Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Cult of Original

Rush got a brief flurry of attention a couple weeks back when they announced that they would be going out on tour again in 2015. The news quickly went from their press release to Rolling Stone, who immediately threw together a readership poll asking for the ten best Rush albums -- no doubt to get a bunch of people to give their contact infoso that Rolling Stone could spam their Facebook pages with ads.

The irony of RS showing enthusiasm for Rush is, I'm sure, not lost on Rush.

I did not answer that poll, but a friend on Facebook asked the same question on his own Facebook page, sparking a small discussion in which no one mentioned any album later than Signals and most gravitated towards either Hemispheres or the first three albums. (Confession: my response was Moving Pictures, but even that fairly populist response felt risky in the context of so many responses that trended even earlier than Hemispheres. There's a weirdly reactionary, curmudgeonly impulse that has woven its way through rock music audiences via the odd disconnects between the 'classic rock' crowd and the 'indie rock' cool hunters. It's uncool to like old bands unless you only like their early output. It has to be either brand new or classic.

Which is sad, really, because, nettled by this strange pressure to conform, I've been poking about Rush's forty-year discography and finding that they have produced a lot of beautiful, accomplished, satisfying music during the times that I had not been listening to them because I had other sounds in my ears. Perhaps Rush has ceased to surprise us the way they once did, but that does not mean that they have begun to sound "tired and stale," words so often used to dismiss any band who has maintained a consistent approach and output over a space of more than a decade. Those traits are only admirable if a band has done so in an "underground" niche. Consistency becomes a criticism for any band that is both long-lived and popular.

Which, inevitably, brings me around to thinking about Opeth. They have a new album, Pale Communion, coming out in June and their fanbase is already polarized at the news that this next album, like Heritage before it, does not feature any death growls and continues to explore a more vintage heavy metal sound palate. "That's over," proclaim a large number of fans upon hearing this news in advanced reviews, "Opeth are done, out of fresh ideas and avoiding the sounds of the past so as not to be found lacking in comparison." Not a new claim where Opeth are concerned. Fans have protested vehemently and rage quit before over Blackwater Park, (Keyboard? Steve Wilson ruined our death metal!), Damnation, (No growlzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz ::snore::), Ghost Reveries, (Popularity? Roadrunner ruined our kult metal!), and Watershed, (Bring back Lindgren and Lopez!). The bias towards the earlier material is perhaps not as pronounced as it was with Rush, but there are similarities, with Still Life acting as Opeth's 2112 and Blackwater Park as their Moving Pictures. After that, though, the audience tapers in its appreciation of Opeth's new material, and especially in any new material that deviates much from the bipolar brutal/pretty approach that made Opeth so distinctive and influential when they came into the scene. But the new music they are making is still stunningly beautiful. I listen through Heritage and what I hear is not so much the absence of growls and brutality, but rather how stripping back the sonic complexity in the music has in-turn opened up the warmth of their sound and given the different band members more space in the composition to play with the rest of the band, rather than just filling in a part. It feels more organic and you can sense that they are having to listen to each other and respond to each other dynamically the way that they always have in their more delicate compositions like "The Face of Melinda." They are making music and not just recording songs. It's something that they have always done, even in the past, but by opening up the sound a bit more and dialing down the extremity of the music they have also taken away some of the cushion that they had and made it so that they all have to play more expressively or the songs won't come alive. I appreciate that, and I appreciate the risk that they have taken on in order to pursue this elusive delicacy.

But here's the dilemma. Does the band stick with its original sound -- the one the first set them apart from all the other bands and gave them a distinct musical identity, or do they continue to experiment with their sound, try to explore other paths and mine other influences looking to keep their approach to music itself fresh and original by taking risks and branching out in new, unexpected directions? Which "original" is the right one to pursue when either direction is a sure path to criticism from fans and critics who demand something absolutely fresh, but completely familiar every time they buy a new release? It's an impossible bind, and the older I get and the more I face this sort of tension between resting on laurels and seeking out the new, the more I begin to appreciate the bands that continue to explore, even when I don't always entirely appreciate the new direction that the band has taken.

Which is not to say that I think all established bands should be given a pass when it comes to making new music. I respect Rush and Opeth for their combination of consistency and evolution, but a lot of that respect owes to their commitment to playing interesting music and continually being surprised and grateful that a core audience remains who connect with their music. I don't get that sense of gratefulness from a band like Metallica, who continue to put out music when they feel like it, complain about the music that everyone else puts out, and act as if the fans should be grateful that they continue to bless us with their presence. When the band becomes more important than both the music and the fans I think it's time to pause and reconsider what you are doing. Once you pass this tipping point it's no longer a band, it's an exercise in vanity.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Musings on Musical Identity

Otherwise known as bass...

Yeah, it's been a long time since I had anything to say here. Professional life has gotten more involved and with the dissertation done there's less need for distraction and blowing off steam with awful riffs. As a result, the Hagstrom has been somewhat neglected.

Still, we went to see Amon Amarth and Enslaved a few weeks ago and I found myself in the mood to play again. Except that when I thought about the concert, I kept coming back to how I spent the whole time this time mesmerized by watching Grutle Kjellson and Ted Lundström playing. This seemed strange to me because Ice Dale is the quintessential guitar action hero and Johan and Olavi are themselves amazing players.

Then I got to thinking about other shows we had gone to see. Opeth: I love Fredrik's playing and Mikael is the most entertaining host in metal, but during the actual songs I end up, more often than not, watching Mendez and his side-to-side headbanging as he jams out on that Jazz Bass of his. Barren Earth? Sami is a guitar god, but I watch Opu Laine and his Thunderbird. Lamb of God? John Campbell. I think there's a pattern here.

So I mention this to the Wyf and she says: "Duh. When you were first looking for a guitar, I was a bit surprised that you didn't get a bass."

So why didn't I get a bass?

Well, when I first started thinking about getting an alternative to my acoustic guitar to play as a hobby, my brother, himself a bassist and pianist, suggested that a guitar would be better than a bass for someone who has no one else to play music with. And that made sense to me. And I love guitar. So I got a guitar.

But whenever I had picked up the guitar to mess with it before I bought an electric, I usually ended up messing around with something that sounded more like a bassline than a lead line. And seven years on, whenever I come up with anything cool of my own on the guitar it is usually something on the lowest three strings and close to open position...and the moment I start messing with that idea the variations that come out are usually either variations that change the feel of the rhythm or that stretch the tonality. I don't think melody, I think rhythm and foundation. Those are the parts of music that I feel, even if I respond to the melody.

Which has me wondering...have I always been a frustrated bassist who just happens to love listening to guitar? I'm beginning to think that may be the case.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Endorsement Game

Just saw a note on Opeth's Facebook page that Mikael Åkerfeldt had a new endorsement deal with Marshall Amps and his new 'amp of choice' is the Marshall Vintage Modern. He had previously been endorsed by Laney Amps. Åkerfeldt has all sorts of good things to say about the Vintage Modern and, no doubt the majority of them are true. Marshall knows how to make a good amp that covers the ground between vintage tube sound and modern high-gain sounds.

I still find myself rolling my eyes a bit, though. Because in most interviews the guys from Opeth and their guitar tech mention that when they are on the road they run all the amps on clean and use their effects and modeling boards to approximate their recorded sounds. The amps on stage all say Marshall or Blackstar, but the color is more likely to come from a Roland multi-effect unit preset than from the Marshall.

Likewise, Opeth are endorsed by PRS Guitars and use them on tour. They are really good guitars that the guys sometimes use for live recording, but they also use older Gibsons and Jacksons and, recently, a vintage Strat or two as well. There's no telling what guitar the guys used to get a particular sound on record unless you read it in an interview and they tell you straight out.

It's a weird game, really, with bands using all sorts of stuff -- whatever they can get their hands on -- to get 'the sound' they are looking for or re-recording dry tracks run through layers of different equipment for a more dense sound or changing mics and mic placement, etc in order to get the sound that young guitar players fall in love with and want to emulate. When they hear the sound on record they look in the guitar magazine and see that their hero uses StoneTone Amps and figure that's where the sound comes from. And when they see their heroes perform live they see that guitar and that amp again and hear that tone again.

But the guitar is playing clean and the amp is being used more like a stage monitor PA between the digital effects and the house PA. And they still sound great, but it's not the sound of that guitar and that amp. It's the sound of those hands playing a guitar that's sending a signal through an amp sim to a house PA with maybe a Dunlop Crybaby and a vintage delay in the chain for some analog magic that sounds something like whatever alchemy they cooked up in the studio without the fragility and risk associated with bringing a bunch of cranky old equipment on the road.

The artists really have three sounds. There's the one they have when they are playing by themselves and writing the music -- their private sound. Then there's the one that ends up on record after all the engineering is done which may be close to that private sound or may be only a distant cousin. And then there's the live sound, which is as close to the recorded sound as one can get with a minimum of risk and a maximum of consistent repeatability.

The music can still be magic, but that magic is rarely in the equipment being endorsed. You will have to find your own magic in those instruments.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Precious Little Help

One thing I've noticed as I crawled my way from being a horrible guitarist to being an unremarkable one is how little actual supporting material there is for players whose tastes run to music outside of the commercial mainstream in America -- in my case this means progressive folk, death, doom and black metal. Any aspiring guitarist can find plenty of Metallica, GnR, heck...even Children of Bodom tabs and videos and Dave Mustaine has his own app to help teach you Megadeth songs. But the rule seems to be that you have to be attached to one of the big Guitar companies to make it into a guitar mag with any consistency. In the case of the guys mentioned above that means tabs and vids brought to you by ESP, Gibson and Dean. The closest you are going to get to anything underground is probably Opeth, and even there you have Akerfeldt and Akesson endorsed by PRS. Slip down the endorsements list too far and you might as well not exist. Which is too bad, because there are so many awesome bands whose music I'd love to have some decent help learning. Sure, there are some GPro tabs on the usual sites for bands like Enslaved or Paradise Lost, but I lost faith in those pretty soon after downloading a bunch and finding that the people who tabbed them out may be better guitarists than I am, but they all seem to have crappy ears that are unable to distinguish anything other than major, minor, and power chords. Diminished? Fuhgedaboudit. You will not find any nuance in an amateur GPro tab, and if you do, it's probably wrong. Go a bit farther into the underground -- Amorphis or Agalloch, for example -- and you won't even find crappy amateur tabs. Which is too bad, mind, because they both have complex and beautiful music to learn and play. It seems, however, that the people who have deciphered the songs are all too busy playing them to write any of it down for us slow kids. It's not just tabs, though. I love to wank around with Garage Band loops running through my Line 6 Guitar Port so that I have drum and bass to play over. Which is fine so long as you are looking for either funky and danceable or worldbeat and you want it in 4/4. Some of the loops are labeled as classic rock, but we aren't talking Zep or even the Who. The closest they come to straight up rock are the 'edgy modern' loops that have a sort of Incubus feel to them. And there is nothing even remotely metal to be found in the standard library that ships with the basic version included in iLife. If you want metal you will need to either pay for a dedicated software library of metal grooves or download one of the free samples that contains mostly flashy, real instrument loops rather than a basic double bass pattern with crash cymbal for the kick done on the software instrument so that you can tweak it or add to it to make it your own. It's one of the ironies of the digital age. Technology does give ordinary people the tools to make their own music sound professional, but the only music you can make easily sounds like the same commercial stuff that you can already hear anywhere else. Making something outside that safe range takes just as much work as it ever did.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

No BS Buying Advice For New Rock Guitarists

Things the store won't tell you:

Do not buy a guitar with your eyes. You have to buy a guitar with your hands and your ears. Hands and ears are the things that matter for playing music. The guitar will need to feel good in your hands and will have to sound good to your ear. You can do all that with your eyes closed.

So what goes away when you close your eyes? Looks and brand are the two biggest things. I'm not saying that those things should not matter at all, just that they are way overrated in the scheme of things. The body and headstock shape will have more effect on how you play from the way they feel than they will from how they look. Pointy guitars may look mean, but they also can be really uncomfortable to play. Particular brands may be known for quality but every guitar is a little different in material and feel and how the parts go together. If every guitar is different, then every guitar could be great or could suck. You won't know until you pick it up and play it.

When you are playing it, pay attention to how it sounds and feels, but even more than this make sure that you get a tuner and tune the guitar as well as you can and then play notes all over the neck and see how well those notes stay in tune. Check especially to see how close the tuning at the 12th fret is to the tuning on the open string. If they are off you need to find out if the place you are buying the guitar does free setup with every purchase and if they will set it up before you buy it. If the guitar goes out of tune as you move around the neck then there is either a problem with the setup or there was a mistake made when the neck or bridge were put on. Any of these things can be a problem. Buy the guitar within your budget that plays best. You will care less about the looks over time and fall in love with how it plays.

More of your sound comes from your fingers and your amp than comes from the pickups. You want decent pickups, but a guitar with adequate pickups will still sound good if you have a decent amp or, better yet, a good computer setup that gives you a wide number of virtual amps and effects to play with while you learn and figure out what sounds inspire you. You can worry about the perfect pickups once you have figured out what sort of player you are and get a second guitar that fits your personal style.

Non-electronic hardware is easy to replace, but it is also way more important than most salespeople will let on. Try to figure out how well the tuning keys stay in tune and look for guitars with better quality parts. Prioritize these over style. Staying in tune and sounding good is much cooler than looking good and sounding like crap.

Truth be told, the most important thing you can learn with your first guitar is how to make friends with the strings and fretboard. This is everything for a player. If you are comfortable playing and can make sounds that inspire you without cringing at how out of tune your guitar is you can really learn a lot with that first guitar and once you outgrow it you will know what things matter most to you as a player.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Rock Band vs. Guitar Hero: And the Winner Is...?

C. - None of the Above

And it's not because the games sucked, either. Well, okay, Guitar Hero 5 got some mediocre reviews because of the usual reviewer foibles -- not enough new about it, some songs were boring, arenas were meh, etc. -- but what do you expect from so simple a concept this late in a franchise? And Rock Band 3 got really good reviews and added a ton of new stuff, so what gives?

The video game industry fell out of love with the games and pulled its support, that's what...along with a lot of fans, the music industry, and so forth.

Harmonix has pledged to soldier on in support of its game and its partners, but the sale and fade pulled by MTV Games means that all the media licensing for new content becomes much more difficult. In essence the music industry -- make that entertainment media as a whole -- has decided the games are not profitable enough to maintain their bloated egos, expectations, and overhead.

I figured this would happen sooner or later because, as I mused last time I wrote about the games, these games have never been about the music, they are about the fantasy of being a rock star. They are basically action RPGs for people who dream about platform boots, facepaint and pyro more than about swords and sorcery. It's a different fantasy about a different sort of magic axe. So trying to develop the games as a new form of content delivery for the entertainment industry Misses the Fucking Point. It was never about the songs.

The games themselves might linger on for a while longer and eke out a living. And even if they don't some group of enterprising geeks will package the whole dream -- hardware and software -- into a controller that plugs into whatever passes for a television in 10 -15 years and there will be a hip retro renaissance for the genre.

But for the immediate future it seems that these games have maxed out, overreached and blown up.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

ReValver III.5 Demo Out

Haven't seen much about this anywhere yet.

I've given Peavey a lot of stick on this blog for their poor support of their software. (To be fair it looks like a lot of that has to do with how much involvement the development partner takes in the product that Peavey is distributing). Nevertheless, I do want to take a moment to acknowledge that ReValver III.5 finally came out on their website at Winter NAMM and that you can download a demo of it for evaluation while you are waiting to see if the old stock ever sells and the new version starts appearing on the shelves.

If you go back and check my three-part comparison review of the Revalver III demo you'll see that I disliked the interface for the speaker/mic combos and the overall dryness of the sounds. Since that review I got a little better at using the reverb and delay on ReValver and my overall assessment of the software went up accordingly. It still never usurped the place of Guitar Rig in my estimation or the combination of value and fun delivered by Pod Farm.

I haven't been playing guitar a lot in the last month, but I have played around with the ReValver III.5 update demo enough to say that it is much easier to navigate the cab/mic choices this time around and the amp sims seem to have fewer digital artifacts swimming in the mix. They've added a few new amps to the mix as well, but those additions are far less of a game changer than the changes made to look and feel. This is finally beginning to feel a little more user-friendly and a little less like trying to find a decent studio sound in a rathole studio full of old equipment -- but without the vibe and atmosphere of the real thing.

Hopefully they will take a more active role with this release because with decent support and marketing they could well do some damage to the competition both in the studio and as a direct-in option live. Still not sure I would take it over Guitar Rig, but the choice has gotten a lot harder.