Making Metal is ‘Risky’ Business

Last month, I read an opinion piece on Metalsucks about risking-taking in music. Immediately sceptical, given how broad the concept of ‘risk-taking’ is, I read on to have my suspicions confirmed. The author, ‘Vince Neilstein’, struggled to outline what exactly he meant by ‘risk-taking’, nor did he apply the term consistently with his own loose definition. According to Neilstein, we will ‘never see another Metallica’, and the days of sprawling creative statements such as The Beatles’ The White Album and Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti achieving mainstream success are over. He goes further and suggests that these records are examples of ‘oddball’ left turns in the context of their respective careers. From this we can deduce that he means to suggest that mainstream artists no longer make these sort of creatively challenging statements, at least as it pertains to their own musical history.

Whilst I agree that these two albums are brilliant examples of forward thinking music, I disagree with the notion that either of them constitutes an ‘oddball left turn’. Both The White Album and Physical Graffiti are the result of a very clear musical progression through years of fine-tuning their respective craft. In fact, The White Album was directly preceded by Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts’ Club Band, often cited as the first concept album ever written. Likewise, the precursor to Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti is Houses of the Holy, often cited as a turning point in the bands career towards more richly layered, expansive song-writing. I cannot understand, given these facts, how he can possibly assert that either The White Album or Physical Graffiti are in any way surprising. The Beatles in particular had been experimenting with different instruments and more complex song-writing as far back as Rubber Soul (‘Norwegian Wood’ features the use of an Indian sitar). So, the idea that either of these albums came out of nowhere is ridiculous, but we can still analyse his claims as they relate to modern music (specifically, Lamb of God and Mastodon).

In the opinion piece, Neilstein looks at a number of prominent modern metal acts and how their latest releases reflect a tendency to either play it safe or ‘take risks’. The first example he brings to the table is Lamb of God, whom he claims, ‘Have basically written the same album every time since As the Palaces Burn with varying production aesthetics’. Given that the following album, Ashes of the Wake, represents what is often considered their definitive musical statement, I find it hard to agree with this suggestion. It is true that Lamb of God has never thrown us a real curveball, but much like The Beatles and Led Zeppelin, they have matured their sound with each successive release. Ashes of the Wake represents a more conscious move towards groove and thrash metal, whilst also introducing more frequent solos. Wrath introduces more expansive song-writing, highlighted by the slow-burn epic that is ‘Reclamation’, which uses acoustic guitars to contrast with the brutal crescendo. Even the relatively lack-lustre Resolution has ‘Insurrection’ and ‘King Me’, both of which make use of clean vocals. The latter of which, ‘King Me’, even features the use of strings.

Does this equate to ‘risk-taking’, though? Lamb of God has been incredibly influential in the emergence of the ‘New Wave of American Heavy Metal’, with Ashes of the Wake now regarded as a metal classic of the 21st century. Though it is hard to think of Lamb of God as ‘risky’ now, pioneering a movement never assures success; many of their contemporaries have fallen by the wayside, having either stalled or disappeared completely throughout the last decade. Having stayed one step ahead of their many imitators, they have forged a legacy that will surely go down in the history of modern American metal. If The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, or Lamb of God are to be seen as ‘risky’, it is not in relation to their own back-catalogue, but their place in the current musical landscape.

Of course, that is not always the case. Another example Neilstein puts forward in an attempt to illustrate his claim is Mastodon, progressive sludge metal giants known for reshaping their sound with each release. In this sense, Mastodon seem to fit his interpretation of ‘risk-taking’, as their 2012 release, The Hunter, represents a completely about turn from 2009’s Crack the Skye. Not today; Neilstein sees The Hunter as little more than a compact version of their pre-existing sound, and therefore does not constitute ‘risk’. No, what Neilstein wants is an even proggier Crack the Skye. The Hunter may be Mastodon’s version of a pop album, but given that they are Mastodon, it is without a doubt far riskier than simply giving the fans (Neilstein included) what they want: more insane prog-sludge. We seem to have a completely different definition of ‘risk-taking’ for Lamb of God as we do Mastodon, which completely undermines the point of the article. However, since Mastodon decided to release Once More ‘Round the Sun, which is essentially The Hunter Part II: The Rehuntening, perhaps Neilstein could see the horror that was to come. Let’s hope they pick their game up the next time around.

There are many more examples I could pick apart in excruciating detail, including the declaration that Avenged Sevenfold’s Hail the King was risky (only in the sense that Metallica might sue), but I would be here all day. The reality of the matter is that there are many successful 21st century bands with the capacity to make interesting music which pushes the boundaries of the heavy metal genre; Mastodon, despite dropping the ball with Once More…, has shown they really have no limitations when it comes to writing a good tune; Lamb of God are the most important groove metal band since Pantera. These are just two examples of innovative metal bands finding mainstream success today. Whilst they may not be as successful as Metallica, the notion that it may never happen again is stupendous. Heavy metal is young, and more than enough forward-thinking bands are lining up to take their place.