Musings on music, old, new, popular and obscure. Post punk, metal, hip-hop, funk, and rock in general. A music fan with a desire to lose boundaries on what should and should not be listened to writes about experience in music from a listener's perspective, hopefully unhindered by prior expectation.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Too High or Too Low There Ain't No In-Between -- Extremity in Music

While a lot of my own musical development has been tempered by the peculiarities of the people I've known and the kinds of music I've grown up with in extremely disparate environments, often then coupled with the aforementioned peculiarities, I did not manage to avoid a period of "finding music to annoy other people and seem 'hard.'"

This did lead to my unusual foray into "nu-metal" in high school, wherein I took up bands like Static-X, Deftones, Tool, Powerman 5000 and various others who eventually proved that, while there are some bands that held to the sensibilities that defined that (intentionally disparaging, actually) genre name, a lot of them were looped into it in much the way that "grunge" never managed to accurately describe most of the bands still heavily identified with it--Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Nirvana, Stone Temple Pilots, Alice in Chains, for instance--in that they often managed to hit different ground quite rapidly, or even already hit different territory long before they became famous. Early Soundgarden, for instance, is very different from the album that broke them, Badmotorfinger.

Of course, while proponents of many of these bands--such as my best friend throughout high school, John--would note that grunge was a nonsense term and really referred to punk (Nirvana) and metal (Alice in Chains) bands if anything, it has stuck in its way. Other genres have done the same thing, with "emo" and "new wave" in particular starting from similar origins: offhand comments used to describe a group of bands vehemently denounced and disavowed by those bands.

Still, while many of the bands I mentioned have wandered into totally different territory, mellower in some respects if not all, they were, in that heyday, still quite abrasive and heavy as mainstream music went. Static-X self-describes as "evil disco" (not unfair considering the drum machine and drum-machine-like beats forming the base of their music), Tool heavily associates with progressive rock, even touring with King Crimson for a time, Deftones have entered some post-rock influenced territory on their last three albums and Powerman 5000 turned into a much more "normal" rock band and keep going through variant incarnations.

Still, this was the music I thought would repel people who didn't "get it" in my youth, songs like Static-X's "Push It":

Deftones' "My Own Summer (Shove It)"

Tool's "Stinkfist":

Shortly after this, I was recommended bands like Morbid Angel, Death Angel, Pungent Stench, Cannibal Corpse and moved on my own into other portions of "real metal," though what that actually means is definitely an endless debate, never more hilarious then when addressed by people like Manowar, who are a group of men intensely obsessed with "true metal" and being as "manly" as possible, infamously posing with what appear to be cardboard swords over a campfire:

The band recorded various songs about "real men" and "true metal" and what have you, but that's just an aside for hilarity's sake. Still, the metal community has an obnoxiously upturned nose about what can be allowed into their genre, drawing firm lines, sometimes even without any real derisive element, but maintaining a creepily uncomfortable sense of purity. That isn't to imply that it's necessarily motivated by anything truly morally reprehensible--though violent and aggressive music does draw aggressive and violent things like the second strain of skinheads (the racist ones!), it's not really the baseline with bands like Sepultura or, to the shock of some, Slayer.

But none of the bands (other than Manowar) I've mentioned as "nu metal" would be legitimately considered "metal" by most of the "metal community." If this seems unlikely to you, I invite you to visit the meticulously curated site of insane and breath-taking thoroughness that is the Encyclopaedia Metallum and find none of the bands I've mentioned as not-metal appear there. Did you listen to them and think, "Surely this heavy/loud/angry stuff is metal"? You're probably not a metalhead, and quite possibly are at least 40 years old and hopefully past this insistence on such nonsense. Oh, and lest you think that it's just an incomplete site, there are 85,000 bands on that site. No, that's not a typo.

It was one of these albums, however, that led someone to opine that there would inevitably be something shocking from each generation for the prior one. I thought, many years ago, "How on earth are they going to manage that at this point?" After all, if you dive deep enough into metal in particular, Prince's description of "Darling Nikki" is laughably offensive at best, and more likely to just inspire "Did I mishear something?" as a response to interrogation about where the offensive bit of that song was.¹ There's a lot of stuff I won't listen to, indeed, such as Pungent Stench and Cannibal Corpse (though the former at least has amusing memories of the person who recommended them associated--the only actual Satanist I've ever known, who was extremely reluctant to discuss anything for fear of stupid assumptions he'd have to endlessly dispel).

But I thought about this more and more--and perhaps it was even something from Aphex Twin that really led to the initial inquiry, something like "Cock/Ver10," perhaps:

It's interesting, indeed, that this is what might've led me down this path some years ago, as it was viewing the comedy You Tube pair, the Fine Bros., in their "React" series when they exposed a group of senior citizens (or temporal approximations thereof) to "dubstep" in its modern and popular incarnation via the artist known as Skrillex, who I first heard through the video for "First of the Year (Equinox)," though I'd already heard "dubstep" via other videos that used it, rather than being based around it. Here's that track for those unfamiliar:

Let it be noted that there is a group of snobs who will insist that this is not dubstep at all, and, indeed, that dubstep was actually made by artists like Burial, and sounds more like this:

In the end, it's a lost cause much like reclaiming "emo" for bands like Rites of Spring--or even Sunny Day Real Estate, as the meaning for these terms has been so thoroughly changed there's really no prayer of "correcting" it anymore. Still, to avoid any derailing over that nonsense, there you are.

A number of the adults in that video responded to dubstep as something alien, offensive, not identifiable as music and all sorts of other clichéd but seemingly sincere responses. All I could think was, "This is what's confusing and difficult to you?" and I was suddenly left with that original thought process: What is extreme in comparison to today's music, if you factor in reasonably healthy subgenres? Does this mean my own internal perception of increasing extremity is that wildly different from what people actually perceive? Have my senses of extremity been dulled by the years of exploration and experimentation?

The first thing I thought of, however, was Pig Destroyer. During my tenure at Borders, I worked as the stores were closing for the last time. At one point, there was a customer who insistently browsed the store after closing, and so I pulled the trick I'd started to in a closing store that would never re-open and, once the store had indeed closed, decided to play some music I enjoyed that most people would not. It's worth noting this was occasionally ineffective, as someone would say, "Hey, is this Strapping Young Lad? This is City, isn't it?" But this time, oh, it was effective. My coworkers tolerated it at best, but accepted the reasoning, generally, as justifying the experience. Here's a sample from the album, Terrifyer, that I played that night:

Pig Destroyer is grindcore, a genre I've briefly touched on before, and reflect the complete distillation of the sensibilities behind it--indeed, my friend Brian has said that, were he to decide to listen to grindcore, he'd go immediately to Pig Destroyer.

But I've been confused and surprised at what others find most difficult to listen to over the years. Perhaps it's something more like Arsonists Get All the Girls, with their bizarre, frenetic changeups into blasting insanity and extremity (all with pretty melodies overlaid, if you listen!):

So, what is extremity? I've had approximately three people roll up their windows when driving next to me, one to Slayer's 2001 album God Hates Us All, one to Public Image Ltd's Metal Box, and one to Botch's An Anthology of Dead Ends. I don't really delight in torturing people, to be fair, but there's something amusing and interesting and weirdly subjective about it all: I listen to all of these bands happily in my own spare time when only I can hear them (I've just been doing so, of course!) so the idea that something I enjoy is so repellent as to be shut out by others fascinates me. On some level, I find the idea of this kind of intentional, deliberate refusal frustrating. There's not much to be done of course--I've had many friends who just can't tolerate "screaming" (which I've found to be a generic term for "not normal singing I'm used to" rather than an actual term for, well, "screaming"), or my own father who can't stand really "heavy" music or rap, and other friends who feel the same.

Perhaps it was my own bull-headed determination as I first explored death metal, beating my head against the wall of David Vincent's guttural growling on Morbid Angel's Blessed Are the Sick until it clicked and made sense to me. Maybe no one else does that--I think that's probably true.

But the idea of what is next, what is worse--well, if we really want to go out there, there are "genres" I can't stand, but they tend to head into the realms of deliberate oppositional stances. I'm not entirely sure whether people legitimately appreciate true "noise" bands (like Fat Worm of Error) or do so on the basis of proving something about themselves, or out of the "deconstructive" nature of these bands. I tried really, really hard to get it. Didn't work. This is one area I will openly admit that I do not get it and doubt I ever will. Is it on purpose? Do they replicate it? If they don't, is that the point? If they don't, how can you claim to like them when they never do the same thing, and you don't know if suddenly what they do will not be palatable?

Still, it was with all of this in mind that I knowingly took the title of this entry from an artist derided without almost any exception in any variety of independent music discussion: Billy Joel. I guess it all works backward to what any person or group of people finds offensive or difficult to listen to.

¹ "Darling Nikki" was the song Tipper Gore heard and launched the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) over, which led (however indirectly) to the voluntary censorship of the "Parental Advisory" stickers.

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