Without Seasoned Confidence
413 · 26 December 02
Threshold: Critical Mass
My life would be considerably simpler if I could let go of things. My new passions are not, in themselves, unmanageable, but they share time with my old passions, none of which ever seem to obligingly evaporate. At best I can relegate a few of the old ones to a nervous and guilty neglect. As with CD storage, I fight delaying actions in, I guess, the hope that some heretofore unimagined solution will eventually rescuingly materialize. Or, more likely (in both cases), some heretofore oft-contemplated solution will eventually stop seeming unacceptable.
Except I'm pretty certain the solution won't be "simplify". If I can't let go of fantasy and heavy metal, arguably the first two objects of my aware tastes, then I'm sure I'm stuck with everything else and since. And, in fact, I sat through two and a half hours of The Two Towers essentially agog, in part at the effects (Peter Jackson was already one of my two nominations for directors best at incorporating special effects back when that was only based on Heavenly Creatures), but more at the sheer implausibility of anybody ever managing to translate Tolkien's intractable epic into any other compelling form. And then, in mid-meta-admiration, I fall through the last level of critical distance, once again into the story itself. Much has been made of the eternal resonances in The Lord of the Rings, of the archetypal struggle of childlike innocents against monstrous evil, and if that's what you think the books are mainly about, then maybe you think Jackson has kind of missed the point. The hobbits seem a little lost in the movies, with cataclysmic events crashing around them, the personal consequences of rising evil more dramatically visited on the other characters. Bernard Hill gets to play Théoden like a Shakespearean dream-role, Viggo Mortensen ought to be able to parlay his glowering turn as Aragorn into the rest of a very, very successful career, and even the miserable Gollum is a tour de force that probably has Pixar gnashing their teeth over how much time they blew modeling snowflake accumulation in Sully's fur. Meanwhile, Merry and Pippin spend a lot of time sitting in a tree, Sam frets, and Frodo tries gamely to do what has been asked of him. But it seems to me that this is actually exactly right. The hobbits are part of the story, of course, but if it were only an underdog fable, the books would have been a lot shorter and self-contained, the movies could have been done to everybody's satisfaction using papier-mâché, and the whole fantasy genre as we know it would probably not exist. The Hobbit was an underdog fable. The Lord of the Rings is the single greatest human work of imaginary-universe creation that hasn't been marketed as a religion. The volumes of notes and appendices and back-story exist because Tolkien knew full well that he was constructing modern literature's most elaborate domino stunt, setting up an entire sprawling history of a complexly intertwined network of societies only to then tell the story of how they were toppled and reconceived. So of course on film it has to be bigger than Braveheart and Ran and Star Wars put together. The hobbits are small because that's how we judge the scale of everything else.
And this is why fantasy and heavy metal are so often linked, as well. They are genres of scale. Scale is not a recent technological innovation, of course; there were Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments and Wagner and Beethoven and Sibelius long before CGI and overdrive, but the technology has radically changed how much scale can be expressed by how few people. It used to take a village to portray a village; now we may each have our own. Filmmaking technology has not quite reached the point where Peter Jackson can sit at a desk by himself, the way Tolkien could to write books, but we're getting close. And in music, we have long since passed the point where it takes more people to sound like more people. Heavy metal is, at its core, the logical extrapolation (and perhaps inevitable result) of amplification. What you do with this scale, however, is another question. Douglas Adams' joke metal band, Disaster Area, was merely loud, which misses the point the same way it would to try to tell The Lord of the Rings without the hobbits at all. The similarly simple-minded variations on metal currently popular in the US tend to be shouty and pummeling in what seems to me like the rather forlorn hope that this will turn out to be intrinsically provocative and interesting. I still prefer my heavy metal bands to be something in addition to heavy.
And given my general preference for strong melody in almost all other kinds of music, it's not surprising that I continue to particularly love melodic heavy metal. I loved it when I thought it meant Blue Öyster Cult and Rush, I loved it when I thought it meant Queensrÿche and Dream Theater, and on the scattered occasions when I come across another stubborn cell of adherents, I still basically love it. I feel a little bad for still loving it, like that emotional energy could be more profitably invested in Hungarian chamber music or bluegrass madrigals or something, but it doesn't seem to be a reaction I can consciously modulate. This is my sixth Threshold album. I'm not sure how much I could tell you about the differences between the other five without playing them again to remind myself, but that's fine with me: while Queensrÿche and Dream Theater have strayed, and Blue Öyster Cult and Rush have aged, Threshold have stuck to their aesthetic.
It's a simple aesthetic, in principle, however complicated to execute. Johanne James's rumbling drumming is very much from the double-bass-drum-sprint school, but he sprints gracefully, with balletic twists and stutters, always saving enough energy that he can accelerate a little more when required. Bassist Jon Jeary and guitarists Karl Groom and Nick Midson move mostly as a unit, with relatively little soloing for a metal band fond of eight-plus-minute song structures (although cf. the relatively little amount of rat in strawberry tart...). Richard West's keyboards most often supply backdrops and ambience, with the occasional short spotlight turn. Singer Andrew McDermott contributes his own legato multi-part harmonies. Groom and West's production, on computers this time, is as clearly detailed and sweeping as Oliver Philipps and Christian Moos' for Everon. When Threshold opt to thrash and spark, they do it as well as Fates Warning or Dream Theater ever did, and when they slow down and step back, they hint at lost eras of album-rock radio. "Phenomenon", the opener, leaps from grinding verses to sweetly circling choruses. The mostly-urgent "Choices" spins into half-spoken free-fall a few times, but always snaps back into gear with renewed vigor. "Falling Away" begins with diffident piano and echoey noise-drums, and McDermott plays the verses like a lullaby, but the choruses push past power-ballad melodrama. Pinging keyboards nudge parts of "Fragmentation" towards the territory of Threshold's former label-hosts IQ, and in other sections they bear striking passing resemblances to Rush, Metallica and a much-heavier Journey. Keyboard whirs in "Echoes of Life" evoke echolyn and Deep Purple, and the slow crescendo/accelerando out of the wistful instrumental break, with McDermott's sighing harmony, harkens back beyond Dream Theater toward Yes. "Round and Round" turns briefly introspective and soulful, which don't seem to me like Threshold's best modes, but "Avalon" makes a credible broad-stroke stab at an epic ballad, complete with phalanxes of fake strings, clanging piano and plodding "November Rain"-ish solo lines. To Threshold falls too, apparently, the defense of the true lineage of neo-progressive metal, which must be nearing trans-neo by now, and they oblige with the album-closing thirteen-and-a-half-minute title suite, which, depending on your perspective, exemplifies either neo-prog's electrifying ambition or its stultifying excess. But if a booklet notation like "Part Two: Fusion (instrumental)" scares you, you probably aren't listening to this album anyway, and for an hour (plus another fifteen minutes for the cheerfully more-of-the-same bonus EP) I'm an oblivious kid again, sure that that's your loss.
Lacuna Coil: Comalies
If your grasps on suspension of irony and the proper combination of solemnity and fervor for metal appreciation are shaky, you would be well-advised not to watch the short and frankly unilluminating behind-the-scenes video on the CD-ROM portion of the new Lacuna Coil album, Comalies, as the sight of three menacing metalists trying to follow along with video aerobics might well wreck your concentration for a week. This is a standard property of behind-the-scenes videos, though, and indeed a standard property of scenes. Behind Tolkien's story there was more story, but most of the time behind the story is scaffolding and a lot of people who look like they need more sleep. Somebody has to make this stuff, and those somebodies usually live in our own mundane world while their other one is being built. But we want this, if we're honest, otherwise why bother with fantasy when there's history from which to mine stories? Watching the battle scenes in The Two Towers is a fundamentally different experience than watching the superficially similar scenes in Braveheart. The events depicted in Braveheart are nominally real, but this makes the depiction of them merely visceral. If the battles happened, and happened that way, then there's little to do but cringe at them. People fight. They aspire to glory, and end up with axes in their heads. There is philosophical content in the contexts that gave rise to the battles, but once a battle is joined, it becomes self-contained and amoral. Worse, actually: there were real people on both sides, but in Braveheart one side is anonymous and thus dehumanized, so that the other can be heroic. In The Two Towers, conversely, where the battles are imaginary, the philosophical content is real and pervasive. The anonymous horde is precisely an anonymous horde, and thus every blow struck, in either direction, is meaningful.
And thus, as well, the more stylized metal's violence, generally the more I enjoy it. Comalies (pronounced like "normalize", not "homilies") is the third full album by Italian gothic-metal sextet Lacuna Coil, and if Jackson's trilogy had been made as silent films decades ago, this is quite possibly the music some over-literal studio exec would have wanted to graft on for the reissue. That would have been wrong, as grindingly operatic metal would have emphasized the distance between us and the screen, and called attention to the modern artifices on it, right when we're trying to look through them. Taken together the films and this album would tend to cancel each other out, but one at a time they are close parallels. Unlike with Nightwish, where Tarja Turunen is clearly in charge of the proceedings, in Lacuna Coil Cristina Scabbia's fluttery voice always sounds overwhelmed to me, especially in contrast with Andrea Ferro's confident growl. Scabbia's is the hobbits' part, approximately, with Ferro as Aragorn and the rest of the dense, dark arrangements mirroring Saruman's armies and Mordor's malevolent eye. The analogy doesn't go quite that far, truthfully, as the lines between dark beauty and gruesome ugliness are drawn much more thickly in Jackson's visual system than Lacuna Coil draw them in music, but to me they do share underlying conflicts. And Lacuna Coil are complicit in any reduction of their music to background, I think, as it seems to be consciously constructed that way, slab-like chord-changes executed without leads, melodies meticulously tracing carefully-laid patterns (and when is somebody going to do the movie of Amber, anyway?), choruses invariably deliberate and structured. Not only is this LoTR-like music, it's specifically The Two Towers-like music, songs for middle chapters, when we're too far in to mistake minor triumphs for conclusiveness, but not close enough to the end for even the big victories to be trusted. These are songs for the Nazgul circling overhead, and the sun never quite rising, and black gates slowly swinging open to disgorge new troops. And if you aren't a fantasy person, by nature, but are watching The Lord of the Rings anyway, then don't assume you're right about everything else you think you couldn't like.
In Flames: Reroute to Remain
But if you're thinking about tentatively straying into the outer fringes of metal, be warned that unless your local record store's rack layout is directly modeled on the circles of Hell, the outer and inner fringes of metal may be a little tricky to tell apart. Lacuna Coil seem to me to have accessible potential, especially if you're young enough to not predate distortion. In Flames are much less likely to be the subject of any crossover epiphanies. If anything, Reroute to Remain, their sixth-or-so studio album, is even less approachable than 2000's Clayman, faster and rougher and more brutal. The central stylistic elements are the same, Andres Fridén's raspy shouting largely participating as a part of the rhythm section while the guitars and keyboards handle melodic motivation, but this time around the band's exuberance feels more primal, to me, more intent on headbanging to the exclusion of any other stray impulses. Perhaps they have opted to treat last year's live album as a chapter marker, and this is a new half-beginning. I suspect I don't know nearly enough about the workings of these scenes to know what this might be a reaction to, if anything, but phrased in terms of my listening context, Reroute to Remain could pretty easily be the product of In Flames' aversion, on one hand, to the overwrought bombast of symphonic metal à la Nightwish and Stratovarius, and on other to the claustrophobic murk of hardcore black metal. Their retreat takes them back in the direction of simpler and heavier metal, and at points this album reminds me vividly of Metal Church, one of my favorite metal bands that more or less stayed out of subgenres ("Egonomic" is especially "Date With Poverty"-ish, and surely would have gotten In Flames on Headbanger's Ball if it were still on). The Metallica and Megadeth influences are worn proudly, as is a kind of swagger left over from NWoBH, when metal bands still understood how to go about a fun thing seriously. Metal and punk have not always been enemies, and not in many years, but In Flames are one of the very rare bands, it seems to me, who still remember what was important to both, and still sound excited about it. And it would be one thing if they were just a metal band catering to their limitations, but then there's "Metaphor", and the album steps out of character for three and a half minutes to spin unhurriedly through a sort of Celtic folk-lament, keyed by Fiol-Olof's slithery violin, twangily finger-picked guitars (weirdly reminiscent of the Breeders' "Cannonball"), Maria Gauffin's evanescent backing vocals and Fridén trying, for once, to get through an entire song without screaming. So apparently In Flames have the capacity for crossovers, after all. And then they rip into the writhing "Black & White", and the paths are closed and anything that hasn't crossed over already will die where it stands.
Into Eternity: Dead or Dreaming
Even if you like heavy metal, I don't recommend random purchasing as a new-music exposure strategy, but that doesn't mean I don't do it myself. Century Media spit out a glob of new metal records a couple months ago, when I was exactly in the mood for ichors, so I decided to take the fact that I didn't know any of the bands as an encouraging sign. A couple hours quickly restored my faith in my existing knowledge. The one survivor from the resulting purge is this silly-looking record by Into Eternity, who turn out to have sprung from the fertile heavy-metal soil of Saskatchewan, Canada. In the same spirit with which I warn you not to watch the Lacuna Coil video, I highly recommend that you do not visit Into Eternity's web site, particularly not the hysterical and grammar-error-riddled History page, and extra-particularly not everything before and after the assertion "Anyone who loves music can clearly see this."
What anyone who loves music can clearly see, I think, is that bands formed away from the turf boundaries and fine distinctions of major-city scenes are often forced to devise their own rules. This is a rather grand way of stating the observation that kids from small towns end up with especially strange record collections because there's nobody around for them to curry favor with by biasing their professed tastes in any particular direction. And if they form bands, their bands often follow suit, crossing lines they simply don't know about. This doesn't necessarily make them innovative, but at least they usually aren't cynical about it. Sloan, circa their first two or three albums, are the quintessential example of this, for me, and Into Eternity could well be their counterparts in Canadian metal. Dead or Dreaming is their second album, but they still sound thrillingly oblivious as they bounce from borrowed mannerism to borrowed mannerism. They've heard some death metal, but nobody explained to them that you're not allowed to put shiny synth-hooks in the middle of a grunted rant. They learned a bunch of neo-classical Stratovarius guitar solos from secondhand guitar magazines, but somebody had ripped out the sidebar about how to fit them into songs so they don't protrude goofily. An older brother emailed them some mp3s he got at college, but forgot to put dates on them, so they grew up thinking 80s Euro-metal was kind of still happening. They missed the chapter about using classical guitar and choirs in metal (use them on exactly one song on the album, or at least five), nobody told them they had to pick one singer, nobody pointed out to them which were the bad Sabbath albums, and nobody hinted that writing their first four albums-worth of lyrics during a single manic study-hall might be anything other than good planning. So their record is a chaotic, juvenile mess.
It's a vivid and rather obtusely endearing mess, though. Youth is chaotic, and metal lends itself to juvenile sentiments admirably, and you don't really mean that you don't care what kids think, right? Dead or Dreaming is a record of every flavor of metal all at once, and purists may sputter, like wine snobs trying to explain what's wrong with red Mountain Dew, but I remember what it felt like to think Blue Öyster Cult and Black Sabbath basically played the same kind of music, so accepting the idea that Metallica, Fates Warning, Opeth, Motörhead, Savatage, Cannibal Corpse, Yngwie Malmsteen and Loverboy are peers doesn't pose me any notable difficulty. Into Eternity careen from subgenre to subgenre like a minivan crossing a salt flat with a cartoon karate-fight going on inside, and at many transitions I feel like I can see the members' silhouettes stamped into the van walls as they are flung against them. I can't imagine this will last. They'll streamline, or fragment. They'll grow up or apart. Even if they tried to make another album just like this, it wouldn't work. Simulated naïveté is never the same. The hobbits may be innocent, but we're not. We've seen too many other wars, evil in too many more-familiar guises. But at least we can watch, and maybe remember what it used to feel like. The stories are retold, however muddled, and we can either grouse at the inaccuracies, compiling our catalogs of how it really was, or else we can shut up and let the new story belong to the new teller, and maybe get a glimpse of how it is.