Dear Metalheads, Stop Trying To Sing
Just shy of two years ago, Mastodon issued their fourth lp, Crack the Skye. I’d been a major fanboy since first hearing 2002’s Remission and had avidly awaited each subsequent release. One Friday night not long after, I got together with two good friends so we could all have a first listen together. The three of us nearly cried as that vapid husk of pablum plodded towards a conclusion that could not arrive fast enough. While a new listening public ate it up, we felt alienated and betrayed by a record that lacked—in all but track 2, “Divinations”—all the elements that made their previous records so enthralling: raw, grinding, often sludge-encrusted, yet still intricate string work combined with the most active, pummeling and rhythmically-nuanced percussion. From early eps through three studio albums Mastodon consistently delivered goods that satisfied the libidinous, reckless inner teen within the maturing adult in need of intellectual stimulation.
Then, on Crack the Skye, Mastodon began to do the unthinkable: they began to sing. Whereas previously the vocals featured a mixture of primitive howls and bellows that perfectly complimented the power and finesse of the instrumentation, the newest record brought to the fore the one element of ’70s-era prog rock that they had thankfully jettisoned: the vocals (which is not to mention unnecessary guitar wankery on songs like “The Czar”). The “prog rock” stylings pioneered by bands like Genesis, Yes, King Crimson and others had, in almost every instance, become bloated by an infatuation with technique and operatics, particularly with respect to vocals. Mastodon’s success as a modern variation of progressive metal lay in its skillful negotiation of this terrain, balancing incredible technique with savage animality. And to top it all off, the production values were even more noticeably cleaner and slicker than on 2006’s Blood Mountain (a major-label debut that sounded the part while retaining the characteristics that had brought them to that point).
Since that momentous March I’ve noticed a similar trend envelop the small corner of the universe in which Mastodon is a big deal, a standard-bearer and model to emulate. As Mastodon effectively castrated themselves via polished production, blandly harmonized vocals and reigned-in drums, others took note of the success it brought and followed along. Whether this was conscious or not I shan’t venture. Even super-solid recent albums like the Baroness Blue Record or Enslaved‘s Axioma Ethica Odini contain traces of wankerous vocal and guitar work (though neither is offensive). However, it’s been since hearing the most egregious offenders—Kylesa‘s Spiral Shadow and Intronaut‘s Valley of Smoke—I’ve grown increasingly anxious and learned to temper my excitement when bands I know and enjoy put out new albums. (And those two bands stand out as they were the support acts for Mastodon’s 2009 tour for Crack the Skye.) This, of course, is a major psychological blow for any dedicated fan, and at first I connected it to the fact that I get out less than I used to and have a more difficult time keeping up with new music. It was that coupled with the desire for my favorite acts to demonstrate some sort of consistency in the face of all historical evidence that makes a mockery of such an ideal. “Hope springs eternal” reads my instant cliché generator.
The upside of this trend is that, like reading a book that instigates an immediate, visceral and negative reaction (which I recently experienced with Lynn Tillman’s American Genius: A Comedy), said reaction can spur a search into insights about just what might make a great book or record. I decided that Intronaut’s latest record would make a great example to explore as they are a band of incredible musicians with an exemplary track record (2 eps & 2 lps of near-flawless material) who tread similar ground as Mastodon without ever placing themselves in a position to be labeled copycats.
So let’s go on a song-by-song tour of Valley of Smoke. If an album’s opening track serves the same formal purpose as the introduction to an essay or the first line of a poem it should, theoretically, draw the reader/listener into the work, establish motifs that will continue throughout and generally set the tone for what is to come. This is true of any album regardless of whether or not it’s considered a “concept album” (which is a stupid moniker, for all good albums should strive for that sort of fundamental coherence even if the lyrical content varies between songs). Every album is a world unto itself, with its own rules and practices, so the first song needs to welcome the listener to that world. If inconsistencies follow as the new world is explored, it suggests a formal failure on the part of the creator(s) to properly establish the ground rules for the physics or architecture of that world.
- “Elegy”: This is a near-perfect opener for several reasons, the first being strength of an initial punch whose energy carries through the arpeggiated interlude. That interlude hints at more delicate passages to come later in the album, but it stands on its own here, powerful and focused enough to provide balance without being a distraction. The vocals are simultaneously rough-hewn and melodic, which is aesthetically complementary to the instrumentation. Unfortunately, the gruff delivery is abandoned in large portions of the later tracks, a diversion from this establishment that is to their detriment. It is proof here that more “mature” or “developed” vocals need not be clean nor harmonized to add depth and nuance to heavy music. (This effect was wonderfully demonstrated on Prehistoricisms and it’s a shame they felt it had to be dispensed with in large part on this album.) Elsewhere the rhythmic interplay sets up an off-kilter groove that’s totally engrossing. Perhaps the false promise of this song is, at least in part, responsible for the disappointment to be found in the album’s sagging middle.
- “Above”: Excessively balladeering vocals aside, the music on track two provides a counterweight to the opener. Considerably softer or more delicate, it is a well-wrought display of melodic and rhythmic complexity. It’s far from my favorite work of theirs, but it’s ultimately a good song (at least well-crafted), though if it was the first song of theirs I’d ever heard I would not come back. Dialectically speaking, “Above” is the antithesis to the thesis of “Elegy” and that would be fine if the synthesis that resulted was better. However, the atmospheric, legato vocals that work here aren’t functionally suitable as an intra-song counterpoint. I can really only handle them in very small doses and on this album they’re cached in one track. For the next four tracks, each successive appearance becomes an unwelcome chore and distraction.
- “Miasma”: Possesses a metallic motor and rips in parts, but the softer vocals disperse the song’s energy. My assumption is that the band was going for strength via contrast, but the contrast as it is executed doesn’t work for me. Blandness—an inarticulation of critical detail—results from the muddying, and though the title is reflected in such a structural employment it is shown to be counterproductive, akin to writing a book on boredom that, in itself, is boring to read. The contrast should heighten the emotional/visceral reaction to the material, not deaden it. Honestly, what’s galling is that large segments of the song are particularly enjoyable and are the direct result of articulating phrases so that the subtleties or intricacies aren’t lost in the mix.
- “Sunderance”: This song suffers from the same issues as the previous and though it’s taken me a few months of contemplation, I’ve reached some measure of conclusion on why vocals like these trouble me. In the context of “heavy” or “aggressive” music, the cleaner, melodic legato vocals are passive rather than active. Furthermore, they are foregrounded in such a way that they cannot be ignored, creating a passive-aggressive mix within the song. Similarly, the calculated quality of the style (contrasted with a more spontaneous-feeling growl, howl or bellow) gives a psychological impression of manipulation or being-lied-to.
- “Core Relations”: Again we encounter similar problems with vocal/instrumental contrast, except here the vocals are actually terrible instead of simply misguided. I’d have ventured to say overcomplication was responsible for the resultant banality, but the inverse is true: it’s the rhythmic and melodic complexity engaging the listener where the relative simplicity of the singing serves to drive them away. This is unfortunate because some of the most memorable pockets on the whole album are to be found here.
- “Below”: Vocals here revert to the form they take in tracks 3 & 4 where the harsher phrases draw and engage the listener’s attention while the legato phrases dull the overall energy and atmosphere. Simply put, they make an involved, exciting song bland once again.
- “Valley of Smoke”: The title track is a welcome respite that harkens back to “Reptilian Brain”, the 18-minute closer on Prehistoricisms whose arc traces the evolution of complex animal mind. This song is shorter, but the structure is familiar and showcases the band visceral acuity.
- “Past Tense”: Just one question for a song that shares the opening track’s deft sense of balance: are these riffs repurposed from earlier songs in their oeuvre? They all sound so, so familiar, but slightly different. It’s a cool effect, particularly in light of the title, but there’s equal chance that it’s purely illusory. Whatever the case it’s a great song and perfect way to close out the album.
On the whole Valley of Smoke is an album of four solid, intricately composed—yet ultimately flawed—metal songs bookended by two take-no-prisoners prog-metal delights, a lighter dalliance with prog-rock and an groove-laden instru-metal thought-provoker. The core of the album defies the expectations set up by the opening two tracks by too carefully attempting to tread safe middle ground. I’m seriously glad that these guys are comfortable experimenting and toying with expectations. Nevertheless, I remain disappointed that I’m less inclined to listen to this than their previous efforts because of certain choices they made in constructing the record.
It should also be clear why I find this example troublesome, as it reflects a resurgence in the career arc that doomed so many bands who produced visceral, intellectual music. Whether it portends more of the same to come remains to be seen.