Emperor are currently preparing to tour in celebration of the twentieth anniversary their second album, the third rate Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk. While Emperor kept on wearing armor, Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk saw Emperor simplify their trademark complex, almost symphonic Norwegian black metal sound down to two to three note speed metal influenced riffs with neo-classical wank leads in conventional verse-chorus-verse heavy metal songs to appeal to a wider, Wacken-going audience.
Pink Floyd rightly reject the tag of progressive rock. Their compositional development falls light years short of what the best bands of that movement were doing with much better taste than Floyd’s false humble presumption. Pink Floyd’s most developed and experimental ambient moments merely point in the direction of the road that their more inspired and thoughtful contemporaries were traveling on. Klaus Schulze’s ambient work in Tangerine Dream is a true testament to experimental, electronic, and sampled music.
Floyd were pioneers at modern hipsterism in rock and metal as we know it today: a brain cancer that places weirdness and forced variety before artful coherence. Their undeserved praise is based on the simple fact that they are marketable to a wide audience. They wrote mediocre rock songs derived from the style of The Beatles: laughable in their ambient attempts and a headache when their ‘creativity’ ran too free. Pink Floyd’s only truly laudable moments are displayed in laid back, long-running rock songs that support narrative on melody lines, include justified interludes. These works approach the story-telling function that reigns in and maximizes the long-lasting impact of their early experimentalism.
A brief rundown of each of Pink Floyd’s early albums is given below in the interest of separating the little good from the large amounts of face-palming, pseudo-progressive posturing:
The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967) The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is too much of a name for too pathetic an album. A careless, random attempt at making Beatles songs take unexpected, sharp turns. .These are not at all pioneering as they simply abuse the Beatles’ wackier tendencies, creating interest through disjunction. These are poorly written pop songs with arbitrary appendages and nonsensical sounds: postmodernism meets banal rock music. Noteworthy are weird passages that sometimes build up to cumulative sequences but these are sparse and lead nowhere.
A Saucerful of Secrets (1968)
Pink Floyd moves on from The Beatles, adopting their postmodernist style consisting of juxtapositions and sequences that might sound coherent if used in a movie soundtrack but that fall short and sound incomplete when presented as music alone. They get points for sounding weird but this work amounts to a childish joke: the kazoos, marimbas, and random found sounds are ridiculous. People tend to like any entertaining piece of garbage. Ghost is an analogous modern band.
Pink Floyd moves on to a bawdier expression of the so-called ‘folk’ rock n’ roll of Led Zeppelin with mediocre results. However, they also continue a refinement of the ambient-oriented light rock interludes. More is intensely nonsensical, free jazz-influenced postmodernist pap.
The songs tend to have unclear curves, directions, or points. These are either standard pop songs that fade away or jumbled messes of random ideas breaking down into incongruent parts. The more laid back and standard pop songs with only moderate introductions, extraneous noises are the most pleasant; they still retain a certain sense of order that doesn’t render them oustanding but intelligible. Their surface traits attain purpose and balance in a way that finally approaches beauty. The random and bunk interludes remain unbearable though. This is music for those who wish to pose as music lovers yet cannot focus on actual ideas and aural concepts that birth, raise, and live lives of their own.
1969’s second release is a much more consciously structured concept album. Again, Pink Floyd bring forth something that is more akin to a weirdo-funny soundtrack that evokes the idiocy of Ghost minus Ghost’s complete lack of talent. The conceptual focus brings to the album a shadow of meaning that is completely lacking from any of their prior releases. We can appreciate their compositional boundaries when the non-interlude tracks crumble and lose coherence in the middle. Entropy at work. The rest of the tracks are simply silly and completely unpurposeful as the band strums away in extremely simple cyclic orderings that are never resolved; they just slide away with no heads or tales. This is music that brings nothing except a meta-feeling of strangeness and not-so-unique uniqueness to make the ego feel smarter for ‘liking’ it.
Atom Heart Mother (1970) Here, Pink Floyd start to display the sound they will be known for at the time of their zenith. The music flows smoothly and the randomness of sampled sounds is attenuated as they thought more this time around. While everything before Atom Heart Mother is utterly worthless, this album approaches the more orderly works their contemporaries with stronger classical influences. Pink Floyd’s music remains singularly simple but exquisitely developed; the messy pretentiousness is boxed in and reserved for very specific moments. They remain unable to capitalize, creating promising initial ideas but driving them into swamps, becoming brackish in their underlying repetitiveness. The suite bears the weight of the album; the rest of the songs are inconsequential and unworthy of notice.
Meddle (1971) A coming of age for Pink Floyd. The band is finally able to synthesize the concrete and promising aspects of their music, leaving behind much of the earlier nonsense which must have been explored in a completely intuitive manner. This album sees Pink Floyd apparently learning from their more cerebral peers (King Crimson had released several albums, Genesis was releasing their sophomore record, and Yes was arriving at their most meaningful expression alongside but completely separate from Pink Floyd) and trying to give continuity to the album itself: more tasteful attention is given to details inside songs which are somewhat melodically developed. The band is still mostly unable to conclude them, resorting to fades and cheap bale-outs. Most songs here are little better than augmented pop songs arranged with the whole album in mind, except for the longer stretches like the famous “Echoes”. This last track constitutes the net worth of this release; the rest may be dismissed without great loss.
Obscured by Clouds(1972) Obscured by Clouds starts out with an intro that might have inspired the work of later Tangerine Dream, who made worthwhile music out of what was merely a random snippet of Pink Floyd. After an album that promised to elevate the band beyond its all-too-mediocre shyness, Obscured by Clouds relies on underdeveloped pop songs, random cool-sounding interludes that are just there as they can be, and the snapshots of what would later constitute the sound of their most prominent mainstream success.
The Dark Side of the Moon(1973)
1973’s classic is probably the one and only Pink Floyd album worth dedicating precious moments of existence to. The Dark Side of the Moon is the final definitive sound of the band par excellence. Their crippling compositional shortsightedness is still present but they have learned to just deal with it through years of perseverance. Through years of refinement the band has turned their prior randomness into sharply-focused moments that finally assemble together yet always remaining unrelated cars in a train of pure intuition rather than one single narrative. Delightfully put-together, each moment in the wide repertoire from this jack-of-all-trades band is brought forth slowly in a way that feels necessary and justified. It has the expectation, delivery and dissolution that any good album should envy.
The Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd’s crowning achievement, deserves an honorable mention, perhaps a footnote under true masterpieces of popular art music that came out the following year through other talents. King Crimson’s Red, Genesis’s The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Gentle Giant’s The Power and the Glory are albums that appear smooth and simple but are truly only so in appearance. An unseen force is channeled through their inner alignment: complexity is made to seem easy and complex thought condenses into naturally-flowing music that effectively suscitates clear images in the mind’s eye.
Winter Thrice would’ve ensnared me for some time, had it come out in 2009. In my youth, I was more receptive to pomp and circumstance in my music, and if there’s one thing Borknagar’s latest recording does especially wrong, it’s that it never relents from its apparent desire to be epic, even to the point of having its share of contrived quiet sections for obvious dynamic contrast. Restraint is not part of these musician’s repertoire, and it makes for yet another flat (albeit psychically draining) album that I can’t imagine even its most rabid fans having much patience for once the initial blitz of sales wears off.
At its core, Borknagar is descended from the same sort of ‘atmospheric’ black metal that their fellow scenesters and countrymen in Arcturus once made a living doling out to the masses. It’s probably a coincidence (at best, historical understandable in the context of Norway in the early ’90s) that both of those bands have some roots in especially unusual death metal oriented recordings. What degraded these bands (and similar ones) over time was their ever increasing addiction to sonic novelty. While Borknagar was quicker to unify a few elements they liked and streamline everything else into their signature sound (I described the teaser as “melodramatic, pseudo-progressive heavy rock music”), they’ve ended up so dependent on their own aesthetic that it interferes with their ability to develop their songs.
Now, Borknagar is technically proficient, as you might expect from any metal band that sells and isn’t deliberately ultra-primitive. However, only the vocalists’ contributions manage to rise to any sort of prominence. If I strain my ears, I can catch a glimpse of what the instrumentalists are attempting, and I’m sure it’s pleasant enough as a result of all the time that went into writing and recording it, but there’s very little of substance there beyond the ‘epic’ orientation of Borknagar’s songwriting. On top of that are a series of sung parts from three vocalists all scrambling for your attention. These are again skilled singers (and shriekers) to the point that their performance takes center stage, but when the arrangements they perform are so forgettable, does it really matter?
Ultimately, I found Winter Thrice to be so aggressively unmemorable, to the point that remembering just what it sounds like beyond a vague impression of 3/4 time and minor key progressions is difficult. At its best, it sounds good, but this stylish album is ultimately free of substance.
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.
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.