Monday, March 7, 2011
Book review - Mean Deviation: Four Decades Of Progressive Metal
Mean Deviation: Four Decades Of Progressive Metal - Jeff Wagner
I'm glad there is so many great books coming out these days focusing in on the music I love. There's been more than enough books published on important music of the baby-boomers day (Beatles, Dylan, The Doors, etc) as well as wealth of books on the early days of Punk Rock. But music's at a point now where it's possible, I believe, to cover not only the basics of the numerous genres of Popular Music that are out there now, but to paint a tapestry of an illustrious history that now spans decades of growth. There's such a richness at this moment in music (and esp Metal,) a depth that wasn't visible earlier in the many subgenres of Metal(not to say there wasn't depth/richness before, it's just that now there's SO MUCH to cover and explore!)...there are intelligent people out there willing to explore, study and then present their findings. People wanting to publish not only for their own sake, but to publish and share information and propagate musical knowledge. Mean Deviation is just such work; it's is an attempt to sum up the last 4 decades of Progressive Metal from it's early beginnings, to where it is at now in one wordy tome of a book. FYI this is not an encyclopedia of Progressive Metal bands...(listing their discographies and so forth,) but more of a ride through the years of Progressive and Technical Metal, highlighting certain bands, albums and songs; starting from key Hardrock/Heavy Metal bands of the 70s who dared to expand, through the defiant and restless outburst during the 80s and early 90s when Tech was king, and finally traveling through the rest of the 90s and beyond exploring many of the offshoots and unforeseen turns Metal music has made and where its currently at now. With that said it's not just a book focusing in on Dream Theater, Fates Warning, etc...even though those bands are well represented here (as they should be) there is so much more grounds covered in the Prog worlds of Death Metal, Black Metal and even far reaching bands like Kayo Dot, Sigh and other oddball hybrids. I will say this book, first and foremost is very Metal centric, (well yeah obviously...), but I mention that only to point out that there are only brief mentions given to any other kinds of Progressive music outside of Metal. There is a bit of talk about the Prog bands of the 70s (mostly the big names) and their undoubted influence on all that's discussed in the book, but for the most part it really starts with Black Sabbath, the early Scorpions, Rainbow, Rush and so forth and moves on through all the main movements in Metal; NWOBHM, Thrash, Power, Death, Black etc and the more Progressive and Technical bands within said genre. So the book follows somewhat of a time line traveling through the years using each chapter to hone in on a group of bands+albums or a specific movement of major or seminal importance to the progression and perpetuation of Progressive/Technical Metal. I also use liberally term "Technical Metal" because there is a big emphasis on the complexity and musical sophistication that many of these bands aimed for. Rush, Voivod and Celtic Frost (circa Into the Pandemonium), for the most part are pretty much put into the position of being the hero's of the book...there is also repeated reference to what's referred to as THE BIG THREE aka, Dream Theater, Fates Warning and Queensryche. If you remember Jeff Wagner from the old Metal Maniacs days, than you'll already be familiar with his style of writing, using appropriate and concise language to stress his point without ever getting too wordy. Each band and album of importance gets a fair amount of text and most of the time he'll mention certain songs and some specifics to listen for about the songs mentioned. One might find themselves thinking while they read through the book "why no mention of this band or that band?"...I only found myself doing this a bit, but with an academic undertaking of this magnitude you just cant cover every sing band+album of seminal importance, therefor the little to no mention of certain bands I would have liked to have seen more of is excusable. I was only a bit surprised that Uriah Heep wasn't mentioned during the section on the 70s, as I always found them to be a glaring example of early Heavy Metal/Hard Rock with Prog tendencies, oh well. Like any book of this nature even a seasoned veteran like myself is going to learn something new and probably discover a few new bands. I was totally schooled on this band Sieges Even and their "Life Cycles" album. I'm a big Watchtower fan (esp "Control and Resistance") and I was completely unaware of the 'chicken or the egg' controversy surrounding the Sieges Even album that came out a year prior and the uncanny similarities. Another thread of similarities made about many of the bands talked about is how quickly they climb the tech ladder creating one maybe two albums that are bursting at the seams with creativity (sometimes in a naive and haphazard fashion) and then the musicians involved quickly burn out, fade into obscurity or venture off into new and many times more conservative musical paths. The author champions bands who try something different each album and make blatant attempts to stretch the boundaries, (Voivod being an excellent example of this who were pretty successful till about Angel Rat which will always be a debatable album [an album I personally love, but I know many who don't.]) There are a few instances where I part with the author in his enthusiasm for bands who made strident attempts at change and be different. Disharmonic Orchestra who is a fine example. A band who early on, carved their own unique path of Grindcore and made some interesting and quirky leaps with their sophomore album "Not to be Undimensional Conscious." But with their following album "Pleasuredome," a greater attempt to carve an even more obtuse path, turned out to be more obnoxious and awful sounding than anything else. Both an artistic and commercial failure, but I get the impression that Mr Wagner thinks it was a daring step and something that the normal Death Metal and Grindcore audiences weren't ready for yet. But let's be honest, the thing just sucked plain and simple. Pestilence "Spheres" is yet another one of those albums. It's definitely a forced attempt at melding jazz fusion with Death Metal that so many other bands were experimenting with that time. The results are awkward as fuck and the drumming is atrocious...something that a true jazz freak would probably find childish. For my money Cynic's "Focus", which came out the same year, is a much better and more natural sounding album than fucking "Spheres." Cynic was honing their unique style of Progressive Death Metal to a T years before "Focus" came out with a slew of great demos, Pestilence on the other hand quickly jumped on a bandwagon, tried to out 'Cynic' Cynic, and it turned right around and bit them in the ass, loosing any old time fans they once had, and creating a commercial failure of an album that lead to their demise. There is also the examples of Celtic Frost's "Into the Pandemonium" and Destruction's "Cracked Brain." While both albums take large experimental steps beyond the bands previous work (esp Pandemonium) there's no way in hell one could argue that they are better albums than "Eternal Devastation" and "To Mega Therion," progressive or not. And while I have enjoyed listening to "Pandemonium" in the past it just doesn't have the power nor impact of early Frost and Hellhammer recordings. I always thought TG Warrior's vision was greater than his talent and in a case like "Into the Pandemonium" it's a rocky ride and a highly ambitious album, and it's an attempt at something new in Metal, it deserves props for really trying to push the envelope in an otherwise conservative style of music (esp during the 80s), but I always thought it was more of a rough and somewhat failed artistic statement than a lasting masterpiece of an album. IMO it's more of a stepping stone and a template for others to work forward with instead of a true work of Metal genius. There have been many other blatant left field attempts at experimentation in Metal throughout the years that have produced awkward and not so stellar results. Many of which come off sounding forced and not all that natural, thus you have a hard to digest album that doesn't flow very well and sounds more like a messy flop than something both groundbreaking and artistically sound: "Into the Pandemonium" is the very first of these kinds of albums which so many more followed in the history of Metal; but someone had to take that first step eh?...and I'll give Celtic Frost all the credit in the world for that. Another point of argument I would have for the author is he tends to paint a lot of Techy Metal bands with the Progressive brush that I never really would have considered all that "progressive". Obliveon really? I don't know, perhaps it's my own bias but when I was finally getting into stuff like Atheist, Watchtower and Cynic I found bands like Obliveon, Believer, Atrocity, and so forth to be second rate and artificial sounding, talented yes, but progressive?...not really. While there is plenty of discussion on Black Metal, it's mostly just the stuff from Norway (there is an entire chapter dedicated to Norway entitled "The Weirding of Norway") and it's the likely bands that you'd assume get mention in this book, Ulver, Arcturus, latter day Enslaved etc. Come to the segment on Mayhem I couldn't help but be annoyed that he held Mayhem's "Grand Declaration of War" album in such high regard almost making it seem like it was a huge step in experimental Black Metal. When most of us BM acolytes who have been in the trenches since the beginning know there have been hundreds of experimental and offbeat BM recordings long before "GDoW," ...Root, Anubis, Martyrium, anyone?...the list can go on! He does give the Mayhem album "Ordo Ad Chao" some good words though, a very progressive album to these ears, I only wish more albums of this sonically experimental nature were mentioned. The worldwide and groundbreaking early 90s BM scene (and to a lesser extent, Doom scene) wasn't very well represented here which for my money are just as experimental and and groundbreaking as any Technical Death+Thrash Metal bands of the same time. While perhaps not pushing the boundaries in terms of Progginess and Technical chops, bands like Necromantia, Master's Hammer, Abruptum, Beherit, Burzum, Thergothon, Esoteric, Disembowelment, etc were paving new paths of their own that would be picked up on by Avant-Garde adventurers inside and outside of Metal in the years to come. There is certain type experimentalism that's never really touched on in the book, the kind of stuff that goes beyond the just riffs and notes. The exploration of Sound, Timbre and the psychoacoustic nature behind certain tones and resonances. Music of a minimalist nature as well as deep expedition of noise, atonality and unorthodox non instrumental sounds that can be just as experimental and progressive as that of the maximalist, virtuosic kind. Metal music (esp Black Metal and Doom) has always been a very malleable type of music in this regard, bands like Gnaw Their Tongues, Xasthur, Deathspell Omega and Blut Aus Nord, as well as hosts of raw BM youngsters and experimental Doom merchants have been exploring these possibilities quite liberally over the past decade, yet none of that is every really mentioned herre. Towards the end of the book though Toby Driver(Maudlin of the Well/Kayo Dot) addresses some of this and makes some good points in saying that there are some musicians who spend their life honing technical skill but never really learn anything else about music outside of that, production technique, tonality and timbre. emotional conveyance, lyrics, etc. But of course on the other hand he mentions if you want to convey something in music that's beyond your ability then its best to excel at your craft in order to have the chops to match your grand vision: and this is pretty much the genesis of the book. At the end of the day I give the book two huge thumbs up, even though I might have had some strong complaints and disagreements with the author, but really that's part of what makes the book compelling because what it boils down to aside from the facts is an old veteran (Mr Wagner) sharing his super enthusiastic thoughts and opinions on the music he loves. This enthusiasm got me to pull out some old Prog/Tech Metal favorites as well as being turned on to a few new bands; which is the ultimate benefit of a book like this! A few of the bands I started listening to are, Sieges Even, Pain of Salvation(beautiful and unique!), Thought Industry(surprised I didn't get into this band sooner), Unexpect(utterly exhausting), Gonin-ish(holy cow!) and even started listening to more of the later Enslaved stuff which is a band that I haven't really paid attention to since Eld! And 3, who barely count as Metal but they are mentioned in this book a couple of times; they are somewhere in the realm of Circa Survive, The Mars Volta, styled Prog/Indie Rock, either way 3 are fantastic and because of this book I discovered them!
One last thing that just didn't sit well with me that I just have to mention and I couldn't quite fit it in the review above.... Jeff Wagner showed a bit of his ignorance on the two subgenres of Prog known as RIO(Rock In Opposition) and Zeuhl, by making the statement that they are practically interchangeable. Which is a complete fallacy. While there are a few bands that coast the line of both like Univers Zero and Art Zoyd, RIO and Zeuhl music are still very different genres with major distinctions that differentiate the two. It's almost like an outsider saying Death Metal and Black Metal are interchangeable descriptors. Mr Wagner should have had a quick look at the Prog-Archives for a bit of schooling before he wrote that snip-it on page 242. Sheesh!