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Bullpen Bulletins #1: Welcome to the Grind Ole Opry

Mike Scalzi, vocalist/guitarist for Slough Feg, is one of metal’s great iconoclasts. Bullpen Bulletins is his new column to speak his mind. In this inaugural installment, he laments the lack of substance in today’s heavy metal. Slough Feg’s new album The Animal Spirits comes out four weeks from today, on October 26. – C.L.

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Backdrop for our idealistic hero: “The Emperor wears no clothes, but has ten-inch spikes on his wrists and a Cirith Ungol patch over his crotch”

Imagine your worst Orwellian nightmare. Now imagine it realized, not in some “futuristic” hinterland where mind control, martial law, and foam suit dress codes are in place, but in a world very much like the one you now live in, at least in appearance, but wrought with the strange, insidious undertones (or perhaps overtones) of a desperate, dying countercultural movement turned on its head (and into its very antithesis), scraping and clawing to survive in whatever subverted, bastard form appears wide enough of its origins to stand a chance of slipping past the fickle eyes of the teenagers unrecognized. In a state of vague disbelief, you seem to have become quite adept at mentally dodging the signs as they approaches on the fringes of your consciousness —– yet every so often, you catch a glimpse out of the corner of your eye of the very last shards of the music, fashion and speech of youth/pop culture in the last fifty years, yet somehow seamlessly air-brushed into a “whole is much lesser than the sum of its parts” configuration, revealing only mismatched fragments of what was once a cohesive picture.

Now wake up!! Your nightmare has become a reality!! You’re in the 2010’s!!! Why have you (up until now) only caught glimpses of this out of the corners of your eyes, rather than having it penetrate your frontal lobe? Why does this suddenly hit you as a nauseating and obnoxious surprise, which you know is no true surprise, but more a giving in to worst case scenario suspicions that can no longer be denied?? Well, because it’s been a slow, protracted evolution—–developing over the last twenty years—-so gradual that it’s scarcely perceptible—–that is, until now, that it has finally scraped its way through the many-fold layers of our protective cultural identity——–and penetrated to our most vital organs. And just this it has finally done. No longer can this festering malignancy be dismissed as a disease of “mainstream culture”. It has now penetrated our precious “underground” music scene.

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Scene II: “Requiem for an aging grime-rocker”

It was a mucilaginous afternoon, which I had spent towing my push-iron past café tables whose occupants I’d once written off as bourgeois kids from Idaho thinking they were the first radical punk rockers to show up in the city of San Francisco with Socialist ideas, but now only envied because although the conversations were just as nauseating as I’d imagined when I’d never been close enough to actually listen, it was one of the perhaps five over eighty-degree days in San Francisco of the year, and the girls were wearing short dresses, sticking to the seats of chairs. I’d become so bored with my “convictions” about youth culture that even the blustering prattle of these foppish, emaciated café-cultured males in horn-rimmed glasses and testes that rivaled in size the capers they balanced gingerly on the tips of gesticulated forks (shriveled to even lesser proportions in today’s oppressive sun), did not bring a rise in me—-other than the usual rivalry for “their” girls (as insipid as they were, and of whom I will not burden the reader with further description), who of course weren’t really “their” girls anyway—just more gold-digging fish-wives conveniently coupled with detachable boy toys waiting for the odd potential sugar daddy to show up and bring them babies. It’s always the leafy green salad guy who gets the supermodel, never the guy who can break a Buick with his jaw. He had to take matters in to his own hands—-and that I did.

Not the way you’re thinking, though. I sat down at a vacant table and got out my papers, shuffled them about the cast iron table attempting to appear focused on them——looking down but out of the corners of my eyes probing under tables for the most athletic female ass I could find——always a losing game in San Francisco. When I did finally interrupt the seemingly calm studiousness (which was probably just as phony as my focus on the papers before me) of one suitably pleasant-looking female and her book with a ridiculous comment like: “Man, you’ve gotta stay outside today even if you feel like shit—–. We only get four of these days a year”, or something equally preposterous, to my surprise she agreed to accompany me to the park, where all the kids sit out and drink Mexican beer out of paper bags on such rare days. Completely flabbergasted that (being a long-standing “true metalhead”) I was even conversing with a member of the fair sex—–I made the mistake of asking her where she goes at night, what kind of places she likes—-never thinking this would land me in the middle of a conversation about “metal”. But unfortunately it did—–and this rare oasis of an afternoon quickly turned into a suffocating, toilsome dirge.

Obviously, I was not stupid enough to tell her I was actually in a metal band or anything like that. I’d might just as well tell her that I worked at McDonald’s or that all of my sexual fantasies involved parrots. No, she brought it up. It turned out that she liked “metal”, or so she said. She was probably in her late twenties. Ten years ago I would have been thrilled at this. A girl in San Francisco who likes metal!!! Let’s get to the courthouse!!! But now I’m scared. Scared for my life. When I inquired as to what she meant by “metal”, she rattled off a few names I’d never heard of, and I didn’t bother to ask whether they were names of local or national bands. Could have been either. But the more we talked about metal (much to my chagrin, since I’d have preferred to talk about Gary Puckett and the Union Gap—-or bird watching for that matter), the more I realized what most young people’s impression of “metal” is these days. The conversation quickly turned down the old, familiar road of: “Why do I hate everything? Must we continue to walk the earth spitting venom in every direction at the mere mention the words ‘heavy metal’?”

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Well, it’s not because I don’t like metal anymore. Much to the contrary. There is actually still fantastic metal out there, but you often have to dig very deep to find it, because the people playing it aren’t spending all their time blabbing on the Internet about their band or making the scene at every hip local show——-they’re too busy actually writing and playing music. And perhaps that’s why they’re good—-because they lack the non-music-related motives of about 90% of current hard rock/metal bands, and simply rely on the natural joy of playing good music—-albeit with very few rewards besides this.

Those of us who came up (in our twenties) during the 1990s attempting to play heavy metal with a clean conscience tend more and more to sound as if they hate the very thing they sold their souls for. Sad but true. Born too early—-born too late——overborne?! We feel as if we own it. And we shouldn’t, but we can’t help ourselves. It’s no different that an aging academic who lashes out against any sophomoric whippersnapper who makes the mistake of mentioning Aristotle’s name in conversation. But I digress. What exactly is wrong with having a strong opinion?!?

Okay, I don’t own heavy metal. Maybe Tony Iommi doesn’t even own it. But people these days say: “Oh, you’re in a heavy metal band? Oh that’s that stuff that sounds like, ‘Eeeeeeeerrrrrrrggggggggghhhhhhhhh'”, and they make the sound of a garbage disposal. And that’s exactly what that chick had to say. Her idea of what “metal” is was this formless wall of static noise with someone hacking up phlegm over top of it. I don’t know if there even is a clear concept of what metal is anymore—–but if there is, there’s definitely no content to most heavy metal music. And this is the heart of the problem——and it’s not a problem that is unique to metal——and certainly not unique to only mainstream metal. The problem is ALL CONCEPT, NOT CONTENT. And it is for precisely this reason that I’m so offended, embittered, and spiteful of all of this——because I have my whole life invested in it—–my entire sense of self-worth hangs in the balance!!!

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Now I know there is no accounting for taste——sure. But is music all so subjective that you can’t even form a coherent opinion about it without being narrow-minded? That’s what people seem to be telling me. I listen to what is considered “music” these days, and my response is almost always the same. If it has any melodic quality at all, or even any rhythmic quality, it’s usually so painfully unmemorable that I could hear the record a thousand times over in a six-month period, and on the seventh month not be able to recall even one riff. Sure, I might remember that it sounded “kinda doomy” or “kinda thrashy” due to the guitar sound, vocal style (or the label its on!!), but chances are that’s the only thing I’ll be able to recall.

And why is this? Because there’s no quality control, no demand for any specific content to the music other than its possession of some rudimentary, tertiary qualities of a pre-established and almost always played-out style of music from thirty years ago. That’s our template for success. As long as it sounds like “Stoner Rock”—-or the infinitely more respectable in the underground, yet equally insipid style “Doom Metal”, i.e. it has droning guitars, a slow tempo, and the monotone wailings of some guy who’s somehow convinced his friends he’s imitating Ozzy—-or “Retro Thrash”, i.e. it has a brittle, over-saturated guitar sound and some douchebag that sounds like he’s got balls even smaller that James Hetfield’s (if that’s even possible)—-or probably the worst of them all, “True Metal”, the unoriginality and cookie-cutter-ishness of which I won’t even attempt to describe.

The ever-so-subtle point I’m trying to make here, in my obvious open-mindedness (or perhaps in my bleeding-heart, wear-it-on-my-sleeve-artistic purist, cream-puffish spirit —-which I’ll have you know is actually the antithesis of being jaded), is that “underground” bands are no more immune to trends, bandwagons, unoriginality, or “selling out” (perhaps not in the monetary sense, but in the herd mentality sense) than mainstream bands. The high-concept, low-content approach sells records (or downloads or tickets or whatever) to an ultimately CONSERVATIVE listening audience who does not want to be challenged (i.e., rock and roll has become the very thing it originally sought to destroy)!!! Case in point: why should a record company take a risk on something challenging or new like they did 30 years ago? They can barely stay above water the way it is—–one false move and they go under.

Well, then why should the listener think any differently? It’s human nature——bands would rather fit in than stand out—-regardless of what it is they’re fitting into (perhaps a pair of platform shoes and a shag haircut these days). The lowest common denominator is what matters. Who cares if you don’t write songs? Third-rate, unmemorable, half-baked and randomly arranged Sabbath riffs are good enough. What’s important is the Orange amp you’re using and the Thin Lizzy t-shirt—–that’s what people recognize. That’s what people can easily identify (when actually listening takes too much effort). First impressions are the only impressions in a world with 30000000000000000 bands—-you don’t get time for anything more—–any more than this would make us have to think, evaluate, form an opinion——develop taste. And that is strictly taboo—–for it goes against the prime directive—which is still the money. It trickles down from higher up now, but the incentive is still there.

— Mike Scalzi

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Slough Feg’s new album The Animal Spirits comes four weeks from today, on October 26.
You can hear two tracks from it here.

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