Mastodon made their new record available online a week before it’s official release. I love Mastodon – the band, not the extinct elephant-like mammal – but I was nervous about their new music. I had heard one of the new songs when it was leaked online a month ago, and I hated it. My fear of how bad the rest of the album might be was trumped by my love of free stuff, so I gave it a listen.
I won’t get into the specifics of my review because 1) I’m guessing you don’t care about Mastodon (band or animal) and 2) my friend, Sean, and I are planning to start a metal-themed podcast – yes, I’m expanding my media empire – and discussing our opinions of the new Mastodon release is slated for the first episode.
I will say that a significant part of my evaluation of any new metal album is to compare it to the band’s prior releases: does it represent an evolution in their sound while at the same time remaining true to their original artistic vision? If that sounds like a conundrum, you’re correct. Those are darn near mutually exclusive ideas. It’s not easy to live up to my expectations. With fans like me, metal bands don’t need any haters. Whenever a metal band releases their next album, I, along with many other metal heads, sort the new offering into one of four categories:
- Improving on a Rough Draft
This is the sweet spot, when that band you loved from their debut release puts out a second record that makes you want to shout, “I didn’t think it could get any better!” Metallica’s first three albums are an example of a steady progression of improving on the sound they created. They added layers, complexity, continually honing the production to a surgical precision. Brutal bliss.
- Releasing the Same Album Again
AC/DC* has released two albums: The one with Bon Scott singing, and the one with Brian Johnson singing. The former they released six times. The latter nine times. Slayer had a period of improving on a rough draft before they settled into, for the most part, putting out another ten songs that sounded pretty much the same album after album. This strategy can work if it’s a really good record, but it’s a risky proposition. Most bands aren’t AC/DC or Slayer.
- Losing the Magic
After thrash metal greats Exodus released the amazing Fabulous Disaster album in 1989, they followed it up with Impact is Imminent in 1990. I’m still waiting for the impact. I fell asleep listening to it. For some reason, the songs were lifeless. The band has released many records since, and some have been quite good, but that moment when a band loses the magic that taps into your musical soul is tough for a fan. I wanted to love it, but there was nothing there to love.
On the other hand, some bands don’t lose the magic; they have actually chosen to make their music more less listenable. They decide that they were far too popular or that their music was too mainstream, so they make the music more dissonant or atonal or otherwise challenging. It doesn’t make for a good business model, but those bands tend to be asocial misfits who aren’t looking to expand their circle of friends. It’s very metal to be obscure.
- Selling Out
Changing your style to appeal to a broader audience is the biggest sin you can commit as a metal artist. After Metallica provided a wonderful example of improving on a rough draft for several albums, they released their fourth, known as The Black Album. It’s also known as the sell out album. They went on to reign as the most financially successful metal band for many years, but they’ve contributed nothing of significance to the genre since. Metallica broke my heart.
If you are a metal head, you think about this stuff a lot. What about you? If you are a lover of some genre of music other than heavy metal, do you obsess over the musical evolution of your favorite artists? Does it matter if Katy Perry releases the same record over and over? Do you want Blake Shelton to show some musical growth on his new album? Do you dread the day when your favorite band will sell-out? Do you discuss these issues with your friends…at length? Let me know your thoughts. If you have something interesting to contribute, I’ll share it on the podcast. Stay tuned.
*As I explain at some length in my latest book, AC/DC is not a metal band, but they illustrate the “releasing the same album” point perfectly.