Last week, Metallica and Darkthrone released new songs. Here are some half-formed ramblings, jotted down while I was in a meeting. I am a professional. This could (should) bake longer, but where’s the fun in concise text that doesn’t waste your time?

1. I like the Darkthrone, I don’t like the Metallica.

2. This isn’t a particularly revelatory statement, nor is it interesting. I’m guessing this is the mindset of many. And the fact I’m presenting this as something you’d want to read ranks up there with “but I can clean a toilet bowl with my pee!” on the Asinine Ideas of White Males list.

THAT SAID, when I dug into WHY I liked the Darkthrone and didn’t like the Metallica, I hit most of my music analysis hobbyhorses like a game of Plinko. I also came to a pretty uncomfortable conclusion.

3. For the sake of giving you a tl;dr out early, here’s everything minus a few thousand words:

A. I trust Darkthrone, I don’t trust Metallica.

B. The respective contexts I have constructed to interpret Darkthrone and Metallica favor and encourage the success of Darkthrone to a far GREATER degree.

C. I don’t trust myself.

4. In the extended Soundcloud premiere of “Tundra Leech”, Fenriz makes his influences clear: Dream Death’s Journey into Mystery and Necrophagia’s Season of the Dead, among a ton of other old, ‘80s things.

On the surface, “Leech” is in line with today’s metal-as-a-thrift-shop mentality: take something old and fondly remembered, dress it up so it can be enjoyed again in the present. New OSDM, trad heavy metal, NWONWO_HM, etc. The Encino Man principle of modern metal, if you will, if your brain now runs only on awful clickbait headlines. These genres are for people who either missed it initially or miss it dearly.

Now, a lot of stuff in this vein is dreck. A lot of it misses the point. A lot of it is dishonest. A lot of it is predicated on the idea that legendary sounds stay legendary no matter what hands are making those sounds. As if metal can be easily replicated by following templates. As if music is as reproducible as programming code. And the false are easy to spot. No matter how hard you try to bury it, your internal monologue always comes through when playing music.

Darkthrone dodges these potholes by being honest.

A. They write music as though good metal, no matter THE metal, has certain ineffable qualities with one of those qualities being the enjoyment of those qualities.

B. Fenriz and Ted seem to have a history of openness regarding their influences and how those influences are applied to their music.[1]

More than that, they always seem to sound like fans when talking about or playing music, like this stuff remains important to them. Like they’re not above it. Even if they aren’t fans, the perception is that they are. (If enough people think it’s true, it’s true. That’s how history works. Not just Wikipedia history. Like, Herodotus history.)

Fenriz and Ted are also solid songwriters. Charismatic, too. That goes a long way in turning Dream Death and Necrophagia into Darkthrone. Their perceived adoration means they probably know how to do Dream Death and Necrophagia better than the 1987 versions of those bands. Again, at least you BELIEVE that they do. That’s the narrative. The fact that they’re still looking outside of themselves for inspiration is maybe the biggest thing. Even if the inspirations are 30 years old, at least Darkthrone isn’t stuck in the ego-stroking feedback loop of believing that its OWN material holds important, eternal truths. Darkthrone is real, but what paved the way for Darkthrone is realer; as most things that come ever-so-slightly before you tend to be. Life is kinda front-loaded like that.

I like this song. Path of least resistance, though. It’s easy for me to like Darkthrone because it’s easy for me to trust Darkthrone. I trust Darkthrone because they have a long history of doing things I’ve learned to find agreeable. Darkthrone, they’re just like us.

All of these things, objectively, mean nothing.

5. So, “Hardwired.” Best case, this sounds like a mic check that could’ve landed somewhere between Justice and Metallica if they let Newstead plug in his amp. Worst case, uh, choose your “favorite” Metallica disasterpiece from the past 20 years.

Put more simply: Best case, “Hardwired” looks back to a younger, more vibrant Metallica. Worst case, this looks back to a corrupted, money-over-everything Metallica.

Now, it’s hard to tell if “Hardwired” is best case or worst case, which makes this the most promising Metallica has been in a long, long time. But, this much is clear to me: If they’re looking back, they’ve trained their sights on themselves, and that’s like giving a starving person a jar of pickles.[2]

Not that this is objectively bad. Considering how successful Metallica has been financially, why wouldn’t they just keep doing what they’re doing? They have lives, have families to support, and those families will have families to support. Like signing a sports contract, Metallica’s members are probably thinking of the betterment of generations of descendants. Plant the tree so it can create shade for those who follow you. That kinda stuff. Pleasing some moron who writes overwrought Facebook posts is pretty darn low on their hierarchy of needs.

Add in that what Metallica is trying to do – staying viable in the minds of millions of concert ticket buyers and Mandatory Metallica listeners – is a higher risk high wire act than what Darkthrone is trying to do – make “true” metal that’s fun and mostly agreeable to thousands of metalheads who share the same influences. Metallica is doing a hard thing, and they’re doing it WAY past their prime. No matter how good of a hitter you were, there comes a time when you can’t catch up to a fastball. Your body and your brain just won’t let you. Likewise, no discography remains unblemished.[3] However, the economic factors surrounding Metallica means they still have to try. Subtracting Lulu, I don’t think art is much of a factor these days. Considering Lulu, pleasing snobby fans isn’t much of a factor, either. I could write (poorly) about this stuff for days and days and days and days.[4]

Fact is, this isn’t normally the thing music critics (and I’m using “critic” EXTREMELY LOOSELY) like me think about when crucifying “bad” music. We’re more likely to preach the party line that selling out is bad and it decimates your trustworthiness. That fits better into a 200-word blurb no one will read while scrolling down to the stream embed.

And, I mean, yes, Metallica has a long history of selling out and detonating trustworthiness. I’m not going to rehash a history that has more disappointments than your first relationship and is equally hard to look back on without thinking of the way it ended. You know it, you lived it. Suffice to say, it’s difficult to trust Metallica.

Because of that, I tend to side with “Hardwired”‘s worst case: it sucks. It sucks because what I know about Metallica these days is mostly bad. Thus spake my gut.

6. If I lost the thread, it’s that both bands are playing into narratives. Darkthrone is the outsider that cares, Metallica is the industry behemoth that has forgotten how to be itself. Darkthrone is you, Metallica is what you don’t want to be. (That said, in life, you’re probably going to be a Metallica more than you are a Darkthrone. C’est triste.) Whether these narratives are accurate or true is immaterial. These narratives drive the surrounding conversations. If enough people think it’s true, it’s true.

But what if we thought about the songs in a vacuum?

7. Fenriz posted this to the Band of the Week Facebook page in January:

“for the SERIOUS iron maiden fans out there I propose this train of thought: Many of us are not majestically thrilled by ‘gangland’ or ‘invaders’, yet we wallow and rejoice when some newcomer act sound remotely like these songs. How and why is that?”

8. I have been thinking about that quote for months. I have been trying to write something about it for months. In the interest of completely wasting your time, I haven’t quite untangled my thoughts. However, here’s my best take:

Context is extremely important.

9. There are two things at play in Fenriz’s scenario:

A. The reason we think lowly of “Gangland” and “Invaders” (they don’t bug me, but whatever) is we have built a context around Iron Maiden. It’s a bullshit quilt made up of many patches: history, personal opinion, borrowed opinion, tons of smaller variables. Point is, if you get to “Gangland” and “Invaders”, you probably have a sense of what makes a good Iron Maiden song. You know where to place the bar. Promise and potential, though enormous in the case of Iron Maiden, is quantifiable. It might not be a concrete calculation, but when you hear a new Iron Maiden song, you might think, Does this clear the Iron Maiden bar? You’ve felt out the boundaries. You’ve explored all that needs to be explored.

B. However, a new band, whether it’s making its debut or it’s just new to you, doesn’t have boundaries. Promise and potential isn’t quantifiable. (Although, if you’re a miserable cynic like me, you may default to an artificially low value because you have been … hurt … SO MANY TIMES.) That’s the appeal. Where subsequent releases by Iron Maiden are a sports season, in that you engage to see how things play out, a new band is the draft or free agency. Much promise. Much potential. Much wallowing and rejoicing. And that’s exciting. It’s unknown. Even if the particular song couldn’t clear an Iron Maiden bar, the fact that you might use the same measuring stick is exciting enough. “Oh man, what IF this new band could clear the bar?” Crazily, that gets added into their context. New band bullet point: Could be Iron Maiden?

10. The problem is that things are so rarely new these days. Everyone has a take. You discover music from someone’s take, or, in the case of Discover Weekly, an algorithm’s take.[5]

Even if the take is as basic as “this is good, you will like it” recommendation, that is still creating a context. A tiny one, but it’s there. It skews your listening experience. Instead of being like, “Music! Yay!” You’re subconsciously like, “Well, do I like this?” It changes your approach. Really, context changes everything.

When we talk about Darkthrone and Metallica, the context is bigger, generally personal (because you are likely to have encountered both bands if you like HERVY MERTAL), and just plain complex.

11. If I lost the thread, it’s that context is extremely important.[6]

12. Back to that subthesis from a few points back: But what if we thought about the songs in a vacuum?

Thinking exercise: If “Tundra Leech” and “Hardwired” were released by new, unknown bands, would that make them better or worse?

“Tundra Leech”: Ever so slightly worse. You lose Darkthrone’s perceived trustworthiness, which means I can’t rule out that this is accidentally great.[7] However, if a new band put this out, it’d be a pretty impressive debut that fits in with a lot of fetishized-by-zines metal. Blackened throwback jams are kinda in and haven’t been driven into the ground, though your mileage may vary depending on your listening habits.[8] That might have something to do with Darkthrone’s continuing influence on the cultish, more critically favorable parts of the genre. (This is less of a George Bailey thing, and more of a This is Just How It Is thing, so we’ll allow it.) That said, even if Darkthrone’s ideas have been digested by that subculture, Darkthrone’s songwriting is still strong enough to keep its head above the flood of bands with similar mission statements. I mean, “Leech” is quintessentially Darkthrone, and “Leech” does things that only Fenriz and Ted can do. Another band *couldn’t* do this. However, the songwriting is so good – it doesn’t miss the point, it comes at its source material honestly – and the performance is so good that if it were passed around as part of some unknown USBM demo tape, my reaction would be largely the same: This is great. Just slightly less great. It’d score a premiere wherever.

Points for: Well-written and performed, fits in with what is currently praised by the culture

Points against: Not Fenriz and Ted, and that’s a big chunk of Darkthrone’s appeal. They’re affable, you want to hang with them. The best substitute is hanging with them aurally

“Hardwired”: Way, way worse. Surprise! You lose Metallica’s untrustworthiness, but thrash isn’t exactly a selling point in 2016. Yes, a small handful of bands can still spin a raging thrasher, but by and large, it’s usually a pass. If you had to speed pick through a promo pile, you’re not saving a modern thrash band unless the style has been augmented by another qualifier (blackened, death/, tech, classic, Voivod, etc.). You’re just not. And if you get “Hardwired” deep into one, you’re not going farther. So, with Metallica’s name stripped off, “Hardwired” is then forced to work against a different context: modern thrash’s. Not good, because consider this: Metallica’s ideas have been DEVOURED by metal kids raised on this stuff. Like, every kid. In contrast to Darkthrone’s influence, Metallica’s influence is overexposed because it’s in the DNA of every metalhead. So what “Hardwired” is peddling in the BEST CASE SCENARIO outlined above is not exactly fresh. It’s the default. Basic. Without innovation to lean on, that leaves “Hardwired”‘s songwriting as the sole gradable element, which earns a legit meh.[9] It’s crazy, but the fact this meh is Metallica is actually a point in “Hardwired”‘s favor. It takes “Hardwired” out of the thrash bucket and places it back into Metallica’s, which is a different universe and therefore has a different metric.[10] About that metric, though: Even if you’re Aaron Gordon, it doesn’t look impressive when you’re dunking on a five-foot hoop. Lastly, “Hardwired”, in my mind, isn’t a “Gangland”, because it’s modern-sounding and classic heavy metal (Maiden) has more cultural cache and legs than modern thrash (post-Black Album Metallica). Although, there’s a great piece on IO comparing it to “Motorbreath.” In the end, it really depends what era of Metallica you think “Hardwired” sounds like.

Points for: It’s not Metallica

Points against: It’s not Metallica

13. So, that was kind of a wash. Instead of stripping the band name off these songs, what if we strip the context away from the bands? WOOSH! It’s gone! Can we do that?

No.

14. If you’ve read this far, you may be thinking, What is this bozo even writing about? I don’t think about these bands like this! Welp, that’s how insular context is. How PERSONAL it is.

I discovered Metallica *way* before Darkthrone. I won’t front like I was spinning “The Pagan Winter” for show and tell. Metallica, then, sits closer to a time when the music I enjoyed was kinda sacrosanct. It WAS me. I used it to identify me. It had the power to change me. I was younger, I didn’t have much context, so I was chipping in fresh truths into my worldview tablet that wouldn’t be erased for a long, long time, if ever. I think this is why our reactions to betrayals of childhood beliefs – Metallica is awesome, Star Wars is awesome, society is just and fair – hit so deeply. It’s because it smashes these core foundations that were created before we kind of knew better. We built a lot of stuff upon those foundations, though. It’s hard to rebuild that stuff once it tumbles.

If Darkthrone lets me down, I’ll be bummed, but I’ll get over it. Because, I discovered Darkthrone as a young adult and, at that point, I knew better. I was a little more guarded. I knew that art letting you down is something that art does. It’s what makes good art that much more important: stakes. Plus, I like Fenriz and Ted as personalities, which is more important than what they do for a career. I’m more likely to forgive them.

I knew Metallica long before I could separate the PERSON from the BAND from the CONCEPT. It was before I knew how tough adulthood is; before I knew that no matter how close you are to someone or something, we all grow apart because the context always changes; before I knew real disappointments, depression, downfalls, etc. In a way, then, I’m still beholden to a sort of childlike logic with Metallica. My conception of them just stuck like a broken clock, the same way I think of old pets or things I used to treasure. It’s not that Metallica should always be “Battery,” it’s that they should always be the FEELING I had when first listening to “Battery.” They are gods, and gods (sorry Greeks/Romans/most religions) are infallible. Metallica, though, like all of us, has been proven to be very fallible. Cognitive dissonance, commence. Output: a context too messed up for me to ever like Metallica again. It’s a scar now, not a wound. Kinda don’t want to reopen it.

Let’s distill this down. This is how I listen to classic Darkthrone and classic Metallica.

Classic Darkthrone: Man, this is good music. I like good music. That is something I value as an adult.

Classic Metallica: Man, remember that time I sat in my yard and listened to this thing all day? I wish my parents were still around.

How the hell is a new Metallica song ever supposed to measure up to THAT?

15. This stuff goes a little bit beyond JUST the personal.[11] I feel like I’ve been conditioned to like newer Darkthrone over newer Metallica, that I have been socially engineered to like a new Darkthrone over Metallica. Because, really, what person believes in new Metallica? Do you actually respect the opinion of that person? No. It sounds crazy, because metal culture, by and large, has decided that it’s kind of crazy.

I don’t want to go too far down this rabbit hole. It is a long-ass post for another time.

BUT.

Be honest with yourself for a second. We all know when we like something at first. I like a lot of things at first blush. BUT, when and how do we decide to KEEP liking something?

I know that we’re all paragons of legit cred and that the masses will never decide what we like and what we don’t like. I know this. BUT, I think, every once and awhile, we’re susceptible to softening our opinion on something, having it remolded, and then hardening it again. As long as it doesn’t hurt too bad.

One of those most susceptible times is when something changes. When Load came out, it initially hit my ears wrong. I thought, Huh, this is different. Not good. Not bad. Just different. I was trying to come to terms with whether that different was good or bad. And then, everyone I trusted about music came to the same conclusion: Load sucks. And I was like, You know what, I think you guys are right. And that opinion hardened, because it felt right.

BUT, how did I get there? Did I get there through my feelings or the feelings of others? How did those others get there? Where is the truth in any of this? I’m not entirely sure.

And I’m not entirely sure about a lot of music things. For instance, I didn’t like Darkthrone the first time I heard it. That was a gut reaction. In fact, I have hated most of my favorite things at first. More reactions from the gut. To be clear, I was wrong. My gut was wrong. I am wrong about so many things, which, of course, makes me question so many things I feel I’m right about; which, of course, makes me wonder if there’s a truth or a legitimate context to any of these things.

I also got into Darkthrone because someone told me I’d like them. That’s a weird pressure to put on a band. On anything. Sometimes I try harder to like something based on the person recommending it. Yet, if that person is only passing me something because they think I’ll like it and they really don’t like it, where is the truth in that? Is that a lie? Was truth born from that, regardless?

I don’t remember how I got into Metallica. I remember it just sort of being THERE, like the way you pick up a language. And then it felt like either Metallica or I wasn’t speaking correctly. Like we were no longer fluent with each other. It was a little scary, an early pass at how things are outside of your control.

BUT, let’s consider something else. I am blessed with the opportunity to listen to so many metal promos a week. I am also blessed with the free time to think philosophically about metal promos. In the 18th century, if I were like, “Hey, can I have a few spare seconds to think about music philosophically,” I’d get my ass kicked by a taskmaster and thrown back into a mine. So, my context is different than a lot of people. As a student of Dunning-Kruger, I’m not going to say that these experiences justify certain opinions. It just mutates my perception and context, making the lens I, uh, hear music through (how am I a writer again?) WAY different than most people.

Let’s roll back to when I said that most modern thrash is boring. Blanket statement; guilty. I HAVE listened to a lot of modern thrash. I have some experience. However, is what I said true? Might there be whole scenes of modern thrashy thrash I’m not tapping into that are truly excellent and popular? Yes. Plus, let’s say you don’t listen to as much music as I have to. (Not a humblebrag, more of a shameshare.) You jam a couple thrash albums here and there and have come to the conclusion that this is the best time for thrash, ever. Are you wrong? Am I wrong? Are either of us right? Is “truth” limited to the scope of what you perceive to be reality? Limited to the context? Could everything be true and untrue at the same time? Brain … leaking … out … of skull.

I think about this junk all of the time. Another sampling: If opinions change, how do they change? And what makes them change? And if all of this stuff is random, or if it’s because of a lifetime of experiences that accumulate in such a way over time that the end result is out of your control, then how can I honestly say something like:

I like the Darkthrone, I don’t like the Metallica.

And how the hell can I ever *mean* it? And why does it kinda hurt?

[12]

[1] Like, Fenriz is really into electronic music from the early ‘90s. That’s cool, but I know that’s not going to find its way on a Darkthrone album. Can you imagine some shitty Manes-esque thing that sounds like Green Velvet? No. That’s part of the reason for trusting Darkthrone. Even if they did that, I’d expect them to release a commentary track explaining what the hell was going on. Props on the commentary tracks. More commentary tracks.

Aside: A Crypt Sermon premiere I wrote once popped up on the Band of the Week Facebook which means either Fenriz or Arjen read it. THAT IS TERRIFYING. I r a false.

[2] To be clearer, the last great Metallica song was the Mercyful Fate medley on Garage, Inc. Minus Lou Reed, which was really just Lars taking a master troll class, Metallica has usually been very good when looking outside itself. Garage Days, Garage, Inc. There’s something there.

[3] And it’s not like we can say Metallica is objectively bad. Metallica’s context is just different from ours. Their inputs are different, moved away from what we first aligned ourselves to. People change. Things change. We weren’t in the day-to-day Metallica trenches, so what’s crazy for us may have been a totally normal evolution for them. Who is to say that Load isn’t the best album made by a former thrash band that wants to be Lynryd Skynyrd? THAT might BE the best case.

[4] Fame and money make you do weird things. Also, I’m a firm believer that knowing everything about everyone will make you not like anyone. Twitter and Facebook are art installations that prove that point every second. We know a lot about Metallica. I wish we didn’t.

[5] That transforms you into a boring person. More on this sometime.

[6] You have read A LOT of garbage to this point. 1-800-273-8255 if you’re feeling woozy.

[7] This is a Michael Scott theory. Despite evidence to the contrary – nu-influences, questionable ethics, etc. – a band can still luck into something great. Some bands even go on accidentally great streaks. See: Deftones.

[8] I don’t mean “in” like “TRENDS R GUD.” I mean in like there isn’t much friction in the way of you enjoying something. It doesn’t sound dated, it doesn’t sound too futuristic. To learn to like difficult stuff that falls outside of your normal listening sphere, you kind of need to work at it. (It’s more rewarding, but it takes WAY longer.) This is a path of least resistance thing. It’s easier to get into the styles and genres that are floating around in the current, ugh, cultural zeitgeist because they’ve already been accepted. Doesn’t take much of a leap. This.

[9] I call this the Van Halen effect. A band’s ideas are so thoroughly assimilated by the culture so quickly, that anything the originators release afterwards sounds like a tired rehash. See: Van Halen.

[10] The only reason any of us are even entertaining the fact that this is kinda okay is because it’s a Metallica song, Metallica has been a perceived Turd Titatnic for decades, and this is better than what we’ve come to expect from Metallica. If this was released on some crappy nu-thrash label (not naming names, you know who you are), you would never listen to this again. Part of that is because thrash, minus the pitifully small handful of bands that continue to do cool things, hasn’t been great in a long, long time. And we’re talking thrash. Not blackened thrash, death/thrash, tech thrash, thrashcore, old school thrash, or any variant of thrash that has been Fabreezed with something more culturally acceptable. We’re talking thrashy thrash. If someone handed you a demo in the parking lot and said, Hey, check out my thrash band, would you even look for a garbage can before disposing of it? Imagine me – white, privileged, stupid me – handing you a reggae demo. Same level. Such is our opinion of all of the post-Pantera garbage that has found its way underneath the genre tag. This isn’t thrash’s fault. It’s the fault of the crap that has proliferated and the general response of listeners. Thrash could be great again in 10 years and the stuff I think is zzzzzz now might be reappraised as slept on. That happens. See: heavy metal’s greater cultural relevancy from 1970 – present. However, in the here and now of me posting this, most new thrash sucks. So, if “Hardwired” came from a new band named, like, Thuderbirth Suicide, you’d think, How the hell did this band get the money for this production? And then you’d think, This is kinda meh.

[11] In case I didn’t make it clear, context is everything. It’s everything in Fenriz’s quote. The reason I am not majestically thrilled by “Gangland” is because I have heard other Iron Maiden songs and I know where to place the bar. The reason a new band making a “Gangland” gets a pass – #wallowing, #rejoicing — is because I *don’t* know where to place the bar and that’s exciting.

Darkthrone has a higher possibility rating than Metallica. Trust and context have taught me as much. I’m excited for a new Darkthrone album because of all the positive possibilities. I’m kind of dreading a new Metallica album, even though I KNOW I shouldn’t care and should cut my losses, because of the perceived negative possibilities. One more nail in a coffin that’s made out of nails.

Metallica, though, has a much higher career bar than Darkthrone due to the point in time I encountered each respective act. I met Metallica when I was young, so their career bar is unreasonably high due to the fact I didn’t have much experience placing bars. Darkthrone’s is lower because I had more experience with music when we were introduced. I genuinely like Darkthrone’s discography more than Metallica’s these days, though something like Kill ‘em All sits on a different plateau with childhood favorites.

Metallica: Lower possibility rating, higher career bar, tied to core memories and feelings

Darkthrone: Higher possibility rating, lower career bar, tied to adult memories and feelings

[12] And my entire opinion will change as soon as I post this.

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