Poser power metal band Rhapsody of Fire made history on July 10, 2016, by playing their first concert in Tel Aviv, Israel. This took place at the traditional ‘Rock the Havana Club’ and probably attracted many a power metal connoisseur from the deconstructionist school.
More Ghost Scooby-Doo music mixed with random Deathspell Omega retardation than cohesive and nuanced terror, Sovereign Nailing Shut the Sacrosanct Orifice presents yet another example of the many failures of modern black metal: pretentious in lyrical orientation, vacuous in concrete musical content, mediocre in the putting together of structures that form an intelligible narrative. The lyrics themselves, in any case, will appear cursorily written, superficial, and sensationalist for anyone that has delved semi-seriously into the subjects.
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.
In the 1980s, the term “poseur” or “poser” was used to near-death by people trying to describe those who were involved with the music simply to make themselves look cool.
In the 1990s, we had “scenesters” who were people who hung around a musical scene to use it as a justification for their lifestyle. If someone questioned their lack of success or purpose in life, they pointed to the “scene” that they were part of.
And now, as the hands of time have run down further, we have hipsters: people who use music as a form of lifestyle adornment to explain why their life is better than yours. Generally they do this from a position of outsiderness, and by proving to be more obscure in their tastes than you, make you look like a herd-sheep in contrast.
What all these definitions have in common is that they reflect people who are using music in a backward thought process. Most people listen to music because they like it, and use their social life as a means to that music. Insincere people use the music as a means to the end of having a social life, and eventually drag down the community by forcing it in irrelevant directions. Entropy, in other words, caused by social need.
Recently No Clean Singing entered the fray with their analysis of the hipster gradient to Deafhaven:
What bothers me is that some people seem to be judging albums (and labeling the music “hipster”) mainly because they’ve become very popular, to the point of becoming “crossover” hits. We all know that the more successful, the more popular, the less “underground” a metal album becomes, the more it’s going to be put down within the community of metal. It’s a kind of perverse streak that our community seems to have.
I hope this author allows me to respectfully dissent here. The problem isn’t that these albums are popular; it’s that they’re not metal. Metal like most outsider genres has a strict sense of identity and purpose, and it fears adulteration for good reason. If metal starts admitting regular music into its inner sanctum, then metal will become assimilated by mainstream music.
We think of mainstream music as some bold direction but, if you look at history, it’s not. Pentatonic music appeared in Europe and Asia as a way to create popular music without having to wrangle with key or mode. The song form we now know as the pop song came from English drinking songs, the percussion from German waltzes, and the call-response format from gospel churches. This music isn’t a single direction; it’s what was compatible between many different directions, a lowest common denominator.
Metal broke away from this and went in its own direction. Part of being an outsider genre is to police your own borders. The only thing that gives you integrity is that spirit that allowed you to break away and have a different vision of reality. The problem is that you are constantly under assault. To the majority, you’re a threat because you’re doing things differently. And yet they wish they could be you, or at least be as seemingly cool as you are.
Hipsters are what happens when a social scene invades a musical movement. Instead of people working toward the music, people are using the music to justify their lifestyles, show off their outsider status (which is a raised status), or give themselves a unique purpose in life that others do not have. When people call Deafhaven a hipster band, they’re acknowledging the obvious: musically, Deafhaven has more in common with emo and indie rock than it ever will in metal, and we want the traitors out.