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Yesterday, on a listserv that was clogged with lots of hand-wringing about indie rock, someone pointed out that today’s alt-metal is analogous to the guitar-centric indie music of yesteryear, something that I’ve been saying since indie rock gave up on the guitar.
All of this coincided with an e-mail exchange I was having with a friend and math-rock vet about the state of heavy metal.
This is what I wrote:
Yeah, well, when I got into this stuff in earnest, in the late ’90s, it was because, in my opionion, indie kids had given up on the guitar. I mean, sure, the big bands still play guitars, but they weren’t USING them. I mean, [Polvo‘s] Ash Bowie used to listen to Mahavishnu [Orchestra] records, for cryin’ out loud.
So, I like metal inasmuch as it amazes me. And that’s not always because it’s complex. [Jesu‘s Justin] Broadrick amazes me because he makes rock sound so epic. Baroness makes me laugh and scratch my head in equal measure.
I don’t think that indie rock has come back to the guitar, but I think that a lot of bands have figured out how to make the genre interesting again. I’m loving the new Celebration record.
But a band like Baroness is still my ideal in terms of what I want a ROCK-QUA-ROCK band to sound like. Call it ‘metal’ or ‘cock rock’ or whatever. It doesn’t matter to me. I just want to hear people doing funny, amazing, heroic things with the guitar.
A little bit of research suggests that folks jumped ship in the late-’90s because of grunge—context that wasn’t altogether explicit at the time. In a vintage interview with Tim Ross’ excellent Tuba Frenzy, Battles‘ Ian Williams talked a bit about this phenomenon:
“It [meaning Williams’ abstract playing in Storm & Stress] might have something to do with grunge and the victory of the loud guitar. There are pretty diminishing returns now with playing loud rock in a 200 capacity club when Bush or whoever does it on MTV to millions. Those claims of being authentic bore people after a while and they start staying home to watch The X Files or going to rockabilly shows which obviously could care less about being real.”
Grunge, after all, was the stuff that inspired Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto to sing, on 1995’s Red Medicine, “I hate the sound of guitars.”
So did Tortoise and all of those folks who proclaimed the death of hard rock. It didn’t die, though, it just went further underground. And the stuff that didn’t—the Arcade Fires and whatever Zach Braff likes—has very little in common with the Polvos and Bitch Magnets of yesteryear.
Here’s a list of my favorite 2007 records by bands that still love the sound of guitar (with links to my writing or other WCP writing where available):
1) Jesu “Conqueror” (Hydra Head) 2) Baroness “The Red Album” (Relapse) 3) Neurosis “Given to the Rising” (Neurot) 4) The End “Elementary” (Relapse) 5) Om “Pilgrimage” (Southern Lord) 6) Austerity Program “Black Madonna” (Hydra Head) 7) Earthless “Rhythms From a Cosmic Sky” (Tee Pee) Eight) Rwake “Voices of Omens” (Relapse) 9) Witchcraft “The Alchemist” (Rise Above) 10) Torche “In Return” (Robotic Empire) 11) Weedeater “God Luck And Good Speed” (Southern Lord) 12) Asunder “Works Will Come Undone” (Profound Lore) 13) Titan “A Raining Sun of Light and Love, For You and You and You” (Tee Pee) 14) Pig Destroyer “Phantom Limb” (Relapse) 15) Pelican “City of Echoes” (Hydra Head) 16) Deathspell Omega “Fas – Ite, Maledicti, in Ignem Aeternum” (Ajna Offensive) 17) A Life Once Lost “Iron Gag” (Ferret) 18) Watain “Sworn to the Dark” (Season of Mist) 19) The Red Chord “Prey for Eyes” (Metal Blade) 20) Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound “Ekranoplan” (Tee Pee)