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Don’t listen to everything

For the last month, the political webzine Souciant has been running a weekly series of metal-themed posts by the cultural critic Keith Kahn-Harris, a former Terrorizer scribe who has written extensively about underground metal. The series has five entries so far, including one published earlier today:

1. Too Much Metal
2. Invisible Metal
3. Music at a Standstill
4. The Metal Future
5. Slow Metal

All five posts are worth reading in full. (They also say some flattering things about this site.) The series deals with questions that have increasingly occupied my attention over the last couple of years: what does metal’s exponential growth mean for the genre? How should we react to it?

I’ve been meaning to comment on this subject since I came across this post by the UK-based music writer David Gerard back in September. Gerard sums up the elephant in the room in a few quick sentences:

“There is too much music and too many musicians, and the amateurs are often good enough for the public. This is healthy for culture, not so much for aesthetics, and shit for musicians. Musicians in the early ’90s were already feeling the pressure of competition from CD reissues of old stuff; here in the future, you can get almost anything that has ever been digitised for free and listener time is the precious commodity.”

My intuitive reaction to such complaints is to say, with Yngwie Malmsteen, “How can less be more? More is more.” Though keeping pace with the constant cataract of new metal releases can be exhausting, the problem of overly abundant killer tunes is a good one to have. Right?

But it’s still a problem, and a more substantial one than my intuition gives it credit for. Here’s Kahn-Harris in the Too Much Metal post:

“Metal’s 40+ years of history and its multiplying sub-genres has meant that an enormous body of work has built up. New technology has created a situation in which metal, like almost every other kind of music, is instantly accessible. A very high percentage of the recorded work of the thousands of past and present metal bands is available online, either for sale or for free and often both. Even the most obscure historical artefacts are now available. Metal discourse is similarly abundant. There is plentiful information available about even the most obscure band on sites like Metal Archives. Every kind of metalhead can now find each other and every shade of metal opinion is catered for….

“While this abundance has fulfilled my metal dreams, it has been accompanied by a strange sense of deflation. To some extent this is because dreams fulfilled are almost always disappointing. There are also good reasons why abundance does not necessarily satisfy. The ease of finding what was once obscure takes away the pleasures of anticipation, of discovery, of searching things out. The fact that metal music is no longer found exclusively in physical media removes much of that precious ‘aura’ that can accompany physical art objects. Demo tapes were exciting and mysterious objects because one had to ‘work’ to track them down…. Today, there isn’t much frisson to googling something and finding it. Stripped of the aura, rare and obscure metal recordings become much more mundane.”

This strikes me as a generational concern. I’m a child of the internet age. While I’ve hunted down a few rare (physical) albums in my time, doing so has never been a regular part of my practice as a fan, and I don’t think I’d want it to become one having grown up under the current system. It’s still exciting to discover a great, unsung band on the internet, even if it doesn’t deliver the same sense of hard-won satisfaction that three months’ worth of tape-trading inquiries probably did. But still, I’ve heard enough respected older voices raising this issue to take it seriously, and to wonder what I’ve missed by virtue of my birth year.

Some of the other concerns that Kahn-Harris raises are more universal. From the Invisible Metal post:

“In the past, metal scenes had shape and movement. They changed and evolved at a pace that was manageable and discernible. All this was predicated on scarcity, on shifting patterns of availability of certain kinds of sounds. In today’s age of abundance, nothing ever becomes truly obsolete. Artists and styles that would once have faded away can survive and thrive in niches. The lack of barriers to entry into the scene have resulted in an endless flood of new releases that even the most assiduous of critics find difficult to organise.Where end of year reviews in metal publications used to discern some kind of pattern to the previous twelve months, today’s end of year reviews highlight great releases, yet rarely find a broader narrative to put them into. None of this means that there isn’t still great music being made, or that metal is artistically dead. The problem is that without a discernible shape or movement to metal, the impact of new releases becomes dissipated. Many of the most canonical works of metal were canonised because they appeared at the crest of a stylistic wave, because they both exemplified and catalysed something that was emergent….

“The attachment to old formats and practices [such as vinyl and print magazines] is not simply due to nostalgia, or a reactionary failure to adapt to a new reality. Rather, it is an implicit recognition that if metal scenes simply transferred production and circulation to virtual spaces, something important would be lost. Without the paraphernalia of scenic infrastructure and meat-space production, the scene would abandon itself completely to abundance, losing any means of slowing down and organising the flood of metal. Much of the metal scene today is therefore reacting to the crisis of abundance with a desperate rear-guard action to preserve scarcity and structure.”

Pretty much everyone who writes about any style of music for a public audience, and many metal fans who don’t, have come to grips with this issue in one way or another over the past few years.

Underground metal fans tend towards obsession and completism by temperament. Finding awesome new metal gives an addictive rush. We cherish breadth and depth of knowledge, and we prize physical signifiers of this knowledge; witness grown men (and they’re usually men) bragging with unreasonable pride about their demo tape collections. We also prize narrative intelligibility in our areas of concern, as all humans do — we want to be able to make sense of our little world. And because many of us are obsessive completists, we often want to experience all of it, too, or at least as much of it as is relevant to us.

But as Kahn-Harris points out, it’s become quite impossible to hear all the metal albums that come out in a given year, especially when they’re competing for your attention with countless canonical albums from metal’s past. (For a fascinating and troubling elaboration on impossibly huge artistic canons, read the Gwern Branwen essay that David Gerard cites in his aforementioned post.) It’s also impossible to clearly identify and articulate the direction in which the metal scene at large is currently going. Though metal’s critical establishment still locks onto a few favorites each year — this year it was Surgical Steel, Colored Sands, and Sunbather, which has hilariously become the best-reviewed album of 2013 in any genre — the larger community is drifting in many different directions at once. There’s no way for one person, or even one publication, to paint a sensible, digestible picture of the whole, and yet we try to do so anyway.

This state of affairs is troublesome for fans who simply want to feel like they know what the fuck’s going on in metal. It’s more so for people who, like both Kahn-Harris and me, have positioned themselves as chroniclers of the genre. There are many institutional incentives for music writers to act as authorities and gatekeepers — to know everything about at least a few kinds of metal; to suss out trends early enough to write about them in a timely fashion; to dig up the new album of the year before the next guy does. These incentives encourage us to acquire, digest, and publicly comment upon as much relevant music as possible, as quickly as possible, forever. There are only so many hours in a day, so those who want to keep up take on a Sisyphean consumption regimen that is thoroughly unfriendly to repeated spins. This schedule eventually burns out even the truly dedicated.

I’m not complaining. We signed up for this mission. But it bothers me that so many non-writer fans have settled into the same frenetic pace of consumption that contemporary music culture encourages. I’ve heard tons of rank-and-file metalheads complain about the impossibility of keeping track of all the good stuff that’s coming out, which isn’t something they should have to worry about.

It makes me wonder: why are any of us even trying?

I mean that question tactically, not philosophically. What do any of us really stand to gain by attempting to keep track of the entire spectrum of metal, or even by trying to scoop up all of the quality stuff in our favorite subgenres? Why not just accept that we’re all going to miss a lot of cool stuff and take the music as it comes to us?

Kahn-Harris argues in his fourth Souciant post that metal faces two potential existential threats from the current age of abundance: the genre will either become an irrelevant exercise in self-repetition, or it will diversify and fragment until it “risks dissolution.” There’s a strong argument to be made that the latter has already happened. We still talk about metal as a unified cultural phenomenon, but there are large swathes of the metal community with whom I have little or nothing in common, aside from an appreciation for certain bands who peaked artistically before I was even born. Dream Theater enthusiasts and raw BM fans are both listening to “metal,” but an uninformed observer wouldn’t likely see much of a relation. Older fans routinely lament the death of ‘real’ heavy metal even as younger fans celebrate its creative renaissance. If metal has already fragmented beyond cohesion, then attempting to track its overall arc (as opposed to the arcs of particular substrata & pocket movements) is a fool’s errand.

Personally, the putative cultural unity of all metaldom does not mean a great deal to me. Genre-tag specifics don’t matter as long as loud guitar bands keep putting out great albums. Which they’re doing — the past year produced several dozen rich, complex albums that I didn’t listen to nearly as many times as they deserved.

The question becomes how to best appreciate those great albums, which brings me to my point. Any really good piece of music will reward repeated listens, and underground metal in particular often requires multiple spins to really ‘get.’ We may thus be best served by sacrificing breadth of listening in favor of depth. In order to thoroughly enjoy any of these new gems, we need to suppress our innate desire to enjoy all of them. We can’t listen to every worthwhile metal album, and we shouldn’t try to.

So if we should restrict the number of albums we try to digest, how should we restrict it? What should we focus on, to the exclusion of countless other options? Here’s where things get tricky. Kahn-Harris’s latest Souciant post addresses the idea of artificially inducing scarcity in order to imbue our musical experiences with more value. The exercises it brings up are a little academic for my tastes, but the basic idea is on point. If you’ve ever felt like your musical memory is blurring into a parade of half-ignored first listens, or if you want to get as much as you can out of individual songs and albums, you should consider finding ways to meaningfully restrict the amount of new music you listen to.

How you do so is up to you. Maybe you’ll take some time out at the beginning of your week to pick seven albums that will comprise your listening for that week. Maybe you’ll only listen to music after 5pm. Maybe you’ll give up on following a style that you were only peripherally interested in. Maybe you’ll only listen to albums that were personally recommended to you by a trusted friend. Maybe you’ll choose which albums to listen to and which to ignore by rolling a die. Any such process will be necessarily arbitrary, but that’s okay — surrendering to serendipity is an important part of having fun as a music fan, and it’s a key catalyst for forming the deep attachments to specific albums that got us all hooked on this business in the first place.

I’m not a New Year’s Resolution kind of guy, but if I was going to make one, this would be it: delve more deeply into specifics, even if it means missing the zeitgeist. Fall in love with an album. Learn all the words. Try to play the riffs. Obsess over details. Bands are made up of individual humans, and music, like all forms of art, doubles as a means of communication. Through it, you can connect with the people who made it. I would rather form a handful of close musical friendships in 2014 than make a thousand new acquaintances.

— Doug Moore

How do you guys handle this issue? Do you ever feel oppressed by the demands of keeping up with the pace of the modern metal world? Do you have tactics for restricting the amount of new music you check out? Or is this whole conversation alien to you?

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