Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Crown- Deathrace King (2000)

Here is a problem with my aesthetic: I am consistently criticizing music that is just monotone grinding away at a style, or the lifeless technical reproduction of some cultural flavor or historical "sound,"-- and valorizing music that "jumps out of the speakers" at you, that is immediately catchy and memorable. In extreme metal, this is a convenient way to edit out and expel 90% of grinding, monotonous, merely extreme albums: death or black metal that never rises above the teenage thrill of grossing out parents and grunting. It is also a good way to approach power pop or hardcore punk: the tendency of this music to merely go through the motions without even crossing into consciousness always = total failure.

What then to do with a band like The Crown? Because the Crown are catchy, memorable, replete with moments that jump out at you, etc. So, why aren't they my favorite band? (The short answer is that I don't love Faith Hill or Sting, either, who are obviously more poppy and catchy by any standard than, say, Cryptopsy. But people sometimes forget that I'm not an idiot and that this ("poppiness") might not be what I mean.)

This can only be done by contrasts. Let's take a song I love: "Deicide" by Deicide.

A lot of this "technology" seems clunky in 2011; the different voices, the over-the-top intro, the rapped breakdown, the "I am evil" lyrics, the utterly predictable set-up for the guitar solo, the divebombs in the solo itself, the somewhat ponderous tempo...

But to say all of these things about how dated "Deicide" sounds, if we agree that it's a great song, is the same as to say, "Today, we could never get away with being so obvious." I get the same feeling when I think of Beethoven's 5th Symphony and its famous opening. But this assumes--what is obviously false--that everyone today is on the verge of writing the 5th Symphony...and is only being stopped by their tastefulness! The same thing can be said about Deicide: these dated techniques can be rephrased as Deicide's "drama," their embrace of the absurd, pompous, and theatrical. Because, damn it! the band is named Deicide! If ever there was an aesthetic motivation for this kind of flare, does one not find it in Milton's Satan? Is "tasteful restraint" the name of the game here? Deicide know that it is not. It is not that this acknowledged super-classic is (for some technical reason) sonically inimitable; it is rather that death metal has become scared of its own shadow. A failing of spirit!

Anyways! "Deicide" is not, for all that, a 3-chord, verse-chorus-verse pop song. Rather than being repetitive, it has a narrative unity ("what happens next?"); there are no hints of the "melodic death metal"--it is resolutely ugly music. The immediacy, the catchiness, and the richness of the song are in fact particular to metal: it gets you headbanging. I can't say it any other way. But then the structure is nimble, instead of "ritualistic" or whatever people use to describe boring metal nowadays. Deicide doesn't stick around to milk the hooks, or drill them into your head: every bit of the song is incorporated into its "push." This won't be everyone's idea of "catchy," since it isn't tuneful, but on the other hand, this headbanging catchiness is what death metal does best, what other music only stumbles upon by accident and can't hold onto.

So, The Crown. Like Witchery, or Nifelheim, (and, to be fair, all-time genius Bathory), this is verse-chorus-verse-chorus extreme metal. There are plenty of rockin', consonant guitar solos and trills, big emotional moments (like I enjoy so much in Metallica), single-note melodies that are easy to follow, etc.

But the bottom of this bag of tricks is reached quite quickly. The guitar solos are ONLY "rockin'"--they aren't interesting or beautiful, or relevant to the song. The catchy choruses, when all is said and done, are not as catchy as Venom or Kreator or even Morbid Angel. The supposed death-metal underpinning of everything, in the end, is warmed-over thrash metal riffs.

How to tell THIS kind of unsatisfying obviousness from genuine catchiness? I want to say something like, "Try to have your first listen through the (imagined) ears of a twentieth listen." For example, a lot of times, I have put on an album and someone in the room has exclaimed, "WAAAH this music is insane!!" But, honestly, what serious person pulls out a beloved record from their collection and throws it on the turntable simply to be baffled by it? And yet this is always a risk when a death metal fan approaches an album.

Not, however, a risk that The Crown run. The name of their game is not technical brutality but big choruses and rock flair. The idea, I think, is that they are going to be a "guilty pleasure" for serious metallers, pure ear candy... But while I may feel guilty (about not writing my dissertation instead of this review), I am not melting in pleasure.

There's nothing to say to someone who WANTS to like something, who has a Crown-shaped hole in their musical desires (and will soon have a Crown-shaped hole in their wallet!!). But all of our record collections are littered with these records. The record that was "exactly what I'm looking for" that day. Now, on any given occasion, my skepticism could be wrong: what sounds to me like "obviousness" could be a rich and rewarding, catchy album with little parts that will be enjoyed for a lifetime. But the evidence is all on the side of resisting a band's presentation of itself, of resisting hype, of waiting out the internet chat, of doubting the validity of comparisons (I like Deicide, but I do not like bands that tell me they "sound like Deicide").

I can easily imagine the listener who indignantly responds, "The Crown ARE catchy. They DO rock. Who are you to speak with the Voice of Eternity?" And these things aren't subject to some quantitative proof. My only response can be: my life is littered with these albums. I try to pick up on what lasts in music, what holds my interest for years of listening. The world exists to tell us that The Crown rock, and that Deicide are cheesy. But this doxa is worth precisely nothing.

Conclusion: what "jumps out at me" here is the feeling of "jumping out at me." I'm not a phenomenologist, but this seems to me a conceptual analogue (no pun intended) to the loudness war in CD-mastering.

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