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.

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