Metal’s Physical Bias

Metal is not sports. Despite the head-scratching fan base rivalries that can be unearthed in any of the web’s wonderful metal forums, love for a particular genre of music should have little do with rooting interest or feats of strength. Yet as a PED-ravaged athletics landscape has forced us to question who we can believe on the field of play, so too has a sizable contingent of metal fans spent the last decade and a half growing suspicious of the true physical abilities of the musicians they love.

Accusations of auto-tuned vocals, click-tracked drums and computer-enhanced riffing have all been commonplace in conversations about metal in the post-Bonds era. Hell, there was even a rumor in my high school that Yngwie Malmsteen had the spaces between his fingers surgically widened so he could‚ shred better? Anything to get an edge, I suppose.

And look, I get it. Feeling cheated is the worst aspect of any kind of fandom. If it came out that Tim Duncan was lording over an international doping syndicate or chasing his red wine with deer antler spray after dinner every night, I’d be crushed. As with sports, there are plenty of occasions when it’s right to demand physical excellence from metal musicians. But there are far more occasions when physical excellence is totally unrelated to how those musicians are hoping to affect us, rendering such inquisitions ridiculous. It’s time we stepped back and drew a line between the two.

Rings of Saturn made certain corners of the internet implode when it came out that they may have recorded their most recent record at half speed and sped the tracks up to the desired tempos using editing software. Commenters agreed right away that this was problematic, but there was little consensus over exactly why. (Before we delve any further, it should be noted that the controversy in question stems from what are still only allegations. Rings of Saturn have not confirmed nor denied that these allegations are true, but our discussion of the fan reaction is almost entirely ancillary to what actually happened in the recording studio.)

More than almost anything, people hate being lied to, and that’s where the Rings of Saturn debacle cut fans the deepest. This is a band that sells itself on dizzying technicality, breakneck speed and little else. If those two traits are proven inauthentic, nothing is left. If the allegations are true, it means the members of the band and the studio engineers who helped them pull off their trick are unethical, and the controversy alone probably means their next record won’t sell well. But they didn’t break any laws, and they won’t be called before Congress to testify on ProToolgate. A little outrage is fine, but a little perspective is even more important.

Now imagine the same accusation being leveled against Cannibal Corpse, whose chief aim is brutality rather than technicality. Doubtless the same outrage would ensue, but in this case, it wouldn’t be warranted. The end result of Cannibal Corpse’s music would be the same, and they would have marketed it the exact same way. Learning they used some studio cheats to sell it to us would be completely ancillary to the actual quality of the record. This matters.

Ultimately, it’s still a little bizarre how inextricably the accusers in the Rings of Saturn controversy linked the members’ physical abilities to their own sense of betrayal. Think of all the bands that have released “live” records over the years that are probably more like studio albums with some crowd noise. Slayer’s Live Undead is a lie. Judas Priest’s Unleashed in the East is a lie. Type O Negative’s The Origin of the Feces is a lie, and we think it’s hilarious. KISS lied when they put out Alive, and it’s arguably the greatest live rock record ever made. But these records all came out in the pre-steroids era, and their dubious live-ness has little to do with the capabilities of the performers. These dudes definitely played these songs. They probably just didn’t play them when they said they did.

We’re also shockingly fine with the use of computers when we’re told computers are supposed to be there. Take Genghis Tron, whose three members all use some form of electronics to enhance and alter their brand of highly experimental grindcore. I remember being surprised when I saw them live in 2008 just how much of what I heard on record was being created with something other than a conventional musical instrument, but because I already knew they used synths and drum machines, the grind-by-AppleTM approach didn’t irk me. Today, people look at doom-dub producer Author & Punisher and Pig Destroyer noise merchant Blake Harrison the same way. This isn’t how metal is supposed to be, perhaps, but at least all parties in question are transparent about it.

As much outrage as instrumentalists can engender, it’s nothing compared to the amount of disdain the metal community has for vocalists they believe to be “cheating”. Bands in the more melodic subgenres regularly boast that their singers are “classically trained” which makes it fun to picture Leopold Mozart not letting them go outside until they can nail every note in “Aces High”. For more extreme bands, being accused of mic cupping, whisper-growling, or using digital effects is a fate worse than death; Arch Enemy frontwoman, Angela Gossow, famously had to let out an a cappella scream at a German press conference when journalists wouldn’t stop hounding her about whether she was using a workaround to produce her recorded growl. And don’t even think about using Auto-Tune, the torches and pitchforks are already out.

More on human ability and its perception within heavy music continues…

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