In Which I Try to Explain Why the We’re Having the Wrong Conversation about Deafheaven

On the surface, Deafheaven spawns all sorts of conversation about genre, true black metal, the creeping influence of indie rock on metal, and how popularity affects art. I could care less at this point. Deciding whether you like their recent album based on any of these points is ridiculous when there’s an interesting discussion to be had about why they aren’t very good at what they do.

I was listening to New Bermuda with the intent of doing a review of it this week when it became clear to me why I didn’t like what I was listening to. Unfortunately, this clarity is going to be very difficult to articulate. It has to do with something that you’d probably struggle with constantly if being trained as a classical musician. It has to do with the fine line between being expressive enough to engage a listener and over-expressing to the point of alienating a listener.

This distinction exists in all art forms, and I think it is easier to explain with poetry. Think of some angsty high school kid trying to express his feelings in poetry. It’s probably blatantly obvious and filled with all sorts of cliche metaphors. It is so over-the-top that it makes you cringe to read. But it was probably also heartfelt, sincere, and cathartic for the writer. It’s just that the writer hasn’t realized that getting a reader to feel what they feel is separate from spewing everything onto a page.

To give the most extreme example: a sad person can’t stand on a stage and cry and expect the audience to get anything out of that. Expressing emotion in a way that someone else can immerse themselves in is much more about restraint than expression. All instrumentalists I know of go through this phase. They get good enough at their instruments that they can finally start expressing in music. What comes out sounds like Celine Dion. Their teachers let this go for a while, but at some point they have to be told the truth: what you’re doing is embarrassing. You have to tone it down. Great music is about subtlety.

The same goes for composing. Early on you catch on to some things you think express something. What you don’t realize is that everyone goes through a phase where they find those same chords or hooks. Once you move on to a more mature phase of composing, you hear those same cliche ideas and cringe like at that terrible poetry. It’s too obvious and too overwrought which pulls the listener out instead of in. What makes this a strange phenomenon is that the player can play it with sincerity and think that since they are “feeling” the music, the listener is too. It’s one of those things that you have to experience to understand I think.

Here’s another example that happens all over big budget Hollywood movies. A dad who is kind of a nice guy, so you’re rooting for him, but he’s struggling to make ends meet so has a ton on his mind wakes up and his wife says, “Don’t forget to get the cake for your daughter’s birthday tonight.” And you just know how the next 20 minutes are going to go. He’s going to have a bad day, so it’s not his fault when he forgets, but of course to everyone else it just looks like he’s a bad dad. And by the end of the movie he’s going have done something to more than make up for it. He’ll be dad of the year with epic flowing music and people crying in the audience.

From that one sentence about the cake, everything after has such a cringeworthy level of predictability that you can’t actually believe they popped another one of these pieces of trash out in exactly the same way as the last 100. They used those same cliche tricks, and somehow there were still people there who didn’t see through it and were “moved” by it. They’ll still dish out $10 to go see the same crappy writing do it again. Sure, all the specifics will be different (change dad to “gay uncle” and crappy job to “drug addiction” and cake to “present”), but at a structural level, it is exactly the same.

This brings us to Deafheaven. The reason I think this is the right conversation to have is that the line between good and bad with respect to expression is difficult to find. If you don’t get close enough to the line, you produce flat music with no content. If you accidentally cross the line, no matter how little, it is cringe inducing with its cliche over-expression. This is one of the most difficult parts of making art and worth talking about. This is the reason that changing one word can mean the difference between an excellent poem and a terrible poem.

This is also one of the reasons classic black metal succeeds. It is extreme. It is highly expressive and walks right up to that line. But it also strips away all of the pop music tricks and cliche to do this. The great bands we still listen to managed to not cross this line.

The other way to get next to the line is to use the cliche, but to tone everything else down so much that you don’t cross the line. What Deafheaven does is flawed from the start even at a philosophical or theoretical level. What do you expect when you take the extremeness of black metal and the saccharine cliche of pop and combine them? It doesn’t just nudge you over the line, it pushes you so far past the line it makes you want to slap something.

I know this is going to sound controversial, but I completely understand why people like this. It’s the same reason people would rather go to a Celine Dion concert than the symphony. It’s the same reason that people who don’t cringe when they hear the cake line go to those movies. This makes it hard to talk about this with people who don’t automatically cringe when they hear those moments on New Bermuda. I could point them out, but the people who don’t get it probably won’t benefit from being shown the problem, and those who do get it already understand the problem (even if it is difficult to articulate).

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Quick Update

I won’t do a review today, because the album I thought had potential turned out to be a dud (Human Future’s Spectrum). Instead, I’ll direct your attention to an article I wrote for Death Metal Underground: Can We Judge Experimental Metal? I thought it would be a bit more controversial, but the negative comments focused around certain word choices or whether my views were in alignment with the site’s.

Is Progressive Metal Progressive?

I got thinking about this while reading through some of the stuff on The Gabriel Construct’s webpage. He said he wants to make progressive metal progressive again. After thinking about this, I realized that this really strikes a chord with me. It is probably one of the reasons I’ve felt so uninspired by the stuff I’ve been listening to.

Let’s take as a case study: HeavyBlog’s top 12 of 2013 so far list (restricting to 2013 will not influence this discussion at all, since the best prog of 2012 falls into the same tropes) and pull the albums that can be labelled as “prog.” I actually like a lot of prog metal. You should remember this, because it is going to sound like a post in which I slam prog metal. Instead, this should be read as a sadness that such a promising genre has hit a stasis.

This is going to get hairy with putting bands into certain boxes, but as I see it the list is Tesseract (should djent actually count as a form of prog?), Persefone (is symphonic metal a form of prog?), Coheed and Cambria, Intronaut, Extol (OK, I haven’t actually listened to this one, but the list says it’s prog), Leprous, and The Ocean.

What do these bands have in common that makes them prog? They tend to have technical playing with technique that derives from classical skills of fast arpeggios and scale patterns than more traditional metal/rock techniques. The chord progressions tend to be less straightforward. This can mean jazz influenced or excessive chromaticism. The time signatures tend to be less straightforward and can even involve alternating time signatures and metric modulations. Lastly, the songs tend to be longer and more thoroughly developed and tied together with a common theme.

So what’s the problem? Well, at one point in time doing these things within metal was a progressive thing to do. They weren’t being done. It was interesting and new. It was moving the genre forward. Now it seems that these things that define the genre have become tropes. You have to have x number of time changes, y number of chromatic patterns, and z number of songs over 8 minutes long. Oh yeah, and we’ll praise you mindlessly if you make these numbers without actually doing anything original.

Instead of being truly progressive and trying to bring in new influences to make interesting and new music, it all ends up sounding similar. Just because you came up with a way to arpeggiate faster, using a “new” pattern, and you do more chromatic steps doesn’t mean you’re “more progressive” or even more interesting. It is more of the same pretending to be different.

Maybe I’m reacting to an over-saturation of prog lately, and I won’t feel this way after a break from it, but sometimes when listening to prog it sounds like a joke. It sounds like the band is stringing together a bunch of tropes in mockery of how derivative it all has become. Scale the Summit is unfortunately going to get my wrath, but I can’t listen that new album. It has such high praise all over the place, but I’m so bored by it. I mean listen to this. It is pretty, and quite impressive technically at parts, but how many times have you heard this?

No offense to Scale the Summit, I could have picked something off literally any of the bands listed above and some of those albums might even make my top 10 of the year. It is just a feature of the current prog scene. It has become static. There are the occasional minor details that are new, but overall, it isn’t progressing.

Progressive metal can become progressive again. To some people it may seem shocking. What more do I want? They are already employing all of the complexity you would find in any fully trained classical composer. I’d reply, well, yes, any trained composer through the 19th century. But this stuff is more than a century old now. You could incorporate tons of modern developments. You don’t have to write atonally, but you can incorporate interesting post-tonal techniques to make something progressive without losing your band’s characteristic sound.

Other than tonality, there have been tons of other innovations from play style (stop with the incessant arpeggios, please), to modern electronic filtering of sound in new ways, to how your band layers together its pieces texturally, to instruments used (thank you Hybrid for showing us clarinet can be used in metal), to more original genre crossover, and on and on. You shouldn’t have to be an Animals as Leaders or Dream Theater clone to be prog. I bet I could write a fugue a la Hindemith that would sound really good by a metal band. How about someone tries that for originality?

I know there are actually lots of bands out there doing this, but they immediately get labelled as avant garde and pushed out of the prog scene. As I pointed out last time, this term should probably be reserved for the really, really out there stuff. Incorporating these techniques subtly into your standard prog sound should still count as prog metal. We should embrace more experimentation to finally get out of this stasis.