Friday, July 26, 2013

To Break the Spell of Aging: What makes a band sound "dated?"

This week, Metallica's Kill 'Em All turns 30. I'm listening as I write this (yes, I can barely control my head enough to type), and it sounds just as great as I remembered. One of the best rock debuts and an all-time classic metal album. I'd even argue that it's one of the greatest punk albums ever. But one thing that always surprises me about Kill 'Em All is how modern it sounds.

Three decades have done nothing to wane Kill 'Em All's ferocity. If anything, it sounds even more brutal, now knowing how many thrash and metalcore bands couldn't emulate it without watering it down. The production is perfectly raw, the kind of sound that black metal bands consistently aim for and always fail at. Were the scowling, acne-faced boys of Metallica to support Kill 'Em All today, they could hop on a tour with anyone from Meshuggah to Kvelertak to the Dillinger Escape Plan to Immortal.

But why is this? Consider Venom's Black Metal, released a few seasons before Kill 'Em All. Its influence is all over Metallica--that hardcore-infected metal and basement production are just as discernible here, only Venom did it before Metallica. The lyrics aren't nearly as good as Metallica's, but no one listens to metal for the lyrics. The music on Black Metal is pretty great. So why does it sound enjoyably silly today, whereas Kill 'Em All sounds essential?

When music ages poorly, it has little to do with how influential it is, as Black Metal proves. It has even less to do with the way it sounded at the time. Giorgio Moroder's entire career feels buried in the '80s, yet Daft Punk just included him on their ultra-hip new album. What really matters is how the artists that emulate the sound compare to the originals. Countless bands have sounded like Metallica since 1983, including several great ones, but none of whom are as transcendent as Kill 'Em All. Shortly after Black Metal kicked off a musical renaissance, it was outclassed by Slayer, Metallica, Megadeth and Testament. I'm impressed that Venom's influence has carried over to bands as varied as High on Fire and Behemoth, but I'm even less likely to play Black Metal when the best work of the latter two bands is available.

This year, Venom's influence turned up on the Melvins' excellent covers album Everybody Loves Sausages, which King Buzzo and the gang opened with their own version of Venom's "Warhead." It never stops being fun to watch a band as idiosyncratic as the Melvins constantly increase in stature. At least once a year, it seems like a great new band breaks through on the sounds that the Melvins defined--Sleep, Mastodon, Boris, Neurosis, Isis, Big Business, Made Out of Babies, Torche, Coliseum and East of the Wall all come to mind. All of these artists are honoring Houdini and Stoner Witch with their music, but none of them have been able to occupy that sound from the Melvins. One still can't get that unpredictable avant-sludge-stoner-doom-punk-grunge-metal anywhere else. Yet with more and more great bands working on those ideas, the Melvins matter more now than ever.

Think about the band that's generally considered the architect of heavy metal, Black Sabbath. Reasonable listeners still credit them with inventing and perfecting the genre. Their chief rival at the time was Deep Purple, a quintet of equally innovative Brits who basically popularized the idea of blues-based hard rock being played faster than Led Zeppelin. Purple easily outsold Sabbath, got more radio play, generally received better reviews and often played bigger venues. But Deep Purple couldn't survive the rise of AC/DC, Van Halen and Aerosmith, none of whom tried to compete with Sabbath's tuned-down doom rock and occult-inspired lyrics, but all of whom thoroughly trounced "Highway Star" several times over.

It's examples like this that remind us why originality in rock music, which infamously stole themes and progressions from the blues, is overrated. It's admirable to break ground, but it doesn't matter much if the ground that you break gets covered by someone who writes better songs than you.


M said...

I too have thought about this but have no real answers. I do think that music that breaks ground is extremely important even if it's covered and eclipsed totally by someone else who stands the test of time though. Why? Well the musical family tree is an intricate web - in many ways if certain forgotten artists didn't come along and break that ground then we wouldn't be able to enjoy the ones that were influenced by them and ultimately dominated.

Anyway, I was thinking about the album Pretty Hate Machine, absolute brilliant/brave album - TR's blood on the page, so to speak - but listening to it now it sounds incredibly dated. Some of those songs Head Like a Hole, Terrible Lie, Sin etc. are still absolute masterpieces and I listen to them quite often but there are quite a few that now sound dated - ("Down In It" anyone?). Anyway, Trent went on to make albums that will stand the test of time better than PHM (stylistically speaking) but PHM influenced so many great artists including some surprising ones (like Tori Amos) and it is still a good listen even if it is a bit cringeworthy sometimes. I guess using instruments, and even having a certain drum beat that sounds 'different' make things sound dated. Not sure if this is always the case though.

Ben Apatoff said...

Hi M,

I don't think there's a definitive answer, but I love reading your responses. I do think breaking ground is also important, and it's probable that Kill 'Em All would have been worse off without Venom or Deep Purple. But I know which one I'd rather listen to.

It's funny, "Down In It" is probably one of the most influential songs on PHM, and the first single. Now I can't listen without remembering that it was released before every mook with a microphone was rapping.

There's a great NPR interview with Trent Reznor where Terri Gross asks him what mindset he was in when he wrote "Head Like a Hole." Check it out if you haven't already.