Music and words

A while ago I found myself watching this interview, in which Proscriptor McGovern describes some of the lyrical themes on Absu’s self-titled album released back 2009:

Proscriptor is clearly passionate about the material, and this shows in the music of Absu. But this interview serves to illustrate out point pretty well. In it, he explains that he added a lexicon to the back of the liner notes for interested fans keen to learn more about what the hell he’s on about. So what, in the name of Auebothiabathabaithobeuee, is he on about? I frankly don’t care. Nor do I care whenever a new album is released with a ‘Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’ sized tome attached to it, and the demand that listeners need to grasp the lore of these texts in order to fully appreciate the album. Whether the subject matter is a genuine passion of the lyricist that they just want to share with the world, or whether it’s barely more highbrow than marketing material, the once noble, esoteric pursuits within extreme metal are all too often hijacked by PR campaigns dressed up as amateur academia.

This is nothing new of course. Themed bands have been around nearly as long as metal has, as have concept albums and the impetus to derive lyrics from intellectualism over the emotive themes common to pop music; long may this ambition last. One of the key appeals of metal of any stripe has been its potential to tap into themes more fixed than the plastic, base experiences of modernity. A contemporary form of music with a direct line to a premodern mentality, a mentality that subverts the experiences and goals of our current existence. Not only that, but lyricists and fans alike are encouraged to read further into this subject matter, offering outlets to expand our understanding of history, mythology, philosophy, and self. So what’s the issue with high concept albums? Rather than laying down the law on what works and what doesn’t, I’ll just outline two caveats that are all too frequently flouted in the age of content saturation.

The ontology of music

Music is unique among the art forms when compared to theatre, film, and the plastic arts. Music in its purest, instrumental form is not a representation of anything. Sure, one could say it represents the psyche of the composer to a greater or lesser degree, but there are certain facts about the nature of music that makes it so open to interpretation, unlike art that requires language or the interpretation of symbols to understand. Even if the composer wished to convey a very specific mental state through music, beyond the broadest impressions of happy or sad, triumphant or despondent, the meaning behind the music is in the mind of the listener. Further, unlike even the most abstract pieces of art, the nature of music’s existence is surprisingly difficult to pin down.

Because music is a temporal as well as an audial experience, the impressions it leaves are transitory, they make sense only in relation to the moment before and after. One could go further and say the art of music only exists in the moment it is being experienced, it exists in our encounter with it, and not anything external to the individual; unlike the Sistine Chapel for example. This was particularly true before the advent of recorded music, but could still be argued for today. Imagine if all recorded versions of Beethoven’s fifth vanished tomorrow, would it still exist as a piece of art as we understand it? If so, how? When it is being performed? In the copies of the sheet music? In the memories of those who have heard it?

So far, so intangible. This fragile grip on reality is part of the poetic tragedy of music in its purest form. It’s there, and then it’s gone. But such is the purity of music that it is inevitably diluted with foreign bodies, in this case more concrete symbols are stamped onto this canvas in the form of lyrics. With this comes all the complications of language as a realm fraught with a plethora of cultural anxieties, a battleground for values as much as conveying an artistic statement. But I would hardly be so draconian as to proclaim that lyrics ruin music. Quite the opposite in fact. Oftentimes lyrics can enhance the listening experience in new and unexpected ways. But no one could argue that there is a unique tension between lyrics and music not found in the relationship between album art, which despite influencing our listening experience, does not directly interact with the music as it is played out. When the aims of lyrics and music mesh the whole piece can be elevated beyond the sum of its parts; but when they clash, it can be the death knell of quality. For that reason, when it comes to lyrics, less is more should be the credo for the uncertain. Burzum’s classic catalogue was defined by simple, minimalist poems that added another dimension to the music without becoming a distraction. ‘Blessed are the Sick’ by contrast could be said to have taken a greater risk with lyrics that revelled in their esoteric themes, but the music was nevertheless elevated by this decision.

If you view music as the pursuit of purity of expression, allowing both artist and listener access to experiences not available to other artforms, then maybe it would follow that it is ultimately diluted by the addition of lyrics and all the cultural baggage that that entails. Or maybe you believe that when the verbal and audial realms meet and collaborate they become more than the sum of their parts. Cooking up a rule of thumb at this juncture feels entirely futile.

The creative process

The second point is a simple question of motivation. Why is a person making music? Themed albums and artists are nothing new, nor is a massive divergence of quality from the one to next. This goes beyond mere aesthetics, or the broad interests of the lyricist. Think of artists such as Bolt Thrower, Summoning, Nile, early Carcass, Profanatica, Absu, and too many others to mention. This goes beyond artists that research and explore rich themes to work into their lyrics, which most metal artists do, and becomes a fixation on one subject. This subject then becomes less a source of inspiration as it does a shackle, that will determine the scope and direction of any project undertaken under said name.

Now, setting aside the differing degrees of artistic success that can be achieved regardless, one can still ask how well the end result is serviced by this fixation, if at all.
I don’t claim to have a unique insight into the mind of every artist I encounter, nor would I want one. But when approaching any new release, if the artist begins to pontificate on a lofty concept to accompany the music, alarms bells start ringing. It may be that there’s a great album there, and the lyricist just got carried away in their own hype, and are eager to share the fruits of their labour with the world. Or it could be glorified marketing material, propping up another subpar release of contrived intellectualism. Dissenters opinions are invalidated as they either did not do (or failed to grasp) the required reading.

The absence of artistic discipline leading to demise

Who are we?

Good musicians, beyond the prerequisite musical intuitions, can be very intelligent people…sometimes. Music can be a breeding ground for intellectualism, encouraging the pursuit of knowledge and discovery in all who encounter it. Or it can be an endless, futile drone of recycled ideas, relentless PR campaigns pandering to our desire to be in the know, a wash of vapid aesthetics and half-cooked attempts at academic rigor that are will be all but forgotten a year later; all the while the original artistic impetus – that lofty notion that music is unique and pure amongst the arts – is lost, buried beneath our quest to stand out in a contrived free market.

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