Monday, September 29, 2008

The Post-Post-Metal Post

Full disclosure: I don't care that much anymore for "post-rock" and "post-metal." I'm over it. You might call me "post-post-metal." It's no fun going into a review knowing full well that you'll be bored by what you hear just on principle, so when this post was first envisioned, I wanted to review three recent records in the umbrella "post-rock/post-metal" subgenre as if I were still in high school, still genuinely excited by Slint and Mogwai and Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Isis and the spirituality that I thought they were bringing to rock and metal. But the more I listened, the more I realized that rewinding my viewpoint wasn't going to help. The problem isn't that I've changed -- it's that so much of the post-whatever subgenre hasn't. What have Rosetta, Mono, Red Sparowes and Tides done to change our understanding of music beyond what we already learned from Young Team, Times of Grace and Oceanic?

Old Stories (Cavity Records, 2008), by the Iowan instrumental quintet Giants, actually saddens me. It's a well-produced disc, its three guitars rippling through the surface of the music in a tidal pool of reverb, distanced just so to create the illusion of depth. The gorgeous artwork and sea-themed song titles ("Vessels," "O'Tide," "Fisherman's Prayer," "At Last, Ashore") summon wide-open, watery vistas.

Giants - "O' Tide"

But that expansiveness, so refreshing in the hands of Mogwai and Explosions In the Sky, just feels lazy and copy/pasted here; there's no fire, no tension, no resonance, just pretty liquid guitar tones and steady-rolling cymbal washes like we've heard dozens of times before. Well-rehearsed post-rock moves and surface beauty can't hide the redundancy of Old Stories. Even their name is borrowed (unintentionally, we assume) from a better "post" band, North Carolina's Giant.

Some day Neurosis will release a career-spanning disc of B-sides and songs that didn't quite make any albums proper, and it'll sound a lot like Mouth of the Architect's third full-length Quietly (Translation Loss, 2008). That's not necessarily a condemnation of the Ohio band, which generates the requisite atmospheric sturm and crushing drang to sustain the obvious comparison without embarrassment. But momentum gets the better of stamina on Quietly, and with the exception of the intriguing carnival stomp of "Guilt and the Like" and taut trance of "Rocking Chairs and Shotguns," these particular tectonic plates stop shifting before album's end.

Mouth of the Architect - "Rocking Chairs and Shotguns"

Kudos to Mouth of the Architect for its dynamic rhythm section, which keeps their head-nod epics from devolving into complete snoozefests (that MOTA has used Intronaut bassist Joe Lester on tour should tell ya something). Removal of kudos for under-using Made Out of Babies/Battle of Mice singer Julie Christmas and mis-casting her as a wounded puppy on "Generations of Ghosts." But the main issue here is, again, redundancy. On its own terms, Quietly is a decent post-metal disc. Given the competition, "RIYL Neurosis and Isis" sticker status just isn't good enough for me.

I can get behind What You Were (Cavity Records, 2008), the third album by Arizona's North. If ever you've thought that Pelican would be way more engaging with a dudeman hollering over the triumphant peaks and valleys of their songs (I have), this might appeal -- vocalist Kyle Hardy's monochrome gut-scream gives North an admonishing edge to rough up the pretty riff-doilies surrounding that patented Peli-chug.

North - "Eidolon"

On What You Were, North never forget that they're a metal band, which saves this one from the post-metal recycling bin. The soupy stuff gently laps at each track's shore without defining it; riffs are building blocks rather than end points. North are supple in their Isis worship, like some giant casually juggling the Stonehenge monoliths. Guitars get sucked into bottom-heavy dark matter, during both destructive bits and the uplifting chord changes of "Veiled In Light." Outside of the album's crude lyrical conceit about ghosts and memories, there's minimal reliance on post-metal's introverted romance to What You Were; even the mellow of the hazy final track "Reflections" is totally harshed by Hardy's bark. All of your typical post-metal tropes, contorted just so with the aggression turned up a notch.

Post-Post-Metal Post Postlude: Innovation is far from the only criteria, or even the most important criteria, in my enjoyment of music. I'll happily listen to bands that sound like Morbid Angel, Immolation or Gorguts without slagging them for doing nothing for death metal. So why can't I do the same for post-metal? I'm drawn to metal that tempers the visceral with a little bit of the cerebral, and generally turned off when a band concentrates on head-nodding at the expense of head-banging. The best post-metal reaches ambitious emotional and structural plateaus; most recycle genre clichés in hopes of getting there. The ambient interludes and tremolo guitar doused in reverb. The long-term crescendo. The screaming-defiantly-at-the-top-of-a-mountain moment as the only emotional high-point worth surmounting. These tools aren't bankrupt per se, but they are mere tools, and far too often mistaken for the entire message. The same goes for metalcore breakdowns, black metal corpsepaint and any other genre signifier of course, but there is an inherent pompousness to post-metal that makes mediocrity within the genre even more unforgivable. Sloppy death metal can be charming. Shitty post-metal is just shitty. 

And now, I step down from my soapbox. May we all be favorably compared to our heroes. 


Helm said...

Well put, on the whole. I think Post-metal overstayed its welcome most of all because it's a very powerful paradox. Heavy Metal lives on heavy-handed meaning, defined juxtapositions between the lower, primal atavism and higher spheres of existentialism and romanticism. Strong and complex emotion about specific things, no matter how stupid or simple they may appear on the surface. From slit-your-guts lowbrow death metal to cosmic-game-of-chess pompous progressive metal.

Post- as a term used in art is when one utilizes the tools of a form (in the case of HM, loud, distorted guitars, often extreme vocals and double-bass percussion) to wildily depart and even often do the opposite of what the form was initially made to do. And that's what we got. Thunderous music about vagueness, often nothing in particular, just an excuse to play the jangly riffs and throw a pretty cover on the thing and call it done.

(if Neurosis doesn't seem to fit this description, it is because they were never 'post metal'. All their music very clearly always meant stuff, real and fervently believed by the people in the band.)

So once the surprise of hearing "HM turned on itself" faded away, people started noticing that behind the waves of crescendoes and lush guitars, there really wasn't much to feel. The lack of message IS the message in this sort of music. This bodes well with hipsters who desire their music to be like this welcoming open vehicle on which they get to ejaculate their own experience without much in the way of resistance, but it doesn't work so much for Heavy Metal fans that are used to, and still yearn for some sort of communication, some sort of lucid discussion between what they feel and what the artist precisely wants to communicate.

Also, post-metal is not only uninspiring and asinine like that, it is also very easy to play and very easy to copy.

So this sort of music is slowly going out of favour. Oh well.

Etan said...

Helm - an excellent analysis, as usual. It's the seeming nebulousness of the intent behind post-metal, rather than just the music itself, that turns me off. Your point about Neurosis is right on. Lumping them into the "post-metal" category never seemed quite right to me, not only because they pre-dated the subgenre's other heavyweights by a good decade, but because even at their least inspired, I get a sense of why they're doing what they're doing.

There are still bands you might consider "post-metal" that move me, but they're typically not taking the "HM turning on itself" approach that you describe.

Helm said...

I have a guilty love for the first Tides EP although it's 100% what I'm talking about.

Also, since I don't see many comments I have to encourage you: I really like the blog and read it lots. Your points below about the 'maximalist' sort of music like Mr. Bungle did were right on as well. Whereas we don't agree on taste all the time (eh, I never expect this to happen) your thought process and writing make the blog very worthwhile. Thanks for writing!