2012 in Heavy Metal and Rock: A Discussion
To begin our week capping off the musical year that was in 2012, Chris and I decided the first thing we should do was sit down and figure out what this year was, what its trends were, what it means for the future, and who the superstars were. We had come from two very different 2012’s in metal (if you haven’t noticed, we have different tastes,) so we decided to get some things down and see if a lengthy discussion couldn’t iron out what the final verdict of the year was. Also, we named the BloodyGoodHorror.com Album of the Year, so you’ll be sure to want to see what our pick was. Read on for the spectacle that was M.Drew/Chris C II!
To begin, I think the overriding theme of heavy metal in 2012 was one of returning to roots. This year saw more bands retreating back to their heritage to find a ready musical well than nearly any other year in the past ten. To carry that forward, this was a pretty solid year for thrash, as the genre leaped back to the fore, catapulted by the renewed, and perhaps unexpected, success of legacy acts like Anthrax and Testament. Of course, Manowar's album ran the critical gamut between "bad" and "lazy" but not everyone can be a winner. Angel Witch, Ram, Desaster, the list goes on and on of metal musicians who picked 2012 to orchestrate some manner of grand comeback.
But beyond thrash, this resurrection of old trends ran deeper than that. Cradle of Filth circled around and incorporated much of the style that made them noteworthy in the first place. The Sword continued to pay homage to the cavernous heavy rock and roll that so inspires them. Sure, "Apocryphon" might not have been as deep-rooted in those themes as "Warp Riders" was, but that doesn't mean the connection doesn't exist. Follow that all up with Gypsyhawk and Witchcraft and all those acts who came to the fore, and the whole genre has seemingly been reinvented.
Speaking of Witchcraft and Gypsyhawk, 2012 was a phenomenal year for "traditional" heavy metal, with comeback releases from Sabaton, Accept, Grand Magus probably a hundred others either of that time or in that vein. As a quick aside, I really hate the term "traditional" metal, since metal by its nature was, is and forever shall be non-traditional. I think if you were talking to Johnny Rotten and called the Sex Pistols "traditional punk," he'd throw a chair through the nearest window, then explain to you for an hour why that sentiment is stupid and so are you. Getting back to the point, while there was a lot of impressive traditional (there's that word again,) metal this year, only a small cross seciton of it really impressed me, with a lot of it sounding tired and unintentionally dated. This begs two questions: first, has the metal scene evolved past this sound, and second, why has it returned now?
Now, we all know how much I've always touted my theory of music's cyclical nature, and perhaps I'm finally being shown to be correct, seeing metal turn back the clock twenty five years to expose both its roots and a new generation spawned off of it. It's not the grand revival of grunge I had envisioned, but that doesn't make my point less valid.
As a final thought, one wonders...there was in increase in either outright or synthesized analog production this year...could we be consciously shucking the trend of drum triggers and pitch-perfection? Or is this just a consequence of our collective return to the "good ole' days?"
There were two dominant themes I saw this year in the worlds of hard rock and heavy metal. First is one you mentioned, the return to prominence of 'traditional' metal. Led by Graveyard, there was a stream of releases this year that harkened back to the days when rock and metal bands cared as much about songwriting as they did being heavy. To a degree, I've seen my own interest in swaths of the scene wane as bands move further and further into the tight little boxes of sub-genre thinking.
But with Graveyard, Witchcraft, Grand Magus, and a nice late year entry from Troubled Horse, old-school rock and metal came back to the forefront with the best slate of albums I can recall in many years. I'll agree with you that amidst the large numbers of solid traditional albums this year, not too many were overwhelmingly impressive. I don't consider that a fault of the music, but a byproduct of ourselves. I, for one, don't feel that sort of intense connection with very many albums in a given year, and getting to that point is even more difficult when there is so much in a similar style. Unless you are one of those fans who listens exclusively to one sub-genre, the comparison between one album of a particular style and the next prevents multiples from ascending to the top of the list. Psychologically, if I love Graveyard's album, and then listen to and enjoy a similar album from another band, I'm always going to compare it to the former, and when I declare my love for Graveyard's work to be stronger, the following albums are diminished because my mind has set an arbitrary standard. In essence, many traditional albums this year suffered because there were too many good traditional albums this year.
The other major theme this year was the boon of progressive music of all styles. There wasn't one dominant album that rose above all others and dominated the scene the way that Dream Theater did last year (I was not yet writing here, but "A Dramatic Turn Of Events" was my album of the year), but the breadth of work was overwhelming.
Both established veterans and upstart newcomers made their mark this year. We saw solid releases from Neal Morse, The Flower Kings, Affector, Monsterworks, Threshold, Marillion, and a host of others I didn't get the opportunity to invest much time in. But there were two prog albums that stood out most of all. One was Bad Salad's debut, "Uncivilized", which is the first Dream Theater clone I've heard that has come anywhere near approaching that level of quality. It came out of nowhere, and was certainly the finest progressive metal album of the year. The other landmark was Rush's "Clockwork Angels", which was a stunning achievement for a band nearing their fortieth anniversary. While I personally enjoyed their previous album, "Snakes And Arrows", more, "Clockwork Angels" is the kind of inspired work that disproves the somewhat conventional wisdom that a band runs out of creative steam long before they retire.
The other thing of note about this year was the overwhelming praise some of the most intolerable extreme music received. Bands like Cattle Decapitation and Nile got lauded for their efforts, much of which I would hesitate to even call music. Extreme music, the kind that mostly doesn't care whether or not you enjoy listening to it, once again continued its gain in popularity, a trend I cannot explain or understand.
But perhaps I am merely too much an outsider to ever quite fit in.
You know, you inadvertently raised an interesting point, which I had long been trying to put my finger on and you just did it for me. You passively referenced the delineation between hard rock and heavy metal. As far as all these "traditional" metal albums go, are we ignoring the very real possibility that these aren't metal albums? Are these merely hard rock albums? Has our metal tunnel vision refused to allow us to escape the perception that everything we enjoy is metal? We consistently rant about the difficulties of subgenrification in metal, is it possible that we ourselves have been too inclusive as a reaction? Honestly, many of these albums, particularly the offerings from Gypsyhawk and Troubled Horse and Graveyard share more with Led Zeppelin or Deep Purple or AC/DC than they do with any of the movements we've ever seen in the history of heavy metal. It's probably no coincidence that these albums are often marketed alongside names like Black Sabbath, because it lends them some kind of legitimacy as a metal band, but they may not need it or even deserve it.
So, I guess that comes back circularly to your original point, which is that even if we accept that these albums are "traditional" metal, then it may not be that the sound is played out so much as that some albums are greatly superior to others Which should really come as no surprise, since that's the fundamental lesson of life; that some things are better than others.
The Bad Salad record was a really expansive effort, and I say that as a guy who understands progressive metal, but it has no attraction to me whatsoever. I meant to hear the Rush album, but for some reason I never got around to it. My brother is a much larger Rush partisan than me, as I only really enjoy about a third of their stuff (confession time: I hate "Tom Sawyer.") They've always been hit and miss with me, as for every "Bastille Day" they write a "Closer to the Heart," and I just can't take it. I know most people are driven away from Rush by Geddy Lee's vocals, but I have a high tolerance for Perry Ferrell and Dani Filth as it is, so that's hardly a concern for me. Rather, I just find that Rush often fails to resonate with me. I liked "Vapor Trails," but for whatever reason I've subconsciously avoided the last two records, possibly for the very real fear that I will despise them. Much respect to Rush; talented guys. I saw them live once, and I'm glad I did. I'm glad they still have a successful career and they will always have songs I like. But that's about as far as it goes with me.
As for the stuff that everyone likes for no reason, allow me a self-congratulatory moment. I have always been really proud of the fact that from an editorial standpoint, we've never been one to bend with the wind. And while there were a couple extreme albums I really liked this year (Cradle of Filth, looking at you,) I by and large agree that the genre needs to be re-examined. It's rare to see a stable of musicians who seemingly revels in their unpopularity, but this has always been the facade of metal, and while most bands don't seem to actually believe it, these extreme guys do. It's a sort of nihilistic approach to a nihilistic genre, which makes it almost admirable in a backward way. Now, why everyone else seems to like it is beyond me, but as we've discussed before, metal fandom sometimes involves putting your image ahead of your taste. Regrettable but true. One wonders, in the wake of pop music becoming increasingly over-produced and super saturated, will the fringes of metal escape even farther away. Newton's law about actions and reactions and all that.
As it happened however, the album I understood the absolute fawning over the least wasn't an extreme metal album at all. Rather, it was Sister Sin's new record, which the universe seemed to laud as a pinnacle achievement of man, and I just plain didn't see the attraction to it. Now, I did call it the band's best album to date, and I stand by that, but I don't get what made it so praise-worthy. I can't help but wonder if everyone writing about metal is so enamored with the vision of Liv that they don't see the album behind it. It's an average to above-average hard rock record, high on arena-carousing and low on innovation or technical excellence. Halestorm's album was superior, not to mention male-fronted albums from many accomplished bands like The 69 Eyes. What about you? You must have one that mystified you the most.
Now, since you mentioned it, we might as well dispense with the shadows and get right to it. By proxy of our combined rating of Graveyard's excellent "Lights Out," we are unilaterally naming it the BloodyGoodHorror.com Album of the Year for 2012. I think these guys get undersold by the metal press by virtue of the fact that they're not especially loud or angry (and possibly not even metal,) but Nuclear Blast seems to know that they have a game-changer on their hands. Personally, I would put Graveyard among the top five or ten rock and metal bands of the new millennium, which is lofty company. Never mind the fact that they seem to have nowhere to go but up.
Graveyard has absolutely won the consensus award for Album Of The Year from us. I thought what they showed on "Lights Out" was nothing short of astounding, and they caught me completely by surprise. Graveyard is without doubt the best of the many vintage-inspired rock bands going today, and if they put out another album as strong as "Lights Out" next time around, I'll be following you by putting them near the top of the entirety of the rock and metal world. I didn't get into their first two albums enough to put them there yet, but I might feel differently tomorrow.
You're right in one sense that many of the 'traditional' metal bands we've been talking about aren't really metal, but part of that has to do with how metal has changed during the course of our lifetimes. Certainly, I would say that a band like Graveyard would never have been a metal band, but others that straddle the line today would have been full-blown heavy metal twenty-five years ago. It's a topic I've had my issues with, but much of metal history gets re-written as the entire genre slowly creeps towards the extreme. I would dare say that if Black Sabbath's "Heaven And Hell" were to be put out today, it would get called a hard rock album. So in a way, I think part of the impetus among vintage fans to include anyone and everyone as being 'metal' has to do with trying to reclaim the heritage of metal. Simply by calling these sorts of bands metal, we may be able to slow the drift away from what qualified as heavy music when you and I were growing up.
Like you, I'm not a huge Rush fan either, despite my obvious respect for their career (and also like you, "Tom Sawyer" annoys me greatly). Critical opinion has been that "Clockwork Angels" is a modern masterpiece, but I think that Rush often gets a gentle touch from reviewers due to their stature. "Clockwork Angels" is a good album, but it's not as far removed from their other recent works as you would be led to believe, so if you haven't been overjoyed with those, I doubt you'll fall in love with this effort.
I actually think extreme metal is moving in the opposite direction that you point to. Instead of moving further and further away from aesthetic pleasure, there seems to be a movement among several strands of extremity to clean up the sound and become so precise and cold as to make the music a mechanical slaughtering. You see a lot of this happening in technical death metal, which is much like the proverb about shining a turd (even though the Mythbusters proved such a thing is possible). I foresee extreme metal taking this sort of approach more regularly, because I'm not sure there's an appetite anymore for music that sounds like it was recorded in a foggy swamp. We, as listeners, may have progressed beyond that.
The one album I encountered this year that I couldn't understand is actually part of a larger contention I have with music fans, not so much the music. Meshuggah's "Koloss" was routinely hailed as masterful, and yet I struggle to make it through the entirety of a single song they have ever written. The tuneless barking, non-stop pummeling, and absence of anything that could be called melody, makes the end result sound not far removed to a little kid screaming and banging on pots and pans with a spoon. But my issue has little to do with the music, and more to do with the attitudes of the people who listen to and fawn over their work. It's a very common thing to hear in progressive circles, the idea that fans love music that is 'complex', 'technical', and 'difficult'. And yet, I would wager few of the people who love this kind of music and espouse its merits play an instrument at all, let alone have the ear training to understand what they're hearing. I know that despite my own history with my instrument, I usually have little idea the true nature of the music I'm hearing. So I often wonder, how do these people know the music is what they claim it is? Or, do they merely like anything that crams large amounts of notes in, because it all sounds difficult? This train of thought truly baffles me.
Here's a question: was there one album this year that disappointed you more than anything else? For me, that would be "Storm Corrosion", the lackluster collaboration between Opeth's Mikael Akerfeldt and Porcupine Tree's Steven Wilson. My hopes probably shouldn't have been as high as they were, but the album they made was so insular, meandering, and tuneless, it made me question my own ears.
I had an eighth grade English teacher who reminds me greatly of your conundrum with prog, similar genres and fans of it. He constantly used to tell us students the state of mind that various authors must have been in when they wrote certain passages, or he would tell us in no uncertain terms what the allegory of a given passage was. No matter his argument, he always framed it within the idea of knowing what the author meant. Eventually, I began to resent these long-winded explanations, as my constant reaction to his missives was "how the hell do you know? Not only do I strongly dislike 'Red Badge of Courage,' but Stephen Crane has been dead for a hundred years! He didn't tell you what he meant, so how can you speak with such certainty?" This is reflected in the idea of the music fan who puts forward the strong face of knowing the precise intent of every piece of music he or she listens to.
But! This particular air of pretension that has always surrounded prog (sorry, but it's true,) and extends into other genres can become an exercise in circular logic. In a tangential way, this actually ties into your comment concerning the 'soft touch' that many reviewers have. Once a band has produced enough quality efforts to grow and satisfy a fanbase, everyone, fans and media alike, seem to be afraid to say that they produced a sub-par effort. People will find a way to like something, en masse, because it's a safer option than taking on their trusted belief that an artist they enjoy can't regress. Eventually, after enough years and albums, artists (Bruce Springsteen comes to mind,) get a complete pass for any music they produce and other artists enjoy the unyielding support of fans who think they know the band's headspace. Prog suffers additionally from this effect, since it is touted by fans as being music by musicians for musicians, which becomes cyclical in the way that modern art makes very little sense to most people. It's too easy an escape to take the cop out of "well, it's not for me, but it must be a fine showcase of _______." Sometimes, you have to be forthright enough to say that something just plain isn't good. I'm a decently educated and intelligent guy, and I still maintain that anyone could have painted "Red Square." I fail to see why it's profound.
Frequent readers of these pages know that you and I have very discerning taste. It is my hope that this means that when we praise an album for its accomplishments, it actually means something.
In answer to your question, the album that most disappointed me this year, and still makes me a little angry when I think about it, is Adrenaline Mob's "Omerta." Coming off the momentum of a shockingly good Avenged Sevenfold effort, not the mention the depth and breadth of his entire body of work, Mike Portnoy then pumped out this shockingly soft album. This band should have had everything in the world working in their favor, but somehow either couldn't or didn't find a niche that played to their strengths and capitalized on their ability. Everyone involved in this project, including Russell Allen, is better than this. Poor showing.
By contrast, there was an equally large pleasant surprise for me this year, which was the album "Nation" from Dr. Acula. I had never once been really interested in what this band had to say, seeing as how so much of their music devolved into messy, overdriven chords, unrestrained sloppiness and an undue thirst for hardcore-influenced party rock. Yet, suddenly for "Nation," an album for which I had no expectations (or worse yet, negative ones,) the band matured, streamlined their songwriting and pounded out a pretty rhythmic and solid album. There are always those bands who you listen to in their infancy and say "a few years from now, when they figure it out, they're going to be great." Unearth was one of those bands for me, and eventually evolved into the well-rounded powerhouse they are now. Even with that, every year there's at least one album that I encounter that pleasantly surprises me from a band who I thought would never turn the corner. Dr. Acula, nicely done, sirs. Surely there was one for you, too...
As an overall impression, I thought 2012 was a very solid year, and gives me a lot of hope that my original theory holds true and music is cyclically turning back to good again. I don't know that I'm holding out hope for a new renaissance of palatable radio hits like when grunge challenged common musical perception, but I can always hope that the underground perseveres. Just as an illustration to the improvement in product this year, last year my top ten selection was narrowed down from a field of about sixteen to eighteen finalists. This year, the field of finalists was much closer to thirty, with some very difficult cuts coming at the end. I feel confident in my top ten for 2012, but if you ask me in March of 2013 what the top ten albums of 201 were, there might be a few rotating finalists. Expect me to a long "honorable mention" list this year. As a quick sidebar, I will note that 2012 had fewer superstar standouts then 2011. My top five from 2011 might well outrank any of my top ten from 2012, as all of those albums were hallmark achievements. While I feel like 2012 raised the floor for quality albums, I'm not sure it equally raised the ceiling.
The 'soft touch' has a great connection to our emotions. When we find an artist who puts out music that connects with us, we will always be reminded of those feelings when the next album comes rolling along. It's difficult to fight an ingrained habit, even if it is praise. And there's a battle of cognitive dissonance that comes along as well, where we find it difficult to acknowledge the deficiencies of our favorite artists, because it calls into question the legitimacy of our original opinions of them. Criticizing their later work lowers their overall standard, thereby tarnishing the image of them we have cultivated, and making it less apparent why we felt so strongly about them in the first place. It doesn't make a whole lot of logical sense to put it that way, but we aren't truly rational creatures, so I think it holds a fair bit of truth. How else would you explain the people who defended Metallica and Lou Reed after they put out the disaster that was "Lulu"?
You are completely right about Adrenaline Mob being a massive disappointment. Mike Portnoy and Russell Allen are both among the finest at what they do, but you'd never know it from listening to "Omerta". I don't lay much of the blame on Portnoy, since it wasn't originally his project and he didn't have much to do with cultivating the material, but he did put his stamp of approval on the project by playing on it and being so visibly excited about it, which speaks poorly on his judgment. His other new project this year, the prog-pop Flying Colors, was far and away the better musical showcase. "Omerta" suffered from every cliche in the metal book, and reinforced everything that makes outsiders think metal is moronic. Listening to "Omerta", it's sometimes hard not to agree with them.
To tie a bow on this project before I take it off on some abstract tangent, I look at 2012 as being one of the better years for me since I started keeping track of my listening. It didn't feature much that moved beyond the confines of hard rock and metal, but there was considerable depth this year, and a couple of standouts that I'm going to carry with me well into the future. Perhaps it's a product of the discerning taste you mentioned, but I consider a year a success if there are three albums I can comfortably say I love, and a couple more I like a great deal. I can do that this year, so I'm calling this a good, albeit unbalanced, year for music.
I maintain that "Lulu" was a brave record. Make no mistake; it sucked unforgivably. But it was nice to see Metallica, a band which for so long has hidden behind corporate shields, do something simply because it was a pet project they wanted to do with a guy they admire. That doesn't mean we needed to hear their long, aimless and awful jam session with a man who can no longer sing, but good for them for fulfilling a wish.
Hold on, we're not done yet! One more tangent to go! (And those are the best, aren't they?)
Finally, like a wish list for Christmas, what are you musically looking forward to for 2013? I have already compiled a short list, which begins with the upcoming double album from Soilwork. Double albums makes me nervous, especially for a band like them who occasionally has trouble coming up with enough really excellent material for a single record. But they're so damn talented at heart, I can't help but be curious. Also, Hypocrisy has another album on the horizon, and after the success of side project PAIN, I'm hoping for a second consecutive blockbuster release for Peter Tägtgren. On top of a new album from Children of Bodom (a band that keeps getting better,) there also continue to be persistent rumors of another Blackguard album next year, so that's captured my attention as well.
I agree with you as far as artist motivation goes. I wouldn't criticize an artist for making the music they want to make. I would, however, like to see more of that pride coming from people on this side of the discussion. There are too many sycophants who will defend anything an artist they once liked puts out, no matter how awful it is. The fact that you don't have to search hard to find positive reviews of both "St Anger" and "Lulu" prove the point. I don't know the thought process that leads to that kind of rationalizing, but I know that I wouldn't be able to take myself seriously if I forced myself to like something just because of the name on the cover.
As I'm thinking about the coming year, I'm not sure there's much about it I'm looking forward to. There are things I'm interested in hearing for curiosity's sake, but not the sorts of things I'm anxiously awaiting. The musical portions of last year's Arch/Matheos album make the prospects of a new Fates Warning record intriguing, but if it doesn't come to pass, I won't be heartbroken. Circle II Circle has a new record coming out in January, but their last effort sullied my expectations for the future, so my excitement is tempered. The two things I can say I'm most excited about are the new Dream Theater album due in the fall, and the next chapter in the Avantasia saga due in the spring. Dream Theater topped my list last year, so how they will follow what I think is their best work will be something to look forward to. And then there's Avantasia, which is the double-edged sword of the year. I hold tremendous respect for Tobias Sammet as a songwriter, and I love a great deal of what he has put out, but the early speculation I've heard is that this will bring back elements of my least favorite era of his career. So, all in all, it's the one thing I'm most anxious to hear.
As a last note, frequent visitors to this page may have noticed that I was absent for a long period in the summer. The truth is, I was largely unplugged from the musical world, busy with beginning my new job and moving to another state. In my stead, the department was kept afloat single-handedly by Chris, to whom I would like to extend hearty thanks not only for me, but for the labels, promoters and fans that look to us for high quality music journalism.
Excellent work, my friend.
So what’s left for us? Well, starting tomorrow we get down to brass tacks and start individually showing our lists for top ten albums of the year. Tomorrow, starting things off will be BGH fan favorite and general miscreant, Joe! Make sure to check back tomorrow, Wednesday and Thursday for the full year low-down in BGH’s music department!