When Nothing Is Original, Only Innovative

Recently Machine Head released a single from their upcoming album. You can check it out below. Almost the moment it came out people, myself included, noticed the striking similarities between the main riff and Strapping Young Lad’s main riff from “Love?”. Devin Townsend dismissed it and even wished the band the best. He made a few other comments about influences and whatnot, and I agree with him on some of those points.

Overall it seemed like it wasn’t an issue to those who should have cared. The news outlets, however, are having a heyday (I’m only timely with this post because I saw this coming). After the semi-controversy over Machine Head’s release the very tired debate resurfaced: how original are we as people and when is it blatantly ripping off someone? Honestly I see part of it is as an issue of originality and then there’s issue of how much influence is too much.

Western culture, especially in America, love to demand innovation and originality from everyone and everything. Some people rise to the occasion. At least, with the innovative part. In truth people aren’t that original. The human experience bears its own limitations to some things. I remember in college learning there are something like 17-34 individual story lines because of universal experiences. Even if we ignore how having contact with anything will influence artistic output influences will creep in other ways. Have a really cool bass line? Does it sound familiar? Turns out you heard something similar a few years back and it stuck with you. Or maybe something an artist played really resonated with you and you wanted to expand on that aspect. If it was ever a factor at all, and Robb Flynn has remarked it wasn’t anything but coincidence, it was probably more of the latter.

There are other issues to consider with similar sounding music. There are legal elements that I won’t fully delve into (not sure I’m qualified for that anyway) but one must acknowledge there’s a line between plagiarism, homage, influence, and outright coincidence. Where many people heard the riff from Strapping Young Lad other bands were cited like A Perfect Circle. Sometimes some elements are so overused or generic we hear it in many songs possibly without realizing it. Confirmation bias plays a huge factor in those instances. Assuming someone did lift something how can we look at it? If something is lifted what was done with it? Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales was lifted almost verbatim from another popular work of the time. Devin Townsend admits he lifted lyrics from a Yes song…in the very Strapping Young Lad song at the heart of the issue.

 

Even if content was lifted directly from somewhere else when is it called plagiarism and when is it called creative license?

While there are legal and ethical standings to determine if a work steals from another a solely artistic standpoint isn’t well defined. One could argue that even following music theory is lacking in originality the same way pulling implements from other sources displays a lack of originality. I personally am not of that philosophy, but I can understand it. Much of Western music theory has rules for aesthetics and practicality. Moreover In reality various art forms didn’t really deviate from a certain forms and rules. One was considered an accomplished artist if they followed those form to the letter. In poetry free verse was called “doggerel” (and with some groups still is) until Romantic poets found merit in deviating from any verse form.

Western culture no longer believes in close imitation as a form of creativity. Artistry is tied to innovation, or at least the appearance of such. Like I’ve mentioned several times originality isn’t a strong point in humans. Innovation, however, is a strong human trait. We have a knack for taking what’s already there and make something seem new or adding a new paradigm to the existing work. It’s why I keep stressing the issue of when is something blatantly lifting another’s work and when is it taking something already done and going in a different direction. It’s why I strive in my reviews to focus on the artistic intention. Otherwise I’d constantly bemoan how nothing is good because it’s unoriginal, when the focus should be on what the artist is presenting.

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The Future of Pop Stars Probably Aren’t AI

I read an article on Pitchfork the other day where it was another puff piece about whether or not future pop stars will actually be human or not. One thing I definitely appreciated about the piece was how it went into the history of AI pop stars leading all the way up to well-known programs like Vocaloids. Otherwise I felt it was another “future of” puff piece, but I want in on the puff piece pretension. It lets me pretend my opinion matters to the occasional person who actually reads my blog. Moreover I feel the topic presented was rather short sighted.

Does the future of pop music lie in something like Vocaloids? The short of my long-winded opinion is not yet and not necessarily with an AI image as the pop star. There. You now have debate fodder.

Now for the long answer…

Even though technology is moving at incredible rates not much is geared towards creating vocal synthesizers musically. I’ll use Vocaloids as my example since they are currently the most well known for singing synthesizers. Vocaloids were developed by Yamaha, which also isn’t the best when it comes to any sound synthesized. There’s a reason it’s one of the “go-to” brands for beginners of something like piano. They’re relatively inexpensive, and it’s reflected in the quality. The timbre is tinny, the clarity is lacking, the synthesizer sounds nothing like the instrument in question, and the sound variety tends to be – in my opinion – poor. This is especially reflected in the older generations of their Vocaloid line. In addition to the typical Yamaha sound quality older generation Vocaloids also lacked enunciation necessary for singing. Based on other opinions of Vocaloids in the West I’m not alone in this sentiment. There were some modulations, updates, and newer versions where these issues were somewhat addressed.

One of the ways the synthesizer shortcomings are addressed is the newer Vocaloid editions use actual samples of singing and speech instead of analytics. Combined with the updates the quality results in less tinny, less muffled, and more importantly more organic sounds. The technology still has a ways to go, but Yamaha made some strides. The only issue I see is whether or not Yamaha will continue to keep improving the technology and updating the language library to improve the overall quality.

Vocaloids, however, aren’t known just for being software. Many know them for their mascots like Miku Hatsune. While I surmise this is the direction Pitchfork was heading with the “future of pop stars” remark I still disagree. One part of the reason is despite internet popularity it hasn’t translated to widespread popularity outside of Japan. Another part of the reason is with software like Vocaloids the mascots are copyrighted to where if one uses the image for fan-made work it’s fine, but for commercial use it needs clearance with the copyright owner—which if I recall is Crypton Future Media with Vocaloids. Conversely the software is free to use without the same restraints. People are free to use it in conjunction with other instruments while recording their own music. It’s no different than using other similar licensed software for creating music. This disconnect of the image of the pop star from the “voice” creates not a future icon in the way the Pitchfork article insinuates. Rather than creating a platform for holographic stars to appear on a world tour it creates an opportunity for the future of pop stars to be the music creators themselves. There exists a few examples with Livetune being one of the more prominent ones. While it’s fair to assume we wouldn’t necessarily see the artist featured in any music video, people familiar with a particular artist’s work still would clamor to attend a concert of said artist. Various artists in electronic music come to mind as established examples. If anything I see a trend of focusing more on the music thanks to increasingly available technology to artists not otherwise accessible in earlier periods.

More easily accessible technology has and will contribute to changing how we consume music. Music synthesizers, while full of potential, are not up to snuff just yet for serious consideration when associated with a particular image for replacing human pop stars. This opinion may change if said technology improves, but even then I think the future pop stars will not morph into some image of a particular character, but the image of the artist behind the song. The voice synthesizer will become another instrument with its own malleable characteristics suitable for the artist’s desired outcome. Rather than what will the future pop star be artificial we should as will future pop stars be the ones behind the mixer.

Album Review: “Nightingale” by Thirteen

Thirteen found me on Twitter and sent me one of those DM’s promoting their latest album “Nightingale”. I decided this would be my next album to review.

Thirteen is a hard rock band based out of DC and formed in 2015. Self-described as a cross between Black Sabbath and Guns n’ Roses, not to mention a plethora of other old school influences, the band formed out of a desire to keep hthirteennightingalealbumartard rock alive (long live rock!) and bring its legacy to the masses. Part of that quest manifests in their 2016 release “Nightingale”, which I understand is not only their debut album but won Best Hard Rock Album. While I wish they wouldn’t keep describing themselves this way as it did create some bias I feel I can get past it. Let’s dive in…

The album opens up with the eponymous song. While I see why they opened up with this song (more on that later), and it certainly has a strong Black Sabbath influence to bring in listeners, it probably wasn’t the strongest way to open. The vocals capture Ozzy’s voice very well with the way he sweeps his pitches and is atonal and his pitchiness. The rest of Thirteen captured the elements of those part of Ozzy’s solo career with simplistic composition and strong guitars. It certainly brings some atonal aspects that add some great dissonance, but it doesn’t seem to build up to anything. Tension is abound, but what should build up to a fantastic moment putters out. Based on the lyrics that focus on the speaker losing a loved one upon seeing the speaker’s dark side it may be an artistic choice to present it that way.

Leading into “In Her Mind” we get more of the same, only with more 90’s aesthetics. The song opens up with a basic drum line that’s compressed, a popular 90’s motif, along with references to femme fatale figures (Cleopatra, Medusa, etc.) and the Viper Room (while still around, the 90’s are definitely when folks remember it the most), and living fast and dangerously (which is probably why the Viper Room was referenced). I personally feel like the lyrics could have been reworked without sacrificing the rhythm structure. At times the lyrics feel a bit contrived with rhyming in order to fit this and at times the imagery suffers for it. I’ll use the example of the line “eyes like Medusa”. Are they insinuating her gaze turns people into stone? If so, how does that “see through you”? Is that how she “gets people in her mind?” The imagery doesn’t add up. Despite poorly constructed lyrics I found everything came together to provide a strong bass line that compliments the risky aspects of the song along with the rattling noise as if to suggest the “she” in the song is like a rattlesnake. I can only presume the woman in this song is the same one referenced in “Nightingale”, which is certainly an interesting aspect. I could see a different story unfolding, if that’s the case. Regardless I think folks will love this song and play it on their night out.

Next on the track is “Insanity” and it does change up the tracks up to this point. It doesn’t feel completely like 90’s hard rock and the lyrics seem to have a coherency to them to where the verses actually transition smoothly into the chorus. The minor keys add a somber tone to the lyric content of living fast combined with drug abuse. The short length of the song also adds a sense the subject of the song will soon (or is about to) hit a wall with fast lane life, whether intentional or not. One thing that I really enjoy about this is the vocalist is gritty and melodic and not forcing anything. I honestly get the feel this was easier for the vocalist to handle than trying to emulate Ozzy. There is also a great balance of guitars with the drums. The bass doesn’t overpower and the drums provide the structure that was missed in the other songs. The accents synchronize with the vocal accents resulting in stressing where the listener needs to find meaning. This is a song that not only I can foresee getting air time, but I think is more natural for Thirteen as a whole.

The album returns to the 90’s aesthetics with “El Diablo”. Guitar distortions, atonal tones, and ornamental interludes fill the song alongside demonic and dark imagery. One thing this song does which I enjoy is break away from the 90’s aesthetics with Spanish guitar even if it’s just to bookend before breaking into the 90’s theme again. I wish they did more with the Spanish elements instead of cramming it into the beginning. It felt contrived without it being more dispersed. Speaking of dispersed…

I’m not sure “I Let Go” was the right song to follow. It’s a slow, sentimental piece about missing love and possibly placed here as a juxtaposition of the wild nature of “the devil” to sentimental, tame elements of “the angel”. Ultimately it jars the pace of the album and doesn’t seem to contribute to that flow. Regardless, the song has many redeeming attributes. The acoustic aspects are very melodic and, when paired with the atonal vocals, sometime add to internal chaos felt by the speaker. While this is certainly one of the stronger pieces of the album, where one sees it start off as a rather flat piece in composition and then build into something more complex with layers of static sounds and eventually deviating from atonal to more harmonic chords, I feel like it’s missing something. I’m not quite sure what it is, though, as this is certainly another piece where I can discernibly say that is a direction Thirteen should take.

The album really deviates from everything it’s presented to the listener with “Dark Star”. Well, they keep the dark themes and tones of their music and that part works out. One sees when listening to this song why it follows the previous song: it’s down tempo and seems to follow the theme of endings. At the same time it’s hard to get behind this song as a music critic even though I personally enjoy it. The transitions are clunky at times, though the clunkiness pays off in lyrics like “to pull the trigger”. It feels like there’s supposed to be a theme and variation led by the drums, especially with the use of high hat, but I’m not sure where it leads. I also have personally a hard time with the pitch here. I’m all for atonal and singing that sounds off but isn’t, but the vocalist was trying to hit notes below his range. I could see where missing the notes could convey the idea of someone on a losing streak, but for me it was distracting.

Next up was “Time”, which was another song I felt was out of place on the album. I can see why it was included, but at the same time it didn’t fit the themes of the rest of the songs. It’s certainly a love song, one with lots of sentimental ideas presented and more major chord progressions than the other songs. It was also slightly more complex than the other songs, albeit subdued, in that the guitar riffs were slightly drowned out but still audible while everything else was simplistic. I appreciated the complex riffs but in trying to mix it with the other phrasing in the other parts made it awkward. This is one of those songs where letting each part shine will really drive the emotions behind the song.

Thirteen goes back to their similar themes and aesthetics with “Romeo’s Kiss”. At times the song reminds me of Mountain and I enjoyed that aspect. I was conflicted about this song in terms of rhythmic composition. On one hand I wanted this song to be more chaotic since we’re hearing about the perspective of a person spiraling out of control. This was encompassed well during the interlude as well. On the other hand I felt the off rhythm attributes didn’t pan out in my mind. It mostly occurred with parts where the end rhyming occurs (there is a reason I have issues with end rhyming. Part of my problem is forcing it to work with an already determined meter, and it ultimately doesn’t mesh. It’s a lose-lose situation). That said, there were some possible production issues with this song. I can’t tell if it’s my headphones but the kick drum’s levels felt like it was turned up too high during recording at times. In general it sounds like there were some difficulties with low ends on this song as it sounds really compressed or like someone hitting a mic. It’s odd as I don’t notice this anywhere else in the album prior.

Other than production deviations “Satin Doll” provides structurally something a little different. It provides no real transition between the different styles, so we get a bookend of driving guitar rhythms paired with a marching tempo then suddenly break into legato, melodious parts. At one point during the interlude these parts sort of combine but it’s still a little awkward without a transition. The lyrics are a bit better, and I personally like how it uses more ways to rhyme, such as slant rhyming and alliteration (“precious pain” followed by “love is just a game” comes to mind). The imagery, however, was still kind of weak. When I think of dolls I don’t think of them “drowning in a sea”. As a hard rock band there’s a lot of fun to be had by subverting the tough veneer with something like a doll. I personally would have tried to work that to something like “sewn up with whips and chains” or something to that effect. It still upholds much of the sexual and dangerous tension permeating the album. It also adds to the idea of the speaker going for more of the same when it comes to the female object of his desire: a figure that is somewhat femme fatale but equally damaged. As for the production I’m starting notice a bit of the same distortion issue with the drums and actually a bit of the vocals. This leads me to believe something wasn’t properly filtered during recording or levels were up too high. I’m not sure if this is some sort of artistic intention, but it comes off more as distracting from the song rather than something that adds to it.

The album ends on something of an ultimate bookend with “The Siren”, compared to the album staring off with “Nightingale”. Where the album starts off with losing a lover who couldn’t stand to see the speaker warts and all, we see something of a finale. We see everything from the album in this one song, from atonal gritty vocals to melodic tones about sexy dangerous women serving as a psychopomp through the underbelly world of the album. This is something that should have been prevalent in the entire album, or at least started off the album. It offers a lot for the listener and it keeps the hard rock influences without letting them overpower the band’s own creative forces. This is the song that delivers a punch to the eardrums that the listener thanks the band for providing.

Overall “Nightingale” is certainly a plethora of some early material. I understand the desire to bring hard rock back into music, but there is so much more for Thirteen to use than 90’s era hard rock. It has a rich history and one that is facing many challenges currently, namely with the demand for more complexity in music. I’m confident Thirteen can and will rise to that challenge. When they quit letting their influences completely dominate such as in songs like “Insanity” and “The Siren”, and possibly a bit in their songs like “Satin Doll” Thirteen delivers powerful chords tempered with melodic, yet biting lyrics. That said, Thirteen’s lyrics and composition do need some work. The composition will work out in time, again, when the band is willing to take the forefront of their own artistic image. I already see that in how they present something of a story of two (former) lovers whether intended or not and other themes of how love and risk can be intertwined. This no-bit critic will love to see how Thirteen develops their artistry and grow from here. Perhaps they’ll even spread their wings to fly like a bird.

Rating: 2.2/4

In Music, Only Credentials Matter

I wasn’t sure I wanted to blog about this topic as it was sparked by Gene Simmons’ latest stunt to trademark the devil horn gesture, as I feel my response somehow dignifies his actions.  At the same time I feel his actions, intentional or not, are something of a reflection of the current state of music.  We saw this with the burning of millions of dollars worth of punk memorabilia with much of the same response from me.  The publicity stunts provoke some thoughts as whether we’re placing our value in the right aspects of music.

While the case of the punk memorabilia was mostly about the commercialization of a counter culture that ironically stands against such ideas metal has veered more towards one of the other issues, namely with social stratification.  Where in punk there’s need to be more punk than everyone else in metal there’s a need to be more metal than others.  The ordinary metalhead manifests this with various elitism, but it ultimately boils down to being the first one to do it.  Whether it’s the first to become a Children of Bodom fan or the first to hate Dragonforce being a “true” metalhead is about setting the trend or being part of the right trend.  These comments aren’t new and can be found in any culture.

So what does this have to do with trademarking the devil horn gesture?  One of the toughest things about art is making it relevant.  When the art can’t be relevant I’ve noticed an artist will try to be relevant in other ways.  The best ways to do this are through shock value or appealing to nostalgia.  Gene Simmons is notorious for trying to be “the first” of things, and in this aspect tries to appeal to nostalgia.  I suspect in this way he wants to ensure his music was / is relevant.  Trying to trademark something closely tied to a community not only appeals to the shock value aspect but also to the sense of nostalgia by trying to cement his place in metal history.

While Gene Simmons did withdraw his trademark application (like we knew he would) the implications will live on.  I’d say it has damaged his career, but this stunt will be forgotten until the next one occurs.  The stunts will keep happening as long as the focus will be more on the image of music and less about creating music that meaningfully contributes.  How to determine what is meaningful to a community, however, is another matter.

So You’re Stuck in the Mosh Pit: a Survival Guide

If you’re like me you try to get as close to the stage as possible at concerts.  If you’re also like me you know you have to toe that line between being able to watch the show and getting sucked into the mosh pit that is always around the stage.  Sadly I have failed in maintaining that line more times than I care to admit.  I’ve also learned a few tricks on how to not get completely bruised while retreating and planning my harrowing escape.  Want to know how I do it?  I act on these strategies.

Know the mosher archetypes.  Just as there are the types of people everyone meets at a concert there are different types of moshers.  The more you understand if you’re dealing with a guy who thinks he knows karate or the guy who had too much the better you’ll manage.

Expect strange liquids.  Sometimes when threatened, especially folks like overly enthusiastic mosher, moshers will go into a frenzy and knock the drink out of someone’s hand.  Sometimes the guy who had too much decides that chucking his pisswater at the stage is the equivalent of throwing confetti.  Sometimes ignorance as to what is soaking you is the best.  Regardless of how you got wet…

Don’t leave your mouth open too long.  There’s more liquid in store.  If that’s your thing I won’t judge you too much, though.

Don’t fight against the moshers.  If you want to join the moshing, join the moshing.  Since you’re probably reading this to eventually get out of your situation you probably don’t want to try that.  If they get too close and the group is small enough just nudge offenders back into the hoard. I promise you they won’t notice.  If it’s a wall of death you may want to pray to Jesus and join the moshing.  There is no escape once you’re caught in that.

Know the moshers will eventually thin out. The guy who wants to practice karate will either get tired or folks will get tired of him.  The guy who had too much will eventually have to pee and pass out in the stall.  Some folks will leave because they only wanted to see certain bands.  Whatever the reason the crowd will get thinner and you can make your escape.

Even if these tips don’t help yu as you’re being smashed around at the concert you can take comfort in knowing that you probably aren’t alone in trying to survive the situation.  Who knows, maybe you’ll run into them and survive through solidarity.  Or you’ll get knocked around into someone who will know your pain.

Opeth Builds a World of Nostalgia and Trance

Opeth has made waves in recent albums as longtime fans noted a change in theircreative direction.  Any time Opeth is mentioned it provokes the debate of whether or not it’s for the best.  Regardless Opeth still knows how to synthesize a visually appealing aesethetic and a set list bound to appease even the most stringent fan.

I won’t deny that there is a major difference between Opeth’s older music and their newer stuff.  It’s obvious.  Their newer stuff has more pronounced jazz and rock elements and subdued more modern aspects of metal.  I feel like much of it is a nod to music from the ’70s.  Given I really enjoy music from that era I see it as a boon.  What did make it feel like a ’70s throwback were the psychedelic visuals and emphasis on red and yellow lighting.  It certainly harkens to a different period, and I question the meticulous attention to detail.  There seems to be a clear purpose in going this direction but I can’t figure out if it’s for artistic or personal preference. 

 As for their older content it stands strong in its own merit.  Ot was amazing to watch the audience dynamic go from a subtle rocking out (at least compared to the rest of the night) to the same frenzy found with the other acts.  When the older songs were played the frenzy came out.  It even led to a few hilarious moments where Mikael Åkerfeldt demonstrated just how well he can handle hecklers.  That is the first time I saw anyone handle hecklers with deft and poise.

Opeth was able to handle more than just hecklers and visuals. The set list itself was created in such a way where the audience truly gets lost in the musical experience.  It may be the answer to my earlier ramblings about why the meticulous recreation of ’70s aspects.  I’ll be honest it was just as easy for me to get lost in the moment there as it is for me to get lost in ’70s music.  It may just be about creating an experience rather than any particular aesethetic.

Whatever the reason Opeth provides powerful music tempered by melodic tones.  In doing so it provides the audience an experience that permits not only getting lost in the music but a sense of nostalgia and, for me, lots of enjoyment.

Technique- 4

Presentation-3

Audience Interaction-3

Brownie Points-0

Total-10

Gojira Brings the Chaos and the Order

I was excited when I finally saw an opportunity to catch Gojira live.  I expected a high energy performance.  I didn’t expect some of what ensued later in the show.

Gojira’s music is best described as primordial on the verge of creation.  Everything from from soft vocals (though at times too soft) to building up to frantic blast beats synthesized to bring one to the edge and back constantly.  The musical dissonance shared with frantic drumming and at times haunting, distorted harmonies adds a nuiance and energy that leads one into chaos.  This chaos, however, is the kind where rather than fear it one embraces it and joins the frenzy.  
I made the horrible mistake of wandering too far into the mosh pit and suffered the consequences.  The high energy in the songs reflected in the intense moshing and body surfing that ensued and calmed when the music calmed.  At one point I’m pretty sure the mosh pit extended the entire section before the stairs.  I’m sure the band was aware of this, as everything fit so perfectly in their performance from visual effects timed just right to convincing nearly the entire audience to put their phones away and join the chanting.  I consider that a huge feat in today’s electronic times, and it enhanced the experience.  In spite of it being chaotic it brought everyone together to each other and to the music.

Gojira puts on a show equally intense as their music.  They know how to work their audience and bring them together to take the music to another level.

Technique- 3.9

Presentation-3

Audience Interaction-3

Brownie Points-0

Total-9.9