When Not Enough is Just Right
Scarcity is a hell of a drug.
You don't have to be a microeconomics prodigy to understand restricting supply — especially artificially — has the effect of driving up prices. (Case in point: check out your preferred Record Store Day 2014 "exclusive" on eBay right about now. . .) That basic principle underwrites everything from OPEC's collusion to manipulate oil prices to the US Federal Reserve's policy of quantitative easing, so why not our little corner of things as well?
That is to say, I've got a sneaking suspicion the same thing is rampant in heavy metal.
Okay, so not exactly the same thing. For starters, in the examples I'd like to discuss, we need to swap out price as the equilibrium output and instead think of the end result as something like "relative valuation of an artist's musical output." That gives us a rather tidy hypothesis: Bands whose recorded output is relatively scarce are valued more highly than bands with a glut of material.
As evidence for the "less ist more" theory, I submit two contemporary exhibits: Bölzer and Nasheim.
If you spend any amount of time poking around the corners of the extreme metal commentariat, you've likely heard about the upstart Swiss band Bölzer. Their three-song mini-LP Aura, released by Iron Bonehead in 2013, blasted them into the consciousness of the metal public at large, and onto the venerable stage of the Roadburn festival. And that's great, right? Riffs were riffed; heads were banged; Shane never slumped over while riding into the sunset.
Now, there's one iron-clad reason for that: Bölzer kinda kicks ass. Still, the part of my brain with some crossed-wire affinity for the "dismal science" keeps clearing its throat obnoxiously: "Ahem, " the cluster says, pushing grey-matter glasses up its braincell nose, "you guys know these Bölzer chaps have only released seven songs to date, right?"
So, for the Bölzer-besotted among you, I ask: Isn't it too soon for such a rapturous reception?
But then, ach! There's Nashim to account for. The one-man atmospheric black metal "group" finally released their debut full-length Solens Vemod in February of this year. We last heard from Nasheim in 2007 on a stellar split with Angantyr — to which Nasheim lent one song. That means, with Solens Vemod's four songs, Nasheim's catalog grew in an instant by 80 percent its former size.
To me, this means that when a band — a band you hope beyond hope turns out to be the genuine article — births another song into the world, each one of those songs better be prepared for some particularly intense scrutiny. I'm talking Lion King, held-aloft-above-the-heads-of-an-expectant-congregation, type shit.
And let's be honest: that's a lot of pressure. I don't know if it explains why plenty of bands never get any further than a single demo or EP, but I sure as heck suspect that it leads to the over-inflated valuation of those very demos and EPs by enthusiastic listeners who never really had the chance to be fully let-down by their new favorite band.
Think of it from the converse angle for a minute. I'm sure you can readily call to mind bands who diluted the impact and promise of excellent albums by releasing too much material, too quickly. What makes Nasheim all the more impressive is the fact that many of the worst offenders in the too-much-too-soon game are one-man outfits: Xasthur, Graveland, Striborg, Hellveto, and so forth. The swinging singles aren't solely at fault, though. Look to artists as diverse as Blut Aus Nord, Across Tundras, and even the reformed Autopsy to see the risks of flooding the market.
Ultimately, what does this all mean? Perhaps you're thinking, Up yours, buddy — if I like something, why in the name of piss-soaked tar should it matter whether it's three songs out of six or six hundred? Well, you're right. Still, as someone who likes to think of himself as a halfway critical consumer, I don't care for the idea that I might be duping myself. Let's consider Bölzer and Nasheim one more time: With Bölzer, each song they've released so far crackles with a manic energy, strings whipping in agitation as the band spits and snarls, hoping to capture what they can before the magic they've summoned dims or passes over to its next visitation. With Nasheim, though, every song is clearly long-loved and much labored over, like a bonsai tree thriving in a sun-wracked alkali flat. Each movement, each sweep and crest and glorious exclamation, bears the mark of patient gestation. Although both are clearly valid strategies for navigating the metal of dearth, it's Nasheim's ferocious majesty that seems all but assured a spot near the very top of this year's Best Of "Momentary Diversions on the Road to the Grave."
And yet: What if "less ist more" lying to me? Clearly, demanding objective validation of subjective preferences is folly, and a hoary task best left to the "Immanuel Kants" and "Hannah Arendts" of the world. Instead, I suppose I'm aping Michel Foucault, tracing the architecture of a self-constructed panopticon that inculcates a constant discipline in bodies that come to treat surveillance as omnipresent. That's the real triumph of the market economy, anyway: beyond its theorems and proofs, beyond its dry accountings and amoral utility curves, the capitalism becomes self-executing and self-replicating when it works at the level of instinct and flesh-memory.
Scarcity is a hell of a drug because it works psychologically; it's the invisible hand of the market playing jump-rope with your neurons. I'm not asking you to curb your enthusiasm for Bölzer, or Nasheim, or anyone else; I'm asking you to interrogate it. If we burn away the impurities of our fleeting obsessions, then whatever is left in the crucible of withering scrutiny just might be a thing for the ages.
Metalheads have nothing to lose but their fickle allegiance to fads. They have bone-deep musical resonance to win. Listeners of the world, unite.
Do you have any favorite artists or albums whose worth you might overvalue based on their scarcity? Do you have any favorites that you wish would quit releasing so much self-defeating material? I know I'm going to take an extra-close listen the next time I turn to Noenum, Weakling, Kvist, and the Gault. What about you?