Friday, July 10, 2009

Too Old to Rock & Roll, Too Young to Die?

Ronnie James Dio, currently on tour with Heaven & Hell, reportedly turns 67 today – I say “reportedly” because Dio himself has never been public about his actual age, and 67 is the most accurate (and likely factual) guess of his age. As far as I know, Dio is the oldest person who is a current popular heavy metal artist, followed by Lemmy, who will turn 64 in December.

Dio and Lemmy are both definitely in great shape and voice for their ages – anyone who saw them both on last summer’s Metal Masters tour (along with the slightly younger members of Heaven & Hell and Judas Priest) can tell you that. By no means do I want to demean either man for his advancing years – I only wish to bring it up because of an as-yet answered metal question – how old is too old for metal?

Other forms of music have been able to (so far) escape the judgment of age. Many rock musicians from the 1950s and early 1960s still go on tour consistently and many seem to be doing well at what they do. Along with metal, I happen to also have a deep appreciation for the blues and last summer I saw Buddy Guy in concert. Guy (who turns 72 later this month) still puts on a tremendous show, yet I don’t give a second thought about a blues musician playing well into his or her later years if that musician still has the chops. In fact, one could argue that blues musicians are that much better when their playing is weathered through decades of gigging and experienced. But as an equally big fan of metal, I know that criteria doesn’t quite apply to the music played by Dio and his brethren. Metal is usually fast, loud, shrieking, and aggressive – four words that I don’t often see used to describe senior citizens. Has anyone seen a septuagenarian perform rapid-fire finger work on a fret board while headbanging? Is heavy metal a style of music that will eventually leave behind the aging people who perform it?

The other older gents of metal founders Black Sabbath/Heaven & Hell – Tony Iommi is 61 and Geezer Butler turns 60 in a week – certainly have an advantage in the fact that much of their music is slower than most funeral dirges, which would minimize any age-related issues of speed with the band members for at least another few years. Not surprisingly, although some of Sabbath’s best tunes with Dio feature rapid pounding riffs – “Neon Knights,” “Die Young,” and “The Mob Rules” come to mind – only one song on the band’s newest LP The Devil You Know approaches that kind of velocity, “Eating the Cannibals” (which, I should mention, isn’t being played by the band on this tour). But as anyone who has ever attended a doom metal show can tell you, an entire set of pounding slow riffs – no matter how vicious – can often leave a lot to be desired.

I use Dio and Sabbath as an example because a few metal bands that have remained popular and successful for two or more decades, especially those that play in a faster style than Sabbath, may find themselves facing early metal retirement. Like most professional athletes, there may come a time when many heavy metal musicians might be unable to physically perform at the level their craft requires. Another fact lies in substance abuse, something which (unfortunately) has been rampant in heavy metal. Dio has never really been acknowledged as a substance abuser of any kind, which could be a major factor in how he has stayed so vital into his late sixties (Lemmy is an entirely different story, of course). To keep going with the athlete analogy, many athletes end up cutting their careers short because substance abuse robs them of their talents, even though drugs and alcohol have certain been the source of many great metal songs.

It’s interesting that one-time notorious partiers Metallica entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame earlier this year with James Hetfield mentioning how happy he was that the induction came while they were still a “vibrant” band, yet that induction came on the heels of almost two decades without Metallica putting out a good metal album. While Death Magnetic may have allowed some metal fans to “forgive” Metallica for 18 years of releasing music that can’t entirely be classified as heavy metal, one wonders how many more metal albums Metallica has left in them, especially since Tom Araya of fellow California thrash band Slayer mentioned as early as 2007 that the next Slayer album – which would be the follow-up to the fairly good Christ Illusion – might be their last, because:

"Well, there have been remarks made about seeing an old man headbang. And I have to agree. I think the STONES can do that, probably go out and do their stuff in their 80s, but it just wouldn't look right [for us], you know what I mean?

"It's actually pretty strenuous. That's why I don't see it going any further than a certain point in time. We have one more record to do, which is our deal with [super producer Rick] Rubin, and we'll have to sit down and discuss the future. But I can't really see myself doing this at a later age." -- Tom Araya
First single from the last album? Say it Ain't So!

The original members of those early thrash bands are all in their mid-to-late forties now, and Araya does bring up an interesting question – how long can they all keep it going? Does anyone see Dave Mustaine, Lars Ulrich, Kerry King, or Chuck Billy still on tour at 67? Would we even want to, especially if they cannot physically perform the songs at the level fans want to hear them?

I know that personally I would rather see the band bow out than reduce their setlist and speed to a crawl to squeeze out a few more years of sub-par shows, though I am sure many would disagree. But then again, aside from Dio & Black Sabbath, Lemmy, Judas Priest, and a handful of others who are still doing it and doing it into their sixties, it might be a little early to pass judgment on the mandatory metal retirement age.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Train In Vain (Stand By Your Songwriting)

As any heavy metal fan will tell you, there’s good metal and bad metal, though every fan’s definition of each varies. One thing that is clear to me in metal’s recent resurgence in America – called the New Wave of American Heavy Metal by some – some of the young turks just have not yet learned how to write a song.

The guitar riff is certainly one of the more important elements of a metal song, but the consistent “chugga-chugga-chugga” Little-Engine-That-Couldn't riffing that only stops for a chorus in many recent metal songs ends up resembling the sound of a car engine that won’t turn over rather than an actual song. All of the classic thrash bands were well aware that you had to do something interesting in the song beside riffing. Slowing down the riff to make it a doom metal “song” doesn’t quite cut it either. Even songs which are made up of technically skillful soloing are often unmemorable as well. To take DragonForce as an often-cited example, I have listened to their last three CDs several times and although I am impressed by the band’s talent I couldn’t tell you the names of any of their songs nor recall any of their melodies in my head. Compare that to the big thrash bands of the 1980s - how did Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, Anthrax, Testament, and Exodus break out while hundreds of other thrash bands crashed and burned? For one, they wrote better songs than those whom disappeared.

Many of the old masters know how to do it right – Metallica’s early records really showed that the band had a distinct understanding of how to compose a thrash song – “Creeping Death,” for example, broke up the verses with solos and the famous “Die! Die!” bridge that has since become a highlight of Metallica concerts. But they can still get it wrong – St. Anger shows how good songwriters can compose terrible songs if they lack some kind of meaningful structure. Yes, we all pick on St. Anger, but in hindsight St. Anger exposed how hollow metal with lazy song structure sounds, even if handled by proficient veteran songwriters. Machine Head is another great example – their most recent album, The Blackened, features far superior songwriting than their nu-metal effort, The Burning Red. Just compare the lazy “rap” breaks over “From This Day” to the time changes of “Aesthetics of Hate,” and there is not question which is the better song. One has something interesting to offer, the other is just an interchangeable single that any band that had a member with dreadlocks could have put out in 1999.

However, there is a huge difference between songwriting structure and following a formula. I’m not saying that metal music needs to be formulaic – formula turned hair “metal” into a bad punch line in the early 90s and spawned god-awful nu-metal in the late 90s. Ever notice how the vocals in nu-metal music are turned way up in the mixes to catch your attention? Listen to an Iron Maiden song and notice that, while the vocals are also high in the mix, you can clearly hear all the instruments – including the bass, that fabled instrument that gets lost in the mixes of so many rock albums. Part of successful songwriting comes from actually knowing how to play an instrument proficiently and knowing a thing or two about how to best incorporate that instrument into a song -- after all, Black Sabbath's songs are just as memorable for Tony Iommi's guitar and Geezer Butler's bass than for Ozzy Osbourne's vocals. Sure, you can compose a song with only a single chord – punk musicians did it all the time in the seventies and eighties – but metal isn’t punk. Metal can certainly borrow elements of punk – and there’s no greater example that Motorhead and the thrash metal it spawned – but lazy songwriting tends to just produce unremarkable metal tracks on forgettable CDs.

And while many current metal bands know how to write a song -- Lamb of God, Mastodon, Children of Bodom -- I'd hate to see metal suffer another setback in popularity due to bands who have nothing interesting to say or do flooding the few places that metal actually gets played.