Monday, December 8, 2008

Bang Your Head Gently

This is an essay I wrote for school. It got a C+. 

      Bang Your Head Gently: 

      The Acceptance of Metal in the Indie Rock World 

Historically, the genres of metal and indie rock have had clear, distinct fanbases. Certain people like Slayer, certain people like the Smiths, and never the twain shall meet. However, in recent years, this divide has become less pronounced. A few genuine  metal bands have gained fervent followings among people who usually listen to much different music, the most prominent being Mastodon and the Dillinger Escape Plan. While many artists in many different genres have had crossover success before, several things distinguish Mastodon and the Dillinger Escape Plan from most others. 

One thing that is notable about these bands’ indie success is that they have done it without sacrificing their metal credibility. When Metallica cut their hair and released the huge MTV hit “Enter Sandman,” they alienated many of their fans. While they achieved greater mainstream popularity, they also turned a large segment of their older diehard fans against them. They thought the band had sold out, that they had started playing music that lacked the edge which had attracted them in the first place. This is not the case with Mastodon or the Dillinger Escape Plan. While their profile outside the realm of metal has increased, their credibility within it has not suffered. Metal magazine Decibel named Mastodon’s Blood Mountain the best album of 2006, and the Dillinger Escape Plan’s Ire Works third best of 2007, with their J. Bennett describing it as, “tantamount to repeatedly beating one’s own world record in the 50-yard dash just to let the second- and third-place dudes know that they’ll never, ever catch up (ever).” Mastodon does inaccessible, stereotypically metal things like write a concept album about Moby Dick, and the Dillinger Escape Plan’s vocalist Greg Puciato breathes literal fire at the crowd during their concerts, which is shockingly dangerous and not for the faint of heart; in other words, totally metal. While these bands are known outside of the metal world, they are still very much part of it. 

Beyond anything else, though, what gives them their metal qualifications is their music. Mastodon is incredibly heavy. Their songs are packed full of riffs and almost prog rock, a la Rush, in their complexity. The drumming is fast, pulverizing and highly reminiscent of Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham, if John Bonham had a few extra limbs. Vocalist Brett Hinds’ primary form of expression is a roar. Pitchfork’s Jessica Suarez said of their song “Cut You Up With A Linoleum Knife,” “the title...speaks to both brutality and precision, the band’s two greatest assets.” The Dillinger Escape Plan are even more brutal and precise. Their songs are mind-bogglingly complicated, with outrageously fast and demanding drumming and guitar playing, and almost always played in bizarre, difficult-to-count time signatures. Puciato ranges from a falsetto croon to a raging scream. Both bands are unrelentingly abrasive, aggressive and intimidating. 

So why do people who normally don’t like metal like these bands? Why is there any overlap in fans between Mastodon and, for example, Vampire Weekend, who are arguably the most indicative of current trends in indie rock? Vampire Weekend plays preppy pop-rock with African influences. Their whole image is based around being wealthy, witty, Columbia-educated and good-looking. Their songs are catchy and playful. Clearly, they are extremely different than Mastodon or the Dillinger Escape Plan, and yet it is not unheard of to find all three bands on one person’s iPod.

Part of the answer relates, as do many trends in independent music, to Pitchfork. While there are many complaints against Pitchfork, including its writers’ at times patronizing attitude toward genres like metal (in fact, a blog tellingly titled “Hipsters Out Of Metal!” recently posted an entry mocking a Pitchfork review of the metal band Opeth, and a few days later posted links to new Mastodon videos), its influence on what becomes popular in indie circles cannot be denied. While it had previously never paid much attention to the genre beyond its infamous review of Metallica’s St. Anger, in 2006, Pitchfork started writing about metal in earnest. The metal band it championed above all others was Mastodon, giving Blood Mountain an 8.7 out of 10 and placing it at number 42 on its year-end list. Other typically indie-oriented critics like The Onion A.V. Club also threw their support behind the album, and even The New York Times called it “a strong record by a powerful band nearing an ideal of cohesion.” This sort of support from trusted critics led to a willingness to give Mastodon a chance that most indie fans probably would not have given them otherwise. 

Another element that may have contributed to the greater acceptance of these bands relates to the relationship between metal and hardcore punk. While there are similarities between the two genres, including aggression, speed, and iconoclasm, they are undeniably, defiantly separate. While modern punk and indie are separate, what is now known as “indie” evolved out of hardcore in the 80s, from bands like Sonic Youth and Husker Du. Thus, there is almost no metal influence on indie. They are entirely different genres, with different aims, the most notable being that punk and indie traditionally place very little emphasis on technical proficiency, which is a key component of metal. What sets Mastodon and especially the Dillinger Escape Plan apart from other metal bands is their integration of punk influences and indie aesthetics into their decidedly metal tendencies. Aside from Brett Hinds’ facial tattoos, the members of these bands do not look like stereotypical metal musicians. In fact, they would not look out of place walking down Bedford Avenue. The bands’ album covers are tasteful and artistic, and stay away from classic metal designs like skulls and pointy fonts. The Dillinger Escape Plan’s music, aside from the technical aspect, owes just as much to hardcore as it does to metal. Their songs are structured more like punk songs, favoring verse-chorus-verse over the long, suite-like approach frequently used in metal. Their lyrics usually deal with relationships. They have also collaborated with Mike Patton, the former singer of Faith No More, who is a unifying figure in independent music, having worked with everyone from the Melvins to Norah Jones. Both bands also have pop elements that earn them some detractors in metal but make them more palatable to to non-metal listeners. Mastodon will occasionally break down into semi-acoustic passages, while the Dillinger Escape Plan has a song that Decibel favorably compared to Justin Timberlake, with its catchy chorus and poppy vocal inflections.

The influence of metal on indie has not been game-changing, but it is growing. Besides Mastodon and the Dillinger Escape Plan, other metal bands have been embraced, including Gojira, a French death metal band that sings about global warming, and Krallice, a Brooklyn black metal band led by the versatile Mick Barr. Pitchfork now regularly covers metal bands and even has a monthly metal column called Show No Mercy. Mastodon has toured with indie stalwarts Cursive. I recently attended a concert featuring noise bands like Lightning Bolt and Growing, as well as Krallice. Metal’s influence has taken an interestingly winding path, moving from one part of the underground to another. Now, any Mastodon show will have just as many people with skinny jeans as long hair. There is a Metallica fan in every town in the country. Metal has become a cultural force, and it gets more forceful every year.

Mastodon - Crystal Skull (Mediafire) 

The Dillinger Escape Plan - Sunshine the Werewolf

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Garfield - Garfield

This is something I just came across recently, and it's totally brilliant. This dude Dan Walsh takes Garfield strips and erases Garfield from them, leaving Jon Arbuckle alone to grapple with his existential angst. It's both hilarious and horribly depressing. Who knew Garfield had so much subtext? 

The one I most identify with ran on my birthday!52324969.png

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Drive-By Truckers/The Hold Steady @ Terminal 5

Last night, I saw the Drive-By Truckers and the Hold Steady co-headlining at the clinical, weirdly located, blind spot-plagued Terminal 5. I had high expectations going in, as the Hold Steady are one of my favorite bands and released what will probably end up being the best album of the year, Stay Positive. Holy shit, what a great fucking album. I'm far less familiar with the Drive-By Truckers, but they seem to tread similar terrain as the Hold Steady: lots of classic rock-influenced, story-oriented songs about drinking. The pairing of the two bands is appropriate on paper, and there did seem to be a lot of people singing along to both bands.

I was planning on getting drunk during the show, as that's probably the best way to experience a Hold Steady performance, but when I got to Terminal 5, security was patting people down, and I had a moment of paranoia and went and hid my flask at a construction site before I entered. I could have just put it in my sock, but no, I had to panic instead. So my anxiety over potentially losing my flask colored my mood throughout the show, preventing me from enjoying the show as much as I could have. Perhaps it was for the best, though, as there were a lot of pushy assholes inside, and alcohol would have pissed me off even more. 

I got there about halfway through the Drive-By Truckers' set. I heard some guy remark that the first half sucked, so I guess it was good that I arrived late, as the second half wasn't all that hot, either. From where I was standing, the sound was problematic, way too trebly and the vocals too loud. Their songs were okay, pretty standard Southern rock. They (The Hold Steady, too) fall pretty squarely in the realm of young-dad rock. My dad is probably a little too old to appreciate these bands, but dads with kids tween-age or younger love them. The Drive-By Truckers' bassist looks like a chubby, mulleted Marnie Stern. One of the singer/guitarists was swigging directly from a bottle of Jack Daniel's, which I thought was hilariously, stereotypically Southern. The band is from Georgia, and clearly take their roots very seriously. Sorry I don't have more to say about them, but they were pretty forgettable.  

After a promoter from some radio station announced, "hold on for the Hold Steady," the band took the stage in front of a nifty backdrop of a decrepit drive-in theater with their broken-infinity logo projected onto the screen. They correctly started with Stay Positive's opener, "Constructive Summer," which set the tone for the rest of the show, with glasses raised and the crowd shouting along. The shouting crowd worked well for the more anthemic moments of the show, but got way overbearing at other points, with people clapping through the quiet parts of every song, and an adorable/annoying couple kept bumping into me while dancing the whole time. The crowd was approximately one-third dudes in casual dress shirts, which is probably on the low side for the band's fans overall. 

The set covered all of the band's discography, and the new songs fit well with the old songs in a live setting, owing largely to the ongoing thematic interconnectedness of Craig Finn's lyrics. They were energetic and enthusiastic, with keyboardist Franz Nicolay in particular adding a theatrical flourish, waving a free hand around and tossing his wine bottle up in the air before drinking from it. Craig Finn has an interesting habit of singing the last line of a stanza, then standing at the edge of the stage shouting the line unamplified several times at the audience. Highlights included a particularly eerie version of Stay Positive's murder ballad "One for the Cutters," and a cover of the Minutemen's classic "History Lesson, Part II" in which Finn adapted D. Boon and Mike Watt's story to his own, transplanting it from Southern California to the Twin Cities and giving a shout out to Paul Westerberg. While overall not as electrifying as it could have been, with a few flat-footed ballads and some strangely limp guitar solos, it was still a very solid, affable set, and besides, The Hold Steady would have to try really hard to fuck up songs as awesome as "Chips Ahoy!" and "Magazines." 


Friday, November 7, 2008

Welcome to the Breathing Shark blog. What's goin' on? You may be wondering, "Liam, why are you starting a blog? Why now? What will it be about?" Well, as you know, the internet is the place for people with opinions, and I have opinions, and I want to start sharing them with people, because my opinions are pretty goddamn good, if I do say so myself. I'll mostly be posting about music; album reviews, concert reviews, bands I think are worth your time, semi-coherent rants about Neil Young, etc. If Preferably Tapioca ever does anything, I'll blog about that. If I ever do anything myself, I'll blog about that. Yes, Breathing Shark is now a fake band as well as a stupid drawing! Also, there will be links. Many links. To anything I deem cool. Finally, sometimes I get drunk and prone to revealing too much about myself. I can't make any promises, but you may see some weird shit from time to time. So please, read this, add it to your bookmarks, leave some comments, send some love letters/hate mail. It'll be good.