Wednesday, March 19, 2008
Genre Death: A Study
For a few years I've had this theory about the innate life cycle of musical genres. First of all, its sort of standard practice by the tons of people who are nostalgic for the past, those who are enamored by the past and need a facsimile to live through, and those who profit from both those groups to deny that genres die in the first place. Or, at least, the ones that still make money. You can openly discuss how jazz and Motown are dead, but its an uphill battle to bring up the decaying corpses of country, rock, and hip-hop with people, since they're still huge cash-cows despite their perpetually diminishing musical returns album-wise and lack of anything but rehashing and watering down past sounds.
But that is exactly the thing. Like any organism, art movements inevitably expire, rot, and are prodded with long sticks by 17-year-old kids searching for an identity of obscure aesthetic to lord over their trendier friends (Hello crust punk, folk revival, house, thrash and 65th generation ska). There is a morbidity to the death a genre, as we all become grave robbers, with the soup-y remains of things like disco and no wave being recycled, giving the effect of a bile-ridden torso in neat Amazon.com gift wrap. Anytime you listen to Municipal Waste, you are being a musical necrophiliac.
But, really, only two things happen after a genre dies. The truly talented people who get it will continue you without pressure from popularity of major-label interest, and/or it will stop being music and become a cultural niche item to be misappropriated and silk-screened onto American Apparel shirts.
Knowing this, you can chart the inevitable life cycle of art into four distinct phases. For this, I'll use death metal as an example.
Phase I: The Progenitors
Punk has The Stooges and NY Dolls, and death metal has Hellhammer, Possessed, Sarcofogo, tons of hardcore punk and thrash, and with a degree of argument, Sepultura and Slayer. Since death metal started as a sub-genre, the influences for the later first-wave bands would come from the oddities of the day, all the bands a few years prior to the scene developing that were popular of influential, in this case through extensive tape trading and hours sitting with LP's of the weird, sloppy, discordant shit no one else cared about. Tastes are developed, aesthetics created, and entire ways of playing and writing music changed just because there was , say, one song on some lame speed metal album from the early 80's that employed flat fifths with key changes and created one of the first death metal riffs. That one weird riff on a crappy album by an anonymous band can drive the 15-year old Florida thrash fan crazy, inspiring him to emulate and write exclusively using those intervals and that rhythm. That tiny obscure oddity just created an entire movement.
Phase II: The First Wave
Those kids influenced by that riff can be anywhere from down the street from each other to on different continents, especially with tape trading and zines. Either way, it creates a hive mind effect, as guys like Chuck Shuldiner from Death, Trey Azagthoth from Morbid Angel, Obituary (then Xecutioner), and Kam Lee from Massacre end up having the timing and spark to lay the foundation of the genre and scene. With heavier underground bands like Celtic Frost and Possessed already thickening the sound and thrash giving the punk-influenced template, they're free to be the pioneers, tuning down their guitars, deepening and twisting the already ragged and evolving growl style of throat in underground heavy metal and various forms of hardcore. There aren't any rules about meter, structure, arrangements as they're being made up as everyone goes along. But soon enough, maybe after about a year or two, the demos are recorded, and soon also are each band's first albums. In terms of the first wave, Florida soon becomes the mecca of the new sound, inspiring bad jokes about old people and heavy metal for years.
Phase III: The Second Wave
At this point in the life of a genre, the sound that was pioneered and molded by the first wave bands, being in this case all of the Florida bands, is again spread through tape trading and zines and word of mouth and inspires peers in the same age group and younger. They all form bands, and proceed to both imitate the original sound and aesthetic of death metal, as well as expand upon it with their particular takes or gimmicks. Its at this point you get Deicide, Cannibal Corpse, Carcass, Entombed, Darkthrone, Dismember, Autopsy, Pestilence, Obituary, Atheist, and etc. Each with their own takes, whether faster, slower, more doom influenced, more punk influenced, more technical and proggy, etc. Each band is so distinct as to be able to successfully break death metal away from the perception of being "extreme thrash", while still retaining some of thrash metal's influence. There's even a Motown-sound ina sense, as Morrisound studios in Florida and Scott Burns production style becomes the standard. With classic and inspired albums, touring packages and compilations are put out, genre-specific labels are created, and international touring is now possible, leading to the inevitable.
Phase IV: The Third Wave
The number of bands in the genre increased dramatically from first to second waves, but, luckily for all the bands and for fans of the new sound, they all had their own act and you could say things like, "I hate Deicide, but Pestilence and Death are really fucking cool. Man, Glen Benton is a fucking tool!"
Problem! Now everyone knows about the genre. A bunch of small write-ups about the second wave and uninformed, confused blurbs about first wave, some label attention, and several thousand albums sold, there's now hundreds of death metal bands. Having over-saturation is always a problem, but its exacerbated by the fact that few of the new bands bring anything new to the table, and the phrase "generic death metal" becomes a permanent part of the lexicon. This death metal documentary sums up what happened between 1990 and 1996 best:
The law of diminishing returns is now in effect. The first and second wave bands are on their second and third albums. They're widely recognized (or in some cases, unfairly overlooked) as figureheads, some might have even gotten signed to major labels, as happened with many Earache bands. Headbangers Ball is playing your videos, self-proclaimed "progressive" music types with no interest in death metal are hyping Death and Morbid Angel, Guitar World and Spin want to cover you, and everyone not digging Metallica, Slayer and Megadeth is listening to your band. But, outside of the international areas that were late to the party and produces bands that expand the genre like Gorguts and Demilich, the party is over. None of the new bands are different or inspired, pumping more generic retreads into the marketplace to a public that, honestly doesn't know or care whether or not these bands are original or opportunistic knock-offs. Aesthetics, cover art, lyrical content, everything becomes cliche and almost self-parody, even the bands trying to be funny on purpose. Bands even, to the chagrin of many of the bands and fans, flocked in droves to Morrisound studios and just demanded that "Scott Burns sound", creating an endless march of indistinguishable, muddy generic albums.
Just like hip-hop, too many people are interested, and the structure crumbles under its own weight. Everyone has their own reasons for making a death metal band between 1990 and 1996, and there are now several niches for you to fit under. Grind was developing in parallel, so Carcass, Assuck, Brutal Truth and Napalm Death were already mixing the two sounds (although Napalm Death proceeded to suck really badly at both) and you could now be a grind-influenced death metal band or vice versa. Morbid Angel proceeded in twisting and warping every aspect of the genre into a discordant black hole, Autopsy and Obituary had paved the way to have sludgy, doom metal-esque aspects in your sound, while Death, Atheist and Pestilence strived for near-surgical technicality. New York death metal became a formed and the measure of how heavy death metal can be, with drastically tuned down guitars and bass-heavy, mid-scooped sonics. There were sects that represented whatever you may have inherently liked about the first wave bands, and they proceeded to mutate until brutal death metal and the sludge of Autopsy became polar opposites within the same sound.
Like Sunni and Shiite, the majority faction off. By 1994 and 1995, the combination of Carcass's Heart Work, In Flames, and At The Gates create a scene of easy-listening death metal (To be fair, more the latter bands. Carcass did no wrong and actually managed not to suck) with the same mechanics of Swedish death metal, but a heavy reliance of foppish, pseudo power metal songwriting and abuse of the natural minor scale. Essentially, with death metal for people who hate death metal now available, the popularity of the genre in the mainstream clearly a dying fad, and too many bands doing the same thing even in different sub-genres, its kind of bleak looking. And then, this band from Quebec like, totally fucked it all up:
Cryptopsy comes in and, moreso than other brutal death metal acts, create a template for new school death metal that would proceed to destroy any chance of the genre to return to its creative heydey. Not only was None So Vile actually good and a breath of fresh air, it set a bar of sonic flogging that would just be dumbly referred to as "br00tal" to this day. Every band had to either be brutal, or sound like At The Gates to sell. The fad of more "brutal", faster, and more technically ridiculous bands never slowed down, and despite the occasional ray of light within death/thrash, death/grind, and goregrind, few albums of note would be released following. Bands that had released classics in the past, as is the norm in metal, completely failed to do anything decent for the rest of their careers, and the postmortem fetishizing of first and second wave death metal end up being interesting and fun (like some Razorback bands or Impaled or Norway's Obliteration) but not that good. Everyone either moves on to something else, makes a shitty brutal/technical death metal band, or retreads the past like the post-modern necrophiliacs we are in this decade. Or bitches about the lack of good songwriting, mystery, or humor in modern death. Or, as in the case of deathcore, morph into a unholy shit sandwich of convolution:
Depending on cultural factors and sometimes just time, only the oldheads who were around for the heyday will complain about this and agree the genre is dead, while everyone else is satisfied with their Decapitations and Psycroptics and Suicide Silences, making it years until the death of the genre is deemed canonical. This template is practically what happened and still does, all the time. Even metalcore, if I can show my age for a second, went through this from 1995-2006 and with deathcore's rapid usurping of the spotlight of "music for annoying teenage kids to dress like space hookers and start fights to". Time will tell when dead-swan hair and violent ninja gangs will rove into N.E.R.D. shows.
Great Death Metal Albums
Morbid Angel-Altars of Madness, Blessed Are The Sick
Obituary- Slowly We Rot
Cannibal Corpse- Eaten Back To Life
Suffocation- Effigy of the Forgotten
Pestilence- Consuming Impulse, Testimony of the Ancients
Entombed-Left Hand Path, Clandestine
Dismember- Like An Ever-Flowing Stream
Bolt Thrower- War Master, Realm of Chaos
Atheist- Piece of Time, Unquestionable Prescence
Autopsy- Mental Funeral, Severed Survival
Carcass- Symphonies of Sickness, Necroticism: Descanting the Insalubrious
Cryptopsy- None So Vile
Incantation- Diabolical Conquest
Cephalic Carnage- Anomalies, Lucid Interval
Arsis- A Celebration of Guilt
Just about anything on Razorback records
*Albums that are more grind than death are omitted