queens Of The Stone Age, Songs For The Deaf (2002)
  • Skeletonwitch, Breathing The Fire (2009)
  • Slayer, Christ Illusion (2006)
  • Sleep, Dopesmoker (2003)
  • The Sword, Age Of Winters (2006)
  • System Of A Down, Toxicity (2001)

Why do they like these bands? Well, first and foremost — you, dear reader, are not naieve enough to think that there’s not a financial connection here. These are bands distributed by or signed to the labels that help support The Onion and may at this point be personal friends or just “scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” type buddies.

But next, they’re bands that rock listeners can comprehend. Except Melechesh, which is there for a different reason. And that reason is next: each band is different, meaning that it doesn’t fit into a perceived orthodoxy. Each band is “different” by being not the perceived norm, as perceived by outsiders who cannot tell the difference between Incantation and Immolation even though that difference is immediately perceptible to anyone who likes, understands and most of all pays attention to the music.

The “different” plays into the psychology of the individual. You’re just a cog in the machine. You’d like to think differently, but every day you keep doing whatever a cog does. So you find some way to be the cog that’s a cog, but also has a little something else. Interpretive dance. A flute on your death metal album. Or you’re an oddity, the one thing of type X that isn’t like the others.

See this in action, with bonus points for adding a sense of victimization — all cogs are victims, because otherwise they’d be running the machine! — added in:

Long before The Sword, Boris was getting smeared as poseur metal. It’s unlikely that would have happened if the band wasn’t Japanese, and if lead guitarist Wata wasn’t a woman

That must be it.

Not that this band is indie rock dressed up with some metal stylings and has nothing in common with metal as an idea, as a genre, but everything in common with indie rock. After all, irony is a key way to be different.

Here’s another great dickslap in the face for metal:

Metal, more than most genres, rewards consistency; a lot of headbangers would just as soon their favorite bands keep making the same record over and over. As elsewhere, though, there’s always something to be said for progress, and Goatwhore’s most recent record is a great leap forward.

The same album over and over means “the album sounds the same aesthetically.” It doesn’t mean the notes are the same; it means the distortion, tempi, vocals, and concept are similar. So it’s not the same album, is it? But for people who cannot appreciate that album, it’s important to find a good put-down so they can feel better about their own CD rack. Yeah, it’s the same old stuff. Yeah, it’s just consistent. But this other band… they’ve (gush here) progressed, which means they added a flute to their grindcore. Did they progress? No, but all of us can tell that a flute is a change, where only a few of us can tell that composition gained depth, or new emotions, even if the aesthetic remained the same.

Indie rock is what happens when you have a bunch of people making music just as vapid as Madonna or Sting, but they want some way to appear not-a-cog so they trick it out in this superficial progress using irony to be different so we know they’re the unique cogs. But their problem is that every cog thinks it’s a unique cog, so then they’re in an arms race to both trick out their own music with weirdness, causing it be basically ugly trash (this has happened to all modern art), and put down any music which does have artistic content, because it threatens them.

And at the end of the day, that’s what this Onion article is about: the fear of masses of hipsters that they missed something within the music (e.g. not adding a flute) and therefore, that they are just cogs after all. Which as they go back to their hipster “it pays nothing but I feel educated or socially important” jobs, is a bitter consolation indeed.

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