The long, long wait for Metallica’s new album

In September of 2008, Metallica released Death Magnetic. While I wouldn’t argue that it rivals their best work, it was at least a return to something aggressive, and was much more cohesive than its predecessor, St. Anger. In spite of the terrible clipping problems, I did enjoy it.

Since then, they’ve toured. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They made a non-Metallica record with Lou Reed. They celebrated 30 years with a set of shows in San Francisco. They “made a movie.” They’ve toured. They’ve talked about recording, and how they either can’t wait to make another record, or how they’re not feeling obligated to thrash one out for the sake of having a new record. They’ve toured. James Hetfield has 800 riffs for the new album, and Kirk Hammett has 400. They played Antarctica, “forgetting” to play “Trapped Under Ice”… They played “One” at the Grammys with Lang Lang. They’re going to write and record a new album soon. They’ve toured. The latest news is that they’re writing the songs, hoping to get into the studio to record them in 2015, and have the new record out in 2016.

2016.

Let that sink in for a minute.

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Touring the new song

In March, Metallica began a short “By Request” tour in South America. Fans voted on the songs they wanted to hear, and Metallica used the survey results to create their setlists. As the tour approached, the band teased the possibility of a new song, and they delivered “The Lords Of Summer” at the tour opener in Bogota, Chili on March 16.

Beyond that, there’s little for fans to go on, other than nebulous indications that Metallica are working on the next record, and the aforementioned vague talk about not really getting down to recording until next year, and releasing it in 2016. According to this article, they have presumably reconvened (or will do so shortly) in order to continue working on the album.

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Thoughts on the new song

As a fan who’s been interested in hearing the next Metallica album since 2010, I have to say that the “late 2015/early 2016” thing has had me feeling a bit down about the whole thing. “Lords Of Summer” didn’t really ease that feeling. I like the concept of melding fast, thrashy parts with slower, melodic ones, so that idea has potential. But I wasn’t really moved by the song. In fact, I found it kind of boring. The thrashy part was fast, but was essentially one note chugged repeatedly with little variation with a stock riff thrown in at the end of each bar. The chorus was okay but generally uninspiring, and the beginning and middle sections were too long. The main riff sounded like a simplified take on the main riff from “That Was Just your Life,” and it got old for me during my first listen, before the vocals came in. Kirk’s solo started very simply and repetitively – and that bit lasted too long as well – although it got better when he started playing like he normally does. And the lyrics left me baffled.

I did like the little motif that starts at approximately 3:10 of the video above, and I liked Hetfield’s vocals in general. However, I hope that the song was, as Hetfield told the crowd in Bogota, written “for the shows” – hastily thrown together and recorded in demo form without the usual refinement that historically goes into their composition process.

I understand that it’s probably going to either be disassembled and reassembled in some other form, or gutted for parts to be integrated with other material on the new album, or jettisoned altogether. While it’s a better song than the two new songs that they performed before they recorded Death Magnetic, it’s so much more “stock” than “The New Song” from 2006 – a much heavier and more interesting song musically, riffs from which turned up in “The End Of The Line” and “All Nightmare Long” – that my guess is that they will likely either A) build up and refine the tune (and write new lyrics) for the album, or B) abandon the song mostly or entirely.

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Megadeth and the Big Four (and more)

What’s frustrating for fans like me is that, while Metallica keeps itself in the public eye by touring and participating in a variety of other non-Metallica-album-creating activities (Lou Reed, Through The Never, etc.), their pace of album creation has been slowing for the last 20 years. After the epic touring that took place in the wake of the Black Album, they put out two albums in two years. Since then, they’ve put out two albums of original material (and an EP, Beyond Magnetic). That’s two albums in, at this point, 17 years. Since the Black album, they’ve done four albums in twenty years.

To strike the most extreme contrast possible with their thrash brethren, one needs to look no further than to Megadeth. Dave Mustaine has put out nine albums since Countdown To Extinction (1992), and will soon be working on another one. And that one will probably be released before the next Metallica record. A very likely scenario is that, between the releases of Metallica’s ninth and tenth albums, Megadeth will have released at least four records.

It’s not like Megadeth are abnormal in averaging a record every two years or so – they’re certainly not the Beatles with their eleven albums and two soundtracks in eight years – but they’re the most prolific of the Big Six Or Seven of American Thrash over the past two decades. Additionally, Slayer may release their second post-Death Magnetic album late this year or early next, in spite of the death of Jeff Hanneman and split with Dave Lombardo. Same with both Anthrax and Exodus. Overkill’s third post-2008 album arrives in July. And Testament has released two albums and a live album since Death Magnetic, and a third is in the works, tentatively scheduled for release later this year.

Metallica, Megadeth, and albums

When we’re treated to releases every few years from many of the bands in the genre, we fans tend to wonder why Metallica doesn’t pick up the pace.

Everyone knows that record sales are way down from where they were ten years ago. With that in mind, it’s certainly understandable that a band in Metallica’s situation as a huge band that can make boat loads of money from touring would be less interested in taking a year or so to write and record an album – itself, an extravagant time- and money-sink that most of the other bands listed above don’t have.

However, I look at Megadeth, a hard-working, successful band that keeps pumping out records which are always well-recorded and are sometimes excellent (like 2009’s Endgame). Megadeth have managed to alternate efficiently recorded albums with lots of time on the road, themed tours, lots of fan interaction, and other creative outlets. Mustaine has always been driven creatively, and the fact that he is out-producing Metallica music-wise by maintaining the same cycle he always has can’t have gone unnoticed by someone as obsessed about his past with Metallica as he has always been. It’s certainly something that I’ve thought about, and I’m sure that others have done so too.

Anyway, with David Ellefson back playing bass, drummer Shawn Drover serving as a rock in so many ways both musically and otherwise, and an extremely talented creative partner in guitarist Chris Broderick, Mustaine hasn’t let neck surgery that has seemingly made it difficult to sing on the road stop him from going year-round, and keeping up his recording schedule.

When they do record an album, by the way, there isn’t any of Metallica’s six-months-to-a-year overanalysis that goes into the process. Perhaps this is because Mustaine is the unquestioned leader of Megadeth; at the end of the day, it’s his creative vision. Whereas in Metallica, James and Lars drive the car, and they’ve butted heads over the decision-making process so many times over the years that in some ways it’s no wonder that it takes them aeons to write and record an album, as opposed to Mustaine’s weeks…

That isn’t to say that every Megadeth album is great – although that’s subjective, of course – but many reasonable people thought that Endgame was very good, and that 2011’s Thirteen was also good. In my opinion, when Mustaine gets it right, he’s writing interesting, riffy, heavy tunes, and both of those records have those elements (if not in every song). And it doesn’t take him five to seven years, six to nine months in the studio, and “1200 riffs” to get there every couple of years.

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I wonder

This leads me to wonder what else is weighing down Metallica, with respect to the long lapses between albums over the past decade-plus…

1. Family?

All four of the guys have kids. All four are family men, in that they seem utterly devoted to their children. This is a good thing. And if the guys in Metallica are simply spending a ton of time with their families, I have every respect for that.

2. Stardom/money/Lars?

You’re James Hetfield. Every few years, you think about making an album. And you think about all of the other albums you made, and how long it took, in part, because both you and Lars are really anal about stuff, and sometimes it’s not the same stuff. But Lars has his hands in every pie – that guy is really, really anal about stuff. Do you really want to go through that again any time soon? Maybe. Maybe not.

Maybe, an alternative would be to play two-three dozen shows this year, make a ton of money from them, and spend the rest of your time playing guitar by yourself, hanging with the kids, tinkering with your cars, and doing the occasional interview.

I’m sure that’s an oversimplified, negatively assumptive view of what may go through the head of someone that I don’t personally know. I’m sure the guys are busy, both with family and with other things. Many other things.

And hey, James did have that 4-hour-per-day rule when they made St. Anger…

3. Lars?

But seriously. I don’t want to be one of those guys who dumps on Lars about everything. I actually like Lars, and its obvious that he’s a huge part of the personality and creative makeup of the band. He’s also its biggest fan.

But I wonder if there’s something about Lars. Post-Black Album, when the entire band started loosening their playing styles a bit, he arguably loosened his the most. He’s become more the guy who thinks globally rather than locally. He’s concerned with the big picture with respect to Metallica and art and other things. As such, he often seems to be openly at war with his drum kit (not in a good way), to the point where, when a video shows up on YouTube where he plays a lot of double kick drum on an old song, people get all excited: “All right! Lars using a lot of double bass drum! Awesome!” I don’t know of another situation in metal where people are so impressed by a drummer not playing sloppily, playing his old songs even just close to correctly, or by double kicks being used on a new song, but honestly? That’s how I’ve felt too. In those situations, it’s like there’s a whiff of a promise of “return to form,” and you want to feel good about it… even if it’s a fleeting thing.

And so I get a sense that, more than anything, Lars is less interested in making a new record than the other guys*, and more interested in playing live and being Lars From Metallica. I know that’s a trite, possibly cruel way to put it – and I don’t intend it that way, because I’m a fan of him – but fans (and people who care about the music so much) only see a certain amount of what is made public, and can only infer thereafter. And remember, he’s one of the guys who drives the car.

4. *About that asterisk in the above paragraph…

When we’re told that James has 800 riffs at his disposal, we’re not surprised. The guy is known to be a riff master, and he has “RIFF/LIFE” tattooed on his fingers. The Metallica catalog is littered with his riffs. Sure, some are Hammett’s or Cliff Burton’s, a couple are Jason’s, and several are Mustaine’s. But the vast majority are James’, and so many of them are extremely good.

I was reminded of this while watching footage from Metallica’s Guitar Center Sessions, which were released on YouTube earlier this year.

Watching James play, talking about his love for music and throwing out some riffs along the way, makes me excited about this new album. If there’s anything holding back the making of this album, it’s not the James of thirteen years ago, who seemed to be at a loss for virtually any inspiration at points during the Some Kind Of Monster film. This is the James of today, one of the three guys in the band who seems to really get off on doing his thing.

As for Kirk? We’ve been treated to several recent examples of his love for metal. He invited Exodus, Death Angel, and Carcass to play at his Fear FestEvil, and jammed with the first two. And his Guitar Center Session interview, while not as lengthy (or riffy) as James’, showed just as much love for music.

He’s not the riff master that James is, but the guy is passionate about making music.

As for Rob Trujillo, I don’t know as much about him, but he seems to be someone who would play with anybody, at any time (and he kind of has!). He’s talented and innovative, and shows both fire and fluency with his instrument during Metallica shows. I don’t know that he has played any part in preventing the band from making a new album.

5. A lack of creative juice?

Having said all of that, it would be difficult to infer that there is a lack of creativity from individual members of the group. However, I recently read a terrific article by The Metal Pigeon, who has an interesting theory on the subject.

The Metal Pigeon doesn’t consider Death Magnetic to be a good album, and posits the following:

So what was it that made Metallica’s new music come off to me as uninspired and clunky?

I think the answer, ultimately, is that there was little in the way of artistic continuity. Metallica’s writing sessions for the Black Album took place in 1990, and after its gargantuan mega-tour the Load/ReLoad sessions occurred around 1995 with some touch-ups in the two years afterwards. Touring and various projects such as S&M and Garage, Inc took up the intervening years. Metallica wouldn’t work on a collection of new material until those dysfunctional, therapist guided, captured on documentary sessions for St. Anger a whole seven years later. It would be nearly six years before they reconvened once again for Death Magnetic —- simply put, this is a band that tours and tours and tours, and I’ll argue that despite its financial benefits their incessant touring has come at the cost of their artistry. I’m not suggesting that its wise for Metallica to scale back its touring, these guys obviously understand where their huge paychecks come from. What I am saying however, is if the band is interested in making continually better original music, they would do well to realize that they need to attempt its creation more often. How do they relate to one another musically speaking when they haven’t attempted to write new material in half-decade long spans? At what point do you overdo touring?

I don’t know that I could argue with this idea. While Metallica has some great creative forces in its ranks, they’ve written and recorded just two albums in the past seventeen years. Whereas other groups gather to write and record on a (relatively) much more regular basis, Metallica tours, or records covers or a live album or with another artist. They do jam in the tuning room, of course, but if that were a recipe for writing new albums, I would imagine we would have seen at least one more album by now. So I think there is definitely merit to the idea.

* * *

By now, this post is firmly in longform land. I obviously think about this subject too much!

Sometimes, I wonder what would happen if there were different drummers involved. If, for instance, Hetfield, Hammett and Trujillo hooked up with Dave Lombardo, who seems to be completely comfortable with his drums, it’s easy to imagine that Hetfield would drive the car, and Lombardo would have an answer, drum-wise, for every idea that James bounced off of him. In this hypothetical situation, the members who have guitar straps slung around their necks would be able to offer their ideas, and James and Dave would hone them to a razor edge with less head-to-wall moments and dithering. Listeners would be treated to more albums, more adventurous albums, and better shows. More riffs. More double kick drums and more interesting fills.

But that’s not going to happen – it’s just the occasional fantasy of an occasionally frustrated fan. Lars is Metallica, just like James is. They’ve been friends and creative partners for more than 30 years, and my hypothetical situations don’t mean a damn thing to them. And that’s 100% as it should be.

Hopefully, the new album will come out sooner than later. I’m betting on later, myself, given the band’s history and the fact that they will be playing several more shows over the course of the rest of the year. As I said, the fact that they’ve been talking about this album for three years, and are just now starting to piece some songs together, rankles me. On the other hand, it’s not like we fans aren’t used to this. Remember: two albums, seventeen years.

I’ll be there when it does come out. I’m still looking forward to it, and I’m pretty sure that I’ll enjoy it, even if it isn’t the “return to form” that so many fans want. I’ll listen to it in the spirit that it deserves, which is that it is the next step in a journey (whenever that step happens). To me, Metallica is like an old friend at this point. The band has aged, grown, and changed with time, and I have as well. But its members and songs are still welcome.

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Thanks for reading this post by Russ at Dischordant Forms. Follow me on Twitter at @DischordantRuss. Comments are welcome!


“A denial!” – a listening experience, verbalized

April 10th: April Joan Jett nails “Smells Like Teen Spirit” with Nirvana at the 2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. I proceed to write about how it made me cry.

Weeks later: I revisit my blog after weeks of not posting anything.

I replay the video of Joan Jett and Nirvana’s performance at said ceremony.

I still get chills watching that video.

Then, I bring up iTunes and listen to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – the original recorded version from Nevermind.

I revel in the greatness that is the original song, disregarding with every ounce of my being any diminishing effects wrought by over-saturation of the song on radio and everywhere else.

The final chorus starts. I nudge the volume level – which is already high – a little higher.

The chorus resolves to the song’s finale – “A denial!…”

I slam my hands to my headphone-covered ears, as if I am trying to drive the song even more emphatically into my brain and my soul.

As a result, the highs are somewhat muted. Some of the lower mids are somewhat muted. I let up on the phones a bit, and – in doing so – reach as perfect a balance as I can muster with such an impromptu, primitive mixing endeavor (and such crappy headphones).

The mantra repeats.

“A denial!”

The guitar and bass move in concert.

The drums have effectively doubled their urgency. I live by the beat of the drums, while I ride the repeating vocal…

“A deniaaaalll!!….”

It can never be like the first time… or, for that matter, like hearing it the first time after Kurt died. But it is still a heavy, powerful song.

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Thanks for reading this post by Russ at Dischordant Forms. Follow me on Twitter at @DischordantRuss. Comments are welcome!


Nirvana and Joan Jett

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Thursday night (April 10th), Nirvana* was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They were inducted by Michael Stipe, who is one of my favorite singers, and they played four songs with four different vocalists:

  • “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (Joan Jett)
  • “Aneurysm” (Kim Gordon)
  • “Lithium” (Annie Clark)
  • “All Apologies” (Lorde)

Of course, the induction ceremony was not televised live; rather, HBO subscribers (not me) will be able to watch it when it premieres on May 31st. Which is more than seven weeks after the ceremony. Which is annoying, because I would have loved to have watched the whole thing.

Fortunately, I did get a chance to watch the band’s performance of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I came across an article on HuffPost on Friday that included** audience recordings of “All Apologies” and “Teen Spirit.” While the title, Lorde Covers Nirvana with Joan Jett, Kim Gordon and Annie Clark, was obvious click-bait (and the post itself barely mentioned the other three singers), it did include a video of Jett’s performance.

I watched the video twice.

The first time, during the second chorus, I found myself welling up. For the first time in years, a Nirvana song had moved me in some way other than simply making me want to move my head/hands/body with the music.

A few minutes later, I watched it again, and I cried almost the whole way through.

I loved Nirvana as a teenager. The first time I remember hearing “Teen Spirit” (etc.) was in the early spring of 1992, in my friend Mike’s car one afternoon after track practice. Mike went on to the Naval Academy and eventually became a commander in the Navy Seals, and he died in 2005 in Afghanistan when his chopper was shot down during a search and rescue mission.

I went on to different things. I grieved, like so many did, when I heard about Cobain’s death in 1994, and watched MTV Unplugged all day. I listened to, and devoured, whatever Nirvana music I could get my hands on until it dried up. And I eventually moved on to other music.

Nirvana’s music is awesome, but I saturated myself in it to a point where it ultimately didn’t move me like it had before, and I decided to give it a rest. I rarely purposely listen to Nirvana anymore – although “Drain You” (live, From The Muddy Banks Of The Wishkah) is a more-than-occasional favorite – but the love and appreciation of their music is still here within me.

* * *

Watching Joan Jett with Nirvana on Friday was a catharsis of sorts.

Joan, well, she nailed it – she was the perfect choice. Her voice fit the song so well, and she was in complete command.

Krist Novoselic was the rock, the steady rumble beneath Nirvana’s howl. He bobbed and bounced and rocked out in his Krist-like way, and it was wonderful.

And Dave Grohl absolutely killed it on the drums, as always. One of my life’s great pleasures is watching him play drums, because he gets such obvious pleasure from it. Seeing his huge grin always brings me joy.

And as I watched that performance, I lost control. Kurt died 20 years ago, and he took his future with him. Many have speculated about what he might have done, had he lived: would Nirvana have continued? If so, what would their future albums have sounded like? Michael Stipe invited Kurt to work with him; how would that have turned out?

Those things will never be definitively answered, because sadly, he died before they could come to pass. But here I was – 20 years later – watching Dave with his big grin, and Krist rocking out, and Joan kicking ass… Suddenly, I was grieving again, for Kurt and his band and the people who knew and loved him. And for my friend Mike, and probably for other things. And the tears ran down my face, and my chest shook, and it felt like a relief.

In some small way, Joan Jett fronting Nirvana was the most perfect coda to Nirvana’s career.

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Notes:

Along with Kiss, Linda Ronstadt, Peter Gabriel, The E Street Band, Hall & Oates, and others.

** I say “included” because I very much expect audience recordings to be removed for copyright infringement sooner than later. I fully expect to have to remove the video at the top of this post at some point soon for that reason…

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Thanks for reading this post by Russ at Dischordant Forms. Follow me on Twitter at @DischordantRuss. Comments are welcome!


Digging into “Black Hole Sun” and Superunknown

My introduction to Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” was via the song’s video, which I first saw during the early summer of 1994:

This video was both awesome and, at the time, quite possibly the most fucked-up thing I had ever seen. As a result, the song creeped me out a bit whenever I heard it, because I always associated it with all of the bizarre, psychedelic stuff going on in the video. To this day, if I watch the video, my hair invariably stands on end at points, especially when the black hole sun starts making things turn even more chaotic and weird than they were during the first couple of minutes…

Eventually, I bought Superunknown – which was released 20 years ago this month, and is being re-released as a Super Deluxe edition on April 19th (Record Store Day) – and I got to know the song and its companions a whole lot better.

This was back when the Walkman and its ilk were beginning to approach their death throes, but to a college student with little in the way of pocket money, the Walkman was great. I bought blank cassettes, dubbed my favorite music onto them, and listened to them through headphones at high volume as I fulfilled my work-study obligations. I worked a job that required virtually zero personal interaction, which made it a perfect opportunity to shut off the world and listen to rock and metal without bothering anyone. I became good friends with the likes of Machine Head, Testament, Alice In Chains, Metallica, and Soundgarden during those (many, many) sessions.

As I made my way through my college years, I developed some pretty specific memories of “Black Hole Sun.” The details of what I was doing while listening are both fuzzy and irrelevant by this time; what I remember vividly is the small epiphanies I would have while listening to Superunknown (which is an album that, if you’re in the right mood, will blow your mind in many very pleasant ways the first several times you listen to it).

“Black Hole Sun” has several interesting elements, some of which are:

  • It’s a slow, steady, heavy rock song, but is well-polished and multi-layered, both vocally and instrumentally.
  • The lead guitar melody has a somewhat haunting, yet beautiful and ethereal quality that contrasts nicely with the heavy parts of the song.
  • The “black hole sun!” screams in the last chorus are pretty awesome.
  • The hard alternate-panned “black hole sun!” vocals during the “won’t you come?” part at the end of the song are pretty remarkable to listen to on headphones… especially the first time you hear them.
  • The John Lennon-inspired vocal harmonies in the choruses sound great.

And there are others – those are just off the top of my head. I didn’t discover each of them on the first listen. When you hear the song come at you from directly in front – as with a music video on TV – you don’t necessarily hear everything. But on headphones, the stereo space revealed nuggets such as the ones I listed above, and from a musical perspective, it was heaven.

Superunknown has several gems. I’m not usually partial to the big hits by an artist – and “Black Hole Sun” was probably Soundgarden’s biggest – but in this case, the song stands on its merits. But there are other great songs on the album. “Like Suicide,” for instance, is not only a great song, but has one of my favorite Soundgarden treats: Chris Cornell singing/screaming at the beginning of Kim Thayil’s guitar solo… and the solo itself is, in my opinion, one of the most emotionally powerful solos I’ve ever heard. He does a smiliar thing at the beginning of the solo in the album’s opener, “Let Me Drown,” which I also love. Other favorites abound… “Head Down” has a great intro; “Fell On Black Days” is just a great song; “Spoonman” needs no explanation; “Fresh Tendrils” (the “shame! shame! throw yourself away” chorus-y part is incredible); and “4th of July” with its down-tuned sludginess that I struggled to comprehend at the time.

From front to back, it’s one of the strongest albums I own. In my humble opinion, there isn’t another Soundgarden album that’s as dynamic and well-written as Superunknown, and 20 years later, it’s still an album that I can enjoy from start to finish.

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Thanks for reading this post by Russ at Dischordant Forms. Follow me on Twitter at @DischordantRuss. Comments are welcome!


Epiphany: I will expand my musical vocabulary

While playing guitar the other night, I had an epiphany.

* * *

I’ve been “playing” guitar for twenty years now. I never had any formal lessons. I remember sitting in the living room in our old house as a teenager, picking up my mother’s acoustic guitar, and fretting the low E string the first time. The pain in my finger tip was a major deterrent. A couple of months later, I tried again, and stuck with it.

In the beginning, I learned chords from a chart my mother had on the piano. I could do E minor okay, but C chords always sounded like crap, and F was a disaster. G major was nice, once I could manage to fret the G on the high E string. E major and A minor came next, and sounded all right. It was slow going.

Eventually, I learned about barre chords, and was banging out terrible versions of Nirvana songs. And breaking strings left and right. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine those days, but they happened, and we all start somewhere. We learn…

* * *

About fourteen years ago, by which point I had progressed past banging away at simple three- and four-chord strummers to playing with a little more finesse and skill, I reached a self-induced crossroads. I became sort of paranoid, feeling that everything that I created was derivative. At that point, I decided not to learn any more songs that were relatively close in style to the things I was writing.

I can remember a pivotal point in that thought process. I was fiddling around on my acoustic one day, and I accidentally stumbled on Mike McCready’s opening/verse lick to “Given To Fly” by Pearl Jam. My initial reaction was “oh… cool!” – followed immediately by a weird feeling of guilt. The self-censor won – I never played that lick again, and never forgot that moment.

From that time on, I’ve maintained a strict “I will not learn other people’s songs” method. Which isn’t much of a method, in reality.

This is not to say that I’ve not learned any guitar licks since then. For example, I’ve spent hours working on songs like “Holy Wars… The Punishment Due” (Megadeth), along with riffs from songs by Pantera, Metallica, and other metal bands, because I don’t “create” metal songs, so they were in what I considered “fair territory.” And I’ve certainly benefited musically and technically from those experiences. But there is a lot that I’ve shut out, and since my goal has never been to become a competent metal guitarist, those experiences have only taken me so far.

Instead of learning other people’s songs, I found that I enjoyed writing my own songs. At the time, I got a lot of fulfillment from writing guitar parts that were slightly above my current skill level – and then learning how to play those songs. In this way, I improved as a guitarist, and came up with some pretty good songs… but I also ran into a lot of brick walls. Over time, those walls got higher, and my interest ultimately diminished.

Over the past ten years, the volume of creativity has decreased, and the amount of recording that I’ve done – even just riff demos – has slowed to an occasional drip. I basically trained myself to hold my playing within that holy grail of originality when composing music, so that, if I was not playing something that I’d already established, my censor-alarms would go off more and more urgently. Occasionally, I would have some small burst of creation, but for the most part, songwriting / guitar playing have generally been at odds with me for a while now.

This has, very likely, contributed to the long musical droughts I have experienced over the years.

* * *

However, my philosophy on originality has changed.

I mentioned before that I had an epiphany the other night, which is this: I have been stunting my musical ability, technical skill, and creative palette by not learning how to play more songs.

As we learn to play various songs, we build our musical vocabulary: the individual notes – the musical alphabet – are there; we can use those letters to create words or phrases, and we can make them our own by accenting them in the way we choose. Furthermore, learning via songs gives those notes and phrases context, which helps us understand how they work within the music, with the added benefit of being fun (rather than just a pure exercise). As I was playing that night, I realized that I’ve limited my musical options by refusing to learn how to play a wide variety of songs, missing out on opportunities to expand my vocabulary. Building a working vocabulary simply gives me more tools to use in the creative process, just as the practice of reading and writing hones a person’s ability to learn, comprehend, and write.

I realized that, since I am not a savant who is destined to rediscover everything that has already been discovered on the guitar, it can’t hurt me to learn more of what’s already there. In some way, I think that I wanted to repeatedly experience the joy of discovery, but, while it was a well-intentioned ideal to hold myself to, in reality I slid so far into my own little hole on the guitar that I painted myself into a corner of ignorance – and, in turn, frustration. The cost has been great: I was stunting my language skills by not playing new things, or things that are uncomfortable or difficult to play – or even familiar things that I enjoy listening to or singing along with. While I have limited skill and am closer to middle age than to childhood, I can still learn a great deal from developing new skills and applying them in different ways as I try to create songs.

In retrospect, I think that what I’ve done to myself as a musician over the past couple of decades has shown a severe lack of trust in my own ability to use established musical language to create something new. I know now that the result was that the holy grail of originality – an ideal that I clung ferociously to, to my detriment – ended up inhibiting my songwriting process a great deal.

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I need to not be afraid to learn how to play music of any style that I enjoy. Doing so will open up a world of possibilities by expanding my musical vocabulary, giving me (relatively) more mastery over the instrument and removing some of the barriers to creation that I’ve experienced.

Recently, I’ve begun to try to figure out the horn melody to “Godchild” by Miles Davis, from his classic 1949 album Birth Of The Cool (in the video above). While it’s currently not exactly the style of music that I would typically write, I’m also looking at expanding the boundaries of the kind of music I create (which in itself is a post for another day), and is also a song that I’ve enjoyed for a long time.

The important thing for me is to play, and to learn, with a “no rules” attitude as opposed to a restrictive code like I did for so many years. This is probably a many-layered concept that will hopefully reveal itself further as I continue my musical journey. For now, I’m simply happy to have broken the dam.

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Thanks for reading this post by Russ at Dischordant Forms. Follow me on Twitter at @DischordantRuss. Comments are welcome!


Chasing all that is new

I was going through some backlogged articles recently on NPR’s All Songs Considered when I came across this one, entitled The Good Listener: Is There Too Much Music? by Stephen Thompson. In it, a reader/listener asks:

How much is too much? I am a firm believer in quality over quantity, but I lose sleep at night fearing that I’m going to miss something. But am I really missing something bigger by not spending more time with less music?”

The gist of that question resonates with me because I used to be the person who routinely gobbled up bag-fulls of new music in the never-ending search for that next song or album that blows the mind. During the second half of the last decade, however, the frequency with which I purchased new albums generally declined – and over the past few years, what had slowed to a trickle has basically come to a halt.

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My current hiatus from buying new music is largely due to lack of financial wherewithal. I was unemployed for a while (but have been back on the job for well over a year, thankfully), and as such, close to 100% of the music I’ve bought since then has been via iTunes, using credit that I had from some gift cards. Of course, I’ve been able to check out tracks on YouTube and other streaming services from time to time, but the last physical CD I picked up was Megadeth’s Endgame, and the last full album I “purchased” on iTunes was Lulu, which is unfortunate in some ways…

That doesn’t mean that I’ve been completely oblivious to new music. However, my attention to new sounds definitely waned as the money for new music dried up. As I struggled to find a new job, and met with loads of failure along that path, I withdrew on a personal level and battled depression for a long time, which didn’t help much with the discovery of new things. I stayed plugged into certain scenes, but over the past few years I’ve definitely become the type of person who mostly looks forward to new music from artists that he already enjoys.

Before I go down that road, though let’s look at my “path to middle-age” a little more directly…

  1. As a young adult, the desire for new and better sounds was insatiable. I acquired new music whenever I could. I also worked at a music retailer, which both fueled that desire and put the actual product right in front of me every day.
  2. After I left for a different niche in the retail world, I lost the “right in front of me” part. I still consumed music and looked for new sounds, but a little less voraciously so.
  3. A change in relationship (and, consequently, of the majority of my life environment), along with an increasing interest in video games, took some of that “more new music” space, both within me and with regard to my time budget.
  4. Once I had no job, the pocket money began to run out, and so, as I found myself less willing to spend money on music, I was also getting out of the habit of actively searching for it, in all the ways that that entails.
  5. As I became more depressed about my situation – feeling worthless and discouraged, and whatnot – that former eternal hunger for new music became more like a dying flame, in danger of flickering out.
  6. While I’m now employed again – and, consequently, in a much better place – I still don’t have the discretionary purchasing power to spend money on music – although I certainly would like to.

So that’s the look at what brought me to my current relationship with new music, on a micro/self level.

In the meantime, the music business/climate has changed immensely over the past several years – and so has the music itself. Several trends and styles have come and gone, and I’ve completely missed most of them. I’m generally fine with that.

There was a shift in my relationship with the new music that was being made – a lull, if you will – even before I stopped having money and time to spend on records. There was simply less music coming out that interested me. As the hipster thing (and I use that term very, very broadly) became more and more prevalent, I grew less and less interested in music being played/written about/talked about on WXPN (my local indie station) and other media. It seemed like, in the second half of the last decade, it became more difficult over time to find gems among the mass of music that was coming out. And so I began to unplug from most music and information outlets – not consciously or with purpose; it’s more like I just fell out of the habit of looking.

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Over the past year or so, I’ve begun to more keenly feel the effects of getting older as well as all that I discussed above.

What am I looking forward to, when I do finally find myself with a little extra pocket change to use for some music? Well, I want to pick up the new Sebadoh album, Defend Yourself (“I Will” in the above video comes from that album). Down – Down IV – The Purple EP. Newsted – Heavy Metal Music. The latest albums by Queens Of The Stone Age, Testament, and Soundgarden. And that’s just a small sample of all of the rock/metal albums I’d like to acquire, without going into other genres. I could name so many more, but I won’t.

Anyway, Down and QOTSA were born in the early 1990s; Jason Newsted is the former Metallica/Voivod bassist; Testament, Soundgarden, and Sebadoh all started in the 1980s. Do you see a trend there? All artists that I’ve been listening to forever. New music, but not new artists.

Part of me wonders if that is wholly a bad thing – I think it isn’t. In particular, Newsted is something of an outlier, because even though he’s been around for almost 30 years, his new band/album represents his first real full-on push to make his own music readily available to any and every fan. Regardless, something binds each of these groups together: an established track record of quality, authenticity, and creativity.

Nevertheless, there is a big part of me – now that I am healthy again – that pines for those old days where I consumed new and diverse music like a hungry lion. Looking back at my former self, one of the things that I miss is that old hunger.

I can’t necessarily define why my formerly insatiable hunger for new and different has subsided to a point. Perhaps I’ve come to accept that it’s common sense that I won’t get to experience everything. I do know that in some ways, I enjoy looking for nuances more in the music I’ve listened to for a while, while in other ways I’ve come to enjoy the worthiness of a song for the song’s sake more than I used to.

Of course, not having the money to expand my collection has certainly put some walls around the extent of my reach. Whatever the reasons – changing as a person, being restricted financially, the changing of the musical and business climates over the years – my love of music isn’t diminished; it simply continues to evolve.

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Thanks for reading this post by Russ at Dischordant Forms. Follow me on Twitter at @DischordantRuss. Comments are welcome!


Remembering Lou Reed in light of Lulu…

As much as I’d like to think or say otherwise, I do not have my ear to the ground concerning everything that’s happening in music these days – what people are playing and where they’re playing it, what the new sounds are, who’s saying what about music, and so on.

However, for whatever reason, and in spite of various circumstances, I’ve managed to keep my ear to the ground within the heavy metal community for more than a decade. It’s a fairly easy thing to do: you find a heavy metal news source or two and follow them faithfully. For me, the constant has been Blabbermouth.net, which is something of an aggregator of happenings in the world of hard rock and heavy metal. It’s not my only source, but the site has been a mainstay of mine since shortly after it came into existence over a decade ago.

As a result of my attention to the constant stream of information coming from Blabbermouth and similar sources, I’m familiar with the strongly negative response that Lou Reed’s 2011 collaboration with Metallica, Lulu, elicited from fans, critics, and peers. The album didn’t sell well, and was a difficult listening experience for most, including this listener.

I reviewed it in 2011, shortly after its release. At the time, I tried to review it as fairly as I could. This was a difficult task, in retrospect, for two reasons:

1) I’m a fan of Metallica.

2) I’m a fan of Lou Reed.

While those two factors could be dismissed as trivial, I believe that part of what made that album so difficult to review is the juxtaposition of Lou Reed and Metallica. And this is one thought that has been gnawing at me ever since I read that the the collaboration was to occur.

A) If I were a Metallica fan – particularly an “old Metallica” fan – and I didn’t know anything about Lou Reed or his music, I would probably hate it.

B) If I were a Lou Reed fan, with no prior knowledge of – or concern with – Metallica, I would likely either love the ballsiness of the album, hate the way it sounds, or simply accept it as a continuation of the familiar Lou Reed ethos: doing whatever one wants to do.

C) If I just happened to hear it with no prior experience with either musical entity, I would likely still find it a difficult listen.

The problem occurred when considering the first two scenarios – particularly the first, because Metallica is a heavy metal group, and so most fans of the band expect to hear heavy metal when they put on an album with the group’s name on it.

As a person reviewing the record back in 2011, I wanted to be open to both sides of the divide, but I found it very difficult to do so. Since I’m a fan of Metallica’s entire catalog, I was looking for… I don’t know: a super heavy album with Lou Reed speak-screaming over it? A more mellow (but heavy for) Lou Reed album with Metallica as the backing band? I’m not sure. The Metallica fan in me wanted to listen to it as a Metallica record, and the Lou Reed fan in me wanted a great Lou Reed record… and those two perspectives butted heads, creating a conundrum.

When I listened to it, I looked for the songs to touch me in some way, with their musical force, emotional depth, and/or beauty. Some of them – particularly “The View” and “Junior Dad” – did exactly that. Others failed to do so: most of the times that James Hetfield sang broke my attention to the songs, and sometimes Lou’s delivery grated against the music. I’m pretty certain that that was the point, which is fine, but as a listener there are certain experiences on the album that I don’t want to repeat. On the other hand, the songs that I did connect with I will always connect with.

Ultimately, what we got was just about what I had expected: a difficult listen with some bright moments where Metallica’s talents meshed well with Reed’s songs.

What we also got was a polarizing album that drew out the detractors en masse. Actually, detractors is just a nice word to use, considering the phenomenal amount of hatred that the album, along with Lou Reed and Metallica, received.

To many/most metal fans, it’s a joke. It’s “Metallica’s worst album, hands down.” It’s a “piece of shit.” “James is the table” is only the most recognizable of the many derogatory memes that the album spawned, and that one came from its strongest song and introductory single, “The View,” almost two months before the album was released. For many fans, it was the nail in the coffin of the career of a band that had been going downhill since somewhere between 1988 and 2003, depending on when fans determined the band had jumped the shark. It was proof that Metallica had nothing left in the tank.

In reality, it was a project. It was the fulfillment of the shared desires of both Reed and Metallica, to collaborate. As Testament guitarist Alex Skolnick put it:

Another way to view Lulu is the type of album that very few musical acts get to do: the 1% or less who reach that highest level, commercially and financially. These albums can only be done by acts who maintain their own creative control and feel the artistic impulses to challenge the very system that put them where they are. (…)

As part of the other 99% – far from wealthy, but grateful to have carved out a comfortable living based solely on playing and composing – I honestly don’t know what it’s like to be in that kind of top-tier position. I can only imagine the artistic inclinations I might feel if I were. So it feels only fair to withhold judgement as a musician and place Lulu in a proper historical context, with other iconic artists who have thrown their fans for a loop. (…)

Think about it: Lou Reed and the world’s biggest heavy metal band get together, bond over German Impressionism, create an almost-unlistenable album and release it to the world? If that’s not art, I don’t know what is.

As I’ve read comments and commentary over the course of the two years since its release, I’ve consistently found myself wondering what people were expecting. Did they think it was going to be Master Of Puppets-like music with Reed singing over it? Load-like with Reed singing over it? I just can’t identify with the idea that people were expecting something like either of those things, or anything related. And, to be honest, my least favorite parts of the album were the songs in the middle (and the opener) that sounded like Metallica playing Lou Reed songs in the style of Metallica, along with the songs that sounded like Lou Reed singing over Metallica’s discarded riff collection. The best parts of the album were the ones where the two entities met somewhere in the middle (“The View”) or went much closer to Reed’s side of the fence (“Junior Dad,” “Little Dog,” etc.).

In my review at the time, I said that Lulu is not a metal album. By that, I mean that it shouldn’t be approached as, or expected to be, the average listener’s conception of what metal is or sounds like. As such, I still shake my head when I read most of what writers and commenters have to say about it.

Lulu turned out to be Lou Reed’s final release before his death. Some people are saying that it’s a shame that it was, and that he went out on a low note. I prefer to think otherwise. I believe that it was exactly what he said it was at the time: a dream come true. He was very happy with the album. To deny that, or to think otherwise, is to not have an understanding of who Reed was: a man who chose his own path, a tireless experimenter who loved writing and making new music and rearranging his old songs. Lou was a person who made a large number of disparate-sounding records throughout his career, with the people he chose to play with. And while, as an artist, he was always looking toward his next project – records, tours, different bands, other media – he got to work with Metallica at the end of his life, and I think he cherished that opportunity, experience, and result. He wasn’t a man to regret his decisions.

In looking through the thousands of blog posts about Lou Reed’s death over the past couple of days, it’s fun to see which songs people reference or link to remember him by. The most popular seem to be “Pale Blue Eyes” and “Walk On The Wild Side,” although I’ve seen references to virtually every era, from The Velvet Underground to Transformer, Berlin to Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal, Metal Machine Music to Street Hassle, Blue Mask to Magic And Loss, Set The Twilight Reeling to Ecstasy to, yes, even Lulu. It’s safe to say, from these tributes, that the vast majority of Reed’s fans will remember the breadth of his work over the decades, rather than one album that certain people love to hate.

And Metallica will be fine.

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Thanks for reading this post by Russ at Dischordant Forms. Follow me on Twitter at @DischordantRuss. Comments are welcome!