Listening to the new Queens of the Stone Age album ‘Villains’, it is apparent that a desire for exhibiting the so called virtues of ‘progression’ and ‘musical exploration into new and uncharted waters’ has – for these musicians – completely taken the helm from the more traditional catalyst of creativity: the undefinable artistic impulse behind all great works. It goes without saying that to compare this to their first album would be like listening to two distinct artists. But in the eyes of some this would be to their credit. This is not progress in the sense of the Yes’s or the Rush’s of the world, but artists not willing to – or good enough at – one style to slide comfortably into the role of the next Motorhead or Slayer. QOTSA have been developing repetitive but oddly compelling heavy rock music for 20 years now, and it was only with 2014’s ‘Like Clockwork’ that the mould was completely broken and they fully morphed into a sort of pop-rock, albeit a very catchy, well written take on the form.
This year’s ‘Villains’ is in many ways just another step further down this road. If you listen to each album in order, the next one makes sense musically, much like the evolutionary road from monkeys to humanity forms a smooth continuum, but with each end being so divorced from each other that we demarcate them as different species. This leads me to conclude that if I were to hear ‘Villains’ cold, devoid of context or knowledge of where this artist has come from, it would mean nothing to me. It is bloated, overproduced, musically showy, written by artists making music out of habit and obligation rather than some irresistible impetus of the human condition. It is academically interesting to see where this artist is going and the elements of their past still present in the music, but it is emotionally and artistically devoid.
But let’s move beyond this analysis before it devolves into a review. I have every respect for the career of say Bolt Thrower, after ‘The IVth Crusade’ they settled on a certain distinctive take on mid paced death metal, perfected it, and ran with it for 25 odd years. But I also have every respect for artists of a contrary disposition, those who are not content to rest on their laurels, and insist on ‘progressing’ (with a lower case ‘p’). But this road is fraught with difficulty, and has yielded many casualties. Here follows a meticulous and detailed list of what to avoid and what to aspire to.
It should be noted first of all that this model commonly applies to artists born of primitive beginnings, with demos and debuts of virulent aggression more than capable of shining above the poor playing. The simple reason for this is that – in terms of technical ability for these artists – the only way is up. And from this banal point that you do not need me to make plain, comes the first pitfall, mistaking musical ambition for actual creativity. Carcass began their career as one of the rawest grindcore experiences in the history of the form, but quickly developed into cleaned up death metal, and then eventually became so eager to display their musical prowess that they turned into a modern take on the showy 1970s heavy rock that grindcore and her punk kindred was partly a reaction against. This is a classic example of what we call ‘form preceding content’. On the contrary side would be an artist such as Voivod, who again started from very primitive thrashy beginnings, but quickly displayed an uncontrollable urge to create a kind of dissonant technical thrash, inspired by the dystopian mythic that permeates mid-20th Century Sci-Fi. Voivod’s albums from the mid-1980s were rich with a unique creativity, played by musicians not yet able to fully express themselves until they truly found their feet. The basic components of musical capability, the building blocks of art, are a background process, propping up that viscous notion of truly creative music. Or to put it another way, don’t put the fucking cart before the fucking horse.
A Similar point may be made of Bathory, at least up to album number six. Each step feels like a logical and clear development from the last, but listening to the film score leanings of ‘Twilight of the Gods’ and compare it to the primitive as fuck self-titled debut and one will be met with wildly different experiences. But each individual step works, and feels like a reasonable development – both artistically and musically – for the artist to make. Sticking with the theme of early black metal for now, compare that to Hellhammer/Celtic Frost. Up until ‘Into Pandemonium’ the music felt like a logical build on the doom/punk roots of these musicians, and then with the aforementioned album things went off the rails into a jarring mix of classic Celtic Frost riffs with avant-garde leanings. This step, much like QOTSA described in the intro, felt like a bridge too, far too soon. The proper planning was not in place to marry the primitive aggression of Celtic Frost with more regal flares, the result being an experience akin to listening to two albums of wildly different styles at the same time. Of course, what is really happening in the background is the notion that people will defend albums like this and others like it for precisely this reason. The idea being that you should not knock musicians that try something new, that try to develop their style and break the chains of their earlier signature sound; which of course is fair enough. But you shouldn’t relinquish your ability to decide when this is simply not working on an artistic level through fear of being called ‘closed minded’ or a ‘traditionalist’.
So much for instances where the progress is gradual to a greater or lesser degree, what of artists who completely chance their style mid-career without formally changing their name? There is a lot going on around this phenomena, not least a degree of insecurity that metalheads feel around how open minded they are. Because metal can be so insular, and depending on how extreme the flavour, so niche, that metalheads have a bee in their bonnet about imagined accusations of tunnel vision. The hipster, scourge of post 2000 youth culture, is a big part of this. Culturally, it has tainted the pure waters of metal with the likes of post rock, shoe gaze, more ambient, psychedelia and so on. This has had a profound impact on what is and is not acceptably labelled metal, already a fierce stomping ground of the pedant. This melding of metal with new and old sister genres has yielded music varying in quality from the sublime to the ridiculous.
Now it’s important (for a given definition of the word) to note that this is not a good old whinge about diluting the precious metals with things that are not metals. Rather, when does this cross pollination turn into something totally unrelated, as to be music whose appeal comes from something totally divorced from the appeal of metal of whatever stripe. I am all for an interesting musical experience, why not? But I have been to many a festival and gig where I find myself watching an artist, perfectly good and all, enjoyed by the audience and all, yet I still find myself thinking ‘where are we?’. How did we get here? Don’t matter if they are an old band that have dramatically shifted style or a newish band who are nonetheless welcome at metal shows. Take Anathema as an example to illustrate the degree of pedantry we are dealing with here. Anathema started out life couched nicely into the British Goth/Doom scene of the early 1990s, famously one of the big three along with Paradise Lost and My Dying Bride. Over the years, much like many artists already mentioned, they morphed and shifted their style. Watching Anathema at festivals now is to watch an artist playing a dreamy form of proggy post rock designed to sooth and tempt the listener rather than impose and transport. It’s fine musically, but I feel that if Anathema were a new band, fresh from releasing ‘The Optimist’ as a well-received debut, they would not be invited to Hellfest. To add insult to this miner flesh wound, they thank the crowd for being receptive of this light music amongst many other bands on the bill much heavier than them, not only refusing to play an older, heavier classic, but not even acknowledging that that part of their career even happened, just in case any younger fans not alive at the time might have wanted to see some of it played live. The same, incidentally, can be said of Paradise Lost’s 1999 offering ‘Host’, well written I guess, but you might as well just listen to Depeche Mode, rather than a metal artist whose ideas have dried up and are compensating by exploring new ‘influences’, and offering a second rate version of a form they nor their fans are traditionally well versed in. Or if you insist on this change then acknowledge fully what’s taken place and change your name. Interestingly Paradise Lost switched back to their doomy roots in recent years, almost as if this shift did not pay off in the long run.
One more time, before I am once again accused of arbitrarily laying down the boundaries of musical segregation to justify my own insecurities regarding my pallet, let’s note that I do not mind if metalheads want to enjoy and even watch artists that are not remotely related to metal, have at it, who am I to stop them? Nor would I presume to lay down the law for the musical journey of artists. But let’s also be mindful of the background motivation behind this, and ask if it really has produced music of quality, or if we are just afraid to naysay through fear of coming across as a regressive ape. If I want to hear gothed up synth pop I will listen to Depeche Mode, not Paradise Lost. If I want to hear life affirming post rock I will listen to Mogwai, not Anathema. And if I want to listen to a sagging bloated mess of hard to follow nonsense I will watch Temple of Doom, not listen to Deafheaven. Countless more artists have nailed the art of progressing (lower case ‘p’) from album to album for the right reasons, with the result being right-on music that can be enjoyed by all. And we should not be afraid to criticise the wrong kind of progression, through fear of being shouted down as closed minded, a pedant, a naysayer; it’s political correctness gone mad (which hasn’t by the way).