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Rock criticism has been considered inscrutable at least since Lester Bangs first wiped Romilar drool off his typewriter keys. But is it getting worse? That’s what National Public Radio Ombudsman Jeffrey A. Dvorkin seems to think: In a recent online column on All Things Considered’s reviews of albums by Wilco, the Magnetic Fields, and Morrissey, Dvorkin writes that some irritated listeners find the show’s rock coverage to be “arch” and “bordering on a parody of ‘intellectual’ music criticism.” The former news journalist does not disagree. In fact, Dvorkin opines that these reviews probably make many feel like “cultural outsiders.”
Granted, Dvorkin is writing only about rock criticism that appeared on NPR, but the scribes quoted in his column don’t exist in a vacuum. In fact, Tom Moon, who wrote two of the three reviews in question, is on the staff at the Philadelphia Inquirer—not an underground publication by any means. And the reviews themselves, though densely descriptive, are hardly abstruse. Here’s, for example, Moon’s “off-putting” description of the fretwork on Wilco’s latest, A Ghost Is Born: “The guitar isn’t here to make things pretty. Tweedy uses savage, wild lunges to punctuate the verses and sometimes to inject a little danger into otherwise lovely songs.”
The problem isn’t that this kind of rock writing is for the music-scene elite. The problem—for the incurious, at least—is that rock as a genre has become far too hyphenated, hybridized, and fragmented for uncomplicated assessments. Dvorkin begins the column by stating that music journalism should make “the unfamiliar more comprehensible”—no argument here—but then trumps that idea by asking rock critics simply to convey an enjoyment of the music. Of course, it’s never that easy.
Take the case of New Jersey’s Dillinger Escape Plan, a critically lauded punk-metal act (see?) that’s anything but accessible. Dillinger’s excellent debut, 1999’s Calculating Infinity, is a virtuosic freak show, with every verse, chorus, and bridge seemingly composed to test the limits of the group’s physical endurance. The brutish quintet is, however, quite popular despite—or perhaps because of—its muso proclivities: According to its label, Calculating has sold more than 100,000 copies.
The band is clearly something of a phenomenon, yet Calculating is difficult to describe in a way that wouldn’t alienate the average NPR listener. After all, it ain’t no Meet the Beatles. Heck, it ain’t even no Stooges or Black Sabbath. And Miss Machine, Dillinger’s five-years-in-the-making follow-up, is only slightly easier on the ears. The new album—which sold a populist 11,392 copies its first week of release—explodes out of the gate: Fast-paced opening cuts “Panasonic Youth” and “Sunshine the Werewolf” sound like outtakes from the first disc, saturated as they are with screamed vocals, recondite time signatures, and guitar-shop heroics.
There is a difference, though: Whereas original Dillinger vocalist Dimitri Minakakis delivered lines with all the nuance of a drill sergeant (favorite lyric: “Eat shit, you earned it”), new frontman and bodybuilding enthusiast Greg Puciato actually sings from time to time—a good thing, too, because his tough-guy voice is often reminiscent of Howard Dean’s infamous scream speech. “Setting Fire to Sleeping Giants” slows Machine to Clear Channel–ready midtempo, giving Puciato a chance to test his modern-rock croon: “Ooh, baby, gnaw me down to the bone/Soon you’ll find I’m never gonna take you back home.” And the autumnal, hippie-rock section of “Baby’s First Coffin” shows that the man can vocalize like a choir boy when he’s not competing against a wall of distorted six-strings.
But the singer is hardly the only one making gestures toward the mainstream. Throughout Machine, Dillinger’s instrumentalists contrast their trademark outbursts of mathematical spazz with more conventional hooks (most notably on “Highway Robbery” and “We Are the Storm”). And several tracks find the band adopting the kind of sleazy, generic techno that’s forever rattling speakers in vampire-flick raves (for instance, “Phone Home” and “Unretrofied”).
Love them or hate them, though, there’s nothing simple about Machine’s machinations. Few other bands, if any, would dare follow up a checkbook-expanding singalong with a riff guaranteed to give Sun Ra a migraine. And those first two tracks really are the most brutal six-and-a-half minutes ever to flirt with the mainstream. But the record is ultimately braver than it is cohesive. It sports some exciting progressive metal as well as some convincing commercial rock, though Dillinger never manages to reconcile both within the same song. Deeply divided and deeply flawed, Miss Machine is going to make a lot of people feel like cultural outsiders, no matter how many music writers try to make it comprehensible. And that’s a better sign than most that rock music is still doing something right, even if rock criticism isn’t.
Bay Area sextet Neurosis is best known for playing a more linear brand of metal, but the group’s music is no less complex for it. Formed some two decades back, Neurosis began its career among the shaved-head-and-combat-boot set, drawing inspiration from obscure anarcho-punk bands such as Amebix and Rudimentary Peni. (Ask to hear either at your friendly neighborhood squat.) By the mid-’90s, however, Neurosis’ sound had evolved away from its punk beginnings and hardened into sui generis trance metal, a macho-intelligent style that arguably peaked with the band’s best-selling record, 1996’s Through Silver in Blood.
Subsequent albums, 1999’s Times of Grace and 2001’s A Sun That Never Sets, maintained Silver’s psychedelic aggressiveness, but not its dependence on the riff writ large. And, as any 16-year-old with a knockoff Stratocaster can tell you, where there’s no riff, there’s no metal, a truth apparent on Neurosis’ folklike latest, The Eye of Every Storm. True, Neurosis hasn’t totally abandoned unhealthy volume levels. But the band has never been more focused on lyrics and vocals. The latter are mainly handled by guitarist Steve Von Till, a bearded hulk of a man who once screamed his way through songs and now intones them with all the craggy gravitas of a Howlin’ Wolf or Blind Willie Johnson.
Now, old blues references might sound comforting to some NPR letter-writers, but Von Till’s heavy-vibe lyrics tend to outblues most bluesmen: “We were left clawing at the sky,” he whispers on the largely acoustic “I Can See You.” “In the dirt we pray for God to bring you back again.” And that’s on the album’s quietest, mellowest cut. Elsewhere, the frontman’s imagery ventures into grindhouse territory: “I came to a pile of ashes,” he croaks on “A Season in the Sky,” “and sifted through it looking for teeth.”
As extreme as it is lyrically, though, the album is relatively restrained musically. On the Eye-opening “Burn,” a lonesome fast moment on a ballad-slow disc, Von Till and guitarist-vocalist Scott Kelly concern themselves with melodies and little else, frugally doling out notes as if there were only two guitar strings between them. “Left to Wander” flirts with the classic Neurosis dynamic of quiet verses and louder-than-creation choruses, but even it sounds suspiciously like church music. And the nearly 12-minute title track is most distinguished by a four-minute midsection that is all but a cappella: After the guitars and drums collapse, Von Till is left to stretch syllables to near-infinity over pulses of synthesized machine rhythms. You want blues? Try these: “I run with the starlight/To the end.”
The Eye of Every Storm is without a doubt the kindest, gentlest Neurosis record so far, and not only brave, but cohesive, too. Yet it’s still nothing that Dvorkin would find scrutable. That’s because it’s most notable for what it isn’t: It’s a metal record that seldom sounds like one—a metal record on which the heaviest moments have nothing to do with riffs or even guitars. Never mind the folks who can’t wrap their brains around a discussion of Wilco, the Magnetic Fields, or Morrissey—that’s a tough sell to the OZZfest crowd.CP