Sunday, December 12, 2010
Jeff Wagner's "Mean Deviation: Four Decades of Progressive Heavy Metal"
Bazillion Points add to their astounding track record with this extensive review of one of the more misunderstood metal sub-genres by Jeff Wagner. I picked it up a week ago and it arrived yesterday. I read it in a day, which isn't to suggest that it's a sparse volume. At 364 pages, it's actually pretty thorough examination of the origins of the form and the various global 'scenes' of progressive metal that occurred during the late '80s and '90s. It avoids the usual pitfall of devolving in an A to Z buyer/collector's guide, however this leads to its chief flaw.
Jeff Wagner's very serious about his examination of this sub-genre. His one interview with John Arch of Fates Warning (which still can be found on FatesWarning.com I think) was the first piece of Heavy Metal journalism I looked up to. He has an understanding and a love for "Awaken the Guardian" that touched me. I learned a lot from that interview and held Jeff Wagner in high regard since. The problem is that the book doesn't tackle what progressive metal is in social and cultural terms. It's a bit closed up in the introspective metalhead box, talking to the initiated. It doesn't aknowledge the outside forces that pushed Heavy Metal music towards embracing modernism and humanism for that brief period. I would have considered that aspect perhaps outside the bounds of the book if it was more of the familiar A to Z collector mold, but as a thorough treatise on the essence of progressive metal it is sadly spent on quotes from the musicians themselves that fail to express what exactly progressive music might be. Which is to be expected because most musicians are engaged in the art of making art, not in the practice of musicology and the study of culture from an outside point of view. I have had similar concerns with the documentary "Metal: A Headbanger's Journey" also.
I don't know what that tells about myself or Jeff, but I didn't learn much new about bands I might have overlooked from this book (aside from Xysma and Hieronymus Bosch that is!). Perhaps this suggests the field of progressive metal has mostly been explored, save for the furthest reaches of the obscurantist underground. The useful distinction that the book draws between 'Progressive' and 'progressive' types of music (the capitalized form being the name of an established and conservative genre and the latter being music that embodies the spirit of progress) is explored to some degree but I wanted more, heh. These are small shames as I doubt there'll ever be a follow-up benefiting by such rigorous research on this subject, it's too niche.
If I'm making it sound like it's a bad book, it is not. It's a great introduction to a misunderstood genre. There are valuable positions and information throughout. As I went through it I underlined certain passages, positive and negative reminders. It probably says something that I do not do this even when I tackle philosophical texts but I did it for a book on something as niche and progressive metal. In the possibility that Jeff ever finds this blog post (I place a reasonable amount of trust in that people engaged in public creative pursuits will google themselves occasionally), here's the few of the underlined passages with nitpicky commentary from someone very close to the center of his target audience.
Last page of prologue: "There doesn't seem to be much bad taste, excess or bombast in a band like Pain of Salvation, yet they're decidedly progressive, and metal enough to earn the title".
I realize this is a matter of opinion and not fact, but I think even close friends of the band would agree that the majority of their music is bombastic. I'll add that the way they treat a lot of their 'heavy' subject matter is epidermic and riddled with Americanized lingual cliche ran through a Swedifier and therefore tasteless, but taste isn't a high priority in art-making so that's of lesser significance.
Chapter Invention / Reinvention, page 5: "Art rock was song-oriented yet avoided the disposability of the pop formula by virtue of quirk and intelligence."
I found this to be a very astute contrasting definition of art rock.
Chapter Passing the Threshold, on Queensryche's "Operation: Mindcrime" : "While many concept albums are mired in messy, cliched or overcomplicated storytelling, this story of prostitute-turned-nun Mary, junkie Nikki, and the manipulative Dr. X flowed persuasively from beginning to end".
Prostitute-turned-nun is exactly a cliche, as is the devious 'Dr.X' and so on. The story is sadly contrived but I will agree it's convincing due to Geoff Tate's talent for the dramatic and the theatrical. The concept of the album has a beginning middle and end but that's not the same as being understandable and well-done: "Operation: Mindcrime" is not a badly written story, but it's a very confused one. Geoff Tate seems to me to have given up on the sociopolitical commentary of the work early on and instead focused on soap opera interpersonal conflict to carry through. It is critical for an examination of progressive metal, of which Queensryche were a big part of early on, to assess "Operation: Mindcrime" in a less forgiving light, seeing as it inspired a big part of US progressive/power metal scene to follow in its confused humanist/political footsteps, and ultimately contributed to the creative stagnation of the genre. Reading something like this shows how much metalheads bought into the half-assed politics of "Operation: Mindcrime". It diverted the focus of metal music at its commercial peak, from romantic fantasy and esoterica to sappy drama masquerading as social critique.
This isn't to say that I don't like the record. I do, quite a bit. But we must be strict with the things we love.
Same chapter, page 59
"Alder had fantastic power and control, and probably a wider range than Arch".
A wider range is probable, but surfaced demo and live material with Alder handling not only John Arch pieces but also his own (circa No Exit) show him to be a 'studio singer' in that he sorta hits the notes but he wavers in and out of the safe space and is out of breath a lot in a live situation. It's difficult for the audience to appreciate the exactness of pitch control on very high notes, they tend to sound the same. Alder hid behind that when he was trying to match the US power metal singer zeitgeist and it was a good choice for him to slow down.
Chapter 6, Killed by Tech
Although 'tech metal' is a wider term that perhaps captures the modern range of this sort of music better, it's worthwhile to remember that that brief movement that starts with Watchtower and ends at the onset of 'tech death' was mainly a thrash sub-genre. Therefore, techno-thrash (it says "complex, abstract techno-thrash" on the featured flier). Thoughout the chapter, this term is found once and the slightly historical revisionist term of 'tech metal' is found plenty more. I realize that 'techno-thrash' was a buzz word more with European journalists (especially, it seems, with German ones who had an affinity for this sort of music) and that it outlived its usefulness once industrial metal came about but it's worth mentioning anyway.
On page two, "Tech metal uses disorienting time signatures, 5/8ths and 51/32nds flying everywhere..."
Is this a typo or perhaps humor? 51/32 is a very improbable signature, I don't think any techno-thrash or progressive metal band messed about with anything so exact perhaps Ron Jarzombek on "Headache and a sixtyfourth".
On Sieges Even ripping off Watchtower, thank you for getting both sides of the story on this, it's been a long-time open question for me.
"Dream Theater have become essentially the Grateful Dead of prog metal"
The connection between Cynic's robot voice and Dead Brain Cells was interesting as well.
The photo of Allan Holdsworth explaining his chart to Ron Jarzombek is a great find, absolutely hilarious.
On chapter Swedish Oddballs, "Quorthon pointed to composer Richard Wagner and the most epic Manowar material..."
I thought Quorthon, in a fit of self-importance had gone on record saying that he had never listened to Manowar before long into his epic metal phase?
Next page when discussing Leif Edling's adventurous Candlemass related projects, "Dactylis Glomerata showed Edling had no interest in writing to formula, even if it brought him a healthier paycheck" and at the end of the paragraph, "Edling returned to Candlemass's more recognizable style for future albums, and to more familiar lineups."
I have here an annoyed pencil note by the underline saying "why not connect the dots?". I love Candlemass too but we must be strict with, well, you know. I felt as if the book was trying to keep away from reporting controversy and 'dirt' so much that it became slightly anodyne.
That Gonin-Ish started as a tribute band to Anekdoten blew my mind.
The "Still Moving Pictures" gag is very funny.
That's it. That I went through the trouble of keeping notes and writing this probably is the strongest recommendation I can give for the book. It engaged me even when I disagreed with it. It's pretty exhaustive and due to this I will not play the game "you left out _____ band". The important and influential bands are here and even some obscure ones for the more adventurous. I recommend this book to people that like reading about the history of Heavy Metal music and especially the cross-section of that category with that of those who were put off of progressive metal after just listening to a bit of Dream Theater or some Queensryche. There's a lot of beauty under the surface.