Earlier this week, an article surfaced on MetalSucks under the confrontational title of “Why So Many Modern Metal Bands Suck”. The basis of the piece is that compared to its predecessors, Modern metal is boring, uneducated, fetishises youth and is hypocritical in celebrating technical achievement over proficient song-writing.
Now, this article is thoughtfully considered, but deeply flawed. I found myself taking significant umbrage with its assertions. So much so that it inspired me to pen this missive in defense of modern metal. I will try to provide convincing counterpoint to the arguments put forward by MetalSucks Mr Frank.
Hopefully, by doing this, I can nurture the idea that today’s metal is as fertile and vibrant a breeding ground for ideas and their actuation, as it has ever been.
Song writing is not dead, as a lot of metal skeptics claim. It has, however, modulated into something more subtle and unobtrusive than the ears of older generations can immediately detect. After all, the popular song and its immediate forebears are over 150 years old and if bands were to retread ground already covered, this would not be exciting for the listener or fulfilling for the artist.
What used to be expressed through broad and simple sweeps of melody or chord progression is now declared in shifts of tone, timbre and syncopation. The layering of these shifts produces the same aural effects as the classic pop of the 50’s and 60’s, of course in a vastly intensified form.
Every style and genre has its tropes and clichés, it is these points of familiarity which bind them together. Naturally, after time exaggerated use of these features becomes boring, but for every Emmure there is an Aversions Crown or Ovid’s Withering, balancing the table and making forward strides with every note.
Mr Frank also complains that musicians seek only to prove themselves rather than express themselves, no longer improvise and just perform music. Citing that bands today do not wish to compromise their ‘cool’ image by taking the ‘risks’ that deviate from their recorded material. For me, old school Metal with its roots firmly in Blues structure, meter and tempo granted a freedom to improvise that for the most part no longer exists. A Tech-Death Band playing at over 300bpm doesn’t have the same liberties that Sabbath or Deep Purple had with their live show.
Additionally, I would suggest that improv is great but it is a by its very nature is of sporadic success and bands today seek to entertain in a direct, succinct fashion, much like the large Jazz ensembles a whole generation prior to the free-wheeling experimentalists of the 60’s and 70’s.
As for being risk averse, the state of the music industry today basically precludes it. For all but the biggest bands in the world, the kind of pay-day which was regular and dependable for even the most experimental 1970’s groups no longer exists. So one can hardly blame an act for wishing to prolong a career they have worked slavishly to develop. Even if this does prevent them from becoming as daring as Mr Frank or Mr Zappa might wish them to be. Most small bands dare not dream of having music as their sole profession. Indeed it is a risk and often a fiscally costly one, for them to even set out on tour. So I don’t believe anyone has the right to criticise them for wishing to present a repeatable, successful, reliable show; ensuring that at least their memories, if not their bank balances, remain golden.
If you’ve made your millions its easy to play fast and loose with form and function from both a situational and opportunistic perspective. This is greatly lessened if you are just striving to break even or taking annual/unpaid leave to fulfil touring commitments.
He then goes onto detail how virtuoso players are deified within metal and how little expression there is within their playing. For me this is fallacy bordering on hogwash. Any advanced playing devoid of personal expression is basically technical exercise. Music fans as a whole don’t get excited about technical exercise; they rejoice in the overlap of technical excellence, passion and fecund creativity. If Tosin Abassi’s live playing was without the kind of expression that made you feel you were aboard a spacecraft readying for take-off, AAL shows wouldn’t sell tickets to non-musicians; their crowds would be modest and populated exclusively by boys who revel in fast finger movement. Don’t misunderstand, those boys are there but are in the minority.
You have to be moved by music to part with your hard earned money to experience it. If the highest standard of players didn’t play from the heart and use their skills to express and emote, they would simply be automata; but they are not, they fill their music with groove, subtlety, intelligence, power and grace. Their songs move and inspire. Both casual fans and fellow musicians want to see feats of excellence which they themselves are incapable of. The virtuoso provides these moments of transportative quasi-fantasy, technical exercise cannot be engaged with in this way, it can only be studied.
He then complains about how youth is fetishised to an extravagant degree within metal. To begin with experience and the accumulation of skill is as venerated. Players such as Karl Sanders, Mathieu Pascal, Wacław Kiełtyka are just three of dozens of mature musicians whose playing is rejoiced in to a rhapsodic level. But even if Mr Frank does have a substantive point about youth, I will posit that metal and music in general only propagates because of fresh interest and new resident obsessives. And why shouldn’t they champion their own.
His final point is that modern musicians are ignorant of the most basic music grammar and have no idea of the historical context of musical ideas they are utilising. This is fatuous. Anyone who learns to play the guitar, or any instrument for that matter, learns to play it from the ground upwards. You cannot do the difficult things without mastering the fundaments, rudiments and techniques that wholistic study rewards you with.
He contends that musicians now favour “exotic”(his quotation marks, not mine) time signatures, keys, scales etc over more straight forward one. This he blames on the ready access to all levels of musical theory that the internet provides. He makes this point in such a generalised and unsupported way that it is barely worth a rebuttal. But all I will say is this; every musician and every band appreciate different elements within music and construct their art by ascribing different values to the various elements from which it is built. Players who gig regularly know that its great to have parts that stretch the fans appreciative muscles, but are utterly aware that you can’t mosh, slam dance, circle pit, or even stage dive in 11/8. To suggest this is to denigrate the work, energy, passion, intelligence and skill of thousands if not millions of committed metal musicians throughout the world.
Now, Mr Frank and I are both not young men. I’m 35 and He sub-headlines his piece “It’s not that I’m old: But your music really does suck”. But by making the points he does and only granting a few of his personal favourites any leeway, he is being reactionary and revisionist. This stance relegates any recent developments, styles, epiphanies and modes he doesn’t comprehend to the status of soulless, technical, uneducated childs-play. You cannot analyse whole scenes and genres through the microcosm of a single act and then declare them redundant, frozen and rubbish; it is lazy and deliberately argumentative.
Some people cannot help but assess the past through rose tinted spectacles. By doing this they end up revering a landscape that never truly existed.
Now this of course is all down to opinion and eras can be pitted against eras endlessly, but I believe on this matter the late, great Brian Shields had it spot on when he said “The Golden Age of Metal Is Right Fucking Now”. For the depth of skill presented, the selfless approach of its citizens many of whom start careers knowing they will never make any money, for its passion, for its diversity and for its sense of collective, unifying identity.
Yes young people can be naïve, but it is even more naïve to forget that you can learn so much from their fresh approaches and that no body, regardless of status or age has the right to say that the music of another generation sucks.
– John Whitmore