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Managing listener expectations

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Let’s face it: being in a band is a business, and full-time musicians consider their creative moves in financial terms to some degree. Every band thinks about how their music will be received, whether they cop to it or not. Even the hardest-talking, most tatted-out metal guitarist will sit down once in a while, play something and think, “Well, that’s great, but that can’t go on our album.” Thus, an audience has been considered. Bands have an unspoken contract with their fans, and every new release renegotiates this contract.

Some bands stick with a tried-and-true formula. These include your High on Fires, your AC/DC’s and your Niles — bands who have virtually copyrighted a sound and an approach. They are the In-N-Out Burger of metal bands, serving the exact same menu for years not for lack of creativity but out of reverence to an idea. AC/DC are the paramount example of this, churning out album after album of dirt-simple, blues-inflected hard rock songs about fucking. Their fans are the millions out there who want dirt-simple, blues-inflected hard rock songs about fucking. They don’t want a band that’ll screw that up with a string quartet or an ambient track.

On the other hand, some bands boast that they only write music for themselves. Proud words are legion amongst metal musicians, but Necrobutcher’s rant in Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey sums it up nicely:

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In the most extreme case, musical self-gratification is directly hostile to listener expectations. Take Today Is The Day, for example. Everything from piano ballads to machine gun fire has been fair game on their records. However, main man Steve Austin pays the price for being a wild card. He stays afloat financially as an audio engineer and claims he doesn’t make a dime from fronting TITD. Their music remains firmly underground.

A band whose bread and butter is metal relies exclusively on fan approval. Contrary to the tough talk we’re used to, most bands would sweat if their live turnouts dropped sharply after a poorly received release. In the case of 1349, Revelations of the Black Flame, reviewed here, was a poorly received attempt at dark ambient music. They’ve since promised a return to a traditional black metal sound for their next record. Consequently, we can interpret the “not giving a fuck” sentiment to mean, “We may occasionally experiment with new textures or sounds, but most of the record will consist of the sound for which we’re known.” It literally pays for established bands to be conservative with their experiments.

That’s why it’s so fascinating to see a band totally fuck with its audience’s expectations. It takes balls for a band to make a lateral move once it’s reached an apex. But sometimes the outcome is worth it. An example of this is Sepultura’s Chaos A.D. No one could’ve predicted its weird, chunky tribal riffs after the clean, speedy thrash of Arise. Let’s compare “Dead Embryonic Cells” off Arise with “Slave New World” off Chaos A.D.:

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Considering that (first wave) thrash basically went extinct in 1992, this was also a wise professional move, though you could hardly accuse them of softening up. Black Flag similarly said fuck-you to their punk rock notoriety with My War, whose second side proved highly influential to the progenitors of doom metal with its slow, sludgy proto-Melvins dirges.

Dear readers, I ask you:

Who do you think took a courageous leap to genius?

Conversely, who soured a good thing?

— Alee Karim

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