I had only recently found out yesterday afternoon about the death of David Bowie, one of the most beloved rock musicians of the 20th century. Even though I’m not a fan of his work, I know he was highly prolific musician and he was very talented. He released several albums between 1967 and the present day, and throughout his career his albums took on a different sound and look with each new era of said career and each new incarnation of his ever-changing artistic persona, all while making a massive impact on popular music with his unique take on both rock music and pop music. He collaborated with several artists during his life such as the Pet Shop Boys, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, Mick Jagger, Annie Lennox, Brian Eno, Mott the Hoople, Nile Rogers, Freddie Mercury, and Iggy Pop (who was also a dear friend of his). His final album, Blackstar (which was released on Friday), was his own way of leaving the world with a parting gift and a sign of great artistic character. My brother is definitely a fan, and I can tell that Bowie’s death was probably the biggest thing on his mind today. When I heard about it, and didn’t yet know if he had heard about it, I thought “Oh shit! He is not going to like this news at all”.
To be honest, I feel that David Bowie’s death could hardly have come at a worse time. In 2015 we not only lost Philthy Animal Taylor, the drummer of Motörhead, but also Lemmy the lead vocalist and easily Motörhead’s driving force (and after Lemmy’s death, Motörhead immediately broke up). I think we are in a climate where people are thinking that all the good musicians are dying, while in the public consciousness the void looks set to be filled with the many inane figures of homogenized commercial music culture. I don’t even need to name them, seriously you should know by now if you’ve paid any attention at all. It’s actually a very familiar climate: one that Bill Hicks once alluded to when he said in his stand-up routines “John Lennon was murdered, yet Milli Vanilli walks the fuckin’ planet”. And it feels like that today too: Lemmy and David Bowie both die of cancer, and guess who walks the Earth today? It’s all too familiar for lots of people, and I think this is particularly true for those who fall outside the realm of mainstream and popular music and belong to the realms of other forms of music: particularly metal or punk, but especially metal in my experience. Over the years the world of metal has seen the loss of its own icons besides Lemmy and Philthy Animal Taylor. Among them we can name Randy Rhoads, Chuck Schuldiner, Cliff Burton, Quorthon, Ronnie James Dio, Darrel “Dimebag” Abbot, Per Ohlin (a.k.a. Dead), Paul Baloff (the original Exodus vocalist), Mike Scaccia (of Ministry and Rigor Mortis), Jeff Hanneman, and Dave Brockie (a.k.a. Oderus Urungus), all of whom proved themselves as an invaluable part of metal music for their talent, for being powerful and inspirational forces in metal music, and for leaving behind their own legacy. Some of us, myself included, can be inclined to complain that while they are no longer among us, purveyors of mindless pop, rap, and inauthentic forms of rock music still walk the Earth. And it’s a lot worse when you feel like these musicians die too soon, and even when Lemmy and Philthy Animal Taylor died it felt like they left this world too soon.
I actually felt like reflecting on the state of music today, because as I have discussed earlier here, while good musicians are dying and increasingly relegated in public consciousness, they have already been replaced in the minds of the masses by purveyors or more homogenized music, and the more homogenized music currently dominates popular music. And again, if you’ve paid attention to any media at all you’ll know who these purveyors are. I believe that a similar phenomenon is occurring in the realm of hard rock and heavy metal music, as you might see when you pay attention to the realm of mainstream “heavy music”. Essentially, this is the world of heavy metal, hard rock, punk rock, alternative rock, metalcore, and just about anything perceived as hard-edged and heavy are just fucking forced together and made part of a more homogenized heavy music category. You see this sort of thing promoted by the likes of Kerrang Magazine, Download Festival, and a bevy of ignorant youths who don’t even know what they’re listening to because they don’t think about it. These are the kinds of people who, let’s say for the sake of argument, think bands like The Who, Pink Floyd, The Sex Pistols, Poison, Bon Jovi, Nirvana, Green Day, Slipknot, Rammstein, Linkin Park, My Chemical Romance, and Black Veil Brides all belong to the same category and the same family as Metallica, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and Pantera as well as each other. They don’t: the example shown for the sake of argument is a disparate group of musical acts representing different musical genres, and also bound to convey a different ethos to each other, and no one in the right mind would pair them together as though they were in the same family. But that’s what’s going on in mainstream rock culture, or at least hard rock culture: we’re creating a monolithic heavy rock and roll category, even when it should be clear that they don’t all belong to the same category and they all deserve to stand on their own and by their own virtues.
And when we’re not doing that, we’re still favoring an idea of metal that usually consist of music that seems metal, but the vocal style and other elements (such as lyrics) can feel like nothing of the kind, a phenomenon that might have been introduced with the rise of metalcore and screamo. In addition, there’s a gravitation towards the famous and popular metal bands like Black Sabbath, Pantera, Metallica, Slayer, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Death, Cannibal Corpse, Machine Head, Amon Amarth, and Arch Enemy (not that any of them are necessarily bad, especially not the ones from the golden age of metal), as well as the popular but only vaguely metal groups like Slipknot, Bullet for my Valentine, Trivium, Rammstein, Disturbed, Five Finger Death Punch, Avenged Sevenfold, Bring Me the Horizon and others, but there’s not a lot of looking past that. I fear that in that climate, more traditional forms of metal outside the popular range of bands may be seen as welcome because the younger audiences may find them passé and are thus relegated to the underground. And I don’t mean old bands (though I do think people could explore the gamut of classic metal more), I mean new ones who play more traditional styles (this usually goes for heavy metal, speed metal, thrash metal).And is it me, or do a lot of the more popular bands also seem like they have a more extreme sound, even when they’re not strictly death metal, black metal, or grindcore? Is it because of the assumption that metal is all about aggression? Aggression is certainly a key element of metal music, but I think most metalheads know it’s not the only thing that makes metal what it is. Is it just because it seems cool, because it’s the thing that’s popular? I hope not because believe me, that’s not something metal should be put through constantly. In the 1980’s, glam was popular and some traditional metal bands (like Accept and Judas Priest) as well as hard rock acts (like Ted Nugent and Alice Cooper) briefly embraced the hair metal ethos and sound at one point because that was big at the time, and they quickly rejected it. Hell even Discharge (a hardcore punk band) and Celtic Frost (the famous extreme metal band) put out a glam metal record at one point for some bizzare reason. In the 1990’s, some well-known thrash metal bands began to either embrace a more radio-friendly heavy rock sound or simply a slower sound following the success of Metallica’s self-titled album (examples including Testament, Exodus, Megadeth, and Nuclear Assault), while other thrash metal bands chose to embrace a more mid-tempo groove metal style popularized by Pantera (examples include Overkill, Sepultura, Prong, Anthrax, and Demolition Hammer). In the 2000’s, metalcore and nu-metal were becoming popular, and then we got a lot of bands playing heavy music that did stuff like that. We already know what it is to just do what’s popular because it seems popular or even because it’s “cool”, but has no relevance to what you’re actually doing and what you’re actually about.
I can’t help thinking this happens because of a fear of being passé. But since when did metal become passé. And we never say this about classic metal bands. We dare not! We don’t do this anything with the reputation of being classic. In fact, often it’s only when old media continue to do the same thing we are briefly reminded that there’s nothing wrong with still making good use of your old tropes. In movies, the recent Star Wars film was a both a massive commercial success and a great movie, partly because it carries forth a popular already-familiar brand, but also because it managed to do something new without it being completely different. At first, I thought it bothered me that it recycled elements from the original trilogy and keep referencing it, but this was not only inevitable due the film’s continuity from the original trilogy but also it also made sense because the original trilogy was memorable, and why take away what was already good? So it is with not only old metal bands who continue with their art but also new bands that carry on the torch of classical forms of metal and its subgenres. It may seem familiar, but that’s because it’s good. It deserves to be familiar. Not at all like the homogenized forms of music we see today, which are only at least credible.
Even though I’ve discussed a hell of a lot about metal and hard rock culture, my main point is simply about that climate we feel when good musicians die and we get left thinking about the musicians and band still with us, or when we think about the music of then versus the music of now. But it’s also worth remembering that if we care about that, we could at least try to make a contribution. I may be doing game design, but I do feel motivated at times to think about making metal. I’m still not very good at the electric guitar, but no matter what I do in life I’d still like to learn to make real metal and some day give it to the world, because I love metal. I would think anyone with an interest in music would feel the same about genuine, non-homogenized music. That’s one thing to take
One last note: fuck Kanye West. Just fuck him.